Trivia & Anecdotes: The Star Cairns

(Trivia & Anecdotes is a series of blog posts I’ve been meaning to make for years now about weird and sometimes funny behind-the-scenes facts about various books I worked on. Yes, the acronym is deliberate.)


(Published June 1998.)

It’s 1998. I, the newbie TSR designer at Wizards of the Coast, was assigned to Team Greyhawk. Due to some delay (probably from HR) in transitioning me from the web team to facilities to Peter Adkison administrative assistant (while his actual AA was out on maternity leave) to RPG R&D, my new boss Lisa Stevens told me that my first assignment had a shorter deadline than normal: 4 weeks instead of 5 for a 32-page adventure. This adventure, The Star Cairns, is the first in a new trilogy of adventures for the new Greyhawk revival that started in 1997.

Like a freshly-minted madman, I buckle down and write it–didn’t want to make a bad impression on my first in-house project! I run playtests of the encounters at the office. And I get it done on time. And then Lisa tells me that there was a hitch in the schedule, that it wasn’t actually due for another week. Still, glad that I got it done early.

Two funny bits about this project.

One, I got started in such a rush that nobody told me about our style guide or gave me a Word template with the properly formatted styles for body text, headers, footers, etc. Not wanting to make the editor strip out weird style issues (because Word is notoriously retarded about such things), I wrote the entire adventure as a plain text file. No headers. No bold. No italic. I am surprised my editor, Kij didn’t murder me, but she was a good sport and fixed it (like good editors do).

Two, playtesting this is what showed me how sharp Jonathan Tweet is. Because this was my first solo-writing project, the management assigned him to give my adventure a read so he could catch newbie mistakes and give suggestions for improving it. In the middle of his readthrough, he comes to me and says, “Sean, what does a human in [Advanced] D&D [2nd edition] have to roll to detect a secret door?”
“A 1 on a d6.”
“Where do the rules say that?”
“Player’s Handbook.”
“Can you find that rule for me? I’m not able to find it.”
I looked. Couldn’t find it. Looked again. Still couldn’t find it. Checked the electronic version of the PH we had from the CD-ROM archive. Couldn’t find it.
It wasn’t there.
The rule for what a human needed to roll to find a secret door wasn’t in 2nd edition AD&D at all.
It told you what an elf needed (2 on a d6). And it told you that elves had it easier than other races. But it didn’t explicitly say “Humans have to roll a 1 on a d6 when actively searching for a secret door.”
Ten years the game had been out, and nobody noticed this.
Because all of the TSR people had played 1e AD&D, and knew the rule from there.
And apparently everyone who played 2e who knew the rule either had played 1e, or learned how to play 2e from someone who had played 1e (or had guessed at the right rule based on the circumstantial evidence in the book).
Oops. Good catch, Jonathan. :)

This book was published the same month as my 10-year high school reunion, so when people asked me, “What do you do for a living?” I could point at it and say, “This!” That was pretty awesome, especially as several of my old gaming buddies are from high school and they were very jazzed for me.

Heck, that was 10 years ago. I’ve been a full-time game designer for 10 years now. Weird!

This book still turns up now and then. I think Lisa’s now running her gaming group through it, using the Pathfinder rules. :)

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16 thoughts on “Trivia & Anecdotes: The Star Cairns

  1. I’ve always thought Jonathan Tweet was sharp. I read some of his rants and thought, damn, that is one sharp fellow. Apparently he went to high school with my friend’s wife, and she confirms that he is, in fact, one sharp fellow.

    • He is one of the smartest people I know. And given that I hang out with some really intelligent people, that’s saying a lot. I’m sure he’s smarter than ME, and that’s something I don’t easily admit. :)

  2. “Ten years the game had been out, and nobody noticed this.”

    That’s not actually true. This was a big issue one day at TSR around 1994 or 1995, where some of us basically going from cube to cube saying what you describe Jonathan saying (“What’s the chance of a human finding a secret door?” “Really? Can you show me that rule?”) until everyone that cared was in on it. I remember Steve Winter really getting Skip’s goat with this one.

    Man, what a geeky, wonderful place to work that was.

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