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Interview Time: Sean Patrick Fannon

When I started Rogue Warden, one of my goals was to go around and interview a number of my friends and colleagues in the RPG industry—partly to help raise awareness of the blog, of course, but also to get some insight into the professionals that create the games I love. Today’s interview is with a man I would describe as a rogue, a colleague, a Game Master, and a friend: Mr. Sean Patrick Fannon.
Sean with his fiancee, Carinn Seabolt. Sean, you lucky dog!!
I’ve known Sean for several years, having run into him in a particularly memorable (and somewhat embarrassing) incident at Gen Con during its last year in Milwaukee. I got a chance to play in one of Sean’s demo games that year for Shards of the Stone, and I could tell right away that Sean had a notable passion and love for games.
I had known of Sean’s work before meeting him due to my deep appreciation of Champions 4th edition, and Sean worked on many of my favorite books of that line.
Later on, Sean gets the credit for introducing me to (at the time) a new-fangled RPG system called Savage Worlds—I was particularly impressed by how that system handled 20+ players at the same time in one of Sean’s Shaintar convention games!
I’d like to call out a couple of really interesting and thought-provoking pieces written by Sean: the first being the Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible and the second being his Project ’77 “gamer manifesto” post.
Currently, Sean has finagled his way into a great position as the Customer Marketing and Communications guy for DriveThruRPG. Also, Sean is the man responsible for single-handedly convincing Kevin Siembieda to bring Palladium Books into the 21st century by offering PDFs of their products on DriveThruRPG. Way to go, Sean!
Sean wrote the excellent “How to use Enemies” chapter in this book.

Lastly, I’m pleased to say that Sean and I are colleagues, having worked together on projects including the ENnie-award winning Creatures Anathema. Take it from me, Sean’s a talented writer and one HELL of a GM.

If you want to know more about Sean, check out his blog and this episode of The Game’s The Thing (it’s an eye-opener!)
Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
(See the rest of the interview after the jump… it’s a big one!)

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
Sean: In 1977, I discovered D&D thanks to a “GAMES Magazine” article, and got my mom to buy me the early boxed set (the one with the powder blue rulebook inside). I had a keep on the border of some lands, and no one to teach me a thing about what I was doing. I honestly believe my impetus to become a designer of worlds and a writer of gaming stuff came from that “first one into the wilderness” beginning. 
From that beginning, I forged ahead as a gamer, GM, and writer/designer with a heavy focus on the immersive qualities of roleplaying. For me, it’s always been about creating the environment in which all of us get to tell stories like the ones we read and watch. With Star Wars releasing the same year I discovered D&D, you can rest assured the sweeping, epic qualities of action/adventure cinema have always been a huge influence on me, and remain so to this day.
A man wears a hat like that, isn’t afraid of anything.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Sean: At some point, all of the worlds and characters and stories I’d created convinced my players and friends that I was at least as good as anyone being published at the time. This was the mid-eighties, as the RPG industry was just beginning its meteoric climb from a “some copies sold at conventions” to a pervasive presence in any store likely to carry games and toys. 
I finally decided to take my shot at writing professionally by submitting a review to Scott Haring, who was Editor-in-Chief for “The Gamer Magazine.” I got a few published, and that was all I needed to decide it was indeed time to dive headlong in. At this stage of things, there was no easy access via the Internet, so face-to-face and mailed letters were still the best way to communicate with the publishers you wanted to write for.
(Note that self-publishing wasn’t the easy way in that it is today; if you didn’t work with an established publisher – who was taking all of the financial risk to develop, prepare, and print a product as well as the massive effort to sell it through the distribution networks – you were going to have to come up with rather significant financial capital just to get a single book done and out yourself.)
I’ve always been pretty good with in-person encounters, and I had plenty of friends on the staff of DragonCon. I got myself a Staff badge, hit the floor of the exhibitor hall on set-up day, and proceeded to help the folks of Iron Crown Enterprises and Hero Games set up their booth. Hero was partnered with ICE at that time to publish all of the Champions and Hero System stuff at that time, and that was the realm I wanted to play in as a designer and writer. Helping them gave me an opportunity to not only introduce myself, but make a pitch for a game product.
The Final Reich – a modern-day team of Nazis and their organization.
They pretty much rejected it out of hand; they’d just had to recall Wings of the Valkyrie, a module where the superheroes had to actually save Hitler to save the future. This did not apparently sit well with an influential Jewish organization, so ICE yanked it rather than deal further with the controversy.
Fortunately, I’d impressed them enough to open the way for another pitch, which is where High Tech Enemies came from. After that, I was on their list, and eventually became the Continuity Editor for the Champions Universe for a time. At that time, success bred success, as other companies and editors wanted to work with folks who had proven they could write and get work in on time.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Sean: People live in worlds I create or help to develop. I really can’t think of anything more heady than that.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Sean: I’m one of the very few people I know who enjoys a steady paycheck and insurance benefits in this industry, and I still live literally paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who treats their role in the RPG industry as their primary income probably lives well below the poverty line. 
Alas, poor Shards of the Stone–a great concept, dead before its time.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
Sean: I have no illusions about how much time, effort, and struggle is involved in making this a career. At the same time, things are so very much easier than they were at the beginning. In just the five years you mention, technologies and techniques have developed so rapidly that literally anyone can go from fan to published creator in a single night. Nothing stops anyone from getting into this professionally – except themselves. You still have to actually do the work, instead of just talking about it.
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?
Sean: Using the tools and tech that’s available now, I see building teams around an idea and moving forward with everyone owning a piece of the total result. It’s not possible to cut everyone in for a percentage of the revenue of a specific product without anyone fearing “getting screwed.” Using the royalty system of a site like DriveThruRPG, you can do “moment of transaction” royalty splits; each time a product is purchased, each person that’s a part of it gets their cut instantly.
Frankly, I’m kind of surprised we don’t see more of this happening than we do right now.
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?
Sean: With the “Everyone Can Play” atmosphere of the `Net, it’s more important than ever that all of us who represent the working professionals of the industry act in a fashion that provides the right example. We don’t need to be stiff-necked and difficult (leave that to the better-paid non-gaming sector), but we can certainly maintain a level of mature composure and professional demeanor that gives our customers and fans confidence in us as they support us.
Freelancers best serve themselves by communicating effectively with the teams they are working with. They need to hit their deadlines, and if for some reason they can’t, they need to let their editors and developers know as soon as they do. Freelancers also need to ensure they respect the properties they are being allowed to play with; if they bring too much into a project that isn’t really compatible with what has gone before, they force their editors to do a lot more work to get the product in shape.
Publishers need to be forthright about all of their expectations right from the start. At the same time, they can go a long way towards easing new freelancers into the process by providing helpful tools and examples of what they need and expect. I recently finished a project with Fantasy Flight Games, and I was massively impressed and pleased to work with an actual template they provided for my writing; it provided all of the headings and related formatting right in the document, which meant what I ultimately delivered fit neatly into their development and layout process right off.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
Sean: The money. It is a sincere shame that we all work just as hard as any other creator of entertainment, yet most of us cannot really make a decent living at it. Unfortunately, the realities are that our customer base remains a niche marketplace. The pie we’re all scrambling to eat from is only so big, and that means there’s just not the kind of revenue flowing through that the electronics industry sees – never mind the fiction, television, and motion picture industries.
I’d just like to see easier access to health care options. Too many of my colleagues have to hold onto jobs they utterly despise in order to have crappy insurance that barely takes care of them and their families.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Sean: I’m very active in social networking, especially Facebook and Google+. As well, I go to a lot of conventions (a LOT of them), and I love doing panels where I can talk about all of this stuff. Most importantly, though, I love just sitting down at the gaming table and playing with my fellow gamers.
A must-own for any serious roleplayer.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Sean: At one point, I would have said writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible. However, in 2010 Haiti was hit with a 7.+ earthquake and it literally rocked the world in many ways. Chuck Childers (my colleague at DriveThruRPG, where I work now) and I jumped on a plan to pull together products from all of the publishers that wanted to help and do a kind of “mega bundle” for raising funds. We figured we’d help pull together a few thousand dollars, if all went well.
We raised nearly $179,000.00, which we donated to Doctors Without Borders (that was Carinn Seabolt’s idea, the love of my life). 
Creating and developing a means for our culture to be more socially conscientious and effective in helping the world be a better place? That is, undoubtedly, my greatest achievement so far in this industry. 
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
Sean: I don’t write nearly enough. A complete lack of effective time management, mixed with other issues and distractions, has kept me far from my potential for the amount of work I should have produced by this stage of my career.
One of my favorite Champions 4e books!
RW: Your book, Hi-tech Enemies is one of the best Enemies books for 4th Edition Champions (IMHO). Can you tell us a bit more about the Destruction Company, Doc Digital, or the development process of the book in general? Were Sci-Fi and Fastball former player characters of someone in your group?
Sean: Wow, it’s been a long, long time since I thought about that book! Thanks for the very kind words. 
Here’s the funny thing – many of the characters created for High-Tech Enemies were created whole cloth for that book. I had a few technological and scientific enemies in my ongoing campaign, and the Montgomery family was very prevalent in my personal “mythology,” both as a GM and as a player. So Master Control had been the main villain for me for quite some time, and the STRIKE Units had been plaguing my players for a while. As well, Crossbow and Stellar Paladin (though the latter was originally called Starknight when I played him, way back in 1984-86) have always been player characters for me.
The Destruction Company was also an infamous villain group in my campaign, and the Weasel remains the single-most hated supervillain I’ve ever put into a game.
Pretty much the rest of the villains – and their stories – came up as I developed the book from scratch. Granted, I intentionally wove various stories together as I did so; I’ve always loved having a sense of continuity and back story for the villains, and tying all of them into the framework of the campaign overall. I didn’t mean, at first, to create a continuity whole-cloth for the what would become the Champions Universe, but somehow that’s a major part of what happened as I wrote up all those stories, relationships, and backgrounds.
Doc Digital and his group sprang forth from pure inspiration, and that remains one of my favorite creations for the C.U..
RW: Hi-Tech Enemies tied in to two other 4th Edition Champions books; Corporations (for Montgomery International) and Allies (for the Cyber-Knights). How many years were the Cyber-Knights active in your home campaign? (My personal favorites are Crossbow and Heavy Duty)
Sean: Again, the Cyberknights as a group never actually existed in play form; Crossbow was a personal player character for me for a long time, and Hardwire evolved from another character I played for a bit. I built the rest of the team around them, strictly based on the fact that they’d been mentioned so much in High-Tech Enemies. 
They became very real after publication of the book, though, and frequently assisted other hero groups in my campaigns afterwards.
Part of any good Champions 4e collection…
RW: When you designed The Mutant File for 4th edition Champions, what were your biggest influences? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of that book?
Sean: Naturally, Marvel’s take on mutants and their place in society strongly informed everything that had been done with mutants in the Champions Universe by the time I got handed the book. My goal was to tap into that particular gestalt while still trying to create distinctive elements that were unique to the CU.
At the time, I really enjoyed creating all of the stuff I did for Genocide. In hindsight, however, I have to admit that so much of it was very derivative of existing material in comics. I still think the characters and agents are cool, but I really could have stretched farther than I did.
I think the Downtrodden remain some of my favorite characters, and I truly enjoyed riding the line between villainous and sympathetic with IMAGE.
RW: Can you tell us more about your thoughts on the Downtrodden (the mutant superpowered biker gang led by Fry Daddy) and Genocide?
Sean: The Downtrodden are generally decent, but they’re mostly just a bunch of people out on the road, trying to get by. I’ve had a lot of fun using them as surprise allies in various stories, especially when Voodoo needs to reach some heroes and let them know about something happening on the Grand Scale. 
As with all my character stuff, these folks just start writing themselves. I come up with a bare-bones concept, and then start writing and see where it goes. The relationship between Fry Daddy and Tabitha literally wrote itself as fingers hit the keyboard. I love that.
The same thing happened as I was working on Genocide, and even though much of it is conceptually derivative, I remain proud of the fact that all of the characters stand up as their own people. The inner workings, conspiracies, and the rest of it just gelled together, and it is a scary and effective organization.
Immortal Legends indeed…
RW: I believe that your fantasy RPG setting, Shaintar, represents one of your greatest accomplishments in gaming. Do you feel that’s true?
I know that my most well-known work is either from my original association with Champions or writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, but I do feel that Shaintar is my very best work – especially the new stuff about to be released by Reality Blurs.
RW: Shaintar has lived both in convention games, online, and in your home campaign across the country. Can you tell us more about how you’ve developed this world for so many years?
Sean: That would be a long essay all by itself, Ross. 😀

Let’s just say I started with a keep on some borderlands of somewhere back in 1977 and, having no world to work with, I started building one. Over the decades, that world evolved organically, benefiting from all I was learning about world-building, story-telling, and running good campaigns. Inspired by fantastic people like Ed Greenwood, Lawrence Kasdan, and Joe Straczynski, as well as exceptional game masters like Albert Deschesne, Mike Dean, and Marcus Pregent, I learned a great deal about making a campaign setting full of story potential and a compelling place for players to inhabit with their characters over the long haul.

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?
Sean: My job isn’t to create inviolable rules of play. My job is to create processes and tools that foment creativity and facilitate creative shared storytelling. If I empower a Game Master with a set of rules and guidelines that give him or her confidence in making good on-the-spot decisions, I am successful. If the players had a great time and want to play again, that goes in the Win column.
RW: If you were a shadowrunner, you’d be a…?
Sean: Street samurai with a serious paladin complex. This would, of course, make me very unpopular with other shadowrunners. I know this already from painful experience…
RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?
Sean: Kind of funny, that, because inevitably any system I become enamored of becomes one I want to work with. I’d say BASH! (Basic Actions Super Heroes) is one at this point, though I am already doing some development in that area. I love its clean resolution, its flexibility, and the ease at which it handles most superheroic combat situations.
I want to give props to Pathfinder for getting the OGL version of D&D right. I am also keenly interested in the Ubiquity system (though, again, my non-involvement with it may not last very long).
I will always love both Torg and Rifts – not for the system, in either case, but for what they accomplished in terms of epic genre-twisting and big stories.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Sean: Confident and clear communication, and a respect for what has been done already. Whenever someone comes crashing through the door with the idea that they know better than anyone else, all I can do is remember how I felt that way… and how wrong I was. 
Someone who talks a lot about something but has little to show for it? Instant red flag.
Finally, if you wish to be a professional game designer/writer, you must be willing to use proper words, grammar, and spelling in all forms of communication. If you tend towards “l337” or “Text-ese,” I tend to not take you seriously. Yes, this even means texting; don’t use “I have something 4 u.” Take the time to write “I have something for you,” if you want me to not put a block up where you are concerned as a writer.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Sean: Savage Worlds – just about anything.

Gaming Awards

The list of nominees for the 2011 ENnie awards have just been released, and I’m super-proud to say that there are three products on that list with my name in it. I have won some ENnies before (for Dawnforge in 2003 and Creatures Anathema in 2008), and I’m honored that my work has been recognized in this way.
Today’s blog post is all about the art and science of gaming industry awards, so I need to be clear up front with full disclosure: I’ve won some ENnies—I’ve participated in the ENnies process many times, and they are probably my favorite set of gaming awards in the current landscape.
All that having been said, let’s talk about gaming awards in general. What are they? How do they work—or not work? Is there a better way? These are the questions I’d like to address.
Hey now, no recursion!

Who Are the Awards For?

Of the gamers I know in my local area, roughly two-thirds of them are aware of gaming industry awards in a general sense, and amongst those, there are many who find them useful and/or possibly influential. One-third simply does not care and is not influenced by them at all.
I’ve heard it said that mostly gaming awards are for the industry, not the consumers—I guess I just like to imagine that, just like there are film buffs who discuss the Academy Awards, there are game buffs who discuss gaming awards.
In my experience, the ones that are most affected by industry awards are the industry professionals themselves. The folks who spend all that time and energy and money making games are the most invested in the recognition those games receive… and I’m fine with that. It definitely looks good on a resume, and I can speak from experience that having won an industry award is helpful getting one’s foot in the door for doing work with a professional gaming company.
I think for many gamers, relevance is the most important issue when it comes to awards—but that is also a complicated issue. Obviously, the award is meant to be given to the most qualified recipient. But what meaning does an award have if it is given to an extremely obscure product? There’s something to be said for the awards raising awareness of more niche games, and I am definitely a proponent of that… but a quality game, IMHO, is generally one that is recognizable to many, if not most, gamers who pay attention to the awards in the first place.
Now this is an award I’d love to have on my shelf…

Is There a Better Way?

My friend and colleague Kevin Wilson used to say that what the industry really needs is some kind of journalistic approach to awards. For example, printed novels have the “New York Times Bestseller List.” RPGs have no real journalistic, “neutral third party” group to provide an objective viewpoint. Having researched this issue for some time, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a better and more ideal way of handling awards… but I have no idea of what it is. I can say that I feel personally the ENnies is the most representative option of gaming awards in our industry—although there’s still room for improvement.

Which Awards?

Let’s check out the current crop of gaming industry awards. The “big two” are the Origins Awards and the ENnies. There are also smaller award groups like the Golden Geek awards, the Indie RPG awards, and the Diana Jones award.

The Origins Awards

According to their Wikipedia entry, the Origins Awards have been around since roughly 1987 and have been more of a force in the industry since 2000. I know that I first became aware of them sometime in the 90’s and started paying a lot more attention towards the early 2000’s, especially given the rocky events of that decade (see below). The Origins Awards has the prestige of being the first and probably most recognized set of game industry awards. The Origins Game Fair is built around the Origins awards, and it is the current keeper of the game industry hall of fame. For these reasons, Origins is one of the “Big Two” in the gaming industry awards set alongside the ENnies awards (see below).

The Good

The Origins awards try hard to be comprehensive; they attempt to recognize nearly every category of product you’d see in a typical game shop—from RPGs, to miniature games, to board games, and so forth.

Additionally, the Origins awards encompass the Hall of Fame mentioned above and are a proponent of the Origins Game Fair. These are all good things that I personally give them credit for.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the Origins awards have become increasingly irrelevant over time. I myself know of at least two big name game companies that refuse to have anything to do with the Origins awards. In addition, the method by which awards are nominated and which games are recognized is confusing and opaque.
Personally, the last several years of Origins awards have never failed to leave me scratching my head and wondering why certain games won awards and others were ignored. A good example from the 2011 awards is the Best Miniature Game category. While I am certain that the Blackest Night Heroclix had some quality to it, I’m very surprised that games like Malifaux were passed over in its favor.
Similarly, the 2006 awards gave RPG of the year to Burning Empires whilst ignoring Spirit of the Century… if someone can explain this to me, by all means, chime in down in the comments section, because I find these kinds of decisions absolutely baffling.
The RPG of the year for 2011, according to the Origins Awards, is Arcanis. I’m certain Arcanis is a fine product, but this is also the year of the Pathfinder Beginner’s box, the Mouse Guard boxed set, and Savage Worlds Deluxe… which (for me) makes no sense.
The actual awards show itself (hosted at the Origins Game Fair) is an impressive affair… but is noticeably lacking some of the bigger names of the industry in attendance. Even companies that participate in the awards (i.e., sending in product for consideration) rarely make an appearance.
These are some of the reasons why I believe the Origins Awards have become essentially meaningless—the awards are being shunned by significant publishers, the awards themselves are handed out without seeming rhyme or reason, and…

The Ugly

The Origins Awards are frustratingly opaque as to how the awards (and the Hall of Fame) are handled. The Origins Awards are decided by the “Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design,” which is apparently a part of GAMA. I regret to say that I don’t have a lot of hard facts regarding the specific function of the Academy or the Awards, nor could I find such information on the GAMA website. It’s possible that such info is there, but it’s certainly buried beyond a casual search. 
Ultimately, I have no idea how the Origins Awards work—I presume that if you’re a member of GAMA or on the GAMA board, you can vote with the Academy… or maybe the Academy is the board… I just don’t know. And to me, opaque awards committees are basically just a recipe for disaster.
There was, in fact, just such a disaster in the early part of the new millennium. In 2004, Ryan Dancey had been elected treasurer of GAMA—Dancey had previously served as a Brand Manager for WOTC during the heady years of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd and 3.5 edition and was a key figure in the Open Game License of that era. Dancey’s election was part of a much-anticipated “reform group” that it was hoped would change the Origins Awards, the Academy, and GAMA for the better.
This scandal tainted the Origins Awards’ integrity and was one of the reasons that some publishers (mentioned above) chose to steer clear of the awards show from that point forward.

My Opinion: The Origins Awards used to mean something, but now I believe they are completely irrelevant both to the average gamer and the industry at large. The meaning and significance of the Origins Award has been severely tarnished by the 2004 scandal, and I think it would take some major effort on the part of the Academy to redeem the awards into something meaningful once again.

The ENnies Awards

The ENnies have been around since 2001 and are an outgrowth of a popular and influential RPG website known as EN World, a site built by Eric Noah focused around Dungeons and Dragons (particularly its D20 incarnation during 3rd and 3.5 edition). Initially, the awards were solely internet-based and only recognized contributions to the d20 license, but the awards have since blossomed and grown into a much more comprehensive look at the RPG industry as a whole. Since 2002, the awards have been held at a live event at Gen Con—it’s actually quite a lively and fun show, and I definitely recommend attending if you have any interest in the awards or the nominees.

The Good

The ENnies, as mentioned previously, take a good long look at the RPG industry and recognize a number of elements in that industry every year, from “Best Production Values” to “Game of the Year.” A panel of Judges are nominated and voted on each year by the public, and these Judges then select the top nominations for each category. The winner in each category is then determined by popular vote.
This means that getting an ENnie nomination is the real victory—the most popular game in each category generally wins (there was a particularly memorable sweep of awards by Pathfinder in 2010, for example).
The nomination and voting process are fairly transparent, the nominations in each category are quite relevant and generally reflect the best entries for that year, and a majority of publishers—both upper- and lower-tier—participate every year.
Even in years where one company dominates (such as 2010), the nominations list makes sense to me—in my opinion, it accurately reflects the highest quality of the games released. There are definitely some cases where I disagree with the winner, but I generally nod my head when scanning over the nominations list.
One thing that is critical to note is that the ENnies Judges review only the games that are sent to them by the publisher. As one example, the Fantasy Flight Games entries for 2010 (including amongst them Deathwatch and a number of other 40K RPG books) were not submitted in time due to some health issues, and thus they were not considered for that year’s awards.

The Bad

My only serious criticism of the ENnies is that I would like to see them widen their scope—as I mentioned during my look at the Origins Awards, I enjoy seeing comprehensive awards that look at every aspect of tabletop gaming. The ENnies has done a good job of growing and evolving since its inception in 2001, and I would really like to see that continue and encompass broader portions of tabletop gaming… maybe start looking at board games, or including more categories for miniatures, as some examples.

The Ugly

I don’t really have much to say here. The ENnies have, to my knowledge, stayed clear of any major stumbling blocks and have done a great deal to bring respect and honor to the industry in the form of official recognition—the awards themselves.
My Opinion: I’m a self-admitted fan of the ENnies. I think they’re the most relevant and significant awards you’ll find in the gaming industry, and I’m planning on attending the award show at this year’s Gen Con.

And the Rest

After the “big two,” there are a few other RPG awards that I feel are worth discussing:

The Diana Jones Award

My Opinion: The Diana Jones award is quirky, but relevant, and the awardees all appear deserving. Overall, I’m a fan.

The Indie RPG Awards

My Opinion: I don’t know much about the Indie RPG Awards, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. The Indie awards exist in part to help raise awareness of the more obscure and niche RPGs in the industry, and I think that is a laudable goal. Many of the winners of this award are definitely relevant and I am pleased that they’re around—I wish there was a way to incorporate them into the ENnies to help both sides of this equation grow and receive the recognition they’ve earned.

The Golden Geek Awards

My Opinion: The Golden Geek Awards are a very recent entry into the industry awards area, brought about by the site BoardGameGeek.com. Lately, the Golden Geeks have added categories for RPG products, and I definitely hope to see the Golden Geeks improve in both prominence and breadth. My only concern is the opacity of how the awards are nominated and voted on… but this is a hurdle I think the Golden Geeks can easily overcome.

The Hack Factor

A quick side note–I’ve been slackin’ lately! I missed a whole week of updates. I’ll try to do better. Enjoy a super-sized blog post this week to make up for it!
Today’s blog post title is slightly disingenuous… I’m actually intending to talk about two main factors of RPG character types, and “Hack Factor” is only half of the equation. A sexy, sexy half. So sexy that the name itself forced me to grant it the singular honor of the post title. Congratulations, id!
Moving on, I want to briefly talk about tabletop RPG characters. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with various folks, from my D&D Dungeon Master to fellow game designers about what makes a particular type of character compelling. Naturally, any character can have a compelling concept, backstory, or even something as simple as a cool name or a really sweet picture (often found on Deviantart or 4Chan).
Who do I want to be today?
However, for me and many gamers like me, among the most important elements of a character are mechanical in nature. How does the character interact with the game’s mechanics? How well can they weather the storm of combat? Most RPGs have a strong focus on combat because of the nature of RPGs… I would posit that most RPGs feature direct, violent action against the antagonist of the story in a confrontation as the climax of a given session or campaign.
Thus, while my own taste in characters definitely involves the intangibles of his backstory, concept*(see below), name, image, and so forth, I often spend far more time and energy considering the character’s mechanical benefits: his Utility Factor and Hack Factor.
*Caveat: I should take the time here to say that, for me, the concept of the character is the trump card. If I have a really compelling concept, that’s what I’ll want to play, regardless of any other influences.

Utility Factor

 

If it’s good enough for Batman…
My definition of a character’s Utility Factor is a measure of how often he can meaningfully interact with the game on a mechanical level. Another way to put it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—outside of combat?”
Often a character’s Utility Factor is a representation of things like the number and variety of skills he possesses (especially social skills), social abilities, the number and variety of spellcasting or psionic or similar powers, movement abilities, and any realm-building or leadership-style abilities.
For example, in Rifts, I really like the Manoan Amazon R.C.C. This character can cast spells, use psionic abilities, and possesses a bunch of interesting nature-related skills as well as some enhanced senses. That’s a lot of utility factor in one character!
Similarly, in the Hero System, I like a character that has a wide variety of skills. My character Technicality can investigate a crime, hack the syndicate’s computers, and even argue a case in a court of law—all valuable and meaningful ways to mechanically interface with a superhero game.

Versatility Trumps Everything Else

One thing that I’ve learned from over 25 years as a tabletop RPG player is that he who has the most options generally “wins” by having something cool to do more often. I’m generalizing with a broad brush here, admittedly—I’ve played in games before with very un-versatile characters and have had a lot of fun. So to get it out of the way early, I should point out that a talented GM can make nearly any game fun, regardless of mechanics.
That having been said, I do find that the more options I have, the better my play experience tends to be, especially in the long run over a number of sessions in the same campaign. In many, many gaming systems, spellcasters happen to be an excellent example of this. Spellcasters are rarely the strongest or toughest or most agile character type you can pick, but they usually have a huge bag of goodies to choose from in any given situation. Zap the bad guy? No problem. Breathe underwater? Got it covered. Invisibly snatch the idol from the primitive altar? You got it.
Versatility usually comes at a price; spells can only be cast once a day, or must be re-memorized before being cast again, or cost a number of “spell points” that must then be replenished.
Having a versatile character means that you have a high Utility Factor, and often, it also means you have a high Hack Factor as well. Why? The Utility Factor part should be self-evident; the more versatile a character, the more opportunities are present to engage with the game. Versatile characters are also generally good at combat as well, especially with being able to engage enemies at range (via a lightning bolt spell, for example) or locking down foes with debuffs, adjustments to their movement (such as a web spell), or altering the conditions of the fight itself (such as summoning a storm). 
A Versatile character may not be able to dish out as much damage as a character who focused entirely on fighting, but such characters can still achieve a high Hack Factor by being able to do more than just inflict damage. In fact, some versatile character types (such as spellcasters in Dungeons and Dragons) can eventually achieve immense amounts of damage or eliminate the opponent outright at higher levels of play—all simply due to the vast amount of options available.

Hack Factor

When in doubt… Hack!
My definition of a character’s Hack Factor is a measure of his raw ability to perform meaningful actions on a mechanical level in combat. Another way to define it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—in combat?”
Meaningful combat actions often involve doing lots of damage, hitting enemies on a consistent basis, applying status effects (such as blinding them, grabbing them, etc.), locking down enemies with special abilities (such as spellcasters, psionics, etc.), and being able to drop lots of lower-level enemies or (often, singular) higher-level enemies more efficiently.
In the Feng Shui RPG, I played Keiichi O’Hara, a Karate Cop who focused his abilities on being able to take out Named Characters (the more powerful and rarer type of enemy) more efficiently—this was his role in combat, to seek out the biggest, baddest bad guy and hand him his head.
In West End’s D6 Star Wars RPG, I played Kaldryn, a Trianii Ranger. He was an alien warrior whose abilities were well-suited for causing havoc on the battlefield and taking out lots of lower-level enemies while the other party members handled the bigger threats.

Damage is Not the Key

In most tabletop RPG’s, combat happens a lot. That means inflicting damage is good, and inflicting lots of damage is great! However, if your character’s only option to do serious damage to an opponent depends on your ability to run up to him and whack him with a sword, it’s not as good as it initially appears. Many RPGs feature magic, science, some combination of the two, or other such esoteric abilities that let opponents fly, levitate, create walls or change the nature of the battle’s terrain. Thus, the ability to reach a foe and hit him with a sword is certainly not guaranteed. How fast can the character move? Can he fly?
If you asked me what I consider the most important part of Hack Factor, I would define it thusly: one’s ability to consistently affect the battle. Naturally, “affecting the battle” often involves simply defeating as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible, but doing direct damage is not absolutely necessary to qualify. Grappling an enemy wizard, using a debuff on the entire enemy force, or shutting down the supervillain’s impervious force-field all fall under this category as well.
Using this metric, a strictly melee warrior has a rather low Hack Factor. He may be able to inflict impressive damage on a directly adjacent foe, but such a warrior struggles whenever he must move to engage a distant enemy and is seriously hampered whenever terrain interferes (i.e., limited access via a bridge, having to move through deep water or mud, etc.) or if his enemy is flying or otherwise out of melee range.

Factors and Systems

Most often, RPG systems with fairly open and flexible character creation systems don’t have too many issues with imbalances of Hack Factor and Utility Factor. In the Hero System, for example, it is relatively simple to change a few points around to acquire more skills to raise your Utility Factor or to buy some additional combat levels or power dice if you want to increase your Hack Factor.
Class-and-level RPG systems, however, seem to have the most trouble balancing these two elements in my experience. For this particular blog entry, I’m going to use the character classes from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition as an example.
Why 3.5 D&D? I should say upfront that I believe all editions of Dungeons & Dragons have their strengths and weaknesses, and my personal favorite edition is 3.5. I’ve done a fair amount of work in the industry for this edition, and it’s fair to say that I’ve studied it’s game design more thoroughly than nearly any other system (with the exceptions of Hero and Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay) in my collection. I’m going to limit myself to discussing the classes from the Core Player’s Handbook for this post, although I will certainly mention other books along the way, simply because the classes from the Player’s Handbook are more well-known and iconic to the genre than any others, and thus are perfect examples for this discussion.
What about 3.0 and Pathfinder? Well, in 3.0 I’d go so far as to say the differences were even more pronounced—Fighters, Bards, and Rangers had it particularly bad in 3.0. Pathfinder goes the opposite direction, helping out nearly every class, but in general I’d apply the same rankings to Pathfinder characters of these same classes.
Tl/dr: 3.0 ratings are the same but worse, Pathfinder ratings are the same, but slightly better.
Check out the 3.5 character classes and their rankings after the jump!

 

Barbarian

An axe is a Barbarian’s weapon…
Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D
Barbarians are made for one role; doing lots of damage. They’re tough, possessing large numbers of hit points, but they’re limited to lighter armors and don’t have a high amount of skill points—although they have more skills and a better variety than the Fighter. Unlike the fighter, however, Barbarians are nearly doomed to melee-only, and have a lot of difficulty reaching flying enemies or dealing with threats they can’t simply run up to and hack.
On the flip side, there are a lot of great concepts you can make with a Barbarian, and their Utility Factor would likely be higher in certain campaigns than in others (such as adventures taking place largely in the wilderness or away from civilization).

Bard

Bluff, bluff, bluff the stupid Ogre!
Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: D
The Bard’s decent Utility Factor is due to his variety of skills, decent number of skill points, a small selection of spells, and abilities that have a lot of value in social situations. The Bard’s Utility Factor takes a hit if the campaign is largely focused on dungeon-crawls or avoids social situations like the plague, however. In battle, the Bard’s Hack Factor is mostly due to his ability to buff or heal his companions—Bards are not great combatants on their own.

Cleric

Today’s sermon begins with an asskicking…
Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A
Question: What has good hit points, good saving throws, can kick butt in combat and sling spells almost as good as a Wizard? The Cleric. These characters are one of the first powerhouses on this list—the sheer variety of spells available improves the Cleric’s Utility Factor and his ability to smite infidels is quite potent, explaining the high Hack Factor. A well-designed Cleric character at higher levels can outperform nearly any Fighter in combat and is only barely eclipsed by the Druid and Wizard in dealing with out-of-combat situations.

Druid

The wrath of nature is a frightening thing…
Utility Factor: A+
Hack Factor: A+
In my opinion, the unquestioned champion of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor is the Druid. The animal companion is nearly as good as a Fighter in melee combat, and a great spell list plus the Druid’s ability to wild shape into animals (and other creatures with the right feats) enables him to meaningfully interact with almost any challenge you can imagine. Similarly, the Druid (and his mighty animal companion or any summoned critters he chooses to bring along) can kick massive amounts of ass in combat. In a one-on-one faceoff—at any level!—with any other class on this list, the Druid comes out on top with only one notable exception: a properly prepared Wizard.

Fighter

 The Men-at-Arms just aren’t what they used to be…
Utility Factor: F
Hack Factor: C
Alas, poor Fighter. I hardly knew ye. The Fighter suffers a failing grade in Utility Factor due to his abysmal number of skill points, a limited skill selection, and nearly zero abilities that do anything meaningful outside of combat. Even when the Fighter is doing his job (i.e., fighting stuff), he is often outclassed by other characters simply due to a lack of options. Thanks to his high number of feats, a properly built Fighter can be a formidable opponent in the right circumstances, but change the playing field even slightly (i.e., a fly spell) and the Fighter can be next to useless.
For those people (like myself) who enjoy playing Fighter-type characters, I strongly recommend checking into the Tome of Battle (AKA the Book of Nine Swords), as the Warblade class in that book is a great replacement with significant improvements in grade for both Utility and Hack Factors.

Monk

You want a piece of me???
Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D
The Monk has great saving throws but little else going for him. Monks have better skill options than a Fighter, but require significant investment in a lot of attributes in order to really benefit. Monks are similar to Fighters in that they do their best work up close and personal with the enemy, and they lack any real answers to flying enemies. In addition, Monks have difficulty dealing out significant damage when compared to many of the other classes on this list, limiting their usefulness considerably.

Ranger

Welcome stranger, to our danger…
Utility Factor: C
Hack Factor: C
A decent set of skills, a small handful of spellcasting abilities, and his animal companion provide the Ranger with a reasonable Utility Factor. However, like the Barbarian, this Utility Factor can suffer greatly if the campaign is largely confined to dungeon-crawling or large cities. Rangers have a decent Hack Factor due to their ability to strike foes at range (archer Rangers rather than dual-wielders) and the benefits of the animal companion and spellcasting. This Hack Factor rating is fairly generous, however (it assumes an archer ranger and a good selection of feats and the animal companion). Many Rangers (particularly the dual wielder style) will struggle to match up.

Rogue

Stealing hearts and purses in equal measure…
Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: C+
Rogues benefit from the best skill selection and number of skill points available, providing a more-than-decent Utility Factor. Rogues can also put their skills to good use in combat, and hit many enemies with a devastating sneak attack strike. Unfortunately, sneak attack does not work against several common monsters (such as undead), and the Rogue’s sneak attack is best used only in melee—and even then, only against a flanked target.

Sorcerer

She’s got the power, ah-ahhhh….
Utility Factor: B
Hack Factor: B
Although the Sorcerer shares a lot in common with the Wizard, he simply cannot compete on the same level when it comes to Utility Factor and Hack Factor. The Sorcerer’s limited number of spells that he knows does not make up for the freedom from preparation and the increased number of uses per day. The Sorcerer does regain some ground with his high Charisma and decent skill selection, but in the end he is only playing second fiddle to the other full spellcasters on the list.

Wizard

Can’t beat the classics, baby!
Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A
The Wizard is one of the kings of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor, thanks to his massively varied spell list (and not hurt at all by having a good number of skills and skill points added into the mix). A properly prepared Wizard can vanquish nearly any foe at high levels, and even at low levels Wizards contribute greatly to the party if given an opportunity to study the appropriate spell for nearly any situation.

Options Vs. Uses—The Inverted Pyramid

Particularly in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0/3.5 paradigm, using a single ability more times per day is generally less powerful than having more options of what ability to use. This is because that recharging “per day” abilities is often fairly trivial—usually a simple matter of the party deciding to stop and rest after defeating any particularly powerful opponent or after exploring a portion of a dungeon.
Consider the following classes placed in an inverted pyramid—the widest array of options is at the top, with the number of options available narrowing as you step down the pyramid towards the bottom.
Thus, the top portion of the Pyramid is best represented by the Wizard—he has the widest selection of options available to him, and his one of his defining features is the variety of his spell list. The wizard is limited mainly by the fact that he must pre-memorize his spells and cannot change his spells on the fly (albeit there are some advanced feats, abilities, and magic items that go a ways towards mitigating this limitation).
Just below the Wizard are other classes with very broad and comprehensive spell lists, such as the Cleric and the Druid.
In the middle band of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Sorcerer and the Bard, both of whom have more sharp limits on the number of spells they are able to cast, but a higher number of times per day that those spells can be used. Similarly, they do not need to prepare their spells ahead of time.
At the very bottom of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Warlock. Warlocks have unlimited uses of their abilities—essentially able to use their powers “at will”—but have only a relative handful of abilities to choose from.

Professionalism and Communication

In my recent interview with Jason Marker, he said something that really resonated with me: “Everyone, from the boss at Fantasy Flight or Paizo to the greenest freelancer, are industry professionals, and we should all endeavor to comport ourselves appropriately.”

Jason’s not wrong. One thing that’s been key to my career in the gaming industry has been a focus on professionalism. I can thank my father for instilling in me a great desire to be seen first and foremost as a professional in my field. I credit many of my colleagues—including Ed Stark, Steve Horvath, Jason Marker, John Dunn, and Sam Stewart just to name a few—with giving me a deeper understanding of what “acting like a professional” really means.
The gaming industry—both tabletop and video game—has a strong trend toward casual behavior. Very few people wear suits in these businesses, and fewer have any kind of dress code at all. Plus, making games for a living often puts gaming professionals into a role where their customers see them as talented amateurs rather than serious, value-driven experts. This often bleeds over into how the fans and gaming professionals interact.
I’m pleased to say that many—I’d even go so far as to say most of the professionals that I know personally do not fall prey to these misconceptions. For instance, when I walk around the dealer’s hall at Gen Con, I see a lot of great examples of laudable professional behavior in our industry.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I’d like to take the opportunity and use this blog post to talk about what professionalism means to me and why it is important to the gaming industry.
I’ll start with my definition of professionalism: A professional is an expert who takes his work seriously and acts with integrity, courtesy, and respect.
Editor’s Note: Again, just for emphasis, the definitions and opinions presented here are strictly my own interpretations.

Integrity

Integrity is critical in all aspects of life, and it is certainly true about being a professional. A professional keeps his agreements and sticks to the signed contract. A professional obeys the NDA, regardless of the temptation to “spill the beans.” A professional does what he says he would do, when he said he would do it.
As an example, a personal achievement that I’m very proud of is that during my tenure at Fantasy Flight Games, I moved Heaven and Earth to make sure our freelancers were paid on time. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a few hiccups along the way, but I built a solid bond of trust with the people with whom I contracted that they would receive a fair wage for their effort. That’s definitely a mark in my “win” column.

Courtesy

Professionals are courteous. Trash-talking, cursing, and belittling others are strictly amateur hour behaviors.
For myself, whenever I meet a fan of my work, I try to make sure to shake their hand and say “thanks.” Nothing stings more than being completely ignored or unappreciated when you approach someone and tell them how much you like the things that they create.

Respect

A professional respects his own work and the work of others. A professional takes ownership of his work, both the good and the bad. A professional has no need to brag or strut—his work speaks for itself.
There is a type of self-aggrandizement known as “shilling,” where a game designer or writer goes to sites like Amazon.com or BoardGameGeek and gives his own product a top rating. I understand the temptation to let other people know how you feel about your work, but there are far better—and more professional—ways to go about that.

Engaging with Fans

This is how we, as professionals, communicate in public. Whenever a game designer posts something on the company website, he’s engaging with fans. Meeting people at a convention, talking on a panel, even just standing around in the hallway wearing your company t-shirt—you are representing yourself as a professional and as an agent of the company (or companies) with whom you do business.
Let me give you a maxim that I learned early on in my career:
The gaming industry is a small one. Everyone knows everyone else.
This means that acting unprofessionally can turn out to be the Mark of Cain. It doesn’t take much for particularly egregious examples of unprofessional behavior to circulate amongst your peers. This is a lesson we all should learn early in our lives; how you act in public influences how people react to you.
As I said earlier, many (if not most) people in the gaming industry get it. However, there are always some who just don’t.
Some things that I personally have witnessed (and mentioned here purely as informative examples) include calling out a forum handle of a particularly critical fan in a public blog post, publically assigning blame for an underperforming product, and skirting an NDA by broadly hinting at which company just got a juicy license. These are all unprofessional behaviors and should be avoided at all costs.

Direct vs. Indirect

Direct engagement is meeting fans face to face, Q & A, and posting in discussion forums. Basically, direct engagement means that you’re replying to or expecting a direct reply to something you’ve said.
Direct engagement can be a lot of fun. I particularly enjoy meeting fans face-to-face; it is one of the highlights of the job. However, it is very important in these situations to always be respectful and maintain courtesy. If someone comes up to me at Gen Con and wants to tell me about his character, I’m game! If I have to go somewhere else and I need to cut him short, I’ll do in the politest way possible at the time.
One of my favorite examples of direct communication happened at Gen Con 2011. A young man came up to me and declared that he represented “/tg/’s combined rage,” and wanted to list a number of demands for the Deathwatch RPG. It was actually a very fun discussion about all things 4Chan, and I was able to help guide him to speak with the right person to hear his concerns.

Forums

It is important to set aside a small section to discuss forums. In the gaming industry, forums are nearly ubiquitous. There are official websites for nearly every gaming company and many popular general gaming forums as well.
Forums are one of the trickier aspects of fan interaction. Generally speaking, the purpose of forums is to create a place where fans can interact with each other. Note that I said “with each other” rather than with the designers.
There are a number of companies out there that require full-time employees to actively avoid posting in any forums about their own products. This is actually a very smart idea for the following reasons:
  • Posting in discussion forums takes time away from real work, i.e., making new product or improving existing ones.
  • Some fan discussions can simply be toxic. They can cause emotional reactions completely out of proportion with the issue or issues being raised.
    • If the issue requires something to be done about it, I strongly recommend waiting at least 24 hours before taking action. Remember that anything you say on the internet is there forever.
  • Getting the word out about your products or crafting any message about the company’s intentions is the responsibility of the marketing department, not the designer. That’s what they’re trained for, that’s what they do. Designers make games instead, so stick to that.
I’ve actually had to rescue fellow designers from getting involved in forum discussions—and I’ve had people rescue me in turn—because in the long run, it accomplishes nothing. There are far better and more meaningful ways to interact with the fanbase.
This is true even if the posters are talking about your game. Even if they are getting things completely wrong or turned around. The smart thing is to just stay out of it!

Indirect Engagement

Indirect engagement includes things like blog posts, news updates, designer diaries, and so forth. 
You’re looking at an example of indirect engagement right now!
Indirect engagement is a useful and desirable tool for game designers. It’s a great way to address concerns, get the word out, explain your thinking behind your work, and talk about why you do things the way that you do.

Bottom Line

If you act like a professional, people will treat you like one.
I hope this blog post helps explain my view of professionalism and illustrates why it is so important in our industry.

Interview Time: Jason Marker


Greetings readers! Time for another interview–I’m very pleased to welcome my good friend Jason Marker to the blog. I first became aware of Jason due to his stellar work on the new Robotech RPG products from Palladium Books. Once Jason was available to do some freelance work, I hired him to write for the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay lines. Jason’s got a lot of experience in the industry, both as a developer and a writer, and he’s very imaginative and talented at writing both content and adventures.

Dude, he’s totally stealing your fedex packages!
Whenever Jason and I get a chance to chat face-to-face, the conversation always seems to come around to our mutual love of Robotech. I try to get at least one nudge in there about “RDF vs. UEEF” but we often goob out over all the stuff we really love about that series.

Jason and I worked together on a number of books for Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and the main core book for Black Crusade.

  
You can check out more about Jason on his blog and his tumblr named Amalgamated Fiction.


With the introduction out of the way, let’s begin the interview! As before, my questions are in red.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
Jason: Hmmmmmmm. Well, I’ve been playing RPGs since I was about twelve. My friend Brian introduced me to D&D  through the original red box basic set and I was hooked. From there I went to RIFTS and the rest of the Palladium games. Eventually I went farther afield, playing AD&D, Marvel RPG, WEG’s Star Wars, all of the World of  Darkness games (even Wraith which is completely unplayable), Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Deadlands, Role Master/Middle Earth RPG… Hell, even the Tank Girl RPG. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, but that was a long time ago.

RW:
How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Jason: This answer tends to infuriate people, as it’s kind of flip, but purely by accident. In 1998 I submitted a piece of short fiction to Palladim Books’ The Rifter magazine as the final project for a writing class I was taking at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. To my surprise the piece, which was really short and the first thing I ever submitted for publication, was printed in the Halloween issue. From there I freelanced on and off for years, not doing much as I was apprenticing as an advertising photographer and building my own photography business. In 2007 as the bottom fell out of the advertising industry here in Detroit, Kevin Siembieda hired me at Palladium and the rest is history.
The Black Crusade has begun!
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Jason: I make people happy for a living. Well, as happy as you can make a load of passionate, detail oriented…  I love making games and bringing a little fun and adventure into peoples’ lives.

RW:
What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Jason: Everything else. The pay is lousy, the hours stink, it’s feast of famine all the time with either too much or too little work, writing is lonely, and I’m either too busy or too broke to do other extracurricular activities. That being said, it’s very much worth it and I wouldn’t change what I do for anything.
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?
Jason: For a freelancer? Do good work, meet your deadlines, communicate early and often with your editors, and be open to editorial feedback/guidance. Be courteous and generous to fans and don’t brag overmuch. Remember, good work doesn’t make a lot of noise. If you disagree with an editorial change, discuss it respectfully and in clear terms but remember to pick your battles and the fact that you don’t know everything and can’t win every disagreement.

For a publisher? Pretty much the same. Courtesy, professionalism, good communications, and respect go a loooooooooooooooooong way. Also, make sure your expectations are clear and pay the talent on time.
Imperial Fists, Storm Wardens, and Jason Marker.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

Jason: The prevalent idea that we’re all a bunch of regular guys/nerds/gamers/what have you and that we’re doing this as a hobby. Everyone, from the boss at Fantasy Flight or Paizo to the greenest freelancer are industry professionals and we should all endeavor to comport ourselves appropriately.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Jason: Through social media and attendance at conventions. I use a WordPress blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to interact with fans and colleagues most of the time. Of course, not even the most thorough social media saturation can replace the handshake and the smile and the simple human contact found at places like GenCon and Pax.

RW:
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Jason: Bringing the new Robotech RPG to market. What’s that? Write a bunch of new canon and continuity for a game based on a cartoon I grew up obsessing over? Sure, I can do that!
I’ll always be an “RDF” guy, but Jason is the true Robotech Master.

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

Jason: Losing Robotech. On the other hand, getting laid off from Palladium allowed me to work for other great companies in the industry, so even my greatest setback wasn’t a huge disaster. One door closes, another opens, etc etc.

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?
Jason: Eh, that’s pretty easy. Even though I like rules, and I like rules a lot, I know from long experience playing and writing for Palladium that rules can’t be perfect and can’t cover every imaginable situation at the table. Houserules are a fact of life in our hobby, and I’ve come to a good houserule as much as an official one.
 
One of Detroit’s most wanted Shadowrunners.
RW: If you were a Shadowrunner, you’d be a…?
Jason: A self-destructive, alcoholic Russian EOD specialist and housebreaker suffering from both near cyber-psychosis andPTSD. Oh wait…I played that character already. His name was Yuri, and as you can imagine, it all ended in tears. Tears and beautiful, beautiful explosions.

RW:
What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?

Jason: I have a two-part answer for that. I’m really, really into Savage Worlds at the moment, but more as a system as opposed to a specific game. As for specific settings, it’s Iron Kingdoms by Privateer Press. Man, I’d cut my own mother to write for Iron Kingdoms.

RW:
What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Jason: Good grammar, good spelling, and the Oxford Comma because Oxford Comma best Comma. As for red flags? Blatant rip-offs of popular characters or media, misspelling common words, basic lack of knowledge of narrative.
 
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Jason: Robotech, which hilariously enough, I’m about to do with a bunch of friends using the Savage Worlds ruleset. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Gaming periodicals

Greetings, readers! Before I get into the meat of the blog post today, I want to quickly point out something cool: my article on Free RPG Day went live at Critical-Hits.com! You can read it here.
I was recently going over my posts about Palladium Books, and it struck me that I’d left something out: the company’s magazine known as the Rifter. However, I didn’t want to go back and edit the posts, and I didn’t really feel like doing an entire blog post just about the Rifter. Instead, today’s blog post is all about RPG periodicals in general.
Actually, I owe a lot of my overall enjoyment of RPGs (and games in general) from various magazines—and e-zines—that I’ve collected over the years. Many… in fact, most gaming magazines were actually “house organs,” in that they were created by and for a particular publisher and focused nearly exclusively on that publisher’s games. Some of the magazines listed below did their best to stay current by keeping track of other trends, but in general each magazine had its own niche.
Let’s start out by looking at the gaming periodicals of yesteryear!

 

The Golden Age

In my opinion, the golden age of RPG Periodicals lasted from around 1980 up until 1999—roughly 20 years of awesome.

Dragon Magazine

 

Cover art by Larry Elmore.
There is no other periodical that I could point to that had a greater impact on me than Dragon Magazine. Back when I was first starting out as a gamer, Dragon was freaking awesome.Although Dragon was essentially a house magazine for Dungeons & Dragons, it did cover quite a few other games as well—even if many times it was simply in advertisements! I got my first exposure to Citadel Miniatures by looking at the glossy full-page ads for Warhammer’s “Gob-lobber” and “Screaming Skull Catapult.” Naturally, the Dungeons & Dragons material was good, and it was enough to hook me in right away. I fondly remember reading quite a few of Ed Greenwood’s early Forgotten Realms material, plus the “Ecology of” series, and plenty more nifty articles and editorials. And then there were the comics at the back! I’m talking about Wormy, Yamara, and lots of little one-shot comic panels that were usually quite funny and brought a big smile to my face. The magazine expanded in the mid- and late-80’s with a sci-fi section called “Ares” that introduced me to (among others) Marvel Super Heroes, Champions, and Traveller. Every so often, the magazine would include something really special, like a small board game from Tom Wham or a full set of cards to make your own Deck of Many Things!
Dragon also had some truly great cover art during this period, including a lot of fantastic artists who really helped shape my vision of what fantasy gaming could be all about. It’s fair to say that one of my lifelong dreams was to be published in Dragon—and I have some rejection slips to prove that I tried—but alas, the magazine as I remembered it folded long before my writing career really took off.

Dungeon Magazine

 

This is my favorite issue of Dungeon, period.
What was interesting about Dungeon Magazine is that it was essentially the best value you could ever find for a D&D fan. Every month, the magazine contained between three and six full adventures for just a handful of dollars.
At the same time, mind you, you could go to your local store and find a single adventure (admittedly a longer, more well-developed and produced one) on the shelf for roughly two to three times the same price. Several Dungeon Magazines contain some truly amazing, imaginative, and well-developed adventures. One that particularly fired up my imagination was the adventure known as “Out of the Ashes” in issue #17, a brilliant adventure authored by Grant S. Boucher.
What is really interesting is to go look at the authors of various adventures published in Dungeon and see where they are now… some familiar names include Elaine Cunningham, P.N. Elrod, John Nephew, Nigel Findley, Thomas M. Kane, Scott Bennie, Christopher Perkins, James Jacobs, Carl Sargent, Wolfgang Baur, Ann Dupuis, Allen Varney, Lisa Smedman, and many, many more. Seriously, I’m just scraping the surface!
Much like Dragon Magazine, I always hoped I would get something published for them—alas, it was simply not to be, as the magazine is now defunct (along with its sister magazine).

White Dwarf

 

White Dwarf, then and now.
In the early days of White Dwarf, it was much like Dragon in that it encompassed many different games and types of games within its covers. White Dwarf was always a very British magazine, and you can definitely see that it had its own niche with “Thrud the Barbarian” and its vaguely (to my American eyes, anyway) “Heavy Metal”-ish covers.
However, as the publisher—Games Workshop—began to narrow its focus towards its own miniature games, so too did White Dwarf. There have been many criticisms that the magazine transitioned over the decades until it is nearly unrecognizable, essentially becoming a catalog for GW’s miniature games. What I believe is that the magazine has managed to stay relevant to many of its readers, but I think that White Dwarf is encountering significant challenges since the advent of the new millennium.
My own experience with White Dwarf started in the 90’s when I was first exposed to Warhammer 40,000. A good friend of mine, Daniel Barnard, gave me a full shelf-load of old White Dwarfs, and I was instantly hooked on the grim darkness of the far future. I’m very pleased to say that I did end up actually working on the US edition of White Dwarf from 2003-2005, and I directly contributed to the landmark 300th issue.

Battletechnology

 

Shadow Hawk, baby!
Ah, Battletechnology! This magazine focused entirely on FASA’s Battletech game, and it was a fan produced magazine initially created and edited by one of my all-time favorite authors, William H. Keith, Jr.
The magazine featured small bits of short fiction (several of them quite enjoyable), new ‘mech designs, scenarios, and some neat in-character/in-universe insights into the state of the constantly-evolving Battletech universe. It may not have had the slickest production values, but I loved it fiercely, and I have quite a few issues tucked away in my collection. One thing to note is that the magazine often used pictures of kitbashed and converted Battletech models, and often these pictures were altered to look as if the model was actually in the midst of combat—quite clever stuff in the days before Photoshop.

Autoduel Quarterly

 

Alkahest is awesome.
 
In the 80’s and 90’s, Autoduel Quarterly was one of two quarterly gaming periodicals that was published in an odd, smaller size format (the other being Adventurer’s Club). AQ, as it was often abbreviated to, contained some excellent short fiction, additional vehicle designs, and sometimes new equipment. AQ always expanded on the world of Car Wars, adding information about various locations throughout the world. I really liked AQ and looked forward to each issue, even though I never really was much of a Car Wars player—the magazine just was that cool. Of particular note is one of my favorite pieces in my collection—volume 3, #3, the Autoduel Champions story “Alkahest” written by John M. Ford.
The magazine often featured some great articles by talented writers like Scott D. Haring and Aaron Allston.

Adventurer’s Club

 

Cover art by Ben Dunn.
Adventurer’s Club, like AQ before it, was published on a quarterly basis and used (for many issues) a smaller-sized format. Some of the later issues, however, are printed at normal magazine size. Adventurer’s Club was a showcase of something near and dear to my heart—the Hero system! Each issue contained new characters, discussions on how to represent certain powers, house rules, and adventures for the Hero system (mostly Champions). Featured writers included Scott Bennie and Aaron Allston amongst others.
Adventurer’s Club influenced and inspired many fan-created APAzines that followed it, such as Rogue’s Gallery, Haymaker! and EZHero, as well as the (now discontinued) official Hero Games periodical, Digital Hero.

Challenge Magazine

Cover art by Larry Elmore.
There’s not much I can say about Challenge magazine—I rarely encountered it during my early years as a gamer. I do own a few select issues, and it was quite good. I would say that Challenge’s biggest claims to fame are that it contained some good fiction pieces, decent cover art, and encompassed a wide variety of different games over its run, albeit most of the articles were about Traveller and other GDW games. Mike Stackpole is one of the featured writers that I can personally remember.

Honorable Mentions

I’ve talked above about the magazines that made the biggest impact on me as a gamer, but there were a few others out there during the golden age that deserve mention: Shadowland, White Wolf Magazine, Shadis, and Polyhedron were all going concerns during this period. I have no doubt that there’s quite a bit of quality to be found in these magazines, but I personally was never a collector.

Mid-Season Replacements

After around 1999, there weren’t many gaming periodicals left who were still publishing on a regular basis. Between 1999 and 2010, I can only think of a couple of gaming magazines that really kept the torch burning.

Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine

 

I waste it with my crossbow!
Although most folks think of KODT as a comic book, the fact is that each issue is an actual magazine, with articles, reviews, and game content (mostly for Kenzer & Company’s settings and games, such as Hackmaster and Fairy Meat). While I agree that the main focus of each issue is the KODT comic itself, I’ve come to appreciate that the magazine is making an effort to keep the legacy alive of predecessors like Dragon Magazine and Shadis.
I myself am proud to have been published in KODT six times, and I would definitely recommend them as a great way to get your work published when you’re starting out in the industry. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they pay a decent wage for freelance writing, and I never had any trouble getting paid on time.
Plus, the comics are awesome.

The Rifter

 

Just in time for Flag Day.
Palladium Books has their own in-house magazine, the Rifter. It’s been running strong for nearly 60 issues now, and while it is not quite a monthly publication, it has continued slow and steady for several years. The Rifter is where many young writers for Palladium get their start (often with short fiction or new game content for Rifts, Nightbane, or Palladium Fantasy), and it often showcases some nifty black and white art. The Rifter is not immune to the production issues of other Palladium products (specifically in the layout and overall production values) but they are much more forgivable in the Rifter than anywhere else. Quite a few of Palladium’s current and recent crop of writers began by writing articles for the Rifter, and I definitely appreciate its place in the world of gaming periodicals as never giving up on producing quality content for their lines.

Modern Marvels

In the last few years, only a handful of magazines have brought anything new to the gaming periodical market. Of course, the publishing business in general is a much different place and publishing a magazine for tabletop gamers is an extremely risky move, so the real surprise is in those magazines that manage to survive!

Kobold Quarterly

 

I think I own this issue, actually…
A bold newcomer to the gaming magazine world is Kobold Quarterly, run by industry (and magazine) vet Wolfgang Baur. KQ focuses on fantasy gaming in general, and has featured many articles for both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. Kobold Quarterly is notable for its great production values, good cover art, and solid content.

No Quarter

 

Cover art by Andrea Uderzo.
Privateer Press has grown immensely since their start in the RPG market with the Witchfire Trilogy. Now, they have their own “house organ” magazine, No Quarter. NQ mostly focuses on the company’s miniature game lines (Warmachine and Hordes), but it also occasionally contains some material for the Iron Kingdoms RPG setting. It is likely that the magazine will also support the upcoming core Iron Kingdoms RPG as well.

Warp Rift

 

Eldar ships in sight sir… torpedoes locked on!
This final entry is a strictly personal favorite of mine, focused on the capital-ships-in-space miniature wargame, Battlefleet Gothic. It’s not a published magazine it all—rather, it is a “netzine” published exclusively as a downloadable pdf. Warp Rift is run entirely by volunteers and has produced over thirty issues to date, each one containing discussion on tactics, fiction, new fleets and ships, and some exceptional fan art and painted miniatures. If—like me—you love Battlefleet Gothic, check out Warp Rift.

Last Minute Edit: If you know of a gaming magazine that I didn’t mention here, by all means, let me know about it! I love finding out about other RPG and gaming periodicals. 🙂

Palladium, the Time is Now.

Normally I don’t make more than a couple of blog posts a week, and rarely one right after the other on the same day. This is just one of those times where I had something I felt was important to say.

Yesterday, Palladium Books posted their weekly update. In this update, the company president Kevin Siembieda described how he had been doing some market research, and the conclusions he reached from this research is that 90% of his fanbase want nothing to change with Palladium Books.

According to Siembieda:

It also made something else very, very clear: a) That many of Palladium’s relentless critics are, not customers (i.e. they do not buy or play our games in the first place); b) some are outsiders who have never actually played our games and point out what they think they see as weaknesses and problems (i.e. comments like, “the game system is broken”); c) some have different tastes and prefer other styles of role-playing rules (resulting in comments like, “the world settings are great, but the rules suck,” or “I wish Palladium would change their rules to be more like Game X”); and d) some are dissatisfied with our product, me or the company. That’s okay.”

If I’m reading this right, Kevin Siembieda is basically saying “if you criticise Palladium books, you are neither a customer nor a fan.”

Mr. Siembieda, with all due respect, you are wrong.

Wrong in a very meaningful and significant way. I have no idea where the numbers you’re getting on your post come from, but I can tell you that I personally have met hundreds of Palladium fans that want things to change. I personally have listened to dozens of gamers describe their love for Palladium’s IPs (particularly Rifts and Robotech), but bemoan the fact that the system for these games is ancient, outmoded, and is in desperate need of an overhaul.

I’ve blogged about this fact myself.

It’s time for a wake up call!

Honestly, I can’t think of any other way to actually get the message across other than by taking a page out of Palladium’s own playbook and making a sincere appeal to the gaming community.

If you consider yourself a Palladium Books fan (current, or lapsed) or a Palladium Books customer (having bought books from them or planning to buy books from them), then please, for the love of the Elder Gods COMMENT ON THIS POST so we can let Kevin know how we feel.

I personally consider myself both a fan and a customer of Palladium Books… and although I certainly have my own issues with the company’s history and practices, I definitely respect their legacy and I definitely want my voice to be heard.

At the end of the day, this is meant to be constructive–a way to point out that Palladium’s recent post is simply in error.

Ramien Meltides says “C’mon guys. Let’s do this. The Megaverse needs us!”

Understanding your fanbase is a basic foundation of any publisher in the gaming industry. This is an issue that MATTERS. I’m asking you, gentle reader, to make your mark. I’m challenging you to step up alongside me and make a statement. Add a comment, as short or as long as you want. I’m listening… and I can only hope that our combined voice will reach Kevin’s ears as well.

Shadow Chronicles — New Robotech RPG Review

Okay readers, it’s time for another review! What I’m looking at for this blog entry is the new Robotech RPG line from Palladium Books, beginning with the Shadow Chronicles and moving on to the Macross Saga and Masters Saga. At the time of this writing, the most recent release in the line is the New Generation Sourcebook. It is important to note that this review does not take the New Generation Sourcebook into account—I haven’t read it yet. 🙂

The Shadow Chronicles

The Shadow Chronicles was a vaunted effort to redeem the Sentinels, and it made me want to see more. Unfortunately, it looks like this attempt is all we’re going to get.
In 2006, the company that owns the Robotech IP—Harmony Gold—hired Tommy Yune to be the creative director for the Shadow Chronicles, an animated movie intended as a sequel to the original Robotech show and as a possible launching off point for a new series and growth of the IP.
Anybody with a pie out there in the audience? No? Good.
Tommy Yune is a pretty interesting character—just check out his Wikipedia page (especially the “pie incident”). 
The Shadow Chronicles did indeed jumpstart interest in the IP, which led to an (at this time) ongoing live-action movie project and an official RPG through Palladium Books.
Starting in 2007, Kevin Seimbeida and Jason Marker went to work creating the new edition of the Robotech RPG. It would have been fairly simple just to release the Shadow Chronicles like all the previous Robotech RPG books—as a basic, perfectbound sourcebook. However, Palladium decided to make this relaunch really impressive, and thus, the Shadow Chronicles was available in both a regular perfectbound edition, a hardbound edition (that’s the one I own), and a special collector’s edition known as the “Gold edition.”
One thing to keep in mind is that the perfectbound edition was a different size than any other Palladium Book before—it was in a “manga edition” that is roughly the same size as any manga book one can buy at various retailers (about 7.5” by 5”).

 

The New Edition

Shadow fighters ahoy!
This is definitely an entirely new edition of the game! Stats for various weapons and mecha have been updated, the book contains complete character generation, skills, combat and game rules sections, and it is very comprehensive with information about the setting, the world, and the characters of the Shadow Chronicles.
The layout is a bit confusing as we dive right into the Invid antagonists before anything else, but it’s a relatively forgivable misstep.
Right off the bat, the production values of this book are impressive, as it uses a mix of old and new artwork to good effect. Much of the new artwork is particularly welcome. After we learn a bit more about the mysterious Haydonite villains, we finally get into the meat of the story with information about the setting on page 59 and character creation on page 64.
Unlike the original Robotech RPG, the Shadow Chronicles RPG uses both an OCC (Occupational Character Class) and an MOS (Military Operational Specialty) system. This is a big improvement, and the list of OCCs is relatively tight and focused (especially in comparison to the original): Fleet Enlisted/Grunt, Battloid Ace, Military Specialist, Technical Officer, and Veritech Pilot. Another welcome addition is the presence of a set of random tables to assist with creating a character quickly and easily. So far, so good!
Charlie’s Angels pose!
The MOS system ranges from Command Officer to Infantry Point Man to Medical Technician, and really helps set the characters apart while at the same time providing a fun and interesting niche.
Next comes a bit more information on the military forces and then we dive into familiar territory for the Robotech RPG: pages and pages of technical information on the mecha and gear. I would have been disappointed if this material was not present, and there are a ton of new, cool mecha and power armor to be found within. As always, though, I feel like Palladium goes a bit overboard with the “mecha and vehicle porn,” and by the time we get to the “Heavy Cargo Tractor” I am more than ready to move on. Next is a small but comprehensive section on personal gear, and then comes the game rules!

The game rules section is one of the best in the Palladium library, and opens up with some good advice and information for GM’s followed by the more technical aspects of character creation. Combat Rules come next, followed by skills.
Conspicuously absent are rules and tables for insanity (thank you for not including them!).
Also, there’s another huge upside to this book: No stupid mugging as the example of play!
The adventure section includes more information about the setting, some very welcome info on the themes of the game and the kinds of adventures your characters are likely to be involved in, and some additional information on the makeup of enemy forces they can encounter. The book closes with a small section detailing over a dozen characters from the Shadow Chronicles film itself.

 

RDF vs. UEEF

The Shadow Chronicles also introduces some creative editing of the history of Robotech, changing a number of minor details to suit the overall story. Many of these changes are completely unnoticeable, but one that sticks out for me is the reclassification of the old Robotech Defence Force (RDF) into the United Earth Expeditionary Force (UEEF). Certainly it makes more sense to have the latter rather than the former, but it is a bit jarring for me… since I grew up with the RDF!
At the end of the day, I’ll always remember the RDF first and foremost, but this is not a nitpick in any way, just a little personal note about my own relationship with the IP.

Overall

You’re in good hands with Allstate.
The Shadow Chronicles RPG is a very welcome update to the original Robotech RPG—it stands on its own as a better introduction to the game in almost every way. My only real concern is that the system itself is still showing its age, and that there’s a definitely lack of story content about the universe and what Robotech means. One of my criticisms about the original Robotech RPG was that it “didn’t really know what it wanted to be.” Shadow Chronicles knows what it is after and definitely provides a much more focused approach to futuristic, giant robots-in-space military action.

The Macross Saga

Cover art by the very talented Apollo Okamura.
Since the Shadow Chronicles acts as the core RPG book for the new Robotech RPG line, this frees up the Macross Saga sourcebook to focus nearly exclusively on its subject material. At 256 pages, this book is far more substantial than its previous version, and it is well written. Everything about the Macross Saga is incorporated into the new format.
This book goes more in-depth into the story of Robotech and especially the formation of the military forces of Earth that banded together to fight the Zentraedi. In addition, this book presents a lot of information about the Zentraedi, their plans, and their mecha. There’s even rules in this book to make Zentraedi characters!
Additional OCCs and MOSs are presented along with a look at some of the most important characters in the Macross Saga (although sadly neglecting some of the more interesting side cast, such as Lynn Kyle and the Zentaedi spies). This book is a quantum leap ahead of its original version, although I still wish it had more information about the Macross Saga as a story, and especially how it relates those themes of sacrifice, love, and heroism to the roleplaying game.

The Masters Saga

Transforming giant robot helicopters fighting other giant robot dudes on flying sleds. Yeah, that’s pretty much what it’s like.

Unfortunately, the Masters Saga is not quite as significant a step forward. This book contains some disappointments. One of the largest issues that I have with the book is that it lacks nearly any information at all to tell the reader what the Second Robotech War was about. There are zero profiles for the heroes of the ASC (such as Dana Sterling, Louie Nichols, Bowie Grant, Musica, Zor, etc.), and /extremely/ limited information about anything outside of the strictly military aspects and stats for gear and mecha. 
A reader unfamiliar with the Second Robotech War is likely to be quite confused or come away with the idea that the ASC is largely a faceless organization that succeeded in defending the Earth out of sheer luck! The themes and major elements of the Second Robotech War’s narrative story are completely absent, and this (IMHO) is a major misstep.
When compared to the Shadow Chronicles, this book is a major disappointment. It’s almost shocking to say that the original Southern Cross book is in some ways better, considering all the excellent effort put into the writing, organization, and art that came along with the Shadow Chronicles renaissance.
Ultimately, I believe that the source of these issues is Kevin Seimbeida—from his track record with the Robotech RPG, it seems clear that he prefers to skimp on the story and instead focus on more guns, more mecha, more vehicles, and more random charts.
To end on a brighter note, the artwork in the Masters Saga is light-years ahead of the previous book, and what little information there is about the ASC and the Masters is well-written and engaging. There is some quite good new additional mecha, and overall the approach to the ASC and the Masters just makes more sense in this book than its predecessor.

Size Does Matter

I think this is the cover to a Macross PC game.
One thing I immediately noticed about the Third Generation book for the new Robotech RPG is that it was released in the normal perfectbound size of all other Palladium Books products. This is, frankly, a baffling move… all of the other entries in the line, including the core book, were released as manga-sized books. You could, of course, spring for the larger hardbound or collector’s editions of the Shadow Chronicles core book, but that was the only other option.
This means that any collector of the series is likely going to have three manga-sized books on his shelf and one—sticking out like a giant sore thumb—standard sized book. That book being the most recent (at this time). I have no idea why Palladium would do something like this, it seems to make zero sense to me from a production standpoint. It would be one thing if the books were all available as either one size or the other. To have one book of a radically different format from the others is just plain weird, and I have to admit it is a fairly significant factor in why I haven’t yet picked it up.

Interview Time: Michael Surbrook

Time for another interview! I’d like to introduce my friend and fellow game designer, Michael Surbrook.
The man, the myth, the legend.
Michael and I have known each other for quite a while and we’ve been in the same gaming group for a number of years. I first became aware of Michael back in 1997 when I first located his website on the internet when I was searching for Champions character write-ups.
In fact, I was looking for write-ups for the Ranma ½ characters, and I happened to find them at Michael’s website, along with tons of other characters.
I would say that one of Michael’s biggest claims to fame is that he is the Hero System guy for character write-ups. If you’re a fan of the Hero System, odds are you’ve seen his site at least once.
Whenever people on the Hero forums ask “how do you write up X power or Y ability?” the answer is often “it’s already on Surbrook’s Stuff.”
To see Michael’s website in all its glory, go here: http://surbrook.devermore.net/index/
Animepunk, indeed.
Michael’s written several books completely of his own for the Hero System, including 5th edition’s Ninja Hero (one of the best books of that edition), the Asian Bestiaries, and his own campaign setting, Kazei 5.
Kazei 5 was originally a digital product for 4thedition Champions, and I ran across it not long after finding Michael’s site. The “animepunk” aesthetic of the setting really fired up my imagination, and I used it as a basis for creating my own campaign (based more on Silent Moebius than Bubblegum Crisis), Shadows Angelus.
Later on, I had the opportunity to work with Michael on a number of books for the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay line, including Creatures Anathema (where Michael presented lovely gribbly creatures like the Simulacra), the Radical’s Handbook, Blood of Martyrs, and Battlefleet Koronus.
In addition to his books, Michael is a prolific writer for periodicals, and I believe he has written more articles for Haymaker!, EZ Hero, and Digital Hero than any other author.
Not only is Michael a writer, he is a professional artist as well—his work has appeared in a number of books, including his own. One of the more unusual and special places you can find his artwork is in the venerable GURPS Humanx Commonwealth sourcebook!
In this universe, bugs are our friends.
Lastly, as a friend, I can say with authority that Michael is a gamer’s gamer who enjoys both sides of the screen. He’s a scholar who knows a great deal about many subjects, a thorough researcher who can tell you anything you want to know about mythology and Asian culture.
With the introduction out of the way, let’s begin the interview! As before, my questions are in red.
(Read the interview after the jump!)

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

Michael: I first started gaming in 1977 when I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Seeing as I was 10 at the time, the “campaigns” went as you might expect, with little to no thought to character development, continuity, or plot. My first real, long-term campaign would have to wait until 1985, when I was asked to be part of a Champions campaign a friend of mine was starting. That snowballed into becoming part of a large gaming group that ran assorted things over the years, almost all of it Hero System. However, I think the last 6-8 years have been the best for my gaming wise, as I’ve been part of your epic Shadow Angelus game, ran my successful 16-session Well of the Worlds game, joined the “Friday Night Dice” group and have been exposed to such systems as Shadow Run, Qin, Unknown Armies, Thousand Suns, and more.

In addition, I’ve since become a published author, working for Black Wyrm Games, D3 Adventures, Fantasy Flight Games, Hero Games, and others. I have written projects ranging from 1,000 to 216,000 words, seen my work published as POD, softback, and hardback books, and even saw a project I worked on win an award!
Michael wrote up one of the Shrine Worlds for this book.

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

Michael: It went like this—I discovered anime in the early 1990s and found I wanted to incorporate certain elements and tropes into a campaign. Since I’d been watching Akira and Bubblegum Crisisand really liked Shadow Run, I combined the two to create Kazei 5. While describing the setting to one of the staff at a local game store, I was told to contact Bruce Harlick at Hero Games and pitch the idea to him. He okayed the project and my first published work came out in 1999.

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

Michael: Being able to point out a book at a book or game store and say “I worked on that!” Also, the sense of creativity you get when working on a project.

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

Michael: Well, you won’t make much money. I mean, I’d like to write and create full-time, but my skills and the market aren’t there. On the other hand, as long as I make enough to pay my way to GenCon, I’m happy.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?

Michael: It’s hard to say. My work is for a limited market (for the most part) so I can’t compare and contrast then and now. I can say that with the setbacks suffered by Hero Games, my work for the market has to appeal to a wider base than before. “Vanity” projects are harder to pitch to the publishers.

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?

Michael: If I knew then what I know now, Ninja Hero would look completely different. Steve Long and I both agreed at one point it suffered from being the first (or second) genre book and didn’t follow the established format that came later. I also know that the first Kazei 5book suffers (in my opinion) from a lack of… how do I want to put it? Finesse, perhaps?
Aaron Allston wrote the first edition of this book. That’s a tough act to follow, but Michael pulled it off with style.
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?

Michael: As a freelancer I need to give the publisher my best work and bring it to him on time. If I can’t, I need to communicate any issues or questions I might be having to him as soon and as clearly as possible. To not do so harms both myself and the publisher, as it besmirches my reputation and potentially delays the publisher’s projects and costs him time and money. 

As for the publisher, he needs to communicate his needs for the project in a clear manner, allow for problems at either end, and give definitive dates for material to be handed in.

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

Michael: The product distribution system. It seems a lot of good (but smaller market) material simply vanishes because no one knows its there. Print-on-demand, Kickstarter, RPG Now, and the like are changing that, but I know for a long time people thought Hero Games (for example) was out of business because distributors like Diamond didn’t list their products.

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

Michael: Come up to me and start talking. I don’t bite. ^_^

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

Michael: Right now? It has to be Kazei 5. 216,000 words, 320 pages. All of it written by me. I even have some art in the book. It might have even gotten an Ennie nomination! Second is Ken Hite telling me he was looking forward to the finished Folk Hero/Mythic America book.

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

Michael: Not getting hired by Hero Games when they were looking for a second content writer. That could (no, would) have totally changed my life around.

(Editor’s Note: It would have been better for 5th Edition Hero System, as well, IMHO)

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?

Michael: Encourage flexibility on the part of everyone involved. A game is supposed to be fun and slavish devotion to the rules can wreck that. On the other hand, freely ignoring the rules can lead to the same thing. You (meaning the GM, the players, and the writers) need to balance the two. The rules help define how things work, but can (and should) be ignored in the face of drama, the chance for a PC to shine, or other such moments. Also, if the game is flexible enough, new rules (or rulings) can usually be added without much of a muss or fuss. Just make sure your new rules serve a purpose.
Michael worked on the “Dark Arts” chapter for this book.

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

Michael: Dead? I’m 45, overweight, with bad knees and feet. Yeah, make me a drone rigger and keep me out of the direct fighting.

RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?

Michael: Savage Worlds. I really like how fast-paced and fun it is to play.

RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?

Michael: Lack of communication and direction. I have been in two projects I ended up bowing out of because there was no real project lead or a strong idea of what was desired from the design group.

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

Michael: For a long time it was Hero. But… I’d really like to play some more Savage Worlds, as it’s been a blast every time I’ve been involved in the system before. Then again, Hero is my fallback system….

A Look Back: The Original Robotech RPG Line Review

I’ve mentioned before that one of the pillars of my early roleplaying game experiences is the Robotech RPG by Palladium Books. I first encountered it in junior high school, where I encountered some other young gamers and—at first—I mistook the books for Battletech books. It seems odd to me now to think that I knew of and could recognize Battletech as an IP before I ever was exposed to Robotech, but that’s how it was.
Obey the Minmei!
I had seen episodes of the show, of course, but only sporadically, as it was not played on the air for any of the broadcast channels I had access to in my youth in central Arkansas.
Nevertheless, as soon as I got a chance to look the books over, I was enthralled. Giant robots fighting giant aliens? For love? This, to me, was incredibly cool. I must’ve doodled about a hundred different veritechs in my trapper keeper over the next few years.
Looking back on it now, I could tell we had a lot of trouble making Robotech work as a game. For one thing, none of my friends or I had any real-world military experience. We were junior high school students in the 80’s… all we knew about military pilots and aircraft carriers came out of Top Gun.
Editor’s Note: Actually, I used to dream about Robotech so much that I came up with an entire story about a lost ship full of Robotech pilots where each chapter corresponded to a specific song on the Top Gun soundtrack… I’ve promised someone to do a blog post about that by itself later, so stay tuned)
We played the heck out of this game, and I actually lost count of the number of characters I’ve made for it. The last time I played the game was sometime in 1995 during a brief stint in the US Army, so it’s been almost twenty years for me at this point. Quite a distant perspective!

The Core Book

As the battle goes on we feel stronger…
Let’s begin by pointing out a few important facts. First, this game was published in 1986, which puts it in the first wave of Palladium’s RPG offerings and is fairly early in the industry as a whole. RPG’s have evolved quite a bit since then, but it is unfair to judge it entirely by modern standards.
Secondly, the Robotech license itself is a fairly tangled web, ensnaring at least three very different anime shows and multiple games (for example, Battletech) amongst the legal issues involved. Even in the modern era, America has not received anything new related to Macross (as just one example) in decades due to the copyright wrangling that is still ongoing over pieces of the Robotech puzzle.
I am compelled to point out my ground rules of the blog: there is no hate on Rogue Warden. I may be disappointed with something or find it lacking, but I’m seeking to avoid using loaded emotional terms like hate.
With those out of the way, on to the review.

Visuals

Actually, the Robotech RPG core book is actually the “Macross Saga” portion of Robotech as an RPG. The front cover says nothing about the “Macross Saga,” which along with the material inside can lead one down a path suggesting that Macross equals Robotech, which is not really true.
Also, the cover has a small but noticeable mistake: the Veritech on the cover is painted like Roy Fokker’s Skull 1, but it is the wrong model. Entirely forgivable, but worth mentioning.
Another important thing to mention up front is the amazing artwork: I’m a fan of Kevin Long, and I think it’s fair to say that his work heavily shaped the vision of the Robotech RPG (based on its animated origin, of course) and Palladium Books in general in those early days.
I remember trying again and again to figure out how Kevin had drawn the Veritechs so well, with his distinct curve of their leg nacelles and the glassy texture of the optics.

The System

Guardian Mode, AKA Gerwalk
One of the things that makes me face-palm about this book is the example of play on page 3. One would imagine that, in an RPG about giant robots and drama and romance and defending earth against invaders, the example of play would have something to do with all of that.
The example of play is about you, as Rick Hunter, confronted with… a mugging. A micronized Zentraedi is threatening a janitor and demanding money. This. Is. A. Mugging.
Keep in mind we’re not even sure what a Zentraedi is yet, besides some kind of alien.
Page 5 is all about Hit Points and S.D.C., which stands for Structural Damage Capacity. It’s unclear why you have two different things to track about how hard it is to kill you, and it’s all useless at any rate, because next we have: Mega-Damage!
Basically, Mega-Damage means there are things out there that are so tough, they can’t be hurt by S.D.C. weapons no matter what. You can whale away all day with a baseball bat on a tank and cause no damage, the book explains (in another baffling example).
So, a Mega-Damage weapon inflicts normal damage on MDC things and does the same damage x100 vs. SDC things. This means that mecha-sized guns, lasers, and missiles do amazing amounts of damage, which is kind of cool.
Next you have some information on OCCs (Occupational Character Classes), alignments, and experience points, which is all fairly standard stuff for a mid-80’s RPG.
Then we get… 3 pages of Insanity rules. Now, granted, some Robotech characters are definitely insane—Colonel Edwards comes to mind from the Sentinels—but it is hardly a staple of the show. Robotech is in no way related to Call of Cthulhu. So these detailed insanity tables seem exceptionally jarring and out of place. Plus rules for drug addiction! Again, not so much a part of Robotech.
What are the available classes? Well, there’s Destroid Pilot (ground robots) and Veritech pilot (flying robots). Those are very cool and match what you get the in show. So far my expectations are met nicely.
Next we have Communications Engineer. Er, this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, to sit around and fiddle with radios. Not exactly military action, definitely not really related to giant robots fighting stuff.
After that: Electrical Engineer, Field Scientist, and Mechanical Engineer. Hrm. Not really exciting or applicable. I suppose I could see someone playing a field scientist, maybe even a mechanic… and they can learn to pilot mecha… but these choices are really reaching outside the boundaries of your typical military action genre heroes.
The Military Specialist is basically a spy, and he does get to drive Mecha almost as good as the Destroid and Veritech Pilot, so he’s a decent choice.
At the end of this chapter, I’m puzzled as to why you’d ever want to play anything besides a Destroid Pilot, Veritech Pilot, or Military Specialist. I don’t recall any of our Robotech games even including a character from one of those classes.
At the time this game was published, one of Palladium’s other game lines was Recon, a military action game. I think a lot of Recon’s mindset bled over into the writing and development of the first Robotech RPG, stressing the “we’re military guys doing military things” theme but with little actual resemblance to any other aspects of Robotech. Guns, gear, and Mecha are the unabashed stars of the show in this book, and it is clear that the game is meant to be played as more of a military simulation than as a drama.
Skills, combat rules and gear round out the system portion of the book. Possibly one of its finest features is that it does go into great detail about the mecha and vehicles, lovingly showing the reader many of their systems and cockpits and discussing all the stuff they can do. In many ways, this book does succeed in being a Robotech mecha resource manual in that it really shows you what the Veritech fighters look like and how they work.

The Story

Cover art by Kevin Long
Actually, there’s… not much about the story at all in this book. You barely get a page and a half about who the Zentraedi are and what they want. We get a page and a half on the reconstruction of Earth and about the same length about the various remaining regions and conditions on Earth. We then are introduced to a handful of NPC’s and some information about the SDF-1, and then the book ends.
To say that this book presents very little about Robotech is an understatement of massive proportion.
I suppose Kevin Seimbieda assumed that his consumers were fans of the show, and thus, they were already watching the story and didn’t need to see it inside the books themselves. That’s quite an assumption, but I don’t really have anything else to go on.
Looking on the bright side, I do owe this book a great debt in that it caused me to seek out any and all information about Robotech that I could find. I devoured the novels by James Luceno and Brian Daley, I watched any episodes I could find, and I researched as much of the story as I could. I found a lot to like about the Macross Saga and Robotech in general.
There’s a lot of things about Robotech—specifically the Macross Saga—that I really hold dear: the romance between Max and Miriya, the brotherhood of Roy Fokker and Rick Hunter, the tragedy of what occurs to the hopes and dreams of the human race, the aching loneliness of Lisa Hayes, Minmei’s sometimes sweet/sometimes annoying naiveté, the stoic honor of Captain Gloval—these things and much more make up the core of what Robotech is really about.
Unfortunately, the Robotech RPG covers only a handful of these ideas, and even those are just briefly touched on in favor of more guns, more mecha, and more combat rules.
For another perspective, check out the RPG.net review here:

Supplements and Sourcebooks

The Robotech RPG line had a troubled history with sourcebooks and supplements. Some, such as the Southern Cross and Invid Invasion books (detailing the second and third chapters of Robotech, respectively) were quite good overall.
Others, such as New World Order and Return of the Masters, attempted to flesh out the setting with more information on the situation on Earth with varying results and quality.
Oh man. This book is full of crazy.
The original Robotech RPG line had one major misstep with its sourcebooks, the infamous Lancer’s Rockers, featuring transforming “instrumecha” and “battle of the bands.”
The Sentinels received a couple of books later on that cover the later chapters of Robotech (and hopefully not the last). Unlike previous sourcebooks covering periods of Robotech, the Sentinels books discuss more of the story and background.
The big one in back is the MAC II “Monster.”
Of these sourcebooks, my favorite is definitely Strike Force, which presented some new Macross mecha, some decent setting information for post-Macross Earth (Indochina), and probably the line’s best adventure, dealing with an inventive and cunning Zentraedi warlord.

Adventures

I wonder why they’re in Guardian mode in deep space…
Overall, the adventures for the original Robotech RPG line are lackluster at best. The RDF Accelerated Training Program, for example, is basically just a bunch of random encounters, tables to generate bands of enemies, and reprinted material from other books (including the superfluous insanity rules).
Two words: Metal Siren
There was an attempt to make a Macross II RPG based on the anime of the same name. However, Macross II is not really Robotech… and, in fact, it is only a parallel universe to the actual Macross Saga that started the whole thing in the first place. Aside from some new mecha and vehicles, it doesn’t really offer anything different.
The expansions for Macross II featured one sourcebook with additional mecha and bad guys and three volumes of deck plans, in case you wanted to dungeon-crawl your way through an alien ship. I found these to be singularly unimpressive and a disappointing use of the page space.

Overall Verdict 

Note that heads are not to scale.
The original Robotech RPG is actually a pretty bad example of a “licensed game.” It get some things right, particularly in the visuals, but in nearly every other way it fails to get across to the consumer just what Robotech is about and how to experience that in a roleplaying context.
Other than the license, it doesn’t really have anything to offer as an RPG—it’s basically just Recon with the serial numbers filed off and giant robots put in.
The thing that I keep coming back to with Robotech is that I don’t think it really knew what kind of game it wanted to be. Most of its products leaned heavily towards mecha military action, more of a tactical exercise than really exploring themes or ideas or stories.

Bright Spots

In an attempt to end this review on a high note, I am really glad that Palladium made the Robotech RPG. It helped introduce me to a lifelong love of anime, giant robots, and cool sci-fi stories mixing the two. Looking through my “nostalgia goggles,” I can remember how each new Robotech RPG book made me imagine amazing action-packed battles against alien invaders, rescuing the pretty idol singers from certain doom, and flying a kickass space fighter through impossible odds.
Also, Robotech really helped Palladium grow in its early years. Who knows, it is possible that without the Robotech RPG, we may have never seen Rifts, or Nightbane, or Chaos Earth.
The brightest spot of all is that Palladium decided not to abandon Robotech and began releasing a new version of the Robotech RPG in 2008 with Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. Tune in next time for my review of the new (and definitely improved!) Robotech RPG.