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Friday 3 February 2023

Friday Faction: Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale

Judges Guild is rightly renowned for its innovation in the hobby industry. It pioneered the concept of supplementary support for roleplaying games when those in charge at TSR, Inc. believed that there would be no demand for them. The publisher’s Judges Shield would be first Game Master’s screen, City State of the Invincible Overlord would be one of the first great city settings combined with the Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting, Tegel Manor the first haunted house as a dungeon adventure, and Dark Tower, the only scenario published by someone other than TSR to appear in ‘The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ in Dungeon #116 (November, 2004). Unfortunately, Judges Guild’s legacy has been tarnished by the social attitudes and comments of Robert Bledsaw II, son of the late Robert Bledsaw, one of the co-founders of Judges Guild. However, Robert Bledsaw did not start Judges Guild alone and had a partner, Bill Owen, who has a memoir, Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale, which covers the period in which he was involved in the company, and more. Originally published in 2008, it has been updated with addenda, not once, but twice. It would be fair to say Owen’s involvement is little known outside of the devotees of Judges Guild and hobby historians, but Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is his chance to tell that story.

There is a certain familiarity in how the author began gaming. Later influxes to the hobby would begin with Dungeons & Dragons, a Fighting Fantasy solo adventure book, or even Vampire: The Masquerade, but Owen, like all gamers of his age, began with wargames and in particular, Avalon Hill titles like Africa Korps, before moving onto miniatures wargaming played across the traditional sand tray to simulate terrain. It would remain a hobby for all of his life and heavily influence his career working in the family travel business. As a travel agent, Owen was able to ease some of the logistics that Judges Guild would face in its first few years in terms of travel and printing, but it was his father’s first businesses—a regional chain of toyshops and a mall—that would arguably prepare him for the hobby market that burgeoned in the years following the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, the Franklin Mall would be first headquarters for Judges Guild.

Owen’s involvement with Robert Bledsaw and Dungeons & Dragons begin when he ran his first dungeon using the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set that he had acquired at Gen Con in 1974. Bledsaw would borrow Owen’s copy and run his own campaign, heavily drawing from and influenced by Tolkien. Eventually, and now friends, Owen and Bledsaw would go into business as Judges Guild with their first products being play aids for Dungeons & Dragons—the Ready Ref Sheets and the Dungeon Tac Cards—that collated and better presented the charts for the roleplaying game, followed by the map and booklet for City State of the Invincible Overlord. Initially, these and other releases would be distributed via subscriptions. Owen reveals some of the challenges that he and Bledsaw faced in bring Judges Guild titles to print. Not just the fact that they were doing on it a budget, but also the technology involved. The initial difficulties of drawing and printing the map for the City State of the Invincible Overlord in colour that would push Bledsaw to redraw the whole map in black, and the Dungeon Tac Cards being typeset at a printing company between the time that its employees opened up and the office staff arrived! There are endearing tales of the first two times that Judges Guild was at Gen Con in 1976 and 1977. The first visit was done almost guerrilla style, selling subscriptions for future releases and even a few map 
sets of City State of the Invincible Overlord out of the back of the car that Owen and a friend drove to Wisconsin in. The second visit has an even greater unreality to it, being hosted in the Playboy Mansion in Lake Geneva, which turned out to be an eyeopener for all concerned.

Yet Owen’s time with Judges Guild and as partner to Robert Bledsaw quickly comes to an end. By 1978, he had burnt himself out and lost the energy and drive that would keep Bledsaw in the hobby games industry for another five or so years. He sold his share of the business to Bledsaw and returned to the family travel business. Owen has not been involved in the roleplaying industry since, although he has remained a keen wargamer, both in terms of miniatures and wargames. It is at this point that the reader’s interest in Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is likely to wane…

Updated and expanded in 2014, the third edition of Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale, which includes addenda for both the second and third editions, is some one-hundred-and-forty-eight pages long, but Owen’s direct involvement with Judges Guild ends at page sixty. Much of the longer rest of the book consists of rambling reminiscences and reflections. Most notably these look back upon the combined wargaming and World War II battlefields of Europe tour that Owen arranged, discuss some of the author’s favourite games, and so on, but there are snippets of interest to the Judges Guild and roleplaying fan here too. For example, Owen muses not just whether was paid enough when he sold his half of Judges Guild to Bledsaw, but more interestingly, what if he had remained at the company and sold it to E. Gary Gygax later on when Gygax began to have difficulties at TSR. Inc.? The author does not explore this idea very far, but there is the possibility of an interesting ‘What if?’ scenario there. Elsewhere, Owen provides a close up look at the original map for Tegel Manor; looks at early, pre-print history of City State of the Invincible Overlord when it was ‘No Name City’ located in Middle-earth; and just how the Bledsaw got away with some of the names of the shops and stores in the city, such as ‘Beat-a-Slave’ and ‘Messy Massage’… These are intermittent throughout the book though.

Perhaps one of the pleasures of the book is its many photographs. Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is profusely illustrated with photographs from the author’s time with Judges Guild, the games he played, and much more. They are not always as clear or as light as the reader might want them to be, but they are included and they are all each clearly described by the author.

Perhaps one reason why a modern gamer might want to read Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is the fact that it subtitled, ‘A Cautionary Tale’. Owen clearly faced the challenges of any young, fresh start-up business. A combination of long hours, great effort, and having to find its own way in an industry that had no precedent, that enthusiasm will only carry you so far in overcoming. Bill Owen burned out and left the industry after two years, and whilst his story of what happened and the mistakes the company made are now over forty years old, they retain some validity today.

Physically, Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is presented as series of short essays accompanied by handfuls of photographs. It is an amiable enough read, often slipping into digression, and not always coming to any clear conclusion.

Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale is a rambling affair that is far from being an official history of Judges Guild. Of course, it does not set out to be, but if the author’s reminisces about his time at Judges Guild are the most interesting sections in the book, they are also the shortest. Meaning that for the roleplaying historian and devotee of Judges Guild there is not as much within its pages to really interest them as perhaps there could have been. Ultimately, what comes across from the amiable reminisces in the pages of Judges Guild’s Bob & Bill – A Cautionary Tale, is that Bill Owen does look back upon his time with Judges Guild and the late Robert Bledsaw with great fondness, as well as having greatly enjoyed his gaming.

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