Thursday, September 27, 2012

Memories of the British Old School

Recently, I posted news of the release of a second edition of the British old school RPG, Heroes. Though I've long known of the existence of the original Heroes game (published in 1979), I've never actually seen a copy. Reader Andy Staples, who has a blog of his own here, sent along a photo, pictured above, which shows what the original edition looked like, including the hexmap of its setting, the Oesterlands.

Andy also sent along some memories not just of Heroes but of what gaming was like on the other side of the Atlantic in the late 70s and early 80s. With his permission, I've posted his memories below, both because I think they're interesting in their own right and because they provide another perspective on the history of our hobby:
The book itself is typed and mimeographed or photocopied, staple-bound with some awful art. The whole thing - production, erratic rules, bad art - reminds me very much of Arduin Grimoire, and it's obvious that the thing was a labour of love. And I've kept my copy for very many years.
On our side of the Pond, there seemed to be a very ersatz approach to gaming in those days around '80, '81, even a couple of years later. Most of the games we had were American ones, with relatively high production values, but the homegrown games - and the homegrown approach - were much more humble. The barrier to enjoying, and even publishing, your games seemed to be more one of passion and dedication than money.
The move of my friends and I into roleplaying was a natural progression from the pen-and-paper puzzle or challenge games we played in the back of class at school. Noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans), boxes (a kind of primitive version of go), battleships (a schoolboy pen and paper game long before the American commercial version) and a game we just called War - drawing a coastline, placing guns, and flicking your pencil across the paper to see if the lin it made hit one of your opponents guns - it occupied us on rainy days or boring classes. We did this for a couple of years.
Eventually we came up with a game we called Mazes. As far as I know, this was an original development by us. You drew a maze and someone had to navigate their way through it. Then we added traps. Then an item you could pick up to avoid a trap - you could get past the fire if you had a fire extinguisher, for example. Then monsters: we used Daleks. If you'd found the machine gun, you could kill the Dalek before it got you, and your exploration continued.
Each of us drew mazes, and each friend in the group (there were about hald a dozen of us) would attempt to beat each maze. They got bigger and more complex.
Then came the summer holidays, and one of the gang came back in the Michaelmas (autumn) term with a game he pitched as "Mazes, but better". It was the Holmes edition of D&D. And it was Mazes, but it involved dice, and characters with different abilities, and monsters that were thought or weaker than other monsters. I was hooked. We all were. I knew what I wanted for my next birthday, and I got it: a copy of the rules for my own. It was Moldvay by that time. This was late 1981; it was my 13th birthday.
But fantasy didn't scratch all my itches. I wanted science fiction. No problem. I sat down to write a science fiction version - horribly, horribly plagiaristic, of course. Level-based pilots, fighters, space pirates and the like, all written up in the nicest roundhand I could muster in a fresh exercise book. I even changed my handwriting to make it look more professional. Before I finished writing up my awesome science fiction game, Christmas came, and in my local Woolworths (remember those days when chain and department shops made sure they had some roleplaying games in stock), I found an unpreposeessing little black box with something about the Free Trader Beowulf. I bought it and gave up my plans to be a game designer.
Within a year we'd been invited through one of the group to join a local wargaming group. These were working men (bluecollars, I think you'd call them) with a passion. We were tolerated there, I think. They really wanted to get us into a real hobby, and we were encouraged to play wargames with them. I enoyed the few games I played; a couple of our group loved them and became wargamers - a passion fuelled further when the first edition of Warhammer came out.
Wargamers seemed to have an even more ersatz approach to rules and games than we did. There were three or four men who enjoyed a game of Ace of Aces (in 3D, fixing biplane models to chemistry clamps), but almost all the rest of the wargames used homegrown club rules, which used a playing card resolution system. The rules - often very detailed - were handwritten and photocopied and passed around. I hope that in a folder somewhere I still have a copy of the medieval variant.
That's the kind of environment that games like Heroes and Laserburn developed in. Maybe it was similar in those first prints of Chainmail and OD&D. I don't know. If that's the case then we seem to have been several years behind the US in terms of professionalism - except for Games Workshop. By that time, White Dwarf was most definitely a prozine, and they carried the UK printings of Traveller and Runequest.
I find this all very fascinating, since it's at once similar and different from my own formative experiences, particularly with regards to wargaming, which I never really got into, even though I knew a lot of guys who did.

Thanks for sharing this, Andy!


  1. Neat reminiscence! So many UK products are among my favorites; they just have an atmosphere and a "sense of place" so often lacking in ours, perhaps not surprisingly. I've been collecting old WDs when the budget allows and the price isn't too ludicrous. It was a great magazine.

  2. 'War' sounds like the kind of thing I'd have been playing at the same age. We had a game the didn't really have a name, but involved commandos trying to reach a safe house across enemy territory; the ref drew a map with various hazards - minefields, barbed wire, shark infested rivers and the like - map and various bits of tracing paper on which the players drew the path their guys would take in 1 cm pencil lines. The ref put the sheet over his map and if you hit an obstacle you lost some men, or the Ref would tell you vaguely what you saw ahead. If he was kind he'd give you an 'aerial photograph', a wildly inaccurate sketch of his master map. I don;t think we ever won. We also played duels using rules adapted and expanded from Donald Featherstone's books we got from the school library, a simple matrix of fencing moves that either resulted in a hit or a miss.

    We too took to Holmes D&D like ducks to water, but had no 'real' wargaming groups in our town to join, though we did play a lot of our own miniatures games using plastic Airfix 1/72nd scale soldiers and rules we mostly borrowed from Featherstone.

    Our major effort at writing our own RPGs came from trying to do Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, but our unique contribution was the D&D clone 'Skools and Skollars', (we read a lot of Nigel Molesworth books, hence the spelling), a game where the pupils in a dull provincial grammar school (ie us) got to roam the corridors beating the shite out of teachers and prefects with metal 12 inch rulers, stabbing them with bits from geometry kits and toasting them with bunsen burners from the chemistry lab. One of the class abilities was being able to eat school dinners which passed for undead, and the stats for the headmaster were based on Asmodeus from the Monster Manual, Well we were only 12.

    The Deputy Head caught a load of us paying this in the yard one day and we had a bit of explaining to do.

    One English teacher was a bit 'radical' and as a class exercise let us rewrite Watership Down as a Fighting Fantasy gamebook as a class exercise, and I actually won a prize for a fantasy short story I based on a session of D&D so I suppose they did their best to accommodate the (then) craze, though they drew the line when we played X rated Traveller in the after school wargame club (it was as prurient as it sounds).

  3. I played something almost identical to Mazes except ours was fantasy based (no daleks, machine guns or fire extinguishers). The similarities are striking though, since I lived in Northern Ontario, Canada. We also played War, exactly as described above.

  4. War must have somehow made its way across the world. We played the exact same game in high school--same name, concept, everything.

  5. We also played War when I was in grade or middle school, or at least game that sounds just like it I can't remember what we called it. The main difference is that we would draw our installations on opposite sides of a canyon so our guns and tanks would be stacked vertically on ledges and in little caverns. I wonder if this was because of the mountainous area (Eastern Oregon) where I grew up.

  6. I played a game like 'War' in primary school in Australia. From memory, if a 'flick' missed the unit that shot moved. I think there was a variant with land and sea drawn, and if ships ended up on land or armies in the sea they died.

  7. There's another RPG based on the Nigel Molesworth books here:

  8. I've been wondering lately how the British gaming scene evolved. By 1980, gaming in the US was almost exclusively RPGing of which most of it was D&D. But Games Workshop wasn't, at the time, tied to one particular game and even to one game type. They produced RPGs, board games as well as their signature miniature rules.

    One thing they did do was have their games for the most part share the same or similar settings. While Star Frontiers wasn't D&D in space, 40k was Warhammer in space. This not only gave their games a cohesiveness but it allowed them to expand their game world in a different game; Epic added Titans to the 40k mythos and Man o' War added a detailed sea aspect to WFB. If D&D was expanded it was done so with only RPG supplements and often required an entirely new gameworld to add those features (Dark Sun forex).

  9. I think the "buy now" link of the

    Heroes 1.2 does not work.

  10. We played War during registration at school in '80 - but used tanks for land battles or spaceships for Blakes 7 space battles.

  11. This mirrors my experience, albeit I'm a couple of years younger. The old-skool wargamers brought us along, and D&D was deemed dreadfully vulgar (although there was reverence for OD&D and basic). 2E was *loathed* So I became a RuneQuest fanboy and only returned to D&D during the 3E 'renaissance' (LOL). British RPGing at that time was gritty and basic, lots of homebrew, pencils and photocopied rules on windy autumn Sundays. They were the best of days.

  12. ...and now it works, I eagerly await my copy.

  13. I got some wonderful memory flashes when reading about the games Mr. Staples played at school. For the way they are described, those were the same ones that I myself played with my classmates. The differences were that in our equivalent of War the opposing forces were a battleship and fighter planes; and our mazes never got so sofisticated, they were just convoluted mazes without traps or monsters.

    All of this was in Spain, while the late 80s became the early 90s.

  14. I remember boxes, Possibly why I didn't do so well at physics, more interesting than the class.

    Our school had a proper wargames club, playing figures and board wargames. Then a group in our school basically invaded the Scripture Union to win a prize, then after we had, the group stuck around for this new D&D game, which was original three A5 booklet D&D.

    After that wargaming started to fall off, save for a spell of Ace of Aces and RVDIS, and more complex RPGs, mainly C&S 1 came in.

    Then the 80s explosion hit