Posts Tagged ‘Role playing games’

May The d4s Be With You

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

My journey back through the mystical labyrinths of Role Playing Games led me to the most predictable point possible – The Star Wars RPG. We played quite a lot of this as teenagers  and my memory is that the books published by West End Games were always really well produced and entertaining. This game actually created a lot of what was later to become known as The Expanded Universe. Prior to this, we only had those jokey nicknames like Hammerhead, Squidhead and Motorhead (One of these may be falsified). I still love the fact that there was a character whose given name (or the name of his race) was Snaggletooth. Actually maybe it was both: Snaggletooth The Snaggletooth. Who has a snaggle tooth.

Other stuff from that original RPG that was ace:

  • Anyone can fly any ship – this is quite an important distinction from things like the Star Trek game in which you could only do something if you’d spent a couple of years at the Academy taking exams – here, like in the movies you can just just leap into some bucket of bolts, start flipping switches and be doing The Kessel Run in an unspecified amount of time and/or distance
  • One of the starting “character templates” was called “Quixotic Jedi
  • It taught me the meaning of the phrase “In Media Res” – According to the rulebook, all Star Wars movies start in the middle of the action. Except they don’t – only Star Wars (and, later Revenge Of The Sith)  actually do.
  • It was more about heroically doing faintly ridiculous things, rather than collecting gold pieces and +2 Vorpal Swords
I guess if I’m going to run any RPGs, that’s the one, right? I mean I’ve spent the last 36 years filling my head with made up space nonsense, I may as well put it to some use. So, after a quick trip to eBay I bought up a bunch of the more recent (but now over a decade old) Wizards Of The Coast published RPG books. I think the edition I have is officially called “The One with Episode 2 Shit In It”. Since then my internet research has told me that the later “Saga Edition” (aka “The One With Episode 3 Shit In It”) is better, but even that’s been replaced by Edge Of The Empire published by Fantasy Flight. Even though this brings out a primal urge in me to get back on eBay and spend a ton more money, I suspect it doesn’t matter what system you use. With the old West End Games version, after a while you used to have to throw a bucketfull of d6 dice to do anything at all and I don’t recall anyone complaining.
For a scenario I bashed together a bunch of bits of the movies, along with references to some of my favourite stuff from the Expanded Universe (Purely for my own amusement, there is a casino on Nar Shaddaa called The Kopa Khan). I had a out-of-time Jedi that had been frozen in carbonite since The Clone Wars, a starship chase through the aforementioned cityplanet, Trandoshan Bounty Hunters and a sneaky doublecrossing Duro. Everything came to a head on the Moon of Sulon, purely because I liked the old Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games. No “Grave Tuskens” though – that’s the beauty of this shit – you can ignore anything you don’t like. Now, roll for your Midichlorian count…
Seeing as the game was relatively well received (ie. no one fell asleep, set fire to their character sheet or punched me in the face) now I’m continuing a campaign for these characters – luckily, there are a ton of published adventures out there on the web. Next up is Dawn Of Defiance, a ten part adventure, that I’m not sure we’ll get all the way through, but I’m going to have fun redrawing all the characters from it. And also my own. I guess doodling the most obscure characters I could find from the Star Wars Universe wasn’t quite niche enough – I eventually had to start making them up.
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West End Girls

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

 

Tatooine Manhunt was the first of West End Games’ Star Wars Role Playing modules, and I have many fond memories of it. It notably featured the first appearance of Jodo Kast, who was the ersatz Boba Fett figure, even to the point where he wore the exact same armour and carried the same equipment. The difference being that your characters could eventually kill him without stuffing up continuity. Kast’s accomplice was a sadistic human female bounty hunter called Zardra. I liked the idea of a character with absolutely no redeeming features, pretty much evil for the sake of it, but she was depicted with some fairly basic, unimaginative artwork (I’ll sum it up for you: “woman with long hair”).

My version isn’t that much more creative, I’ll grant you. I basically used the design of the mysterious Ria Paschelle from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, but, I figured that character deserved a bit of recognition as an electric blue proto cyberpunk.

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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

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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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