Interview Time: Lee Garvin

Greetings readers — I am very pleased to have an interview this week with Lee Garvin. Lee is a talented game designer with an impressive pedigree in the industry, having been the guiding force behind Tales From The Floating Vagabond and The Noble Wild.

Lee Garvin and his handsome dog, Mal.

Lee’s also a gifted roleplayer and has a side-splitting sense of humor. I managed to meet Lee at HeroCon (a, sadly, now-defunct local RPG convention I helped organize in Glen Burnie, Maryland) where I got a chance to see Lee’s Noble Wild in action. Lee also played an exceptionally memorable Tech-Priest in a game of Dark Heresy at the same event, and I can honestly say there few games as much fun as that one.

Lee and his company Reality Cheque have some really interesting projects in the works, including a second edition of Tales From The Floating Vagabond, so I felt that now was the best time to get him onto Rogue Warden and talk to him about his philosophy on gaming.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the interview! As always, my questions are in red text.

(Click past the break to see the interview)

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

LG: Well, as a gamer, my roots can be traced back to one single gigantic game of Dungeons & Dragons I played in my Boy Scout Troop (Troop 35 recognize!). It was 1980 or so, and we were camping out under the stars on the top of a hill. My oldest friend in the world, Sandy Antunes was in that same game, and he became a game writer too (check his stuff out in Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu line); so there must have been something about that hill.
Professionally; I created the Tales From The Floating Vagabond, Control: The Game of Absolute Corruption, The Noble Wild, and Dravakor; and I’ve written for Deadlands, Indiana Jones Adventures, Star Wars (d6), and 7th Sea.

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

LG: I had an idea for a comic book when I was in high school, called Tales From The Floating Vagabond. I started making the RPG rules shortly after that, although their final form is entirely unrecognizable from those early scratches and doodles.
While I was playtesting what became the final version of the rules back in 1990 in BaltiCon, it turned out one of the players was the head of Avalon Hill’s RPG department. He loved the game and a couple months later, I had a contract.

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

LG: The level of enthusiasm from even the most jaded role-player is just wonderful. The outside world might be cynical as hell, even the characters you play can be cynical, but in order to choose to spend your time being a hero or a monster or a spy, you simply have to have a healthy chunk of your childhood spirit still alive within you. And childhood spirit is a space hog; it doesn’t leave room for cynicism. 

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

LG: Trying to explain to family, relations, and casual acquaintances that, no, I do not program video games. The blank stares one gets from the uninitiated are just heart-breaking. Of course, the blank look disappears if you say “You know; like Dungeons & Dragons.” And then the blank look is replaced by a smirk, a disappointed look, or even disgust (depending on who’s been telling them what about gaming. 

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

LG: 5 years ago, I think the industry was still feeling the effects of d20-fatigue. There had been such a huge explosion of new products and new ideas thanks to the OGL, and the market became flooded. By 5 years ago, most folks had realized that probably 80% of it was crap, and were very unwilling to even look at yet another d20 product (which unfortunately was what I was writing).
Nowadays, I think that has calmed down a bit, with Pathfinder picking up the reins for that side of the hobby. But more importantly is the other consequence of the d20 boom: people started looking for new games again. A whole slew of other game and systems started getting noticed (or re-noticed), and somewhere along the line there had been a split in the audience between old-school number-crunching rpgs, like Dark Heresy, Savage Worlds, and Dragon Age; and more story-driven, free-from games, like Fiasco, Cortex, or Fate.

This, of course, means more competition for the gaming dollar, and that can only improve the overall quality of what’s available.
What all of this means for the professional is: step up your game! If it’s not awesome, if it isn’t innovative, it’s forgotten.

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?

LG: I don’t know if I ever felt “In Charge,” but one thing I would like to do is hire someone to handle all the stuff that I get hung up with so that I can concentrate on the writing. And hire someone else to stand behind me cracking a whip (I’m a lazy, lazy man).

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?

LG: I’m pretty sure I’m the last person who should give people advice on being a professional freelancer. In an industry run by people working out of their parents’ basements, I kind of get the feeling that I am known as a flake among flakes. It’s my own fault, I know.
For publishers: hire good people, and pay them what they’re worth. Also, realize that every aspect of your book is a billboard advertising the rest of the book: If you have bad art, what other poor decisions did you make? If you have blatant spelling errors or grammatical errors on the back cover or in the first few pages, what else have you gotten wrong? (Pro tip: “Myriad” is not a noun!) It may seem picky, but a worker should always respect their tools, and our tools are language and images.

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

LG: There’d be a hell of a lot more money in it, that’s for sure. There is no reason why someone who does something even passably well, who does it at least 40 hours a week, should have to take a second job just to pay rent or a mortgage. If you produce on a consistent basis, and people buy your work, you should be able to make a living at it. I’m totally over the “starving artist” vibe.

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

LG: First, I lay down a screen of smoke-grenades, then I set the dogs loose to chase down the ones that flee. Closing in under the smoke, I attempt to take the legs out of the bigger ones so that I can concentrate my attacks on the smaller, faster ones.
That is what you meant, isn’t it?

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

LG: I think my best writing was probably in Indiana Jones – Magic & Mysticism: The Dark Continent.
Worth owning for the Schtick descriptions alone.

As far as overall work, The Noble Wild was my most ambitious project, and it was even nominated for an ENnie. That felt pretty good. I don’t even mind that I didn’t win, because the book that won in that category was Pathfinder’s Classic Monsters Revisited, and holy crap was that an awesome book!

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

LG: Back in 1997 I got what I thought was my dream job, working for West End Games. I lost the job in very short order, and it took me some time to get over it.

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?

LG: I don’t reconcile at all! If I hear that someone has broken a rule that I wrote, I track them down and leave snippy notes on their car windshield! Or, I could get over myself.

I think the best way to approach it is, RPGs aren’t really games: they’re a framework with which to tell stories. If the framework is well designed, it’s almost invisible, but supports the story nicely. The only metric that matters in the long run is: did everyone have fun? What can be changed the next time to make sure everyone has fun? (Remember, the GM should enjoy themselves, too.)

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

LG: Slowly congealing stain on the dungeon floor.
But seriously, I would probably gravitate toward bard. I’ve always been a storyteller, and I think my best role as an adventurer would be to get other, more athletic folks to do the actual fighting while I watch.

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

LG: I think that would have to be Dark Heresy (and no, I’m not sucking up); I love the setting, and the rules are just crunchy enough. 

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

LG: In art, I look for the artist’s person style. I love being able to just glance at a piece and say “That’s Jim Holloway,” or Phil Foglio, or Erol Otus. Your style should be unique enough that it can be picked out of a line-up. A red-flag, for me, is anime or manga-style: this is a fine style in and of itself, but the way it is used these days it seems more like a series of shortcuts that any marginally talented individual can use to make their work look like every other marginally talented individual out there. I want to see what you can do.
Someday, if a project lends itself toward it, I may need manga-style illustrations; but I’ll be damn sure that my artist can do their own style first. 

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

LG: Deadlands. I saw Lone Ranger last week, so I’ve got a hankerin’. 

RW: What is special about your approach to designing roleplaying games?

LG: I don’t know if it’s special, I just imagine the most awesome, kickass scene or moment I can, and then I try to build a framework that would allow it to happen.
RW: What is your process for working through a system design in an RPG or a miniature game?
A whole lot of dirty fun.
LG: I don’t know I can be said to have a process. If the subject matter has any basis in reality, then I do a lot of research. If not, I just let my mind wander around it.
As far as systems, go, I try to find a single defining mechanic that I can hang the rest of the game on, deviating from it only when absolutely necessary.
RW: I love Tales from the Floating Vagabond and how it pokes fun at a lot of different genres simultaneously. What is your favorite thing about TFTFV?

LG: Yeah, I like to think of TF2V (That is the official abreviation, btw) as the Zucker Brothers role-playing game. Anything and everything is fair game, and you never know what a sufficiently motivated player will do to your best-laid plans.
(Editor’s note: Thanks for the clarification, Lee!)

RW: What was the most fun part of TF2V to playtest?
LG: Finding new ways to use and abuse Shticks was always a highlight for my players. They are such powerful, potentially plot-breaking abilities, that I had to bend and tweak, twist and snap, snimple and mutilate all of them to get them where I liked them.
RW: If you were to design a new edition of TF2V, what would you do differently?
LG: “IF?” There is no “If”! I am working on the 2nd edition of the game right now! In fact, if your readers check in on KickStarter in the next few weeks, I intend to have a campaign to fund Tales From The Floating Vagabond, 2nd Edition, up and running in time for GenCon!
As for what’s different, well, I stream-lined the rules a lot. Gone are all the modifiers and penalties and math-y barnacles of the old system. Now, the game uses a simple system of “Bumps and Slides.” Is something harder to do? Then the die you roll to try it gets “Bumped” up to the next larger die size. Is it easier? then it gets “Slid” down to the next smaller die size.
The Shticks have been honed and sharpened as well, and there are some new ones, too.
RW: Tell us about The Noble Wild – what was your process for developing this game in the D20 market?
LG: Many years ago, back in the 1990s, I wrote a fan rules-set called Pets: The Shedding for use with the original World of Darkness. I actually did it as an April Fools gag (in fact, I wrote the entire thing on April 1st), but I like to think the rules were solid.
(Editor’s note: Pets: The Shedding is a hilarious name for a White Wolf product)

During the d20 boom, I got to thinking about the lack of options available for people who wanted to play as an animal. I mean, there’s always Bunnies & Burrows, but what about the rest of the animal kingdom? Talking animals have been a part of fantasy fiction since there’s been fantasy fiction, so why not have them as PCs?
You’ll never look at familiars and animal companions the same way again.
I dug through the core rules and studied all of the existing rules for animals and figured out where I could expand. Then I did lots and lots of research. I went to the zoo in DC a lot for inspiration, and I even got an opportunity to go behind the scenes with the keepers at the Busch Gardens Preserve in Tampa. After I got the facts, I poured on the fiction, and I even got to recycle some of the concepts I used in Pets: The Shedding.
RW: What are you working on now?
LG: In addition to TF2V, I’ve spent the last couple years developing a comedy card game called Badass Zombie Killers. It’s a game of one-ups-manship and sabotage, with players competing to build the most Badass zombie killing weapon they can before the zombie horde shows up. It’s a whole heap of fun, and we’ll be introducing it at GenCon this year (booth 373).
The whole point of the game is not to kill zombies, but to be badass. What’s better that a chainsaw? A chainsaw that you bought on the black market, that’s what! Is a fire axe good enough? Hell, no! Make it a pair of gas-powered fire axe-chuks, and then we’ll talk.
RW: What is different about your new project from anything you’ve done before?
LG: One major difference is the scope. In an RPG, you have to allow for anything. In a card game like this, you have a much more limited rang of possibilities. This is easier in some repects (you don’t have to make allowances for the impossible) and harder in others (you have to impose a strict discipline on yourself to keep the parameters of the game stable, otherwise it becomes unplayable). Deck construction was the key. Once I had the rules down (there aren’t a lot of them), I had to make sure that any card I added to the deck also had something in there that could counteract it. There’s only 78 card in the core game, and each and every one of them has a purpose

3 responses to “Interview Time: Lee Garvin

  1. I had a great time playing TF2V back in the early 90s, and would love to play it again. I’ll definitely be watching for the Kickstarter!

  2. Thanks for the great interview, Ross. That game of Dark Heresy at HeroCon was the highlight of that fall for me.

    Thanks for using that picture of me and my dog, Mal. That was the day I brought him home. Now he’s getting all prima dona on me.

    For those watching KickStarter, the day to watch for is August 1st!

  3. The Now-Wife and I had the proud privilege of playtesting Badass Zombie Killers, and it was a delight.

    Lee is a helluva nice guy, and a great ambassador for gaming.

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