This month, we celebrate Dragon #400—a truly impressive milestone! The first issue of "The Dragon" appeared back in June 1976—which means this month also marks the publication’s 35th anniversary. To help observe this double celebration, we’ve asked past editors and editors-in-chief to share a few words about what Dragon has meant to them, as readers, as gamers, and as staffers.
Matt Sernett served as editor-in-chief from issues #316 (“Spies,” the complete guide to espionage) through 326 (with a look at the Dungeon Delver’s Guide). We spoke with Matt about his time at the magazine.
Wizards of the Coast: Before you started working on Dragon magazine, can you remember the first issue you may have bought, read, or that simply resonated with you?
The friend that introduced me to D&D always had tons of issues of Dragon lying around in his bedroom. I’d come over to hang out for the day during the summer, and inevitably my friend Chris would not have done some chore or he would have had a fight with his sister or there would be some other reason why his mother would yell at him to come downstairs. So I’d be left to while away a half-hour or so with the magazines while Chris took care of whatever he needed before we could play. Awash in a sea of some of the best fantasy art of the period and with a deep well of D&D arcana at my fingertips, it never seemed long before Chris returned.
I can’t point to any single issue that was my first or even remember when I got a subscription of my own, but I do recall seeing issues 119 and 126 in Chris’s room. For some reason, those winter scenes resonate with me the most. I love the peril in both those covers—the lone figures standing off against much greater foes, adrift in some far and frigid wilderness. The Crystal Shard was the first D&D novel I read, and I’m sure I picked it up because the original cover has a snowy scene on it.
What does it take to fire my imagination and make me happy? Snow, apparently.
Wizards of the Coast: What did Dragon mean to you then, as a gamer?
Dragon was a monthly dose of D&D goodness. Maybe I wasn’t interested in the latest “Complete Guide” or new Red Steel supplement, but Dragon was always sure to have good reading and at least a couple fun things to use in a game.
Wizards of the Coast: How did you make the transition from reader to working on the magazine? To becoming editor-in-chief?
I set my sights on working for the magazine when I was about thirteen years old. I was hanging out in a friend’s bedroom on a sleepover, and we were talking about how cool it would be to work on D&D. My friend’s dad overheard us as he was passing the bedroom and poked his head in to say, “Put it out of your head. You’ll never work on that game.” When I heard that, I thought about it, and instead of becoming discouraged I thought, “Some people do this for a living. Why not me?” I couldn’t come up with a good answer why, so I figured that’s what I would do. The thing is, I couldn’t figure out how to get a job doing game design. But I knew people did get training and jobs as editors. In college I gained a degree in magazine editing because I figured that few folks applying for a job with Dragon would have that. I was right.
I joined the Dragon team with the release of 3rd Edition, and I learned a lot about game design very quickly, running up and down the stairs to R&D. Years of working on the magazines developing and editing articles honed my skills. But the print magazine business is brutal, and as we moved farther into the digital age, it was getting harder and harder to make it work. I watched Dave Gross leave the post, then Jesse Decker, then Chris Youngs (Then Chris Thomasson). Ultimately, I was the last man standing and had to hire a whole new staff to keep things going.
Wizards of the Coast: When you became editor-in-chief, were you given any mandates regarding Dragon’s content? What was your own vision for where you wanted to take the magazine?
I had moved to Paizo with the magazines, but neither the leadership there nor at Wizards of the Coast exerted much control over content. The main mandate was to sell more copies so everyone could keep their jobs. I’m happy to say that I did that. My vision for the magazine was simply to put stuff in it that people would like. The biggest change in vision for the magazine that I helped bring about was transitioning Dragon into more of a resource for players than for DMs and having each issue have a regular array of new and classic columns. However I didn’t have a chance to really fulfill on the promise of that idea as I soon left the magazine to work as a D&D designer.
Wizards of the Coast: How would you describe your time working with Dragon, perhaps in terms of alignment?
I’d like to say lawful good, but I’m guessing lawful neutral is closer to the truth. I made a huge effort in my year as editor-in-chief on Dragon to create useful and comprehensible writers’ guidelines and to create processes of workflow and issue content that would make everyone’s jobs easier. With a tiny staff, huge workload, relentless schedule, and the ever-present need to raise sales, keeping everyone’s head above water was job one. I would have liked to have cultivated more freelancers, but as anyone who submitted a query or article during my tenure knows, giving that kind of feedback wasn’t a priority. On the other hand, folks didn’t have to wait months just to get a rejection.
Wizards of the Coast: During your tenure, were there any particular articles or issues that stood out to you—either as exemplary of what you wished for the magazine, or that were just particularly difficult to put to bed?
One of my favorites was issue 315. That was Chris Young’s last issue as editor-in-chief and we shared stewardship over much of its contents. I love all the old campaign settings, and it was awesome to have an issue where we took a tour through so many worlds.
Wizards of the Coast: Who were your contemporaries at the magazine (and your predecessor as editor-in-chief)? Did they give you any words of wisdom for Dragon?
When I was editor-in-chief, I worked alongside Erik Mona and James Jacobs as they worked on Dungeon, and I hired F. Wesley Schnieder and Mike McCartor to work on Dragon. Chris Youngs preceded me, and Jesse Decker and Dave Gross before that.
I don’t recall any words of wisdom. I think the best I got was “good luck,” and knowing Chris Youngs as well as I do, there was probably a “you’ll need it” attached to that statement.
Wizards of the Coast: Do you have any words of wisdom of your own for future Dragon staffers?
It’s hard to express how hard a monthly (or daily in digital media!) schedule can be on a small staff. So I don’t have words of wisdom so much as words of appreciation: Thank you for your hard work and dedication. It’s tough in the trenches, but you’re fighting the good fight of making D&D more awesome.