FROM TIN SOLDIERS TO
COMPUTER GAMES

Roger Kean talks to Angus Ryall about GAMES WORKSHOP...


‘This is where the Dark Leopard and Lord Silver lived. Due to Telfior’s disappearance they had been unable to pay the rent owed to the guild. They had with them 35 red xvarts, 10 yellow xvarts, and 15 blue xvarts. They were all peacefully devoted to mining purpure, when the Dark Leopard disappeared and Lord Silver had an argument with the red xvarts. They murdered him and fled to the other end of the island, much to the consternation of the loyal blue and yellow xvarts...

‘This is a reflection, almost identical in basic shape, of the real house and wall called into being on a parallel plane by the Heart. This house contains several undoubted illusions but many real things from the Pine Material Plane have become trapped inside as well.’

The above are two quotations from The Sunfire’s Heart — an AD&D adventure from the magazine White Dwarf (No. 57 September issue). I quote them here to illustrate the baffled admiration many of us feel for fantasy role-playing games (or FRP if you’re in the AD&D set). Such feelings can rapidly turn to sheer bewilderment when we read:

Pete Martin illustration

‘If a dungeon master decides to use psionics in his campaign, at least one player has to end up psionic or else the whole psionic system is forgotten as the campaign goes on. If none of the players are psionic — and according to the present AD&D rules, once it has been determined that you don’t have psionic potential, you never will — the dungeon master isn’t going to waste his/her time with NPCs and monsters who are psionic. Why bother? The psionic monster can’t psychically attack non-psionic players who are immune to everything but the costly Psionic Blast, and the best part of psionics, the psionic-to-psionic combat can’t happen, unless the characters get their jollies watching two psionic NPCs fight.’
(Quotation from the article ‘Mind Over Matter’ Psionics and AD&D and Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Todd E. Sundsted.)

It’s astonishing how much energy and character projection fans of Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy role-playing games will put into their hobby. You may wonder what this has got to do with computer games, but few Spectrum owners can fail to be aware that the computer game has developed out of a decade of interest in role-playing games. The computer adventure is, indeed, a role-playing game for one person. With few exceptions ‘you’ are playing a role in the adventure, with the computer providing all the other characters and situations.

Role-playing games such as the D&D adventures played out at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire have come a long way from their early beginnings, and have developed far more obscure and fantastic scenarios than most computer adventure games yet. It was perhaps inevitable that a large industry should grow up centred around the continuing fascination with role-playing games, and not surprising that any form of fantasy situation should be attached to it such as wargaming, with its elements of immersing yourself in the strategy of the created situation. This form of role-playing can take a number of forms from dice and board games to the more inventive and free-wheeling ‘tin soldiers’ level of manipulating models on a large playing area, right through to the (to CRASH readers) more familiar computer war games.

In the more classic area of D&D adventures, the pedigree of material to be drawn upon is extensive. Fantasy situations in book form (more popularly referred to today as Sword & Sorcery) have their roots firmly in the writings of people like Edgar Allan Poe (more of a psycho-horror writer) and fellow American H.P. Lovecraft (more interested in arcane monsters that reflect the inner turmoil of mankind). Before them Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creations were heightening the consciousness of Victorian fans. But with J.R.R. Tolkien came a new outlook — an invented world outside of our universe in which recognisable characters worked out their puzzles and solutions in a mythical land. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien were to set a trend that has lasted strongly until the present day. Quite suddenly, mythical creatures like elves, dwarves and dragons became respectable.


Pete Martin illustration

The interest in such material has remained constant, helped by doses of Hollywood celluloid and more books from modern authors like Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson (Thomas Covenant series) or Julian May (Many Coloured Land series). Not surprisingly, as soon as the home computer came along, programmers set to with a will to translate these ideas into computer adventures — and The Hobbit from Melbourne House hardly needs any introduction.

Behind all this industry there is a British company which has been at the very heart of fantasy role-playing games — and now they are launching a range of computer games as well.

WORKING AT GAMES

It is about ten years ago that Games Workshop emerged as a dark force in fantasy, the brainchild of two young writers, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Since then they have covered a lot of ground, but for CRASH readers (who aren’t already fanatic D&Ders) their names may be more familiar from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Warlock was developed from an idea that had already been a great success for the two, Fighting Fantasy Books. These volumes, published by Puffin Books, are computer adventure games in written form. At certain points in the story, the reader is offered several options and may choose, or roll a dice, which to take. So the books may be read through several times, each time coming up with a different story idea — just as happens in a computer game. Warlock (the program) was written by Simon Bratell and Neil Mottershead (Crystal), who had previously written the most successful action/arcade style D&D game, Hall of the Things.

The most visible aspect is the chain of shops across the country. Games Workshop shops are in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester, and another is opening soon in York. Recently the company acquired the Games Master chain with shops in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle and another Games Workshop should be opening soon in Baltimore in the States. These shops are dungeons packed with board games for assisting in fantasy role-playing, strategy and wargames, models and computer games, posters, books, t-shirts and all the paraphernalia any self-respecting let’s-pretend fan would need.

In addition to the shops and the Fighting Fantasy series, Games Workshop have their own publishing division and a metal foundry or two. Chronicle and Citadel Miniatures not only design model soldiers but also cast them in lead. According to Angus Ryall, this unlikely enterprise has difficulty in keeping up with the heavy demand. On the publishing side there is the successful magazine White Dwarf, from whence came the quotations at the start of this piece.

White Dwarf, soon to enter its sixth year of publication, has a long list of skilled and enthusiastic contributors from among whom Games Workshop is able to draw writers for devising computer games scenarios. And it seems inevitable that Games Workshop should finally turn its attention to the growing computer marker, as a software house instead of just being a retailer.


FLAME THROWERS AND DRAGON SLAYERS

Battlecars screenshot

Late September should see the launch of three games for the 48K Spectrum from Games Workshop. Battlecars is rather more straightforward than one would expect from a company so immersed in the occult (!) but in fact it is designed to be played by two protagonists simultaneously, and so continues in the theme of human-to-human conflict rather than human-versus-computer. The original plan had been to release it only in this version but marketing sensibility has dictated making it playable between player and the computer at well.

As you can see from the screen photo each player has not only his own car but his own playing screen too. Only when the cars are in each other’s immediate proximity do the two screen pictures resemble each other. Below, in the centre, is a map of the total playing area, to either side a fuel gauge and then a damage status display. The cars may be armed with a wide variety of weapons including missiles, mines and machine-guns. The object is to hunt down your opponent and destroy him. Gas stations are dotted around for refuelling, but then you are vulnerable to attack of course. There are also service garages for carrying out repairs from time to time, also leaving you vulnerable. Control of the cars includes a ‘drift’ factor, which makes handling these high speed vehicles quite alarmingly realistic — with practice you should be able to do handbrake turns!

D-Day is more obviously in the line of Games Workshop history — a war game simulation based on the World War II Normandy landings. This is a two-player game with no computer intelligence, and so is ideal for play-by-mail, which Games Workshop are thinking of arranging. One player takes command of the landing Allies and the other plays the role of the German defenders. There are four scenarios contained within the program including The Landing, The Break Out and Arnheim. Each map covers 63x63 unit screens. These can be scrolled across to keep control of the between forty and sixty units available to each side. Unlike many army manoeuvrement games, D-Day has a very fast scrolling cursor movement for selection and guidance of units, and in many ways resembles Imagine’s Stonkers visually. Unlike Stonkers, however, this is a classic strategy war game which requires a deal of skill and judgement against another human opponent. A deal of realism has been incorporated to take account of things like units being able to move faster on roads than on rough ground. Artillery fire is seen in animation right up to the final explosion and the graphics throughout are large enough to be easily identifiable by shape.

‘There’s been nothing like it for the Spectrum,’ said Angus Ryall. ‘A decade of wargaming experience is behind it. And that goes for the adventures too. We have contact with many experts in fantasy role-playing games who have been developing scenarios for years.’


D-Day map

One of the maps from D-Day

Tower of Despair cover

The cover illustration from Tower of Despair, painted by Robin Hidden.

Readers will soon be able to sample this aspect with the launch of Tower of Despair. One of the authors is Jamie Thomson, a contributor to the Fighting Fantasy series. Malnor, Demonlord of Darkness, has once more returned to infest the Tower of Despair. But this time he has the Ring of Skulls, a potent amulet of evil force and malice. His evil orc legions and demonkin hordes are now poised to ravage the realm of Aelandor. The council of wizards have summoned you, the Warrior-Mage of Castle Argent, in a last desperate attempt to destroy Malnor, the Screaming Shadow. You are the wielder of the Silver Gauntlet, but you must set out on a quest to find the Golden Gauntlet, for only with both can you hope to overcome Malnor. Can you survive the quest and the perilous journey to the Tower of Despair?

Tower of Despair will be two 48K programs, and the package will come complete with an adventure guide containing a history of the realm of Aelandor and a map of the region. It is a text-only adventure, but a sneak preview of the game reveals one of the most beautiful specially generated character sets yet seen on the Spectrum. As you might expect, the location descriptions and set pieces are atmospheric and designed to drag you screaming into the adventure. The accompanying guide is also heavily illustrated — some of the pictures on this page are from the book. They have more than a decorative function, however, for in some are contained vital clues not available in the program.

Games Workshop are also releasing these three games for other machines later, and plans are afoot for more Spectrum games, possibly some combined with board games as well. The £3½m a year turnover company is set to expand its operations even further with the move into computer software publishing. ‘We want to become known for high quality products,’ Angus told me. To that end a lot of work goes into them and the games are going to demand a lot of work from players. But that’s nothing new to fantasy role-players, and somehow the ethic is enshrined in the company’s name — Games WORKshop.

Battlecars is written by SLUG (a Harlow co-operative of ex-programmers from Red Shift), D-Day is by Dagenham Design Cell, a group of young programmers aided by people from Red Shift (well known for their wargames like Apocalypse). Tower of Despair is written by Jamie Thomson (assistant editor of White Dwarf), Steve Williams, Russell Clarke and Mike McKeon.

All three games are for the 48K Spectrum, priced £7.95 and should be available at all usual outlets, and CRASH MICRO MAIL ORDER.


Apart from the Tower of Despair cover, the illustrations on these pages are all by Pete Martin, well known for his contributions to White Dwarf magazine. Some of them are from the forthcoming booklet accompanying the game Tower of Despair by Games Workshop.