Welcome back to Part 2 of our interview with Anne K. Brown, author and game designer. Part 2 focuses on her time with TSR, being a woman in game development and more. To read about Anne’s thoughts on working on Ship of Horror click here.

If you’ve been keeping up with Big Fish D&D, you know that we recently did a playthrough of the 1991 “Official Ravenloft Game Adventure” that was Ship of Horror. At one particular moment of the session (namely when we began the encounter with Meredoth the Necromancer) one of us loudly proclaimed: “Who designed this?”

Anne Brown did.

About Anne and Her Career:

(Keith): How did you get into game design? It looks like you worked on Dragon magazine for just a few months before moving into the Game Division. Is that where you wanted to be? How different is the writing process between penning a novel or short stories and writing a game module?

Anne: My path into game design was fairly long. I interviewed for Dragon magazine in May, 1986, literally the day after my last college final exam. I didn’t get that job, but Roger Moore (then assistant editor) suggested that I talk to some of the Games Department staff about freelance work. I got some freelance writing and editing, which kept me connected to TSR.

Roger Moore (then editor-in-chief) hired me for Dragon magazine in May, 1989. By September, the Games Department (formally known as Research & Development) was preparing to expand. Jim Ward told me he wanted to pull me over into Games, and after some negotiating, I moved to Games. I loved working on the magazines, and working at TSR was so awesome that it didn’t really matter to me what department I was in. I stayed until August 1997, when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR and moved it to Seattle.

The writing process for a novel, short story, or game module is really different. With a game module, the first task is to develop the story arc and figure out what the players should accomplish. Then it’s a matter of breaking the story into encounters and developing them, and also developing the nonplayer characters, villains, and monsters. Finally, the actual writing comes, which is mostly instructional passages for the dungeon master plus the read-aloud text. The writing for a game module is drastically different from fiction, and you’re trying to help the DM guide the players through the adventure, offer advice to the DM, and maintain choices for the players (not just lead them by the nose) so they feel that they have a chance to influence the outcome of the adventure.

Novels and short stories share the same development of a story arc and breaking down into scenes, but of course, the actual writing is drastically different. With fiction, the goal is to produce some really great prose that tells the story, develops the characters, and artfully explores the setting. With fiction, the author has complete control over every decision made by the characters, and is much more of a puppet master than with game design.

I do find writing game modules to be easier than fiction. In a game module, you’re pretty much dictating instructions to the DM, whereas with fiction, I’m working much harder on the narrative.

(Keith): There is an excellent piece over at Kotaku by Cecilia D’Anastasio about some of the women who were a part of TSR in the early days, but it mostly focuses on the late 70s and early 80s. You started with the company (if I’m not mistaken) in 1989. Was the atmosphere any different for women in the tabletop game design world at that time?

Anne: Starting at TSR in 1989, I think the atmosphere was definitely different than the 70s and early 80s. It may have been that the industry had evolved, or it may have been who was on staff at the time (or likely some of both). I definitely felt that the women at TSR were given equal respect for ideas and work. We did complain from time to time about the babes in chainmail bikinis and certain art pieces, and that aspect was very slow to change. But I never felt like a second-class citizen (and I believe the other women would have agreed). I recall a number of conversations about how to get more women into gaming and what aspects would appeal. We knew that the original Dragonlance trilogy was popular with women, and our general belief was that the storyline, characters, and character relationships were largely the reason for that.

(Keith): Looking back, the initial 1983 adventure module was co-written by a woman (Laura Hickman), the 1990 AD&D boxset was co-designed by a woman (Andria Hayday) and of course Ship of Horror was written by you. The Ravenloft setting is also noteworthy as the place where noted female horror and fantasy authors like Christie Golden, Elaine Bergstrom, P. N. Elrod and Laurell K. Hamilton all sharpened their teeth (Ha! Vampires). What was it about it Ravenloft that seemed to open the door to women designers and authors?

I love this question. Let me pull in Roald Dahl to contribute to the speculation. Dahl is my absolute favorite author, not only for his children’s books, but for his diabolically clever short stories. I love Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, an anthology of ghost stories that he personally selected. In the introduction, he says that he read 749 stories to select the 14 in the book, noting that the vast majority of his favorites were written by women. He muses about why this is the case, but he admits that he has no clear answer.

At TSR, we had an awareness that the women were drawn to the spooky setting, but we honestly weren’t sure why. I’m pretty sure Laura, Andria, and I all grew up during the Dark Shadows era—maybe that was an early influence. I also wonder why girls’ middle school slumber parties have often included attempts to hold séances. Maybe there was just something about the spooky mood, the unknown, and the suspense of whether something would happen. 

We had some really interesting discussions about women and role-playing at TSR, and we boiled down that girls are natural role-players, starting with baby dolls and Barbies. When we played Barbies as kids, they had names and jobs and went on dates and had lives. This led me to posit to the TSR staff that if you give a bag of plastic army men to a group of boys, they will line them up and throw rocks at them. But if you give that same bag to girls, they will name the soldiers and decide that Joey and Daniel are brothers and this is their friend Anthony, and Anthony has a girlfriend named Sarah, and so on and so on. Girls definitely have an interest in the characters and relationships.

I should add that my favorite setting ever was Gothic Earth, designed for Masque of the Red Death (Ravenloft in an 1890s alternate Earth). I was fortunate to be the editor on that boxed set and Bill Connors and I had a blast diving into that setting.

(Keith): I’ve read that you were a big fan of the Greyhawk setting, but you ultimately wrote for all the major campaign settings (Ravenloft, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance). Your last major publication with TSR was The Player’s Guide to Greyhawk which was a part of TSR/Wizards of the Coast re-launch of Greyhawk after 4 years of the setting being on the shelf. How much did it mean to you to be a part of the relaunch of the classic setting?

Ravenloft and Greyhawk were definitely my favorites—Ravenloft for the gothic horror, and Greyhawk because it’s such a classic. I enjoyed working in Dragonlance and the Realms, but I would classify those as higher fantasy than Greyhawk—Dragonlance has the heavy dragon presence and the Realms are heavier in magic (pretty weird coming from someone whose favorite character class is the wizard!). I think Greyhawk feels closer to Arthurian legend, so that’s probably the appeal for me.

As for the Greyhawk relaunch—it started out being pretty exciting, but it occurred just as TSR was moving to Seattle. That was a confusing time since some of us stayed in Wisconsin as freelancers, and WotC hired some new folks out in Seattle. Communication wasn’t very good. Email and the internet looked nothing like they do now. I think I mailed 3.5-inch floppy disks when I made my turnover. In addition, there was one new editor in particular who was very difficult to work with. Despite the fact that I had worked for TSR for eight years and had edited From the Ashes and a number of the subsequent modules and accessories, this new editor treated me like a rookie, did not want my input, and wanted to make some pretty random decisions, having never worked on the Greyhawk line before. I was powerless, of course, as an ex-TSR employee. That whole experience was pretty disappointing and within a few months, most of us who were former TSR employees were out of the loop. Fortunately, Phil Athans and Peter Archer in the book department were happy to give me work and I edited many fiction books for them.

(Keith): Since your departure from TSR/WotC, you’ve published a number of non-fiction books. How differently do you approach fiction and non-fiction writing?

My nonfiction books were a great experience and a chance to figure out the genre. Those books (I wrote six) were for publishers that essentially produce research material for students—the kind of books kids would seek out when they have to write a paper about a president or famous person. They were fun to work on and I enjoyed the chance to work in a different discipline.

Nonfiction is a completely different animal from fiction. Nonfiction requires a ton of research—for my John Adams book, I read more than 1,200 pages (there’s a lot of good material on Adams). The outline comes first, trying to balance the major events and concepts. In the writing, I was constantly trying to write with a nice flow and tell a story, but stay true to the facts and not editorialize. I took extreme care to get the facts right, checking and rechecking. For Adams, this wasn’t difficult, but for my modern-day subjects like Katie Perry and Gwen Stefani, the research was almost entirely online in magazines and entertainment websites. I was endlessly checking sources to make sure I had solid material from reputable sources. I wanted to produce the type of book that students would enjoy, and I also wanted to honor the subject. I always felt that if one of my subjects picked up my book about them, I would want them to feel that it represented them well (and contained no mistakes!).

(Keith): With the current spike in popularity of D&D, and a huge boom of independent tabletop RPG games being developed, what advice would you give to authors looking to get into game design?

A few things are really essential about writing and marketing games. First, do your research. Find out what is out there that compares to your game. When the market is flooded with vampire games, for example, don’t try to launch a vampire game unless it  does something amazing. Figure out who your competition will be and how you can stand out. Study the industry, figure out who the heavy hitters are, and learn by watching them

Second, don’t try to develop “a new D&D” or something “just like Settlers of Catan.” D&D is D&D, and Settlers is Settlers, and if that’s what people want, that’s what people will buy. Don’t try to challenge the giant in the industry and think that as the tiny guppy in a giant pond, you’ll be able stand up against the whale. Do something original. Imitations of other games almost always come off as just that—imitations.

Finally, play a lot of games. Figure out what works and what doesn’t —and why. The best game designers I know have played a ton of games. They understand game balance and the flow of play.

For someone hoping to get hired by a major game company, some of the same things hold true. It’s also important to become an excellent writer and know your subject matter/game rules. And perhaps most important—stay humble and don’t become a know-it-all. In every profession, it’s important to maintain a teachable attitude. Nobody knows everything about their field—there’s always something to learn. The majority of the big names I’ve worked with kept their egos in check, or really never had egos at all. I’ve known a few who crashed and burned because they thought they were hotshots.

Another HUGE thanks to Anne for doing this. It was great to hear her insights on Ship of Horror, her work with TSR and her thoughts on game development in general.

All Dungeons & Dragons Images Copyright of Wizards of the Coast.

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

Jon is a Master of Dungeons of the highest caliber. He podcasts with me over on 9to5 Entertainment Systemand occasionally blogs here in Jon’s Junk.