Interview with Sean Punch – Text transcript and audio file

Thanks to all the people who watched my interview with GURPS Line Editor +Sean Punch in the video format. As promised, though, and for those who can’t or don’t like to watch video, here are two other ways to enjoy it.

First, an MP3 audio file. It’s like 125MB, so be warned: not small.

Next, and this is a 10,000+ word transcript (kudos to CastingWords for getting this done in about a week, for about fifty bucks), here’s the text of the interview.

*****

Douglas
Cole (Gaming Ballistic)
:  This is the first interview that I’m doing on the gaming
ballistic blog. I’d thought I’d try it out. Naturally, since I write for GURPS,
and I love GURPS, and I play GURPS, I decided to have the
interview with Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. Given that it’s
my favorite system and it’s my go‑to for my creative writing as well as my role‑playing,
I wanted to chat with you, ask some questions, and ask you both about GURPS
as a system but also about the industry as a whole.

So
just getting right to it – and briefly since most people who come to my blog
will do it because I talk about GURPS (since I don’t think that
there’s much else about me that’s going to draw people to say what’s Doug doing
today). What is GURPS? Just talk about it briefly as a role‑playing system just
in case we have random strangers coming today.

Sean Punch (GURPS Line Editor, Steve Jackson Games):  If you are random stranger and you’ve played role playing
games but not GURPS, the important thing to know about GURPS is that it’s
generic. It doesn’t have a preferred setting or genre or time period. That it’s
point-build, so you’re not rolling characters, you’re using points to build
your characters to custom specifications. And that it’s based entirely on the
use of three six-sided dice – you determine reactions on those dice by rolling
high, determine success on those dice by rolling low. Pretty much everything
about GURPS can be traced back to these fundamentals. You build your
character with whatever traits in the genre the GM has picked. You pick that
genre out of a hat if you like, but hopefully because you enjoy it, hopefully
because it’s interesting.

You
build a setting using the elements of the system and then you start gaming with
those characters you made. The characters choices and abilities will be from a
huge list that will hopefully be paired down by the GM’s choices for setting
and time period, so forth. You buy them with points. The points don’t show up
much during play, really, but you’re rolling with three six‑sided dice a lot
against target numbers, trying to roll low to succeed.

That’s
the essence of it. Beyond that, it would get into particulars. Anyone who is a
gamer but not familiar with GURPS are more than welcome to come
to me and ask for those particulars, but I’m not going to take up Doug’s time
with that right now.

Douglas:
 That actually makes a pretty good segue into…one of the nice things
about, and you use a particular phrase before, either drinking your own
bathwater or, drinking your own Cool‑aid?

Sean:
 Eating your own dog food.

Douglas:
 Eating your own dog food! That’s your phrase of choice. You posted
several long running campaigns and campaign logs. When you are talking about
how things work in play and the rules and all that stuff, it’s not just “oh
look, here’s an abstract rules, Meta system that’s going on.” You do things – you
play the game. What do you think the strengths of the system that you oversee
are, and how do you leverage those strengths into these long‑running successful
campaigns?

Sean:
 There’re two questions. The strengths of the system, is the quickest
question one to answer. The strength is that it can handle anything. If I get a
crazy idea in mind, I don’t have to seek out a system first. I have some
friends who are very insistent on a new system for each new campaign. I
understand that part of the fun for them.

Say
that you are strapped for time, short on cash, whatever, and as a freelance
designer of games I’m always strapped for cash and time. You want to get
something that can handle just about anything. That’s its big strength. It’s a
big toolkit got all the tools.

As
for how you make use of that, I mostly make use of it by just taking advantage
of the fact that all those tools are there and I’m very familiar of them. If I
have an idea I usually realize it in rules terms often in a matter of . . .
often a matter of minutes. It doesn’t take me very long to come up with a way
to use an existing component, or if I have to fudge something together because
it doesn’t exist then something that’s close enough to what exists. That’s
really the secret.

Now
the secret to the long‑running part, I’m not going to say GURPS can take any credit
off that. That’s got to do with finding a group of players. That’s a whole
other conversation really. I generally game with friends, before I game with
strangers.

I
generally approach a game as being long running to begin with. I don’t throw
everything in the first five minutes. I don’t set off all my firecrackers in one
big batch. I like to have a long term arc in mind. I like to move forwards
various waypoints along that arc, and I like to respond with what the players
are telling me either outright or implicitly with changes to the campaign world
so it keeps it interesting for them.

In
as much as GURPS is generic, it can let me cobble together anything I want
in tools. I guess it helps there, because players seem to be going in a
direction that I perhaps didn’t consider, or maybe wouldn’t have considered. I
can see it coming and I can say, “All right, there’s a book for that or
there’s a rule for that. There’s something that handles that.” I can dig
it out later, or even right now, I can consult the right rule book and it will
give me that.
[Dialog slightly inaudible; I asked Sean to
repeat his point.]


Fundamentally
I just said I can reach for a rule book and I can be fairly sure I either have
what I need or the tools I need to improvise a solution that matches what the
players are asking me for either outright or though their actions. That’s all.

Douglas:
 One of the things that I’ve seen on various boards is “you people never
criticize GURPS.” I’m going to give us an opportunity to criticize GURPS.
What do you think the weaknesses of the system are?

Sean:
 Like any system, first and foremost not perfect. It’s designed by humans.
It can’t consider every possible case, no matter how generic it’s supposed to
be. They have biases. Like any game it privileges certain genres even though
it’s supposed to be generic, it privileges certain scenarios even though it’s
supposed to be generic. It’s only going to be as good as the people designing
it when it comes to comprehension of things like math of science or whatever
used in the model of the situation. Or, not to be too quantitative about it,
only as good as the experiences of the designers with various genres and genre
fictions. If I’ve never seen some anime someone is talking about. I can’t
promise you the system I’ve worked on will emulate things in that very well
because I don’t know anything about it.

That’s
the big weakness really and it’s shared among all role‑playing games but it’s
especially noticeable for generic games because people often assume, rightly or
wrongly, that generic games “will handle anything.” I can come back to that
later, but it comes to, “No it doesn’t really mean that. It means it can
handle most things passively well but some things obviously you going to want a
specialized genre for.”

Specific
to GURPS,
it’s got a few mechanical issues which make it less than perfect in some
circumstances. Because the task resolution is done on a 3d6 system, if you are
not extremely conversant with modifiers that take probability ranges way
outside that and bring it into that range, then you can find yourself wondering
whether the limited range restrictive. Why not roll high and double up to
handle more range?

That’s
a valid criticism if you’re not very comfortable with the system. The system
actually does address those problems with modifiers and with special cases for
high skill but in principle, it’s a built in flaw in the system. I won’t deny
that. Another thing is point build itself because it has implicit meaning of
some kind.

Some
people like to say it means every character is equally powerful. Some people
like to say every character is equally flexible, but whichever of those you
choose it’s not going to be entirely true that the power judgments or
flexibility judgments will agree with any given person’s idea on what’s best.

Like
all point builds, it’s possible to come to degenerate cases where you are
getting way too much for your points. Like all point builds, there are some
things of truly no fair value. Being invulnerable has no fair value. Being able
to emulate what anyone else can do has no fair value. Being a God, really, has
no fair value.
So
with point build, you do have these situations where, if you’re going to be
rigorous about using the points, you are going to always be kept away from
doing certain things in the system, however generic it claims to be.

Douglas:  I remember once in the old Third Edition days, I convinced my
game master to give me the physical equivalent to eidetic memory, which was double or triple the points and blah,
blah, blah. And boy, was he an effective 200 point character when something in
it was four times as expensive as mental skills got an additional
multiplier.That was about my most shameless munchkin moment ever.

Sean:
 That’s an excellent example of what I mean, however. Because it’s point
build, an awful of it in the system is linear in points. I mean sometimes
there’s an increasing scale. But fundamentally, there’s a scale, and it goes up
on how many points you spend and you pile multiplicative effects on top of
arithmetic progression, a straightforward linear progression.

Or
for that matter, if the progression is already multiplicative, I mean you start
throwing powers [mathematical exponents,
not superpowers -Doug]
in there, it’s going to break. If there’s some
scaling that requires you to multiply, or divide, or use a power and they’re
not going to work well, play well, with a different scaling.

The
point system has to assume some scaling. So, no matter what scaling you use,
it’s always possible to order higher, it’s always possible to decide that it’s
too extreme. You want to go lower, and it won’t work as well for you. That’s
unfortunate, but it’s the way it is with generic systems.

We can’t
keep everybody happy at every scale all the time.

Douglas:
 Yeah. No, I think that’s true ‘cause you know you have a box of what…in
a way it’s a lot like the 3d6 curve. You have a place where it works, and if
you have things that are outside that place, then you need to bring them in in
order for everything to relate well.
You
know, an ant and a person don’t do melee well. [laughs] Well, the person might,
but it is a different scale. Well, “ant . . . boot” to borrow from The Avengers. Because why wouldn’t you borrow from
The Avengers?

Anyway,
in terms of strengths and weaknesses, the games that I’ve been playing recently
are, I had one fun moment in “FATE Core,” I’ve been playing a little
GUMSHOE” which is really “Trail of Cthulhu,” and a bunch
of Pathfinder recently, as well as playing a Pathfinder adventure using the DungeonFantasy ruleset (which rocks on toast, but we’ll get to that later).

What
do you think relatively speaking are the ‑‑ strengths and weakness are the
wrong words, but where do you think that some of these other systems that you
might’ve experienced with – and if you don’t, you can ignore that part of it. Where
do you think it fits well, and where does GURPS do better and worse, or really
what is the feel, I guess, of each system?

Maybe,
forget the better or worse absolute. How
does each system make you feel
?

Sean:
 Well, class and level type systems, whether you’re talking about
something as recent as Pathfinder, or you can go all the way back to AD&D or
first edition D&D and all kinds of games in between. So lets take those
games as a set of things.
You’re
familiar with Pathfinder: great. I’ve read the Pathfinder rule book, I’m not
that familiar with it in play, but I’m familiar with the fact that it is
basically D&D 3.5 pushed to the future and I read 3.0, 3.5 and I played
every version of D&D.

Those
systems have going for them the one big advantage, you can jump in more
quickly. Yeah, it’s true that there’s all kinds of options for characters and
as you get on with very high level characters it’s a pain in the butt to keep
track of them all. There’s twenty different ways to get the same result, some
are more efficient than others.

But
you can jump in initially. There’s a known finite set of abilities, a known
finite set of character options, you can jump in and start right away, and no
one has to deal with weird corner cases, or with their inability to do math or
whatever.

There’s
not that many things you have to pick, and most people coming in the table,
even if they gamed in Hong Kong, if they gamed in Sydney, Australia, if they
gamed in Chennai, India, if they gamed in Sao Paulo in Brazil, it doesn’t
really matter. They have all played that system.

It’s
got a basic set of assumptions that everyone knows, and provided you speak the
language inside of the game table, you jump in and you know that your wizard,
or your pirate or whatever will be, for lack of a better word, the same as any
other wizard or pirate, modulo your specific preferences, tics, and choices and
obviously what he looks like, whether he’s got a pointy goatee, and likes a
rapier better than an axe or whatever.
But
the key thing is that it’s got this familiar idea. It’s got this quick start,
not just in the sense of the game is quick to start with, but also quick in the
sense that the gaming group is easy to jump in to.

GURPS
doesn’t have that. The GM has to set out what kind of characters are OK, take a
huge list of abilities and pare it down to the ones that he or she wants to see
in the campaign.
Players
will have to deal with an awful lot of house rules, because there are just too
many corner cases to deal with scale or technology or whatever, the GM would
have to jump in on. You immediately have to consult which of those are they
using, what do they mean, and how to find out about them.

There
are a lot of choices from day one. I mean from the minute you start your GURPS
character, even if it’s a low-powered campaign, you have all this points to
spend, and you spend them as small as one at a time on one point skill or a
perk or something. It can take you a long time to spend them all.

If
you’re spending 50 points on 50 one-point entities, that’s 50 choices. Well,
your Pathfinder character is not going to have 50 choices, full stop. Not even
if you start a little above first level. There are just not that many choices
to make.

So
that’s the big advantage there. Then you get this small thing like FATE which
is the other system I know about. I’d say “FATE” actually has about
as much complexity as GURPS. A lot of people would argue
with me on that. But I don’t think I would step back from that argument, I
don’t think I would step down. Because there’s a surprising amount of stuff you
have to pick at “FATE.” And those traits fall into a surprising
number of bins.

Yeah,
it’s true, there’s not necessarily a set of campaigns. There’s not necessarily
attributes. There’s not necessarily this interdependence of scores on other
scores.

But
there are all these different types of things. Each one is a different dramatic
role. There’s quite a few possibilities in cases where some of them are
completely player defined. GURPS has some player defined
abilities but they fall into narrower boxes. Not so like “FATE.”
“FATE” you can literally define something, you create out of the
blue, whole cloth. You have to debate with the GM what it does, what it’s
capable of doing.

FATE
also does not have the Pathfinder-style ability to let you just jump in and
know what’s going on. Again, like GURPS you have to set up a campaign,
decide what your genre and expectations are, what’s going to be on the skill
list. What kinds of things you want people to have, how many Stunts you want people
to have, or whatever. There’s that.

FATE
is strong in the sense that it’s branded for dramatic play. Which for an awful
lot of players is much more important than mechanistic play. GURPS
is very mechanistic, it’s very realism‑based. It may not be a realistic game,
you finally throw in the superheroes, and the talking snake‑man, and the
telepathic powers. But initially it’s based on realistic roots.

FATE
doesn’t come from there. FATE comes from dramatically appropriate roots which
is a very different origin. Players who are very quantitative thinkers, very
interested in the realism, the real world, these people love GURPS.
They don’t necessarily like FATE and vice versa.

People
who like drama, who very much want their game to be like what they saw on the
screen or in their book, are not going to like very much a system which
restricts them based on what’s physically plausible, as opposed to what’s
dramatically plausible. FATE does that much better.

I’ve
played dozens of other types of game systems. There are game systems without
points but which still have builds, and there are game systems which have
points but no builds. The points are just used to pick over a limited list of
choices and so on, and they all have strengths and weaknesses, everything.

Actually,
I think those games we discussed, the class‑level based games and the
dramatically‑founded games, are really the two biggest departures you can get
from GURPS.
The only bigger departures are game systems considered to be a little bit
experimental. You get games where you do away altogether with dice rolling, or
you get situations where everything’s bid on instead of bought with points.
These are interesting as well, but you can sort of shoehorn them in to one of
these other molds, I think.

Douglas
Cole
:  Yeah, I think that, at least in my experience with the stuff
that you’ve written, I thought that the Impulse Buys book was a great leap towards
being able to have a mechanically‑based system that helped to facilitate more
dramatic play.

I
know that between that and some of the stuff that Reverend Pee Kitty ( Jason Levine ), has penned with Destiny Points, and that . . . we’ve gotten great
mileage in the Dungeon Fantasy campaign with, oh, I swing and I miss. No, I
don’t, damn it! I don’t miss because it would just be way cooler to not miss
here, or it would be really stupid to die this way so I’m going to exert a
level of Plot Immunity based on these Destiny Points, or Luck, or whatever.

That’s
what I’ve found is . . . I look at my personal experiences is, that if you’re
willing to take a step away from the dice every now and then, GURPS
supports a lot stronger dramatic play than people would think.

Sean:
 It does. My particular windmill, that I like to charge at on my fantasy
horse, when I’m not actually trying to get paid, is bridging that gap. I think
it’s actually possible to have a set of physical basics, a realism‑based
foundation, and throw a dramatic blanket over it, and not have one or the other
take over. I think it’s actually possible to have them both working at the same
time. My previous campaign, my fantasy campaign, I did a fair amount of that
and people spend points for outcomes and I had a lot of stuff be Destiny
driven. Their characters all had big Destinies and I didn’t pay so much
attention to character points. People had totals, but they changed a lot based
on what I told my campaign was going to do at that moment in time.
Yeah,
I still had things like weights for swords, and pounds of force for how much
people could pick up and throw around, and people had certain heights and
weights, and so many dollars in their pouch, and so on. I thought that was kind
of a neat thing, that you could have this fundamental realism at the root of
the game and not have it defining the game. Just have it set the, I guess you’d
say, the stop point, or the 1 or the 11 on your volume dial, however you want
to look at it, past which you can’t go. A lot of things within that range to
move around and be interesting.
Douglas:
 One of the things that always amuses me is when you’ve got something
where like, “yeah, well, I have this advantage, and if I lose it then there
better be something that comes back to me to maintain my point total.”
A
couple years ago, I busted up my neck pretty hard, and the next day I did not win the lottery, representing the
fact that I now had a neck injury, so I guess I can buy Wealth with a
disadvantage that I got when I lost the fully functional neck thing.
I
always have a good time when point totals fluctuate in play and stuff like
that.
You
hit on a point which I know you and I have talked about offline. For those who
don’t know, Sean and I are not just strangers, you know we write, I help, I
submit proposals and all that stuff. We’ve known each other for, remotely, for
years.
Sean:
 For a long time, yeah.
Douglas:
 Yeah. Anyway, we’re talking about this, and the realism thing I think is
key. Because it’s right there in the intro, as a bit of fluff text that was
written 20 years ago or more, that GURPS is realistic. You’ve hit on it, and I’ve said it too, plausible verimi
. . . wow, all right, let’s see if I can actually say that. [Supposed to be plausible verisimilitude, which is
apparently harder to say than to write.]
“The appearance of being
realistic,” right? It doesn’t have to be actually, physically real. It just has
to feel that way. GURPS has that reputation for realism, and how important is “realism”
to success in today’s game industry?
Sean:
 I think it’s not nearly as important as an awful lot of people would like
to think, and argue even that perhaps it wasn’t ever important. It’s crucial to realize, poor choice of words
there, but crucial to understand that realism was almost a fad when gaming
first started. Now, I don’t mean gaming on tabletops back in the day with Von Clausewitz moving around wooden ships or something. I mean when role‑playing
games first started. The ’70s. They were, sure, they started in a wargame and
the wargame had some vague connections to reality. You can look at those early
incarnations of D&D, say. You can realize even then there were wizards,
there were people who were, simply put, big. This man was equivalent of 10
fighters. That’s what his tenth level meant. He was equivalent of 10 men.
Realize
no one’s equivalent to 10 men, and no one can work magic. Even those early days
it wasn’t terribly realistic. Throughout, the focus has always been on strange
powers and unusual abilities, and when people have confined themselves to the
real world, usually it’s not the real world as we know it. It’s usually the
real world as depicted in action movies or something like that.
There
are lots of systems out there which have wire fu, action movie realism. Nobody
can actually die or whatever, or they always win because the errors and the mooks
just lose. It’s still not realistic. It’s just unrealistic in a different
direction.
Or
you have people roll out some of the so called hard sci‑fi games or early semi‑soft
sci‑fi games. Well, this is realistic it’s got passion‑like drives that sort
of, maybe could exist…
Douglas:
 Vectors! It’s got vectors!
Sean:
 …or you’ve got Magic…
[laughter
from both]
Sean:  The thing is it’s still not realistic. I guess you could say
it’s a plausible model for an internal existing universe, but it’s not
realistic. Realism as such, I’d say,
is very rarely seen in role‑playing games.
There
are a few games out there which attempted to bring realism to specific subsystems
of what they do. I don’t know how familiar you are with old‑timey or not so old‑timey,
but obscure games. You ever hear of Phoenix Command?
Douglas:  Oh, yeah. Sure. I’ve never played it.
Sean:
 It very accurately depicts what a firearm would do if it hit someone. I’d
say it’s probably fairly realistic. There are games like Riddle of Steel, which do a moderately realistic job of handling swordplay, aspects
including a psychological one, which is nice, because that’s something missing
in role‑playing combat.
The
over-arching systems in which people play aren’t realistic. GURPS
really didn’t claim to be realistic so much as founded in realism. If you look
at Steve’s original intro ‑‑ and I actually went back and reread that for this
interview, because I was curious ‑‑ he doesn’t ever actually say: “GURPS
is a realistic game.”
He
even admits you could do anything you want. You can be a wizard. You can be an
alien, all kinds of things that don’t really exist. You could be a swashbuckler
who could exist in the real world, but certainly not be a cinematic success
that swashbucklers enjoy in fiction.
These
things were all cited as examples of what you could do with the game. What he
meant was that the foundations on which the game would be based would be
realistic. It would use real‑world units of measure; yards, and pounds, and
miles‑per‑hour.
Douglas:
 Sure.
Sean:
 As a Canadian, I can’t say these words and feel good about it, but as
somebody who works at GURPS I can accept this. There will
be things people understood. Instead of using some crazy unit like Zorkmids for money, he just used the dollar sign and called it the generic dollar.
Rather
than start the game out with people having weird powers, people start out with
pretty average physical strength, and size, and weight, and moderately
plausible levels of competence at things.
This
is what he meant. He meant that there would be a bridge between the worlds of
imagination and the world you live in, and that bridge would be formed by units
you know about, behavior you understand, concepts that existed in the real
world. That’s what he actually meant, but – yeah, I almost said “unfortunately.”
That’s not a fair choice of word.
From
my point of view as someone who is responsible for putting words on paper, and
then facing criticism for them it’s unfortunate, but some people take that
beyond the level he intended it and bring that into the realm of everyone has
got to be exactly like in the real world. If a 300-pound man wrestles a 110‑pound
woman he will win, because he’s 300 pounds, end of discussion.
Or,
if I take my car and drive at this ramp and hit the gas and go all the way up
the ramp, I’m going to do some basic physics and we’ll know exactly how far I
can jump. Going “Yoo‑hoo!” and “Yee‑ha!” and leaning on the
horn will not change that.
The
thing is that most gamers don’t really want that degree of harsh, judgmental
realism in their game. Most people want to know, if I play a 97 pound ninja
girl, she can beat anyone’s butt, because she’s a ninja girl. It doesn’t matter if she weighs 97 pounds and is a
girl. And if she gets in a car and goes, “Woo‑hoo!” or whatever the
silent ninja equivalent is and it goes over a ramp, it’ll go further because
it’s awesome. The Rule of Awesome should matter.
I’d
argue that the Rule of Awesome has always been important to gamers, even if
realism never has.
In
the modern‑day games industry, I think the Rule of Awesome is being recognized
as being more important than it used to be. I think an awful lot of game
designers are saying, “It’s not lazy game design.” They’ll say,
“If this is fun and dramatic and cool to the players, it’s OK with me in
the game and the rule set.”
Gaming
designers have gotten past that, and they realize “No. It is OK.”
It’s not lazy, because actually having developed
such rules I can say, all right, a good set of dramatic rules, dramatic rules
that work and that are fun, and help make someone God‑like or don’t hobble
someone, a set of rules that are fun for everyone at the table and not just one
person. The GM, too, not just the players.
That’s
actually very hard to do. In fact, that’s a lot harder to do than a set of
realistic rules, because I’m a former physicist. 10 years in physics. If was
just going to sit down and just develop a mathematical simulation, I could do
that. It’s straightforward. I’ve got physics to guide my hand. I have books I
can consult. That’s relatively easy. It’s a headache at research and it’s
annoying to write, but it’s not difficult. It’s not challenging in a design
sense, whereas dramatic rules are very challenging from the design perspective.
I
think game designers now have reached a level of maturity and experience. They
have not-failed or so-so successful past games to draw upon where they can do
those things now with some degree of confidence, with some knowledge that
people will buy the game and actually say, “Hey! This is kind of
fun.” Not the universal “It sucks, because I didn’t like it.”
Douglas:
 [laughs] That was kind of awesome. Good. I enjoyed that discussion. I
like talking about the industry and where it’s going.
One
of the things that goes into, and I think that ties into a lot of what you are
saying, is “Dungeon Fantasy” with 15 and apparently almost 16 – based
on the leaks that have happened – There is a 16th “Dungeon Fantasy”
volume pending, which I’m sure that lots of people, including myself, are
looking forward to.
But
there are 15 of them, which is awesome. That’s almost as many sequels as
“Star Trek” has movies! Why do you think that’s worked so well?
Sean:
 Well, first off I’m not going to give it too much credit, because there
is the fact that it’s 16, but they are short. Maybe if they were all put
together, it would be merely 400 or
500 pages of stuff. It’s only the equivalent of say three to five old‑timey
supplements.
If
you think about it, we didn’t actually do three to five old‑timey supplements
on any genre that I can think of offhand. We would have lots on individual
genres and maybe one or two volume kind of follow‑ups, but that was it.
It
has gone far, and the reason it’s gone far, I think, in part is because it
actually hearkens back to what I said previously, which is that games like Pathfinder
– the class-level systems – people can jump right in. They know what to expect.
They know what a given class is. They know what the power level at a given
level is going to be. They know they have a small list of things from which to
pick. They are not building on points. They are not throwing things together that
required GM judgment in every step of the way. You are not fighting a battle to
make your character.
GURPS
can be like that. Unfortunately, GURPS can very much be fighting a
battle to make your character, either because the GM doesn’t want you to have
something, the other players are not so cool with what you are doing, there is
a house rule you don’t know about, or you just don’t want to sit down and spend
all of those points.
Dungeon
Fantasy is 250 points. You’re insane and you want to spend it on one‑point
items? That’s 250 purchases. That’s absolutely nuts. That would be a lot of
choice. That’s nuts! What Dungeon Fantasy does is it ‑‑ I wouldn’t say it
prefabricates or puts things in such narrow terms that you are really
restricted and can only make one or two sorts of characters, but it does pare
down the list. It does pare down all the lists. The GM does not have to sit
down and say, “These are the advantages. Here are the goals I’m
using.” They are already pared down. The GM does not have to say,
“Here are the character‑types I want to allow.” They are already
defined. The GM does not have to say, “Here is the genre we’re gaming
in.” Because it’s a well‑defined genre already, and Dungeon Fantasy had
low‑hanging fruit there, because it’s a genre most people know well, but it
also really circumscribes the genre quite a bit.
It
addresses what you’re going to be doing in a campaign. You’re not going to be
spending points on the history skill, because that doesn’t exist.
Who
sits around looking up history books in a campaign which is all about taking
out your weapons and magic spells, blasting enemies, getting richer, buying
better swords, learning better magic spells, wash, rinse, repeat.
“Dungeon
Fantasy” just accepts that that could be fun, rather than pooh‑poohing it,
saying, “Oh, it’s not mature. It’s not a cool style of gaming. Why would
you do that?” Then says, “Even though it’s not mature, not cool,
whatever ‑‑ hey, it’s still a point‑based system, an awful lot of stuff, and we
can add a little extra spin that isn’t present in systems which are purely
about the hack‑and‑slash,” which it does.
I
have got that in there in lots of ways. Sometimes it’s sneaky ways, like
including a not‑so‑violent skill and giving it a use. There are uses for some
skills in “Dungeon Fantasy 2” that you’d really be surprised at.
If you really sit down and read through that you’ll see there’s an awful lot of
stuff in there, which isn’t about hacking and killing and taking treasure.
There
are actually rules in there for finding quest, selling maps and singing songs. Deceiving
people with words instead of violence, and so on. It’s all in there. That’s
something in a game that pure hack‑n‑slash can’t handle. GURPS can.
Likewise,
if you look at some of the character types ‑‑ I’m reluctant to say
“classes,” but they’re basically classes ‑‑ if you look at some of
the character types, there are ones in there that aren’t intended to be violent
first and foremost.
The
ones in “Dungeon Fantasy 4,” the artificer and installer are not
violent character types. The innkeeper from “Dungeon Fantasy 10,” while
he bashes people with a pan when they get unruly, he’s not a violent character
type. Even some of the ones that are traditionally kind of violent, or at least
ran toward conflict, aren’t.
Phil Masters put together the great “Dungeon Fantasy 9,” which I love.
“Summoners” is a cool book. Those spellcasters, if you look at them,
aside from the elementalist, which just runs around blowing stuff up with
fireballs ‑‑ fair enough, he’s destructive, your classic wizard ‑‑ most of
those types are actually really traditional mystics.
You’ve
got the demonologist who deals with entities from another world, usually evil.
He doesn’t have to be throwing curses on people and murdering them, and
summoning demons to eat their souls. He could be there to fight demons, deal
demons, and Phil cleverly wedged‑in possibility that he actually is a negotiator
with demons, or someone who handles social problems with demons in a campaign.
Ditto
the necromancer. Yeah, he can have 100 zombie servants and turn into a lich and
get all creepy, and all that. That’s there if people want it, but it’s not the
only possibility. He can also be someone that does much the same thing ‑‑ deals
with monsters on almost a social level, or at least on a spiritual level, as
opposed on a purely violent level.
The
shaman is perhaps example, being a character who’s a psychopomp
and originalist and not a pure violent adventure‑type. The thing is that that
combination is what makes “Dungeon Fantasy” successful. It’s the
mixture of things people know and recognize ‑‑ what I call the “low
hanging fruit” ‑‑ the violence, the slash‑and‑hack, the fire balls, the
loot, all that good stuff.
It’s
there, it’s not missing. It’s done in spades. The “Dungeon Fantasy11” power‑ups throw in boat‑loads of ways to get better at just that stuff,
nothing else. At the same time, there’s enough of the underlying, generic point‑build
system there that things at go a little out of genre, but that would cost
points that maybe aren’t so well spent in a fantasy campaign, still have
meaning. They could still be put in there if people want to have more
thoughtful characters. You could have in principal in a party of adventures,
where a few people are playing, say, a wizard who blasts things with fireball,
and knight who goes around whacking stuff with a sword, and a thief who goes
around shanking people in the back and taking their wallets.
And
at the same time, a few other people in that exact same group could be playing
a very thoughtful cleric, built with some of the more unusual cleric modifications
in “Dungeon Fantasy 7.” Say, a cleric of love who goes around trying
to get people not to fight, wearing a skimpy outfit and saying, “Look how
sexy I am. Look I’m power of the love god.” You can have someone else
there who’s…
Douglas:  [laughs] I can’t un‑see that, you know.
Sean:
 [laughs]
Douglas:
 [laughs] I’m picturing you in a skimpy outfit, saying, “Pray to the
Love God”…
Sean:
 Yeah, yeah, it’s not my thing.
Douglas:
 It’s, it’s…
Sean:
 But someone could do it, just not me.
Douglas:
 Someone could do it, OK.
Sean:
 And the shaman could be there being like a classic shaman, drinking
mushroom tea, seeing crazy visions, and talking to spirits and spirit wolves
and things. There could be an innkeeper there, whose main job is keeping people
fed, and is really good at it because he’s got 250 points to spend on keeping
people fed, so they don’t starve and they eat very well, and they have very
high morale and everything.
You
can have that party work, and as long as the people playing the hack‑and‑slash
characters weren’t being too aggressive about, “Pull your weight you
bastards! Get into combat and do what you’re supposed to do!” As long as
the people playing the not‑so‑combative characters are not being jerks about
saying, “You’re so immature. Why are you always hacking, and killing, and
looting? Why can’t you have a real
character?” As long as that’s not going on, and that’s not an issue of the
game, that’s an issue of the players, then it handles that.
That’s
one of the things that’s very successful about “Dungeon Fantasy” is
that it handles a style of play, which is encompassing, but also accessible to
an awful lot of people.
Douglas:
 What other genres do you think could benefit from that same treatment and
maybe partially drink from that glass of success?
Sean:
 We’ve had moderate success with the Action series already, as you know.
The only reason that it hasn’t been expanding more is because it’s just the
nature of RPGs is that people are more interested in fantasy than they are
modern day action. It has nothing to do with action sucking or not being a fun
genre, or not being able to succeed there.
We
have got to three books and there’ll probably be others. Jason’s “Monster Hunters” is gone to several books. We have more planned, hopefully. It’s
going to spin off even, into the “Ritual Path Magic” supplement for
Thaumatology sometime in the hopefully not too distant future, because it’s a
cool magic system.
We’ve
had another Action spin‑off. “Gun Fu,” was very much a spin‑off from
“Action.” Those genres, obviously, have a lot of room for success in
that realm because they’re first and foremost, very action‑oriented genres.
“Action,” from it’s title, obviously, but also the fact that it’s
about shooting guns and hacking computers from the bad guys and chopping down
the door with a fire axe, and so on.
“Monster
Hunters” is about taking on vampires that actually are a member of
Congress, and ducking down alleyways as the cops come, after you’ve had a huge
gunfight with werewolves and things. Very exciting, very dynamic stuff, which
at the same time has a flipside.
Action
can mean something more like “Sneakers,” or “Oceans
Eleven,” where you’re plotting and coming up with a big scheme. Lots of
moving parts, lots of team members and specialists, and you’re almost always going
up against a conspiracy. You’ve almost failed if it comes to violence. You want
to pull it off without violence at all.
“Monster
Hunters” is the same way. Yes, it can be hacking down werewolves with a
big-ol’ silver axe and shooting your machine gun full of flaming bullets at the
vampires. It can be like at. But, at the same time, it can be very conspiracy‑oriented.
It could be all veiled and behind‑the‑scenes ‑‑ more “Underworld,”
than “Blade.”
“Blade”
had pretty much no problem at all jumping down in the middle of the highway
with a big‑old bladed boomerang, or what ever he calls that thing, and a katana
on his back. “Oh, you saw me killing people, and Whistler says, “Oh,
you can’t be killing people. People will know you’re out there.” Everybody
knows he’s out there. He’s not subtle.
Whereas
Underworld, we at least have this pretense, that people are trying to
masquerade, not let on that there are supernatural entities in the world. They
do in fact have raging fights and stuff as well, for the players who couldn’t
wait.
Douglas: …and Kate Beckinsale!
Sean: Realize that you have that level
of conspiracy there, as well as that level of violence.
I
think that that those mixtures, it’s very important for future genre treatments
that we do. If there’s going to be a future genre treatment that’s going to
succeed, first, it’s going to be in an accessible genre that people like.
It’s
got to have expectations that people can play to. Dungeon Fantasy has clerics
who heal, you’ve got wizards who throw fireballs, you have thieves who steal,
and so on. Action has, there’s the guy who likes to blow stuff up, there’s the
guy who likes to pick locks and wear a…Usually it’s a hot woman in a tight
catsuit, let’s be honest. But the point is that there are roles. There’s the
guy with gun, he shoots things, he’s a very good shot. The guy drives like a
maniac and never screws up in a car chase.
Monster
hunters has it too. You’ve got the witch or occultist who’s very good at the
secret world. You’ve got the up‑front, come‑through, kick‑people’s‑butts, put‑a‑spear‑through‑their‑heart
martial arts kind of dude. You’ve got somebody who’s good with guns. You’ve
usually got someone who’s good with weird science, coming up with all the weird
weapons they use.
You
have these clearly‑defined roles that everyone expects. You’ve got clearly
defined bad guys, whether it’s tentacle monsters that you take treasure from in
dungeon fantasy, or a scuzzy‑looking scumbag with his bandanna and his machete
in action, or in monster hunters it’s some vampire who’s dressed up in a suit
who’s very proper and know darn well he’s running, he’s behind the scene,
you’ve got to take him out without too much violence. These are well‑known
expectations.
Players
can play both action‑oriented and thoughtful characters.
To
take an example ‑‑ I think space opera would be a good one. I’d like to go
there someday, because there you’ve got clearly‑defined roles.
You’ve
got the square‑jawed Jim Kirk leader captain type. You’ve got the swashbuckling
type, whether the swashbuckler takes the form of the somewhat subdued junior
officer or the upright crazy Han Solo type. You’ve got the token alien. You’ve
got the machine of logic, who sometimes is the token alien and sometimes is an
android, or some augmented human with odd mental makeup, like mentats in Dune.
You’ve got all these other specialist roles, engineers, technicians of every
stripe, fighter pilots, mecha pilots, you name it.
You’ve
got the well‑defined roles. You have well‑defined tropes. You’ve got these
psychic powers, usually you take two flavors, there are evil bad‑guy psychics
and there are nice empathic good‑guy psychics. You’ve got crazy science, faster‑than‑light
travel, ray guns, missiles, and so on.
You’ve
got various types of foes. They could be ugly aliens who are also bad, you
know, they’re bad and they’re ugly. The good‑guy ugly aliens who are lovable
despite being ugly. Bad‑guy humans who are betraying their own species, and so
on and so on and so on.
You’ve
got all these elements. And then you’ve got this possibility of this range of
everything from action to thoughtfulness. You’ve got on one hand, fighter
pilots and crazy people who swing from doorframes while they’re throwing their
big two‑fisted punches and two‑footed kicks and all that insanity, and shooting
ray guns first and ask questions later.
But
the other side, of course, you’ve got people who talk the techno‑babble and sit
around with the computer and solve the technical problems and reverse the
polarity of the whatever and so on. They get to solve things thoughtfully. Even
total uncombatant types who are empathic or diplomatic and deal with the
strange‑looking aliens and the evil humans through mind games and talk and
chatter.
That’s
a good example of a genre I think could work. I think, in principle, anything
which has that scope of character roles alongside well‑known, well‑defined
tropes could be done in this way. Whereas something which doesn’t have much
range, something where all the characters have to be violent, or where all the
characters have to be thoughtful, and where the range of plot devices is, I
think, less constrained, I think it would be harder to do.
Like,
it would be harder to do soap opera. Because in soap opera, everyone is kind of
non‑violent, subdued. Yeah, they have the expertise, but they are fundamentally
all social characters and talkers. There are no well‑defined genre
expectations.
There
are soap operas out there where some of the characters were outright
supernatural. I mean, I don’t watch soap operas, but I’ve heard that there are
soap operas where ghosts of previous characters come back, and where some of
the people are apparently aliens and things.
Soap
operas, likewise, can be very grounded and very set‑oriented. This entire soap
opera’s at a hospital. This soap opera is in this one room. These things exist.
Most of the classic soap operas are very well defined, they’re within a certain
physical set of space and a certain dramatic space. But if you look at that,
that physical and dramatic space is so different from the other physical and
dramatic spaces that soap operas are set in, that it would be very hard to come
up with a generic soap opera.
Douglas:  That’s interesting, because you say some things that really
resonate, because a lot of what you’re describing, I think, are the things that
make successful multi‑season TV shows.
Sean:
 Probably, yeah.
Douglas:
 And even when you take something like, one of the shows that I got into ‑‑
and the wonderful thing about things like Netflix is that you can watch them
all at once, but then you’re starved for things that come after ‑‑ is with a
show called The Unit, which was about Delta Force. You think, “Well,
that’s kind of boring,” because, well, they’re all just bad‑ass soldiers.
But they’re not, because they’re Special Forces.
Yes,
they’re all bad‑ass soldiers, but they’ve all got these distinguishing
characteristics. This person’s an electronics expert, this person can fly any
vehicle. It’s exactly the same thing. In a way, it’s a great role‑playing
party, because everybody can play in the combat zone, but you’ve got all of
these other things.
If
you build your differentiation on top of a general level of badassery, you can
still have all of this flavor and plot, personal‑driven moments in the
spotlight, without being like, “Oh, each and every single one of us is a
clone trooper with no differentiation” ‑‑ a game that I played in grad
school to not terribly a lot of enjoyment. [laughs]
Someone
ran that one, which was less successful than we…We asked a guy to come in and
run a GURPS campaign. As it turned out, he had a homebrew system that
he wanted to try out. He managed to layer that on top of our characters in a
way that, very quickly, we weren’t playing what we thought we were. But, you
know, it was short‑lived, and therefore was worth the time that it took.
Last
question, I guess. Since we seem to have seen the re‑opening, hopefully, of the
GURPS
pipeline…GURPS content is basically fan‑driven. You and some core people
do a lot of work, but really it’s, write a proposal, get it approved, and then
go. As the pipeline for GURPS clears, what message do you
have for prospective creators?
Sean:
 First, a support message, and yeah, this probably comes from our
sponsors, so to speak, as opposed to me personally, is do keep an eye on the
wish list. It isn’t something we consider to be restrictive or a constraint on
what we will and won’t accept. But it is a first level filter and if you are
new, especially, you don’t want to try to broach some topic that we have not
expressed an interest in because you are fighting an uphill battle then. You
are both fighting the fact you are unknown and fighting the fact that we didn’t
have a first-order interest in having that supplement done.
So
we are going to be asking ourselves ‘do we want this person to be the one who
gets the special leave to do something we’re not so sure will sell’ or do we
want to have an author we know and has done stuff for us tackle something like
that because then at least we know the name will sell a few. Yeah, it’s sales
oriented. But it’s a business so I can’t deny that that’s very important to us.
As
well, take the time it takes to read the style guides and formatting guides. I
know that stuff is really boring. I hate it. I’ll outright say, if I could take
this book right here ‑‑ this is the Associated Press style book ‑‑ if I could
take this book right here and just, I don’t know, put it in a fire…I’d probably be happier.
It
doesn’t actually make me happy. I’m not going to turn my camera around because then
it won’t get me sitting down, but I’ve got a whole wall of references. They
don’t make me happy either. They’re all style guides. It’s like dictionary,
dictionary, biographical encyclopedia, more dictionaries. Oh look, another
dictionary. One, two, three, four style guides, two guides to grammar, and oh
there’s a thesaurus there too. And that’s just in paper. Now I’ve got digital
guides as well.
It’s
really bloody boring. I won’t deny that. But, and it’s a big but, the
marketability of – not your game to gamers – but of your manuscripts to us as
publishers is based on how little cost we think we can produce the product for.
If
we think it’s going to be a hard edit then we are less likely to be interested.
When I say, hard edit it could mean a lot of things. It does not necessarily
mean the English language. In fact as an editor – and you can tell I’m an
editor because I’m kind of balding a bit here, look kind of boring, and I wear
glasses – but as an editor I can tell you fixing the English is the easy part.
I can fix English quickly. I can fix English in thousands of words in no time
at all.
But
fixing the other things we want is very difficult and if people don’t follow
the style guide that is what I end up doing. Little things like knowing which
game terms are capitalized, where we boldface, how we format character sheets
in print. Yeah, it’s not part of the fun of writing for games but I can’t deny
that it’s an important part of doing it well and right. That’s important.
I
would rather have somebody be late with their product, be late with their
project, because they say I was going to be on time and then I spent two weeks
reading your style guide and it was 40 pages long, just internalizing that was
a page a night, and I was going crazy.
I’d
rather have somebody say that to me and be late, I’ll forgive that, then to
rush, not having put any thought at all to proper style, and put me in a
situation where I’m going to have to go to my managing editor or at least to
Steven at E23 who manages E23 and is my boss in that regard and say, “Oh
sorry the product you wanted to release is not going to be out in time because
we are still editing it.” Or worse – far worse – “Oh sorry, this product
is going to take twice as long to edit,” which means twice as many
editorial hours. That’s twice as much overhead expense, and possibly that much
longer to show a profit.
That’s
another pointer. The last pointer I would have is don’t get so immersed in your
subject that you forget that you’re writing for an audience. That’s a
complicated one and I’m not sure how easily I can explain it . . . but I see it
often.
I’ll
just say, you may think your topic is the coolest thing since sliced bread but
it’s important to remember that people who are playing a generic game are going
to be big in to possibly a setting you’ve never heard of, very probably a genre
you don’t play, and quite likely a style of play that isn’t your own.
Your
enthusiasm is usually founded in one or all three of those things. It will not
come across to people. What will come across to people is your knowledgeably,
sure. But just remember that you have to be able to reach out to people, pull
them into what you’ve written, and make it interesting to them.
Which
is why even though I have some very strongly held opinions. Everyone knows
them, they see me writing on forums blah, blah, blah, yakking about my opinions
on how you should do this or you ought to do that. That isn’t in my books. The reason
that it’s not in my books is just because I feel that way doesn’t mean people
that buy the book care.
I
don’t like zombie apocalypses where the world is being overrun with zombies,
player characters and heroes that can turn into zombies, the world is gone to
hell, and it’s going to end with everyone dead. I don’t like that. I think
those movies are stupid. I don’t like those zombies. I like the zombie stories
where the people are resourceful. They for the most part survive or if they
don’t survive it’s because they had a chance and they screwed up. And where the
zombies aren’t necessarily overrunning and destroying the whole world. There’s a
threat of that. The zombies are there
primarily, first and foremost as a plot device.
For
example, I know this would make me unpopular with fans of George Romero, but
some of my favorite zombie stories are the “Resident Evil” stories.
You get these specific characters who are very capable. They for the most part
survive, although some of them don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be in a zombie
movie. And the zombies, until late in the arc haven’t taken over the world.
They’re still confined, first to an installation, then to a city, then to a
larger region, and finally I think, they annihilate the world. That’s much more
interesting.
In
my zombies book, what do I have? Well, I have all the zombie stuff, not just
the stuff I like, where the zombies are confined to a secret lab and the player
characters can live. But I spent as much time, or more on those stories where
the zombies are taking over the world, eating everyone and where everyone dies,
and everyone’s incompetent. Because I know, as a writer of zombie stories,
there are other people out there who like that stuff. The same goes for your book if you’re a freelancer, you
have to set aside your personal biases, and finally realize that well, it’s a
generic game, there’s lots of styles of play, and others could possibly combine
the things I’m not even thinking about.
You
have to make sure your game reaches those people. This is most important for
the adventures, if you’re going to write an adventure it’s very important for
you to realize that people have established campaigns, they have established
house rules and established groups.
They’re
not going to want an adventure which can only happen in this one city which
can’t exist in their world, with character types no one’s playing, in a genre
no one much likes, that has an outcome that can only be world‑shattering or
fatal for the player characters.
That’s
hopeless, because in an ongoing campaign, the specific characters already have
lives and home‑towns and expectations. It’s not going to fly; it’s just not
going to fly.
So
you’ve got to make sure your adventure has hooks, for all kinds of gamers. It
doesn’t mean you have to write a generic adventure that has no specific
expectations. That’s impossible – you can’t do that. But what you can do is throw
in asides, on how do you fit in a higher-powered group, how do you fit it into
an existing game world, how do you set things up so this is adventure is a side quest for really powerful
characters instead of the be‑all end‑all for new characters.
A
good example of that would be +Matt Riggsby‘s “Dungeon Fantasy Adventure
One: Mirror of the Fire Demon.” He was very good about making flexible,
his variable numbers of bad guys, bad guys can vary in power. He says,
“OK, this is a desert region, put it in your game world where there’s
deserts. If you don’t have these
kinds of bad guys, just don’t include them. If you do have these kinds of bad
guys, they match with my bad guys
this way,” and so on.
That’s
a great way to handle an adventure. That’s how an adventure should be written for a generic system.
Those are the things I think are the most important. After which is all the
secondary stuff which applies to all kinds of writing I would say.
For
writing a game, among those things is, know
your game system
. I would say that’s in my second category of things. It’s
just an element of style and formatting. You know how the rules work; you know
how the points add up. I consider that boring. It’s the technical path and you
have to be good at it to write for us. But I don’t consider it a separate thing
because every game designer out there, who has someone coming in who has
someone coming in who does freelance work on her system is going to say to you,
“Oh, I want you to actually be working in my system, not some system that doesn’t exist, or something you
just made up that’s in your head.”
Douglas:  OK, do you have any parting shots?
Sean:
 Mostly just thanks for giving me the chance to yak. I like to get the
word out there, let people know there’s a real human behind this. I only wish I
could have some of my other writers come in and form a bit of a panel here,
because it’s a group effort for us. I’m the name in the credits, GURPS
Line Editor, this guy.
But
I don’t take credit for most of what goes out there, I read most of what goes
out there and I have some pull, I guess, but I would encourage people to
remember that we’re real people back here, working hard, often for not very
many dollars, to get the games out there and we’re more than happy to get the
word out, not because we want to get rich or famous, but because we have all
these great concepts in our heads that we want to get out to people. So I
really am for the opportunity to do that.

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