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Saturday, May 9, 2009

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Interview: Ken St. Andre (Creator of Tunnels & Trolls)-

(c) Copyright 2009 Ken St. Andre and Kyrinn S. Eis All Rights Reserved

The following is an interview with Tunnels & Trolls creator, Ken St. Andre, conducted via e-mail and re-printed here with his knowledge and permission.

* Timeshadows: Hello, Ken. Welcome to The Grand Tapestry. The bar wench will bring you a frosty mead in a moment. Do you mind if we get right into the interview?

Hello, Kyrinn,
Thanks for showing me The Grand Tapestry. Can't we just stick to the mead, best drunk warm, my lady, and skip the interview? Ah, I remember swilling mead with the Society for Creative Anachronism when I was a young and solitary troll--those were good times. To tell the truth, I'd much rather cavort with the barmaid than ramble on about ancient glories, but I guess an old troll has to take whatever pleasures are offered to him. So ask away . . .

* T: Alright, then. I know from other interviews, as well as our personal correspondence, that your original Point of View as regards Tunnels & Trolls was that of the fantasy titles that comic book publisher Marvel (and DC?, others?) put out in the '60-70's. Do you mind listing a few of the titles?

Marvel Comics made history with the release of Conan the Barbarian comics back in about 1970 with art by Barry Smith. I was already a big Conan fan, and I started buying them with the very first issue, which I still have somewhere in my back room. Conan was popular and other swords and sorcery comics appeared. Lin Carter's Thongor appeared in Creatures on the Loose even before Conan. D. C . Comics did an adaptation of the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd. I'm not going to do a history of fantasy in comics here, but there was plenty of good stuff available back in the 70s. I never saw a really good version of Lord of the Rings though (I saw some not so good ones).

* T: Which of those were your favourites, and what made them appealing?

I bought every sword and sorcery item I could find in those days. It wasn't as common as it is now. Conan, in any form, was my favorite, but I identified a bit with the Grey Mouser and also with Elric of Melnibone. Not that I was as short as a child or an albino by any means, but I never had the muscles of Conan, and always figured I'd live by my wits instead of my brawn in any fantasy world.

What made them appealing? Adventure, monsters, scantily clad women. All that carried over from my childhood love of Tarzan. Bookish, nerdy honor student Ken St. Andre would have done anything to be a fantasy hero--anything except join a gym and actually build muscles.

* T: With that knowledge, the 'explosive' Ability-score-growth of T&T makes more sense. Do you think that employing the 2-point per level Ability scheme found in Michael Stackpole's Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes would 'work' with T&T, or is the game intrinsically cinematic and for a lack of better word, 'heroic'?

Stackpole's MSPE was an attempt to do two things with T & T. He/We wanted to show that the game system could be used in any setting--and what is further from classic fantasy than 20th century detective/espionage fiction? And we wanted to add the whole concept of Skills to the Tunnels and Trolls rules. Mike jumped in and did all that with MSPE, and it worked well enough, but it never really satisfied me or caught my interest. Perhaps it's because I'm more of a swordsman than a shooter. In my youth I fenced (with foils and sabers), I wielded a 2-handed greatsword for the SCA kingdom of Atenveldt, I took archery in college and actually made the archery team for a semester--that despite having terrible vision. I could shoot, too, but I didn't shoot much or often.

As for the game being cinematic, imho, all role-playing games are inherently cinematic. They are crammed with fascinating characters and dangerous situations. The difference is in the game masters. A dull GM like me reduces it to an evening of jokes and dice rolling while a cinematic GM like Larry DiTillio (he of Babylon 5 fame) will deliver an adventure that you remember all your life.

* T: May I take us back a bit further?

Blow in my ear, and you can take me anywhere. :)

* T: demure smile

You have to understand that I was already designing my own games, (I did a Star Trek board game with competing empires that we spent many a Friday evening playing at the Cosmic Circle meetings) and writing my own fiction long before I ever heard of Dungeons and Dragons. I was heavily into fantasy, and hoped to write it for myself some day. Then around the end of 1974 I began to hear about this fantasy game called Dungeons and Dragons, but in the godforsaken wilderness that was Phoenix at the time, in the days before the internet, something you heard about in California was kind of hard to find in Phoenix. I was eager to play it, but clueless.

Then, on a gaming night visit, I finally found someone with the original boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons that he was showing off. No one was playing the game. Nobody knew how yet. But I borrowed it and read through it for a couple of hours. A lot of it made no sense to me. I had no background in miniatures, so talk about moving so many inches per turn was just gibberish. And the dice! What the heck was a 4-sided die, or a 10-sided one. Eight, twelve, and twenty sides!!! Not possible. At least, not obtainable by me at that time.

But I came away from my reading with a basic idea of what the game was supposed to be about. Adventurers invading the strongholds of wizards and monsters and coming back with treasure. Hey, this was just like the Conan stories I loved. I had to have this game, and if I couldn't easily get one, I wasn't about to wait. I would invent my own. And I wouldn't just copy what I'd read, but I'd make what seemed logical to me. Yes, adventurers needed attributes, and those attributes would be Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. What the heck good was Wisdom? Luck made a lot more sense. And they would need weapons and armor and magic. So, off to the library to research weapons and monsters. What does armor do? It absorbs damage. It doesn't make you harder to hit. Armor makes you easier to hit--it's heavy and slows you down, but if the hits bounce off, you don't get hurt.

And I used my antique typewriter and I wrote down everything about how to make a character, and how to make a monster and I created a dozen pages or so of something I could use to create that fantasy gaming experience that I had been hearing about. I tried it on my friends. They liked it. They kept borrowing and copying my notes, which were getting ragged fast, and they gave me ideas I hadn't considered at the beginning--like other kindreds. Why not play elves, and dwarves, and hobbits, and leprechauns? How could I have overlooked missile weapons? What do you do if you're in trouble--saving rolls were born--all on luck originally, but it didn't take long to generalize the idea to the other attributes. And it got to be such a pain having people borrow my notes that I vowed to produce a rulesbook for everyone. And by midsummer, with a lot of help from my friends, Bear Peters, Marc Anthony, Steve McAllister, Rob Carver, I got the first edition of Tunnels and Trolls typed up and illustrated and pasted together, and off to the Arizona State University print shop. 100 copies.

Basically, I saw a need, I jumped in and did something, and I got a deal with a gaming company--Flying Buffalo--that got my game out in the wider world beyond my own circle of friends. In those days everyone was creating their own versions of Dungeons and Dragons, but most people didn't publish, and their versions were closer to the original than mine, probably because they had played the original and understood it better. Thus, most of their variants perished and were absorbed back into the mainstream of D & D while T & T varied ever further from that basic inspiration to become the game it is today.

* T: What role do the fans of Tunnels & Trolls have in the release of, first, 7th Edition, and more recently, 7.5?

Fans provide demand. The idea that people would want the game enough to buy it is very inspiring to a writer/game designer. They also provide encouragement and feedback. T & T never really had any playtesting. I put it out there, and people played the games. If it didn't work for them, the rules say go ahead and change it to suit yourself. If someone told me how and why it didn't work, I might try something different via house rules which in turn might show up in the next edition. The current rate of advancement by using adventure points came from fans. 100 times the current attribute was way too slow for tournament games at a convention, but fans loved the ten times current attribute rate. Thus, to take STR from 9 to 10 only required 90 adventure points, and you could get that many in a couple of fights easily. Fans caused that change. Talents came about in 7.0 because of a perceived need (from fans) for Skills in T & T, and because I didn't like the mechanical sort of way Stackpole implemented them in MSPE.

* T: As an avid reader, I know you have a fairly expansive, favourite authors list, but I was wondering if you would share a few of them with us, as well as which stories/novels in particular you were most inspired by?

My favorite authors are all adventure writers: Edgar Rice Burroughs, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Ken St. Andre (heh) and in comics I'd have to say my all-time favorite was Roy Thomas. There are hundreds of others that I like and admire very much, but those would be my tops.

* T: You have published fiction in Mage's Blood & Old Bones, and in your first novel, Griffin Feathers. How was that experience, and can we look forward to more fiction from you in the near future?

I always wanted to be a writer. I always thought I was. I've just been working a bit harder at it this last few years. And yes, there will be more fiction from me, right up until I die. Right now, you can read the continuing adventures (diary) of Lerotrahh on Twitter. It's fun, telling a story, 140 characters at a time.

* T: I recently saw your Top 25 RPGs list, and noticed several similarities to mine, even excepting our favourite KSA titles such as Monsters! Monsters! and Chaosium's Stormbringer. Tunnels & Trolls placed in the Top-10, didn't it?

Tunnels and Trolls came in 8th (behind 3 versions of D & D which I think should have ll been lumped together) in the RPGBlogII list of the top 25 rpgs. He got 150 responses, and I mobilized Trollhalla at the end to vote for T & T. Nothing like a little ballot box stuffing.

* T: One of our Top-10's, both, was MAR ('Phil') Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne (originally published by TSR). What comes to mind when you think of that product or Tekumel in general?

I heard about Tekumel from the beginning, and I love the world creation that Barker did with it. It's easy to see pre-Columbian and Japanese influences on the game along with other exotic cultures. Most of my familiarity with Tekumel comes from Barker's excellent novels about it--those I really admired. Barker and I exchanged letters once only back in the days before email, where he advised me to be more open-minded about other people's creations. I've tried to take that advice, but I never became a Barker follower.

* T: What is your current level of involvement with Tunnels & Trolls? Are there new T&T products by KSA being produced? Where does T&T live these days? Can you tell us more about Outlaw Press' as a producer of current and older-edition products?

I am more heavily involved with T & T these days than ever before. A lot of it comes from running the fanclub a Trollhalla
Jim Shipman of Outlaw Press is always after me to write stuff. With all the encouragement I'm getting, it's easy and fun to turn out new stuff for the game. The creation of T & T 7 and 7.5 has given me back that sense of evolution in the game that we had in the early years when I went through 5 editions in 8 years.

Outlaw Press is the creation of James L. Shipman, and it has figured prominently in the renaissance of Tunnels and Trolls in the marketplace. The best thing any T & T fan could do (or even if you're just curious) is visit their website and look around.

* T: Thank you, Ken St. Andre.

Thanks for giving me this chance to talk, Kyrinn. But I've probably put my foot as far into my mouth as I can get it for now. Now, where did that barmaid with the mead get to? (Trollgod looks around for action.)