Monthly Archives: May 2013

Shadowrun 4: A New Matrix Paradigm



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

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

Design Principles

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

Design Goals

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

System Design Sketch

System Rating

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

Cyberdecks and Condition Monitors

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

The Hacking Test

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

Crashing a system

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

The Detection Test

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

Glitching the Detection Test

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

Remaining in the System

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

Overclocking

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

Resetting the Detection Condition Monitor

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

Programs

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

Cybercombat and Attack Programs

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

Technomancer interaction

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

Agents and Sprites

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

Examples

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

Professionalism in Gaming: Managing Freelancers


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

Building Your Crew

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

At the Beginning

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

Open Calls

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

Contest!

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

Networking

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

Once You’re On the Road

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

Playtesters

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

Reviewers

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

Forums

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

Organize your Crew

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

Test their skills

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

Set Your Teams

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

Come up with a Freelancer Database

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

Manage your Crew

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

Don’t Burn Them Out, Build Them Up

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

Climbing the Ladder

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

Communication!

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

Sanity Checks and Review Steps

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

Manage Assignments

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

Follow up!

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

How Not to Do It

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

Cattle Calls

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

No Feedback

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

Late or Missing Compensations

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

Interview Time: Tim Huckelbery


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

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