Tuesday, 16 October 2018

An old school British roleplaying retrospective



I sometimes find the OSR a bit too stars and stripes, which makes sense considering patient zero was D&D. American fantasy has always interested me in its depictions not of sweeping fields of emerald grass, but it's dustbowl aesthetic borrowed from sword and sorcery. Anyway, that's neither here nor there, but I wanted to delve today into the British side of the OSR, since it may be our sole export after Brexit.

We were late to get D&D over here. It wasn't until Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone set up Games Workshop in 1975 that we heard about this weird little game. While the States were pumping out games, we were still pretty much infatuated with wargaming.

Lock up your daughters

Ok, I could be wrong here but I believe that 1979 saw the release of the first British roleplaying game - Heroes. This was a historical game set in the dark ages with a cover by the venerable John Blanche. From what I can tell, this is a grim and gritty game - a reflection of the state of Britain at the time. You can still buy the game.

When I think British roleplaying, really the first thing that springs to mind is Fighting Fantasy. Despite being solo books (up until Dungeoneer's release) I count these as OSR. Plus the art was so much better than what D&D was doing at the time. What kids were doing around a table on the other side of the Atlantic, we were doing with FF books. Fighting Fantasy spawned a slew of pretenders, but one of the most successful was Joe Dever and Gary Chalk's Lone Wolf series.

In 1984 FF publisher Puffin were keen to capitalise on the series' success with a fully-fledged roleplaying game - Maelstrom, a game I own but have never played. It's basically a d100 historical fantasy game famed for its attention to historical detail. The game has since been re-released by Arion Games, who also brought back Advanced Fighting Fantasy.


Speaking of which, 1989 saw the release of Dungeoneer by Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn. This was the first book in the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system, introducing the FF world to the tabletop. This was followed the year after by Blacksand! And in 1994 by Allansia (which goes for a pretty penny on eBay). It's basically the same Fighting Fantasy system with, uh, some advancements. It's good. So good that Daniel Sell based the awesome Troika! on it. More of that in a bit.
AFF is still around, updated by Arion Games and still coming out with material, like Stellar Adventures.

If we trot back a few years to 1985 Corgi (who produced the UK edition of T&T 5e) published the first in a series of Dragon Warriors books by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson. I don't know what it was with UK publishers putting out novel sized books, but I dig it (aside from the fact that there were six core books). Again, it's a simple enough game - no universal mechanic but it seems like it plays well (another one I own but have yet to play). Also another one that has been re-released in recent years in a big hardback.

Art from Dragon Warriors

round the same time Standard Games released Dragonroar, which had an adventure on cassette! That's pretty damned 80s. The game has since been lost to history and was pretty unremarkable aside from it listing a war hedgehog in its bestiary (of 12 creatures). It was more of a minis combat game, with no rules for non-combat abilities.

A year prior to Dragonroar (I know, I'm all over the place), Games Workshop released  Golden Heroes, the first British superhero roleplaying game. Originally created as a Marvel property, Golden Heroes allowed players to roll random heroes and retrospectively give them an origin story based on their powers. I don't own this, so I'm unsure of its mechanics, but combat was done in frames, adding to the comic book feel. This had a bit of a re-imagining by Simon Burley in 2015 as Squadron UK.

Add for Dragonroar. That hedgehog is a PC

It would be remiss of me to forget Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay from 1986, a game that still thrives today under Cubicle 7. It's grim, dark and humorous. You know the drill by now..

So where does the UK OSR stand now? As you can see, there are loads of reprints and new editions of AFF, Maelstrom and Dragon Warriors, which I'd say make up the trifecta of the British old school roleplaying scene. Troika! is a recent piece of hotness inspired by AFF but featuring some gonzo classes and world building - a far cry from the spit and gristle that became the hallmark of British gaming. Warhammer Fantasy has Zweihander, which I don't own but hear good things about.

There's definitely room in the hobby to revitalise some of these games and offer further support. Maybe not Dragonroar, though. Let's leave that in the basement.