Saturday, March 10, 2012

Judges Guild Retrospective #2 (Grab Bag Edition): Caves and Caverns

Back in the aughts, whilst hunting for missing elements of my Wilderlands Campaign map collection on Ebay, I bought a few Judges Guild "grab bag" packs from a particularly creative vendor.  Some of these have remained unopened for 7+ years.

To to add a little spice, I am reviewing this product cold.  Here it is, in all of its shrink-wrapped glory:

Caves and Caverns, by John Mortimer, 1982, cover price: $3.98.  64 pages softback, all black-and-white.  As you will note, unlike earlier products, around '82 JG was no longer a holder of the D&D license and was forced to designate their products as "Judges Guild UNIVERSAL Fantasy Supplement."  This development is worthy of a blog post or two on its own, but it was one of the contributing factors to the eventual demise/comatose state of JG; without the "approved for use with DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS" label (complete with official TSR-style branding), JG created a semi-compatible game system and its new products were left to stand on their own merits without D&D branding.  Compare this offering with TSR's product line circa 1982, and the difference in production values is staggering ...

Here's a fairly typical 1982 TSR product with full color artwork that is actually evocative and relevant.  It has a cardstock cover I believe, or at least better binding than a couple of staples.  The unflattering comparison is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is that JG products got short shrift. With substandard artwork, thick newsprint-quality paper, iffy editing, and a generally dated feel, a lot of JG inventory got left in the shrink wrap -- like my copy of Caves and Caverns.  By '82, the hobby had left JG in the dust -- Bob Bledsaw's "TSR Illinois" in Decatur was making product for 1977 audiences.  Whether that sad development was caused by TSR's non-renewal of JG's license or if JG's production values were the reason the license was yanked is a matter of interpretation and speculation.

Back to our Caves and Caverns.  The subtitle: "Forty-eight caves & caverns with nine pages of charts & guidelines using the City State Campaign Hexagon System."  To reiterate from my prior posts about JG: this is par for the course -- offering a game aid to allow DMs to populate their own sandbox settings or the Wilderlands itself.  JG was less in the adventure writing business than it was in the game aid and DM toolbox business.

A bit of a giggle on the back cover.

All right: let's open up this 30 year time capsule.

The first few pages are dedicated to explaining the Universal Fantasy terminology, and Mortimer takes great pains to stress that this product is designed for all game systems, although back in '82, there was D&D, Runequest, and that's about it as far as major fantasy RPGs.  This "methinks he protesteth too much" vibe continued when, at first glance, most of the stats presented were identical to D&D stats, with some minor changes and additions.  One notable alteration was to armor -- Mortimer describes a piecemeal armor system combining armor types with construction material, to arrive at an 'armor rating' that is a damage reduction system rather than the traditional AC-as-damage avoidance system.
To be clear -- I have no issue with JG designing new content.  It's just one of the earliest examples of a non-copyright holder having to create new game subsystems and otherwise engage in various gyrations and contortions to avoid an infringement lawsuit from TSR.

My favorite parts of JG products are the tables and charts, and Caves and Caverns does not disappoint.  The next few pages describe wilderness terrain effects on combat, and the best part of the whole supplement: "Random Generation of Caves, Caverns, and Burrows."  By cross-referencing the base terrain with a die roll, the "type" of cave (limestone, dungeon, lava tube) is generated; the next tables allows generation of the "type of cave entrance" and the size thereof.  The following table is a random cave and dungeon generator, allowing a DM to fill in a blank map quickly, either on-the-fly or to prepare a lair beforehand.  I have seen several random dungeon generation tables that were superior to this, but the fact that it is broken down by "cave type" lends it some additional merit.  JG was never afraid to get hyper-specific in its tables and charts. 

Several of the following pages are devoted to a random monster tables, about half of which are JG original monsters designed for use in their Universal Fantasy System and described further in the separate two-volume (and really poorly-named and launched) Field Guide to Encounters -- which I also own in its original pristine shrink-wrapped state and will review on a later date. About half of the monsters' stats were Universal Fantasy additions (agility, endurance, etc.). The stat blocks on the monsters are pretty heinous walls-o-numbers and pure gobbledygook for those with a D&D-only background. For this reason, the monster list in Caves and Caverns is only partially usable for a DM using D&D unless he has the aforementioned Field Guide.

The remaining 50 pages of the 64-page booklet are dedicated to pregenerated mega-hex wilderness maps using JG's Campaign Hexagon system (more on that in a future blog).  The outdoor maps are entirely modular, allowing a DM to slap down a cave, small dungeon, or other underground feature in any type of prevailing terrain.  The maps alone stimulate an incredible amount of imagination and are well worth the cover price.  They are as usable today as they were in '82.

The product is free of fluff and bad artwork, thankfully.

Overall grade: C, due to the Universal Fantasy System aspects; otherwise, it would have been a B+ due to the utility of the maps, charts, and tables.

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