Thursday, September 18, 2008

Interview: Tim Kask (Part I)

Tim Kask, TSR's first Publications Editor, has graciously consented to my asking him a few questions about the history of his involvement with the roleplaying hobby and the role he played in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. Because many of Mr Kask's replies were lengthy, I have broken up his responses into multiple entries that I will post over the course of several days. I hope everyone will enjoy the details and insights these questions bring to light and I'd like to thank Mr Kask once more for his allowing me to interview him.

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 na├»ve 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.

21 comments:

  1. Thank you and Mr. Kask for this. I'm looking forward to the entire series.

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  2. what I had found was contradictory, confusing, incomplete, partially incomprehensible, lacking huge bits and pieces and mostly gibberish

    It seems fairly likely that this material that Tim threw out ended up forming the nucleus of First Fantasy Campaign, which is my single favorite OD&D supplement, whereas the published Blackmoor supplement I find to be almost entirely lackluster and forgettable, an underwhelming "sequel" to Greyhawk which feels like they were already running out of good ideas. By making this supplement conform to the "Gygaxian" presentation and style of supplement I as "more of the same" rather than allowing it to be its own thing and present an alternative vision of how the game could work, the die was cast for the future development of Official D&D and, at least IMO, something magical was irrevocably lost.

    if we were to pick a single symbolic moment where D&D began heading down the wrong path, where the possibilities began narrowing rather than expanding, my vote goes to right here: Tim Kask throwing out 80% of Dave Arneson's manuscript and replacing it with a miscellany of bland stuff that would've worked better (and were probably originally intended) as Strategic Review articles.

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  3. if we were to pick a single symbolic moment where D&D began heading down the wrong path, where the possibilities began narrowing rather than expanding, my vote goes to right here:

    It's been a while since I looked at FFC, so perhaps my memory is faulty, but isn't it primarily a description of the Blackmoor campaign? If that's the case and, if you thesis is correct, I'm completely sympathetic to much of that material being excised. Interesting though it may be, it's not good supplementary material to what we get in the 3 LBBs. I'm as fond of Blackmoor (the setting) as anyone, but I'm not convinced that what OD&D needed in 1975 was a "supplement" that consisted mostly of someone writing about their home campaign.

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  4. ". . . in late ’73 or early ’74, when I was a married student with a daughter at Southern Illinois University."

    ". . . while I was 25"



    Am I reading this incorrectly? He's awfully young to have a daughter in college.

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  5. I'm certain what Mr Kask meant is that he was 25, at college, and had a daughter, not that he had a college-age daughter.

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  6. What is also clear from this is just how different Arneson and Gygax's views were of what the game ought to be and what it ought to include. One thing to note about Blackmoor: it included the first actual adventure from TSR, and was generally panned by reviewers at the time (I'll have to dig up some of the commentary from Alarums & Excursions and The Wild Hunt). Many gamers had been asking for more examples of adventures and campaigns, but Blackmoor was something in-between - an out-of-context adventure (Temple of the Frog) and a new set of supplemental rules without much to recommend them. So it's not surprising that it wasn't as well received as Greyhawk.

    What would be interesting would be to "match up" Temple of the Frog and Arneson's hit location system with the material presented in First Fantasy Campaign and see how it looks. I suspect those two items are the "30%" that Tim Kask is referring to in his assessment.

    When I'm done with my dissertation, I'll dig up Gary's letter from Alarums & Excursions #2, in which he comes out for variety and diversity - an attitude that changed rather shortly afterwards, for business reasons, I suspect.

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  7. Thanks so much for this read, James & Tim! That was a fantastic way to enjoy my morning coffee!

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  8. Enjoyed this. I had heard somewhere that Steve Marsh had also contributed to the Blackmoor supplement, though - is that not true?

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  9. an attitude that changed rather shortly afterwards, for business reasons, I suspect.

    I think it's a well-established fact that money was one of the biggest considerations in how and why D&D changed as it did, both in the early days and later. I'm not opposed to the making of money and don't begrudge any company who chooses to do what it thinks maximizes the profitability of its products -- but I'm under no obligation to buy those products or support them or even say nice things about them to encourage others to buy them, even if I won't.

    Roleplaying is primarily a hobby for me, so I guess it's no surprise that the games and products for which I have the most fondness for nowadays are the ones written for hobbyist reasons, not monetary ones.

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  10. Enjoyed this. I had heard somewhere that Steve Marsh had also contributed to the Blackmoor supplement, though - is that not true?

    I can't speak with certainty on this, because I simply don't know with 100% accuracy, but I've never seen anyone claim Steve Marsh was involved in contributing to Blackmoor. Indeed, I'm not certain he was even involved in professional game writing until much later.

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  11. Steve Marsh had submitted a bunch of aquatic creatures (including the ixitxachitl and sahuagin) and rules for underwater adventuring to TSR which Gary (or, I suppose, Tim) fleshed out and included in Supplement II. Steve receives an ambiguous "thanks" credit in Supp II, a more explicit credit in the AD&D Monster Manual, and both he and Gygax filled in the rest of the details years later in various online Q&A.

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  12. As usual, T. Foster has the right of it. Had I opened my copy of Blackmoor, I'd have realized I was mistaken.

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  13. It's been a while since I looked at FFC, so perhaps my memory is faulty, but isn't it primarily a description of the Blackmoor campaign? If that's the case and, if you thesis is correct, I'm completely sympathetic to much of that material being excised. Interesting though it may be, it's not good supplementary material to what we get in the 3 LBBs. I'm as fond of Blackmoor (the setting) as anyone, but I'm not convinced that what OD&D needed in 1975 was a "supplement" that consisted mostly of someone writing about their home campaign.

    FFC is a mixture of rules and campaign anecdotes and it's sometimes hard to draw a firm distinction between the two, but if you look closely enough there is definitely a good deal of "rulesy" stuff in there -- detailed info about running baronies (investments, castle-building, costs for building armies, etc.), stuff about wilderness encounters and hex-crawling, an alternate magic system (based on potions and high-tech artifacts), the famous "spend GP on your Interests to earn XP from them" system, detailed rules for dragons that are different from those in Vol. II, a bunch of stuff about magic swords and their powers (that are again different from what's in Vol. II), some stuff about using decks of randomized "event cards" for large-scale campaign events, and probably some more I'm forgetting. Probably not enough to fill an entire supplement, but a lot of good ideas nonetheless that present a very different take on the game than what the boxed set and Greyhawk had.

    And while the idea of including "war stories" about the campaign is certainly a different approach that Gary took (I can only recall 4 such mentions, all of them brief, in OD&D + supp I: the mention of the Terrible Iron Golem in vol. II, the description and list of features of Greyhawk Castle in vol. III, and a couple mentions (the fountain of endless snakes and the Living Room) in the tricks and traps list in Supp. I), I don't think it would've been necessarily a bad approach, as it would've given the readers much more of an idea of how the game works "in the wild" than the more abstract approach taken by the Gygax material (which led to what Ron Edwards insulting called the "cargo cult" approach to play -- following the procedures by rote trusting that it will "work" without understanding what "working" would even necessarily look like).

    There's a distinction I sometimes draw between game material that's primarily "useful" and material that's primarily "inspirational" -- toolboxes of rules and ready-to-play adventures are the former, examples from and accounts of other people's play are the latter. Official D&D was always heavily biased towards the former (and Gary held to that position to the end, which is why he insisted on making Castle Zagyg the former instead of the latter) but I'm increasingly much more interested in the latter. I value "The Expedition to the Black Reservoir," The Original Bottle City, and FFC as much or more than The Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet, not because they give me something I can sit down and use "out of the box," but because they give me an idea of the "soul" of the game, what it was about to its creators, which inspires me not to copy them directly or try to recreate what they had exactly but rather to try to create something of my own that captures the same spirit.

    It's a different approach, a different philosophy, a perhaps most importantly a more commercial instinct (you can sell more copies of a book of concrete rules than a book of possibly-inspirational campaign anecdotes), and I get that. I still lament it, though.

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  14. I agree with T. Foster about the useful vs. inspirational comment. I always end up gutting the "useful" stuff anyhow, and treating it only as inspiration in the end. Frankly, I usually can't stand a good portion of published adventures and need to change them before I run them. I suppose it is a minority of DMs these days who like to run things that way, but I think it's valid and wish it was supported more often.

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  15. An interesting aside: Take a look at Eric Mona's "cherry picking" comment in an early Pathfinder volume. As minor a head nod as it might be, it is aimed at that older school methodology of including a hodge podge of material in their game.

    While not exactly what T. Foster is speaking to in his erudite observation, I might suggest that "inspirational" material might come in different guises. What Eric Mona was alluding to I believe speaks to that school of GM / DM that reads scads of different types of material and either pulls it in whole cloth or re-molds it to conform to his / her image.

    While I absolutely agree that there's a dearth of current material on the market that is "Adventure Path" in nature, (i.e. Less a tool box and more an instruction manual) I might posit that there's some very interesting kernels of brilliance lodged within that larger framework. It's just that the modern day "spoon feed" system obfuscates it in layers of worthless (IMHO) plot crud. ;-)

    I think that it's up to the GM these days to pick through the carcass and incise the good from the bad. Pulling "scenes" and locales as inspiration from the larger piece is a modern day art. (Maybe not so modern? How many of us stole inspiration from a scene or three from R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and company?)

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  16. This is incredible. Gripping reading, and all for free! Words can't express how truly thankful I am.

    Truly fascinating stuff. All of this was way before my time and I don't think that I can actually get a peep inside of this window, something that I thought to be forever lost. I'm glad that it isn't, and that people like you are constantly on the job getting this stuff out.

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  17. I still lament it, though.

    I do as well, particularly as I get older and look back on the history of the hobby as it unfolded rather than as it might have been. The sense I get is that lots of people associated with the early days of the hobby feel that way too. I'm pretty sure Mr Kask has said various things in his Dragonsfoot thread that indicate, for example, his dissatisfaction with the way AD&D's development affected the hobby.

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  18. I suppose it is a minority of DMs these days who like to run things that way, but I think it's valid and wish it was supported more often.

    You're not in the minority among old school referees, I don't think. Back in the day I rarely ran a module without changing it in various ways, so your experiences are probably the norm among players of a certain vintage.

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  19. I'm glad that it isn't, and that people like you are constantly on the job getting this stuff out.

    I only wish I could do more. If I had the money to do so, I'd start traveling around the continent to sit down and chat at length with lots of folks from the old days and pick their brains, so that this history could be preserved for the future.

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  20. You don't need to travel... a telephone and recorder... (or Skype and a recorder) gets the job done just as well!

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  21. You don't need to travel... a telephone and recorder... (or Skype and a recorder) gets the job done just as well!

    That's a definite possibility. First, I need to expand my contacts in the old school world and get some of the important figures to agree to share their stories with me ...

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