Game Developer – Robert J. Schwalb

Game Developer – Robert J. Schwalb

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!

 

S.G.

Novel Cover: Skorch

Novel Cover: Skorch

Here is a cover I completed for Kraig Dafoe’s latest novel, Skorch, earlier this year.

It was a fun piece to do – I don’t often get asked to just do images like this with a single figure and a fairly uncomplicated background.  Though, perhaps that’s partially my own fault for making many images more complicated than they need to be, I dunno.  Anyway, I think the most fun I had with this piece was the background, which admittedly, isn’t that abnormal.  Especially when it comes to drawing nature, which I love.

Part of the fun is doing the research and looking at all these inspiring images of forests – I take a lot of inspiration from nature and I absolutely love doing pieces that have trees, rocks, leaves, etc.

Below are my initial sketches, the drawing, and the final with type.

You can see that this went through a variety of different approaches until we landed on something the client liked.  Personally, I would have loved to do the second background with the twisted up old forest with mossy rocks, but ultimately, it didn’t fit the material as well.  With that said, I do really like how the trees, vines, and leaves in the final turned out.  And over all, I’m pretty darn happy with the colors.

I’m also not a designer myself and I always feel a little nervous about sending something out that I set the type on.  It’s nothing too fancy and the client was happy, so at least there’s that!

JM

Aegisteel Character Designs

Aegisteel Character Designs

It’s funny how many projects get started but never finished.

Aegisteel is one of those projects. I worked on it with the intention of designing the characters and illustrating a graphic novel. Unfortunately, the creator and I had some minor creative differences and I had a few life events that pushed me in a different direction. I reluctantly quit the project after the character design phase.

At the end of 2012, I was doing a lot of work with Mike DeVito and Jon Conkling of Th3rd World Studios. They approached me about working on a really cool “sorcery punk/fantasy” world that author Mat Nastos created. After looking over the material, I thought it sounded fun. It had a lot of elements I like about fantasy: magic armor, creatures of all sorts, and giant monsters. Plus ancient races, ruins, and weapons. Definitely up my alley, so to speak.

I got busy designing the main characters for the book. I’m still proud of the work and a little disappointed that I didn’t end up illustrating the world.

First up is the main character in his armor, Morgan. This was a really fun piece to do as I wanted to show the character fully armored and without the armor, so I did a sort of cut-away. I had a lot of fun designing the armor for this guy.

I also designed a bunch of different characters that were part of Morgan’s party of adventurers: Artis, Eckhart, Laerwynn, Longbarrel, and Rowena.

The final character, Breck, was where Mat and I really disagreed. At the time, I was reading the reboot of Rob Liefeld’s Glory character, and I was in love with the idea of a fierce female warrior that wasn’t a waif, as so many comic heroines are. My initial design was a tough, beefy character–massive, stocky, and heavily muscled. The first design was the original; the second design was the final corrected design – honestly, there didn’t end up being a huge difference and I did like the final design. I had to slim up the waist, arms, and legs and we were essentially golden.

 

Here’s the lineup so you can get a sense of their height and size.

aegissteel_lineup_edit_72I also did a couple different logo designs, which I rather liked. The second one was my favorite of the bunch.

logodesign01It was fun doing creative development for Aegisteel, but ultimately I had to move on. There was a perfect storm of events at the time–the birth of my second child, some minor creative differences, and getting involved with the now-defunct publisher Noble Beast (which launched Outland into digital publishing).

It’s a neat world. If Mat and the guys at Th3rd World manage to do something with it, I’m certain to buy the book and read it!

JM

Has Fantasy Lost its Hallmark?

Has Fantasy Lost its Hallmark?

Fantasy isn’t just castles, dragons, and wizards anymore.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you stumble upon a Fantasy book? Most people think of elements of folklore and mythology like castles, dragons, kings and queens, ghosts, wizards, and curses. Am I close?

Fantasy is a broad label—one that’s moved away from the stereotypical wizards-castles-dragons model of the past. Today, Fantasy encompasses many other genres and subgenres, including horror, sci-fi and everything in between. If there’s a fiction I.P. that doesn’t easily fit into the Historical, Romance, Thriller or Horror genres, you can be sure to find it in the Fantasy section. Some bookstores have expanded their Fantasy sections to include subcategories like Supernatural Fantasy or Historical Fantasy — neither of which have Fantasy’s hallmark mythology/folklore streak. Maybe it’s not a hallmark anymore.

Fantasy has become extremely popular as it has grown to encompass different kinds of fiction. Fans enjoy it because it gives them the opportunity to explore beyond the realm of reality. Fantasy fiction shows us the unreal and the real—things that don’t exist in our world as well as common, everyday things embellished by a setting that allows them to grow into something more.

I embrace the broad new definition of Fantasy. Perhaps I’ve been exposed to too much genre-bending fiction. I prefer not to put books into restrictive, premade boxes anyway. For me, Fantasy isn’t necessarily attached to myths or ancient folklore. I define it as any fiction that has something special or otherworldly.

When I pick up a Fantasy book, I know what to expect before I even read anything about it. I know that it will feature something out of the ordinary, even if it is set in my own time and space. I expect a change, for something more to happen — something that transcends the everyday. This is fantasy’s true hallmark: That shift away from normal that transforms the reading experience—and let’s be honest, the immersion in a book’s universe — into an experience full of discovery and wonder.

S.G.