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Short Fiction: Weftwork

Vanre felt consciousness creep into her body like an unwelcome guest. She resisted the lure to open her eyes, or stretch her muscles, focusing instead on the warm, soft quilts piled above and below her… but to no avail. The very act of trying to find a way to stay asleep sent her mind racing through options, which inevitably meant she was awake now. Keeping her eyes closed was an act of rebellion rather than a viable tactic.

A soft scraping above her did cause her eyes to flutter open of their own volition, and her brain was immediately fully alert. Dim light leaked in through the shuttered window, casting dusky shadows across the wooden beams of her bedroom ceiling. The poor visibility was not, however, nearly enough to conceal the enormous arachnid clinging to the wooden boards above her.

Its body was more than a yard long, from it’s eight glossy black eyes and furred mandibles to the rainbow-striped abdomen. It’s eight legs spanned nearly the whole room, the longest set of fore-mid arms just inches from touching the ceiling’s corners ten feet apart. Most of the body was thickly furred, with only the orblike eyes, sharp fangs, and the leg’s numerous small claws at the tips and joints not covered in the bright pelt.

As Vanre’s eyes opened, the huge spider tilted, so it’s inhuman face lowered suddenly to be right over her head.

“Floor too cold again, Senneh?” Vanre asked with concern.

The spider’s shorter aft-mid legs dropped from the ceiling and waved meaningfully, the many clawtips forming precise, complex shapes.

Can you see me? The hand-sigils were fast and smooth, better than most webfolk Senneh’s age managed.

Vanre smiled. “I can hardly miss you, darling. You take up the whole ceiling. Just because my eyes can only look at one thing at a time doesn’t mean I’m blind to obvious things.”

I am never sure. There was none of the little wiggling clawtips that would suggest Senneh was joking. The floor was much too cold. Even with the old weavings you convinced the steward to give me, my joints ached. Water is becoming solid outside. Why do your kind live here? I liked our previous school much more.

Vanre sat up in bed, reaching up to rub Senneh’s face, enjoying how thick and soft the webfolk’s fur was.

“It’s a major port, nine months out of the year. And this is about as far south as the uriphants are willing to come. They don’t understand why we are willing to live places where water ever isn’t solid. Finding one place for all five civilized peoples to come together isn’t easy. Eleanear is about as good as it gets. And the Empire only allows one school for advanced magic.”

But it is COLD. Senneh used one of her fore-mid legs to repeat the last sigil, to give her complaint more emphasis.

Vanre stood, feeling the very chill air on her skin. She dared a very minor spell to freshen her skin, then began pulling on her uniform, hung neatly on a rack next to her bed.

“It is cold, sweetling. I’m sorry. If you want, you can just sleep in here until summer. We can even burn some charcoal in the brazier at night.”

You do not mind?

Vanre smiled. “Not at all. I don’t use the ceiling for anything.”

Vanre’s eyes drifted to her tiny desk, in the room’s corner, where an open book was covered in her own handwriting. The tight runs were interspersed with illustrations of webs, spinnerets, and weaving patterns.

Vanre’s smile grew. “Not yet, anyway.”

PATREON
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Writing Basics: Learn from Your Mistakes. Or Else.

I love my editors.

I kinda have to. I need to treat them the way fighter pilots need to treat their ground crews. without them, I can’t do my job.

They are the only people in the world companies will pay to make me look smarter.

So, when they savagely rake me over the coals on something, I try to pay attention. To be a better writer, of course. And to show them I respect the effort I put into sending me feedback.

But, also, because I never want to know the savagery of a twice-spurned editor who finds the same mistake in a turnover of mine after pointing it out for me all special.

So that you can perhaps learn from my mistakes as well, here are the three two most savage pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received on my writing. I’m naming names.

One. Stilted Dialog.

Lj Stephens was editing a short piece of intro fiction I wrote for a game product. She asked for a revision noting:
“It’s great, except for when people are talking. That is all bad. Can you rewrite this so no one speaks?”

Yes. Yes I can.

Two. Passive Voice.

Louis Agresta sent me feedback on an adventure I wrote for him that said “Too much passive voice has been put in this adventure.”

Wow, that sentence is So awkward I wonder why…

Oh.

Three. American Spelling.

I turned over a manuscript to Wes Schneider which, to be clear, was for an American publisher.

I spelled the word gray as “grey” throughout the text.

He gave the manuscript back to me with editorial comments. The first time that appeared, there was a correction.

The second? A bigger correction, with a star by it.

The third? The page bled red ink.

Wes said we fought a war for that ‘A.’ He mentioned I was making baby George Washington cry. He drew a sketch of a field of cut-up and dying E’s in red ink on the manuscript, and told me I had to enter all the corrections myself.

I did.

With apologies to baby George Washington.

Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.

PATREON
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Microsetting: Midlands

The Plains are the safest. Not safe, mind you, but not as bad as when you move too far in any other direction.

They can’t cross running water, so the Mississippi is the barrier from the East. I’ve heard the Panama Canal is as safe as you can go South, but I don’t know anyone who has gone any further than Laredo. Something about the air. Baja California is supposedly still okay, but god help them for being so far West.

There’s no set barrier between the Plains and the West Coast. The Rockies do most of the work of keeping us safe, but stay clear of the passes. Everyone knows what happened at Logan Pass, and I saw how bad things get close to Marias Pass myself. I-15 is like a line of death, and they move north-south along it much, much too easily. I-90 isn’t as bad, but it’s not good either. I don’t go farther North than Nebraska, anymore. I’m told U.S. 20 is worse, but I never saw anything on it.

I wish I could say they only come out at night, but that’s not true. They see better at night than we do, or at least most of ’em do, so night’s more dangerous. But they can move and hunt in the day, too. The leaner pickings get, the more they hunt in the light. But that doesn’t mean you should feel safe if there are people around. Some groups just haven’t been hit yet. Others make… arrangements. Arrangements that don’t go well for strangers to their area.

Shooting them in the head is great, but not strictly necessary and requires you to be sure what part is the head. If you have the ammo, center-mass is still the safest bet, but it takes a lot of lead. Clubs seems useless, and machetes are too likely to chip and bend. Spears are okay, but you need some kind of cross-brace, or they just pull themselves down it until they get to you.

Axes are good. Shovels work in a pinch, if sharpened.

Don’t listen to anything broadcast. Don’t eat anything you can’t identify, even if it comes from a can. Don’t try to read anything in a language you don’t recognize. If you think you can hear the stars, get inside. If someone near you says they can hear the stars?

Axes are good.

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Short Fiction: Epoch

My father never liked her. Grantha says it’s because she didn’t visit often when father was young. The wars kept her away. They were worse, where she was. And everyone agrees she is why it didn’t get so bad here. But she wasn’t around when Grampa died, and father never forgave her. “What is the point,” he’s said “of an eternal ally if they are eternally not here?”

It’s not a fair thing to say… but father isn’t the first to say it. The Grans and gran-Grans all love her, but I’ve seen the records. She’s saved us many times, or at least helps us save ourselves, but she’s also missed some terrible times. She helped the ‘steaders settle the vale when we first came here. No one is sure why. All the records say if we ask her, just just looks sad and says she owes us. A debt that will take a hundred generations to be repaid.

It’s only been 12.

The ‘steaders never bothered to write why she brought them here, or if they did we lost that book. I suspect we’d have lost most of our books from then, if she hadn’t brought copies of some every century or so. The Hearthstead Laws, most often. Especially when the Honey-Nots took over when she was gone so long most of us didn’t believe in her, or at least thought she was dead, and the Hunnots burned all the old Laws. My family were Avowers back then. We never stopped believing.

But she didn’t save us from the Honey-Nots. We had to do that ourselves. And she showed up just after the Battle of the Motte, within hours of it, with everything we needed to restore the way things were. Like she had been waiting. Like she could have helped, if she’d wanted to. But when people asked why she’d stayed away, why she didn’t help us against the Hunnots, the records claim she just said “They were Valefolk, too.”

Even though she stayed for almost a decade that time, she wasn’t very popular with that generation. At least, not overall. The Maoilriains have always been loyal, of course, Every generation of them, since the first. And Maehr Maoilriain left with her after her long stay, and came back much later as a real rune-whisperer. I met Maehr once, on his 200th birthday, just before he died. His eyes were still bright. But then, the Maoilriains have always lived longer than the rest of us.

An eternal ally. The Ageless, some records call her. Silverlocke, in others. The Harrower, but only in the oldest songs, and Leithe Leithaene in the oldest reference I can find, but never after that.

Grantha calls her Constance, which I think is funny. So does Grantha. And, according to Grantha, so does Constance.

When any valefolk reach their 15th year, we line up and wait to see if she comes, to ask for our part of the bargain. One years service from any she asks on that day, and a lifetime of service of all she asks once in ten generations. She’s only asked for that year three times, and the last time was Maehr. Of course, he was gone for decades.

People forget about the lifetime of service, asked of all those who stand the line for one in every ten generations. She’d only invoked it once, and it was a long time ago.

Ten generations ago.

I know. I checked the records.

So, tomorrow, I and six others stand the line. Cuthair is convinced she’ll come, but he’s another crazy Maoilriain. No one takes him seriously, because he looks about 11. But 15 scars run his left hand, like all of us. Suski thinks she’s dead. Suski likes thinking about death. And I swear, vultures and jackals like Suski. I guess I’d like Suski too, if I needed death to eat.

Father swears if she does show up, he’s going to break the accord. He could, any alder could on line-day, but none ever have. I can’t imagine father will either.

I only met Constance once, when I was very small. She rested her right thumb on my head, and smiled. It’s my earliest memory. That smile visits me in my dreams.

And lately, it’s been visiting a lot more often.

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Birthday Memories on my Birthday

On my birthday, which is today, I tend to think about memories of previous birthdays.

I have a lot of great birthday memories.

I hold the first “OwenCon,” cutting up things like comics to make a flier, and pick an older friend to be toastmaster.

My mother has us all play a game where each kid has a balloon tied to one ankle, and you try to stomp out other kid’s balloons with your other foot.

My mother makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.

We stay up all night playing Dungeon, which a friend brought over.
We stay up all night playing Dark Tower, which a friend brought over.

We stay up all night watching the Thunderbirds anime, which is streaming on a pay channel we don’t normally get, but which is doing a free preview that weekend.

We stay up all night watching VHS movies.

I run a D&D game all weekend, as an adult, with friends coming and sleeping over.

My friend Carl rules a Rolemaster game all weekend. My character ends up with a magic tattoo which gives her dragon spells.

I discover my friends all went in together and got me a GameCube, so I can play Mario Sunshine. It becomes my favorite Mario game, to date.

My wife makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.

We go to see the B&W Dracula movie as a special theater event. The Spanish-language version filmed on the same sets plays afterward. We expect to just watch a little of it. We stay for the whole thing, fascinated at how much better a movie it is.

The common denominator for all of these, of course, is friends. (With games a close second)

Thanks, everyone.

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The Chosen… ish

“You are the Chosen Seventeen.”

“Say what now?”

“Chosen. The Chosen Seventeen. I mean, one of them, obviously. You’re not all 17.”

“I… I mean. I thought there was a Chosen One?”

“Oh, there is! She’s great. Met her at a seminar a couple of years ago. But, yeah, no. You’re not THAT Chosen. I mean, only one person is the Chosen ONE, right?”

“O… Okay. So… after the Chosen One, we go to the Chosen Seventeen?”

“Oh heck no! Wouldn’t that be weird? No, after the Chosen One, there are the Chosen Two. Who I have NOT met, but I am told are equally great. Well, I mean not EQUALLY great, obviously. They are only half as Chosen. But the two of them together are just as good as the Chosen One, and each on their own are still WAY better than an Un-See.”

“An Un-See?”

“Yeah, UnChosen. UnSee, for short.”

“So… after the Chosen Two, there are… ”

“Then the Chosen Three, the Chosen Five…”

“No Chosen Four?”

“What? No. Four isn’t a prime number.”

“Pri… but you said there were a Chosen Two?”

“Yeah. Two is prime. You… you weren’t paying attention in math class, were you?”

“Well I TRIED, but I kept having these weird daydreams about awful things happening to my friends.”

“Oh, yeah, the Fel Abstraction. That’s one of the powers of the Chosen Seventeen.”

“Oh. Ah, okay. What’s it good for?”

“I mean, not a lot. It’s an abstraction. Of fel things. Terrible things that could, theoretically happen, but probably won’t. Though I *am* told it’s good for coming up with lyrics to death metal songs.”

“I see. So I have vicious woolgathering?”

“Pretty much, yeah. Though that’s only ONE of your powers.”

“Uh-huh. And, tell me, am I one-seventeenth as useful and powerful as the Chosen One?”

Oh heck no. Not even close. You have one-seventeenth of her POTENTIAL, sure. But she’s 27 years old, we identified her when she was 9, she’s been trained by the greatest mystics and warriors most of her life, and she was granted the holy relic, the legendary blade Durandal.

“Where as I am 48, you JUST found me, and up til now I have been trained by a failing public school, two community colleges, and one Fast-Burger Shift Manager training Program.”

“Er… yeah. So you see how you are way, I mean WAY, less than one-seventeenth as potent as the Chosen One.”

“Do I even get a holy relic? Like, the Pope’s steak knife, or something?”

“You DO get a hold relic, if you complete your 90-day probationary period.”

“Great. Super. What holy relic?”

“Well, I mean, the weapons are mostly handed out to the Magnificent Eleven. You know, the Chosen One through the Chosen Five.”

“Sure. makes sense.”

“And the holy shields, gauntlets, and vambraces generally get divvied up among the Awesome Eighteen. Then…”

“Hey, one isn’t a prime number either!”

“Excuse me?”

You said there was no Chosen Four, because four isn’t prime. But neither is one. I do remember THAT form math class!”

“It’s not that all prime numbered groups of people are Chosen. It’s that there are ranks of Chosen, with the Chosen one at the top, and every tier UNDER that is eldritch potential divided among a prime number of people.”

“Why?

“Who the hell knows? Not my department. Anyway, you wanted to know about your relic?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Well, as the last of the Seventeen, you’re part of the Terrible Thirty…”

“Terrible as in terrible to behold?”

“Ah, no. More like “terrible twos,” to be honest. I mean, these aren’t official group designations but… look. While there ARE a Chosen Nineteen, and a Chosen Twenty-Three, by the time the eldritch potential is divided that thinly, it’s not a lot different from just being an UnSee. We don’t even recruit them, normally.”

“Really? Because one-seventeenth of being Chosen doesn’t seem to be that different from one-nineteenth of being Chosen.”

“You’re right. It’s not.”

“So… ah.”

“Yeah. Historically, most of the Chosen Thirteen are constantly bitching about how each of them is very nearly as good as one of the Chosen Eleven, but gets no respect, and most of the Chosen Seventeen are complaining no one takes them seriously. So, their Compeers–that is the people who train, advise, and direct them, like I am with you right now–their compeers generally find the Terrible Thirty–the Thirteens and Seventeens–are a huge pain in the ass to deal with.”

“So why bother?”

“Because if we don’t, the Bockshexe, Goulekon, or Nelapsi will recruit you. Any of those groups are bad enough without any decent amount of Chosen-ness to give them an edge. And the Terrible Thirty may often be worse than useless, but they do less damage as crappy heroes than augmented villains.”

“So a Seventeen is just potent enough to make preventing them from going Dark Side smart, while a Nineteen simply isn’t worth the effort? Awesome. Tremendous. What a glorious destiny I foresee. And my relic?”

“Oh, sorry! So the Thirteen get the  flops and pings..”

“The what?”

“My bad, that’s Compeer talk. They get the majority of the cloth and metal relics that aren’t arms or armor–cloaks, boots, rings, amulets, that kind of thing.”

“Uh-huh. And what, dare I ask, does that leave for a Seventeener?”

“You have the advantage of picking from a fairly large category of relics. We have more than seventeen of these, so even as the Last Seventeen, you’ll have a choice within the category.”

“Okay, swell. but what’s the category?”

“Holy Miscellany.”

“… Seriously?”

“Look, we don’t make holy relics. Not for centuries. So we have to make do with what we’ve found over the centuries. And some things just defy easy categorization. But like I said, we have a LOT of those, so…”

“Gimme an example.”

“What?”

“Miscellany doesn’t tell me much. So give me an example of some holy relics in that category.”

Well, okay. There are the Tablets of Destiny, stolen by Anzû the Demon Bird from Enlil and hidden on a mountainside. They offer dominion over all the things written within their divine law.”

“Er… wow. That’s amazing!”

“Yep! Of course they’re made of clay and are thousands of years old, so there are parts missing…”

“How much is missing?”

“More than 99% The remaining clay bits pretty much fit in a wallet now, and just give dominion over onions, cucumbers, adzes, bronze daggers, and clay tablets. Itself included.”

“Ah… well, okay. I an still see lots of uses for that.”

“Absolutely. It’s the most powerful of the Miscellany, so it’s always the first thing selected by a new generation of Seventeens.”

“Oh. I see. And I am the LAST Seventeen? So that’s been taken?”

“Oh, heck yeah. No, the Tablets are absolutely spoken for. But you wanted an example, so…”

“How about an example of things I could actually pick from?”

“Oh. Well, sure. I mean, they won’t be Tablets of Destiny…”

“My point exactly.”

“Well, okay. There is the Holy Door of Alexander the VI.”

“A door?”

“Yeah, I mean it’s not something you’re going to carry around with you, but you could have it installed in an RV or something. And when you walk through it, for 24 hours you gain the Borgia Sight”

“Great. Fantastic. And what does that do?”

“The next significantly bad thing that happens to you?”

“Yes?”

“You see how you could have avoided it.”

“But only after it happens?”

“Yeah, but that’s still some potent hindsight?”

“Okay, true. Not terrible. What else?”

“There’s the Iron Jiaozi. It’s a 900-year old paper bank note, which was used to pay a swordsman to kill a demon. Whoever last licked it has the power to always know how much a killer would require to kill someone for pay.”

“Only killers?”

“Yeah. Not just assassins, but anyone who has killed another person.”

“Righty. Grim, and weirdly specific. And I don’t think i want to lick thousand-year-old money. But I could see it being a huge help in the right situation. Gimme one more example.”

“There’s the Whitehall Chair. it was designed by Inigo Jones. Sitting in it allows you to sleep, no matter your condition, restfully and for exactly how long you wish.”

“No drawbacks?”

“Well… it’s a 85-pound chain. That just lets you sleep…”

“But it’s not sleep cursed with nightmares, or you snore loudly enough to wake the dead, or you end up with a weird crick in your neck?”

“Oh no. The sleep is always restful and fulfilling.”

“Great. Sign me up. I feel super Chosen.”

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The Evil Dragons Do (Microfiction)

“So, do you think all red dragons are evil?”

“What are you naming as ‘red’ dragons? I care not what color a dragon is, nor the color of its breath unless it is directed at me. The blazing dragons of the suns are creatures of rigid law, not evil, though crimson in color. The infernal hellfire dragons of the lower regions are no less ordered and no less flame-hued, but certainly do have the save supernatural infusion of evil as is common to their fiendish neighbors…”

“No, I mean regular red dragons. Chromatic dragons. ‘Normal” red.”

“Ah, the Ascandeth, the fire-blooded tyrants of ash and unforgiving mien. There is no doubt that their numbers are filled with those who crave power and wealth, and do not care what means must be used to gain it. Dragons, you must understand, are only barely mortal. They are descended directly from the blood of gods, and the blood of the Ascandeth is fiery and harsh.

“They are hatched already speaking two languages, filled with the cunning and knowledge nearly that of an adult human, with all the drive to meet their core needs of an infant, yet the power to fly, burn, and make demands directly. Every Ascandeth is born with all the urges to be murderous and uncaring, and the power to enforce such desires immediately.

“Does every Ascaneth then take steps down that path within hours of cracking from a shell and never varies from that increasingly-well-worn route? Surely not. They are creatures of free will, and some must—by accident, or intervention, or through the sheer internal moral fiber to sense that the rights of other creatures have value—have avoided becoming agents of pure evil.”

“But I have never met one.”

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The Deal With The Boomerang

Here’s a picture of my new desk, at the office.

Desk 2 05 2018

Upon seeing that picture, Alex Augunas noted he wanted to hear the story about the boomerang.

And, weirdly, there is one.

My father was a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma.

He was sometimes hired to teach short courses elsewhere in the world.

At one point, when I was a child, this included Australia.

When asked if there was anything I would like him to bring back, I said a boomerang.

So he did.

I learned to throw it (not well, and I beaned myself dead between the eyes the first time because I did it wrong, and I haven’t thrown one in more than 25 years).

So I kept it with me. When I was hired by WotC in 2000, I hung that boomerang as a decoration, because I thought it was cool to have a weapon at my desk.

Then I got laid off. And had to move back to Oklahoma.

I promised myself I’d come back to Seattle someday. And that promise got embodied in my boomerang I had kept at WotC.

It sat over my desk, wherever I was, for 14 years.

And now… I’m back. And so it the boomerang.

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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.

Video Week: More WotC Stories

I’ve been putting up a series of videos this week, focusing on my work at Wizards of the Coast, back in 2000-2001.

Today’s video focuses on a moment of realization I had about what my job actually was.

Here’s the video!

If you enjoyed this, check out the other videos I’ve posted on my page of Youtube videos.

Enjoyed this video (or any of my other videos or blog posts?) Consider supporting their production by backing my Patreon!