For my next interview, I went back to the publishing company, Green Ronin (ok, so maybe I'm a fanboy, sue me). This time, through large amounts of illegal activity (entailing a few threats, blackmailing over some pictures, and an extremely disappointed orangutan) I was able to convince creator and owner of this fine comapany, Chris Pramas, to answer a few of my questions. Here is that interview, direct from my cell block. I hope you find it worth the price. I certainly have.
You, sir, are most definitely a hard core gamer. What was your first RPG experience and how did it affect you?
In 1979 my brother Jason and I got the white boxed set for D&D. We had heard about D&D and sought it out at a game shop in Salem, MA called Eric Fuchs (rhymes with dukes not ducks). I was 10 at the time. For those of you who haven’t ever seen the white box, I’ll just say that it was not the sort of thing you could pick up cold and figure out. In the early days of D&D, most people learned to play from someone else and we had no one to show us the ropes. Nor did we have the sort of wargaming background that most early adopters did.
I remember trying to puzzle the game out. There was clearly something cool going on, but a lot of it was confusing to us. We ended up going back to Eric Fuchs and getting the D&D Basic Set. That did a much better job of explaining the game, and crucially it came with an adventure (B1 In Search of the Unknown in our case). It was with B1 that my journey into roleplaying began and I loved it from the start. Although many iterations of the Basic Set had B2 Keep on the Borderlands inside, I’m glad we got B1. It featured a dungeon (of course) and described the rooms, but it was up to the DM to populate them with monsters and treasures. That showed me right away that contributing your own creativity was a huge part of the game. I still find that one of the biggest strengths of pen and paper RPGs.
As for how it affected me, it’s fair to say it changed my life. It put me on a course to becoming a game designer and publisher. If I hadn’t read Lord of the Rings and started playing D&D, my life would be totally different.
What's the most underrated system you've played or run that you'd like to call attention to?
This goes back away, but the James Bond 007 RPG from Victory Games was one of the earliest examples of a licensed game done right. I think it’s on my mind because it came up at our game night this week. We did a short campaign a few years ago and that was the first time I’d played since the mid 80s. We were talking about how that blast from the past was some of the most fun we’ve had at game night. It’s worth a look if you can find a copy. Good supplements too.
What was the first game you designed (whether it was published or not), and what did you feel upon completion?
When I was maybe 13, I did what I’m sure thousands of people have done: try to design a “better” version of D&D. A friend and I spent several months plotting it out. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about it now, except that it used spell points instead of Vancian magic. We did some playtesting but it was never really finished. Still though, it was a stepping stone to greater things. Even early on, I felt the RPGs were something everyone could contribute to. Probably no surprise then that a few years later I got into punk rock, with its DIY sensibilities.
What is your favorite roleplaying memory?
I’d have to say my first GenCon, which was 1989. It was so fun and the beginning of so many things. I wrote about it on the eve of my twentieth GenCon in 2009. It’s too long to quote here but you can read it on my blog:
That’d be the end of my first game company, Ronin Publishing. My main partner was a childhood friend and someone I gamed with for hundreds and hundreds of hours. Starting a company to do RPGs together seemed like a great idea, but it cost us the friendship in the end.
You have been a prolific contributor to the RPG community for quite some time now. How has your past work with systems like D&D, WFRP (and their publishers), etc. help bring you to where you are now as a game designer and in the running of Green Ronin?
When I was growing up, there were no school programs for game design. That’s changed with the rise of video games, but I had no such option when I went to college. Pretty much everything I’ve learned about game design and publishing has come from just doing it. The business side was the most foreign to me when I started. I didn’t go to business school and never thought I’d be running a company. I learned from my first venture (Ronin Publishing), from industry colleagues with more experience, and from paying attention to the business side when I worked at companies like WotC, Flying Lab, and Vigil Games. I also spent many years as a freelance writer/designer and that too provided many lessons.
Let's talk about Dragon Age for a moment. How did this come about? Did you approach them? Did they approach you? The system is simple to get into without actually being simplistic (in the "beginner's only") sense of the word. Can you tell us a little bit about the thought processes that went into creating the system?
BioWare approached us. We had previously talked to them about doing a Mass Effect game (this was before Mass Effect 1 came out) but that hadn’t worked out. So when they came to us again, I was cautious. Once they explained what they were trying to do with Dragon Age and why they wanted to see a pen and paper version, I was sold.
From the start, I had a lot of freedom in how I wanted to approach it. BioWare trusted us to figure out the best format and system for the game and that was great. On my first trip to Edmonton, the system designer of Dragon Age: Origins told me flat out not to use their system (as it would be complicated on the tabletop, which I agreed with). I had been wanting to do a game that might introduce new people to our kind of roleplaying. Traditionally, most people enter through D&D and most companies are content to let TSR and then WotC handle that side of things. I thought the acquisition of new roleplayers hadn’t been going all that well, so I wanted to design a game that might help. That’s ultimately why Dragon Age adopted the multiple boxed set format.
Ok, now for my most important question: If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?
The brontosaurus, a dinosaur generations of kids were taught about but never actually existed. If I were a brontosaurus, I’d go on TV and ask, “What do you say now, Science?”
To stray for a moment from RPGs themselves, I have a question about the business side of things. When you decided to branch off and create your own publishing company, what told you that you were ready? In regards to the chicken/egg issue did you have an item you created so you made a publishing company to produce it or was it vice-versa?
I wasn’t ready, which was one of the reasons my first company failed. I had been freelancing for a few years and it seemed the next logical step. Originally, the plan was that I’d design a new game. This was, oh, 1995 or so. The game I started but never finished was what I refer to as my occult Nazi game. The Player Characters were to be from a secret allied unit formed to fight the magic of the Nazi’s ancestral heritage division (the Ahnenerbe) during World War II. A group might include a Siberian shaman, an English disciple of the Aleister Crowley, and commandos of various nations for muscle.
The system was built around the use of Tarot cards.
We had a chance, however, to buy an existing game, Pariah Press’s The Whispering Vault. This was a game we all liked and I had written for freelance. Buying it, we thought, would let us jump right into publishing and then we could do the occult Nazi game later. In retrospect, I wish we had stuck with the original plan. The company fragmented before I got back to my game, and in the following years the whole occult Nazi thing was done to death by other people in games, comics, and movies.
When the year 2000 came around and I started Green Ronin Publishing, I felt like my previous failure had well prepared me for the reality of publishing. I guess I was right, because we’re still here 12 years later.
Are there any other gamers in your family?
Oh yeah. My wife, Nicole Lindroos, has been my partner in Green Ronin from the start and she’s still the company’s General Manager. She was in the game industry before me, in fact. She worked at Lion Rampant, the original publisher of Ars Magica. Then when Lion Rampant merged with White Wolf Magazine, she moved to Georgia and was one of the first generation members of White Wolf Game Studio.
My step daughter Kate is 16 and she is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a total gamer. Her major complaint is that we don’t game enough at home!
Who is the most influential RPG designer for you and why?
I’d say Greg Stafford. He designed what is still my favorite RPG, Pendragon. I love that game, though I rarely have the right group to play it with. It’s such a great evocation of the Arthurian mythos, and it features deep research and clever design. Greg was also one of the first people in RPG circles to really show what you could do with world design with Glorantha.
Of all the games that you've played, are there any supplements (non-core books) that you couldn't live without?
I just mentioned Pendragon and the first is a supplement called The Boy King that came out in 1991. It took the best part of a previous title called The Pendragon Campaign and expanded it out into a full book that gave a year by year chronology of Arthurian Britain and suggested hundreds of ways Player Characters could interact with those events. It was broken down into five phases of history and the idea was that you’d play several generations of the same family in a long running campaign. This already awesome book was later updated again and is now called The Great Pendragon Campaign.
I’m also fond of another product that took a different approach to world building: the original World of Greyhawk folio. This was the first campaign setting I (and many others) was exposed to and you can still see its influence today. This was not a 300 page hardback full of details and minutia. Greyhawk was described by a 32 page booklet and two maps. That’s it. It gave you a great framework for a D&D campaign and let you fill in the details to suit your plans. It should also be said that those maps were fantastic. When I was working at WotC, this Italian company called Twenty First Century Games was doing these tiny sized (like 4 inches in length) reproductions of AD&D books. When I saw they had done a version of the later Greyhawk boxed set, I snapped it up because I wanted the smaller sized repros of those maps!
Of all the projects you've worked on (be it system or supplement), is there one that you're more proud of, or that is the most memorable for you?
This tends to change over time, as you’d expect. I’m quite proud of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition. WFRP1 was the game of choice of my college group and we played through the entirety of the Enemy Within campaign. It was pretty exciting then to get the job of designing a new edition. It’s not 100% the game I would have done if left to my own devices, but all things considered I’m happy with how it turned out. It is a shame that the hard work of our WFRP team was tossed aside like last week’s rancid ham, but so it goes in the grim world of publishing adventure.
Right now I’d say pride of place goes to Dragon Age. I’m delighted it has gotten such a warm reception and not just from fans of the video game. Many people are using the rules in other settings and that’s awesome.
What advice would you give to budding RPG designers?
First, play a lot of games and not just RPGs. All kinds of games have things to teach you if you pay attention. Second, learn about the way our industry works. Talk to folks who have done it or are doing it. People in this business are generally friendly and free with information, and it’s good to go in with your eyes open. It’s also more likely than ever before that you’re going to end up self-publishing, so such knowledge will be helpful down the road.
And lastly, are there any big projects in the works that you can give us information on? A teaser of sorts?
We are working on a new game that uses the Adventure Game Engine, the system that powers Dragon Age. It won’t be coming out this year, as we’re still working on finishing the core sets of Dragon Age, but it is something in development. It’s not a licensed game either. We are creating a brand new setting for the game.
And that's all she wrote, ladies and gents! Now, if you don't mind, it looks like it's about time to get Jim the prison guard, Ivan "the Pinky" Kruschaev, Bubba McClain, Soapy "Sam" Suds, and Charlie Sheen (no relation) together for their first venture into the world of Ferelden. And remember: if you drop the soap in the real world, there won't be a Grey Warden there to protect you. Until next time!
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