Showing posts with label SPI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SPI. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Glimpse at Wargames Past

Back in that annals of time before I played my first session of D&D, there was a wargaming company called SPI. That company was eventually -- and some would argue tragically -- purchased by TSR the roleplaying game giant before that company was purchased by Wizards of the Coast...and so on. The company produced a number of classic wargames and was renowned for its tremendous output and for the overall quality of its games. You can still buy many updated copies of their games from Decision Games and find many of their lost classics on eBay, some at a reasonable price.

Non-miniature wargaming is an interesting hobby. It can be exciting, but it can also be daunting to try to attempt a new player to join in the joy of Kriegsspiel. Perusing the internet this evening, I found this old short video by SPI promoting the hobby. Check out the game around 1:10. How can you look at that set up and not think to yourself the following? "Man! Damn casuals don't know what they are missing!"

All I know is that I cannot wait until History and Mystery are old enough to give these great old games a try. Maybe I'll start with Strike Force One. It's recommended at the end of the video, is still available from Victory Point Games, and I own a copy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

J is for Justice Inc. and James Bond

Two of the -- about 6 -- game designers that I credit with helping to lift role playing games out of the ghetto of the dungeon crawl and into the world of narrative play are Aaron Allston and Greg Gorden. To this day, I still love a good dungeon crawl, but it was designers like Allston and Gorden who showed me that role playing games could be an immersive, interactive, narrative experience that would last for years. They did this by designing games that provided excellent advice for game masters and designing mechanics that fostered/supported narrative play.

I mentioned that Allston was one of the first people to review the Champions role playing game in my H is for Hero System entry. Allston was a quick convert to the system, but he also became one of its biggest promoters and one of Hero Games' better freelance game designers. His Strike Force sourcebook is one of the best super hero game campaign guides ever written, and its advice for running gaming sessions/campaigns are valuable for game masters running any gaming system. In 1984, Aaron Allston and Mike Stackpole (who had also worked on Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes) joined the staff at Hero Games to design a role playing game that would allow players to experience the pulse pounding action of the pulp stories of the early 20th century. The book is nearly flawless in its presentation and design. The mechanics are clearly presented and are able to simulate the wide array of stories that were featured in the pulps.

But the greatest asset of Justice Inc. isn't the rules, it is the Justice Inc. Campaign Book. This booklet is a fantastic collection of essays that discuss how to run a role playing game campaign. The book covers everything from Crimefighting, Espionage, Action and Horror to Spicy Stories and Science Fiction. It truly covers the pulps as a whole and doesn't get caught up in the erroneous mindset that pulp only equals "The Shadow" or "The Spider." Those are great characters, to be sure, but the pulps include Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, H.P. Lovecraft and others. The stories run the gamut of genre, and Allston and Stackpole know their stuff. The advice in this 80 page book belongs in any game master's library.

Especially useful are the "Secrets of Successful Gamemastering" listed on pages 6 and 7. The list is short, but it cuts right to the point. The list is as follows:

1) A Gamemaster is an entertainer.
2) Be fair.
3) Be firm and consistent.
4) Be flexible.
5) Use dramatic license.

It was the first rule on that list which was mind-blowing to me when I first read it. It was a direct argument against the "DM is God" mentality that was prevalent during the early era of role playing games. It put the onus on the GM not to just "challenge" the players, or to crush them at a whim, but instead to make sure that the players are having fun. To quote the discussion after the rule, "The thrill of discover, the heart-pounding moments of suspense, and the laughs from humor beat the hell out of the drudgeries of constant warfare and treasure harvesting." It is a mantra that I have tried to live up to for years. Sometimes -- as is the case with some of my 4e sessions -- I fail, but I think that my Eberron players have had some pretty good times and have some stories to share.

Rising up from the ashes of the acquisition of SPI by TSR in the early 1980s, Victory Games -- made up of former SPI employees -- released the James Bond 007 role playing game in 1983. After TSR had purchased SPI, TSR largely ignored SPI titles and it seemed that the acquisition had more to do with limiting competition than acquiring useful IP. Ironically, it was the Lorraine Williams era of TSR that re-released a lot of the neglected SPI titles. But if TSR had never purchased SPI, then Victory Games would never have been created and it is possible -- just possible -- that the James Bond 007 game would never have been designed and that would be a shame.

Gerard Christopher Klug is credited with "Game Design, Development, and Project Coordination," but anyone who is familiar with the old SPI/Avalon Hill system of designing games knows that it is likely Gregory Gorden and Neil Randall (credited as "system development") who did the bulk of the innovative work on this project. Those who are familiar with Greg Gorden's other work -- DC Heroes, Deadlands, Torg, Star Wars and a host of other games -- can see his influence all over the place.

There is a lot to like in James Bond 007. It has an easy to use rules system and some of the best adventures ever written for any game, but the contribution that altered the way that I viewed role playing games -- and informs my sentiments against "roll a skill check for everything" or "If the player doesn't know/ask it then they don't know/can't find out" mentalities of many GMs -- was their Fields of Experience mechanic. You see, in the world of James Bond, there are some things that the characters just know, and Gorden and crew came up with a system to emulate it. It isn't anything fancy, but it was revolutionary then -- and is still revolutionary as Robin Laws' Gumshoe system demonstrates for modern gamers. Put briefly, "There are no dice rolls involved when a character uses a Field of Expertise in play. He either knows the information required or how to perform the task, or he does not. A Field of Expertise will always fall into one of two categories -- information and performance." The GM notes go into even greater detail about Fields of Knowledge recommending that GMs use mechanics to step in to help when players don't ask questions.

A lot of "mystery" adventures bog down in rpgs because the players fail a roll, or fail to "look under every nook and cranny of a room." In the world of James Bond, if the character had the Forensics or Cryptography Field of Knowledge that was enough to keep the ball rolling. Give the clues. Don't interpret them for the players, but let them have the information themselves. Sometimes, their own interpretations end up being better than your original idea and can take adventures down entertaining paths. This was the kind of play recommended by James Bond 007, and it was so different from the puzzle-deathtraps -- like Tomb of Horrors -- of other games that it changed the way I play forever.

Both of these games are sadly out of print, but you can find them at fairly affordable prices on eBay. I cannot praise them highly enough.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

D is for DragonQuest

In 1977, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) published a booked entitled Wargame Design: The History, Production, and Use of Conflict Simulation Games. This book is one of the great artifacts of the wargaming hobby and is an invaluable resource that provides accurate historical information about the state of the wargaming industry up to 1977. At that time, SPI had unit sales of 420,000 games a year to an audience of approximately 100,000-150,000 active gamers (Dunnigan, 140). The average cost of a war game at the time was $8 (in 1977 dollars), meaning that SPI had approximately $3.36 million in annual sales. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is about $12,272,400 in 2011 dollars.

By any standard, SPI was a big business in a small market -- they held a 50% market share by units sold and a 43% market share in percentage of cash spent by gamers. But 1977 was a time of massive transitions in the industry. At that time 10% of wargamers were "miniature" gamers -- in addition to being general wargamers -- though given the cost of miniatures and supplies, these individuals made up 30% of the money spent on war games. This was also the time of the rise of a new kind of game, the fantasy role playing game. 1974 had seen the publication of the first printed role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and that game was altering the gaming landscape forever.

Roleplaying games expanded the gaming market from the small community of 100,000-150,000 gamers, to a community of millions of gamers. By 2000, there were over 2 million people playing table top role playing games on a monthly basis. Modern sales figures for individual role playing game companies are nigh impossible to find. The revenues are either unpublished -- because the majority of the companies are privately owned -- or they are buried in consolidated reports like Hasbro's annual report. Chris Pramas estimated that the RPG industry had annual sales in the $30 million range in 2008. That number seems off by a wide margin for a couple of reasons. First, that would mean that the RPG industry is about the size of the wargame industry in 1977, which means that all the growth in the market since 1977 has collapsed -- assuming inflation adjusted dollars the market in 1977 was approximately $25 million. Second, according to their financials, Games Workshop -- a major fantasy miniatures gaming company -- reported £126.5 million in revenue in 2010. This signals that miniatures gaming has exploded since 1977 as a part of the market. One imagines that role playing games lag behind the miniatures market by a significant margin, but this hints that the market may be larger than Pramas fears. There are currently 49,983 members of Wizards of the Coast's "DDI Subscriber Group" which is a good estimate of the number of people who are subscribers to the site's functions. These subscriptions alone provide somewhere around $5 million in revenue. It is likely that the majority of these subscribers have purchased physical products in the year as well. I would guess that the entire rpg market is somewhere skyward of $50 million -- a little better than Pramas' guess. At least, I hopes so because a lower figure would mean that his company Green Ronin -- who publish a number of the best games in the market -- are tragically under appreciated by the market. Needless to say, the market has expanded as these figures don't include the modern war game market -- which is probably similar in size to the 1977 market -- the board game market (Settlers of Catan alone has sold more than 18 million copies), trading card games, or computer rpgs. All of these are descendants of the old wargaming market place.

For the most part, SPI was a smart company and realized that the market was in flux and that these newfangled role playing games and miniatures games were where the market was headed. They gathered together some of their best and brightest game designers (Eric Goldberg, David James Ritchie, Edward J. Woods, Greg Costikyan, and Redmond A. Simonsen) and produced their own role playing game. The resulting product, DragonQuest was published in 1980 with much fanfare, but less than stellar reviews.

[15.2]A character who is adjacent to, but not in the Attack Zone of, a Hostile character may employ actions A, B, C, D, E, F, H, J, L, M, P, Q, R, S, T, or X.
He could not implement Action G or W. Further, while he could Fire, he could not Fire at an adjacent character. He could also Hurl a weapon, but, again, not at an adjacent character.
-- DragonQuest First Edition pg. 20 Rule 15.2

Forrest Johnson reviewing the game for in Space Gamer magazine, had the following to say:

"1.784 DESIGN IN HASTE, REPENT AT LEISURE. With all its talented staff, SPI has managed to do what companies like TSR and Metagaming did with lesser resources -- mess up a promising new system...DRAGONQUEST is not your dream game, And appearing in 1980, it is at a competitive disadvantage. But it was put together by professionals. Despite its faults, it still presents a pleasing contrast to the sloppiness of TFT, the illogic of D&D, the incoherence of C&S. It borrows good ideas liberally from the older systems, and offers some new innovatiosn of its own. Furthermore, the planned supplements, if only half of them see print, will make this an incredibly rich game."

The Chaosium affiliated magazine Different Worlds in its 11th issue wrote that the game, "functions as a FRP game the same way a sledge hammer functions as a mousetrap. Both get the job done, but the effort involved in getting it to work is not worth the end result." This review prompted a response from designer Eric Goldberg which stated, "while mice have escaped from conventional mousetraps, none have survived being spattered about by a sledgehammer."

SPI published the combat rules for DragonQuest as a stand alone game entitled Arena of Death in SPI's in house Ares magazine in its 4th issue and later as a stand alone boxed game. The first edition combat rules were bogged down by the fact that the rules structure and design was modeled after traditional war game presentations and not on the more narrative presentation of role playing games. As such, the combat rules were difficult to understand and very mechanical in play. DragonQuest included many innovations in its magic system and its skill system, as well as its universal attribute test system, but the combat system of the first edition was arcane and overly complex. SPI quickly responded to the need to improve the game and released a second edition in 1981 -- one year after the original. One name stands out among those added to the list of "Game Testing and Advice," that I believe made all the difference in the world. That name is Greg Gorden. Gorden is one of the best designers in the business, and the changes between the two editions -- in addition to seeing Gorden's later work -- lead me to believe he was a major influence in the second edition.

[15.2]Figures with a modified Agility of 22 through 25 are allowed one extra hex of movement when executing any of the following actions: Melee attack, Evade, Withdraw, Pass, and Retreat.
Thus Eaglewing the Elf, whose modified Agility is 25 due to the lack of weight he carried, his natural Agility and his bonus due to being an Elf can move three hexes while preparing his Tulwar instead of two.
-- DragonQuest 2nd Edition page 16 rule [15.2]

The second edition of the game kept all of the interesting quirks of the first edition, but cleaned up the play of the combat system -- and made some other minor tweaks as well. It also added images of miniatures in use during play and clearer examples of game play. The game seemed ready to take the market by storm. But then TSR -- the publishers of D&D -- purchased SPI on March 31, 1982. With that purchase support for DragonQuest was minimal at best as TSR focused on their own games instead of the old SPI games. There were about 6 articles supporting DragonQuest published in Dragon magazine, but the "rumored" 4th rule book for the game Arcane Wisdom never hit the stands. It wasn't just TSR's lack of interest in DragonQuest that led to the lack of support. It was also the fact that when TSR bought SPI, most of the key SPI designers left the company to work for a new company called Victory Games. Gerard Klug, John Butterfield, and Greg Gorden all went to work for the new company. Within a year of their leaving TSR/SPI for Victory Games, these designers created the James Bond 007 role playing game which built on some concepts presented in DragonQuest, but completely abandoned the old school war game rules presentation.

TSR eventually published a cleaned up and revised 3rd edition of DragonQuest in 1989, but for all of the improvements it made to the mechanics of the game it lost some of the flair of the original. Gone was the "College of Greater Summonings" with its demon bound magicians, and in was a lighter tone similar to many of the "Culture Wars scared" products TSR was publishing at the time. The 3rd edition is a good rules set, but if you're going to play the game you should also have a copy of the 2nd edition. The rich feel of the game's magical colleges is one of the best features of the game.

DragonQuest isn't without a literary legacy either. James Barclay's "Raven" stories are based on his own DragonQuest campaign.