Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I recently discovered a resource of adventure gaming historiography at the regional used bookstore that – besides providing an interesting and critical glimpse into the state of the hobby in 1980 – struck me by its relative lack of acknowledgment to individual game designers for their creations. I’m thankful that over the hobby’s more than 40 year history giving designers their due credit has become more the rule rather than the exception in today’s hobby gaming community.

Every few months I make a pilgrimage to the regional used bookstore with some (often futile) hope I’ll find a few books or even games catering to my varied interests at affordable prices. In the past few years the store has thankfully included a section for used games, ranging from vapid party games and kids fare to hardcore chit-and-board wargames and Eurogames. I also check out the hobby gaming shelves to look for adventures and supplements for games I’ve enjoyed in the past, newer fare to help me explore more recent games, and books about gaming in general. Alas, most of the choice roleplaying or wargame books and most of the interesting boxed games come with prices more suitable for exclusive collectors on ebay than average people browsing the shelves in used bookstores. I chuckle sadly to myself when I see a “Free RPG Day” release marked at $10.

Yet on this last trip I found a wonderful gem for $4.95: The Complete Book of Wargames. The cover says a lot about the book and the hobby at that time. The byline indicates “By The Editors of Consumer Guide with Jon Freeman,” giving it an official aura being linked to what sounds like a serious consumer magazine; I’m assuming the gaming-savvy author who probably did much of the hard work is the early computer game designer Jon Freeman who co-founded Epyx and developed a host of computer games in the 1980s and 1990s. The book’s cover claims “The first book ever published for the veritable armchair army of gaming enthusiasts. Included also is an original wargame developed by Consumer Guide.” A striking yellow corner banner declares “Featuring Dungeons & Dragons,” capitalizing on the game’s popularity at the time. The back cover alphabetically lists all the individual titles it covers, from Acre to Yeoman, so prospective buyers get some idea what’s inside.

The book begins with 71 pages of “An Introduction to Wargames,” five chapters offering a history of wargaming, description of the hobby, examination of the elements within many games, and an introductory wargame (Kassala, “an actual, if obscure, sixteenth-century battle that took place between Moslem and Christian soldiers in northeastern Africa). I’ve yet to thoroughly read those sections, though I intend to for their views on wargaming at the time; enough interesting bits have caught my eye while browsing that they might warrant their own discussion in the future. But the real meat of the book comes in the 200 pages after the first portion, more than 150 concise and critical overviews wargames released before 1980. The editors organize them chronologically by historical period before covering the odd ducks of science fiction and fantasy games, with entire chapters devoted to Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games and “Computers and the Future of Wargames.” Each chapter begins with a few pages describing the historical era and relevant gaming considerations before diving into the “evaluations” (an interesting term for what amounts to a combination of overview and review). Each evaluation offers a rich trove of practical information: publishing date, publisher, suggested retail price (with parenthetical remarks on the format, such as “boxed” or “resealable plastic bag”), subject, playing time, scale, size, balance, key features, and comments. Most of these categories indulge in useful comments beyond a simple answer. For instance, the “scale” entry for Panzer Leader states, “This is a tactical simulation. The basic unit is the platoon, but individual aircraft are also represented. Hexes are 250 meters across, and each turn equals six minutes.” A summary at the end of each evaluation rates presentation, rules, playability, realism, complexity, and overall evaluation.

But one category that’s missing? Designer credits. I’ve noticed a few designers mentioned in the “Introduction to Wargames” section and the brief overviews of wargame periods. Obviously such notables as Charles S. Roberts and James F. Dunnigan receive mention for their involvement with Avalon Hill and SPI in the overview about the history of wargames. On very rare occasions does an evaluation mention someone by name within the comments section: “The culture upon which Empire of the Petal Throne draws is a creation of the fertile mind of M.A.R. Barker and, as such, is alien and unfamiliar to everyone else who comes in contact with it.” But for the most part – and for individual game evaluations – authors receive little mention and no credit in the informational summaries. To contrast this interesting relic from 1980, I paged through Lawrence Schick’s 1991 opus Heroic Worlds (a title I’ve discussed before) which, in its vast catalog of roleplaying game products at the time of its publication listed authors and, in many cases, cover artists for each title.

Game creators across the hobby have enjoyed front cover bylines and suffered with miniscule credits buried at the end of rulebooks. Gary Gygax’s name appears on the first edition AD&D rulebook covers and spines; many of TSR’s earliest modules feature creator names on the covers. Looking over my collection of games from the hobby’s past 40 years shows a great variety of credits: some on the cover, some on the back cover, others on title page mastheads with all the others who contributed anything – ranging from essential artwork to the company’s accounting department – to the project, some buried in obscurity, if at all. Corporate publishers have sometimes minimized the importance of designer credits, often when they sought to promote the company’s brand name over those of individual creators who actually design the base product materials from which they profit. I’m thankful that during my time at West End Games management designers received credit listed on the back cover above the promotional text (to expect a byline on the cover competing with the massive Star Wars logo was, understandably, asking far too much). Recent trends in game publishing have encouraged emphasis on designers. How many Eurogames feature the creator’s name prominently on the box cover? Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and others have become recognizable names in part thanks to the conspicuous credit on their game boxes (and justly so for designing outstanding games). The prominence of the creator remains part of the allure of small, independent publishers who are able to bring their games to the market through internet e-storefronts like One Book Shelf and supported by niche-market fans like those who enjoy the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR). In many cases they foster online communities of followers dedicated to their work. James M. Spahn’s work on White Star and his interactions with people online (a subject I’ve covered before) cultivated a vibrant community of gamers and fellow creators. Erik “Tenkar” Stiene began with a ready-made community of online OSR enthusiasts – including Swords & Wizardry fans – who frequent his Tenkar’s Tavern website; this formed a ready audience for his Swords & Wizardry Light fast-play fantasy rules, an ultra-compact form of the main game for those returning to gaming Tenkar (with support from a talented team of creators and input from the community) streamlined and released for free. How many other self-publishing or small-press designers have cultivated followings of gamer fans through the impact of their creations and communities created by online interactions? The concept of authorship remains core to such platforms as Patreon, in which gamers choose to directly support game-design personalities whose work they enjoy.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that gamers revere a “cult of the creator,” particularly for roleplaying games. Not only did the hobby coalesce around a few key designers and their “home games” (and not just for D&D), but the activity of gaming itself focuses on the gamemaster, who takes on much of the preparation and storytelling aspects of running an adventure. Over time and through experience we’ve ascribed importance to various individual authors who best satisfy our gaming expectations. I frequently seek out releases by designers who’ve proven they can provide me with game material that caters to my interests to varying degrees of professionalism. I can think of a number of game designers whose games I seek or whose names garner my interest when browsing for new games: Reiner Knizia, Greg Costikyan, Mike Pondsmith, Frank Chadwick, Matt Leacock, and certainly any of the late, “holy trinity” of early roleplaying game designer-pioneers, Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and M.A.R. Barker (and their many disciples who influenced early and, in some cases, later roleplaying game design). Sometimes the most rewarding material comes from creators who lack corporate support traditional publishers provide, designers like Tim Shorts, Simon Forster, Dyson Logos, Michael Prescott, and James Spahn, who use outlets like Patreon and DriveThruRPG.com to bring their work to the public. I have particular admiration for a longtime self-publisher, the inimitable S. John Ross, who’s independent streak has brought into my life a host of deliciously satisfying game goodness.

The Internet Age offers us a wonderful opportunity to not only support creators through purchases but provide feedback on their work and express messages of gratitude for the hours of enjoyment and inspiration they’ve provided. As Americans approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I encourage appreciative gamers to offer some gratitude to their favorite creators, whether they’re pillars of the adventure gaming hobby, self-publishing pioneers, or their local gamemaster working hard to prepare for the next game session.

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