Friday, June 26, 2009

Interview: Kevin Hendryx (Part I)

The late 70s and early 80s were a time of massive growth at TSR, not just in terms of the company's output but also in terms of the staff it needed in order to create all these new products. During that period, TSR hired a number of talented young writers, editors, and designers, many of whom were involved in the production of some of the most beloved gaming products of the late Golden Age. One such designer was Kevin Hendryx, whose lengthy answers to my questions about his time with TSR proved both interesting and informative. Consequently, I have split up this interview into two parts, with the second part appearing tomorrow.

1. How did you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

As an outgrowth of my wargaming pursuits (board and historical miniatures). I was an avid player of Risk and other strategy games as a kid and used to create my own pseudo-boardgames (the WWII Eastern Front and the Peloponnesian War come to mind) based on hand-drawn maps divided into squares and unit counters that moved like chess or Stratego pieces. They were very crude and unsophisticated. Then I discovered Avalon Hill's classic wargames in a department store display near the end of 1972, in Cincinnati, and my world was blown away.

My middle school cronies and I fell head over heels in love with this new hobby; Strategy & Tactics magazine and SPI games soon followed. One of my original gaming buddies was John Winkler, who later was a key figure at Ral Partha (his high school D&D wizard became the company namesake). Then my vagabond family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1973 and I was cut off from the gaming mainstream for a long time. I had a handful of boardgaming pals, and discovered military miniatures during this time via H.G. Wells's Little Wars book and the old Wargamer's Digest magazine (which published my first professional writings), but there was no organized group I was aware of and I felt very isolated.

When I went to college (UT-Austin) in 1976 I finally encountered active gaming groups, played a lot of boardgames in particular, and was introduced to the original white box Dungeons & Dragons through my roommate Edward Sollers (later to also work for TSR Hobbies) and mutual friends. RPGs were still primarily an avocation of university nerds at that time. I found the entire concept breathtaking in its potential, even though we rarely created or played in anything more than a hack 'n' slash, Monty Haul sort of milieu. Despite having the Temple of the Frog at our fingertips.

2. How did you come to be hired by TSR?

In early 1979 I answered an ad in the college newspaper from someone who turned out to be Howard Thompson, president of Metagaming Concepts, an Austin-based wargame publisher, who was looking for experienced gamers to playtest and evaluate game designs being submitted to his company for publication as MicroGames. He took me on as a freelancer; I would pick up a couple of game prototypes every few months, read the rules and try to play them (some were so raw this was difficult), and submit a report detailing the good and bad points along with recommendations for improvement.

I don't remember any of the designs I evaluated ever being bought. Then as now, 90% of what was received unsolicited was not publishable. Occasionally I would be given a more polished design, something already accepted for publication and only requiring development and rules tweaking, like Ram Speed. In late 1979/early 1980, at Thompson's suggestion, I designed an original historical MicroGame called The Fury of the Norsemen that Metagaming purchased.

During this period, D&D and its AD&D offspring were growing ever more popular. I continued to play the game and collect the new books and I began to write some short articles for Dragon magazine. In early 1980, I desperately needed a real job and began to consider the prospects of working full-time in the game industry; TSR and SPI were actively looking for designers and I applied at each. I never heard back from SPI after my initial inquiries and application (which included revising/rewriting the rules of an Avalon Hill classic in SPI format; SPI were undergoing a lot of business problems then anyway, I later learned) but I received encouraging notes from Gary Gygax and Kim Mohan from TSR and then a telephone conference call/interview from Lake Geneva with Lawrence Schick, Mike Carr, and Al Hammack, if memory serves. They liked that I had experience with boardgames/wargames, since TSR was interested in getting more involved in these fields, and that I was already evaluating outside submissions and working with unpolished designs, since they were planning to establish a Development Section within their Product Development division to fulfill these functions. So I was in. I took the $500 Thompson paid me for Fury of the Norsemen -- I dunned him for it on acceptance rather than on publication -- hired a U-Haul trailer, and in April 1980 my wife, Mary, and I ponderously hit the trail to southern Wisconsin (where coincidentally I had lived before, in Waukesha from 1970-71). 



3. The majority of your credits while working for TSR are for editing and development. What were your specific responsibilities at the company?

Lawrence Schick can probably correct any faulty memories or timelines, but as I remember, the Development Section was formed in early 1980, originally led by Al Hammack and then by Brian Pitzer, to serve as a waystation between the Design and Production sections. For in-house projects, the idea was to have an assembly line approach to game products: the designers would craft the initial prototype or manuscript and minimally playtest it to some degree. When the rough design was satisfactory, it went to Development for intensive playtesting and troubleshooting, revision or augmentation where necessary, and final draft of the game rules or manuscript text. Then the final components went to Production, for oversight of typesetting, layout, copyediting, proofreading and blueline corrections, and supervision of the actual printing stage of publication. 



A lot of contributions were made at each stage and there was not always a clear division of labor. The amount of work required might vary depending on the nature of the project, the completeness (or lack thereof) of the original design, and format requirements or other marketing aspects. Development also helped to proofread bluelines when Production was swamped; and Design or Production would help Development playtest when required. Everybody pitched in with less formal playtest sessions in the off-hours. Sometimes Development would have to create extra material to flesh out an incomplete design; I remember Evan Robinson and I compiling the clerical reference charts at the back of Deities & Demigods one Saturday afternoon. I designed the town sections of AD&D module A3 for commercial release and Paul Reiche largely rewrote the Gamma World: Legion of Gold module from a Gygax early draft, including designing from scratch all the three mini-adventures; I then extensively edited the whole from the separate raw drafts. (My original edited ms. was sold to a collector on the West Coast in 1998.)

Most projects involved a lot of collaboration, which I very much enjoyed. Some designers turned over better prepared manuscripts than others -- Lawrence Schick and Dave Cook, for example, were (and still are) very thorough and precise; their work required little editing or "repairing." Other contributors were less careful or accomplished. 

Our section also received, catalogued, and reviewed all the outside game submissions that were sent to TSR by hopeful game designers. This work had a lower priority than work on in-house projects but we did have to keep up with it. We got all sorts of rubbish (hundreds of chess or checkers variants, for example), lots of things in violation of copyright (e.g., games using Tarzan, for which we held no license, or Monopoly spinoffs) and just lots of poorly conceived or badly written RPG modules. But you never knew when you might strike a vein of gold, so we made the attempt to sift through everything that seemed to offer possibilities.

We actually played a few very intriguing games -- a very nice abstract strategy boardgame named Epaminondas comes to mind, it had been self-published by the designer and looked very professional already, not like the usual typescripts and cardstock boards -- and were able to offer encouragement to a number of young designers, some of whom I believe went on to work in the business. There are probably modules published after my time that had their genesis in that office. (Not to mention the concepts or outlines that I submitted as designer that were retained by TSR after I left and reworked by other people.) 

Following the reorganization and staff "purges" of April 1981, the Development section was abolished and its responsibilities folded into Design or Production. I moved into the Design section, where I remained until I left the company in September 1981. My general duties didn't change very much in this time; I continued to do a mix of editing/development and original design, such as the Remember the Alamo! minigame (a dreadful game constricted by format limitations; I'm sorry about this!)

4 comments:

  1. Wow...the idea of an actual game FACTORY is just...I don't know...awesome. To me, it sounds like getting paid to work in Santa's Workshop or something. O for the "good old days!"

    Looking forward to Part 2!

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  2. of my original gaming buddies was John Winkler, who later was a key figure at Ral Partha<

    Oh snap! I always thought Ral Partha was a name from some military battle or something. Named after a high school wizard character. Awesome. I loved their figures so much (and of course still have some). It's so cool to know that bit of history. Good work, Sir James!

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  3. Wonderful interview, James, and I'm looking forward to part 2.

    Do you touch on the ex-TSR folks' infamous newsletter, by chance? IIRC, Kevin was one of the primary instigators of its creation and distribution!

    Allan.

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  4. No, I didn't touch on the newsletter at all, but Kevin's still around, so might be able to shed some further light on it.

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