6. You produced material for SPI's DragonQuest, one of the lesser known fantasy RPGs of the 80s, such the adventure "The Enchanted Wood," which I understand you consider one of your best designs. What is it about this adventure that you regard so highly after all these years?
It's the last game adventure that I wrote as a freelance adventure designer (the first time around). It's a setting where I was totally in control of the world and its contents and not share-cropping in others' worlds (as with RuneQuest or later D&D and AD&D adventures I created). The entire adventure is "soft-keyed" meaning that in a sense, even the "fixed" locations in the map are more or less random encounters which can also be placed as needed by the GM to develop the players' story. It's chock full of memorable characters and situations (i.e.; Jhingleshod the Iron Axeman, The Knight of Horns, and the wizard Amelior Amanitas). Of course some of this could be nostalgia driven by the fact that very few people have seen this adventure (other than collectors) due to the relative lack of popularity of DragonQuest and the demise of SPI not long after its publication.
7. Speaking from personal experience, I know that your Central Casting books are among the most popular you've ever written. I know gamers who, to this day, religiously use Central Casting when creating new characters. What was the origin of this product and what do you think is the secret of its appeal?
Role play gamers are on the whole, a very creative sub-set of humanity. But everyone's imagination benefits from inspiration or random input. And the Central Casting books, being driven by a series of dice rolls are all about inspiring with randomness. It was about getting players to enrich their role playing experience by creating characters that moved beyond the twin limitations of stereo-typing and min-max power gaming.
Central Casting started while I was in college in the late 70s with some simple social status tables inspired by articles in early (as in single digit issue number early) copies of The Dragon magazine; which over the course of a few months developed into a series of tables that outlined a previous history that included social status, parental employment, and personal quirks (published in an early The Dungeoneer). I tested this on my gaming group, who liked it, but thought too many characters were orphaned when their villages were destroyed. Somehow this project became a part of classwork for my creative writing class and actually was taken into consideration for the humanities honor awards I received at graduation. This work eventually appeared in The Dungeoneer issue #9 as "The Fantasy Role-Playing Previous History System" (Catchy title!).
The project sat dormant for several years. While home sick from work for a few days in the early 80s, I started making notes about how to expand the previous history system, blocking out much of the structure of the final book, but taking it no further.
In the late 80s, while working freelance and looking for large projects, I'm fairly certain it was Rick Loomis who nudged me in the direction of Task Force Games as a publisher. I met with Alan Eldridge at GenCon in the summer of 1987 and they signed me to a deal for the first book. I produced the entire first book on a turn-key basis; doing all the writing, the art, the page setting and the final pre-press set up.
I think Central Casting continues to appeal for several reasons. The books are genre specific, but not game specific. A history made with Heroes of Legend can fit into nearly any fantasy campaign or rule system, from OD&D to 4th Edition D&D, from RuneQuest to Warhammer. The generated history events often have a weird synchronicity to them that makes players want to draw the cause and effect lines between them. They inspire players to get outside the typical characters they often create.
8. Like a number of other tabletop RPG writers, you eventually made the leap to the video game industry, first starting with Coleco. Did you find the transition between the two industries difficult?
When I "leaped" into the video game industry the first time, I wasn't looking for a full time position. Coleco was simply a client at first. I needed a client that paid well (something the RPG industry circa 1980 was definitely not doing) and Coleco needed someone to help them make a fantasy game for a piece of prototype electronic game hardware. Video games actually came a couple years later, after I had been working for the company a while. I think it helped quite a great deal that I was not just a writer, but also worked as an artist. Much of what I did at Coleco was actually balanced between art and writing tasks.
When the video game bubble finally burst at Coleco in 1985, I eventually "leaped" back into RPG design and illustration and worked as a freelancer designing adventures and computer games and doing art for a lot of clients, mostly in the RPG field. I did that freelance (and then eventually as a TSR staff artist) for over 10 years.
When I "leaped" back into video games again full time in 1997 as a level designer at id, it was a mix of my reputation as an adventure designer and my traditional art skills that secured the job. Without either set of skills, I would not have succeeded at that time in the industry's history. Which is probably why for the next few years, traditional adventure designers rarely transitioned into computer games. Until story content heavy MMO games brought about a need for designers who could write (as opposed to construct in 3D), there just wasn't a real need for a lot of full time writers in video games.
9. Were there any particular skills you possessed as an artist and writer that have helped you in the computer games field?
Two things come to mind. The ability to simply communicate ideas being perhaps the key skill for the would-be digital game maker. The best designers are those who can convey ideas with both words and images, regardless of whether they are designing systems, writing content, or building 3D game levels. Throughout my career, I was either the artist who could write (both adventures and technical docs), or the writer/designer who could draw and construct in virtual 3D. This made me versatile and allowed me to choose to work on projects that didn't always require the same skill sets.
Over a career that has spanned three decades and is working on a fourth, the need for some of my specific services or skill focuses has dried up (e.g.; paste-up artists, full time RPG adventure designers, staff and free lance illustrators just to name a few), or in some cases the tasks I was doing became repetitive and boring. In at least one case I made a decision to stop writing RPG adventures because I found that I was starting to imitate my own previous work rather than being original. Being able to move between job descriptions (artist, writer, editor, level designer, content designer, etc.) over my career has allowed me to reinvent myself as needed and stay long term and full time in a field that can burn out or use up creative talent in a matter of a few years.
10. Are there any lessons you've learned from working in the computer game field that you think ought to be applied to tabletop RPG design?
Provide more than one solution to encounters, if only to be willing to accept the other solutions that your players devise.
Take into consideration your players' (not their characters') skills and ability to understand 3D space when creating or choosing adventures. Don't throw new players into complex 3D settings. Mapping and understanding one's position inside 3D space can be challenging even for skilled players. Start "flat" and work them up to spaces with more complicated vertical relationships.
Create spaces that could work in the real world. Walls have thickness. Large open interior spaces have to be supported by columns to be believable. As a fantasy illustrator, I learned to engage the viewer's suspension of disbelief by creating realistic, believable environments which would in turn lend their reality and believability to the fantasy elements found within. Designers need to do the same thing ... engage the players' suspension of disbelief just long enough to convince them that game situations are grounded in things that could happen.
Give your players "save spots" in your gaming sessions, natural breaks in the adventure where they can pull back, regroup, return to base, etc.
Finally, don't overwork the game's backstory. Less can be more, so write as little as you can to convey it. I emphasize this to the content designers on my own project teams. Your players will appreciate that you are creating plot and character links, but could probably care less about detailed ancestries, hidden motivations, or involved descriptions of locations and events that they will never encounter. They just want to hit things and move on. Don't make success in your game depend on reading multiple paragraphs of stilted description or dialogue.
11. Do you still play tabletop roleplaying games? If so, which ones?
The short answer some where between "not really" and "no."
I pretty much moved on from the playing side of role play games in the late 80s. I've never been big on doing for fun what I do for my day job. My last active role play gaming group involvement was in the mid-80s while working at Coleco. Our group was mostly designers from Coleco and in some cases, their wives. Notable were Lawrence Schick (author of White Plume Mountain and our main AD&D DM), Kevin Hendryx (also formerly of TSR), and B. Dennis Sustare (who created the druid class for D&D and co-authored the Bunnies & Burrows RPG). After Coleco shut down, the game group eventually dispersed and between being a young parent and a full time freelancer, I was never able to find time for another regular game group.
After moving to Dallas in 1997, I occasionally played in some of Sandy Petersen's games, but even that sort of trickled to not playing fairly quickly.
In past year or so, I've only played at the North Texas Roleplay Game convention in a few retro gaming events. Last year was the first time I'd actually played AD&D in possibly 22 years.