For the readers out there, who are you and what do you do?
I am publisher and managing editor at Arc Dream Publishing, a mid to small tier tabletop RPG company. Arc Dream is best known for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game. Delta Green is a horror game and setting that has won lots of awards over many years. We have also published superhero RPGs, fantasy RPGs, and recently a couple of 5E adventures. I also relaunched the Cthulhu Mythos RPG magazine The Unspeakable Oath in 2010 and have occasionally published new issues of that.
Outside of Arc Dream, I have worked as a website producer and editor, a newspaper copy editor, and a magazine editor. And I’ve done a little freelance RPG writing for other companies.
How did you originally get into roleplaying games?
I got into RPGs as a 10-year-old kid with the first version of Basic D&D. My best friend and I at first thought it was some kind of board game. We started playing and were instantly hooked. He was the DM, I was the player, and we had a bunch of NPCs to round out the party until we started recruiting friends. Basic D&D only went up to 3rd level, and we didn’t notice that you should double XP amounts for each level. My elf Finso was like 112th level by the time I got my mom to get the AD&D Players Handbook and saw nope, more like 10th at best. Oh well.
I’m always fascinated by the “mistakes” people make when they first get started. They never seem to have less fun with them.
Oh yeah, we had a blast. We didn’t know what we were doing. If you find a PDF of that Holmes edition, it’s almost indecipherable by modern standards. But we were gifted kids and had that laser focus on what we loved.
How did you go from just being a fan to doing editing work in the industry?
In the early Nineties, I started doing volunteer work for Pagan Publishing, the company that originally published the Oath, Delta Green, and a lot of other incredible work. I did playtesting and then proofreading. I was fooling around with personal websites, so John Tynes hired me to run the Delta Green website. I parlayed that into a full-time web job not related to RPGs, then parlayed that into editorial work in other media, where I won a couple of awards over the years. I circled back into RPGs pretty soon, though. Pagan had partnered with Hobgoblynn Press to publish a standalone RPG for them, “Godlike.” They hired me to run the Godlike website. Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze, who had created Godlike, started getting very impatient with how Hobgoblynn was managing it. So Dennis and I set up our own company, Arc Dream. Dennis had been working as a writer and artist for years and I had experience as a writer and editor. We worked out a deal with Hobgoblynn to take over Godlike and branched out from there.
Arc Dream has several product lines as well as stand alone games. When you’re editing a book for Delta Green, for instance, how does your process change between editing that and something that you have no plans for expansion?
As an editor, you have to pay attention to the tone and themes of the line. With an ongoing line like Delta Green or Godlike, which have very particular themes and tones, that means knowing your authors well, and training them to suit their work on a given book to the larger work as a whole. That’s why we rely on the smallest possible number of contributors. Once we find someone who instinctively gets what we’re going for, and is willing to work within the constraints of the line, we rely on them as much as we can. That reduces the amount of work lost to revisions and rewrites.
That makes a lot of sense. Since you’re working repeatedly with the same people, how does your job as editor, or the way you communicate with the writers change as they do more projects with you?
It tends to get easier. You develop shorthands. As editor, you get to know people and where they’re stronger and weaker. They get to know your preferences and foibles.
Can you talk a bit more about your “preferences and foibles”?
Everybody has them. Personally, I tend to have exacting standards and vision for what a Delta Green project ought to feel like. That’s driven by the fact that with Delta Green I’m acting on behalf of the property’s owners, the Delta Green Partnership, and have a long history of high achievement to live up to. So there is a lot of back and forth with contributors. I encourage them to work in small stages so we can correct the course along the way if necessary. There’s not much worse than having to correct the course after a project has gone a long way.
That goes in my direction, too. When I write for DG, it goes through other people on the DG Partnership. Same for the other DGP members. I have had to cut my own work to ribbons before and asked the same from my friends on the DGP. It’s all about the work.
It sounds like you have a good idea of your own blindspots and have spent the time to cover them.
Yeah. That’s an important skill, and it only comes with experience and having a good attitude. I make a point of only working with people I respect and trust, and that means trusting them when they point out things I need to improve.
To that end, how has your experiences as a writer changed the way you edit, or vice versa?
I try to write very “clean,” and try to deliver manuscripts that don’t need much work. Sometimes they do, of course, but I try to edit myself as I write. For DG, I send my own writing to freelance editors for review. That usually helps to catch a few typos or minor errors here and there, sometimes a line that doesn’t make sense outside my own head. Rarely that catches something major or structural, but that’s rare because I’ve learned to watch for big issues myself.
What are some common types of big issues that might derail a project?
Derailing is rare. That sounds like the whole project goes awry. We generally prevent that in the earliest stages before it gets a lot of work. That means when a project does really go off the rails, it’s more likely to be due to big picture issues on our end as publishers, like budgeting going south after bad sales or a shift in publishing priorities. That happened with Godlike a couple of years ago. We had a lot of ideas for it and some enthusiastic contributors who put together a few shortish projects, but then the Delta Green Kickstarter was such a hit that it ate up all the time we had. Godlike went on hiatus, pretty much. We hope to relaunch it next year in a big way, bit that required getting most of our DG responsibilities out of the way.
Big issues that require a lot of revisions, though, are more common. That usually happens because the author, who is someone we trust and who does good work, takes the project in a direction that surprises us or that just doesn’t “click” like we expected. Or we might find that a manuscript involves a lot of factual issues that did not get sufficient research, and the author doesn’t have time to go that deep into it now. So it could fall on me to do some heavy research and rewriting.
There’s a lot there I’d love to follow up on, but lets start with this. Order of information is very important, and people are always arguing about the “right” way to structure a rulebook. Going into a Godlike relaunch, how have your ideas about structure and flow of information changed, or been vindicated, now that you’ve gotten such a large amount of feedback through the success of Delta Green?
Sure. Godlike front-loaded information in a way I don’t really love. There were a lot of pages of rules before you got to how to create characters. When we relaunch Godlike we’ll probably follow the Delta Green model, giving really basic summaries as part of the chapter on creating awesome characters, which are what players are there for.
To clarify, do you think more of that worldbuilding should be implicitly presented through character options, or just left until later in the book/future supplements?
Character options. With Godlike it wasn’t really a matter of too much worldbuilding too early, though. Just too many rules that come before you get into what the characters are like.
Got it. Circling back a bit, you had mentioned factual issues as one problem a writer could run into. When you’re looking at a piece of writing thats been turned in, how do you think about that balance between accuracy and fictionalization?
If it’s set in the real world and refers to real-world things, accuracy matters a lot to me. An upcoming Delta Green scenario, “Ex Oblivione,” is set just in the desert just outside Yuma. That’s an area where we have extremely detailed maps. If we say there’s a building in the desert X miles in a certain direction from the Yuma airport, there better be desert X miles in that direction or we’ll look dumb. Or if we assert something about FBI jurisdiction in some supernatural horror, we want the assertion to at least pass the Wikipedia test. When we were writing Delta Green’s take on the Sanity rules, we put a lot of work into the reading and into interviewing real-world experts so the rules would treat the issues respectfully while also being playable and scary.
Even with the D&D adventures, which are fantasy and in a fantasy world, I do a lot of research because that’s how I’m wired. If the adventure takes place in an area that I’ve decided is analogous to Iron Age Mesopotamia, the animals and equipment and religions are not going to look like standard D&D.
You also mentioned that an idea might not “click”. When you’re doing developmental work, or when you’ve been given a finished manuscript, what are you looking for? What do you think makes for a good scenario?
It has to fit the game. A Delta Green adventure has very different demands than a Godlike or D&D adventure. For DG, you want investigation, mystery, high stakes, constant paranoia, suspense coming from every angle, all that before the players brush up against things that are cosmically weird and deadly. That’s a tough balancing act to write.
It sounds like pacing is a pretty important part of that.
Yeah. I think pacing is critical to any traditional adventure game. Games that are more player-led, not so much because it’s on them. But even with D&D, for example, the pacing of opportunities for rest between encounters is the way you tighten or loosen challenges for the players, which shapes the tenor of the game.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out doing editing in the industry?
For someone new in editing in the industry: To start with, make yourself available under unreasonable conditions in order to get the work and make connections. That doesn’t mean work for free. Not beyond a foot in the door, anyway. By foot in the door, I mean it might be useful to offer an editing pass on one or two pages of a sample text in order to show what you have to offer, if you can deliver that in a way that shows enthusiasm and friendliness. I’ve seen that turn into work for a good editor. But if anyone wants you to do substantial work for free, no way.
Getting this kind of work as a freelancer is all about connections. It’s about befriending people. If they like you, they are more willing to have awkward conversations. But you also have to prove yourself responsible, responsive, and reliable, and willing to work within the publisher’s constraints. And at the same time, I recommend building up to working for yourself. If you can learn the publishing side of things — a totally different skill set — then you gain the flexibility of becoming the publisher and having control over priorities and budgets. That requires a lot of work, time, patience, and tolerance for bad mistakes, but if you make it work, then it improves your chances of making this industry a career.
On the other side, what should a publisher or writer looking to hire an editor keep in mind?
A writer looking to hire an editor needs to talk to editors a lot. Learn what that work involves. Learn what makes it easier. Learn what makes it impossible. Learn how to make your work the kind that editors want to take on.
Same goes for a publisher, but from the other direction. Respect the skills. Don’t hire someone if you don’t have the money to pay them. Don’t try to squeeze 60 hours of work out of a 20-hour job through endless tweaks. Communicate constantly so nobody gets taken by surprise. Be careful who you hire, and then do your best to make them want to keep coming back.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview with me. Before we get going, are there any projects you’re working on now, editing or otherwise you want people to keep an eye out for?
Last but not least, where can people find you on social media?
Twitter: @arcdreamllc for Arc Dream Publishing. My personal feed is @shaneivey, but, you know, Politics Alert. People with a low tolerance for me screaming my loathing of the Trump Administration but who still want the sweet RPGs should stick to the company feed. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram under Arc Dream and Delta Green.