by Greg Stafford
Chaosium Inc. is a business. We make games and sell them to you. But something seems to be different.
We have business people coming around all the time. Our bankers and insurance people love to come by. “You’re just not like our other customers,” they tell us. Ordinary people who come by just sort of look around. Even our own kind of people often ask, upon their first visit to our offices, “Where did you get this stuff?” Here’s how:
I really never wanted a business. When I was a worker I considered business to be an abomination. I hated blue-collar time cards, white-collar coats and ties, and all bosses. So I planned just to be a writer and to have an easy (and expectedly poor) life full of fun and creativity.
I made my first game, a board game called White Bear and Red Moon, sort of by accident. The game had previously been accepted by three potential publishers in turn, but two had gone out of business, while the third decided not to start a game publishing business after all since it would complicate his upcoming divorce settlement. Alas! I did what any self-motivated artist would do: did it myself. I wanted art. I wanted games. I wanted to create. I really just wanted to rid myself of the obsessive need to get my epic fantasy board game published.
Oh, those good old days when you could start a game company with a little credit and a mimeograph machine. There was no D&D;, there was no RPG, there was no hobby game industry. There was just Avalon Hill and SPI. So I made my own game, enlisting my fanzine friends to help. One day they and I walked around and around a table, collating piles of pages into books of rules, stapling them together, then stuffing them all into manila envelopes.
YOW! I was pumped up with satisfaction when I looked at my 1000 copies or so of White Bear and Red Moon. Wow! A fantasy board wargame, and it was all mine. Admiring my heap of finished games filled me with a tremendous pride of accomplishment. Then I had a sobering thought:
“Oh yea,” I realized, “I guess I ought to sell them.”
So I ventured cautiously, timidly forth. With resistance. With protest, I set off upon my private Bataan March into the business world. My business distress was not unique then (or now). At that time many of us were entering into the biz. Originally, nearly all the game manufacturers had this taint of discomfort, which changed only as the era of artist-entrepreneurs gave way to the era of professional game businesses. At the time that I began there was no real hobby game business, just a lot of guys who had a better idea of a new kind of gaming and went about to create it. Going to my first conventions made it a little easier. I even liked some of the people I met at my first Origins.
Of course, that touch of pleasure only emphasized the problem for me. After all, I never really wanted a business.
So I succumbed. Much to my amazement and pleasure, I discovered that business wasn’t what I had expected it to be.
First of all, it didn’t take me too long to realize that a little one-person, or even fifteen-person operation, is hardly big business.
Secondly, I eventually realized there are three kinds of business rules: Government Regulations, Production Standards, and Corporate Culture. Therein lay my succor.
Government Regulations are the worst, but easiest, to deal with. These are as nasty as only The Man can make it, and screwing up could get a guy in prison. (And I’d rather be in Bosnia than in prison. At least in Bosnia I could run away.) But they are easy to deal with: be scrupulously obedient and they leave us alone. So Chaosium Inc. has always scrupulously followed all rules concerning the government, laws, and taxes. We pay taxes and they leave us alone. Chaosium is as up to date on our taxes and paperwork as anyone who obeys the law. Anne Merritt runs this for us now.
Production Standards are hard and critical. These determine whether a product gets picked up and bought, so we can get a paycheck and feed our kids. It includes content too, of course, so our games would be played and enjoyed. These are rules of art, aesthetics, and popular appeal. If we ignore these we be a bizarre cult, but we wanted a business. I hired Lynn Willis to lay out RuneQuest, and he is the mastermind behind Chaosium’s visual appeal since ’78. Charlie Krank heads the card division.
The last kind of rules are called the Corporate Culture. It is how the tasks get done on the inside. An example of corporate culture is dress code. The several businesses I had experience in required coats and ties for men and skirts (etc.) for women. I hate ties, and so Chaosium never considered that code. Our dress code is actually that we have to wear some clothes (so we don’t frighten each other).
Corporate Culture is never consciously determined. It is organic and grows out of interaction between a plan, the people who attempt to execute it, and the resources available which together create the corporate ecosystem. So we didn’t plan to have an office with a shrine to Elvis, or a fur-bearing trout, or an array of skulls of creatures that are from another world. These things are just byproducts accumulated by us to help make our work environment bearable.
After all this, I am now quite glad to have a business. It isn’t what I was afraid it would be. The business doesn’t have to be a cruel impersonal tool. Ours is actually an organic co-operative entity which makes entertainment. We just want to get by doing what we like. We do this for creative reasons, fulfilling personal obsessions and artful desires.
It is very unusual, I am told. So, in the guise of a business, Chaosium goes on.
Finally, most importantly, we thank you, our loyal fans. No matter what we might have done, or how clever and insightful we may be, we’d be out of business without you. We recognize your intellect and perceptivity, and look forward to continuing to serve and entertain you.
This article was drawn from Starry Wisdom V1 #1, Winter 1997. To regularly receive the newest Starry Wisdom magazine, join the Cult of Chaos