Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Retrospective: Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo


Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo
is an unusual game. Released in 1977 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, it was written by Scott Bizar and Lin Carter, editor of the acclaimed (and influential) Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, author of the Callisto and Green Star series (among many others), and L. Sprague de Camp's longtime partner in crime. That alone places the game in rare – though not exclusive – company. 

Mind you, I have no idea of the extent to which Carter was actually involved in the design of this game. My guess is his prefatory "note" at the front of the 52-page rulebook is his biggest contribution, though I cannot prove that. Like De Camp, Carter was good at self-promotion and finding new ways to wring a few bucks out of his name and status within the fantasy and science fiction world at the time. I suspect this is the case here, though I should stress again that I have no direct evidence one way or the other and may be demonstrating a lack of charity toward Carter. 

All that aside, the game's structure is quite fascinating. Its introduction begins as follows:

It is the intention of these rules to provide a simple and schematic system for recreating the adventures of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo. These adventures are free-wheeling and widely varied with the final goal of overthrowing the evil government of the Emperor Ming the Merciless.

I find this short paragraph noteworthy. First, it states upfront that the game will be "simple and schematic." Second, and more important, I think, is that the characters' actions are placed within a larger context, namely the defeat of Ming the Merciless. In this way, the game offers a greater context for all those "free-wheeling and widely varied" adventures to take place. Flash Gorden & the Warriors of Mongo is thus a campaign game.

The introduction continues:

Our schematic or representational outlook simplifies the situation to make a game playable without the extremes of paperwork necessary in most roleplaying games. For those who enjoy the full detail of role playing campaigns, we provide enough detail and flavor to provide a backdrop to which can be added simple modifications of existing role playing systems. Try the rules as they stand, a simple and understandable system. Additional complexity in role play can be added without harming the basic structure of the game.

I find it amusing that, even in 1977, three years after the release of OD&D, we see talk of "the extremes of paperwork," suggesting that there was already a sense in some quarters that RPGs were becoming unduly complex. More interesting to me is that the game's explicit encouragement to add to and modify the rules. 

More:

The game requires from two to twenty player adventures and a referee … The basic idea is that teams of players will begin on the outer sections of the schematic map and attempt to gain the support of all nations they pass through. To do so they must defeat monsters, overcome obstacles, deal with traitors, and go to any efforts to enlist the support and aid of the rulers of the countries they pass through on the way to Mingo City.

While the large number of potential players might raise eyebrows from the vantage point of today, it was commonplace for RPGs at the time and reflective of a focus on the campaign, something that's evident in Flash Gordon as well. 

Characters possess four characteristics (Physical Strength/Stamina, Combat Skill, Charisma/Attractiveness, and Scientific Aptitude), each generated by rolling three "ordinary dice." Three of the four characteristics map to a "role," warrior, leader, and scientist. Players make use of the aforementioned "schematic map," which consists of several rings of zones, with Ming's capital city in the center, to move their characters about. Each zone is a kingdom of Mongo and the bulk of the gamebook consists of descriptions of these kingdoms, their inhabitants, and hazards. The descriptions detail how large the kingdom is (and thus how many game turns it takes to traverse them) and, in many cases, the kinds of adventures that might be had there.

The game's rules are indeed simple – so simple that it's often difficult to see much evidence of them! The hazards and enemies of each kingdom generally have write-ups that specify how to overcome them. In some instances, this involves dice rolls, modified by high or low characteristics. For example, fighting the Dactyl-Bats of the Domain of the Cliff Dwellers requires a character to roll one die and add the result to his Combat Skill. If it exceeds 14, the Dactyl-Bats are defeated. The rest of the "rules" are like this: ad hoc and very simple. Whether one likes this or not depends, I imagine, on what one wishes to get out of the game. I would likely find it insufficiently detailed and engaging but tastes vary.

Like many early RPGs, Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo comes across more as a sketch of a roleplaying game rather than a finished package. As a gazetteer of Mongo, it's excellent, far better than, say, the roughly contemporaneous Warriors of Mars. At the same time, I can't help but appreciate its focus on the overall arc of the campaign. The goal of overthrowing Ming by enlisting the aid of the various kingdoms of Mongo is a good one, as is the notion that said aid might be gained through adventures within each kingdom. This is not only true to the Flash Gordon comic strips of old but provides a terrific structure for a campaign. Had I come across this game in my youth, I doubt I would have thought much of it. Now, though, I can see what it was trying to do, even if it might have fallen short of its goal. 

6 comments:

  1. Used to have this one myself, and still regret losing it to a flood. Quite an odd duck even for its era, but it was certainly quite faithful to the original strips. How much of it was Carter's actual work might be something Bizar (who's still running FGU to this day AFAIK) could tell you - but I'm not super-confident his answer would be any more reliable than Carter's if the latter was still alive to ask.

    Both of them might make an interesting (if touchy) subject for a blog post, now that I think about it.

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  2. I am reminded of the sharp focus of certain "indie" rpgs from recent(ish) years, like The Mountain Witch or Fiasco, games where the setting is very specific, and there's a finite campaign with a definite climax, even if the specifics of that ending are unknown at the outset. It looks like Flash Gordon was ahead of its time.

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    1. Some of them aren't even all that "indie" in terms of being from small companies and relatively obscure. Band of Blades from Evil Hat is kind of a perfect example of that concept, and their Wicked Ones game isn't really far off, just a bit more sandbox-y.

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  3. L Sprague De Camp did war game with Fletcher Pratt, so there may be a connection where Lin Carter may have also done war gaming and thus had some input into the actual mechanics.

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    1. That's a very good point. Thanks for reminding me of it.

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  4. This makes me think of the Buck Rogers Cliffhanger game, although I think the later was more developed than the Flash Gordon game.

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