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Wednesday 21 March 2018

RPGPundit Interviews Rob Kuntz, Part 1 (of 3)

Robert J. Kuntz is one of the founding fathers of the hobby. He began playing D&D in the second ever game of the Greyhawk campaign, DMed by Gary Gygax, in 1972. His character was the fighter Robilar. Within a year he was one of the first people on Earth other than Gary Gygax to be running a Greyhawk campaign, with Gary Gygax as one of his players.  His material in that campaign had an influence on Castle Greyhawk and many other elements of the Greyhawk campaign. He was one of TSR's first six employees. He co-authored the Gods, Demigods & Heroes sourcebook (and later Deities & Demigods), and contributed to the module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

He was also the first player ever to successfully beat the Tomb of Horrors.

His current publishing company is Three Line Studio.

1. Would you care to give my readers, those who may not be well versed in the old-school history of D&D at least, an introduction? Who are you, why were you important, and what are you up to now? 

A: Well you have framed the question most interestingly!  I will take a slightly different tack in answering, that to expose why and I am still important and without going into Narcissists's reflection mode.

That importance lies specifically in the province of a personal "design history" and thus is an incomplete summary at best as I am not dead yet nor am I inactive on that particular creative front and others, quite the opposite.  The real defining point for me as a creator is to have accumulated ranges and degrees of knowledge via my experiences, my many and varied journeys in design, and that these inform me of what I have done and thus what there is to improve upon, or avoid, for future Odysseys.

For concrete historical examples--my publication and industry achievements in a nutshell--one might refer to my company's link, from my bio there.

As far as what I am up to, any interviewer opens a Pandora's Box with that question.

Including this interview I have no less than 10  projects going on and at different stages for each:  they include RPG matter/adventure design,  designing an AD&D tournament, a screenplay, consulting material for a film, two books on design theory, a nifty boardgame, a detailed, and recent, pitch for a comic book series to a person of note in that industry, a forthcoming interview with Casus Belli, managing the business affairs of Three Line Studio with my wife, Nathalie (which we consider a project in itself!), and the most pressing, finishing a book on D&D History (as yet untitled, I call it THE BOOK) that I have been contracted for and that will be published in about 6 months.

I recently released an updated version of my GENCON VIII tournament module, Sunken City, along with the major debut of the El Raja Key Archive DVD, an electronic accumulation of 1,000 images of texts, maps and manuscripts that had been preserved (scanned) over ten years of auctions and date as far back as 1971.  Following that I released Dave Arneson's True Genius, the first book written on the man, and which examines and describes the RPG core system he created, this via a systems thinking view.

I have recently returned from AthensCon where I was a special guest.  While there I did a workshop on D&D wherein pre-RPG game system models are compared to Arneson's/OD&D's model, a panel discussion/Q&A, and ran two adventure sessions based around one of my Castle El Raja Key's redesigned levels, The Lake Level.  Everyone had a blast with it and the convention was really great, one of my better cons since Lucca Comic and Games.  I'll be returning there next year to run the aforementioned AD&D Tournament that I'm designing.

2. I'm going to want to know more about what you're working on now. But it can't be denied that you're also one of the living Founding Fathers of RPGs.
 So, to look a bit at the early days first: how did you get into RPGs? What were your early play experiences? What work or contributions did you do yourself in old-school RPGs?

A: I met Gary Gygax and his family in 1968.  That began a long and fruitful student-teacher relationship between us.  In mid-1972, and as the last editor of the Caste & Crusades Society's newsletter, the Domesday Book, I published an article in issue #13, Facts About Blackmoor, by Dave Arneson.  This was the first of two Fantasy-themed articles to appear in that issue. DB had until that point been an avenue for articles on Medievalism including a pre-publication version of Chainmail (Gygax and Perren) before its final, and updated, commercial release through Guidon Games.

Whereas one of the articles was a miniatures battle report, and in installments, deriving from a Tolkienesque campaign being run by Walter J. Williams using the full Chainmail rules (with the Fantasy supplement), Arneson's was more intriguing.  He provided a map detailing the village of Blackmoor and the upper-works of its nearby Castle Blackmoor, and with a list of the village's/near-surrounding area's inhabitants.  This is the very first indicator to what we in Lake Geneva (the LGTSA) were to learn in November of 1972 about what Arneson and his players were involved in, which was essentially the historical advent of the RPG in the Twin Cities.  When Arneson and David Megarry ran us through our first RPG in the Village, Castle and Outdoor of the Blackmoor milieu, this in November of 1972, we were bowled over; and this event began the furious correspondence between Arneson and Gary that led to their partnering in creating the first commercial RPG, Classic Dungeons & Dragons.  I stress first commercial because Arneson and his group had soundly laid down the architecture for the first non-commercial RPG via Blackmoor about 1.5 years before we experienced our first comprehensive adventure in his campaign-world.

From there the concept's direction starts to fall more under the purview of Gary and the LGTSA as we go about play-testing it from our end (late 1972-early 1974).  It starts with 10 pages of redefined rules (Gary's preferred mechanics), pretty much what we see today as an inverted pyramid scaling, this without unsettling or changing Arneson's systems architecture (the mechanics are in fact the sub-systems).

In that mix I became the primary play-tester as "Robilar" and within 4 weeks (very early 1973) I had also created my own castle--Castle El Raja Key--for Gary and others to play in and for me to play-test the concept from another angle.  Gary then conferred the co-DM mantle for Greyhawk upon me in late 1973 and we merged many parts of my levels and ideas into Greyhawk even as I was creating my own FRP World, Kalibruhn, from the top down. I was going "gonzo" with the idea at the time, and a lot of that is covered here.

After the publication of D&D came its supplements, notably Greyhawk which sold 9 copies for every copy of D&D that was sold (at a 90% clip).  My most noteworthy contribution is the use of the polyhedral dice as hp determinants for each class.  That came about during a phone call between Gary and myself as we were struggling to balance the classes for our release of Greyhawk--in OD&D all classes had d6's for hp determination.  I pointed out that magic-users should get 4-sided, thieves and clerics 6-sided and fighters 8-sided, and so was born that sliding scale.  There are other contributions that cut across a lot of design areas, but that's an important one still in use to this day.

I do get into much more detail about those days and our experiences--IFW, C&C Society, LGTSA, TSR--in my upcoming, "THE BOOK".

3. And have you been gaming ever since? If so, had you continued to be involved with the RPG hobby as a whole this whole time? If not, what brought you back?
Also, what do you think of the current state of the RPG hobby? Is it better now than in the old days, or worse, and in which ways? 

A: Well, yes.  I never stopped.  I ran several companies, Creations Unlimited, Pied Piper Publishing and now Three Line Studio.  I have been online since 1996.  That was with the Greytalk-L. I was on Dragonsfoot for, errh, about 11 years, had a Q&A forum there but it really outlived its usefulness.  I also had my own forum for PPP, now closed and archived, and I even subscribed to theRPG Site, yours, but I rarely get away from the Ruins of Murkhill these days.  I also have an old blog, Lord of the Green Dragons, retired, and a newer blog, Lake Geneva Original Campaign, but I don't post there as much as I have in the past.  Too busy with so many projects. I lost count of words written at a million and volumes of work sold at 3 million.   It's been quite a ride; and the taxi meter's still running.

Current state of the RPG hobby/industry, depending, is either fluid (hobby) or median (industry).  I would say that the hobbyists are taking the chances with newer designs and betting the line on their gut feelings, just as Arneson and Gygax did.  The established industry RPG companies have less inclination to do that, but that has traditionally been the case with the establishment, which is why they are called "the establishment".  Whether that is good or bad--which is a rather limited view for a summary and perforce skips to a generalized position--also depends on what lens one is viewing that through:  hobby or industry.  There's much variation between the two which makes for many interpretative POVs.  I personally feel that we have sometimes, in both realms, become trapped in a cycle, but that's my designer side speaking.  The market loves sustained and established, slow moving cycles and for obvious reasons.  This dovetails into to the establishment view, of course, and therein lies the rub between cycle design and original design, the latter being what the OD&D RPG was all about.


Check out Part 2, here!

And Part 3 here.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Egg + Gawith's Navy Flake


  1. My goodness, what an awesome interview. Thank you. I wasn't quite sure I understood this sentence though ... " It starts with 10 pages of redefined rules (Gary's preferred mechanics), pretty much what we see today as an inverted pyramid scaling, this without unsettling or changing Arneson's systems architecture (the mechanics are in fact the sub-systems)."

    What does he mean the mechanics are in fact the sub-system? Thanks again. Looking forward to Part 2.

    1. My take on this is that the system is at a higher level of analysis then the mechanics.

      How is combat resolved? Doesn't really matter.
      How do spells work? Doesn't really matter.
      What can your character do? Again doesn't really matter.

      If you look at it holisticly what matters are more abstract:
      Exploring the unknown
      Losing is clear - death of characters - but winning is based on players own goals
      Fighting increasingly dangerous foes as you become increasingly more powerful.
      and such.

      The subsytems - how exactly you do those things can matter - but they aren't the overall experience that Arneson pionered.
      You can see this in Champions of Zed - which has three seperate combat systems - the game isn't what dice you need to use. It's . . . dungeoneering (to try to make something very complex pithy).

    2. Not a bad take. If one thinks of Arneson's original system architecture as two interdependent modes--one conceptual and one mechanical--it's clarified a bit. I break this down in the 3 linked essays forming the treatise, Dave Arneson's True Genius (TLS 2017).

  2. "I pointed out that magic-users should get 4-sided, thieves and clerics 6-sided and fighters 8-sided, and so was born that sliding scale." - Did you mean thieves get 4-sided hit dice?

    1. I suggested 6 and he argued it down to 4; in my own campaign (Kalibruhn) they got six as I though 4 was too weak.

    2. Yes, I think for thieves d4 is low.