Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

[DSA] Executive Meddling: Mask of the Master

No, this is not a joke.

You know, there is one thing that always interested me in the history of roleplaying as a hobby in Germany, and that were the various stupidities produced by Schmidt Spiele against the best interest of their own products sales and believability. tragic as they might seem, they can be kind of amusing though. the picture in the top left here shows the most well known of these follies: Die Maske des Meisters (The Mask of the Master).

Schmidt Spiele, as you might remember, was the game company responsible for The Dark Eye in it’s early editions. And they were very successful with it. DSA sold like hotcakes.

The reason for that was simple: while having very basic rules and a rather naive background it was the only pen and paper RPG available in pretty much every city in Germany.  Schmidt Spiele had a wide range of games and an awesome market penetration. If I remember correctly most of the  games I owned back when I was a kid were produced by this company. Most German players started with this game, and many a gamer’s life never really moved far from it.

But with the territory of being the biggest on the market there also came the hubris, especially in the beginning, but occassionally also later. Schmidt Spiele executives were not really that sure about the game itself. they just couldn’t figure it out.

Roleplaying games were something new and unknown to them, and they seemed to be bothered by the lack of proper gaming materials. There were no markers, no gameboard, nothing they normally put into the boxes that had sold so well for decades. Even more: German roleplayers did not come from a wargaming background, wargames being pretty much unknown in the general gamer audience in Germany until the  mid-90s or so. There were no miniatures, and most German players see them as superflous for roleplaying.

This did not sit so well with them. They (the execs) needed to do something with the whole thing, they could not just let the authors of the game do willy-nilly (conveniently forgetting that the fans might be the ones which knew best who to sell this game to…). In the end they actually found something to ease their mind: As they completely underestimated the age of players (DSA mostly was marketed to children back then), and because they had a few thousand of them still lying around from a cancelled product, the first extension box for the game  “Die Werkzeuge des Meisters” (Tools of the Gamemaster) contained a child-sized, ridiculously cheap-looking mask the GM was supposed to wear when GMing. [see picture above, note the fine shine of cheap plastic and the awesome yet silly looking wings…].

As the mask was part of an earlier product and is sporting the dark eye symbol they used for the product line later,  it can be assumed this was a very sleek way of recycling some leftovers they had lying around. Most likely the name of the game was not only chosen because it sounded better, but also because they needed to get rid of these things. Most likely they already had paid the designer for the symbol, so why waste that money?

Whatever the product was that was cancelled, now the new and first roleplaying game they were publishing bore the name. But not only that: as they wanted it to appear as if the mask actually was, well, a useful part of the game, they claimed in the rulebooks cantained in the box that it was absolutely essential to the right gaming experience to always wear them.

So yes, this was an actual gaming aid they tried to foist onto people. There is an apocryphal story of someone writing in to complain that well, his group absolutely loved the game, but they always had to stop early because the mask was so tight it was giving him headaches.

The mask wasn’t a big success, to say the least.

Later editions of the box  replaced the mask with lots of paper standups and other trinkets and everybody was happy. Players because they got something they actually could use, and executives because they could put something into their product that was recognisable as gaming material. Cynics might say that was because they ran out of masks to put into the reprint runs, and they most likely would be right.

Today of course it’s fondly remembered as a sign of the cheesiness of early DSA. A recent reprinting of the old game rules actually contained a cardboard version of it for fun’s sake, and when they finally published the Güldenland-setting a few years back (I should get back to that at one point), the authors made it (tongue-in-cheek) an integral part of the setting itself: the mages/nobility of that particular setting had to wear a three eyed mask to not petrify anyone they look at with their third eye/not let just any random peasant know that they don’t have the third eye they claim as a sign for the right to rule over the Imperium. So, just like in real life: thety didn’t need it, but everybody was saying it was absolutely essential. Oh, I loved that bit.

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