Several days ago I received an e-mail from Paul Stormberg
of The Collector's Trove
, advertising the company's upcoming auction of the Allen Hammack Collection
. Several items and images in that e-mail caught my eye, and thus I inquired if Allen would mind if I asked a few questions and posted his responses on my blog. He very graciously accepted, and the results of that interview are include here, together with various of my own interjections concerning the replies...
My questions hardly cover Allen's entire career; I merely asked about a few of the items on his long list of accomplishments that were pertinent to my own interests. Allen's list of accomplishments in the industry is quite extensive, covered fairly well in The Collector's Trove's blurb included with the auction listing e-mail:
Allen started at TSR as a games editor in 1978, developing, and contributing some writing to scores of TSR roleplaying products notably including the Dungeons & Dragons Holmes Basic Set (1978 editions) and Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic/Expert Sets (1980 editions), AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, Deities & Demigods, Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, Dungeon Masters Screen, NPC, Character, and Permanent Character Record Sheets, Monster Cards, World of Greyhawk Folio, Boot Hill (2nd edition), Dawn Patrol, Gamma World, Gangbusters, Marvel Super Heroes, and dozens of supporting adventure modules. He served in the same capacity for several of the company's boardgames, counting 4th Dimension, Divine Right, Knights of Camelot, Dungeon! (1980 revision), and Escape from New York boardgames.
His major design and writing collaborations include TSR's Top Secret that he co-designed and developed with Merle Rasmussen for about a year before the game was ready for publication. He was also part of the larger design team that produced TSR's science fiction RPG entry into the market, Star Frontiers. In addition to these large projects, Allen also had a major role as a co-designer on TSR's AD&D Monster Manual II, Monster Cards, and the legendary Slavers' series of adventure modules.
Allen was the primary designer and writer for several of TSR's classic games and modules including A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness, and the minigame, Viking Gods.
He also designed several freelance products, such as TSR's I9 Day of Al'Akbar and Mayfair's Fantastic Treasures I and II, and Monsters of Myth & Legend III. He also designed and developed other games for Mayfair including their DC Heroes roleplaying game and an unpublished G.I. Joe roleplaying game that he pitched to Hasbro.
Allen quickly turned around my extensive list of questions, prefacing them simply with, "Let me start as I start all such interviews, which is that the preface to all my answers is 'To the best of my recollection'! Some of these answers go back 45 years, and my memory certainly isn’t perfect!" :)
Q: How and when did you get involved in gaming? Did you come in through board or war games, or start off with RPGs?
A: I played chess, bridge, and Risk in junior high and wanted something less abstract. I started wargames with Blitzkrieg and soon expanded to play all the Avalon Hill and SPI wargames. This was around 1969 or so. I joined Sparta International Competition League to play in tournaments, and was highly ranked in Waterloo. Sparta introduced me to miniatures games of all periods, and eventually we played TSR’s Chainmail with the fantasy supplement—wizards and Nazgul and trolls, oh my!
One of my local friends had seen or played with Gary Gygax at a convention where Gary was running a pre-publication version of Dungeons & Dragons, and our friend told us about it. *old geezer voice* Back in the day it was possible to play all (or nearly all) of the games that were published, so we jumped on the boxed set of D&D as soon as it came out. By 1975 we had multiple campaigns running in our area, including mine.
Q: What was your overall experience like with the early RPG’s? You are a designer and developer; was that a natural development from the start or did that develop as you played?
A: In our group, almost everyone who played D&D also ran a campaign, so everyone who is a DM gets a little design experience—there were no published adventures in the beginning! The difference is while in college I also had a minor in English and worked part-time for newspapers, so I got more writing and editing experience in those jobs.
Development training was when I inherited dungeons, maps, and adventures from other DMs who moved away, lost interest, or whatever. I would make changes to make them more consistent with my campaign (level of monsters and treasure, etc.). At TSR I pushed for the addition of a “Developer” credit for work that was more than a playtester or copy editor but less than a full editor. Some execs at TSR were very stingy with credits; I tried to change that mentality.
Q: What were your early (ca. 75 to 77) games like? What styles did you play? What was your experience like as a Dungeon Master in the early days? Do you have any fun and interesting or illustrative anecdotes about your games from that era?
A: A player today would almost not recognize the game. We had to ink or paint half the numbers on a 20-sided die a different color to represent 11-20, because the numbers were 0-9 twice. Miniatures weren’t readily available, so we used 3x5 index cards. These cards were also our character sheets, so it kind of self-regulated encumbrance by a limit of what we could fit on a card. We rolled 3D6 in order, and the rolls pretty much determined what class we would be. It was a point of pride to make characters with lousy stats last a long time, but death was permanent with us. No character had enough experience or wealth to be able to use Raise Dead.
We also insisted players make their own maps, and player mapmaking (and map-reading) were important skills. At least a couple of players with not-great combat technique were tolerated because they were good mappers. It somehow seemed like a real party would be, with individual strengths and weaknesses. This also explains why a lot of my dungeons were massive and had nonsensical corridors—if you could confuse the mapper, the party could get lost in the dungeon. We actually had characters that never found their way out of Inverness and died there.
Q: There is a definitive literary influence in your game design; who were your primary influences? Your favorite authors and why?
A: I could write a chapter on this—so many! Tolkien, of course. Howard, Leiber, Carter, Norton, Vance, McCaffrey. On the SF side, Heinlein, Spider Robinson, Clarke, Asimov, Alan Nourse. I also enjoyed the Doc Savage Bantam adventures, and the first non-picture book I got was a Tom Swift, Jr., so I got hooked on SF very early.
If you know Tolkien, Howard's Conan & Red Sonja, Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, and the entirety of Robert Heinlein, you’ll know a lot about me and my campaigns (and personality!).
|Allen's Inverness Campaign Map|
: Your campaign setting adapts, at least in name and some geography, many elements from the world of the Gondwane
series (The Warrior of World’s End
) from Lin Carter
. Were the influences merely on the map or was the setting strongly influenced by Carter’s work (and if so, how so)?
A: See above—I certainly read and enjoyed World’s End and Witch World and Dying Earth and the others. No, I simply wasn’t ever a good artist, but I was fascinated my maps in the books I read. When my campaign started I had completed one dungeon and Inverness was underway (being built slightly ahead of the players’ explorations), but I was under time pressure to build a world to place them in. Using some techniques from wargame maps, I crammed in countries, rivers, and city names from three or four fantasy series that I was reading onto a large hex-grid posterboard and decided I’d fill in details on the countries and cities if and when players went there. I followed rough similarities to the books—the Witch World areas had a lot of female magic-users, for example.
: I myself created a map based on Lin Carter's Northern YammaYamma Land map from the World's End
series, which can be found here
as a mega-dungeon... Is this post-Groan occupation, now filled with weird monsters and a few remnants of the old staff (sort of like Castle Amber
)? Or something else altogether? What were the best deaths in the dungeon?
A: Gormenghast was a mega-dungeon I inherited from a friend. I expanded some of the levels and heavily modified the encounter key (really a couple of booklets) to make them compatible with my campaign. There are many references to Titus Groan in the dungeon, but the players never got deep enough to find him. If you had to set a time, it would be during or shortly after the second novel but before Titus left.
: How did you make the leap from player to designer at TSR?
A: In 1975 and 1976 several friends and I attended the first two Origins conventions in Baltimore and then GenCon IX, piling into an RV for a week of driving and gaming. We had gotten the governor to declare us the Alabama State Wargaming Team, and all had the t-shirts! We were part of the winning team (they were huge) in the D&D tourney at Origins, and then at GenCon I won the Best Mage in the AD&D Open (awards were by class that year). Along the way I started writing to and for The Dragon magazine, so my name started getting known by Gary and by Tim Kask, who let some of us stay at his house for the Winter Fantasy con in 1977 or 1978.
There was an ad for an editor in the back of The Dragon in very early 1978. I was working on finishing my Masters in chemistry, but I applied on a lark and promptly forgot about it. I had a bit of experience with newspapers, but I never thought I was really in the running—but I was very competitive! That summer of 1978 I went to GenCon at UW-Parkside, and was on my way to run an event when Gary waved me over (he was standing in line for food). He said, “When can you start?” I stammered, “When would you like me?”, and Gary said, “First of the month!” So, I had less than two weeks to finish GenCon, drive back to Alabama, make all my arrangements, and move to Wisconsin!
: Tell us about your work on Top Secret
. What do you recall of the design and development? What was it like working with Merle Rasmussen on the game? Were there any elements of the game that you would have done differently? What are your favorite anecdotes from playing Top Secret
A: Merle was a pleasure to work with, so much so that we later hired him! These were the days of typewriters, carbon copies, and mailing manuscript changes back and forth, so it was a slow process. I knew it was going to be a fun game, but we had to go a long way from the thick stack of typewritten sheets. Merle is good at lists; if I asked him to give me a list of 20 weapons, he’d send me a list of 40—then I’d have to edit it back down to 20! Mostly I remember that we both did a lot of typing!
What would I have changed? With perfect hindsight, I would have changed the hand-to-hand combat system. It was cumbersome. Merle and I are teamed up again on a new unnamed espionage RPG, code-named Acrid Herald. Keep an eye on Merle or me on Facebook for release information (not for many months). I think we have a much better game mechanic (including the dreaded HTH combat!) for this system.
Oh, my favorite anecdote is still the FBI visit. During in-house playtesting, we had a campaign that was essentially a PBM (play-by-mail) system, using notes and memos turned into a referee (similar to Diplomacy). The ref would adjudicate moves and orders and publish results in a “newspaper” of current events. This was a very strategic-level simulation, with players being heads of countries (or their intelligence divisions). Anyway, we were scattered in different buildings then, and the messages had to get from the downtown former hotel where the designers were to the Sheridan Springs building (where others were).
Somehow, a note ordering an assassination attempt on NPC William Weatherby was dropped in public by the referee, and found by someone who told the FBI. I was one of two people playing the KGB and had written the order, and I know it was delivered properly to the ref, so the security breach was on him! The FBI did make an inquiry to our company, and they were not surprised when they found out there was not an active KGB hit squad operating in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but they did their due diligence. As is often the case, all publicity is good, and this did get the game a lot of press coverage.
: C2: Ghost Tower of Inverness
... how do the tournament module and the published module differ from the original? What anecdotes can you tell us about survivors (and victims) of the dungeon in your original games? What was the strongest literary influence on Ghost Tower
A: The published module was for a tournament, and therefore I wanted to offer the same challenges to all players. I had played in tournaments where random choices with no information could waste a lot of precious game time (“You see 12 identical cave openings in the hill ahead. What do you do?”), so the module is still a plot “rail-gun” , but initially with the illusion of choice—you still have to go down all the corridors. Optional encounters were not in the original tournament, but added to give more play-value to the published module.
The campaign version was designed on small graph paper to allow for larger-scale levels. Because mapping was critical for players back then, there are a number of features to confuse the players and to require mappers to use many sheets of regular-scale graph paper. There are multiple below-ground levels, because back then the depth of the level was a strong guide to what would now be called the Challenge Rating of the monsters there; the deeper levels were more dangerous (see Moria!). The concept of the central keep as time-lost was still being developed and wasn’t described in my notes and key.
One great story from there involved leaving a PC who was wounded on the trip out to Inverness from their base city, which was several days (remember the old “Lost” die roll chance?). For some reason the party decided the wounded guy would be a drain on their resources or slow them down, so they left him to get back to the city. Now expeditions frequently spent several weeks in a dungeon once they got there, due to the dangers of overland travel. After some successful finds and a couple of weeks, they were on their way up and out of Inverness when, near the entrance they had come in, giant scorpions attacked. They decided exiting was their best strategy and ran to the door. They were very surprised to find new brickwork sealing the door! The abandoned player had—played out with me in a separate room—gone into town, paid for healing, and hired some laborers to come out with him to brick the door up. A dwarf with a military pick was able to break through in a few rounds, but casualties were high in an act of sweet revenge!
What was the greatest literary influence on Ghost Tower? Well, the name (and only the name, not the plot) was suggested by and a hat tip to a weird radio serial. As I’ve said before, it’s not related at all to the real city of Inverness in Scotland. I have always enjoyed time-travel stories, so inspiration was found in The Time Machine, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, Vonnegut's Timequake, and Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself. Cheesy though it was, I also liked the TV show The Time Tunnel. I was not aware of Doctor Who at the time, but it’s now a favorite of mine.
Too many books to count employed the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) as part of the structure. I am still pleased how long it takes players to recognize the theme as they struggle upwards. Also, I had always played in traditional “deeper is more dangerous” dungeons, so I thought it would be fun to turn it on its head and make players fight their way UP for a change!
A: Not much of the campaign made it into A3 because we were trying to give an equivalent challenge to each round. The two parts of A1 and A2, and the first part of A3 were each first-round adventures in the tournament. Human nature (especially gamers) being what it is, some knowledge was always leaked between the first slot of a tournament and subsequent runnings of the first round, The result was that the last running of the first round usually resulted in higher scores because of accrued knowledge and metagaming. In this tournament all first-round slots were new adventures, and it worked—we had advancing teams from every first-round slot.
Q: The city of Suderham from A3; how much of a hand did you have in the design of the city? Other than Gary Gygax’s Erelhei-Cinlu, vaguely outlined in D3: Vault of the Drow (and to a lesser extent T1: Village of Hommlet and L1: Secret of Bone Hill) , Suderham was the first city environment so thoroughly outlined that was published by TSR. Was it based on Gary’s Greyhawk works or otherwise? Was it ever more developed and used at TSR by the development team?
A: I did not get to play often in Gary’s Greyhawk, so no, that wasn’t an influence. The city of Suderham (“South Home”, referring both to Alabama and a hat tip to my friend Dave Sutherland) was, for the tournament, fancy window dressing to get the players to the underground. At the time, tournament adventures tended to be dungeons, dungeons, and more dungeons, so I wanted to give players a rare chance at an urban environment. Different skill sets would be needed for a bit, what we would later call Gather Information, Bluff, Streetwise, and Diplomacy.
I had read a lot of history and had participated in the SCA, which in our group at least had a lot of educational presentations as well as fighting. Anyway, I knew I wanted a wall and guards, and to have the city divided into quarters. I got together with the artists and gave them sketches of what I wanted, and they came up with the excellent maps. I think they might have preserved certain aspects of the maps on overlays that the artists could incorporate into parts of future projects involving cities, but Suderham specifically was never developed further.
In my campaign taverns tended to favor certain classes, or maybe they just hung out there. Fighting Man’s Haven is obvious, the Sign of the Magic Missile was popular with spell-casters, etc. The names were all from taverns used in my campaigns or in local campaigns that I played in, as were some character and NPC names.
Why are there brothels in my cities? Well, they certainly existed in all societies, but primarily I included them to be a bit rebellious and push the envelope. We designers (and the artists) constantly played a game where we pushed the restrictions that our Mrs. Grundy bosses sought to impose. Dave Sutherland used to draw tiny biplanes into wizard hats in honor of the Fight in the Skies WWI game. I used a brothel as a very important clue to proceed, using very delicate wording and without--ahem!--requiring a purchase. Artists enjoyed drawing suggestive clothing on models, or would have shadows were more provocative than the figures who cast them. In Top Secret one illustration has a woman with a pistol wearing a ring with my initials. All of these were “us against the man” tiny rebellions that we tried to slip past bosses who were sometimes (in our view) nitpicky bean-counters.
| A harem in Suderham as depicted by Bill Willingham|
Q: What was it like working in the “designer’s bullpen” back in the day? What helped, being together with all the other designers? What wasn’t all that helpful?
A: One of the beautiful things about D&D (and all RPGs) is the demonstration that group-think is almost always better for finding solutions to puzzles. I think this is part of the current popularity of escape or breakout rooms. In “the bullpen” (though we never called it that), there was never a shortage of creativity—if someone started with an idea, others would add improvements or alternatives and it would snowball. If someone had a not-so-great idea it would become brutally obvious fairly quickly—although we respected each other tremendously and were polite, gamers in general and designers in particular are, shall we say, blunt.
Sometimes we’d see the “death by committee” effect of a thousand cuts. There comes a time in a project cycle where the designer, developers, and editors need to let it go and just inspect it for flaws and polish the gem, instead of making one last little change.
: What is the story behind the “GI Joe RPG
Development Materials?” Was that an official TSR
project for Hasbro
or something you were working on yourself?
A: That was definitely not TSR at all. After the mass layoffs of 1983, I returned to Alabama and opened the Lion and Unicorn book, game, and comic store. I was writing freelance for Mayfair and was approached more than once by people who walked in off the street with game ideas. A guy came in to talk to me about doing a GI Joe RPG. I said, “Hasbro will never license that out. They won’t even listen to you.” He knew someone at Hasbro who could get us a meeting; I could design the game. It intrigued me, and I quickly thought of a way to make an extremely simple RPG-ish game using the action figures instead of miniatures. The game would have to be very simple to be playable by the young end of the GI Joe target market.
I developed a boxtop-length rule set with one easy component to keep costs down. The neat thing about this was that even if only a small percentage of GI Joe buyers played the game, the sheer numbers of the buyers would make this a hugely successful game. Cha-ching!
Alas, it was not to be. We flew to New York, had a good meeting, but evidently that VP wasn’t able to convince others to approve the project. Another great game shot down by bean-counting executives who don’t understand games… :)
Q: After your TSR days, did you continue to game on a regular basis? If so, what did you play? Did you remained tied in to the broader gaming culture and society?
A: As I said, I returned to Birmingham, Alabama and opened a game and book store. As part of the store, we would often go to regional cons as a vendor. I attended GenCon until it left Milwaukee, so I kept my hand in with the industry. I also wrote my three books for Mayfair Games and I9 for TSR as a freelancer during this period. This was a part of my life where I was too busy with the game industry to actually have time to play games, which is not a great place to be. I’m now playing almost every weekend with my local group.
I am very pleased when conventions ask me to be a guest, and if it’s financially possible I’m happy to go. The great hospitality of Gamehole Con, GaryCon, and NTRPG Con have allowed me to run a lot of games for their attendees and to reconnect with a lot of old industry friends and make new ones.
: Was I9: Day of Al’Akbar
an outgrowth of another campaign setting or further development of your earlier setting? How did that get published; did you send it in as a freelancer, or had it been sitting in the slush pile at TSR for several years since your employment there?
A: It was not while I was at TSR. I had written my books for Mayfair and was obviously available for freelance work. I believe Bruce Heard approached me (not sure, there was a lot of networking involved!) with the offer of a module. I liked digging up things from the very early days of D&D. When the list of artifacts came out in OD&D it was very cool, but no DM in our group dared allow any player character near one of those things! As a result, we never got to use them, which I thought was a shame. I pulled out the Cup and Talisman as the least likely to destroy a campaign, and Bruce agreed. This was, of course, long before world events would make such a subject or title unlikely to be published.
: How did you end up writing Fantastic Treasures I
for Mayfair Games
? What were your design ideals behind those books? Were you scheduled to do two books, or did the project just grow so large that you needed to dived the treasures into two books?
A: After all the layoffs at TSR, I had former colleagues scattered all over the gaming landscape (Mayfair, Pacesetter, Coleco, etc.). By then I knew several people at Mayfair, so I let it be known I was available for freelance. They asked what I wanted to write, and I said something from mythology. We had touched on it briefly with TSR articles and books, but I wanted to go more in-depth. I also wanted an answer to the rules geeks of the time who knew the stats of every single magic item in the DMG so well it was impossible to fool them. I wanted players to have the sense of discovery (and dread) when they find something new and magical.
It was scheduled to be one book, but when I said the material for two was there they had no problem dividing it. I spent many nights in the libraries using reference materials that couldn’t leave the library (pre-internet, kiddies!). There were a lot of handwritten notes and retyping (no laptops, children!). I also interviewed a number of international students to get a sense of what traditional myths and stories they were being told as modern children.
The third book was Monsters of Myth & Legend III, covering several mythoi and focusing on the monsters and strange creatures therein. By the time Fantastic Treasures II was finished, Mayfair had already contracted MML 1 and 2 to other writers--I would have enjoyed getting to write all of them! Again, my pitch was to introduce unfamiliar monsters and magic to know-it-all players who had memorized all the existing ones and how to deal with them.
Q: What kind of gaming have you done since your days as a professional designer? What are you playing these days (RPG, board, war game, other)? Do you still have a regular campaign?
A: Yes, I have a campaign, although my players would argue that it is anything but regular! Our local group rotates among several DMs, but my professional commitments have reduced the number of times I can DM. I will have them cowering before me again soon… We’re pretty locked in on the 3.5 system because we all have all the books, but the campaigns vary widely in level. My niece runs an aquatic world.
I regularly go to the Chattanooga Rail Game Challenge, which is a weekend full of train games in an extremely competitive Puffing Billy tournament. I enjoy the Empire Builder-type games from Mayfair, Ticket to Ride, On the Underground, Union Pacific, and Metro.
I still like miniatures and wargames, though those are mostly confined to conventions for me now. The inventiveness and work done by people amazes me.
I enjoy Puerto Rico, and the concept and play of the co-op games (Shadows over Camelot, The Captain is Dead) can be intriguing as well. Online I also sometimes play World of Warcraft and am a backer of Star Citizen.
I recognize that there are certain types of popular games I just don’t like or can’t get my head around. The 18xx tile-laying stock games seem too much like real-life work to me. Games with too much bookkeeping lose appeal to me. The newer games that have cavalcades of victory points from 18 different methods aren’t fun for me. My friends joke that I like boards with hexagons because there’s no lying (“diplomacy”) involved—the traditional wargames with zones of control and “D Back 2” results! :)
Q: Do you have any plans to publish your campaign or any of the materials from back in the day? Any plans to delve back into design and publishing?
A: I recently contributed an article and a trap to a collection of essays Jim Ward is coordinating from various famous authors through Goodman Games. Publishing the campaign? The truth is “not at this time”, but I never say never. Night of the Black Swords, available from Diecast Games, is a module based on a tournament I wrote for a convention long ago after I left TSR. The publisher made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so who knows what the future may bring? Keep watching!
|Allen with Inverness Module, in front of the real Castle Inverness, in Inverness Scotland!|