Monday, July 21, 2014

Traveller, Dark Conspiracy and Dragon Dice: The Gaming Legacy of Lester Smith



I attended Quincon, a small tabletop gaming convention in Quincy Illinois, this past weekend and had the opportunity to reconnect with Lester Smith, a prolific game designer during the 80s and early 90s, who has gotten back into the game, so to speak, in the past few years. Since we had time, I wanted to find out how he got involved in the gaming industry and what he had in the works now.
Smith entered the gaming industry in the fall of 1984, submitting what was called at the time a “capsule review” of Wizard’s Realm to Steve Jackson Games’ Space Gamer magazine. Emboldened by his success, he then submitted a full game, Mind Duel, for inclusion in the magazine. Unfortunately, SJG sold off Space Gamer just then and Mind Duel instead appeared in the first of the renamed VIP of Gaming magazine, which folded after only a few issues.

Moving forwards a few years, now pursuing an English degree in Bloomington Il., Smith landed a proofreading job at Game Designer’s Workshop, nee GDW. While proofreading, Smith developed the habit of making marginal notes, suggesting corrections or improvements to the material. The higher-ups at GDW noticed this and, rather than getting annoyed, Mark Millar, the designer of Traveller, asked if Smith would write the first adventure module for the company’s new Traveller 2300 RPG. He did and then wrote a memo to GDW’s head, Frank Chadwick with suggestions to improve the realism of Traveller 2300 when the company reprinted the game. Chadwick agreed with his suggestions, then turned the situation about by asking Smith to do a complete revision of the game, now called just 2300. Then, when GDW decided it wanted to do an ecologically themed horror RPG, it handed that to Smith too. The result:  Dark Conspiracy. By the end of the 80s, Smith was line manager for both Dark Conspiracy and 2300, as well as working on other games for the company such as Test of Arms and Space 1889.

A good friend, Tim Brown, had left GDW for TSR and let Smith know that TSR need designers immediately so Smith sent in a resume. Apparently “immediately” at TSR at the time meant something different than it does to most people as Smith heard nothing for a year. A callback for an interview resulted in another year’s wait. A third interview, this time with Jim Ward, who was vice-president of Creative Services, resulted in a tour showing where Ward’s desk had b0een during previous TSR layoffs and a job offer with several conditions that Smith could not accept, including a requirement  that all of his writing would belong to TSR. Smith passed, resulting in a fourth callback a year later, with a similar tour and Ward and TSR meeting all of Smith’s conditions. In fact, when he didn’t respond immediately, just processing the size of the salary offer, which was larger than expected, Ward responded by bumping the salary offer up another 20%. Just shows that silence can be profitable.

During his tenure at TSR, Smith wrote Bug Hunters for the Amazing Engine system, developed Dragon Dice, and worked on Red Steel, PlaneScape and an unpublished followup to the DragonStrike game.

Leaving TSR about 1995, he joined Brown at the comic publisher Comico, which had them develop a collectable card game based on the company’s characters. Nothing ever came of it though and in 1998, he went to work for Sebranic, formerly known as The Write Source, a publisher of educational textbooks, where he has remained since, writing poetry and short stories is his spare time, only designing a few gaming products, notably Chaos Progenitus and the Zero RPG.

About 2012,,the game design bug bit him again and, in quick succession, he developed and sold through DriveThruCards the games Invasion of the Saucer People, Monster Con, Clashing Blades and Wolfman’s Curse. His current project is the d6xd6 CORE RPG, which arose out a discussion with another game designer as to whether it is possible to develop a RPG with only one statistic d6xd6 CORE is the result with the character sheet fitting on a business card. In addition, when published, the d6xd6 CORE rulebook will include “setting chapters” from 30+, novelists, giving players basic information on venturing into each writer’s world and directing them to the novels for more information.

In addition, for several years, Smith has published an annual anthology of Halloween poetry and short stories and is looking for contributors to this year’s edition. Interested writers can go to www.popcornpress.com for more information.