I had not been playing Role Playing Games anymore for nearly 15 years. My wife recently thought that Joshua would be big enough to try, so I am trying to introduce him to the world of RPGs. This, as you can imagine, after all of that time, took back memories, ideas, and also made me think of how much the technology changed this all.
I am not at all referring to VIDEO or ONLINE games, even those that are marketed as being RPGs: most of them are not “real” RPGs anyway, they merely borrow some rules. I am saying that technology changed the way people ORGANIZE and prepare their role playing gaming experience (=the one played with real RPGs where you have to ACT a character), and how they interact with each other, and how the “knowledge” spreads.
When I was playing RPG a lot, in the 80’s and early 90’s, everything was paper-based, no Internet and technology in sight. For example, we photocopied a lot of stuff back then, as opposed to today when I just downloaded and printed a character sheet. But it was not just printed material that was being photocopied: in those years I remember myself handwriting my own extended set of rules, manuals, scenarios, description of places (I even kept and found back some of those!). Everything was handwritten: text, drawings, maps. A lot of work, very hard to mantain. But passion was driving me (and my friends at that time too). That has also been a big enabler in how I taught myself to read and write english: by translating handbooks that nobody had translated in italian. But I digress.
We use to go to a couple of highly specialized shops that were able to import and resell one or two copies of some rare handbooks of a strange game that would otherwise not sell at all. Sometimes even the specialized shops did not manage to get the originals of some of those rare books. Therefore, some of the expansions were sold as photocopies.
Some other times there had been some guy somewhere who did have one copy bought in the US and he took the effort to make an UNofficial translation and TYPEWRITE it in italian. Photocopies of this “product” was all that was circulating.
I am not talking or caring of copyright or “pirate” issues here. We were not “avoiding” the original stuff: if anybody would have told us that the stuff we wanted was actually available in its original format, we would have bought it. But it just wasn’t available at all, and we wanted it. This kind of material was really close to impossible to get, with high costs, and all that us busy kids wanted was books with descriptions of imaginary fantasy worlds to place our characters in, and improvise and narrate our stories and saga’s…
Also, all in paper format, what was circulating was a certain number of fanzines, also photocopies of an original, wonderful, “master copy” that someone had made with a typewriter and sticking pictures with glue on the paper. Desktop publishing was not that common nor easy yet. But the layout is not really what interested me, it was the CONTENT that was hard to spread.
At one stage, the thing improved slightly: I finally managed to convince my parents that I was allowed to get a modem, so I started using it to connect to various BBS. A couple of those BBS of the time were related to RPGs or had a related discussion area. I was interested in technology and in knowing how it was doing its magic, but most of all I was also pretty excited at the possibilities I saw for the technology as an enabler in connecting people. Just like I am now.
I have met some good friends on BBS’s at that time. I’m still in contact with some of them, I’ve lost some other ones, like it happens in life anyway. But the possibility was showing quite clearly: those BBS were mostly text-based, with high connection costs (in italy were you pay every call, also local ones, per minute)… even in those circumstances they were managing to aggregate some people and were used as vehicles to spread the knowledge.
In Italy, thought, they were mostly local. International calls were prohibitively expensive. Of course we did hear of what happened to similar BBS in the US.
In fact, after pencil and paper, through a typewriter, the revolution started there: being able to type stuff on a computer and pass your file over to someone else made it easier for it to spread. But again, I am not talking about copyrighted material. I am mostly talking about self-produced material. I still remember I had troubles with digitalizing maps because I did not own a scanner… on some of the BBS people were sharing their works, and you could find good adventures and extra stuff on them. I also got to publish somewhere a couple of those I had written, and they even made it on a fanzine first, and then on a real magazine.
At one stage, though, I really got distracted. I probably thought I was “big enough”, or I got too interested in the “serious” computing business, or I was too busy with other stuff. Probably a combination of many factors. So I sort of abandoned playing for a long time.
Now, looking back at that world, more than a decade later, I can see how it all changed: you go to the Internet, use any search engine and find dozen if not hundred of sites with forums, people playing online using Live Messenger, people sharing their adventures or their stories of the adventures they have played, other sites that collect all of the covers and information about all the booklets and manuals ever existed for any possible version of any game. Even the vendors are giving out stuff to play for free.
PCs and the Internet DID change the world, if anyone was still doubting. And yes, Role Playing Games and computing ARE related interests.
The world changed, yet it stayed the same: you still play those games with people, with the help of your imagination. It’s the resources that are now at your fingertips.