I Break Down The Door (Sean Punch)

I didn’t break down the door so much as sidle through it. I had my foot in the door, and my first professional project was more of a test than a big break: “Seeing as you’re in here, let’s figure out whether you’re useful.” I suppose that calls for some backstory . . .

In April 1986, I was an 18-year-old gamer of seven years’ experience. When my gaming group got word that Steve Jackson Games was firing up the Illuminati BBS that month, we swarmed the house of our friend who had a decent modem and parents crazy enough to pay long-distance charges from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Austin, Texas. That’s how we heard about GURPS, which was coming out later that year. We were pumped for several reasons, one of which was that we had previously learned about new RPGs long after they were out – Halifax wasn’t the Big City – and this represented a chance to get into a new game as geeks on the ground floor. When we read that SJ Games was big on playtesting, we had to get a piece of that.

And that’s exactly what we did. The first major item we playtested was GURPS Supers, First Edition (I seem to recall that we were difficult to please . . . although it’s hard to remember after 26 years). From there we went on to playtest other projects. When I left for Montreal in 1990 to do graduate work in particle physics, I kept my hand in: I found some GURPS fans, flew the playtesting flag, and quickly found myself playtesting more projects. The most memorable of these was GURPS Grimoire – one of the book’s authors, Daniel Thibault, was both a Canadian and an acquaintance of one of the gamers I hung out with.

Another important thing happened in 1990: I gained reliable Internet access, thanks to grad school. Oh, I had net access (such as it was) back in 1987, but this was the real deal, with Usenet and e-mail. As a particle physicist, I was also in on the ground floor of this newfangled World Wide Web thing, which was developed by particle physicists working at CERN.

Net access was important because it put me in closer touch with SJ Games. I was now able to participate in online discussions about GURPS. In those days, the company was smaller, Steve Jackson was able to steer GURPS personally, and he spent a lot of time chatting with fans like me online. Thanks to me being a science geek with good math skills – not to mention a grad student with tons of free time – I was always willing to hack rules and stats when the company needed that.

Something I did or said must have impressed Steve, because in 1993, he offered me a part-time volunteer position, paid strictly in comps, to handle GURPS Q&A – rules questions from fans. This went well, and led to Steve asking me to develop and edit GURPS Fantasy Folk, Second Edition in 1994. In the grand scheme, that was a minor project: update a few rules in an existing book. Still, it was my first paid work in the business. I was reluctant at first, because I was working on a Ph.D. and didn’t have the free time I had back in 1990, but being a geek, I agreed in the end. To be honest, I barely remember that project, because I was sick with a serious fever the whole time!

I guess that being sick didn’t have an adverse effect on my efforts – either I was always so fevered that an actual fever was no big thing, or I worked extra-hard to compensate. In any event, SJ Games liked my work. Come spring 1995, they asked me to come on staff as the “GURPS Line Editor” (the equivalent of “developer” or “brand manager,” and nothing to do with the technical task called “line editing”). My initial response was “no.” I was a major gaming geek, sure, but I was also two years into a Ph.D.

Then my graduate supervisor kicked the bucket. As it happens, the department I was in was rather political and it soon became clear that they didn’t care for the research the man was doing and weren’t keen on funding his students. The deal I was offered wasn’t pretty: “Redo the last couple of years of work, and then put in another year at your own expense.” Well, I was in debt already, so I had to turn them down.

Being in that pickle made Steve’s offer of work far more tempting! After an initial, failed attempt to bring me to Texas to work in-house – foiled by immigration law that didn’t see RPG editing as a useful skill for the U.S.A. to import from Canada – we agreed that I would telecommute from Montreal. My first project of note was GURPS Vehicles, Second Edition, which was like baptism by fire. You know how gamers claim that GURPS is complicated and math-heavy? They would be wrong if it weren’t for Vehicles, and that’s all I’ll say!

The rest is history. I’ve been with SJ Games from 1995 to present, which means that I’ve put in 17 years as a full-time employee of a single publisher. Unlike many people in this business, I haven’t drifted from game system to game system, doing freelance work for a string of publishers. While I’ve played 30 or 40 different RPGs in my 33 years as a gamer, I’ve only worked on GURPS.

Not that the job description hasn’t evolved! When I started, I was just a copy editor with a funky title. The only thing that differentiated me from somebody working for a periodical or even a technical writer producing manuals for blenders and toasters, was that I knew GURPS. As time went by, however, tasks like scouting talent and negotiating contracts were added to my duties and I grew into a product-line manager. The single biggest “break” for me was when I finally got permission to write – not merely revise or edit – on the clock. My first full-length book was GURPS Undead, which I still remember fondly. That led to many other writing and development projects, the most important of which was revising GURPS Third Edition into GURPS Fourth Edition, released in 2004.

These days, I manage every GURPS project from initial query through final proofing. By turns, I review, compile, develop, revise, edit, and write. I draft documentation aimed at writers and junior editorial staff. I don’t have the final say when it comes to what GURPS books SJ Games publishes, but I’m one of three or four people who get a vote. I even have an assistant to help with all this. About the only things I haven’t worked on are layout and art, because SJ Games splits graphics and text into separate “Production” and “Editorial” departments.

Since the theme is “breaking down the door” – although I definitely sidled through, as I said – I’ll end this note by reviewing what I just wrote and summarizing what I think made my career happen as advice for anybody who wants to become a full-time staffer:

• Get general hobby experience: play games, attend gaming cons, blog about games, participate in gaming forums, etc.
• Pick the specific RPG you want to work on and become an expert on it.
• Choose and stick with the company that publishes that game. Get to know its people, products, and culture.
• Exercise good communications skills. For bonus points, learn the company’s style guide and adopt their favorite usage even in casual correspondence.
• Find a way to make your other skills and education attractive to a games publisher.
• Accept unpaid volunteer work, particularly playtesting, and treat it like a job.

I want more!

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