Sunday, November 15, 2015

[Perilous Lands] Interview with playtester Winchell Chung

Delving deep into the origins of Powers & Perils and the Perilous Lands has one great difficulty – the designer, Richard Snider, passed away in 2009, leaving the “one true source” of information forever out of touch. Fortunately, however, (most) games are not designed in a vacuum, especially games published by major publishers, such as the Avalon Hill Game Company. And thus, as with most such games, Powers & Perils and Perilous Lands have a list of playtesters…

Of the multitude of playtesters listed, one name leapt out – that of Winchell Chung, as both a playtester and artist for the entire series of four products. For the uninitiated, Winchell is best known as “The Ogre Guy,” as in, the guy who designed the iconic style of the Ogre – the gargantuan cybernetic tank used in Steve Jackson’s microgame, Ogre. And Winchell is still active in the gaming community.

Fortunately, Winchell was very kind to answer my many questions concerning his work on Powers & Perils and Perilous Lands in a series of e-mails back and forth…

“I got started in gaming around 1975, when I saw an ad in ANALOG science fiction magazine for a game called Stellar Conquest by Metagaming Concepts,” Winchell wrote. “From there I went on to play GDW’s Triplanetary and SPI’s Star Force Alpha Centauri. From Lou Zocchi’s catalog I got my first role-playing game – TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne.

When I was a little boy I had a copy of Avalon Hill’s Tactics II, but that doesn’t count since I only played it about twice…”

It was a small, small world among gamers even back then, in what is often known as the “Garage Industry” era. And while gamers didn’t have Internet forums, they often communicated with publishers through other means, such as through magazine letters or direct letters via snail mail – though in Winchell’s case, the communication that brought him his first publishing opportunity was quite accidental…

“While I was still in high school, I subscribed to Metagaming’s magazine The Space Gamer. Just for fun, I doodled some spaceships on my subscription letter. Metagaming was so hard-up for art that they published the doodles in the next issue and asked for more. Later I was offered commissions for artwork in their microgames, including Ogre.”

After earning his eternal 15-minutes of fame by designing the iconic form of the Ogre, Winchell went on to work in the real world, in computing, but still had the bug to work in the games industry. That’s when he noticed that the Avalon Hill Game Company was local…

“I rented a TRS-80 microcomputer for a week, and wrote a computer game for it. The game was a glorified BASIC Star Trek, with ASCII asterisk for stars and letters for starships. I had an innovative way to allocate energy between movement, offense, and defense.

The game impressed Avalon Hill enough that I got hired for their Microcomputer Game department, programming Atari 800 computers.”

While Winchell’s main interests were in computer games and wargames, he also played role-playing games. Thus, when word passed around Avalon Hill that they were looking for playtesters for a new role-playing game, Winchell signed up. It turned out that, among the several RPGs that were in the works at Avalon Hill at the time (the others including RuneQuest III, Tom Moldvay’s Lords of Creation, and James Bond 007 through Avalon Hill’s imprint, Victory Games), the game Winchell went on to playtest was Powers & Perils in the Perilous Lands, with the designer himself, Richard Snider, as game master.

“Of all my memories of the playtest, the worst was trying to read all the rulebooks in a single afternoon, cramming for the first playtest session. Since this was playtesting, we were expected to learn the game by reading the rulebooks, not by being coached by the game master, Richard Snider. He would answer questions, though. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming in general and RPGs in particular.

“He never spoke about how he plotted the campaign, as game master he was giving a performance, and like a stage magician he never revealed how he did a trick. He only had a few notes, but he performed as if he had reams of prepared notes. I think he had lots of notes, but they were *memorized*. He knew how it all went together and all the details, all at his fingertips inside his brain.

“Richard Snider had a keen mind, and used it to totally control the game.

“He was somewhat precise – one of the things I kept tripping over in the game was ‘experience’ and ‘expertise’. They were distinct metrics, but in my mind they seemed to overlap quite a bit.

“As a game master, he was quite good at delivering the lines of various non-player characters in various voices and with various mannerisms. As the evil demigod Slidranth, he delivered his lines with a cold haughty demeanor. As the guard dog being spoken to via a ‘communicate with animals’ spell, he delivered in a dorky, simpleminded, scatterbrained manner.”

Slidranth makes his offer (Perilous Lands Site Book p. 20) by Winchell Chung

Of course, the main focus of a playtest group is always on the rules, and how they work in play, rather than theory. While there were a lot of rules in Powers & Perils, the playtest group worked hard to break them…

“The general reaction of the play-test group was that we really liked the system. It certainly had plenty of detail. The game system ran fairly smoothly once we got the hang of it. There was a lot of flipping through the rulebooks, however.

“The only thing that I was worried about was it seemed just a little too crunchy, keeping track of a little too much detail, given the small effect it had on one’s character. It was nowhere near as bad as Advanced Squad Leader, but it did have tendencies in that direction. Generating a character was a quite involved process.

“It was also odd the way the various skills had different scales, some were 1-10 while others were 1-100.

“As playtesters we were required to give our input at the end of each game session. As far as I can tell the game ended up pretty much the way Richard Snider first designed it. All I know for sure is that none of my suggestions were worthy of being acted upon.”

One of the most interesting developments out of the playtest was how the actions of certain characters in the playtest had an effect on the development of the published version of Perilous Lands, the campaign setting developed for Power & Perils.

“One of the other playtesters, David Kuijt, had their character father a child who turned out to be the current incarnation of the dreaded demigod Slidranth aka the ‘Highwayman on the Road to Death.’ If any of the characters died, as their soul moved on to the afterlife, Slidranth would appear as a giant pair of eyes. Slidranth would say ‘here’s the deal: you pledge me your fealty and I’ll bring you back to life.’

David’s character refused to be intimidated by anything, and was fond of treating Slidranth as his wayward boy, instead of a powerful demigod who could squish him like a bug. ‘Hey, Sliddy? How’s it going?’ he would ask…

The concept behind Slidranth I found impressive, a cut above standard Dungeons & Dragons boss monsters…”

David Kujit’s character was, as it turns out, none other than Vlad Stonehand, an iconic character from the Powers & Perils rules set, a major figure in current events in the Perilous Lands, and a featured character in Snider’s article, “Weapons Masters of the Perilous Lands,” (Heroes Vol. 1 No. 3). Therein he is described as being the world’s grand master in the use of the bastard sword.

“We did a campaign-style series of adventures during the playtest. My character was always in hot water, due to my insistence on playing a magic-user character while we adventured in a land where magic-users were considered to be demons who should be immediately burnt at the stake.

“Al ‘Albrecht’ Hess played a character who could speak to animals. Our group was on a mission to swipe a specific item from a mansion guarded by watchdogs. Albrecht told us he had a plan.

“Albrecht walks up to the dogs, carrying a load of meat. As the dogs prepare to start barking he says (in dog language) ‘Hey guys! How goes it? Gee I have a problem. I’ve got this load of meat that nobody wants. Do you know of any lucky dogs around here who could use a meat dinner?’

“Dogs start to frantically yip ‘ME! ME!’

“Albrecht tells them to pipe down, and gives them the meat. He goes into the mansion and swipes the item. Unfortunately, these are dishonest dogs, they do not STAY bought.

“Dogs look up ‘Good meat! Chomp chomp! Hey, what are you doing? Are You Stealing Something?!?? THIEF! THIEF!!’

“Our characters barely made it out of there with their lives…

“I remember another time when Albrecht (whose character was Chaotic) tried using his speak-to-animals spell to talk to some kind of flying snake (I forget, maybe a fire snake). Unfortunately the animal was Lawful, so all it would say was ‘Oooh, you bad! You bad-bad!’

“Later we were trying to convince some villagers (who were Lawful) to help us. Albrecht started to look nervously around. We asked him why, and he said ‘The last thing we need now is that blasted snake landing on my shoulder and telling all the villagers 'He's Bad! Bad-bad-bad-Bad!’”

The playtest group was, to all appearances, a typical role-playing game group – part serious, part not-so-serious…

“I don't think Richard minded, because he was focused on playtesting the game system. He was there to wring out the bugs; our wacky style was superfluous. He could make the world as serious as he wanted, since he was writing the world book all by himself.

“We were not ‘Monty Python’ wacky; we did strive to stay in character. It’s just that we could not resist doing any (in-character) humor.

“When David Kuijt called Slidranth ‘Sliddy,’ he didn't call Slidranth something out of character like, ‘you bargain-basement Sauron.’ He was trying to play Vlad Stonehand in character, but showing Slidranth that he was not afraid.

“When Vlad said that, Richard (playing the Slidranth NPC) played along. He gave Vlad an uplifted eyebrow, and tsk-tsked Vlad as if thinking, ‘Ah, my silly overly brave father, it is going to be a pity when I have to eat his soul...’”

Richard Snider was one of the earliest players in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor Campaign; he went on to work with Arneson on Judges Guild’s First Fantasy Campaign supplement that detailed the original Blackmoor Campaign, and later worked with Arneson on the Adventures in Fantasy RPG, published originally by Excalibre and later by Arneson’s own publishing company, Adventure Games.

From Richard Snider’s experience in Arneson’s Blackmoor Campaign, I’d always assumed that the extensive level of detail he provided of the Perilous Lands, notably the various military forces, naval forces, income, and so forth, was designed to enable the classic “end game” of early fantasy campaigns. This “end game” being, of course, the goal of characters, once they rise to a certain level of ability, to forge their own kingdoms or take over existing kingdoms and build their own empires. Unfortunately, Winchell does not recall any mention of such an “end game” being part of Snider’s goals for the Perilous Lands

“I do not remember him saying anything about characters becoming rulers of the kingdoms. But he did want to ensure that the various nations and tribes were actually different from each other, instead of being Generic Nation #1, Generic Nation #2 and so on. He wanted to produce an impressive useful product for game masters, not some flimsy useless item just to pad out the product line.”

Nor, unfortunately, is there any known record, written or verbal, of Snider’s literary inspirations for Perilous Lands

“He never mentioned any of that when I was around,” Winchell wrote. “He did not want his work to appear to be derivative of anything; it was all to be original from him.”

Winchell says his fondest memory of working on Powers & Perils, Perilous Lands, the Book of Tables supplement, and the Tower of the Dead adventure module, was working on the art for the rulebooks.

“For me, working on the art, it was mostly the same-old same-old. You were given a written description of the required illustration, general dimensions, and a deadline. And there were a lot of pieces… the Barbarian Warriors and Civilized Peoples pieces at the end of the Culture Book in Perilous Lands? I drew every single one of them. Took me forever….

“Most of the reviewers really liked James Talbot’s illustrations, but hated the work from all the other artists (including me). There was a stink when somebody noticed that one of the other artists was plagiarizing from Frank Frazetta’s work for the Powers & Perils illustrations. She got fired for that…

“The cover of the Perilous Lands boxed set was originally a bit spicier. The woman was topless – totally topless. But cooler heads prevailed. The Powers That Be hesitated a minute, then said, ‘Uh-uh,’ and sent it back to have a bikini top painted on…”

Today, Winchell mostly plays boardgames, wargames, and computer games. He manages his website, the WeirdWorld of Winchell Chung, wherein can be found links to his various interests, including the 3-D Star Charts and Atomic Rocket sub-sites that are dedicated to assisting science-fiction gamers, writers, and other aficionados in maintaining scientific realism in their games and stories.

Of the other playtesters, almost nothing is known. If anyone has a lead on any of these playtesters, please let me know; I’d love to get more information on the Powers & Perils and Perilous Lands playtests!

David “Vlad Stonehand” Kuijt*%&
Al “Albrecht” Hess*&
John Huff*&
Charles Kibler
Ron Hall*
Winchell Chung*&
Dan Coggins*&
Martha Larkins
Larry McCauley
Jeff Sussman
Rorik Rorikson
Tom Murphy
Jeff Suzman**
Al Roireau**
Bill Peschel**%
“…and a multitude of others”

* Playtested both Powers & Perils and Perilous Lands
** Playtested only Perilous Lands
% Edited Perilous Lands
& Playtested Tower of the Dead

I also would like to do a full feature article on the art of Powers & Perils and Perilous Lands. Here is a list of artists from the products:

Powers & Perils
Jim Talbot (Box Cover and Booklet Covers)
Stephanie Czech
Paul Dame
Winchell Chung
Bob Haynes
Charles Kibler
Ed “ECM” Morris

Perilous Lands
Jim Talbot (Box Cover)
Winchell Chung
Michael Creager
Bob Haynes (Color Maps)
Unknown (Interior Maps)

Tower of the Dead
Richard Barber (Box Cover)
Mike Creager
Winchell Chung
Bob Haynes

Book of Tables
Roger Norton
Winchell Chung
Michael Creager
Jim Talbot

This piece by Winchell Chung (Book of Tables p. 17) depicts game designer Richard Snider climbing a tower...


  1. Just found this on the Powers & Perils site in the Errata section:

    "Q: Sometime in the future I would like to see a Grand Tactical version of the game so that characters may lead armies into battle. Also a strategic version

    A: [Coming soon.] In one of the upcoming editions of Heroes an army combat system will be published. It should be adequate to your needs."

    These are from questions posed to and answered by Richard Snider back in 1984. So he was at least thinking about the campaign on a Grand Tactical scale... interesting...

  2. wow! Thanks for this article, it was very interesting to read it. being a long-time fan of Powers & Perils. I am actually more interested in the rules than in the Perilous lands setting, so i hope you will dedicate some posts to the mechanics of the game as well in the future.

  3. The playtester David Kuijt could be the same one who is big in the Ancients wargames using DBA rules scene:
    The Charles Kibler in the list is a famous ex-Avalon Hill artist

  4. Probably the same David Kuijt who plays Hordes of the Things, a fantasy wargame similar to DBA. He has a website with photos of all his fantasy armies, and it's very cool.