Friday, January 29, 2016

In Search of the Unknown: Evadne Moon-touched, Part One

Beverly Marshall Saling
Beverly Marshall Saling
Beverly plays Evadne Moon-touched, a character originally created in 1995 for Mike Ryan's AD&D Second Edition campaign. Beverly has updated Evadne a couple times for new rule sets and for the Englandia campaign, this time bringing her under Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age RPG.

Evadne's a Lelegian Greek, born and raised in Ortygia Grove west of Ephesus. The daughter of a goat herder, Evadne grew up herding, hunting, and exploring her native woods and mountains until she was unexpectedly struck with cyclic moon madness.

At the New Moon, she's brilliant but foolish (intelligence 20, wisdom 8), but at the Full Moon she's wise but stupid (wisdom 20, intelligence 8), and she cycles back and forth. Under the 13th Age rules, this is her One Unique Thing, that she was "gifted" unwilling with this divine favor from the Greek goddess Artemis. Sometimes at the Full Moon she's even possessed by Artemis.

Evadne's Facial Features
Facial Features
(All this requires the GM to track the phases of the moon in his games; fortunately, the Internet is a wonderful place, so finding moon-phase calculators that go back to 1000 CE cures the potential headaches of computing Evadne's intelligence and wisdom on any particular game day.)

There have been other Moon-touched priestesses of Artemis from time to time over the millennia, but never more than one at a time, and never an unwilling one. Artemis sees something special in Evadne, but Evadne is powerfully ambivalent about Her favor. More specifically, her feelings about her calling are cyclic. The wiser she is, the more she loves serving Artemis and is filled with deep intuitions. The smarter she is, the more she hates her service, sometimes in a fey, mischievous, or self-destructive way.

The Change rendered her fit only half the time to herd goats. The other half, when she wasn't making foolish choices, the goats were outsmarting her. Her family found refuge for her in the service of Artemis, where her affliction was revealed to be of divine cause. As the Greeks knew, it's a terrible thing to be a favorite of the gods. She moved to the sacred isle of Delos, where Artemis's priestesses taught her to harness her mental oscillations and to summon the Goddess's powers at need to serve sacred causes, growing into a Goddess-touched priestess and oracle.

The temple taught her the history of her people, including the millennium of oppression of the Hellenes - first pan-Hellenist domination by the Macedonians, about which the Greeks felt ambivalent, then outright conquest and militarist cosmopolitan domination by the Romans, until Emperor Theodosius I banned pagan religion in 391 and 392, which began a religious struggle that has lasted over half a millennium, continued under the Byzantines since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Evadne's situation under the Byzantines in Englandia is very different from what it would have been in our world. Following the principles Beverly and I established in the late 1990s, Englandia's history deviates from ours in the ways that must inevitably follow if the supernatural and the divine worked for each culture how that culture historically thought it did. This means that, contrary to monotheism's core cosmological principal in our world, in the imaginary game world of Englandia, every ghost and goblin, demigod or goddess, actually does exist more or less in the ways they were believed to.

Evadne's Archery Kit
Evadne's Archery Kit
We made this choice to increase the diversity of factions, monsters, and personalities we have to play with, which makes for a far more entertaining experience. "May you live in interesting times" could be the motto of Englandia - though its imaginary inhabitants might wish otherwise.

In Englandia's history, the Romans and Byzantines never fully eliminated the Olympian religion, because the Olympian deities are real in Englandia. Though the Pagan Greeks were pushed back to the strongholds of their sacred sites, they could not be eliminated, because their deities could neither be disproven as myths nor defeated as mere demons. As actual (well, imaginary) deities, they held their own, and their believers survived down the centuries.

One pattern in Englandia for resolving such clashes is that it's hard on empires. The farther would-be conquerors get from their own centers of magic and sacred places, the weaker their influence. The closer conquerors come to their opposition's sacred places, the fiercer the resistance. So in the world Evadne grew up in, Olympian Greek culture was pushed back but survived.

Zephyr and Zoë and Friend
Zephyr and Zoë and friend
Evadne the Acolyte learned that first the Romans and then the Byzantines - especially during the latter's two periods of iconoclasm - had not only stolen Hellenic territory but also sometimes destroyed, sometimes taken sacred artifacts from her people. Given her unstable affliction, Evadne was never going to be consistent enough to be a temple priestess, so instead she trained in languages, history, geography, and combat - archery, naturally.

Once trained, she set out into the world as an international artifact retriever. Accompanied by her two Hellenic hounds, Zephyr and Zoë, she follows leads from chronicles, folk memories, and legends to guide her toward her people's stolen ancient relics. When she finds them, she "liberates" them and brings them back home to her people's sacred places.

Her current investigation took her farther from home than ever, to the British Isles, first to York to study ancient inscriptions, then up into the wilds of Scotland, north of Hadrian's Wall, tracking 880-year-old traces of the long lost Roman Legio IX Hispana, who her sources say had collected myriad stolen Greek artifacts from around Roman Britannia, hoping to use them in their ill-fated final battle against the Picts. In a decrepit Pictish chronicle, she read accounts of Roman survivors who, instead of wielding those ancient artifacts in a surprise defense of their embattled compatriots, lost heart and fled with them to the Isle of Skye.

Almost a millennium later, she and Zephyr and Zoë follow them to Skye, on the hunt.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

In Search of the Unknown: How the Party Gathers

B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
In a classic D&D adventure, characters in search of adventure find themselves meeting by chance in an inn or tavern where, listening for rumors and looking for fellow adventurers to join forces with. They simultaneously learn about a potential adventure, find each other, and agree to work together. Time is pressing, the stakes are high, they at once equip themselves and set off to begin their adventures together.

In many ways, In Search of the Unknown is a classic adventure, but this is not one of those ways.

Dungeons and Dragons evolved from wargames, in which the real reason the two sides fought was that the players wanted to have fun together. In the early years of D&D, the characters' motivation was that their players wanted to play. As we gamed together over the years, the theatrical and role-playing side of the game grew, until it became normal to focus on how the world looks from the characters' perspective rather than the players', and modules began to invest more column inches in explaining why the characters joined together and embarked on this expedition.

In Search of the Unknown was an early TSR module. Author Mike Carr developed a backstory for the dungeon and an entertaining table of rumors the players might randomly know about it, but when it came to why these characters per se wanted to get involved with this place, here's all the module has to say:
If all this is true, their hideaway and treasure lie abandoned somewhere in the wilderness, awaiting discovery and exploration. 
Now comes to you a crude map purporting to show the way to their hideaway, a place apparently called “Q.” If it is accurate, it might lead you to the mystical place that was their home and sanctuary. Who knows what riches of wealth and magic might be there for the taking? Yes, the risk is great, but the challenge cannot be ignored. Gathering a few of your fellows, you share the secret and embark in search of the unknown.
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland

In other words, loot and pillage and excitement!

Later, during the scaremongering of the 1980s, when people made up lies about D&D being a Satanic ritual of some kind, TSR worked hard to revise the D&D narrative to one strictly about the forces of good mustering to face off against the forces of evil. But back when Carr was writing this module, there was an amusingly practical Fafhrd-and-the-Grey-Mouser quality to most D&D adventures.

More than a few reviews of B1 cite this threadbare character motivation as a weakness, but some note what I note: this is an introductory module designed to be customized. It's an adventure template, not an adventure. Each time you run the module, you lay out different monsters, treasures, stories - and motivations. All Carr needed to provide was a generic sample motivation; after the first run-through, even novice DMs could come up with suitable motivations based on how they stocked the module.

I began gaming with the Holmes Dungeons & Dragons set and this module, but I was quickly caught up with everyone else in developing increasingly elaborate premises for adventures and motivations for player characters. In revenge, my players came up with increasingly centrifugal character personalities and goals - self-disintegrating parties.

With Englandia, I turned the tables on them. It's now the players' jobs to come up with characters who want to be together and want to pursue the adventure. This fits well with 13th Age's focus on collaborative storytelling, and it has replaced an old chore with a new delight.

For this module specifically, the players came up with characters so highly motivated that I cut Carr's front-loaded exposition - the dungeon backstory, the rumors - and left the premise of the dungeon a mystery onto which each of the three characters at first projected a different concept, based on their goals and personalities. This added a stronger element of mystery and story-discovery to the module and has lent itself to some amusing discussions and differences of opinion between the player characters, as we shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In Search of the Unknown: Setting in Englandia, Islandia, Skye, The Minginish, Dun Merkadale

Pendragon's Caledonia map from Beyond the Wall
Pendragon's Caledonia from Beyond the Wall
As described in "The Road to Englandia," after too many years of studying history, science, and so on, I need my game world to have a lot of verisimilitude and depth to it or I find it unsatisfying, so in 1997 Beverly (my history-major wife) and I settled on the British Isles in the year 1000 as the base setting for my gaming campaigns.

(Extreme verisimilitude is not something I require when I'm a player, just when I'm running games, because the internal coherence makes it much easier for me to think on my feet about what might happen next. As a player, I don't need those crutches, since the character's personality and understanding of the world are all I need to figure out what to do next. I can play in much less grounded worlds than I can run, oddly. YMMV.)

Over the past eighteen years, I filled two bookcases with reference materials to help flesh out my understanding of that time and place (Anglo-Saxon Books has been a godsend). Although some would find this a chore, for me it's a pleasure, since I love to learn and am relieved when the game does not distract me with too many anachronisms—other than those I put there myself on purpose, to advance the fun in the game. As with a poet who writes haikus or other structured poems, I find the structure and limitations imposed by the details of what we know about this setting stimulates my creativity about the many, many things we don't know. They don't call it the Dark Ages for nothing.

For a year I set Englandia adventures in the rural lowlands of Cheshire, but for the following nine years they were south in the Shropshire Highlands, near the border with Wales. I still think of those Shropshire adventures as my main Englandia game, despite not running anything there for eight years. I painted myself into a storytelling corner with too many non-player characters at a Jane-Austen-meets-Beowulf social dance with a lot at stake. Then my nonprofit ate my life, leaving me too few spoons after work to solve the problem, though I've known for years what the solution has to be.

Wikipedia's map of the Hebrides
Wikipedia's map of the Hebrides
I still think of those Shropshire adventures as just paused, so for the new and different dungeon-based adventures I planned to start a few years ago (after reigniting with excitement from reading all the wonderful old-school renaissance posts about dungeon design and the mythic underworld) I did not want them to take place anywhere near Shropshire, to reduce the odds of cross-contamination of the adventures.

Looking for isolation, I found it in the far North, which led me to Greg Stafford's marvelous supplement Beyond the Wall, which describes North Britain for his magnificent role-playing game Pendragon. If you're going to do Dark Age historical gaming in the British Isles, you need Pendragon, which is brilliantly constructed, meticulously researched, and beautifully mapped, with gazetteers full of concise place descriptions as stimulating as the best work Judges' Guild ever put out for their Wilderlands of High Fantasy supplements.

My players tend to be a bit disruptive—the Shropshire campaign has so far accidentally set two enormous, angry, warring dragons upon Normandy, which is currently in flames, and refugees are fleeing all over Europe and so unlikely to invade England in another sixty-five years, oops—so even with the help of the physical dimensions of dungeons to constrain them, I wanted to place this new cycle of mythic-underworld adventures someplace isolated even from the isolated places, to limit the damage.

Thus, I turned from the mainland of Scotland and Pictland to the islands, quickly settled on the Hebrides, and dubbed this new cycle of dungeon-based adventures Islandia. After all, the history of the Hebrides at this time was already so disrupted that historians and archaeologists are still struggling to piece it all together, like a dark age within a Dark Age, so those lacunae can cover a lot of player-induced chaos, allowing the mainland of Britain to still stay enough on course to leave me an intuitive baseline to work with for what's happening when the players aren't around.

Some of the first fantasy novels I read as a child were C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, and British Celtic legends are packed with moody seascapes, mysterious islands that come and go, and hollow hills. I could at once see how this setting could greatly enrich gaming in the mythic underworld, inspiring changes in the modules that would make them less generic fantasy, more a unique experience for the players and me.

To avoid cross-contamination from the increasingly epic Shropshire adventures, to create the space needed for these mythic-underworld adventures to develop their own flavor, I also isolated them temporally. The Shropshire cycle had advanced up through 30 June 1001, so I reset the Islandia games back to mid-Spring 1000, before my players upended the table on history.

Campaign map of Skye, based on Wikipedia's topographical map
Campaign map of Skye, based on Wikipedia's topographical map
With the general time and place set, it was time to dial in and place where In Search of the Unknown could best take place.

Of the Hebrides choices, Beyond the Wall's gazetteer described the most adventure material for Skye. Google searches revealed this was no anomaly. Skye is packed with ancient brochs, cairns, duns, ghost villages, and other material ripe for fantasy gaming development, and Skye has a rich tradition of documenting their folklore. It was an embarrassment of riches, so Skye was the obvious choice.

The combination of small population (to avoid the players' disruptive powers being too early inflicted upon a population center), central location, and a pleasant writeup in Beyond the Wall (which we won't be sharing with my players yet, because the details of that gazetteer entry have not yet come into play for the party) led me to the small village of Drynoch on Loch Harport, on the north edge of The Minginish peninsula. Our first game walkthrough, which we'll start in my next post, takes place in what passes for a public house in wee Drynoch. And as a small reference to A Wrinkle in Time—another early read, courtesy of my fourth grade teacher, Helen Yorozu, at Emerson Elementary School in South Seattle—it opens with a blustery, stormy day; anything or anyone might blow into town on such a day, even—gasp—player characters!

I started with some fairly empty maps of Skye to work with, which was fine at first because the players were going to have their hands full dealing with their immediate environs, but after a little over a year of gaming I finally broke down and built the above campaign map of Skye, capturing all the ancient settlements and structures I could. Drynoch's isolation from big (well, "big"; this is Skye, not Yorkshire) population centers in 1001, already evident to me before I built this map, is nicely visualized here. I have no way of knowing if Drynoch existed at all back then, since William the Conqueror's Domesday Book—so useful to my Shropshire adventures—never reached this far north, but that works in our favor, too, since it leaves us free to invent, so long as we retain verisimilitude and internal consistency.

Ordnance Survey map of the vicinity of Drynoch, showing Dun Merkadale
Ordnance Survey map of the vicinity of Drynoch, showing Dun Merkadale
Great Britain's lovely and indispensable Ordnance Survey maps let me scout the immediate environs of Drynoch from the comfort of my home. Even though much has changed in the past thousand fifteen years, it's surprising based on the Domesday Book how much has not. Unlike America, which lost a lot of its history in the Great Plague and subsequent conquest of the Native Americans, Great Britain's history is deep. Wee villages and even the boundaries of fields have in many cases remained stable for twelve hundred years or more, so even a modern map like this is very helpful, when seen after spending years comparing modern Ordnance Survey maps to the Domesday Book.

Ordnance Survey Map of Dun Merkadale
Ordnance Survey Map of Dun Merkadale
In keeping with our haunted-isles-and-hollow-hills theme for the Scottish mythic underworld, I chose the nearest dun—Dun Merkadale as the setting for my take on In Search of the Unknown.

The Ordnance Survey website also includes an option to look at the same location using some of their earliest maps, which date back a century or two. Those maps are much closer to the geography of 1000, with a lovely look and feel, and make valuable gaming references if you're lucky enough to be running games in the British Isles.

For my Shropshire games back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I ordered both folding and rolled up maps to cover the areas we were gaming in. Seeing the locations of copses, wells, streams, cliffs, and ruins is extremely stimulating to story- and scenario-production when gaming, so it's a good investment if you're going to stick with a setting.

I've not yet made that investment for these adventures based on In Search of the Unknown because the remarkable professionals at Ordnance Survey somehow never got around to mapping the hollow hills and other settings of the mythic underworld with the same level of attention to detail and professionalism they brought to the surface world of mere mortals—and who can blame them, since the lands of the fae are so often difficult to pin down—so for the players' home base and other aboveground needs, captures of online maps are all we need for now.

I'm sure many of you are bemused by the absurd lengths to which I went to choose the setting for a module that originally had almost no description of the surrounding area, but I had good reasons. First, that very absence was noted by several reviewers of the module as a weak spot and was among the reasons Gary Gygax replaced it in the Basic D&D sets with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, because sandbox play is a fun element of D&D but it demands a sandbox, which B1 failed to provide. Second, just as the wells and springs and ruins on the Ordnance Survey maps for the Shropshire Highlands were creatively stimulating, so the details of this choice of settings has already proven very fertile ground for me, as I knew it would. Third, though, as I noted at the outset, for me this is not work; it's fun. There's no right or wrong way to prep your games, so long as you and your players are having a good time. Do what works for you. This works for me.

And so, without further ado, starting next post, we'll begin to recount the tale of Mahdi al-Wali, Sorcha the Urchin, and Evadne Moon-Touched as they venture In Search of the Unknown.

Monday, November 30, 2015

B1E Dun Merkadale: aka B1 In Search of the Unknown

In Search of the Unknown back-cover art by David Sutherland
In Search of the Unknown: David Sutherland's back-cover art
My regular Thursday-night gaming group—Brendan Barr, Eileen Gormly, Kathy Ice, and Beverly Marshall Saling—has been playing in Brendan's 13th Age campaign once a month when Eileen can join us, usually the first Thursday of the month. The remaining Thursdays I've been running them through the classic 1979 Dungeons & Dragons module B1, In Search of the Unknown.

B1's stated purpose is to introduce new dungeon masters to the art of designing and running their own dungeons. Author Mike Carr did the hard work of creating a dungeon—came up with the premise, built the maps, described the rooms, wrote guidance about how to DM, and built tables to help stock the dungeon with monsters and treasure—but deliberately left out the most creative parts for novice DMs to fill in: deciding which monsters and treasures to place where, working out their story, if any, and deciding whether or where to place a boss monster. One of B1's virtues, therefore, is that it's never the same module twice, because the DM's design choices can change everything. Its replay value is excellent.

When I found out my gaming group had never played any classic D&D modules, I knew that I wanted to be the one to introduce them and that this was the one I wanted to start them with. I never run a module the way it was published. I started gaming before there were modules, so building or at least tinkering is second nature to me, and this module is tinker-friendly.

In Englandia, Sutherland's tower becomes a mysterious Scottish broch.
Besides, I have to tinker with any module I run today for three reasons:

1) I've read far too many excellent articles from the Old-School Renaissance about the finest qualities in dungeon design not to want to apply them in my own dungeons. Who wants to play in an underground fortress when you can play in the mythic underworld!

2) Our game group isn't playing original or Holmes D&D, which B1 was written for, but Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age, which adds intriguing dimensions to the game, some of which I need to prep beforehand.

3) Since April 1997 I have DMed neither generic fantasy settings nor any commercial ones such as Greyhawk, Blackmoor, or Mystara but rather my own homebrew world of Englandia, based on Earth in the year 1000—if the supernatural were real, rare, and worked the way each real-world culture thought it did at the time. For example, instead of generic clerics, thieves, and fighters, Englandia has:

  • a Moon-touched Greek priestess of Artemis with a waxing-waning love-hate relationship with her goddess;
  • an inconspicuous basket-wielding Scottish urchin who only takes things because they call out to her and insist on going with her; and
  • a Persian Sufi demon-hunter traveling the world to free people from demons in the name of Allah the most merciful.

When the setting is this specific, the rules this different, and the mythic-underworld potential this rich, the module is definitely going to go through a transformation.

In this next series of posts at Oaths and Fates, I'll share our party's play sessions, with diversions about the module, the setting, the rules, the Old-School Renaissance, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Since my players are having a blast, they agreed we should share the fun with all y'all.

One caveat: since my players have never been through this module before, I'm not going to explain things they have not encountered or figured out yet, and I ask that you do the same. In Search of the Unknown is known for its mysteries and surprises, so let's ensure these players get to enjoy them.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

13th Age

Work has continued to consume my life, but it's long since time to reassert some better work-home balance. Life must hold its share of joy and mirth. To that end, I'm resuming work on Oaths and Fates. The continuing history of Wizards of the Coast will resume a little later; several of us are discussing teaming up on the project, which can only help enrich the history. For now, let's return to some simple gaming fun.

What's happened in my gaming world since 2011?

My 2010 plans to run my regular party - Beverly Saling, Kathy Ice, and Eileen Gormly - through Michael Curtis's Stonehell Dungeon using Jonathan Tweet's Everway game system was sidelined by work and illness, so I shifted to playing instead of running games. We were joined by Brendan Barr to play Danger Quest and D&D 4th Edition in 2010 through 2012. Late 2012 and early 2013, I played an early draft of D&D Next with Peter Adkison DMing and filming for his project The First Paladin, which gave me some quality time with our dear friend CJ before his unexpected and untimely passing. I also did some prep with a third gaming group to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which has not yet come to fruition, though someday it may yet.

All of these entertaining distractions helped postpone my plans for Everway, but it was Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age project that put an end to them, because 13th Age is a fascinating creation and the focus for my playing and DMing these days.

We've been playing 13th Age - intermittently, as illness and my work schedule allow - for the past two years and enjoy it greatly. I've even started DMing again - I ran sessions in May, June, and December of last year, and resumed again this month.

Some day I'll pick back up my Stonehell Dungeon project with 13th Age instead of Everway, but for now I've shifted my DMing focus to the classic D&D and AD&D modules we grew up with. Beverly never got to play in those modules, and she'd like to experience them, so we're recreating the classic modules of D&D using 13th Age rules set in the mythic Englandia of 1000 AD. I'll be sharing background and play sessions of the party's complete run through these adventures, starting with the module that launched so many of us, B1 In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr.

I hope you find our weird mix of historical fantasy, classic role-playing structures, and modern role-playing rules entertaining and enlightening.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

History Repeats Itself, But Never the Same Way Twice

My little nonprofit, the VISTA Expertise Network, just went through its dark winter. From April last year through now, we have weathered a tough time.

This was not the result of any lawsuit, the way it was with Wizards of the Coast. We are highly respected in the VISTA community, and had just completed phase one of a contract to upgrade the toughest application in VISTA - File Manager - which we did on time, on budget, and with all promised features delivered. We got glowing reviews from our contract officer, and we were riding high, but then all the cards fell wrong for us on the table, so that suddenly no one had any full-size VISTA gigs for us to work on. The sponsors of our VA project all simultaneously left VA, leaving our project without a champion. Multiple sure things fell through. Other projects were a year or more late in actually starting, leaving us with very little income for most of 2013 and the start of 2014.

In November, after we put on our successful VISTA Expo and Symposium in Seattle, we had to lay off most of our staff, because we just did not have the income to pay them. We shrank down to a small core and stayed there for four months, but now things are finally turning back around, and we are beginning the process of bringing everyone back on board.

The parallels with what happened to Wizards did not escape me during that time, nor did the irony of my previous post - that I was celebrating my restart of this blog right as my opportunity to do so was taken from me, and that I quoted Ward Proctor's insight about why simple survival is the key to success, so that we get the chance to execute when the right time comes along.

It took all my concentration to keep our little nonprofit afloat, and the hard work of Sam and Linda, and the sacrifices by those staff members who agreed to go on unemployment, with only our shared faith that this was only an aberration in our economy that when corrected would let everyone come back. It also took the small but vital opportunities given us during that interregnum by our allied organizations in the VISTA community, who found small projects here and there for us to do, which brought in the small stream of revenue we needed to cover the costs of the small core, from which we can now rebuild. That left no time for written reflections on Wizards's history, though we spoke of it often during the past year.

Paradoxically, although this means things are about to get a lot busier for the Network, it means I can go back to normal hours and income, which gives me back the time I need to pick this story back up and carry it further for you all.

In light of the recent untimely death of beloved Wizards alumnus Cliffton Anthony "CJ" Jones - about which more soon - many of us felt it was time to resume telling the Wizards story. Beverly and I are discussing the right sequence for the next series of posts, and in the meantime I have some housekeeping posts to do, to link in other discussions from the past year about Wizards of the Coast and its history.

I hope you will enjoy them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wizards: The Moment Pregnant with the Future

They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and they say brevity is the soul of wit, but they aren't always right. Some things that are important can only be explained in words - in more than a few words - because we don't have precisely the right words to explain them, and because there can be no sufficiently illuminating pictures of them.

The answer to this question is one of those things:

How did things for Wizards of the Coast go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?


A wise friend of mine from the South, a painter named Ward Proctor, once told me that the secret to success is survival, not because survival is success, but because no one knows when opportunities to succeed will come along. You have to last long enough, until they do, and when they happen you have to be healthy and competent enough to know what to do with them.

Gamblers are losers, because what looks like the right opportunity will actually be the wrong one more often than not; even if you win now, you'll lose later. If you bet the farm on one moment in time, on just making it to some arbitrary goal post, then you're going to fail, because you can't control when the real opportunity will come, as opposed to the illusions that lure us into overextending ourselves. Murphy's Law is no joke. Most of the "sure things" are just traps to lure you into commiting yourself to a failure. Life ain't like it is in the movies; most of the time, we can't know what the genuine thing looks like until it has already happened.

You have to have a lot of lines in the water, because you don't know which one the big fish is going to bite - you certainly can't tell the size of the fish from the pull on the rod. And when you seize the moment, you have to do it in a sustainable way, in case it isn't the real thing, so you don't lose track of the other lines. While you're attending the pole that has a tiny fish tugging away on it like anything, the big fish might be quietly nibbling on the rod that's hardly moving at all.

You have to play the long game, the patient game, learning what success looks like, learning the landscape, gaining experience, improving your ability to survive, and making yourself better able to seize the moment when it comes. Above all, you have to protect and develop your capacity to do your job well and to go on doing your job. You have to keep your feet under you and not get carried away by hopes and first impressions.


The ancient Greeks had a word for this; they called it kairos, which means the moment in time you need to seize, the one that's different from all the others, the time when what you do matters in a way it just doesn't most of the time, the time you have to prepare for your whole life sometimes just to be good enough to be able to handle it when it comes.

Kairos is hard to recognize unless you're a master in your field, and even masters often fail to recognize it. Most people who act at that moment have blundered into it by accident. Most people who have the chance to act at that moment miss it; they don't recognize it at all.

Most people who do act at that moment, whether they recognize it for what it is or not, screw it up. It is so very easy to screw up. Usually they're just not ready. Kairos has arrived too soon in their lives; if it had arrived a few years later, when they knew more, they could have been wildly successful, but instead they squander the moment and everything falls apart. Sometimes it arrives too late.

But even when it arrives exactly on time, and we act on it then, when we should, kairos is fraught with peril. When people say power corrupts, they do not realize they are actually talking about kairos, the time when all the threads of our lives and the world around us seem to fall into place, when we are magnified. It's the moment when what we do matters, when the things we do right suddenly make a difference.

The good is magnified, yes, but so is the bad. The things we do wrong are also magnified, and we make mistakes on a scale we normally never could have. The bad habits we let slide, that we defensively hid from others instead of dealing with, the things we put off, the things we didn't bother to learn, all those things suddenly matter now, bad habits seeming to burst out of us, like seeds frantically flowering in a brief Arctic summer. We are put under pressures we never before experienced, and our true character is revealed, warts and horns and clay feet and all.

That's why even when kairos arrives in our lives at the perfect time, the results are never perfect. Even when they're wildly exciting and successful, they're also simultaneously more confusing and difficult than we ever could have dreamed, because until then, until we were put to the test, we did not really know ourselves and each other as well as we thought we did.


That's why things for Wizards of the Coast went from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic). That's the most concise explanation I have for everything that happened. The details of the story - the interesting part to most people - illuminate kairos with a clarity few things can, once you understand how to interpret them, because the story of everything that happened at Wizards of the Coast around Magic: The Gathering is the story of how my friends found themselves in that rare moment that matters; suddenly everything good and bad about them was magnified. Their successes or failures, their enlightenments or benightednesses, friendships shattered or forged, the overcoming of obstacles or squandering of opportunities, the painful lessons or naive mistakes - all of this came from who they were at the moment when it mattered as it never had before.

So with my break from this tale complete for now, let's go back and shed some more light on what happened, why my friends did what they did, and why things played out as they did.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Freeport and Other Great RPG Cities

In fantasy role-playing games, dungeons get all the love for adventuring in, but as Fritz Leiber taught us, cities can be incredible places to adventure in. They heve some of the same advantages - a (semi-)pinned down geography that frees up the DM's cognitive real estate to focus on the players' reactions to suggest further adventure embroidery. An RPG city occupies that sweet-spot middle ground between the structure of a dungeon and the structurelessness of wilderness adventures, creating one of the best kinds of sandbox environments for player-driven gaming.

Consider Freeport, one of the classic FRPG cities. If you've ever tried to develop an entire city suitable for role-playing, you know how hard it is, but Chris has done a great job of it. Freeport has its own distinctive character as a fantasy city, and it's a rich environment for catalyzing adventures.

Also, pirates! Arrrrrh!

Green Ronin and Fiery Dragon want to treat it right with a new, hefty sourcebook. My friend Chris Pramas has just forty-five minutes left to raise the last $3,000 to make his final Kickstarter stretch goal. If you enjoy role-playing games, you should go pledge to help him get there (

After you go pledge, come back here and tell me about your favorite RPG city to game in and why. Tell us a story about something that happened in a game set in that city that helps us to understand why you like it so much.

Here is a list of FRPG cities to help stimulate some memories:

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977, Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen; Judges Guild)

generic city in (in Cities: A Gamemaster's Guide to Encounters and Other Rules for Fantasy Games, 1979, Stephen Abrams and Jon Everson; Midkemia)

Carse (1980, April and Stephen Abrams; Midkemia Press)

City State of the World Emperor (1980, Bob Bledsaw and Craighton Hippenhammer; Judges Guild)

Haven (in The Free City of Haven, 1981, Richard Meyer and Kerry Lloyd; Gamelords)

Sanctuary (in Thieves' World, 1981, Greg Stafford, Dave Arneson, Steve Marsh, Midkemia Press, Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, Lawrence Schick, Ken St. Andre, et al; Chaosium)

the Citybook city (in the Citybook series, 1982-1997, Ed Andrews, Dave Arneson, Norma Blair, Grant S. Boucher, Stuart Bute, Deborah Cady, Thessaloniki Canotas, Deborah Christian, William W. Connors, Brandon Corey, Steven S. Crompton, Kevin Crossman, Liz Danforth, Lawrence DiTillio, Lee Duigon, Panda England, Joe Formichella, Janrae Frank, Greg Gordon, Bob Greenwade, Jeff Halsey, Beth Hannan-Rimmels, Scott Haring, Ed Heil, Dave Helber, Paul Jaquays, Stefan Jones, Thomas M. Kane, Mike Keller, William Kerr, J.D. Kirkland-Revels, Rudy Kraft, Randall G. Kuipers, Charles de Lint, Rick Loomis, Seng Mah, Anita Martinez, Dennis L. McKiernan, John Merkel, Shawn Moore, Ashley Morton, John Nephew, Paul O'Connor, Mark O'Green, Stephan Peregrin, Bill Paley, Jim "Bear" Peters, Glenn Rahman, T.L. Riseden, Jennifer Roberson, S. John Ross, Tom Rushford, Jason Sato, Richard Shaffstall, Lester Smith, Warren Spector, Michael A. Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, Hank Stine, Brent Stroh, B. Dennis Sustare, Tim Taylor, John Terra, Allen Varney, Lisa Walker, James L. Walker, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Don Webb, Wayne West, Allen Wold, Debora L. Wykle; Flying Buffalo)

Aleath (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Cherafir (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Coranan (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Golotha (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Golotha, 2003, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)

Pavis: Threshold to Danger (1983, Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin; Chaosium)

Shiran (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Tashal (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Tashal, 2005, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)

Thay (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)

Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985, Bruce Nesmith, Douglas Niles, and Ken Rolston; TSR)

Laelith (in Empires & Dynasties, 1986, Patrick Durand-Peyroles)

Middenheim (in City: A Complete Guide to Middenheim, City of the White Wolf, 1987, Carl Sargent; Games Workshop)

Minas Tirith: Cities of Middle-earth (1988, Graham Staplehurst, Peter C. Fenlon, and Angus McBride; Iron Crown Enterprises)

Waterdeep and the North (1988, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

The City Of Greyhawk (1989, Douglas Niles, Mike Breault, Kim Mohan; TSR)

Tantras (1989, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

Arkham (in Arkham Unveiled, 1990, Keith Herber, Mark Morrison, and Richard Watts; Chaosium)

Eldarad: The Lost City (1990, Chris Watson; Avalon Hill)

Kingsport: The City in the Mists (1991, Kevin A. Ross; Chaosium)

Bral (in The Rock of Bral, 1992, Richard Baker; TSR)

Waterdeep (in Volo's Guide to Waterdeep, 1992, Ed Greenwood; and City of Splendors: Waterdeep, 2005, Eric L. Boyd; Wizards of the Coast)

Huzuz (in City of Delights, 1993, Tim Beach, Steve Kurtz, and Tom Prusa; TSR)

Sigil (in In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, 1995, Wolfgang Baur and Rick Swan; TSR)

Zhentil Keep (in Ruins of Zhentil Keep, 1995, Kevin Melka and John Terra; TSR)

Daggerford (in The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier, Slade; Wizards of the Coast)

Calimport (1998, Steven E. Schend; Wizards of the Coast)

Palanthas (1998, Steven Brown; Wizards of the Coast)

Ravens Bluff (1998, Ed Greenwood; TSR)

Skullport (1998, Joseph Wolf; TSR)

Mordheim: City of the Damned (1999, Alessio Cavatore, Tuomas Pirinen, and Rick Priestley; Games Workshop)

Freeport (2000, Chris Pramas; Green Ronin)

Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (2001, Ethan Skemp; White Wolf)

Mithril: City of the Golem (2001, Deidre Brooks, Ben Lam, and Anthony Pryor; White Wolf)

the city (in Urban Blight, 2002, Doug G. Herring and Andrew Thompson; Mystic Eye Games)

Bluffside: City on the Edge (2002, Jim Govreau, Curtis Bennett, Jeff Quinn, and Andrew Troman; Mystic Eye Games)

Geanavue: The Stones of Peace (2002, Ed Greenwood; Kenzer and Company)

Marchion (in Splinteres Peace, 2002, David Chart; Atlas Games)

the city (in Citycraft/Cityworks, 2003, Mike Mearls; Fantasy Flight Games)

the city (in A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, 2003, Joseph Browning, Suzi Yee; Expeditious Retreat Press)

Dun Eamon (in The Grey Citadel, 2003, Nathan Paul; Necromancer Games)

Loona: Port of Intrigue (2003, Ed Greenwood and Phil Thompson; Kenzer and Company)

Endhome (in The Lost City of Barakus, 2003, W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb; Necromancer Games)

Parma: Streets of Silver (2003, Thomas Anderson, Evan Bernstein, Shayne Brown, Marcy Canterbury, Jacek Chodnicki, Celeste DeAngelis, John Faugno, Larry Fitzgerald, John Fornish, Mike Grenier, Inger Henning, David Hoenig, Steve Kubat, Lee Lucsky, Steve Novella, Edward Povilaitis, Joe Unfried; Living Imagination)

Shelzar: City of Sins (2003, Dave Brohman and James Maliszewski; White Wolf)

Liberty (in Thieves Quarter, Temple Quarter, and Arcane Quarter, 2004-2006, J. D. Wiker and Jonathan Kirtz; The Game Mechanics)

Sharn: City of Towers (2004, Keith Baker and James Wyatt; Wizards of the Coast)

Yggsburgh (in Castle Zagyg Volume One, 2005, Gary Gygax; Troll Lord Games)

Bards Gate (2006, Casey Christofferson, Scott Greene and Shane Glodoski; Necromancer Games)

Five Fingers: Ports of Deceit (2006, Doug Seacat and Wolfgang Baur; Privateer Press)

Ptolus: City by the Spire (2006, Monte Cook; Malhavoc Press)

Cillamar (in Castle Whiterock, 2007, Chris Doyle and Adrian Pommier; Goodman games)

Shadowdale: The Scouring Of The Land (2007, Richard Baker, Eric L. Boyd, and Thomas M. Reid; Wizards of the Coast)

The Great City (2008, Mario Barbati; 0one games)

If you can think of any other classics I'm missing, let me know about it. My thanks to the good folks over at ENWorld for their FRPG city discussions, which helped me build this list far beyond the ones I was familiar with.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wizards: Nostalgia, Part One

A page from Castles and Conquest by "Wizards of the Coast" in 1983

Let's turn back the clock a bit.

On Monday, 16 October 1989, Ken McGlothlen was working three jobs: (1) at the University of Washington (UW) Biostatistics department typesetting a biostats textbook in TeX, (2) being a computer consultant/operator at NOAA/PMEL on Sand Point, and (3) working as a system/network administrator at StatSci. Peter was working at Boeing.

Ken was living in an apartment in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (at 5603 7th Avenue Northwest #1, fourteen blocks from where Beverly and I live now). His apartment was a three-bedroom, two-story unit in a triplex. It was evening, and Ken was alone upstairs on the computer in the southeast bedroom. Internet access was not as easy to come by in those days as it is today, but Ken had access to the Internet via Unix machines at the UW thanks to his job there, and Peter had access through his job at Boeing. That evening (in the days before Facebook and Skype) they were nevertheless chatting electronically.

Peter remembers this initial conversation taking place over his lunch break at Boeing, but both Ken and Peter agree the followup discussions went on for days and weeks thereafter, so who knows which came first - the lunchtime chat or the evening one.

Although Ken and Peter had been best friends for years, things between the two of them had been difficult since 1986 (for reasons we won't get into here), and their conversations had been pretty rare since then. By October 1989, though, the two of them seemed to be moving beyond their past difficulties, which came as a relief to both of them because they both had a lot invested in their long friendship.

In their chat together, Peter was waxing nostalgic about Castles and Conquest, an amateur Dungeons and Dragons supplement they had worked on together between 1982 and 1984. At the time, Peter had taken some game mechanics out of two wargames; he added some original content after Ken pointed out that what they had was uncomfortably close to copyright violation. Ken hand-drew the cover on fine graph paper. Peter's tagline on C&C was "What's D&D without C&C?"

This was long before affordable laser printers, much less scanners. Castles and Conquest was printed out on a pin-fed dot-matrix printer, on the old green-and-white-striped landscape printer with the tear-off hole-punched strips on each edge of the page. Here's a sample chart from the supplement that shows the combat stats of different types of units, by "level" (D&D style).

Peter sold maybe fifty copies, never through retail but at various gaming conventions, and used the proceeds to cover the cost of attending the cons. As a young college student, being able to sell enough copies to attend cons for "free" made him feel like success, so he was very happy with the project.

From the perspective of this history, though, Castles and Conquest was important for two reasons. First, it was published by "Wizards of the Coast," which at that point was a private amateur imprint used by Ken and Peter for their projects. Second, chatting about it together over the Internet was fun and nostalgic, and led both of them to remember their dream of some day starting a game company.

They then began to reminisce about the day they first dreamed that dream together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wizards: In Media Res

Real stories begin in the middle.
Altogether now: "Once upon a time . . ."

No, forget it. Like tragedy, like life, our story begins in medias res.

That's in the middle for all you who never took English Literature in school. It means we showed up late to the story and it's already been going for a long time now. We don't get to start things just the way we would like, because we're not at the start of the story, but instead find ourselves already committed to all kinds of things the moment we show up, before we get to make our first decision.

Starting in medias res may entertain the reader, but it's traumatic and confusing for our protagonists. They don't know how things got this way, or what's really happening to them, or how to change things for the better. They don't even know who they really are inside, and they're going to be disappointed to find that most of the ways they try to make things better end up backfiring.

Starting in medias res - as we all do in our lives - means we are in the position of being able to act, and wanting to act, yet understanding hardly any of the consequences of the actions we're about to take. We set things in motion that end up surprising us. It was the ancient Roman poet Horace who taught us that great epics begin here, at this moment in the middle of our story.

That's where our story is, poised between two moments.

Peter wrote "We're not dead yet."
The first moment is December 3rd, 1992, when Peter reluctantly sent a memo he hated to send, a memo that admitted that they were in trouble, that Palladium's lawsuit had forced Wizards to miss payroll, and they were about to miss another one. He candidly laid out their options, which included bankruptcy. But he also showed several ways the company could keep going, even in a scaled-back state. His most important two sentences were these:

But we're not dead yet, so in the meantime let's put on the best face we can and continue to give this our best shot. Many many times great success stories come on the verge of what seemed like a great tragedy.

He writes these words dead center in the most important period in the life of Wizards of the Coast, in the middle of the year and a half that changed everything for them. Our protagonists don't know it yet, but that sad memo Peter had to send and the staff's response to it comprise the most important moment of their most important year.

This moment is the crossover point, the turning of the tide.

From Palladium launching their lawsuit to the grim December of this memo, everything seemed to get worse and worse until this terrible thing dominated the life of the company and seemed poised to blot it out.

But it was an illusion, because things were also getting better, quietly, in ways that only began to flower at this tipping point and become visible a month later, when the good things gradually began to overwhelm the antagonism in their lives. In the years leading up to this reversal, Wizards had been developing things and setting them in motion, things they did not realize they would need to survive this test, things they did for other reasons, but that bore life-giving fruit that sustained them through their darkest hours.

In this second series of posts about the history of Wizards, we're going to focus on this year and a half from 2 April 1992, when The Primal Order arrived from the printers, to 16 July 1993, when the first shipment of Magic: The Gathering arrived at the Origins gaming convention barely on time to demo and sell on the last day. That journey is balanced right on this first moment, when most of the threads that led them into trouble and most of the threads that would lead them to success were just about to change places.

Before Facebook: Usenet
The second moment is seven weeks later, January 23rd, 1993, when on the Usenet group, James A Seymour asked Peter:

Peter, could you please post a brief history of your company? I'm curious from both a casual standpoint, and from a game writer wanta be viewpoint.

And Peter responded with the short essay we followed in the previous series, "Peter on the Cusp." Unconsciously, Peter answered his own memo by describing how Wizards managed to scale back and survive. Because it's been almost a year since that post about the memo, and since it's been nine months since the last installment of the first series, I'm going to requote this paragraph from his 1993 narrative:

But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly it's because we realized that we can actually move forward and continue publishing products with all of us working on a part-time basis. Probably because we've gotten pretty proficient at our respective tasks here. Jesper's living at home and said he could go without pay indefinitely, particularly since his involvement here at WotC has gotten him some free-lance contracts for other companies (an upcoming White Wolf book is being entirely illustrated by him, and I hear they liked it well enough that he's going to be doing another one). I'd been working full time here and at Boeing (I've averaged over eighty hours of work a week for the last two years) and didn't need WotC income, Jay said he could work part time for WotC and full time elsewhere and manage Design & Development from home through e-mail if he could take home one of the computers, Beverly said she could probably get by with her husband's full-time job if she could pick up some free-lance editing, and Lisa's working part-time freelancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying her for three months worth of work!).

Here, at this second moment, seven weeks after things looked so dire, Peter admits he senses the turning of the tide but does not understand it. He has some ideas about how they survived, but living and working at that moment and planning for his immediate next steps he cannot stop to fully explore how it happened. Nineteen and a half years later, we can.

How did things go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?

Monday, July 9, 2012

So What?

The storyteller spreads his lies. Or truths. Or both.
Most stories lie to us. They tell us what we want to believe, not what's really so. They teach us false ideas about reality, about success, and then we go into business and expect it to work that way. No wonder 90% of new businesses fail; their founders and staff think they're living in a fantasy world.

For example, running a game company is not at all like playing a game, yet most who dream of founding one think it will be. Even if we manage to overcome that most common delusion, it's still nothing like we imagine. Truth is stranger than fiction; it must be experienced before it can be understood.

What if people who had gone through the experience of having their fantasies about starting a game company shattered and replaced by reality, people who had survived the experience, who went on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, what if they could be the ones to tell you a story about what it's like? Would the people who heard that story be more likely to beat those odds and succeed?

That's what this blog and the book that will follow are exploring. We're going to try to tell a story about a game business, a story that lies less than most. Maybe what the founders of Wizards learned the hard way, you can learn the easy way, from a story. Probably not, but it'll be fun to try, don't you think?

And even if the experiment fails and all your businesses fail, it's still a fun story about a bunch of wacky people defying the odds and winning. And win or lose, you can still have fun. There are worse ways to pass the time until you die.*

So that's what.


* "Helping you pass the time until you die" was proposed as a possible mission statement for Wizards of the Coast, at the meeting** held one night in Peter and Cathy's living room. We sat in a circle and tried to figure out what Wizards was about. Jesper, force of chaos that he always was, suggested it.*** Everyone in the room laughed appreciatively but dismissively, then kind of got quiet and thought about it, then laughed uncomfortably and moved on. At that moment, Jesper's darkly humorous phrase became the never-before-officially-admitted unofficial mission statement of Wizards of the Coast, at least in the minds of all those present that night.

** That's one of three or four meetings that I will eventually be describing in detail, because of how much it revealed about Wizards of the Coast and its founders. Along with the one where we realized we didn't know how to make decisions involving more than one person. It's surprising the things you think you know when you go into business that it turns out you really don't know. Embarrassing things, things the founders of most companies would never tell you later, even though those things sometimes have the most to teach us about what it's like.

*** Actually, he had suggested it before with equal almost-success. Remind me later to do a post about Lisa Stevens's clip-art and advertising taglines, so we can discuss why "Helping you pass the time until you die" barely did not get published as ad copy, but "Well, it's better than broccoli" did.

A Few Words from Our Author . . .

Historical mischief-maker and wife.
First of all, I want to thank all of you who expressed an interest in this project. It's nice to know someone else is interested in this history.

Also, second, thank you for your patience during this long period of waiting, during which I was focusing on helping to get my little VISTA nonprofit through its next growth spurt. We're very close to done with that growth spurt (almost back in the black after bringing on new staff - whew!), which is fortunate because my brain is about saturated with it from working long hours for so many months in a row (despite two most excellent vacations during that time). As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote two and a half millennia ago, "It is weariness to keep toiling at the same things so that one becomes ruled by them" (Heraclitus, translation and commentary by Phillip Wheelwright, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 83).

So, third, to help rekindle my brain I'm resuming my Wizards history project this week. While eating Camarones a la Mojo de Ajo at a small table in Peso's restaurant before last night's Seattle Storm game, I sketched out for Beverly what I think the next section of the history is about, how to approach the material, and some remedial work I need to do in flashbacks to flesh out section one and the prehistory (which I barely touched on in section one). In her usual good-natured editorial fashion, she helped me polish the approach up a bit, so now I'm ready to resume writing.

Here we go. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Interlude: Commitment

There are great men in the world - I've met some of them - but caught like everyone else in the vast Titanic millwheels of our world-spanning culture they can do nothing alone. One person's intense, passionate commitment is necessary but not sufficient to change the world.

It took a community to keep Wizards of the Coast alive through the bleak winter of 1992-3. Friends, family, fans, and colleagues pooled their resources to keep this tiny venture going through the worst crisis it ever experienced. This crisis wasn't resolved with the creation of Magic: The Gathering. Late in 1993, many months after Magic had already become the phenomenal commercial success it's now seen as, Wizards itself and its staff and contractors were still suffering financially for reasons we'll discuss in the coming year. Friends, family, fans, and colleagues continued to keep Wizards alive, helping it cross the chasm from creating a great game to creating a sustainable company.

We'll explore how Wizards survived the lawsuit, how such a tiny, cash-strapped company managed to create and bankroll the hit of the decade, and what they hoped for at the time - why they did the things they did. We'll see some of the crude, xeroxed cards that predated the final, fantastic graphic design, explore the essential but ill-examined role of Cornish College of the Arts in Magic's success, and follow the Magic road show as the Wizards team toured small game shops and conventions introducing people to their little labor of love, building their fan base one person at a time. Along the way, we'll flash back to the earlier years and fill in some of the story that I skimmed so blithely past in my July posts, including the vital role of the Internet in Wizards's survival. We'll see pictures of items from Wizards's history never before shown, and we'll read contemporary accounts of small, quiet, little-known events that set in motion the big splashy results that made the papers. We'll peek inside an early staff meeting that would not end, in which Wizards began wrestling with the sometimes intractable problem of how to get a group of passionate people with different ideas to agree on a single decision. As Lisa Stevens said in that meeting, "But what if in the end you can't agree? Who gets to make the decision when the process falls apart?" We'll start working on the problem of bringing these people to life for you, so you better understand who did these things and why.

But what we'll come back to over and over is the role of commitment, how very much commitment it takes to do something like this, not just the intense commitment of one or two or a dozen people but also the vast, persistent commitment of an entire community to back their plays and hold them up when they would otherwise fall down. Peter used to laugh when people praised him for this thing "he was doing," because he knew how very many people it took to do it. The search for simple answers, sound bites, and sufficiently scanty column inches strips the truth from our understanding of the world, leaves us believing in caricatures instead of characters, truthiness instead of truth; let's rip those veils aside and see who the Wizards really were.

But before we continue this journey, let's be honest with one another.

This project is not my top priority. I have many commitments ahead of it - to principles, to people, and to the same professional quest that in the 1990s led me to repeatedly turn down Peter's offers to come join his so very happily lost boys and girls. I am committed to those higher priorities in my life, and I will put them ahead of this history project whenever I am forced to choose, but I will often not be forced to choose. Because I have no children, I have room in my life for more than the usual number of commitments. This is one of them. It will not get lost in the shuffle, though it may come and go like a recurring haunting.

I live a life of tides, and if you join me on this journey you will too. Sometimes I will post every day for weeks on end when the demands of higher priorities on my time ebb, sometimes silent months will pass by when they flow. But I will always be thinking about this project, talking to Wizards folks about what it was like back in the day, looking for the time to post, searching for the thread of the narrative.

This project matters to me for reasons that may be clear to you by the time you read the book at the end of this road. I'm committed to it, even during these quiet times. During the winters of this blog I'm putting down roots to prepare for the riotous blossoms of its springs.

Here it comes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wizards: Peter on the Cusp, Part Thirteen

Whether they realize it or not, businesses plan in layers. When times get rough, when the pressure's on, we can give up our shallow plans readily enough, but we're reluctant to surrender more deeply laid plans. If things go badly enough for long enough, our layers of plans are stripped away from us.

Eventually we come to the bottom of our conscious planning and are left with what we think is our foundational desire for our company. That one we do not give up lightly. That one, if we surrender it, we do so with despair, ready to give everything up. But it's only the conscious foundation of our company; it's not our real deal breaker. This "last" plan contains too many optional components to which we are emotionally attached, so though we would never dream it at the time, when the "worst" comes to pass we discover to our surprise after a period of grieving that this too we can give up, because there was a deeper unconscious bottom line that can keep us going so long as we do not have to surrender it. It's only when we must give up what we thought was our bottom line that we discover our real bottom line, what we really care about.

This is the point of the ancient Greek admonition Gnothi Seauton - know thyself: that we think we know ourselves but we are wrong. It is not until we are fully tested under the right kind of pressure that we begin to discover how many of our attachments are inessential, that we begin to discover what our true bottom line is.

In December 1992, Peter did not want to move backward. After the long, hard struggle to put together a great team, create a steady stream of products, and approach break-even, he did not want to give that up again. He wanted to move only forward, but the lawsuit gave him no choice. He had to surrender and grieve.

But he found when his back was against the "wall" that it wasn't really a wall, that he could step further backward with his team and they could still survive and still keep working (albeit more slowly) on keeping Wizards of the Coast going. They did not know their future anymore, the lawsuit might eventually do them in for good, but at that moment they could keep going, could keep making plans and searching for ways to make things better.

They discovered that they did not have to surrender when they thought they would, that they could reposition themselves and keep trying, remaining open to opportunities.

A wise businessman once told me that the most important secret to succeeding in business is just to survive long enough, because opportunities cannot be precisely predicted. You may go through very long droughts that seem endlessly dire, but sooner or later opportunities do come along, and when they do they go to the company that found a way to keep going and to remain open to the unpredictable possibilities that lay ahead. The commitment to survive - avoiding despair, avoiding gambling with your future - is the key to survival.

During the 1992-1993 drought at Wizards of the Coast, everyone found other sources of income to keep them going while they slowly pushed the company forward through its difficulties.

Peter Adkison continued to work at Boeing full time, as he had since the beginning of Wizards.

Lisa Stevens edited Volo's Guide to the North (AD&D 2nd Edition, Forgotten Realms, TSR).

Beverly Marshall Saling edited Werewolf: Drums around the Fire (White Wolf) and White Wolf Magazine Issue 37 (White Wolf) and proofed a book for the University of Alaska, but she was largely able to focus on Wizards full time or near full time thanks to my job at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jesper Myrfors contributed art to Vampire The Masquerade Second Edition: Players Guide (White Wolf), Vampire: The Anarch Cookbook (White Wolf), Vampire: Chicago by Night (White Wolf), and Sentinels (Role Aids, Mayfair Games).

Jay Hays worked at a club.

Cathleen Adkison, Lisa and George Lowe, Ken McGlothlen, Rich Kaalaas, Dave Howell, Mike Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and the many other people who had not been working full time recently for Wizards continued to rely on their other jobs to pay the bills. These other jobs, these other gaming products, and friends and family kept Wizards alive through this dark time.

Peter's 1993 narrative about this (in which I make my own oblique appearance in his narrative):
But a couple of weeks ago for some reason things started picking up. I'm not sure why, but partly it's because we realized that we can actually move forward and continue publishing products with all of us working on a part-time basis. Probably because we've gotten pretty proficient at our respective tasks here. Jesper's living at home and said he could go without pay indefinitely, particularly since his involvement here at WotC has gotten him some free-lance contracts for other companies (an upcoming White Wolf book is being entirely illustrated by him, and I hear they liked it well enough that he's going to be doing another one). I'd been working full time here and at Boeing (I've averaged over eighty hours of work a week for the last two years) and didn't need WotC income, Jay said he could work part time for WotC and full time elsewhere and manage Design & Development from home through e-mail if he could take home one of the computers, Beverly said she could probably get by with her husband's full-time job if she could pick up some free-lance editing, and Lisa's working part-time freelancing too (she just edited a book for TSR, for more money than I'd been paying her for three months worth of work!).
Postscript: Looking at that list of editing and illustration side projects, once again you can see Lisa Stevens contributing crucially in the clutch to keep Wizards alive. Her experience, rolodex, relationships, and networking savvy continued to make the difference in the survival and development of Wizards.