They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and they say brevity is the soul of wit, but they aren't always right. Some things that are important can only be explained in words - in more than a few words - because we don't have precisely the right words to explain them, and because there can be no sufficiently illuminating pictures of them.
The answer to this question is one of those things:
How did things for Wizards of the Coast go from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic)?
A wise friend of mine from the South, a painter named Ward Proctor, once told me that the secret to success is survival, not because survival is success, but because no one knows when opportunities to succeed will come along. You have to last long enough, until they do, and when they happen you have to be healthy and competent enough to know what to do with them.
Gamblers are losers, because what looks like the right opportunity will actually be the wrong one more often than not; even if you win now, you'll lose later. If you bet the farm on one moment in time, on just making it to some arbitrary goal post, then you're going to fail, because you can't control when the real opportunity will come, as opposed to the illusions that lure us into overextending ourselves. Murphy's Law is no joke. Most of the "sure things" are just traps to lure you into commiting yourself to a failure. Life ain't like it is in the movies; most of the time, we can't know what the genuine thing looks like until it has already happened.
You have to have a lot of lines in the water, because you don't know which one the big fish is going to bite - you certainly can't tell the size of the fish from the pull on the rod. And when you seize the moment, you have to do it in a sustainable way, in case it isn't the real thing, so you don't lose track of the other lines. While you're attending the pole that has a tiny fish tugging away on it like anything, the big fish might be quietly nibbling on the rod that's hardly moving at all.
You have to play the long game, the patient game, learning what success looks like, learning the landscape, gaining experience, improving your ability to survive, and making yourself better able to seize the moment when it comes. Above all, you have to protect and develop your capacity to do your job well and to go on doing your job. You have to keep your feet under you and not get carried away by hopes and first impressions.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this; they called it kairos, which means the moment in time you need to seize, the one that's different from all the others, the time when what you do matters in a way it just doesn't most of the time, the time you have to prepare for your whole life sometimes just to be good enough to be able to handle it when it comes.
Kairos is hard to recognize unless you're a master in your field, and even masters often fail to recognize it. Most people who act at that moment have blundered into it by accident. Most people who have the chance to act at that moment miss it; they don't recognize it at all.
Most people who do act at that moment, whether they recognize it for what it is or not, screw it up. It is so very easy to screw up. Usually they're just not ready. Kairos has arrived too soon in their lives; if it had arrived a few years later, when they knew more, they could have been wildly successful, but instead they squander the moment and everything falls apart. Sometimes it arrives too late.
But even when it arrives exactly on time, and we act on it then, when we should, kairos is fraught with peril. When people say power corrupts, they do not realize they are actually talking about kairos, the time when all the threads of our lives and the world around us seem to fall into place, when we are magnified. It's the moment when what we do matters, when the things we do right suddenly make a difference.
The good is magnified, yes, but so is the bad. The things we do wrong are also magnified, and we make mistakes on a scale we normally never could have. The bad habits we let slide, that we defensively hid from others instead of dealing with, the things we put off, the things we didn't bother to learn, all those things suddenly matter now, bad habits seeming to burst out of us, like seeds frantically flowering in a brief Arctic summer. We are put under pressures we never before experienced, and our true character is revealed, warts and horns and clay feet and all.
That's why even when kairos arrives in our lives at the perfect time, the results are never perfect. Even when they're wildly exciting and successful, they're also simultaneously more confusing and difficult than we ever could have dreamed, because until then, until we were put to the test, we did not really know ourselves and each other as well as we thought we did.
That's why things for Wizards of the Coast went from so good (first professional product) to so bad (the edge of bankruptcy) to so much better (Magic). That's the most concise explanation I have for everything that happened. The details of the story - the interesting part to most people - illuminate kairos with a clarity few things can, once you understand how to interpret them, because the story of everything that happened at Wizards of the Coast around Magic: The Gathering is the story of how my friends found themselves in that rare moment that matters; suddenly everything good and bad about them was magnified. Their successes or failures, their enlightenments or benightednesses, friendships shattered or forged, the overcoming of obstacles or squandering of opportunities, the painful lessons or naive mistakes - all of this came from who they were at the moment when it mattered as it never had before.
So with my break from this tale complete for now, let's go back and shed some more light on what happened, why my friends did what they did, and why things played out as they did.
In fantasy role-playing games, dungeons get all the love for adventuring in, but as Fritz Leiber taught us, cities can be incredible places to adventure in. They heve some of the same advantages - a (semi-)pinned down geography that frees up the DM's cognitive real estate to focus on the players' reactions to suggest further adventure embroidery. An RPG city occupies that sweet-spot middle ground between the structure of a dungeon and the structurelessness of wilderness adventures, creating one of the best kinds of sandbox environments for player-driven gaming.
Consider Freeport, one of the classic FRPG cities. If you've ever tried to develop an entire city suitable for role-playing, you know how hard it is, but Chris has done a great job of it. Freeport has its own distinctive character as a fantasy city, and it's a rich environment for catalyzing adventures.
After you go pledge, come back here and tell me about your favorite RPG city to game in and why. Tell us a story about something that happened in a game set in that city that helps us to understand why you like it so much.
Here is a list of FRPG cities to help stimulate some memories:
City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977, Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen; Judges Guild)
generic city in (in Cities: A Gamemaster's Guide to Encounters and Other Rules for Fantasy Games, 1979, Stephen Abrams and Jon Everson; Midkemia)
Carse (1980, April and Stephen Abrams; Midkemia Press)
City State of the World Emperor (1980, Bob Bledsaw and Craighton Hippenhammer; Judges Guild)
Haven (in The Free City of Haven, 1981, Richard Meyer and Kerry Lloyd; Gamelords)
Sanctuary (in Thieves' World, 1981, Greg Stafford, Dave Arneson, Steve Marsh, Midkemia Press, Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, Lawrence Schick, Ken St. Andre, et al; Chaosium)
the Citybook city (in the Citybook series, 1982-1997, Ed Andrews, Dave Arneson, Norma Blair, Grant S. Boucher, Stuart Bute, Deborah Cady, Thessaloniki Canotas, Deborah Christian, William W. Connors, Brandon Corey, Steven S. Crompton, Kevin Crossman, Liz Danforth, Lawrence DiTillio, Lee Duigon, Panda England, Joe Formichella, Janrae Frank, Greg Gordon, Bob Greenwade, Jeff Halsey, Beth Hannan-Rimmels, Scott Haring, Ed Heil, Dave Helber, Paul Jaquays, Stefan Jones, Thomas M. Kane, Mike Keller, William Kerr, J.D. Kirkland-Revels, Rudy Kraft, Randall G. Kuipers, Charles de Lint, Rick Loomis, Seng Mah, Anita Martinez, Dennis L. McKiernan, John Merkel, Shawn Moore, Ashley Morton, John Nephew, Paul O'Connor, Mark O'Green, Stephan Peregrin, Bill Paley, Jim "Bear" Peters, Glenn Rahman, T.L. Riseden, Jennifer Roberson, S. John Ross, Tom Rushford, Jason Sato, Richard Shaffstall, Lester Smith, Warren Spector, Michael A. Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, Hank Stine, Brent Stroh, B. Dennis Sustare, Tim Taylor, John Terra, Allen Varney, Lisa Walker, James L. Walker, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Don Webb, Wayne West, Allen Wold, Debora L. Wykle; Flying Buffalo)
Aleath (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)
Cherafir (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)
Coranan (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)
Golotha (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Golotha, 2003, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)
Pavis: Threshold to Danger (1983, Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin; Chaosium)
Shiran (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)
Tashal (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; and in City of Tashal, 2005, N. Robin Crossby, Ed King, and John Sgammato; Columbia Games)
Thay (in Cities of Harn, 1983, N. Robin Crossby; and in Son of Cities, 1987, Edwin King and Brian Clemens; Columbia Games)
Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985, Bruce Nesmith, Douglas Niles, and Ken Rolston; TSR)
Laelith (in Empires & Dynasties, 1986, Patrick Durand-Peyroles)
Middenheim (in City: A Complete Guide to Middenheim, City of the White Wolf, 1987, Carl Sargent; Games Workshop)
Minas Tirith: Cities of Middle-earth (1988, Graham Staplehurst, Peter C. Fenlon, and Angus McBride; Iron Crown Enterprises)
Waterdeep and the North (1988, Ed Greenwood; TSR)
The City Of Greyhawk (1989, Douglas Niles, Mike Breault, Kim Mohan; TSR)
Tantras (1989, Ed Greenwood; TSR)
Arkham (in Arkham Unveiled, 1990, Keith Herber, Mark Morrison, and Richard Watts; Chaosium)
Eldarad: The Lost City (1990, Chris Watson; Avalon Hill)
Kingsport: The City in the Mists (1991, Kevin A. Ross; Chaosium)
Bral (in The Rock of Bral, 1992, Richard Baker; TSR)
Waterdeep (in Volo's Guide to Waterdeep, 1992, Ed Greenwood; and City of Splendors: Waterdeep, 2005, Eric L. Boyd; Wizards of the Coast)
Huzuz (in City of Delights, 1993, Tim Beach, Steve Kurtz, and Tom Prusa; TSR)
Sigil (in In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, 1995, Wolfgang Baur and Rick Swan; TSR)
Zhentil Keep (in Ruins of Zhentil Keep, 1995, Kevin Melka and John Terra; TSR)
Daggerford (in The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier, Slade; Wizards of the Coast)
Calimport (1998, Steven E. Schend; Wizards of the Coast)
Palanthas (1998, Steven Brown; Wizards of the Coast)
Ravens Bluff (1998, Ed Greenwood; TSR)
Skullport (1998, Joseph Wolf; TSR)
Mordheim: City of the Damned (1999, Alessio Cavatore, Tuomas Pirinen, and Rick Priestley; Games Workshop)
Freeport (2000, Chris Pramas; Green Ronin)
Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (2001, Ethan Skemp; White Wolf)
Mithril: City of the Golem (2001, Deidre Brooks, Ben Lam, and Anthony Pryor; White Wolf)
the city (in Urban Blight, 2002, Doug G. Herring and Andrew Thompson; Mystic Eye Games)
Bluffside: City on the Edge (2002, Jim Govreau, Curtis Bennett, Jeff Quinn, and Andrew Troman; Mystic Eye Games)
Geanavue: The Stones of Peace (2002, Ed Greenwood; Kenzer and Company)
Marchion (in Splinteres Peace, 2002, David Chart; Atlas Games)
the city (in Citycraft/Cityworks, 2003, Mike Mearls; Fantasy Flight Games)
the city (in A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, 2003, Joseph Browning, Suzi Yee; Expeditious Retreat Press)
Dun Eamon (in The Grey Citadel, 2003, Nathan Paul; Necromancer Games)
Loona: Port of Intrigue (2003, Ed Greenwood and Phil Thompson; Kenzer and Company)
Endhome (in The Lost City of Barakus, 2003, W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb; Necromancer Games)
Parma: Streets of Silver (2003, Thomas Anderson, Evan Bernstein, Shayne Brown, Marcy Canterbury, Jacek Chodnicki, Celeste DeAngelis, John Faugno, Larry Fitzgerald, John Fornish, Mike Grenier, Inger Henning, David Hoenig, Steve Kubat, Lee Lucsky, Steve Novella, Edward Povilaitis, Joe Unfried; Living Imagination)
Shelzar: City of Sins (2003, Dave Brohman and James Maliszewski; White Wolf)
Liberty (in Thieves Quarter, Temple Quarter, and Arcane Quarter, 2004-2006, J. D. Wiker and Jonathan Kirtz; The Game Mechanics)
Sharn: City of Towers (2004, Keith Baker and James Wyatt; Wizards of the Coast)
Yggsburgh (in Castle Zagyg Volume One, 2005, Gary Gygax; Troll Lord Games)
Bards Gate (2006, Casey Christofferson, Scott Greene and Shane Glodoski; Necromancer Games)
Five Fingers: Ports of Deceit (2006, Doug Seacat and Wolfgang Baur; Privateer Press)
Ptolus: City by the Spire (2006, Monte Cook; Malhavoc Press)
Cillamar (in Castle Whiterock, 2007, Chris Doyle and Adrian Pommier; Goodman games)
Shadowdale: The Scouring Of The Land (2007, Richard Baker, Eric L. Boyd, and Thomas M. Reid; Wizards of the Coast)
The Great City (2008, Mario Barbati; 0one games)
If you can think of any other classics I'm missing, let me know about it. My thanks to the good folks over at ENWorld for their FRPG city discussions, which helped me build this list far beyond the ones I was familiar with.
At work I am the executive director of the VISTA Expertise Network, a Paideia instructor, and a VISTA hardhat.
At home I am a student of philosophy and morality, a role-playing gamer, an avid hiker, a Rock Band enthusiast, a husband, and an uncle.