Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Midgard II (1972), the Other Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campagin


FANTASY NUTS UNITE! [Someone] is producing a multi-player Fantasy game... It will include giants, wizards, Heroes and Rulers as some of the cast of Characters. The rules of the game are but a guide to the use of your own imagination in play. Many unique concepts are outlined.

This blurb appeared in 1972, about a month before the first notice of Arneson's Blackmoor campaign in the Domesday Book; just a rumor spreading through science-fiction and wargaming zines. Of course we all know what game that was about - or do we? As Dungeons & Dragons developed over the next year and a half, another fantasy campaign game that let players adventure as magicians and warriors in an imaginary world developed in parallel. It was one of the Midgard games, which briefly lived in the shadow of their more famous cousin. The particular game that inspired the blurb was "Midgard II," which took place on the map shown above.

Playing at the World explains how the original German game of Armageddon (dating from 1967) inspired U.K. resident Hartley Patterson to create the first English-language "Midgard" sword-and-sorcery play-by-mail game. When the game had difficulty getting off the ground, one of the players asked for permission to run another version in the United States: that was Thomas Drake, who then began "Midgard II." He distributed the first advertisements for the game through science-fiction fandom zines, including the following two-page advertisement that ran in the CULT (dating from August 1972):


This circular amply demonstrates why "Midgard II" is of such profound interest to scholars of Dungeons & Dragons. It is a limited information game, where players remain ignorant of the setting at the start of the game, and learn by exploring or purchasing maps. The object of the game is to acquire treasure, magical weapons, spells, and so on, while conflicting with other players and "magical creatures of all sorts." But most striking of all is Drake's insistence that "one of the basic rules of this game is to innovate," to treat the rules as only guidelines. In his capacity as referee, Drake encourages players to "suggest" anything they might want to do, and "if it doesn't violate the basic tenets of the game," then he will make a system ruling for it. The game is moreover endless: there are no victory conditions, you just keep adventuring until you retire or die.

Unfortunately, "Midgard II" comprised a very small base of players and referees, so only a minuscule set of persons ever saw the complete system. The rules were also in a constant state of flux: each issue of the Midgard Journal, the campaign newsletter of the game, modified the rules, and even shipped with a voting card so players could register their opinion on proposed changes. These cards might prove difficult to decipher today:


To vote on these proposals, you needed access to the letter-coded sections of the "Midgard II" rules. Rule M1.4 fell under the naval rules, for example. The sections were as follows:

  • Basic (B): Terrain features, time scale, movement, sighting. Also includes information on religion, languages, the world calendar, and in post-D&D rules, character attributes (Strength, Agility, Battle Rating, Leadership Rating, and Intelligence).
  • Expedition (E): Movement into non-friendly territories. Supply, morale, etc.
  • Fortifications & Siege (F&S): Building and destroying castles, mines, etc.
  • Maritime (M): Ship building, statistics, movement, wind and weather at sea.
There were then rules for each of the character classes:
  • Rulers (R): Rulers control countries and have cities, fortifications and armies at their disposal. Population rules, taxation, circumstances leading to revolt, slavery, spies, succession, and court wizards.
    • Armies (A): Rulers command armies. Composition and movement of forces, classes of morale, organization, circumstantial modifiers, and leadership.
  • Heroes (H): Heroes wield weapons. Rules of weapon use, armor types, personal combat with other heroes, combat with groups of ordinary soldiers, acquiring armies, raiding and looting, healing wounds.
  • Wizards (W): Wizard power ratings, wizards vs. wizard, wizards vs. supernatural beings, wizards vs. non-wizards, elemental summoning, demons, contracting with rulers, developing spells.
    • Spells (LM/MM/GM): Wizards cast spells. Spells are divided into three categories: Lesser Magic, Major Magic, and Grand Magic. Spells are in turn divided into Offensive (O), Defensive (D) or Miscellaneous (M). So spells are desginated by a three-letter acronym and a number: like LMD1, the "Spell of Dodging," or MMM19, the "Zone of Darkness." 
After the administrators of "Midgard II" had studied Dungeons & Dragons, around November 1974, they created a lengthy set of rules for "labyrinths." Originally these were grouped under the Basic rules (as documented in Midgard Forum #11),  but eventually they ended up being their own category:
  • Labyrinths (L): 28 pages of rules describing various types of monsters and treasure, all cast in the "Midgard II" system, though many clearly derive from Dungeons & Dragons

Because the "labyrinths" rules first appeared in November 1974, we must place "Midgard II" among the earliest Dungeons & Dragons variants, alongside the Minneapolis Dungeon game, well pre-dating the published edition of Tunnels & Trolls. But the case of "Midgard II" is even more unusual, because the game brought character-driven fantasy adventures to the world years before the release of Dungeons & Dragons. The "Fantasy Nuts Unite!" blurb above appeared in a fanzine run by Lenard Lakofka, in an issue certainly read by Gary Gygax. While there is no doubt that after 1974 "Midgard II" showed the influence of Dungeons & Dragons, it is unique in that influence may have earlier passed in the other direction as well. Lakofka glossed it at the time: "We suggest you get a copy... we intend to!"

13 comments:

  1. Wasn't there ads for a Midgard game in The Dragon back in the early 80's? I remember something like that, but it has been so long ago I'm not sure it wasn't something with a similar name.

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    1. Midgard gets a mention in the very first Strategic Review at the beginning of 1975. Tom Drake's address is given in the second issue. So, we know that Gygax endorsed the game very soon after the release of D&D.

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  2. * clicks "Minneapolis Dungeon" link *

    Craig van Grasstek? Now THAT's a name I've not heard in a LONG time!

    Around 75-77 Craig was a high school kid who used to spend weekends at our place so that he could, among other things, play Hide Mister Winky with his girlfriend.

    I remember one night he decided his 16 year old small skinny bad self was going to out-drink Al Musielewicz. He failed hilariously and ended up curled up on the floor puking his guts out. I left him there with his face glued to the carpet by his own vomit.

    Good times, good times.

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    1. See Michael, these are the kinds of things you remember that no amount of research on my part could otherwise unearth...

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    2. Hmmm... an old joke comes to mind from "Bored of the Rings," something about "Our Loosely Enforced Libel Laws by Professor Hawley Smoot"...

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  3. amazing post.

    maybe Mr. Lakofka has a copy of this.
    I certainly would die to have one. It seems inspiring and well written.
    I was sure i knew all the early variants of D&D, but i missed this one, thank you.

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    1. We're not hurting for copies, but perhaps Len has another, sure.

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  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  5. Fascinating post and original documents. Could I ask what stops Midgard 2 from being a fantasy roleplaying game in your opinion? It seems that especially if a person played a Hero or a Wizard then it was roleplaying in all but name. I'm probably missing something though - I'd be very interested to know what game turns actually looked like. Do any documents survive of these turns, or how they were resolved by the game administrators? Apologies for the late comment.

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    1. It seems like it's purely a semantic question - I don't think any serviceable definition of a role-playing game exists, as that very term did not arise to delineate a set of games, but instead existed to obscure relationships between games (as I discuss in PatW).

      The starkest difference you'd experience in play is the time scale. Midgard II generally assumed a six-month turn, like Diplomacy. So you would give orders for your character's actions for the next six months, rather than being in a tight, immediate feedback look with the gamesmaster describing your characters minute endeavors. With the advent of the "L" rules described above, Migdard II became more like D&D in time scale, but in play-by-mail there is a limit to how granular actions might become.

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  6. Is there any prospect of you making a downloadable version of these rules, as you did with 'Rules to the Game of Dungeon'?

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