Jon Peterson recently wrote about Western Gunfight Wargame Rules (1970, revised 1971), by Steve Curtis, Ian Colwill and Mike Blake, and plausibly suggested that it could be considered an early RPG. He drew the conclusion that the emergence of role-playing was a wider and more diverse phenomenon than the experiments of Dave Wesely, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. His observations recall some comments made by Rick Priestley about his own early fantasy gaming.
The initial impetus to play fantasy wargames came from The Lord of the Rings, which was huge in the 1960s. I think I read it when I was about 12 or 13, not least because The Hobbit was a set text in my first year [ie at secondary school]. So I read The Hobbit and that gave me the impetus to go on and read The Lord of the Rings. And like many people at the time, I became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings, to the extent that I can still quote from it quite extensively. And remember, I was already gaming with ancients, using the early WRG rules, and me and Hal [Richard Halliwell] and a few mates from school started a project, to make Lord of the Rings armies from existing model ranges….
When Dungeons & Dragons came along, we were already doing something very similar, playing fantasy-based skirmish games with personalities inspired by the Skirmish Wargames Group, which was Mike Blake, and his mates, who produced two books that I know of. One was Wild West Skirmish [sic], and the other one was Colonial Skirmish. They were fantastic books and really inspiring. They had lots of individual combat, so they were an early form of roleplaying, but in the context of the skirmish wargame. So, based on toy soldier wargaming, but still with that element of roleplaying. That was where I came in. D&D then came out, and when Richard Halliwell and I first saw it, we thought “They’ve stolen our ideas!” But of course, Gary Gygax and his crew in America had been doing that for years already. So, they were ahead of the curve, but we had had no knowledge of that – this was, after all, the 1970s, when often what happened beyond the confines of your village was a mystery!
– Rick Priestley, Battlegames
Priestley here suggests that an early form of fantasy role-playing developed in the UK independently of D&D, using a descendant of Western Gunfight Wargame Rules. The gameplay still used miniatures, and it is unclear to what extent it involved a one-to-one relationship between players and characters, but it evidently incorporated some elements of role-playing.
The chronology is important. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor dungeon campaign began in 1971-1972. The publication of the original D&D rules was in 1974 (though GW did not sign its UK distribution agreement until 1975). If Priestley’s games took place early enough, it can be established not only that forms of role-playing emerged independently of D&D, but even that they predated D&D.
Priestley refers to his initial wargames using “the early WRG rules”. These are Ancient Wargame Rules, by Bob O’Brien and Ed Smith, published by the Wargames Research Group (WRG) in 1969. Rick Priestley’s first year of secondary school, when he read The Hobbit, was in 1970-1971. He was aged “12 or 13”, when he read The Lord of the Rings, in 1971-1973. It seems, therefore, that he started playing his first fantasy games some time in or after 1971.
There is, however, no suggestion that at this stage Priestley’s games incorporated role-playing elements. Such elements are said to derive from “Colonial Skirmish” and “Wild West Skirmish“. The former game is Colonial Skirmish Wargames 1850-1900, by Ian Colwill, Mike Blake, Steve Curtis and Ted Herbert, which was published by the Skirmish Wargames Group (SWG) in 1972. This would place the role-playing experiments in 1972 at the earliest. It is not entirely clear what game Priestley means by “Wild West Skirmish“. It is possible he is referring to Western Gunfight Wargame Rules, which would support a date potentially as early as 1971 for his games with role-playing elements. However, I believe the most natural interpretation is that he is describing a descendant of these rules: The Old West Skirmish Wargames 1816-1900, by Ian Colwill and Mike Blake, also published by the Skirmish Wargames Group (SWG). This first appeared in 1975 (and was revised in 1978). Piecing this evidence together, we can conclude that the earliest possible date for his games with role-playing features is 1971, but the balance of probability suggests a later one, perhaps after 1975. It is unlikely, therefore, these games predated D&D.
Nonetheless, Priestley’s comments are remarkable for highlighting the development of forms of role-playing separately from D&D. They are striking further evidence in support Peterson’s argument for the broad development of role-playing features among wargamers in the 1970s.
In a reply on Twitter Peterson highlights two more pieces of evidence, which suggest that Richard Halliwell and Rick Priestley were playing fantasy-based games (though not necessarily with role-playing elements) in 1972. The first is a note from Halliwell in Trollcrusher 6 (October 1977):
The second is text from Reaper‘s first edition (1978):
Title art by John Blanche. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.