Sunday, May 19, 2013

Interview with Donald Saxman

Recently, I have been in correspondence with Don Saxman, whose claim to fame – at least for purposes of this blog – is the creation of Superhero 2044, the first commercially available superhero role-playing game.  Given the 1977 copyright date, it is undeniably old school.  For anyone claiming enthusiasm for “old school” RPGs, Saxman's experiences should prove insightful.  As such, I asked Saxman for an interview and he kindly consented.

If you have your own questions for Mr. Saxman, please ask them in the comments section and he may reply.

Thoul's Paradise:  Not only was Superhero 2044 an early role-playing game, it was – as you say on – “the very first comic book superhero RPG.”  In the 21st century, we have certain concepts as to what a “tabletop” RPG should entail; in the mid-70s, when you created Superhero 2044, those concepts had not yet crystallized.  At the time, RPGs were very much associated with wargames.  In fact, I don't think you use the phrase “role-playing” anywhere in Superhero 2044, instead you reference “wargames” (as well as “improvisational theater”) in the introduction.  When you wrote Superhero 2044, did you make a distinction between RPGs and wargames?  In your opinion, were RPGs merely a 'special case' of wargames?  What were your perceptions and what were the differences?

Donald Saxman:  I wrote and playtested Superhero 2044 between early 1975 and 1977.  Actually, there were two editions with significant differences.  The first (Superhero 44) was printed by myself at the Indiana University media center in early 1977 and the more common color edition (Superhero 2044) was printed by Lou Zocchi's Gamescience about a year later.
       At the time, I don't think the term “role playing game” was in common usage, especially in the context of a table top game.  Those were “touchy feely” days and “role playing” was typically used more in the context of psychology and interpersonal dispute resolution.
       I think the first time I heard the term “role playing game” was in high school, maybe 1970 to describe the Model Congress and Model UN (collectively known as the “World Freedom Club.”)  These were live action, I guess, so they would qualify as LARPS now, but the goal was political awareness and not competition. I tended to “play” them to win, much to the chagrin of peace and consensus-loving fellow students and faculty advisors.  In one scenario I was the UN ambassador of the Malagasy Republic (Madagascar) during an attempt to wind down a growing war in the Middle East.  I looked at the scenario, my country's “goals” and my “assets” and quickly came to the conclusion that the best thing for Madagascar would be prolonged war and the interdiction (or ideally destruction) of the Suez Canal.  The result wasn't pretty, especially to anyone downwind of the eventual fallout, but I “won” and thereafter ships moving between the Atlantic and Pacific often stopped at the new Madagascar Free Trade Terminal.  Great role playing there.
       In 1972 when I went to Indiana University, I quickly joined the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Science Fiction Club.  In both cases, I was soon immersed in live action role playing. So by the time I joined the “Conflict Simulation Club” my idea of a role playing game was very different from todays.
       Basically when we played miniatures, or cardboard and map board games, and then eventually Chainmail and then D&D, we weren't thinking “RPGs.”  We were thinking “campaigns,” i.e. something that lasted more than just one session and we were thinking “fantasy wargame” i.e. something with explicit combat and something not rooted in reality.  So we made a distinction between D&D and, say, Tractics and Boot Hill and En Garde:  Those were all wargame campaigns but not “fantasy wargame campaigns.”  And we made the distinction between one day miniatures reenactments or Avalon Hill's Gettysburg:   Those weren't campaigns and arguably they weren't very realistic role playing either.
       To (finally) answer your first question, when I wrote Superhero 2044 I thought I was writing a “campaign” and I thought I was writing a “fantasy wargame.”  That was even my tagline:  “The Campaign of Superpowered Crimefighters in the Year 2044.”
       At the time, the term we used was “persona.”  You would adopt the persona of a wizard or Klingon or even a Malagasy ambassador.  Your persona would have different powers and abilities and equipment.  But they would also have different motivation and goals or victory conditions.  This is how a bunch of spindly college students could spend the evening pretending they were “breaking into a monster's home, killing them, and looting their bodies.”  Not a motivation or goal any of us had in “real life” but an easily enough achieved persona.
       This idea of “persona” loomed large when I was designing Superhero 2044.  One of the main motivations for my doing the game was the release of Tactical Studies Rules' Warriors of Mars game book.  I thought they had messed it up big time and that I could do better.  I wasn't just upset that they consistently misspelled “Martian” or that they had failed to get permission from the Burroughs estate (some of whom I knew).  It was that John Carter and other Barsoomians just were not heroic enough.
       So I set out to make a platform for the heroic persona.  There would still be combat – lots of it – so it would be a wargame, but the role playing would emphasize fighting evil.  And it would be science fiction-type fantasy.  And it would be a campaign. (BTW, the second edition rules for playing villains were written by one of Mr. Zocchi's staff writers, not by me.)

TP:  If Warriors of Mars was one of your “main motivations” for Superhero 2044, what were your other motivations?

DS:   A big part of it was the desire to create.  One of my best friends was Mike Ford, an increasingly popular science fiction writer who published as John M. Ford.  During playtesting he decided to begin wiring full time and he was a tremendous inspiration. In the mean time, he was a great D&D Dungeon Master who would occasionally toss in the stray displaced superhero into his fantasy campaigns.
       Although Mike's growing creative successes were a motivation, it wasn't D&D, or even Mike's superhero/D&D house rules that greatly influenced Superhero 2044.  Rather it was an entirely different RPG:  En Garde by Game Designers' Workshop.  En Garde was one of the first true role playing games that didn't rely heavily on miniatures combat.  En Garde was a simulation of 17th Century nobles, gentleman, and soldiers.  Amazingly, the game remains popular with very few changes to the core rules.
       Of course, another inspiration and motivation was the comic book.  For the record, I was (and still am) an avid comic book reader – specifically DC (or National back then).  The comic book series that most influenced Superhero 2044 was Legion of Superheroes.  The idea of a team of variously powered heroes working together in a future setting was especially appealing.   I went so far as to incorporate LSH staple “the Science Police” in the rules (I even won a science fiction convention costume party in a Science Police costume).  So the whole concept of the “unique” super-powered superhero was based on the Legion of Superheroes (especially the Jim Shooter and Win Mortimer and then Cary Bates and Dave Cockrum eras).
       BTW, in subsequent treatments of 2044 I replaced the Science Police with a (not owned by DC) organization called CURBIT (Confederacy of Urban Regions, Bureau of Illegal Technology) or “Tech Cops.”

TP:  With regard to the three character types:  Ubermensch have a net Prime Requisite modifier of +60, Uniques have a net modifier of +20, and Toolmasters have a net modifier of -10.  Other than modification of Prime Requisites, what are the differences among the character types in terms of game mechanics?  Why would I want to play anything other than an Ubermensch?

DS:  One of the weakest parts of Superhero 2044 is the character creation system. My original plan was to do three more or less equally sized game books:  the existing one, one entirely devoted to character creation (including a couple dozen pre-gen characters), and one with more background and some sample scenarios.  When I sold the right to Gamescience, I also pitched this and included some material that would have gone in the second and third book.  Lou Zocchi went ahead and added some of the pregens in the first (and ultimately only) book and the other ones never got completed.  However, a couple years ago I resurrected and expanded on some additional character generation material and it went into the “halfway to 2044” edition that Mr. Zocchi sold at game conventions.   I have been in the process of expanding even more for a new game, Strange World.
       As for your question, the basic prime requisites describe the physical and mental situation for each player, but are largely silent on their “powers and abilities” and “extraordinary tools.”  So you're right, an Uber looks powerful compared to an Unique or Toolmaster if you just go by prime reqs.  This is sort of like saying “Hawkeye or Black Widow could easily take out Tony Stark or Bruce Banner... But they would have a much harder time against Iron Man or Hulk (let's face it... they wouldn't last a minute).”
       Personally, I always liked playing Ubers, with a few relatively weak Uniques and Toolmasters and a lot of powerful NPC Uniques as background.  Conceptually this is a lot like playing a “fighter class” in a world of magical “wizards” and “clerics.”
       Of course, the whole division into three classes is pretty unrealistic, even in a world of superpowers. In comics, Batman (an Uber?) has access to very powerful cars, a utility belt, and the whole should he really be a Toolmaster? And how to handle heroes like Green Lantern?  Unique or Toolmaster?  There are lots of hybrid superheroes in the comics...Spider-Man, Thor, etc.  At the time, I was certainly influenced by the three character classes in D&D.

TP: Perhaps the most interesting thing about Superhero 2044 is the setting. You carefully designed circumstances which made the existence of super-powered crime-fighters plausible (or at least more plausible than otherwise).  Is there any fiction based on this setting?  Do you maintain rights to the setting?  For that matter, do you maintain rights to the game itself?

DS:  When I first wrote Superhero 2044 the setting was original and as unique as I could make it.  I wanted a situation where there was very advanced technology, so I picked a setting in the future.  I wanted a setting where there human mutations had resulted in super powers.  Unlike many comic book writers, I understood how mutation worked...exposure to radiation might result in profound changes...but not to the individual exposed.  Rather it would be the offspring of the irradiated.   This narrowed down the specific date.  It had to be about two or three generations after a nuclear war that took place in 1990.  Why 1990?  I was also writing a post-nuclear war RPG called “Ruinwar 90.”  So if we'd have adult super-powered humans I figured it would be about 50 years after the end of the 1990 war, i.e. 1994 plus 50 years.
       Next I picked some key technologies that would allow advanced weapons, vehicles, and other gear.   I assumed the key invention would be a “super battery.”
       Finally I wanted a self-contained environment so I created an isolated island where civilization had largely survived the war.   I wanted the environment to be in transition so I created the Freedom League...and then destroyed them so that there was an immediate and pressing need for brand new heroes. This is where the players come in.
       Then I began to populate the environment with non player characters, organizations, and supervillains.  As I previously discussed my plan (never realized) was to provide a lot more background in a follow-up game supplement.
       The main reason this never happened was that after a relatively small run of “Superhero 44” I sold the rights to the franchise to Lou Zocchi and Gamescience.  This was the right decision for me at the time, and the right thing for the game, which got much, much more exposure than it would have if I'd continued to self publish.  But for better or worse the game turned out to be a one shot.
       A lot of this background sat around twenty years.  It then got recycled into my “Strange World” online game and ultimately into the five-part “Strange World” series of short novels.  These are currently available for the Amazon Kindle (just search for Donald Saxman on Amazon and ignore all the boring-looking non-fiction).  You can also get them from my website
       The scope and setting of the online game and the novels is not the same as Superhero 2044.  Like I said, I sold the franchise.  But much of the flavor and a few of the characters remain.  For instance, the year 2044 remains, the post-war superhero setting remains and even a version of the “Inguria” setting remains in the form of New Miami.
       On the other hand, the superhero portion of the setting is just a small part of the overall environment. Anyway, feel free to decide for yourself.  Pay particular attention to the super-powered teenager “Cobra.”
       So my future plans?  I'm about a third of the way through a massive 400 page RPG based on the Strange World multi-dimensional setting.  I tried the Kickstarter route and failed miserably to create the necessary buzz, but the game will eventually be completed.
       Or will it?  It's been suggested I should refocus the Strange World RPG and turn it into a new version of Superhero 2044.   That's a possibility.  I'd have to reacquire the right to the franchise from Mr. Zocchi.  He's never particularly been enthusiastic about this but who knows?

TP:  The aliens from Formalhaut (which I assumed to be Fomalhaut) are an important part of the background and (in my opinion) deserve more detail.  How did you 'design' this species and has anyone made a depiction of one?

DS:  There's actually a story behind that.  When I arrived at Indiana University in 1972, I went to the student union for “orientation” and met a couple of upper classmen who were starting a science fiction club.  One was Leif Andersen, and he was a graduate student in planetary geology.   Mind you, humankind knew very little about this science at the time.   We'd landed on the moon, and had what we thought was a reasonable understanding of what was happening on Mars and Venus.  The Jupiter and Saturn moons were still a mystery.  The whole idea of extra-solar planets was, well, science fiction.  Leif knew if it became known he was a big SF fan it would impact his career, so I think he wanted to found the club so he could benefit from it while keeping a low profile.  Alas, he passed away before the Saturn and Jupiter flybys, which was a tragedy on so many levels.
       Anyway, I wanted an alien race for Superhero 2044 and I wanted it to be someplace new, and I initially picked Fomalhaut.  I had a pretty complex back story for them.  Back then, there was no Wikipedia and no easy way to research this kind of thing.   Anyway, well into playtesting Leif noticed what I was doing and let me know that Fomalhaut was a singularly unlikely place for life of any kind to inhabit.  For one thing, it was a triple star.  Who knew?  So the Triple star system of Fomalhaut became the imaginary Formalhaut.  The Fomals became the Formians.   Funny thing though.  The Hubble telescope found one of the first extra-solar planets orbiting one of the Fomalhaut suns.  And there are now planetary evolution models that allow for a life zone in such a system.  It's still a singularly unlikely place for intelligent life to evolve, but not an impossible place.   I wish Leif was around to discuss.  I spent a lot more time designing the culture than I did the Formians themselves.  Most of this didn't end up in the game.  I did provide more detail in the previously-discussed Strange World novels and they will be featured prominently in the eventual Strange World game.
      Here's a backgrounder from the novels:  The Formians are a relatively low tech level race native to Formalhaut 2.  In 2032, human radio astronomers detected a plea for help from this dying race.  Formia was a heavy (1.4 Earth normal gravity), hot world with a high oxygen content.  Industrialization increased global particulate levels and resulted in a planetary ice age (ironically designated “global cooling” by humans).  Worse than the cold, climate change turned much of the planet's free water to ice.  As population increased, and farmland decreased, more and more coal was burned to produce fertilizer and operate greenhouses.  Planetary ecology was on the brink of collapse.  The most advanced Formian technology was approximately that of AD 1900 Earth.   The age of steel was well established and electrification was beginning.  Nuclear power (and weapons) were being conceptualized.  Formians dreamed of space travel, but the best they could do was helium-powered blimps.
       Formians are quadrapods with two legs and two arms, each with five prehensile fingers.  They are about the same size as humans, with shorter legs and longer backs and arms.  Formians are mammals but lay eggs and are completely covered by grey hair that closely resembles penguin feathers.  Male Formians each resemble one another.  Female Formians are somewhat smaller and with somewhat more variation in body shape.  Formians live several hundred years.  They are approximately as strong and fast as humans and are very durable and difficult to injure.  They are very heat tolerant and not very cold tolerant.  Formians must use oxygen masks if they venture above about a mile over sea level.  Formian intelligence is variable.  Formians have photographic memory so “intelligence” often equates to experience and access to education.  Formians have the ability to mimic most sounds they hear, including human speech.  Formians are carnivorous but can't eat Terran food and generally rely on “artificial” food grown in tissue vats.  Formians must take allergy pills while on Earth.  These expensive allergy pills are illegal for humans to possess because they are addictive and hallucinogenic.
       The evacuated Formians prospered on Earth, either forming enclaves or integrating with human culture.  I have some sketches of Formians but hope to eventually have a professional tweak them into something more attractive.  In a case of independent evolution, the closest I've ever seen them come to realization in mainstream art is the intelligent platypus in much lamented My Cage comic.

TP:  Although you did not publish a supplement, Judges Guild published Hazard, an “official game aid approved for use with Superhero 2044.”  I assume it was “approved” by Gamescience.   Did you have any contact with the author, Robert Bingham? What are your thoughts about that supplement?

DS:  As you say, Judges Guild did Hazard and this was approved by Gamescience, but I was not involved.  Their depiction of the world outside of Inguria was fine, but not at all what I had envisioned.  It was very popular and no doubt served to make the game popular too, so who can complain?  I understand a lot of people used it in non-superhero role playing.  As an example of an interesting “parallel universe,” my version of “the world outside of Inguria” was actually the subject of an entire game.  I wrote it as “Ruin War 90” and sold it to Gamescience, and it was published in a very short run as “Nuclear Survivors.”  It was to be a prequel to SH 2044 set in 1990.  There was even a sequel game planned...a space opera set in the 2100s called “Hundred Suns.”  By the time Nuclear Survivors was published Gamma World was popular (as it is to this day) and I think that many would-be buyers thought NS was a rip-off of that game.  Actually, it was written before Gamma World, but even I admit GW was better.  It did however center on the 1990 nuclear war that sparked (literally) the mutations that eventually resulted in Uniques.  As you might imagine, I've recycled many of the concepts from this post-apocalypse game into the Strange World novels too.
       Hazard wasn't alone.  There were other supplements, including one in Different Worlds by Brian Wagner (Issue 5, Dec/Jan 1980, “Super Rules for Superhero 2044”).  Then the 1982 (issue 23) of Different Worlds has a supplement by me called “Part Time Superhero.”  I was planning on doing additional articles for Different Worlds but for one reason or another they never happened.  I also did a tabletop encounter that was demoed and sold out (all 50 copies) at the DeepSouth Con/River Con science fiction convention in the early 1980s.  It had rules for a group of five superheroes fighting five supervillains.  It's so rare even I don't have a copy anymore!  Lots of good stuff in all these if you can find them on eBay.

TP:  What really happened to Dr. Ruby?  Dr. Ruby is a geologist; your educational background includes geology.  How much character identification is going on?

DS:  Dr. Ruby was named after and somewhat based on Indiana University professor of Geomorphology Dr. Robert Ruhe (he passed away in 1993).  He was a real character and a pleasure to learn from and joke with.  At the time the Geology department offered a “Screwball Award” to a professor each Christmas.  This award was based on student voting and the main criteria was overall zany behavior.  Campaigning was always fierce.  I think he won it the year I was writing SH2044 largely because of his threat to flunk anyone who used the word “dirt” in his soils chemistry class.  “In this class, we don't use 'dirt.'  We don't even use 'dirty.'”  He continued, “We say soiled.”  This got into the school paper and even in the Indianapolis mainstream paper.
       Anyway, Mike Ford (who did the part for the “what really happened to Dr. Ruby” series based his drawings on life and pretty well nailed him I think.
       What happened to him?  I have two versions.  During the 1990s when I was running the first Strange World online game, Ruby managed to get into the tunnels that led to different parallel universes and found there was a universe where each of the illustrated outcomes had occurred – except the “really dead” option.  He learned that if he ever returned to his home universe he probably wouldn't survive.  He ended up a kind of traveling supervillain.
       However, that outcome came later.
       It was my original intent that the “lava suit” outcome was the real one.  In fact, I started a “choose your own adventure” type game that explored this.  I never finished it and the original (handwritten) manuscript is either lost or at the bottom of some 40 year old box in Public Storage.
       It's doubtful it will ever be revived but just in case I should put the obligatory spoiler warning about now.
       The adventure starts when a hideously burned man in a space suit is discovered dead in Battery Park.  The authorities decide it was one of the asteroid miners testing out an experimental spacesuit designed to survive re-entry.  (This is somewhat based on an old “Superman” TV show where a drowned man in a deep sea diver suit is discovered in an alley in Metropolis.)  The player/superhero thinks otherwise and eventually tracks down Ruby to his subterranean lair (protected by lava moats).  If they survive they just might manage to prevent Ruby from destroying the island's geothermal power station.
       The adventure also reveals a good deal of background about Dr. Ruby.  In his younger says he had experimented with protection against lava but his partner died in an accident.  Ruby blamed the Science Police for the accident (with a certain degree of justification as it turns out).  He went on to perfect the lava suits and realized that they would also protect against high intensity radiation.  He eventually ended up in London, where he hoped to loot the radioactive, half melted remains of the British Museum.  While doing this, he discovered the notes and journals of Professor Moriarty including “Dynamics of an Asteroid.”  This started him on his path of revenge.
       Using instructions from “Dynamics” he deflected the orbit of a large asteroid to impact on earth.  The Science Police formed a rare and tenuous alliance with the asteroid miners to place a nuclear device on the asteroid and break it apart and deflect its path.  Recall that one of the reasons the Science Police was created was to keep all forms of nuclear power and nuclear weapons off Earth.  Ruby then stole the bomb and returned the asteroid to its original orbit.
       He then devised a plan to nuke Science Police headquarters (and a good deal of the surrounding city).  Instead, the superheroic Freedom League attacked and were nearly all killed when the bomb detonated in an uninhabited area.  Ruby was widely thought to have died too, but he had escaped to his lair to sulk and plan.
       And who was the original man in the space suit?  A kidnapped biologist forced to clone a frozen Tyrannosaurus Rex (Ruby had also looted a map for the monster's Arctic resting place from London).  How much identification is going on?  Well, if I was a supervillain, I wouldn't have left the heroes in the dinosaur cage where they might conceivably escape. I'd have just dumped them into the lava moat.

TP:  That doesn't seem very sporting.  Regardless, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.


  1. Neat interview. I'm a student at Indiana University. The Geology Dept still does the Screwball Award and I've played a number of wargames with the Conflict Simulation Club. Go Hoosiers!

  2. Go Hoosiers!

    It's great to know the Conflict Simulations Club is still operating after 41 years.

    Donald Saxman

  3. I used to game at Lou Zocchi's house and do lots of playtesting. We had lots of fun with Superhero 2044, thanks! I even wrote the solo rules for the second edition. I still have a xerox of Ruinwar 90 that I keep threatening to run at a convention sometime.