But What Do They Do?
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Editors: R&D, Roleplaying Games
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But What Do They Do?
Editors: R&D, Roleplaying Games
by Michael G. Ryan

For nearly ten years now, Michele Carter has been an RPG editor. In that decade, she's worked on some extremely complicated projects -- the Planescape boxed sets, for example (which contained, according to Michele, "about a zillion components each"); Axe of the Dwarvish Lords ("extreme map complexities"); the Dark*Matter Campaign Setting ("a wholly new setting and a complete departure from anything we'd done before"); the new D&D edition of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting ("balancing the history of the line against the needs of the new game and the evolution of the setting"); and the new version of Deities and Demigods ("deity stat blocks -- enough said").

Many of these more complicated projects have turned out to be her favorite ones. And none of these have convinced her that she has anything less than her dream job.

"I recognize just how lucky I am to be able to say that," she hastens to point out. "How many people really love what they do for a living? It's not all playing games -- there's an enormous amount of work that goes into producing RPGs, and I spend a lot of weekends in the office -- but it's fun."

As one of the senior editors for the Roleplaying Games Division, Michele's time and energy are often spread out among multiple projects, though she generally tries to focus on only one of them at a time -- she tracks the progress of her previous projects as they move through the production process, she attends concept meetings for the next ones, and she keeps up with other things around the department. "I've worked on most of the lines we've published at one point or another," she says. "As a sample, my last project was the new Deities and Demigods for the core D&D line; my current project is Power of the Jedi for Star Wars; and my next one will be a massive Forgotten Realms adventure . . . that I'm not allowed to talk about yet."

The editorial process of bringing these projects to fruition has been a learning experience from the very beginning of Michele's time with TSR. In 1991, the game company placed an ad in Dragon Magazine advertising for editorial positions on the roleplaying staff. "It was pure coincidence that I happened to see it, because I wasn't reading Dragon Magazine regularly at the time," Michele remembers. "But I loved gaming and happened to be flipping through the issue when I saw the ad. I remember the feeling very well: standing at the magazine rack, staring at the ad and thinking, 'Yes. This is what I want to do with my life.' I went home and immediately sent off my resume."

A few rounds of letters and phone calls later, she found herself traveling from Florida to Wisconsin for an interview. "That was an amazing experience," she says. "Walking around the old TSR building, I met these people who had comic books piled up in their cubes, swords hanging on the walls, action figures everywhere. There was a guy sprawled out on the floor, drawing a map for an adventure. It was this wonderful creative madhouse and I wanted to be a part of it." When TSR offered her a job in July of 1992, she was more than willing to move on from the Public Administration program she was enrolled in at grad school. "When I got the acceptance phone call, the first thing I did was call my parents and tell them, 'I'm moving to Wisconsin.' No hesitation at all, even considering the fact that I'd grown up in southern Florida and had never seen snow. Now, that was a shock. . . ."

Her first assignment was to work on Assassin Mountain by Wolfgang Baur, for the Al-Qadim line. "I had no idea what I was doing," she admits. "It was a really fascinating project, though, and I got a lot of good advice from other editors in the department. It became immediately apparent that the editor's job was far more than proofreading. We're responsible for the entire project, start to finish. While my introduction was a little like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, there was no better way to learn how to edit RPGs than just to start doing it."

And what does "just doing it" entail? In Michele's case, she's involved in a project from start to finish, beginning with concept meetings even before the designers have begun to write. At these meetings, the designer, the editor, the creative director "and anyone else who's interested in the project" weigh in with their thoughts about the upcoming project. Then the designer is off to write. "Depending on the size of the project, it might be months before the editor sees it again," Michele points out, "though at varying times the designer might call for additional input on concepts or story direction or other aspects."

Once the design phase is completed, the manuscript goes to the editor. "When I get a manuscript, the first thing I do is look to make sure all the pieces are in place," she explains. "That means consulting the product brief, which has information on how many pages the project has, its art and map allotment, and other technical details. Then I generally read through the entire thing to familiarize myself not only with what the text actually says, but how it flows as a project, how the graphics will be integrated, and if it meets the goals set for the project. Is it a good adventure? Does the sourcebook give all the necessary information in a clear and interesting manner?"

Editing an RPG, however, includes a great deal more than just the body text (though Michele notes that the body text is usually the largest part); there's also the cover copy, art order, map order, other special graphics needs, and often additional material such as web enhancements. "The editor makes sure all the pieces are in place and then delivered to the appropriate departments: art order to the art director, map order to the cartography department, and so on," Michele explains.

"And then I edit the text," she says. "That's a very simple statement for a very complex process. Spelling, grammar, and general proofreading is certainly a large part of it, but it also includes checking for consistency both in world-details (is this village really where the text says it is?) and technical elements (does this new spell magic item or trap work in accordance with the "rules" set out for creating new spells in the new D&D?). Editors check for the overall feel of the manuscript: Does it accomplish what it's supposed to? Does the text read well, without too much passive voice? I'm responsible for all the printed words that are read by thousands of people, so they'd better be the right words."

This includes all the words, in fact -- from text on the back and front covers to the microscopic legal text on the first page to the tags printed on the maps and the captions under the art. Michele accounts for all of this, in addition to practically everything else that goes into the product. "Every art piece, for example, needs a description so that the art director can tell the artists exactly what they need to draw," she explains. "The art needs to be placed in reference to the text, without too much art in one chapter and too little in another. The same process applies to maps. Storyboards can be immeasurably useful here in detailing how the final book will look. Page by page, I'll construct a storyboard that includes every art and map that goes into the project, where the chapter starts fall, and other specific details of the layout."

Once the editing is finished, the project moves on to the managing editor and Michele begins the entire process over again for her next editorial assignment. Yet even once the next project is underway, she still answers any questions the managing editor has about the previous project, looks at the generated art and maps to make sure they're correct in all details, and follows up on any specific needs that the project requires as it goes through the production process toward publication. "Every project is different, and every editor works differently," Michele says. "This is a unique job; it's both technical and creative. A strong grounding in the use of language is essential, from spelling to grammar to punctuation. Knowledge of the game worlds and rules is equally as important. Beyond that, you learn about layout issues and production processes, how to assemble a complete product and track its multitude of pieces. It's easy to look at a single bound book and think of it as one work, but any number of people have contributed to it, and it's up to the editor to pull it together into a complete package."

In all, Michele's career is not that far removed from where she had planned for it to go in the first place. She acquired her B.A. in English, a field she chose as her major "because I was good at it -- and because I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do when I graduated. While I wasn't interested in teaching or journalism (often assumed as career choices for English majors), I knew it'd give me a strong background for whatever I chose to do next. Those skills never go to waste." And they certainly come up regularly in her work at Wizards of the Coast. It's been quite a decade for her. Looking back, she can easily pick out those projects that were the oddest ("the Marvel Dice Game") and those that were the most fun to work on. "The Planescape line as a whole," she says. "That was very much a collaborative effort between the designers and editors; we camped out in each others' offices, discussing various aspects of the game world. Also the Dark*Matter Campaign Setting, because of its unique needs and the time I spent researching some truly odd material. There are some bizarre websites out there."

All in all, Michele feels she's been lucky enough to work on some of what she considers to be the most innovative projects that TSR or Wizards of the Coast has ever produced. "Early on, I got involved in the Planescape product line and went on to edit a number of books for that setting. I loved everything about it -- the concepts, the unconventional layouts, the art. More recently, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, which was a complex project for a number of reasons. I think it turned out well.

"But without a doubt, the project of which I'm most proud is the Dark*Matter Campaign Setting. We had the chance to do something entirely different with that book -- concepts and layouts and subjects we'd never touched before. It was a vast project with an enormous scope, and it was absolutely wonderful to work on with the designers and my co-editor, Andy Collins."

Of course, no matter how much they enjoy the work they've done to date, most editors can cite an editing assignment that would be their ultimate editing experience. Michele is no exception. "Of course, the comic-book fan in me would love to edit those books that I enjoy the most," she admits. "It's similar to what I do now: self-contained worlds constantly evolving with input from multiple sources, with the editorial staff contributing not only to the accuracy of the text and world-details but to the direction of the book as well."

In other words, a dream job for the next decade.

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