Ladyhawke-A Forgotten But Great Movie

Back in 1985, I was a recently licensed driver and still exulting in the new freedoms automotive travel could bring to a teenager in the suburbs. Finally free of my families shackles, I could go to see a movie nobody else in my household was interested in as long as I paid for it myself. One of my first such expeditions to the cinema took me to see a new picture called Ladyhawke starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer (that white ghost). It was marketed as a fantasy movie and, as I was at my Dungeons & Dragons peak, that qualified it as a must see.

Today, as I was then, I am hesitant to describe this as a “fantasy film” in the traditional sense. If fantasy conjures for you images of Tolkien’s noble elves or Howard’s sword swinging barbarians you won’t find that here. Instead, the story purports to take place sometime during the historical middle ages. The villain is a Chaothlic Bishop, not a dark lord, there are no hobbits, orcs, or dwarves, and the only source of magic is a demonic curse.

As such curses were widely believed to exist in the middle ages, to me it doesn’t break the historical framework to include one. However, I conceded that as such a thing is impossible in the real world, calling the film a fantasy is not altogether off base. As for D&D elements…well the chief characters are all either thieves, fighters or clerics so the party is well rounded out.

The film contains a lot of action and swordplay as our heroes attempt to undo the curse of the Bishop of Aquila. It also includes some first-rate dialog and character drama. Broderick’s character, Philipe the Mouse, even has some hilarious one-sided conversations with God throughout the film. Honestly, I found the movie then and now to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience and only the director’s choice to use rock music in the soundtrack throws me off a bit.

If you are a fan of things historical or fantastical and have not seen this movie, I recommend you reward yourself and do. Thirty plus years later and it is still one of my favorite films…and my kids like it too.

By Clayton J.Callahan

 

Three Little Books: Traveller The Breakthrough RPG

When I was but a lad of thirteen, there was this new game that everyone was talking about…and then there was this other game that fired my imagination.

The year was 1980, and the game everyone was talking about was Dungeons & Dragons. And according to who you asked, it was a harmless and fun imaginative past-time or the first gear shift on the highway to Hell (spoiler, it wasn’t Satanic in the slightest). However, the game that I discovered in D&D‘s shadow was a little gem called Traveller.

Always a greater fan of things science fiction over the sword and sorcery stuff, I picked up my first set of “three little books” Traveller at the Black Forest Hobby Shop in Kettering, Ohio and was off to other stars in light seconds.

Traveller is/was a role-playing game designed by the now-defunct Game Designer’s Workshop back in 1977. Originally designed as a generic set of rules for space-opera type play, it has evolved into an incredibly detailed universe with sophisticated politics and history. But in 1980 much of that complexity had yet to be written, and my friends and I (yes, I had friends) only needed the three little books that came in the original box set to contend with.

My guess is that the folks at GDW didn’t have a lot of money to invest in printing, as the game was laid out in these three staple-bound books with little interior art and not even a cover image–just a black book with a red stripe. The books were 1) Characters and Combat;  which told you how to create a character through a series of tables that somewhat randomly assigned you skills and attributes, 2) Starships; which listed fifteen ready to fly ships and a ton of rules on how you could design your own from scratch, and 3) Worlds and Adventures; which explained how you could create your own universe from worlds to governments.

To be frank, some of the rules were a bit weird or awkward so my friends and I just chose to ignore what was cumbersome and play it for the fun. And it was glorious fun indeed. We traversed lightyears in a week’s time and landed on frontier worlds. We engaged in starport shootouts and outer space dogfights. And we were free to invent and contrive whatever possibilities suited our fancy as movies like Dune, Alien, Empire Strikes Back, and Wrath of Kahn, dazzled our eyes and books like The Stainless Steel Rat, Dorsai, and Foundation filled out heads.

I had never before found a template that so suited my imagination and am still a fan of the game to this day. Traveller has proven the inspiration for much of what I write as a science fiction author today, and I make no apologies for that. But beyond my personal interaction, the game deserves credit for many innovative concepts that dominate gaming today. Ever heard of society described as having Teck Levels? Thank Traveller because that idea was found on page seven, Book 3) Worlds and Adventures.  How about characters having skills? If you didn’t know, in the original D&D characters had no skills, but chose a “class” whereby certain abilities were allowed and others forbidden. However, in Traveller, your character learned and could improve on skills without boundaries.

The game has earned numerous awards over the decades and been re-written dozens of times even before GDW went under. You can now play Mega-Traveller, Traveller New Era, GRUPS Traveller, Mark Miller’s Traveller, Mongoose Publishing Traveller, Far Future Enterprises Traveller, and on, and on. But as for me, I’m a down to basics kind of guy and three little books is enough.

So roll some dice over a table with like-minded friends and keep it flowing simple and free. Let your imaginations go wherever the heck you want them to and if you get the chance to play a good old fashioned game of Traveller, as we said int he 80s, go for it!

The Birth of The Role Playing Hobby and The Pursuit of Dreams

empire-of-imagination

I’m an old gamer…but I’m no grognard.

“Grognard” is a French word meaning “old soldier,” and the term was once used to describe gamers who remembered the pre-Dungeons & Dragons days. Me? No, not me. I got roped into gaming through D&D, so I can claim no prior first-hand knowledge. However, I do have a connection to the old grognards that sounds almost gangster…my godfather.

I started gaming in 1980, and Dungeons and Dragons was my “gateway drug.” My family had just moved to a new town (Kettering, Ohio,) and D&D was at the height of its faddish popularity. Basically, I learned the game as a way to make new friends.Thus, at age thirteen, I rolled up my first character and have been gaming ever since. Much later, at age twenty-three, I was attending an Episcopal church just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Having not been baptized as a child, I decided to do so as an adult and one of the members of the vestry stepped forward to be my godfather. That vestry member was Tim Kask, grognard extraordinaire and the first full-time employee of Gary Gygax’s TSR Games.

Tim Kask was a great guy in a lot of ways, and we discussed his history with TSR a few times. He’d just returned from Vietnam when he was offered a job at a little gaming start-up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He was there when the company started to soar and even saw it through its first brush with negative publicity (Media claims of connections between D&D and devil worship). However, once the company got big and the infighting began, Tim said, “adios” and went on to other things.

I haven’t seen Tim for years, but, in a way, I ran into him recently…between the pages of Michael Witwer’s book Empire of Imagination. Witwer’s book is a biography of Gary Gygax with emphasis on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and TSR Games, and, to be frank, it’s a fascinating read.

The creative process takes many forms: music, painting, writing, and yes…game design. Credit where it’s due, Gary Gygax had a genius idea and worked hard to make it a reality. Today, concepts like “leveling up” and “experience points” are part of every computer game, but these are mere imitations of the unique system originally designed by Gygax.

Think about it, the world had never seen a game like D&D before; a non-competitive, game with storytelling, combat, and customizable character generation. Witwer’s book describes how Gygax tried to sell his idea to Avalon Hill and other gaming companies but found no market there. His idea was just too weird to the old grognards. It was as a last resort that Gygax formed his own gaming company, and TSR was born.

As Witwer’s book describes, Gygax was much more of an artistic creator than a businessman. By the time my godfather was hired, TSR’s office was a mess that required herculean labor to clean up. I am well pleased that Witwer gives much praise for the good work Tim Kask did to get the company off to a good start. However, this also illustrates a problem that is all too common for creative people.

The kind of creativity that can change the world must exist within the world. Artists, writers, and other dreamers are often ill-suited to bring their visions to public’s attention…let alone make enough money to live off their ideas. They can call themselves extremely lucky to encounter a Tim Kask, who can get things organized for them. But Tim Kasks are not that common in the world. Thus, we have the  cliche of the “starving artist,” whose creations languish and are eventually abandoned for lack of an audience. The artist then gives up and finds a “real job” and our world is all the poorer as a result.

Gary Gygax was lucky in that his dream found a businessman and then an audience. Within the pages of Empire of Imagination, his successes and failures can serve as a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for the rest of us and can light our way as we travel the cavernous dungeons of commerce waving our little banners of creativity.

Personally, I owe a lot to Gary Gygax and Tim Kask for the gifts they shared with a much younger Clayton Callahan (directly and indirectly). I also owe a” thank you” to Michael Witwer for doing all the research that went into his excellent book, Empire of Imagination.