Tuesday, May 9, 2023

WEG Memoirs: The SWAJ Dinner

Memories of my West End Games days some 25 years ago are gradually fading into mushy nostalgia...so I’d better tell the tale of the Star Wars Adventure Journal dinner I hosted at GenCon 1996 before it dissolves further into my foggy sense of the past. It came at what seems like the high point of my time at West End, when the Star Wars Roleplaying Game enjoyed great popularity, especially with special editions of the original trilogy and <gasp> even talk of new movies on the horizon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like many events in our lives, it’s a confluence of numerous factors leading to a single, memorable point....

Working at West End helped teach me about generosity; which was ironic, because most staffers were just getting by financially. My first GenCon in 1993 the company’s printer, Steve Porpora of Paragon Press, took our staff out to a sumptuous steak dinner at one of the downtown hotels. No doubt it was a tax write-off, but it fostered good will and served as a significant demonstration of generosity. During my five years at the company, and since then, various people offered me some generous hospitality (I’ll mention NukeCon here, which hosted me twice as a guest). Over the years various people treated us to dinner, most notably New York Times bestselling Star Wars author Timothy Zahn, who was always generous when we found time to sit down for a few hours over food and engaging conversation. I recall at least one dinner at DragonCon where Zahn, author Kathy Tyers, and a host of friends, West End editors, and Journal contributors ate dinner and talked (once again, for several hours). It’s good to take your time, have a long, two-hour meal with friends, especiallyl when you don’t have to worry about paying for dinner. I have tried, in my own meager ways, to reciprocate that generosity, if not directly then occasionally “paying it forward” with someone else. Gift-giving is part of many cultures; I try to adhere to custom, though it’s difficult when finances are tight.

And cash always seemed tight working at West End. The company paid freelancers the absolute minimum for writing and artwork, and not always on time. Staffers lived paycheck to paycheck, supplementing their salaries with frequent freelance work. West End management was notoriously stingy when it came to paying for GenCon arrangements: most years we rented a truck and hauled our own freight; staffers hustled to unload the truck and drag everything from the loading dock to the exhibit hall booth (when allowed); we crammed into hotel rooms; and we managed with a per diem meals allowance that essentially covered breakfast and lunch, but rarely dinner (other than the all-night burger joint...<shudder>). Taking freelancers out to dinner? Only on our own dime.

Most editors at West End dealt with a handful of writers for the supplements they produced throughout the year. The nature of the Star Wars Adventure Journal meant I was dealing with many freelancers, including artists. Given how little Journal contributors made – and how they were often paid late, though both were beyond my control – I had long wanted to treat a few to dinner. I’m sure I tried at conventions here or there. But nowhere did we have a greater gathering of Journal freelancers than at GenCon. What better place to show my appreciation and bring everyone together for one of those leisurely meals talking shop and making new friends? But such a huge expenditure was beyond my meager means.

And then the big project blew up. It was that year’s major release for GenCon. The cornerstone of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game going forward. We couldn’t just push it back on the schedule a few months – I think we’d already done that – and everyone was in a panic. Emergency meetings among management and editorial considered what to do. Ultimately the editorial staff was told to drop everything they were freelancing in their spare time and work to complete this project. I’m sure accommodations were made to clear or delay other projects under way at the time. I don’t recall, but I’d suspect management told some folks to work on it on office time. Completing this release was that important. And, for once, to management’s credit, West End paid decent rates to finish the job...with the usual high quality worthy of a Lucasfilm-approved Star Wars roleplaying game product. I can only remember blurry sections of the book I wrote (I’d already written a few contributions earlier in the year), but I was eventually paid, on time, a serendipitous amount of very welcome freelance cash. Just in time for GenCon.

One dining establishment dominated the downtown Milwaukee cityscape at GenCon in the 1990s: the saucer-like revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency hotel. (It’s still there, just no longer a restaurant.) I’d eaten there a few times over the years and it seemed a premium location to host a dinner for West End staffers and any Journal contributors who attended GenCon. I made a few calls to the restaurant, worked out a limited menu, estimated the number of guests and overall expense, and started spreading the word and gathering RSVPs. I wanted to provide a free meal for folks who’d helped make the Journal successful the past few years: freelance writers and artists, West End staffers, professionals with whom we’d worked. One night we all rode the elevator up to the revolving restaurant and gathered around a very long table, ate good food, enjoyed the view of Milwaukee, and spent two or three hours sharing stories with friends and associates, new and old.

I can’t recall everyone who attended, it was all such a blur. We had a good representation of Journal contributors, mostly writers, but probably artists who also went to GenCon that year. I was finally able to treat Timothy Zahn and his family to a meal. (I don’t recall if author Michael A. Stackpole was there, though he was always at GenCon.) I think notable TSR/WotC author Jean Rabe attended. Bantam’s Star Wars editor at the time, Tom Dupree, met some of his established writers and a few of the Journal’s up-and-coming contributors. I retain one very distinct memory, as we finally got up to say good-bye and slowly leave the restaurant. Steve Sansweet – the doyen of Star Wars memorabilia collectors (who was beginning his career with Lucasfilm) – had the chance to meet an eager young man from Winnipeg, Canada, who arrived with a bag filled with four-inch loose-leaf binders packed with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars universe as it stood at the time.

All told we had perhaps 30-40 people at that table (as far as I can remember, my numbers might be off). The bill was huge. And I gladly paid it. Back then, as now, many of these folks worked for lower wages just to have a chance to create something for their favorite universe far, far away. Many staffers gave up decent jobs or better opportunities for a lower salary to write officially for Star Wars games. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always appreciated. But I’d hope the Star Wars Adventure Journal dinner back in GenCon 1996 demonstrated my personal gratitude for their efforts. At the very least it remains one of my fond memories when my work at West End allowed me to do something generous, however small, for others

When a man’s stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor.”



  1. That is a fantastic story (with some positive lessons included). Thank you for sharing it.
    : )

  2. You're welcome, JB. I suppose one goal with WEG Memoirs is to revisit past events and reflect on them. Bonus if I find any positive lessons. Thanks for the kind words.

    1. Thing is, Peter, there are very few memoirs or histories of this hobby/industry, especially of outfits like WEG (which was so important...not just to the hobby, but...duh...to the whole ongoing Star Wars phenomenon). And nearly 50 years since the first RPG was published, we've lost so many voices and memories, you know?

      Your recollections might seem small and personal, but they are part of the grand tapestry of the gaming hobby, lovely and fascinating.
      : )


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