Monday, June 15, 2009

Interview: Paul Reiche III

In the late 70s and early 80s, the success of D&D enabled TSR to expand rapidly, in the process acquiring a large number of new employees, many of whom left their marks on the company. One such person was Paul Reiche III, who worked as a developer, designer, and editor at the company on several products published in 1980 and 1981.

He left TSR for a successful career in the then-new computer games industry, eventually founding his own company, Toys for Bob, in 1989, where he works with his highschool classmate Erol Otus. Mr Reiche was kind enough to answer several questions I put to him, promising that "less than half of them are pure lies."

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

In 1976 I was in the 10th grade at Berkeley High School. During the first couple of weeks of school in AP Chemistry, I noticed this tall skinny dude who studied these strange pamphlets every day before class. Looking at the crudely illustrated covers, I though he was either a Hare Krishna (it was Berkeley, after all) or was up to some form of "no good," which has always had a great appeal for me. When I asked him, "What are those?" he invited me over to his place to play "in his dungeon" and it was there I met Erol Otus, famed D&D artist (he was great, even at 16) and Mat Genser. That game was very ruthless and Erol proceeded to kill all my characters, once with some kind of skeleton pistol that shot phalanges bones. Of course, I was hooked and we played almost every day until graduation.

2. One of the earliest RPG products to which I recall seeing your name attached was Booty and the Beasts, to which Erol Otus contributed both text and illustrations. Can you tell us a little about the origins of this product?

Our D&D group was heavy into creating new monsters, new magic spells and new character classes. Several of our players were also excellent artists, some were pretty good writers and we all wanted to earn our own money! Erol had illustrated David Hargrave's ground-breaking Arduin Grimoire and Erol, Mat and I were certain that we could publish our D&D ideas in some form. A friend of ours, Cliff Perotti, had been collecting all the magic spells he could find into an informal "Spellcaster's Bible." Erol, Mat and I decided that we would create our own spell book, stripping out any system-specific rules so that it could be used in Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, The Fantasy Trip or any other RPG. The book was called The Necromican (whose name was indeed a simplified riff off of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred's evil book of magical secrets) and had some pretty dang cool stuff in there (there are still some copies on Ebay, I think.) Erol, Mat and I wrote the text, Erol penned all the illustrations and my mom Georgiann (the world's first Star Control II fan), typed the whole thing on her Selectric II. We had 500 copies made at the local Kinko's and sold out most of the run at the local D&D convention, Dundracon. We then negotiated (and I use the term loosely) a "jobbing deal" with Lou Zocchi (about whom an entire book could/should be written) and sold several thousand copies around the world.

Based on the success of The Necromican, we started on a similar work of monsters and treasure called Booty and the Beasts. This time we actually used a word processor at my mom's law office in downtown San Francisco! Booty and the Beasts was our last big project, because Erol moved off to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to work for TSR Hobbies, though we did put out two little products, a nicely illustrated magical artifact generation system and a set of geomorphic mini-dungeon modules.

3. How did you come to be hired by TSR? Did your independent design work catch the eye of someone in Lake Geneva?

Erol had been hired as an artist a year earlier and I when I went out to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for a visit, I looked at the work being done by TSR's designers and thought "I can do that!" I wrote a quick module, The Temple of Poseidon, and sent it back to TSR along with my CV and copies of Booty and the Beasts and The Necromican. I was initially hired as a "game developer," editing and fleshing out the work of other designers. About 4 months later, I became a game designer and was assigned defining rules for high-level D&D games whose characters were 15-30th level. My work was never published intact (in truth, it was a little crazy), but bits and pieces did come out in the Master and Companion rules sets.

4. Perhaps your most lasting contribution to D&D was the thri-kreen race, which first appeared in the AD&D Monster Cards. Is there any truth to the long-held suspicion that they were inspired by the phraints from Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoires?

At the time, I thought TSR needed a good insectoid enemy which was intelligent and weapon-using. I was aware of phraints and I certainly can't say I came up with the idea of bug-men entirely on my own -- I was mostly driven by images of mantis creatures and the warlike cultures of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" series. The spinning crystal disc weapon hearkened to Star Trek's kligat thrown blade ("as dangerous as a hand phaser at close range"). So I guess instead of being a simple "phraint thief," I am a super "steals-good-ideas-from-all-over-the-place" kind of thief.

5. A lot of your TSR work was for the
Gamma World game. How did you become involved with it? Was the game a particular favorite of yours?

I love Gamma World because it didn't take itself too seriously, which has always been important to me. In fact, in many ways Gamma World was more like our D&D campaigns that the official rules, because we were always mixing robots, laser guns, and mutants into the traditional fantasy ingredients. Also, as the most junior designer at TSR, I jumped at the opportunity to edit and "fill out" a Gamma World module written by Gary Gygax and his son Luke. As a reader and day dreamer, I probably spend equal time in science-fiction, fantasy and post-holocaust, so Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World were right up my alley. Blackmoor too, I guess.

6. The willingness to mix fantasy and science fiction ideas seems to have been much greater in the early days of the hobby. Is that willingness something you've brought to your own work, both in tabletop RPGs and in computer games?

I love imagining fantastic adventures in all kinds of settings and time periods, but my brain is not divided into neat genres. Perhaps I integrated Arthur C. Clarke's comparison between magic and science at such a deep level that I have a hard time with such categorizations. Think about the magic in Jack Vance's D&D-inspiring The Dying Earth stories: were they powered by supernatural forces, ancient super-science, or aliens from other dimensions? And aren't his stories more interesting because he never entirely answers that question?

Many of the books I have enjoyed in the 60's and 70's would be called "cross-overs" today, including stories like Zelazney's Nine Princes in Amber, Saberhagen's Empire of the East trilogy, and even Heinlein's Glory Road. While genres are convenient for business purposes, I think they sever the corpus calosum of imaginative literature. I think I have always struggled to bridge these artificially created divisions, both in theme and in structure, as with the strategy/action hybrid video games, Archon and Star Control.

7. I very fondly remember the game Archon from the mid-80s. I'm a bit embarrassed to mention that, until recently, I had no idea that you'd worked on it. What inspired that game and do you have any particular memories of its development?

Wow, that is opening up a whole other can of memory worms! For today, let's just say that Archon was a perfect transition from the world of Dungeons & Dragons into the then-emerging field of computer games and that I was extremely fortunate to work on it with Jon Freeman, Anne Westfall, and Robert Leyland -- three of the best and most experienced computer game developers of that time.

8. You're probably one of the first pen and paper RPG designers I recall having "jumped ship" to the computer games industry. What sparked that decision and how would you characterize the differences between the two industries?

I met Jon Freeman in 1980 at D&D convention where he was showing off one of the very first fantasy computer games, The Datestones of Ryn. Having learned to program in BASIC at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, I could see how it was put together and I was pretty sure I could make it better. Jon's initial interest in me was learning how to publish his own FRP system in the paper world, but eventually we settled on working together on a computer game. I must admit, when TSR shortly thereafter offered me a job, I bailed on Jon and flew off to Wisconsin.

He continued on to create other seminal fantasy and science-fiction games at his company, Automated Simulations. TSR was an amazing, wonderful and fun-filled experience for me, but I was 18 and fairly new to the whole being an adult thing, so when I bought some company stock (5 $100 shares), I thought it gave me a right to speak up when I saw something funky happening at the company. I protested about the crazy expense of buying a Porsche as a company car for one of the executives and got myself unemployed pretty dang fast, along with Evan Robinson and Kevin Hendryx.

By that time, less than a year after buying the stock, it had risen to over $1000 per share, so Evan and I cashed in and headed back to California via Canada and a minor disagreement with their government about the definition of "assault weapon." Long story. When I got back to California I studied field geology at UC Berkeley and rekindled my friendship with Jon Freeman and his new partner, Anne Westfall. Together with Robert Leyland, we formed Free Fall Associates and created two of Electronic Arts' first seven games, Archon and Murder on the Zinderneuf.

The difference between the two industries back then? Well, there was about 10 times as much money in computer games and 1/10th the number of people, plus my hybrid of skills was pretty rare so it was a natural fit for me. In terms of people, there were lots of engineers and other super-smartypants (who make the best friends, because they are witty and interesting and make me look handsome and manly by comparison.)

9. Do you still play tabletop RPGs nowadays and, if so, which ones do you play?

Yes, recently Erol, Fred Ford, and a few of our friends have been trying out 4.0 in a fun island adventure of Erol's creation. Jeez! -- first level characters are like gods compared to the last time I played, which was 1st Edition. A magic missle every round -- forever? Give me a month and my Mujongie War Wizard will turn a castle to dust!


  1. " A magic missle every round -- forever? "

    Bah! Kids these days! Why, back in my time, you got Read Magic at 1st level and you were darned grateful!


  2. Great interview. These should be indexed and saved, maybe even printed. Important stuff.


  3. "Canada and a minor disagreement with their government about the definition of "assault weapon."

    Great stuff!

  4. archon was a very good game - thanks!

  5. Great interview! The talk about Archon blew a blood vessel in my brain - I haven't thought about that game in eons, but damn I loved it back in the day...

  6. He made Archon? MAN! That's one of my all time favorite games! I wish WoTC hadn't pulled PDFs off I would have gone after Necronomican. I'm sure it's a zillion bucks now on ebay....

  7. Compelling and informative. I was intrigued to see he (and Erol) were trying out Fourth and seemed reasonably enthusiastic about it. I am particularly interested to see what effects this semi-endorsement might bring to the community.

    Naturally, of course, I can't imagine a surge of positivity toward 4e, but what effects there may be will be something to look at.

  8. Good old PRIII! Even after 25+ years, he still spells my name right! Of course, he probably had help from Wikipedia or some high-level Gamma World artifact.

  9. Archon was a great game, that Shapeshifter was sure a nifty unit ;-)

  10. Great interview, James! Keep 'em coming!

  11. now I’m imagining an alternate history “Moldvay era” Companion Set with Paul’s name on the cover page. (^_^)