It’s always awesome when two hobbies intersect, and this happened recently with me. So let’s dive into the subject of retro-games, retro-tech, and how understanding the era that RPGs were made in can help you understand them better.
While I’m known more for my RPG stuff, I’m much more varied in my nerd interests. In this instance, it’s my low grade obsession with retro-computing and retro-tech that came into it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we need to look at how modernity influences our gaming.
Modernity, and specifically modern takes and examples of things, deeply influences how we perceive RPGs. And this applies across genres. Today, things like airships are a not uncommon staple in fantasy roleplaying games, but I remember being flat out told that it was the “wrong kind” of fantasy in the 90’s. Likewise, I remember being objectively confused by science fiction games where computer programming was not only a common skill, but an assumed norm. After all, you bought software, you didn’t have to write it. Fast forward to today, and many modern era games struggle with the game breaking realities of players applying modern technology. The thing is, this applies backwards.
The Classic Traveller Epiphany
I love Traveller. I’ve loved it ever since my buddy refused to run a game of it for us because “we probably wouldn’t play it right either”. But it always low key baffled me, especially with its approach to computers. Even back in the day, it seemed antiquated, like Marc Millar had spent no effort in the speculative tech design phase. Then I was messing around the day with an old 8bit computer, a Tandy Color Computer 3. Then it hit me. He had speculated, it’s just his baseline was so different from what mine was and from where technology actually developed that it just seemed like no effort had gone into it.
I realized that when he wrote the game, back in 1976-77, while computers weren’t the room filling monsters they had been, they weren’t the capable machines I’d grown up with or the powerhouses they are now. It was perfectly normal to write your own programs, and to modify existing programs. And not just that, but that save for the graphical UI and OS developments, he’d predicted the UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) fairly well. Which, given the era he was writing in, was 100% something that was speculative science fiction and probably only in the far future.
Modelling on Eras
This led me down a whole rabbit hole as I looked through my game collection, spotting games where we’d had issues in the past or made fun of them for their “out of touch-ness”. And in a lot of cases, it was because the speculation basis was solid, but what they speculated deviated from the way things went sufficiently that within a few years the work was in trouble without some added suspension of disbelief. Other games were clearly rooted in a specific era and the narratives/tropes of that era, meaning that they were prone to interpretation issues as time progressed.
A New Component For Session Zero
What all this made me realize is that as a GM, I need to start the set dressing for the game in Session Zero, more so than normal with some games. Why? Because both myself and the players need to be interpreting the game in a similar way. It increases immersion and helps everyone build a better game experience by flowing with it instead of fighting it. And I mean that last part. I’ve been in games where everyone, GM and player alike have struggled against the game’s concepts. It’s not fun.
This whole realization really reopened up a lot of my older library of games. And not just that, it’s given me some direction in terms of how to present them to new players and players who aren’t familiar with the ideas behind them. It was really cool how working with an old computer from the late 80’s got the ball rolling on all this. It’s also opened a lot of doors for me in terms of world building, especially for trying to capture retro-future settings. Hope this helps you too!