Robert J. Schwalb, a writer and award-winning game designer best known for his work on Dungeons & Dragons, got his start in 2002 and has never looked back. He has designed or developed almost two hundred gaming books in both print and digital formats for Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin Publishing, Black Industries, Fantasy Flight Games, and several other companies. Some of his best-known books include the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Player’s Handbook 3, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, Grimm, and Tome of Corruption. Look for Robert’s first novel in late 2011.
What does Rob have to say?
Fresh from my second go at college, all flushed and giddy for having graduated Magna cum Laude with special honors, I was ready to start writing fiction for a living. Reality didn’t waste any time intruding on my grandiose dream. The need for a steady job—beyond peddling liquor at the now closed Esquire Discount Liquors—became evident when the student loans clamored for repayment. Carpet, tile, and hardwood sales would be my future for a time. A friend ran a store in town and offered me a job. My previous careers had been selling men’s clothes, fast food, and then extended warranties. Flooring was none of these things so I jumped at the chance.
I was terrible. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had a degree in English and Philosophy. Flooring customers don’t quite get pre-Socratics humor. I stuck it out though and supplemented my income by selling liquor a few days a week. I got to chat up the regulars at the liquor store who happened by for their thrice-daily pints of Kessler/Skol/Wild Irish Rose. It seemed my fate was to join many other Philosophy majors and do nothing with my training.
However, one night, I ran across Mongoose Publishing’s open call for book proposals. I thought about it for all of 3 seconds before working up my first pitch. A little under a year later, my first book, The Quintessential Witch, hit the shelves. When I wrote the Witch, 3rd edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons were still new and fresh. The d20 system was gathering steam and gaming entered something of a renaissance as companies were created just to feed the insatiable appetite for all things D&D. There were probably more companies than there were writers and thus it proved a perfect time to break into the industry.
Now I was no stranger to gaming. My Dad introduced me to board games when I was very young with Wizard’s Quest by Avalon Hill. Then I discovered Conan, Dune, Gor, the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and so on. My interest in fantasy kept growing so when my neighbor offered me Tracy and Laura Hickman’s Rahasia for a quarter, I happily paid. That little adventure changed my world forever. I didn’t have the rules and had no idea what I was doing. I was hungry and figured out enough from the adventure to design my first roleplaying game. “Passages” became popular in my class for a week or two. We’d play during study hall or recess.
My Dad noticed and when he went off to a publishing convention (he worked for a famous Bible publisher in Nashville), he talked with a TSR rep, who I imagine might have been Gary Gygax. My father told him that I was designing my own games, so the TSR fellow, in a deft and generous move, gave him a stack of books and adventures. I had everything but the rules of the game. Luckily, a trip to the bookstore and meeting my soon-to-be Dungeon Master Landon, put the Red Box in my hands and my first character in my imagination. Creating the character was far less interesting than talking about comics, yet when we broke out the dice the next week and played the first game, I was hooked for life.
This all happened at a time when conspiracy theories about Satanism gripped the nation. Certain members of my family bought into the hype and thought my soul was in peril. So I stepped into a much wider world of RPGs. I played everything I could. Top Secret, DC Superheroes, Gamma World, MERP, Marvel Superheroes, Rolemaster, Battletech and Mechwarrior, Traveller, all the Palladium games, Car Wars, Autoduel, and so many more games I forget them now replaced my first love. When I started playing D&D again, I also discovered Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Paranoia, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, and finally Vampire. All these games, all the adventures, all the experience, and not once did I think I would design games for a living.
That’s all in the past of course and I’m sure my story isn’t unique. Right. Well, after the Witch book, I foolishly chose not to go to Origins or Gen Con, and instead solicit proposals to anyone who would take them. A tiny gig for Sidewinder that never saw publication, another book for Mongoose, and that was about all. My career might have stalled right then and there, had it not been for the antipaladin pitch. I shot a proposal to Chris Pramas at Green Ronin Publishing to do a book about fallen paladins. After so many setbacks, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go anywhere. Imagine my surprise when Chris not only green lit the project but also offered a fair price.
The Unholy Warrior’s Handbook, as it was titled, was doomed. It was an evil-oriented PC book and it also hit stores just before the revised core rulebooks. People were already turning their attention from 3rd edition and were looking toward 3.5 to be their mainstay game. So while the book was not the commercial success I had hoped it would become, it did attract attention from other publishers and thus created even more opportunities.
That summer, I did the Origins and Gen Con shows. I’d be lying if I said I had a great time. There’s something about begging for work that didn’t sit well with me. My credentials were small and there were dozens of folks who were chasing the same projects. I shook hands. I handed out crummy business cards. I glued myself to anyone polite enough to put up with me. I left the shows with a few vague promises and little else.
I really felt that I had no business in this work. There was an in-club of established designers and I, with my handful of d20 projects, was not welcome. Yet after I got back, Green Ronin came through for me and offered me words in The Book of Fiends. I also landed Aasimar & Tiefling, The Cavalier’s Handbook, and The Black Company Campaign Setting. Rob Vaughn, then at Fantasy Flight Games, brought me on to design Grimm for d20. Necromancer Games, AEG, Goodman Games, Kenzer & Company, and Paradigm Concepts all accepted my proposals and put me to work. It was exciting. To think, I had been ready to hang it up on the quiet drive back from Gen Con, and then wound up busy enough that I could quit flooring and focus on writing full time.
It wasn’t long after that Green Ronin cemented the deal to produce Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Chris brought Steve Kenson and myself on board to handle development duties, Steve tackling his baby M&M and Blue Rose, which would morph into True20, while I managed Master Class, Races of Renown, the Advanced Books, and so on. As much as I developed, I also designed, and during this time I led design on Thieves’ World and would go on to co-author The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport with Chris Pramas and Patrick O’Duffy, and finally put together A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying.
Pramas’s attention shifted to other projects, so I added Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to my plate. As challenging as handling two games systems was, I learned a great deal and we made great books for WFRP including Tome of Corruption, Lure of the Liche Lord, Tome of Salvation, Children of the Horned Rat, and Night’s Dark Masters to name a few.
Lest you think I wasn’t doing enough, I never gave up freelancing. I designed the game engine for Witch Hunter: The Invisible World, helped write a few books for Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight setting and contributed to their standalone Grimm RPG. I also consulted for a few other companies too. Somewhere in all this, my friend Rodney Thompson introduced me to Chris Perkins at Wizards of the Coast, which soon led to my first D&D project: Tome of Magic. The one book landed more work and before I knew it, I was working on Player’s Handbook 2, Fiendish Codex 2, Elder Evils, and others as well.
I was happy at Green Ronin Publishing, but Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had ended and the d20 system at that point was untenable for many third party companies. So when Wizards of the Coast made an offer to bring me on as a contract designer, I couldn’t refuse. I finished up A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and then hung up my Ronin hat to work on 4th edition supplements for Wizards of the Coast. I was sorry to leave the Ronins but I was also excited by my prospects for D&D. I dived headfirst into the new edition rules and haven’t looked back since. I’ve contributed design to over 20 rulebooks and I’ve appeared in almost 30 issues of Dragon and over 16 issues of Dungeon. And, there’s more on the horizon. I have novel coming out at the end of 2011 and new articles and rulebooks through at least 2012.
It’s been a long strange road and none of it would have been possible without the help from game designers and developers who gave me a chance. Chris Pramas, Nicole Lindroos, Hal Mangold, and the rest of Green Ronin, Rob Vaughn, Chris Perkins, James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and the great staff at Wizards of the Coast, Erik Mona, James Jacobs, and Jason Bulmahn, Ken Hite, Rodney Thompson, Ari Marmell, Kate Flack, Marc Gascoigne, Mike Mearls, Rob Heinsoo, Henry Lopez, and so many others I forget have all encouraged me along the way. They’ve all lifted me up and helped me find success in this tough business. My gaming groups—Bobby, Dan, Logan, Joe, Tom, Troy, Matt, Lucinda, Glen, Scott, Nathan, Daniel, and everyone else past and present—supported and encouraged me, showing up week in and week out to my games, offering endless insights and inspiration for my work. I would be remiss by not thanking Matt McRae who designed this awesome website. And then there’s my wife Stacee. She’s put up with the long hours, the folks in the basement, the endless manuscripts, my inability to say no to projects, and has always been there to help me reach my dreams. So thanks everyone, thanks for making this all possible. Without you, I’d still be selling booze.