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Saturday 3 February 2024

2003: Lashings of Ginger Beer

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.


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”, (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953). Never is there a more apt quote for Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game. In the twenty-first century, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to roleplaying games in which we play children or teenagers going off on adventures, free of the aegis of either parents or adults, of which Tales from the Loop and Kids on Bikes are most well-known. First published in 1995 by Beyond Belief Games, it is the 2003 edition that is the best-known version. As any Briton of a certain age, what Lashings of Ginger Beer is about—or is inspired by—is the adventures of the Famous Five, the characters from the series of books by children’s author, Enid Blyton. The five, Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog, cycle into the countryside or sail across to an island where they explore the area, notice things out of the ordinary, discover secret tunnels, uncover criminal activities, and help bring the perpetrators to justice. Not just the Famous Five, but also the characters of Blyton’s Secret Seven and those of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. In the bucolic idyll found over the Easter and summer holidays such characters will engage in carefree camping trips, have adventures, not worry about school or home life, and enjoy massive farmhouse teas or hampers of food.

A kid in
Lashings of Ginger Beer has four attributes—Tough, Deft, Clever, and Charm. These range in value between one and three. Younger kids have better ratings in Deft and Charm, whilst older kids have higher Tough and Clever attributes. Each Kid has a Kid Type—Good (‘Normal’), Swot (‘Bookworm’), or Truant (‘Tomboy’). These model the members of the Famous Five to an extent. So that the rebellious George is most obviously a Truant (‘Tomboy’), whilst Dick and Julian are Good kids, and Anne either a Good kid or a Swot. All Kids have two things they are good at, Hide and Snoop, whilst each Kid Type provides a further list of things a Kid is good at. The Good Kid Type is good at ‘Act Innocently’, ‘Camping’, Hobbies’, Sports’, ‘Ride Bicycle’, and ‘Spot Nasty People’. The Swot is good at ‘Sciences’, ‘History’, Geography’, ‘Languages’, ‘Music’, and ‘Useless Facts’. The Truant is good at ‘Fighting’, ‘Wriggle (from Grasp)’, ‘Climb Trees & Walls’, ‘Catapult’, ‘Throwing Things’, and ‘Lie Convincingly’.

To create a Kid, a player decides upon his Kid’s age, which sets the four attributes, and then add a single point to one. He then chooses a Kid Type and divides eight points between the things that the Kid Type is good at. It is possible to select things that the Kid is good at from another Kid Type, but this is more expensive. He also begins with three useful things, two of which he has to purchase. It is assumed that he has a few shillings and pence saved from pocket money and in addition, may have brothers and sisters. Lastly, all of the players should decide what their gang is called, for example, ‘The Fearless Four’ or ‘The Mysterious Crew’. A gang can also have a scruffy dog, which can be taught a handful of commands.

Kid Type: Swot Age: 13
Tough 2 Deft 2 Clever 3 Charm 2
Things He Is Good At:

Sciences 2 History 1 Geography 1 Languages 1 Music 1 Useless Facts 2

Lashings of Ginger Beer uses pools of six-sided dice equal to an attribute plus the thing that the Kid is good at. A roll of one six is a success, with additional success meaning that the Kid has achieved the task with greater alacrity. Contests are won by whomever rolls the most successes, though ties are possible. This includes combat, where a tie might result in a standoff. If a Kid suffers damage, he loses points of his Tough attribute. If a Kid has his Tough attribute reduced to zero, he is not killed, of course, but rather bruised, with a black eye or the scraped knee. Lastly, the result of any roll also determines who gains the narration rights to the outcome, the player if his Kid is successful, the Game Master if the Kid is unsuccessful.

Beyond this, there are some notes on Idyllic England, suggestions as what the Kids’ gang name—and book series—name might be, and a short list of appropriate language for the period, so that something that is good, would be “Wizard!” or a disappointed Kid might exclaim, “Darn it!” There are notes too on the play of the game, no more than a paragraph, to the effect that
Lashings of Ginger Beer is meant to be fun, that the rules are not in any way realistic, and that they are this way to fit the style of Idyllic England. Half of Lashings of Ginger Beer is dedicated to ‘Adventures & Mysteries’. There are six of these, which take a circus, a mysterious manor, a haunted castle, and so on. These are really all quite fun and are obviously inspired by the fiction.

Lashings of Ginger Beer is simple, even simplistic, and lacking in nuance. Part of the issue is with the Kid options available, which are limited and offer too many skills across the three Kid Types. It is difficult to design a Kid outside of its Type, confining them to strict archetypes. Plus, it is difficult to design Kids like Anne of the Famous Five, which would closer model the source material.

Physically, and in keeping with the style and tone of the game,
Lashings of Ginger Beer is a simple affair. The layout is clean and tidy, the line art a mix of period pieces and modern additions. The latter is not as good as the former, but the latter is not accompanied by anachronistic titles.

If you are of a certain age, Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game has a problem. Much like Pendragon has the issue of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game has The Comic Strip Presents... Five Go Mad in Dorset. Broadcast in 1982, this parodied the children adventurer format of the Famous Five and the social attitudes prevalent in Blyton’s stories. It is difficult to roleplay
Lashings of Ginger Beer without lapsing into that parody and quoting from it. Yet even as that it is a problem, it is one that Lashings of Ginger Beer acknowledges, though without actually mentioning it. For example, the very title, Lashings of Ginger Beer’, is taken from The Comic Strip Presents... Five Go Mad in Dorset rather than Enid Blyton’s books where it never appears. Then the artwork parodies the source material too, for example, with Julian and Dick in bathing suits, running into the water and shouting how good the acid that they have just taken is and suggesting that they should give some to Timmy the Dog. Some of the captions to the artwork, all of its period appropriate, are even more suggestive. So even as Lashings of Ginger Beer is presenting itself as a straightforward roleplaying game based on a very English genre, it is both parodying both itself and its source material, whilst also acknowledging the parody. Which establishes an odd dissonance between the tone of the writing and the tone of the artwork, between the tone of the game and source material and the anachronism of the parody.

Besides having a problem, Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game is a deeply problematic game, primarily because of its source material and influences that are reflective of the time when they were written and the social attitudes of the time when they were written. The Famous Five books present an England that is a White, Middle-Class idyll in which foreigners cannot be trusted, women have their place, and you can be snobs about both the poor and the rich. It is fair to say that
Lashings of Ginger Beer does not reflect any of this itself, but for a modern audience aware of the issues with the source material, it is always going to be lurking in the background as they play.

Another issue with
Lashings of Ginger Beer is that it shows its age in terms of design, especially in comparison to the number of roleplaying games that explore the children adventurer genre currently available. For example, Kids on Bikes from Hunters Entertainment and Renegade Studios and Tales from the Loop from Free League Publishing are both more sophisticated in terms of their mechanics, yet without much more in the way of complexity. They also offer more choice and more nuance in that choice in terms of what the players can choose as their characters and character archetypes. Similarly, roleplaying games like Tales from the Loop also offer more emotional sophistication in terms of the Player Characters and especially in terms of their family lives, which reflect the often difficult and fractured nature of the family during the eighties when it is set.

Consequently, were a designer to create a children adventurer-type roleplaying game today, it would be unlikely to be based upon or draw from the same source material and though it would aim for mechanical simplicity in its rules, it would offer a wider of options to play and it would address the emotional nuances in the genre. Design demands have changed radically since 2003.

Of course, to be fair, Lashings of Ginger Beer is not set in the eighties and it is set in an idyll when the idea of family difficulties was something to be kept behind closed doors as best could be, but the upshot is that none of the Player Characters in the roleplaying game possess anything akin to emotional depth or a life away from their adventures. Lashings of Ginger Beer is about roleplaying in that interlude, carefree and joyous, between the responsibilities of home, family, and school, as much as it is on exploration, snooping, and unmasking smugglers and international criminal masterminds on the Dorset coast.

Here then, ultimately lies the charm of Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game—and it is charming—the emulation and clear love of its source material, despite its underwhelming rules. It is never going to escape the issues with its source material and there have been better treatments of the children adventurer genre since, but Lashings of Ginger Beer: A spiffing role-playing game, one of the earliest entries in its genre, is simple and charming.

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