Monday, July 18, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Ten

Jonathan Tweet, Mr. Creativity
For seven years as a child I studied Shorin Ryu Karate under my sensei Jerry Gould. Shorin Ryu is a very traditional style of karate, one of the original three styles developed in Okinawa. "Shorin" was more or less the Okinawan pronunciation of "Shaolin," of Kung Fu fame; the school was started by students who studied kung fu under Shaolin monks and then adapted it to the Okinawan culture's approach to fighting. The karate schools with the deepest roots tend to be the most hardline about discipline and struggle, the least softened for Western sensibilities. With that in mind, it may be less surprising to you than it was to me at the time that the very first kata the beginning Shorin Ryu student faces is the longest and most difficult, Seisan. The idea behind this is three-fold: to give the beginning student a long choreography in which to become immersed, the better to absorb the spirit of the art; to teach the student that the art is always hard work; and to weed out those ill-suited to the art.

Shorin Ryu is designed this way on purpose. Wizards of the Coast designed their own learning curve this way by accident.

The Primal Order is 231 pages (not counting front and back matter) at 8 1/2 by 11 inches of all new material, on a subject with less than the usual amount of precedent in the RPG industry to draw from, using a systematic approach hardly every tried. A hundred people are credited with contributing to its creation, including eight primary authors (Peter Adkison, Cathleen Adkison, Steve Conard, Dave Howell, Cliff "CJ" Jones, Kenneth W. McGlothlen, Beverly Marshall Saling, and W.R. Woodall). From conception to publication, it took two years to complete. This one really did take a village.

The Talislanta Guidebook is 327 pages (not counting front and back matter) at 8 1/2 by 11 inches. It is based on a prior edition and a complete initial manuscript, so in theory that should have more than compensated for the greater length. The difficulties Peter alludes to below were three-fold:

1) Although Stephan Michael Sechi was a published gaming professional and produced better first drafts than the original Wizards team could, they still were not up to Wizards's new standards and required a lot of editing and rewriting to make them sing. Although this was going to be easier than The Primal Order first draft, it might be on a par with getting from the third draft to the fourth, which was quite difficult.

2) Wizards had no idea that the text would require that much work, so they started out planning just a new chapter and some light editing, but then kept having to incrementally expand the scope of the project further and further. Peter had queried the online community about Talislanta and gotten feedback that although very creative and original it was complex enough to be difficult for beginners to know where to start. Jonathan Tweet was originally brought on because he did such a good job with the introductory module for Ars Magica that Wizards wanted him to solve this problem by having him do the same thing for Talislanta. The timelines for the project were built around just that, plus time for editing. Once Jonathan got into the manuscript, though, he realized the section on magic simply had to be rewritten. About the time Wizards began to accept that it had to shift the timelines to make time for that, Jonathan realized that really the entire text needed to be reworked to better present Mr. Sechi's ideas, so the timelines had to be changed again. The Wizards crew, who had been just about driven into post-traumatic stress disorder through this kind of repeated schedule shift with The Primal Order, began to experience flashbacks. In the end it only required one round of rewrites, not three, since Mr. Sechi's original manuscript was in better shape, but it did make the Wizards crew increasingly nervous for a while.

3) Mr. Sechi used language in very idiosyncratic ways and was very particular about what could or could not be changed, making editing and rewriting into a complex and time-consuming negotiation process. One example I remember is that he uses the word "mordant" as an adjective meaning "deathly" or "deadly," whereas the usual English definition is a noun that means a substance applied to cloth to make dyes stick to it so it doesn't fade when it's washed. Mr. Sechi had many such examples of idiosyncratic diction that needed to be preserved mixed in with genuine errors that needed to be changed, so editing required a continual back-and-forth dialog. In the end, though, Jonathan and Beverly found the right balance for the text, correcting mistakes and reorganizing confusing explanations while preserving Talislanta's unique feel and Mr. Sechi's distinctive use of language.

When Peter regrets not having done a better job with the Guidebook, he's compressing too much to be fully understood. What he means is this. If Wizards of the Coast had been inventing a world from scratch, this is not the world they would have invented, nor is it explained the way they would have explained it. However, this was not a case of original invention (Peter felt that with great RPG worlds like Talislanta out there, the community did not need another one from Wizards); it was a case of something even more intimate than an adaptation: a seamlessly authentic update. In working on Talislanta, Wizards could clean up the organization and language to a certain point, but beyond that any further changes would have been too invasive, would have crossed the line from helping Mr. Sechi's creation shine through to fundamentally altering it, which that was not their mission. Their job was to midwife Mr. Sechi's baby, which they did to the best of their ability.

Lisa Stevens was right. Talislanta did give Wizards a clear path into the future.

It was the beginning of a creative relationship with game designer Jonathan Tweet, who would go on to do many great things for Wizards of the Coast, including designing Everway and co-designing Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition.

It was also the beginning of an important partnership between Wizards of the Coast and Stephan Michael Sechi, in which Wizards helped Mr. Sechi raise the production values of his creation and Mr. Sechi gave Wizards the work they needed to survive and to improve their skills and professionalism, to build their reputation with the game industry as a company that cared deeply about doing high-quality work.

Having proven themselves on The Primal Order and The Talislanta Guidebook, two tough back-to-back projects, Wizards looked forward to calmer waters ahead.

Pater's comments from 1993:
After the release of TPO things bogged for a month or two until we got The Talislanta Guidebook out the door--another huge tome that consumed massive amounts of internal resources to get done "right." I have to admit that I'm not sure we did as good a job as we could have, although it's heads above the earlier editions (don't mean to slam Bard Games, but with Jonathan Tweet's coauthoring and Beverly's editing, it really turned out very nice).


  1. Rick, wonderful series. Thanks so much for sharing this insider view.

  2. Yep - I dunno how much feedback you're getting, but I am sincerely enjoying this. Thank you so much for giving us such an in-depth look at Peter and Wizards!

  3. You're very welcome. I'm glad you're enjoying it. I'm certainly enjoying researching and writing it.

    I'm not getting a lot of feedback yet in comments on the blog, but I suspect that will come in time, because I'm getting a lot of feedback offline from people who say they're reading it.