Friday, September 25, 2020

Interview: Doug Niles (Part I)

Douglas Niles worked at TSR between 1982 and 1990, during which time he worked on many different products and game lines, most notably D&D, AD&D, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret/S.I. He was also a member of the Dragonlance design team and the writer of many novels set in TSR's game settings (such as Darkwalker on Moonshae, the very first published novel set in the Forgotten Realms). Mr Niles was very kind the many questions I put to him. The first part of his answers appear below. The second part will appear in a future post.

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

In 1977, I started work as a young high school speech teacher in Clinton, Wisconsin, a small, rural farming community in the southern part of the state. I had enjoyed strategy boardgames, especially some Avalon Hill wargames and Risk, as a teenager and college student. I also enjoyed reading sci-fi and some fantasy, notably the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was also involved in college and community theater and through some theater contacts had learned of this mysterious game called Dungeons & Dragons; I thought it sounded like fun but by 1979, as I started my third year of teaching, I had never seen it or talked to an actual player.

In autumn 1979, one of my sophomore speech students showed me a pass saying she was to be excused from class the following day for an "interview with People magazine." This being an unusual occurrence in our farm-centric corner of the state, I asked her what that was about. She said "My dad invented this game that's getting kind of popular." (Her name was Heidi Gygax.) She told me a little bit about it – her family had just moved from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to a larger home in the country – and I told her I'd heard about D&D and that it sounded like fun. When she returned to class two days later she gave me a copy, compliments of her dad, of the classic blue box game; what would later be called the Basic Set including character levels 1-3.

I got my copy on a Wednesday, as I recall, and by that Friday night I had read the rules, prepped the basic dungeon that was included in the game, and recruited my wife and 3-4 of our young adult friends. (I was 24 at the time; none of us had kids yet.) That started a campaign that lasted for several years, expanding into the expert rules set, and finally AD&D. I began designing my own dungeons, and fantasy realms. Also I discovered and became a regular customer of the Dungeon Hobby Shop in nearby Lake Geneva, which was owned by TSR.

2. How did you become employed by TSR?

I had always wanted to be a writer but early in college had chosen teaching as a more pragmatic career path. I wrote a lot of short stories for fun (and independent study credit) in high school but by college that hobby sort of dropped out of my life. Once I got enthused about D&D, however, I began reading lots of fantasy fiction and got motivated to write again. I spent most of 1981 writing a fantasy novel in my spare time – I finished it that summer. At the end of summer, I learned through a friend at the hobby shop that TSR wanted to hire more game designers. I decided to take a shot, and applied in September, 1981. I went through a total of 5 interviews that fall. I am proud to say that through those interviews I never once mentioned that I knew Gary Gygax and had taught his daughter in high school! Instead I showed them my novel, designed a strategy mini-game at the company's request, and submitted some of my home dungeons and campaign maps. In November, they offered me a job on the design staff. It actually meant a small pay cut from my teaching salary but I leaped at the chance. I resigned my teaching job at the end of that semester and started as a professional game designer in mid-January 1982. 

The company hired a number of designers in 1981 and the first half of 1982, drawing people from as far away as Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Utah. Many of these designers had had previous professional designs published, but others, like me, were hired "off the street." I think I was unique in that not only did I not have to move to take the job, but I actually had a shorter commute (15 minutes) to Lake Geneva than the 25 minutes I had been driving to Clinton High School!

3. Your first published credits at TSR were modules X3 for Expert D&D and N1 for Advanced D&D. I recall reading somewhere that Against the Cult of the Reptile God was based on a previously existing outline. Is that correct? Was X3 similar or was it wholly your own creation?

There was a strange situation regarding new D&D adventures designed in house by TSR during 1982. I mentioned that the company had hired a lot of designers (and editors) around then. But for many months there were no projects approved for us to work on! When the company was smaller, virtually all D&D and AD&D game adventures were either written by Gary Gygax, or written by one of the few staff designers after he approved a detailed concept and outline. But by '82 he was busy with a lot of other things in his fast growing company, and wasn't taking the time to approve any design concepts. Some designers worked on other lines, like Star Frontiers, Boot Hill, and Gangbusters. Meanwhile our mid-level managers tried to set up a process that could get us working on D&D products again, since that was the company's flagship (and bestselling, by far!) line. One of those potential products was a concept that Gary had heard about and liked.

So my first actual writing project was a chance to design that adventure, which was based on an idea submitted by a member of the company's TSR/UK affiliate. I believe their chief was a friend of Gary's who had submitted a concept (not an outline) that Gary liked. It was originally called The Cult of the Reptile God, but modified to become Against the Cult of the Reptile God because that was also the beginning of the period where bad PR was starting to concern the company – D&D was getting an unfair, but kind of bad rap, among some parents, clergy, etc. So they decided to make it clear in the title that the players were intended to stop, not join, an evil cult.

I threw myself whole hog into writing that adventure, which was broken into two parts: 1) an initial reconnaissance of a village, involving lots of roleplaying and detective work as the players figured out which villagers had been taken over by a vile cult; and 2) a dungeon crawl where they discover the cult's HQ, fight their way in, and destroy it. I wrote that on an electric typewriter by the way--the company didn't have enough HP computer terminals for the new employees! (Of course, the whole system was a mainframe computer that filled a room and no doubt had less processing power than your current phone does.) Anyway, the pages stacked up quickly and my manager was pleased. I felt rather proud of myself, too.

I ate a portion of humble pie when my editor, Jon Pickens, read the module and explained many nuances of the AD&D rules that had escaped me as a "civilian." ("Your fighter has a two-handed sword. That means he can't use that shield you gave him," is one "oops" I still recall. And there were a lot more.) But the module got cleaned up and published. And, incidentally, Jon and I became good friends over the years – a friendship that continued even after I began my free lance career in 1990. Every design of mine that Jon worked on was much improved by his tireless efforts.

N1 (The "N" stood for "novice") was written as a module for level 1-3 characters. It has one encounter that required the PCs to accept the help of an NPC magic user to overcome a monster, but I took that as a fair trade in order to allow the party to face a very challenging adversary. I like to think it ends with a dramatic, action-packed and satisfying climax.

X3, The Curse of Xanathon was the second product I wrote, and was an adventure completely of my own creation. I think it was the third D&D module in the Expert line. One fallout of the expanding TSR design team was that around then AD&D and D&D were broken into two distinct product lines. Gary continued to have some involvement in creating, guiding and approving the AD&D line. The D&D system, which in '82 consisted of the Basic and Expert rules, became more of a staff coordinated effort. We had a lot more freedom to invent realms and stories in the D&D line. Eventually, the fantasy world Mystara, masterfully organized by Bruce Heard, grew out of the various D&D adventures, but I don't think that in these early years there was any real plan to tie them all together. Such was the case with Xanathon. Oddly, I don't remember nearly as much about that adventure as I do about N1.

4. The first time I personally remember seeing your name on a TSR product was 1983's Knight Hawks boxed set for Star Frontiers. I loved that set and my battered copy is a prized possession. What do you recall about the process of creating it? 

As I started at TSR, I became acquainted with the new Star Frontiers game, and as I had always been an enthusiastic fan of science fiction that was a natural fit. SF was a planetary-based RPG that did not really address space travel or space ships; but those rules had always been intended for a sequel. After I had designed several roleplaying adventures at the company and had worked there for a little more than a year, I was very pleased to be selected to design an actual game system, including board-game elements – that is, the spaceship expansion rules to accompany Star Frontiers.

The game became Knight Hawks, though that actual title came late in the process after a lot of wrangling with the company's newly formed Legal Department. It seemed that every title we suggested had potential trademark infringement issues. (Another of my colleagues in the "class of '82" new game designers was Tracy Hickman; he actually wrote a satirical song called "Trademark Jail" that I wish I remember better!)

Anyway, the game design involved creating many classes of ships, and a movement system that allowed them to be used in an RPG. After a lot of wrestling with the issue, I decided to use a gravity-based system so that ships in orbit or adrift have no gravity, and ships under acceleration or deceleration simulate gravity by the change of the ship's speed. This meant that decks, cabins and other compartments are ordered perpendicular to the hull – like the floors in a skyscraper – rather than running the length of the hull like they do in a submarine or lots of fictional (like Star Wars) spaceships. I'm not sure I made the right decision, I have to admit.

But I am glad to hear that you liked the game James! And I did get lots of feedback from other players who had a lot of fun with it. And it did allow me to break into what would become my favorite area of game design: military simulations played out on hex grid maps with counters, preferably lots of counters, representing units, ships, and other playing pieces.


  1. I wonder who the TSR UK staffer was that came up with the idea for N1?

  2. Funny that even as a designer at TSR, D&D offered more creative freedom than AD&D. ;)

  3. It was Don Turnbull as I recall. And I’m not surprised at all that D&D allowed more creative freedom. AD&D was set in Greyhawk, my dad’s setting so he was deeply involved. He had plans in his mind for many story arcs so wanton and unchecked designers making up whatever they want could easily have derailed some other important plot. Many of these idea never came to light as he got sucked deeper and deeper into the business side and then lost the company entirely.

  4. That was just a joke re: D&D vs AD&D, Luke. i.e. D&D's anything goes vs. AD&D's "uniformity" among campaigns. I just got a tickle out of what Douglas said because we never really adopted AD&D for that very reason- we had already turned OD&D into the game we wanted to.