You probably know his name from games such Dungeons & Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Or maybe, if you are a Cypher System fan, you recognize him as a contributor to the Numenera Character Options and Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera.
The fact is he has years of experience working on the roleplaying game industry. So let’s try to get a brief insight into his work.
Robert , you have worked as a writer, game designer and developer in the RPG industry. Do you have a favorite role?
I have indeed worn many hats over the last ten years or so. When I started in this business, I had thought I would pursue a writing career, but I found that my love for roleplaying games offered opportunities for me to create worlds in a way that helped others tell stories through the settings, characters, locations, and mechanics I produced. Not long after I got started, I landed a job as a developer for Green Ronin Publishing. As a developer, my job was to work with design to make the rules and story even better and to ensure that the mechanics worked within the larger game system and setting. I started with d20 system products and eventually took on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Since then, I’ve written a novel, designed a few game systems, and created and developed story and mechanical content for a slew of games including three editions of D&D, one edition WFRP, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplay, Witch Hunter: The Invisible World, and more. A favorite role? I don’t have one. Not really. If I do a lot of story design, my appetite for numbers grows and vice versa.
Do they complement each other?
They do, but it’s hard to be good at all three. Many people have just one strong area. A person might be a genius with story but workmanlike when it comes to producing the nuts and bolts of the mechanics. Another might have an eye for broken tech and know how to fix it, but be hard pressed to produce new tech from scratch. I’ve been fortunate in that I have had many opportunities to learn the various aspects of game design, development, and story creation. Each opportunity gives me a chance to test my limits and push past them. And, what I learn as a story creator inspires my mechanical design, which in turn makes me a better developer.
You have written a series of magazine articles on the D&D universe. Were you always a fan of this particular I.P?
I’ve loved Dungeons & Dragons for as long as I have been playing RPGs. I started with D&D and it has been my primary game for most of my gaming experience. Producing content for 3rd Edition and 4th Edition was a great, but being part of the various design teams of the 5th Edition rules was really the high point in my career.
Where you a gamer growing up?
Oh yes and at times to my detriment. Minutes into my first game session, I was hooked. Keep on the Borderlands will remain one of my all time favorite adventures. Playing D&D was just the start, though. It opened the doors onto a whole universe of roleplaying games.
What were you favorite roleplaying games?
When I was young, I had a huge appetite for roleplaying games. We played a lot of D&D, but it was the 80s and my family was not immune to the fear that some dark and sinister force was going to drag me to hell as a result of me using my imagination and sharpening my math skills. Once it was decided that D&D was bad for my eternal soul, I turned to other roleplaying games to scratch my gamer itch. My favorite was Marvel Super Heroes (the FASERIP system), Twilight: 2000, Top Secret, Rolemaster & MERP, and, of course, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (which was a far darker game than D&D ever was).
When did you first decide to work in the gaming universe?
Honestly, it was about five years after I started working in the business. I stumbled into game design. I had finished college after a second go and discovered there was no long list of employers hot to grab an English-Philosophy major in his mid to late-20s. So I worked two jobs. I sold flooring—carpet, hardwood, tile, vinyl, but I was not very good at it as I knew nothing about flooring and had to learn as I went. I also sold liquor, which I did, in fact, know something about. A few months later, I responded to an open call for d20 system sourcebooks and sent in a stack of proposals. The company bought one and then bought another. I began scouring websites for submission information, pestered everyone in the industry for work, and finally built up enough of a resume that I could get steady work, as a freelancer, as a staff developer and designer, and then as a contract designer.
What about references? Do you have any favorite artists that inspire you?
You bet. When I was much younger and much more deluded about my talents, I thought I would pursue art as a career. Though I never did chase that fantasy down, I remain interested in it and am always excited to see how people interpret the game worlds, stories, and characters in paintings and illustrations. Some of my favorites include Russ Nicholson (his illustrations set the tone for so many of my D&D games), John Blanche (his work is quintessential Warhammer), and Ralph Horsley for the astonishing detail he put into the covers of Tome of Corruption and Tome of Salvation. Two artists I have recently worked with have also impressed the hell out of me. Ivan Dixon did a few interiors for Shadow of the Demon Lord. I’ll be sharing these pieces soon. Also, Svetoslav Petrov knocked the cover out of the park. I knew I wanted to use him when I saw the cover for Green Ronin’s new Advanced Bestiary.
How does it feel to create gaming experiences for such well-known brands such as Dungeons & Dragons and A Song of Ice and Fire RPG? Is there a different pressure?
Working on established brands is tricky and, yes, there’s tons of pressure. But the stress you feel working on D&D is a lot different from the stress experienced working with a literary source such as Game of Thrones, Thieves’ World or The Black Company. Hell, there are huge differences in adding content to an existing game and re-interpreting a game for a new edition.
Adaptations are a lot like coloring books. You can make the pictures whatever color you want but you have to stay inside the lines. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying could have used any engine and could have focused on any part of the world of Westeros. That’s coloring in the lines. The game could not, however, invent new lands, alter the history by injecting characters of our own creation into the timeline, feature space ships, mutants, or lightsabers. All those things are well outside the lines.
The pressure from building a new edition of D&D was infinitely worse. When you buy a copy of a Game of Thrones, you may own the physical copy of the book and own your experience reading it, but that’s it. You don’t own the world. You don’t decide what the characters do. And you don’t determine what happens next. When it comes to RPGs, the audience takes ownership of the game, much like a person owns a hammer or a blender or a set of paints. They use the game as a creative tool. When you monkey with the game’s tools, whether those tools are established bits of story or how the mechanics work, people get upset. For this reason, it’s wise to be conservative in your design and yet the audience also expects something new. After all, they’ve bought D&D already. Probably several times. They want something new but not something radically different. You can introduce something sexy, but it has to fit. On seeing it, a readers should feel like the thing has always been there or, if hasn’t, that it should have been. We know what happens when a design team forgets this: we get an edition war.
From all the projects you’ve been a part of is there one that stood out for some reason?
D&D for sure. It was such a huge undertaking, so massive in scope, and so fraught with perils that I’m still recovering. This isn’t to say that the experience was bad. It was hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve done. Until my new game, that is.
You have won several awards over the last 10 years. What was the most gratifying one?
Gosh. I am gratified by any and all recognition. I was especially proud when Grimm, a supplement for the d20 system, won an ENnie. It was my first big award and it validated my work in a big way.
Earlier this year, you founded Schwalb Entertainment, LLC. What led you to take that step?
For me, it was the next logical step in my career. By the end of 2013, it was clear D&D work for me was winding down. I could dive back into freelancing or carve out a place for myself. Since I’ve already paid my dues in the freelancing trenches, I figured it was time to strike out on my own. It’s a terrifying place to be in, but if it isn’t scary, it’s not worth doing it.
You are now preparing to launch your own RPG: Shadow of the Demon Lord, an all-new horror fantasy roleplaying game, that will be launching its Kickstarter campaign in the spring of 2015.
When did you first come up with the idea for this game?
I’ve had elements of the design in my head for years and years, some going all the way back to when I was much, much younger. The older I get, the less time I have to prepare or play. I love RPGs, but I just can’t commit to a 2-year campaign let alone a 5-year campaign. If my gaming group meets once a month, I want this to be ok. If I miss a week, I don’t want to ruin the story because my character wasn’t there. I suspect lots of people are in the same situation. These desires that drove the design and I decided to go for it, for real, to scrape the ideas out of my head and put them in a book, early this year.
What do you think gamers will love most about it?
Two things. The game’s tone is distinctly mine—disturbing, a little offensive, and a little funny (just a little). The other is the low barrier to entry. I wanted to create a game anyone could play without having to do much in the way of hard work. This game delivers that experience. You could play Demon Lord with your grandma, if you want to play a game that’s chock full of demons, dark magic, and madness.
How about you? What are most looking forward to?
Three things. Pushing the button to send the final files to the printer, cracking open the first box and pulling out a final book, and running an actual game rather than running a play test. Four years of play testing, between Demon Lord and D&D, I’m overdue for a regular game.
You will be collaborating with us here at Outland Entertainment, to help integrate the Cypher System seamlessly with The Shotguns and Sorcery RPG setting.
What attracted you most about the project?
Matt Forbeck and I have been friends for years and I’ve always wanted to collaborate with him on a project. This was my chance. Plus, I know the Cypher System. It’s flexible enough to accommodate just about any kind of story.
What are you most looking forward to delving into?
I really enjoy the process of realizing story through the game mechanics. I want to help fans of the Shotguns & Sorcery novels and stories create their own compelling characters and expand the world Matt created around their tables. I can’t wait to dive into the guts of the world and pull out the glistening bits of awesome that will come to life in the book’s pages. Monsters, cyphers and artifacts, cool stories and neat locations, and so much more.
Thank you Robert for shedding some light on your work.
You’re very welcome!