Under the Influence: Wizards of the Coast

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As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was a major presence online in the Usenet gaming communities rec.games.frp.* for many years (going back to the late 1980s). One day, in 1991, I was contacted by a person going by the name of Mavra, whose real name I later learned was Peter Adkison. He said he was part of a new RPG company and was looking for people to take a look at an early draft of their first planned product, and I was the sort of gamer he was looking for.

Little did I realize how important a first contact I had just made.

I of course agreed, and was sent a draft of a book called "The Primal Order", a gaming book meant to act as a "capsystem" – an addition compatible with any existing RPG system – for providing a mechanism to use deities in RPG campaigns without making them either just "bigger characters" or "untouchable plot devices".

The Primal Order was actually a very impressive piece of work, especially as a first attempt by an unknown company. It was pretty well-written, fairly well organized, and had what was then an innovative core mechanic based around the concept of "Primal Energy", which was what differentiated gods from mortal beings. Deific beings had more or less access to Primal, which was basically the power of creation, something that was of a higher order than any other power, and this gave them a tremendous advantage in numerous areas when compared to the "standard" characters of other game systems. The described approach allowed a GM to actually create pantheons of gods whose differences in power had real meaning, yet were not merely characters with bigger numbers than the player characters.

At the same time, the mechanisms described made it possible – as in many fantasy settings and works – for very powerful or very fortunate mortals to either challenge the gods and have a chance – howsoever small – to win, or to become gods themselves and enter a new realm of the eternal conflict – one in which those powerful characters now found themselves to be the smallest fish in a very large and dangerous ocean.

There were – as to be expected – some flaws and questionable choices in the early draft, so I carefully noted all of my comments and questions down, page by page, and sent them off. Peter offered to pay me for the service – about $25-$30 – and I said "You know, I'll just end up spending that on a couple pizzas or something. If you actually start this company for real, gimme that much stock. If you go nowhere, I'm out two pizzas; if you go somewhere, it'll be a big paycheck one day."

Peter agreed, and for a while that was pretty much all until I heard that they were in fact releasing The Primal Order (generally abbreviated as "TPO") in 1992. The "Capsystem" concept, in which the provided system would be able to be stacked atop any other existing sets of rules, required that there be conversion rules – directions on how to take the generic numbers in TPO and convert them between the statistics and capabilities discussed in individual rule systems. I assisted in the development of a couple of those conversion rulesets as well.

The Primal Order was released as planned in 1992, and general critical reaction was positive. Sales were not bad for a new RPG company, but – for perspective – that means they weren't making anyone millionaires, either. Still, things went well enough that WotC began moving forward with other RPG materials – additional Capsystem products in the Primal line and otherwise, and also on trying to license some forgotten or struggling but still very interesting and viable RPG lines.

I of course became one of the more vocal online supporters of the company, and – on occasion – served as a relay of Usenet reactions to and from Peter Adkison when his net access varied.

This reached something of a peak when Palladium decided to sue WotC for the inclusion of conversion rules for Palladium, claiming this was infringement on their IP. I have occasionally encountered people who thought that WotC lost the suit; this is completely untrue. What ended up happening is that WotC dug in, reduced staffing to be able to channel more money to the lawyers, and took a very simple stance: "Hey, if Palladium wants the conversion notes (which amount to free advertising for their system inside of our own book) removed, fine, if we do another printing we'll do that, and even slap some nice stickers on the remaining stock saying how the notes inside those aren't authorized. But what we WON'T do is admit to doing anything WRONG; discussing how to perform a conversion between systems is not infringement, never has been, and we won't ever agree it is or was."

A judge actually threw out a couple of Palladium's points, and I think it became clear to Palladium that WotC had a good chance of winning, and was certainly damned well determined to fight to the end. They settled out of court, to exactly the terms above (and possibly some sort of cash exchange, but as WotC had said, all they cared about was not agreeing that they'd done anything wrong, and they were not forced to do so).

During this period, Peter did in fact have trouble with his access, and I had to play relay a couple of times before he was able to come back and talk directly to the fans again.

Wizards continued working on RPG-related materials, and I was eventually contracted – to my great joy – to produce a new supplement for The Primal Order, called Unorthodox Strategies: Deities in Non-Fantasy Campaigns. The title was derived from the chess-related theme of other Primal Order supplements (Pawns: The Opening Move Knights: Strategies in Motion, and Chessboards: The Planes of Possibility), and I began work on Unorthodox Strategies at the same time that Jonathan Tweet was working on Rivals of Estedil, a Primal-Order based module, and others were working on Bishops, which was to be a guide to creating Primal-Order religions, with the Norse pantheon as an example).

(An interesting side note: Wikipedia and other sources do not even mention Unorthodox Strategies, which had already seen a complete first draft, and claim that Jonathan Tweet had only completed "extensive notes" on Rivals of Estedil; in fact, Rivals was complete as a first playtest draft and I had a copy of it which I had bound. It was, unfortunately, destroyed during one of my basement floods, but it was not just a collection of notes but a full – and VERY LARGE – module.)

Now, the problem with running an RPG company is that it is the quintessential example, the distillation, of the old joke, "How do you make a small fortune in business? Start with a large fortune." Peter and WotC recognized that they needed some source of income that was more stable, wider in audience appeal, and hopefully less resource-intensive to support than writing long-winded roleplaying gamebooks. Fortunately, Peter knew a gentleman named Richard Garfield who had a few ideas. One of them was a hysterically funny board game about robots trying to make their way across terribly hazardous factory floors, called "Robo-Rally"; the other was a card game of dueling wizards, whose first production name was "Mana Clash".

Peter felt that the second one had more immediate potential – as it was based on a deck of cards that someone could carry around with them, rather than the rather large and complex board and counters of Robo-Rally, it could be played by people relatively on the spur of the moment, would probably be cheaper as an individual purchase, and the collectible card aspect promised a possibility of many variants which would keep the game fresh (and of course provide an opportunity for new income streams).

The game was developed and finally released in 1993, with the name changed to…

Magic: The Gathering.

No one could possibly have been prepared for the incredible success that followed. During the Palladium suit, WotC had been pared down to basically one full-time employee, a few part-timers, and several people basically putting in time for the sake of the future. Within a year or two, WotC employed over 200 people and had sales well exceeding one hundred million dollars per year.

I actually didn't grasp how huge Magic had gotten until my friend Carl Edlund mentioned he was playing it, and I started looking into it. Seeing how large it was becoming, I wrote to Peter and asked if that meant my shares in the company were worth anything.

It turned out they'd lost the original paperwork, so no one had remembered I was one of the oldest stockholders. Upon realizing that, Peter set things straight – and I suddenly found out that there was another, completely unexpected, benefit to being a WotC original stockholder:

I got one of every single thing WotC produced, free. I discovered this when an absolutely MASSIVE box arrived from WotC, and I opened it to find it FILLED with books and boxes – copies of every part of the Primal Order series, the Compleat Alchemist, their then-current reissue of Talislanta, and a BUNCH of boxes of Magic: The Gathering. Alpha, Beta, and all the expansion sets to that time. This had more significance than simply geek-ecstasy, but it was a while before that significance became clear.

During this period, WotC was also starting to try its hand at publishing – mainly things focused on Magic, of course, but they were also considering publishing more original fiction. For a projected Magic anthology, I proposed and then wrote Avenging Angel, focused around the "Urza's Avenger" card. WotC's editor liked it, but felt that it would actually be better as a novel; in hindsight I was constructing a universe in my head based on the vague information I had from WotC on how they viewed the Magic universe, and that universe was a lot larger than I could fit into a short story.

I also began writing, and sent in, early parts of an original novel that I called Fall of Saints, about a character named Kyri Ross who discovers her family was killed by the eponymous Saints, a group of holy warriors who were supposed to be their protectors, and who ends up being the first of the new Saints, the Phoenix, to try and cleanse the order. Those familiar with my work will realize that this was the first draft of the story which would become the Balanced Sword trilogy, and specifically the first volume which Baen published as Phoenix Rising.

By 1994, however, it became obvious to Wizards of the Coast that they had only two choices; either sell off (lucratively) the rights to Magic and let someone else handle it, or dump all the other minor parts of the business and ride that tiger until they could really be sure it was under control. Not without some trepidation and pain (which I heard some of), they elected to take the second course – ride that tiger!

This meant divesting WotC of all the other materials that weren't in the Magic or related gaming arena. They killed off the Primal Order line, stopped work on books (except a few Magic-oriented ones), and divested themselves of all the RPG properties. To their credit, they tried very hard to find good homes for the lines they were dropping, and returned all rights to the creators.

It so happened that much of this came to a head in late 1994. Kathleen and I had been living a rather edgy existence in Pittsburgh, but had become engaged, and set a wedding date for 1995. This required, however, that we move up to the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area again.

The problem was that I didn't have the money for the move. Moving isn't cheap, and I knew I'd need some money for us when we got up there (even though we'd both be temporarily staying with our parents). I'd turned in the first draft of Unorthodox Strategies and was working on the second and hopefully final draft when word came that they were canceling the line.

But WotC recognized the work that we freelancers were doing, and that it might be well to have us think positively of the company. With the cancellation of the contract came a check – one nearly as large as I would have received for actual publication of the supplement. This was a huge help, a vital key to giving me the resources I would need.

The other key was also handed to me by Wizards of the Coast, and I'd had it in my hands for some time already: Magic cards. This was during one of the great peaks of value in the cards, and I discovered that in addition to my freebie boxes, I was entitled to purchase additional boxes of the cards at 40% off retail!

A few purchases later and I was selling individual cards and packs on Usenet, and financing my move back to the Capital District!

As one might expect, I had very positive thoughts about WotC as the result of them essentially saving my financial bacon. This happened a second time when I was in a very difficult position and sold some of the shares; those shares, which had once been worth one dollar apiece, were now worth $250 each!

I maintained sporadic contact with Peter and Wizards for the next few years; while I enjoyed the occasional game of Magic, I wasn't one of the card-addicts that some were (partly because my idea of a great game of Magic was a single duel that lasted hours using decks about three inches thick, rather than the one-turn kill decks popular with many serious players), and Wizards wasn't doing much else to interest me.

Then in 1997, Wizards bought TSR.

For those unfamiliar with roleplaying games, the impact of this purchase is hard to convey. TSR, originally "Tactical Studies Rules", was the father of RPGs, the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, the creator of the entire roleplaying hobby. They had always been the 500-pound gorilla of the industry (which meant something of a small screaming lemur in the general context of the game industry, but since many RPGers didn't care about the larger game industry…), the company that defined the industry and that every single new company would find itself compared to and competing with.

TSR, unfortunately, had fallen on very hard financial times – not so much due to its game sales, which were still decent, but due to having entered the publishing industry without a clear understanding of how it worked, and having ended up with a ludicrous number of books returned to it for refunds – all at once.

So when the Magic frenzy was dying down, Peter looked around, and discovered this – and found that he could purchase the company that started it all for all us RPG geeks. From his own words it was a ridiculously emotional thing; after the purchase he got up in front of the employees to tell them about what was going to happen, and for a moment he couldn't speak because it suddenly really, really hit him that he had achieved the greatest dream of any of us old gamers: he was now the owner of TSR and Dungeons and Dragons.

Shortly after purchasing TSR, Wizards decided it was time to make a third edition of D&D. Technically, there had been essentially three editions previously, but most players count from the advent of "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons", or AD&D, which was published in the late 1970s. AD&D Second Edition was published in 1989, about 12 years after the first edition. By the late 90s, therefore, it was about time for a new edition.

Rumors of a new edition started the moment Wizards purchased TSR, but actual work didn't start for a while – and those who knew about it ended up getting signed to an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). I did send a number of suggestions to Wizards when it became clear they were seriously considering it.

Finally, playtesting – in secret – of the new edition began. I was at first reluctant to participate in playtesting, as I was pretty busy at the time, but Peter asked me directly, and so I accepted a position as playtester.

And found they were finally doing the game RIGHT. Our gaming group tested the limits of the rules and found that they were well-designed and fixed a vast number of the most basic flaws of the game, flaws which had been present since its original version in 1973-4 and never seriously touched: the ridiculous mages and armor rules, the broken 25-maximum characteristic scale, the exponentially increasing experience point chart, the lack of magic item rules, and so on and so forth. To a great extent, 3e (as Third Edition came to be called) was my own house ruled version of D&D stripped down and turned into a commercial product.

Note that by that I don't mean that they'd taken my own version, but that many of the house rules a lot of us gamers had made to fix D&D had obviously been similar, and the people running TSR now – Wizards – obviously were Gamers Like Us and understood exactly what needed to be done to fix the game, while – and this was something much harder – keeping it somehow still "Dungeons and Dragons".

Once more I got a few playtesting credits, my name in the books, and more importantly Wizards had made me part of the history of the game which had shaped much of my imagination and writing life.

But Wizards had one more gift left. The success of the company had attracted the attention of larger companies, and finally in 1999 Wizards of the Coast was purchased by Hasbro, the gaming giant.

Purchased at a price of $1,000 per share.

And once more, this payoff came at a time that it was very, very much needed.

The Wizards of the Coast that I knew, of course, is now long gone; most, if not all, of those who were part of it when I worked with them no longer work there; Peter left relatively shortly after the acquisition, and others trickled away.

But I cannot think of the name Wizards of the Coast without a smile on my face, because for ten years it was a name of wonder, of opportunity, of inspiration, and even of support that sometimes made the difference between success and failure in my own personal life.

Thank you, Peter Adkison – Mavra – for picking the Sea Wasp out of the sea of gamers in the ancient waters of Usenet, and giving me a chance to be a part of that magic.

 

Comments

  1. Ashley R Pollard says:

    Just awesome. What a ride. Puts my association with FASA into perspective.

Your comments or questions welcomed!