RPGs: Some RIPs

One of the unwanted features that comes from a hobby or subculture lasting long enough is that some of its participants get old, and some die. This has been a year of some significant losses within the rolegaming world. Below the fold, I take a moment to commemorate some.

In March, we lost E. Gary Gygax. It’s difficult to overstate this man’s influence on popular culture. A lot of people were doing similar-ish things at about the same time – the idea of adding some characterization and individual focus to various wargame styles of play is not radical, particularly not when the whole thing is as simple as the evolving games in question were. But none of them took off like Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax had just the right combination of qualities to push the work he did with Dave Arneson and others over the top into an ongoing public interest. Then a whole lot of other people took inspiration from what they saw in that work and ran hither and thither. An amazing fraction of contemporary entertainment traces its intellectual roots back to that early work of the ’70s. Directly and indirectly, he helped make very many people’s lives happier, and that’s one of the finest legacies there is.

In April, we lost Robert E. Bledsaw, founder of Judges Guild. A lot of us – including me – didn’t know or remember the man’s name, but Judges Guild was a significant influence in shaping the development of tabletop rolegaming in the ’70s. The Wikipedia entry on the company history seems correct and fair to me. A very great many referees of the ’70s drew a lot on Judges Guild adventures, settings, and utility books. I personally still have some happy vivid memories of the book of blank hexagonal graph paper sheets that came with tables for generating random wilderness features at scales from dozens of miles per hex down to a few hundred yards. Minor streams, ore nodes, herb patches, it was all there. It added a welcome sense of depth to my games for the rest of the school year I got that. JG made some mark in recent years, too, cooperating with other companies to get support for its neat ideas for various rules systems. I hope that Mr. Bledsaw got some smiles out of watching current gamers ooh and ahh in very much the way some of us old-timers did back when.

In June, we lost Erick Wujcik, one of the most deeply innovative minds in rolegaming history so far. He helped found Palladium Games, a remarkable success story of the triumph of hodge-podgery of just the right sort, and I mean nothing at all bad by that. The folks at Palladium have had an amazingly long run based on throwing just the right elements into just the right huge vat and simmering it all for just the right time. I’m told by knowledgeable friends that this is in part a clear reflection of Wujcik’s creative processes. In the latter 1980s, he and his players and collaborators built up what was published in 1991 as Amber Diceless Roleplaying. This is one of those games whose impact is hard to describe to people outside rolegaming, but basically he created a sort of alternate gamer subculture. To this day, whenever anyone within rolegaming talks about design that reexamines common assumptions and takes risks in replacing them, the Amber DRPG is going to come up. And it should. The game is, besides being thoroughly playable (and thoroughly played, with its own convention circuit and a thriving community of players), something of a textbook in how to rethink your work and present your vision well. This last decade he’d been working in computer games, and I know that he’s missed and mourned there – he was, along with other good qualities, a fine mentor and encouragement to others trying to do new things.

This week (end of July 2008, for those of you reading via archives in the future), we lost N. Robin Crossby. He was the creator of Hârn, one of the quiet mega-success stories in rolegaming worldbuilding. It’s a truly astoundingly detailed fantasy world, built up in meticulous detail that all hung together well, thanks to some very smart and careful guidelines for supplement making right from the outset. Crossby’s vision was reminiscent in some ways of Glen Cook’s in the Black Company series, in which there are glorious conflicts and high politics side by side with an awareness of the toil, discomfort, and downright unfairness of routine life. Hârn characters just don’t ever get to Easy Street, as the friend who introduced me to it said. I know very little about Crossby the man, but I’ve respected his work as long as I’ve known about it. And it’s worth noting, as John H. Kim did, that Hârn avoided all the pitfalls I enumerated for detailed worlds some posts back. Anything can be done, if you do it right, in this sort of enterprise. I wish Hârn fandom well in settling on good steps from here.

Losing the people who’ve been bringing us the good stuff is not one of life’s great joys. But having good memories of shared fun is, and I’m glad to learn and remember the people behind the good stuff.

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