Saturday, December 29, 2012


PARTY: halfing with potent agape spells, a Kash human (who replaced their orc) who is strong in Deimos, and an elf with a knack for penthos. A new player also joined and made an Ogre, which will be useful in playtest.
In this game the characters just finished defeating Tohireo the dragon and went to the Marite Kingdoms to negotiate with Queen Sabeen of Besra, who had recently refused tribute to the Ronian Empire. On the way they encountered slave traders but avoided them. A few days later they encountered halfling tea merchants who told them that Queen Besra is preparing for war with Khata and has announced herself a goddess.
Player C used Thekla’s secret pathway to report this information to the Fellowship of Promestus. On his return, he attracted the attention of a Guardian Beast of Lorgo while in the ethereal realm. It followed and attacked, nearly killing player B. The Guardian Beast, an 18 foot tall white mammoth, demanded a sacrifice to Lorgo in the form of the character’s horses (because it deemed this a fair exchange for abusing the ethereal realm).
After the battle the party arrived in Talyr and tried to get free horses from the stable master by reading his fortune. The stablemaster was infatuated with a woman named Druna and wanted the Sertori to help him win her over. Player C cast Tearing the Veil and had a vision of the stablemaster beheaded by Druna’s brothers (presumably fed up with his efforts to win her love). In the end the stablemaster agreed to go with the players and bring his horses along (since it was clear his only real option was to flee Talyr before the beheading).
In Besra they met with Queen Sabeen who said she wanted Ronia to pledge soldiers for her war, wanted a temple in Rostanba and wished for the Church of Light to stop spreading inside her kingdom. Before the party left to take the terms to their superiors, Player D expressed doubts about Queen Sabeen’s divinity, calling for proof. She had the Stablemaster run through with spears. When it was clear he had died she raised her hands and the skies darkened, within moments he stirred back to life. She had performed the Raise Dead Thauma.
Ronia agreed to the terms (again Thekla’s Secret Pathway was used to get there quickly) and the party was sent back to help manage the auxiliary troops and investigate Queen Besra further.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interview with Paco Garcia Jaen

Paco is the founder of G*M*S Magazine, a website dedicated to gaming news, reviews and articles. It is perhaps most well-known for its podcasts (hosted by Paco), which feature interviews with gaming industry leaders. He is also a professional graphic designer and photographer.

On himself and the industry
BD: For those who may not be familiar with it, can you describe what G*M*S Magazine is?
PJ: G*M*S Magazine is a website that aims to promote tabletop games in all its forms. It has an extremely talented group of contributors and in the last two years I started the podcast and unboxing videos to bring gaming industry leaders in many fields closer to the players. The unboxing videos aim to showcase the production value of games to help people in the decision-making process when considering a game.
BD: Why did you make the decision to start a gaming news website and podcast?
PJ: To be honest, because I wanted to get free games for reviews and get closer to the people who make them. Then it turned into something else, much more involved and much more important than I expected. Now getting free games is the least of my worries, in fact I buy most of the games I read and play, and I concentrate in promoting the games I love (and some I don’t) in a constructive way.
BD: The G*M*S Podcast is different. It feels more professional and more tightly produced than many of the other RPG podcasts we are accustomed to; why do you think that is? What do you do, either during the show or in production, that sets G*M*S apart?
PJ: Oh… thank you! That is very nice to hear! Probably is because I wanted to be different from the type of podcasts you describe. As much as I appreciate those podcasts and the effort it goes into them, I thought there was room for improvement. I thought I’d use the expertise I acquired when I worked at a local TV station as a news reader in my youth and produce a podcast with thorough interviews to give it a higher level of professionalism.
BD: How much preparation and effort goes into each episode?
PJ: A fair bit, though there is a much greater deal of work that has to be done afterwards. The pre-production stage is mostly deciding what to talk about, learn a bit about the subject, form opinions and about the interviewee so I can formulate questions. Arranging a slot with my co-hosts can be difficult. Since I have co-hosts in the USA, time difference can be tricky to coordinate a time that’s convenient for everyone.
Then comes the audio editing. I try to get rid of as many “ahms”, “uhmms” and other repetitive wording as I can. Then I have to put it all together, add the music, section inserts, etc. Then write the show notes and publish. On average, it takes four times the length of the episode in post-production work.
BD: Tell us a bit about your contributors. How do you recruit talented writers for the website? What type of personalities do you look for?
PJ: Knowledgeable, likeable, honest, thorough and professional, basically. I don’t do trolls, can’t stand them. I also don’t do destructive criticism. If you’re doing to say something negative about a game or product, then you have to be able to back it up with facts and knowledge.
Oh, and passionate. They have to be truly passionate about games and gaming. Passion and dedication often come hand in hand and I like to see both!
BD: Tell us a bit about yourself; how did you get into gaming?
PJ: The short answer is because I was looking for something to escape from a pretty horrific few years as a teenager. I stumbled upon the Dragonlance novels at a point when I was considering suicide and the joy of reading those books helped me a great deal. A couple of years later I dislocated a knee doing martial arts and had to spend a few weeks at home. One of my friends who knew about RPGs brought a LOTR red box game and AD&D books, and lo and behold, the Dragonlance box-set was there.
Needless to say, I was hooked. That was over 20 years ago and I haven’t looked back.
BD: What type of gamer are you?
PJ: Depends who you ask! My friends say I am annoying! Usually I try to explore weird and quirky characters, but never take it too seriously.
BD: What is your essay “The Barn” about?
PJ: That started as an assignment at the Creative Writing course I was taking. We were meant to write about a building from the point of view of a father who’s lost his son in a war. With me being gay and my love for fantasy, I thought it’d be a good time to draw from some personal experience to write the story, but not as anyone else expected!
BD: Has your work in photography and graphic design shape your website and your views about the industry?
PJ: Totally! Anyone who’s worked as a graphic designer has to learn about attention to detail and how to be professional if one wants to survive. It has also taught me that, nowadays, there is absolutely no excuse for sloppy design. With a little bit of effort and looking around in the Internet, anyone can get some ideas and expertise to produce decent material. Even Word, if you know how to use it, can turn a boring document into something nice to look at. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t produce anything to win a prize, but it will produce something worth looking at.
For me a product that has no well thought out design fails as a product. Badly.
Firstly because it means the author didn’t care enough about the product or the reader to make an effort. Secondly because, with so many products out there, a book or game truly has to stand out if it is to survive in the long run.
BD: What kind of graphic design and layout do you look for in an RPG?
PJ: First of all it has to be accessible and easy on the eye, but it also has to fit with the theme of the game. Good art direction is very important to me.
I have a bit of dyslexia and a lot of dyscalculia, so for me typography is a very key issue. A font that can’t be read easily means I have to read the same thing several times before I get the meaning fully. Novelty fonts are something I frown upon quite badly.
I also look for attention to detail. For example if there are sub-section headers at the bottom of a page, the margins have been properly applied, if footnotes break the reading flow, etc.
BD: What trends in RPGs have you observed since starting the podcast?
PJ: Quite a few things are changing, methinks. For starters there have been a good number of new licenses which, to be honest, surprised me. The Dragon Age box-set was one of these. Supernatural, Primeval, The One Ring are some that spring to mind. Secondly the box seems to be making a return. Warhammer Fantasy RPG, again Dragon Age, D&D…
But I think the biggest trend is Kickstarter. Crowdfunding has given a shot in the arm to an industry that’s going through some very, very tough times!
BD: How has the internet altered our relationship with gaming?
PJ: I think the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is in how easy it’s made it for gamers to find each other and communicate. Online communities can be truly remarkable and I really can’t imagine what would happen if they went away.
However it’s also been a curse because it’s made it so easy for people to bring out their own products and inundate the market to the point of over-saturation. If product numbers keep increasing at a much higher rate than new players arriving to the hobby, a lot of companies will be in very serious trouble very soon.
BD: Where is gaming today?
PJ: Gaming itself is at the brink of main-stream notoriety. I think board games will be the “next thing” within 5 years and numbers of players, or at least games sold, will increase dramatically.
RPGs today are in a very, very bad way. A combination of lack of press, lack of business acumen by many companies (though there are some extremely business savvy out there), lack of marketing and a lack of effort and enthusiasm from the community to promote gaming (effort and enthusiasm that was there 20 years ago, by the way), paired with a number of products and games that’s not sustainable, means the industry is in serious danger, even if the choice is better than ever.
BD: Do you think there is anything the RPG Industry can do to improve the situation?
PJ: Yes, but not sure what, to be honest.
Although I feel the community needs to step up somewhat and do its bit to promote the hobby, ultimately it’s the publishers’ responsibility to create the right marketing for their games. The difficulty is finding a formula that will work, and I doubt there is one formula that will fit every single game.
The problem is that finding that formula requires two things: taking risks and spending some money. Companies can be very risk adverse for fear of failure (and hence losing money) and it’s difficult to spend money where there is little.
Thinking out of the box and doing things differently (for example attending a Sci-Fi convention with a Sci-Fi game) would help a great deal!
Debates and Hot Button Issues in Gaming
BD: You are quite comfortable expressing your views about RPGs and the RPG industry. Does this ever affect your ability to attract readers/listeners or guests to the show? Do you think it is important for contributors to the gaming community (podcasters like yourself for example) to be honest about their feelings on these issues?
PJ: It certainly affects the number of listeners and readers. One of the things I promised myself I’d NEVER do is to be dishonest about my views and I am very uncompromising. As much as I am respectful with my opinions, if I can see, or think I can see, a better way of doing things, or a way things are done in the wrong way for me, I will say it.
I am rather vehement, though, and I understand that puts some people off. As much as it’s not my intention to put anyone off, I feel honesty and passion are very much a part of me and people can always rely on hearing the truth from me. It might not matter to some people, but it matters a lot to me to be sure what I hear is totally honest.
BD: You wrote an article called “Homosexuality in Gaming” which dealt with issues ranging from sexual orientation to gender and sexism in RPGs; what made you decide to write about this topic?
PJ: The fact that few people have done it and it’s a very dear subject to me.
I am a gay man and, although the gaming community is very accepting, I also felt there are a lot of people who, simply, won’t look into it for whatever reason. I also felt some people simply don’t dare tackle the subject because they are concerned or scared they’ll lose readers or, in the case of professionals, customers.
I don’t have that problem. If people feel uncomfortable talking about homosexuality, having homosexual characters or players at their table and they want to go and listen to another podcast or read another website, so be it.
However, if with publishing a controversial article I’ve made some people think and reconsider, and that means someone out there will feel more aware about gay people in gaming, I consider my job done!
BD: You raised a number of points about homosexuality in RPGs. For publishers there is the question of including homosexual characters in settings, for players there is the issue of being willing to play gay characters and to go beyond simplistic stereotypes, you even talk about some of the problems that emerged for you in a campaign playing a gay Elf Cleric; there is a lot here, but what do you think publishers and players (and gamemasters) could do to address some of your concerns?
PJ: I tell you what they shouldn’t do: make an issue out of it.
Publishers could do with including gay NPCs without making a fuss about it. Gay people are out there and 90% of the population around them is none the wiser. No reason why it shouldn’t be the same in an RPG.
For players I’d simply say try it! Take it a bit seriously and play a character who is gay. See what happens! It’s not going to make you gay as if by magic… it will simply give you a perspective you never considered before. And it might surprise you!
BD: My impression of the article is you are asking for gay characters to basically be treated like any other. For publishers I think this is an important point and raises a key question: how do you address the issue without being exploitative and without pandering?
PJ: I think one of the key issues is to leave the graphical aspect of gay relationships out of the question. One of the issues most people had with the notion of gay characters in their games was the concept of gay sex. People assumed that one is gay because you have sex with members of the same sex. However there is a great deal more to the gay identity than sex. By showcasing those aspects without becoming sordid, one can easily bring homosexuality into gaming without starting unwanted controversy.
Of course understanding gay identity is a complex issue, and if a writer is not experienced in the subject, it can be both difficult to do well, and easy to stereotype. Talking to gay people about it, asking opinions and taking their advice can go a long way to avoid all those pitfalls.
BD: What about historical RPG settings; in your opinion is there a better or worse way to address issues of sexual orientation, racism and sexism in games set in times with very different attitudes than our own?
PJ: In historical settings is probably easier because the author can be backed by the fact that things were like this. In that case I would probably spend some time telling the reader how to handle the issue around the table.
To give you an example, a few months ago I ran a Trail of Cthulhu adventure in which a group of investigators had to travel to Mexico to stop the uprising of a rather unpleasant creature. The person who hired the investigators was a former army general. One of the investigators was a woman with very feminist ideals. She is also like that in real life. To start with I played the character of the general as I felt he’d be in the 1920s; sexist, over protective of women, cynical about a woman’s ability to perform in the field. My friend did feel a bit uncomfortable at times about this, so we discussed it. She understood what I was trying to do and I adapted the character’s perception of women so he wouldn’t be so obnoxious.
Later, when we arrived in Mexico, she had the chance to empower some women who were being mistreated, or simply disempowered by the Mexican society of the time. That allowed her character to develop and my friend to have a good time.
I think sometimes it  is just a matter of discussing things and being sensitive about the people you have around the table.
BD: In your article “Is it WOTC’s Responsibility to Bring People to the Hobby?” you challenge a lot of assumptions about the industry, criticize WOTC and other industry leaders, but also take gamers to task. What problem were you trying to address and what was the reaction to this piece?
PJ: The problem I was trying to address is the lack of promotion that RPGs are suffering, and the apathy of the community. The core problem I was trying to address is the terrible state the industry is in at the moment.
The reaction was very mixed, but also highly disappointing. Answers along the lines of “I don’t care what happens to the industry. I have enough games to last me the rest of my life”, “I can’t dedicate time to this because I can’t dedicate time to all my hobbies” or “why should I?” were many, and pretty much all of them translated into “I just can’t be bothered”.
It would seem that people have become extremely comfortable in their small circles and, since obtaining information is so easy these days, networking is no longer a necessity to learn about new games or products. Thus the apathy has settled in and people stop caring because they don’t perceive the demise of RPG companies, or even the industry, as something that would affect them.
BD: I suppose this gets at one of the core concerns for people who play table top RPGs: the player pool. Do you think it is getting harder to find people to play with today?
PJ: It is where I live, though I think this deserves some specifics.
I don’t think it’s difficult to find players from a pool of people who already play. I think it’s very difficult to find new players to who’ve never played before.
For some reason the stigma of being societal outcasts still lingers on and people look at us askance when we mention our hobby. I’m afraid only we, as players, can change that.
BD: I noticed you post some of your articles in RPG forums, and you don’t shy away from participating in the discussions they generate. In your opinion, how important are these forums and do publishers need to become more involved in them?
PJ: Forums are extremely important from many points of view. In my case I participate sometimes to gauge what people like and what sort of attitude the community has. Basically, if I receive congruent and respectful responses in a forum, but the opposite in another, I will take feedback and criticism differently and will make an effort to improve my website and podcast for those who gave me useful feedback.
A publisher who doesn’t pay attention to reviews and forums is a fool. I don’t think publishers should live by forum people’s opinions, but they should keep a very close eye and understand their audience.
BD: Are we as publishers missing the boat when it comes to social media?
PJ: That is a very difficult question for me to answer. I think mostly yes, but I also think that keeping up with social media when one has two jobs (the one you do to bring food to your table and then the publishing job) is extremely difficult.
Social media is very, very time consuming. Tweeting takes a lot of time if you want to do it properly. Keeping your network of followers, Tweeter or otherwise, fed with news and items of interesting material only adds up to the workload.
So, whereas I think social media is one of the best ways to reach a dedicated number of people who are genuinely interested in your product, I also understand it might not be the easiest to keep up with.
BD: How reflective are these forums of the wider gaming community?
PJ: I think it depends on how often you’re out there interacting.
People will always have a level of cynicism. If you’re a publisher and are in forums all the time, some people will think you’re just after the free advertising. If you are not often enough in the forums, people will forget about you.
I think, though, if people in forums get to like you, the publisher yourself, not just your products,  and you’re there often enough, it can have a very positive impact.
BD: What is your take on the various debates raging over playstyle, editions, etc? Have we grown more tribal?
PJ: Those sort of conversations bore me to death, to be honest. Anyone who engages in playstyle or edition wars hasn’t grown more tribal, he/she’s grown stupid. I understand RPGs do raise some passions and they matter a lot to a lot of people, but to let a set of rules turn you into a rules or edition fascist is just stupid.
I remember a few years ago, before the new edition of Dark Sun for 4E came out, there was a heated discussion (surprise!) in One particular individual whose name I can’t (or want to) remember went into a horrid rampage of insults and aggressive posts towards anyone who suggested that we should wait and see what the final product was like. Those sort of attitudes on different issues still happens and, unsurprisingly, they don’t do the hobby any favours…or to the community as a whole.
I’m not sure we’re more tribal. I think we’ve become more cliquey. Twenty years ago groups used to seek each other. At least we did in Spain. It was great to meet other groups of gamers and we didn’t have the Internet to the same extent we have today. Yet, when we meet at conventions, it is usually a fantastic experience, so we’re still a very warm and welcoming crowd.
Yet, when we “communicate” in forums, manners degrade very quickly, and is very common that conversations eventually turn sour.
BD: Do you think this is just a byproduct of the internet and the anonymity it affords, or is it indicative of bigger issues in the gaming community?
PJ: Probably a bit of both. Distance and anonymity do play a factor because our immediate surroundings won’t be affected. As soon as we turn away from the computer we detach ourselves from the problem and forget there is a person on the other side.
However there is also an element of communication difficulty on forums. And I say that from the point of view of someone who tends to come across as aggressive when I am just being passionate. Reading something we don’t like to read means we give our own slant in our heads, so what in a real-life situation would sound perfectly normal, when read sounds bad.
Partly not knowing how to edit our own text to make sure it comes across as we intend, and partly that we forget too often that the other person is probably not attacking our views, are factors that contribute greatly to the downfall of forum threads.
BD: How important are companies like WOTC and PAIZO today?
PJ: WOTC is fairly important because they run the flagship of D&D. I believe that is diminishing every single month, though, and it is very noticeable outside the USA. The success or failure of 5th Edition (or however they decide to call it) will determine how important they remain in the future, if at all.
PAIZO though, is extremely important. Although I’m not sure the Pathfinder core book is the right format for the future, they seem to be making one right decision after the other. Their products are as professional as they can be, and their books are a benchmark that pretty much every other publisher out there should strive to match.
Their race for the MMO market will also play well to their printing products. Releasing the MMO will be the easiest way to raise awareness of the game to an extent that would be difficult to match any other way with the same money. Assuming producing the video game doesn’t strain the company finances to the point of bringing it down, and if they leave the production of tabletop RPG coming even if the video game fails (and I hope it won’t fail), PAIZO could be the company to create enough stir to bring RPGs to an approximation of the mainstream status they used to have.
BD: Is it WOTC that is diminishing outside the USA or is it the D&D brand itself? Do you think there is a difference between the RPG community in the USA and in places like Europe?
I’m not sure if WOTC is diminishing outside the USA. We must remember that Magic: The Gathering and their other CCGs do very well indeed and they are the main earner for the company. The D&D side of WOTC is certainly diminishing outside the USA, and the D&D brand is shrinking so fast it will feel retro in no time.
There is a massive difference between the gaming community in the USA and anywhere else in the world, I think. When I lived in Chicago, it took me but three days and five emails to find a group of people to play with. I was welcome without hesitation and I played until the week I left. Generally speaking, Americans are very sociable and welcoming, whereas other parts of the world takes a bit more to break in and be accepted.
Comparing it with Europe, though, would be a mistake. If anything, because Europe is made of a lot of countries, each one has its idiosyncrasies. I can talk of the two countries I know, Spain and the UK. The differences between the USA and Spain in terms of gaming community are much narrower than between the USA and the UK.
The UK can be pretty weird and cynical. Players here are very friendly and, if you meet them at conventions, you can be totally sure you’ll have a great time. However those who don’t attend conventions tend to be very reclusive. Yet, there are a lot of small conventions going on all the time and they tend to be *really* good fun.
In Spain, befriending players is a matter of minutes, but conventions are few and far between, also helped by the fact that it is a bigger country than the UK and cities are far from each other. Maybe that is what makes people be friendlier, the fact that you have to get to know what you have near you or you get to know nothing at all!



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bedrock Updates

We conducted another Playtest of Sertorius this Saturday and it went well. Some minor issues were uncovered but for the most part things worked as anticipated. We know what spells need to be added before the next playtest and have made a few more revisions of the rules. The game is really shaping into something wonderful.

Arrows of Indra is coming along nicely. It is in the final stages of editing and will go into layout once that is complete. It should be available early 2013.

Last week I interviewed Tommy Brownell and the response was tremendous. Each month I hope to post one or two interviews following a similar format.

Over at TheRPGsite, I reviewed Scourge of the Demon Wolf by Robert S. Conley. It is a great module/sourcebook and the review can be found here:

The Secret of Actium is finished and ready for revisions after I do more playtests. As always we are looking for feedback from our audience so feel free to contact me at BedrockBrendan@gmail if you have any interest in reading or playtesting the initial manuscript.

Also, while I cannot yet confirm it, another Terror Network module may be in development.

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”.