Learning From The Past: 70s RPG Design

Earlier this year I read the first three volumes of the wonderful Designers and Dragons. The book about the 1980s and 1990s was more nostalgic than anything for me, as that was the time in which I was a fan of RPGs, rather than professionally engaged (my first freelance project was in 2002). But the 1970s was just before my time, so a lot of that era was relatively new to me. Thanks to DriveThruRPG.com, I was able to look up some of the games mentioned in the volume, and learned a bit about the 70s-era landscape. There were two products in particular that still sit in my brain as I mull things over.

Tunnels & Trolls

A reprint of the very first edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

In a lot of ways, Flying Buffalo is a time capsule. They comfortably have claim to being the longest-running RPG company, and they continue to sell (and preserve) books they made decades ago. And Tunnels & Trolls is the second-ever fantasy RPG, still running strong today. It’s a labor of love that I deeply respect. I learned to respect the game more when I worked on the mobile game port, using a modified version of the fifth edition.

What’s fascinating about T&T is that it presaged a lot of trends that came much later. In particular:

  • Solo play/choose-your-path adventures: Long before Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting FantasyT&T was selling solo adventures for people to play on their own. You could theoretically play in a regular T&T game with other players, and then bring that character into a solo adventure. And they’re still a popular form of support product for T&T even today.
  • Fast combat: Many gamers think of 70s-era design as having slow, clunky combat. Looking at games like T&T, however, that’s clearly not the case. Each side adds up some numbers as a combat factor, rolls dice, adds everything together, and subtracts the difference from the other person’s Constitution. It’s not too far off from modern “abstracted combat” systems today.
  • Humor: A lot of modern gamers and fantasy enthusiasts don’t realize that there was a rich vein of humor running through fantasy prose and gaming in this time. Dungeons & Dragons hid a lot of it, but other products of the era show it better, including T&T. Spells are an area where this humor has persisted even to modern editions.
A small sample of spells from Version 5 of Tunnels & Trolls.

Empire of the Petal Throne

A reprint of the first edition of Empire of the Petal Throne, originally published by TSR

Coming out in the same year as Tunnels & Trolls (1975), Empire of the Petal Throne was another fantasy game put out by TSR. When the focus shifted to Dungeons & Dragons, the author (Professor M.A.R. Barker) kept control of the game and the world.

Over the years a number of companies have all made attempts to recreate the world of Tékumel, and the Tékumel Foundation has done a great job preserving much of the material from the past 40+ years, but the first edition has a number of eye-opening design decisions that seem at odds with received wisdom of 70s-era design. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Tunnels & Trolls:

  • A detailed science-fantasy world: Not only is Petal Throne different in presented a detailed and complex world compared to T&T’s sparse offering, but it’s also not a “traditional” fantasy world. The early history of the world talks about space explorers landing there and terraforming it, but over at least 25,000 years all that science-fiction technology is mutated into a unique fantasy form. (Surprisingly, I knew very little about Tékumel before I started working on Pugmire!)
  • Removal of good/evil binary: Alignment as presented by D&D as a divide between good and evil and/or law and chaos was a mainstay of many designs to follow, including Tunnels & Trolls. It wasn’t until much later that the idea that characters contain multitudes really started to penetrate into fantasy RPG design (you can find games that don’t involve it, but most of the big fantasy games of the time had some aspect of it). Petal Throne does have “alignment,” but mostly in the sense of which races are friendly, neutral, or hostile to humanity. There’s no mechanic that forces characters or races to be of a particular moral bent.
  • Non-European influence: In the introduction, Professor Barker mentions inspirations from his travels to “India, Pakistan, the Middle and Far East, and to Central America.” Those cultures clearly had an influence, making this a fantasy game not steeped in European inspiration — a recent trend in RPG design today.
An example of Toslyani script, one of the languages of 
Tékumel. Note the hand-written accent marks in the manuscript.

What’s Old Is New Again

Certainly, both of these games have flaws, and elements of them haven’t aged well. Tunnels & Trolls first edition has some strangely fiddly design elements, but is almost too simple. Empire of the Petal Throne first edition retains many of the design flaws of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Both, it can be argued, are not so much “flaws” as an indication that player tastes have changed over the decades. But I was pleasantly surprised that I could still learn some design tricks from some of the original games that inspired and shaped our medium.

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