On January 2, I learned that Darwin Bromley of Mayfair Games had passed, then just a few day ago, word came down that Lee Garvin was gone. It’s been a rough year for the roleplaying industry, as we’ve also lost Steven Creech, Larry DiTillio, James Mathe, and others. And we’re only halfway done with 2019.
Usually, I save my memories of our lost creators for my yearly roundup, but for three of these designers, developers, and publishers, I had the time and space to spontaneously write something on the Designers & Dragons FB Group, where I occasionally write original short pieces of this sort. I’ve reprinted them here, so that they aren’t forever lost in that timeline. These weren’t necessarily the three who called out for memorials the most, but instead the three where my knowledge coincided with time to write.
For more on Darwin Bromley, the founder of Mayfair Games, read Tabletop Wire and the “Mayfair Games” article in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s (214-230). For more on Steven Creech, founder of DragonWing Games, read ICv2.
Here are the others:
Larry DiTillio: Flying Buffalo & Chaosium (1982-1984)
Larry wasn’t actually involved in the roleplaying field for long, but he’s nonetheless a renowned name in the industry. He was a TV writer who was out of work due to a TV writer’s strike and so was brought aboard Flying Buffalo around 1982. There, he was part of the revitalization of the line that was branded “Blade”. One of his first appearances in print was when he victimized by traps in Grimtooth’s Traps Too (1982). That same year, Larry also produced (and largely wrote) Citybook I: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker (1982), which would be the start of a long-running line. He’d later go on to write Flying Buffalo’s final multiplayer adventure for Tunnels & Trolls, Isle of Darksmoke (1984).
Larry also did some scattered work for Chaosium in the mid ’80s, and that’s where his masterpiece appeared: Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984), a Call of Cthulhu adventured coauthored with the late Lynn Willis that today is still considered one of the best adventures in the industry. Its intricate investigations dovetail into an adventure with truly epic scope, showing both the width and breadth of what’s possible in a roleplaying adventure.
After just a few years in roleplaying, Larry went back to the TV industry. There he had an impressive career, the height of which was probably his work as executive story director for Babylon 5.
James Mathe: RPGNow, OBS & Minion Games (1999-2019)
Though you won’t find James’ name in many roleplaying books, he nonetheless had an oversized effect on the industry, in large part due to his futurist ability to see how technological innovations would impact the RPG field. That began in earnest with his 1999 creation of a whole series of RPGHost web sites, but James’ biggest impact on the industry came with his 2001 creation of RPGNow.
James wasn’t quite the first person to offer RPGs as PDFs. That was probably Hero Games, who began selling PDFs in September 1996 with “The Ultimate Super Mage”, distributed to game stores on floppy disks(!). But James was the first person to see the wider opportunity to empower other creators through an online sales marketplace, and that’s what RPGNow did: it created an entirely new channel for the sales of roleplaying games and an entirely new way for GMs and players to interact with their gaming content.
RPGNow was of course followed by DriveThruRPG three years later, and the two merged in 2006. The combined site remains the premier marketplace for both electronic and POD content for the roleplaying market.
In the ’10s, James largely focused on the parallel industry of board games, through his own Minion Games. Their biggest hits were the innovative series of worker placement games under the Manhattan Project label. However, James found even more notable influence, once more, on the technical side of the gaming field, where he was an innovator of Kickstarter — not just in his own publications, but in his blogs and public groups, where he advised others on how to best use the groundbreaking new method to sell direct to fans.
I was lucky enough to have lunch with James in 2005 or so, at Gen Con, where we spoke about our mutual work on the tech side of the roleplaying field. He talked a mile a minute and spun out more ideas in an hour or two than most people would in a year. (We later worked on a new web portal together, BoardGameInfo. We couldn’t get enough traction, and a year later he was zooming off to the next thing.)
James, and his innovations, will be missed, but his influence on the industry remains.
For more, read Steve Wieck’s tribute. For a bit more on early PDFs in the roleplaying industry, read the “Hero Games” article is Designers & Dragons: The ’80s (126-150). James and RPGnow appear briefly in a few places in other Designers & Dragons books, but clearly they deserve their own, longer article, a “Lost History”.
Lee Garvin: Avalon Hill & Reality Cheque (1991-2019)
Lee burst onto the roleplaying scene in 1991 with Tales from the Floating Vagabound, Avalon Hill’s first roleplaying game since their big attempt to step into the industry back in the mid ’80s. One reviewer called it “the funniest rulebook since Paranoia” and Avalon Hill and Lee were certainly pushing that connection because the game also featured a cover by Paranoia’s Jim Holloway. Tales was a wacky multi-dimensional RPG set in a bar and the supplements were full of fun toys like brochures, concert tickets, and maps. It was from an era when funny roleplaying games could still be bestsellers.
Unfortunately, Avalon Hill ceased publishing Tales in 1993. Lee began fighting to get back rights to the game in 1996, since his contract should have reverted after it had lain dormant for three years, but Avalon Hill refused. This type of contractual dispute has happened a number of times in the industry, always to the deficit of the actual creator. (See also the story of FGU in particular.)
In later years, Lee worked for a variety of publishers, especially AEG and Skirmisher. He also published some books through his own small-press Reality Cheque studio, including his Control RPG and various d20 and Pathfinder books.
Lee was able to recover control of Tales in the mid ’00s. It was likely by the same mechanic that Greg Staff reclaimed the RuneQuest trademark: Avalon Hill was gone and so there was no longer anyone to fight. Lee Kickstarted a second edition of Tales in 2013 … but just a few months later succumbed to a case of pneumonia and ended up in a coma for two weeks.
Unfortunately, the US health system is merciless and cruel. As a result, Lee also fell victim to medical bankruptcy, a problem that impacts somewhere between a hundred thousand and a million American every year. It’s a scary potential reality for many freelance game designers who often have no safety net, little savings, and no health insurance. (If you think game products are too expensive, they’re actually not expensive enough when our creators are one accident away from their life being destroyed, perhaps literally.)
Tales second edition was never completed, but some of Lee’s last products were new adventures for Tales, published through Reality Cheque.
For more, see the Tales Second Edition Kickstarter and the Reality Cheque catalog on DTRPG, which includes the “Bowl or Die!” (2017) adventure created as a result of the Kickstarter. Also, the “Avalon Hill” article in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s (214-230).
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #25 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.