Captain of the Burning Sea

Allen Varney | 17 Apr 2007 08:03
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John Scott Tynes, longtime designer and publisher in paper gaming, wrote a monthly column, "The Contrarian," for early issues of The Escapist. (See, for instance, "Nintendo is Doomed," "Fight the Future" or "Growing Out of the Stone Age.") "I had a great time writing that column," he says, "but ended it because I just got too busy. It's funny to look at it now and see how wrong I was, which is always great comeuppance for a pundit."

John has earned his enlightenment at Flying Lab Software, working on an independent massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) he calls "something of a contrarian position": Pirates of the Burning Sea. This summer, soon after the release of Disney's third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Flying Lab's MMOG finally launches - after four years, four years, in development.

Four years! What has that been like? "It's like I went to the best grad school in the world," John says. "I've done tons of game design, learned the basics of 3-D modeling, learned enough programming to code our first mission system, created sound effects, tracked down and hired an Oscar-winning sound designer to replace the crap I made, founded the content creation team and hired 10 people to staff it up, done a lot of business development, and eventually became producer for the entire project."

That won't surprise anyone familiar with John's career. At 19, while still in college in Columbia, Missouri, he started an excellent gaming fanzine, The Unspeakable Oath, supporting Chaosium's Lovecraftian tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu. Forming a company, Pagan Publishing, he edited and published many amazing RPG books, notably Delta Green. Best described as "John LeCarre meets H.P. Lovecraft," Delta Green makes CoC players part of an illegal conspiracy inside the U.S. government that fights Mythos corruption. Originally published as an Oath article in 1992 - long before The X-Files, please note - Delta Green appeared in book form in 1997. Powerfully conjured, amazingly useful, it remains one of the roleplaying field's best regarded campaign books.

John also designed the surreal "New Style" RPGs Puppetland and Power Kill and (with Greg Stolze) the highly regarded postmodernist horror RPG Unknown Armies. Working freelance for Wizards of the Coast, he edited a version of the CoC rulebook using Wizards' d20 system. John's book line, Armitage House, published Chris Jarocha-Ernst's useful Cthulhu Mythos bibliography as well as his own Delta Green novel, Rules of Engagement.

Finally, though, 12 years of cash crunch wore him down. In a 2002 Gaming Report interview, John announced his retirement from paper gaming; he called publishing Call of Cthulhu supplements "a labor of love, not a reasonable business endeavor." On his blog, he announced plans to write movies. He and a partner even sold a horror screenplay, Red Zone, which was never produced. Yes, he was preparing to work in the one other realm that treats writers almost as badly as paper gaming: Hollywood.

Fortunately, as it has rescued other penurious talents from the paper world, computer gaming rescued John Tynes.

He joined Flying Lab in 2002, shortly after the Seattle-based company shipped its first game, Rails Across America. "They were big fans of the work I'd done at Pagan Publishing," he says. "One of them was having a birthday, so Russell [Williams], the CEO, e-mailed me and asked if I'd be their guest at dinner. It was like hiring a celebrity impersonator to entertain, except it really was me. Running my own little starving-artist company, I was in no position to turn down a free gourmet meal, even if I'd had to jump out of a cake."

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