First appearance of “the PCs are X who do Y” format for RPG campaign premises

Continuing the discussion from The explicit campaign premise: "X who do Y in a world where W":

Who first came up with “the PCs are X who do Y” as a formula for a campaign premise? Where? When?

The earliest hit I got with a bit of quick googling was in the introduction to Robin D. Laws’ HeroQuest, which was published in 2009. Does anyone know it from earlier than that?

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I played in a group in early 90s, when I was in high school, where the GMs pitched games in more or less those terms. I think it’s pretty obvious rubric, once you have games with flexibility to do a range of things.

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Yes, but distressingly often with things that seem blatantly obvious in retrospect, we find that nobody thought of them for fifteen or twenty years. Traveller was notorious for producing parties of PCs so disparate that they could scarcely share any possible adventure. Even without the double-edged blessing of a set of flexible rules capable of considerable range, Vampire came out in 1992 with no suggestion of what adventures a passel of tragically hip monsters might have in a world of darkness — leaving everyone to play them as photophobic superheroes in campaign of “vampires v. ethnic drug dealers”. In 2002 the terms of the WotC setting search asked for a “statement of the ethos of the setting” to be included in each submission. I think now that they were probably asking about the core activity of adventures, or the template adventure, and that a statement that “PCs will usually be X who do Y” would have satisfied them completely. If so, I missed it completely at the time (I assume that any setting ought to support a broad range of campaign premises). I don’t think I or the officials at WotC can have been familiar with this formulation at the time. As late as 2004 it was a common complaint about GURPS 3rd ed. sourcebooks (including historical ones as well as e.g. Transhuman Space) that they gave a wonderful description of a fascinating place but left GMs perplexed as to how to run an RPG campaign set there.

I have checked what the presenters of the podcast Fear the Boot said about constructing a “group template” to prevent discrepant assumptions about what PCs should be and what they should do. That was their second episode, which dropped in May 2006. Though they do deal explicitly with the elements of “the PCs will be X who do Y in place W”, they don’t mention any such neat formula. I think it might not have been widely known in 2009, when Robin D. Laws wrote it in the intro to the generic version of HeroQuest.

On the other hand, I find that I came pretty close to using it in a discussion on another forum in September 2009. The link from my post is dead, but it is clear from my phrasing that the suggestion was not mine, that I considered it neither well-known nor a brand-new revelation.

I wrote:

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Paranoia certainly seemed to have an overt mission statement, namely you are Troubleshooters assigned by The Computer to root out commies, mutants and traitors who threaten the happiness of Alpha Complex citizens. First edition was 1984 I think. Do military games count purely due to the nature of playing military characters in a mission-based setting?

I suppose it boils down to how restrictive you need an RPG to be in its premise in order to fit this definition. Selling a game where you can do (more or less) anything was probably a lot easier than one where you are this and you have to do that. It was a fairly frequent observation in reviews of adventures, which were in some cases products applying the you are X doing Y idea to a more general RPG, that the specific setup of a module meant it was almost impossible to fit into an existing campaign.

RPGs that are restricted to a single premise are perhaps the opposite end of the scale. When you are playing James Bond 007 there is no need to make an explicit agreement that the PCs are secret operatives of “M.I.6” who undertake secret operations on the orders of M — because the game offers no rules for generating any other sort of character, and has a chapter about getting orders from M. The problem was that we played such games back in the Eighties and Nineties without generalising from them, so that when we moved in 1986–7 to general-purpose games such as ForeSight and GURPS we struggled for a while with campaigns marred by GM and players not being on the same page as to what the premise was. And it wasn’t until about 2009 that I came across the formulation that “the PCs are X who do Y” is a good way of stating a basic premise.

So what I would be looking for would be a general-purpose or at least versatile RPG that explained that clearly, before Robin D. Laws did it in HeroQuest, or any similar formula in any other discussion before its first appearance in a game.

An example that came up in email was GURPS Witch World: history, geography, character creation, magic, etc., even statted-up characters from the books… but nothing to say who PCs might be or what they might do. I suppose the answer would be “read the books and do stuff like that”.

Later GURPS books would have a chapter on campaigning. So to take one that’s close to my heart Reign of Steel has 13 basic campaign setups, plus six more crossovers… in an 11-page chapter, so any one of those is basically a set of key elements that the prospective GM has to hydrate into a functioning campaign premise. For me that’s pretty much ideal, though I’ll admit that even I sometimes wish I could just buy a ready-to-run adventure… (I did in fact steal several adventures for other systems and settings, serial numbers lightly filed off, for the long Reign of Steel campaign I ran.)

GURPS The Prisoner seems like another. This really feels like something that was done frequently in modules and setting books before it became commonplace for complete games, perhaps because the expectation for RPGs was, generally speaking, that they offered a great deal of scope and potentially unlimited length.

I tried to run Transhuman Space and had a hell of a time coming up with a theme that the players could get behind, and it turned into accountancy in space. A friend said “I love the book but I have no idea how you’d run a game in that universe”. Thinking of White Wolf, I’ve played most but despite playing Vampire I’d struggle to come up with a campaign premise that worked.

Unfortunately, researching the “PCs are X” topic will involve reading bits of rulebooks experienced games normally skip, like the introduction or what is this game about sections.

Hm. I’ve never used it, but that does at least have a “Campaigns” chapter, which is mostly about how to write adventures that suit the atmosphere – and even a starter adventure. After a quick skim just now I feel I have at least some idea of how a game set there would work. (Helped by the Village, as a concept, only really being about one sort of game, prolonged psychological warfare against the PCs.)

A problem that many settings have, and TS I think in particular, is that you’ve got all this fascinating stuff and you want to get some use out of it… but many interesting sorts of campaign don’t actually move around very much. You’re certainly not the only person to have had this problem with TS; I think @Phil_Masters did an excellent job in Changing Times (which started life as the setting’s rules conversion book for use with GURPS 4th edition) of laying out the sorts of thing a campaign can focus on (including ways that it can be a TS private investigators game as opposed to a private investigators game that happens to be set in TS), how to choose suitable PCs, and some standard problems people have run into.

I’ve run one TS game and played in two others, and they all had quite different flavours even though they were largely with the same other players.

I struggled for a while with how to run a campaign in that setting. Eventually I came up with “you are a group of private investigators who specialize in informational crimes.” That was satisfactory in that it both gave the players a shared mission statement and took advantage of key features of the milieu.

I went down a different google path and checked out the first officially released D&D campaign - ‘Steading of the Hill Giant Chief’ (1975).

It describes that the PC’s will be the group of ‘powerful adventurers gathered and outfitted to stop the giant incursion’ - and that failure will be met with execution!

But this is in the background text - it would be delivered to an active group in in-game narrative. The players would already be assumed to be adventurers.

Yes, and the actual Y — “invade giants’ strongholds, kill monsters, and gather loot” — is likewise implicit. “Stop the giant incursion” is a goal, not an activity.

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1978, not 1975.

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My bad! Extra words for the ten character limit!

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I’m wondering if the idea of ‘PC’s are X who do Y’ is so recent to the history of RPGs because Y has largely been ‘what the game mechanics are designed to simulate’. It makes sense that that worked out well in early RPGs like D&D because you couldn’t make a character that was bad at fighting - but that’s also pretty much the only thing you were expected to do.

Yes, I think that’s right, though there was some early trouble with thieves stealing from their comrades and with mixed-alignment parties. I seem to recall that I started to get trouble with character motives in the early mid eighties, when I took up versatile RPGs and inspiration from films and fiction.

Groups didn’t choose incompatible options when there was no choice.

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