Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wizards: Nostalgia, Part One

A page from Castles and Conquest by "Wizards of the Coast" in 1983

Let's turn back the clock a bit.

On Monday, 16 October 1989, Ken McGlothlen was working three jobs: (1) at the University of Washington (UW) Biostatistics department typesetting a biostats textbook in TeX, (2) being a computer consultant/operator at NOAA/PMEL on Sand Point, and (3) working as a system/network administrator at StatSci. Peter was working at Boeing.

Ken was living in an apartment in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (at 5603 7th Avenue Northwest #1, fourteen blocks from where Beverly and I live now). His apartment was a three-bedroom, two-story unit in a triplex. It was evening, and Ken was alone upstairs on the computer in the southeast bedroom. Internet access was not as easy to come by in those days as it is today, but Ken had access to the Internet via Unix machines at the UW thanks to his job there, and Peter had access through his job at Boeing. That evening (in the days before Facebook and Skype) they were nevertheless chatting electronically.

Peter remembers this initial conversation taking place over his lunch break at Boeing, but both Ken and Peter agree the followup discussions went on for days and weeks thereafter, so who knows which came first - the lunchtime chat or the evening one.

Although Ken and Peter had been best friends for years, things between the two of them had been difficult since 1986 (for reasons we won't get into here), and their conversations had been pretty rare since then. By October 1989, though, the two of them seemed to be moving beyond their past difficulties, which came as a relief to both of them because they both had a lot invested in their long friendship.

In their chat together, Peter was waxing nostalgic about Castles and Conquest, an amateur Dungeons and Dragons supplement they had worked on together between 1982 and 1984. At the time, Peter had taken some game mechanics out of two wargames; he added some original content after Ken pointed out that what they had was uncomfortably close to copyright violation. Ken hand-drew the cover on fine graph paper. Peter's tagline on C&C was "What's D&D without C&C?"

This was long before affordable laser printers, much less scanners. Castles and Conquest was printed out on a pin-fed dot-matrix printer, on the old green-and-white-striped landscape printer with the tear-off hole-punched strips on each edge of the page. Here's a sample chart from the supplement that shows the combat stats of different types of units, by "level" (D&D style).

Peter sold maybe fifty copies, never through retail but at various gaming conventions, and used the proceeds to cover the cost of attending the cons. As a young college student, being able to sell enough copies to attend cons for "free" made him feel like success, so he was very happy with the project.

From the perspective of this history, though, Castles and Conquest was important for two reasons. First, it was published by "Wizards of the Coast," which at that point was a private amateur imprint used by Ken and Peter for their projects. Second, chatting about it together over the Internet was fun and nostalgic, and led both of them to remember their dream of some day starting a game company.

They then began to reminisce about the day they first dreamed that dream together.


  1. more please! love the stories.

  2. Indeed! I just realized that this site had been updated with dozens of posts in the past couple of years; the last time I took a peek was shortly after the comments on Grognardia.

    I'm still looking forward to the book someday, and eager to read more of this here in the meantime.