All The Worlds That Were Fit to Print: An Interview with Fantasy Games Unlimited founder Scott Bizar
Founded in the summer of 1975 in Jericho, New York by Scott Bizar, the company's first publications were the wargames Gladiators and Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age. Upon the sudden appearance and massive popularity of Dungeons & Dragons from TSR, the company turned its attention to role-playing games. I had a chat with Scott about those games and how it all came to be.
Eyecast Restoration: How did Fantasy Games Unlimited start and what were your first publications?
Scott Bizar: Like most game companies, I'm sure the idea came from seeing the games that were available at the time and not being fully satisfied with many of them. Though I did like Avalon Hill's board games (note that we did not initially do board games), I had been dissatisfied with many of the miniatures rules available.
My gaming group was primarily miniatures gamers who also played board games. RPGs were just beginning to appear with the first versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Having purchased a number of TSR products at a convention, we found "Chainmail" silly, did not like TSR's Martian rules (I'm a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and collector), and found D&D incomprehensible.
I had lived in Texas for a time and gamed with Scotty Bowden, who had published several sets of miniatures rules, none of which I really liked very much. My roommate at the time was Lin Carter, who was one of the Conan authors. With Lin to consult with, I set out to write miniatures rules for the Conan stories. That was our first publication: "Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age," which got its title because Lin "needed" a title beginning with the letter "R," as he tried to use all the letters at the start of his book titles. The playtesting with my own gaming group led others in the group to also begin work on their own rules for periods where they felt the need for improvement in the hobby. From this, we did "Legion" by Al Margolis (a professor of statistics) and "Broadsword" by George Schneider. Our other early titles were "Gladiators" and "Citadel," which were written by friends in the NY area.
ER: Was there much competition back then and how did you plan a niche?
SB: Back when we began (1975) there was not really much competition, nor were there many shops. As we were miniatures gamers by choice, we all believed that miniatures rules would outsell RPGs (which were just beginning). There were not really that many sets of miniatures rules written in the USA, and none of us really liked the British rules that all depended upon "referees or umpires"—the style of gaming appeared to differ greatly between the US and the UK. So, our original "niche" would have been American miniatures rules, though that was always changing as our interests changed.
ER: (Chivalry and Sorcery) was your first RPG. How did it come to be?
SB: I had attended GenCon in 1976 with our line of products, which was probably six to ten products at that time. Ed Simbalist (head of the C&S design team) was also there seeking a publisher, and he came by our booth. When he showed me his original version (entitled "Chevalier") I liked the idea that it was historically based for accuracy and far more complete than previous RPGs. We got along well and agreed to areas where the game needed expansion.
Ed agreed to do the expansions and send off a completed manuscript for editing (not much required as he was an English teacher) over the next six or so months. I agreed that we would try to have the game/book published for the following GenCon in 1977. That was a bit of a challenge as no company had produced so long a book at that time. We looked into binders and other formats and finally decided on a thick, perfect-bound book, which Ed had retitled "Chivalry & Sorcery." All of his design team at that time was from his own gaming group in Edmonton, Alberta.
ER: How do you feel about the evolution of the RPG community over forty-five years?
SB: I really don't know as I don't play any of the newer games. My understanding is that they are usually backgrounded, stories, or "worlds" that use a limited set of standardized rules (explained to me recently). As we always believed that each genre was completely different and required its own set of unique rules, this does not appeal to me at all.
ER: There is a big gaming company that made the phrase “Space Marines” a common name in the gaming community. Do you feel there was a healthy amount of borrowing of ideas in the early days of gaming?
SB: You ask about the wide use of the term "Space Marines" today, especially by "a large gaming company"—you refer to Games Workshop. Games Workshop had been our agent in the UK for a number of years and were the UK agents for Mark Ratner's company, FanTac Games before he sold it to Fantasy Games Unlimited. They were well aware of the title, and "Space Marines" had been the national tournament rules for science fiction wargaming in the UK in the mid-to-late 80s.
By that time we were no longer selling through Games Workshop in the UK but were working with Games of Liverpool.
Games Workshop was careful at first and only used the term "Space Marine" in the singular.
Only later did they use the term in the plural on their army lists/books. They have not used it as the title for the rules/game. Then again, British game companies have never shown respect for US game titles that were traditionally shown in the United States.
In the US, game companies did respect each other's titles and did not create confusion over relationships between games. Companies did not use titles that had been used by other companies within the same game category (miniatures rules, board games, RPGs, or miniatures/figures). If a miniatures manufacturer wanted to use a title to show a line of miniatures were for a specific miniatures rulebook or RPG, they arranged a license with the game publisher.
As for the spread of ideas and systems, we all knew that a system could not be copyrighted. Each new game (regardless of type) built upon the earlier games and might use some systems first used in an earlier game. No game fully copied an earlier game, as game designers worked on a new game simply because they liked a genre or period and believed they could do a better job representing the genre or period than the earlier games. That appears to be equally true today, though they seem to primarily be working on backgrounds rather than game systems. Of course, publishing is also far easier now with print on demand publishing and computers to do typesetting and layout, plus no longer having to pay a ton for color separations for printing purposes.
ER: What are the most frustrating and the most gratifying parts of your job?
SB: I would first say that the most gratifying things about running a game company have been the sense of satisfaction when a project is completed and we are all pleased with the end result, its appearance, and feedback from gamers, and the friendships that develop, as several of our original writers/designers still work with me.
There have been two frustrations, which are no longer really extant. The first was at gaming conventions when groups of D&D groupies would circulate and try to start discussions of Dungeons & Dragons with anyone running a booth at the con. I'm sure they simply thought every other gamer was a D&D fan like they were. But, I never liked Dungeons & Dragons (though I admit the game changed so much over the years that my objections were to the early editions and the idea that gold/money/treasure led to leveling up and backstabbing). We used to attend GenCon with the understanding that we'd be located on the opposite end of the dealers' room from TSR to limit that annoyance.
The second frustration would appear in the mail when some gamer would write us a letter (remember, there was no email back then) complaining that one of our games appeared to be a copy of some other game they already owned.
Invariably I would have to write to them that the game they played first had, in fact, been published years after our game. It was annoying to be accused of copying something that appeared years after we had published, but these individuals never bothered to look at copyright dates.
ER If you could impart words of wisdom to a budding author, what would they be?
SB: My advice to aspiring designers/writers is simply don't expect to get rich. If you write a large number of gaming products, your royalties will add up, but not to riches. You should also limit your writing to topics/genres you are truly and deeply interested in or the quality will suffer greatly.
ER: What are your favorite games? Any kind of game applies.
SB: I will list several in each major category, but none of them is a "new” game.
Board games: Acquire, Big City, Rail Baron, Shogun.
Miniatures Rules: Column, Line & Square (Napoleonics), Space Marines.
Thank you, Scott!
"Space Opera is an exciting game of interstellar adventure. Space Opera includes complete rules for character and planet generation, human and alien races, skills and professions, starships, individual and ship combat, etc. Also included are summary charts, tables, ship, and planetary record sheets, and character reference sheets. Space Opera is the most complete science-fiction role-playing game ever produced."
"The sun hangs low on the horizon illuminating the ruins of civilization with a bloody light. Is it the sunset of the earth or the sunrise of a brave new world? You can decide as you boldly stride the rubble-strewn streets of the AFTERMATH!
You can download some free aftermath assets here.
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"The classic SF miniatures rules that form the background to the Space Opera universe – now available as a PDF!"
I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the multiverse of Fantasy Games Unlimited's library. I think it's pretty awesome and am a fan. Please check back with us weekly! The next post will be on July 2nd.