Chris Thomasson's Well-Timed Career in D&D
Prologue to a career: Chris Thomasson's first D&D gaming experience came in 1980 at the age of five, when his older brother -- desperate for players -- bribed Chris by offering magic items galore if Chris would play in his campaign.
"Who could resist a magic sword named Sting?" Chris remembers. Yet when, at the family's pastor's urging, the boys' mother tossed their D&D books a year later, Chris didn't think about the game anymore. He went back to the board games that his grandfather favored, and that was the end of his D&D experience. Slowly, over time, he rediscovered roleplaying games and trading card games, but it took an epiphany to actually bring him into the industry.
Fast-forward nearly twenty years: In his fifth year at the University of Washington, closing in on a degree in biology, Chris had his moment of clarity: "I was walking back from microbiology when I realized . . . I hated it. I didn't want to be a scientist. And I couldn't imagine what I wanted to do. But I loved reading . . . I loved writing . . . I loved games . . . I thought, 'Doesn't somebody have to edit that stuff?' It never even occurred to me that there were designers. I could only think of editors."
Sure enough, there were editors for the games he played at the UW. And once he discovered the editing credits in his Magic: The Gathering rulebooks, he proceeded to get his English degree . . . in one year.
Just four days before his graduation from college -- and without a job lined up, as an editor or otherwise -- Chris came upon a posting for an editorial internship at Wizards of the Coast. But the deadline for submission was about to close; Chris took no chances and elected to drive down to Wizards's Renton facility to hand-deliver his resume. When he was finally able to meet with editor-in-chief Beverly Marshall Saling, they talked games for two hours. It was serendipity.
"So, in the summer of 1998, I graduated from college on a Saturday," Chris recalls, "and on the following Monday, I started work at Wizards."
In one capacity or another, he has been with the company ever since, always perfecting his craft, always expanding his knowledge of the gaming industry, always adding dimensions to the D&D game he'd not played since his kindergarten days. When his internship ended three months later, he thought his time with Wizards was over . . . until, just two weeks before he was to pack up his desk, an editorial assistant position opened up on the Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Just as he seemed about to be unemployed again, he was suddenly a full-time employee, one ending on Friday and the other beginning the next Monday.
The editorial assistant position became assistant editor, and then associate editor, and ultimately editor-in-chief for Dungeon. Working closely with Christopher Perkins -- who held numerous editorial positions on Dungeon, Dragon, Star Wars Gamer, and Star Wars Insider -- Chris Thomasson became not just a passing fan of the game; he became a pivotal player in D&D's presentation to the public.
"Third Edition was going on while I was working on the magazines," he explains. "Big things were happening. Every month, I'd edit sixty pages of material for Dungeon; I was the only editor working on it at the time. The schedules were brutal, but the game was evolving, and players were excited about what we were doing, so I was excited, too. And before I came to R&D as an editor for D&D, I served as editor-in-chief of Dragon as well, so I continued to feel that I was really adding something to the game."
Did the breakneck pace inhibit the creative process or necessitate cutting corners? Not in the least. Under Chris's tenure at Dungeon, fans were treated to some noteworthy examples of Chris's vision for what he could add to D&D: The 100th issue of Dungeon, the Incursion project, the Dungeon Adventure Path.
"For a long time at Dungeon, we stayed away from the serialized adventures," Chris explains. While subscribers wouldn't have any problem keeping up, he points out, players who bought the magazine right off the rack could easily miss an issue or two, and that would make the whole adventure feel worthless to them.
"But I thought we could do it a little differently," Chris says. "Stand-alone modules that built on one another, starting off small and culminating in a 'save-the-world' scenario. Put them in a neutral setting so anyone could add them to their campaign."
The first installment of the Adventure Path was written, appropriately enough, by designer Christopher Perkins ("the most prolific designer in Dungeon's history," Chris Thomasson points out, "by something like a 3-to-1 ratio"), and fan reaction was very positive. It ran across multiple issues, and Chris even contributed a couple of adventures of his own as it neared the end, though by then he had moved on from the magazine.
"It's what I'm most proud of, the Adventure Path," he says. "The publisher even began keeping extra back issues around in case readers needed to fill the holes in their collections. I really felt like it was something cool."
Equally cool: Dungeon issue #100, which Chris describes as "a daunting task." Extra pages, extra adventures . . . he wanted it to be big, so he sought out Skip Williams to contribute a Forgotten Realms adventure, and Andy Collins designed a sequel to the cover adventure of Dungeon issue #1 (which featured the red dragon Flame). Chris also added a major Dungeon retrospective, getting former editors such as Roger Moore, Barbara Young, Dave Gross, Chris Perkins, and Wolfgang Bauer to talk about their roots at the magazine. The key designers for 3rd Edition, including Peter Adkison, Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Rich Baker, all added a page or so of adventures. In the end, however, the issue was even bigger than he expected when it incorporated the Incursion project, which crossed over with Dragon and Polyhedron magazines for a first-time-ever multi-magazine arc.
"Christopher Perkins wrote 'The Lich Queen's Beloved,' an adventure that even he thinks is one of the best he's ever designed," Chris says. "The characters go to the Astral Plane to fight the Lich Queen on her home turf, a brutal but fun adventure. And the Incursion crossover made it a rare thing, something that can never happen again since the end of Polyhedron. Fans loved it, though. It worked out extremely well, and I was proud to have participated in bringing it together."
Career by Design
For the last year and a half now, Chris has served as an editor for R&D at Wizards of the Coast, his magazine days behind him. He has worked on quite a few products in that time as well: Races of Stone, the Dungeon Master's Guide II. The pace is different than when he worked on Dungeon and Dragon, of course.
"Every month on a magazine, it's a lot more pages per month, harder deadlines," he explains, "and I did all my own typesetting on Dungeon. I was a part of the art process and of approving sketches and final art -- in essence, the editor's involved start to finish. You solicit articles, you work with authors on their materials, you work on it all -- design, development, finish. Here, there are different teams that handle design and development, so I just have to worry about the editing. The schedule is much more stretched out, like three months to work on the same project before I hand it off to the managing editor. It's long view versus short view. It's much more relaxing here, actually."
So, now he works on equally exciting projects. He's helping Kim Mohan finish up Waterdeep for the Forgotten Realms setting. A few weeks ago, he was working on Weapons of Legacy, a core book about special magic items that PCs can bond to and that grow in power as the PC grows. And beginning in mid-March, he'll begin work as the lead editor on the next Eberron project, which is still under wraps.
"My first normal project in quite a while," he concedes, "but I'm also one of the three designers of the book with Bruce Cordell as the lead designer. I wrote about 40 percent of it, 2 modules, over the course of four months. So, I'll be editing myself. Not for the first time, of course."
In all, Chris says he's very content with where he is in his career. The gaming industry as a whole has been good to him; he loves what he does, and he is given numerous opportunities to expand his noteworthy talents. He is scheduled to do development work later this year, and he is keeping one ear open for any announcement that a D&D video game might come along that he could get in on.
"I haven't even thought about the future in a while now," he admits. "From issue to issue of the magazines, I had to think about the immediate future. It was always right there. Now I can sit back and not feel the pressure and really love what I'm doing. They pay me to come in and think and talk about D&D all day long, every day. Some jobs just aren't what you think they are until you actually get there and do them. This, it turns out, is better than I ever expected."