Interview Time: Owen Barnes

I’m excited about this week’s interview… Owen Barnes is a very talented and prolific RPG writer whose work has appeared in a number of places, possibly most notably in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition and in all(!) of the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay lines, from Dark Heresy on forwards into the present.
Owen is a consummate professional and extremely good to work with–when I was a lead developer at FFG, Owen was a surefire way to generate great content for any book. It was Owen I turned to every time we needed to generate a Free RPG Day preview of the upcoming 40K Roleplay Game for that year. Owen and I worked together in dozens of books, and I’m pleased to call him both a colleague and a friend.
From my own career, working with Owen was in some ways a “passing of the torch” from Black Industries when I took over the 40K RPG line at Fantasy Flight Games. Owen is, in fact, part of the original Dark Heresy team and has been uniquely involved through the entire run of the game lines.
I never really got to meet or work with most of the other creators of Dark Heresy, but I always felt that by incorporating Owen into everything we did, we were continuing the legacy of those pioneer game designers.
As a fun note, Owen himself appears in the Deathwatch supplement Rites of Battle as “Inquisitor Barnabus.” 
It’s a spitting image of the chap!
Now, onto the questions! 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?
Owen: Like a lot of gamers I started young; my first memories of gaming were in the early 80s at the age of seven when my older Brother wouldn’t let me play DnD with him and his mates… apparently it contained gold pieces, secret doors and other things I wouldn’t understand. Needless to say it didn’t put me off and I spent much of my youth gaming in one form or another; starting out the with classic DnD Red Box and then moving on to ADnD and finally discovering the wider world of RPGs in high school. Fast forward 20 odd years and somehow I’ve managed to turn writing adventures for a small group of mates into some semblance of a career.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Owen: Growing up in New Zealand and then Australia I never really gave much thought to actually having a career in roleplaying games, especially in the days before the internet when the people who created these games seemed a long, long way away. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK and got a job at Games Workshop that it became a possibility. It all kind of just happened very randomly, and while I started at GW as a mail order troll, it’s the kind of company where I got the chance to write something for the then Black Industries, which in turn led to a job, and the figurative ‘foot in the door’.
A trip down the picturesque and perilous canals of the Old World…
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The thing I love more than anything else about the RPG industry is that you are sharing in other people’s imaginations and the worlds and adventures they create with their friends. Few other hobbies have that same level of involvement with its members, where when you write a book you are not saying “this is how it is and will always be” but “here, take what you want and create your own stories”. I know from my own experience the memories of adventures and campaigns played with your mates live on years after they finish, and to be part of that with other people is an amazing thing.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The first thing that springs to mind is money… though to be fair writing is universally a poorly paid profession unless you are very lucky, very talented or more likely both. Unfortunately it means a lot of people which would make excellent writers, games designers and artists will never get the chance because there are simply better ways of making a living, many of which leave little room for the time and effort of creating games.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
Owen: For the last five years I’ve largely been working as a freelancer, and it has taught me a lot about myself, and my limits. Coming from a large successful company and sitting in an open-plan office to surviving as a freelance writer does feel akin to leaving the Staff HQ and joining the men in the trenches. While it has been hard, it has also been great, and I feel closer to the industry. It has also helped my writing no end; nothing like the fear of not getting paid to get fingers hitting keys.
This product was one of the highlights of Free RPG Day 2012!
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?
Owen: Having now had a fair amount of experience from both sides of the fence I think I’d try and communicate more with the other writers, developers and designers, and encourage them to communicate more with me. From my experience many of the issues encountered when creating a project seem to stem from misunderstandings or divergent ideas, which can be a problem to set right once you have a finished draft in your hands. It’s also been my experience that everyone working on a project wants it to be great, and so even a few emails or a five minute conversation can clear things up before someone knocks out 20,000 words, which as great as they might be don’t fit the brief.
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?
Owen: As a freelancer: hit your deadlines, keep to your brief and most importantly of all talk to your developer; you need to know what his vision for the project is and you need to tell him any ideas you might have early on, so he can work it into that vision (especially if there are other writers involved).
As a publisher: create clear briefs and make sure your freelancers (be they writers, artists or developers) know exactly what you want from them; you can’t blame them for creating something you are not 100% happy with if you didn’t tell them what you wanted. As a publisher I’d also say be flexible and don’t micro manage too much; like a good landlord you need to create the environment but then step back and let them get on with it.
One of the great cover art pieces of Ralph Horsely
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
Owen: I’d make it bigger; say 10 million more avid roleplayers would be a good start. This of course would mean more money, bigger and more professional companies and more people choosing it as a career path, becoming designers, writers and artists. It would also most importantly mean more high quality products for gamers to choose from.
That said though I do think the RPG industry does pretty darn well given the resources at its disposal.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Owen: Sadly I don’t get to meet fans of my work very often, though I have from time to time chatted with people at cons. While I do post on forums about gaming I tend to do so anonymously, an old habit from years of working at GW. I also read a lot of forums and observe people (not in a creepy way) at cons and events who are looking at things I’ve worked on. Though it doesn’t really count as ‘engaging’ one of my abiding memories of this was in 2007 at a con in Sydney. I was going down a stairwell and had to go around a bunch of young guys pouring over a copy of Dark Heresy (which at the time had just come out); reminded me of how excited I get about games and what it is all about.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Owen: I probably say contributing to the Free RPG day for the last 4 years, writing the free adventures for Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade and most recently Only War. I really enjoyed creating something which anyone could get their hands on and which was for many the first taste of a game. It was also an added bonus that I got to work with the fantastic Warhammer 40,000 world and Fantasy Flight Games which have very high production values, even when it comes to a free product.
A very close second though would be the Critical Hit tables from Dark Heresy; which are up there as the most fun I’ve had as a writer.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
Owen: Not doing enough of my own stuff. I think to really succeed in the RPG industry you need to be really motivated, you need to not only do the stuff that pays but the stuff that might pay and the stuff which doesn’t pay but you want to do anyway. I have a lot of trouble with the last two, and tend (like most freelancers) never to turn down a paying job, which means I don’t get around to writing my own stuff, or working on products I am simply interested in but for which there is no real paying work.
Owen served as the developer for the Dark Heresy line with Black Industries with Kate Flack and Mike Mason.
RW: You’ve been with 40K Roleplay since the very beginning (Dark Heresy). How do you feel about the way the lines have grown and changed over the years?
Owen: I think it is great how much it has expanded since its relatively humble beginnings. Given the few books Black Industries created before we closed down, and that there were only really a couple of us putting them together I didn’t think at the time it would have the life it has taken on. I was prepared for Dark Heresy to be a standalone game with a few supplements, existing by itself until someone had another crack at RPGs in the 40k universe. The way Fantasy Flight Games has taken it and turned it into one of the biggest RPG lines out there is awesome, not to mention it has given me a chance to continue working on a universe I really love. Someone was telling me recently that there is actually more written about the Calixis Sector and its surrounding regions than all of the table-top material put together. Certainly it has to one of the most detailed sections of the 40K setting.
I’m also pleased to see FFG expanding and cleaning up the system from the rather creaky thing we started with (basically the 2nd Edition WFRP system adapted for 40K). Like any roleplaying game for it to grow and develop people need to play it, and publishers need to put out books and I’m happy to see the 40K RPG is doing both.
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?
Owen: This is actually something about roleplaying games I love. Unlike a lot of other creative mediums you are inviting the end user to take what you have created and alter it for their own needs; adding things, taking things away or ignoring things to make their own games the way they want them.
I did find this a challenge at first since I was coming from writing wargames which by their nature need to be clear cut. The real trick I discovered was finding that balance between just enough information to be useful without drowning the reader in detail; something which is especially true of adventures, where you need to predict what the reader is going to what know for his players.
Owen’s done quite a bit of work for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay both in 2nd and 3rd edition.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
Owen: A disillusioned Cleric of a little known god, wrestling with his questionable life choices and a love/hate relationship with his deity. He would preach the virtues of his god to any who will listen while inside struggling with self-doubt over the righteousness of the path he has chosen to walk.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
Owen: SLA industries. I love the dark cyberpunk nature of it mixed with the crushing bureaucracy and the monstrous nature of the PCs themselves. Over the years I’ve had some great games of SLA which mix in my mind the best bits of horror and investigation along with some really gritty combat thrown into the mix. Bullet tax: love it.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Owen: Command of English is a pretty big one, something which you can tell early on from reading someone’s work. This is not to say that the grammar and punctuation need to be perfect (though in the age of spellcheckers there is no excuse for misspelled words), but it shouldn’t be difficult to read and should have some kind of flow. Communicating ideas is also an important aspect; does it clearly tell me something, or do I have to dig through the text for what the writer is trying to say.
When I was working as a developer for Black Industries I would actually forgive the above as long as the writer had a good understanding of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings. In my experience it’s easier to improve your writing techniques than it is truly ‘get’ a setting, and be able to create something which fits seamlessly into it. 
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Owen: Savage Worlds. I’ve come to it kind of late, only really getting into it in the last couple of years but I have been very impressed with its versatility and depth as well as its ease of play. I used to use GURPS for all my generic gaming needs (when I wasn’t playing in a world with a specific system tied to it), but it only really shines with a group of people that are very familiar with it. By contrast Savage Worlds can be picked up in a few minutes, characters knocked out in that same about of time and you are on your way!

One response to “Interview Time: Owen Barnes

  1. So he’s the one who did the critical hit charts?

    As someone who’s been lucky enough to work on critical hit charts for the 40K RPG line (the ones in Only War) all I can say to Owen is THANKYOU. I got to take the amazing (and gruesome!) work that he did and add my own little spin to it. Wouldn’t have been possible without such a great base to work from.

    The critical hit charts have never failed to amuse (and disgust) us during our games. 😀

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