Friday, September 11, 2020

Interview: Steve Jackson


2019 saw the re-release of the classic fantasy roleplaying game The Fantasy Trip after thirty-six years. Its designer, Steve Jackson, was kind enough to answer a series of questions I put to him about his designs, his involvement in the hobby, and the future of The Fantasy Trip, now that it is in print once again.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

I first played when I was in college – a game of D&D. One game. But a couple years later I got involved in a Traveller campaign.

2. When did you decide to pursue a career in game design?

I’m not sure exactly – it came on me gradually – but it would have been after Ogre, in 1978 or so.

3. Do you mean that, when you first started working at Metagaming, you hadn't yet decided to take up game design as a career?

I was not an employee – I was working as a freelancer – but no, I didn’t think of it as a career at first. It was just an interesting thing to do, since I was a gamer.

4. You developed Monsters! Monsters! while at Metagaming, which was designed by Ken St. Andre, What do you remember about this project? Were you already familiar with Tunnels & Trolls at the time?

I had seen T&T but had not played it, if I recall correctly. I remember that the development work was fun; I remember thinking that if creatures had a Move stat there should be a movement system. I liked the concept of the monsters coming out of the dungeon to get even.

5. One of your most well known early designs is Ogre, a game that was a favorite of mine as a younger person. I recall that Keith Laumer's Bolo stories were its literary inspiration. Is that correct?

That was my very first design, and yes, the Bolo stories, and Colin Kapp’s “Gottlos," are in the acknowledgements for the game. My Ogres probably look more like Bolos, but they act more like Gottlos. I could say more but I don’t want to spoil Gottlos, which, if your readers can find it, they would enjoy.

6. Melee began at least partly as a response to your dissatisfaction with the combat system in Dungeons & Dragons. What deficiencies in particular did you wish to correct and were you satisfied with the results?

D&D combat just wasn’t tactical at all. Anybody could attack anybody; nobody could hide behind anybody or anything; thieves could backstab without regard to where backs might be, and so on. I was fairly satisfied. I continue to tweak it, though more for quick play than any sort of “accuracy.” It’s not supposed to be a detailed simulation; it’s for people who need some positional cues to enjoy the fantasy.

6. Did Wizard have a similar origin story?

Wizard grew out of Melee. The combat system wanted a magic system, and it got one.

7. With the publication of In the Labyrinth in 1980, you had written everything that was needed for a complete fantasy roleplaying game, which became known as The Fantasy Trip. I've always wondered about the origin of the name. How did it come about?

The Fantasy Trip name was Howard Thompson’s idea.

8. Among the things for which The Fantasy Trip is known are its programmed adventures. Where did the idea for this come from?

I think Tunnels & Trolls was the first game to do programmed adventures. And they’re still doing them!

9. The setting of The Fantasy Trip is Cidri, an immense world created by a superhuman race called the Mnoren and filled with gates leading to other times and places. Was there a literary antecedent for this kind of setting? What did you hope to achieve by presenting this rather than a more conventional fantasy setting?

The big reason for doing Cidri that way was to allow for everyone’s worlds to be included.  There’s room for everything. The scope is reminiscent of Niven’s Ringworld, but this is not a ringworld. I don’t say what it is.

10. When you re-acquired the rights to The Fantasy Trip and prepared to make it available again for the first time in decades, were there aspects of the game you knew you wanted to change? What were they?

I knew in particular that I wanted to modify the system for experience gained through character points, because, with several campaigns having run continually for over 30 years, it was clear that after enough advancement all characters became very similar and almost unstoppable. Whether the new system puts the numbers in the right place is a thing we will have to wait and see, but it’s now possible to gain a lot of spells and skills without having an Einstein, never-miss-a-roll level of IQ, and that’s important.

11. Were you surprised by the immensely positive response to the re-release of the game?

A little surprised and very gratified, yes! I knew that there were people out there waiting for it. I didn’t realize how many. And there has also been uptake of new players.

12. What were your thoughts on seeing one of your earliest RPG designs becoming available to the public once more?

Most of them were thoughts like “Woo hoo!”

13. The new edition of the Fantasy Trip has been available for a little over a year now and there have been multiple expansions released for it, including adventures and the Hexagram zine. What's next for the game? Do you have any plans to write something yourself?

We have several things coming out in the last part of 2020, and a lot scheduled for 2021 – you picked a good time to ask, because recently Phil and I reviewed the schedule.

2020 - Hexagram 5 will ship and Hexagram 6 will go to press for early 2021 release. We are doing a large (36” square) playmat for each issue. You don’t have to buy them, of course, but they will be available. And pretty!

The colored megahex tiles will ship - they may be in Warehouse 23 as you read this. There are three colors - rock, earth, and grass - and there are a lot of tiles in each set.

Ardonirane, a city book by David Pulver, will ship.

Old School Monsters, a bestiary of traditional fantasy-game creatures, will go to press. This will include both cards and counters for the monsters.

The Fantasy Trip Adventures 2, a collection of five 12-page adventures, will go to press. This will include counters for the monsters.

And there are some cool little things like the “Compass Rose” and a puzzle of the Soothsayer Octopus cover from Decks of Destiny.

2021 - We will ship Hexagram 6, certainly 7, probably 8, probably not 9. Schedule on the zine is deliberately loose; it depends both on when we need a release and on how much  material we get. We may or may not do playmats; it depends entirely on what winds up in the zine.

Old School Monsters and The Fantasy Trip Adventures 2 will ship.

We will complete and ship the big “Bestiary” book late in the year. It will include counters and monster cards.

We will ship at least one long solo adventure, and maybe two or even three if they all move smoothly through testing.

We will ship The T’Reo School, which is like a citybook, but describes a college of martial wizardry.

We will ship a whole batch of super-short adventures – the working title is MicroQuests.

We may release miniatures; we may release miniature terrain. That is a big decision. A survey about that is coming very soon as I type this.

You asked about my own writing. At the moment I am acting as TFT line editor, so everything passes through my hands. This does not leave me time to write anything long, but I create short material as the spirit moves me – I have three articles in Hexagram 5. That’s actually more articles than I like to publish by any one person in a single issue, but they were ready and they fit and they were all very different. (Having said that, there is one tentative 2021 or 2022 project with my name on it, but though it’s big, it’s made up of lots of small parts, and I might be able to handle that. We’ll just have to see.)

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