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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 As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.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 hordes, 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 hordes 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 Master’s 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 Master’s 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 it 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 1: 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 easy 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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Britain’s Occult Uncle

There are some successful writers who are, as Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “not of an age but for all time.” But there are many more who become rich and famous in their own time only to be forgotten by later generations — or, if and when recalled by academics and diehards, remembered not for their continuing resonance but as curiosities, clues to understanding those strange people who lived all those years ago. Dennis Wheatley, for four decades one of the most bankable bestsellers in the book trade, belongs to this category. Upon his death in 1977, the vast majority of his immense oeuvre went almost immediately out of print even in his native Britain, and that was pretty much that for a fellow whose books even while he was still writing them had begun to seem painfully out of joint with the times.

To modern sensibilities, Wheatley’s life story is perhaps more interesting than his fiction. Born the son of an increasingly prosperous middle-class wine merchant in 1897, he was groomed virtually from birth to take over the business from his father when the time came. In that spirit, he received a respectable if not exceptional English public-school education. Indeed, “respectable but not exceptional” is a good way to describe the young Wheatley. Thanks to his family’s growing influence, he was able to finagle an officer’s billet in World War I and, even more importantly, to get himself posted to an artillery unit rather than the meat-grinder that was the infantry. Thus Wheatley had a comparatively easy war of it, in which, in the words of his biographer Phil Baker, “he did his duty; no less, if no more.” With that behind him, Wheatley, desperately class-conscious in the way that only one of somewhat uncertain status himself (in this case the son of a tradesman) could be, devoted himself to climbing society’s ranks while dabbling just enough in the business to keep his father soothed.

In 1927 his father died, leaving Wheatley in sole charge of the business. Unfortunately, thanks to the Great Depression that arrived a couple of years later and perhaps also to Wheatley’s decision to refocus the business on selling only very expensive wines and liquors to the most exclusive social sets, things started to go badly. Soon Wheatley, now entering his mid-30s, was forced to sell the failing business before it collapsed entirely. Worse, the purchasers upon examining the books began to speak of irregularities with regard to the money that Wheatley personally had taken out of the business. Soon they were threatening legal action in criminal court, and Wheatley was contemplating the prospect of jail time in addition to destitution. This man who had for 35 years been exactly what you would expect him to be now made the one really unexpected, audacious decision of his life. Despite having only his boyhood love of adventure novels and some earlier, unpublished and halfhearted stabs at fiction to his credit, he would write his way out of his financial straits. And so, in 1933, Dennis Wheatley the novelist was born.

In a great bit of damning with faint praise, Baker notes that Wheatley turned out to be only “good at writing books, after a fashion,” but “extremely good at selling them.” The critics, or at least those who didn’t lunch with him at one of his clubs, delighted in eviscerating him, and for many good reasons. His prose was remarkably awful, his characters paper-thin, his politics reactionary. Wheatley was a thoroughgoing manichean. People are either Good (Tories, businessmen, military men, the aristocracy, fascists in the early years) or Evil (communists, socialists, labor, Satanists, fascists after appeasement went out of fashion amongst the British Right, still later hippies and civil-rights activists). As time went on all of these latter groups started to blend into one overarching conspiracy of Evil in his books, communists walking hand in hand with Satanists. Wheatley does not allow the possibility of equally well-meaning people who simply disagree about means as opposed to ends. There is only Good and Evil, the former usually handsome or beautiful, the latter ugly. Subtle Wheatley ain’t.

For all his failings, however, Wheatley did have a flair for exciting plotting. He knew how to layer on the unexpected twists and turns, to get his heroes in and out of jam after jam by the skin of their teeth, each more dangerous and improbable than the last. For readers who shared his politics, and probably even a fair number of guilty-pleasure seekers who did not, his books were reliable comfort reads. To his credit, he never claimed them to be anything more. He replied to bad reviews with a bemused shrug, saying that he had “no pretensions to literary merit”; was “better aware than most of my shortcomings where fine English is concerned.” And anyway, he said, reading his books was at least better than going to the cinema, which was what his customers would otherwise do.

Wheatley took his customers’ wishes very, very seriously. Some of his books ended with a questionnaire, asking what they had thought of the book and what they would like to see in the next: what setting, which of his cast of recurring heroes and villains, even what percentage should be devoted to romance. Apropos this last: one other key to Wheatley’s success was his inclusion of a love story in each novel. This was thought to attract women readers — and, it must be said, he did sell far more books to women than did other writers in the traditionally male-dominated genres of thrillers and adventure stories. Wheatley wrote quickly, ensuring his fans were never kept waiting long for new material. In 1933, his first year as a working writer, he churned out an incredible three novels as well as one nonfiction book (on King Charles II of England, his personal hero) to buy himself out of his legal difficulties. After that outburst he settled into the only slightly more sedate pace of two novels per year, year after year.

But, you might be wondering, what does this fellow have to do with videogames? More than you might expect, actually. Wheatley, despite being very much a character of a different era than my usual concerns on this blog, is nevertheless important to them in two ways. One is somewhat tangential and one surprisingly direct. Let’s talk about the former today.

On Halloween, 1934, The Daily Mail began publishing a new Wheatley novel in serial form. It was called The Devil Rides Out, and concerned a cabal of Satan worshipers out to plunge the world into an at-the-time-still-hypothetical World War II by stirring up opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi regime. There are parts of the book that read just horribly wrong today. The heroes’ talisman of good, for instance, which when hung around the neck functions to protect them against the Satanists much as does garlic against vampires, is a swastika, “the oldest symbol of wisdom and right thinking in the world.” Despite — or perhaps because of — stuff like this, it’s become a kitschy classic of sorts today, the book most of the few who do bother to read Wheatley begin with — and, one suspects, usually end with.

In its own time, Devil became a sensation. Wheatley had been successful before, but Devil took him to a whole new level of fortune and fame, as Britain’s foremost popular pundit on all things occult. The book was in fact broadly if shallowly researched. Wheatley cultivated relationships with such figures as Montague Summers, a loathsome old reprobate of a priest who was convinced that witches in the medieval tradition remained a clear and present danger; and even an aging and ever more ridiculous Aleister Crowley, whose name still left many people in terror for their immortal soul but who in person was more likely to ask to borrow a fiver to feed his various addictions than anything more threatening. Crowley, Summers and a handful of other similarly dissipated, over-privileged Edwardians with too much time on their hands had in the decades before his book been largely responsible for reviving the notion of the occult, previously thought banished to the Middle Ages where it belonged, as an at least theoretically vital force again.

The problem with Satanism, at least from a certain point of view, is that there’s just not a whole lot of there there. Our perception of it through the ages is not down to any actual evidence from Satanists themselves, who seem to have barely existed if at all, but rather the fever dreams of those on the side of Good who claim to be desperate to stamp it out. From the Malleus Maleficarum down to the works of Summer, the scholarship on Satanism and witchcraft consists entirely of what the Good side of the hypothetical debate speculated that those on the side of Evil must be doing. The entire scholarly edifice is built on sand. Wheatley based much of the detail in Devil on Summers, who drew from the Malleus Maleficarum, which drew from… what? The whole is a chain of conjecture and imaginings (and, one suspects, fantasizing) of what a genuine cult of Satanists must be like if anyone ever met one. Direct experience is entirely absent. As we’re about to see, Wheatley just added another link to that chain.

As already described, Wheatley was always eager to give his public exactly what they wanted. And what they wanted, judging from sales of The Devil Rides Out and the excitement it generated, was more novels about Satanism and the occult. And so for the remainder of his life, interspersed with his tremendous output of other novels, he continued to churn them out. He also continued to cultivate his persona as “Britain’s occult uncle,” one on the side of Good who nevertheless had access to Dark Secrets that could be dangerous to lesser men. And he continued the bizarre, and increasingly ridiculous, practice of mixing worldly politics with spiritual struggle as he aged and the world around him agreed less and less with his traditionalist Tory values. “Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?” he asked in 1971. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was a quite definite yes. He even advocated for a reinstatement of Britain’s anti-witchcraft laws, despite the last of them having only recently been taken off the books. Late in his life Wheatley almost seemed to morph into the now-deceased Montague Summers. He published a non-fiction treatise of his own, The Devil and All His Works, and sponsored the “Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult,” a series of paperback editions that ranged from classic literature (Stoker’s Dracula, Goethe’s Faust) to the ramblings of Crowley and his ilk.

It’s hard to say to what extent Wheatley really believed this nonsense. He loved to sell books, and, while his books on other subjects were very successful, this stuff sold a whole order of magnitude better. It’s hard to understand why, if he thought Satanism a genuine danger to society, he continued to make it sound so damn appealing to so many of his readers via his novels, all of which featured a nubile, naked young virgin almost deflowered on an altar of Satan or similarly charged mixtures of black magic, sex, and sadism. Readers were not clucking over them as warnings about the spiritual dangers around them; no, they were getting off on the stuff. Wheatley therefore shouldn’t have been surprised when one of the elements of modern culture he hated most, a rock band, drew from his work — or, rather, pretty much blatantly ripped him off.

The band in question, Coven, was the first to really cement the link between Satanism and rock and roll. They were, however, far from one of the more talented bands to be accused of witchcraft. Their first album, the ponderously titled Witchcraft Destroys and Reaps Souls (1969), was a very contrived affair, largely the brainchild not of the band (who frankly don’t strike me as the brightest sorts) but of the producer, Bill Traut. He hired an outside songwriter, James Vincent, to put most of the album together:

“Bill brought me a large box full of books about witchcraft and related subjects. He told me to read them and start writing some songs … Sometime before the sun came up, I had completely written all the material requested of me for the entire album.”

It is, as you might imagine from a gestation like that, pretty dire stuff, like Jefferson Airplane with less impressive instrumentalists and very generic songs (apart from the EEEVVVVIIILLLL lyrics, of course). The most interesting track is not a song at all, but rather the 13-minute recording of an allegedly “authentic” Black Mass that concludes the album.

I have to put “authentic” in quotes in the context of a Black Mass because it’s very debatable whether there is such a thing. All evidence would seem to indicate that the Black Mass is not an ancient, timeless ritual, but an invention of the twentieth century. Further, it seems that none other than Wheatley’s erstwhile mentor Montague Summers may have been the man who invented it. Before suffering a spiritual “shock” that led him to God, Summers was himself a budding Satanist, one of the community of occult dabblers that swirled around Aleister Crowley. In his superb Lure of the Sinister, Gareth Medway accords a ritual conducted by Summers at his home in 1918 as “the earliest Black Mass for which there is reliable evidence.” Indeed, the younger Summers was quite a piece of work. A recollection from this era given by an acquaintance, from Baker’s Wheatley biography:

James was not invited to the Black Mass again, but he continued to see Summers socially: heavily made up and perfumed, drunk on liqueurs, Summers would cruise the London streets in search of young men. One day Summers confided his particular taste: “He was aroused only by devout young Catholics, their subsequent corruption giving him inexhaustible pleasure.”

There is evil here, but its source is not the supernatural entities the later Summers was so eager to stamp out.

So, we now have the older Summers feverishly describing and condemning the “ancient” ritual of the Black Mass which he himself likely invented as a younger man. Next, inevitably, we have Wheatley putting all of the “authentic” details into his novels. And then… then along comes Coven. Their recorded Black Mass is hilarious in its own right; for starters, the priest of Satan serving as master of ceremonies has the stentorian voice of a radio DJ, a far cry from the Voice of Evil one might expect. It gets even funnier, however, when you realize that virtually the entire ritual is plagiarized from one of Wheatley’s novels, The Satanist (1960).

The Coven album generated just the sort of controversy it had been intended to provoke. More so, actually; the outcry was so extreme that their record company pulled the album from shelves entirely in fairly short order. Thus in this case the real object of the endeavor, which was (in common with so much of the Satan industry) to make lots of money off cheap sensationalism, didn’t quite pan out. However, other bands, particularly in the emerging genre of heavy metal, now began dabbling in occult subject matter, most notably Black Sabbath. (In an odd coincidence, Coven’s bassist was named Oz Osbourne and the first song on their album was called “Black Sabbath.”) Most of these bands simply wrote about Satanism and the occult — with the usual dodgy research — rather than claiming to be full-on devil worshipers. Mostly it was all just silly fun perfect for teenage boys, and some of it was even pretty good; I’m still known to spin the occasional Iron Maiden. Yet it caused a firestorm of fear and anger from conservative Christians and orthodox Establishment-types who imagined their headbanging children being seduced to Satan through this music. What went unnoticed and unremarked, of course, was that the real source of most of the Satanic tropes they condemned was a man who was in a very real sense one of their own, Dennis Wheatley. One can make a pretty strong case that Wheatley essentially invented Satanism as it has existed in the popular imagination of the last 50 years — not a bad legacy for an otherwise forgotten author.

So, let’s see if we can bring this around to games at last, by looking at the urtext of ludic narrative, Dungeons and Dragons. There’s actually very little occult influence in the original edition of the game. It was, as I described in an earlier post, a product of dedicated wargamers with an interest in fantasy literature; there was nary an occultist among them. Later sourcebooks would begin to introduce somewhat generic devils and demons, and even to outline entire religious pantheons via the Deities and Demigods tome, but TSR was smart enough to stay well clear of any sort of obviously Christian mythos; certainly you won’t find stats for Satan in any of the official literature. Still, demons and devils and other horrors were in the game, as were spells. Many apparently found these elements hard to place outside of a Christian context. Nor was the artwork always helpful; in a picture, a generic demon and Satan look pretty much the same.

Further, there was a substantial crossover between the kids listening to all this allegedly Satanic heavy-metal music and those playing D&D. While the lure of the forbidden (i.e., Satanism) was certainly part of heavy metal’s appeal, it also gave them grand themes of heroism and villainy, fantasy and history — all just the thing for teenagers looking for an escape from the trials and tribulations of high school. D&D, of course, gave them some of the same things. When concerned elders worried over the lurid heavy-metal posters on Junior’s bedroom walls, then saw that he was also playing this odd game of imagination full of spells and devils, and with similarly lurid artwork… well, it wasn’t a difficult leap to make. D&D and heavy metal must be the new face of Satanism — which, as we have seen and although no one seemed to realize it, didn’t actually have an old face.

The wrath of these crusaders would largely come down on D&D the tabletop RPG, as opposed to its computerized descendents that I’ve been writing about on this blog. Yet even they would not be immune. Richard Garriott received plenty of outraged letters accusing him of being an ambassador of Satan, particularly after Ultima III came out with its particularly Satanic-looking figure on the cover.

All of this controversy ended up playing a significant role in Garriott’s work as well as that of others, and I’ll be returning to it again in the future. However, I don’t want to move too far afield from Wheatley himself at just this moment. You see, he had yet another, completely different role to play in the field — in fact, the one I teased you with in my last post. We’ll pick that up again at last next time.

 

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DunjonQuest

I can hardly emphasize enough the influence that war games and tabletop role-playing games (particularly, of course, TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons) had on early computer-based ludic narratives. Sometimes that influence is obvious, as in games like Eamon that explicitly sought to bring the D&D experience to the computer. In other cases it’s more subtle.

Unlike traditional board or even war games, D&D and its contemporaries were marketed not as single products but as a whole collection of experiences, almost a lifestyle choice. Just getting started with the flagship Advanced Dungeons and Dragons system required the purchase of three big hardcover volumes — Monster Manual, Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide — and to this were soon added many more volumes, detailing additional monsters, treasures, gods, character classes, and increasingly fiddly rules for swimming, workshopping, sneaking, thieving, and of course fighting. But most of all there were adventure modules — pre-crafted adventures, actual ludic narratives to be run using the D&D ludic narrative system — by the dozen, meticulously cataloged via an alphanumeric system to help the obsessive keep track of their collection; a trilogy of modules dealing with giants got labelled “G1” through “G3,” a series of modules originating in Britain was labelled with “UK,” etc. Whatever its other advantages, this model was a marketer’s dream. Why sell just one game to your customers when you can lock them into an ever-expanding universe of products?

TSR’s one game / many products approach to marketing and its zeal for cataloging surfaces even amongst early computer-game developers that were not trying to adapt the D&D rules to the digital world. Scott Adams, for instance, numbered each of his adventures, eventually ending up with a canonical dozen. (Other adventures, presumably worthy but not written by the master himself, were published by Adventure International as a sort of official apocrypha in the form of the OtherVentures series.) Players were encouraged to play the adventures in order, as they gradually increased in difficulty; thus could the beginner cut her teeth on relatively forgiving efforts like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure before plunging into the absurdly difficult later games like Ghost Town and Savage Island. On-Line Systems adapted a similar model, retroactively subtitling Mystery House to Hi-Res Adventure #1 when Hi-Res Adventure #2, The Wizard and the Princess, hit the scene. The next game, Mission: Asteroid, which appeared in early 1981, was subtitled Hi-Res Adventure #0 in defiance of chronology, as it was meant to be a beginner’s game featuring somewhat fewer absurdities and unfair puzzles than the norm. These similarities with the D&D approach are in fact more than a marketing phenomenon. Both lines were built on reusable adventuring engines, after all. Just as a group of players would have many different adventures using the core D&D rules set, the Scott Adams or Hi-Res Adventures lines were essentially a core set of enabling “rules” (the engine) applied to many different instances of ludic narrative.

Still, of the developers we’ve look at so far, the ones who most obviously mimicked the D&D model were, unsurprisingly, the ones who came directly out of the culture of D&D itself: Donald Brown with the Eamon system, and Automated Simulations, developers of the DunjonQuest line that began with Temple of Apshai. J.W. Connelley, the principal technical architect for Automated Simulations, designed for Temple of Aphsai a reusable engine that read in data files representing each level of the dungeon being explored. As it did for Scott Adams and On-Line Systems, this approach both made the game more easily portable — versions for the three most viable machines in 1979, the TRS-80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET, were all available that year — and sped development of new iterations of the concept. These were marketed as part of a unified set of experiences, called DunjonQuest; the alternative medieval-era spelling was possibly chosen to avoid conflict with a litigious TSR, who marketed a board game called simply Dungeon! in addition to the D&D rules.

And iterate Automated Systems did. Two more DunjonQuest games appeared the same year as Apshai. Both Datestones of Ryn and Morloc’s Tower were what Automated Simulations called MicroQuests, in which the character-building elements were removed entirely. Instead the player guided a preset character through a much smaller environment. The player was expected to play many times, trying to build a better score. In 1980 Automated Simulations released the “true” sequel to Apshai, Hellfire Warrior, featuring levels 5 through 8 of the labyrinth that began in that earlier game. They also released two more modest games, Rescue at Rigel and Star Warrior, the first and only entries in a new series, StarQuest, which took the DunjonQuest system into space.

At least from a modern perspective, there is a sort of cognitive dissonance to the series as a whole. The manuals push the experiential aspect of the games hard, as shown by this extract from the Hellfire Warrior manual:

Whatever your background and previous experience, we invite you to project not just your character but yourself into the dunjon. Wander lost through the labyrinth. Feel the dust underfoot. Listen for the sound of inhuman footsteps or a lost soul’s wailing. Let sulfur and brimstone assail your nostrils. Burn in the heat of hellfire, and freeze on a bridge of ice. Run your fingers through a pile of gold pieces, and bathe in a magic pool.

Enter the world of DunjonQuest.

For all that, none of the games has any real plot within the game itself. Neither Apshai nor Hellfire Warrior even has an ending, just endlessly regenerating dungeons to explore and a player character to perpetually improve. And the MicroQuests reward their players only with an unsatisfying final score in lieu of a denoument. Datestones of Ryn has a time limit of just 20 minutes, making it, in spite of the usual carefully crafted background narrative of its manual, feel almost more like an endlessly replayable, almost context-less action game than a CRPG. The gameplay of the series as a whole, meanwhile, strikes modern eyes as most similar to the genre of roguelikes, storyless (or at least story-light) dungeon crawls through randomly generated environments. This, however, is something of an anachronistic reading; Rogue, the urtext of the genre, actually postdates Apshai by a year.

I think we can account for these oddities when we understand that Jon Freeman, the principal game designer behind the systems, is aiming for a different kind of ludic narrative than that of the text adventures of Scott Adams and On-Line Systems. He hopes that, given the background, a description of the environment, a set of rules to control what happens there, and a healthy dose of imagination on the player’s part, a narrative experience will arise of its own accord. In other words, and to choose a term from a much later era, he throws in his lot with emergent narrative. To understand his approach better, I thought we might briefly take a closer look at one of the games, Rescue at Rigel.

Rescue at Rigel draws its inspiration from classic space opera, a genre that had recently been revived by the phenomenal success of the first two Star Wars movies.

In the arenas of our imagination, not all of our heroes (or heroines!) wear rent black armor or shining silver mail, cleave barbarian foes on a wind-swept deck, or face a less clean fate at the hands of some depraved adept whose black arts were old when the world was young. Science fiction propels us about space-faring ships like Enterprise, Hooligan, Little Giant, Millenium Falcon, Nemesis, Nostromo, Sisu, Skylark, and Solar Queen into starry seas neither storm-tossed nor demon-haunted but no less daunting for all that — and lands us on brave new worlds whose shapes and sights and sounds are more plausible — but no less astonishing — then any seen by Sinbad.

The Rescue at Rigel player takes the role of Sudden Smith, a classic two-fisted pulp hero. He is about to beam down to the base of a race of insectoid aliens known as the Toolah, who have captured a group of scientists for “research,” among them Sudden’s girlfriend. The Toolah provide one of the surprisingly few references to events in the broader world outside of fantasy and science-fiction fandom that you’ll find in very early computer games. The leader caste of the Toolah are the “High Toolah,” a clear reference to Ayatollah Khomeini who had recently assumed power in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage there. “High Tollah,” the manual tells us, “are smug, superior, authoritarian, intolerant, narrow-minded, unimaginative, and set in their ways.” In this light, the inspiration for the scientist-rescue scenario becomes clear.

The gameplay involves exploring the conveniently dungeon-like labyrinth of the Toolah base, warding off Toolah and security robots while searching for the ten scientists being held hostage there. It is, like so many CRPGs, essentially a game of resource management; Sudden has limited medkits, limited ammunition, and, most of all, limited energy in the portable backpack he must use for everything from shooting Toolah to beaming scientists to safety. Worse, he has just 60 minutes of real time to rescue as many scientists as possible and also beam himself back to safety. Freeman takes pain to make the game an engine for exciting emergent narrative. If Sudden runs out of energy completely, for instance, he still has one potential avenue of escape: if he can return to his beam-down location and be there in the 60th minute, an automated transporter beam will carry him to safety. One can imagine a desperate situation straight out of Star Wars or a Dominic Flandry story, the player racing back amid a hail of blaster fire as the clock runs down and Toolah dog his footsteps. Certainly one can imagine Freeman imagining it.

But living that drama requires a pretty substantial degree of commitment and a lively imagination on the part of the player, as one look at the rather ugly screenshot above will probably attest. Indeed, the DunjonQuest games feel always like a sort of hybrid of the digital and the tabletop RPG experience, with at least as much of the experience emerging from the player’s imagination as from the game itself. Perhaps it was a wise move, then, for Automated Simulations to target tabletop RPG players so aggressively in marketing DunjonQuest. After all, they were accustomed to having to roll up their sleeves a bit and exercise some imagination to come up with satisfying narratives. Automated Simulations advertised DunjonQuest extensively in TSR’s Dragon magazine, and, in a move that could hardly be more illustrative of the types of people they imagined enjoying DunjonQuest, even gave away for a time a strategic board game called Sticks and Stones with purchase of a DunjonQuest game.

In late 1980, Automated Simulations changed its game imprint to the less prosaic Epyx, adapting the tagline “Computer games thinkers play.” The DunjonQuest games just kept coming for another two years. Included amongst the later releases were a pair of expansion packs each for Temple of Apshai and Hellfire Warrior, the first examples of such I know amongst commercial computer games. The weirdest and most creative use of the DunjonQuest engine came with 1981’s Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!: The Great Movie Monster Game, in which the player got to take control of Godzilla (woops! Goshzilla!) or another famous monster on an urban rampage. (For a detailed overview of the entire DunjonQuest series, which eventually amounted to a dozen games in total, see this article on Hardcore Gaming 101.)

Crush, Crumble, and Chomp! was, as it happened, the last work Freeman did for Epyx. At the West Coast Computer Faire of 1980, he had met a programmer named Anne Westfall; the two were soon dating. Westfall joined Epyx for a time, working as a programmer on some of the later DunjonQuest games. Both she and Freeman were, however, frustrated by Connelley’s disinterest in improving the DunjonQuest engine. Written in BASIC and originating on the now aging TRS-80 Model I, it had always been painfully slow, and was by now beginning to look dated indeed when ported to more modern and capable platforms. In addition, Freeman, a restless and creative designer, was growing tired with endless iterations on the DunjonQuest concept itself; he had had to battle hard even to go as far afield as Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!. At the end of 1981, Freeman and Westfall left Epyx to form the independent development house Free Fall Associates, about which I will have much more to say in the future. And after a couple of final DunjonQuest releases, Epyx morphed from “Computer Games Thinkers Play” into something very different, about which I will also have more to say in the future. Solid but never huge sellers even in their heyday, the DujonQuest games by that time did not compare terribly well to a new generation of computer RPGs — about which, you guessed it, I will have more to say in the future.

If you’d like to sample the DunjonQuest experience, I can provide a sampler package with an Apple II disk image which includes Temple of Apshai, Rescue at Rigel, Morloc’s Tower, and Datestones of Ryn, as well as the manuals for each.

Next up: we begin to explore a work of unprecedented thematic depth that sets my literary-scholar proboscises all atingle.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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