Where I left the development of tabletop roleplaying last we were back in the mid 1970s, and the only game in town was D&D. This is a slight exaggeration – there were other games back then such as Chivalry and Sorcery (house rules for D&D turned into a game), Tunnels and Trolls (as far as I know the only version of D&D in this period designed to be simpler than the original), Bunnies and Burrows (a send up of D&D – I’m not making this up), Gamma World (using the D&D rules for a gonzo post-apocalyptic future), and Arduin (high powered rules for D&D that were given a cease and desist order for referencing D&D page numbers). I think that selection is a fair representation of what was around at the time.
In 1977 a game was published that was intended to be D&D In Space – although what was actually produced was significantly different – the game was called Traveller and an edition is currently in print – making it probably the first successful simulationist game; for all it was intended to be D&D in space the design philosophy is completely different. Where D&D’s philosophy was centred round “This is a challenge. Beat it.” Traveller’s philosophy is closer to “Here’s a universe. Do what you like with it.” It was therefore arguably the first major Toolbox Game.
How did Toolbox Games come about?
First a quick aside to those who know about the existing state of RPG theory. Ron Edwards made a notorious series of posts on his GNS theory of roleplaying games – his “G” (gamism/step on up play – the way D&D started) was about right, his “N” (narrativism/”Story Now”) was a decent effort given he was writing before the prevalence of Story Games – I’ll handle these in my next two posts about RPGs. But his “S” (“simulationism”) was an incoherent mess that completely missed the point of simulationist games and thereby would undermine conversations even if he hadn’t declared certain games he doesn’t like give people brain damage – which did wonders for any possibility of future conversations! I’m therefore going to propose the term Simulationist should be abandoned entirely – and what he failed to understand I’m going to talk about as “Toolbox games”. (Ron Edwards also came up with the more useful and more complex Big Model which is how games are supposed to work).
D&D in 1977 did only a few things but did them extremely well. However dungeon crawling and taking loot away from hapless monsters whether or not you kill them isn’t to everyone’s taste, and Gygax didn’t really explain that that was what his game was about. So people used his game for other things – some of them wanted to play games about knights in shining armour who set out to kill dragons, others merchants, others gangs of rogues playing Robin Hood or insurrectionist revolutionaries or whatever else sprang to mind. And D&D, precisely because it was fit for the purpose it was designed for wasn’t fit for all these other purposes that were as far from dungeon crawling as dungeon crawling was from Braunstein.
Roleplaying was just too varied for basic D&D to be able to cover all these situations with the rules as written, so people kept writing to Gygax and asking him for more rules (confusing him because he thought making up rules for odd situations was part of the fun). There were many things that were frequently asked for.
The first thing Traveller needed that D&D didn’t have was a consistent skill system so you know relatively how good you are at a wide range of things, and how likely you are to succeed at almost any common task. This can be useful both for visualising how your character fits into the game world – and for visualising the game world itself; a steep, craggy, rocky mountain that you’d expect spry a 60 year old to be able to climb if not pressured (Difficulty 10) is very different from a steep, craggy rocky mountain that you’d expect a professional mountain climber to be able to climb unaided only if given plenty of time (Difficulty 20) – in a handful of numbers you can show the size of the forest rather than having to mark out each tree. The second thing Traveller needed that D&D didn’t have was a clear indication of your place in the world – your social standing.
This gave a lot of numbers for a character, but once you had those numbers you had almost a complete idea of how competent your character was at just about anything, so you could use them to face just about any kind of challenge or tell them just about any sort of story. And because everyone could see your character sheet it made it easy to say how you all related to each other and agree what you all could do. Sharing a range of near-objective numbers about all your characters made it easy to agree how imagined events should resolve; roleplaying is at heart a more complex version of “Let’s Pretend” and by being able to add numbers (and normally a random factor) you abolish the arguments over whether something worked. You agree to roll the dice and follow that. (Of course it doesn’t abolish all arguments – it is entirely possible for the person running the game to be the sort of jackass that mysteriously gives people forcefields to prevent things happening – entirely within their official authority).
Of course this came with a downside. With so many skills and other numbers creating a character in Traveller takes much longer than creating one in original D&D (and the possible equipment for arbitrary sci fi protagonists is by the same token much larger than that for expert treasure hunters). So Mark Millar came up with a solution – make character generation into a game in its own right (Traveller is notorious for making this a game in which the new character can literally die). To do so you map out the character’s lifepath; where they went to school and everything they’ve done since then in four year blocks – and you need to roll to check whether they can make it into a new career path, whether they get thrown out, and whether they get injured along the way. It can make for some interesting stories – but there are reasons not many games copied this.
So that’s how they started, but what is a Toolbox Game? And why should I want to play one?
A toolbox game is a game that provides a shared language to describe the physical properties of the world you are playing in and the capabilities of its inhabitants in great breadth. This allows you to then do whatever you want within that world – the flexibility of a toolbox game is just about unmatched.
It is a game in which characters have their skills and capabilities represented in great detail, and the game rules set up a physics model for the world. This combination means that you are setting up a shared world in which you have the abilities to do almost anything you want. Whatever your creative agenda you can fulfil it. If you want a classic dungeon crawl one week you can do that using only the rules that are relevant there. And if the next week you want some social intrigue or to run a con you can do that using only the rules that are there.
The downside of a Toolbox Game is that it tends to have a lot more rules than a more focussed game; it has all the rules for everything you aren’t doing at the moment. They also tend to have vast equipment lists.
So what is the function of NPCs?
Whatever you want. The whole point of a toolbox game is it provides you with a lot of detail to resolve things and very little even about motivations so you can decide how you want the characters to behave with almost no interference.
So I want to play a game like this?
Then you’re in luck! This has been the dominant paradigm for RPGs since 1979 or so (with AD&D taking D&D in this direction). I’m only going to call out two games – the two I consider to be the best toolboxes available.
Pathfinder which is the most popular tabletop roleplaying game for which material is currently being produced which means it’s the most widely shared roleplaying language around right now. They produce more pre-published adventures than anyone else, and have a large organized play society intended for people to be able to drop into.
GURPS – the
Great Unnamed RolePlaying System Generic Universal RolePlaying System. GURPS is in my opinion close to the ideal of a toolbox game, deliberately able to handle any setting and type of play that you’ve agreed in advance (you can’t suddenly shift from something like Full Metal Jacket to Indiana Jones – the worlds don’t behave the same way). But what makes it stand out isn’t its (IMO slightly overrated) versatility so much as the quality of the sourcebooks. They are normally meticulously researched, well written, and approach the setting from the perspective of a protagonist rather than an academic perspective – meaning they are perfect for either running games or for basic research for writing. I own more GURPS books than for any other setting despite not having played it in years and consider them very good value and not just for roleplaying.