Ranks of the Rejected: Robert J. Schwalb

This time around on Ranks of the Rejected, I spoke with writer, game designer, and game developer Robert J. Schwalb. I was pretty stoked when Rob agreed to a Ranks of the Rejected interview, not only because he’s a great writer and a fellow death metal fan, but he also brings a slightly different perspective to the ol’ rejection runaround as a pro game designer. Apparently, they get rejected too.

Although I’ve never personally worked with Rob, I’m very familiar with his work. Years ago, when I started getting serious about writing in the gaming industry, I would look at the names on the covers of my Dungeons & Dragons books and think, “Man, it would be super fuckin’ rad to be one of those people.” Many times, the name on the cover was Robert J. Schwalb, and years later, after establishing my own career in the gaming industry, I still have a growing collection of Rob’s books on my shelf.

Now, normally, it would be right about here I would assign a rejectomancer level to the interviewee. I’m not gonna do that for Rob. Mostly because I’m fucking terrified he’d check my work. It’s also because, in my opinion, he’s one of the best game designer’s in the biz, nigh on legendary, in fact. It’d be like trying to stat up Cthulhu or something. Sure, you can do it, but there’s always the chance you’ll displease the great old one and his minions, and then you’re really screwed. I’ll just play it safe and say Rob’s rejectomancer level is super epic and beyond the ken of mortal man.

Here’s a bit more about Rob:

  • Robert J. Schwalb is a writer, game designer, and game developer best known for his contributions to Dungeons & Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Robert launched his own imprint in 2014, Schwalb Entertainment. Shadow of the Demon Lord, his first game from his new company, is available now as a PDF at Schwalb Entertainment, DriveThruRPG, RPGNow, and d20PFSRD.org.

1) As a game designer and developer, how is rejection part of your professional life? Do you (or did you) get rejection letters?

Sure, it’s a big part of my professional life and one that has had the potential to undermine my creative energy whenever I encounter it. In the early days of my career, rejection was a giant looming shadow lurking just out of sight, watching, waiting to jump on my back and caress my neck with its tender kisses. Hitting convention after convention, roaming the aisles armed with business cards and desperation, I shook every hand I could, eager to take on any job to kick open the door to my career. I came to know the false smile, the blow-off, and the distracted affect as the heralds of rejection, and those early days haunted me for years, even after became a developer for Green Ronin Publishing. I can still slip back into that well of negativity when I’m not paying attention. I managed to nurse those bad encounters until they took root as a seed of hatred in my cold, black heart, and from which I draw the drive I need to succeed.

2) In your opinion, what can writers learn from rejection? What have you learned?

Of all the learning experiences one can have in striving to become a writer, designer, or something else in the creative field, rejection, for me, was the most important. It gives you a chance to rethink ideas, it helps you identify the good folks in the business and the not-so-good, and it has the chance to make you see things from different perspectives. When you create something or have an idea for something you want to create, it lives inside your little attic, a crudely formed thing that slowly takes shape as you refine it. When you are ready to bring it out of your head and reveal it to the cold light of day, rejection can force you to develop that thing in a different direction, reveal the weakness of the thing, or prepare you for the criticism you will get when you proceed with the project anyway.

3) Got a favorite rejection? Memorable, funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

I remember pitching a book to one company that focused on NPC classes and using them to tell a different kind of D&D story, one in which the characters weren’t superheroes, but were ordinary folk going up against the horrors stalking D&D land. I probably didn’t pitch it that way, and that was probably why the company sent over the rejection letter, saying something to the effect that no one wants to play experts and commoners, so why make a book no one wants?

4) What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?

Interpreting rejection as failure was a cancer to my soul. Here’s the thing: It’s not failure. You fail when you get accepted and don’t deliver, deliver late, or deliver crap. You fail when the product doesn’t sell, when the critics take up their knives to dissect your genius and find it lacking. You fail when no one talks about your creation, dismissing it to rot on the mountain of bad ideas. Rejection is a warning, a signal that maybe you should just let the thing in the attic grow and take a different shape before letting it loose in the world. Rejection can be surprising, humbling, and maybe humiliating, but it’s also the best way to avoid releasing crap to which your name becomes attached forever.

5) Okay, Rob, this one is really, really important. Think about your answer carefully. Here it is: Which metal band most exemplifies the bitter pain of rejection? (Bonus points if you give us a specific song. More bonus points if it’s a band I like.)

I’m going to go with “Chopped in Half” by Obituary from the 1990 Cause of Death album. The runner up is “Excoriate” by diSEMBOWELMENT off their 1993 album Transcendence into the Peripheral. [Rob gets all the bonus points for these two excellent choices.]

6) Plug away. Tells us about your latest project and why we should run out and buy it.

Shadow of the Demon Lord

Shadow of the Demon Lord has swallowed my life. It’s the THING I DO, the monster set free to prey on the hordes of gamers itching for dark, horrific fantasy gaming set in a world drowning in the destruction loosed by the Devourer of Worlds, The Darkness between the Stars, the Ender of All Things, the Demon Lord. The 272-page PDF spilled out of my brain womb and into the tubes of the Internet where it has been making converts, one gamer at a time. The print book arrives at the warehouse late November and should be in gaming stores worldwide soon after. Why should you buy this book and the kickass adventures and supplements by some of the finest designers in the business, including Shane Hensley, Steve Kenson, T.S. Luikart, Chris Pramas, Steve Winter, and more? My cats need to eat. Oh, and I think you’ll have a ton of fun with it too.

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