Interview Time: Shane Lacey Hensley

Greetings readers!

Shane is no stranger to wearing a convention badge!

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

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

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

As usual, my questions are all in red text.

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

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

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

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

SPQR spells awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SH: Surviving. 😉 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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