As always, I ask that your comments be pertinent and presented respectfully.
1. Like a lot of people in the early days of the hobby, you discovered roleplaying through wargames. What do you remember about your first encounters with Dungeons & Dragons at the University of Iowa?
I had been part a wargames club -- everything from Diplomacy to a massive go at War in Europe. It met at the union on weekends and was a good way to spend an afternoon. I found it as a freshman and it was a kind of vindication of these games that I'd played (mostly by myself). So here I was happily doing the boardgame thing when one of the members (Wolfgang, I think) had this game they were playing in a side room. After a couple of sessions I had a chance to join. It was white box D&D, and I played a dwarf, not really understanding what it was about. It was like a miniatures game but you only had one guy and had to act out what you did. Nobody could explain it well and none of us really knew what we were doing. But after that session I was pretty much hooked. It was this great combination of games and theater (I was a theater minor) that just seemed perfect.
Our campaigns were basic, but we had some creative people -- aspiring writers, theater types, pre-law, the whole gamut. The university club was an active group -- they published a fanzine (with some good ideas), created interesting worlds, and had a generally good time.
There were a lot of memorable moments -- like the time one of the group created a fighter with 17 strength and 3 dexterity (yay, random rolls!). He wore pop-bottle thick glasses and decided the character had vision as good as he did without the glasses. It made for great role playing and much accidental death.
2. What made you give up your previous career as a high school teacher and try your hand at game design? Did you find the transition between the two careers difficult or did your experience as an educator assist you in your design work?
Do you know how much high school teachers got paid in Nebraska at the time? Not much (although I still took a pay cut when I first started at TSR). I like teaching but I don't think I was cut out for it full time -- especially in a town of 300 people. I saw this ad in Dragon magazine that TSR was looking for designers and my wife, bless her, encouraged me to apply. (She's as much a gamer as me.) It was a big leap - we were expecting a child at the time. I knew I could do the job (at least I thought I could) but I was pretty surprised when they hired me.
I think the fact that I loved history and had a strong English background helped. Gary was an old school gamer -- miniatures, wargames, the lot -- and the fact that I knew and played a lot of those things myself helped. But ultimately it was the fact that I could write passably (I won't say well, looking back on it) and knew games that made the difference. I'm not sure that being a teacher made me a better designer, but it did help later on at places like conventions where I felt more comfortable in front of crowds. I suppose being a teacher also helped in improvising -- you had to be ready to adapt what you were doing in class if it was bombing. You need a lot of that as a designer.
3. Your name is associated with the second part of the much-beloved 1981 edition of D&D, the Expert Rulebook. What were your goals for this project? That is, what did TSR hope to accomplish with the publication of the Expert Rulebook?
Well, the problem up to that point had been that D&D was hard to learn if you didn't have someone to teach you. So several Basic sets came out with that goal. Then we decided we needed try again and grow beyond just the basics. So the red book focused on the basic of dungeons, while the Expert Set was about expanding the player's world to do wilderness adventures. It was a pretty natural progression. Obviously the other goal was to expand the audience so we could sell more product. Originally there was the thought that we could create a set that would transition players from the red and blue box and into AD&D. However, legal issues prevented that, so it became a separate game line. It was still supposed to be easier to learn and use than AD&D more suitable for a younger audience.
4. Do you feel you were successful in making the Expert Rulebook easier to learn and use than AD&D? Were there any particular features of its presentation that you felt made the game more accessible and suitable for a younger audience?
Yes, easier to learn than AD&D, though we still couldn't break the mass market barrier. Probably the biggest features that made it easier were the attention paid to organization (by the editor more than me) and the streamlining of things. That meant the Expert set didn't try to cover everything which did mean forgoing some sub-systems that added density to AD&D.
5. While at TSR, you also worked on many classic D&D modules, two of which, The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, are among my personal favorites. Both show a clear pulp fantasy influence, the former reminding me of many "lost world" tales and the latter having a vaguely Howardian "Red Nails" vibe. Are you a fan of pulp fantasy and, if so, who are your favorite authors and stories?
Well, I'm not surprised by the "Red Nails" reference since that was what I was clearly going for. It's my favorite Conan story and the city was based off of it. It was originally something I did for my own campaign and then used it as my resume when I applied to TSR.
I love pulp stories and grew up reading a lot of the classic pulp stuff. As a kid I read Conan, Solomon Kane, most al the Tarzan novels, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Vance, Lovecraft, etc. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories by Leiber were among my favorites -- he created this really interesting world and characters that made great stories. Laumer, deCamp, Farmer, Zelazny, Lin Carter, Bloch were a few more. Of course Tolkien, but also a lot of the golden and silver age writers shaped my imagination in junior high and high school.