Bob Bledsaw was working as a stereo system designer for GE
in Decatur, Illinois
when he heard GE was about to close up its operations in his home town. Everyone was soon to be out of work. There would, of course, be the customary opportunities to transfer within the massive corporation. Bledsaw didn't like the idea of moving away from Decatur (a city in Illinois
) and figured there had to be a better way of making a living right there in Decatur, which is in Illinois incase you're still a mite confused about this city's location.
Bledsaw was an early D&D
fan. He found a fellow gamer named Bill Owen to partner with him to create Judges Guild. Bledsaw was an avid war gamer before being exposed to D&D. Once hooked, he spent all his spare time creating campaign material, new rules, and maps, much of it set in Tolkien's Middle Earth
. He figured there had to be a way to churn some of this into a saleable product.
was coming in the summer of 1975. Bledsaw and Owen created their first product, a map of a place called City State
. They each ponied up $160 to cover the printing costs of the map and took their product to Lake Geneva (which is in Wisconsin
, and this fact will not bear repeating) and sold their maps at Gen Con '75.
The map sold well. Flush with success they began to develop more products and paid a visit to TSR
to show them what they were working on. Unlike the highly protectionist
TSR many experienced in the late '80s and '90s, TSR was very welcoming to any third party publisher who would help spread the hobby. TSR encouraged them to create products for the D&D milieu
Judges Guild's core product became its City State universe. From an initial printed map it expanded to encompass some 18 maps and about 400 pages of campaign notes. The City State became known as The City State of the Invincible Overlord
. One of the great mysteries of City State, among gamers, was what was the Invincible Overlord's actual name? Internally, Judges Guild referred to him as "Ryan".
Judges Guild's next big release was a "dungeon" module called Tegel Manor
. Tegel Manor was actually a haunted house
and tackled the intersection of gothic horror and fantasy role playing years before TSR's Ravenloft
In its early days, Bledsaw, Owen, and Bledsaw's wife Norma worked out of their dining room, using a single typewriter
. The company didn't even own the typewriter. It was rented. By 1977, the three-person company grossed $60,000. Sales more than tripled a year later to $200,000. Judges Guild hired four staff members. In 1979, sales double to $400,000. The company moved out of Bledshaw's dining room
. They acquired an old elementary school
building along with 10 additional employees. A year later the company grossed $750,000.
As TSR became a slick corporate game maker, Judges Guild stuck to its homebrewed
roots. While TSR turned out glossy products, illustrated by top artists, Judges Guild printed most of its products as newsprint
booklets. Cover art was mostly amateurish pen-and-ink drawings. Color was used sparingly, using only one or four colors. Maps that needed to be printed on something more durable than newsprint were almost always printed on pebble brown card stock
Cheap and amateurish might not wash in some industries like music, movies, computers, and aircraft maintenance, however, in the world of role playing gamers actually like it
. It captures the spirit and roots of their hobby. Too corporate implies the high fantasy, the hard core, gets white washed
. "Oh well, yeah, there are no more demons and devils as the Christian Right, who doesn't actually buy our games, complained. So, ha ha, now we call them Frigleborzars! Isn't that totally cool?"
Another advantage Judges Guild had to keeping things cheap was R&D
costs were minimal. TSR was limited in the number of products it could create because of high development and publishing costs. A couple poorly selling expensive modules would represent a nasty bit of red ink
to TSR. Judges Guild, however, could easily release dozens of new products ever few months. If they took a bath on one, well, that was only a few hun down the drain.
And boy, did Judges Guild release a lot of products. It released modules, campaign aids, three different magazines (Pegasus
, Judges Guild Journal
, and The Dungeoneer
, which featured a monthly mini dungeon module), maps, rule additions for running massive sea battles or adventuring in the wilderness, character sheets, encounter cards, and so on. Judges Guild quickly branched out to all forms of role playing. It created material for Traveller
, Tunnels & Trolls
, Empire of the Petal Throne
, and Rune Quest
. It created its own quick and dirty sci fi and fantasy role playing systems. It created rules for war gaming with every conceivable form of miniature
. It even released an early computer game, an adaptation of a public domain TRS-80 BASIC
Star Trek game.
A Judges Guild catalog was to an RPG
fan what the Sears Catalog was to your great grandparents during The Great Depression
. It was a thick wish book
and just fun to read and browse.
Aside from Judges Guild's initial and signature City State campaign and Tegel Manor products, it created some later dungeon modules that became legendary. Judges Guild's Dark Tower AD&D
module rates highly in the memories of many old time gamers. Dark Tower
was centered around an ancient shrine and some creepy goings on within the nearby village. (The theme bore more than one similarity to TSR's The Village of Hommlet
.) Judges Guild later parodied its own best selling Dark Tower
by releasing a version called Duck Tower
for fans of Rune Quest.
Judges Guild also published a lot of material from D&D co-founder David Arneson
campaign under the less than awe inspiring title The First Fantasy Campaign
. Also of note was a module called Inferno
which was based on Dante's Inferno
. (The module covered the first four circles of hell, with the other circles to be handled by a follow on module that never made it to market.)
Trouble set in. TSR released AD&D. In the early days, D&D's authorship was in some doubt. TSR did not have iron-clad rights to the name, the rules, and the right to license product development to third parties. When TSR came out with the AD&D system, it was under their tight control. It gave Judges Guild a very restrictive license. All products for AD&D had to be submitted to TSR for approval, which added more time to bring product to market. This made it difficult for Judges Guild to continue with its business model of throwing massive amounts of inexpensive FRG
material into the market place and letting a Darwinian
process determine which products were winners.
TSR, as we all know, began to circle its own wagons and became very, very unfriendly to third party developers. It yanked Judges Guild's AD&D license in 1981. When it gained official control of the D&D system, it put Judges Guild on notice to cease and desist
. Judges Guild tried initially to create generic modules. This had mixed results.
Hardcore gamers were quite willing to adapt Judges Guild's D&D works and generic works to the new AD&D system. But new breeds of younger gamers were more hesitant. The argument for buying a commercial module
or campaign is it saves the dungeon master loads of time having to come up with his own material. It made little sense to people to spend $8 to buy something you had to rework.
Judges Guild also took a massive hit when its third-party distribution company founded by Lou Zocchi
went belly up. It owed Judges Guild large amounts of money that Judges Guild was never able to recover. Without a game distributor that had roots in the hobbyist days, and role playing gone corporate, it was hard to find a traditional game distributor, who deals with the likes of Mattel
, to take seriously a company that publishes on newsprint and pebble brown card stock.
By the mid-'80s, Judges Guild was no more. For a while. But then the Internet happened. Bledsaw realized the net let him avoid the middle man
problem that helped ruin his company and take his massive catalog to the role playing public. Any web search on "Judges Guild" would reveal loads of current chatter about products and people anxious to buy used works. Clearly there was a market.
In 1999 two web sites were created. Judgesguild.net was Bledsaw's baby to sell classic Judges Guild products. Judgesguild.com was created by another company called Necromancer Games to adapt and sell Judges Guild's intellectual property
for AD&D's new D20 system