Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Games, Fantasy

Today there are hundreds of fantasy games of many different types: board and card games, wargames, live and table-top role-playing games (RPGs), multiple-choice gamebooks, computer games, and many others. These are not developed in isolation: there is considerable feedback between designers and authors in different companies and different areas of the hobby. Writers are frequently freelances, and may be employed by several companies, and products are often the work of several authors and designers, whose individual contributions it is frequently impossible to assess. One additional cause of confusion is the existence of two influential author/designers named Steve Jackson.

The first important fantasy games appeared in the late 1960s. While there had been some attempts at original games on sf themes, little had been done with fantasy concepts aside from games were aimed exclusively at children and based on popular juvenile characters. Essentially these were simple variants of conventional boardgames.

The first signs of adult interest in the fantasy genre were various amateur-run postal games. Slobbovia (1969), a humorous Diplomacy variant with storytelling elements, still runs as an amateur press association (APA); players write in with game moves and related articles and fiction, which are periodically published by one or another member. Set in a world based loosely on a Comic strip, Al Capp's Lil' Abner, its background includes a complex feudal society (whose basic unit of currency is the serf), plus various Religions and nonhuman races. Armageddon (1970), a German fantasy wargame played partly by post and partly face-to-face, was demonstrated at the 1970 World Science Fiction Convention in Heidelberg. A UK version, Midgard, soon appeared, and was subsequently run in the USA and Australia (where it is still commercially run). Many other postal games followed.

Many commercial fantasy games trace their origins to the 1970s, when attempts to depict characters, events or the atmosphere of popular fiction – in particular, the works of J R R Tolkien – led to a rapid expansion of the field. The earliest – e.g., Battle of Helm's Deep (Fact & Fantasy Games 1974) and Siege of Minas Tirith (FFG 1975) – were played with counters and dice; both these examples were essentially conventional wargame systems with added rules for Magic and Monsters. Sorcerer (SPI 1975), a more abstract boardgame, treated magic as the basic mechanism of the game rather than as an afterthought. Such developments eventually led to the production of wargames which tried to portray important characters; for example, War of the Ring (SPI 1977) used special cards to represent the abilities of Gandalf, Sauron, etc. (This game should not be confused with War of the Ring [FGU 1976], a Diplomacy variant.)

Meanwhile miniatures wargamers were attempting to develop their own rules for fantasy battles played with models. One system was Chainmail (TSR 1972-1973), which originated some rules mechanisms later used in the first fantasy RPG, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D; TSR 1974) by Gary Gygax and Dave Arenson (who had previously had contact with UK Midgard players).

Role-playing games RPGs revolve around individuals, not armies. Each player controls a "character", defined by various parameters – lists of equipment, spells, Talents, degree of physical strength, etc. One player is the referee (in D&D called the Dungeon-master) and acts as storyteller, describing the setting and whatever else the characters may encounter: monsters, traps, peasants, etc. Often the referee also designs additional elements of the game's world. The outcome of encounters is determined partly by the intentions of the players and referee and partly by a randomizing process, usually dice. Miniature figures are often used to represent the characters and whatever they meet. Players generally act out a personality for each character, and often look on this personality as an alter ego.

D&D was a generic fantasy system with elements derived from the works of Tolkien, Jack Vance, Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber. It was immediately successful, developing a loyal and proliferating following among students and sf/fantasy fandom in the USA; the craze soon spread to the rest of the English-speaking world. It was followed by a succession of rules-supplements, extra adventures and revisions. Its successor, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D; TSR 1978-1979; rev 1989), is still by far the most popular RPG.

While early RPGs used generic and poorly described fantasy worlds, emphasizing combat and the acquisition of treasure at the expense of character development, most modern systems devote a good deal of attention to backgrounds and personalities. An early example is Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR 1975) by M A Barker. Based on D&D's rules, it features a complex society, Tekumel, derived from Mayan and Arabic sources, with an emphasis on linguistics and class structures. Another important successor was Runequest (Chaosium 1978), set in a world first described in Greg Stafford's fantasy wargame White Bear, Red Moon (1976). Again the background is a detailed fantasy world, in this case Glorantha, in which Gods are real and often manifest. From the 1980s onward AD&D also acquired more detailed backgrounds, published as supplements to the game; the Dragonlance setting is the best-known, through the highly successful novelizations.

Since many RPGs set out to simulate the world of fantasy fiction, there has naturally been considerable interest in products based directly on fictional sources. An early pioneer in this field was Chaosium, with Call of Cthulhu (1981), based on H P Lovecraft's stories, Stormbringer (1981), based on Michael Moorcock's Elric novels, and Elfquest (1984), based on Elfquest. The Middle Earth Role-Playing System (Iron Crown 1982) is based on the works of Tolkien, while Amber (Phage 1991) derives from Roger Zelazny's Amber series.

The effort and expense needed to develop commercial RPGs, often several man-years per game, can rarely be justified by the profits of selling the game alone. RPG rulebooks are mainly sold to create a market for additional material, which can be developed at less expense, and without these subsequent sales a game can easily bankrupt its publishers. TSR are by far the most prolific in this respect; their current catalogue for AD&D alone includes over 100 adventures, rule books and character packs, plus special dice, posters, CDs, magazines and dozens of other products. There is also a lucrative market in spinoff fiction, such as the Dragonlance and Dark Sun novels. Other companies have followed TSR's formula for success, or use a single rules system for a wide variety of genres; this makes games easier to develop and easier for players to learn, thus encouraging continued use of the company's products. For instance, the Runequest system was later adapted for Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Superworld (1983), Ringworld (1984) and Elfquest. The rules and much of the background of Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf 1991) were incorporated into later games – Werewolf: The Apocalypse (1991), Mage: The Ascension (1993) and Wraith: The Oblivion (1994). GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System; Steve Jackson Games 1978) was designed from the outset to make such conversions easy, and uses a set of "universal" rules with supplements covering sf, fantasy, horror, espionage, Westerns, historical fiction, Arthurian myth and military operations. This system also licences many popular fictional backgrounds, most notably sf but also fantasies like Robert E. Howard's Conan (1987) and Andre Norton's Witch World (1988).

Outside the USA, Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing (Games Workshop 1986, Hogshead Publishing 1995) is the only major UK fantasy system to emerge (there have been several sf RPGs). This was a spinoff from a wargame, Warhammer Fantasy Battles (1983), which is supported by a wide range of figures and rules supplements, and also has an sf spinoff, Warhammer 40,000 (1991). Australia has produced Lace and Steel (BTRC 1992), a fantasy game in which Faerie coexists with black-powder firearms and swashbuckling swordsmen. Elsewhere, there have been games from Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Norway; In Nomine (1991), a French horror game now translated into English, is probably the best-known.

Today's fantasy RPG scene is polarized into several main genres: Sword and Sorcery, typified by AD&D and Runequest; hybrid Science Fiction/fantasy, such as Shadowrun (FASA 1992) and Magitech (TSR 1993); contemporary Horror, as in Call of Cthulhu, Vampire and Dark Conspiracy (GDW 1992); Arthurian, as in Pendragon (Chaosium 1985) and GURPS Camelot (1993); and swashbuckling/Steampunk fantasy, as in Lace and Steel and Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian 1994). It seems likely that the future will see increasing specialization – as well as the extinction of some unpopular systems, since the total market for RPGs is slowly shrinking.

Numerous magazines cater to the hobby, but most are short-lived; the most regular are TSR's Dragon and Dungeon, Steve Jackson Games's Pyramid and Games Workshop's White Dwarf, although the latter now deals only with Games Workshop's own products. Dragon publishes fiction in most issues. Valkyrie (Partizan Press) and Arcane (Future Publishing) are independent UK RPG magazines; Valkyrie also publishes fiction. Interactive Fantasy (formerly Inter*Action) is the only scholarly journal covering the field and related areas, most notably storytelling and freeform games (see below), and the recreational, therapeutic, industrial and educational uses of these systems. Regular commercially organized RPG conventions include Origins and Gencon in the USA and Euro-Gencon in the UK. There are also many fanzines and fan-organized conventions.

While most RPGs are played as table-top games, there are also live games, in which players act out adventures using costumes and padded weapons. Another variant is the freeform game: players are assigned roles in a plot (or several interconnected plots), given several goals and secrets, and left to interact among themselves. The referee acts as adjudicator rather than controlling all aspects of the game. Usually combat is banned. These games have been run with hundreds of players and multiple referees, although groups of 10-30 players are more usual. A nonfantasy commercial equivalent is the "murder weekend" run at some hotels.

Gamebooks The RPG hobby has had many spinoffs, one of them being role-playing gamebooks, usually aimed at children. At their simplest – for example, the D&D Endless Quest series (1983-1985) – they set the scene in an opening chapter, then present various options that each lead to a different numbered paragraph. A branching tree of decisions takes the reader through to a conclusion, which may be victory or death. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) by (the UK) Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone and its sequels in the Fighting Fantasy series use this mechanism, but allow players to map the adventure and retrace their steps. Dice are used for combat and other activities, with the results determining the paragraph selected. Sorcery (1984), by Jackson alone, was aimed more at adults, and added a magic system which required a separate "spell book"; it flopped. Probably the most successful series, and the closest to an RPG, is the ongoing Lone Wolf series (1984-current) by Joe Dever, which uses most of these mechanisms plus record-keeping, allowing weapons and magical items to be used from one book to another.

Other forms Storytelling games comprise a separate but related genre. One early example was Tales of the Arabian Nights (West End Games 1985), a boardgame in which each move involved a reference to a paragraph in a booklet describing various situations, such as abduction by a Genie. Today's games are mostly played with cards, marked with words or phrases which must be used in a continuing story. Sometimes the object of the game is simply to produce a coherent and enjoyable narrative; for example, Into the Dragon's Cave (The Magellanica Company 1993) and Once Upon a Time (Atlas Games 1993) have no scoring mechanism whatever, although the latter allows the use of multiple cards and is won by the player finishing first. Others are played for points based on the type of card used; for instance, an action sequence might be worth more than a descriptive passage. A typical example is Dark Cults (Kenneth Rahman 1983), a horror game for two players.

Fantasy wargames are less popular than RPGs. The most widely played is Warhammer Fantasy Battles (Games Workshop 1983), based on the earlier Reaper (Table Top Games early 1970s), but its dominance is largely the result of Games Workshop's immense marketing strength. Surprisingly, TSR's AD&D Battle System (1985; rev 1989) was never a success. The field is otherwise the province of smaller publishers, including many semi-professional and amateur presses. Typical are Hordes of the Things (WRG 1991), a generic fantasy battle system, and Tusk (Irregular Miniatures 1994), a game pitting cavemen against mammoths and dinosaurs. Ragnarok, published bimonthly by the Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy Wargamers, is the leading fanzine.

Play-by-mail games largely fall into one or other of the classes described above. Players fill in "turn sheets" describing the moves they wish to make, and return them to a referee. It is also possible to communicate with other players, via the referee or directly, and make alliances. Many games are run on an amateur basis, often as APAs, news and fiction, but there is also a thriving commercial sector. Typical commercial games include: Saturnalia, a fantasy RPG; an official Middle Earth wargame (Allsorts Games), based on the Iron Crown RPG; and Delenda Est Carthago (Inferno Games), in which players control noble families in a medieval Alternate World, with play involving intrigue and diplomacy. E-mail games of these types are also common.

There are many other fantasy board and card games. Talisman (Games Workshop 1983) was a traditional boardgame, with movement around a fixed course; players used special cards to speed their own movement or impede others'. In Lost Worlds (Mayfair 1983) each player had an illustrated book showing a warrior or monster in different combat positions; players selected a move, rolled dice to determine the outcome, and turned to a numbered page for an illustration of the result. Heroquest (Milton Bradley 1989, designed by Games Workshop) uses RPG-like mechanics, with figures representing characters, monsters and obstacles set out on a map board. Credo (Chaosium 1994) is a card game about the evolution of religions; players try to ensure that their own doctrine succeeds while those of the other players fail. These are a few examples among hundreds.

Collectable card games are a recent innovation. Normal card games are played with packs of fixed composition, but in collectable games each player builds a pack from a vast range of cards sold by the manufacturer; packs must obey the rules of the game, but otherwise players are free to accumulate cards indefinitely, and often own hundreds. The rarest cards are often the most powerful. Cards are sold in opaque packets; players have no way of knowing if they are buying rarities or common cards. Rich players are thus most likely to win; they can afford to buy more packs until they have everything they need. Naturally there is a thriving unofficial market in individual rare cards, usually at extortionate prices; recently (1995) one of the rarest was sold for £150 (circa $225). Since the equipment needed to make the cards is very expensive, the manufacturers must ensure that the games continue to sell, so there is always a steady flow of new card releases, special editions, etc. It is thus almost impossible for a single player to own every possible card, although many try. The first of these games was Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast 1993); other examples are Spellfire (TSR 1994), Jyhad (WOTC 1994) and Illuminati: New World Order (Steve Jackson 1994).

A variant is Dragon Dice (TSR 1995), a collectable dice game in which players build up "armies" made of dice marked with special colours and symbols.

Computer games The period of development of the games described above, from the late 1960s onward, is also the period in which computers began to enter widespread use. Since there was considerable overlap between the users of computers, sf/fantasy fandom and fantasy games players, it was natural that computerized fantasy games would eventually emerge. The first computer games were simple logic puzzles and sf-related games, such as Spacewar (1968), which could be played via the teletype terminals then used. Adventure (vt Colossal Cave circa 1972) by Crowther and Wood was the first fantasy game; players used two-word commands to navigate around a complex of caves and solve various logic puzzles. There was little progress until home computers became available; Adventure was soon converted to run on these machines, and was quickly followed by more games of the same general type, usually improving on Adventure's parsing (understanding of instructions) and presentation. An early one was Zork (Infocom 1982).

Naturally improvements in computers led to improvements in games. Adventures added graphics, sound and eventually speech, until now text-only games are virtually extinct; they survive mainly in games played via computer networks with a large number of participants (a typical example is MUD [Multi-User Dungeon; Exeter University 1982]). Today's adventures often come on CD-ROM, with several hundred megabytes of sound and graphics. The extremely popular game Myst (1993) is particularly admired for the beauty of its graphic Otherworld. A recent example is Discworld (Psygnosis 1995), based on Terry Pratchett's novels. An on-screen character (Rincewind) interacts with various objects and personalities as directed by the player through mouse movements. All characters speak, and there are sound effects in every scene.

Naturally there are many other types of fantasy computer game, some derived from arcade systems, others from tabletop games and RPGs. A common variety is the platform game, in which the player is represented by an on-screen character which must jump, climb and fight. A classic in this genre is Prince of Persia (Brøderbund 1990), an Arabian-Fantasy adventure in which the hero has an hour to escape from a dungeon and save his princess from an evil vizier. Several recent games use a first-person viewpoint and perspective graphics to present a world which must be explored, with monsters to kill and treasure and weapons as rewards. By far the best known is Doom (ID Software 1993), a hybrid sf/fantasy in which a Martian colony is mysteriously transported to Hell, and the viewpoint character must destroy hundreds of Demons to escape. (It was designed by Sandy Peterson, a noted RPG writer and principal author of Call of Cthulhu.) Doom has several imitators, and its "engine" (programming) has been adapted to four other games: Doom II (ID 1994), Heretic (Raven 1994) and Hexen (Raven 1995), both pure fantasy games, and Dark Forces (LucasArts 1995), an sf variant based on the Star Wars movies. All but the last let up to four players participate via a network, so they can cooperate or fight each other. Hexen additionally allows players to choose different areas of specialization – e.g., magician, fighter – as in many RPGs. Doom and Heretic are unusual in allowing players to design their own worlds, which can easily be added to the game. There are hundreds in the public domain, and numerous design programs.

Naturally there are also computer fantasy wargames and RPGs. The former have never been very popular, mainly because it is difficult to show all the pieces on screen. Non-war examples include a computer version of Heroquest and several games based on AD&D; Pool of Radiance (SSI 1989) is typical.

The future of fantasy computer games undoubtedly involves more realistic high-resolution graphics, improved sound and eventually some form of virtual reality. Better artificial intelligence should eventually be added to computer adventures and RPGs, giving on-screen characters a more lifelike personality. Doom has shown that it is possible to write networked games with convincing real-time graphics; while Doom and its successors do not allow players to interact, except by fighting monsters or each other, the technology could easily be extended to increase the capabilities – for example, objects might be passed from one character to another. Eventually this should lead to MUD-style networked RPGs with first-person viewpoint graphics and sound. Unfortunately the current limitations of computer hardware, especially CD-ROMS, are beginning to cause problems; 550 megabytes once seemed an inexhaustible amount of disk space, but already some games need more, and many computers are lagging badly behind the memory and speed requirements of the latest games. This problem has occurred throughout the history of computing, and there is little chance that it will ever change. [MLR]

further reading: SFE includes very much more extensive coverage of sf-related games. Inter*Action #1 (1994) includes historical and "state of the art" pieces by several leading authors.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.