Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Retrospective: Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game

I catch a lot of flak over my description of the years 1974 to 1983 as the Golden Age of roleplaying games, much of it based on a misunderstanding of my original point, namely that, after this period, tabletop RPGs would never again command the same degree of broad cultural significance that they did during this time. A good illustration of my point is this odd product, from wargames publisher SPI: Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game. Published in 1980, the same year as the company's more well known foray into roleplaying, DragonQuest, Dallas was designed by none other than James F. Dunnigan, famous as (among many things) the designer of the classic wargames Jutland and PanzerBlitz. That's probably not the most absurd pairing in the history of the hobby, but it's got to be up there.

Dallas came, like all RPGs of its era, in a box, consisting of three booklets, dice, and some cards. The first booklet, Rules of Play, explained what the game was about and how it was played. The game rules are pretty simple and based around comparing the ability scores of opposing characters -- Power, Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, Investigation, and Luck -- against one another. Each of these scores is given two ratings, one for resisting and one for affecting, so a character might be poor at, say, coercing others but might also be highly resistant to it. Dice are only rolled when the compared scores are within a certain range of one another (otherwise, automatic successes or failures come into play). Luck functions as a kind of saving throw, allowing a player to reverse the result of a previous contest, turning an opponent's success into a failure. The rules don't get much more complex than this, though there are a few additional details, mostly pertaining to using organizations and minor characters to achieve one's schemes.

Dallas includes three sample "scripts," which is what it calls scenarios, as well as some very basic advice to "the Director" (i.e. the referee) on how to create his own. There are no character generation rules, since it's assumed that the players will take the role of established characters from the TV series. Consequently, you won't find any experience or advancement rules either. Nor are there rules for handling violence, so you'll have to wing it if you want to write a script where someone wants to take a shot at J.R. That's understandable, since Dallas isn't really a RPG in the sense most of us would use the term. It has a great deal more in common with party games like How to Host a Murder and the like, right down to having "victory conditions" for each character in the various scripts.

That said, Dallas is a roleplaying game, a simple one, certainly, and one with a very different focus than most other RPGs published in 1980. But the mere fact of this game's existence -- published by one of the premier wargames publishers of the era -- says a lot, I think. Nowadays, if a TV series or movie is a hot property, you might expect to see a video game made of it, but tabletop roleplaying games? Not likely. That wasn't the case in 1980, though, and, while I suspect that, like most licensed RPGs ever published, Dallas wasn't a success for SPI, I don't think that's necessarily a reflection of the inherent foolishness of the idea of a Dallas-based RPG. Rather, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that SPI was probably in a poor position to market a product like this. In another company's hands, it could conceivably have had a bigger impact.

In any event, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is probably one of the more peculiar RPGs I've ever read. I don't own a copy myself and never did, but I had the good fortune to know someone who did. He was an avid collector of SPI products and, literally, bought everything they ever made, including Dallas. I eagerly read the thing, since I dimly recalled hearing about it in my younger days, but never had the interest in seeking it out. I'm glad I had that opportunity, because it was a good reminder of just how faddish this hobby once was -- truly an age whose like we shall not see again.

35 comments:

  1. I still have it, and in a strange coincidence was just talking to some of my peeps about running a game of it in the next few weeks.

    @ The Degenerate Elite - No, this was published prior to the death of JR. You could play JR himself though (and it was generally assumed someone would be doing so for most sessions).

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  2. I'm still holding out for the Falcon Crest RPG...

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  3. It seems a little silly, but I wish I'd seen this back in the day- a role-playing game that didn't use the six basic attributes (or some close variant). And one that presumes no violence!

    Not that I would have enjoyed it, but it might have broadened my thoughts on these things a bit earlier.

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  4. I am Patrick Duffy, 10th level merman Assassin.

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  5. I am Patrick Duffy, 10th level merman Assassin.

    Now that is an arcane reference. Takes me back...

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  6. @ Anathematician: I wouldn't call the Man from Atlantis an assassin. Really?

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  7. Well, he did spec ops. Just not the killing part.

    However, Ranger would seem to be more his class, same as Aquaman and Namor the Sub-Mariner. (Although Namor's alignment jumped around a lot over the course of his long story career.)

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  8. You still see genre shows made into RPGs fairly often -- Babylon 5, Buffy, Firefly, etc.

    Nothing remotely as mainstream as Dallas was in its day, of course.

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  9. "Nor are there rules for handling violence..."

    Wait, what?!? How do you handle cat-fights? That is kinda intrinsic to the setting!

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  10. Patrick Duffy's a Buddhist, so maybe he'd be a mermonk.

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  11. "Nowadays, if a TV series or movie is a hot property, you might expect to see a video game made of it, but tabletop roleplaying games? Not likely."

    Off the top of my head I can name at least Buffy, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Stargate SG-1, Firefly, Babylon 5, Leverage, Smallville and of course Star Wars. Decipher's LOTR was also based on the movies and used screenshots from the movies as art.

    There are also several rpgs based on books, e.g. Conan RPG, The Dying Earth, A Game of Thrones (two versions that I know of) and Dresden Files.

    Some RPGs are even based on popular computer games like Dragon Age, Warcraft and Diablo.

    I don't know if there are more or less RPGs based on tv series or movies than in the 80s but there are a lot of them nowadays.

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  12. Pekka: All of those are genre properties. Can you imagine a tabletop game based on, say, Glee? Or even NCIS (which is nearly genre itself)?

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  13. By its 4th Edition, the Dallas game had lost much of its freewheeling charm, with carefully templated dramatic powers, requiring a set grid and action figures. They even figured out a way for the game to have commercials!

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  14. Hey John Hendry

    I see Bill Bixby as the wandering Monk, well Monk/Barbarian. David Carradine fits the monk roll rather well. Sadly a monk who death touched himself :(

    Hey JB

    Ok Assassin was a bit strong, and I was mistaken and thought he shot JR all of those years ago....he didn't.

    Patrick Duffy however is high level Illusionist after faking his own death by invading and altering the dreams/reality of the entire cast and viewing audience.

    Patrick Duffy was also the leg of Scuzzelbutt. I am not sure what sick WoD Thaumaturgy he used to
    create that beast, but he is skilled.

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  15. While normally I avoid Python quotes, but seeing Dallas the RPG, the only thing I can say is...

    "What a stupid concept."

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  16. If RPGs were as faddish now as they were in 1980, not only would there be Glee and NCIS RPGs, there'd be American Idol and Dancing With The Stars RPGs too.

    But Leverage is only marginally "genre". So the fact that there's a Leverage RPG is a good sign.

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  17. What does the referee of a South Park RPG say to rein in unruly players?

    RESPECT MY AUTHORITAH!!!

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  18. Glee RPG

    I've played it.

    Also, I totally would play a Dallas RPG, but that's because our group does schemey PVP with gusto...

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  19. Man, if I had to pick a soap to turn into an RPG it would definitely be Dark Shadows.

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  20. Ed Dove: Exactly so!

    hüth: It's not branded Glee, though. That's like Primetime Adventures instead of Dallas.

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  21. Wait, what?!? How do you handle cat-fights? That is kinda intrinsic to the setting!

    I never watched the show as a kid, so I can't speak to this. My impression was that Dynasty was where most of the cat fights occurred ...

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  22. Pekka: All of those are genre properties. Can you imagine a tabletop game based on, say, Glee? Or even NCIS (which is nearly genre itself)?

    Yeah, that was my point. Can you imagine a world where a big, mainstream hit TV show or movie were turned into a RPG? Mind you, nowadays, TV seems such a marginal medium that I'm not even sure what "big, mainstream hit" would even mean in this context.

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  23. Man, if I had to pick a soap to turn into an RPG it would definitely be Dark Shadows.

    Years ago, I had a notion to create a multi-generational supernatural RPG on the model of Dark Shadows, one where you played not just a single character but multiple members of several interrelated families over the span of centuries -- kind of Call of Cthulhu meets Pendragon. I still think it's a good idea.

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  24. @Pekka Don't forget GURPS Myth: an OK worldbook based on a sadly under-appreciated computer game property.

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  25. I notice with a lot of TV/Movie-based RPGs, they are narrative-based, with mechanics that enforces plot and character cliché. Its like playing a Star Trek RPG, where you are rewarded for saying "He's dead, Jim!" or "Damnit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a _______!", if you are playing McCoy, or Kirk having the ability to wreck even the most sophisticated computer with... The way... He... TALKS!

    The most damning of all, it the inability to make you own characters. Players generally avoid plying well-established personalities as an unspoken RPG custom, and making-up non-canon characters is a popular practice, in what is basically a table-top fanfic.

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  26. I've played this game. It was actually sort of fun. We played it a few times as a fill-in or waiting for the other guys to show up for the real game, game.
    It actually worked fine.
    Violence was rare enough it could be handled by GM fiat. I think we had 2 murders and a fitstfight or two in a few sessions, pretty tame for a bunch of teenage dungeon pillagers who also killed each others PC's with glee in a TopSecret campaign.

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  27. The most damning of all, it the inability to make you own characters. Players generally avoid plying well-established personalities as an unspoken RPG custom, and making-up non-canon characters is a popular practice, in what is basically a table-top fanfic.

    It's an odd design choice, I agree, but I wonder if it was done on the assumption that most television viewers, back in 1980, wanted to play existing characters rather than creating new characters in the same world as the existing ones. Nowadays, I think any licensed RPG that made this assumption would be foolish to do so, but was this the case 30 years ago?

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  28. I want a copy of this to bookend the Rocky and Bullwinkle RPG. No fooling:

    http://index.rpg.net/display-entry.phtml?mainid=7484

    Won an Origins award, and it included hand puppets.

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  29. It's not branded Glee, though.

    And would a rose, by any other name...?

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  30. I find the Dallas RPG intriguing because it sounds like it aggressively designed the rules around the show. Many of the licensed RPGs above either took existing rules and dropped the license in, or designed new rules that looked like almost every other RPG out there. The resulting simulation focus frequently cuts against the actual license. Television writers don't sit around worrying about "Is X skilled enough as a hacker to successfully break into the bank's computer?" No, X succeeds or fails based on the needs of the show. Y never dies because he realistically got unlucky in a firefight; he dies for a dramatic reason, because the actor is leaving, or he simply can't die.

    There are RPGs that break this mold. Leverage and Smallville immediately leap to mind. There are older ones, but it's an idea that feels "modern" to me. To see such an idea is 1980 is fascinating. It's now on my list of RPGs worth acquiring to study!

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  31. The idea of having a "resisting" and "affecting" score for your attributes is kind of neat, I think....

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  32. @faoladh - there actually is a NCIS tabletop game, but it's presented as a boardgame although it appears to have quite a few roleplaying elements in it.

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  33. This blog should definitely take a look at Leverage. I've never seen a TV-licensed game whose rules more closely attempt to harness the storytelling concerns of the TV show. It's an innovative approach.

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