Monday, June 22, 2009

Interview: Dennis Sustare

In examining the early history of the hobby, it's often easy to forget the diversity of individuals and ideas that were extant at that time. Because both fanzines and conventions were thriving and because there was an openness to new approaches, it was quite possible for such individuals to disseminate their ideas widely, often attracting the attention of the companies publishing RPGs. One such individual was Dennis Sustare, among whose many contributions to the hobby were the creation of D&D's druid class and the first RPG in which the players portray animals, Bunnies & Burrows. Mr Sustare kindly agreed to answer some questions I put to him about these and other related matters.

1. How did you become involved in the role-playing hobby?

Previously I played chess, go, and board wargames (such as the Avalon Hill games). In grad school at Wisconsin, in a small on-campus wargame convention, there were a few people playing early versions of D&D with Chainmail combat rules. I was intrigued, and got into a local gaming group of other grad students (astronomy, biochem, chemistry, law, and myself in zoology). This was back with the original three D&D booklets, in the woodgrain box (plus the Chainmail rules).

2. You're specifically thanked in the credits of Supplement III to OD&D, where you're called "the Great Druid." There's also a druid spell in AD&D called "Chariot of Sustarre," which was named in your honor. What role, if any, did you have in the creation and/or development of the druid class?

When the thief class was released in the Greyhawk supplement, as an addition to the original fighter, cleric and magic-user, we became interested in other possible classes beyond these four. I wrote up and mimeographed a set of rules for a new druid class, for our internal play. After some playtesting in our game, I revised it with a new mimeograph rule set, still just for our own use. But when we went to early GenCons, a copy got into Gary's hands, and thanks to some advocacy by Tim Kask, they revised the rules once more and published them in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Tim added the Chariot spell at the time (it was not one of my original spells, and the misspelling of my name was deliberate). I consider this my first published game design, although Bunnies & Burrows was released the same year (1976).

3. What were your inspirations in creating the druid class? I once surmised that the class had been based on the character of Dalan from Henry Kuttner's "Elak of Atlantis" tales, while Erik Mona of Paizo mentioned Talbot Mundy's Tros of Samothrace as a likelier possibility. Were either of us close to the mark or was there a different inspiration for the class?

Nope, sorry. I never read the Talbot Mundy stories, though on looking them up now, they sound interesting. I read lots of Kuttner and Moore, but don't recall ever reading the Elak stories.

Instead, I was familiar with druids from literature about early England, especially during Roman times. The most immediate inspiration, of course, was their mention as a monster in Greyhawk (but not as a character class). Initially, I was trying to make them related totally to plants and animals, but felt they needed a little more firepower (literally).

4. One of your most famous creations was the game Bunnies & Burrows, which you wrote with Scott Robinson and which was first published in 1976. Besides Richard Adams's novel Watership Down, what inspired you to undertake this project, since it was quite a departure from other games that were published at the time?

Scott and I were both zoology grad students at Wisconsin. Once we got interested in roleplay, we thought it would be fun to try to design an animal-based fantasy roleplay game. In our early development of the game, Scott usually ran scenarios and I was the sole player many times. Since Scott Bizar, at Fantasy Games Unlimited, was enthusiastic about publishing many different roleplay variants, I submitted the polished rules to him, and he happily accepted them for publication. Charlie Loving did the 1st edition illustrations, after playing in some early games during development. When it was revised for second edition, Jeff Dee added illustrations, including a new cover.

5. How was B&B received in the gaming community when it was released?

I think as just one more of a multitude of roleplay variants that began to flood the market. including those with various genres of science fiction, pirates, pre-revolutionary France, gangsters, superheroes, samurai, and many more. Those few who actually gave it a fair try usually wound up enjoying it, though.

6. You also wrote Swordbearer, a fantasy RPG that included numerous innovations, such as an abstract wealth system and a magic system based on the of Asian philosophy. Did Swordbearer arise out of a dissatisfaction with our existing fantasy RPGs or did the game have a different origin?

Once B&B came out, several other publishers were interested in my doing some designs for them. Arnold Hendrick approached me from Heritage to develop an FRP competitor for D&D. My original design for Swordbearer (which went through several title changes... I requested Avatar as my first title, but Heritage did not think anyone would know what that was) had much more original design than the final form. For example, I had created all new non-Tolkien races, but Heritage nixed most of them, since they wanted the game to utilize the races represented in their existing miniature lines. I was not dissatisfied with existing fantasy RPGs as such, but was trying to create a system that would not lead to such "Monty Haul" campaigns. This was what led to the abstract wealth system, based on social class rather than mere accumulation of unending piles of gold coins. Once Swordbearer was released, unfortunately, Heritage was already on its way to its demise as a game company. I also produced Heroes of Olympus (based on Greek myth) for Task Force, and scenarios and other small games for Heritage, Steve Jackson, Paranoia, Citybook, etc.

7. B&B placed an emphasis on problem solving and overcoming obstacles through wits and Swordbearer was, as you say, an attempt to avoid the Monty Haul syndrome to which many RPGs fell prey. Would you say that this is a reflection of your preferred gaming style?

Absolutely. This is the main reason I always preferred mature GMs who created a rich, complex and challenging background, rather than just drawing another 1000-room dungeon with a random monster and treasure in each room. Some of our most entertaining adventures involved extended attempts to defeat a single, diabolically clever trap, or to fulfill a particularly demanding quest. It is also why I tended to enjoy low-level adventures much more than high-level ones. Low level characters cannot just set off tactical nukes every time they encounter a new group of monsters.

8. Like a number of tabletop RPG designers, you eventually made the transition to the video games industry. Did you find the transition difficult and what, if any, differences did you see between the two industries?

Actually, my transition was from Assistant Professor at Clarkson College to the video games industry. I never made a living from tabletop RPG, and did those designs mostly for fun. But I knew people in the industry, and when Paul Jaquays offered me a job at Coleco, I snapped it up. The transition from college teaching was not so tough, since I was treated as more of a professional at Coleco than I had been as a professor. The main challenge was constraining the video game designs to the idiosyncrasies of specific platforms, since the demands of systems such as Atari 2600 were so different from ColecoVision or IntelliVision. Also, Coleco was one of the first companies to divide up tasks among specialties, rather than requiring designers to have all abilities at once. So we had graphic designers, programmers, writers, and musicians, with the game designers more like what game producers do today. Many of the Coleco products were based on licensed arcade properties, so we would exhaustively play and analyze an arcade game, then try to design a game that would capture the feel of the arcade on the video game platform. My scientific background of investigation really helped me, especially combined with my RPG design background.

9. Do you still play tabletop RPGs and, if so, which ones?

Not really. When I attended the inaugural meeting of the North Texas RPG Convention (just held in the Dallas/Ft Worth area), I did play in a couple of games, such as one using Matt Finch's Swords & Wizardry rules, which are similar to the earliest D&D rules. But that was the first time I had played F2F RP for many years. I have a character in Adventure Quest Worlds, but that is the only online multiplayer game I am in right now. And I no longer design for MUDs or MUSHs. It's tempting to design a scenario for Matt's S&W system, but I am going to resist that temptation.

15 comments:

  1. Given his foray into animal-based RPGs with Bunnies and Burrows, I wonder what his take on something like the Mouse Guard RPG or even TMNT.

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  2. James, (Dennis,)

    Thank you for this interview.
    Swordbearer was a big influence on my game design in general, and as I have stated on my blog, I am still fascinated with its mechanics and its overall feel.
    The artwork is pretty nice, too.

    Thanks again, :D

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  3. "It is also why I tended to enjoy low-level adventures much more than high-level ones. Low level characters cannot just set off tactical nukes every time they encounter a new group of monsters."

    Mirrors my own sentiments. I've always preferred low-level campaigns, when orcs are still something to worry about. ;)

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  4. I haven't seen the Mouse Guard RPG, but the comic is great, so I expect I would like the RPG if it is close to the comic in style. As for the Turtles, alas, when I first looked at the Mirage publication in '84, I should have bought all of them in the shop and carefully stashed them away. It was fun, and different, but how was I to know what Mark Freedman would accomplish with them?

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  5. I hope Dennis will ultimately succumb to the temptation and write something for Swords & Wizardry. :D

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  6. I would totally buy his S&W scenario.

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  7. What Matt and Fitzterman said! +1

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  8. This is the main reason I always preferred mature GMs who created a rich, complex and challenging background, rather than just drawing another 1000-room dungeon with a random monster and treasure in each room. Some of our most entertaining adventures involved extended attempts to defeat a single, diabolically clever trap, or to fulfill a particularly demanding quest. It is also why I tended to enjoy low-level adventures much more than high-level ones.

    Amen to that. I'm not familiar with Swordbearer. Does anyone have an opinion on whether or not it facilitates this type of play? Time to start looking for a copy...

    BTW, thanks for the interview, Dennis and James.

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  9. Thanks to Dennis for being one of the special guests at the inaugral NTRPG Con this year! Dennis was a fascinating guy and one of my high points of the con was listening to he and Paul Jaquays talk about old times Friday night (both of them worked and gamed together in the 70s). Talk turned to TV shows, movies, physics, SF, and numerous other topics as a small group of us sat around just listening to the two classic game designers share thoughts. Dennis was also cajoled into playing a few games, and for someone who has been away from the table for awhile was pretty darn sharp in Matt's S&W scenario! (and was rolling some damn fine initiative for the party!).


    BTW Dennis was also great about signing copies of Bunnies and Burrows (including my copy) but I had totally forgot about Swordbearer...ooops...

    Anyway, everyone that had a chance to talk with Dennis came away very impressed, and we have already resigned him to an appearance at the 2010 NTRPG. Maybe Dennis will do some work on that S&W scenario between now and then (hmmmmm....)

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  10. I was sad to see Dennis mention he doesn't play much tabletop anymore.

    It seems like few of the original pen-and-paper generation still play RPGs. Is it that the hobby changed in ways they didn't like, age/life/family prevents it, computer games lured them away?...

    Or a conspiracy to rob us off our founding fathers?! *tinfoil hat on*

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  11. Bunnies & Burrows was one of the games I owned that I wish I could have GM'd. Got 60 bucks for it on Ebay a few years back. Wish I had kept it.

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  12. I picked up a copy of Swordbearer a number of years back based on an very intriguing review on RPG.net

    http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13858.phtml

    I believe I have the FGU version.

    I've never got to play it, but it has a number of intriguing subsystems, including the aforementioned abstract wealth system. You've got a certain number of item slots that you can fill in with equipment to hand, and access to types of equipment in general is governed by social class.

    Weapons training for speed and accuracy is handled separately, with speed helping you strike first, and accuracy helping you hit.

    The magic system is especially cool, involving the collection of magical nodes, and weaving those into networks from which magical power may then be drawn. I've often thought of porting the magic system to some other ruleset, because it's far too cool to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

    On the downside, the character generation system seems wildly random.

    It's certainly I game I'd be interested in trying out someday, if I found a group that was willing.

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  13. BTW, playing with Dennis was a blast. When one player got cut off from the rest of the party, he called out, "What's in that room?" Without hesitation, Dennis called back, "It's full of diamonds!"

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  14. James,

    I am really enjoying all of these interviews. Thank you very much.

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  15. I've got a question for Dennis about Druids. Where did the idea of Druids using Scimitars come from since the Scimitar is a weapon from the Middle East/Persia(and maybe Egypt) when Druids are based on English Celts? I've always wondered about that.

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