Musings on the Steve Jackson Interview – Part 2 (mostly VTTs)

I interviewed +Steve Jackson, who of course wrote and published the game system for which I write, GURPS. +Jeffro Johnson said nice things about the interview.

Steve and I covered a lot of ground, much of which could have elicited an even larger response than I made during the interview itself.

I’m going to excerpt parts of the transcript, and say what comes to mind. Hey, it’s a blog. That happens

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I’m going to rewind a bit. I’d alluded to SJG being one of the longest going concerns in roleplaying, and referenced an interesting story about how Gary Gygax was in, and then out, of TSR. That was this: The Ambush at Sheridan Springs, by +Jon Peterson. It seemed pretty rigorously documented, and didn’t read to me like axe-grinding. Regardless, it is an interesting tale of how creative control in a company with shares can be held and lost.

+Steve Jackson‘s annual Report to the Stakeholders (2013) always starts with the same line:

Steve Jackson Games Incorporated has one stockholder: me. (Steve Jackson)

I have to wonder whether one of the reasons to keep total creative and ownership control has to do with industry collective memory over D&D. On the other hand, Steve Jackson Games has always been Steve and his employees, from what I can tell, and the Wiki page, if correct, shows Steve had his own reasons to keep total creative control.

Honestly, it’s one of the reasons why I wrote what I wrote when I penned the post Joint Ventures, Licencing, and Pit Traps. Or, in the words of the immortal philosopher Major Vic Deakins:

I put these boys together because they are highly trained, and they are motivated – like me. This is what I do, Mr. Pritchett! And this is battle. Battle is a highly fluid situation. You plan on your contingencies, and I have. You keep your initiative, and I will. One thing you don’t do is share command. It’s never a good idea.

None of this changes the basic fact. Steve Jackson Games has been around as a going concern, under the same commander, since 1980. Whether you like or hate Steve’s methods, games, or shiny Tesla . . . to paraphrase another movie: He is still here.

Doug: What would it take to revitalize the tabletop face to face roleplaying scene . . . I would include Google Hangouts – almost all the gaming I do these days is over Google Hangouts, video chat with four or five people You’ve got the Roll20s or the Fantasy Grounds, Maptool or whatever.
What do you think would need to happen to …I don’t know if we’ll every see 50, or 100 thousand-copy print runs if you ever did. What would it take to make it more viable to expand a roleplaying game instead of maintain it.
Steve: Well it’s not like I haven’t given that thought.
Certainly really good virtual table-tops are going to help a lot. I’ve been thinking about virtual tabletops for oh, maybe 20 years? And a couple of times I have gotten set up with people who were working on projects like that, but they’ve always cratered usually before they were worth talking about in public.
A really really amazingly good VTT, even if it were only for D&D, would help roleplaying a lot – although it wouldn’t necessarily help D&D’s competitors, it would tend to inspire those competitors.

One thing that was clear to me through our conversation – he likes the concept of the VTT, and he returned to it more than once in the discussion. Or I did. Maybe both.

There are, of course, several good VTTs out there, and I interviewed several of their creators (Epic Table, Fantasy Grounds, MapTool, and of course Roll20). There are also several other creative aids, such as Syrinscape and RealmWorks
I’d be curious to know what Steve as a man and as the head of SJG thinks about the four VTTs that I talk about above. I’ve played deeply in three of them: Roll20, MapTool, and Fantasy Grounds (which I use to run my Alien Menace game). All of them are capable of running GURPS in them one way or another. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I playtested some things for a Technical Grappling DF game in Roll20. +Nathan Joy and Emily use MapTool – I suspect largely because Em is a script-goddess and she can do things easily and very GURPSy with MapTool. Fantasy Grounds is pretty gorgeous and will flourish running GURPS.
On the other hand, all of that is “within your own gaming group” stuff, because to encode the rules is to encode someone else’s IP and give it away for free. That’s, bluntly, a big no-no.
Phil Croft asked a question on the GURPS G+ group about interest in a GURPS VTT, based on this interview. He also started an unfortunately pessimistic (not his fault) thread about a GURPS VTT in the SJG Forums. 
I figured that I’d offer up my own thoughts on this matter, in one spot.
GURPS VTT: Breaking it Down
I love the VTT, and I especially like it over a channel that allows video calling. Hangouts is, so far, the very best at this, and the implementation of Roll20 within Hangouts it the best of all. 
What you need to do is have the following features, I think – because SJG protects their IP with admirable vigor, and also because the GURPS fanbase (and staff!) are an ornery bunch each with their own interests and feeling on what is a perfect game.
IP Control: you need a way to tie the rules being used to the collective purchases of the group playing. This means that you’d want to sign in to your hangout, launch the GURPSVTT application, and likely have to sign in to your Warehouse 23 account. The program would access your physical and electronic purchases, and enable the rules modules for each game supplement you bought.  I’d probably do it such that only one person around the table had to have a copy of each book (that’s how social reality works in a face-to-face game as well), but if one of you didn’t own a copy of Tactical Shooting, you would not be able to use any automated features for rules, styles, or encoded equipment.
House Rules: There would need to be a scripting language that would allow users to write and test their own house rule modifications. In order to comply with the IP Control, it may well be that you can only run such modules by hosting them on a SJG server and accessing them through there – with a list of all the W23 people who can use it. That way, a troll can’t script up a complete version of the Basic Set, and make it available for free.
The IP protection and house rule capability should go a long way to ensuring that the automation of rules that got at least one implementation in Fantasy Grounds fairly deeply de-GURPSified would stay under SJG’s control.
Character Sheets: I’m a big believer in a playable character sheet for these games. The character sheet in the game of Fantasy Grounds I played in was really cool, for example, and has a lot of neat functionality. That could have been unique, though – I got invited to a one-shot by a scripting expert for the game.
In any case, even if there isn’t a formal character sheet (though there should be), there needs to be a module written to take GCA sheets and export them in a format that can be easily digested by the program.
Finally, there should be internal support for quick-and-dirty NPC and monster creation. I mean clicking a “Create NPC” button, being able to toggle or edit basic attributes, drag skills over from a list, and say “go.” Simple tokens and monster stats should be easy to plunk down, so that you don’t have to bust out GCA and stop the game utterly if you want a quickie improvised encounter.
No Path Dependence on Object Tracking: One of the frustrating things about Fantasy Grounds, much as I enjoy it, is that it’s primary focus seems to be the Encounter Tracker. Or maybe it’s some sort of event thing. But it’s definitely not the map. In order to get a bunch of guys down on the page, one needs to do things, and one must do them in a very specific order. 
This is not friendly. If I put an icon on the map, everywhere else it might be needed (the turn order/initiative list, the list of PCs and NPCs available, whatever) it should be duplicated. If I create an NPC, I should be able to put a token on a map, and have it automatically be available (if not in order) on an initiative list. I should be able to center the map on a clicked NPC from the NPC sheet OR the turn order list. Etc. Basically don’t make any one function THE key to getting icons in there. But if you must, make it be the map. 
Abstract Map Support: For those who simply don’t use tactical play, it still might be good to have a default abstract “battle map” that might look a lot like the Conflict Action Map from the Ancient Odysseys RPG (thanks to +Erik Tenkar for finding it for me). 
Now, I might have some suggestions on ways to make this a bit more GURPSy or friendly for different genres – but the fact remains that this “map” inserted as a default option in a VTT package would make a lot of things really easy to do when it comes to quick and dirty encounters. Or you could simply allow a tool to be used to group fighters into encounters – a sort of instant Venn diagram of death.
Multiple Monitor Support: Please. For the love of glob. Please. 
Native Posture Support and Multi-hex figures: It can matter in GURPS whether your lying down or standing up. This support wouldn’t have to be fancy. A primary token for a human might be a simple one-yard hex with a guy in it. Like the dude to the right.
If our alien is two hexes long when he lays down, then I would like the icon to switch to something like the one to the right. It needn’t be a full-on graphic – though it could be – but a setting that notes that a lying-down guy is 1×2 yards wide x long would be awesome.
The Basics: You need tokens of some sort, some basic rules coded in (start with target select and a size/speed range penalty table, for example). A turn-order tracker is nice. A way to note states and damage. A die roller.
Awesome lighting effects are not necessary, but GURPS in tactical mode has a very real and very important facing dependency that needs to be captured, and doubly so in Technical Grappling, where facing can matter even within close combat (the same hex).
Nice to have would be extendable weapon tokens or some demarcation of reach weapons, etc. 
The VTT Parting Shot
Ultimately, you’d want something that started, likely, with a robust scheme to ensure that SJG could feel safe that a marginal product line from a profitability standpoint were not further marginalized by making piracy the go-to way of experiencing the game. Remember – there are people’s lives and livelihood at stake here. This isn’t “oh, Paizo can afford it if I pirate this one book,” since that’s (a) bullcrap (b) criminal no matter the scale, and (c) misses the point completely. 
By Steve’s own comments, GURPS is still out there because a small but loyal following can ensure that the staff time spent to work it is recouped, and that’s probably about all. Bite into that, and you probably kill the game. 
But make no mistake: I think (and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am) that SJG would get behind the right VTT if it was proposed by a professional, in a professional way, with the right viewpoint on the project. 
Programmers, for all the algorithmic and mathematical awesomeness that can be involved, in my experience are a bit like the stereotypical creative genius. Interested in a project’s start, but not its finish. Feature creep is the rule, and bug fixing and documentation are torture and not interesting. So wrapped up in the nifty architecture diagram of how the network/structure/input-output flows should work that the user experience is neglected. And so very convinced that their way of coding is the only right way that they might as well be die-hard one-true-system gamers as well (and probably are).
Are you a programmer whom I’ve offended. I’m mostly sorry. But the above matches my professional experience over two decades now (and today is my birthday, so there you go) with many programming projects. Steve gives that a brush pass as well: “And a couple of times I have gotten set up with people who were working on projects like that, but they’ve always cratered usually before they were worth talking about in public.”

I think a GURPS VTT would be awesome. I think Steve would think that one would be awesome. But the programmer would have to be dependable, predictable, a true expert, and willing to be guided and directed by someone who has kept a firm hand (death grip?) on his company since its founding in 1980 and is unlikely to let go short of retirement. 
Sales would likely be decent – GCA was the top seller on e23 before we lost the ability to track sales – but you’d likely not be selling 100,000 copies at $5 (to the writer) a pop. So this super-professional project would likely be a labor of love – the way GCA has been.
That being said, with the right program, I think it would get enormous fan support, including scripting and coding modules. Look at how GCA is supported – and while I have issues with the program, creator support isn’t one of them. I asked once if my little article on half-stat defaulting could be coded in, and in a day or two, it was done for me.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Steve Jackson Interview – Part 2 (mostly VTTs)

  1. one thing to note in FG you do NOT have to plan the encounter using the encounter window. if you want ANY "personality" in the combat tracker simply drag him/her/it to the tracker. one does not need to use the encounters "combats" window at all.

  2. Great interview, and I'm glad to hear that he is at least somewhat interested in VTTs in the future. We've so far been unable to sway him enough to give it a go, but I'm hopeful.

    1. Thanks! I think if the right situation were presented, it could be "win win," and having played with FG for a bit, I know it CAN do it, though some more native and official support would be awesome. It would, of course, be interesting to have SJ write the specifications and requirements document for his ideal GURPS VTT, so the public could see if that "good" VTT he's alluding to is doable at all.

  3. Great article. I've been thinking a lot about making some sort of "eletronic aid" for GURPS. Anything really! =P
    This post is my guide on how to approach the idea. I just read it a second time this week.
    Thanks!

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