Full name and/or handle: Chris Hart, a.k.a. Dirk Malcolm
Birth year: 1968
Hometown: Bolton, United Kingdom
Occupation: Customer Service Manager (Call Centre)
2W2N: You wrote recently about a 1981 Starburst article that “lured” you into the world of role-playing games. There was a powerful advertisement in that issue we likely wouldn’t have seen in the U.S., because at the time D&D and the concept of role-playing were met by adults with trepidation or outright hostility. What was the overall attitude in the U.K. towards the new games?
CHRIS: An interesting question. Certain sections of the British Press have a hard won reputation for creating hysteria and using inappropriate methods in the name of freedom of speech. They liked to stoke up a moral panic about D&D and role-playing games, making a connection with paganism and the occult. Gamers didn’t really help themselves in the early days as it was part of the heavy metal lifestyle. Many gamers would be photographed with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden tees, so the moral majority got the quivers. I was once interviewed by a group of students at college who produced a documentary entitled Devil Games (complete with a red spot-light).
What is interesting about those adverts that you refer to is that there is a sense that Games Workshop, who were responsible for importing games into the UK, were reaching out beyond the core audience of war-gamers and heavy metal fans. Livingstone and Jackson, who founded the company, were entrepreneurs who realised that in a small country like ours, they would need their company to reach the mainstream games market. At the age of 12 my life revolved around Starburst magazine and 2000 AD (the home of Judge Dredd), so the adverts reached me perfectly.
However, it wasn’t quite a mainstream hit. It remained a narrow audience. I spent most of my teenage years trying to recruit people to play. We put an advert in White Dwarf, the Games Workshop house magazine, to find more people to play with. My friend Steven and I were desperate to build up a club, but everyone we recruited either got bored, got on our nerves, or got a girlfriend.
Games Workshop had an interesting strategy. Their business model was really about selling lead figures through their sister company, Citadel. We bought the lead figures before we understood the games. They produced some brilliantly sculptured models for Runequest and Traveller, which were the two games that we played the most. D&D was not really part of our game playing until later. We had an unwritten rule that you could not Gamesmaster a game that was being run by another player. This resulted in us playing some real odd-bod games: Gangbusters, Gamma World, Top Secret and (another favourite) Stormbringer.
D&D has become a shorthand for the hobby now, but I think most of the trouble with role-playing back then is that it was difficult to explain it without it sounding weird. “Does it involve dressing up?” We managed to persuade our local community that it wasn’t anything to be scared about and ran a sponsored dungeon to raise money for the church.
2W2N: There wasn’t a real connection between the heavy metal crowd and D&D in the U.S., except in the sense that D&D and heavy metal were both lumped together in the apparent things-Satan-really-enjoys category. I had the same problem finding people to play, so most of the time I just read and re-read the manuals, drew dungeons on graph paper, etc. It was sort of like trying to start a rock band, wasn’t it? Except not nearly as cool. Among the young, even punk and heavy metal were better understood, even by those who didn’t like the music. Role-playing was just weird.
You’re right that D&D is shorthand for the industry today, and that’s unfair. To be honest, I only remember seeing D&D ads at the time, thanks to TSR’s unrelenting marketing. This is the first I’ve heard of Runequest, Traveller, and Stormbringer. I just found out that there was an RPG based on Watership Down called Bunnies and Burrows!
Wasn’t it confusing switching from game to game, or were the rules pretty similar? You mentioned that your favorite game is Runequest. Why? How does it differ from D&D?
CHRIS: It is interesting that you compared it to being in a band, because when people ask us what role-playing is all about, we always reply, “it was our punk.” What we mean by the comparison is that the punk ethos was all about doing it yourself and having the guts to be creative in the face of people who said you can’t do it.
It was never confusing playing different games at different houses. It made life easier when there was only one Games Master who knew the rules as it stopped any arguments. We have started playing Runequest and Call of Cthulhu again recently. Now that we are all Games Masters there are endless debates over the finer points of the rules. Sometimes it is fun to have a debate, but when we were 12 it got in the way of the flow of the game, so we were much more willing to concede to the greater knowledge of the GM.
Runequest and Call of Cthulhu are both based on Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system. It is great. Comparing it to D&D is a bit like comparing an early PC (MS DOS) with a Mac. It is an intuitive system based on percentage chances, and most situations can be dealt with by converting attributes into percentages or competing one attribute against an opponent. The fights are more of a simulation of real battles with hit locations, critical hits, impales and fumbles that can turn a skirmish in an instant. It’s possible for a lucky, well-aimed sling shot to bring down a giant, for example.
The unique selling point of Runequest was Glorantha: a fully realised game-world. The backdrop is ancient rather than medieval, where the gods are worshiped in Cults and progression as an adventurer is measured through advancement through the cult. Imagine Jason and the Argonauts with new, out of this world monsters, such as Broos (chaos hybrids), Morakanth (who keep humans as slaves) and a complex society of trolls with many different breeds. The whole backdrop is very atmospheric, but a bit stifling for a young teen. We felt like we needed to have all the supplements and adventures to really understand the world. I also felt a bit inhibited by the world as I didn’t want to make significant changes just in case a future supplement disagreed with what I had done.
Another downside to Runequest was having to have fully rolled NPCs [non-player characters]. The NPCs had the same complicated stats as the PCs so that the battles and the interactions could be more authentic, but it put a lot of work on the Games Master.
Gangbusters was set in 1920s America in Lake Front City, a game-version of Chicago. It was part of the TSR stable of games and loosely based on D&D rules (like Top Secret and Gamma World). The problem with RPGs involving guns is that they are lethal when the combat begins. There is no escaping that the PCs will probably die on impact, which always caused a problem in Traveller. Our planet hopping was often cut short by a laser gun!
2W2N: In the Starbust post I brought up earlier, you joke that you would have “had a rich and interesting adolescence” and generally could’ve been somebody (to use Brando’s phrase) if not for the 1981 role-playing article that sent you down the rabbit hole. Any real regrets? What’s the downside to “playing mind-games with dice”?
I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up without RPGs, comic books, Ray Harryhausen, and everything else I held dear before “geek culture” was cool. Banking? Competitive cycling?
CHRIS: It’s difficult to have regrets as I had so much fun. I look back on my adolescence with nothing but affection. Role-playing games were the main focus of our activity, but we were doing other stuff and I suspect that if I went back in time, and did it all again, there would be another distraction in the way.
It’s a paradox. The frustration and the joy of role-playing is that it is so consuming. When you are not playing, you are preparing, reading and thinking about it. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t fallen into the ‘Wonderland’ in the rabbit hole.
If I hadn’t spent so long reading the Five Eyes Temple supplement for the borderlands campaign, would I have got better exam grades at school?
If I wasn’t carefully constructing Azir Voon, a sorcerer in the world of Elric, would I have been engaging with interesting people and entering into fun and exciting relationships with exotic women?
If I’d have read the works of James Joyce, Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy instead of numerous rule-books and gaming magazines, would I be a more fluent bon viveur?
I doubt it.
Being a geek has served me well in corporate life, providing me with a prism to see the world through in a way I can understand. Every day I seem to encounter people with high CHA and low WIS. Runequest equipped me with the ability to calculate every situation as a percentage chance of success or failure.
You are right about the ‘geek chic’ thing too. I found myself in a bar the other day with a range of Star Wars figures lined up on a bookcase containing Space: 1999 and Happy Days annuals. Where were these people in the early ’80s?
2W2N: Your blog, The Dirk Malcolm Alternative, is primarily focused on the intelligent discussion of film. Do you think your geek tendencies and activities led you to a finer appreciation of the higher arts? My first love is English literature (especially the Romantic and Victorian eras) and the entire Western humanistic tradition, really. I feel like the imaginative experiences I had as a kid kind of prepped me for Joyce, Byron, Dickens, et al.
CHRIS: It’s very kind of you to say that it is an ‘intelligent’ debate about film. You’re probably right about FRPGs exercising the imaginative muscles to appreciate the finer aspects of culture, but it has also affected my approach to everything: borderline obsessive and based on insane challenges.
The site came from Derek Malcolm, a well-known film critic in the UK who created a list of 100 greatest films at the end of the 20th century. His list was peppered with controversial, obscure and extremely esoteric choices from all over the world that set a challenge for any film buff. Me and my friend Dominic set about trying to find and watch them all.
It was hard work, like eating cultural vegetables, and I think it was after watching Shoah for 9 hours that we started to waiver.
Part of Derek Malcolm’s motivation was to convince the multiplex generation that cinema history didn’t begin with Star Wars. This seemed like a gauntlet being slapped in my face.
Dirk Malcolm was born, and I have set about selecting a personal list that imagines that film history did begin with Star Wars. It’s interesting because unlike most of the films in Derek Malcolm’s list, all of these films have been released in my lifetime and there is interplay between the films and my memories of them. To support the film selections that I have made I have been exploring my collection of old magazines and books.
As a geek, I suppose my response is to see everything as a challenge and a list to be conquered. I am keen on literature too, but I must admit I take a similar approach. I am presently working through the complete works of Charles Dickens, as it was his 200th birthday last year, so I wanted to get through them before it reaches his 205th.
So, you’re right, RPGs gave me breadth of imagination to explore literature and film, but it also gave me an interest into pointless games too!
2W2N: You mentioned that you were doing “other stuff” in addition to role-playing. How much of your time was spent obsessing over Star Wars? And why do you think Star Wars was as big as it was? Lucas was much criticized by the sci-fi community at the time for making this lowbrow kiddie movie, but that’s exactly what he had set out to do. He knew what we were all dreaming about, and he put those dreams on the screen. As much as I hate what he’s become, and as awful as the prequels are, I’ll always cherish him for giving us that gift.
CHRIS: I think I could do a pie chart of how my activity was composed in the early ’80s. School would be in there, but FRPGs would dominate and inform other things too, such as watching TV and renting VCR tapes: we would spend hours working out how many dice damage a long bow from Hawk the Slayer would inflict. I was into progressive rock—Genesis, Marillion, Yes—and would spend many hours listening in a dark room to songs that would go on for hours and hours. I also spent many hours on my Sinclair Spectrum, the first mass market computer that was a massive seller in the UK. It would take ages to load the games, but then I would spend hours trying to progress on Manic Miner, Chuckie Egg or Jet Set Willy.
Star Wars works because it is bigger than the films. Its success has been hooking successive young kids into its force; decade after decade, pitching itself differently, to appeal to a different wave of kids. I often wonder if George Lucas would trade all of the gazillions of dollars that he has made in exchange for artistic credibility. He never strikes me as being happy with his lot; he is disappointed, deflated by the realisation that he was a better entrepreneur than filmmaker. I admire his courage to produce Empire Strikes Back using his own money. Its success was not guaranteed and he has gone on to build and build his universe with careful attention to his core audience—very young children.
I love Star Wars, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. I am not that precious about the universe or what directions Lucas/Disney take the idea. Of course the prequels were rubbish and compromised the narrative of the original trilogy, but it doesn’t matter. They introduced some new characters that kids love. My 5-year-old loves the Star Wars characters from the prequels—Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor-style) and General Grievous. He hasn’t really seen the films, he has just picked the culture up by osmosis.
I am about to do some pieces about Empire Strikes Back for the site. It’s interesting because we knew much about the film before we saw it, as it was released in the US months before we could see it in the UK. We read the comic and the tie-in novel and collected magazines containing stills, so our anticipation was increased. I remember talking about the AT-AT walkers months before I saw the film!
2W2N: You brought up 2000 AD earlier, a British comic that debuted in 1977 (what a year!). I ate it up in the early ’80s when it was reprinted by Eagle Comics. Judge Dredd is the most famous character to come out of the series, as you mentioned, but there were many other brilliant strips (Strontium Dog was another favorite). Many now-famous writers got their start in 2000 AD, including Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. And Brian Bolland‘s artwork literally destroyed the notion that the comics industry could not produce fine art. His Eagle covers are nearly peerless, and when I think about his black and white interior work the only comparison that comes to mind is Albrecht Durer. How many light years ahead of its time was this series?
CHRIS: 2000 AD was an important part of my life from ages 10 to 13. I was totally absorbed in the stories of Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock and The Mean Arena. You are right, there were some great comic book artists and writers working with them at that point who would go on to be recognised internationally. At the time they were considered ‘droids’ in the employ of Tharg the Mighty, who had come to Earth to charge ‘Earthlets’ with ‘Zarjaz Thrill Power’.
What may have been missed to some US readers is that many of the strips were clever satires on the emerging social policy in Britain. Mrs. Thatcher and her brand of monetarism was causing a great deal of social unrest, high unemployment and increased deprivation in parts of the country. The stories were reflecting the growing unease about the increased powers that were being given to the police and authorities to marginalise people who opposed the regime.
So, in answer to your question, it was incredibly ahead of its time thanks to the quality of the work it published, but in many ways it was firmly located in that period when Thatcherism began its economic revolution: turning a country that was based on fair play and reason into one motivated by greed and oppressive policing towards anyone who opposed this redistribution.
2W2N: I think it took American comics longer to experiment with satire and social commentary, but we were dealing with similar policies starting around the same time. (Reagan and Thatcher were great friends, of course.) There’s a tendency to romanticize the 1980s today, but it was a hard time for a lot of people: the inner city was born, violent crime reached an all-time high, the divorce rate peaked, pollution was rampant, and so on. For me, it was a great time to be a kid. I realize now that it was because my parents worked long and hard to give me that largely worry-free childhood.
Chris, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I hope we can do it again sometime.
CHRIS: Thank you. I have really enjoyed the discussion and it has been very revealing how it’s possible for people living thousands of miles apart to have a common experience lived through pop culture.
All personal photos and illustrations used in this interview are © Chris Hart.