Yes, it was rules-light from the viewpoint of, say, someone who plays D&D tournaments at GenCon, and expects everything to proceed “by the book.” (And I speak as the guy who won the Best Player award in the AD&D Open at GenCon in 1984, which won me a nice trophy that came wrapped in . . . yup, diapers.)
A DM’s job is to entertain their players (because the play sessions are eating time out of their lives), and the DM should tailor style of play and content (HOW the game is played, from casual chatter or football-quarterbacking to ham acting with funny voices and Shakespearean vocabulary or even costumes, and WHAT happens: hack and slash or intrigue and solving mysteries, urban or wilderness, subterranean or undersea, pirates or paladins, etc.).
Well, MY players loved to roleplay (acting), and so do I, so I played the NPCs to the hilt, and prepared for hours beforehand and afterwards, knowing my players wanted to find out which NPC was related to which other NPC, what scandals had gone on in this village thirty years back, and so on and on and on . . . so I gave it to them. They always wanted to TALK to everyone, and there were nights (six or seven hours of play, with a tea-and-chips-and-chip-dip break in the middle) when no player character even drew a weapon; it was ALL intrigue and roleplaying conversations, confrontations, investigations, trade dickering, and so on. Hack and slash seldom interested us (though when battle did come, all the frustrations were let loose!), and as DM I wasn’t trying to “win” any fights against PCs, so I tended to always give them initiative unless they walked into a trap or bowmen with arrows ready at, say, a city gate, but during battle I kept the pace up by demanding swift answers (like a rapid-fire auctioneer) to “What’re you doing this round? Ten-nine-eight-seven-six . . .” and they’d better blurt out something, or I’d move on. So it was almost all acting, and almost no rules. Which was great for newcomers to the game enjoying the play sessions; they were never intimidated by the thick rulebooks. If someone jumped in to defend themselves with a rule, I automatically “gave in,” and so was never seen as an adversarial DM, so we settled into a playing style that suited us. Not for everyone, but it’s what OUR group collectively wanted. Players could always DEMAND we apply rules in a particular combat or encounter or situation, and I would comply, but we tended to find doing so ate up so much time that we could have more fun “ham acting” in, that we kept such occurrences very rare and for very important situations.
8. It's interesting that your home games are so rules light given the number of spells, magic items, monsters, and character classes you've designed over the years. Do you see any contradiction in this?
No. Few “newer” gamers realize how things were in the early D&D hobby; how EVERYONE read DRAGON and memorized or near-memorized every word of most articles therein, plus every word of the published rulebooks.
I wanted to encourage good roleplaying by having players whose characters were faced with a spherical monster with eyestalks NOT say, “well, it’s either a beholder or a gas spore, so . . .” and NOT pick up a horn in a dungeon treasure hoard and say, “Horn of bubbles or Horn of Valhalla?” Or “That enemy wizard just cast a fireball, so he’s gotta be X level or higher! Right, we’ll—“
Likewise, this NPC stranger your character is facing could have all sorts of abilities and powers your PC has never seen before (because, yes, players back then memorized things right down to monk and bard level abilities, too, so they could right away shout “Aha! This guy’s a monk of X level!”).
One of the best ways of doing this was to increase the number of look-alikes and magic item and spell choices so NO ONE could keep track of them all. This dumped players out of min-maxing, using-their-omniscient-rules-knowledge mode back into playing their character in the world, as their characters face the unknown. Makes the game more gripping, forces better roleplaying, and makes it all more fun for those already in the habit of roleplaying.
As I said earlier, I didn’t think doing this was quite “fair” to my players unless my creations (monsters, magic items, or spells) had been published (vetted by other designers AND giving the players a chance of having read them), so I sent them off to DRAGON. I seemed to have a knack for crafting these things, so they wanted more. LOTS more. So I wrote more. :}
It was all great fun, I was having a ball (and so just kept going), and from time to time editors were giving me assignments to write more of this or that (they still are; I just sent off a batch of new monsters yesterday).
As for the home campaign - - well, a DM’s job is to entertain his/her players, and my players loved detail, really immersing themselves in the Realms, and all the plots and subplots adventurers will uncover if they settle into a large town, wayside dale on a major trade route, or city. So that’s what our play sessions were filled with, and why it’s really hard to try to convey the “feel” of the “home” Realms campaign to other gamers - - unless they “sit in” with my original players.
I make no apologies at all for the layer upon layer of exhaustive detailed Realmslore (which I still provide in answer to gamer queries in my thread in the Chamber of Sages at forum.candlekeep.com) that’s built up in over thirty years of play, because that’s what my players wanted. Others can take or leave just as much of it as they want; I’ve always thought that if you’re paying me or any other freelancer for providing something you as DM could do for yourself, given time, that we should give you MORE than you need, so you get your money’s worth and more. If we go too far, ignore what doesn’t suit you - - but we never want to shortchange you.
9. How much of the material you produced in Dragon had its origin in your personal campaign? I ask because, as a younger man, I always appreciated the "lived in" feeling that articles like "Pages from the Mages," "Seven Swords," and "Six Very Special Shields" evoked.
My “home” Realms campaign generated a lot of what became articles, because I had SUPERB roleplayers who always wanted to find out more about the world around their characters (so when playing the characters, they frequently talked to old folks or librarians or sages to find out old lore, and even asked questions like detectives to try to piece together “the truth” when they thought clergies, rulers, or guilds weren’t telling them what was actually happened), and because ethically I felt it was only fair to hit my players with new monsters, spells, magic items, poisons, and so on AFTER I’d published them in DRAGON. For one thing, EVERYONE who played D&D read or tried to read DRAGON in those days (even if only by standing in a hobby shop, paging through issues), so whatever a player could remember of what they’d read helped to simulate what their character “might have heard” in life, and so “felt fairer” to me (and of course the editors had examined my writing and could “fix” anything way out of balance or misworded; I don’t recall them ever doing so, but I felt they had the “stamp of approval.”) The Featured Creature (later Dragon’s Bestiary) columns even carried a little note at the bottom saying the monsters published in them were “as official” as anything in the rulebooks, so I got to contribute to the game!
By the way, the titles of almost all DRAGON articles were chosen by the editors, not article writers.