RPG history: Midgard

Issue 1 of the Strategic Review (1975) contains an interesting ad: “POSTAL DUNGEONS & DRAGONS VARIANT, a game which combines D&D and MIDGARD will be handled through the magazine, FANTASIA. To obtain full details, write: FANTASIA, Jim Lawson, …”

I just noticed this for the first time yesterday, and wondered, what was “MIDGARD,” which was compatible in some way with D&D? Was it a 70’s RPG I had somehow never heard about? or was it just a D&D campaign set in a Viking world?

Strategic Review 6, in its ‘zine review column, Triumphs and Tragedies, has this to say about the Fantasia magazine:

FANTASIA TODAY is a “magazine of postal fantasy gaming.” It seems to be based on a massive game, using revised “Midgard” rules. The price varies with the size, so get in touch with Jim Lawson, … Vol. I, No. 6, had an excellent article on herbs and magic, complete with sketches of each herb. The printing, though, which runs from fair to poor, relegates it to the status of MINOR TRIUMPH.

I’d never heard of a 70s Midgard RPG, but then again, I’m not exactly a grognard. I got into D&D in the late 80’s: anything before AD&D and the Red Box is ancient history to me. But, as you’d expect from someone who is drawn to pseudo-medieval fantasy, I like ancient history. Just as mountain peaks gain majesty with distance, so do nerds (even putting aside any majesty-reducing hygiene issues).

A google search for Midgard and Jim Lawson led me to an article about Midgard in White Dwarf issue #2 (1977), by Midgard’s creator, a British gamer named Hartley Patterson.

In 1970 I went to the World SF Convention in Heidelburg … amongst those present was a German Sword & Sorcery group called FOLLOW who ran (and still run for all I know) a game called ARMAGEDDON. This used a large board depicting a mythical continent, the players becoming kings and barons and such and writing up the resulting sagas in the group’s magazine.

It sounded fun, so in January 1971 I put out a flyer proposing that a game of this kind be started in this country. … In its first year, MIDGARD, the journal of this mighty enterprise, ran through no less than 11 issues – and even then people were protesting about slowness. We were really enthusiastic in those days!

Hartley’s MIDGARD lasted only a few years, but it spawned successors:

MIDGARD II in the USA which is still running, indeed it seems to have become known in that country as the ‘original’ MIDGARD. From it sprang an Australian version which has recently collapsed, and several MIDGARD/D&D hybrids also in the USA such as FANTASIA.

And that reference to Fantasia brings us back to 1975 and the 1975 Strategic Review ad. The dates are intriguing, though: keep in mind that Chainmail, Gygax’s non-RPG war game, was published in 1971, and the first D&D rules in 1974. It seems possible that Midgard (and its German predecessor, FOLLOW) is another potential pre-D&D RPG, joining David Weseley’s 1967 Braunstein and, perhaps, Fritz Leiber’s Lankmar. Of course, it all depends: is Midgard a RPG, like D&D, or just a play-by-mail boardgame or wargame with light role-playing elements, like Diplomacy? (Or is this a false dichotomy? Both Hartley and Gygax were big Diplomacy fans. Maybe there’s a direct through-line here.)

Hartley goes on to discuss Midgard’s rules:

So what was Midgard like? The draft rules (September 1972) ran to 40pp A4 duplicated, and were written by Will Haven and rewritten by myself. They described a game which bears some interesting resemblances to the Gygax bestseller, at that time presumably still not even dreamt of – not that there is any possibility of TSR having seen any MIDGARD material before D&D was printed, as we moved in quite different circles.

There were three basic types of players: Sorcerers, Merchants and Heroes. … The parallel with D&D is obvious here. Merchant rules envisaged a complicated trade system whereby goods could be transported around on a kind of supply and demand principle. It never had a chance to be put into operation. Sorcerer rules looked remarkably like D&D using Spell Points, with levels etc., being based like D&D on Vancian magic. Heroes had quite complex weapon tables like those in Tunnels & Trolls.

I would love to get my hands on a copy of these draft rules. I love fantasy RPG rulesets in general: I’d happily play D&D in any of its editions, from OD&D to fourth. I’d be perfectly happy if Fifth Edition came out today. And I’d love to see fantasy combat and spellcasting rules written by people who had never seen or heard of D&D. It would be like visiting an alternate Earth.

Of course, while the original draft of Midgard was written by people who’d never seen D&D, this changed after D&D was published in 1974. Midgard cross-pollinated with D&D until various play-by-mail instances could be called “Midgard/D&D hybrids” or “D&D variants”. That makes sense: Hartley’s article seems to imply that he and the other Midgard players were more interested in the role-playing aspects and the national politics of the Midgard campaign setting than in the nitty-gritty of the rules. Many Midgard referees probably felt D&D provided better one-on-one combat and magic rules, and incorporated what they liked.

By the way, Hartley Patterson is still running a RPG campaign in the world of Midgard: he’s using the RuneQuest ruleset now. On his site, News from Bree, he offers a little amplification of Midgard’s early history:

The time wasn’t right, and although we came up with several of the concepts that are now familiar in the hobby (character classes, spell points) the project died just as an obscure amateur publisher in the Mid-West was chanting the magic words ‘Dungeons and Dragons’….

So Midgard went into hibernation until the early gamesmasters and players and rule writers emerged blinking from their subterranean delvings and began to explore the world above.

Midgard originally ran to what was then called ‘variant D&D’, an abuse which so annoyed Gary Gygax that he wrote a whole new variant of his own (AD&D) that no one would be allowed to change … but that’s another story.


3 Responses to “RPG history: Midgard”

  1. Herb says:

    Nice connecting a site I know rather well to something I didn’t.

    I’ve long enjoyed the page for its material on Kerboge (the “chess” of Midgard) and the city spreadsheet.

  2. I ran another Midgard campaign not so long ago, set mostly in Edessa a part of the world we knew little about before.

    Yes I still use RuneQuest 3.5 rules, having found none better though I mostly play GURPS system. Most recently I’ve been trying free form roleplaying using Second Life, which is proving to be quite fun. I suspect this could be the next big thing once someone breaks out of the prewritten World of Warcraft setup and as in Second Life gives GMs a build your own world kit.

  3. […] 2010, I wondered, "What is a midgard?" and wished I could get the rules for one. http://blogofholding.com/?p=265 Now I know a lot about […]

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