I think top-ten lists make a nice adjunct to histories, so I’ve decided to offer a few up in this column, beginning with a look at banned, censored, censured, impounded, and withdrawn RPGs. —SA, 4/8/12

This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #15 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 90s as part of the Pagan Publishing history.

Over the years, a handful of RPG books have been withdrawn by their publishers and a larger number have been banned by some entity or another. Following is a listing of the top ten, with explanations. Current prices have been included for these books, based on internet availability, to show that banning makes some things very rare … but more often a good censoring just increases publicity.

1. Palace of the Silver Princess, 1st Printing (TSR, 1981).

The original orange-covered edition of B3: Palace of the Silver Princess by Jean Wells was probably the earliest RPG book to be withdrawn from the market and today is one of the best-known “banned” RPG books.

Wells had been hand-picked by Gary Gygax as someone who could bring a new, female perspective to the hobby. As a result of this close connection, B3 didn’t get edited much and thus didn’t receive much attention by anyone until it came back from the printers. At that point one of the executives at TSR (most say Kevin Blume, but some say Gary Gygax) decided that the book was inappropriate. By then copies of the book had gone out to some distributors and many TSR employees had taken it home, but TSR destroyed as many copies of the book as they could.

The artwork, mostly by Erol Otus, is typically named as the main problem with the book. One piece called “The Illusion of the Decapus” showed a woman being tortured while another showed a three-headed, three-armed hermaphrodite.

However, the text was also troublesome. Most notably the adventure was laid out in the same freeform style as B1: In Search of the Unknown (1979) — meaning that actual monsters, treasures, and traps were were not listed, so that each GM could fill them in — a style not used by any of the later TSR supplements. Some found the monsters silly, like that aforementioned three-headed thingamabob, the “ubue”. Finally, the text may generally not have been up to the level of professionalism that TSR was then shooting for, following the release of Tom Moldvay’s new Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1980). Current Price: ~$1000.

Following TSR’s recall of the original B3, a second printing (1981) was quickly released. It was largely rewritten by Moldvay himself and also swapped out a lot of the art. This green-covered edition is the one that remained in print for years, through at least three printings, and which most D&D players of the era are likely familiar with.

As an interesting footnote, Palace of the Silver Princess in its first (and banned) edition has usually been noted as the first RPG product written solely by a woman, following at least three books co-authored by women: Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976), Quest for the Fazzlewood (1978), and Rahasia (1979). That turns out to not be the case, as “Lee” Russell’s Labyrinth (1977), a T&T solo, predated it by a few years. Labyrinth hasn’t gotten its due credit previously because of “Lee”‘s obfuscatory pen name, but it was indeed an earlier all-female RPG supplement.

See the old Wizards of the Coast page on the adventure, which includes a downloadable PDF, and the Acaeum page which includes all the offensive(?) artwork plus a lot of discussion on the recall.

2. GURPS Cyberpunk (Steve Jackson Games, 1990).

Although GURPS Cyberpunk wasn’t the cause of the March 1, 1990 raid on Steve Jackson Games, the (moronic) Secret Service agents involved in the raid were soon holding it up as their greatest prize, calling it a “handbook for computer crime”. They wouldn’t even return the manuscript, making it the only example in this list of a censored publications that was actually held back by the government — likely in violation of the First Amendment. Steve Jackson Games was able to recreate the book from backups and release it. Current Price: $10-15.

See Designers & Dragons pgs. 108-109 for the whole disgraceful affair. The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling has even more details.

3. Killer (Steve Jackson Games, 1982).

Steve Jackson’s Killer (1982), a codification of the public domain Assassin game, may be the most censored RPG (or at least LARP) of all time. Numerous college campuses across the the country have banned it because they don’t want students running around pretending to kill each other. Following the sharp increase in gun violence at schools that kicked off in the late ’80s and especially since the Columbine Massacre (1999), one can kind of understand their point.

Killer also earns the distinction of being one of the earlier games banned by TSR at GenCon. According to one source, Ernie Gygax came over to tell Steve Jackson that Killer had to be pulled because it violated “GenCon Product Standards”. When Jackson protested that he’d never heard of such a thing, Gygax told him that the standards hadn’t been written down yet, but nonetheless Killer was in violation. It’s unclear whether Killer was actually pulled as a result, but it certainly set TSR up as a somewhat uneven arbiter of what was allowed at GenCon, a topic we’ll return to. Current Price: $20-30.

4. Alma Mater (Oracle Games, 1982).

In the ’80s, Alma Mater (1982), a small-press high school role-playing game was almost synonymous with the idea of forbidden gaming. After being released at Origins, it was banned at GenCon — which would have been the same year that TSR was trying to ban sale of Killer at that con. The bannings were a result of Alma Mater not being afraid to show off the rougher side of high school — with sex, drugs, and violence front and center. However, it was probably the artwork by Erol Otus that pushed the game right over the edge, including one drawing of a student shooting up and another demonstrating very heavy petting. Current Price: I can’t find any for sale.

See the Cyclopeatron Blog for some of those illustrations.

5. Book of Erotic Fantasy (Valar Project, 2003).

When word got around that Valar was working on a Book of Erotic Fantasy, Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to introduce “community standards of decency” to the d20 Trademark License, just so that Valar couldn’t use it. Shades of Killer‘s experience at GenCon in 1982.

Valar used the OGL instead. So, this book wasn’t technically banned by Wizards, but it certainly received censure and that was surely part of an attempt to keep it out of print. Current Price: $25-60.

See Designers & Dragons pg. 293 for more on the Book and the resultant changes to the d20 License.

6. Wings of the Valkyrie (Hero/ICE, 1987).

Wings of the Valkyrie was a Champions time travel adventure with a twist: time travelers have gone back in time and killed Hitler and by doing so created a much worse future. Thus the players are faced not only with an adventure, but a moral dilemma: do they allow Hitler to kill millions or do they save the future?

Unfortunately, the premise caused major offense to some — possibly including a major distributor. As a result, ICE decided it was in their best interest to recall the adventure wholesale, and they did. Current Price: $30-60.

7. Theatrix Presents Ironwood (Backstage Press, 1994) & Other GenCon Casualties of the ’90s.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, TSR was running scared from angry mothers who thought that D&D was evil. Lorraine Williams and James Ward were among TSR’s biggest proponents for avoiding “Angry Mother Syndrome.” So, demons and assassins disappeared from AD&D and the guidelines for what could be shown at GenCon grew very stringent … far surpassing those early years when the con didn’t actually have a codified code of product standards. This was the atmosphere when Theatrix Presents Ironwood (1994) got banned from the convention

Ironwood — based on an “adult” comic series by (ironically) ex-TSR employee Bill Willingham — has been singled out for attention here because Backstage Press co-founder Andrew Finch made a lot of hay on the internet about the banning. Thanks to that, we have a list of the criteria that TSR used to ban products in 1994, which included anything that:

  • Portrays mutilation or open torture.
  • Portrays nudity.
  • Portrays any current religion in a negative capacity.
  • Portrays any older religion as an ongoing and useful activity.
  • Portrays any law enforcement individual in a derogatory manner.
  • Uses bad language.

Finch said that Ironwood met all of the criteria except the first. Current Price: $10-15.

Among the other games known to have been banned at GenCon under TSR in the ’90s are: David Nalle’s Suburban Slasher strategy game (1992); some or all of Mayfair’s Demons sourcebooks for AD&D (1992-1993); the Mort Sourcebook for SLA Industries (1995), due to a purported picture of genatalia on the back cover; and The End by Scapegoat Games. The last banning resulted in Scapegoat staff marching around outside of GenCon with placards saying “The End Is HERE!”, offering another example of censorship being the best marketing. There were probably many more banned GenCon books (included a few noted in points 8 and 10 of this list).

Word has it that one year TSR even banned a guillotine that Ral Partha had created to decorate their booth!

Meanwhile, games like Kult (1993), HoL (1994, 1995), and the Redemption CCG (1995) had no problems, showing the vast arbitrariness that continued to exist in TSR’s GenCon censorship. In fact, the folks at Backstage Press later said that if they hadn’t shown Ironwood to the GenCon showrunners, there wouldn’t have been any problem.

By all indications, GenCon rules have been much less harsh since the con passed on from TSR, though in recent years at least Morton’s List (2001) — a quest game — was banned, purportedly because it included “real life magic spells”.

See Designers & Dragons pgs. 21-23 for more on TSR’s reaction to “angry mothers” and pgs. 168-169 for TSR’s further response to Mayfair’s Demons line. Also see Dungeons, Dragons, and Comics, Part One for Fables writer Bill Willingham’s year with TSR.

8. Courting Madness (Pagan Publishing, 1992) & Other Pagan Casualties.

Courting Madness, one of Pagan Publishing’s earliest releases, was yet another GenCon casualty of the ’90s — in its case because of implied fellatio of a headless monstrosity. Current Price: $350, but that’s because it was limited to 200 copies at printing, not because of any rarity caused by GenCon’s banning.

Courting Madness gets a special mention apart from the other GenCon bannings because it wasn’t an isolated case for Pagan. The Unspeakable Oath #5 (Spring, 1992), whose cover featured a gory dog’s head, got into almost as much trouble: Pagan was told they could sell it, but only “under the counter”, which meant they couldn’t display it. The Unspeakable Oath #4 (Fall, 1991) showed breasts while The Unspeakable Oath #10 (Fall, 1993) featured an altogether icky cover showing a human-skin book cover, so it’s likely that those releases were troublesome too.

The element that all of these Pagan covers had in common? Blair Reynolds, certainly one of the most disturbing artists that the hobby had seen to date in the ’90s.

9. Delta Green: Countdown (Pagan Publishing, 1999) & Other Nazi Casualties.

However, Pagan Publishing didn’t get into problems just due to the sex and violence shown on their early covers. Their Delta Green: Countdown (1999) had problems selling into Germany because of the Nazi imagery on the cover. Current Price: $150, but due to demand for copies of a long out-of-print book, not anything to do with the censorship.

The problem is that Germany has very draconic censorship laws related to Nazism. Many games over the years have fallen prey to this problem. Among the reported victims are GURPS Supers IST (1991), Hidden Invasion (1995), and the Luftwaffe 1946 (2003) RPG.

However, the German censorship is apparently easy to get around: Steve Jackson Games went over a few covers of IST with sharpies to remove objectionable content while Crunchy Frog put post-its over the picture of Adolf Hitler in Hidden Invasion that was causing problems.

10. Faeries (White Wolf, 1991) & Other White Wolf Casualties.

White Wolf is another roleplaying company who had troubles with their books more than once. I’ve spotlighted Faeries (1991) for Ars Magica because, as far as I know, it’s their first book that was censored. The issue was the cover which showed not just a breast but a nipple — a real faux pas for many game store owners. When Wizards of the Coast revised the book a few years later (1995), they put old guys on the cover instead. Current Price: $12-15.

Vampire, not surprisingly, caused many more problems for White Wolf than Ars Magica ever did. Some stores wouldn’t carry Clanbook: Brujah (1992) because it used the “f” word, while Clanbook: Tzimisce (1995) was apparently yet another book with the ‘ole genatalia-on-the-back-cover problem. Such an easy mistake to make. As a result, Tzimisce shipped to some game stores with shrinkwrap that hid part of the back cover from view. White Wolf had problems at GenCon too. Clanbook: Malkavian (1994) was definitely banned from the convention because a picture of designer Chris McDonough was taken to be a disparagement of Jesus. There were probably others.

Ornery Mention. Violence (Hogshead Publishing, 1999).

It wasn’t just the games that got banned by GenCon that took advantage of the censorious publicity. Though Violence was never actually censored by GenCon, James Wallis was pretty sure it violated the con’s guidelines and he was happy to tell people so. If they asked, he was willing to sell them a copy of the book from under the counter in a sealed brown paper bag. Current Price: $5.

See Designers & Dragons pg. 306 for more on Violence

Honorary Mention. GURPS Bili the Axe: Up Harzburk! (Steve Jackson Games, 1989).

Although not actually banned, this GURPS Horseclans solo adventure is one of the three RPG books that I know was recalled by the publisher (following B3 and Wings of the Valkyrie), so I wanted to make sure it was on the list. Steve Jackson Games explains the problem, saying “The Horseclans solo adventure Up Harzburk! was recalled soon after publication, in early 1989, because it contained so many path errors that we did not feel it could be adequately corrected by an errata sheet.” More specifically, there were apparently sufficient errors in the way the paragraphs were linked to make the solo unplayable. Current Price: $30-50.

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