An Interview with Rob Kuntz

This interview is reproduced here with the kind permission of Rob Kuntz. I have left the interview as is, which means that dead links remain. These have been preserved for prosperity. This is a very interesting interview. Please enjoy.

Interview by Eric Noah

When people talk about the formative years of D&D, everyone mentions Gary Gygax. Some will even mention Dave Arneson. But who mentions Rob Kuntz? You can learn how he was involved in years gone by, and how he plans on entering the D20 System fray in this exclusive interview.

How did you initially become involved with role-playing, D&D, and TSR?

Role-playing's an easy one: playing army in the neighborhood as a kid. We first addressed "Realism vs. Playability" the day a kid ran around a corner and threw a "hand grenade" at me at point blank range. He claimed he'd "killed me" until his father, who was nearby, informed him that we had both been blown up. My first case of a non-biased GM ruling, as well!

As far as D&D, which started the whole RPG craze, I was involved from the beginning with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. That story's been told many times over by Gary himself, as I've noted over the years. I'll admit to living only three blocks in a straight line away from Gary's house and coming over to that house to play games many years before the advent of D&D. The LGTSA (Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association) used to hold weekly games and hosted GenCon. It was great fun play-testing the many games which preceded D&D as well, such as Chainmail and others. D&D was a natural outgrowth of what the group had been doing already: designing, play-testing and publishing games. Gary was the Guru, so to speak. His creativity, always at the front, and energy, seemed unending. I helped with contributions to the original boxed set and to Greyhawk, Supplement #1, which Gary and I derived from the original Greyhawk campaign which I co-DMed. Lots of fun there; great memories of the first adventures. When TSR was formed, I was the sixth person hired by them, though I had been contributing directly to their game line previous to this.

What D&D and AD&D products did you work on?

Besides the original stuff mentioned above, I was involved writing and editing various works such as Gods, Demigods and Heroes with Jim Ward, later to become Deities and Demigods. I also did various stints at editing and contributing to works such as Blackmoor, supplement #2, Empire of the Petal Throne (which upon looking at it, I believe I found one typo -- totally immaculate), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which I contributed to heavily, and various articles for the Dragon such as "Sorcerer's Scroll," which I started and which was later picked up by Gary after I left the industry. Later, I published Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, four full AD&D compatible modules for the Maze of Zayene series through my own firm, Creations Unlimited, then the Garden of the Plantmaster. I did a 2E contribution in the Fate of Istus module. At one point I was TSR's Content Editor for their licensing of the D&D name for product released through Judge's Guild, which I am happy to see are still kicking! Some of my D&D creativity became split between another of my creative loves, board games, such as King of the Tabletop, Magus, Kings & Things. I started many other projects which were slated for future release but which never made it to print for timing or positioning reasons, such as the Brass series and my Castle El Raja Key, which Gary enjoyed adventuring into so often.

When did you leave TSR, and under what circumstances?

In 1977. I wanted to move up into the creative department and the word from on high was a solid no. That was a raucous period in TSR's history. Arneson left right after me, as did others. Part of the buried past, now. No regrets and no grudges.

What have you been doing since then?

Studying my craft, attended college, got married, got divorced, started my own game company, won the Charles Roberts Award in 1986 with Tom Wham, that creative cartoonist and superb board game designer us veterans all remember fondly. That was for Kings & Things. I wrote to the point of creating a solid "vault" of material, now some 6,000+ pages. And don't ask why a writer writes without publishing. I once had an early Dragon editor accept me into his office to review three board game submissions I was offering for inclusion in the Dragon by saying, "Welcome back to the creative fold, Rob." Sure. I'd been out of the industry for about a year, but I remember feeling insulted and thinking, "Hey, how much has a guy got to do here? I helped create your job!" Of course I never indicated any of that since I wanted my games published! ; )

I also wrote a short-lived column for the ill-fated Troll Magazine where I spoke out on Greyhawk and on Dave Arneson as the progenitor of Sci-Fi in D&D gaming, later moved back to Wisconsin from Tucson, Arizona after watching the WotC buy-out of TSR whereat I was blood-hounded by good friends and editors alike to contribute to the Living Greyhawk Journal, which brings me nearly up to date. In between I wrote a novel, started two others, wrote a handful of short stories, a novella, and one screenplay. These fictional forays were personal challenges which I pretty much succeeded at if one listens to and believes the few who have read them. I sure did! : ) I also developed a keen philosophy for our industry, which you'll hear more about soon enough as Jon Leitheusser has graciously accepted my proposal for me to write a column for reviewing and benchmarking D20 products in Corsair Publishing's new Campaign Magazine.

Have you kept in touch with any of the TSR folk you worked with?

It's been hard, a writer's life, and I admit to being lax with that. Really, I kept in touch with some of my editors, close friends, long-time acquaintances. Gary Gygax, Doug Behringer, Allan Grohe. I've visited Lake Geneva, my home town, and chatted with Ernie Gygax and Tom Wham, who live there still. I talked at length and exchanged fond memories with Dave Arneson last GenCon and tried to find Frank Mentzer at the auction area several times and put on many miles doing so until I sadly gave up. So, yes and no. The faces of the veterans have changed. Old Guards are on their own personal campaigns, but I do look forward to meeting any at cons, like James Ward who I met at GenCon last year. Creatively speaking, EGG and I were in touch briefly months ago when TSR was considering the publication of our Castle Greyhawk, though the talks on that to date have stalled for various reasons.

What do you think of the new D&D game?

I believe that this latest incarnation of the original creators' work is the best for many reasons. It is in keeping with the times. Other games successfully challenged TSR to up the ante, to get organized and to think through their system, such as how to effectively integrate skills, and now feats. It's addressed other areas which were either glossed or ignored and has set a new standard in its own history, that something new and bold is better.

What do you think of WotC and how they're handling D&D as a business?

That's a broad question that even Otto's crystal ball couldn't reveal in full. From the outside looking in it does seem good, does it not? We see growth even after Hasbro trimmed some appendages. The RPGA is growing at a rapid pace, another good indicator of health, TSR's production schedule looks full, which is good, and their other material organs seem to be functioning at a good pace. I'm no expert on WotC, by the way, but I do wish they were not so insular in regard to outside contributions. I know that there are contributing factors for this, but all the same, the greatness of product is in its wealth of insight and creative mix brought to it by different points of view. Having a good stable of in-house writers/designers contributes to overall goal completion but can, on the reverse side, stifle vision.

The Old TSR suffered from an insular attitude by its negative nature and thus repelled many capable and inspired designers from their doors by design. WotC does not in the least compare to that, but theirs is a nature which is entrenched to a lesser extent.

On the other side, I believe that their licensing of product line names, such as to Kenzer, is an approach they will take more often to continue furthering their internal goals without expanding staff and thus costs. I'd guess, based upon Hasbro's cuts and on several remarks made by Dave Wise in his recent "State of the Network Address" in the Polyhedron, that this licensing effort might remain a viable alternative to in-house expansion for some time to come. The White Wolf/Ravenloft deal is but another example of expanding externally without internal cost. Licensing can be effective when controlled and the OGL/D20 system sets standards and guidelines for that. It's not only good marketing, it's good business and is healthy for our industry.

My understanding is that you're going to be involved in some D20 System publishing.

Yes. I am speaking with several D20 publishers and all indicators look good for future business. My intent is to find a home for my many creative works, including an expanded and revised City of Brass series, which is nearing completion as we speak. I also have a fifth installment of the Zayene series which makes an uncommon twist for a D&D adventure, and one large source book which will challenge industry standards for type and quality of included material. I am also looking into fantasy fiction publishers for my "Drystaff the Wizard" character who was first written about in Strategic Review #6. I have many short stories and a novel written on his misadventures. Hilarious stuff.

What do you think of the D20 System/Open Gaming movement?

Much has been said about this. Brilliant, inspired, come to mind immediately. Coupled with WotC's buying TSR, repromoting the D&D lines, cutting there, adding here, expanding the RPGA as a capable extension--the movement couldn't have come at a better point in time to see all of these things come together and synchronize. My question is how will we continue raising the stakes which have been set by WotC? Many companies will fail if they do not adopt as clear a vision as WotC has shown. Merely dumping product onto the market to "be the first," or to just "have presence there also" will not necessarily guarantee that those self same companies will be around for times to come, quite the opposite I fear. I believe that the industry must stake themselves with as much vision as has been offered. And that's a lot.9

What do you think of the D20 System products you've seen from other companies thus far?

I can't keep up with the offerings, obviously, but have seen some. There's the usual mix--adventure, source book, etc. Some introduce great concepts which I believe should be detailed as whole treatises, like Sword & Sorcery Studios' idea of ritual magic [in Relics & Rituals]. EGG commented correctly on that one [in his introduction to that book]. I wish I'd done it. Monster compendiums seem to be a rash, and I'd rather create my own, but seeing good ones is always enjoyable, so I'm a page-turner, also. The Slayers Guides series of accessories by Mongoose look interesting, and I had a chance to talk to the designer of these at length. Though I've not received a copy quite yet, judging from initial reviews and a capable friend's comments, I believe this type of product is a great addition and one which will significantly challenge standards in our market for products of this type if such quality is maintained throughout the series. Only a closer look will tell, however.

Atlas Games has some very good products. I look forward to their releases and have talked at length with John Nephew. Having an industry veteran such as himself involved can only continue redefining product standards and raising levels to be met or exceeded in the market.

Creating cutting edge product is a win-win formula for our industry. Consumers win as they get excellent product; capable designers win as their product will be in demand, which is always good; and publishers, distributors and retailers don't have to worry about moving product, as good product tends to sell itself. Oppositely positioned companies with poor product will be the weeds which will initially slow but not stop the growth of the true bountiful crops which can and will be produced by our industry. Movements in this direction were in action way before the later day, Old TSR glutted the market with products based solely upon a "get it out" philosophy. Measured steps and well laid plans will be the key to success in this industry where there is no longer a marketing stranglehold of the type we saw instituted by the Old Regime of the past.

What kind of products do you hope to publish under the D20 System?

Trend-setting; those that have never been thought of or done before. My City of Brass series is the "archetype" example of my ideas for creating one-of-a-kind, quality, product.

Is there a kind of product that D20 publishers are making too much of, or not enough of?

That's a broad question which is difficult to answer. There are different points of view on this. What will the market bear? What do new players need? What about the veteran gamers? Is there enough challenge, enough good product mix for them? How much is too much of something, anyway? When a glut hits, the retailers will tell us how much that is. Until they start complaining of product glut, or lack of demand for certain types of products, then we can be assured that there's room for more. The real question is: more of what type? and, of what quality? I believe that to establish quality is to endorse vision. They are not inseparable ideas. Companies lacking these two product qualifiers will find retail shelf space lacking in return.

Any final thoughts?

Sure. Lots more than can be covered here in one sitting. For instance, I spent many long days in the past lobbying for the return of the "World of Greyhawk" on Greytalk-L and kind of miss that sort of instantaneous give-and-take. I know that I have a steady following of fans and would encourage them to write or e-mail me about other directions I'm taking within the gaming and publishing industry and to update me on what they're doing, what their thoughts of good product are. After all, we ultimately cater to the end-user's needs. Creating product is great if you are a "machine". Crafting a work which will live long in people's minds, like D&D has, is quite a different endeavor. It requires participation and input from all relevant sources. So e-mail me with your opinions or to just say hello. I can't always guarantee an instant response, or even the one you're looking for, but something will come of it.

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