Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Deadly Illusion of GenCon 1978


As much attention as Game Wizards lavishes on conventions, there was more still before the manuscript was cut down to size. Convention tournaments in particular received more attention, and GenCon 1978 had a anecdote that began as follows: "Even the tournament was something of a shambles, with only one group surviving the second round: seven out of eight parties died to an illusion, mistaking for a teleporter something that was actually a deadly pit." This account follows Jon Pickens's description in A&E #39, which makes for something of a funny story, and lets us see with fresh eyes the encounter with Silussa the succubus and her vampire beau Belgos in D3 Vault of the Drow.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Arneson v. Gygax: The Freeman Deposition


When Dave Arneson's lawsuit against TSR was nearing a trial date at the end of 1980, his legal team recruited an expert witness in the person of Jon Freeman. Freeman, who wrote for Games magazine and had recently produced The Complete Guide to Board Games, was a longstanding D&D fan who drove one of the earliest computer adaptations of dungeon-crawling to see a commercial release: The Temple of Apshai (1979), first of the "Dunjonquest" series. Today, we'll take a look (a layman's look, not a lawyer's) at Freeman's argument, beginning with his chart above, which shows how Gary Gygax's earlier Chainmail rules contrasted with both D&D and AD&D.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Game Wizards: The Evolution of TSR Contracts

This single piece of paper constitutes the entirety of the understanding between TSR and the authors of the 1975 Greyhawk supplement: most significantly, it covers a copyright assignment to TSR and an agreement from TSR to pay royalties based on "the cover price of the game rules or game on each and every copy sold." It is quite short, having been drafted pro bono by Gary Gygax's uncle at a time when Tactical Studies Rules was still a partnership, and D&D had sold perhaps 1500 copies. This language is of especial interest because the same form was used for the 1975 D&D contract, and famously Dave Arneson would later sue TSR on the grounds that his rights to royalties extended to titles like the Holmes Basic Set and the AD&D hardcover books. This is a major focus of Game Wizards

Over the next five years, TSR refined the language of their new agreements to be clearer about what rights authors were assigning, and for which sales they would receive compensation. I am definitely not a lawyer, but I am going to offer below a few layman's thoughts about the evolution of TSR's contract language during this period.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Arneson's Hit Points for Characters


Game Wizards is very decidedly not a book about who invented which system in D&D. But early drafts of the book did track one design choice in D&D that Dave Arneson perennially criticized: the system wherein characters gain more hit points as they go up in level. Arneson held that character hit points should instead be fixed at character creation, and that characters should become harder to hit as they rise in level. While that story thread failed its save against manuscript bloat, restoring it does add context for Gygax and Arneson's subsequent disputes. Probably the most well-known place Arneson mentioned his system was in the introduction to the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), as shown above.

Friday, October 15, 2021

"Game Wizards" the Game


Game Wizards has "turn results" at the end of the annual chapters to track the big picture, while casting the business of D&D as the sort of game that Gygax and others often made it out to be. Early drafts of the book actually had a 1970s-style Diplomacy variant serialized from the beginning, with installments throughout, which both served as a sort of ersatz dramatis personae and also would have made the chapter closer look more like what you would have seen for turn results in an actual Dippy zine back in the day. I was eventually persuaded it was too obscure and gimmicky, and scaled it back to its current form. But for the amusement of anyone digging into the book now, this is an (unpolished) excerpt of what that might have looked like.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Units of Value and the Tactical Studies Rules Partnership


From September 1973 to September 1975, Tactical Studies Rules was a partnership of hobbyists, not a corporation. Under Wisconsin law at the time, partnerships apparently couldn't sell stock shares -- but TSR devised a way to sneak key people some equity in the venture. The above shows the partnership granting five "units of value" to Dave Arneson, on May 1, 1975. So, what were these "units of value"?

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Game Wizards: D&D Development Timeline


While Game Wizards has plenty to say about the big picture of TSR's corporate financials, it also pays a lot of attention to the early, scrappy days when D&D was more of a hobby than a business to the people who made it. This visual timeline of the 1972-4 process is intentionally pretty high-level, showing sequences of events rather than exact dates, but it is the working model I used for this era as I wrote the book. It is a little different from the timeline certain books (including mine) have given in the past.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Game Wizards: TSR Staffing


The above model, drawn from the narrative of Game Wizards, shows roughly how many people TSR had on staff between 1976 and 1985. Obviously, staffing fluctuated over a given year, and these plotted points are not anchored to any particular date on the calendar, but they impart a general sense of TSR headcount across its peaks, midpoints, and valleys. At the macro level, staffing ramped up steadily after the Egbert incident, accelerated recklessly in 1982, and then plummeted sharply thereafter. But this isn't the way that Gary Gygax remembered it... and that warrants a bit of explanation.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Game Wizards: TSR Financials


Underpinning the business story of Game Wizards is the financial model shown here of TSR as a company, from the founding of TSR Hobbies in 1975 to the ouster of Gary Gygax at the end of 1985. Although it leaves out coverage of the earliest years, this chart is in effect the narrative of Game Wizards visualized: it also locates major events on the timeline, and along the very bottom shows who was running the company when. So where does this data come from?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Game Wizards: My New Book

I have a new book coming out next month called Game Wizards. Unlike my previous books, which are histories of game design, this is an early history of Dungeons & Dragons as a product: of how it came to be a product at all, of the people who made it, of its unlikely success, and of the battles that its success caused. If you've read my "Ambush at Sheridan Springs" article from 2014, this is a book-length expansion of its story. It follows the business journey of D&D, as well its creators, from their hobbyist origins up to Gary Gygax's ouster from TSR in 1985.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Sansu Set d10

Scouring through the polyhedral dice available to early gamers, you can sometimes stumble across a peculiar looking ten-sided die numbered 0 through 9. While these are obscure dice in America, they are well known in Japan, where they were included in an elementary school toolkit called a "Sansuu Setto" (さんすうセット, or  算数セット), which just means "arithmetic set." Today, let's unbox a Sansu Set, and look at a few variations on the d10s you can find within.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Edmund Scientific Polyhedron Set (1966)

In cataloging the polyhedral dice available to early gamers, we shouldn't neglect a few products that weren't marketed as dice at all. In the 1960s, educational supply companies made models of the regular polyhedra available for classroom use, like the classic Edmund Scientific set shown above. Although they are unnumbered, a flick of the pen (or marker) might fix that. The question is, how well would they have served as dice?

Sunday, April 4, 2021

A Date for Monsters! Monsters! Monsters! Galore


Everything leaves a trace. That's been my guiding principle researching the history of early wargames and role-playing games: any commercial product that survives, no matter how obscure, had to be available somewhere and somehow, and that means a paper trail. All too often the products themselves give us little indication of when they were made, as was the case with today's subject, Monsters! Monsters! Monsters! Galore. But with the help of distributor catalogs, we can show how it became available in 1980.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Invention of the d4


When it comes to using Platonic solids as dice, the d4 is something of a special case. There are precedents that stretch back into ancient history for the use of the d6, d8, d12 and d20 as dice, as all four of those solids, when rolled, will land with a single face up, visible to all parties watching. A tetrahedron, however, lands with a vertex up, one face down and three faces on display. As the example of the Zazz Polyspheres shows (their d4 is on the left above), simply putting a number on each of the four faces of a tetrahedron does not immediately turn it into what we know as a d4. For a tetrahedron to generate a random number between 1 and 4 that will be visible to people observing the die from all angles, some innovation was required.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Western Gunfight (1970): the First RPG?


In 1970, a group of UK gamers located in Bristol published the first edition of their Western Gunfight rules, which recorded systems they had been running locally since the late 1960s. In the pages of their own obscure Bristol Wargames Society Journal, and in the widely-read Wargamer's Newsletter, they began to position these games not as traditional conflict simulations, but instead as ways of telling Old West stories involving continuous characters, like the villainous "El Manolito" enjoying the spoils of his success in this 1970 rendering above. When they shifted their focus to these characters and stories, had they crossed the threshold into what we should call "role playing"?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Does System Matter?


Dungeons & Dragons started out as a game with such an adaptable and open-ended set of rules that early adopters questioned whether any further published RPG systems were even necessary: DMs could make D&D into anything they wanted it to be, after all. But once the Blacow model took hold, and people began to understand system design through its lens, more attention was paid to how different designs could potentially yield results for players aligned to Blacow's "forms" (wargaming, role-playing, power-gaming, and storytelling). These would become the earliest arguments that system does matter, understood in frameworks like Donald W. Miller's typology of RPGs and wargames shown above.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Immersion and Role Playing in the 1970s


The idea that role playing involved a property called "immersion" occurred to the early adopters of the 1970s fairly early. The earliest explicit use I've found was that of Pieter Roos, as shown in this excerpt above from The Wild Hunt #15 (1977), where he identifies it as the overall goal of playing RPGs. Before the end of the decade, calls to "immerse yourself" began to appear in games and modules published by TSR. The Elusive Shift pays particular attention to the uptake of "immersion" as a term because of its relationship to how people in the 1970s understood the nature of role playing.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A History of Hero Points: Fame, Fortune and Fate

"Hero Points" was the name given by James Bond 007 (1983) to a quantified resource players could expend to alter the results of a particular system resolution. It built on an earlier innovation in the pioneering espionage RPG Top Secret (1980), which introduced "Fortune Points" and "Fame Points" in lieu of D&D saving throws. Over time, this idea took manifold forms in RPGs that followed, from Fudge and Fate Points to Artha in Burning Wheel to Inspiration in D&D 5th edition. Today, we'll look at how this system innovation took shape, beginning with Merle Rasmussen's original pitch for Top Secret, shown in this design letter above.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Origins of Rule Zero


The idea that a gamemaster has the discretion to alter or discard published rules was not an invention of role-playing games: it derived from a wargaming tradition going back to the free Kriegsspiel of the nineteenth century. But role-players enshrined it as a principle that is today known as "Rule Zero", a proposed meta-rule of role-playing games -- albeit not an uncontroversial one. The critical position that we should hold this as a universal meta-rule occurred to the early adopters of role-playing games fairly early, as shown here, in the "Gamer's First Law" of Ed Simbalist (designer of Chivalry & Sorcery) in Alarums & Excursions #38 in 1978.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Player Typologies, from Wargames to Role-Playing Games

One of the threads that The Elusive Shift follows is the development of typologies that sorted players, or sometimes game designs or playstyles, into categories that reflect what kind of experience people want to have when they sit down to game. These form a significant component of contemporary RPG theory. I myself was surprised, doing research for the book, to discover threefold model typologies already discussed in the wargame community years before Dungeons & Dragons came out. In these early discussions, we can see the roots of much of the RPG theorizing that would follow, like the classic fourfold Blacow model, shown in a later visualization above.