Looking Back On Twenty Years of Professional Tabletop Game Work

This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.

It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.

“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.

“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.

That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.

It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?

A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.

So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.

It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.

I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.

Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.

Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.

It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?

I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?

Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…

I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.

It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?

I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.

I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.  

I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.

It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…

A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.

He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.

Mostly.

It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.

In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.

I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.

It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.

“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”

But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.

Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.

Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )

Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.

It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.

They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.

By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.

I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).

I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.

But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.

And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on January 9, 2018, in Business of Games, Musings, Retrospective and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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