Posts Tagged ‘Dragons’

One Life, Furnished In Early Gygax

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

In an effort to be absolutely as predictable as possible, I’ve decided to get back into role playing games.

As a teenager, I roleplayed a fair amount, with a number of different game systems. We would generally go for games based around licensed properties, so we went for Star Wars, Star Trek, Stormbringer ( based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric books), Judge Dredd, and on one memorable occasion, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I guess the main one was Middle Earth Role Playing – I was well and truly on Team Tolkien, and wanted to recreate that world, but I think those rulebooks and supplements (and subsequently, my adventures) were a little dry. Presumably, the designers thought the huge tapestry of world building that J to the R to the R to the T created shouldn’t be besmirched by things like humour, fun, or a teenage boy’s preoccupation with half naked elfmaidens.

There was, however, no such reticence from the creators of the uber RPG, Dungeons & Dragons (or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, if you were doing it right). Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson claimed that Tolkien wasn’t an influence, favouring Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock, although they filched orcs, hobbits and just about everything else from the book.

Although intended to give generic fantasy based rules for the players to pick and choose elements to create their own world (for example, you didn’t necessarily have to include Hippogriffs, Gelatinous Cubes and Type VI Demons in the same adventure), D&D came to be represented by a rather specific setting.

This was due in some part to the art created around the game, by illustrators such as Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. If Peter Jackson’s Rings movies were a little too clean and styled for you, check out some of the early D&D art – everything looks like a particularly inauthentic Renaissance Fayre, or the cover of Heart’s Little Queen album. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – every fantasy world needs its own feel and I guess they made a conscious decision to be fairly light, rather than dark and gritty. It’s very 80s and very American, unsurprisingly.

Talking of Heart, Dungeons & Dragons, whether it’s Greyhawk, Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, reminds me of when the Americans try to do Progressive Rock – it’s not quite as twiddly or whimsical (or serious) as the likes of Yes and Genesis. It tends to be a bit more straightforward, rockin’ and… well, fun. Maybe that’s where I was going wrong with my Middle Earth campaign. All those lengthy tables of statistics on herbs in the Greater Rhovanion region, and the fact that you couldn’t play a wizard because it might upset the balance of Tolkien’s set in stone history (even though all the game supplements were set two thousand years before LOTR)… it doesn’t amount to much if you can’t kick a goblin in the bollocks and swing out of a Tavern window, whilst cheekily exposing yourself to a sexy cleric.

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Music To Watch Gnolls By

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

I ran a Dungeons & Dragons game a while back, after a short role playing hiatus of about twenty five years. It was ok, but I think I may have gone for the wrong tone. At the time I had a real bee in my bonnet about Wolf People‘s amazingly grungy acid folk prog rock and I wanted to get some of that feel – a kind of bleak, Dark Ages Englishness. I probably should have aimed more for that light hearted, colourful D&D world that I used to see in the pages of White Dwarf magazine in the 80s. Turns out there’s a ton of music that fits perfectly. Now, I love creaky, maudlin acoustic ballads about floods, witch hunts and incest, but the brash, unsubtle American version of Fantasyland is seemingly better served by hard rock bands that occasionally dabbled in prog.

 

Here’s a list of Dungeons & Dragons rock – note that On A Storyteller’s Night by Magnum is not included. No matter how much they got Rodney Matthews to do their album covers, I’m still not going to listen to them. Harsh but fair. Now let’s rock (troll)!

 

  • Wishbone Ash, A King Will Come  – or indeed pretty much anything on The Ash’s Argus album. The fact that the cover features some sort of mystical warrior is your first clue
  • It Bites, Calling All The Heroes – 80s prog! I’m fairly sure this was in the charts while I was fully entrenched in playing Lords Of Midnight on the Spectrum – which is why, in my mind it goes “Corleth All The Heroes”
  • Dream Theater, The Killing Hand – it’s basically One For The Vine but with loads of screaming and pinched harmonics
  • Iron Maiden, Moonchild – Surprisingly, England’s greatest metal based export never  really explored straight fantasy themes in their songs. Their stuff seems like it should all be about paladins fighting wights, but they’re mostly based (loosely, it has to be said) on historical or literary sources. Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was their concept album, and while it’s a bit vague as to its setting,  it has prophets and magic and shit, so I think it counts.
  • Rainbow, Stargazer – Ronnie James Dio regularly fought dragons on stage, so it should come as no surprise that most of his songs were a bit sword and sorceryey. Stargazer is the tale of a wizard who commands a legion of slaves to build a tower from which he can fly to the stars. If he could fly, you’d think he wouldn’t need to waste time with a tower – he could just take off from the ground. As it turns out he can’t fly at all, he just drops to his death. Pretty dopey, but utterly metal.
  • Heart, Dream Of The Archer – saying Heart were influenced by Led Zeppelin is a bit like saying that Star Wars is a western in space. They loved that semi acoustic semi mystical shit. I can’t be certain, but I have an inkling this song is about Hank The Ranger
  • Rush, The Necromancer – Many of Rush’s song titles sound like they could actually be Dungeons & Dragons modules - The Fountain Of Lamneth, By-Tor & The Snow Dog, A Farewell To Kings and so forth. The Necromancer sounds like the actual text of one – “Stealthily attacking/ By-Tor slays his foe/ The men are free to run now/ From labyrinths below” – gain 300 XP
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Reflected Sounds Of Underground Spirits

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Terry Pratchett’s books were a big part of my childhood. Aside from being endlessly imaginative and entertaining, he had the knack of making his readership, mostly awkward fourteen year old boys, feel more intelligent than they actually were. Much like contemporaneous TV comedy like  Blackadder, Red Dwarf and (the newly repeated) Monty Python. It was a perfect storm for me, entrenched in Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and D&D.

It was David Langford’s review of The Colour Of Magic in White Dwarf magazine that made me pick up that book in the first place. Even though the references to Fritz Leiber, Anne McCaffrey and HP Lovecraft went straight over my head, I was hooked by the adventures of failed wizard Rincewind and his tourist pal Twoflower. Pratchett’s world, and his audience increased exponentially over the years (the last one I read may have been 1994’s Soul Music “he looks a bit Elvish”). By all accounts the later books are far superior to the early ones I read, but there will always be a place in my heart for them.

The Colour Of Magic: Not available in Photoshop

 

 

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Dun Dungeonin’ Part 2

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Warning: This post contains an excessive use of acronyms

WAIT… have you read the first part of this MONSTER POST yet? If not, retrace your steps and TURN TO 327

With the success of D&D other publishers began to bring out their own RPGs. When I first became aware of the hobby, the big three were:

Runequest was set in a more idiosyncratic, Bronze Age fantasy world and utilised a vastly different games system that was more based on skills rather than Character Classes and levels. I never played it of course, it always seemed too impenetrable. Not to mention expensive.

Traveller was the inevitable Sci Fi game, so instead of fighting Dragons, you were fighting, I dunno, Space Dragons? (I never actually played this game either). There was no experience system, but like Runequest the game was skills based, and you could be killed during character generation, which is pretty fucking metal.

Call of Cthulhu – a game based on the “Eldritch Horror” stories of HP Lovecraft. The players took on the roles of investigators, in more story based adventures. D&D could be played in any style of course, but there was very little in the rulebooks at this stage that actually suggested much more than dungeon crawls, where you would enter a room, kill the monster, take their treasure and then move on to the next one. Removing the violence as a default solution to any problem, and adding mystery and atmosphere, ushered in a change in the style of role playing across the hobby. In an ingenious, unique game mechanic, characters could actually be driven insane by the uncanny alien monstrosities they had to face. I never played Cthulhu – I guess I’m not eldritch enough.

coc

Eldritch, am I right? None more eldritch

Other games followed, different genres appeared (superhero games were briefly very popular, and spy games had their moment too) and big media properties were licensed for their own games. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Judge Dredd and Star Wars were some of the bigger ones. Licensed games tended to feature relatively simpler game systems, in order to bring new audiences into the hobby, but really, I think knowing a property seemed an easier way in.

Alchemy In the UK

Many of these games were printed under exclusive licence in the UK by Games Workshop, the company set up by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. This led to these games being heavily featured in GW’s house magazine White Dwarf (alongside D&D, which, even though GW was reluctant to promote it as the brand of a competitor, was too big to ignore).  When I first got into Role Playing Games I bought issue 57 of WD and it blew my brain apart, like a roll of 120 on the MERP critical hit table. I understood little of what I was reading, but it was a fascinating world of demons, magic and adventure.

Livingstone & Jackson, perhaps sensing that the hobby was truly taking off, but that many players didn’t have a way in, wrote The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a solo adventure gamebook, that took young readers on a quest to seek out the eponymous magic user, fuck him up and steal his stuff.

wof

My copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Yellowy!

The book was a massive success, and eventually spawned a series of 60 titles, countless spinoffs and hordes of similar (copycat) series from other publishers. They sold in their millions.

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, as the series was titled, scored over traditional RPGs in a few regards

  • It had a simple game system – RPGs started out as fiendishly complex, but as the 1980s rolled on they just got more and more granular. D&D’s rivals sold themselves as being more “realistic” – which generally translated as ridiculously complicated. In contrast, the Fighting Fantasy Books each had a game system that was described in a handful of pages in every book, and barely delayed getting into the actual adventure itself.
  • They were single player. Often times a barrier to RPGs was that you need to get a group of 4-6 together at the same time to play. With FF books, people with no friends (like me) could get into it.
  • They were portable. You can’t really play AD&D on the bus
  • FF Books were quick to produce. When the demand became too great for the original creators to fulfill they just hired new writers and artists. At the books’ commercial peak there were 6 published per year
All The World's Gamebooks

All The World’s Gamebooks (actually this isn’t even all of them)

  • They were cheap. For example in 1985 the D&D Basic Set was £9.50 (today £28.60). To play AD&D you needed the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual (both £9.95) and the Dungeon Master’s Guide (£10.95) – so a whopping £30.85 (today, about £88.69)
  • They had kick ass artwork – Puffin Books wanted more child  friendly, cartoony art but Jackson and Livingstone knew what kids liked and insisted on scarier, more atmospheric illustration – It was in a class above, say, the art in the interior of the First Edition AD&D books (Umber Hulk, I’m looking at you)
  • Being mostly by UK writers and artists, they really highlighted the difference between American and British concept of Fantasy. TL;DR: The UK’s was grungier, nastier, punkier  – and had more of a sense of humour, the absurd or scatological – (I distinctly remember jokes about goblin shit). You can feel the influence of Monty Python, Blackadder and 2000AD.

Ghosts (& Goblins) In The Machine

What they weren’t, however, were role playing games. Limited by page count and author time, they much more resembled programmed adventures, of the type we were beginning to see in computer games – specifically text adventures. Colossal Cave had been released all the way back in 1976, but its influence, inspiring teenagers to rack their brains trying to think of synonyms for “BREAK OPEN DOOR” lasted throughout the 80s. Many of these, perhaps not coincidentally, had a fantasy setting, and for my generation at least, its crowning moment was 1982’s The Hobbit.

OP DO

OP DO

If you didn’t fancy staring at a page full of text for hours on end (I’m fully aware of the irony of this, seeing as I’m not even halfway through this blog post), there were “arcade adventures”, which featured actual stuff moving about on your screen. 1985 saw the release of Gauntlet, in actual video arcades, and subsequently onto home computers. The aesthetic was pure D&D  – the player could choose from four different character classes as they rampaged around a top down view of a dungeon collecting treasure and killing ghosts and goblins. Gauntlet was actually based on an earlier game called Dandy, which sounds like a pretty weird name until you realise that they were specifically referencing D&D.

wizard is about to die

Wizard is about to die

Wizardry (1981) inspired a number of games (the one I ended up sinking hours and hours of my life into was The Bard’s Tale (1985-) ) that were an attempt to model the actual mechanics of D&D onto a computer game. All dice rolls and stats management was handled in the background by the computer, as the player took a party of adventurers through various caverns and castles, slaughtering the denizens and occasionally solving a puzzle or two. They were role playing games with none of the actual role playing.

Skara Brae style

Skara Brae style

These games eventually evolved into the likes of the Final Fantasy series (1987-). Gygax and Arneson had pretty much invented game concepts that were now firmly entrenched in computer game design, such as persistent characters, balanced adventuring parties, experience points and levels, hit points, and inventory management. Inevitably, as video games became more sophisticated and impressive, the appeal of tabletop role playing games began to wane.

About to do a critical strike on the tabletop games industry

About to do a critical strike on the tabletop games industry

The rise of computer gaming was killing RPGs, but the apparent death blow was struck by the brief, but seismic fad for collectable card games, predominately Magic: The Gathering (1993). Set in a distinctly D&Dish world, featuring D&D influenced artwork and, obviously, created by D&D players, Magic was extremely profitable. far more profitable, in fact than your average RPG. Once you bought a rulebook, that was it – all those scenarios, supplements and miniatures were optional extras, and when it comes down to it, only one person has to buy anything for a group of 5 or so to play. Collectable Card Games, on the other hand, required every player to buy a deck, and then, if they wanted to be really good at the game, they would have to repeatedly buy additional cards. The gaming nerd and collector mentality at work.

TSR, even though it had generated a lot of income in the early 80s, was never a particularly well run company, and was eventually bought out by Wizards Of The Coast, the company behind Magic in 1998. The future for D&D and RPGs in general looked grim…

 

To read an earlier post about FIGHTING FANTASY GAMEBOOKS TURN TO 179

To learn about MONSTERS, prepare for battle and TURN TO 129

To pass through a shimmering doorway into the REAL WORLD (specifically the UK in the mid 80s) TURN TO 49

To read the final part of this post, discover your fate and TURN TO 400

 

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Meanwhile, In The Real World

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Unlike the US, the UK never really had the Moral Majority up in arms about how Dungeons & Dragons would destroy your brain and make you a vassal of the Dark Lord.

Compare the horrified, sensationalist tone in this report on Dungeons & Dragons from 60 minutes in 1985 or this from CBC with news reports from the UK. On the BBC’s Southeast Today in 1983,  Mike Donkin described the game as a “cross between a hobby and a Cult”, but the tone is much more benevolent.

This picture appeared in a US magazine article. I think I must have seen something along these lines and surmised that D&D was some kind of board game - like Dark Tower. Also... holy shit! GIRLS!

This picture appeared in a US magazine article. I think I must have seen something along these lines and surmised that D&D was some kind of board game – like Dark Tower. Also… holy shit! GIRLS!

In May 1980, the BBC’s Heart Of The Matter spent a considerable time talking about D&D in a show based around why people make particular decisions, but both broadcasters and participants struggle to actually explain what the game is – they also refer to it as a “The Sword & Sorcery Cult” and claim “you can actually die in this game”. You do get to see incredibly low key role playing though – it’s worlds away from the stuff you see on Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Incorporated or Critical Role.

In January 1985 Mad Dogs & Englishmen (featuring the original silver fox Des Lynam) covered the Live Action Role Playing company Treasure Trap – presumably a bit more visually interesting than that “My Cleric will come forward his holy symbol in hand” guy in Heart Of The Matter. That same year BBC Breakfast Time’s Bob Whittaker covered the annual Games Day convention. Here’s a post Nosin’ Around Ben Elton playing D&D with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. You can’t get any more 80s than that.

These ads ran in Marvel UK's Star Wars comics, and 2000AD around 1984, and certainly got me interested in finding out more about D&D. Still doesn't tell you how to play the game though

These ads ran in Marvel UK’s Star Wars comics, and 2000AD around 1984, and certainly got me interested in finding out more about D&D. Still doesn’t tell you how to play the game though

Some of these shows were excerpted on the BBC’s nostalgiafest I Love 1984, and Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Toys, but the audio from each of them can be found here (although you’ll have to click around a bit) as a companion piece to a recent programme about interactive fiction called SKILL STAMINA & LUCK, made by the games writer Naomi Alderman. There’s a particular focus on Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and, on that companion site, lengthy interviews with Livingstone and Jackson.

Unlike Alderman’s respectful and nostalgic look back, the overwhelming tone in these older broadcasts is bemused and mildly condescending, but no one seems too bothered about madness, murder and Lucifer. Typical British reserve, I guess. We’d rather not be afraid of something if we can instead laugh at it.

 

 

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All (actually, just some of) The World’s Monsters

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons used character archetypes and creatures from other works of fantasy literature, folklore and mythology,  but TSR created a number of unique monsters, that have since embedded themselves in popular culture to some extent – and rather than that sort of immaculate reality that Tolkien was going for, we get adversaries that are created solely to present interesting things for players to fight – some are downright surreal. So alongside orcs, dragons and werewolves we also get the following:

Frequency: Rare. That's pretty lucky

Rare. That’s pretty lucky

The Beholder is a gigantic evil floating ball covered in eyeballs, that each shoot death rays. A chilling premonition of surveillance culture, or a goofy monster that looks like something dreamed up by an eight year old? Brought to a mainstream audience in the “classic” Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, but it’s appeared elsewhere, in Big Trouble In Little China, and Futurama. Pretty much the mascot of D&D, it’s like Mickey Mouse, but lethal and insane.

Some of the original D&D monsters were based on a set of bizarre plastic toys  from Japan that belonged to Gary Gygax’s kids. The Owlbear is, as the name might suggest, a bear with the head of an owl, for the simple reason that it’s the nearest thing that resembled a particular model.

Owlbear - hopefully if there's a "Revenant 2"...

Owlbear – hopefully if there’s a “Revenant 2″…

A Gelatinous cube is perhaps inspired by the 1958 sci-fi “classic” movie The Blob. It roams around dungeons, dissolving people. Presumably related to The Black Pudding, The Yellow Ochre and that thing that killed Tasha Yar.

I don't think you're ready for this jelly

I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly

Fighters clad in chainmail or full plate needed to look out for the Rust Monster, a big tentacled armadillo termite thing, which loves metal more than Jack Black. At least the wizards were safe.

Chesty LaRue

Chesty LaRue

It’s hard to imagine how The Mimic evolved in any universe, but in all likelihood, a wizard probably did it.

 

 

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