Lately, I've found myself spending a lot of time re-reading several of FGU's games, particularly Chivalry and Sorcery and Space Opera. Now, as I've regularly noted, FGU's games have a deserved reputation for being unclear, poorly edited, and unnecessarily complex. When I was a kid, I never seriously considered playing most of FGU's catalog (with a couple of notable exceptions), but I knew people who did and, unless they were lying to me, they had a lot of fun doing so. With hindsight, what's clear to me now is that almost everyone I knew who played and enjoyed FGU's games (and games like them) was older than I and often had a much longer association with the hobby.
That may seem like an insignificant detail, but I don't think it is. I've come to realize that, back in my youth, there was an RPG "ecology." Nearly everyone I ever met who played RPGs started with D&D, whether it was the White Box or Holmes or Moldvay or even AD&D. There were a couple of older weirdos I knew who started with Tunnels & Trolls and one guy who started with Traveller, but, by and large, some form of Dungeons & Dragons was the entry point for the overwhelming majority of roleplayers. Then, as now, many gamers got tired of playing D&D, either because they simply wanted a change or because they'd grown to dislike the game in some fashion. Finding D&D wanting in some way is probably the hobby's oldest tradition, after all. And when this happened, where did these gamers go?
That's where "second tier" RPGs like RuneQuest and Chivalry and Sorcery and RoleMaster came into the picture. These were the games to which disaffected D&D players turned when they could no longer stomach the infelicities of Gygax and Arneson's creation. All of these games "fixed" D&D in various ways, in the process becoming more complex than the game they had rejected. But that was OK, because complexity was part of the point. They had a lot of experience with roleplaying games already; they'd been playing D&D and other games for years. They were ready for all the niggling little details and confusing charts and special cases. Indeed, they craved this sort of thing.
Nowadays, it's popular to suggest, falsely, that a characteristic of old school gaming is its rules "lightness." Historically speaking, this suggestion fails to account for games like the ones I've been re-reading lately. I suspect the reason for this failure is that many gamers either never played or never understood the appeal of those rules-heavy games existed on the fringes of TSR's empire. And let's be clear: they existed quite well. Certainly, neither Chaosium nor FGU were ever making as much money as TSR certainly was, but I have little doubt they were more profitable than most RPG companies today. There were a lot of gamers back then for whom games like Dungeons & Dragons were "entry-level," which is to say, strictly for neophytes. Experienced and sophisticated gamers eventually "grew out" of D&D and the games I'm calling "second tier" were there to provide for them.
Obviously, as time went on, many of these games (RuneQuest being a prime example) no longer required disaffection with D&D to generate interest, but that doesn't change the fact that disaffection with D&D was the wellspring for a great many new RPGs in the late 70s and early 80s. But, even so, it wasn't just disaffection with D&D; there was also the question of experience. As one develops more facility with the concept of RPGs, one is (in my experience anyway) much more prone to tinker with their rules, adding complexity and detail that, at the beginning of one's entry into the hobby, would likely have been bewildering and off-putting. "Simple" games are much less satisfying to many experienced gamers, who've "been there, done that" and so they often seek out RPGs that are written to accommodate their tastes.
Again, none of this is to suggest that experienced players can't find enjoyment in simple games -- far from it! Yet, there's no denying that there has always been a segment of the hobby who, as they gained more familiarity and facility with RPGs, needed increased complexity to hold their attention. These are the guys who like to spend hours poring over their rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of abilities for their characters and who think that nothing less than dozens of nested, cross-referenced encounter charts containing hundreds of entries is sufficient to create a "realistic" campaign world. That's definitely not what I want in a RPG, but I won't deny that there are gamers out there who do -- and there always have been.
The problem today, I think, is that the hobby has suffered severe "ecological damage." There aren't many "entry-level" RPGs anymore. Most RPGs would have belonged to the second tier in the past, as they assume a degree of familiarity and experience that many potential players don't actually possess. If there were more entry-level games -- heck, if D&D were still an entry-level game -- the RPG ecology might be very different. Alas, RPGs have, since the late 1980s at least catered increasingly to already-experienced gamers, who crave the complexity and sophistication that, in the past, would have primarily been found in those second tier games the older, more experienced guys played back in the day.
There should always be a place for those older, more experienced guys in the hobby, but the kinds of games that are satisfying to them aren't (generally) the kind that are accessible to complete newcomers. And, more importantly, those second tier games depend heavily on the existence of entry-level games to provide a steady stream of players hungry for the greater complexity they have to offer. In short, the RPG ecology is out of balance and it needs to be repaired. I wish I knew how.