Sunday, July 13, 2014

[Sunday Driver] The Wilderlands of High Fantasy

I'm stepping away from the Olden Lands for today's post, and zipping back to one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, campaign settings, the Wilderlands. This was the first Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting ever published; while Blackmoor and Greyhawk obviously predated the Wilderlands, neither of them beat the Wilderlands to publication as a campaign setting; similarly, while T├ękumel was published in the Empire of the Petal Throne, they opted to use an off-shoot, self-contained system, rather than the straight-up D&D system.

The Wilderlands saw its genesis in Bob Bledsaw's first work on his own house campaign, which was unabashedly set in Middle-earth. A played-as-straight Middle-earth, as well, with few if any anachronistic or outre elements. Bob's campaign was so successful, and he was so inspired by it, he sought out the right to publish D&D materials from TSR back in early 1976. He was successful, after a fashion; at the time, the leads at TSR felt that publishing casual adventures and campaign material for D&D wasn't really worth doing, save in the tournament-based venue. So on July 4, 1976, Bob and Bill Owen started up Judges Guild, and the rest, as they say, is history. The first product, the city map, was released at Gen Con that year; the first copies sold were actually out of the trunk of the car, as they hadn't yet gotten a table at the show!

The Wilderlands went through several stages of development. First it was simply the City State of the Invincible Overlord, the "Nameless City" that Bob, an engineer and experienced draftsman, had drawn up. There he placed elements that he had developed in his Middle-earth campaign (washed of their Middle-earth natures) and threw in stuff from other fantasy, swords & sorcery, and science-fantasy literary traditions. You can see the influences of ERB and Barsoom, Lord Dunsany and Pegana, Fritz Leiber and Lankhmar, REH and Conan, Walton's Mabinogion, Moorcock and Elric, and the slew of more non-fictional works popular at the time concerning ancient myths and legends. There are even references to Hubbard and his work on Scientology!

The City State, in other words, was a great big melting pot of every possible fantasy- and science-fantasy related theme and idea then extant.

It sold like hotcakes. Frankly, it was Judges Guild's success with the City State and later the Wilderlands that brought TSR up to date with the profitability of releasing adventure modules and campaign support materials. The City State was released at Gen Con 1976. The first Judges Guild module, the classic funky horror/fun-house adventure Tegel Manor, was released April 1977; the first D&D module, G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, did not release until 1978 (note that though Wee Warriors published Palace of the Vampire Queen in 1976, it did not get wide enough release, for whatever reasons, to really kick off the module craze). From there, sales in the RPG market grew exponentially... both for TSR and Judges Guild.

Around the City State Bob built the Wilderlands, consisting of 18 maps, 22" x 17" filled with 5-Mile hexes (intended to originally be 15-Mile hexes, but due to a misunderstanding, ended up being 5-Mile), complete with wild and dangerous savage wilderness in between far-flung outposts of decadent civilization. The maps were filled with everything from lost cities to crashed space-vehicles; dwarves and elves, dragons and goblins, and stranger things. Dig deep enough in a dungeon and you'd find an "ancient" record-player; look closely at that Amazon keep and you'd see where the long rusted-away pipes, ages ago, carried rocket fuel to the alien ships that nestled around the then-fueling station.

It was weird, it was wacky, but it was also wonderful. And, with the minimalist Sandbox-style design of the setting -- in which the booklets listed basic settlements, citadels, ravaged ruins, lurid lairs, and idyllic isles -- a Judge was able to take the material presented and build upon it to make it his own Wilderlands, in a way that no other campaign setting has ever done since.

Eventually 18 maps were released for the Wilderlands:

The original booklets and maps are available today in PDF format on DriveThruRPG; note that the links below, except for the City State of the World Emperor, are merely for the books; the maps are each sold separately. The link for the CSWE is merely for Map 6, as the city books and city map are not yet available online.


 Wilderlands of the Magic Realm (Maps 11 to 14)

Three City States were produced during the first lifetime of Judges Guild. The City State of the Invincible Overlord is on Map 1; the City State of Tarantis is on Map 3, and the City State of the World Emperor is on Map 6.

The maps in the original series do not line up numerically; the numbers are based on when they were released, not where they were on the grand map. The later revamp of the setting by Necromancer Games re-numbered the maps so that they went in order, left to right, so the top left map was Map 1, the top right Map 3, the second row far left was Map 4, the last map in the bottom right was Map 18.

Judges Guild eventually "drilled down" from those 5-Mile hexes, in the Wilderness Books series, describing specific regions of Map 1, breaking each 5-Mile hex down into a grand hex 25 hexes across, each sub-hex 1/5th of a mile across. In total five volumes were published, each more detailed and in-depth than the previous:

Back in the 3E days, Necromancer Games revamped the Wilderlands setting, complete with newly-drawn maps and an expanded and updated listing of everything in the original Wilderlands books, plus bits from the Wilderness Books. They published a Player's Guide to the Wilderlands, a Wilderlands of High Fantasy Boxed Set (with all the maps and two HUGE volumes with all the details), plus the Third Edition of the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

Of course, those of you familiar with my work with AGP know that I picked up and ran with my own version of the Wilderlands, the Wilderlands of High Adventure. I was able to finally get Bob to tell me more about the world beyond the Wilderlands proper, and together we were able to put together a map of the continent of Rhadamanthia, of which the Wilderlands is merely the heart.

For an overview of the lands beyond the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and the complete continent of Rhadamanthia, check out the World of the World of the Wilderlands of High Adventure.

Though Bob passed away back in 2008, his work and Judges Guild continues, led by his son, Bob Bledsaw II, and his grandson, Bob Bledsaw III (a true dynasty if ever there was one, with the recent birth of Bob Bledsaw IV). They recently held a very successful Kickstarter campaign that will enable them to re-publish the City State of the Invincible Overlord and re-publish all 18 Wilderlands maps in two new, full-color formats.

For tons of information on Judges Guild products, click here to check out the Judges Guild sub-web at the Acaeum.


  1. I just didn't have an *official* booth at GenCon76 but I had found a wooden card table and set that up at a blank corner (and Mustang trunk was my stockroom!)

    My latest (2nd) edition of JG history publishes my recent discovery of how few days before GenCon we got approved by TSR and in my 31-year-old recollection had converted that to "months" for the 1st edition!

    And I can announce here that a 3rd edition for Kindle will be released soon... and that will save people big money over the giant coffee-table edition (and I'm adding some more new material too with hundreds of photos/maps/unique items).

  2. Awesome! Good to see you back in this patch of ground!

    Just curious: did Bob ever mention Walton as a source? I always thought the cauldron plot came by way of Lloyd Alexander.

    1. Bob's work was heavily inspired by some of the really odd stuff that you read in Welsh myths and legends (Peredur, etc.) He never mentioned to me where the inspiration came for the Cauldron-Born; it might be that it came via Alexander, or it might have been more directly from the original Welsh sources. That he uses exactly the same name, and that the lich is creating undead rather than reviving his subjects, would make it seem that the influence in this case is via Alexander.

    2. Thanks! Just checking because while the Walton version is quite good the Alexander was more prevalent in the 1970s -- leading up to the Disney film. Would love to see a discussion of Bob's Library in any event. Cheers,

  3. James said I could plug my first 2 print editions via POD. The coffee table one particularly is terribly expensive but Print On Demand has lots of setup cost (especially with a hard-bound, premium 13x11" paperstock) and not much left for a has-been guildmaster. ...the goal of the Kindle edition is to make all the info and at least small versions of the pics available (if I made the pics any bigger Kindle wouldn't publish it). I've done this because I've so enjoyed the Kindle app on my new iPhone and so to get the price down to a reasonable level for thrifty RPG fans. And add some new realizations.

  4. Cool history! There's room to argue that Tegel Wasn't the first JG module though. I guess it depends on what you mean by module.

    Though only a sparse, macro-level key, Installment I (the City State) is pretty much usable as any other dungeon; plus it includes a small, micro-keyed dungeon (the Hell temple thing whose proper name I forget).

    And more notably: Installment J (Thunderhold) includes the Sunstone Caverns, which most definitely is a dungeon in the traditional sense, although you have to distribute some of the monster quotas throughout each group's territory.