Princes Valiant: Stewart and Greg

Last week I got the new edition of the Prince Valiant RPG in the mail. I wrote a short adventure for its Episode Book on the invitation of Stewart Wieck. It was a small project but it had been cool to do something with Stewart because we’d never worked together. When I was in college, I was a regular reader of White Wolf Magazine (which he edited) and it was one of the first places I tried to get work as an aspiring freelancer. White Wolf had line reviewers at the time and I was very keen to take over the reviews for the Pendragon RPG. Someone else got the gig and I never did end up writing for White Wolf Magazine. In the ensuing decades my path and Stewart’s never crossed again professionally until the Prince Valiant project. I was pleased to get the chance to work with him after all those years. Like everyone else, I was shocked when he died suddenly last year. Getting the Prince Valiant books then was very much bitter sweet. It was good to see the game back and be a very small part of it, but it brought back to mind Stewart’s passing so the moment was tinged with sadness.

Then just scant days later the news of Greg Stafford’s death broke. Greg, of course, was the designer of Prince Valiant and so much more. His Pendragon has been my favorite RPG for decades. There’s a reason I wanted that line reviewer gig! It’s fair to say no other designer in my field has had a greater influence on my work than Greg Stafford. He and I first met at GenCon 1990. I swung by the Chaosium booth to get the new edition of Pendragon and there he was. I was a nobody at this point, just a random fan as far as he was concerned. When I ventured some opinions on the Matter of Britain though, he seemed genuinely happy to engage. We had a long talk about Mallory, the the Vulgate Cycle, and other Arthurian topics and I was thrilled. In later years I got to meet him again, this time as a colleague. We were friendly but not close. Part of me held back, I think, because getting to know your heroes doesn’t always work out so well and I wanted to maintain my admiration. This was probably a stupid thing to do. At the end of that first conversation, Greg said, “Let me sign that book for you!” I’m not an autograph seeker. They are not generally things I value, but I wasn’t about to say, “No, don’t!” to Greg Stafford. Now I’m glad I have it.

Stewart and Greg were both people who burned brightly in our industry and left behind important legacies. Through their work and their games, they will be remembered for many years to come. Princes Valiant both.

How to Get Me to Your Con

There are more game conventions and events than any one person or company could possibly attend each year. There are some that are must-gos for Green Ronin, like GenCon and GAMA Trade Show. Other than those bedrock shows, the cons I attend vary from year to year. I’ve never gone into how these decisions are made and a recent Facebook thread made it clear to me that people have some misconceptions. Let me clarify a few things.

First, I love to travel. Game industry wages being what they are, I don’t have the money for many actual vacations. Conventions then provide a great way to see more of the world. I can do a one day show in London like Dragonmeet and then have a few days to enjoy the city. My best overseas trip (a week in Finland) was thanks to the amazing Ropecon. So traveling for me? Not a hardship.

So what does it take to get me to your convention? Three things:
1) A plane ticket.
2) A hotel room.
3) A date that works with my schedule. I do have to spend time at home writing and running the company, so I can’t do everything, as much as I’d like to.

The following aren’t required but they are big plusses:
1) An interesting location, particularly if its overseas.
2) One or more locals to show me around. Always better than a guidebook.
3) Good food, particularly local cuisine I can’t get every day in Seattle.

And that’s it really. I don’t have speakers fees. I don’t demand you pick all the cashews out of the nut assortment or that you remove all the red M&Ms from the candy dish. My most outrageous demands would be a chance to play some games and trips to nearby museums or historical sites.

In short, if you’d like me to come to your con, ask me! Nicole will usually come with me if possible, so really you get two Ronins for the price of one.

And Poland, China, Australia, Japan, and the Czech Republic? Call me. ūüôā

The 24 Hour Rule

When I became a freelance RPG writer in the early 90s, the internet was young. When you had something published, it might be weeks or even months until reviews started to appear. Of course, as a creative person, I was always interested to see how the work was being received. I wished the reviews happened faster, so I could get that feedback.

You know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Now, feedback happens with frightening speed. And most of it is not thoughtful reviews based on careful consideration. It’s off the cuff impressions, honestly emotional but often not factual. I have, on more than one occasion, released a new gaming PDF and started to see bitching about it 10 minutes later. I can’t tell you what a drag this is.

When you are working on a creative project of any sort for months, there is a feeling of triumph and satisfaction when it goes live. At last the thing you’ve been toiling on will get in front of an audience. Hooray! And you’d like to, at least briefly, feel good about the accomplishment of finishing a creative work and getting it out there. So when (often well-meaning) fans immediately pounce and start cataloging your perceived failures, it totally deflates you. It can make you feel like shit. Make you feel like you should be doing something else. That there is little appreciation for the work you put into that brand new thing.

I would thus like to propose the 24 Hour Rule. It is simply this: save your criticisms of a new creative work for at least 24 hours. More, ideally, but I know that’s asking a lot of the current internet. Give the people behind the things you like a brief period to bask in that feeling of accomplishment. Criticism will surely come (it’s the internet) but at least there will be one day they can savor the completion and release of their work. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Dave A. Trampier and the Art of Inspiration

One of the few local places that sold gaming stuff circa 1980 was a mall bookstore called Lauriat’s. They had D&D and Traveller books, and a small selection of Grenadier and Heritage miniatures. I had started playing D&D at age 10 and I would go browse that section whenever my family went to the mall. I had little money, so I mostly just looked. After my birthday or Xmas, I could usually splurge and get something. Deciding what to buyu was difficult. I could not pop on Google and find reviews. If there were gaming fanzines in Massachusetts at the time, I never saw one. I was left to judge by flipping through the books…and looking at the art. And one cover piece always drew my eye: module T1 The Village of Hommlet.


I came back to this image time and again. It was such a great evocation of D&D: a crazy monster to fight, an evil cult to smash, and the mysterious ruined moathouse to explore. When I finally scraped together $5, I bought that module and it was largely because of the cover art.

It was the first time I noticed the initials DAT on a piece of D&D art but certainly not the last. DAT was Dave A Trampier, one of the great artists of D&D publisher TSR. You may not have known his name but if you played the game in the early 80s, you knew his work: the iconic cover of the AD&D Player’s Handbook, the beautiful GM Screen panorama, the classic monster illustrations like the lizardman and fire giant, and of course Emirikol the Chaotic in the DMG.

trampier - lizardman

Tramp’s story was a strange one. After doing all that amazing work, he disappeared from the game industry and from the world of illustration in the late 80s. No one knew what had become of him for years. About a decade ago he was discovered driving a cab. Yesterday, he passed away.

I don’t know why such a great artist left a promising career behind. Rumor has it he was bitter about the way TSR treated him. It’s a shame he stopped doing art altogether. It’s tragic that he never had his second act, as many of us hoped he would. I do hope that before his passing, he had some understanding of the impact of his work on a generation of gamers and dreamers. For many of us, our careers as creators began with D&D and the inspiration we drew from it. The game, the ideas, and the art set our imaginations on fire. Dave Trampier was a big part of that and gaming is poorer for his lost.

Thanks for everything you did, Dave. You will not be forgotten.


My GenCon Schedule

It’s that magical time of year again: GenCon! This is my 25th GenCon in a row and I still get excited every year. If you are looking to talk to me, my public schedule is below.

The easiest place to find me is the Green Ronin booth, #1703. We are right by a front entrance this year, which is great. Mornings are a good bet, but I‚Äôll be around in the afternoon too unless I’ve got meetings or a seminar.


5 pm: A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and the Chronicle System

Convention Center, Room 242

Based on George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying allows you to play out the intrigues of this rich setting. We’ll also discuss the Chronicle System materials, which expand the scope of the rule set.


8:00 pm: ENnie Awards

Union Station Hotel, Grand Hall

Green Ronin is up for several awards and our crew will of course be there for the ceremony!


Noon: Dragon Age Roleplaying and the Future of the AGE System

Crowne Plaza Hotel : Victoria Stn A/B

Bioware’s world of Thedas is the setting for our Dragon Age tabletop roleplaying game. Learn devs Chris Pramas’ and Jack Norris’ plans for the setting and the development of more AGE system games.

2 pm: Emerald Spire All-Stars Seminar

Convention Center: Room 231

Join a panel of the game design superstars behind the Pathfinder Emerald Spire Superdungeon. Panelists will discuss their original dungeon levels, followed by a Q&A and signing. Join a jaw-dropping panel of the game design superstars behind Paizo’s Emerald Spire Superdungeon. Panelists will discuss their original dungeon levels and share dungeon-themed anecdotes from their career in gaming, followed by a Q&A and signing. Panelists: Ed Greenwood, Frank Mentzer, Richard Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Mike Stackpole, Jordan Weisman, Chris Pramas, Lisa Stevens, Erik Mona, F. Wesley Schneider, James Jacobs, Jason Bulmahn, Sean K Reynolds.

See you all in Indianapolis!

The Art of Roleplaying Games Gallery Show Looking for Submissions

I am co-curating and Green Ronin Publishing is sponsoring an art show at Krab Jab Studio called The Art of Roleplaying Games. The idea is to show off some of the awesome art that has been produced for RPGs in a gallery setting. We hope to display a breadth of material that represents RPGs from the early days to the present and feature art from a wide variety of games.

The show opens on August 11, 2012 and runs through the first week in September. We’re planning a special event the night before the Penny Arcade Expo begins, and we hope we can lure some attendees away from downtown to check out the show and the Georgetown neighborhood where Krab Jab is located.

We already have some art lined up but right now it’s mostly from local Seattle artists and we’d love to have participation from further afield. If you are an artist, collector, or company¬† that owns original RPG art and you’d like to be part of the show, please contact us at krabjabstudio [at] gmail [dot] com. Let us know what you’d like to show and what game products they appeared in.

Work can be any 2D media, color or grayscale, and must have been created for use in a roleplaying game publication. Krab Jab Studio does have an artist agreement that needs to be signed prior to hanging (it’s very standard legal stuff). Krab Jab Studio takes 20% commission for works sold inhouse or online, but you are not required to have your pieces for sale. We do catalog the show and list it on our website ( By August we should be set to ship art within the US (we currently sell locally).

About Krab Jab Studio

Fully established by 2010, Krab Jab Studio is the workplace of artists Julie Baroh, Milo Duke, Mark Tedin and writer Chris Pramas. With a monthly rotation of guest artists in our gallery, Krab Jab has developed a steady following in the funky, industrial artist’s haven known as Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Krab Jab Studio also facilitates classes and workshops, most of which are developed as further education in the illustrational arts. Mark and Julie run a successful weekly costume drawing group, bringing in costumes and models of all kinds.

The name “Krab Jab” is a combination of initials of founders Julie Baroh and Kyle Abernethy. We found it to sound funny, and it stuck, even after Kyle left in 2011 (he still shows with us each month). Previous Krab Jab artists have included painters Michael Hoppe and Sandra Everingham.

About Green Ronin Publishing

Green Ronin Publishing is a Seattle-based company known for its dedication to quality books and games. Founded in 2000, Green Ronin has been at the forefront of roleplaying game development ever since, taking home the coveted ENnie Award for Best Publisher an unprecedented three years running. With great licenses like Dragon Age and A Song of Ice and Fire, groundbreaking games like Mutants & Masterminds and Blue Rose, and a roster of top flight designers and illustrators, Green Ronin Publishing is a leading light in the hobby game industry.

Personal Note: If you are wondering how I am both president of Green Ronin and a member of Krab Jab, see this older post. Short answer: I’m using Krab Jab as a co-working space.

Top Five Reasons I Won’t Support Your Kickstarter

5. Your promises are vague and so is the delivery date of the project.
4.¬†You spend 30 days on all social media talking about nothing but your Kickstarter. I didn’t back it the first 500 times I heard about it, but number 501 is sure to do the trick!
3. The leader of your team is an ethically-challenged piece of work who has already publicly disgraced himself.
2. Your “funny” game is about rape.
1. You are a millionaire and you Kickstart something you could easily afford. Asking people poorer than you to fund your project is so 1%.

Seattle, Here I Come!

Nine months ago I moved down to Austin to take a job with Vigil Games. I left my wife Nicole and step-daughter Kate behind and I’ve only seen them once every 5-6 weeks. I knew it would not be easy and it was not. When I first got here, I got an apartment near work with a 10 month lease. The plan was that I’d work the job while Kate did her first year of high school in Seattle. Come summertime, we’d assess the situation. If things were going well, we’d consider moving Nik and Kate down to join me and we’d upgrade to a bigger place. If they were not, I could return to Seattle with some valuable experience under my belt.

In May I asked the leadership at Vigil if they’d consider letting me telecommute. I argued that my many months here had allowed me to learn the game and the team and that the major part of job, writing, was something I could do from anywhere. I also told them I’d be happy to fly down once a month for planning sessions, brainstorming, etc. They said they would indeed considerate it and for a couple of weeks I thought I might be able to both go home and keep the paycheck and insurance for the family. As it turned out though, the managers all agreed that telecommuting was right out. It was stay in Austin or leave the job.

This was a tough decision. On the one hand, I wanted to return to Seattle and rejoin my family. On the other hand, the factors that had led me to take the gig in the first place (insurance in particular) would reassert themselves as soon as I quit. The other option would have been to sell our house in Seattle and move Nik and Kate down here. I had many months to chew on that and I decided I just couldn’t do it to Miss Kate. She was at her stupid hippie school for so many years and finally this year was at a decent school she was doing well at. She had also grown up in Seattle and I didn’t want to tear her away from her home and all her friends.

Meanwhile, my apartment complex had given me a deadline. I needed to tell them by June 16, two months before my lease ran out, if I’d be renewing it. If I lived anywhere near the cool things in Austin, if the city had a decent public transportation system so I could get around on my own, if I had found the work more fulfilling–well, maybe the choice would have been harder. In the end though, my heart knew what it wanted: a return to the Emerald City and my family.

Folks at Vigil were understanding and we’re parting amicably. I’ll be going to GenCon as planned and returning here for one more week of work. Then Nicole and I will have another four day adventure moving all my stuff back home. I should be back in Seattle by the 20th or so. I will then return to working for Green Ronin full time and consider my options. We may be destitute by Xmas, but at least we’ll be together.

While these past nine months have been challenging in many ways, I don’t want to give the impression that it was misery either. I knew some people from the area before I got here and many of them have become real friends. There are many cool and talented people at Vigil and I made some good friends there as well. Without their willingness to take my non-driving ass around, I never would have experienced the better restaurants or gone to any punk rock shows. So thank you, Austin friends. I’m sure we will game and eat BBQ again together in the future.

Now I need to pack, plan for GenCon, and think about my next move. Seattle, here I come!

Originally published on LiveJournal on July 20, 2011.

GenCon and PAX

The rise of the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle has been pretty spectacular. It’s gone from something small to an event that tops 60,000 people in just a few years. Then they did it again in Boston, pulling in similar numbers after just two years of PAX East. The focus is on video games, but there has always been a tabletop gaming element as well and this has continued to grow. This past year I was on a panel called The Evolution of RPGs with Richard Garfield, John Tynes, and Keith Baker and the turnout was huge. We had over 400 people in the room and they turned people away. A far cry most from RPG related seminars that I’m on.

So clearly, Penny Arcade is doing some things right and both of their shows have become events for geeks of all sorts. This inevitably leads to comparisons, like the Origins vs. GenCon debates that have gone on for 30 years. Until PAX came on the scene, GenCon was the biggest game show in America (though both are still outdone by Spiel in Essen in Germany). GenCon is in some ways the opposite of PAX. It is firmly a tabletop gaming show, but there is a video game presence as well. While there was some fear that the move from its home in Milwaukee to Indianapolis would spoil the show’s special alchemy, that did not end up being the case. GenCon is more successful than ever, bringing in 30,000 gamers and acting as the yearly cornerstone of the tabletop game industry.

I am thus somewhat perplexed when I hear rumblings of doom and gloom for GenCon because of PAX. I see people asserting that GenCon needs to learn from PAX or it will be left by the wayside. Or that Gencon panders to the base while PAX is more inclusive. It’s like because there is a different show that draws more people, somehow GenCon is diminished despite the fact that it is bigger than ever. I have to say, I don’t get it.

To me GenCon and PAX are both great shows that are different. They overlap in some areas, but each has different strengths and different core audiences. I see no reason why both cannot continue to thrive. The biggest factor that may have made them competitors‚ÄĒgeography‚ÄĒis not in play. GenCon is in the Midwest and the PAX shows are on the coasts.

For Green Ronin GenCon is indispensable. Our sales there dwarf those of any other convention and it is also one of major marketing efforts of the year. PAX I always have a good time at, but it has been less awesome for business. I’d have to say that we haven’t figured out the best way for GR to take advantage of it yet. We’ve tried a few different ways (last year Sandstorm sold our stuff and hosted demos in their room, for example) but none of them have been satisfactory. We have been reluctant to go for the full on booth because our experience at shows like San Diego Comic Con made us wary. That show has huge attendance but it didn’t translate into sales good enough to justify us continuing to get a booth after a several year stint. I’d like to see if we can do PAX better this year, particularly with our Dragon Age RPG (which should have a natural audience there).

If I have a point here, it’s that we shouldn’t be wringing our hands because we have three big, successful game shows in America; we should be celebrating it.

Originally published on LiveJournal on March 20, 2011.

A Look Back at D&D Minis

It seems that with the exception of special products like the recently released beholder set, D&D minis are dead. A few years ago the line was doing well so this is quite a change of fortune. So what happened?

For a product like D&D minis, you have three basic types of consumers:
1) People who use them as RPG accessories.
2) People who use them to play miniatures games.
3) People who like to collect cool minis/D&D paraphernalia.

There is some overlap between the groups (I am a classic roleplayer/minis player hybrid) but the crossover is smaller than many people think. Ten years ago when I was working on the game that was ultimately called D&D Chainmail, my team was trying to build a game to appeal to minis players. Since these were going to be minis of D&D monsters and heroes, we also hoped to appeal to the roleplayers but they were the secondary target. (I wanted to maintain a separate line of RPG accessory minis but that idea of kiboshed and Chainmail was increasingly expected to do double duty.)

The plan was to do a skirmish game (something you can play with 8-12 minis per side) and then scale it up to a full mass battles game (in which you’d commonly see over 100 figures per side). Miniatures players are willing to make that sort of investment. Many will buy multiple armies. With a compelling setting and halfway decent rules, you can keep minis gamers buying lots of figs for a long, long time. See Games Workshop. Roleplayers, as we’ll see, have a different psychology.

D&D Chainmail had a troubled existence from the get go, but two events drove the nails into its coffin. First, the decision was made to make it a skirmish game only. Something that was meant to be a six month phase turned into the entire game. Not at all what we planned. Second, Mage Knight came out and proved collectible minis could sell. My team had been trying to set up a more traditional pewter, non-collectible minis business. We faced tough internal pressure to figure out some way to apply the Magic business model to minis, but we really didn’t think that was a good idea. When Mage Knight was selling like crazy, it was hard to argue against it though. This was the Pokemon era when expectations were ridiculous. We were asked by a VP once if Chainmail would make over $10 million in its first year. We said it was unlikely, and that the business would need time to grow to that level. No one wanted to hear that at WotC in 2001.

When Chainmail launched, it was already a compromised product. It got crap support from the company and a key decision from an idiot brand manager made the production costs much higher than the needed to be while creating packaging that did a poor job of showcasing the minis. A year later the game rules won an Origins Award…one week after WotC cancelled it. By this point all the members of that original team had quit or been laid off. Interestingly, two of them (Matt Wilson and Mike McVey) went off and formed Privateer Press, which went to to publish the Warmachine and Hordes miniatures games.

When D&D Minis came back, it was in a pre-painted, collectible format like Mage Knight. There was an attached game (ironically enough, a revised version of the Chainmail rules) but the main target was roleplayers. IIRC, the first starters didn’t even say miniatures game on them. The setting, factions, characters, and stories we tried to create with Chainmail were jettisoned. If you wanted to play the game, you had your choice of bland, alignment-based factions with no background, no cohesion, and no particular reason to fight.

For roleplayers though, the new approach worked initially. Most of the sculpts and paint jobs were mediocre but the roleplayers didn’t care as much about those things as the minis players. They liked popping something ready to use out of the package and if it looked halfway decent on the table, that was good enough. No glue, painting, or assembly required. A secondary market sprang up where common (but useful in a RPG) minis were available pretty cheaply (I bought ten giant frogs once because they were ten cents each). The rare figures were more expensive, of course, and many desirable monsters were only available as rares.

For several years new sets of D&D minis came out regularly and seemed to sell well. WotC was making money, the roleplayers were generally satisfied, and D&D itself became increasingly minis-centric, which should only have reinforced demand. And yet, it eventually became apparent that things weren’t going so well. WotC stopped supporting the minis game. Sets become less frequent. Some gamers complained the quality of the minis was dropping. So what was going on?

My suspicion (and remember I was long gone from WotC when this stuff went down) is the the nature of the roleplaying consumer eventually bit Wotc in the ass. A roleplayer wants enough minis to support his or her RPG sessions and the minis are in many ways incidental to the game experience. A minis gamer wants to build armies and the minis are a key element of the game experience. I believe many of the roleplayers who bought cases of minis for the first few sets began to slow down as their collections grew. At a certain point they had most of their bases covered. So instead of buying a case, they bought a few boosters or cherry picked a few figs from the secondary market.

At the same time, the cost of making the minis was going up. Pre-painted collectible figures are all done in Asia but you may have noticed the weakening American dollar and the recession we’ve been in the last few years. So as sales on each set eroded, the cost to make the minis was going up. Declining sales + increasing costs = the almost inevitable death of D&D minis as we knew them.

It seems that the era of the collectible mini is nearing an end after only a decade. Mage Knight, the pioneer in the field, was ironically one of the first to die. The ups, downs, and acquisitions of its publisher, Wizkids, is a whole other story. They are now part of Neca and seem to be doing OK with a revived Heroclix. Few other games are left standing. The more traditional minis companies survive and in many cases thrive. Games Workshop still dominates the field. Privateer has experimented with a pre-painted plastic game but their bread and butter seems to still be Warmachine and Hordes. Reaper looks solid as a rock and they still do great business selling pewter minis to D&D players.

WotC, I suspect, plans to migrate the minis aspect of D&D play to the virtual tabletop online with the rest of the game. There may even be a business model there, selling packs of virtual creatures and characters. For my part, I wish D&D had gotten a real mass battles miniatures game supported by a full line of pewter and multi-part plastic miniatures. Something that played great on its own but could also tie into your RPG campaign. Something that made the most of D&D’s rich worlds and added new lore and stories to that tradition. I’m a crazy dreamer like that.

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 13, 2011.