Being a tabletop RPG’s line developer is an interesting job. It involves work that draws on diverse disciplines not frequently united in the same person.
A good line developer has top-shelf creative chops, both in-the-trenches writing and editing abilities as well as long-term vision for a whole line of creative works. A line developer must also possess a level of technical know-how about how the physical product is assembled and produced, and must further be an effective manager of people, many of whom are freelancers. (“Line developer” and “line editor” are generally interchangeable job titles.)
Line development is creative management, the job done by TV showrunners and magazine editors and the people who run ad agencies.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing a little work on a forthcoming Ars Magica supplement. I won’t name it because I’m not sure whether Atlas has announced it. I’m not doing any development on it, just copyediting, art directing, and laying the book out.
In the course of copyediting the manuscript, I re-read the Ars Magica style guide. As an internal document whose audience is solely writers on the line, it (wisely) includes a section that describes the way Ars Magica authors ought to approach the question of their relationship with the line developer.
In the tabletop RPG business, many (most?) writers work for the love of RPGs in general, or even the love of the particular game they’re working on. Since the carrot isn’t money, questions of the content can become contentious. This is doubly true for a game in its fifth edition (because each of its prior editions has its partisans) and doubly-again true for a game whose subject matter—medieval Europe—is so dearly beloved while simultaneously open to vast breadths of interpretation, while at the same time being massively re-interpreted through the distorting lens of, you know, magic and wizards and God. (Luckily, nearly no one has strong opinions about the nature of God. Dodged a bullet there.)
This is turning into a very long-winded introduction to a section of the Ars Magica style guide that line developer David Chart—who is without a doubt the ideal Ars Magica line developer, for any edition—has kindly allowed me to reproduce here.
In this section, “Arguing with the Line Editor,” David explains to the game’s writers How It’s Going To Be. It’s both firm and reasonable, and especially elegant in using an extended and bogglingly appropriate metaphor from the game’s own background. I, perhaps, find it especially funny because it comes around to suggesting a correspondence between a former employer and good friend of mine, and the pope.
If you are a line editor, your style guide should include a lengthy section Just Exactly Like This. If you’re an RPG writer, you should assume that this is your editor’s position. If you’re a fan of RPGs, this peek behind the curtain may—in addition to being pretty interesting—help explain how things work behind the scenes at the headquarters of your favorite publisher.
Arguing with the Line Editor
At several stages of the process, I may ask you to make changes to your work. I try not to do this too often, because I’m an author too, and I know that it’s generally better to be able to write what you want. However, it might happen. In particular, for Fifth Edition I’m holding books much more closely to my vision of the line, to give the line more unity.
Sometimes, you won’t want to make the change I’ve asked for, because you really like your idea. In that case, you can ask me to change my mind. However, it is important to do this the right way.
Let us use an appropriate analogy.
I am a medieval king. I have absolute authority, in the last analysis, over the direction of Ars Magica. However, I’m a wise king, so I get lots of input from my major nobles (authors) and knights of the shire (playtesters), and even listen to the concerns of the peasants (read the BerkList). If a major noble disagrees with me, I’m going to listen. I listen to knights of the shire, too.
However, approach is everything. In the end, I don’t have to convince my nobles that my decision is right. I can make that decision by myself. So, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t convinced by my arguments against your position. (If you are, then you’re going to want to make the change I’ve asked for anyway.) I am, so you need to find a way to preserve the bits you think are important.
Do not try citing ArM4 or earlier canon. It has no relevance to the matter at hand, since I’ve made a positive decision that I don’t like this feature. Obsolete canon is something it’s nice to agree with if it’s not too much trouble and there’s no reason to go against it.
Do not cite your draft as if it was current canon. That’s just annoying.
Be wary about citing published ArM5 books. This is an argument; consistency within the line is important. On the other hand, I can write errata. If you’re supported by a single sentence somewhere, you can bring that up as part of your argument, but it can’t be the whole thing. If you think you’re supported by loads of references, you should probably be looking to clarify, because we clearly interpret either those references or your draft differently.
A good line of argument is to show me why doing it your way brings in lots of story potential. I like story potential.
The best line of argument is to look for a compromise. Look at my concern carefully, and see if you can come up with a compromise that meets my objection while keeping what you want. This is actually the line most likely to succeed, because I want a compromise that makes me and my nobles happy. Even if I reject the first compromise, we can keep going back and forth.
If you aren’t clear on exactly what my problem is (which happens, since you can’t read my mind) ask for clarification. Tell me why you want this feature, what important role it plays in the draft, and ask whether that’s the problem. If it’s not, it should be relatively easy to come up with a compromise.
If I do object specifically to the thing you want to keep, you have a problem, as a compromise isn’t possible. Arguing in terms of story potential, broad canon consistency, and tweaks that minimize the problems I see might work, but most likely you will simply have to go along with my decision. Nobles have to do what the king says, in the end.
Finally, don’t argue over things you don’t care that much about.
You don’t need to call me Your Majesty, although.
(The analogy works further: If I really annoy all my nobles, knights, and peasants, I can’t be king anymore, because no-one buys the game, no-one wants to write it, and no-one will playtest it. Similarly, you can appeal to the Pope ([Atlas Games President] John Nephew), and get me deposed, in theory. In practice, however, none of this is going to happen over my editorial decisions on a single book, and issuing apocalyptic warnings about the catastrophic damage my decisions will do to the line is just childish.)