Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Frank Mentzer Interview


Frank Mentzer Eldritch Enterprises
If you played the original Red Box Dungeons and Dragons from 1983, then Frank Mentzer needs no introduction. But for those who have not, Mentzer is one of the old guard of TSR and was a good friend of Gary Gygax. Frank was gracious enough to answer a couple of questions concerning the old days at TSR and his relationship with Mr. Gygax.

RW: In 1980, you were hired by TSR as an editor. You were the editor for quite a few of Gary Gygax's works; B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure. And you collaborated with Gary on a number of TSR era products; AC4 The Book of Marvelous Magic, T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. Was it fun working with Gary on these projects? Was he easy to get along with? Did you learn a lot while working with Gary? Which project with Gary did you enjoy the most working on?

FM: Gary and I worked mostly in parallel, rather than side-by-side or 'with' each other. There was a lot going on back then, and Gary had very limited time. He wanted to write more, like in the old days (G & D series, AD&D, etc.) but the demands of a business with hundreds of employees were extreme. So we had regular meetings, covered the stuff that each of us had accumulated, settled general issues, and I went back to my office to implement what we'd decided. At times I could drop by, but usually he was pretty booked. (In retrospect it reminds me of the West Wing television series, and folks meeting with the President... short, succinct, and out, unless The Boss wants to chat in more relaxed fashion.) For more intensive design sessions, idea tossing, I'd go out to his place, about 45 minutes West of Lake Geneva. btw, MFA was mostly Rob's, and I developed/rewrote it rather heavily to bring it up to TSR standards. Red Box was of course the most fun, probably because our level of interaction was higher than at any other time. It really, really had to be the best we could create; it was going global.

B2 was my first big project, and I wrote the Chapel within it, one of Gary's rare omissions (and the reason I first came to his attention). I also did editing and layout for Q-1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and took part in its playtesting. Did editing & layout for some two boardgames as well, good old "Dungeon" and a nice Arthurian game called "Knights of Camelot." Later, for the works that Gary and I co-authored, one of us would do most of the work, and the other would contribute. For example, I wrote most of Marvelous Magic, while he did most of Temple. On the latter, one day he dropped off what he had typed (he didn't use a computer until the later NIPI days), and I rewrote it as I entered it into TSR's mainframe computer, thereby becoming proficient in High Gygaxian and able to finish the lower levels in his style.

RW: You are, perhaps, most known for putting together the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal Sets of the Basic Dungeons and Dragons line (1983-1986, an impressive 5 rule sets in the span of 3 years). Gary Gygax penned an article published in Dragon Magazine stating you were the de facto maintainer of the basic line of Dungeons and Dragons. With hindsight, is there anything about the BECMI sets that you feel could have been done in a better way? And conversely, was there something about BECMI that you feel really hit the mark?

FM: Most of BECM turned out quite well. To this day I hear from the kids who started with good old Red Box, grew into careers and families, and eventually taught their kids how to play -- using the same Red Box. When an author's work becomes a bridge between generations, that sure gives you the warm fuzzies.

The Dominion rules, in the Companion set, were a big step. I finally laid out campaigning in a level of detail that had never appeared before in any D&D set. Weapon Mastery (Master set) gave a real in-game reason to use each and every weapon; before that everything did pretty much the same thing, just caused damage.

The D&D Immortal Set wasn't really Dungeons & Dragons; it was the capstone, the picture of the multiverse in which everything previously took place. As a stand-alone game it can work fine, but we should have had campaign accessories for it, not just adventures, to show the DMs at home how to develop its all-new rules into a series of games, aka a Campaign. I don't think anybody 'got it' at the time, and lacking support it just withered and died, the weirdest and worst-selling of all the boxed sets.

What didn't work as well was the extension to 36 levels of play, the reason for having the first 4 boxed rule sets. We thought folks would keep at it and work their way up, of course. In reality, most players just don't have that level of commitment. The 'sweet spot' of most gaming experiences turned out, in the long run, to be levels 1-9, with some persevering to reach 15, but only hard-cores stay with it for the whole trip. So given that hindsight I'd have designed a "D&D Quickie" system, for those who played occasionally, and the 5-box series for the hobbyists.

RW: Gary went to Hollywood around 1983 to concentrate on the Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon, leaving the day to day operations of TSR to the Blume brothers. Could you tell a difference in the general atmosphere of the company after Gary left? Did you sense that something was wrong with the general health of the company at the time?

FM: Personally, none of the above. I was in touch with Gary on a regular basis, but I was left alone most of the time, to focus on my assigned task, finishing the D&D boxed set series. I also advised TSR legal on various matters, wrote adventures for the RPGA, coordinated parts of the licensing program (checking for game-specific details and accuracy), and helped TSR International decide what to translate and distribute globally. With Gary out of the 'house' I was also the reigning authority on both AD&D (1e) and BECM rules questions, and reviewed a lot of modules prior to publication, pronouncing judgments on new subsystems, that sort of thing. So I was quite busy during that period. I didn't meet with the Blumes much, since I was organizationally placed as Gary's Creative Aide, rather than a management or other position within the hierarchy.

RW: When Gary learned that TSR was in financial difficulties, he returned and set about publishing Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana so the company could generate a new source of revenue. That description has been perceived by some to indicate that Unearthed Arcana was rushed, and published before it was ready. In Unearthed Arcana you are listed under Design Consultants (with Jeff Grubb). In the dedication written by Gary Gygax, he wrote, "To stalwart Frank Mentzer for always spurring me on and making me be more precise and logical." What was the design process for Unearthed Arcana like? Was there pressure to complete it quickly (more so than other projects)?

FM: Len Lakofka is the first credited in that dedication, because he and Gary had tossed ideas around since the earliest days. Luke is also cited, since he had grown up with the game, and at that point was actually contributing good ideas and asking salient questions, which helped Gary organize his thoughts. Jeff -- once of TSR's best, I still think, just re-read Marvel Superheroes -- did a lot of the legwork in collecting Gary's old Dragon Magazine articles that hadn't been otherwise published, comparing the details with Gary's new material for UA, and helping work out the rough spots. I still have a whole file-box full of the memoranda that went back and forth. Being a reliable and very busy creative designer, Jeff could only devote a limited time to this, and Kim Mohan carried a lot of water, you might say, performing similar functions and doing a lot of editing. I was the gadfly, reviewing the boss's output the same way I'd been reviewing modules by others, cross-checking the details with everything we had ever published, and pestering Gary for resolutions to contradictions. It took a while, but since we were using a lot of material from Dragon magazine, we had a head start, you might say. I really don't recall unusual time pressure, though most of the employees knew about 'cash problems' (via the grapevine that exists in every large company).

RW: Do you believe Unearthed Arcana gives a glimpse of what the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would have looked like if Gary and yourself had remained at the helm of TSR?

FM: That's a toughie. Gary and I planned to run the 2e project in a fashion similar to BECMI, but with even more hands-on work by him. We had outlined a lot of the sections, and I was rarin' to go, though I had to finish Immortals first. But then Gary was ousted by the pog (the Person Ousting Gary; I don't think the name of that individual deserves to be remembered or perpetuated), and everything changed. I finished the Basic line, continued my usuals (advising International and Legal, for example), and then resigned in Autumn 1986 when Gary called with a new opportunity. AD&D 2e turned out quite differently from what we had planned, in part because Gary's notes were either ignored or discarded by the new management. Zeb (Dave Cook) did a great job, but it wasn't what Gary and I would have done. I think we would have been more daring, more radical in the changes, especially since Gary's design philosophy was evolving rapidly, to and through the concepts given or hinted at in UA.

RW: Gary Gygax left TSR and formed New Infinities Productions Inc. (NIPI) in 1986. Soon after, you left TSR and joined New Infinities as well. New Infinities produced a line of products labeled the Fantasy Master series and released its first game system, CYBORG COMMANDO. After that came Dangerous Journeys published by Games Designer Workshop. Considering that you were picked by Gary to handle the Basic Dungeons and Dragons line, and were the next in line to handle Advanced Dungeons and Dragons line, it may seem a little odd to some that Gary did not tap your considerable talent when putting together Dangerous Dimensions (aka Dangerous Journeys) while you were working at NIPI. Was this done deliberately to avoid legal hassles? Or were you too busy doing other things while at NIPI? What sort of things did you work on while at NIPI?

FM: Since Gary and I had become friends, he didn't want me to catch the flack that would, he knew, inevitably come from the pog. She and Gary both knew quite well that he was the only real threat to TSR. So they played 'whack the Gygax' for a few years; every time Gary did anything, she sued. Eventually that drained the coffers of NIPI, Gary, and others, and without money he was no longer a major threat... though I'm sure the pog kept a close eye on his activities even after that.

At NIPI I took Gary's idea for a B-movie alien invasion and tried to turn it into a modern hard-science RPG. We ran out of money, and Don Turnbull (President at that time) decided to publish it instead of finishing it... and that didn't work. I also wrote adventures, both for CC and generic FRP, and coordinated our game product production.

RW: Tim Kask, James Ward, and yourself have teamed up and started a new company (Eldritch Enterprises Inc.) You are also active on the Dragon's Foot forums. Are there projects that you have worked on (or are working on currently) that you would like the readers to know about?

FM: We're writing old-school adventures, the kind you would find in the 1970s or '80s, and that we're at EldritchEnt.com. It's a new world of publishing in this digital age, and the transition is occurring, but slowly. Our products -- nearly a dozen already -- are available via DriveThruRPG, in paper or PDF. We're also using a generic language, and the products are all usable with any game rules, not just D&D. It's tough to get the word out nowadays; all the great game magazines seem to have dried up. But eventually folks will realize what we're doing, and a little sales go a long way for a small company like ours.

Try us; you'll like us. Better hurry, though; Jim, Tim and I are all over 60. Now pardon me while I whistle past this graveyard...

9 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by. Frank makes it easy.
      Also, be sure to check out my interview with Steve Winter

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  2. I'm so glad you're doing these interviews and that you have access to these luminaries of the hobby. It's one of the things that I loved about the old Grognardia site - all those interviews.

    Thanks again - great stuff. Keep it coming!

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    1. I hope to interview more TSR folks. I have to admit that I am a little timid about asking them sometimes. I really hate to intrude upon peoples lives. But, hopefully, I can find a few more of the old guard and ask about the early days.

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  3. Replies
    1. Thank you! I have a difficult time coming up with questions. Actually, I should say that I come up with a hundred questions, but they often feel like something that has been asked a thousand times before, so I try to whittle them down to something that is new (not always successful).
      I also try to build continuity with the questions by starting with the early days (70s, 80s) and then building up from there.

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  4. Thanks for the interview, and thanks to Frank -- though he has always been a good sport about answering random fan questions. (I've pestered him at cons and via email a few times.) His original tournament modules -- the R-series of modules -- are some of the very best.

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  5. Thanks for the interview, I really enjoy re-living those days. I will be checking out Eldritch Ent, and I'm a Gygax Magazine subscriber so I'm sure I'll hear about what you're up to, Mr Mentzer!

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