Interview with Graeme Davis

If you have been playing games and you pay any attention to the names of the people who write them, you will have read Graeme Davis quite a few times. Born in London with degree in Archaeology, for nearly 30 years, he has produced material for electronic and tabletop games, books, magazines, newspapers, electronic publications, Web sites, multimedia CD-ROMs, remote learning courses, and newsletters.

Under his belt are  articles and material for magazines like White Dwarf, Dungeon, Dragon, Pyramid, Gamemaster Publications, Imagine, Pegasus amongst others. Has worked for Green Ronin, Mongoose Publishing, Games Workshop, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and many more.

Not enough for you?… let’s take a look at some of the titles: Moons of Arksyra, Tales of Freeport, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Second Edition, Paths of the Dammed: Ashes of Middenheim, Mummy Second Edition…

And the list goes on, and on, and on… and currently he’s the line editor for Colonial Gothic.

Busy man! but still… with a busy schedule and a few projects on the go, he has been kind enough to answer a few questions for G*M*S Magazine.

Now I don’t tend to ask the usual questions… where you come from, what you doing kind of question are not my type. So I thought of some others. I also asked some of the readership of this magazine and their questions were forwarded and kindly answered by Graeme.

Now if he is anything, is knowledgeable. He’s been there, done that (and that too!) and got not just a t-shirt but a whole tuxedo, so read on and you’ll learn something!

G*M*S: I guess the first question that comes into people’s mind when they talk to a writer is how do you go about it every day?. What is the usual routine for a games writer?

davis[1] Graeme: On one level, it’s the same as everyone else’s routine: get up in the morning and go to work. Of course, my commute is measured in feet rather than miles and there’s no dress code. As a freelancer, I spend a portion of my time checking out new games, keeping in touch with existing clients, and prospecting for new ones. My first task of the day is to go through my email, which is how I normally communicate with clients, and check the relevant LinkedIn and Facebook groups for news and leads to work. I also work in the video games industry, so Gamasutra is another regular stop.

Then it’s on to my current project, whatever that may be. Sometimes I stop for lunch, but more often I don’t. If I don’t have a current project, I spend the day working on proposals and outlines. This usually involves research as well as creative planning. I like to present detailed proposals, with accurate word and page counts as well as a full description of what a book will contain. I am the line editor for Rogue Games’ Colonial Gothic RPG, so I work on plans for that whenever I can.

Depending on my workload, I can stop at five or six or keep working late into the night. I try to set time aside for checking out new games, but there’s never enough time.

G*M*S: What is your process for writing a game?… do you do much research and if so, how do you plan and execute that research?

Graeme: There is always research to do. RPG products require a lot of planning, and even if I have received a detailed brief from the client, the first step is to send an outline for approval. This always includes a section-by-section breakdown with word and page estimates, as well as a summary of the content of each section. With video game products it varies, but clients usually want to see samples of my previous work and a list of shipped games I have worked on.

If I’m working on a product for an established game line, I need to go through everything available on the setting and rules to make sure that I don’t contradict what has already been published. It also helps me get ideas for ways to build on the existing property and fit my project into it snugly. If the game is licensed from a movie, TV series, book, or comic, there’s similar research to do. My personal favorites is historical research for sourcebooks like GURPS Vikings or Green Ronin’s Eternal Rome.

My approach to research is to start by getting a good overview and then drill down into areas that can help me create a better product. Although I have a pretty good library when it comes to history, I’m not ashamed to use Wikipedia and other online resources to skim a topic rapidly. Then I hit the books and the Web for more detailed material on areas I need to know about. The hardest thing in any research phase is not to get side-tracked: there are always fascinating side-topics and ideas for different adventures and sourcebooks that crop up, and it’s sometimes hard to simply make a note of them for later and move on.

G*M*S: Do you still play, after spending the days working on games?

Graeme: Not as much as I would like. It’s been a couple of decades since I was in a regular gaming group.

G*M*S: You have been in the industry for a very long time. There are now two generations reading the same materials that are currently produced. How has writing for games changed since you started? Is there a vast difference in the needs of young and older players?

Graeme: I distrust generalizations like this. It’s easy to say that the growth of video games has resulted in a younger generation of gamers with a shorter attention span and a need for instant gratification, but I don’t see it. RPG players, whatever their age, get involved because they like what RPGs have to offer. I do have an impression that older gamers tend to be more hardcore and more willing to try new games rather than sticking with the one or two that they know, but I think that’s a product of age and disposable income more than a difference between generations. As gamers get older, they either get less casual and more hardcore or they get more casual and usually leave the hobby, and I expect this will be true regardless of generation.

G*M*S: You have produced for both video-games and tabletop RPGs, which is a great position to be in in order to gain a wider perspective on the industry. However there are a much greater number of video games being produced than books being published. Also videogame players are not seen as “geeky” as tabletop RPG players. Why do you think that is?

Graeme: When I first started in the industry, video games were seen as geeky too. Before Windows, when DOS used a command-line interface, simply installing a game on a computer required some skill, and only computer nerds had access to computers and therefore to computer games. Coin-ops and early consoles were easier to use but their games were much simpler – Space Invaders and Centipede rather than Zork.

These days, thanks to better consoles, bigger budgets, and aggressive marketing, video games are firmly established in the mainstream. Although some individual players are seen as geeks, the majority are not. Over the same period of time, tabletop games – and especially roleplaying games – have lost a great deal of market share to video games, and are regarded as even more of a minority activity than they were in the 80s. While many teens-especially boys – have a flirtation with D&D at some point in their lives, those who become deeply involved in roleplaying are usually pegged as geeks.

G*M*S: D&D has been very successful as videogames (sometimes!), with quite a few classic games that have helped redefined how to tell stories through the computer. Now though, Dragon Age has followed the journey the other way round, and been turned into a old-style box tabletop RPG game. Do you think this is a trend that will catch up with other videogames?

Graeme: It’s hard to call this one. A successful video game franchise these days is almost as powerful as a film or TV property, and as such it has the ability to spawn spin-off products including RPGs. White Wolf licensed World of Warcraft some years ago, and as you say Dragon Age is a recent RPG licensed from a video game. There has been a Doom board game and movie, Mario comics, movie, and adventure books, and many more.

Is it a trend? To be honest, I doubt it. There will continue to be RPGs based on strong video game franchises just as much as on books, moves, and TV series, but they will be sporadic. It pains me to say it, but the RPG industry as a whole is not large enough or profitable enough for an RPG to be the first thing video game franchise holders think of as a spin-off product, and I don’t see that changing.

G*M*S: Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most iconic name in the industry and is certainly the oldest. Despite the mistakes by TSR that lead to the company’s demise, it has remained popular and managed to find bigger companies to  inject the needed cash and talent to keep it gonig. Why do you think it’s lasting so long and remain one of the industry’s flagship and trend maker? Do you agree they’re still the benchmark the rest of the industry sets targets and comparisons? If not, why not?…

Graeme: D&D is the game that gave birth to the RPG industry, and it has always been the industry leader.  Many non-gamers use “Dungeons & Dragons” as a general term for fantasy roleplaying games, and many gamers – myself included – have said “like Dungeons & Dragons” or something similar when trying to describe their hobby to non-gamers. As Kleenex is to tissues, so D&D is to roleplaying. Because of that, most roleplayers get their start playing D&D. In addition, D&D products are widely available in chain bookstores while other RPGs depend on the Friendly Local Game Store – where many non-geeks fear to tread – and internet and convention sales. In my opinion, that is why it has lasted so long, and will continue to last.

D&D is certainly a benchmark when it comes to sales aspirations, but it draws a wide variety of opinions from hardcore roleplayers when it comes to matters of design. Some regard D&D – especially 3 and 3.5 – as too complex mechanically, while others may not like the settings, and a few equate its commercial success with somehow having sold out. These are matters of opinion rather than fact, and will never be resolved. What is certainly true is that, whether they imitate it or react against it, no RPG publishers can afford to ignore D&D, and I don’t see that ever changing.

G*M*S: The launch of D&D 3rd edition and the update to 3.5 that quickly followed, redefined how the product was presented to the public. From lavish and elaborated boxes containing maps, cards, various books, etc, and with a sandbox philosophy more geared to leave a lot to the player’s imagination, D&D went to very detailed and full of information book after book after book, whilst not really producing a lot of cheap adventures like the ones we enjoyed for 2nd edition. How do you think that affected the hobby and D&D in particular?

Graeme: Rather than not producing a lot of cheap adventures, I think Wizards of the Coast shifted the channels through which they did so. anyone who visited a game store in the 70s and 80s can tell you that old-style modules take up a lot of shelf space and are very prone to shopwear in the form of creasing and folding. They are also relatively low-margin items, making it less attractive for reatilers to carry them in large numbers. With 3rd edition and 3.5, Wizards focused on providing adventure support through Dungeon magazine and Polyhedron, which as magazines were easier for retailers to handle for two reasons: they were time-limited items which helped the shelf space issue, and they were a little more robust than modules and could also be sold direct through subscription. Additional support could also be provided online, and since Dungeon and Dragon folded Wizards has relied heavily on subscriptions to D&D Insider.

Did it affect the hobby? I don’t think so. Most RPG publishers had already found that the module format didn’t make commercial sense, and TSR/Wizards was just catching up. The revival of “old-school roleplaying” over the last few years has seen more a few more people publishing modules, but I don’t see that lasting. Most publishers go with adventure material in campaign books supported by magazine and/or e-zine releases. Most are turning to PDFs and e-books for smaller products; these have the additional advantage that they don’t require printing, warehousing, and physical distribution, making them much cheaper to produce. Did it affect D&D? Again, I don’t think so. DMs who want adventure material can find plenty of it online, both official and unofficial.

G*M*S: The release of D&D 4th Edition, the closure of the printing versions of much loved Dungeon and Dragon magazines, and the change in the D20 and OGL system licensing had a huge impact in both publishers and players. However some people have come out very well out of it, specially Paizo and the Pathfinder range of products. Do you think both companies will be able to develop side by side, or do you think Hasbro will want to capitalise on Paizo’s successful application of the OGL license?

Graeme: That’s hard to call right now. The 3rd edition OGL led to an explosion of small publishers followed by an equally dramatic thinning of the herd. Paizo has a long-standing relationship with Wizards dating back to when they took over publication of Dungeon and Dragon. I imagine the two companies keep in contact. Pathfinder is based on 3.5 rather than 4th edition, and Wizards may or may not think it is a good thing for Paizo, Green Ronin, and others to keep publishing 3rd edition material when they themselves are pushing 4th edition. I have no way of knowing what they are thinking.

Perhaps the heart of the question is what Hasbro could do if they decided they were not happy with the status quo. I’m no lawyer, but I think they would have to somehow rescind the 3.5 OGL, and I’ve seen nothing in the wording of it that indicates that’s even possible. Certainly the 4th edition OGL seems more restrictive, and that may be the result of lessons learned from the experience of the 3.5 OGL – which was, after all, an unprecedented and very bold move. The downside is that many people have followed Paizo’s course and stuck with the 3.5 OGL rather than updating to 4th edition themselves. How – or if – Hasbro will react to that remains to be seen.

G*M*S: The newly released Warhammer Fantasy by Fantasy Flight has taken the game back to the box format with a fantastic quality product. As someone who participated in the previous edition of the same game, do you think that’s been the right decission? Do you think other companies will follow the trend and go back to the box?

Graeme: It’s another very bold move, and Fantasy Flight are definitely playing to their strengths with this edition. As might be expected, there were howls of dismay from WFRP grognards when it previewed at GenCon last year, both at the radical change of format and at the price of the basic set. However, I take the fact that FFG is maintaining an ambitious support schedule as a sign that the price didn’t put too many people off. I’ve read conflicting comments about playability in the online forums, but as a writer I can tell you that it’s no harder to write for once one gets the hang of the components. My adventure Edge of Night was not compromised in any way by the new edition. I do find it interesting that FFG has taken a more traditional approach with their WH40K RPG products, and it may be that they are carrying out some side-by-side comparison to see how the two formats perform.

G*M*S: There were a good number of games being published in the 80’s and early 90’s, but the current level of production is phenomenal in comparison. Has publishing really become that much cheaper and accessible or is he industry really that healthy?

Graeme: Publishing has become far cheaper and more accessible. Print on demand means that print runs as low as 50 or 100 copies are commercially viable, and electronic distribution through sites like DriveThruRPG reduces financial risk even further. The barrier to entry for new RPG publishers is much, much lower than it was in the 80s and 90s, when electronic distribution was in its infancy and it was tough to break even on a print run of 5,000 copies.

G*M*S: In recent years there’s been a lot of boardgames that bridge very nicely between the pure RPG and the board game experience. WOTC seems keen in helping that trend with D&D and Ravenloft board games. Do you think that will bring people into the RPGs?

Graeme: A few, possibly, but I think that RPGs have been around long enough, and D&D has a sufficiently high profile, that this approach is not necessary to bring new people into roleplaying. The border between board wargames and RPGs has always been a fuzzy one. GURPS grew out of The Fantasy Trip which was a hex-based combat game, and the last couple of editions of D&D have used a square grid for movement, while the D&D boardgame and older games like HeroQuest approached the boardgame-RPG divide from the other side. But in all honesty, RPGs are not so obscure these days that a potential new player can’t find anywhere to play a game.

If anything, I think online RPGs could bring more people to tabletop roleplaying, and I have heard at least one veteran designer express the opinion that 4th edition D&D is closer in spirit to online RPGs than it is to its predecessors.

G*M*S: There are a lot of extremely talented writers in the RPG genre. As one of them, do you find yourself pidgeon-holed or are other areas of writing able to see how good you guys really are?

Graeme: Thanks for the compliment. I have written for several video games in addition to my RPG writing, published a few articles in mainstream magazines, and I’m working on various book proposals, both fiction and nonfiction.  My roleplaying game experience does carry some weight in the video game industry, and a great many RPG writers of my generation – Lawrence Schick, Ken Rolston, Jim Bambra, and Mike Brunton to name but a few – now make their living as video game writers and/or designers. Outside that, my experience has been otherwise. Editors and publishers are only interested in what a writer has done in their own particular medium. I wouldn’t say I’ve been pigeon-holed, but I certainly don’t get any extra credit for my roleplaying work – and as a onetime commissioning editor myself, I have to say that’s fair. There’s no rule that makes me a good novelist or screenwriter just because I’ve written a lot of roleplaying material. I’m judged on the strength of my article – or my proposal and sample chapters – alone.

And if this interview is anything to judge Graeme by, we declare him awesome!

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