Friday, October 9, 2020

Interview: Douglas Niles (Part II)

Part I of this interview can be found here.

5. You're also associated with the Dragonlance series, having written several adventure modules for it. What role did you play in creating and developing the setting and course of the series? 

Dragonlance! I can say that I was there at the beginning! I wish I could claim I was a believer from the get go, but that would be exaggerating; I had my doubts initially. And I can honestly say that without Tracy Hickman's vision, and as very quickly became apparent, Margaret Weis's creativity and professionalism, DL never would have gotten off the ground to become the groundbreaking fantasy experience that it was and is.

By mid 1983, I think it was, TSR had a staff of 12 full time game designers. We had also hired a lot of professional editors both for the game and the start-up book departments, which mainly published Endless Quest books in a "Choose your own Adventure" format. Finally, the company gathered an astonishingly talented collection of excellent artists, including Larry Elmore, Jeff Easely, Clyde Caldwell, Tim Truman, Keith Parkinson, and others. Tracy Hickman, came up with the idea of writing 12 connected AD&D modules, one for each of the colors of the game's dragons. (He astutely pointed out that, for a game called Dungeons & Dragons, we had never really included a dragon in one of our adventures.) But Tracy was (and remains!) a Big Thinker; he wasn't going to stop at a module series. He talked to many of our staff artists who quickly shared his enthusiasm, and took his idea of an epic story to the book department, suggesting potential for a novel or two that could accompany the game. As I recall, some of the iconic art that later covered game modules and books was created even before DL was approved by TSR management – no doubt those paintings helped to convince the company brass that this idea had promise.

My initial reservations were based on the fact that I didn't think players would want to have their characters tied into playing out a story that someone else had written. Um, I was wrong. I did join the original design team, assigned to write DL2 Dragons of Flame; I think the company wanted a plan so they could kill the module line after four adventures if it fizzled out. (It did not fizzle.) I eventually did 4-5 DL modules over the next few years, and I came to recognize and cherish Dragonlance for the phenomenon it became. At first the company contracted a freelance novelist to write the books, but when the initial drafts were not up to the standard the book department wanted, our managers decided to give Tracy and Margaret a shot at writing the novels. That worked out pretty well.

In addition to game modules, I went on to design a military boardgame for DL, and a sourcebook for the dwarven realms. I also wrote many DL novels – I think about 18 or 20 of them, as well as numerous short stories. It is fair to say that Dragonlance became the main pillar of my freelance writing career from 1990 to 2008. During that time, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR and then Hasbro bought WotC. In about 2008, Hasbro decided to stop publishing Dragonlance novels, even though the books were selling something like 40,000 copies for each title. No one has ever explained to me (or to anyone that I've talked to) why the company made that decision.

6. You were the designer of Battlesystem, which appeared in 1985. What was the origin of this product? Was TSR consciously trying to return to the roots of D&D or was there some other impetus behind it? For that matter, what was your own history with miniatures gaming?

I think that the idea of Battlesystem, the rules for conducting large scale combat with AD&D characters and NPCs was driven by two factors: one was certainly a desire to get back to the roots of D&D, which of course was the Chainmail game system created by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren for medieval era miniatures combat; and two, with the growing prevalence of large AD&D campaigns, and player characters of high level becoming increasingly common, these characters were able to command companies or even larger units of subordinate troops. When a lord with 30 knights encountered a raiding party of 100 orcs, obviously the individual combat rules of the AD&D game became unworkably cumbersome.

At the time I started work on Battlesystem, I did not have much personal history with miniatures gaming, but I had been working with the AD&D rules almost full time for several years. I was honored to be assigned to the project. The biggest requirement (and challenge!) was to translate the basic character attributes of AD&D, such as armor class, hit points, and hit probability (THAC0 – "to hit armor class 0"– in many players' shorthand) into ratings that could apply to military units and allow results to be calculated that would affect multiple NPCs. Certain AD&D rules that rarely came up in dungeoncrawl-type adventures assumed significantly more importance on a battlefield, such as the benefits of charging, or the defensive usefulness of setting the butt of a pike on the ground to meet a charge.

Even more than most design projects, Battlesystem was a collaboration; and I welcomed the assistance, advice, and playtesting of many staff designers, developers, and editors. The editor assigned to the project was Michael Dobson, and the game system was the beginning of a partnership in which the two of us designed a series of game adventures (the Bloodstone Pass series) and eventually led us to become a novel-writing team for several alternate military history novels. 

In fact, Bloodstone Pass was a set of four modules, all adventures for the highest level player characters that, I think, TSR ever published. We began with a premise we shameless adapted ("stole" is such an ugly word) from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, one that had already been copied by the American film, The Magnificent Seven. It is the story of seven legendary heroes who are sought out by a group of peasant villagers who are under assault from a brutal enemy host. (It's like the story was tailor-made for D&D!) We presented a mix of battlefield encounters and roleplaying encounters that eventually led the characters into the heart of the Underworld, climaxing in the 4th module with a showdown against mighty Orcus himself. I understand that it is still quite a popular adventure series.

7. I have a great fondness for the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, which is a landmark book in the AD&D line for a number of reasons. For example, I believe it's the first book to use the term "Underdark" to describe the subterranean spaces beneath the world. Was this a book you whose topics were of particular interest to you? 

The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was a really special project that I was delighted to have the opportunity to write. It may surprise some  (or it may not!) to learn that the official AD&D rules system grew rather chaotically with the input and creativity of a number of individuals, rather than through any kind of rigid "master plan." Gary Gygax was the leader of this development, and his old friend Frank Mentzer had a lot to do with the process as well. But the staff designers in the TSR offices also made suggestions, and some of these led to really successful projects. One of the veteran staff designers, Zeb Cook, had always been an aficionado of many Asian-oriented adventure genres. (He had, in fact, the most impressive collection of giant robot models in his office that I have ever seen.) And he effectively advocated for an AD&D expansion that embraced these elements of Eastern culture. His Oriental Adventures rules, a hard cover book that considerably expanded the scope of the game, was hugely successful both for its enjoyable game content and its commercial value to TSR. This led to the company wanting to offer more location-specific rules expansions.

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was the next new official rulebook, intended to specifically lay out procedures for adventures, environments, and even cultures and civilizations that were based beyond the reach of sunlight. The rules included details about spelunking, existing and surviving in darkness, and the kinds of environments, allies, and adversaries player characters might encounter under the ground. Building off of Zeb's work, DSG also introduced more rules for specific proficiencies than existed in the original game and led to the commonly used game mechanic of a character's "ability check". As I recall there were several other of these hardbound books written subsequently, and they were popular products.  By the late '80s, though, the trajectory of the AD&D rules system had begun to evolve into what would become AD&D Second Edition, which was ably designed by Zeb Cook, of course with input from Gary Gygax.

8. Top Secret/S.I. was a major revamp of TSR's venerable espionage RPG. Had you been a fan of the original before you started work on this version of the game? What were your goals when creating it?

I was not familiar with Merle Rasmussen's excellent and popular Top Secret game until I was hired by TSR as a game designer, and one of my first official assignments on staff was to read the game and learn the rules. I was very impressed by the level of detail in the game systems, the precision of the equipment descriptions, and the variability allowed by the highly detailed systems for all things espionage – most notably, combat. It was a very lethal combat system, reflecting its "true to real life" approach. The game books made for a fascinating read, and I enjoyed some playing sessions with co-workers and some of my friends from outside the company.

In a sense I got kind of a crash course in the state of the RPG industry circa 1982 in my first months on the job. My focus was on TSR products of course, including the Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, and newly released Gangbusters games. I was also exposed to Marc Miller's legendary Traveller science fiction game from GDW, Chaosium's RuneQuest, and many other products in what was still a fledgling industry.

With my primary focus remaining on D&D and AD&D, I never had the chance to work on any products for Merle's Top Secret game, which was admittedly rather under-served in the accessory department by TSR. I was surprised when the idea for Top Secret/S.I. was presented, but delighted when I was assigned to create a new espionage RPG system. (A key aspect of the project assignment was that the company desired a completely new game, not a "second edition" type modification of Merle's game.) During this project I worked very closely with our recently hired, but very experienced editor, Warren Spector, who had been the editor-in-chief at Steve Jackson Games in Texas. Warren's contribution to the writing and, especially, playability of the TS/S.I rules cannot be understated.

 In fact, playability was one of the key requirements of the game. Inevitably that meant sacrificing quite a bit of the original game's meticulous realism. It was as if Merle's rules emphasized the careful realism of the style of a John le Carré novel, while the new version was to be much more representative of the James Bond style that the films presented during the Roger Moore years. And I believe we did come up with an exciting, fast playing game. The game mechanic I was most proud of, I recall, was that a player rolled two 10-sided dice to make an attack. The result would first be read as a percentage, which would determine whether or not the attack was successful; and if the shot hit, the two dice would be consulted individually to determine how many points of damage was inflicted (by the die in the "1" column) and (by the die in the "10" column) what part of the target's body was injured. 

9. Do you still get the chance to play RPGs? If so, what are you currently playing?

I rarely get the chance to play an RPG these days, but enjoy them when I can. In recent years I have had fun playing AD&D at a couple of southern Wisconsin conventions, playing with strangers and old friends. (Hopefully we will be able to have game conventions again one of these days!) Gamehole Con is a fixture in Madison, where I live. In normal years, it occurs over a four-day weekend in early November (always a date when no Badger home football game is scheduled, so that hotel space is available!). It draws a lot of local and regional gamers of all ages, and attracts a number of the old timers from around the area. I always get a chance to see my old boss, Jim Ward, from the TSR design department; he was a great man to work for, and remains a steady and wise presence in the gaming industry. I also try and make it down to Lake Geneva in March for GaryCon, a wonderful gathering of friends, old colleagues, and fans. That con is organized by Gary Gygax's kids. Among many other people, I always enjoy the chance to catch up with Margaret Weis at GaryCon. I also had the great pleasure to run into Heidi Gygax there, who (as I related in my answer to question 1) is the person who first introduced me to D&D!

I did design a D&D module for expert level players a couple of years ago. I was a guest of a fabulous game convention, in Italy, called the Lucca Comics and Game Convention. As part of my participation, I created an Expert-level module (for characters levels 5-8) and had a great deal of fun playtesting that here at home, and then playing it several times in Lucca. I was amazed to see how popular that level of D&D is in Italy, and in particular how many players enjoyed the modules that we were creating during the 1980s. At that con I also had the chance to run, for the first time, Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors.

For my hobby gaming, I generally favor board and counter wargaming, either strategy or tactics on a fairly grand scale. I still love SPI's Wellington's Victory, a four-map monster game about the battle of Waterloo. Decision Games has released a new version of that game, with a new rules system, and I spent a lot of time with another old friend and colleague, Mark Acres, trying (with limited success) to master the update. If I may be forgiven a small boast, I confess that my absolute favorite game to play is my own design, released by TSR /SPI in the late '80s: World War Two: European Theater of Operations. I was fortunate enough to be given the time and resources to polish the original game into a second edition. That product benefited tremendously from the talents of Steve Winter, the best editor –and one of the nicest people – I ever had the chance to work with. I understand from the blogosphere that WW2:ETO is still played regularly around the US and the world. I have always maintained that if I could only have a single book or game of mine displayed on my tombstone, that would be the one.


  1. Nice interview. What I would like to know if possible is the math that went behind that Combat Resolution Table in Battlesystem 1e. Because if we can figure it out then we come up with our own and revive the system.

    1. I can pass along the question. If there's an answer, I'll share it in a future post.

    2. Sadly, Doug said that it was a long time ago and he does not remember the calculations he used. He relied mostly on "gut feeling."

    3. I think the underlying formula for the combat results table is that for an average attack roll (7), the damage should be (21 + AC - THAC0) / 20 * (Avg. Dmg per creature) / (Avg. HP per HD, ie 4.5) * (creatures per figure)

      This fits well for damages of D12 and lower, and creatures per figure ratios of 10:1. Doug Niles' design commentary in Dragon 100 makes me suspect the Combat Results Table was originally designed for the 10:1 ratio and later extended when the other ratios were added.

  2. I recently bought Battlesytem to create an OSR version!