Archive for March 8th, 2016

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.


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.


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.



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



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.


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.


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.