J.E. Holmes and Fantasy Role Playing Games

I stumbled across an interesting find while browsing the game design section of the library yesterday. J. Eric Holmes, the writer/editor of the original ‘blue box’ basic Dungeons & Dragons set, published the book Fantasy Role Playing Games in 1981, just as role-playing was becoming a bona fide phenomenon.

The book is an odd specimen. In 1981, role-playing games were less than a decade old, so Holmes makes no assumptions about player knowledge or genre conventions. Instead, he explains the hobby from every possible angle. The book opens with a transcribed play session, devotes a chapter apiece to the roles of the player and referee, then jumps to a system-agnostic (though still fantasy) adventure that the reader can play. Holmes then switches to historian, outlining the birth of D&D and its immediate descendants, both from the fantasy and science fiction traditions. As a direct participant, Holmes’ account has an ’embedded’ perspective that subsequent histories and surveys lack. For one, Holmes is partly responsible for D&D’s mainstream success. The original D&D rules were a hodgepodge mess that relied directly on its wargaming predecessor Chainmail and left many early fans scratching their heads (or devising their own system revisions). Holmes stepped in, reorganized the rules, and shaped them into a form that players could better understand. Without the blue box, D&D may have never spread beyond its initial niche audience.

Holmes also provides an overview of RPGs from the late 1970s that are now largely forgotten outside tabletop devotees: Empire of the Petal Throne, Runequest, Chivalry & Sorcery, Melee, Wizard, Superhero 44, Boot Hill, Bunnies & Burrows, Gamma World, and Traveler are all given a few pages apiece. Holmes provides short rules summaries, thematic overviews, and (understandably) each game’s similarities to and differences from D&D.

The book concludes with buying advice for miniature play, a survey of RPG-related zines, some advice for getting others interested in playing, a short section on computer RPGs, and a thoughtful consideration of role playing’s cultural appeal.

Holmes’ assessments of role playing as a whole are the most fascinating, since he’s trying to grapple with a nascent medium while in the midst of its formation. Role playing as power fantasy has long been a criticism of the form, and Holmes makes no bones about the mechanical motivations driving Dungeons & Dragons:

All role playing games are similar in that they offer the player a personality, the character, created partly from chance (die rolls) and partly from the player’s imagination. The character then embarks on a series of adventures which are a cooperative effort between the player and a referee. Player’s characters are motivated by greed—they are sent by their players on quests for gold or, occasionally, knowledge and power. The rules provide for character advancement, level by level, to greater and greater status in the imaginary world of the game. Since the world is imaginary, there is really no limit to what the player’s character can do or become. (35)

Holmes later acknowledges that this bare drive for loot and power is unsatisfactory for some players, those who require more complex stories or intra-character relationships. But his survey of D&D alternatives provides a nice set of options for those seeking different play styles.

The fact that Holmes addresses computer RPGs in 1981 is remarkable in itself, but he also makes some astute observations:

One of the problems of playing a game with a computer is that you do not play a game with the computer. You play a game with the person who wrote the computer program…this ‘contest’ is not man against machine, but man against man (or woman)…As a result, the computer program is great fun if the programmer is clever—cleverer than you the player—and dull if he is not. (157)

The difference between computer and tabletop RPGs, Holmes argues, is that the former lacks the latter’s social component:

Adventure and Zork are solitary games with no ‘role-playing’ aspect to them at all. They appeal to the problem-solving nature of computer users, but not to the more social imagination of role-playing gamers. In fact, practically nobody who plays role playing games regularly plays computer games and vice versa. The player personalities are quite different, although computer people say attempts are being made to get the role-playing aspect into computer programs. Lonely fantasy gamers, of course, find the computer programs a godsend. (157)

And what are CRPGs’ biggest flaw? A lack of game saves:

Also, one can not drop the computer game and come back to it—every time you contact the computer, you must start at the beginning. It is simply too cumbersome for the computer to remember where everyone is in the game when the program may only be in one place (at MIT, say), and hundreds of people call in to use the game every week. (158)

As you might have noted in the first computer quote, Holmes surprisingly acknowledges (though parenthetically) that there were women programmers. Later, he specifically addresses women’s participation and representation in role playing. First, in miniatures:

Traditional wargame figures were all male. Minifigs did make castings of a few ladies who might appear on a battlefield—Queen Boadicea, for instance. The wives, sweethearts and camp followers of the armies of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon were not depicted in lead, however. Fantasy gaming has changed all this, since female characters are of major, or central, importance in many fantasy and science fiction stories. Also, for the first time, the game players who used the figures were often female.

The first set of female figures wasn’t much to brag about. Minifigs added Amazons to the early Swords and Sorcery line and ‘Valka Spacewomen’ to the first science fiction series. These ladies were either nude or almost so. It was several years before any of the figure companies realized that there was a market for lady adventurers and sorceresses who dressed appropriately to their role and did not look as if they were about to star in the middle of a Las Vegas nightclub chorus line. (170)

The above quote hints at Holmes’ vacillation about womens’ roles—he’s due credit for raising questions about representation and inclusivity (and even calls out Lord of the Rings for being sexist), but then just as easily stumbles into his own sexism: ‘There are women in role playing, of course, and those I have met are entirely normal, feminine and attractive’ (212). Women writers and players typically include adjectives describing their appearance. The photo of a gaming group that opens the book includes a woman, but she is cut out of frame. And so on.

Holmes at least understands that there is a demographic skew:

What sort of people are attracted to fantasy role playing?…Game players, in general, are quieter and have better manners than science fiction fans, even though many of them belong to both groups. From my observations, then, I would characterize the typical role-playing gamer as a teenaged white male from a middle class background. He is of average or above average intelligence. He is not particularly athletic and he reads a lot. He has a small circle of friends, mostly his own age, with whom he plays the game on a weekly or even a daily basis…He probably doesn’t spend much time with girls unless there are girls in the gaming group, but this relative isolation from the opposite sex is not his choice. (206)

That last sentence is particularly troubling in light of a passage a few pages later:

Role playing, like other forms of fantasy on film, tape or paper, is an escape. Some of us seem to need this escape more than others, but everyone uses it to some extent. The fact that most game players are young males suggests to me that these young people have a special need for escape fantasy. Their natural impulses and our social expectations make them desire power, wealth, sex and status, but they are usually very frustrated in their attempt to achieve any of these goals—at least for a while. Perhaps this is why the fantasy escape comes easily to many of them. (211-12)

Considering the threat and exercise of violence that women face daily as a result of ‘frustrated’ men, it is worth examining the cultural roots of play—even in the seemingly innocuous realms of fantasy and science fiction—that reward and motivate greed, actively marginalize women, and tend to accrete a narrow monoculture. Holmes proves that this story isn’t new, and that for many, escape from the real world—a world of exclusion and brutality—is not a viable option, even in play.