The other week I was feeling a little nostalgic about some tabletop RPGs I played back in the 80s. Seems these days it’s all Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder with some new games entering the field such as Fantasy AGE, Bluerose, and others.
But what about those older games? Whatever happened to them?
It turns out old games never truly die. The gaming community is huge and there is still lots of room for games of the past to still get their time at the table. Here are four that I thought might have been long forgotten but which, in reality, are still being enjoyed by players–young and old. Some of these have even had new editions put out within the past ten years.
Traveller was first released by the Game Designers Workshop in 1977.
The theme involved mostly space opera with a good mix of hard science fiction, it was pretty much the only science fiction-based game with wide distribution in the late 70s.
Its universe was rich and dynamic and while the gameplay could get a little bogged down in math and details, once you got the hang of it, adventure flowed free and fun. Like most RPGs, it depends a lot on the gamemaster to keep things going.
A unique and entertaining aspect of the game is the character generation. You can play any number of types of player from merchant or space marine to navy engineer or asteroid miner. Your career features heavily in character creation and you can go through several cycles of career tours. The more tours of duty, the greater the rewards–but also the greater risk of death or severe injury.
It’s the only system I can think of where you can die in the game before you even start.
Features like ship design and a system in which material rewards (money, tech, ships) replaces experience makes for a different kind of gameplay. There have been a number of different editions over the decades.
These days, Traveller5 and Mongoose Traveller 2nd edition are considered the most current. Traveller5 has a more retro feel to it which I like. The Mongoose Publishing editions promise more expansion. Both are available at DriveThru RPG, and older editions (including a GURPS edition) can usually be found on eBay.
No surprise that YouTube has some liveplay casts. This is the one I’ve been watching a lot lately. It’s a little slow going at first as the characters introduce themselves, but once the story starts, the adventure moves right along.
The 80s were a special time. Nuclear annihilation was always just around the corner. Not for the first time, granted. That threat goes back to the 50s.
In the late 70s t0 80s, Gamma World decided that a radiated, mutant-laden post-apocalyptic landscape would make for a fun adventure setting. Woot! We’re all mutants!
Over the years, that would change a bit. Later editions featured settings following alien invasions, nanotechnology run amok, and… well, basically mankind dabbling in that which they were not meant to.
Gamma World was first distributed by TSR in 1978 and got some pretty wide play. It didn’t have the same wealth of resources as the D&D line at first, but over the years has seen seven editions–with the most recent coming out in 2010.
The PDFs for sixth and seventh edition are available at DriveThru RPG. Older editions are available on eBay, but run a bit in cost.
Gamma World was a pretty easy game to create your own scenarios in, and Dragon Magazine helped fill in some of the gaps. Over the years there has been a steady, if smallish, series of supplementary materials popping up from Wizards of the Coast. Post-apocalyptic settings have never really gone out of style–just the manner has changed. Walk a ruined Earth with Gamma World.
YouTube has a good series of live play using the most recent editions. You can skip over the character creation episode if you want to dive right in and get a feel for the game. If you find yourself interested, you can always go back.
Role-playing in the Old Wild West? Why not? I’m actually surprised I don’t see this setting used more often, although “gunslinger” classes have been cropping up in D&D and Pathfinder.
Still, while it’s not my “go to” genre for play, there was something fun in mixing things up a bit and starting the adventure in a saloon instead of a tavern and facing down no-good varmints instead of no-good goblins. Train and stagecoach robbers. Cattle rustlers. Killers coming to town. Showdowns at high noon.
Boot Hill, like Gamma World, was distributed by TSR around 1975, but didn’t have as many resources as the golden-haired child of D&D.
It went through three editions over the years, but never quite got widespread traction. Part of it was because the gunfights got deadly pretty quick, but then again the flow was pretty quick so setting up new games or scenarios was not too difficult.
Like Gamma World, it was pretty easy to set up your own scenarios. Dragon Magazine also featured occasional adventures. Character creation was easier than Gamma World. Overall, it was a fairly easy game for pick-up play, but also quite easy to turn into a full-fledged campaign with story arcs and recurring villains. .
Copies of the rules on eBay can be a little pricey, but some of the modules are fairly reasonable. If you don’t already have a fondness for the game, or are entirely new to the concept, you can watch some pretty good gameplay on YouTube. Here’s one I liked:
I’m going to skip over talking about Top Secret (spies!), Recon (Vietnam war), Star Frontiers (Traveller clone), and Buck Rogers in the XXVth Century (more space opera). All were distributed by TSR and SSI and while some people still play these games as well (some more than others), I’d like to move away from TSR-related titles for the last entry.
What I will take another look at, though, is another fantasy RPG. While D&D and Pathfinder have been around for ages and pretty much dominate the tabletop RPG world, there are still new games coming out in the genre. I looked for some of the other fantasy games I knew were around when I started gaming in the late 70s. There doesn’t seem like there’s much going on with Runequest (1978) these days despite some new material from Mongoose Publishing within the past ten years. Nor is there much happening with Stormbringer (1981), Thieve’s World (1981), or Fantasy Trip (1977).
What does seem to still be getting a lot of gameplay is Tunnels & Trolls (1975).
Tunnels & Trolls
I wrote about this game a while back when it’s latest edition, dT&T (deluxe Tunnels & Trolls) came out in 2015. I first came across this game around 1981 and it had already gone into its fifth edition.
Upgrades wouldn’t happen again until around 2005, but all throughout that time the game has had its devoted followers.
Where D&D and Pathfinder might be considered heroic or high fantasy, Tunnels & Trolls had a more low fantasy feel where you could be as likely to play a monster character as a classic fantasy race, and where armor may be less gleaming plate mail as it is a shirt of brass rings.
That is part of its charm, I think. Don’t get me wrong… this isn’t D&D-lite. Tunnels & Trolls offers just as fully rich a roleplaying and storytelling experience as any other game. The game mechanics are a bit more streamlined than others. It doesn’t suffer from creeping-featuritis and top-heavy rules. It’s easily customizable and ultimately flexible.
Uniquely, too, are its options for solo play. Back in the day–back before the Internet helping people find each other and hyper-realistic computer games, there was a demand for solo pen-and-paper RPG adventures. There are some thirty or more official solo modules available, plus a bunch of homebrews. Many of these are readily available eBay or DriveThruRPG.
Curious? Check out some of the gameplay from fans on YouTube…
I take great comfort in knowing games have such a long life. Sure, many times it’s just small groups of devoted fans, but they’re the ones that keep the games alive, and they’re the reason new fans come along. While you may be hard pressed to find a Traveller or Boot Hill game being run at your local gaming convention or game store, they’re being played in homes, dorm rooms, library back rooms, and gaming clubs.
Works for me.