Remembering Bob Bledsaw Sr.

Remembering Bob Bledsaw, Sr.

Robert Eugene Bledsaw, or “Bob” to those who knew him, was born on May 18, 1942. In 1976 he and Bill Owen founded Judges Guild. Bob passed away on April 19, 2008. Judges Guild was the first company to publish a D&D adventure module, and was hugely influential on the evolution of fantasy role-playing games. For the anniversary of the birth of Bob Bledsaw Sr., we offer this homage, first written several years ago by his good friend and colleague Bill Owen, the co-founder of Judges Guild.

My buddy Bob Bledsaw and I, both being avid wargamers, became fast friends in the fall of 1974. Dungeons & Dragons was the first game we played together and this launched a flurry of weekly adventures that he hosted at his house for about 18 months. Bob was an “older guy” of age 31; the rest of us were in our late teens. Along with D&D being a brand new game concept, we were in awe of his prodigious pace of campaign material production. I later learned that perhaps he had some insomnia that gave him more time than the average guy. That he had the time was especially remarkable as he had a wife and three young boys. The only other explanation was that he had been laid off as a designer at the local General Electric plant that made record players.

It’s one thing to have the time to produce such a wide-ranging fantasy game campaign. What held us in thrall was his creativity and story-telling ability. Where did that come from? Over time I noted the dozens if not hundreds of comics and hardback books that one found in his house. This rich background of Swords & Sorcery styles is part of it. And Tolkien’s Middle Earth was the natural common reference for all of Bob’s players—we had devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy so we had a base to launch from. And we even launched into the outer atmosphere finding ourselves on another planet!

We paid little attention to the TSR approach, which struck me as dark, and domineering. Bob’s vision was expansive and frequently surprising. So many times, I remember the sheer adrenalin and excitement of reacting to some turn of events that had snuck up on us. Realism was often the goal of historical wargames and with fantasy, what is real? Objectively, fear and maltemper ought to be “realistic” in a scenario of powerful monsters. Instead Bob lit the fuse on high spirits, hilarious word play (yes, puns, alliterations and irony were all parts) and opportunities for helpful non-played characters to come into our retinue. These NPCs allowed Bob another avenue to play in the game along side us and not only via his plaintive cry, “My poor monsters!” If you missed a game, he’d bring you up to date in a matter-of-fact, bland speaking style that was leavened by the crazy subject matter such as how he relayed about Markham’s wife being kidnapped by orcs and other news. Yes, several of us teenagers’ characters “married” NPCs and I’m sure that Bob, the married man, probably had his own private thoughts about our grandiose romances and choice of fantasy brides.

Another influence on Bob was all the games. In talking with his relatives, I found that they played a huge variety of games, ranging from chess to Avalon Hill, and dreamed them up as well. When he was playing a losing game, I thought he was stubborn and would fight to the last man. It appeared that he didn’t like quitters. If a little brother or his son wanted to quit, he’d have to “sing it” which was a song of surrender about “Bob being the winner.” But finally I learned a bit more in-game where his position looked hopeless, when he said “why would I quit and take away your fun of winning?” So really he was a sportsman that initially used a childish song to teach younger ones to play on. Sometimes you might still win. I came from a plain vanilla wargame background (SPI, AH, and miniature games) that Bob did not seem to have found, having only the Avalon Hill hits of the day.

Back then it was hard to find the offbeat wargames and fanzines that I had discovered via mentions in the Avalon Hill General or IFW Wargamer magazines. So without those resources, Bob led a very imaginative effort amongst his circle to create games from scratch. And taught his sons to play various games that most people find too obscure or difficult. Once we got together, I brought in a bunch (hundreds actually) of wargames, publications and variants that I’d started collecting since 1965. Eventually Bob called it the Greatest Wargame Collection Known To Man… and wanted to try them all out. Except Pax Britannica. For some reason he didn’t want to learn that two-map Victory Games brand multi-player game and that puzzled me. Otherwise, I could always count on him to try out a new ruleset or miniature scenario and so we’d head off to Winter War in Champaign or Springfield to put on game for the guys over there.

Then came Judges Guild. We did so much development of combat and magic systems “improvements” that we came to believe that there might be a market for that. D&D was such a mishmash of half-developed ideas and low-production values, couldn’t we do better? Bob had excellent commercial drafting skills already and was a fountain of fantasy. We were so in sync on so much, that I remember little about how the business idea really got started, whose idea for names or products was whose. It mattered little because we could brainstorm and disagree without acrimony. I was very cautious though about starting a game business and he seemed to have an intuitive sense of the potential. My family having been in the toy industry (my father had a dozen or so toy stores mostly in medium-sized Illinois towns), I had seen Whamo and TV toy fads come and go. As little kid riding in my parents’ car, listening to them talk about the difficulties mostly as we’d drive to another store, tempered any assumption that a game accessories company would be a bed of roses. But I had developed basic graphic and game design skills as a teenager to make self-published games so the die was cast. I had gained confidence but it was small scale and thought to be a jack-of-all-trades wearing many hats. Bob on the other hand had worked in a corporate headquarters environment with a chain of command and varying levels of functionaries. He envisioned expansion beyond D&D to other game systems’ aids like Traveller. That was out of my comfort zone since I was uninterested in science fiction as it struck me as a hint of encroaching doom—not at all fantasy but a too-likely prediction of the real future. I was for keeping the products tightly developed in house.

Bob’s work experience was with delegation and a staff. Ultimately something had to give. So I wrote a whole little book about those days and to caution would-be game authors from going into a business that might not succeed, or even if it did well rob them of their hobby and friends. We started just after TSR did and they did not even believe in the market for campaign supplements. Indeed when I sold my half of Judges Guild, Bob expanded beyond any imagining and for a time it seemed okay. But I watched as boxes of products including other companies’ piled up. My concerns fell on deaf ears as Judges Guild had morphed into a corporation peopled partly with staff who didn’t play the fantasy games. Amidst this Bob would still play games and welcome people into the hobby. I had burned out but he gamed on. So being a “minister without portfolio,” I bowed out completely. And so the saddest time was not so much to give up my part of an amazing phenomenon of the business but to have no more Bob as he started to struggle with the business. We played no more games together.

For a time, I judged my own small-scale fantasy game set in south Wales with a few friends and I can’t say that I added much creativity as I mostly used leftovers from unpublished Judges Guild scraps. But it’s a testimony to the remarkable concept of role-playing games that it was as popular as it was for a time. And that is a secret of these games—not so much the games themselves but what the gamers bring to them. At least that is what I had learned from Bob. It’s a game. I think it’s more fun for the judge too, if he rolls dice for the monster’s reaction, like 6-8 undecided, 2-5 negative or attack, 9-11 positive but “box cars”? Head over heels in love perhaps. Let the game surprise everyone. Appreciating that there are other ways, others may appreciate a kaleidoscope of styles in role-playing and that’s wonderful. But I think that there are two illusive things that can make a big difference, making it a game, and, with friends. A pedestrian presentation with those two aspects might just beat out a “well-prepared” or slick package without those two. Friends co-create so one must just put oneself out there without a money-back guarantee.

Wonder of wonders, Bob appeared on the gaming scene again. We were back to playing games in our diehard style: until the wee hours. If he was not working a job, the next day I often found that he’d developed a whole variant developed for various games we were crazy about, like Kingmaker with extra events and noble cards. He had stayed up and worked on producing many pages of material. You could take the boy out of the game company but you couldn’t take the boy out of the games. With so many losses and pains, I marveled at how he could seem so little affected. But I think that was his nature to not complain much. To him the game’s the thing. I learned that there is wisdom in not quitting.

He’d say how so many Guildmembers wanted the maps back in print. And indeed the printer had thrown away the plates and negatives. So he asked what if we redrew all the Wilderlands? Perhaps against my better judgment, I said “okay; so here’s how we can do it in a weekend: I will draw for 3 hours in Illustrator and then you would get the track ball while I sleep on the coach. Alternating we could keep this up for 60 hours. What do you say?” He thought a bit and said “no” which I attributed to a lack of follow through. But I now think he did it because he didn’t want to put me to the trouble. And that’s a shame because I would have been honored to do it for him and for a lark. I think he’d be pleased to see how Goodman Games and Bob Jr. are getting these original products out there again. With careful restoration, these have a lot of value still as gaming aids and not just a bit of history of the early days.

If you cannot tell, I miss Bob greatly and the grief and loss is only assuaged by the remarkable faith he displayed in Jesus Christ not long before he was diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps we will see each other again in another place but regardless I have been blessed by his acquaintance. He would be very happy and I could just see him chuckling and shaking like a bowl full of jelly as new players discover and have fun with his flights of fancy.

– Bill Owen, co-founder of Judges Guild, September 2016

Be sure to check out some of the best that Judges Guild had to offer in our two oversized hardcover collections!

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