Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#12A - California Gaming Part I - Steve Perrin's Conventions - #RPGaDAY

Tracing the California Gaming Scene, part I: Steve Perrin in NorCal

I still read a number of old RPG supplements in my study of the early history of gaming. While many game historians study the origins of the hobby that spread from the wargame groups of the Great Lakes region (specifically, Lake Geneva and the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis), I focus on the gaming scene that developed in my home state of California. West coast gamers created their own "flavors" of playing. I'll cover these in several posts and see how they wrap back into the official D&D game.

1976 Berkeley: Dundracon I, An Unconventional Convention for Perrin's Conventions


DunDraCon (Dungeons & Dragons Convention) was first held in Berkeley's Claremont Hotel in March, 1976. There, the public first encountered The Perrin Conventions, a set of D&D house rules handed out by organizer Steve Perrin (who was also a founding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)).
Location of the first Dundracon

The Perrin Conventions included details for D&D combat, like: breaking up a round into phases, adding a "dexterity roll" to do other actions, knocking down opponents and two-weapon fighting. These were likely inspired by Perrin and his friends' experiences in mock battles with the SCA. This initial set of rules modified the magic system and included Dave Hargrave's critical hit rules(1).

 Perrin's own Dundracon bio admits that he didn't design all the rules, he was just the guy who typed them up for distribution. The rules received some notice from the convention attendants, but this was a limited group of mostly gamers from the Bay Area and surrounding regions. Still, it served as an early mutation on the original D&D rules from 1974 and showed that some players were interested in a less abstract combat system.
Steve Perrin and his wife Luise in SCA regalia at the 1968 Worldcon (source)

Steve Perrin wanted to become more involved in the nascent RPG industry and teamed up with fellow gamer Jeff Pimper to edit together a book of monsters, complete with stats for D&D and two newer games: Tunnels & Trolls (T&T, first published 1975) and Arduin (first published as The Arduin Grimoire in 1977).

In addition to their own creations, Perrin and Pimper compiled creature designs mostly from APA zines (The Wild Hunt and Alarums & Excursions (A&E)) or from local gamers. The designers included Dave Hargrave (local gamer and creator of The Arduin Grimoire), Clint Bigglestone (Dundracon organizer), Sean Cleary (A&E and Wild Hunt), Hilda Hannifen ("The Ignoble Mockturtle" A&E zine), Roger Harvey (later, an illustrator for Judges Guild), Steve Henderson (another SCA and Dundracon founder), Dan Pierson and Glenn Blacow (both from Wild Hunt), and others.

Jennell Jaquays (using the name Paul) contributed a few designs from her RPG fanzine, The Dungeoneer (about one year later, this became a Judges Guild magazine). Jaquays went on to a prolific career designing and illustrating RPGs, authored classic modules like Dark Tower, became one of the first tabletop designers in video game design (at Coleco). (12-11-14 edited for clarity)

They had more than one book's worth of material, so the editors decided to only print monsters that were never published before. Thus some of Jaquays and Hargrave's designs were left on the cutting room floor with some others from A&E. The monsters were given only D&D stats, though each entry included ranges for "IQ" (Intelligence) and Dexterity. They just needed a publisher.

1977 Albany: Chaosium publishes a Monster Manual or two before TSR

Greg Stafford founded his company The Chaosium in 1975 to publish White Bear & Red Moon (later reprinted as Dragon Pass), the first board game set in his fantasy world of Glorantha. Stafford was an D&D player and maybe purchased the first D&D set ever sold. Perrin, Pimper and Stafford met through mutual friends and when Stafford heard about their project, he was eager to have Chaosium publish it and get into the RPG supplement business.

Stafford was trying and failing to get a Gloranthan RPG off the ground. First, Dave Hargrave tried to make a Gloranthan version of his Arduin system and Chaosium had planned to publish The Arduin Grimoire; Chaosium house magazine Wyrm's Footnotes issue 2 notes: "THE ARDUIN GRIMOIRE will be the first of our new products." A few months later, the very next issue states: "When we finally received the manuscript to ARDUIN GRIMOIRE, it was not quite what we had hoped for... we have decided not to publish the rules." Hargrave had to self-publish The Arduin Grimoire (more on this later).  It is said that Chaosium felt Arduin was too derivative of D&D; issue 3 doesn't say this directly, but it does refer to Arduin as, "a supplement, if you will," and highly recommend it for, "experienced dungeoneers," (i.e. anyone who already owns the D&D rules?).

Stafford's design team of Hendrik Jan Pfeiffer, Art Turney and Ray Turney worked on the Gloranthan RPG as a D&D supplement but Stafford's world was unique and needed its own unique game system. Impressed with The Perrin Conventions, Stafford asked Perrin to "look in and see if he could help the situation" on July 4, 1976(2).

Perrin came up with revolutionary changes to the new system, like doing away with experience points, having no character classes and flat hit point values that don't increase linearly with experience. Slowly, Perrin was put in charge of the project. Only Ray Turney stayed on from the original design team and Perrin added fellow SCA members Steve Henderson and Warren James. Stafford was very pleased with the team's work on his fantasy world.

Chaosium published Perrin and Pimper's All the World's Monsters sometime in 1977, getting to market before TSR's official monster collection, the AD&D Monster Manual (released in December, 1977).
All the All the Worlds' Monsters, volumes 1-3
All the World's Monsters vol. 2 followed that same year and maybe hit the shelves before Monster Manual as well. In addition to adding in cut designs by Hargrave, Jaquays and others, the second volume included T&T conversion notes (by Ken St. Andre) and a refined, revised set of The Perrin Conventions (dated November, 1977) that focused mostly on D&D combat, less Hargrave's critical hit rules. Now, the house rules were available to a much wider audience.
RuneQuest, 1st printing cover. Illustration by Luise Perrin
In 1978, the new Perrin-led Gloranthan game RuneQuest was born and, with it, Chaosium's in-house Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system. This BRP system was also modified into Worlds of Wonder, Call of Cthulhu, Elfquest, Stormbringer/Elric!, Hawkmoon, Pendragon, Superworld, Ringworld and many other games. This was also one of the earliest "universal" RPG systems (though many of the different games were only barely compatible).

The combat system was quite detailed, with parries, fumbles, critical hits, hit locations and more. RuneQuest the first totally skill-based RPG without classes (Traveller (1977) had character skills but no way to improve them) where the player could develop their character as they desire. For some years, RuneQuest provided competition to TSR's sales and Chaosium is one of the few game companies from that era still in business today.

12-11-14 Update: 
I'll let Dr. J. Eric Holmes, editor of the first D&D Basic Set and a SoCal gamer, describe RuneQuest's combat system as he compared it to D&D in 1981.
The combat system requires a little more bookkeeping than D&D and is, therefore, more "realistic."(3)
Could you elaborate, Dr. Holmes?
Combat rules are extremely complex. There are die rolls for each hit and its parry, for the location of the hit as well as for the extent of the damage. There are special scores which indicate a "critical hit" or a "fumble," and then another roll to see what the nature of the critical injury or fumble might be. Special training will increase the character's ability to hit with a particular weapon. Each weapon must, realistically, be trained for individually, at a cost of silver lunars (the coin of the realm) or maybe by doing some more die rolls to see if your character has learned from experience after a successful fight.
 All of this takes a lot of bookkeeping, die rolling and calculation with every blow struck. This is not necessarily a criticism. A great deal of any game is spent in the calculations and die rolling involved in combat... A pocket calculator might come in handy. Many game players revel in these complicated calculations. The more complex the computations of each weapon blow, the better they like it.(4) (emphasis mine)
So, Holmes found players in Southern California that, like many Northern California counterparts, preferred a complex, "realistic" combat system. Holmes did not share that opinion, himself:
What are the advantages of this game over its (inevitable comparison) competitor, Dungeons & Dragons? In terms of basic game mechanics, character generation, experience, combat, magic, I would say none. Some fans of the game would cry that it has greater "realism," but I think these are minor differences.(5)

Holmes appears to like the RuneQuest game and speaks highly of its clarity in writing, numerous examples and the novelty of a game manual with an index (something he wished for his own Basic D&D(6)). Besides the combat complexities, his main complaint was he didn't feel the RPG captured the "feel" of Glorantha (as seen in White Bear & Red Moon). It missed out on the "eerie feeling of reality to his imaginary world(7)" that Greg Stafford brings when he writes games, himself.

Note: Holmes probably played 2nd edition RuneQuest as opposed to 1st edition. As far as I understand, the differences between the two are minimal.
End 12-11-14 Update 



First of all, RuneQuest did not evolve directly from The Perrin Conventions. It may seem obvious, but the internet is full of quotes like, "Runequest's rules were made from The Perrin Conventions," or, "RuneQuest is a codification and development of the Perrin Conventions." (quotes slightly obfuscated) These statements imply that RuneQuest is nothing more than a D&D variant, but that simply isn't the case. There are similarities between the two, but no more so than with countless other systems. If Chaosium just wanted a D&D variant, they would've used Pfeiffer, Turney and Turney's design and gone to market with it back in 1977.

Second, SCA members and wargamers play differently. D&D evolved from wargame rules by members of the Castle & Crusade Society, founded by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz as a chapter of the International Federation of Wargaming, itself founded by Gygax, Scott Duncan and Bill Speer in 1966. These gamers got together around a sand table (usually in Gary's basement) ordering miniature armies into mock battles. Abstract combat was simple and made sense.

Conversely, the SCA was founded in Berkeley in 1966 with armored members going outside to fight mock battles with padded weapons. Their point of view was not that of a military commander with a bird's eye view of battle, but as a common soldier who has felt the heft of their shield and the sting of a (padded) sword. Combat seems abstract if you aren't the one fighting. The reenactors saw something missing in abstract combat and created their own rules and games to fill those gaps.

Maybe it all comes down to the weather. In sunny California, you can go outside and play practically all year round. When it gets cold up North, it is best to hunker down next near the heater and go to war with some good friends around the sand table.

  1. Peterson, Jon, Playing at the World (San Diego: Unreason Press, 2012), 554.
  2. Appelcline, Shannon, Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Silver Spring: Evil Hat Productions, LLC, 2014), 251.
  3. J. Eric Holmes, "Science Fiction and Fantasy Games," Locus v. 14 no. 11 (1981): 24.
  4. J. Eric Holmes, Fantasy Role Playing Games (New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1981), 120-121.
  5. Ibid., 121.
  6. J. Eric Holmes, "Basic D&D® Points of View... from the Editors Old and New," The Dragon v. VI no. 2 (1981): 17.
  7. J. Eric Holmes, Fantasy Role Playing Games, 121-122.


  1. Great stuff, Tony. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Loving this series - looking forward to reading them all!