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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance is one of the most important CRPGs of all time in terms of both design and the genre’s commercial history. Coming as it did near the end of the line for an 8-bit CRPG tradition that began in earnest with the original Ultima and Wizardry games back in 1981, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of that tradition, blending the ideas and approaches of its predecessors with its own brand new commercial trump card, the Dungeons & Dragons license. The latter was more than enough to move Pool of Radiance and the Gold Box line it spawned into place as the 1B to the Ultima series’s perennial 1A, replacing the Bard’s Tale games, whose own shooting star was now in the descendant. As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.

My wife Dorte and I recently played through Pool of Radiance as the first stage in a grander project of trying to take the same party of characters through the entire four-game series that it begins. This article describes what we found therein.

Being the first game in a series that would spawn three direct sequels, Pool of Radiance limits your characters to somewhere between level 6 and 9, depending on class; this is strictly a low- to mid-level adventure, reserving the real power-gaming for its sequels. Still, there’s a big difference between level 1 and level 6, and the thrill of seeing your characters advance and grow in power, so much at the heart of an RPG’s appeal, is the greatest at the lower levels.

The story is appropriate to the characters’ somewhat limited powers. It’s surprisingly modest in scale and scope, at least within the over-the-top context of ludic fantasy in general. Instead of saving the world, you’re “only” out to save a little town called Phlan that’s been largely overrun with monsters in recent years. Like so much about Pool of Radiance, the scenario harks back to the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, to iconic low-level adventures like Gary Gygax’s own The Keep on the Borderlands and the classic British module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In these, as in Pool of Radiance, the stakes for the campaign world are relatively low but the stakes for the players’ party couldn’t be higher. There are, thank God, no “Chosen Ones” or existential universal threats in Pool of Radiance, a welcome distinction that largely holds true throughout the Gold Box line.

In addition to the decidedly modest heights to which characters are allowed to rise in Pool of Radiance specifically, the need to fit the Gold Box games in general into TSR’s existing milieus tended to rein in such excesses. You can’t have every party saving the world when said world needs to be shared by hundreds of adventure modules, source books, computer games, and novels. Those who are invested in the Forgotten Realms as a setting will be able to situate Phlan on a map of the Realms and enjoy the lengthy explication of the region’s history and geography included with the game. Those like me who couldn’t really care less how Phlan fits into the greater Realms don’t have to worry about it.

More interesting to me is the game’s method of telling the more immediate story of your own party of adventurers. As in the contemporaneous Wasteland, much of that story is moved into an accompanying booklet of paragraphs. To my mind, though, Pool of Radiance‘s paragraph book is richer and more interesting than that of Wasteland. In addition to flavor text, you’ll also find maps, diagrams, and illustrations inside the paragraph book to further enrich the experience. And, while I wouldn’t accuse the writing of being precisely good, it is knowing and entertaining in its pulpy cheesiness — and really, how much more can one expect out of such an artificial narrative experience as a traditional monster-bashing CRPG? Dorte and I laughed at the writing a lot, but, hey, it was good-natured laughter; we didn’t go in expecting Shakespeare.

Pool of Radiance

When starting Pool of Radiance, the first order of business — after getting past the irritating code-wheel-based copy protection, that is — must be to create your six-character adventuring party. As was remarked often by disappointed purists back in the day, Pool of Radiance offers nothing close to a full implementation of the byzantine collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers. You can, for instance, choose among only the four core, archetypal character classes of fighter, cleric, magic user, and thief, combining them with the six races of human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling. Personally, I don’t consider such simplifications a negative at all really. Trust me, what’s here is more than (over)complicated enough. More on that later.

Don't you just love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

Don’t you love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

As usual for games of this tradition, Pool of Radiance lets you re-roll a character’s statistics as many times as you like to get someone you consider viable. Or, if you like, the game lets you bypass all of the virtual dice-rolling and just input starting ability scores of your choice for your characters. Implemented in the service of some ill-defined scheme to let you move your favorite tabletop characters into the computer game, the feature was promptly used by legions of cheaters to make parties full of super characters with the maximum score of 18 in every attribute. But the final joke was on them: Pool of Radiance punishes such players by scaling some of the fights to the overall power of the party, leading to some long, drawn-out combats for the cheaters that those who play fair will breeze through. As we’re beginning to see already, this game does have a way of proving itself more cleverly designed than one initially wants to give it credit for.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI's programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI’s programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics.

Pool of Radiance

Once you’ve put your party together, you can finally begin the game proper. It opens with your arrival by boat at the last remaining human enclave in the once-thriving village, and a brief guided tour thereof by a representative of the town. The screen layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale game. I would say, however, that just the guide’s introduction alone already contains more text and story content than either of those games.

After the guide is finished, you can start to explore. The opening area is devoid of monsters and completely safe (well, almost; stay out of taverns for a while). It contains all the expected accoutrements of a CRPG home base: shops of various sorts, temples for healing, a training hall for leveling up.

Pool of Radiance

It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) Players of course always ignore all the Gallic gibberish and just pick out a trusty long sword, axe, or mace. None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hoards, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.

Pool of Radiance

Another nod to the classic tabletop experience is the table of “tavern tales” found in the paragraph book, just like the ones found in Keep on the Borderlands and all those other early Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. (How many modules start with the party meeting in a tavern and overhearing rumors about that nearby castle/dungeon/graveyard/monastery?)

Pool of Radiance

Your goals in Pool of Radiance are delivered in the form of commissions found at the city clerk’s office. Several are usually available at any one time, giving the game a welcome non-linearity. As you carry out commissions, you return to the clerk to check them off your to-do list and to receive rewards in the form of experience and money. The whole process is immensely satisfying. As you build up your party, you venture further and further afield, claiming back more and more of Phlan from the monsters. This modest exercise in urban renewal feels far more rewarding than the elaborate save-the-world plots found in most CRPGs.

Another thing that happens as you complete commissions is that you gain a better and better overview of Phlan and its environs as a whole, learning how it all fits together. As usual in such old-school CRPGs as this one, each area is a fixed size, of 16 by 16 squares in this case. Yet SSI made the effort to make them fit together in logical, even intriguing ways to build a larger environment. If you can manage to get yourself in the right frame of mind, mapping really does become one of Pool of Radiance‘s pleasures. Dorte, a spatial-puzzle-loving fan of Carcassonne and Blokus in all the ways I am not, is the cartographer when we play Gold Box games. (I’m the driver; she wants nothing to do with that quirky interface.) I caught her from time to time when we weren’t playing redrawing and repositioning and even taping together her level maps to create a grand plan of Phlan: “This is fun!”

Making mapping far more fun in Pool of Radiance is the game’s complete disinterest in all of the nonsense that’s usually associated with it. There are no spinners or teleports or other artificial time-extenders and frustration-inducers. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance has enough real content that it doesn’t need that stuff. Indeed, the designers bent over backward to make mapping as painless as possible. Your grid location on the current map is usually shown right there onscreen, as is the direction you’re currently facing; note the “5, 5” and the “E” respectively on the screenshot above. There’s even an overhead auto-map of sorts. It’s not quite ideal — doors don’t show up on it, nor for that matter anything else other than walls and corridors — but, hey, it shows that they were trying. It’s all part of a thoroughgoing theme of Pool of Radiance, that of duplicating most of the gameplay of its predecessors in the broadest strokes, but doing it all just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and most of all with a little bit more mercy on you, the long-suffering player.

For instance, consider the case of the wandering monster. In Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, entering a new area always brings a little thrill of excitement as you get to see what types of new critters now come after you. That excitement dissipates, however, as the same handful of monsters just keep coming at you. Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map without being attacked by endless hordes of the same old same old.

Pool of Radiance fixes this problem, simply and ingeniously and without requiring much technical innovation at all. When you enter a new area, you do indeed find it populated with the expected horde of wandering monsters. Once you’ve fought and won a certain number of combats, though, they simply stop coming. Your overarching goal being to clear the monsters out of Phlan, this makes a great deal of thematic sense for this particular game. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense as good game design in general. Combined with lots of interesting fixed encounters, far more than the one or two typical of a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale dungeon level, it keeps the game from ever descending into a dull grindfest. Just when you’re starting to get tired of a stream of samey encounters, they stop. I can’t overemphasize what a difference this one simple act of mercy makes for my own enjoyment of Pool of Radiance. Suddenly an entire genre of gaming that used to bore me becomes a pleasure. The older I get and the more loathe I become to waste my time on anything if I can help it, the more my first rule of game design becomes a match for my first rule of writing: don’t be boring.

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance‘s adherence to that maxim extends to the times when you do have to fight; combat in this game is a magnificent experience. I think most fans of Pool of Radiance and the other Gold Box games would agree with me that their beating heart is the best combat engine yet devised for a CRPG at the time of their release. Indeed, some would argue that these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if your definition of good CRPG combat is a cerebral, tactical, turn-based affair. (Granted, such a thing is not particularly in step with mainstream tastes these days.) There’s a welcome logic at play here that’s painfully absent from virtually all of the Gold Box series’s rivals. Because combat is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in these old CRPGs, the designers of this one decided to take the time to make it really, really great.

And, like so much about the Gold Box games, the focus on intricate combat is also a perfect fit for the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons license. Many have accused that game of not being a role-playing game at all, rather a 1:1-scale wargame focusing on combat almost to the exclusion of all else. Whether you consider that description to be a criticism or not — one suspects that that’s exactly what many if not most players really wanted from the game anyway — Pool of Radiance does its inspiration proud. Just as combat is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is the essence of the Gold Box games.

Take, for instance, the inevitable mass-damage Fireball spell, a staple of just about every fantasy CRPG ever made. When your magic user gains access to Fireball in the latter stages of Pool of Radiance, it’s a big moment. Yet it’s still not something you can use quite as mindlessly as you can in other games. This Fireball spell has a set area of effect, and doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. Therefore you need to place it very, very carefully to avoid nuking your own party. You also have to reckon with range, line of sight, and even the spell’s casting time when doing so; if your magic user gets hit while she’s busy casting a spell, she loses it. None of which is to say that a spell like Fireball isn’t wonderful. Quite the opposite: it’s all the more satisfying when a well-placed explosion takes out an entire rank of orcs. And then there’s Lightning Bolt, another spell you’ll acquire at about the same time as Fireball that’s even more tricky to set up just perfectly, and even more satisfying when it works. There are many layers to the onion of Gold Box combat, and they only multiply as you climb the ranks and build more powerful characters — and of course find yourself fighting more powerful monsters as you do so, often with special attacks of their own to go with unique immunities and vulnerabilities that demand you adjust your tactics constantly.

In fact, one might argue that when it comes to combat Pool of Radiance actually betters the typical tabletop experience as most real players knew it. Gary Gygax’s elaborate rules for combat presumed a lot of knowledge about where all of the various combatants were standing in relation to one another and the environment, but it was never entirely clear how to plot and keep track of all that without infinite time to draw up floor plans or construct scale models of the environment. But the computerized Dungeons & Dragons has no problem coming up with such plans on the fly, presenting each battle using wargamey “miniatures” that would have warmed Gygax’s heart and keeping track of all of the other complications that usually led to fudging, simplifying, and house-ruling the tabletop game. One might say that all those fiddly rules were just waiting all along for SSI to come along and make them actually playable. Gold Box combat rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s so wonderful that I’m willing to forgive a lot about the rest of the game that surrounds it.

And that’s good because, almost paradoxically given how progressive Pool of Radiance is in many ways, there really is quite a lot to forgive here. The game’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: almost every one of its numerous frustrating, infuriating qualities stems from an overzealous faithfulness to the fiddly rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

To begin with, there’s the racial level limits, which arbitrarily cap the maximum advancement in all classes except thief for all races except humans. The levels limits are something of a hidden poison pill whose effect won’t hit you until you import your old party with all of their hard-won experience into Pool of Radiance‘s sequel. It comes as a hard blow indeed when you realize that some of your stalwarts are going to be untenable because they can’t keep pace with the escalating power of the opponents they will be facing in that game and the ones that follow. All you can do is cast your old non-human characters aside and roll up new, human characters to replace them. This is terrible game design, all courtesy of our old friend Gary Gygax. Here’s his justification:

The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or elven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

Like so many of Gygax’s justifications, this one is patent nonsense. (I do, however, treasure the smirking reference to what’s “in vogue” — classic Gygax through and through.) The way to ensure that humans stay viable and desirable, if that’s a design goal, isn’t to cripple all of the other races so badly that they become pointless, but to offer some similar off-setting advantage to humans. Humans in TSR’s own Star Frontiers tabletop RPG, for instance, get to add some bonus points to the ability scores of their players’ choice, justified with a paean to humanity’s sheer jack-of-all-trades adaptability in contrast to the more specialized powers of the other races.

Pool of Radiance

We also have Gygax to thank for Pool of Radiance‘s convoluted method of handling spells. Unlike virtually every other CRPG but like tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition. Because you usually don’t know precisely what kind of monsters you’ll be fighting in the course of said expedition, you’re continually being caught out with the wrong selection of spells. Run into a pack of disease-causing undead without having memorized Cure Disease? Too bad; reload back at camp and try a different spell arsenal. Run into the rare locked door that your fighters can’t bash in, and you don’t have Knock memorized? Take the long walk back to a safe area to rest and memorize it. There’s no strategy to any of this, just rote trial and error. The system is actively damaging to the pleasure induced by that magnificent combat engine. Because so many of the more specialized spells are useful only in specific situations, you end up treating every encounter as a nail and always having lots of Fireball hammers memorized to bash it with. How much better would it be to feel the thrill of satisfaction that comes with a well-timed Animate Dead, Blink, or Invisibility 10′ Radius?

One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement the tabletop rules’ requirement that characters collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells. (Interestingly, a similar system did show up in Ultima, with its system of “reagents.”) Presumably it was just too much to fit into a program that needed to run on a Commodore 64 — and thank God for that.

The most initially baffling of all the design choices in Pool of Radiance — baffling, that is, if you aren’t familiar with the tabletop game — is its handling of money. First of all, the game insists on dividing your funds into different types of coins — platinum, gold, electrum, ad nauseam — and keeping rigorous track of exactly how many of each coin your characters carry. It would be like a game with a contemporary setting telling you that you have 2 five-dollar bills, 2 one-dollar bills, 3 quarters, 1 dime, 1 nickel, and 7 pennies instead of just telling you you have $12.97. All because, once again, that’s how Gygax says you should do it. The Gold Box games are quite possibly the only CRPGs in history where your quest can hinge on whether you have the correct change for something. How’s that for heroic fantasy?

Pool of Radiance

And then there’s just so much money. Phlan and its environs are drowning in wealth. Because the weight of all of those individualized coins is meticulously tracked, you can’t carry it all; never have Dorte and I wished more for a bank than during our time in Phlan. Within a few hours, you’ll be leaving mountains of coins behind after encounters as a matter of course, dropping coins in the street, leaving shopkeepers 1000-platinum-piece tips after spending 10 gold pieces on a few arrows. Forget trying to reclaim the village from the monsters; there’s enough money in Phlan to buy each and every citizen a mansion in whatever is the Forgotten Realms’s equivalent of Beverly Hills. What on earth is going on here? Why would anyone design a game this way?

Well, what’s going on here is a vicious conflict between the needs of Pool of Radiance the computer game and the tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Those rules are as persnickety about experience points as they are about most things, allowing Dungeon Masters to award them for exactly two things: killing monsters and finding treasure. A tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign is — or was meant to be — a slow-paced affair, with characters spending many months at each level. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide and elsewhere, Dungeon Masters are continually cautioned not to let their campaigns devolve into “Monty Haul” affairs where magic items and experience points are passed out like candy. Yet a CRPG like Pool of Radiance is in fact by necessity a Monty Haul affair. People don’t want to spend months waiting for their computer characters to level up. People want to see them move through the ranks in relatively short order, want a more concentrated dose of the RPG experience. So, SSI needed to increase the pace. The obvious way to do that was to hand out more experience more quickly. Yet they were bound to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that coupled experience awards strictly to monsters killed and hoards looted. And now we begin to understand the broken economy: all that money is flying around strictly as a way of passing experience to characters without violating the letter of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules; the spirit of the rules is, of course, another matter entirely.

The natural next question is to ask why SSI felt themselves bound so strictly to the tabletop rules, even when it proved so damaging to the finished product. The obvious supposition is that TSR, fiercely protective of Dungeons & Dragons as they always were both before and after the era of Gary Gygax, told them they were so bound. The contemporary adventure-game reviewer and columnist Shay Addams, who may or may not have been reporting information gleamed from contacts at SSI, claimed that “TSR insisted that SSI stick by the original rules, and they had final say on the finished product.” While the latter assertion is certainly true, the idea of an overly pedantic, nitpicky TSR is somewhat cast into doubt by the fact that people who were associated with the Gold Box project at SSI don’t tend to describe the relationship in those terms today. Instead we hear always of a genuinely collaborative relationship filled with lots of give and take, a relationship so warm that it spawned cross-company friendships that persisted in some cases long after both companies ceased to exist. Further, one has to presume that the folks SSI was working with at TSR were all too aware themselves of what a confusing muddle Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could be, for they were hard at work on a second edition of the rules that was meant to untangle some of their Gygaxian knots at the very time that SSI was developing Pool of Radiance.

But, whether the compulsion to so literally translate so many rules from tabletop to desktop arose from within TSR or SSI, Addams is right about its effect: “That restriction must have been creatively inhibiting, for it means ignoring much of what game designers have learned about writing RPGs designed to be played on a computer — which are decidedly different from face-to-face games.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved a double-edged sword for Pool of Radiance, the source of much of what is good in it and most of what is bad. I’m not sure that I’ve ever reviewed another game that so freely mixes really good ideas with really bad ones. Too often Pool of Radiance feels like playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with the most humorlessly pedantic Dungeon Master ever.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad — which I must say kind of surprises me, given that there’s so very much I love to complain about in this game. One big difference-maker is certainly that the thing that Pool of Radiance does best, tactical combat, it does so insanely well. And then when we get out of the weeds of the irritating minutiae of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and look at Pool of Radiance in a more holistic sense, those shocking progressive tendencies do overshadow the pedanticism in the final reckoning. Unlike so many of its contemporary CRPGs, there’s a sense about this one that its designers actually tried to walk a mile in their players’ shoes. Pool of Radiance is very solvable in comparison to an Ultima with its fragile string-of-pearls approach to plotting, and doesn’t wear out its welcome like a Bard’s Tale with its boring empty mazes and boring endless combats. If you told me that you only planned to play one 1980s-vintage CRPG in your life, I’d tell you to make it this one.

Thankfully, it’s recently become much easier to do just that. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are now available on GOG.com along with all the other Gold Box games, ready to run on modern computers. These versions emulate the MS-DOS versions, which are faster, prettier (relatively speaking), and easier to play than the Commodore 64 originals. (Trust me, you don’t want to play 8-bit CRPGs in their 8-bit incarnations, unless you really, really enjoying swapping mounds of disks and waiting, waiting, waiting at every turn.)

I won’t lie to you: the learning curve can be a little steep with these games. To try to alleviate that just a bit, I’ll close today by offering some hard-won tips Dorte and I assembled after our own recent play-through. Crude and ugly and opaque though it may appear in the beginning, stick with it for an hour or two and you may be surprised at just how compelling Pool of Radiance can become. Sure, you might find yourself complaining the whole time you play; it’s just that kind of game. But give it a fair chance and soon you might not want to quit playing either. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?


 

A Few Tips On How to Best Enjoy Your Time in Phlan (and Beyond)

  • Take the time (and paper and ink) to print out the paragraph book rather than relying on a digital copy. There’s something to be said for the old-school physicality of flipping through actual pages to find notes and clues. And of course if you have a physical copy it’s easy to put a tick next to the entries you’ve read. Don’t peek at entries you haven’t been asked to read, and certainly don’t just read the paragraph book straight through. This game deserves to be played fair, on its own terms.
  • Plenty of modern players will want to bail as soon as they get a look at Pool of Radiance‘s bizarre-by-modern-standards keyboard-only interface. But have faith: yes, the interface is bizarre, but it’s consistent in its bizarreness. In general, you move up and down through vertical menus of nouns by using the 7 and 1 key on the numeric keypad, and select from horizontal menus of verbs by pressing the first letter of your choice. Every option available to you at any given time is always displayed onscreen, showing that SSI was by no means totally ignorant of the principles of good interface design. You can move your party about the world and move the cursor about the scene of combat using the numeric keypad as well. Within a few hours the interface will start to feel like a comfortable old shoe. No, really. Trust me.
  • Especially if you’re planning to take the grand tour through all three of Pool of Radiance‘s sequels, you’ll want to think carefully about the party you put together. All of the non-human races are pretty much right out, despite their ability to multi-class and other special abilities, because they come with crippling level limits that you will likely hit well before the end of the second game. As for classes, Dorte and I did quite well with a party made up of three fighters, two clerics, and one magic user. (I’m not a big fan of thieves, although their back-stabbing ability can be fun.) Having an extra cleric on-hand to heal and fight alongside your fighters can really come in handy at the lower levels, and having two clerics to turn undead in the graveyard, one of the toughest parts of Pool of Radiance, can be a lifesaver in many combats. In the second game you get the chance to turn one of your clerics and perhaps one of your fighters into magic users by doing something called dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing. Use it to build an offensive-magic-heavy party for the later games, where spells count for more and more and swords for less and less.
  • You’ll want to take your time making each individual character, re-rolling as many times as necessary to get one that will be viable in the long term; attribute scores, if not quite set in stone, can be increased only very rarely throughout the series. I recommend that each character should have a score of at least 17 in her class’s core attribute (Strength for fighters, Intelligence for magic users, Wisdom for clerics, Dexterity for thieves). Every character should have at least a 15 in Dexterity and Constitution, respectively to be able to move quickly in combat and to get bonus hit points with every level gain. And even the less critical ability scores shouldn’t be too awful; I would set 12 as an absolute floor. In order to dual-class in a later game, a character has to have at least a 15 in the core attribute of her old class and at least a 17 in that of her new; keep that in mind when planning your party and rolling your characters.
  • Buy a hand mirror for each character in one of the general stores in Phlan right away. No, it’s not vanity (although some of the hairstyles in Pool of Radiance might make you think otherwise). Trust me, you’ll thank me when the time comes.
  • Buy a bow and arrows for each of your fighters to go with their melee weapons. Thanks to the turn-based combat, you can switch back and forth at will on the fly, and it’s great to be able to cut down enemies at a distance.
  • Stay out of taverns early in the game to avoid the classic first-time Pool of Radiance experience of getting your new party embroiled in a massive, baffling free-for-all of a bar fight that leaves them all dead and you wondering what the hell just happened. I suspect that more players have bailed permanently on the game right there than at any other point.
  • Maps of all of Pool of Radiance are available in many places, including the official clue book that comes with the game if you buy it from GOG.com. Use them if you must. Before you do, though, at least take a stab at mapping the old-fashioned way. Again, the physicality of mapping on graph paper adds an ineffable something to the experience.
  • When pursuing commissions, remember that you don’t need to do them in the order they’re presented to you. If one is proving too difficult, save it for later and try another.
  • Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, either kill them with fire — tricky to do at the lower levels — or keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.
  • Early in your travels, you’ll encounter a notoriously difficult room full of trolls. Don’t feel like you have to defeat them right there and then. Go on and build up your strength a bit more, then come back for them.
  • To tackle the graveyard, your entire party needs to be equipped with silver or (preferably) magical weapons. Remember to use your cleric(s) to turn undead at the beginning of every fight involving undead monsters!
  • Dead, in the sense of 0 hit points, is not usually dead in Pool of Radiance. Unless the character was hit very hard, you can usually keep her alive but unconscious for the rest of the fight by bandaging her or casting Cure Light Wounds on her. You’ll definitely want to do so, given that…
  • Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are. Think long and hard about whether that’s a price you’re willing to pay, or whether you should just try that last fight again.
  • You can convert your lower-denomination coins to platinum by “Pooling” your money inside a shop, then picking it up — or some portion of it — before you leave. This gives you more buying power for less weight carried. Even better, you can store your wealth yet more efficiently as gems and jewelry that you can sell whenever you have need of a little walking-around money.
  • If you have a set of the old first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers lying around, or are willing to spring for digital copies, it’s a good idea to consult them when you aren’t sure what something does or is. Some of the more obscure magic items and spells in Pool of Radiance aren’t properly explained anywhere else. Dorte thought these musty old books with the cheesy covers were hilarious when I dug them out — she persisted in calling them “the nerd books” — but she did keep asking me to look stuff up in them. Which brings me to…
  • Play with a partner, one of you mapping and one of you driving. Like all good things in life, a good game becomes even better when it’s shared. And wouldn’t you like to have someone to high-five when you use all your (combined) wits to win a tough fight?

(Sources: Shay Addams’s review of Pool of Radiance is found in the October 1988  Questbusters, and the Gary Gygax quote in the September 1979 Dragon.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 3: From Tabletop to Desktop

Joel Billings of SSI never had a whole lot of use for Dungeons & Dragons, TSR, or RPGs in general. In this he was hardly unique among hardcore wargamers. The newer hobby had arisen directly from the older, forcing each and every grognard to a judgement and a reckoning. Some wargamers saw in RPGs the experiential games they had really been wanting to play all along; they jumped onto the RPG bandwagon and never looked back. Others, the ones who found Montgomery and Rommel far more interesting than Frodo and Sauron, scoffed at RPGs and their silly fantasies and clung all the tighter to their Avalon Hill and SPI boxes. And of course some split the difference, playing a little of this and a little of that.

Joel counted himself among the scoffers. His one experience with playing Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t been a positive one: a sadistic Dungeon Master killed his whole party before he had even begun to figure out what was going on. “This is the stupidest game I’ve ever seen,” he concluded. He never felt seriously tempted to try it again.

By the time that SSI was off and running, Joel and other wargame stalwarts like him had more reasons than ever to dislike RPGs. The late 1970s, you’ll remember, had seen the wargame at its commercial zenith, the RPG the exciting, fast-rising upstart genre. As the 1980s dawned and Dungeons & Dragons exploded into a popularity no wargame had ever dreamed of, it was hard not to blame one genre’s rapid rise for the other’s slow decline. Already in 1982 SPI, alongside Avalon Hill one of the twin giants of wargaming, found themselves in a serious financial crisis brought on partly by the general decline of the wargame market, partly by the general recession afflicting the American economy at the time, and partly by general mismanagement all too typical of their hobbyist-driven industry. TSR, now more than ten times the size of SPI thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons fad, gave them a secured loan of $425,000 to keep their doors open a while longer.

It will likely never be known whether what happened next was the result of Machiavellian scheming or just Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers’ usual bumbling approach to running TSR. Just two weeks after giving SPI the loan, TSR inexplicably called it in again. Having already used TSR’s money to satisfy their other creditors, SPI had no possible way to pay back the loan. TSR therefore foreclosed, announcing that they were taking over SPI. Shortly thereafter, realizing that SPI was so financially upside down as to become a negative asset on their books, they announced that what they had actually meant to say was that they were assuming ownership of all of SPI’s assets but none of their debts. When SPI’s creditors balked at this brazen attempt by TSR to have their cake and eat it too, TSR negotiated to pay them off for pennies on the dollar; something was better than nothing, figured the creditors. The end result was an SPI bankruptcy filing in effect if not in fact.

But any old wargamer who thought that the TSR purchase heralded better days for the company and the hobby was quickly disabused of that notion. TSR proved a terrible steward of SPI’s legacy, alienating their entire old design team so badly that they left en masse to reform as a new Avalon Hill subsidiary called Victory Games. Worse, TSR claimed that their acquisition of SPI’s assets had not included the paid-up subscriptions to SPI’s beloved house organ Strategy & Tactics; subscriptions were not assets at all, you see, but “liabilities.” Every Strategy & Tactics subscriber, even those who had splashed out a bundle for a “lifetime” subscription, would have to re-up immediately to continue receiving the magazine. And no, there would be no compensation for missed issues from the old regime. This act of betrayal of SPI’s most loyal customers didn’t just kill the most respected wargaming magazine in the world; it also, as Greg Costikyan puts it, shot the old subculture of wargaming in general in the head.

So, if a veteran wargamer like Joel Billings needed further reason to dislike all this Dungeons & Dragons silliness, there he had it. Trip Hawkins, a member of SSI’s board from the company’s inception, claims that he started telling Joel that he should branch out into CRPGs almost immediately after SSI was founded. But, although SSI quickly began to supplement their wargames with sports titles and other sorts of strategy games, Joel resisted CRPGs, saying that he preferred to publish “the games that he enjoyed personally.” RPGs, whether played on the tabletop or the desktop, clearly weren’t in that category.

Although Joel did nothing to encourage CRPG submissions, in late 1983 a fairly decent one arrived of its own accord. Written by two teenage brothers, Charles and John Dougherty, Questron had already ping-ponged around the industry a bit before it reached SSI. When the Dougherty brothers had sent it to Origin Systems, Richard Garriott had not only rejected it but told them in no uncertain terms to expect legal trouble if they dared to release something he considered to be so obviously derivative of his own Ultima games. Word of Garriott’s displeasure may very well have made the other major publishers shy away, until it ended up with the Doughertys’ long shot, nichey little SSI. Joel decided that, with a first entry in the genre all but gift-wrapped on his desk, he might as well dip a toe into these new waters and see how it went. SSI published Questron in February of 1984, albeit only after finding a way to placate an angry Garriott, who learned of their plans to do so at the January 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show and pitched a royal fit. Joel gave him a small stake in Questron‘s action and a small note on its box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.”

Questron

Questron proved a modest start to something very significant. The game, benefiting from the lack of new Ultima or Wizardry titles during 1984, did unexpectedly well. In fact, when the Commodore 64 port of the Apple II original shipped in August, it became the fastest-selling new release SSI had ever enjoyed. The final total would hit almost 35,000 copies, pretty good numbers for a company whose average game still failed to break 10,000 copies. Some meeting notes dated December 2, 1984, make the new thinking that resulted clear: “Going into fantasy games now, could really affect sales favorably.” A little over a month later, SSI was already going through something of an identity crisis: are we a “wargame company” or a more generalized “computer-game company,” more meeting notes plaintively ask.

But SSI would have a hard time building on the momentum of Questron in the time-honored game-industry way of turning it into a franchise. In the contract the Dougherty brothers had signed with SSI, the latter was granted a right of first refusal of a potential sequel. This put the Doughertys in essentially the same situation as a restricted free agent in sports: they were free to shop a potential Questron II to other publishers if they wished, but they had to allow SSI the chance to match any publisher’s offer before signing a final contract. Not understanding or choosing to ignore this stipulation, the Doughertys allowed themselves to be poached by none other than Trip Hawkins’s Electronic Arts, who, with The Bard’s Tale series still in the offing, were eager to hedge their bets with another potential new CRPG franchise. SSI knew nothing about what was going on until the Doughertys announced that they had gone over to the slicker, better-distributed Electronic Arts — farewell and thank you very much for everything. Feeling compelled to defend his own company’s interests, Joel sued Electronic Arts and the Doughertys. A potential Questron series remained in limbo, its momentum dissipating, while the lawsuit dragged on. The situation doubtless made for some strained times back at SSI’s offices, where board-member Trip Hawkins was still coming every month for the directors meeting.

The suit wasn’t settled until April of 1987, ostensibly at least largely in SSI’s favor. The Doughertys’ long-delayed sequel was published shortly thereafter by Electronic Arts, but under the new title of Legacy of the Ancients. Meanwhile the Doughertys were obliged to design, but not to program, a Questron II for SSI; the programming of the sequel could either be done in-house by SSI or outsourced elsewhere at their discretion. It ended up going to Westwood Associates, a frequent SSI contractor on ports and other unglamorous technical tasks who would soon be making a bigger name for themselves as a developer of original games. Released at last in February of 1988, Questron II felt rather uninspired, as one might expect given the forced circumstances of its creation. It did surprisingly well, though, outselling the first Questron by some 16,000 copies. Rather than its own merits, its success was likely down to increasing enthusiasm for CRPGs in general among gamers, and to other things going on that year that were suddenly making little SSI among the biggest names in the genre.

Questron II

In the immediate wake of Questron I‘s release and success, however, those events were still well in the future. Neither Joel Billings’s troubles with his two teenage problem children nor his personal ambivalence toward CRPGs deterred him from recognizing the potential that game had highlighted. Never a publisher to shy away from releasing lots of games, SSI added CRPGs to their ongoing firehose of new wargames. To Joel Billings the businessman’s pleasure if perhaps to Joel Billings the wargamer’s chagrin, the average SSI CRPG continued to do far, far better than the average wargame. Indeed, their very next CRPG(ish) game after Questron, an unusual action hybrid called Gemstone Warrior released in December of 1984, became their first game of any type to top 50,000 copies sold. The more traditional Phantasie — names weren’t really SSI’s strong suit — in March of 1985 also topped the magic 50,000 mark. Soon the CRPGs were coming almost as quickly as the wargames: Rings of Zilfin (January 1986, 17,479 sold); Phantasie II (February 1986, 30,100 sold); Wizard’s Crown (February 1986, 47,676 sold); Shard of Spring (July 1986, 11,942 sold); Roadwar 2000 (August 1986, 44,044 sold); Gemstone Healer (September 1986, 6030 sold); Realms of Darkness (February 1987, 9022 sold); Phantasie III (March 1987, 46,113 sold); The Eternal Dagger (June 1987, 18,471 sold); Roadwar Europa (July 1987, 18,765 sold).

As the list above attests, sales figures for these games were all over place, but trended generally a bit downward over time as SSI flooded the market. Yet one thing did remain constant: the average SSI CRPG continued to outsell the average SSI wargame by a healthy margin. (The only exception to this rule was Roger Damon’s remarkable Wargame Construction Set, which after its release in October of 1986 became a surprise hit, the first SSI game to crack 60,000 copies sold.) All of these SSI CRPGs — so many coming so close together that it’s difficult even for dedicated fans of the genre’s history to keep them all straight — occupied a comfortable if less than prestigious second rung in the industry as a whole. To describe them as the games you played while you waited for the next Ultima or The Bard’s Tale may sound unkind, but it’s largely accurate. Like SSI’s other games, they tended to be a little bit uglier and a little bit clunkier than the competition.

Wizard's Crown

At their best, though, the rules behind these games felt more consciously designed than the games in the bigger, more respected series — doubtless a legacy of SSI’s wargame roots. This quality is most notable in Wizard’s Crown. The most wargamey of all SSI’s CRPGs, Wizard’s Crown was not coincidentally also the first CRPG to be designed in-house by the company’s own small staff of developers, led by Paul Murray and Keith Brors, the two most devoted tabletop Dungeons & Dragons fans in the office. Built around a combat engine of enormous tactical depth in comparison to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, it may not be a sustainedly fun game — the sheer quantity and detail of the fights gets exhausting well before the end, and the game has little else to offer — but it’s one of real importance in the history of both SSI and the CRPG. Wizard’s Crown and its sequel The Eternal Dagger, you see, were essentially a dry run for the series of games that would remake SSI’s image.

Coming off a disappointing 1986, the first year in which SSI had failed to increase their earnings over the previous year, Joel Billings was greeted with some news that was rapidly sweeping the industry: that TSR was interested in making a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and that they would soon be listening to pitches from interested parties. To say that Dungeons & Dragons was a desirable license hardly begins to state the case. This was the license in CRPGs, the name that inexplicably wasn’t there already, a yawning absence about to become a smothering presence at last. Everyone wanted it, and had wanted it for quite some time. That group included SSI as much as anyone; once again pushing aside any misgivings about getting into bed with the company that had shot his own favorite hobby in the head, Joel had been one of the many to contact TSR in earlier years, asking if they were interested in a licensing deal. They hadn’t been then, but now they suddenly were. Encouraged by Murray and Brors and other rabid Dungeons & Dragons fans around the office, Joel decided to put on a “full-court press,” as he describes it, to spare no effort in trying to get the deal for his own little company. Sure, it looked like one David versus a whole lot of Goliaths, but what the hell, right?

The full list of Goliaths with which SSI was competing for the license has never been published, but in interviews Joel has mentioned Origin Systems (of Ultima fame) and Electronic Arts (of The Bard’s Tale fame) as having been among them. As for the other contenders, we do know that there were at least seven more of them. One need only understand the desirability of the license to assume that the seven (or more) must have been a veritable computer-game who’s who. “We were going head to head with the best in the industry,” remembers Chuck Kroegel, a programmer and project manager on SSI’s in-house development team.

SSI was duly granted their hearing, scheduled for April 8, 1987, at TSR’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, headquarters. With a scant handful of weeks to prepare, they scrambled desperately to throw together some technology demos; these felt unusually important to SSI’s pitch, given that they were hardly known as a producer of slick or graphically impressive games. Those with a modicum of artistic talent digitized some monster portraits out of the Monster Manual on a Commodore Amiga, coloring them and adding some spot animation. Meanwhile the programmers put together a scrolling three-dimensional dungeon maze, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale but better (at least by SSI’s own reckoning), on a Commodore 64.

But it was always understood that these hasty demos were only a prerequisite for making a pitch, a way to show that SSI had the minimal competency do this stuff rather a real selling point. When SSI’s five-man team — consisting of Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Chuck Kroegel, the newly hired head of internal development Victor Penman, and Vice President of Sales Randy Broweleit — boarded their plane for Lake Geneva, they were determined to really sell TSR on a vision: a vision of not just a game or two but a whole new computerized wing of Dungeons & Dragons that might someday equal or eclipse the tabletop variant. The pitch document that accompanied their presentation has been preserved in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. I want to quote its key paragraphs, the “Overview,” in full.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game system would be provided as a series of modules built around a central character-creation, combat, and magic system. The first release would be this central system, which would include a modest dungeon adventure. It would be followed by the release of a number of adventure modules suitable for beginning-level characters. With the passage of time, higher-level adventures and more character types would be offered. Editors which would permit users to create their own dungeons, outdoors, and cities would also be provided. The timing on the introduction of these later releases would be determined by market demand.

The first release would be the central system. It would be similar to the Player’s Handbook in that it would provide for the creation of a number of character classes, combat, and spells. The players would draw on these abilities to create their characters for adventuring. Also included in this first release would be an introductory dungeon adventure in which the computer program would perform as DM.

This first release would be followed by a number of adventure games similar to TSR’s dungeon and adventure modules. The earliest of these would be aimed at beginning characters. As time passed and players had an opportunity to build up more powerful characters, more challenging modules would be released.

It is anticipated that at least three game sets will be released as a result of periodic improvements in and expansions of the game system. Each of these would be built on an improved and expanded version of the central system. The systems would be kept upwardly compatible so that characters developed on earlier versions of the system could take advantage of its improvements. Dungeon and adventure modules would be created for each of these game sets.

At some point (to be determined by marketing considerations) a number of editors would be released. These editors would enable the users to create their own computer adventures. The first of these would be a Dungeon Master’s Guide-type package, which would provide instructions and tools for setting up the adventures and a Monster Manual-type package to provide monsters for these adventures (the monster disk might be released much earlier since we can see non-DMs wanting it). Specialized packages for creating outdoor adventures, city adventures, overland adventures, seafaring adventures, underwater adventures, etc., would be added to meet market demand.

SSI's original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons "product family," as presented at their pitch. You can see traces of what would come here -- the eventual "Gold Box" line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next -- the idea of a central "game disk" and add-on "adventure modules" would be thankfully abandoned.

SSI’s original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons “product family,” as presented at their pitch. You can see glimmers of what would come later here — the eventual “Gold Box” line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next — but the idea of a central “game disk” and add-on “adventure modules” would be thankfully abandoned.

In some ways, what this overview offers is a terrible vision. The Wizardry series had opted for a similar overly literal translation of Dungeons & Dragons‘s core-game/adventure-module structure, requiring anyone who wanted to play any of the later games in the series to first buy and play the first in order to have characters to import. The fallout from that decision was all too easy to spot in the merest glance at the CRPG market as of 1987: the Wizardry series had long since pissed away the position of dominance it had enjoyed after its first game to become an also-ran (much like SSI’s own CRPG efforts) to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale.

On the other hand, though, this overview is a vision, which apparently stood it in marked contrast to most other pitches, focused as they were on just getting a single Dungeons & Dragons game out there as quickly as possible so everyone could start to clean up. TSR innately understood SSI’s more holistic approach. With the early 1980s Dungeons & Dragons fad now long past, their business model relied less on selling huge quantities of any one release than in leveraging — some would say “exploiting” — their remaining base of hardcore players, each of whom was willing to spend lots of money on lots of new products.

Further, the TSR people and the SSI people immediately liked and understood one another; the importance of being on the same psychological wavelength as a potential business partner should never be underestimated. Born out of wargames, TSR seemed to have that culture and its values entwined in their very DNA, even after the ugly SPI episode and all the rest of the chaos of the past decade and change. Many of the people there knew exactly where scruffy little SSI was coming from, born and still grounded in the culture of the tabletop as they were. These same folks at TSR weren’t so sure about all those bigger, slicker firms. While Joel Billings may not have had a lot of personal use for Dungeons & Dragons, that certainly wasn’t true of many of his employees. Joel claims that the “bottom line” that sold TSR on SSI was “an R&D staff that knows AD&D games, plays AD&D games, and enjoys AD&D games.” They would feel “honored to be doing computer AD&D games. If you’re doing fantasy games, the AD&D game is the one to do.” Chuck Kroegel sums up SSI’s biggest advantage over their competitors in fewer words: “We wanted this project more than the other companies.” That genuine personal interest and passion, along with SSI’s idea that this would be a big, ambitious, multi-layered, perhaps era-defining collaboration — TSR had never been known for thinking small — were the important things. The details could be worked out later.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June — yes, it’s that landmark CES again — SSI and TSR announced their unlikely partnership, formally signing the contract right there at the show in front of the press and SSI’s shocked rivals. The contract was for five years of Dungeons & Dragons software, with options to renew thereafter. It would officially go into effect on January 1, 1988, although development of a planned torrent of products would start immediately.

There would be three distinct Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product lines. One line, which grew out of whole cloth during the negotiations, would be a series of “multi-player action/arcade games” that used settings and characters from TSR’s various novels and supplements, but otherwise had little to do with the tabletop game: “These games will focus on special aspects of AD&D, such as swordplay, spell-casting, and dungeon and wilderness exploration.” Having no particular competence in the area of action games, SSI would sub-contract with their European publishers, U.S. Gold, to make these games, drawing from the deep well of hotshot British game programmers to which U.S. Gold had access.

Another line evolved out of SSI’s original plan for a sort of “Dungeons & Dragons Construction Set.” Instead of letting Dungeon Masters make new computerized adventures — SSI and TSR, like many other companies, were worried about killing the market for future games by putting too good game-making tools in the hands of players — the Dungeon Masters Assistant line would be designed to aid in the construction of adventures and campaigns for the tabletop game.

And finally there was the big line: a full-fledged implementation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a series of CRPGs. The idea of a “central system” with “adventure modules” blessedly disappeared within a few months of the contract signing, replaced by a series of standalone games that would allow those who wished to do so to import the same party into each sequel; those who didn’t wish to do so, or who hadn’t played the earlier games at all, would still be able to create new characters in the later games.

The choice of a partner for this high-profile deal had been driven entirely by the creative types at TSR and the kinship they felt for SSI. That’s doubly surprising when you consider that it occurred well into the reign of Lorraine Williams, whose supposed dislike of games and gamers and constant meddling in the design process would later win her an infamous place in fan legend as the most loathed real-life villain in the history of the tabletop RPG. Whatever the veracity of the other claims made against her, in this case she ignored lots of very sensible questions to let her creative people have the partner they wanted. Could nichey little SSI improve their marketing and distribution enough to get the games in front of as many potential customers as someone like Electronic Arts? Could SSI raise the standards of their graphics and programming to make something attractive and slick enough to match the appeal of the Dungeons & Dragons trademark? In short, was SSI really up to this huge project, many times greater in scope than anything they’d done before? Lorraine Williams was betting five years of her flagship brand’s future, the most precious thing TSR owned, on the answer to all of these questions being yes. It was one hell of a roll of the dice.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup from the moment the contract was signed.

If SSI was to pull it off, they would have to mortgage their hopefully bright future as the software face of Dungeons & Dragons and expand dramatically. In the months following the contract-signing ceremony, their in-house development staff expanded from 7 to 25 people. Among the new hires were SSI’s first full-time pixel artists, hired to give the new products a look worthy of the license. SSI’s games having never been the sort to wow anyone with their beauty, figuring out the graphics thing presented perhaps the greatest challenge of all, as Victor Penman recognized:

In the past, when SSI was primarily a wargames company, graphics were not as important as game play. Now the graphics will be better, making this product more of an improvement than any other. We’re committed to carrying out state-of-the-art graphics all the way down the line, so we’re dedicated to game sophistication and a new level of graphics more so than anything we’ve done to date.

With the action games outsourced to U.S. Gold and the Dungeon Masters Assistant line being less demanding projects likely to be of only niche appeal anyway, the big push at SSI was on the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG. The new project used the two Wizard’s Crown games, especially those games’ intricate tactical-combat system, as a jumping-off point; most of the SSI veterans who had worked on those games were now employed on this new one. But that could only be a jumping-off point, for SSI’s plans needed to be much more ambitious now to please both TSR and the gaming public, who would expect this first real Dungeons & Dragons CRPG to be something really, truly special. As the first CRPG of a series that would come to include many more, a whole software ecosystem needed to be built from scratch to create it. A multi-platform game engine, interpreters, scripting languages, and level editors were all needed just for starters.

In a move that SSI would soon have cause to regret, the tool chain was built around the Commodore 64, then enjoying its belated final year as the American home-computer industry’s dominant platform. The choice isn’t hard to understand in the context of 1987: the 64 had been around for so long and for so strong that one could almost believe it would continue forever. SSI had sold 35 percent of all their games on the Commodore 64 during 1986, 10 percent more than its closest rival, the Apple II. If anything, these numbers were low for the industry in general, reflecting SSI’s specialization in cerebral strategy games, traditionally a bastion of the Apple II market. With this new partnership, SSI’s bid for the big time, there seemed every reason to think that the 64’s percentage of the pie would only increase. Therefore they would build and release the Dungeons & Dragons games first on the Commodore 64, ensuring that they looked and ran well on that all-important platform. Then they could adapt the same engine to run on the other, often more capable platforms.

The arrival of Dungeons & Dragons at SSI and the dramatic upending of the daily routine that it wrought created inevitable tensions at what had always been a low-key, workmanlike operation. The minority of staffers assigned to the non-Dungeons & Dragons business-as-usual — i.e., the company’s wargames and the last sprinkling of non-licensed CRPGs in the pipeline — started to feel, in the words of Chuck Kroegel, like “outcasts.” Staffers referred to themselves as either working in Disneyland (everything Dungeons & Dragons) or being exiled to Siberia (everything non-Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes those descriptions could feel distressingly literal: desperate for space, SSI exiled the small team that tested and perfected non-Dungeons & Dragons external submissions to an unheated, cheerless nearby building. “There was a feeling on their part that we were getting all the goodies and they got all the cold Arctic air,” remembers Keith Brors.

Jim Ward, who got on fabolously with SSI, visits in 1990 to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary along with his plus-one.

Jim Ward, who got on fabulously with SSI, visits along with his plus-one in 1990 to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.

The folks in Disneyland got plenty of help from Lake Geneva. In the beginning the TSR/SSI partnership really was a partnership, standing it in marked contrast to most similar licensing deals. The scenario for the first Dungeons & Dragons CRPG was first written and designed as a tabletop adventure module by three of TSR’s most experienced staff designers, working under one Jim Ward, whose own history with Dungeons & Dragons went back to well before that name existed, when he had played in Gary Gygax’s earliest campaigns. The tabletop module was passed on to SSI for implementation on the computer in January of 1988. SSI had their hands plenty full before that date just getting the game engine up and running; that job was described by Victor Penman as “equivalent to producing the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual in one program.”

TSR’s close involvement ensured that the end result really did feel like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, more so than any of the competing CRPG series — and this, of course, was exactly what its audience wanted. Ward’s team chose to set the game in TSR’s new campaign world of the Forgotten Realms, envisioned as the more generic, default alternative to the popular but quirky Dragonlance world of Krynn. The big boxed set that introduced the Forgotten Realms was published well after the contract signing with SSI, allowing TSR to carve out a space on the world’s map reserved for the computer games right from the outset. While many have grumbled that words like “generic” and “default” do all too good a job of describing the Forgotten Realms — “vanilla” is another strong candidate — Ward and company nevertheless drowned their scenario in the lore of the place, such as it is, leading to a CRPG with a sense of place comparable only to the Ultima series and its world of Britannia. To further cement the connection between Dungeons & Dragons the tabletop game and its computerized implementation, TSR prepared tie-in products of their own, including a novelization of the first CRPG written by Jim Ward with the help of Jane Cooper Hong and the original tabletop adventure module that had served as SSI’s design document.

SSI had promised TSR when making their original pitch that they could have an official Dungeons & Dragons CRPG ready to go within thirteen months at the outside of signing a deal. Joel Billings always took great pride in his company’s punctuality. Lingering, “troubled” projects of any stripe were a virtual unknown there during the 1980s; outside and in-house developers alike quickly learned to just get their games done and move on to the next if they wanted to continue to work with SSI. Dungeons & Dragons proved to be no exception. SSI would manage to meet their deadline of summer 1988.

With the big day drawing near, Joel Billings took an important step to address the still-lingering questions about whether SSI had the promotional and distributional resources to properly sell Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. It marked the next phase in SSI’s long, multi-faceted relationship with Trip Hawkins and his company Electronic Arts. Barely a year removed from settling SSI’s lawsuit and less than a year removed from losing the big TSR contract to them, Electronic Arts bought into SSI to the tune of 20 percent in May of 1988, giving the smaller company some much-needed cash to spend on a big Dungeons & Dragons promotional effort. SSI also became one of Electronic Arts’s affiliated labels, thus solving the distribution problems. As previous tales told on this blog will attest, such deals with the titans of the industry could be dangerous territory for smaller publishers like SSI. But SSI did have advantages that most of the affiliated labels didn’t: in addition to the longstanding personal relationship enjoyed by Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings, the buy-in would give Electronic Arts a real stake in SSI’s success, making them much harder to gut and cast aside if they should disappoint.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dressed up as generals to celebrate their strategic alliance of May 1988.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dress up as generals to celebrate their “strategic alliance” of May 1988.

SSI released the first title in all three branches of their new Dungeons & Dragons family tree in August of 1988, each on a different platform of the several each title would eventually reach. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume I: Encounters shipped on the Apple II. It would sell 26,212 copies across four platforms — not bad for such a specialized utility. Heroes of the Lance, an action game set in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn that was developed and delivered as promised from Britain, shipped on the Atari ST. The first of what would come to be known as the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented Dungeons & Dragons games, it would sell an impressive 88,808 copies across four platforms, enough to easily qualify it as SSI’s all-time biggest seller.

Enough, that is, if it hadn’t been for Pool of Radiance, first of the “Gold Box” line of full-on Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. Recognized as The Big One in the lineup right from the start, it didn’t disappoint. Beginning on the Commodore 64 and moving on to MS-DOS, the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the Amiga, its final sales total reached 264,536 copies in North America alone. By far the most successful release of SSI’s history as an independent company, it became exactly the transformative work that SSI (and Electronic Arts) had been banking on, a ticket to the big leagues if ever there was one. Even the Pool of Radiance clue book outsold any previous SSI game, to the tune of 68,395 copies.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

The second serious attempt of 1988 to adapt a set of tabletop-RPG rules to the computer, Pool of Radiance makes, like its contemporary Wasteland, an enlightening study in game design for that reason and others. Happily, it’s mostly worthy of its huge success; there’s a really compelling game in here, even if you sometimes have to fight a little more than you ought to to tease it out. As a game, it’s more than worthy of an article in its own right. By way of concluding my little series on SSI and TSR and my bigger one on the landmark CRPGs of 1988, I’ll give it that article next time.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the Questbusters of March 1988, Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and July 1988, and Dragon of November 1987, May 1988, and July 1990. Also the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, and Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 2: Ten Odd Years at TSR

TSR

For much of the 1980s, TSR’s tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons was both a looming presence and a baffling absence in the world of computer games. In one sense, this new thing that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had wrought early in the previous decade was absolutely everywhere, not only in the many CRPGs that paid it obvious homage but also in many other, less obvious derivatives that owed so much to its vision of interactive storytelling: Infocom’s text adventures, Sierra’s graphic adventures, even Microprose’s flight simulators with their career modes that let you play the role of a single pilot.

Yet strangely absent were computer-game boxes with the actual name of Dungeons & Dragons on them. A licensing deal for this, one of the most recognizable names in nerd culture, would be a surefire winner, as was clear to every executive and marketing MBA in the computer-game industry. But for years, while Origin Systems and Sir-Tech and Interplay built profitable businesses on what Gygax and Arneson had wrought, TSR just wasn’t interested. Aside from Intellivision cartridges and electronic toys published by Mattel that had little to do with the tabletop game beyond using the trademark, they limited their interactions with the digital-games industry to the occasional legal threat fired across the bows of anyone who got too close to one of their trademarks. The disinterest persisted even as some of their own designers, like Paul Reiche III and Lawrence Schick, were moving on to the increasingly lucrative world of computer games. And it persisted even as CRPGs were by mid-decade generating far more revenue than the tabletop game that had so directly inspired them. It wasn’t as if TSR lacked ambition; this refusal to reach up and pluck the lowest-hanging fruit in the garden was happening even as they spent money they didn’t have on elaborate schemes to crack open the Hollywood coconut. Chalk it up to strange times, strange priorities, and a company that grew up way too quickly.

From as early as 1977, the story of TSR is the story of the two conflicting identities of Dungeons & Dragons. One identity reached back to the game’s roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming, a niche hobby if ever there was one. This Dungeons & Dragons was for those special people who took their games very seriously indeed, who reveled in complicated games. The other Dungeons & Dragons was just starting to look like it may be realizable as the 1970s entered their second half and the game continued to prove more appealing to more and more diverse people than anyone at TSR had ever imagined it could be. Maybe it could become really popular, the next Monopoly or Scrabble.

So, the question was on the table. Should Dungeons & Dragons remain a hobby game? Or could and should it become a mass-market game, with all that implied? Unable to decide, TSR tried to split the difference. In the process, in a move that would make any marketer break out in hives, they confusingly bifurcated their burgeoning market, turning Dungeons & Dragons into two completely separate, incompatible games that both happened to bear the same name.

The initial drive to streamline and mainstream Dungeons & Dragons originated from a source well outside of TSR’s inner circle. J. Eric Holmes, a doctor, professor of neurology, and sometime fantasy author, contacted TSR to tell them that he loved their game, but that they really ought to make it easier for people to find, learn, and play it. At the time, the rules were scattered in multiple books, all of them sold separately. One of the books, Chainmail, didn’t even bear the Dungeons & Dragons name at all, and even after you’d bought them all you still had to find a source for all those funny dice. He suggested a “basic” edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a single port of entry that would ship in a box like other games, and that would include everything needed to get started and take a character through the first few experience levels. A boxed game, Holmes mused presciently, might even be able to find a home in mall book and toy stores, rather than relying on the scattered network of hobbyist stores that were so few and far between in many areas of the country. Further, Holmes was willing to make it himself, rewriting Gygax’s rambling, scattered prose into a clear, straightforward set of rules that read like other game rules — i.e., that explained clearly and succinctly how to actually, you know, play this new game you’d just bought.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

First released in 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set went on to become the most successful single product in the history of the tabletop-RPG industry, seeing printings into the millions as it got steadily prettier and slicker through the rest of the 1970s, the 1980s, and into the 1990s. Popular demand led to a series of expansions — an “Expert” set, a “Companion” set, a “Master” set, and finally an “Immortal” set — that let players take their characters to ever higher levels in the same easygoing style.

Ironically, Gary Gygax, the anointed Father of Role-Playing, had very little to do with this most successful version of his game, although he did write the iconic adventure module The Keep on the Borderlands that was included with most of the Basic Sets sold. (Unsurprisingly given its inclusion in the Basic Set, The Keep on the Borderlands became the most-printed tabletop-RPG adventure module in history, reaching more than 1.5 million copies.) Even as Dungeons & Dragons was making its bid for the mainstream via the Basic Set, Gygax was digging its hardcore roots even deeper via an entirely separate line called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Where the Basic Set was streamlined and accessible, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons seemed determined to make you work for your fun. Hewing to the tradition of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, which had appeared as an irregular stream of supplements to Gygax’s older Chainmail rules for Medieval combat, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out in fits and starts, beginning with a Monster Manual full of statistics for an as-yet non-existent game system, followed by the Player’s Handbook six months later, and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide a year after that. What you were supposed to do with the earlier bits and pieces of a game while you waited for the last of the three daunting hardcover books to be released was never really explained.

The Dungeon Master's Guide's cover didn't do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn't Satanic.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s cover didn’t do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn’t Satanic.

The three books that make up the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are the most indelibly Gygaxian of any of TSR publications, truly their creator’s magnum opus. Never before had a set of humble game rules been so redolent of their maker’s personality. Taken as a whole, they represented easily the most complicated game of any type that anyone had dared publish to date, comprising many hundreds of thousands of words of Gygax’s tangled, less than graceful, yet often weirdly engaging prose, like a less overwrought H.P. Lovecraft. It’s great fun to open any of the books to a random page and just see what you see — even if, like me, you think that actually trying to play this thing as written sounds about as much fun as getting caught in a scything-blade trap (trust me, you don’t want that).

In fact, let’s try it now with the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ah, here we go… on “missile discharge” into an “existing melee.” No one other than Gary Gygax could have written these paragraphs.

Likewise, discharging of missiles into an existing melee is easily handled. It is permissible, of course, and the results might not be too incompatible with the desires of the discharging party. Assign probabilities to each participant in the melee or target group according to sheer numbers. In the case of participants of varying size use half value for size “S”, normal value for size “M”, and one and one-half value for size “L” creatures which are not too much more than man-size. Total the values for each group and ratio one over the other. If side A has four man-sized participants, and side B has three smaller than man-sized participants and 1 size “L” bugbear, the ratio is 4:3. Then, according to the direction of the missile discharge, determine by using the same ratio. If 7 missiles were loosed, 4 would have a chance to hit side A, 3 side B. In cases where the ratio does not match the number of missiles, convert it to a percentage chance: 1/7 = 14% or 15%, depending on whether the missiles are coming from ahead of side A (14%) or from behind (15%). Thus 4/7 = 56% or 60% chance per missile that it will hit side A. The minor difference represents the fact that there will be considerable shifting and maneuvering during combat which will tend to expose both opponents to fire on a near equal basis. Such missiles must then be assigned (by situation or by random determination) to target creatures, a “to hit” determination made, and damage assessed for those who do hit.

If one opponent group is significantly larger than the other, accurate missiles which have a small area of effect can be directed at the larger opponent group with great hope of success. You may assign a minor chance of a missile striking a friend if you wish, but this writer, for instance, always allows archery hits to hit a giant or a similar creature engaged against a human or smaller opponent. [Quite an easygoing guy, that Gary! They’ll be dancing on the tables in Lake Geneva if this keeps up.]

Something tells me that Gary Gygax has a different definition of “easily” than I do. I’m not sure if a gift for making the simplest things sound complicated is really a desirable quality in a writer of game rules, but, whether it’s to nod your head to the occasional flashes of insight and good advice or just to make fun of stuff like the above, there’s something on every page of Gygax’s magnum opus worth reading.

Unfortunately, the era of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books also began to bring out some less charming facets of Gary Gygax. Transported in just a few years from repairing shoes in his basement for a subsistence (at best) wage to helming the fast-growing darling of the tabletop-games industry, his proprietary instincts began to come out. Dungeons & Dragons, previously a community effort in which everyone — not least Gygax and TSR — was making it up as he went along, became a brand with a definite owner. TSR now began to earn a reputation that they would never lose for the rest of their existence: a reputation as a difficult company to work for, to do business with, sometimes just to coexist in the same industry with. They were now growing rapidly indeed, adding to their ranks many energetic young Dungeons & Dragons fanatics who were bursting with enthusiasm to move to Lake Geneva and work at the epicenter of their hobby. These starry-eyed youngsters, unschooled in the ways of the world, would work for peanuts. TSR took full advantage of that. The company became a notoriously poor payer, and didn’t even offer job security in compensation; from 1980 on it would be racked by wave after wave of purges and lay-offs, followed by massive hirings of new rounds of eager youngsters. Meanwhile the executives, Gygax among them, collected cars like their employees did dice. TSR became the bully of their young industry, sending their lawyers scampering hither and yon to threaten rival game makers, makers of Dungeons & Dragons-compatible products, and even computer games that they judged to have sidled too close to one of their trademarks.

Among their ongoing legal squabbles was one with Dave Arneson, Gygax’s partner in crafting the original Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax made the unilateral decision that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was such a thorough revision and expansion that it constituted a whole new game, authored solely by him, and that TSR therefore didn’t need to acknowledge Arneson’s contributions in the new hardcovers or pay him a royalty for them. Arneson promptly sued, resulting in a long, ugly court battle and finally a March 1981 settlement in Arneson’s favor that restored his royalties. Less happily for Arneson, Gygax’s agenda of setting sole public claim to Dungeons & Dragons was largely successful. Gygax is almost universally acknowledged as the father of Dungeons & Dragons today, and by extension the father of a huge chunk of the popular culture of the last several decades. Arneson, when mentioned at all, is usually relegated to a relative footnote in the story.

Gygax’s emerging determination to assert his personal ownership of the game is all too present in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons itself. Indeed, what with the system’s desire to anticipate and codify every possibility to ensure that it’s handled in every individual campaign just as Gygax would, one might call it the system’s very raison d’être. Whereas the original Dungeons & Dragons opened with an exhortation to adventure and a statement that every rule was really a mere “guideline” (emphasis original), Gygax opens the Dungeon Master’s Guide with a series of warnings befitting a fear-mongering political reactionary. “If Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is to survive and grow,” he tells us, “it must have some degree of uniformity.” The game’s rules are no longer guidelines, but “boundaries.” In “growth and change,” he tells us, is “great danger.” “Uniformity” must be present to prevent players from “going too far in some undesirable direction.”

The tension between Dungeons & Dragons as an imaginative vehicle and Dungeons & Dragons as a complex system had been present with the game since its very inception, when broadly speaking Arneson had been the wide-angle ideas man and Gygax the more narrowly focused translator of those ideas into rules. In the years that followed, different sorts of personalities continued to find Dungeons & Dragons fascinating on one level or the other. Sometimes these twin fascinations coexisted in a single personality; even Gygax during the early years was prone to occasional Aristotelian flights of fancy, describing Dungeon Masters as playwrights and their players as their thespians. With TSR’s decision to bifurcate the game into a basic and an advanced variant, however, each point of view now had a seeming champion, and players were obliged to commit to one camp or the other. One need only contrast Gygax’s statements about rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with what the 1981 second edition of the Basic Set had to say about them to understand why: “The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.”

Today the system that is widely considered the definitive version of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, the one most likely to be used by those who still indulge in such things, is Gygax’s Advanced version. Yet if we cast our eyes back to the game’s four-year commercial heyday, we find the situation reversed.

The beginning of said heyday can be precisely dated to August 15, 1979, the day that a psychologically disturbed Dungeons & Dragons player named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University. A private investigator hired by his parents learned of this strange game Egbert loved to play, and came up with the theory that he must have been playing “for real” with his friends in the steam tunnels underneath the university, or had a psychotic break that led him to believe he was doing so. Presumably he’d gotten lost or injured down there. The disappearance and the private investigator’s theory thereof made the national news media, giving Dungeons & Dragons both its first taste of mainstream attention and its first taste of the controversy that would dog it for years to come. But, at least now in the beginning, the old maxim that any press is good press held. By the time Egbert finally turned up working in an oil field in Louisiana, his disappearance having had nothing to do with games played in steam tunnels or anywhere else, both the Dungeons & Dragons fad and the Dungeons & Dragons controversy were solidly off and running. When Egbert shot and killed himself in August of 1980, it only added fuel to both fires.

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game's ever younger fanbase. It's now for ages "10 and up."

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game’s ever younger fanbase. It’s now for ages “10 and up.”

In a recent article, I wrote about the early 1980s as the time when “school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice.” Well, the manuals in questions were largely not Gygax’s weighty tomes, but rather those found in the the cheaper, friendlier Basic Set and its sequels. These were the face of Dungeons & Dragons the mainstream phenomenon. Far outselling the Advanced books, this was the version of the game found on the shelves of toy stores, waiting for confused parents toting Christmas and birthday lists to pluck it down. One can almost chart the steady downward skew of the age of the typical Dungeons & Dragons player, from middle-aged wargamer to university student to high school to junior high, by charting the changes in diction in the Basic Set manuals as they went through revision after revision. By the time of the 1983 third edition, the text had taken on much the same gee-whiz tone as that other early-1980s children’s-publishing phenomenon, the Choose Your Own Adventure books. We’re a long way from Gygax’s fussy, meticulous style.

This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.

“As you whirl around, your sword ready, the huge, red, fire-breathing dragon swoops toward you with a ROAR!”

See? Your imagination woke up already. Now imagine: this game may be more fun than any other game you have ever played!

The Dungeons & Dragons game is a way for us to imagine together — like watching the same movie, or reading the same book. But you can write the stories, without putting a word on paper — just by playing the D&D game.

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

One of the many oddities of TSR’s history is that Gary Gygax, the company’s founder and the co-creator of its flagship game, had an actual controlling interest in the firm on only two short-lived occasions. The first of these was a brief instant just after TSR’s 1975 incorporation, before one Brian Blume and his father Melvin bought in to the tune of 70 percent. The Blumes’ primary qualification was that they had ready money to invest in getting Dungeons & Dragons properly off the ground, something Gygax the nearly destitute cobbler had a conspicuous need for.

Despite his lack of a clear controlling interest, Gygax had been allowed the final word on running the company through the rest of the 1970s. He was listed on the org chart as President, Brian Blume as Vice President, and Melvin Blume played no operational role. As the 1980s dawned, however, that arrangement began to change a bit. In September of 1980, yet another member of the Blume clan, Brian’s brother Kevin, bought out their father’s share. Kevin Blume seemed more determined than the other Blumes to make his voice heard in the board room, and apparently emboldened his brother as well. Thus TSR during the next few years was steered by a rather unwieldly three-headed monster, consisting of Gygax and the two Blume brothers.

The tension between TSR the hobbyist publisher and TSR the mass-market publisher was now more palpable than ever. Given the differences between Gygax’s hardcore Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the streamlined boxed sets, it would make for a tidy narrative to cast him as the person in the triumvirate least enamored with the idea of TSR going mainstream. Certainly that’s a mantle that Gygax would be eager to claim for himself years later. Yet there is little contemporary evidence to point to any significant strife arising from the company’s trifurcated leadership during this period. On the contrary, the three men seemed largely in harmony on TSR’s future. Their vision saw TSR, once this semi-amateur plaything born of an obscure hobby — “TSR” stood for “Tactical Studies Rules”, for God’s sake — becoming a major voice in mainstream entertainment on the back of the Dungeons & Dragons fad. Thus when the Blumes proposed buying Greenfield Needlewomen, a maker of needlework products, as TSR’s first serious step beyond the tabletop-gaming ghetto, Gygax gave every indication of being fully on-board with the idea. “Crafts is a larger field than hobbies,” he explained to employees skeptical of the strange acquisition. Bigger was now automatically better. TSR’s big needlework initiative turned into a gigantic, millions-losing fiasco.

But the strangest episode to arise from this grab at the brass ring of mainstream success was undoubtedly Gary Gygax’s quixotic sojourn to Hollywood, land of a million broken dreams. The dream in this case was that of a major motion picture bearing TSR’s zealously protected Dungeons & Dragons trademark. Determined to play the part of the Tinseltown mogul to the hilt, in 1982 he pulled up stakes in family-friendly Lake Geneva and bought a bachelor pad — he had left his wife of 23 years and their five children just before the move — looking down on the Hollywood Hills. Rumors have always swirled around this period in Gygax’s life, which to all external appearances looks like as classic a mid-life crisis as this writer has ever witnessed. It’s claimed that he painted the town red with a succession of starlets, and even that he picked up a cocaine habit by way of further fitting in. I can’t speak too much to any of that, but will just say that the voyeur in me would love to have been a fly on the wall of his bachelor pad, to see how the beautiful people of Hollywood reacted to this balding, bespectacled, pot-bellied old wargamer — and how he reacted to them. He was a long way from the sand table in his Lake Geneva basement.

What I can say more definitively is that Gygax, like so many earnest amateurs before him, got fleeced by the sharks of Tinseltown. He paid James Goldman, a screenwriter whose star had fallen dramatically since authoring the award-winning play and film The Lion in Winter during the 1960s, $500,000 to write a dire script for the film. He shopped the script around the studios for many months and at yet more expense with no takers, not even after he allegedly convinced Orson Welles, who would take pretty much any gig he could get by this stage of his career, to star in it. In the end he had to settle for a deal with Marvel Comics’s film division to make a Dungeons & Dragons Saturday-morning cartoon; TSR was in the process of negotiating a license to make a Marvel Superheroes tabletop RPG at the same time, so one suspects a bit of quid pro quo. With its cheap, gaudy animation and dashed-off scripts, the cartoon wasn’t exactly a halo project, if also not notably worse than the other licensed Saturday-morning fare of the time. Debuting on September 17, 1983, it lasted for three years, during which were produced a sporadic 27 episodes.

In retrospect the problems with Dungeons & Dragons as a trans-media property are plain as day. Such properties are universally built around their characters: Luke, Han, and Darth Vader; Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum; Batman, Robin, and the Joker. But Dungeons & Dragons had no characters, nor a ready-made plot, nor even a setting to speak of.1 What were filmmakers really supposed to do with it, and what would they get out of it other than the use of a trademark that, even setting aside the fact that some parents thought it literally the devil’s work, was more associated with nerdy kids rolling dice in basements and lunch rooms than blockbuster entertainment? The makers of the cartoon series had felt forced to come up with a tortured framing story about just such a group of kids who get sucked into a real-life version of their fantasies and have to find their way home — thus inadvertently recalling the myth of James Dallas Egbert III. In short, there was just no there there. Trying to make a movie out of Dungeons & Dragons would be like trying to make a movie out of Battleship. (Oh, wait…)

TSR’s failed bid for the silver screen is made ironic by the existence of that other non-tabletop market that was eager for Dungeons & Dragons products: the world of computer games. But the commercial potential of an officially licensed game, despite being plain to everyone inside the computer-games industry, remained a massive blind spot for the TSR triumvirate as they negotiated with Hollywood and bought needlework companies. Instead they continued to regard computer games as a whole as an enemy to be defeated en masse by their tabletop products.

By mid-1983, just in time for the debut of the cartoon series, the Dungeons & Dragons fad had clearly begun to collapse. The Blumes, having expanded TSR to an all-time peak of almost 400 employees, were caught with their pants down. With Gygax still away in Hollywood, they cut desperately back in Lake Geneva, laying off some three quarters of their workforce in the space of the next eighteen months.

In March of 1985, with TSR still in dire straits, Gygax swooped in to rescue the company — at least in his telling — from what he now considered to be the Blumes’ mismanagement. By exercising options to buy stocks and combining his new position with stocks that had been given to his son Ernie, he built a clear controlling interest in TSR — 51.1 percent — for the first time since that brief period after the incorporation ten years before. He pushed the Blumes out of their operational roles and set to work, in sole charge of the company again at last. He cut many of TSR’s slower-selling non-Dungeons & Dragons games, retrenched to focus again on the neglected hobby market rather than the mainstream, and, playing to the hardcore fans whom he knew would still buy, rushed out two new high-profit-margin if somewhat slapdash Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers, Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. (Because apparently the game wasn’t complicated enough already…)

These measures and others undoubtedly helped TSR avoid the looming prospect of complete collapse. But it was a couple of projects begun under the Blumes that would become the biggest moneyspinners by creating exactly the trans-media appeal that TSR had heretofore so painfully failed to generate. There was, first of all, that Marvel Superheroes RPG, the most successful non-Dungeons & Dragons game TSR would ever publish. And then there was Dragonlance.

A couple of years before, the design department had come up with the idea of a series of adventure modules that would each focus on a different sort of dragon. From this “dragon of the month” concept evolved Dragonlance, the tale, told over the course of twelve adventure modules, of a war that took place in a new fantasy world called Krynn. The idea soon further expanded to include source books, miniatures, and a trilogy of fat novels telling the same story as the adventure modules, written by staffers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The project, already mid-stream at the time of Gygax’s return, was a massive success; along with the new hardcovers, it gave the hardcore fans a reason to get excited about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons again. But the most profitable part of this very profitable project was the three novels. They at last provided appealing characters to go along with Dungeons & Dragons the abstract concept, and thereby topped their genre’s bestseller lists one after another. It may been too late to have another go at Hollywood with Dragonlance‘s Tanis Half-Elven and Tasslehoff Burrfoot in hand, but, recognizing a good thing when they saw one, TSR would publish dozens more novels in the years to come that tied in in various ways with their games. Through many of those years, Dungeons & Dragons novels continued to prove more profitable than the rules, supplements, and adventures that inspired them.

But all that was still to come. What happened next inside the down-sized, slowly recovering TSR would leave Gary Gygax deeply embittered for the rest of his life. It’s a somewhat complicated financial story. I’ll do my best to hit the high points here, and point you to another article by Jon Peterson for the financial nitty-gritty.

Wanting to ensure that no current or future partner could ever sell the company out from under him, Gygax back in 1975 had written into TSR’s articles of incorporation a stipulation that any investor who wished to divest himself of his holdings must first offer his shares to the current management of the company, giving them a chance to buy the shares back themselves if they so wished, before he could sell them to a third party. The sidelined Blumes now did indeed wish to get out of TSR entirely and move on with their lives. They repeatedly told this to Gygax, and proposed that he buy them out to the tune of $500 per share. Gygax said this was too high, as the Blumes had fully expected he would, but kept dragging his feet on opening proper negotiations. At last, judging honor and law satisfied by their having given Gygax an opportunity to buy their shares, the Blumes made the move that Gygax would forever deem the most underhanded betrayal of his life.

Brian Blume, you see, had stock options of his own similar to those that had let Gygax gain control of the company. He’d just been reluctant to exercise them, being afraid that TSR had become a sinking ship. Now, though, he did so as part of a conspiracy involving a new investor named Lorraine Williams. A wealthy heiress who had first become aware of TSR only when she met Gygax in Hollywood, Williams had come back to Lake Geneva with him to work as TSR’s Vice President of Administration. But she hadn’t been satisfied in that role, and now made a play to take over the whole company.

Brian Blume’s options exercised, the Blume brothers quietly sold the whole kit and caboodle of their holdings — amounting to a clear controlling interest — to Williams. Just like that, on October 22, 1985, Gygax was out and Williams was in. Gygax immediately filed a lawsuit, but the court ruled in favor of Williams and the Blumes, saying the latter had fulfilled their fiduciary responsibilities by first offering in good faith to sell their shares back to Gygax.

Williams claims that she never intended to force Gygax out of the company entirely, that she imagined herself running the business side of things and Gygax in charge of the creative side. Brian Blume claims that Gygax forced Williams’s hand when word leaked of his plan to fire her from her role as Vice President and replace her with one Gail Carpenter, his eventual second wife. Whatever the veracity of such claims, Gygax considered the entire episode the most inexcusable of personal betrayals. He divested himself of his stock and walked away from TSR; his active role in the development of Dungeons & Dragons ended here. “The shape and direction of the Dungeons & Dragons game system are now entirely in the hands of others,” he wrote in his farewell address in TSR’s Dragon magazine.

Lorraine Williams didn’t do much to endear herself to either Dungeons & Dragons players or TSR’s employees in the years that followed. By most accounts deeply unpleasant to deal with on a personal level, she allegedly found TSR’s games and novels and all the rest interesting only to the extent that they were profitable. A marketer and businesswoman rather than a gamer, she’s blamed today for all sorts of things, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. Much of the popular opinion about Williams can be traced back to Gygax, who for the rest of his life continued to excoriate both the Blumes and Lorraine Williams in ways that only grew more colorful as the years went by, egged on by the grizzled tabletop veterans for whom his rants became a legendary source of entertainment.

Any criticism of Williams’s tenure, however, must also reckon with the reality that the reign of Gygax and the Blumes had been a veritable garden of forking paths of poor decisions and missed opportunities. To put it bluntly, these three men had no idea what they were doing trying to run a company, and were too stubborn, arrogant, or blinded by Dungeons & Dragons‘s brief window of mainstream success to seek out someone who did. Their naivete is made all too clear by their persistence in comparing running a business to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax declared their determination to take TSR from a “low-level” company to a “really high-level game producer such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers,” while Kevin Blume said they were “intuitively” good businessmen because they had learned everything they needed from games.

Perhaps what TSR the business really needed after all those year of amateur (mis)management was exactly what Williams provided: a businesslike head who wasn’t too close to the products, who focused on practical expansion into friendly related areas like fantasy novels rather than chasing chimeras in Hollywood. Under Williams, TSR would enjoy some years of a commercial success that was more modest in scale than that of of the early 1980s but also more sustainable. The company’s employees may not have liked Williams all that much personally, but they certainly must have liked the relative stability she provided after the waves of layoffs and hirings that had marked the company’s earlier years.

And at least one result of the new Lorraine Williams era was welcomed by just about everyone. Once Gygax’s suit had been fended off and she was firmly in control, she let word leak out that TSR was at last seriously interested in finding a partner to make a licensed Dungeons & Dragons computer game. While she wasn’t a gamer like most of her customers, she had nevertheless spotted the blindingly obvious synergy that had somehow eluded her predecessors. We’ll see how she found her partner next time.

(Sources: In addition to the link in the article proper, Shannon Appelcline’s book Designers & Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s was invaluable, although I should note that I’m far harder on Gygax and TSR’s management in general than he is. For sheer entertainment value, the best article ever written about Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons is Paul La Farge’s “Destroy All Monsters”: “The transformation of player into character often turns out to be cosmetic: the fearless paladin and the sexy dark elf both sound and act a lot like a thirteen-year-old boy named Ted. And what Ted likes to do, mostly, is kill anything that crosses his path.” Seriously, go read it. Like, now.)


  1. TSR’s only official setting at the time was Gygax’s separately sold campaign world of Greyhawk, which was about as vanilla and abstract a place as a fantasy world could be. Handed a couple of sheets of blank mapping paper by TSR’s design department, Gygax had made up the geography in an afternoon, tailoring it to fit on those two pages. 

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 1: Joel Billings and SSI

SSI

I’m a game player, mostly, that’s about it. I’m pretty dull, actually.

— Joel Billings

Joel Billings is about as close to a literal lifelong gamer as it’s possible to be. His father taught him to play the old Avalon Hill wargame classic Tactics II in 1965, when he was just 7 years old. Robert Billings, who regarded gaming only as an occasional pleasant diversion, soon had cause to wonder whether that introduction has been a wise move; young Joel got obsessed right from the first. Instead of playing with cars or model trains, Joel re-fought the major battles of World War II and the American Civil War on his bedroom floor, having simultaneous and almost equally pitched real-world battles with the family dog, who wanted to play too. While other boys played sports, or merely watched them, Joel was determined to simulate them. He tried to recreate every single game of the 1969 football season for every single team — hundreds of individual matches — using Strat-O-Matic Football, finally stopping out of sheer exhaustion with just twenty or so matches left to play. Encouraged to find a more social outlet for his “hobby,” he raided his high school’s chess club to form a wargaming club with himself as founder, president, and, it seems safe to say, most passionate member by a country mile. The same could be said of the company he would later found.

But it was awfully hard in those early days for Joel or anyone in his family to imagine how he could turn his passion into a living wage, especially given that he wasn’t and would never be so much a start-from-scratch designer as an avid, gifted player. After doing well at his suburban Los Angeles high school despite the lure of wargames — he graduated 19th in a class of 572 — he proceeded to Claremont Men’s College in 1975 to pursue a degree in Economics. There he continued with his beloved wargames, betwixt and between and every chance he got. He would sometimes enter three divisions of a wargaming tournament simultaneously, an obligation later described by Al Tommervik of Softalk magazine as “roughly akin to playing a couple of dozen simultaneous chess matches against near masters.”

The late 1970s were a good time to be a wargamer. In terms of dollars and cents, this period was the tabletop-wargame industry’s golden age. Annual sales grew at a rate of 40 percent or more for the better part of the decade, peaking in 1979 at $15.5 million. Those may sound like small numbers in comparison with many another entertainment industry, but for wargaming, always the very definition of a niche hobby, they were very good ones indeed in comparison to what had come before and, less happily, what would soon follow. Surveys reckoned over a quarter of a million Americans were active wargamers, with an average age of just 22 years. (In the years to follow, one of those numbers would plummet while the other rose precipitously.) Joel Billings — smart, from comfortable circumstances, and 21 years old in 1979 — was practically the prototypical specimen of the breed.

In those days wargaming was absolutely dominated by a Coke and a Pepsi, whose combined sales accounted for 80 percent of the industry as a whole. Wargaming’s Coke was Avalon Hill, the big, traditionalist institution whose Tactics, generally regarded as the urtext of the modern wargame, had birthed the industry back in 1954. Its Pepsi was the younger, slightly smaller, slightly hungrier, arguably more innovative Simulations Publications, Incorporated, universally known as SPI. The two companies were each regarded with great love and loyalty by their respective fans, who felt they could discern a distinct personality not only in the marketing and packaging of each company’s games but in the games’ rules as well. Plenty of wargamers were stalwart loyalists to one camp or the other, refusing to buy or play a game by the rival company. Joel wasn’t quite that extreme, but was always an Avalon Hill man when push came to shove.

Joel Billings, the man destined to bring the culture of chits and dice into collision with that of bits and bytes, had his first run-in with computers early in his time at Claremont College. He wound up, more by happenstance than desire, in a BASIC programming class conducted with the mediation of a big DEC PDP-10. This first encounter didn’t rock his world the way it did that of so many characters we’ve met on this blog — Joel had already found his lifelong passion when he had first played Tactics II all those years ago — but he did find the experience interesting, and found he had a certain aptitude for it as well. It started him to musing about the changes computers might wreak on his own favored hobby. For his final project in the class, he wrote a simple little two-player tank game. It was a wargame in only the most generous definition of the term, but it was a start. In the meantime, he parlayed that class into a six-month internship at Amdahl Corporation, a maker of mainframe computers located in Silicon Valley, during his senior year at university.

After graduating from Claremont College in May of 1979, Joel traveled up the coast again to take a summer job with Amdahl before he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. As he had before, he stayed in a spare apartment above the house of David Rubinfien, an uncle. Immersed in the world of big mainframe iron as he was, Joel had only recently become aware of the nascent PC revolution. But as soon as he’d seen his first TRS-80 he’d begun wondering what these new microcomputers might be able to do for his hobby. Rubinfien, as always supportive of and helpful to his nephew and possessed of some connections in the Valley to boot, encouraged him to find out.

Joel first talked to some programmers who worked for IBM, but they told him flat-out that his idea of creating a wargame reminiscent of the tabletop games he loved on the microcomputers of the day was absurd. Undaunted, Joel hung flyers in several of the local computer shops. With the moment of decision looming ever closer — did he stay here and try to make a computerized wargame or did he go off to graduate school? — he was contacted in early August by one John Lyon. Eighteen years Joel’s senior, Lyon was an experienced programmer currently working for Control Data who loved wargames almost as much as Joel. He had never programmed a microcomputer before, but he didn’t let that stop him. “This is what opportunity looks like when it knocks,” Lyon had told the sales clerk standing by the store’s bulletin board. “And I’m going to answer it.”

Pressed for time as they were, Joel and John settled on a rather blatant computerized clone of an old Avalon Hill classic called Bismarck, a simulation of the legendary German battleship‘s ill-fated attempt to break out into the Atlantic shipping lanes in 1941. In addition to offering a completed design to start from, Bismarck seemed ideal in a number of other ways. For one thing, its was a popular subject known even to many non-military-history buffs thanks to the classic war flick Sink the Bismarck!  But there were also other, less obvious considerations. Joel had long since realized that the computer had the potential to bring two hugely salable advancements to the traditional tabletop wargame, and a Bismarck game would be well-nigh ideal for demonstrating both of them.

One advancement would be true hidden movement. Implementing a proper “fog of war” presented an obvious problem for a tabletop wargame where each player was tracking moves on the same game board and needed to be able to make sure the other wasn’t cheating. The problem of fog of war was so vexing yet so essential to any realistic simulation of military conflict that some of the most elaborate wargames had taken to requiring a third participant, a referee who could serve as a neutral arbiter and keep track of each player’s units in relation to the others; you can imagine how popular that thankless role was. A computerized version of Bismarck could demonstrate to fine effect the computer’s ability to simulate the fog of war. Indeed, one might say that this entire scenario revolved around the fog of war: the really difficult part for the British side was simply finding the Bismarck. The British forces were so overwhelming in comparison to the German that, as Joel puts it, “if you find the Bismarck you’re likely to kill it.”

The other advantage computers brought to the (non-)table was of course to eliminate not only the need for a referee but also the need for another player, to provide an artificially intelligent opponent who was up for a game any time you were. Artificial intelligence was, however, a hard task to shoehorn into a microcomputer of 1979 vintage. It was here that the second big advantage of Joel and John’s choice of games came in: with a Bismarck game, they really didn’t need much of an artificial intelligence at all. The order of battle for the German side of things consisted of only the Bismarck itself and a single escorting cruiser; the tiny flotilla’s strategic and tactical options were pretty much limited to “sail as quickly as possible and hope the British forces don’t find them.” Surely the computer could manage that much. All John Lyon needed do was restrict the human player to only playing the British side.

Computer Bismark was programmed in Joel's apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to childhood bout with polio, John Lyons had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Computer Bismarck was programmed in Joel’s apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to an adolescent bout with polio, John Lyon had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Lyon set to work programming the game, using only text because that’s all the borrowed North Star CP/M machine he and Joel had scrounged could manage; neither of these two would-be microcomputer-software impresarios yet owned an actual microcomputer. Meanwhile his uncle set up several meetings with venture capitalists, which didn’t yield any immediately tangible results. But then the Silicon Valley grapevine reached Trip Hawkins, a young man only a few years older than Joel who worked for a company Joel had barely heard of to this point: Apple Computer. A venture capitalist called Hawkins to tell him about this interesting proposal that was coming from an inexperienced youngster with questionable credentials to pull it off. If Hawkins would quit his job at Apple and become president of the new company, the venture capitalist said, he could guarantee him ample financing. Hawkins wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but he was intrigued enough by the venture capitalist’s description to meet with Joel.

The two were polar opposites in temperament, Hawkins charismatic, nakedly ambitious, and dynamic while Joel was quiet, staid, and thoughtful. Both, however, had grown up similarly steeped in the games culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Eager to foster the games industry that he hoped to enter in his own right someday soon, Hawkins offered to join the board of any prospective company, provided that Joel was willing to develop his game on the Apple II. The Apple II had been overshadowed by the likes of the TRS-80 and all those CP/M machines to date, Hawkins admitted, but it was having a very good 1979 and was poised to come on strong in the new decade — poised to be “the computer of the future.” He was, to give credit where it’s due, largely right in this. The Apple II would indeed become the premier gaming computer of the next several years, thanks not least to a standout feature that Hawkins didn’t hesitate to point out to Joel: its color bitmap graphics. If they made their Bismarck game for the Apple II, Joel and John could substitute a color picture of the North Atlantic for textual descriptions of the situation.

Hawkins’s participation should play well with the many Silicon Valley venture capitalists who already knew him as a bright young spark, and he could even get Joel access to Apple’s own distribution network and customer rolls. And, far from being a sacrifice, going with the burgeoning Apple II as the new company’s platform of choice seemed a logical course. Hawkins promised to join the board, and Apple II it was from then on.

Still, Joel remained cautious by nature. All too aware of his own lack of experience, he cast about for a bigger partner to shoulder some of the risk and some of the responsibility. He screwed up his courage to call the home of his self-described “heroes” at the wargaming Mecca of Avalon Hill, and managed to get Thomas N. Shaw — game designer, founding editor of Avalon Hill’s in-house magazine The General, and the most long-serving employee of the company — on the other end of the line. Shaw, in Joel’s words, “blew him off,” said Avalon Hill was already investigating the field of computer gaming for themselves and didn’t particularly need the help of a 21-year-old with no relevant experience, thank you very much. Joel’s next call was to Automated Simulations, a computer-games publisher founded by two veteran tabletop wargamers that struck him as the only publisher remotely close in background and spirit to what he was trying to do. But, flying high on the sales of their proto-CRPG Temple of Apshai, Automated Simulatons was more interested in adding to that line than branching out into computer wargames. And, once again, they remained distinctly unimpressed by young Joel himself. If Joel wanted to do this thing, he would have to do it alone.

He had definitively decided at last that he did want to do this thing. At the last possible instant, he obtained a one-year deferral on graduate school and an extension of his summer job at Amdahl to pay the bills while he tried to get his company off the ground. Being a methodical sort who did anything he decided to do thoroughly and conscientiously, Joel, with the assistance of a sympathetic older colleague from Amdahl named David Bowen, prepared an evolving series of business plans over the last five months of 1979, using data drawn from trade journals and a survey he passed out at a local tabletop-gaming convention. They make for fascinating reading today. For instance, one data point had ominous implications for the wargames industry, still sanguine in their expectations of double-digit annual growth in the decade to come, if only anyone there had happened to see it: Joel found from his survey that wargamers who purchased computers immediately saw their expenditures on tabletop games drop by an average of 41 percent.

In one of these documents, Joel shows a remarkable understanding of the nature of experiential gaming and what makes it different and important.

It is believed that users of these games are attempting to create a fantasy world in which they can obtain role identification with heroic figures. This is similar to reading a good book or watching TV, except that in a game it is more interactive, lively, or “hot.” Wargames provide historical realism and heroes with the basic requirements of a good game: elements of skill, strategy, and chance. Typical wargames allow role identification with heroes like General Patton, various admirals, Napoleon, and so on.

The business plans paint a picture of a busy little factory, with a large staff of programmers under Lyon beavering away to turn out games at a rapid clip. For all the plans’ diligence, they don’t evince much understanding of the nature of intellectual property. Under the heading of “Overall Product Strategy,” the final plan unabashedly states that “computerized versions of existing [tabletop] games” will be the company’s early priority, with “computerized wargames designed by a top-flight game designer with a computer in mind from the beginning” coming only later as resources permit. Ah, well… Joel’s company would hardly be the only respected publisher to have a dodgy understanding of intellectual property in the wild and woolly early days of the software industry.

The name of Joel’s venture changed several times. What started out as the placeholder “Company A” became “Computer Simulations,” and only then “Strategic Simulations.” Joel first took to abbreviating the name to “SS,” but the historical connotations of those two letters — especially to wargamers, who tended to be all too steeped in the very era of history in question — were too ugly to let them stand alone. So he settled at last on SSI, for “Strategic Simulations, Incorporated,” an abbreviation with the added bonus of harking back to the tabletop-wargaming institution of SPI. The incorporation in question occurred on December 27, 1979.

Even with Trip Hawkins’s backing, Joel still hadn’t found any venture capitalists willing to take a chance on computerized wargaming by that date. So Joel’s family finally came through to fund his dream, raising some $40,000 in seed capital among themselves. Joel’s big sister Susan quit her job as admitting-and-registration manager at a hospital to run the accounting side of the venture, to serve as office manager, and, just possibly, to keep an eye on her little brother on behalf of the family that had just entrusted him with so much of their money and faith. Susan, who had no particular interest in games or computers, took the job on as a favor and a family obligation. “For the first couple of years, I said I’d stay six months and then leave,” she remembers. “I thought it was a temporary thing.” Instead she would remain throughout SSI’s long run, becoming in her way as integral to the company as Joel himself. This even though she never did much warm to games or computers: “I never felt an affinity for the products. My feelings were for the operation and the people.”

Computer Bismark in action.

Computer Bismarck in action.

John Lyon finished SSI’s first game in late January of 1980. Still not the slightest bit interested in disguising its origins in the Avalon Hill Bismarck, Joel titled it simply Computer Bismarck. No matter. Computer Bismarck, generally regarded today as the first serious wargame to appear on a microcomputer, made for a very impressive product for those in SSI’s target demographic. Recognizing the need to present a professional appearance — especially in light of Computer Bismarck‘s $60 price tag, four or five times the price of the typical computer game at the time — Joel had taken the unusual step of hiring an artist and packaging designer for SSI right out of the gate. In an industry still dominated by Ziploc baggies stuffed with hand-scrawled photocopied title cards, Computer Bismarck shipped in an actual box sporting Louis Saekow’s ominous head-on graphic of the Bismarck itself. Inside was not only a real, professionally typeset manual but also a generous collection of player aids, including a map and counters for keeping track of those aspects of the strategic situation that the program, even with the aid of the Apple II’s bitmap graphics, couldn’t always show.

Computer Bismark

Through the auspices of the well-connected Trip Hawkins, Joel made his first significant sale in early February, 50 copies of the game to the Los Altos Computerland. A week later SSI moved out of Joel’s apartment, where by the end there he had been forced to wind his way through a hedge maze built from the first 1000 copies of Computer Bismarck just to reach his bed. After the move, the first of six to ever larger digs that SSI would make over the next decade, Joel hung a map of the United States on the wall. Every time an SSI game sold in a new city, he’d put a pin in the map. Within six weeks, the map was positively bristling with them. Its purpose served, Joel pulled the map off the wall.

They were on their way, but budgets were decidedly tight. That first office space was nothing but a big empty room. Unable to afford cubicles, they made “offices” out of walls of boxes. “When someone grumbled later about not having an office,” Susan remembers, “we’d say the president had a wall of boxes for an office, so you’re in good company.” Despite working for an alleged computer company, Susan managed all of the accounts on paper, with the aid of only “one of those out-of-the-movies adding machines that only does addition and subtraction.” At $15 at the local surplus store, the price had been right.

Computer Bismark

SSI spent all the money they weren’t spending inside their offices trying to make a good impression outside of them. Determined to advertise Computer Bismarck as something genuinely new under the sun, they came up with a catchy slogan: “The $2160 Wargame!” (The extra $2100, of course, referred to the approximate cost of the Apple II system needed to run it.) Just as Joel had hoped, Computer Bismarck attracted significant attention in traditional wargaming circles, getting big writeups in hardcore magazines like Fire and Movement. Computerized wargames were “here at last,” wrote Joel in his “Designer’s Notes” addendum to that article, “and I suggest you run out and buy a home computer as soon as you can justify it to your wife, girlfriend, or mother.” And at least to some extent his readers apparently did. SSI wound up selling almost 8000 copies of Computer Bismarck. That number may not sound spectacular today, but it wasn’t bad for a niche product in what remained a niche industry. By year’s end Lyon and his team had churned out a few more, slightly less blatantly cloned wargames. SSI’s year-end balance sheet showed a loss of $60,000, but that was hardly unexpected for the first-year startup. They believed they were well on the road to profitability. At the same time, though, Joel was well on the road to overhauling the way that SSI did business.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

What caused him to rethink himself was an unsolicited and thoroughly unexpected package that arrived within months of the release of Computer Bismarck. In the package was a game from an Arkansan named Dan Bunten,1 a football simulation that used the Apple II’s optional paddle controllers to brilliant effect. Bunten wanted to know if SSI would be interested in publishing it. Hard as it may be to believe, this was a business model that had never occurred to Joel. Instead of killing themselves to design and program all these games in-house, SSI could curate games from outside developers — handle the packaging and marketing while leaving the tough, unpredictable creative effort to others. If Joel needed any further convincing, the fact that Bunten’s slick football game made SSI’s in-house games look rather workmanlike provided plenty. SSI published Computer Quarterback in September of 1980 as their first non-in-house-developed game. It promptly became by far the fastest seller in their catalog, just in case Joel needed yet further convincing.

SSI’s year-end 1980 “business plan,” really a state-of-the-business report, incorporates an important change from the original plan: “SSI is now relying on outside designers to provide roughly half of all new products.” That percentage would only increase in the years to come. Joel’s original vision of SSI as a sort of wargames factory, with a small army of programmers beavering away to churn out games, would never materialize. No big loss. This new way worked so much better.

As the existence of Computer Quarterback will attest, SSI’s games almost immediately began to depart from the most literal definition of a wargame. Within a few years they would add to their growing military-history library not only more sports games, but also economic simulations, political challenges, and science-fictional scenarios. Somewhat to the chagrin of Joel, a hardcore military wargamer first and last, the average non-military game actually sold much better than the average military; the biggest sellers of all in SSI’s first few years were Computer Quarterback and Computer Baseball.

Yet, like the games of most publishers carving out an identity in the young industry, SSI’s games did all tend to share a personality. In an earlier article, I described that personality as “almost aggressively off-putting.” While not the kindest description I’ve ever written, I think it holds true to the way the average non-wargamer perceived them. It’s right there in the name of the company that made them. These games were very eager to brand themselves as thinking people’s strategic simulations rather than mere games. Rather than minimizing complexities, they reveled in them — that’s to say, they reveled in as many complexities as it was actually possible to generate on a 48 K Apple II. Like the tabletop wargames that inspired them, mechanical elegance, interface, and aesthetics all took a back seat to the idea of recreating history. It may sound like stereotyping to say that most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books… but, well, most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books. Long after the rest of the industry had sworn off BASIC for high-performance machine language, SSI continued to happily accept and publish games written in pure BASIC, hundreds of lines of amateurish spaghetti code. For the SSI hardcore, who like tabletop wargamers loved to explore and tinker with rules in the name of historical accuracy or what-if scenarios, the use of easily listable and modifiable BASIC was as much plus as minus. The great Sid Meier gave us the maxim that “fun trumps realism” in game design. One might say that SSI’s games took the opposite position. But, almost paradoxically, for the niche of people on their wavelength the realism — or the abstract idea of realism, whatever the actual reality of simulation on a 48 K Apple II — was the fun.

For everyone else, the appeal of these baroque, balky, bulky creations remained a mystery. The shops often didn’t know quite what to do with them. Here’s Ed Thomas, a former manager of Software Etc.’s showcase store in Manhattan:

The boxes were half again as big as any other box on the shelf, and they were these intricate wargames with names like Beachhead: Moscow, 1944. I hated those boxes. The only way to display them was to put them on the top shelf, which messed up the order I was trying to establish. In addition, the covers weren’t very attractive, and I never had enough of any one title to face-out the boxes. These damned over-sized, ugly boxes were not at all worth the trouble they caused. I took an immediate dislike to the company that was giving me such a hard time.

That was my first encounter with Strategic Simulations, Inc., a company filled, I was sure, with people who, when not writing intricate computer code, were in a military-style war room recreating D-Day.

SSI proved uniquely impervious to the depredations of the software pirates who were causing so much outrage elsewhere in the industry. Their fool-proof method of copy protection didn’t involve mismatched sector numbers or manual-lookup schemes. It was rather the simple fact that few of the people who copied and traded games could care less about those of SSI. The piracy scene just couldn’t be bothered, unless it was to have an occasional game to mock for its ugly graphics, its slowness, and its sheer BASICness.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself -- albeit by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismark. Selling just 2082, it wasn't a big success.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself — albeit only by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismarck. It sold just 2082 units.

The niche audience for SSI’s games — niche even by the standards of the still tiny software industry in general — sharply limited the potential sales of each of them. As Joel himself put it in 1982, “I’m just a niche in a subset.” And then there were so many sub-niches within SSI’s niche: a dedicated sports gamer raised on Strat-O-Matic Football might not care about military titles at all, a World War II buff might not have any interest in American Civil War games. Relying on the fact that many of the dedicated hardcore would buy lots of games within the sub-niche that did appeal to them, SSI made it up in the sheer volume of titles they published. They really were astoundingly prolific. Already in that 1980 business plan they are planning to leverage all those outside designers to release a new game for every month of 1981. Shockingly, they pulled it off, and kept right on flooding the market with titles thereafter.

In the first four years of SSI’s existence, they released no fewer than 43 separate games, not counting ports and enhanced editions. Most of these never came close to cracking five digits in total unit sales. Some barely sold 2000 copies. Precisely three of them cracked 20,000 units, with the most successful of them all, Computer Baseball, a real outlier at over 45,000 copies sold. Titles like that presumably broke through to some extent beyond the SSI hardcore. But mostly SSI relied on the fanatically loyal customers who bought lots of their games and quite possibly no games at all from anyone else. With virtually none of their games selling in enough quantities to meet even the most generous definition of a hit, their ever expanding back catalog was everything. Each SSI game, even those that initially struggled to sell 1000 units, remained available for years. It would, for instance, still be possible to buy a brand new copy of good old Computer Bismarck in 1986 — and still for a full $60 at that.

It was a comfortable niche as niches go, but there was only room for one company there. About six months after Computer Bismarck, Avalon Hill, as Tom Shaw had once told Joel they would, started their own line of computerized wargames. That, combined with the existence of Computer Bismarck, was a recipe for trouble. Sure enough, Avalon Hill was soon marketing computerized versions of some of their other tabletop classics using the same prefix: Computer Diplomacy, Computer Football Strategy, Computer Circus Maximus. Just to aggravate the confusion, Avalon Hill coincidentally released a second edition of the tabletop Bismarck, which had been out of print for a number of years, the very same year as Computer Bismarck. With the two companies in direct competition, a call from the lawyers was inevitable. SSI got off relatively easy: sued for trademark and copyright infringement in 1984, they settled by agreeing to pay Avalon Hill a lump sum of $30,000 and a 5 percent royalty on future sales — which, given that Computer Bismarck was by then almost five years old and creakily archaic, were likely to be modest at best even for the back-catalog-driven SSI.

All told, Avalon Hill plugged away at the computer thing for a good five years, but despite the drawing power of their name among tabletop veterans could never quite catch up to SSI in either sales or wargamer respect, could never quite get their computer division to turn a real profit. Part of the problem was doubtless that their games, being programmed by a rather unimaginative in-house team, were “really simple,” as Joel puts it, in comparison to SSI’s — not a good thing to players that craved the validation of complexity. And part of their problem was doubtless just the disadvantages of being second. SSI already owned this market. Stymieing the giant that had once blown him off had to bring a smile of vindication even to the mild-mannered face of Joel Billings.

Less happily for SSI, other markets had owners as well. When SSI tried to branch out from their slow, cerebral signature games it just didn’t work for them. In 1982, they launched a line they called RapidFire, consisting of faster-paced, more graphically impressive games, generally programmed and released first on the more audiovisually capable Atari 8-bit line rather than the Apple II. Among the RapidFire games was Dan Bunten’s pioneering proto-real-time-strategy game Cytron Masters. But sales weren’t notably better than their typical wargame: Cytron Masters sold just 4702 units. And as competition heated up it became difficult for little SSI to retain developers who didn’t work firmly in the company’s own niche. Dan Bunten, for instance, was lured away by Trip Hawkins’s new Electronic Arts shortly after finishing Cytron Masters. SSI soon returned to focusing exclusively on the types of games with which Joel was most comfortable

They did have one valuable ally in their corner in the increasingly competitive industry. In 1981, a Baptist minister and veteran tabletop gamer named Russell Sipe contacted Joel to ask his opinion on a potential magazine that would exclusively cover computer games, focusing on those of an intellectual, wargamey bent. Recognizing a kindred spirit immediately, Joel was very supportive, even committing his own still fragile venture to buying extensive advertising in the new publication. Computer Gaming World became so associated with SSI in its early years that one might be excused if one took it for SSI’s own publication. The slim first issue, for example, includes an extended feature-length review of SSI’s new Torpedo Fire; a review of, playing tips for, and an after-action report from SSI’s President Elect; and a “greatest baseball team of all time” tournament conducted using SSI’s Computer Baseball. This de facto partnership, born like most things involving SSI of shared interests and genuine affection rather than guile, served SSI well for many years, helping to get their niche games in front of just the right niche of potential buyers. SSI grew cautiously but healthily year by year, from sales of $317,000 in 1980 to over $3 million in 1984. The employee rolls grew to match, from 11 at the end of 1980 to 32 at the end of 1984.

While the vast majority of the games were provided by outside developers (the aforementioned serious-minded bearded men), just packaging and coming up with manuals and other supporting materials for a new game every single month was a herculean task, especially given that SSI generally did a very good job with such things; these were expensive games, and they needed to look it. In lieu of the army of programmers — SSI’s in-house development group, while never entirely eliminated, remained much smaller than originally planned — an army (or at any rate a small brigade) of other personnel came on board to design the packaging, write the manuals, ship the games, and deal with all the other logistics of running a growing business. Some of these folks were, like Joel, hardcore gamers delighted to be spending their days in what Joel’s eventual wife came to call “a treehouse for wargamers.” For the rest, the folks like Susan Billings, it was just a job, but a pretty great job all the same. Joel, apart from his one eccentric habit of wearing a three-piece suit to work every day, was as easygoing, down-to-earth, and reasonable a boss as anyone could ever wish for. But it was at least as much Susan who set the tone of the workplace while Joel was hopelessly lost inside his wargames: “It was the opportunity to try to create the perfect work environment so people would want to come to work. It was the chance of a lifetime to develop a company using your style, based on your style, and doing it with someone from your family.” So, yes, SSI was a very happy place — as happy in its way as the legendarily happy Infocom, and for a much longer stretch of time.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the "Simulated Bunnies" because... well, just because.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the “Simulated Bunnies” because… well, just because.

Tena Lawry, who would later become SSI’s senior purchaser, joined in 1981 as a temporary disk copier, responsible for shoving disks into drives and then dropping them into boxes all day long. (If you could put toast in a toaster, you were qualified, says Tena wryly.) Tena:

We broke for lunch and Joel walked in with five pizzas. We all sat on the floor munching away and an announcement was made that we were going to have a rousing game of Nuclear War [a Flying Buffalo game]. Now I’m nervous. I figured we were going to play some intense videogame. I hadn’t even mastered Pac-Man yet, so this would be interesting.

Nuclear War turned out to be a card game in which you amass missiles and such and then trump your opponent in an attempt to annihilate his population. At one point, I dropped a major nuclear payload on Joel. I thought at this point that this may not have been the politically correct thing to do. After all, Joel was the president of SSI and I had just wiped out his entire population. But I soon found out that Joel always appreciates a good game strategist even if it means a pile of dead-body cards.

That night at dinner my family asked me what I had done on my first day at SSI. I said I copied disks, assembled games, and obliterated an entire population while eating pizza. Silence fell over the table. “Just kidding,” I said.

It fell to Susan Billings to address a delicate problem when SSI’s technical staff — hackers being hackers — started to spend much too long in front of their computers between hygiene breaks. She handled the situation with humor, grace, and aplomb, as she did most situations at SSI. Old timers laugh about the infamous “B.O. Memo” to this day.

SSI

At the time that Susan was writing that memo, SSI was tentatively trying to branch out again into a new genre. Thankfully, this expansion would be more successful than the RapidFire line had been. Indeed, in the fullness of time it would lead to a transformative deal with the titan of the other side of the tabletop industry, the yin to Avalon Hill’s yang. We’ll step back next time to look at what set that titan on a collision course with Joel Billing’s modest little treehouse for wargamers.

(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Joel Billings donated to the Strong Museum of Play, which includes lots of internal SSI documents and some press clippings. Also, Matt Barton’s YouTube interviews with Billings.)


  1. Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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