The store had the opportunity to host Merle Rasmussen and his wife Jackie for a couple of hours earlier this month. Who is Merle Rasmussen and why would we want to host him and his wife? Well, it depends on how long you have been in the game industry. Merle Rasmussen, along with Allen Hammack, is the designer of the first espionage role-playing game, as well as one of the earliest RPGs to emphasize character skills over character classes and use percentages to determine outcomes, Top Secret. Many nights during the early 80s, players tiring of crawling through dungeon tunnels and cells opted for an evening sending secret agents prowling on missions through the dark streets of Sprechenhaltestelle. “Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle”, the module included with Top Secret, was also one of the first to provide a setting for the gamemaster with numerous adventure seeds rather than a fully laid out adventure. Players could (and did) spend weeks exploring the various nooks and back alleys of Sprechenhaltestelle, as long as they had a gamemaster willing to put in the work to bring the city to life.
The success of Top Secret led to a game design position at TSR from 1982 to 1984, where Rasmussen, assisted by Jackie on occasion, designed some of TSR’s earliest solo adventures including Ghost of Lion’s Castle, Lathan’s Gold and the Magic Viewer adventure Midnight on Dagger Alley (It came with a piece of transparent red plastic you held over various spots in the adventure to read what the outcome of an action was. Few copies available today still come with the original Magic Viewer), as well as Quagmire and Savage Coast for Dungeons and Dragons, Range War for Boot Hill and Ace of Clubs and the Top Secret Game Companion for, well, you know.
After his stint with TSR, Rasmussen held a variety of jobs in his native Iowa, before going to work for Casey’s General Stores in 1988, where he still works, currently as a property management specialist/archivist, which occupied most of his time for the next decade or so, though he did sell the store copies of his Sqwurm and Beasties games, developed in the mid 80s, since then, which is how I have kept in contact with him.
Rasmussen got back into game design, this time focusing on card and board games, after the turn of the century and has been fairly prolific since then, with Keep Iowa Beautiful Travel Bingo, Knoxville Raceopoloy, Caseyopoly, Iowa State Fairopoly, and Newtonopoloy (all designed as promotional games for various organizations, as well as Lutheropoly and Stagecoach King, (one copy of each designed for private collectors). Rasmussen’s latest work is Save Your Brain, a card game designed for the Advisory Council on Brain Injury to promote brain injury awareness, which proved popular enough to warrant a second print run and second edition.
So, for those of you hoping to enter the field of game design, let Mr. Rasmussen’s career serve as an example of one way to do it. Sure, he doesn’t make a living at it, but he does get to do what he loves and people do pay him for it.