|Art by Clyde Caldwell
The contents of Dragon #80 (December 1983) offer a glimpse into the state of gaming as it was three decades ago. The “Dungeon Master's Familiar” article provides the entire code for a program intended to facilitate AD&D combat.
This program was written to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80, but it can be used easily in any computer that uses a variation of Microsoft BASIC. To use the automated combat segment, you need a disk drive...In his introduction to the issue, Kim Mohan presents submission guidelines for computer programs. He explains that programs should not be extensive...
...even if they're good, because most people couldn't cram them into their 16K or 32K systems. We'll look at programs for 48K or 64K systems, but they'll only be accepted if they need to be that long.What a difference 31 years makes.
The “How many coins in a coffer?” article goes into profound detail about numismatic dimensions, metallic impurities, specific gravities, and – for some reason – the speed of light. Regardless, the author concedes that – for the sake of playability – “all coins are the same size (diameter and thickness) and weigh a tenth of a pound each.” This is acceptable because AD&D™represents fantasy, not reality. Good to know: “...the figure for a loose coin is 110% of the effective volume of a stacked coin...”
One article, “Five keys to DMing success,” has the sub-title, “Reducing the work, increasing the fun.” Huh? Less work? More fun? How baffling! Must be old school.
In any event, the purpose of this post is not to analyze old issues of gaming magazines; your humble host surrenders that task to bloggers greater than himself. This post compares and contrasts the games Timeship and Man, Myth & Magic. It just so happens that Dragon #80 contains reviews for both games. It just so happens that both reviews were written by the same person – Ken Rolston. (The same issue has another review by Rolston as well as an article he wrote on how to write game reviews.) Here is an opportunity to see how a (professional) reviewer perceived both games at a time when those games were still in print. In short, Rolston's verdict was: MM&M, thumbs down; Timeship, thumbs up. These are similar games from the same creator, yet the assessments were contradictory. Why?
Rolston did not consider Timeship to be without flaws. He recommended the game “[d]espite its weaknesses in game design” and notwithstanding his contentions that “the organization of the rules is confusing and the style is occasionally unpalatable.” Rolston expressed similar misgivings for MM&M but was unable to overlook them when establishing his opinion of that game.
With regard to rules, Rolston wrote:
The term used locally to describe the level of sophistication of the mechanics of Timeship is “goofyworld,” a generally positive term suggesting wild and crazy action, with fast-and-loose judgements left pretty much in the hands of the referee, under the assumption that there is little competitive pressure and that the referee is basically out to show the players a good time.Herbie Brennan expressed similar sentiments in the advice section of Man, Myth & Magic. While Rolston commented that Brennan's advice was “practical and intelligent,” he did not believe it was “successfully translated” for MM&M. Still, Rolston stated with regard to MM&M, “In fairness, I suspect a skilled gamesmaster could make the rule system and scenarios work...”
Rolston felt that the time-travel premise of Timeship reflected “the stuff of thousands of daydreams and fantasy adventure stories.” Man, Myth & Magic, on the other hand, did not conform to any “literary adventure genre models” nor was it an “historical simulation game [although] it makes no claim to be.”
Was premise the deciding factor in Rolston's opinion? He wrote:
Whatever reservations I might have had originally about Timeship were dispelled when I playtested the game with our local weekly gaming circle. I don't believe I've seen FRP gamers have so much fun in years. Everyone was quite enthusiastic about the concept of the game, and the players were quite willing to overlook any faults in the rules...As a gamesmaster, I was surprised at how smoothly the session ran, despite my original impression...Regarding Man, Myth & Magic, however, Rolston “never felt tempted to playtest the game...”
Ultimately, Rolston praised Timeship for simple mechanics, accessibility to non-gamers, and the “marvelously fertile” genre of time travel. He faults MM&M for poor execution (“not up to industry standards”) and a lack of innovation. Perhaps if Rolston had the experience of playing MM&M – especially with a skilled gamesmaster – he might have been more inclined to forgive its flaws as he did with Timeship. Perhaps not. If a game lacks sufficient appeal even to want to play it, then it has failed on a fundamental level of engagement. Evidently, a game with “historically implausible party composition” did not appeal to Rolston, nor did it particularly appeal to RPG consumers of the time. As Rolston queried, “[W]hat would a Hebrew priest, a British apothecary, and an Egyptian warrior be doing together in the first place?”
Well, they could try walking into a bar.