A Cautionary Tale

by John Lettice

About a year ago now I was being stood up in a St Andrews bar. The throbbing in my head blended with the throbbing pain in my wallet, and I had just decided to leave when, through the smoke, an ancient mariner hove into view. I recognised him as Jerry Milne, disastrous Dark Lord from a long dead Third Age game, but now he informed me he was making good commanding Mine Sweepers on “goodwill”‘ visits to Portugal. I made to leave, but found myself unable to button my coat because of the glass of whiskey which had miraculously appeared in my hand. Never argue with a live ancient mariner – I settled down to hear his tale.

It concerned a age gone by – 1973. Brian Yare was a St. Andrews gamesmaster whose zine, Grafeti, had fallen on hard times. Circulation had peaked at “67 and still rising” and he was casting about for some way to unload some of his games. One game, a game of Third Age [a Tolkein-based variant] was in the process-of being won by Gondor, controlled by Bob Harris, and Eriador, controlled by John Robertson, the proprietor of a shot selling…. ah…. therapeutic books, Mordor, losing, was controlled by our friend Jerry Milne.

As I say, Yare wished to unload as many games as possible, and at this point in the game, as Gondorian armies hammered on the gates of Mordor, there was a confused scuffle, when victory was awarded to Gondor, revoked and the game restarted, Jerry Milne was replaced by Duncan Morris as Dark Lord, and Brian Yare replaced by Geoff Corker as GM.

Games of Third Age that are not won by Mordon in the first few seasons usually take a very long time to GM, but here a very strange thing happened. Morris slashed his way through to Eriador, with no apparent regard for what was happening elsewhere, and took the ring from Eriador’s Ringbearer, and won. Luck? Not according to Duncan. He told the story of how he had gone through to Dundee to see John Robertson, ruler of Eriador, at his shop, and induced him to explain the game to him (the Robertson Empire, diplomatic and otherwise, was controlled from his shop) by pretending that he was not Duncan Morris. I actually arrived at the end of this meeting to collect my weekly copy of “Necrophiliac Lust in the Undergrowth” (purely medicinal), and Morris, having met me at ScotDipCon feared his scheme was rumbled. Fortunately for him, I appeared not to recognise him. (Hell, can you remember every hick you’ve beaten at Decline and Fall?) Anyhow, Morris absconded with the loot – the knowledge of the position of the Ring, imparted by the outrageously urbane and overconfident Robertson. We left asking each other who the hell that idiot was. And, except for the victory, that was the last time I heard of the game until that fateful night in the Cross Keys Hotel.

The Milne story differs at no point, but draws attention to the first attempt at stopping the game. This was triggered by Gondor’s forcing the Mordor Ringbearer to retreat. If the Mordor Ringbearer is eliminated victory goes to the largest of the other powers. Yare saw the chance to reduce his workload and collared Jerry, pointing out that he could retreat it, or disband at and thus end the game. Jerry, a figure whose saintliness transcends even that of St. Francis and Allan Ovens, so totally unsuited for Diplomacy, had already said he wished to end the game and naturally opted for disbandonment. The snag was, however, that the rules state that multiple armies like Mordor’s Ringbearer cannot be disbanded, and when this was realised Yare had to continue the game. Jerry declined to continue, and Duncan Morris took over.

So far, so good. But, when the game had “finished” for the first time, Morris, who was living as the same address as Yare at the time and had taken a keen interest in the progress of. the game, had actually inquired as to the whereabouts of the Ring, and had been told! Forgetting this, Yare allowed him to join the game. Morris’s “espionage” trip to Dundee was in fact window dressing to explain his making a bee-line for the Ring, and to check that it really was where he thought it was.

I smiled. The tale had ended and, as everybody knows, ancient mariners let you go on your way at this point. So it was with mounting horror that I watched him launch into the tale. of why Brian Yare failed to get, or even be allowed to present, his PhD.

Reprinted from Mad Policy No.57.