Interview Time: Colin McComb


Greetings readers! Today marks another special interview on the Rogue Warden. Today, I complete my trifecta of interviews with game designers who worked on Birthright! In point of fact, today’s guest has a very impressive pedigree in the game industry, having worked on several fantastic products both physical and virtual. Today’s guest is the gracious Colin McComb.

Colin’s contributions to gaming include highlights such as Planescape: Torment, the aforementioned Birthright setting (and veteran readers of the warden know that I am a huge super-duper fan of that setting), many works for Dungeons & Dragons, and Fallout 2. I’ve played Colin’s games for years and I can tell you that this man knows what he is talking about.
Colin McComb is f’ing METAL.
 
Colin’s most recent game activities relate to his own company, 3lb Games, and the highly-anticipated computer RPG, Torment: Tides of Numenara. He also has a blog at Colinmccomb.com, and has written some exciting fantasy fiction, the Oathbreaker series.

Without any further ado, let’s get into the meat of the interview. 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? 
CM: Sure! I’ve been involved in the industry in one way or another since about 1991, and when I say that I feel like I need to go fetch some kidney medication and perhaps check the wheels on my walker to make sure they’re well-oiled with whale grease. I started gaming with a combination of AD&D and the Blue Box, with my first adventure being B1: In Search of the Unknown. I played a wide variety of games throughout my youth (Boot Hill, Top Secret, Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, Twilight 2000, Victory’s James Bond) but always found my way back to D&D, and that’s what I was playing through college. When I was at TSR, we played a lot of D&D – mostly for fun, occasionally to play test – Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, and more. I started playing a lot fewer tabletop games when I moved to California to work in the computer game industry, focusing more then on cRPGs and action games. These days I tend to play more board and card games, though I’ve also got an active OnLive account and just bought GOG.com‘s D&D pack, so I’ve got a pretty full gaming plate even when I’m not being dragged into Minecraft with my kids. 
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry? 
CM: Through the luckiest of flukes, frankly. As a senior in college with a philosophy major, I was concerned about finding a job that would accommodate my degree. Since I’d discovered, years before, that one could actually make a living as a game designer, I thought I’d give it a shot. I didn’t have high hopes, but I sent a letter to TSR to find out if they were hiring… and my letter arrived at the exact right time. A relatively young designer had decided that the job wasn’t for him, and he’d left recently. So TSR sent me a copy of The Complete Vikings Handbook and told me to submit an adventure based on those rules. I labored over it for a week, sent it in, and then enjoyed the usual dreams of getting the job while fully convinced that there was no way I’d actually make an impression. You can imagine my surprise when they called me back for an in-person interview and writing test. I was nervous as hell (I mean, I was being interviewed by legend Jim Ward – a man whose name I had seen for the entirety of my gaming career!), and again I was convinced that nothing would come of it (apart from the free books they sent me on my way with). So when I got the call from the HR Director saying that she’d been instructed to offer me a job, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even dicker over the salary. I started a week after graduation.
Looking forward to reading this!
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
 
CM: Even after all this time, it’s difficult for me to believe that I *need* to play games, that I *have* to play games in order to stay current, and that in fact playing games counts as research and makes me a more credible professional. Plus there’s the whole bit about getting to tell stories to people.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry? 
CM: Two things come immediately to mind. The first is that if money is your big incentive, this is not the industry to be in. You need to love the work, and you need to be comfortable with the idea that your labors will likely only be seen by a small group of people. Even at TSR, the leaders in the RPG industry through the mid-90s, salaries were not generous–at least not in the production area.
The second thing is that it really is a lot of work. If you don’t love doing this, you’re going to burn out quickly, and chances are good that you might anyway. Zeb Cook used to say that as an industry, gaming eats its young. Conditions have generally improved, but you can expect to put in a lot of hours as a gaming professional.
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?
 
CM: As a freelancer, apart from punctuality with your projects, the most important aspect is communication. If you’re going to be late, tell your coordinator. If you have questions, ask them. If you have concerns or even an inkling that something might go awry, mention that as well. I don’t know that I can stress this enough: it’s far better as a freelancer to keep an honest and open line of communication than it is to get embarrassed, shut down, and go dark. If you’re open and upfront about potential issues, you give your coordinator a chance to work around those. If you disappear, you leave nothing but your bad reputation in your place. Other than that, do the job you were hired to do–don’t run long, don’t run short, and don’t argue that the project should be something else. You can make suggestions, but it’s not your product that’s hitting the shelves — it might be your name on it, but the publisher is putting up the money, and it’s their reputation that ultimately suffers. 
As a publisher, the most important thing is to be honest with your customers. Not necessarily to bring them into your inner sanctum and let them see the workings of your operation, but to tell them your schedules, reasons for delay, issues with the product line, and so forth. Paizo has done an excellent job with this, and because of that, their customers are their fans. If we’re talking about the publisher/freelancer relationship, then the publisher’s primary duty is to communicate clearly to the freelancer what the project is, what the expectations are for it, to schedule it with a reasonable timeframe, and to *pay on time*. There’s little more poisonous to your reputation than to profit from the work of others and then not pay them. If they have delivered a product to you in good faith, you owe it to them to pay them for it — and do it with good grace.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
 
CM: I’d make it more popular. How would I do that? I HAVE NO IDEA. 
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
 
CM: If I have to be honest, I do it poorly. I try to respond to email when I get a chance, I attend a con here and there, and I occasionally show up for an exchange or two on various sites, but I don’t have a systematic method for doing it. I’ve got a website at colinmccomb.com, but I update that too infrequently — in general, I consider my brand to be my work, rather than my messaging. The work has to stand on its own; once its in the world, it’s no longer mine to control. I’m more than happy to talk about it, but it’s gone, the story is told, the game is made, the die is cast. That said, I’m very happy when my work makes people happy, and I love to hear about it.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
 
CM: If I’m going to be sarcastic, I’d say it’s The Complete Book of Elves – still inspiring high emotion more than 20 years later! But in all honesty, the high-water mark to date was Planescape: Torment. Everything came together perfectly on that project–my background with the Planescape universe, my teammates, the story we wanted to tell–and I remain inordinately proud of my part in the project.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
 
CM: I don’t play enough games, probably. If we’re going to talk in terms of failed projects, probably my canceled Buck Rogers project. If we’re going to talk in terms of published projects, I think I’d have to go with The Galactos Barrier.
RW: If you were a post-apocalyptic survivor, you’d be a…?
 
CM: … an imminent victim? Though I suppose I’ve had some experience gardening, and I can do some hand-to-hand fighting so I could defend my garden, but I think in the long haul I’d probably die from starvation.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
 
CM: Call of Cthulhu. Simple enough rules that you can play it quickly, fun storytelling, and the opportunity for some in-depth role-play even with newcomers.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
 
CM: Numenera! I seriously think that people are going to love this game.

D&D Questions

RW: Thunder Rift is, IMHO, one of the best settings ever created for Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a beautiful little region full of opportunities for adventure. Did you have any thoughts on any missed opportunities with Thunder Rift, any areas or stories of the setting that you never got a chance to address?
 
CM: Man, that’s reaching into the past. Tim Beach and I had come up with several ideas for expansions for the area, some of which made their respective ways into the various add-ons (Assult of Raven’s Ruin, Goblin’s Lair, etc), but there others that never saw the light of day. Since it was so long ago, I did some online research and I discovered that some devoted fans have done more than I ever would have imagined with such a small little book.
 

Planescape: Torment Questions

RW: It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Planescape: Torment and regard it as one of the best computer RPGs ever made. I was wondering, which character in PS:T is your personal favorite? Why?
 
CM: If we’re talking companions, it’s got to be Morte. He takes the worst the multiverse has to throw at him and he throws an insult back in its face. He’s almost never cowed, though he’s always honest about his chances. Sure, he might have betrayed the Nameless One, and sure, he might be hiding some dark secrets, but when you get right down it, he’s funny in the face of death… and that counts for a lot. If we’re talking other characters, then I’ll go with Lothar, because he’s a seeker after knowledge AND he’s one of the few able to threaten the Nameless One.
RW: One of my favorite characters is the highly unusual succubus, Fall-from-Grace. Do you have any ideas on what happened to her after her journeys with the Nameless One?
 
CM: I do, but I’m going to let you ask that question of Chris Avellone. Sorry, but she’s HIS baby.
 

Birthright Questions

RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). What were the main goals you wanted to accomplish with Birthright and how do you feel it succeeded (or perhaps did not quite succeed) at those goals?

CM: Frankly, I just wanted to make something cool. I wanted to create a low-fantasy setting that would be at least partially culturally inclusive yet still feel similar to Tolkien. We were looking to have a broader, more coherent mythology among our cultures, and a systemic, realistic outgrowth of history from the major events at Deismaar. Oh, and we wanted everyone to buy it. I think these goals were successful… well, except for the last one. This was the phase in which TSR had about 4 kajillion campaign worlds, and each of those was in some sense in competition with all the others, rather than competing with products outside the company. Birthright went for a massive flood of material, too – the short realm guides weren’t our idea; they were dreamt up down in Executive Row and slapped onto the schedule, with the attendant headaches of quick writing and quick editing and finding freelancers to take those projects on in the first place. 
The sales expectations for Birthright were probably too ambitious from the start.
This game is going to rock. Can’t wait to play it!
RW: Darien Avan and Archduke Boeruine: Which one has the best chance of getting to the Iron Throne? What did you see in your head for these two contenders in Anuire?
 
CM: I like Avan more as a person, but I always had the feeling that Boeruine was more brutal and more subtle, and thus had a more direct line. Avan is more of a politician, but I never had the feeling that he was as capable of the realpolitik.
RW: You and Rich Baker designed the boxed set for Birthright and the setting of Anuire. If you could design Birthright (the core boxed set) again, what would you do differently?
 
CM: Given the time constraints we had, I was pretty pleased with our work. Still, if we had more time, I think I might have started the game with the players *not* immediately becoming rulers. Make them work for it, grow into it, and learn the ropes before handing them the keys to a realm. We may have given them too much too soon. I’d focus more on roleplaying, with less of an emphasis on the domain rules. Give them time to love the world before we destroy it. 
Also, I’d have liked to see more happen with Vosgaard while I was still at TSR. Man, those guys were great.
RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?

CM: Frankly, I don’t think I can do the playtests any more justice than Roger Moore did here: http://www.pvv.ntnu.no/~leirbakk/rpg/adnd/society/adnd_society_brplaytest.html
RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?
 
CM: Schedule permitting, sure! And if we could get Rich, Ed, Tony S, Anne Brown, Roger Moore, and Sue Weinlein all involved again, that’d be even better. The real question is: when would my schedule permit this? And my answer is: Hoo boy, I don’t know. Between Torment, developing games with my own company (3lbGames), and fiction writing, I don’t see a lot of spare time in my near future.

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