Friday, February 21, 2020

West End Memoirs: Scott Palter


On Monday, February 17, 2020, Daniel Scott Palter passed away. He was best-known as the founder and owner of West End Games, yet also infamously known as the person who sent the company into bankruptcy, losing the license for what was the groundbreaking first Star Wars roleplaying game. I’m sure some people – particularly those who lost jobs and opportunities with the company’s bankruptcy – hated him and never forgave him for what he did to West End in those final days. Over the years I’ve had to reconcile my feelings toward him. I have the natural animosity over West End’s demise. But I also realize he provided me with an opportunity to have my dream job: working full-time as a designer and editor at a roleplaying game company, and with the Star Wars franchise, no less. Despite all the frustration and drama, they remain the most fulfilling, productive five years of my professional life.



Company lore claimed Scott founded West End with money from his family’s shoe company so he could produce wargames he wanted to play. Eventually West End branched out into roleplaying games with hits like Ghostbusters, Paranoia, and Star Wars. Both companies moved from New York City to a warehouse with office space in rural Honesdale, PA. At the time the Star Wars line had reached its peak and was considered by the sales staff “a dead license.” But new novels from Timothy Zahn published by Bantam invigorated the license and new life surged into the game line. By the time I tried (for a second time) contacting West End to see if they had any editorial positions open, the company serendipitously was looking for an editor to start a new quarterly journal supporting the Star Wars game line.

The House that Scott Built: West End Games
offices/warehouse, Honesdale, PA, c. 1993.
I first met Scott one day is late spring 1993, when I drove up to West End’s offices in Honesdale for my job interview. I was one of two candidates seeking to edit the Star Wars Adventure Journal the company wanted to publish. I had already corresponded and talked with the head of the editorial department, but I also quickly met Rich Hawran, the enthusiastic production manager who somehow turned creative chaos into a schedule and tangible product. (I later understood both were my advocates opposed to the other candidate...a hint at the shifting personality conflicts constantly churning within the company.) They ushered me into the downstairs conference room to meet West End’s owner and conduct the job interview. I walked into the conference room – lined with boxes of high-end women’s shoes – to greet a very obese fellow with a friendly if borderline maniacal smile on his face. He was quick to offer his hand and get down to business. We talked about my professional background and I offered several copies of the weekly hometown newspaper I’d been editing for a year. He was nothing but pleasant though at times very blunt about what he expected. I had no impression how much he involved himself in the editorial department, though I could tell he wanted only the best for the Star Wars game line, at the time the company’s bread and butter. He then asked me about Star Wars; specifically, how I thought the Galactic Empire functioned. I likened it to the Roman Empire, with a strong presence at the core but with outlying areas controlled by governors and connected by a network of hyperspace lanes that approximated roads; the farther one got from the core the more lawless society seemed, with governor’s having greater independence from the central government. Little did I know – in that era before the interwebzes enabled one to look up information about others so easily – that Scott loved ancient Roman history (one of many periods about which he was passionately knowledgeable). I later found out my answer to that question clinched the interview with Scott and won his approval.

Scott was not an easy master to serve. Most editorial staffers dreaded him trudging upstairs to meddle in their affairs or, worse yet, a summons to his cluttered office. He occasionally interjected his opinions and edicts on the Star Wars roleplaying game line, sometimes reflecting his own views and urges, but mostly in an effort to please Lucasfilm and maintain the license. He often interfered with the production schedule according to his entrepreneurial or gamer hunches. I know we clashed at times about creative and editorial issues; I’m sure at the time these conflicts were frustrating, but I don’t recall ever feeling they were malicious. Scott always had his reasons for everything, usually “Two reasons,” as he’d say, lingering on the “two.” He preferred to influence the Shatterzone game line where he could indulge in the edgier sci-fi subject matter inappropriate for Star Wars; the original artwork of the infamous “naked cannibal babe” from one of the supplements adorned his office wall for a while.

Despite his occasional meddling, Scott gave his creative employees a great deal of autonomy. He trusted our creative instincts, our dedication to the licenses on which we worked, our sense of what was right for our game line and the gamer audience. He was a businessman, of course, but also a wargamer and a fan with passions for various subjects. Although he sometimes indulged in Machiavellian machinations with the internal power struggles among creative egos, he stood up for his employees in conflicts with folks beyond the office walls. I recall one time a freelancer with a gripe called and complained to him directly; Scott told him he trusted his editor’s decision and didn’t think much of people who bypassed the chain of command to get their way. On several occasions freelancers threatened to sue me and the company – sometimes because I didn’t accept their Journal article proposal, more often because the company was terribly late paying them – and Scott always told us to send them to him; he’d handle those legal threats so we could continue focusing on our creative work.

Scott had his eccentricities, like most people, though perhaps a few more than most. His SUV sported distinctive “Free Tibet” and “Weird Load” bumper stickers. He once declared “No Nazis!” in supplements for an entire year after The World of Indiana Jones game became well established, more because they seemed a ubiquitous plot crutch than anything else. He claimed he would crawl over a room of broken glass to obtain the Barb Wire license thinking he could sell tons of books with Pamela Anderson’s photo on the cover. He was not above the human failings everyone occasionally experiences; he could be petty and vindictive when he felt he had cause, though I witnessed this rarely. I felt he sometimes used office politics to further his own aims or benefit his favorites. His blunt manner, wheeling and dealing, and vehement opinions sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. His dislike for some people colored his judgment. All failings to which I’d daresay most of us have succumbed at one time or another. That said, he was not a bad person; I felt he was quite a decent fellow, though it was easy for those who worked for him to overlook that in what was often an adversarial relationship. I was privileged to experience occasional kindnesses from him when he felt they were reasonable.

West End’s bankruptcy devastated me. Scott called the editorial and art staff into his office and, once everyone had quieted down, simply announced, “Consider yourselves unemployed.” Our parting from the company was characterized by bitter chaos and misunderstandings. Freelancers – including meagerly paid staffers who relied on freelance jobs to make ends meet – remained unpaid as the banks and big creditors fought over their share of the company’s remaining assets. As the face of the company Scott found himself in the middle of the turmoil, a more difficult position given his relationship with his family’s shoe company.

Despite my misgivings I worked with Scott two years later as the company passed through several corporate hands. I set my scruples aside in those Desperate Freelance Days to work on the Metabarons roleplaying game; not my finest work, but an opportunity Scott gave me, not as life-changing as the first one, but a chance to keep earning money in the industry, with an awkward trip to Paris to boot. Even then his small kindnesses emerged, though usually in the interest of getting business done: sending someone out to buy eye drops so I might survive a week of meetings in a smoky conference room; requesting they ask the pizza parlor where they ordered lunch not to crack eggs to congeal over our pizza; and giving me a Saturday off to go sight-seeing in Paris.

The last time I saw Scott was at GenCon 2004 (the last time I attended that burgeoning mega-con). He was at the Final Sword booth, promoting his latest roleplaying game products apart from West End. He was friendly and gracious, glad to meet my wife, and, I like to think, deep down inside, genuinely sorry for the way things fell out with West End. Some may blame West End’s demise on Scott and the shoe company, but I often remind myself that without the shoe company, Scott never would have been able to establish West End Games in the first place.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment of Scott’s character; these recollections reflect my own experiences and are no doubt tempered by time, my nostalgia, my naively forgiving nature, and my aim to remain relatively positive in my online presence. The past week I’ve read various people’s reactions to his passing. Many remembrances hail him for his work on the numerous game lines that made West End famous; and I’ll admit, I read those and part of me cringes a little on behalf of the teams of designers, writers, and editors who made far greater contributions to those games, if they weren’t in fact the impetus behind them. Yet Scott was the foundation supporting all those projects. In a time when one needed a vast corporate infrastructure to publish games, Scott set off with some of his family’s shoe company fortune to establish West End to enable game designers to make games he himself believed in (and make money, too). He provided a platform for a host of dedicated, amazingly creative people. He gave established and up-and-coming authors a chance to see their work in publication and, in some cases, launch careers in game design and publishing. He gave us full-time, salaried jobs so we could do what we loved, work with the licensed properties to which we were devoted, and produce game books which entertained gamers and delighted fans.

Clear skies, Scott, wherever your spirit may fly. Thank you for all the opportunities you offered us. Sic transit mundus.


4 comments:

  1. Well said. I've been struggling with some of my feelings about this, as well. And it is, I must admit, a bit of a relief that I wasn't the only one who felt devastated by the end of the company. Thanks for posting. -E

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  2. Thank you, Eric. I think anyone who worked with Scott as closely as we did has mixed emotions about the experience. And I can't imagine anyone not being devastated suddenly losing a job, especially jobs like the ones we had.

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  3. Thank you for sharing all of the memories. I'd somehow never heard Scott's name before this week, but now I have a picture of him during your years working with him at West End.

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  4. Unlike many of the gaming luminaries who recently passed, Scott very much worked behind the scenes. I regret I've not seen anything approaching a formal, comprehensive obituary for him.

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