Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Interview with Lee Gold

As someone who entered the hobby as part of its second generation, I find myself deeply fascinated by that first generation of gamers, my elders in the hobby. I knew and interacted with some of these people as a kid, meeting them in hobby stores or through one of my friends' fathers, who were wargamers. It was from them that I first learned of the legendary APA, Alarums and Excursions, in whose pages appeared many of the writers and ideas that would eventually infuence the hobby profoundly.

A&E is one of the few unbroken connections between the present day and the dawn of the hobby, in part due to its indefatigable publisher, Lee Gold, whose labors have ensured its regular monthly release, with only two exceptions in the entirety of its 34-year existence. Lee graciously consented to answer a few questions about her involvement in the hobby and in A&E, which I reproduce here with my thanks.

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

Our friends, Owen & Hilda Hannifen, came down from San Francisco to visit us, with a copy of the Original D&D rules. My husband and I were fascinated, and they lent us a photocopy of the rules, on seeing us write a check to TSR to order our own copy, so we wouldn't have to wait till the rules arrived (in a brown box) from TSR.

2. Alarums and Excursions began in 1975 and now has published over 400 issues. Can you provide some background on A&E's origins?

Alarums and Excursions #403 was the April, 2009 issue. #404 will be the May, 2009 issue. Deadline is typically the 21st of the month, at 5 PM Los Angeles time (so in the summer it's Daylight Savings Time). See here for further details.

Back in 1974 or 1975, a number of us were discussing D&D and other RPGs in APA-L, the weekly APA collated each Thursday night at the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, a science fiction fan club. Bruce Pelz, a LASFSian and APA-Ler, who wasn't a roleplayer, was bored by all this and asked us to start our own APA.

It seemed like a good idea so I did, offering to print contributors' zines for them.

We started with gamers I knew: some in Los Angeles, some like the Hannifens in the San Francisco area, some like former-LA dweller Mark Swanson in the Boston area. And we spread by word of mouth.

In August of 1975, my husband and I went off to Japan for four months when his employer transferred him there, and we returned in mid-December to find that Jack Harness (who I'd asked to edit A&E while I was gone) had only brought out three issues in those four months. On the other hand, he'd gotten more subscribers, a good thing.

I set a firm deadline for January 1976, and got A&E reliably running again. Since then the only time we've missed a month was in 2006 when I knew I had major surgery scheduled, and announced well in advance that we'd be skipping the July 21st deadline.

3. Are there any articles from A&E that have stuck with you after all these years as being ground-breaking or significant? That is, are there any articles you consider classics?

A&E is a collection of zines (each zine being a short amateur magazine, aka "fanzines" or "zine"), not "articles." A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable. I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoires, Steve Perrin's "Perrin Conventions" (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist's and Wilf Backhaus's discussion of C&S, John T. Sapienza, Jr.'s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson's "character traits," a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember Wes Ives' essay on how to integrate player characters into a major wargamed battle (which later got republished in the C&S Sourcebooks). I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&Ezines. I remember writing "You Bash the Balrog" (to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda." There have been a lot of wonderful contributions in A&E over the years.

4. In the early days of the hobby, APAs like A&E played a role very similar to that played by the Internet today. Has the rise of online sites, forums, and blogs had any effect, positive or negative, on A&E in recent years?

Probably these sites (and also mailing lists and newsgroups) have affected A&E, but I'm not sure what all the effects are. Probably some effects are positive and some are negative.

I think because A&E only comes out once a month, people take a bit more care writing their zines than they do for an online site, which will let them easily write in to correct or amplify their original statements only a few hours or a day or a week later, instead of having to wait another month.

I think the greatest negative effects on A&E in modern times are the soaring cost of paper and of postage. I introduced the emailed electronic subscription some years back, when the postal service discontinued the Printed Matter rate to the non-US, and have since made it also available to those living in the US. About a third of the subscribers now take A&E electronically, rather than on printed paper. The emailed issue is only $2 total -- or free to anyone who contributed to that issue or the previous issue, but contributors pay $1.75/page contributed.

5. It's sometimes been said that the roleplaying scene on the West Coast was much different than that in the Midwest, where the hobby began. Do you think this is true and, if so, what would you say were the key differences between the scenes?

I've played in LA, San Francisco and Boston, but never in the Midwest, so I can't compare Midwest Style to the styles I know. I do know that A&Eers weren't content with the D&D rules as written. Most of them dropped Vancian magic (use a spell once and lose it) for a spell point system which would let you throw the same spell again and again.

Players typically had one or two PCs each, but never drone followers, so though there might be a formal "party leader" (sometimes a lieutenant in charge of strategy, plus a sergeant in charge of tactics), there wasn't one "party caller" as shown in Original D&D's sample adventure.

We delighted in the flexibility of Original D&D: making up not just our own worlds but our own creatures and character classes, our own weapons and armor and spells. Bards showed up in an early issue of A&E, for instance. So did hoop snakes and larls and many other creatures from myth, legend, science fiction and fantasy.

A&E still is a community with a lot of new ideas -- and discussion of previous months' new ideas. There are currently contributors from across the US, plus England and Ireland. In the past, we've also had contributors from Canada (one of whom still contributes but moved to Maryland), Australia, Scandinavia, Italy and France.

6. Do you still roleplay? If so, what games do you currently enjoy?

I run a roleplaying game once a month, juggling a number of different campaigns. My gaming style is fairly freeform, but sometimes I resort to using my Lands of Adventure rules. I write up the month's adventures in A&E. My husband Barry is one of the players. The players include old friends, plus one old friend's teenaged daughter is also a member of the player group.


  1. I thought about joining A & E in the late 70s, but let it go. There was already a waiting list of people trying to get in, and you had to produce something like 100 copies of your own zine and mail it to Lee for collation. At the time the expense and the effort was more than I could myself doing, and so, a golden opportunity to champion Tunnels and Trolls was lost at the beginning because it would have been too much work. Sigh. Young and lazy turns into young and stupid so easily.

  2. A&E was always one of those things I wish I got in on back in the day. Thanks for the nice interview.

  3. A&E, I dare say, is what taught me to be a better writer. I loved writing my 'zine each month for it, and it allowed me to explore ideas and thoughts, I had no outlet for. One of the things I wish I could do is start up the 'zine again, but I have no time. :(

    I am damn happy you interviewed her James. Lee is one of the best people I know.

  4. Just reading through some early Dragons, and was surprised by the vitriol Gygax spewed on APAs. Any discussion as to what A&E's relationship was like with the early TSR?

  5. Any discussion as to what A&E's relationship was like with the early TSR?Like a lot of things, TSR's relationship to the APAs was complex and changed a lot over time. I know I've posted an early quote from Gary in A&E in which he praises fanzines, vows that D&D will always be open to variants, and that TSR will never lay down the law on official interpretations of rules so long as he's in charge.

    Obviously, events took a different turn.

  6. The playstyle Lee discusses as being more common on the west coast is similar to that which I grew up on. I wonder if that has anything to do with New Mexico and California having had similar histories.

  7. Suddenly I get a strong urge to see some A&E issues. I wonder what is easier, go to Toronto and hope that the Merril collection has some issues, or to contribute or buy from Lee? Hmmm.

  8. Really, Ken? Now I got another thing to do when I finally build a time machine. Go back and urge you to do those 100 issues and submit to A&E. :)

  9. Great to see an interview with Lee.

    Man, I can remember back in the early 90's when Spike Y Jones and I would have "content duels"...with each of us cranking out 12-16 page zines.

    And then there were the zines by folks like Ken Rolston, Robin Laws, Jonathan Tweet, John Nephew and others who went on to write pro. Great stuff there.

    I still get A&E every month and have several hundred cherished issues in my game room.

  10. This was such a treat to read, James. Thanks.

    LoA is very cool.
    I love the beautiful Bill Willingham box-cover.

  11. I contributed in my early teens for several months. I called my column "From the Gibbons Mouth." I don't remember why...

    I remember corresponding by mail with Lee to get in on it, and she always had a nice reply in a short time. Always encouraging. And as A kid I felt like a "big shot" game dude having something being read by others. Especially because I played at Aero Hobbies with Paul Crabough and others who made it into Dragon magazine.

    Damn sure an experience that helped me stay in gaming as I got older and "cooler" (playing football and surfing and girls were great, but could not keep me away from gaming).

    A&E was one of my more positive gaming experiences as a kid. Thanks Lee.

  12. Interesting that Lee still uses her Lands of Adventure ruleset. I picked up a copy and have been wondering how it plays. It seems to have zero fan base for whatever reason.

  13. I used to own Lands of Adventure, it was pretty cool. I'd heard of the APA scene, and Lee Gold's, but never actually saw any of them.
    Brunomac, funny that you mentioned Aero Hobbies, it's just down the street from me.

  14. I published a little in A&E back in the day it was a blast very supportive and intellectual game design theory environment lots of back and forth between the writers very blog-like very before the web existed. The sense of nostalgic wonder I am experiencing is shivers on my spine.
    It still exists!! huzzah.

    - Lance Dyas