Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Interview with Lawrence Schick

Between 1979 and 1981, Lawrence Schick was employed by TSR Hobbies, during which time he was involved in numerous projects for both Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, such as Star Frontiers, which he co-designed with David Cook. I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few question about his time with TSR and more generally about his involvement in the game industry.

1. How did you first become involved in roleplaying?

In college at Kent State University in Ohio; my friend Tom Moldvay came back from a science fiction convention with a Xeroxed copy of the D&D white box rules – albeit missing a few key pages (as we later discovered). Though we didn’t have anyone to teach us how to play, we grasped the idea immediately, and very quickly began making up our own supplemental rules.

2. You're the author of White Plume Mountain, which remains one of the most famous of all AD&D modules ever produced, both because of its many unique puzzles and traps, as well as the presence of magic sword Blackrazor. What were your inspirations in creating this adventure?

White Plume Mountain was written as a sample document to persuade TSR to hire me as a game designer. I just plundered all the dungeons I’d designed over the previous four years, took out the best bits, and cobbled it all together. It worked; TSR hired me, bought the scenario, and published it as a module without changing a word. I’m a little embarrassed to this day by Blackrazor, inasmuch as it’s such a blatant rip-off of Elric’s Stormbringer; I would not have put it into the scenario if I ever thought it might be published.

3. Gary Gygax thanks you by name for your contributions to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Do you recall what you contributed to this book?

When I started work at TSR in January of 1979 Gygax handed me this huge, sprawling, unorganized manuscript and said, “Here’s the Dungeon Masters Guide – edit this.” So I did. There were a few things he wanted to include that he didn’t particularly want to write; for those parts he told me what he wanted, and I wrote them. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the original DMG at hand – I lost all my D&D stuff in my recent divorce – but I recall writing the Example of Play, some of the advice for Dungeon Masters, and a number of other bits here and there. But it was all under Gary’s direction, and he certainly deserves all the credit.

4. I believe that you were involved in the organization of D&D tournaments for TSR in the early days. Is that correct and, if so, did you see tournament play as an important part of the growth and development of the game?

The early TSR management consisted almost entirely of hardcore gamers who loved tournaments for their own sake and insisted that they be part of every convention TSR sponsored or participated in. So despite the fact that tournaments appealed to a very small percentage of D&D players, and designing for and managing tournaments drained development resources that could have been spent on publishing more or better products, we did lots of them. When I was head of the studio mid-’79 to mid-’81 I tried to make sure that any tournament scenarios we wrote could be repurposed as modules, but they’re two different animals, so we weren’t always successful. The A1-4 series of AD&D modules, for example, were originally written for a big tournament.

I enjoyed tournaments as much as anyone, but I did not, in fact, regard them as “an important part of the growth and development of the game.” I thought they were a distraction from what we should really have been doing, which was figuring out how to reach a broader audience. Eventually TSR came around to this idea, and created the RPGA to handle tournaments and suchlike hardcore community-building work.

5. It's interesting that you called tournaments "a distraction," because that's a view shared by many fans of older editions of D&D. Are there any particular approaches or projects that, in retrospect, you wish had been undertaken, because they would have done a better job of reaching out to a broader audience?

A more professional approach to publishing, instead of rampant cronyism and callous exploitation of the D&D fan base, would have enabled TSR to reach beyond the niche and find a broader audience. D&D would have been able to co-opt computer RPGs and collectible card games, instead of being steam-rollered by them. Ultimately Gygax and the Blumes were unable to transition effectively to the mass market, and thus lost control of their product and brand. I mean, I was only 24-25 years old in those days, and even then I could see where they were going wrong. They were done in by greed and arrogance.

6. You left the roleplaying world professionally many years ago. Are you still involved in the hobby?

My role-playing résumé is long and varied, and continues to this day. Here are the highlights:
- 1979-1981: Game designer for TSR.
- 1980s: occasional scenarios for game publishers (a DC Heroes for Mayfair, a Traveller for GDW), plus articles in RPG magazines.
- 1987-1993: Game designer for MicroProse software, eventually Producer of Role-Playing Games for them, including BloodNet, an Adventure/RPG.
- 1991: Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games published by Prometheus Press.
- 1990-1994 (sideline): Leader of Cruel Hoax Productions, a troupe of six who wrote and produced live-action role-playing games (LARPs) for 50-100 players. Invented Romance rules for LARPs.
- 1995-1999: General Manager and then Executive Director of all games for America Online (AOL); pioneered programming of casual games for a mass audience, while simultaneously pushing early MMO RPGs for hardcore gamers, which included (among many others) the original Neverwinter Nights and Ultima Online.
- 2007-2009: Joined Big Huge Games in Maryland to work with old friends Ken Rolston (Oblivion) and Brian Reynolds (Colonization; Rise of Nations) on a triple-A single-player RPG for Xbox and PS3; did system design and lead narrative design for their (now-canceled) game Ascendant.
- 2009: I have accepted an offer from ZeniMax Online Studio to be their Lead Content Designer on an unannounced MMO RPG, and will be starting there in two weeks.

7. Do you still get the opportunity to play traditional tabletop RPGs?

Sometimes at conventions. I play tabletop RPGs, miniatures games, and LARPs several times a year. But mostly I play console and PC RPGs, because that's what I make, and I need to stay current.


  1. Interesting interview. I still have my original RPGA membership certificate somewhere, signed by Gary and (I think, but may be wrong) Lawrence. I was among the first 300 members. Heroic Worlds is still a treasured part of my book collection; I wish there had been an update. Oh, and if Lawrence is reading this, A1-A4 were very successful in a home campaign -- at least mine. I had no trouble integrating the first two, while A3 and A4 were a bit more work. They're still among my favorites.

  2. Schick's Heroic Worlds remains the one essential reference document of pre-1990's RPG games, and will continue to be unless someone, somewhere, sometime decides to take on the massive task of replicating it. All collectors either have a copy of this, or aren't considered much of a collector...!

    Having said that, it's disappointing that Mr. Schick has decided to totally divorce himself from discussing RPGS in general and D&D in particular, as he would be an invaluable source of historic knowledge. His position in the industry and with TSR would give him an invaluable insight into the development of the hobby; sadly, he is apparently not interested in sharing due to what seems to have been a unpleasant experience for him at TSR.

  3. Wow.

    I have a copy of Heroic Worlds, and view it as one of my prized roleplaying possessions. It is a very interesting read, and a thorough look at gaming pre-Storyteller. I have been wishing for a follow up book covering games that came out after it was published. Be interesting to see a written history of how the gaming industry and player base has changed over time.

  4. Interesting comments about tournaments. Another data point for my theory on how D&D's development is distorted by catering to the tournaments and living campaigns.

  5. Thanks for doing this insightful interview, James. Let this be the final nail in the coffin for the idea that at least used to float around that AD&D was Lawrence Schick's (rather than Gary Gygax's) baby. After all, both the MM and PHB were published before Schick was even working at TSR. Plus, Schick reveals that he did only "bits here and there" of the DMG, and all under Gary's direction. "[Gary] certainly deserves all the credit."

  6. Wow, that was a great interview, he really tells it like it is.

    I love the fact that he points out, rightly, that TSR often did things their employees liked, even if they appealed to a very small % of their customers and continued to stress those things over stuff their customers wanted.

    It's one of the things I always considered odd about TSR.

  7. I'm more curious about how you lose "all [your] D&D stuff in [a] recent divorce". A) divorcee was a huge fan of D&D and couldn't part with your collection, B) it was a bitter contest and a bonfire ensued, or C) it was worth significant sums in balance against other settlements.

    That's the real "WOW." Ugh.

  8. Thanks very much for doing this interview. I would echo RPGObjects_chuck in his comment that TSR did things the way they liked, and didn't care if customers went along or not.

    Initially this attitude was individualistic: if you didn't like their game, you were free to play a different game.

    Later, I think, the attitude became extremely elitist: if you didn't do it the TSR way, you were inferior.

    Later still, it became the Blume/Williams attitude: TSR was like a heroin dealer, customers were beneath contempt.

    Then again, civilian wargamers are not known for their sincere mutual respect, empathy, and egalitarianism. It's a naturally elitist hobby, and it attracts aggressive personalities.

  9. I think you can also see this attitude in one of the most inexplicable decisions in the history of the business of gaming:

    Getting the license to do a Conan game and using a system other than D&D.

    Someone in that company either wanted to design a new system for their own ego, or wanted to keep the D&D system "exclusive" somehow, or wanted a world other than Hyboria to be the most popular D&D setting.

    Either way, when you're making a different setting every other month, have the Conan license and use another system, you have an agenda other than what your customers want.

  10. I think that Loren whatever wanted to use he family's license to push Buck Rogers and despised D&D. Why did Gygax go to Blumes in the first place instead of a merchant bank somewhere? Let that be an object lesson who wants to take on partners for their dreambaby. Also, I think the exorbitant lifestyle and cronyisms of TSR that someone had once blamed on the Blumes, has been the sign of the time fir the American corporate culture. Consier the opulence of Braniff Airlines and the SNL execs, other dinosaurs of that bygone era.

  11. Since I met Lawrence at Kent State and was in the SF society there at the same time, I'm thinking I'm a shoe-in for beta testing the mmo when it's ready :)



  12. Schick has a credit in the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set, and I'd love to know if he recalls any anecdotes about its creation or his contributions.

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  14. haha! That Lawrence, such a tease! Wait till he reveals the truth about what REALLY went on in the basement of the Dungeon Hobby Shop after hours; or on the fourth floor of that old TSR product development building on Main and Broad.

  15. Very funny, "piper" (ha!) 909. Don't forget: I know where you live. And what you do every Monday / Tuesday night at 2:45 a.m.