Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Notes on the next project

Glen Rahman's design notes concerning Divine Right, which will be DevGame Project #6.

Divine Right was originally published in 1979 and went out of print after two editions, in 1982.The game had been very popular, but its designers, my brother Kenneth and myself, expected that DR would simply pass out of sight and out of mind like so many other games before it.

To our surprise and gratification, it kept appearing at conventions as a tournament game long after it had become unavailable and every now and then we were contacted by persons asking if it was ever going to be reissued. Then, more recently, the word "classic" began being applied to Divine Right and the designers dared to hope that we had perhaps managed to create something enduring.

Kenneth and I were already avid game-experimenters using mostly the Parker Brother's Risk system when we encountered a copy of Avalon Hill's Tactics II in the early 'seventies. Unfortunately, while there were things to learn from Tactics II, it had to be rated very lowly in the excitement category. But the appearance of Tactics II was our alert that some interesting things were happening in the gaming scene.

In the fall of 1974 this writer encountered a large Avalon Hill selection in a Minneapolis department store and bought Third Reich on the spot and, the next year, subscribed to SPI's Strategy & Tactics. Those were salad days, when even games as wretchedly-conceived as Oil War and Revolt in the East got thorough and repeated playing. Soon the designers were gaming regularly with friends. By 1977 we realized that we had learned enough to leave Risk behind and start designing in the state of the art.

The first serious effort carried all the way to conclusion was a fantasy game which we called Your Excellency. Divine Right players would promptly recognize Your Excellency as the prototype of DR. Some of the names, the CRT-less combat system, the diplomacy system, and the identity cards were all present. Believe it or not, as early as YE we had personality cards. I had been a frequent short story writer for the semi-pros and understood the strength that good characterization gives to a story. One night while Ken and I were play-testing Your Excellency on the kitchen table, it suddenly occurred to me to ask: Why couldn't a board game have characterization, too? The Personality card idea fell easily into place and it worked even better than expected.

From that moment on, we knew we had a good thing going. But the differences between the prototype and the eventually published game by TSR, Inc. were huge. The map looked nothing the same, being rather austere in the manner of an SPI release. There was a Elven and a Trollish kingdom true, but we had provided no magic. None. Further, we had only six special mercenaries, namely Juulute, Schardenzar, the Black Knight, Urmoff, Ogsbogg, and Hamahara. The Barbarian element was represented by nothing more than a small kingdom.

The prototype was dispatched to Metagaming of Austin, Texas. During its long evaluation period, Kenneth and I continued to sample the new bounty of the gaming world. Kenneth experimented with a different map, but we never got around to actually using it in any play test. In the interim, we discovered the Chaosium game of White Bear, Red Moon. This game was something new in our experience - a game of heroic fantasy.

A few dull spaceship battle games existed already and Excalibre had pioneered imaginative fantasy with Atlantis, while SPI had the execrable Sorcerer and there was a fantasy-tactical game called Dungeon from TSR. For some reason we had not bothered to examine the rest of the field - such as Fact & Fantasy's Helm's Deep or TSR's Battle of the Five Armies. So, within our frame of reference, we addressed the innovations of WBRM with great interest.

There was much in it we liked, though there was much which we couldn't relate to. For instance, WBRM seemed to have no clear line demarcating the world of the gods and the world of men. As a reader of mythology I could understand this - sort of. The world order in Stafford's Glorantha resembled that of The Kalevala or numerous primitive mythologies, including the American Indians,' where characters grade from hero to sorcerer to god with hardly any warning were one ended and the other began.

But Kenneth was a J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiast and my own fantasy tastes leaned toward Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. In all these authors' writings there was a difference between gods and men; fantastic things were possible, but an understandable barrier remained between the different states of reality. Further, as far as the conventions of WBRM went, it was hard for us to identify with heroes who could, like the Irish champion Cuchulain, or the Indian hero Arjuna, take on whole armies single-handedly. To our mind, a Julius Caesar might make the deciding difference in a battle with the Gauls, but could J.C. have faced the host of Vercingetorix all by his lonesome? Never! A man is as man and an army is an army.

Nonetheless, WBRM had something we needed to learn - the manner in which magic might be fitted into the world of military affairs.

The Metagaming copy of Your Excellency finally came back rejected in 1978. Like most creative people, we decided that the editors involved just didn't appreciate quality and innovation. Nonetheless, months had already passed and we had some new ideas which we wanted to include into the game. Kenneth set energetically to work redesigning the map and before long he confronted me with an entirely new map done in a jolly-looking antique style, one which would be recognizable as the rough draft of the published classic. It had a colorful and richly satiric quality that would inspire much of the subsequent design, as well as much of the writing for the yet-to-be created Minarian mythos.

Kenneth had added most of the place names written in by the time I first saw the map, and it was only left for me to help with the details and the polishing. "The Crater of the Punishing Star" was mine, as was the "Altars of Greystaff." I also contributed the names of Zorn, Pon, Minaria, and the Invisible School of Thaumaturgy. Zorn came out of a phone book, and Pon was the name of a mountain kingdom created in a story cycle of mine, only two episodes of which ever saw light of day in amateur publication. "Minaria" had been the name of a kingdom I used in an earlier bit of fictional juvenalia. I think, unconsciously, that I was echoing "Mnar," an arcane land mentioned by Lovecraft, or maybe even Minnesota, my home state.

Kenneth and I already had a sound movement-combat-diplomacy system in the original Your Excellency. What the new version required from us was magic, chrome, and detail. The gadgety devices of the Eaters of Wisdom were worked out quickly, and we took inspiration from the corpse-loving mages of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories to create the Black Hand.

Working out the new Your Excellency was amazingly easy. The new game world seemed to leap spontaneously into life. Juulute, the Black Knight, Schardenzar, Urmoff, Hamahara, and Ogsbogg were preserved, but their abilities and powers were expanded and fleshed out. Bilge Rat and several special mercenary combat units were added also. Just before we were really to finalize the rules, we came up with the Wandering People, based, of course, on Hollywood's take on the Gypsies.

We sent the finished prototype to TSR, Inc. of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Within a reasonably short time, TSR's new products chief informed us that his staff liked Your Excellency and he was authorized to make us an offer of publication. Once the development staff began to work on Your Excellency in earnest, Kenneth and I received word that the title would be changed to Divine Right. We were fond of Your Excellency, but soon grew fonder still of DR.

Further, we had originally called all the monarchs kings and now were asked to come up with a wider variety of titles (aided by a kindly developer who had enclosed a long list of possibilities). We also were asked to provide some background material for the world - such as short descriptions of the kingdoms and the scenic hexes. As the seasoned fictioneer on the team, it fell to me to define Minaria. 

Although the game world was created without a real background story, the out-line of Minarian society came easily enough. As a fan of the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, and the parallel idea of Robert E. Howard's Hyboria, I divided Minarian history into periods before and after the "great Cataclysm." Before the Cataclysm, the Minarian continent had enjoyed a kind of Pax Romanum, ruled by a proud, overbearing, but basically benign species of high elf which I called the Lloroi. The Cataclysm that followed took much of Minaria back to the Stone Age, but enough culture survived to allow a fairly rapid restoration of civilization. By about 500 A.C. (after the Cataclysm) Minaria had achieved about the same level of culture as Europe had possessed in 500 A.D. (though Europe had fallen to a nadir at that time, while Minaria had fallen much lower and had managed to climb back).

The developing the nonhuman races which fantasy fans known so well from Tolkien called for a special measure of care. Rather than treat the Goblins and Trolls as evil creatures befitting their origin in the mythology of the Underworld, I addressed them as alien races, different from men, of course, and rivals, but not metaphysically evil. The Elves and Dwarves came in for a little satire, to set them apart from the stereotypes already abroad in the gaming culture. I used hillbillies and gold miners to inspire the Dwarves, and a combination of Imperial China and the Third Reich to flesh out the Elves. The background material seemed to fit the bill as far as TSR was concerned and it was published with the game in 1979, as an appendix to the rule book.

1 comment:

  1. Sort of off topic.. reading through the Divine Right rules has been very interesting. My strategy game concept is basically stuck using Risk and Starcraft as models... it's interesting to see a game with a different starting point.

    It's pretty cool to see how the distinctive features of this game evolved from the very earliest prototypes.