February’s RPG Publisher Spotlight is with the DMsGuild game designer, editor, and producer Shawn Merwin.
At the time of writing, there are nearly 80 products on Shawn’s credits page at the Guild, and as we’ll discover below, he was one of the first people ever to be published. However, Shawn’s RPG game design career started before that, and it is the successful companies he writes for and projects he helps bring to life that you might know him best.
Shawn’s been terribly kind and made time to answer some questions for Geek Native’s readers.
If you’re a regular reader of spotlight articles, you’ll be familiar with the format. It’s all about what makes Shawn tick, what good looks like and what we might glimpse of the future.
However er, Shawn has some unusual advice regarding following his predictions.
An introduction to Shawn Merwin
There can be no doubting Shawn’s writing creds, but there is a chance of not appreciating the full scope on offer. The story of getting started on the DMsGuild turns out to be tightly connected with the start of the DMsGuild.
Geek Native’s Patreons want to learn more about the DMsGuild contributor Shawn Merwin. How and why did you decide to publish anything on the DMsGuild in the first place?
When the DMs Guild was first concepted, I was a freelance contractor for Wizards of the Coast—which means I wasn’t a full-time employee, but I was often working on some project or another, even if it wasn’t one of the big hardcover books. Essentially, I knew the DMs Guild was coming.
I was contacted a couple months before its launch and asked to consider preparing something to sell on the Guild, so that there would be content ready to buy the moment it launched. I’m fairly knowledgeable with designing, writing, development, and editing, but I know nothing about layout, art, graphic design, and that side of the publishing process. So I knew I needed help.
At the time I was working with a “hippie gaming co-op” called Encoded Designs, and I went to the members of that group to see if they wanted to join me in this venture. Together we created the first DM’s Guild project that I wrote, titled “Five Temples of the Earthmother,” set in the Moonshae Isles of the Forgotten Realms. It was probably one of the first ten products up on the Guild, and making it was a great experience, so I knew that I’d want to do more.
If we go back in time from there, just briefly, how did you get involved in tabletop gaming?
It’s an age-old story. Boy loves games and stories. Boy gets introduced to D&D and learns that roleplaying games exist. Boy wants to become a game designer when he grows up.
Then the boy realized that, since it’s the 1990s and there’s no such thing as the OGL, the boy won’t be paying rent or buying food as a game designer, so he becomes a technical writer—which is just another type of game design if you squint really hard.
It was only by accident that I got to actually be a game designer through a combination of luck and sheer stubbornness when 3rd Edition was released and an Organized Play boom gave me the opportunity to put my work in front of people. Through various Organized Play programs, such as Living Greyhawk, Xen’drik Expeditions, Living Forgotten Realms, and others, I became a known quantity with the folks as Wizards of the Coast.
When 4th Edition was launched, I got tapped to work on several projects at once: the adventure path module Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, the hardcover book Dungeon Delve, and many Dungeon and Dragon magazine adventures and articles.
Shawn Merwin and Ghostfire Gaming
While it was Shawn’s own DMsGuild that were linked to his nominee in the RPG Publisher Spotlight vote he won, it’s probable Geek Native patrons knew him from elsewhere. From Ghostfire Gaming.
You might be publishing through the DMsGuild, but you’re also the Executive Lead Designer for Ghostfire Gaming. How did that happen?
Based on work I’d done through the Guild—plus other freelance work for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, etc.—I was recommended to the leadership group of Ghostfire Gaming as someone who might be able to oversee their efforts to expand their game publishing division. They reached out to me near the end of 2019 to see if I was interested. I was honestly not thinking of full-time work in that way, since the freelance world was suiting my needs and desire pretty well. But once they shared with me their long-term vision and provided details on what they wanted from me, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
What’s an Executive Lead Designer?
It’s just like a Lead Designer on any RPG project, but I also have to answer to executives. And we all know how painful that can be…
Seriously though, it’s a mix of managing the creation of the RPG projects—both writing and managing freelancers—while at the same time interacting with the members of the larger company to make sure that we’re all meeting the business objective as we also meet the product objectives. So I make sure we’re making cool content while at the same time making sure we make enough money to keep the company going.
How does working with Ghostfire Gaming differ from your own projects that might end on the DMsGuild?
I’ve interfaced with the DMs Guild in a variety of ways since its inception. I was a creator, like most people reading this are. But I also did a lot of writing for the D&D Adventurers League, so once those adventures started being sold through the DMs Guild, that was something I had to work with. Defiance in Phlan and Treasure of the Broken Hoard are two of my Adventurers League adventures that have hit Adamantine status without art or a fancy cover. I was very fortunate to be, as a designer, in the right place at the right time.
I was also a Guild Adept for a time, and in that role we (the Adepts) all wore different hats. Sometimes we just wrote on our own individual projects, while other times we might take on development or editing or layout roles on a group project. I wrote Return of the Lizard King alone but hired people to do art, layout, and editing. For Tactical Maps: Adventure Atlas, a group project for the Guild Adepts, I did the editing in addition to a bit of writing. For Xanathar’s Enemies and Allies, I had more of a Lead Designer and Developer role.
For both the Adventurers League’s Oracle of War campaign and for Baldman Games, I had positions that put me in the Producer role, where I would make sure that the trains were running on time as others did the writing, editing, and layout.
For the Adventurers League I worked with Will Doyle on managing the Oracle of War campaign for Eberron, and for Baldman Games I worked on a Moonshae Isles campaign that had a sourcebook called the Moonshae Isles Regional Guide and then many, many adventures that told diverse stories within the Moonshae Isles. The amazing Eric Menge took over that role when I had to leave it, and there is so much great content there.
The Oracle of War campaign has more than 20 adventures, as well as some products that help you create your own adventures, and that was one impetus for the Dungeoncraft program where people can create and sell their own Adventurers League-legal adventures.
That was a long-winded way of saying that I’ve done a little bit of everything on the Guild, and I do a little bit of everything with Ghostfire Gaming, but with Ghostfire I have a whole company behind me, with all the benefits and responsibilities that come with it.
What makes a good RPG?
There’s no wrong answer to the question “What makes a good RPG” and here, Shawn shows that there are entirely different ways to answer it. Sometimes, when I ask this question or something similar to it, the answer addresses what the game designer wants to see in their own products.
Shawn tackles it from thinking about what you might want to see.
What makes a professionally written game or a supplement a good one in your eyes? What does a studio need to do to add value?
D&D has always had an audience that wants different things, and those wants only get more diverse as the years pass and editions of the game come and go. So a good game or supplement shouldn’t try to do everything, but it should be sure to do the things it tries to do extremely effectively. Often figuring out what those goals for the product are, is just as tricky as meeting those goals. Trying to make a book that rivals a Wizards product generally fails spectacularly because Wizards is writing for every D&D player in the world, and we’re not (“we” being large and small publishers.)
For a year or so I wrote a “Best of the DMs Guild” column for Dragon+, where I talked about a variety of Guild offerings. The best ones, I felt, didn’t try to do too much, but should try to do one thing well. Anne Gregersen’s Monster Loot series is a great example. It focused on a system for looting monsters, using the WotC published books and adventures as a base. And it did just that, without trying to be anything more. It was a great idea, well executed—and its success speaks to that novelty and execution.
Shorter answer: pick one or two interesting goals for your project and do them well. It won’t speak to everyone, but the people it does speak to will support it well if it meets their needs.
Has your view on what a good game is, what you might spend money on, changed over time?
I thought I had a good handle on how to create and run a good game. My home games were generally well received. I had a good grasp on storytelling as a student who’d received degrees in both English and Creative Writing.
Then I began to run and play many games of D&D as part of Organized Play programs at conventions. Many games. Many many games. Thousands of games for thousands of different players and gamemasters over the last 22 years. I thought I knew a lot, and like Jon Snow, I knew nothing. Because what a good game is to one player is a terrible game to another. And vice versa. I still know just a fraction of what some other designers know, but I’m trying keep my ears and eyes open, hoping to learn more with each passing day.
One thing I’ve noticed is that game rules are like machines. They take various inputs (player interaction and choices, gamemaster interaction and choices, randomized influences like die rolls, etc.) and then they create both a mechanical and narrative output. Good games understand that concept, and they expertly tweak and manipulate those elements so that the participants have fun creating their inputs, and they understand and appreciate the outcomes and how those outcomes are created.
The future of RPGs
Ah, often my favourite part in any Spotlight article. Shawn has his finger on the pulse of the RPG industry. What’s the reading?
You’re no stranger to Kickstarter success. Do you think the world of Kickstarter is changing?
For sure. Kickstarter offered a new and effective tool for creators to engage an audience. And like most new tools, those who were quick to adopt—and those who were able to adopt most effectively—reaped the benefits. But just as the world changes, those tools change, and Kickstarter is no different.
It will remain a viable way to fund products, but Kickstarter is a business itself, and its own wants and needs and plans will change.
There’s no assurance that Kickstarter itself is sustainable as a viable business model, even as people use it to successfully sell their work. Part of the challenge of being a creator is tracking those changes and making the best use of new (or old) tools. I’m glad that I work for a company that has a very savvy business leadership, allowing me to focus on my little dragons and dungeons.
Outside of crowdfunding, where do you think the RPG industry is going? What do you think the next few years will look like?
I’m not terribly bright in predicting the future. About 8 years ago I wrote a lot about how RPGs would always be around, but how their popularity would forever decline until they became something incredibly niche and supported by a minuscule portion of the world. Eight years later we’re seeing unprecedented growth; more and more people not only playing RPGs but spending money on it; and we’re getting D&D/RPG-based entertainment in almost every form.
So if I do ever make a prediction, you should bet on the opposite happening.
Is there anyone or company you’d like to work with in that time?
I want to work with everyone! Despite being an introverted person, it’s impossible for me not to feed off the ideas and energy and brilliance and creativity of others.
I teach a class called Writing for RPGs, and my (very selfish) impetus for that is not just to share what I’ve learned, but to understand how different people in the game—players, GMs, fans, consumers, everyone—consume and interact with the game. Being forced to sit down, stop writing for a few minutes, and think of coherent ways to explain the phenomenon of RPGs to people who want to get involved in it has turned out to be a valuable exercise.
What’s next for Shawn Merwin? What are you working on or might soon be working on that readers would like to know about?
Through Ghostfire Gaming, I am working on an upcoming Kickstarter that will offer new 5e mechanics, including some pretty significant changes to the way you might want to play the game, along with a unique setting and story to use those rules in. If you keep an eye on Ghostfire through social media (@ghostfireg on Twitter) or on me (@shawnmerwin on Twitter), we’ll be revealing more in the coming weeks and month.
More generically, I just want to continue creating fun settings, adventures, stories, and rules that people find fun and useful in their gaming lives. This hobby has been one that’s given me many great memories and friends over about 40 years, and I want it to do the same for others.
If I can be even tangentially responsible for someone’s enjoyment of the game and hobby, I consider that my highest calling in the industry.
- Shawn Merwin on Ghostfire Gaming and Wizards of the Coast.
- Shawn Merwin on Twitter.
- Shawn Merwin on DMsGuild.
Latest Shawn Merwin DMsGuild items
Shawn is more than just a DMsGuild designer and producer, as we’ve found out. However, for the purposes of sanity, let’s just look at the most recent DMsGuild contributions for which he gets a credit.
- 25th October 2021 – Dark Fantasy Artificer Subclasses
- 16th March 2021 – Dunwood – Demons, Druids, & Danger (Fantasy Grounds)
- 6th January 2021 – EB-12 The Waiting Game
- 17th December 2020 – DDEP10-00 The Great Knucklehead Rally
- 27th November 2020 – The Armanite Lance
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