It's pretty much a given, among people of a certain age, to treat the appearance of Scooby-Doo's overly exuberant young nephew in 1979 as the beginning of the end for that venerable Hanna-Barbera cartoon. For many, Scrappy represents a betrayal of the original vision of the show, which, while light hearted, was rarely outright comedic. Scrappy's arrival changed that and forever earned the ire of Scooby-Doo's legions of devoted fans.
What many such fans don't realize is that Scrappy-Doo saved Scooby-Doo, a series that was on the verge of cancellation by ABC in 1979. Scrappy's creator, famed cartoon wordsmith Mark Evanier -- one the brains behind the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon a few years later -- has related the tale of the little Great Dane's birth in a series of four articles. Reading them is very enlightening on many levels, not least of which being the context it provides for how and why Scrappy-Doo came to be and the impact his arrival had on the Scooby-Doo franchise. Far from being as unpopular as he might seem in retrospect, Scrappy-Doo was in fact immensely popular and played a major role in keeping Scooby-Doo alive and on the air throughout the 1980s. It's not an exaggeration to say that, without Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Doo would have gone the way of many other cartoons and been mostly unknown to a generation of children.
Tracy Hickman made his TSR debut in 1982 with module I3, Pharaoh, the first part of the "Desert of Desolation" trilogy and the first of many popular and influential D&D modules he'd pen, often with his wife, Laura. All of Hickman's work shares a common emphasis on providing a coherent story as a backdrop for the adventure. While many of his early modules, including Ravenloft, reveal an old school heritage with their trick and trap-filled "dungeons," what made those modules a popular success was the way they went beyond the thin backgrounds of earlier adventures -- "Some giants are attacking civilized lands. Go and find out why or you'll get the axe." -- by spinning epic tales of love lost and won, baleful curses, ancient prophecies, and, most importantly, memorable NPCs with hopes, dreams, and fears of their own.
Back in 1982, what Hickman was doing was nothing short of revolutionary, at least in the context of TSR's official support for D&D. The gaming public responded very positively and enthusiastically, particularly to Ravenloft and the Dragonlance modules, both of which seem to have been the "gateway" for a significant portion of the "third generation" of gamers who entered the hobby in the mid-80s. Despite the financial distress TSR suffered -- $1.5 million debt in 1984 -- D&D's fortunes were buoyant, due in no small part to the change Hickman's modules effected on the way gamers viewed D&D and what they expected from it. Dragonlance was the greatest -- and most profitable -- fruit of the "Hickman Revolution" and its success set a pattern for D&D that dominated the next 10+ years, right up until Wizards of the Coast acquired the company in 1997.
Given the financial mismanagement of TSR under the Blumes and D&D's loss of its faddishness in the mid-80s, I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that the Hickman Revolution played a key role in keeping TSR, D&D, and by extension the hobby vibrant and vigorous well into the 1990s, when "storytelling games" came into their own. A lot of us older gamers look at this stuff and think about it the same way many Scooby-Doo fans look at Scrappy-Doo: isn't this the worst thing that could have happened to our beloved? I know, for myself, that I often feel that D&D would have been better off in the long run if had not embraced "story" as central to its self-identity.
But would I still care about D&D -- or even roleplaying -- today if my preferred alternate history had come to pass? Did the Hickman Revolution safeguard the future of D&D by transforming it into something other than its origins? That's an impossible question to answer. I offer it up because I think it's all too easy to see each and every deviation from pristine Gygaxianism as another cobblestone on the road to hell. So they are in a certain context, but it's also true that these deviations are what enable D&D to continue to have relevance to gamers decades after the original game -- and the culture that spawned it -- have passed from the scene.
This is the only sense in which I accept the term "evolution" as being a valid one to describe the development of RPGs and I obviously don't think all such evolution is positive, except in the sense that it can sometimes better enable a game to survive changes in popular tastes. In such cases, though, what you wind up with is not a "better" game so much as a different one entirely. I'm inclined to think that the lasting effect of the Hickman Revolution has been to permanently splinter D&D into several distinct "species," some of which bear more genetic resemblance to one another than do others.
Let me reiterate that I don't think Tracy Hickman is the Devil nor do I think he set out to change the face of Dungeons & Dragons forever. That his work met with such popular acclaim -- and still does, in many quarters, even after 25 years -- is pretty good evidence that he gave gamers something they very much wanted. "Story" wasn't imposed on D&D so much as happily embraced by many younger gamers who felt the Gygaxian template for the game was too narrow and not at all like the books, comics, and movies that inspired them. I don't think there's any question that the Gygaxian template itself would have changed over time -- it already was changing in 1982 -- but would it have changed enough to keep D&D at once vital and in keeping with its origins? Or was the Hickman Revolution the only path to continued success? There's no clear answer to this beyond the obvious one that the Hickman Revolution, like Scrappy-Doo, succeeded and succeeded brilliantly. We still live in the world it helped to usher into existence.