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A Conversation with Ken St. Andre –

A Conversation with Ken St. Andre

Monday , 26, October 2015 3 Comments

I recently contacted Ken St. Andre in order to confirm some of the claims I had made regarding the literary antecedents of his Tunnels & Trolls role-playing game, the second role-playing game ever created. (Update: more details on the “#2 rpg” debate are here.) Before he’d talk to me, he wanted to know why I was so interested in this, so I mentioned that I was working on a book about the stories that inspired the earliest rpgs. In the course of our email exchange, he not only answered all of my questions, but he also graciously agreed to allow me to post it all as an interview.

Jeffro: My first question has to do with your reference to the Law of Contagion and the Law of Similarity on page 21 of first edition Tunnels & Trolls. Now… I realize this is written a long time ago. Those laws aren’t something people tend to think of nowadays in regards to magic, but I’m pretty sure I know which stories you were referring to there. If you happen to recall what you were thinking of forty years ago with that… please fill me in and either confirm of disprove my suspicion!

Ken St. Andre: You should understand that when I created the first edition of T & T I was already 28 years old with a master’s degree in library science, not some teenager just getting into fantasy. I had been reading and collecting all the fantasy I could get since I was 12. I’d also been studying real world Magic (not stage magic) for over a decade. I knew about the Laws of Contagion and Similarity. If there was a source for mentioning them, it was probably THE DARK ARTS by Richard Cavendish, although I may also have been thinking of THE INCOMPLETE ENCHANTER by L. Sprague de Camp, or THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS by Poul Anderson.

Jeffro: Well, my guess was THE INCOMPLETE ENCHANTER as the source, but I see that it’s not quite as clear cut as I would have liked.

You don’t mention a specific author or resource when you mention “the principles of necromancy and the control of spirits”, but you do mention Andre Norton as being the model for how spells in Tunnels & Trolls are based “on inherent abilities of the magic-user.” Now… I just got an omnibus of what I think you were referring to there in the mail. Can you confirm which of Andre Norton books you had in mind there so that I can be sure I have the right books…? (Again, I realize this was a long time ago now…!)

Ken St. Andre: References to Norton would go back to the Witch World series. That was her best fantasy available in the 70s. Star Man’s Son also had a psychic powers system indistinguishable from magic.

Necromancy would have been Clark Ashton Smith most likely. However it would be hard to overstate the influence of both de Camp and Carter back in the mid seventies.

Jeffro: I try to explain how big a deal de Camp was back then… but it’s really difficult to get it across. His stuff is just so different from how people think of fantasy now. He has all these stories where a really smart Archeologist or Psychologist travels to ancient Rome or the world of Orlando Furioso or an alternate earth where scientists study history by staging incredibly huge reenactments with brainwashed citizens…. It’s just crazy.

I mean, this is fantasy and all… or maybe science fantasy in some cases. But there’s no dark lord, no odd bunch of demi-humans trotting off for an epic quest to find or get rid of an ancient artifact just in time. There’s not even an Arnold Schwarzenegger looking guy running around in a loin cloth. It’s all so different and varied. Were you conscious of how wild some of this stuff was at the time…? Because looking back it’s really hard to get into a frame of mind where L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt could be major players in fantasy.

Ken St. Andre: You are talking about some of de Camp’s best and most original work, but there was so much more. He and Carter teamed up to finish unfinished Howard stories about Conan. There was also The Tritonian Ring (1953), The Goblin Tower (1968) and the Fallible Fiend (1973). Plus, he was instrumental in finishing and publishing Tales of Conan (1955) and Conan the Adventurer (1966). That’s not even mentioning his work with Fletcher Pratt or his historicals that were almost fantasy. de Camp was a very big deal in fantasy back in the 60s and 70s.

Jeffro: And yet these guys aren’t mentioned too much these days… except to point out how awful their Conan stories were in comparison to Robert E. Howard’s. Lovecraft fans are upset about de Camp’s biography of their favorite author. Lin Carter’s writing is routinely savaged. And many of the more recent reviews of what you call de Camp’s best and most original work can be summed up as someone simply saying, “ewwwwwww.”

Now… I’m less interested in some of the scholarly nit-picking than I am the large and relatively rapid shift in the culture. When you talk about these authors, your enthusiasm is infectious. These guys really defined fantasy for an entire generation. How do you think they could lapse into obscurity as quickly as they did?

Ken St. Andre: How did they get obscure?

1. They died.

2. Wave after wave of new writers redefined fantasy in their own image.

The greats of yesteryear– forget them! Most of it comes down to TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF. There is really only room for a couple of old legends to exist, so Howard, Lovecraft, Tolkien. That’s 3 biggies from the ancient first half of the 20th century. Forget, gloss over people like Carter, de Camp, Leiber, Anderson, Norton, Jakes, and dozens of others. That’s just the way it is. You think anyone will remember me or Tunnels & Trolls in 50 years? Nope, it will be all Gygax with the purists remembering Arneson as well. Me, Stafford, Millar, Peterson (both of them), Henderson, and dozens of others will all be written off or ignored as imitators.

Jeffro: I think you sell yourself short. Even fifty years from now I fully expect people to still praise Tunnels & Trolls’s flexibility and the singular way it frees the game master from the need for endless rules books. And what about your work on Stormbringer?!

I love playing the classic rpgs myself. The way that they encapsulate the older, wilder sort of fantasy is just really compelling to me. For instance, your idea of the Rogue character type is very different from the way most people would do that sort of thing today. But a guy that has access to spell abilities without the benefit of formal training…? That’s just fun. And it’s not just Jack Vance’s Cugel spilling over into the game there, but Fritz Leiber’s Grey Mouser as well. I’d go so far as to say that those old characters are right in line with Tunnels & Trolls’s freewheeling and irreverent attitude. Certainly, a guy that was bred on only Tolkien and his imitators would have a harder time grasping where your game was coming from there….

Ken St. Andre: You seem to be well-grounded in fantasy yourself. Mentioning Cugel and the Mouser gets you points with me. You might also consider Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. Go ahead and ask anything you want. I’m not a mind reader, and I have no particular horse to ride, especially since I have no idea what the scope or theme of your book will be.

Jeffro: Well… here’s one of the more controversial points that I’ve stumbled into in the process of looking into this topic. From what you’ve said here, it’s clear that you read pretty well the same science fiction and fantasy books that that other fantasy role-playing game designer did. (Well, I guess he was technically just a co-designer at the time you were putting together T&T; but you know who I mean!) The thing that’s striking is that while Tolkien is in the mix of what you guys were kicking around, he was far from being the prime determinant of your assumptions about how fantasy ought to work. In fact, guys like Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock and a half dozen other authors that are now relatively obscure would have been on par with Tolkien in your minds.

Now… saying that around some fantasy fans… it really makes their heads explode. They almost can’t imagine it. And the thing is, it’s very easy to talk about Tolkien’s influence on the rpgs of the seventies and how it was relatively limited in comparison to what came later. It’s harder to talk about fantasy fans in the seventies in general, though. So people will dismiss you guys as being representative only of gamers or else somehow being out of step with your own times.

So I guess what I want to know is… what do you think? Were rpg designers like you back the seventies typical fantasy fans of your time? Or was there something different about you guys…? Or did the requirements of rpg design influence who showed up and filter out only a particular sort of fantasy author that would have been different from what “normal” people were reading…?

Ken St. Andre: I suppose you could consider people like Gary and me to be super fantasy fans of the time. But we weren’t all that unusual. There was a fantasy boom going on in SF publishing. Publishers like Ace and Ballantine were doing all they could to bring anything fantastic back into print. And I don’t think there were any requirements of design.

Fandom was a much smaller subset of society than it is now. Those of us who were in fandom thought we were pretty special. A lot of us were also gamers, although gaming fandom didn’t really exist yet. However, it was taking off at the same time. It was all part of the fantasy explosion.

Gary and I were in the mainstream. People like M.A.R. Barker and Greg Stafford were more original and more creative, but even they shared in the fantasy explosion of the time.

Jeffro: How would you have known you were a part of fandom…? Was there an initiation rite? Did a parent give you a set of Narnia books? Or did a hippy loan you a copy of Lord of the Rings…? Or did you just know you were “in” if you subscribed to a couple of short fiction magazines and maybe bought a two-hundred page novel every week or so…?

Ken St. Andre: I was brought into fandom by a friend who was already in it. He showed me some fanzines, explained the concept. Fandom wasn’t hard to join–you just had to be willing to write a letter now and then. As I got more involved, I started writing and printing fannish things that further expanded my circles. No, no initiation rites per se. Maybe you could say that attending my first science fiction convention counted an an initiation rite, but actually my first one was LerpreCon I here in Phoenix, and I was one of the people who made that happen.

Jeffro: Can you describe what participating in the fanzines were like? (My impression is that it was akin to many of the discussion fora on the internet today. You’d have the same sort of flame wars that we are familiar with today, but they’d be stretched out over the course of months or years.)

Ken St. Andre: Participating in fanzines is just like subscribing to Wired. Except more participation was expected. If you had any talent, writing or artistic, you were expected to contribute. Yes, it was very much like participating the fora, only at the speed of the U. S.  mail instead of electrons and computer code. You level up when you join a apa. I’ve been a member of three apas. The Wild Hunt, Rehupa, and some Tarot apa I’ve forgotten the name of. I was also a member of the Burroughs Bibliophiles during the 70s.

Jeffro: One of the things that strikes me about the early rpg designers was just how eclectic their tastes were. For instance, you were a member of the Burroughs Bibliophiles over twenty years after ERB’s death. The thing that explains the obscurity of all these authors now– ie, death and time and replacement– didn’t really happen in your day. You guys read New Wave stuff like Moorcock and Zelazny just as much as you did old school planetary romance.

And your games… they pulled all kinds of stuff into them. I mean… when I try to describe Troll World to people, I say it’s “the Mos Eisly cantina of fantasy”. It’s loaded. Jam-packed. Wide open. Full-throttle. This is something that’s completely alien to a lot of people that are, say, under forty or so. Can you speak to this aspect of the times somehow…? Did it just seem like a good idea at the time… or is there something objectively awesome about it even though that style rapidly fell out of fashion with the rise of the Tolkien pastiche as the dominant form of fantasy…?

Ken St. Andre: Eclecticism? I don’t know what I, or anyone could say about that. That’s just the way it was back then. We were all young, and the world was full of wonders– and it still is– and we just took everything and did stuff with it.

I think you’re maybe trying to over analyze things when getting into the topic. We weren’t analyzing anything back then We were just looking for fun, and creating it in a thousand different ways. Young people are still doing the same thing today as far as I can tell, though I’m no longer part of those groups.

Jeffro: Well, I’ve taken up quite a bit of your time here. I’m grateful for everything that you’ve managed to clear up for me. This has truly been a blast.

For my final question, are there any other books in particular that you’d like to call out or fantasy authors that you’d recommend for someone that is looking to get into the mindset of those times when role-playing games were a brand new thing and you were right in the middle of it all? Anything that I might have overlooked or that I should be sure not to miss– anything else that you think might have particularly gotten your creative juices flowing…?

Ken St. Andre: In my opinion, a lot of the background and tone in role-playing games comes from non-fantasy sources–or at least a different sort of fantasy. The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs really can’t be overestimated on my work. And also the romances of the Middle Ages. The legends of Arthur and Charlemagne are really important. You want book titles? Tarzan of the Apes, A Princess of Mars, Le Morte d’Arthur, The Volsunga Saga. King Solomon’s Mines, and Foster’s Prince Valiant comics to name just a few. You already know about Tolkien, and Howard, and Leiber, and Moorcock, but for both Gary and me there were 100 other sources equally important: Vance and de Camp and Carter and Malory and Homer and Beowulf and the Arabian Nights and on and on.

Jeffro: I know I said that was the last question, but if you can explain how Edgar Rice Burroughs influenced you, that would be a huge help. People in general can maybe wrap their heads around his mass popularity enduring well into the seventies… but again, the claim that he was a primary influence on early fantasy rpgs to a greater extent than perhaps even Tolkien is not something that many people can readily accept.

Ken St. Andre: I first discovered “escape/adventure” fiction through the book TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN when I was bicycling through Sunnyslope, Arizona (now a part of north Phoenix) and found their public library. I was in the summer between 6th and 7th grades, so that would have made me about 12 and the year 1959 or 60. I loved TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN. Edgar Rice Burroughs immediately became my favorite author. His books were hard to find in the 50s and early 60s.

Many people don’t realize that Tarzan is fantasy. Raised by apes but grows up to be superhuman–yeah, like that’s ever gonna happen. Discovers prehistoric worlds, becomes immortal, finds lost civilizations including Opar, an outpost of Atlantis, talks to and understands animals, gets shrunk down to 6 inches in size. Fantasy, pure fantasy.The settings from ERB helped create the settings of Trollworld–jungles, deserts, caverns, prehistoric cities. The fauna from ERB made up a large part of the Trollworld fauna–lions, crocodiles, apes–all part of my original list of monsters. The idea that technological anachronisms could be part of the world comes directly from ERB. He takes rifles and airplanes to Pal-Ul-Don. He has super scientists doing genetic manipulation on gorillas in the African jungle. All sorts of strange things happen in his books.

Jeffro: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to me like this. This has been really really awesome.

Ken St. Andre: Thanks for talking to me Jeffro, and for giving me an opportunity to talk about my influences in creating Tunnels & Trolls. I’m always happy to set the record straight, and turn people on to the great fantasy fiction of the world.

Ken St. Andre was born April 28, 1947, spent most of his life goofing off, and is planning to never die. So far, so good! You can find out more about him on his wikipedia page. A range of his game design work is available through RpgNow, including the deluxe edition of Tunnels & Trolls. He is rather proud of Deep Delving, Dwarf World, Dewdrop Inn, and the spell books that he did this year: Rock and Rule, The Spellbook of Shancinar, The Spell Book of the Uruks. You can find a wealth of information about his work at the Tunnels & Trolls website and at Trollhalla.

  • L. Beau Macaroni says:

    Troll World is the Mos Eisley Cantina of fantasy? Not a bad description at all, Jeffro. But I think that I prefer the one Ken gave back in 1986*:

    “[M]y conception of the T&T world was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in.”

    Okay, okay, maybe that emphasizes JRRT a lttle more than you’d like. Still, wish that I could get a perfect bound copy of what a “Marvelization” of LotR would have looked like if it had been done circa 1974!

    *Full text of that 1986 interview here (thank you, internet):

    Fixed. Damn my ten thumbs!

    • Jeffro says:

      I believe “Mos Eisley Cantina of fantasy” effect that it gives off is (as we discover at the end of the interview here) a side effect of Edgar Rice Burroughs being the primary figure in fantasy of the time. Tolkien was on the up swing in a big way at the time… but compared to ERB, he was still the new kid on the block. This is a big part of why I think seventies fantasy games look so strange to modern eyes. A lot of us can’t imagine anyone else but Tolkien being the Grand Poobah of fantasy!

      (And thanks for the interview link. More evidence there of Appendix N not being Gygax’s idiosyncratic favorites, but being in line with other fantasy fans of his time.)

  • James Sullivan says:

    Thanks for this interview, Jeffro. I really enjoyed it.

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