I Spent a Gloriously Geeky Day with the Makers of Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards of the Coast's office seems almost mundane, but nestled into the corners and nooks are statues of wizards, goblins, and knights, watching silently as employees hurry from meeting to meeting.
A wraith, steaming white and full of malice, screamed in agony. Behind us a hall of blades swished and sliced at odd angles, presenting a difficult escape. And as an undead warrior rose from his tomb and pointed his broadsword at my tiny gnomish ranger I wondered, How'd I end up here?
With Greg Tito, Wizards of the Coast's communications manager, as my guide, I took in my surroundings. This was the end of my day at Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering,and Mike Mearls (head of IP design and R&D for D&D), was about to kill my character in a brutal little dungeon of his own design. Not every day at WOTC ends up like this, but plenty do.
The headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, founded in 1990 and acquired by Hasbro in 1999, sits nestled among the pines in Renton, a small town 30 minutes outside of Seattle, Washington. The company's office building is a big, imposing, glass structure that is rather nondescript save for the blazing purple company sign. I passed a large cafeteria-looking room full of tables set up for gaming and took the elevator to the Wizards lobby, where I was greeted by a giant statue of a dragon (who, I would later learn, was named Mitzy).
The hallways were painted in muted beiges, the carpets all classic office patterns. At first glance, it all seems mundane. You can hear the click-clack of typing behind cubicle walls, and the fluorescent lighting buzzes overhead. But around every corner and in every nook were hints of the heart of the company. Wizard, knight, and goblin statues stood watch silently, as busy employees hurried from cubicles to meetings and back again. Without these hints at personality, this would look like any other drab office where people pecked away at boring work.
Though my focus was on Dungeons & Dragons , I started my day with another important Wizards game, Magic: The Gathering. Hugh McMullen, director of global communications, introduced me to an upcoming set of Magic: The Gathering cards. Called Kaladesh, McMullen described it as "steampunk minus top hats... meets India." Each project takes years to complete, McMullen explains. "I just had a baby, and I'm working on a set now that will come out when he's in kindergarten." To his right hung a whiteboard with a list of tasks to complete under the header "To-Do Before Baby."
D&D means a lot to me. I've been playing the tabletop role-playing game for well over a decade, and I first cut my teeth at VICE with an article about how D&D was officially cool again. But for Nathan Stewart, brand director for D&D, my years-long escape is his day-to-day. "Half the time, I'm stuck in management corporate bullshit like any other company, but the other half of the time, I get to do crazy stuff that you wouldn't believe."
Stewart's a lively, fiery guy who comes from the world of video games, working in brand marketing for XBOX, Rockstar, EA, and Bandai before making the move to Wizards of the Coast. He remarked on how often he gets in trouble while giving interviews (usually because he gives away some embargoed secret), but he spoke passionately about the game he represents. "When you've got a brand as big and loved as Dungeons & Dragons, that touches people so emotionally, you're only limited by your ability to tell good stories," Stewart says. "You never know who's going to be your next biggest fan."
Since its newest edition, the game's been moving toward simplicity and storytelling and away from hard mechanics and heavy math. Older editions could feel impossible to master and lent themselves to natural boy's clubs with their depictions of "busty maidens" and a reliance on damsels in distress and man-hero narratives. But the game has opened up and become more accessible over the last three years.
"[It's] a metaphor for our changing tastes," Stewart tells me. "I was talking with someone recently about cult classic movies, and about the narration at the beginning of Blade Runner, because they thought fans would be confused. Now if you did that, the fans would protest and be like, 'We're not idiots—we fucking know what the deal is here. Don't spoon feed us.' You have to be really in touch with what they want, and they want really great stories, rich details, thoughtful ideas. Don't sell me the weight of the book, sell me the quality of the adventure."
During our lunch break at a small tavern in Renton, I chatted with several other WotC employees and got a great sense of the company. People love their jobs here, but it isn't all sunshine. There was talk of explosive yelling matches and the chaos of fast-approaching deadlines. And I didn't get a sense that this was a "we work hard, we play hard" corny truism; everyone seemed jangled by the pressures of the job. Anytime the mention of deadlines came up, higher-ups in the company grimaced, and some ground-level employees nearly jumped with fright.
On average, the company releases a major set of Magic: The Gathering cards in the spring and fall, and two ancillary sets of cards (which include specialty and self-contained card sets) in-between the major releases. On the Dungeons & Dragons side, each year sees a new major storyline adventure with a full marketing push, a separate adventure, and one or two ancillary books full of references and world-building for the players. This amount of output is extreme, and, as McMullen mentioned earlier, each product has two to three years of development behind it.
Key to those upcoming products are Mike Mearls (the evil dungeon master mentioned at the top) and Chris Perkins, principal story designer. Though they've been working on D&D for years now, there are always new challenges. Take Volo's Guide to Monsters , which revisits the classic "Monster Manual" in an era of moral ambiguity. "We took a bunch of creatures like gnolls, goblins, trolls, and we asked why?" explains Mearls. "Why are they the way they are? In this post- Game of Thrones world of fantasy, you can't just say 'Oh, they're evil.'"
For Perkins, who acts as the face of D&D by serving as dungeon master for livestreaming celebrity games, there seems to be almost a workaholic drive to do everything himself. He talked about writing all of Curse of Strahd (a special horror-themed adventure that dungeon masters can run for their players) in a sort of fever pitch over a few weeks of holiday break.
Mearls and Perkins ran down the dizzying list of steps needed to go from an idea to a finished product. After the team settles on their big storyline or major idea for a new adventure, they create a one-sheet breakdown of the story. "It's the kind of document that we could show to our CEO, and he could get the big idea, or we could show to someone in the office, and they could get it," says Perkins.
Once they've been able to reduce the entire adventure to a single page, they then blow it out in the opposite direction and create huge design documents covering every tiny detail, from what the illustrations should look like to possible outside product development. "Then it splits into text and art streams," says Perkins, "where we're creating imagery that are meant to be inspirational pieces. They're not static. They're energetic, exciting. If we showed them to someone at Warner Brothers, they'd go, 'Oh, I want to make a movie about that scene!'"
Next comes the design guide, which "encapsulates all the crunchy bits of the story, all the information that our partners would need to bring these characters and conflicts to life. And it's a substantial document, sometimes as large as our printed products, but it gets down to the weeds." After all this background work is done, and the partners have bought off on the ideas within, they can finally go off and create the product.
Now, of course, my experience at WOTC wasn't really a proper day in the life at the company. But what I gleaned from my time with the D&D team, aside from a palpable tension in the air whenever someone mentioned "deadlines," was almost a sense of awe in the work they were doing. "Working at Wizards is like working at the geek White House," explained one Wizards staffer. The analogy is apt—it's awesome and stressful and fun and serious, all at the same time.
And that brings us back to the top, as the body of my poor little gnome hero smoldered in the pit of some foul dungeon, staring down an ancient evil unleashed just for me. Several other D&D staffers sat at the table, and we'd formed a motley party to drive off a subterranean menace. When I thanked them all for taking the time to play with me, one of my fellow party members, a sorcerer, waved away my thanks. "Stop work early to play D&D? It was the least I could do."
Disclosure: Travel arrangements for the author were provided by Wizards of the Coast.
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