Category Archives: Uncategorized

Top 10 XBOX 360 Games: A retrospective


Greetings, readers!
My apologies for being rather quiet in November—I had a lot going on with getting the Accursed RPG setting wrapped up and ready to send out to the backers, plus I moved, plus I had some other writing things I had to do in the meantime.
I definitely want to take a moment and point folks towards the Gamer’s Tavern podcast. My co-host Darryl and I have had quite a few interesting guests and topics on the show, and there’s a lot of things we mention on the podcast that have to do with things I’ve talked about here on Rogue Warden.
With all of that out of the way, this week’s post is going to be one of my favorite bits: a top 10 list!
Now that the new generation of consoles are out on the market, it’s a good time to take a look back at my library of games for the XBOX 360 and pick out the ones that I felt were the best.
As a top 10 list, I’ll start with the bottom and go to the top—although all of these games are amongst my favorites, you gotta start somewhere.
Here’s my top 10 list of games for the XBOX 360. Keep in mind that this is my personal list, based on my own experiences, so your mileage may vary.

#10: Farcry 3

Critical Hit: This game impressed me, and I’m not easy to impress with first-person shooters. The gameplay was fun and inventive, and I adore the stealth-action style that this game fosters—particularly with the outpost assaults. I had been a big fan of the original Farcry, and felt very disappointed in Farcry 2, so this installment was the last chance for the franchise to reel me back in. It’s fair to say that it succeeded!
 
The story was interesting and the characters were fun, especially one of the villains—Vaas and his monologue on madness is just sublime.
Critical Miss: I wish this game had a way to re-play the outpost assaults, as they were easily one of the most fun things to do, but you could only do them once. Re-play value would have been higher if I could go back to the earlier outposts and try out some of my more advanced abilities. I wanted more skills and more depth for growing my character, because I felt like I peaked too early during the campaign. Hunting was fun, but soon lost its luster.
Bonus Round: This game had a stand-alone DLC named “Blood Dragon” that is completely awesome. It re-skins the entire game as a cheesy 80’s cyberpunk sci-fi VHS action movie, and it is fantastic. Neon dinosaurs, cyber-hearts, and Michael Biehn as the main character mean that this DLC on its own nearly made the list.
Gaming Connection: Farcry 3 has an interesting “heroes’ journey” that makes you question just whether you’ve become a hero in the end or just another psychopath on the island. You can definitely feel your character “levelling up” over time.

#9: Saint’s Row the Third

Critical Hit: I have a thing for open world games, particularly ones where I can drive fast cars, shoot people, and do crazy stuff. Saint’s Row the Third satisfied those urges in spades. While I believe that Saint’s Row 2 had a stronger overall narrative experience, Saint’s Row the Third had extremely memorable characters and pulled off its own unique completely over-the-top style in a superb manner. If anyone ever wants to see an extreme example of “pink Mohawk” Shadowrun-style action, Saint’s Row the Third has got you covered.
 
Critical Miss: Although the characters were memorable, the story was a bit disappointing coming off of Saint’s Row 2—but I don’t see how it could have been otherwise given the major shift in the game’s overall tone and approach. Some of the missions to unlock areas of the game were less than stellar, but overall I just can’t find a lot to complain about!
Bonus Round: Saints Row 2 is also part of the XBOX 360 generation, and it is a fantastic game in its own right, particularly in its approach to the story. Make sure to check out the awesome voice acting by Michael Dorn!
Gaming Connection: Over the top action has never felt so good. If I were running a game of Feng Shui, I would definitely have some crib notes based on some of the action scenes in this game.

#8: Sleeping Dogs

Critical Hit: As I just said for #9, I enjoy open world games, and Sleeping Dogs adds in the exotic world of Hong Kong into the mix. I loved the racing mini-games (where I normally don’t in other games), and I really liked the innovative combat system that really let me feel like a martial artist who can take on ten guys at once and win. Fantastic voice acting, particularly from James Hong and Kelly Hu.
Critical Miss: The soundtrack was a little tough to love, most likely due to the nature of it being all Hong Kong music… I would have loved a wider selection of music to drive with. Only a few of the characters were really memorable, alas.
Gaming Connection: Much like Saint’s Row the Third, Sleeping Dogs has a lot about it that works great for Feng Shui. Any game set in Hong Kong gains a lot from playing this as well! Lastly, Sleeping Dogs has an excellent narrative for organized crime, the police, and undercover operations—if your game has any of these as a focus, Sleeping Dogs is going to be a great inspiration.
Bonus Round: There’s a DLC that involves hungry ghosts, hopping vampires, and tons of great Asian mythology!

#7: Dragon Age: Origins

Critical Hit: The first Dragon Age game was a bright star in the constellation of console RPGs. Bioware provided some excellent characters, an amazing story, and a particularly interesting take on “dark fantasy” that hadn’t really been seen before. One thing that took my breath away with this game were the difficult choices and moral quandaries that you were presented with—it felt like Dragon Age was intentionally going for a game where you had to agonize over some of the outcomes. In the end, all this effort led to an excellent payoff.
Critical Miss: With only three classes, there wasn’t really a lot of differentiation between characters, and the party AI wasn’t much to write home about. However, aside from that, there’s really not much I can point to as disappointments!
Gaming Connection: Of course, Dragon Age has its very own RPG published by Green Ronin… but there are tons of characters, quests, items and stories that are very applicable to just about any fantasy RPG as well.

#6: Skyrim

Critical Hit: It’s difficult to describe just how amazing Skyrim is if you haven’t played it. The stunning visuals display a very interesting and unusual fantasy world—this is what I wanted to see when I imagined the Rjurik Highlands from Birthright. Just looking around and finding something else interesting over the next ridge was fun, and when you found a pair of giants sitting around an enormous fire with their mammoths… well, that was a very memorable moment. Skyrim was a game that I had to call other people into the room to show them how beautiful it all was. I loved the quests, the story, and the world that Skyrim immersed me in. The music and soundtrack are also amazing!

Critical Miss: There are a few bugs in the game and odd quirks (such some repetitive dialogue and the amazingly funny bit where if you kill one chicken, everyone in town goes berserk), but other than that, there isn’t much to complain about.
Gaming Connection: There are several actual dungeons in the game, complete with traps, puzzles, and riddles. There’s an epic quest that leads into the afterlife, and confrontations with truly impressive enemies. Skyrim has tons of elements that would be an excellent fit for any fantasy RPG.

#5: Mass Effect 2

Critical Hit: When it comes to console RPGs, I think ME2 is probably the king. It has an amazing story that escalates and raises the stakes and builds the threat against the universe to a fever pitch. By the end of the game I was literally on the edge of my seat. The characters are similarly amazing, and there’s a huge cast of companions to choose from to share your adventures with along the way.
 
Critical Miss: Nothing really to say here except that a couple of the class choices are rather sub-optimal given the improved combat system… for example, the engineer I played spent most of his time hiding behind cover letting the rest of the party do the real fighting. Well, there were a couple of the characters who just didn’t… really do it for me, but that’s forgivable given the size of the cast and how amazing the others are. In the end, this game was only really let down by the disappointing third installment.
Gaming Connection: Any sci-fi game would gain some great inspiration from playing through ME2. It’s beyond me why there isn’t a Mass Effect RPG or miniature game out there right now.

#4: Batman: Arkham City

Critical Hit: This game is a huge amount of fun, with excellent gameplay, boss battles, and a very immersive open-world environment… but by far the coolest thing about this game is being BATMAN. You get to investigate for clues, find evidence, track down criminals, solve riddles, and beat seven kinds of hell out of bad guys. You get to fly around, use all batman’s gadgets, and even make a couple of important choices along the way. This game is amazing, and a clear improvement over its already very impressive predecessor.
 
Critical Miss: There is some odd hypersexualization of catwoman going on in this game that makes me a bit uncomfortable during the period where you’re forced to play as her. Other than that, I don’t really have any flaws I can point out… this game is exceptionally good in almost every respect.
Gaming Connection: Any street-level superhero campaign would benefit greatly from some of the areas, villains, and missions in this game. The setting of Arkham city has some stunning visuals that would benefit any campaign city facing a cataclysm or extreme urban blight.
Bonus Round: Batman: Arkham Asylum is this game’s predecessor and was a total surprise. Arkham Asylum came out of left field and proved that you CAN make a good Batman game. Arkham Asylum did have some flaws (there was no reason to ever switch out of Detective Mode, for example), but it was Rocksteady’s love letter to fans of Batman.

#3 Fallout: New Vegas

Critical Hit: I’ve always been a huge fan of the Fallout series—I’ve played every single game for the franchise ever made (even some truly, truly bad ones) and I have to say that New Vegas is one of the best installments for someone like me. The characters were very memorable, the storyline was interesting, and the post-apocalyptic vision of Las Vegas was one that I’ll never forget. A strong game, New Vegas is made even stronger by its DLC chapters that add on even more awesome places to visit in the wasteland.
Critical Miss: Again, this game is plagued with a series of odd quirks and bugs that can really harm the experience, and there are some storylines that just didn’t work as well as they were meant to. Overall though, there’s not a lot to point to as flaws.
Gaming Connection: Any post-apocalyptic setting will find some interesting things to riff off of from New Vegas. Gamma World, TORG, Rifts, just to name a few, could certainly find some great bits and pieces that would enhance a game.
Bonus Round: The “Old World Blues” DLC is worth buying the game for on its own. Old World Blues is brilliant in every single way and I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.

#2: Assassin’s Creed 2

Critical Hit: Very few games have ever earned the description “breathtaking” for me. AC2 succeeded at doing that, however, and then some. This was my introduction to the Assassin’s Creed series, and I found it to be absolutely exhilarating. The character of Ezio is one of the best in all video games, and playing through his journey is one of my favorite video game experiences of all time. Climbing over the rooftops of Venice, launching surprise assassinations in the center of a crowded church, and climbing through some truly challenging platforming levels added up to a good game. The outstanding stealth-action gameplay and throwing in the fun switch-ups of using Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs (like the glider and the tank!) turned this game from “insanely good” to “great.”
 
Critical Miss: AC2 is nearly flawless – I’m struggling to think of anything I didn’t like.
Gaming Connection: Playing a thief or assassin in another game is where I’d draw a lot of inspiration from this game. The interesting historical backdrop can be useful for games with similar technology, such as many “steampunk” settings.
Bonus Round: Assassin’s Creed 2: Brotherhood. If AC2 is an 8 out of 10, then AC2: Brotherhood takes that up to a 9.5 out of 10. Brotherhood added bonuses to just about every aspect of the game, including some great missions where you recruit, train, and send out other assassins on missions. AC2 Brotherhood is my benchmark for what makes an expansion good.

#1: Borderlands 2

Critical Hit: Of all the games on this list, there were none that I played more than Borderlands 2. I played this game to death. I played this game so much that I know damn near every mission, area, and boss fight by heart. I’m normally a hermit when I play video games, and I’ve always avoided the lure of multiplayer—until BL2 came along. Multiplayer on BL2 was actually fun, and the well-designed classes and skill system really made things work so much better than other games I’ve seen with multiplayer. The story and characters of BL2 are simply mind-blowingly cool, and the setting of the game—a mash-up of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic world called Pandora—has some really unique elements to it that make it feel like no other place I’ve ever visited in a video game.
Critical Miss: Nearly flawless is one of the best descriptions I can give for this game—it is a highly polished jewel in the landscape of so-so shooters out there.
Gaming Connection: If you can’t find something fun for your campaign to bring from BL2, there’s something wrong with you! There’s even an entire DLC focused around tabletop RPGs, and bringing in any of the game’s more prominent characters as an NPC into your campaign is nearly a guarantee of adding something cool.
Bonus Round: SO MUCH DLC. 2K has been supporting the hell out of BL2 with additional characters and block after block after block of quality content. Granted, none of this DLC is free, but just the fact that you can add so many more options and bonuses to your game through the offerings is impressive.

Champions System Review Part 3: 5th Edition

Greetings, readers! My apologies for taking so long since my last post – I was doing some additional research on today’s topic and got caught up with more work to make sure the Accursed setting gets everything together the right way!
In addition, I need to make sure and let you guys know I’m co-hosting the Gamer’s Tavern podcast with Darryl Mott (the Abstruse One at AICN Tabletop). The podcast is going quite well so I want to invite all my readers to come over and have a listen as we talk about all things gaming.
Without any further ado, let’s get into the meat of today’s post—part 3 of the Champions System review, focusing on the 5th edition of the Hero System.
As always, this review is from my own personal experiences, and your mileage may vary!
My personal journey with 5th edition is a long one—it’s fair to say that the majority of the games I’ve played of Champions have taken place in this edition of the game. I played a ton of 4th edition, of course, but 5th edition is where I got the most actual play of the game.
One of the best Champions games I was a part of during this period of time was the Vendetta Rhapsody campaign, GM’d by my good friend Grady Elliot. Grady structured the campaign like a mix of champions and dark champions, and I definitely remember how challenging the battles were—but the development of the characters and interaction with the world were even better.

A Look at 5th Edition

There are two names you need to know when it comes to the Hero System 5th edition: Steve Long and Darren Watts. Darren was the president of the company and basically its outward face, injecting a ton of passion for superheroes and fun into everything he touched. Steve was a writing machine, producing nearly all of the line either on his own or leading a team of additional designers on over 60 products. Where Darren brought passion and energy, Steve brought precision and production—he generated tons of content and tightened up the rules system, which is no small task. Steve’s background as a lawyer helped prepare him for this task!
The core book for 5th edition was a huge, thick tome—famously, it was considered bulletproof. It didn’t just look like a textbook, either—it was crammed full of the new rules system for Champions. The rules for 5th edition were quite extensive and well-balanced overall. The system on the surface did not differ much from 4th edition, but there were several changes that became evident with an in-depth look. I believe that 5th edition’s ruleset was superior to 4th in a number of ways, but there were few revolutionary changes. Most of the additions to the game rules involved adding considerable examples and clarifications to help players learn how to define their character’s abilities.
One of the most important things to note about 5th edition is that it was by far the most comprehensive and in-depth look at the Hero System ever made. The product line is immense and spans over 100 different products and over a dozen individual settings. Much like an earlier edition of Champions mingled with Autoduel, 5th edition had a crossover with the Guardians of Order superhero RPG, Silver Age Sentinels.

A True Hero Indeed

Without 5th edition, there would be no Hero System as we know it — in the late 90’s, the property had fallen into the hands of a company called Cybergames and was languishing there until Darren Watts got the ball rolling sometime in 2000 to put together a new incarnation of Hero Games. By 2002, the core books were released for the system and 5th edition was off and running. This edition of the Hero System would last eight years, until it was eventually replaced by sixth edition in 2010.

Triumphs

5th Edition won tons of awards for the core book and for other books in the line. The line gained recognition from all corners of the gaming industry, and could be found on bookshelves across the country. Lucha Libre Hero, Champions Battlegrounds, Dark Champions, Pulp Hero, and many others have all been nominated for or have received individual awards as well.

Setbacks

5th Edition suffered from some bad luck, especially with regards to its personnel. Andy Mathews was the art director for 5th edition for over seven years until his untimely death in 2008. Well-liked and a prolific gamer, Andy is greatly missed. Around 2003, writer Allen Thomas was hired to work on a number of books for 5th edition. There are many rumors surrounding Allen’s tenure with 5th edition, ranging from why he was hired (some say it was his proficiency with Indesign) over other well-known contributors (like Bob Greenwade and Michael Surbrook) to why he left (rumors claim it was due to a severe writer breakdown). Whatever the truth, Allen was no longer part of the team for 5th edition in 2006.

Creators Spotlight

Let’s take a quick look at the major names for this edition.

Steven Long

As mentioned above, no one defined the writing of 5th edition more than Steve Long. He wrote a huge chunk of the line by himself and even more as part of a team of writers.

Darren Watts

Darren is the true heart and soul of 5th edition, the architect of saving the line from falling into obscurity, and the tireless champion of passion and fun for the game. Darren’s love for the Hero System is obvious to see, especially in products like Lucha Libre Hero.

Storn Cook

Storn’s cover art and black and white interiors stand out as being high quality and helping to define the overall look of many of the line’s better-illustrated books.

The Fraim Brothers

These two artists provided some excellent covers and interior artwork that was always nice to see.

Michael Surbrook

Michael Surbrook is a big contributor to 5th edition, having written the two Asian Bestiaries and Ninja Hero. Michael also holds the record for writing the most articles for Digital Hero of any individual contributor!

Jason Walters

The “silent partner,” Jason Walters helped Hero Games succeed with 5th edition and provided key support to the line over many years.

Dave Mattingly

During 5th edition, Dave Mattingly was the director of the official online magazine for the line, Digital Hero.
Another awesome cover by Storn Cook.

Critical Hits

There are several shining lights of fifth edition that I want to single out for special mention here. These books were all of high quality overall, and many (such as Tuala Morn and Lucha Libre Hero) gave me the same feeling of excitement and vibrancy that I felt from many 4th edition products. Ninja Hero, the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Speedster, and especially the Ultimate Skill all provided some excellent expansions of the main rules and some really interesting ways to push the Hero System to the next level of creativity and elegance. Villainy Amok, PS238, and Fantasy Hero were all excellent additions to the game and are of great use to any Champions fan!

Critical Misses

Most of these are not terrible products (certainly not on the level of European enemies) and simply suffer from being entirely forgettable. There isn’t much more to say about these products except that they have the same issues as many other products in the line, including some poor quality artwork, bland setting information, and low-quality graphic design.

  • Everyman
  • Dark Champions: The Animated Series
  • Champions of the North 

A Word from the Editor

I want to take a moment here to mention that my personal feelings about Fifth edition are deeply involved with this particular blog post. For example, many of the main creators of 5th edition (such as Steve, Darren, and Jason Walters) are all friends of mine, and I have often described myself as a Hero System fanatic. That having been said, I feel that Rogue Warden deserves my most unbiased and honest opinions, especially with regards to presenting the information as accurately as possible. To be clear, I’ve done a ton of research on this particular topic, but there are some things mentioned here that are, at best, rumors, and cannot be entirely corroborated. The overall tone of this blog is not meant to be harsh or hateful–quite the opposite, as I do indeed love the Hero System.

However, I am not blind to its flaws, and Rogue Warden would not be doing any service by ignoring or failing to mention that 5th edition ran into a number of serious snags along the way. With all this having been said, let’s take a look at some of the issues that plagued this edition:

All Substance, No Style

While 5th edition produced over 100 products, there were not many standouts due to a number of factors. Low production values, bland writing, and an uninteresting setting unfortunately led to a perception that this edition’s overall approach was quantity over quality.

The Steve Long Edition

Steve Long’s dominance of the writing for the line was both a blessing and a curse for 5th edition. His blessing, of course, is that he produced an amazing amount of content for the line. However, Steven’s particular style was very dry, and (especially for most of the setting books) ended up making for very bland reading. The effect of this approach meant that the Hero System line as a whole ended up feeling very homogenous. Nearly every important project was headlined by Steve, and this led to the direction of the game being nearly one-dimensional. Although 5th edition produced more content for the Hero System than any other incarnation, there are only a relative few standout books, especially compared to the wide variety of exciting, interesting, and fun to use products from 4th edition.

Vulnerability: Bad Art and Graphic Design (x2 effect)

If there’s one thing that I can point to as one of the downfalls of 5th edition, it is the artwork and graphic design. Unfortunately, 5th edition is chock-full of terrible, awful artwork. There are some pieces that work (mostly from the Fraim Brothers and Storn Cook) but overall, nearly every book has some artwork that simply makes the reader either feel confused (“Is this the guy that the text is describing? I really can’t tell.”) or displeased. It is truly a shame, since most of the books for 5th edition are not bad books—they deserve much higher quality artwork than they received. On top of that, the graphic design for the line—and for this, I am mainly talking about the covers and trade dress—doesn’t help the books stand out. On a shelf, the 5th edition line looks like a set of textbooks for a college course, not just in size, but also in the presentation. There is little to draw a customer in and make them realize just how cool and exciting and interesting the system truly is.

Erasing the Past

One of the true shames about the effects I just described above is that they compound on each other and actually cast shadows onto other parts of the system as well. When 5th edition left behind the well-developed world and characters from 4th edition, it lost a ton of interesting stories, characters, tropes and themes that had been created by a vibrant group of game authors. Unfortunately, the bland writing and poor artwork failed to bring much of the replacements developed for 5th edition to life. The headliner team of the Champions were nearly entirely replaced (leaving Defender intact, which was a bit confusing to fans of 4th edition – why keep him and not the rest? Why not just reinvent the entire team?), the Champions universe was reinvented (losing a lot of the fun, flavorful elements from before), and the rest of the setting was developed along those lines. This resulted in the 5th edition Champions Universe feeling like a very grim, depressing, and ultimately uninteresting place (with some exceptions, notably Dr. Silverback).

Third Party Publishing

The 5th edition of the Hero System enjoyed considerable support from third party publishers during its run, adding some of the best products for the line.
 

Blackwyrm Triumphs

Blackwyrm Publishing made significant additions to 5th edition, beginning with their award-winning character books, the Algernon Files and continuing with one of the best superhero settings ever written—Scott Bennie’s Gestalt.
In addition, Michael Surbrook published his own animepunk campaign setting Kazei 5—a setting so complete and thorough in its exploration of cyberpunk tropes that there was no need for any 5th edition Cyber Hero product.

And the Rest

A special mention here goes to Adventures into Darkness by Ken Hite; a fun look at comic books as if they were written by H.P. Lovecraft!
Also, Comstar Games produced Traveller Hero during this period—possibly the only license that actually works with 5th edition’s trademark minimalist cover design practice.

Jason Walters Interview

During my research for this post, I got a chance to talk to Jason Walters, current head of Hero Games. Jason was very gracious to allow me to present his answers here on Rogue Warden.
RW: Can you tell me more about why the 5th edition Champions Universe moved away from the setting established by 4th edition? For example, Champions of the North, the Mutant File, PRIMUS and DEMON, and VIPER are all very different in 5th than they were in 4th.
JW: Some of the changes can be attributed to the fact that Steve Long and Darren Watts (and, to a far lesser extent, other Hero authors such as Allen Thomas and Dean Shomshak) were simply different people than George McDonald, Steve Peterson, and their immediate circle of authors and designers. And the new Champions Universe products were tried out on entirely different and new playtest groups which had their input as well. (I belonged to Darren Watts’ Masonic Street Irregulars.)
Thus, we had different tastes in comic book authors, watched different movies, had alternate views on how a super hero setting should operate, liked or disliked different characters, and so forth. It’s understandable. For example, one reason C.L.O.W.N. didn’t find its way into the 5th Edition Champions Universe was that Steve Long didn’t find characters like Slapstick and Merry Andrew to be particularly funny. (I’m pretty sure Stan West wouldn’t agree, but I’m with Steve on this one.)
Another factor was the need to update the Champions Universe a bit. All superhero universes need to be periodically updated, and the Champions Universe was certainly no exception. And it never pays to constantly walk over the same ground. People get bored with that.
Additionally, when a new creative team takes over an intellectual property as large and diverse as the Champions Universe — particularly one created by a large group of designers with different thoughts, goals, and perceptions — it’s often easier (and better) to “reboot” the setting to some extent rather than keep trying to herd all those super-cats.
RW: On a similar note, can you tell me more about why the Champions themselves changed so much between 4th and 5th editions? (Losing Seeker, Solitaire, Jaguar, Obsidian, etc.) I had heard a rumor that there were some IP copyright issues involved with some of the characters.
JW: As far as I know this isn’t true. I’m not aware of any copyright issues pertaining to these characters at all. Steve changed the team from 4E to 5E for two reasons. First, he didn’t like most of the characters on the 4th Edition team, and didn’t want to continue them. Second, he wanted iconic NPC heroes whom he felt were better examples of common comic book archetypes – and that newcomers to CHAMPIONS would find more useful.
RW: Can you tell me what you think was the biggest triumph for 5th edition? What about the biggest regret?
JW: IMO the biggest triumph of 5th edition was the sales numbers for the core book: roughly 30,000 individual copies sold in physical and electronic formats. That’s a lot for a small roleplaying game publisher, and something Steve and Darren can always be proud of. Also, under Darren’s stewardship, Hero Games released over 100 new products and was turned into a popular MMORPG. Not too shabby.
I think we all regretted our inability to consistently get high quality artwork into the books. We tried of course. Very, very hard. But Hero Games had a very small budget, and was trying to get 10 to 12 books published a year at one point. So the quality of the artwork often suffered.
RW: Can you tell me more about the rescue of Champions and the Hero System from Cybergames?
JW: I’m not going to go into great detail on that due to confidentiality agreements and my own sense of professionalism. Frankly, there’s a lot about that time which will never be told… at least not in print! 
A great cover art piece by the Fraim brothers.
However, I will say that Cybergames were way ahead of its time in what they were trying to do. Namely, they eventually wanted to sell RPGs in electronic format to an online audience. RPGNow, DriveThroughRPG, e23, and so forth have proved that they were on the right track, generally speaking, but the technology just wasn’t there in the late 90’s. And they’d decided that the best way to accomplish their goal was to literally buy every company whose products they would sell. This turned out not to be such a great idea.
That’s how Hero Games ended up in semi-limbo: Cybergames had bitten off more than they could chew half a decade before the technology or customer base existed to chew it. And that’s why they were willing to sell the IP to us. Think of it as an excess, rather than a lack, of vision on their part.
RW: There are a lot of rumors about Allen Thomas’ tenure with the company (particularly the ending) – is there anything you can tell me on the record for the blog entry?
JW: As you know Allen Thomas was and is a tremendously talented author and game designer. We enjoyed working with Allen and feel that he created some superb products for us. Unfortunately, sales fluctuated some during his time with us, and we eventually felt it wasn’t financially viable to keep him on staff. We were very sorry to let him go, since he did great work, but sometimes business doesn’t go the way you want it to.

In Conclusion

The 5th edition of the Hero System is not a bad line at all – there are many strengths that were brought to bear upon the game line during this period. It does have many flaws and some very unfortunate setbacks, but it is important to remember that 5th edition made a huge contribution to the overall popularity and exposure of the Hero System.  The line provided immense support for the game, including the revolutionary software Herodesigner that is nigh-indispensable for making characters for the system. Constant releases and excellent communication with the fanbase were the hallmarks of this edition, and its creators have reason to be proud.

Interview Time: D3 Games (Mark Carroll + Jason Yarnell)

Greetings, readers!
I’m taking a quick break from covering the Champions System as I do some additional research on 5th edition. Plus, I’ve been working hard on the Gamer’s Tavern, a podcast I’m hosting along with Darryl Mott (the Abstruse One), the AICN Tabletop coordinator for Ain’t It Cool News.
Today I have a great double interview for Rogue Warden: I’m talking to both Mark Carroll and Jason Yarnell of D3 Adventures, an independent game publisher that I’ve mentioned before here on the blog.
Mark happens to live here in Austin, and we’ve chatted several times about various kickstarters (especially right before the launch of Accursed). Jason’s the man with the plan behind D3 Adventures.
Mark and Jason are involved in a bold new adventure with Aethercon, an online gaming convention taking place this November. In addition, they’re also working on an interesting project called the Infinite Dungeon, a former kickstarter project that D3 Adventures is now taking to fruition.
Jason Yarnell, part-time Superhero, full time gamer.
Aethercon features quite a few interesting panels and a lineup of cool-looking games, so I highly suggest you go check it out!
As always, my questions are in red text.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourselves as a gamer and as a game industry professional?

JY: Man, I am horrible at talking about myself. I’ve been a gamer since ’77 when I got my first Atari. I was exposed to D&D in ’78 and created my first RPG the next day from notes my friend and I cribbed from his brothers books (he wouldn’t let us play, saying we were too young). In ‘81 my mom bought me the Basic D&D box set as a graduation present from 6th grade. I’ve been modifying, playing and running games ever since. I have a knack for finding a niche game system, falling in love with it and then realizing that nobody else, or a very small number of folks, enjoys it. My fav systems are Hero System and Rolemaster.

MC: I’ve been gaming since I was nine – I started with the old Mayfair CHILL RPG, and I was lucky enough to have a group of experienced gamers to get me familiar with roleplaying; I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve been writing about as long, so combining the two seemed a natural match for me.

I know a lot of amazing people in the industry, and I feel pretty humbled to be counted among their number.

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

JY: In 1999 my roommate at the time and myself created a Mod for Tribes called Chivalry, a fan gave us some money as an angel investor to begin a video game company. In 2001 we formed Sojourn Development and started working on an MMO. That whole process fell apart in 2003 but I retained ownership of the design. In 2006 my wife convinced me to start up a new company and D3 Games was born. In 2010 we moved back to Houston and had to remake the company as D3 Adventures and that’s where I am today. 

  
MC: I actually sort of lucked into it – my wife was doing some copyediting for AEG’s 7th Sea line at the time, and mentioned my name to their line editor. I was asked to submit a writing sample, passed the initial round of scrutiny, and found myself writing for 7th Sea and, eventually, the World’s Largest Dungeon. From there, I wrote some books for Mutants and Masterminds, a bit nof Pathfinder stuff, and the Infinite Dungeon, natch.

RW: Tell me about D3 Adventures – what should people know about your company?

JY: We’re small…very, very small. It’s just myself and my wife, who handles all of the dollars. Our tagline pretty much explains our goals, “Forging Better Worlds For Better Games”. My passion is in setting design and my goal is to create, either full cloth or through idea seeds turned over to other authors, settings that are interesting, unique, playable and, most important to me, believable. We have an erratic release schedule due to myself and all of my contractors having day jobs, but we’re working on getting better at consistent release dates with upcoming product lines.
MC: First and foremost, we’re doing what we do because we just flat-out love gaming. We work on our products as long as it takes, and we make sure that what ends up in peoples’ hands is the best we can offer. We’re a small, tight-knit shop, and that really helps us with that goal.

RW: Tell me about Aethercon – for those who don’t know about it, what is it? What’s awesome about it?

JY: Aethercon is an online convention. Started up by Stephen Holodinsky. It seems to me to be a natural outgrowth of the online gaming community, from play-by-post (my personal savior) to electronic tabletops, gaming is moving more and more towards the digital kitchen table. Aethercon is a great way to celebrate this and is able to do it for free. We’re all volunteers who love the concept and want to see it grow into an international phenomenon. 

MC: Aethercon’s an online convention – you don’t need to leave the comfort of your computer to attend. We’re aiming to provide everything an in-person con can – we’ve got a dealers’ room, panels, and lots of gaming. Oh man, we have got a *lot* of gaming! And thanks to the magic of the Internet, we’re running events 24 hours a day for the length of the convention.

RW: What do you think gamers are looking forward to most about Aethercon?

JY: Hm, that’s difficult for me to say. I’d like to say that the mix of panels and a chance to meet and socialize with a wide variety of online gamers would be the pull, but that doesn’t exactly limit it to a specific thing…it’s pretty much the entirety of Aethercons existence.
 
MC: Just from my perspective, it’s going to be the gaming – we’ve got several different types of virtual tabletops available, and tons of different systems being run.

RW: I’m very pleased that D3 Adventures is helping keep the torch burning for the Hero System with several products and upcoming releases (my good friend Michael Surbrook has written some books for you on this!). Can you tell me about what you love about the Hero System, and what else may be in the works for fellow HERO-philes?

MC: This is more Jason’s wheelhouse, but I’ll admit that the Champions big blue book was one of the first RPGs I bought with my own money and ran for several years. It’s solid stuff, and the HERO folks have done a bang-up job of updating the system. It really is one of the most flexible ones out there.

JY: Oh man, I love Hero System. It can do anything. It allows me the freedom to create the mechanics for whatever I want to represent and remain internally consistent without having to turn to houserules or shoehorn my concept into a rigid architecture. Most other game systems do their game systems well, but break as soon as you want to represent something else. Hero doesn’t do that. It’s a toolkit as they say and it freakin’ rocks. Unfortunately, it isn’t as popular as I would like so releasing more products for it is secondary at this point in time. I released Kamarathin as a 5E Hero System setting, got an award for Best Writing, and released a conversion for 6E for it. Everyone that has picked it up have said good things about it, but even still, it didn’t sell enough to cover the costs of its manufacture. That hurt the pocket book. So right now I’m focusing on releasing system agnostic mini-adventures and I have several Pathfinder product lines in development. One of which, Irshaa, will be kickstarted and one of the goals will be to release a Hero System version as well. I bought the IP for USA-50 and I want to re-release it for M&M3 as well as Hero System with new art and better layout, but that’s going to have to wait until after the release of the Infinite Dungeon, Irshaa and the Campaign Toybox lines. 
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?

MC: Wow, good one! For me, the industry’s shift towards accepting digital products has been a huge thing; it’s really changed the landscape. I’ve primarily worked in digital products, though I’ve got plenty in print as well. Even more, we’re looking at Kickstarter and other crowdfunding as viable methods to bring games that otherwise would never see the light of day to the gaming folks. That’s utterly changed the landscape in a good way, despite the bumps in that particular road.

JY: I did not know what the hell I was doing. Pure and simple. I originally got into this to release Kamarathin and focus exclusively on it. Thinking I could just settle into my little fantasy setting and with Hero System and be profitable or at least break even. HA! Man, I cannot even remember the amount of things I didn’t know back then that I should have before I began. Every single month has been a brand new learning experience, some shocking, some incredibly disheartening, but most have been fantastic. For someone with zero experience in the publishing industry it has been one heck of a rollercoaster and our earlier products and present erratic releases are all prime examples of this. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Right now, I’ve got to the point where I need to focus. I’ve tried to do too many things in the name of diversification and it has held us back. I’ve left the world of idealistic system niche’s and will be expanding into the world of the popular market place until I get this company in a financially stable enough place that I can revisit my love of niche systems. 
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

MC: I’d say that creators would be paid what they’re worth, as opposed to what I call ‘app pricing’, which for my money has seriously devalued the work being put out there.

JY: Hm, if you had asked me this a few years ago, I would have said takedown the big corporations and keep it a craftsman industry. But after seeing the rise of Paizo and the consistently quality work they release (despite my misgivings about the D20/3.x systems) and the new iteration of D&D Next; I have to say, that maybe the industry is actually listening to its fans again and that is a good thing. Will wait and see if this trend continues, and I really hope it does. 

RW: What does the future hold for you guys? For D3 Adventures, Aethercon, or your own personal gaming projects?

MC: Well, we’ve got the Infinite Dungeon coming up, and that’s going to be a hell of a thing. We’ll continue putting out our top-selling Tangents line of systemless adventures, too. Aethercon’s always improving things, working toward a better experience so we can grow the convention as a whole, too.

For me personally, I’ll contiue writing for RPGs – I’ve got a horror setting coming up called Stalking the Nightmare, for FATE. I’m also working on a series of short stories that the setting springs from. It’s a good time to be writing for me. 

JY: Professionally I’m focusing focusing D3 Adventures on five product lines; Irshaanic Confluence, Infinite Dungeon, Tangents, Spectral Earth and Campaign Toybox. Keeping the priority on Pathfinder and Mutants & Masterminds 3E as well as systemless releases. I’m keeping Hero System possibilities in the background as finances allow. For Aethercon, I’m focusing on my minor role as prize monkey and making sure those that participate receive their just desserts. Personally, I’m trying to get into face-2-face gaming more. I currently have three play-by-post campaigns and one face-to-face game (every 3 weeks or so) that are all using my bastard creation of Rolemaster, Pathfinder and Houserules that I call Jasonmaster…because, well, I’m humble. But it’s a fun exercise in refining, massaging and creating game rules, a practice I had stopped once I got back into Hero System. I have ideas for a game system in my notes that I touch upon every now and then and may, in the far distant future release. 

RW: Can you tell me more about the Infinite Dungeon?

MC: The Infinite Dungeon started as a cocktail napkin idea over some Chinese at a local restaurant. From there, the idea continued to develop – we came up with the concept of the Cursed Isle, the dungeon there that went on forever, and the surrounding environs, all in one feverish afternoon.

From there, we dug into the history – how the Isle and Dungeon came to be, the history of the Wardens that sent adventurers to explore both, and then Ross Isaacs stepped in as line developer to bring it all together. Ross, by the way, is awesome, and really helped us achieve a voice for the project.

With Ross on board, we had solid direction, and that brought some major talent to the fore – Chris Harris wrote some incredible stuff with ruins and worked on our monsters; Alyssa Faden developed some outstanding, stunning cartography and provided us with a creepy plot twist for the nature of the Dungeon; Jennifer Baughman, who worked on 7th Sea for AEG, wrote up Valek’s Landing, which is the first village that adventurers on the Isle go to…and sometimes never escape from. I wrote a lot on the history of the Wardens and the ecology of the Cursed Isle, which was tons of fun.

It’s a hell of a project – the first book in the Infinite Dungeon line covers the huge outdoor dungeon that’s part of the Cursed Isle. Tons of NPCs, plot hooks, weird, horrific stuff going on; you could play out an entire game just on the island alone. With Book 2, players and GMs will see the first of the underground levels of the Dungeon…and it’s nothing that’s been seen before as far as I can tell. It’s the Dungeon as not just an ecosystem, but a living, changing thing; what the players do will affect how the whole thing plays out.

Interview Time: Richard Lee Byers


Greetings, Readers!
This week I’ve got an interview with Richard Lee Byers, a fantasy novelist and gamer. Richard’s got a large body of published work, including several books set in the world of popular D&D setting, the Forgotten Realms.
Richard Lee Byers. Writer. Fencer. Secret Agent.
Richard’s list of novels is pretty impressive: my personal favorites are The Shattered Mask, the Haunted Lands Trilogy, and the Enemy Within–but my all-time favorite of his has to be the Scarred Lands Trilogy. He’s written novels for several RPG universes, including Vampire: the Masquerade, Pathfinder, the Scarred Lands, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. He’s recently written some comic book material as well.

Thanks to the success of its kickstarter, Richard has also agreed to write a novella set in my very own dark fantasy RPG setting, Accursed! In addition, Richard is an award-winning fencer and poker enthusiast in his spare time.

I’m very glad to have Richard on the blog today because I think that compelling game fiction can be a big driving factor in the success of an RPG setting beyond just the core books, sourcebooks, and adventures.

As usual, my questions are in red text.

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a novelist?

RLB: As a gamer, I’ve been playing RPG’s since D&D was three beige pamphlets in a white cardboard box (plus that copy of Chainmail I had for the sake of completeness even though my group never got around to running army vs. army battles.) Over the years, I’ve played every edition of D&D,Pathfinder, Champions, DC Heroes, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, GURPS, and no doubt others I’m forgetting. Currently, my friends and I play Pathfinderabout once a month; unfortunately, that’s about as often as we can manage to get together. I’ve also played various card and board games over the years and am a recovering Magic: the Gathering and Heroclixplayer/collector. Recently my friends and I have been playing Hex Hex, Castle Panic, High Noon Saloon, En Garde, and Elder Sign.
 
As a novelist, I’ve done around forty horror and fantasy novels, some set in worlds that are all my own, others based in franchises like the Forgotten Realms, Golarion, the original World of Darkness, and the Marvel Universe. I’m possibly best known for my Realms novels. My recent works include Blind God’s Bluff: A Billy Fox Novel, which is the first in a projected urban fantasy series, and The Impostor #2: The Blood Machine, the new installment in the post-apocalyptic superhero series that is my grand experiment in self-publishing.
RW: How did you get your start writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: I started my professional writing career in the ‘80’s as a horror author. Then the horror market crashed, and I needed to find something else to do. I had noticed the existence of RPG-based fiction, and since I was already playing the games, I was pretty sure I could write it. I queried Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf, and editors at each company gave me the chance to submit a short story to an anthology. They liked what I turned in, and the relationships evolved from there until they were offering me the chance to do novels.
RW: I see that you’re interested in fencing and playing poker – do these hobbies help inform your writing?
RLB: I write a lot about swordplay and other forms of close combat, and what I’ve learned fencing helps with those scenes. Even though modern sport fencing is stylized and, well, sportsmanlike, there’s still quite a bit you can bring across, both in terms of specific sword moves and more general concepts of blocking, distance, trickery, etc.
First in the fantastic trilogy!
Overall, poker hasn’t come into my fiction nearly as much. Blind God’s Bluff, however, is about supernatural creatures competing in a No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament, so naturally, it’s full of poker.
RW: What is something great about writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: If it’s a good RPG world, it has a fascinating mythology that’s fun to play with.
RW: What is something not-so-great about writing novels set in RPG worlds?
RLB: It’s been my experience that most of these books earn money, but they rarely do so spectacularly well that they’ll make the author into a big name. This particular form of fiction doesn’t seem to launch a Salvatore, Hickman, or Weiss very often.
RW: What are your favorite things about writing superhero fiction?
RLB: I like the anything-goes nature of superhero universes that allows the writer to do throw in whatever he likes, including superpowers and super science that make a mockery of real-world science and even the overtly supernatural.
RW: What do you see as the most significant differences between writing fiction and writing for comic books?
RLB: I’ve written a total of one count it one graphic novel so far, so no one should take my opinion as especially authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I think that while it’s a good idea to be precise and economical with one’s words when writing prose fiction, it’s essential in comics. It’s pointless, clumsy writing to say anything with words that the art can present visually, and in any case, you can’t use so many words that caption boxes and dialogue balloons are going to cover up the art.
RW: How has your perception of writing for RPG worlds changed over the last 15 years?
RLB: I suppose my perception has changed in the sense that I’m more aware of how things can alter over time with various IP’s. I’ve been around when the decision makers wanted to use the novels to make major changes in the setting and when they wanted the novels to tell smaller stories that absolutely didn’t change it. I’ve been around when the game developers and fiction writers communicated well and when communication was nonexistent. I’ve been there when the in-house people were eager to bring in freelancers whose work they respected and when the staffers thought, hell, why should we pay outsiders to write this fiction when I can write it myself on my lunch hour and pocket the extra cash? (My disgruntled interpretation, there, obviously.) To some degree, it all runs in cycles at almost every company.

RW: What’s your opinion on the ascension of the ebook format?

RLB: The triumph of the eBook is inevitable. EBooks simply have too many advantages over the paper-and-ink variety. I know some people love traditional books. I do myself. But let’s face it, all those guys are going to die, and kids who think it’s the most natural thing in the world to get their prose entertainment off a phone or a tablet will inherit the earth.
RW: How would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of novels you wrote?
RLB: The only way I know to answer that is to say that I write better now. I’m a better craftsman (or at least after forty books, I hope so!)
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the book industry from the viewpoint of a writer? What about from the viewpoint of an editor or publisher?
RLB: Truly professional writers turn in the best work they’re capable of, work that also meets the needs of the publisher as defined in a contract or submission guidelines, on time.
 
Truly professional editors and publishers respond to queries, outlines, and drafts in a timely manner and deliver on their commitments, both express and implied, to writers. Among other things, this means they pay on time based on an honest royalty accounting and that they don’t have writers invest work and time on a project and then send it forth into the marketplace with a lack of support that makes success unlikely.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be? What about the book industry?
RLB: This is totally self-serving, but if I could change the RPG industry, every game with a substantial following would have an associated fiction line with effective marketing support.
If I could change one thing about the book industry, I would reverse the tendency to dump the midlist writer whose books turn a profit but fall short of bestseller status.
RW: What do you feel is the best way for a fantasy/sci-fi novelist to engage with customers and fans?
RLB: That’s the question we all ask ourselves, isn’t it? How should we market our work in this rapidly changing marketplace in the electronic age? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t, so I do several things. I attend conventions, I’m active in social media, and I guest on podcasts and do interviews like this.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
RLB: Judging from the communications I receive from readers, it’s my contributions to the Forgotten Realms.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as a writer?
RLB: My greatest setback is every time a publisher has stopped wanting my work. The first time was when Zebra Books fired my editor and stopped publishing horror, and for various reasons, it’s happened a few times since. You’d think I’d have learned to be philosophical about it by now, but in the moment, it always feels like a mortal blow to my career.
 
RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?
RLB: I love talking to people who’ve read and enjoyed my work whether I’m speaking on a panel, doing a signing, chatting with someone who approached me in the dealer’s room, or whatever.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a… ?
RLB: Probably a wizard, at least if I wanted to survive. Ideally, I’d be a swashbuckling swordsman, but the reality is that despite all the years I’ve spent fencing, I’m smarter than I am athletic.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG? What about your favorite fantasy novel (that you did not write)?
RLB: My favorite RPG is still original D&D. Well, maybe with the Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Deities and Demigods supplements added in. RPG’s have become more sophisticated since then, but I’ve never had more fun with one than I had with my original gaming group way back when.
My favorite fantasy novel is The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
RLB: Right this second as I’m writing this, I could really get into a rousing session of DC Heroes.

Tracon Afterparty Report: Finnish Sauna!


Greetings, readers! Back in my report on the Finnish convention Tracon, I mentioned that I planned a followup about the Sauna experience. Well, here it is!

There’s really not much I can add to discussing what Sauna is like to Vincent Baker’s excellent post on the subject, but I’ll do my best.
As Tracon started wrapping up on Sunday, I remember seeing both Eevi Korhonen (My “handler” assigned by Tracon for the guest of honor) and Outi Sippo-Purma (the head coordinator of Tracon) discussing the afterparty and both asking me if I was definitely going to Sauna.
One thing I mentioned in my Tracon Report is that I had made a commitment in my heart to do everything Finnish I could! So what I said was, “Of course I am going to Sauna!”
This seemed to make everyone quite happy, but there were a couple of folks at Tracon who did a doule-take. One of these was Pekka Wallendahl, who leaned in and said “You know this isn’t like a sauna in the US, right?”
It turns out that, no, I hadn’t really been aware of that. You see, in Finland, there’s a tradition (generally an older tradition) that the Sauna is a very sacred place where folk of both genders mix freely in a sweaty, naked, cleansing experience. The Tracon after-party was going to follow in that tradition.
There was a moment where my brain balked. Me? Naked? In front of other people, let alone women? It took me a second to adjust. Then, my brain re-engaged with a reminder of my decision—“I’m in.” I said.
After the convention closed down, we all went to dinner – and once again, I had several people look at me with that raised eyebrow and ask, “Are you going to Sauna?” It didn’t take long after dinner to get us all into a van and headed out towards the Sauna. It was in a pretty remote location from Tampere, on the shores of a lake tucked in behind a very picturesque forest. The party was already underway when we arrived, with sausages getting grilled out back, plenty of beer in the fridge, and people getting into the sauna in groups.
Outi took me aside. “You really need to read Vincent Baker’s post about this.” She told me. Pekka was grinning and already had the blog up on his ipad for me to read. I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I sat down for a bit and checked out Vincent’s words (and awesome graphs!) about Sauna.
“This is something I have got to try.” I said out loud, and I put my words into action.
I kept my glasses on, not for any prurient reason, but because I need them to see where I’m going. In the Sauna, you got slippery spots, stairs, super hot rocks, all kinds of hazards for people who can’t see – so I kept my specs!
Showering with other folks was a bit weird, I won’t lie. But I didn’t let it bother me. I remembered Vincent Baker’s words—“Shared Humanity.” That’s what I was feeling. I wore a towel into the Sauna (and this, I discovered, is totally fine).
And it was great.
Sauna was exceptionally cleansing. It was almost spiritual. The Finns were all very welcoming, and everybody spoke English while I was in the Sauna to make me feel more comfortable. Nobody was ashamed of their body and there was no discussion or even notice taken that people were naked together. It just was, well… shared humanity.
And then there was jumping in the lake afterwards. Wow! I don’t think my words will do justice to the sensation, but it was absolutely stunning. The lake water was cold, shockingly cold at first, but the water buoyed me up and I found myself swimming in a lake of stars, reflecting nothing but the night sky.
I went back in once more to do the whole thing again, and I would never have traded that experience for anything in the world. Finnish Sauna, especially Tracon after-party Sauna, was wonderful. If anyone reading this ever gets a chance to try it out, my recommendation is to simply surrender all your preconceptions, prejudices, anxieties, and worries. Just try it. You won’t regret it!

Interview Time: Bill Keyes


Today’s post on Rogue Warden is another interview with a veteran game designer: Bill Keyes.
I’m excited about this interview because Bill is not only a fellow member of the gaming industry, he’s also a good friend and a fellow gamer par excellence. He and his wife Tammy have been running games at Genghis Con in Aurora, Colorado (organized by the Denver Gamers Association) for several years now, and they are not only great people—they are great gamers too!
Bill (and the Bunny) sporting his dapper
steampunk Red Lantern cosplay.
Bill has worked as the Art Director for Hero Games for a number of years, and he’s also done quite a bit of graphic design and layout for numerous projects for Blackwyrm Publishing. In 2011, Bill also published his own game setting, a steampunk world of high adventure called The Widening Gyre.
Bill represents a gamer who lived his dream—he joined an RPG company as a professional and published his own creation. His story is one that hundreds of fellow gamers all want for themselves.  I wanted to feature Bill’s interview not just because he’s a friend, but also because his story is interesting—Bill’s just at the start of his gaming career, and doing it outside of the major game studios in the RPG industry.
As always, my questions are in red text.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
BK: I’ve been a gamer for better than 30 years. I started with the original hardback AD&D books (which I still have, and will proudly show them off to anyone foolish enough to ask!) way back in 1980. We were just kids and we had no idea how to play, really. We just sort of rolled dice and made things up (so not much has changed between now and then!). I discovered the Champions Superhero RPG not too long after that, and I’ve been running various heroic adventures ever since. People keep coming back to play, so I guess I must be doing something right.
As a game industry professional, I’m primarily an Art Director and Layout Artist. My background is in technical writing – basically writing software and medical equipment manuals, which is a very different skill-set than RPG book layout. But somehow I’ve made the RPG thing work. I’ve also written one (well, two, but that’s another story) RPG setting book that’s been published (The Widening Gyre, a steampunk worldbook for the HERO System from Blackwyrm Publishing), and in my spare time I’m working on a couple of others.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Bill is the one who made me a believer in the power of Lucha.
BK: I have two stories here. As a writer, I heard about a small HERO System licensee who was looking for someone to write a steampunk book for their superhero setting. I submitted a proposal which they liked, and I got to writing. The book was eventually released in PDF format, and sold probably 20 or 30 copies, tops. But those few people who bought it really liked it and said I should write more. So I am.
As an Art Director, it starts with a sad story. The AD for HERO, Andy Matthews, passed away very suddenly, and the company had to scramble to find someone to finish the books they had in the pipeline. I’d never done layout for game books before, but I’d been a Technical Writer for the better part of a decade and I’d done more than my share of layout for other industries. So I put in my application. I’ve known the HERO guys for years and they trusted me, so they gave me a book called Lucha Libre HERO to put together. I had a lot of fun on it, and have been working on similar projects ever since.

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
BK: Um… everything? Seriously, this is sort of a dream come true for an RPG nerd like me. I’ve always wanted to write books, and more than that, to have people play in the game worlds I’ve created. I’m such a fanboy.
Oh, I know! It’s neat to stand next one of the people whose work you admire – a Jeff Combos, or a Steve Long, or an Aaron Alston, or a Ken Hite – and be able to say, “I’m one of you guys.” Of course, I’m like a 1st level adventurer standing next to a bunch of epic-level guys. But still, it’s cool to be part of that club.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
BK: Quite frankly, the money. I know a number of people who make a living doing this, and I’m sure there are probably a couple of folks out there who got rich in the industry, but for the most part (in my experience) there’s just not a lot of money out there. Or maybe I just have expensive tastes, I don’t know. But if you’re thinking of quitting your day job and doing this full-time… well, let me know how you do it.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
BK: I’ve only been working professionally in the industry for about 5 years, so I can’t honestly say what it was like pre-2008. I still feel like I’m on the upslope of the learning curve about the industry, so everything that I find out is something new to me.
RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?
BK: One thing I do now that I never thought to do when I was first starting is to get as much groundwork done as you can before the project actually starts. When I’m doing layout, I work on designing my templates, choosing my fonts, and creating a watermark well before the finished manuscript even makes it to my desk. I ping my favorite artists to see if they’re available and interested. I will usually throw together a 5-page demo of what I think the book should look like so I can send that back to the writer and the publisher and get their approval. There’s nothing worse than having a finished manuscript and a hard deadline and not having any idea what the finished book is going to look like. I like to have all my ducks in a row, because I hate wasting time at the beginning of a project and then rushing to get everything finished at the end.
Same thing when I’m writing. I put together an outline, which is basically a list of all the things I want to write about. That way, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going before I even start. Sometimes things change halfway through, and I come up with a new direction to go in or decide that an idea I had is not really panning out, but it’s good to create a roadmap before you set off.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
BK: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. That’s what professionalism boils down to. If you tell someone you’ll return their phone call right away, do it. If you promise to get your project done by the end of April, you had better have it ready by the end of April. If there are extenuating circumstances that are going to prevent you from finishing on time, let everyone else know as soon as you know.
I’d much rather have someone I’m working with tell me up front, “I don’t think I can finish the project on this deadline,” rather than have them come to me after the deadline has passed with an apology. The first might disappoint me; the second can derail a whole project.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
BK: I don’t know if I can answer this question. I still feel pretty new to the industry, so I’m not even sure what’s “normal,” much less what should be changed. Is that a cop-out answer?
RW: What do you feel is the best way for a game industry professional to engage with customers and fans?
BK: Even with the tools we have today (by which I mean the internet), I think there’s really no better way to meet people and show them what you’ve done and will be doing in the future than by meeting them face-to-face, and ideally, by gaming with them. That’s one of the many reasons I love to run adventures at cons. “This is the world I built/the game I’m creating/the system I’m working with” is a powerful thing to say. Gamers love to feel as though they’re part of the creation process, so play-test something with them!
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Bill’s exciting steampunk adventure setting!
BK: Again, I have two answers for this. As an Art Director, my greatest and favorite book is Lucha Libre Hero. It’s just so full of weird peyote-fueled nonsense that I can’t help but love it. I remember emailing my artists and telling them, “OK, I need a picture of a giant hourglass with the wrestlers trapped in the bottom, and a giant scorpion, and a line of can-can dancers, and a rocket ship about to blast off*. Can you do that?” And the artists would respond, “What did you just say???” And then a week later they would turn in some absolutely fantastic pieces of artwork.
But by far my proudest moment was when my first book got published. When my copy arrived in the mail, I just stood there and stared at it for about 10 minutes. I feel like such a geek saying that; does that happen with everyone when their first book comes out? Does it change when you get more books published? Like, by the time the tenth book comes out, do you just shrug and toss it in the pile with the others?
*This is actually in the book. I’m not kidding!
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
BK: I don’t know if this counts as a setback, but it was definitely a Charlie-Foxtrot. I was the AD for the 6th Edition HERO System Bestiary. It was a huge book, with a new piece of art on nearly every page. It was also a very dense book, and I was trying to cram the artwork in any place it would fit. On top of that, I was working against a very hard deadline, as I had a European vacation planned and wasn’t going to have access to anything for 2 weeks. I rushed the job and screwed up. I put art in that was the wrong resolution, I reversed a few pieces, I even used some archived art that we no longer had the rights to.
I have no one to blame but myself. I cut corners and I messed it up. Thankfully, HERO’s senior AD Fred Hicks was available to fix my mistakes and the book got released on time. And luckily for me, the guys at HERO were gracious and forgiving, and they’re still giving me work.
RW: How do you feel about representation of awards and recognition for quality in the gaming industry?
BK: You and I had a discussion about this after this year’s ENnie Awards ceremony. I suggested that perhaps the biggest players in the industry should graciously disqualify themselves from future nominations, allowing the smaller companies a better chance to take home an award. You countered that each book is written by an individual, and those individuals deserve recognition for their good work, even if they are working for the biggest publishers. That’s a very good argument, and it’s made me re-think my position.
RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?
BK: I have two different answers to this one, depending on the convention.
At a smaller convention, like Genghis Con in Denver, my favorite thing to do is to run games. I love writing scenarios, creating interesting pre-gen characters, prepping my materials. I love the excitement just before the game starts. I like seeing what direction the players are going to take the game. I sometimes run “encore” games that I ran at previous cons, and it’s always a delight to see how a different group of players is going to deal with the same situations, and how they’re going to do things differently than previous groups. And I love talking about the game afterwards with my players, to see what was good, what could’ve been better, and what memories we created together.
At big conventions, like Denver Comic Con or Gencon, my favorite part is actually the people-watching. I’m not usually what you’d call an extrovert, but I love meeting people at these conventions, talking with them, learning which aspects of nerd-dom are their favorites. Are they gamers? Comic book fans? Film geeks? I’ve gotten to talking with people at conventions, and within 10 minutes it’s like we’ve known each other for years. I feel like I’m among my people.
RW: Tell us about the bunny! Roughly how many pictures has he starred in to date?
One of the Bunny’s many admirers.
BK: The Bunny! I got the bunny years ago when I was on a business trip. There was a table in the airport to let people sign up for a credit card. I did, and they told me I could take any of the free gifts from their table. Most of the gifts were crap, so I grabbed a little stuffed white rabbit. So I’m walking around the Denver airport with this bunny in my hand, wondering what I should do with him. If you’ve ever been through the Denver airport, you know that there are a lot of really weird art displays. So I started putting him up next to the art displays and taking his picture.
Now, whenever I travel I take the bunny (whose name is Jack, or J.J. for short) and take his picture everywhere I go. He’s been as far away as Ireland (I even have a pic of him kissing the Blarney Stone). When I go to conventions, J.J. gets his picture taken with cosplayers and celebrities. I have no idea how many pictures J.J. is in. I got about 400 shots of him at Gencon 2013, and that was with me working most of the time and not taking very many pictures. So it’s easily in the thousands.
Folks can check out the bunny’s photos on his Facebook page: Travels With Teh Bunneh.

RW: What is your favorite genre of gaming – superheroic, fantasy, cyberpunk, etc.? And why?
BK: My first love has always been high fantasy gaming. I got my start in AD&D, and while I love to dabble in other genres I’ll always go back to a good fantasy game.
RW: If you were a post-apocalyptic survivor, you’d be a…?
BK: I’d be the despicable and vicious leader of a punk-rock biker gang, prowling the wastelands. We’d be like post-apocalyptic Vikings, pillaging, looting, and burning everything still standing, until a heroic loner with a penchant for violence and a soft spot for women, kids, and animals finally puts a permanent end to our depredations.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
BK: Tough question! There’s so many that I love. I’ve never really been a “One System To Rule Them All” kind of guy, so I’ve played all sorts of games and systems. You and I have argued about this one, but I have to give mad props to D&D4. I’ve been kind of getting into Savage Worlds lately, and I’m looking forward to doing more with it. Take it around the block a few times, see what it can do. I’m playing in a Rogue Trader campaign right now, which is all kinds of crazy fun. d6 Star Wars. Hollow Earth Expeditions. And of course, HERO will always be my true love.
Now, ask me about games I don’t like. No, on second thought it’s probably better not to. I don’t want to piss off anyone, much less everyone. 😉
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
BK: Whatever you want to run, man. If you’re the game master, I’m in!
(Editor’s note: Aw man… thanks Bill!)

Champions System Review, Part 1


Greetings readers!
Yeah. The Hero System will use ALL of your D6’s.
Today’s blog post is going to be the first in a series of blogs about the Champions game system. It should be no surprise to longtime readers that this is one of my favorite and cherished RPG systems. This is just one reason why there’s going to be more than one blog post about it—another, of course, being that there are six editions of the game to talk about, with tons of supplements and over 30 years of gaming history as well.

My history with Champions

I started playing Champions in 1989 with the Big Blue Book (AKA Champions 4th Edition) and I’ve been a huge fan of the system (and the game as a whole) ever since. During my time as a Champions player, I’ve been blessed to be part of gaming groups that include various creators and luminaries of the Hero System, including Michael Surbrook, Scott Jamison, and Dave Mattingly.
I never ended up writing directly for Hero Games, but I have done quite a bit of writing about Champions through various APAzines like Digital Hero (and I’ll talk about those as well in a future blog post). I have two amazingly successful RPG campaigns that I ran using Champions (Shadows Angelus and Shadows Angelus II) and tons of other games (like Vendetta Rhapsody) that I have wonderful memories of from the past two and a half decades.
It’s not just myself who is a huge fan of Champions. Some other people you may have heard of include best-selling novelist Michael Stackpole, whose character “Revenant” was first created for Champions, and comic book artist and entrepeneur Ben Dunn, who not only illustrated some covers for Champions in 4th edition, but he also began his character “Tomorrow Man” from his Champions RPG experiences.
Today’s post is going to focus on an overview of Champions and a brief look at the first three editions. Most of my gaming history with the system is in the last three editions, so I’ll most likely focus on each of those editions in turn in future posts.

Champions Overview

Champions is another name for the Hero System, an RPG that is universal in that it can be used for nearly any genre. The system’s most prominent feature is that characters are built using a series of points and abilities are thoroughly defined by the adaptable ruleset.
Champions started out in 1981 and has been through six editions up to the current date. The game’s been around for over 30 years at this point, which is quite an achievement, and it has built up quite a bit of interesting history along the way. My friend Allen Varney has written an excellent history of the Hero System you can find here, so I’ll instead be focusing on my own experiences and opinions of it.
One of the few things I can add to Allen’s history is some saddening recent developments. In 2011, Hero Games sharply reduced itself down to only a handful of staff. The Hero System at large is supported by irregular releases primarily funded through kickstarter, and, for all intents and purposes, essentially exists now only as a legacy property. Hero did not have a booth at Gen Con in 2012 or 2013, further cementing the sad fact that the company and the game itself are mere shadows of what they once were.
Some third-party companies such as Dave Mattingly’s Blackwyrm Publishing and D3 Adventures keep the torch burning for Champions and continue to produce content for the Hero System.

The First Three Editions

The grand-daddy!
As I mentioned above, I won’t have too much to say here, since I really only started playing Champions in 4th edition on forward. However, I do own several products from these eras, so I’m going to give my thoughts.

1st Edition

Not much for me to say here except that I own it, and it was the first. Next!

2nd Edition

Although I never played games with this edition, I have some of the products from it. Some of the most notable supplements include one that I’ve talked about in my Superhero RPG Oddballs blog post: Autoduel Champions.
Another standout from this edition is the Circle & METE,one of famed creator Aaron Allston’s first Champions books.

3rd Edition

This edition of Champions is where I think most people started to really sit up and take notice of the game. There are quite a few memorable supplements and sourcebooks for this edition, and I’ll just list a few:

The one and only. Any superhero RPG fan should own a copy.
  • Danger International
  • Justice Inc. (with Michael Stackpole!)
  • Robot Warriors
  • Super Agents
  • The Blood and Dr. McQuark

There are two more special products for this edition of Champions that each deserve a note.
The first is Strike Force, a campaign book featuring Aaron Allston’s universe (and home campaign setting). Allston’s work on Strike Force has some truly impressive resonance down through the RPG environment, particularly in its use of inventive storytelling away from the gaming table (coining the term “blue-booking,”) his identification of player motivations, and much more. I’m very proud to have this product on my shelf.
The second is an adventure titled Wings of the Valkyrie. The premise of this adventure is that the heroes are being sent back in time in order to save Hitler from assassination during WWII. The adventure posits that killing Hitler actually makes the Nazi’s win WWII, and thus, Hitler must survive in order for the war to end with an Allied victory. This adventure was so controversial that it was actually recalled by the publisher.
 

Featured Creators

For the first three editions, here are the people who I think were the most influential as creators.

The Game Designers

Obviously the designers of the game itself deserve recognition: George MacDonald, Ray Greer, Steve Peterson, and Bruce Harlick. I’ve actually gotten a chance to meet Steve and Bruce in person, which is quite an honor!

Aaron Allston

Aaron’s contributions to Champions are many over the game’s thirty-year history. Strike Force on its own would give Aaron a nod here, but he’s also written some great books about his campaign and its characters for 2ndand 3rd edition Champions. For example, the Blood in The Blood and Dr. McQuirk are a fascinating group. Aaron has written a ton of additional Champions books in other editions, and I’ll just briefly mention a few here: Ninja Hero for 4th edition is a tour de force, and the 5thand 6th edition of the Champions genre books benefit greatly from his influence. Just take a look at his list of game credits!

What I love About Champions

It’s fair to say that I do absolutely love Champions and the Hero System. I hold it sacred amongst the many, many games that I own. Here are some reasons why I feel that way:
Depth: The system for Champions offers incredible depth—it is a game where designing a character and how his abilities work is a mini-game all its own. You win that mini-game by accurately modeling a tricky power set or building a character in a new or original fashion. I’ve written thousands of words just exploring the possibilities inherent in just one power or character concept.
Character Building: Champions is probably the first game I think of when I find a character I like from books or film and wonder “what would he be like in an RPG?” The Hero System allows you to build exactly the character you want, which is a huge strength for people who like that approach.
A Tinkerer’s Dream: Champions is really where I feel I started my journey as a game designer, because the Hero System is set up to allow—nay, encourage—tinkering. Designing your character’s abilities, reasoning from effects, and separating the mechanic from the flavor are all pieces of the game design puzzle that I first began truly understanding while playing Champions.
Any Genre: The Hero System is very strong as a universal system in that you can use it for fantasy, espionage, sci-fi, and any flavor of superhero RPG action.

Some Things I Don’t Love About Champions

While I do love the Hero System, I am not blind to its flaws. Here’s a small selection of the issues that plague this game:
Points Limits and Concept Compromises: The Hero System builds everything about a character via “character points.” This is linked with a limited number of total points that generally only apply to player characters. The intent of the limit is to present different ways to play the game. For example, if you want to play a game where the characters are all street-level crimefighters, it makes sense that they would be built using fewer points than a Justice League-style group of interplanetary superheroes. However, in practice, there are some concepts that simply require more points to work than others. For example, making a typical “super strong/super tough” guy in Champions is easy, even with a strictly limited number of points. Making a character who channels the power of a nation’s zeitgeist is not. Often, what this means is that some character concepts become compromised right from the start, forcing characters to feel “halfway there” for most of their campaign’s career.
Some Powers Don’t Scale: A companion issue to the concepts and point limits mentioned above is that some powers and abilities simply do not scale with varying levels of the game. The power of Mind Control, for example, is tied to a set number for achieving effects that simply require a certain number of points to even make possible. Building a character capable of mind control that you see in the comic books is simply not possible at lower points limits, and even when the points limits get high enough to allow the right number of dice, character’s defenses usually outpace the power’s effects anyway. Similarly, some abilities and powers don’t cross over well from comic books. A notorious example is that of the X-men character Rogue. While her powers are simple to explain, attempting to define them in the Hero System means that either Rogue has a points limit vastly higher than everyone else in her own team or that she takes numerous discussions with the GM to even begin to approach her potential.
Complex and Intimidating to New Players: The Hero System is not at all a casual RPG for beginners. It is a complex game that has a long and involved process for creating characters. The sheer size of the rulebook can be quite intimidating to new players, although in the first three editions, this was much less of an issue. There is also often a larger burden on the GM for the Hero System if he wants to build enemies, gear, or anything else not already covered in the book. Later editions of Champions did a good job of furnishing the GM with copious examples and resources to smooth this out, however.

In Conclusion

I’m just beginning to get into Champions, so stay tuned for further posts as we get more into the Hero System and more editions of Champions!

Ennies 2013: A Rogue Warden’s Critique


Greetings, readers!
Today’s subject is going to be another controversial one (and is bound to ruffle some feathers!), because it involves the Ennie awards program for 2013. In a previous blog post, I covered different awards for the tabletop RPG industry, including the Ennies. And at that time, I considered the Ennies to be a good—perhaps not perfect, but good—representation of industry awards. However, this year’s setup of the Ennies has definitely changed my opinion, unfortunately, not for the better.
Thank you, Mr. Jay Sherman.

To paraphrase Fight Club: I am Jack’s crushing disappointment.

Full disclosure & Counterpoint

Before I get into the meat of this discussion, I first need to address some relevant issues. Anytime you invoke serious criticism of an awards program, there are going to be questions about the critic. In this case, there are two main things I need to talk about in the interests of full disclosure: First, I had a nominee in a category this year—this blog, in fact, was a nominee for the Best Gaming Blog category. Second, a product I am going to talk about later is the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner box. While I have no direct connection to this product, I worked on the main core book for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and I worked full-time for Fantasy Flight Games (the product’s publisher) for three years.
Here’s me in 2009 with awards for Creatures Anathema,
Disciples of the Dark Gods, and Dark Heresy
As a counterpoint, I want to make sure and note before we get any further that my criticism of this year’s Ennies has absolutely nothing to do with the winners. I have no issues with why any particular product won in any particular category. My concerns for this year’s program are purely focused around the nominees (some of which, of course, went on to becomewinners), the Ennies ceremony, and the judging process itself.
The next counterpoint I want to make clear here is that I have no personal dislike for any of the products I’m going to mention—they’re all quality products. There are some choices made about those products that I am raising questions about, but the products themselves are not at all under fire.
Hopefully getting these points across early in this post will help us keep the discussion centered around the issues rather than doubling back onto the critic (in this case, me!).

Nominations

Let’s dive into the nominations for this year’s Ennies. The nomination list is no longer available from the Ennies site, but you can find a list online. From this year’s list, there were two nominations that I feel are highly questionable.
Let’s look at one of the nominees for Best Production Values:
If you click on the link for this product, you’ll see what it’s all about with regards to production values. It’s got a nice, solid look. Character sheets, box art, it all looks like it was aimed at an old school product from the 80’s and it doesn’t strike too far off the mark.

However, if you take a look at the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box, you’ll clearly see that these two products are simply night and day in comparison. The Beginner Box’s artwork, graphic design, dice, character sheets, layout, and trade dress are all (In my opinion) clearly superior. While I have nothing against the Hyperborea boxed set (and in fact would love to own a copy), I can’t help but notice that having this product nominated for production values while the category ignores the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box makes no sense at all. (see the Judging section below for some more thoughts on this)

Let’s hope that the judges for next year carefully consider ALL the products submitted for the Best Production Values category so that it truly reflects the best the industry has to offer.
Another nominee I’d like to talk about is for the Best RPG Related Product category:
This is definitely a beautiful book. It is a product of the literary juggernaut that is Random House, and being a Game of Thrones fan myself, it is something I’d enjoy having on my shelf.
With all of that said, however, I’m puzzled as to how this is an RPG Related Product in any way. It’s not a game, nor does it reference any of the Game of Thrones games (Guardians of Order or Green Ronin versions). (Editor’s note: I suppose you could make the argument that George R. R. Martin plays RPGs, which he does, but… still seems very reaching to me) I’m also very uncomfortable with the idea of opening up this category to products from companies like Random House, who have resources orders of magnitude higher than other companies in the same category. It’s like letting a silverback gorilla take part in a weightlifting competition.
Just how far afield can “RPG Related” wander from the RPGs themselves? If a Random House collection of maps for a novel series that has been made into RPGs counts… why not a video game like the Dragon Age console series? (At least there would be a fairly direct link to RPGs there, and they would at least be games…) Why not movies like the Hobbit? (since it is connected to the One Ring).
None of the other entries on the list give me the same pause for concern that the Random House book does. I can only hope that the judges will think twice about this in the future and keep the Ennies focused more strongly on the RPG industry rather than wandering so far astray.

Judging

A former judge named Chris Gath wrote a blog post entitled “Ennies Expose” about this year’s judging. Chris was a former judge for the Ennies previous to 2009, and has often posted at RPG.net under the handle “Crothian.”
Chris claims in his post that the judges failed to discuss the nominations in real-time (according to Chris, this is normally done through skype). In this blog post, it is further alleged that one of the judges for 2013’s nominations refused to consider the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box for any category due to a dislike of its unusual dice mechanics.
I highly encourage you to check out the blog post and the comments section below, where other former judges (such as Jody Kline) weigh in with opinions such as “…the fact that you all didn’t convene a live panel to decide on the nominations is disgraceful.” Other posters, including judges from this year’s program, defend the decisions made in their own words.
The debate about this expose was fought primarily through comments attached to blog posts—there hasn’t been any official response from the Ennies themselves. Some other ENnies officials (such as Submissions Coordinator and Publisher Relations guy, Hans Cummings) have publicly claimed that Chris Gath’s expose is completely wrong, and point out that he hasn’t been an Ennies judge for over four years.
I don’t believe there’s much left to say here but to present the two sides of this issue and let you, the reader, make up your own mind.
For me, it seems clear that leaving the Stars Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box out of the Best Production Value category was clearly a huge mistake. Its absence makes me question whether it should have been left out of other categories it was submitted for as well.
Beyond that, my largest concern is in regards to the Judging process, specifically the need for some kind of live skype call to discuss the nominations. I believe that the judges should make every effort to communicate in real time, whether that is through skype or some other interface. I believe that this kind of communication is crucial to the process, and as one poster said, “There are too many nuances that you can’t tell through the written word alone.”

Ceremony

I attended the ceremony for the Ennies this year at Gen Con, as I have every year for the last five years. This year, the ceremony was particularly noteworthy… but not in a good way. Let me explain what I mean.
I only wish the Ennies ceremony could be this cool.
The audience were, in general, not paying a lot of attention to the ceremony itself. People were talking, laughing, and mostly ignoring anything happening up on stage. This was not improved by the presenters—without going too much into detail, I’ll simply say that the presenters were very ineffective at getting the audience to focus, applaud at the right time, or even to sit down when the ceremony was ready to begin or resume after the intermission. The overall management of the ceremony failed to establish the right mood for taking the awards seriously, which stands in stark contrast to (in my opinion) how the ceremony has been run in the past.
The presenters were not simply being ignored – at least one of these presenters was clearly very intoxicated. He staggered on stage, rambled on at the microphone, and slurred his way through a few words about the category. In my opinion, this was very much not appropriate to the Ennies.
There was at least one category where no one at all showed up for the awards, both gold and silver. WOTC was likewise noticeably absent, especially when their joke-y “Imperial March” music is playing for a category they won. If the Ennies has complete absences for both entire categories and some of the largest companies in the industry, I’d have to say that my opinion is that something is very wrong.

Conclusions

Again, the points above are all illustrating my own opinion. I encourage you to check out the program for yourself–YMMV. With that in mind, here’s what I took away from the overall conduct of the 2013 Ennie awards program.
Based on the nominations and the discussions engendered by Chris Gath’s blog post, it seems clear to me that the judging process for nominating products needs some reform, particularly with regards to selecting appropriate products for the appropriate category and with regards to some form of live discussion of the nominations.
Based on what I observed at the ceremony, the Ennies have a serious problem with people simply not taking the awards seriously. Certainly not the audience—they were talking, joking, and far more intent on getting drinks from the bar than on honoring the awards themselves. Not the presenters, either–they showed a distinct lack of “giving a damn” about the ceremony as well. Some of the nominees themselves did the same by failing to even show up. Nothing sabotages the impact of the Ennies by having zero winners come up on stage for an entire category.
It’s fair to say I’m very concerned that there’s even a perception that the judges, the audience, the presenters and the nominees aren’t taking the Ennies seriously. If they won’t, who will? The Ennies should be something that we as gamers and game industry professionals can all be proud of. The Ennies should be, above all, a true measure of quality. To improve the Ennies, I believe we need some changes in the judging of nominations and the operations of the ceremony.
I should add that I am being this critical because I love the Ennies so much – to me, they were the first real RPG industry awards I could believe in, ever since their inception. I believe that the Ennies can be, and should be, the standard by which other industry awards are judged, and I hope that they can reach their true potential. Ultimately, I hope this blog post helps start a conversation that leads to discovering new solutions (one thing I wish this post could offer more of). 
Thank you for taking the time to read this!
If you agree, disagree, or had a completely different view of the Ennies this year, please don’t hesitate to chime in in the comments section below! I’m particularly interested in the thoughts of other folks who attended this year’s ceremony or ceremonies in years past who can compare the experiences.

Interview Time: Shane Lacey Hensley


Greetings readers!

Shane is no stranger to wearing a convention badge!

Today we have a great interview with Shane Lacy Hensley, the head Savage at Pinnacle Entertainment Group and creator of the Savage Worlds RPG system. Shane is also a novelist and has some impressive credits in the Video Game industry as well, from City of Heroes/City of Villains to End of Nations.

Some of Shane’s most recent projects include the amazing Weird Wars Rome setting for Savage Worlds. Possibly one of Shane’s most enduring creations is the Wild West horror RPG known as Deadlands.

Shane is not only a notable luminary of the RPG industry, he’s an extremely nice guy and a dedicated professional. It’s a pleasure and an honor to feature Shane’s interview here on Rogue Warden, and I hope you’ll check out all the interesting answers he provided to my questions!

As usual, my questions are all in red text.

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?

SH: I got started as a freelancer with West End Games, then did work for everyone from White Wolf to TSR to FASA, including a couple of computer games. Later on, I started Pinnacle Entertainment Group where we created a historical miniatures game, a World War II collectible card game, and then the Deadlands and Savage Worlds roleplaying games. I also owned a retail store in Blacksburg, VA, on and off for about ten years…so I’ve done just about everything but distribution.

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

SH: I wrote a Halloween TORG adventure for our group in college. My friends seemed to like it, so I sent it in to West End Games. They pretty much slit their wrists in red ink on it, but I made the changes and Greg Gordon and Scott Palter were kind enough to accept it. From that point on I began working very hard at following the guidelines of the companies I was working for, hitting guidelines, and trying to write engaging, clear text. You can judge for yourself how well I accomplish the latter. 😉

SPQR spells awesome.

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

SH: Wow…that’s a great question. I guess in my heart of hearts I like to create worlds and situations and see how people interact with them. I have many friends in the industry who really just want to be novelists and think this is a stepping stone to that. I like writing novels too (I’ve written three), but I truly do love making game worlds and adventures. And I *do* like hearing about people’s adventures.
For freelancers and mid-tier publishers, it’s also wonderful to work at home. Yes, you will work more hours than you would in an office, most likely, but they’re your hours. If you have the discipline to work at home and not get overly distracted by all the entertainment options we have today, it can be a great life. If you have kids, it’s a challenge to work around then, but it’s also great to be there at home for them far more than most people can.


RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?

SH: The business side of it is a challenge. Pinnacle is lucky to be in a position where we’re very profitable, but it took over a decade and a half to get there.


RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 8 years?

SH: You’re asking questions I’ve never seen before–kudos! I’ll answer for me personally–you probably have a better perspective on what it might be for others. I guess in the beginning it was all about becoming the next TSR or Games Workshop. I had visions of an almost college-like compound where all our people worked. Life would be a mix of hard work and hard play. Seems a little silly now, but when I was 21 years old, that was the dream. When that didn’t happen, I went into computer games for about 10 years. The pay for that kind of work is excellent, but the hours are demanding and I wound up being a manager (Executive Producer) rather than being creative so I found it less fulfilling than running my own company. These days, I work at home it’s all about making sure we stay stable and are able to keep going for years and years to come. I love the freedom it gives me, not only personally but also creatively as we can do any project we want. I don’t have to convince someone to do it besides myself.


RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?

SH: The main thing we do these days is make sure the money is already there to pay everyone and print the project before we start it. Sounds naive to do it any other way, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s when mis-tier publishers like Pinnacle had a staff of 21 people and made a constant stream of setting and “splat” books, it was truly “publish or perish.” That meant you were constantly “floating” money from freelancers to printers to staff. It was very dangerous and caused lots of problems. We abandoned that by about 2005 and became a “cash” company.
I think the modern-day equivalent–since most people aren’t in a “publish or perish” mode anymore–is over-promising on Kickstarters to the point where they actually lose money once all is said and done.
That’s the business side. On the more creative side, I’d say we start with a bit more focus on each project than we used to. Deadlands was a huge sprawling world designed to last for decades–and it has. Something like 50 Fathoms, a newer release from us, is designed to last for a few years and tell a more focused story.
A blast from the past, and a great RPG book.

RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?

SH: I think they’re the same, actually. Timeliness is #2. Yes, I said #2. Number one? Write well, pay attention to the company’s writer’s guidelines or style guide. The vast majority of my time at Pinnacle is spent either asking a freelancer for rewrites or rewriting the text myself. Number three–write something the reader / player will love and remember for the rest of his life. 


RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

SH: We have a great shortage of games designed for kids so our hobby is slowly aging out. George Vasilakos and I tried to do an Adventure Time game but Cartoon Network wanted too much. George has picked up the torch with Adventure Maximus, however (see edenstudios.net) and I hope we’ll see more of that in the future.


RW: What do you feel is the best way for a game industry professional to engage with customers and fans?

SH: All the usual ways are great–forums and Facebook–but you do need to keep a *little* distance sometimes or you’ll wind up arguing / discussing the most inconsequential details with a person who just can’t let it go when you should be focused on a thousand other things that keep your business going. 

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?

SH: Surviving. 😉 

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?

SH: I cosigned on all of Pinnacle’s debts in the early days. In 2004 things got very bad. The OGL was in full swing and we didn’t handle it very well. We dual-statted our books but our fans thought we’d abandoned our own very popular system. We also didn’t do a good job with the d20 products we did make–our hearts just weren’t in it. At one point we were about half a million dollars in debt. So I laid off all the friends I’d hired–which was incredibly painful, of course–dug in to do most everything myself, and dug out of all but the last $144K. That was a Small Business Administration loan and I knew I had to get out from it or Pinnacle would close. I made amazing progress, worked my heart out, and got every individual paid; but this last bit was more than I could handle and still print books. Since I was personally cosigned on the loan, I declared personal bankruptcy. (Pinnacle did not go bankrupt–just me.) That was hard and felt like a personal failure for several years–my family is very big on personal responsibility.
In hindsight and now that I know a lot more than I did then, I’m very proud of how I handled it. But at the time, I was a wreck. I think I hid it pretty well from most, but I developed some serious health problems and it took many years to get back on track. When I did, I vowed to be a “cash” only business with everything paid for up front so I’d never get in that position again.

RW: How do you feel about representation of awards and recognition for quality in the gaming industry?

SH: I have a shelf-full and I appreciate them, but personally I care about the reaction of our fans more than awards. I don’t say that to sound pretentious or ungrateful–but the awards processes are a bit…arcane at best, directed at worst, and seem to change every year, so I don’t pay much attention to them these days.

RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?

SH: The people. I’m fortunate enough to get asked to be a guest at conventions all over the world, and I’m always nervous as I jet out to some strange corner of the earth. But once I get there, inevitably and without exception, I find myself surrounded by guys and gals just like me who love to game. 

RW: What are some things that the video game industry and the roleplaying game industry could learn from each other?

SH: I think games like Minecraft are teaching video games that people like to create–which is something we see in the RPG industry every day. When I see how many different and varied settings are being run with Savage Worlds at a convention like Tacticon–everything from the somewhat silly “Post Apocalyptic Willy Wonka”  to more serious horror games and official setting–it’s very evident how creative gamers are.
Vice-versa is going to be a little boring to most, but RPG companies need to understand the importance of marketing. My numbers are a little out of date now that I don’t do video games for a living anymore, but I think the marketing budgets for Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption, for example, were twice the development budget (they certainly exceeded it). I think we in the RPG industry think once we’ve finally put something out that it’s a matter of posting it on Facebook and moving on to the next project. And it certainly doesn’t help that there’s no easy way to market anymore–even if you have the money to do it. When we started Deadlands we sent posters to roughly 5000 game stores in the US. Now there are probably no more than 500 or so. There’s also no central magazine or website that everyone goes to…so how DO you market your RPG? We try many different venues in addition to the standard social media sites and are still figuring this out ourselves.

RW: Savage Worlds has become the foundation for a large number of wildly different campaign settings. Have you found any interesting trends about Savage Worlds settings? Are there some genres that you would like to see more or less represented?

SH: The only trend I see is that there isn’t one. At the last convention I want to there was everything from the post-apocalyptic Willy Wonka game I mentioned above to a dark “Archangel” setting to our own settings to those of our licensees. 

RW: Do you have any good stories about the development of the Deadlands concept?

SH: When I first ran it for Matt Forbeck and Greg Gordon, I already had poker chips as “Fate Chips.” But after the initial adventure in which the party took out a giant “chigger” queen (an insect that in the real world supposedly burrows into your skin), Greg had the idea of adding a “Creature Chip” to the pot. That chip could be used as a blue Fate Chip, or it could grant a one-shot use of a power associated with the chigger queen. (He called it the “Chigger Chip.”) That didn’t exactly work out for other reasons, but we did turn it into the “coup” power that Harrowed can gain by killing certain monsters.
Wild West action plus undead cowboys… its an amazing setting!
RW: If you were a post-apocalyptic survivor, you’d be a…?
SH: I’d want to be a wasteland warlord, but I’d probably be a loner scav type. 

RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?

SH: FFG’s 40K game that you, our illustrious interviewer, are largely responsible is a favorite, as is the original Warhammer RPG from Games Workshop. I did work on TORG, but it will always be one of my favorites. I was also a huge GURPS fan for many years.
(Editor’s note: Shane obviously has excellent taste!)

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?

SH: It’d have to be Savage Worlds, I’m afraid. The excitement and unpredictability of exploding dice, the ability to play anything, Bennies, and the ease of running and playing are what I was always looking for. 

Accursed Reddit AMA Happening Now!

We’re running an Ask Me Anything on Reddit for Accursed today starting at 1 PM CST. Feel free to drop by and ask any questions you want about Accursed to Ross Watson, the lead developer!