I have a friend who keeps telling me I should do podcasts. It’s flattering because he does a fair few himself and he’s very good at it, but the field is so crowded already. Mike and Roger on Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice, Ralph on Fictoplasm, Jeff and Hoi on Appendix N Book Club – and not forgetting Dirk the Dice on the Grognard Files.
I’m on the latest of those, mostly chatting about Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider but with a bit about the early days of roleplaying. After the discussion, an interesting point was raised about whether DW would have worked better as a single rulebook, the way games like Runequest and Champions were released at the time, rather than as six standard-format paperbacks. (We’d hoped for twelve, but that’s a detail.)
What happened in the early ‘80s was Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a epiphany. They could see that fantasy games potentially had a huge market but had so far failed to escape the niche of sweaty hobby shops. How to get them out of the shadows and into the mass market bookstores? The lightbulb moment must have come while playing a Fantasy Trip solo adventure. ‘Know what, lad?’ I can imagine Steve saying – or maybe it was Ian. ‘Do something like this for kids and we could have a breakout hit.’
The red-braced MBAs among you will have noticed that Ian and Steve didn’t publish Fighting Fantasy themselves, despite owning White Dwarf magazine and a chain of game stores. They pitched it to Penguin Books and lions were shook into civil streets.
Me, I just rode their coat-tails. I figured that all those tweens and teens who’d now discovered gamebooks might also be waiting for roleplaying. So Oliver Johnson and I took ourselves out to Ealing, where Transworld had their offices, and the game that was to be known as Dragon Warriors was born.
What if we had done DW as a single rulebook? I’d been working on an RPG for Games Workshop that they planned to call Adventure (yeah, not my idea) and that would have sold about 2000-5000 copies. The value to GW was mostly that they could sell figurines on the back of it. Adventure never happened because GW picked up the UK Runequest licence, but it had penetrated even my business-blind consciousness that we could sell ten times as many copies if we got a paperback RPG into high street bookshops.
And where would a chain like W H Smith have put a single-volume rulebook anyway? Not alongside the FF books that all the 10-13 year-olds were snapping up. There might have been a corner of the shop where Jane’s Fighting Ships and Formula One books were stocked. You’d never have seen it. We wouldn’t be talking about it today.
And how much would it have cost? The DW books were £1.75 each – in the mid-80s, a little less than $5. If we’d lumped the content of the six paperbacks into one durable hobby-style RPG hardback, call it £15. About fifty quid in modern money. Not a pocket money purchase, for sure.
And would Transworld have been interested? Probably not. The adult division wouldn’t believe there was a market for fantasy role-playing, the kids’ editors wouldn’t commission a £15 hardback. And if they had, Oliver and I would have got an advance of about £2000 each (that's maybe £7000 in today’s money) to keep us going for a year or more while we wrote the whole game and all the scenarios. Passion project though DW was, just to pay the bills we'd have been tempted away by gamebook contracts instead.
Would I rather have released DW as one book? Well, that’s what I was working on in Adventure. It wouldn’t have been entry-level like DW. It would have been set in the world of Medra rather than Legend. The skill system would have been more complete because it was designed as an entire system rather than piecemeal and episodic the way DW came out. There'd have been no elves or goblins.
Would that game have been as good? Apples and oranges. Single-volume RPGs back then were for the hobby market. Paperbacks like DW and FF and Maelstrom were for the mass market. I'm heartily glad that James Wallis eventually reorganized DW into a single book, and it's far easier to find the rule you want that way, but we had to follow the winding road to get to that point twenty years on.
If I'd really understood the business side of gaming at the time, though, I’d have made the rules d6-based. How many schoolkids even knew where to buy icosahedral dice, still less have the pocket money to spare? It was Britain in the ‘80s, a tatty and corruption-riddled backwater off the coast of Europe. The streets were paved with stale chewing gum and flattened fag butts. Off licences had metal grilles to stop people pinching Watneys Party Sevens. The height of dining out was a gristly steak and chips at the Berni Inn. Kids didn’t have the cash to fling at mobile phones and X-Boxes like they do today. Or did, that is, pre-Brexit.
That dice bit I’ll be fixing with Jewelspider. All you’ll need are a couple of six-siders. It’ll be a small-format book, too, though maybe I should do a hardback as well as a paperback edition if only because that will be more resistant to spilled wine and red-hot fragments of dope. Tell you what, though. It’ll be a bit more than £1.75.