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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

The Gygax - Arneson Tapes

by Mithras
Nov 12,2002

 

The Gygax - Arneson Tapes

It could all have been so different. Yes, we're happy with our fantasy worlds, our modern horror games, the SF universes on offer, the steampunk and post-modern angst, we're happy with the chop-socky martial arts games and the numerous historical worldbooks that Steve Jackson pumps out on a regular basis. It's great out there. If you've got a taste - it's catered for. If it isn't then get an amateur designer over on the Art of Design Forum (like me) all fired up and you can have your vision translated into text within a year.

I'm not saying all this wouldn't have come about anyways. But I am saying that the state of fantasy gaming might have been ... just a little bit different. Now I don't know all the details of D&D's genesis, but I like to imagine the following should have taken place:

Gary: "Hey, Dave, dude! Put that army of German pikemen away, I've got this mind-bending idea!"

Dave: "Dude?"

Gary: "Yeah, like we just get out one figure each and, like, roleplay it. Give the lil'dude a name n' every thing ... use the dice."

Dave: "Wha... these average dice?"

Gary: "No man - I never understood those. I like my dice to go from 1 to 6 without missin any of the numbers out. Know what I mean?"

Dave: "Shit Gary. Have you been sucking the lead out'a these miniatures?"

Gary: "We could use one of these crusaders. This Byzantine nobleman. This yeoman archer. And this 10 point bishop with armour and mace. We can send em to fight dragons and shit ... down dungeons! Wha'd you think dude?"

Dave: "Dungeons ... and dragons? C'mon Gary that's lame. I'm bored sick of all these Medieval miniatures! I've just finished painting my Greek armies for the Peloponnesian Wars - let's use those."

Gary: "OK"

And thus in 1972 the way cool (and groundbreaking) roleplaying game 'Mazes & Minotaurs' was borne. OK, it was a little primitive by Y2K standards. Only six character classes (Nymph, Priest, Spearman, Noble, Barbarian, Sorcerer), all weapons did the same damage, and the sailing rules were crude (to say the least). But damn it was fun! Haughty Greek nobles, the Trojan War, remote and magical islands, oared galleys, Greek Fire, the Oracle at Delphi, the Games, hoplite spear walls ... and the monsters! You remember the gorgons (no, not those Gorgons), the minotaurs, the hydras, the talking lions, the giant boars, the blind witches, the stymphalian birds, the dragons, the tritons, the cyclops and ... well, I'm sure you remember all those classics.

We could put up with the inaccuracies and the limited choice of characters couldn't we, because within five years there were a score of M&M clones on the market from GDW, Avalon Hill, FGU, and others. The mould had been made, the ancient world, with its universal themes of heroes fighting horrible monsters while the gods meddled as only gods can, was refined and refined endlessly. Some players hated these 'rehashes' but for me they were new insights into a rapidly growing setting.

Remember 'Pagan Chariot Riders (PCR)'? The Celtic world of Britain under Roman occupation was given a really good treatment and spawned 12 great (and not so great) supplements. And 'STYX' - the game of the Dead in the late '80s. This inspired a whole genre of 'lost soul' games and seemed to be running on pure angsty melodrama. Perhaps the best thing to come out of that particular sub-cult of games was 'Cerberus' the game where Roman gladiators descended to Tartarus and were forced to replay deadly duels for the edification of Minos, Rhadamantheus, and Pluto. I remember my first Cerberus character: Milo, a 14th level weresphinx with twin falx and bronze spiked greaves. I think he was from Cyrene...

Great times. Of course some bright spark came out with SF and horror roleplaying games, but in those days it seemed impossible to break that first mould. The SF game was a licensed version of Battlestar Gallactica (Egyptians in space!) and the horror game was chock full of Egyptian mummies. Eventually games came out there were nothing to do with the ancient world, but even today some guy reckons they've come up with the ultimate new fantasy world. And screw me if doesn't just look like Athens in the 5th century BC or Rome in the 1st. Generic fantasy they call it. Sword and sandals. Corinthian columns everywhere, oared galleys. You can change the names of the gods, you can call Sparta 'Skuandak,' but it's still the ancient world isn't it?

You wanna know what I think? With the release of M&M D20 I think someone should go back to Gary's first idea and produce a Medieval version of 'Mazes and Minotaurs'. They could even call it 'Dungeons and Dragons.'

Wouldn't that kick ass?

- Paul

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What do you think?

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras