Friday, January 5, 2018

A Forgotten Variant: Sir Pellinore's Game

Of the gamers who assembled and self-published variant fantasy role-playing rules in the 1970s, few showed the dedication of Michael Brines. Over the course of four years, he came out with three Sir Pellinore's Game editions with increasing levels of sophistication: Sir Pellinore's Book of Rules for a Game of Magic Mideval Adventures (1978), Sir Pellinore's Game (1979), and Sir Pellinore's Favorite Game (1981). These early rules are especially noteworthy because they drew more from the baseline of early Tunnels & Trolls than original Dungeons & Dragons -- we would be hard pressed to find an earlier published variant of a variant.

These three incarnations of Sir Pellinore's Game are not so utterly obscure that they don't occasionally turn up here and there, but they seem to have escaped the notice of the various Internet resources that track such games. So while it might not be an absolutely forgotten variant, it's still probably worth shedding a bit of light here.

The name Michael Brines might be familiar to early fans of Tunnels & Trolls as that of the author of the original 1977 version of the gamebook module Overkill, and his own game's debt to T&T is unmistakable. Like in T&T, you make "saving rolls," not "saving throws"; and the six abilities follow Ken St. Andre's formula (substituting Luck for the Wisdom of D&D). The presence of a section title "Monster Making" is a sure sign of borrowing from T&T. Spells have something of the zaniness of T&T, like "Banana Peel" which "stops one pursuer for one turn and also delivers 1 die of hits on him."

There is nothing inside the 1978 Sir Pellinore's Book that attributes it to any publisher: it is simply twenty typed pages stapled together; the pages aren't even numbered. The system, where it departs from T&T, sometimes calls back to D&D: the three classes are "fighting-men," "wizards," and "other (merchants, priests, etc.)" There is something like alignment, as characters are good, evil, or neutral ("nutral," actually). But then magic uses a simple spell point system: wizards get one spell point per level, first level spells cost one spell point to cast, second level spells cost two, and so on. Combat rolls use percentile dice; so on the last page, Sir Pellinore's Book provides a table for converting rolls of 2d6 to percentile values similar to others circulating since the 1960s.

The 1979 Sir Pellinore's Game is twenty-three pages long, and actually has page numbers -- starting with page 3, anyway. It is digest sized, with a folded cardstock cover like many role-playing products of the time, and is also the only version shown here that seems to have an intended price on the cover, albeit one marked over in pen. The system is quite similar to the first edition: the six attributes are the same, except "Personality" has replaced Charisma. It includes a helpful five-step turn resolution system for combat. One of the main additions in the new version is a bestiary containing around forty monsters, most of which would be familiar to readers of Dungeons & Dragons -- though perhaps the "Div," a race of "intelligent, cat-headed men" whose "main occupation is embroidering rugs to sell in large human towns" might be a new one. This edition adapts a familiar Tunnels & Trolls chart: the random height/weight charts that originally appeared in the 1975 Tunnels & Trolls Supplement, which Brines pegs to Strength (for height) and Constitution (for weight) rather than leaving them to separate random 3d6 rolls.

In the second-to-last page of the book, there is an incongruous picture at the bottom of a tank, its turret facing to the left. Next to that is the postal address for the "Roaming Panther Game Co." in Prescott, Arizona. "Roaming Panther" is a name that leaves some trace in the fossil record of 1980s gaming: as the publisher of Brines's It Came From Outer Space, and as the organizer of the EconomyCon convention. Brines also snuck into the section on "Designing an Adventure World" a hint that Roaming Panther sold 17" x 11" hexagon sheets for overworld mapping via mail order.

The 1981 Sir Pellinore's Favorite Game spanned over fifty pages, with a helpful index, and shipped with a pair of detached reference sheets: one detailing monsters and overland travel, the other a price list for equipment and hirelings. This version gives art credits to Fawn McCleve and Sandra Brines; the latter also received a credit for Overkill. Both furthermore served as playtesters for this version. The game is prominently listed on the first page as a publication of "Roaming Panther Game Co. Ltd.," which now distributed a free catalog of its wares.

When Ken St. Andre self-published his Phoenix Cosmic Circle hack of D&D as a game product, he discovered that the Pandora's box opened by D&D could be opened again, as Steve Perrin famously put it in the dedication to Runequest. St. Andre's pioneering audacity inspired a generation of gamers to follow in his footsteps, in hopes of finding their own Flying Buffaloes, real publishers who would distribute their work. Not all of their efforts would become enduring classics -- but some endured for years nonetheless, through the sheer determination of their authors.

Previously on Forgotten Variants: Catacombs & Caverns


  1. This continues to be one of the most interesting gaming blogs on the Internet. Your choice of topic and way of expressing yourself is very good.

  2. Another early variant of T& was Darkus Thel, by James Mohow, published by the Sorcerer's Guild in Indiana. As late as the early 2000s it was still very popular in the area. There were several tables being run at every PentaCon in Fort Wayne, and I recall they had several at the early Indy Gen Cons. Not sure how it has been faring in the last decade or so. Sorcerer's Guild also did some art for Judges Guild back in the day. Some interesting ties there, might be some early days meat to them...

    1. I have long heard that there was an early printing of Darkus Thel that I've never seen; never been able to substantiate it though.

    2. So I did some digging, and found out the following:

      The game was in development as early as 1979; designed by Donald C. Moehlenkamp, Kurt Moehlenkamp, and James August Mohow, with Robert Bausser and Brian Coyle.

      It was first published for sale in 1986 (1st Edition, black cover, Holmes-like saddle-stitched book). Published by Sorcerers’ Guild Publications, Inc. of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

      There was a second edition published in 1994; this one was hole-punched, like the 2nd Edition AD&D Monstrous Compendiums. Rarest of the editions, apparently.

      Third Edition was published in 2009, by Bluewater Miniatures of Heltonville, Indiana.

      All of the direct links I was able to find for Darkus Thel have, ironically, gone dark.

      As it was "in development since 1979," there may well be pre-publication versions that circulated amongst the gaming crowd in Fort Wayne as early as 79.

    3. It still has tables running at PentaCon every year, usually with Jim Mohow himself present. Jon, if you are interested in any of the history of DarkusThel, I can put you in touch with Jim Mohow and others who have played it from the beginning..

  3. Very interesting. It would be quite interesting to read this game today.

  4. I actually remember Sir P's book on my local toy store's gaming rack in '79 or '80. I was only 9 or 10, and the low-budget game products with line drawings on the covers were puzzling to me. I had friends who could draw better than some of them, and I didn't understand how they related to D&D.