Thursday, March 19, 2020

Recaps & Roundups part 52: Owl & Weasel

While Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and company got the fantasy RPG ball rolling over in the USA, in the UK that credit should probably go to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.  In early 1975 the two school friends and flatmates, along with mutual friend John Peake, founded Games Workshop. Initially they sold games out of their flat by mail order.  They also launched the games fanzine Owl & Weasel, a copy of which ended up in the hands of Brian Blume.  In return, Blume sent them a copy of TSR's new game Dungeons & Dragons.  Jackson and Livingstone were impressed by the imaginative potential of the game, and got in touch with Blume to negotiate exclusive rights to sell D&D in Europe.  They started selling the game in late 1975, still operating out of their flat (until they got evicted in Summer of 1976 because too many gamers were showing up looking for a shop that didn't exist).

(I looked up John Peake, because I've never heard of him.  Apparently he was far more into the boardgame side of things, and had very little interest in RPGs.  He got out some time in 1976 when he saw which way the wind was blowing.)

The company expanded after that, and was able to open the first Games Workshop store in 1977.  In June of that year, they published the first issue of the magazine White Dwarf (which I just learned was chosen because it works for fantasy as well as sci-fi). In later years Jackson and Livingstone created the gamebook genre with the Fighting Fantasy series, which I would venture may have actually had more pop culture penetration outside of the USA than Dungeons & Dragons.  Certainly in Australia you're more likely to find 80s kids who were into FF than D&D, and those books were my gateway into the hobby.  In the 90s Livingstone became a top executive at video game company Eidos, and had a hand in the Tomb Raider and Hitman franchises.  Both of these men are giants in the gaming field, and a lot could be written about them, but for this blog I'll be focusing on their earlier RPG-related work.

White Dwarf includes plenty of D&D content, some of which eventually ends up in TSR's Fiend Folio.  I'm going to cover it for a while, at least up until issue #74, which is when Livingstone steps down as the magazine's editor.  Before that, though, I want to take a look at its precursor, Owl and Weasel, with a focus on its D&D articles.

Owl and Weasel ran for 25 issues, from February 1975 to April 1977.  The early issues focus on war-gaming, puzzles, and board games.  There are articles on chess and mah jong up in this thing; it's apparent that Ian and Steve were fans of games at large, not just fantasy and sci fi.  The first mention of Dungeons & Dragons is a brief bit in issue #5, from June of 1975.  Steve had watched a game being played at the City University Games Club, and been fascinated by it.  As of the writing of the article he'd yet to play D&D, but he asks for opinions and reviews from readers.

Issue #6 is where D&D bursts onto the scene, with an enthusiastic three-page article from Steve.  He outlines the game, complains that the price is too high for three small booklets, and gives some examples of play.  It's mentioned that Ian was the "Gamesmaster", running a dungeon called the Caves of Truenor.  Should I decide to include these caves in my campaign, the details given are as follows:

  • The entrance is a cave in a rocky beach-side cliff.
  • The first tunnel leads to a four-way junction. One points to the left, and says "Beware Nixies" in the Universal Tongue. The other points right and says "White is Right" in Orcish.  (Well, they are Chaotic Evil...)
  • Some tunnels lead to a room that appears to be an elevator trap that takes the players deeper into the dungeon.
  • One of the rooms leads to a chamber with a chest guarded by a dozen ghouls.
  • Elsewhere in the dungeon is a corridor with six doors, and a chalice full of poison. The sixth door opens into a room with four giant snakes.
I'm pleased to note that Steve Jackson is an absolute bastard genius of a player: his plan to kill the snakes involves chopping up a dead party member, poisoning the pieces and feeding the snakes with them.  The other party members refuse, but he still does it anyway when their backs are turned.  Mr. Jackson, I salute you.

Issue #7 has more D&D, including a letter from a reader complaining about how unrealistic the D&D combat system is, and offering some alternatives.  The opposite page has an article by Ian Livingstone, with some very basic advice on the balance and design of dungeons.  Necessary stuff in the hobby's early days, but there's nothing revelatory here for D&D veterans.

Issue #8 has an article about the first play-by-mail D&D campaign in England. It also includes some house rules from Steve's game: PCs get two chances to open a stuck door, clerics can pray for extra spells, and fighters can't roll less than 3 hit points at 1st level.

(Also mentioned briefly is that there is already a computer version of D&D. This is probably The Dungeon or The Game of Dungeons, both of which I covered on my other blog, CRPG Adventures, in which I'm chronologically playing every CRPG and adventure game I can get my hands on. Posts on the games are here and here.)

Issue #9 has more house rules, related to death and healing.  Issue #10 reprints the Ranger class from The Strategic Review #2.  Issue #11 has a one-page article about hirelings, and some stuff about Empire of the Petal Throne. Issue #12 plugs the release of Supplement II: Blackmoor.  There doesn't appear to be much of any D&D content in issue #13, #14 or #15 (although #14 does feature the first appearance of future game designer Don Turnbull).

Issue #16 has a feature on the release of Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, and also mentions that Ian and Steve are planning to head to America in July.  Quite a long time ago (2005!) I asked Gary on a message board if he had any personal contact with Steve and Ian, and he regaled me with a tale of them staying at his house and helping him clear his yard of some poison oak. He also dropped an interesting historical tidbit about wanting TSR and Games Workshop to merge, which got scuttled because Steve and Ian were wary of the Blumes.  It's still archived here.

Issue #17 has a house rule in the letters page that reduces a monster's combat effectiveness as it loses hit points.  On the article side, issue #18 has one about reality in D&D, but it's more interesting from a real world perspective: it has a reports about Ian and Steve's trip to the US and their first Gen Con, small write ups on Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods & Heroes and Swords and Spells, and a note on the final issue of The Strategic Review and the first issue of The Dragon.  It also has a full page on skateboarding, which is weird, but I guess it must have been a real novelty back then.

Issue #19 devotes more of its space to D&D than any issue before it.  It has some new rules in the form of ability score minimums for demi-human characters (similar to those that would soon appear in the upcoming Basic Set), as well as some house rules about time-keeping and spell use.  There's a little more about the two new supplements, and a two-page article about alignment (the never-ending debate).

Issue #20 is light on D&D, though it does have an old grognard writing in to complains about "all this fantasy nonsense".  Issue #21 is similarly light.

Issue #22 is D&D-heavy again, featuring Don Turnbull's first stab at the Monstermark system, a mathematical calculation to determine the relative strength of various monsters.  This will pop up again in the future as Turnbull refines it, so I'll write about it then.

Issue #23 is given over almost entirely to coverage of the upcoming Games Day convention, with descriptions of the games happening there, a map of the hall, and ads galore.

Issue #24 has coverage of the D&D Day event, an article with mapping advice, and two new classes: Samurai and Psionist.  Both are staple homebrew classes, but I wonder if these were the first to see print?  The Samurai gets extra attacks and bonuses to unarmed combat, while the Psionist specialises in psionics as detailed in Eldritch Wizardry. There's also an announcement that Owl and Weasel is ending to make way for White Dwarf, which will have a much heavier focus on fantasy and sci-fi games.

Issue #25, the final issue, seems to be mostly set-up and hype for White Dwarf. with the only actual article being a bit with some basic advice about what makes a good D&D dungeon.

(The scans and information above come courtesy of The Other Side blog, who covered the entire run of Owl & Weasel in detail.  Without those articles, I'd have no idea what was in these issues.  As it is, I only have a general sense, aside from those where actual scans were provided.)

So that cover Owl & Weasel, which as far as I can tell doesn't have a lot in terms of rules and setting-related material.  It's far more interesting as a historical window into the UK gaming scene in the 70s, and the infancy of the D&D boom.  White Dwarf will have much more D&D content, and my coverage of the first issue should be coming up in about half a dozen posts.

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