Divine Right History (Part 1 of 3)

The beginning of Divine Right takes place over 40 years ago, and its continued popularity is a testament to the game’s solid design, deep mythos, and great characters. Glenn shared his design notes and the fascinating history of Divine Right with us, so prepare to enter the turbulent world of Minaria from the very start. 

By Glenn Rahman 

Divine Right was originally published in 1979, revised in 1980, and went out of print in 1982. The game had been very popular, but its designers, my brother Kenneth and myself, expected that DR would simply pass out of sight and out of mind like so many other games before it. To our surprise and gratification, it kept appearing at conventions as a tournament game long after it had become unavailable. Every now and then, we were contacted by persons asking if it was ever going to be reissued. More recently, the word “classic” began being applied to Divine Right, and the designers dared to hope that we had perhaps managed to create something enduring. In 2002, The Right Stuf International, Inc. published a 25th-anniversary edition of Divine Right, putting the game back in print for the first time in twenty years.

Your Excellency

In the early Seventies, Kenneth and I were already avid game-experimenters, mostly with the Parker Brother’s Risk system, when we encountered a copy of Avalon Hill’s Tactics II. Unfortunately, while there were things to learn from that game, it rated very low in the excitement category. But the appearance of Tactics II was our alert that some interesting things were happening in the gaming scene. In the fall of 1974, this writer encountered a large Avalon Hill selection in a Minneapolis department store and bought Third Reich on the spot. The next year, I subscribed to SPI’s Strategy and Tactics. Those were salad days, when even games as wretchedly conceived as Oil War and Revolt in the East got thorough and repeated playing.

Soon the designers were gaming regularly with friends. By 1977, we realized that we had learned enough to leave Risk behind and start designing in the state of the art. The first serious effort carried all the way to conclusion was a fantasy game that we called Your Excellency. Divine Right players would promptly recognize Your Excellency as the prototype of DR. Some of the names, the CRT-less combat system, the diplomacy system, and the kingdom cards were all present.

I had been a frequent short-story writer for the semi-pros and understood the strength that good characterization gives to a story. One night, while Ken and I were play-testing Your Excellency on the kitchen table, it suddenly occurred to me to ask, Why couldn’t a board game have characterization, too? The idea for monarch-personality cards fell easily into place, and it worked even better than expected. From that moment on, we knew we had a good thing going.

But the differences between the prototype and the eventually-published game by TSR, Inc. were huge. The original map was rather austere in the manner of an SPI release. Ken and I had included Elven and Trollish kingdoms, but we had provided no magic. None. Further, we had only six special mercenaries: Juulute, Schardenzar, the Black Knight, Urmoff, Ogsbogg, and Hamahara. The barbarian element was represented by nothing more than a small kingdom.

The prototype was dispatched to Metagaming of Austin, Texas. During its long evaluation period, Kenneth and I continued to sample the new bounty of the gaming world. Kenneth experimented with a different map, but we never actually got around to using it in any play tests. In the interim, we discovered the Chaosium game of White Bear, Red Moon. This game was something new in our experience: a game of heroic fantasy. A few routine spaceship-battle games existed already— Excalibre had a pioneering effort to create a fantasy game, one they called Atlantis. Meanwhile, SPI had the execrable Sorcerer, and there was a fantasy-tactical game called Dungeon from TSR. For some reason, we had not bothered to examine the rest of the field, such as Fact & Fantasy’s Helm’s Deep or TSR’s Battle of the Five Armies. So within our frame of reference, we addressed the innovations of WBRM with great interest.

There was much in White Bear, Red Moon that we liked, though there was much that we couldn’t relate to. For instance, WBRM seemed to have no clear line demarcating the world of the gods and the world of men. As a reader of mythology, I could understand this—sort of. The world order in Stafford’s Glorantha resembled that of The Kalevala or numerous primitive mythologies, including that of the American Indians, where characters grade from hero to sorcerer to god with hardly any warning where one ended and the other began. Kenneth, on the other hand, was a J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiast, and my own fantasy tastes leaned toward Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. In all these authors’ writings, there was a difference between gods and men; fantastic things were possible, but an understandable barrier remained between the different states of reality.

Further, as far as the conventions of WBRM went, it was hard for us to identify with heroes who could, like the Irish champion Cuchulain or the Indian hero Arjuna, take on whole armies single-handedly. From our point of view, a Julius Caesar might make the deciding difference in a battle with the Gauls, but could J.C. have faced the host of Vercingetorix all by his lonesome? Never! A man is a man and an army is an army. Nonetheless, WBRM had something we needed to learn: the manner in which magic might be fitted into the world of military affairs.

The Metagaming copy of Your Excellency finally came back rejected in 1978. Like most creative people, we decided that the editors involved just didn’t appreciate quality and innovation. Nonetheless, months had already passed, and we had some new ideas that we wanted to introduce to the game. Kenneth set energetically to work redesigning the map, and before long, he presented me with an entirely new map done in a jolly-looking antique style, one that would be recognizable as the rough draft of the published classic. It had a colorful and richly satiric quality that would inspire much of the subsequent design as well as much of the writing for the yet-to-be created Minarian mythos.

Kenneth had most of the place names written in by the time I first saw the map, and it was only left for me to help with the details and the polishing. The Crater of the Punishing Star was one of my additions, as was the Altars of Greystaff. I also contributed the names of Zorn, Pon, Minaria, and the Invisible School of Thaumaturgy. Zorn came from out of a phone book, and Pon was the name of a mountain kingdom created in a story cycle of mine, only two episodes of which ever saw the light of day in amateur publication. Minaria was the name of a kingdom I had used in an earlier bit of fictional juvenilia. I think that I was unconsciously echoing “Mnar,” an arcane land mentioned by Lovecraft, or maybe even Minnesota, my home state.

Kenneth and I already had a sound movement-combat-diplomacy system in the original Your Excellency. What the new version required from us was magic, chrome, and detail. The gadgets of the Eaters of Wisdom were worked out quickly, and we took inspiration from the corpse-loving wizards of Clark Ashton Smith’s short stories to create the Black Hand.

Working out the new edition of Your Excellency was amazingly easy. The new game world seemed to leap spontaneously to life. Juulute, the Black Knight, Schardenzar, Urmoff, Hamahara, and Ogsbogg were preserved, but their abilities and powers were expanded and fleshed out. The Bilge Rat and several special-mercenary combat units were added also. Just before we finalized the rules, we came up with the Wandering People based, of course, on Hollywood’s take on Gypsies.

Part 2 coming soon… 

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