This month, we celebrate Dragon #400—a truly impressive milestone! The first issue of "The Dragon" appeared back in June 1976—which means this month also marks the publication’s 35th anniversary. To help observe this double celebration, we’ve asked past editors and editors-in-chief to share a few words about what Dragon has meant to them, as readers, as gamers, and as staffers.
Jesse Decker served as editor-in-chief from issues #288 (“Fear,” offering the lifedrinker prestige class, master villains, and vampire-slaying tools) through 311 (“Secret Magic,” with an exclusive first look at a new campaign setting known as Eberron). We spoke with Jesse about his time at the magazine.
Wizards of the Coast: Before you started working on Dragon magazine, can you remember the first issue you may have bought, read, or that simply resonated with you?
Jesse Decker: There was this cool hobby bookstore in Renton, WA while I was growing up called Heritage Bookstore. I couldn't afford to buy all the Dragon magazine issues that I wanted, so I spent many, many summer afternoons standing by their gaming shelves trying to decide which issues to buy. It was never easy, but finally I picked one of the issues with “Pages from the Mages” by Ed Greenwood. It’s hard to impart how powerfully I reacted to those articles—I was overwhelmed with the idea that you could make new spells. The realization that you could actually implement your own ideas in the game was just amazing to me. Up until that point, everything I knew about games said that the rules all came from the box. “Pages from the Mages” changed my world a little bit.
I had a sort of similar reaction to the 1st Edition Unearthed Arcana, but those “Pages from the Mages” articles really drove home the realization that you could make stuff up and add it to games.
Wizards of the Coast: What did Dragon mean to you then, as a gamer?
Jesse Decker: Well, it meant that I annoyed the owner of that bookshop quite a lot, because you know… a kid loitering by the shelves without buying much always goes over well. It was also the major source of cool fantasy imagery in my young life. Those memories mean something now, but at the time it just meant that gaming seemed cool. I wanted to play, and when I wasn’t playing I wanted to read about playing; Dragon produced more pages about gaming than just about anything else, so I gravitated to it.
Wizards of the Coast: How did you make the transition from reader to working on the magazine?
Jesse Decker: I grew up in Renton, so when I came back home for the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I applied for a random temp job like many other college kids. They called me two days later and asked me if I wanted to work for Wizards of the Coast for the summer. No kidding—I had been playing Magic like crazy for two years with no idea that it was made in my hometown. I took the temp assignment, and at the end of the summer the HR person asked if he could do anything to help me in the future. In an uncharacteristically pithy moment I simply said, “Remember me.”
I went back to school for my senior year and discovered that although I loved studying science, I did not want to be a scientist. So I moved home and got an entry-level job at the shiny new Wizards of the Coast Super Awesome Expensive and Crazy Game Center. That was interesting for about three months, and just when I was ready to find something new, they posted want ads for the TSR jobs that were opening after the buyout. So I applied. The HR guy did remember me, and I got a job as editorial assistant for Dragon and Dungeon magazines.
Wizards of the Coast: When you became editor-in-chief, were you given any mandates regarding Dragon’s content? What was your own vision for where you wanted to take the magazine?
Jesse Decker: There was some direction to support the main product lines, but that didn’t trouble me; there’s a natural rapport between core game material and expansion content. There was also, of course, pressure to sell and sell. Almost all of the tension between the magazine staff and upper management centered around the covers: We wanted the issues to sell of course, but we didn’t want to simply slather giant text all over the cover to grab readers. Don’t get me wrong—our bosses had their hearts in the right place; sell more issues, stay in business, continue to make Dragon magazine. All in all, a worthy goal. Still, we struggled with this each issue.
Wizards of the Coast: How would you describe your time working with Dragon, perhaps in terms of alignment: Chaotic Neutral? Lawful good?
Jesse Decker: Chaos reigned. Dragon editor-in-chief is still the most stressful job I’ve ever had. The staff was talented and dedicated, but they were stretched thin and fatigued from a grueling production schedule. There was added stress as pressure built up before the Paizo change, and of course even more as the new company dealt with the trials of being a startup in a pretty lean industry. I really felt like my strongest contribution was just keeping everyone's blood pressure as low as possible.
Wizards of the Coast: During your tenure, were there any particular articles or issues that stood out to you—either as exemplary of what you wished for the magazine, or that were just particularly difficult to put to bed?
Jesse Decker: My third issue as editor-in-chief was really fun; that stands out because it was the point where most of the previous editor’s backlog of articles ran out and I was really shaping the magazine. We had a great cover for that issue, too, by a guy named Wayne Reynolds. It wasn’t his first D&D piece, but it made a lot of people say, “Oh crap, this Reynolds guy is good.” I guess he did some more art after that or something.
On the other hand, issue #300 was pretty brutal. Expectations were very high and the issue’s content just didn’t match up to what fans hoped for. We ran a sealed content section to support the Book of Vile Darkness, and it got a bunch of criticism. Tracy Hickman even called me a terrorist on the EnWorld forums. I guess that’s the one I’d do differently.
Wizards of the Coast: Who were your contemporaries at the magazine (and your predecessor as editor-in-chief)? Did they give you any words of wisdom for Dragon?
Jesse Decker: Dave Gross was the editor-in-chief who hired me for the editorial assistant job in 1997, and was also my predecessor. The opening came up because Dave had been going for something like a decade and wanted to take the lead on the Star Wars magazines that were starting up. Chris Perkins started as editor of Dungeon magazine only a week or two before I joined the staff. Along with Pierce Watters, our publisher, Chris and Dave gave me daily lessons on editing, writing, and how to be a part of the game industry. All three of those guys chipped in to mentor a very young editor, and it’s only in hindsight that I fully appreciate their efforts.
I had a great staff to manage, too. There were two art directors during my tenure, Peter Whitley and then Lisa Chido. Matt Sernett was a very junior editor when I got the editor-in-chief job, but it wasn’t long until he was handling all of the toughest rules calls and doing tons to improve the content of the magazine. Stacey Mangelsson joined shortly thereafter, and probably handled 90% of the proofing. Those folks were really amazing. If you liked something from the magazine during this short era, they brought it to you.
I also had the privilege of working beside Chris Youngs for something like five years. Chris was hired a year after I was. We got permission to expand the staff by one, so I got a promotion to assistant editor, and he was hired to the editorial assistant spot. Thank goodness I had that head start, because if it had been reversed I’d never have caught him. Chris is the best editor I’ve worked with and one of the hardest workers that I know. He was frankly way, way better than me, and he carried many issues of both Dragon and Dungeon over the finish line almost by himself. For two years, this guy ran Dungeon alone and also helped with Dragon. Dragon had four staffers plus half of Chris’s time, and Dungeon was the better magazine throughout the era. Thanks, Chris.
That said, the best words of wisdom I ever got regarding the editor-in-chief job actually came from Kim Mohan. Imagine the moment: It’s a rare sunny day in Renton and I’m walking around the courtyard in the center of the WotC buildings with my heart in the clouds because I just found out that I’m the new editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine. After about ten laps around the little pool, I’m feeling as if I might be able to speak to other humans again, and I head back inside. Kim Mohan is standing just outside the door. He’s like nine feet taller than me, and I’m thinking “I have the same job that this guy used to have, and he’s beyond legend status.” Kim peers down at me. I pause with my hand on the door, and spend serious, life-draining effort trying not to lose control of my bodily functions. Kim peers down at me some more. Then he says, “You got the job, huh?”
“Yngthn,” I say, clearly having overestimated my powers of speech.
“I guess it takes about seven years for it to drive you insane,” Kim says; still with the peering.
Well, Kim, you were wrong, or made of sterner stuff than me. Or likely both. It only took two.
*Or maybe Kim just didn’t tell me that the timer starts the day you’re hired to the magazine in any position.
Wizards of the Coast: Do you have any words of wisdom of your own for future Dragon staffers?
Jesse Decker: It takes about seven years for it to drive you insane.
But it’s a pretty fun seven years.