We’re a little less than three weeks from World Fantasy Con in San Diego and John O’Neill is at it again. This time he’s sent Goth Chick in from Chicago to prepare for his California arrival which wouldn’t be a problem except she and my receptionist Kandline don’t get along. Seriously, it’s was like watching Malibu Barbie and one of the Bratz go at it over the actual value of an immunity boost at Jamba Juice.
Meanwhile Ryan Harvey and I are watching the new Avengers trailer and debating which was a better hero, Ryan’s boy Captain America, or my personal favorite Iron Man. Yep, the offices were in an uproar and the only way to settle or satisfy the situation… Dark Tower grudge match!
Yeah, that’s how we roll here at Black Gate L.A.
Before you could say Strawberry’s Wild the game was out and sides declared. Ryan became the dapper-dressed troubadour king of Zenon, Goth Chick created the perfect persona as the necromantic queen of Brynthia, lovely Kandi decided on the enchanted and silver-charmed princess of Arisilon, and I of course took the unlucky and often lost in the wilds Baron of Durnin.
It was an epic contest, the tower spinning out brigands and dragons with equal delight, but in the end Ryan rethought his purpose in life, found religion, and joined the Sanctuary of Brynthia, Kandi finally allowed my baron to get ‘lucky’ in the ruins of Brynthia before we ran off together, and Goth Chick took the tower with the help of her undead hordes. All-in-all it was a solid days work, but as I played I couldn’t help stare at the art involved in the game with whimsical delight.
The more I studied it the more I drifted back to my initial days of gaming when I discovered the electronic masterpiece of fantasy that is Dark Tower. I’m making the assumption here that I played the game at my trusty DM’s house, Mark, back in 1986 because he still owns a copy of the game although it no longer works.
That singular memory stayed with me until my sophomore year at college when I was invited to an older gamer’s apartment and he had a copy of the game thrown in among stacks of unused tricks of the trade. I immediately fawned over the game, which he admitted wasn’t his, wasn’t sure where it had come from, and had never played. I eventually talked it up so much that night that he suggested I take it and play it. I did so, and over the next few months I would ask him if he wanted me return it to which he’d reply, ‘nope.’ I’d then ask, ‘can I buy it from you?’ to which he’d reply ‘nope.’ So it went until I graduated and the game came with me and still resides in a place of honor among my collection.
I’m really not sure what kind of renaissance was happening at Milton Bradley in the very early 80s, but if you had to pick a time when board games went from the standard thin boxes you played with relatives at your grandmother’s house to something completely hobby defining it was then. During this period, MB not only produced Dark Tower which they were eventually sued for and thus have never reprinted, but also the GameMaster series which includes Axis & Allies, Shogun, Fortress America, Broadsides, and Conquest of Empire through 1986. These games helped redefine the once juvenile hobby which is now highly popular and socially acceptable with such titles as Settlers of Catan, anything by Fantasy Flight Games, and a plethora of new releases from Wizards of the Coast.
Still, as I remembered Dark Tower, and its card game predecessor Dragonmaster, I couldn’t help but get incredibly nostalgic. There was something truly unique about those games, something almost spiritual, and I can credit this most certainly with the artist who brought them to us, Bob Pepper.
Pepper did the art for only two games in his career, and never ventured further into the fantasy universe other than a few novels in the very early 80s. I find that incredibly sad for the simple fact that Pepper was able to unleash such a deep universe when given an opportunity by Milton Bradley to do so.
These early games, growing out of the fantasy boom of that time period, took on the aspect of the media of the day. Dragonmaster, for all its beauty, seems a reflective surface to the Rankin-Bass Hobbit with a harder edge. I loved that animated classic and visions of the water-color styling in the House of Elrond reverberated in every piece of Pepper’s work. In turn, I would suggest that the art direction and inspiration for the 1981 Milus’s Conan practically drips with the Dragonmaster feel.
Pepper’s artistic vision was matched only by the very oddity of his medium. His means of creation is quoted in an interview at Well-of-Souls, ‘My technique is to cement down charcoal paper, float water into areas of the illustration, and border the area with dark gouache which spreads and settles in the warpings of the wet paper. After that dries flat, I float dyes on top to color the area.’
Now to the laymen that might not make a great deal of sense, but let me just say it’s not the easiest or most exacting way to do art, but Pepper manages it with incredible skill. His particular type of art rewards the eye with splashes of color and texture that are the trademarks of a forgotten age in mass media. He captures characters in such romantic detail that they draw the player in with kind of heroic power attack.
The care with which he designed both games has not only kept the games viable thirty years later but still inspire great imaginings among those who participate in them. There are full-blown worlds here to explore, stories to be told, and legends to be forged. In that, Pepper’s art takes on the same weight of purpose as a Jeff Easley or Larry Elmore cover from AD&D.
I always find my mind joining in the quests and creating alliances and enemies inside Pepper’s world. There seems to be an almost titan-mighty and celestial calling to his art and as I lay down each card or press an electronic button I’m swept away with it.
To tell you the truth, just last week my wife and I celebrated my 21st anniversary together. In all that time she’s participated in a single, yes single, role-playing session [Shadowrun 2nd Edition 1993] and truly detests my hobby and games in general. However, having said that, there is one, and only one, game she still plays each year, Dark Tower. Is this New Year’s tradition inspired by Pepper? Perhaps not, but of all the artists I’ve ever been involved with Pepper is the only one she can place with a specific product, so that says something. Truly, Dark Tower is so ingrained with us both that it’s become a marital dynamic as we often use the phrase ‘bizarre closed’ and mimic Pepper’s arms-crossed and head-turned merchant, accompanied of course by the downward lilting music.
So, in conclusion I want to say thank you to Bob for his brilliant concepts and I’ve wished on more than one occasion that there were many more than these two early gaming works. You’re always an inspiration, a one of a kind talent, and someone who’s magic has kept me smiling for three wonderful decades! Oh, and thanks for helping settle arguments here at Black Gate L.A. which is never an easy task.