Theodore Beale interviewed Marc Miller, the co-founder of Game Designer’s Workshop and designer of the Traveller science fiction role-playing game, for Black Gate on April 21st, 2010.
TB: You designed a number of wargames as well as the RPG for which you’re most known, Traveller. What kind of game did you design first and what inspired you to develop Traveller?
MM: A long time ago, I sat down with a friend of mine. I think I was a freshman in high school. We had bought D-Day from Avalon Hill and we were very excited. I don’t think we knew anything more than soldiers carried rifles, but nevertheless, we thought it would be a great game. We sat down to play it and we could not make hide nor hair of that game. I remember that vividly. I remember not having any idea what was going on. Fast forward to when I was a junior in college taking a political science course from Professor Lou Gold at the University of Illinois. This would have been in the late Sixties. And part of his process was a role-playing exercise of political figures. I remember that vividly too, because I understood what he was trying to do too, but what he wanted us to do was not very easy. He told us to take on the role of the figures involved and research their positions, to go to it and play these roles. So then, after I got out of college, after I got out of the military, after I went back to college I was involved with the Illinois State University game club, a very innovative game club. They basically took me, who didn’t know how to play wargames and paired me with someone who knew how to play. This fellow was a geography professor, he liked games and knew how to play them, and he let me control everything, let me pick the game, the time, and the place. We met at his office in an evening, about 7:30, and I wanted to play France 1940. He sat down, he talked me through the rules, and we played one turn. And then I knew how to play a wargame. It’s just amazing how much easier it is if someone knows how to play and tells you what the rules mean as opposed to what you think they mean.
It sounds as if you always had an interest in the conventional WWII wargames. In what branch of the military did you serve?
I was in the Army. My father was in the Navy in the Thirties, during WWII, and up to the end of the Fifties.
Traveller has an obvious familiarity with the military that is not typical of most role-playing games.
I certainly agree with that observation. It also carried the military background from the wargames that we were designing at Game Designer’s Workshop at the time. Learning how to play France 1940 at the games club at ISU quickly turned into a small group of people who really cared about wargames. Now, the first game that I really designed was Triplanetary, which was just based on an observation that you could draw vectors from the center of hex to center of hex; it quantified drawing vectors so we had this nice little space combat vector movement combat game. We all enjoyed it and it was one of the first games that Game Designer’s Workshop published because it was complete. It was ready to publish.
You got into wargaming fairly late, as gamers go. How long did it take you to go from playing that first game of France 1940 to designing Triplanetary?
It all happened in the course of several months. I had nothing else to do. I was attending college, didn’t have a lot of responsibilities and I enjoyed the society of the other gamers. We met in the unions and had little tables that we reserved to ourselves and played on. Rich Banner is one of the guys; he understood some of the workings of the university and went to the student organization and said: “You’ve got money, we’re a club, and we want some of it.” So the university funded about $250 worth of blank hex sheets, a thousand hex sheets, 22×28 inch. He was smart enough to have them do a hundred of the thousand on blue paper instead of white, so we had stuff to do naval wargames. I still have a stack of the sheets in my basement which I pull out from time to time and use. Because it’s hard to use up a thousand hex sheets in design. But we had them to burn! You could draw on them and throw them away. You could color them in with markers and make maps and so forth.
We used existing rules sets, we used very simplified Napoleonics rules that SPI was putting out at that time in 1972 or 1973. And we just drew new maps for them. We’d do a map with a lot of swamp in it, or a lot of forest or something. We tried modern games, we’d cut out little counters and put them together. My entire education there was not in miniatures like some people, and it wasn’t in role-playing because that really didn’t exist yet, it was in the traditional die-cut counters plain old wargame. As a matter of fact, the first board wargame that I bought was Lensman. You know the novels, but this was not a game of the novels, it was a game of interstellar warfare on a vast scale.
So you always had an interest in space combat too.
Absolutely. But our focus, and what we created Game Designer’s Workshop to do, was the Russian front and European World War II. People say that the Europa system was a very complex system, but it’s actually possible to get somebody up and running in that system within 15 or 20 minutes. I’ve seen it done at conventions, where they have an ongoing game and you walk up, they tutor you for 15 minutes, and set you loose to play.
Let’s get into how you moved from designing those space combat and WWII games into a role-playing game that heavily featured space exploration and combat.
Well, first of all, when Dungeons & Dragons appeared, it revolutionized everything. It changed everything.
Stop by next week for Part II of this interview with Marc Miller.