Marc Miller Interview & Transcript
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation I had with Marc Miller. The edits mostly cut out interstitial material and are for clarity.
This was recorded on the 27th of June, 2022.
LG: Can you give us a potted history of Marc Miller?
MM: Oh my goodness - my father was in the Navy - I travelled all over the place and around the world and ended up in Illinois and that’s been my home since I was 10. I went to the university of Illinois, I took ROTC - I was intending to be a career army officer, and they reduced the size of the army after Vietnam and so they decided I wasn’t going to be a career army officer.
I ended up coming to Illinois State University which is about two miles from here and just took courses. The life-changing event for me was I wandered into the Illinois State University Strategic Games Club meeting in the Union looking for something about military things. Frankly I had no idea how war games worked - so I met my future business partners Frank Chadwick and Rich Banner and they had a very innovative concept - they knew that it’s hard to learn how to play games and the way to learn is to play them - have somebody sit down and tell you how to play. So they hooked me up with a geography professor who said “We’ll meet in my office after hours and we’ll see what we can do.”
I picked a game which was - I remember vividly - France 1940 from SPI - it’s a difficult game to play even if you know what you’re trying to do and I knew nothing! He sat down and we read through the rules together and he explained every little bit - he said this little thing goes on the map, you move it like this and this is a zone of control and at the end of one turn - three hours - I knew how to play. We didn’t get through one turn but at the end of that I knew how to play.
Frank and Rich wanted to do the holy grail of war games at the time - so there was a game from Avalon Hill, Stalingrad, it had a 23 by 30-inch map of Russia and the Russian Front and the idea had been bandied about time and again that they should make it a bigger game - that someone should do a four map game of Russia so you’d really get some idea of the terrain and all that. Rich and Frank wanted to do that and so Rich, being the graphic person, made up some maps and Frank, being the strategic person, made up some counters and they created that game. Avalon Hill had been hinting they were going to do it, SPI had been hinting they were going to do it but nobody was really taking the steps and so Frank and Rich decided they wanted to do it. They invited all of us members of the games club to participate and we all did in various ways - we edited we did accounting we did play testing. There were about 10 of us and in the summer of 1973 we published “Drang Nach Osten” - “Advance to the East” - we’ve since learned not to title games in German because nobody knows what they mean but that was the standard back then. It was a surprising hit because it responded to what everybody wanted.
Success breeds success - we decided we wanted to do more games so we created a game company to do the rest of the Europa series - that was a long running series - but also to publish other games and so created we created Game Designers Workshop. Frank and Rich asked me to be the third partner and together the three of us asked Loren Wiseman to be the fourth partner and we created a long-running game company. I did some analysis after we closed down - GDW created one new title every 22 days for 22 years. Of course we closed down after 22 years because we were all burnt out - it was like being on a treadmill. It was a wonderful experience, we had a good time and we did innovative things. I’m proud of that that time. We talk a lot about traveler but GDW was not constrained to one system or one concept - we did the Europa series, we did science fiction games, we did historical war games, we did obscure titles, we did miniatures, we did Larry Bond’s Harpoon, we did John Hill’s various titles - we bought his game company and kept publishing those titles. We did a variety of role-playing games - not only traveler but 2300 A.D and Twilight 2000, Dark Conspiracy the obscure En-Garde! which predated Traveller and significantly influenced it. Steve Jackson has recently republished my first war game Triplanetary, first published in the in the fall of 1973 and here it is 50 years later.
And then we closed down after 22 years because we were better game designers than we were business people I think! Our various designers and people went various ways: Tim Brown who’s with Ulysses now, or Loren Wiseman who went on to work with Steve Jackson Games or Frank Chadwick who is working with a variety of board game war game companies now, and I’m doing Traveller.
So that’s a kind of an arc of my life so far.
LG: That’s perfect. I didn’t realize you published En-Garde as well - because i got into the whole thing through my dad’s collection of games and En-Garde was one of the ones he had kicking around sort of in the bottom. It’s quite an interesting one because obviously it predates a lot of what we consider role-playing.
MM: It’s an unsung gem. It certainly influenced Traveller - instead of the the Dungeons and Dragons concept of ‘let’s create a character and play and play and play and play for multiple sessions’ it was designed to be played one night, everybody sits down and rolls up a character.
I think the secret is how wonderful it is for the person who has the highest social standing - everybody has to suck up to him all night long in order to get favors and improve their own social standing and sometimes we got somebody who was not especially high social standing in our own circle - so you have a lowly play tester be the highest guy and everybody else really enjoyed sucking up to him but then at the end of the evening we were done. You’d roll new characters next time and I think that that’s an important part of that game and it’s a fun concept if you can embrace it - that your character is transitory and you get to have a new guy and try new things next time.
LG: It’s definitely a kind of different relationship to playing a character there, where they’re more of a playing piece - less of an inhabited character compared to a lot of more modern games, where it is very much you and your character are kind of synonymous.
So do you think that kind of fed into some of the life path stuff? Where it’s that kind of mini game and you’re running through the gauntlet and it’s in its own right?
MM: I certainly agree that it’s different. I don’t think En-Gardge made that happen for Traveller. We showed En-Garde to Gary Gygax and he was impressed - mostly because it was not a Dungeons and Dragons clone. You know he certainly was an advocate for role playing but most games on the market were just Dungeons and Dragons converted to some other genre or still in fantasy and En-Garde did a totally different take on how you can do a role-playing game. So we kind of had his stamp of approval - we never got to put it in ads but we felt good about it ourselves.
LG: I mean obviously that’s quite the achievement, especially when the world was a lot smaller back then.
You were saying you yourself had a military career - do you think that fed into the kind of Traveller stuff?
MM: Certainly it’s reflective of my own concept of the life path that people can take. I’m a strong advocate that if you want to join the military it’s a great way to change your life from whatever you’re doing now to where you want to be because it gives you access to skills and education it gives you access to experience. I experienced of joining the Army and doing things, my father had the experience of joining the Navy and doing things, and I just extended it from there. Of course the whole life path thing in Traveller is because unlike Dungeons and Dragons you can’t just learn a spell, be 18 and go out and do something - you’re terribly useless and you have to have some experience in life. I like to think - well, I get testimonials all the time from people who play Travelled and it changed their lives.
It made them interested in things like vectors or stars or whatever and they went on to have wonderful careers - I don’t think it was Traveller that made them wonderful but certainly I appreciate them thinking Traveller helped shape their lives.
LG: I think it’s ’s a very impactful game text in that way - I know for myself it definitely changed my thinking around games a lot. A lot of things are now taken for granted, but it seems back then in the woolly days of the 70s the field was a bit more open - you could try new things and I think that’s one of the things that really makes me attracted to some of these older games. Things like there’s no way to advance in terms of power level that goes up, it’s just like you might learn a skill if you want but you have to stick with it and it takes four years in game and even then it might take eight years to cement that as a permanent addition. Stuff like that I think is really interesting where a lot of the defaults hadn’t been set or at least that’s how it seems - for you was it a deliberate kind of break with tradition when you were kind of making choices like that or was it more just anything goes there’s no template to work to here so we’ll build it how we want?
MM: We were making up things as we went along we - barely knew how Dungeons and Dragons worked, let alone other role-playing games. We’ve had 50 years of role-playing games now, it’s a mature concept, how you do role-playing, how the rules work, what’s possible to do.
We’re influenced by computer games which just throw logic out the window because it’s pure fantasy - I think that there are accepted conventions on how those [computer] role-playing games work but they aren’t trying to reproduce how life works. It’s a game as opposed to tabletop role-playing games which have some idea of reproducing how people work, how they do things.
LG: I think that there’s definitely quite a lot to that, where because you don’t have the visual spectacle if you try and lean into something that hasn’t got that kind of gut instinct relation to life as you experience it I think it can fall flat. I’m sure there’s someone out there doing that and doing a great job but I haven’t seen it and it certainly it seems like it’s much harder to pull off using pen and paper versus the visual spectacle of a video game.
MM: Certainly - the visual spectacles are in our minds instead of on the screen. You know I went into one of these big box stores several years ago, it was a football game on the big screen and it took me a couple of minutes to realize that the camera angles and all that weren’t possible in broadcast football - you can’t have a camera on the field like that it had to be a computer game, but it took me a minute because the realism of the of the graphics. It looked like it was a real football game - there’s a lot of concentration on making those games look very real, whereas in tabletop role playing games we don’t spend our assets on that so much as on giving an inspiring experience to the players who can make the images in their own mind and and also there’s an element of - it’s a lot more fun playing at a table with a bunch of people that you like or grow to like than with a controller at a screen yelling epithets if the other people on your conversation channel.
LG: There’s definitely the pro-social aspect - I think that’s why we’ve seen such a big uptick lately obviously, including virtual play, it’s a lot more pro-social and a lot more engaging with other human beings compared to some of the other things that people have been doing whilst locked inside for the past two years.
I think it’s interesting as well because as you say things are getting so photorealistic in games, and video games are now everywhere and yet we’re seeing this push backwards, a kind of a rejection of that a little bit and instead people are like “no we choose to imagine what this looks like through like a tabletop game”. We’re seeing both lot more people playing but also a lot more people making games which is cool - I think it’s a really nice thing to see.
MM: A big aspect in tabletop role-playing games is those people sitting around a table and enjoying their time, eating snacks, talking to each other and getting up and demonstrating how they think this guy swings this sword or how these people sneak around or whatever it is they’re talking about and that is the core of the role playing - it’s that interaction with your friends.
There was a time when we thought computers would take over gaming and we wouldn’t have tabletop gaming anymore - but tabletop gaming gives us a a fun thing that we enjoy doing together with other people, that’s at its core. Gaming is not going away, friendly local game stores are not going away. When I talk to people about games I’m often preaching to the choir but you know, this hobby of tabletop games whether it’s Catan or Dungeons and Dragons or Magic or any of the games you buy at the local game store or miniatures - it’s just about the best hobby in the world. I mean it’s affordable, it creates relationships with people that last a lifetime, it’s enjoyable, it challenges your mind and it’s a hidden secret because not enough people understand how much fun this can be or how much fun this is.
Then again those people may not enjoy it - they would probably be bored silly sitting at a table talking about sneaking down on a corridor or whatever and some of them just dismiss us in gaming as nerds or crazy or whatever - but those of us in it really understand the value of it, the multi-layered values of this hobby and I have to say this has ended up being my life and I’m glad it’s this rather than selling washing machines or racing cars.
LG: I think we’re seeing that kind of increased acceptance. There seems to be a kind of fantastic turn in entertainment - a lot of like more modern film and TV is explicitly set in like an imaginary world and that in some ways does pave a kind of wider acceptance of role-playing games. Even when I was growing up it was like you know “why are you doing that, don’t be a nerd” but it seems that’s not really a thing as much.
MM: I think a lot of those nerds grew up and became writers for movies and television. We’ve had time for those people to be influenced by this, to grow up and to go out and earn livings in the world and some of them are creative livings and we’re seeing their effect on society because - we’re no longer the secret part of society that nobody understands.
LG: There’s a lot more money in games, I think, than ever before and a lot more scrutiny but also a lot more opportunities which is cool.
Earlier we were talking about the early lineage of Traveller - so En-Garde, big influence, and you’re saying your entry into games in a big way was hex encounter war games which is quite interesting because obviously on Gary Gygax’s side you have Chainmail then into the D&D - it’s all very much miniatures. Do you think there’s some kind of identifiable elements that distinguish your lineage as more so primarily hex-and-counter?
MM: You know even Gary Gygax said you should buy Outdoor Survival with its hex map of some strange territory and use that. I mean he acknowledged the presence of board games, of hex-and-counters explicitly it’s just that he was a miniatures guy - he was involved in publishing miniatures rules that’s what he cared about.
I was a hex-and-counter guy, my experience was building games with a with a map and counters and rules that’s what we thought and so my mind naturally turned when I went to spaceships. I didn’t have miniature spaceships but I did have counters so I turned to hex grids for the spaceships to move when I wanted people to move. In a territory I was comfortable with mapping it with a hex grid so that I could kind of see distances and relationships. It’s just a natural part of our minds - on the other hand Frank Chadwick was a miniatures guy, not that he didn’t do board games with hexes, but he was more familiar with miniatures and he had experience in that and so he brought that in when we talked you know he created Striker which was miniatures rules for Traveller.
We were blessed that we had both approaches - many approaches - as opposed to being totally one only one way of looking at things. But definitely, I was a hex-and-counter guy and so it shows up in Traveller all the time.
LG: The first time I had a look at the weapon hit charts, it’s almost a CRT table you know - it’s very very similar.
Another one of the things I wanted to touch on is - obviously, in the first three books there’s no explicit setting it’s kind of work out by yourself, and then over time the Third Imperium kind of emerged first from the rules and then explicitly written as a setting. How did that come about? Because obviously it’s quite a big shift going from roll your own to here’s the default version if you want.
MM: I like to say that I’m a classically trained science fiction reader - I read science fiction from when I was 11 years old until now. I mean I devoured it, I read everything and I mean everything. I went to college, and my first year of college was in Chicago. I commuted on the train and when I was done every day with class I would walk back to the train station to come home and I discovered a bodega which had a box of cover stripped Astounding Science Fiction magazine - you know it had to have been the complete set from 1947 to 1966 - not complete but close enough - and they had them for sale for a quarter. I’d buy one every day and read it on the way home, a serialized novel installment, a bunch of short stories and letters and everything else and I read those and then I’d throw it away - but I was exposed as a result to all of the science fiction from that period. It influenced me, I thought that’s what science fiction was, you know? I can look back and see that it was written in terms of the 1950s or the 1960s and I see it with a different lens today - but nevertheless I read all that science fiction, I read all the paperback novels from the book stands and I wanted Traveller to do all of that.
But the truth is that Traveller was trying to give us the details of daily life in some star travelling future that those novels did not tell us. I mean the stories of classic science fiction don’t really tell us how spaceships work or how much it costs to go from here to there, they just say ‘I went there’ and they name a star and half the time they don’t even know what star they’re naming or it doesn’t matter. Traveller told us how day-to-day life worked in addition to how combat works and conflict works and all that but it told us that it cost you this much to eat and a spaceship cost this much and passage cost this much and those details didn’t really mesh very well with all of those novels.
For the first two years we didn’t produce any adventures, we just had Traveller and we were just selling the little box with three books in it. There was some demand for adventures - they wanted somebody to write up a situation for them to play and I was struck by a review of Traveller within the first year or so - second year perhaps - and the reviewer said ‘I won’t play a game that doesn’t give me adventures’ and the editor literally inserted a note, parenthetical in italics, saying ‘and I won’t play one that does because I want to make up my own.’
But the truth is more people wanted some guidance on how to do adventures than knew how to make their own and that review was a guidance to us that we needed to do some adventures, we needed to provide more views on how to do that well. If we have an army, we have to say who runs the army, if we have a navy, we have to say who owns it and what they do you can’t just say there’s ‘a navy’ without talking about what the ranks are and who they answer to. I remember just walking around doing whatever I was doing and I captivated myself with the idea of calendar dates - and so this was 1977 ,78, 79 and I thought ‘what about a universe where the current date is 1100’ and that just stuck with me for some reason, which is why we picked 1105 as the starting date for our adventures. We wanted to say the empire had been around for a thousand years - it was a mature empire, there are still frontiers but the government itself had been there and stable for a long time and we were using that date to do that. But we had to provide stories, and if we’re providing stories we have to give background - we have to create that background and say what is going to work in terms of interstellar government - what will the future terrain delay of the land be? and it just kind of naturally followed from there.
I remember Frank Chadwick did a list of emperors - I mean if we have a thousand-year empire, we must have had a lot of emperors and he made a list and that was his imagination going wild and there was no plan there he just thought ‘oh there’s probably a civil war in the middle of it, oh this emperor lasted a long time, this one didn’t.’ He made those comments and they’ve shaped the structure of the empire because once we published that list everybody knew it and then if you gave a date they would say ‘oh that’s when empress Paula was in charge’ and we end up making stories because of that. It kind of grew by itself, it was the natural outgrowth of thinking what would we do, how would we create an empire, what would it do.
At the same time we were struck by the need for people to have to control their own destinies. We wanted ship captains to not be in radio contact with central command all the time, they had to be able to say what they wanted, make their own decisions without being controlled by somebody else - at least not at the moment - which is why we restricted communications to the speed of light. All of a sudden we didn’t have central headquarters telling us what to do, or keeping track of us - that influenced what we thought the empire was because if communication is so slow then individual nobles are the ones who actually run things on the frontier. We created the empire because we had some thoughts and they just naturally evolved into other thoughts and what you see now is this grand Third Imperium created to make a good environment to enjoy adventures without controlling the players too much.
LG: I think it’s one of the differences between fiction and role-playing games in that when you say Traveller is a collection of smaller day-to-day details and the interaction between them, it naturally suggests the shape of things. One thing I found when I was running my big Traveller campaign - I just ran it from the book without reading about the Third Imperium. I’d decide how I thought something would work and then, when I compared it to the Third Imperium, they’d be very similar because the rules suggest it. Stuff like, you can only have a message go as fast as a ship, changes the whole thing and it dictates a certain sort of feudalism which is really works and like you say it kind of drives gameplay in a really fun and interesting way without being overbearing, without telling the referee ‘this is how things must work’ but instead it just naturally unfolds which I think is cool because a referee can totally disregard it if they really want.
MM: The other thing we tried to do in Traveller was to to make it comprehensible. When I was writing things I would look at America or the world as my inspiration - I mean each country becomes a world. You know we’re not a homogeneous world, we’re not a homogeneous nation. There are places where there isn’t a lot of high tech, there are places where there’s a lot of high-tech, there’s high population areas there’s low population areas, there are lawful areas, there are lawless areas whether it’s regions or it’s countries. There are countries where we don’t feel comfortable going to, that it’s dangerous to do that, there’s countries where you can go and walk around and it’s safe and it was always an inspiration to me. The empire is just America made bigger - or North America. That’s always been what I’ve encouraged other people to do if they’re trying to understand how this works - to look at it as a pantographed larger view of the world, or your own nation or your own community - even if your own community you have lawless areas you have lawful areas you have high-tech areas you have uncivilized or unsettled areas and it makes it easier for you to understand what you’re supposed to do when you go to adventuring. You can’t pull out your gun and shoot people in the high-tech areas because there’s going to be things that could get back at you, but if you go off into the prairie the bears can get you so you better be prepared.
LG: There’s definitely like, a lineage of the Western as a genre in role-playing games where you have that kind of gradient of the centralized state zones and it kind of fades out into these areas which, at least from the state perspective, are either unsettled or ‘occupied’ but they don’t necessarily have the same authority. It’s a similar thing with with Dungeons and Dragons, where it’s - at least in the early incarnations - you have border towns - like it’s literally a Fort on the Borderlands - sort of thing.
Do you think that kind of comes from - obviously yourself and Gary both being North American - it’s just kind of that kind of cultural background of the Western or is it something to do with games themselves?
MM: Westerns didn’t do a lot for me, I was science fiction rather than Westerns, but it’s also a central part of American culture, the rugged individual who can go out and explore and be safe and control his destiny. We try to do more than that, we tried to give situations where which were just alien or not commonplace. The government types in Traveller mimic the government types you see throughout the world, some dictatorships or just civil service bureaucracies without a central leader, giving the opportunity to the players or the referee to create non-traditional situations that people have to respond to. That’s always that’s one of the things we want to do - to challenge people rather than just living. You know even in Westerns it’s always the same, it’s the prairie is is lawless but you go into town and there’s a marshal and a sheriff and you can buy things but you but you have to act civilized in town, you can act uncivilized when you get out of town. We’re trying to provide a variety of towns that while civilized were alien to the standard that we’re used to - I mean for the most part you go to any any town there in the UK or in the US and they’re all the same. What we wanted to do was provide towns that weren’t the same - worlds that weren’t the same.
LG: That’s one of the strengths of the UPP - planet generation. It does something that a lot of generators don’t do, where it generates questions rather than answers. Like, there’s a planet and it’s got no atmosphere, really high population and low tech and it’s like… whoa hang on something weird is happening here because that doesn’t make sense - and that’s one of the joys of Traveller.
MM: I use this sequence when I talk about world generation - our world creation system can create a million different worlds. Somebody said “I can make up my own” and I say, okay, make one up and he says “okay an airless moon” - okay, make another one up “okay how about a desert planet with an ancient civilization” okay make another one up “how about a jungle swamp planet” - good, you’re doing well do another one “it’s an always twilight world like mercury” and I say, okay you’ve got nine worlds, do a million of them. Nobody is going to make a world with 20% water and the next one they do is also 20% water. Our imaginations can’t think that broadly but the dice can and when the dice tell you it’s an airless world with a low tech high population - yeah would make that world up on their own but your mind has to twist and try and understand and there’s a dozen reasons why that world is there and a dozen reasons why it’s a great adventure but the dice have just told you something that could be fun that you would wouldn’t make up yourself and that’s one of the joys of Traveller.
I would get it from time to time - “I created this world and it just doesn’t make sense” and I look at the statistics and I can think of a dozen ways why it would make sense. You just have to open your mind to the possibilities.
LG: It’s definitely letting the dice surprise you.
It’s not that it doesn’t make sense you just haven’t worked out the answer yet.
One of the things you mentioned earlier with that shift from having no default setting, no adventures to building adventures - you specified multiple approaches to different adventures which I think is really interesting because looking through the classic Traveller adventures there’s a there’s a lot of variety, not just in terms of subject matter but in terms of actual approach like some of them are following almost like that kind of Call of Cthulhu style, there’s like scenes that you almost move between and then there’s something like Prison Planet where it’s like oh yeah you’ll be in prison for a few years here’s the week by week procedure, have fun.
Was that a very a deliberate thing, like oh we need to make sure these are all wildly different or was it a case of, just write an adventure and whatever that person turned in you’re like yeah cool sounds good let’s hit publish?
MM: We wanted our adventures to be templates of ways you can make your own adventures. I want to be sure that I’m not perceived as critical of Dungeons and Dragons because we enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons a lot, but the first 10 adventures they produced were all the same - it was just a different map, different story, but it was start here and go to some place and then delve into the dungeon. It’s perhaps overstating it to say they’re all the same but our perception was the Traveller universe is huge with a lot of possibilities, and we want to provide templates that a good referee can take and do this adventure in a in a different world with different situations - here’s the elements we think you need to make it fun.
We weren’t explicit, we didn’t say do that but we were always exploring new new ways of presenting adventures and that’s why that structure of several adventures, of the double adventures are as you say all different.
LG: Some of them especially, some of the ideas that weren’t sort of taken forward like again like Prison Planet, one of my favorites, where it’s so procedural in terms of what happens, and it gives you the pieces and it doesn’t tell you how they necessarily go together in terms of here’s how the adventure builds up because of there’s that implicit understanding of, it’s up to the players to make things happen and it’s up to the players to decide, which for me is what I really like. We’ve also got something like the water world one where it’s kind of like Dune and it is a bit more of a flow chart of events and the direction things move.
MM: You know, wow, I just the - water world one you say and you’re ‘kind of like dune’ and I just thought, oh right it’s water instead of sand and it’s a big island instead of a sand worm - I never saw that.
LG: For me as a designer it’s really refreshing because ’s there’s that freewheeling, we’ll just try stuff out and hopefully it works feel. I mean one of the ones that’s really interesting - this is a conversation me and a friend have quite a lot - is Annic Nova, the double adventures, like is it technically an adventure? Because you could argue it either way, insofar as you’ve got this really nice floor plan and there’s one element - spoilers for anyone who has not played it - but the one element with the the plague and apart from that it’s almost non-interactive - in a good way, in a really interesting compelling way. I think about Annic Nova a lot in terms of - because I think it is an adventure but it is the most minimal adventure and that makes it very compelling and that’s really interesting, kind of managing to walk that line between the two.
MM: Well, it’s certainly a minimal adventure. It’s something where you make it do what you wanted to do because we don’t tell you the answer. I know the answers, you know, my campaign knows the answers - I’ve shared it with my people but it was never published. We knew what it meant but it was strange and so we didn’t give answers. Everybody loves it, because it’s just but who would design a spaceship like that? You know, why is does the spaceship look like that how? Does that work? I think it’s interesting that the picture is by Winchell, and he drew the original OGRE for Steve Jackson Games.
LG: Speaking of art - so that’s another thing that’s quite striking comparing the early Traveller to now - there’s like one picture, maybe two in the original three black books. You look at a lot of books now where every page almost has that kind of magazine style graphic design layout. So was that a deliberate thing to have minimal art and leave it up to the mind of the viewer, or was that just a financial thing?
MM: It wasn’t so much - I’m sure we could, if we’d made a budget, we could have done that, but basically we did not have a good stable of artists who could give us good pictures. We did not have the communications ability to do that and so we didn’t have art. In one way it was great because the players had to come up with their own ideas what they should be but on the other we would have been better if we had been more visual.
LG: I’ve always liked it - when I was a lot younger, going through my dad’s collection I was like oh I don’t get it and now when I sort of come to it more as an adult, I’m like, wow this is so refreshing, very different - and I think it shows another potential trajectory that games could have gone on, or could have been more emphasized in games. More reliant on the individual GM, referee, whatever to invent and build and a lot more on the players to be the impetus of things happening.
MM: The population of game players once upon a time was relatively low compared to today. It’s grown 10 times, we’ll say, but you get to those people by making things in a format that they can process, and so we still have that core of you know 100,000 or a million players as opposed to 10 million players but you make the products and they sell to all 10 million that audience because they are slick products - production values and wonderful art.
There’s that subset who would still buy it even if it didn’t have the slick production values and the wonderful art but the publishers are getting to a wider audience and they have to have better production values in order to make that work. It’s definitely not a critique of having something, you know, look at the first Dungeons and Dragons, those were staple-bound little booklets that with typewriting instead of typesetting that wouldn’t fly today for anybody to make that. The art in Dungeons and Dragons once upon a time was minimal as well.
LG: There is kind of a resurgence with the kind of zines that a lot of people are putting out there but it’s certainly not what’s happening from the bigger publishers, from your heavyweights. It’s interesting that we see that there’s that independent movement that’s is almost revisiting some of the older ways of production whilst also modernizing it - obviously with computer technology it means you can do a lot more a lot cheaper so there’s there’s some interesting stuff going on there with the two being compared.
So outside of games one thing that I learned recently about yourself that I hadn’t heard before was your involvement in Not In Our Town.
MM: Yeah, it’s a national anti-racism movement.
LG: Could you just talk about that, because that’s a really interesting, really heartening to see - obviously there’s been some unfortunate news about - I say ‘unfortunately’ - but there’s been some news recently about the Empire the Petal Throne author and some of his affiliations so it’s really nice to see someone from early days involved in quite the opposite.
MM: So 25 years or so ago, we had newspapers then - USA Today - you know, we don’t have newspapers anymore, but they were doing a series about black churches in the American South being burnt down. Nobody was noticing that it was a plague of that happening, individual churches would burn down and nobody made the connection that a lot of them were burned down. It was racist - I don’t think it was a concerted movement but nevertheless it was happening.
My wife and I shared an office, we had two desks here and we would see that on television or read the newspaper and she just said “this is terrible what can we do?” Me, I just thought it was terrible she said “what can we do?” and so we decided we would at least have a kind of a group meeting to discuss what we should do. So we made some posters and posted them around and met in the public library community room and got a good significant group of people together who, like-mindedly, thought that this was not something that should be happening and that people should speak up. The name, Not In Our Town, it was a public television series at the time talking about responding to racism or antisemitism and we adopted that name, we worked with the people who created the name and we had a rally. We had a mayor, kind of a good old boy here, his name was Jesse Smart at the time and he called up the police chief in our town - we’re in central Illinois, we’re not rural, we’re a good white-collar community - but he called up the police chief and says “I want you to increase patrols past our black churches because I don’t want that to happen here.”
Well, first of all, that wasn’t going to happen here - it was happening in the South, we’re in Illinois. It was Kentucky or Alabama or whatever, but he was the only mayor in the country who did that. I always took that as, despite being a good old boy, he had his his constituents at heart and he spoke up and just made sure that he was making a statement that that’s not going to happen here. So this movement was created here in Bloomington-Normal, we had a rally, people made signs and spoke and did things. I have to say that for the most part it wasn’t happening in Bloomington but there was a strategy underneath it - which is if you speak up if you have a community standard that racism is not part of our DNA, you send a message to those in the community who kind of feel that way to shut up and don’t do it.
That was the move and it’s gone on for for the 25 years since then. We’ve had rallies some years, we have seminars, there’s narcan in the school project where it’s all stickers and decals and temporary tattoos and sign a pledge that say “I in my heart will do everything I can to fight racism.” So that’s our community effort to speak up against racism. It’s interesting - that when it started we literally met in the basement of one of the black churches and there was a suggestion that we needed to draw the circle wider and include all discrimination, speaking up against it. Our logo was the circle with a slash over the word racism, and they wanted to expand it to cover all sorts of discrimination. I basically spoke privately with those people, and said if we expanded it to cover gay [rights] the 12 black pastors would walk out because the world was not yet ready for that. So our focus in Not In Our Town was anti-racism and what I think is interesting is that the gay faction within the community was a significant part of the anti-racism faction, and they just showed up and supported that without insisting that we needed to do something to cover everything. Of course that was the good patient strategy that they had because now Not In Our Town covers virtually everything, because community values, community attitudes have changed - but it would have been crippled if it had insisted upon that once upon a time. Now it’s just accepted, so I think we’ve made great progress.
LG: I was looking at some of the literature and such and some of the involvement with some of the recent pride stuff - it was really good to see - like you said the scopes definitely expanded.
MM: It’s expanded naturally. I’m not sure I would have understood that it was going to happen that way 25 years ago. We’ve made great progress - we’ve also made great losses. There’s a lot of people who seem to think terrible things and I despair for where the world is going.
LG: I think that’s one of the things - it’s about direct action, right? When you see something, you do something - like your wife said, that’s awful - what do we do? and I think that’s the important next step, the what do we do part.
MM: One of our mantras was “if you see something speak up” and we gave words to people, we said “you know that is not part of our community, don’t do that, that’s wrong” as opposed to you know somebody tells an off-colored joke and one strategy is when they do that you huff and walk away - that’s not confronting it, that’s just saying I’m not going to be part of it. The strategy is to say “that’s totally inappropriate, that’s totally out of bad taste, that has no place in our community, that has no place - you’re violating social conventions by even doing that” and that’s what we we do when counseling people to do, speak up say something. If we can create a community standard where people speak up we will stop that in its tracks, but we have to speak up because if you are quiet then people just keep talking like that.
I’m always surprised when I hear about police departments where we see their texts and they were off color or discriminatory or whatever - why didn’t somebody speak up and say that? It’s hard to do that, I know it’s hard but that was our general strategy. You need to speak up. We had a great sketch, we would have rallies and then there would be events and one of the events they did was we would have a sketch where we would have several people talking and then one of them would kind of walk off stage and then one of the people who remained would make some strange comment about it, you know an unacceptable comment - it’s all scripted - and we would get some community leader to be that person. He would say something wrong or antisemitic or racist or whatever and then everybody would challenge him and say “no that’s wrong, you shouldn’t say that, you can’t say that, that’s not part of our community, our community values don’t accept that” - but everybody would howl because we would have a good pillar of the community, the mayor or something, saying something totally wrong and being called on it. We all knew that he didn’t think that way but it was always fun to directly experience somebody saying something terrible and being challenged on it and having to confess error and apologize.
LG: Especially when it’s coming from a power within the community as well - I think that’s an important part of it where even though somebody’s obviously in a position of authority it’s still something you should do.
I think the idea that it’s like a community effort definitely helps with doing it, because you want that kind of community safeguard where they can’t ’t stop all of you and they can’t do something to everyone, so that’s why it definitely needs to be that kind of community effort - coming from the community as well, like a calling in rather than a calling out. Obviously there’s some things which are truly unacceptable and that’s one thing but there’s other times where I think there is the opportunity to correct the behaviour now and going forwards and that’s kind of part of that calling in process, and saying like in this community that’s not acceptable.
MM: You just echoed it exactly - when we have community standards that we expect in our community and when we say that’s not acceptable, if enough people say it, it becomes the community standard and then we’re a better community for it. There will always be people who want to be at the low end of the spectrum, but at least we want to not be actively promoting them.
LG: Thank you very much for speaking on that, because that’s one thing I really wanted to highlight because it’s good to see and it’s important to highlight that sort of thing when you do see it.
MM: You know you pointed out there is that, the ‘woke’ movement and - I’m not making fun, I’m not negating it - I think that we need to address issues directly and we are expanding the circles of people who can be in tabletop gaming. We want all of them to be in there. It’s entirely possible for people from a variety of approaches to participate in role-playing games and bring their own approaches to it.
I’ll point out Traveller was published in 1977 and I felt it necessary to put a paragraph in the original book that said you can be anybody you want, and you can do anything you want you don’t have to be a man to be in the army, you don’t have to be a woman to be a nurse - you can be anybody you want. I think it’s telling that i felt it necessary to put that in there - I had a girl in one of my games and she was playing a male character because she thought she had to.
LG: From my own experience in the independent scene, the tide has shifted significantly - the online spaces that I’ve seen are a lot less kind homogeneous. There’s all different kinds of people and it’s a positive thing to see because it enriches everything - like not only is it like a moral good, it’s also it literally improves the field because now there’s new perspectives, new ideas and more people making producing and playing which is good for everyone.
MM: Our approach does not have to be - we don’t have to hit people over the head with a hammer. We don’t have to make explicit statements out - well, we have to make some.
So I was was running a game with people I didn’t know and it was just a bunch of people, and it turned out it was like five guys and a girl.
They were going to explore some spaceship and the guys were all navy, she was a scout and she had social standing like four and they were all 7-8-9 social standing. She was a really good player, and these guys are just kind of bumbling around and they weren’t - they were role players but you know, they weren’t paying much attention. So she said “we should go check the bridge” and she rolled social standing and failed and everybody just ignored her. This guy next to her said “we should go check the bridge” - he had a high social standing - everybody said yeah let’s and they all wandered up to the bridge and found stuff and they kept doing this with the whole story. It became a recurring trope that they just would ignore this girl and in their in their intolerant sexist rejection of her as a smart person were making their own statement that they understood that that’s how American society works and it shouldn’t work like that. It was fun, we were making fun - they were taking her ideas because she was a really good smart player and she would have great ideas and they would just steal her ideas and use them and take credit for them and we all had a good time and everybody without having to say it really understood the total injustice of that particular situation.
LG: That’s one of the things with games, they let you play with stuff like that and even topics which usually are reserved for only for serious private conversations - it lets you tackle them sometimes, with the right group of people and checking everyone’s okay with it. It lets you approach stuff like that with that with ironic distance and learn something and that’s one of the points of play right.
I think I’ve hit everything that I wanted to talk about - is there anything that you wanted to talk about?
MM: You know you touched on one of the great puzzles we have today - we talked about Professor Barker and Tekumel. How do we deal with beloved systems that we like, that are well thought out, that are brilliant, that are interesting, that mean something to us and we discover that the person who wrote that is flawed in his character. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know that we can reject the literature written - does the literature stand independent of the writer? I don’t know but I’m also puzzled by some of the attitudes of people that they feel they need to express and promote in the world because we all have to live together. We’re all in this together, in America or on the Earth and we all benefit when we make the world a better place and we don’t benefit when we make the world the worst place.
So that’s a downer of a comment at the end of the interview.
LG: Well, I think combined with what what we said earlier :just take direct action, right? That’s what it boils down. If you see something wrong, like you said, you should say something, you should do something and I think the fact that people can, and that it has succeeded and I think it will continue to succeed is good. Obviously it’s a very turbulent time over there as much as over here. Things are very intense at the moment in the States so hopefully that’s something people can take as a positive. Things do get better - if you can do something about it, and there is always something you can do.
MM: I appreciate you talking to me today.
LG: Thank you very much for responding to my random email out of nowhere, it’s really appreciated and I hope everyone who decides to read or listen enjoys it too.