Monday, May 14, 2012

An Interview with Ken St. Andre

One of the early staples of this blog were interviews with important figures in the history of the hobby. One noteworthy figure whose did not appear here was that of Ken St. Andre, perhaps because I'd already interviewed him over on The Escapist. Even so, as the creator of the second published roleplaying game, I felt there was lots more insight Ken could impart and so I asked him if he'd consent to another interview. He graciously agreed, even though my questions this time were a bit more personal and demanding than those I'd asked him before. The full text of that interview can be found below. 


1. I've read elsewhere that, as a boy, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan was one of your earliest literary heroes, followed later by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. What was it about these characters that so inspired you?

Do you think it could be that opposites attract?  I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women.  I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life.  Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible. Or maybe it was just that all the old Tarzan movies were shown on Saturday afternoon television in Phoenix.  From the movies I discovered the books, from the books I discovered the comics. Escape fiction is my preferred reading material.  You can’t really get any bigger escapes than the exploits of Tarzan and Conan.

2. Unlike a lot of early roleplaying game designers, you didn't come from a background in wargames. Do you think this helped or hindered you?

Well, I don’t think that’s strictly true.  I did a lot of gaming in elementary school, high school, and college.  I played the Avalon Hill wargames back in the day.  I even had a friend in high school named Mike Watters who was into miniatures, and we would get together once in a while, and refight World War II-style battles with model tanks and rubber soldiers.  I started the chess club at Maryvale High School and was its first president back in 1965.  I learned to play Diplomacy in grad school in 1974 including variant Diplomacy, and I created several Diplomacy variants including Hyborean, Young Kingdoms, and Barsoomian variants.  And others.

But I wasn’t much of a miniatures wargamer in the mid-70s.  I hadn’t played anything like that since high school back in 1969.  I was a big fan of swords and sorcery, and of comic books in general.  I was dreaming of being a full-time professional science fiction writer.  Because I wasn’t a minis gamer, and I’m still not, I didn’t know or understand the mini-traditions embodied in early D&D.  Not understanding, I rebelled, and rebellion spawned Tunnels & Trolls.  I guess I’d say not having that miniatures background helped.  If first edition D&D rules had made any sense to me, there probably never would have been a Tunnels & Trolls.

3. What were some of the aspects of miniatures wargaming that you  didn't understand or didn't like and sought to work around when  designing Tunnels & Trolls?

Ah, James, you give me far too much credit.  When I wrote the first edition of T&T in a red-hot creative frenzy to get the ideas for character creation, monster-fighting, medieval weaponry, and jokey spells down on paper for the first time, I didn’t give a single thought about miniatures.  At the time I had never even seen anyone play That Other Game.  To me, the whole game took place in the theater of my mind.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I had gone to some gaming conventions and actually seen people playing That Other Game that I realized how dependent on miniatures those gamers actually were.  All I knew was that moving in terms of inches didn’t make any sense to me.

4. As I understand it, you originally wanted to call T&T Tunnels & Troglodytes but were overruled by your players. Since then the troll has become the mascot not only of the game itself but of you personally. What is it that you find interesting about trolls, as presented in T&T?

Back in 1975 there was a popular rock and roll song called Troglodyte, or else a group by that name.  I thought it was a tremendously funny word.  Trogs are cave dwellers, and here was this game about exploring caverns and dungeons.  Who would be there to greet our bold explorers?  Troglodytes, of course! 

Well, the Tunnels & Troglodytes name was laughed out of the room the first time I mentioned it at one of our Friday night gaming sessions.  I think it was artist Rob Carver—he who did the illos for the first edition of T&T--who suggested Tunnels & Trolls instead.  It’s not that I was really drawn to trolls—the troll thing sort of jumped up and said, “take me, I’m available”.  There’s a lot of material available in literature about dragons, but relatively little about trolls.  Having gotten stuck with trolls because I wanted the alliterative title for the game, it has just become more and more my thing to champion them.  Maybe because I’m not much of a winner in real life, I’ve always been one to cheer for the underdog.  When you compare trolls to dragons, who comes off as the underdog?  Yeah, trolls do. 

People don’t understand that trolls are not just one kind of monster in T&T.  The word troll could mean a lot of different things to the old Scandinavians.  Inspired by Tolkien, trolls usually means rock trolls in Tunnels & Trolls, creatures of living stone.  Yeah, Tolkien’s trolls were flesh and turned to stone when struck by sunlight, but what if being stone didn’t really stop them?  There are many different kinds of trolls in T&T:  rock trolls, meat trolls—those made of flesh—ice trolls, water trolls, wolf trolls, spider-trolls.

5. Long ago, you described the setting of Tunnels & Trolls as "The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of bad guys thrown in." I have to admit that that's a really evocative description. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?

Tunnels and Trolls happened because I was a huge fan of swords and sorcery fiction.  Robert E. Howard was my favorite writer of all time, closely followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.  I wanted to be a writer.  I wanted to be a swords and sorcery writer more than anything.  Along came this new style of gaming that was all about my favorite kind of fiction.  Conan, Tarzan, Aragorn, the Gray Mouser, and Elric are all heroes. They battle tremendous odds and win.  For them it was never about wargaming—never about achieving superior numbers and power and then crushing the foe.  It was about one vs. many—about defeating the odds, and triumphing despite adversity.  I identified with those heroes because in a way I always saw myself battling against the odds.  I wanted T&T to be that kind of game—a game for heroes.  And so, I never really made any attempt to balance things out.  As a player in a frpg, the odds should be against you.  Cope with it!  Triumph anyway!  That’s what makes a game memorable and fun.

6. Does that mean you have no interest in questions of game mechanical  "balance" when creating adventures for T&T?

I wouldn’t say no interest in mechanical balance of the game, but not very much.  Obviously the challenge has to be appropriate to the power of the delvers, but not really.  It’s a self-correcting thing.  If the GM always makes adventures that are too hard for his players, the players should get wise and quit gaming with that guy.  I like to think that T&T is more about actually role-playing through situations.  Liz Danforth used to call it role-playing as opposed to "roll-playing."

So one rule I made for the sake of balance was that no character type could have a Speed multiplier greater than one.  I want all the Kindred types to be on more-or-less equal ground when it comes to reaction time, because super speed is perhaps the greatest super power around.  But aside from that, there really aren’t any limits in terms of game rules as to what a player or a GM can do.  Another unbalanced rule is that the G.M. is God—he/she can do pretty much whatever they want to make the adventure work.  My in-game bosses and dungeon-masters are gods.  Gristlegrim the Dwarf God, Lerotra’hh the Death Goddess, Arahk Gnahk, the culture bringer of the uruks and many another.  Deus ex Machina—yes, all the time.  Game balance is, in my humble opinion, good for people who want little internally consistent models that run on their own power.  You wind up with things like Knights of the Dinner Table where the GM is so tied up in rules that he must follow that I’m surprised they ever manage to get through an adventure.

Some T&T players have worked out rules for balancing the toughness of the monsters in their adventures to the size and toughness of the adventuring party.  Good for them!  I don’t do that, and you won’t see those formulas enshrined in the official T&T rules.  My number one rule is “What’s reasonable under the circumstances?”  Is it a swamp full of Goblins with one Goblin about equal to one first level delver?  So, if I have six delvers, do I limit myself to attacks by only six or seven Goblins?  Goblins in the wild are like other hunter-gatherer peoples.  They do their hunting alone or in small groups—large groups scare away the prey.  Our six delvers meet some fishergoblins in the swamp.  The odds are six to two.  Goblins don’t have a chance if they stand and fight.  That’s okay.  Later, our delvers stumble into a goblin village with 40 active adults living there, and make them mad.  Now the odds are 40 to 6 in favor of the Goblins.  I’m not going to balance these encounters out so that our 6 delvers always meet about 6 goblins.  What’s reasonable?  Not, what balances?

7. You're among only a handful of early RPG designers who not only still owns and controls the game he created nearly 40 years ago but is actively involved in its continued development. How did this happen? Did you make a conscious effort, back in 1975, to ensure that T&T remained in your hands?

Yes, I did make that effort.  Back in 1975, when Rick Loomis first had success with selling my extra copies of T&T at a game convention, he offered to buy it from me outright—for some trivial sum I can’t remember.  I didn’t have any money at the time, and I might have been tempted, but I was thinking like a writer.  I considered it to be writing even back then.  I had gone to the trouble of getting copyright forms, filling them out, and sending them to Library of Congress with my copyright in the first edition.  I wanted royalties.  I knew what had happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with Superman.  I knew they had lost control of their creation.  I had no idea whether T&T would ever amount to anything, but just in case it did, I wanted my name to be attached to it.

Then again, perhaps T&T has never been important enough to cause anyone to make a serious attempt to take it away from me.  It’s not like Hasbro ever came and offered me any money to give up the rights.  Heck, if a big game compnny offered me $100,000 or more, I”d sell my copyright in a heartbeat.  I don’t suppose you get credit for resisting temptation if you’re never tempted.  (grin).

And anyway, I don’t really control T&T.  I’m associated with the game because I never quit writing, playing, and promoting it, but I don’t believe I own it.  Tunnels & Trolls has a life of its own.

8. Though you're most well known as the creator of Tunnels & Trolls, my personal favorite design of yours is Stormbringer, which you co-wrote with Steve Perrin. Can you briefly describe how you wound up working on this game?

Greg Stafford and I are friends from way back.  The rpg I most admire is Runequest—it’s brilliant, wacky, individual.  We talked to each other and gamed together once in a while at California gaming cons like DundraCon.  Somehow I heard that Greg had gotten the rights to do a game based on the Elric stories of Michael Moorcock.  I was then, and am now, a big fan of Mr. Moorcock.  I wrote to Greg and talked to him on the phone and simply asked to do the game.  Rudy Kraft was also interested in doing it.  We both submitted proposals for the kind of game we would write.  Greg picked mine, and assigned Steve Perrin as editor on the project.  Steve was a big help to me in writing the game.  He contributed a lot of good ideas, and I wound up suggesting that he get a co-credit as game author, although I did almost all of the writing.

9. Are there any gaming or gaming-related projects you've not yet gotten  the chance to do but would like to?  That's it.

There are so many gaming projects that I would have liked to do, or wanted to do and didn’t get the go-ahead on.  When Magic: the Gathering first came out I very quickly came to see the possibilities of such a game.  I really wanted to do a T&T cardgame based on the Magic the Gathering paradigm.  I created my own card dungeon—Gristlegrim--with each room described in just enough detail to allow the Game Master to flesh it out and roleplay encounters within them.  I made a deck of monster cards of varying toughness to use against the delvers in a random fashion.  I envisioned not my ugly hand-written prototype, but a slick set of dungeon “tiles” and monster cards and trap cards and magic cards and weapon cards and treasure cards that could be mixed and matched in infinite combinations, all playing under the basic T&T rules which could also be summarized on a couple of cards.  Quite a few companies have done such projects now, but I swear to you, James, that I had the idea for it ten to twenty years ahead of everyone else.  We couldn’t do it.  Printing card decks was/is expensive.  Flying Buffalo didn’t have the money for it.  I certainly didn’t.  Window of opportunity passed and it never happened.  I even toyed with the idea of collectible monsters and weapons à la MTG.

Another game I wanted to do and still want to do is a simple dice game called Fantasy Armies.  The basic idea is that each fantasy race is represented by a different kind of dice.  Human would be D6 creatures with numbers ranging from 1 to 6 on the sides.  Dwarves might be D4 creatures, but the numbers would all be multiples of 2, so a face would not have a 1, 2, and 3 on it, but would have 2, 4, and 6.  Another face would have 4, 6, 8.  The third face would show 6, 8, 10, and the fourth would show 8, 10, 12.  I had it all worked out for more than a dozen different races.  No one but me seems to like the idea. 

I have dozens of ideas for games I’d like to do.  Some spin off from T&T, and others have nothing to do with it.  I had a game idea based on E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels called Lords of the Spectrum—mostly about warring fleets battling each other in interstellar space.  It will never see the light of day. 

I guess I’m lucky to have had as much success as I have had with games like Tunnels & Trolls, Monsters! Monsters!, Stormbringer, and Wasteland.  I can’t really complain if all my ideas don’t come to fruition.


  1. and he likes AC/DC too
    this is really cool

  2. According to Wikipedia, Ken St. Andre was born on April  28, 1947, which makes him eligible for Social Security as of a couple of weeks ago. 

    That makes me feel very old.

  3. Charles C. Albritton IIIMay 15, 2012 at 1:24 AM

    "I had a game idea based on E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels called Lords of the Spectrum—mostly about warring fleets battling each other in interstellar space.  It will never see the light of day. " 

    (I'd snap that up with inertialess speed)

  4. "
     I had a game idea based on E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels called Lords of the Spectrum—mostly about warring fleets battling each other in interstellar space.  It will never see the light of day. "

    WANT! Somebody show this man Kickstarter!

  5. "You wind up with things like Knights of the Dinner Table where the GM is so tied up in rules that he must follow that I’m surprised they ever manage to get through an adventure."

    Agree 100%.  People who play modern D&D sometimes mention a single combat taking three or four hours, or even a whole gaming session, and I just shake my head in astonishment.  Three or four hours to chop up some goblins?  Good lord.

  6. Hey! Shout out for Stormbringer!

    Our group is into a campaign using a hacked-up Ken's Stormbringer 1e rules right now. I totally dig the magic system in 1e, it really unleashes the creativity of the players.

  7. Like James I love Stormbringer. It's one of those games I have played the most. Just like my other favourite T&T it don't stop you  from going balls to the walls nuts with anything fun and fantasy.

    Great interview. Really good set of questions.

  8. If combat lasts longer than 10 or 15 minutes, it is too long in my book. How boring?

  9. "Fantasy Armies" sounds a lot like a game called Dragon Dice by TSR.  Maybe everyone said they didn't like Ken's idea so they could steal it and sell it themselves.

    Wow, I have Stormbringer stored in my cellar somewhere.  Great game.  Very different than Tunnels & Trolls.  I always liked T&T, mainly because it was so simple to play.  Simplicity always wins out in my book.  Why play a game that takes longer to set up than it does to play?