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Friday, 7 October 2016

1985: The Good Games Guide 1

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

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In 1985 Games Workshop dominated the gaming hobby in the United Kingdom. It had, over the course of a decade, built up a distribution business importing the American RPGs that had begun with Dungeons & Dragons and then gone on to publish British editions of many of these games, including Call of Cthulhu, Middle Earth Roleplaying, RuneQuest, and Star Trek. It had published board games such as Apocalypse, Battlecars, Judge Dredd, and Talisman, as well as RPGs of its own in the form of Golden Heroes and Judge Dredd. It had established a chain of its shops and in the form of White Dwarf magazine, had what was the voice of the British roleplaying hobby. So what was it doing in 1985, publishing The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86, what was it, and what was it doing on the shelves of our newsagents?

It was essentially an exercise in marketing, a way to present the games available in the hobby game market, not just to dedicated gamers (such as myself), but also members of the public with an interest in hobby games. This was in the run up to Christmas and thus an attempt to drum up interest from the general public rather than the readers of White Dwarf. It provided reviews and overviews of the leading RPGs within each genre with a  particular focus, of course, on Games Workshop titles. So we have a discussion of Dungeons & Dragons, both Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as a look at the various modules and supplements then available. Remembering that this was 1985, there are some interesting comments in this overview. For example, the then new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, Unearthed Arcana is described as “...a sign of the future.” There is a certain irony to the statement given how that supplement is held in such poor regard. Of Oriental Adventures, it says, “Whether this marks the beginning of a new phase of the game’s development, with ‘culture books’ for different types and periods of fantasy remains to be seen.” Perhaps the nearest that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition got to these would be seven years later with the Historical Reference series that began with HR1 Vikings Campaign Sourcebook.

There are similar examinations of Middle-Earth Role Playing and of Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest III, but both less critical than that of the overview of Dungeons & Dragons. Shorter reviews follow of the fantasy RPGs and settings then available, such as Elfquest and Conan: The Roleplaying Game and Thieves’ World and Hârn. Similar treatments follow for Call of Cthulhu and other horror RPGs; Star Trek, Traveller, and other Science Fiction RPGs; the James Bond 007  and Golden Heroes RPGs and similar heroic RPGs, and so on. Shorter articles race through subjects as diverse as solo adventure gamebooks, miniatures and painting, fantasy board games (all described as American classics), Steve Jackson Games’ titles, and wargames. In addition a full colour insert advertising Games Workshop’s own titles reinforces the role of The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as a piece of marketing.

Although it would be the only issue, The Good Games Guide 1 is notable for its inclusion of two scenarios. Their inclusion would have been reason enough for gamers and readers of White Dwarf to purchase it rather than the casual gamer and the interested gamer that the magazine was really aimed at. The first of the scenarios is ‘The Web of Eldaw’ by Rick Priestly. It is notable because according to Graeme Davis, it was the first mention anywhere of Warhammer Role Play, the game that would become Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as well as being the first scenario written for it. The scenario is also written and comes with stats, for use with 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle, so this would have been at a time when there was still some crossover over between the RPG and the miniatures rules and before the RPG became Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and took the well-known direction it did with The Enemy Within Campaign, that is, a Moorcock-influenced fight against Chaos. The adventure itself is a dungeon, set in the rarely visited Albion—outside of the miniatures game that isand concerns the attempts of a young prince to reclaim the family throne following a recent coup. The scenario has Shakespearean undertones with hints of both Hamlet and Macbeth to it, especially in its four pre-generated characters. It is their motivations that drive the adventure and have the potential to make it much more interesting than the traditional dungeon bash. ‘The Web of Eldaw’ can be read here.

The second of the scenarios is Marcus L Rowland’s ‘Underground’, written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition. This is set in 1942 in wartime England with the investigators on leave and staying with an old colleague, Julian Hammond at his home in the scenario’s unnamed village. His wife is worried about her husband’s odd behaviour, sleeping during the day and being out at night, despite having resigned from the Home Guard on the grounds of illness. Not that he is ill… What exactly is Julian Hammond up to? ‘Underground’ is a straightforward if dangerous scenarioon two counts. First, Hammond is a member of the GHQ Auxiliary Units, the ‘stay behind’ guerilla cells set up in absolute secrecy that would carry out acts of resistance in the event of the Nazi invasion of England. This means that Hammond and the fellow members of his cell have access to considerable firepower. Worse, Hammond and his fellow cell members have fallen under the influence of the spirits of eighteenth century wizards bent on returning from the grave and sapping the men’s Sanity by teaching them of the Cthulhu Mythos. The latter is arguably overdone and the scenario is likely to end in a bloody and violent firefight. Nevertheless, this is a nicely detailed scenario with plenty of period feel to it. 

‘Underground’ is unique for being the first scenario for Call of Cthulhu set during World War 2 and thus a further innovation from Marcus L Rowland following his development of Call of Cthulhu for the modern day with On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime and its forebears. These days Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying during World War 2 is more than ably supported with two settingsAchtung! Cthulhu from Modiphius Entertainment and World War Cthulhu from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, and ‘Underground’ would work in either setting.

Physically, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 feels very much like the White Dwarf magazines of the time. This is no surprise given that it was assembled by the same team, but it feels slightly rushed, even tired. Otherwise, it needs another edit.

To assess The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as anything more than an obscure  piece of gaming hobby frippery would be to do it more justice than it deserves. Nevertheless, the inclusion of its two scenarios, both of which made notable debuts in their own way in its pages, make it of  interest to players and collectors of two leading roleplaying games. Beyond that, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 captures some of the state and some of the views of the British gaming hobby in late 1985.

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With thanks to Andy Hopwood of Hopwood Games for the loan of his copy of The Good Games Guide 1. Without his making it available, this review would have appeared much, much later.