Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Retrospective: Lords of Creation

An alternate universe I sometimes imagine is one where Avalon Hill, instead of passing on this weird little not-quite-wargame called Dungeons & Dragons, publish it and the center of the RPG universe becomes not Lake Geneva, Wisconsin but Baltimore, Maryland. It's an implausible scenario for a number of reasons, but it's fun to contemplate anyway, not least of all because I suspect my life would have been rather different had the publisher of D&D been in my own backyard rather than halfway across the country. Still, Avalon Hill did make a go, though something of a halfhearted one, at entering the RPG market and one of its more interesting products was Lords of Creation, written and designed by Tom Moldvay, the much-beloved editor of the 1981 Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons.

When I say "interesting," I don't mean that sarcastically. Lords of Creation really is an interesting game and I kind of regret now that I never played it when I had the opportunity to do so at the time of its release in 1984. Avalon Hill made a strong effort to secure a space for their RPG products. Lords of Creation, along with Powers & Perils, RuneQuest (produced under license from Chaosium), and James Bond 007 (acquired when AH bought Victory Games), were all readily available in toy stores, which is where a friend of mine first saw it. Also available were three boxed adventures that, for my money, are even more interesting than the game itself, if only because they show just what a Lords of Creation campaign would be like, something the rules themselves don't do as well as I'd wish.

In concept, Lords of Creation assumes that all PCs, though beginning as relatively ordinary people, have the potential to become a "lord of creation" -- an advanced being with the ability to warp time and space according to his whims. Indeed, the highest level a PC can attain gives him the ability to construct entire worlds, thereby providing an interesting segue for a player to himself become a referee, using the worlds his character creates as the basis for new adventures and campaigns. As I said, characters begin without any special powers, attaining them only through the expenditure of experience points. XP was granted "at the GM's discretion" for a variety of in-game actions, but the most prominent action was the defeating of foes, all of whom had explicit XP awards associated with them. Because, as in D&D, the amount of XP to reach high levels is often astronomical, players are always on the lookout for more sources of it, often leading (in my limited experience anyway) to characters scouring the universe for any and every foe to feed their insatiable XP hunger.

That's a shame, because, in concept, Lords of Creation is a delightfully trippy multi-genre RPG, combining fantasy and science fiction with glorious abandon. It's a game where a murder at a game convention might uncover time traveling aliens in league with the Norse gods who are battling a Voodoo cult led by a mutant dinosaur high priest. Literally, anything can happen and the game provides a perfectly viable rationale for it all in the form of the lords of creation, not all of whom use their powers for the same purposes. Thus, there can be magic, super-science, occult powers, gods, demons, fictional characters brought to life -- you name it. It's a bit silly, if you think too hard about it, but why would you want to do so? But this isn't Encounter Critical; it's not an affectionate in-joke about the hobby or geekdom or anything like that. No, this is a game where Detective Chimp would feel right at home and caters to gamers who understand that, just because you, the player, don't take seriously the notion that Easter Island is a scrapyard for Atlantean robot heads, there's not a good adventure for your character based around that idea.

I'm pretty sure that Lords of Creation was a terrible flop for Avalon Hill. I never met anyone who played it for very long and my own limited experiences suggest that, in 1984, gaming was already too self-serious and narrow in its genre conventions to embrace a game like this wholeheartedly. Goodness knows I was and I looked very skeptically at this game, despite repeated attempts by a friend that we start playing it. Nowadays, I think something like this would get a better hearing. We've seen enough "multi-genre" games not to find the concept so bizarre and I think gamers, while still often self-serious, are much more willing to give wacky ideas like this a try than they were in 1984. Or at least so it seems to me.


  1. One of the things that haunts me about this game is that I suspect LoC is a retooling of Tom Moldvay's ideas for a universe-hopping D&D endgame.

  2. Jeff,

    That's just your suspicion, yes? Not based on something you read somewhere? If it is based on something, I'm really intrigued now.

  3. When I read Jeff R's descriptions of Encounter Critical I always thought it sounded like LoC was the "serious" version of that game. I think it was about 5 years ahead of its time - if it had come out after Shadowrun, Torg, and Rifts it might have found more traction.

    I bought it back when it was new, along with all 3 adventures and never could get a real sustained campaign going. The intermittent campaign I did run involved the PC's getting involved in a war between the flintlock-wielding Saurians fighting off the HG's from the Book of Foes.

    The published adventures are very cool too, one reason being that they came in a box with a lot of supplementary material including a pad of character sheets (really cool in the days before having decent printers at home), a referee's screen, and a complete vehicle combat & chase subsystem - Avalon Hill didn't skimp on the extras.

    The storylines in each one are either genius or insanity depending on your tastes. That first one blew my players minds so much that most of them wouldn't play it again for years. Omegakron was my favorite but I like PA games anyway so I was an easy sell. There was a 4th and a 5th adventure mentioned in the game materials but I never saw anything more about them.

    It was a really cool game and made me take note of Tom Moldvay as a guy to watch in the future. It's too bad the game didn't do better.

  4. "Easter Island is a scrapyard for Atlantean robot heads . . . "

    That is sooooo awesome!

    - Ark

  5. Sorry, just working with my own intuition on this one.

  6. I completely missed this the first time around. Only learned about it a few years back (probably from Jeff’s blog) and had to hunt down a copy.

    The similarity to Tom’s Basic Set really struck me. I get an impression similar to Jeff’s...that this game may have grown out of Tom’s own D&D campaign. I can certainly see this as taking the place of Frank’s Immortals Set in an alternate history of D&D.

    (Appropriate that talking about Lords of Creation should inspired talk of alternate histories, eh?)

    Each time I pick it up, I toy with the idea of using it sort of as a modern/sci-fi version of B/X and downplaying (or ignoring) the dimension-hopping.

  7. "It's a game where a murder at a game convention might uncover time traveling aliens in league with the Norse gods who are battling a Voodoo cult led by a mutant dinosaur high priest."

    Isn't this the plot for the next Jim Butcher Dresden Files novel?! I'm pretty sure it is....

  8. Somewhere in my basement, I have a complete set of LoC published materials... I am now impelled to go and seek them out for a re-read...

  9. Nowadays, I think something like this would get a better hearing.

    Indeed, your description of it as "a game where a murder at a game convention might uncover time traveling aliens in league with the Norse gods who are battling a Voodoo cult led by a mutant dinosaur high priest" makes it sound like Feng Shui, a game setting I loved despite its rules.

  10. I always thought this was a variation on PJ Farmer's World Of Tiers series, but that's pure speculation as well.

  11. We have this but never played it either. It is a game one never hears anything about so it was a nice to surprise to see it crop up here.

    The similarities to the World of Tiers books cannot be accidental and that is a setting that offers a lot of potential. I believe there is a French based RPG based on it though that is not a lot of use to me, still all one needs is a good versatile rule set and away you go.

  12. I bought this game enthusiastically as a teenager when it was first released. I thought that my high school friends and I would love playing in a genre-blending, multi-dimensional universe. Instead we found it too wide open for us, leading to 'silly' combinations. We played it twice. I even bought "The Yeti Sanction," but never played it.

    As a college kid in the late 1980s, I sold most of my large RPG collection to a used game store (in those pre-ebay days). This was the only game that the store wouldn't buy at any price.

    Personally, I thought that the James Bond RPG, which my friends and I played extensively, was the high water mark of Avalon Hill's shirt-lived foray into RPGs.

  13. Way back when I was an itty bitty boy, I used to pore over the one issue of "Dragon" my dad ever bought (in 1984, I believe). There was a quarter-page ad for this game that made it sound so incredible, that I tried to make my own version. Based on that ad.

    I didn't get very far.

    Anyway, I bought it off eBay a few years ago. It wasn't as amazing as the game in my youthful imagination was, but it still sounds pretty cool. I'd play it, had I a group, the time aaaaaand so on.

  14. IIRC the Heroic Worlds book by Lawrence Schick had an essay by Tom Moldvay about the genesis of Lords of Creation. I do remember he talked about stretching the D&D rules and some of his inspiration in the game creation.

    The Powers system of Lords of Creation always fascinated me. There were 60 powers divided into twelve groups called Categories with five powers in each. Some groupings made sense, others not so much. Each group was rated as Magical, Psychic, or Futuristic. There was a power called Cyborg.

    And every being in the multiverse used these 12 powers.

    Other things I loved was the quirkiness of the monster entries in The Book of Foes. I may have to write an essay about that sometime.

    In an alternate world I would have loved to seen Lords of Creation thrive and expand to more powers, monsters, and settings. But alas, it was not to be.

  15. Your recollection about Heroic Worlds is correct. (My copy happened to be within easy reach.) I've never had quite the right group of gamers to sustain something as freeform as LoC, but I've always loved the idea. Being an OD&D player, the rules always seemed sufficient by comparison. I kept this when I culled my collection most fiercely; time to carry it around for a while, perhaps, and see if anything interesting gels.

  16. I spent a year playing this game in 1986 when I was 14. It was really good fun, and allowed us to become time travelers and heroes etc. Regretfully, we ended up outgrowing the game. It does however hold fond memories.

  17. We played this for a few sessions (my first attempt at cross-gender roleplaying, something that I generally no longer do for various reasons), but ended up spending more time with Traveller. I loved the game, though, and it is where my very first (and so far, only memorable) incident of maximum fortuitous dice roll happened, when I needed a 20 to stop a car with a throwing knife, and managed to roll that.

  18. Oh, and I still have my original copy - the box is long vanished, but I have both books in excellent condition.

  19. Ahead of its time, and unfortunately less-than-stellar production values. I own this and most of the supplements. The supplements are more intriguing than the core set.

  20. The big problem with Avalon Hill's role-playing division is that they had really appalling production values.* Runequest fans still hold ceremony burnings at RQ Cons of some of the supplements that they put out. Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils, not to mention Runequest, before they got a competent line-editor in. The big problem of course, was the financial collapse of the parent company, which meant that a lot of the support never materialised. Very few games survive the collapse of their publisher, especially when they haven't had time to establish a fan base.

    [* Then again you could say that about almost all of the Avalon Hill games, especially the rules. I find it very telling that James Bond, produced by the SPI alumni at Victory Games, who knew the importance of good and clear layout, was much more successful than any of these games, although all were given a fairly even-handed market penetration by Avalon Hill.]

  21. This is certainly how I imagined D&D's endgame ca. 1987. I could never understand why you could kill gods but not become one, and at the time I didn't have the creative tools to make up my own ultra-high-level supplements. Sounds like this would've filled in my gaps. As it was, CoC reached out its tentacles and took me away from fantasy for a decade or 2.

  22. I bought this when it first came out, and it really shaped how I wrote my own rules and altered others. It had some great ideas. IIRC your skills and "to hit" rolls were based on averages of your stats. I ran games where PCs slipped between alternate Earths. Now I have to dig it out.

  23. Given that the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon presupposed a huge amount of alien world portals all over everywhere, and given that it presupposed that normal kids could become fairly high level pretty quickly, I don't think the idea that D&D's endgame could have been like this is all that farfetched.

    Granted, I'm now using a side-story cartoon (and the associated merchandise, characters, picture books, CYOA, and coloring books) as an argument. :)

  24. I remember looking at the LoC products in my local FLGS when they firat came out ... but those were the days of unlimited time and semi-limited money. I ended up buying AH Runequest and the entire product line foe "Powers and Perils" (some ideas from P&P seem to have influenced the 4E cosmology).

    I didn't get anything for LoC; I think at the time it either struck me as being aimed at a younger audience or that it was just plain weird. LOL, it sounds so much more interesting now.

  25. I got this game at a toy store in '84 and hung onto it for a while, since I had no players at the time. When I finally had a group, we played it. We played it a lot, and it was one of our primary games (along with AD&D, Marvel Superheroes and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay). I never used the published adventures (though I have them, of course), but rather made my own setting.

    Like Marcus and his group, we eventually outgrew it, but the setting and characters we made way back then are still alive and well today, though I use Savage Worlds for the setting these days.

    Those battered rulebooks are still on my desk right now, and I owe a huge debt to the late Mr. Moldvay for creating that game.

  26. Late to the party (and only here due to a post in 2020) but I'm going to buck the trend and admit to not only having played this game with about 7-8 friends for most of high school, but having enjoyed it considerably. It was what OSR proudly calls "gonzo" these days, years before that term and that play style was a recognized thing. Wasn't just us, either. I didn't meet them till over a decade later (well post-college) but the FLGS was owned by a guy whose experience with the game was nearly identical, and his regulars included yet another group who'd been LoC junkies back when it was new-ish. Might have been a flop overall but it had quite alot of fans and players locally for some arcane reason.