Part Fourteen: Mixed Nuts, A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

I was a player in several assorted groups of gamers, who got together on different days. I think this was one reason I had so many friends approach me with games they wanted me to try. Friendships require some give and take, and so I often found myself looking over a rule book while the “proud parent” stood by. Perhaps even being enthusiastically guided through the character generation process. I must confess that my vote counted for a great deal in these groups, so my yea or nay usually meant either a moment in the spotlight or an obscure death for these fledgling games.

For example, I’ve mentioned that one of my fellow game masters had a degree in Anthropology. He was the one who usually created his own settings and adventures, with their roots in history. He introduced Runequest to our group, and he ran the Desert of Desolation series of D&D adventures for us. He wasn’t put off by a game’s complexity, and so he owned copies of two games from Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU): Chivalry & Sorcery (C&S) and Bushido.

As I’ve said, FGU had a reputation for complex games. Some advocates talked about “realism.” Some talked about “depth.” While those who were less enthusiastic espoused “ease of play.” For me, the first two qualities were valuable but subservient to the third.

C&S Ref Sheets

Chivalry & Sorcery

C&S thrilled my friend because it was more focused on a realistic portrayal of medieval Europe. Well, more realistic than D&D, supposedly. It also tried to present magic in a “realistic” fashion. He really loved that sort of thing. I, on the other hand, was probably happier with more of a fantasy. So we already had some tension. Character generation was dense. I threw up my hands at playing a magician, and settled for a knightly fellow instead. The magic rules were too much to deal with, and the thought of a studious medieval guy pouring over sheets of foolscap just didn’t excite me.

So a small group of us spent a good long time generating characters who had all sorts of details that I found less than useful. We tried knocking around for a session, but I think that was it. My friend was disappointed in us.

I will add that there was a C&S supplement I eventually picked up that I found exciting and inspirational. It was overly detailed, but I still skim it for ideas to this day. And I will point out that it was firmly fantasy, not historical in any sense. Nuff said.

Bushido

Bushido didn’t start out as an FGU game, but it ended up there by 1981. Although written by different guys, Bushido fits in the same mold as C&S without any filing. Character generation is excessive, magic is weak, and participants are bludgeoned with historical detail. I like playing samurai and ninja as much as the next guy, but I don’t want a mechanism for honor – I want to role-play it. Honestly, while C&S didn’t really inspire me, I wanted to like Bushido. I really did. But I didn’t. Playing samurai and ninja would have to wait.

Meanwhile the other main game master in my circle of friends picked up another FGU game, Aftermath.

Aftermath Combat Flowchart

Aftermath

This one was written by the same guys who brought you Bushido. That’s right. If one overly-complex game didn’t excite you, how about two? This is a post-apocalypse game. If you don’t want to play Gamma World because it’s too silly, this is your game. But it’s not mine. One brief look at the rules convinced me, and there was no way I was going to play this. My friend was disappointed.

The Morrow Project

At this point I might as well mention The Morrow Project, too. Another complicated post-apocalypse game, with the somewhat interesting premise that you are part of an elite force that’s been in suspended animation. You wake up in a bunker with a lot of gear that apparently necessitates very complex rules. I can’t even remember if anyone I knew bought this one, but I know I didn’t play it.

Stalking the Night Fantastic (Bureau 13)

Coincidentally, one of the authors of The Morrow Project also wrote this game. I couldn’t have been less interested, but here was that third game master and he really was dying to run this. It’s a modern-day Call of Cthulhu, a Scooby Doo investigation team. Interestingly, this was released in 1983, while the Ghostbusters movie didn’t hit theaters until 1984. Nonetheless, I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to ask, “Who ya gonna call?” So yeah, I let myself get talked into playing a session of this one night. I’m not proud, and once I sobered up that was the end of that.

Monsters! Monsters! and Mercenaries Spies and Private Eyes

Remember Tunnels & Trolls (T&T)? The same rules were used for a “play as monsters” game in 1976 that I never saw. It was called Monsters! Monsters! T&T was also used to power a 1983 game called Mercenaries Spies and Private Eyes (MSPE). You will recall that Indiana Jones made his first appearance in 1981, inspiring renewed interest in the pulps. Call of Cthulhu also debuted in 1981, helping to popularize “investigation” RPGs. I would say that MSPE might not’ve been released if not for those inspirations. No one I knew bought Monsters!, and I can’t recall if anyone picked up MSPE either. In any case, after we gave Tunnels & Trolls its chance, there was no way anyone was going to play MSPE anyway. Pity, because I like the genre.

Top Secret

TSR published its espionage game Top Secret in 1980. As I mentioned, I know at least one person in my group had a copy, but we never got around to playing it. The game appeared to enjoy some moderate success, and that probably lent even more of an impetus to the publication of MSPE. I wasn’t as much into playing an espionage game at the time. I would’ve done 1940s noir, but I had it stuck in my head that Top Secret was a contemporary setting and that doesn’t interest me. It may actually hearken back more to the 1950s or 60s, and that might’ve interested me more, but as it was, with no one really trying to sell us on playing this lay dormant.

Dragonquest

Dragonquest (DQ) was SPI’s foray into fantasy RPGs, originally published in 1980. You’ll recall that I got into SPI way back in 1975 when I began my subscription to Strategy & Tactics. That was their premiere magazine, with a full wargame included in every issue. Those wargames were played with cardboard chits on hex maps. The rules were usually in outline form, well-organized and very thorough.

Anyway, for some reason there were at least three of my friends who wanted to give this game a try. They all bought the second edition hardcover book, and someone bought a copy for me as well! I guess they were organized. And the book definitely evoked the feel of an SPI wargame. My opinion really did make or break a game in our circle, so let me tell you my stance on DQ before I even saw it.

I already played a fantasy game, D&D. We loved it so much we played in multiple campaigns at the same time, as many as three at once. We weren’t at all tired of it and had barely scratched the surface of its possibilities. I even played two other fantasy games on a regular basis, Runequest and Stormbringer (each of which using a very distinctive setting). So why in hell would I consider taking up a new fantasy rules set?

I don’t have a flipping clue to this day of why they wanted to try this game so badly. But with all their effort, I figured that I owed them a test-drive. So we made characters. If I had to do this, I decided to play something very different from D&D. I played a decadent, demon-summoning dandy with a fencing foil. But it didn’t help, I still didn’t have fun. I found the SPI game presentation very dry and colorless. I had no inner vision of what the “world” was supposed to be like. I don’t remember what “adventure” we were supposed to be on, and I suppose that is as good a proof that I didn’t enjoy it as there could be. No, there was just nothing there for me to get my teeth into, and no real reason to. I had that book on my shelf for decades, but never looked at it again.

SPI and TSR

With all that said I can talk about a disturbing issue of the time. Although we didn’t know the details, SPI wasn’t doing well. The business was about to go under. TSR gave them a loan to help them stay afloat. But in a devastatingly cruel move, they called in the loan two weeks later! SPI had used the funds to pay off their creditors, and of course they hadn’t made enough money in two weeks to pay back the loan, so TSR foreclosed on the company. Boom. At the time my sources for information were my friend the game store owner, who got gossip from the distributors, as well as magazines from other gaming companies that I read. And sometimes those guys even interviewed former SPI employees.

From that and what I’ve learned since, I think Kevin Blume, then President of TSR, was responsible for this little Machiavellian war. Stay tuned for more from the Blumes.

So now TSR owned SPI games. They also owned the SPI magazines, which used to sell “lifetime subscriptions.” Not only did TSR not honor those lifetime subscriptions, but they didn’t honor any remaining time on regular subscriptions either. TSR, our beloved group of game designers that produced Dragon Magazine and sent us wonderful and exciting gaming products had just viciously back-stabbed a brother game designer. This certainly put a pall on our rosy outlook when it came to TSR. Not for the last time.

James Bond 007

Some of the game designers from SPI who were left unemployed after the TSR debacle ended up working for Victory Games (VG). Just for perspective, VG was owned by Avalon Hill, another wargame company akin to SPI. Anyway, after the TSR debacle VG released the James Bond 007 RPG. Not only was it in direct competition with TSR’s Top Secret, it upped the ante with a 007 IP license! Take that, TSR. As for my crew, I know at least one of my friends had this one too. So we had both Top Secret and James Bond floating around, but we never gave either one a whirl. I confess I’m more interested in these games today than I was at the time.

The Also-Rans

Now I’m going to breeze through a few games that I never played or even saw. SPI released a science fiction RPG in 1981, the year after the debut of Dragonquest. It was called Universe. I don’t even recall hearing of it at the time, although I must’ve seen an ad for it somewhere.

Kevin Siembieda’s illustrations had appeared in some Judges Guild products back in the day. In 1981 he started his own company, Palladium. He would go on to publish a lot of popular RPGs in later years, but he started off with a pretty obscure one I never saw called The Mechanoid Invasion. The next game had legs though, and persists to this day. It was simply called The Palladium Role-Playing Game, and was released in 1983. I never played it, but I did eventually own a copy of Palladium’s Valley of the Pharaohs historical RPG, released later that same year. I picked it up for reference material, not to play, as I didn’t see the appeal to playing an ancient Egyptian in a historical setting. But I did buy and appreciated some generic supplements he produced along the way, including 1983’s Book of Weapons and Assassins.

TSR had their cowboy western RPG from way back in 1975, Boot Hill. I’ve heard there was another, more obscure western pseudo-RPG from way back in those days, but it’s so obscure that I can’t even remember the name. I’ve never been into westerns.

There were also two obscure swashbuckler/musketeer pseudo-RPGs out there. GDW the Traveller people published one called En Garde in 1975, but they let it go out of print. And our buddies at FGU had one called Flashing Blades beginning in 1977, which I’ve actually heard was much less complex than the usual FGU fare. Neither of these enjoyed widespread popularity, and I didn’t encounter them at the time.

And finally there are the superhero games. It’s another genre that I’m not interested in. My little brother had one or two of these games, and so did a couple of my gaming buddies. But if they actually played them I’m unaware of it. Supposedly the first one published, back in 1977, was Superhero 2044. It was from Zocchi’s good old Gamescience company. It was pretty much forgotten after Villains and Vigilantes appeared in 1979, released by FGU. That enjoyed quite a bit of success, but in 1981 it met its arch-nemesis in Champions from Hero Games. These two pretty much duked it out for a long time. In 1983 Chaosium the BRP people tried launching Superworld, but it couldn’t compete with the two big boys. So anyway, you can see that comic book fans had their very own RPGs too. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered with them.

What have we learned?

There are a truckload of games out there, and there are only so many hours in a day. Plus, if you want to develop and grow a character, you have to be involved in a lengthy campaign. Flitting from game to game means never developing a character (or a story) to its potential.

When faced with selecting a game from out of that truck bed, a hook helps tremendously. By way of example, Dragonquest had no hook at all for me. Once you’ve selected a game for trial, it has to actually deliver on what you thought you’d get from it. Those games that were overly-complicated for me meant that I never got to the fun part without a whole hell of a lot of work. And I have better uses for my time.

Oh, and the final lesson: don’t accept a friendly loan from a competitor.

to be continued

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