And Did These Games In Ancient Times Spring From Avalon Hill So Green?

Before TSR’s rise to prominence and the emergence of the tabletop RPG hobby as a significant new factor in the hobby games market, SPI and Avalon Hill were words to conjure by as the market leaders in the world of tabletop wargames, particularly hex-and-chit stuff. To draw an analogy with tabletop RPGs, imagine American wargames of the 1970s were D&D/Pathfinder, and then SPI and Avalon Hill would be like the Paizo and Wizards of the Coast of that market – both selling products with broad similarities, but with enough of a distinction in their house styles to make room for both in the market (it’s my understanding that SPI’s material tended to be a notch more complex than Avalon Hill’s, for example).

Another commonality between Avalon Hill and SPI is that both companies were caught snoozing by the rise of RPGs. Whilst for the second half of the 1970s the RPG hobby began gathering steam, both attracting customers from outside of the world of wargaming that Arneson and Gygax had emerged from as well as winning converts within that fanbase, it took until the 1980s for the two companies to realise that they were leaving money on the table needlessly. They had the size, the reach, the distribution and production capacity, as well as the overlap in fanbase, to really make a mark in this exciting new market (and revive their fortunes, flagging somewhat with the decline of their style of wargaming), but for the better part of a decade they’d turned their nose up at RPGs, with the result that TSR was able to consolidate its first mover advantage and other small presses and new companies were able to rise up and cater to those wanting alternatives to D&D.

In 1980 SPI made their move with DragonQuest, which managed to get a bit of critical acclaim and a certain level of commercial success. (As well as SPI’s own support line, Judges Guild made some third-party products for it, and Judges Guild generally didn’t bother to do that unless you’d attained a certain level of popularity.) It wasn’t enough to fix SPI’s financial woes, however – which debacles like their other roleplaying effort, the official Dallas RPG, didn’t help.

As I’ve recounted in my article on Arcane‘s old features on what were considered “retro” RPGs back in the mid-1990s, a bit of financial chicanery from TSR – in effect pretending like they were offering SPI a loan to help them survive, only to then pull the rug out from under them, grab all their assets, and hang them out to dry – killed DragonQuest; TSR’s almost-total mothballing of SPI’s intellectual property has only fuelled speculation that this was a cynically anticompetitive gambit to take out either SPI in general – TSR was still competing in the wargame field to an extent at the time – or DragonQuest specifically.

The 1982 demise of SPI had significance well beyond the impact on DragonQuest; it would have been a major shock to the wargaming market in general. One can only imagine the scene in the Avalon Hill offices when the news reached them. It’s highly interesting to me that Avalon Hill’s big push into the RPG industry seemed to happen in 1983-1984, when they put out four of the five RPGs they’d ever publish. (In 1991 they put out the original version of Tales From the Floating Vagabond, a much more modest project, but by that point their grand attempt to become significant players in the RPG market was over, and aside from residual RuneQuest activity had been over for years.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the timing here was mere coincidence, especially since the astonishing sales of the D&D Basic Set (especially the classic Frank Mentzer edition) would surely have given Avalon Hill all the motive they needed to try their hand in the field. Still, I can’t help but think that someone, somewhere in Avalon Hill had visions of avenging their fallen frenemies at SPI. Certainly, Avalon Hill seem to have regarded the loss of SPI as a detriment to the health of the market; they set up a new semi-autonomous subsidiary, Victory Games, and quickly plucked a number of SPI old hands out of the unemployment lines to staff it.

Victory Games’ primary mission seems to have been to just carry on producing games according to the SPI design philosophy, but they would also produce the James Bond 007 RPG in 1983 as part of Avalon Hill’s salvo into the field. It did damn well for the time, attaining six-figure sales numbers and displacing TSR’s own Top Secret as the market leader in the (admittedly somewhat underserved) niche of espionage RPGs, but when Avalon Hill failed to retain the licence in 1987 it fell out of print, though it was eventually retro-cloned as Classified. Still, maintaining a healthy support line up to that point and its decent sales made it the second most successful of Avalon Hill’s mid-1980s wave of RPGs.

By far the most successful game of that wave was the third edition of RuneQuest, which would be the only one of their 1980s RPG releases they’d provide anything resembling active support for after 1987. RuneQuest kept ticking over as the sole RPG entry in their portfolio, with a slow trickle of product punctuated by the odd flurry of activity, but they didn’t really bother making anything for it after 1994. This allowed fan publishers to pick up the slack, and then a while after Avalon Hill were absorbed into Hasbro the trademark situation around RuneQuest resolved in Greg Stafford’s favour and Mongoose were able to produce their edition of the game. In retrospect the Avalon Hill edition of the game was marred by a misguided pursuit of complexity at the cost of playability, without sufficient improvements to the game experience to make that sacrifice worth it; there were also some own goals in terms of Avalon Hill’s general handling of the product line. Still, in general the high quality of the underlying system kept the game afloat, as did the momentum of the Glorantha fandom.

So you have a game developed by a subsidiary studio, and a game licensed from Chaosium, and both of those did pretty well. The rest of the Avalon Hill assault on the RPG market consisted of games they made under their own flag, bringing in significant names from D&D history to produce the material in question. These would be Powers & Perils and Lords of Creation. With a form factor in line with Avalon Hill’s other “bookcase games” and nice cover art, Avalon Hill were clearly presenting these as significant entries in their game lines. Released in 1983-1984 alongside an initial burst of supporting material, Avalon Hill clearly had great things planned for the games; they even began a new RPG magazine, Heroes, focusing exclusively on their portfolio of four games. But did their in-house half of the equation add up?

The fact that they were basically commercially dead by the time 1984 was out suggests not.

Powers & Perils

Richard Snider is not these days an especially well-remembered name from the days of early RPG design, but back in the day you could have been forgiven for thinking he might be a hot talent. A member of Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor group whose exploits paved the way for the creation of D&D, he could at least claim to have been there at the invention of tabletop RPGs as they are traditionally understood. In addition, whilst he never worked for TSR, he did help Arneson on his first major post-TSR project – Adventures In Fantasy, notable for being a fantasy heartbreaker penned by the man credited with co-creating D&D in the first place! (Not that Gygax would be above knocking out a heartbreaker or two of his own in later life…)

Back in the day, this presumably helped give Snider a certain amount of cred, especially with gamers dissatisfied with the direction in which Gary Gygax had taken D&D in recent years. After all, it’s easy in such a situation to imagine that the bits of AD&D you dislike represented Gary’s vision for the game triumphing over Arneson’s good sense, the bits you enjoy represented Arneson’s ideas winning through, and there was the possibility of an authentically “Arnesonian” style of D&D which could be a counterbalance to AD&D‘s excesses.

This does not seem to be the case, at least not in terms of an actual viable commercial product. Adventures In Fantasy went nowhere; likewise, the First Fantasy Campaign supplement Arneson turned out for Judges Guild, presenting gems from Blackmoor, didn’t get very far either. Since Arneson was never as prolific as Gygax, a certain mystique did exist around him despite these products bombing, but in more recent years histories like Playing At the World and Hawk & Moor have teased out a more rounded version of D&D‘s history, supported both by documentary evidence (in the case of Playing At the World) and the recollections and public statements of participants (in the case of Hawk & Moor).

Perhaps the way to express the story which extends the most benefit of the doubt to Arneson is that Arneson’s talents lay in refereeing, not in RPG design. It is self-evident that Arneson was a highly creative referee with a flair for incorporating the unexpected actions and whims of his players into the scenario he was presenting; it has also become apparent that he was miserably bad at documenting any of this in a fashion intended for other human beings to read, understand, and utilise in their own games.

It was the case with Dungeons & Dragons, where much of Gygax’s efforts seem to have been focused on turning Arneson’s notes into something resembling a set of core rules. Given that Gygax and Arneson were here posed with the problem of how to enunciate an entirely new variety of game and its customary mode of play, it’s little surprise that OD&D is quite difficult to interpret as it stands; apparently, without Gygax it would have been substantially worse, and may never have emerged as a commercial product at all.

It was the case with Blackmoor, too; after Gygax and Arneson each agreed that they would devise their own supplements detailing particular house rules and neat ideas from their home campaigns, Arneson turned in a disordered pile of notes which it then fell to other hands to shape into something which it TSR could sell to customers. Here Arneson’s failings as a designer are a little less sympathetic – the OD&D core booklets now provided a model for how to write about and present game material, after all – but even then, it was one of the first RPG supplements ever and perhaps some slack can be cut in light of that.

Reportedly, it was much the same with First Fantasy Campaign, with Judges Guild now tasked with trying to put the pile of material Arneson handed them into some sort of order, and by that point, it should have become clear that this was a pattern on Arneson’s part, rather than an aberration. Again, to put it as kindly as possible, you could see Arneson as an “idea guy” rather than a development guy; he could churn out raw material, but in terms of the systematic work needed to refine that into a coherent whole which could then be sold to the public, he seems to have regarded that as someone else’s problem.

I would be really interested to know if there is an interview with Richard Snider about the development of Adventures In Fantasy, because given the joint credit one suspects that exactly the same pattern was followed there: Arneson generated a bunch of ideas, Snider was left with the job of setting them in order.

What bearing does this have on Powers & Perils? Well, firstly it means that despite having some name recognition factor in the industry, Snider doesn’t seem to have had much close collaboration with RPG designers other than Arneson himself. Secondly, it means that Snider’s primary earlier credit was as co-author of a fantasy heartbreaker. Thirdly, it is important to recognise that Snider hailed from a wargaming background, as did all of Arneson’s initial circle of gaming buddies, and as such was highly familiar with the Avalon Hill house style, and how wargames in general and Avalon Hill games in particular tended to be written.

Powers & Perils is a game shaped by these considerations. Like many of the more complex Avalon Hill games, it comes in a box with the rules in a set of highly flimsy paper booklets without proper cardstock covers, which I would personally be worried about exposing to the rigours of actual play. Like Adventures In Fantasy, it’s basically a fantasy heartbreaker. And in light of Snider’s wargaming background, it is written as though it were a wargame, with extremely dry and precise prose.

Knowing what we know now about Arneson’s disorganised style of working, it is highly tempting to imagine Powers & Perils as being an overcompensation against that – an attempt to bring the precision and clarity of rules explanation associated with Avalon Hill wargames to the RPG field. By itself, that would be a useful thing: especially given how bizarrely rambly AD&D‘s core materials were, clarity of explanation and presentation was a rare and welcome commodity in the RPG field at the time.

The problem with Powers & Perils isn’t that it is presented in a systematic and methodical manner so much as it’s presented in an astonishingly dry manner, to the point where all the joy is sucked out of the text. It is, quite simply, a chore to engage with – not because it is necessarily difficult to follow or understand, but because doing so feels like work, not play.

And it is work which just isn’t that rewarding. Powers & Perils largely offers a big fat riff on D&D, with additional complexity to no clear benefit and a few extra ideas which range from the unappealing (every single player character race has a different set of bonuses and penalties depending on whether your character is a man or woman, urgh) to the interesting-but-rendered-bland. (The alignments are Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, and Elder, with various ancient cosmic forces associated with the Elder alignment, suggesting that the Law-Chaos conflict is just the latest in a series of metaphysical contests stretching back aeons.)

I am sure that Snider believed that there were a range of very significant advantages to the system, but it is presented in such a dry and dusty way – with a great reliance on around sixty abbreviations you had to keep straight, including stuff like “.LT.” for “less than” because apparently either Snider didn’t know how to type “<” on his keyboard or Avalon Hill’s publishing setup couldn’t handle that symbol. I tend to assume it’s some sort of technical fault somewhere, because I feel like if Snider had the ability to do “>” or “<” in the text, he would have. Yes, other games of this vintage also have a reputation for complexity, but few of them are as happy to resort to looking like algebra as frequently as Powers & Perils does.

Reports from people wild enough to attempt actual play of this confirms that character generation is needlessly fiddly and long, using magic involves an annoying amount of formula juggling, the combat system is kind of bland, and each skill is effectively its own subsystem (perhaps forgivable in 1970s game design, but with RuneQuest and Rolemaster on the scene by this point, this was already becoming rather dated game design – if one is going to have a skill system, having a unified mechanic for it like those games is really called for).

In general, it just doesn’t seem worth the headache, especially given the reported blandness. What is the point of all of this complexity if it doesn’t yield interesting, flavourful results?

For that matter, what is the point of Powers & Perils from a commercial perspective, given that this was supposed to be part of a broader range of RPGs offered by Avalon Hill? It seems particularly weird to put this out alongside RuneQuest, since the third edition of that game was decoupled from the Glorantha setting and so also happily sits in the “generic fantasy RPG” niche. It is possible that Avalon Hill were simply hedging their bets in case the Chaosium deal fell through – rumours had swirled that they’d previously been interested in taking on Adventures In FantasyDragonQuest, or The Fantasy Trip as their big flagship fantasy RPG – but Avalon Hill seem to have devoted an unusual amount of effort behind it for a mere failsafe product prepared to plug a potential gap in their range. Apparently, they had booked a bunch of gaming tables at Origins 1983 specifically for the purpose of running demo games of Powers & Perils, but the game was delayed until early 1984, and rather than use the space to promote their other games they just let it sit empty.

Still, even had those tables been stuffed with Powers & Perils demonstrations, I don’t think it would have made much difference. If you want a game with a late 1970s/early 1980s design sensibility which can compete directly with D&D as it existed at this time, you really can’t do much better than a setting-neutral RuneQuest. By putting out both this and the new RuneQuest, Avalon Hill were effectively competing with themselves – and even in its slightly bloated 3rd edition form, RuneQuest could still mop the floor with Powers & Perils without breaking a sweat. From a critical acclaim and player enjoyment point of view, RuneQuest takes the prize every time – as does numerous other fantasy RPGs of this vintage who all seem to have more to offer than “D&D, only it’s astonishingly boring to read”.

Richard Snider would continue to push the virtues of Powers & Perils over the years; he would be somewhat active online until his death in 2009, engaging with a small but dedicated fandom who kept the flame of the game alive. I suppose that if you are of a mindset which particularly appreciates this style of rules presentation, it might offer more to you than it does to me. On a commercial level, his last significant credit in the RPG industry was as the last editor of Avalon Hill’s Heroes magazine, in whose pages he would include at least some Powers & Perils content until the magazine was shuttered in 1987.

Lords of Creation

Lords of Creation is notable as being Tom Moldvay’s first major RPG design project after leaving TSR – Moldvay being most famous as the designer of the 1981 version of the D&D Basic Set. The game wants to subtly remind you of that; the font and formatting used in the volumes in the core boxed set (the rulebook and the Book of Foes monster and NPC supplement) and the back of the box will be instantly familiar to readers of the Basic Set, for it’s essentially the same font used in a highly similar layout format.

True to form for a veteran of the early TSR design stable, Moldvay riffs on the essential design principles of D&D for the game, but with each integer changed a little. For instance, there are five attributes (Intelligence and Wisdom are fused, Charisma is no longer a thing. a Luck stat is now in play and everything has a different name from what it had in D&D), and they’re rolled on 2D10 instead of 3D6. There’s a hit point-esque system, but hit points are derived from attributes rather than rolled randomly. The combat system relies on rolling a D20 against a target number modified by armour and other factors, but your baseline target number is based on the average of your three physical attributes, rather than directly varying with level.

There is a level-esque system, but rather than a set number of experience points taking you up a level, you spend XP to make rolls to improve your attributes, and your present level is based on the sum of all your attribute scores (and of course increasing those scores can have further knock-on effects on other scores). There is a system of magical/futuristic powers, but no Vancian casting or anything like that -instead, as you go up in level you get to choose more powers bit by bit in a gradual way, so you slowly accumulate a portfolio of superpowers rather than having spells gatekept by level. (You do still get XP for defeating foes, mind.)

One major departure from D&D is that the game does not use character classes. Instead, character customisation comes from the selection of special powers as characters go up in level, as well as their conventional skills. The skill system here is a bit of an odd one – whilst your score in a weapon skill is applied as a bonus in combat as you’d expect, most of the skills work on an unlocked abilities basis rather than a “try to do anything under this heading and your score is your bonus” basis.

This creates significant problems. It seems that, based on the rules as written, that to attempt a particular activity covered by a skill, you need to buy the level of that skill corresponding to that ability, and then unless the referee rules that there’s a significant chance of failure in the moment your ability just plain works when you attempt it – though you need to get to level 5 in a skill to be able to use it in futuristic and magical settings, as opposed to mundane settings, in many cases (meaning that when visiting other settings a bunch of your skills can be rendered useless – and you can’t learn that level unless you are in a futuristic/magical setting, which has implications for the progress of a campaign as I will explain later).

Because these abilities are locked behind skill levels, it follows that if you do not have the skill, you can’t perform the activity in question; OSR philosophers may object that this is not how old school games worked, but this very much seems to be the intent of the text. So, for instance, Bribery is listed under the Bureaucracy skill; you need a Skill of 3 to even attempt to bribe people in bureaucratic systems to get what you want. Not only does this create a weird situation where you need to be a fairly adept record-keeper and record-tracker yourself before you bribe people (because those are the earlier levels in the skill), but it genuinely seems like you can’t try to bribe people unless you have that skill (or perhaps the referee could allow you to try with a significant chance of failure but save automatic success for skilled individuals, but again, that really doesn’t seem to be the intention).

It gets worse. The way the “Street Criminal” skill works, it is impossible to be a pickpocket unless you are also skilled at shutting down burglar alarms, and impossible to hack burglar alarms unless you know how to hotwire and steal a car. Similarly, under the Master Criminal skill it is impossible to know how to forge documents until you learn to be a safecracker. This is bonkers; it assumes a particular career progression within an area of expertise which is by no means guaranteed and gatekeeps abilities behind entirely unrelated abilities.

It gets even worse. Aside from the combat skills, there are 20 skill categories. Each has five levels, so that’s 100 different abilities spread among the skill categories. That is an absolute ton of abilities which are gatekept behind the skill system, a chunk of which really do feel like the sort of thing which anyone ought to be able to attempt if they want to (like Bribery), all of which the referee has to keep in mind when the PCs try to do stuff. It’s just absurd.

The other big difference between this and D&D is that it’s set up as a multi-genre RPG, with support for modern-day, historical, futuristic and fantastical settings, but Moldvay seems to have very specific, to modern eyes, rather idiosyncratic ideas about what that actually entails; this is far from being a generic RPG.

One of the things which Tom Moldvay seems to have picked up from OD&D, which is reflected in his Basic Set (and the Zeb Cook Expert Set, and then the BECMI version as worked out by Frank Mentzer and later revised by Aaron Allston into the Rules Cyclopedia and accompanying Wrath of the Immortals set) is a strong sense that RPGs should involve a progression not just in terms of raw character power but also the activities facing the characters. In OD&D, as in B/X, the common assumption is that characters will begin with dungeon exploration, progress to wilderness exploration, and then establish a domain of their own, and then… mumblemumblemumble because D&D has never really been able to produce a widely-accepted endgame after this point, though various attempts at Immortals-type rules have been made. But before the progression hits the end of the territory mapped out, you have player characters’ activities being distinctly different in each phase – dungeoneering is not wilderness exploration is not domain management.

Likewise, there’s an implied progression in Lords of Creation, but it’s completely wild. It arises largely from the common powers all PCs get as they advance in level, in addition to any they choose, so let’s follow them as they go along, shall we?

So, let’s start with a set of PCs and let’s say they’re in the modern day, rather than a more fantastical setting (because of course you can’t use the fantastic/magical versions of a lot of skills until you hit level 5 in the relevant categories, and we don’t want to needlessly punish our hypothetical players). We start off with Dimensional Sight, which allows you to perceive otherdimensional entities who would be otherwise invisible – the examples given are ghosts, sprites, and visitors from the elemental planes.

Moldvay, who’s actually pretty good at flagging what the various parts of the game are intended to be used for (the beginner’s GMing advice in the rulebook is pretty good by the standards of the time), notes that this is essentially a plot device power – it allows the referee to introduce these entities to an otherwise-mundane setting to “create an atmosphere of eerie mystery” and presumably also is quite useful for promoting the characters to get involved in some mystery investigation hijinks. As he points out, more or less all the powers PCs get by going up in level are of this plot-enabling nature, with a few exceptions.

Thus, when they hit second level characters get the Dimensional Language power. It is described as a kind of limited telepathy which allows PCs to instantaneously learn a new language. So, bam, suddenly globetrotting adventures become significantly easier, as does reading ancient tomes, conversing with alien entities, and everything else. Language just plain ceases to be any sort of barrier in the game whatsoever, great.

The next three levels are the “projection” powers, which are astonishingly misnamed because they do not allow you to project anything, but perceive things from a great separation. Level 3 you get Spatial Projection which allows you to perceive stuff happening from a great distance away, then Temporal Projection which allows you to perceive stuff happening in the past or future at level 4, then Dimensional Projection at level 5 allows you to see stuff going on in other dimensions.

So there’s a plot-dump power right there, and so a further wrinkle to the campaign: characters are now going to become aware of stuff going on far away, long ago, in the future or in other dimensions, and questing in response to that information.

Then the next two levels give you a bit of extra durability, Moldvay having apparently decided that any PC who has lasted this long needs to be seriously difficult to get rid of. At level 6 you get Double Healing, which is nice and simple: you get twice the benefit out of any form of healing, whether it’s natural recuperation or magic or the Medic skill or whatever. That’s OK, but it seems pretty weaksauce compared to perceiving all of space and time across multiple dimensions, or the level 7 power, Transmigration – which gives you 3-18 extra lives, so if your PC gets killed you get to roll up a new character with new stats and then give them the average of the rolled stats and the stats your dead character had. Then you’re stiffed because you are likely half the level of the rest of the party… but the intention seems to be you have a bit more capacity to take risks at this stage.

The next three levels give teleportation powers of incredible magnitude – Space Travel lets you bamf anywhere in space, Time Travel allows time travel, Dimensional Travel allows you to visit other dimensions. This is significant because it allows characters to directly intervene in those situations you present them with using the perception powers (perception, Moldvay, not projection!) from levels 3-5 under their own steam. There is a dimension-hopping power if you buy the fifth level of the “Invoker” power, but otherwise if you wanted to travel to where you could do stuff about the plot seeds the referee is laying on you with the perception powers, you’d have needed to seek some sort of GM fiat-based means of doing this like a helpful NPC or a TARDIS or whatever.

And then level 11 gives you the capstone power, the rather drably titled Construction. (You do get the title “Lord of Creation” at this point, because of course this game is old school enough to do level titles.) This lets you literally create your own world according to whatever laws of physics or magic you wish; you are specifically encouraged to take on the referee role at this point and run games set in this world.

That idea’s had a lot of comment – unsurprisingly, given that it’s where the game gets its name from – but let’s set it aside for a moment, since it’s clearly highly underbaked. (Who the hell is going to wait until they hit 11th level as a player in a game before they run their own games? If they want to referee at all, they’re going to do it, if they don’t want to referee making it the prize for hitting 11th level is a bad prize.) Let’s instead look at the package as a whole.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the entire shebang is that there is absolutely no explanation of why player characters get all this cool shit. (Strictly speaking, the rules say the referee can deny you these powers or temporarily turn them off on a whim as the plot demands, so your PCs don’t necessarily get them as of right, but let’s assume the referee isn’t being a tosser.) This is a really odd package of powers to dole out to people as part of their character progression, and in particular it’s odd how you get a bunch of powers that give you long-range clairvoyance but don’t have the capability to do much about that under your own steam until you get a bunch more levels – almost as though Moldvay was just regarding these powers as an undivided set, rather than considering how only having a subset of these powers necessarily affects play, or what it means on an in-fiction that someone suddenly gained Transmigration or whatever.

It just makes no sense as a packet of powers for people to slowly, gradually accumulate over the course of time. What it does make sense as is a parcel of powers that you parcel out to deities in a campaign as part of the “congrats, you are a god now” welcome package, which I feel adds some credence to a theory I’ve seen here and there that Lords of Creation had its roots in Tom Moldvay’s plans for a PCs-as-gods-based D&D endgame before the Moldvay/Cook B/X line got discontinued and Frank Mentzer’s BECMI rules implemented the immortals concept in a different fashion.

In fact, as evidence of this let’s yank out the trusty old 1st edition AD&D version of Deities & Demigods, which tells us that the abilities available to all deities include True Seeing, the ability to Teleport from place to place or plane to plane without error, a souped-up variant of Comprehend Languages which gives all the benefits of the spell but also with the ability to write and speak in the languages desired… and still more besides, but between those you’ve already covered 5 of the 11 powers of a Lord of Creation anyway. Being able to make your own world as a top-ranked immortal power makes sense, the healing/transmigration powers reflect the durability you would expect of an immortal, and the three long-range perception powers (not projection, Moldvay, you goof!) make sense to allow deities to have the capacity to notice matters unfolding within their metaphysical purview.

Aside from Construction, which makes sense as the grand prize you aim to attain in an immortals game, this is a package of powers I think you may as well hand out to starting gods in a masters-of-the-multiverse type campaign. They make vastly less sense as a set of powers you chop up and distribute on a dripfed basis, especially when you have powers like “Become aware of a thing in another place/time” and “Actually go and interact with that thing” separated by three levels or so.

Lords of Creation is rounded out with some generally OK-for-its-time refereeing advice and a brace of sample settings to emphasise its multi-genre nature; I thought the world based around the cosmology and pantheon invented by William Blake was especially interesting, at least in terms of concepts. However, these all feel a bit rushed; like many other elements of the game (like, well, the entire mess of a system), it has the impression of being assembled in a hurry and thrown out without polishing or testing.

The Book of Foes does what it can to round out the settings, combining as it does more generic monster descriptions with sample NPCs, but it also has some aspects which seem poorly judged. Take the character of Romerac Elerion, the most powerful entity in the book (including deities-who-don’t-call-themselves-deities like Los, head of the William Blake-inspired pantheon, or the legendary Wayland) on the objective power scale. He is described as being super-whimsical, and when his whimsy is engaged he tenaciously keeps at it.

Now, as fun as Q was on occasion in Star Trek: the Next Generation, a hyperpowerful character who does annoying trickster shit (which I guarantee you is how many referees would interpret the entry) and won’t drop it sounds like an absolutely nightmarish addition to a tabletop game, a tissue-thin excuse for referees who either don’t know better or are actively shit to just clown on their player characters for their own amusement.

Maybe the supplement line made Lords of Creation make more sense – it consisted of a string of boxed adventures, beginning with The Horn of Roland, and it’s evident that Avalon Hill intended that people would keep up with the game line as it progressed, since Horn of Roland is mentioned in here and you’re encouraged to go get it. As we now know, those expectations were… hopeful.

It would be fascinating to get an inside look at the story of how Lords of Creation was designed, whether it was ever even playtested, and what constraints Moldvay was under when he was designing this. A few of its quirks can be forgiven for it emerging when the hobby was still young (well, young…ish – it was coming up to a decade since D&D came out), with concepts for best practice we now take for granted having propagated less.

On the other hand, there’s all sorts of issues with the game which should really be evident on the face of it. Frankly, if this was Moldvay’s plan for super-high-level D&D and represents the game design chops he was going to bring to the job, it’s a good thing that B/X was curtailed where it was – a perfectly decently complete D&D edition of its own, particularly good if you want to play “OD&D only the rules are properly explained” – and Mentzer’s BECMI replaced it, because Moldvay’s capacity to come up with brand new rules beyond the framework set by D&D (which would have been necessary to extend B/X further than the material covered in OD&D) is clearly unreliable.

A Lonely Hill To Die On

Powers & Perils and Lords of Creation may have attracted people’s momentary attention when they came out, due to the Avalon Hill connection if nothing else, but they were commercial flops and didn’t have great critical reputations either. Part of this would, I suspect, be for reasons I’ve made pretty obvious – they just aren’t good games – but I think part of it also came down to Avalon Hill management not having their finger on the pulse in the RPG market very much at all.

After all, I suspect part of the reason that Powers & Perils was published in the state it was, rather than being sent back for a comprehensive rewrite to make it more approachable, is that it was a game designed with a wargame-esque presentation, so when Avalon Hill looked at it that sort of presentation made sense to them and they waved it through. Likewise, I feel like if more people exercising supervision over Lords of Creation had been seasoned RPG players, the shortcomings of that system would have been much more apparent.

That said, given that Powers & Perils came out late, perhaps Avalon Hill simply rushed both jobs in their haste to get a full RPG range out in a short period of time, having been caught napping by the changing market.

Either way, neither game was much of a success, outside of the occasional odd pocket here and there. Yes, perhaps there were some gaming communities out there that latched onto Lords of Creation – Al Bruno III’s old gaming war stories on seemed to mention it from time to time as a game which his local roleplaying scene was a bit fixated on – and there’s definitely still a Powers & Perils fandom. (Anecdotal reports suggest that significant numbers of copies of the game went to discount stores, which might account for a late blip in sales before it disappeared off the market for good.)

And, of course, both games got overshadowed by Avalon Hill’s bigger successes: James Bond 007 and RuneQuest. Especially the latter: unconfirmed but plausible reports circulated that RuneQuest‘s third edition ended up selling more copies in its first four months than Powers & Perils and Lords of Creation had sold in their first year combined. Of course, RuneQuest is a very good game – but even so, sales like that made it hard to justify throwing further good money after bad in supporting Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils after 1984 beyond the odd article to fill out the page count of Heroes.

7 thoughts on “And Did These Games In Ancient Times Spring From Avalon Hill So Green?

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  3. Thanks for another interesting reflection! I played all of these games when they came out. Your description of Powers & Perils is spot on, except I think that the boxed setting for Powers & Perils, called Perilous Lands, was pretty good. And I generally hate published settings. It was a sort of alternate Hyborian world, reflecting a fantasy version of Asia and Europe and a truncated Africa. It was an excellent medium for opening up pseudo-medieval fantasy inspired by cultures other than those of western Europe. In this respect, Perilous Lands was cutting-edge.

    As for Lords of Creation, I think the three published adventures, intended to be played as a series, are the only things that explain what Moldvay really had in mind by the crazy mash-up of genres that no game had fostered before LoC. The Horn of Roland was first, then the Yeti Sanction, and then Omegakron. If I recall, the first goes from detective work to fantasy, the second spy stuff to pulp adventure, the third from post-apocalyptic mutant future to lead into a time-travel scenario that was never published. They pulled the plug.

    It seems that Moldvay’s idea, shared by other very early role-playing gamers, was that a fantasy character could advance to the point that he or she becomes a god and creates a new world and becomes, in effect, the Game Master for that world. LoC is explicitly designed for that, and its in the title

    Literally just last week, before I found your blog (today), I pulled both of these games out of an old box, some of the last remainders of what was once a vast collection, now given away. I’m glad you are remembering these games, too. Although they were failures, commercially and as effective games, the fun I had with them, however briefly, justifies their existence. They both still have that fresh feeling from when the hobby was new.

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  5. J.A.

    Projection makes sense in the naming. You’re projecting your perception (your mind’s eye). It’s going beyond where it is normally. Your suggestion of using the word perception is not an improvement. In fact, it’s less clear. I’ve never played the game you’re writing about so it’s not a case of me being too-familiar with bad terminology.

    1. It is wholly possible that I am making it sound clearer than it actually is in the rules presentation.

      Either way: let’s say you are sitting down to play Lords of Creation, a game for which the elevator pitch is “characters become dimension-hopping gods” and you see a power called Dimension Projection. Are you really going to assume off the bat that it’s a perceiving power, rather than a lobbing stuff into other dimensions power?

      I’ve also never, ever, encountered “projection” used in the sense you mean, mostly because it makes no sense. For one thing, that isn’t how sensory perception works – you don’t shoot beams out of your eyes to see stuff, you have light from stuff arrive at your eye, nobody’s even believed the former version for centuries.

      For another, that’s not how it’s explained in the book. This isn’t about you sitting there and concentrating and sending your senses out in the world, it’s very much “you are walking down the street and become extremely aware that in a parallel universe there’s a unicorn loose in town”.

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