It's my hope that this interview will be the first of series with individuals associated with the early days of the hobby.
You note in the foreword to Gods, Demigods, & Heroes that your first assignment for TSR was Supplement II: Blackmoor. How did you come to be hired by the company and what was the extent of your duties as its "Publications Editor?"
This is going to be a long answer because you have asked for a lot of background in just a few words.
I first met Gary over the phone in late ’73 or early ’74, when I was a married student with a daughter at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. This came about because I called Directory Assistance (called Information back then) and asked for his number. I had seen the address of Lake Geneva in the back of the Chainmail rules, which were what I was calling him about. To be perfectly honest, I do not remember exactly what about. In any event, the phone was answered by a perfectly polite and friendly gent that did not seem in the least put out by having a stranger call him at home at night. (It was probably a Friday evening, after 9 PM when weekend discounts on Long Distance applied.) We must have talked for at least an hour, and we seemed to hit it off right away. I called a couple more times during the next several months, mostly talking about miniatures and miniatures rules, but also straying into many other areas, including my recent service in the USN in ‘Nam.
Somewhere during the fall and winter of ’73-’74, Gary first mentioned this new game concept he was first working on, then published. He invited/challenged me to come to his game convention in August in Lake Geneva sometime in late May or early June. I worked it out to go up to the Quad Cities (where my wife and I grew up and had family), drop off my family and head up to LG. I was very naïve about GenCon, figuring I’d just find a motel somewhere not too far away and check it out.
Condensed Version of the First GenCon.
I drove up and we met face-to-face. I entered two miniatures tourneys and won them both. Somebody walked down the hall, at the Horticultural Hall where the con was held, calling out for a few players to come join in an “adventure” in that new game Gary had been talking about. (I am not sure, but I think that it was Rob Kuntz, who was just a kid then, while I was 25.) Remembering what Gary had gone on and on about, I signed up.
I don’t remember a lot of details from the beginning of the adventure. I mostly sat quietly in the back trying to figure out what was going on. Somehow or other we ended up pissing somebody off and getting encased in some sort of clear substance like Lucite that allowed us to continue breathing. Next time I figured out what was going on, we were up in front of “Deus ex Machina” and lasered into little cubes the size of big dice. Well! That was different…
A couple of minutes later, I signed up for another adventure, this time as a dwarf. The condensed version of that was that I rescued a dying dwarf king with no heir, was granted the dwarf kingdom and given the Royal Seal. Then it was time to quit playing!
I bought the old brown box set and a set of dice, talked to Gary a bit more where he told me to stay in touch and keep him informed of how it went with my game club when I introduced them to D&D, and headed back to my family. Gary and I had a private conversation where he told me of his plans to some degree and said that when I graduated next summer, there might well be job he could offer a good editor.
When I got back to my game club, I announced that I had played in this really strange great game, and they were all going to have a chance to play real soon. Real soon stretched into about three weeks; I had no idea reading and understanding those three little books would be so tough. Had I not played, however poorly, I would not have had a clue.
I whipped up some dungeon levels, we rolled some characters up that fateful Sat. morning, and my first campaign was under way. About once a month I would call Gary up and we would talk at length about what my group was doing, had done and how we had done it. We talked about lots of other things as well, and discovered we had even more in common than we had known. We both liked several of the same fantasy authors, had similar tastes in military history and even liked a lot of the same movies.
After a couple of months of playing, about Christmas break, I announced that when they all came back after the holiday we would be generating new characters (using an average die for starting levels to recognize the fact that they were not complete greenhorns) and playing in a new campaign setting. I had gotten a copy of Greyhawk by then and wanted to incorporate some of it Thus was born my Ruins of Kwalishar campaign.[That name ought to sound familiar! -JM] I wrote out an elaborate basis for the campaign, and we never looked back until I graduated in Aug. of ’75. My monthly chats with Gary continued and I started tinkering with things as per Gary’s instructions and letting him know how it had worked out, what my players thought, etc. (It was only later that I realized that we had been play-testing for Gary.) I then went to GenCon ’75, met Brian Blume and made plans to move there in a month, which my family and I did. I was hired by Tactical Studies Rules, which a few weeks later was supplanted by TSR Hobbies, Inc.; I was the first full-time employee of both.
First, and foremost, I was hired to be Gary’s editor. Anyone who has read any of Gary’s earliest writings knows that he loved the English language and more than that, loved to challenge his readers. Gary had cut his reading teeth on authors like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Lamb. Those guys could really craft a sentence, but took some reading to get comfortable with. They could not have written for USA Today or People Magazine; they were too tough to read for the casual or less schooled reader. Some of Gary’s writing was like that, almost Victorian in nature. My job was to take his stuff and boil it down a little for the rest of the world, without lessening the craft he put into it. I like to think I did that pretty well. (At Lake Geneva Game Convention III in 2007, Gary told me that of all the editors he had had, he most missed having me edit his writing. I felt honored and touched by that comment.)
As for the rest of what I did, I edited the rest of the stuff we did. I took over The Strategic Review with issue #5, and our plans to eventually produce a real magazine began to take shape. I edited game manuscripts. But where I really began to learn my craft was with Blackmoor, the second D&D supplement.
One day, after I had been there a couple of months, Gary and Brian were waiting for me that morning when I got to Gary’s house (we worked out of his basement) with what looked to be a bushel basket of scrap papers, like someone had cleaned out their desk, and sly smiles on their faces. I should have known something was up by those smiles…
Dropping the basket at my feet, they announced that it contained the next supplement and that I should pitch right in. After stirring it a bit, I asked if they were serious, and they assured me that they were. It took the better part of two days to sort it out, and another day or two to try to make some sense of it. When I reported back about a week later that what I had found was contradictory, confusing, incomplete, partially incomprehensible, lacking huge bits and pieces and mostly gibberish, they laughed and said they knew that. Both of them had already come to the same conclusion that if I was to be the editor, here was my acid test, and that neither one of them certainly wanted to do it. So over the next several weeks, I sorted, filled in, added and deleted. What came out was about 60% my work, 30% Dave Arneson’s and the remainder came from Gary and Rob Kuntz. I was reminded by Gary that the day I brought the finished manuscript in to him and Brian that I threatened to quit if ever I was given another “project” (read “basket case”) such as this one. For the next couple of years that what I did; edit the supplements, edit TSR, edit The Dragon and Little Wars after we spun them off out of TSR, proofread virtually everything we did, continue to be Gary’s editor, and all of my other TSR duties as well.