One Too Many (Voices in My Head): Reflections on Misery
Welcome to Greg “Not the Smart One” Vaughan’s One Too Many (Voices in My Head). His last, best chance to exercise those pesky demons. In his column, you’ll find… I really have no idea, but he gave me $20, so… all yours Greg!
As I type these words, I have put the finishing touches on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game conversion of Part Eight of The Slumbering Tsar Saga, and Part Seven awaits only its final art turnover before it goes to print. As a 14-part adventure series, that means I’ve passed the halfway mark in this Herculean task (that’s actually Herculean +2 for any of you who are counting), and I figure it’s time to rest my carpal-tunneled, degeneratively arthritic hands and take a moment to reflect upon this milestone… a milestone of pain, in my opinion, as I stare down the home stretch of the last six parts, but a milestone nonetheless. So to take a rest from working on it, I’m going to type a column for KQ.com. Mama never said I was the smart one.
But wait, you say, what is this saga that you speak of? Sure, we’ve seen it in your little bio at the end of these columns, but we just figured it was more of that crap you make up. Well, to answer your so-rudely stated question, as I am its author, technically it would fall under the category of that “crap” I make up, but I assure you it does really exist, and as it bears down on my heart and soul with its incessant burden, it serves as my own White Whale… a White Whale riding a polar bear… on a bike… carrying a monkey… yeah, it’s that bad. So, without further ado a little background. Turn on the Wayback machine, Mr. Peabody…
In Days of Old
Doodle-oodaloo-doodle-oodaleoo (insert your own way flashback lines here).
Waaaaay back in 2004, with the 3E Wave in full swing, I sent a little adventure proposal to the good folks at Necromancer Games… well, they’re demon princes (Orcus and Tsathoggua, to be precise), but good in a sort of Chaotic Evil, eat your face, and use your soul as toilet paper kind of way. They had this really cool series of adventures called The Dungeon of Graves that began with a short background blurb describing an epic battle at an evil temple-city of Orcus called Tsar in which the forces of evil were forced on a long retreat and ultimately led their opponents (you guessed it, the forces of good—okay it’s a little bread-and-butter here) into a mysterious forest. That march triggered a massive trap, or ambush, or News Kids on the Block festival, or some other kind of ultimately bad mojo.
The end result was the forces of good disappeared and years later all that was found in the forest was a massive graveyard (presumably holding the remains of the forces of good) and a massive Orcusophile-inhabited dungeon complex underneath, hence the name: The Dungeon of Graves.
Anyway, it was all way cool and, in true Necromancer Games fashion, way nasty. (I bought the limited-edition boxed set and am now Killer GM #806 for anyone who’s counting).
As cool as it was, I always had a little niggling question in the back of my mind. If the Orcusophilic priests established their new temple in the Dungeon of Graves, then they presumably never went back to reclaim the abandoned temple-city of Tsar. If that’s the case, why not? And what’s been going on there since?
Off the the Races
With that thin veneer of a plot (believe me, I’ve used thinner), I proposed an adventure about what slumbered within the ruins of Tsar—coming up with the pithy title Slumbering Tsar, I might add—and sent it in to the esteemed demon princes. You could say the rest is history, but that would seriously short my word count for this column, so I’ll expound. Basically, I never heard back from them. Yep, story of my life.
Fortunately, ever an optimist or at least a glutton for punishment, after an interval of 6 months or so I submitted it again, hoping it had just been eaten by the email monster. This time I received a favorable email response, and shortly thereafter, I was talking on the phone to Bill Webb, co-owner of Necromancer Games.
These were the heady days of titles like The Lost City of Barakus and The Vault of Larin Karr for Necromancer, so from talking to Bill, mini-campaigns were the hot sellers for Necromancer, and my idea for a simple adventure module to build upon the lore created in The Dungeon of Graves grew. However, the treacherous Fates weren’t done with me yet.
A few months later and many thousands of words into writing my adventure-campaign, I had another conversation with Bill. Printer costs on the bigger books were a killer, and they weren’t selling as well. Lots of BIG products were hitting the market, what with Ptolus and The World’s Largest Dungeon and what have you. So Necromancer was looking in a different direction, to move to more smaller books at a lower price point. Would I be able to break Tsar into three books?
Tampering with My artistic Genius
After a little thought about how it could be done, I decided, yeah, I could find a way to break it up into a three-parter. This actually gave me a little extra leeway in expanding each part, I thought in the throes of my youthful exuberance… and it grew.
The first part clocked in at 90,000 words, the second at 165,000. I was getting nervous—the third one was shaping up to be truly massive and Bill was pinging me for it, wanting to know how this thing was going to end… and it grew… and grew. At 205,000 words for the third part, I called it quits, either from it actually being done or just from sheer exhaustion after a year-and-half of writing—I can’t remember which; the caffeine habit and highballs have a way of screwing with your recall. I kid, of course; I never touch caffeine…
Anyway, with much-shorter fingernails and much-grayer hair, I finally sent in the final turnover on the third part. Then Bill said those two fateful words that caused me more pain than an appendix exploding in my kidney—“art order.” At one piece of art per every 5 pages, that came out to… 130 pieces of art I had to devise, describe, and document so it could go to the artist… Pop! Goodbye little appendney.
The Path to Publication Never Runs Smooth
With only three fingers left on my right hand and a keyboard smeared with blood, tears, and even a little feces (okay, but that was from the monkey being carried by the polar bear on the bike with the… oh, never mind), I managed to hack out art orders for the three books and send them in.
The books were edited, laid out, and sent to the printers in China on a long, long, slow boat ride. In fact, this was about the time rumors of a 4th Edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game were beginning to circulate and 3E sales suddenly stumbled.
Necromancer’s publishing partner for the books pulled the plug to avoid taking a bath in a slumping market, and there my epic adventure series died, poetically perhaps, in some nameless jungle in Southeast Asia.
Not that the quest ended there, mind you. I am, after all, of limited mental faculty and a true glutton for abuse. Necromancer Games soon went on a hiatus, and while many discussions were had about resurrecting the adventures and Necromancer actually released the first one in a PDF-only format, nothing ever grabbed enough momentum to really get going.
Alnernatives Are Few
I started shopping the title around a bit—anyone want to publish a 450,000 word adventure? I can’t blame them, Open Design wasn’t really doing books of that size, Sinister Adventures was still being birthed and focused on Razor Coast, and Paizo adventures are only about 210,000 words for an entire Adventure Path so this would count as two APs and change. Whaddya mean you don’t want to devote an entire year of your product line and hang your financial well-being on the success of a single monster adventure series I wrote?
Well, okay, when you put it that way, I wouldn’t either.
While everyone involved listened very politely and some even crunched numbers with me to see if it could work, realistically it just wasn’t a good fit for anyone’s product line or a good risk for them to take. Here I was all dressed up holding a behemoth book and with no place to go.
With just a Few Tweaks…
Then Bill Webb got bit by the publishing bug again. Necromancer Games had been silent for too long, and he wanted to at least get this thing out the door as a last hurrah if he could. Thus was founded Frog God Games, spiritual heir of Necromancer Games.
All I needed to do was revise the 450,000-word adventure to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game rules. You can’t see it, but my face has a little tic when I type that. That’s only like, oh, 5,000 stat blocks plus every mention of a Spot, Search, Listen, Hide, Move Silently check included in the text… tic, tic.
On the Threshold
So that’s where we are. I subdivided the books into 14 parts to accommodate a realistic revision schedule and monthly releases, and in the last 6 months, we’ve gotten six of the parts published and out the door with the next two in the queue, ready to go, and a compilation of the entire thing into one massive hardback tome when all is said and done sometime this summer.
People have been incredibly supportive of the project and patient in its year-long-plus release schedule—diehard old Necromancer Games fans and even Pathfinder fans who had never really heard of Necromancer. And Frog God Games has expanded into multiple projects due to its success.
The “series” is now called the “saga,” not because it has suddenly sprouted Beowulf and a bunch of Nordic kennings but because the journey of the book itself has been a personal saga, and it continues. Now, I can spout some kennings if you want, believe you me, but I’ll save those for another… word-collection-type thing. (See how I snuck one in right there to say “column”? Pretty Old World, huh?).
If this Story Had a Moral It Would Go Here
Many lessons have been learned on this journey. It introduced me to the publishing biz and its many facets. It led me into part ownership of an RPG publishing company, which is really kind of cool. It showed the power that a loyal fan base clamoring for a product can have.
Also, it exposed me to a great deal of derision and mockery by my playtesting group (a normal thing for me) as they pointed out every typo and ill-conceived idea I had come up with, and exposed them to PC deaths on a geometric scale (a normal thing for them, heh, heh) as I took out my revenge on their sorry characters. But mostly it made me realize, as I continue this months-long process of going through and updating every, endless stat block, that I really want to punch the guy in the face who decided that it would be way cool to add a template or PC class levels onto every freaking monster in the adventure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go take a beating.
Greg Vaughan is the creative director of Frog God Games and author of The Slumbering Tsar Saga. You can check them out at talesofthefroggod.com. He is also a regular contributor to Paizo Publishing’s Adventure Paths and various and sundry other things too tawdry to mention here.