Thursday, March 18, 2021

Wargaming and RPGs in Boys' Life

Though no one could ever call me "outdoorsy," I was nevertheless a Boy Scout during my elementary school years. This was no doubt partly due to subtle peer pressure: all my friends had joined the local troop, which met at our school, and I decided to join them. Even so, it didn't take much to push me in that direction. The Scouts, with their handbook of rules, snappy uniforms, and many fun indoor activities, were very appealing to me and I never regretted getting involved with the organization. 

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, one of the benefits of being a Scout was a subscription to Boys' Life magazine. If I'm honest, I probably looked forward to receiving each new issue more than I did going to Scout meetings. If you were to look at any random issue of Boys' Life from the 1970s, for example, it wouldn't be difficult to understand why I felt that way. There were lots of articles on sports, history, science, and hobbies. The hobby articles were among my favorites, some of which introduced me to hobbies, like model-making, that I would eventually take up with enthusiasm.

When I looked at the November 1979 issue, with its cover featuring Terry Bradshaw, I was not at all surprised to see an article about the hobby of wargaming.
The article is an overview of the hobby, both in its hex-and-chit and miniatures forms, highlighting its most popular games and publishers, so there are no deep insights to be found in its pages. What is of interest, though, is its brief treatment of roleplaying games. 
As you can see, its coverage is extremely limited, focusing primarily on D&D and RuneQuest, with asides about FGU's Gladiator and Eon's Cosmic Encounter, neither of which I'd call a RPG. Of course, that's the fascinating thing: all of these games are mentioned within the context of wargaming. Five years after the release of OD&D, roleplaying was still seen, at least in the pages of Boys' Life, as an outgrowth of wargaming, something that's often forgotten today. This is why I am always pleased when I stumble across articles like this. They're windows on the past and reminders of history that might otherwise be overlooked.

I'm certain I had this issue when I was a boy, but I can't recall having read the article. As I've mentioned on many, many occasions, I was introduced to roleplaying through the boardgame Dungeon! (mentioned in the article above) in December 1979. I do remember many articles about RPGs that I read as a kid, but they're all from after I was already playing D&D. The Boys' Life article, then, is precisely the kind of thing I want to find more examples of. If anyone knows of similar articles from around this time or before, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.


  1. Amusing to see them talking about how a roleplaying game could go on for hours. More like years or decades, but that wouldn't have terribly apparent in 1979, I suppose. Gladiator might conceivably have looked like an RPG to an outsider - you each have one one "player character" you're trying to keep alive, after all, and there are swords involved. Cosmic Encounters seems less plausible, although I have seen people doing some light RP with their alien - mostly the Virus threatening to infect everyone at the table. :)

    I dimly remember helping write a somewhat similar article for the high school newsletter (calling it a paper would be too generous) explaining what the shiny new gaming club was about - and that must have been about 1979 as well, maybe '78. We were explicitly forbidden to use the term "war gaming" since various (aging hippie) parents had objected to it at some PTA meeting. Argued with my parents about it for years, my mother thought it was some kind of shameful term - and my father, as usual, thought she was an uptight idiot but didn't care enough to fight her about it.

    The teacher who theoretically ran the club was inordinately fond of shooting his students to death in Boot Hill last-man-standing games. Really got his kicks from gut-shots and his victims bleeding out. In hindsight, he may have been working out some workplace frustration issues. :\

  2. That two-page illustration is so very '70s/'80s. Makes me very nostalgic for the children's magazines I used to read, or perhaps even some of the artwork from things like Atari 2600 game advertisements.

  3. @ Dick: Better shooting the students in a game than in real life! ; )

    @ James:

    I, too, was a Boy Scout in my youth and read Boys Life but this would have been several years after you (and after I'd already picked up the D&D hobby). It's funny: never saw an article about D&D in BL or it might have had a little more support from other kids my age (and their parents!).

    Still, there WERE Scouts who played D&D (including several of our older Eagle scouts). Just not as many as I would have liked.

    I will fondly remember Boys Life for the occasional SciFi short story and the illustrated serial of The City of Gold and Lead in its back pages.

  4. Oddly enough, a number of people I know were introduced to RPGs in Boy Scout camps here in Hungary in the early '90s, right when it came back from being outlawed by communist rule (sadly, the commie answer to childrens' organizations, the pioneers had no RPGs even in the '80s, except for the home defense LARPs if you will). What's funny is that the mild "satanist roleplayers" scare which arrived to us with the usual 10-somewhat years delay stemmed from the same "Christian values".