The Advent of Player Control in RPGs

When I first started gaming the DM was God. You rolled dice. The DM indicated what happened. When the DM rolled the dice it might be behind the screen and you took what you got and you didn't get upset. Now that I think back to it, in 1st edition of AD&D combat tables and saving throws weren't even in the Players Handbook - rather you had to go to the Dungeon Masters Guide.

I'm trying to remember what the first game I encountered that injected some narrative control into the players' hands. I believe it was Victory Games' 007 James Bond RPG, first published in 1983. This isn't to say it was the first such game - I'm willing to bet it wasn't, but I'm pretty certain it is the first that I encountered. In the 007 RPG your success was rated by a quality rating. The game gave each player a certain amount of Hero Points which could be used to shift quality ratings up or down, allowing a player to improve his or her own quality ratings and reduce those of their opponents.

Also in the 007 RPG the difficulty of any given task was rated by its Ease Factor. During certain circumstances, most commonly chases, opponents would get into a bidding war for the Ease Factor. The winner, in the case of chases, could choose to widen the distance or close it but both participants would need to make a skill roll based on the final Ease Factor. This represented the types of chase scenes you would see in the 007 films (or any action story) excellently and allowed players to decide how much of a risk they were willing to take.

I played an occasional game of 007 but the next year saw the release of a game that I got a ton of mileage out of: TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG, introduced in 1984. The mid-80s saw a trend of table-based task resolution where you would roll percentile dice based on your ability and instead of trying to roll under your ability score you would consult a color-coded table to see if you succeeded and if so, how well.

In the Marvel RPG your hero had a pool of Karma points. These could be used to guarantee certain results on the table as well as being used for improvement, power stunts, etc. Your hero's behavior could boost or diminish his or her karma pool.

One additional jump I can think of came in 1996 with TSR's Saga System, used in their Dragonlance Fifth Age RPG as well as 1998's Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game. In both these games the player occupied a central position. The player used various cards to perform his or her actions. What I found innovative at the time was the fact that all resolution was from the player's point of view. An opponent's ratings were static, whether being used for offense or defense. A villain's attack on a player character was resolved as a defensive action against a static attack rating. While neither of these games was particularly successful for TSR, a company by this time on its last legs, I believe the thought process of these games did have an influence on the narrative games of the 2000s and 2010s.


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