Sunday, September 13, 2009

Interview with Bob Liddil : Part 1

I discovered Bob about 20 years ago when I bought Apothecary on the Street of Dreams. It's been a pleasure to learn about his history with gaming and his trials of publishing. Here is Part 1 of the interview with Bob. I hope you enjoy.

SHORTS: Everyone has an initiation or discovery story about how they got into gaming. How did you discover gaming?

LIDDIL: It literally happened on a “dark and stormy night” back in 1977 or so. My friend Jack Powers invited me over to his house for a “snow storm and popcorn party.” I was one of a party of 6 players he introduced to this neat new game called “Tunnels and Trolls.” It was the most fun I’d had in a really long time and it was a great intellectual exercise as well. That night, more than two feet of snow fell on Southeastern Ohio, paralyzing the roads, so basically we slaughtered Orcs until 3AM and then crashed on whatever furniture we could find.

At that point, having spent the entire night trying to keep Damian The Dangerous alive in the roadways and dungeons of “The World” I was totally hooked. Together, we wrote a classic fantasy adventure story, albeit orally, and for me, as an already budding writer, that was just the coolest thing ever.

Next morning, we were awakened by a car crashing into the side of Jack’s house that took out part of the back porch and kitchen. It skidded on the snow and came right into the building. Ironically, Damian had gotten himself trapped on a runaway wagon in the game the night before and almost got his 3x5 card torn in half. He and I both lived in perilous times

SHORTS: Independent publishing is prevalent in the gaming industry now, but back when you published “Griswald Grimm's Little Shop of Poisons and Potions” in 1988 what obstacles did you need to overcome?

LIDDIL:In the very beginning when Dimensions and Doors, Castles and Kingdoms and Demons and Notmen, my first three were published, only two kinds of typesetting existed. Professional typesetting was messy, expensive and cumbersome. Or one could use an IBM Selectric for the different type fonts of the day.

By the time LSPP came out, personal computer typesetting was coming of age and I was learning how to use PageMaker. Probably the biggest obstacle on the first book was just the physical process of assembling the book. To save money, Dallas Nillsen, my partner in Pandora’s Treasures, threw a “collating party” at her house in Logan, Utah. Once collated, the print shop wire bound them and they were ready to go. It really wasn’t much of a hassle for me, because she handled everything other than the actual typography and writing.

In the late 80’s the single most difficult obstacle to overcome had to be the cost of printing. Analog printing is inefficient on “short runs” and not cost effective at all. The cost of a single unit in a 1000 unit run was typically more than $5 per book. Since the wholesale price to a distributor typically seldom exceeded $6.00 the profit margin was usually a wash.

Only selling the book at retail at conventions allowed me to sell it at all. Distributors seldom bought more than 25 at a time so I would say that getting the finished product into the hands of the gamer was my biggest obstacle, that and the fact that Dragon Magazine wouldn’t let me advertise because of the title. TSR were in deep conflict with the Christian Right at the time and the words “Poisons and Potions” were so inflammatory that the book was actually banned by the Wizards of the North!

Coming up with the formulas was easy. I am a very irreverent game master and a great believer in “look before you touch.” I play tested the poisons and potions at a game convention in Salt Lake City in an “ancient apothecary dungeon” and killed virtually every gamer in attendance. The days of drink anything and watch what happens pretty much ended that weekend for those kids.

It still makes me laugh to remember that 13 hour-long game during which I must have signed five dozen “Certificates of Death,” a product of mine in the late 1980's.

SHORTS: Your products from 20 years ago reflect a lot of what's going on in gaming today, being self-published and system neutral supplements. What was the response then to your books being system neutral?

LIDDIL: System neutrality was a necessity during the decades of the 70’s thru 90’s. Gary Gygax and TSR would sue you where you stood for merely mentioning D&D compatibility specifically, where Rick Loomis encouraged T&T fans to “do their thing,” and Steve Jackson was cool as ice every time someone mentioned GURPS.

I always believed that the heart of role-playing was in the storytelling. That’s where my emphasis pointed. Also, having been introduced to T&T prior to D&D, I acquired that sort of “anti-establishment” rebellion attitude right off the bat.

System neutrality the way I published, with no real rule set and compatible with every single rule set was a scarcity. Most Kitchen Table Publishers of my era were broke, stayed broke or went broke.

Lou Zocchi and Gamescience were the obvious exception, and Steve Jackson as well.

You can find more information in Part 2 of the interview soon, but if you just can't wait head over to Digitropolis where Bob makes his home on the web.