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Saturday, 26 December 2020

1980: Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

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Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was published in 1980—and published by SPI or Simulations Publications, Inc., a publisher better known for its many, many wargames. Indeed, it was designed by James F. Dunnigan, the founder of SPI himself and a noted designer of wargames such as Jutland and PanzerBlitz, both for Avalon Hill. Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is significant because not only was it the first licensed roleplaying game, it was the first licensed roleplaying based on an intellectual property that was not based on a genre such as fantasy, science fiction, or horror. It was also a flop, and infamously, would contribute to SPI’s financial woes and ultimate takeover in 1982 by TSR, Inc. Fellow designer at SPI, Redmond A. Simonsen, later explained in Why Did SPI Die?, “As to DALLAS: we didn’t print 250,000 of them. More like 80,000 (in two runs). That was about 79,999 more than anyone wanted. DALLAS didn’t kill SPI, but it didn’t save it either (as some had vainly hoped). Essentially, anyone who is wired on DALLAS (the TV show) is not also wired on games.” However, there are some interesting elements to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game that would prefigure later roleplaying game designs.

Of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is based on the Soap Opera, Dallas, which ran from 1978 until 1991, and at the time of the roleplaying game’s publication was hugely popular around the world. It revolved around the affluent and feuding Texas family, the Ewings, who own the independent oil company Ewing Oil and the cattle-ranching land of Southfork. Its most notorious character is the Ewings’ oldest son, oil tycoon J.R. Ewing, who was renowned for schemes and dirty business practices in his effort to control the family business. In Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, players take the roles of members of the cast from the television series, including J.R. Ewing, his wife Sue Ellen (Sheppard) Ewing, his younger brother Bobby Ewing and his wife, Pamela (Barnes) Ewing, J.R. and Bobby’s parents, Jock Ewing and Ellie (Southworth) Ewing, Jock Ewing and Ellie Ewing’s granddaughter, Lucy Ewing, Ray Krebbs, the foreman of the Southfork Ranch, and Pamela (Barnes) Ewing’s brother, Cliff Barnes. In each Episode, nine members—nine!—of the cast have their own objectives and over the course of five acts, they will negotiate with each other to achieve them, before persuading, coercing, or seducing their rivals to get what they want, or even investigating them to bring the law down upon them. At the end the five acts, the character who achieves his or her given aims, will have won the Episode, or alternatively the character with the most Victory Points wins, the latter coming into play if more than one character has achieved his or her given aims.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game comes a slim box containing three booklets, fifty-six cards, and two six-sided dice. The three books consist of the Rules of Play—just sixteen pages in length, barely five of which cover the rules, the rest being devoted to the three ready-to-play Original Episode scripts, ‘The Great Claim’, ‘Sweet Oil’, and ‘Down along the Coast’; the Scriptwriter’s Guide, also sixteen pages in length, with notes on running and teaching the game for the Director, writing scripts or Episodes, plus background on the cards and Texas, and a sample of play; and the Major Characters booklet. This consists of twenty perforated sheets, one a cheat sheet for the Director, and then a character sheet for each member of the cast. Each character sheet includes full stats for all of the cast, some background, and an explanation of how Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is played. Each character includes some minor modifiers for affecting or resisting certain other members of the cast. The fifty-six cards consist of minor characters, organisations, and objects—the latter typically Plot Devices in the hands of members of the cast, such as Alexis Blancher, an employee of Ewing Oil, the Texas Railroad Commission, and a Saddlebag of Krugerrands. Many of these will come into play during an Episode and are essentially what the characters will be feuding for control over. The minor characters have the same stats as the members of the cast. 

Each character has four Abilities, and Power and Luck attributes. The four Abilities are Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, and Investigation, and are divided into pairs, one to Affect another character, the other to Resist another character’s attempt to Affect them with that Ability. Power is a general measure of a character’s strength, whilst Luck is their good fortune—or lack of it—and is generally used as a last resort. The Abilities range in value between eleven and twenty-four, depending upon the cast member, and tend to be less for NPCs and organisations. Power ranges from one to nine for the cast members, or from Lucy Ewing to J.R. Ewing. Luck ranges between one and eight.

To play Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, the Director—as the Game Master is known—selects or writes an Episode and the players select their characters. They also receive the Plot Devices they start with at the beginning of the Episode. An Episode consists of five Acts and each Act consists of three phases—the Director Phase, the Negotiation Phase, and the Conflict Phase. In the Director Phase, the Director provides the players with new information and plot devices, and then in the Negotiation Phase, the players trade cards, information, and promises to support each other in preparation for the Conflict Phase. The Conflict Phase is the meat of the mechanics.

The core mechanic involves the Affecting (attacking?) character using the active value for an Ability, modified by the Affecting character’s Power and any relevant factors for their relationship against the Resisting character’s defending value for the Attribute, plus modifiers. The Resisting value is subtracted from the Affecting value and if the result is twelve or more, the Affecting character succeeds. If the result, or spread, is between two and eleven, the player of the Affecting character rolls the two six-sided dice and if the result is less than the spread, the Affecting character succeeds. If the Affecting character has succeeded, then the Resisting character can make a Luck check and if his player rolls under the Resisting character’s Luck, he successfully resists the Affecting character’s attempt at Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, or Investigation.

A successful attempt at Persuasion or Seduction will provide the Affecting character with information from the Resisting character, force the Resisting character to relinquish control of an NPC or Plot Device, control of an NPC if they are uncontrolled. Seduction attempts can only be made against members of the opposite gender who are not related to the Affecting character. Instead of providing the Affecting character with control of an NPC if they are uncontrolled, a successful attempt at Coercion can force another character to make his Affect attempt immediately. If against an NPC and unsuccessful, there is the possibility of Revenge, in which every other member of the cast can make a Persuasion attempt to control the NPC, with the players rolling to see who makes the attempt first. Lastly, a successful Investigation attempt forces the Affected character to reveal information, including the identity of NPCs and Plot Devices which are face down on the table. If a character has committed an Illegal act, another character who controls a legal authority, such as the FBI or Texas Rangers, can use Investigation to identify the suspect officially, and subsequently, use Persuasion combined with control of a legal authority to obtain an arrest, an indictment, and lastly, a conviction. Each of these steps scores a player an increasing number of Victory Points. A convicted character loses all of his Power, but is still in the game, as his conviction is, of course, being appealed.

Physically, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is cleanly and tidily presented. It is clearly written, but written in the style of a set of rules for a wargame with numbered and sub-numbered sections—just as SPI would do for its other roleplaying games, DragonQuest and Universe. Internally, none of the roleplaying game’s three booklets are illustrated. All of the illustrations appear on the cover of the box—in colour, and then in black and white on the front cover of the Rules of Play. So none of the character sheets are illustrated. Overall, the black and white production values—some spot colour is used on the cards—are underwhelming and lack the glossy sheen that a product or game based on a television series like Dallas really calls for.

The rules to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game are decently explained and they do come with an example of play. The three pre-written episodes are also decent and the advice on creating scripts and other characters is workable. The advice on creating scripts is backed up by a list of Plot Devices and biographies of the various NPCs, all of which can be used by the Director to write her own scripts. There is also a lengthy, and quite detailed history of Texas. However, there is no background or information to the television series of Dallas itself, beyond that of the little information given on each of the character sheets. Essentially, to play a game of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, the designers expect the participants to rely upon their own knowledge of the series and its characters.

As a design, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is not a traditional roleplaying game and nor does it feel like one. There are no rules for creating new members of the cast, no rules for gaining experience, or improving a character as you would find in almost any other roleplaying game. And despite the fact that infamously, a big storyline revolved around the identity of who it was who shot J.R. Ewing, there are no rules for physical conflict or combat—the roleplaying game is all about verbal conflict. Then although it has a Game Master or a Director and everyone sits round the table just as in a traditional roleplaying game, the fact that a game can involve nine players and the Director, makes it feel more like a party or social game. Of course, party or social games were not a category of games as they are today, so the nearest equivalent at the time of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game publication would be the ‘How to Host a Murder’ type games which were popular then.

As clearly and as simply as the rules are explained, anyone coming to them without a background in wargames or roleplaying—essentially the fan of Dallas picking up Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game on a whim or because it is clearly connected to the soap opera, is likely to feel intimidated by the procedural nature of its play and the stolid nature of the mechanics. Nor is this helped by the grey, even boring production values that might have made the roleplaying that much more enticing , something that another publisher of the time, Yaquinto Publications got right with its own TV’s Dallas: A Game of the Ewing Family board game, part of its Album series.

As much as it states that it is a roleplaying game—and a ‘family’ roleplaying game at that, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game lacks an explanation of what roleplaying is and an explanation of how the Director narrates the beginning of each act. Nor is there a sense of the NPCs, the minor cast members, being characters in themselves, merely pawns for the main cast to control. There is also a sense of misogyny to the roleplaying game, one that admittedly it inherits from the television show, in that the male members of the cast are more powerful than the female ones. The character sheets though advise that the male characters should not necessarily throw their weight around and that they generally have more challenging victory conditions than the female characters who instead should be working together.

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Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not well received at the time. The single notable review appeared in The Space Gamer Number 42 (August, 1981). Reviewer David Ladyman asked, “Is DALLAS a useful bridge between gaming and your “real world” friends? That might depend on how many DALLAS freaks you know that you would want to introduce to gaming. Hard core RPGers will probably want to add the game to their collection; characters' attributes and the conflict resolution system are novel enough, even if you have no interest in the television series. I wouldn’t suggest it, though, if you buy your games for long-term playability – DALLAS just doesn't have lasting entertainment value.”

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However, as underwhelming as Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is in terms of presentation, theme, and rules, it is in its own way innovative. As the first licensed roleplaying game, it showed the possibility of obtaining licences based on mainstream intellectual properties and the potential of drawing the fans of those properties into gaming. Within a matter of years, for example, FASA would produce The Doctor Who Role Playing Game and Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, both well received. Most licensed roleplaying games continue to be based on fantasy, horror, or science fiction properties rather than mainstream ones—Leverage: The Roleplaying Game being a rare and more recent example, as well as a good example of how to design a roleplaying game around a television show. Which of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not, but it also prefigured adversarial roleplaying, that is a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters are against each other as often as not, and that there can be a clear winner in playing the game. This would really come to the fore in Phage Press’ 1991 Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game and would subsequently be seen in any number of indie roleplaying games.

Another aspect to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is that in hindsight, as perhaps as underwhelming as the design is, there is huge potential for roleplaying in the game. It is not the mechanics which entice, but the opportunity to dig into the members of Dallas’ cast, a great many of them signature characters that are familiar even decades on and roleplay them around the table. Although, whether you would roleplay all nine at the same time is is another matter. Of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game does not support this, and it is only with hindsight and the experience of roleplaying that the potential can be seen. Anyone coming to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game without that experience or that hindsight, will ultimately be daunted by what they find in the box. 

Forty years since the publication of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game and the hobby is better served by roleplaying games which would emulate its genre. Dog Eared Designs’ Primetime Adventures: a game of television melodrama is an obvious choice, but Fiasco could also do it, as could Pasión de las Pasiones, the telenovela tabletop roleplaying game Powered by the Apocalypse published by Magpie Games. Further, all three of those roleplaying games would have the advice and guidance that Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game lacks.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is significant as the first licensed roleplaying game, but not necessarily as a design. It can be seen as a venture or experiment, that in 1980, would have made commercial sense for SPI to pursue and publish because the crossover potential between fans of Dallas the television series and the roleplaying hobby could have been significant. Certainly, within a family it could have served as a means for a roleplayer to show his parents or other family members who were fans of Dallas, but likely mystified by his hobby, what roleplaying was like and how it could be fun.  Of course, it was not to be. Few in the roleplaying hobby would have been interested in a roleplaying game based on Dallas and anyone outside of the hobby would be daunted by the design of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, which is more of a card game than a roleplaying game.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is an interesting, even important, curio from the dawn of the commercialisation of the roleplaying hobby. Its design though, is a hangover from the dusk of another hobby—wargaming, and that meant that Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not the family-friendly—even if its cast of characters were anything but—introduction to roleplaying games it was intended to be. 

1 comment:

  1. That would be a weird roleplaying experience. I'd love to have the boxed set in my collection, and would try it at least once.

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