Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dabbling in Civil War Games

These past few years I’ve dabbled with various games focusing on the American Civil War to varying degrees of success and satisfaction. Several games have caught my eye, with some acquired and played, while a few remain yearned-for yet too-expensive additions to my game library. My experience is in no means comprehensive, nor does it encompass the vast panorama of Civil War-related games available over the years; but a few come within my realm of experience and touch on elements I enjoy or admire in games. BobbyLee

I’ve always nurtured an interest in the history of the various places I’ve lived: Ridgefield, CT, site of the Battle of Ridgefield during the American Revolution; Honesdale, PA, birthplace of American railroading with the first steam engine to run (briefly) on rails and once the staging point of a vital canal system supplying New York City with coal; Williamsburg, VA, colonial Virginia capital and living history restoration; and Culpeper, VA, a central Civil War location between the Shenandoah Valley, Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields, and site of its own engagements at Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station, and Culpeper Court House. (I discussed the subject of local history a while back in another blog post.) My interest in some of these locations sometimes inspired my game-related activities. I’ve long hoped to find a system and medium to replay the Battle of Ridgefield (and might have found one in my Charge! rules under development). Living in Culpeper has certainly spurred me to find some means of playing out small cavalry engagements -- Buford’s crossing of Beverly’s Ford as the opening move for the massive Battle of Brandy Station, Mosby’s raid on a train at nearby Catlett’s Station, and, of course, Custer’s action against the artillery and cavalry guarding the Confederate withdrawal from Culpeper Court House.

Over the years I’ve acquired a meager collection of Civil War-themed games; now that I’ve lived in Virginia for more than 10 years and currently live in a nexus of many related historical sites, I’m drawn more to investigating this period of history through games. I regret I sold my boxed set of West End Games Civil War wargame titles long ago when money was tight; though I’ve rarely had the time, attention, or interest for indulging in complex “chit-and-board” wargames (despite owning a few).

My interest in Civil War games has ranged across several resources and titles, some I’ve acquired and played, others remaining on my “wish list” for future investigation, though the material I’ve seen so far intrigues me:

Junior General: The website offers Civil War gamers several scenarios for miniatures battles and a few other games (card and matrix/map battles) for the historical period. Scenarios for First Bull Run and two segments of Gettysburg (Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge) provide very simple rules and well-researched historical notes (though a familiarity with  miniatures wargames can help understand some of the basic gaming concepts). Although the materials on the website seem intended for adults to find resources and run games to help students explore history, it’s a treasure trove of materials for wargamers dabbling in various periods. Browse the site’s vast archive of military units to print out, assemble, and muster on the gaming table using the well-researched scenarios. Junior General remains a great starting resource for wargaming any historical period.

Sundered Union: Several years ago a new game company, Gordon & Hague Historical War Games, published a full set and then a quick-start version of Civil War tabletop rules to support its line of 10mm period miniatures. Both versions remained available as free PDF downloads from the company’s website until recently; a full-color, soft-cover printed version was briefly available for purchase, and I’m thankful I managed to obtain a copy from a convention vendor. While far from perfect and nowhere near as comprehensively complex as other, well-established miniature wargaming rule sets for the period, Sundered Union provided a basic framework for Civil War battles and included rules for most of the generally accepted tactical elements for these engagements. The quick-start rules -- at a concise four pages -- streamlined the main game further and offered newcomers to wargaming (or those of us who prefer lighter games) a more simplified yet gratifying experience. Regrettably Sundered Union is no longer available as a free PDF download from the Gordon & Hague website in either the full or quick-start versions. The game served as a solid platform for the company’s short-lived line of pre-painted 10mm Civil War miniatures and could easily work with its upcoming line of pre-painted 15mm minis. The company recently concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign for a massive board wargame using accurately illustrated top-down counters or the pre-painted 15mm minis, both of which, alas, remain beyond my own rational budgetary allowances.

Battle Cry: Board games packed with hordes of pieces, dice, tiles, huge map boards, and cards seem the norm for everything from light wargames to Euro-style games these days; Battle Cry is no exception. It uses the Command and Colors system developed by Richard Borg for simplified wargames focusing on a deck of command cards and custom dice to determine the outcome in combat. I have no direct play experience with this game, though I’ve perused an old version of the rulebook. I have played Borg’s engaging Memoir ’44, a World War II Command and Colors game incorporating many similar elements: a large hex board easily customized for scenarios with terrain tiles; plastic pieces representing different units and their strengths; left, center, and right flank card-based actions; specialized dice to resolve combat; and an easy means of creating or playing historical scenarios. Like it’s World War II counterpart, Battle Cry comes with a box filled with the aforementioned goodies (board, terrain tiles, plastic soldiers, dice, cards) as well as the understandably high price tag of $60 retail.

Dixie: At the height of the collectible card game craze of the mid-1990s Columbia Games jumped in by adapting to card play mechanics the designers ported from the tactical portion of the Bobby Lee block wargame (which I realize in retrospect thanks to the Kickstarter campaign mentioned below). Each deck of Dixie contained enough cards to run a battle, with cards depicting infantry, cavalry, and artillery units -- each with an original illustration of individual soldiers in uniform -- as well as generals, terrain features, and special conditions to modify the battle. Like the tactical combat in Bobby Lee, players deployed units on their left, right, and center, with forces held in reserve. Units revealed themselves advancing against and engaging the opponent’s positions, resolving combat, and taking ground. I can’t recall how I acquired the few decks of this game I possess (two of the Battle of Bull Run edition and two Gettysburg edition); possibly as a giveaway at a game industry trade show, maybe purchased at a convention or game store. They impressed me as a basic, card-driven means of refighting battles using historical units and some degree of tactical accuracy.

Bobby Lee: In 1993 Columbia Games also published a wargame covering the Civil War in Virginia (including Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, to include Antietam and Gettysburg). What seemed like a conventional “chit-and-board” wargame -- complete with a nicely-rendered map-board, detailed rules, and numerous pieces for various military units -- actually moved beyond those bounds by including two innovations Columbia Games incorporated in its many wargames: pieces on wooden blocks and a tactical battlefield combat to resolve engagements between forces meeting on the larger strategic map board. Each block represents a unit, with the usual wargaming stat information on a sticker; when stood on its side, however, the blocks enable a fog-of-war mechanic allowing a player to see his own forces but hiding the opponent’s armies from view until encountered in battle. The game combines both strategic action across the campaign theater map-board and more focused tactical engagement resolution on a separate skirmish board utilizing gameplay similar to that of Dixie (and probably derived from games like Bobby Lee). Columbia Games is funding a revision of Bobby Lee through Kickstarter; the campaign ends on November 11, 2013. This looks like a good game -- with tighter rules than the original -- for someone dabbling in the period. The $75 price tag seems quite daunting, considering many high-end Euro-style board games come in around $50. Still, the components look good, the map is huge, and I’m very interested in the fog-of-war mechanic with pieces using blocks.

These titles are the ones that come to mind or have formed my experience playing Civil War games, though I know more exist and I’m sure the Hobby Games readership has its own favorites and suggestions

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Revisiting the Random Dungeon with Themes

Several weeks ago I explored issues in random dungeons based on my own experience with the original Gygaxian method from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and John Yorio’s No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. After my admittedly limited initial experiences I set off to devise a slightly more focused “random” dungeon experience incorporating an overarching theme for the delve and table results skewed to allow for some escalation from basic encounters to more challenging ones.

I wanted to structure a blank form outline with tables for determining corridors and chambers, traps, treasures, and encounters, with most of the die types and ranges left blank for users to fill in with their own preferences. For instance, choosing a 1D6 roll for determining corridors or chambers might allow one on a roll of 1-2 and the other on 3-6, skewing the results to favor a preferred structure. They could populate a trap table with theme-appropriate devices. Treasures could reflect the theme as well. But the most integral of all is the encounters table, where users “seed” the delve with themed encounters rather than relying on random monster tables by dungeon level. An escalation mechanic -- in the form of a bonus to the table roll equal to the number of previous encounters -- skews results to the higher and more challenging encounters, culminating in a showdown with an appropriately powerful “boss” monster.

The result is a PDF document with forms to fill out and then “save as” or print to create a one-page set of tables for a “themed dungeon” with randomized elements skewed toward a particular experience.

Here’s a look at the rationale I followed:

Intent: Since this serves as a side-project for me -- a quick jaunt exploring an interesting idea and game-design exercise -- I imposed a few restrictions on development. I wanted to keep the tables to one page with adequate room for users to customize the material with their own ideas. My urge to keep things relatively straightforward influenced me to leave out several traditional elements and interesting concepts; in some cases I’ve marginalized them from their more prominent places in previous random dungeon generators.

Secret Doors: Most random dungeon generators include some means of noting secret doors in passages and chambers. I overlooked this element in the interest of simplicity, though also partly to make sure the tables had more space for encounters, special treasures, and traps. I’m considering (and may have already implemented) a section on the “Chamber” table to account for the possibility of secret doors.

No Exits: A keen playtester noted the current “1D4-1” roll to determine the number of exits from a chamber could result in a complete dead-end in the very first chamber. I’ll alter the wording to eliminate that “-1” modifier until after explorers have visited four or six rooms.

Special Corridors & Chambers: I’d originally hoped to include results and additional tables for creating special corridor elements (stairs up and down, exits and entrances) and chambers (pillared halls, chasms with bridges) users could customize to the theme. At this point I’m considering including a “special” result on the corridor table with parenthetical suggestions for such remarkable features beyond the basic passageways.

Empty Room Table: The gamer community occasionally vents on the subject of empty rooms in dungeons, a result of random tables I personally found frustrating in my own solitaire delves. Unfortunately space considerations forced me to omit a table on which users could roll to generate some themed setting descriptions for trappings within empty rooms: abandoned shrines, barracks, common areas, or even caves with partially collapsed ceilings.

Take a look at Schweig’s Themed Dungeon Generatorand see how the system flows. I’ve included the blank, fillable form on one page and a sample dungeon on the second page to demonstrate how it might work. The document is still in flux, though I intend to revise it with an eye toward publishing it through my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com as a free/pay what you want product. For now it remains accessible from this blog post, though in the future the link will migrate to the e-storefront.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pulp Island-Hopping D&D

I’m not thrilled doing two nostalgia pieces in a row, but an idea from the Dark Corners of Role Playing blog (sister site to the fun and resourceful Swords & Stitchery blog) challenged me to consider my recent pulp roleplaying game material in a nostalgic framework; what if the island-hopping pulp adventures for Heroes of Rura-Tonga transposed themselves into a B/X Dungeons & Dragon Sea of Dread island exploration campaign?

Both blogs recently highlighted several of my free/pay what you want adventures for my two system-neutral pulp setting sourcebooks, Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga. The latter -- heavily inspired by such 1980s television fare as Tales of the Gold Monkey and Black Sheep Squadron -- focuses on a crew of a Grumman G-21 “Goose” amphibious aircraft island hopping around the South Pacific, encountering strange phenomenon, exploring ancient ruins, and avoiding entanglements with forces from the nearby Japanese Mandate in the late 1930s. Most of the scenarios in the sourcebook and those featured for free/pay what you want at DriveThruRPG.com occur on islands near the heroes’ remote tropical base.

Among his many complimentary comments, Eric at Dark Corners of Role Playing wrote something about Gift of the Gods (one of the free/pay what you want scenarios) that hit that inspiration chime in my imagination:

“It could be with little work be done as an OD&D style game.”

So I started thinking about my own early experiences with Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons long ago, how many Heroes of Rura-Tonga scenarios involve the heroes travelling to and exploring islands, and it all started drawing me back to the Sea of Dread….

The Summer of D&D

The summer after I discovered Dungeons & Dragons was spent exploring the possibilities opened by the Expert Set and its rules for above-ground adventures beyond the dungeon-delving action of Basic D&D I’d explored that spring after getting the Basic Set as an Easter gift from my parents.

While the Grand Duchy of Karameikos opened up an entire kingdom for adventuring, the map of the known world included in module X1 The Isle of Dread -- much of which was covered with the vast Sea of Dread -- seemed far more enticing for adventure possibilities. As a fledgling gamemaster I quickly populated many of the small islands strew across the sea with isolated adventure seeds of my own; unfortunately the only one I can recall was an island with a settlement of centaurs on one half which was constantly at war with the cyclops lurking across the mountain chain that split the island. I’ll freely admit it wasn’t terribly imaginative and was awfully derivative; obviously my island of the centaurs and cyclops was inspired by such Ray Harryhausen fantasy fare as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (which I’ve discussed before). Nonetheless the neighborhood kids who played D&D with us had some fun chartering a ship, hiring a crew, and wandering from one island to the next seeking excitement, fortune, and glory.

The Sea of Dread also served as the setting for the wonderful solitaire adventure XSolo Lathan’s Gold, which used a combination of wandering monster charts and programmed adventure format to enable the player to explore various islands and accumulate enough gold to ransom his betrothed. I’d played the adventure several times in my younger days and enjoyed it for the vast range of encounters, dangers, and results it provided. (No doubt it fueled my interest in solitaire adventures.)

I’d never really considered returning to that potentially rich setting of the Sea of Dread until Dark Corners of Role Playing mentioned the Heroes of Rura-Tonga scenario Gift of the Gods might port to D&D.

Flying Across the Sea of Dread

Although Heroes of Rura-Tonga focuses on the crew of a seaplane flying among and exploring remote South Pacific islands, the general concept -- and elements of many of the scenarios I’ve produced for the setting -- could easily port to a fantastic D&D campaign centering on the Sea of Dread or a similar environment.

Give the heroes some independent means of exploring and traversing the vast expanses of an island-filed ocean: a ship of their own, a gnome-built dirigible, or even a magical skyship akin to those from the Spelljammer setting. Use the Empire of Thyatis to assume the Empire of Japan’s role as the main political antagonist -- its principle role in Heroes of Rura-Tonga -- with other kingdoms taking the place of political rivals and potential allies/patrons for the heroes. Populate the region with nuggets of self-contained scenarios focusing on single islands: the pirate base whose leader “kidnapped” a princess who secretly loves him (whose father hires the heroes to rescue her); a long-abandoned temple containing primeval horrors and hidden knowledge; a dwindling settlement of centaurs waging a desperate war against cyclops invading from over the island’s mountain range (okay, that’s still “meh”). Aside from wandering wilderness encounters on land and sea, the heroes must also steer  clear of the galleys of the Empire of Thyatis intent on conquering neighboring kingdoms, extending its reach across the sea, and seeking resources and magical items necessary for its plans of fantasy world domination.

Looking at the free/pay what you want scenarios I’ve offered for Heroes of Rura-Tonga, you could easily port major concepts to a D&D setting: heroes chase an adversary or seek supplies/treasure on an unstable floating island (the premise behind PBY SOS); an island settlement seemingly tore itself apart after discovering an antediluvian pit with something sinister lurking at the bottom (The Paranoia Pit); seeking an otherworldly treasure guarded by fierce tribesmen brings the heroes in contact with friendly spies and adversaries intent on hunting them down (Gift of the Gods). And that’s not even considering the five adventures in the setting sourcebook itself.

Eric’s comment from the Dark Corners of Role Playing blog inspired me to break down the setting definitions of these scenarios and re-imagine them -- and the Heroes of Rura-Tonga campaign -- in a completely different genre.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Charging Off on Another Diversion

I have the small luxury of setting aside projects in development to pursue game ideas that suddenly grab my inspiration and charge off with it across the battlefield, so to speak. One such idea bit me last week and demanded my attention when I wasn’t working on blog entries, website updates, and other more practical matters.

I have a few boxes of wonderful 54mm plastic soldier figures from Armies in Plastic. My collection includes soldiers from historical periods within my numerous spheres of interest -- Zulus, British colonial infantry, dervishes (including Beja warriors), Egyptian infantry -- acquired over the years from hobby stores, toy soldier shows, and conventions. While they’re fun to dump out of the box and set up on the basement wargaming table to look at, I’ve long wanted some kind of gaming diversion in which they could play a  more active and structured role. No doubt a search of the internet could turn up some playable games created particularly for 54mm plastic soldiers; the many free options for miniature wargames I’ve investigated not only assume a solid familiarity with the intricacies of such rules but indulge in those rules’ frequent reliance on complex set-up and execution (and often do so with an uninspiring single-column, all text-and-tables, no illustrations layout regrettably typical of such free rule sets).

I accepted this self-made challenge: to create an interesting yet basic wargame using the 54mm miniatures at hand. I devised a concept based on the fact that I wanted to fight overwhelming battles from history where a small force stood against relentless onslaught from numerous attackers -- such as the British stand against Zulus at Rorke’s Drift or the many instances of British soldiers during the campaign to rescue Gordon at Khartoum standing their ground in a square against hordes of fanatical dervishes -- but with a limited number of figures. Armies in Plastic offers solid-color plastic soldiers in historically accurate sets of 18 or 20 at reasonable prices; artillery pieces with crews and sets of five horses and men offer some variation in forces. In most historical confrontations against colonial troops the “native” forces have vast numerical superiority; but I’m not about to purchase multiple boxes of dervishes to fight my one box of Her Majesty’s highlanders in the ratio suggested by the venerable The Sword and the Flame rules.

So I devised a “hordes”  mechanic by which a force that, in terms of available figures, equals those of the static line of defenders, but which forms new waves from casualty figures removed from the table after ranged and close combat. It basically “recycles” casualties from the larger force in subsequent waves of attackers, while the defenders must hold out for a certain number of turns as their casualties are removed entirely from play, thus dwindling their defensive force. This method isn’t really practical for a vast battle in which crowds of enemy troops maneuver around the table to outflank the smaller force and take advantage of terrain features; but it seemed ideal for playing out a portion of those battles where the side with numerical superiority often charged forward to engage the defenders, hoping to wear them down with each subsequent wave.

Starting Criteria

I focused (and possibly limited) my efforts on this game by determining to work under several criteria I felt essential for this particular game. Some even reflected my general game beliefs in terms of accessibility to newcomers:

Small Play Surface: While I enjoy the spectacle of vast battlefields covering numerous tables, I wanted this game to fit on one’s average tabletop, ideally on a 3x3-foot space. Many craft stores stock appropriately colored felt in those dimensions (such as tan for desert and green for fields). With each side fielding 18 or 20 figures, the smaller play space meant they wouldn’t seem as sparse as on a larger battlefield. As I began designing the basics of movement and range for the game, 3x3 feet seemed to work well.

Plastic Toy Soldiers: My main goal in this diversion was to put my collection of Armies in Plastic soldiers to practical wargaming use. Some craft, toy, and hobby stores also stock army men in periods beyond the modern -- medieval, Civil War, and American War of Independence are themes I frequently see on shelves -- so I wanted to provide a structured play platform for those, too.

Simple Rules, D6 Mechanics: I like basic rules as both a player and an advocate for attracting newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby (this would provide some challenges in practical execution). Although I also love polyhedral dice and the larger ranges of probabilities they offer; most folks have a few six-sided dice around the house from mundane board games.

Overall I wanted to offer an extremely basic miniature wargaming experience players could adjust across the various historical periods (and beyond if possible) given the “toys” at hand. As I started jotting down notes, pulling together rules, constructing turn sequences, and actually playing out a skirmish on the wargaming table downstairs, several design issues emerged to challenge both my starting criteria and overall gameplay.

Name Issues

At first I thought of calling the rules Hordes!since gameplay centers on a small force of defenders holding off hordes of dervishes, Zulus, or other factions with overwhelming numbers. But my attention wandered and I considered how players might use the rules in different battles: Confederate infantry charging Union troops behind a stone wall (or vice versa); British troops assaulting a Patriot barricade in the American Revolution (a favorite concept of mine in replaying the Battle of Ridgefield, from the town where I grew up); bug-aliens against well-armed space marines; even turning the tables and making those British colonial troops assault the defensive earthworks of Egyptian infantry during Arabi Pasha’s uprising of 1881. Besides, I’m conscious that some might find designation of native forces as “hordes” offensive.

So I looked at the gameplay I was trying to encourage in these rules and realized it focused on one vast force charging against a small group of defenders. I have an old album of military music -- including bugle calls -- appropriate called Charge! which I loved as a kid; what better name for a game which, essentially, consists of one vast charge? Now the tentative and more politically correct name for the project in question is Charge!

Player Decisions

One of the challenges I encountered, however, was devising basic rules that included meaningful player choices, which bucked the criteria mentioned earlier to keep the rules simple.

In the initial design, play passed through several traditional phases: attackers move forward, defenders fire (simultaneously with attackers if suitably armed), attackers throw weapons if so armed and within range, and both sides resolve close combat at the defensive line. Much of the gameplay focused on rolling handfuls of dice (one for each participant in ranged combat) and then a 2D6 roll plus the number of combatants on a side to resolve close combat. Attacker casualties go back to the starting line to move forward next turn while defender casualties leave the field permanently. Repeat. This amounted to little more than moving and rolling hits for forces, with few player choices to determine tactics.

Running scenarios on the wargaming table helped put things in perspective and forced me to more closely examine gameplay. I noted several key points where players made decisions to affect the game, though they were not as numerous or influential as I’d have liked, nor numerous enough for wargamers with any degree of experience. Attackers choose when to launch subsequent waves; obviously waiting until a wave has a good number of soldiers helps, but with a turn limit on the overall battle this sometimes becomes an issue. For attackers with spears the player had to choose whether they should throw them at troops still engaged in close combat, possibly hitting their own forces (a double-edged sword, since casualties lowered the overall chance of success in close combat, but instantly “recycled” to the charge’s starting line). I realized defenders had a choice, too; if attackers moved into close combat, or any close combatants remained at the end of the turn, the defender had to determine which soldiers remained engaged and which could fire on a new wave of charging attackers, possibly lowering the strength of his force in direct combat.

Balancing Advantages

I also realized I faced a challenge in creating and balancing advantages to both reflect possibilities for various historical periods and provide meaningful choices in gameplay. How should I integrate the possibility of artillery for defenders, and do I offer that option for attackers in terms of covering artillery fire for charging infantry? How do cavalry forces integrate within the established rules and existing infantry forces? What advantages within established game mechanics of movement and combat do I provide for attackers to reflect the historical “realities” (or “myths” as some might argue) such as Dervishes’ religious fervor or Zulus’ warrior prowess?

I’m developing different solutions to these problems as I quickly move forward dabbling with this game concept. This missive lacks the framework of actual game rules, something I’m developing to send out for playtesting when ready. At some point, however, I feel I’m just going to have to compromise on some issues, particularly those of developing an overly simple wargame and offering more options for player choice.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dragon & Challenge Nostalgia

In looking through my first issues of Dragon Magazine and Challenge Magazine -- acquired in my far younger days when the roleplaying game hobby was still new to many -- I re-evaluated the nostalgic fondness I’ve felt for them these many years. Of the many gaming periodicals that have come or gone, they’re they only two to which I actively subscribed…though I received my share of promotional copies and subscriptions of other magazines over the years, and picked up single issues of others that contained articles relevant to my many, diverse interests. Although one might argue that print magazines remain an extinct dinosaur in our current Internet Age, such relics offer a glimpse into the adventure gaming hobby’s past that can help inform us how to move forward with such material in the future.

Dragon Magazine Issue #66, October 1982

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the spring of 1982 (as an Easter present from my parents, no less), and spent the following months reading rules, playing games, devising adventures, and otherwise consuming B/X D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in what I fondly recall as the “Summer of D&D.” That autumn I started as a freshman in our town’s high school and was delighted to find a small clique of older students on my bus route who were quite into D&D (though I doubt the feeling was mutual). One day on the bus they were passing around and reading a gaming resource I’d never seen before: Dragon Magazine. At my next visit to the local hobby store I picked up a copy; my subscription form was soon in the mail.

Long considered the source for new material for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (“official” or otherwise) and TSR’s many other game lines, my earliest issue of Dragon Magazine struck me on recent examination with two major impressions: many articles seemed contentious about what was “right” for the game; and others provided lots of new material like monsters and spells. At the time issue #66 released D&D was eight years old (1974 being the official publication date of the original “OD&D” edition), though the iterations of B/X D&D and AD&D familiar to most gamers released in 1977, about a year after Dragon Magazine began publication. In 1982 Gary Gygax still contributed a significant portion of the material each month, both in the form of columns filled with new rules or rules interpretations and editorial missives on various controversies and debates among contentious gamers.

At the time the fledgling adventure game hobby still debated game mechanic and theme issues as roleplaying games continued to evolve, both toward more established, “official” versions of existing games and toward newer, innovative releases. Dragon Magazine, obviously, served as TSR’s house publication, a forum for rules pronouncements from Gygax, and a font of new material from up-and-coming game industry writers.

Two other elements struck me in my nostalgic review of Dragon Magazine #66 that continued to hold true for print magazines. The advertisements offered an interesting glimpse of the state of the adventure gaming hobby of the time, including ads for mainstream game releases (TSR’s Gangbusters boxed set, Grenadier Models figures, Steve Jackson’s Illuminati, ICE’s Rolemaster series, and GDW’s Traveller) alongside smaller ads for play-by-mail games, mail-order game services, and the infamous “complete wizard outfit.”

The other element touched on what we’d call today “intellectual property” issues. Dragon Magazine #66 included an article provided AD&D stats and descriptions of characters from Wendy and Richard Pini’s legendary Elfquest comic book series (“graphic novel” series in today’s parlance). The article promoted the Elfquest series by porting its characters for use in AD&D, and even included a copyright notice acknowledging the Pini’s rights; but by today’s standards -- and by those demonstrated by contentious intellectual property owners even within the adventure gaming hobby -- this might well be considered copyright infringement.

Yet in my younger, more na├»ve days Dragon Magazine #66 packed engaging information about aspects of the game I’d not considered with a host of new material; though I was particularly drawn to it by the numerous articles on languages in D&D and the included Thieves’ Cant dictionary. The rules for the “Module Design Competition” inspired me to create more adventures (none worthy of submission, of course) and promised, and later delivered, a host of useful and entertaining scenarios in the magazine’s removable center pages. It continued inspiring my gaming efforts throughout high school and into my early college years, though by then other pursuits and my changing taste in games had me looking for other gaming periodical fare…

Challenge Magazine #41, 1989

I stumbled upon a back issue of Challenge Magazine in one of the game stores I frequented in the years after college when I worked as a reporter and later editor for my hometown weekly newspaper. I can’t recall which hobby store, because I frequented several on a regular basis; I also dropped in on any game stores near my younger gaming friends I often visited on college campuses. When they were home during the summer -- or on my frequent campus visits -- we played character-driven campaigns for West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, GDW’s Space 1889, and R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 (among other one-shots). When I found Challenge Magazine 41 in 1991 I was overjoyed; it covered many of the games our group played or ones that held my interest. I’d just picked up GDW’s re-launched MegaTraveller game, as I’d been a on-and-off fan of the Traveller game since my early gaming days. I subscribed to the venerable Journal of the Travellers Aid Society for four quarterly issues, so I was happy to see that periodical’s legacy transferred to a broader scope.

Issue #41 proved an accurate representation of what the Challenge Magazine would offer throughout its brief, bi-monthly run: solid support for GDW’s game lines, including MegaTraveller, 2300 AD, Space 1889, and Twilight: 2000 with occasional coverage for other contemporarily popular games, including Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Star Wars, many by prolific or well-known authors of the time. After I was established at West End Games as editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal we even hired one of Challenge Magazine’s frequent contributors as another editor for the game line in part based on his periodical work.

The subscription form from issue #41 remains cut out from my copy; I started my subscription with issue #49 in 1991 and held on until the magazine’s sad demise in 1995. The magazine had an open submission policy; I eventually submitted and published my first game material in my long and storied career, two Star Wars Roleplaying Game adventures (not very good ones, I’ll admit).

Like my first issue of Dragon Magazine examined in retrospect, Challenge Magazine #41 offered insights into two interesting aspects of game publishing at the time: advertisements and intellectual property issues. The magazine’s advertising focused by its very nature on GDW’s numerous game lines, with a few interesting additions featuring TSR’s Buck Rogers board game, FASA’s popular Battletech line, and White Wolf magazine. The more interesting aspect remains the conundrum of intellectual property rights. Certainly GDW filled Challenge Magazine with a host of material supporting its own games, but it remained open to submissions supporting other companies’ games, in many cases without their permission or oversight.

Most game companies enjoyed -- and some still do -- seeing their game lines promoted in such magazines even without the benefit of approvals oversight; it was, essentially, free publicity. I’d like to think the adventure gaming industry back then was a little more understanding and civil in such matters, though some companies raised a rather vocal fuss over such cross-promotional articles and aggressively protected their intellectual properties from appearing in anything but official company publications.

In our current Internet Age where intellectual property law sometimes wanders into such gray areas it seems publishers -- both professional and amateur -- prefer to avoid such problems. They can achieve this in some ways by producing material for games in the Open Game License realm or under Creative Commons licensing.

But for their time, both Dragon and Challenge Magazines treated their readers to a broad range of material that, yes, even included other companies’ games and even licensed properties. No doubt they intended it more to enhance the readers’ experience than profit from and offend the copyright holders in question.

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