Tuesday, June 30, 2009

OSRIC is Mine

Thanks to the kindness of Tim Brannan, who saved me from having to pay Lulu's ungodly Canadian shipping costs, I now own a shiny, new, hardcover copy of OSRIC. I'd already seen the final release version of this game in PDF form months ago, but that couldn't compare to the, well, majesty of holding all 380+ pages of it in my hands this afternoon. OSRIC is an extraordinary piece of work -- by far and away the most ambitious of all the retro-clone/simulacrum games published to date. I'm frankly in awe of what Matt Finch and Stuart Marshall accomplished and there's no question I'll get a lot of use out of this book.

That said, I'm still a bit disappointed that OSRIC isn't a fully open game like Swords & Wizardry and Labryinth Lord. Had it been released in such a fashion, I suspect that OSRIC might be getting wider use by publishers than it seems to be. I admit I may simply not have noticed evidence to the contrary, but, from where I'm sitting, it seems as if S&W and LL are garnering more attention and support, both by gamers and third party publishers. That the 1e conversions of Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics aren't using OSRIC disappoints me. Heck, even Expeditious Retreat Press's Malevolent and Benign, which is explicitly sold as "a first edition bestiary," isn't an OSRIC product, which strikes me as very odd.

I'm sure there are reasons why OSRIC, the original retro-clone, now seems (to me anyway) to have been overshadowed by its younger siblings, but it's sad nonetheless. I was, for most of my gaming existence, a staunch 1e aficionado and I still retain much love for AD&D, even if my own tastes have moved closer to OD&D in recent years. Consequently, I want to see OSRIC prosper. Even if it's not likely to be my go-to game for old school fun these days, I think it's important that the standard bearer for the Gygaxian patrimony of the hobby be successful and widely used by gamers and publishers alike, which is why I hope my perceptions are mistaken.

Regardless, the print version of the game is simply awesome. Many hearty congratulations to everyone involved in its release and much thanks from me for making the kind of contribution to the old school renaissance I can only dream of doing.

Interview: Skip Williams

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

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Well of the Unicorn

Fletcher Pratt, the only author named twice in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, was also a military historian and a wargamer, writing a set of naval miniatures rules in 1943. His 1948 novel, The Well of the Unicorn, clearly shows his love of both history and military matters. Its setting is reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with the action taking place in an analog of northern Europe, where raiders known as "Vulkings" have invaded the kingdom of Dalarna and imposed taxes so oppressive that many people, including the novel's protagonist, Airar Alvarson, find themselves reduced to serfdom. Of course, Airar isn't content to remain a mere peasant under the rule of foreign invaders and so he sets off to find some means to overcome them and restore his land to its former state.

If all this sounds uninspired and hackneyed, that's because it is. Now. In 1948, though, fantasies of this sort weren't an industry. Remember that The Lord of the Rings was still six years in the future, never mind its legions of imitators. And while The Well of the Unicorn is neither as well-written nor as timeless as Tolkien's novel, it's still a cut above most of its contemporaries. The titular well is a magical spring possessing magical properties, chiefly its ability to bring peace to opponents who agree to drink of its waters. Unsurprisingly, Airar seeks out this well, in the process grappling with the question of free will and human action and the conflict between freedom and societal stability.

The Well of the Unicorn is an enjoyable novel, far more serious than one might expect if all one had read were Pratt's collaborations with L. Sprague De Camp. It's clear that De Camp was the wit and Pratt the philosophical one. There's certainly an earnestness to this book that might not appeal to everyone, but, as I said, when one compares it to the vapidity of a lot of the fantasies produced at the time, it's a welcome diversion and one worth reading if one has the opportunity to do so.

A Good Post

I'm not usually one to point out good posts on other blogs, since we all pretty much read the same ones anyway, but I'm going to make an exception in the case of Delta's latest entry on "games within games," because he articulates very well some thoughts I've been having lately. It's well worth your time to check it out.

Blackmoor Memories

Here's a link to a nice article about Dave Arneson and the Blackmoor campaign from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. What's particularly interesting about the article is that it includes information I'd never heard before, such as the fact that Dave Wesley of Braunstein fame played a time-and-space-lost version of himself as his first character in the campaign. It's well worth a read.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Interview: Kevin Hendryx (Part II)

4. Do you recall why this reorganization occurred? Was this part of TSR's phenomenal growth in the early 80s or was it the result of other internal pressures within the company? 

We were not privy to TSR's executive management decisions, except what we were told or what was rumored, so in a way I can't answer this except from my own perspective, and according to what we believed at the time or might have learned later. 

Tensions and tempers ran hot during that period. Product Development was full of a bunch of mainly younger, intense guys bursting with energy and enthusiasm; above us were more and more non-gamer business and marketing men, who seemed to have the ear of the executives and whose priorities were not our own.

The conflict between these attitudes and expectations led to unpleasant situations at TSR beginning in mid-1981 and recurring at regular intervals thereafter, as far as I am aware. The company would periodically swell with new staff, then constrict when times grew lean. People were summarily fired or laid off at the whim of management. The problems in early 1981, however, were not financial, but philosophical. In those days, cronyism was rampant at TSR, at every level -- old friends, in-laws, and whole families dominated entire divisions. Some factions were more powerful or better connected than others.

By and large, the creative wing wasn't involved in the ego games and power struggles -- Product Development was physically isolated at that time, in our own building downtown along with the Dungeon Hobby Shop and Dungeon Distributors and the RPGA, and the managers were on the outskirts of town in the new building and warehouse. We didn't marry or get born into our jobs. We had no little hubris about being the "content providers" as it were, while the rest were doing whatever it was they did. We often felt that the Blumes and Gygaxes and their associates, like Will Neibling, were arrogant and greedy, were in over their heads as businessmen, and treated the company and its employees like NPCs in a big game they were playing. 

Tremendous growth and inflows of cash made it possible to grow both responsibly and irresponsibly. We had a large design and art staff that was the envy of smaller publishers. We weren't dependent on the vagaries of freelance submissions; we could generate quality products completely in-house, but at the same time, we weren't paid particularly well and TSR insisted on owning all rights to everything we produced, as opposed to honoring earlier agreements to pay royalties for in-house productions. This led to many confrontations, as you'd expect, especially when the serfs saw the executives buying big houses and fancy automobiles or other “bling.” 

The sales and marketing honchos at the company were interested in pursuing licensing agreements and other aspects of mainstream game publishing, like the big boys at Mattel or Parker Brothers or Hasbro might do, which meant branching into children's games
à la Fantasy Forest (Candyland with dragons) and movie tie-ins like Escape from New York. Not all the design staff was interested in working on such things; we all preferred to explore original concepts or work within the hobby game arena. Some of the guys were more vocal about their disinclination to toe the company line than others, and ultimately some of the big bosses decided to crack down and force the issue. Maybe they'd been taking management courses and wanted to do things the way other companies did.

So we were all obliged to "reapply" for our jobs in a formal sense -- this was April 1981 -- and the people in charge of the process used this as an excuse to abruptly terminate some of the troublemakers for having bad attitudes. This led to some others quitting in protest. And that was the first of the infamous TSR purges. (I recall Jim Roslof returning from a weekend out of town to discover he was alone in the art deptartment, basically.) It put the rest of us on alert as to what we could expect in the future, so those of us who had been spared but were extremely upset and unhappy at the turn of events began to make plans to leave.

By the end of that summer, more of us were gone, including me. 

TSR continued to make new hires, replaced those who left, and was a very different place by the end of the year. We who were gone referred to ourselves as the "Terminati" and that bygone era as the "Golden Age" in our wishful way. It was a short period of time, but very intense. To this day, I've never had such an engaging job or worked with more creative and inspiring people. Some of the close bonds formed then have continued, and to this day I feel great kinship with all those with whom I worked in Lake Geneva, even our then-antagonists. And
requiescant in pace

5. After you left TSR, you went to work for Metagaming as a product development manager. What projects did you oversee during your time there?

I had arranged to return to Austin and join Metagaming full-time before I decamped from Lake Geneva. Howard Thompson was pleased to pick me up again after what he felt was TSR's "training" me. Metagaming didn't pay as much, but in those days Austin was a cheaper place to live and it was good to be back in familiar surroundings after the disorientation of small-town Wisconsin and what had become the oppressive, paranoid atmosphere of TSR Hobbies in those days (at least, to us young snot-nosed punks in Product Development). 

It's difficult to recall precisely what games I worked on while at Metagaming in 1981-82; there are websites that chronicle this stuff better than I remember it now, and I sold off most of my games and documents and memorabilia from this period to collectors. I continued to receive and review outside submissions, coordinate playtesting, copyedited and did layout for a number of games, and proposed original projects that never got off the ground due to Thompson closing down Metagaming's in-house production staff in the spring of 1982. I recall Dragons of Underearth by Keith Gross and supervising some Fantasy Trip modules like Orb Quest and some TFT things licensed to other publishers à la the Judges Guild/TSR arrangement, as well as a few MicroGames like Helltank Destroyer. Thompson was always tinkering on a sci-fi RPG system he felt would be the equivalent of TFT but I don't think he ever got his design finished. It was going to come out in separate volumes, like TFT, beginning with an individual combat system game and then spaceships and then more sort of RPG supplemental material. I think a lot of games in progress were stillborn when Metagaming was deep-sixed.

6. Like a lot of tabletop RPG designers, you eventually entered the computer games industry, working first for Coleco (which seems to have hired a lot of RPG talent). Did you find the transition into video games difficult? Were there many similarities between the two industries or were they completely different?

I went to Coleco in spring 1982 and remained there as a game designer in the home video game division until summer 1983. Coleco's revolving door saw a legion of designers from other companies pass through -- Lawrence [Schick -- JDM] once remarked that Coleco had the largest collection of RPG designers not designing RPGs of any game company in the world. Many of them came after my time and our paths did not cross, unfortunately. I enjoyed some aspects of Coleco, but not nearly as much as TSR, and when I left Coleco I left the game business, as it turns out. I've never been able to get back in since, on the occasions when I've tried -- I hoped to work for Origin Systems in the early 1990s, I even made inquiries at TSR again in the mid-1990s, and WOTC/Hasbro and Cranium since then -- but I don't have any background in computer gaming, so I'm hopelessly behind the times anyway. 

I did find the technical aspects of video gaming during my Coleco stint more difficult to assimilate than conventional games, and computer gaming would probably have been even more so. I'm not much of a technophile, much more a technophobe. I also grew weary of the shoot-em-ups that dominated home video gaming, and I realized long ago that I have no interest in catering to teenage boys' power fantasies anymore, if I ever did. I realize there's more to computer gaming than this, but this is what seems to drive the industry, this pandering to adolescent male wish-fulfillment. I'd rather be involved in something more challenging and grown-up and more, well, whimsical. Or painting miniatures. I'm so old school, I have one room, hard wooden benches, and hickory switches in my brain.

7. Whimsy is something I strongly associate with the early days of roleplaying. Is it a quality you tried to include in your own game designs over the years?

Certainly! Although I've had little opportunity to indulge in this professionally since the 1980s. My game designing since then has remained private, ephemeral, in an almost sand mandala-like way (elaborate miniatures games that can never be repeated; RPG campaigns that have returned to the Immateria from whence they came; many game designs or rules unpublished and unfinished through lack of time). Putting a "Divine Wrath" rule in The Fury of the Norsemen was an early attempt to inject a fantasy element into an historical topic, and one that was not universally appreciated.

If I'd stayed at TSR I think I'd have worked on many more oddball games. The first assignment I had there was a rewrite/cleanup of The Awful Green Things from Outer Space. I'm a big fan of Tom Wham's simple but always elegant games like AGTFOS, the original Icebergs, or Gangsters! These are classics in my mind, and I'd like to see some Euro-game publisher snap them up and make refined, jazzed-up editions available to us. Just imagine Green Thing miniatures! Wham was sort of on permanent retainer at TSR as an affiliate game wizard deluxe, not bound to any time clock or protocols. He kept his own schedule and counsel. But he always came out with amazing ideas. 

I try to incorporate similar concepts in certain boardgames on my "In Process" shelf. Most of what I'm interested in as a designer are still boring ol' miniatures rules and hex wargames and RPGs, but I've also got some simmering concepts for multiplayer boardgames in the newer Euro style, with varied game-play and nice components that allow for a lot of variety and intricate, integral game mechanics. I hate to give away too many ideas, but many of these involve a mix of history and whimsy. Now my challenge is to find time to work on them, since I'm doing so purely on spec or for my own enjoyment, I've not got any publishing deal in the works for anything. Self-publishing via my CafePress shop is always an option for simpler projects like miniatures rules. It makes them available for those who are interested, without convincing a regular publisher to go broke on them. Because there's nothing like self-published game rules on CafePress to get you that villa in Tuscany or that third yacht, you know?

8. Do you still play RPGs today and, if so, which ones?

Alas! Playing RPGs with my brother Game Wizards in Lake Geneva, and to a lesser extent in Connecticut (Coleco), surrounded by unparalleled talent and creativity and bonhomie, so completely and hopelessly spoiled me that I've never been able to replicate the enjoyment of the early 1980s with any other groups. I've not been able to hold together a group as a DM in Austin due to job pressures and time constraints and the distractions of adult life, and my efforts to find a simpatico group to just play with has also met with failure. The last time Mary and I tried, back in 2000, the DM flaked out after only a few months and disbanded the campaign, and I've not made the effort again since. But not for lack of interest. Any mature but convivial, collegial, easy-going and non-neurotic gaming groups in Austin who are looking for players, give me a shout! I am active in the Lone Star Historical Miniatures group that meets regularly at the Great Hall Games store in Austin for toy soldier battles (also boardgames), and we play a lot of skirmish-level gaming that has a high element of role-playing involved. And I've been talking to some of the ex-TSR gang about a reunion at GaryCon this coming March, in Lake Geneva, so we'll see what comes of that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Very Interesting

A number of people have pointed out to me that, according to this page, Paizo will be selling the PDF version of their upcoming Pathfinder Roleplaying Game for $9.95. Now, I'm not ever likely to be playing Pathfinder. From what I have seen -- I have read the Beta Playtest in its various iterations -- it's still too much like v.3.5 to hold any appeal for me, no matter how much I like the Paizonians.

That said, $9.95 is a remarkably ... reasonable price for a PDF, especially in an industry where far too many companies offer very little discount over the cost of buying a hardcopy. I can't help but applaud Paizo for doing this and I hope -- almost certainly in vain -- that we might see other companies follow their lead. In my experience, a low price on a PDF means that I'm much more likely to plunk down some money on a product whose merits I'm unsure about than if the PDF is a mere 10-20% cheaper than the print version. Likewise, if I like the PDF, odds are good I'll also buy the print version. If there were a PDF version of HackMaster Basic available at a reasonable discount, I'd probably buy a copy, because, despite my skepticism, I'm still intrigued by it. But, alas, no such thing exists and so Kenzer has lost not just one but possibly two sales from me (and the possibility that I'll drive some sales their way with a review of the thing).

At $9.95, though, I'll happily snag a copy of Pathfinder, even though I'm highly unlikely to play it or to buy any of its supplementary material. That's a small enough amount of money that, even if I find nothing of value in the PDF, I won't feel as if I'd been cheated and the odds of that's happening are pretty slim indeed.

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!)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Dangers of Imitation

I'm in the midst of re-reading S.T. Joshi's excellent The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, a survey of the writings of both Lovecraft and his successors, which advances a well-argued and (largely) convincing thesis about which stories hold most true to Lovecraft's esthetic and philosophical visions. In his epilogue to the book, Joshi states the following:
In the youthful writer, sedulous imitation can serve as a valuable stepping-stone to the development of literary skills that can be put to better use elsewhere; for the experienced writer who seeks to mine Lovecraftian conceptions in a work purporting to have independent aesthetic value, the exercise can result in an augmentation of power and distinctiveness if those conceptions are used within the framework of the author's own aesthetic vision. Samuel Johnson's blunt axiom, "No man ever became great by imitation," remains true more than two centuries after its utterance. But those writers who do something more than mere imitation of Lovecraft have a chance to produce work that will live, and deserve to live.
This quote struck a chord with me, because, in the old school movement, the shadow of Gygax (and, to a lesser extent, Arneson) looms every bit as large as does that of Lovecraft in the realm of cosmic horror fiction. The shadow of TSR itself is similarly impressive and rightly so. In all of these cases, there's good reason that we look to the past for inspiration. Goodness knows I do it all the time and one of the pillars on which this blog is built is that the hobby needs to know more about its own history.

At the same time, as I've said before, I see a danger in the way many old school products use past products as explicit models, right down to the trade dress, typeface, and layout. I am nostalgic about the look of products from 1979 too, but I worry that the fixation a lot of us have with a very specific look only serves to lend ammunition to those who'd dismiss the entire old school movement as nothing more than nostalgia run amok. I would hate to see that happen any more than it already does, which is why I'd much prefer to see less imitation and more inspiration.

The same holds true not just for presentation but for content. Joshi quotes from an article by David E. Schulz called, "Who Needs the 'Cthulhu Mythos'?" and there's again some relevance for the old school renaissance:
... the pseudomythological elements to which Lovecraft referred were only part of the fictional background of his stories. They were never the subject of his stories, but rather part of the background against which the main action occurred. That is to say, Lovecraft did not write about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, the Necronomicon, or any of the other places or creatures or books in his stories. The subjects of his stories was typically the small place that man occupies in the uncaring cosmos, and his fictional creatures were only part of the means by which he sought to demonstrate that.
That's the other danger inherent in imitation: the conflation of elements intended to support content with the content itself. That's why I am (generally) much happier with material that has its own integrity and doesn't depend too much on what came before to provide context. Again, I find myself guilty on this score, so I don't mean to single anyone out here. I know all too well the desire to pay homage to one's personal gaming past by recreating it in some form.

Lately, though, I'm finding that unsatisfactory, or at least insufficiently satisfactory, which is why I've been much more interested in blazing my own trails through the wilderness rather than merely walking the same well-trodden paths of my youth. Dwimmermount, for example, was never intended to be a recreation of "the way things were" back in 1974, even if I did begin the campaign by trying to start off in a similar place. But, having read a great deal about the way those early campaigns were run, I am pretty sure I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much as I've enjoyed Dwimmermount and that's in large part because I'm doing things my way and that way was formed not by a meticulous adherence to what Gary or Dave did back in the day but by what I am doing right now.

Don't misunderstand me: there's certainly nothing wrong with covering the same ground as others have already done and there's genuine value in the tried, true, and familiar. By the same token, there's much to be gained by striking out on one's own and I really do want to see more of that. I can guarantee you'll be seeing more of it from me in the days and weeks to come. There's a difference between knowing and honoring the past and being forever cast in darkness by its shadow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dwimmermount, Session 14

The most recent session of Dwimmermount was one of those sessions. Anyone who's run a longstanding campaign knows what I'm talking about. It's not that the session wasn't fun or that nothing transpired during the time we played it, because neither of those things is true. Indeed, the party ventured further into the current level and made a number of possibly significant discoveries, chief among them being that Dwimmermount was used at some point as a monastery devoted to the Thulian god of magic, Turms Termax. Granted, they had suspected this for some time, but the preponderance of religious artifacts, monastic cells, and ritual chambers more or less confirmed it.

It's also not that the session was devoid of "action." The characters continued to encounter vermin, such as giant spiders and centipedes, as well as hobgoblins and an increasing number of undead, albeit of a mindless variety. There were traps to be overcome and secret doors to be found and all the usual obstacles one would expect of a megadungeon. The characters have also finally begun to find some valuable treasure, not the paltry copper and silver coins they have found in large numbers to date. Brother Candor acquired a stash of clerical scrolls for future use, as well as some potions, which will come in handy. And Dordagdonar and Iriadessa inched ever closer to advancing a level.

But Session 14 was a classic "just a bunch of stuff that happened" session and my players were fine with that. That's the nature of RPG campaigns in my experience: not every session is a roller coaster ride of excitement. That level of intensity is neither sustainable week after week nor, in my opinion, desirable. "Slow" sessions are valuable. They give everyone a chance to catch their breath and they're very low maintanence for the referee. I didn't have to come up with impromptu NPC personalities or describe an entire quarter of the city-state because the PCs wandered off on some whim. I could simply use my notes to the dungeon and proceed more or less as planned without much hassle, which I appreciated. I should note too that my players seem to do so as well. It being Father's Day, our contingent was smaller than usual and the social aspect of the evening loomed larger than usual. This was a "comfort" dungeon crawl -- something to pass the time without placing too much of a burden on either my players or myself.

I am loath to compare long-term campaigning to anything in the real world, since I know from hard experience that one or more people will misread my intention. Therefore, I will be vague and simply say that, in life, there are many long-term, emotionally-engaging commitments into which one can enter. To expect that those commitments will each and every time generate the same kind of passion and intensity is a recipe for disappointment. Sometimes -- often -- one is simply content and perhaps even grateful that the level of emotional engagement has subsided to less thrilling levels. I doubt that human beings can be ecstatic 24/7, 365 days a year and I rather suspect that, if they tried, they'd make themselves an emotional wreck in fairly short order.

The absence of constant esctasy is not an indication that a campaign is failing or that it's grown stale. It could be, but, in my experience, it's mostly an indication that a campaign is growing comfortable and that players and referee alike have settled in to a pleasant routine. Now, routines must be broken from time to time and I certainly don't advocate allowing a campaign to fall into a rut. No one wants that. However, we need to be sure to distinguish between comfortability and staleness. The two are not the same and to confuse them has, I fear, brought a premature end to many a campaign on the verge of having the staying power that leads to long-term satisfaction.

I think a lot of gamers are too impatient to let a campaign find its feet and they bolt at the first sign of things becoming "boring." By many measures, my last session was "boring," because it consisted mostly of mapping and some scattered combats, few of which had any greater significance and none of which were all that dangerous to the PCs. Nevertheless, I think last session was important and contributed to the health of the campaign, even though nothing particularly exciting transpired. But, months from now, as the campaign has unfolded further, no one will remember Session 14's dullness. If they remember it at all, it'll be for its significance in the ex post facto "story" of exploring the megadungeon, a story they themselves helped to create through their shared memories of time spent around my dining room table imagining a world not their own.

Nothing of great import may have happened in the game, but I can assure you something of great import happened in my home this past weekend: my friends and I got together and gamed.

Retrospective: Swordbearer

The early 80s were a funny time in gaming, both for me personally and for the hobby generally. By "funny," I mean a combination of "interesting" and "unusual." Gaming, particularly fantasy gaming, was now firmly ensconced as a popular pastime, with everyone trying to cash in on the craze. And there was lots of experimentation with different rules, formats, styles of presentation, and so on.

The result was a kaleidoscope effect, making my visits to places like The Compleat Strategist simultaneously exhilarating and confusing. What were all these different games and which ones would I like? There were reviews in Dragon and White Dwarf, of course, as well as the opinions of the guys in the game store, but, even then, I knew that reviews didn't tell the whole story and that the opinions of reviewers didn't always jibe with my own preferences.

There was also the fact that, then as now, D&D exerted a strange effect over most gamers. By 1982, D&D was starting to feel a little "stale" to me and I was keen for new gaming horizons. It's not that I didn't play other RPGs -- I did, particularly Traveller and Call of Cthulhu -- but D&D was my introduction into the hobby and had left its mark on my imagination in a way no other game ever would. Consequently, even when I was looking to replace D&D with another game, D&D was still there in my mind. It was the game against which I was judging other games and I know now that that probably lessened my ability to give other RPGs the fair shake they deserved.

It was in this context that Swordbearer entered my life. I knew Heritage Models quite well, having purchased many of their miniatures and having enjoyed their Dwarfstar microgames like Barbarian Prince and Outpost Gamma (both of which, along with the rest of the line are available as free electronic downloads at this site, thanks to the kindness of their current copyright holder, Reaper Miniatures). So, when I saw this odd little boxed game, which proclaimed its contents to be "realistic, fast-playing, complete, expandable," I picked it up, hoping to find a game to cure my D&D malaise.

I read Swordbearer with great relish. Consisting of three landscape-format books of varying length (illustrated throughout with black and white art by the then-unknown Denis Loubet), Swordbearer wasn't quite what I expected. The game has no classes, being a skill-based one in which any character can conceivably learn any skill. The system isn't particularly complex by today's standards, but it seemed a fair bit more involved than D&D. That made it harder for me to get into it than I'd hoped, but I soldiered through nonetheless. The magic system is interesting and based on a node system that's inspired by a modified version of Asian elemental theory. There's also spirit magic that's based on the four humors of classical Western medicine.

What set Swordbearer apart, though, was its broader "social" focus than D&D. There were many, many more playable intelligent races, including the bunrabs, an obvious nod to designer Dennis Sustare's earlier Bunnies & Burrows RPG. This made it possible to create a campaign that felt very different than the implied pseudo-medieval setting of most of the fantasy RPGs with which I was familiar at the time. There were also rules about social status that tied into the game's abstract wealth system, as well as just what being a member of a particular social class meant in the context of the game world.

All of this may seem like old hat nowadays, but, in 1982, it was a revelation to me and it gave Swordbearer a "serious" feel to it that both impressed and frightened me at the same time. I very much wanted to play Swordbearer, but didn't think I was "good enough" a referee to do so, a feeling I'd also gotten from RuneQuest, another game I owned but never really managed to play. Looking back on it now, I feel bad I never had the chance to try out Swordbearer with my friends. I think, even though the gravitational pull of D&D ultimately proved irresistible, my gaming would have benefitted a lot from having had the chance to test out some of Swordbearer's innovations.

After my recent interview with its designer, I dusted off my copy from the garage and have begun re-reading it and it's quite the trip down memory lane. It's also sparking some ideas in my head that might see use in my Dwimmermount campaign. Copies of the game pop up on eBay fairly regularly and the ghost of Fantasy Games Unlimited (which published the game's second edition) sells both PDF and print copies here. You might consider picking up a copy, if only to see firsthand some of the diversity the gaming of the early 80s had. It really was a magical time, both for the hobby and the industry, and we shall not see its like again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gaming as a Social Occasion

It was suggested in the comments to another post of mine that I run a "tight ship" when it comes to my gaming sessions given how much we accomplish each week, but the reality is quite different. As I explained, most of our gaming sessions run about six hours, of which no more than half of that time is spent sitting at my dining room table and rolling dice.

There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that our gaming sessions are an adjunct to friendly get-togethers. Because we're all adults with other distractions and responsibilities, our Sunday afternoon meetings are our only occasions to see one another face to face. Consequently, a goodly portion of our time is spent simply talking, whether it be about our mundane activities or our gaming-related ones. Likewise, we generally start play after dinner, which I make while I talking with my friends about this or that. It's a long-standing ritual going back many years and I can't imagine a more "business-like" arrangement where my friends arrive and we simply start gaming right away. That would feel wrong to me.

But that's because, especially as an adult, I see gaming a social occasion, a time to indulge in some much-needed conviviality with dear friends. Even once we're playing, our sessions are broken up with digressions, interruptions, and other "frame-breaking" events that we simply accept as part of the way we game nowadays. Looking back on my experiences as a younger person, this isn't really much of a change from the way we used to game in the early days. The main difference is that we usually got together for much longer stretches of time and we generally didn't make our own food. We often did have lunch or dinner together before we gamed. Such gatherings often involved my friend's older brother and/or father playing with us, so they were especially well liked and remain powerful memories of the best that this hobby offers.

So, in truth, my sessions tend to be rather rambling and unfocused, because we treat gaming as but one part, albeit an important one, of a larger social occasion. I suspect the reason why it seems we accomplish so much is that we're all of a like mind when it comes to the campaign and what we want out of it. Consequently, the exploration of the dungeon is done fairly efficiently, with a designated leader and cartographer both setting the pace for how things proceed. Likewise, we're all very experienced roleplayers, so we quite easily fall into extended in-game conversations without the need for much prompting, which helps move along most sessions as well. In short, we've all been gaming for nearly three decades and that makes it possible to get a lot done despite the distractions of its also being our only occasion to see one another each week.

Of course, none of us would want to give up those distractions; they're half the reason why we get together at all.

The Rhythm of the Old School

Running the Dwimmermount campaign has been a valuable experience on many levels, chief among them being how much fun I am having playing "D&D" again. I really can't emphasize enough the pleasure that this campaign has brought me. As I've said repeatedly in this blog, it's all well and good to theorize and philosophize about this stuff -- obviously -- but, without play, it's all largely meaningless. This is a hobby, after all, not a debate club and it's play that really matters. I've had fourteen sessions of this campaign since January (the most recent of which I'll post about later today or tomorrow) and they've all reminded me in various ways why I not only entered but stuck with this hobby for nearly 30 years. I think we all need to be reminded of that regularly or else the old school movement will, like many other movements, eventually become hollow and lifeless.

The other thing of which the Dwimmermount campaign has reminded me is that the much-derided resource management of old school games -- the mythical "15-minute adventuring day" -- is actually a boon rather than a bane. In the majority of our sessions, the party's explorations into Dwimmermount cease because the players decide that they've used up too many of their finite resources -- spells, potions, hirelings -- to continue without seriously risking their own deaths. They then head out of the dungeon either to nearby Muntburg or (more likely) three-days-ride-away Adamas to re-supply.

The result is that, with a few exceptions, most forays into Dwimmermount are not very long and typically end at inopportune or at least unplanned times. That is, the players can't anticipate when one of their front-line fighters is going to be slain by a giant ant or when their magic-user will run out of sleep spells. These events may in fact occur just as they're about to explore a new section of the mountain-dungeon for which they've been searching for some time or that they know will contain both great riches and great danger. But prudence -- that fine old school virtue -- dictates that discretion is almost always the better part of valor. Thus, they leave the dungeon keen to return as quickly as they can, because they are often on the verge of some new discovery. The finitude of their resources regularly ensures that they never have their fill of the dungeon in any given session; they are kept hungry for more, which ensures that the megadungeon holds their interest.

That's not the only benefit of managing finite resources, however. All these trips back to Muntburg or Adamas to re-supply and seek out new hirelings to replace their fallen comrades are opportunities to roleplay and to explore the world outside the dungeon. Some referees could simply let the PCs buy what they need without incident, treating it as a purely mathematical exercise and there's nothing wrong with that. Not every trip back to Adamas is an occasion for me to throw some random encounter at the party or to introduce some eccentric NPC -- but many are. I relish those opportunities, because they're where I get to ground the characters and the dungeon in a larger context and to create a "web" of connections that I can then later use for ideas, both within and without the dungeon.

Many of the emerging "plots" of my Dwimmermount campaign were extemperaneous inventions of mine as a result of rolls on a random encounter table or simply riffing off one of my players' comments about his character's activities in the city. Those inventions were made possible by the fact that the PCs aren't self-sufficient. They have to leave the dungeon and return to their home base, sometimes several times in a session. I don't see that as a flaw in old school gaming; I see it as something praiseworthy, for, without it, there'd have been no Jasper the alchemist or Saidon the spoon-wielding cleric of Typhon or the Argent Twilight or many other now-integral elements of the campaign. Because the characters only adventure 15 minutes a day, as the saying goes, they had to fill the other 23 hours and 45 minutes with something. That something is the stuff from which a campaign is made, the stuff that keeps the players coming back week after week keen to keep playing.

Resource management is, in my opinion, one of the key features of old school gaming. Its removal, or at least its watering down, is a marker for the end of that style of play. I also happen to think the impetus behind its removal is built on a fallacy, one that equates any form of "downtime" as antithetical to fun gaming. My experiences with Dwimmermount over the last six months have taught me that, while resource management guarantees that, at some point, the characters must pause for a time, that's not always a bad thing. The action may end when the PCs leave the dungeon, but that doesn't mean the adventure does.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Interview: Dennis Sustare

In examining the early history of the hobby, it's often easy to forget the diversity of individuals and ideas that were extant at that time. Because both fanzines and conventions were thriving and because there was an openness to new approaches, it was quite possible for such individuals to disseminate their ideas widely, often attracting the attention of the companies publishing RPGs. One such individual was Dennis Sustare, among whose many contributions to the hobby were the creation of D&D's druid class and the first RPG in which the players portray animals, Bunnies & Burrows. Mr Sustare kindly agreed to answer some questions I put to him about these and other related matters.

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.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Glory Road

When thinking of fantasy, the name "Robert Heinlein" is not one that immediately comes to mind. Heinlein made a name for himself as a science fiction writer, which is why it's difficult to know what to make of his 1963 novel, Glory Road. The novel had first appeared earlier the same year as a serial in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and, as was once a common practice, particularly for genre fiction, it was collected together and published in a complete form.

Glory Road tells the tale of a veteran named Evelyn Gordon, who is spending some time on the French Riviera after having been discharged from the military after serving in an unnamed conflict in Southeast Asia (presumably Viet Nam, but this is never stated in the text). While there, he answers a newspaper advertisement that puts him in touch with a woman of -- literally as it turns out -- unearthly beauty named Star, who enlists his aid in a quest for a mysterious item known as the Egg of the Phoenix. Along with Rufo, an older man who acts as Star's assistant, Gordon and Star encounter a wide variety of dangers, from tricks and traps to minotaurs and dragons, in their quest for the Egg, an item whose true purpose and nature are very different than Gordon initially imagines and whose discovery opens up even wider vistas for him to explore.

As I noted, Glory Road is an odd book that doesn't sit comfortably within the science fiction genre for which Heinlein was well known. Neither is it a pure fantasy. Instead, it straddles both genres, borrowing liberally from each, which may explain why many modern Heinlein fans dislike it. For myself, I've long felt that Glory Road was Heinlein's attempt to produce a "sword-and-planet" novel after the fashion of Burroughs, but on a stronger science fiction. The result is a very uneven novel, but a fun one, provided you aren't distracted by the typically Heinleinian disgreesions into his then-evolving socio-political philosophy. The book thus has an odd feel overall. Some readers may see this oddity as contributing to their enjoyment, while others may see it as detracting from it. In either case, Glory Road is another book from an era before the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were less well defined and even a writer as solidly in the former genre could freely borrow from the latter without too much comment.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Information Requested

Anyone out there know much about the latest version of the Elric RPG? I was a big fan of Stormbringer back in the day -- a game I still consider one of the best fantasy games ever written -- but I no longer have my copy and I have a strange hankering to re-acquire it. I suppose I could just hunt down a used copy on eBay or elsewhere, but, being the punctilious sort that I am, I prefer to buy only mint or near-mint copies of old games, which can get very expensive. If the new version of the game were any good, I'd be happy to pick it up (not to mention the Hawkmoon companion game, which is even more up my alley), but I'm reluctant to do so without some good word of mouth about it. I can't seem to find any reviews online and I know there were some complaints about the Mongoose RuneQuest game, which makes me wary.

So any inisghts or comments on the matter would be appreciated.

Yet More Drow

The irreplaceable Trent Foster has kindly scanned four images from the pastel-colored editions of the Giants-Drow modules, which I now post here:This is a nice Sutherland piece that shows the Drow and their pack lizards, something that doesn't get illustrated very often for some reason.

Here's another example of "white Drow" and the likely model for the Jeff Dee (?) illustration that appears in the later printings of the module.

This is a rare Dave Trampier illustration of the Drow, although they aren't recognizably dark elves in my opinion. Only the bucklers give them away.

This is a rather well-done DCS piece showing a collection of Drow warriors, using both hand crossbows and atlatls. I like it a great deal, since the blackness of the Drow's skin is made very clear here and it's quite unsettling.

On the subject of the "white Drow," I wonder if perhaps, early in their conception, the Drow were, like many subterranean creatures, assumed to be albino or at least very pale in their skin color. That would make sense and would be another connection to Elric. I know that when I re-imagined the Drow in the late 80s for my home campaign, I made them a race of ghostly, albino elves because I thought it "made more sense." I have no support for this theory, but I do wonder if there might not be some truth to it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Another Perspective

Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games has weighed in on the topic of how well the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons is doing from his perspective. He offers some very interesting data, which, if accurate, suggests that things aren't as gloomy for third party publishers as Clark Peterson suggested in his recent post on the same subject.

I have no horse in this race myself, since, as I've repeatedly said, 4e holds even less interest for me than 3e. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see someone step up and attempt to put things into a historical context. I'm not sure what to make of it all, but it's good that there's open discussion of this topic, as I find it all very fascinating.

Interview: Darlene

Anyone whose entry into the roleplaying hobby coincided with the Golden Age of D&D will know the name Darlene and immediately associate it with some of the most beautiful images ever to created for the game, chief among them the glorious World of Greyhawk maps that first appeared in 1980. Three decades later, Darlene's work stands out as noteworthy not just for its attractiveness but also for its having given many early D&D products an air at once fantastical and rooted in medieval history -- a heady combination I don't think any artist since has recreated. I had the opportunity to ask Darlene some questions about her involvement in the RPG industry, her artistic influences, and the unusual process by which she creates her art and she kindly answered them all at great length.

I urge everyone who posts comments to be courteous and respectful.

Thank you kindly for granting me this opportunity to reminisce with you. I hope I will give your readers some interesting things to think about. I send Big Bountiful Blessings to all.

1. How did you become involved in illustrating for role playing games?

I came in through the back door. At the beginning of my association with TSR Hobbies, I worked behind-the-scenes. One of my first jobs for them was to create a large two-sided sign in the shape of a shield with a dragon on it. For several years, this sign hung in front of TSR’s Williams Street building in Lake Geneva. This was around 1977 when TSR Hobbies had just the one building and employed only a handful of people. The first TSR person I met was Mike Carr, creator of the Fight in the Skies WWI aviation game. I was a local artist working for a graphics firm in Lake Geneva when Mike came in to update TSR’s next Gen Con flier. By the end of the project, we were dating. When Mike took me to visit his place of employment, the first people I met were Tim Kask, Joe Orlowski, and Dave Sutherland.

Working as I did for Graphics Printing, when it came to freelancing, I was naturally associated with design, graphics and lettering. Sometimes, I wonder about the happenstance of my living in Lake Geneva at that particular moment in time. If anyone was tailor-made for graphically shaping the look, identity and public face of TSR, it would be me. With a background in medieval-studies, a familiarity with strange mythological beasts, a calligrapher’s knowledge of manuscripts, and a deep appreciation for fantasy and surrealism, no one could be more uniquely qualified. I could do anything TSR called upon me to do.

Before I entered the scene, TSR Hobbies’ published materials looked noticeably different. Beginning with the tenth issue of The Dragon, I generated many headings for the magazine’s columns and articles. Few people realize I designed TSR’s “wizard face” logo (in October, 1980). I’m also responsible for the logo, letterhead, business cards and advertising materials for TSR Periodicals and Dragon Publishing. While the other artists concentrated solely on illustration, it was I who imparted the visual backdrop for the RPG genre itself, the stage upon which RPG could be appreciated. Thus, the context for early RPGs came through my filter, making my work directly responsible for imparting a mood–an authentic gothic sensibility–to early RPG. A fan, described it to me in these terms: “I loved that almost underground look and feel to the games and the magazines. An almost Dark feel that matches the Medieval era...”

During those early years, my published work, if not my name, was seen quite a bit. The first module coming with the basic D&D set was In Search of the Unknown (B1). Every person introduced to the genre saw my art on the front and back covers of the module. I also contributed regularly to The Dragon magazine and did the graphic illustrations for the 1980 and 1981 The Days of the Dragon calendars and the lettering for the Realms of Wonder and Dragonlance calendars. In 1983, I designed The Guide to the World of Greyhawk book to appear like an illuminated manuscript, accompanied, of course, by the WOG maps.

Highlights of my Fantasy art (sans lettering) include: the above-mentioned B1 cover and back-cover, the cover for The Dragon magazine #37, The Ice Barbarian in the 1981 Days of the Dragon Calendar and The Green Dragon in the 1982 Days of the Dragon Calendar, Monster Card art, The Dragontales Anthology, all interior art for first RPGA Rahasia (R2) module, all interior art for One-On-One game The Amber Sword of World’s End. My art also appeared on the title page of the Dungeon Masters Guide as well as The Rogues Gallery. Incidentally, many people consider the DMG title page art—a depiction of a fat unicorn—to be iconic, a wistful symbol of a time gone by, a longing for past pleasures fondly remembered. Having studied symbols and icons, I tend to agree with this opinion.

2. Artistically, who are and were your biggest inspirations?

Generations who’ve grown up with RPG materials readily available probably don’t realize just how scarce pictorial representations of monsters were in the pre-internet decade of the late 1970s. Usually, the only image sources of mythical beasts that an artist could find were in resource books within a library’s reference section—in different encyclopedia sets, various dictionaries, and Bestiaries. Lucky visits to out-of-town libraries might net different source imagery. Since reference books could not be checked out, I always had to be sure to carry enough change with me for photocopying, just in case. When it came to locating depictions of unusual creatures, how many times did the Lake Geneva Public Library staff point me to their large collection of children’s books? When it came to fairy tale and children’s book illustrators, I always preferred the work of those living earlier in the century—Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, and Kay Neilsen.

RPG fantasy illustrators during this period spent most of their income developing their own resource libraries. Dover Publication reprints made life easier for many of us. Fortunately, I was interested in mythical creatures long before I moved to Lake Geneva. Much of my resource library began with postcards and books purchased at London museums. In 1974, I spent the fall in London as a participant in Beloit College’s Studies Abroad Program. Both the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery were only a short walk from where we stayed. I enjoyed the gallery of Turner’s canvases and admired his ability to immerse me into his passionate experience of the sea. I marveled at the paintings of John Constable and studied the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. I also responded to the work of Heinrich Kley, Gustav Doré, Virgil Finlay, Frank Frazetta, Gustav Klimt and MC Escher.

Of the many exquisite collections within the British Museum, I found myself most often visiting the manuscripts they had on display. From the very beginning, my passion for letters developed concurrently with my passion for art. In London, during the entire fall of 1974, I took classes in the art of calligraphy from an advanced Craft Member of the prestigious Society of Scribes and Illuminators. There is something about combining illustrations with text that is very satisfying for me. Art Nouveau artists had different ways of juxtaposing words with imagery. I loved it all. By December, I’d created a medieval-styled book in which I wrote out the text in calligraphy, illuminated the pages and created the illustrations. I am a big admirer of William Morris (of the Arts and Crafts movement) and William Blake, both of whom advocated the thoughtful integration of imagery with the written word.

3. Nearly 30 years after they were first published, the maps you created for the World of Greyhawk fantasy setting have no equals in my opinion. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating them?

Thank you kindly. Yes, of all the myriad things I did during the few years I freelanced for TSR, I seem to be most renowned for creating two large color maps for The World of Greyhawk. Gary Gygax (the father of RPG) has openly touted my WOG map set as being the “best gaming maps ever created for this genre,” so you are not alone in your opinion. Gary wrote to me that he considered my WOG map renditions to be “an unrivaled classic which set the standard for future RPG Fantasy Game maps.”

Each 22″ x 35″ map was created “to size” and almost too unwieldy to fit on the surface of my drawing table. The artwork I prepared in layers, with the black layer—the hex layer—on the bottom. Using black ink, I worked directly on the surface of the foundation hex layer. I inked in pictorial representations of individual mountains, trees and other geographical features and organically integrated them with different styles of lettering. Transparent acetate was placed atop and I applied color to the map through the use of large adhesive pantone color sheets.

I approached the WOG maps as if they were large illustrations. For me, the art of creating letters is another specific way of drawing (I also design of type fonts) so I don’t consider words as separate from illustration. As a lover of letters, I have developed an advanced sensibility for balancing and juxtaposing positive and negative shapes. That’s how I achieved a certain pleasing integration of image with text that translates as satisfying. Anyone unfamiliar with the subtle nuisances of letterform design will be unable to replicate the overall aesthetic effect my gaming maps possess.

Up to now, I’ve spoken little about my advanced intuitive abilities. Being able to access and enter subtle energy states (without the use of drugs) is just a part of who I am. Because people have a tendency to be dismissive about the subject, I don’t often share much about my regular excursions into the supernatural. I don’t believe it’s all that unusual: the ability to enter subtle realms is a normal part of the human experience. We close it off because we’ve been taught to do so. However, I chose to bring it up because it’s another hidden component of the WOG maps that’s pertinent to the discussion. While working on the maps, I reached my mind across space/time and tapped into the knowledge of a medieval artisan versed in the craft of map-making.

From my point of view, the wrinkled hands of a knowledgeable old cartographer became superimposed on my own and “we” worked on the map together. I don’t mean to infer my WOG maps were channeled. My mind was definitely clear and present during the entire creative process. My hands simply “knew” what to do. The resulting map art became more informed by my ability to draw upon this deep internal resource. I think gamers may be responding to an energetic residue that the map still retains from these sessions. That’s another reason the maps are so impossible to duplicate, and probably represents the best explanation of why those WOG maps possess such an air of authenticity.

4. I recall that you not only illustrated but also designed a fantasy card game called Jasmine: The Battle for the Mid-Realm. Can you tell us a little about how it came about and if you ever intend to return to it?

Thanks for asking. My card game sprang directly from the interactions of the characters from my The Story of Jasmine™ fantasy-adventure saga that ran in The Dragon Magazine from May 1980 to April 1981. I sorted my story characters into four factions, each possessing different and unique strengths and attributes. Since the card game is character-driven, it’s only natural for players to ad lib assuming the personae and traits of their particular faction during game play.

Just in time for Gen Con XV, I created the first role-playing card game. The publication of Jasmine: The Battle for The Mid-Realm™ collector card game in August of 1982 officially marks the first appearance of 1) a role-playing game using playing cards and 2) game-related cards being heavily illustrated. I was honored at Gen Con’s Ninth Annual Strategist’s Club Awards for creating the “Most Outstanding New Game in an Open Category” and still have the plaque.

My card game system defines three types of playing cards–faction cards, event cards, and special cards–each with unique actions which can change depending upon what other cards are in play or which factions are holding them. This is unique, both then and now. In his TD review of my game in August 1983, Merle Rasmussen wrote: “JASMINE incorporates a few old ideas with many new ones to create a fresh approach in card-gaming.” Another positive review of my game appeared in Avalon Hill’s Gameplay Magazine.

Despite the assertion on Wikipedia to the contrary, I did have plans to publish expansion decks with the intent of introducing the other characters within my Story of Jasmine fantasy. The game play of the green faction cards (defining the ways the King of UR and his Army cards can be used by any player) is proof I originated this seed idea. This was ten years before WOTC falsely claimed the patents, alleging that the idea of a role-playing card game belonged solely to them. They employed too many former TSR people who had copies of my game to not to know that I was the first to come up with the concept. They also violated my copyrights by republishing The Story of Jasmine™ fantasy-adventure saga without my permission.

Jasmine: The Battle for The Mid-Realm™ collector card game is also the first game to combine card actions with full color paintings in the context of playing cards. I lavished much attention on the details of the fantasy artwork. Unlike most card decks in use at the time, I illustrated all 112 playing cards. For the forty Faction cards, I created full color miniature paintings and assumed the expense of four-color printing. Additionally, I illustrated the Event and Special Cards, printing them in two colors.

Some years back, the legal department at Disney contacted me. They informed me that if I didn’t fight it, that they were going to use the name Jasmine. At the time, I didn’t have the means to defend my trademark and so was forced to relinquish it.

For those interested in owning a piece of history, Jasmine: The Battle for The Mid-Realm™ collector card —all numbered and signed from the original stock, is still available.

5. You had the chance to work with Gary Gygax again on a couple of his Castles & Crusades products for Troll Lord Games. Did it feel like a "homecoming" for you, artistically?

Sometime in 2003, Gary Gygax initiated contact with me. As our resulting correspondence blossomed into a new friendship, I very much enjoyed getting to know Gary and his wife, Gail better. My husband and I enjoyed some excellent visits with them in Lake Geneva, musing and reminiscing on their wrap-around porch.

During our e-mail discourse, from time to time, Gary would broadly mention his desire for another good fantasy map, writing things like, “Everyone thinks your The World of Greyhawk maps are amongst the best ever done…” But I refused to take the bait. Professionally, for over two decades, I’d been squarely within the bounds of “the real world.” In light-hearted ways, I evaded Gary’s attempts to interest me in doing another set of maps for him. But he had an ally in my husband, also an avid gamer. Within six months, I stepped back into the RPG world.

Yes, artistically it was a great home-coming. During 2004/05, I created a new two-map gaming set for Gary’s Castle Zygag. Also for Troll Lord Games (TLG), I poured my creative juices into the first four issues of their The Crusader Journal, and also wrote some insightful articles. I also created some character sheets, and did other miscellaneous module and book design for them. I enjoyed the work itself, the sense of camaraderie, and close creative association with Gary.

My return to RPG ended up being brief. In an industry run by hobbyists, I found nothing has essentially changed in terms of aesthetics. People who possess an educated eye for balance, proportion, and beauty will be stymied by people who are not sensitive to such things. RPG Hobbyists have different expectations, priorities and ideas about what is important to a project. Been there, done that! Any art professional who is established outside of RPG will find it difficult to cope with the assumptions of people unacquainted with the ethical standards of the graphics industry. Besides, having worked for design agencies where the price for a single logo starts at $1500 and it costs $150 per page for design, it was too tough for me to continue walking backwards.

6. What have you been up to lately? Is there any chance you might again work on some RPG projects?

My life-long search for deeper meaning has brought me full-circle—back to my beginnings. I used my thirty years away from RPG to explore all aspects of the deeply profound relationship between art and spirituality. Somewhere along the way, I became a Sacred Artist. I’m defining Sacred Art as art created through a spiritual connection to one's soul/essence and to the Divine. Right now, I am choosing to embody the archetype of the Muse—one who inspires creativity, vision, imagination and expansive thought processes. On a transpersonal level, the Muse helps people to birth and recreate their own reality so that life becomes an art form. In fact, “Art is Life, Life is Art” is my motto.

To recap, I believe synchronicity brought me back to RPG. I needed to return to this part of my past to recognize, value, and reclaim the fullness of my power. What I thought had been missing from my life turned out not to be missing at all. I needed to understand that I’ve always been a natural spiritual conduit and have been practicing Sacred Art all along. Some of my RPG fans have reported extra-ordinary experiences with regards to some of my old DMG art. If not for their accounts, I would not have gained an appreciation for my art’s great energetic potential.

The mechanism of energy transference into art is simple to understand. One way it can be accomplished is through “focused intent.” The process of fixedly concentrating upon a certain thought while engaged within a creative artistic activity can leave a sympathetic psychic frequency capable of objectively being felt and accessed. That’s my most hidden, but also my most powerful contribution to RPG. Think about the creative dynamic, of how adding an energetic feminine counterpoint would tend to have a catalyzing effect upon a male-dominated industry. My gender role within RPG concerns the science of how complementary flows of energy impart spin. Though never consciously intended, I intuitively functioned as Shakti to TSR’s Shiva.

My role as the feminine presence within D&D has always existed, but just below the surface. Instinctively, someone within TLG grasped the concept in 2006 at their Lake Geneva Gaming Convention, and gave me the title, “Our Lady of Gaming.” That designation crystallized things for me. Why not? I seldom participated in game-play as a competitor. Thus, I wasn’t “in” the game as much as “of” the game. Nevertheless, whenever I entered a game room to observe, my presence was always felt. Long before I realized it, I served as a type of inspirational Muse for RPG. In the chivalric sense, I AM “The Lady,” who makes one’s adventuring worthwhile.

One good way to explain how my art (and I) have functioned on a trans-personal level would be in Jungian terms. Through projection, I have represented (often inadvertently) the feminine component within the male psyche. From the very beginning of RPG, I’ve served as an anima projection for the gamer, a mirror. Since I reflect a man’s relationship to the feminine aspects within himself, men’s reactions towards me are as varied as their internal relationship to their animas. Now at last, I honor my ability to embody “The Feminine” and choose to embrace it as a part of my skill set.

I must be very careful about what I choose to birth into existence. It’s highly unlikely I’ll be doing much of anything more for RPG as a group. Besides, my passionate interest in spiritual art seems to clash with the comfort level of most gamers. But I won’t close any doors. I reserve the right to stir my creative juices by working on an individual basis with people who appreciate the depth of what I have to offer.

Since the beginning of 2009, I’ve been experimenting with creating digital paintings. I recently created a new, digital re-interpretation of my only published Dragon magazine cover (TD#37). Painting with light and vibrant color feels very freeing and fun. It’s like and yet, unlike traditional media. Within every pixel of “Maiden and Unicorne” I consciously placed exuberance and joy. Then something unexpected happened. The moment I achieved the “right” energetic for the image of the Virgin, the healing potential of the unicorne descended into the art! So this is my parting gift! I offer the actual healing power of the unicorn to anyone open to the possibility. But don’t take my word for it. I invite your readers to check it out for themselves.

BTW--the auction of my RPG art has yet to happen. It’s still possible to own a chunk of the past from the woman who once stood at the center of RPG.

I prefer to live in a reality where magic is not only possible but flourishes! I invite fans interested in the next phase of my continuing creative adventures to write me at: ourladyofgaming@gmail.com