Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Retrospective: Lost Worlds

When I look back on the history of the hobby, it's hard not to feel that it came to be and flourished during an Indian Summer. For those of you unfamiliar with this American term, it refers to a period of abnormally high temperatures after the first frost -- generally occurring sometime between late September and early November. During an Indian Summer, the expected cold weather is abated for a time and, for all intents and purposes, it feels not like Fall but like Summer has returned. Of course, the leaves are still turning colors and falling and there's a strange haziness in the air at times, so you know, deep down, that this isn't truly Summer returned at all but something else entirely. Indian Summers are brief, too, lasting no more than a month, often much less, but, when they do come, you're grateful for them nonetheless.

When I remember things like Alfred Leonardi's Lost World game books, first published by Nova Game Designs in 1983, I'm reminded of Indian Summers. Lost Worlds was descended from an earlier game, Ace of Aces (also by Leonardi) and published a few years earlier. Ace of Aces was a wargame about aerial combat during World War I. What made the game so memorable was that it included a couple of flip books filled with illustrations depicting what the pilot of a fighter plane saw as he was dogfighting. Each player flipped back and forth based on the maneuvers of his opponent and the books helped to adjudicate combat. It was really a brilliant little game and I wish I owned a copy.

Lost Worlds applied the same basic design to fantasy combat. Each book included a single opponent, so two books were needed to play. The ones I remember most vividly were "Man in Chainmail with Sword and Shield" and "Skeleton with Scimitar and Shield," since these were the ones Nova Game Design included in their advertisements most often. There were other entries in the series, though, including "Giant Goblin with Mace and Shield," "Woman in Scale with Sword and Shield," and "Dwarf in Chainmail with Two-Handed Ax." Over time, many, many were added to the line, often by later publishers. As I understand it, Lost Worlds has been through an extremely large number of publishers over the years and, while largely compatible, each new publisher added wrinkles to the original system that make books by earlier publishers less usable than one might wish.

The reason Lost Worlds reminds me of Indian Summer is that I have a hard time imagining books like this being written, let alone selling well, in an age of cheap and reliable computer games. Back in 1983, video games existed, certainly, but they were primitive and expensive and most people into fantasy gaming I knew scoffed at the notion of playing them as anything other curiosities. At the very least, no one seriously felt that computer gaming was the mass market future of the hobby. For us, there was nothing at all odd about sitting down with a couple of books and calling out page numbers to one another as we simulated a combat between a dwarf and a goblin. Flipping back and forth to look at illustrations and making our decisions based on what we saw was the most natural thing in the world back then. Nowadays? I don't know.

Regardless, for their time, Lost Worlds were pretty impressive products. They gave some of us a sense that combat could be more than rolling dice and tallying the results. More importantly, they reminded us of how important visualizing combat can be. Unfortunately, in doing so, I fear that they may have also readied a lot of gamers for the notion that aids to visualization are essential to the hobby, a road that would eventually lead to its increasing ghettoization as the preserve of old weirdos like me. As a friend of mine once said, "Why would I play D&D when [video game X] has better graphics than my imagination?" He regrets that comment now, of course, and rightly so, but I suspect a lot of gamers think similarly, at least some of the time.

19 comments:

  1. I had two of the books, "Barbarian with Two-Handed Sword" and "Gargoyle with Scimitar." Does a gargoyle really need a scimitar to protect itself? Anyway, it was one of those purchases I looked back on later and asked, "Why?" I think I relegated the books to the same place as the video game Crypts of Chaos.

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  2. I have three of the Ace Of Aces sets (Handy Rotary, Powerhouse, and Balloon Busting). And several of the Lost Worlds characters (I'm upset to discover that I seem to have lost the Fighter Mage's magic sword).

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  3. Flying Buffalo is publishing the Lost Worlds line.

    Look here: http://flyingbuffalo.com/lostw.shtml

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  4. There's an addendum to the story of Lost Worlds, though it's a bit of a tawdry one.

    In Japan, the Lost Worlds RPG continues as Queen's Blade. These are published by Hobby Japan with a license from Flying Buffalo (who, I believe, currently holds the Lost Worlds rights). The books have specific characters rather than generic ones (e.g. "Ymir" instead of "female dwarf with double-axe"), but that's not what's notable about them.

    All of the characters in Queen's Blade (and its sequels, Queen's Blade Rebellion and Queen's Gate) are sexy, scantily-clad women...who become more scantily clad in their various illustrations, as they tend to have their clothes flip up in various attacks, and find their clothes shredded when they take damage.

    I don't know how successful the game is in Japan, or even if anyone is interested in it for the game rules instead of the titillating pictures, but they seem to be popular enough; Queen's Blade has, in recent years, had anime, manga, video games and more produced based on its intellectual properties. New RPG books for the game are still being released, sexy characters all.

    I guess that you could say that this is more evidence that sex sells.

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  5. What I like about Lost Worlds is that it gives us proof that a diceless, "player-skill" combat system is possible.

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  6. LOL @ alzrius' comment, thank you for that. :-)

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  7. Lost Worlds were fun. It's nice to hear that they are still available from Flying Buffalo...and that the game might still be alive.

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  8. I loved both Ace of Aces and Lost Worlds back in the day.

    And I have to say, anyone who honestly says, "Why would I play D&D when [video game X] has better graphics than my imagination?" has a truly stunted imagination.

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  9. When I was younger(read in the 80s) these books were all the rage in the Con scene around here. I specifically remember a MichCon where there was a large Lost Worlds tournament and people were playing all throughout the halls, of course there was also a huge ASL2 table... ahh the good ole days.

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  10. I still have my copy of Ace of Aces and a couple of the Lost World books (I think including one for one of the KoDT characters.). Fun games.

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  11. I fondly remember trying to play the Battletech Battle books, but that's the extent of my experience with battle books.

    I bet these would books would work well in Epub format. Dueling Kindles?

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  12. Never understood the appeal of the game...

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  13. We're really happy that, thus far, our kids haven't imbibed that attitude of "computers supply better graphics" from their peers.

    They've seen whiz-bang graphics on gaming consoles, but since we don't on a TV and I don't play computer games any more at home they have their books, their toys, and their imaginations.

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  14. I was going to say that the Lost Worlds/Ace of Aces style would work well with the sort of choose your own adventure gone computer of "visual novels" and "dating sims." But I had no idea it had gone all the way to Queen's Blade.

    Ewwww. I mean, I'm glad Flying Buffalo made some money, but what the Japanese did with the license! Ew!

    (And if you have to look at the accident scene, I believe that Crunchyroll is still streaming the Queen's Blade anime. But you'll be happier if you don't look.)

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  15. I still have a dozen of these including cold drake, wraith, and unicorn.

    faoladh: If it would help, here are information for the magic sword:

    It's name is Aeyavolaine
    One handed sword. Replaces your present one handed sword. May not replace any other weapon.
    Add 2 to Orange Modifiers.
    Add 3 to Charge Modfier.
    USERS: Females and Red Magic Users.

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  16. Oh, and something else of interest is that the back cover of each character says which Ral Partha figure it was based on and who sculpted it.

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  17. Scott: No, I remember the stats of the sword that mine came with (though not the name). It would add 5 to Wild Swing. There were different swords, and a different mix of spells, for each booklet, inserted randomly. Similarly, the Ninja had different gadgets. The thing is, though, that you were supposed to have the actual small card to use the sword. Having lost mine, my Fighter Mage has (technically) lost his magic sword.

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  18. I remembered "Lost Worlds" but as a "Don't touch, brat!" munchkin gamer. Later I came across "Queen's Blade" and thought "That's somehow familiar..." then I found out the direct -bought the rights- inspiration. Like Lodoss war X2.


    The anime actually is supposed to have some tributes, though loosely to the original card game, such as "The skeleton" though it's largely a disposable mass-enemy.


    I like the anime. Yeah, dirty, but so what. Like Menace especially, reminded me a bit abstractly of the "Lost City" though equal parts the modern "The Mummy"...

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  19. "Why would I play D&D when [video game X] has better graphics than my imagination?"


    That's a HIGHLY debatable statement.


    My instinctual response is to say that if a video game has better graphics than your imagination, you've got a crappy imagination.


    While I have played and enjoyed fantasy RPG video games, none of them have come close to the joy and specialness that a good game of D&D provides.


    MMO's in particular, give only the most superficial role playing experience. It's all about grinding to the next level and accumulating more and more loot.


    The depth of setting and storytelling, can't be matched with an MMO. A canned response from an robot NPC can't come close to replicating the limitless options you have with an NPC played by a real person.


    In a video game, you can't step outside the boundaries. You're being railroaded through a certain path... it may be wide, but it's always limited by the ability and will of the programmers.


    How many times have you played a video game, and seen something interesting that you wanted to pick up, or have a closer look at? In a tabletop RPG you can do that. In a video game, you're restricted to interacting with a very small amount of the items in the game.


    If you come to a castle in a videogame, you'll be lucky to find more than one entrance or exit. In a tabletop RPG you can go through the front door, teleport inside, fly inside, tunnel underneath, climb the walls, or get in any other way that you can think of.


    In a videogame, you see and hear only what the programmers put into the game. In a tabletop RPG you can see anything, you can hear anything, you can touch anything, you can taste anything, and you can smell anything...


    Hell, the reason I play traditonal pencil & paper RPGs is because a video came can't even begin to come close to the graphics of my imagination. And video games never will.


    Because it's not about the technology.


    It's like comparing a good black and white movie (let's say Casablanca) with a special effects laden Michael Bay movie (say Transformers). Transformers has 70 years worth of film-making technique, and an ungodly amount of advanced technology over Casablanca... but Casablanca is amazing, and Transformers is a steaming POS. Because Casablanca is about story and character, and Transformers is a mechanical, unfeeling special effects movie made by a souless corporate conglomerate that's trying to sell Transformers toys to a new generation.


    A good DM puts his soul into the game, and shares it with good friends. It is a labor of love. A video game is put together by a corporate conglomerate looking to push a franchise down the gullet of successive generations of video gamers. You're lucky if you get one good game. If you're very, very lucky, you can get a few good games before things go to hell.


    Simply put, even the best video games made by people with passion and vision, and a love for what they do, can only go so far because they are limited by the technology.


    A good tabletop game is limited only by the imagination of it's players. It's fair to say that there are a lot of lousy or incompetent DMs, but even so, it's still possible to have a fun game with them.

    But if you have a good DM? And good players? There's nothing better.

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