Product Spotlight11/02/2002

D&D 3.5 Design Manager Ed Stark

From Ed Stark's perspective, both the design manager (the role he serves now) and the creative director (the role he served previously) for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game have a difficult time claiming credit for any particular project or piece of work that's come out of TSR or Wizards of the Coast in recent years. "The designers and editors who work on D&D actually create the individual projects," he says. "I just try to make sure they have everything they need and understand what the creative vision for the entire line is."

Chalk that statement up to modesty. Ed's influence on everything you know about the state of D&D right now is immense. If it's an RPG product with the D&D logo on it -- from core D&D books to adventures and everything in between -- Ed has supervised the product from its concept through its creation and editing, and he's contributed to the final design. Just recently, he's begun to oversee Forgotten Realms materials as well.

If you've been counting D&D releases from Wizards, that's quite a bit of work and responsibility for one person. At any given time, he has as many as 16 to 19 projects in the pipeline. "Right now," he explains, "it breaks down like this: in typesetting (the last chance I have to affect the project at all), two projects; in managing editing (the last stage before it leaves our department), one project; in editing (an editor is actually working on the project), six projects; in design/development (the project is being written or worked on, post-design but pre-editing), seven projects. We also have three projects I consider to be in 'pre-design' -- that is, they haven't been assigned yet, but I spend at least a little time every few days working on elements of them."

"The ones that require the most of my time are those that are in transition," Ed continues. "About every month, a couple of projects head from the concept stage to design, and from design to editing, and from editing to managing editing or typesetting. Those are critical times, when it's important that I really, really focus on what's going on with the project. If I don't, something might get forgotten, and we end up with a crisis. It's my job to keep things as dull as possible, at least in the turnover stage."

Keeping things dull is, in fact, more exciting than Ed lets on. After joining TSR in 1995 and working for a few years on projects like the launch of the Birthright D&D game and Alternity, he moved into the creative director role for the D&D line during one of its most dramatic shifts in direction, a shift meant to revitalize the entire industry. "I started right when Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams were really getting rolling on 3rd Edition," Ed says, "It was my job both to manage existing D&D projects and to help the rest of the team, and the department, look at, comment on, and integrate the new edition of the game into their work and thinking. I remember telling Bill Slavicsek, my boss, how I wanted to turn the ‘D&D group' into a design, development, and editing team, and I wanted everyone in the company to be as excited about D&D as the guys working on 3E were. While I can't claim all the credit for helping realize those two goals, I like to think I helped."

Once again, modesty prevails. Once you realize just how complicated the entire process is from beginning to end, you begin to appreciate just how much effort goes into bringing even one project to fruition . . . let alone coordinating an entire team to get dozens of them completed every year. Consider the life cycle of a recent publication, theEpic Level Handbook, designed by Andy Collins, Bruce Cordell, and Thomas M. Reid, and edited by Gwendolyn FM Kestrel and David Noonan.

"This project started out way back when we were working on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting," Ed recalls. At that time, the Forgotten Realms team, headed by Rich Baker, determined that the game needed rules for playing beyond 20th level. "They didn't feel characters like Elminster could really be contained by the 20-level limit in the new Player's Handbook," Ed says. "We agreed."

With the germ of an idea growing, Andy Collins, Jonathan Tweet, and the RPG department worked out the details so that the idea of a "beyond 20th-level" book could be pitched to the business team. Simultaneously, the department began brainstorming a set of pre-design rules for handling basic post-20th-level characters.

"Peter Adkison had a lot of input on this, too," Ed says of the founder and former president of Wizards of the Coast. "He and Ryan Dancey sat in on a lot of meetings, and I remember everyone trying to decide what it meant to go beyond 20th level. I believe it was Ryan who said, "You've been playing D&D for twenty levels because you like it; you should get to keep playing the game you like.'"

With that conviction in place and the project ready to move forward, what would become the Epic Level Handbook began to follow the course of most D&D projects at Wizards. "I worked with Bill Slavicsek to get Andy and Bruce scheduled to design the project," Ed says. These discussions included several concept meetings to cover what the book should be like, what it needed to include, and how the team wanted the design to break out. "I acted as both a tactical 'planner' for the project and a liaison between people working on related projects," he points out. "When the Forgotten Realms team needed to know something, or needed to give us feedback, I made sure everyone was included. When we started working on Deities and Demigods-- a project that just had to link up with the Epic Level Handbook -- I had both projects in my group, so I oversaw discussions and planning between the two project teams."

With the design moving forward, Ed facilitated reviews of the materials by members of the department and, later, by the playtesting groups. "We did extensive in-house and out-of-house playtesting and, working with the RPGA, we set up some good playtest groups for the Epic Level Handbook. (The names of those playtesters were accidentally dropped out of the final project, but we're working to correct that.) I helped make sure the designers were aware of all the playtest feedback, and I worked with them to decide how to address the different comments and needs." This coordination included working with Thomas M. Reid, a freelancer who designed and developed adventure and setting material for the book and who needed up-to-date details about rules design while he was developing the campaign material. As Thomas was out of house, Ed served as the conduit for information passing back and forth between the adventure designer and game designers.

When the first draft was completed and reviewed by the D&D team, Bruce implemented changes and developed the manuscript so it could go to editing. "Editing is the first big transition that happens with a project," Ed says. "I have to make sure the designers have given the editors everything they need to complete the manuscript. Not only do they require the finished document, but they also need an art order, a map order, and a host of companion' files that show them rationales and explanations for the designers' work. Since the Epic Level Handbook is so rules-heavy, that was a pretty hefty document itself."

Of course, while the project was in editing, the designers moved on to other work; there are always new projects that need attention. "When Gwen or Dave had a question about the Epic Level Handbook, they could sometimes hunt up the designers (and sometimes they couldn't), but they could always find me," Ed says. "More often than not, I'd highlight any issue they brought up for later discussion -- we were almost always able to go back and pick the designers' brains to determine exactly what they wanted to say. But sometimes, since I was the only other person familiar enough with the manuscript to make a call, I'd do that."

The editors then did what editors do: They polished the material to make it shine, and at this stage of development the art and map orders were turned over. Ed attended discussions with the art and cartography directors to answer their questions about assigning the illustrations or making the maps. Of course, Ed sought input from the product's authors, but, he explains, "part of what I'm paid to do is keep them on track with their current designs. If I pull them off projects to look over every sketch or answer every question, they'll never get anything done."

Next comes the managing editor stage, where Kim Mohan handles every project from the time it comes out of editing to the time it leaves typesetting for the printer. "He comes to me with questions about the project and I try to make sure he gets the answers he needs," Ed says. "When the galleys (proofs) of the project come through, I look at them to make sure nothing got changed or left out by accident."

Although it would seem that a printed book is the end of the project, this turns out not to be the case. Fans spot errors in the published piece that the D&D team didn't know existed. These can vary from simple typos and mis-statements to actual rules mistakes that the team didn't think of while working on the project -- after all, if the team took the time to consider every possible combination of rules that players might make, books would never get published. Fan feedback is combined with internal reviews of the project, and then the team regroups to discuss what's right, what's wrong, "and what we're going to do about it," Ed explains. This process may result in corrections being published on the Wizards website and/or in later reprints.

Now, multiple this process by twenty, and you can imagine how busy Ed Stark is on a daily basis. "Fun, eh?" he says.

In truth, it is fun for the 36-year-old gamer. In addition to his other hobbies (fencing; reading fantasy, science fiction, and historical novels; and, oddly, going on "bizarre shopping trips"), he continues to play D&D, a game he's been involved with first as a player (under 1st edition rules, when he used to write his own adventures and rules material without a thought fur submitting them for publication) and then as a professional.

Ed found his way into the roleplaying game industry when his B.A. in Creative Writing from Pennsylvania State University and his advanced degrees (a Master of Arts in Literature and a Master of Arts in Teaching) from Binghamton University in New York essentially priced him out of public school teaching. "That meant either going back to school for my doctorate," Ed says, "or working in a very cool book and game store while I tinkered with being a professional writer. I chose the latter." He wrote for various small-press science fiction magazines while working full-time at the game store. "Just about the time I got the idea to submit a game product for publication, my now-wife Jill's father, John, pointed out an editing job at a local game company called West End Games. I applied for the job, and the rest is . . .

"Oh, wait. I didn't get the job," Ed says. "Nope. I interviewed with -- of all people -- Bill Slavicsek, who was the head of the editorial department at WEG at the time. While I like to think I did well in the interview, I was still in school. He needed someone now. We had a nice talk, I resolved to start writing some game stuff for publication, and we went our separate ways. For about, oh, six months. I was working at the aforementioned game store when, right around Christmas time, I got a call from a man named Rich Hawran, the VP in charge of production at WEG. He was going to be hiring another editor and wanted to know if I was interested. I said ‘yes,' had an interview, and got the job."

(How did Bill Slavicsek come to be Ed's current boss at Wizards of the Coast, you might ask? Well, that's a story for another occasion. . . .)

"So," Ed continues, "my first paying job in the gaming industry was as the line editor for a game called Paranoia. I started in 1990 in that position and immediately found that when you work at a small game company (we had, when I started there, three editors, one full-time designer, three art/graphics folks, a sales manager, a production manager, and a ‘licensing guy' who worked for us and the shoe company downstairs), you wear a lot of hats. Soon, I was doing full-time editing for Paranoia and TORG: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars, and full- or part-time design for TORG and the original Star WarsRPG. I got to learn a lot about line management and hitting deadlines in that time, though I do cringe occasionally when I realize what things we had to give up to make those schedules.

"If you add that up, you'll notice that's at least two full-time jobs. Yes, I worked pretty much all the time. It was exhausting, but it let me put my name on at least fifty design and/or editing projects and write two novels over the course of five years. When I came up for air, I looked for somewhere I could do nothing but full-time design and get paid for it, and there was TSR. Little did I know. . . .

"Through all that, I remember the reason I stayed in the field -- rather than go back to teaching or become a full-time novelist or something -- was because I really loved playing and writing games. There's something about writing material that lets other people turn it into something more. When you write a novel or a screenplay or a comic
book, it's a finite work. You hope people will read it and enjoy it, but it is something of a passive experience for readers. You tell them the story. With games, you produce the guidelines and the rules, but the readers/players produce the experience. If you look on our message boards, people write thousands of words every day about the material we, as game designers, produce. It's exciting that so many people are interested in taking the raw rules and guidelines we make and turning them into worlds and stories of their own. I just don't seem to get tired of that."

Given both his enthusiasm for and intense involvement with all things D&D, fans can rely on Ed to keep bringing the best possible roleplaying opportunities to the public. Ultimately, he would like to produce a book or a series of books that "really takes advantage of all the things you can do to make roleplaying fun and exciting," he explains. "At Wizards, we focus on books and rules, and that's fine -- those are the basic elements of RPGs. But whenever I attend GenCon or talk to my friends in the industry, I see interesting and exciting components of RPGs that could really expand what we do and how we do it. Focusing on what you do best is important, but broadening what you do best is exciting and, in my opinion, very, very smart."

Ed cites his involvement with Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (written by Monte Cook and edited by Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Andy Collins, and Duane Maxwell) as one of the most entertaining experiences in his job so far. "While I participated in all the levels I described earlier, I also got to play my favorite D&D character, Krusk, in an extended playtest of the adventure. It was hard, sometimes, backing off the actually roleplaying of the project to provide either creative director-type or playtester-type feedback because the module was so interesting and so involved that I often didn't know where my job ended and the fun began."

Though a friend in the film and television industry promised Ed that if he ever came to work for her, she'd let him sit in her office in a beanbag chair all day ("Think about it," he says, "a bean bag chair. All day. What a great concept!"), in the end his career path is unlikely to stray far from the gaming industry, as his highlights list reflects:

  • Attending my first GenCon in 1990 (I got to see how big the game industry really was).
  • Publishing my first full-out game (Shatterzone, 1993) and my first novel (Beyond the ‘Zone, same year).
  • Winning the RPGA Gamers' Choice Award (1995, for Paranoia, 5th Edition).
  • Becoming the lead designer for the Birthright game line (1995).
  • Taking the Creative Director position for D&D RPG (1998).
  • Being part of the launch of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons (2000).
  • Participating in this interview (2002).

Modest to the very end.

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