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.