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The Year 2000: Green Ronin Begins!

Last time I wrote about the pre-history of Green Ronin, basically covering my start in the industry and how I navigated the 90s. When I left off the story, I was working at Wizards of the Coast. The first 18 months or so I was at WotC, I was working in what was still called the TSR Product Group (this later changed to Roleplaying R&D), writing various books for D&D and one for Alternity. During that period, WotC decided to spin up a miniatures division. They were looking to compete with Games Workshop, publishing both games and miniatures to support them. D&D miniatures, which had a long history back into the 70s, were also an important part of the plan. If you follow me on social media (I’m @Pramas on Twitter) you know I’m a huge miniatures fan, so it’s no surprise that I determined to join this effort. It took some doing, but I eventually landed a spot on the miniatures team and spent the rest of my time at Wizards working on the game that was eventually released as Dungeons & Dragons: Chainmail.

Chainmail is a huge story in and other itself, but I’ll leave that for another time and place. What’s important for our tale is that after some months working on the miniatures team, I found I missed doing roleplaying work. This brought my punk DIY instincts to the fore again, and I thought, “Well, why not start my own side company and keep a finger in the RPG pie?” In February of 2000, I decided to take this from idle thought to actual thing. I set up the company, got a bank account, and began to make plans. The first thing I wanted to publish was Ork! The Roleplaying. This was a lighthearted beer & pretzels RPG (now in it’s second edition!). It was based on some fun campaigns my friend Todd Miller had run back in NYC. I had Todd write up “The World of Orkness” while I designed the rules system. I slated it for a July release at the Origins game convention.

Meanwhile, back at Wizards, the Open Game License and d20 System Trademark License were first being proposed. The idea was to provide other companies a way to publish D&D compatible material. The fact that it was a free license created a lot of skepticism within WotC. I remember sitting in a big meeting with folks from R&D and thinking about the possibilities this could offer though. One point made was that WotC had difficulty making money off adventures, and this was something smaller companies might take up more profitable. Another point was that WotC was a big company and turning the ship to react to trends was a slow process. I thought, “Well, my company is small and agile! I should give this a shot.”

When the OGL and d20 STL were announced publicly, there was also a lot of skepticism from established RPG companies. Some saw it way to kill competition to D&D. Green Ronin, of course, had no established game lines to worry about, as Ork hadn’t even been published yet. I knew that the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook would launch at Gen Con 2000 (along with some D&D minis my group was doing), so I decided to release a 32-page adventure that same day.

Working at Wizards by day did grant me some advantages. As a part of R&D, I had been involved in the playtesting and debates of Third Edition so I had a good grasp of the new system. I also knew WotC was taking a “back to the dungeon” approach for adventures. I decided, therefore, to offer something different: a city adventure. This would have the added bonus of creating a setting that could be expanded upon later. Now I didn’t want to do Generic Fantasy City #57, so I pulled some other influences into it. So what do you get when you mix D&D with pirates and Lovecraftian horror? Freeport: The City of Adventure!

That spring I wrote the adventure Death in Freeport. I wanted a cracking cover for it, and I thought it’d be great if I could get something by Brom, as he’d done the cover art for my AD&D book Guide to Hell. This was all done on a shoestring so I could hardly afford a new Brom cover, but I talked to him about it and we worked out something else. He had done a bunch of art for a collectible card game a few years before and I was able to license a piece from that for only $400. Later, I made a flier I taped up around Gen Con promoting this new adventure “from the writer-artist team that brought you the AD&D Guide to Hell.”

Need An Adventure for that New Edition?

I worked my contacts for the rest of the production of Death in Freeport. Nicole Lindroos, who had done the graphic design on the original edition of Vampire: The Masquerade, did the interior layout. Hal Mangold, who I had met when he was working on Deadlands at Pinnacle, did the cover design. The three of us would become partners in the company just a couple of years later. For interior art I tapped Toren Atkinson and Chris Keefe, who I had worked with at my first company. WotC friends Jennifer Clarke Wilkes and Todd Gamble did editing and cartography respectively. The whole thing came together very quickly because we had a hard deadline. We got the files to a Chicago printer in time to have it done for Gen Con. I took a huge gamble and printed 10,000 copies (pro-tip to small publishers: don’t do this in 99% of circumstances!). The printer actually drove copies up to Milwaukee for us and dropped them my hotel so we’d have them in time.

In July we released Ork as planned at Origins. It was modestly successful, pretty much what you’d expect from a new small publisher and their debut game. A month later we released Death in Freeport and that was something else entirely. It was an instant hit. D&D Third Edition was, of course, the big news of that GenCon and there were only two adventures you could get to go with it there: Death in Freeport and Three Days to Kill by Atlas Games. Just walking around the convention and nearby hotels, I ran across groups (sometimes just sitting on the floor) playing Death in Freeport with their new Player’s Handbooks. When distributor orders came in, it just confirmed what I’d already seen at Gen Con: the gamble had paid off!

By the fall of 2000, it was clear that Green Ronin had the potential to become more than a side project. More on that next time!

Rise of the Tyrant: An Astonishing Adventures PDF For Mutants & Masterminds

Rise of the Tyrant, a new Astonishing Adventure for Mutants & Masterminds, is now available in our Green Ronin Online Store!

The Rise of the Tyrant: An Astonishing Adventure for Mutants & MastermindsTrouble is afoot when a villainous master of puzzles begins a string of high-tech robberies assisted by … robot dinosaurs? But is this masked mastermind just a puppet, with a far more dangerous foe pulling his strings? Rise of the Tyrant is an introductory adventure for a team of 4-6 heroes of PL 10. The adventure is designed to bring new heroes together, introduce game concepts one step at a time, and kick off your own Mutants & Masterminds campaign!

Astonishing Adventures bring exciting new adventures for Mutants & Masterminds, Third Edition to you every single month, complete with all the action and villains you need to bring the story to life!

More Astonishing Adventures are currently on sale at 20% off in our Green Ronin 20 For 20 Sale!

The Pre-History of Green Ronin Publishing

I’m flying down to Reno this week for the GAMA Expo (formerly known as the GAMA Trade Show), which is the major trade show of the tabletop gaming industry. Thinking about my impending trip brought my mind back to my very first GAMA Trade Show in 1996. This era was the pre-history of Green Ronin. We’ll be doing a series of articles and interviews to commemorate our 20th anniversary this year but let me set the stage by talking about the years before the company’s founding in 2000.

Green Ronin 20th Anniversary Logo

 

Underground Companion, by Mayfair Games

Underground Companion, by Mayfair Games

I got my start in the game industry as a freelance writer in 1993. My first work was for Ray Winninger’s Underground RPG from Mayfair Games. Over the following couple of years, I did work on other games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (foreshadowing!), Over the Edge, and Feng Shui. After a couple of years of freelancing, I thought it was time to start my own company. This I did in 1996 with two partners (my brother Jason and Neal Darcy) and we bought a previously published RPG called the Whispering Vault that I had done some work on. We called ourselves Ronin Publishing and had the idea to each take a different color-coded screenname for company business. I was the Green Ronin (if you ever wondered what was behind the company name, that’s it).

While we were laying the groundwork for the company, I attended my first GAMA Trade Show to get the lay of the land. GTS used to move around in that era, and in 1996 it was in Atlantic City, an easy trip from my NYC apartment. Future Green Ronin co-owner Nicole Lindroos was in Vancouver, BC at the time, publishing a magazine called Adventures Unlimited with a group of writers that included the late, great Nigel Findley. Since they could not be at GTS that year, I agreed to take samples of the magazine around to various RPG companies and help promote it. I also helped out at the booth of the Small Game Publishers Association. The SGPA (later just the GPA) was an organization of independent publishers who pooled resources to get booths at various conventions and promote their games.

Blood of the Valiant: The Guiding Hand Sourcebook for Feng Shui

Blood of the Valiant: The Guiding Hand Sourcebook for Feng Shui

I had been going to GenCon since 1989 and freelancing since 1993 so the industry wasn’t new to me, but this was my first GTS. Trade shows are different than consumer shows. They are a place to talk to retailers, distributors, and fellow publishers about the new hotness, plans for the year, and industry scuttlebutt. My previous experience was hustling for freelance work and dealing with line developers but this was a whole different thing. This was the business side and it was new to me. I had just come out of grad school in 1995, where I was a history major. Business stuff I’d need to learn by doing it.

The next couple of years were indeed a learning experience. When we started the company, we agreed that we should try to get the rights to the Whispering Vault and if that proved impossible, I’d instead design a new game of my own. In retrospect, I wish we had done the latter. I had an idea for a game where members of various magical traditions banded together under Allied auspices to fight occult Nazis in WW2. Imagine an Aleister Crowley type and a Siberian shaman punching Nazis together with magic and you get the idea. My plan was to use tarot cards in the game’s core mechanics. Other games would tread this ground later but mine would have gotten there first if we hadn’t bought the Whispering Vault. Ah well. It seemed like a good way to jumpstart a company, and the idea was to do my game later. That never happened though. In two years, we only managed to publish one supplement for Whispering Vault called the Book of Hunts, and then a Feng Shui supplement called Blood of the Valiant. I had originally written this freelance for Daedalus Entertainment, the game’s original publisher, but I secured the rights to publish it myself as they were sinking under the waves.

I can’t beat myself up too much over Ronin Publishing though because the biggest problem was that we were ridiculously undercapitalized from the start (this is true of almost every RPG in history). I was working as a barista in NYC when we started, and then doing temp office work in Boston when I moved there to join my partners in the summer of 1996. None of us made real money so everything was done on a shoestring. Coming out of the punk scene as I did, my DIY roots certainly helped but it was a slog. After a year in Boston, I decided to move to Seattle. This was for love, though the possibilities of living in a center of gaming did not escape me. I continued to both do freelance work and try to run Ronin Publishing once I got to the West Coast. Indeed, for six months I tried to support myself only with freelance writing (pro-tip, don’t do this!).

Guide to Hell, for 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Guide to Hell, for 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

In March of 1998 I got a job as an RPG designer at Wizards of the Coast. I tried to keep Ronin Publishing going but the writing was on the wall. I was hired at WotC to work on an attempt to marry D&D and Magic: The Gathering. Due to internal bickering at the company, this project was not long for this world, so after a few months I switched over to writing for AD&D, 2nd Edition. This was the later 2E era, when 3E was in development for a 2000 release (more foreshadowing!). I wrote books like the Guide to Hell, Vortex of Madness, Slavers (with Sean Reynolds), and the Apocalypse Stone (with Jason Carl). If you’d like to hear me talk about this era and the early history of Green Ronin, I’ll be a guest on Fireside with Peter Adkison on Gen Con TV on March 18. 

I worked at WotC from 1998 to 2002, founding Green Ronin smack dab in the middle. I’ll tell you how that happened next time!