A lot of my “index pages” have gone the way of the dodo since my migration from Blogger to WordPress, and while I take time to fix that, I wanted to offer up something as a reminder and a bit of a throwback.

I have conducted quite a few interviews, some recently, some a while ago, with SJG staff and freelancers. Since the upcoming Dungeon Fantasy RPG (Powered by GURPS) game has passed some big hurdles and is headed off to print, perhaps in time for GenCon.

So with that, here are some interviews, in reverse date order. Some special things about them is that each of them has a text transcript – you can read them, listen to them (MP3), and/or watch them. For the most recent ones, I use post-production to try and do a bit of value add, showing products and images relevant to the conversation. But, without further ado, here’s the list of interviews with SJG folks and freelancers on The Firing Squad. (The PK/Hunter one wasn’t mine; it was a transcript with which I was gifted).

I’ve updated the older posts so the text flows better, but at the cost of losing some of the graphics. Trust me – it’s better this way.
Continue reading “Steve Jackson Games – Interviews on The Firing Squad”

The Firing Squad welcomes Sean Punch

I had the opportunity to sit down once again with GURPS Line Editor Sean Punch for a 90-minute interview concerning the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set.

The Kickstarter is ongoing – and to back the Kickstarter is to vote for more physically printed GURPS products.

The interview is fairly clear, though Sean and I both talk fast, and there will be some interruptions in the flow.

This is the first Firing Squad video in over a year . . . sorry for making you wait so long!

If you don’t have time for the full 90-minute show (but you should make time for it, because Sean’s an engaging speaker and I mostly just shut up and listen), at least listen to this seven minute long pitch about the DF boxed set, and what’s in it for you, and why it matters to the future of GURPS.

Seven Minute Summary


And for those with more time on your hands, here’s the full video:


Full 90-minute Interview

As always, as soon as I can make it happen, there will be an MP3 file and a transcript available.

Hey, and why not? Here’s the first interview I ever did, and also my first with Sean.


When I heard that there was going to be a big SJG project, and given that I have a certain amount of contact with Sean and the SJG team thanks to being an author for them, as well as doing the fairly well-received GURPSDay compilations, I volunteered to conduct a series of interviews with the SJG team.

+Phil Reed is a busy guy. CEOs are like that, in my experience. While I usually try and do interviews on The Firing Squad, which allows me to dig deeper and probe with follow-ups, that simply wasn’t going to happen.

Phil graciously answered a few questions on the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set via email. I’ll be following up in a more content-driven conversation – on video – with Sean next week (though it’ll take a bit to get through my post-production, and then transcription, though the vid will go up before the transcript is ready).

My questions are in bold. His answers are in plain text. Continue reading “Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set – Q&A with Phil Reed”

Thursday is GURPSDay, and much like Christmas time, I was gifted with the transcript that someone did of the conversation between Hunter Shelburne and +Rev. Pee Kitty (PK Levine, Jason Levine) regarding the GURPS worked-example series After the End.

For an absolutely shameless set of plugs, if you want some comprehensive reviews of each volume, check out After the End 1: Wastelanders (review) and After the End 2: The New World (review) that I did previously.

But what was the interview, you ask? It was part of SJGamesLive.

(I should note that these transcripts, whether it be this one or those on The Firing Squad, are pretty intense piece of work. As an example, the AtE transcript is just shy of 10,000 words long. That’d be about a 12-page Pyramid article, which is on the longer side of things. So there’s a lot of content here.)

Hunter Shelburne (HS) interviews PK Levine (PK) on YouTube  Hunter Shelburne (HS): Hey guys! I’m Hunter, the Community Manager here at Steve Jackson Games. Welcome to SJ Games Live. I’m here with PK Levine, our Assistant GURPS Line Editor. How you doing, PK?

Jason “PK” Levine (PK): I’m doing well, Hunter. How about you?

HS: Doing awesome. Very happy to be here, interviewing you. I guess, I’m not technically interviewing you; the fans are interviewing you, it seems. We collected some questions on our forums over the past few weeks, trying to get an idea of what people wanted to know about the After the End and some other things that we’ve been doing with GURPS — specifically, what you’ve been doing with GURPS — and you’re going to answer some of those questions today. So, you ready?

PK: Yeah, absolutely.

HS: Awesome.

PK: Let the fans speak through you; be their proxy!

HS: Beautiful. I’m pretty good at letting other people speak for me here. So, we have EvilEeyore from the forums — I say “from the forums,” but that’s pretty much everybody here — he’s got a couple of questions. Let’s start with, “What should the presumed TL be for a bog-standard ATE game (After the End) and what do you mean by ‘for economic purposes’ when discussing TL4?”

PK: Okay, actually something that just occurred that I probably should have brought up earlier: should I give a really brief summary in case anyone doesn’t know what After the End is?

HS: Sure, yeah, let’s go through it. That’s perfectly fine.

PK: Sorry about that.

HS: No, no, you’re fine!

PK: Yeah, rewind one notch here. So for anyone who doesn’t know, After the End is a recent series that I created for GURPS which allows you to — it makes it *easier* for you to run a post-apocalyptic campaign, where the focus is adventurers journeying through the wastes, scavenging old treasures, and dealing with the crazy hazards that are out there. So it’s kind of a mish-mosh of everything. And it can run anything from kind of realistic to completely gonzo — pretty well, actually, in my humble opinion, which is completely biased.

BOTH: (laugh)

PK: Okay, so he was asking, sorry about that, EvilEeyore, right? You were asking what I meant by ‘economic purposes’ of TL4, right?

HS: Yeah, that’s correct.

PK: Okay. I know the exact passage you’re talking about. This caused a little confusion on the forums; I actually went back and edited it a little bit to try to make it a little more crystal clear. The actual tech level of an After the End game is “whatever the old world achieved.” So if the world got to tech level 8, tech level 9, you know, modern or a little past modern, and then everything collapsed, then your game is a TL8 or TL9 game. It just is. The tech level 4 is strictly for establishing *prices* and that’s it.

The value of any item that’s low-tech/medieval-tech is going to be the same because anyone could still make that. It’s just that, as you go higher up the tech level and you start to get to things that need industrial work, electronics, things like that, their effective *value* increases, but it doesn’t mean that the world is at tech level 4.

It just means that that’s the level that kind of sets the economic baseline. So it’s really *just* about prices, nothing more.

HS: So not as complicated as it sounds, honestly. Okay, cool. And the second part of two questions is, “Can we get a quick few words about TL (tech level) and how you’ve been handling it for your game? Skills, skill check penalties, repair, gear costs, etc.?”

PK: Sure, yeah. I will say, not to foist it off, but the majority of this actually, if you have After the End 2, in the rules for inventing and repairing and analyzing gear, that’s all in there. I have tech level penalties, tech level bonuses — obviously, it’s easier to figure out what a firebow does, a caveman-style thing, than it is to figure out what a robot does, necessarily — and that’s in there.

About the only thing I can say regarding the high-tech gear is deciding how much of it to include in your campaign is kind of a GM call. If your world got to tech level 9, it’s kind of up to you and your setting whether the whole world had so much TL9 stuff that it’s everywhere, or whether that’s going to be some extravagant, rare find.

I might be able to address something like that in a future supplement, but for the most part, everything else about how TL interacts with skills is basically straight out of the inventing chapter.

HS: Cool, so you said that was After the End 2 that would give you a lot of that information, right?

PK: Yeah, After the End 2: The New World, has the rules for doing stuff, including inventing stuff and analyzing it and fixing it and all that, and tech level factors very heavily into that.

HS: Cool, okay, so just in case you wanted to get an idea where to get that from, there you go. So let’s see, next down the line–

PK: (inaudible)

HS: Sorry, what was that?

PK: On warehouse23.com, ladies and gentlemen!

HS: Yes! I’ll throw a link down into the description actually on that one. Thanks for reminding me. Next up we have Douglas Cole. Douglas has done a lot of stuff with us on GURPSday; he’s done a lot with the GURPS blogs and things like that. He asks, “If you could wave a magic wand, what creative support from the exterior writing base would you like to see? Adventures, characters, more gear, worked examples of disasters, etc.?”

PK: Oh man, okay. I could go on.

HS: Please do!

PK: Well first off, shout out to Doug because I have to say your GURPSday collaboration and compiling all the GURPS blogs every week is beautiful. Beautiful. Love it. Okay, I would say what comes to my mind with where this can go and where I’d like to see it go:

I think among other things, we do need some sort of book about building settlements and communities, because a lot of people want that. I know that there’s a lot of people who want to focus on building up an area, and I think there’s adventure to be had there. I don’t ever want the game to not be about adventures and fun stuff — I don’t want it to be accounting, that’s lame — but there’s a lot of adventures that can be had in defending a settlement and things. So a book like that, which might be an ATE book, but might also just be a general supplement book that also covers post-apoc would be nice.

I think if anyone wanted to do a loadouts book, I could get behind that. Traditionally in this game, characters start with very little gear. You don’t give them a lot. I’m actually a little more generous than what I suggest in the book. I kind of just capped it at $500 worth of gear so if the GM wants to give more, no one will complain, but they’d complain if the GM said $500 and they’d be like, “No, PK said we should have had $1,000!”

HS: (laughs)

PK: So figuring out how to load your character on a tight budget? A loadouts book that was just like, “Here are some $500 gear kits that you can start with. If you’re a hunter, start with this.” This would be great, you know?

I’d like the game to eventually have a supernatural side. I didn’t go into supernatural stuff because there just wasn’t enough room. I’d love to see a fantasy magic apocalypse, a religious apocalypse straight out of Revelations, expanding the game that way.

My first thought when I wrote books 1 and 2 was that the third one might be detailed scavenging rules. Though to be honest with you, I’m just a huge fan of the scavenger as a concept. Kind of like what Dungeon Fantasy did with Treasure Tables, just detailed lists of all the different stuff you can get.

Maybe a dirty-tech book where it focuses on inventing stuff and realistically what could be turned into what, if that makes sense–

HS: Oh yeah.

PK: –the idea of “let’s grab a tire and turn it into” . . . um, I don’t know what you’d turn a tire into!

HS: Well, I guess that’s what that table would be for. (laughs)

PK: Yep, exactly! Like a dirty-tech book that covers that. There’s more, but I’m going to shut up there because that’s a pretty wide range of ideas. Anyone pitching one of those ideas, I’m probably going to be behind you.

HS: Nice. That’s actually a really cool question because I know one of the big draws of our community is we have so many people contributing in the community to supplements and things like that. We have so many people doing homemade, fan-made stuff that’s a huge boon. Plus personally, of all the GURPS stuff that I’ve seen and gone through, this is one of the most interesting worlds to me personally because I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stuff. So hearing you talk about making a religious one, possibly a Revelations-type thing? I didn’t even think of it in my mind. I’m used to the more traditional stuff, so now I’m thinking that’s a totally different slant to it. You can totally have supernatural things in there, that makes a lot of sense. Like, that’s crazy, I like the idea. That’s a really good question, Douglas.

PK: Yeah, I definitely want to go there at some point.

HS: Cool. Well, we’ve got a big one here, we’ve got a few questions here. We’ll go through them one at a time. This is Ghostdancer. Let’s see, “Tell me why you chose to leave the supernatural out of After the End 1 and 2.” Well, we already covered that.

PK: Yeah, that was just space and cohesion. I would have had to include so much extra stuff to include the supernatural, the books would’ve been twice the size. That’s got to be a later book, it just does.

HS: Honestly, having one that’s just focused on supernatural makes sense too, from just a thematic standpoint. It doesn’t always go with all the tech and stuff. That makes sense. The next question is “Lots of people are buzzing about your gadgeteering rules.” This is all from Ghostdancer, by the way. “How did you arrive at them? What makes them different, better, or worse than the Basic Set’s rules?”

PK: Actually, they’re really not that different. They’re just more detailed and presented differently, with a couple of changes to address the fact that a post-apocalyptic game doesn’t really have a tech level; it’s super fluid. You could be whittling arrows one day and then working on a fusion engine the next day. You know what I mean? So they had to be very broad. I started with what I did for Monster Hunters 2, my previous series. I had expanded the gadgeteering rules and drilled them down to focus on — I kind of expanded and simplified at the same time (or tried to, at least) so that you had more options, but that it was very straightforward what options to pick. And a lot of people liked that; I had people tell me, “I understood the gadgeteering rules for the first time when I saw them in Monster Hunters.” So I started with that and then just expanded it a bit, because Monster Hunters was over the top, crazy cinematic. So this, I had realistic inventing over here, and then [quick] gadgeteering over here, and there’s a level in the middle called “regular gadgeteer” that’s just basically right in the middle. So you can have the totally realistic inventor, the crazy over-the-top inventor, or just the cinematic one that kind of fits, say, the Fallout setting where you’re not an “inventor” but you can craft a gun. You know what I mean?

HS: Yes, essentially giving you a few different options, a few different avenues to take on that. I like it.

PK: It’s kind of like three different “power levels” of gadgeteer, based on how crazy the GM wants to get.

HS: Yeah, it tends to be, at least in games where I’d be involved in, would want to get as crazy as possible. So giving us many options is pretty solid! So again from the same poster, “Mutation is interesting. Where did the ideas for Freakishness come from?”

PK: I’m pretty proud of that one, actually! For anyone who doesn’t know, the idea behind mutations and Freakishness is — in GURPS, usually things have a power modifier, which reduces the cost by a fixed percentage. The way I did it here was that all mutations come bundled with a new disadvantage, Freakishness, and the more you get, the more terrible things that happen to you: you become uglier, you gain side effects, you gain weird oddities and such. And originally, it started off as a power modifier, just like any other power, and I’m thinking, “Well, it’s a power that shouldn’t have a Talent, that seems weird. But it should have a power modifier.” But then I was basing the effects on how many points you saved, and then I realized that I’m just going the long way around to give someone a disadvantage. So I just converted the whole thing into a disadvantage and just added it on. So the idea was, “Okay, you have a -10% discount on this power that saved you 3 points; we take those 3 points and put it into a disadvantage.” And then I realized, why not just add the disadvantage, straight up? Does that make sense?

HS: Yeah, so you took the system that was a point-based system and essentially just negated the points out of it and said, “Here’s a disadvantage,” and hand it to them. Which makes sense.

PK: I did the math ahead of time, “These are the points, we just bundle it right in.” It’s like a direct effect, like I just kind of taped it to the side, which is ugly but it seemed to fit mutations.

HS: Actually, I’m kind of the opposite. I think that’s actually, I hate to use the word when it comes to this kind of game, but that’s actually more elegant to me. It’s simplified. It’s easier to understand. It’s just, “You get this good thing, here’s the bad thing.” It’s easy to teach people, it’s a simple concept, they don’t have to do any math or anything; you’ve done all the math for them.

PK: And there’s this table. that you can see, as your Freakishness goes up, bad stuff is going to happen. And some people have called out the fact that if you have Freakishness 7 and you go to Freakishness 8, nothing changes. And people have asked, “Why is it worth an extra point of disadvantages?” But it’s not that, it’s that you’re getting scared the more this goes up. It’s not that going from 7 to 8 doesn’t change anything, it’s that do you dare go to 9? Because at 9, bad things happen to you.

HS: (laughs) It’s the fear of what’s coming. And that is Freakishness 9.

PK: The mounting terror.

HS: I like it. Still the same poster. “What was the reasoning behind choosing the apocalypse of generations before, instead of apocalypse now, right now, or recently?”

PK: I made a point, in both books, to make it clear that the game should be set at least a couple of generations after the end — hence the name! — because I want people to be focused on “this is the new world.” Let’s kind of accept it. And you can make it better, but let’s try not to go back to the old world, because that’s a different genre. You know what I mean? So I guess that was just a personal preference there. I could have done a book where the apocalypse was happening right now, but that’s not, in my mind, post-apoc. In my mind, that’s like a disaster movie, you know what I mean? If it’s happening now, you’re trying to *stop* it. Does that make sense? You’re trying to hold it off.

HS: You wanted people to play within the apocalypse. You didn’t want them to try to rebuild the world, essentially. Or at least rebuild the world they knew, necessarily.

PK: Exactly! Building a new world? Awesome. But going back and rebuilding the old world? And if you want to play that, that’s fine — I actually think the rules will help you with that — but it was never my focus. I actually recommended, I said that the minimum should be within about two generations. But really, if you’re the second generation, that’s only 20 years after the apocalypse. And you can go even less than that. It’s more just a social contract with the players, so that they’re not trying to go back and fix the world, but they’re embracing the new one. If you don’t think your players are going to do that, then you can set it two years after the apocalypse and be fine. I just found from experience that 20 years is about the minimum buffer where people stop assuming that everything can be fixed and reversed and we can go back to the way we were in 2016 and happy. The world has changed.

HS: Well, that makes sense to me honestly. I just had some questions in our chat here; we’ll get to those questions, just to let everybody know. Feel free to ask questions in chat and if we have time at the end and we can answer them I’ll give those questions to PK as well and we’ll go through those as well. Let’s see, we’ve got one more question from Ghostdancer. It is, “Your rules for radiation and long-term fatigue are brilliant simplifications with mechanics that could easily be ported elsewhere. Where else would you port them?”

PK: Well, thank you for the compliment. (laughs) I don’t know if I can go with “brilliant” but they work well. We actually already ported them, a little bit. Roger Bell_West wrote this great supplement, Disasters: Meltdown and Fallout, which was a very realistic take on radiation, nuclear plants, and such. And during the playtest for that, people actually said, “Is there a way to get simpler radiation rules?” and I offered them up. At the time, we didn’t even have a release date for ATE. We didn’t know for sure if or when it was coming out, but we figured, let’s port them in there and they seem to work pretty well. They’re a little bit cinematic if you let people — basically, it turns radiation points, they’re like hit points. The more radiation you take, you lose radiation points. You get too low, you get sick, you get too much lower, you get dead, because radiation’s bad. So if you’re running a cinematic game, then you let people heal all their radiation points. If you’re not, then the rule is you can only heal 90% back. Like if you lose 10 radiation points, you can recover 9. That 1 is gone. Because you’re going to die eventually. It’s fair.

And long-term fatigue, I had been playtesting that for a while. I’m actually surprised it never made it onto — I have a website where I post a lot of my house rules. I kept meaning to post it! Never did. And it just ended up in there. Basically, it turns starvation and missing sleep into — they lower your fatigue pool’s possible max. Like, if you have a fatigue pool of 10 but you missed a couple nights of sleep, your pool drops to 7. Not just your pool and what’s in it, but how big it can get. You know what I mean? It lowers your maximum. It’s a lot like how the new Fallout handles radiation, which is funny considering this was written way before Fallout 4 existed.

HS: Nice. You’re a trend setter. That’s how it works though. I like that; it makes sense. It’ll all make sense thematically.

PK: Yeah, it totally fits.

HS: Nice. Cool, well thank you for those questions, Ghostdancer. Quite a few of those are really good questions. We’ve got a few here from Anders as well. Got a Kromm drop. “Kromm made a classic post on ‘everyman skills,’ skills every character should have. How would you amend this list for an ATE campaign?”

PK: Oh, so what skills do you need to survive in an After the End game? Well, first off, I’ve got a list of the important skills in the first book, After the End 1: Wastelanders. And I’ll flat-out tell you, what I did was, we have this thing called the GURPS TraitSorter that lets you tell the sorter what advantages, disadvantages, and skills fit your game and what don’t, and it just spits out a page that’s all nicely formatted and all that. I just straight up used that to make chapter two! So that has all the skills that I think will be useful.

But I would say if you want to survive, you would need some sort of skill to get the lay of the land, because you’re probably going to be traveling. Even if you’re doing a settlement, you need to know the land, so Area Knowledge, Current Affairs, Navigation, something like that. If you’re going to live off the land, you want Scrounging to find stuff, Survival skill or Urban Survival, Weather Sense. I’m not sure if that was one group or two I just gave; “living off the land” and “lay of the land” are kind of related. Some way to travel, like a vehicle skill, Hiking, Riding, if you have an ice age, Skating or Skiing; that would be a category I’d throw in there. You have to be able to win fights or avoid them in some way I guess. If you build a character with no combat skills at all, you’re probably going to die! Even if your character’s not a combatant, this world is harsh and things want to kill you. So if you don’t have any weapons skills or at least unarmed skills, you’ll be missed.

HS: (laughs)

PK: I usually recommend you want some sort of close combat skill, some sort of ranged combat skill. Probably something high-tech and low-tech, like Broadsword and Rifle; it works, because wherever the one doesn’t work, the other one does. And then, some sort of knowledge of the world, like the Expert Skills, Archaeology, Anthropology, Current Affairs. And the last thing I’d throw in there, I would say you almost have to have *some* sort of social skills, even if you’re not the face person, even if you’re just an angry hulk with Intimidation, that is at least a way to deal with people. Because sometimes social skills are the only option that you have.

I tried to hit all this stuff; I mean, this is basically just coming out of how I build the templates. Every template kind of covers all of this, but some focus more than others. Like some are combat monsters with no social skills, the trader is a social monster with very few combat skills, but it all balances out.

HS: Makes sense. The intimidating hulk sounds a little bit more like my type of character, personally. I like how that’s a social skill, but it makes sense!

PK: Yeah, it totally is. It’s awesome actually. In our current game, the player of the hulk talked me into letting him skip Intimidation and he has regretted it ever since because he needed it continually and it just doesn’t work. He’s good at being menacing, but in a way that people aren’t sure. They think, “I could probably still take him.”`

HS: He’s not big enough! Anders has another one here, “Also, some settings would incorporate cyborgs into the setting, like [blank] character’s arm in [redacted].” We’re not going to do the license on that. “But any thoughts on how to treat cyborgs? Would the Freakishness mechanism be a good fit for a street cyborg wearer as well?”

PK: You know, you could use Freakishness, but Freakishness focuses a lot on the social, but also a lot on changing and being morphed. And the mutation rules tend to assume that you can hide them and then people get a bonus to tell that you’re a mutant. I figure with the cybernetic stuff, most of it’s going to be pretty obvious, like if you’ve got a cybernetic arm or leg. I would actually use the Ultra-Tech rules. I think they’re great; I really do. I think David did an amazing job with them. Basically, you take the advantage (what does it give you?) and then you apply the Temporary Disadvantage of Maintenance, like you have this extra strength in your arm but it requires maintenance every week. You take the disadvantage One Arm, and then you put Mitigator on that, so it’s like disadvantage One Arm but Mitigator: As long as I have my my cybernetic arm attached, it’s cool. So it’s like the good and the bad. So I would use the straight up Ultra-Tech rules. I think they’re great.

HS: There you go, Ultra-Tech rules it is. Another one from him, “If you used a magic system for ATE, how would you decide which one to use?”

PK: (laughs) Hell if I know! We have a lot of them! Man. At some point, I expect in the future, I’m going to be sitting down with someone — either I’ll be writing it myself or sitting down with someone and talking about a magic book for this, about magical fantasy apocalypses, and we’ll hash through that then. I have no idea.

HS: Okay, fair enough. Let’s see, last one from Anders, “Why are there no stats for flame-throwing guitars?”

PK: (laughs) Which is undoubtedly the most important question that is going to come up in this thing, I guarantee you that. Because the license that we’re not mentioning in question? That movie was released after this was written, okay? So if that timeline had flipped, I promise there would have been stats for flame-throwing guitars. Actually, one of my players, he’s a trader — that’s T-R-A-D-E-R, not traitor as in Benedict Arnold —

HS: Well, he hasn’t shown that side yet. You don’t know. He could be both.

PK: He built a trader, who are the more social characters, and he actually said, “I don’t like any of the options; can I be a rock star instead?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s an awesome idea!” So I helped him design a custom rock-star package. So I’ve got that and some equipment ideas kind of boiling around in my head to eventually be a “Ragnarok-and-Roll” Pyramid article that I imagine I’ll get out some time.

HS: Cool. Well, there you go. If you have a rock star in your party, we’ve got the rules for you, hopefully.

PK: Who knows when? But they’re in here somewhere.

HS: Let’s see, NinjaMonkey. This one, I’m going to butcher the pronunciation, because I always do this with these, but, “I think Caravan to Ein Arris has some great elements for use with ATE. What are your thoughts on how to go about converting it?”

PK: For the record, I’ve only seen it written. I think you nailed the pronunciation; I don’t know.

HS: We’ll call it nailed then.

PK: Exactly. I think so. That would work good; traveling across the wastes is like traveling across the desert. Dealing with social intrigue and going between two cities, which could be settlements? I could see that. You’d just want to reskin the whole thing. Don’t underestimate how much reskinning it takes to make something come across as post-apocalyptic and not fantasy. Basically, if you did that, spice up the encounters a little bit? If it’s like the party’s attacked by wolves, then no, they’re attacked by *mutant* wolves. A sandstorm comes in? No, it’s a *fallout* storm. Just spice it up a bit. I think it would actually work pretty well. I’d run that!

HS: Just run some of the ATE rules like the radiation for a rad storm or something? Makes sense.

PK: Exactly, yeah.

HS: Well there we go. Pretty simple reskin there. Bruno’s got a question here. “You mention that you’ve run or are running an ATE campaign. What can you tell us about it?”

PK: (laughs) Okay.

HS: Oh boy.

PK: I can tell you that my players are insane. All right, so the setting I use — because one of the things about After the End, for anyone who doesn’t know, is that it’s a “choose your own apocalypse.” It doesn’t have a fixed one. You choose what the apocalypse was. So what our group came up with was the idea that it started as a civil war but also brought in robots and radiation. The idea was the military was using advanced robots and drones and nanotech weapons, and then when they went into the hands of the police and the state, people revolted, there was a civil war, the revolutionists used mininukes. So artificial intelligence was never invented, but there’s these poorly misprogrammed robots, glitchy nanobots, and nuclear radiation craters all over the place from this war. I mean, that’s the buildup for anyone who’s curious about my world-building, basically. So there’s robots and mutated creatures, because the nanotech mutates the creatures and turns them into weird things.

Our group basically, I’ll try to summarize them. There’s an unsocialized hunter and two docs that he’s traveling with. One of them is this naive, mutated one called Dr. Cool who, in game, we don’t ever stop making fun of, just because he chose the name “Dr. Cool,” he’s a 16-year-old brain surgeon and–

HS: (laughs) That’s amazing.

PK: –his most heavily used mutation is a Flesh Pocket which just . . . I’m going to stop there, but it lends itself to all sorts of jokes. We’ll just move on. And the other doc is basically a meth-head who’s based on Hunter Thompson. Straight-up “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” And they run into this charismatic rock star and his mutant hulk bodyguard, his techie mechanic, and their mutated scavenger assistant. And they fight crime! Wait, no. They explore.

It’s been fun. The general plot of the first arc, which we’re just now wrapping up actually, is they heard about this flying vehicle that crashed into a mountain. And of course everyone is like, “Oh my god!” Some of them are smart enough to know, “There were planes, but planes don’t still work. How are they doing that?” So they figure they can gain lots and lots of valuable resources if they go check that out. They go on this long journey, they run into this crazy racist group called the Redeemers who just absolutely hates mutants, and then one of the Redeemers stows aboard on their wagon, and the other Redeemers are trying to track her down. They have to get rid of her, and then negotiate their way through these mutants; there’s this mutant camp called Aftershock that’s on the mountain they’re trying to reach. They finally talk their way through it, they get up, and now they’re fighting robots and mutant plants and deadly mold. That’s mutated mold, I mean it’s not just — it’s creepy.

HS: (laughs)

PK: And they finally get in, and finally get to the room where they figure is where the plane crashed into the side of the mountain. And there’s not a plane; there’s a *tractor*.

HS: What?

PK: And everyone is completely confused, until they sit down and look at the place, and realize that this is a missile defense silo with these microwave beams that would also shoot down missiles. And those were powered by this massive magnetron that was just hit by lightning a week ago. Got hit by lightning?

HS: Oh man.

PK: The dishes pulled the tractor from a mile away–

HS: Wow.

PK: –and everyone saw it streaking across the sky. I’m proud of that because none of them saw it coming. They still, I made sure they got so much cool stuff that they don’t hate me. They have broken robot parts and they found a laptop and night-vision goggles, all these things that are really, really useful. So no one’s upset about it, they were just amazed.

HS: That’s a good twist. You just telling me that, I didn’t see it coming.

PK: Yeah, they’re like, “PK, you’re a jerk.” I’ve got to mention one more thing that I was actually just ranting about. I don’t know if you’ve seen the mutant chapter of the book, but there’s these creatures called “teddies.” They’re killing machines. They’re these mutated bears. They’re fast, they’re strong, they’re cunning, they’re *deadly*. They had to fight a couple of them. And then they found a young teddy back at the camp, because they tracked them back to the camp, and two of the characters decided to adopt it. As a pet.

HS: Oh my god.

PK: This has not worked out well for them. But they are stubbornly, steadfastly clinging to the notion that this teddy will one day be their pet and love them. Her name is Babette and she is beautiful and she will love them. They are sure this will happen. Point of fact, the last game session ended mid-combat because Babette broke free of her chain.

HS: I have a feeling, one more session, they’re not going to have a nice pet anymore.

PK: The nice thing about having two docs is that they are pretty good at whipping up sedatives and getting them in her. So there’s a wrestling match where they’re trying to wrestle her to the ground and inject her with chemicals.

HS: Perfect! I hope Dr. Cool has something for that, I guess. Still my favorite character, I think.

PK: Oh yeah, Dr. Cool and the hunter are the two ones who — the hunter is Dick. Dr. Cool and Dick are the ones who are just convinced this is going to be their pet. And they’ve been doing a good job of training her, as good as you can do, but she’s still a wild animal and she’s a mutant and freakish. And the rest of the party basically has reluctantly accepted it and just apologize every time they go somewhere.

HS: (laughs)

PK: And they have to give this warning to the people in the settlement, “Look, there’s something in the back of the wagon that’s going to scare the crap out of you. Just don’t look. Or if you do, just know she’s chained.”

HS: “We’re here to help. We promise. Maybe.”

PK: (makes air-quotes) Yeah, “Help.”

HS: Great question, Anders, or no, that was — that was a really good one. Here’s a funny one–

PK: Yeah, that was Em.

HS: –John Dallman, “Will you continue Kromm’s fine tradition by explaining ATE via interpretive dance?”

PK: (pause) No.

HS: Perfect! There we go. That was easy enough. (laughs) We’ve got Humabout has a couple of questions here. (tries different pronunciations) The first one is, “Was it a conscious decision to avoid using simplified chase rules from Action 2: Exploits? I noticed range bands surfaced again and was expecting to see something chase-related to,” an example being the desert chases through the movies that we are not mentioning.

PK: Hmm, I don’t know if you can say it was a conscious decision. The books are just stuffed. I crammed in a lot and that just wasn’t one of the things that I thought necessarily made the cut. I think I can see where there’d be a need for it. I’m hoping that — actually, let’s add this to the list of possible supplements or support — would be some sort of vehicle- and nomad-focused book would be nice, with those chase rules with those kind of range bands, too. I think there’s definitely room for that, a post-apoc vehicles thing.

HS: Cool.

PK: I think it could turn up there. But it wasn’t so much a conscious decision as just — man, I went over page count already and had to apologize and get permission, so I couldn’t go further, sorry.

HS: At a certain point, you have to cut it off. But you guys got a lot of stuff in there so I mean that’s — you crammed it full of stuff. And there’s always room for more supplements. Hey, always a thing out there so you guys can work on that. Let’s see, the second question, “My post-apocalypse game features a century of supernatural Nazi conspiracies culminating in The End, and my players want to go monster hunting after the end. How well do you think these two genres will mesh?”

PK: Okay, so Monster Hunters and After the End. I applaud your brave spirit, all right! Those should work in theory. I mean, you’ll have to make some adjustments obviously. Money doesn’t exist, so you’re going to have to scrounge equipment, repurpose equipment. Some of the deduction rules obviously rely on technology or modern society, you’d want to change those. But I don’t think anything comes to mind that you would have to change that isn’t kind of obvious, so if you just make the tweaks here and there to kind of fall back to the After the End rules when they make more sense than the monster hunting rules? Go for it! Please try it. Let me know how it works for you. Seriously, I hope to see about this in the forums; I really want to hear.

HS: Cool. Well there you go, you’ve got something to try out there. Vilobion, “Hey PK, how do you feel about mininukes? Was any thought given to their inclusion in ATE?”

PK: Well, they are! I mean, they’re not in the books themselves, but that’s because I only included the basic stuff, the stuff that you want characters happily starting off with. But they’re in Ultra-Tech. Just pop open Ultra-Tech and go to the index; they’re under “mininuke” I’m pretty sure. So as long as the GM is using Ultra-Tech and the game got to at least, I think, tech level 9 or 10? Whenever they show up. Yeah, they’re totally a part. I just didn’t need to stat them up because that’s been done for me.

HS: So yeah, that’s come up a couple of times now; if you guys are looking for a supplement that’s already got a lot of this stuff in it, you might be looking for Ultra-Tech. That’s what you’re looking for.

PK: Yeah, pretty much if you have Ultra-Tech, you’ve got your shopping catalog right there.

HS: There you go. On Warehouse 23! Going to bump it one more time.

PK: (inaudible)

HS: Warehouse23.com, where all your dreams come true!

PK: And nightmares sometimes. We can guarantee nothing.

HS: (laughs) Chandley here, “Do you think ATE could support a mutant animals/plant bestiary? Cinematic animal templates, animal- and plant-specific mutations, any changes to Freakishness needed, etc.?”

PK: Oh god yes! Wow, I should have mentioned this with the whole “what do you want to see support for?” I could totally see “After the End Adversaries,” like a sub-line, kind of like “Dungeon Fantasy Monsters.” Definitely a mutants book. I could see a predators and prey book, which is more realistic animals, because not everyone uses mutants and that’s totally cool. Maybe one book for gangs and paramilitaries. One for like “murderous machines.” Pretty much anything, except zombies, because Dr. Kromm covered that just too darn well; there’s no point in touching anything. Just throw people at [GURPS] Zombies because that’s a hell of a book.

HS: There you go. We keep adding to that first question, pretty much. We keep adding stuff that you guys can work on for us.

PK: Absolutely, yeah. And remember, if you’re out there and you have no writing cred with us yet, start on Pyramid. Write some Pyramid articles. Let us know what you want to write. If you want to write about mutant creatures, then submit a Pyramid article, write one up with mutant creatures. It doesn’t have to be a whole book. And that’s how we get to know you and eventually, once we know you can write and be counted on and we like your stuff, you have a way better chance of being offered a book or having your book offer being accepted.

HS: Yeah, exactly. That’s something we’ve mentioned on our website. Things like that, getting into writing for us, definitely Pyramid’s the way to go. Actually Doug mentioned it, Doug from our GURPSday, mentioned [in the chat] that it would be a good Pyramid article, some of the stuff we’re talking about earlier. So yeah, a lot of good ideas here. Let’s see, wabishtar, “I’ve been wanting to use GURPS City Stats to build independent communities in my ATE game. Can you give some guidelines on how that might be done? Examples: How do I determine the Wealth statistic of a community and military resources, given that the Wealth statistic does not exist?”

PK: Yeah, I mean money, wealth? That’s not a thing. That’s going to be a little tricky, because it is true that City Stats does base itself on money a lot. I suppose you could do a “money equivalent.” It would certainly be reasonable to say, even if you don’t know actual funds, “This settlement has Average Wealth, this settlement is Very Wealthy, and this one is Filthy Rich just because they have resources.” But I’ll be honest, I think you really are going to need either to throw a book at this, or at least a really nice, detailed Pyramid article with conversion notes. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can give you a couple sentences worth of good guidelines here. It’s going to take some thought.

HS: Sure, that makes sense. So not something we can answer right now, but something that might be thought about, something you guys might look at in the community, or post about in Pyramid as well. Minuteman37 had a related question, let’s see if we can do that, “I feel in many ways City Stats is lacking mechanically. Do you agree? Are there any plans to add more to the City Stats system?” This is kind of going into other stuff and realms.

PK: True, but I can diverge for a second. I don’t think it’s lacking so much. The thing it’s important to realize is City Stats was always meant to focus on a high-level view. The city as a whole. Just like an overview of what you’d get in travel maps, so you have general information. When you want to get more detailed and kind of go deeper, you really want to use Boardroom and Curia. GURPS Boardroom and Curia is a later supplement that you can use to flesh out government offices, trade guilds, merchant houses or corporations, and other “towers” and key points of the city. Because it’s the city as the whole, and then underneath that you’ve got these — “towers” probably isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean, the *pillars* of the community, that’s what I’m thinking of, like the houses and corporations and the government and all that, and then you have the people. So I think it’s important to use the right book for the right thing: City Stats at the top, Boardroom and Curia at the bottom, and then people of course are just regular GURPS.

HS: Great, so there you go. Gives you more things that you can look at in supplements down the road. Just a comment from our comments, “Just listening to this has got my campaign brain juices flowing: how immortal superheroes deal with living after the end.” That sounds really cool actually.

PK: (laughs) Definitely. Especially, yeah, if you time-skipped a couple of times. It’d be kind of cool if you started off 10 years after the end, and then 50 years, and then jump to 100 years at some point, you know?

HS: I dig it, that sounds really cool. I’m going to keep looking back here in the chat here; I don’t see any overt questions at the moment, just comments about some of the stuff in the past. But we’re moving into kind of the other stuff; it looks like we have a little bit more time so we might as well answer some other worked-series here. We’ve got Daigoro–

PK: And if anyone has any questions about After the End, throw them into the chat.

HS: Yeah, if you guys have any questions about After the End, please drop them into the comments. We’re definitely looking for more After the End stuff here. Let’s see, let me pull up the other questions here. So these are just a couple in the worked-genre area. Daigoro, “When will you give cyberpunk this worked-genre treatment?”

PK: That’s actually a pretty fair question. We’ve talked about it, actually. Cyberpunk is one of the genres that’s been on the table as a discussion point. Let me clarify: We have no current plans for it, unfortunately. (I like cyberpunk.) It’s certainly possible; it’s one of the things that if we can find the right combination of time to do it, author for it, and all that, and it seems to work out, well, it’s certainly possible. But at the moment we don’t have it in the pipeline; I’ll just be completely honest with you.

HS: Well, Anders has got a couple more here, and these are some continuations. “If you were to rewrite Monster Hunters today, with what you’ve learned since then, would you change anything about it and what would you change if you did?”

PK: It really did turn out about the way that I wanted. All I can think of is I might change the name of Ritual Path Magic, just because that confused people. We have a Path/Book Magic and a Ritual Magic and I wrote Ritual Path Magic. I admit, it’s confusing, sorry. “RPM” is an awesome abbreviation for a magic system, and I stand by that, but I could have named it something better. Sorry I don’t have anything deeper for you, but I think Monster Hunters turned out pretty much exactly how I wanted it.

HS: Cool, yeah, awesome. And that’s cool that, you obviously have grown a lot as a writer probably since then, but it’s cool to look back at your old work and say, “I still like this.” I know as someone who writes non-, I don’t don’t write GURPS or anything like that, but as someone who writes in the general sense, it’s sometimes hard to go back and read stuff that you’ve written and be like “I like that,” even right after the fact.

PK: Yeah, usually my going back — I’m fortunate in that my worst things were that I had some key grammatical issues that I would constantly mess up, even as an editor, but fortunately we have other editors working with me to catch those. So usually I feel more disgruntled when I look back and read my unedited drafts of things, and I’m like “Whoops!” (grunt), I’ve learned to stop misusing that word!

HS: (laughs) There you go. Doug actually dropped another comment in our chat here, in which you can ask us about ATE. This isn’t exactly ATE, it’s a worked genre, “Would you say that a worked-genre treatment is an advanced GURPS writing topic, or because it has such a clear outline, would it be a good intro for a writer?”

PK: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s so much a question of intro versus advanced. I think it’s a question of how well the author gets what we do with these worked-genre series and understands how to define an area, a focus, like a scope to keep it in — and then stick to that scope, and do all the work ahead of time for the people. So I don’t think that’s so much an advanced versus intro thing as it is really more of a paradigm, if someone can wrap their head around what we’re trying to do there. I will say, I don’t think that we would want to give a — and this is more Steven and Kromm’s thing — but I’m of the opinion we probably wouldn’t want a first-time writer out of the gate to start with a worked-genre book, but I don’t think it would have to be necessarily that long a time if they seem to really understand what it needs.

HS: Cool. So it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Maybe not the first project, but it’s not something that’d take too long to work into. Requires a very disciplined approach, yeah, there you go. That’s a good comment there, Doug, thanks for that question. Actually mentioning, you were talking about RPM a second ago. Humabout came back with a few questions about Ritual Path Magic, “The Ritual Path Magic system has been out for a while now, and I was wondering if there was something you would have done differently or wish you had included in its publication?” I guess other than changing the name and keeping the acronym! (laughs)

PK: Yeah, a cooler name! Actually, there were some things that I wanted to add, change, and make some tweaks to, but I did. The nice thing about being able to keep writing stuff is that GURPS is a living, growing system. In Pyramid #3/66: The Laws of Magic, that is almost a mini-supplement for RPM. And among other things, that’s where I got to focus on new limitations for it, on ways to make it more specialized. Because people pointed out, they complained and said, “The system favors generalists so heavily, there’s no reason to be a specialist,” and I addressed that very tightly. Also in that, this is not me, but Christopher Rice (Ghostdancer) had another article that further expands it. And then I had a couple more small changes that I snuck into Monster Hunters 5. In case anyone did not know or did not notice, Monster Hunters 5: Applied Xenology is part Monster Hunters book but is also kind of Ritual Path Magic Part 2. Because I included Technomagic and a bunch of little fixes and tweaks that are suggested rules to make things run better.

HS: Cool. And I guess, building off that same question, “Is SJG interested in” — or I guess us in general — “interested in putting out books of RPM rituals? If so, would these be themed a la Plant Spells and Death Spells, or just random mixes of rituals?”

PK: I think we’d try that, sure. If you want to pitch it, go for it! It would probably make more sense for them to be themed in some way, but really, we’ve done grimoires of the standard magic spells before. A lot of people want more examples of Ritual Path Magic. It’s a very flexible system, and it requires figuring out how to put the spell together, so more examples are better. If anyone out there wants to pitch that, shoot us an email!

HS: Great. And it looks like on that same level, “If someone was crazy/fanboy enough to include Divine Favor, RPM, and sorcerous enchantment all in one game, how well would they play together?”

PK: Oh, they’d play great! I’ve done it. They work together very well. Now, sorcerous *enchantment* seems a little specific, because that’s how you get magic items, but that’s certainly a valid way to create magic items. But Sorcery itself works well. I don’t know if you know, Hunter, but RPM tends to take a while. The whole idea is you have this versatility where you think of what spell you want, you stat it up real quick, and then you gather the energy and form it together and it takes time. Sorcery is the complete opposite. Sorcery is, you only have 4 or 5 spells, but you can cast them quick, repeatedly, and with no effort. So basically you spam them. An RPM fireball is the kind of thing that you have to prepare in advance or accept that you’re going to take a couple of minutes to make each fireball. With Sorcery, the fireball is just (pew pew pew). But they work together well, because they cover each other’s flaws. RPM is incredibly versatile, Sorcery is incredibly limited.

HS: (inaudible)

PK: And Divine Favor? Not to sound immodest, because I wrote it, but it plays nice with everything. It’s just, you get help from god when you need it, and I’ve never had it have a problem interacting with anything.

HS: Well, you’ll probably like this comment. Doug also commented, and this is not a question, but he said, “Divine Favor is bar-none the best clerical magic system I’ve ever used in any game.”

PK: Wow, thank you, Doug! (laughs) I appreciate that. Yeah, we have a Dungeon Fantasy game going on right now, and our saint is basically a holy warrior who uses Divine Favor. And he just loves it. He’s a minotaur for Jesus–

HS: (laughs)

PK: –and he just prays and prays and prays for everything, and it has helped us immensely, I’ve got to tell you. His blessings have been wonderful. They have meant the difference between life and death for our group.

HS: That’s always great to hear. Thank you for all the comments, by the way, Doug. You’re really coming in strong with that. We have a couple of fun ones here at the end just to throw in, we wanted to leave them in. Anders said, “If GURPS was a pizza topping, what would it be?”

PK: Ah. It would be a pizza, with little pizzas on it. And each of those little pizzas would have little pizzas.

HS: (laughs)

PK: It goes infinitely deep.

HS: It’s the pizza of pizza toppings! That’s how good it is. That’s where we’re at; that’s awesome.

PK: Fractal pizza. GURPS is a fractal pizza.

HS: Fractal pizza.

PK: If we do a 5th edition, I’m going to push for that tagline: “GURPS: The Fractal Pizza of Roleplaying.” And I will probably get shot down, but I will push that.

HS: You’ve got full support from me. I’m going to start using that on social media now so I can get used to it. Push it there, work on it; it’s like an Inception move.

PK: Everyone, make this a meme! Make this a meme: the fractal pizza of GURPS.

HS: Fractal pizza, the pizza recursion — that’s the comments we’re getting.

PK: Yes, exactly. I want to see a Basic Set-shaped pizza with other little Basic Set-shaped pizzas on it. Don’t let me down, Internet!

HS: (laughs) Get on it, Internet. You’ve got some GURPS articles to write and some memes to create. Last question we have is Minuteman37, “Vanilla or chocolate?”

PK: Ginger.

HS: Oh, there you go! Damn.

PK: Sweet, spicy, and refreshing.

HS: See? That’s what I like about this. We got some fun answers there at the end. So that’s really it looks like all we’ve got. I’m checking the chat one more time to see if you guys have any last ATE questions. But while I’m doing that, thank you very much PK for doing this. This was really awesome to get a little more insight. I’m very happy you guys in the audience actually got a lot of great questions for us. We definitely want to do this again in the future at some point. These were really in-depth questions; that’s kind of what I was looking for, kind of digging into the system a bit rather than skin-deep stuff, so that was really cool. I got a little more insight into it myself as well. Is there any last thing you wanted to talk about, PK?

PK: No, just wanted to say thank you guys for all the questions. You know how to find me on the forums, you know how to find me on Twitter if you need me. I’m certainly not going to stop answering; this was just your chance to trap me in a corner and demand answers.

HS: We were going to take his lunch money, but you guys asked good questions so there you go.

PK: (laughs)

HS: We prevented that horrible torture. “Who’s who”? That’s a good question. So just in case, if you caught us at the very end, I am Hunter, the Community Manager here at Steve Jackson Games.

PK: I am PK Levine, the Assistant GURPS Line Editor.

HS: Perfect, and we’ve been talking about GURPS After the End. We do have one more last-minute question; we’ll go ahead and grab this one since it came in. There is, “How do you feel about mixing supers and After the End?”

PK: Hell yeah! Honestly, if you just run unrestricted mutants, like mutations with no limits, you can practically have a supers game. I’m kind of running into that problem in my game — well, in my mind, I don’t mean to say a problem for you, you know what I mean — where two of the characters have so many mutations that it’s starting to feel a little bit “supers-y.” But just blatant supers, flying around and stuff? I assume whoever asked that, I would hope that you have read “Ex-Heroes,” which in my mind is one of the best post-apocalyptic supers book existing. If not, go read it. “Ex-Heroes.” I think it shows that supers in the wastes? Perfect. It goes.

HS: Awesome. Well there you go. Thanks for that last minute question, there, Christopher. That was Christopher Rice on our live chat there. So guys, this interview is going to be just staying on our YouTube channel, so you can watch it later if you like, and feel free to share and all that good stuff. But PK, thank you for joining me for this interview.

PK: Thanks for having me.

HS: Yeah, no problem at all. We’ll have to do this again some time for sure. Maybe for After the End 3, who knows?

PK: Which I hope someone will propose soon.

HS: Awesome.

PK: I’ve given you topics, people.

HS: Yeah, get on it! After the End 3 is literally out here. It’s in this video. You just need to collect that information and make it, guys. This is up to you now. So thank you guys for joining us. This has been Hunter and PK with Steve Jackson Games. We’ll see you guys next time.

PK: Praise “Bob.”


This was far too long in coming, but in January, the Firing Squad welcomed +Brian Engard, and we discussed game design, self-publishing, and how to broaden the gaming market, among other topics. It’s about a 90-minute interview.

I interacted with Brian first as a contact about the interview with +Steve Jackson, only to discover that Brian has a ton of notches on his belt, from design work with +Leonard Balsera on Fate Core, as well as Spirit of the Century and Shadow of the Century, and Strange Tales of the Century.

He’s also self-published a very different kind of game, called Becoming, which is part improv theater, part RPG, and likely different than anything that you’ve seen before.

Give a listen!

MP3 Audio File

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. Tonight we are joined by Brian Engard. Game designer and marketing guy for Steve Jackson Games. Brian, welcome.

Brian Engard (Steve Jackson Games): Hi. How’s it going?

Douglas: Good. Thank you for joining me. One of the reasons why I jumped in and wanted to chat with you is because I saw your Daily Illuminator, where you talk a little about yourself and your games. I didn’t really put all the pieces together until I went and got my copy of Fate, and “Ha! There you are.” I know that Leonard was very much involved. Tell me a little bit about Fate, Shadow of the Century, Spirit of the Century, and what’s your history with Fate, Evil Hat, and Spirit of the Century?

Brian: I got started with Fate several years ago when…the story really goes back to the really early oughts where I fell in with Brennan Taylor, making the original version of Bulldogs, which was a d20 game.

Like he’d already made the game, and I wrote a psionics supplement for it – about 70,000 words – and it sold like tens of copies, and we sort of went on with our lives.

And then maybe 5 or 6 years ago I saw on Facebook that Brennan was going to do a second edition of Bulldogs with Fate. So I pitched my hat in the ring, and I was apparently the only one who responded in anything close to a reasonable time.

So he was like: “Why don’t you just co-write the book with me?”

So I wound up writing half of that book. That was sort of my introduction to Fate. I had to take sort of a crash course on Fate. I knew some stuff about it – like I’d been aware of it and knew kind of how it worked, but I hadn’t actually read a Fate book yet.

So I read pretty much all of Spirit of the Century over the course of a week, then started designing Fate stuff for Bulldogs. That came out and it was a success.

I then got onto a list of Fate designers that Fred Hicks keeps, and from that I got picked up by Steve Russell with Rite Publishing to do Demolished Ones, and then Fred started throwing me work with…he threw me some Paranet Papers stuff for the Dresden Files RPG, and he threw me some stuff from Strange Tales of the Century, and that snowballed into the Fate Core project. Now I’m involved in a lot of stuff on that project.

That’s kind of how it happened. You know . . . it happened over the course ten years.

Douglas: Tell me a little about – I’m going right off script already – for those of you who don’t know, if this is your first Firing Squad interview, I always send my guest a list of questions, and I very rarely stick to them!  Although we will come back to them, of course, because they are, I think, interesting.

Fate is a little bit different than a lot of other games, I think. I interviewed Leonard, I read the book, we went though how would I do Thor in Fate Accelerated, just to get familiar with it live, and understand it – and it seems very different than, say, my game writing of choice which is GURPS, and quite different than D&D5 or Twilight 2000 to reach way back. So, how was it to get steeped in the Fate rules and mind set, and how is it the same and different than other games.

Brian: I picked it up very quickly, and I think that…there are two different components to picking up Fate. One is picking up the rules, and how to design for it, and how to play for it. Those are two different skills.

It’s possible to know how to design for Fate and not be very good at running it, and vice versa.

I had done all my designer work on Bulldogs, and I was supposed to run some games at GenCon of Bulldogs. I talked to Brennan and I was like “hey, I’ve never run this before. how do I do this?” and he came over to my house and ran a game for me, and once I’d seen it run once it clicked for me and I knew how to do it and Iv’e gotten better since then.

It’s one of those things where I had to steep myself in Fate very quickly, out of necessity. Because of that sort of trial by fire that I put myself through, I familiarized myself with how to run the game, and how to hack the game very quickly.

Now it’s like, Fate is the system I’m most comfortable designing for, because I have the most experience with it. I think it’s a more resilient system than something like D&D, that is very concerned about balance, and making sure that no single character outshines the other in combat.

Fate is more concerned with how much narrative control does each character have, and does does each player have. Because everyone sort of gets the same things that give them narrative control, it’s very easy to make sure that is sort of the sweet spot for everyone. Fate allows you to go back and revise your character a lot to make sure you’re getting what you want out of your character.

Douglas: It seems like, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where you got Buffy who can slay gods, and Xander Harris who is normal, missing an eye, that Fate would handle – because it’s really about screen time and narrative control – that Fate would provide for an awful lot of fun for every character regardless of the power-o-meter.

Brian: I think that is mostly true. I think it is possible to create characters that are divergent enough that one character just outshines the others.

Douglas: Probably true in any system though.

Brian: There is this notion that Fate is like this universal system, and I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a very flexible system, and you can apply it to a wide variety of genres, but it doesn’t handle everything equally well. You can’t just marry any setting to it and expect it to work. You’re going to have to do a lot of hacking to get it to work well, and not all settings are really suited to Fate.

There is sort of this holy grail of making a fully universal system, and I think that’s generally like a holy grail that people chase until they know better. I don’t think it’s an obtainable goal. Or at least, if it is a obtainable goal it’s not compatible with making a good game.

Douglas: That makes a lot of sense actually. I think you see that a lot – and it’s a very self-selecting example – on the GURPS forums you see people trying to hack at it and this and that and push – and some of the times the people hack the system to the point where – and I’m sometimes guilty of this even as a writer, but fortunately Sean (Punch) reins me in – you can push to the point where “Okay, great, it now handles this. No one would ever play this.” You get to the table flipping before you start rolling dice. It would just be frustrating.

Brian: I find that if you are drifting a system enough that it is no longer recognizable, or drifting a system enough that you’ve added all sorts of fiddly rules bits that slow down play, you should probably use a different rules system. There are probably better suited to what you are trying to do.

Douglas: Coming back a little bit to Fate and your game designing. How did you decide to develop an 80’s extension of Spirit of the Century?

Brian: I should clarify: That was not my choice. That was a thing Evil Hat was planning on doing from the start. They‘ve been planning Shadow Of The Century for a long time.

First they asked me to work on it, which I was thrilled to do, because it’s a really fun project, and then they asked me to step in as creative director, to make sure that the game was being steered in the right direction.

I didn’t come up with the idea of Shadow of the Century. My job is more to help people who are working on the project come up with cool ideas, and make sure deadlines are adhered to, and also to do some of the writing. Like I sort of come up with the broad strokes “This is what we are trying to do,” and we all work together to fill in the details.

Douglas: I suddenly have this mental image of you standing in bunch of a front of creative people saying “Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them…” [both laugh]. I don’t know – it’s just where my mind goes.

Brian: That’s not . . . too far off the first creative director meeting I had.

Douglas: I’m a manager by profession as well, so I can sort of relate.

Brian: The team is great, and they know their stuff, and they’re doing a great job. Honestly, if I’m going to be in charge of a bunch of people they’d be it, they’re very easy to work with.

Douglas: So the pulp era and the pulp style are usually very 1920s and 1930s and tommy guns, how did that mate with the 1980s . . . and big hair?

Brian: [both laugh] So pulp is…the answer to your question is they didn’t so much as mate, as one became the other.

Shadow of the Century is a timeline advancement for Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century takes place in the 20s, and Shadow of the Century advances the timeline to the 80s, and that required us, in order to be faithful to the feel of the 80s, to change a lot of what was true about Spirit of the Century.

Pulp is a very optimistic genre. It’s all about . . . the heros are the ones who are ascendant, and beating back the darkness. So it’s two-fisted action, and very simple moral questions. Things are very clear-cut. You solve your problems with superscience or by punching the sapient gorilla in the nose.

The 80s are very different from that. The way that’s sort of reconciled with Shadow of the Century is that time has passed and things have gotten worse.

The Centurians are people who are born at the beginning of the Century, and live for the entire Century, and remain fairly potent though the entire Century. Some sort of magic helps them maintain their youth and their vigor.

But that said, the Shadow Centurions, who are born the day after the Centurions, they become more powerful as the century goes on, where as the Centurions grow weaker.

So in the 80s toward the end of the century, the Shadow Centurians have started to rise. The Century Club has been forced underground, and the bad guys are kind of in charge. So that’s where things are in Shadow of the Century. It’s a less optimistic game. It’s about plucky underdog heroes fighting against the Man, basically.

Whereas in Spirit of the Century the heroes had a lot of resources to draw on, and were generally well thought of and they . . . like everyone knew they were the good guys.

In shadow of the century things are much less clear. The heroes are often operating at some sort of disadvantage. Public opinion has moved against them, and they are trying to fight against an enemy that controls everything. It’s less about “Dirk Blitzmen is leading an attack on the US: we’re going to stop him and turn him aside, and the threat’s over.” And more like “Well we stopped Blitzman’s attack, but the people he was working for are still out there, and they have all these tendrils all over the country.” Even though we stopped this one attack, the US is still financially under the heel of this organization, and stuff like that.

It’s a much darker tone than Spirit of the Century is.

Douglas: That makes sense to me. I still remember – especially growing up in the 80s. I grew up in the 80s: I was in high school from 85 to 89, and I still remember growing up in the early part of the 80s and we all thought the world was going to end in some fiery nuclear cloud at any given moment. It was a complex time to grow up, hair or no hair.

That’s an interesting take, I like the waxing of the one group and the waning of the centurions.

Did that come about as part of the creative process in writing Shadow of the Century, or was that something that had already been prewritten into the history?

Brian: I think that Fred and Rob already had. I might be getting a little ahead of myself here, but they basically envisioned it as a trilogy where Spirit, Shadow, and something else that I won’t talk about.

I think when Spirit was successful, they started to think about the future of that game, and they realized that there were more games in this worked, and that there were more stories in this world that could be told that weren’t pulp stories.

The idea for this game has existed for a long time. But it’s only with the success of Fate core that Fred and Rob were really able to say “Well, we have the money to do this, so let’s do this.” So, we’re doing it.

Douglas: It’s amazing – I can see the same thing with the Avengers. A movie that makes a billion dollars all of sudden makes it pretty clear that there are going to be a lot more movies that branch off that. Nothing encourages you to diversify than success.

Tell me a little but about the demolished ones. Sort of switching into Lovecraftian Horror mode: what was your inspiration to doing that?

Brian: Steve Russell came to me, and said “I have this idea for a game, and I don’t have time to write it. I’d like to write a game that’s sort of a murder mystery, and then there’s amnesia. The players have amnesia. So they’re trying to figure out who they are as they are trying to figure out who the killer is.”

We brainstormed back and forth a bit, and it started to become clearer that we wanted it to be set in a pseudo-Victorian setting, with some Lovecraftian elements, and then we realized that we both really liked the movie Dark City, and we started to take a lot of cues from that.

And that’s kind of where the Demolished Ones came from. Amnesia + Murder Mystery + Dark City + Lovecraft + Victorian…go.

And then I went, and I wrote, and I created the Demolished Ones and that’s pretty much all it was. It was developed in tandem with Fate core and I used a lot of lessons I learned on that.

Douglas: Lovecraft is…I started to read it, and it was one of those things where I had a bit of insomnia, and I had talked to Ken Hite. I have a lot of friends who are really into it. I should really read it.

I know a reasonable amount of Lovecraft mythos, and I’ve read the Monster Hunters stuff, and it’s got all the Lovecraft woven into it, and I’ve seen some of the movies, and of course Hellboy has got all the dark ones, and it’s very clearly Mythos inspired, etc. etc. But I never read the originals.

I was having insomnia, and I really wanted to have something to read, and it’s like midnight on one of these days, and I’m not sleeping and I know that I’m going to be up for another couple of hours and not be able to sleep, and I was like “Let me try some Lovecraft.” And I start to read and I was like “Oh, no.” It’s this very complicated, deep . . . wow, that entire page was one sentence.

That’s not something I’m going to read bleary-eyed with insomnia. So I need to get back to it . . . I’ll probably take it with me on my trip to Hong Kong on Monday. It’s dark and it’s not something where you are expecting the ham-fisted heroes to wade in, and slug the monsters and walk away.

So what is it about Lovecraft and that deep, dark well that is so compelling? Because fundamentally it’s stacked against the players. The best they can do is go insane and push back the darkness for a few years.

What is it about that makes so many people that say “I really want my game to be set in . . . this!”

Brian: Well, horror in general tends to be stacked against the main characters, and I think that people enjoy horror movies, and fiction, and games, because it’s a way to explore that feeling of helplessness and that fascination with the macabre in a sort of safe setting.

If you’re playing a Call of Cthulhu game, and your character is being accosted by night gaunts and is slowly going mad, and is bleeding from several places, and things look really grim . . . you can sort of enjoy that from a distance, and step back and go on with your life afterward.

It’s a way to confront the things we’re afraid of, I think, and not actually have to deal with them in reality. I think Lovecraft is just sort of an extension of that.

Why it gained this amazing traction in the nerd community is not something I’m really clear on. Something about giant elder gods and tentacle-monsters must clearly speak to something in our psyches. I’m not sure what makes it special as opposed to other horror, any more than I’m sure what makes vampire special as well.

Douglas: Fair enough. That’s fair enough.

What do you think the Demolished Ones brings to the table that Call of Cthulhu, or Delta Green, or other Lovecraftian or Mythos based games don’t bring to the table. Or rather, rather than don’t, how does the Demolished Ones intergrate things that is unique, that other games don’t?

Brian: Demolished Ones give you a lot of player agency, but takes it away from you at the same time.

You create your character as a part of play. You get a lot of control over who you think your character is, and the story is very player-driven. It gets less and less specific as the adventure progresses, to allow for the players to come up with a variety of different solutions.

At the same time, there is a point in the story (spoiler warning!) that you find out that the things you thought about yourself . . . are not true.

All of these elements of your character that you created are actually lies, and you start learning about the truth of yourself. And even though you have a lot of control over how you tackle various obstacles that are put against you…I’m not sure there is a happy ending in the Demolished Ones.

Even if you manage to overthrow the bad guys and escape, I can’t see the characters that survive the Demolished Ones going on to live happy productive lives.

I don’t know, I’m not sure I’ve actually answered the question, but I guess it’s…um . . .

Douglas: Let me ask a question, because it sounds to me . .

Is this something where you’d play out a campaign over the course of six months, or is this something like you’d have 3 to 5 sessions, as if it were a play, for example, and then you’re done.

It almost sounds like every time you step up to it you evolve a character and tell a slightly different variation on the same story.

Brian: Yeah. The Demolished Ones has an adventure included in the book, and you’re meant to play that adventure, and that adventure takes you through creating your character, and learning more about your character, and exploring the city that you’re in.

You can certainly play beyond that, but there is nothing really in that book that…some general advice on how to move beyond the adventure in the Demolished Ones, but there is not really a lot of stuff…it’s really meant to be played as a finite story.

Douglas: It’s not “Here’s Golarion, go exploring.”

Brian: Right. You’re given a small area to explore. It’s one city, and specific things are happening in that city, and the way the adventure is structured is sort of part of the conceit of the game.

I think to sort of answer what the Demolished Ones do that a lot of other Lovecraftian fiction does not, is that Lovecraftian fiction focused on the cosmic horror of being completely helpless against these unimaginably powerful beings – and there is certainly some of that in the Demolished Ones – but the Demolished Ones is much more about personal horror.

It’s about finding out who you really are, and being horrified by it.

Basically, if you make a character for the Demolished Ones, you can be pretty sure you’re going to find out that you are a reprehensible human being within the context of that game. And finding out how you are reprehensible is part of the horror of the game.

Douglas: It’s stripping out the veneer of self-worth, and saying “When we say man is a fallen creature, let me show you just what fallen means.”

Interesting. Sounds like it would be…it could be immersive in a good way, and it could be immersive in a dangerous way for the right or wrong person.

Brian: You need the right group to play it, to buy into the idea, and be okay that they are going to learn the things they thought they knew about their characters are true.

Douglas: Not heroic escapism.

Brian: There is some amount of PvP in the Demolished Ones as well, so people have to be OK with that as well.

Douglas: Interesting. Different.

So what’s next for you and Fate, as those two are tied together – or to broaden it. What’s next in Fate-style games for you?

Brian: I can talk in generalities about…

Douglas: Nothing specific!

Brian: So there is a project that I’m working on that I will only refer to as “Secret Project R,” that is another game I’m creative director on. I’m really excited about it – there is not really a lot that I can say about it now, but keep an eye out for talk about Secret Project R, and it’s something that we are currently working on, and when we are given the go-ahead to talk about it, I have feeling it is going to be something people are really interested in.

Douglas: Okay. Fun.

You’re coming to Secret Project R, and were invited to Shadow of the Century – what makes Fate a good game to design in? You said you gave yourself a crash course, and you’re very comfortable designing in that game: what makes Fate a good game to design in, and what games are good to design in in Fate. So get the um and the yang of it.

Brian: Fate, as I’ve said, is a very flexible system – it’s not universal by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a lot you can do in Fate.

What I enjoy about designing in Fate, is coming up with ways to represent the various things that I’m trying to model in the game.

So as an example, I designed Adventure City Stories, which is the first setting that was released through the Fate Patreon, and it was sort of cyberpunk superhero setting.

The thing that I wanted to model most in that game was the fact that when superheroes clash is that it lays waste to large swaths of the environment. It causes a lot of collateral damage, and coming up with a way to model that in the game was a lot of fun. What I finally settled on was this idea of collateral damage effects.

You can make your power do something extra nifty, but the cost is destroy something nearby – something bad happens as a result. So, you can turn your regular fire blast into this enormous gout of fire, but now everything in the environment is on fire and a lot of innocents have been hurt and stuff like that.

Fate allows for a lot of that kind of…I’ve been doing developmental work on a lot of the Fate Patreon stuff that’s been coming out. I’ve been helping our new Fate authors figure out how to hack Fate, and making sure their mechanics are sound, and the variety of things I’ve seen come out of that project, is kind of staggering.

When you look at the stuff that’s in the Fate System Toolkit, and the stuff that’s in Fate Worlds 1 and 2, and the stuff that’s coming out in Fate Patreon, there are a lot of different ways to play Fate, and a variety of different settings . . . and that I think is it’s a lot of fun to design for. There are really only like 3 or 4 components to a Fate character, but there are a lot of ways you can twist those components to do something different.

Douglas: Neat. That’s cool. When you were talking about collateral damage, that reminds me of two things, and they’re both related.

One is my reaction to the movie Man of Steel, where you got clashing Kryptonians in both Metropolis and Smallville, which did not end well for Metropolis or Smallville.

The other thing is . . . I didn’t lead him there, but I had a interaction with Dean Cain – Superman from the Adventures of Lois and Clark – where he actually remarked how it was a very non-Superman thing to purposefully throw his foes through buildings, and the amount of collateral damage was very unique for a superman setting.

They sort of did it a little in Superman 2, and Christopher Reeve was like “…the people!” it was a little like Spock: “…the women!” [From the unaired pilot, The Cage.]

It was a very shocking thing, and then to have that kind of destruction was very jarring to me.

Every time I see it I kind of have the same reaction . . . I’m warming to the movie over time a little bit more, but it was tough to watch because it did not feel very Superman-y. At the time.

Brian: Man of Steel is a Fate game where the player playing Superman decided he was going to use this collateral damage effect all the time, and not really care too much about the consquences. You’re right, that doesn’t feel particular Superman-y to me.

Douglas: The one thing that was interesting to me, though – and now Christopher Rice has to drink, because he transcribes all of these, and he says every time I use my verbal tick (which is to say “that’s interesting”) he has to take a shot of tequila, and one of the previous ones he said I almost killed him.

Anyways one of the interesting things about it is I think it sets up a lot of the complicated interactions that the other superheroes will have with this earth-bound god pretty well.  Because the government doesn’t necessarily trust him: He’s worse than any terrorist attack that has ever happened in the history of anything.

He leveled an entire city. It wasn’t just 9/11 and the WTC and the building next to it. It was all of Downtown New York, although in this particular case, I think Metropolis bounces around somewhere between Kansas City and Delaware.

In any case, it’s easy to see where Batman vs. Superman, Bruce Wayne would look at this guy and say “He’s never setting one foot in Gotham City, ever, no way, no how.” This guy is as much a threat as any bad guy ever dreamed of being, and that’s if he sneezes at the wrong time.

Brian: Yeah, it’s kind of thing where yes, he saved the world, but he completely destroyed an entire section of Metropolis, and he clearly has the power to do that whenever he wants to, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop him that he’s doing his best. And that’s terrifying [laughs].

Douglas: Especially, it’s terrifying for governments and terrifying for a lot of the pseudo-mythical people – I actually know a bunch or have interacted with CEOs, and they wish they had the power described to all CEOs “I’m pulling all the strings, mwhahaha!” They wish that they could control things the way that a Lex Luthor or, on the good side of things the way Oliver Queen or Bruce Wayne could theoretically do it. There is an awful lot of wildcard there.

It’ll be interesting to see how well they develop that, because if they do that and drop it, it’s a waste. Because they really crushed some of the Superman mythos to tell the story in that way. If they don’t pick it up and run that football all the way to the frickin’ end zone in a satisfying way, I’m going to be pretty torqued. (I’m sure that’ll matter to a lot of people.)

If you are going to do something like that to the story you better go the whole way and make it interesting.

Okay. So. That was a digression, but it was fun: a little nerdity there.

So let’s talk more about you.

Becoming. That’s something you’ve written and self-published. So talk a little bit about the general premise of this game, which seems really interesting and different.

So tell me a little bit about what Becoming is, for those of us, including myself, who aren’t aware of the intricacies of it.

Brian: Becoming is a game in which a single hero is trying to complete a quest, and the forces arrayed against him or her are trying to tear the hero down, over time.

It’s a game about the fact that in order to save the things that you want to save, you have to give them up, and you have to change who you are on a fundamental basis.

It’s sort of the conceit of old westerns where in order to stop the barbarians you have to take up the gun, but taking up the gun makes you a barbarian.

The game achieves this by one player playing the hero, and three players playing Fates – which are a little bit like GMs – they have some of the power of GMs, but not all the powers of GMs, and everyone is competing against everyone else.

It’s an adversarial game: there is a winner at the end.

The game revolves around making bargains. So in any given scene, the Fate who was opposing the hero is going to have way more power than the hero. In order to even the odds, the hero has to make a bargain with the other two Fates, and give away pieces of himself, in order to get power so he can win the scene.

The story that this winds up creating is, basically, that there are one of two outcomes typically. One is that the falls before the end of the quest and is no longer the hero. Two is that the hero completes the hero, but is no longer recognizable as the person he once was. Most of the time when the hero completes the quest, in my experience, the hero has just a scrap or two left of what made him a hero in the first place.

That’s kind of Becoming in the nutshell.

Douglas: Sort of like Mal Reynolds in the beginning of the Serenity movie.

Brian: Right. It’s designed as a one shot and takes two to three hours to play.

Douglas: Interesting. It’s an intriguing blend of…is it a blend of roleplaying and a board game, or is it more like [coughs]. Or is like it’s a board game and you’ve got narrative style tactical choices you can make.

Brian: There are certainly some elements I borrowed from board games, but for the most part it’s a very narrative game. Like most of the game is you describing, the various people describing what’s happening and everything is resolved by a single roll. The game typically takes place over nine scenes, and in each of those nine scenes, there is one roll. So the dice get rolled nine times in the entirety of the game.

That’s kind of . . . aside from the dice rolling mechanic, the only other mechanic in the game really, is how the bargains work, and how do you slowly subvert the hero.

Douglas: Is that something like…do you have a deck of evil things you can do to the hero, or do you just sort of say….how do you come up with the things that go back and forth?

Brian: The hero has nine traits in front of him. Some of them are allies and some are strengths, and some are values, and stuff like that and these are the thing that make the hero strong.

The hero can call on these things in order to get dice in the conflict in each scene, but typically it’s not enough dice to beat the Fate that’s rolling against him. In order to get dice from those things he has to risk them.

So like failing the roll means a lot of that stuff is going to get hurt.

The way the bargaining works is that the other two Fates take on the role of tempters, and come in and say “Well this happens, and you have this choice and if you make this choice, I’ll give you these dice, but you give me this.” You put a negative trait on this ally or something like that.

Slowly over the course of the game more and more negative traits pile up on these things, and as more of them pile up, they subvert and become completely unusable to the hero, and become the reverse of what they were. Some ally dies, or becomes a painful memory or a virtue might become some sort of flaw, and basically the hero loses if he loses all of them. If that happens – whichever Fate basically did the most damage to the hero over the course of the game gets to narrate how the game closes.

Douglas: Would you say…is this game…there was a big article recently, or apparently all the Green Bay Packers are all into Settlers of Catan. Is this a game that’s going to be accessible to the non-nerd contingent? What people are going to play and enjoy this?

Brian: I think it could be. The mechanics are not super-complex…

Douglas: Let me interrupt. I’m not really thinking about the mechanics, because people will do some very complicated things with dice and games and things. Poker is not necessarily very straightforward and you have to memorize some things.

I’m actually more thinking about the same way that I think Trail of Cthulhu and all that stuff – Gumshoe mechanics are not that complicated, but I think it requires an awesome GM to tell a good story that doesn’t feel like a railroad or something that’s lost. The narrative part of this seems like it would be the hardest for people who are not immersed in acting and playacting or that sort of thing to grasp. Is there a swath of the rules or method that makes it accessible to people?

Brian: I think there are two groups, I think, that this game primarily appeals to, and would be at its best. One of them is a group that’s used to improv theater, but not necessarily used to games, and one of them is a group really steeped in indie gaming.

Lot of people who come from a more traditional RPG background are thrown by the amount of control they have over the scenes, and the amount of story that they have to narrate. You do have to narrate a lot in order to make the game interesting.

I think the people who do not have a proclivity for narration probably wouldn’t feel very comfortable playing the game. It’s a game that requires all four of the players to really give everything. You can’t just sort of sit back and wait for things to happen – if you do that you’re going to lose. If you are just observing, you are not going to do particularly well in the game. It works at its best when everyone has bought in, and is willing to sort of give equal voice to the characters in the story.

Douglas: It sounds to me a little bit like there is a third group who would really like, this which is writers. I could see Louis McMaster Bujold whose method of writing seems to be – and she said this herself – “What terrible thing can I do to my characters next?” and that sounds right up the alley of this game, like a mechanics-way to get to this.

Brian: And that’s actually a thing that I’ve seen happen in the games. I’ve seen the hero player deliberately lose, because they thought it was more interesting that way. And that’s really part of the intent – yes, you can win or lose, but ultimately whatever everyone’s getting is a really good story, and the only thing you win is, by winning the game, is the ability to narrate how it closes.

Douglas: Interesting.

Brian: I do think that a group of writers who all sort of know about storycraft and what makes a interesting story would probably have a lot of fun playing this game.

Douglas: Cool. So I’d like to segue a bit into the business side of things, but still stay on Becoming, for a little bit. You decided to self-publish Becoming. Why did you go that route?

Brian: At the time it felt like something I needed to do.

I really wanted to self-publish something. I wanted to…I had this desire to bring something from concept to fruition, and be the one running the whole thing. And I wanted to run my own kickstarter.

And I learned a lot during that experience. I’ve not yet decided if I want to do it again, but I’m glad that I did it. I also think…I have a feeling that there are not a lot companies that would publish “Becoming” because it is a game that appeals to a very particular kind of person. It doesn’t have a lot of mass appeal.

Douglas: What did you learn…if you were going to advise people who were like “I’m going to write my own game, and self-publish my own game, and run my own Kickstarter.”

In your classic business school fashion: what are the three things that are awesome about that plan and what are the ten things – because [chuckles] if it were easy, everyone would do it, right? When I was in mini-B-school, they said “here’s my advice about joint ventures: Don’t.”

Probably the general advice about self-publishing is: “Don’t.”

Kickstarter, based on the amount of…some of the interesting ones you see out there is probably: “Cautious, if not don’t.”

What is it that you learned, you know, things to never do again and what are the real things that made you say “Yeah, in the end, this was the right thing to do, and here were the great things that happened because of that.”

Brian: I would say first of all don’t expect to get rich. I have made a profit on Becoming, but it’s a very, very modest profit. It’s not enough for me to quit my day job. It’s basically enough to sort of cover the costs of making the book, and have a little extra money to buy a couple of video games.

Douglas: Just enough to tempt you to do it again.

Brian: Yeah. It’s not…it hasn’t been any kind of runaway success for me. And those runaway successes are very, very rare.

The thing about kickstarter is, when you do have a runaway success, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to make a lot of money in profit.

Douglas: I kind of got that feeling with Ogre, which brought in almost a million dollars, but it was so huge, that I very much get the feeling that net/net Steve Jackson thought it was an awesome game, but boy that could have been a lot more profitable, if at all, than it was.

Brian: We’re really glad that we did it, but Ogre is, for the most part, a way thank the fans. It’s not really a profit device.

Douglas: It was not really meant to be, right? When you start off with hey give me five or ten or twenty thousand dollars to republish a 30 or 40 year old game into its original format, and then it explodes into almost a seven figure take. And as Steve said, it could have been a seven-figure take if they had decided to keep going, and you guys wisely considered “enough.” At some point you had to do this monster.

Brian: Fate core is the same way – it made about half a million dollars. But Fred tweeted not too long ago – maybe last week, that after all expenses and salaries had been paid, this year Evil Hat had made $400 in profit. Which is not a lot for a company to make. But it was sort of what he was shooting for, maybe a little bit better than what he was shooting for, so he’s pretty happy with it.

Even a runaway success on kickstarter can cost you a lot if you don’t plan well.

Douglas: There are two parts of profit and revenue is only one of them.

Brian: Right. There is a really good blogpost that Ryan Macklin wrote not long ago on his blog, that talks about all the things that can eat up your money or time when you are self-publishing.

For example, when I was doing Becoming, I had all of the writing written and edited, and I had most of the art, and I was ready to go to layout and I realized it didn’t have an index.

I didn’t budget for this. I have no idea how to get an index. I asked around and I got the name of an indexer and paid for an index. But it was one of those things I had just not planned for, and it was extra money that I had to spend, and extra time that I had to spend, that I didn’t realize I was going to.

You have to plan for things like, if you’re hiring freelancers, not all of them are going to get things to you on time.

Douglas: Right and even if you do they do you might not like it.

Brian: Right. You might need to do extensive revisions.

There are a lot of – not hidden costs – but costs that a lot of people don’t realize are there when it comes to writing and self-publishing a game, and doing a Kickstarter. And self-publishing in general. This applies to fiction too.

One of the things you absolutely have to realize to do is pay yourself for your own time. Because it has value, and you’re working on the project like everyone else. If you’re going to pay your editor, the person who does the writing needs to be paid too, and if that’s you then that’s you.

That’s another where I was like “I just did all this budgeting and I realized that I’m not paying myself anything,” and in fact this is going to cost me $2,000, what am I going to do?

There are a lot of costs associated with bringing a project to fruition. You need to do a lot of planning, and you need to talk to a lot of people who have done it before, so you can get their take on how to do things. And you might also get some recommendations for who to use some things.

If you just sort of go into it thinking “Oh! Kickstarter will make the money that I need, and I’ll write and get someone to edit it, and it’ll all be fine” you might wind up in the hole.

You have to be careful about that.

Douglas: That makes a lot of sense to me.

Brian: Was that three things?

Douglas: Actually, I just want to make one more comment, which is about the business, and then we’ll be talking about the business, and I wanted to ask you about the gaming market, and some of your insights – not about Steve Jackson Games – but as a marketer who does professional marketing in the roleplaying game business.

Actually, I shouldn’t say roleplaying games, it’s really for the boardgame, and the hobby games market.

But you said “Oh, Evil Hat made $400,” probably as a company. But to the point where you’ve got revenue, and you’ve got costs, and you’ve got profit. If they paid all their people, and they paid all their people something to keep them fed, and all their artists are happy, and you got a continued supply…breaking even on a hobby game like that is not a bad outcome.

Brian: That’s the thing. Evil Hat made $400 as a company in profit, but covered something like $500,000 in expenses. That includes salaries, and work for hire, and all of that stuff…

Douglas: …and distribution and advertising (if there is such a thing). There’s a lot that goes into that.

Brian: Everyone who needed to get paid got paid. With a bit of money left over.

Douglas: You say “Oh, look, they didn’t make any profit,” but there are a lot of very wealthy people working in non-profit industries.

Brian: That’s the thing, when you’re…running a Kickstarter – if you plan on just paying yourself out of profits for the Kickstarter, you need to be okay with the fact that you might not get any money. In fact you might lose money.

If you want to be guaranteed to walk away with some money to pay your bills with, you need to pay yourself for your work. You need to figure what you value your time at, and budget that into the Kickstarter.

Douglas: That’s fair. That’s one of the reasons why I say to myself that the only way I would ever do this as a profession would be to win the lottery and start a hobby company. A vanity company, where I would do this where I would be able to make an “endowed chair” and pay myself and pay the people who would work for me and whatever. There would be no way that I could…I suppose that I could be that talented, but if that were true, I’d already be making money in the business, I suppose.

I don’t think that I’m going to suddenly sell a hundred thousand copies of GURPS Technical Grappling any time soon. Or whatever that would take.

Brian: And actually, the other thing about self-publishing, and in particular in things like Kickstarter where you are asking people to pay for something before you get it: Be realistic about your timeline. Then add a buffer.

Like I backed a number of Kickstarters where they had a very optimistic projection about when they were going to get the final product to someone, and they just blew that by a number of months or years.

Douglas: Then you feel the wrath of Erik Tenkar.

Brian: Right. People will react in one of two ways to that: they will get really angry and start ranting on your kickstarter message boards, and everything will start to look really negative there, or they’ll forget about you. That’s almost worse.

It’s being unrealistic about your timeline, and overpromising and under-delivering things to people, is a really good way to burn goodwill. If you plan on doing a second Kickstarter, you are not doing yourself any favors.

Douglas: right. My job is technology research and development and deployment. The general rule is okay “Write down your timeline, multiply that timeline by 1.5, minimum, and you will probably only be a little late.” You might be a little late, you could be a lot late. We had case where its true of expenses as well. What do you think you need, and by the way, you probably need more.

Brian: There’s always something unexpected. The thing is, if you plan for more expenses than you actually need, and more time than you actually need, and you wind up under-budget and on time . . . then everyone is happy. So why NOT do that?

Douglas: So talking a little about the gaming market – what would your…somewhere between professional knowledge and professional guess. What would you say is the overall size of the tabletop roleplaying – not computers or World of Warcraft and stuff – but the tabletop roleplaying market these days…

Brian: It’s very small. I’m not sure I’d be able to guess at a specific number, but in comparison to even something like hobby board games, it’s very very small.

I know for example as healthy and successful as D&D is right now, it only makes a fraction of what Magic the Gathering makes.

Douglas: Right, and Steve alluded to that as well.

Brian: That’s pretty typical. Like Becoming…I consider Becoming a pretty successful game. It made a profit for me. I sold through my entire first print run, and I’m still selling stuff on Drive Thru. I sold maybe 300 copies of that game.

Douglas: Okay. Interesting. That makes me feel a little bit better about my book.

Brian: If you can sell 300 copies of a self-published indie game, you are doing pretty well.

Douglas: That makes sense. That’s consistent with things like Tim Shorts – I don’t know if you know if you’ve ever seen Gothridge Manor, a zine that he publishes. It’s gone through six iteratins, or six or seven issues and it’s OSR or D&D friendly, and it’s usually a small adventure and a couple of things and yeah I bet he only goes through a couple hundred copies.

And it’s very well done and he gets some cool people to contribute to it, but it’s amazingly small. It’s amazing how small some of this really is.

Brian: Just on the RPG market, there are the people who publish the game, and get maybe like the tens of people to buy their game, and there are people like me who sell a couple hundred, and the really successful indie designers, who might have a kickstarter that grosses $500,000 like Evil Hat, and then you have the Paizos and Wizards of the Coasts of the world, who are paying multiple salaries . . .

Douglas: And can have a hierarchy

Brian:  . . . and have a very recognizable brand, and stuff like that. Even between these tiers within the RPG market, there are orders of magnitude.

Douglas: What would you say…if you were to hazard a guess, D&D5, do you think that’s 10 or 100 thousand or a million – I doubt it’s a million . . . but it could be. How many copies of the PHB do you think were sold?

Brian: The PHB topped the best seller charts for non-fiction books for like a week and I would imagine it would have to sell a lot to do that.

Douglas: One would think.

Brian: I mean, Fifth Edition is an incredibly, incredibly popular book by RPG standards. I would probably guess in the 100s of thousands. You’re right, probably not a million. Maybe 400-500 thousand?

Douglas: What do you think the challenges are in treating with the RPG/tabletop market as a whole? What challenges do you face when addressing the gaming market?

Brian: Oh, man, there are a bunch. So one is that it has never been easier to self-publish, but it is very difficult to get noticed.

A lot of people are self-publishing precisely because it is so easy to do these days. And that’s great, and that means there is a lot of really cool stuff out there. But a lot of it doesn’t get noticed. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd.

Another thing is I think that fans of hobby games have a skewed perspective of how big gaming organizations are. I remember seeing a tweet a while ago that “If Wizards of the Coast didn’t have a 50-man playtesting department running the numbers on Fifth edition 8-hours a day, then they were failing.” And I was like . . . I think they probably have two or three people in their playtesting department. I think that’s a really skewed idea.

Douglas: I’d bet they have a couple of people wearing a couple of hats.

Brian: Yeah, I mean I know at Steve Jackson Games I know our playtester coordinator is also the Munchkin Hireling – so he does both jobs.

I think most game companies look to outside help for playtesting, they recruit people from the outside, because you get fresh ideas that way. Because these companies just aren’t that big. Steve Jackson Games is only about 40 people. That’s another challenge.

And then, the hobby game market is very resistant to change. There are a lot of manifestations of that.

One is that people react very strongly when they perceive canon being messed with. That’s a big challenge for designers who want to do something different with their property. I tend to think that designers care a lot less about canon than fans do.

You also see that resistance to change manifesting in the fact that, like, sexism and racism are still huge problems in this industry. Like I can count on the fingers on two hands the number of female game designers that I know, and the reason is they are frequently forced out of the industry. That’s a big challenge too, it makes it very difficult to make things that cater to audiences other than white men, because people get angry about that.

There are a number of challenges – I think they are all surmountable challenges – I think that we can move past them, and we will move past them, but that doesn’t make them any less true.

Douglas: Fair enough. It seems at least from – maybe chatter – and this is tough. The thing also, and that you alluded to a little bit, is that you’ve got a fairly, maybe ossified or little bit…there is a GURPS advantage that I’m blanking on here. The group is a bit insular. Hidebound is the word I’m looking for.

I think there is a couple things. One is the perception is the games are bigger than they are and just to pick on GURPS because I’m in the forums all the time, and I write for it and whatever. How many times is the same conversation going to happen? “Steve Jackson Games needs to start publishing adventures.”

  1. Take a universal system, with a small following, that can do any genre, and you’re going to write an adventure – unless you are writing for Dungeon Fantasy (which is the only thing that really has traction, which is widespread) you’re writing for five people. You’re writing “Oh, I would really like to publish my campaign.”

Brian: That’s the thing: the companies are small because the audiences are small. There are incredibly vocal people out there, who want their particular need to be served and, it should be, but companies exist to make money. They have to be able to pay their employees to do these things.

There are…I can tell you right now that the people on the GURPS team want nothing more than to give GURPS fans what they want.

Douglas: I know all of them, so yeah. That’s very, very true.

Brian: Ultimately, if GURPS isn’t making money then [throws up hands] what do you do? You have to produce the things that make money, in order to support the brand.

So if you have something that’s wildly successful like Munchkin, say, that just keeps on selling, that allows you to pursue some of those passion projects a little bit with less risk – but you still have to pick and choose.

And like I said, there are only 40 people in the company, and maybe 10 or 15 of those are creative staff. So there are only so many people to do the work.

Douglas: It’s a little bit stronger of tooth to tail ratio as in the military, where in the military you frequently got 10 people supporting one trigger puller. It’s sort of that way. You got four or five to one.

Sometimes, it seems, and you hear a bit about it and a lot of pretty popular games like board games and tabletop games – not necessarily roleplaying games all the time, but do you think that there is a bit of a board game or tabletop game renaissance going on? Or is just kind of maybe the same people, retweeting to the same crowd the same information, so it just looks bigger because we have the opportunity to be a lot more vocal about the things that we like.

Brian: I think there is a little bit of both. I think in terms of content, I’m seeing a lot more interesting stuff lately than I did ten years ago. I feel like my needs as a gamer are being served a lot more thoroughly than they ever have in the past.

In that sense, yes, I think there is a tabletop renaissance going on. But I do think that the nature of social media, and Internet forums, and all of these ways of communicating with the communities that exist around these games tend to create echo chambers.

I know this happens to me too, with the people that I follow on Twitter are all talking about the same games, and then I’m flabbergasted when no one is playing these games. I’m like: “Where are all the indie games?” It’s because I’m talking to the same 30 or 40 people who all have the same interests I do.

Douglas: Right. If they were that popular they wouldn’t be indie, they would be the Man [chuckles].

Brian: I think that that echo chamber effect, which has really existed since the Internet started, has a way of amplifying perception with the size of these things beyond what is true. But that doesn’t mean that the quality of the content is not there, and we may think…I think we are seeing better games these days than we have in a long time, like in the last five to ten years.

I’m really excited to be a gamer, because I’m seeing new things every day. I’m seeing things that challenge my assumptions, as a gamer, in really cool ways.

Douglas: So one more market question that I want to throw out and is maybe the last thing we’ll talk about.

I recently came across the statistic that “Fantasy Sports” (football, basketball, etc.) – people who will get together, obsess over stats, follow through on the stats over the long – call it a plot arc – it lasts for a certain number of games, and they interact vocally, frequently, and passionately with a broad community and shared experience.

Forty million people play or are involved with Fantasy Sports and they each spend a bit more than $100 a year on that hobby. That’s a 4 billion dollar market.

How do we convert or capture that kind of revenue in RPGland? I have to figure the overall gaming market including Piazo, including Wizards of the Coast, and probably the next ten or twenty companies maybe a sum to a fraction of those two. And the sum of it doesn’t even touch Magic the Gathering.

How do we convert . . . How do we look at…the fantasy sports – the people that do fantasy sports. In a way they are natural gamers, I’d almost say that they’re natural GURPS gamers because of the obsession with the stats and the numbers and whatever.

And that’s not a slam on GURPS and stuff. It’s a big market. It’s 4 billion dollars right? That’s a chunk of change that could support a lot of creative thought, a lot of direction. How do we convert/capture and tap in that kind of popularity?

Brian: Well…

Douglas: I guess if you knew that…

Brian: Lenny Balsera and I have had a number of conversations about this very topic.

The thing about fantasy sports, is it is tapping into something they’re already interested in. The people who are interested in fantasy sports are already watching football or basketball or whatever. Playing their fantasy football league is not like an additional level of effort beyond just watching those games.

The second thing is in most of those cases, there is the potential to make them money. Which is not something that is typically the case in tabletop games. Third…

Douglas: Whoever levels up first gets the $100 pool.

Brian: Exactly.

The third thing is it’s very easy. Fantasy sports are very easy to track. There are apps on the internet that do it for you.

The same cannot be said of tabletop gaming. Certainly there are games that are very simple, but there are also games that are very, very complex, and that scare people away.

There are themes that are very accessible, and themes that are not. One of the most…one of my favorite games…one that I think is very easy to play, and is very strategically complex, and just a lot of fun, is Ticket to Ride, but for years I resisted playing it, because I was like “Why would I play a game about trains? I’m not interested in trains.” Then I played and it was “Oh, I see. Now I understand why I want to play a game about trains.”

That hesitation exists in the non-gaming market, like, a hundredfold. It’s like . . . a lot of gaming/geek culture is starting to become more normalized with the Lord of the Rings movies, the Hobbit movies, and all the Marvel movies, and all these very nerdy pursuits becoming mainstream.

I think we are getting to the point where more people might start coming into the hobby, because they are like “Oh, I really want to…” – and this is a really bad example because the Marvel Heroic RPG doesn’t exist anymore, except in out of print books that you hunt down somewhere – but like “…I’ve seen the Avengers, I really like the Avengers, I want more Avengers-y stuff, here is this game you can play that’s easy to play, and allows you to play the Avengers and continue their adventures.”

That, I think, is how we tap into that market. We find something they are already interested in, and give them a way to keep enjoying that thing, in a way that doesn’t tax them or scare them away.

Because the simple fact of the matter is not everyone has the wherewithal to game. I know my parents would play some games. Like they would play Trivial Pursuit and Cards Against Humanity. I just found out over the Chirstmas Break that they owned a Cards Against Humanity set: That blew my mind. But if I sit something down like Munchkin in front of them they don’t understand.

Douglas: I get that. It’s funny…it’s not funny to me, someone can laugh at this. But I…for the better part of six months, if not a year, I had D&D5 on my wishlist. Because I knew it was going to be big, and I had started to play D&D type games, like Swords and Wizardry.

I need to participate in the broader hobby that’s more than GURPS. I had this on my wishlist forever and christmas came and went. My birthday came and went. I did get it, but I didn’t get it from my parents.

I am technically a gaming professional, I have a reasonably popular blog, I’ve been published 8 or 10 times, I have a book of my own. I do all this gaming journalism . . . and not once in the last 30 years have my parents got me a gaming book. It’s like come on. Really?

My inlaws stepped up to the task. That’s not a sob story, but it tells the reluctance of a large swath of the people to even dip their toes in that culture.

Brian: Part of it I think is because there has been so much stigma to it in the past.

Part of it is, I think, our fault: Gamers in general are very elitist about their hobby. They don’t like letting other people into it. There are a lot of people who would rather sneer at non-gamers, and push them away from the hobby, then welcome them into it.

I think in order to get the hobby to a healthier place, and a more accepted place, and a place where it can really start making money and serving everyone’s needs, we all have to be ambassadors for gaming. We all have to people who go out and say “Hey do you want to learn this, I’ll teach you. Don’t worry about it, I’ll only teach you the stuff you need to learn off the bat. We’ll tackle the rest as we come to it. No one is going to laugh at you. We’re going to take it easy.”

We need to share our enthusiasm, and show people why we are enthusiastic about these things, and we need to do it in a way that doesn’t scare them off, and do it in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they are being talked down to, or being sneered at. Gamers are in general, bad at it.

Douglas: I remember seeing a couple surveys kicking around – and I won’t necessarily give them high points for sound methodology. People are like “Gamers must be a cut above intelligence, interest, diversity, or depth of mind.” The surveys I have run into have basically suggested that that’s a crock. The cross section of gamers is just a small cross section of normal people. You have some intelligent people and some not so intelligent people.

Brian: I think where gamers excel is self-congratulatory patting on the back. I think that a large part of that comes from the fact that there was such a stigma. Gamers were, until fairly recently, outcasts, and bullied, and picked on, and in some cases that’s still the case. I think that that sort of elitist attitude is a self-defense mechanism, but it is one we need to overcome if we are going to make the hobby into something everyone can enjoy.

The way you stop the bullying is by being an elitist is to get the bullies to enjoy the same things you do [laughes].

Douglas: That’s the thing. There is a sort of self-perpetuation to it.

Maybe instead of saying “Gee, how do we tap into the fantasy sports market?” we say “What are the traits in fantasy sports that support a 4 billion dollar market?”

If I show up and say “I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan,” other than the Packers fans, who will mock me ruthlessly (though there is a general back and forth there), they’ll say “Oh, I’m a football fan, did you watch the game?” “Yes, I did.”

Brian: I used to live right outside of Philly, and there was thing where if you were a Phillies fan or an Nagles you had immediate acceptance no matter to what bar you went.

Douglas: What part did you live? I grew up there.

Brian: Fairless Hills.

Douglas: Oh! I went to school there. I went to Pennsbury High School! Look at that! That’s awesome. Did you go to high school there? Grow up there?

Brian: No, I moved there after college. I lived there before I worked in the gaming industry.

But yeah, that’s the kind of thing we need to foster. If someone walks into a game store, we need to not be like “Oh, who is this person? Does he or she really know how to game?” We need to be like “Welcome friend! Let me show you what’s going on here.”

We need to embrace people with open arms into the hobby, because that’s the only way the hobby will grow and stay healthy.

Douglas: When I was in grad school I worked at a bicycle store. I worked there because I was always in the bicycle store, because I was into cycling at the time, and they offered me a job as a retail sales guy, because even as a nonemployee I was selling more than their sales guys because I was so into it, and passionate about it.

The thing is, you’d have some people come into the store and I’d say “well what kind of bike do you ride already?” Some would come in and say “Well I ride a Kestrel” And at the time that was one of the only monocoque super carbon fiber awesome thing, and it’s still beautiful to look at. But if someone comes in saying they are riding a Trek 5000 or a Kestrel or whatever, you talk to them in a certain way.

But sometimes you go in, and people come in, and you ask what kind of bike do they ride, and they say “a green one.” You can’t say “Oh, well I’m not talking to you.” “It’s well, okay, when you go out, what do you do, do you jump over curbs, or do you just go back and forth, and are your interested in ever doing X.” “Oh, I’m never going to be riding for sport.” Oh, okay.

There are ways of approaching someone who may not know what’s going on.

You have to figure, though, that one of the things that gaming isn’t is terribly visible. You got these isolated conventions and hole in the wall stores and the thing that Fantasy Football has going for it is frickin’ Monday Night Football – the US shuts down when the Superbowl runs.

Even if it’s Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t have the Superbowl of D&D. But you do have the World Series of Poker. Which you would not think is something that would draw big crowds.

Brian: The video game industry has managed to normalize itself. They managed to take something that was once the domain of nerds, and turn it into something that anyone can do and most people do.

There are so many XBOXs out there, even for people who only play Madden when it comes out. Those people are still legitimate gamers who enjoy their hobby.

Even in video games, there is this tendency – if you got the guy who only has his XBOX to play Madden, a lot of people look down on that guy.

And that is the most toxic horseshit. The quickest way to kill your hobby is to be elitist about it. If you are saying you must be this nerdy to be in this hobby, if you are setting standards for who can participate in your hobby, then you are going to kill your hobby. It will never reach the kind of acceptance that you want it to reach. You only get accepted by accepting other people.

Douglas: You’ll never reach the kind of critical mass that gets the Larry Corriea (or John Scalzi to get both sides of that). Those guys are both awesome writers, and they tell great stories . . . and you want those guys writing your stuff.

Until it’s that big, and has the market where you can say “This is not only something I want to do, it’s worth the opportunity cost.” You’re never going to attract the kind of talent that makes awesome self-perpetuating. You may get lucky, but it’s never going to be like “Oh, you know, this is where I’m gong to go to flex my creative muscles, and it will be welcomed.” Right now, it’s “I’m going to go flex my creative muscles and I’ll sell 100 copies.”

You’re never going to get the mass-market appeal that draws talent from other than the people who are really into it.

Okay. Cool. In terms of anything you’d like to say as a parting shot. I always let my guests have the last word. Anything that you want to drop off into the ether here?

Brian: Yeah. In the immortal words of Ted Theodore Roosevelt and Bill S. Preston Esquire “Be Excellent to each other.”

Douglas: Alright. Alright. Thanks a lot.

The Firing Squad is not out of business – I’ve just been busy. Plus, I raised my standards.

I really liked the visual impact of the images I added to Steve Jackson‘s and Hans-Christian Vortisch‘s interviews. So I decided to keep doing them.

But it adds overhead. I can estimate as I work through +Brian Engard‘s interview – which was 90 minutes long – that I will spend about 7 hours in post processing of the video alone for every hour of conversation.

Additional time above and beyond what +Christopher R. Rice spends in the preliminary transcription will be spent adjusting the text – as a result of 14 years of trans-pacific conference calls with coworkers with variably accented English, I have a ridiculously good ear for this. I’d guess about 3 hours of editing for every hour of conversation (again, above and beyond the 3-10 days for the raw transcription, and it’s usually closer to 3 than not).

So to get it right takes time. The only thing I could think of to speed time to viewing would be to do a rough-cut video where I remove any long pauses, bathroom breaks, or other interruptions. Then include the text transcription and post-production video as time allows. My predisposition is obviously to release the post-production video first with an MP3 file, and either at the same time or shortly thereafter throw down the full text transcript.

But I’m interested in opinions and thoughts.

I do have something like four confirmed candidates for interviews in the works. All are published authors for GURPS and other works.

I’m always interested in suggestions as well, and would be simply thrilled to hear from someone in WotC with whom I could chat about D&D 5, because I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it and would love to speak about the present and future of the game, as well as design choices, etc.

In any case, if you are wondering what’s this Firing Squad thing . . . well, take a peek.

For various reasons this took a bit. Holidays, dead computers, oh my.

But the text transcript of my interview with +Hans-Christian Vortisch is now available. 

It was a fun interview for me to do, and we covered a lot of good ground. 

If you haven’t seen it, heard it, or watched it: now’s your chance!

Happy New Year, and happy GURPS-Day.

I was asked recently how I do my interviews. I answered this a while back from a logistics point of view, but I was asked a bit about the tech and tools, since the interviews go fairly well and people were curious.

First, check out the logistics part. There’s some important stuff there.

The Hardware

I use a Microsoft Lifecam Studio HD as my webcam. In truth, I recently updated drivers on my system, and now it still will capture video, but I can no longer control the camera zoom. This seems to be an issue MS has been told about but won’t/can’t/hasn’t fixed yet. It’s annoying but not crippling just yet. I’m considering upgrading, but I really don’t want to. Logitech stuff works flawlessly for me, so if I go, I’ll go that way unless research shows there’s a much better option. Continue reading “Firing Squad: Tech Talk”

Earlier this week I sat down with +Hans-Christian Vortisch , who has made a solid game writing presence being the go-to guy about firearms, especially makes, models, and usage.

We talk about his history in gaming and how he came to write about games, as well as an awful lot about firearms, both using them and modeling their use in RPGs.

Hans’ name has come up in many of the interviews I’ve done on the Firing Squad, and always in a way that gives a nod to his vast erudition regarding the subject.

I have been personally involved in playtesting two of his works, as Lead Playtester for High Tech (with +Shawn Fisher ) and Tactical Shooting.  Both experiences were positive and a heck of a lot of fun.

We speak for about 75 minutes and could easily have gone longer (I woke up at 5am to interview him – he’s 7 hours ahead of Minneapolis time). If the video looks a bit jerky at times, we experienced some communications lag, so I chopped out some weird silences.

So if you have a bit more than an hour to spare on this Thanksgiving Day, in between football and a tryptophan coma, give a listen!

MP3 File Audio Only (click to download)

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good morning and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. I am joined today by Hans-Christian Vortisch. Author of GURPS High-Tech and GURPS Tactical Shooting, as well as several supplements for Call of Cthulhu.

The interesting thing about this particular interview except for maybe my recent interview with Steve Jackson himself, your name came actually came up in every single interview that I’ve done. Especially with the Steve Jackson Games staff. You’re kind of legendary so to speak for your breadth and depth of experience and knowledge writing about firearms in role-playing games.

Before we get really into it, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about how you got into both role-playing games, and your personal interest in firearms.

Hans-Christian Vortisch (RPG Author, Epic Bearder, and General Badass): I really started playing in the early 1980s with a German game called Das Schwarze Auge. It’s pretty much like Dungeons & Dragons. Standard fantasy, pretty simple mechanics and all that.

Then we played everything that was available: Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Shadowrun, Star Frontiers, The Morrow Project, Twilight: 2000, Ninjas & Superspies, Rolemaster, MERP . . . everything. Star Wars; the original, the first edition.

And somehow I always gravitated to those games that featured firearms – they were more fun to me. Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Frontiers, stuff like that.

It was just more fun to me, because I liked the fantasy genre and we played a lot of Middle-Earth Role Playing game . . . but somehow the modern or sci-fi settings were more interesting to me.

Well, I liked those most and started reading up on stuff. Somehow, I’ve got a vast collections of books. [both laugh] It just happened that way.

I didn’t really shoot when I was young – that was interesting. I had an air rifle and toy guns and stuff like that, of course, but I didn’t really get into the practical side of it until I was much, much older actually.

I always applied this sort of academic process to the whole thing. I always researched everything diligently without actually having … I hadn’t shot a machinegun or anything like that when I started working on this. But I read up on it. How it’s done. How people do things like that. It’s not just the technical specs, but everything.

Doug: Cool. So you’d say you started into your interest in firearms from a academic perspective and then graduated into … I know you do three-gun matches in Germany.

Hans: Yes. At some point I thought “Yeah, well, why not.”

It’s a bit problematic over here, because you can’t really – unlike in the US, most people don’t really have first-hand experience with firearms if they’re not in the army or whatever. Because they are not easy to get. You have to have special permits and stuff, and I didn’t really feel like applying for the whole process. It’s not that difficult, but it’s still a process. You have to go through the whole thing. You have to find out about the rules. You have to apply with the administration. It’s pretty expensive as well, so I didn’t really do that until seven years ago, I think. I got a permit and I’ve built up a small collection. I’m shooting regularly – a lot actually right now.

Doug: Excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve actually been to the range. That last time was to sight in a new 6.8 SPC upper receiver that had been causing me more problems than … [Hans laughs] than something that expensive should be … I finally figured it out. It was my stock, it was loose. So when I was shooting the whole thing would tilt. But when I was bore-sighting it – I put a laser down the bore – it is entirely accurate. It was only going wrong when I was pulling the trigger. It took me three trips to the range to figure that … there is a clamp on the extendible stock and if you didn’t engage that clamp the whole gun would rock. It was a very frustrating experience, but eventually I succeeded my IQ-based Guns skill and figured that out [both laugh].

Hans: See, that’s why I prefer guns that work all the time like Glocks or pump-action shotguns and stuff like that, where you don’t have to fiddle. I don’t like to build stuff – I just want to shoot them. I get guns that always work.

Doug: I’m only 175 cm, so a lot of the weapons that are designed around people who are six-feet tall [180 cm] … that’s what helps with that.

So one of the things that’s true is you seem to have a comprehensive knowledge of who has what firearms all over the world. How did you get into that and how difficult is it to pick that up?

Hans: It’s sort of a result of all my other research. If you’re not just interested in the technical specifications of the stuff, you also want to know who’s using what and who’s buying what and how much they buy. How much did they pay for it, and all the other things that are often more interesting to the players in the game than the mere stats.

Because you have to know can I actually get it? How much do I have to pay for it? Will the men in black from the government … what kind of gun will they have? If I break into the library of the Holy See, what kind of gun will the Swiss guards have and stuff like that.

It’s more interesting to find out who’s getting what and I’ve done a lot of research, and there are tons of books, actually, where you can find that, and then there are specialized online sites that are collecting stuff like that. It’s almost like train spotters – there’s gun spotters – searching the pictures from online sources to find out who’s using what, and stuff like that. It’s huge…it’s actually a huge industry as well. Jane’s [Information Group], the company, they are making all their money, really, with this kind of information.

Doug: I certainly remember; I never owned a copy because the Jane’s books were always so expensive. When I was building a lot of vehicles using GURPS Vehicle Design, I would hit the northwestern library in order to look at Jane’s [Fighting] Ships. Or my favorite book to look at was Aircraft Weapons [Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons]. I remember Jane’s Infantry Weapons as well.

You would have … I still remember … at least my fascination with gun catalogs so to speak, I think, started with Twilight: 2000. It was the first gun catalog I had – although I think it was the second edition infantry weapons book [Infantry Weapons Handbook]. It had some pictures and stats and some of the entries were wrong. Even then I remember myself looking at, I think there was like this advanced infantry rifle which they said fired an 18mm round, and I was like “What?!” An advanced infantry weapon firing shotgun slugs. That can’t be right!

Hans: The funny thing is that book for Twilight: 2000 is actually basically copied from Jane’s. You can really tell from the pictures, and from the entries, that many of these things never appeared in the real world. They just were published in some Jane’s Infantry Weapons issue and then they used them for Twilight: 2000 book. But in the real world, they never played any role. It’s actually quite funny.

Doug: I do remember that. But I also remember modifying it when it came to my own monster hunters campaign and such. Because some of them were not quite right.

To that point, in a way, one of the interesting things I think you brought up, and I differently remember reading or writing about it on my blog: Firearms set a backdrop to a scene the same way a Model T Ford or a Ferrari F50 – it provides a context to the environment, in a roleplaying game, that’s pretty interesting, and I think helps with immersion. So getting it right is part of set dressing.

One of the things that you’ve done – I think you did something for a while called the “Armorer’s Archive”  . . . was that your own blog-entry or…

Hans: That started when I started writing this [holds up The Armourer]. My fanzine which I published in the late 1990s – it’s only GURPS stuff – basically its all the things I did later are already in there. You’ve got rules, you’ve got guns, vehicles, you’ve got all the inventories and stuff like that.

It’s really all my interests are in that fanzine. I published two issues I think – I had stuff for some more – but I didn’t really pursue it, because at that point I started writing for Steve Jackson Games and obviously that was more fun than just doing a fanzine. Right about the same time when I was publishing those things I was writing articles on the GURPSNet – the old email thingee.

Doug: I remember it.

Hans: That was the “Armourer Archives” basically. It was thirty entries I think.

Doug: The reason I ask, is to tie it into the previous conversation, I remember some entries called “Armourer’s Archive at the Movies.” And you would write about “and here’s a movie and it featured these weapons, and here’s a movie and it featured these weapons,” and here is what was right and wrong about them.

As a fan of both firearms, and I believe movies as well, what are your favorite movies with guns in them, and your least favorite ones that set your teeth on edge …  and why is that in both cases.

Hans: There’re tons, really, of favorite movies. I like both realistic movies, the cinema version of GURPS Tactical Shooting, and the really over the top ones, which is the cinema version of GURPS Gun Fu, of course. There are a huge number of films that I like.

Probably one of my favorites is Heat, definitely – also because everybody loves Robert De Niro, but that’s just perfect. All the characters are so great, and the music and the story, and the shooting. Everything is just perfect.

Doug: My understanding is its one of the few movies that gets the sound of guns right.

Hans: Yes. Absolutely. That’s one of the things that I had to learn myself when I started shooting, is how fucking loud those things are.

I had read about it before that obviously, but I had only shot .22 rifles before that, so I didn’t really know firsthand how loud those things are. I started shooting at an indoor range and it was just brutal. You really can’t imagine it if you haven’t experienced it yourself. That was an eye-opener. In Heat they’ve done it right. It’s really overwhelming.

Doug: Right. I remember two experiences that I had with a girlfriend and I at the time were thinking about taking a trip to Alaska, or working there over the summer. So her father, who owned a farm in Kansas, took us out. He ran a pheasant-hunting operation and he was a big hunter, and as is often the case for people in the Central/Midwest United States he had a very large firearms collection. He had a 3,000-acre range and took us out and taught us how to shoot.

I didn’t have earplugs or anything and one of the first weapons I ever shot was a .22-250 varmint rifle. Probably putting a .22 caliber bullet out at 900 m/sec or something like that [Edit: it’s actually more like 1,150m/s!] and my right ear was ringing for a week [laughs].

Then another time, I was shooting at a indoor range in Texas, and I’d gotten a “battlepack” they call it – probably just to sell it to people like me – of Guatemalan 5.56×45mm NATO. Guatemalan M16 ammunition. And I was shooting it out of a short-barreled (16-inch barrel) AR-15 and every time I’d pull the trigger about a 3-foot dirty thing of flame would come out the front. It was okay for me, but all the people in the lanes next to me were like running in fear. They had ear protection and everything and it was still so loud it was like flexing the window that allowed the range masters to watch people doing their thing. The whole thing was bowing inwards, and eventually they said “you need to change your ammo or just stop.”

The concussion is really amazing. It’s one of those things where I remember seeing an outtake of Alias where they were warning everybody that Jennifer Garner – the lead actress was going to fire three shots, but they were full power blanks. So everyone had to go up [and cover their ears]. That seemed to be actually unusual for that.

So in general, what do you think cinema and movies gets the most right about firearms, and what do you think they get the most wrong? And the reason I’m asking all these questions about movies, is really to set the stage for how they’re modeled in games.

Because I think the movies and the TV establish thecultural awareness of firearms, both in how to get them, how to use them, how they’re used and not used, legal and illegal things you can do with them. How injurious they are when you get shot.

So I am curious to your opinion as to what the cultural record gets right and what the cultural record gets wrong.

Hans: There are several things they usually don’t really get. The first one which we already talked about is the sound. I actually read that they are required to turn down the volume, because people would get ear damage from just watching a movie. So they can’t really use a proper volume.

You can do it right, like in Heat and usually they don’t. Usually the sounds you hear in movies and television are not the sounds they actually generate, but they’re from some computer program. That’s also a problem: you can’t really recognize what it’s actually like.

The sound is a problem; recoil is a problem because the blanks don’t generate proper recoil, so you don’t really see when they’re going with a machine gun or something. They don’t really generate the proper recoil and you can tell from the actor’s movements.

One problem is differently is definitely the one-shot death. Which is a cinematic meme. I’ve actually read that they’ve had problems with that in the military, because even young soldiers on being trained on real weapons expect their opponents to drop dead with one shot like in the movies, like they had learned all their life, by watching movies and television – and it just doesn’t happen – usually. Not like that anyway.

Of course you can die from one shot, but not like it’s usually portrayed in the movies.

Doug: Mark Bowden wrote about it in Black Hawk Down. If you’ve read the book – I’m sure you’ve read the book, if you haven’t you should. It’s 1991, obviously, so it’s pushing 20 years old.

Hans: It was 1993, wasn’t it?

Doug: You’re right – ’93, sorry – it’s a fascinating read, and one of the things it talks about is that the Rangers just couldn’t believe when they pulled the trigger, that the Somalis that they were fighting didn’t just drop, or explode, or whatever it was they were supposed to do. One shot.

They would absorb … some of that was blamed on the ammo, and some of that was blamed on “it’s not the range silly,” – you’re not going to hit eight out of ten at 100 meters in combat the way you do in a nice little quiet range.

So turning to games, what do you think – so we asked the question about movies – what they get wrong and right. One of the things that they often get right is firearms handling.

I want to give a shout out to Denzel Washington in this. The reason I say this, is I have never – unless the plot calls for it – I’ve never seen him make a mistake handling a gun. I’ve never seen him point a weapon at somebody with his finger on the trigger. Whenever he’s holding the firearm his finger is always [alongside the trigger guard]. I’ve never seen an actor with better firearms discipline than him.

Hans: I can’t remember a film off hand where he’s actually with a gun. Can you name a movie?

Doug: Training Day. In Training Day even when he’s being this guy who’s trying to be imposing on his partner, Ethan Hawke. When he’s kind of point his gun at him, he’s always got his finger next to the trigger rather than on it and stuff like that. Mistakes in gun handling, or good news in gun handling…so what is it in roleplaying games obviously have a long and storied history featuring violence as conflict resolution above almost everything else.

So what do you think that games get the most right and get the most wrong in representing firearms? Or instead of simulating, since that’s such a leading question, how about representing firearms?

Hans: Well the biggest issue in all games really is exactly the same as in the movies. That’s how damage works. That’s linked how the games represent health or hit points.

Most games obviously use hit points in some way, and that’s rather misleading if you compare how actual injuries on the human body work.

Obviously you always have to…you need some way of actually quantifying what is done to the body. But still, a lot of games just don’t get it right.

Usually that’s also a question of scale. GURPS has the huge advantage that it actually scales to muzzle energy and stuff like that. There is actually a formula to generate that. Most games don’t, really, and you can tell.

You have stuff like GUMSHOE which is terrible in this regard. Everything’s the same. A 9mm is the same damage as a 6.5mm rifle, or a baseball bat, or stuff like that. It’s completely ridiculous to compare actually. So damage is a huge problem, and most games really don’t work that way in that regard. That’s why I like GURPS, because GURPS is pretty good in that.

Doug: Certainly it has the mathematical advantage as both you and I have both independently come up with – slightly different – it works out that the only thing that’s really different is how – because I wrote an article a long time ago, and I know you got the background that you did for High-Tech and Tactical Shooting.

The only thing that’s really different is how we scale for caliber, and even then its, honestly in my particular case, the thing that swayed my mathematical model the most was the 406mm battleship cannon. Because it was so far out on the energy and caliber scale, that really, probably, an entirely different physics applies

But within the range of basically 5mm to 15mm personal weapon and light anti-vehicular weapon the scale is pretty irrelevant in caliber anyway because there is not that much different in overall cross section.

So that’s getting a little bit deep in the weeds of mathematical modelling – but it is interesting, because when you put a line through the actual penetration values it isn’t exactly as neat as one would think.

Hans: Yeah. That’s also the problem…it’s a problem in the game because it’s a problem in real life.

You can’t really … that’s why we have the “caliber wars” and all those bigger-dick or longer-dick comparisons. Which is better and which is worse and whatever.

Because you can’t really say it that simply. It’s difficult to quantify, and therefore … but still, once you have some parameters along which you can actually say “Yeah, this is a 9mm and this is whatever,” then you can work on a scale that works.

But if you just assign damage like many games actually do, they’re not really looking into how guns work, but also how the body works, and how combat works, and how the mind works in combat and stuff like that.

Doug: That’s something that I think that Tactical Shooting at least – and we’ll talk about Tactical Shooting, because I obviously have fond memories of that, both in usage and in playtesting …

But the mental stress of combat is something that I think Tactical Shooting does as well as I’ve seen, and is yet still very difficult to get right. I think largely because gamers are used to have total control over everything that they ever do.

And this is actually an area where the scaling of GURPS in time, with one-second combat action works a little bit against the real simulationism of how much you can actually get done in a firefight, and how much time you’re spent ducking behind a box.

Hans: Yes. Yes. I just recently did an article for Pyramid where I chronicled real gunfights and fictional gunfights in the old west, using the transcripts. The interesting thing is that a lot of the time people would just Do Nothing.

Doug: Yeah, they’d just sit there . . .

Hans: And you can’t really say that, in a game. The players, they want to do something every turn, or every round, or whatever. They don’t really appreciate that sometimes you just don’t want to do something.

It’s the same thing not only with guns, but with martial arts as well. I’ve done loads of martial arts and you’ve done even more – sometimes in a fight you just stand around a bit, and look for better position or whatever, you don’t punch every second.

That’s definitely a problem.

It’s perhaps a good idea that some games have a longer combat round than just one second. Not too long – the D&D I think is 30 seconds – that’s ridiculous. But a bit longer than one second would certainly work.

Doug: In a recent game that I have been running that I call “Alien Menace,” which is basically sort of Aliens: Colonial Marines meets Dungeon Fantasy, in a way. [Hans laughs] Gear up in your modern tactical gear, a little bit in the future, because the future is cool. GURPS X-Com if you are familiar with that. Except the players are going to other star systems and killing aliens and taking their stuff.

One of the things we wound up doing was we did a five-second combat turn, not for the actual shooting itself, but for the maneuver phases before the fire-fight action actually starts.

Because frequently what you’re really…what I wanted to model was a group of troops would walk at a combat walk, scanning for targets, and then pause letting the next guy go – kind of bounding/overwatch type movement.

Doing that on a one-second time scale was ridiculously frustrasting. Because you’d be cycling between four to six players, moving one to two yards per second, because one thing that is true about GURPS is that…I love it to death, but some of the playable abstractions make every Joe Average into a world record sprinter.

That kind of stuff – easily fixed, but on the one second time scale a two to four miles an hour is a reasonably brisk walk. That’s two yards per second; it’s really not moving anywhere. To clear a cave complex, or something like that, when the bugs are coming would take nine years of real time. “Okay, Peter you move your two. Nate you move your two. Hans you move your two. Okay.” Now we’re going back to Peter again . . . at some point people are going to reach through the screen and kill the gamemaster for that.

What we would up doing was say “Take a full move and evaluate and a Wait” and you do that as a five-second action, and it appropriately gets things moving while allowing . . . first of all, it didn’t allow someone to get way ahead and then you say “Oh, now combat starts.” And you have some poor schlep who’slost in the middle of a fire fight because they moved their icon on the screen. But it also broke that up.

I think that a three to five second round probably works best for – even D&D eventually did that – the six-second segment or whatever.That range of a couple of seconds seems to work well.

Except . . . when you’re dealing with something like fully-automatic weapons.

Hans: Even if you got semi-automatics, or even if you got punches – a real martial artist doesn’t throw just one punch. I don’t know … when I shoot I shoot like four shots per second. Those are aimed shots, not just in the sand.

You have to have to do things pretty differently. If you have a three or five second turn you have to realize that in that time frame you can empty an entire magazine of an assault rifle or something like that. That doesn’t sit too well with many gamemasters or many game designers, actually. They usually want things to be a bit slower [laughs].

Doug: I think it’s a real tension in trying to create dramatic action without devolving into the only thing you’re doing is managing inventory. Even though if you look at one of the big issues in patrol reports. Read especially…we got a long time of deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you read the patrol reports. Most of these guys, when they get into a serious scrap, they’re not paid to bring ammo back, but I tell you what: no one has ever wished that they had less.

Hans: That’s the thing – again – I’ve studied loads of real shootouts. For the game, usually, because you can always learn something. You can get statistics from the FBI from the NYPD. They’ve got hundreds of shootouts documented and the same with many of the old west gunfights – extremely well-documented – comparatively.

For example, there is a famous fight that had four dead in five seconds. You can’t be really sure it was “just” five seconds, and we know those four guys didn’t die in those five seconds, because three of them died later.

You’ve got enough information to deduce that most real shootouts, they’re over in a very, very short time. Still people manage to shoot a lot. Not just two shots. They spent their entire ammunition.

So we have to find a way to have that condensed time and still allow the characters to do so much.

I don’t know … it’s difficult in both the one-second turns and the longer turns, because both have issues in that way.

Doug: So if you were to take a step back. You and I’ve written rules for GURPS, and you’ve done the Investigator Weapons series for the Call of Cthulhu system as you mentioned early in the interview.

If you could start from scratch on a blank piece of paper, and design firearms combat for roleplaying games as envisioned by Hans-Christian Vortisch. What would that look like to you?

Hans: [laughs] I don’t know … I actually never really thought about writing my own system, because I like the systems I work with – obviously.

But one thing is definitely an issue, is the time issue, as we just talked about, and I think I would go for slightly longer turn than GURPS. Probably about three seconds … but I would allow much more actions to happen.

Because in Call of Cthulhu, which is about three seconds … Call of Cthulhu is very badly edited – it’s 30 years now, I think and they never really paid attention to all the books that came out. And so some books say a combat turn is as long as you like, some say three seconds, some say … you know. Nothing really you could work with I think.

If you take three seconds, you got the problem that the rules allow only one or two shots, or punches or whatever – actions anyway, in that time frame. And then you got the same problem we already discussed: in truth you should be able to do much, much more in that time.

But then, if you allow them to take twelve shots or whatever in that time frame, you’d be back at GURPS, because you’d have to detail every single one of those.

Perhaps you need a way to … for example: I recently playtested the Beta of the Delta Green RPG, which is a completely new game, but works on the old Call of Cthulhu Basic RolePlaying game system. They did a lot of things differently, but … [chuckles] basically it’s the same.

But they sort of said … one attack, with a fist for example, isn’t just one punch, or doesn’t need to be just one punch. It can represent a whole bunch of them – it’s an abstraction. You don’t really need to have to play every single punch, but you can say … it’s a whole flurry of them.

Perhaps you can do the same with shots, then you’ve got the problem that every shot is potentially deadly, so you have to account for that in some way. You also have to account for the fact that you have to count every shot from the magazine. You can’t say “I do 10 shots” and have a revolver which takes only six and stuff like that.

It would be neat … it’s a bit less simulationist than I usually like, I like every shot to count and every little bit to matter. But I think it probably works.

Doug: Right. And you have mentioned GUMSHOE earlier, and I think GUMSHOE, and especially Night’s Black Agents – which tends to take a step closer to that modern, frantic pace – rationalizes that to an extreme and says “Any shot is a shot and whether it’s a .50-caliber rifle or a pistol the important thing is the drama of it.”

As you noted you find that unsatisfying, but from a representation of both good and bad gun cinema . . . all guns do kind of do the same damage. A .22 will knock somebody on their butt or a shotgun blows them down the room.

So you got this it’s either you shoot and the hero hits and the bad guy drops, or something happens and it misses. It’s really about the drama of the moment.

And you’ve got GURPS where you can tick off one bullet at a time if you want.

Hans: The thing is if you take that too far – and I think GUMSHOE did that – you don’t have … you no longer have any reason to pick any particular gun. I’m not just talking about guns, if you’re using swords or axes or spears or whatever, there has to be a difference, or otherwise why bother.

Doug: It becomes pure flavor, you’re right.

Hans: And I think the players, at least, want the flavor. Or many of them do. Obviously not all of them, otherwise those games wouldn’t thrive. Many players like to give character to their characters. Color and flavor, and not all knights are the same, because one of them picks a sword, and one an axe.

It’s the same with guns, you have to have some way of differentiating, and if all the things do the same damage, or even work the same, if they are automatic or not, why bother.

Doug: One thing you struck in my mind in terms of way to cover, not just the fact that “Okay, you’ve got a five-second turn and in five seconds you can fire 50 rounds from a M16” and you can virtually fire as many in five seconds (maybe not quite, but close) simply by pulling the trigger really fast. Even in something like a revolver with a long, heavy trigger pull you can blaze off a lot of rounds in a short amount of time.

I wonder if the right … an interesting mechanic for that: make an attack of some arbitrary declaration, and then you roll randomly for the number of bullets or shots that you fire in making that attack in five seconds.

The interesting thing about that to me – and I’ve have to think about it more – is that it would be … players would get caught out of ammunition by surprise.

Hans: I know what you mean, but I don’t like random. I don’t like throwing the dice and then you’re out or not.

What I like – and I actually applied this rule that I wrote that rule in my books in the Investigators Weapons series for Call of Cthulhu, that people who aren’t – normal people who aren’t seasoned gunfighters, and most people aren’t – even if they are cops or ordinary grunts or whatever.

They would always fire at their maximum rate of fire. So they would be out of ammunition pretty fast, which is both dramatic and pretty realistic.

I shoot a lot of IPSC competitions, and very often I see people being out, and being totally surprised by the slide locking open, even though they actually knew how the stage was set, and how many shots they were supposed to shoot. And they didn’t hit that one plate, so they had to spend extra ammunition, and the whole plan fell apart. And on the next station they are out, suddenly and surprisingly.

And that’s not combat, but you’re still totally … you can imagine how that works if you are in combat and fighting for your life. I actually force the player characters as fast as possible, and that’s one of the results that I’ve seen in analyzing all those shootouts and gunfights and so on. People shoot much, much faster than they usually would.

And they shoot, and they don’t really know how much they’ve shot. You can see in all the firefights, especially with the policemen, is that they shoot and shoot and shoot and they don’t even remember shooting that much. And the witnesses … I always hear “I thought it was two shoots” in reality they emptied two magazines.

I think that works pretty well. You can give the characters some agency by having them roll to overcome that. There able to step down and take a breath and calm down and shoot slower. Which is actually pretty realistic, I think, because that’s exactly what you do.

Doug: You have to exert discipline to control your rate of fire. That’s an interesting point. Yep.

Back to your comment about the police stuff, is it true and it’s interesting, and always very tragic in retrospect – and it gets into the tactical mind and some of the concepts you introduced in your writing.

Not only do you shoot at maximum rate, but once somebody decides to start shooting, everybody gets in on the game. The psychological pressure in a potentially lethal situation to not be the one standing there with the fully loaded gun in their hand at the end [laughs]. Or potentially wounded or dead on both sides.

Once the shooting starts the psychological pressure is way more than anyone that hasn’t experienced it gives it credit for. Even the people who research it academically don’t understand. I certainly don’t understand.

But you read these after-action reports of “You know there was someone in the doorway …” – and I know this is a fairly famous case in New York City – there was someone in the doorway and there were several police officers, and something happened, and one officer started shooting and pretty soon forty-five rounds are expended, because every single one of them went through 15 rounds in their Beretta (or whatever) before they even thought about it. The bullets are going all over the doorway. And someone is dead, and …

Hans: Of course, most of them didn’t hit [both laugh].

Doug: That’s right. The hit rates seem to be less than 25%.

Hans: 10 to 20[%] is about the rate.

Doug: That was actually … I had a whole series of both blog posts, and we even snuck in a reference to this in Pyramid #3/57, which was the wonderful “Gunplay” issue. Obviously, with my interests and yours, that was a good one. I wonder if we could lean on Steven to do a sequel.

I won’t lie: I’ve got an article that’s just already on his desk for that one. I think it’s actually some of my best work. I referenced it on my blog at one point as a different way to look at aiming in GURPS.

Because as you know some times you draw, and you’ve got the perfect sight picture and you shoot, and itsbang-on instantly. And sometimes it’s like “Ahhh….[wobbles arms about in gun pose and then imitates a gun firing].” You know.

It’s very literally hit or miss when you get a good picture and sometimes you don’t. And GURPS is very formulaic: “I draw, I do an All-Out Attack, I Aim, I Aim again, and I shoot.” And then the player has some mental calculus of “I’m going to do this after I get to this score.” [both laugh]

It’s usually not quite…Quite so metronomic. Metronome. Aim. Aim. Aim. Shoot. Aim. Aim. Aim. Shoot.

Anyways, so that’s really one of the hardest things to model – getting back to the same thing – the uncertainty that happens in a real fire fight. Because of course, you’re not doing it one second at a time, or even five seconds at a time.

Putting your head down for five seconds in GURPS is a freaking afternoon, right?

But ducking to take a deep breath or something in a real situation is not just common, but encouraged – especially in more military-style firefights, where you don’t have people standing in the middle of the street in what becomes a brief flurry of violence.

So going from some real life shooting and stuff to talking a little bit more about your writing – at least in GURPS you’ve written at the very least what Special Ops, Covert Ops, Modern Firepower, Tactical Shooting, Gun Fu, High-Tech, missing any, off the top of my head?

Hans: My first real project was Modern Firepower, what else did I do? SEALs in Vietnam, which I really liked – one of my favorites actually. It was such a interesting thing to write, because it doesn’t really fit with all the other books strangely. It’s such a weird setting, and I don’t know it’s so specialized. It’s about U.S. Navy SEALS in Vietnam.

But it really works, and it’s got some nice alternate history scenarios in the back, and it’s got loads of mechanics that I used later.

That’s one of the things that you can’t really plan. You just write something and you notice, oh, it could use some more development, and I really should have thought about that in another book – an early book usually.

But that really…that’s really cool. It’s got great historical photos, and one of the better illustrated books of the lot. That’s just great.

The fun thing about it is I’ve actually had people tell me “My father was in the war, and he actually felt like that.” People actually came to me, and told me that it hit the spot, and that’s great because it’s so historical. And obviously I wasn’t there, and I have no real issue in the whole thing, but it’s just if you’re doing a historical setting like that with people who have actually been there say “Okay, that’s how it was.” Perhaps not exactly like that, but it captures the feeling anyway. You’ve done your job, and that’s just great. I did a couple other books in the World War II series.

Doug: I was wondering, did you have a hand in Hand of Steel [GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel, written by Shawn Fisher]?

Hans: I worked with Gene [Seabolt, line editor of the GURPS WWII series] before he actually wrote the main volume before it was actually published. I worked with him on the vehicle design system because he had this abbreviated design system. The Modular Vehicle Design System. I worked with him on that, and obviously, I worked with him more on the small arms, and I consulted on all the volumes and I wrote, actually most of the small arms sections in many books.

And well, I also consulted on foreign language terms in many of the books. I wrote Motor Pool [GURPS WWII: Motor Pool], which is basically just vehicles, which I’ve always loved. Because I used to play a lot of Car Wars in the 80s. I just loved designing them. I must have done hundreds of Car Wars vehicles that I never used. It’s like LEGO – you’re always tinkering with something, and building, and you can’t really do something with them.

Anyway, I did the Motor Pool then I did two PDFs with Michele Armellini: the books on Poland and Romania.

Doug: And Covert Ops is an interesting story, because there was a playtest “GURPS Assassins” or something, and you and Bill Stoddard pieced all that together to make Covert Ops.

What have your experiences been, both positive and negative, with Steve Jackson Games? I find it a tough company to write for, but the results are usually pretty good.

Hans: Yes. They’ve got fucking excellent editors, which is their main selling point really. Aside from the game system.

I’ve worked with a couple different publishers as well, and they’re just the best. The feedback that you get from the editors and the oversight – you need oversight in a game, because otherwise it’s like Call of Cthulhu – there are a thousand different options, and none of them work with each other.

In GURPS you actually have people who committed to get everything integrated in somewhere. Well, not everything, but as a universal system not everything works with everything. Most of it …

Doug: It’s amazing how non-obvious that can be … [both laugh].

Hans: I totally know what you mean!

They’re actually working on that, to get things right, and they’re positive toward the writers. They’re very accommodating.

Also, to topics, most of the books – but not all of them – were my ideas, and I pitched them. That’s great if you can go to them and tell them “I have this idea, what can we do with it. Are you interested?” They want to develop, you know.

Doug: That was how the grappling book started. I was like: A long time I was like “Grappling is just odd. It’s very detailed. The same way guns can be detailed, but it’s all just one effect. It’s very off/on, you’re either grappled or you are not. What would happen if you get either a good grip or a bad grip?” And I pitched that too Steven and he was like “Eh, I don’t know…” Sean was like “This is something that needs to be thought about…”

And then I submitted my first draft, and I think the feedback at the time was longer than the original draft. I think I submitted a 21,000-word initial draft and he gave me 24,000 words of feedback. It almost doubled the length of the final product, but it was also immensely valuable in crafting what it would look like.

Hans: That’s really cool with working with them.

On the other hand you have issues with production, and at some time, they always wanted to have two writers, two authors for every book. Usually … I prefer to do everything on my own.

Sometimes, when I actually chose my co-author it’s a different thing, because I actually want to work with somebody. These days I usually want to do it alone, and I prefer that. At some point – I don’t really know why, actually – they had this idea that every book had to be written by two people.

Doug: More eyes on it? The peer review process of going back and forth certainly helps.

Hans: Yes, but you don’t need several authors to get peer review … that’s another good thing with Steve Jackson Games. They don’t do that or in that way. Totally playtest everything, and have a detailed peer review, and you actually have to work with it, and have to explain yourself … that’s very important actually for the stuff to work because you can tell which games don’t use that, because they usually have issues. They’ve been ironed out much earlier.

Doug: In a game like GURPS, and I obviously found this in my grappling book, and I refer to that largely because it represented to me some of the best and worst parts of all that.

When you’re doing a lot of playtest around “Hans Grappling with Doug” okay, that’s one setting, and then you need to say “if Giant Hans is picking up Hobbit Doug,” and you’re like “… DAMN IT.” All your assumptions go out the window, and you have to really think about that.

What I’m finding least is we did a couple of weeks worth of … weeks … months? Of playtest of that, and it could have used another year of people messing around with it and see where it squeaks around the edges.

Peter Dell’Orto and I wrote thousands and thousands of words of how to tweak it out, and he uses and writes about in his Felltower Dungeon Fantasy campaign just to specialize a little bit. It’s amazing how valuable that was.

In the Tactical Shooting playtest we had some really dedicated, interested people that really helped. And I’ve heard since then and I don’t know if you’ve received the same feedback, but that playtest was legendary in its value. In terms of how it really validated the book.

If there’s anything in retrospect that you’ve published in GURPS or anything else, and we’ll talk about some of your works here in a minute. What would you do over again if you could? Looking back over the body of work that’s been published.

Hans: The thing is, you always want to do things over. That’s the problem with books: at some point you have to let go, and let the editors and the layouters and the production – you have to let them do their job, and get the book actually out.

Of course that cuts you off from the possibility to fiddle with it. And I fiddle with all my books for ages, many of them started years ago, and you’ve seen most of mine, or most of my drafts, actually, and usually takes two to five years for the books to actually see the light.

At some point, you have to let go, and there is always something that you would have done differently.

Especially since I found a lot of my – not all of them – but some of my books deal with the same issues again and again. For example, I did the GURPS Martial Arts: Fairbairn Close Combat Systems, which was also a labor of love, and just a fun little thing and totally specialized.

I mean, it works with loads of different settings really which is the fun and cool thing. You can use it in WWII, you can use it in the 1920s in Shanghai. You can use it for all sorts of things, but still it is a bit specialized.

A lot of stuff in there later evolved into Tactical Shooting. Obviously, if I had done Tactical Shooting first, I wouldn’t have done the Fairbairn book in the way I did it.

The same with some details in High-Tech that I would do differently now, or I just know better. You grow as an author, and your knowledge grows, and at some point you just realize “That’s not really I would want it now.”

Really I have no issues with most of my books. Some of them have not the production values that I would have liked. There’s author problems where I wrote things I really didn’t want to write, and editor mistakes, and layout mistakes and little issues.

Really I’m pretty content overall with the things I did.

Doug: Yes. You mention Fairbairn, it was funny that was one of the books or parts of that book, in terms of a lot of the self-defense moves of “grab the guy and throw them” or whatever, and there were certain combinations of moves that have caused me no small degree of angst. [Hans laughs]

It’s the comment you made earlier was “Oh, well all of these books aren’t meant to work together all the time.” It’s different times and different periods and different rules.

The things that has got – trouble is the wrong word because it’s too strong, but able to parry and then do an Arm Lock and throw – all within one second – has been held up with “Well, Hans wrote this in Fairbairn, so clearly it must be right.” [Hans laughs] Which is a testament to your skills as a researcher, but it was also one of those things where it was like: “Well, yeah, some things can happen quickly, but it doesn’t always happen that way and it should be the GM option.”

The big one was I actually went to the martial arts studio with a friend and timed how long it took to do what GURPS would call a Judo Throw, or a throw from a lock. And people on the forums would say “Why do you have to wait to apply damage or throw on your next turn.” Which is the official rule: You can do a lock, but you have to do it on your next turn.

Well …you can do it faster, but it takes a full second for someone’s ass to hit the ground. [both chuckle]

There are other ways to do it that are a lot faster, but they’re usually not so acrobatic.

It was one of those funny things where you take 3 or 4 books from different people – or to your point 4 books from one person written over the course of a decade and say “How come these things don’t all work together perfectly.” They work together basically, but why don’t they work together perfectly? Well, it’s 10 years…


Doug: Right.

So stepping away from GURPS a little bit, you’ve done a lot of writing, and a lot of content for Call of Cthulhu. Talk a little bit about that: and do you do writing for other game systems as well?

Hans: I started writing for Call of Cthulhu at some point in the late 90s I think. Originally I wanted to translate the 3rd edition of GURPS High-Tech, and the German licensee of GURPS at that point was also the German licensee of Call of Cthulhu.

They lost interest in GURPS at that point, but then I did a couple of translations of Call of Cthulhu products for them from English to German

And then I started writing for them, a couple of things, which were fun because I really like Call of Cthulhu. I’ve played it for 25 years or something, it’s one of my absolute favorite games, and Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors, so that’s just perfect for me.

I also like the periods – the 1920s, very interesting setting. The Gaslight setting, the 1890s, so it was all perfect for me, but the players of that game, at least in Germany, are very particular.

They are generally what they call “purists,” which means they don’t like fighting. Which is obviously antagonistic to my whole outlook on gaming [laughs] and on life, really. Which is a bit of problem, but the publisher actually wanted a big weapon books for Call of Cthulhu. Which I didn’t really want to do, because I knew how people felt about that. Or many people that I met.There are always the vocal ones, there are always people who are louder than others and you don’t really want to hear what they are saying, but anyway.

I did that book anyway, and it turned out pretty well. That was the Cthulhu Waffen-Handbuch. The funny thing about that was there was nothing equivalent in the original. It was an originally-German book, because most of the other things were obviously translations from the American Call of Cthulhu.

Then I talked with Adam Crossingham from Sixtystone Press, one of the English licensee’s of Call of Cthulhu, and I worked with him on a couple of articles in various magazines, and he asked me to do a book about weapons in Call of Cthulhu, but in English. Obviously I didn’t want to translate the book I did for Pegasus, and so we developed a new book, and the basic idea was to take just – not a huge catalog, but a selected sampling of things that a investigators would actually like. Would have access to, and would actually use against all those Cthulhu beasties.

The most important thing for me was to give a very detailed description of how they actually work, and how you actually use them. Because that’s one of the things most of the games really gloss over. If you don’t really know anything about how a weapon works, and how you chamber it, and how reload and all that. You have no real compass for that.

You see some of the stuff in the movies, but often they omit details, and often it’s just wrong, and I felt that was a important thing for the players to actually immerse in the setting.

Especially the reloading thing in Call of Cthulhu, you have to reload your shotgun before the ghoul comes through the door, and your frantically reloading two shot shells and stuff like that. You have to actually know how that works. I describe that in detailed steps. We have pretty good production values in all of those. There’s a picture for all of them, which is important, but most of the games can’t really afford illustration of all the things in there.

Anyway, that was the idea of the Investigator Weapons books. First we did the 1920s book to see how it works, and how people liked them, but it sold pretty good.

I wrote another three now. The second volume is set in the modern day and is mainly to support Delta Green and The Laundry. There’s one set in World War II, which is … actually, there are a couple of publishers producing entire series of books like this. There’s Achtung! Cthulhu, which is English, and also World War Cthulhu, which is also English, they’re producing tons of books for that setting or for that era. The third Investigator Weapons book is for that, and the fourth is for the Gaslight and Old West period.

Those have been really fun to write, because I tried out loads of stuff, and you know … the research is always fun for me, because I’m not just reading up on the technical specs. I’m also reading up on the users. I’m watching movies. I’m also trying out a lot. I’ve got my own collection, but I’m always walking up to people and “Can I try out that?” I’ve tried out hundreds of different firearms for those books, just to know how they work and how they feel.

Doug: It is interesting, because even in GURPS you have something like…I’ll take my two pistols a Springfield XDM and the Walther PPQ.

Notionally, identical stats – really. Maybe a couple shots different, but from GURPS perspective they are identical. But they shoot so differently.

They really are two different pieces of hardware. The Springfield has a long slow steady trigger pull – very accurate but you have to work it. Whereas the PPQ has this trigger reset that’s on a … you can fire follow-up shots before the muzzle has even climbed at all. If you’re firing multiple follow-up shots it the most accurate and fast gun I’ve ever had the pleasure of pointing downrange [Hans chuckles]. It’s amazing, but it’s also … you’d never get that from a statblock.

Hans: Yes. Yes.

Doug: Especially one with – relatively speaking – even though GURPS has a lot of stats –it’s still fairly coarse resolution. A +1 or -1 in GURPS is basically a +50% increment in range. If you’re doing something worth a +1 you can hit something at 15 yards where you used to hit it in 10. Or a 150 yards, where you used to hit it at a 100. With that range resolution, a lot gets swept under the rug, probably more should be swept under than rug than is given its mechanical benefit, but you want things to be different.

Hans: It’s even worse in most of the other game engines which have even lower resolution, and you can’t really tell them apart, as I moaned about earlier.

Doug: For a game, in many cases without heavy modification, like the d20 system – guns are going to have a hard time. The abstraction of Armor Class, and some of the pieces like that, don’t play as well. They can be made to. I’ve seen some modifications. But in the end it becomes “How close to GURPS can you actually get without actually playing it.” [Hans laughs]

In a way, that’s kind of nice, because when you have a system where I’m going to write something for GURPS, and then you can back it off to see how it would work in D&D.

I wrote a fairly interesting … with Peter’s help … everything doesn’t always come back to grappling, but it’s the book I have, and where I have the most mechanical experience writing rules, maybe, other than firearms.

Starting with something like GURPS and say “How would I D&D-ify that?” It’s interesting because you say “I’m going to abstract this. I’m not going to abstract that.” And you can start to walk through the balance of simulationism and super details vs. quick play, which is required to fit with the systems.

Before we go I always like to give my guest the last word, but I do sort of want to weave a question in there. What’s next for you, in terms of authorship or publication? I know you just published Adventure Guns, which is a labor of love, in a period that you enjoy. What next for you, and what parting shots do you have before we sign off?

Hans: GURPS High-Tech: Adventures Guns just came out, which is basically a gun catalog for the late 19th century, for all the Wild West movies, and all the Gaslight things, and Sherlock Holmes, and everything that’s happening between 1850 and 1910 roughly. That just came out.

The Investigator Weapons, Volume Two for the Modern Day is now in the final production stage and should also be out – hopefully this year even.

I’m hoping that the third volume about World War II is going to follow pretty soon.

I’m also working on a new GURPS book. As I said earlier I need a lot of time to fiddle with it. It’s actually planned as a follow-up to Tactical Shooting – it ties into that. Yes. I have no idea if that will ever see the light – but I hope so.

Doug: Okay. Excellent. I want to thank you for your time and I’ve love to do this again in the future.

Hans: Okay. Yes. I thank you.

I finally forced myself to sit down and put nose to grindstone and finished editing the text transcript to the Firing Squad Interview I did with +Steve Jackson.

It took much longer than usual – I’ve had a lot going on at work with presentations, various internal meetings, and lots of conference calls. That and having a collicky 3-month-old has left me with little spare time and few brain cells to scrape together.

The text transcript is inserted into the original interview post and will be updated over time with appropriate links and pictures. It will get better as I take a half-hour here and there to provide more value-added content.

I still think the video is worth watching, and honestly I put many hours into post-production on that one, so I’d love it if y’all would look at it and let me know if the video overlays I did were worthwhile.

But I prefer reading interviews myself, so please go back, watch the video, listen to the MP3 track, or read the transcript.

Thanks for joining me on the Firing Squad, and thanks again to Steve for sitting down with me for an hour.