Tuesday, February 16, 2021

WEG Memoirs: The Interview

In my futile attempts to find solace from the pandemic and my own internal issues I’ve immersed myself in wargaming ancient Roman conflicts, specifically those on the Germanic frontier. I’ve always maintained an interest in ancient history (among numerous other historical periods). The Roman Empire remains one in which I’ve dabbled on and off over the years to varying depths. Though I’ve never been to Rome I’ve visited several sites on travels in my misspent youth, including Trier, Germany (ancient Augusta Treverorum, capital of the province of Gallia Belgica), the Christian catacombs in Salzburg (Iuvavum), and the reconstructed auxiliary fort Saalburg in Germany. As a pandemic diversion I ordered several books to set me on a path to wargaming engagements from this period: Peter Dennis’ Wargame: The Roman Invasion, AD 43-84 (supplemented by some PDF downloads from his wonderful Peter’s Paperboys website), Daniel Mersey’s A Wargamer's Guide to the Early Roman Empire, and two Osprey books (also illustrated by Dennis), Teutoburg Forest AD 9 and Roman Soldier vs Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD. So between history, paper miniatures, and game rules (including Bob Cordery’s The Portable Wargame and Developing The Portable Wargame and Neil Thomas’ One-hour Wargames) I’m all set up to fight a few ancient battles defending the borders of Rome from the Germanic barbarians.

But all this evokes an episode from my roleplaying game past. In this case, oddly enough, all this focus on ancient Roman history reminded me of my interview for an editorial position at West End Games way back in the spring of 1993.

Ever since I dove into roleplaying games in 1982 I’d wanted to write for them. The module contests in Dragon Magazine at the time demonstrated to me that was possible on some remote level. My later discovery of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game renewed my interest in the hobby while I was in college, merged my fan adoration of Star Wars with gaming, and gave me a somewhat more concrete aspiration. Shortly after graduating college with a creative writing degree I even sent West End a resume and sample of my short fiction writing, a short story about Egypt in the 19th century of which I was particularly proud. But an editor returned it with a stern note saying they didn’t accept unsolicited pitches or manuscripts for the TORG game (The Nile Empire was a pulp Egypt-themed realm in that setting)...apparently the cover letter and resume remained overlooked as indicators of my intention seeking writing or editorial work.

In these pre-internet days my knowledge of West End’s product lines came from what I saw in hobby shops, book stores, and magazines like Dragon and Challenge. I was aware of the company’s various roleplaying game lines: obviously Star Wars, but also TORG and Paranoia. I knew the company published wargames, but I only knew about the ones I saw in magazines, Air Cav, Web and Starship, and Bug-Eyed Monsters standing out in my mind even today (and I certainly didn’t own any at the time). So after my initial disappointment sending the company my resume, I hunkered down at my full-time reporter job at the local weekly newspaper, regularly ran several game campaigns with my friends (including Star Wars, Space 1889, and Cyberpunk), and developed adventures to try selling to the only hobby periodical accepting them at the time, Game Designers’ Workshop’s Challenge Magazine. I still bought West End Star Wars supplements as the mood hit me and, with my like-minded friends, bought into the new Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn when they released. I worked overtime as a reporter, often covering meetings and writing articles well into the early morning hours of they day we published. Eventually I got the position of editor, which further pushed my hours into the 50-60 per week range. Yet during this time I finally managed to get a scenario published in Challenge Magazine #64, “The Limping Lady.” Nothing special, just an adventure I used to kick off campaigns, but my first published roleplaying game work.

With almost a year’s work as a professional editor plus a relevant publication credit, I figured I’d contact West End again to see what kind of freelance or full-time employment I might find. I buffed up my resume, drafted a cover letter, and included copies of both “The Limping Lady” and some of my newspaper work. I didn’t have high hopes; if I heard back at all, I expected a polite “Thanks, we’re not interested at this time.” So I was elated when I heard back from the company’s editorial director, and further excited to hear that, coincidentally, at that very moment they were seeking an editor to start a quarterly journal supporting the Star Wars Roleplaying Game with source material, adventures, and “game-related fiction” (short fiction with game stats to satisfy the bending of licensing restrictions). We corresponded by mail and talked by phone about the particulars, resulting in an interview meeting one Saturday morning in the spring of 1993.

[Patient readers might wonder what this has to do with the Roman Empire, but I’m slowly getting there in my own ponderous way....]

I left early for the two-hour drive to Honesdale in remote eastern Pennsylvania. Arriving early I recall stopping at a CVS in town to pick up a local newspaper, partly to get a sense of the town where my new job might bring me and partly in the hopes I’d need it to find living arrangements. I drove north on Route 191 into the Pennsylvania wilderness until I found the nondescript, sprawling building that served as West End’s offices and warehouse, unmarked by any sign indicating its true purpose.

West End Games
owner Scott Palter
My correspondence with the editorial director informed me that West End’s owner also ran a luxury shoe company out of the building, just so I knew what to expect. I’d meet with the owner, Scott Palter, as well as the editorial director, the production manager (the ever-versatile Richard Hawran, who’d oversee the journal editor), and the editor for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game line. I was told another person was interviewing earlier that morning for the same position. When I arrived I was ushered into a meeting room where everyone sat, the owner framed by piles of shoe boxes piled against one wall, several open to reveal imported women’s shoes. Everyone made introductions and shook hands while I produced a copy of the newspaper I’d edited the week before, 52 broadsheet pages of local news. The staff outlined the requirements for an editor and the scope of the project: a 288-page quarterly, digest-sized Star Wars Adventure Journal drawing from established and up-and-coming authors to support the roleplaying game. We talked about approaching the project and my qualifications to meet those challenges. Everyone seemed fairly easy to read except the owner. The one question I recall him asking me was how I thought the Star Wars’ Galactic Empire functioned with its core worlds, outlying sectors, military governors, and vast fleet. Reflexively drawing on my knowledge of history I answered that I thought it was very much like the Roman Empire, with core provinces and outlying frontiers, military governors holding sway over far-off regions, and everything linked by a network of hyperspace routes like roads, meaning it took a while to get from the Core Worlds to the Outer Rim. (Alas, the most recent Star Wars film trilogy discarded the previously established concepts of hyperspace as apparently inconvenient to movie storytelling...I’m fond of saying “That’s not how hyperspace works” when watching them). I did not know that Palter was a keen fan of various periods of history, particularly that of the Roman Empire, and had published a game years earlier on the subject, Imperium Romanum II. I was later told my answer comparing the Galactic Empire to the administration of the Roman Empire impressed Scott and helped get me the job, though I like to think my editorial qualifications and professional demeanor convinced most folks in that conference room.

The rest is history, and regrettably distant history at that, from my perspective. I left West End’s headquarters that day as editor of The Star Wars Adventure Journal, having had a tour of the offices and warehouse (including the office I’d occupy for the next five years) and carrying a pile of books to augment my collection at home. I took a salary less than half the meager amount I was making as a newspaper editor (though I was told I could freelance for West End projects to supplement my meager income), but it seemed worthwhile given the opportunity to engage my passion for roleplaying games and my love for the Star Wars franchise at the time. Those were perhaps the most productive, fulfilling five years of my professional career, despite all the challenges we faced. They certainly gave me plenty of stories to tell, as one can read in past “WEG Memoirs” missives here at Hobby Games Recce. Despite West End’s demise in 1998 and the circumstances surrounding its bankruptcy, I’m still sorry owner Scott Palter passed away in early 2020. So I proceed down my Roman wargaming path with thoughts of my West End interview lingering in the background, an unlikely confluence of circumstances like many throughout life that propel us along unexpected paths.

1 comment:

  1. Love your story Peter! Brought back lots of great WEG memories!


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