The Reality of Mythic Europe

One of the advantages that historically-themed games like Ars Magica have is that there’s masses more setting information out there for historical settings than could ever be produced for s fantasy world, with a richness and depth that goes beyond that of any invented setting. One of the disadvantages of that is that it can be quite hard to get a really good overview of important subjects compiled with an eye to being gameable.

Thus, it’s quite handy that Atlas have produced a string of Ars Magica supplements which focus on the reality of 13th Century Europe. It isn’t that you couldn’t draw this information together yourself with enough time – but that would be a lot of effort which the designers have saved you, and they’ve described these matters with an eye to integrating them into the Ars Magica system in interesting ways.

City & Guild

This is a supplement covering medieval towns and cities, merchantile activity, guilds of craftspeople, trade, and so on. This is subject matter which both has the potential to be rather dry and tends not to be the sort of thing that we tend to put front and centre when we think of medieval Europe, but I actually think that its slight obscurity is part of what makes this supplement of interesting. It is true, of course, that following the fall of the Western Empire that much of Europe became much more rural and trade became much more sparse, but it is a massive oversimplification to take this assumption too far and including cities, trade, and guilds enriches a historical medieval setting. (Indeed, in my current campaign the city of Toulouse is not too far away from the PCs’ Covenant, and one of the PC Companions is a merchant.)

Though there are some system bits provided in here if you really want a rigorous system for working out how many pots your potter makes in a season (or whatever), a large part of the value of the supplement comes in its discussions of how guilds, cities, and the liked worked during the time period. Whilst this is not a substitute for looking to more rigorous sources if you want to become an expert (and a decent bibliography is provided if you want to read further), I think what Atlas have usefully done here is provide an introductory condensation of information with a specific focus on stuff which makes for good gaming material. There’s an extensive discussion of town charters, for instance, because the authors recognise that there’s an enormous amount of interesting political gaming that can arise from interactions with a town charter – whether it revolves around acquiring one, blocking the acquisition of one, changing its terms or trying to abide by its requirements. On top of that, they show a decent amount of imagination when it comes to working in aspects of Mythic Europe even to this subject, with ideas offered about the sort of charters which might be offered not by the secular or ecclesiastical authorities but by faeries or Hell.

The discussion of the workings of guilds is particularly interesting, not least because it points out a very nice way to allow for women to be extensively involved in them which seems on the face of it to have some historical credibility: namely, that whilst formally many guilds were closed to women, in practice women could be entered onto the membership rolls of a guild under their father’s name. This is a nice example of how “historical accuracy” isn’t really an excuse for locking women out of having powerful, interesting roles in society in historical RPGs: yes, in women faced barriers above and beyond the barriers they still face today, but equally there have always been women who have found their way past those barriers.

In terms of trade, the discussions are also of some interest. It is worth remembering that the default start year of 5th Edition campaigns is 1220, which would be when Venice and other cities had become major powers through the power of trade, so it’s definitely in the high medieval era when a functional economy is coming back into Europe and the power of coin is rising once more. Indeed, if you start a campaign in 1220 then the hottest news of the past few years would be the Fourth Crusade, in which Venice used its economic leverage to persuade massed armies of Crusaders to go and friggin’ overthrow Constantinople for them, establishing a Latin Empire in the East and leaving the region of Byzantium convulsed in conflict between the Latins and the rump states of the Byzantines. Even if your campaign doesn’t take place in that part of the world, it’s a major illustration of how trading powers had become geopolitically significant by that point.  (There’s also a very useful bit at the back giving quick summaries of typical trade goods from a range of different regions, which is handy if you want to come up with a particular trader’s stock in a hurry.)

City & Guild gives such an interesting overview of such an overlooked set of aspects of medieval European life that I would say it is useful not only for Ars Magica but, in addition, it’s also useful for any historical RPG set in the era and of at least some utility for games in any fantasy setting with comparable social institutions.

Arts & Academe

This is a supplement which naturally has an awful lot of overlap with the core fantastic elements of Ars Magica; after all, Hermetic magic is presented as being steeped in the philosophical, scholastic, and academic outlook of the medieval period (to the point where your Artes Liberales skill contributes to some magical rolls!), so even your main mage PCs in an Ars Magica campaign are going to be interested in chatting about Plato or Aristotle with sufficiently well-read scholars, and fine artists or wise scholars are, in turn, excellent concepts for Companions, since they are placed to interact usefully both with significant non-magical institutions and with the Order of Hermes itself.

Arts & Academe, then, offers both an overview of the world of education, scholarship, and the fine arts in the medieval period, as well as a dense but rewarding breakdown of the worldview and theories then in vogue. It’s particularly fascinating as an illustration of how medieval thought at the time of 1220 AD (the default start date for 5E campaigns) is currently undergoing a new flowering, thanks to many works (especially by Aristotle) which had been lost during the Dark Ages being reintroduced to European academic circles. If you want a particularly deep look at the theories of the crystal spheres, the humours, the geocentric version of the world, what medieval thinkers really thought the world looked like (no, they did not think it was flat), and so on, this is a really great supplement. The authors, Matt Ryan & Mark Shirley, also have a keen idea of how some academic practices back in the day came close to magic in their own right – particularly considering how the distinction between astronomy and astrology was rather fast and loose, as was the distinction between chemistry and alchemy.

Back when White Wolf were publishing Ars Magica, in the 3rd Edition they introduced the idea of the Realm of Reason, a fifth Realm which acted to suppress the supernatural in all of its forms, as part of a vague effort to present Ars Magica as a credible backstory for the World of Darkness games. This late addition to the setting was an awkward fit in all sorts of ways, not least because of the way it presented academic libraries of the time as being houses of Reason which would suppress magic in a game setting where the most powerful wizards are presented as being highly academic and very given to poring over their books.

Atlas Games junked Reason for 4th Edition, and it’s never come back; Arts & Academe stands as a good argument as to why it shouldn’t, because the products of reasoned, academic scholarship in the Middle Ages are so fantastical to our modern worldview that they deserve to be integrated into the game alongside Hermetic theory, rather than standing in opposition to it. Thanks to its clear discussions of such matters, I would say that Arts & Academe is a very important supplement for anyone who wants to make the cosmological worldview of Mythic Europe have real depth to it.

Lords of Men

This supplement does, as the title suggest, takes in the nobility of Mythic Europe – in several different models as practiced across the continent at the time – as well as giving additional insight into secular rulership in general. In addition to that, though, it also takes a good look at the life of the average peasants – the Men of Lords, as it were – as well as various subjects of worldly import. There is an interesting chapter on the Hermetic law on interference in mundane affairs, which offers some pointers on just how cozy you can get with your local lord before it becomes a problem, and there’s an extensive section on mass combat that may be useful in my own campaign if the players start to take a detailed interest in the outcome of the Albigensian Crusades. There are also expanded combat rules to give additional options, which again sort of makes sense since the characters most interested in combat aside from Grogs will typically be Companions of a knightly or mercenary background. On the whole, it’s a solid supplement, if a bit of a grab-bag of odds and sods fitting the general “secular authority” theme.

The Church

As the title implies, this is a supplement-length look at the Church. Specifically, it’s what we would think of today as the Roman Catholic church, since that is the main variant of Christianity in most of the Tribunals of Mythic Europe. (To cover the various Orthodox churches and other groups would take a whole other supplement, and be largely irrelevant in many campaigns, but thanks to the Crusades the Roman church has a presence in more or less every Tribunal the Order of Hermes recognises.)

This is a supplement which obviously has a lot of interests in common with Realms of Power: The Divine; it distinguishes itself from that book by focusing much less on systems for representing the supernatural and miraculous and much more on providing an in-depth description of the structure and functioning of the church. The book covers subjects ranging from typical parishes and congregations to the governance and structure of the church to the monastic life, with extensive explanation of each and plentiful story ideas associated with them to boot, as well as specific notes on events which will be still in living memory in 1220 AD and which are, if your campaign follows history, just coming up on the horizon.

Specific chapters are offered for some issues of particular interest. The Knights Templar get a chapter covering their unique niche (nicely, the chapter also offers guidance on how other military orders differ from the Templars, so its ideas can also be used to represent them), and there is an entire chapter on the role of women in the church, which carries the obvious but welcome caveat that individual groups can of course elect to be a bit more ahistorical if they want to make women more equal in the church.

There’s also a very neat chapter on corruption within the church, both providing pointers on how to handle such plotlines and providing examples of three potentially controversial groups who could, believably, conceal some form of Infernal subversion or could simply be a bit eccentric but basically pious and decent sorts. (Interestingly, none of these are the Templars.)

What makes this chapter – and the supplement in general – so interesting is that the authors clearly are very knowledgeable about this stuff, and as per their biographies several of them are clearly sincerely religiously Christian, so unlike many depictions of corruption in the church in RPGs (and in fantasy in general) this clearly comes from a place of love and understanding rather than blanket condemnation. The discussion of how medieval stories and rumours of corruption in the church differed in their tropes from the lurid anticlerical fantasies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is particularly interesting, because of course the later anticlerical tropes have, as a result of being extensively used in the original wave of Gothic fiction, become perennial starting points for depicting bad priests and rotten churches in fantasy fiction, so hints on how to make stories about the enemy within fit a medieval.worldview better really help when it comes to giving a distinctive flavour to Ars Magica stories on such themes.

Lastly, the book is rounded off with an excellent chapter describing the current state of the Franciscans in 1220 and their future evolution if the campaign does not change history – useful because, of course, in 1220 St. Francis is still alive and his community of friars is a novel and revolutionary new force in Christendom, and therefore may conceivably play a memorable role in an Ars Magica campaign starting at the assumed start date.

New Blood For the Old Ceremony

One of the things which I think White Wolf and their successors in Onyx Path were actually quite good at, when they put their minds to it, was in providing interesting alternate modes of play in their various games through supplements. When they were at their best, a core World of Darkness rulebook would offer a strongly-defined default mode of play (or a selection of such modes in the case of the 20th Anniversary bricks) and then use supplements to open up interesting alternate possibilities, offering Storytellers a brace of new ideas and players suitable character generation guidance and support to make PCs who would engage with those ideas.

This was not just commercially sensible – though it does mean many of their books could appeal to player and Storyteller alike, which can’t have hurt. By approaching the product line in this way, at their best White Wolf made sure to give a clear answer to the old “but what do we actually do with this?” question, and I would go so far as to say that the weakest game lines were consistently those which did the worst job of handling that question.

The iconic example of this sort of thing is, of course, The Hunters Hunted and its V20 sequel, flipping Vampire on its head to let you play human vampire hunters going after bloodsuckers. Arguably the various guides to the Sabbat or the Anarchs also qualified, since they provided alternatives to the assumed Camarilla focus of the pre-V20 core books. For this article, I am going to look at a brace of other examples of this sort of thing in the Vampire: the Masquerade line, the first one from its early run and the latter two from the V20 line.

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A Microscopic Supplement

Indie RPGs of the arthouse school which actually get supplements published for them are a bit of a rarity. Plenty of indie games simply never get the sort of traction which would create an appetite for a supplement in the first place; in other cases, the core expression of the game represents more or less everything their creators want to say on the matter, at least in the form of an actual product, or the designers end up transferring their enthusiasm to new projects.

One exception is Microscope, whose designer Ben Robbins has turned out Microscope Explorer, both a collection of alternate spins on the core game, tools and aids to help support the standard game, and hints and pointers on best practice in play. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Explorer that wouldn’t be something of a rehash of my original review of the game, but I want to put a particular spotlight on the way the advice on good Microscope practice is clearly built on experiences in actual play, which is something I wish were true of all RPG products but often isn’t.

Robbins has clearly both played a bunch of Microscope himself and taken into account the experiences of the wider audience that took it up after it got published, and it really shows in the points he chooses to expand on here and the way he explains why he considers particular approaches to be useful. One expects that if a Microscope 2nd Edition ever happened, some of the explanations offered here would likely make their way into the core book, especially since the Explorer seems to reflect Robbins’ evolving thoughts on this interesting new game format he has invented as much as it does a clarification of matters he wishes in retrospect he had expressed a little better in the original book.

Pendragon On Parade

So, my long-running Pendragon game seems to be more or less officially dead – it’s been on hiatus for a good long while, at any rate, and nobody seems especially anxious to rekindle it. I’m not too disappointed, though, because we got through about half the Arthurian saga and ended with Arthur claiming the Roman Empire for himself, at the very height of his powers, which is a reasonable stopping point. But now it’s done, I think it’s high time I offered my general impressions on the game line and its associated bits and bobs here.

Pendragon 5th Edition

After subsequent editions expanded the scope of the game to the point of making the core book unwieldy and seriously undermining the premise, the 5th Edition of Pendragon – now published by Nocturnal Media but previously emerging from ArtHaus Games, an imprint of White Wolf – brought everything back to the central concept. Stafford casts the player characters as novice knights – the default is that they’ll start out in the service of the Earl of Salisbury – and sets the scene for gaming over the span of time covered by the Morte d’Arthur. (If you go with the assumed starting point, there’s a nice range of tables to let starting PCs work out what their grandfathers and fathers did in the time period between the Romans abandoning Britain to its fate and the rise of Uther.)

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Are We Not Doing “Cloning” Any More?

The retro-clone craze seems to have died down a little recently, which most new OSR games emerging focusing more on providing a novel twist or different focus to the games they emulate rather than providing a more loyal transcription. This is probably at least in part due to most editions of D&D now having a decent corresponding retro-clone, since games with an SRD as expansive as the D&D 3E one are ripe for cloning due to the extensive safe harbour the OGL offers for borrowing text. Whilst game mechanics in the abstract aren’t protected by intellectual property laws, having to rewrite stuff to the extent necessary to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit is the main barrier to cloning a game which wasn’t released under the OGL. Still, that hasn’t stopped people trying.

The James Bond 007 RPG by Victory Games was a classic of its time, and is believed to be one of the first RPGs (possibly the first) with a hero points mechanic. Unfortunately, it was a licensed RPG, and just like Ghostbusters (the other major 1980s licensed RPG which showcases a bunch of game design innovations) once the licence inevitably died it was shunted out of print.

Classified is Expeditious Retreat’s attempt to do the gaming scene a favour by retro-cloning the James Bond 007 system. It has a distinctly no-frills presentation; whilst it isn’t devoid of examples or detailed explanations, they aren’t exactly thick on the ground either, and the layout is rudimentary but functional. (It isn’t quite “straight into MS Word in Times New Roman, single column, clip art images added here and there as appropriate”, but it’s getting there.) That said, they do make sure important rules which intersect with other rules are repeated where said other rules come up and generally have a good understanding of the fact that reduncancy is not necessarily a bad thing in designing a rulebook if it is done in a way which helps participants find material quickly.

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Expanding the Boundaries of the Art of Magic

So, in my ploughing through the various Ars Magica supplements on offer I’ve come to what I think of as the “expanded magic” supplement. These are supplements which add onto or provide alternatives to the Hermetic magic system as provided in the core rulebook; this includes hidden secrets possessed by the Order of Hermes, lost magics as yet unknown to the Order, hedge magics belonging to lone practitioners and small groups here and there, and a few types of magic which may pose an actual danger to the Order’s monopoly…

The Mysteries, Revised Edition

Updating the original 4th edition supplement, The Mysteries is built around the idea of mystery cults but isn’t exclusively devoted to them; rather, the titular Mysteries constitute a range of magical techniques that have not entirely been folded into the mainstream of Hermetic magic, but are practiced by individuals and groups within the Order of Hermes, either within the established Mystery Houses, or cross-House Mystery Cults, or as areas of obscure knowledge that are widely experimented with but aren’t part of the “core curriculum” (these latter “curious common magics” get an entire chapter filling you in on them). The book therefore mixes in both accounts of how these specialist magics work and details of groups dabbling in them, and rounds itself off with a chapter of additional Mystery Cults to round things off (along with an appendix on immortal magi).

Implementing all of these ideas in one campaign would, frankly, be incredibly difficult; however, the basic idea of new forms of magic which allow you to accomplish things not allowed for by the Hermetic magics in the core rulebook and which player characters can try to track down is a sound one. (It provided the basis of several other supplements in this vein, after all.) What puts these Mysteries aside from, say, the sort of magic outlined in Ancient MagicHedge Magic, and Rival Magic is that they are varieties of magic which, thanks to their association with Mystery Cults and Houses within the Order, helps get player characters seeking them out to engage with and become entangled in the politics of the Order of Hermes by virtue of needing to track down and gain the trust of individuals within the groups in question to obtain them.

The book is also, of course, a natural companion to Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults, and indeed there’s some bits in here like Hermetic Architecture which you will want to have handy to get the most of some of the Houses outlined in there. I suppose this is why The Mysteries is listed as a core supplement on the Atlas website; between this factor and the way the book covers little miscellanea which aren’t offered in the main rulebook, it provides a really dense set of options for Ars Magica which a whole swathe of other books build on.

Ancient Magic

Ancient Magic offers a range of varieties of magic which have either entirely or are right on the brink of extinction. (The language of Adam, for instance, has at least one speaker still living – unfortunately, it’s Cain, who for this post-White Wolf iteration of the setting isn’t the first vampire but could very easily be reskinned as a vampire if you really wanted.) Thus, there’s an extent to which it’s another selection of little magics which are a bit more simple and narrower than the main magic system, but the method by which PCs obtain them are different; PCs have to go out into the world and explore to track down their last remnants, and then undertake extensive study to reframe them in Hermetic terms. There’s a fairly diverse range of magics on offer, but unlike The Mysteries it may be a little trickier to work these in; whereas it’s reasonably easy to work in a Mystery technique in any campaign where the PCs are regularly interacting with Order of Hermes types, Ancient Magic will often not come up unless the PCs actively have a reason to go looking for it, though then again an Ars Magica party which doesn’t include at least one lorehound eager to hare off after long-lost wisdom would be an unusual one.

Hedge Magic

Naturally especially useful for campaigns where House Ex Miscellanea is a big deal, Hedge Magic covers varieties of magic which are still practiced by small groups here and there outside of the context of the Order of Hermes typically, but which can be folded into the Order’s practices under the right circumstances. (In particular, a practitioner of hedge magic isn’t necessarily Gifted, which means the Order puts less of a priority on putting the “Join Or Die” ultimatum to them than they would for Gifted individuals.)

The types of magic on offer range from types which feel like perfect fits for Ars Magica – folk witchcraft and Viking-style rune magic – to varieties which I don’t think work quite as well. Elementalists, for instance, don’t feel like they really fill any niche than a Hermetic mage working largely with Aquam, Terram, Auram or Ignem wouldn’t fill, and likewise I’m not sure there’s much conceptual space in between the various types of “Learned Magic” and the scholarly Hermetic magic of the Order of Hermes.

Rival Magic

The final member of the quartet presents a clutch of different magical groupings which each, in their own way, could conceivably become an existential threat to the Order of Hermes. Neatly, the designers make sure that none of these varieties of magic are quite as flexible as Hermetic magic, and crucially the Order’s possession of Parma Magica provides, at least in the baseline default setting, a crucial advantage. Of course, this does mean that protecting the Parma Magica is all the more important…

Of all the supplements in question, this is the one which I think merited going last – not because it’s bad, so much as it’s a niche application. Any particular Ars Magica campaign is quite likely to involve wizards going after lost magic or delving into the mysteries of the Order, and anything which helps give a bit of colour to House Ex Miscellanea can only be a good thing, but whilst many referees may find it interesting to pit their players against a potential rival society of magicians, in other campaigns the subject will never come up. Furthermore, most of the varieties of rival magic here are quite regional, so it may be difficult to shoehorn some into particular campaigns. Still, the options are nice to have.

Hawk & Moor

Playing At the World remains the definitive text of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and its context in the history of games, combining as it does a high level of academic rigour with a thorough reliance on hard documentary evidence, rather than the potentially confused, biased, or misremembered anecdotes offered by participants after the fact.

However, the fact remains that, whilst the latter-day remembrances of early games industry figures should be treated with the caution for the purposes of making an academic work, there is still a lot of interesting information that has been disclosed by such people over the years – often spread out over a large number of different forum posts. Some form of collation of all this information would be handy for future researchers.

Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series is a self-published attempt to produce just such a compilation, with the intent of focusing on the history of D&D from the formative experiences of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to 1985, when Gygax departed TSR. (A supplemental volume, subtitled The Steam Tunnel Incident, is a new edition of a pre-Hawk & Moor work by Kelly on the James Dallas Egbert case which I’ll look at another time.)

The Dragon Rises kicks off the narrative by giving some biographical details on Gygax and Arneson and recounting events up to Gygax’s completion of a first draft of the D&D rules, ending just as Gary is inviting his son and daughter to playtest his system with him.

To a certain extent the volume exposes the weaknesses of the oral history approach; because Gary was much more forthcoming than Arneson in later years when it came to discussing the history of the game (to the extent of becoming a regular presence on several web fora), Kelly inevitably ends up presenting a Gygax-heavy version of the history because he simply has more material to work with from Gygax. Then again, Arneson was hardly a prolific writer either, so Playing At the World had much the same problem, and Kelly does an excellent job of sifting through the stories that have come to us from those who played with Arneson in order to tease out details of his campaign events and his refereeing style.

Ultimately, the picture that emerges here is much the same as that presented in Playing At the World: Arneson made a number of important innovations at his table, but his rulings were improvised on the spot a lot of the time and there was no coherent, consistent system in a stable enough form for publication; it took Gygax to sit down and actually refine Arneson’s ideas into a form that other people could pick up and use.

Far from being redundant though, the volume presents fascinating insights into the events of Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign, as well as Gygax’s design methodology. For instance, we learn that Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign ran into issues which have regularly popped up ever since in the hobby – like what to do when one of the players can’t make it – and Gary would modify the parameters of an encounter on the fly depending on the power level and status of the adventuring party. (In the light of this the OSR tendency to let the dice roll as they may and to sneer at tailoring encounters to character level seems less “old school” than it might like to think it is.)

Another interesting fact that emerges very clearly from these anecdotes is the way Arneson’s game incorporated a big dose of player-versus-player action and didn’t assume at first an adventuring party of allies; indeed it, included arch-enemies played by other players reacting to the players’ activities, so the first dungeon adventure was as much a precursor to Dungeon Keeper as it was D&D. Conversely, partly due to the constraints of the demonstration game that Arneson ran for Gygax and friends on a visit to Lake Geneva, Gygax approached the initial design of the rules with the assumption that the players would play an adventuring party and (mostly) try to co-operate with each other, whereas the referee handled all the other characters. Thus, the extremely experimental format Arneson used was crystallised into the traditional RPG model by Gygax, who at least in part thought he was following Arneson’s example, making the invention of the traditional format something of a happy accident attributable to no one person’s inspiration.

The second volume, The Dungeons Deep, picks up the story with Gygax’s first playtest session of D&D with his son and daughter towards the end of 1972, and follows the process of refinement which both shaped the Greyhawk campaign and allowed Gygax to take a second pass at the rules. This second draft would essentially form the basis of the published game – Gygax rushing it into production as soon as finances allowed to stave off the possibility of some other publisher putting something out – and this volume chronicles that process and the foundation of TSR, taking us to just after the January 1974 release date of the game.

One notable thing about this volume is how Dave Arneson is barely a presence in it – though the Twin Cities Blackmoor group would get a playtest copy of the rules, along with selected testers dotted around the country, it seems that they were not as active in providing actual playtesting feedback as other groups were – and Gygax’s own Greyhawk saw intensive play over this time period. In some respects this creates a problem for this volume, since it offers up so many anecdotal stories about events in the campaign I found myself skimming at some points. Whereas some aspects of these anecdotes, like the rather self-serving behaviour of the PCs and Gygax’s Dungeon Mastering decisions and technique, are rather interesting, I do wonder whether anyone who isn’t a serious Greyhawk obsessive would find these anecdotes somewhat over-detailed. The fact that the Greyhawk campaign was divided into regular players who needed elite content tailored to their very powerful characters and less regular sorts who popped in on an ad hoc basis is interesting; the intimate ins and outs of each significant dungeon expedition puts the book at risk of becoming every bit as boring as being cornered by someone who wants to tell you anecdotes about a game you haven’t taken part in usually is.

Still, the presentation of information here does throw into sharp relief just how much control Gygax had over the creative process behind making the game once he had crafted a first draft from the morass of rough notes Arneson had provided him, and now that the narrative has hit the publication of D&D the next volume should hopefully take the focus away from the two foundational campaigns a bit in order to take in the wider story of the game’s early success. It also helps provide a clear explanation of why OD&D is as shakily-organised as it is: Gygax deliberately rushed the game to print partly because TSR couldn’t afford to hang around waiting for the product to be polished, and partly because he was worried about the possibility of somebody else putting out a similar game before D&D could come out. In the long run, this is a decision which seems to have paid off, given how Dungeons & Dragons has benefitted from that “first mover” advantage over the years.

The third book, Lands and Worlds Afar, covers the immediate 1974 and 1975 aftermath of the release of the original boxed set. This includes the chaotic collapse of the original Greyhawk campaign as overt hostilities between player characters kicked off, as well as subsequent campaigning that would lead to the development of the Temple of Elemental Evil. One thing which is notable by this point is how long many early player characters managed to survive in Gary’s campaigns, which suggests that he either wasn’t quite the killer GM that he’s sometimes made out to be, or that there was some bias (conscious or otherwise) at work, or simply that the players who knew Gary best and played with him most regularly knew his style best and were better-equipped to look out for themselves, than more transient visitors to the campaign.

As I’d hoped, the scope of this book becomes more varied and interesting now that Kelly is able to draw on a wider range of anecdotes. Now that D&D was out in the wild, people could react to it accordingly, and Kelly documents the genesis of a range of other legendary gaming franchises to boot. Since the focus of the series is on D&D, more attention is given to games which started out as variants of the D&D system, though games entirely divorced from that system also get a mention here and there. Hence, Tunnels & Trolls. a game which implements the premise of D&D through absolutely unrelated game mechanics, gets a brief discussion, but more attention is given to M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, developed independently by Barker after he saw D&D in action and published by TSR to avoid potential acrimony due to the extent to which Barker borrowed the D&D mechanics, and Jim Ward’s early work on Metamorphosis Alpha – the precursor to Gamma World, which came about after Jim suggested to Gary that a sci-fi take on D&D would make a good product and Gary challenged him to write it himself. We also see how the wide range of queries and comments about the game were already giving TSR the impression that perhaps some sort of easy introduction to the game – a basic set, if you will – was a commercially sensible prospect, though that idea wouldn’t see fruit until later years.

This period is also crucial to the history of TSR as a commercial entity due to the unexpected and untimely death of Don Kaye, an absolutely key partner to the business. This prompted a crisis just as D&D was beginning to gain traction, and Gygax’s sales predictions – scoffed at for being over-optimistic by the others – were proving if anything to be far too conservative. It was obvious to all concerned that Kaye’s widow had no interest in being part of the business, and understandably just wanted to sell off her stake and go grieve and get on with her life; eventually, the solution hit on involved Gary signing a deal which saw the Blume brothers get an important stake in the business. As Kelly notes, Gygax would later say that this was the worst decision he ever made – for about a decade later, it would be this deal that allowed a boardroom coup to kick Gary out of TSR altogether and deliver the company into the hands of Lorraine Williams, a controversial figure within the hobby (though I’m increasingly of the opinion that public opinion has treated her unfairly in some respects, as accurate as it may be in others). One poignant fruit of the earlier, friendlier relations between Gygax and Blume that Kelly highlights is their completion of a Western-themed RPG – a project Kaye had talked about and had done some preliminary work on before his death. The game would be dedicated to Kaye, and the fact that it is titled Boot Hill – the traditional name for an Old West gunslingers’ graveyard – becomes a little more meaningful when you know the history behind it.

As mentioned earlier, Hawk & Moor takes in a wider (but less rigorously supported) range of evidence than Playing At the World, and also has a different scope, showing an interest in the entire history of TSR and D&D rather than just the leadup and immediate reaction to the game’s release. This approach starts bearing major fruits here, with a particularly interesting subject being the preparation of the Blackmoor supplement. Credited to Dave Arneson, this was part of the early strategy of each D&D supplement presenting more of an alternative approach to the game rather than an additive approach; rather than expecting people to implement everything in all the supplements, the idea seems to have been that Greyhawk would showcase Gary’s house rules and style rather than being an extensive setting guide, Blackmoor would do the same for Dave, and so on. Of course, the additive approach caught on sufficiently with the general public to necessitate the writing of AD&D, but that’s a story for later.

Anyway, the stories around the production of the Blackmoor supplement told by TSR veterans – which are Kelly’s main source for much of this stuff are often not very complimentary to Arneson, but seem dreadfully plausible given the decidedly variable (some would go so far as to say sloppy) quality of the few publications Arneson put out now and again after he left TSR, and more rigorously evidence-supported aspects of the OD&D design process. The story goes that when Arneson finally got around to sending his Blackmoor notes to TSR, they were another pile of contraductory and disorganised notes with little care given to whether they contradicted each other (or, for that matter, the published D&D rules). much like those Gary Gygax had to struggle with when designing the game in the first place. Gygax wasn’t up for yet another editing-and-rewriting chore; Brian Blume, the other major player in TSR at the time, probably didn’t fancy the task either.

Luckily, the duo had recently hired Tim Kask – TSR’s first very first employee – to act as an in-house editor, with particular responsibility for The Strategic Review (the magazine that later became Dragon), literally gave him a basket of Arneson notes, and told him to go away and turn them into a supplement, which Kask was eventually able to do only after scrapping a lot of what Arneson had produced and rewriting it. Kask’s own, unfiltered account of this process is compiled from forum posts for easy reading here. Given that Kask’s pet name for Dave Arneson is “the Malignant Toad”, a big pinch of salt is probably needed when reading it (and reading the Hawk & Moor account, for that matter), especially since to my knowledge Arneson never put out a rebuttal before he died. However, given how many people I’ve encountered in the hobby who are full of interesting ideas but can’t organise them to save their life, and given what we do know about Arneson’s personal style, I find the story believable and plausible – certainly, as you may note from the comments section on that blog post other people who worked with Arneson over the years found it a real chore to edit his work. (In particular, pay close attention to the comments by Chirine ba Kal in the comments – he’s a Twin Cities gamer who played with both Dave Arneson and M.A.R. Barker in their foundational campaigns and also knew Gary, and as many nice things as he has to say about Arneson even he has to admit that Arneson desperately needed someone like Gygax to set down his ideas and make them actually viable as a product.)

Although Kelly’s conversational, jocular style occasionally grates when he starts goofing around instead of getting to the point, he does at least know how to leave the reader excited to see what’s coming in the next volume of the series. Having regaled us with the painful birth of the Blackmoor supplement, Kelly promises us an even more explosive Arneson story in the next volume – for the next year would see Arneson moving down to Lake Geneva to take up a more active role in TSR. As frustrating as he had sometimes been as a distant collaborator, reportedly given to airily dismissing requests for clarification by insisting that his notes explained everything perfectly adequately, Gygax and colleagues and Arneson had just about managed to work together enough to put out a couple of products with his fingerprints on. Dealing with him in person would, Kelly assures us, be a whole other ball game…

The fourth volume, Of Demons and Fallen Idols, covers 1976 and delves into a lot of important developments that year. For instance, whilst in retrospect the division of D&D into Basic and Advanced versions which had numerous points of incompatibility seems slapdash, we learn here that at least the early planning stages were much more structured, with Gygax and Tim Kask cloistered in Gary’s office at TSR headquarters (TSR at this point being big enough to have actual offices) for about six days hacking up copies of OD&D and its supplements and deciding what should go in Basic and what would go in Advanced. It’s interesting to know that the future trajectory of the game – and thus the seeds of future developments which would see the AD&D line win out over Basic, the development of 3E in response to AD&D‘s perceived faults and the development of 4E subsequent to it, and the return of 5E effectively to the approach Gygax and Kask took back in 1976 by conceiving of the Basic game as a subset of the Advanced, though 5E’s Basic game is actually compatible with the full-fat game this time around.

1976 would also see J. Eric Holmes commissioned to prepare the first Basic Set, the release of Metamorphosis Alpha, and the rise of Judges Guild as an important third party publisher, all of which we get some insight into. There was also the roots of scandal this year; Dave Arneson would become a TSR employee at the start of the year with a nebulous “research” mandate (Kelly speculates – rather credibly – that this was an attempt to make use of Arneson’s strengths by encouraging him to go spot or create the next big thing), and towards the end of the year he’d be gone, with more or less nothing of substance bearing his name published during that time in relation to D&D.

Here, Kelly’s often hagiographic tone of writing becomes a liability; Tim Kask has waxed lyrical about his clashes with Arneson during this time, but whilst alluding to them Kelly is too respectful of his heroes to go into any level of detail. Nonetheless, his account of an adventure that Arneson ran at a con seems to speak for itself when it comes to Arneson’s personality – with Arneson’s buddy allowed to run his 14th level paladin whilst all the newcomers had to play 1st to 4th level plebs, arbitrary deathtraps aplenty, and some fairly blatant favouritism at work (NPCs deferring to the high-level paladin an awful lot), even Kelly has to concede that it probably wasn’t a fun experience for any of the newcomers at the table. For a referee to show such blatant favouritism would ruin even a private game; to do it at a con, in the sight of the hobby, as a representative of your employer who publishes that game is absolutely ridiculous. In fact, I suspect would be a firing offence at any publisher these days, simply because of the sheer lack of professionalism involved; as Kelly notes, it seems to have been professionalism and his aversion to it which prompted Arneson to leave TSR, and based on the story about the convention game it seems to me that Arneson, whatever of the positive qualities of the amateur hobbyist tinkerer he displayed, also embodied a wide swathe of the worst.

Kelly’s writing style continues to be gratingly pretentious at points he keeps stopping to pay effusive tribute to the people he’s writing about which becomes intensely annoying, and seems to involve him really getting into this bardic pose he talked about way at the start of the series a little too much.

The fifth volume, Age of Glory, covers 1977; this volume has less in the way of actual play reports, largely because reports from this era are quite sparse (the TSR prime movers generally being too busy to play as much as previously). That’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned, particularly since this year was rich enough in major events that such accounts really aren’t needed to pad things out. You have major new releases like Traveller and Chivalry & Sorcery representing two different responses to D&D – the former of which was warmly regarded by TSR (because GDW didn’t rip off the D&D system) and the latter of which was, in Kelly’s estimation at least, an angry response to D&D by people who were really mad that it was too fun and not serious enough. (This is not actually an unfair assessment; Chivalry & Sorcery is pretty goddamn dry.) You have the release of the Holmes-penned Basic Set, along with the work which would give rise to Gamma World. You have Gen Con X taking place at the Playboy Club and the release of the Monster Manual.

At the same time, despite having less actual play reports to spill words on, somehow Kelly still manages to focus an awful lot on minutiae and gloss over more interesting issues. For instance, though it’s understandable that he doesn’t go much into detail about Chivalry & Sorcery itself, the story of how its developers tried to pitch it to Gary Gygax is an interesting one which could illustrate many of the points Kelly makes about the developing relationship between an increasingly professional TSR and the rest of the hobby, but it’s glossed over entirely; meanwhile, an entire chapter is given over to an extended summary of the plotline of the first year of Dave Trampier’s Wormy comic, and whilst Wormy is well-regarded by fans who caught it in the pages of Dragon I don’t really think the ins and outs of its plot merit the amount of space dedicated to it here.

Subsequent volumes in the series have yet to emerge, and it’s been some months since Kelly popped in on the Acaeum forum to give updates on it. Although Kelly’s particular foibles as a writer are grating to me, the extant books are still a handy compilation of information, and whilst they’re not especially academic, they at least provide enough leads on secondary sources to be of use to anyone attempting a more formal pass on the same material. Really, the major beef I have is that the Kindle versions don’t properly use hyperlinking for the footnotes, which makes it enormously awkward to look them up.