Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Greyhawk and the Fall of Judges Guild

It's 1983, and Dungeons & Dragons, despite the documented problems within TSR's ownership group, is apparently doing well by all external measures.  Its core gamer base remains in an expansion mode despite the protestations of satan-fearing religious types, and many of the kids and adults who started playing over the prior eight years are clamoring for new and better content and game aids.  While TSR was fighting its own internal battles, a few hundred miles south in Decatur, Illinois, a competitor and sometimes-friendly colleague in the RPG publishing business, Judges Guild, is in deep trouble.

I am not breaking any news here, but my thesis is that JG was at its best in publishing two categories of gaming product: campaign setting content and maps related to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and game aids (tables, charts, and mapping materials) for use in the Wilderlands or in homebrew settings.  JG was at its weakest, with a few notable exceptions (Tegel Manor and Dark Tower among them), in writing adventures and rules-related offerings.  In this way, JG was a great complimentary publisher to TSR, which had roughly opposite strengths and weaknesses.

To give you an example of why I adore JG campaign materials:

A "Player Map" of Tarantis: Campaign Map Four, printed in 1977
For its time, JG printed wonderful maps.  Not because they were beautiful (though I thought they were), but because they were big, they were on the faux-parchmentish paper, and because you were expected to write on them and actually use them.  The Player Maps were exactly that -- to be filled out as the players explored the unknown, with only a coastline, a few rivers, and some distant mountain ranges to guide them.  Now THAT is how you sandbox, people.

So as you read this post, please don't think I'm dancing on JG's grave.  If anything, I am angry that this company didn't recognize and capitalize on its niche while it had the opportunity.  Bledsaw and Owens, the main operators of JG in the 70s, had a virtual monopoly on officially-licensed campaign settings.  They came up with two fabulous ideas: (1) the Wilderlands itself, a huge sandbox of a game-world (really, about the size of Europe) and (2) an ahead-of-its-time subscription-based publishing strategy to put out setting-related materials, supplemented by the Pegasus magazine, one of the main functions of which was to promote and support the Wilderlands setting.  They had a good plan.  They did not execute the plan.

With respect to the maps of the Wilderlands, 18 campaign maps (with mostly-blank Player versions) were published and distributed on or before 1978.  The often imititated, never duplicated, City State of the Invincible Overlord (launched in 1976) was the centerpiece of the game world.  JG's setting-related offerings (e.g., Modron, Shield Maidens of Sea Rune, Verbosh) often focused on nearby locations within easy reach of the City State.  Thus, in fairness, JG's main intent was in supporting City State-based campaigns, rather than necessarily expanding the Wilderlands.  The Wilderlands' next most substantial content-related expansion arguably was the 1980 release of the City State of the World Emperor, detailing the Overlord's main rival to the West and the surrounding lands.

In prior posts, I have more or less identified the core reasons for Judges Guild's fall (from a product standpoint only; I can't speak to JG's financials or ownership issues), to wit: low-quality and stale production values, poor art, missing-in-action editing, a tendency to regurgitate previously-published material, and a failure to adapt to the rapidly increasing sophistication of TSR's product line (as well as the D&D target market itself) in the early 80s.  The coup de grace, however, was JG's 1982 loss of the license to put the D&D and Advanced D&D logos on its products.  JG already was moving into second-class publisher status; the licensing debacle relegated it to the role of gonzo publisher -- though one with a fairly impressive back catalog.

The Kiss of Death

So in 1983, my guess is that Bob Bledsaw, one of the founders and the remaining owners of JG, decided to stick to what had worked in the past (and frankly, something that capitalized on his best personal skills -- writing and setting design), and published Tarantis, a city-state in the eastern portion of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. 

At first blush, one would think this was a significant upgrade for JG, which in some sense it was.  A glossy color cover certainly was de rigueur in the early 80's.  As with many JG offerings, however, this was lipstick on a production pig, for under the single-page glossy cover, under the shrink wrap, were two 96-page staple-bound cheap paper books. 

To make matters worse, look what else came out in 1983:

As you will recall, this was the fabulous boxed set for which fans of D&D had been clamoring for years.  It had a polished gazetteer and of course the iconic Darlene Pekul map of the Flanaess.  Tarantis (as good as it is -- see below) -- had no shot.  This was the "game over" moment for JG, because TSR had officially gotten into the campaign setting business.  JG's Wilderlands of High Fantasy had a six-year virtual monopoly on this sub-industry -- and the World of Greyhawk smacked it aside like the proverbial redheaded stepchild.

As a side note, 1983 also saw the release of Ravenloft, which was in itself a seminal moment in the development of D&D.  JG had long since fallen behind the curve on adventure publishing, which TSR absolutely dominated since around 1978 (despite a few Paul Jacquays standout offerings for JG).

Now here's the punchline: remember the date on that Tarantis Player map?  1977.  When was Tarantis published?  1983.  Why did it take Judges Guild six years to publish Tarantis?  Or to put a finer point on it -- why couldn't Judges Guild fully flesh out the Wilderlands with a six year head start?

So to recap -- JG had no D&D license, third-class citizen status amongst the game-buying public, stale production and 1970s sensibilities -- and it lost primacy in its best category.  Frankly, they are fortunate TSR didn't get into the setting business sooner, because if Gygax had published the City of Greyhawk and World of Greyhawk early on in D&D's life-cycle, JG wouldn't have made it past 1978.

In the end, though, Tarantis was a largely forgotten product, which is sad.  As a whole, the Wilderlands is in some ways a superior product to the WoG, especially for OSR players.  I'll post my review of Tarantis in in the coming days.

Edit: a day late and a dollar short: Grognardia's retrospective on the Wilderlands makes many of my points for me -- as usual.  Looks like I'm playing catch-up!


  1. This was a good read! I knew next to nothing about JG history, and being a Greyhawk fan all my life, I found it hard to believe there was anything of quality out there at the same time. Good stuff!

  2. Thanks, Mortellan. I would say both were quality offerings, but very different offerings, to wit:

    * Greyhawk: polished, coherent, nation-based, defined history and peoples, established internal legends and NPCs, connection to Gygax, the "official world."

    * Wilderlands: rough, wilderness/exploration based, less defined the further you got from the City State of the Invincible Overlord, gonzo/multi-influenced flavor.

    If ever there was a 'points of light' setting, it was the Wilderlands. You basically had a handful of very powerful city states, a few walled towns, and tons of uncharted lands with ruins from an earlier age.