Sunday, November 25, 2018
Artistic Arcana: Scruby Fantasy Miniatures and TSR
Dungeons & Dragons grew out of a tradition of miniature wargaming, and distributors of figurines were among the first companies to supply D&D to hobby shops. Although the D&D rules downplayed the necessity of using minis, they do tout their value in adding "real spectacle" to the game through "the eye-appeal of the varied and brightly painted miniature figures." Miniatures were to early D&D what graphics became for computer games. Supplying miniatures suitable for fantasy RPGs ultimately grew into a substantial industry of its own, but at the humble beginning, the first miniatures that TSR sold along with D&D were made by the father of American miniature wargaming: Jack Scruby. Above are examples of some of these early Scruby miniatures arrayed for combat.
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Artistic Arcana: Greg Bell Before TSR
It is no exaggeration to say that Greg Bell was effectively the first staff artist of Tactical Studies Rules. Not only did he famously draw the cover of the Dungeons & Dragons box set, as well as around twenty-five more internal illustrations, but he illustrated the company's first release, Cavaliers and Roundheads (1973), as well as key titles like Warriors of Mars (1974). Though he was never formally on staff at TSR, his fingerprints are all over their earliest work. Which is why it is so interesting to peer back in time a little before TSR, when he was drawing covers like the one above for the fanzine Drum Call of the "Blackhawk Militaria Society," a group in Rockford, IL.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Subterranean Chainmail: Mines and Countermines
Before any daring cartographer mapped underground dungeons in pursuit of fantastic adventure, Chainmail described a system for subterranean tunnels on paper. It needed these rules to simulate the discipline of the mines, a siege operation that involved tunneling under castle walls in order to, well, undermine them, destabilizing the walls to the point of collapse, after which invading troops could surge through the breach and storm the castle. These rules were a fairly late addition to the medieval system practiced in Lake Geneva, and they likely owe a debt to an earlier system blurb that Jack Scruby appended to Newell Chamberlin's rules in a 1965 issue of Table Top Talk.
Monday, October 1, 2018
Artistic Arcana: The Impostor Lizardman
Old school Dungeons & Dragons fans know that Greg Bell's beloved lizardman from the inside cover of Greyhawk (1975) served as the logo of TSR Hobbies up until it was replaced by the wizard logo in 1978. But when you get out a magnifying glass and take a closer look at the miniaturized lizardmen on TSR products, especially toward the end of those three years, you might spot a doppelganger at work.
Monday, September 24, 2018
Why Did Armor Class Descend from 9 to 2?
One of the great riddles that has vexed D&D players for generations is this: why did armor class in original D&D descend from 9 to 2 instead of increasing as it gets better? The answer is spelled out in the first draft of D&D: if you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn't even have to consult a table. Unfortunately, the published D&D game broke this algorithm, which has obscured the motivation for descending armor class ever since.
Monday, September 17, 2018
A Forgotten Variant: The Observers Book of Monsters
Sometimes chunks of gaming history come down to us without much context. That is the case with today's specimen, a crude British booklet "collected and compiled" by Chris Bursey called The Observers Book of Monsters. It contains a blend of new and recycled creatures for Dungeons & Dragons, of an apparently early date, but gives no direct indication of when or how it came to be made. But thanks to the invaluable fossil record of fanzines, we can connect a few dots and shed some light on its production.
Friday, September 7, 2018
Missile Fire in Chainmail, courtesy of Charles Sweet
When it comes to unearthing the influences behind Chainmail (1971), Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren's medieval rules with a fantasy twist, you need to cast a wide net. Many authors (myself included) have been guilty of singling out Tony Bath as the primary influence behind the mass combat rules in Chainmail, but that has always been something of an oversimplification. There are elements of Perren's medieval rules which drew directly from a 1957 archery system proposed by Charles Sweet, one that recurs in the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association (LGTSA) rules up to the publication of Chainmail. A clear connection can be observed in the values in this chart from Sweet's rules, originally published in War Game Digest Vol. 1 No. 4.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Dave Arneson's "Adventuring Is..." Cartoons
Sometimes you need to stop dissecting the roots of Chainmail for long enough to appreciate the humor that the authors of Dungeons & Dragons infused into the game. We see that playfulness on display in the Twin Cities work of VanGrasstek, and surely the Minneapolis Dungeon group inherited their zany antics directly from Dave Arneson. In the spirit of "Love is..." cartoons, Arneson doodled a series of "Adventuring Is..." situations that would not have been out of place alongside William McLean's humorous cartoons in the AD&D hardcovers. Unlike the idyllic couple depicted in "Love is...", the protagonists of "Adventuring Is..." are usually about to die.
Saturday, July 21, 2018
To-Hit Rolls in Individual Medieval Combat, from Phil Barker to Chainmail
Just months before Chainmail came out, when Gary Gygax put together the seventh issue of the Domesday Book, he included a ruleset submitted to the magazine without any indication of its author: a set of medieval skirmish rules Gygax jokingly attributed to "U.N. Owen." These incorporated a crucial precursor to Chainmail, a man-to-man table (shown above) requiring different to-hit rolls for various weapons against a progression of armor types, and thus an influence on the armor class progression and attack matrices of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax hoped that "one of the readers can enlighten the rest of us" as to the author of the "U.N. Owen" rules -- ultimately, they trace back to a 1966 set by Phil Barker of the Wargames Research Group in Britain.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Mordenkainen, in 1974 and today.
This weekend at the Wizards of the Coast "Stream of Many Eyes" event I got my hands on a copy of Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, which is "built on the writings of the renowned wizard from the world of Greyhawk." That magic-user Mordenkainen, one of Gary Gygax's earliest and most famous characters, has been with us since the start of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax jealously guarded the statistics of Mordenkainen in later years, but this excerpt from a mid-1974 letter shows his favorite character as he was specified in his prime.
Friday, March 16, 2018
D&D in the News (1978): Funny Dice in Iowa, with Zeb Cook
"We're known down here as the strange people with the funny dice," begins Bob Waltman, describing the reputation of the group that met at the University of Iowa's Memorial Union. Before the game of Dungeons & Dragons became famous, it looked strange to pretty much anyone who saw it from the outside--especially reporters. But the game gets a favorable notice in this February 1978 article, "'Funny dice' creates Dungeons and Dragons' by Marlene J. Perrin.
Thursday, March 8, 2018
From Arbela to Alexander: Gygax's Ancient Board Wargame
In the early days of gaming, a title could pass through a lot of hands before making its way to market. The original design of Arbela came from Dane Lyons, but Gary Gygax took it over by 1969 and brought out his own revision called Alexander the Great through Guidon Games in 1971. By the time Avalon Hill worked the title over in 1974, Don Greenwood had replaced much of Gygax's work. Ironically, that Avalon Hill version probably reached a wider audience that year than another little game released months earlier that Gygax worked on--but you would only know Gygax's role in Alexander if you read the fine print in the rulebook.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Vintage Ad: 1980 Do-It-Yourself Edition
Early in 1980, TSR Hobbies circulated a slender booklet containing graphics and copy for hobby stores to reuse when advertising TSR products. It was called the Print Advertiser's Source Book. Effectively, it is a collection of high-contrast clip art, showing TSR products and logos in various sizes redrawn and optimized for monochrome printing. Retailers wanted these specialty graphics for advertisements in black-and-white newspapers: photographs of actual TSR product covers converted poorly to that medium. They are ripe for reuse in all sorts of retro graphic projects.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
A Forgotten Variant: The X-Fragments
Gary Gygax explicitly called the Guidon Dungeons & Dragons document the "first draft" of the game in a cover letter. In that draft form, the game circulated to a number of playtesters in the Midwest. Some early adopters quickly engaged with the rules and produced their own versions: various structural properties show us that the Dalluhn Manuscript cribbed directly from the pages of Guidon. But it wasn't alone: the Prize Matrix shown here is from a partial draft similarly based on the original 1973 text, a draft we will here call the X-Fragments (compare this table to other post-Guidon drafts).
Friday, February 2, 2018
D&D in the News (1976): You're either a Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric, or Thief
If anything could draw the attention of the mainstream press of 1976 to an obscure pastime like Dungeons & Dragons, it was the apparent endorsement of an elite university like Princeton. Is this how our brightest minds were squandering their gifts? Readers of the March 22, 1976 issue of the Trenton Evening Times, could find answers in Madeleine Blais's article covering the first PrinceCon: "In Dungeons & Dragons, you're either a fighter, magic-user, cleric, or thief."
Thursday, January 25, 2018
War of the Empires (1969), Gygax's Space Conquest Campaign
Two years before Chainmail was released, and a year before there was a Castle & Crusade Society, Gary Gygax was something of a rocket man. When he took over development of the War of the Empires system in 1969, and with it the administration of its play-by-mail campaign, he helped to usher in one of the earliest games where players would command space empires that deployed scouts to explore solar systems, expanded by colonizing those planets and exploiting their resources to build war ships, and finally used their military might to exterminate rival empires and dominate the sector.
Monday, January 15, 2018
Vintage Ad: Does Your Shop Sell Military Miniatures?
Early in 1976, no one had any idea that Dungeons & Dragons would go on to transform the gaming hobby. It had then sold a little more than 4,000 copies, which made it TSR's bestseller. but TSR wasn't putting all of its eggs in that one basket. This advertisement, which would clamor for attention on one eighth of a page -- all TSR could afford at the time -- in magazines for hobby store owners, relies on the truism that selling rules for miniatures would bring in more sales of miniatures themselves: paper was cheap, but metal was profitable. So this advertisement stresses miniatures rules like Boot Hill, Chainmail, Classic Warfare, and Panzer Warfare over "historic wargames" like Fight in the Skies or even the "fantasy games which have become the latest craze," D&D, Dungeon! and Empire of the Petal Throne.
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.
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