Lynn Willis passed away recently after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. He was one of the greats of the RPG industry, but that greatness may not be obvious to the average roleplayer because he was always quiet and unassuming, actively reluctant to take credit for the things that he'd done.
He got his start in science-fiction board game design, back in the '70s when that field was just appearing. His first game was Godsfire (1976), published by Metagaming Concepts. He'd also design two MicroGames for them and publish Bloodtree Rebellion (1979) through GDW, but his real place in the hobbyist industry would be at Chaosium.
Lynn came to Chaosium through another boardgame, Lords of the Middle Sea (1978), a postapocalyptic design that Metagaming hadn't been interested in. As a result Lynn approach Greg Stafford, the founder and president of Chaosium, who was publishing an increasing number of fantasy board games by 1977. Not only did Greg agree to publish Lords, but he also hired Lynn to lay it out! Lynn was Chaosium's third employee, following Greg Stafford and Tadashi Ehara. He would stay long beyond that initial project and would become Chaosium's longest serving employee by the time he was forced to leave the company three decades later.
At Chaosium, Lynn is best known for the work he did on their roleplaying games. He was the best sort of editor — the type who took your mundane and mumbling prose and polished it until it shone like brightest gold. However, his skills went far beyond that. He had a keen analytical mind that let him organize, reorganize, and revamp books so that they were easy to use and reached their fullest potential.
Lynn coauthored the original Basic Roleplaying (1980) booklet with Greg, turning the RuneQuest (1978) system into a more general house system that would serve almost all of Chaosium's needs forever after. You can find his name scattered throughout many of Chaosium's other Golden Age books, such as Borderlands (1982) and Cults of Terror (1981). Lynn was also one of the developers who expanded and polished Richard Launius' Arkham Horror (1987). His influence on the adventure game and cooperative game markets thus might be as important as his influence on RPGs.
However, where Lynn really excelled was in his work on Call of Cthulhu (1982). He contributed to the earliest releases, like The Asylum & Other Tales (1983) and the original The Masks of Nyarlathotep(1984), and would continue to support the game year by year afterward. Lynn really put his mark on Call of Cthulhu when he massively revamped the fifth edition (1992) to produce a highly polished edition of the game. His work afterward as line editor continued to ensure that Call of Cthulh saw high-quality releases. One of the books he line-edited was the third edition of Masks, over a decade after its original release. He was determined to revamp it into its best form ever by including the lost chapter set in Australia. He didn't stop there, though; he was constantly determined to improve products rather than just rerelease them. I think his Complete Masks (1996) was the ideal form of the book.
There was far more that Lynn did for Chaosium, I suspect most of it invisible to the average person. I personally am most fond of his work on the Elric! RPG (1993), which produced a totally new and modern look at Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion mythos. I kind of miss the demonic armors and weapons that disappeared in Elric! However, I loved the tightness of the rules and the wider multiverse that it seemed to evoke. He was innovative and creative and not afraid to take chances, and that served Chaosium (and its fans) well over the years.
I knew Lynn in the early '90s from freelance work for Chaosium. However, I really got to know him in 1996 when I asked if he'd be interested in hiring me to work at Chaosium. He agreed (and Greg agreed), and that's one of those life-changing things. If not for that I wouldn't have gotten to spend two and a half years working my dream job, in the roleplaying industry (admittedly: for almost no money and no security). I wouldn't have gotten to put just a little bit of my own stamp on Chaosium's products. And, I wouldn't have met my current boss (with whom I share interests in gaming), and so I wouldn't have ended up running RPGnet, and I probably wouldn't have written Designers & Dragons and ... I have no idea where I'd be now.
Lynn hired me to do layout work for the Call of Cthulhu line. When I said that I wanted to do more editorial and writing work, he let me (though I must admit that editorial isn't my strength). Throughout the two and a half years that I worked for Lynn, I saw the perfectionism that Lynn brought to his own editorial work. He did his best to make every book that passed through his hands the best that it could be.
I wasn't able to maintain a friendship with Lynn after I left Chaosium, and that always saddened me. However, I'm very happy that he was able to contribute another decade toward the excellence of his Chaosium products before health interfered.
When I wrote my very first history of Chaosium for the web, Lynn told me that he didn't want to be in it, and I agreed. When I revised that article for the first edition of Designers & Dragons, I decided that I was going to note his accomplishments anyway, because the book deserved it and he deserved it. I'm happy that in the second edition of the book, I've been able to expand that material even more.
And I've very sorry that there will be no future tales to write.
Thanks, Lynn, not just for your contributions to gaming, but also for believing in 24-year-old me.