Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Fritz Leiber at GenCon

(L to R) Fritz Leiber, Gary Gygax, M.A.R. Barker, Ian Livingstone, Rob Kuntz
(foreground) Steve Jackson (UK)
Earlier this month, I posted an image of an article penned by author Fritz Leiber that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on September 5, 1976. Leiber recounts his experiences as guest of honor at GenCon IX and, as one might expect, what he writes is of great interest. He begins by briefly recounting the recent history of wargaming, starting with the publication of Gettysburg by Avalon Hill in 1958. (Why he starts there rather than with Tactics in 1954, I am not sure) 

Moving on from that, he speaks of GenCon, the "oldest gathering of tabletop generals in America," which is "held at the pleasant Wisconsin resort-town near Chicago." According to Leiber, the convention's 

newest and most rapidly growing field seemed to be that of fantasy wargaming, where players enjoy the double excitement of being part of an ongoing adventure story to which they can each contribute, along with the regular perils of wargaming.
He goes on to discuss "the most popular fantasy wargame," Dungeons & Dragons, and describes it, along with its co-creator, Gary Gygax. 

I listened in on a game where Gary Gygax, TSR's head, a mustached man of youthful middle years reminiscent of Buffalo Bill, acted as "Dungeonmaster," guiding a dozen or so players in their personae as warriors, wizards, thieves, and priests, variously armed and armored, through a fantasy adventure that began in underground chambers, where monsters lurked, and then burst into a wilderness where there were rivers to ford, cliffs to climb, elephant-like creatures to avoid, and where moving trees pelted them with thorns.

The players could decide whether to flee, investigate and test, or attack, according to their individual natures. A heavily armored warrior went straight forward, swinging a battle axe. A sorceress cast a sleep spell. A roll of dice helped determine the outcome of each action.

I'm fascinated by early – remember: this is from 1976 – descriptions of roleplaying game sessions, especially when they're written by people not involved in the hobby. Leiber's description rings very true to me, but then he was both an imaginative man and someone who'd engaged in proto-RPGs for years. I'm also fascinated by the original art that frequently accompanies these articles, such as this one, which depicts the "elephant-like creatures" and "moving trees" Leiber mentions in his article. Notice, too, the dice at the bottom of the image.

Leiber also recounts a report of a session of Empire of the Petal Throne, refereed by the "mysterious Prof. M.A.R. Barker, a Minnesota scholar of Indian languages and a convert to Islam, inventor of the game, 'Legions of the Petal Throne' [sic] and creator of a fantasy language, Tsolyani, which rivals Prof. Tolkien's Elvish in complexity." The session itself sounds decidedly odd, even by the standards of Tékumel.

"We were following a road through the fog and all we could see were those shadowy black creatures with red eyes," the young man said.

"And then out of the fog these tiny black worms began to fall on us. Wherever they touched flesh, they burned like acid," the girl told me excitedly.

"And then the red-eyed creatures surrounded and killed us, and he had us carried off to the dungeons of his castle where he made a spell and resurrected us from the dead," her companion went on.

She finished happily, "Now he's got to decide whether to torture us all to death, or send us on an almost impossible quest."

Context must be everything, because I have no idea what any of this means, but the participants seemed to have enjoyed themselves nonetheless. 

Leiber ends the article by noting that TSR has just published a fantasy wargame based on his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which he and his friend Harry Fischer had devised "back in those primeval days when wargames were an eccentric private occupation." The new game has been updated to "modern fantasy wargaming conventions" and he is happy with the result. All in all, it's a terrific little reminiscence about GenCon IX by someone not directly involved in the hobby but with a better than average understanding of the concept and potential of roleplaying games. Thanks again to Thaddeus Moore for passing this article along to me, along with so many others about which I've written this month.


  1. An aside on Leiber’s writing: that first paragraph you quote is one long sentence. It takes a certain mastery to write a sentence that long and still have it come out perfectly clear!

  2. Replies
    1. Isn't it, though? I veritable gathering of the titans.

    2. You show me a fire-spouting pseudo-elephant with pointed teeth, clawed feet and batwing ears and I'd be pretty keen on avoiding it myself. :)

  3. Legions was by David Sutherland, although obviously it wouldn't exist without Barker's influence and approval. Still my favorite set of rules for army-level fights in Tekumel even after all these years. It was actually the first Tekumel product I owned for myself, and only the second real miniatures game I had.

    The description of the EPT game sort of makes sense. Party was going somewhere, winds up in your traditional mysterious fog with strange half-seen creatures pacing them, acid worms rain on them just to make it clear this isn't normal but they survive, and then the critters show up in overwhelming and inescapable numbers and we get a TPK. I'd be halfway willing to bet the PCs were offered a chance to come along peacefully or something (maybe even before the worms) and decided to fight a hopeless battle instead, and Barker's "fix" for whatever he had in mind for the session was to resurrect everyone with the NPC ("he") behind the "shadowy black creatures with red eyes" and rain of worms, followed by an offer they can't refuse to get back on track. A little heavy handed but this is Old School and a convention game (I think?) to boot, so you can expect a bit of a railroad ride.

    Not hard to imagine people (or things) that could do all that in the setting, especially with a mix of magic and technology. Priests of Sarku are particularly prone to being casual about killing people to get them to work for them IME, although they also tend more toward bringing you back as a nice obedient undead. Maybe they need some live questers for the job - or it might not be anything to do with Sarku cultists at all.

    1. I assume the reference to Legions of the Petal Throne was in error and that Leiber meant EPT instead.

    2. Presumably - although it would be interesting if Barker and Sutherland were collaborating on Legions and Leiber had seen an advance draft and got the name stuck in his head.

  4. "Gary Gygax...a mustached man of youthful middle years reminiscent of Buffalo Bill"

    That is awesome.

  5. Neat write-up. It sounds like the adventure Gary was running may have been the Teeth of Barkash-Nour, a legendary "lost" adventure also described in that Believer article from 2006 and at one time planned for publication as a C&C/Castle Zagyg module by Troll Lord Games before things went south after Gary's passing.

    1. Do you know any more about "The Teeth of Barkash-Nour?" This is the first I've heard of it.

    2. James, take a look here:

  6. Recently there was someone on twitter who remembered playing in one of Gygax sessions at 1976 Gencon as 13-year old.