A Game Per Year: Villains and Vigilantes (1979)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Villains and Vigilantes is a superhero roleplaying game from 1979. I read it from a facsimile edition published in 2016 with a new preface explaining some of the original context of the game. Jack Herman, one of the game’s original designers along with Jeff Dee, talks about how they started with making a superhero hack of Empire of the Petal Throne, and then gradually pared away the elements of the older game until they had their own design.

This is the first roleplaying game I’ve read during this project where the title used for the person running the game is not Referee or Judge but Game Master. This has since become pretty much standard.

Another interesting first is a genre formulation. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I encounter this in a superhero game as the tropes of the genre tend to be more artificial than in many other genres. In this game, it’s defined as following the dictates of the Comics Code, the comics industry content code which sought to limit the types of stories, images and characters you could have to forestall external censorship. The most important tenet for Villains and Vigilantes is that you can’t, in fact, play a villain.

In terms of roleplaying game design, Villains and Vigilantes has one extremely interesting idea. When the players first come together to play the game, the GM is instructed to create characters with them based on themselves but with super powers. So I would play Juhana Pettersson with powers.

The method for determining the stats of the character is that the GM assesses these based on their knowledge of the player. It even says not to be too lenient with giving high stats. So the GM would look at me and go: “Hmmm… Kind of dumb looking. Let’s say Intelligence of seven.”

After the base character has been created with this method, superpowers are then randomly rolled from a set of tables.

After the players have played one game or campaign with themselves as the base characters, the next ones are not avatar-types but completely fictional. Thus, there’s design to guide how to change the nature of the game as the players get more experience with it, another first.

The aesthetic of reality is also extended to how the GM builds adventures. The game suggests two sources of inspiration: Marvel and DC comics and the nightly news. The idea is that the GM can just pick a topical real event and insert the superhero characters there.

A Game Per Year: The Arduin Grimoire (1977)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The covers of The Arduin Grimoire and its two successors.

The Arduin Grimoire is in many ways a watershed in my project to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they’ve been published. It’s the first I’m reading not published by TSR or its predecessors and it’s also the first to position itself against the existing field of roleplaying games.

In its preface, the Grimoire describes it self as an indie-style work of rebellion against the stultifying world of Big RPG. That’s quite amazing, considering that in 1977 roleplaying games have existed at all for just a few short years!

The Grimoire is also different from its predecessors in a more philosophical way. Every game I’ve read until this has felt like an exploration of new territory, designed to push the boundaries of what this novel artform can be. In contrast, the Grimoire very concretely concerns itself with the creative space already mapped out by Dungeons & Dragons. It doesn’t seek to expand territory but rather examine some of its characteristics in more detail.

Designed by David A. Hargrave, who’s described on Wikipedia as “one of the best Gamemasters”, The Arduin Grimoire is essentially a D&D hack. It’s impossible to understand without knowledge of D&D and some of its references go back to Chainmail. Yet I think it’s justified to call it a roleplaying game of its own because it brings a definite new sensibility and punk attitude to the game its riffing on. My feeling is that when it was published, it was usable by the community because the D&D basics it relies on were such common knowledge.

The book contains rules for combat, new character classes, monsters and spells. In short, the standard stuff of roleplaying game books. There’s a lot of commentary on how different aspects of D&D should be understood, making it almost like a series of auteuristic annotations of the common holy text of D&D.

All the games I’ve read so far have been made with the goal of creating a good, playable game. Reading D&D or Metamorphosis Alpha, this seems the basis of the design despite its anachronistic nature. The Grimoire introduces a new design goal: “realism”.

Hargrave approaches this theme with a certain commitment. He talks about watching people fight with medieval weapons at the SCA and using those insights in his game design.

The results of this approach of trying to make the game realistic tend to make it massively more clunky. For example, if the enemy attacks from the front left of a fighter holding a shield with his left hand, the fighter gains a bonus to his defense but a minus to his attack. It makes sense but when you have a thousand little rules like this, combat becomes a muddle.

I have personal experience with this: When I was maybe fourteen, I was playing AD&D 2nd Edition. Like so many of us in the early Nineties, I believed that increased complexity would make the game more “realistic”, and therefore good. Adding things like hit locations and fatigue to the game eventually slowed things down so much that one fight could take an evening to play out. The spectacle of our wizards and elves fighting purple worms on the Astral Plane must have been very realistic indeed but it was not good roleplaying.

This is the direction The Arduin Grimoire points at. It was published in 1977 and history shows that it was a harbinger of decades of adventures in game design where simulating aspects of reality is the top goal.

Here’s a post about The Grimoire that has useful historical context and perspective.

A Game Per Year: Metamorphosis Alpha (1976)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The front and back covers of the 1976 edition of Metamorphosis Alpha.

To be honest, my first choice for 1976 was the Watership Down -inspired Bunnies & Burrows, but I was unable to find a copy. Because of this, I went with my second choice, the scifi game Metamorphosis Alpha. Perhaps this was a good thing because this was a quite interesting game!

Metamorphosis Alpha differs from the games I’ve read so far in that it has a very tight, clear focus. It’s not a sprawling mass you can use to make endless campaigns but a clear package offering a definite experience.

The story of the game is that in the future, humanity sends vast colony ships to other planets. Since the voyage is so long, these ships with populations in the millions are like mini-worlds unto themselves. As always happens in these stories, something goes wrong. Radiation kills most of the people aboard and mutates many of the rest. As a result, onboard civilization collapses.

The characters are humans, mutants, animals or plants who have been born to this environment and set out to explore it. The game is a big sandbox which offers two interesting things:

1 – The ship. The game details the tools, the robots, the levels, all the things that you find as you explore the vast space vessel. Although the game is based on the classic model of exploring physical spaces, killing monsters and finding treasure, the treasure can now be an access band allowing movement from one level of the ship to the next.

2 – Character creation. The characters in Metamorphosis Alpha can be quite bizarre. A telepathic vine is a reasonable starting character, as is a hyper-intelligent armored bear. The radiation has mutated all the biological samples on board and they’re all playable. What’s more, the system takes a reckless approach to powers, throwing things like time travel around quite casually.

Like the games I’ve read so far, this one suggests one Referee (or Judge, as the game sometimes calls it) for a maximum of 24 players. (“More the merrier”, it says.) There’s a system where human characters can accumulate followers, meaning that the character group can get quite big. The example of play is between the Referee and the Caller, the leader of the player group.

Based on reading the game, it seems best suited for one-shots or short campaigns where the chaos of the setting is allowed to bloom, all the game systems and world elements interacting in sandbox-style blissful anarchy. Perhaps because of this, there’s no level system to account for experience. It doesn’t seem like the game would go on long enough to need one.

Reading this and the previous game, 1975’s Empire of the Petal Throne, I’m struck by the explosion of creativity around roleplaying games immediately after their inception. So far, it feels like there’s so many new ideas in every game.

A Game Per Year: Empire of the Petal Throne (1975)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Empire of the Petal Throne is the world’s second roleplaying game, if Dungeons & Dragons is the first. It was first published as a manuscript edition in 1974, the same year D&D came out, and then in 1975 as a proper boxed set with maps and everything.

I’ve noticed a phenomenon where a roleplayer decides to explore the early days of the artform, just like I’m doing now. They read Chainmail, are confused by D&D’s first edition and fall in love with Empire of the Petal Throne.

This happened to me too. There’s simply something beautiful about it.

Empire of the Petal Throne holds the distinction of being the first roleplaying game with a proper campaign world, the world of Tékumel. It’s not content to be a generic fantasy roleplaying game but strikes out to make a unique artistic statement. Perhaps because of this vision, its strengths still shine through despite the archaic nature of its design.

The game’s designer M.A.R. Barker is a Tolkien-like figure, a university professor and scholar of ancient languages who invented the world of Tékumel long before the roleplaying game came to be. Like all good designers of fantasy worlds, Barker came up with invented languages which feature prominently in the game. At first, they make the game seem foreboding and difficult to grasp but you get used to their rhythms surprisingly quickly.

In a comment at the end of the game book, Barker says that a key part of his motivation for making the game was that he felt traditional fantasy worlds were boring. Why not have something inspired by the other cultures of the world beyond the European ones?

So what’s the story of Empire of the Petal Throne? What do you do?

The world is a science fiction / fantasy hybrid, a future where humanity has colonized an alien planet which has then suffered civilizational collapse. Because of this, there are humans as well as alien monsters and sentient beings. The great cities of the world have vast dungeons under them from earlier ages. In terms of style, the layered history of Tékumel brings to mind Medieval Arabia or India.

At the start of the game, the characters are foreigners who have just arrived at the city of Jákall. Because the local people are super racist, the characters are forced to do menial tasks, undertake dangerous missions and otherwise do things the locals don’t really want to do.

As their fortune and power grows, the characters become grudgingly accepted into local society, eventually building strongholds and amassing retinues.

The basic structure of the game where the characters explore dungeons, grow powerful and start constructing something is familiar from D&D but this time there’s a cultural context around it. There’s a lot of interesting worldbuilding as the game sets out rules for inheritance and even taxation (1% of character assets per month).

As a published game, Empire of the Petal Throne is complete in a way D&D is not. It provides a good picture of what you’re supposed to be doing, explains the mechanics of play well and even has an example dialogue between the players and the Referee!

As a side note, the game also features what I’m pretty sure is the first LGBT character in roleplaying games, Mnekshétra, the “Lesbian Mistress of Queen Nayári”.

Looking back at the history of roleplaying games, the position of D&D is unassailable. It’s the first roleplaying game. However, there’s something in the artistic vision of Empire of the Petal Throne which makes it seem much more compelling as a precursor to the kind of games we do now.

A Game Per Year: Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Cover of Men & Magic, one of the three booklets in the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

The first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons in its original 1974 edition! For 1974, I actually had a choice between this and the manuscript edition of Empire of the Petal Throne, but I felt I couldn’t skip the game that started it all.

The original edition of D&D is strange to read because many of the conventions of how roleplaying games are designed and presented are not in place yet. My favorite is the way the text refers to “adding pips to the result of a die”. In modern games, you would express this like so: 1d6+1, meaning roll the die and add one.

This is a set of rules for the purposes of playing a game where each player controls one character, under the watchful eye of the Referee who runs the game. The characters explore dungeons and wilderness environments, kill monsters, find treasure and beat challenges. Or run away to lick their wounds and fight another day.

Reading the three booklets of the game, it feels as if the designers were collating rules notes for the use of their own scene. There’s no explanation of play culture so you end up guessing what it might be like based on small hints.

Some of those hints are quite confusing. At one point, it says that the optimum player/Referee ratio is 20/1.

At this point in its development, D&D doesn’t contain everything you need to play. It often refers to Chainmail, even in basics like combat. It also uses another earlier publication, Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival. Wilderness adventures in D&D use the other game’s map.

The basic assumption in D&D is that the Referee plans a dungeon (recommended depth: 12 levels) and the player characters explore it. They can return to the same dungeon over and over again and it can contain pretty much anything from a monster lair to a bowling alley.

When not dungeoneering, the characters build castles and towers. They hire people to work for them. These hirelings are expected to participate in adventures, so the adventuring party can consist of dozens of people.

Because the rules are so spartan, it’s fun to see what kind of things get an extended treatment. There’s a complicated system for enslaving dragons and even selling them. Another pet subject is intelligent magic swords that can take over their wielders. Rules for aerial and sea combat are also provided.

D&D clearly doesn’t describe roleplaying as we understand it today, but it’s also hard to see the specific outline of how it worked forty years ago. It feels as if to properly get it, you needed to be a wargames aficionado at Lake Geneva in 1974.

A Game Per Year: Chainmail (1971)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1975 third edition of Chainmail.

There’s only one real starting point for a project like this, the original Chainmail miniatures strategy game from 1971. It’s not a roleplaying game at all but as a precursor for what came later its value is undeniable.

Designed by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perrin, Chainmail is a collector’s item nowadays. Embarrassingly, I had to start my project by cheating as I couldn’t find a PDF of the 1971 original. Instead, I read the 1975 third edition of Chainmail. From what I understand, it’s otherwise the same as the original except for a wider selection of spells.

Chainmail is a 48 page booklet of dense rules text. Despite this, it was surprisingly easy to read even for someone like me, with no familiarity with wargames. The simulation of medieval military conflict is the main subject of the game, with rules for engagements between units as well as exotic stuff like sieges and tournaments.

In hindsight, an important element of the booklet is the Fantasy Supplement, an appendix with extra rules for fantastic elements like magic on the battlefield. Chromatic dragons which later became a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons are already present.

Still, Chainmail’s focus is on historical warfare. The foreword expresses the hope that the game would inspire an interest in studying history in the players. Some historical features, such as Landsknecht-soldiers seem to loom at least as large in the imagination of the authors as fantasy elements do.