Wednesday, August 12, 2020


So, in sorting though some old gaming magazines, skimming before discarding, one thing that strikes me are the number of companies that thrived back then that have long since vanished from the shelves at hobby stores. I suspect many have vanished from the memories of gamers as well. Certainly I assume most younger gamers (e.g. those who came into the hobby at the time of 3e/d20 or since) may have heard of these older game companies (e.g. Judges Guild, FGU) and early games but have never actually played them.

This made it an interesting experience to read through an issue of CHALLENGE (#65, October 1992), published by the once-mighty GDW. If I had at the time been guessing which of the major companies of that era wd still be around three decades later I might well have picked GDW (Game Designers Workshop) as a likely candidate. After all, they were among TSR's very first competitors (EN GARDE came out not long after the original three-book set of D&D) whose TRAVELLER was the most successful of all science fiction games, holding its own against all comers, until it was eventually unseated by STAR WARS.

In retrospect three events suggest bad judgment may have played a bigger role than bad luck.  The first was the publication of SPACE: 1889. Roleplaying games were not exactly known as a bastion of progressive thought, but even so the years of the run-up to the celebration of Columbus's 500th anniversary were marked by a lot of re-evaluation that you wd have thought wd make a company think twice before launching a celebration of colonialism.

The second came from their decision to blow up their world -- specifically, to make a new edition of TRAVELLER, their iconic game, starkly different from the game their fans had known and loved for years by radical shifts in the setting. Lord knows we fans of 1st edition AD&D complained bitterly over the changes made to create 2nd edition, but in retrospect the changes were relatively minor and, importantly from TSR's point of view, the new edition sold extremely well. Whereas I get the sense that MEGATRAVELLER, as it was known, failed to capture most of classic TRAVELLER's fan base.*

The third is the weirdest: the decision to publish Gygax's new D&D-ish fantasy rpg, despite the fact that Gygax's previous game (Cyborg Commandoes) had conspicuously bombed and the company that put it out (New Infinities) sued out of existence by the notoriously litigious TSR. Who promptly sued GDW over DANGEROUS JOURNEYS, forcing the game off the market and stalling out the planned further releases in the line (including a GAMMA WORLD clone); the whole mess ended with GDW turning over its entire unsold stock to TSR, who buried them in its warehouse.

As I said, weird. But I can say that the Powers That Be at TSR had a healthy respect for GDW's creative team's talent, hiring away Tim Brown, Bill Connors, Rob Lazzaretti, Julia Martin, and Lester Smith (who had been Gygax's editor on DANGEROUS JOURNEYS).**

Strange times.

--John R.

*again, it didn't help when they came out with third edition TRAVELLER a few years later and decided to rename it, leaving the all-important word 'Traveller' out of the game's name, instead redubbing it 2300 AD.

**just as several years later (circa 1995) they hired away quite a lot of West End Games' staff


Paul W said...

I'm a bit shocked by your comments on Space: 1889. I don't know anything about its sales figures, but it is not really a celebration of colonialism. It's far more a celebration of old school Victorian science fiction, and an early forerunner of steam punk. I didn't pick the game up, sadly, until after it was out of print, but I've happily played in the setting for decades, both miniature wargames and roleplaying campaigns. From the mid-90s on it had a decent presence at Origins and Historicon.

It's real weakness, I believe, was its RPG system. The setting was inspiring, but the RPG was nigh unplayable. I personally used AD&D 2nd edition (it paired EXTREMELY well with Ravenloft: Masque of the Death) and GURPS to run successful Space:1889 RPG campaigns.

Of course, I think much of the RPG system problem could be traced to its origins as a board and miniatures game. Trying to use the systems that made Sky Galleons a fun board game for RPG play simply didn't work.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul
Your point is well made, and I didn't intend to argue that glorifying colonialism was the conscious goal of SPACE: 1889. But I think celebrating the 'good old days' of the British Raj is problematic, and had already begun to be so when the game debuted. Similarly I think that SEARCH FOR THE NILE, a great game of days gone by, wd raise all kind of issues if issued today. --JDR