[Interview] James M. Ward

Troll Lords Games has an upcoming product called TAINTED LANDS, which is a fantasy horror roleplaying game written by James M. Ward for Castles & Crusades. TAINTED LANDS will be released in box-set form as a stand-alone Siege Engine product, and promises horror rules and a supernatural rulebook. I am sure I’m not alone in my excitement for this product, and what it can bring to the table for horror fueled sword & sorcery gaming.

The designer and writer of TAINTED LANDS is none other than James M. Ward of TSR fame. To my delight, Jim has agreed to answer a few questions for Swords Against the Outer Dark about TAINTED LANDS, as well as his career with TSR and Troll Lord Games. So without further ado…


Many gamers who have played Dungeons & Dragons for as many years as I have remember your work from back in the early days of TSR. I found a bit of your background information on Wikipedia, but I am sure there are those like myself who would like to know more. How and when did you find yourself taking up the hobby of role-playing games?

JMW: I met Gary Gygax in 1974 when the 1,000 brown box sets of D&D were first printed up. He told me he had a game where I could play Conan the barbarian and fight the forces of Set and I was hooked. He and Brian Blume taught be how to play the game on Gary’s side porch and I’ve enjoyed the game every since.

Seeing your credentials as a writer, game designer, and storyteller, I can't help but wonder if you found yourself naturally gravitating toward the role of game master early on when you entered into the hobby?

JMW: It took me months and months to figure out how to use the dice in the game. Once I did, I found myself drawing up my own crude dungeons. However, running games as the Dungeon Master was daunting in the company of Gary Gygax, Rob Kuntz, and Ernie Gygax. I started running games for Rob and Ernie, but they always said I gave out too much treasure. That’s where I first earned by nickname of Monty Haul. When I started writing the science fiction role-playing game METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA Gary joined in the fun and I learned how to run a balanced game.

Do you remember the first adventure you ran (or played in), and can you share a few quick details that you can remember from that game?

JMW: I remember every minute of that game. We were play testing Kong Island and I was a first level wizard. I had a light spell and I went with a group of fifth level characters. We were exploring a native village at dawn. I made the stupid mistake of casting a light spell in a large, dark thatch hut. The twenty native warriors boiled out of the hut and killed me as I stupidly stood there. Lucky for me Ernie Gygax had a wish spell and wished many of the dead party back alive.

How quickly did you find yourself writing your own game materials and adventures?

JMW: There were few people acting as DMs in those days. Gary encouraged everyone to write up their own things. Gary Gygax and his entire family got in the swing of things one way or another and I’m proud to be friends with the kids to this day.

Do you still find time to enjoy gaming, and do you have a regular gaming group?

JMW: I do a lot of play testing now. I have a group that plays every Friday. I also get some old hands like Tom Wham and Brian Blume to test my latest inventions.

If so, what game are you playing, are you running the game and can you share a few details of the game itself?

JMW: As I write this, I’m playing a board game called PANZER GENERAL it’s a card and board game based on an Ubisoft computer online game. I’m getting it ready for Gen Con that happens next week. Lately I’ve been making my living writing product for Troll Lord games. I manage the CRUSADER, a monthly magazine of theirs. At Gen Con this year, my hardbound book OF GODS & MONSTERS and my box set, TAINTED LANDS will be presented to the public for the first time.


Can you share how you came to work with TSR?

JMW: I was playing games with Gary and the TSR crew and in 1975, I went to begin a teaching career at West Grant High School. As I moved I told Gary any time he could afford my teaching salary (at that time $9,500), I would happily come and work for him. During Christmas and Thanksgiving, I would come down to Lake Geneva and game with Gary. While I was teaching, I wrote GODS, DEMIGODS & HEROES, and DEITIES & DEMIGODS. I also helped proof read the first AD&D Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Finally, in 1980, they could afford my $13,800 salary and I moved back to my home town of Elkhorn and started working for TSR.

One of my favorite products for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was DEITIES & DEMIGODS. As most can guess, the main reason for this is because it included the Cthulhu Mythos, but I also particularly loved the entries for the Nehwon, Melnibonéan, Norse and Arthurian Mythos as well. Other than the AD&D Players Handbook, DEITIES was the rulebook I spent the most time reading. I am curious what your involvement was with this book?

JMW: I wrote almost all the entries for DEITIES & DEMIGODS. I would pass over written pantheons to Gary and he would tell me if this or that god was too tough. It was an early work and I did lots of things far differently in the OF GODS & MONSTERS hardbound.

Wikipedia has you credited for the creation of the nonhuman deities in DEITIES & DEMIGODS. Can you share which of the mythos presented can be credited to you, or was the writing of DEITIES more of a collaborative effort? Did you write the entries for the Cthulhu Mythos?

JMW: I wrote all the entries you mentioned: Nehwon, Melnibonéan, Norse, and Arthurian. Rob Kuntz wrote the Finnish mythos and I did the rest. There were lots of debates about the work on the editorial end and things changed along the way, but I’m proud to have authored the work.

You also helped write Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (Supplement IV) for the original edition of D&D, and if memory serves, there was an entry for Hyborian gods and heroes in that book. I am curious why those entries from the Robert E. Howard Mythos were not carried over into Deities & Demigods for AD&D?

JMW: I submitted an outline for the hardbound and there just wasn’t room in the larger work for the Conan material. We had planned on doing a second volume, but there just never seemed time to get that one done.

Troll Lord Games

With Troll Lord Games you have written a whole slew of new Illusionist spells for the fourth printing of the Castles & Crusades Players Handbook, published TOWERS OF ADVENTURE and now the upcoming releases TAINTED LANDS and OF GODS & MONSTERS. Can you take a moment to explain your involvement with the Trolls, and how you came to work for them?

JMW: Gary Gygax was kind enough to suggest I take over the Managing Editor duties for CRUSADER magazine. It wasn’t coming out that often and everyone at Troll Lords wanted the magazine to become a strong marketing arm of the company. The magazine started coming out more often and Steve Chenault and I would talk about product that might sell well for the company that I could design. I’m pleased to say that I have always delivered my designs ahead of schedule and with a professionalism that Steve has found refreshing.

Is there a future product you are working on that you would be willing to talk about, and possibly give us a glimpse into?

JMW: I have to say no to this one. I have several projects suggested to Troll Lords, but they wouldn’t want the news to leak out so that someone else could copy the idea.

TAINTED LANDS / Castles & Crusades

I see that both horror rules and a supernatural rulebook are listed as part of content for the TAINTED LANDS box set. Can you elaborate on what rules we can expect to see included that will help run a horror themed fantasy game? Are there any new classes, spells or monsters included in these rules, and if so can you give us a few preview details?

JMW: There are four new character classes; there is a good slug of spells the Castle Keeper knows to use with Nonplayer characters, but the player characters will have to learn by bargaining for them; there are lots of new magic items; and there is only one way to escape the TAINTED LANDS.

What about rules for handling terror and mental stability?

JMW: I have played a lot of horror games and I’ve never liked the mental stability rules in any of them. I give lessons in the referee’s guide on how to run horror and I hope they are enough to bring out the fun horror theme.

Are these an extension of the Castles & Crusades rules, and as such can be used in any C&C game?

JMW: Absolutely, the TAINTED LANDS fits into the Siege Engine and C&C rules in every detail. There is even a set of quick start C&C rules in the box set.

I have read some internet chatter that states that TAINTED LANDS is a particularly deadly setting as compared to a standard C&C game. Is this a true statement? If so, can you elaborate as to why?

JMW: Life is extremely dangerous in the TAINTED LANDS. There are lots of things to support the player characters, but they have to be found.

What are the future plans for TAINTED LANDS? Can we expect to see additional materials released to supplement the core box set?

JMW: The Troll Lord people want to see how the game does before they commit to lots more product. I did get them to agree to a TAINTED MONSTERS & TAINTED TREASURE monster and treasure book. If the game is popular, there will be adventures and other products, I’m sure.

With the TOWERS OF ADVENTURE box set you provided more of a toolbox for game masters to pull from to help create the adventures they wanted to create for whatever campaign they happened to be running at the time. TAINTED LANDS sounds less generic and more campaign based. Can you share some details about the setting, and a bit of the back-story?

JMW: Portals begin appearing in the lands and kingdoms of humans, orcs, dwarves, and elves. If characters aren’t cautious, they are sucked into these portals, never to be seen again. There are fantastically valuable gems on these portals, but stealing them, makes the portals immune to all forms of attack. Once in the TAINTED LANDS characters focus on escaping. They soon discover that there are seven lichs’ that need to be destroyed before they can leave the lands. A dense fog surrounds the TAINTED LANDS and entering this fog is highly dangerous. Bad news for the world includes the fact that the fog grows out and eventually envelops the portals that have appeared in every land. What’s a poor character to do?

Obviously, TAINTED LANDS is a horror themed fantasy campaign. I am curious if there was something that inspired you to write this particular game, and why you chose a horror theme for the setting?

JMW: I debated long and hard about the genre to present TAINTED LANDS in, and there were lots of choices. I finally decided the fantasy Middle Ages was the best because that was the time all of the normal C&C players knew best. If the game is successful at all, I certainly want to do a Wild West, Modern Day, and Science Fiction version of the game.
Sales was the primary motivator for the writing of that book. I’ve talked to Steve Chenault many times about doing Siege Engine sets that appeal to different factions of the role-playing audience. Horror has great appeal to all ages of gamers and it was a natural first start.

In my current game, I tend to look to the triumvirate of weird tales writers for inspiration -- H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Are there any particular writers you found inspirational when writing and designing TAINTED LANDS?

JMW: I actually went to the Hollywood movies for inspiration. Hollywood has been doing horror since the very beginning of silent pictures. I made lots of notes on delivering horror to an audience. It was important to me to never have players say, “Yeah right,” when they encountered horrific role-playing scenes. The TAINTED LANDS is designed to teach the Castle Keeper how to present horror as the movies present horror. I’m really looking forward to the response to the game because the C&C fans have no problem telling an author if they have done a good job or not.

Everyone knows that zombies make everything better. Can we expect to see a lot of zombie killing action in TAINTED LANDS?

JMW: Undead are very important to the story line in TAINTED LANDS. Naturally, I had to put my own brand on those zombies. Characters will find the TAINTED LANDS version to be highly intelligent and very fast. There is even a class of Ultra Undead, much like BOSS monsters in arcade games that should present interesting times to the player characters.

Is there any advice you can give game masters who are running horror themed games when it comes to building an atmosphere of terror and dread in their game?

JMW: To my way of thinking, it’s vital to try hard to not kill the player characters. You want them nervous, afraid of every shadow, and thinking about just giving up. However, in that effort there will be times when a Castle Keeper’s players feeling they are being cheated and the game is unfair. I try to counter this last feeling, by giving them superior magic items and spells. I want them saying, “Wow, I have this great new sword and shield. Nothing can stand before me and live.” Then I present encounters where the creature is totally resistant to the new weapon.

Thanks for your time Jim.

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