Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: Judges Guild's Bob & Bill: A Cautionary Tale

Bill Owen was the co-founder of the legendary Judges Guild, along with the late Bob Bledsaw. Together, the two friends blazed a trail in the RPG industry that still shines brightly over thirty years later. Judges Guild was the first third party company ever licensed by TSR to produce support products for Dungeons & Dragons, which it did from 1976 to 1982. During that time, JG published over 200 different products, many of which are rightly regarded even today as the best ever written. Mr Owen has now written a 36-page "memoir" of his time with Judges Guild and of his friendship with Bob Bledsaw. Available directly from him, this little book is a treasure trove of information for those interested in the history of the hobby, particularly its wild and wooly early days.

Mr Owen's reminsicences begin in 1965, when he first played the Avalon Hill wargame Afrika Korps with his older brother and embarked on a lifelong love of such games. His story is probably not too different from that of many kids growing up in the late 60s, who would eventually go on to become the core of the hobby. These are the original grognards, the guys who earned the right to that noble moniker far more than I. I was never a wargamer myself, but I knew many of them as a younger person. Nevertheless, there's a huge gap in my knowledge of the prehistory of RPGs and Mr Owen's stories go some way toward filling it in. That's not say that the information presented here is exhaustive, because it occupies only a few pages of a fairly short work. Still, what impressed me was the way that Mr Owen provided context to the environment out of which OD&D would grow.

Of course, it's the information about the early days of D&D and Mr Owen's involvement with Judges Guild from 1976-1978 that is the main attraction here; he doesn't disappoint. I could probably list dozens of marvelous anecdotes Mr Owen relates about the foundation of the Guild, his interactions with fans, and more, but I doubt I'd do them justice. They simply must be read in his own conversational style to be apreciated. Two of the things that quickly come through the text are Mr Owen's love of gaming and his abiding affection for Bob Bledsaw. It's these twin sentiments that make this more than a simple memoir and something to be savored. I found myself going back and rereading many sections after the fact, such as his recollections of GenCon 1977 -- held at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, if you can believe. This isn't an academic tome; it's not a collection of names and dates nor is there a great deal of analysis (there is some). That might not be to everyone's liking, but I found it endearing and one of the primary attractions of this book. It's often too easy to forget that gaming is a social activity enjoyed by friends, a mistake Mr Owen's memoir doesn't make.

You will note that the book has a subtitle -- "A Cautionary Tale." That's because Mr Owen makes digressions throughout in which he discusses the ups and downs of running a small business generally and a gaming business in particular. He offers a number of insights and bits of useful advice that'll be of immediate interest to anyone who's ever considered taking the plunge and entering the games biz. More than that, though, his digressions shed light on the profoundly amateur nature of the hobby in the early days, something more than a few of us in the old school community have commented upon. The do-it-yourself nature of the early days wasn't limited to the gaming table; the early industryhad a similar character.

What really makes this book something special, though, are the old photographs. It's richly illustrated, with multiple color and black and white photographs on every page. I absolutely adore this kind of thing and found myself mesmerized by photos of the original hand-drawn map of Tegel Manor and similar artifacts. If you possess a sensitive stomach, some of the 1970s fashions found in these pictures might be arresting. Even so, it's hard not to wax enthusiastically for those bygone days when the hobby was born. It was an amazing time and, while I am still old enough to remember much of what Mr Owen recounts in this book, I often nevertheless found myself wishing I was older and had entered the hobby sooner.

If Judges Guild's Bob & Bill has a flaw, it's that it's too short and that some of its few pages are taken up by events after Mr Owen left Judges Guild in 1978. Granted, the post-JG information is useful in providing additional context and in fleshing out the continuing friendship between the author and Bob Bledsaw. Still, I would have liked a lengthier treatment of the Judges Guild years. Perhaps it's something Mr Owen could take up in the future; I have a feeling he has a lot of great information to share with us.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms


  1. Great review. I really need to check this out. I love old photographs from the dawn of the hobby--the book 40 Years of Gen Con has a lot, too.

  2. This sounds interesting, but not for 32 bucks (plus shipping) for a 32 page booklet.

    No way, no how.

    I didn't even pay that much for my coffee table gaming books. (The big D&D one, and the Horus Heresy Warhammer 40K artbook.)

  3. I'd love to read it, but it does seem more than a tad pricey.