Welcome to the enchanting and frightening world of Tunnels and Trolls, a "role-playing" game created by Ken St. Andre, a 41-year-old Phoenix librarian.
Since the game was published in 1975 by a local company named Flying Buffalo, about 50,000 copies have been sold worldwide. Despite the success of Tunnels and Trolls, St. Andre says, he continues to live in "abject poverty." Royalties to the game have only netted him $2,000 each year--just enough to cover his cable TV bill and half his auto insurance.
St. Andre is one of nine Valley game inventors New Times profiled for this story. Most of them have learned the hard way that creating games isn't likely to make them rich. While a few manage to scratch out a living with their gamesmanship, others barely make it past Go and recapture their original investments. The problem, all agree, is that no one has any idea just what it takes to succeed in the wacky world of gaming.
"No one can predict whether a game will be a hit," laments Mark Morris, the public relations manager for Milton Bradley, one of the largest game producers in the country. "There's no one pat answer. If there were, we'd never make a game that fails, and we make a lot of games that fail. . . . The game industry is very fashion-oriented. . . . The problem is, we don't know ahead of time what fashion will take off."
Morris says successful game inventors are "creative" yet able to "think like an engineer" in order to properly design the game. "And," adds Morris hastily, "[they've] got to also know how to make a game inexpensive enough so that it will sell."
But above all, he says, an inventor needs "good luck and good timing. . . . You just can't pick what's going to be a phenomenon and what isn't." And he stresses a game creator must have persistence and belief in himself because "all he will face is rejection, rejection, rejection."
Despite the very real possibility that a game probably won't make it to the head of its class, Valley inventors keep on inventing them--in some cases even after an initial failure. They seem to be a driven, obsessive lot who actually enjoy putting themselves through such torture--either because they relish the challenge or the chance to indulge their fantasies.
Ken St. Andre's imagination, for instance, won't allow him to quit. His tolerant wife, Cathy, has allowed him to stow two computers in one corner of her already cramped kitchen, where her husband creates his fantasy games. "I'm a natural-born escapist, I guess, and never have gotten that involved in the real world," he says.
For the past thirteen years, the city librarian has been directing people to the bathroom, fielding queries on car repair and reciting the Seven Wonders of the World to junior-high geography students. "I started out as a Librarian One, and I'm still a Librarian One," he explains. "I guess you can call me an underachiever. . . . I always dreamed of becoming a science-fiction writer, but I never realized it would be [as a game inventor]."
When St. Andre invented Tunnels and Trolls, he had no intention of publishing it. He says he simply invented the game for his buddies to play, and they told him it was "the best thing since girls." Then he met Rick Loomis, owner of Flying Buffalo, who offered to buy the game and publish it.
In Tunnels and Trolls, players rely upon a referee, or "game-master," who invents an imaginary situation fraught with danger. Using some dice, paper, pencil and St. Andre's well-written rule book, a player must pass through this complicated imaginary situation without getting killed by monsters or his fellow players. The games can last for hours or days, depending on the zeal of the participants. "Some people," he admits, "sort of lose control and get into gaming to the exclusion of anything else."
Critics say role-playing games may cause unstable players to act out in real life the creepy roles they've assumed. But St. Andre thinks the criticism is unjustified, that in fact such games are healthy mental exercises.
"The idea behind all role-playing games," says St. Andre, "is to create another world and role-play through adventures of other people who have more interesting lives than our own. . . . Imagine trying to see what life would be like as a woman or a dog or a unicorn or an itty-bitty goblin. I stretch the imaginations of my players."