Thursday, April 19, 2012

California Gamin'

I had a delightful conversation with Victor Raymond last night, a considerable portion of which was devoted to discussing a seeming oddity of the early hobby. As I've mentioned many times before, I was "initiated" into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980 by older gamers, some of whom had been wargamers before OD&D was published in 1974. From them, I picked up a number of prejudices about the "right" way to play RPGs, one of which was that, while house rules were fine, there was a limit to how much you could/should change a game before you had house ruled it out of existence. I took me years to shake off this idea -- or, rather, not to care about it -- but I nevertheless think there's some validity in it.

This idea carried with it a disdain for "California games," which the older guys held up as paradigmatic examples of "what happens when you change too much." In particular, they seemed to have huge chips on their shoulders about RuneQuest and, especially, Arduin. Now, leaving aside the substance of those early grognards' opinions of the games, it is interesting to consider, as Victor and I did last night, that, within a few years of OD&D's release, California was the origin point of not just one but three different major variants to Gygax and Arneson's creation. (The third being Warlock, about which I had never heard until a few years ago).

Now, back in the days of my youth, I just took the word of my elders at face value -- after all, they were in high school or college. I never saw a copy of Arduin and my direct contact with RuneQuest was limited until the '90s. Having rectified this over the last few years (and having become more familiar with Warlock, too), I'm not sure there's a common thread that can connect Arduin, RuneQuest, and Warlock as "California games." For example, RQ and Warlock certainly share a similar fascination with "realism" in combat that probably owes its ultimate origin to medieval re-enactment (the SCA started in Berkeley, remember), but Arduin doesn't feel the same way. Likewise, RuneQuest drips with the need for a "coherent" setting steeped in the logic of myth and legend, something neither Arduin nor Warlock seems to care about.

So, I'm not at all convinced there really was such an animal as "California gaming," as I once was taught. On the other hand, I do find it really intriguing that California was a hotbed for D&D variants in the '70s in the way that the East Coast didn't seem to be (though someone who knows better can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). Was this just a function of its large population? Its extensive university system (Warlock was created at CalTech)? Something else? I'm not sure there is a single, definitive answer to this question, but it's a question worth asking nonetheless.


  1. Warlock was indeed created at Caltech (at least according to Alarums&Excursions). Back then they referred to it as Dungeons&Beavers.

    From an editorial in issue #5 of Alarums&Excursions #5 Oct 1975

    Spartan (simulations Gaming Journal #9 (featuring Warlock)

    An invaluable libram of, er Beaver Construction. This is what Cal Tech evolved out of D&D after playing it a year. The and Lee Gold decided it was sufficently different from the L.A. game (which was on the Gold Standard) that Experience Points could not be accredited in each other's Dungeons. Yes, it's Dungeons and Beavers.

    (I am actually working on a post collecting comments regarding CalTech's 70's game from the pages of Alarums&Excursions).

  2. group used The Complete Warlock in parallel with our AD&D campaign. I hadn't thought about it in years (and had no idea it was made a Caltech).

  3. never heard of warlock til just now. thanks! i love arduin

  4. The relatively even climate across the seasons could be a factor. Little variation in the local landscape over time could see us more willing to explore imaginary spaces, to experience it in other ways.

  5. Thanks for the info!  Would be very interested in reading that post...

  6. Bloody Californians messed up sushi, look what they did to RPGs... (and what pornstar Zak is still doing)

  7. I associated the "California Style" back then with Alarums & Excursions as much as with Arduin and Runequest. A&E'd originating editor, Lee Gold, was a big name SF fan (and filker) in LA long before there was such a thing as D&D. 

    If my memory serves me correctly, many A&E contributors were from the West coast, tho it quickly spread nation wide and internationally. I believe Ed Simbalist (of C&S and Space Opera fame) was an early contributor. 

  8. It sounds like your friends used "California gaming" as a simple substitute for something 'exotic' from their own experiences, nothing more.

  9. Little variation in local climate? The state with Death Valley, the Sierra Nevada, and redwood rainforests?

  10. It's funny you should mention Simbalist in relation to A&E, because Victor and I talked about that, too. Victor postulated that C&S (or, rather, its predecessor, Chevalier) was at least partly inspired by Warlock, with which he might have become acquainted via A&E and other California-based 'zines.

  11. Yeah, California isn't that exciting- I live in San Francisco, and most people play 4th Ed like anywhere else. You seem to have some misconceptions about California.

  12. There was definitely a lot happening on the East coast, though perhaps smaller (probably because at least what I know is Boston centric cultures, and Boston is a much smaller urban area than the Bay Area or LA). MIT actually had two cultures. The older set published the APA "The Wild Hunt" (which had cross pollination with A&E with Lee Gold contributing to THW and at least Glenn Blacow contributing to A&E). The younger set didn't contribute to APA as much but was more deeply involved with Strategic Review and the Dragon.

    The Boston area produced at least two character classes in Strategic Review and the Dragon. The Illusionist by Peter Aronson [SR4], and Ninja by Sheldon Price [issue 16 and 30], and some other articles.


  13. I'm assuming they weren't written or often played in those particular places. Variation in the cities is relatively low in general, with average winter temperatures fairly mild.

  14. For people like me who just heard of Warlock (although I heard a lot about "that game they made at Caltech", I never could get a name)...

    If you're searching for it, try "The Complete Warlock"

  15. I'm talking about regional variations in gaming at the dawn of the hobby, though. Nowadays, the variations don't seem very pronounced, but they certainly seem to have been moreso in the '70s. 

  16. It's more about California as it was in the '70s:

    "... not at all convinced there really was such an animal as
    "California gaming," ... that California was a hotbed for D&D variants in the '70s ..."

  17. Believe it or not, but we do actually have pronounced, distinctive  seasons in California, even in the coastal metroplexes. The range of temperature may not go as low as it does elsewhere, but there's more to seasonality than extremes of hot and cold.

  18. This is hardly definitive, but the East Coast is much more prominent in wargaming. Avalon Hill, SPI, and the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society all originated around New York and Baltimore. Maybe it's the large number of battlefields in the area. 

    The Complete Warlock is an interesting assortment of ideas. Most of it is pretty typical of home-grown adds in search of greater realism, and quite well done if you like that sort of thing. Their complete, from-the-ground-up overhaul of thieves, however, is an enormous improvement over the standard D&D/AD&D thief. I'm surprised that we haven't seen a similar approach taken by any OSR games (at least, none that I'm aware of).

  19. RQ and Arduin came out of California. (Warlock's so obscure that it hardly merits consideration.) The Fantasy Trip came out of Texas and Tékumel came out of Minnesota.

    That sounds like simple demographics, not 'regional variation.'

  20. It's funny you mention the influence of wargaming on the East Coast, because that was a surmise Victor and I made last night. Growing up near Baltimore, Avalon Hill exerted a powerful influence on the local gaming scene.

    The Warlock version of the thief is indeed interesting, perhaps all the moreso because it appeared so early (August 1975) after the release of Supplement I.

  21. Perhaps it's just because the East Coast is a little less of a road trip to the parts of the Midwest where the hobby began than the West Coast is.

    You don't have to traverse the Rockies and vast swaths of desert/prairie to get to Lake Geneva from Boston or NYC. This side of the Mississippi is much more thickly settled and traversable than from parts west. 

    More access to the source, so to speak, probably made for a bit more homogenous culture.

    Just a thought based on gut instinct more than data, though.

  22. I wouldn't suggest seasonality is temperature extremes only, and I don't think I did. That said, temperature is a major factor in climate.

    I believe you when you say it, but the argument is after all about relative location, differences between, say, west coast and east. The issue then is one of how pronounced the climatic differences are compared with other locations.

    I'm not questioning the quality of the Californian experience either; I don't doubt it's a fine territory to occupy.

  23. Maybe Southern California but not the north. It rains much more up there and everyday the weather changes.  Even when it's sunny it'll still be cold with the fog rolling in. But yeah, I think the counter culture  had some  direct influence on the role playing scene in the 70's.  California ( especially the north) embraced D&D  practically from the beginning, were supposedly Greg Stafford bought one of the very first copies of the LBB's  from Gygax himself. In a few short years you had Chaosium, Grimoire Games and Hero Games, all working out of the Bay Area plus a few fly-by-night publishers like the Playing Board and Fantasy Flight Games.  By 81', I knew of at least nine stores either halfway or completely devoted to  selling RPG's and wargames and  even Dave Arneson  was living there at one time GM'ed a few Blackmoor games at Dundracon.  I don't even recall any sort of harassment from the religious community, or that matter, anybody  giving  you a hard time playing  these games.

    It was a good time and a great place to be a gamer in the Bay Area. Still is...

  24. Bhoritz BollemansApril 19, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    One of the earliest (the earliest?) re-writing of D&D would have been Tunnels & Trolls. Would it fit in your picture (just curious, I don't know anything about the early rpg days in the states)?

  25. "The West" -- in which I'll only include those communities that could have attended OrcCon or DunDraCon was a really interesting place. 

    It is the home of  Tunnels and Trolls (Arizona) which essentially invented the solo adventure, and which was the vibrant home of PBM gaming in America.

    Southern California is the home of Lee Gold who has edited the APA "Alarums and Excursions" since the early days of the hobby.

    CA was the home to those three D&D variants you mentioned.  Arduin and Runequest coming from the Bay Area and Warlock coming from So Cal. 

    California is also where games like Champions and Supergame got their roots.  As I wrote in an old Cinerati blog post, you can see the influence these games had one one another ( -- though the post leaves out the influence that Star Fleet Battles had on Champions.

    California was also the home of one John Eric Holmes who edited the edition that began D&D's mainstream appeal, and which arguably presented the first playable out of the box edition of the game. 

    Which brings me around to my point.

    I do think there was a particular character to Western Gaming.  I think it was the character that was influenced by the distance the gamers had from the hub of the hobby.  Western gamers weren't a part of the mid-western gaming scene and didn't have the access to the circle of "informed" gamers that people in the Atlantic Northeastern Con circuit would have.  If you lived in Chicago and gamed, you might know someone who played with someone who played D&D at Gen Con.  The same would be true for someone even as far east in New York, though the Con would be different.  Mid-Western and Eastern gamers had access to "First Generation" gamers and designers.

    Those in The West had access only to the game materials.  Ken St. Andre has stated that he made T&T specifically because he couldn't understand a lot of D&D and had no one who could answer his questions.  The same would possibly apply to those other gamers.  They didn't have access to the fount of knowledge, only the materials, and they loved the game.  They had no choice but to design their own materials.

  26. I'd agree that simple proximity was probably a factor in the early days, before widespread availability of product.  I grew up in Illinois, and GenCon always seemed tantalizingly close!  

    Also, the notion that "there was a limit to how much you could/should change a game before you had house ruled it out of existence" reminds me of a Marx Brothers story.  In one of their early stage shows, their improvisation grew and grew over time.  About six months into the run, the writer back to watch the performance.  Afterwards, he met the brothers backstage, shook their hands, and said, "That was a great show - I wish I'd written it."

    I wonder if Gygax/Arneson ever felt this way - definitely the backhanded compliment part, I'm sure, but also some kind of admiration for what developed when people took the original ideas in a new direction.

  27. Well, environmental determinism is a very old and pretty roundly discredited notion.

    Really, this is just demographics - then as now, there were more Californians than anyone else in the United States.

  28.  There was some cross polination between coasts at SF cons though. Lee Gold was a regular attendee at Boskone.

    But I also had the sense that the older generation of folks in Boston didn't pay much heed to the powers that be (in fact, The Wild Hunt APA was included in Gygax's blasting of APAs). The younger generation did have folks more involved. Interesting though that the only Boston player acknowledged in the AD&D books is Peter Aronson who flew more with the older generation of Boston gamers (despite being more of age with the younger generation.

    I'm guessing that the connection of Boston fanbase with the West Coast fan base has to do with the stature of the Boston SF community. Up through 1989 I think, the cycle of attendance at World Con always would rise towards a peak at a Boston World Con (Noreascon), and then fall back down and Boskone started to have attendance rivaling World Con (so much so that eventually it was moved out of Boston and away from President's Day weekend).


  29. There are some comments in the early A&E's about how the west coast was rife with D&D where there were no games to be found in NYC.

    It is actually the APA - L (Amateur Press Associations - Los Angeles) that seems to have begun the D&D Zines, though A&E seems like the first dedicated Zine. If I remember ccorrectly The Wild Hunt fanzine is an East Coast answer to A&E.

    Back in the early 70's it seems like everyones campaign had a name. I need to collect them and see if anyone remembers playing in them.

  30. Going with 'determinism' is putting too strong a spin on it - I wrote "could be a factor", a deliberately cautious form. It's less environmental determinism than environmental sociology.

    As for the demographics, that's likely a factor too, but to say "more Californians than anyone else in the United States" is rather vague, and may mislead by overstating the case. You presumably mean 'more Californians than residents of any other single state'.

    If anyone had the time and data, it would be interesting to see how far the kinds of products we're talking about correlate in numbers with population by state.

  31. Empire of the Petal Throne for me. Not much else mattered in Minnesota. I did pick up an old clan-book for RuneQuest, but when I saw the duck class in the Avalon Hill edition...

  32. Gygax first praised the APA's both in Dragon and in a letter to A&E #2, but there was a movement among them to xerox the rulebooks. My belief is that was one of the prime motivators in Gygax's change of heart, not only regarding the Zines but also to a very free form approach to the rule system.

    Here is a small portion of Gygax's letter printed in A&E #2

    Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

  33. I couldn't tell you. I'm from there, but I didn't start gaming until 1990 or so.

  34.  f the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the
    vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played,
    DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't
    believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns
    playing similarly to one another.

    Here here!

  35. Our games of "D&D" were all incredibly different in the late 70s and early 80s  in Australia, and that was a big attraction to getting to play in other people's games.  Then again, I was lucky enough in this regard to be a member of a wargaming club, which meant that there were about 20 or so gamemasters running campaigns at any one time, so I go to experience a lot of different games and styles of play.

    The idea that there was a single canonical style of play, or type of game, or even rule set, was laughable.  It still is.

    The nice thing about early  D&D is that it is so simple it accommodates a lot of variation without breaking.  One of the fun things about gamemastering D&D tournaments is you got to experience lots of different player styles in not only how they approach the tournament module but also how they approach the rules.

    [Although you are not alone in your expectations at the time.  I was once roundly scolded for even thinking of running a Traveller game set, not only outside the 3rd Imperium, but one were there was no FTL travel or gravitic technology.  My response was: "You don't have to play if you don't want to.  Although if you want to run such a game I'll be quite happy to play in it."]

  36. California was also the home of one John Eric Holmes who edited the
    edition that began D&D's mainstream appeal, and which arguably
    presented the first playable out of the box edition of the game.

    Yes, and that Basic Set included some ideas that Holmes picked up from Warlock, which he started with. These include some of the Holmes-specific rules that are order of combat, dex-based initiative, 10-sec combat rounds, and number of blows per round. So the West Coast ideas made their way back to TSR for a time, even if they didn't end up being incorporated into AD&D. Though the 10-sec combat round did make it into B/X.

    Here's my post describing Warlock:
    Warlock, or how to play D&D without playing D&D?

  37. Warlock fell into obscurity because it was never published again after the late 70s. It had some influence at the time. See my reply about J. Eric Holmes above. John Rateliff, who worked for TSR in the 90s, and wrote Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, also told me he started with a group that used Warlock, despite being in the South.

  38. A good example about differences between casuality and causality.

  39.  I met Ed Simbalist on a couple of occasions around 10 years ago, and had a couple of games and several long chats with him. Over brandy and cigars one evening at a con (C&S people organise the finest cons), he talked of visiting The Chaosium at their invitation while they were working on RuneQuest . He was vague about the date and I didn't press him, but my guess is maybe around '77 (when did RQ1 come out?) Apparently Stafford & Co were impressed by Ed's work on a 'living society'  in a game. I'd assumed this was as a result of C&S, but it may have been as a result of articles he'd published in A&E (being a Brit, I've never seen a copy of A&E). Ed talked very fondly of the Chaosium crew, and he was certainly impressed with their output and outlook, though he was rather amused when he recalled the whiff of burning herb permeating through their offices.

    Ed never spoke of Warlock that I recall - but just because he never spoke of it doesn't mean he wasn't aware of it back then. We didn't speak of his and Wilf's encounter with Gary Gygax when they apparently decided not to offer C&S to TSR, but many articles have mentioned that.

  40. Thanks for sharing this! It's very fascinating stuff.

  41. California has about 10% of the US population.

    But I suspect its share of the computer nerd population would be much higher because of Silicon Valley. Would this have been true in the 70s?

    Also I suspect California in the 70s would have had a disproportionate number of the "hippies who like Lord of the Rings and Society for Creative Anachronism" population.

    So maybe it's just a reflection of where D&D customers lived.

  42. Interesting. I always assumed D&D was a response to long, boring Midwestern winters where you've got nothing to do but sit indoors all day. I'm told it was popular among military people, who often have long stretches of time with nothing to do...

  43. Wee Warriors was also an early California company though I dont know how national its influence was back in the late 70s. I would suspect that their materials were available at Gen Con.
    As someone from California who moved from D&D to RQ and Arduin around 1980-81 (and my group did so with the self-righteousness that only early teens can muster) I find this conversation quite interesting.
    I wonder if networks of distribution for games had something to do with the emergence of regional styles.

  44. Strange, I live in Michigan, and here most people play Pathfinder.

  45. When I was playing D&D in late '70s at the University of Illinois, every DM had their own game variant as well, unfortunately few of them published their ideas. Being a little closer to Wisconsin than California most of my freinds went up to GenCon and were able to pick up the "officical cannon" D&D rules more quickly, my theory is that this may have reduced the urge for house rules. It's not exactly that Illinois people didn't publish stuff Judges Guild and Games Designers Workshop (of traveller fame) are both located in Bloomington, Illinios about 30 mintues west of the U of I Campus. The campus gaming club used to playtest for GDW.


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