Days of High Adventure

Gaming’s Renaissance Man


In some future dissertation on the Secret Masters of 20th-Century Tabletop Gaming, one or another lucky historian of pop culture will earn tenure by rediscovering Paul Jaquays.

In his incomparably varied career as writer, editor, illustrator, computer game designer and educator, Jaquays (pronounced “jake-ways”) pioneered important early developments in tabletop roleplaying game scenarios, guided the first large migration of RPG designers into computer gaming, and helped shape one of the earliest collegiate game design curricula. Along with fellow polymath Liz Danforth, Paul Jaquays has been for decades the most broadly talented professional in RPGs – outstanding as designer, artist and editor – yet his impact still awaits assessment. He only just got listed in Wikipedia, though in 2004 he did get a laudatory, if wildly inaccurate, writeup on Everything2. (Jaquays remarks, “As long as sequencing of events, facts and attributions of work don’t matter, it’s a great article.”)

Fans of the Old School Revival, at least, still recall Jaquays for his early work at that most prolific and fondly remembered of licensed third-party D&D/AD&D publishers, Judges Guild. In 1979 Jaquays immediately became one of JG’s leading designers and illustrators with his first dungeon crawls, Caverns of Thracia and, especially, Dark Tower. An exploration of two buried prehistoric towers, temples to the rival gods Mitra and Set, Dark Tower showed creative vigor in its mix of wilderness, village and dungeon adventuring.

Dark Tower was my first commercial game project,” Jaquays recalls. “Prior to this I had written adventures for The Dungeoneer gaming fan magazine and for my own enjoyment. What I remember of the early Judges Guild adventures was that they were not substantially different from homegrown adventures – light on theme, light on characterization, mostly just monsters and treasure stats. It may be telling that even though I was an early Judges Guild subscriber, I never actually used their adventure material in my games.

“Players new to Judges Guild content (particularly in the original form, as opposed to the current adaptations) should be aware of its unpolished and spare nature. The earliest published adventures were little more than monster hotels. The focus was on providing interesting or challenging (and quite often random) encounters that let the players build their own story, rather than on extensive backstory, cultural history or an attempt to guide the players into carrying through the author’s storyline.”

Jaquays retained this open-ended “sandbox” approach in lieu of predetermined storylines, but his works introduced Judges Guild to an amazing new concept: coherence. He thought of Dark Tower and, moreso, Caverns of Thracia “as 3-D world-spaces built by people (or monsters) for a purpose, not just a random set of rooms and halls occupying all available space on a letter-sized sheet of graph paper. I put a little more effort into backstory for the dungeon. I focused on the special rooms where special things happened or where unusual characters lived – the things that made the game world exotic, magical and mysterious.”
As “High Adventure” columnist James Maliszewski observed on his Grognardia blog, “Along with Tegel Manor (by Bob Bledsaw) and his earlier Caverns of Thracia, Paul Jaquays’ Dark Tower is probably one of the most famous and well loved adventure modules ever produced by Judges Guild. So great is its reputation that it even made Dungeon‘s ’30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time,’ the sole non-TSR/WotC product to appear on [that] list. … it’s a brilliant piece of work.”

The door to room 13 is wizard locked. Trying to open the door will fire off a magic mouth spell: “GO NO FURTHER MANLING! BEYOND LIES THAT WHICH WOULD DEVOUR YOUR VERY SOUL AND BEFOUL GREATER MOTIONS THAN YOUR FEEBLE MIND MIGHT KNOW!” A second attempt to open the door will fire off another magic mouth, “YOU WERE WARNED!” and a spear trap will fire off 6 spears, attacking as if cast by a 6 HD creature. A third attempt to open the door will cause a wall of fire to spring up directly before the door. Magic mouth: “STUBBORN, AREN’T WE!”
Dark Tower, Room 3-13 (page 46)

Jaquays both designed and illustrated his Judges Guild work. “Back then, one could be an artist of, at best, fair talent and still have one’s work be in demand for game products. It was how I got my start and probably where my professional reputation is based. For years afterwards, doors opened for me in my career because of that early amateur, semi-pro and pro work.”


Though Dark Tower and Thracia were for AD&D, Jaquays himself preferred Chaosium’s RuneQuest. Persuading Judges Guild to obtain a RuneQuest license, he wrote their first RQ adventure, the pleasantly titled Hellpits of Nightfang (1979). A later RQ collaboration marked his next step forward:

“Rudy Kraft contacted me in the summer of 1979 about a freelance RuneQuest project he was writing for Judges Guild called ‘Adventures Beyond the Pass.’ Rudy was exceptionally good at setting up reasonable character stats for RuneQuest characters, but not quite so adept at really making them come alive. I gave life and purpose to the barbarians and humanoids in the place. I remember doing extensive additional writing and mapmaking to flesh out the world. [Chaosium founder] Greg Stafford got wind of our efforts and wanted to see it. We gave him a copy of our unfinished draft and he loved it. He wanted the characters and settings we had fleshed out to be a part of his world of Glorantha, not a generic setting. Becoming part of ‘canon’ was too tempting an offer to refuse, so we shifted publishers and included Greg as a co-author.”

The result, Griffin Mountain (1981), was Chaosium’s first major campaign sourcebook for RuneQuest and the largest for any RPG to that time. When most RPG books ran 64 pages tops, Griffin Mountain offered vast scope – 230 pages! – and unprecedented depth in its treatment of a wilderness region’s neolithic cultures, fortresses and institutions. For instance, there’s a whole chapter on caravans and another on, uh, dogs; we don’t even reach the mountain itself until page 176. Griffin Mountain became an early benchmark, both for thoroughness and for Chaosium’s vaulting ambition; in the same year, the company published Call of Cthulhu, which has since won a long shelf of awards. (Jaquays and Chaosium later refashioned Griffin Mountain for RuneQuest‘s Avalon Hill edition as Griffin Island.)

Much of the activity in Balazar comes from the tribal fortresses of Trilus, Elkoi and Dykene. … These are not shining castles covering miles of countryside, nor do they have ivory towers reaching for the sky. In general, they are small and squalid with narrow and mud-choked streets providing perfect wallows for pigs. Which, coincidentally, is one of the primary reasons for the existence of the citadels – the Balazaring kings have a monopoly on domestic pigs.
Griffin Mountain, Ch. III (page 24)

When the late ’70s fad in tabletop roleplaying peaked and died, Jaquays helped many designers pass osmotically into computer gaming. In 1980 fellow designer Michael A. Stackpole recommended Jaquays to the game development group at Coleco. At this toy-turned-tech company he worked his way up to Director of Game Design, where he recruited nearly a dozen fellow paper-game designers formerly with TSR, SPI, Victory Games and other tabletop giants to work on arcade games.

“In 1982, when I was given the task of putting together the art and design teams for [the game console] ColecoVision, there really weren’t such things as videogame designers who weren’t programmers. Even the art for most early games was done by programmers. For designers, I relied on my own background and looked for creative people who could analyze what made something fun and then document the living daylights out of it. They needed to be people who wanted to work on games because they really loved games. RPG and wargame designers fit that bill. On the art side, we found (mostly) young artists willing to work on something exciting and new, even if their previous training had done nothing to really prepare them.

“The team bonded well, and for a couple years I felt like King Arthur might have felt about his Knights of the Round Table. I had the best people working for me, and we were doing things no one had done before. I like to think that Coleco game development group pioneered the way for today’s multi-discipline game studios.”

Jaquays’ project teams ported dozens of coin-op arcade games (Donkey Kong, Frogger, Zaxxon) to the ColecoVision and Intellivision consoles, as well as to standalone “home arcade” tabletop electronic versions. Animated artwork for fluorescent tube displays – ah, those were the days.

(Photo by Amanda Jaquays)


When the early-’80s videogame boom busted, Jaquays transitioned easily back to freelancing, both in computer games (he did the first Lord of the Rings computer game for Interplay) and in paper (the Central Casting character creation books for Task Force Games, among many others). His best-known painting, Dragon Mountain, dates from this time. He did extensive development on Bard’s Tale IV before Electronic Arts cancelled the project; some fans even now remain wistful. In 1997, when Jaquays was a TSR staff illustrator during its long and painful decline, Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen recruited him to id Software, where he designed levels for Quake II and III. That led to a long hitch at Ensemble Studios, doing art for Age of Empires III and Halo Wars. In October Jaquays started a new gig at CCP, publishers of EVE Online, where he is hidden behind a human wall of alert and close-mouthed PR people.

Any other creator in the tumultuous game industry must envy this tremendous versatility. “Having a varied professional skill set has allowed me to stay in the game industry long-term, change when it changed, and be ready for new opportunities: game illustration this month; adventure writing or editing the next; computer game design projects as needed; art for children’s magazines and publications; even turnkey book production. In the computer game industry, having art and design skill sets allowed me to either be the artist who understood design, or the designer who could bring an artist’s perspective to his work. Even today, as level designer, I still use the adventure writing and editing skills picked up during my RPG days. The illustration skills have been mostly converted into 3-D modeling skills to block out game worlds.”

For all this variety, Jaquays’ most lasting contribution to gaming may ultimately be in education.

The program directors at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas consulted Jaquays on preparing students to enter the digital game industry. Ultimately Jaquays, together with other industry professionals, shaped SMU’s Guildhall Masters program in Game Development and wrote its Art Creation curriculum. “As the program launched, I became one of the founding Guildmasters – the industry face of Guildhall. I’ve had the honor to be on the presentation platform for all ten class graduations to date, and even gave the commencement address at one.”

“Overall, the school has been an outstanding success. Students going through the program together not only learn their own disciplines, but, even more important, learn how to work together on a team with developers of other disciplines. Ask Guildhall grads the most important lesson taken away from the school, and you’re likely to hear them say ‘I learned how to work as part of a team.’ Employers have definitely taken notice of that. At one point recently it had a 96% placement rate into the game industry. One graduate is now a lead level designer at a major developer, and several others have joined together to form a new startup [Controlled Chaos Media] whose first project got into the top 25 on the iPhone app store’s entertainment list.” Jaquays still advises the Guildhall, and – the ultimate endorsement? – his son, Zach Jaquays, completed the program in 2005.

Paul sees several challenges ahead for game development education. “[The] traditional computer game industry is being hit by the same economic factors slamming the rest of the world. Large employers have been trimming game jobs by the thousands this past year, and small to medium studios have been closing their doors. The good news is that other studios have been re-employing those laid off, but that may be coming at the expense of expanding with new, untested talent.

“The second challenge is to provide degree programs that actually meet industry needs. There’s a lot of difference in the quality of game development education out there, and those shopping for a bargain price on a development diploma may be getting exactly what they pay for, instead of what they need. And finally there’s the challenge of luring veteran game developers into full-time faculty positions to teach the next generation of game developers.”

Assuming academia meets these challenges and continues to advance, we can look forward to a future – ideally in his lifetime – where some diligent scholar at last rediscovers, and gets tenure from, the remarkable career of Paul Jaquays.

Allen Varney has written over 60 articles for The Escapist. See the complete list at Great Games Experiment.

(Art by Paul Jaquays, used under Fair Use)

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