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Interview with Bill Slavicsek

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Interview: Bill Slavicsek
Date: April 29th
by: Michael Burnaugh (Realmprotector)

Bill Slavicsek is the Vice President of Roleplaying Game Design and Development at Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

GamingReport:
First of all Mr. Slavicsek, I'd like to thank you for taking the time for this interview. Let's start at the beginning. When did you start roleplaying and what got you into it?

Bill Slavicsek
: No problem. It’s always fun to participate in these kinds of interviews. I’ve always been into comic books, fantasy and science fiction, horror, and gaming. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, and I loved television and movies that had anything to do with these topics. Anyway, I had a really good group of friends when I was growing up. We got together on the weekends to play board games. This was in the mid-70s or so. We played everything we could find at the time—Monopoly, Risk, and games like that. We eventually found the SPI and Avalon Hill games, but we had a lot of fun with a World War II war game we invented. We used these tiny plastic soldiers produced by a company from the United Kingdom that I can’t remember the name of at the moment. Anyway, we glued the units to 2-inch squares of cardboard and made up attack and defense values for each. Everyone selected a different country to purchase units for, and we added tanks, planes, artillery, and terrain. I remember spreading the pieces out across the basement floor for these massive battles that might take days to complete. Sometime in 1977 or so, while we were hunting for new units at Polks Hobby Store in Manhattan, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. While we continued to play all kinds of games, D&D became the game we just had to play two or three times a week. I’m not sure why everyone else in the group liked it, but for me it was a way to roll all of my interests into one activity. I was always the gamemaster, taking all of the stories that were bouncing around in my head and turning them into adventures for my friends to play.

GamingReport:
Your career in gaming has been long and successful. How did it all start and what made you decide to stay with it?

Bill Slavicsek:
I continued to run D&D games throughout high school and college. I began training to become a comic book artist when I was accepted into New York’s High School of Art & Design. I love drawing, but sometime during those four years I found that I liked writing even better. I decided to change course in college, where I majored in journalism and communication arts at St. John’s University. I became really involved with the college newspaper, where I used my artistic talents as a graphic designer and editorial cartoonist, and my writing talents as a reporter. I eventually got my first taste of management on the college paper, as well, becoming managing editor and then editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper. After college, I spent a year working on a weekly community newspaper in Queens, New York. Then I started looking for something bigger and better. I saw an ad in the New York Times for a game editor, and was hired by West End Games. WEG was an amazing place in 1986. It was one of the cutting-edge companies in gaming. It had a very good reputation for its military simulation games, and was just beginning to earn a reputation as an inventive RPG house, as well. I learned a lot in those first few years, working alongside such legendary names as Greg Costikyan, Eric Goldberg, Ken Rolston, and Paul Murphy. I started out editing war games such as RAF, and board games such as Kings & Things and Cosmic Encounter. Part of my job was also to copyedit every set of galleys that came out of typesetting, so I got into everything we produced that year. By the middle of the year, I got the opportunity to do my first RPG design work by co-designing a Ghostbusters adventure called Scared Stiffs. I liked what I was doing, the company seemed to like it, too, and things just started to develop. The following year, we got the Star Wars license, and I got very heavily involved in that project. In 1988, after some shifts in personnel, I was promoted to Creative and Editorial Director for WEG and that seemed to solidify my career choice. Since then, I’ve worked for the biggest companies in the industry on some of the biggest projects ever seen in gaming. It’s been fun and very satisfying, getting to make a decent living doing something that I love.

GamingReport:
How do you feel the RPG business has changed since you have been in it and do you feel it's for the better?

Bill Slavicsek:
In 16 years, the business has gone up and down and up again. I saw the development of the story-based systems, led in part by the products being produced at WEG, including Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Torg. I saw the market reach some dizzying heights in the late 80s and early 90s, and I saw the industry almost collapse in 1997. And, of course, I was extensively involved in launching the current renaissance that RPGs are undergoing thanks to the release of the new Dungeons & Dragons and the advent of the Open Gaming License. Otherwise, I think the business has learned a lot over the years. I certainly have. I feel that the material we’re producing at Wizards of the Coast is among the best RPG products ever. The biggest change is the prevalence of the d20 Game System and the way this shared RPG system has been accepted by the industry and the audience. For the players, there’s never been a better time to be in gaming. Not only are the products of superior quality from a number of different publishers, but due to the widespread use of the d20 System more diverse material is usable with little or no conversion necessary. When I started out, only a handful of companies were producing what I'd call professional-level products. As time went along, the quality began to rise across the board, and that's just better for everyone. In the beginning, color was just used on the covers of RPG's. All that changed when WEG launched the original Star Wars RPG with 16 pages of color plates. TSR followed suit and did us one better by making the 2nd edition of AD&D full color throughout. There have been a lot of evolutionary changes, and in most cases, as we learn and grow as an industry, these changes have been an improvement over what has gone before.

GamingReport:
Do you still roleplay now and if so what games and how often do you play?

Bill Slavicsek:
Certainly! Currently, I’m playing D&D, Star Wars, and the upcoming d20 Modern RPG. We rotate different games through my weekly Thursday night game, we have weekly inhouse playtests and almost daily lunch time games, and we have big special event sessions over the weekends two or three times during the year.

GamingReport:
What is your preferred role, DM or PC?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’m almost always the DM (or GM, depending on the game).

GamingReport:
Well you be attending GenCon this year and if so what will you be participating in?

Bill Slavicsek:
Yes. At GenCon I’ll be helping out at the D&D and Star Wars delves in the WotC castle, as well as participating in a number of seminars on D&D, Star Wars, and the upcoming d20 Modern RPG. If someone wants to find me, checking out the RPG area in the WotC castle is a great place to start. Me and my staff are happy to talk to customers and fans, answer questions, or just say hello.

GamingReport:
When it comes to board games one of my favorites is Cosmic Encounters. How was that developed and what was the idea behind it?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’m not sure. Cosmic Encounter was originally published by Eon Games in 1978 or so, well before I became a professional. It was a game that my gaming group devoured and played incessantly after we got our hands on it. WEG acquired the rights to republish the game, and I did the game development and editing for the WEG version that was published in 1986. At WEG, our idea was to put this classic game back into circulation. I worked hard to make the rules clear and concise for that edition, but we didn’t change any of the game play. Today, a new version is available from our sister division, Avalon Hill Games.

GamingReport:
OK Alternity. Do you feel it was a setting worth keeping and what led to the decision to cancel it?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’m very proud of the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game that Rich Baker and I designed. It was the last major project undertaken by TSR (while we were still in Lake Geneva, WI) and the first major project released by Wizards of the Coast after we transferred to Seattle, WA. The game stands, I believe, as an excellent system for playing modern to futuristic settings and campaigns. Unfortunately, sales for the line never achieved expectations, and as our plans for the new D&D and the d20 System developed, it became clear that we didn’t want to support competing game systems. I helped develop the strategy for the business and stand behind the decision, but I’ll always have a fondness for the Alternity game.

GamingReport:
Let's talk about on of my favorite subjects, Star Wars. The setting seems to follow you. Besides the d20 rules, how has it changed from the WEG years till now?

Bill Slavicsek:
Star Wars is certainly one of my favorite subjects, as well. Star Wars has been very good to me over the years, and I like to think that I’ve returned the favor a few times over. I saw Star Wars 38 times in the theater the summer of 1977. I was a part of the design team for the original Star Wars RPG from WEG, serving as an editor and developer on the project and also designing the “Rebel Breakout” introductory adventure that came in the book. After designing more WEG Star Wars sourcebooks and adventures than I can count, I wrote two editions of A Guide to the Star Wars Universe for Del Rey Books. Now we’re about to release our revised version of the d20 Star Wars RPG. So, yeah, me and Star Wars have a long and happy history. The biggest difference, for me, was that in 1986 and 1987, nothing else was happening with the Star Wars franchise. We were the only game in town, so to speak, and we had a pretty free hand when it can to defining the universe and generating lateral content. In fact, a lot of what we did at WEG became the basis for the Expanded Universe that got off the ground in 1991. With the new version of the game, we don’t have to so much invent and describe the universe as we have to interpret it for an RPG. There are so many places creating new story content that we have our hands full just trying to synthesize all of that material into the RPG. Otherwise, as I’ve said in other places, I’ve learned a lot about game design in 16 years. I’ve tried to apply all of those lessons to the new design and make the new Star Wars RPG that much better than the WEG version.

GamingReport:
How did you feel about working on Star Wars again when WotC acquired the license?

Bill Slavicsek:
I was ecstatic! I helped make the pitch that got us the license after West End’s financial difficulties ended their relationship with Lucasfilm. I feel that I’ve done some of my best work on WEG’s Star Wars products, but I had done that work more than 10 years ago. I love the d6 System, but I know that the d20 System is mechanically stronger. By using that new and improved engine and applying the skills and techniques I’ve developed in the last decade, I knew we could make a better product. With the help of Andy Collins and JD Wiker (and a host of others), I believe we succeeded. Working on Star Wars again is like visiting with an old friend, and working with all the great people at Lucas Licensing again is amazing and fun, too.

GamingReport:
The Star Wars RCR is going to contain new material from Attack of the Clones. Will there be another core rule book for the third movie?

Bill Slavicsek:
We have no plans to do that. This time out, the new movie and the hype around it was just too good an opportunity to pass up to acquire new players to the game that only a new edition could do. Plus, it’s the first time ever that a new movie is releasing while there is an active RPG license. The core book just had to tie into that excitement.

GamingReport:
What other projects can we look forward to from the Star Wars line?

Bill Slavicsek:
Other books releasing this year include The Power of the Jedi Sourcebook and the Star Wars Arms and Equipment Guide. That makes five products for the year. We’ll have a similar line up in 2003, but it’s too early to go into details on that yet. We feel, and LFL agrees, that we don’t want to overproduce product. That has been a problem for Star Wars in general and the RPG in specific in the past. Right now we’re trying to gauge the size of our audience and the level of demand. If the revised book captures the numbers we’re hoping for, and the follow-up products do likewise, then we can experiment with a slightly larger schedule.

GamingReport:
What about the Star Wars miniature line will it continue?

Bill Slavicsek:
We’re currently analyzing that part of the business. We should make an announcement about that soon.

GamingReport:
A magazine I and many gamers enjoy very much, Star Wars Gamer has been suspended. Has a decision been made about it?

Bill Slavicsek:
I think Star Wars Gamer is a great magazine. We’re analyzing the financials on that as well. Expect an announcement shortly.

GamingReport:
Do you ever plan or would you like to write a Star Wars or a D&D/Forgotten Realms Novel?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’d love to write a novel or two. I just need to find space in my schedule. Managing the department and designing a couple of game products every year takes up most of my time. Still, I enjoyed working on the Torg novels many years ago, and I recently wrote a Star Wars short story (see Star Wars Gamer #5) that was very well received. We’ll see if I get around to a Star Wars novel before or after I write a novel for WotC based on one of our game lines.

GamingReport:
Out of all the projects you've worked on over the years, what was your favorite?

Bill Slavicsek:
Wow, I love all the projects I work on. I don't think you can do your best work if you don't find a way to make it your favorite-at least while you're writing it. Still, there are those that stand out in my memory. The Star Wars Sourcebook was my first major project, and it gave me the opportunity to show everyone what I was capable of . My game system designs were all labors of love for me and my co-designers-Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars, Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, and d20 Star Wars RPG. I has a lot of fun designing the Dungeons and Dragons Edition of Clue, and I think Pokémon Jr. was an important design that showed that we could create a roleplaying like game for young children. Right now, my favorite project is d20 Modern RPG, but that's because it's the one occupying all my time.

GamingReport:
D&D time, The Book of Vile Darkness and the "Mature Audience" sub-line is a whole new direction for WotC. How did it come about and how large a sub-line is it going to be?

Bill Slavicsek:
Like all of our products, the idea came out of strategy discussions with the Business Team. The Business Team decided to take a chance and asked us to pull out all the stops and create the first in a series of projects for mature readers. We have a second project in the line currently in design, and we plan to release one every year for the foreseeable future. Of course, if the Book of Vile Darkness does really well, we might increase the size and scope of the line. It’s just too early to tell.

GamingReport:
What about the young gamers will there be warning labels on the book?

Bill Slavicsek:
The product will be carrying a warning label. It is intended for our mature readers.

GamingReport:
In your Personality Spotlight article on the WotC website you state that 3e was in the planning stages shortly after 2e came out. Are the talks yet of a 4e?

Bill Slavicsek:
My designers always want to create the next big thing, and we constantly discuss different strategies. So, yes, we’ve talked about what a 4th edition of the game might be.

GamingReport:
Do you think there is a need for a 4th edition?

Bill Slavicsek:
No. We’re very pleased with the d20 Game System and how it has been received by the audience. I can see us doing small revisions in the future, but I don’t think we’ll need anything as massive as the change from AD&D to the new D&D game.

GamingReport:
We know d20 Modern is coming out. Are there any talks or plans for other campaign setting book like Wheel of Time and Call of Cthulhu?

Bill Slavicsek:
We’re always on the look out for good ideas for products. Right now, we’re concentrating on creating our own, but you never know what will show up in the future.

GamingReport:
I realize Call of Cthulhu is a horror setting but it's game rule are pretty much for a modern setting. How different well the rules for d20 Modern be compared to Call of Cthulhu?

Bill Slavicsek:
There will be similarities, and you’ll recognize both as d20 games. D20 Call of Cthulhu, however, was designed by us as a one-shot. It was kind of an experiment. D20 Modern is being set up from the beginning to serve as the basis for a modern version of the Open Gaming License. The scope is much bigger.

GamingReport:
Can you give us a preview of the book?

Bill Slavicsek:
I can’t say too much just yet. It’s basically a rule book with everything you need to play a modern campaign. It also includes rules for a few weirder elements, including psionics and magic, if you want to drop those into a contemporary setting.

GamingReport:
Are there any confirmed projects from WotC for d20 Modern such as GM screens, adventures, or a campaign setting?

Bill Slavicsek:
Yes, but since the d20 Modern RPG releases in November, and the next product comes out in 2003, it’s too early for me to reveal any specific information. I can say that it will be supported with a campaign setting that will be previewed in the core rules, and we’ll also produce accessories for the core rules as well. Plus, we’re making parts of the game Open Game Content, so you’ll probably see various kinds of support products coming from the various d20 publishers other than WotC.

GamingReport:
Will it warrant it's own website?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’d like to think so. Or, at least, a portion of our existing website.

GamingReport:
Many gamers are looking forward to the Forgotten Realms TV show. How far has work progressed on it and well any future game products be based on those shows?

Bill Slavicsek:
The plans proceed, but it’s still too early to speculate on what kind of products we might do based on the show. Probably novels and sourcebooks, but nothing is firm just yet.

GamingReport:
If you could work on a dream project what would it be?

Bill Slavicsek:
I’ve got a dream job and every project I do is a dream job. I’ve been dreaming about d20 Modern and it’s campaign setting for five or six years now, and right now that’s where all of my energy is directed. My next dream project? Ask me again in a few months.

GamingReport:
In closing what part of the gaming industry have you enjoyed over the years and why?

Bill Slavicsek:
All of it. I love working with all of the creative people on projects that are just bursting with imagination and excitement. I love the jobs that I’ve had, including my current one, where I get to be involved in all aspects of the industry. I get a thrill seeing my name on products. I guess we all do. But I also love helping our newer staff develop and find their own voice, and I feel proud when their work hits the shelves, too. My favorite moment every month is when our shipment of the new releases comes in and I get to pour over the newest D&D hard cover or Star Wars sourcebook. We just do such great work, and I enjoy seeing it come to fruition. And, when I’m at a convention or I get an email from a customer who says that our products made a difference in his or her life—from providing fun and entertainment to inspiring a career—that makes it even more special.

GamingReport:
On behalf of GamingReport and gamers everywhere, I'd like to thank you again for this interview.

Bill Slavicsek:
You're very welcome!

Bill has been a game designer, editor, and creative manager for 16 years and has worked on staff at West End Games, TSR, and WotC. He has designed or developed well over 100 game and game products, from board games and military simulations to roleplaying games and accessories. He has written novels and short stories, and is considered one of the world's leading experts on all things pertaining to Star Wars. He has won five Origins Awards and been nominated for more than twice that amount, and products he has worked on or directed have won or been nominated for a dozen more.

Bill's credits include the new Star Wars Roleplaying Game, The Dark Side Sourcebook, The Rebellion Era Sourcebook, A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, Clue: Dungeons & Dragons Edition, Pokémon Jr., Council of Wyrms, Torg RPG, and products for Dark Sun, Planescape, Ravenloft, Birthright, Paranoia, Ghostbusters, and the original Star Wars RPG from West End Games.

  

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