Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Creator: Ken St. Andre interviewed

I have not met Ken St. Andre in person.  But I’ve been familiar with his game and ancillary products for more than 30 years.  He and I have been on social media as “friends” for about 10 years, and I’ve felt very fortunate to get to know him, if from a distance.  His game Tunnels and Trolls is a game that allowed me to burn off some hours of loneliness when I was in Fargo ND during my Master’s degree classes, alone.  And prior to that I loved how the game could be played as a single player or with others.  In 2004 I interviewed Gary Gygax for a couple different websites that have long since passed over the rainbow bridge, but it was still a privilege to do so, and now with Ken, I interview another of the three who started it all (That would be, MA Barker, Gary Gygax/Dave Arneson and Ken St. Andre).  

I am very excited and happy to present my interview with a game maker and bright mind, Ken St. Andre.  My first question has to be, what books and life experiences would you suggest contributed the most to your development of Tunnels and Trolls?  You were a librarian in your secret civilian identity, would you say you guided readers of fantasy to those same sources?

Ken St. Andre: When I first created Tunnels and Trolls in 1975 I was already a Librarian, and a long-time fantasy fan.  I had been an Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Fritz Leiber fan since I was a teenager some 15 years earlier.  I was also a huge fan of the Arthurian stories and everything to do with Medieval Romance.  I would not say I guided my players to those sources – I didn’t do an actual bibliography of the fantasy people should read until 1979 or so, when I was editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice Magazine for Flying Buffalo, but the first edition did mention Tarzan and Conan and Lord of the Rings.

The game Tunnels and Trolls is often called the second modern RPG, D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne each being born around the same time as T&T.  What was your main motivation in creating your game?  Did you read the other games and say I can do better?  Or was it basically a desire to cover areas in your work that were not covered?

Ken St. Andre:  You should understand that in the middle 70s I was already deeply involved with fandom and gaming.  I helped start a fan group in Phoenix where the chief activity was to get together on Friday nights and play board games.  In high school I was lucky enough to be in the first class to attend Maryvale High School in Phoenix.  I started the chess club there and the creative writing club.  I had already made my own Jetan Set, (from the Chessmen of Mars), and created my own Star Trek Board Game, Tarzan Jungle game, Barsoomian Hero Game.  I had already created a half dozen Diplomacy variant games for Diplomacy fandom. 

When I started to hear about a new game called Dungeons and Dragons in December 1974, I knew this was a game I wanted to play, but D&D was not happening in Phoenix, AZ at that time.  It was brand new.  I did not actually see or encounter the game until one Friday night in April 1975, when I was late to a gaming session and missing getting into the RISK game already in full swing.  One guy had brought his new white box edition of D&D to the party, and I wound up reading it for about an hour, while everybody else was playing RISK.  There was a lot about it that I did not understand.  I was not a miniatures gamer.  At least half of what I read did not make any sense to me, and there was no one around at the time in Phoenix to explain it, at least, no one I knew.   But I understood the basic idea of role-playing, and I said to myself that night, ‘What a great idea!  What a lousy way to do it! I will make something that I can play.’ So, I had never played D&D,  I didn’t even read the whole rules set.  I did not know that Professor Barker and Empire of the Petal Throne even existed.  I went to the public library the next day and checked out everything I could find on Medieval weapons and mythological monsters, and started taking notes and creating tables.  Based on the ideas that I had gleaned the night I spent reading D&D, I set down to create a game I could play with my friends – already used to playing my games, with rules that made sense to me.

For example, I had never seen polyhedral dice.  I decided my game would use all 6-sided dice.  I had no idea why characters moved in inches. I threw that out.  I need a quick way to measure how tough my monsters were going to be, that is, a quick way to give them a dice rating and a toughness rating.  I invented the monster rating system.  I needed a way to make checks against attributes to see if things worked or not, I invented my own saving rolls system.  I did not try to find out more about D&D.  I didn’t care about that game any more.  I wanted to invent my own game.  I didn’t know Empire of the Petal Throne existed.  It is just luck that T&T was published and copyrighted a few weeks before Empire was.

Being published/going through Flying Buffalo and Rick Loomis did T&T have a chance to become a huge success? I know it vied for space on the shelf with the vast number RPGs that exploded on the scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, but TSR and to some lesser degree Runequest released a lot of product, it seemed hard for me to find sellers of all the games…

Ken St. Andre: Tunnels and Trolls never had much of a retail presence, although there was a time in the late 70s when Flying Buffalo actually had a marketing person who tried to promote the game.  I self published the first edition of T&T, typed it up myself on my Remington 1907 typewriter, got my friend Rob Carver to contribute illustrations for the first edition, pasted it up with help from my friend Mark Anthony.  Flying Buffalo came into the picture at the end of the year when I asked Rick Loomis to try and sell the 40 copies I had left over of my initial 100 copy print run.  It turns out that he sold them all very quickly at the first gaming convention he took them to, and then he tried to buy the game from me.  I never sold him the rights, but made an author’s publishing deal with him.  When the first edition sold out, Rick wanted more, so I made a second edition, incorporating art from my new friend Liz Danforth, and all the improvements and suggestions that my gaming friends and I had come up within the first 6 months of playing.

I have a great appreciation for T&T for its solitaire play ability.  I also really enjoyed the flexibility of races and classes available to the players.  In many ways T&T was innovative and less rule centered and far more about fun than the other games on the market at the same time.  Yet, while there were moments of humor, T&T was never silly. The flavor and options to use the game master’s own input made T&T open to development in ways I saw that were stunted by others.

Ken St. Andre:  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, many gamers thought that T&T was silly gaming.  They especially picked on the spell names.  I didn’t have Magic missile and Fireball and Cure light wounds, and Charm monster.  I had Take that you fiend, and Poor baby, and Yassa Massa.   The first four editions of the game were all less than 60 pages long, and the longest sections were the weapons tables and the spell books.  From the beginning the game was meant to be something that the players could make their own.  Eventually a default setting – Trollworld – came to exist based on the world that I and my friends played in – but it was always big, and wide open.  Dungeons and Dragons developed out of miniature wargaming.  Tunnels and Trolls developed out of comics and literature.  Wargames are all about rules and the simulation.  Literature is all about the stories.  Although both games had the same inspirations in fantasy, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax came at their game from one direction and I came at mine from an entirely different worldview.

DT&T: I will ask many more questions here but, to begin, what started the desire to create a Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls?

Ken St. Andre: DT&T is the brainchild of Steven S. Crompton, an artist and writer who has done quite a bit of work for Flying Buffalo over the years.   T&T went out of print in 2011.  Rick had printed some 5000 copies of T&T 5.5 back in 2005, the same year FIERY DRAGON did the 7th Edition rules. T&T was one of the three major products that Flying Buffalo produced.  It couldn’t stay out of print.  Kickstarter was just getting going. 

Steve came up with the idea of getting the old gang back together to do a really nice – DELUXE – version of the game, and financing it through a Kickstarter campaign.  At the beginning of 2012 it seemed we had a choice to make.  Either do a new and better edition of Tunnels and Trolls, or let the game die out.  It’s my game.  I never intended it to let it die out.

We had some conferences that got the old gang back together – basically me and Liz, James Bear Peters, and Rick Loomis, with Steve himself as Chief Engineer.  (Note:  I did not call him the editor – Liz is the editor – Steve is the guy who’s job it is to pull all the pieces together and make the book/Game happen.)

It has proven to be a bigger project than we thought it would, and there have been some major setbacks in getting it finished, but we’re almost there.  It will be done in time for Gen-Con or we may all flee the country.

 Anytime I hear about a project noted for its elegance and simplicity over other works that are complex and complicated becoming Deluxe or going through a new revision I worry.  I think there is always a worry of losing the ease of play, in the case of games, and wonder if the new version of T&T in DT&T will be more rules and more complexity.  Is that going to happen, in your opinion?

Ken St. Andre: Whenever a game goes into a bigger, fancier edition, it is bound to get a little more complicated, but Deluxe will be very close to 7.5 in complexity. I wasn't adding any complexity to the rules--just better examples and stuff. Liz kept trying to make the game crunchier but mostly I and the members of Trollhalla managed to convince her that her elaborations and improvements were not such good ideas. For example, I have character level in 7.5 determined by the highest attribute. Liz wanted to go back to the idea that it had to be a key attribute for the character class, but the more she experimented and got feedback, the more it wound up being the way I wanted to do it in the first place. So, the game description is glitzier and a bit better organized, but the rules are basically unchanged.  We did include a hell of a lot of info about Trollworld, our setting, that most players have never seen before.

In Stormbringer you had the massive task of recreating in game format a character who is so very complex and dark, I couldn't imagine the game prior to reading it over.  Now, I read and enjoy Michael Moorcock's work.  I am not a fan of his characters in the sense of liking them as I would any of the characters of Robert E. Howard or Elizabeth Moon, but rather, I find them to be very nuanced, very complex, and worth digging into.  Elric is very deep and beyond nuanced, he is beautiful, yet a very ugly person in his cruelty. 
So, and this might seem unfair, but I don't mean it to be, when you make a game that features him, and his evil sword, are you celebrating the evil he does, are you suggesting by the game that players should be similarly motivated?  Or, if not, how do you create, through game play, the world of Moorcock's amazing subtlety and grace, without removing so much of its intrigue, darkness and the individual raison d'etre found in the books?  I am not a Pollyanna suggesting we should all play ultra moral High Crusade Paladins, but Elric was a troubled fella. 

Ken St. Andre: Elric was/is a troubled character, but he had his moments of peace. However, Elric is a NPC in my Stormbringer game.  Players take the roles of other heroes, and their characteristics and strengths are determined by their nationalities.  Stormbringer is mostly not a dungeon delving game -- it's more sword and sorcery intrigue.   I, of course, don't suggest anything in the game rules, except that players should roleplay their characters to the best of their abilities. And if the character you're playing happens to be a mother-raping, demon-summoning badass, well, the opposition created by the Game Master for you to play against, is still probably worse.

Tell the readers of this, please, what your dream project would be, if you could assemble a staff of your choosing and had unlimited funds. Would it be fantasy oriented?  Would it be a pen and paper and dice game, or would you make it a video game?  What haven't you done yet that you long to do in the game world?

Ken St. Andre: There are three dream projects I would like to do, but don't think I'll ever be able to.  They are all more-or-less computer games of the mmorpg type.  1). I'd like to set up Trollworld as a massive fantasy world for players to adventure in with rules basically taken from T & T.   2). I'd like to create an incredible space conflict and exploration game called Lords of the Spectrum that is based on Doc Smith's Lensman series--not a Lensman game, per se, but a galactic conquest game based on Lensman-like ideas.  3). I'd like to create a computer based mmo superhero rpg called Liberty City where lots of different things are happening all the time and players can make their own superhero characters and play them. They could also be villains.  Such a game would require both extensive scripting and a better AI for the NPCs than anything I've seen yet.   These are all very hard things to do, and I don't expect any of them to ever happen.  (And did you know, I do have a superhero version of Tunnels and Trolls called Power Trip?)

No I did not.  What are 5 movies that inspired you with regards to writing and creating adventures and T&T?

Ken St. Andre:  And here your questions fail. I can't say I ever drew much inspiration for T & T from the movies. I like movies, but all the good sword and sorcery films came years after we all started playing frpgs, and none of them can hold a candle to a good rp campaign. Perhaps the best is the Japanese anime: Record of Lodoss War--I think that's the title. But since that is really based on That Other Game, and I never saw it all, I can't even claim that as an inspiration. So, sorry, there is no list of movies for T & T watchers.

Is there a science fiction or fantasy book that would be too hard to adapt into game, either boardgame or RPG?

Ken St. Andre:  I like to think that I'm creative enough to make a game out of anything, and I think most other game designers are, too. That being said, there are books and comics  that don't seem interesting enough to make a game out of, or the games that could be made don't seem worth making. The purpose of any game is not to retell the same story as the book, but to look at the central conflict in a new fashion and explore other possibilities that could have arisen. IMHO.

You retired some short time ago, what changes have you gone through since, regarding game writing, just life changes, and has the additional time to write changed HOW you write?

Ken St. Andre: This question is hard to answer. The big change in a person's life when retirement comes, is having more free time to do things. The challenge is using that extra time productively. I had a big surge of inspiration and activity in 2012 and 2013.   I started my own imprint called Trollhalla Press, and created a whole new line of solo and g.m. adventures for Tunnels and Trolls. I did the writing, chose the artist, did the layout, and then got Flying Buffalo to publish them all. So for the first couple of years after retiring I had a big surge of creativity and drive that resulted in at least a dozen new scenarios and a novel (Griffin Feathers), and the Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls project. But lately, I've slowed down, and it seems like new brainchildren are getting further and further apart.  As for how I write, no, that hasn't changed at all. I simply sit down and dive in.  Write till I'm finished. Revise. Find an artist. Do the layout. Publish.

What movie, book, song or poem would you most like to adapt into game form?  Why?

Ken St. Andre: What makes you imagine I would want to turn someone else's inspirations into a game? I did that once with Moorcock's Elric stories and the game was called Stormbringer. It was, imho, a very good game, and I was proud of it, but I really liked Moorcock's writings anyway.  Now, I have no desire to turn other properties into a game--I'd rather work on my own ideas, few and far apart as they may be.

What is the future of table top games , both boardgame and RPG? Will the internet and Collectible Card Games kill the table top for board and RPG games?

Ken St. Andre: I believe that as long as there are tables there will be tabletop games. Playing face to face with other players is a different experience than computer or console gaming. This is a big world we live in, and there is room for every kind of game imaginable.  The last 50 years have shown us new ways to game, but the classics are still with us, and I hope they always will be.

Thanks Ken!

Find Ken on TWITTER
Find the new and soon released at DT&T

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