Friday, October 21, 2005

Shadows of the Gaming Past, part 2

The Quest for Icarus
Unlike the first installment in this series (which will go to at least 3 parts, BTW), today I'll be writing about an old game product for which I have no firsthand knowledge. One of the perennial thread themes over at the RPGnet boards is "best genre supplements for [x]?" or something along those lines. My stock answers are Aaron Allston's Strike Force for supers (though I understand most of Allston's good stuff wound up in the 5th edition Champions sourcebook), Sorcerer & Sword by Ron Edwards for sword & sorcery games, and recently I have added S. John Ross's Risus Companion for comedy games (though it has great advice for non-comedic games as well). Anyway, one such thread led to the following comment from RPGnetter Calithena:
This is a useless recommendation, but a level or two down from S&S I also once enjoyed a book called The Quest, by David Emigh, from Icarus Press in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Two things make this comment particularly interesting. First is the fact that Calithena is my kind of gamer. He's into crazy old school crap involving dungeons and orc-killing and whatnot. The Arduin module I'm currently running was written by him, and boy is it a doozy. Cal is one of the handful of people on RPGnet whose gaming advice is rock solid, at least for someone with my tastes. (While I'm dropping names, some other RPGnet old schoolers worth listening to include grubman, tetsujin26, Random Goblin, and Akrasia. Our patron saint is Old Geezer, who apparently played with both Arneson and Gygax back in the day. In addition to having similar playstyles as my own, all these fellows also strike me as just plain good people.)

The other interesting facet of Calithena's comment is the location of Icarus Press. In case you don't know, I live in Urbana, Illinois and work in Champaign. And some of the guys I boardgame with on Mondays have been gaming for a long time. As in a they-remember-when-D&D-was-a-new-kind-of-wargame long time. More importantly, they've been locals for just as long. Bruce and Al helped organize the original Winter War convention. Next February we'll be celebrating the 33rd annual Winter War.

Clearly I had an inside track on finding a copy of The Quest, if it was published out of Shampoo-Banana. Heck, I suppose you could even go so far as to call Bruce an 'industry insider' if you're fond of bandying about that phrase. At one point he was a partner in a small game company of his own. ("If you want to turn a big pile of money into a small pile of money, a game company is a good way to do it." --Bruce.) Bruce and his pals put out a strategic wargame called Babarian, Kingdom & Empire that received at least one good review long ago. I can't recall if I read the review in Dragon or the late, lamentable Stardate, but either way it sounded like a neat game. I have yet to play B,K&E but from my memories of that old review, Bruce's attempt to explain it to me, and this review from Web-Grognards, it sounds a lot like an ancients-era version of Empires of the Middle Ages, but with crunchier economics.

So after reading Calithena's comment I figure I ought to use my connections to try and track down a copy of The Quest, if I can. A brief series of e-mails with him indicated that he also needed a copy, as he no longer had the first one he purchased. The Monday night after our e-mail exchange I put the question to the grognards. Here's an exact transcript (or maybe not) of the conversation:

Me: I say old chaps, I wonder if I could bother you to help me in locating a volume of gaming lore issued many a year ago by a local publishing house known as Icarus something?

Al: -laughs-

Bruce: -enthusastically raises his hand like a schoolboy needing to go to the bathroom-

Me: Yes, good sir?

Bruce: You're looking at one third of Icarus Games.

Turns out that Bruce and his two friends released both The Quest and Barbarian, Kingdom, and Empire. Isn't that a lovely coincidence? Here I have a net friend living in far off I-have-no-idea-where-istan who happens to love a small press rpg item published long ago by one of my regular gaming buddies!

But that's not the end of the story. According to Bruce the Icarus Games partnership was desolved many years ago and the stock (including some boxes full of copies of The Quest) was sold to wargame outfit Excalibre Games. This information led me to some googling, but a website for Excalibre was not to be found. Turns out that Excalibre is now an 'associate' of Decision Games, a well-established hex-and-chit company that is the current publisher of Strategy & Tactics. At first I thought that Excalilbre had also gone under and sold out, but now I suspect what really happened is that the guy behind Excalibre decided that he likes being a designer more than publishing. Anyway, the Excalbre Games section of the Decision website is chock full of cool looking stuff. It turns out that Excalibre must have also bought out the warehouse when MetaGaming went under, because the Excalibre page is chock full of microgames: Fury of the Norsemen, Fire When Ready, Rommel's Panzers, Stalins' Tanks, Dragons of the Underearth, Rivets, Trailblazer, and WarpWar! (Incidentally, I adore the cover art for Fury of the Norsemen and Dragons of the Underearth.) And microgames like these are about the size and complexity that allows me to wrap my mind around historical wargaming. (For a great look at other microgames from the same era, check out The Maverick's Classic Microgames Museum.) Excalibre also lists Aces High and American Aces from 3W and Wings from Excalibre's own imprint, three World War One airplane games. That's three more airplane games onto my mental wishlist, right behind Richthofen's War from AH, 1st edition Blue Max from GDW and the newish Wings of War cardgame.
But more importantly, the Excalibre section of the Decision website actually has copies of The Quest for sale! I haven't ordered a copy yet, basically out of fear that in a moment of weakness I would buy a bunch of other stuff (the microgames alone would exceed a sixty dollar purchase). But I did send the link to Calithena. I'm hoping to lure him over here, to maybe post a comment about why he thinks The Quest was so great. Until then, the only info I have on The Quest is the ad copy from the website:

This is a design guide book for the imaginative fantasy game referee. Using themes common to ancient myth, medieval romance and modern fantasy, this book guides the referee toward designing more exciting role playing scenarios. Each chapter includes a story illuminating the themes discussed in it. Usable with any role playing system, The Quest is a guide for the discerning referee.

But I do have some more information about the author, David Emigh. The Quest was not his only gaming credit. He wrote Tower Of Ulission and Sword of Hope, the first and second rounds of the D&D tournament for WInter War IV. These adventures were later published by Judge's Guild, the early 3rd party D&D powerhouse based out of nearby Decatur, Illinois. Hey! I own copies of both of those! They demonstrate two equally different and equally interesting approaches to adventure construction, though the execution of both ideas is rough. The Pen & Paper database lists Mr. Emigh as "Technical and General Advice and Assistance" for two landmark Traveller products, Mercenary and the 2nd edition of High Guard. The Traveller Bibliography further credits Mr. Emigh with an article entitled "Charged Particle Accelerator Weapons", published in the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, Issue No. 13. (Part of that article is quoted here.) The Traveller material was all published by Game Designers Workshop, out of nearby Bloomington, Illinois. Marc Miller, the Gygax of the Traveller world (which I mean as a compliment), still lives in Bloomington. He publishers Trav reprints as Far Future Enterprises and sells gobs of material on eBay under the name onlooker1. I've bought an item or two from Mr. Miller. Good guy.

This computer gaming page also mentions that Mr. Emigh contributed to an early PLATO-based D&D-esque computer game, called Oubliette. He wrote Varget, the "ancient" language spells were spoken in. PLATO was a computer system that was deeply embedded at the University of Illinois. Although clearly more than a decade behind the times, it was still in use when I came to the U in the fall of '91. One CompSci upperclassmen in my dorm had an "I Hate PLATO" sign up on his wall. I believe he had printed it out as part of a PLATO assignment. And though I can't confirm it as a fact, it may have been our David Emigh who wrote "As a Cherokee brought up in New Mexico I can think of NO Amerind that looks like the Uruk-hai." in response to some French asshole who thinks Peter Jackson's version of orcs were meant to look like members of the First Nations. I'll have to ask Bruce if he remembers Mr. Emigh as a New Mexican or Cherokee.

I hope this installment of Shadows of the Gaming Past helps you to understand why I am constantly obsessing over old game stuff. The early world of roleplaying was a tangled web of fascinating relationships and much of this world was centered right here in Midwest states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois. Before Calithena's remark a few weeks ago I didn't know David Emigh from Adam. Now it turns out that I was a fan of some of his work and didn't realize it. Furthermore, I game regularly with a couple old acquaintances of his. Life's funny, ain't it?


  1. Anonymous6:02 PM

    Wow! Great stuff, Jeff!

    This is Calithena replying to your query. I meant to get my copy of this out of the attic before posting but it was taking too long, so I thought I'd post once with reminiscences now and maybe again later once I had the thing in my hands.

    (BTW: Old Geezer is Michael Mornard. It doesn't get much groggier than that.)

    Anyway. So, The Quest. I remember the book being organized around six 'stories' - the Dragon Slaying Quest, the Unicorn Quest, the Sword Quest, the Broken Sword Quest, and two others (bringing someone back from the Underworld?) - which were meant to provide 'adventure outlines' for gaming with that sort of 'mythic' feel. The idea was that the PC would go on a heroic quest of one of these kinds and it gave you the basic story elements, tips, riddles, and other kinds of things in various general outlines to let a GM run that kind of adventure.

    So anyway. One of the early ideas of roleplaying, one of Greg Stafford's big ideas taken up by Steve Marsh (who, incidentally, said the Immortals rules for Mentzer Basic was the first published implementation - but I digress) was that of the Heroquest. Now, in Stafford's vision this takes on a very mythic resonance, and I've got nothing against that. The Quest is more of a 'plain vanilla' version of this sort of thing, stripped-down fairytale gaming, ready to plug into your D&D game, assuming an interested player and a DM who wrote his own adventures.

    I've always been very fascinated with this sort of play and in fact am writing some variant D&D rules now that are supposed to enable it (see for some as yet very preliminary details). So the Quest and David Emigh were one inspiration for this, no question.

    Pizza just got here, so more later.

  2. Hey Jeff,

    If you need a line on tracking down Blue Max, let me know. The designer of that game also happens to be more local than you might realize. Phil Hall (designer of said game) is the father of Kevin (of the Pancake Hut game group) and lives in Mahomet.

    peace... Dave

  3. I knew Phil lived 'round 'bout these parts, but I didn't realize he was so close, or that he was Kevin's dad. The small world keeps getting smaller!