Today marks two years since our gaming friend Mike Hobbs passed away. The Welsh Wizzard’s good humour, generous spirit and enthusiasm was infectious and much missed. We tried to continue his spirit by fund-raising in his memory. His friends contributed to buying games for school and youth groups to introduce a new generation to Mike’s hobby.
Cris and Jo Watkins from bonhomie games have done a tremendous job in turning an idea into reality. They have managed the fund and delivered games, lots of games, to the following game groups:
Caldicot Comprehensive School Knayton Academy The Zone Youth Club Together Works Community Centre Corpus Christi Catholic High School Archbishop Rown Williams Primary School Portskewett Youth Club St Joseph’s School ACCT Sheffield and Saint Michael’s Gaming Group
They include Primary and Secondary School game clubs, Youth Clubs, a Community Centre, and a charity. There are three of these organisations that support those with Additional Learning Needs including Autism and ADHD.
Each group had an opportunity to shape the package they received. Battletech to Ticket to Ride have been provided, each with a certificate of approval. Cris has kindly provided photographs of some of games being delivered and put into action.
This weekend is virtual GROGMEET, so please raise your dice cup to the memory of The Welsh Wizzard who is still spreading his magic.
As part of the latest GROGPOD, Daily Dwarf turns his attention to Imagine Magazine and how it covered Star Frontiers
“Oi DD, we’re doing Star Frontiers on the next pod, I need 1500 words from you, stat!”
Dirk the Dice, host of The GROGNARD files RPG Podcast
Hmm, the latest assignment from his messianic megalomaniac-ness was going to be a bit of a problem. You see, Star Frontiers hardly featured in White Dwarf magazine. It was reviewed in Open Box, issue #37, where Andy Slack commented that the combat system was “in the heroic style with people missing each other like crack Imperial Stormtroopers”, but also noted that space travel was “virtually ignored”, before giving it a respectable 7 out of 10. Apart from that though, the only time Star Frontiers appeared was in those back-page adverts where TSR cheekily referred to their science fiction RPG as “the ‘playable’ one”. Naughty.
But anyway, what’s a Daily Dwarf to do? Well, it turns out there were other RPG magazines back in the day, and the dangerous combination of lockdown, red wine and ebay has meant I’ve acquired a fair few of them recently.
So, tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… *emerges from swirling dry ice* … Intermittent Imagine!
Imagine, TSR UK’s RPG magazine from the mid-80s, (unsurprisingly) had a decent amount of coverage of Star Frontiers – plenty for us to dig into. I should note at the outset though that I’ve never played Star Frontiers, and don’t really know that much about it apart from its reputation for having an interesting mix of alien races. So, the following comments are made in something of a state of ignorance. But when have I ever let that stop me before?
The game itself was reviewed in the very first issue, where Jim Bambra was broadly positive about the game, noting its emphasis on pulp adventure, while acknowledging the soon-to-be infamous lack of starship rules in the initial boxed set. There were a smattering of module reviews in subsequent issues, and Star Frontiers also put in an occasional appearance in the Dispel Confusion Q&A column, Imagine’s feature for rules lawyers everywhere. Apart from that though, all the Star Frontiers content in the magazine consisted of adventures – this struck me at first glance as a notable contrast with the coverage of Traveller in White Dwarf; there were no articles on hard SF minutiae, or discussions on different cosmological models here.
But how did the adventures stack up?
First out of the gate was Aramax One by John Tantoblin in issue #4, which opened with a classic SF RPG set-up: a mysterious patron pays the player characters to indulge in a little light industrial sabotage. This gave the PCs the opportunity for some ‘Metal Gear Solid’-style infiltration of a technical facility, having to do the job against the clock. The Tim e constraint injected a nice sense of urgency, enabling the GM to keep the pace of the adventure ticking along, with events likely to end in a good old firefight.
Reading it now, it amused me to notice this was science fiction as seen through the lens of the 1980s – the state-of-the-art computer installation consisting of a number of large beige cabinets being one more obvious example. A solid start for Star Frontiers in the magazine, then; some “traditional” SF tropes, with one or two dashes of humour. This scenario was also picked by Dave Paterson on the Frankenstein’s RPG podcast as an ideal introductory SF adventure – check out series 2 episode 9 to hear his thoughts.
Next up, a bit of a cheat? The Fire Opal of Set in issue #14 was mainly written as a Traveller scenario, but was listed on the contents page as being for Star Frontiers too, even if that just amounted to a small box on the final page, explaining how to convert the stats with this solid advice: “don’t worry too much about the numbers”. Ah, but how could I not include an adventure from the mind of Bryan Talbot, set in the multi-dimensional worlds of Luther Arkwright, that started with a player introduction in the form of a comic illustrated by Talbot himself?
This scenario was most definitely a cut above the norm. Taking Bryan Talbot’s initial ideas, a team from Imagine – Mike Brunton, Jim Bambra and Paul Cockburn – fashioned an epic dimension-hopping adventure, tasking the PCs to retrieve information on a potent doomsday device, while evading the dark influence across the parallels of the sinister Disruptors. There was a very open structure to the main body of the adventure, with plenty of scope for player ingenuity, although care was required as it struck me the scenario also featured a high level of lethality. With plenty of cool, flavourful tech, and characters and locations drawn from Bryan Talbot’s fertile imagination, this really looked to conjure the authentic feeling of adventuring in the worlds of Luther Arkwright, in an exciting race against time for the PCs. The only problem for me? I wanted more – I couldn’t help feeling there’s a follow-up adventure still waiting to be written. (Bryan listens to the pod, right?)
In issue #18, Mike Brunton gave us the adventure On the Rocks for Star Frontiers – now with added spaceships! Yes, addressing that egregious deficiency, the scenario was built around the East Indiaman, a new spaceship class for the game. Hired as salvage crew, the PCs had to check out a spaceship that had crashed on an asteroid, while dealing with rival concerns trying their best to stop them. The set-up for the adventure was quite straightforward, almost spare, and I think would require additional work from the GM to add embellishments to bring it “alive”. For me, there wasn’t much, apart from one or two alien NPCs, to mark this out as a distinctively Star Frontiers scenario; the situation – with the PCs caught up in the machinations of commercial rivals – felt much more like a typical Traveller scenario. The emphasis on the tech reinforced this impression; half of the page count was given over to detailed specs and deck plans for the East Indiaman Class Freighter, for those that like that sort of thing. Sadly though, there was no mention of any pot plants in the state rooms.
Finally, just prior to the demise of the magazine itself, we had The Sarafand File in issue #29. This was another ‘Team Imagine’ production, with an original design by Paul Vernon and Sean Masterson then further developed by Mike Brunton and Jim Bambra, taking as their inspiration the works of British science fiction author Bob Shaw. Rather than presenting a single adventure, this feature consisted of a number of scenario outlines – in the style of Traveller’s 76 Patrons – centred around The Cartographical Service, a planetary survey organisation from Shaw’s Ship of Strangers stories, and the Sarafand class explorer spaceship. I have to say, the authors didn’t exactly sell this as a compelling opportunity for gaming when they wrote: “a final problem with the missions undertaken by a Sarafand class explorer is that many of them are boringly routine, which does not aid in making the game exciting.” Hmm.
What of the scenario outlines? What missions were available for our budding PC space cartographers? Did they provide an exciting escape from the tedium of surveying planets? Well, there was an interesting mix:
Investigating a lifeless world that may not be all it seems.
What happens when an away team lose contact with the mothership.
Identifying an unknown saboteur on board the survey ship.
A couple had more than a faint air of familiarity about them:
Investigating a wrecked ship, potentially carrying “something” deadly back on board.
Dealing with a malfunctioning ship’s computer with megalomaniacal tendencies.
These last two didn’t so much wear their influences on their sleeves, as announce them with a blaring neon-lit klaxon. But hey, if you’re going to steal ideas, steal from the best.
A ROAD MORE TRAVELLED
All the adventure seeds, plus the details of the survey ship itself, were dual-statted for Traveller as well as Star Frontiers, but done properly this time, with some thought given as to how The Cartographical Service could be integrated into the Star Frontiers setting. I couldn’t help but feel though that this article was primarily developed with Traveller in mind; it had that blue-collar science fiction aesthetic I always associate with classic Traveller.
In fact, this struck me about all the Star Frontiers adventures in Imagine – saving The Fire Opal of Set, which was very much its own thing – they all felt like Traveller scenarios, the “dirty” science fiction of cynical corporations, of individuals trying to get by in an uncaring environment, and maybe make a few bucks along the way. They didn’t strike me as pulp adventures with noble heroes, strange worlds and bizarre aliens, the shiny, day-glo space opera of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. As I said at the start, these are just my impressions, not having played the game – maybe these scenarios do have more of a pulp feel in play?
I wonder whether, by the mid 1980s, Traveller already had its hooks deeply embedded into the minds of UK gamers, so that when they thought of science fiction, they immediately thought of Traveller? White Dwarf had already helped to sell Traveller to the British gaming masses; Imagine itself, despite being TSR’s house magazine, also featured Traveller-only articles from the likes of Marcus L Rowland and Paul Vernon. Maybe it was already too late for Star Frontiers?
The One Ring Road Trip has been established for a number of years. In late Winter every year, a group of Tolkien gamers meet and play the One Ring RPG together.
Sitting at home, it always looked like a delightful mix of breakfasts, games, branded tee-shirts and more breakfasts. What’s not to like about that proposition?
Apart from the Tolkien games, it sounds ideal.
I hatched plan to organise a similar event, except playing Moorcock games, with fewer breakfasts and more bitter ennui. I discussed the idea with Orlanth Rex Steve Ray in the bar at UK Games Expo last year. We considered, “wouldn’t it be good to do it at the same time,” then it developed to, “wouldn’t it be good to find adjacent properties, so we can have water fights to settle the Moorcock vrs Tolkien debate after all?”
Steve transformed this small talk into reality by applying his organisational mojo. His Air-B&B-fu struck gold to find the perfect location, in South Kilworth, so the event could take place under the same roof.
We arrived in a magnificent three story building with a stone-floored kitchen that retained its ‘below stairs’ charm with service bells stuffed with tissue paper, presummably to prevent them blowing in the wind. As the excited propritier showed us around the various nooks and crannies, he asked, “You play games? Are you part of a group?”
Chris, who he had appointed leader, said, “well it’s more of a cult.”
THE END OF TIME
Friday afternoon, we played Greg Stafford and Charlie Krank’s Elric: Battle at the End of Time which was a revamp of the original Elric! game. It’s for four players, but we needed some consultation on the sidelines, and the guiding hand of the ultimate rules-lawyer Mark. He has a talent for grokking the most convoluted instructions. The game mechanics are simple, but there’s so many different aspects at play, described in an ambiguity that it took all of Mark’s mental facilities to coordinate.
It was a slow moving experience, however it was filled with atmosphere and was effective at recreating some of the climatic scenes from the novel Stormbringer. There’s a random element to the game too that can send it spinning in crazy directions.
Theleb K’aarna was recruited by Blythy to the side of law. He had the Runestaff, destroyed Hwamgaarl of Pan Tang, battled with Elric and the dragons in Melinboné, destroying the Young Kingdoms by tipping the balance away from chaos.
STARTER FOR TEN
It was too cold for a water fight and the hot tub was out of bounds. The battle between the Hobbits of the One Ring and the Eternal Champions will need to be resolved by quizzing. Twenty five questions about Lord of The Rings and and twenty five on the work of Moorcock. It was a hard fought battle with only three points between the teams. It was the Moorcock team what won it!
Lords of the DragAGON Isles
I have been wrestling with the difficulties of how to create a Moorcockian experience at the scale of The Eternal Champion. Most of the RPGs that have been developed for The Young Kingdoms tend to create characters within the world facing gritty fights and bizarre random situations. In the novels, there are a series of encounters at different scales with portentous high-stakes consequences for the characters and the world itself.
AGON is John Harper’s game with epic heroes in ancient Greece facing trails set by the gods. With a bit of tweaking, I put AGON in the multiverse. Divine favour came from the Dukes of Chaos and the Lords of Law. The Eternal Champions are on the Black Vessel, sailing the seas of fate, seeking to restore balance.
There was lots of fun creating aspects of the Eternal Champion, and the nemesis Al’zxx of Awain, The Serpent Lord, the emissary of Lucifer, sometimes known as Rasputin, and the scourge of the Welsh Republic.
He had to die.
Just before lunch, he did.
On the whole, it created some interesting dilemmas and situations, but AGON warns that it doesn’t really work with six people, and it was straining a bit at times.
ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
In the afternoon, it was a Dungeon Crawl Classics version of the multiverse. Our characters were summoned to the court of the Lords of Chaos to recover an egg. Our quest took us to a multiverse museum with an odd-ball collection of artefacts from time and space. I was feeling a bit sleepy, but I’m pretty sure that Elvis managed to kick a robot to death. Yes, I’m pretty sure that happened.
It was the finale that was worth the price of admission alone. Each player had their own motivations to seize the egg. There was player verses player plots and counter plots with sneaky wizards, clerical blessing, picked-pockets and virtuous interventions. Ultimately it ended with the two rogues back in the city where the adventure began, as if nothing happened. Perfect.
After a colossal takeaway curry, the two teams swapped sides. The Tolkien Team went sailing on the seas of fate and Moorcockians went hurtling to the Shire.
Following the gaming, the chat went on, late into the night.
Early Sunday morning, it was time for Bookclub, our monthly chat about RPGs and RPG adjacent publications. This month it was Moorcock’s first Elric novel, and the last of the series, Stormbringer. Nihilistic? Tragic? Dramatic? Just a bit daft? There were a cross-section of opinions in a lively, fun debate. We were in the rafters, a temple of law, while the GROGSQUAD joined the Zoom of Role-Playing rambling.
Don’t panic, it’s only a game, sit back have a hob nob, as we explore satan, RPGs and Tom Hanks …. Aye!
Introduction: We look at the Satanic Panic in this episode. We have touched on it before, during our interview with Tim Harford. We are part of the Scarred for Life generation, so were met with mild bemusement rather than a moral panic.
I somehow manage to croak through this … apologies … normal service will resume as soon as the Lemsip kicks in.
Open Box (3.45) Author of Dangerous Games, Joseph Laycock, Professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University, joins us in the zoom of role-playing rambling to explain the history of RPG moral panics in America.
The Armchair Adventurers have had another incredible year of gaming. Dirk and Blythy roll out the red carpet to the GROGGIE awards. At the Book Club, Bud talks about Viral: A Modern Call of Cthulhu Scenario.
It has been another incredible year for The Armchair Adventurers. We review the experiences that we have had with games old and new and reflect upon the year in general. There may be some irrelevant Beatles chat too.
INTRO – A new review and a breakdown of what to expect in the latest issue (including a ‘less’ v ‘fewer’ subtext).
I attended the book launch of the extraordinary Dice Men, The Origin Story of Games Workshop with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. I’m still recovering. It’s a MUST for all listeners of the GROGPOD.
“You’re the GROG man!” Ian Livingstone has a smile of recognition as he met me in a smart Sardinian inspired restaurant in Belgrave, Westminster. He’s here with Steve Jackson to launch the new book Dice Men, The Origin Story of Games Workshop. It tells the tale of how these two friends from Manchester created a global gaming phenomena from humble beginnings. There are ten other lucky people sitting around this long table, who supported this ambitious project created by crowd-funding publishers Unbound. At the highest pledge level it was possible to attend this launch party in the presence of these two legends of gaming history.
A chance to spend time with my childhood heroes, was too good to miss, but what to say? Where to start?
Everyone is curious about Ian’s recent knighthood, so he shared the story of going to Windsor Castle to receive the honour from Princess Anne, passing around his low-res photos from the day on his phone. There’s a promise of better ones that can be paid for from the official photographers. He looks justifiably proud standing in the colonnades of the castle holding his medal. The award is in recognition of his contribution to the gaming industry. He assures us that Princess Anne had a genuine interest in his achievements during the brief ceremony.
I am struck by how easy the interaction is between us all at the table. There’s a common ground between us, whether it’s sharing the stories of going excitedly into our local Games Workshop when we were young, or reading articles in White Dwarf, or being foxed by Steve Jackson’s infernal maze in Warlock of Firetop Mountain gamebook.
Scott went to the same college as me and he says he took over the war-game society in the year that I left and transformed it into an RPG society. An extraordinary coincidence and my life could have been very different if we had met 31 years ago, perhaps I’d have kept on playing through the nineties.
The common ground we share was created by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, almost by accident.
Back in the seventies, thanks to determination and a lucky break they were the ground-zero of British gaming culture. When their newsletter ‘The Owl and the Weasel’ reached Gary Gygax (to whom the book is dedicated) he made a business deal which gave the pair exclusive European distribution rights to Dungeons and Dragons. This was the foundation of everything that was to follow, propelling them from the back of a van to a globally recognised brand.
One of my fellow diners pointed out, we know the story as we are obsessive, but even for us who thought we knew everything, there’s much more revealed in Dice Men.
THE DICE MEN COMETH
The Vitelli Tonnato and Galletto al Forno was consumed, the conversation was flowing and the book appeared.
It’s a labour of love that took longer to develop than anticipated as it involved exploring the loft to find the archive of material to support the compelling story.
The first invoice for Just Games was recovered and is reproduced here, as are copious lost artefacts from the period including the original Robert Crumb inspired Games Workshop logo (drawn by Ian), facsimiles of The Owl and The Weasel newsletter, so called because game players need “the wisdom of an owl and the cunning of a weasel” (I always assumed it was due to Ian’s round owl-like glasses and Steve’s hair colour, but there you go) and many more generous reproductions of documents and memorabilia from the era.
My favourite chapter of the book is the American tour, when Ian and Steve headed to the States in search of burgeoning game companies that they signed up for distribution and exclusivity in the UK and Europe, including RuneQuest among others. The photographs and the accompanying commentary portrays the spirit of adventure they experienced as they travelled coast to coast, delivering cars and a race against time as they headed to Wisconsin in time for Gen Con. It’s Two-Lane Blacktop, with dice. They finally met Gary Gygax who gave them the big break in the first place, when they were at their most unkempt and unshaven, but their appearance did not shake his confidence in the pair. Later, TSR offered to merge with Games Workshop, to move into the UK market. They declined and lost the exclusivity of D&D distribution when TSR UK was formed. Ultimately, a very wise decision.
It provides the player handouts to illustrate the stories that will be very familiar, such as the Dalling Road staff baseball teams, the banning of ‘Killer’ in the Sunbeam Road offices and ‘the great flood’. This could have been a business book, charting the entrepreneurial skills and ambitions of a growing company and the brinkmanship of Brian Ansell, compelling them to invest more capital in miniatures; those stories are covered, but this is a personal memoir, an affectionate reflection of a time when creative people converged to make something wonderful.
Ian explains the challenge of creating the book was separating the chapters into the different themes while retaining an accurate chronology as events overlapped. The Owl and the Weasel evolved into White Dwarf, supporting their commercial ambitions, while at the same time creating a community of players who shared the spirit of the Games Workshop retail stores. The early Fighting Fantasy books were being developed at the same time as the retail operation was growing. A real hive of activity. There’s a great photograph of Ian composing pages of White Dwarf by hand using letraset on a light-box. The tee-shirt I’m wearing features the cover of White Dwarf 33, “it’s the first issue I bought.”
“You’re a relative new-comer then,” Ian says, as everyone begins to share their personal origin stories. I explain that it was Steve and his article in Starburst which described how role playing games worked so cogently, that I had to go and buy RuneQuest immediately. Similar articles appeared in Space Voyager and others. Games Workshop success has been down to their appeal beyond scIence fiction geeks and hobbyists to seek out and create new audiences, I said, “that article promising adventure if you were tired of reality changed my life.”
Jackson smiles and shrugs. “I don’t remember writing that at all.”
Homemade, blackberry gelato allo yoghurt is served and the pens come out for signing. I presented an illustration by Simon Perrins, a pastiche of the RuneQuest cover, featuring my friend Doc Cowie who wasn’t able to come, so gave me the opportunity to attend instead. “I recognise this,” Ian says as he writes the dedication, “I have the original Iain McCaig at home. I have all of the covers that he did for me.” Holding up a copy of City of Thieves, “you can see the origin of Darth Maul’s horns in the design of Zanzar Bone, can’t you?”
“I know which one gave me more nightmares,” Carl, one of the fellow diners quipped.
Other copies of the Fighting Fantasy series are signed, including a forty year old edition of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Someone mentions the American Steve Jackson, “there were TWO Steve Jacksons!”
“There are many more than two,” Steve smiles, “But, you’re right, Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games wrote a book for us. It was very confusing as we needed to say “Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson presents” Steve Jackson.”
After a brief photo-call Ian declared that it was time to “get back to work” we looked shameful as we gathered our coats to head home.
He says that he does not anticipate ever retiring, there’s still so much to do.
Dice Men is the origin story, but it’s not reached the finale, quite yet.
Dice Men is available now from all booksellers – if they haven’t got it – order it! Thanks to Ian and Steve and Unbound for organising the event, it was incredible, the food was delicious. Thanks to attendees for great company. Special thanks to the generosity of GROGGIE of the year (and every year) Doc Cowie.
As you listen to the GROGMEET22 podcast, why not browse through some of these images from the event. You find more write ups and reflections from Clarky, Stef, and Graham . (Let me know if there are more).