Sunday, August 23, 2009

Interview: Steve Marsh

Steve Marsh is a name long associated with Dungeons & Dragons, having worked on two supplements to OD&D and the Expert Rulebook published in 1981. He's also a friend of Sandy Petersen, creator of Call of Cthulhu, with whom he shares a longtime fascination with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I had the opportunity to ask Mr Marsh a few brief questions about his involvement in both the hobby and the industry and he was kind enough to reply with the answers below.

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

I had tried to come up with my own system, working from boardgames and The Golden Bough and did not get very far. One day I sat down next to Sandy Petersen in a class at BYU, saw his D&D rule books, and started asking questions.

2. It's interesting that you tried to construct your own roleplaying game before you'd actually seen the D&D rulebooks. Do you recall why you tried to do this? Had you heard of D&D beforehand?

It was 1969 or so, I was just starting High School, had never played miniatures, but I had encountered some Avalon Hill/SPI boardgames (and subscribed to Strategy & Tactics for years). D&D wouldn't come out until 1974, and I wanted to play a game. I had a mythos. I wanted a game, but did not get very far (I was trying to make unit counters work in the place of miniatures, which I had never seen).

3. You were given special thanks in Supplements II and III to OD&D. What were your contributions to those two books?

I did the underwater encounters, monsters and some other material in Blackmoor and a character class I designed was taken apart and turned into the psionic powers in Eldritch Wizardry.

4. So the introduction of psionics into D&D is your fault then?

Kind of, I wanted a character class, but the editor decided that the abilities belonged available to everyone, except for elves (I was 5'2" at the time and built like a wrestler, because I was a wrestler, and had more sympathy with dwarves than elves, in case you are curious).

5. How did you come to be hired at TSR and what were your responsibilities at the company?

Gary wanted me to visit, so I worked a summer. I did Judges Guild product reviews, wrote the Expert Rulebook and did the minigame Saga.

6. So how did you meet Gary Gygax in the first place?

Correspondence. Then face to face years later when I spent a summer working at TSR. We got together at Dragoncon in Fort Worth and introduced each other to our wives even later.

7. Speaking of the Expert Rulebook, what was your role in bringing that particular product to publication?

They had already decided to do it and Tom Moldvay had finished the book that went before it. I was supposed to pull things together and get it written.

8. Were you more of a developer/editor than a designer then or did you and David Cook work together closely in the writing of the rulebook?

We were in the same room at TSR, but it wasn't seen as that difficult, though everyone felt free to kibitz and make comments, even the artist (no one liked the idea of hairy rhinos being intelligent) ...

9. You contributed to Monsters of Myth, showing us a little of your campaign world's unique characteristics, including its take on Chaos, which had a distinctly Lovecraftian quality to it. Would you consider yourself a big fan of Lovecraft and, if so, how have his writings influenced your gaming?

I like Cthulhloid menaces, though I'm not always a believer in their not being able to be beaten. My home brew game was the originator for Call of Cthulhu according to Sandy [Petersen --JDM], but it provided as much to that game as a pair of dice would have, Sandy did everything of significance from his own work.

10. Speaking of Lovecraft, is there any chance you're related to Captain Obed Marsh of Innsmouth, Massachusetts?

All the Marsh families in the United States before WWII are related to each other as descendants of John Marsh of the William and Mary Company (he was a bondservant with that group).

11. Do you still roleplay and, if so, what games do you play nowadays?

I play over at Sandy Petersen's from time to time, not as often as I would like.


  1. For some reason, as a geekling growing up in the early '80s, I was always comforted by the existence of someone who shared my name and wrote/edited books I enjoyed.

    I can't say that the existence of Steve-Marsh-created books influenced my decision to become a gaming writer/editor, but it's certainly something that's been in the back of my mind since I have been. (Shortly after I became editor of Pyramid, I received a few e-mails asking if I was "the" Steve Marsh. I always responded in the negative: "No, I'm merely 'a' Steve(n) Marsh.")

    One of the highlights of my first year of pro-editing was an e-mail from "the" Steve Marsh. I believe he found the coincidence amusing as well.

    So, if you're reading this, Mr. Marsh, thanks for helping to lay the foundation of my gaming life. And here's hoping I've brought honor to the S. Marsh brotherhood! :-)

  2. @Steven Marsh: How fractal. :)

    @'the' Steve Marsh: Where do we learn more of your Lovecraftian campaign? :)

    @James: Thanks. :D

  3. BYU, eh? I'd be interested to hear more about how attendance at BYU and an interest in Cthulhu and D&D intersect. On the surface they would seem antithetical.

    I've always had a problem reconciling psionics and magic, I always felt it was either one or the other. I always had psionics in our Traveller games, but magic only in D&D.

    Plus, D&D psionics mechanics are alien to the rest of the D&D mechanics, a little like drinking vinegar.

    Word Verification - Shwal: a blanket worn by stone giants when they feel a draft.

  4. Paladin,

    I once read an interview with Sandy Petersen where the question of his hobby interests and his faith came up and his response was something along the lines of "Well, none of this is real and, besides, the demons are the bad guys we're supposed to defeat."

    Psionics makes sense within the larger context of pulp fantasy out of which D&D grew. I generally don't mix and match them myself, but I don't see including them in a fantasy game as any more problematic than including robots or lasers, which, granted, some people don't like either.

    The system as presented in Eldritch Wizardry is a mess, though, I readily concede. My suspicion is that somewhere between the original class Mr Marsh designed and its dismantling for Supplement III, it became far more complex than it needed to be.

  5. I had the opportunity to speak with Steve over the phone (on a completely not gaming related topic) about four years ago. A real nice guy.

  6. JM: When you say the psionics system in EW is a mess, I think you are being kind. It was all mixed together in a jumble with the Druid class, and yet the Druid could not have Psionic powers for some inexplicable reason.

    That and the separate d100 dice roll for psionic power, when every other stat was 3d6 (and where did you record it, once you rolled the ability?), likely put me off psionics, as it broke the bell curve ability mechanic.

    I do agree that it is a feature of pulp fantasy, and makes sense to include it in D&D guidelines. If it had been created as a separate class, perhaps using Constitution or Charisma as the primary stat, I might have had a different reaction.

    Hey, there was so much good stuff in EW, I ignored the psionics stuff and dove right into the artifacts and demons (two type 5 and a succubus illustration, I was in pre-teen heaven).

  7. If it had been created as a separate class, perhaps using Constitution or Charisma as the primary stat, I might have had a different reaction.

    By most accounts, that's exactly what Mr Marsh originally submitted for consideration, but the folks at TSR felt differently at the time and the result was the mess we wound up with in Supplement III instead. It's a pity that the original class no longer exists; it'd be fascinating to see what it was like.

  8. Thank you both for the interview.

  9. Darn, I missed this going live, or I would have responded to the questions.

    My gaming material on-line is linked to from:

    My blog is at

    And I'm on Dragonsfoot at etc.

  10. I always like the Steve Marsh at Pyramid Games and his work, btw.

    If you take out the attack and defense modes (which were originally going to be a character class called Divines that Gary was working on) and have just the powers, you have a cross between Indian holy men of legend (the powers were drawn from those, which is where the division between major and minor ones comes from) and a martial artist not quite as powerful as a Monk.

    All the level names were drawn from India. It was a lot of fun to put together. Slightly underpowered, but very fun.

    Sandy and I agree on how the games and religion, etc. come together.

    What can I say, law school and cthulhu? what is the difference?