Monday, May 30, 2016

Interview with Carl Willner – Author of four MERP modules

Compiled and edited by Guy Fullerton in 2011
Copyright 2011, 2016 Guy Fullerton and Carl Willner

Wherein we learn what it was like to write Middle-earth Role Playing modules for Iron Crown Enterprises, discover what became of the "Dol Amroth" module that ICE ads teased us with in the early 1980's, and establish that Tolkien's Orcs are birthed, not manufactured …

While perusing Brent Knorr's ICE WebRing, I stumbled across a message left by Carl Willner, author of four classic modules from ICE's MERP series. Carl was looking to complete his MERP collection, and as fate would have it, so was I. After exchanging a few emails we happily arranged a trade. Also, Carl agreed to an interview about his MERP work.

- What got you started with role playing games and into writing modules?

I discovered D&D and Tolkien at the same time in college in the late 70s. At that time, D&D was still not widely known and it was starting to catch on in the college dorms. The first hardcover D&D books were just starting to come out as I was learning to play. The connection of Tolkien and D&D was much more evident in the early softcover D&D rules, before TSR started to play down that connection presumably for copyright reasons. When I read Tolkien's description of Moria, it seemed like the ultimate D&D setting!

When I went to law school in Charlottesville, VA, home of ICE, in the early 80s, I was still doing a lot of RPG. Naturally I wanted to work with ICE when I heard that they were doing the Middle-earth modules. I got in touch with Pete and the others, did some test writing and research for them, and then got the contract for my first module.

- Do you still play role playing games today, and if so, what do you play?

I continued to play D&D the longest, though in recent years I haven't been playing regularly – more for lack of time than interest. I am still doing some historical board gaming (which I was into even before RPGs) and have also been doing designs in that area. Professor Dan Mings and I co-designed Texas Glory, a game on the Texan Revolution, which was published in 2008 by Columbia Games. I'm working on another one for them now on the battle of Borodino, which hopefully will be out in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle.


- What rpgs do you collect (if any), and what are your most treasured items in your collection?

I have the complete 1st series of Middle-earth modules ICE published, and a number of the 2nd series ones, though those came out after I had done my last work for ICE. It was more critical to keep up with what all the other authors were producing at the time I was still writing for ICE. I also have the several series of D&D and AD&D rules published over the past few decades, going back to the original softcovers, and many – though not all – of the early modules by TSR.

- Tell me a little bit about the MERP modules you authored.

Of the four I did, Havens of Gondor (ICE 3300, pub. 1987) was actually the first one written, though the third one published. Its original working was "Dol Amroth," with the new name added late in the process*. ICE took a while getting that out, and in the meantime I wrote The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair (ICE 8030, pub. 1984) and Goblin-gate and Eagle's Eyrie (ICE 8070, pub. 1985). Mount Gundabad (ICE 3110, pub. 1989) was the last written and last published of mine.

Three of the four gave me the opportunity to develop Orc communities, progressively increasing in size from a small settlement in Cirith Ungol, to a full-scale town in Goblin-gate, to the largest Orcish city – Mount Gundabad. Apart from Orcs, much of my work for ICE related to Gondorians; my research for Havens of Gondor carried over easily into Cirith Ungol since at the time the MERP modules are set, the tower was still a border outpost of Gondor. Along the way, I made the first depictions in the MERP series** of two significant characters from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Gollum in Goblin-gate and Shelob in Cirith Ungol.

* Editor's note: Early ICE catalogs & product lists make reference to a Dol Amroth module coming soon, such as in the product lists within ICE's original release of the Angmar, Umbar, and Court of Ardor, as well as in advertisements within Dragon Magazine up through late 1983, at which point no further mention was made.

** Editor's note: Carl alludes to the fact that not all of ICE's Middle-earth modules were originally part of the MERP series. The MERP name & logo didn't begin appearing on products until 1984. So while there were depictions of significant characters in earlier modules – such as the Witch-king in the ICE's 1982 Angmar module – those earlier modules were not technically part of the MERP line.

- Do you have any insight as to why ICE released Havens of Gondor so much later than your other work despite being written first?

The delay came from the editorial process at ICE, as well as a focus on getting other things out.

Looking back at my correspondence with ICE, I submitted the original Dol Amroth manuscript in January 1984, but ICE decided to focus on publishing more of the ready-to-run modules rather than the larger campaign modules. Additionally, Dol Amroth had to be revised to bring it into line with the MERP rules, which were released after I submitted the Dol Amroth manuscript. I think there was more editing done on Dol Amroth than on my other three modules. As ICE worked through its descriptions of Gondor's civilization as well as the overall MERP rules, I had to significantly revise the manuscript.

In contrast, my three Orc-related modules fell into place more quickly. But a lot of the work I had done on the initial drafts of Dol Amroth formed a basis for the description of the Gondorian forces garrisoning the Tower of Cirith Ungol, in the next module I wrote.

- What was your writing & creation process for the modules like? What sort of research did you do? How much freedom did you have in terms of improvising details?

Quite a lot of research went into the modules, not only from the primary source materials – The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion – but also from secondary sources, such as Tolkien's letters, the multi-book series on the evolution of Tolkien's works put out by his son, and The Atlas of Middle-earth. The objective was always to stay faithful to Tolkien and use the details he provided, as well as to maintain the spirit of his works.

But it was often necessary to make educated guesses and fill in gaps, for example, by research into historical cultures with which Tolkien was familiar. So, quite a lot of details were added to the cultures of Middle-earth as long as they did not conflict with Tolkien's own material.

One illustration of this I recall, as it involved discussions with folks at ICE, was the social structure of the Orcs when they were in their own communities (that is, not just serving in the armies of Sauron or Saruman). The Peter Jackson movies, wonderful as they are in many respects, do not get this right – Saruman's Orcs in the films appear to be coming out of molds or vats! More correctly, the Orcs reproduced as other peoples of Middle-earth – Tolkien at one point refers to an Orcish ruler and his father. Furthermore, the Orcs were originally created by Morgoth from captured Elves, and Tolkien was very clear that Morgoth could only mock, not make genuinely new things (although his dragons have always seemed, to me, pretty close to new things). Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman could breed from available materials and speed up the process of forming creatures by magic, such as Saruman did with his uruks and half-orcs. But the Orcs had fathers and knew who they were, and they also had children – we also know this directly from Tolkien, as Gollum fed on the little goblin-imps while living in his cave.

But the Orcs' culture was also very brutal, oriented toward producing warriors and craftsmen of useful devices, with little else. So we ended up developing an Orcish culture that was very patriarchal, with children knowing their fathers but not their mothers, with subjugated and rarely-seen Orcish females living in harems, and with Orcish imps raised en masse in an orphanage-like system (with parallels here in Dickens, or Jack Kirby's Apokolips). This development began with and continued through my three Orc modules, and was later expanded in ICE's Lords of Middle Earth books.

- Did you get feedback from any Tolkien Scholars and/or the Tolkien Estate in terms of things you could or could not cover, or of changes to make?

I did not get any direct feedback from Tolkien scholars or the Tolkien Estate on what could go into the modules. All my interaction in the editorial process was with ICE - either Pete Fenlon initially, or later Jessica Ney. I think ICE had some contractual obligations regarding faithfulness to Tolkien under their contract with the estate.

- After writing a campaign module (Havens of Gondor), did you begin the writing process for Cirith Ungol and Goblin-gate with the understanding that they ought to be shorter works? That is, did ICE give you word count or other length guidelines for your modules?

Concerning contract expectations, each ICE contract specified an outline structure for the writer to follow, varying by the module type, and also a minimum page count in double-spaced type, but not a rigid word count.

The contracts for Cirith Ungol and Goblin-gate, for example, both specified a minimum manuscript size of 80 pages. In both cases, I gave ICE considerably more: 158 pages. The contract for Havens of Gondor provided for a minimum manuscript size of 72 pages, and what I submitted was also considerably bigger. Mount Gundabad was the largest, and while the contract provided a minimum manuscript size of 90 pages, I submitted 178 pages. There is a pattern here, with my submissions coming in at about twice the minimum size.

Some descriptive material got edited down before publication, but most of what I wrote made it into print. Occasionally players have asked for more detailed descriptions of certain magical items, treasures, etc. that I have been able to supply privately from my original manuscripts.

- How long did it take to write your modules?

Generally it took several months, to up to a year, to write each of the modules. The ICE contracts did have specified times to produce the work, though those times could be extended by agreement:
  - For Havens of Gondor, I signed the contract on Nov. 12, 1982 and I had to deliver the manuscript by April 1, 1983.
  - I signed the Cirith Ungol contract on Sept. 8, 1983 and originally required delivery by Dec. 1, 1983. This got extended a couple of months and I delivered the manuscript by the end of January 1984.
  - Goblin-gate's contract was signed Oct. 11, 1984, and due for delivery Mar. 1, 1985.
  - Finally, Mount Gundabad was contracted for on April 3, 1988, and the contract provided for delivery by Sept. 1, 1988, though this was extended and delivery was actually made on Nov. 15, 1988.

As you can see from these dates, apart from what happened to Havens of Gondor as I described before, with four years between delivery and publication, there was usually not a long lag time between delivery of a manuscript to ICE and publication; all three of the others were out within a year of submission.

- Was there any guidance or requirements from ICE as to the structure of the modules? All of ICE's modules at that time seemed to closely follow the format suggested by Campaign Law; was there a formal requirement that your MERP modules adhere to that same format?

Yes, ICE did have author's guidelines and a structure for the modules and the principal subjects that should be covered, though this still left quite a bit of room to develop details. Especially with the earlier modules, much was still being created for the first time. Later, of course, it was necessary to stay faithful to what had gone before but there was still a lot of opportunity to develop new ideas as long as they fit with Tolkien.

- On flipping through my copy of Cirith Ungol, I noticed that it contains a few references to MERP. This is unsurprising given that it was released about six months after MERP, but I'm curious if you had prerelease access to the MERP rules while writing any of your modules?

I do recall having access to information about MERP at the time I wrote most of the modules, as I know ICE wanted to ensure consistency. I'm not sure, though, if it was a prepublication version of MERP that I had for Cirith Ungol. But as I noted earlier, I didn't have the MERP information at the time I worked on the manuscript for Dol Amroth in 1983, which led to the need for more revisions before it was published as Havens of Gondor.

- How much choice did you have in the region to cover in your modules? That is, did ICE dictate the particular areas to cover, did they give you a choice among options, or were you free to make proposals?

This was a two-way collaborative process. ICE had a list of types of modules and a variety of areas/topics that it was interested in. Authors could propose which ones they wanted to do from the choices on the list and could try to offer other proposals too. There were a lot of topics as alternatives on the list. On Mount Gundabad, for example, I proposed several ideas for a module drawing from the list and ICE liked that one best, so we agreed on a contract for that one. Sometimes ICE had a particular interest in a subject, as I think was the case when I signed on for the first project, Dol Amroth.

- Earlier, you mentioned doing some test writing prior to your first module contract with ICE. Did it end up being incorporated in any of your modules? If not, would you mind sharing what the test writing covered?

The test writing I did was on a few subjects. I did some research and a writeup on matters involving Bree and the Barrow-downs, which did get used to some extent in the module later published – my name was included in the list of credits on that module under Special Contributions. I also wrote a descriptive piece on Dol Amroth which made its way into my more extensive manuscript on the same topic. Finally, I did a dramatic piece set in Gorgoroth / Udun Vale during the War of the Ring, which never made it into print elsewhere.

- You are listed as a Contributing Author for Angus McBride's Characters of Middle-earth. What did you contribute?

The "Shade in Waiting" section clearly uses some of my descriptive text about Dol Amroth and must be the basis of the author credit, even though the picture comes from the Assassins of Dol Amroth module, which is based in my campaign setting but which I wasn't responsible for.

One thing that surprises me about Characters of Middle-earth, given that it is intended as a collection of Angus McBride's beautiful cover paintings for ICE (and I recall Pete Fenlon telling me once that they paid Angus as much for one of those paintings as they paid the author for the entire work on the module, considering that the cover art was often what sold the module), is that the Mount Gundabad cover art, also an Angus piece, did not make it into Characters. Had ICE used it, they would have had plenty of opportunity to work in more text or character descriptions from my Mount Gundabad module, which I think came out shortly before Characters did. Presumably the production of Characters was already too far along to include the cover art for Mount Gundabad, but I'm not certain of that.

- Since you brought up the subject of ICE's payment to authors, would you mind sharing those details?

ICE's rate of pay was not high. It was a flat payment for the project rather than by-the-word or by-the-page even though there were minimum page limits as discussed earlier. Usually it was around $1000 per project.

Since as I discussed before most of my modules had a minimum page requirement of around 80 pages, some more, some less, that comes out to about $12 per page in the original manuscript (not the printed page in the module, which holds a few of my typed double-spaced pages). You can work out the number of words per page on average to see how the rate compares – maybe about 250 words per page in double spaced format, so around 5 cents per word had I given them the minimum. My sending ICE about twice as many pages per project as the minimum contracted for did not alter my compensation. That was just because I wanted to do it and had a lot of useful ideas to provide, but it lowered the effective rate per word by about half.

In addition I received a significant number of author's copies, so that payment in kind added a couple of hundred dollars more in value to the compensation.

Editor's note: As a point of comparison, the pay rate I received in the mid/late 2000's from Wizards of the Coast for a number of web articles was 7 cents per word – supposedly pretty good for the time. Adjusting for inflation, ICE's pay rate in the 1980's is better than what a freelance rpg author should expect to receive today in 2011.

- All of the significant locations described in Havens of Gondor are included in the accompanying Pete Fenlon land maps, including the comparatively minor mountain village of Galbigur, which to the best of my knowledge does not appear in Tolkien's own works. Was this an instance of Pete incorporating your described locations into his cartography, or was it the reverse -- you breathing life into areas that he had already put on his maps?

I'm pretty sure Galbigur was my invention and that Pete worked it into the map. It is not a settlement appearing in Tolkien's own works, though it's certainly consistent with the clues he provides about the history of the region.

- Very cool! Would the same be true for something like Maethelburg (from Goblin-gate)? The 1982 Angmar map has an unnamed town at Maethelburg's location. Then the re-drawn map of that region (as included in Goblin-gate and other later modules) explicitly labels it as Maethelburg.

I think you have the sequence of creation right – Pete Fenlon's original map of Middle-earth had an unnamed town there, since the confluence of the Anduin and another river there seemed an obvious place for someone to locate a trading town. When I did Goblin-gate I decided to give it a name and develop it as a base for adventures in the region. Pete then added the name on the map done specifically for that module, but it did not have a name before Goblin-gate was written.

Having the town in that area was consistent with the information provided by Tolkien, who had referred to settlements of Northern Men in the Anduin vales, though the proto-Rohirrim who lived somewhat further north were the only group he discussed specifically.

- My favorite of your modules is Goblin-Gate, largely because of its broad utility. It describes both underground and overland adventuring sites, contains a wide variety of intriguing foes & obstacles, and features a great home base for the PCs. The inclusion of Gollum certainly doesn't hurt either! I think Goblin-Gate is one of the most useful short modules ever produced for any system. What inspired you to include the wealth of variety in Goblin-Gate?

Glad you liked Goblin-gate! I was pleased to have the opportunity to include a major Tolkien character like Gollum in the module, and the Hobbit provides considerable material about this region of Middle-earth, so there was a lot to work with. Only the human settlement of Maethelburg really had to be invented, as adventuring characters needed a base to operate from, and that setting is very consistent with information Tolkien provided on ancestors of the Rohirrim who came from the Anduin valley, as well as evidence of the influence that Gondor had in the Anduin valley at the height of its power.

The idea was to have a complete, ready-to-run adventure setting, as distinguished from the campaign modules where players and GMs need to do some more development for adventures. The later Mount Gundabad is something of a hybrid of these two approaches.

Thanks very much for your willingness to be interviewed, and for all the fantastic historical information you provided!

Carl Willner's Game Credits:
- Editorial Contribution, Southern Mirkwood Haunt of the Necromancer, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1983.
- Special Contributions, Bree and the Barrow-downs, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1984.
- Author, The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1984.
- Author, Goblin-gate and Eagle's Eyrie, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1985.
- Author, Havens of Gondor, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1987.
- Author, Mount Gundabad, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1989.
- Contributing Author, Angus McBride's Characters of Middle-earth, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1990.
- Special Contributions, Arnor, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1994.
- Additional Contributor, The Kin-strife, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1995.
- Special Contributions, Mirkwood, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1995.
- Contributing Author (uncredited*), Southern Gondor: The Land, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1996.
- Special Contributions, Arnor: The People, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1996.
- Special Contributions, Arnor: The Land, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1997.
- Co-designer, Texas Glory: 1835-36, Columbia Games, 2008.
- Co-designer, Borodino 1812, Columbia Games, 2012.

* Some of the text from Southern Gondor: The Land is clearly identical to portions of Havens of Gondor, including (but not necessarily limited to) most of the Linhir description, and parts of the Naur Amr├╗n description.