Judges Guild was admittedly second tier. While TSR was constantly innovating, with full color cover art and high production values, Judges Guild saw no reason to deviate from the look they established in 1976: rudimentary layout and typesetting, and two-color covers that looked torn from a coloring book.
But they were prolific. My weekly pilgrimages to the gaming store in 1979 rarely yielded a new TSR release — they were few and far between — but Judges Guild never let me down, and I went home satisfied with many a JG product tucked under my arm. At their peak in the early 80s, they employed 42 people and had over 250 products in print, an astounding output.
Judges Guild was founded by Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen; their first major product (and claim to fame) was the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The ambitious setting for the City State — a massive 18 maps covering nine continents drawn from Bledsaw’s home campaign, ultimately used as the locale for numerous adventure modules — became their next major release: The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, the first licensed D&D product and the first true campaign setting for the game.
Wilderlands was different in other ways, too. Perhaps most importantly it had a true sandbox feel, rather than the tightly-focused adventures of Gygax and Co, in which players were expected to follow a linear path. It encouraged a wide-open style of gaming, focused on exploring vast and wondrous forests and rugged landscapes, rather than dungeon crawls.
As James Maliszewski aptly put it in his Grognardia post:
The Wilderlands of High Fantasy… [is] clearly designed to facilitate campaigns where the characters wander about the world, exploring it hex by 1056-foot hex, in search of fame and fortune according to their own lights rather than any overarching plan concocted by the referee beforehand.
Judges Guild’s reluctance to update its look eventually doomed it however, as new companies like Chaosium, GDW and FASA arrived on the scene and grabbed a bigger piece of the role-playing pie. Its license to publish official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons titles expired in 1982, and its last major release was City-State of Tarantis in 1983, which vanished without a trace. Judges Guild was effectively out of business by 1985.
When the d20 publishing craze hit its peak in the late 90s, Bob Bledsaw reformed his gaming company and proved that Judges Guild could, after all, publish modern products with top-notch production values. In 2002, in partnership with Necromancer Games, Bledsaw and many of his original writers published substantially updated editions of The City State of the Invincible Overlord, the Player’s Guide to the Wilderlands, and a revised edition of Paul Jaquays’ classic dungeon crawl Caverns of Thracia.
Click on the image at right to see the cover for the revised City State of the Invincible Overlord, in all its wrap-around glory. The complete catalog of Judges Guild products from Necromancer Games, alongside new maps, fan material, and the freely downloadable A Street Guide to the City State of the Invincible Overlord, is here.
But the crown jewel of the new Judges Guild was a massive and gorgeous box set, a limited-run compilation that has become one of the most collectible RPG releases of the 21st Century: the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.
A huge expansion which still remains faithful to the spirit of the original, Wilderlands contains all 18 maps, with details on over 400 NPCs and monsters, and on more than 3,000 cities, villages, ruins, lairs, islands, citadels, castles, and strange geographic features.
Originally released at $69.99, it quickly went out of print, and new copies routinely sell today for between $200 – $285. I bought mine on eBay in 2007 — ironically, only after it arrived did I notice that the return address was for my friend Jolly Blackburn, creator of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic.
In 2007 Judges Guild partnered with Goodman Games to release revised editions of three more early games for the growing Old School Renaissance market: The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Citadel of Fire and Dark Tower, all updated for the d20 system. See their complete catalog of Judges Guild products here.
Unlike the earlier releases, all except Dark Tower are still in print and available at reasonable prices, and all three are available in PDF format at RPGNow and other fine outlets.
The work Bledsaw did with his various publishing partners was excellent, and it seemed like old-school gamers could look forward to a steady stream of nostalgic titles, finally given the professional editing and packaging they deserved.
Alas, it was not to be. Bob Bledsaw died of cancer on April 19, 2008, and Judges Guild vanished with him, this time apparently for good.
(Their website, packed with articles, maps, and free downloads, is still live here.)
This post is my salute to Bob, a man I never met, but whose passion for adventure gaming and whose unique approach to the hobby strongly influenced me for over three decades. I’m profoundly grateful for the contributions he made, and especially the beautiful editions released in the last ten years. Do yourself a favor and track them down — you won’t be disappointed.
Wilderlands of High Fantasy was published by Necromancer Games/White Wolf in 2005. It contains 18 poster maps and 445 pages of text, and was priced at $69.99. Yes, that’s a Frazetta cover. I’d offer more detail, but my copy is still in the shrinkwrap, and it looks like it’s going to stay that way. When I find one I can open, I’ll let you know.