Neal's Last Words
by Byron "Neal" Massey
Czar Today, Gone Tomorrow
Unfortunately my Last Words have not been getting the attention
they deserve. Running the store keeps me very busy, and the graceful
but marked decline in Netrunner participation and support has really
hurt my motivation. But fear not, gentle reader! The Fall Guy is
here with a history and discussion of Netrunner rules and rulers.
In the Beginning...
The Highlander format for Netrunner suggests that "There can
be only one." It's not quite true in the history of Netrunner
rules Czars. In fact, there have been five.
Think back to a better time, the middle ninties of the previous
millenium. Magic cards are being sold at an astounding rate, and
Richard Garfield and his game buddies have been teasing us with
news of Netrunner for two years. Recognizing the intricate and elegant
design of the final product, WotC commits to the biggest print run
in collectible-card-game history. Oops.
With the initial investment in Netrunner came something that seems
impossible to newer players - WotC support. Wendy Wallace handled
a lot of the rules questions in the early days, mostly clearing
up issues in the rulebook with basic game mechanics. Glenn Elliot
trolled the list, looking for people to make angry (and successfully,
too!). Then there was Sparky.
Mark "Sparky" Schmaltz was the first true Rules Czar
of Netrunner (although Wendy was certainly a protoczar). He tackled
tough issues with aplomb, only occasionly stumbling. He had a great
sense of humor and easy access to Tom Wylie (rumored to be the illigimate
but true father of the game). The game was still fresh, organized
competitions were low-pressure and low-stakes, and we all wondered
what secrets and tricks the superb WotC playtesters were holding
back from us. Oh, to be young again!
The Big "Oops"
A year later, the bottom had fallen out of the market and the clone
games were dying on the vine. Fallen Empires, a Magic Expansion,
was going down like the Hindenburg (you can buy packs of this expansion
today for fifty cents). The joyride was over at WotC, and Netrunner
was the Fall Guy (or was that me?). Sparky and Glenn Elliot left
us for the promised land of Battletech (I laugh openly as I consider
this). Netrunner was placed on the "dud" list as sales
sagged under the weight of hilarious overprinting. Enter J.D. Wiker.
J.D. was the last WotC employee to serve as rules Czar, and the
first to be openly trashed on the Netrunner mailing list. He clearly
had little knowledge of the game, was not particularly interested
in it, and his access to Tom Wylie was limited. Netrunner was an
annoying financial failure for a company that was accustomed to
the early success of Magic, and employee time was not fit to be
spent on the game unless absolutely necessary.
J.D. left abruptly but without much sorrow, part of the corporate
shuffle. Netrunner remained without any rules authority for some
time. Jennifer Clarke Wilkes took a strong interest in the game,
lobbying heavily to invest a non-employee with the title of Rules
Just Saying "No"
I turned the job down for a few reasons. The most important was
that Rules Czars had always been paid in the past, and the new position
was strictly volunteer. I knew that Czars took lots of heat on the
Netrunner mailing list, and I had no desire to make big decisions
and take big hits without being compensated.
The second was that I didn't want to give WotC an easy way to further
reduce support for the game. I thought it was important to keep
the position open until they saw fit to put an employee in it. This
was not to be, but it made sense at that time.
The last reason I turned down the job was my very bad experience
with the Duelists' Convocation International (DCI). This group had
been formed early in the history of Magic to create and enforce
rules for competitive tournament play. They soon evolved into a
kind of Magic Congress (US readers will understand), taking bribes,
playing favorites, creating bad rulings and reversing them several
times. I had no desire to be involved with them. The new TRC (Top
Runner's Conference) was just getting started under the direction
of Argi Flack, and working with the DCI was a top goal.
A Fine Pickle
(Sorry, I couldn't resist this obvious headline)
So who would fill the role? Skipper Pickle.
When I first read Skipper's name, I assumed it was a pseudonym
(like mine). Apparently it isn't. Skipper was a very well-liked,
not too successful player who spent a lot of time filling in the
social corners of the Netrunner mailing list. His brother worked
for WotC, and he had almost gotten a job there before being jerked
around and not hired. Despite this bad treatment, he jumped into
the role of Rules Czar. He asked me if he should take the job, I
told him "No," in no uncertain terms, and he took it.
Perhaps Skipper's greatest fault as a Rules Czar was his inability
to cut simply and quickly to the core game issues. He seldom seemed
to be concerned (or even aware) of what made a Netrunner game most
fun. He ended up creating (with a lot of help), a whole series of
general rulings about taking actions that are completely meaningless,
all to resolve an obscure interaction between Valu-Pak Software
Bundle and Haunting Inquisition.
I have to admit I did more than anyone to keep this issue burning.
It really bothered me that Skipper would go to so much trouble and
do so much damage just to keep a very rare combination, without
game-breaking power, from happening. In any case, his rulings are
still on the books, but he is gone. The argument was too much for
him, got too personal, too complicated, and too unpleasant. As far
as I know, he doesn't even play any more. But that could be said
about a lot of people...
The Calm Before the Holger
After this bad experience, Netrunner fans seemed happy without
a Czar. The rulings were conglomerated by four different authors,
and Tom Wylie was occasionally consulted by Jennifer, further muddying
the waters. The most elegant card game ever had become a mass of
unecessary and conflicting rulings and errata. Had the game held
more popularity, it would have been a disgrace. As things stood,
it was just depressing.
Once again I was offered the job of Rules Czar, and again I turned
it down. I recommended a few names, feeling guilty since it was
obvious now that the position was a sure way to leave Netrunner
forever (with bad feelings). Eventually Holger Janssen was selected.
His saga is ongoing, although his command of English as a native
German has already caused some short and direct comments to be made
on the mailing list. I have always admired Holger's play. He is
clearly the most skilled Netrunner to hold the title of Rules Czar
so far. But I fear for him. He doesn't appear willing to make the
sweeping edits that the remaining Netrunner faithful are hoping
for. And if the past is any guide, he is looking headlong down the
Well of Sorrows.
The Netrunner mailing list has been quiet for several days, perhaps
the Classic expansion was too unwieldy, or the critical mass of
popular support was too small. Perhaps Holger will be the final
Czar, ruling over a fantastic game that was doomed from birth.
What, you expected a happy ending to this sordid tale?
Netrunner suddenly became very popular and Seven-Eleven started
selling Proteus packs at the cash register. There was a cartoon
show called "Rache Bartmoss' Crash Space" that featured
a talking dishwasher and Mean Mr. Netwatch. WotC published several
innnovative, coherent, balanced and interesting expansion sets,
and the Pro Tour began paying out large purses for constructed and