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General From the Freelancing Frontline – Meeting Giants

Like so many TTRPG writers, I got where I am now by standing on the backs of giants. But it’s easier to stand on a giant’s back after you meet them, and I am a depressive socially-awkward introvert with self-confidence issues. Instinctively I don’t want to meet anyone, much less giants. In this regard, the 1997 TSR Writer’s Workshop (held in the Wizards of the Coast Game Center in Seattle), was a huge boost to my career. Not just because of what I was taught at the Workshop, but because of what I learned there.

Game_Center_rotunda.gif

WotC Gaming Center, Seattle

But, again, I am getting ahead of myself.

After I had realized I needed to learn from, talk to, and get to know RPG professionals if I wanted to join their ranks, Dragon Magazine (which I now had a subscription for) advertised the 1997 TSR RPG Writer’s Workshop. It was a week or so long, and would represent a major expense – tickets across the country from Oklahoma, hotel room, food... the cost of the workshop itself was a minor part of the total cost. It would take more money than all my magazine contracts to date had earned. It was, in short, out of reach.

Except, my wife didn’t believe that.

She saw this as a worthwhile step in my career. She also thought I had proven I could make this a career. She was sure we could budget for the expense, if we really wanted to. It involved a lot of belt tightening. We scrimped so hard that some weeks we could only afford to eat because our gaming group would pay my wife $5 each to cook a hot homemade meal for game night (often the only homemade meal some of them got), and she and I would eat leftovers for days.

Somehow, we managed to scrape together what we needed, by the deadline we needed it. Workshop reservation and plane tickets in advance, money for meals before I left, and a plan to pay off the credit card charges for my hotel room after I got back. It was literally our birthday, Christmas, and anniversary gifts to each other that year, and sucked up pretty much every penny we could pry free of necessities.

But we made it work.

And so I flew to Seattle, and sat with 15 or so other people who thought this was a good use of a week and a few grand, and let Steve Earth (director of the WotC gaming center) be our guide to the most spectacular compound of gaming I have ever encountered. It was at least two stories, one of them underground. There was a game store, of course. But there were also linked computers running Warcraft, Nintendos with GoldenEye, tables with 3D terrain, tables with card shufflers, boardgame collections, miniature collections, fantasy and scifi art, a dragon, a minotaur... and the BattleTech battle pods, and the Battle Bar.

For those not familiar with the BattleTech battle pods, they were little cockpits you sat in, linked together to let you pilot a Battle Mech in team vs team combat with other people. They were immersive, and cool, and very high-level graphics for the era. And Steve let us use the battle pods for free before the center opened, after it closed, and anytime it was slow. I was not a BattleTech superfan... but I loved those battle pods. And the bar.

The battle bar had a life-sized giant severed mecha arm prop over it, right next to the monitors that showed current BattleTech fights in real time, as well as highlights of previous fights. Following every bout, the mechwarriors would gather ‘Under the Arm’ to boast, watch the film of their victory or loss, and buy a Mountain Dew. Especially before the center officially opened, it was an amazing extension of the fantasy of being a scifi combatant – after the battle, you went and got drinks with your comrades and told and listened to lies about valor and skill, and gasped and cheered when the occasional tale was proven true on replay. And after every battle, you got a printout that said who had done what damage and with which and to whom.

But the real treasure of the Workshop was, well, the workshop.

Every day we had two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, where game industry professionals talked to us about some specific topic. I took tons of notes, ranging from simple things (like reminders that when drawing maps walls have thickness, rather than only existing as a pencil line) to complex concepts of game balance and player vs DM fun. We heard from Chris Perkins, Julia Martin, Ed Stark, Stan!, Thomas Reed, Jonathan Tweet, and a dozen other writers, editors, and developers. We had also each sent in an adventure in advance, and had those critiqued, and worked to improve them with the lessons we learned.

It was exactly the kind of high-density RPG design infodump I had been craving.

I wish it still existed. Steve Earth wanted the program to be a huge success, and to do it every year. To the best of my knowledge it was never held again, and in late 2000 the Game Center itself was closed and a lot of its props sold off to employees and friends of employees. Though I was working for WotC at the time I am lucky I wasn’t in-state when that happened, or I’m pretty sure I would have bought a giant mecha arm (using a credit card I’d still be paying off).

But on top of all the things I was taught, I also learned something crucial on my own. Remembering how useful it was to spend time with RPG great Aaron Allston, and how easy it had been to just ask him to a meal during a convention, I was ready to take a chance to get more facetime with our speakers. And one day, after Stan! and Ed Stark had finished a presentation and we all went to Dalmuti’s (the restaurant attached to the Game Center), the two of them were sitting together at one of the tables.

Alone.

Surrounded by many other Workshop attendees, sitting in tables around theirs. Just... staring at them.

To this day, I am amazed I overcame my fear to sit with people who had helped create DragonLance and Birthright and so many more of the worlds I had played in.

“Hi, I’m Owen. May I sit with you two for lunch?”

They smile. I nearly puke. But they invite me to sit.

I learned, years later, that Stan! and Ed had specifically chosen to eat there so several of us COULD come talk to them over lunch. After I joined, two other attendees came over. But the important lesson I learned was – game professionals like talking about themselves. If they put themselves out in public, they want to be interacted with.

And, most importantly, no matter how overawed I was to meet giants, they wouldn’t actually bite my head off
 
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Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens



Cobalt Sages

Villager
Yes, thank you for the confidence booster Owen! I had a similar experience at GENCON 2019. I had an opportunity to meet up with Ehn Jolly (too many credits to list), Stephen Rowe (Kobold Press), and Jefferson Jay Thacker (Know Direction show).
  • Jolly was so easy to relate to, talk to, and hang out with that we pretty much spent the rest of the con in and out of his aura. I'll tell you, just being near these types of folks grants knowledge.
  • Stephen Rowe was disturbingly nice (in a good way of course!). He even had the graciousness to ignore my TERRIBAD slip in miss-attributing another work to him, directly to his face mind you, and continuing the amazing politeness and genuinely enjoyable conversation.
  • I didn't get to spend a large amount of time speaking with Jay (aka Perrem), but even as he walked away from a Paizo panel he was kind enough to chat a bit.
It's this kind of thing, these types of interactions that told me quickly how open and just... human all these giants are. They carry a large amount of influence, but the important thing to remember is they are people like you and me. One day they were riding a bike at a young age and talking about their new character, just like me and you. Now, they've invested enough time, energy, and most importantly their passion into the industry. These things show.

@Owen, thank you so much for the article. It was a wonderful read, not just for the professional aspect, but for seeing the support and compassion of your spouse for your passion. That's such an amazing thing to see. It just goes to show that supporting the industry isn't just the content creators or the folks buying books, it's also our support structure. Those who we rely on for moral, emotional, and other forms of support are just as important (if not more!) to remember and thank.
 

Pobman

Explorer
This was a delightful read. I am glad you were rewarded for your courage, I would never have the balls to make all the sacrifices you and your wife did to achieve my dreams. I can't wait to read more of your articles :)
 

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