Spellbinder Hat

Around 1977, I designed a pencil-and-paper game which I called (after some deliberation, as all the best names were taken) Spellbinder. Its premise was that two (or more) wizards were placed together in an arena, where they battled it out using spells made by stringing together series of (originally 5) basic gestures. I had been thinking for some time about the similarity between generating spells and programming computers, and this is what I finally designed in response. It bears a superficial resemblance to certain aspects of the duelling system from the Three Musketeers-era game En Garde!, which I had played at the time, but these are coincidental; the two games are very different.

For the first version, I used a board. Wizards were able to walk around, spells being represented by counters that moved at different speeds depending on how many gestures were used to create them. Although this worked, the map was cluttered and the bookkeeping tiresome; I felt it would make for quicker and more exciting play if I abstracted out the positional information and concentrated on the fun part - "programming" spells on-the-fly from gestures.

This second version also worked, but the strategy aspect was now exposed as too shallow. I therefore allowed wizards to gesture with both hands instead of just one, and introduced an extra, two-handed gesture to enforce occasional reconciliation between the gesture streams. I printed the rules to this third version in my postal games magazine, Sauce of the Nile.

The game was warmly received, and several games were played successfully by post. I negotiated for it to be published commercially by the same people who did my programmed-adventure game The Solo Dungeon, but (sigh) they went bankrupt before it happened. Unable to publish it myself (I was 17 and penniless at the time), I pretty well had to give up on that idea. Consequently, when one of my magazine's subscribers, Mike Lean, asked to reproduce the rules to Spellbinder in his own postal games magazine, Duel Purpose, I gave him permission and forgot about it. Well, that's not perhaps strictly true: the magic system from Spellbinder formed the basis of the one in my novel, INflamessight, however as a game I didn't do anything with it at all.

Many years later, I learned that people had programmed up Spellbinder to be played on computer. There were versions for email and head-to-head play. I was cited as its author, but was believed deceased (which, to the best of my knowledge, I am not). The game was also renamed each time it was rewritten, which is hardly surprising given the lousy title I gave it myself! I was nevertheless quite pleased to find that what I knew as Spellbinder was out there, living free, after all that time; it was like finding a long-lost friend.

There are five different versions of Spellbinder that I'm aware of:
Mail Hood Waving Hands.
The original, pencil-and-paper rules.
These have been translated into Russian by Lex Rem and into Spanish by Javier Martin Álvarez.
Mail Hood Spellcaster.
A real-time, X-windows version by Andrew Plotkin.
This also comes as part of the distribution for Debian GNU/Linux.
Mail Hood Firetop Mountain.
A play-by-email version by Martin Gregory.
Mail Hood Spellcast: Deathmatch.
A Java Applet version by Joseph M. Sims.
Mail Hood Spellcast.
A portable rewrite of Andrew Plotkin's X-windows version by Dennis Taylor.
Mail Hood Warlocks.
A web-based version of the game.

A copy of the original rules as they were posted to rec.games.abstract is at:
Mail Hood Waving Hands.

A tool by Frederic J. Walter-Scheerer to help you discover what gesture sequences are currently "on" is at:
Mail Hood FM Tool.

None of these products are commercial, which is just as well: I retain full rights to the game, and if any commercial incarnation appears then I want a royalty! I have no objection to people implementing or running derivatives of the Spellbinder so long as they make no money from it, though. Of course, if you are interested in publishing the game commercially, email me a proposal!
Turban INsightflames, the novel inspired by the game.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
2nd August :\webdes~1\ m.htm