Friday, June 15, 2012

Village Book 1: Old School Supplement Nostalgia

Here’s a kid with his coloring book. Except it isn’t.

Page after page shows nearly identical numbered hex sheets. The images shift slightly- a few more walls, a river, a handful more tree icons. The kid doesn’t care. He’s got a couple of colored pencils and two markers. He’s decided on his color key, and he’ll remember it he tells himself so he doesn’t have to write it down anywhere. These buildings have to be marked- that will flesh this out and make these maps awesome. He writes down the names in block capitals: Vokora, Jaerlawe, Penir-Souhl. This is just what he needs to take his game to the next level…his players will travel to these places and know that each building has a purpose.

And that’s how my maps book ended up filled in with four colors: dark green, orange, vermillion red, and lime green.

In the late 70’s, early 80’s I had the fortune of having a decent gaming shop within walking distance of my house. New things came out and I’d thumb through them on the shelf. I bought a ton of stuff I read, a ton of stuff I didn’t read, and much smaller pool of things I actually got to play. From the earliest days I had a sense that the Judges Guild material was…kind of crappy, to put it delicately. Mind you they started off only a little behind other publishers, but pretty quickly dropped behind as game lines improved. JG seemed to grab the coattails of whatever game was hot that month. Some stuff was pretty cool- especially the various poster maps they did and things like City State of the World Emperor and The First Fantasy Campaign. But other supplements fell apart on close inspection (like Hazard IPSP / ISIS Official Map 7). But my sister (older by five years) bought the supplements. I still remember her running me through the start of Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor until she grew frustrated with me. I’d sneak into her room and read the various ones she’d picked up.

And I bought some on my own, like the Village Book 1. Judges Guild published a number of volumes in this series (Village Book 2, Castles Book 1). These are saddle-stitched floppies, with no cover stock to speak of, more like magazines than anything. VB1 clocks in at 64 pages on fairly see-through paper. To offset that, the book’s printed entirely in grey ink. The cover image is decent and signed “England,” those the artist(s) aren’t listed in the booklet. The interior art- spot illustrations appear to be taken from some kind of high school sketch book…maybe. A couple look like tracings but the two out of place monster images ought to be doing an extended guitar solo. The font for most of the book is classic Judges Guild, instantly identifiable, and echoing an engineering manual.


The book opens with a fill-in reference chart for the maps which follow. Each map can be assigned name, population, type, civilization, alignment, ruler details, and resource. They can also be assigned a hex number, assuming that GMs will be using these maps to flesh out a larger hex-crawl map. Pages 4-12 of the book present a series of random tables for determining the characteristics of the Village. Four pages cover naming it (combing a prefix and suffix). So my village’s name is Deafkennel. Let’s see what else the tables generate for me:

Deafkennel has four wall sections (of a possible 72), made of wood, with a thickness of 2’ and a height of 8’. These “stained” walls have nets on them. It possesses 12 dirt streets, 6’ wide. Deafkennel has a population of 90 people, giving it two shops. It is ruled by a dictatorship, indicating the highest technology level. The two shops of the village are a Siege Engineer and a Sanitation Station. Because Deafkennel is under a dictatorship, it has four government works offices. These include a Tax office, an Odeum, a Village meeting hall, and a Pantheon. That last is described in parenthesis as “several temples.”

Of course none of this is given any explanation, beyond a those few parentheticals. For example, a city might have a Capital which is “a temple dedicated to Arthur.” It might seem obscure, or it might drive gamers to go to their dictionaries, an admirable aim. Of course the process is entirely random, so my dirt-tracked village of 90 people could have just as easily had a Naumachial or “place to hold mock sea battles.”

HEX 3019

But the main part of the book, pages 13-60 presents the village maps. Each page presents a numbered hex-map (they note SPI as the inventor of that in the credits). Grey standard lines bound off a large hex section. Inside that they present a village. Most of the drawings are fairly basic- a handful of buildings, dotted lines for roads, crude shapes for bridges over rivers. Many of the buildings are too tiny to annotate directly, so the DM would have to number or color code things. Some maps have interesting details (like a surrounding swamp or being set on an island). As crude and basic as they are, the maps work. They set for me what I imagined a map ought to look like; most maps I drew freehand bear a remarkable similarity to these.

The maps also established the GM’s role for me. “This booklet is intended to fill the need of any active campaign judge to populate a large area for his fantasy role players.” I spent hours making maps for various games, from nations to villages to dungeons. I figured out codes and filled in these coloring books. When Cities of Hârn came out, that was a revolution for me. Now I had the same tools, but with larger maps, better defined, plus several versions (color, labeled, unlabeled). Weirdly it wouldn’t be until years later that I’d actually start examining my process- and realized that while I had all of these maps, I rarely referred to them. Even maps of places and cities I ran in Bozisha-Dar, Pavis, Rykel- I almost never went to the map. Most of the time it didn’t matter, all I needed was a relative and general sense.

But I still have a love for these books. On the one hand, they’re primitive and the relic of another era. On the other I’ve seen recently people setting up and running “hex-crawl” adventures. There’s a kind of board-game simplicity and sandbox vibe to that. If you’re in the mood for nostalgia or want to set up a game like that, Village Book 1 could be useful. It’s even better since you can now buy it as a pdf and work with those in an art program.


  1. I still have all mine. And wish I had a few more that I had but got lost in the ether of time.

  2. You nailed the review. These books were wonderful (back in the day: now, not so much) in that they provided a handy fill-in when players moved off of the prepared maps. They also set a very low bar for young kids to pick up the book, look it over and get going on making their own maps or adapting/re-drawing the ones provided. It was a lot like a license to do better, a friendly challenge to see what you've got or what you can do, now that you'd seen the Judges' Guild version. Those brown-ink/pebble-grain stock blank campaign maps that JG used to sell were awesome. I still have a few blank ones on-hand and will be drawing a fresh campaign map on one shortly.

  3. Reading through your review, I was reminded of the Traveller books that Judges Guild produced. I think I snatched them up for the same reasons you picked up the D&D books - maps. For me, it was maps of ships and bases...the towns and dungeons of a fantasy setting.

    And you're right, the rest of the material in the things were often shoddy, at best. I remember reading them and thinking, "What a cool map! What a horrible scenario that doesn't have anything to do with Traveller in that subsector."

  4. I recall buying a couple of those products. I think I owned the Navigator's Starcharts. But I don't think we ever played more than a few sessions of Traveller. I just liked playing with the maps.

  5. @GJ: Yeah, I have a few of those brown(ish) map sheets- some finished and some unfinished. I really ought to play around with one of those next campaign. Maybe I can combined that with a Microscope session.