Interview Time: Ed Stark

Greetings readers! This week I have another special interview with a luminary of the gaming industry: Ed Stark. Ed has an amazing pedigree as a game designer, having worked at West End Games, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast amongst many others.

The man, the myth, the legend: Ed Stark

I first became aware of Ed’s work while playing the Star Wars D6 System from West End back in the early 90’s (plus TORG, which I owned but did not play — see my review for more information).

Later on, I found one of my favorite RPG settings of all time, Birthright (which I have also reviewed here on the Warden). Ed had a lot to do with that setting, having developed and written for several books in the game line for TSR.

My first chance to meet Ed in person occurred Winter Fantasy 2001, an RPGA-focused game convention held in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Since I was living at the time not far away in Louisville, some friends of mine and I made the trip up to attend the convention.

Honestly, we did not know what to expect at Winter Fantasy; we’d never attended an RPGA-centered event before and we hadn’t signed up beforehand for any particular games. Our plan was to simply show up, check things out, and get in on some open gaming that (we assumed) would be going on at the same time.

Well, it turned out that Winter Fantasy doesn’t really have a lot of open gaming — I didn’t actually find any! In addition, since 99% of the attendees had signed up for RPGA games in advance, there wasn’t much of anything going on when the games were in session.

This worked out to my advantage, however — Winter Fantasy was hosting several special guests that year, including Monte Cook and Ed Stark.

Because all the other gamers were playing in their RPGA events, the guests of honor were basically sitting around by themselves over near the dealer’s area. My friends and I thought this was a real shame, so we went over and introduced ourselves.

What happened next was magical. We got to sit down and chat about games with Monte Cook and Ed Stark, face-to-face, by ourselves, for about three hours. That’s an opportunity that many gamers would kill for!

During this conversation, I talked to Ed about my desire and passion to write for RPGs and get into the industry. Ed listened and gave me some excellent advice. “If you want to write for RPGs,” he told me, “Just get out there and do it. I believe you can.”

From that moment, I moved forward as a writer and I credit my subsequent success in my career to that conversation.

Ed and I kept in touch over the years afterwards, and I always considered him my mentor.

In 2011, Ed contacted me about a position at Vigil Games in Austin Texas, working with him as writers on the Warhammer 40,000 MMO, Dark Millennium Online. I didn’t need to think about it very long — this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Ed at Gen Con in 2001 — check out that awesome dungeon!

Working with Ed on DMO was exceptionally instructive. I learned a ton about writing for games in general and working in the video game industry specifically. Having helped me find my way as a writer into two different industries, I consider Ed to be a supremely valued friend, colleague, and mentor.

Ed is now working at Zenimax Online as a Content Developer for the exciting new MMO, Elder Scrolls Online. He was gracious to answer some questions about his history in the RPG business for my blog — and there was absolutely no way I was going to pass up a chance to pick his brain about Birthright — and I’m very excited to present his answers below!

As always, my questions are in Red.

General Questions

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

One of Ed’s early projects, and a kick-ass sci-fi setting.

ES: It’s funny. I’ve been writing RPG material since I was a teenager, but I never really thought about getting published until I was in graduate school (English/Education) and was working three jobs to help pay for it (my parents helped out, too, but grad school isn’t cheap). I wrote a few freelance articles and then my future father-in-law saw an ad in a newspaper for an editorial position at West End Games. I interviewed for the position but was still in school, so they didn’t hire me. But six months later, after I graduated, they called me back and I became an RPG editor. Within a few months, I was also the lead designer at WEG (it was a very small company), as well as line editor for the Paranoia RPG.

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

ES: The freedom to be creative. Yes, most companies have established lines and, especially if you’re starting out, want you to right for their material and their style. But people have no idea how much more creative freedom you get in the RPG industry than in other publishing fields. After a few years of success, you can be a decision-maker in the RPG field, where that could take several years or even decades in other publishing or entertainment industries.

RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?

ES: This isn’t unique to the RPG industry, but volatility. If you want to keep working in the field, you’ve got to be lucky and adaptable. I know folks who’ve been at the same job for a decade … and others who’ve had to bounce around every couple of years. I guess “resilient” is a better term than adaptable. You have to set goals and work toward them, even if that means changing where you live or what you’re doing.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?

ES: That word “professional” is a big one. When I started in the industry, it was little more than a hobby that made money. It’s still a hobby, or some would say “cottage” industry, but there are definitely companies and people out there who want to make it a successful business. Some go about it the right way … whereas I worry when I see people getting too “business-like.” The best companies retain their hobby feel and atmosphere but develop management and brand sense.

RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?

One of the books from my personal favorite edition of D&D. Great job, Ed!

ES: As a freelancer, ask questions about your assignment, communicate REGULARLY (note the all-caps), and hit your deadlines. If you can’t hit your deadline, communicate this EARLY (again, all caps) with a clear plan for how you’ll make up the time. Treat your freelance job much as you would an office job–set aside time each day for it, and commit to getting a certain amount of top-quality work done every day. You may have another job (many freelancers do), but don’t use that as excuse for letting your freelance slide.

As a publisher, encourage freelancers to ask questions, communicate REGULARLY with your freelancers (hmm … suspicious re-use of all caps), and hit YOUR deadlines (as in, payments, updates, etc.). Yeah, a publisher is more likely to get away with not paying a freelancer on time than a freelancer is with missing a few deadlines, but is that really the kind of reputation you want to develop? I have a short list of companies I’ll never write for (should I get back into doing freelancer again) unless I hear about significant improvements along that line … and I have current freelance friends who feel the same way.

Whenever possible, both parties need to act like they’re on the other side of the coin … because, really, they are. Freelancers depend on publishers for work and payment. Publishers depend on freelancers for quality material so they can sell it. Why screw up that relationship? Both parties need to plan ahead. If you can’t get the work done, don’t accept the project. If you can’t pay for the project, don’t assign it.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

ES: I’d like publishers to work together more to grow the industry. Yes, it’s a bit of a fantasy (I’ve seen it when publishers get together in a room …), but the RPG industry isn’t huge. There have to be ways to grow it. I’ve heard the phrase “a high tide floats all boats.” Well, it’s true. I don’t have a silver bullet for making this happen, but if some smart publishers and freelancers got together and talking about growing the industry … and then actually acted on it … that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?

ES: Not as much as I’d like. Since moving to the computer gaming field, I haven’t been doing as much of this as I did in the past. I used to go to at least three or four conventions a year, and I was a regular on various company and gaming message boards. I always maintained an active online presence and was very candid with my opinions … though I was also good about telling people when I couldn’t talk about something.

I do miss having more regular communication with fans of my work, but it’s been awhile since I’ve published, so there you go. 🙂

Star Wars D6 has a well-deserved reputation as a great RPG.

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?

ES: Participating in the development and release of D&D Third Edition and v.3.5. Being the Creative Director for D&D during those processes was a challenge–and a very different one each time–but I look back on that experience very positively. I very much enjoyed working with the people who actually wrote, edited, and provided artwork for those books, and I hope I made their experiences on the team better by my involvement.

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?

ES: Oddly enough, my first job. When I was at West End Games, I was given a lot of responsibility, very fast. I didn’t make the most of the opportunity to learn, and I developed some bad habits as a designer that I had to work my way through. Like I said before, we were a very small company, so there wasn’t any sort of “backstop.” I very much appreciate the start WEG gave me, but if I could go back and do some of that over again, I’d love the opportunity.

That said, I’m very proud of my time at West End Games and still look back on many of those projects with fondness.

RW: If you were a space explorer, you’d be a…?

ES: Long way from here. Seriously, if I were an explorer, I’d be part of a small group, traveling to every new star and planet. I think my life as a designer shows that. I’ve lived all over the country, with the only real constant being my wife, Jill. Oh, she’d have to be a space explorer, too, to make this work.

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?

ES: Who’s GMing? That’s the big question. If I’m DMing this instant, it’s either D&D 3.5 or MERP. If I’m playing and get to select the Game Master (a very key component of this question), it could be Villains & Vigilantes, Savage Worlds (thanks, Ross), Call of Cthuhlu, or any number of games. I’ve been in so many exciting and entertaining games over the years, I think more about who GMed the game than what we actually played.

RW: Shatterzone, Birthright, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Paranoia, Alternity, TORG, Star Wars D6… 3rd AND 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons – you have a ton of accomplishments in the gaming industry. If you could return to one of the games you’ve worked on in the past and create something new for it, which one would it be?

ES: Very tough question. I immediately think about things I’d fix, but that’s not really the question. I honestly felt we created everything for D&D that I really wanted to create (not to say there isn’t room for expansion), and I’d love to do a few fixes for Shatterzone and Masterbook, but if I had a blank check to create anything, I’d probably go with D&D 3.5. I’d spent a ton of time putting together a crazy super-adventure with a ridiculous number of props, hand-outs, and maps (not drawn by me, but by some of the guys who used to do the old TSR maps … even though we just lost one of the best, Dennis Kauth). It’d be one of those adventures designed to be run over several sessions, but that some people would sit down and play until they couldn’t stay awake anymore.

Birthright Questions

Pirates, monsters, nothing but adventure in Brechtur!

RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). You had a huge impact on the setting as a designer and developer – how do you feel about the setting 20 years later?

ES: Frankly, I think it was a terrific setting that was a bit too front-loaded. The concepts of playing a king (or a regent of another sort) and the rules for running kingdoms as an adventurer were terrific, but I think we overwhelmed players new to the campaign with all that information. I would very much like to see a more “progressive” Birthright game, where the players earned their way to kingship somewhere early on in their careers. All the best BR games I’ve run or played have worked that way, where the players developed their royal natures as part of the first few adventures, over weeks or months, so as to get totally immersed in the setting before they felt they had to “rule” it.

RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?

ES: Well, when I came to TSR, the boxed set was still being playtested, but much of it was ready to go. I remember playing in a test of the Domain Rules with Roger Moore (he was the Creative Director of the Worlds group at the time) where we pretty much ruled Anuire and created a pretty massive clash of kingdoms over the course of a few playtests.

But then I asked, “so, how long does a domain turn last?” “One month,” he replied. “And how many turns have we played so far?” I followed up, innocently. “Looks like about thirty.” So, nearly three years into our playtest “campaign” and things were really only heating up. Politics can take a long time …

RW: You also designed the setting for the Havens of the Great Bay and the Tribes of the Heartless Waste, two significant portions of the main Birthright world. The realm of Muden is obviously one of your favorites – did you have any other particularly exciting realms or regions that you find particularly memorable?

ES: Yes … though most of it never got published. I was spearheading the development of both the Shadow World and Aduria, the great southern continent. The Shadow World was very much patterned after the idea of the Celtic Unseelie Realm and as the home of the Cold Rider, a terrifying place. And halflings, who were natives of the Shadow World who’s fled where pretty scary, too.

Aduria was going to be a sort of “lost continent” setting, with very ancient remnants of fallen empires, sort of South American but without the Incan/Mayan/Aztec influence (that was Menzoberranzan). I was really looking forward to taking players into both realms, where they’d have to forge their own kingdoms from nothing.

RW: The Raven is one of the most interesting and unusual Awnsheghlien, and you could say his presence tends to dominate much of Vasgaard. Is there any thing you can tell us about the Raven’s nature or his eventual plans?

ES: Oh, it’s been so many years … Forgive me if I make a few errors of memory. As I recall, the Raven used his power of possession to take over a realm and then openly declared himself as one of the Lost, the disciples of Azrai. I always saw the Raven as unrepentantly evil, but also the symbol of what a lot of what other peoples think of the Vos–brutal, terrifying, and cruel. But the Raven sacrificed his humanity and the nobility the Vos can possess when he became a disciple of Azrai. In a way, he stands as a great contrast to what people think the “heartless tribes” are and what they actually can be.

The lands of Vosgaard and an awesome place to adventure.

RW: The elven realm of Tuar Annwyn is exceptionally mysterious and unlike any of the other elven realms in Birthright – can you tell us more about what was going on with that place?

ES: Using another Tolkien reference, I see Tuar Annwyn as a bit of a cross between a darker, more dangerous Lothlorien and something out of the Seelie realm of Faerie. I don’t know that I’d establish that direct a connection, but I do see Tuar Annwyn as straddling both worlds and trying to survive against the conflicts of both.

RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?

ES: If there were the opportunity, and I was free (I’m pretty busy right now at ZeniMax), sure, I would. I’d like to work with some of the old crew again in particular, and I could see a revised version really being something that could find a home among modern players. A lot of us watch Game of Thrones, and while Green Ronin is doing an excellent job with the RPG, I could see a higher-magic, D&D version carving out its own niche.

I would definitely focus more on the roleplaying and the world, using adventuring to fuel domain turns and regency. The key to a good Birthright game is getting the players involved in the world and invested in it … and then trying to tear it apart while they hold it together.

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