Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: Leonard Balsera (Lead Designer for FATE Core)

After my first two interviews, I tried to branch out. I contacted +Fred Hicks, to talk about FATE Core and its success – and he referred me to +Leonard Balsera, who was the design lead on the project.

I gratefully accepted, and when Leonard returned from a busy convention schedule, we set up some time to chat. As always, I gave him a preview of the discussion topics, but we were unafraid to wander afield.

We spent about 90 minutes chatting, and covered his concept of Fiction Forward, discussed FATE Core (and whipped out a character in FATE Accelerated), and talked about complexity and the false dichotomy between “simulationism” and what he termed his “fiction forward” approach.

As always, I will get this interview transcribed, and post it here when it’s ready! Also as always, a bit of support towards the Ballistic Interview Fund would not go amiss.

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Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Okay, good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: a new title. Today, Leonard Balsera has agreed to join me to talk about games.

I’d say I’m not to into lengthy monologues for introductions, but I am. But I’m not going to. So we’ll get right to it.

Looking at the various sources, I’m going to give you a chance to talk about your resume a little bit. It looks like you’ve done work for Pelgrane, GUMSHOE system, and then lead design contribution on several major FATE releases, including pulp goodness in Spirit of the Century. Lead Design for the DresdenFiles RPG, which I just downloaded yesterday to look at it. As well as Lead System Developer for the FATE Core system. I guess you’re working for the Margaret Weis’ Cortex Plus. So what else am I missing?

Leonard Balsera (Game Designer and author of  FATE Core, Spirit of the Century, and Dresden Files RPG): I’ve designed cards for a couple of Munchkin releases. That’s about it.

Transcript continues below the break . . .

Douglas: You may work for Evil Hat, but you seem to wear many hats. Some of them are evil, some of them are just odd

Leonard: [laughs] Yeah, I was lucky enough to get hired by Steve Jackson Games full-time, a couple of Januarys ago now. And, so, I’ve been with them for a while. It’s very cool.

Douglas: I believe it. SteveJackson Games is at least fun to write for, in a minor capacity, at least in my case. And I certainly love interacting with Sean and those guys, and Steven as well.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: Do you run your own games as well as design them? As Sean Punch would say, do you eat your own dog food?

Leonard: I try not to run FATE as much these days. Like a lot of what happened with [FATE] Core was that other games I was running and playing that were not FATE ended up influencing FATE. Like I believe it’s important to not be stagnant as a designer and consume a wide a variety of other stuff as possible. So I tried to sort of keep pushing my own comfort zone. And stuff like that.

Douglas: What systems do you play?

Leonard: Right now I actually just got started with a weekly group to do a Trail of Cthulhu campaign which is GUMSHOE, which is something I’ve worked on, but I didn’t design GUMSHOE, right? So it’s in the clear of things that don’t feel like work.

Douglas: Right.

Leonard: And I play, I have a PrimetimeAdventures game going on for a while. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Matt Wilson’s Primetime Adventures, but it’s a indy chestnut. I’ve been playing a lot of the various apocalypse world engine variants, like Dungeon World, and MonsterHearts, and Tremulus, and that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to keep abreast of all the stuff that everyone is doing.

But yeah, I’ll run FATE at the drop of a hat if someone wants me too. Right?

Douglas: It’s probably like coming home.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So one thing that I do notice is FATE, GUMSHOE, Dramatic Role-playing . . . I’m kind of detecting a bit of theme on [garbled audio], on the other hand you just said, you like to be eclectic. So, heavy on storytelling, light on what we might refer to as “endless lists of stats for guns.”

Do you think that’s accurate on both how you like to play and write? And why is that important to you.

Leonard: Yeah. The thing that I always say when I’m talking on forums (or whatever), is that my biases are very well documented. By that, I mean that I’ve made them and published them. So, there is a general theme in the work I like to do. Shaping the conversation at the table, more by manipulating fiction, then by manipulating a virtual Rube-Goldberg device. Right?

Douglas: Right.

Leonard: So I’m less interested in how fast can this person move across this parking lot at this speed. How likely is it that they can shoot at this other person at this speed. And diving for cover that covers as much of their body and this, that, and the other.

I don’t knock that stuff. And it certainly takes a lot intestinal fortitude, cleverness, grit, and wherewithal to put together something that handles all those variables, but I’m better at manipulating fiction and the processes of fiction with game mechanics than I am doing that stuff. Because I come from a theater background and they are very similar.

Douglas: Yeah I know, you must have let out either a silent or audible cheer when, if you’ve seen it, the interviews of J. Michael Straczynski of Bablyon 5. “How fast does the White Star move?” and he says “It moves at the speed of Plot . . . what of it?”

Leonard: Oh yeah, the speed of Plot.

Douglas: It takes just as long to get from Place A to Place B to make it really cool and there is a reason why timers stop at one second or 007 seconds depending on what movie you’re in.

Leonard: Oh yeah, absolutely.

[both chuckle]

Douglas: So what do you think are the strengths of that sort of dramatic, serve the plot, wright as if you’d been writing fiction or playing in fiction. What are the strengths that compels, compel is the wrong word, but are compelling.

Leonard: [laughs] No pun intended right?

Douglas: Actually, yeah you’re right. I’m played in a couple of FATE games, but as guests. I was an Indian Help Desk Operator. They were like “Here, you’re this guy. Put on a bad accent and do this.” I didn’t really have any rules to go with it and it was more of improvisational theater.

Leonard: You were in a FATE game where you were playing a Help Desk Operator.

Douglas: Yes I was.

Leonard: That’s . . . phenomenal. I want to know about that game.

Douglas: It was +Cameron Corniuk‘s [misidentified as +Jonathan Henry‘s in the video! Sorry!] FATE game and I dropped by to participate, and they were like . . . no, sorry, I dropped by to watch.” ‘cause I supported the FATE Kickstarter, as you can see. So I was interested in this because I had been drafted to it by Antoni Ten Monros. Who…

Leonard: Yeah!

Douglas: So you know Antoni? He was like “This is great, it’s really interesting, it’s very different from GURPS, and you should take a look at it.”

And so I did and I was interested and I supported it, so I showed up to see what I was getting into. And they were like “Oh, we have need of a bit part, how long do you have?”

Leonard: Oh, so it was a NPC you were playing.

Douglas: Yeah, I was playing a NPC.

Leonard: Okay, cool, yeah.

Douglas: I played the role of someone interacting with some solider of fortune who was trying to figure out how to use parts from some obviously stolen, dangerous device.

Leonard: [laughs]

Douglas: So I was happy to help, so I was like “You’re trying to tell me…,” and I won’t do the Indian accent because I am bad at it, but it was funny. “So you’re trying to tell me that you have a part with no serial number – or maybe it was filed off – you don’t have a manual, and you can’t tell me where you got it? So let me help you right out with that, sir.”

Leonard: Yeah, yeah, right.

Douglas: But it was good.

Leonard: That’s funny. I like that.

Douglas: Yeah.

Leonard: To actually answer your question: I think the strengths of that, I sort of loop it all into a term, I call it “fiction forward gaming.” Which is where the mechanics are transparently about manipulating the fiction, as opposed to constructing a virtual world or whatever. Although it’s a little bit of a trap, I don’t know if we are going to get into that or not, but it’s a little bit of a trap. But…

Douglas: You’ll need to get into it now, because I can’t leave a lead-in like that alone.

Leonard: One of the strengths is accessibility. Because I think it’s easier to get people into the hobby if you talk to them about making shared fiction together, and messing around with shared fiction. And you can point to touchstones in what they’ve experienced in books and other media.

So hey you know when you’re watching this TV show, you know there is always this dramatic reversal. When you get to this point of tension, so this mechanic is supposed to bring out that dramatic reversal. Like you’ve seen in these TV shows that you’ve watched.

And I think people tend to get into that more instinctively because everybody has been exposed to media. We’ve all seen TV, and movies, and we’ve all read books. I’m very interested in the potential for accessibility for acquisition in RPG design, right? I’m more interested in more people getting into what we do.

Douglas: No, I agree. I kind of had a similar conversation with people who’re into martial arts. You can’t see my shirt, but I’m wearing a “rah-rah” Hwa Rang Do Dojang t-shirt.

Leonard: Oh cool.

Douglas: And people are like “Hey, you know Tae Kwoon Do, or Hapkido, or Hwa Rang Do,” and I’m like “Until everyone is into martial arts are they are into Monday Night Football; until everyone is into role-playing as they are into Monday Night Football.” (And Fantasy Football is role-playing for jocks, but we can get into that later.) Until it that cache, beating each other up about what system is coolest is doing everybody a disservice.

Leonard: Right.

Douglas: Yeah, I agree.

Leonard: There is that. There is accessibility. And I think that one of the probably biggest strengths is that, as part of that whole idea is that the conversation about fiction is easier to have than the conversation about, let us say, weights and measurements and distances.

Douglas: Sure

Leonard: Because that conversation is easier to have, a wider range of texture is available to you, I think, when you play RPGs that are more fiction forward. If we want to have a experience that is a “horror” experience, if we want a particular kind of fiction: The distance from wanting that, to getting it, is maybe a little shorter when you’re talking about fiction-forward designs, right?

Because all you have to do is identify how does that fiction work, and build around it. I think that it’s easier to manage those expectations and see them to fruition when you have that kind of priority.

Leonard: In summary, it’s easier to hit your aesthetic goals. Easier.

Douglas: For example, obviously the theme of my blog is “Gaming Ballistic,” right? Because I’m one GURPS firearms guys.

Leonard: Right [chuckles].

Douglas:  I kind of wrote an infamous article and then followed it up with an even more infamous article about bows and arrows, which consumed 11,000 words  and Steven Marsh’s soul.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas:  But the thing is, if I’m going to start a conversation about that, I don’t want to have to talk…although my wife is a shooter too, she doesn’t care about how many PSI, or the cartridge, or the this. She wants to know how many little holes she put in the target. And they are many and tightly grouped.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So that’s a way, a fiction-forward approach to gunplay, and what’s the point of it, and it makes a lot of sense.


USS Truman attempts bootlegger reverse.

You don’t need to know how a gun works in order to have it be cool. You don’t need to know how to do a bootlegger reverse to have a cool car chase.

What you need to do is have attention. And it’s funny because, I very recently had to explain to my almost-four-year-old daughter that the reason she’s scared during the TV show is because the shows are not fun without tension and conflict.

Leonard: Yeah, yeah.

Douglas: Don’t worry: Superman is gonna win. But if it’s a cakewalk, you’re gonna be bored. It’s funny though, how that concept has to be explained, at least at a early age. And then has to be reinforced in order to make things fun.

And the fun is the key.

So what do think are the good or valid criticisms – maybe this gets into what sounded like your trap between simulation and fiction-forward – What do you think are the valid criticisms of designing in a way that’s fiction-forward.

Leonard: Well, I think that the valid criticism is that, I think some of what we’ve brought up before, you just said it: For people who are looking to get a specific aesthetic effect, you don’t need to know all these details. Right?

But some people do want to know that.

The criticism is that the preferences that people have, the desires that people have for the medium are diverse. Right?

I can give you a example. So I had a great GURPS swashbucklers game, that was basically . . . the GM did a lot of research on Francis Drake and the expeditions of Francis Drake, and we were all playing as people who were press-ganged, basically, into serving on one of Drake’s ships and then ended up, sort of rising up from the rest of the crew to become his confidants and join in on his exploration of the world. And his voyages to circumnavigate the world, and all that stuff, and getting involved in the politics of court and all that.

And, he did a tremendous amount of historical research for this game, he checked out books from the library, and books from his own personal collection, and the collective logs and stuff from Drake’s voyage. He made scenarios that were based on specific incidents that were described in the logs. He put a lot of historicity in the game.

And arguably GURPS, with its capacity to handle well researched subjects, was a perfect system for that game, right? Because that was a game, where because we were engaging in history we did kind of want ot have a sense of if a ship, a brigantine was armed like thus, which went up against a man-of-war that was armed like thus, right? Under these conditions what would occur?

Douglas: This is how many splinters that brigandine would be in at the end of that, right? [Chuckles]

Leonard: Right. Or you know whatever. What are the conditions where we could manipulate the environment to make X, Y, and Z go down?

There are times where you engage in, like I said the sort of Rube-Goldberg device nature, of the virtual world. I think that fiction-forward RPGs are becoming more popular in that regard, because nowadays computers do that kind of calculation a lot better.

Douglas: That’s a really good point I think.

Leonard: That’s a personal theory of mine. I don’t have any data to back that up.

I can tell you that without that sense of “here’s the parameters of the world” that is sort of built up by the mechanics, and our agreement to invest in that, I don’t think that that campaign . . . I don’t know if that campaign would have been as fulfilling or felt as authentic if it were done with something like FATE. Because what GURPS forced us to do was to get into the details, it communicated a sense of authenticity to invest in that period in time.

I think that GURPS specifically is very good at that, of getting you to invest of the authenticity of a subject. The books are known for that, they are known for their research and engagement with whatever topic it is that particular book is covering.

Like Lisa Steele’s GURPS Cops, is like, I’ve used it in fiction work. Because even as a work of reference it is fantastic, right?

Fiction-forward games can sometimes falter when you’re worried about the authenticity of presenting a particular thing.

I have not seen the fiction-forward CSI role-playing game. Right? Probably the reason why I haven’t seen that is in order to a procedural cop show at that level of detail, you kind of need to be a medical examiner or you sound like a idiot. [Doug laughs].

And CSI takes a lot of liberties, I’m not calling CSI a authoritative source for forensic information, but they have a advisor at least.

Douglas: Whom they occasionally listen to.

Leonard: Right, who they occasionally listen to.

So certainly it’s possible to do that kind of research before you step into a FATE game. We have Fight Fire as one of our campaigns in Worlds On Fire, our FATE setting releases. And that was done by Jason Morningstar, who has a tremendous amount of intuitional experience with firefighting. So that comes across authentically because he provided that research, but sometimes in a particular group, you have less of a ability to rely on the system to give you these things. You have to bring more of that yourself. So that can be challenging.

Douglas: I actually had a campaign go, or a scenario go (that I later tried to sell . . . and that’s an entirely new story). I had a scenario go almost completely off the rails. I was gamemastering a GURPS Black Ops game. 1,000-point, sorry, 700-point 3rd edition characters (they translated as about a 1,000 points in 4th edition). But it was a “gritty” Black Ops game, because I wanted to try that out.

I had given the players suppressors, silencers, for their weapons. They were expecting Hollywood suppressors.

The sniper of the group had a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. It’s a gun that when you pull the trigger your shoulder goes into the next county. You can hear it for ten miles. It’s a huge explosion.

Most suppressors will reduce that from excruciatingly loud, to merely loud. They were expecting that you put this little thing on the rifle and then you go “pew, pew, pew.” And that’s all you hear.

And when they fired off these silenced bullets in the middle of a enemy base, everybody heard them . . . and they were really really pissed at me. Because their expectations of what the game was and my expectations about the verisimilitude didn’t match up. And that’s kind of a counterexample of when, and maybe Black Ops is best as a FATE game, because it’s about the drama and the struggle, is that when the details are wrong and just jars…There was a recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where the guy grabs a double-barreled shotgun and the sound effects guys felt compelled to [makes a shotgun ratcheting noise] make that cocking noise. And anyone who has ever used any gun just [holds face in hands and groans].

And it’s that moment when, “Oh, that doesn’t work with the game.”

And your Francis Drake campaign, it sounds like as long as you were willing to work within in the idiom of the history you got immersion. And I think immersion is the key that either the detail or the “oh it’s the Speed of Plot” can provide.

Leonard: So this is where the trap comes in. You just articulated the trap. The trap is the core truth of any experience in a RPG is that nothing happens at the table without the buy in and the consensus of all the people at the table. And anybody who tells you differently is trying to sell you something . . . probably their role-playing game. [Doug laughs]

And even if you have this sort of agreed upon “Oh this set of mechanics governs this “realistic” whatever variables in this situation yadda yadda yadda,” right? The truth of the matter is always going to be that if the system produces a result that you don’t buy into, you’re going to protest against it.

And if your expectations are too far from what that “realism” actually is, or whatever, you’re going to balk at it.

And then all of a sudden you have disagreements and problems and yadda yadda yadda.

Douglas:  . . . and dice get thrown, and whatever.

Leonard: So that’s why it’s a trap, because if thinking that your design needs to spell out all of these variables, these sort of world-in-motion variables, pseudo-physics I call it, in order to believable or because you need that in order to accept the reality of the game, that’s a trap and I consider it patently false. You would sometimes get more realistic results if you’re playing a fiction-forward game with a sniper who is actually a sniper in real life.

That guy will tell you all kinds of stuff, he’ll justify all kinds of results in the game by telling you stuff about bullet trajectories and what happens to shooters in certain wind conditions and yadda yadda yadda and more detail comes from their experiences than a system, even a detailed system which is supposed to be modeling those variables, can provide.

Real-life is more complex than any game’s approximation of real life.

So I think that both approaches have their strengths, but I certainly would not suggest that one solves problems that the other fails to solve.

Douglas: Yeah, I think that’s true. And the interesting thing to me at least is there are cases where, and I’ll pick on GUMSHOE a little bit, because I was involved in a GUMSHOE campaign: Trail of Cthulhu as a matter of fact and my next interview is Ken Hite and I’ll be talking to him about this a little bit.

KB: About Night’s Black Agents, hopefully, yeah, excellent.

Douglas: This one was a prequel, but then we were going to get into the forward. But the thing that grated me a little bit about the system is that I thought the concept of Investigative skills was and is brilliant. Because the premise behind them is exactly correct: In fiction, you get the clues; it’s what you do with them that matters.

Where I had a problem, and it struck me a little funny, was that my character was a doctor and he had a lot points in First Aid. There wasn’t really a doctor skill with surgery and stuff, there was investigative parts, but not really. But after I used a couple of points of First Aid, I was no better than some schmoe off the street with First Aid 0. I should always be a little bit better, but I should occasionally, a couple times of game have the opportunity to be brilliant.

So the fact that I had a limited number of bandages that I could put on and then I was no better than a untrained guy, bugged me enough that I started suggesting, as I always do, alternate mechanics, and that wasn’t always taken as well as I would have liked.

But that was the thing. The mechanics interfered with the storytelling in that particular case. And that was in the trap level where you couldn’t quite enact the character as you’d like.

But the “how to solve mysteries” was brilliant, it’s just when we came into something we needed to roll dice against that it was sometimes a little awkward.

But let me return to the topic, a little bit, of complexity. I got into a discussion about this on my blog because I posted something that was deliberately inflammatory: and said “Ah! GURPS is not complex, it’s just detailed.” And I got wonderful responses to that because when you say GURPS is not complex, people like to beat on you, and with some justification I think.

Leonard: See, I would agree with you. I don’t think GURPS is actually that complex. I just think it has a high barrier to entry. I was actually having a conversation about this today.

Once you’ve made your character in GURPS, things simplify a great deal. It’s the fact that making your characters requires the process that it requires

Douglas: Heh. And a computer program…

Leonard: Yeah. It like…all of the complexity is front-loaded. Once you have it all down on paper and you understand what it all does and you actually get into the meat of the game, things simplify a great deal. But sorry, go ahead.

Douglas: No, I think that it’s a good point and it leads into the question.

Because one of the things that is pointed out is that GURPS is 550 pages long plus the material, therefore it’s complex. And I was looking at Dresden Files, which is a FATE book, which is supposed to be . . . it’s fiction-forward and rules light, and whatever. Or maybe it’s perceived as rules-lite – and it’s 700 pages of material in the two volumes and 418 of them are character driven. Another 274 describe the world. And since I’ve read all twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen Dresden Files novels it’s not like I’m not invested in it already, so I’m certainly going to dig in.

And Pathfinder is nearly 600 pages. FATE core is remarkably terse, laconic if we wanted to use that descriptor back there, at 300 pages. So complexity/depth: is there a tie between the length of a rules set and “complexity?”

Leonard: I’m going to cheat a little bit and say that I think complexity is a moving target. In that I would hesitate to make a concrete association, to make a concrete assumption about that.

Because…Alright, so Primetime Adventures. You can go get the Primetime Adventures PDF, I think Indy Press Revolution is still carrying it and I don’t know where else is still carrying it so you can get it. That game is a 80-90 pages, six by nine…it’s a booklet. It’s not quite twice as long as FATE accelerated. Right?

Douglas: Sure.

Leonard: The game has one stat.

Douglas: Hah! Really?

Leonard: Yeah. It has how high your Screen Presence is…the goal of Primetime Adventures is to make the greatest television show that never was.

Your character has one stat, and the stat is, the measurement of how much the issue that their struggling with that season matters in that episode. It’s called Screen Presence. So when it’s at three, which is the highest it can be, it’s your spotlight episode. That episode is all about you confronting the issue you are facing that season. When it’s one, your issue is not on camera and you’re gonna be focused more on plot stuff and getting things done or whatever.

I know people who find that game extremely taxing and difficult to run. And complex in that it requires you to do a lot of work to shape the collective story of an episode.

It offloads a lot of narrative responsibility on the player. And the process of creating, of participating fully in the creation of that shared fiction, is a complex process for some people.

The rules are not complex, per say, they are not procedurally complex, but procedural complexity is not the only form of complexity there is in game design. Right?

Douglas: Sure.

Leonard: So I would say there is a direct correlation between a thickness of the book and probably the procedural complexity of the game.

But I would be wary of making blanket assumptions in that regard.

Dresden Files is a good example. That second book is really just a fan encyclopedia of stuff from…it was like the current state of the Dresden Files as of Small Favor, and all the people in it, all the monsters in it, and stuff like that. It had stat blocks, yes, but the core of that text was sort of a fan reference to all the stuff that was in the Dresden Files.

So I would not say that was complex, that it had procedural complexity as far as the game was concerned because it was 400 pages or whatever of prose. Technically speaking, it was prose. So I think that might be possible, to have a game that’s like “here’s your twenty pages of mechanics” and then we’re going to give you 220 pages of setting you’re going to wrap it in.

A/Stateby Contested Grounds Studios. Are you familiar with that one?

Douglas: I am not.

Leonard: They also make Dark City.

A-State I consider to be one of the best setting’s I think I’ve ever read. And a vast majority of the book is setting. All the rules of that book fit in like 20-25 pages of  a 200 something page book. And the rest is pure setting information. Here’s all the context within which you use these rules to figure out what happens to these crazy people that are in this setting that you make up.

Douglas: I was not a playtester, but I have to imagine GURPS Discworld is going to be similar. They have something like a GURPS Lite maybe in the front and then hundreds of pages of “Hey isn’t cool to live on the Disc.”

Leonard: I think that a lot of procedural complexity will take a lot of pages, but there are other kinds of complexity in a game that might drive up the page count without necessarily relating to that.

Douglas: It almost seems to me, also, now that you’ve coined,perhaps, the term procedural complexity that . . . I remember thinking as I was playing GUMSHOE Trail of Cthulhu that because I could spend a point or two or three investigative points and turn a non-player character from a scenario to a critical plot point, that actually could potentially offload a lot of narrative complexity onto the GM. It’s all of a sudden, you know, Spike the vampire was supposed to die and he was gonna die. But the audience loved him so much that you have to write a whole season around him.

Leonard: GUMSHOE is actually deceptive, no, I’m not going to say deceptive. That’s not the right word, it is surprising in that way to me, that it is actually, I think that in certain ways it is as…it requires the GM to be on it. On their toes.

Douglas: That was my impression, that you really need a good GM to…

Leonard: Right. Like just as much as old Basic RP Call of Cthulhu did, or whatever. I think you need to…it privileges a strong GM role. It’s surprisingly so for how thin the ruleset actually is. Because there is a lot of stuff the GM is managing besides, like I said, how procedurally difficult the rules are to use.

Douglas: I’d like to change direction a little bit, and talk a ton about FATE. And get into the . . .

You know, to the people who may be watching: I always give at least an outline of what we’ll talk about to the people that I interview, because I think that’s fair, I’m not looking for “gotchas!” I’m not looking for . . . I’m a booster. I’m not a gotcha journalist and calling me a journalist, is maybe an insult, I don’t know. [Leonard laughs]

But I do want to talk about FATE a little bit, and give you a chance to talk about this system.

So I play and write for GURPS, mostly. I’ve been playing the system for 20 years or whatever (since about 1989 or 1988), and so I got steered to the Kickstarter by a co-author, or co-conspirator, Antoni Ten Munros during the Kickstarter. I supported it, liked it, I have the books behind me [gestures behind him]. But I’d like to take a little tour and I’ve downloaded the FATE accelerated.

One of the issues that I think Sean Punch would readily agree is a problem, or at least a challenge, in GURPS is the cinematic superhero that is fiction-forward. That his powers change with the issue at hand.

Sometimes Superman is laid low by something and the next it’s a trivial thing that his x-ray vision defeats it or whatever. So when you have stories that are really defined by the will of the writer, rather than the caliber of the gun or the velocity of the bullet, or the speed of the boat. So when you have stuff like that, and you have something that basically rooted into reality, a character like Thor…

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: . . . from the recent movie. I don’t have a lot of experience with the comics, but I found myself unreasonably entertained by that movie. I own it. I can watch it over and over. Maybe because it’s gorgeous.

Leonard: Thor is a gorgeous movie.

Douglas: Maybe it’s because I can watch Anthony Hopkins do anything  – and having him as Odin is…I’m not sure if Odin is Anthony Hopkins or if Anthony Hopkins is Odin.

Leonard: He just has a Shakespeare button that he turns on I think…

Douglas: I know, I know. And when you combine it with Kenneth Branaugh who’s poking that button at appropriate times – it seemed to work.

One of the things as I was reading through FATE, I remember thinking “My god, I would have the hardest time statting up Mjolnir in GURPS.” What are its powers, how to define it, whatever. But in FATE, I was like blah, blah, blah . . . Mjolnir’s an aspect, and you can milk it for almost anything.

I wanted to walk through FATE Accelerated. With my cool little print out, I did this little research. I walked through and said “If I were to walk through character generation in FATE Accelerated – and FATE Accelerated reminds me a lot of the old West End Games Star Wars.”

Leonard: Yes! Yes, it should!

Douglas: I once took 15 people simultaneously through character generation in an hour, and we were playing in a hour and fifteen minutes. Fighting the Evil Empire. It…

Leonard: That makes me happy, it makes me really happy!

Star Wars d6 when I was a teenager was totally, that was it.

Star Wars d6, early World of Darkness stuff, Over the Edge, Fung Shui, that stuff. But Star Wars d6 is in the 90s, the thing I played the most the most.

Most of what I learned about what I like RPGs in play and in design, I learned playing Star Wars d6, so that influence is a very conscious influence and has been a conscious influence on me as a designer going forward since then and I’m glad that someone noticed. Because, yes.

Douglas: It was a great game, and one of the best campaigns that I ever ran was in d6 Star Wars, I was kind of disappointed when it went over to d20. Because the thing I loved about it was, it was just so straightforward. It didn’t matter, and that’s the great thing about Star Wars, when you’re playing in a universe that is so operatic. You don’t have to worry about how many kilobleems of energy the blaster does. You go pew pew pew and swing across the chasm, and you swing your lightsabers or whatever.

The only thing that I ever made fun of, and it was at the only Gen Con I was ever at, was Timothy Zahn and the Star Wars d6 guys. The way that I read these rules is that it is easier to reflect a blaster bolt back at somebody than it is to hit them with the lightsaber at point blank range. And they were like “Really?” Yeah, my players have kind of found that they never actually hit people with the sabers because you’ve got the chop off your own arm thing, but if you just encourage them to shoot you with the blaster and you can reflect it back, and it’s a 5 difficulty and its easy.

Leonard: That’s a really good observation about like the whole fiction-forward versus, but I don’t want to say versus because they aren’t in completion really, but we’ll say versus, cause why not.

Fiction-Forward vs. Pseudo-Physics. That rule in Star Wars d6, if you roll 10 or less on the lightsaber roll, you self-injure. That was the rule. That’s why it was easier to reflect a blaster bolt back at somebody, because you just had to roll higher than their roll. There are times when it could have literally been easier.

So that’s one of those things where like, Fiction-Forward you ask the question in a story about Jedi does anyone ever injure themselves with a lightsaber? Is that something we see in the fiction? Ever? No! that’s ridiculous, then you go, no that’s not gonna happen.

Douglas: Right, even Han Solo was able to do a little taun-taun-ectomy without…

Leonard: Right, but that said, in the Star Wars games that I played there were people who just did not carelessly run around swinging a lightsaber who arguably did not have business carrying one. Because that rule was in effect, so both types of constraints can affect the conversation at the table in certain ways.

Douglas: Both Rule Zero, fun is key and the GM sets the scene, and the actual rules of the game, you know. There are a list of a couple of things one can do if that ever became an issue, to make that not happen.

Anyway, back to Thor. No, don’t apologize, I’ll talk about West End d6 forever, It’s one of those games I’d just reach for and go play. You just throw it together and I actually wrote, I was starting to write some fiction back then, About it, and it was just you know…I would digress. And this is where Doug forgets that the interview isn’t about him. And I occasionally do that, because I do like to talk.

Leonard: So if you are ever interested, here’s a hack for you, so like Star Wars d6 if you ever want to add aspects from FATE in the Star Wars d6, right? Expending a character point, right, invoking the Aspect, makes more of your dice wild or does the reroll.

Douglas: Okay . . .

Leonard: Okay. I don’t remember what the term is for in d6, they have dice that can only explode in the positive direction, not the negative direction.

Douglas: Back when I played . . . I don’t remember exploding dice from 1st edition.

Leonard: Yeah, it was something in 2nd edition that they then revised and expanded. The wild die could explode both ways, so 6, you reroll the wild die, there was always a wild die in your dice pool, so when you rolled a 6 on it you always rerolled. And if you rolled a 1 on it, you took that die and your next highest die away from your rolls. So it could be bad luck or good luck.

Douglas: Interesting.

Leonard: Later on, they introduced in other d6 stuff dice that could only explode well or dice that could only explode badly. So replacing your dice with positive wild dice or whatever is a Star Wars d6 hack that I’ve done before.

Douglas: Sure. Makes a lot of sense. You know it’s funny about the invoking aspects: Sean Punch deliberately wrote Impulse Buys to have the feel of invoking an Aspect or spending a character point or whatever, so you could physically grab onto the plot to bend it to your will.

Okay, so let’s talk FATE Accelerated. Mwa ha ha!

High Concept: So “God of Thunder” seems fairly straightforward. And for my Trouble, “Arrogant to the point of foolhardiness” seems about right.

Leonard: I would…I’m in favor of short, punchy aspect names. So, I would probably say something along the lines of: “Arrogant Beyond Measure” or “More Arrogant Than Confidant” maybe is something I would say as a Trouble, but you know, whatever.

Douglas: No, actually this is exactly what I’m looking for. And I’ll say something and you’re like: “This is how, in my experience with FATE in writing the game and designing it, this is a way to approach this that either a novice can embrace or a expert can say “Ah, yes, I’ve learned something.””

In my time of doing martial arts, with Grandmaster Taejoon Lee, and his father, Supreme Grandmaster JooBang Lee, one of the things that I noticed about them and their level of expertise – and the two of them are very different people. But, Grandmaster Lee, the younger one, would make the difficult look easy, whereas his father would make the simple profound. You could go in either direction with mastery.

So, I’m going to say I’ve read the book, FATE Accelerated, once, and I’m going to talk about Thor. So please say this is not what I do, or this is what I do, or would do. It’s a way to make it even cooler.  Because Peter Dell’Orto, who wrote GURPS Martial Arts, likes to talk about the Rule of Awesome: If it’s not awesome, stop doing it. I’m all about making it more awesome, so then we get stories that may pull in that guy watching Monday Night Football. Saying “Hey, come and kill orcs with me,” Or something, and have that be not something where you get shoved into a locker.

Leonard: Well, with aspects the key is, the key to making good aspects is the same key as leveraging the power of language in general. The more stuff you can express in the fewest words, I think the better you are.

So like “Arrogant To The Point Of Foolhardiness.” That’s a fine aspect, it’s a totally fine aspect, it’s clear and I know what it means and I know how it’s going to get in your way, it’s perfectly playable.

The variant that I’d said was “More Arrogant Than Confidant,” so that tells me two things about the character. “Arrogant To The Point Of Foolhardiness” tells me one thing about the character, that they are arrogant to the point of foolhardiness. “More Arrogant Than Confidant,” tells me two things about the character. A, that they’re arrogant that it’s to a extreme; and B, that they use it to cover up for when they are not as sure of themselves. Which I would say is accurate to Thor.

That’s what the discussion part is for, when you make up your Aspects, when you talk in that . . . FATE core. Hold on, I know in your outline there is a future question about how would this be different in FATE Core…

Douglas: No, have at, right now. That’s great.

Leonard: Okay. Fair enough. In FATE Core there is more of a detailed process than there is in FATE Accelerated. Where you engage the rest of the people at the table in a conversation about what you are doing with your character in this particular phase. If you’re choosing your trouble and you’re like “I really want this guy to be freaking arrogant” and here’s my aspect. It’s…you’re directed to open it up to the table to go alright, what do you guys think about this and someone else at the table might go “Do they use arrogance to cover up for the fact that they have a confidence problem? Do they overcompensate with their arrogance?” and you’re like “Yes! That’s what I do. I overcompensate with my arrogance.” Maybe that’s the aspect. Now you have that one.

And that aspect is interesting sort of too, because overcompensates for what? So then we have new questions to ask. But this is the same type of stuff that fiction writers do. This is the same type of stuff that playwrights do when they leave stage directions that are vague. This is the same, the process of engaging language that you would do in any other written medium. So it’s not specific to making aspects, but aspects are just language.

Douglas: So I spent a summer at Actors Theatre of Houston doing stage-manager

Leonard: That’s awesome! That’s totally awesome!

Douglas: It was stage crew. Turns out I was a little naughty in my college career and I had to do some community service. And I went ther and  they were like you need to scrub toilets. And then someone wasn’t there and I was like “I can be your stage guy for the day.” And they were like “if you doing that, you got to keep doing that.” Dude, Rice University, Rice Players, I know a lot of them, “The Show Must Go On”and so on. So I became a fixture there and eventually a stage manager. The process you talk about was exactly what the cast would go through. It wasn’t “Okay, I’m just playing a part in You Never Can Tell. It was who was your father, what did he do, what were your parents like, and what was your first job, and this was so you could deliver twelve lines.” So it sounds like the influence in your FATE Core, and FATE Accelerated less so, but FATE Core especially is really almost Method Acting 101.

Leonard: Well, it is to some degree, but with the proviso that in FATE, you’re given the flexibility to discover yours character also. So it’s less about . . . say you have this aspect, say your trouble is…your character is a veteran that gets put back into service. You’re a veteran that becomes a mercenary after some war. And your trouble aspect is “Scars from the war.”

I don’t need to know what happened in the war for you to have those scars, and maybe you don’t either when you start playing the character. But as we play the game, more and more of that comes out and it changes how you view your own character so you don’t have to do it as homework the way that you do it as an actor building a character. On the other hand, the idea that you’re leveraging the power of text to give you insight into who the person is, like you do when you’re studying a play or whatever. Yeah, that part of it tracks, sure.

Douglas: That’s cool. One of the things that I’ve seen, and I’ve done this, and I’ve seen people do it in even GURPS games is either leave a pool of character points unspent.

Leonard: Right!

Douglas: “Hey I need to sneak down this hallway…” It would be really Awesome if I could, but would be profoundly non-awesome if the game just stops here, because I have no default, I’m defaulting the Stealth.

So I think there is a aspect of getting into the character over the course of days, months, and years that make for great gaming stories and so I totally get where you’re going. The method acting thing was to provoke a reaction, so I sort of apologize for that, but sorta not.

Leonard: But it was sort of successful.

Douglas: There you go.

Leonard: So there you go.

Douglas: So aspects, three aspects, for Thor, I think, at least in my opinion, his defining aspect is Mjolnir, the hammer. He flies with it, he fights with it, he throws it and it comes back, he does cool spinny things that kicks up dirt and makes people go way.

Leonard: If I may?

Douglas: Please.

Leonard: “Mjolnir: the source of my power.”

Douglas: There we go.

Leonard: Because without the hammer he’s nothing.

Douglas: Right. He’s less.

Leonard: So now, there is a double edge on that. It has all that power and you could invoke it for your advantage and you do everything with it, but now there is a way for compels regarding that to come into the fiction, it puts a double edge on that. So there is that.

Douglas: Yeah, I agree. It’s a really interesting kind of catch-22, whosoever holds the hammer has the power of Thor. So is he Thor because he holds the hammer or is it because he happens to be a character who is worthy of holding the hammer and is therefore he is Thor.

Leonard: And with the aspect, the actual play of the game can explore both.

Douglas: That’s really cool. So I guess since you can have two or three in Fate Accelerated, two or three Aspects. I thought that by the end of the Avengers movie, that a second aspect might be “Self-Appointed Protector of Earth.” You know, in GURPS you’d call it Sense of Duty to All on Earth. So would that be…

Leonard: I love that. I love that. So leveraging the power of language, Self-Appointed Protector of Earth…how does everyone on Earth feel about that? Self-Appointed, right? That could bring him into conflict with people who consider themselves the authoritative protectors of Earth, like SHIELD.

So what happens when Thor wants to do something for the good of humanity that SHIELD is like “Well . . . maybe that’s not what’s actually for the good of humanity,” so there’s a prospective conflict that can happen on that. Protector of Earth comes with a strong sense of duty and obligation.

I’m mainly teasing that out to demonstrate what I mean by “leveraging the power of language.” That every word you use, everything that you say, you could of have said “Protector of Earth” and that would have a certain meaning as an aspect, and it would still carry a sense of duty and still playable as an aspect. But then you’re like “Self-Appointed Protector of Earth” and it’s like ‘hold on,’ that brings another angle, the part of that aspect that could become relevant to the fiction could be the Protector of Earth part, it could be the self-appointed part, you have options there.

That’s punchy as hell, I would even consider that to be maybe be a better High Concept, then God of Thunder.

Douglas: That’s fair, especially in the context where Thor is mostly depicted in the comics in relatively modern times. His role as God of Thunder is..


Douglas: Diminished…and background. You get to wear the cool cape and have the lightning powers and stuff, but that’s just part of his aspect. I wonder how you would use “Mjolnir, Source of my power and Symbol of the Thunder God” and then you tie that into the High Concept replacement. Because the whole God of Thunder motif is important, but not quite defining to his actions as to the cool stuff that he can do.

Leonard: Or you could put it as, another way to frame that same aspect could be “I wear the mantle of the God of Thunder.”

Douglas: Oooo!

Leonard: So that’s a way of … if you don’t want to put Mjolnir, I would personally put Mjolnir as its own aspect because I want to put Mjolnir on camera a bunch because Mjolnir is Awesome.

But if you wanted to…it’s all about, so this is another thing, so language, selection of detail, emphasis, what aesthetically are you interested in? What do you care about? If your perception of Mjolnir is that it is a symbol of this larger set of trappings, then you don’t have to name it. You can say I wear the God of Thunder’s mantle and that means I have Mjolnir as a part of what I’m expected to have, I have a relationship with the Asgardians and with other cosmic beings that I’m expected to have. And that’s how you emphasize it.

Or you could put “Mjolnir the source of my power,” because what matters to you is putting that hammer on camera and showing what happens when the bad guys take it away or gets limited or he can’t use it or… Like the aspects taken as a whole …you could look at them like a promise of selection of detail about your character.

Douglas: Right. You know I almost wonder if, thinking about it, one of the aspects we haven’t yet defined should be something like “Heir to the throne of Asgard, found wanting.” At least in the movie, one of the things I found compelling was that he started with this arrogance, and then he had that great scene where Odin cast him out. And he realizes that he’s got a long way to go, and for an immortal, that’s a long long long way. So he’s, he knows he’s supposed to ascend to the throne one day and he set that to some indefinite and maybe infinite time in the future. So there is this infinite proving ground he has to go through and that defines him in an important way.

Leonard: Yeah, that would be an aspect. I would. The first thing that came to my mind as simply and hit it as simply as I could would be “I’m not ready to lead yet.” ‘Cause that can influence his current circumstances as well if he is thrust into a position of leadership, that’s something that can create self-doubt.

Douglas: But you’re not king!

Leonard: Right. Not yet.

Douglas: Doing a little Anthony Hopkins. So, okay…

Leonard: See, now you want to play this dude, right? So what’s happening is, that’s part of what the conversation is about, leveraging the power of language. When you are figuring out your aspects. The key is to really figure out what am I invested in about this guy? What about playing this guy is going to interest me? Tuning the aspects to that.

The very very worst thing you can do is take a aspect you’re not passionate about, not playing out all of the ramifications that it might suggest. It’s better to leave it blank. If you are like “Man, I really don’t know what I don’t want my character to be about.” I’m like “God of Thunder, More Arrogant than Confidant, Mjolnir, let’s go.”

But if you get involved in a longer conversation and you’re “Man, I’m really interested in this idea that he’s not ready to be a leader yet, yadda yadda yadda, and that’s something I’d find interesting about a character?” Put it on the page.

Like I said, that’s the key to making good aspects: leverage the power of language and follow your heart. It sounds really Zen and like…it’s probably not Zen to you because you studied martial arts and understand flow in a certain way. Not just muscle memory, but mental muscle memory . . . but follow your creative impulses, follow your heart, follow what you find aesthetically interesting about the character. It’s really easy to get the best aspects.

Douglas: One of the things I find interesting, is I remember my best man at my wedding, my best friend in high school. He role-played with us, but he wasn’t into it the way others were. He would show up and play these great brute characters who were really good at just thrashing stuff, and that’s what he showed up to do. To kill and dismember people in interesting ways.

And that is every bit as much a valid as a character concept, and you can see getting there . . . [Doug gestures off camera] I have the flow chart on my second screen.

You can see coming up with just someone who’s just a bruiser who is just there to dismember people in interesting ways as much as you can a deep angst, angsty is the wrong world, a deep conflicted social mental, like we’re describing Thor, who could be a beefcake – and certainly my wife votes two thumbs up for beefcake on, well, on all the Chris’s. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, are both equally digestible in her eyes, which is a little tough. Although I was Captain America for Halloween.

Leonard: Chris Hemsworth is . . . a fine piece of man. I’ll give you that.

Douglas: You know, I’m pretty much as straight as straight gets, but when he had that scene with just the jeans I was like “Wow.” I’m totally reconsidering my orientation at this point.

Leonard: For real. For real.

Douglas: [laughs] He’s ripped.

Leonard: That’s the same thing in Casino Royale when Daniel Craig comes up out of the water and he’s just like, he’s an Adonis. He’s like…

Douglas: Yeah. I bought two of those bathing suits and now I’ve got at least one child, so it worked. That might be something I edit out: I’m not sure Gaming Ballistic viewers want to hear about my underwear, but we’ll see.

Leonard: Fair Enough [both laugh]

Douglas: anyway. Moving on, or moving into it, although I’m having great fun.

Getting into the approaches, which is a neat way of slimming down. I think I threw down Forceful for the primary, flashy and quick +2, careful and clever, and sneaky, I don’t see Thor as sneaky.

Leonard: Nope. Not at all.

Douglas: So the interesting thing is, and I sent it to you, but I’ll talk it. Let’s look at Loki…

Leonard: He’s exactly the opposite.

Douglas: He’s Thor’s foil. If you start from the bottom [of Thor’s descriptors]: Sneaky is the best, careful and clever is next best, flashy and quick, and forceful not at all. Look at that: they are absolutely dramatic foils as defined by your axes.

Let me ask you a question about that. You guys, when you came up with these approaches. Did you guys think of, three axes with polar opposites and you got forceful as the opposite of sneaky or whatever. Did you think about it that way? How did you come up with these six?

Leonard: You’re going to have to talk to Clark Valentine about that, he was the lead developer for Accelerated. My role on Accelerated was to make Core. I made the thing for him to derive Accelerated from. What I will say is, when I got the draft and I looked at those six things . . . I did I thought of them in terms of pairs. Flashy vs. Careful. And so on, Forceful vs. Clever. I certainly looked at them that way, and I think that Clark did a amazing job of distilling sort of how a great summary list of the way people do stuff that’s very adaptable. Because that’s what approaches are, they’re how you do stuff.

Douglas: That was actually . . . one of my favorite campaign settings for GURPS  . . . and I’m not really bringing it back to GURPS, other than it’s kind of my Rosetta stone: When I was trying to explain to my players, and I never made them learn the system, and especially with Black Ops which is 700 point or a 1,000 pts, or whatever. You just don’t do that to people, it’s not nice. Learn the system and assign 1,000 of these discrete units, which by the way in 3rd edition could be something like 2,000 half-point choices.

Leonard: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Douglas: Don’t think of these, the Combat Op, the Intel Op, and those guys, don’t think of that as a job. Think of that as an approach, the combat op is gonna just go “lets just kill stuff, let’s blow stuff up.” The intel op might still blow stuff up, but they are doing it in a sneaky way. Indirect. Indirect conflict. The security op is looking out for everybody, the science op is let’s understand the bug . . “To defeat the bug we must understand the bug.” I apologize for all who sat through that movie.

Leonard: I love Starship Troopers.

Douglas: I enjoyed it. I love the book. I thought that the movie was more in common with John Stakeley’s Armor than Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But it had Dina Meyer in it. So I’m always gonna rate it very highly.

[both laugh]

Leonard: Fair enough.

Douglas: I didn’t have much use for Denise Richards in that particular role, she was never one of my, but Dina Meyer, I even thought she was great when she made the guest appearance, somewhat recently on the Bones TV show. Still someone who makes my heart go a little pitter-patter. I married a redhead so I’m easily swayed there.

Stunts. That was a little harder for me to grasp although the text was there. The only thing that I threw down was “because I’m tossing a piece of neutron star around as if it was foam rubber I get +2 to move through foes in combat.” That seems to be one of many, that could be extant there. How many stunts does a typical or advanced FATE character have?

Leonard: In Accelerated you can have up to 3, in Core it’s 3 for free and you can get up to two more if you spend refresh. So you have 3 stunts and 3 refresh. So if you want, you can get up to 5 stunts and have up to 1 refresh.

Douglas: Is that person session, per day, what?

Leonard: If it’s during character creation, it’s permanent, but you have five stunts, but if you make that choice to max out your stunts, you have one refresh . . . permanently per session permanently at the start of the game. As you go through the advancement, you get additional refresh as your go.

Douglas: It’s like spending a character point to invoke a stunt. You have a certain number of stunts you can invoke in any given game. But do you have to choose them ahead of time?

Leonard: If you..

Douglas: Sorry, let me be more specific, is it like DnD spells where if you don’t memorize your magic missile, you can’t use it. Do you have to . . . ?

Leonard: No.

Douglas: No. So you have a number of stunts you can use as they are…

I want to thank you for that, I think it’s a great exploration of what it’s like to make a great FATE character. Now I either want to play or run one of these games. Which, really, is the mission. Get people interested in …

Leonard: Can I make one comment about the stunts?

So you’re like, “I’m not sure what stunts I want to give this guy moving through crowds. But I’m not sure.”

Stunts are really interesting in FATE because a lot of people compare them to feats from 3rd edition DnD and Pathfinder. I think that comparison is apt, they’re like the special tricks you can do.

I look at them in FATE terms, because we’re talking about Fiction-Forward stuff. About what is the moment on camera you see with this character? I think that stunt selection is done when you’re highlighting what is that moment on camera.

So when you thought of that, you’re looking at a frame in a movie or a scene or panel in a comic. Where you see, Thor using his hammer to bull through, to bull through hordes of enemies, right? And that’s something that you put on the camera in your mind. That’s a stunt. I think that’s the best way to approach stunts, the fact that you haven’t thought of any more is to me a indicator that you’re not sure what the spotlight moments are for Thor. But that’s something you can easily discover as you play.

Douglas: Also some of it, I’ll admit, is that he does so much stuff with it. He fights with it. He uses it to pave the way. He flies with it. I was really just thinking of all the times he’s…he’s going to be invoking it constantly to beat people down. And that’s what he does and he throws it all cool and stuff and it comes back to him. But I was really thinking about to overcome or move through foes, I was really thinking a lot about just the mass of the thing. Although, obviously the stuff he does with the hammer is pretty cool.

Okay. So I want to go from creation to a little bit to the future, I’ll pretend that there is a tie-in somewhere. But really, I want…the Kickstarter was hugely successful. Was it the most successful role-playing Kickstarter?

Leonard: No. It depends. In terms of dollar amounts? No. but I believe we’re the highest or one of the highest populated Kickstarters in terms of number of backers. We had over 10,000 backers, 3,000 and change of them have started a Google+ community. That is awesome. And I want to give them a shout out because I love you guys.

Douglas: I joined it recently actually.

Leonard: Sweet. There is a lot of great discussion happening over there. I’m very happy for the Google+ ability to tag people in posts, because now I feel like, whenever anyone needs me they can send up the bat signal. +Leonard Balsera: please comment, so I don’t feel the massive weight of obligation of trying to keep up with that group and how quickly they shift through discussions and all this awesome creative stuff they’re doing. So kudos to Google

But I think we’re one of the most populated RPG Kickstarters. I know Monte Cook’s Numenera had a larger dollar amount than we did, but I don’t think they had as many backer’s as we did.

Douglas: I saw one picture of President Obama someone had photoshopped in a cover of Numenara. Okay so…

Leonard: there is a non-Photoshop picture of LeVar Burton holding a copy of Fate Accelerated.

Douglas: That is kinda awesome. People keep telling me that I need to have +Wil Wheaton on this. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m sure he’ll get right on that.” I know he’s a great guy and he does a lot to promote gaming and Tabletop, and I enjoy his work on Big Bang Theory of course. They’re like: “You gotta interview Wil Wheaton!” and I’m like “[sucks in breath] He’s got a million followers on Google, I’m not sure I’m going to stick out that field…

Leonard: You want me to ask him?

Douglas: [Perks up]You know him?

Leonard: Yeah. I’ve met him. I would not say I capital K know him, that would be disingenuous, I have met him a few time and we have acquaintances in common and I’ve hung out with him and he played in a game of FATE core, Ryan Macklin ran it and he got to play in a game with Ryan and Lilian Cohen Moore, and Clark and Amanda Valentine at Gen Con and I got to stop in and say hi and sign his FATE core book. That was really totally awesome. Wil is totally awesome. I mean, I can ask him.

Douglas: Absolutely, part of this is just its . . . is all that I would say is if he were going to consider this, I would encourage him to see the now three interviews I’ve done. There will probably be another one next month with Ken. If he feels this is a platform he can use, Awesome. And if he’s like “I got my own show and I can do better,” that’s awesome too. It’s really about boosting the hobby, which is why I do this.

Kickstarter! I want you to brag a bit. What’s coming, what’s in progress. Since we were talking a little bit about Ken, tell me about the day after Ragnarok.

Leonard: Okay. So on what’s next for me, in terms of all the Kickstarter stuff is Dresden Files Accelerated. Which is Dresden Files RPG that uses the Fate Accelerated engine. That I’m very very very much looking forward to.

Douglas: Have you started work?

Leonard: No. Not yet. Work starts in January, but we have our team. And it’s a fantastic team.

Douglas: I’m a manager of research and development when I’m not dressed up as a costume superhero, and the team is so key. My team will never watch what I’m doing because role-playing, well, maybe one of them will. But I got a great team, and I love my team and given the right resources and the right path there is nothing they cannot accomplish. When you have a group of people around you that you can say GO CREATE, and they’re like, yes, I can do that. It’s a great feeling whether it’s fiction or science.

Leonard: Yeah. I’m really really excited about the team that we have. So that’s that for me. That is the last of the Kickstarter Stretch Goals, so we have Young Centurions coming out. Which is a sort of a young adult fiction inspired Spirit of the Sentury, in the same universe as Spirit of the Century kind-of game for FATE Accelerated that’s coming out.

Douglas: Roman Centurion?

Leonard: Well it’s Spirit of the Century, the people who are members of the Century club, the Centurion’s, it’s set in the same universe. And that is, there is a novel by Carrie Harris that’s going to be coming out. Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. Or Sally Slick versus the Steel Syndicate. Someone’s probably going to kick me later for not getting that correct.

Douglas: [Darth Vader voice]: Your power of alliteration is impressive.

Leonard: I know the Steel Syndicate part, I just don’t remember the conjunction for it is in the middle. And that’s like a young adult novel that has Sally Slick in it as the main character. And teenage Sally Slick dealing with stuff and that’s cool. And Shadow of the Century is on its way, I’m a big fan of Shadow of the Century because I’m not on its development team so I get to cheer from the sidelines and be its fan and rah-rah be its fan. Playtest and we have amazing people on that. Atomic Robo, Mike Thomson’s Atomic Robo, based on the comic by Brent Calinvenger. And that’s awesome! Dresden Files Accelerated is the last of the Kickstarter stretch goals and that’s going to be my thing next year.

Douglas:  If you could get any license and write it personally, what would you do?

Leonard: If I could get any license and write it personally, uhh, man, I don’t know . . . Assassin’s Creed.

Douglas: [Doug laughs] Yes! I’ve not played, but I know how popular it is. I’ve seen Assassin’s Creed costumes at renaissance fairs and people smile and nod, rather than are smarmy and evil when they see that. I could see where that would be fun.

Leonard: I would in a heartbeats, I would do it in a heartbeat. People from Ubisoft! if you are listening: I would develop that game in a heartbeat. Alright, I would not even wait for the heartbeat to finish, I would just do it.

Douglas: In between heartbeats?

Leonard: In between heartbeats, I would develop that game.

So Dresden Files Accelerated is coming, I personally am going to be working on the FATE conversion of a game called Ready Aegis, which was a kickstarted project. It’s its own system, but one of its stretch goals was a conversation for FATE Core and I have been tapped to do that, so I’m looking forward to do that. Red Aegis, the cool, kind of the cool thing is that it’s a generational game, its not just about playing the one hero, it’s playing a generation of heroes over time.

Douglas: Interesting

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So there are bits of it where the hero has to find his mate and have the next generation of heroes and carry on the line? That kind of generational?

Leonard: That kind of generational. I don’t know exactly how they are incorporating it into gameplay where they handle the actual ascent of generation between sessions or whatever they are going to do, but like, that’s the idea. That it’s a epic that spans multiple generations of heroes and its designed that way from the ground up.

Douglas: That’s really interesting. It would give you the chance to play a bunch of different characters in sequence, to have each one be influenced by the one before? That’s neat.

Leonard: It’s neat. It’s been done once, very effectively. A friend of mine, Tim Colpang did a game called Heroes Banner which was a small press game, 2007-2008, I think was when it came out, that handled that concept also, so I think it’s great. I want to, I’m glad that other people are exploring that idea too. While I’m giving shoutouts, HeroesBanner: awesome game.

Douglas: Cool.

Leonard: So I’m going to be working on that and that’s sort of the state of the FATE for me and for Evil Hat at least for the next year.

Douglas: So, Day After Ragnarok?

Leonard: Sure. Day After Ragnarok. Day After Ragnarok is out now . . . so Day After Ragnarok is Ken Hite’s brilliant alternate-history post-apocalypse military-fiction sci-fi pulp, hi. . . there are so many genre’s. That man can just mix genres no one else can I think.

Douglas: I’m going to have to do a lot of research before I talk to him I think.

Leonard: Yes. [laughs]

Yes. That is true.

You don’t really though, you just have to surrender to his, the scope and power of his knowledge about everything. Just let him talk.

Douglas: Yeah. And I’m okay with that. There is a communication principle I was taught when I was a consultant at McKinsey called “Release Your Agenda.”

Leonard: Yes.

Douglas: That’s why I say, this outline that I have, which we’ve actually done awesome on, it’s all well and good, but if you decide you want to talk about something else. It’s your interview. And that’s just to close it out a little bit. Is there anything you want to say that you haven’t had a chance to chat about . . . state of the industry, people you’d like to meet . . .

Leonard: Hold on, I wanted to give you the tiny sales pitch on Day after Ragnarok

Douglas: Oh! Go, yeah!

Leonard: The premise behind it is the actual literal Norse Ragnarok interrupts WWII.

Douglas: [Doug pauses, then laughs] He doesn’t start small. Two huge events…that’s awesome

Leonard: So WWII is happening and then the Midgard Serpent shows up and starts wrecking havoc on the world and we’re forced to detonate the Trinity Device to blow it up.

And we manage to halt the Norse Ragnarok by killing the World Serpent with the Trinity Device, but doing that leaves the world in a blighted state because of the destruction the serpent had wrought. And it’s people, sort of, its cleaning up after the world that both WWII and the literal Norse Ragnarok left behind.

Douglas: What are the major plot points?

Leonard: Well, it depends. There are several different types of campaigns in the setting, in the book, that you could run. So a lot of it is like, what are you interested in playing? Are you interested in playing people who roam in the most irradiated bits of the whatever and help out the people who are caught up in the most blighted wastelands? Are you in that group of people who are trying to do scientific research in order to help bring the world back to what it was? Are you people that have taken shelter in some of the cities that are left? There are a lot of different campaigns that are proposed by the book.

Douglas: Do the Asgardians actually figure in it, or not so much?

Leonard: Yes! There is a mention in the book about more things coming down from the mountains, now that this has happened. The Aesir and the Vanir and the giants, they come down from the steppes in Russia and that kind of stuff. We see them.

It’s a grab bag of amazing, it’s a intersection of Norse mythology and early 20th century pulp grit, it’s just, it was a great playground to be in.

All I got to do was convert it to FATE, I got to do the fiction-forward version of that. And tease out the bits that I think are really thematically interesting about that setting. It was a great opportunity to play in Ken’s playground and I think that everyone should have it.

Douglas: No, it seems to me that it would probably, in a concept that rich, would be a bit of a mistake to try and get into the physics/metaphysics of it . . .

Leonard: Uhh….[doubting noise] You know there is a HERO system version of it. Here’s the interesting thing, military fiction as a genre…

Douglas: Ahhh, good point. Good point.

Leonard:…privileges, or can privilege a lot of that kind of stuff. And so that element is definitely in there too. I think the FATE conversion doesn’t deal with that side of it that much, but it’s certainly there. It’s out right now for Savage Worlds, HERO system, and FATE core. Which I think is awesome and a testament to how robust that setting is. I think all of the versions that you can play it in play to its strengths in one way or another.

Douglas: Cool. So last thing, the floor is yours. Do you want to close out with any comments or challenges? Or state of the industry? Or state of Leonard Balsera.

Leonard: [Chuckles] No, I just want to say that the fact that people are asking me to do shows like this is something that gives me a lot of gratitude. I’m very grateful that people are into FATE. And I’m grateful that people’s gaming has been enriched by it. I’m glad I had something to offer. It’s all that I’ve got.

I think that the media trend, the gaming media trend where you can do shows like this on hangouts where it’s live and on the air and you can have a TV show about gaming, effectively speaking, and you can just do it from your living room is badass.

10 thoughts on “Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: Leonard Balsera (Lead Designer for FATE Core)

  1. Excellent interview. Had you had watched the new Thor movie when you did this? It reinforces all your points, and yet from the way you say it, it seems as if you're mainly referencing the first movie and the avengers 😉

    As for Fate, obviously Lenny does an awesome job at presenting it, but I believe you really grasped it as well. Now, one thing I do say, is that the GM section of Fate Core should be required reading to every GM, regardless of the system.

    Finally, I'll have to get on Hangouts with you, and tech you how to say my second family name. I guess that all you North Americans will have issues with it, since it features a sound not present in your native language (and I know how bad that can be, with English being my 4th language, and me struggling with it), but you don't butcher it too bad.

    1. The new Thor movie comes out this Friday here in the states – or at least here in Minneapolis. So nope, only Thor and Avengers.

      As to your name, I did my best, Mon-roz, I think. I'll get it right one day.

  2. Anyone else wonder if Leonard is the Architect from the Matrix sans all those screens in that room? Seriously, every time he came on I kept wondering where he was that the walls were so clean and white…which naturally made me think of Queen's "I'm Going Slightly Mad."

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