While less known than his superhero work, Fox’s canon contains multiple sword and sorcery tales, from comic stories about Crom the Barbarian to his novels featuring the likes of Kothar and Kyrik. For this post, it is important to mention that Fox also wrote stories about the barbarian warrior named Niall of the Far Travels, found in Dragon magazine, the official Dungeons & Dragons magazine put out by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). As popular as it is, Dungeons & Dragons was not the only game put out by TSR. When doing research for my biography of the man, I was surprised to learn that Gardner Fox created a board game through the company. Titled Warlocks and Warriors, it is a recognizable part of the Fox canon with its escort mission, locations, and character options. As such, the playing of it allows one to step inside a Foxian sword and sorcery story making it a unique look at how potboiler plot points can be constructed into a narrative.
Released in 1977, it is a fairly simple game on the surface, but there are enough innovations to keep it interesting. Much like Dungeons & Dragons, the events of the game are determined by the rolling of dice. In order to win, the player must be in possession of the princess pawn, after having traveled from the seaport to the castle, and visited each of the four square adventure locations on the map along the way. The accompanying context for this objective is recognizably Fox with its vague similarities to his other works in the genre as well as the comic-friendly alliteration:
“This exciting game enables the players, either as Warlocks or as Warriors, to use magical enchantments and superb swordplay to escort the beautiful princess Sharanna from the seaport to her castle. The King has promised half his kingdom to the one who can successfully return his daughter to him.”
The decision to play as either a Warlock or a Warrior has the biggest impact on the overall gameplay. It is technically not a required part of the game, but I can’t imagine anybody playing without the optional rules because the rules accompanying the differing roles make the game far more interactive and fun. The Warlock may add one spot to their dice when fighting in a duel, but only if the dual takes place on a round space with a star on it. Additionally, they are able to use a spell when they land on a space with a star on it. That means that the player role-playing as a Warlock can make another player to move one, two, or three spaces in any direction. In comparison, during a duel, Warriors can add one spot to their dice total so long as the space on which they are located doesn’t have a star on it, which is the large majority of them. Although I enjoy the cohesiveness of the mechanics and the overall theme in this context, I find the way in which the game’s mechanics mesh with the context of the princess pawn troubling.
A lot of Gardner Fox’s work is surprisingly progressive when it comes to the treatment of women; however, this game strikes me as rather sexist in multiple ways. Some of this can be understood as an extension of the sexism common within the sword and sorcery genre itself. That said, this feels more like a lack of thought about how the game mechanics literally objectify the only female-identified pawn, which just happens to be white, a color often symbolizing innocence or purity. Anytime more than one player is on a round space, both players “duel” by rolling the two dice and whoever has the highest number wins. Duels are the only way to seize the princess from another player. Additionally, the game starts with a roll of the two dice, and whoever shows the highest number begins by taking possession of the princess. In short, it is the only pawn that doesn’t represent a player, the players duel to take possession of her, and a player cannot win the game without owning her. Fox’s stories paint the women his heroes rescue as fairly capable and intelligent on their own, but the game leaves no opportunity to show that. There is no hint of consent or agency. None of this is helped by the use of male pronouns throughout the game manual, which was common at the time and supposedly considered gender neutral.
By far, the most interesting, and enjoyable, part of the game is the ease of narration made possible through the dice rolls prompted by the four square locations: The Lost Dungeon, Ancient Ruins, Demon Maze, and Dragons Lair. As one moves from square location to square location, the results of the dice role inform the way the player views their effectiveness as either a Warlock or Warrior. These results are made up of common plot points that occur in pulp sword and sorcery tales. In other words, The existents, or the actors and settings of the story, are determined by the board, pieces, and game manual; however, the events, or actions and happenings, are randomized and supplemented by the player’s imagination. For an example of how this functions, my youngest son played as a Warrior, but, each time he came to a square space, his dice rolls revealed that he wasn’t the best warrior out there. He wandered lost in the Demon Maze, was “injured by a falling stone” in the Ancient Ruins, and got stuck trying to roll a 7 to defeat the Elemental in The Lost Dungeon. By the time he got to the Dragon’s Lair, we simply didn’t believe “By brilliant swordplay, you force the dragon to retreat.” Many jokes ensued through a combining of the roll of 7 with the roll of 8 or 12, where the dragon is asleep and the player can simply leave the lair. We decided that his “brilliant swordplay” was simply waiting for the dragon to fall asleep, as was made contextually viable from the reading of the other result, and then sneaking into the lair to chop its head off. It can still be considered “brilliant,” but it fit the narrative we had constructed about the character my youngest was playing. I may have purchased this game for research purposes, but this opportunity for creative storytelling has encouraged us to play it more than a few times already.
Overall, even though Warlocks and Warriors wouldn’t be a particularly notable game were it not for its creator, it is still an interesting touchstone from the era where role-playing games were first getting their big start. The more creativity you bring to the game playing experience, the more fun you will have with it. Essentially, the game allows players to step into the boots of heroes like Kothar, Kyrik, or Niall in a somewhat randomized Chose Your Own Adventure-like tale. The way the gameplay functions makes the players of the game designers of their own narrative; therefore, they can themselves become narrative architects just as much as Gardner Fox was when creating the game. Even with the problematic princess mechanic, which is actually quite rewarding if the player ignores its more troubling aspects, it is a fun game. More than that, selling the game put Gardner Fox in the right place, at the right time, for a what-could-have-been story for the ages.
Game Design: Gardner Fox
Development: Brian Blume and James Ward
Graphics: David Sutherland, Brian Blume, and Gardner Fox.