Tuesday, May 29, 2001
The Dragonlance Nexus interviews Dragonlance Fifth Age game designer Steve Miller.
Dragonlance Nexus: Tell us about yourself, and how you got into role-playing design. What were your influences along the way?
Steve Miller: I had been gaming for some time and writing professionally for only slightly shorter-I'd been making my living through writing and editing for 2-3 years or so-and I was at a Ravenloft game complaining about being tired of my current jobs... writing music and A&E reviews for weekly papers and press releases for a PBS affiliate. One of my gaming buddies pointed to a Ravenloft boxed set and said, "People must get paid for writing that stuff. Why don't you do it?"
I thought about it, and I started looking into how I might make a living in THAT field. After a failed attempt to start a company of my own (along with some of the collaborators on the NUELOW game system), I started looking to established companies. I get in touch with TSR, did some freelance work, and got hired on-staff in 1994.
My influences were the support of my parents, a love of Star Wars, and fiction by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, R.E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Steve Gerber. (Yes, I know there aren't any of the traditional fantasy authors on the list... I didn't read much fantasy until AFTER I started writing RPGs.) RPG-wise, I played D&D until 1989... and continued to play it until 1994. The D&D X-series of adventures remain what I consider must-read for anyone interested in seeing how well-done game adventures/support product should be executed.
N: Tell us about the creative process of the Fifth Age gaming line, and what obstacles did you have to overcome? Were you excited about the SAGA gaming system?
SM: Well, there seems to be many different versions of this, but here's mine.
From the moment DL was discontinued as an AD&D2 line in 1992/93, people on-staff at TSR wanted it reinstated as a gameline. When I was hired, I joined their ranks... in fact, my first When DoSF was a clear success, upper-management finally said, "Go for it."
Three different systems were generated and put before the Creative Director and the VP of games. The system that was chosen was Bill Connors' card-drive one. From there, Bill came up with one of the most innovative RPG rules sets created since Arneson and Gygax cooked up D&D. Sue Cook helped with the system, while she and I and Harold Johnson (with some input from Bill) worked out basic story concepts. Much effort was put into straightening out the tangle of DL continuity and to thinking through how we would get magic back into the setting. Somewhere in here, Jim Ward came up with the concept of the Great Dragons and Jim Fallone came up with the basic idea of the spawn.
As the basics fell into place, Sue and Harold started working with Jean Rabe and the book folks on the first 5A books while Duane Maxwell and I put our heads together and worked out a couple of long-term story arcs.
The 5A boxed set was released at Gen Con 1996, just in time for TSR to hit rough waters and sink. I wrote 'Heroes of Defiance,' parts of 'Heroes of Hope,' and most of 'Citadel of Light' and 'Fate Deck' before being sacked along with 20 other staffers on December 20, 1996.
I came back to DL about a year later and helped do some revisions to 'Citadel of Light' and co-wrote 'Dragonlance Classics' and 'Odyssey of Gilthanas' and lent a hand with 'The Sylvan Veil."
Was I excited about the SAGA System? Yes. It remains an innovative RPG system. I wish more gamers had given it a try.
N: What 5th Age elements are you responsible for creating, and which of those are your favorites?
SM: It's hard to say EXACTLY which elements I created... Sue Cook, Harold Johnson, Duane Maxwell, Miranda Horner, and Stan! and I worked very closely together. Bill Connors and Sue did most of the rules design, with Stan! coming in later. I focused mostly on story stuff.
If memory serves, Sable was mine-the concept of the mad scientist dragon actually predates the notion of the Great Dragons-Sunrise, Linsha Majere, Mirror, the details of the Citadel of Light and Schallsea and all attendant characters (except, of course, for those featured in DLE and the 5A boxed set, and the gnoll and the evil elf in Rabe's 'The Silver Stair'), Hogan Bight (although Sue Cook may have created him and I just sort of adopted him as mine in my mind), the state of Toede and Flotsam, detailed Northern Ergoth, and shed some light on the culture of Kharolis. That's what I remember offhand. But let me stress... 5A was a team effort. Maxwell and I would often have conversations about plots and characters that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Also, there was hardly anything that I did that didn't have its roots in something that had gone before. I believe one should attempt to grow elements that are already present in a setting instead of try to tack things on.
N: Has working in Dragonlance changed your opinion of working in a shared world environment? If so, how?
SM: I learned the dangers of making long-term plans when you don't have any control or authority over the property in question. It was a painful lesson, but a valuable one.
N: There have been several mysteries involved in the 5th age from its conception. For instance, the identity of the Shadow Sorcerer and the origins of the Great Dragon Overlords. Why all the mystery, and why did the "powers-that-be" decide to stretch out those mysteries over such a long time frame? Were we ever meant to learn some of those mysteries?
SM: Many of those mysteries would have been answered by now if the 5A line had progressed as we intended it when we blocked it out in 1995. As for the identity of the Shadow Sorcerer, I believe it HAS been revealed. You just need to read carefully.
It's a bit frustrating to watch people going on about how the 5A team didn't know where we were going. We DID know where we were going. That direction was interrupted by TSR's troubles. Then it was aborted by WotC, for good or ill.
By the way, while I had very little to do with the Dragon Overlords (and really don't care about them), I think I can say with certainty that their origin really doesn't matter. Who cares? They came from across the sea. They came from the moon. They came from a different dimension (that's my favorite). DL should be there to feed our imaginations. If everything is served
N: Many fans regard the 5th Age and SAGA system to be one of the greatest RPG products ever produced. Some critics, though, say that the 5th Age was the "nail in the coffin" that destroyed Krynn. How would you respond to those critics, especially in light of the fact that SAGA is an award-winning system?
SM: I'd say that they should a) try reading the material, and b) I'd say we opened the coffin back up and hauled Dragonlance OUT of the coffin. Someone may have thought it was dead, but none of those people were on the 5A team.
N: You recently mentioned on the AFDL that Citadel of Light was originally the intended "first step" towards continuing the 5th Age timeline. Since the original plan doesn't seem like it will come to pass, could you tell us a few tidbits on what the design team had planned on implementing?
SM: I really ought not comment on what our plans were. Armchair quarterbacking was VERY frustrating for me while I was working on DL, and I don't want complain about the efforts of others. I CAN say that.
N: How much does your original conception of Mina differ from how she is portrayed in War of Souls? What were your intentions for her?
SM: Mina would have been put in a place where she would have to choose between good and evil, life and death, right and wrong. I saw her as the future head of the Citadel of Light, for good or ill.
N: You have recently worked on the new d20 Star Wars RPG, and have previously worked on Ravenloft and the Marvel Super Heroes RPG's. Tell us a little about that, and how did your work on the other settings compare with your work on Dragonlance.
SM: To be perfectly blunt, DL was by far the most frustrating line to work on. There were entirely too many people fighting for dominance over the line's direction. Other settings I've been involved in have had a clear, unchallengeable final authority as to what could and couldn't be done. DL, while I worked on it, never had that.
N: You certainly have worked on many worlds! What world is your favorite to game in?
SM: It's a tie between Star Wars and Ravenloft. Star Wars has been feeding my imagination since 1977. Ravenloft I adore because, if handled correctly, it can be used for storylines ranging from 'Wuthering Heights' or 'Solomon Kane' to 'Night of the Living Dead' or 'Nightmare on Elm Street.' It's always made me rather sad that it seems to be a minority of gamers who see the romantic and dramatic potential in Ravenloft and its characters while the majority see it as a fantasy version of 'Friday the Thirteenth.' Actually, Ravenloft also appeals to me for the fact that unlike other TSR settings, it doesn't have a carefully spelled out cosmology. The goals and desires of the supreme beings of the setting are as obscure as those that may or may not exist in the real world. And their existence is just as much in doubt.
N: Tell us about the new Dragonlance section of your website. When will it be ready? How can a person get to your site to check it out?
SM: Out of all the areas of my web site, the DL one is probably the one that will remain the biggest mess for the longest time. Other parts, like the D20 Tools section and the Fiction Archive excite me more than the DL section at the moment. I have bits and pieces of DL material that I would like to upload, and I wouldn't mind seeing other people's take on 'alternate DLs,' but it's hard to say when the DL area will be more than just scraps. (For example, the Fiction Archive will open June 20, and D20 Tools will hopefully keep growing beyond where it is now. (The main address for my site is www.stevemillersband.com.)
N: What other projects are you working on now?
SM: Mostly 'Star Wars' game material and fiction... and I can't comment on any of the stuff I'm currently working on. I contributed to the Star Wars "Rebellion Era Sourcebook" and "Alien Anthology," which are coming out in September and October. I'm also rather excited about my web site and the Fiction Archive, but that's purely hobby. I DO dream that someone will swing by, read one of the classic works available there, and feel moved to write a 'fan-fic' featuring Burroughs, Doyle, or Poe characters... or that an artist or two will feel like contributing a picture or two. My site's humble and plain, but I hope it can be a little more. And I hope I can build a community around it. Time will tell.
N: If Wizards of the Coast came to you and told you that you could do anything you wanted with Dragonlance, what would you do?
SM: I'd tell them they were either kidding me or kidding themselves. But, if they were genuine, I'd pull out 'Odyssey of Gilthanas,' 'Heroes of Defiance,' 'Citadel of Light,' and 'The Clandestine Circle' and say that I want to continue to stories started in there. I'd take a careful look at WoS to see how those stories would fit into whatever changes that trilogy is bringing, and then I'd move forward. In my opinion, DL's greatest weakness has always been its apparent hesitation to move the grand storyline forward. Another weakness is the apparent unwillingness to tell smaller stories. DL could do with a few more books like 'The Clandestine Circle' or 'Dark Heart' or even 'Lord Toede.' These are fairly small stories that don't shake the foundations of the world or chronicle the toppling of empires, but are still impactful to the characters they focus on and to the small region they may effect.
N: As mentioned earlier, you have worked on the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. Tell us, who would win in a fight between Doctor Doom and Raistlin?
SM: Dr. Doom. He's got a gun AND spells. And he doesn't have to worry about levels and spell slots.
N: As an experienced RPG designer, do you have any advice for the Nexus, especially with us trying to translate all ages of Dragonlance into 3rd edition?
SM: Create rules that aren't dependent on ages. In fact, I'd try to create as few new rules as possible. (If something in the PHB or DMG works for Krynn, stick with those).
N: Is there anything else you would like to tell the fans? Anything you want to get off your chest, or any advice for up-and-coming RPG designers?
SM: For fans: Swing by the message boards on my web site... there's a Dragonlance forum waiting for your input. Actually, check out the entire site. I'm sure you'll find SOMETHING interesting or amusing. (It's at www.stevemillersband.com). Plus, I will be at TunderCon in June (as an official guest) and Gen Con in August (doing a couple of events that will surprise a lot of people, but mostly just hanging out). I'd love to say 'hi' in person.
For writers: Decide if you want to keep creative control over your work, or if you want be able to pay the rent without needing a day job aside from writings. If you want the former, don't sell your copyrights. I also encourage you to WRITE. Just don't talk about it. Do it. With the web, you have more avenues than ever before to put your work in front of other people and get criticism. Start small... check out the Fiction Archive at my site and the associated contest. DON'T dream of being 'discovered.' You'll only be 'discovered' if you work at making that happen.
For game designers: Look at what you DON'T like about RPGs out there and improve on those parts by rebuilding them from the ground up. (Not much advice for game designers, but, as a former boss once told me... I'm not a real game designer! I'm a storyteller who tinkers with other people's game mechanics once in a while.
N: Thanks, Steve, for taking the time to speak with us today.
SM: Any time. Except at 2 a.m. in the morning. Or when in a public restroom.