Saturday, October 13, 2007

Open call for writers makes for good fun

Paizo is a roleplaying games publisher in the U.S.A. that produces gaming materials for use in the Dungeons & Dragons game. Until recently, it had a licence to publish two magazines called "Dungeon" and "Dragon", respectively. The former included scenarios for the D&D game while the latter contained articles of supporting material or discussion of different approaches to the hobby.

The game and its magazines are owned by Wizards of the Coast, another American company, part of the Hasbro group. Hasbro, you may recall, is a successful toys and games producer. Wizards bought out the rights to the game of the original corporation, TSR Inc, that basically marketed and developed the earliest forms of Dungeons & Dragons from the game's beginnings in the 1970s.

I was a successful freelance contributor to Dungeon in the period 1986 to 1996 having 21 game modules published in its pages. I also had a single article appear in Dragon #160 in 1990. I was quite proud of this Dragon article, as it had been Dragon I was originally trying to break into when the scenarios magazine came onto the market in '86.

I fell out of writing for the magazine (I refer to Dungeon here, as I preferred writing scenarios to developing a level of expertise necessary to publish in Dragon magazine) after 1996, at a time when TSR Inc was in financial and corporate difficulties. Changeovers in staff there and difficulties I was experiencing at home with my mother's deteriorating health discouraged me greatly from finding the time and inspiration needed to write in that way. I had also developed an interest in computers which effectively filled the space that roleplaying had occupied. When I finally got an Internet connection that was the end of filling my time thinking up scenarios for the game!

Ironically, it was the editors of Dungeon who pushed me to get a PC. I had been using a manual typewriter for a number of years before graduating to an electric model. Paper manuscripts stuffed into brown envelopes would travel by air mail to Wisconscin where they would rest for a couple of months before being returned, covered in red ink, or, hopefully, with news of acceptance and a planned publication date. It would be easier, I was told, to put a manuscript together on a PC, although at that time there was no facility to accept submissions by email or on floppy disk.

I found, instead, that it was easy to produce quantity rather than quality. (Witness this blog, for example...!) Naturally, rejection slips began to outnumber acceptance letters and with everything going on in the background I felt my confidence slipping. Like many writers, I'm easily distracted anyway. So the whole thing ended. We all moved on, including the game and the magazines.

When I looked back, the industry had changed and the magazines too. Some of the basic no-nos I had grown up with as a writer were now standard, even preferred, methods of working. We pioneers had it hammered into us that scenarios should stand alone, be self contained and never link together into a series of game adventures. Under Paizo's stewardship, however, this idea had been turned on its head and named an "adventure path". One scenario led to another in a series of games -- quite like finishing levels on an electronic game console. You could even purchase a hard-back copy of the adventure path for use in your game. And the game itself had gone through at least two new sets of rules revisions. More combat and action orientated, emphasis was placed on the use of miniatures and floorplans, like its tabletop wargaming ancestors. The "backstory" in the scenario that the Dungeon Master alone read before the game was not emphasised as much as it had been in the past.

Copyright had been fiercely protected in my days with the game. But now there was a kind of dispensation available to developers, publishers and authors from the licence owner. Provided that the terms of the licence were published with the work, and only certain areas of the core rules drawn upon, it was now okay to produce work, even sell it, without worrying about a law suit.

I grew interested in the game again and started visiting online forums where the latest developments were being discussed. I was very surprised to find that while my name was no longer universally known among readers of Dungeon, some of the older players, or players who had managed to obtain back issues to add to their collections, occasionally mentioned my scenarios fondly. But would my "old school" way of putting together a scenario fit in with the new modern way of delivering the magazine to its readers?

I put together a scenario outline which I forwarded to the magazine by email (a strange way of doing things!). The editorial staff were very kind and welcoming. Pointing out a few shortcomings in the approach to the story they gave me the go ahead to complete a manuscript. I wasn't able to. I tinkered with the new game mechanics and couldn't push the story forward. There are times when I know that something I'm doing isn't going to turn out well and this was one of them. Eventually after a long (and very unprofessonal) hiatus, I told them the scenario wouldn't be forthcoming after all.

Then this year the magazines were discontinued. Wizards decided that print magazines were a thing of the past and most likely considered that their plans for the future of the game -- among them a 4th Edition to the rules, due out in 2008 -- would be more profitable without magazines that harked back to past days of the hobby. So it seemed, I missed the boat.

A couple of weeks ago, Paizo, which has continued with publication of D&D materials, put out an Open Call for writers for its Gamemastery line of products. A brief outline of a scenario was published by them as a starting point and anyone and everyone was invited to pitch ideas in a formal submission which could turn into a 22,000 word module, if accepted. I read the Paizo forums as excited players discussed the nitty gritty of how to cobble together their ideas and keep within the 800-word limit to the initial submission. I joined in, adding my own 800 words, which I emailed off with trepidation. I wasn't sure if it would be a greater blow to be accepted or rejected. How would I find the time to write the stage two outline? Or the 22,000 words before 2008?

It was fun watching the other contributors -- many of them first-time writers -- worry about the word-count, whether they had proof-read the submission properly, if they had included proper contact details, should they have single or double-spaced -- all of the things that worried beginning writers even since my ancient days!

And the Paizo staff added to the excitement by promising to have results ready in a few days time, then some time next week, then after one of their number was back from sick leave...

Eventually, the results were distributed (by email) and though some were crestfallen at their lack of success, the majority were, like me, glad of the experience and perhaps heartened that so many others who were also unsuccessful had some really strong ideas. Their authors published some of the rejected outlines on the Paizo forums for all to see and critique. Mine is among them, as, alas, I didn't make the cut either. I'm somewhat relieved, to tell you the truth! But it's been grand to experience the anticipation of hearing from an editor again. But this time, the wait is days rather than months. I'm not sure if I can cope with the faster pace of ideas, turnarounds and deadlines. Maybe I'm stuck in the old days?

Well, new 4th Edition rules come out in a while, so maybe I'll sit and ponder those and see what market -- if any -- there is for a roleplaying hack that can barely... hack it. Mind you, the last time I put off writing a scenario 10 years went by! I'll have to watch that.

Just realised this blog post is all backstory and little player action. Have to watch that too.


Sandra said...

I've always been interested in RPG's, but have never played any of the games like D&D. For the past few months I've played World of Warcraft online, have you ever played it?

Willie_W said...

Hi Sandra,

I've heard of it, alright, but not played it. I've always much preferred the social element of the round the tabletop RPGs rather than the single-player computer game or the multi-user online game. People are more inclined to be polite at the diningroom table than on a computer screen, especially when they know the other person is within arm's reach if they become belligerent! Also, I think, there is far more flexibility in a tabletop RPG whose human being moderator can make up a rule if need be, or freeform a game as the need arises. Far less A, B, C and lots more ad libbing.

EP Healy said...

You're in good company, Willie. There were a lot of good proposals, from seasoned writers, that got the axe. I'm glad you're back in the game, though. I look forward to seeing some more adventures from you in the future.

EP Healy

Willie_W said...

Thanks EP. It would be good to get back into it. If I could get over myself.

Anonymous said...

Wish you the best Willie, my brain prefers not to have to think to such a high standard of "amusement". My brain is very active all the time and find I have to make myself ease off or I may explode ! I noticed a Dungeon and Dragons shop here where I live was closed down after many years of selling the figures. I remember some years ago you asking me if I could get something for you. I had only just heard of D@D through yourself so had no clue where to start looking. No puters then for either of us. Some years later, after your request I saw a D@D shop in London. It was years later when I noticed a similiar shop in my Town. So, now that shop is closed. Where will you get time to write again for D@D ? You are nearly finished your DIY skills then *S*.................. Joan

Willie_W said...

Not exactly. Herself asks me sweetly this afternoon "That month off from finishing the kitchen must be up by now, isn't it?"

Angharod said...

Given that you are a remembered and respected writer with talent that shines in EVERYTHING you write...

Geez I don't have to say more do I?

Willie_W said...

Well, technially you didn't complete the sentence. Danger of rejection slip there, Angh. *LOL*

Nils said...

I've always been interested in RPG's, but I have not so much information about it.

Willie_W said...

They're good fun Nils, but take a lot of preparation.