It’s not every day when we get to enjoy seeing writer Robert J. Kuntz chime in on WG5 and all things tabletop RPG, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: WG5 was published thirty-two years ago. Where has the time gone? How have you been?
RJK: I’m at the top of my form, really. The years in between seemed to pass too quickly. Lots learned, much more digested, more forwarded. Thoughts thrown out that once appeared relevant; conclusions reached, products produced, awards won, mistakes made and learned from, milestones passed. And still, here we are!
Q: Are you living overseas these days? Whereabouts? What do you like most about it there?
RJK: Yes. I live in Corsica (France) with my lovely wife, Nathalie; and she is also what I like most about living here. Then comes the mountain on which we reside, the old Genoese castle above and the splendid view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Lots of solitude here, which I prefer, but lacking also in some American conveniences that many of us take for granted.
Q: What was it like for you, playing the Robilar character, in those early days of the hobby?
RJK: No interviewer can pass by the connection, that far-roving distinction between the designer and the player, the writer and what is written. I get more demands for anecdotes from those days than I deem warranted, as the stories tend to cycle again and again, kind of like a grandpa’s “story time” that we might experience over a holiday chat only to re-approach it in different ways for the next meeting. What more can I add that has not been recounted time and again? So, rather than a specific retelling I will concentrate on what I learned from playing Robilar at an evolutionary phase in game history.
One must appreciate that I was a budding game designer literally surrounded by the likes of Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, John Bobek, Jeff Perren, and many, many others, all proven or up-and-coming designers in their own right. Then comes Arneson’s concept; then the LGTSA’s play-testing of it, and there enters “Robilar.” For sure I enjoyed sculpting him as a player, but as might be construed there is more to such playing than meets the eye, for all of it, in the end, was being forwarded for more purpose than just to have fun, but to hard-test the boundaries of the soon-to-be-named RPG concept. So I must view my history of that time and of what I did then through several distinct prisms. Fun? Most definitely. Informative during a huge transformation in game history that I was there contributing to? Most definitely that as well; and the latter is what I see as the important aspect of it all, where I tested the concept as it was then understood and being organized and re-calibrated during and after such play sessions. I was in fact interrogating it: What more can be done within and through it? Gary was challenged in turn to assess those points, like the persistent solo adventures that Robilar promoted as a challenge to the underlying precept of group play. That’s one example of what I stressed and, through Robilar as the player and Rob Kuntz as the designer, that I accomplished and continue to reassess and evaluate to this very day.
Q: What’s a favorite memory of yours, from your times exploring Castle Greyhawk?
RJK: Another hard pick as there were so many. It would probably be the culmination of my solo adventures by finally reaching the bottom level of the castle where I was then whisked away to China (Cathay) via a huge slide and, as this occurred, with the wizard (Zagyg,) waving at me from within his crystal sphere that the slide wound about.
Q: What are you able to share with us about Three Line Studio? It’s vision, it’s lines and philosophy?
RJK: Three Line Studio’s vision has been shaped by my design attitude and intellectual property holdings. Its lines will promote a forward-thinking attitude in many cases and a more median line in others. This mix is due to what I consider to be a near static state in design models when examining those extant. The former harkens back to the original RPG concept as being open and evolving whereas it has subsequently become more closed and circular. I am of the former attitude whereas the market tends to a median position based on productivity. Thus the mix. Our intent is to maintain a gradual, evolving scope in concert with what we see as the eventual turn-around of the market as it hits the wall of closed models being promoted over and over in the short term. Three Line Studio is positioning itself for that turn and we will in fact be promoting it in measured stages.
Our current lines are in their initial stages with the historical release of the El Raja Key Archive and the accompanying Little Books line. I say “historical” for many reasons, least of which was that the archiving of my maps and manuscripts and other game materials took nearly 3 years production time and, of course, 45 years of material accumulation to make public its 1,100 scanned files and their accompanying descriptions.
Then there is the upcoming release of my book, Dave Arneson’s True Genius, that my wife and partner at TLS, Nathalie, is in the process of laying out. There will also be a French version of it that is in the process of being translated by a team of three including my wife.
There’s more ahead, much more, and some truly big surprises. Mark the last as I cannot now legally speak about some large partnerships and projects that are being negotiated at the moment. I am leveraging my IP in unique ways, and not just the RPG side of it. I have an immense repository of unpublished essays, fiction and different game projects that have been on hold until I could organize such a company. Exciting times, for sure, as 40+ years of writing and design in many categories merge under the unified umbrella of the studio.
Q: Little Books looks to be a fascinating publishing house, with reading material that will appeal to a wide spectrum of readers. As a young lad and a reader, what were some of the books that had the greatest impact on you? Which authors did you gravitate towards?
RJK: Yes. It’s Three Little Books, sorry for the earlier contraction, and these are adventures that have connections to the matter on the DVD but are by themselves stand-alone adventures.
From age eight I was reading encyclopedias and many selections from the Harvard Classics, essays, poetry and fiction, which included the Arabian Nights. This was due to my far-sighted mother who bought these two sets of books with the hope that her two sons, my brother and I, would gain from them. It was to be a boon as this lead to voracious reading on my part and set the tone for my meeting Gary Gygax when I was 12 years of age. I was a wet-behind-the-ears but well-read “lad” when we met, and from there started making instant impressions among the adults in that circle who were twice my age.
Q: Arabian Nights continues to resonate with readers of all ages everywhere. What do you suppose have been the secrets to its success?
RJK: Timeless stories by Burton that excite the imagination. Clark Ashton Smith was influenced by him for his earliest fiction. There’s The City of Brass and Journey to the City if Brass that I wrote; and Dave Sutherland‘s cover for the DMG, etc. It’s all about being there; and the tales take you there and beyond.
Q: How might you explain the craft of creative writing to an attentive class of eager elementary school students?
RJK: Well, let’s assume that they are serious and eager and are going to learn and unlearn much along the way. It’s a tough choice to put yourself out there and, in turn, state that what you have to write-and-design is relevant for not only yourself but for others. It’s an ego-ride that must be forwarded and kept grounded at the same time lest you slay yourself with your own pen.
Learn as much as you can and then toss it out for your own ideas. Learn for the sake of knowing what not to do and what to improve upon. Massimo Vignelli, the great Italian designer, noted that “A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.” What he meant, in part, is that you cannot improve upon design history unless you are familiar with it; and by extension that design, unlike the median market, should never be considered a static state. Unfamiliarity with the history of any subject gets one trapped in the present and in other people’s opinions or models. This design route tends towards imitation rather than origination. To stay original always challenge the status quo like Arneson and Gygax did. Know when to separate from the pack and make your own mark. “Inner circles” are good for such knowledge acquisition but can ultimately end up promoting circular thought. That also applies to “schools of thought.” Learn them. Assess them. Do all of that but remain yourself. Maintain your own philosophy as such schools typically tend to calcify design thought and thus inspire pro-competition attitudes. They fast become echo chambers of the market tending towards only minor changes in design trajectories. That’s fine for establishment writers and designers or for studio musicians, etc. But for non-competitive, forward-thinking, free-lancers who wish to keep their careers fresh and challenging, well, be a maverick and be proud of it.
Also consider one of my commentaries from a major work in progress (now at 170,000 words and growing,) A New Ethos in Game Design: “Once you get away from viewing a design as an end result and instead focus on its ongoing processes, not only do your designs mature, but you depart the island of believing what you know to the sea of learning what you need to know for each voyage of your odyssey in design.”
Q: Of all the truly impressive-and-progressive ideas to happen in the tabletop RPG hobby since the 1970s, which ideas have made a lasting impression on you?
RJK: Well I haven’t been able to keep up with them all. My first impression would be En Garde that took the RPG concept as then known and twisted it with another model, what I call a wide lateral shift. Outside of that CoC comes to mind as another shift off the base but not as pronounced in my mind as was En Garde. The latter assertion would descend into specific comparisons of what are linear shifts of systems in order to fully explain my latter position. Generally I see En Garde’s organization as being very conducive to vertical integration of systems and CoC’s as a 90 degree tipping of weight that changes the kind but not the axis which it then proceeds upon, which is more in line with D&D’s systems trajectory once everything is said and done.
Q: That’s very interesting about En Garde and CoC. David Ewalt (in his book Of Dice And Men,) wrote that En Garde was intended to be “a role-playing game set in seventeenth-century France that emphasized man-to-man sword fighting. Players responded to the Three Musketeers style setting, but they didn’t care for the rules.” Why do you suppose that was?
RJK: I’m not sure about that or whether it’s actually true. I was working at TSR when the game was put out and we loved it and were actually playing it around the office, many of us staffers and Gary included in that. Gary had nothing but praise for the game and so did other designers at TSR, myself included. I ultimately feel that it can be evolved more. It would take some deeper historical digging in excess of what was at first used in designing it, but I feel there’s potential for its expansion in many ways. As is it’s a very quick and elegant system.
Q: On page 12 of WG5, “Lord” Huebehn has four sprinkles of magic dust. And then, on page 25, it says a large pinch of this magic dust does one thing, and a handful of it does another thing. How many sprinkles are in a large pinch? And how many large pinches are in a handful?
RJK: Hey a ‘pinch’ is an arbitrary assignment between you and I and others. It allows for some creative involvement such as “scaling”; and after 32 years if someone using it hasn’t come to a decision by now in that regard they never will. LOL! And as for any new applicant, the same point should guide the matter or I’ll be taking this up, again, in another 10 years or so. 😉
Q: Of all the character classes from the 1978 PHB, which are your three (3) favorites, and why?
RJK: I believe the question is too general, so forgive me for re-routing it a bit in answer… Classes are meant to be played through the focus of the individual player, hence “Player Characters,” and each PHB class allows for a base understanding of them in order to initialize that. But it is the actual playing in ‘role playing’ that matters and what defines our experiences (favorable or not), that is, in combination with the evolving interactions in a ‘living’ world environ in which we participate by way of these PCs. Class is a game/design term for understanding the way that the application of certain class mechanics function in tandem with the conceptual environment, so for myself it is not a compelling enough idea, when parted from the whole picture, for the purpose of determining a favorite. It all depends on a number of other factors: ability scores, race, implicit or explicit environmental challenges, ongoing opportunities, these and others also enter into what make for a good, and ongoing, conception of PC potential. I have taken many classes and worked the positives of them through the prism of what I have described, so I have no favorites, only instances (or not) for maximizing the play potential of each, which would leave me with favorite PCs and how I positively managed them through their challenges, both in mechanical (game) and ‘world’ (wide-ranging conceptual) terms. Now if I was forced to separate the classes into shelved objects and had to pick one based on less than what I have noted above–through mechanical evaluation only–I would pick the fighter for more HP and more AC, this due to the grind nature often promoted within the median range conception of the game itself. But it would not be a holistic choice as I’ve suggested. Classes are like cars: they only reach their potentials as part of the whole PC concept by way of those who handle them and within the specific environments they negotiate.
Q: The Original Bottle City adventure module contains a fascinating character known as The Jouster, with excellent taste in magic items (ie. The Sward Crystal.) You wrote that The Jouster will study the items which the PCs are carrying, and he will choose (in a particular circumstance) the PCs’ most powerful item to keep for himself. If the PCs’ most powerful item were well-hidden (perhaps in a magic storage device, a la bag of holding or portable hole,) how ought The Jouster react to such subterfuge?
RJK: Well I suppose he’d take the bag of holding or other “magical storage device” after fostering a good guess that the only reason for having these would be to hide something(s) of real value. That’s one choice, of course, but it would really depend upon the interchanges, and of the dispositions of the PCs. Do I win a magic cookie for answering correctly? LOL!
Q: Yes, you just won a magic cookie from The Limit bakery, located at 7 Bridges Road, across from the Hotel Caliph Ornya, in the halfling village of Backseat Devil, where you can choose from a tantalizing assortment of magic edible treats that include Bibgy’s Chocolate Slap, Otto’s Irresistable Gumdrops, and the Butter Rum Pastry of Seven Parts. The next time your cookie tin is empty, just take it to The Limit. They’ll be sure to fill it up for you. And, if you see Gone Henley during your visit, kindly let him know that we said hello. As for The Jouster, he wins a magic cookie too. We can’t forget about him. All this talk of cookies and sweets has us wondering…what were (are) your go-to snacks at the gaming tables?
RJK: Starting with an aperitif of Double Dwarven Grog (made by two grogged-out dwarves) I move on to helpings of Robilar’s Reprehensible Ratatouille and Zagyg’s Zany Zingers, with a digestif of Minced Mountain Mold just to settle dyspepsia resulting from errant zingers, both those occurring in and out of the stomach.
In reality most any basic snack will do; and a good pizza is a must for extended breaks or in-game bribes… 😉
Q: Share some of your thoughts with us, on the Roots of Fantasy and Imagination (i.e. the idea of the conceptual game?)
RJK: I believe that conceptual games are in their infancy. Their roots of course start with the earliest imaginings of childhood play and verbal story telling; and their winding roads to the present then became paved with an evolutionary structure brought into being by Dave Arneson (1971 as the First Fantasy Campaign role-playing environment/game, Blackmoor). From there we lurch, and sometimes stumble, forward to now. These are enduring roots as Fantasy is a normal part of the human experience. An important consideration is whether Fantasy, which is free association of thought, can find its ultimate expression through the market, the latter which tends to limit degrees of expression by constraining it to expedient market models. It’s hard to sell what’s free and infinite and still maintain “expansiveness” with such a contracted stance. TSR realized this early on, and thus, for all practical purposes, stated, hey, do what you think best from each-and-every individually described or interpreted stance. That of course is in keeping with the expansive idea of Fantasy under an ever-broadening perspective. Markets tend not to agree with this, as there’s too wide a variance with that attitude. Markets traditionally eschew unpredictability, the very base that Fantasy is historically built upon.
The ongoing battle between Fantasy and imagination versus the market is presently being fought upon the field of “standardization,” the latter concept being a production and consumer-driven concept and one not backwards compatible with the infinite unknown of Fantasy. There currently appears to be an acceptance of standards, and thus those linear design philosophies attaching to such views, for expediency sake on both the supplier and consumer end. But to dispel what might be perceived as a naysaying position by myself, I will remind your readers that to this day the greatest number of fantastic imaginings, each-and-every day, are brought into being by children at play in the world and not by the market; and the same holds true for stories, as humans verbally promulgate them on a daily basis and far in excess of what the market indeed produces. So one might say that the battle is between open and closed forms or between the expansiveness of Fantasy and the mere samplings thereof.
Once the market and the imaginative mind meet again at a center point, a point I believe that we as a combined industry/hobby are inevitably moving towards, then we will have a resurgence of Fantasy in its unlimited sense and as first extolled by TSR in 1974.
Q: Five dinner guests. Which five writers (of any time period) would you invite to a dinner party?
RJK: Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, Ambrose Bierce and John Huston (who wrote 37 screenplays).
Q: That would sure be a fascinating dinner party. What would you enjoy discussing with Robert Louis Stevenson? And, John Huston wrote that many screenplays? That’s impressive. What would you enjoy discussing with him?
RJK: I’d be doing a lot of listening, actually. There’s that instance of where the fan would want to comment on their works, but ultimately what attracts me to the two is their tumultuous lives, very colorful and involved for both and on so many levels. My interest would be in all of the details surrounding their lives that were not condensed by way of their works, non-fiction or other.
Q: We understand completely, and we’d be listening too. What do you suppose hasn’t really happened yet, in tabletop RPGs, that you would love to see happen next?
RJK: There’s a massive amount of what I refer to as horizontal design and not enough vertical penetration of it. Imagine a shelf before you and forever stretching to the right and left. Now imagine that shelf filled with differently packaged games that systems-wise do not vary too much from their collective axis points–a minor shift here, a promotion there, a step to the right or the left–but no telling emergence as was the case with Arneson’s concept. That’s the moderately fluctuating median market. Now imagine that same shelf back in the day when Arneson forwarded the RPG concept and Gary and Dave ran with it. A similar shelf existed back then: it was called the establishment. This establishment was entrenched in the market by way of their chosen models and therefore could not see D&D coming. In fact, they were floored by it and soon afterwards were to be in violent denial about its advent. I am afraid that this very same attitude has today manifested with (and as) the new establishment, and in RPGs specifically when viewed through the top players within the industry, though this entrenchment is by no means limited to them alone and indeed manifests at just about every other “lesser” tier.
So this attitude is about design effected by entrenchment; and those who control the major portions of the market, well, if they become lax in design and depend mostly or exclusively upon competitive market dynamics while pushing slightly adjusted but ultimately repetitive models then we are sure to see design stagnation no matter the number of products being published and placed on “the shelf.” So, the correction I see as inevitable (and that I champion) is the same vertical penetration that TSR originally accomplished; a renewal of their earliest base-line philosophy. We are primarily being exposed to a cyclical market philosophy. I believe that when we move back to a more centered view that that will reset the dynamic just as it happened through TSR. There are slight indications of this already manifesting, though slowly, as a preliminary interrogation of D&D’s history.
Q: Seeing more vertical design (instead of horizontal deign) in the tabletop RPG hobby would be marvelous. We remain hopeful that that well hasn’t run dry (while also hoping that enough significant honoring of the older ways remains evident and relevant.) Which memorable examples of vertical design in the tabletop RPG hobby do you deem to be noteworthy, and why?
RJK: That’s nearly an impossible question to answer; and it would be like presaging the advent of D&D before it happened. Entrenched designers and the cyclical market never saw D&D’s systems organization coming. But that really does indicate what I believe the ultimate path of an open design is, and it’s a vertical throughput that finally creates a new emergence. One would have to use D&D, and other RPGs, as a base-line for this determination and then proceed with experimentation as Arneson did by combining seemingly disparate systems until, viola! there it was. I believe that the next evolutionary leap in conceptual games will come through computers. No Man’s Sky (as being built upon and as just updated) is a good beginning example of this. It will then depend on whether their vertical integration can continue evolving the system. I have been adding to my self-evolving system–Nodus–over the last few years and it’s aimed at the computer games market.
Q: What can you share with us about your design philosophy as unveiled through previous product releases of yours? About the “pushing back against the box,” as it were?
RJK: The main trajectory with my design philosophy is to push back against a closed system (in adventure design) by using different systemizations and granular approaches. I could list a variety of examples, but I’ll forward an important one: newness to infuse wonder by holding tight player information control. If you look at many of my adventure designs you will note that they have a preponderance of new and highly detailed material. Two examples of this are Garden of the Plantmaster and Dark Druids. Why is this important? I’ll go back to the play-tests of D&D for that answer and I am sure those who have been involved with the game over the years will concur. For example, very, very early on our party in Greyhawk Castle encountered the black pudding for the first time. We had no clue. It was new. So we hacked on it to begin with. Ooops! We were out of place and time, we had no information about it, and there it was splitting into parts that began climbing all over us. Collectively we were terrified and all of our faces were living question marks; and of course that was Gary’s intent for us. Here is where newness and wonder and doubt and terror merge to create the immersion in Fantasy, and that’s what I aim to accomplish with my designs. Designers and DMs don’t need their players casually engaged while nonchalantly passing around a bag of chips. Players need to be riveted into adventures and at the very least anxiously (or even fearfully) inspecting their character sheets and not dismissively or passively paging through the Monster Manual or the PHB for their “way out of” a situation. It’s called being there. You can either be gathered around the table or be gathered to the imagination. With immersive design you get both; and that takes extra time for me to achieve, to create all of this new “stuff.” But it rarely disappoints.
Perhaps at a later time, I can come back here to expand on board game design and design in general, as I have published 4 board games and am in the midst of detailing a CRPG system. But for adventure design this is one of my main credos: newness equates to immersion in Fantasy when properly designed and executed.
Q: We’d be delighted to have you join us again for Q&A about board game design (and design in general.) You mentioned Garden of the Plantmaster, and it brings to mind two fun examples of the mysterious and highly-detailed material that we’ve all come to know-and-love in your adventure module designs:
– Area 35 (Tall Grass with Wavy Features,) in which an unusual symbiosis occurs with giant black flies
– Area 56 (Grassy Area with Strange Bushes,) in which jelly tooth fungi are to be initially described to the players as “oddly-shaped bushes (with) several spikes near their crowns.”
This is hardly what anyone could call “cookie-cutter” adventuring, and the tabletop RPG hobby is certainly the richer for it. If you’ll pardon the pun, did your ideas for the unusual plant life that appears in this adventure module stem from some secret history of yours, never before revealed to the public until now?
RJK: This is actually pretty simple. If you want to know a subject, research it. I bought and read many field guides on flora and supplemented the research with specific encyclopedic entries. I’ve always owned encyclopedias. In the distant past, non-fiction was equal-to-leading fiction as inspirational sources for my imaginative works. For the past 15-20 years I have totally relied on non-fiction for that.
Q: During these past 15-20 years, which works of non-fiction have you found to be both especially enjoyable and particularly helpful?
RJK: Any good scientific dictionary or encyclopedia. Geo-physics, astrophysics, etc. Comprehensive treatises and encyclopedias of myth, legend and folklore. Books on ancient and modern cartography. That’s the tip of it. The Internet Archive is a treasure trove of books that supplement my research library, the latter that has fluctuated over time between 500-1,000 primary titles. I’ve invested some princely sums in my library (40+ titles for one book I’m writing) and I have collected more research material than I’ll ever get around to fully utilizing in my works.
Q: Thanks so much for enjoying this Q&A with us, Rob. Is there anything more you’d like to add? A few parting words of wisdom for our readers, perhaps?
RJK: For the designers out there: In 1971 Arneson revolutionized games by creating the RPG conceptual engine. He then brought his concept to the LGTSA and Gary Gygax latched onto it and with people like myself we attacked the concept head on, we challenged its breadth, its depth and its ever unfolding future. The more we did this in the time that it was being play-tested the more bounty it yielded in return. Arneson’s concept was to us the gift that kept on giving–but only if you kept unwrapping the gift. So designers and design-minded DMs should never assume that the wrapping that appears on the surface to be D&D in all of its published forms is in fact its final destination, a finite image. To Gary and myself it was only what we had collectively reached between the MMSA and the LGTSA before Gary as much as said, “Well, this should do for now.” My upcoming book, “Dave Arneson’s True Genius,” will soon in earnest begin my speaking about the concept’s extensibility; and it will be followed by other books I am now in the process of writing. I hope, through this information dissemination of a systems-oriented approach, to persuade a new wave of Arnesons and Gygaxs, that this very young concept is still in its infancy, and that there are many more dawnings in store for it in the future.
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We wish to thank Robert and his wife Nathalie for their precious time during this delightful interview.
Fun Fact: El Raja Key archive DVD and the K1 Sunken City adventure module are both on sale now, at special reduced prices, in time for the holidays.
More Fun: There’s an information page for Dave Arneson’s True Genius (currently in the pre-production layout phase.)
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Got a comment or question for Robert J. Kuntz? Let us know in the Comments section below. Thanks so much for reading!