Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm keenly interested in living connections between the early days of the hobby -- and the fan cultures out of which it grew -- and the present day. Sadly, those connections are becoming fewer and fewer as the years take their toll, which is why it's always a pleasure to speak with someone who was a young person in those days.
Skip Williams was still in school when D&D was released in 1974 and thereafter found himself playing in the legendary Greyhawk campaign, the second RPG campaign in history. He subsequently worked at TSR in a variety of capacities before moving on to Wizards of the Coast, where he was involved in the design of the third edition of Dungeons & Dungeons. Together these experiences give him a unique perspective on the history of the hobby and its most famous game.
Mr Williams agreed to answer a few questions I put to him and his answers are presented below. I'd like to ask that anyone who comments do so in a respectful fashion, whatever your disagreements might be with the responses here. While I recognize that some of what Mr Williams says might be at odds with the received wisdom of the old school community, that's no excuse for rudeness and I will not hesitate to delete comments that I feel step over the bounds of common courtesy, so please rein in your enthusiasms before I have to do it for you.
1. I usually begin by asking my interviewee how they entered the hobby of roleplaying. In your case, I suspect you became involved in the hobby because you went to school Gary Gygax's son, Ernie. Is that correct?
Mostly correct. I've told this story before, so I'll keep it short.
I first became aware of gaming one summer when I saw a picture of of some people playing a game with tanks. It turned out it was an article about Gen Con, which was held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, my home town at the time. I soon discovered that several of my school classmates were playing various wargames (D&D had not been invented yet). When D&D hit the shelves, I was soon involved in a couple of campaigns, and my classmate, Ernie Gygax approached me about getting involved in an even newer game, Warriors of Mars. That, in turn, got me introduced to the Gygax household and to the fledgling TSR.
2. Were you a participant in the original Greyhawk campaign refereed by Gary and Rob Kuntz and, if so, which characters did you play?
Ah, you're giving me a chance to split hairs here.
Gary ran the very first Greyhawk campaign using the map from the Outdoor Survival game and his notes for the future D&D Game (the very first D&D suggests getting Outdoor Survival and using it for your campaign map). After TSR published D&D, Gary drew a campaign map of his own and that became the Greyhawk setting everyone knows. I was involved in that campaign pretty much from the start, having seen the map laid out on Gary's dining room table.
In "New Greyhawk," I had several characters. The most famous of these was Rufus of Hommlet (or Rufus of Skipperton as Gary named him in one of his novels). Rufus explored the Temple of Elemental Evil and eventually became a bigwig in Hommlet. He's mentioned in the modules Gary wrote about the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign.
I also had a halfling thief (these days D&D players would call him a rogue) called Phalangas, or "Fingers," who ran around the City of Greyhawk causing as much trouble as he could, and picking pockets on the way. I only ever played Phalangas when Rob Kuntz, Gary's co-DM decided to run a pickup game, so no one has heard of him until now.
My longest-running character in the Greyhawk campaign was a human fighter named Boaric. Boaric was no great shakes, but he rubbed elbows with the big boys in the campaign (Tenser, Erac's Cousin, and Robilar to name a few) and was involved on some famous adventures. He was involved in an aborted expedition into the Tomb of Horrors. His biggest accomplishment there was dragging various bits and pieces of his former comrades back out. He also hacked and slashed his way through Against the Giants until coming toe to toe with Snurre Ironbelly. That episode ended badly for all, and it took a wish to get us back on our feet. Boaric also made a few trips to The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and briefly owned the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd.
Boaric was the only character I played under both Greyhawk DMs, Gary and Rob Kuntz.
3. You're thanked by name in both the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. Were there any specific contributions you made to the writing or development of either?
In the early days of D&D, everybody did things his own way. I was involved in several campaigns in my high school days and I essentially found a different version of the game in each. I used to have talks with Gary about how the game ought to work (often during commercial breaks for televised football games). We talked about everything from how spells are cast and aimed to how much a DM ought to manipulate events in a campaign. It was those talks, I'm sure, that Gary was thinking of when he named me a contributor.
4. One of the many "lost" D&D supplements about which gamers still talk is Shadowland, a product that would have detailed the Plane of Shadow. According to Gary, this was to have been a collaboration between himself and you. Do you remember anything about this project or why it never came to pass?
I remember quite a bit abut the project, and I came very close to getting it rolling again a few years ago. It involved an expedition to the Plane of Shadow where the party would discover, shades, shadow dragons, and several of those enigmatic quasi-deities Gary was always pulling out of his hat. My notes on the plane eventually were co-opted for the Planescape setting.
What killed the project, mostly, was lack of time. Gary became interested in getting a D&D Movie off the ground, and I was interested in my college homework and eventually in running the Gen Con Game Fair. Somehow, the two of us never got back together to finish the thing.
5. Of the principal designers of Third Edition, you're the only one who had a direct connection to the earliest days of the hobby. Do you feel your longstanding, personal connection to those days informed your work on 3e and, if so, how?
Mostly what I brought to the design effort from those days was a sharp sense of how things can go wrong. Whenever we came to a place in the rules where I knew DMs and players were going to clash, I'd tell a "campaign from hell" story, in which a character (mine or someone else's) was in peril and the DM made the most illogical and completely off the wall ruling you could imagine. I tied to be very careful that all the loose boards in the system were well nailed down. Of course, people still found ways to pry them loose again.
6. For many years, you acted as "the Sage," providing official answers to questions about the rules of D&D in the pages of Dragon, a role you continue to assume for Kobold Quarterly. I remember Gary once complaining that, in the early days, fans of D&D would call him at his home to ask him rules questions and he was baffled as to why anyone needed him to come up with answers, a feeling many early TSR staffers apparently shared. Do you see any contradiction between the desire of many fans for official answers to their questions and the belief of many early designers that players should come up with their own answers?
It's a huge contradiction. The early designers were wrong. It comes down to this: If you want to be in control of your character, you have to have some idea how anything you might try is going to come out. and you can't know that unless you have some idea of how the rules are going to handle the situation. If the GM is making capricious decisions about what happens in the game, you're always shooting in the dark and you have no real control over your character at all. Think of how hard it would be to, say, learn to ride a bicycle if the laws of physics were constantly in flux. The game just works better if the DM and players have similar expectations about how the rules handle things.
7. I think most gamers are sympathetic to the concern about capriciousness by the referee, but some would nevertheless argue that having official answers can have the opposite problem of reducing the referee to being a less active participant in the adjudication of the rules than he might have been in the early days of the game. Given that, what do you see is the proper role for the referee as it relates to the adjudication of rules?
The referee is there to keep the game moving. As Patton once said, a good answer today is better than a perfect answer next week.
A well-written rules set is the best friend a DM can have. It helps manage the player's expectations and gives the DM a leg to stand on when things don't go the players' way.
8. What RPGs do you currently play?
D&D 3.5 and 4.0
Big Eyes, Small Mouth
High Adventure Role Playing