An interview with no small legend, I give you Stephen D. Sullivan…

TSR, a name long gone,but not forgotten. While to many of us who either live for or just dabble in old-school gaming,share a fond appreciation for what that name comes to represent,though many of us often overlook those behind what made TSR synonymous with gamers. Luckily,I was able to speak with one such person,a man who lent his invaluable skills to our most beloved past-time. So without further adieu dear readers,it gives me great pleasure to introduce Steve Sullivan,editor,artist,writer and fellow gamer.

So Steve, how did you come to start working for TSR and What was it like as a personal experience for you?

I knew about D&D from almost its beginning, but I only started playing in January of 1977 — because I wanted to date the DM’s sister, who also played. (That gambit worked.)  Eventually, I started entering D&D-based contests they had in Dragon magazine. I placed 3rd in their “draw the monster” contest and then 2nd in their “design a dungeon” contest. Around then, they were advertising for new designers and editors, so I sent in my resume.  I didn’t make the spring cut, when they hired folks like Zeb Cook and Bill Willingham, but I was hired in September, after interviewing at Gen Con, 1980.

Working at TSR back then was like dropping into a family you never knew you had.  The design-devo-editing-art group was very tight.  We worked with each other during the day and gamed together at night.  Those early days at TSR are some of the peak experiences of my life.  It was great.

What are some of the ‘old-school’ modules you’ve worked on?

I edited, wrote back cover copy, and otherwise worked on a lot of stuff.  I edited “The Ghost Tower of Inverness” and A3 “Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords”, “Rapidstrike” (1st Top Secret module), the magenta and blue Basic/Expert D&D sets (Moldvay/Cook).  I wrote back cover copy for those and the first Boot Hill module (and maybe the 1st Gamma World module) and generally made myself useful where I could.  I was a fast organizer and editor, so I tended to hop in and help out a lot of places.  I was the uncredited US co-editor on Fiend Folio — I can show you where a couple of bodies are buried in that one.  There’s so much of that stuff that I can’t remember it all.

Maybe most famously, I was the supervising editor on B3, “The Palace of the Silver Princess” — the edition where the whole print run got destroyed.  That’s a long and pretty funny story, probably too long for here.  I think I have a video of me telling it; I should get that posted.  I almost got fired for approving that.  I also almost got fired for writing out the word “and” in Dungeons & Dragons once.  Fun times.

After I moved to the art department (under the late, great Jim Roslof), I worked on even more stuff.  That list is even longer, so I really, really can’t remember it.  Basically, if it came out from TSR between 1980 and 1984, there’s a decent chance I worked on it.  For at least one of those years, maybe two, I worked on literally everything TSR put out — except individual magazine issues.  I did the maps for Tracy Hickman’s Pharaoh series, I did the cover for the 2nd RPGA magazine.  Lots and lots of stuff.In 1984, I left TSR to help found Pacesetter — that took me out of TSR work for a while — but I came back as a freelancer in 1986, in time to work on Dragonlance (which had started before I left) and a bunch of other things.  I did the maps in all but the first of the Dragonlance novels.  I think they may still be using those maps, which I did for Tracy & Margaret, ‘cause I love ‘em.  Thinking about it, I’m not sure TSR ever paid me for the first one of those….

So what’s the most memorable ( good or bad) moment from that period in time spent with TSR?

There are a lot of good memories — games with friends, parties, etc.  One of the best, but most harrowing at the time, was working on the D&D Basic and Expert sets.  Even after all the design and editing we’d done, it was down to the wire and we were getting up before dawn every day, driving an hour (each way) to the printer, and editing and rewriting the galleys right before those two project went to press.  Those were 14+ hour days, plus the 2-hour drive.  It was exhausting, but I’m really proud of those sets — they’re one of the best editions of D&D ever.

B3 “Palace of the Silver Princess” was both harrowing and satisfying.  The short version is that TSR top brass had forbade us to revise or heavily edit anything turned in by the designers (because of a mistake on one of Gary’s modules) — basically, we could only copy edit.  Ed Sollers, the editor, came to me with concerns about the more adult content (based on the Gor series of bondage novels) in the module, but I enforced the company policy and put B3 out as written.  When the execs found out, they flipped and came headhunting; it was just too racy for TSR at the time.  But we merely showed them the “thou shalt not edit” memo they’d sent, and they slunk away, red faced.  (Whew!)  They let us go back to actually editing after that.  For a while, I thought I’d be fired, but it ended up being a big editorial victory.

Oh, I also had a great time writing the old D&D comic book ads, which were drawn by Bill Willingham and Jeff Dee.  After the first, really bad one came in from an outside agency, the three of us convinced TSR to let us do the rest.  That was great while it lasted.  People still ask me about those.

I’ve heard you had a hand in designing the old TSR miniatures at one point? Is there any truth to this?

No. I don’t think I ever worked on the miniatures.  Maybe I did some drawings at one time — I probably did, since I worked on so many things. I know that Tim Truman did a bunch of miniatures designs.  Thinking, I might have done some Star Frontiers mini drawings — though the memory might be unreliable.  I don’t recall if anything I did was actually used, either.Minis were a whole different department from the regular art department, where I was working during the TSR minis days.  I remember walking around their rooms and talking to the sculptors, who were nice guys, but not much more than that.

In what year was the first gen con you attended? And what experiences can you tell us about it?

I first attended Gen Con in 1979 and it was total kid-in-a-candy store time.  Our campground got rained out and we ended up sleeping — or not sleeping — on site.  We pretty much literally gamed until we dropped.  By the last day, I was hallucinating.  I came up go a guy I’d gamed with 2 days before and said, “Hey, Bill!  Good to see you!  How’s it going?”  The man replied indignantly, “I don’t know you, sir!”  To this day, I’d swear it was the same guy.  Apparently, that was lack-of-sleep clouding my vision.

The year after that, I interviewed for my TSR job and started dating my future wife at the con.  So, 1980 was just as memorable.  That was a great year.

Did you ever have a hand in creating parts of a rules system?

Lots of times.  Most of the stuff we worked on at TSR was very collaborative within the creative division — especially in the early days.  I know I created rules and systems and characters for those early D&D products, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what.  I remember writing descriptions and rules for the character classes and monsters, among other things.  Lots came from playtesting, too.  I fixed the scoring system in A3, I remember that — because I’d played that in the D&D Open that year, before being hired.  My group lost because of a glitch in the scoring system.  Actually, I guess Alan Hammack actually fixed, it, but I convinced him of the problem and suggested how to solve the issue.

Later, at Pacesetter, the collaborations continued.  The person whose name is listed as designer usually did most of the work, but there are always parts that other people — including me — contributed.  I think all of us at Pacesetter felt that those games — Chill, Time Master, Star Ace, etc. — were our children.  All of us contributed so much to them.  When the company went under, I was writing/designing a major expansion to Star Ace.  Sorry that didn’t get published.

I’ve contributed bits and pieces to games since, but not as much as back then.  I worked on something called Dunfalcon with Gary Gygax — based on his original campaign — that never came out, and did an elves supplement for Larry Elmore’s Sovereign Stone game: Divine Lands of the Tromek.  That, too, never came out. Are you noticing a pattern here?  I’ve had rotten luck with companies folding before publishing my “greatest” design work.  Occasionally, I still throw together some rules of my own, though I haven’t published any.  Maybe some day….

In your own opinion,how has fantasy/role-play changed since you first started working on the genre? And what ( if anything) would you change about the way modern RPG’s are presented? ( i.e. rules,art,writing style.)

There’s always been a push-pull in RPGs between being highly detailed rules and being fast and easy to play.  I am a strong proponent of “play it out of the box” — and you can see that in my TSR and Pacesetter work.  It shouldn’t take forever for you to learn to play a game; you shouldn’t need someone to teach it to you.  You should be able to read the rules and go.  It was my personal mission when I went to TSR to make that happen.  Fortunately, most folks there at that time — at least in editorial — were of the same mind.

Now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.  My wife and I are playing in Jean Rabe’s D&D game, which uses the Pathfinder rules — and it’s a very well put together rules system.  But it’s really miniatures and tactics based, and I prefer the game’s role-playing aspects.  And faster, easier combat.

I miss the days when you could roll up a character and go in half an hour or so.  Early on, when I started playing, we used to roll up 3-6 characters each and then head for the dungeon — hoping that 1 or 2 characters might make it out.  That was fun.

I’m not saying low mortality in RPGs is a bad thing — I think that the more time you spend generating a character, the less you want to generate another.  I just miss the days where you could start from nothing in under an hour and get 3 or more combat encounters finished during a session.  Now 2 combats seem to be pushing it for an evening.

So what have you been working on since leaving TSR?

Tons of stuff.

Actually, in a sense, I haven’t completely left, because I was writing Dragonlance books for them in the recent past.  They haven’t called me lately, though, so maybe now that they’ve gone from TSR to Wizards to Hasbro, I really am “done.”  Anyway, I did quite a bit of freelancing for them after I left — novels, maps, art, etc.

But when I left in 1984, I went right into Pacesetter and worked on literally everything that company put out.  My title was Art Director, but like all of us there, I wore design and devo hats as well.  After that, I started freelancing and did lots of maps and graphics, working for TSR, Iron Crown (Middle Earth), Hero Games, and many others.

I also wrote a whole pile of comic books: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, Speed Racer, Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors, Disney Afternoons, Solar: Man of the Atom, stuff for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse — plus comics of my own, like The Twilight Empire, which ran in Dragon magazine for over 4 years.  I’m looking at bringing that out as a web comic now.

After that, and while that was going on, I got into writing novels. I started by ghost writing for a famous series of boy detectives books — did 14 of those, including the last one in the original series, by the time I was “done.”  I also wrote 3 of the original Legend of the Five Rings books — The Scorpion, The Phoenix, and The Lion.  I won my first Origins Award for that last one.  I also wrote a bunch of Mage Knight  short stories and won my second Origins Award for one of those.

I got back into Dragonlance for a while, and wrote 5 books there.  I did the Spider-Riders books and wrote movie adaptations — Iron Man, Fantastic 4, Thunderbirds and others.  I got to write some great characters in those.

Recently, I’ve begun concentrating on putting out projects that I own.  (You can’t, for instance, write an Iron Man novel whenever you feel like it; you have to be hired by the rights holders.)  Since last August, I’ve been releasing something new every month, either in print or e-book form or both.  At the end of April, I put out “Thor Loser” — a myth-based story featuring my semi-immortal warrior woman Crimson.  Crimson’s a favorite with my fans, and I love writing about her.  I’m working on other fantasy stories, too, like Snowraven and Dungeons & Dinosaurs.

I continue to write for anthologies, as well.  I have a steampunk story coming out next month in Hot and Steamy, an antho put together by Jean Rabe.  Jean and I will also be editing another Blue Kingdoms anthology by the end of this year (2011); I think that’s the 5th BK antho.  Plus, I’m publishing a special anthology for the Gen Con Authors’ Symposium; I did one for them last year, too.  Did I mention that I’m a micro-publisher known as Walkabout Publishing? http://www.walkaboutpublishing.com/

Right now, I’m working on a new series of modern Gothic horror novels, Frost Harrow.  The first book in that set, Scream Lover, should be out this summer, with plenty more to come.  I’m doing the writing and covers and petty much the whole shebang on those.  The only thing I”m not doing is editing — only a fool final edits his own work.

So, after more than 30 years, I’m still writing, editing, doing art, and even some designing.

You just can’t give up stuff you love!

Well I thank you for taking the time to share your words with us Mr. Sullivan,before you go,is there any advice you might give for future game designers looking to get into the business?

My advice to game designers is the same as I give to budding writers or artists:

Do the work.

You don’t get to be a game designer (or a writer or artist or … anything) by having a great idea.  You get to be one by actually producing that idea and then refining it and editing it, and then editing and refining again.  You get to be a pro by actually doing the work.

Someone said that you have to have 10,000 hours of practice before you become a pro at anything.  I’m not sure that’s the right figure, but I know it’s the right idea.  You’ve got to have plenty of time to make mistakes and learn before you get good.

So get out there and start making those mistakes.

Then fix them.

Then do it again.

Good luck.

Oh, hey, before you go, you should visit my website — http://stephendsullivan.com/wordpress/ — and sign up for my free newsletter.  It’ll give you the lowdown on my latest  work, and I promise not to spam you.  Go for it!  It’s free!

Thanks!

And thank you Steve,hopefully we’ll see more of your work in the near future.Check back with me for more old-school interviews to come,if your a fan of Mr. Sullivan’s work,please click on the link above.I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this as much as I had fun working on it.Until next time,be safe  and keep rolling 20’s my friends.

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About Warduke

I'm a writer, an unschooled artist and I enjoy blogging from time to time. I enjoy cheesy horror films,otherwise known as 'shlock'. My biggest habits however, are playing video games into the wee hours of the morning, after which....I soon discover I've grown a full beard and my house needs cleaning ;) My other hobbies are writing,designing RPG miniatures, and of course my own worlds.