Professionalism in Gaming – Getting Paid


Greetings readers, this week I want to talk about some factors of working in the gaming industry—namely, getting fair compensation for your work. This is actually part of a panel I’m scheduled to give at Gen Con this year alongside my co-conspirators John Dunn and Jason Marker. The panel is titled “Professionalism in Gaming” and is going to cover quite a few subjects—amongst them contracts and payments and the like—but I’m taking this opportunity to give a sneak peek (as it were) at some of my own opinions on the subject of payments for freelance RPG writing.

 

Contracts

All too common in this economy.

I always work with a contract. This is, for me, an ironclad rule. Even when I’ve done work with people I consider trusted friends, I’ve always insisted on a contract. I firmly believe that a contract is necessary for professional work – it provides a clear description of the expectations on both sides and gives both sides a form of recourse if anything unexpected happens. I would strongly encourage any new writers, artists, editors, or anyone doing any professional work in the industry to always… ALWAYS get a contract between you and the employer. In my opinion, it’s just that simple.

 

Communication

As in every aspect of business, communication is vital for a freelancer. Make sure you touch base with the developer in charge of your project every so often; there’s no need to ping every day or even every week, but regular contact is completely reasonable. During my time as a developer, I always e-mailed a pre-agreement to a freelancer that I was planning to contract for work. A pre-agreement was basically just a statement from me stating the pertinent facts of the assignment I wanted to offer him; this included the date the project was due to be turned in, the word count requirement, and the compensation he would be paid for his work. A quick e-mail like this takes hardly any time and helps clear up any misunderstandings before you get to the stage where contracts need to be amended.
I found the pre-agreement method to be a very useful tool, as it kept me from having to change any contracts once they were written and sent out by the accounting/legal department, and my freelancers appreciated the additional step of communication and clarity about what they were getting into.
In the business of being a freelancer, the contract for your work is one of the last places you want to get a surprise…

 

Getting Paid

I’ve worked in the game industry for over 13 years now, and I can tell you that I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. One of the ways in which I’ve been very lucky is that I’ve always been paid for my work. I know several of my friends and colleagues who have, at various times, had great difficulty getting their just compensation for their work from different employers.
While getting the check in the mail is great, that’s actually only half the story. Getting paid ON TIME is the second half of the equation (and another reason why contracts are super-important; they spell out just how much time you can expect between turning in your work and getting paid).
I helped build the RPG department at Fantasy Flight Games up from a small team of two to a large and engaged group of six-plus designers. One of the early rules I wanted to make iron-bound was that OUR department always paid our freelancers, and we always paid on time. This was a professional goal of mine since I had began writing in the industry, and it was extremely important to me to make that happen. I’m still very proud to this day that the FFG RPG department has a sterling reputation in the industry for professionalism and dealing well with freelancers.
At the top of a good reputation for a company is whether it can be trusted, and trust starts with paying people for their work on time.

 

Royalties vs. Flat Rate

Let me be clear: I’ve never worked for royalties. I’ve been offered a chance to write for royalties more than once, but I’ve never taken the bait. Instead, I’ve always chosen to write on a for-hire basis, getting paid a flat rate for my work. Typically, the compensation for RPG writing involves three things; a fee (calculated on a per-word basis), a writing or development credit in the finished project, and a complimentary copy of said project when it is published.
If only it carried over into real life!

If you want to write for royalties, go ahead – just be aware that you’re selling your time and effort in return for a future payoff. And royalty payments are, in general, more problematic (as in, anything that can go wrong with mailing one check is now spread out over several checks).

In the end, I’ve often wondered “why not just publish it myself?” rather than accepting royalties as payments.
Now, in the era of the internet, royalties are becoming a lot more hassle-free. Publishing electronically (especially through reputable merchants like RPGNow/DriveThru) has made the royalty model a viable one for many creators.

 

Know your Worth: Writing Rates

A quick note about writing rates: the RPG industry pays an extremely low rate compared to other types of writing-for-hire. For example, writing for an established magazine or web-page like the Escapist is likely to pay far higher rates than the ones listed below. It is a sad truth of the industry that writers are generally undervalued and underpaid; often this is a symptom of small budgets and small print runs, a result of a niche market.
Since I’ve been working in the industry, the numbers have changed, but not much – here’s the word rates as I know them, at least as current as 2011 (when I was last a developer). So, YMMV – this is the information as best as I know it from my own experiences.

 

.01 per word

This level is generally only paid by very small companies or for very small projects. Often only beginner writers work for this rate. When I was just getting started in the industry, I took jobs for this rate.

 

.03 per word

This is the standard rate for a new writer in the RPG industry. Most of the larger and more successful RPG companies pay out this rate for a first-time writer doing work for them.

 

.04 per word

This is a standard rate for an established writer in the RPG industry. Once you’ve got a few published projects under your belt, this is the rate you can reasonably expect.

 

.05 per word

This is a top rate – and often the most that many publishers can reasonably afford. Top writers in their field, skilled authors, or those with tons of experience in the gaming industry command these rates. It generally takes steady work for a publisher (and remember that a professional writer turns in quality work ON TIME!) for roughly a year (or half-a-dozen individual projects, if basing it on number of books rather than time) before you can expect to get this kind of rate.

 

.06 per word or higher

This is a top rate; only extremely well-known designers and writers can command these rates. Alternatively, it means you’re writing for a extremely well-established or successful company. I would generally expect to see rates like these only from top-tier publishers like WOTC and Paizo.

 

Credits & Comp Copies

Sometimes the answer is “throw money at it.”

No one should ever write for RPGs with the goal of getting rich – but there are two other benefits that come with writing for the RPG industry. The first is your name in the credits (depending on your involvement) as a writer, designer, or developer. Credits are very important in this industry, as you will often find your expertise, abilities, and professionalism are going to be weighed due to your accomplishments. Therefore, it is very important to get your name spelled correctly and receive the correct attribution for your work in the credits of any project you work on. If you find out later that your name was misspelled, left out, or given the wrong attribution, it is important for you to contact the publisher and attempt to get the mistake corrected as soon as possible (hopefully to be present in a second printing, if there is one).

When it comes to complimentary copies of the project, there’s a good reason why these are important rewards for freelancers. Just having the physical copy of the project on your shelf can provide a great sense of accomplishment; having an extra copy to send to a family member only makes that sense greater. It’s just cool to have a copy of your own book as a reward for your work. Again, I feel this is an underrated feature of many work-for-hire contracts in the industry, and I’d like to encourage more publishers to take it more seriously.

Interview Time: Sam Stewart

Greetings readers! This week I have an interview with Sam Stewart, Senior RPG Producer at Fantasy Flight Games. Sam and I worked together for over three years at FFG and Sam was the first person I turned to for help with the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. Sam’s work was instrumental to the success of Rogue Trader and he quickly became a valued member of the RPG team.
I wanted to interview Sam as he has recently had some great success in the RPG arena with the release of Black Crusade and Only War followed by the excellent new entry of Star Wars as an RPG with Edge of the Empire.
Sam is a very gifted writer with a lot of editing chops and a solid game designer who has several good games under his belt and many more on the horizon. If I had to point to a designer to watch in the RPG industry, I’d nominate Sam in a heartbeat. If you’d like to know more about Sam, you can find his BGG profile here.

As usual, my questions are in red text.

Llllladies.
 
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
SS: I got started because Fantasy Flight needed an editor for its board game rulebooks. My education was in print journalism, so I have a fairly solid grounding in grammar and editing. My first job with the company was about as entry level as you can get.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
SS: They say that if you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life. I’ve had jobs in several different fields, but that’s only been true for me in the RPG industry. It’s challenging, interesting, and what you’re working on day by day is constantly changing, so you really never get bored. Plus, you get to make books about spaceships, dwarves, and gribbly monsters! What’s not to like about that?
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
SS: Well, it is a very hard industry to get into, and even harder to make a living in. I have friends who work in the industry and because of expenses like student loans, are barely scraping by.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
SS: Five years ago, before I was working at Fantasy Flight Games, I had no idea how close-knit the RPG industry, or the game industry in general, really was. For example, just last year I ended up working with Shane Hensley (CEO of Pinnacle Entertainment Group, who does Deadlands amongst other things) who did some freelance writing for Edge of the Empire. This came up partially because Shane is a good friend of my boss, Christian Petersen. So turns out, it really is a small world.
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?
Sam wrote the starship combat and starship construction rules for this game.. and they kick ass.
SS: Plan earlier, plan longer. Turns out you really never can get started too early on a project, because there will always be complications you don’t expect.
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?
SS: I think the most important professional trait for a freelancer to have is to treat their work as they would any other job. This is kind of broad, but it means the freelancer should be courteous to their boss, meet deadlines, be very communicative, and respect all aspects of a contract (including any parts that ask them not to talk about what they’re working on). A lot of freelancers treat their work as a hobby, which I think is a mistake.
On the other hand, I think the most important aspect of professionalism on the publisher’s side is to be quick with feedback and punctual about paying out contracts. I think paying contracts on time is the single most important thing a publisher can do to engender goodwill from their freelancer pool.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
SS: Does increasing the fan base by 100 percent count as “changing?” But seriously, I think the RPG industry is actually in a pretty good spot at the moment, and has been developing in very interesting directions over the last few years.  
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
SS: Personally, I prefer to meet them face to face, at conventions or game stores and the like. If not that, then email conversations. Basically, any situation where I can interact with someone one-on-one.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
SS: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Getting that project done with Jay Little has been the apex of my career thus far, although I hope I’ll have even bigger accomplishments in the future.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
SS: That’s a hard question to answer. I think I’ve definitely had failures and faults in my career thus far, but identifying your own mistakes is always a tricky business.  Budgeting my time is something I’ve always struggled with, so I’ll go with that. Happily, I’ve never had a project that turned out a failure, as far as I can tell.
  
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?
Sam’s first major project as lead developer — he did a fantastic job!
SS: I’ve learned that the best thing you can do with a ruleset is create one that’s robust but flexible. Basically, the rules should be internally consistent amongst the entire set, but flexible enough that they can cover a wide range of situations. The worst thing you can do as a designer, in my opinion, is try and come up with rules for every single situation that could arise in a game. That just lends itself to bloat and confusion. If you create a ruleset that deliberately doesn’t cover every situation, but is designed in such a way that the GM and players can figure out how to use the rules in unexpected scenarios, then I think you’ve pulled off the best of both worlds.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
SS: A paladin, probably. Either that or a neutral good ranger.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
SS: Hands down D20 Iron Kingdoms. It’s the game that really got me into roleplaying back in the day, and one of those games that I really obsessively studied as a fan to learn every minute rules detail.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
SS: The first thing I look for is a professional cover letter and resume. It shows me the freelancer is approaching his submission like he would a job application (which it is), and taking things seriously.
The biggest red flag in my mind is the freelancer who submits fiction as an example of his writing. It’s hard to objectively judge the quality of fiction, and it doesn’t demonstrate any ability to write rules. In addition, I expect freelancers with experience writing for RPGs to submit their prior work as an example. So fiction isn’t a deal breaker, but I’m less likely to take a freelance submission seriously if his or her writing sample is a short story.
RW: What are the best and worst parts about working with a licensed property?
SS: The best and worst parts are actually two sides of the same issue; the IP is already defined. On the one hand, this means you just can’t do some things, because they don’t fit into the IP. You can’t put hard sci-fi in Warhammer 40,000, for example. But on the other hand, because the setting is already defined, it frees you up to focus on the aspects of the setting that are open to interpretation and development. Basically, a lot of the conceptual heavy lifting has already been taken care of, and left you in a big sandbox to play around in. 
Awesome Star Wars smugglers & gamblers action.
 
RW: What is the biggest challenge about working with a licensed property?
SS: Remaining true to the core IP while still creating something new and interesting for fans to enjoy.
RW: What would you suggest to a fan or prospective game designer looking to improve his knowledge of the industry?
SS: Ideally, I’d suggest they go to a convention, find someone in the industry, and offer to buy drinks or a meal while asking a few questions. But since that’s kind of an expensive proposition, most people will do just as well turning to the Internet and reading blogs like yours. There’re a bunch of current industry insiders who post about their experiences on-line, and reading them presents a pretty good picture of the industry.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
SS: Edge of the Empire. I’ve GMed several games while working on it, but I haven’t actually gotten to play a character in it yet!

Player Empowerment


Greetings readers! I just got back from attending Genghis Con, a great gaming convention held in Aurora, Colorado. This year I was one of the convention’s guests of honor – the first time I’ve been to a convention as a guest. The experience was extremely memorable and I had a wonderful time. I’ve been to Genghis Con three years in a row now, and I’m always impressed with the quality of the games held there. One thing that may be responsible for the relatively high quality of the gamemasters at Genghis Con may be their feedback sheet, a kind of “report card” that tracks how well GM’s perform across the convention (and across multiple years).
One of the best gaming conventions I’ve ever been to.
While I was going from game to game at Genghis Con this year, I was trying to analyze why the games were so fun—to try and find some common elements that I could use to enhance my own approach to running a game. Among the elements that I observed was one that I found particularly interesting: player empowerment.
My good friend Robert Dorf has a great story on this topic. Robert has run games for decades, and his wife has been a part of many of those games. Robert was once running a game at a convention where his wife was one of the players. The adventure began with a giant monster attacking the city, and the players – all superheroes – trying to defend the citizens. However, Robert’s wife was having none of that! Instead, she announced that she was flying off to find the “real crime.” When asked about this, she remarked “I know Robert. Things like the giant monster attacking the city are /always/ a distraction for the real crime that’s going on somewhere else.”
This question gives Robert an interesting choice to make. The adventure as he envisioned it revolved around the attacking giant monster, and naturally, he would love to have this wife’s character participate in that. However, if he chooses to enforce his original vision, his wife is going to be disappointed that there is no other crime going on and end up spending a great deal of time chasing a red herring.
If Robert decides to alter his original plan and create a “real crime” for his wife’s character to discover, he is empowering his players. Robert’s wife feels as if she has figured something important out, that she has “outsmarted” the GM in this case and thus her enjoyment of the game is heightened.
When you empower the player, what’s really happening is that you’re providing opportunities for the player’s choices to matter. Sometimes this concept can change the entire thrust of an adventure, as described above. Sometimes, it can be as simple as saying “Yes,” when the player asks “Is there a fire extinguisher nearby?”
Basically, this. But cooler.
Some games provide a resource that can be traded in for player empowerment (especially with elements of the game that are of lower stakes, such as the fire extinguisher example). These resources include Savage Worlds’ “bennies,” WFRP and 40KRPG’s “fate points,” and “action points” or “hero points” in Champions. Often, the existence of these resources gives the GM a way to make the player’s desires a more meaningful choice… in other words, the GM offers the player what he’s looking for in the game as a point of narrative control in return for some of those resources previously mentioned.
In my opinion, player empowerment is more important than the story. It is more important than the theme of the game and it is more important than what the Game Master has planned. Granted, there are and should be limits to player empowerment – if what a player is after actively harms fun for the other players or if empowering the player will cause the GM to lose interest in continuing to run the session or campaign, then it should be avoided.
When I was analyzing my games at Genghis Con, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoyed those game so much is what my character was able to accomplish – what my decisions had led to, within the framework of the game’s overall story and the character’s role in that story. Defining the character’s role is sometimes easy; many of the characters I played during Genghis Con all had an easy set of complications, disadvantages, or personality quirks that I could wrap my brain around and find fun things to use with during the game.
Similarly, I wrote two adventures for Genghis Con that followed this paradigm. First, I designed my Shadowrun game, All Elves Go to Heaven. In All Elves, I made sure each pre-generated character had a solid dramatic hook, a single narrative prompt that I could use to remind the player about that character’s core identity and that the player could use to improvise responses to the encounters in the game. One character was deeply in debt to some very dangerous people, whilst another had to deal with a legacy of intense racism against non-humans. By pointing these issues out at the very beginning and highlighting them through the encounters of the game, these issues gained the players some valuable payoff in the form of great roleplaying scenes that they created in the final third of the session. I specifically designed the adventure in this way to provide those opportunities for the players to make meaningful choices about their characters and thus gain the benefits of player empowerment.
Harvey Birdman has the power… of attorney!
 
At Genghis Con, I had to re-write one adventure in a hurry due to the fact that the prepared adventure I brought with me had already been experienced by half the table! Genghis Con is a small convention and I see a lot of familiar faces, and in this case, it was actually a good thing because it got me thinking about how to apply principles of player empowerment to a setting that I know extremely well – my very own creation, Shadows Angelus. Thus, the Shadows Angelus game at Genghis Con evoked one core element for each character and made sure that each element involves a choice for that character to make during the game.
Player empowerment is actually quite simple and much easier than many people believe; sometimes it can be as simple as glancing at a player’s character sheet to examine the choices he made about his character from the creation step. Other times, it can be a matter of listening to the players during the session or campaign and finding ways to weave into the game the things that each player finds important or interesting.
Remember. The key here is meaningful choices. Not the illusion of choice.

Remember that empowering a player means that the player feels as if he has made a meaningful choice – that what he has decided to do in your game has some significant effect on the outcome of the story. That effect can be small (a lucky placement of a fire extinguisher) or large (changing the point of an entire adventure), but it always improves the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. And isn’t the point of the game to have fun in the first place? Let’s all try to maximize having fun – and if that is your goal, player empowerment is a tool in the toolbox.
In the end, I strongly encourage game masters to make sure the players feel empowered rather than just acting as guest stars in your story.

Interview Time SPECIAL: Auction Hunter Allen Haff

Greetings readers!

One thing that never ceases to bring a smile to my face is to find out that someone I like or admire happens to be a tabletop gamer, and never more so when that person speaks out in favor of my favorite hobby and pastime: roleplaying games.

Allen Haff and Ton Jones are… the AUCTION HUNTERS!

I happen to be a big fan of a television show on Spike TV called Auction Hunters. In this show, Allen Haff and his partner Ton Jones bid on storage locker auctions, investigating the contents for cool and unusual items and then selling those items on camera. Auction Hunters is in its fourth season this year, and I happened to catch the second episode, entitled “Win, Lose, or Joust.” In this episode, the Auction Hunters find some hand-crafted jousting gear, including lances, armor, and a shield inside a storage locker.

Allen Haff was very excited about this find, and he explained to Ton how he used to play Dungeons and Dragons, how “it kept him out of jail,” and how he played characters who were knights and paladins. Later in the episode, Allen gets a chance to use the jousting gear in a real joust… and although he gets unhorsed, Allen is obviously having the time of his life.

Allen is suited up here ready to joust. It was one hell of a ride!

It was very inspiring to me when I watched this episode, so I reached out to Allen on facebook to see if he’d be willing to talk to me about both the show and his history with roleplaying games.

Allen told me that he had played RPGs throughout high school and into college, and in fact, one of his cousins had hooked up his gaming group with advance products from Mayfair.

It was a great opportunity to discuss RPGs with a television celebrity. Allen was extremely engaging and gracious, and I am extremely pleased to present the results of that conversation here on Rogue Warden:

(As usual, my questions are in red text)

RW: Have you ever found gaming memorabilia, gaming collections, or gamer stuff in a storage locker that we haven’t seen on the show? I know you guys mostly throw out books, but you never know, right?

AH: Actually we donate most contemporary books but sell our first edition older books online. I’ve found and kept an original D&D basic box set in mint condition, plus i’ve accumulated all of the AD &D manuals even though I’m not playing anymore. It’s nice to look through them once in awhile. Growing up there wasn’t an abundance of disposable income around my house so it was my friend who had all the cool AD&D stuff and Star Wars action figures. But that’s why it’s such a great game, it doesn’t cost money for hours of endless entertainment and our parents were glad we weren’t out running in the streets or driving around looking for trouble. That’s why I say it kept me out prison.

“I propose a new strategy, R2. Let the auction hunter win.”

The more you play with the same group of guys the better you know each other and it’s reminds me of playing in a rock band. You got your bandleader (DM) picking the songs and then each of the players work together to make it work. Once in awhile you take a solo and raise the stakes and I remember a few of those sessions. Nothing like pulling double damage out when you are conducting a raid on the Thieves’ Guild. I only played into my college years with the same super creative group of childhood buddies and our level of play was pretty advanced so I doubt I would have liked playing with the game with new people.

RW: Would you say that there are things you learned from your gaming experience that helps you plunder the treasure troves of the storage lockers we see on the show? If so, what are they and why?

AH: Gaming groups learn teamwork and to compliment each other, like my business partner and I do. Everyone has different strengths and areas of expertise. D&D and a few other RPG’s helped me learn to use my imagination for the good of the group and to critically think about how to deal with challenges. We had to improv and act out what our characters were doing, and this may have contributed to me being even faster on feet.

Allen Haff, entrepeneur, auction hunter, tv celebrity, gamer!
RW: What are or were your favorite roleplaying games? With a Mayfair connection I’m sure you’ve seen things like Chill, the DC Heroes RPG, and possibly some of the Role Aids products or Underground.

AH: DC Heroes was our second favorite game after D&D and I got this game a year before anyone else had it. Star Frontiers and there was also a spy game but the name now escapes me. (Ross’ note: I think Allen may be describing Top Secret here) I even got some D&D modules up until TSR sued Mayfair for copyright infringement.

RW: Can you tell us a bit about your favorite role-playing game memories, and how you got into the hobby? Do you still get a chance to sling dice with your friends? If you could play an RPG right now, what character would you play and why?

AH: I haven’t played since college but you have to understand I started playing AD &D when I was 9 years. it pleases me that my buddy who’s cousin taught us the game still plays games to day and online computer stuff. he’s got a lot more time than I do now and with everything I’m into there just isn’t time. Maybe we’ll do a reunion game night when we’re old and retired.

RW: All of your fans are rooting for you and Ton to make your pawn shop a great success! What can you tell us about the challenges and advantages of opening your own pawn shop? Are there any specific items you’d love to see walk through the door? (For example, you did seem pretty excited about the Avengers #4 comic book until it turned out to be a reprint)

The Haff Ton pawn shop, a new feature for Season Four.

AH: It’s expensive! We’re both exhausted with all of the extra work and stress and it is taking a toll on us. You’ll see how we deal with that stress and hopefully meet the new challenges to make even more money this year. Thanks to the store though I JUST BOUGHT AN ORIGINAL STAR WARS COLLECTION AND AN ORIGINAL BOBA FETT STILL IN THE CARD worth $2500.

RW: Lastly, I am super-grateful for you to take the time to talk to me, I’m a huge fan of you and Ton. My favorite two things about Auction Hunters:
A. How excited you and Ton get when you find something really cool. 

AH: Thank you. We love what we do.

RW: B. How you always try out what you find and get cash for it right then when you sell it on camera. That’s unique! 

Allen and Ton investigate some buried treasure.

AH: That’s the fun part, which is why it makes the cut. No one wants to see us use that vintage china tea service for high tea, but we still make a lot of money on the more conventional antiques we find. Thank you!

TSR, MSH, & FASERIP: A review of Marvel Super Heroes


Hello readers! I’ve recently noticed that one of the local area RPG meetup groups has someone wanting to run a game of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG from the late 80’s and early 90’s. I have very fond memories of this game, and spent many lunches, afternoons, and weekends rolling up characters and fighting supervillains with my friends in high school. The nostalgia factor of my memories may be coloring those times with more epic than was actually present, but I seem to recall some pretty amazing storylines, compelling characters, and climactic clashes with arch-enemies.
The one, the only. This is the name of the game folks.

The Creators

Jeff Grubb and Steven Winter built the original set in 1984. The 1991 revised edition credits Jeff Grubb as the primary designer, with assistance from Timothy Brown and Steven Schend. Seven years between editions isn’t bad!

The System

The Marvel Super Heroes game is one that truly embraced acronyms. The game itself is often abbreviated into TSR MSH, or FASERIP (an acronym representing the individual attributes of a character). Performing an action in the game is known as a FEAT (Function of Exceptional Ability or Talent).
The many faces of awesome. 
The game also is fully aware of its comic-book roots, and abilities are represented by both a number and a title; Spider-Man’s Strength score is 40, which has the title “Incredible.” Captain America’s Fighting score is 50, which is “Amazing.” The Thing’s Endurance of 75 is “Monstrous.”
Each of these titles is not merely a name – it also represents a column on the Universal Table, a cross-referenced chart of values, dice rolls, and results. The system uses a d100 (also called percentile) system, most often represented on the tabletop with two D10’s, one as the tens column and the other as the single digits. The higher your character’s score with any ability, the better his column was on the chart. Each column had a number of colored blocks; white results were generally bad or represented a failure, green results were a basic success, yellow results represented a success with a bonus, and red results (at the high end of the scale) were a critical success. As an example, a character with a Typical ability (a score of 6), received a white result for any die roll of 01-50, a green result for 51-80, a yellow result for 91-97, and a red result for a roll of 98-00.
Behold the chart of DOOM!
The game also includes a resource known as Karma. A hero earns Karma for doing things that a normal Superhero does in a comic book – saving lives, rescuing cats from trees, dealing with complications arising from his secret identity, and roleplaying his inner turmoil. Karma is not normally earned by defeating enemies per se (like XP in Dungeons and Dragons), but rather for resolving the battle without someone getting hurt (although there is a slight karma loss for the hero being defeated). Karma is reduced if the hero commits crimes, kills people, or generally does not act like a classic superhero.
A hero can spend karma to increase his odds of doing something amazing and cool during the game. Basically, a hero could declare he was trying to do something that would require a yellow or red result and roll the dice. The difference between his roll and his desired outcome is the amount of Karma that is spent, or 10 Karma if the roll succeeds on its own. Aunt May might need a 100 to hurt Galactus with a butter knife, but the old girl has earned plenty of Karma taking care of Peter Parker, so she’s got a chance to succeed!
Power Stunts are another cool mechanic featured in the game. Basically, any character can declare he is using his powers or abilities in a creative and unusual way—anything the character can theoretically achieve with his powers but isn’t specifically mentioned in his writeup—and declare a Power Stunt. A good example is Spider-Man forming a shield out of his webbing to deflect a blast; this is not normally a feature of his webbing, but the ability is plausible and Spider-Man can declare a Power Stunt to do it. Power Stunts cost Karma to perform and require a yellow result or better, but it is a cool feature of the game where you can have your speedster spontaneously run around in a circle to generate a whirlwind if you want to try.
Sadly, Power Stunts are missing from the revised basic set…
Karma also acts as experience points, and is the resource players spend to increase their character’s abilities or to gain new ones. In my opinion, it is a cardinal sin of game design to have the resource you use for advancement the same resource you use for any other purpose… since the majority of players (or at least, every single player I’ve ever met) will hoard their points for advancement and never even consider spending them on anything else.
The powers in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG are at once specific and general. There are different powers for fire generation and electricity generation, and each has specific abilities that they have different from each other. However, there are many other powers that have very broad descriptions and applications (such as Force Field and Teleportation). The Talents section describes abilities that are not truly powers (more like Super-Skills), including a variety of martial arts styles that each grant their own specific benefit.
What is interesting to me is that character advancement is optional in the revised basic set – I think this makes Karma a much more engaging feature of the game, since you aren’t saving it for improving your character. Instead, it becomes the resource it always felt to me it should have been; something you earn by doing hero stuff and spend to do even more heroic stuff.
If you’re a fan of this game, rejoice! All the materials for it are available for free at classicmarvelforever.com.
Some products may be a little more outdated than most…

 Super-Strengths

The Marvel Super Heroes RPG Is relatively rules light – it provides mostly guidelines for how to resolve actions in the game (and the majority of these are in the combat section) but it doesn’t feel complex or difficult to learn. The game allows for a lot of freeform action, and it specifically rewards and encourages good roleplaying  in the comic book hero style. The random character generation can be very fun for casual games and short campaigns.
The relatively rules-light and freeform system provided a fun contrast to its contemporaries, Heroes Unlimited and Champions, yet it has plenty of crunch of complexity for people who like that kind of structure.
The MSH product line had good production values and overall a high bang for the buck value ratio. Some of the supplements were lavish boxed sets during TSR’s domination of that market, and they look great on the shelf. The creators had access to the Marvel bullpen and archives, thus most of the books feature stellar artwork as well.

Vulnerabilities

The Marvel Super Heroes RPG is not without its flaws; the insistence on random rolls for everything—especially in character generation—can be very frustrating and disheartening for new players. In addition, the game itself enforces a rather strict one-true-wayism of superheroic roleplay; this game discourages anti-heroes, street-level vigilantes, and Watchmen- or Authority-style games among others.
There’s a certain four-color, traditional superheroism cherished by the game (particularly in the Karma rules) that feels very bronze age. Punisher and Nomad are explicitly called out as characters that are “doing it wrong” even within the milieu of the Marvel Universe.
Another example of this approach is the Universal Chart, which has “Kill” results for shooting, edged weapons, and energy attacks. These kinds of powers are at worst actively discouraged and at best, the hero with such an ability should intend to be very careful with using it.

The Game Line

Marvel Super Heroes had a very robust game line in total. There were two basic sets, the advanced set, the Ultimate Powers Book (which I’ve mentioned before), some great adventures (including the Future In Flames series that I’ve mentioned before), and lots of additional supplements detailing the X-men, the Avengers, and Spider-Man. There were also the Handbooks of the Marvel Universe (collections of characters from the comics written up with game stats). 
There are some great fan-made products out there too. I’m not sure what this is, but I want a copy!
All in all, this game represents a fantastic snapshot of the Marvel Universe between 1985 and 1993, and even now – almost thirty years later – the game mechanics are fairly solid. If you want to see my final analysis of the game, skip to the end. Otherwise…

Making Characters

MSH’s random character generation (particularly the enhanced set in the Ultimate Powers Book) resulted in some truly memorable characters over the years. Maybe these were not very /good/ characters, but certainly memorable! The rules were mandated to be random (the basic set allowed you to re-roll one single roll during the process, whilst the UPB allowed you to choose your origin). This meant that one could (and I often did) end up making lots of characters in order to find one that you like.

Placed here ‘cuz I’m a fan of Joe Mad artwork. When I made MSH characters, this is what I had in my head…

Some of the most memorable characters from my experiences include:

Cyber Commando. A creation of my friend Scott Venable, Cyber Commando had Incredible superspeed, Amazing telescopic sight, and… alas… Feeble ability to generate fire. Scott joked that his character could see an attractive lady with a cigarette a mile away and zoom over there to offer her a light.

My high school buddy Brad Wilson created a couple of great characters, amongst them Rudy Gonzalez – a street punk who could generate blasts of fire, and use those blasts of fire to propel himself in massive leaps through the air. Another character of his was generated from the UPB: Brad rolled “Plant Lifeform” with the power of “Martial Arts Supremacy.” Thus was born the Mighty Shroom!
Another member of my high school gaming circle was Mitch Beard, who came up with an android with retractable osmium blades in his arms and could shoot “electric fire” (a combination of electricity and fire generation) from his hands.
Messing around on my own I created Dave 2000, the Voodoo Robot (Ultimate Powers Book: Usuform Robot origin with Sympathetic Magic powers) and the Cloud of Steel (Ultimate Powers Book: Gaseous Life Form with Body Armor powers).

Random Character Example

Here’s a quick example of random character generation using the UPB:
Physical Form: 55 (Modified Human: Extra Parts)
I will choose Wings, gaining the Flight Power at Remarkable Rank.
Random rolls on stats gives me the following:
Fighting: Incredible
Agility: Poor
Strength: Good
Endurance: Remarkable
Reason: Excellent
Intuition: Incredible
Psyche: Remarkable
Clearly, our character is in overall fit shape; a good fighter who can take care of himself, but clumsy and slow. Perhaps our character is a form of gargoyle or dragon-man?
Resources: Incredible (Reduced to Good)
Powers: 1
Talents: 0
Contacts: 2
My luck was extremely poor with Powers and Talents, but the UPB allows me to spend Resources to get more of each. I’ll spend three ranks of Resources (dropping the stat down to Good) in return for an extra power and one Talent.
Time to generate our powers!
Power 1: Matter Conversion category.
Hmm, this looks interesting.
The dice roll and… Combustion (at Typical Rank). Our hero can make things catch on fire! Fire Generation is an Optional Power, but I’m going to roll randomly for the next one to see what I get.
Power 2: Lifeform Control category.
Another unusual result… I’m curious to see where this is going…
The dice roll and… Hypnotic Control (at Good Rank).
So, I have a winged, clumsy, hypnotizing superhero who can set things on fire. One randomly rolled Talent later, and the character is also a Photographer.
I have thus created the soaring Dragon-Lad, who fights crime by setting it ablaze… and then convincing any onlookers that any property damage is NOT his fault.
If this kind of thing entertains you, search RPG.net for more examples of crazy superheroes created for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

Final Analysis

Marvel Super Heroes is a good game… possibly even a great game! I’m a big fan of this approach to superheroic gameplay and I’m looking forward to another chance to fight injustice in the Marvel Universe the way that Jeff Grubb taught me!

Interview Time: Andy Hoare


Greetings readers!

January is a crazy month full of madness — from looming project deadlines to illnesses. These are not excuses, just letting you know what’s up and why I haven’t been as blog-post-making-guy as I used to be. 🙂

This week’s blog post is all about Andy Hoare. Andy is an exceptionally gifted writer and game designer who I came into contact with when I was working at Games Workshop back in the early 2000’s. Andy is a great human being who has conquered some amazing challenges and continues to inspire legions of fans with his books.

Behold the mad genius himself.


I brought him into the 40K RPG side as soon as I could when I was working at Fantasy Flight Games from 2008-2011 and he always provided top-notch writing even under some heavy deadlines!

Andy’s fantastic work helped build some great games, amongst them Deathwatch, Rogue Trader, Black Crusade, and Only War amongst others.

I’m very pleased to count Andy as a friend and colleague, and I’m very proud to have interviewed him for the blog.

If you want to learn more about Andy, check out his blog at: Mr. Andy Hoare, Esq


As always, my questions are in red.

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

Andy: As a gamer, it all started with red box D&D at school. I bought my first blister of miniatures around about the same time (a Citadel Lord of the Rings blister containing Gandalf, Ranger and Frodo). The blurb on the back of the blister mentioned White Dwarf and Warhammer, so a week later I bought White Dwarf issue 86 and that Christmas I received 2nd edition Warhammer, which I fell in love with. The next year (1987) 1st edition Warhammer 40,000 came out and that was the best Christmas gift ever!

 A prolific crafter of worlds!

As an industry professional, I worked in the Games Workshop Design Studio from 2001 to 2009 as a games developer. During that time I worked alongside or met some of the leading lights of the industry, both past and present. Since leaving GW I’ve been fortunate to work with several other companies, including Fantasy Flight Games, Wyrd Miniatures, Architects of War, Wargames Illustrated, Mantic Games and others. I’ve also written a number of novels for Black Library. 

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

Andy: It started when I heard that the Dark Heresy roleplaying game was to be expanded into Rogue Trader. I was working at Games Workshop at the time and knew a few other people in the business had been brought in as freelance writers. I contacted one (John French, who I’d say is one of the least well known best writers at Games Workshop) and he put me in touch with a guy at FFG called, oh, what was his name.. Ross something? I’d met Ross a few years earlier when I was a guest at Baltimore Games Day when he was working for the US White Dwarf, so clearly the stars were in alignment. Loving the 1st edition of Warhammer 40,000 as much as I do there was no way I wanted to miss out on a chance to work on a roleplay version and as it happened it was the start of a really good working relationship that continues to this day. 

I think Andy is a Rogue Trader at heart!

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

Andy: Anyone who can genuinely say they work in the industry they most want to work in is fortunate indeed, so that’s how I feel about it. 

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

Andy: While not specific to the rpg industry, perhaps the biggest downside is that everyone’s an expert when it comes to critiquing your work! We all do this of course, whether we’re denouncing the latest Hollywood blockbuster as uninspired or slating a novel for a lack of pace, so you have to cultivate a certain degree of empathy with the consumer and not regard such critiques as the work of the antichrist or as personal attacks. 

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

Andy: There seem to have been a lot of changes in the four years or so I’ve been most involved in the rpg side of things. The enormous rise in social networking has brought writers and players into direct contact, especially at the smaller end of the scale. Bigger companies can’t really communicate that way of course, so I doubt that’ll change enormously. On a less positive note, I’ve seen a lot of unpleasantness being aimed at individual writers, but that’s more an issue with human nature and the platform of social networking than anything specific to the industry. 

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? 

Andy: It’s inevitable that you’ll look back on past work and see immediately how you’d do it differently – in fact I’d worry if that wasn’t the case! 
 
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? 

Andy: Something I’ve seen in many would-be freelancers and in fact in some newly minted ones, is the desire to reshape a setting or ruleset according to their particular view of it. For me, the ability to zero in on what makes a line popular and to accentuate that element, even if it’s not how you personally would do it if you were in charge, is key. Writing for someone else is not an exercise in vanity and you have to set aside your own wants in order to fulfill the brief and serve the needs of a product that is the result of many peoples’ creativity, not just your own. You also have to be able to respond to feedback positively and not expect your first draft to be accepted without comment, which is another area many fall down on.

Mr. Hoare is THE White Scars expert.

In terms of the publisher, I think they have to walk a fine line when dealing with freelancers, who are often in a precarious position themselves! Communication is really important, as I’ve often seen people given almost carte blanche within a project only to be told on handover they haven’t produced what was wanted. Good briefs that set solid milestones whilst identifying which parts the writer can really go to town on are very important. Managing creatives is a tricky business though, and I’ve seen some people get it very wrong and others get it very right, so there’s no simple answer. 

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

Andy: The obvious answer would be more money and paid in advance, but that would be madness! 

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

Andy: Well firstly, I dislike the term ‘fan’ because it implies the work is passively consumed by a spectator, which isn’t the case in this industry as people actively engage with it in the process of playing. To be honest, I’m not really one for pushing myself into the limelight (I know I probably should though!) but I hope I’m open and friendly and if anyone asks me something on my Facebook page or blog I’m always very pleased to answer. 

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

Andy: A couple of things stand out actually. One is the Lure of the Expanse adventure book Owen Barnes and myself wrote soon after Rogue Trader was released. There’s a couple of things I’d do differently of course, but on the whole I’m really proud of it and consistently see positive chat about it.

There’s also the settings for Black Crusade and Only War (the former written alongside lycanthropic tabletop wargames veteran Andy Chambers). Developing a background like that is a real challenge as you have to provide a broad but necessarily shallow sandpit that everyone can play in, whilst seeding numerous ideas that you and other writers can expand on later on (which means you can’t be too precious or jealous about these ideas). I’ve seen this happen with the Black Crusade setting, where little ideas I included in the core rulebook, often no more than a paragraph, sentence or name, are now being expanded on and because they’re rooted in the core description of the setting the whole process is pleasingly organic. 

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

Andy: Being a generally positive person it’s hard to say, but I hate missing a deadline, though if I do its usually only by a very small margin and I’m sure to agree an extension with the client before it becomes an issue. I’ve occasionally had to turn a job down due to other commitments, which I really hate doing as you’re never quite sure if that client will come back (they have so far!). 

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? 

Andy: I have no problem at all doing so, but I appreciate that others do. For me it comes down to seeing the issue in black and white or as shades of grey. I’ve seen some people objecting to the idea that GMs should add in their own rules on the grounds that they could do that anyway, so what’s the point in buying a rules set in the first place, while others want a game that allows the GM lots of leeway to jam along as they see fit. The way I see it is you have to provide a balance between the two; you have to provide a usable and stable framework and when you build in leeway you have to provide examples of how to do so. There’s very little point in saying ‘make stuff up!’ if you don’t give a couple of examples to demonstrate what you mean. Ultimately, any game has to appeal to a wide range of people to be commercially viable but, paradoxically can never be all things to all players. 

Professor Hoare’s latest adventure involved some squidly fellows.

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

Andy: An old school sword and sorcery barbarian 🙂 

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

Andy: I cut my teeth on West End Games Star Wars and have a soft spot for their D6 system so I’d say that’s still my favourite. I still enjoy a good old mechanical dungeon bash though! 

RW: What is your favorite part about writing for games? The background, the rules, the adventures? 

Andy: I’ve always tried to occupy the exact point where these things all come together and spark the player’s creative drives to go off and do something. When I was writing codexes and White Dwarf articles for Games Workshop I’d always try to provide those small gems of background, rules or hobby inspiration that make you go off and collect a new army, write a new scenario, start a new campaign or whatever. 

RW: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the game industry? 

Andy: To get there in the first place, take part, contribute, be a positive influence and promote your creativity in a way that inspires others and ultimately gets you noticed. Maintain a blog and fill it with examples of your work and lively discussion so that when you approach potential clients you can show them what you’ve been doing (and they may well have heard of you already). Be rounded and don’t obsess over little details (at least not in public!). Don’t indulge in rants or hyperbole. Be humble and polite, and respectful of other people working in the field, even if deep inside you think they’re fools of the worst order – remember that one day (if you’re lucky) you might be working with them or given a brief to write something in a way you wouldn’t choose to do yourself and it might all look very different indeed. 

RW: What is a project that you have always wanted to make but never have had the chance? 

Andy: I’ve been plugging away at a set of narrative tabletop skirmish rules for a while, aimed at non-setting-specific ‘sword and sorcery’ wargaming and if I ever get the chance I hope to develop them to a publishable point and get them out there. If they proved viable I’d expand the core rules into other genres too so you never know… 

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

Andy: I think you primarily look for people who can demonstrate that they truly ‘get’ the setting. This doesn’t have to be an intimate knowledge of the canon (though that helps) but rather an affinity for the themes, feeling etc that it promotes. In terms of turn-offs, I’d be on the look out for the writer’s ego seeping into the work too much – like I said before, if they’re trying to re-write the setting or rules to better fit their own idea of how it should be done they’re doing it for the wrong reason. 

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

Andy: FFG’s Rogue Trader, WEG’s Star Wars or (red box) D&D, all for very different reasons!

Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em


Hello readers… my apologies for the long absence. Holidays and other writing commitments have kept me away from Rogue Warden far too long.
“Son, I’ve made my life out of readin’ people’s faces…” God bless ya, Kenny.
Having survived the predicted end of the world, this is a perfect time to start talking about how you wrap things up when you’re dealing with a long-term RPG campaign.
Thus, today’s blog post is all about a time of endings – when, how, and why you should pick the right moment to close out your campaign.

Types of Campaigns

First, it is a good idea to define our terms for this discussion. Naturally, these terms are being defined by me using my experiences; if you don’t agree with these descriptions, that’s just fine.
Just ask Robert E. Lee about planning for a long campaign…
These are the types of RPG campaigns based on length:

  • One Shot: A one shot game is typically played only once per year in a single session. One shots are not really a campaign (although some rare campaigns do take place once per year over many years).
  • Short Campaign: A short campaign typically takes place over three to six sessions and usually covers around two to three months of real time.
  • Medium-length Campaign: This kind of campaign usually covers around seven to twelve sessions and usually covers around six months of real time.
  • Long-term Campaign: This campaign is generally my most favored approach, and covers from twelve to thirty (or so) sessions and takes years of real time.
  • Unending Campaigns: Some few RPG campaigns have started and have never yet stopped. If you are a player or GM in one of these groups and your game has been ongoing for more than three years, I am very envious of you!

Old Campaigns I Have Known

I’m tackling a number of campaigns that I’ve played to a satisfying conclusion in chronological order.

The Messian Campaign

First there was the Messian Campaign, ably adminstered by my good friend Joshua Fairfield. This was a heroic fantasy setting for the 3.0 Dungeons and Dragons RPG that was heavily based on old, post-crusade Jerusalem. It was one of the first D&D campaigns I had played in with such a strong geographical focus, and I loved it. We got to know the districts of the city quite well, and I learned several lessons playing in this campaign that would inform my later efforts with Shadows Angelus (see below). Josh was a gifted DM with a talent for setting up interesting and unusual organizations—some as friends, some as enemies, and others we were never quite sure of. Playing these factions off against each other towards our own ends was a ton of fun. 
Yeah, playing in Josh’s Messian campaign was kind of like this…
My character for this campaign started out as a young, naive farm girl and ended up as a passionate champion of an adopted faith—a plane-travelling hero who freed slaves all across reality. It was a great experience and completely unforgettable in my mind.

How did it end?

Our group went from 1st level all the way up to around 17th. It was a campaign thick with all the most unique tropes of D&D: there were groups founded upon the tenets of certain alignments; we died and were raised from the dead (everyone, at least once and often more than once); there were psionics and magic and they did not mix.
The campaign reached a point where our group confronted an evil god, cheated an entire evil race out of immortality, and set ourselves up as the caretakers for a newly born goddess of hope. My character’s epilogue was a return to her long-lost farm, serving as a surrogate mother and guardian of the young goddess… and occasionally going out to other planes to take out a slaver’s nest or two before dawn.
I certainly felt like I got my money’s worth from the Messian campaign – the story that was told was a powerful one, and we all felt like we had a lasting and important impact on the setting. It was one of the first times I had actually reached what I felt to be a satisfactory conclusion to a campaign and the first time I truly felt a significant sense of closure.

Shadows Angelus

Next up was Shadows Angelus. As I said earlier, I learned a lot from playing in Josh’s Messian game, and I chose to focus more on Shadows Angelus’ setting (a single city in the dark future) because of it. Shadows Angelus was born from a very long fascination with the idea of mixing magic, psionic powers, and cyberpunk aesthetics with a gothic and lovecraftian horror milieu. Yeah, I know that sounds complicated, but go check out Silent Moebius and you’ll get the idea. To say this setting and campaign are special to me is an understatement! Luckily, I was able to share my passion for this setting with a truly great gaming group of my friends in Maryland, including Hero writer Michael Surbrook (who inspired much of Shadows Angelus with his great Kazei 5setting).
So I get to blame Michael for pictures like these…

I structured Shadows Angelus into small story arcs that eventually interconnected, and I had planned from the start that the campaign would (or should) run around 24 sessions (or “episodes,” as I liked to call them) in length. This was a bit ambitious for me, but I felt like I had a pretty solid buy-in from the group and it turned out that my faith was rewarded tenfold. The game went for 26 sessions in total, with plenty of in-between session action through blue-booking on an e-mail list.

How did it end?

It is important to note that I had basically scripted an end to this campaign far in advance. I knew that there was a point in the story I wanted to reach, a climax I wanted to share with the players, and then that would be that for the campaign. My players understood that the campaign had a definite end as well, although I think this went over well because there was also a promise of over twenty different sessions—so none of them felt short-changed. It was a planned moment and I was able to give all the player characters some great final moments for the players to build on if they wanted to epilogue (and many of them did) their own stories.

The Captains of Crunch

Just this year, I helped get a gaming group started playing Shadowrun 4th edition. This was very much a “Mohawk” style campaign, with plenty of fun and craziness all around. The name of our Shadowrunner team became known as the “Captains of Crunch,” a moniker related to one of our earliest jobs. The campaign was fast-paced, energetic, and fun. It was also played on a fairly accelerated schedule – we played every weekend for about three months, and each session lasted around 7-8 hours. All this means that we got plenty of gaming going on every Sunday for quite a while…
This is the artwork for the original Shadowrun nintendo game box. It also looks like a Captains of Crunch adventure.
Our adventures were many and varied, and we made quite a habit of surprising the GM with unusual solutions to the various challenges placed in our path. We managed to get ourselves out of some very tight spots and it looked like we were going to keep playing for quite a while…

How did it end?

Typically, a Shadowrunner’s end goal is to make a big score and retire, a goal that few ever really reach. Previously, one of my characters in the online Shadowrun games that I’ve talked about before managed to make a million-nuyen-run and quit the street life for a cabin in the mountains. However, that kind of thing is usually quite rare.
Well, our team hit that big score – unintentionally. We were set up in a deal with a dragon (something you should never ever do in Shadowrun!) and we figured out a way to turn things around. At the end of the day, our little group of Shadowrunners had managed to enact a coup of the nation of Dubai and had taken over rulership of the entire country. I promise I am not making this up. There are going to be some readers who will instantly believe that our GM was off his meds that day or that such a score is – or should be – impossible. Yet, we managed to pull it off.
At the end of the session, we were stunned. We looked at each other, just sort of savoring the moment of our success. But there was something we needed to talk about, so we broached the subject of ending the campaign. The GM hadn’t planned on ending the game this way, but we all agreed that it wouldn’t get any better than this session. It was just the right time to bring things to a close and go out on a high note.

What do you mean, “Stop?”

If someone had asked me about ending an RPG campaign ten years ago, I would’ve responded with confusion. Why would anyone want to stop playing an RPG campaign? Especially a good one?
I like to think I’ve earned some wisdom along with my experience, and what I’ve learned suggests this: when it comes to storytelling, there is sincere value in closure. Not all stories need to end, but many stories benefit strongly by having a definitive ending point. This also applies to roleplaying games – because, at their heart, RPGs are exercises in cooperative storytelling.
Basically, this.

Endings help the Game Master build towards a satisfying conclusion. If the GM knows in advance that the campaign has a definite ending point, it can really help him in designing the sessions that lead up to that ending. Foreshadowing, prophecies, bringing back long-lost loves and old enemies alike are just a few tools that the GM can use to build the action and the emotions of the story as the game approaches the climactic ending.
Sometimes the right time to end the game is when the power of the characters overshadows or interferes with the verisimilitude of the campaign. This is often a problem for games like Dungeons and Dragons, where epic-level characters can change the game’s feel quite far away from the idea of swords & sorcery. When you can cast Wish spells, the paradigm changes considerably! Similarly, an RPG campaign can take characters from humble beginnings to the rulers of an entire realm, or even possibly a world or universe of their own! In these cases, the GM or the players may simply feel that the time is right to move on – the characters’ power level means that typical adventuring just doesn’t make sense.
Choosing to bring a campaign to a close can also provide the impetus to try something new and keep things fresh – this is often more important for groups that meet regularly on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. There are many gamers like myself who enjoy trying out new games or different spins on existing games, and keeping a rotating schedule of new campaigns is a good way to accomplish that.
It is very important to remember that ending a campaign does not always mean that game is gone forever. You can always come back to the campaign again later if you choose or even reincarnate it with a new group. I’ve done this myself with Shadows Angelus (now on its fourth incarnation), and I’ve seen it happen before. In fact, the Messian campaign mentioned earlier was a campaign that had been played before with a different group!

In Conclusion

Knowing when to draw your campaign to a close can be a valuable lesson. Some campaigns are meant to last and last – as I said above, I’m very envious of those who have managed to keep a game going for long lengths of time! Thinking about it that way, knowing how to continue the game is the real diamond in the rough. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments of either ongoing campaigns or ones that ended – for better or worse!

The Quest for CRPGs

Greetings readers! Today’s blog post is a bit of a time warp, as it discusses games that span decades—and when you’re talking about decades and gaming, especially video gaming, you’re talking about a longtime. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting how time dilation occurs when you’re talking about different cultural things? Decades is a long time in television years, not so much in terms of radio, even less for newspapers. When you talk about the internet, you’re describing time in singular years, and when it comes to things like social media, twitter, and facebook, sometimes trends can last a matter of months or weeks.) 
I’ve been a gamer for over 25 years, and some of my best memories involve playing a number of computer roleplaying games (hereafter referred to as CRPGs). It’s fair to say that I’ve been playing CRPGs since the very earliest incarnations, and I have actively studied the genre from a design, experience, critiquing, and writing perspective. Mainly my purpose with this blog entry is just to go over and highlight the history of CRPGs as I experienced them and hopefully bring across not only my love for the genre, but also how it has affected me as a game designer and writer.

This is the map for Baldur’s Gate — there’s a lot of adventure in this game.
Special Note: I’m purposefully excluding MMORPG’s from this discussion, as I’m not really an MMO player and I don’t really have a lot to say about them from an experiential standpoint. I’ll concede the point that technically, MMO’s are CRPGs, but I don’t count them when I think about the genre.

The Text Adventure Era

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Back in the early 80’s, CRPGs were primarily in textual form. Primarily the ones I remember playing from this era are the Zork series and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There were other text adventures out there (Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Leisure Suit Larry come to mind), but Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide made the biggest impact on me. I’ll skip explaining in detail what these games were like (the Wikipedia links should suffice for the curious) and simply say that they were fairly primitive and exercises in frustration… if you didn’t have a game guide or type things in a very precise and systematic manner, the game would only be fun for so long.
Behold, the cover to Zork. And below, a screenshot of the game itself.
So what did I learn from this era? Oddly enough, precision and a systematic approach. Seriously, the uncompromising gameplay of Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide kept me at it until I mastered the basics of these ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a young mind. Additionally, these games were purely text, so I learned a lot about effective description—there’s an art to creating an image with words, especially a lasting image with meaningful details.

The Boxed Game Era

Moving on to the late 80’s, CRPGs took a slightly more advanced form in what I like to call “the boxed game” beginning with the SSI “goldbox” games of this period (technically Heroes of the Lance and a few other games were “silver box” predecessors, but that’s splitting hairs). Specifically, I’m thinking of Heroes of the Lance, the Bard’s Tale series, and the Ultima series. King’s Quest and Buck Rogers also had some notable entries in this period. These games were only really superficially a roleplaying game—although the player could make choices, those choices were really only meaningful in terms of what characters they could create and control in the tactical interface. It was a step up from the limited action/response options in the previous text adventure era, but still far short of any narrative experience. On the other hand, the tactical gameplay was really, really fun, and there were plenty of stories I could tell you about how my characters managed to beat some pretty hefty odds… which was not that dissimilar to many of the actual Dungeons and Dragons adventures of that time either.

Here’s the cover and an in-game screenshot from Countdown to Doomsday, a Gold Box adventure game.
So what did I learn from this era? Tactical expertise, resource management, and the importance of having the right mix of characters in a party. In the Gold Box games, you could make a party of all fighters if you really wanted, but doing so meant you would struggle against many of the encounters in the game. Likewise, not having a theif to pick locks on doors or a cleric to heal your party in between encounters would change the experience greatly as well. The best way to progress through the game (for myself and players like myself) was to create a party like you would in an actual D&D game—meaning that you have a varied mix of classes and roles in your group. This approach allowed me to conquer many of the game’s challenges without having to reload the game too many times.
Special Mention: The Pool of Radiance series and the Buck Rogers games were some of my favorites—I’d love to go back and play these again someday. Pool of Radiance had a fun story with some memorable villains, and the Buck Rogers games actually had a fun ship battle interface! Alas, I never really got to play any serious games of Ultima or the Bard’s Tale, but I did muck about with them briefly.

The JRPG Era

Concurrently with some of the other entries on this list is a phenomenon called the JRPG, or Japanese-style Roleplaying Game for short. JRPGs are similar to the Gold Box games in that they generally emphasize tactical gameplay over narrative, but there are some very notable entries in their genre that should be discussed whenever one talks about CRPGs in general. The Japanese approach to the CRPG generally took a much more detailed approach to many aspects of gameplay, from the various items of gear to the types of magic the wizards can cast (Red Mage, Black Mage, White Mage, anyone?). JRPGs spanned the timeline from the late 80’s through most of the 90’s with the entries I discuss here.
I like to split up my experience with JRPGs into two sub-categories, Tactical and Storytelling.

Tactical JRPGs

The tactical side of JRPGs focuses on the combat, leveling, and character growth elements in a CRPG. In many of these games, developing your character over time is critically important—choose the right set of careers along the way and your character can end up quite powerful. Make foolish or dead-end choices, however, and it’s back to the start screen for you!

Ack! This screen is from Dragon Warrior.
Probably the most well-known of these games is the Final Fantasy series, but I actually began my journey into the realm of JRPGs with the NES game Dragon Warrior. I remember that I was so fascinated with the game that I stayed up all night killing slimes and raising levels. I did eventually get into the Final Fantasy games after that point, of course, and my personal favorites include FF6 (3 in the US), FF7, FFX (or Ten), and Final Fantasy Tactics. FF6, FF7, and FFX all deserve special mention in that they also possessed a very stirring and compelling narrative that draws you into the game far above and beyond the simple factors of fun and engrossing gameplay. The Disgaea games also fall under this category.
Square is definitely a fantastic company for this kind of approach, and I’d like to single out another similar tactical game for special praise: Front Mission 4. If you love Final Fantasy and giant robots fighting each other, this is the game for you. In recent years, a new notable entry into the same field is Record of Agarest War, which blends the typical JRPG with dating sim elements and introduces an interesting new mechanic in dynastic gameplay, where your character’s choices determine the effects to the next generation of characters—up to five times in the first game!

Storytelling JRPGs

As previously mentioned, FF6, FF7, and FFX all shared a truly dynamic and engaging narrative. Alongside these giants in the industry are some slightly less well-known games that are definitely RPGs but stress the story elements over the actual gameplay. For this section the games that come to my mind are the truly excellent Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger for the SNES. A later entry into the same general type of game is the amazingly immersive Shenmue.
 A memorable moment in Chrono Trigger. Behold the time portal!
So what did I learn from JRPGs? From the tactical side, I learned that you can create compelling gameplay elements for tactical thinkers – combinations of abilities, little mini-games to power up abilities (remember Vincent’s games from FF6?), interesting opportunities for traversal of the overland map (airships!) and how you can combine effects and/or special events (i.e., “limit breaks”) to build some impressive cinematic combats. From the storytelling side, there’s a great deal of narrative value to be found in things like FF7 and Chrono Trigger, from making characters the player can identify with and care about to building a villain with a tragic past that the player nevertheless is determined to stop at any cost.

The True CRPG Era

During the late 90’s into the mid-2000’s came a wave of computer roleplaying games that truly took the genre to the next level. I consider this timeframe to be the era of the “True CRPG,” since these are the most iconic games that I think of when describing the term. CRPGs really came into their own about this time, with fascinating storytelling, engaging gameplay, and the ability to build your own character and interact with some of the most memorable NPCs of all time. CRPGs of this era also included branching storylines and incorporated meaningful choice into the gameplay experience for the first time, meaning that multiple playthroughs could have very different outcomes.
The originator of this era and probably the most well-known is the Baldur’s Gate series (which also includes the Icewind Dale games). Created by Black Isle/Bioware, these CRPGs pioneered many effective gameplaying techniques that are still in use today. Fantastic music, voice work, art and interface design combined with a great story made for an unforgettable experience. The characters of Baldur’s Gate resonate through the entire industry—up to and including references in modern games like Mass Effect.
Note: For me, personally, Misc is the greatest NPC and companion of all time.
This is the man.
Of special note is the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that is nearly out now—a great way to experience this game-changer of a CRPG.
The True CRPG Era started out strong but it would hit an amazingly high peak by the unparalleled Planescape: Torment in 1999. Torment redefined what an RPG was capable of and how people perceived the genre.  A tour de force of storytelling and characters, Torment set a standard for CRPGs that has yet to be equaled.
Other CRPGs of this era include the very influential Fallout series. Fallout’s contributions are many, amongst them a unique vision of a post-apocalyptic setting and cementing the isometric 3rd-person interface as the preferred method for many RPGs to come.
Torment was followed up by two worthy successors: Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights 2. Neither of these games were quite as good as Torment, but that isn’t to say they aren’t both great games—they certainly have earned that title.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was a flawed but exceptional game that had a ton of potential. It combined magic and technology and cashed in on the (then-brand-new) Steampunk aesthetic. I encourage anyone who loves CRPGs to give Arcanum a shot, because it also possesses a fascinating story and some great characters.
This game is a must play!
Neverwinter Nights 2 was developed by Obsidian Studios, featuring a lot of the same creators as Torment. Whilst Neverwinter Nights 2 is fairly pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint, it does present everything you’d expect to find in a CRPG with some unique twists. The companions in the game are well-designed and the major selling point is that you eventually are given a keep to supervise, upgrade, and defend in an extremely memorable climax. Alas, the otherwise unremarkable story and the perplexing ending keep this game from succeeding wildly.
What did I learn from True CRPGs? The right voice can turn a good character into an unforgettable character. Exploration gameplay and storytelling does not have to be linear. RPGs can turn your world upside-down and change your perception (Torment!). The nature of a man can change through belief (more Torment!). Classic fantasy RPG tropes can form the foundation for truly epic stories and intense game experiences. Music and sound are vital to the experience of a CRPG. Challenge beliefs, change expectations, and you can create something beautiful.

The Console Era

Starting in the mid-to-late 2000’s, CRPGs moved primarily into handhelds and consoles. With this move came an increase in technology and the ability of the game to convey information, primarily through visual means. This stripped away some of the verbosity from CRPGs – where before, a crucial conversation could involve multiple pages of text, it was now resolved with just a few sentences. Storytelling remains strong in console CRPGs, but the focus has shifted again, lifting visuals and gameplay experience more into focus.

The Sith Triumvirate of KOTOR II are some of my favorite villains ever.
The Knights of the Old Republic series is probably the first and most heralded of the console CRPGs. In my personal opinion, I credit KOTOR 1 and 2 for saving Star Wars after the truly atrocious prequels nearly destroyed any interest I had in the IP. KOTOR (once again created by many of the same minds behind Baldur’s Gate and Torment) paved the way for even more advanced CRPGs to come from Bioware. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series(with the unfortunate exception of Mass Effect 3) were both excellent game franchises that capitalized on all the strengths of the genre. Mass Effect and Dragon Age returned some of the depth in the form of in-universe journal entries and informational packets, helping to build some very strong worlds, organizations, and characters that have made an undeniable mark on the genre.
A very underrated CRPG is Alpha Protocol, a CRPG that goes into a rarely-entered subgenre of espionage action. If you’ve ever been a fan of James Bond or Jack Bauer, make sure to give this game a try.

A scene from Alpha Protocol. The game features about a half-dozen ways to get around those guards, from direct combat to smooth talking to stealth.
Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas helped to cement this era with open-world gameplay and a very “sandboxed” approach that contrasted nicely with Bioware’s much more linear designs. Both games are very good, but New Vegas really pushes the envelope with its amazingly innovative DLC designs.
In addition, no mention of console CRPGs would be complete without discussing the surprise smash hit of 2011, Skyrim. This entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise made a huge splash into the gaming market and introduced a whole new generation to fantastic, open-world gameplay linked with stunning environments and excellent level design. So far, the only thing I can critique about Skyrim is that its DLC is very lacking, especially compared to Fallout: New Vegas.
One special note here is the Shadowrun SNES game from 1993 is one of the earliest console CRPGs that I remember… and it was very, very good.
What did I learn from the Console Era?  Meaningful choice as the centerpiece of a game is a powerful tool. Concise textual design can get the main ideas across without requiring a player to read multiple pages. Memorable climactic moments can turn a good game into a great one. The importance of creating a good, solid ending to a CRPG cannot be overstated. Building a character’s story over multiple games in the same line can launch a legend.
Death is a badass. In Darksiders II, you get to play Death. Seems like it would sell itself, right?
A special mention I’d like to make here is for Darksiders II. Whilst Darksiders II is an “action RPG” and is definitely further towards the action side of that scale, it is a fine RPG and features design and writing work from yours truly.

 

Into the Future

For diehard CRPG fans like myself, the future is actually looking very good. Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition are on their way to completion from some very good teams in the industry, and they promise to bring back much of the “True CRPG era” strengths to new technology like the ipad whilst leveraging more modern design principles. The success of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 have bolstered the role of CRPGs in the marketplace, and the upcoming Dragon Age III promises to build on that legacy of quality. I, for one, am very optimistic about what’s coming soon for CRPGs and I hope that the genre continues to build momentum long after today.

In Conclusion

This blog post has been all about my experiences and memories of CRPGs – what are some of yours? No doubt there are a lot of folks who will point out some games I missed along the way, so don’t hesitate to make a comment below!

Interview Time: Rich Baker


Greetings, readers! Today I’m very pleased to present an interview with Rich Baker, a man with a long and legendary pedigree in the world of roleplaying games.
Rich’s career spans a multitude of game worlds, from Star*Drive to Dark Sun to the Forgotten Realms and beyond. I spoke a little about Rich back in my review of the Birthright campaign setting, and it is through Birthright that I personally first became aware of his work.
Rich Baker: Man. Myth. Legend.
Rich is also a novelist, and I will definitely recommend books like the Shadow Stone and City of Ravens for anyone who enjoys good fantasy fiction. However, my personal favorite is still The Falcon and the Wolf!
I’ve made a point of speaking to Rich every Gen Con if possible — mostly to geek out about Birthright — but also because I’m honestly a big fan of his work. I want to extend my gratitude to Rich for agreeing to this interview, and I heartily suggest that anyone who wants to know more about Mr. Baker should check his out his blog at Atomic Dragon Battleship.
And now, on to the interview! As always, my questions are in red.
(Click below the fold for the entire interview!)

 

General Questions

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
RB: I guess the easiest way to answer this is to tell you what I’m playing these days. I get together with a good group of guys on Thursday nights for D&D; I just agreed to step up and DM for a while, and we’re playing a multi-edition hybrid game set in the world of Birthright. (Believe it or not, I haven’t played a Birthright game in close to 15 years.) Before that, we played Saga Edition Star Wars, and before that, a long-running 4thEdition campaign. My Thursday night group includes noted WotC expatriates Steve Schubert and Dave Noonan—it’s a great table to play at.
Rich Baker and Bill Slaviscek aboard the D&D Party Bus. No, I am not making this up.
I also play a broad variety of boardgames when time permits. Some of the games we’ve played recently include Lords of Waterdeep, Mission Red Planet, Lords of Vegas, Axis & Allies (the anniversary edition), and Conquest of Nerath. Once in a blue moon I get a chance to dust off some of the old Avalon Hill or SPI titles—a few weeks ago I played Kingmaker, and a few months back I played Empires of the Middle Ages and Victory in the Pacific. I have a weakness for games with thousands of counters and huge hex maps, and I’ve been itching to play A World at War (the GMT update to Avalon Hill’s Third Reich and Rising Sun games). I had a small gang of co-conspirators at Wizards of the Coast who kept AWAW games going for years, but most of us are gone from the company now. Oh, and I play a lot of Civ 5, Eve, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
As a game industry pro, well, I’ve been lucky enough to work on the sort of games I like to play: RPGs, strategy and historical boardgames, and historical miniatures games.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
RB: I played D&D and wargames growing up, and loved ‘em all. In 1991, I finished up a 3-year stint as an officer on active duty in the Navy, and I started looking around for the next step in my career. I sent resumes off to dozens of companies… and as long as I was at it, I sent one to TSR Inc. for the pure hell of it. To my surprise, they responded by sending me a design test—a copy of the Complete Viking Handbook, and a request to provide a 2000-word writing sample based on that material. Well, I knocked out the sample encounter, and TSR liked it enough to bring me out to Lake Geneva for an interview. I started as a designer for TSR in October of 1991, and went on to spend twenty years with TSR and Wizards of the Coast.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Working with people who share your passion for games. First of all, it meant that there was always a game group running after-hours that I could hook up with, or a gang of people ready to commit a couple of weeks of lunch breaks to setting up a big sprawling boardgame. I got a *lot* of gaming in with twenty years at TSR and WotC. But working with people who share your love for games means that you strike up a number of great friendships, too.
My vote for best 3.5 supplement of all time.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Unless you’re fortunate enough to land at one of the very few top companies, there isn’t a whole lot of money in it. If you’re entertaining the idea of making this your career, make sure you’re okay with that. It’s also a very small field, with a very limited number of positions or freelancing opportunities available. If you’re an accountant, well, there are a thousand companies you might consider working for. RPG designer? Not so much.  
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?
RB: The business got more and more in the way of the creativity as time went on. After the initial success of 3rd Edition, the whole industry slowly contracted. Marginal companies went under, and bigger companies faced a never-ending spiral of trying to do more with less. Each individual release had more and more riding on it, and the business teams became less and less willing to take chances.  When I first started at TSR, we were publishing close to 100 RPG titles a year. You could do idiosyncratic, wildly creative things, understanding that if it tanked, you weren’t going to sink the whole line. Over the last few years, WotC has been publishing more like a dozen titles a year, and they’re subjected to a brutal evaluation process to ensure they’re only producing the titles that have the biggest possible upside. In retrospect we know that TSR’s business model was unsustainable, but  those were happier days.
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?
RB: From the publisher’s viewpoint: Hey, freelancer, do your work on time and write to the specs. Don’t run weeks and weeks over, and don’t give me 50,000 words when I wanted 20,000 (or vice versa). Nothing else happens until we get a manuscript in hand, and it’s more or less about the size we wanted. Almost as important, accept direction and don’t be difficult to work with. I dropped freelancers off my list every year because they’d argue with me about the direction I needed their manuscripts to go.
One of the best adventures for D&D 3.5, go check it out!
From the freelancer’s viewpoint: I have less experience being outside the ivory tower, so I’m a little less qualified to comment on this. But, based on conversations with my freelancer colleagues, I’d say it’s simple: Hey, publisher, pay me what you owe me in timely fashion. WotC was always pretty scrupulous about this, but that wasn’t necessarily the industry standard.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
RB: A better online distribution, marketing, and delivery system. Realistically, the RPG market is never going to be a major moneymaker again; PC games, console games, and mobile games have been making pen-and-paper RPGs a niche product for years now. (A highly successful release of the next D&D edition may reverse or stabilize that trend to some extent, of course.) That sounds terrible, but really, a good niche is nothing to be ashamed of: high-end boardgames and RPGs deliver an experience that just can’t be replicated in the digital format. There’s always going to be a small but devoted audience for that experience.
So, rather than waiting and hoping that somehow people will suddenly get bored with technology and abandon their digital games, I think it would be more realistic and sustainable to figure out a way to make sure that your small but dedicated audience can *see* your products, *connect* with people who share their hobby, and *purchase your product* when they’re ready to buy. These days, that probably means creating a top-notch online retailer that is a community and a destination as well as a retail outlet. It’s technologically feasible, and there are several sites and companies out there that are close to providing that gaming Mecca I’m talking about. The smart brick-and-mortar stores would be plugged into that; they can offer face-to-face networking, play space, and café culture to supplement the online community.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
RB: These days, I’m publishing a blog with updates every ten days or so, and I’ve got quite a few friends on Facebook. I also attend the occasional con or local gaming get-together. Obviously, when I was with WotC, I was on the clock for maintaining articles like the Rule of Three, the Opening Salvo previews for A&A minis, and other regular postings. I probably ought to put together a Rich Baker website at some point, but I’m just a caveman game designer; your modern world frightens and confuses me.
Here’s a link to my blog: http://richard-baker.blogspot.com/
I encourage folks to subscribe. I do talk politics fairly regularly, but I segregate it off in its own header, so if you don’t like my opinions on that front, feel free to skip over that part.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say the work I’m most proud of is the work I did in the design and development of 3rd Edition D&D and the 3rdEdition Forgotten Realms product line. Elements of my class, system, and spell design survived all the way through the 3e development process and became industry icons—the notion of super-proficiencies that became feats, the sorcerer,  the warlock, as well as elements like the paladin’s smite evil and the barbarian’s rage. There’s plenty of things I did that disappeared without  a splash, but when something you came up with sticks around and changes the landscape of D&D forever after, well, that’s a neat feeling. 
Definitely a fun read.
For the Forgotten Realms, I served as creative director for the first couple of years of the 3rd Edition line. Not only did I help to shepherd the 3rd Edition FRCS along (a very successful campaign setting book), I also had a lot to do behind the scenes with products such as Silver Marches, Unapproachable East, City of the Spider Queen, Lost Empires of Faerun, and Underdark. I felt that towards the tail end of 2nd Edition, Forgotten Realms had become a little, well, introverted. We were creating material that rewarded the initiated, and didn’t hold as much appeal for the uninitiated. I think those first dozen or so products in 3e Realms brought the setting to a lot of people and provided a great deal of gaming content that was good for both old hands and newcomers.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say, 4th Edition Forgotten Realms. It’s clear in retrospect that 4th Edition D&D created a very damaging split in the D&D audience, and we compounded that mistake by “taking away” the existing Realms in the process of providing a new Realms for the 4e fans to play. We would have been better off to produce a clean, comprehensive “current era” 4e, or even restarting the setting. I wish I could tell you that it wasn’t my idea, or that I resisted the change, but that wouldn’t be entirely true; while I had my reservations, I was persuaded that a reset was necessary and made plenty of my own contributions to the new Realms. (Most of my work was in the background and planning—I actually did very little writing in the 4e FR Campaign Setting or Player’s Guide to Faerun.)
I think Wizards of the Coast is taking some good steps now with the setting, but I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that—I have some insider knowledge that is still confidential. It’s not exactly what I would do, but it’s a much better and more sustainable long-term direction for the setting.
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?
RB: To be honest, I never really got too hung up on this. I try to build material that is solid on a couple of levels, material that tells a good story with both the mechanics and the flavor. One of the things I really liked about the discussions we had about D&D Next (before I parted ways with Wizards) was the creation of a philosophy about things like searches and negotiations—if a player is engaged enough to narrate the exact right course of action, the game should tell the DM to let that character succeed. For example, if a player says, “I’m checking the desk drawers for hidden compartments,” and that’s where the hidden compartment is, well, maybe you ought to give it to him. If the player says, “I search the room,” with no more details, that’s where you ask for the roll. I’m using that idea in my current 3e hybrid campaign.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
RB: A warlord or marshal. I’ve always liked playing smart fighters.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
RB: It’s a little old-school, but I’m a big fan of the Champions system and universe. I’ve always loved superhero RPGs, and I loved thinking up character concepts for that game and making them work. Call of Cthulhu is a close second.
(Editor’s Note: I applaud your excellent taste, sir.)
 
You heard it here folks. Champions: the choice of veteran game designers.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
RB: An article or pitch that explains how they would have done something different in the game—for example, “I want to create a system that makes weapons work much more historically,” or “Elves aren’t cool enough, here’s the way I think they should be,” or “Here’s my update to the Red Wizards of Thay that fixes all the continuity goofs and finally makes Product X and Product Y both correct.” A pitch that begins with the premise that some part of the game is horribly broken or flawed, and then promises to fix it, is a pitch from a guy with axe to grind. In my experience, a lot of those guys are not going to accept direction easily, and even if they’re right about something being not so good, it’s hard to patch a game that’s already been published. We don’t have an updater or automatic patch like an MMO does.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
RB: Champions. I can find D&D games pretty easily, but I don’t ever get to play superhero RPGs.
(Editor’s Note: Next time we chat, Rich, I’d love to bend your ear about Champions!)

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?
RB: Birthright came out of a competition of sorts, in which upper management invited all of us editors and designers to submit proposals for “the next D&D world.” Many interesting ideas came out of that; I still remember Jeff Grubb’s sky-world and Jon Pickens’ patchwork-world proposals. Birthright per se wasn’t one of them, but notions of a “You are the king” theme were rattling around in several of the proposals, and that was extracted from the collected suggestions and seized upon. So, I was brought on board to be the lead designer with the basic mission statement already settled on: Design a world where the PCs are the kings and queens. That, clearly, was goal number one, and I think we hit that pretty solidly.
Birthright, my personal favorite D&D setting of all time.
At the time, we had Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance game lines running simultaneously, so a secondary goal was to create a world that had a distinctly different feel that the high-fantasy D&D settings that already existed. We decided to create a lower-magic, more-historically grounded setting that would use a lot of familiar elements from our own world to make a moodier, darker, grittier world. Again, I think we succeeded for the most part.
In retrospect, I wish we’d left a little more wide-open wilderness to tame: Birthright could easily have addressed the classic D&D trope of building a stronghold, attracting followers, and clearing land for a settlement of your own. I think less emphasis on bloodlines and bloodline powers would have been a good idea, too – the “you are a king” bit was enough of a hook, we didn’t need to include special powers for your royal bloodline too. And I think that the awnsheghlien are pretty hit-or-miss; I like the idea of unique monsters, but we went to the well of tragic downfall a few too many times. Some of them could have just been unique monsters.
RW: You and Colin McComb 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?
RB: Ironically, I’ve just been looking at Birthright for the first time in many years. If I could do it over? Well, in terms of realm rules, I think I would give Sources and ley lines to primal casters like druids or shamans, not to wizards. I’ve been playing around with an idea that wizards use Artifacts as a time of holding, and that there are a very small number of Artifacts in the setting—there are temple and law holdings in just about every province, but an Artifact holding is more like one or two per realm. I think I would also try to emphasize more conventional adventuring in the setting; the Ruins of Empire book spends a great deal of time and space providing data about what regents are where, but it doesn’t say much about where the adventure is or how the DM is supposed to employ that information. Finally, I think I would try to move a lot of realm management into roleplaying—make it less about the numbers, more about the characterization and interaction.
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?
RB: Roger Moore played the wizard-king of Alamie. He discovered the realm spell for making undead legions and went berserk, hurling his bony hordes at every kingdom around him. It turns out that taking on three kingdoms at once is never a good idea even when you’re an arch-necromancer.
RW: Was Blood Enemies developed separately from the rest of the line? The tone and style of that book seem distinctly different from other Birthright books.
RB: In a word, yes. The author was Dale “Slade” Henson. Slade was assigned to work on the book more or less at the same time that Colin and I were finishing up the boxed set, and simply was less plugged in to what we were trying to do and the mood we were trying to set.
RW: To be honest, I’ve always felt that the Rjurik Highlands felt the most “odd man out” of the published regions. What are your thoughts about the Rjurik Highlands — what was your vision and goals for that region?
RB: The tricky thing about the Rjurik is that we were striving to create a society that was Viking-like, and at the same time had strong druidic or almost Native American elements. I wanted something that could draw from old Celtic culture, Picts, Saxons, and of course Danes and Vikings, and wind up somewhere around Cimmerians. It was a difficult combination and didn’t quite come together the way we would have liked. 
This book was released to read for free online. Go read it!
Ironically enough, 4th Edition D&D eventually nailed down the kind of idea we were groping toward when it examined the idea of various power sources and came up with the primal source, shared by druids, barbarians, shamans, and what-have-you. If I had had that tool in my design toolkit back in 1994, it would have been the exact right tool for describing why the Rjurik culture is fundamentally different from the other nationalities: It’s the part of Cerilia where people are tuned into primal power, not divine power. That would have been an interesting distinction—some semi-civilized Rjurik domains where the rulers and the big cities acknowledge temples, and some more barbaric ones that cleave to the old ways and stick to the forest spirits.
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?
RB: Sure! Time permitting, of course. I could build a pretty good 3e or 4e setting guide for Birthright. In fact, when D&D Next comes out, there are some tools in the toolkit that would probably work very well for describing the Birthright setting. Although to be honest I would have a hard time resisting the urge to tinker under the hood.

Setting the Scene

First, yes… late blog post is late. My apologies, this month has been quite full of stuff, like GDC Online and an upcoming Seattle trip.

I owe the inspiration for this week’s blog post to my friend Matthew Steen, who wanted to find out some of my thoughts about setting the scene in an RPG. Matt is a very creative person and very interested in the narrative aspects of RPGs, so I thought his suggestion was quite interesting.

My History With RPG Scenery

I’ve been playing RPGs for about 27 years now, and setting the scene was always something I found to be important. After all, the heart of an RPG is all about imagination—so I generally tried hard to make each game as immersive as possible. When I started out, this idea was mostly expressed as focusing on the “cool” parts of the game while relegating rules mechanics to a far secondary role. Thanks to another friend of mine, Brad Wilson, I did learn to let the story and the mechanics work together a lot more harmoniously during my high school years.

This, just the camera is in your mind.
When I got to college, I joined a Champions group that met very near to the University of Wyoming campus. In this group I learned a lot, but one of the most memorable things about the group was the way that describing the scene worked. I was actually co-GMing the campaign with another player, and I often found myself jumping in to help out by adding detail to the descriptions of various scenes—particularly the flashy superheroic battles that the group engaged in. During my time in the military, I discovered how powerful setting the scene can be when trying to evoke a particular genre or emotion in your players. This was further defined with my gaming group in Maryland where we reached some truly spectacular heights with a horror-themed game that relied heavily on the ambience and description of each scene.
My journey of discovery with setting the scene in RPGs has been quite instructive to me, and I’m glad to share my thoughts on the subject. Evocative roleplay is my favorite kind!
Note: the subject of this blog post is highly subjective and is unlikely to apply in equal measure across all groups. I’ve done my best to give broad advice here, but you should keep in mind that every group has their own approach to RPGs.

What is Setting the Scene?

Setting the scene is all about effective description; whenever an environment, character, action or event is being described, that is part of “setting the scene.” This kind of description can vary from extremely basic (“You see a 10’ by 10’ room. Inside is an Orc guarding a pie.”) to flowery and detailed. Switching from one style to the other is often considered a telltale sign that something is special about the upcoming action. One of my favorite quotes to this effect comes from Knights of the Dinner Table: “Anything with that much flavor text is obviously a trap.”
Basically, this. If the cheeseburger was flowery description.

Basic descriptions provide the bare minimum needed. I like to think that many Game Masters provide more than just the nuts and bolts—they try to make an impact with their descriptions. This is what I think about when I imagine “setting the scene.”

Here’s an example of setting the scene from one of my early Shadows Angelus games where the party was investigating a mysterious asylum:
“You are standing outside the darkened asylum as rain hisses down all around you. A light fog roils around your ankles and you sense a sharp, coppery scent of blood in the air. There’s a hushed, expectant atmosphere as if your arrival here was no coincidence. Suddenly, you can hear a thunderous roar erupt from the asylum’s depths – a primal sound of endless hate.”

Tools for Setting the Scene

If you’re looking for some methods to use to help craft immersive and interesting scenes in your RPG, here are some tools that I use to benefit this approach:

Excite the Senses

Often, describing the scene is purely visual (see the example of the Orc and the pie above). However, we all have many more senses than just our sight – describing what the scene sounds or smells like, providing details about the texture or subtle vibration in the floor, and adding some information about the gritty wind blowing across the plains can all help bring the action to life in the minds of your players. Sight, hearing and scent are the easiest cues to build into a scene, but also consider the other senses from time to time.

The accordion kings want to remind you that hearing is important.
In one of my Birthright games in Louisville, Kentucky, my good friend Bryant Smith was playing a fallen paladin who had succumbed to alcoholism. In a truly memorable scene, he found the only cure for a terrible disease ravaging his body involved drinking from a unique liquor known as the wine of dreams. Because this was a very important scene for his character, I went all-out describing the thick, honey-like substance, the sweet and spicy scent, and the riot of flavors across his tongue as he downed the bottle.

Relate to the Real

It is sometimes easy to forget that the players don’t always have the same context and memories as yourself. It’s not hard for me to remember, for example, the size and majesty of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. However, it would be a mistake to assume that my players can all relate to that same image if I attempt to describe the monster as being “roughly the same size as Devil’s Tower.” On the other hand, I can generally assume that most players have seen a skyscraper building at some point in their lives—so describing the monster as being “several skyscrapers high” is much more effective.
Consider using measurements that are easily relatable… and the more easily memorable, the better. If you can use the dimensions of the room, for example, that is generally a good way to help people imagine the scene. You could also use nearby features, such as the parking lot across the street to establish the general dimensions of an abandoned keep, or point to a visible water tower out the window as an example of the wizard’s tower.
Similarly, don’t forget weather effects! Not every single adventure needs to take place during a sunny day – rain, snow, high winds, or fog can all enhance a typical scene and add extra drama to a confrontation in-game.
For my Shadows Angelus campaign, I had decided that the city experienced weather similar to London – high amounts of rain and fog. Consistently adding these details helped set the game experience apart and made certain moments in the game very memorable.

Find the Right Words

Vocabulary can make quite a difference in the description of a scene. Consider the following two examples:
Description 1: “The creature staggers towards you, covered in slime. Instead of a face, there is only a wriggling mass of tentacles.”
Description 2: “The creature lurched across the threshold, noxious slime dripping from every pore. Its face was merely a squamous mass of writhing tentacles.”
While these are both perfectly serviceable descriptions, the second has a particular flavor that is missing in the first. Choosing the right words to describe the scene can add or enhance the tone of the game. If you have a particularly heroic, high-fantasy game, for example, you could consider using words like “valorous,” “bastion,” or “sublime.” A gritty, street-focused modern or near-future game might instead benefit from terms such as “grimy,” “glaring,” or “suspicious.”

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a great word for nearly any RPG. Okay, maybe not.
Like much of the rest of this blog post, vocabulary choice is very subjective—thus, your mileage may vary, and you should always take into account your personal style and that of your group.

Props!

Don’t underestimate the power of physical props to get your players immersed in the game. Obviously, some games are going to find this easier than others – high fantasy rarely lends itself to common props that a game master can easily get his hands on, for example. However, even just some basic actions or objects can really enhance the experience.
During a very memorable Dungeons and Dragons game, my character encountered a disguised monster known as a Lamia. Taking the role of the Lamia, the GM moved in close and constantly made small touches to my leg while we were talking. (If this sounds vaguely uncomfortable, that’s okay… it was /meant/ to be!) The Lamia drains Wisdom as a touch attack, and my poor character had been reduced to a wreck without rolling a single die.
Another time, I was running a game of Dark Champions where the player characters were all street-level superheroes. During one of their investigations, they came across the wallet of a dead man containing vital clues. I had actually acquired a used wallet and mocked up various items found inside, such as business cards, ID, etc. Rather than describing what they found, I simply handed over the wallet and let the players go from there.

Building Atmosphere

Using evocative description is a great way to build a proper atmosphere for your game. This can be done over a single session or over an entire story arc, depending on the scope of the theme or mood you wish to highlight.
What I do when I want to build atmosphere is select a certain theme; “betrayal,” for instance, or “fairy kingdom.” Next, I use a set of key words that bring that theme to the forefront and scatter them throughout the descriptions I use for the game. If I am trying to build atmosphere during a single session, I like to a slow build—maybe two or three references at the beginning, moving up to about double that at the middle, and then hitting it really hard in the third act.
For a long-term campaign, building atmosphere relies on consistency—if you refer to the Swanwood as peaceful in one session, it shouldn’t suddenly feel threatening later on unless there’s a very good reason for that.
I’m currently part of a Birthright campaign where this concept has been used well; the Swanwood is a place of peace and serenity, and visitors to it always feel as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Wisely, the GM makes small references to that whenever we visit the Swanwood after the first time, even if we’re just passing through.
Similarly, in Shadows Angelus, the extradimensional Entities always invoke feelings of nausea and illness (known as “Entity Sickness”) to any being nearby. Every time an Entity shows up, I tried to be inventive about how sick it made the player character’s feel just to be around them.
I recommend using an index card listing a specific theme and the vocabulary choices you want to use to reinforce that theme. Keeping a small set of these cards handy to review during breaks can be helpful.

Narrating the Action

One thing that I like to pay close attention to during any RPG I am playing in is how the narrative aspects of combat are handled. I’ve seen a lot of games (probably too many) that rely simply on “I hit, you miss,” and similar comments. Even more games have battles that (aside from spell effects or gunfire) are eerily silent.
For me, I like to imagine each game as a movie in my head, and that means I lean towards the cinematic as often as possible. This also means that I like to have my characters (and NPCs) talk during combat, exchanging quips or threats, or even just stating the obvious (as you do, especially in a superheroic game) such as “Our weapons are useless!” or “You’ll never get away with this!”
I recommend varying things up more than this, though.

I believe that the player characters are meant to be the protagonists of the story, and that means they should generally feel competent in what they do in combat. This means that when I am narrating the action, I try to do so in a way that empowers the character concept and furthers the story. Few things can affect a player as strongly as when he feels he or his character is being mocked—it is easy to chuckle over a critical failure now and then, but it can easily damage a player’s enjoyment of the game if he constantly feels like the narrative description of his actions casts him in a bad light.

Take a look at the following two examples of narrating the action, both occurring after a player has made a bad roll against an opponent during a combat scene:
Example 1: “You swing at the Orc and nearly drop your sword, fumbling the weapon and almost tripping over the scabbard.”
Example 2: “You swing at the Orc, but he brings his axe up to intercept it, snarling defiantly at you, ‘No one gets out of this dungeon alive.’”
The first example de-protagonizes the character and makes him seem foolish. This is occasionally fine (and more often acceptable in a lighthearted or comedy-styled campaign), but it often is harmful to the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. The second example empowers both the character and the story, giving the player something to riff off of should he choose to respond.

How Much is Too Much?

The pace of a game is very important, and it should be noted that descriptions can get overly flowery and detailed—thus slowing down the game for little benefit. Naturally, a game’s pace will vary based on the group and the GM, and every group has their own unique style. That having been said, I would recommend that most scene-setting descriptions should get the idea across as concisely as possible.
My recommendation is to write down what you would consider a typical description and time yourself – any descriptions that take more than twenty seconds or so is probably too long.
In combat, keep things short and snappy in order for the action to flow smoothly.

In Conclusion

Setting the scene, as you can probably tell by reading this, is important to me. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk about it, and I hope that you find this blog post helpful for setting the scene in your own RPG games. If you have any suggestions for other ways to help set the scene, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments section below.