What Happened? Writing for Wizards Part 2

The last post explored the stages of the writing process for work-for-hire freelancers at Wizards, based on my experience with it in 2020. This post is going to delve into my specific experiences and the differences between the Book of Cylinders that was submitted in the final draft and the Book of Cylinders that was released on March 16th. Bear in mind, this entire post is no-names, no-packdrill. 

First, a caveat. In no uncertain terms, I do not believe that my submitted adventure, the Book of Cylinders, was perfect out the gate. I do not use premade adventures, and I am not familiar with building “conventional” D&D adventures. I fully expected that my adventure would be edited and altered to patch its faults and issues. Its form and content had made it through the pitch and drafting process, and I had no reason at the time of submission to suspect that it would be subject to the edits and modifications that went into it. Especially because we (the writers in general) had been hired specifically because we were “fresh voices” and “new perspectives”. So, to firmly establish this, I do not think my adventure was perfect, and I do not think it should have been given a freeride through the process. I do however think that how my work was treated ran counter to the spirit of the project concerning fresh voices and perspectives, and that what was released in no way represents me as a writer or designer.

My Experience

The beginning was fairly straight forward. Based on the stages in the previous post, I signed my paperwork, provided my information, and received my package. I was assigned to create an adventure scaled for levels five to ten, with a maximum word count of 8000 words. My pitch was accepted after some minor modifications at the direction of my supervisor on the project. During the drafting process, my supervisor was immensely helpful in getting my adventure to spec, helping me with writing tips and direction when needed. This process saw the Grippli as a player race dropped, and some other modifications done. My full draft, player race information included, was 7187 words, and the submitted final draft was 6969 words. I received an email that informed me my adventure had made the cut to move onto playtesting after an initial review, and that asked permission for editors to be able to “cut out the middleman” and contact me directly if they had questions or whatnot. I answered “yes”, and that was it. I was paid, and with that, stages 1 to 5 were complete.

Several months later, I was contacted again and informed that my adventure had been selected for publication. Several months after that, I was contacted about providing a headshot, bio, and some other information for Dragon+ and the upcoming promotional effort. I sent it in, and at this point please realize that there had been no communication about the state of my adventure to me. I was labouring under the “no news is good news” mindset, and assumed that because no editors had contacted me in the intervening time, that everything was fine. So based on that, I answered Dragon+’s questions, and conducted interviews about it with media and podcasts alike. As a result, all of those are now wildly inaccurate. As the release day was approaching, I was contacted by Wizards again to get my mailing address so they could send me my copies.

The Release and Discovery

The preleases were out, and media interest was intensifying. And this is where things started smelling wrong. The few preview reviews of the book that included my adventure were using some language that I didn’t think would be used. It became apparent that there had been changes. I waited patiently for my copies to arrive, and they came a few days after the release. A quick look revealed that the start of the adventure had been significantly changed. The rest seemed fine though, and I carried on with life until the other night, when I had an opportunity to sit down and give it a thorough read. It was a hard read. I would find out that my adventure had been reduced down to 5686 words, with a lot of my content significantly changed. The plot was 80% missing and problematic colonialist language and imagery had been inserted. What happened after that can be seen on Twitter. [1][2][3]

The Aftermath

Needless to say, I was upset by the turn of events. My name was attached to something unlike anything I would write or release, and I’d mislead the community as to the content of my adventure. I contacted Wizards about it, and after a short email exchange, I was informed that there had been issues in playtest, that the changes made were done to preserve the best parts and the story; and that to make space, it had been pruned. Mine in particular had the lore focus and cultural information targeted to make it more adaptable to non-Forgotten Realms home games and because it apparently is not the job of a short adventure to introduce a people or their place in the world. I was informed that while Wizards had the ability to reach out during the editing and development phase, they had no obligation to do so. What made this worse was the knowledge that other writers on the same project had been meaningfully engaged to various degrees through the editing and development process right up to some seeing a final release copy of their adventure. 

After confirming my larger unedited adventure could not be released, I respectfully requested that if possible, my name be removed from future printings of the book, as the end result was closer to the vision and style of the editors than my own.

What Changed?

Looking at it in broad terms, here’s the gist of my Book of Cylinders as it was in the final draft. I can’t go into full or even in depth detail for contractual reasons, as Wizards owns my original adventure, lock, stock, and barrel.

Conceptualization

The Book of Cylinders in its original form drew from two sources of inspiration. One was that the deep history of the Forgotten Realms is seldom used to drive adventure in the modern era. The other is that the ambiguous wording and lack of development by Wizards of the 5e reboot of the Forgotten Realms left a lot of narrative doors open and potential to do some interesting stuff. I determined that I wanted to link back to the Days of Thunder and bring the Grippli back, all by building on what had come before and that was current.

The Plot

This delved deep into Yuan-ti lore specific to the Forgotten Realms, building on the schism implied in the Tomb of Annihilation about Yuan-ti that weren’t evil (or at least weren’t hostile) and just wanted to exist. The idea was that good Yuan-ti were working to hasten the awakening of the World Serpent, the mother goddess of the serpentfolk, by recovering an ancient tome from the crypt in the old temple (from the story in the book). The evil Yuan-ti want to stop them. The Grippli are caught in the crossfire.

The Adventure

Phase 1: Mystery

The adventure started with finding the book, and there was a list of things the players might be looking for in Candlekeep. They would find the book, and the first part of the mystery was figuring out how to read both stories that were on the three cylinders therein. The stories were legends from the Batrachi Empire, involving the various frogfolk of the Forgotten Realms. This would reveal the temple, and then lead to the characters learning about the Grippli village. Further investigation revealed lore about both the Grippli and the Yuan-ti. The mystery then shifted to investigating what was happening.

Phase 2: Travel

The players could travel overland or by sea. The sea route led to the refugee Grippli and then the crab maze. The overland route to an unrelated battle that provided the players with a map to the Grippli locations. At this point the adventure could split a bit, depending on what route the party took and where they decided to go first if they went by land.

Phase 3: Battle

The village and temple were the sites of multiple battles with the Yuan-ti, and included several sites and a magic artefact in the village square that helped keep the Grippli warm in the cool climate. The main showdown areas were the Brood Pools and the Temple.

Phase 4: Ending

The characters get the various ending goodies depending on their actions. The special sword and scale mail, as well as a unique magic lantern came from the Temple battle. Saving the eggs in the Brood Pool unlocked the ritual ending. There was an option to escort the good Yuan-ti home to the Chultan Peninsula. As a fun extra, the ritual gave the characters Grippli colouration and patterns on their skin that were only visible under certain circumstances, and marked them as “friends” to all frogfolk.

Cultural Development

The emphasis here was on the ancient nature and unknown materials that things were made of from the Yuan-ti side of things. The sword was a literal fang from the World Serpent, the scale mail made from a giant snake unknown in the modern era. Metal fittings were made of a mysterious copper alloy. The Yuan-ti had more nuance, and the adventure added a mythology and history to them that could open more doors if desired by the DM and players.

The Grippli were presented as having had patron deity return and bring them back up to speed with the gift of literacy in their ancient language; they had art, nothing was primitive; I used the terms simple and utilitarian, and the domed mud brick village was filled with colours and decorations. Their village was a mix of new made buildings and impossibly ancient buildings and edifices that had withstood the test of time. 

The Released Adventure in Comparison 

The released adventure added an NPC at the beginning to get the ball rolling, however, the way they were introduced negated the need for the book at all; all the players need to do is talk to them, get some directions, and go. I understand that the beginning of my adventure was on the esoteric side of things, but this took it all out. On top of that, the book was altered to make it more mundane and less mysterious.

The travel part was altered to push characters towards the sea route and the crab maze, with a note about the land route advising DMs to throw some random encounters at the party to show them the error of choosing that route. I can tell you with no uncertainty that I would never write something like that into an adventure. Both routes were viable in the original.

All references to the Batrachi, World Serpent, Days of Thunder, the tome, or any other motivations were removed. The Yuan-ti were reduced down to just being evil for evil’s sake for the most part (without the cut lore, it makes less sense), the Grippli had their culture stripped out and so on. Colonialist language and imagery around the Grippli was inserted as well, moving them from being simple and utilitarian with obvious culture and technology to being “primitives” who “primitively decorate” their thatched huts with crab bits.

Essentially, where you could see the welds and joins before, you could now see the chop marks and bolts. The story was reduced to a simple rescue mission against unmotivated baddies with confusing parts where bits of the original plot flashed up as absent. This was especially notable in that there was no plotline or reason for anything the Yuan-ti were doing; the conflict between the good and evil Yuan-ti was left completely unexplained until a tidbit at the end of the adventure that, without the cut content, made little sense.

Final Thoughts

Frankly, this isn’t how this had to go down. I would have been more than happy to pare down my adventure to make it more adaptable to non-Forgotten Realms home games. I could have massaged the whole thing to make the lore more generic or approachable. There’s a lot of things I could have done. What I made were mistakes. I went all in and sent every concept I had about things to Wizards in the drafting process; so they own it all now and releasing it, even on the DM Guild, is difficult at best. While I was under no illusions about friendship, I thought that the personal connection I had with some of the team members involved and my specific background with D&D meant that I’d have the courtesy of being part of further development. I was wrong there too. I thought that “no news was good news”, and trusted the process to preserve what I’d submitted. Bad call. And finally, I talked to the media without having a final release copy of my adventure in hand. This was probably the worst mistake I made, because I built up false hopes and ideas in the community about what they were buying.

So is this the end of my work with Wizards? Who knows. That’s up to them. If I do work for them again, you can believe I’ll be applying the rules in Part 1 and asking some questions about the whole process. It was pointed out in the threads that, compared to traditional publishing, what happened to me and others was a nightmare scenario. Others pointed out that it was the risk that work-for-hire carries. But the thing is that it didn’t have to happen, and change doesn’t happen unless people make noise. I don’t want anyone to go through the experience I have in the last few weeks. I want people to engage with Wizards, and other publishers who have similar practices, with foreknowledge about what can go down and how they can protect themselves to a degree or at least keep from having their mental health get battered.