Today's interview consists of two separate, shorter interviews. The first is with author and publisher Matt Finch, the second with copy editor Brian Johnson. With ZineQuest looming on the horizon, I wanted to include the interview with Brian because I have come to believe that having a good editor is key to producing quality rpg products.
Matt Finch needs little introduction. He is one of the seminal members of the OSR movement, and his work was instrumental in building the scene into what it is today. He has recently founded his own company, Mythmere Games, and was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
Question. The Tome of Adventure Design is probably one of the three books I reference the most as a Referee. It recently had a successful Kickstarter for an updated version -- the pdf of which is already available on Drivethru -- but what I'm mostly interested in is finding out how your approach to game and adventure design has changed since the book was first written, if it has at all.
Answer. In terms of the final objectives of adventure design, namely the checklists of what to include and maximizing meaningful player decisions, my approach hasn't changed at all since writing the Tome of Adventure Design. Ensuring that there are mysteries for the characters to discover, milestones for them to identify as having been achieved, and varying the nature of challenges are all, I think, fundamental to the experience of playing a tabletop RPG. My approach to actually designing the adventures may have changed a bit over time, but that's a bit hard to say, since every adventure follows a different pathway through the creative process. I still design adventures according to the same process of assembling some basic ideas, thinking about how they might fit together, then adding and subtracting elements as the picture of the adventure gets clearer and I can start to build tactical details into the overall plotline that's driving events in an interesting location.
Q. The Cyclopean Deeps was a fascinating read for me, and a textbook example of how to write and design a high-level, open-ended sandbox. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing these two books? What were your influences? Do you think you set out to accomplish what you intended?
A. The objective there was to produce an alternate version of an underdark setting, so the first step was creating a map that followed the same "underground travel" method as the old D1-D3 series. I had in mind that I wanted a potential home base area, and a small city. From there, the question was "who is in the city?" Once I decided on dark creepers and dark stalkers, I started to write the other inhabitants of Izamne, and those other cultures/monsters tended to have one of the other places on the map assigned to them. That's how the areas got populated. I think that yes, I did achieve what I was working toward.
Q. You had mentioned on Wobblies and Wizards that you'll be revising and re-releasing Swords and Wizardry, with a focus of providing a print version of the book. You had mentioned on the podcast about some changes you will be making, and, dovetailing into the first question, I'm wondering how your approach to play has changed since S&W was first written. While OSE/BX is the current hotness in OSR circles, I think S&W can lay claim to being the "most hacked" by people using it as a framework to create their own style of game. Have you seen any innovations in these hacks that make you think "now, that's something I should add to S&W"?
A. I don't try to improve on Gary's design of OD&D, which is the underpinning of S&W. That said, there are a LOT of elements in it that I vary, or play around with, in my own game. House ruling is a key element of making the game work for a particular group of gamers or for a particular campaign that has unusual elements to it. For the most part, though, I don't change anything major about the way the rules work.
Q. Finally, talk a bit about what projects you're currently working on, and please feel free to share any links for anything you'd like to plug.
A. The main project right now is putting together a Swords & Wizardry book for Mythmere Games, as you mentioned earlier. We also have a book called City Encounters that is about ready to go once we have fulfilled the Kickstarter for Tome of Adventure Design.
Brian Johnson is a copy editor who works in numerous fields (including gaming) as well as a translator.
Question. Can you describe how your copy editing process, for those readers unfamiliar with how it works? A writer sends you a document to proof, and then . . . the magic happens, and you send back a document to be revised. Break it down for us into some broad and simple steps. I know for me, the first time I worked with an editor, I didn't realize the . . . I guess, back and forth nature of the thing, and didn't know that I was expected to make the changes and then send it back for another round. Stuff like that that seems self evident but may not be obvious to the novice.
Answer. The process can really vary quite a bit, depending on the type of project and what exactly the client wants. Basically, once we've agreed up front on the scope of editorial intervention (i.e. basic proofreading for spelling/grammar, or more intensive line-editing and restructuring to improve the flow of prose), I'll take the manuscript, make the necessary edits (using the 'track changes' function so the client can see and, if desired, revert all the changes), and then send it back for review. At this point, the client may either accept all the changes, in which case we're done, or make further amendments (possibly in response to comments and questions I've appended during editing) and send it back for me to look at one more time to make sure everything hangs together. Once that's done, give or take another pass, my part in the publishing process is usually complete.
Q. Describe your editing philosophy. Much like translation (which you also do, see below), I think that each copy editor imparts a bit of themselves into the finished document. What do you try to accomplish while editing, and what do you try to avoid?
A. Even more so than with translation, I really try to leave the author's 'voice' intact when I'm editing. I may change a word here and there to avoid repetition or other awkwardness, but I always consider the tone that the text is conveying and do my best to keep it consistent. Conversely, especially in fiction, if a passage seems to suddenly break the tone in a way that's jarring (and not obviously intended for some dramatic effect), I'll bring it up in my comments for the author.
Besides that, the most important thing is consistency—whether it's plot points, place-names, or punctuation style, all the different parts of the text should agree with one another.
Q. What can writers do to make your life easier, especially those writing gaming books?
A. As simple as it is, run spellcheck before you hand over a draft; you'll notice inconsistencies in things like made-up names, which I won't then have to ask you about later.
For game books in particular, read over any rules text to make sure that it at least makes sense to you. Especially when there are multiple sub-systems (sometimes written by different people on bigger projects), I'll occasionally run into mechanics that simply don't work.
Otherwise, having a defined style guide (which words get capitalized, when are numbers spelled out vs. written as digits, etc.) is really helpful, though I realize that's sometimes not worth the time for small publishers or indie authors, in which case I more or less construct one as I go.
Q. I know you do some translating work in addition to editing. What other services, if any, do you provide? If people are interested in reaching out to you, what's the best way, and how do you like to work with clients?
A. My translating work actually grew out of my interest in pre-modern magical beliefs and practices, and studying their primary source documents. I've translated a number of Medieval and Renaissance-era grimoires, along with some brief commentary on their origins and historical context, which, if nothing else, should at least make good material for roleplaying inspiration Interested readers can find out more here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B08SCDX4T3?_encoding=UTF8&node=283155&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader
I am also available to do small (up to 30 pages or so) translations for hire from German, Greek, or Latin, as well as provide general research assistance in history and the humanities. I can be contacted through my website, https://bjohnsonfreelance.com/, where you can also find more information and links to all of the publications I've worked on, or on Twitter @JohBri.