My first visit to Gen Con in 2005 was memorable for two reasons.
The first was because I got to attend a seminar on GMing. The panelists were some guys — you might know them — from this hot gaming site, Treasure Tables. I sat in the back row and listened to them. Good seminar. Vicky Potter gave me a mechanical pencil — which I’ve still got.
I then had lunch with one of the Werecabbages, John E. Ling. We were two of the “Three Es,” aspiring freelancers whose middle initial was the letter E. (Mine stands for Everett, by the way).
The deal was John and I would eat lunch, discuss the freelancing world — noting that opportunities in the d20-verse were beginning to dry up even then — then catch a seminar on writing for Dungeon magazine. (John is really cool. He even went out of his way and introduced me to Rich Burlew, creator of the web strip, “Order of the Stick.”)
We were meeting up with the the third E, Amber E. Scott. She was, of course, the one with the freelancer credentials. John’s a fellow who can crunch game numbers like nobody’s business, and then draws inspiration from the real world and makes it into rich gaming fantasy in ways that I still marvel at. And I write silly stuff like d20 Modern Unorthodox Cheerleaders.
But Amber — she had actual publishing credits! She was a name! She had contacts! And thanks to the interconnectivity of the Internet, she and John had been corresponding for a while.
So, we get to the seminar and it turns into a brainstorming session for a future Dungeon adventure.
Anyway, the ideas start flying—and my head starts spinning. I can see a story taking shape, but I’m unable to anticipate the next step in the discussion. Not like the pros.
There are some of Dungeon’s regular contributors in the audience, and they’re nodding a lot, nudging and contributing when it slows, but they clearly can see the adventure taking shape. And Amber is in the thick of it. She’s pitching cool ideas, holding her own with the others more comfortable with this collaborative storytelling.
Me? I’m a member of the peanut gallery by now. Things are moving fast. I’m a gnome peaking my nose over the stone wall, hoping for a glimpse at the big boys, just trying to filter everything I’m hearing.
Looking back, I can say that seminar produced, as least for my money, the first RPG Superstar winner. Instead of a weeks-long contest that Paizo is currently running as an effort to increase its stable of freelancers for its modules line and Adventure Paths, it was a seminar compressed to a mere 45 minutes. In my mind, Amber Scott came away with the prize, paving a path that others would follow.
So I thought it would be instructive if Amber told her story, her version of what happened that weekend, especially now with the current contest ongoing. Not only is it a peek at the behind-the-scenes of publishing adventures — worthwhile information for any GM — it’s also a lesson in how to reap a reward by exhibiting a dash of gumption and following up with a streak of tenacity. So, here’s Amber’s recollection of that day:
Ah, GenCon. I remember 2005 as being one of the best GenCons I ever attended. I had a few publishing credits under my belt. I knew some of the Names, including the Paizo crew, the Werecabbages, and Rich Burlew. I “did lunch.” I have always been enthusiastic about writing, but that was the first year I also felt confident and professional. Perhaps that’s why the Writing for Dungeon Magazine seminar turned out the way it did.
I’d been writing for Dragon for about a year but I had yet to find the secret door into Dungeon magazine. I love writing adventures and a publication in Dungeon felt like it would be the next step in my career. John and Troy and I met up and headed to the panel together.
No matter how professional I feel, I always cherish advice from the pros. I was still in that point in my career where writing roleplaying games seemed like a magical gift, not a “job” I got “paid” for (oh who am I kidding, I never left that stage. I’m the worst person for getting my contracts in on time because I still feel so amazed that I’m getting money for this.) So as I sat next to John and Troy in the conference room, I was prepared with my little spiral notebook and pen, ready to soak in the wisdom of Erik Mona, who was publisher, James Jacobs, managing editor, and Jeremy Walker, assistant editor.
The seminar went like this: the audience shouted out monsters and villains and challenges and as the Paizo editors wrote them down we collectively strung them into an adventure outline. We started with wererats. My brain kicked into high gear as I tried to follow the line of creative generation trawling through the room. I was excited. Wererats, cool!! I love wererats! The Paizo crew, I think, were not so excited. They get a lot of wererats. But they rolled with it. This wererat was different, anyway—he wanted to take over the town and show that the vermin everyone despised were the most powerful of all. The audience was generating minions for the wererat— “no dire rats” Mona stressed. This threw us momentarily. I had a brain flash. “If he wants to show how the street creatures are so powerful, what if he had a pack of trained feral house cats?” Big reaction. I basked.
At the end of the seminar, Mona looked at our scrawl-covered whiteboard and announced, “This is really good. If I got this pitch, I’d ask to see the adventure. Everyone, when you get home, write out your version of this pitch and send it to me. Mention you were here today. I’ll pick the best one and we’ll publish it in Dungeon.”
I got all goosebumpy. This was my chance! I wanted to race back to my hotel room and start writing immediately. As the seminar wrapped up, though, doubts started to percolate through my aura of excitement. And that’s when things got weird.The seminar had woken my imagination and my mind filled with ideas about the adventure. Trained housecats … why not trained pigeons? What if the wererat had a sister, that would be cool! And his lair could be in a garbage dump!
At the same time, I started to wonder if it was really “fair” to compete. After all, I had experience writing for Dragon. I knew these guys. Would I be stealing someone else’s opportunity? Someone else’s best shot at breaking into the industry?
After a moment’s internal struggle, I decided to step aside. I would break into Dungeon on my own time, and some unknown would get their shot at the best gig in the world.
Glowing with the self-righteous light of altruism, I approached the panelists and told Erik that I’d modestly decided to bow out so that someone else could have a chance.
“Yeah,” Erik said. “No one ever sends in the query.”
“Pardon?” I said.
He told me that though they’d done this same seminar many times, no one ever sent in a query. That couldn’t be, I argued. These people paid money to be here. They sacrificed time. They were in a seminar called “Writing for Dungeon” so why wouldn’t they … well … try to write for Dungeon? With this guaranteed shot at an adventure the editor wanted and liked?
“You’ll be flooded with queries,” I insisted, because hey, I knew better than Erik Mona, right?
When I got home from the con I decided that, heck with it, I was going to write this query. I thought up some new ideas—instead of a garbage dump, I made it a garbage scow (with giant cockroaches!) I built on the ideas we’d generated but made the query my own. I sent in the query, and a few weeks later got a response from Jeremy Walker.
He told me I was the only one to submit a query. I was in.
My adventure, “Urban Decay,” appeared in Dungeon #138, just 12 issues before Paizo ceased publishing the magazine. Looking back on the experience, I took so much away from the seminar itself, that joyful buzz of shared ideas, tossing concepts back and forth until they grew more complex yet more refined. I also took away a new confidence, the knowledge that not everyone who participates is necessarily the most talented. I was competing with myself more than any other writer—constantly fighting to overcome self-doubt and get my work out there.
The seminar had a huge impact on my career, both at Paizo and as a freelancer. I think the experience helped show Paizo that I was serious about writing—that I was willing to take chances and jump in feet-first when the situation called for it. I also turned over a good-quality adventure that needed minimal revisions, which didn’t hurt.
In the last 6 months I’ve written my first solo projects for Paizo and when “Chronicle of the Righteous” comes out later this year, it will have my name by itself on the cover. I think the trust Paizo has shown in me this year has its roots in that early work I did for Paizo.
The seminar also underscored for me how writers in the RPG industry don’t truly work alone. I have always been a private writer; I hate showing half-finished work to anyone (I don’t even like meeting my project turnovers) and I’m most comfortable writing solo. But everyone in that room helped create the adventure I ultimately put to paper. Even people who didn’t speak up contributed through body language and energy. If I called out an idea, I could feel instantly a change in the room’s attitude. People nodding, smiling at each other, approving murmurs. Or, less ego-boostingly, people looking at the floor, staring at the ceiling, faces neutral. (This was in the day before smartphones, or I probably could have judged the quality of my ideas by how many people glanced up from their screens).
Even with “Chronicle of the Righteous,” my name might be on the cover but there’s a whole host of names on the inside. I met and talked extensively with Wes Schneider when he was outlining the project and I had a few close writer friends I could bounce ideas off of (without violating my NDA of course). Add in the editors, developers, artists … my name is one of many. The Dungeon seminar was my first solid lesson in how collaborative this process is.
And, of course, a dramatic lesson in how important it is to just go for it.
My thanks to Amber for sharing her experience with the Stew’s readers. Amber is a co-author of the rpg supplements Eberron Secrets of Xendrik (2006) and Dark Markets: A Guide to Katapesh (2009) and author of the novellas “The Swamp Warden” and “The Seventh Execution” from the Pathfinder Tales lines. I still think her greatest gift to GMs everywhere, though, were the eggsucker staff and the vivyfying bacaulao — wickedly weird magical items from Dragon 355’s lizardfolk-themed “Bazaar of the Bizarre.”