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Thursday, February 20, 2014
Greetings, readers! Today I've got an interview with one of my favorite superhero RPG writers, Scott Heine. Scott is not only a gifted writer, he's an excellent roleplayer as well--I got a chance to sit down with him at Herocon MD back in 2007. In addition, Scott is a Senior Paster at the Hope Christian Fellowship and spends a lot of time working with young people in his community.
|Scott surveys the booths at Gen Con.|
Anyone who's been following the Warden for a while will probably know that Scott worked on some of my favorite Superhero RPG supplements of all time, including the mind-blowing Mind Games, To Serve and Protect, and other books for the Hero System (primarily in its 4th edition--my favorite).
It is a real pleasure to talk to Scott today about his contributions to the Hero System and Champions. Scott's work is an excellent resource to anyone looking to run a superhero RPG game, and I am always happy to run into Scott at Gen Con. If you ever get a chance to game with him at a convention or otherwise, I highly recommend it!
As always, my questions are in red text.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
SH: I discovered my first RPG when I received the boxed Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set back in the late 1970s. The idea of creating your own stories and adventures caught my interest, and I soon connected with a group of players at our local library. When Champions was released by Hero Games in 1981, I was seated at the table for the very 1st convention demo game, and I was completely hooked. The years that followed were filled with some of the best friendships and shared comic-book storytelling that a guy could ever want.
Over time, my attention shifted from being a gamer to being a designer, though it was always more of a hobby for me than a job. I found it particularly satisfying to create characters or storylines that players enjoyed, and I have really enjoyed the relationships with other authors and illustrators in the industry.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
SH: After getting married and moving to the other side of the country for grad school, my fondness for Champions remained though life was far too busy and gaming friends were too far away. So I channeled my enthusiasm and puttered away on an idea for an adventure module that would feature the characters from our games. When I submitted the manuscript and sample illustrations to Hero Games, they offered to publish the module. It was definitely a case of being at the right place at the right time. Then came an opportunity to write and illustrate another supplement, then another, and soon I found myself being invited as a guest at a few local gaming conventions. Without realizing it, I had become a part-time freelance game designer.
RW: You’ve written some of my favorite all-time Superhero RPG books during your career. What is it about the superhero genre that you love?
SH: There’s something very classic and “mythic” about the superhero genre; in many ways, comic books offer a modernization of the very ancient traditions of bigger-than-life heroes. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy flying, right? The sense of good vs. evil is exaggerated, allowing for dramatic and engaging stories. Yet the opportunity exist for heroes to be fleshed out with their own personal struggles and challenges which must be overcome, so the “heroics” involve both external and internal conflicts.
RW: Do you have any entertaining stories about creating or playtesting To Serve and Protect or Mind Games?
SH: Mind Games was written at the same time that the 4th edition (the “Big Blue Book”) was in development, so I was developing material without a clear idea of how psionic abilities would work. Though the book was originally going to be a focus on the mechanics of mental powers in the game, the decision was made to shift attention to developing characters and sample storylines instead. I had a lot of fun thinking through the combinations of psychotic psychology and superpowers, leading to a couple of nasty love-to-hate-‘em villains. When I received my first round of notes from editor Rob Bell, the pages were full of red ink with various changes, rules tweaks, etc. — Rob was tough! But the page describing the villain Mind Slayer simply had one word written across it in large, bold, red letters. (It rhymes with “itch.”) I laughed pretty hard that day.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
SH: The people are the best — they’re usually really friendly, extremely creative, and super intelligent. It’s really easy to hang out with publishers, authors, and artists and swap “war stories” of various projects, great moments in gaming, opinions of movies and books, etc.
|This supplement is one of the best Champions books ever made.|
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
SH: As much as the industry focuses on people having fun, it’s still a business. And for some companies, it’s a struggling business. I remember doing work for a publisher and struggling to get paid. The company continued to ask for additional work in order to generate the funds necessary to pay off past debts, and it quickly became an unpleasant vicious circle. Before long, too many conversations between gaming friends included talk about rotten business practices; it sort of diminished the enjoyment of being creative at the time.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
SH: As I’ve grown older, so have the friends I’ve made in the industry, and many folks have moved on to other careers. Naturally, we’ve also seen lots of fresh young talent entering the industry, and I’ve enjoyed seeing new creativity. Technology continues to advance, allowing for beautifully produced books and game elements (the idea of a gaming book filled with color illustrations was unheard of when I began). And the increasing quality of computer graphics and multiplayer experiences continues to create an easy, attractive alternative to traditional tabletop RPGs, though probably at the expense of the relationships that would otherwise be cultivated.
RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?
SH: I’d like to think that my skills as a storyteller and illustrator have grown since the early days. I look back on books from a quarter century ago and smile with the nostalgia of it all but also cringe at the quality compared to contemporary products. If I were creating those books today, I’d enjoy taking advantage of modern publishing techniques and a more seasoned skill for character and plot development. I’d also be more insistent on the inclusion of humor in the products, because I think gaming is best when it provokes a little laughter along the way.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
SH: Great questions! Freelancers need to have an accurate understanding of how the market works and what the audience desires so they can apply their creativity toward products that will not only be enjoyable for gamers but also profitable for publishers. Publishers need to interact with their talent in a manner that fosters respect and empowerment, inviting artists and authors to understand the vision and the limitations that apply to the work. Basically, both the creators and the publishers need to have a healthy relationship in which each side is helping the other side succeed at their goals.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
SH: The RPG industry, along with the entertainment industries in general, seem to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to cultural standards. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense; these businesses are there to make a profit and capitalize on whatever provokes a response with audiences. On the other hand, this leads to a disproportionate presence of “darker” themes and genres in the marketplace. Perhaps it’s a sociological slippery slope, or perhaps I’m truly becoming an “old fogy.” But I’d love to see a movement of publishing RPG products that engage families, allowing parents and younger children to experience the fun of shared storytelling, with themes that are fun and uplifting. Perhaps kids who can be lured away from the TV and video games into truly satisfying (and, dare I say it, educational?) role-playing might remain loyal customers for the industry as they grow older.
RW: What do you feel is the best way for a game industry professional to engage with customers and fans?
SH: Designers who make themselves accessible through online forums, blogs, and face-to-face encounters at conventions demonstrate gratitude and respect for the audience that enjoys their work. It’s always important to remember that fans are there to connect with the creators in a way that enhances their enjoyment. Be cool! Have fun!
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
SH: My most enduring contribution has been the foundational characters from the Mind Games supplement. For some reason, that product has provoked a more enduring response. I was especially pleased the first time I encountered the villain Mind Slayer in the Champions Online MMO. When she actually spoke, I was really tickled. Somewhere a voice actress had brought my character to life. (By the way, I might have had the same reaction when an actress appeared dressed as Mind Slayer at GenCon to promote the initial release of the game, but the studios had radically altered her appearance from what I first envisioned and the final result would make a grown man blush. It was kind of hard to engage that actress in conversation when she was wearing so little fabric.)
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
SH: At some point, I began developing a book we were calling Champions by the Bay which would have fully fleshed out the characters that originally appeared in To Serve and Protect, and would have provided a rich, detailed campaign environment set in San Francisco. However, delinquent payments on past work from the publisher caused me to discontinue the project. By the time things were straightened out, publishers had changed and the product line was moving in a different creative direction. A while back I ran across my early drafts of that unpublished book, and it was fun browsing through the ideas. It would have been great.
RW: How do you feel about representation of awards and recognition for quality in the gaming industry?
SH: Recognizing excellence prompts the industry to pursue excellence, and a little friendly competition is always fun, right?
RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?
|One of my favorite Champions supplements.|
SH: I really enjoy meeting new people, interacting with gamers, and seeing old friends. Grabbing a farewell dinner at the end of the con is always a highlight. But perhaps my favorite convention experience involved grabbing reservations for a game of Champions, sitting down at the table, and realizing that nobody recognized my name. As the adventure unfolded, we discovered that the GM was using villains that I had created for one of my books. It was a blast watching someone else’s take on the characters! (I never shared my connection to those characters with the GM, but left very satisfied for the experience.)
RW: If you were a pulp-era adventurer, you’d be a…?
SH: I’d be a bookworm scholar at some university library of ancient religious tomes, and the heroes would call on me and drag me into their adventures for my knowledge of some obscure mythology or something. Of course, I’d never carry a gun, but my old days of boxing as a student would come in mighty handy…
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
SH: Fortunately, I was able to create for my favorite RPG, though I think I would have enjoyed creating sourcebooks for other genres in the Hero System (especially pulp-era stuff).
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
SH: Champions, of course. It would be fun to see what’s happened to some of our old characters. But, more importantly, it would be great just to gather around the table with old friends again.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Greetings, readers! Today, I'm going to share a brief report of my time at Genghis Con in Aurora, Colorado this year. I was a gaming guest of honor, and thoroughly enjoyed my trip. Genghis Con is one of my favorite conventions, and it is something I strongly urge any gamer to check out if they can.
Eventually, I need to post a follow-up about just what it is that makes Genghis Con such a fantastic gathering of gamers. Something more to put on my "to-do" list!
Wednesday Night: I arrived and was picked up by DGA president Bill Stilson and his wife Tammy. Bill and Tammy waited with me for Michael Surbrook to arrive and we talked about all kinds of stuff. Bill and Tammy are wonderful people! Unfortunately, Surbrook's luggage was lost, but would eventually be mailed to the hotel.
Thursday: Started the day out with a nice surprise--the Red Lion hotel for the convention had greatly improved its restaurant! Breakfast was actually quite good. Followed this up with talking to Robert Dorf and his lovely wife Elizabeth A Dorf, hanging out with Jacob Burgess, and generally enjoying the company of friends!
That afternoon, I got a chance to be part of a Savage Worlds Smiling Jack's Bar and Grill Podcast with Sean Patrick Fannon and Justin Suzuki, with plenty of other folks (including Michael, Sean Gore, Chris Fuchs, and others).
My evening game was very special--I had been invited to a Rogue Trader RPG game where I was to take on the role of my very own PC/NPC, Sarvus Trask! The GM had thoughtfully included an old character sheet for Trask and his ship, and the adventure was a fine time had by all with a clever twist at the end. An excellent start to the convention!
Friday: In the morning, I ran my Shadows Angelus game for Michael Surbrook and a group of four other gamers (among whom I remember "Mohawk guy" as the most memorable) who had played two years ago. It was awesome to find people following Shadows Angelus from year to year. Mike seemed to particularly enjoy the fun, and we fought demons all morning long. My afternoon game was Dreadnaught, ran by Jacob Burgess. In this game, I played a Texas Ranger dealing with a surprising foe in an alternate post-civil-war encounter with trains fighting other trains. It was a lot of fun, and ended with some surprising character interactions. Playing a Texan while BEING a Texan was actually quite fun as well.
|Lars Shear (left), Olivia (center, and our awesome server), Jacob Burgess (right).|
Friday night was the first of the two most memorable and exciting games of the convention for me (and possibly one of the best games of all time that I've been a part of): Bill Keyes' The Widening Gyre. This game had an all-star squad of players, from Mike to Ken (forgot last name), Dan (forgot last name), Jake, and another fellow (forgot name entirely). Part of the reason I have trouble remembering the names of the players is that we all submerged entirely into our characters for the night, one of those magical games where we were in total immersion for the setting, cracking some hilarious jokes, and basically enjoying the cream of the crop for everything that is Steampunk. My character invented an electric guitar and heavy metal about two centuries too early, and we fought Ninjas, explored ruins, and rescued folk from dire threats. It was absolutely one of the best gaming experiences I can remember.
Saturday: I ran a game of my setting for Savage Worlds, Accursed in the morning. The game overall went pretty well, although there were some bumps along the way with my handling of the character sheets. I always look critically at my own work and I am certain I could have done this much better--and will, in the future. However, I am reasonably certain everyone had a good time (Robert Dorf was doing very well as the golem priest and Mike Surbrook took the Revenant Witch Hunter like a pro!).
Saturday afternoon provided the second incredibly memorable game of the convention. Robert Dorf ran his Champions of Justice 2014 game where we took on the roles of Luchadors fighting for the honor of the ring. The game was incredibly imaginative and entertaining, ending with one of the most climactic battles ever—a 90-foot tall Vampire doing battle with a 90-foot tall Mega-Lucha!
Saturday evening, I participated in one of Sean Patrick Fannon’s Justice & Life games for his setting, Shaintar. This was my fourth time playing Shaintar, but it was the first playing alongside Sean as a fellow gamer rather than with him as the GM. Sean had turned over the GMing reins that night to Sean Gore instead, and the evening’s adventure was a bunch of rollicking good fun. Sean and I had some fantastic roleplay moments between his priest and my paladin, especially when pondering the unique nature of the two worlds (Shaintar and Accursed) colliding as they had. At the end of the night, I was able to throw in one of the Savage Worlds Adventure cards (Noble Sacrifice) to great effect, essentially saving Sean from sacrificing his priest to close a portal to evil. It was great fun, and I definitely see the appeal of the continuing, living universe built by the Justice and Life concept.
|Bill Keyes, with Mike Surbrook on the left.|
Sunday: The final day of Genghis Con is always a challenge—all the energy and passion of the last few days tends to catch up to people (and lack of sleep!), and this year was no exception. My morning game was to run a game of Deathwatch (once more featuring Mike Surbrook and the crew of “Mohawk guy”). The game went really well overall, and Mike managed to find a way to broker a nearly impossible compromise between the three bickering Space Marine chapters—something that’s never been done before in over six different runs of that particular scenario. In the afternoon, I played in another of Jake Burgess’ games, this time Fantasy Hero! I got to play a big dumb barbarian who was more than he seemed (and the perfect role for someone as loopy and tired as I was). We ended the con with the (by now traditional) Birthday dinner for Tammy Keyes at Pappadeaux… I had a fantastic steak!
And thus ends another year of Genghis Con. I’m already counting the days until I can go again. I'm extremely grateful to the DGA, the Con Committee, Bill Stilson and Leif and Ed and all the other great folks who run Genghis Con, the Rocky Mountain Savages, Chris Fuchs, Justin Suzuki, and all the gamers and GMs I got to play games with this year.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
|Sometimes, it is just like this.|
Greetings readers, I’m interested to find out how people feel about this particular blog post, because I consider it to be yet another (somewhat) controversial topic: playing RPG characters of a gender other than your own.
I should begin by stating that my personal opinion is that the whole point of roleplaying is to be someone other than yourself, and that can certainly include things like race (such as playing an elf) as well as social class (say, a king or prince) and, naturally, gender as well.
To reiterate: My opinion is that roleplaying a character of another gender from your own is just fine.
Also, just to clarify, I’m talking about a player roleplaying as another gender in a gaming group over a campaign, not the DM and not generally in one-shot games (such as ones found at gaming conventions).
This topic is somewhat controversial because there are many gaming groups out there where playing a character of another gender is discouraged or considered “weird.”
In my experience, many all-male groups find a male player roleplaying as a female character (aside from the GM) to be taboo. There are many other resources on the internet discussing this topic (such as Sandy Antunes' article) as well.
I think it is important to start out this topic by stating that I’ve played several female characters over the years, and many of them are amongst the most memorable characters I’ve ever created. So, keep in mind that I’m speaking from experience as a gamer who enjoys occasionally playing characters of another gender. I’m not going to classify myself as an expert by any means, however!
Our world is going through some interesting changes with how gender is perceived, especially with regards to gender roles, their perception (quite recently and prominently in the gaming space), human sexuality, and people who are transgender. I think now is a good time to continue the conversation about these issues through the lens of our shared hobby.
Why Play Another Gender?
|Or people pretending to be girls.|
This was not an easy blog post to write. My inner procrastinator actively attempted to discourage me from writing this by offering distraction after distraction, but… ooh, shiny! Seriously though, this is a topic I’ve wanted to cover for some time on Rogue Warden.
As I mentioned above, I think roleplaying as another gender is fine—it’s something I’ve done myself on many occasions. In addition, I think there’s something very rewarding about opening up and seeing things through the eyes of someone completely different from myself. This, of course, ncludes gender, expectations of gender roles, and how that gender is involved with the society of the game’s setting.
Roleplaying as a different gender, in my opinion, helps people understand gender issues like stereotypes, the reactions from people that other genders are exposed to, and the ramifications of a gender-separated society. For example, the Zentraedi race in the Robotech RPG are strictly segregated by gender. The males and females go so far as to have their own separate military formations, command structures, and unique war machines. It can be very interesting to explore some of the social issues that flow from such an usual structure.
To look at it from one perspective, I once wrote up an NPC who was the first woman paladin of a specific knightly order. This situation was interesting to me because of the idea of breaking down the social barriers barring women from fighting, and exploring some of the really unique elements (such as the way Paladins in this setting were focused on facing and defeating supernatural evil) that made this setup different. Another perspective is a legacy character I once designed based on the DC Comics setting, involving the son of Batman and Wonder Woman. The direction I wanted to go involved the boy learning to fight from his mother’s people, the Amazons, who have only very rarely welcomed men onto their secluded island.
Ultimately, roleplaying as a different gender is an experience that I would unhesitatingly recommend to most mature roleplayers. It provides a chance to see things through fresh eyes and can add some unique dynamics to make a particular character or campaign that much more memorable. Before I go on, however, let’s talk a bit about character concepts.
Gender and Character Concepts
I’ve been roleplaying now for over 29 years, and in that time, I’ve played a very large amount of different RPGs. My experience has taught me that I can come up with a character concept for just about any particular setting or campaign. However, I have also learned that, for me, some character concepts inherently possess characteristics that move them towards a particular gender.
|Some character concepts make sense as any gender.|
For example, many of my character concepts are inherently masculine in my imagination. If I want to play Jack Burton, Jr., (from the film Big Trouble in Little China), I simply can’t imagine the character as anything other than a man. Similarly, I came up with a superhero-in-powered armor vigilante character idea called Technicality that just wouldn’t fit anything other than a woman.
Below is a brief selection of characters that I felt were inherently a feminine concept:
As mentioned above, Technicality was one of the darker characters I ever played. She was featured in my good friend Grady Elliot's campaign, Vendetta Rhapsody. You can find her character sheet here.
Featured in Digital Hero, this character was originally built for the old Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR. I especially enjoyed the playing-against-type bit in our high school game where she was one of the better football players in her school.
One of my favorite tropes is the young innocent thrust into a world of adventure, and my first character to really take advantage of this was Ramien. She was a farmgirl fresh from the orchards of her homeland when she was plunged into a grand quest.
Miss Junior Olympia
A pastiche of Mary Marvel, this character was actually created by my good friend Robert Dorf for his Young Titans game, but I quickly adopted her. I love the idea of a “Mary Marvel”-esque character, especially with Robert’s particular twist that, in his campaign, each of the young heroes has a particular mentor. Miss Junior Olympia is being trained by Ithicles, a great hero who occasionally gets his ward into trouble.
Now, this example is from the standpoint of a GM rather than a player. I ran two campaigns set in Shadows Angelus, both times with an all-male group of players. In the second game, I ended up with 4 female characters and 2 male characters. This made for an interesting dynamic that we nicknamed “Charlie’s Angels.” Having a group with the majority as female characters made for some very intriguing situations (especially when the characters were off-duty).
Fun Uber Alles
For me, roleplaying games are all about having fun above all. So, while I am an advocate for trying out roleplaying as another gender, and while for me personally, having something like that in a game is never a dealbreaker, I’d recommend testing the waters out with your group (i.e., talk it over!) before jumping in with both feet. I believe that (in general) having fun is optimized when everyone feels safe and comfortable! This next section of the post talks about the best practices (in my experience) that people should keep in mind when roleplaying as another gender.
For the Player
This should go without saying, but I am a big believer in getting everything out in the open up front as much as possible: you should be a mature roleplayer to roleplay a gender other than your own. Portraying another gender in an immature or inappropriate manner makes everyone sad. It makes you sad, because doing this is tantamount to admitting idiocy. It also makes everyone else sad, because most gamers don’t show up to the table to see crude portrayals of other genders (especially with stereotypical or exaggerated social tropes).
|Even classic characters take on new dimensions when in another gender.|
This is not to say that you should never, ever roleplay as a character that exemplifies a stereotype—it can be done, and it can be done well. Even then, however, I would only entrust such a portrayal to a mature roleplayer.
Roleplaying any character consistently is a vital element to making the other folks at the table understand what your character is about. I would say that consistency is even more important when you are roleplaying as another gender.
Separation from Reality
Roleplaying as another gender can be awkward, especially if other gamers around the table are focusing on the player’s appearance and mannerisms rather than his or her character’s. One possible solution for this is a tactic that helps separate the two.
One thing that has worked well for me is to have a picture of my character at the table, either printed out or present on an ipad or tablet. Putting this image up so that it is visible during roleplaying scenes can make it easier for other players to imagine interacting with your character rather than the player.
This separation works especially well over the internet. When I was playing on MUXes back in the day, the medium of pure text made the player’s real-life gender more or less irrelevant.
For the GM
Romance and Sex
In a character-driven campaign, it is not unlikely for characters to get into meaningful relationships—either with each other or prominent NPCs in the game setting. This can include situations such as romance and sex, both of which should be treated with respect when you are roleplaying as someone of the opposite gender. Gamemasters often roleplay as males and females of various races during the course of a campaign, and thus, GMs are the kinds of roleplayers who are generally most experienced at accurately and respectfully portraying someone of another gender from their own. Now, the subject of romance and sex in games is a large one—far too big for a single post to cover comprehensively—so all I will say here is that the GM should carefully consider how he approaches these issues in a campaign when the players are roleplaying as another gender. This consideration is just to ensure that (again) everyone feels comfortable during the game and that the most fun is had by all.
Here are some interesting links discussing the concept of a man roleplaying as a woman and vice versa. I won’t say I agree with everything in these threads, but I think there’s some very interesting and thought-provoking material there for those who want to know more.