Nearly 20 years ago, I and a bunch of my college friends met up in Pittsburgh for the Confluence SF con. One of the panels I attended was on non-traditional fantasy writing (to which I’m grateful for introducing me to War for the Oaks, which was a major influence on my reading and interests). A point the panelists discussed is that traditional fantasy has a long shadow cast over it by Lord of the Rings, which creates issues that writers in other genres don’t necessarily have to contend with. (There are some subgenres I can think of that have similarly significant progenitors; anyone writing Victorian London-based or English cozy mysteries has to contend with Doyle and Christie, respectively, but there are a lot of subgenres that those writers don’t directly affect.)
In the world of fantasy roleplaying games, the partially Tolkien-influenced Dungeons & Dragons in its various incarnations casts a similar shadow. (As an aside, I’ve seen some critics–admittedly on Usenet–suggest that D&D is a direct ripoff of Tolkien, and the parts that aren’t like Tolkien are because it’s imitating Tolkien badly. The influence of LotR on D&D are clear in some areas (*cough*halflings*cough*), but the average adventuring party’s behavior owes much more to Howard or Lieber.) D&D was not just the progenitor of RPGs as they exist today, but many gamers’ first RPG, and has been around for nearly 40 years at this point. It’s waxed and waned somewhat in its influence, and other games have loyal adherents, but within its core genre, pseudo-medieval pseudo-European fantasy, no other game has significantly eclipsed it. Its concepts influenced large portions of the industry during the 2000s through d20 and the OGL, and the pull of its gravity can be seen in such areas as the “fantasy heartbreaker”, OSR and Pathfinder.
As with the question of Tolkien-like figures on other genres, the question becomes: Do other genres of roleplaying have a colossus similar to D&D? Let’s start by defining some of the factors that contribute to D&D’s role in the field:
1. Primacy. D&D was the pioneer of its field, and set the tone for many other games that followed, fantasy or not. A D&D-like game should either be an early entry in its genre, or the game that causes a major paradigm shift.
2. Longevity. D&D has been around since 1974, and has been around more or less continuously during that time. A D&D-like game should have had a similar run, or at least been active longer than it’s been inactive. (This category is somewhat subjective, because importance in the field is driven by play as much as by publication–what’s important is that the game is sufficiently prominent that designers working in the genre need to be aware of it.)
3. Ubiquity. D&D allows a broad range of settings even within the published game material, without even getting into d20 or hacks & ports. A large portion of what’s considered “fantasy” can fall into its sphere, which greatly increases the range of games that are potentially affected by it. Third-party products have been written specifically for it since its earliest days. The wider an influence a game casts, the better it fits into the D&D mold.
4. Prominence. D&D is a game most people have heard of (good or bad), and been the basis of two movies, a TV show, and a large number of novels and computer games, both official and inspired-by. The importance and influence of a game can be measured in part by how well known it is outside the tabletop RPG field.
(There are certainly subgenres of fantasy that don’t fit very well into D&D’s traditional wheelhouse; it wouldn’t be terribly good for a subtle wainscot fantasy, for example. However, the subgenre that D&D dominates is a major subset of the fantasy field, to the point that it’s the first thing many people will think of when “fantasy” is mentioned, which at least adds to the appearance of ubiquity. Gameability is also a factor; the fantasy of, say, Jorge Luis Borges may be significant in the field of literature and influence games such as Mage, but it’s not the sort of thing that can become a good game in and of itself.)
Having established those, let’s look at some genres and see if anything stands out. (I’m not factoring in supplements for generic games here unless they stand alone as their own game.)
Science fiction. This is too broad a category to consider as a whole, but much as the pseudo-medieval epic is a prominent subgenre of fantasy, there are a couple of subgenres that stand out for importance and ubiquity. (There’s an entire separate article in whether there can be a game that encompasses SF to the extent that D&D encompasses fantasy, although WotC did have a try with Alternity.)
Space opera. This is what the average vox populi will think of when asked about SF: robots, rockets, and rayguns, with varying degrees of scientific plausibility.
The first game that comes to mind in this area is Traveller. (According to Mark Miller, it was intended to be D&D in space, so it definitely falls into the scope of this article.) It scores well in primacy and longevity. It was first published in 1977, and I can’t think of a more significant SF game that predates it. Some version of it has been in print for most of the time since then. However, it doesn’t do as well on ubiquity. The career-based character system imposes limits on the scope of character concepts, and while it can be used for games outside the Third Imperium setting, various versions of that setting have been the default. (Traveller 2300 was a separate game in both setting and ruleset.) As far as prominence goes, it hasn’t made much of a splash outside the tabletop RPG world. It’s the best candidate, but I don’t think it approaches the D&D level of dominance.
Other significant space opera RPGs have either been licensed games (West End’s Star Wars) or focused on a particular setting or subsection of the genre (Fading Suns, Space: 1889).
Cyberpunk. The aren’t a lot of major games in this genre, but there is one that definitely qualifies within its own subgenre. Shadowrun wasn’t the first cyberpunk RPG, but it carved out the cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid niche and hasn’t had any real competition. It’s been around since 1989, and while there have been some gaps it’s been in print more often than not. It dominates its field to the point that, while a game could combine cyberpunk and fantasy elements in other ways, any combination of the two runs the risk of being seen as a Shadowrun ripoff. Its computer game adaptations have been popular independent of the tabletop game, and there have been tie-in novels and a CCG, among other spinoffs. Shadowrun isn’t the D&D of cyberpunk, but it’s definitely the D&D of fantasy cyberpunk.
There haven’t really been any other cyberpunk games with enough long-term success to potentially qualify. While Shadowrun has been updated to factor in advances in real-world technology, games like Cyberpunk 2020 feel dated nowadays.
Superhero. Many of the significant games in this genre have been licensed products, and their fortunes have been linked to the parent company’s hold on the license (the Marvel license in particular has been passed around through multiple companies). Mutants and Masterminds and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying have both had some significance in the field (in more or less opposite ways, M&M having much of the crunch of d20 and MHR being relatively abstract) but are too recent to evaluate their long-term prospects.
Champions isn’t the first superhero RPG (Villains & Vigilantes, at least, predates it) but it does have primacy in the point-buy superhero field, while V&V was much more in the D&D mold. It first came out in 1981, and while it has some lacunae in its publishing history (the 1990s were fairly thin) it and/or the Hero System can be said to have passed the test of time. The degree of ubiquity it has is mostly through the Hero System’s influence on point-buy systems; Champions itself has less impact on other types of superhero game. There have been some tie-in comics and an MMO, but it’s not a well-known brand in general. No better example comes to mind, but its influence isn’t broad enough to fully fit the D&D niche.
Horror. Two subgenres stand out:
Traditional against-the monsters RPG. This was the dominant horror RPG genre through the 1980s. There were horror elements in some fantasy games in the 1970s (including the original Deities & Demigods for AD&D), but the gamechanger was 1981’s Call of Cthulhu, which is the standout candidate for the D&D of the classic horror genre. It has primacy both in being the first significant horror RPG and in making investigation primary rather than combat. It definitely has longevity, with occasional slowdowns but no major gaps in publication. Its ubiquity and prominence are to a certain extent tied in with the Cthulhu Mythos in general. Although there are other Lovecraft RPG adaptations, they have to be aware of CoC’s design space. However, its influence is less direct on non-Mythos RPGs. It is definitely prominent in the RPG field, as witnessed by the number of third-party products and adaptations, but outside the RPG arena its impact is mostly felt in the general popularity of Lovecraftian concepts and their role in organizing and popularizing them (much like West End Games’ influence on the Star Wars Extended Universe). Still, CoC is definitely the D&D of Lovecraftian RPGs, and can stake a strong claim for classic horror RPGs in general.
Modern play-the-monster RPG. The exemplar here is the World of Darkness in general, and Vampire: the Masquerade in particular. It wasn’t the first game to explore those concepts (Nightlife deserves a nod here), but it was the paradigm shifter not just for horror, but for roleplaying in general with its emphasis on character and story. Although VtM wasn’t supported for several years, the new WoD and Vampire: the Requiem occupied the same conceptual space, so the WoD idea has longevity. Its ubiquity was clearer in the 1990s (Legacy could not be clearer as an attempt to mix Highlander and Storyteller), but Storyteller’s success helped pave the way for other story-based games. VtM in particular has a high level of prominence; it’s the WoD game the most non-gamers have heard of (again, for good or bad) and has a wide variety of spinoffs, including a short-lived TV series.
There are other types of horror game that don’t fall into these categories, but they often stand alone (there aren’t a lot of games that could be said to be in the same subgenre as Unknown Armies or My Life With Master).
I know I’ve done a lot of generalizing, and there are probably subgenres (or even entire genres) I haven’t examined, but it’s a start at examining the content. There are few games that cast as long a shadow as D&D, but there are games that loom large in their own respective fields. Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “The killing of humans and other intelligent life for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal”.