Photo by Jay Libby

Interview with David Edward Martin, TSR’s Ultimate Powers Book Master!

13898712_1178433228843899_1441290620_oJay: First, let me say thank you to David for taking time out of his day to do this interview for TSR’s Multiverse.

Before joining TSR, did you ever play any role-playing games? If so which one and what drew you to it?

David: I got into role playing games by accident. I was immersed in COLOSSAL CAVE on the company computer system. The head of new projects saw me and invited me to join his family’s Saturday night AD&D game. That was my… our intro to AD&D and role playing games in general. Next thing I knew I had dragged in my then-wife and two friends. Sometimes the games ran late into the night. One actually lasted until dawn. When the DM went into the Navy in ’83 I took over DM’ing. That would have been my intro to adventure design.

How did you end up working for TSR?

David: TSR was a hard nut to crack. I was the third of three family members to try to get in. Initially repulsed as a would-be staff or freelance artist, I ended up getting writing assignments after my then-wife was hired as editor a year and a half after she applied.

What projects did you work on at TSR?

David: My first assignment was a fortuitous accident. I was working on a personal research project, a compendium of all the superpowers ever to appear in comics, books, movies, and TV. About the same time TSR had a hole in their product schedule they HAD to fill in order to keep the company’s many creditors happy. Karen came home and asked me if I thought I could convert my pro13936703_1178434082177147_1886672933_nject into something for TSR’s Marvel Super-Heroes line. I had never played the game, I had never written anything longer than a 20 page paper in college, and I’d never used a computer for anything except playing Colossal Cave. “Yeah, sure, I think I can.” “Okay, and we need it in about 8 weeks.” right……….. Somehow everything worked out. A huge stack of index cards became THE ULTIMATE POWERS BOOK. It was released to no fanfare, no publicity, no reviews (aside from one Madison WI gamestore clerk who said it needed pictures…..

Jay: Which of course is a cult favorite among FASERIP fans.

David: That led to a second solo project THE FANTASTIC FOUR COMPENDIUM. That was followed the mutli-volume GAMER’S HANDBOOK TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE.

Who was your favorite person to hang out with at TSR?

David: Favorite Person to hang out with at TSR ? No question, Roger E Moore. Helluva nice guy. Kinda twitchy but with his background that is understandable. Karen and I would frequently barge in on the Moores in the evening. He taught me the trick of mixing diced tomatoes and Mexican-style Velveeta to make a taco dip. Second favorite was Helen Cook, wife of TSR’s head designer Zeb Cook. Being TSR spouses we had a lot of free time so we collaborated on some art projects together. And gossiped a helluva lot.

What was your favorite project?

David: Favorite projects are THE ULTIMATE POWERS BOOK and its half-siblings. Around 2000 a chance meeting with the head of WEST END GAMES resulted in DEPARTMENT OF EXTRA-NORMAL OPERATIONS : THE DIRECTIVE ON SUPER-POWERS. As he explained it to me (NOT his words but the basic spirit), “We were planning on ripping off your book. Would you like to rip it off for us?” Sure! Why not ? Besides, it gave me a chance to put into print things I’d left out of the UPB or which had not occurred to me until after it saw print. The DEO:DOS is the only “authorized” rip-off of the UPB, by the way.

What products have you done outside of TSR?

David: Products outside TSR– the aforementioned LSH modules for Mayfair’s DC HEROES line. For West End Games’ DC line, the aforementioned DEO:DOS and the DEO Field Agent Handbook, the latter being assembled from leftover DOS texts and some new material.

Are you currently involved in the gaming industry?

David: I’m not currently involved in the gaming industry. The TSR connection withered in the final years of TSR. Mayfair Games and WEG both imploded. But in case anyone asks, I have a few projects ready for development, from board games to an RPG/Novels line

What type of projects?

David: SUPERMARKET TABLOID The Game — players assemble tabloid headlines whole sabotaging their rivals.

IGOR ! The Mad Scientist Game — players send their Igors around the board to find components for their Mad Science Inventions. (Unfortunately that later movie used the same ideas. Oh well.)

Art by David Edward Martin

Art by David Edward Martin

Oh, another personal project– “CHICAGO 2050 : Paladins of the Post-Rational Age” It is a multi-genre RPG set primarily in the city-state of the Chicago Metroplex, population 68 million but also extending across the planet and as far as the second Martian expedition. The accompanying novel is “A CASE OF LYCANTHROPY and Other tales of the Post-Rational Age”. (Actually that was the 1978 seed for the whole glacially developed project.)

I noticed you do art as well as writing. Did you ever do any art for TSR, Mayfair Games, or West End Games?

David: Art– two illoes for AMAZING STORIES TSR — various emblems and support graphics for FORGOTTEN REALMS sets and modules A parody cover that first saw print in DRAGON #124, then became the first of two TSR catalog covers I did. Mostly my art has been sold thru

Art by David Edward Martin

Art by David Edward Martin

SF convention art shows.

Last question: What was the biggest lesson you learned while working at TSR?

David: Personal lesson, simple version : “Personal connections are the key to getting anywhere in the gaming industry.” It does not matter how many ideas or skills you have if you cannot get someone to open that door for you.

Marcro lesson : Game designers make lousy businessmen. They need an alliance with someone with a head for business WHOM THEY CAN TRUST.


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  1. Avatar
    David Edward Martin

    The second TSR catalog cover I did. This time it was an original piece filled with nods to all sorts of games then in release

  2. Avatar
    Ed Hastings (Killer Shrike)

    Yeah, I made no-joke hundreds of characters using the UPB way back in the day. Had a large three ring binder stuffed full of them. I’m still irritated these many years later that an unknown past gaming companion spirited away my copy at some point. By that time I had moved on to primarily Champions for superhero rpging, but the USB had a major impact and influence on me and I remember it fondly.

    The mechanics tended to be a bit…quirky in places, but the ideas! SO MANY IDEAS all crammed into such a compact page space. Amazing stuff, particularly for its era. As memory serves, after initially having fun with the random roll charts, my group eventually shifted into a sort of point buy model (though economized via ‘karma’) using the USB, and that kept us engaged with FASERIP / AMSH longer than we otherwise would have continued to play it. Much fun was had, and thanks for the memories!

    1. Avatar
      David Edward Martin

      “The mechanics tended to be a bit…quirky in places”
      Oh man, I still laugh that I was able to pull this off in a form that mostly made sense. I never played the game. Not before not after. Everything was interpolations based on existing texts. That and reminding myself that Beethoven, being deaf, could not actually hear the compositions he created.
      I’m glad everyone enjoyed the book and had a good time modifying the UPB to some form that fit their needs.

  3. Avatar
    Anthony Emmel

    I loved that PHB homage cover for the Mail Order Hobby Shop!

    We were in high school back in the day, and there was a “perceived rarity of the UPB, and it was the book to have!

    1. Avatar
      David Edward Martin

      The UPB had a single print run of 50,000 copies. By 1991 the last copy was sold.
      I have no idea when it became a rarity. I just know I saw a guy holding a copy at a ’90s Gencon and standing in line for the submissions table at the game auction.
      “So, you’re going to sell it?”
      “Yep! For a LOT of money!”

  4. Avatar
    Joe Morrissey

    The UPB and the effects chart on the back of the Player’s Handbook was all we kids needed to create years of adventures both in and out of the Marvel Universe. From our own “us” as heroes adventures to arena battles on the kitchen table, I learned a lot about game design, player attention, and what is “fun” from those books. Now people pay me to do essentially the same thing and for some reason keep paying me. Thanks for putting in the work and capturing the attention of a young, impressionable mind.

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