Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Some Ludological influences on the early adoption of Dungeons and Dragons etc.


Joe over on Uncaring Cosmos recently posted some interesting thoughts on early ludological influences on the development of tabletop role-playing games, and some strands of influence on early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons that I've been thinking about again recently. Curiously both strands feature simultaneously on front cover of Games & Puzzles magazine #23 from March/April 1974. 

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974

Games & Puzzles was a general interest games magazine, a colour-cover glossy magazine on the shelves of newsagents and WH Smiths, distributed by the vernerable satirical magazine Punch.  Launched during the boardgame boom of the mid 1970s Games & Puzzles carried regular columns on crossword solving, chess, scrabble, reviewing latest releases of everything from the latest childrens TV tie in stocking filler to abstract cerebral MENSA-level entertainment through the entirety of the Second World War in hexagons and d12 tables and everything in between.

Historically, I think it is sensible to talk about pre-D&D ludological frameworks - games, methodologies, ideas and discourses about games - that may have influenced the early adopters of D&Ds understanding, approaches, acceptance and adopted playstyles of D&D itself as separate from post-D&D frameworks that may have influenced early-majority  of D&D, as those frameworks appearing in a post-D&D landscape may have already been influenced by the innovations of D&D itself. So while my personal introduction to RPGs was through Fighting Fantasy, it's a second-generation development, indeed, originally created by D&D early adopters Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone to explain D&D, and while FF might have influenced those (like myself) caught up in the 80s D&D boom, it didn't provide impetus for the initial, original acceptance, success or development of D&D when it was published.  

There is, unfortunately something of a presentist tendency in fandoms to back-project concepts, for example there's an 'eternal discourse'* about "D&D separating from 'wargaming roots'" (as pernicious as a myth as Warhammer emerging from 'roleplaying roots') without really indicating much of an understanding that what "wargaming" really meant in 1974, or any expectation that it might actually be a bit different from the understanding somebody carries around in their head in 2021. Much same in Tolkien fandom,  where The Hobbit is forced to fit into the "world" of The Lord of the Rings, while it's textual relationship to The Silmarillion is widely ignored due to authorial comments taken out of context, and that the evidence - early drafts - aren't widely read within fandom. As ever, the only way of escape these infernal traps is to actually look at the original texts.

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974
Mastermind 1973-ish
Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Tony Bath 1973 (1978 edition)
Dungeon Masters Guide 1979

The Games & Puzzles article by Tony Bath on his Hyboria wargame campaign has comments from several players, including wargaming legend Donald Featherstone. What they are describing in todays parlance would probably be described as a 'freeform play-by-mail domain level roleplaying game', but at the time was simply a Wargames Campaign.  Each player controls a king, emperor, overlord or some-such individual who rules over a land loosely based on RE Howards Conan the Barbarian stories. Bath mentions, with some humour, disallowing plays based on works other than Howards original stories - gaming as an extension of S&SF fandom, where debates about 'canonicity' and legitimacy provide much of the interest.  Bath fully admits to controlling the rules of the world as he sees fit - in a dictatorial manner rather than the democratic mode Bath ascribes to Midgard, and thus, the fiat of the Dungeon Master is firmly established.  Needless to say, the idea of an impartial but all-powerful (and all-knowing) umpire is as old as modern wargaming, going back to von Reisswitz 1812 Kreigsspeil, but how that might have framed approaches to D&D in the 1970s is, perhaps a different story.

Games Illustrated. Boris Vallejo 1984 (post-D&D)

Featherstone writes about being given the character of Conan to play, and subsequently making game decisions in character, and much is made of the games in-world newspaper and the ability for players to focus on their areas of their interest, and for the narratives emerge from play within the structures of defined rules, including those for generating and playing the personalities of the non-player characters who fill the courts and high ranking military positions within each players nation, alongside the initial conditions of geography, supply-chains and Baths judgement. The 'emergent narrative' isn't something I've noticed much in RPG discourse, GNS 'theory' seems to entirely miss the point by essentialising and compartmentalising aspects which are actually complementary and fluid. However it seems to have been a strong element of what a "Wargames Campaign" actually was - a story that emerges from the decisions made by the players within the game system. I digress.  

There is no question that from a British perspective, that the G&P Hyboria article is a pre-D&D artefact, given that D&D had only just been published in the US, and Games Workshop wouldn't start importing it until 1975. The appearance of Hyborian discourse around fantasy gaming, the playing of roles and emergent narratives, within mainstream games media of the time seems remarkable in itself. It's hard not to see the reception and ludological frameworks in the milleu in which D&D was adopted as being informed, if not already established by discussions of Hyboria, (and perhaps Midgard) that employs diverse play-styles some of which would later became synonymous with 'role-playing' but at the time were just an integrated part of the broad fertile plains of the 'wargaming' landscape. I direct interested readers to Jon Peterson Playing at the World, his book deals with Hyborea and D&D topic quite comprehensively, or to undertake your own research into Tony Baths Hyborea Tiny Tin Men provide a good access point to much of the published material. It's clear that Bath had been playing Hyborea since the 1960, but to what extent the elements Bath and Featherstone describe in Games & Puzzles were part of the 1960s game would need slow careful and thorough exploration through the evidence.  Nonetheless, the main point isn't to claim Tony Bath invented fantasy roleplaying before D&D, or had influenced Arneson & Gygax or even David Wesely's late 1960s Braunstein games in some way,  but rather that only a mere matter of months prior to D&D manifesting on the prime material planes, Hyboria was being talked about in the mainstream, popular gaming press, and the dissemination of those ideas may have informed the approach to Fantasy Gaming in general and D&D in particular of a broader general audience, especially in a British context of a general gaming audience than a specialist wargaming audience.

Outside the mainstream, popular gaming press, in the small-press gaming zines there is post-D&D documentary evidence of a direct influence of Baths Hyboria (rather than an airy 'ludological framework') in the 1977 contribution to D&D APA-Zine, The Wild Hunt #12  by Bryan Ansell (Founder of Citadel Miniatures, Warhammer instigator, Games Workshop Managing Director, Laserburn designer etc.) . In his brief overview of "'how we do things in Nottingham" he references expanding the social role of D&D characters using Baths Setting Up A Wargames Campaign (WRG, 1973) which published world-building and characterisation guidelines that Bath established during his Hyborian campaign. And as is the increasingly knotted nature of these things, in the same article, Bryan also mentions using Greg Staffords White Bear and Red Moon  (1975)  board-wargame set in Glorantha as a basis for a D&D campaign - a year before Runequest (the official Gloranthan RPG) was published.

After "Wargaming" a second thread of ludological influence taken up by the early adopters of D&D is undoubtedly boardgaming. Joe at Uncaring Cosmos cites the aforementioned White Bear and Red Moon, (which provide a cover feature for G&P #61, June 77 by Lewis Pulsipher) although as an example to think about it's a little bit of a cheat, as WBRM is a Board-Wargame in the hex-and-chit style Board-Wargaming of Avalon Hill, rather than a 'pure' board-game. 

Semantics aside, Joe's point that boardgames should be considered as providing a ludological framework for the understanding and development of D&D by some of its early adopters stands up to scrutiny. Consider the case of the boardgame Diplomacy (1959), which under some definitions might be considered a wargame but was popular and prelevant enough to establish its own discreet presence beyond both the miniatures table-top and the hex-and-chit "Wargaming" communities. As D&D emerged from the dank and dismal regions it swiftly became taken up by those involved in the Diplomacy zines and the postal diplomacy scene. While it might seem that simply because of the printed (mimographed),  nature of much Postal Diplomacy fandom and its physical manifestation in a vast treasure-trove of play-by-mail zines means that Diplomacy fandom simply produced more evidence of itself than other, quieter areas of gaming, it is fair to say it probably did have greater direct influence on the British early-adopters than any other single pre-D&D influence. Luminaries such as Ian Livingstone, Don Turnbull, Lew Pulsipher and Hartley Patterson all go through the revolving door of 'Dippy' and D&D. Ludologically there is the built-in social-negotation aspect of Diplomacy that makes it particularly akin to the adventurer-player team D&D, wheras in something like Chess, making deals, persuasion and cajoling between players is working against the system, in Diplomacy, as D&D, it is an intended consequence of the system. One of the main innovations of Postal Diplomacy in thematic terms was to use the game to play J.R.R. Tolkiens Middle-Earth,  Frank Herberts Dune or some other fantastic realm from SF&F literature, and like Baths Howardesque Hyborian Campaign foreshadows D&D as essentially as a gameable extension of SF&F fandom. The biggest ludological change from board to postal Diplomacy is the introduction of a non-player umpire, whose role it is to collate the orders sent in each turn and return the results in an unbiased and even manner - no doubt helping form the attitudes of those familiar Diplomacy with who would assume the mantle of the Dungeon Master.

Mastermind 1972
Monster Manual 1977

Another, perhaps more widespread game but less documented example of the a similar ludalogical framework may be seen in Mordecai Meirowitz code-cracking game Mastermind - a game of cunning and logic for two players. An award winning 1972 plastic implementation of the abstract pen and paper game 'bulls and cows', given a slightly more sophisticated James Bond-esque slant to the marketing. The game was "selected for the Design Center London", won Game of the Year 1973 and given a Queens Award for Export, sales boomed, national and international competitions were spawned, and Mastermind became a mainstay of Games & Puzzles articles, peg-trays haunted the G-Plan sideboards of suburbia and Hoover Junior Upright Vacuum cleaner bags were filled with multicoloured plastic pegs across the country and around the world.

The other 1972 Mastermind - Approaching Menace

Mastermind establishes a clear separation of roles - one player sets up a code, the other player then attempts to solve it, both working within the rules and restrictions of the game system, rather than say Chess or Diplomacy where each player is essentially playing the same role against each other. This could be seen to both echo and reinforce the playstyles of early D&D - one player is the Dungeon Master who sets up a dungeon, and the other player(s) attempt to 'solve' it, both within the rules of the game.  Certainly we can see this Rudolpho's review of Ken St. Andre's, admittedly D&D derived game, Tunnels & Trolls (G&P #61, June 77) where the still nascent genre moniker 'role-playing' isn't used at all, and the review focuses heavily on explaining how one player 'sets up a dungeon' and the adventurers then 'solve it', both working within the rules of the game.  So, through the lens of Mastermind we can see the idea of the Dungeon Master not only being the setter of the dungeon-puzzle but also being the non-adversarial respondent to the players actions, the setter in Mastermind isn't trying to block the other player solving the puzzle, but rather to impartially respond to the players plays, and facilitate their exploration of the code-dungeon. Not that anyone would express it as such at the time, but the ubiquity of Mastermind, may have helped establish a ludological framework that prepared a more mainstream audience for certain D&D play-styles.

Some of these concepts, a notion of 'dungeon-as-code', Dungeon Master as neutral code-setter / facilitator, players creating emergent narratives, seem essential to the OSR playstyle in ways that many of the post-D&D influencers miss, certainly it suggests development of investigative playstyles both of the dungeon-crawl with a 10-ft pole type as well as the mystery-solving of the whodunnit and explorations into the supernatural.  It's also a reminder that D&D, or RPGs, or Wargaming do not exist in a isolation, and that while fandoms become increasingly ouberous like in their self consumption, it was once entirely necessary to glance into adjacent spaces to provide ways of thinking about what are now known as 'TTRPGs'.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Grognardia, Gargantuas & Goblins

Illustrations for two Classes for James Maliszewski's Grognards Grimoire series, set in, around and under the Monastery of Urheim.


The Gargantua stands with his trusty felling axe, shifting his iron-buckled belt. He wears a self-made black bearskin jerkin over a woollen tunic, decorated with traditional hillfolk patterns. His linen breeches are tied at the calf with leather straps, as are the deer-leather shoes.

Along with André The Giant's portrayal of Fezzik in Rob Reiners 1987 film Princess Bride as suggested by James as the direction,  the idea of a demi-giant character class conjured images Little John from the Robin Hood oeuvre, Clive Mansell's Little John in Richard Carpenters 1984 TV series Robin of Sherwood, and Howard Hew Lewis's Rabies in Tony Robinsons 1989 BBC childrens comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men, but also of Bernard Breslaw's Gort in Terry Marcels 1981 movie Hawk the Slayer, Dudly Watkins cartoon creation Desparate Dan, himself probably influenced by characters such as Paul Bunyan  the massive lumberjack and John Henry the enormous railway worker from American Folklore and the oversized, overstrong hero of Edwardian folk song My Brother Sylveste.  and childhood memories of the giant smuggler at Black Gang Chine and the image of since vanished 1970s saturday morning sporting heroes of the British Wrestling Foundation such as Giant Haystacks and Worlds Strongest Man Geoff Capes. The mythic archetype of the 'big man' probably traceable back to Thor

Goblin Adventurer

The Goblin holds aloft a pitch and rag torch as he creeps forward, holding a bronze leaf-bladed knife. He wears a stiffened leather jerkin fastened at the sides with hemp string over a simple woolen tunic. A small leather pouch hangs from his tanned and oiled leather belt, fastened with bronze buckle and he carries a dark leather shoulder-slung bag. Footware consists of lengths of leather wrapped around a linen sock.

James supplied a couple of goblin images that emerged from the OSR, unfortunately I don't know their exact origins, but they were quite good. Alongside these I had in mind the miniature sculptor Kevin Adams  Goblins and especially his mid-1980s  C12 Goblin range for Citadel Miniatures, along with something of Bil Sedgwicks anarchic comic strip goblin Anti-hero Gobbeldigook from White Dwarf Magazine, undoubtedly influenced by Arthur Rackhams goblins managerie. My original drawing was considered a little too evil, and James wanted a more neutral character suitable for a wider range of Player Characters, so I softened the expression and rounded the features a little, perhaps one or two of Joe Johnstons early concept art for Yoda from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, alongside Dave Trampiers comic cast of trolls from the classic Wormy comic strip from Dragon Magazine. 

There are exits here to: 

Basic / Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Old-School Essentials
The Gargantua  and Goblin Character Classes of the Grognards Grimoire at Grognardia.
The Urheim at Grognardia.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Orc Designs for Crooked Dice

A look at some of the concept drawings for Crooked Dice Orcs. The design process kicked off with a question: what might Orcs have looked like if they had appeared in an imaginary 1980s Swords and Sorcery movie?

To find an answer we scoured Orc imagery from the 1960s to the 1980s. The starting point suggested by Karl at Crooked Dice were the Orcs of the Dungeons & Dragons design bible, drawn by Tim Truman and used by TSR for the cartoon series and product merchandising - including the infamous LJN 'bendy' plastic toys. These are undoubtedly the most pop-culture incarnation of the Orc, so very on-brand for 7TV in it's pop-culture infused cinematic parallel-universe. Into the mix went several other Orcish references: Nilo Rodis-Jameros concept art for the Gammorean Guard of Return of the Jedi,  The Hildebrandt Bros Tolkien Calendar (which no doubt influenced Tims work for TSR) and their slightly more obscure Urshurak project where they further developed the long snouted pig-lizard motif, Tim Kirk's Tolkien Calendar and SPI games work, Rankin-Bass's The Hobbit cartoon, and of course Micheal Frith's work on Bored of the Rings and The Land of Gorch, Angus McBrides work for Middle-Earth Role Playing.

Example Research Page | D&D Cartoon Orcs

Having a direction to head towards, we also had to steer away from accidentally reproducing existing Pig Faced Orc miniatures - the whole idea being to give gamers something new to play with. From the venerable Grenadier range, through the renaissance of Pig Faced Orc miniatures led by Otherworld Miniatures, to the barbaric porkers of Lucid Eye, to the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon inspired from Antedeluvian Miniatures all great Orcs. As John Pickford would be sculpting the orc miniatures, it was crucial to avoid repeating the orcs he'd done for Foundry.

Conceptually all of this also created an opportunity to go back to the murky roots of Orcdom in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkiens Orcs are a military body, they march en-mass, they have hierarchies, they try to follow orders but are a bit thick and aggressive. The description of Orcs in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons has them as Lawful Evil, which suggests something, an orderliness, a sense of organisation that we also see in Tolkiens massed Orcish armies.  So rather than a motley gang of green skinned noble-savages or rag-tag band of mercenaries, with piece-meal scavenged equipment, the Orcs were envisioned as "The Foot-Soldiers of Evil", their arms and armour being manufactured en mass, as a uniform, on the orders of some off-screen evil overlord. 

With the research done and a direction set, but lots of elements still to be decided,  time to get some sketches under way:

Orc Footsoldier | Pencil Sketches

Physically the over-weight bow-legged ape-like physique owes much to Tim Trumans vision but is equally found in mid-80s orc miniatures like Kevin Adams Ugluds Armoured Orcs.  It lends a recognisably strong and bestial motif of humans closest relatives, perhaps a divergent evolutionary strain of simian or somesuch. The feet are bare - large, hard clawed leathery things rather than boots or sandals to keep them animalistic, and with the knuckle-dragging arms "the long arm of The Law" (har, har)  and wicked curved blades so near their exposed toes, perhaps none too bright.

Translating the pop-culture influences into an anachronistic mashup of bronze-age and early-modern military references also eschewed the rag-tag chainmail and leather of the Dark Ages armour that characterise the majority of the existing ranges. There is a lot of talk about Orcs being racial caricatures, and I wanted steer away from those kinds of interpretations, so the material references are to European arms and armour. The Orcs have English Civil War style breastplates melded with Roman cuirass - perhaps moulded to a piggishly aspirational porky paunch as well as deflecting blows, British Colonialist pith-style helmets with the plumes of the Household Cavalry that also echo Romano-British helms, along with  Hopelite greaves and Graeco-roman pteruges,  all of course simply and crudely made of iron and leather lending them an oddly out-of-place, quasi-historical fantasy feel.

Orc Warlord & Shield | Pencils

Then there are of course horns on the helmets. What are they about?  18th Century Romantic ideas about vikingsRitual war trophies of the Chang Naga from WW2? Extending a bovine element to a primitive ancestral monkey pig chimera? Yes. All these things. Similar to the mixing of historical references, In many ways design isn't about constructing a thing, but creating the imaginative space within which the thing can exist by itself, and monsters, even heavily codified pop-culture inflected footsoldiers of evil, must encompass the irrational...

With the physique, material culture and a variety of lumbering "at ready" poses settled, it remained to expand the range with some personalities, some of which have yet to emerge from the Orc breeding pits of Orthanc one dark and dismal day. Some work on the orcs faces - including much scribbling on the length of snout and pointed or roundness of nose, again, my aim was to avoid something that could not be mis-read as racial caricature, so ultimately decided almost bat-like pointed pig snout, giving their faces a constantly irritated expression. A shield device, mass produced and crudely simple developed emphasising the tusks.  Imagine, if you will, the furnaces of Isengard belching black smoke as production lines of barely cooled beaten iron armour are handed out to the lines of naked porky orcs preparing them for battle...

Orc Characters | Pencil Roughs

With the initial concepts and poses signed off,  took to drawing up in pen and ink as linework to clarify some of the details and add a little finesse. The drawings were intended to describe the overall design and provide John with a direction to base his sculpts on, so didn't need to work up all the poses etc.

Orc Footsoldier | Inked Concept Art

The Footsolider is armed with a triumvirate of traditional romanesque arms, a super-heavy plium, designed to destroy shields a, typically orcish scimitar in place of a straight-bladed gladius, and a small pugio hanging at the belt.

The other infamous orc-weapon is of course, the heavy axe...

Orc Warlord | Inked Concept Art

As we'd already established something of a trophy-language with the horns, of course the Leader gets bigger horns, but also a sabre-toothed skull and tooth necklace, along with a huge fur cloak which combined with the heavier armour also physically bulks out the model making him more impressive and dramatic on the tabletop than the rank and file, and perhaps conjures some cinematic images of a Roman general on campaign in the grim, dark and frostbitten forests of the north. The pose - shouting, giving orders, gesturing with his axe as a leader. He's also carrying a mug of ale, because he was off duty, in the tavern, when it all kicked off, and since the days of Uglúk force-marching Merry and Pippin to Isengard (and perhaps even before that) Orcs and grog just go together.

So with the inks dry, and scanned in, the drawings were sent over to John as guidelines  developing the final miniatures... 

 Sculpted by John Pickford | Painted by Andrew Taylor | Crooked Dice Orcs

And I'm sure you'll agree John has done a top job and made are some characterful additions, like the Celtic horned horse helmet on the champion, which ties in nicely with the bronze age and cavalry motifs, and a whole tranche of suitably orcy accoutrements, including a stunning standard bearer and musician to round out the command group. 

You can see more pictures of the entire Crooked Dice Orc range on Kickstarter, alongside some ex-Otherworld ranges including John Pickfords Goblins, Ogres, enormous Giant, and some brand new Boggarts from Andrew May. Waaaargh!