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Guest Post: The Basics of Creating a Story Setting

Greetings readers — this week’s blog post is all about creating a story setting. The post is written by Herrick Erickson-Brigl, a battle-brother from my time at Vigil Studios. Herrick’s guest post today is part of a blog swap we organized, and I’m very pleased to host his post here below: 

Creating a Story Setting

Hi there!
I am a game designer and novelist by trade. I met Ross a while back when we worked together at the now defunct Vigil Studios. And recently became interested in doing a blog swap with him. An agreement was met among heroes and that is the origin story of how this blog post came to be! You can check out Ross’s awesome post on my blog here:
I wanted to talk a bit today about creating a story setting. Whether you are creating a campaign setting for a professional release, novel, or dungeon mastering for your friends at home; the basics remain the same. I’m going to walk you through my own process and hopefully it helps yours.

Collect your thoughts

Take stock of what you want from your setting. How do you want to immerse your readers/players as they tumble down your rabbit hole? What kind of ideas do you have pinging around your head? Just pick up a piece of paper and write. This is called free writing and it is the easiest way to put thoughts to page. Don’t worry about keeping it organized or cohesive; throwing ideas from the void and onto paper is far more valuable at this point in the process. Do this for a couple hours and keep your fingers away from that tempting little backspace key!
A little perspective is all it takes.
NOTE! A lot of creators develop writer’s block and become jaded saying, “Everything has already been done.” Drawing on established conventions is absolutely okay. There is a reason dwarves, elves, and giants are mainstays of RPG development; fixing an entire genre shouldn’t be your number one priority in the beginning. 


Now that you have a bunch of ideas on paper, the creation process will be a lot easier to visualize. Start organizing everything it groupings. Examples might be races, societies, magic, and technology. Of course this is simplified version, but liken it to the glossary of any text book you’ve ever read. You want your thoughts split up in easy to handle “bites” for further development.

Flesh out your ideas

Now that your ideas are in groups, take a look at them individually. Think of your original ideas as spider webs that you want to grow and branch out. This part of the development process is where you start adding your own flare and start making something that is unique and utterly your own. Further mold your ideas into something complete and new. Start looking at the things you’ve created in the past and things other creators have made, then try and think of ways to set yourself apart in a positive way. Maybe there was something you liked that someone else did, there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from others.
Here are a few basic templates for creating races, societies, magic, and technology. This is a great starting place for any aspiring world creator.


A race by definition is a being that denotes a difference in either national affiliation, physical traits, or both. How are the races of your world different? How do they look? Act? Fight? What are their genetic capabilities? How many races are there in your world? Do they like/hate each other? Fill in these blanks: (Note, these should be average estimations)

  • Height:
  • Weight:
  • Body description:
  • Capabilities:
  • Motivations and leanings:


Sometimes all it takes is a little imagination.
Societies are groups of people involved in persistent relations. Societies are broken down into politics, wealth, trade, military, religion, and citizenry. The society is the hub of your world, the place where everything starts and everything ends. How many societies are there? What kind of land do they own? How much territory do they occupy? Fill in the following blanks below:
  • Politics:Social hierarchy and interactions from within and without. 
  • Wealth: How much money does this country have? How well off are its citizens?
  • Trade: What other nations do they interact with? What commodities does this nation have to offer?
  • Religion: What god/s are worshiped? How does this impact daily life?
  • Military: The military strength and influence in the society, plus any faction this society is at war with.
  • Citizenry:Think about your average person in this society, what would their daily life be like? What is/are the race/s of this society?


Magic is defined as a power that influences events with mysterious or supernatural forces. By its innate nature, this force demands a reader suspend disbelief. Often it can be explained as a force of nature. But magic can’t just happen there need to be rules or anyone can use it and then you have a ton of people running around acting like gods.  Fill in these blanks:
  • Scarcity: Abundant/rare. Does the mere act of using a cantrip send whispers across the realm or is magic a part of everyday life?
  • Requirements:What does someone have to give or have in order to use magic? Is it a bloodline trait or a learned skill? Is there a penalty for using magic?
  • Influence: How powerful is magic in your world?



Technology is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization. Defining technology’s role in your world is one of the most fundamental parts of the process and it is often overlooked. What level of tech is featured in your campaign? Medieval? Sure, okay but are there trebuchets? Mechanical inventions of any kind? What about steam, fire, etc? If your campaign has magic, does it operate in lieu or in tandem with machinery? Fill in these blanks:

  • Level of technology: What era of human technological advancement can you equate this society or world’s current developmental level?
  • Abundance:How abundant is this technology? Is it used widely or sparingly? Who can use it?
  • Magic and technology: How do these two interact? Do they interact at all?

Thanks for reading this blog post and I hope you all loved it!


Review of Century Station for Heroes Unlimited

Hello readers – I’m really glad to talk to you today about a book that is one of my favorites (it is on my top ten list) for superhero RPG sourcebooks. The book’s name is Century Station and it is a standout setting for superhero roleplaying; this is not your typical bland city that you see in so many superhero RPGs… no, Century Station is a great location with a lot of problems for player characters to solve!
Here’s where I give you, gentle reader, full disclosure: I’m a big fan of author Bill Coffin’s work on Heroes Unlimited and Rifts, and Century Station is no exception. Bill’s a very creative and talented writer, and it is a pleasure to finally get some time to devote to this long-overdue review.

The City of the Future

Century Station is a setting for the Heroes Unlimited RPG. However, the majority of the book’s content works just fine regardless of system – the ideas, characters, enemies, situations, and locations are all fantastic for just about any superhero RPG on the market.

In the Beginning

The book starts out with a detailed look at the city’s history. In a nutshell, Century Station started out as a high-tech utopia, led by a particular scientist into various experimental fields like cold fusion. It was granted the status as an autonomous district (similar to Washington, D.C.). The city featured many cutting-edge technological advances, including supercomputers, powered armor, robotics, cybernetics, flying cars, and so forth. Many of these research facilities took shortcuts in a race to dominate the market, creating all kinds of “origin stories” for superheroes and supervillains alike.
However, it turned out that the scientist driving this technological revolution was actually an alien fugitive from an advanced civilization. An intergalactic police force arrived on the planet to take this criminal into custody, and the revelation of the scientist’s true nature caused a huge economic downturn in the city. All of a sudden, Century Station was a city with tons of warehouses full of advanced tech and failing businesses everywhere. Unemployment and crime shot into record numbers, and the supervillains took advantage of this opportunity to build massive criminal empires of their own.
The rise in supervillain activity led to a massive conflict between the city’s authorities, its superheroes, and a criminal mastermind named Iron Mike that ended tragically. In an event that came to be known as “Bloody Monday,” Iron Mike was killed and his syndicate broken up… but at a heavy cost. Most of the city’s superheroes were slain in the conflict, and casualties amongst the regular authorities (the police and emergency services) were high.
In the aftermath of the devastation of Bloody Monday, the US President issued an ultimatum to the city: restore order and dramatically reduce crime in the next five years, or face serious Federal measures and intervention, including the declaration of Martial Law.
With the threat of losing its special status as an autonomous district – not to mention the idea of US tanks rolling down the streets of this once-thriving metropolis – the government of Century Station made some radical choices to try and achieve their goals. This includes sanctioning superheroes as agents of the city’s law enforcement in a bid to leverage superheroic adventurers for the benefit of the city.

A Compelling Reason to Adventure

For me, it is the President’s mandate that really drives the entire setting. I love the fact that the setting really gives superhero teams a reason to get out of the typical habit of “we sit on monitor duty at the Hall of Justice waiting for a trouble alert.” Instead, superheroes in Century Station have to be proactive… they have to get out there into the nasty parts of the city and hunt trouble down before it gets out of hand, because if another mastermind rises too high and too fast, Century Station could be doomed.
The movers and shakers in the city are well aware of this, and there are tons of cool adventure seeds and plot ideas revolving around the power blocs in Century Station and how they want to address the issue of the mandate.
There are even factions within the superhero community in the city. One faction is led by CHIMERA, an over-arching law enforcement agency put into place by the city’s government. CHIMERA uses sanctioned superheroes as law enforcement agents and they have their own superteam, the Centurions, on their side. Unfortunately, CHIMERA has its own issues with authority, corruption, and a particular vision for the city that clash with many of the other factions.
A second faction is the unsanctioned heroes – superheroes who battle crime outside of CHIMERA’s restrictive rules and regulations. The unsanctioned heroes are often far more concerned with protecting the citizens of the city than with “cleaning up the streets,” (a popular mantra of CHIMERA), and clashes between them and the sanctioned superheroes are common.
There are other groups as well – groups that are anti-alien in nature (due to the revelation of the scientist’s true nature), groups that want independence for Century Station, groups that serve the city’s more wealthy and influential “Council of Industry,” and of course, a ton of enterprising supervillains all scheming to take Iron Mike’s place as king of the hill.

A City for All Heroes

Century Station offers a unique setting that appeals to nearly every single style of superhero you can think of. Many other published settings work well with the “classic” superheroes, but don’t have a lot of room or support for characters who are aliens, mutants, or rely heavily on advanced technology. Those that do don’t often showcase options for low-powered street-level superhero adventures alongside the more epic “Justice League” style. Century Station, however, has it all sewn up brilliantly.
Alien heroes can either be fugitives from the intergalactic enforcement attempting to redeem themselves, or agents of that same organization on Earth trying to atone for the unintended consequences of removing the scientist from the city’s equation.
Technological heroes have their pick – tons of cyberware, power armor, and robotics were built up during the city’s boom years. All the short-cuts taken resulted in lots of accidents, and any of these could expose a potential superhero to all kinds of energy, radiation, or serums. Ditto for mutants!
Magical heroes could be drawn here to the growing conflict between sanctioned and unsanctioned heroes, or see something noble in the city’s attempt to rise from the ashes of Bloody Monday.
And this is all just the tip of the iceberg – the book has plenty of guidance for involving heroes from nearly all origin types.

What’s Inside

After describing the city’s history and the major players in Century Station, the book takes time to go through each borough of the city in detail, from the richest and most advanced regions to the near-cyberpunk-wasteland areas devastated by the economic crash.
Next, the book details the “Who’s Who” of the city, from its struggling Mayor to the shadowy figures of the Council of Industry. The forces of CHIMERA are also showcased here. Wayne Breaux turns in some of his best artwork (although the Sector 10 Agent still has very screwy proportions), and overall the artwork in the book is of a very high quality.
The police department, the media, and various political groups of Century Station are all detailed here as well, providing tons of great ideas for contacts, allies, or enemies of the player characters.
Next, the book goes over the Centurions (also featured on the book’s cover), the city’s most lauded superhero team. This group is interesting and has some good ideas, but I feel that Bill is more showing off what player characters can become, although the team is still useful for a GM to use as a guideline for how the city handles sanctioned heroes.
More of Century Station’s superheroes are presented in this chapter as well, with a few standouts being the Iron Brigade (an all-power armor team of unsanctioned vigilantes) and the Victorian, a Question-like vigilante who fights with a swordcane, monocle, and bowler hat – very much a masked adventurer version of John Steed.
The rest of the book is taken up with a ton of adversaries and bad guys to use in your superhero campaign. The triad assassins and the Shadow Margin – a criminal organization led by an ancient immortal Chinese sorcerer – are the most interesting of this group.
Finally, the book closes with 101 adventure seeds to help the GM come up with ideas for things to do in Century Station.

In Closing

Century Station is a really well-designed sourcebook to present a GM with a ready-made city for any superhero RPG. It’s greatest strength is the five-year countdown and the way that it encourages players to be more pro-active about crimefighting. It’s greatest weakness is probably that the included heroes and villains are largely lackluster. However, this last issue is actually fixable with the book’s sequel – Gramercy Island. This book is a followup to Century Station and focuses on a supervillain prison, and includes a ton of bad guys. All in all, the reason to buy Century Station is for the fantastic setup, the great incorporation of different superhero origins, and the sweet, sweet situation of the city’s political and social scene. Absolutely check out this book if you’re looking for a fresh take on a high-tech city for your superheroes to patrol.

Witches, Banes, and Murder: The Accursed RPG Setting

Greetings readers! I’ve been a bit quiet lately because I’ve been busy working on the launch of a new RPG setting for Savage Worlds, named Accursed.

Accursed has its own blog site located here:

To put things shortly, Accursed is a dark fantasy setting where Hellboy meets Ravenloft — the player characters are all versions of classic monsters, from the Vargr (werewolves) to the Golems (Frankenstein’s monster) struggling to free the land of Morden from the vile influence of the evil Witches.

I’m developing Accursed in tandem with two colleagues: Jason Marker and John Dunn. It’s very exciting to work on such a creative and unique product with talented guys like John and Jason — we have a ton of passion for this project and the ideas are just flowing like a river.

Keep an eye on the Accursed blog site for more information to come!

Shadowrun 4: A New Matrix Paradigm

From time to time I like to play around with game design elements of RPGs (and other games, often miniature games) that I really enjoy. Over the last year, I’ve played a lot of Shadowrun 4th edition and I’ve grown to count it amongst one of my favorite RPGs. To be fair, Shadowrun 4th has its share of flaws, but I do believe it is probably the apex of Shadowrun’s RPG design in its foundation. One of the major flaws holding Shadowrun 4e back from achieving a higher level of quality is its Matrix rules, the design intended to allow Hackers (a player character archetype) to access the Matrix (a global wireless computer-linked communication system that employs both augmented and virtual reality).
Yep, pretty much this.
So, just as an FYI, this blog post is going to be pretty incomprehensible if you’re not familiar with SR4’s mechanics. You’ve been warned!
I’m not going to get into a full review of neither Shadowrun 4 nor the existing Matrix rules, but I do want to showcase here my design for a replacement system. I chose to create a design that fit into Shadowrun 4’s paradigm and solved some of the existing rules biggest issues – namely, the number of rolls needed to resolve a single Matrix task, using the rules to push the story rather than trying to mimic how actual computer programming works, and simplifying/streamlining the process so that hacking takes no more time at the table than any other archetype’s actions.
So I tinkered around with an idea – what if Hacking worked on a similar paradigm to Magic in Shadowrun? Magic basically takes only three rolls to resolve a typical spell: casting, resolving the effect of the spell, and then resisting drain.
What I came up with is the outline for a system where the Decker (I prefer this term to Hacker, and I’m using the term Cyberdeck rather than commlink, but these are basically just names) uses the same three rolls: hacking, resolving the effect of the program (mimicking the effect of a spell or a gun), and then resisting detection – since the whole point of hacking is to do it without setting off tons of alarms, just as the point of spellcasting is to cast a spell without knocking yourself out.
Click past the jump to see the rest of the design!

Note: This is an initial game design concept – more work needs to be done to turn it into a complete system and it is presented as an idea that needs further design and refinement.

Design Principles

Hacking should be more about the Decker’s skill and less reliant on his gear/programs.
Ideally, hacking operations should require no more than three die rolls. Adding additional die rolls, bookkeeping, or extra steps should be avoided.
The hacking system should not attempt to accurately model how computers work; instead, it should strive to meet the needs of hacking from a story perspective.
A simplified hacking system should strive to showcase the Shadowrun Matrix’s unique flavor.
In general, simplifying and streamlining means reducing the number of variables and things to keep track of – the most noticeable effect of this is that in this paradigm, the number of programs (with the exception of attack programs – see below) have been reduced to six.

Design Goals

Hacking needs to be streamlined from previous incarnations: not as complex, fewer dice rolls, easier to comprehend.
Hacking needs to be in line with the other systems of Shadowrun and follow a similar paradigm (i.e., Attribute + Skill + Gear).

System Design Sketch

System Rating

Everything that can be hacked has a System Rating. This generally runs from 6-12, although there is no upper limit. A truly high-level system (like a military command center) might have a system rating of 17 or higher. The system rating acts as both a threshold for the number of hits required to affect the system and as a condition monitor if attacked in cybercombat, with the number of boxes in the condition monitor equal to its rating. In the case of vehicles and drones, use the Pilot Rating and add 5 (this is a rule of thumb and is likely to be adjusted). In the case of other items, the rule of thumb is to set the item’s system rating at ½ its body, rounding up.
Generally, this means that you would take an existing System Rating in SR4 and double it. Subtract the program’s Rating to get your Adjusted System Rating.

Cyberdecks and Condition Monitors

Cyberdecks have a physical condition monitor (representing the physical condition of the deck) and a detection condition monitor (representing the Decker’s ability to avoid detection whilst hacking). When the physical condition monitor is boxed out, the deck is destroyed. Just like a physical condition monitor for a character, damage to the deck inflicts dice penalties for every row of three boxes. Similarly, the detection condition monitor inflicts penalties for every row of three boxes as well.

The Hacking Test

Whenever a Decker attempts to interact with an object with a system rating, he rolls Logic + Hacking + his Cyberdeck’s rating (this is a number that ranks between 1-6 and is roughly analogous to the current “system rating,” not named here to avoid confusion with this design’s use of the term). A typical Shadowrunner is likely rolling 15 dice (5 Logic, 5 Hacking skill, rating 5 cyberdeck).
Note: Again, to emphasize, this paradigm means that the Decker must roll a Hacking Test to accomplish any and all tasks inside a system – the usage of the Hacking test is intentionally broad because it is likely that a Decker will be making this test every round he is jacked into the system.
The threshold for his test is the system rating of the system he is attempting to hack. The Decker’s Exploit program rating helps the Decker by lowering the system rating’s threshold for this test by its rating (i.e., a Decker hacking a system rating 8 would subtract his Exploit program’s rating of 5, meaning that the actual threshold for the Hacking test is 3). This keeps the focus on the Decker’s skill rather than his gear, as the Decker modifies his programs on the fly to best suit his needs. This new System Rating (the original minus the Decker’s Exploit program rating) is known as the adjusted system rating.

Crashing a system

Instead of hacking a system, a Decker can attempt to crash it. This is done by attacking the system in cybercombat. The system rating is the system’s condition monitor and also serves as the number of dice the system rolls to defend itself against cybercombat (much like a Body attribute on a physical object in the real world). Crashed systems do not function until they are rebooted. Authorized Deckers can reboot a crashed system with a simple action. A system cannot be crashed if there is an active defender (Agent, Sprite, or enemy Decker) present.
Note: The procedure for crashing a system is just a basic idea for now and needs more development.

The Detection Test

Using a similar approach to magic, after a Magician casts a spell, he then resists drain. In this hacking paradigm, after a Decker performs a hack, he then resists detection. This mechanic represents the Decker’s skill at evading detection whilst hacking a system. To do this, the Decker must resist a number of hits equal to the adjusted system rating. The Decker rolls his Hacking skill + the Hardening rating of his deck. Any hits that are not resisted inflict damage to the deck’s Detection condition monitor. When the deck’s detection condition monitor is boxed out, alarms go off in the node and any adjacent connected node. Any Deckers or agents in those nodes are instantly aware of the hacking Decker’s location and cybercombat is very likely imminent.

Glitching the Detection Test

If a Decker glitches on the Detection Test, the IC of the system has noticed something is wrong and begins to interfere with his presence. This is represented by a basic chart that establishes a rule of thumb—the GM may always decide on something else happening and certain systems (such as ones used in an adventure) can have their own custom response chart.
Glitch on a System Rating 6-9: The Decker is hit with a Traceroute attack program with a rating equal to the adjusted system rating.
Glitch on a System Rating 10-12: The Decker is hit with a White IC attack program with a rating equal to the adjusted system rating.
Critical Glitch on a System Rating 6-9: The Decker is ejected from the system and may suffer dumpshock.
Critical Glitch on a System Rating 10-12: The Decker is hit with a Black IC program with a rating equal to the adjusted system rating.
Note: Naturally, glitches by player characters are going to be fairly rare, but this provides a simple and easy to use guideline for when that happens during the game.

Remaining in the System

Once a Decker has successfully hacked a system (i.e., he has boxed out the system’s condition monitor either through hacking or cybercombat), he can stay in that system indefinitely. Note that if an enemy agent or enemy Decker enters the same node, the Decker can be engaged in cybercombat. Every time the Decker attempts to make the system do something, he must resist Detection, meaning that Deckers who are active inside a system are likely to trigger alarms eventually unless they are exceptionally careful or stealthy.


Normally, just like a Magician casting spells, a Decker is limited by the rating of his program in how much he can affect the system rating of the system he is attempting to hack. Drawing another parallel to magic, Deckers can “overcast” by Overclocking their deck. This allows the Decker to increase the rating of his program up to double its base rating. However, during the Detection Test, any hits that are inflicted affect his Cyberdeck’s physical condition monitor rather than the detection condition monitor.
Note: This is the cinematic “holy crap I really need to make this work” moment. Overclocking has a definitive downside (you could fry your deck). It is likely that the player character is going to overclock in conjunction with spending Edge on both the Hacking Test and the followup Detection test, just like a player character Magician who overcasts. It is possible that the detection test could or should also be more difficult when the Decker is overclocking.

Resetting the Detection Condition Monitor

The Detection condition monitor does not “heal” as long as the Decker is jacked into the system in which he suffered the “damage.” Deckers do not simply jack out and jack back in once they are close to detection. Once the Decker jacks out of that system and performs a purge (a complex action requiring a Logic + Hacking roll with a threshold of 2), his deck’s Detection condition monitor resets and all the damage inflicted on it is “healed.”


Under this paradigm, the following are the core programs used by Deckers:
Exploit: Primary program for hacking. Reduces the threshold of a system rating for gaining access or information.
Spoof: Secondary program for hacking. Reduces the threshold of a system rating for giving commands.
Purge: The “medic” program – erases data from the cyberdeck. Adds its rating to the Decker’s Logic+Software Test for eliminating harmful viruses (including Traceroute).
Sleaze: Passive program – its rating equals the number of boxes of the cyberdeck’s detection condition monitor.
Analyze: The “perception” program. Adds its rating to the Decker’s Logic + Hacking Test for gaining additional information about icons in the matrix.
Armor: Passive program. Adds its rating to the Decker’s Logic Test to resist damage in cybercombat.

Cybercombat and Attack Programs

If everything in the Matrix has a system rating that also acts as a condition monitor, cybercombat can become a bit more interesting—you can essentially use the same options as physical or astral combat, such as taking aim or called shots. In addition, this paradigm makes Attack programs into basically the “gun” that the Decker carries into combat. In fact, you could easily present a number of different Attack programs with different ratings, perhaps some armor penetration, and so forth – this way, there can have a “street samurai catalog” of different types of Attack programs. Tar baby, traceroute, white IC, black IC – these all become “guns” that the Decker can have loaded into his Deck’s “holster” (program space) when he goes into the matrix.
Note: It is possible that Armor programs could similarly have some differences and thus also be part of the “street samurai catalog.”

Technomancer interaction

Under this Paradigm, a Technomancer’s Resonance equals his Deck rating and the rating of any required program. Overclocking on a Technomancer opens him up to physical damage on the Detection roll. In addition, Technomancers basically have access to any and all “guns” in the Attack program catalogue.

Agents and Sprites

Agents and Sprites should never be as good as an actual Decker. Under this proposal’s paradigm of Logic + Hacking + Deck rating, Agents and Sprites should only get two out of the three. I would recommend using Logic + Agent rating/Sprite force. This makes Agents and Sprites useful (roughly as useful as a tasked Spirit is to a magician) without making them as good as an actual Decker. Agents and Sprites have a detection condition monitor equal to their rating/force. The type and number of Attack programs or armor programs that a sprite or agent can carry should be limited to their rating/force. My initial recommendation would be 1 Attack program from rating/force 1-3 and 2 Attack programs at rating/force 4-6.


Example: Hacking the cameras to hide the team’s presence
A shadowrunner team is infiltrating a research facility. Sam the Decker has a 5 Logic, a 5 Hacking Skill, and a rating 5 Cyberdeck. All of his programs are also rating 5.
The shadowrunners need Sam to hack the facility’s security cameras so that they can enter the facility undetected. Sam is already jacked into the matrix and is within wireless range of the system. The system rating of the node controlling the security cameras is 9. Sam subtracts his Exploit program rating of 5 from the system rating of 9 and ends up with an adjusted system rating of 4. Sam rolls 15 dice (attribute + skill + deck) and gets 5 hits, successfully hacking the node. The cameras do not record the shadowrunners entering the facility. (Note: The GM could, if he wished, use the results of Sam’s Hacking Test to determine how long the cameras are nonfunctional)
Sam then must resist Detection, rolling his Logic of 5 and the Hardening of his Deck (also of 5) against a threshold of 4 (the adjusted system rating). Sam rolls 3 hits and he crosses out one box on his Detection condition monitor. Until he jacks out of the system, performs a purge, and his detection monitor resets, Sam is going to suffer a -1 penalty to all future Matrix skill rolls.
Note: In this case, Sam has the option in his next Initiative pass to try and “own” the camera system node. This would be accomplished by another Hacking Test against the adjusted system rating and successfully resisting Detection. “Owning a system” is another concept that is very basic in this design sketch.

Professionalism in Gaming: Managing Freelancers

Greetings, readers – this week’s blog is all about another topic I feel strongly about; managing freelancers. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have worked with dozens of different freelance writers, editors, artists and proofreaders on various projects from D20 to the Warhammer 40K Roleplay system.
It is important to note that for the rest of this post I’m going to be talking about freelance writers.
Working with freelancers is something I feel like I have gained a lot of skill with over the years; many of my freelancers have gone on to work full-time in the gaming industry, from writing novels to working directly at a game company. I’ve even hired freelancers to work directly with my development team!
However, especially in recent years, I’ve learned that there are several game companies out there in the industry that just don’t understand the finer points of dealing with freelancers. These people are not just a tool in the toolbox; they’re not just something you talk to only when you have to. They’re not just an expendable resource, and you can’t treat them as if there’s an inexhaustible supply.
This is an awesome PC game, and inspired quite a bit of Rogue Trader.
I’m not saying that freelancers need to be treated like kings, but I am here to tell you how I’ve found success in the industry with freelance writers.

Building Your Crew

Sometimes you don’t come into a situation with an existing pool of freelance writers that you can count on. So the question is, where can you find freelancers to write for your game?

At the Beginning

When you first get started as a developer and you need to build your stable of freelancers, here are some methods that you can use:

Open Calls

Post an open call for writers on, your own game company’s forums, and the like. Open Calls are my least preferred method, since there is a risk of generating ill will in the community if you don’t accept a potential writer and he happens to be active in the community you advertised in. Secondly, open calls are, in my opinion, the least effective and least professional method of acquiring new freelancers. All that having been said, sometimes it is the only way.
An alternate method that I vastly prefer is one that requires you to have an established game company and a game that is already out there in the market.


Start up a contest with a prize for the winner – the contest can be anything that requires a demonstration of writing skills; adventures, new monsters, magic items, and so forth. The prize can and should be something you can easily deliver, such as a free PDF of one of your products, or even just featuring the winner’s creation on your website as part of the official setting.
Contests are a great way to evaluate some potential freelancers for your game. It’s really a trifecta; you build goodwill with your gamer community, the competition means that people will be turning in their best work, and the winner is rewarded with some free product right away.
I found a writer for the 40K RPG from a Dark Heresy adventure contest that turned out to be one of our best and brightest; Andrea Gausman. Not only did she turn in a great adventure, she ended up writing tons of monsters and an entire adventure book on her own for the Deathwatch RPG.


My preferred method to find freelancers to work on a game is networking; I find out who knows someone or has a friend-of-a-friend. I happen to have a pretty extensive network that I’ve built up over 13+ years of working in the game industry, and it’s been a godsend to me multiple times in the past. Networking can be as simple as finding a game book you particularly liked and looking at the credits page, then contacting those writers and asking them if they’d be willing to do some writing for you. Even if they say no, there’s a good chance they might know someone else who is actively looking for work.

Once You’re On the Road

Now, once you’ve got your game published and a company website and some forums – all of which you should probably have if you don’t already – there are other approaches you can take to find freelancers for your pool.


No idea who Lone Canuck is, but I like their poster.
If you’ve got a robust playtester program for your game (I’ll cover managing playtesting in a future blog), you’ll be able to identify some people with a deeper understanding of your game than the typical man on the street. Some playtesters are just waiting for a chance to show you how much they love your game. One advantage this approach has is that playtesters are generally far more knowledgable about the ins and outs of your game. The disadvantage is that figuring out which playtesters have promise doesn’t happen quickly – it requires one or two complete playtesting cycles to really identify the standouts.


Much like playtesters, anyone who takes the time to review your game knows a lot about it. Also like playtesters, by checking out a reviewer’s work, you can get a good idea of their basic writing skills and understanding of what makes your game work (or even how other RPGs work in general).


This option is the most questionable on the list; forums can be hives of scum and villainy and are as likely to present you with a toxic waste of your time as with a hero who can come in and write some great text for your game. However, I have to admit I’ve had some success with this approach. I find that the best way to go is to find some promising writers on your forums and then turn them into playtesters – if they do well with that, then you move them up to the next step as new writers.

Organize your Crew

Ok, so once you’ve got some freelancers to manage, it’s time to start getting things organized.

Test their skills

For a prospective writer, you should come up with a skills test. This can be as simple as asking for a 500-word writing sample or as elaborate as a constructed IP-quiz. In the end, you should have some way to evaluate your writer before you put him on an assignment – you’re looking for his facility with basic writing skills, rules knowledge, and understanding of your game’s setting and IP.

Set Your Teams

I like to split up my freelancers into three groups; my A-team, B-team, and C-team.
The A-team are the top writers, able to turn in quality work on-time. The A-team is my first choice for any assignment. Most writers get into the A-team after showing steady improvement over a year to two years of assignments.
From Link’s RPG forums.
The B-team are solid, skilled writers who are still working on turning things in on time or have some minor quality issues. Most new writers get into the B-team after three-to-six assignments. B-team writers are the ones I use when my A-team is on another book or if I need something written to fill in the holes.
The C-team is where new writers go at the beginning or those I’m still not sure are able to perform up to standard. C-team writers are ones I turn to on low-priority assignments (such as free PDF content for the website) or the ones I use when my A-team and B-team are all busy (it’s happened!).
Make sure to check out the rest of the article, because below I’ll be discussing how to build and grow your freelancers over time – eventually, you want to get everyone working up the ladder and turning in A-team grade work.

Come up with a Freelancer Database

I find it to be very useful to have a database (usually done in Excel or Numbers) listing each freelancer, detailing their skills (this can be as simple as a yes/no box for Adventures, Lore, Rules, IP) and a notes section for adding any future information – if you have a superstar, you can note it there. If you have a guy who is always good but always late, make a note. If you’re seeing a disturbing trend, make a note. I’m the kind of person who forgets over time if I don’t write it down. Another good note is to put down the last book they worked on. Don’t forget to note payment information; some freelancers (especially those overseas) prefer paypal, whilst others prefer checks. Lastly, I always put in a column listing the freelancer’s current pay rate and which team he’s on.

Manage your Crew

Now you’ve got a crew of freelancers, you’ve figured out what they’re good at, and you’ve got everything organized. What’s next?

Don’t Burn Them Out, Build Them Up

As you work with freelancers on projects, it will soon become clear that certain people are skilled in certain areas – many freelancers are good at writing lore (I would say it is the most common skill), whilst others are better at writing rules (IMHO, the second most common). Some freelancers have a talent for writing adventures, and a rare cherished few can actually perform some development duties as well as finishing their own assignments.
Writing adventures is a completely different skillset from writing lore. Writing clear, innovative, and balanced rules is a different skillset than the first two categories.
I know some people who can do all three excellently, but most freelancers are good at only one or two different categories.
However, it is very easy for a developer to assign all his adventures to the writers who excel at adventures. It is common to assign all your lore to your best lore guy, or your rules to your best rules guy. This is often a good practice, but there is a danger that no developer should overlook: burnout.
Doing the same thing over and over again can be fatiguing for a writer – even if you love writing the subject. Even if you’re really good at it.
What I like to do is try and grow my freelancers in other skillsets over time. Most of the time I would give a writer no more than three assignments in a row for any given skill and then try him out on something different. Owen Barnes is a great example of this; Owen is fantastic at writing adventures, and I soon found myself relying on him time after time to write adventures for the 40K RPG line. It wasn’t fair to Owen to keep him as “the adventure guy,” and I soon started giving him other assignments – and he really appreciated the change of pace! Owen became one of those multi-talented freelancers I mentioned above, and I’m glad I didn’t burn him out on just writing adventures.
Not exactly my favorite approach.

Climbing the Ladder

My goal as a developer is to have the best set of freelancers I can. Having better freelancers means having a higher quality of writing in my books, so it’s a win-win situation.
As Neil Gaiman once said, when it comes to writing you can get it fast, good, or cheap: pick any two.
Using that yardstick, what I look for in new writers is for them to be fast and cheap.
To get to the B-team, I’m looking for good and cheap.
To get to the A-team, I’m looking for good and fast.
This is why the A-team guys get the highest per-word writing rate. This is also why different rates are important – it gives the new writers a yardstick to measure their progress!
I’ve noticed that some other companies in the industry play a flat per-word rate that never, ever changes – and I think that’s highly dangerous. A writer that is still making the same rate after two years (unless that rate is the absolute highest it will go – and unfortunately, our industry has a narrow range) is likely feeling frustrated at a lack of progress.
This means that I use my freelancer database to keep track of a writer’s progression and try to keep in mind how long it has been since their last increase in pay and what I can do to try and help them get to that next level.
However, top-notch rates demands top-notch quality. What I want is for all my writers to end up turning in A-team level work, so I try to give them a lot of feedback on the assignments they turn in.


A distinct lack of good communication is the downfall of many RPG companies in the market today – I’ve heard stories from other writers in the industry and I’ve experienced it myself.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned in 13 years, it is that communication is essential.
Your freelancers won’t ever get better if you don’t give them feedback about their assignment – a developer should always try to make some kind of comment to the freelancer about his work. This can be as simple as a short message saying “good going,” or as extensive as a highlighted and annotated return of the assignment. I’ve done both when it is required.
When I’m turning in a freelance writing assignment, it always concerns me when there’s no communication from the developer afterwards – unfortunately this is more common than you think.
The short version is this: feedback helps the freelancer get better and helps him understand what you want out of the assignment.

Sanity Checks and Review Steps

Working with a freelancer is like working with a babysitter – you’re giving them something precious and trusting them to do the right thing with it. The right thing to do with a freelancer is like the old saying; “trust, but verify.”
I like to build in review steps to every assignment. A review step is a point at where the freelancer turns in something to the developer so the developer gets an idea of where the freelancer is going with it. Review steps exist as “sanity checks.” If a freelancer is heading in the wrong direction or if the nature of the assignment hasn’t been clearly communicated to the freelancer, the review step is the right time to take a breath and get back on track.
Absolutely the worst thing that can happen with a writing assignment is for the freelancer to write the entire thing and turn it in, only for the end result to be completely unsuitable for the book. Review steps help avoid this unpleasant outcome.
As you get more comfortable with your freelancers and you understand where the A-team writers are coming from, you can relax a little on the review steps. Typically, with a new writer or a C-team writer, I would have three review steps: an outline, a first half turn-in, and a final turn-in. With an A-team writer, there’s generally only an outline and the final turn-in, since I know and trust my A-team to let me know if there’s any problems.
And that brings me to the last point about communication; as a developer, your door needs to be always open.
I always let my freelancers know that they can ask me questions any time, and that if there’s ever a concern or an issue coming up, they shouldn’t hesitate to let me know. I never get angry if a freelancer tells me he’s going to be late turning in his assignment – just the fact that he’s letting me know as soon as he can is a good sign.

Manage Assignments

When I give a freelancer an assignment, it is a two-step process. First, I personally contact the freelancer in an e-mail and explain what I’m looking for. This is the “pre-agreement,” where I spell out the word count I’m looking for, the nature of the assignment, and the due date. The intent is for the freelancer and the developer to be on the same page about all professional expectations before a contract is sent out. One place you don’t want to see any surprises is in a professional work-for-hire contract. As I always say, clear communication is the key to keeping things going well between developer and freelancers.

Follow up!

Freelancers thrive on structure, professionalism, and growth – all things I’ve mentioned above. In addition, I want to build that personal communication with my freelancers and understand how things are going from them. One thing I worked on when I was with Fantasy Flight Games was checking up with the freelancers about every 6 months to a year. This was fairly simple – just a quick questionnaire asking about pay rates, comp copies, and assignments, inviting them to give me any feedback they had. I discovered that some freelancers weren’t getting their comp copies on time. I found out that others were looking for some more variety in their assignments. This is important information to know if you’re looking to build a stable of freelancers who are going to stick with you and keep providing quality content. A developer needs to keep in mind that freelancers are professionals and people… and sometimes friends… that deserve some respect.

How Not to Do It

Having worked for a lot of different companies, let me tell you about some practices you should never, ever do.

Cattle Calls

Some companies simply have a freelancer mailing list and post an assignment opportunity rather than making individual assignments. This is not only unprofessional, it’s a bit insulting – you’re expecting freelancers to monitor a chatter-filled channel for the chance to electronically wave their hand frantically in the air for a shot at writing something. It’s unfair to freelancers living in overseas time zones. As my friend Jason Marker would put it, this approach is “clown shoes.”

No Feedback

As mentioned above, silence is never a good sign from the developer. It could mean your assignment was fine. It could mean you’ve been fired and will never hear from the developer again! Keeping your freelancers in the dark is the same as a mushroom – it’s just sitting in the shit.

Late or Missing Compensations

Proper credit in the book, comp copies of your work, and above all – payment on time. If you can’t manage to provide these to your freelancers, you don’t deserve to call yourself a developer.

Interview Time: Tim Huckelbery

Greetings readers, it’s interview time here on Rogue Warden again! This week I am very pleased to present a talk with my friend and former colleague at Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop, Tim Huckelbery.
Behold Tim in his Blue-Shirted Glory!
I’ve known Tim for several years, having first met him back in 2003 when I started working at the Games Workshop US studio in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Tim was very gracious to a rookie like myself, and we quickly became battle-brothers whilst making White Dwarf awesome for a few years.
I kept in touch with “Tyranid Tim” when I went to Minnesota to take over the 40K RPG line at Fantasy Flight Games, and Tim quickly became one of my trusted writer brigade. Tim and I made several great books together for Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, and then there came an opportunity for Tim to join our RPG team full-time.
Tim came on board with us and it was great working side-by-side with him to create awesome RPG products, until I headed down to Texas to work on video games.
Tim is a super guy with one HELL of a career. He worked at Space Command for the US Air Force and helped create some truly memorable rules and lore for many miniature games, including Mordheim, Warhammer 40,000, and many more.
With no further ado, let’s check out what Tim has to say about working in the game 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?
TH: I’ve always enjoyed gaming, but never really got into it strongly until college really, where we played a lot of card games (pre-Magic, so this means Euchre, Spades, Hearts, etc). 
After graduation, there were a lot of us in our USAF squadron who played a lot of board games, especially Axis & Allies and Risk. We discovered Talisman and then started looking for more board games by this neat little company called Games Workshop. It was there I wrote my first professional RPGs really, developing and running space operations training and evaluation simulations. This was really fun stuff, mixing computerised inputs via telemetry & video displays, other people playing NPCs, physical stimuli (like a “suspicious object” located in the room), and lots of GM roleplaying of all the other people the crew would talk to on the other side of the phone. 
What? Tim worked at Space Command!?? That is AWESOME!
I got strongly into miniatures gaming with Space Hulk way back in the late 80’s, then all the other GW miniatures games. I was one of the first Outriders, and liked it so much that I later joined GW in Convention Support. I spent around 13 years with then doing all sorts of jobs, and while there started working as a freelance writer for the Dark Heresy line in 2006. This continued when GW licensed the line to Fantasy Flight Games. After years more freelancing for all the 40k Roleplay lines, I then came over to FFG about 2 years ago. I’ve been working mostly Dark Heresy and Black Crusade since then, with some smatterings across other games. 
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
TH: I had been the Brand Manager for Black Library while at GW, so I had some good contacts with the publishing wing of the company. When I’d mentioned to Marc Gascoigne (hi Marco!) that it would be cool for GW to do the proverbial “in-universe” armoury book, he mentioned they were working an actual 40K RPG, and would I be interested in writing the armoury chapter? That’s how it started really; nothing beats insider connections 🙂
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
TH: There really are no limits to what you can create. We don’t have to worry about the practicalities of sculpting, fitting things into boxes, how a model would assemble, or how it might load a server. If you can bring it to life in print, it’s there. Which also makes for fun discussions; I remember a chat back when working Dark Heresy over with the BLP folks about exactly what a bolt gun sounds like when firing, or how red ones really go fasta. It’s all imagination, and capturing that into words and pictures. 
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
TH: Not much I can think of really. Having to fit everything you want to do into the planned page count perhaps? Doing something you really enjoy as your job is pretty darn nice though, and it’s hard to think of any actual bad things about it. 
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
TH: Going from freelancer to producer was the big thing for me personally, and seeing the inside of the process: budgets, production deadlines, marketing plans, art development process, and all the other behind the curtains realities of turning pages of words into actual books. As a freelancer, it’s all about the assignment, and magically some months later a book appears. All of the other steps that make the magic happen have been really illuminating. 
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?
TH: Looking back, I’d put in more imagination and take more risks with layout. I would have been more daring with art concepts and how they are used on the pages really; my first book had a nice, but pretty straight-forward design really. I’ve tried since then to get more ambitious with each book in terms of visual presentation. 
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?
Tim helmed the Tome of Fate, which is a fantastic book.
TH: Communication. Stay in touch with your producer! Blowing a deadline is bad, but it’s much worse if you don’t let your producer know it’s happening. Stay in touch, let him/her know you’re having problems. I can’t imagine being upset with a freelancer who emailed or called too often, but I’ve sure been upset with those who disappear on me. Talk with fellow writers as well; if you’re in a group project, ask for help & input!
As producer, making sure a freelancer has all the tools needed to do the job, such as support & background documents, and a good group setup for the writers to share their work and discuss the project. This all goes into communication really; the more and better communication, the less misunderstandings, late projects, and disappointment for freelancers and producers both. 
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
TH: I’d love to see more emphasis on getting new people into playing tabletop games period really. Free RPG Day is a good start, but that seems to be only getting existing gamers; still a good thing though as it can get some of them to try a rpg game, or try a new one. More outreach in general to get folks to try out a game with other people would be the proverbial Good Thing. 
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
TH: [I can has fans?] Fans is probably wrong word, but I do love to talk with fellow gamers especially at conventions. Emails are always welcome too, but I really enjoy chatting at shows. I also love doing seminars, as it’s great seeing a crowd light up when you reveal something new like a killer art image. Seeing people enthusiastic about our products gets me enthusiastic to make more of them.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
TH: Always my current project; I hope I never look back and say an older project was my greatest one. Right now I’m really proud of the ongoing Black Crusade Tomes line, and can’t wait to see what people think when they see The Tome of Excess when it releases. 
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
TH: Learning how to guide writers, as opposed to just rewriting manuscripts to shape them as desired. It’s always easy and often faster to just do the latter, but the former should always be the goal for a producer. 
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
TH: Rules are just suggestions a group decides to follow, and I have no problem at all with a group chucking them all and doing their own. The rules are just a framework for having fun creating an interactive story; without some structure players don’t have a common groundwork, but the goal is to have fun creating stories together. The games provide structure, and a cool setting with concepts for players to use. I’ve always looked at our rules as launching points than anything else. If they spark some great ideas for a group, and the group has fun, then mission accomplished. They do of course still have to work as is; no group should need extra effort to make them work properly and should at least try the rules as written one time. But every group should be willing to tweak things a bit based on their own preferences. 
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
Behold one of Tim’s creations — a devotee of Slaanesh!
TH: Civilian minding the pub. It’s dangerous out there! 
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
TH: Paranoia. We played a lot when I was first in Space Command, especially when our squadron rotated to graveyard shift and we were out of sync with the rest of the world. We had The Computer for reals running things (big hulking IBM mainframes and dumb terminals), and had some great military and contractor gaming groups. We ran it like we would a board game really; fast fun that we could play out in one night. 
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
TH: First things are no spelling errors, with a professional resume & cover letter, and then I’ll check out the sample. The text needs to sing, with a good mix of vocabulary and sentence structures so it is fun to read in both content and form. I know our background pretty well, so I’ll also want to verify the writer captures that correctly. It’s very intangible; writers have to “get” the setting as that’s very hard to teach. 
No matter what I get in, if it’s good I’ll then ask for a specific assignment with a specific word count. RPG writing is all about the page count, unless it is electronic only, so freelancers have to be disciplined enough to hit an assigned word count. If you’re assigned 10,000 words, that’s what I need; don’t give me 5000 or 20,000! This also tests speed; given enough time, it’s pretty darn easy to do any assignment. We do have deadlines, so I also need to see that the writer can work his magic under a deadline.
Red Flags: Fiction (it might be good, but that’s not what I want to see, and generally can only detract from the submission). Spelling errors. Length (keep it 2-3 pages tops; if you can’t impress me there, another 30 pages won’t help). 
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
TH: Doesn’t matter really; it’s the group more than the game that makes for a good time. If I have a good group, I’ll try any game if I think the setting looks interesting. Having said that though, I’m always up for a quick Paranoia “kill all the clones in the initial briefing” game. 
RW: Tell us a bit about your experience in the miniature games industry!
TH: Space Hulk, then Advanced Space Crusade and Warhammer 40,000 really got me into things. While I was at GW I wrote several 40k fan army lists for fun, along with real work especially for Mordheim. I had two pieces in Citadel Journal, including Codex: Genestealer Cults (still my favourite army!).
The Lathe Worlds is another of Tim’s great works.

RW: What is special about your approach to miniature gaming?
TH: Me personally? I’m a snob about always playing with fully painted figures with good terrain pieces, and the more conversions the better. No sure if that’s special though. 
RW: What is your process for working through a system design in an RPG or a miniature game?
TH: “Will this be fun to play with?” is the most important factor for me. If the rules, no matter how realistic they might be, are getting in the way of having fun creating a story, then there is a problem. For me personally, its always tempting to make a game, especially in a science fiction setting, realistic and have the science work properly, but there has to be tradeoffs. Realism vs fun, Science vs Handwaving. I do try to make the science work properly though; a “cool blue star” would be incorrect for example and stuff like this leaps out at me when I see it. Science Fiction shouldn’t mean bad science, only science that hasn’t been explained yet, or where there is only thing that makes it all work differently. Pet Peeve there I’m afraid; we seen enough bad science in real life to have it spill over into our fantasy ones too. 
It’s essential the system captures the setting properly too. Does it fit with the setting? Do the rules reflect the game? Fun or light settings don’t fit well with crunchy rules. This also applies to the tone of writing; it would be hard to imagine Dark Heresy in a folksy tone, or Serenity in an overly formal writing style. 

RPG Talk: Game Venues

Greetings readers, I’m compelled this week to discuss something near and dear to my heart: Gaming venues. One of the big factors in an RPG is the venue; where are you playing the game?
Yeah, this happens!
Most often, RPGs that I’ve been involved in have taken place in someone’s home. However, that hasn’t always been the case.
One thing I have learned, though, is a truism that I truly believe in: In order for an RPG venue to be successful, all participants need to feel comfortable and safe.
I’d like to talk about some of the other details and issues that often crop up about deciding on and maintaining a good gaming venue.

A Good Venue = Comfort & Safety

The header to this section really says it all, but I’ll explain a bit more; a gaming venue succeeds when the players all feel comfortable and safe.
This seems self-evident, but I myself have been in a lot of gaming venues where I felt uncomfortable or unsafe. First, let’s talk about comfort.

Comfort = Clean and Private

Comfortable settings are reasonably clean and private. For cleanliness, it doesn’t have to be immaculate, but if your house smells of pet urine or looks like an episode of Hoarders, there’s going to be a problem.
If your gaming table looks like this, you may have a problem.
For privacy, the key thing is having space where the game can go on without disturbing anyone else’s activities and where other people’s activities don’t disturb the game in progress.
A game can be private in a crowded game store; I know this because I’ve done it, several times. Game stores are often a great venue because there’s a reasonable expectation that you can have your game without bothering anyone else and everyone else isn’t going to interfere with your gang. 
However, this is not always true – CCG and Miniature game tournaments can take up all the available space and create so much noise that RPG games are nearly impossible to function.
I’ll give you a direct example of a non-private venue. I went over to a fellow gamer’s house to sit in on a game. I was considering joining this group and taking part in their campaign. The gaming venue was the living room, with a center table, plenty of room for gaming, and comfortable couches.
However, soon after we started, we discovered that the house actually belonged to the gamer’s parents. And those parents entered the adjacent dining room with grandchildren to have a family meal.
All of a sudden, the venue was no longer private – our gaming was obviously disturbing the family meal, and I personally felt very bad to interrupt that kind of interaction between grandchild and grandparent. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and that experience killed that gaming venue for me entirely.


Let’s talk safety for a minute. The most common issues I’ve run into regarding safety in a gaming venue revolve around things like allergies to pets or specific foods. However, I have also seen some gaming venues that involve people who make threats of physical violence… I’ve even seen a guy shoot a loaded crossbow inside a gaming venue (ask me more about that sometime in person, I’ll be happy to tell the entire story).
Needless to say, using weapons, physical violence, and threats are completely unacceptable in a gaming context. 
Related to this idea is that gamer behavior affects the feeling of safety – and by behavior I mean everything from aggressive posturing (the so called “alpha-nerd” philosophy) to the use or prevalence of racial slurs and profanity. To be fair, these issues (including the violence mentioned above) have MUCH more to do with the group than with the venue. I mention them specifically in context with the venue because there are some venues that involve people who are not players or GM’s – significant others, parents, siblings, roommates, children, and so forth.
I’ll give another example here. I once went to try out a local gaming campaign and see if I was a good fit for the group. I found that there was a roommate of one of the gamers present in the venue who clearly wanted to be “the alpha nerd.” Any game-related discussions were quickly derailed by the roommate’s attitude. It was not a comfortable venue for gaming.
Moving on, safety is about more than just the inside of the venue – if the only way to get to the venue is through an abusive toll road (true story) or requires that you park in a war-zone like urban center and walk several blocks in pitch darkness to get there, your venue isn’t really safe.

Potential Venues

Sometimes it can be tough to find a reasonable venue within driving distance for everyone in your gaming group. When I lived in Maryland, driving 45 minutes to the game was reasonable for me, but I can definitely sympathize with those who prefer a game much closer to home. (Editor’s note: This is why I generally prefer to host!)
Here are some ideas of places you can look for as a place to hold your game:

A Gamer’s Home

This is the most common venue (at least, in my experience). A home offers a lot of advantages in terms of privacy, and generally parking is a lot easier!

Game Stores (as mentioned above)


College Student Unions

I spent tons of time during my college education at the student union. And most of the time, I was playing games. Good times, good times.

Military Barrack Break Rooms/USOs

If you have one of these, I am envious. And I want to game with you.
These options worked great for me when I was stationed at Fort Knox! Plenty of space, plenty of privacy.

Business Break Rooms

This may seem a surprising choice, but there are some gamers who have this option, and it can be pretty awesome in the right hands. One of my friends in Minnesota happened to work at a bookbindery, and he made the business break room available to us after hours. It was a great venue for gaming. Similarly, I played at the offices of a video game company in Louisville when I lived there as well.


Some libraries offer meeting rooms that can be used during the library’s business hours. I’ve never had to do this myself but I do know that it is an option.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog entry has been helpful for thinking about your next gaming venue – and I hope that we can all agree to respect the need for comfort and safety for ourselves as players.

Building Character

Greetings readers – this has been a busy month. I’ve been working on a new RPG setting with two friends and colleagues, Jason Marker and John Dunn. In addition, I wrapped up design work on the Shadowrun skirmish miniatures game, Sprawl Gangers. I started some freelance RPG development work. Lastly, I did some additional writing for my own projects and made some additional freelance contacts. So yeah, lots of stuff going on.
This week I wanted to talk about building characters for RPGs. I’ve made more than a few characters in my career as a gamer – over 27 years at this point – so I believe I have some good perspective on the subject.

Step 1: What am I bringing to the table?

I need a “Blog Writing +1” skill.
The first thing that goes through my mind when I am building a character for an RPG is my desire to identify a unique role for my character in the group. Sometimes the concept itself comes first (i.e., “I want to play a swordmaster!”), but more often, I take a look around and see if the group I’m playing with has some strong inclinations towards a particular character type.
For me, I don’t want to end up stepping on another player’s toes. This can happen less often with a role and more often with a concept.Two characters with the same role can often find a way to make it work – all it takes is a bit of a different emphasis, a slightly different spin, or something of the sort.
For example, I recently made a character for a Shadowrun game, and I discovered that another player had created a very similar character in the same role. I had built a melee-focused combat character (a troll), and my friend had built a ranged-combat specialist who was also a troll. Two trolls can end up looking a lot alike in other circumstances. However, our characters found ways to emphasize the differences between us and the game is going really well. My friend focuses on his heavy weapons and I focus on being an awesome swordsman – we can back each other up, but we’re not copies!
As I said above, however, similar concepts are harder to reconcile. When it comes to an RPG, a character’s “concept” is often more than just the basic idea of who or what he is; it also encompasses the abilities and mechanics that character uses to interface with the game’s challenges.
Several years ago, I was in a Deadlands RPG game in Louisville, Kentucky. I made a character who was a riverboat gambler, an experienced man of the West with a swift gun, a hot temper, and an intimidating mien. What I didn’t know is that my good friend George had come to the table with his own character (somewhat based on Jonah Hex) – and his character had all those same traits. Although we started in different places, we had made two characters that were stylistically and mechanically very much alike. Needless to say, this pleased neither of us!
As always, communication is the key – I make sure to talk to the GM and talk to the group so that hopefully we can iron out any misunderstandings before the game begins.

Step 2: Identify the Character

There are a lot of things that make up a character’s identity. There’s the concept, of course – that original idea that defines who and what he is – and there’s the role the character plays in the group. 
Lots of different characters here!

However, identity doesn’t stop there. A character’s identity also has a lot to do with the mechanics of the character’s abilities, his role in the story, and the way that the character interfaces with the game.

Sometimes it is the character’s tools and abilities that make up his identity. In fantasy games, for example, the character’s choice of weapon can define him greatly – a barbarian with a two-handed axe is a very different warrior from the cunning elf wielding two daggers. In the Star Wars universe, Han Solo is well-known for his skill with his blaster pistol, while Luke and his lightsaber are rarely far apart.
One thing that is a bit unusual but can be a lot of fun is to maintain some mystery about your character’s abilities – “full disclosure” is the norm (at least in my experience…), but keeping some secrets can lead to some excellent moments in the game (caveat: this approach works best with the right group). A good example is my friend Bryant Smith’s Dungeons & Dragons character. He always was careful to simply describe his character’s appearance – a tall, helmed warrior wielding a unique-looking crossbow – and let everyone guess as to his character’s race and class. This was quite difficult, because the character exhibited several spells, excellent fighting ability, and even some thief skills. After literally years of having people make incorrect guesses, it was revealed that his character was in fact a female drow under the helmet – thus explaining some of the spells – and caused quite a stir!

Editor’s Note: I’m adding Bryant’s own comments here, because I think they’ve got some good advice in them:

ah yes…my Bounty Hunter Mandrill. I based that character on Kevin Kline in the Wild Wild West, Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet, and Boba Fett. Honorable yet severe, never coming out of the armor in the presence of the party (Fett), with the Gadgetry of Kline and Cadderly. It was always fun to work with the GM to come up with solutions to inventions I would need to mimic items found in Mandalorian armor. I seem to remember you being shocked most of all when the reveal finally came. lol.

I tended to build my characters off of a mood I wanted to play, and then figure out what best fit that in class. Sir Brennan, the fallen paladin, is an example that comes to mind. I wanted to play a fighter, a rather simple class when you really get down to it…however, I had recently watched Dragonheart, and thought Bowen, played by Dennis Quaid, was a very well thought out flawed character. So I made a drunkard that had fallen from the grace of the Storm Lord…and what better accent to have than an Irishman?

When approaching my templates for how I wanted something to play, I would seek inspiration from a flaw that I thought was interesting. It was either a weakness inherent in a race, or something that would tend to balance out my uncanny ability to see how numbers sometimes would work to make an awesome character class, but without the flaw, they would become a faceless arch type, forgotten soon after playing.

Govannon Tahl’aer ath Ghillie Sidhe would be a good example of that. Two things made him memorable to me: His honor driven by guilt at what he had done while a member of the Hunt of the Elves, and his naiveté of the human duality. I remember some of the most fun I had with him was missing a willpower check when confronted with the evil of humans and going into a homicidal rage, (something quite deadly to behold when a Blade Singer does that). Although, out of all the times I donned that role, the thing that has made me laugh the hardest was his very first battle upon introduction to the party. The look on your face when I said “I close my eyes.”, made my blindfighting check with ease, and rolled 4 crits out of 5 while facing the dracolich that had cast “mirror image” was, simply put, priceless.

My advice to someone looking to break the mold on their characters is to pick a favorite movie, then pick their favorite character and think about what it is that makes him or her interesting, and run with it. The class is just dice rolling and math…the personality is what makes them memorable.”

Of course, understanding the character’s background is another important step for feeling unique at the table. I definitely recommend that people choose something relatively simple and broad as a base from which to build the rest of that history – the “elevator pitch” of the character’s background. My character Ramien Meltides took part in the Messian Campaign thatI mentioned in another post, and her “elevator pitch” went like this: Ramien was raised as a farmgirl on a large rural plot of land, amongst apple orchards and log cabins.
From that one sentence, I can build a lot of details about Ramien’s past, and that foundation can become a touchstone for anytime that background could be relevant (such as bonuses to certain skill checks).
One more set of thoughts about this subject involves finding the skills and abilities that excite you the most.
For me, I have found that I enjoy characters more if I make sure to tag certain abilities that I enjoy using in the game and emphasize those on the character sheet.
For example, one of the most common checks you’ll make at any given RPG session is one for perception; noticing things. I found that I really enjoyed succeeding at these kinds of tests – and not just succeeding, but achieving large degrees of success. I found that I really like “having the eyes of a hawk” because I enjoyed getting more details about the setting for the game or any particular thing inside the game that I found interesting.
One of my favorite game systems is the Hero System – it allows me to make exactly the kind of character I want in great detail. However, early on, I was having a lot of trouble with the game – I was trying to fit my concept into the amount of points the game gave me, and I ended up spending those points in ways that would give my character a lot of options. Being a “jack of all trades” is fine, but I was lacking the depth in the things I really liked. Once I sat down and really examined which abilities I liked the most and concentrated on those, I enjoyed my character a lot more.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

With a unique role in the game and a good idea of the character’s identity, the next step for me is finishing him off! I look for three things to try and set the character apart; an image, a voice, and a connection with the other characters.
Decisions, decisions.

Finding an image is often as easy as browsing Google Images; sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle (superheroes are the most challenging for me), but I find this to be a good way to find at least something I can show the other players. If I don’t have access to the image, I just want to make sure I have an image in my head that I can use to describe my character to the other players with a decent level of detail.

Finding the character’s voice doesn’t always mean a funny accent. Sometimes that is appropriate (You should hear my Russian accent I used for my character Dmitri…), but more often, a character’s voice is about his word choice. Does he use big words? Small ones? Does he speak like an educated man or does he talk like a laborer? It can be something as simple as a particular catch phrase or an unusual laugh.
Finding a connection with other characters is something I need to work on more – lately, I’ve been falling back on making a character in a vacuum (although Shadowrun doesn’t really encourage building bridges between characters before the campaign). However, I do think these connections can be really important. I love developing these connections during play.
A good example of connections is Doc Holliday from the film Tombstone. Doc is a flawed, complex man who lives each day as if it might be his last – because he’s very sick and, in fact, dying. Somehow, this hedonistic, educated man made friends with one of the few people to ever look at him as something greater than he thought he was – and that man was Wyatt Earp. Doc devotes himself to Wyatt. Wherever Wyatt is, whatever Wyatt is doing, Doc is along for the ride, no questions asked. Because Doc knows that Wyatt has a strong moral compass, something that he himself lacks.
That is a great connection to have. A few years ago, I played in a Fantasy Hero campaign in Maryland. Early on, it became clear that our group was making characters revolving around a kind and virtous knight, Sir Patris (played by my good friend Stephen Furlani). I had already decided that I wanted to play an assassin, but my cover was that of a cook. I decided that my character respected Patris so much that he did not /want/ to reveal his profession, and took great pains to accompany Sir Patris and assist in his quests without ever letting slip his true abilities. It was a great challenge and added a lot to my character’s part in the story.

In Conclusion

I recommend that you take a close look at how you create characters for your RPG games – are there some things you always do? Are there some things you’ve wanted to do, but haven’t tried yet? Is it time to try something new, to break out of the rut? Or do you have an old favorite you’re itching to bring back?

Interview Time: Ed Stark

Greetings readers! This week I have another special interview with a luminary of the gaming industry: Ed Stark. Ed has an amazing pedigree as a game designer, having worked at West End Games, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast amongst many others.

The man, the myth, the legend: Ed Stark

I first became aware of Ed’s work while playing the Star Wars D6 System from West End back in the early 90’s (plus TORG, which I owned but did not play — see my review for more information).

Later on, I found one of my favorite RPG settings of all time, Birthright (which I have also reviewed here on the Warden). Ed had a lot to do with that setting, having developed and written for several books in the game line for TSR.

My first chance to meet Ed in person occurred Winter Fantasy 2001, an RPGA-focused game convention held in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Since I was living at the time not far away in Louisville, some friends of mine and I made the trip up to attend the convention.

Honestly, we did not know what to expect at Winter Fantasy; we’d never attended an RPGA-centered event before and we hadn’t signed up beforehand for any particular games. Our plan was to simply show up, check things out, and get in on some open gaming that (we assumed) would be going on at the same time.

Well, it turned out that Winter Fantasy doesn’t really have a lot of open gaming — I didn’t actually find any! In addition, since 99% of the attendees had signed up for RPGA games in advance, there wasn’t much of anything going on when the games were in session.

This worked out to my advantage, however — Winter Fantasy was hosting several special guests that year, including Monte Cook and Ed Stark.

Because all the other gamers were playing in their RPGA events, the guests of honor were basically sitting around by themselves over near the dealer’s area. My friends and I thought this was a real shame, so we went over and introduced ourselves.

What happened next was magical. We got to sit down and chat about games with Monte Cook and Ed Stark, face-to-face, by ourselves, for about three hours. That’s an opportunity that many gamers would kill for!

During this conversation, I talked to Ed about my desire and passion to write for RPGs and get into the industry. Ed listened and gave me some excellent advice. “If you want to write for RPGs,” he told me, “Just get out there and do it. I believe you can.”

From that moment, I moved forward as a writer and I credit my subsequent success in my career to that conversation.

Ed and I kept in touch over the years afterwards, and I always considered him my mentor.

In 2011, Ed contacted me about a position at Vigil Games in Austin Texas, working with him as writers on the Warhammer 40,000 MMO, Dark Millennium Online. I didn’t need to think about it very long — this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Ed at Gen Con in 2001 — check out that awesome dungeon!

Working with Ed on DMO was exceptionally instructive. I learned a ton about writing for games in general and working in the video game industry specifically. Having helped me find my way as a writer into two different industries, I consider Ed to be a supremely valued friend, colleague, and mentor.

Ed is now working at Zenimax Online as a Content Developer for the exciting new MMO, Elder Scrolls Online. He was gracious to answer some questions about his history in the RPG business for my blog — and there was absolutely no way I was going to pass up a chance to pick his brain about Birthright — and I’m very excited to present his answers below!

As always, my questions are in Red.

General Questions

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

One of Ed’s early projects, and a kick-ass sci-fi setting.

ES: It’s funny. I’ve been writing RPG material since I was a teenager, but I never really thought about getting published until I was in graduate school (English/Education) and was working three jobs to help pay for it (my parents helped out, too, but grad school isn’t cheap). I wrote a few freelance articles and then my future father-in-law saw an ad in a newspaper for an editorial position at West End Games. I interviewed for the position but was still in school, so they didn’t hire me. But six months later, after I graduated, they called me back and I became an RPG editor. Within a few months, I was also the lead designer at WEG (it was a very small company), as well as line editor for the Paranoia RPG.

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

ES: The freedom to be creative. Yes, most companies have established lines and, especially if you’re starting out, want you to right for their material and their style. But people have no idea how much more creative freedom you get in the RPG industry than in other publishing fields. After a few years of success, you can be a decision-maker in the RPG field, where that could take several years or even decades in other publishing or entertainment industries.

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

ES: This isn’t unique to the RPG industry, but volatility. If you want to keep working in the field, you’ve got to be lucky and adaptable. I know folks who’ve been at the same job for a decade … and others who’ve had to bounce around every couple of years. I guess “resilient” is a better term than adaptable. You have to set goals and work toward them, even if that means changing where you live or what you’re doing.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?

ES: That word “professional” is a big one. When I started in the industry, it was little more than a hobby that made money. It’s still a hobby, or some would say “cottage” industry, but there are definitely companies and people out there who want to make it a successful business. Some go about it the right way … whereas I worry when I see people getting too “business-like.” The best companies retain their hobby feel and atmosphere but develop management and brand sense.

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?

One of the books from my personal favorite edition of D&D. Great job, Ed!

ES: As a freelancer, ask questions about your assignment, communicate REGULARLY (note the all-caps), and hit your deadlines. If you can’t hit your deadline, communicate this EARLY (again, all caps) with a clear plan for how you’ll make up the time. Treat your freelance job much as you would an office job–set aside time each day for it, and commit to getting a certain amount of top-quality work done every day. You may have another job (many freelancers do), but don’t use that as excuse for letting your freelance slide.

As a publisher, encourage freelancers to ask questions, communicate REGULARLY with your freelancers (hmm … suspicious re-use of all caps), and hit YOUR deadlines (as in, payments, updates, etc.). Yeah, a publisher is more likely to get away with not paying a freelancer on time than a freelancer is with missing a few deadlines, but is that really the kind of reputation you want to develop? I have a short list of companies I’ll never write for (should I get back into doing freelancer again) unless I hear about significant improvements along that line … and I have current freelance friends who feel the same way.

Whenever possible, both parties need to act like they’re on the other side of the coin … because, really, they are. Freelancers depend on publishers for work and payment. Publishers depend on freelancers for quality material so they can sell it. Why screw up that relationship? Both parties need to plan ahead. If you can’t get the work done, don’t accept the project. If you can’t pay for the project, don’t assign it.

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

ES: I’d like publishers to work together more to grow the industry. Yes, it’s a bit of a fantasy (I’ve seen it when publishers get together in a room …), but the RPG industry isn’t huge. There have to be ways to grow it. I’ve heard the phrase “a high tide floats all boats.” Well, it’s true. I don’t have a silver bullet for making this happen, but if some smart publishers and freelancers got together and talking about growing the industry … and then actually acted on it … that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?

ES: Not as much as I’d like. Since moving to the computer gaming field, I haven’t been doing as much of this as I did in the past. I used to go to at least three or four conventions a year, and I was a regular on various company and gaming message boards. I always maintained an active online presence and was very candid with my opinions … though I was also good about telling people when I couldn’t talk about something.

I do miss having more regular communication with fans of my work, but it’s been awhile since I’ve published, so there you go. 🙂

Star Wars D6 has a well-deserved reputation as a great RPG.

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

ES: Participating in the development and release of D&D Third Edition and v.3.5. Being the Creative Director for D&D during those processes was a challenge–and a very different one each time–but I look back on that experience very positively. I very much enjoyed working with the people who actually wrote, edited, and provided artwork for those books, and I hope I made their experiences on the team better by my involvement.

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

ES: Oddly enough, my first job. When I was at West End Games, I was given a lot of responsibility, very fast. I didn’t make the most of the opportunity to learn, and I developed some bad habits as a designer that I had to work my way through. Like I said before, we were a very small company, so there wasn’t any sort of “backstop.” I very much appreciate the start WEG gave me, but if I could go back and do some of that over again, I’d love the opportunity.

That said, I’m very proud of my time at West End Games and still look back on many of those projects with fondness.

RW: If you were a space explorer, you’d be a…?

ES: Long way from here. Seriously, if I were an explorer, I’d be part of a small group, traveling to every new star and planet. I think my life as a designer shows that. I’ve lived all over the country, with the only real constant being my wife, Jill. Oh, she’d have to be a space explorer, too, to make this work.

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

ES: Who’s GMing? That’s the big question. If I’m DMing this instant, it’s either D&D 3.5 or MERP. If I’m playing and get to select the Game Master (a very key component of this question), it could be Villains & Vigilantes, Savage Worlds (thanks, Ross), Call of Cthuhlu, or any number of games. I’ve been in so many exciting and entertaining games over the years, I think more about who GMed the game than what we actually played.

RW: Shatterzone, Birthright, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Paranoia, Alternity, TORG, Star Wars D6… 3rd AND 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons – you have a ton of accomplishments in the gaming industry. If you could return to one of the games you’ve worked on in the past and create something new for it, which one would it be?

ES: Very tough question. I immediately think about things I’d fix, but that’s not really the question. I honestly felt we created everything for D&D that I really wanted to create (not to say there isn’t room for expansion), and I’d love to do a few fixes for Shatterzone and Masterbook, but if I had a blank check to create anything, I’d probably go with D&D 3.5. I’d spent a ton of time putting together a crazy super-adventure with a ridiculous number of props, hand-outs, and maps (not drawn by me, but by some of the guys who used to do the old TSR maps … even though we just lost one of the best, Dennis Kauth). It’d be one of those adventures designed to be run over several sessions, but that some people would sit down and play until they couldn’t stay awake anymore.

Birthright Questions

Pirates, monsters, nothing but adventure in Brechtur!

RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). You had a huge impact on the setting as a designer and developer – how do you feel about the setting 20 years later?

ES: Frankly, I think it was a terrific setting that was a bit too front-loaded. The concepts of playing a king (or a regent of another sort) and the rules for running kingdoms as an adventurer were terrific, but I think we overwhelmed players new to the campaign with all that information. I would very much like to see a more “progressive” Birthright game, where the players earned their way to kingship somewhere early on in their careers. All the best BR games I’ve run or played have worked that way, where the players developed their royal natures as part of the first few adventures, over weeks or months, so as to get totally immersed in the setting before they felt they had to “rule” it.

RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?

ES: Well, when I came to TSR, the boxed set was still being playtested, but much of it was ready to go. I remember playing in a test of the Domain Rules with Roger Moore (he was the Creative Director of the Worlds group at the time) where we pretty much ruled Anuire and created a pretty massive clash of kingdoms over the course of a few playtests.

But then I asked, “so, how long does a domain turn last?” “One month,” he replied. “And how many turns have we played so far?” I followed up, innocently. “Looks like about thirty.” So, nearly three years into our playtest “campaign” and things were really only heating up. Politics can take a long time …

RW: You also designed the setting for the Havens of the Great Bay and the Tribes of the Heartless Waste, two significant portions of the main Birthright world. The realm of Muden is obviously one of your favorites – did you have any other particularly exciting realms or regions that you find particularly memorable?

ES: Yes … though most of it never got published. I was spearheading the development of both the Shadow World and Aduria, the great southern continent. The Shadow World was very much patterned after the idea of the Celtic Unseelie Realm and as the home of the Cold Rider, a terrifying place. And halflings, who were natives of the Shadow World who’s fled where pretty scary, too.

Aduria was going to be a sort of “lost continent” setting, with very ancient remnants of fallen empires, sort of South American but without the Incan/Mayan/Aztec influence (that was Menzoberranzan). I was really looking forward to taking players into both realms, where they’d have to forge their own kingdoms from nothing.

RW: The Raven is one of the most interesting and unusual Awnsheghlien, and you could say his presence tends to dominate much of Vasgaard. Is there any thing you can tell us about the Raven’s nature or his eventual plans?

ES: Oh, it’s been so many years … Forgive me if I make a few errors of memory. As I recall, the Raven used his power of possession to take over a realm and then openly declared himself as one of the Lost, the disciples of Azrai. I always saw the Raven as unrepentantly evil, but also the symbol of what a lot of what other peoples think of the Vos–brutal, terrifying, and cruel. But the Raven sacrificed his humanity and the nobility the Vos can possess when he became a disciple of Azrai. In a way, he stands as a great contrast to what people think the “heartless tribes” are and what they actually can be.

The lands of Vosgaard and an awesome place to adventure.

RW: The elven realm of Tuar Annwyn is exceptionally mysterious and unlike any of the other elven realms in Birthright – can you tell us more about what was going on with that place?

ES: Using another Tolkien reference, I see Tuar Annwyn as a bit of a cross between a darker, more dangerous Lothlorien and something out of the Seelie realm of Faerie. I don’t know that I’d establish that direct a connection, but I do see Tuar Annwyn as straddling both worlds and trying to survive against the conflicts of both.

RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?

ES: If there were the opportunity, and I was free (I’m pretty busy right now at ZeniMax), sure, I would. I’d like to work with some of the old crew again in particular, and I could see a revised version really being something that could find a home among modern players. A lot of us watch Game of Thrones, and while Green Ronin is doing an excellent job with the RPG, I could see a higher-magic, D&D version carving out its own niche.

I would definitely focus more on the roleplaying and the world, using adventuring to fuel domain turns and regency. The key to a good Birthright game is getting the players involved in the world and invested in it … and then trying to tear it apart while they hold it together.

RPG Design: Game Balance

Greetings, readers – this week I want to talk about a hot topic in the modern marketplace for RPGs: Game Balance. Fair warning! This is a somewhat controversial topic and is no doubt going to cause disagreements.
Game balance is a term that can mean a number of things, depending on whom you ask. There’s a movement amongst some critical gamers that believes game balance lies in the mathematics and mechanics of the game. Others say that game balance is a factor that combines spotlight time at the table (the number of “opportunities for awesome” that come up for each player during a given session). Still others say that game balance is largely up to the GM alone, regarding his enforcement of the rules.
It’s important for me to note here that several designers I know personally have declared that RPG game balance is, at best, a “myth.” I’m going to examine the issue from my own perspective in today’s post.
As always, the opinions and thoughts presented here are my own from my personal experiences. YMMV.

Ross’s Definition of Game Design

I’m going to start off with my own, personal definition of Game Balance for RPGs:
To me, game balance means this: Each character archetype has a niche they can fill to significantly mechanically interface with the game; a unique contribution only they can make.
The term “significant mechanical interface” may sound familiar if you’ve read my Hack Factor blog entry about the classes for 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons. What it means is a way for the character to meaningfully contribute to moving the game forward using his character’s abilities in a way that works with the game’s mechanics (whatever those mechanics may be, from using a D&D Feat to a Shadowrun Quality to a Dark Heresy Talent or anything else of a similar nature).
Also, the term “unique” shouldn’t be taken as an absolute; what I’m really trying to get at is that most groups are composed of varying archetypes. Rarely will you see a group with more than one of any particular character “type,” (such as Fighters, Clerics, Energy-Projector superheroes, Street Samurai, etc.). Therefore, I’m assuming that most groups feature exactly such a varied lineup and thus there’s going to be opportunities for unique approaches that would otherwise simply be “uncommon” (if, for example, your party consists of multiple Rogues, Sorcerers, Street Shamans, Brick Superheroes, and so forth).
So as you can see, my definition of game design leans heavily towards the experience of the players – the “fun factor” of the game. If the game offers each player equal opportunities to do awesome things, that’s what I would consider a balanced game. Roleplaying Games try to address this approach in several different ways; Dungeons & Dragons and the 40K Roleplay systems use class-and-level systems that encourage players to take on structured roles in the group. More freeform games like Shadowrun and Savage Worlds use “archetypes” that are less strict than classes but still steer players towards fitting into particular niches.

Game Balance and Math

As I mentioned above, there is a design approach that, in my view, worships at the altar of math. This approach defines RPG game balance as an absolute mechanical balance; each character does the same average damage per turn, attacks the same number of times, or achieves an absolute average number of successes in any given task.
In the interests of full disclosure, I rarely find games fun that are produced from this particular design approach.
My experiences with math-oriented design have rarely been positive; I’ve witnessed designers debating whether or not a particular ability is unbalanced because it succeeds roughly 12% more often than other abilities in the same category. I’ve seen designers defend designs that make the game less fun by insisting that the rule only comes into play 18% of the time on average. I’ve seen designers place every character design into theoretical “thunderdomes” to ensure that each type can defeat the others on a 50/50 basis. This is not to say that some of these issues aren’t legitimate concerns for the game; they are. My point is that the amount of time, effort, and passion spent on tweaking the game’s math was far out of proportion (in my opinion) to the effort spent making sure the game was fun to play in the first place.
In my eyes, perhaps the most disappointing result of this approach is a game where all the characters end up doing almost the exact same thing during the game, and I can think of no better example of this than 4thedition Dungeons & Dragons. The performance of 4th edition D&D in the marketplace (currently third for sales behind Pathfinder at #1 and Edge of the Empire at #2) and its critical reception from gamers is the best evidence I can point to as to the relative success and popularity of its design.
To me, absolute mechanical balance is a great ideal to strive for, but is ultimately less important than the game’s “fun factor.” I will absolutely sacrifice mathematical balance if that sacrifice makes the game more fun.
As a small side note, mechanical game balance is far more important (and taken far more seriously by myself) in games without a roleplaying component, such as card games and miniature games. In those environments, making the math work just right takes higher priority. However, I stand by my approach as outlined above.
Here’s a short list of games that I feel has striven very hard for attaining absolute mathematical balance (to varying degrees of success).

  • 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons 
  • GURPS 
  • Hero System

Often, a game’s complexity has a significant effect on its mechanical balance, or the perception thereof. Rules-light games may appear balanced at first, but there’s no guarantee that a rules-light system is any different (keeping in mind my personal definition of game balance) based on its design.

Perfect Imbalance

There’s a concept in video gaming called “Perfect Imbalance.” It is best described by this Extra Credits clip. The short version is that there is a game design approach where one archetype option (in RPG’s, this would be a player character archetype) is slightly more attractive on a mechanical level. This an intentional choice, because the design approach builds in later improvements to other archetype options that, in turn, make them more attractive mechanically in a cycle. Similar to a “rock-paper-scissors” approach, perfect imbalance means that players stay invested and engaged with the game by always having something fresh to look forward to, even though it may appear on the outside that the players are dissatisfied with the perceived imbalance.
Perfect Imbalance is a design approach that fits very well into the life cycle of an RPG line, where supplements and sourcebooks introduce new options and features that temporarily make certain character types more attractive until the next book in the cycle is produced. When the “fighter book” is released, fighters look mechanically more attractive; when the “cleric book” comes out, the same can be said for clerics. The key is to make sure that the options remain viable and – most especially—relevant throughout the cycle.

Addressing Imbalance

Looking back at my gaming experiences over 25+ years, I’ve concluded that many of my favorite RPGs have a great deal of imbalance built into their designs, intentional or not. Ultimately, I prefer a game that is fun and immersive over one that is perfectly balanced. I think that possibly the best way to address any balance issues in a game is, first and foremost, an awareness of the problem. If the GM knows what the balance issues are (such as the significant advantages full casters have in a 3.0 or 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons game, or the advantages magicians have in a Shadowrun 4thedition game), then he can adjust the types of challenges he provides. Often, many problems of balance can be simply addressed by a group’s social contract before the game begins. It can be as simple as an agreement that a Star Wars RPG campaign should be either “All-Jedi” or “No-Jedi.”

In Closing

Is there such a thing as a perfectly balanced game? I honestly don’t know – and my personal design philosophy means I probably won’t ever find out. My approach has always been “don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good.’”
At the end of the day, I am satisfied and fulfilled if I have produced a game that is “good.” Quality is important to me, but I consider perfection to be an ideal that – while worth pursuing – is ultimately going to lead only to disappointment, unacceptable delays, and interference with producing additional quality content.
I’m planning to revisit this concept in the future, maybe for a part 2 and a part 3, looking at some intentionally imbalanced games such as Ars Magica, Rogue Trader, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.