Oblivion's Ken Rolston Speaks

Ken Rolston, lead designer of the hit Elder Scrolls RPGs Oblivion and Morrowind, talks about his work on these titles and his long career in the gaming industry.

Ken Rolston was Lead Designer on the Bethesda Softworks fantasy RPG The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and its expansions Tribunal and Bloodmoon, as well as on the new sequel Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Ken also helped with the Bethesda titles Sea Dogs and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Before he joined Bethesda, Ken had an extensive and much-honored career in tabletop paper-and-dice RPGs. He wrote fine adventures for games such as Chaosium's Stormbringer and Games Workshop's Warhammer, and he edited many excellent supplements for Avalon Hill's edition of RuneQuest.

Ken is best known in paper gaming for his standout work as the first line developer for the darkly satirical science-fiction RPG PARANOIA, originally published in 1984 by West End Games. Set in a future underground city ruled by an insane Computer, PARANOIA casts players as Troubleshooters charged to hunt traitorous mutants and members of secret societies -- but each player is, himself, secretly a mutant and a secret society member. The game turned traditional roleplaying on its head by motivating players to betray each other at every opportunity. Ken established a sardonic, high-spirited tone for PARANOIA that made it a huge bestseller throughout the 1980s.

Now in his mid-50s, Ken has just retired. From his home in New Jersey, he talked by e-mail about his work.

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In your long career in gaming, of what are you most proud?

Ken Rolston: Humble, actually, is better than proud. My contributions to the development teams of West End Games, Chaosium, and Bethesda Softworks have been the most fruitful -- all three remarkable collections of creative talent. I'm very fond of PARANOIA, and I'm also inordinately fond of Morrowind, blemishes and all.

But my secret pride is a small boardgame published long ago by White Wolf Game Studio -- Seals of Satan -- where harbor seals possessed by demons float around on lambent columns of light and do the Prince of Lies' dark bidding. It has a 'Blood Feast Track' to count the number of innocents slaughtered by baby seals. Oh, well. Not much chance of that ever coming to consoles.

How has the industry changed since you started, and what do you think about those changes?

Rolston: I had once dreamed that roleplaying games would transform culture. I expected roleplaying games to take their place alongside literature, drama, and cinema. It didn't happen that way, perhaps just because it is so much more work for users to produce a narrative than to consume one -- or perhaps because crafting narratives as a hobbyist is of interest only to a limited number of people. I'm only a little disappointed, though. For a small number of people, roleplaying games have become a uniquely satisfying pastime, perhaps even occasionally a vehicle for exploring the human condition.

As teams have grown larger, schedules longer, and production budgets titanic, computer games have become almost as slick and polished as television and cinema -- and often as dull and formulaic. I preferred working in small teams with short schedules and smaller budgets, and I don't prefer the slick, polished products of today to the rougher, simpler products of a decade ago. Clearly the mass market prefers the slicker games, but I prefer, for example, the original Pirates and Civilization to the various later editions.

What do you think of your work on Oblivion compared to your work on Morrowind? How did your design task change from Morrowind to Oblivion?

Rolston: On Morrowind, I had a much larger role in every aspect of design -- mostly because there were so few of us designers, and I was the only one with decades of experience. On Oblivion, we had many more experienced, talented designers, and they had much more control and responsibility for their parts of the design. My personal contributions to Oblivion's design are relatively modest compared with my contributions to Morrowind, and because I am a huge egomaniac, I will therefore always love Morrowind more than I love Oblivion.