ZDL's blog

No, the name is not a typo.  Superhero:44 is the name of a game so rare that most people who know of it know of it as Superhero:2044 from Gamescience.

This is not that game.  Or, rather, it is that game.  It is that game as it existed before Lou Zocchi published it under the Gamescience umbrella.  Published under the subtitle "THE CAMPAIGN OF SUPERPOWERED CRIMEFIGHTERS IN THE YEAR 2044" in 1977, it's an odd duck of a game that's somewhere between a skirmish level wargame and a role-playing game.

It's from humble seeds like these that the hobby grew into what it is nowadays.

Origin Story

Donald Saxman played in a "medieval fantasy campaign" under Mike Ford, an apparently very creative gamer who would have assault guns as often as dragons in his fantasy games, not to mention "over two dozen alternate universes, each with its own natural laws and historical motif".  One of those alternate worlds was a world populated by comic and pulp novel heroes.  Rules for this latter one were a pastiche of rules adapted willy-nilly from other games since at the time there were no rules specifically for that genre.  Saxman, inspired by Ford's campaign, embarked upon a course of making his own set of rules for the superhero genre.

The Book

Superhero:44 is a self-published 48-page booklet printed on plain white paper with a pale brown cover made of light, matte card stock.  It is so much a DIY labour of love it hurts: the text is obviously typewritten and pasted into place for reproduction.  The art—which is surprisingly good for the era and budget!—is all black-and-white line art which ranges from barely-better-than-doodling to quite impressive set pieces, with more toward the latter.  (About one page in three has some kind of art on it.)  One nice touch is that each artist is individually credited for each work on each page.

Reproduction of the text is imperfect (to put it politely) and can be a bit of a strain to decode.  (The later, expanded, Gamescience publication of this game as Superhero:2044 is much easier to read despite being in smaller text.)

There is a one-page foreword, sixteen pages of background, eight pages of "player setup" rules (character generation and coverage of character planning), six pages of combat rules, eleven pages of "handicapping and patrol" rules (for which q.v.) and four pages of costs and salaries.

The Rules

Being, as it is, a game made by early gamers who still hadn't quite sussed that role-playing games and wargames are different breeds of games, this game has many of the flaws of early games (like the original Dungeons & Dragons, as a matter of fact).  Concepts are introduced in an order that seems a little quirky to people who are used to modern game writing, and there is a focus on things which have been deprecated or fallen entirely by the wayside in modern games.

That being said, it also has quite a few innovations which people today might find surprising coming out in 1977.  This is, after all, a year before which there were only three published RPGs: Dungeons & Dragons, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Empire of the Petal Throne.  In this year Chivalry & Sorcery was first published, as was Traveller.  This is when the first book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was published, as was the original "blue box" of Dungeons & DragonsThis game predates Runequest and Gamma World!  (Which is to say that there is a reason why this game has some oddities when viewed by the modern reader.)

So lets dive in and look at both the innovations and oddities, shall we?


While not really counting as an innovation at this point, it is still unusual that Superhero:44 has a (for the time) detailed setting.  Before this only Metamorphosis Alpha had a (very sketchy) setting, and Empire of the Petal Throne had a(n extensive) setting.  Many games published after this one, well into the 1980s, had no setting provided, or one that was so sketchy (like Metamorphosis Alpha's) that it made little difference.

The setting for Superhero:44 is Earth in the year (unsurprisingly) 2044 in the fictitious city of Inguria, "the city of the future".  This setting is intentionally kept small as an introductory set from which borders a campaign can spring out into a broader world as desired.  To cite the author's intent:

Superhero '44 can be played on many levels. The handicapping scenarios can be enjoyed as short games in themselves.  With the use of weekly planning sheets and patrol result calculation Superhero ' 44 can be maintained as a campaign over a long period of time.  It is also possible to use the combat system to play specially designed scenarios, commando raids, or situations actually taken from comics or novels. In the ultimate form it can be successfully combined with other similar games and inject novelty into other campaigns.

The island (Shanter Island) holding Inguria is located in the west Pacific in the area of Korea.  It's "future" history includes an Indian-Australian war and a six-day war in 2006 that's strongly hinted at being nuclear in nature.  In 2032 first contact with aliens from "Formalhaut" ...

You know what?  This is too much information to pack into a review.  Basically Inguria became the centre of "Formian" presence on Earth and also a hub of "uniques" and other crime-fighting (and criminal) types' activities.  In a few short pages the background covers history, technology, psychology, economics, politics (both earthly and with the aliens), and geography.  It's very densely packed with overview information: quite a shock for a game self-published in 1977!

Player Setup

Characters in Superhero:44 are defined by seven "prime requisites": Vigor, Stamina, Endurance, Mentality, Charisma, Ego, and Dexterity.  As a capsual summary, Vigor measures health; Stamina measures ... a lot: "offensive and defensive hand-to-hand righting ability, as well as the ability to run fast, hold one's breath, etc."; Endurance measures resistance to injury from various sources; Mentality covers intelligence and education; Charisma covers looks and strength of personality; Ego is the mental version of Endurance; Dexterity covers speed, reaction time, balance, hand-eye coordination, etc.

Huh.  No measurement for strength.  What an odd oversight.  It probably shows up in the powers or such, right?  (Foreshadowing: nope.)

Further, characters are members of one of three groups: Uniques (think Superman or the X-men), Toolmasters (think Batman or Iron Man), and Ubermensch (think Tarzan or, if you squint right, maybe Captain America).

To make a character, first a background has to be written up (!), and a character type selected.  Then the prime requisites are done up.  By point assignment.

This is, to my knowledge, the very first published RPG with a purely point-assigned character generation system.

There are three steps in assigning points.

1. Each character gets 140 points to distribute over the 7 prime requisites.  Each prime requisite must have at least 1 point after all the steps are gone through, but there is no upper limit.
2. Each character type gets modifications to prime requisites.  Uniques get +20 Charisma, for example, while an Ubermensch gets +20 to Endurance, Vigor, Stamina, and Dexterity, but -20 to Mentality.
3. At the discretion of the referee, a single, very specific +50 bonus can be given in a limited area.  For example a character may be given a +50 bonus to Vigor, but only vs. firearms.

And here, too, not only do we have the innovation of a point-assigned character generation.  We have the vestigial beginnings of full-blown advantage and disadvantage systems:

Some powers do not adapt well to this system, and alternate ways of representing abilities are certainly allowed if they can be quantified in some manner and do not unbalance the game.  Plus and minus additions on attacks may be given. Characters who accept weaknesses or disabilities (kryptonite, for instance) should be rewarded with extra power.

This is in 1977!

In case this onerous task of coming up with a background and 7 numbers is too much for the player to comprehend, the book helpfully provides three sample characters, one of each type.

Then it ... goes a little weird.  It goes straight into the "weekly planning sheet".  No introduction of the concept.  There's no game system talk yet aside from some tables showing the effect of (some!) prime requisites at various levels.  It just jumps from character generation (and prime requisite levels) into:

Each week each character must submit a planning sheet to the referee. This sheet should tell the status of a hero at the beginning of the week. The referee uses this information to calculate how many and what kind of crimes are encountered during the week.  He determines the result of each encounter, totals the rewards and bonuses, and notes any lawsuits, injuries, or captures before returning the sheet to the player.

And in the introduction the writer posits this as the default play, recall.  The planning sheet (which also doubles as a character sheet) is literally a schedule of when the character works, goes on patrol, changes in pecuniary circumstances, health issues, crime stats and ... well ... everything that in a more modern game would be played out live, not once a week by paperwork.  Very odd.

Then, finally, it gets to what we would consider the main body of rules (and entire point of the game!) these days.


OK, I'm being a little bit sarcastic.  Obviously the point of RPGs isn't just combat.  It is telling, however, that in most RPGs the rules for combat are long and detailed and the rules for social interactions or other non-combat forms of conflict are sketchy (if present at all) and vague.

This game doesn't have that problem.  It has no rules for anything that's not combat, really.  Combat is detailed and everything else is basically non-existent except in passing, like a drive-by shooting of rules only using whiffle balls instead of bullets.

So let's deal with what's actually in the rules before we look at what's not there except in very brief passing.

Combat is divided into turns.  Each turn has one round for each player or group.  In each round, a player (or group) may move twice, attack twice, or move once, then attack once.  (Never attack once, then move once.)  Attacks are one of four kinds: direct physical attack, transformation (?), mental attack, or projectile attack.  Mental and physical attacks are resolved using a universal combat matrix where a 3d6 roll must exceed or equal a target number, but transformation attacks are resolved using their own procedure on their own table.

The rules on initiative and ordering are confusing and contradictory.  Each turn has a round for each player or group.  Movement is simultaneous, but people with higher dexterity go first.  And then the sudden introduction of "phases" in the middle of a sentence changes the nature of the system entirely.  Damage is supposed to be applied at the end of all players' rounds, but the phases are such that someone is guaranteed at least one move before they're injured.  Despite damage applying at the end of all rounds.

The rules are not clear and not well thought-out, I'm trying to say.  (And I haven't even yet addressed the way powers are addressed or—foreshadowing!—aren't...)

Intermission: The full combat sequence is documented (for want of a better term) in a half page of badly-written and inconsistent rules plus a small handful of simple tables.  The total rules for this section (including damage, healing, and movement) amount to six pages, equally lacking in rigour.  This is very much a disease of old school rules, traditional dating back to the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules.  As with that venerable rules set, instead of offering the oft-derided "rules for everything" it offers "rules for almost nothing, but what it does supply rules for is inconsistent and baffling".

Physical damage is done to vigor, to endurance, or to both.  Losing vigor represents actual injury while losing endurance represents pain and shock.  Different classes of attacks have different mixes of vigor or endurance loss and offer different modifications to stamina for the attack chart.  Projectile damage has the added minor complexity of dealing with locations hit.

Mental attacks don't do damage: they're instead illusions, mind control, etc. and once successful just continue being successful until circumstances change.

Transformation attacks are a catch-all category that includes actual transformation (like into stone, say), making lighter, heavier, or phased out or such.  (There is no real guidance given as to what that entails.)

Movement is dirt simple: you have a number of "inches" you can move per phase.  An inch is either 2 metres (10 second turns, the usual), or 500m (30 second turns, larger scale).  Your movement comes from a combination of your stamina, your species (if applicable), and any tools you may use to perform movement.


While we should cut the game some slack, seeing as it is the first game of its kind ever, it needs to be pointed out how little this game actually provides in its rules.  I mentioned earlier that we saw vestigial advantages and disadvantages, but I glossed over just how vestigial, reserving this for when the rules got introduced.

There are no powers listed.  At all.  Any references to powers are mentioned only in passing.  They're mentioned, for example, in the sample characters:

Apollyon is a master of disguise and of computers. (His 50-point bonuses are gained in these areas.) His favorite disguise is that of some master criminal he has recently thrown into the power screens. (This MO raises his To Locate handicap somewhat and helps to balance out his high Prevention score.)

West has developed a weapon that disrupts matter and can be set to stun or completely disintegrate . It almost al ways works, so he is sued only aoout once a week.

Charmer uses her fifty charisma points as a mental attack and can force humans (only) to follow her vocal commands. Obedience is always literal and immediate. She uses this power to get money to hire investigators.

They're mentioned in passing in some rules:

Certain special powers may alter the sequence of combat. For instance, Super-speed will allow multiple attacks in one round. Some projectile weapons are capable of more than one shot per round. Players with high dexterity may be able to attack in more than one manner in a single round. Some kinds of attack require more than one turn to take effect.

This is an attempt to change the defender into some different object through magic, supertechnology or some unique power. Transformation may be to stone, ice, an animal, or may mean "phasing out ." It also may include making heavier, lighter, etc.

There is nothing systematic in coverage of these.  There's not even any words of guidance for how to assess impact and balance of these.  It's almost all Referee fiat (which is another disease of the old school gaming world).

And I can't really cut the game slack for this since there have been better rules written before this set.  Yes, RPGs as a concept were new.  Game rules, however, are game rules.  We've done better before this one by over a century.

Handicapping & Patrol

This forms the bulk of the actual rules of the game, and it is very telling what that signifies.  The default mode of play is something more reminiscent of GDW's 1975 proto-RPG En Garde.  In the handicapping and patrol system, the handicap is a score from "10 to 80" formed by adding together eight values ranked from 1 to 10.  (I'm seeing math problems here...)

The scores are in prevent, locate, stop, capture, convict, leads, damage, injured/captured.  Prevent is a measure of the character's patrols preventing crime from taking place at all, locate is a measure of finding crimes, capture is a measure of capturing criminals, damage is the tendency to cause collateral damage, etc.

These scores are used to design handicapping scenarios in which all eight areas are to be "tested".

Note, that this is the very first mention of handicapping scenarios and it offers no definition of what that is.  It's an adventure.  Probably.  How do we know?  There's an example of one and by inference...

"By inference" is a lousy way to deliver rules, in my opinion.  This is, again, a disease of the old school game seen time and again in the era.

Handicapping scenarios, however, are only the lead-in to patrols, which is a paperwork-intensive system (the paperwork having already been introduced, recall) in which the handicapping scenario is used to set the flavour of overall patrolling based on the handicaps the scenario set to determine the outcome of the character's patrolling.  The recommended rate is one weeks' worth of patrolling calculations per one week real play time.  The outcomes of this system include monetary expenditures and income, injuries sustained, lawsuits, etc.  In brief what would be the goal of actual RP in modern designs is relegated to a few dice rolls and calculations in the background, rather like En Garde's campaign system.

Unlike the slipshod, inconsistent, incomplete combat and "handicapping scenario" rules, however, I cut the patrol system some slack.  This is an early RPG and was written at a time when RPGs were still largely considered a branch of miniatures wargaming.  The systems provided are not to my taste (and likely not to the taste of many modern RPG players), but they are well-written, well-communicated, and do what they were intended to do.

Costs & Salaries

The rules close off with the traditional-for-the-times obsession with equipment lists and monetary costs.  Some of this builds up on the patrol system (salary, litigation, etc.) and some of it is just said lists.  It's a mercifully short section with simple, comprehensible rules.

Final Thoughts

And this brings us to the important part of the review: the one that answers the Three Questions:

1. What was the author trying to accomplish?
2. Did the author accomplish this?
3. Was it worth accomplishing?

The author was trying to write a set of rules for a specific style of half-skirmish level miniatures, half-old-timey RPG game that covered a genre that had not yet been covered.  And in this, once you filter for the times (where the entire notion of an RPG hadn't yet solidified!), he was largely successful.

It was not an unmitigated success, however.

While many of the "flaws" of the game can be accounted for by virtue of time-and-place filters, the complete lack of any kind of sensible guidance for superpowers in a game of superheroes is largely inexcusable.  I'm not looking for Champions-esque hyper-detailed book-keeping (oh GOD no!), but it would not be out of place, in a game about superheroes with superpowers, to have a few pages devoted to discussions about superpowers and how they might impact game play.

And then there's the bizarre omissions!  They name-drop Superman ... but the rules don't have anything related to strength.  Even back in 1977 the notion of "strength" wasn't an unusual one.  The three prior-published games had the notion and the game published the same year (Chivalry & Sorcery) also did.  How did the author overlook this?

And the fact that the rule are internally inconsistent or outright wrong (1×8=8, not 10!) in many places is also a pretty big red flag.

So was it worth the effort?

Superhero:44 has an important place in the history of RPGs, being first in an important genre, but its place is marred by the poor delivery of the rules and a design decision that put it out of the path of where the hobby eventually grew.  In my opinion the first really usable superhero role-playing game was 1980s Supergame.  (I'll bet you thought I was going to say Champions!)

Another exploration of a dramatic situation from Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  We're keeping on with the vengeance theme here, though this time it's "vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred".  While this may seem a little bit repetitive—how many different kinds of vengeance can there be, after all?—there is something different about this one in terms of its emotional context.  Thus it is that Polti thought it warranted its own heading.  (Polti considered each of his dramatic situations a separate emotion, after all.)

In this situation we have two kinsmen: the "avenging kinsman" and the "guilty kinsman", we have the more abstract element of "remembrance of the victim" and, for the emotional impact to have punch, a "relative of both".

Strap down, this is going to be an emotional roller coaster!


This situation has four necessary components.  I'll address the need of some of them after the list.  First and foremost there are the two obvious: Guilty Kinsman and Avenging Kinsman.  Less obvious than these two, however, though equally necessary, is Remembrance of the Victim and the Relative of Both.

This situation is fraught with raw anger, mixed, likely, in equal parts with sorrow.  Families traditionally have a tight code of conduct with trust being at the foundation of it all.  Breaches of that trust lead to extremes of emotion: both anger at the betrayal and sorrow at the need for revenge.

There is a lot of dramatic potential here, but it only works if the relationship of the two Kinsmen to the Victim is remembered explicitly.  It can't just be mentioned in passing.  It must be wallowed in for a while to hammer home just how important the relationship was.  Further, to amplify just how out of place this situation is, another family member related to both Kinsmen needs to be there to react and try to mitigate or mourn as appropriate.

It's a heady situation and it comes in a few flavours.

1. A parent's death avenged upon the other parent.
2. A child's death avenged upon the sibling.
3. A parent's death avenged upon a spouse.
4. A spouse's death avenged upon a parent.

Now personally I think all of them involving death is a bit much.  There are other situations that could invoke this kind of wrath.  But let's bear with it for now.  There are thirty-two more situations to go through after all and maybe what I'm looking for here is available in other situations!

In role-playing, this situation would be difficult to integrate.  Not impossible, but difficult.  The hardest part would be getting players invested enough in their families to actually have that aforementioned betrayal and sorrow to rise up.  If you can pull it off it will likely form sessions that become the "stories of lore" in gaming groups talked about years later in hushed tones.

There's another option, however.  It would be easier to integrate one or more PCs into the role of Relative of Both and still make the RP meaningful and connected.  Alternatively the PCs could be people outside of the family, but associated in some way with one or more of Victim, Other Kin, or the two Kinsmen.  These outsider views may not quite give the visceral grip that being one of the main elements would have, but they will, if played out with gusto, still form good, satisfying RP.

Continuing in The Thirty-Six, based on Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, today's situation is "vengeance of a crime" in which an "avenger" wreaks vengeance upon a "criminal" for past crimes.


In this situation there are only two necessary components: an Avenger out to wreak revenge, and a Criminal upon whom vengeance shall be delivered.  This situation can almost be viewed as the reverse of DELIVERANCE or SUPPLICATION, in that the Avenger could be the Persecutor or Threatener while the Criminal could be viewed as the Suppliant or the Unfortunate.  The difference lies mostly in sympathies: in DELIVERANCE/SUPPLICATION the victim is sympathetic to the onlooker while in this one the victim is viewed negatively.  (Of course playing with viewpoints could have this be a parallel dramatic situation and the resolution could have the story start with VENGEANCE OF A CRIME only to have it, via a mid-plot reveal, turn into DELIVERANCE, say.)

There are three primary forms of this dramatic situation.

1. Vengeance for direct injury upon persons valued by the Avenger: kin and friends, for example.  The nature of the crime can one of violence (death or injury), one of honour (which would include seduction in most cultures) or other such personal injury.

2. Vengeance for more abstract injuries like crimes of property, deception, false accusation or other forms of calumny, or even vengeance for having been robbed of an opportunity for vengeance.  (The opening sentences of "The Cask of Amontillado" would be an example of this type: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.")

3. This one is an odd one out: professional pursuit of criminals.  Think cops and detectives here.  While it seems a little oddly out of place in this heading compared to the others, the same dramatic tensions exist.

Vengeance is a dramatic potboiler in RPGs!  In the first two types, it's going to practically spring up by itself in a normal campaign as the femme fatale steals the vital gem, as the orc tribe that massacres villagers the players had grown fond of finds it bit off more than it could chew plus a thousand more things.

That being said, however, that third odd duck out has serious potential for driving campaigns.  Picture the PCs as an investigatory team sent out by the powers that be, or self-motivated (for mercenary reasons, or others) to hunt down criminals.  An old west campaign, for example, (even if it's the weird west or such) could have the PCs be lawmen or bounty hunters quite easily, and such professions would exist almost anywhere.

Similarly, even in places like Ancient China or medieval Europe you often found magistrates who had personal investigation and enforcement arms (even if the methods were ... unscientific) who would solve crimes.  Moving this into an RP scenario would not be difficult.

So never underestimate the power of vengeance and crime to drive RP in games!

Continuing in the series I'm calling The Thirty-Six, based on Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (original version and a modernized take), today's situation is "deliverance" in which an "unfortunate" is rescued from a "threatener" by a "rescuer".


In contrast to SUPPLICATION, in which the victim of a threat seeks to find succour from someone in power, in deliverance the Unfortunate, while under threat by a Threatener is helped by a Rescuer without beseeching such.  The victim in this case is more passive, and the motivation of the Rescuer is motivated by something extrinsic to both of them, requiring no pleading to take action.

There are two main forms of this situation:

1. Rescue of the condemned.

2. Rescue of someone in dire straits by someone who is indebted or otherwise related to the victim.

What makes this situation ripe for RP purposes is the mystery of why the Rescuer is taking action on behalf of the Unfortunate.  Why is the outlaw gang rescuing the hanged man by shooting out the hanging rope (as is a common trope in western movies)?  (Maybe the outlaw is on a personal quest of vengeance against corrupt and vicious authority.)  What has prompted a group to return a deposed queen to her rightful throne?  (Perhaps it is the children of the queen who seek to restore her.)

And of course the PCs may have their own reasons for becoming Rescuers: anticipation of reward, say, or repayment for past good deeds received, or payment forward for the good deeds of others.

It's a bit trickier to have the PCs as the Unfortunate, however.  Played with a light hand, especially if backed by prior RP (like, say, they gave hospitality to a wounded knight and nursed him to health), it can be a powerful moment, but played clumsily, without a good reason established in advance to call back to, it can come across as stripping players of their agency in regard to the threat.  (A lot of the hatred of the dread GMPC stems from GMPCs being transparently used by the GM to show how awesome that character is by doing what the players can't.  Continually.)

Of course, taking a turn for the darker, the PCs can be the Threatener, hunting down someone (justly or not) only to have a third party intercede and interfere.  Will the interference be successful?  Will they justify the threat they present and make the Rescuer back off or even switch sides?  It could go any way with a good bite of tasty RP!

I recently thought again about Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  Having found both the original version and a modernized take online, it's led me to a new set of blog posts I'm going to call The Thirty-Six.

So what is a "dramatic situation"?  Often badly translated as "plot", strictly speaking a dramatic situation is what drives a plot.  The plot is the resolution of one or more dramatic situations.

A dramatic situation is what motivates characters to do things, the things they do furthering a narrative that leads to a conflict which leads to a resolution of some form.  Knowledge and application of these dramatic situations (and more: despite its claim to the contrary, Polti's book is not comprehensive—but it still has many more dramatic situations than all of the output of Hollywood put together makes use of!) can help liven up a story, give it verisimilitude, and make it compelling.  And even in a gaming context where no single person has the power to force things down specific tracks, using these dramatic situations and the choices they present characters can be strong motivators in a role-playing game.

Today's dramatic situation is "supplication" in which a "supplicant" is persecuted in some way by a "persecutor" and begs for help from a "power".


This situation needs three elements: a Persecutor, a Suppliant, and a Power.  An additional element may be present in some situations: an Intercessor.  Supplication comes in three main forms:

1. A direct appeal for assistance against active persecutors.  For example a piously religious man may appeal to the ducal court because his religiously required activity is being banned by his local lord.  Or people fleeing bandits who destroyed their village may appeal to their local lord for succour and vengeance.  The key to this form is that the Suppliant is under some form of threat (physical, spiritual, social, etc.) from a person or group that seeks to harm or hinder them in some way.

2. A direct appeal for assistance against more abstract/environmental persecution.  People shipwrecked appealing to a local tavern owner for room and board on a stormy night.  The seeking of pardon for a crime committed and already prosecuted with punishment in effect.  Even something as simple as begging for the right to die in a society that prohibits assisted suicides.  In this variant the Persecutor is not necessarily a person.  It is more circumstantial.

3. An indirect appeal like those above, but via an Intercessor.  For example the religiously required activity being banned has drawn the attention of the spiritual leader of said religion who intercedes on the Suppliant's behalf, asking the duchess to overrule her vassal.  Or in the case of the pardon, a prison reform group pointing to the Suppliant's dramatic change in jail which suggests that further punishment is meaningless and, perhaps, even counterproductive.

The role of PCs in this dramatic situation could be any of the principles: Power, Suppliant, Persecutor, or Intercessor.  Or they could work as agents each thereof.  For example in the case of the pardon, again, they could act as investigatory agents of the Power to establish if the Suppliant truly deserves a pardon or not.  Or they could act as enforcers for the state arguing on behalf of keeping the prisoner imprisoned or banished or whatnot.

Our little hobby is filled with intriguing oddities.  One of the most persistent such oddities is our weird tendency to take what is already a fringe subculture and cut it up into further warring fringes.

In the '70s (and even a bit into the '80s) the hobby was divided into the camp of wargamers (themselves divided into board and miniatures camps, not to mention by era) and role-players.  This is where I entered the picture, and I came to it from a direction radically different than most RPGers of the time: I came at it from my high school drama flake crowd, not from the wargaming crowd.  I especially saw a lot of the disdain hurled at the role-playing fantasists crowd because I not only played them, I exclusively played them and really didn't like wargames.

As the great creative explosion of the '80s began, more and more weird divisions happened, usually in feuding camps based on genre (since most RPGs of the time still lived firmly in their wargaming roots).  This was also the era where "realism" vs. "playability" became an argument (despite no RPG ever written being even remotely realistic, and most were only barely playable: this is a hobby that demanded a degree of dedication to enter and be a part of!).

The '90s started to usher in the era of the "story-based" game (although the earliest of these were barely distinguishable in terms of rules focus from Dungeons & Dragons).  This is where the largest divide of role-playing games started and what is likely the largest single cultural shift of the hobby began, as typified by the (pretentiously idiotic) phrase "role-playing vs. roll-playing".

The earlier divides were arguments over taste.  Something in the loudest of the "story game" crowd stepped over a line from discussions of taste into very literal notions of "wrong fun".  In many ways it was the stalwart wargamer crowd's disdain of the role-playing crowd all over again, only it was the newcomers who held the most disdain.  The peak of this was likely the essays of people like John Wick or, worse, Ron Edwards who would start bizarrely hinting at (and sometimes openly stating) some kind of moral failing of those who preferred original-style dungeon bashes.  It reached the point that to this day I can't stomach the notion of actually buying a product published by some major names in gaming.  (And, naturally, because we can't have nice things, a lot of OSR advocates are just as disdainful of people who play differently as are people like the two I named above.  I'll just drop James Raggi's name here for that.)

And it was in the midst of this acrimony that sometime in the early '00s the OSR sprung up.  (OSR is an initialization I've seen expanded as Old School Revival, Recreation, Renaissance, and other such R words to the point I'm not sure which one is actually canonically correct, so I will just be using OSR.)  The OSR is a movement to return back to basics.  Back to E. Gary Gygax's original D&D.  To return to a time of simplicity.  It's a movement born of people wearing pink-tinted contact lenses because—hoo boy!—this is not a good description of the rules of the time!

There is a reason why the original edition of D&D was not the dominant one over the decades and that reason is not just, as has been claimed, a money-grab by TSR and others.

To establish my credentials, I have been playing RPGs of all kinds since 1977.  My first exposure to the genre was the 1977 "Blue Book" edition and I have backfilled experience with the original books, not to mention gone forward into both branches of D&D (Advanced and what would later become the Cyclopedia).  I played through the explosion of creativity in the '80s, witnessed the rise of story games (playing many of them, though not the White Wolf line of Storyteller games—I hated those), and continued through to the present day where I play intensely story-oriented games (FATE, Spark, Mythic, etc.) as well as some OSR or OSR-alike games (most notably Mazes & Minotaurs).  I am emphatically not a young-un telling grandpa what's what.  I'm one of the grandparents saying what actually was.

And what actually was was a mess.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't judge the OSR and, indeed, I like its ideals: simplicity chief among them.  I think modern games have gotten ridiculously and pointlessly complicated and as someone who works in marketing, I can even smell the marketing decisions that led to that.  I would love to have a game in the old style to play (and indeed do in the form of M&M).

I just don't want to play the original D&D.

So let's talk about why.

I have open on my screen the so-called "White Box" set of rules.  The three-volume set of Dungeons & Dragons published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974 before they even had the TSR logo.  (Their logo looked like a bizarre stylized 'K' embedded in a similarly stylized 'G'.)  And already we're off to a rocky start.  On page 5 of the first book (Men & Magic) we have the recommended equipment which includes ... Chainmail miniature rules, latest edition.  Which, note, at the time of publication, wasn't even a TSR product.

Time to open another document.  (Picture me rolling my eyes here.)

The current edition of Chainmail at the time would have been 2nd.  The third was 1975, a year after D&D was published, while 2nd was 1972.  So this is the version we'll go with.

Back to D&D.  And here we get to the next problem with this edition of D&D (which I will refer to as OD&D from now on): the writing.  It's atrocious.  The information design is execrable.  Gary Gygax had a large vocabulary, but he had no clue how to use it to deliver information.  His writing style lies somewhere between the ponderousness of an academic frightened of clear communication because it would reveal how trivial the ideas under discussion actually are and a middle school essay writer earning his D+ marks throughout the term.  On page 6, for example, under the heading of "Characters", he introduces the 3 main classes of characters: Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics.  Then, buried in the description of what these classes even are, he throws in the fact that fighting men can "include" elves, dwarves, and even halflings while magic-users can only be men and elves with clerics limited to men only.

(From the way it is worded it is easy to mistakenly think that men can only be magic-users and clerics, incidentally.)

In the section on Fighting-Men (referred to multiple times as "fighters" in the text because consistency in game terminology is for cowards?) there's a bizarre section irrelevant to the topic at hand consisting of base income for fighters of high enough a level.  In the section outlining Magic-Users there's a sudden table of income costs for making magic items.  In the section on Clerics there's more talk of income from high-level clerics and holdings.  NONE OF THIS IS RELEVANT.  The game is discussing stuff that comes at "end-game" (so to speak) for characters before they've even actually finished off what a character is and how to make one!  It's very clearly written stream-of-consciousness and it's a chore to decode.  THIS is why the Basic line was started and expanded into the Cyclopedia.  Gary Gygax's writing style is just not suited to actually explaining things!

And it continues on and on in this vein: opening up with the classes, introducing the classes, and mentioning races only in passing, suddenly, on the very next page, right after talking about Clerics, races are introduced at the same heading level in a jarring transition.  Each is defined solely by what it can and cannot do.  There's no explanation of what a "dwarf" or "elf" or "halfling" really is.  Maybe that's what you need Chainmail for?  Yep.  That's where the races are described.  (Though there's no "halflings".  Only hobbits.)  Further the races' advantages and abilities are explicitly specified in Chainmail.  You really do need Chainmail to play OD&D!

Alignment is handled in the same kind of slap-dash way: character types are defined by alignment, but alignment itself is not described (not even in Chainmail!).

This mess goes on and on.  There's rules for changing character classes that reference prime requisites, but prime requisites for classes haven't yet been defined!  (They do have the decency to forward-reference this, but this is utter crap information design.  We've known how to write better than this for centuries before D&D was written!)

Once you do decode this, the rules for making characters are, indeed, very simple.  It's just that the writing is so phenomenally bad that D&D rapidly became known as a game that you couldn't just buy and learn.  You had to have it taught to you.

And one of the purported advantages of the aulde skool rears its ugly head here: it is explicitly intended (according to the introduction) to be merely guidelines.  So what you were taught wouldn't transfer well to other groups…

Of course when you played, again you needed Chainmail according to the rules thus far.  We're on page 18 of the rules and half the rules mentioned explicitly call out to Chainmail for resolution.  Page 19 introduces the "alternative" combat system that replaces Chainmail's in which we see the beginning of the THAC0 system that was so beloved in later years.  And again it's incoherent dross.  The hit table only applies to fighters.  Magic-Users and Clerics use different progressions mentioned in an asterisked footnote.  This is also where the infamously bizarre categories of saving throws make their first appearance.  To this day I don't understand these categories, why they were made, what they were intended to represent.  I only know that it was really weird seeing rules in later editions say "save vs. paralyzation" for things that had nothing to do with paralyzation, just because those were the numbers the designer of the monster or trap or whatever liked best.

And of course the saving throw matrix manages to be incoherent there as well, interlacing levels and classes in bizarre ways making it awfully hard to figure out which is which when using it.

Anyway, I think I've made my point here.  The rules were awful.  They were incoherently written.  They relied on an outside book (then published by another publisher!) to actually use.  And on top of everything else, they covered so very little that, quite ironically, to use them meant the referee (DM being a later term!) had to make things up on the fly all the time.  Just like the "GM fiat" games that many OSR advocates deride now.

They're god-awful rules!

And note, I'm not saying here that the rules should cover every possible contingency.  In that direction lies madness (also known as Chivalry & Sorcery)!  But what the rules should provide (and emphatically don't!) is a coherent framework for adjudication.

Now D&D has an excuse.  It was the first game of a kind nobody had ever seen before.  Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax deserve the accolades they get for having made it and popularized it.  I will never cast shade on the giants who made the very hobby I love so well!  But I absolutely will cast shade on the people who think that OD&D was the best of all possible times to the point of wanting to return to it.

Not casting shade in the "wrongfun" sense either, but rather in the "are you really sure?" sense.  Because yes, there is a lot of the OSR vibe I love.  I just don't like the game at the core of it and I think an attempt to return to that in specific, even if rewritten to be more coherent, is doomed to failure.  I think there is room for the OSR concept: simple, fun-focused, hack-and-slash or exploration-oriented, pick-up-and-play games that also have room for depth and soul but that don't have a need for the millions of pages of rules for every contingency.  For the concepts behind D&D, but concepts executed with now nearly 40 years of design experience to get it right.

Full disclosure: I was given this game for free by its publisher.  This was not done for purposes of review (more out of pity!), but it would not be honest to fail to mention this potential bias.

I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Bloodshadows.  I originally encountered it when it was a West End Games setting for their Masterbook game (itself part of the '90s trend of turning every house game system—in this case the game system behind Torg and Shatterzone—into a generic game).  The thing is that while I admired several features of Masterbook, at it core I found it a pretty fundamentally flawed game that I didn't want to play very much.  Which was a pity because the Bloodshadows setting I adored straight out of the box.

So here we are, over two decades later, and I find myself with a Bloodshadows game in my hand from the home where all the great, undervalued games go for continued unlife: Precis Intermedia (rapidly becoming my favourite currently-active publisher of RPGs).

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This one is a weird one folks, so strap in and get ready.

Today's game is The Terran Trade Authority Roleplaying Game (henceforth TTARPG – and yes there's a reason why I'm using such a clunky initialization) released by Canada's Morrigan Press in 2006.  It's a science fiction RPG that …

Let's roll back the history a bit, because this is really unusual.


In 1978, Hamlyn Publishing released a book called Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD by Stewart Cowley.  It was a large, hardback art book filled to the brim with science fiction artwork of spaceships, planetscapes, and future cities/bases that were rendered by some of the greatest SF artists of the time: Angus McKie, Gerard Thomas, Chris Foss, Peter Elson, and others represented by J.S. Artists.

More than an art book, however, it was also a detailed future history with little vignettes of space battles, a future history, etc. all paired with pictures showing the subject.  It was a brilliant concept that was well executed, leading to more books in the series authored by Cowley—Great Space Battles (1979, with Charles Herridge), SpaceWreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space (1979), Starliners: Commercial Travel in 2200 AD (1980).

All of these books were tied together in a future history involving the name of the Terran Trade Authority (TTA) hence the name of the RPG.

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Today's review is going to come from the weird side of game publishing.  The game is Story Engine and it has a fairly convoluted history that led to its demise and current fate.


Our story begins in 1996 with a small indie press outfit called Hubris Games.  Hubris published a little game called Maelstrom Storytelling, that had some decent indie success spawning four follow-in products in the process.  They also published a free game called Story Bones with the essence of the ideas behind Maelstrom's game system but the setting excised.  Then in 1999 they published this game, Story Engine (sub-titled "Universal Rules") and followed that up with a revised edition in 2001.

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We're reaching deep into the wayback machine for this review.  Today's fringe gem is another game from the (in)famous game publisher Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU).  As I said in an earlier review of Psi World, FGU was a game company willing to champion and publish any game concept imaginable (with predictable mixed results in quality and sanity).  One of the games I mentioned in my capsule history of them is a very rare beast called Starships & Spacemen (S&S).

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Mythic is, to quote the game's introduction, "a universal, improvisational role-playing game".  Designed by Tana Pigeon, a name you've likely never heard of (though you should have, because she makes some nifty stuff!), it is far more than what that unassuming little description says.  This review is all about teasing out exactly what Mythic actually is.

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Today's review is gong to be from the person I consider the James Brown of game design.  Which is to say the hardest-working man in game design.  His name is Greg Porter and he is the owner (and sole member) of the game producer BTRC (Blacksburg Tactical Research Center).  Neither he, nor his company, are likely names you know … but you should.  In his own, quiet way, Greg Porter has created some of the most interesting, most innovative, and most playable RPGs out there.

(Of course he's also created some of the most unplayable games as well…)

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No history of RPGs would ever be complete without discussion of Iron Crown Enterprises' Rolemaster line of game products.  Despite its many epithets (most notably Chartmaster)—whether justly or unjustly applied (and I feel largely unjustly!)—it is hard to deny the influence this game had on role-playing games in general and D&D in specific.  First published in 1980 with the first component, Arms Law (a naming convention that set the table for all of the line), it began its existence as a replacement weapon/melee combat system for AD&D.  (They couldn't state it that flatly, of course, for reasons of copyright, so it was "for RPGs".)  It was rapidly followed with Claw Law (later packaged together) which added creature and unarmed combat to the mix.  This was followed by Spell Law for magic and finally, in 1982, Character Law, turning Rolemaster from a set of supplements into its own independent role-playing game.  1984's Campaign Law was the final component (and one of the earliest guidebooks for world-building for GMs).

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Unlike my previous, starkly negative review I'm switching back to the generally positive again.  Today's fringe game is actually a game line, one that is proudly hailed as being for "beer & pretzels".  This is by no means the earliest beer & pretzels game in role-playing.  The first of the line's products—a game called Shriek—was published in 2001.  Games like Ninja Burger, Kobolds Ate My Baby, and other such games were released before that in the late '90s.  Indeed I'm pretty sure I'd played loads of small, simple, comedy games before this game line was published.  Hell, Macho Women with Guns, which exists right on the very edge of that beer & pretzels divide, was published in 1988.

But this one is different.

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In my last, third, review I waxed reminiscently about the "halcyon years" of RPGs in the '80s, using Psi World, one of my favourite games ever, as an example of the feel of the '80s.

Unfortunately the '80s had its darker side as well.  A lot of very stupid things were done in that era and it would be remiss of me not to document some of them.  Further, to show I'm capable of more than twee paeans to my favourite games, I thought it time to show, too, what a negative review would look like.

And make no mistake, this review will be unrelentingly negative!

Avalon Hill

The Avalon Hill Game Company (AH) was a powerhouse in board gaming, especially wargaming, with a history stretching back to the early 1950s.  If you play board wargames in particular, even those not made by AH, you owe a debt to this one-time juggernaut.  Many of the standard things that identify wargames--hex grids, stochastic combat results, etc.--were a result of their innovation over the years and it is rare that a wargame can be found which doesn't trace its ancestry to something invented at AH.

In the 1970s, role-playing games started to get introduced and in the late 1970s they took off in ways that surprised hardcore wargamers.  In the 1980s, when it became clear that RPGs were not going to be going away, wargames publishers started looking around for games to publish in this new genre with varying degrees of success.  Simulations Publications, Inc (SPI) published, for example, Dragonquest and Universe, fantasy and science fiction games respectively to mixed success.  (I personally liked both games, but Universe in particular was rather gratuitously complicated in ways that weren't needed.  I could never have run either, but as a player I enjoyed both.)

AH was no exception to this.  They wanted to publish RPGs and in the end they wound up publishing three.  They published the third edition of Runequest (and I am one of, perhaps, five people in the entire world who liked their version of Runequest better than the previous two editions by far) to mixed reviews.  They published an intriguing-in-principle but deeply-flawed-in-execution game called Lords of Creation, and they published today's little gem: Powers & Perils.  (Technically the James Bond 007 RPG was also an AH property, but it was published by a wholly-owned subsidiary and I don't consider it part of AH canon proper.)

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The 1980s were halcyon years for RPGs in many ways.  There was insane diversity of subject matter as every conceivable niche and sub-niche was explored, and madness infected a lot of game designs.  This was also, after all, very much the decade of the "crunchy" game: games with ever-more complicated and "realistic" rules.


The absolute monarchs of the '80s vibe were Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU)  There was not a crazy concept they weren't willing to champion and publish.  The first "realistic" medieval game (Chivalry & Sorcery) was theirs.  The first game to feature non-humanoids as the central characters (Bunnies & Burrows) was theirs.  The first popular superhero RPG (Villains & Vigilantes) was theirs.  The first medieval Japanese RPG (Land of the Rising Sun) was theirs as was the most popular one (Bushido) for ages.  And while not the first SF games ever, two of the earliest SF games (Starships & Spacemen, Space Opera) were theirs too, the latter of which still causes warm fuzzy feelings when I think back to its convoluted insanity but immense fun.

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Continuing my little experiment in reviewing little-known RPGs, past and present, I'd like to go in a direction directly opposite of my last review.  In that I introduced a game that was in all ways completely different from most RPGs that people in the hobby are familiar with.  Intead it is, as I put it in a comment, "RPG meets collaborative fiction with a dash of improv".

Today's game is nothing of the sort.  It is three perfectly ordinary things:

1. It is a free game and almost militantly so.
2. It is a joke game, or, at least, it started that way.
3. It is a so-called "Old School Rennaisance" game (and arguably the first actual such!).

So why am I reviewing a game so ordinary?  Because, naturally, it is in no way ordinary!

The game (and indeed, to a degree, entire game line) that I am reviewing today is the game Mazes & Minotaurs (M&M) written by Olivier Legrande.  If you've compulsively followed the link provided you got a taste of the rabbit's warren that is the secret world of M&M.  If you didn't, let me give you a quick history so you can understand the joyful, wonderful madness you're about to face.

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This is an experiment.  I'd like to start reviewing little-known RPGs, past and present, as a way of introducing concepts and ideas that are not known at all in the mainstream of our hobby and are often barely known even among the more … shall we say "obsessive"? … elements.

(Yes, I include myself among the obsessives.)

The first game I'd like to review is a came by a small-press Canadian publisher called Spark

Spark is a decidedly non-traditional role-playing game.  Because of this I cannot work from assumptions that most would share.  Instead I will be using a form of critique I first saw in Goethe's writings when critiquing theatre.  In brief, I will be answering three questions:

1. What was Jason Pitre, the author of Spark, trying to accomplish?
2. How well does he accomplish this?
3. Was this a goal worth accomplishing?

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