Friday, 24 July 2015

De viris illustribus, or, fantasy gaming in the mid-70s

My good friend Abi's father Ken passed away last year. While going through his things, she showed me a box of his old game and campaign notes. She'd already told me that he'd been a gamer since he was young, and had been playing D&D in the mid-seventies. This week we finally had a chance to go through the files, and we found things I was not expecting but which, I think, are fascinating artefacts of a particular period in British gaming. Get a snack or something, because this is a long one.

Stuff we found in the file (which is just a single box file) falls into five general categories:
  1. Stuff relating to the gaming and science fiction societies at Durham university in the 70s. I did my MA at Durham, and in fact lived for a short time in the house in the basement of which the sf society library was kept. I spent a lot of that time reading 60s and 70s sf -- how odd to think that I may have read some of the same books he did! They were pretty yellowed, so I'm perfectly willing to believe they were the same actual volumes. 
  2. Stuff relating to ongoing postal Diplomacy games. Ken liked him some Diplomacy, and who can blame him? Greg Costikyan called it the finest game of the 20th century. 
  3. D&D stuff. Of which more anon. 
  4. Stuff relating to a complex postal wargame that Ken was running. Of which a lot more anon. 
  5. Misfiled other stuff -- plans to meet, letters to friends, etc. 
Because a lot of these games were postal, we have only the received correspondence -- so while we have lots of letters to Ken, obviously we don't have any he actually sent. For the postal games, this means we have letters from players requesting stuff, and then we have the notes Ken used to determine his replies, but then we don't have those replies. 

Dungeons and Dragons

Let's start with D&D, both because it's where I originally started and because it's a little shorter. 

There's a rulebook in the box: 

This is a 1977 GW version of the Holmes Basic rulebook, with a cover illustration by John Blanche and interior art by Christopher Baker ("Fangorn"), Trampier and others (I didn't note the artists -- that's just who I spotted). John Blanche! We've been informed that this is not the earliest rulebook that the group used -- it may be a replacement acquired later on. It's possible that the original book was one of the small run of white boxed sets imported by GW as described in that article in WD 90? 

Tucked into the book we found this: 

But I'm gonna assume they were not related. 

In the back of the book is a list of other products GW sold. We noted that the D&D boxed set cost £7.50 in 1977, which Messrs The Internet inform me is the equivalent of £48.29 in modern money. Bloody hell. 

We also found the equipment list for Ken's beloved character Klag (though no actual sheet): 

As you can see, the sensible fighting Uruk-Hai is carrying an absolute shitload of weapons, including a crossbow with 120 silver-tipped bolts, six knives, a warhammer, a greatsword, a regular old sword, two seven-foot spears and an AK-47, to say nothing of 300 feet of rope. All of this is carefully stowed on Klag's pack mule -- I believe the tick marks on the sheet indicate what Klag was actually carrying. I wonder where he got that AK; it was an interesting campaign, looks like. 

Further evidence that Klag knows what's up: he is listed as carrying 10 5 4 kilos of gunpowder. 

At some point, the group were playing some of the Against the Giants modules, at least 1978's Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl -- although this is an AD&D scenario, I don't know enough about the rules differences to know if we can tell from the notes that they were using the AD&D rules. Presumably not, if they just dropped the equivalent of fifty quid on the D&D rules the previous year? Just from the notes, it also looks as if they played Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, although maybe that's just where they started out. 

Note the diagram of a 12-person marching order in three ranks, and note also that one of the characters is called "Frodo." And another one is called "Magritte," which is a little surreal. Heyo!

Weirdly, someone seems to have been keeping track of every hit during a series of fights with giants. This record peters out after a little while, though, because, y'know. 

A tea stain! British gamers have been here. 
We also have notes for the contents of a dungeon, although no accompanying map. I don't think any of these notes are in Ken's hand, but I could be wrong.

And that is about it for D&D. This notebook, however, doesn't start with D&D. Instead, the D&D record-keeping picks up where notes on another game leave off. And that's when things get really interesting.

The Dhuithian Campaign

Now, just like "Cthulhu Mythos," this may be a misnomer, because the earliest record I can find of this game having a name actually dates from 1990 -- but most of the paperwork in here appears to be from the mid-1970s. The 1990 letter also speaks of the game having multiple "incarnations." So Ken and others were working on this thing, off and on, for at least 15 years. I wonder if it was also the setting for the D&D game, although there's no way of telling. It seems to be a low-magic world, though, a fantasy world in the sense that it's not real but not in having lots of monsters or magic.

What was the Dhuithian Campaign? Well, let's take a look. The most obvious documents associated with it are maps. Lots and lots and lots of maps. I mean shitloads of maps. 

Castle maps!
Harbour maps!
Terrain maps!
Political maps!
Great big province maps!
Maps with handy keys!
Country maps!
This is only a tiny fraction of them -- I have many more photos and there are plenty I didn't photograph because after a while you just get to "there are a hell of a lot of maps in this box." Some are by Ken, while others are by other people or by several different hands. 

Maps often have numbers on them, which appear to be the revenue generated by each province. It looks, although the system may have evolved over time, that the revenue is generated in points, points being spent to buy troops. I've never played WRG Ancients myself, but my guess is that this is what the points system refers to. The abbreviations used in the game's orders (of which more in a moment) seem to line up; that LMI for light-medium infantry is a bit of a giveaway. Also,Ken's letters refer frequently to Worthing, and Worthing -- just 10 miles from Ken's home town of Brighton -- was where the Wargames Research Group was based. Ken was a member of the Society of Ancients, so it's very likely he was familiar with those rules. I wonder if they actually fought out the battles in miniature? I do know that Ken collected 1/72 plastics, and 1975 was the year of the Airfix Guide to Ancient Wargaming ... 

You will note the inclusion of countries like "Lankhmar" on the map. There are a few like that -- the map seems to be a mixture of historical, fictional and newly-invented countries. 

It looks like the game was played largely by post -- or at least played that way for a time -- with individual national leaders sending in their instructions by letter. Many of them have lovely handwriting! Not all flows smoothly, though: 

"You can't be serious about the cost of road building, can you?"
"I'm afraid my spare time has continued to diminish so I shall have to drop out."
But, organisational hassles, delays and complaining players aside, there was also a lot of creativity going on. Players wrote letters to each other in character:

Composed limericks lampooning each other for publication in the game's newspaper: 

And got creative with their tactics:

13. Dirty tricks section.

There were newspapers: 

And detailed histories: 

Lots of battle reports and much editorialising. These ones weren't written by Ken, although there are sets of notes for another historical text in his hand.

There are also some game-play artefacts, including army lists: 

And a set of random event chits: 

And then there's the language, Yalorian. Apparently Ken was always fascinated with and good at languages -- I've seen notes in his flat in or about New Testament Greek and Kiswahili, and Abi remembers him reading to her from Beowulf at a young age, reading it in Old English but telling her the story in Modern English. And that fascination is present here: 

That's a list of noun cases -- and in case you weren't sure he was a fan of Old English, this language has a dual number for 1/3 more case endings. 

But it remained solidly in a wargaming context, as we can see from these sample sentences: 

Bezan wonautenen peshansas.

"The ship sails to Onaut." Note that "bez," "a ship," and "peshan," "to sail," have the same root word -- "shan" is "to go," so "peshan" is literally "to go by ship" -- but "p" and "b" are slippery things in Yalorian. Ken also notes that although it's "Onaut" Yalorian-speakers often say "Wonaut."

Bezan onautenen peshan et madamos---a durnella

"The ship that sails to Onaut has been carrying siege engines." I can't read part of that word. 

There are a lot of siege engines in this setting is all I'm saying. 

And again, although most of this stuff is from the mid-70s, they're still talking about province revenue in 1990: 

I wonder if it just all went digital after a certain point. 

The Southampton connection

Now, if you know much about the history of gaming, you're starting to be reminded of something. And you'd be right. In May 1975, a correspondent, Londoner Russell King, asks: 

"I believe you are/were involved in the Hyborian campaign."

Ding! Of course -- the Hyboria game! Tony Bath's famous wargames campaign that turned into a sprawling fantasy world with its own history, maps, newspapers, and so on. That included elements of Leiber and Howard, and that was being written up in the gaming press in the early 1970s. Based in Southampton, Bath was a founder (the founder? I'm not sure) of the Society of Ancients, of which Ken was a member -- and of course Southampton wasn't far ... there's nothing in the box to suggest that Ken was one of the many wargamers who participated in the Hyboria campaign as rulers, but given what else we know about his wargaming in the early 70s it sounds very likely. He could have been inspired by Bath's book, which came out in '73, but I see no reason not to think he had more hands-on experience. 

I think what we have here is an instance of a trend that was pretty common in wargaming in the 1960s and 1970s -- one that we can see in the early gaming of Gary Gygax as well: Jon Peterson reports that Gygax was doing something pretty similar in the pre-D&D days, although his version was grounded in his beloved medieval period rather than Bath's preferred ancient world. (A lot of what I know about Hyboria comes from Peterson's superb Playing at the World, although I am lucky enough to have a copy of White Dwarf issue 4, which contains Bath's "Hyboria: A History.") It looks like Ken was trying to set up something akin to Hyboria, including players from all over the UK but centred on Durham and focusing on his own interests. We can see that the linguistic material largely seems to be later in date, suggesting that even when the campaign was over the fictional world continued to exist and be developed. It was a wargames campaign in '75 or so, maybe a D&D campaign in the late 70s (although we don't know that) and some sort of gedankenexperiment from then on. Or was there more produced? 

Anyway, it's a fascinating look at the early UK fantasy games scene. You can see a lot of shared community standards even then, but also quite a lot of making-it-up-as-they-go-along and a lot of swiping things from other fields (mainly historical gaming) to serve slightly different purposes. Weird creativity, historical wargaming, bricolage -- this is all relevant to my interests. 

If you know anything about any of this stuff, I'd be excited to hear more! Leave a comment and let me know what I'm overlooking. 


  1. Amazing stuff! A real treasure trove.

  2. This is amazing. FWIW the army lists look like by the troop types and morale ranks to be for Wargames Rules 3000 B.C - 1250 A.D by WRG which was a common (and complicated) set of pre-industrial mini rules in the 1970s (DBA and DBM are their modern progeny).

    1. Yeah, that was my theory too. That's what I meant when I said "WRG Ancients" -- it's the set linked in the post. He was probably using the 3rd edition. I had never looked at them before downloading them -- but of course it looks like Ken knew the authors personally; he lived close to them and was playing many of the same games. I have also confirmed that Ken and one of his other players were in Hyboria, and may get a chance to talk to the remaining player within the next couple of months.

    2. WRG Ancients as a basis of army lists was quite common in the UK and Australia at the time since they were quite popular on the wargaming side of things. In the US the preference seemed to be more toward Chainmail and variants. I'm not sure how much market-place penetration WRG actually had over there.

    3. I don't know about other places, but by the mid-'80s, my friends and I were playing WRG (6th edition) almost exclusively when we wanted to push metal guys around. This was just before the Warhammer explosion, as I recall, which sort of killed ancients-era miniatures gaming for us, sadly.

    4. That's an interesting point about regional differences -- the market was not nearly as international in the 70s (although it does seem that Ken's Diplomacy zine had readers in the US, based on the correspondence). And faoladh, yeah, I get the impression that WRG Ancients was the standard before the early 90s when the DBx series split the market a bit.

    5. One reason that I never got into DBx was that my local miniatures gamers all went to the fantasy and SF Warhammer games. I enjoyed them a bit, myself, but nobody stuck with ancients at the time (except a brief foray into Tactica, but I never liked those rules much).

  3. An awesome find! Looks to give you years of future enjoyment!

  4. W.r.t. Hyboria: a lot has been republished as part of the History of Wargaming project by John Curry.
    Also see for a few scans of Hyboria material.

    1. Yeah -- I linked to Rudi's page in the post; it was having read that (and Jon Peterson's book) that made those newsletters look so familiar to me, although it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Diplomacy was the direct inspiration for both.