Monday, November 26, 2012

Interview with Tommy Brownell

Tommy Brownell is a reviewer, writer and editor. His list of credits include: The Chronicles of Rachel Strand (part of the Equinox Series by Equinox Comics), Hellbrood, War of the Dead and Angel the RPG (just to name a few). He is also the Social Media Manager for Savage Mojo.  Tommy came to the gaming community’s attention when he started The Most Unread Blog onthe Internet. Ever. It is an RPG review site that also runs regular features on topics such as comic book reading recommendations. Tommy was kind enough to discuss his work with me, as well as share his thoughts as a reviewer on game design.

Reviews and Writing
BD: What is the story behind The Most Unread Blog on the Internet. Ever... and why did you select that name?

There was actually another The Most Unread Blog on the Internet. Ever… that I started back in…2004, I think. That one was mostly a personal journal type thing and I assumed no one was reading it. Then I made a post about political pundit/journalist William Safire retiring and my blog was quoted on the UK Mirror’s website and my site was called a “liberal read” (which it was at the time). In horror that tons of strangers were now reading my blog, I stopped posting there.

This blog came along about three years ago (January 1st, 2010, in fact) as a writing exercise. It was a little bit of “this and that” for a while, before it came to focus almost entirely on RPGs and reviews.

BD: Did this affect how approach politics in your writing? Do you think you would have a similar reaction today if the current incarnation of your blog received high profile attention?

Great question. I avoid politics almost completely now, both in blog posts and in actual creative writing. The stuff I write, whether it’s comics or it’s some form of game writing, is intended to escapist entertainment. I’m not telling Marxist parables and I’m not retelling the Reagan Revolution. You can get beat over the head with politics everywhere you go, but I’ll always tread lightly in that situation. Heck, I limit this even in my Facebook and Twitter posts.

As for having major media outlets linking to me now? Heck no…that would be a good thing. My blog’s title is meant to be slightly ironic now, as more and more people have mentioned reading it and I can see the hits getting higher. I’ve worked to steadily build my “brand” for the last few years, in the hopes of someday getting enough writing work to do it for a living.

BD: When and how did you first get into table top RPGs? What other interests did you have growing up?

Comic books got me into RPGs. Specifically, I was reading an X-Men comic and saw a catalog ad selling the “X-Men Campaign set” and I went “COOL!”, having no idea I needed anything else to go with it (The Marvel Advanced set by TSR). Before I got said Advanced set (which did become my second RPG purchase), the new friends I made in high school were all lapsed D&D players, and one of them had the AD&D2e books. I asked to borrow them and began running the game for them, and the rest is history.

When I was younger I was a huge He-Man fan, and I’ve always been a pro wrestling fan (and I spent a few years as  pro wrestler). I’ve loved games of all stripes, and I was playing HeroQuest before I was playing D&D, which might be why I slid straight into the DM role. I also played the crap out of Champions of the Galaxy, which is a sci-fi wrestling card game by Filsinger Games that started in 1986 and is not only going strong today, but has had 22 or 23 conventions *just for that game*.

BD: How did you get into professional wrestling? Any lessons from that experience?

There was a local indy federation called Oklahoma Championship Wrestling that ran a training school in Tulsa. My Dad would watch them on Saturday mornings and I wound up going to one of their shows in my area. The atmosphere was electric and a lot of the guys were no bigger than I was…so a few years later, I joined the school of their company that opened after they closed, Tornado Pro Wrestling.

Wrestling was an interesting experience, no doubt, and it had a huge ripple effect on my life. For starters, I met one of my best friends through wrestling, and we are still very close friends, even though I’m retired and he’s not. I also learned that an out of shape non-athlete like myself can entertain a crowd as long as he’s realistic about his limitations and checks his ego at the door. That last one is a very valuable lesson for life in general. Oh, and I learned that you have to be a mark for yourself…because if you’re not, no one else will be.

BD: Why did you decide to become a writer? How did you get into the industry?

I was writing little mini comics on Post-it notes for my fellow schoolmates back in the first grade and selling them for 50 cents. I’ve been writing almost as long as I’ve been reading. I don’t know if I’m any GOOD at it, but I know I need to do it.

As for the industry…which industry? The RPG industry? My first published work was with Eden Studios. I was a playtester for them and I volunteered to do some writing for the Angel RPG, researching all the spells for the magic chapter and trying to stat them out. I also had an article in Eden Studios Presents Volume 2 called “When Bad Vampires Go Good”. Then I did nothing in the industry for a very long time, until Lee Szczepanik Jr. asked me to edit the last two chapters of War of the Dead, and Miles M. Kantir of Savage Mojo asked me to take an active hand in shaping their Plot Point campaigns after I raised some criticisms in my reviews that he completely agreed with.

As for comics…that came entirely from being recruited by Aaron Ballinger of Equinox Comics on MySpace. I had done some MySpace blogs about working on The Sideliners, a superhero comic about the c-list characters who are left to fend off an alien invasion when most of Earth’s heroes and villains disappear, and he asked me to come talk to him about working for Equinox. There I met friends and frequent collaborators Johnnie Johnson and Ben Soto, and I started pitching in behind the scenes, helping get books published. I’ve since moved into lettering as well as writing.

I’m now writing an ongoing series for Equinox, an ongoing series for Plan B Comics with Kyle Chaney, worked on an anthology for Raven Warren Studios and Martin Brandt and I have horror projects in the works with Ben and another Equinox guy, Jason Coody. I’m also trying to get Max Monkey, Monster Masher off the ground in 2013.

But none of that would be happening without Aaron hitting me up on MySpace.

BD: Who and what were your major influences?

Dennis O’Neil wrote, in my opinion, the best book on writing comics ever, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. That thing has helped me immensely. Joss Whedon is also a big influence. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel have more than a little influence on how I write The Chronicles of Rachel Strand. Lastly, Peter David is another big time influence on me. Not just his amazing stuff that everyone knows about, like his run on The Incredible Hulk or X-Factor (both times)…but also his creator-owned series Fallen Angel. And yes, I own his book on writing comics as well.

BD: You have done work for Equinox Comics with the The Chronicles of Rachel Strand. Can you talk a bit about the challenges of comic book writing? Is it difficult being a male and writing from the point of view of a female character?

The biggest challenge of writing comics is that so much of it is out of my hands. I write the script and then I’m at the mercy of the artist(s), colorist and letterer before it ever sees print. We just released a comic that took three years to finish because of all of that. That said, when everything is clicking, it’s an amazing feeling.

As for the challenges of writing comics itself, the big things are knowing how much direction your artist actually needs (and this will change from artist to artist) and knowing just how much you can put on a page, both action-wise and dialogue-wise. This is something I work on every day.

Writing a female-heavy comic, and The Chronicles of Rachel Strand certainly applies as four of the six main characters are female, is interesting because I’m certainly not what one would think of as a classic feminist, politically speaking. Johnnie Johnson, my artist and creative partner on the book, and I redesigned Rachel to insure that she wasn’t running around half-naked. Additionally, all of the other characters in the book, male and female, represent a broad range of body types, from the larger-framed Captain Nettles to the waifish Reanna Pickett to the chubby Lance Riddick to the slender Harlow to the very athletically built Mathilda. Respectively, they also cover a lot of ground as characters, being a half-vampire warrior, an honest cop in a corrupt city who breaks the rules for the greater good, a psychic who nearly went crazy and is trying to repay the kindness shown to her by saving the world, a full on geek, a slimy warlock and a scarred soldier of fortune, respectively.

We have alternately gotten praise for our portrayal of women in the book AND been blasted for “repressing Rachel’s sexuality”. Ultimately, I figure if my wife gets embarrassed by what I’m writing, then I should take a second look at it. Otherwise, I’ll stress myself out worrying about the perceptions of males writing female characters.

BD: How did you create Rachel Strand? What is your character creation process?

That one’s kinda interesting. I didn’t create Rachel. Equinox had a stable of characters in place when Johnnie and I were recruited. What we DID do was strip her down to her basic elements and rebuild her, de-emphasizing the sexuality of her appearance, giving her a whole new backstory and so on. That said, her and Reanna are the only major characters in the book that I didn’t create.

Character creation can come from multiple places. Captain Nettles is a loving tribute to an old boss of mine. We have a character appearing in issue 1 of the ongoing series named Boogernickle, who is this giant Earth troll and is based off of an NPC I developed for an Angel RPG campaign that fell apart. In fact, the entire first issue came from session notes that I never used from that game. Other times, Johnnie will just send me sketches and I will give names and backstories to them.

For another story I did, I based the main characters off of me and one of my extended family members…and there’s a real good chance that if I’m close to you at all, someday, in some form, you’ll wind up in a book somewhere.

BD: What is your writing process? How do you go from an idea to a complete story?

Lots of brainstorming, first. How this comes about depends on the project. For Rachel Strand, for instance, Johnnie and I are in constant communication, he sends me sketches, we go back and forth. But once I have an idea, what typically happens is that I write it out as a paragraph. From there, I break it down further into the classic three-act structure. After that I do page by page breakdowns of the action, then I script the whole thing.

And yes, things often change dramatically from that paragraph to the final script.

That said, I’ve had shorter stories that I wrote with just an idea in my head and I went with it to see what happened.

BD: When you sit down to write a review, what is your process? Do you have any guiding principles?

Be objective and be positive. That doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING is positive, but I try to be constructive about my criticisms. If I can’t be, then I don’t review the product. Why? Because *someone* put that work into the product.  Sadly, I don’t get to play nearly as many games as I review, so those that are what would call “Capsule” reviews, I especially try to be as objective as possible. Now, when I’m reviewing something I’ve played or ran, my positive or negative thoughts tend to shine through a lot more.

My reviews, these days, are posted almost exclusively on my blog. You can go anywhere on the internet to see people trashing out other people and products. You’re not going to find that here.

BD: The Most Unread Blog on the Internet. Ever…is one of the better known RPG review sites.  You must receive a lot of feedback from readers. What are you hearing from gamers? When you do get negative feedback how do you handle it?

I actually don’t get a ton of feedback, until I’m running a giveaway or a contest and then people come out of the woodwork to tell me how much they love the blog while I’m giving them a free book some publisher graciously donated. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong. As much as I’m a feedback whore, I don’t have much of an ego about my place on the pecking order. That said, I do tend to get a bit of feedback, usually in private e-mail or message, from publishers and writers who feel the need to defend something I’ve cited as “not working” on the review, but they have almost universally been respectful about it…presumably because of the tone I’ve taken in the review.

That said, I’m an RPGNow featured reviewer and I’ve had one truly negative review (for a product that was basically $20 for a PDF of lined paper for you to print out, advertising itself as a campaign guide) that the publisher got removed from the site, and I reviewed another game that I really liked but had some D&Disms. I noted those D&Disms, and saw where another fan of the game wrote a review that was a direct reply to mine, arguing with the points I made. This was made funnier because the developer of the book lives in China and hadn’t followed 3rd edition, and wrote me thanking me for pointing this stuff out. They later revised to book to avoid much of the stuff I cited.

BD: In addition to regular reviews you run a number of other kinds of features, one of them is a play log of a Marvel SAGA campaign you run with your son. How did you get the idea and what has the response been.

I get more “likes” on Facebook off of that than I do response from readers. That said, my games with my son never last very long, because I do a horrible job of GMing for him. I’ve ran Star Wars Saga Edition, Icons and Marvel SAGA and we’ve never gone beyond three sessions on any of them. Not for lack of interest on either side, I just get into “GMing for my buddies” mode and what works for them isn’t necessarily appropriate for him.

BD: You have written several times on The Most Unread Blog on the Internet. Ever…about the perception that characters in Savage Worlds are all the same. What compelled you to respond to this?

Various internet threads from people swearing this was true, despite my own experiences saying the opposite. I’ve ran multiple campaigns across various genres and even the characters in our separate Deadlands games didn’t feel anything alike. I love Savage Worlds. It is my favorite in print RPG, and probably my favorite RPG of all time (with only Marvel SAGA as serious competition). If you play it and don’t like it? That’s cool. There are a lot of popular games I don’t like. But at least not like it for reasons that actually exist.

BD: How do you feel about gaming discussions online? Is there too much criticism? Not enough?

I have to say I just kind of float in and out of gaming discussions anymore. Too many people get hung up on too many things that don’t really matter. I don’t care if a game is an RPG or a storygame or a board game or a card game. Is it fun? Cool. I also pretty much tune out when people can’t make a point without name calling (I particularly love the recent tendency in some places to call anyone that likes a game that other posters don’t “autistic” as an insult) or profanity laced tirades.

BD: Your reviews follow a clear format. But this hasn’t always been the case. Your earlier reviews have a different structure. Can you explain your review format and how it evolved over time?

The current structure came about as a time saver…categorizing the review and filling in those blanks…then I started writing more and more anyway, so that hasn’t been true for a while. Mostly, I think it’s just become an effort to get more organized. The current format is usually a short introduction, followed by the essentials like the pricing and availability. This is also the longest section as I review the contents themselves, as objectively as I can. Then I follow up with the things that, in my opinion, really worked and did not work, followed by the conclusion, which summarizes my thoughts.

BD: When you review a game, what do you look for? What makes one game better than another?

The main things I look for are whether or not the game makes me want to play or run it, how well the production values match up to the price, how tight the editing is, how the book is organized and how complete the book is.

I very rarely make the judgment as to whether or not one game is better than another unless I’ve dove into gameplay…but even then, I stress that it’s subjective. *I* love Marvel SAGA more than any other supers game I’ve played. *I* love Deadlands Reloaded more than I do Deadlands. *I* love Star Wars Saga Edition more than I do Star Wars D6. At the end of the day, the only useful metric for how good or bad a game is, is how much fun you have with it versus the amount of work it takes you to have that fun with it…and your idea of that and mine might not be the same thing at all.

Reviews, Trends and Game Design

BD: As a reviewer you must read a ton of RPGs. What are some design trends you have seen over the years?

The obvious trend is towards more narrative control for the players, whether it’s something as simple as bennies and Adventure cards in Savage Worlds (though Fate Chips were around in Deadlands before then) or Aspects since FATE came long, to games like the Apocalypse World Engine games, where the players are often able to dictate what the results of their die rolls actually mean.

Feels like there’s also been more “front facing” games...that is, games where everything is dictated by PCs acting or reacting (i.e., the GM doesn’t make attack rolls for the opponents, the PCs make Defend rolls.)

BD: Most people are probably familiar with Bennies, as they have been around for some time. But Front Facing rules are rather new to my knowledge; can you elaborate on what this means and why they make a difference for certain games?

It’s not really anything new, I don’t think…though the term Front Facing, I think, only began being used with any regularity recently. Simply put, it means the PCs do everything. They make all the rolls, the GM rolls nothing. If you’re a GM that likes to fudge rolls, well, you can’t. Of course, that’s only a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about that. The problem with that, as I get into further down, is that a lot of game designers forget to write the rules with both the PCs acting and reacting in mind.

BD: In your opinion what is good game design?

The more fun you can get out of the box, the better. A modicum of balance doesn’t hurt, either. Now, I’m of the mindset that balance isn’t all-important, but I game almost entirely with friends, and we have the courtesy not to be jerks to one another...but not everyone does, so there does need to be SOME kind of balancing factor.

I run Savage Worlds basically as written and we have a blast. That said, the core mechanic of Marvel SAGA is brilliant fun, but I have to fudge character creation, advancement, and several of the powers…and ditch a large chunk of the official write-ups. But I’ve never had as much fun with a pure supers system.

BD: What is bad game design?

Not fun. I know, that’s not very useful, but it’s the best I’ve got. Take a look at Unisystem, for example. I really liked WitchCraft, but then the Buffy RPG came along with the Cinematic Unisystem. It ditched Essence Points, Endurance Points and completely shredded the skill list and I thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever seen…and other Unisystem fans hate it because there’s not enough skills, the exploding dice got altered and so on.

How many people say that Kits in AD&D2e were utterly busted? Quite a bit, at least online…and yet, I used the entire Complete line in my various AD&D2e games and had no problems.

That said, Player Facing games do tend to have problems of powers and other actions only being written one way (as an action or a reaction), and being a bit of a pain to reverse engineer at times. Given that Supers games tend to be the ones trending towards player facing games moreso than other games, and they tend to have more “exceptions” built into them because of the variety of powers, this is problem tends to be magnified. Icons, for instance, runs into this in a few places.

BD: Where do you think we are now in terms of game design? What characteristics set the games of 2012 apart from those of the 80s, 90s and 2000s?

The aforementioned Narrative focus and the extra emphasis on player facing games. Due to the rise of digital publishing, I’m also seeing a growing trend towards “microsupplements” or “DLC”, depending on the company…that is, small products designed to compliment a bigger release, either free or for a couple of bucks. Triple Ace Games has done REALLY well with this, according to them, releasing a the corebook or corebooks for a line, then following up with a series of small PDFs for a few bucks a pop that provide non-core character options, or dramatically expand the detail on a given location. Margaret Weis Productions does this with their Marvel Heroic game, and thus far it’s all been free material, like giving write-ups for Thor and Hulk, along with bonus scenarios, coinciding with their Civil War books and the Avengers movie.

BD: Like a lot of writers and designers (myself included) you started out on AD&D second edition. Does being a product of 1990s gaming shape the way you review and the way you think about design?

Maybe so. I know I’ve never considered myself “Old School”. I have no problem with the guys that love OD&D and the like, or the retroclones, but the idea of the dungeon crawl has never been a big thrill to me, and given how AD&D2e tended to focus more on “heroic fantasy” as the default, it kinda makes sense that I came in at that breakpoint. That said, I’ve found other RPGs that fill that niche better for me over the years. I suppose it’s worth noting that the oldest game that I still play or run is Marvel SAGA, which was released in 1998 and was decried at the time as being a “card game” and not an RPG.

BD: You have stated that D&D is no longer your primary game, and likely never will be again. So it makes sense that your blog covers products that occupy a different sphere in the industry than Pathfinder or 4E. How would you describe the non-Paizo/WOTC zone and your place within it?

Well, my blog often gets called a Savage Worlds blog, which I can see given my connection to two Savage Worlds licensees and the proportion of Savage Worlds posts to non-SW posts…but really, I love reading new RPGs. It tickles me pink when someone asks me to review their book because a) someone thinks enough of my opinion to ask me to do that and b) I get a genuine satisfaction out of someone sending me an e-mail or comment telling me they picked up a game because of my review and really enjoy it.

Freelance writer Darren Pearce tells me that he wound up writing for Savage Mojo because of my review of Suzerain…so hopefully, my place in the non-Paizo/WOTC zone is out there, raising awareness of smaller press publishers (from Pinnacle-sized on down to the literal one man operations like Michael T. Desing’s Resolute games) and bringing more eyes to their games.

BD: What is more important to you, setting or system?

System, I guess. I love Ravenloft, but I never want to run it in a D&D system again. The only incarnation of Dragonlance I have ever enjoyed is Fifth Age, which used the SAGA system. I love GMing Marvel, but mostly in SAGA and I like Star Wars, but in Saga Edition…and I’ll give about anything a go in Savage Worlds.

Ultimately, though, I’ll give just about anything a shot, regardless of setting or system, with the right players.

BD: I think when Fifth Age came out, a lot of people didn’t even realize it was actually a new system. In my own case, I had no idea until a friend ran a brief campaign (I just thought it was another Dragonlance product). For those who are not familiar with SAGA, what was the key innovation and why do you think it appealed to you so much?

It was the first RPG I played that didn’t use dice. Both SAGA games used a unique card deck which had character art on it, an Aura (positive, negative or neutral), a numerical value and a suit. Dragonlance also had personality descriptors while Marvel had numerical trackers that could be used for countdowns or tracking health, as well as Callings (kinda like alignments in Marvel SAGA) and Events. Every character had a hand of cards which they played for their actions. If you played within your action’s suit, you got a Trump, which meant you kept flipping cards over and adding them to your total until you drew a card of a non-matching suit. Marvel took this one step further with the Edge mechanic, which let people add cards equal to or less than their Edge to their cardplay, making guys like Captain America an absolute BEAST when, statistically, he otherwise fell short against the likes of a She-Hulk (just like in the comics).

The Dragonlance version was the first time I experienced D&D style play without rewards and advancement based on a) killing things or b) taking its stuff. It also eschewed classes, though they introduced Roles, which were similar, though somewhat less rigid. In another setting, Dragonlance SAGA would probably be my favorite fantasy RPG of all time.

Marvel SAGA simply feels more like four-color superheroics than any RPG I have ever played, with nothing being truly impossible. The example I love to point to is a PC in one game being the last member of his team left standing against this obscure team of Mojo’s enforcers (note: If you play a Marvel game under me, I will bust out some of the most obscure characters ever) who had helped Stryfe take over Castle Doom (long story). Anyway, in desperation, he Pushed (another SAGA mechanic) his Electrical Control to blow out everything around him and just kept trumping until he had a final action score of something like 64, which is pretty massive and ended the fight, while leveling Castle Doom. I’ve just never had anything epic like that happen in another supers game.

BD: You have had a lot of positive things to say about Savage Worlds and the Cortex system. Why did these games strike a chord with you and what do they offer that other systems don’t?

Savage Worlds has offered, for me, more versatility with less work than any system I’ve ever seen. From a pure fun factor standpoint, it has been second to none…my Necessary Evil campaign is close to wrapping up and it will be the first campaign that I have ever began that also had an actual conclusion.

Honestly, the first incarnation of Cortex never did anything for me. It was the Cortex Plus version that made go “Ohh”. My favorite incarnation of Cortex Plus is Leverage, which at least reads like it really captures the show, and the show’s creator John Rogers is not only a gamer (and a Savage Worlds gamer at that), but the writer of the D&D comic and a huge fan of the work MWP did in translating Leverage into an RPG.

BD: There are a lot of games now like Leverage that are based on Television series. We have had these in the past (with Hercules and Xena for example) but it seems they are more popular now and getting more actual play. Do you think this is the case and, if so, why?

I think Eden Studios set the standard for licensing a TV show and not making it a cheap cash in. It was one of the most careful and well executed uses of a license that I’ve ever seen. Since then, we’ve seen other companies, like Margaret Weis Productions (with Leverage and Smallville) take up that mantle. So, if they are seeing more actual play, I think it’s because the quality of the games are getting better. In my opinion, it also helps that the TV shows being adapted are better (c’mon, I like Hercules, but it’s no Buffy or Leverage), and game designers are working harder to give you tools for playing in those worlds rather than just replaying those shows.

BD: Gamers can sometimes be a divided group. Many of us are emotionally invested in our preferred playstyles or design ideologies.  Do you sense the influence of these things in many of the RPGs you review? Do you think it has a negative or positive impact on design?

Sometimes. I’ve caught sneering comments, sometimes buried in the rules and sometimes in the forewords, from authors backhanding other people’s playstyles. A lot of times, though, I think a lot of folks are really just designing games they would like to play. Shane Hensley will tell you that the reason he made Savage Worlds is because he decided Deadlands (which he also designed) was too slow for his tastes at the time, but he will also be the first to tell you it’s not always the best choice for every game.

BD: If you could ask a publisher to design a game specifically for your tastes, built for a stellar Tommy Brownell review, what would you ask for?

Give me a supers RPG that captures the sheer fun of the Marvel SAGA game mechanics with a good, solid character creation system, powers that don’t require house ruling and that allow the GM to run multiple NPCs without a lot of handwaving and I’ll make sure everyone knows about your superhero RPG that I’m gladly forking over my hard-earned cash for.

BD: What are some common pitfalls you see among designers and publishers?

Being too defensive about criticism. It’s okay that not everyone likes your game…and sometimes when folks criticize, they may have a point.  That said, there’s a thin line between answering criticism and trying to please everybody. You have to strike that balance between ensuring that you don’t alienate your fanbase while trying to be all things to all people.

The D&D Next designers are fighting a losing battle, I figure, in trying to please everybody.

BD: If you could design D&D to suit your own tastes, what changes would you make?

Ooooooh…the first thing I tell people is I Am Not A Designer. If I thought I were anywhere close, I would probably have taken a crack at it already. Thing is, I like fantasy, I love RPGs, I think I’m a decent GM, but I usually even swipe house rules rather than making my own. It would have the heroic adventure focus of AD&D2e, the customization of 3e and the GMing simplicity of Savage Worlds.

Honestly, I was REALLY loving the D&D Next playtest but I think the guys like me who loved the second and third documents are being outvoted.

BD: Are there any topics, genres or settings you think RPG designers should avoid?

Oh, it all depends on how things are handled. Now, you might argue that some things need to be avoided due to oversaturation (supers, fantasy) but really, for all the folks who are playing Mutants & Masterminds and Pathfinder, there’s a guy like me who has no go-to fantasy game or who would seriously entertain alternatives to Marvel SAGA because there’s no longer any real fan community out there.

That’s the beauty, in my opinion, of the rise of digital publishing and Print on Demand. The few “gatekeepers” out there are disappearing…it’s not up to them or me to tell you what you can or cannot publish…it’s just up to you to do it and sell it, and find the customer that will buy it.

BD: What would you like to see more of in the industry?

More cool stuff. Not that we’re lacking for any right now. Maybe a little bit less of hanging all your hopes for a product on Kickstarter. More publishers embracing POD and digital to keep their product lines available in perpetuity. This has been my favorite thing I’ve seen from White Wolf…even as they pushed the New World of Darkness, they kept the Old World of Darkness out there first in digital, then in print, to make sure that everyone was still being served. I say this as a guy who isn’t a World of Darkness player…but who knows he could be if the fancy strikes him, because the entire back catalogue is *right there*.

BD: Kickstarter is quickly becoming the norm, even for established publishers. What are your thoughts on Kickstarter?

I think it’s fine in doses. I do know that right now I’m not backing any Kickstarters due to the holidays. I hate Vanity Awards (getting your name, likeness, favorite character, etc inserted into the book for pledging a certain amount), but I understand why they exist. I’m not a fan of Kickstarter exclusive materials, even for the Kickstarters I’ve backed, because I think RPGs need less “Special Club” mentality more than it needs more of it. For the record, I’m perfectly cool with the alternative of “Thanks for pledging, we’re giving you this for free and six months before the rest of the world has a chance to buy it.” And I think that Kickstarters will eventually build to a bubble that will pop. I helped participate in a Kickstarter with Savage Mojo, and we not only exceeded our goal, we hit the BIG stretch goal we were looking for…but it was exhausting. I have no idea how these companies that do one after another have the energy for it.

As for established companies doing it? It depends on the situation. Pinnacle says they felt like they were taking a risk with Deadlands Noir. Now, my reaction was “How do you want me to give you my money?”, but I’m a huge fan of Deadlands and Noir, but I could see how they may not have wanted to dive in without testing the waters.

So, yeah, fine in doses, and I think that building your business model around Kickstarter is going to have negative consequences, and I think we’ll wind up missing out on some great products that get their plugs pulled because the Kickstarter was launched at the wrong time (too many Kickstarters for the same fanbase, or too close to the holidays or what have you) and the company will decide “Oh, I guess the interest wasn’t there after all”.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sertorius Playtest: November 16

This playtest involved three players. I ran them through a very casual scenario that was mostly one combat after another followed by an off-the-cuff adventure. The purpose was to see how much punishment Sertorius can take without rest, but also to get a sense of their ability to impact the setting through magic. The party consisted of two halflings and an orc.

Their first battle was against The Beast of Sardonia, a Monstra (same one faced in playtest one). Couple of characters took wounds, but they were able to defeat it without too much trouble (though there was a close call when it paralyzed the whole party).
This was immediately followed by an attack of 10 Korvars (tribal creatures distantly related to kobolds). These were quickly dispatched through a Captivation spell. However I re-examined the spell and realized it should only have been able to affect 6 Korvars. The misunderstanding was due to an error in the entry format (which we have since fixed). Still the combat would have only gone another round or so.
As they walked back to the town the characters were attacked by four Blemmeyes. These succeeded in wounding one character (Player A). Player B used Scars Upon Scars to good effect here, which made him very hard to wound. In the end, Player C cast Captivation again to end the combat. Clearly Captivation is a useful spell, potentially too powerful.
Following the attack of four Blemmeyes, they were assaulted by a Banshee. These are different from Banshees in other settings and linked to the whole Grimming process (see previous blog entries on Sertorius). Skinnless monstrosities with a "flay flesh" ability, they also have the traditional howling power associated with the creatures. In Gamandria Banshee are powerful, requiring a good deal of research and planning to kill, so the party fled (with one member of the group falling behind and narrowly evading its Flaying touch).
After this they strode into Thana (A Sardonan settlement), and met with the Emir. He decided to employ them after they made their magical skills known (he even gave them a wing of his vizier’s palace--promising to erect individual palaces for them in the near future). To gain permanent employment with the Emir, they agreed to assassinate the Emperor of Ronia.
Arriving in Ronia they found a contact who arranged an audience in the Palace with Emperor Nicephorous (their cover was they were priests of Lurolai seeking to erect a new temple in Rostanba). I should say at this point, that this was not the best strategy in my opinion. Attacking the Emperor in his own court just didn’t seem as likely to succeed as attacking him away from the security of his palace, so I decided to play the guards and courtiers to the hilt. However, I may have miscalculated how many guards the emperor should have had (this was run off the cuff, had I prepped the court in advance it would likely have been more secure and challenging).
Based on my calculations of the number of Sertori available in the Fellowship of Promestus (somewhere around 55-60) I decided the emperor would only have two permanent Sertori in his court (this was a number I decided well before the session, based on the need to have the sertori fill other posts in the empire). Outside his own court, this number would be increased (say when the Emperor is travelling). He also had 8 Ogre guards in a line before his throne. His throne is a magic device that floats above the court (again in hindsight it probably should have an arch of protection spell imbedded in it, or something to that effect). In addition to this he had 10 human guards directly next to his sertori (and their function was to absorb attacks directed at the wizards).
I still think 2 Sertori is a reasonable number for a frugal empire that is somewhat stretched. But maybe four would be a better number. For Ogres, I think realistically, the court really should have had closer to twenty five. Plus there probably should be a century or so of human soldiers who can reach the court in seconds to respond to any threat (and a full cohort soon after that).
All that said, the battle didn’t go the players way initially. They had a few lucky breaks. Player C used captivation, but she said she was using it on the emperor, so I assumed she was not trying to project it onto other people in the room as a way of not attracting attention to herself as a Sertorius. Had she attempted to use it on multiple targets, things may have gone better. It did work on the emperor, but I gave the Sertori Detect rolls to notice (something the rules are going to have to address). They immediately cast Avalanch of Flame, followed by Bolt of Fury. The combo worked well so they continue that for the rest of the fight.
Player A was killed. The emperor was never harmed (though he had one close call). They didn’t really manage to do much. But Player C was able to save the characters by using captivation on the Sertori and convincing them it was a misunderstanding (that Player A was the assassin and she and Player B were innocent). This seemed a reasonable use of the spell to me, though I imagine a temporary measure as there were witnesses who might contradict her account. Had to end it there because we were running out of time, but I believe they may have escaped unharmed (with the exception of Player A). At the end of the day though, they failed to kill the emperor, so they didn’t achieve their objective.
I sent them against the Emperor deliberately, just to test how powerful Sertori are in terms of overthrowing or attacking political authorities. In hindsight, I should have run some of the spells a bit differently (particularly Captivation). I also think some of the spells require revising. While Captivation is intended to be a potent spell, it isn't meant to cause people to not do their job or behave unintelligently. Some rewording will go a long way toward fixing the issue.
Everyone had a good time and enjoyed using their spell abilities. It is still very early, so marked some spells for observation and made a couple of changes. In the coming weeks we will put together an excel chart to map out all the different spell effects and peoples' impressions of them during play.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sertorius Playtest (November 10)

Our latest playtest proved interesting. We learned a good deal about the system and will be working in the coming weeks to adjust based on feedback and observations.

For this playtest I ran a full scenario, with all the players as Sertori (sorcerers) belonging to The Fellowship of Promestus, an order of Sertori who work closely with one of the major empires in the setting. I should give a bit of background here to help provide some context. Will try to keep this brief.

The basic premise of the setting has been stated in previous blog entries, but the core concept is Sertori are the reborn fragments of a dead god and this gives them their powers. They are also rare, and highly prized as court officials. In the region where the scenario was set, there is a small empire called Ronia. This used to be massive, but declined significantly in recent centuries. However it is on the rise again through a policy of southern expansion based on client relationships with powerful kings and chieftains (in the past its territories were mostly in the west and north). One of these client regions is a valley inhabited by ogres. Today ogres are a cursed race, forced to live as nomads and incapable of wielding magic (this is because one of their kings killed the god mentioned earlier). A long time ago they ruled powerful civilization while humans, halfings and dwarves were still living in caves.

The present Emperor of Ronia has an agreement with the King of the Ogre tribes. He sends them five Sertori from the Fellowship of Promestus to remain in his court for two years at a time (every two years they are replaced by new Serotri). In exchange he pledges troops to the emperor's army and promises safe passage to Ronian merchants. So the players were sent there to fill this post.

Upon their arrival they learned that a rival chieftain, named Bayya Ka, was forming an alliance against the Ogre king (Doru Khusat) and spreading a new religion (worshipping a god called "The Merciful One").

I will spare readers the details of the adventure, but it is enough to know they faced a number of challenges including a band of hostile ogres and the cult of "the merciful one" deep in a forest along the valley.

What was interesting about this scenario is it featured ogres and one Sertorius as their enemies. The game has three basic choices for characters (there are multiple races in the setting, but these options are of tremendous consequence): Mundanes, Ogres and Sertori. Mundanes are regular folk, and can come from any race except Ogres. They are weak, only able to take two wounds before dying, and not intended for player characters. Mundanes have no magic but do have a Devotion rating that alows them to gain benefits by worshipping gods or Sertori. Ogres are tough, are without any magic (Sertori are never born as Ogres) and have a Resistance rating which protects them from magical attacks. They also can take six wounds before dying. Sertori are the primary player character type. They are magic wielding, and can be from any race except ogres. Sertori have spells, plus they are tougher than Mundanes due to their natural divinity, taking up to five wounds before dying. These are not intended to be balanced choices, it is objectively better to play a Sertorius than an Ogre or Mundane (though Ogres are not that far behind). This is by design and allowing people to play non-Sertori is merely there for those who want the role playing challenge it presents.

So a group of Sertori facing a challenge of only Ogres and another Sertorius, is much different from sending them against mundanes or monsters that can just take one hit. It proved challenging for them, but they came out alive and successful. Ogres are definitely a substantial challenge to Sertori, but their spells, when used wisely, usually give them the edge they need to overcome.

For the most part the spells did function as we expected. This wasn't our first playtest, but it was our first playtest with a fresh batch of spells to try out. Every spell can be cast over and over again as long as the caster wishes, but casting it at full potency exposes the Sertorius to Afflictions. So there is a naturally built in incentive to casy cautiously.

We did find some problem areas with a couple of the spells. The spells are powered by emotions and every Sertorius has a rating in one of four emotions. One of our spells for example is called "Bolt of Fury" and it is powered by anger. When you cast the spell, your ranking in anger affects damage. Casters with ranks of 2 to 3 in a given emotion do just fine, but those who try to balance their emotions and take one in each, did seem to strugle a bit because of how the math works. So we went back and made some fixes for "Balanced" Sertori. Next session we will find out if our solutions work.

Of course the best part of the adventure was when the players happened upon the cult encampment of "The Merciful One". The woods around the camp were part of what we call a Grim. And I will discuss exactly what a Grim is next blog entry.