A moderator (and then the community) put on hold this question. Even were sufficient reopen votes garnered again, based on chat about the question and Mxyzplk's closing comment on the question ("This question is closed because there's no real way to answer it in a manner on topic for this SE"), I suspect it would be, once more, placed on hold.

That's not a complaint! I know my question has issues. But I really do want an answer to this question: Did the culture of role-playing gaming's early days encourage PCs to betray each other?

Several criticisms have been leveled at the question:

  1. Rather than drawing from a variety of verifiable (preferably published) sources like the question recommends, prior experience on the site leads to the belief that individual answers will nonetheless be of the unverifiable and one-lone-personal-anecdote variety.
  2. Obtaining a general impression of gaming culture during that era is impossible because of a dearth of evidence. For example, gamers weren't required to take surveys and gaming groups' campaign details weren't consistently made public.
  3. Even were a monumental amount of era-appropriate evidence somehow marshaled, no amount of evidence is sufficient to paint a general picture of an era. That is, any answer will be wrong at its core because generalizing omits specifically different groups.

My goal isn't to refute these criticisms. My goal is to get an answer to my question. How can this question be rephrased or a new question posed so that my curiosity can be sated and not run afoul of the criticisms above? Or, instead, if the question just can't be asked here, what's a better venue for contacting experts about this topic?

  • \$\begingroup\$ If I have mischaracterized or misunderstood the criticisms leveled at the question, please edit them to spin them differently. I am in no way married to my original phrasing. My perspective as close to the issue means I view the criticisms this way; if an outsider can spin them more gently or neutrally, that'd be awesome. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a quibble: self-selection bias in this case is that all documentation is voluntary, not that it's by someone within the target population. It's that a self-selected sample population of "RPG gamers who choose to publicly describe their experiences (now or then)" is not the same population as the desired target of "all RPG gamers (now or then)". Just a few ways the populations differ: it skews to the extreme stories (sensationalism), skews to the gregarious, and skews to GMs (observationally more involved in wider RPG community). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Y'know, I suspected that was what was meant, but then I looked up self-selection bias, and, not being a stats dude, did the best I could to make the formal definition jibe with the information provided. Can you suggest a different phrase to avoid future confusion? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps just selection bias, in that the available data doesn't reflect the intended sample group. Perhaps non-response bias, but the association with surveying methods muddies it. Maybe just "the data on the desired group doesn't exist", or "anecdotes aren't representative data" unless one defines the sample group rigorously to account for the weakness of the available data. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ But another point is that this wasn't a criticism of the question, it was a pin in the balloon of lamenting that the RPG.se format couldn't be leveraged to preserve this knowledge: it's pointing out that the knowledge never existed, and wanting to preserve it is moot as a motive for trying to make the question work. The question needs to work without that desire motivating making it open. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Thank you for clarifying. I am comfortable with eliminating that criticism if it's either not a concern or already sufficiently addressed by #2. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I think it's covered by #2 well enough, insofar as that might be a reason for the question to be held (which I'm not sure it is, either way). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2017 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Recommendation: specify start year and end year, for starters. The question is unbounded as written. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 2:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, what is "infancy..." Are we just talking D&D? Because there's competitive games like Amber early on... It's just too much of a too broad mess. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Apr 18, 2017 at 2:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast You're right that I should. In my head, I hadn't considered Amber (1991), it being published way too late, for example. Is there an existing Golden Age, Bronze Age, etc. shorthand for role-playing games like there is for comics that would make referencing a time period easier? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 9:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast On second thought, the question already concerns A) the hobby in general and not exclusively on D&D (D&D going unmentioned in the question), and B) the 1970s, as the lede says. An answer could totally range wider than D&D to Traveler (1977), Gamma World (1978), and Villains and Vigilantes (1979) but should exclude Amber (1991). Also, with less than 5 decades of the medium's history, is it really necessary to narrow it further to part of a decade? Comic books are okay with over-ten-year ages, after all. (Yes is a fine response, BTW. ;-)) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Would you like to thus bound it for the 1970's? Would that suit your purposes? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 18:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Um. The question's already 70s-bound. The question's body's first words are In the 1970s. If there's a logical transition that's been established between eras in the 1970s, I'll happily employ the years or the jargon instead, but, like I said, I'm ignorant of any formal divide. (I mean, is the 1977 publication of the Monster Manual for AD&D a watershed enough to signal such a divide? Is Gygax's 1983 departure for Hollywood? I dunno!) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 18:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan The early years seem to have included play testing before publishing. Or is that too far back? 1974-1979 looks like your period of interest. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 18:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Question about the ages of roleplaying game history. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 19:00

4 Answers 4


(Disclaimer: This isn't a definitive statement on what the guidelines on this type of question are, but a statement of what I would like them to be. Upvote/downvote agreement/disagreement accordingly, and if a mod comes along with a more definitive statement, feel free to ignore entirely.)

The only change this question needs is a more prominent reminder not to answer it badly.

Some questions are difficult to answer. They might require extensive research, they might need to pull from hard-to-find sources, they might need answers to be pretty long in order to cover all the important stuff, etc.

Some people on the stackexchange network are willing to go above and beyond to write good answers to difficult questions:

We shouldn't close questions just because they're difficult to answer, or we're discouraging this kind of beyond-the-call-of-duty excellence!

We also shouldn't hold ourselves to impossible-to-meet standards of evidence when answering history of gaming questions. This is a Q&A site, not a peer-reviewed sociology journal.

If I'm curious about whether a given behavior was accepted by mainstream gaming culture at a certain point in time, I'm happy to be presented with half a dozen magazine articles, blog posts, or campaign stories written by prominent community figures that treat that behavior as normative and/or unexceptional. I consider that to be pretty good evidence that, when those things were written, the behavior was broadly accepted (after all, the writings of prominent community figures often shapes community norms).

I don't need to see survey data from a guaranteed-to-be-representative sample of the population of gamers from the exact year in question. Like, obviously, if that data exists, I'd love to read about it. But if it doesn't, we don't have to jump straight from "this question can't be quantitatively answered to three significant digits" to "no good answer to this question is possible." If the best info available to answer the question is what Gary Gygax and friends wrote about it, then I would like to read that.

The question points out that the writings of a single community figure, even a prominent one, would just be an anecdote. This is true! But the writings of a few different community figures would be useful info; we shouldn't go straight from "one essay is just an anecdote" to "only scientifically collected survey data from a representative sample of the population of gamers is valid information."

Finally, the specific criticisms:

  1. Rather than drawing from a variety of verifiable (preferably published) sources like the question recommends, prior experience on the site leads to the belief that individual answers will nonetheless be of the unverifiable-one-lone-personal-anecdote variety.

"This question can only be answered badly" should be a valid close reason. "This answer has attracted lots of bad answers and no good answers" might be a valid close reason. "Someone might answer this question badly" should definitely not be a valid close reason. If people write bad answers, we should downvote them. If we don't give people the opportunity to write good answers to difficult questions, we're missing out on some of the best content that could otherwise be on this site.

  1. Obtaining a general impression of gaming culture during that era is impossible because of a dearth of evidence. For example, gamers weren't required to take surveys and gaming groups' campaign details weren't consistently made public.

  2. Even were a monumental amount of era-appropriate evidence somehow marshaled, no amount of evidence is sufficient to paint a general picture of an era. That is, any answer will be wrong at its core because generalizing omits specifically different groups.

These are covered above. We're not a peer-reviewed journal. Our standards of evidence don't need to be this high. I would love to read an essay that attempts to answer Hey I Can Chan's question drawing from a half dozen articles written by figures from gaming history. I wouldn't treat it the same way I would treat a scientific journal article, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be on our site.

  • \$\begingroup\$ (Consider including in your above-and-beyond list this answer. Thank you, also, for an entertaining and well-thought-out response to my question. Much appreciated.) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this defense of hard questions that most of us can't answer. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 19:02

Don't propose that it was a dichotomy of either backstab or not

I find parts of the question self contradictory.

early-days-of-gaming player as nearly always playing a heartless dastard PC

That's an embedded assumption that appears to be a case of assuming the answer in the question, and assuming that "jerk events" are mutually exclusive to "team play events". They aren't. It just doesn't depend on the table, it depends on where that group/table is in their gaming career.

What you appear to be asking is:

How common was PC's screwing with each other as compared to the basic team based model of a given game's rule set?

Most of the early games were built on a model of a party in a Player Versus Environment scheme (Traveler certainly was) but Player Versus Player not only could happen, it did happen.

  • I got into a duel in Traveler due to me and another player arguing over something stupid -- we were teenagers -- and my character ended up dying. My Blade just wasn't up to it for that fight.

For that matter, in the flagship RPG game --D&D-- the campaign system almost begged for PVP at some point. Once you got to name level, you could indeed raise your own armies as Cleric, Fighting Man, or Wizard and battle it out on the table top. (I played a lower level sub commander in one such table top battle, as the others had been in the campaign about two years longer than me).

The PvP happened anyway at tables (I certainly saw it) even though that isn't what the game was designed for.

There's some stuff on the web about Tenser, Cuthbert, Moredenkainen, and a few other Greyhawk luminaries to include Robliar having a falling out. Can't recall where I read it, perhaps Canonfire web site? Maybe one of Rob Kuntz' reminiscences.

I'd ask you, in your question, to do a better job of asking about how common it was, rather than the "either or" tone that I get out of the question's as it's set up.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! Let me think on that then see if I can adjust the question to incorporate your recommendations. Thanks, also, by the way, for all the time and help you've devoted to this question both here and over in the question's comments. Much appreciated. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 19:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also in the original Blackmoor players were expected to play forces that might be antagonistic to each other. That wasn't being a jerk and backstabbing, that was just doing fun make-believe game stuff. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2017 at 22:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Yes indeed, I have appended an observation from Mike Mornard onto my answer. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 28, 2018 at 13:56

Perhaps Try This

How much focus on antagonism between player characters, if any, existed in the early RPG products and/or their ancillary publications? In later revisions or editions, was there any change in that focus (or lack thereof)?

That is research-able, and may possibly come up with a usable answer. It's rather broad, so perhaps it could be pared down to relate to one or two particular systems.


The question is too broad along several axes.

  1. It's for "any game". Even in the 1970s there were many games.
  2. It's for "the 1970s." A whole decade of different groups, evolving playstyles, etc. in the infancy of the hobby.
  3. It's asking for a generalization of what all groups did, from anecdotes. This effectively proves nothing - if you find 100 anecdotes of backstabbing, does that mean it was a general expectation among all/most/10% of groups? In those groups was it routine or occasional or a freak event and hence they're sharing the anecdote?
  4. The answerer is supposed to take those anecdotes and turn it into an assertion of what people "nearly always" did.

This question is closable along all 4 of those axes and would need to be fundamentally retooled to be viable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's useful. I'd like to dispute #3 and #4 as anecdotes are only one kind of evidence the question suggests can be marshaled, and scholars routinely make general assertions about an age. Is there any way to resolve #3 and #4? I don't mind narrowing it to one game and specific years, though. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 21, 2017 at 14:09

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