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Night of the Living Gamer
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Interviews: John Tynes

John Tynes is co-owner of Pagan Publishing, and co-creator of the Call of Cthulhu supplement Delta Green, which many consider to be one of the greatest supplements ever made for any role-playing game. Since DG was published in 1997, Tynes has created his own game worlds, equally as vivid and compelling as his CoC material, in Atlas Games' Unknown Armies and the short masterpiece Puppetland. He's also continued to shape contemporary Cthulhoid media with efforts like the miniatures game The Hills Rise Wild!, and Pagan Publishing's considerable contribution to the Call of Cthulhu D20 core book, coming in 2002 from WotC. Pagan is also about to bring out its first self-produced RPG, Dennis Detwiller's Godlike. Tynes' non-gaming projects are too numerous to list - we defer to his (huge) web site. He is one of gaming's most original minds, and we thank him for devoting some time to this email interview with Mike Sugarbaker.

What got you started in gaming?

I began playing Dungeons & Dragons in junior high school, and soon got into Top Secret and Chill. I played a little Call of Cthulhu in high school, but didn't really get into it heavily until I went off to college.

What led to your writing the Death To The Minotaur article for Salon? (Interesting story, or just the expiry of an NDA?)

It was a story I'd wanted to tell for quite a while, and at various times I considered writing a book about WotC. But I ultimately rejected the book idea on the grounds that I'd already given them a year of my life, and I didn't want to give them another one. I ended up writing the article because of my friend Mike Daisey, whose one-man theater show about working for Amazon.com (21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com) made me realize the parallels between WotC in 1994-95 and the dot-coms in 1996-99, and got me interested again in telling the story. I also felt that there were very few people in a position to tell that story, since I particularly believed that the drinking game and its aftermath was critical to the divergence between WotC's dream and WotC's reality - and there were only six or seven people at the meeting on Monday morning to discuss the situation.

What were you expecting the response to the article to be like, and how (if at all) were you surprised by what the response actually was?

I really didn't know what to expect, except that it was bound to be interesting. The biggest surprise that resulted was how positive the response was. I received well over a hundred emails, and only three or four were complaints from gamers that I'd insulted all of gamerdom or somesuch. I had a lot of responses from current and former WotC staffers, all of whom enjoyed the article and were pleased to see the story told.

There was a real perception among gamers that Peter Adkison must have hated the article, despised me, etc., and that just wasn't the case. I've hung out with Peter since then and we're cool. I interviewed him briefly for the article while I was writing it and told him the focus was on the drinking game, and he said that was a really profound experience and was intrigued I'd zeroed in on it. We shared some interesting times during my year at WotC, and I'm pleased that Peter was open-minded and self-aware enough to take the whole thing in stride. He's a pretty fascinating guy.

Then what do you make of Adkison's response to your article, quoted in Sci Fi Wire and repeated at a couple of other sources: "When asked what he thought of the Tynes story, Adkison said, 'Not much. Thanks for asking.' He added, 'Basically the only thing I want to say in response is to correct a factual error. There was not the level of open sex going on at the office that John reports. At least not that I was involved with or even had knowledge of.' "

I'm glad you brought this up, because that really got under my skin. The reporter for Sci Fi Wire distorted Peter's response in his article. See, Pete CC'ed me on his email response to the reporter and I saw it unedited.

This was Pete's statement:

Sorry I haven't written sooner, but I've finally decided what to say about John Tynes' article, and that is "not much." Thanks for asking.

In other words, Peter decided not to say much about the article. The reporter distorted this so it sounded like Peter said he didn't think much of the article, a very different and much more provocative statement. Whether the reporter did this intentionally to add drama or was just clumsy in his wording, I have no idea. I sent the guy an email pointing this out and he agreed and apologized. But of course, the damage was already done.

[Tynes re-quotes the second portion of the Sci Fi Wire blurb, containing Adkison's statement "There was not the level of open sex going on at the office that John reports."] There was a heck of a lot of sleeping around - stick four dozen unmarried young men and women in a close-knit, exciting environment and that's what you get. Whether that constituted "open sex" or not probably depends on how plugged in to the grapevine you were; it wasn't discussed on the internal bulletin boards or anything, but awareness of who was hooking up with whom seemed pretty widespread to me.

Pete did personally take me to task on one point: he says that during the drinking game, when he named WotC employees he'd been involved with, he meant that this involvement happened some time earlier, before those people were employees. I'm willing to take him at his word on this and wrote a form letter to that effect which he could use in the future should he be interviewing for a board position or something.

How did Godlike come about?

I decided it was finally time for Pagan Publishing to produce an RPG, and I asked Dennis Detwiller to do it because I knew he was a writing machine and had a lot of great game ideas kicking around in his head. Ultimately we decided to have another company, Hawthorn Hobgoblynn, actually publish the game and we are just producing it.

What's your role in the creation of the d20 edition of Call of Cthulhu, and how has that process been going?

The process ended months ago in terms of my involvement. WotC hired Pagan Publishing back around January to write all of the non-rules chapters for the book, which included Equipment, the Cthulhu Mythos, Settings, Creating Adventures, Creating Campaigns, GM Tips, and a scenario. We also wrote up some proposed rules affecting combat and firearms which may or may not see print.

We put together a team to write this stuff, which consisted of myself, Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, John H. Crowe III, and Ken Hite. We turned in the last of our material back around April or May. Monte Cook is doing the rules sections, and the drafts I saw early this year looked good; he continues to run the project now on a freelance basis. WotC designers Bruce Cordell and John D. Rateliff wrote the excellent monster/deity chapters, though I believe that both have lost their jobs since then in WotC's ongoing layoffs.

Other good people are still involved, however. Brian Campbell, a long-time fellow-traveler, is serving as editor for the project; he's a veteran White Wolf freelance writer and loves Cthulhu. Ann Koi and Jason Soles of Catalyst Studios designed the book cover; if you saw our booth at GenCon, we were selling a lot of Catalyst's sculptures and artwork. Heather Hudson, who has been doing artwork for Pagan for years, is doing some of the interior illustrations. Really, I think it's sort of an all-star jam project and it should turn out well.

In your opinion (humble or not), is the D20 System in fact going to devour the entire RPG field, and if so, should anyone be bothered?

At present it's something of a gold rush and we'll see how it shakes out. The real question will be whether there remains a market for generic fantasy products a year or so from now. If so, it's a good sign that D&D3 has succeeded and that the market is indeed willing to embrace the D20 model. I don't think we'll ever see all major RPGs migrate to D20, but at this point very few products have done anything innovative with the basic mechanics. As time goes by and people realize just how much freedom they really have to experiment with the core mechanics, we'll begin to see more interesting products. Time and the market will tell.

You obviously love film and see a lot of movies. What can gaming learn from movies and the movie-making process, that it hasn't learned yet?

That's a good question and I don't have a ready answer. There are elements of cinematic storytelling, especially cross-cutting, that can be helpful for a GM running a game where the characters are doing different things simultaneously. Few rulebook covers are as well-designed as even a mediocre movie poster. Product launches in gaming are low-key events, if they're events at all; finding ways to turn the release of a game into an event that can occur at stores all over the country would be invaluable. Likewise, I think game companies do a poor job of using their web sites to promote upcoming/new games. A couple of PDFs and some art really don't cut it. I'm still surprised that I haven't seen someone make a live-action commercial/trailer for a new game and put it on the web, but I suppose the technical barriers to that are daunting to many people.

Are you still regularly involved in any RPG campaigns, and what can you tell us about them?

The only game I've been playing in the last year is The Hills Rise Wild!, Pagan's miniatures game. Jesper Myrfors and I have played dozens upon dozens of THRW! sessions in the course of playtesting the expansion sets we've been working on. Besides that, I sat in on one session of Ken Hite's Unknown Armies campaign last year, playing an NPC who showed up to advance the plot; that was great fun.

Describe a game that doesn't exist, that you don't have the resources (financial, emotional, attentional, whatever) to produce, but that you would love to play.

I'd love to play an RPG based on James Ellroy's novels. The problem is that the plot for a given campaign would have to be so insanely dense, and the GM so masterful, that it would be difficult to pull off. And of course, there's the problem of playing immoral (but not unethical) murderous thugs.

If you could travel back in time to when Pagan Publishing first started and give your former self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Set it up as a not-for-profit corporation instead of a for-profit corporation. The key difference in this regard is that a for-profit corporation expects to provide rewards to its owners, which has never been an expectation we've operated under; being not-for-profit doesn't mean you can't still hire freelancers, pay salaries, sell books, etc. We could have set this up as a not-for-profit instead and saved a lot of paperwork and taxes over the years. Also, I would have done a new RPG years earlier. We wasted a lot of time.

Where do you see yourself going in the next few years, or in the longer term if you've got an answer for that, with respect to the game industry?

I don't really expect to be substantially involved in the game industry five years from now. The projects I like to work on don't sell well enough for this to be a viable career on anything other than a subsistence level, and they're too time-consuming to keep up as a spare-time hobby. Just when and how I'll make that transition out of gaming are questions only time will answer. It's been a great ride, but I've been doing this since I was nineteen years old - my entire adult life has been devoted to the game industry. Sooner or later I want to wrap this up and move on to new challenges. But making a major change in your life like that isn't easy, and it doesn't happen quickly unless you're irresponsible about it. I'm not done here yet.

Some people are going to read that and think it's a damn shame that the game industry isn't big or mature enough to hold the interest of someone like you. What do you think?

The thing is that my interests in gaming are very, very narrow. Outside of the products I work on and a few by people whose work I really admire (like Jonathan Tweet, Robin Laws, and Greg Stolze), there is really nothing on the market that I have any interest in. The power-fantasy/escapist appeal of gaming isn't a turn-on for me, and I like to use gaming to explore other kinds of experiences. The fact that I'm in a small minority is in no way a condemnation of gaming in general - like a lot of people, I'm picky about my enthusiasms. I don't expect my interests in gaming, books, movies, or whatever to be shared by lots of people, because we all get interested in different things for different reasons. Hell, I hate microwave popcorn. That doesn't mean grocery stores are bastions of ignorance or anything.

Is there anything in particular you'd like to make sure you accomplish in games before you're done?

After eleven years of doing what I wanted in this field, there's not much left at this point. I feel that I've accomplished a heck of a lot and have few regrets. The one thing I want to take a crack at is trying to find a larger audience for Unknown Armies, because I believe there are a lot of gamers out there - not a majority by any means, but still more than we have now - who would really enjoy the game. That's the last thing I really want to take a stab at over the next couple of years.

Visit John Tynes' Web Site

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