The ABC's of Game Design With Jeff Dee


Jeff Dee is perhaps best known to fans of Villains & Vigilantes, oft recognized as one of the best Supers RPGs ever to come along. But he's much more than that; in his secret identity as a freelance designer and artist, he's also developed several other game systems, worked for TSR, and started UniGames with fellow artist and designer 'Manda. He was kind enough to lend us 30 minutes of his time.

Jeff Dee is perhaps best known to fans of Villains & Vigilantes, oft recognized as one of the best Supers RPGs ever to come along. But he's much more than that; in his secret identity as a freelance designer and artist, he's also developed several other game systems, worked for TSR, and started UniGames with fellow artist and designer 'Manda. He was kind enough to lend us 30 minutes of his time.

GG: How did you get your start in the gaming industry?

JD: I grew up in a little town in Illinois, about a half hour south of Lake Geneva. When D&D first started getting popular, my older brother got into it and introduced me to it. We used to drive up to the original Dungeon hobby shop once a month or so to see what was new. I contributed a few illustrations to some very early Dragon magazines.

Jack Herman and I submitted a partially complete science fiction game to TSR, but got turned down because they were about to come out with Metamorphosis: Alpha. We wrote Villains & Vigilantes during summer vacations while I was in art school. When it was finished we took it to a convention and looked around for a likely publisher; we didn't want to get turned down again. We saw that Fantasy Games Unlimited had a game called "Bunnies and Burrows" (based on Watership Down), and said "any company that will publish a role playing game about intelligent rabbits will publish anything". Apparently we were right.

I got a job doing art for TSR right after art school, and I've been working in the games business one way or another ever since.

GG: Where did V&V fit into the whole scheme of things?

JD: In V&V, we tried to present superheros the way we knew and loved them from, oh, the late 1970's... But since that style of comics has faded, it's no surprise that V&V faded along with it.

I fear that what's happening to superheros is the same thing that happened to Westerns: the public isn't that interested any more. I don't think there's any single major reason why, but there are lots and lots of little reasons. Bad comics that seem to be more about gloss and collectability than good stories or art. A sense that morals out of the 1950's are necessary in order to rationalize the genre. Failure by the major publishers to keep drawing in new, younger readers. Competition from other genres that *does* cater to a younger audience. A general trend toward darker moods that (in my opinion) doesn't work all that well with the superhero genre.

GG: What's it take to publish your own games, resource, time and sanity-wise? Is it a full-time gig for you?

JD: It's a full time job. I do a little freelance work when I feel like it. 'Manda is the co-creator of an online game called Furcadia (, and that's paying the bills while UNIgames gets up on its feet. I've also got some royalties coming in from WarChest.

GG: Tell us more about WarChest.

JD: Well, I designed it for Lance & Laser Models (the guys who did the V&V miniatures, and still do though now we're calling the line Living Legends). WarChest is a customizable strategy board game using fantasy miniatures on a chess board. Each figure comes with a stat sheet that lists its game abilities, and the armies are balanced with points. The object is to capture your opponent's war chest before he captures yours. It's not a "collectible" game in the icky sense that people mean it these days; each piece is sold invividually and clearly marked. There are six different pre-built starter sets, and 105 different figures in the line. You can find more info at

GG: Tell us a bit about Pocket Universe.

JD: Back in the late 80's, 'Manda and I created a little RPG called TWERPS (The World's Easiest Role-Playing Game System). Of course the name was a parody of GURPS, but the real inspiration was a tiny RPG called Dinky Dungeons.

I was fascinated by the question: just how small COULD an RPG be, and still give you enough rules & background so you could play? We cut even further than Dinky Dungeons. TWERPS had ONE character attribute.

And I think that in the process or pushing the concept as far as it could go, we inevitably wound up with a parody of RPGs in general. TWERPS was really more like a caricature of an RPG than a game you'd ever actually play. When you look at a caricature of a famous person, your brain goes. "ooh, neat - look how that little squiggle evokes the shape of Alfred Hitchcock's nose." When you look at TWERPS, your brain goes, "ooh, neat - look how that little rule evokes an RPG's rules for character generation."

Amazingly, many people actually DID play TWERPS - even long-standing campaigns I'm told. I got email from a Japanese TWERPS fan who tried to tell me that TWERPS was very "zen". I hear there are people who think that the Peanuts comic strip is "zen" too, so maybe it's true.

Anyway, back around 1990 'Manda and I sold the TWERPS rights to Gamescience for way too little money, and we've always regretted that. We've wanted to do another pocket sized RPG ever since, only this time we really wanted it to be more than a cartoon. We wanted to do the smallest complete set of RPG rules that really gave you enough to run a game with as much depth to it as you'd get from any other RPG. And that's what Pocket Universe is. It's NOT a parody of an RPG; it's a *real* RPG, only as small as we could make it without it becoming a cartoon.

The dry facts about Pocket Universe are: it's a very small book of role-playing rules that sells for under 5 bucks. It covers all sorts of non-comabt stuff, so it's not just a combat system where you get to name your character. It includes a rather innovative system of buying the PCs' "contacts", that encourages beginning characters to establish prior relationships through shared contacts. It's a skill based game using very simple point construction rules. Attributes, advantages, and skills are purchased from separate pools of points to discourage abuse. Skill checks are made on 2d10; if you roll equal to your modified skill score (or less) then you succeed. Doubles are always critical; doubles that succeed indicate a critical success, and doubles that fail indicate a fumble. Characters earn EPs that they can use to improve their skills.

GG: Are you going the path of GURPS/d20, or are each of your games treated as separate entities?

JD: The Pocket Universe supplements are going to be modular, as opposed to free-standing. And we have no plans to issue an OGL, though in house we do refer to the Pocket Universe rules as the "2d10 System".

Unlike the GURPS strategy, I think we're a lot freer to explore new or fringe settings. Our first supplement is going to be "Teenage Demon Slayers", and it's essentially the Buffy The Vampire Slayer genre. Which (with one TV show and a spinoff) it a pretty small niche genre. Other companies have come out with vampire hunting games, but they're not specifically doing "high school chosen ones". Our supplements are all going to be as small as the Pocket Universe basic rules book, which gives us the freedom to go into a niche genre like that, do a good treatment of it, and move on to the next. Whereas I don't think we'll see any of the big companies going there unless they acquire an actual Buffy license. It's like, West End did a licensed Ghost Busters game, but nobody did an unlicensed game in that genre. That's the sort of thing we plan on doing.

GG: What are your feelings about the whole Open Gaming movmement, and the open-sourcing of the d20 game engine? Do you feel it's a benefit to the gaming world as a whole, or a detriment?

JD: I'm concerned that the Open Gaming movement is going to ultimately hurt gaming by flooding the market with sub- standard products. Keeping control of the license to a game system doesn't guarantee that every game using that system will be a gem, but NOT having any editorial control does guarantee that if some money-grubbing schmuck wants to publish a piece of crap with the name of the game system that you're hoping will attract people on it, they can and WILL. I don't want to name any names, but I think we all know that this has already happened with the d20 OGL. How long will it be before the sheer volume of stuff there is to wade through makes it a chore to hunt for the good stuff, souring people to the system in general? It's not a perfect analogy, but I saw what happened to the comics industry during the black & white glut. It was not good.

On top of that, I'm personally not a big fan of the d20 system. If we HAD TO have a one-size-fits all system, I don't think d20 would be a very good choice.

GG: Dungeons and Dragons has come a long way from the early days of gaming through to 3rd Edition; the rules have matured, and the art has become a lot more mature as well. Have your own games and artwork evolved or matured as well?

JD: Absolutely. Game design wise, these days when I write rules I try to keep them absolutely as simple as they can possibly be *without* sacrificing rationalism. I say "rationalism" instead of "realism" because realism is just not appropriate for every genre. I don't want *realism* in my superhero games, for example. In a superhero game I want super strong guys to be able to pick up battleships and smack each other with 'em without the corner they're holding on to breaking off. That's not realistic, but it's appropriate to the genre. But when one guy swings a battleship at another guy, I don't want the armor the other guy's wearing to make it *hard to hit him with a battleship*. Armor needs to absorb damage in order to make rational sense. Having it make you harder to hit is silly and irrational, along with character classes and experience levels. Game mechanics like that belong in the stone age.

Art wise, I've just gotten more proficient with the tools. My style appears to have drifted somewhat over the years, but that's fine by me.

GG: Since you've worked in both the "pen-and-paper" industry as well as the computer gaming industry, what's your feeling about the general gaming climate? Do you feel that gamers are moving away from traditional role-playing, and towards console and PC gaming?

JD: I don't think gamers are moving away so much as young people are going straight into computer games and skipping paper RPGs entirely. This was one of the problems I mentioned with comics earlier, and it bothers me a lot. The only way this hobby is going to survive is if we keep bringing in new players.

Also, it's a shame because there are STILL no computer games that I would consider "role playing". There are solo games where you play a character, but they're essentially linear and you're not really in control of your own character's destiny. And there are massively multi-player online games which are closer, but are still mainly built around a bunch of canned "quests". When my character goes to a bar and meets another adventurer who went on the same quest as me and found the same magic item, it ruins the illusion. And I still haven't seen a MMORPG that does a good job of encouraging player cooperation at anything other than a very shallow level. Which is astounding to me, because the whole point of MMORPGs (I thought) was that they'd allow people to play TOGETHER.

GG: As recently as 5 years ago, it was almost unheard of for gaming companies to offer their products for free on the Internet, and yet now everyone (yourself included) is giving away material in PDF format. Is this something you have to do to survive?

JD: Not for me. I'm giving away Living Legends because I felt bad about setting it aside, and I thought I owed something to the fans who'd been waiting for me to complete it.

With Pocket Universe, I view it as support material. If you want a game to succeed, you need to support it. But it takes time to write enough new material for an entire new book, and it takes money to publish that book. And then that book doesn't always sell. I can post a new creature to the Pocket Universe site every week, and my players will have them immediately. The game gets supported, and I don't have to devote solid weeks of my time to a creature book that might not sell.

Until we have really inexpensive, really user friendly electronic books we can carry around, physical books will remain the standard. But not necessarily big old expensive hardcover books, if I achieve what I'm trying to do with Pocket Universe.... (I)f customers complain about games being too expensive, the answer is NOT to point at prices outside the hobby and say, "No they're not". The answer is to find a way to deliver the content the customers want at a price they like in a form where you can still make money.

GG: What games are you playing right now?

JD: I'm running a Quicksilver campaign for my regular gaming group. I'm also in a boardgames group, where my favorites are Wiz War, Guillotine, and Milton Bradley's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" game. I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's an astoundingly good game.

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