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Interview with Ben Robbins

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ben Robbins, creator of Microscope, is our latest
RPG Industry Professional Interview: Ben Robbins
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Mon Jan 9, 2012 3:36 am
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Green Ronin Round Table: Steve Kenson #2

Andrew Goenner
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Green Ronin brings in the New Year with the big guns. Steve Kenson, creator of Mutants & Masterminds talks about the ins and outs of working in the RPG Industry.

Interested in picking up a few tidbits of advice and information? Click here to read the article!
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Fri Jan 6, 2012 8:18 pm
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Luke Crane, Mammal Extraordinaire

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So, thanks to the wonderful US - RPG Chain of Generosity, I recently acquired a copy of The Burning Wheel (Revised Edition). I'd heard nothing but great things about the system, so when I saw it pop up in the chain I knew I had to put my name in the hat.

Since receiving it, I've read through the books hungrily and am in the midst of creating my "Burning Island" campaign; a campaign world originally created to use Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition), but set aside as it wasn't well-suited to the system. However, it turned out to be a perfect campaign for the Burning Wheel.

Of course, when it came time to figure out my list of who to approach for an interview, Luke Crane was one of the first names to pop into my head. He was kind enough to answer my questions and the results of said interview are now here for your reading pleasure.

What brought you to the RPG world initially? What was the first RPG you played?

I was visiting an aunt and uncle in Maryland when I was in 6th grade. Their neighbors introduced me to D&D (Expert Set) and Marvel Superheroes. But the first game I played for more than one session was Paranoia run -- as a dead serious sci-fi game -- by my friend Aom. It was both traumatic and exhilarating. I told Greg Costikyan that story once and he said, "I'm sorry. You poor boy." and laughed.


Are you still an active RPG player? If so, what do you play other than Burning Wheel?

I recently played in a 14-session campaign of Greg Stafford's King Arthur Pendragon. Great game, one of the best designs in the history of the artform. At the moment, we're playtesting new designs.



What's the most underrated system you've played or run?

I think Jared Sorensen's designs are grossly underrated and hugely influential in the design scene. Jared refined and perfected a lot of concepts that Greg Stolze, Robin Laws and Greg Stafford were experimenting with in the 80s and 90s. Check out Inspectres and Lacuna. It's hard to find more perfect RPGs.


What was the first game you designed (whether it was published or not), and what did you feel upon completion?

I designed my first game immediately upon returning home from Maryland -- after my introduction to RPGs. I had been gifted a copy of the old Avalon Hill game "The Wizard's Tower." I dumped out the pieces, laid out the map and designed a proto-RPG for my friend Joe to play. He made a half-demon warrior and killed gremlins and stuck them to a spike on his helmet. He drew a picture. I wish I had that picture.



What is your favorite roleplaying memory? Least favorite?

Honestly, the games I play keep getting better and better. Each successive campaign that we complete is the best we've done. I have great friends and we play hard and intensely. It's the best hobby in the world!



Burning Wheel is quite the unique system. When did you sit down and decide the RPG world needed something new? What brought you to the Duel of Wits and Fight! mechanics?

I did what felt natural. I designed from the table, to encapsulate my players' good habits and nudge them away from their bad ones. That is one of the reasons why my games read like a series of odd rules and exceptions, but when you sit down and play them everything fits into place.

The Fight system arose from a desire to better manage the chaos of RPG combat -- without losing the feeling of chaos. There are many embarrassing iterations of Fight littering old design docs. Even now, it's the most contentious mechanic in the book. I'd venture to say that even most of my fans don't like it. Unfortunately for everyone else, I think it's quite fun. I'm always looking for a good challenge in a fight!

The Duel of Wits mechanic was developed for a project (long dead) called Apollyon Noir with Jason Roberts and Gareth Skarka. I read the first chapter of War and Peace as research and realized that we needed a way to simulate the conversations in the salons. As we playtested it, we realized it had more far reaching application and we adopted it into Burning Wheel.




If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?

I rather prefer being a mammal. We tend to win out in the end.



You also worked on Mouse Guard, which uses your Burning Wheel system. What about it appealed to you in regards to adapting Burning Wheel to it?

My friend Clinton R Nixon showed me the first issue of the comic in 2005 at ICON in Stonybrook, NY. In that issue one of the characters says, "It's not what you fight, but what you fight for." That is essentially what Burning Wheel is about. Clinton tried to work with the creator to design a game for him, but that fell through. I took a shot at it purely as a design experiment -- to see if I could strip Burning Wheel down to its core and keep it intact. We ended up with a rather different, unique game in its own right. I like it very much.


Are there other gamers in your family?

My younger brother and I have played RPGs since he was 9, but I truly lost him to the seductive lures of Warcraft 3. I recently introduced my 8-year-old nephew to Mouse Guard. He fought and ran off a beetle-eating toad. His eyes were ablaze afterward, so I think I might have a new convert.



Who is the most influential game designer for you? Who inspires you?

I always liked Greg Costikyan's designs — Star Wars and Paranoia in particular. Jordan Weisman definitely changed the way I conceived of RPGs.

I think Richard Borg is a masterful wargame designer. Memoir 44 and Command and Colors make me giddy. The clever iterative design makes me burn with envy. My friends Vincent Baker and Jake Norwood are two humble mothers*, but they're light years ahead of me in their designs.


Of the multiple projects you've worked on,is there one you're most proud of? If so, which is it and why?

I love all of my children equally, thank you. But if you haven't played FreeMarket, you should.


What advice would you give to budding RPG designers?

I have nothing but advice for budding RPG designers. 1) Play lots and lots of games. 2) Don't use BODY/MIND/SOUL or any variation thereof as your stats. 3) If you've been designing your game for 20 years to be the D&D killer...your game may be great, but it's not original in any respect. If you want more, please ask (or attend one of my seminars at PAX or Gen Con).


And my last qustion: Are there any big projects in the works that you can give us information on? A teaser of sorts?

We don't talk about projects that are in progress. Sorry, but it's best for everyone. We develop at our own pace and no one ends up disappointed!


I hope you all enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did in getting it posted. Stay tuned until next time, and remember: Don't just do, do with a purpose!

*edited for content
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Thu Dec 29, 2011 5:14 pm
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Steve Jackson is a Piratosaurus!

Andrew Goenner
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So for my second RPG Professional interview, I went to none other than Steve Jackson himself. Known for creating such games as Car Wars, Munchkin and Ogre as well as all but pioneering generic RPG systems with his creation of GURPS, everyone can agree that Steve Jackson Games is one of the longest-lived publishers in the RPG and board gaming world.

While I never played much Munchkin, I have played and enjoyed both Car Wars and GURPS. Needless to say when, after placing my e-foot firmly into my e-mouth during initial contact with him, Steve Jackson still agreed to the interview...well, I was thrilled. Below are the answers that Steve was kind enough to grant me.

What brought you to the gaming hobby in the first place? What about gaming entranced a young Steve Jackson?

I played games in high school, especially chess, and our group sometimes changed the rules or the board. But I didn't get into hobby gaming until college. We played Risk, Diplomacy, and various SPI games, especially Borodino and Strategy I.


Besides your baby GURPS, what RPGs do you enjoy? Which was the first?

I go back far enough that my first was D&D, though it was only one game with a novice GM. The first time I played more than one game with the same group, it was Traveller. The first really long-term campaign I played was Robert Taylor's Metagaming staff campaign, which was D&D.


What's the most underrated system you've played or run?

Hmm, hard one, since you say SYSTEM. If you had said BACKGROUND, I would have said Paranoia, which is an all-time favorite of mine and deserves more play.


What was the first game you designed (whether it was published or not), and what did you feel upon completion?

That would be Ogre, and my main feeling was delight and relief that other people liked the game too. It had been playtested a LOT, but there is nothing like finding out that a game actually sells in stores and people play it even when I'm not bugging them to playtest.


What is your favorite roleplaying memory?

That would be back in Robert Taylor's campaign, when Ragnar the Impetuous got his first chainmail shirt, and I knew that I might actually survive getting hit more than once.


Least favorite?

Nothing specific comes to mind; it would be one of many experiments with newly released rule sets where the group keeps stumbling around, trying to figure out what we are supposed to do, and eventually just drops it and pulls out a boardgame since we're all here already.

Though it might be the time when I was rolling up a Traveller character and he died during character creation. Yes, that could happen. Makes a good story, but at the time it was annoying.


GURPS didn't come out at the dawn of roleplaying, necessarily; but it was one of (if not THE) first successful "non-themed" RPGs. What made you sit down one day and say "We need a RPG that can apply to any setting?"

Aggravation as trying to learn one too many new sets of rules, doing the same thing in different ways with different explanations.


One thing that GURPS is well known for is the amount of in-depth research that goes into supplemental material. Given that RPGs are a fantasists hobby, why do you feel the minute details are important?

I'm a geek. I'm writing for geeks. How can the details NOT be important? Sometimes you feel like a cinematic game, but even if you are not playing them, reading about details is fun. And sometimes you want to use a lot of details. especially with character and vehicle creation.


I know you're a huge LEGO fan. What is your crowning achievement structure-wise? And why pirates?

I'm not that amazing a builder. With LEGO, I'm a fanboy. My best personal build so far might be the huge LEGO parrot that sits in my office, based exactly on the tiny parrot that comes with LEGO sets, scaled up , I don't know, 30X or so. Or it might be my PennLUG-compatible ballasted double mainline 90-degree curve. (To anyone not a LEGO train fan, that is just so much babble, I know. The PennLUG standard is a way of building LEGO track for display. Normally it's done in straight sections. As far as I know, I was the first one to build a ballasted curve to fit that system. It wasn't terribly ingenious; it just required time, persistence, and about a gallon of pieces. But it looks very pretty. If you're a train geek.)

Picture of the curve here:[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/65153023@N03/6367612493/in/photostream/[/url]

For some sites with REALLY awesome builds, look at brothers-brick.com, railbricks.com, and fbtb.net.

Why pirates? Because pirates are awesome. Arrrrr. And black-powder-era sailing ships are awesome even without pirates. Right now LEGO is doing both pirates and ninja, which shows a terrible failure to make up their minds. But my own stance is firm. Go pirates.




If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?

A pirate dinosaur. Because it would be cooler than the ninja dinosaurs.


To stray (somewhat) from RPGs specifically, you're obviously known for the likes of Munchkin and Car Wars as well. When it comes to designing a card game, board game or RPG, which do you personally find more difficult? What are the different throught process that go into each?

The obvious answer is that a full-scale RPG system takes longest because there's the most ground to cover. Although the interactions of a card game system can be challenging too, if it's thekind where you keep adding new cards.

A less obvious answer is that the quality of the playtest group, and their enthusiasm for the game, makes more difference to me than anything having to do with genre or system.



Are there any other gamers in your family?

My niece really likes Munchkin!



Do you have any favorite supplement books that you like play with?

For richness of detail: the original Empire of the Petal Throne. For depth of possibilities: David Pulver's Reign of Steel. For an utter tapestry of weirdness and bad attitude: GOBLINS,



Who is your favorite RPG designer and why?

Hard question, and I have to say that I don't think in terms of "favorite" designers any more than "favorite" games, because I like a LOT of things. But rather than try to slip the question, I'm going to say Greg Stafford, because he does BOTH the rules crunch and the detailed background, and does it so well.


What brought about the decision to leave Metagaming Concepts all those years ago and form your own company?

Oh, that's simple. I wanted to do my own projects in my own way.


Of all the projects you've worked on (be it system or supplement), which are you most proud of?

Have you got kids? Which one do you like best?


What advice would you give to budding RPG designers?

Three letters: PDF.


And lastly, are there any big projects in the works that you can give us information on? A teaser of sorts?

Non-RPG - my big project right now is to get the Ogre 6th Edition ready for print. RPG - I really want to get GURPS TIMELINE updated and into PDF, and that will get some of my attention over the holiday. The original GURPS solo adventure, "All In A Night's Work," has been updated for GURPS Fourth Edition and should be making its way into the e23 store before long, too.


And that's it, all! Words of wisdom and insight into the workings of a master game desginer. And never forget, dear reader, perhaps you can munch, but you should never munch kin! (And yes, my parting words of wisdom WILL keep getting worse)
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Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:44 am
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Steve Kenson is a Pterosaur

Andrew Goenner
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I've been roleplaying for 20 years now, and every so often I come across a game that I simply fall in love with. Recently I fell in love with one such game. Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition. After playing for some time in a PbF, I won the 2E books in the Chain of Generosity and started playing it with my F2F group. They fell in love as well, so I finally put up the cash to order 3E and DC Adventures Hero's Handbook for myself.

Then the RPG Geek newsteam was formed and I was chosen to be one of the contributors. Our stalwart editor-in-chief Hida Mann suggested doing interviews. Of course, with my new obsession in RPGs, #1 on my list was Steve Kenson, the mastermind (pardon the pun) behind Mutants & Masterminds.

The following is the result of that interview.

Q: What brought you to the roleplaying hobby in the first place?

A: I was a shy, brainy elementary school kid, fan of mythology, comic books, and science fiction and fantasy literature. In other words, I fit the profile perfectly. I discovered RPGs around the age of 12 and convinced some school friends to play with me. I’ve been a gamer ever since.



Q: What's the first RPG you ever played?

A: The first edition of Gamma World, also the first RPG I owned. I sort of “half-played” as I was also Gamemaster, but I ran my own character, too. Didn’t take us long to transition to Dungeons & Dragonsafter that.



Q: What's the most underrated system you've played or run?

A: Probably Torg from West End Games: the design by Greg Gorden has a lot of brilliant elements worked into it, from the interplay of the Drama Deck cards to die re-rolls, the logarithmic progression table, approved actions... there were a lot of cool game-play elements that made playing and running that game a lot of fun.



Q: What was the first game you designed (whether it was published or not), and what did you feel upon completion?

A: The first game I designed (as a game, not a sourcebook or supplement) was Mutants & Masterminds. Even there, “designed” would be overstating matters without a debt of thanks to the designers of the d20 System, which formed the core of the game, even if I changed a lot of it.

I was involved in the playtesting and design of other games prior to that, but M&M is the first game I designed largely myself and as lead-designer.



Q: What is your favorite roleplaying memory?

A: That’s impossible to pin down to just one thing but, if you spend more than an hour or so with my gaming group, chances are you’ll hear references to several of my favorite gaming memories: moments in old games that have entered our lexicon of in-jokes ranging from terrific roleplaying one-liners from Shadowrun games to Dumb Champions disadvantages like “Enraged When F—ed With”.



Q: Least favorite?

A: I guess the occasions when I’ve had to handle “break-up conversations” with gaming group members who just aren’t working out. (“It’s not you, it’s us... well, okay, it’s also sort of you.”) They’re awkward and they suck, just like most break-ups. The difficult side of the social aspect of gaming.



Q: You're best known for the creation of Mutants & Masterminds. When you decided to sit down and create a RPG what made you think "super hero?"

A: The fact that I’d been hired to design a superhero game.
Seriously, I had created the setting that would be published as Freedom City some time prior, but plans to publish it had fallen through. I’d worked on, and greatly expanded, the setting but there were no superhero RPGs in print at the time to pitch it; even the stalwart Champions was in legal limbo (post-Champions: the New Millennium but pre-Hero System, 5th Edition).

So I complained about the problem to some industry friends and Chris Pramas(President of Green Ronin Publishing) asked to take a look at it. This was in the heyday of the Open Game License and the d20 product boom, so Chris proposed that, if I was willing to design a d20-based superhero RPG, Green Ronin could do a two-book deal: the game book and Freedom Cityas the core setting, then we’d see how it did. Nearly ten years later, Mutants & Masterminds is in its third edition and has dozens of books behind it, so it seems to have done pretty well!



Q: Are you a DC or Marvel guy?

A: DC by a very small margin. The first two comics I ever bought were an issue of Action Comics and an issue of Fantastic Four, kind of the essential examples of both publishers. I was a big fan of both the ‘80s Teen Titans and the ‘80s X-Men, but overall I think I read more DC titles.



Q: You were one of the founders of Nashua Outright, a support group for GLBT youth in the area. Can you tell us a little about that initiative and what inspired you to be a part of it?


A: A friend and I were swapping war-stories (horrors stories, really) about being queer and in high school in the 1980s (the height of the Reagan-era) and how we’d wished there had been something, anything, for kids like us. The conversation ended with a realization that we could keep complaining or do something about it, so we did. We started a group for under-21s to come, hang out, meet other young people like themselves, and talk in a safe environment. We went from a two-person show to an organization with a board of directors and quite a few volunteers. After doing it for about ten years, I left the group, being pretty burned out on faciliating.




Q: If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why? [

A: I’d like to think I’d be a cool kick-ass predator but I’d more likely be this placid herbivore, although maybe I could be a pterasaur and fly – that’d be cool.



Q: You've written some RPG tie-in novels as well. Which is more difficult for you, creating the game or the novel?

A: Two very different sorts of writing, in my experience. Although there’s overlap in terms of setting and character creation, RPGs often have a broader focus—having to encompass lots of characters and stories—whereas novels are about a particular story, the one you’re telling. It’s the difference between telling a story and creating the framework for a story, or within which others can tell stories.


Q: Are there any other gamers in your family?

A: No, I’m the only one. My family members politely nod and smile whenever I talk about work and pretend they have some idea of what it’s all about. They know that I write books and get my name on the covers of things, and that’s good enough for the most part.



Q: Another obvious question: If you could have ANY superpower (whether it's an effect in M&M or not), what would it be?

A: I’m a big fan of Green Lantern-style energy constructs, you can do so much with them! I suppose that says something about my personality, like the old “flight or invisibility?” question, probably that I like to create and tinker with things.



Q: Who is your favorite RPG designer and why?

A: Hard to choose just one. RPGs is a very creative field, and there’s so much talent in it. To name just a few: my fellow Ronins Chris Pramas, Will Hindmarch, Jon Leitheusser, and Joseph Carriker, as well as Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Jeff Grubb, Greg Gorden, Cam Banks, David L. Pulver, Robert J. Schwalb... I could go on for quite a while. I think that even if the RPG industry wasn’t a viable publishing business, most of us would still be producing games and support product to swap amongst ourselves.



Q: How did you come to be affiliated with Green Ronin Publishing?

A:I started out writing some freelance projects for Green Ronin like the Shaman’s Handbook and Witch’s Handbook, then undertook the dual project of Mutants & Masterminds and Freedom City. The success of M&M led to my coming on board full-time as developer. After a few years of that, I stepped back from the developer job to focus on writing and design and primarily do that for GR while also working on side-projects of my own.



Q: Of all the RPG projects you've worked on (be it system or supplement), which are you most proud of?

A: That’s a tough question, since it’s often like trying to choose your favorite child or the like. I’m certainly proud of how well Mutants & Masterminds has done and of the DC Adventures RPGfor capturing some of my favorite childhood characters. I’m proud of my overall body of work for Shadowrun, and the Seattle 2072 sourcebook (my last big project for the game) was a fun walk down memory lane in a lot of respects. Crystal Raiderswas my favorite Earthdawn project, and I’m glad to see it back in print with RedBrick. There have been a lot projects over the past sixteen years!


Q: What advice would you give to budding RPG designers?

Three things, primarily.

First, don’t quit your day job. Seriously. The number of people making a full-time living in the RPG business is tiny, and it’s a struggle at the best of times unless you’re drawing salary from a major publisher. If you’re a freelancer or hobbyist publisher, then you can’t plan on making more than a part-time living at best. You may be able to ramp up to enough income to go full-time, but it takes a lot of work and chances are you’ll want to supplement your income doing other things.

Second, there’s never been a better time to self-publish, with all of the options out there for free and open licensing, electronic publication and distribution, print-on-demand, and desktop design and publishing. Don’t wait around for a publisher to “notice” you or pick up your designs: get them out there yourself!

Third, whether you are your own publisher or working with business partners or other publishers, if you want to be treated as a professional (rather than just a hobbyist) then be professional: meet your deadlines and obligations, uphold your word and honor your contracts, and look out for your own interests. We all work on RPGs because we love them, but don’t confuse business and business relationships with your beloved hobby or friendships. If all goes well, you’ll find plenty of peers and friends in the industry, but you won’t make any by being unprofessional and you’ll hurt your career besides.


Q: And finally, are there any big projects you’re currently working on that you can tell us about?

“Working on currently” is a tough thing in publishing due to the lead-times for some projects, but here are a few things:

• I’m writing a new series of electronic products for M&M called Power Profiles, which will see release in 2012. They’re short looks at different types of powers in the game and how to put them together from effects and modifiers in the core rules. So a single Profile might look at Fire Powers or Mental Powers, for example, with lots of pre-fab powers (things like Fireball and Flame Aura, or Mind Control and Astral Projection) players and GMs can use to kick-start character design and expand their views on how to apply various game mechanics.

• Similarly, I recently wrapped-up design on Green Ronin’s Threat Report series for M&M and I’m working with developer Jon Leitheusser on the print compilation for the series.

• DC Heroes & Villains, Vol. II, which is currently in production, features some of my work, including write-ups of Martian Manhuner, Mister Mind, the Orange and Red Lanterns, Star Sapphire, Wonder Woman, Zatanna, and others.

• I wrote a substantial part of the upcoming Icons Team-Up sourcebook for the Icons Super-Powered Roleplaying game. It’s a lot of Game Master advice and options for “hacking” the game in different ways. I like those kinds of options (I’m a tinkerer) so hopefully they’ll appeal to fans of the game as well.

• I contributed some material to the new Dragon Empires setting gazetter just released for Pathfinder. It’s a fun new Asian-themed setting for Golarion (their default Pathfinder world).

And that's that, readers. I hope you enjoyed reading about Steve as I did writing about him. And remember: you may not be a super hero, but a hero sandwich is always super!
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Thu Dec 15, 2011 4:18 pm
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