Posts Tagged ‘Dungeons’

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.

Share

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
Share

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

 

 

Share

Dun Dungeonin’

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

I was recently asked (OK I lobbied for it) to give a presentation on Dungeons & Dragons at work. It’s a game… we’re a games company.. makes sense. So I thought I’d immortalise it in pixels.

 It turns out most people had played a tabletop Role Playing Game at one point or another. Those who hadn’t, I surmised, had probably played a computer variant, perhaps without realising it, but I still wanted to briefly explain the general idea for the Muggles.

Dungeons & Dragons is a Role Playing Game, which mostly takes place in the imagination of the players. Here’s some typical players:

From the Discos & Dragons episode of Freaks and Geeks – In which James Franco is inducted into nerddom and takes on the role of Carlos The Dwarf

And here’s the sort of thing they’ll be picturing themselves as:

Hey it’s a Larry Elmore painting. Not the last one you’ll be seeing.

Hippie. Babe. Hipster.

 

In D&D and many other RPGs players choose a character class, which have different abilities and skills, they then form a party and go on adventures. D&D (as the name would hopefully suggest) takes place in a medieval fantasy world, so players take on the roles of Ranger, Warrior, Thief, Wizard and other archetypal character types of the genre.

Players describe their actions to a Games Master or Dungeon Master- who acts as the game’s referee and storyteller, describing the situation the players are in. He also plays the role of the NPCs (Non Player Characters – basically monsters and innkeepers) – whilst also keeping an eye on the rules.

Characters have statistics that influence dice rolls to determine actions – here’s some dice:

I am disproportionately excited by pictures of dice

I am disproportionately excited by pictures of dice

 

And, while the game largely takes place in the imagination of the players, miniatures are often used to represent characters. Here’s some miniatures:

Some of my early work. This is what I was doing when everyone else was out having a brilliant time listening to The Happy Mondays and getting off with girls

Some of my early work. This is what I was doing when everyone else was out having a brilliant time listening to The Happy Mondays and getting off with girls

 

The question you usually get asked by people who’ve never encountered RPGs is “do you have to dress up?” and obviously, no you don’t have to dress up 

But It’s worth noting that you don’t have to not dress up either - this is me personifying a mad dwarf - but I do bear an uncanny resemblance to my dad

But It’s worth noting that you don’t have to not dress up either – this is me personifying a mad dwarf – but I do bear an uncanny resemblance to my dad

 

THE HISTORY OF THE RING

 Dungeons & Dragons grew out of the wargaming scene of the early 1970s. The development of the game has been covered in great detail a number of times. I would recommend the excellent Designers & Dragons series by Shannon Appelcline, and David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice & Men – which, to be honest, i got most of my research from. 

ofdiceandmen_lg

Broadly speaking, Dave Arneson hit upon the idea of giving the players in his wargaming group a single character rather than an army and sending them through an underground labyrinth, rather than an open battlefield. Throw in some magic and fantastical creatures, as well as Wisconsin gamer Gary Gygax, who developed and codified a lot of Arneson’s concepts, and that’s how D&D, the first Role Playing Game came about.

 Their declared influences included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, Robert E Howard’s Conan, Fritz Leiber’s swashbuckling, roguish Lankhmar stories, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (Swords, Sorcery & Psychedelia), and Jack Vance’s whimsical Dying Earth books.

Hmmm… who might they be missing. Is there an elephant in the room?

The oliphaunt in the room. That’s a Tolkien gag

The oliphaunt in the room. That’s a Tolkien gag

 

Gary Gygax claimed there was little or no Tolkien influence on Dungeons & Dragons. While the game included Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, wizards and magic swords, these were all elements taken from folklore, mythology and the standard tropes of fantastic fiction that had inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the specific depiction of these elements that hew so closely to Tolkien’s writings, that raise suspicions about Gygax’s claims. Lord Of The Rings was published in 1954, but achieved cult status in America in the late sixties. Its bucolic, pre industrial utopia, and brave, warm hearted, weed smoking heroes struck a chord with the counterculture, and hippies everywhere took to wearing “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf For President” badges.

Tolkien’s world seeped into the culture during the seventies. Students’ dorm rooms were adorned with posters of wizards and warriors, while countless songs about Galadriel and Gollum played in the background. It was in this environment that Arneson and Gygax were inspired to take their wargaming beyond the Napoleonic wars.

Hobbit, Ent, Nazgul, and Balrog were all unique Tolkien creations that made it into the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Gygax claimed this was merely a commercial move to pull in Lord of the Rings  fans, but when Tolkien Enterprises – a new company recently set up to license the works for movies, toys and games – started sending cease and desist letters, those elements had to be removed. Sort of. Hobbit was changed to Halfling, Ent to Treant (“Tree-Giant”), Nazgul to Wraith, and Balrog to Balor Demon. Orc was another Tolkien created term, but one that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps everyone presumed Old JRR had not created the word (an ork is a demon from the obscure Tyrol alpine folklore, not necessarily anything like the goblinoid creature we now think of). This is presumably why orcs now appear in Warhammer, World of Warcraft and pretty much every other generic fantasyland created for games and books.

Descent Into The Underdark

Satanus - That’s Latin for Satan

Satanus – That’s Latin for Satan

The cliche of D&D being a path to The Occult and Devil Worship still persists, and that’s mostly down to an incident that took place in 1979. James Dallas Egbert III was a college student who went missing, and his family hired a private investigator called William Dear to track him down. Among his personal effects in his dorm room were D&D books. This is at a time when the game was barely known outside of small pockets of wargamers and students around America, and, it should be noted, that the game wasn’t written in a way that was easily understood by anyone but an already experienced wargamer. These guys weren’t professional writers or games designers they were just enthusiasts. D&D didn’t even describe how the game was played. So Dear made some leaps of logic and arrived at the conclusion that Egbert was playing a real life version of the game and that he’d gone off the rails  – the mass media picked up the story and started to link it with the occult world – inspired by the demonic artwork and descriptions of spellcasting and so on.

Egbert reappeared soon afterwards, his disappearance down to depression rather than anything else, and a year later he committed suicide. By now the damage had been done.

The so called Satanic Panic of the early 80s led to concern from schools, parents’ groups and religious organisations and some cities tried to ban the game. Sensationalistic books were written about the Egbert case – Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters was later made into a TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks in 1982, and William Dear’s own version of events was told as The Dungeon Master in 1984.

Satanus - That’s Latin for Satan

Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons. This never happened in any of my D&D games, which is pretty disappointing. All we ever did was listen to Hawkwind and have intense discussions about Red Dwarf.

 

The same arguments that popular entertainment had an adverse effect on its audience had been made against comic books in the 1950s, and would soon be made against video nasties, heavy metal, rap music and eventually video games. The idea that Role Playing was somehow a doorway to the occult persisted, but it did lead to D&D and TSR really taking off. They had already been on an upward swing but, in in the wake of the Egbert case, and with all the media attention focussed on them, their sales quadrupled within a year.

 

 Potion of Giant Revenue

 In the early 80s, there was something of a minor fad for sword & sorcery movies. Conan The Barbarian finally got a movie in 1982, and we’d had (the awesome) Dragonslayer and Excalibur in 1981, and (the considerably less awesome) Krull in 1983. None of them were massively successful, but fantasy as a genre was gaining ground if not exactly becoming mainstream.

Penis Breath! D&D was now at its commercial peak - as an indicator of this, it was (sort of) featured in the biggest movie of the era, ET The Extra Terrestrial in 1982

Penis Breath! D&D was now at its commercial peak – as an indicator of this, it was (sort of) featured in the biggest movie of the era, ET The Extra Terrestrial in 1982

TSR were making money hand over fist in the early to mid 80s. They hired good illustrators -particularly for the book covers, and got their products into book stores and toy shops, rather than specialist wargaming hobby stores.

D&D had by now been split into two separate lines: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a far more complex rule system. Gygax wanted a rule to cover every single eventuality and was aggressively in favour of adherence to the rules as written, rather than the loosey goosey, these are just guidelines, feel free to make stuff up earliest version of the game. By way of contrast, Basic D&D was simpler and aimed at a younger audience- and finally explained how the game was played! This was later (counterproductively) expanded to include the Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals Sets.

dd-basic-set3

BECMI Boxes – Basic Set

 

 

To Read the next part of this MONSTER POST, TURN TO 247

To See a picture of VENGER TURN TO 84

To Read an older, much shorter post about AD&D, TURN TO 76

Share

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

 

Share

Dun Dungeonin’ Part 3

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

 Death Spell

So Magic: The Gathering, and all those computer games pretty much killed off Dungeons & Dragons and the rest of the Role Playing Game market. It hung on, as a fringe interest of course. Wizards of the Coast published their own version of D&D- by this time it was the Third Edition- and the licence was expanded into a number of successful computer games, such as the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series. With hours and hours worth of well written stories to play through, and increasingly more atmospheric and immersive graphics and sound, why would anyone need to roll dice and use their imagination anymore? The tabletop version of D&D could easily have disappeared completely at this point, but instead something weird and wonderful happened.

Baldur’s Gate – a bunch of adventurers apparently killing a herd of cows

Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Lord Of The Rings was released between 2001 and 2003. For many of us nerds, we were able to see the worlds we’d been imagining for years finally up on screen, but for mainstream audiences, who wouldn’t touch a book about dwarves and orcs with a ten foot pole, this was something totally new and unique. Fantasy movies had of course appeared in the past, but the genre had never quite taken off and had rarely been treated with the kind of seriousness that Jackson brought to it. In addition, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (1997-) and subsequent movie adapatations (2001-) were massively successful and gave both children and adults a gateway into a world of magic, monsters and mild teenage angst.

Along with the renewed popularity of superheroes and science fiction in the cinema, and video games as a bona fide mainstream entertainment medium, geekiness and nerdiness were talked about as being suddenly cool. Wizards of The Coast released a fourth edition of D&D in 2008, which was accompanied by a massive marketing push to get the game to a new audience and capitalize on the success of similar genre fare in films and gaming. In truth, it was a little too influenced by Blizzard Entertainment’s all conquering Massively Multiplayer Online Game World of Warcraft (2004-), which had around ten million subscribers at the time.

Save Vs Death

Many lapsed gamers were inspired to reconnect with tabletop role playing games at this point, but it wasn’t just nostalgia and ageing nerds’ mid life crises at work. New players were getting into the game, because of the visibility of the fantasy genre and “nerd stuff” in general. When I first got into D&D, I’m not sure I even understood how it was played – I presumed it was some type of boardgame. Now, of course there are a million podcasts and youtube videos about RPGs (there’s a video of Vin frickin’ Diesel geeking out playing D&D), so getting into it isn’t anywhere near as daunting (or mysteriously Satanic) as it might once have seemed.

You can't get any more mainstream than Game of Thrones (2011-). When I was at school, if you were interested in this sort of imagery people genuinely thought you were mentally ill. These days, if you don't speak fluent Westeros you can find yourself ostracised from polite society and labelled an enemy of democracy

You can’t get any more mainstream than Game of Thrones (2011-). When I was at school, if you were interested in this sort of imagery people genuinely thought you were mentally ill. These days, if you don’t speak fluent Westeros you can find yourself ostracised from polite society and labelled an enemy of democracy

I wonder if there’s a hipster element, like the gaming equivalent of only listening to music on vinyl. It’s fair to say that for all the amazing graphics and open world possibilities of, say, Skyrim, you’ll always be limited in what you can do by what the technology was capable of, what the creators dreamed up and what they had time to include, just like The Bard’s Tale, The Hobbit and The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. RPGs, offer limitless possibilities, not just of the Games Master’s imagination, but that of each of the players. Nowadays whenever you read about Role Playing, comparisons are made to improvisational theatre and “collaborative storytelling”, and it is often cited as a creative exercise or even an art form in itself. No one talked like that in the 80s. It was just a hobby, a pastime derived from old wargames, that featured (mostly) really cool art and the possibility of killing things.

vice

An article from Vice. I have a couple of issues with the title of this; First of all, no it isn’t, and second of all, it wasn’t in the first place

 

Now for me, the thing that appeals about RPGs is the stuff you just can’t get from video games, even multiplayer games, which you still play in isolation over the internet. It’s the  social aspect, getting together with your friends, face to face, listen to some awesome tunes, have a laugh and make shit up. The more streamlined and intuitive Fifth Edition of D&D, not to mention the nostalgic love of orcs, dragons and weird dice certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Share

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.

 

 

Share