Saturday, August 8, 2009

Interview: Steve Winter

Steve Winter worked at TSR for nearly twenty years as an editor, developer, and creative director. Along with David Cook, he was very heavily involved in the production of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and remained with TSR throughout that edition's reign, shepherding many of its products to release. Mr Winter was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his time at TSR, particularly about the process of creating both Second Edition and other D&D products from that era.

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

Like pretty much everyone else at that time, I just stumbled into it.

I was always interested in games and puzzles, especially mazes. I started playing Avalon Hill wargames in high school. The big strategic games were fun as puzzles, but it was Tobruk that really hooked me. It's an ultra-tactical tank combat game. You roll dice to track every shot fired. I hadn't heard of roleplaying yet, but Tobruk was almost like roleplaying a tank commander.

When I headed for Iowa State University as a journalism major, I landed a gig as an editor on the college newspaper. One of my first jobs was proofreading classified ads. That's where I read about the Iowa State Gamers club. It sounded like a good place to find wargamers, so I went to a meeting. A few people were playing Avalon Hill and SPI games, but most were gathered around a grad student who was maniacally sketching rooms and corridors and monsters on a blackboard. That was my introduction to D&D.

The DM at the blackboard was Corbin. Take away his glasses and shoes and he looked exactly like the centaur from the cover of the original Monster Manual. Corbin would stand in front of a blackboard like a professor and run enormous dungeon crawls with 15 or 20 players at a time. A few of the players had high-level characters (as in, level 5 or so). The rest of us played 1st- and 2nd-level henchmen -- NPCs, essentially -- and we died like flies. We didn't even name our characters until they reached 2nd level. It was nothing to burn through two or three characters in an afternoon. Your goal was to live long enough to become a real member of the adventuring party and not just another nameless corpse on the heap. The only characters who got respect from the higher-level PCs were clerics. As long as you had a healing spell, you were useful. Otherwise, there was no pity in Corbin's dungeons. Low-level characters were there to open doors, peek around corners, and walk down corridors ahead of the heroes, poking everything within reach with a 10-foot pole.

2. You were a newspaper reporter before you became involved in the RPG industry. Do you think your background in journalism adequately prepared you for the crazy world of game design?

Yes and no. Yes because the industry badly needed a dose of professionalism in those days. I think that I was the first person hired at TSR who had actual job experience in writing and editing. Several people had English degrees, including a few who'd been teachers, and I'd never minimize what a tough job that is. But as a reporter, you write every day, and the deadline is king.

On top of that, journalists are trained to write for clarity and directness. Flowery phrases and clever wordplay are things to avoid. The same is true in games; the language needs to be direct and clear.

On the other hand, I don't know what would adequately prepare someone for working at a place like TSR in those early years. Those of us in R&D complained a lot about people in other parts of the company who had no qualifications for the jobs they were doing, but really, none of us did. We were inventing the RPG hobby and industry on the fly; how do you prepare for that? In R&D, our chief qualifications were that we knew and loved AD&D, we had some gift for words or art, and we were bursting with imagination. Beyond that, the biggest measure of whether you had "what it takes" was whether you could keep up.

3. How did you become employed by TSR?

I was working as a city-desk reporter for the Journal Star newspaper in Peoria, Illinois, playing D&D and The Fantasy Trip as much as possible, and doing some writing for The Space Gamer magazine. One day I spotted an ad in The Dragon (#47, the issue with Zeb's "Crimefighters" in it) -- TSR was looking for editors. It seemed like a golden opportunity, so I sent a resume. The interview process was an adventure in itself, involving two separate car breakdowns, but at the end of it, I got the job. Doug Blume, who was head of personnel at the time, told me that they had hundreds of applicants, but I was the only one with professional editing and publishing experience. So it was pretty mundane, really. I saw an ad, I applied, I got the job.

4. One of your earliest credits is as an editor on module I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, by David Cook, which is one of my favorite modules of all time. Can you tell us a little about the editing process at TSR back in those days? Where did editing fit into the production process?

The process was less compartmentalized then than it would become. People were labeled as designers and editors, but the job descriptions for those titles were intentionally vague. Development as a separate, dedicated step in the process was eliminated shortly after I was hired.

The designer wrote the original manuscript; a random assortment of people gave input; then an editor took over and managed everything about the manuscript from that point on (additional development, editing, layout, ordering art and maps, proofreading, and typefitting). It was utterly informal, though; there was tremendous crossover at every stage. Manuscripts got passed back and forth and sideways between editors and designers. Once the original design was done, anyone might be asked to rewrite an encounter, to flesh out a section, to create sample PCs … and anyone might pop by and say, "ooh, let me see that" and then scribble some notes in the margin. That's why the credits for those early products, such as I1, list so many people doing so many jobs. Sometimes the same person shows up in multiple categories. "Special Thanks" were there to cover those people who'd contributed something, even if it was just a suggestion offered up over beer and pizza.

The fact that none of the editors had much training in graphic design should be obvious to anyone who looks at those early adventures. Stephen Sullivan did double duty as both an editor and an illustrator, so he had some artistic sense. I had training in newspaper layout and in measuring and sizing type to fit it into a fixed space. We drove the illustrators crazy with our requests for illos in ridiculous sizes to fill holes.

It was a slow process, but eventually we created a system in what had previously been a sort of medieval workshop where each item was individually crafted and completely non-interchangeable with anything else.

5. David Cook credits you with the organization of AD&D Second Edition. What principles did you bring to bear when undertaking the task of making such a complex game easier to understand?

Rulebook organization was a regular subject for theological debate among the editors, and I preached the Gospel of Steve to anyone who would listen. Here's the quick version.

A set of game rules needs to decide up front whether its job is teaching the material to newcomers or serving as a reference manual for people who already know the fundamentals. I don't believe it can do both. All through the '80s, we'd been producing D&D products aimed at teaching the basics to newcomers. That's not what AD&D was about. We assumed that AD&D players already understood roleplaying and had at least a rudimentary grasp on the rules. They didn't need a training manual; they needed a reference book that made information easy to find during play. Reading the original hardcover books was like having a one-on-one conversation with Gary. They were charming but not much help when a question arose in the middle of a battle.

When we got the green light to start working on 2nd Edition, the first thing I did was grab spare copies of the PHB and DMG, slice them into pieces, and start taping them back together the way they belonged. (We were working on word processors by then, of course, but the PHB and DMG didn't exist in electronic form.) It didn't take long to fill a big, fat, 3-ring binder with clippings of rulebooks, all taped together like some insane kidnapper's ransom-note manifesto. Some material from both books was combined into one section, some material that had been joined was split between the books, some sections were torn apart sentence by sentence and reassembled in more logical order. It was terribly tedious work, but it was also something I'd wanted to do for a decade.

The point of this exercise wasn't really to reorganize the books; that was done (eventually) with a massive outline that stretched down the wall and across the floor on about a dozen sheets of accordion-fold paper. The giant cut-and-paste was done to demonstrate to those up the chain of authority that the job was too big to be handled by a simple reorganization, which is what some of them were hoping for at the time.

Through the whole 2nd Edition development process, the goal was to put everything the players needed into the PHB and everything else into the DMG. Players needed the rules on creating and equipping characters, on magic, and on combat. The DM needed the rules on world building, running adventures, and all the little things that crop up often enough to need rules but not often enough to deserve space in the PHB.

Finally, I wanted both books to have comprehensive indexes. They were created the old-fashioned way, by actually reading the final galleys of the books and noting down every instance of a rule or a subject that should be indexed, under every category where someone might search for it. That job took several days, but the resulting indexes were well worth it.

6. You're a fan of Victorian era miniatures. Is this a hobby you've had for a long time or something you've only acquired recently?

I've had this particular hobby for close to 30 years, and the yearning for it was percolating in my brain for years before that. One of my earliest memories is my dad reciting a line from a poem: "A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers; There was lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth of woman's tears." It was a popular schoolyard rhyme when he was a kid. That image of the French Foreign Legionnaire in a far-off corner of the world got jammed in my imagination. It's funny to think that something so small can make such a dent in your psyche. Be careful what you say around your kds!

So I've always been drawn to that sort of exotic, military romance: anything written by Rudyard Kipling or G. A. Henty, and movies like Gunga Din and Beau Geste. I didn't realize there was a whole hobby devoted to miniature colonial wargaming until I encountered a copy of The Sword and the Flame in the Dungeon Hobby Shop in 1981. From the moment that I started flipping through TS&TF, I knew that I was home. Jim Ward and Tom Moldvay turned out to be big fans, too. I recall one summer afternoon when Zeb Cook and I were returning to TSR after lunch. We swung by my place to drop something off, and Zeb flipped on the TV. The movie Zulu was just beginning … so instead of going back to work, we plunked down on the couch, opened a couple of beers, and took the afternoon off. Eventually I had my own armies of Zulus and red-coated British that I hauled to every convention in the area, and I still do.

I was born about a century too late.

7. Do you still play RPGs these days and, if so, which ones?


I play D&D 4th Edition with a crew from Wizards of the Coast. If it doesn't make me sound too much like a corporate shill, I'd say that 4E is the best D&D has been since the red-box, 1981 edition of D&D Basic (the one with the cover painting by Erol Otus). That '81 edition is still my favorite, so consider this high praise.

I also play an every-other-week game with some fellow codgers. All we play is obsolete RPGs, starting with the original, three little books of D&D. We didn't even allow the Greyhawk or Blackmoor supplements. Those were too progressive. Eventually we moved on to The Fantasy Trip from Metagaming, with an interlude for some classic Traveller. I believe that Metamorphosis Alpha is next on our list, when we wrap up the current TFT campaign. As you might expect, that's a very low-key group. To keep the mood right, we use dice with the corners worn off and lumpy miniatures made of real lead and badly painted with glossy Testor's paints.

There's also a Call of Cthulhu group that meets irregularly about once a month.

Finally, I play quite a bit of Savage Worlds these days. I run a lunchtime Savage World of Solomon Kane game at the office and joined a homegrown campaign that meets a few times a month. That last group is the only one where none of the other players has any connection to the hobby games industry. It's refreshing to game with people who don't do this for a living.


  1. Thank you so much for doing these, James. It is so nice to hear all these voices from our hobby's past. Of personal interest: when 2nd edition came out, my group ended up using the PHB2 a lot while at the table. We did this because it was so well edited and organized when compared to 1st ed, even if we didn't completely adopt 2nd edition in its entirety...I guess I have Steve to thank for that.

  2. there was no pity in Corbin's dungeons. Low-level characters were there to open doors, peek around corners, and walk down corridors ahead of the heroes, poking everything within reach with a 10-foot pole<

    Heh heh, James M, I think we see your next campaign unfolding..

    Wow, very well-spoken/written but casual and informative guy. I somehow seem to get more background info of the inner workings from one paragraph than entire interviews before.

    Oh man, I'd love to get in on that Meta Alpha game. I'm glad Steve is playing all that tasty old cheese in addition to that tangy, sour new stuff. outstanding.

    Great interview.

  3. It was a slow process, but eventually we created a system in what had previously been a sort of medieval workshop where each item was individually crafted and completely non-interchangeable with anything else.

    I have a feeling that "medieval workshop" feel is a major factor behind what I find so appealing about the stuff from that era. "Non-interchangeable with anything else" = unique = awesome in my book.

  4. sorry, point being that it's also what I find so intriguing about some of the new OSR stuff, the craftsmanship.

  5. Heh. So he's the one who beat me for that editor's job. (To be honest, I didn't even get to the interview stage. ;) )

  6. Interesting stuff, especially about what upper management were hoping for from second edition, and what the design crew hoped to convince them of.

  7. Very interesting interview, along with the mix of games he enjoys - old and new.

  8. Not to be inflammatory, of course, but doesn't it strike some of the more die-hard old school followers of this blog as a little strange that a great many of the people James interviews, people whose credentials cannot be denied, are quite positive about 4e?

  9. ^To clarify, I note that just as many are equally optimistic about older games. I just think that it says something positive about a few of the new ways, if you follow me.

  10. a great many of the people James interviews, people whose credentials cannot be denied, are quite positive about 4e?

    Actually, the only ones I recall who said anything about 4e, positive or negative, were Steve Winter, who is primarily a 2e guy, and Paul Reiche III. Did I miss someone else?

  11. Well, in the Paul Reiche III interview, he mentions that he is playing 4e with Erol Otus, in a "fun island adventure of Erol's creation." So I guess you would have to throw Erol Otus into the mix of old-school legends giving 4th edition a whirl.