Looking Back on the 1990s

With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
- Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", 1991.

"No one holds command over me. No man. No god. No Prince. What is a claim of age for ones who are immortal? What is a claim of power for ones who defy death? Call your damnable hunt. We shall see who I drag screaming to hell with me."

"A Beast I am, lest a Beast I become."
- Vampire: The Masquerade, 1991.

I've mentioned in this blog that I'm very much a child of the 1980's, being born in 1971. However, I became an adult in the 1990's. I went off to college in fall of 1989 so the great bulk of my undergraduate career was in the 1990's. I had my first serious relationship in the 90's, met my wife a mere month before graduation (on an evening dedicated to forgetting about women), began my professional career in the mid-90's, got married, and moved to the state that has been my home for nearly twenty years in the 90's

While I've spent a lot of time talking about the world of the 1980's it seems that the 1990's deserve a fair amount of love as well. This is going to be somewhat random and based upon my own experiences - that of a geeky middle-class white male from suburban southern New England.

I think I'd like to first reflect upon the technology. When one things about it many of the technologies we've come to expect in our day-to-day life began their penetration in the 1990's. While culture and styles and current events always changed, in many ways the background technology you could expect was relatively standard from the fifties through the eighties. Yes, the cars got smaller, televisions became more advanced and cheaper, video recording became commercialized. But a revolution in communications had yet to occur. If you wanted to buy a book you'd go to a bookstore or order it from a physical catalog. While there were some computer bulletin board systems starting in the 1970's, the idea you could become involved in online communication with people across the globe really began in the 1990's and cemented itself in the 2000's. When I look at my Facebook friends and my gaming group they consist of people who I have never met in person, from New York City to Utah to Australia - people whose opinions I have come to greatly value and whose involvement in my life, though virtual, has been beneficial. 

And think of what a difference the cell phone has made - think of how many episodes of Seinfeld or how many horror movies of years past would be fundamentally different now with the possibility of instant communications. I remember needing to make plans to meet with friends in advance with designated rendezvous spots. And actually needing to use payphones. Even when cellphones began penetration the old analog phones were super-expensive, with you paying for each minute of use with no free minutes. When my wife was taking grad courses at Northeastern she'd make quick calls to let me know she was safe at her car and driving back home, with us working to make the calls last less than a minute.

Online  communities really began forming back in the 1990's, where you could go on Usenet and find massive debates on how superior Storyteller games were to obsolete games like AD&D and you could count on a massive flamewar by asking if the USS Enterprise would emerge victorious over an Imperial Star Destroyer. While streaming movies to any device had yet to begin, the idea of quick access to media began to emerge with Amazon.com beginning its presence as a source of books, VHS tapes, DVDs, and CDs. Looking back at my Amazon history I see my second ever purchase from there in 1997 was Chaosium's Escape from Innsmouth Call of Cthulhu adventure/sourcebook.

It's also worth remembering that not everyone had broadband. Living in an apartment until 2000 we had digital cable but high-speed internet was not yet available to us - we first got that when we bought a house in 2000. So it was the dial-up modem connecting to an internet service provider for us. I remember in 1998 waiting two hours to stream the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and at extremely poor quality. The difference with high-speed internet is amazing - we watched that same trailer at work a day or two later and we were able to watch it instantly and at much higher quality. 

Moving onto music I don't think you can underestimate the impact that alternative or grunge music had on my generation. I won't claim it was universal - again, I'm the product of my white middle-class background and am speaking of my own experience and those of my peers and artists like Janet Jackson, N'Sync, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and countless others experienced great success - I amusingly reflect on Billie Piper, for example, being known as a pop star in Britain with her days as a key player in relaunching Doctor Who years in the future. But the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam greatly shook up the music scene and the fashion. As the 90's continued there were backlashes and responses to grunge music - for me I became a fan of Nine Inch Nails - one of my favorite concerts to this day remains when I saw David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails performing together in September of 1995.

I also believe that much of the way popular entertainment crosses over into multiple forms truly came into its own in the 90's. Entertainment franchises had long licenses into other areas - for example the 1980's saw RPGs for Star Wars, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel Comics. Star Trek and Star Wars also had comics in those same periods but there was little to no linkage between one franchise and another - indeed, the Star Trek novels line back then treated each novel largely as a standalone work without reference to others in the same line. However look at Star Wars in the 1990's. The RPG became source material for various novels which continued the story from Return of the Jedi. The RPG also covered these new novels. Dark Horse Comics produced comics which were also consistent with the novels and RPG (and were in turn covered in the RPG), eventually reaching a point of a coordinated release for Shadows of the Empire, set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and being realized in video games, RPGs, toys, novels, and comic books.

This segue into RPGs leads nicely to Mark Rein•Hagen's Vampire: The Masquerade. In my opinion V:TM is a game which massively shook up the gaming industry. It is derided in some circles for moving RPGs into a more story-based style, something which often led to railroad-style adventures where PCs get to watch interesting things happen.but be powerless to influence those interesting things. However, Vampire provided something new - the opportunity to be the monster. Game mechanics allowed you to measure how much of your self-control you maintained - how human you remained. It was likely the first game since the D&D boom of the early 80's to bring an influx of new blood into the hobby (eek, just realized what a horrible pun that was). This revolution in both style and in mechanics influenced a number of RPGs of the 1990's, some of which are largely forgotten while others are still active. Off the top of my head and from a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals games like:

  • Deadlands - Alternate history in a horrific weird west with magic mechanics using hands of poker
  • Dragonlance: Fifth Age - card-based RPG with mechanics based entirely around the actions of PCs (in other words if an enemy attacks you you are attempting to avoid being hit)
  • Blue Planet - a setting and rules based entirely around a water-covered world
  • Star Trek (Last Unicorn Games) - a far less tactical take on Star Trek than had been previously seen from FASA
  • Amber Diceless - An RPG which dispensed with any random number generation (to the best of my knowledge this actually predated or was roughly simultaneous with Vampire but is definitely indicative of the 1990s style of gaming)
  • Castle Falkenstein - A gorgeously-illustrated card-based game of Victorian fantasy and steam-punk
  • The End - Biblical role-playing involving those left behind after the Rapture
  • Legend of the Five Rings - East-Asian styled RPG supplementing a popular collectible card game
  • Fudge - Less an RPG and more a toolkit, led to the popular Fate RPG of the 2000s and 2010s.
  • Unknown Armies - Occult role-playing of varying power levels with a system inspired by Chaosium's BRP
  • Nexus: The Infinite City - A nexus of realities where walking down the street can take you from Ancient Rome to a cyberpunk megalopolis. Game system later modified into the popular Feng Shui RPG
Looking back, in many ways D&D 3rd edition can be seen as a reaction against this style of gaming - while the games I list above tended towards a very free-form nature D&D 3rd edition brought about a much more rigid style of gaming, a very tactical approach. (Something I'm not downing - I've had fun in a number of D&D 3rd edition and later games.)

This has been a rather lengthy (and likely rambling) post so it's time to bring it to a close. I've just given a glimpse of my thoughts on the 1990's. I've skipped over a number of things from the 1990's - things like the Gulf War, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Crystal Pepsi, Zima, Doctor Who: New Adventures, 800-TREKKER, Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, Babylon 5, etc. In any case I hope you found this trip down memory lane interesting.

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