I’m taking a quick break from my more introspective blog posts to do some interviews with guys I know in the RPG industry. Never fear, gentle reader—I have lots more to say about Palladium’s books, Superhero RPGs, and I have a bunch of reviews I need to get around to writing. Just be patient… they’ll all appear on Rogue Warden in due time. :)
Who is John Dunn? John is a witty, fun-loving, and charismatic guy, plus, he’s a molecular biologist in his “real job” and moonlights as a freelance writer for RPGs.
Now, John’s a stand-up guy and I consider him not only a friend but a valued colleague—we worked together on a number of Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay books. John’s a professional’s professional—if there were a “professionalism in RPGs” panel, John should be sitting at that table.
You can find out more about him and his great Hope Preparatory books at http://www.meliorvia.com/.
With no further ado, let’s jump into the interview!
(Note: My questions are in red, John's answers are in black)
Hi, Ross. Thanks for the opportunity to blather on a bit about myself. It was very kind of you to give me the chance to talk about the things I value in gaming and my design philosophy.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
I've been a role-playing gamer since around 1980. I started with AD&D, and moved on to a whole lot of other systems with my friends in grade school on through college and up to the current day. Through the years, I've played a number of different war games, including Battletech, HeroClix, and Warhammer 40,000. I played a fair number of CCGs, in the early nineties, but I stopped mostly due to a lack of time. Through the mid 2000s, I was pretty active on the Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft MMOs, but decided to quit playing MMOs so I could devote time to writing.
In terms of actual game play, I've most often been the GM in my play group, at least partly because of my control-freak tendencies, but also because the rest of my game group lets me. I like to focus on games that are about collaboratively telling a story, with the interactions along the way serving to drive that. I've enjoyed other play styles as well, but that seems to be the one that works best for my current group.
As a game industry professional, I've been a developer, a writer, an editor, and occasionally a layout artist or art director. My professional credits include work on Shadowrun, Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay, and Hope Preparatory School (for my imprint, Melior Via). My first professionally published RPG work was released in 2006, but I've been dabbling at various levels of amateur work since the early 1990s.
And the last thing left in the box is...
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
In the early '90s, I started writing RPGA convention adventures for a variety of different game systems including Teenagers from Outer Space, Shadowrun, and Paranoia. By that point, I'd burnt out on traditional D&D (H4: The Throne of Bloodstone —there wasn't any point after that), so when the organization chose to limit the game systems they'd support, the market for the materials I was most interested in writing was gone.
To get my writing fix while I was in grad school, I started participating in a RPG focused Amateur Press Alliance called MOTiVE. During this time, I did some playtesting work for Steve Jackson Games, WotC, and West End Games. I also volunteered as a game demonstrator for a few different companies.
Who ya gonna call?
In 2004, I started writing for Shadowrun again, with their newly launched Shadowrun Missions campaign. After a surprisingly short period of time, I found myself in charge of the campaign's development and also working as a freelancer. Over the next few years, I went from a convention volunteer to a brief stint as one of the Shadowrun line developers.
I decided to pursue a different writing direction in the summer of 2009 and parted ways with Shadowrun to begin some independent work. That work ultimately led to the launch of my imprint Melior Via (www.meliorvia.com). On the way, in 2010, I responded to a posting on Fantasy Flight Games' web site for freelance authors. Sam Stewart was kind enough to give me a shot working on Rogue Trader for Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. In 2011, Melior Via launched Hope Preparatory School, for ICONS and M&M3e as its first line. Since then, I've been rather busy working on various freelance projects in the evenings and on weekends.
One of my personal favorites.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
I've had the tremendous fortune to collaborate with some great authors and developers on a variety of projects over the time that I've been freelancing. The materials I've worked on are incredibly cool, but the people I've gotten to know far trump that. I love it when I get a chance to have a brainstorming session to talk about the early stages of a project, and how we might spin it. Just discussing the merits of different approaches and how they might reflect upon a licensed property, taking into account play styles, settings, and even business concerns, is a blast to me. Then, getting to see how co-writers took something that we talked about during brainstorming and just ran with it always amazes me. It's just stunning to see how talented and creative these folks are.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
The biggest problem that I see with the industry is that it is far too difficult to make a living wage within it. Many of the most talented writers either need to leave RPG writing for another industry or work within the game field on a part time basis. The only way I can imagine solving this would be to see a dramatic uptick in sales volume or a comparable price increase, and I just don't see either of those happening.
The flip side to this is that every Game Master who builds his own world is actually creating an RPG. There are thousands of talented creators with great materials that just need a little bit of refining and polishing to be turned into cool publications. Because of this, the field never seems to lack for new creators. I can completely understand why word and art rates are what they are, as at the end of the day most of the creators can be replaced because of the available pool of talent. I just wish that there could be a more viable option.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
I'd like to think that I've learned a lot about how to interact with writing professionals in that time, which suggests that this could easily become a lengthy essay (too late, right?). So, I'll try to limit my scope on the answer. I'm just going to focus on what I believe to be the most important lesson I've learned in that time.
I love writing. I love seeing my name in print (or e-ink) at the start of a book. I love getting a payment as a reward, especially if it's something that I would have done for free.
I want to continue writing whenever I can for as long as I can.
Less about politics than you'd think...
From my perspective, those two facts mean that I need to have as many happy clients as possible. (For my self-published work, I see the people who have been kind enough to purchase my creations as my clients.)
I need to focus on writing what my clients want to see more than I need to focus on writing what I necessarily want to see. I need to be receptive to criticism, from authors, from reviewers, and from fans. I need to temper complements from all of those sources, so that I don't go overboard and revel in it. At the end of the day, if my clients are happy, then I'm going to be happy.
When I first started writing, I thought I'd get to put down pretty much whatever I wanted on the page, and I'd just have to figure out a way to sell it. That proved to not be the most effective strategy for continuing to find work. Writing to please myself is something I can do in the distant future when I'm happily retired and looking for ways to fill my free time.
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?
When I started developing projects, I had very limited ability to impact payment terms, credit assignments, and final proofing. Having worked as a freelancer, I think that it is absolutely vital that freelancers be kept in the loop on the status of their projects and compensated in the fairest manner possible. I also believe that it is vital that freelancers have every opportunity to sign off on the final version of their projects prior to release (i.e. after playtesting, editing, and layout). Consequently, on all of my Melior Via projects, I try very hard to focus on making sure that the creators are paid in a prompt manner (which is not dependent upon publication date) and that they have an opportunity to review the "final" version prior to release.
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?
Professionalism is a word that encompasses a whole lot. To me it starts with a combination of attitude and presentation. At the end of the day, I put my reputation on the line with every contract that I sign. The industry is small enough that if I have an unsatisfied client, I expect other professionals to learn about it. That's from my perspective both as a freelancer and as someone who runs a small publishing house. Consequently, I believe that it is vital to maintain a sense of professionalism at all times.
From a freelancer's perspective I try very hard to observe my contract in the way that the client wants it observed. That means delivering the product that the developer asked for, in the time frame requested, adhering to the style guide and any secondary agreements (e.g. NDAs). Sometimes managing all of those expectations is difficult (particularly when there are necessary changes required within a particularly tight deadline). In those situations, I think the most important aspect of professionalism is communication. If an editor knows that a revision may be delayed beyond a deadline, they are generally understanding as long as they have some degree of notice. Similarly, if I need to push the boundaries of a style guide in order to accomplish some particular aspect of my design goals, then I need to make certain the developer is aware of that in advance and receptive to the idea.
From a publisher's standpoint, I think reliability is often even more important than communication. When I contract a freelancer to do the job, I need to know that I'm going to get a product that fits with the terms of the contract, the company's style guide, and arrives on time. If a freelancer cannot manage to meet all of those requirements, or at least offer me a good explanation for why not, then I'm unlikely to contract with them again.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
That's easy: It'd have a much, much larger player base. If there were more people playing RPGs and buying RPGs, producing RPGs would be far more economically viable. Part of that can be done through running public games, even demos. However, I'll admit that after doing that for years, I simply don't have the time to do so anymore. I wish I did, and I salute those who do so. I think that's the most important role anyone can have in the effort to perpetuate the hobby.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
I try to be active on message boards and mailing lists that are relevant to my interests. I also attend several conventions each year. Unfortunately, my degree of activity is usually proportionate to how busy I am on current projects. I'll admit that I've been fortunate enough to be pretty occupied with projects over the past year, and sadly that's impacted the amount of time I've had for reading forums and mailing lists. Similarly, since the birth of my daughter in 2007, I've had to restrict the number of conventions that I attend.
At this point, my favorite message boards are RPG.net, dakkadakka.com, and the FFG forums. I also follow the icons-rpg Yahoo! Group and the Torg mailing list.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
I think I'm pretty lucky that I have to actually think about this one for a moment. I've been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of great collaborative works. Comparing and contrasting them against one another to identify a favorite isn't easy for me.
For a long time, I'd have said the Denver Shadowrun Missions campaign. That took more than two years of my life, and saw a free release every single month for 25 consecutive months. I made some great friends working on it and learned a ton about RPG publishing. I'm still very proud of it, but I don't think it's the best thing I've ever done.
The Black Crusade has begun! It was great working with John on this one.
The released product that I am most proud of now would have to be the Character Creation chapter for Black Crusade. I knew that introducing a more freeform system of character design and advancement to the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay line was a risky move. I'm very satisfied with the way the final product ultimately turned out and pleasantly surprised by the positive response that it has continued to garner.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
This is a challenging question, Ross. That's partially because there are a few things that I don't think I can discuss due to contractual obligations. It's also partly because I've worked with some fantastic developers and editors who have saved my reputation on more than one occasion. I know that I've been extremely fortunate, and I'm grateful for the opportunities that I've received.
Which, interestingly enough, includes rules for the most obvious augmentations, if you know what I mean.
And I think you do.
I'd probably have to go with the presentation of my Cyborgs material in Augmentation for Shadowrun. There were some issues with the development path that book followed, and the way that material was reassigned to another book (Arsenal). I don't think it was an unmitigated disaster, but it meant that there was a year between the time the book was introduced and when the material I wrote was actually useable. Fortunately, it's been several years since those both released, and with both products now available, they work pretty well.
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
One of my core concepts in game design is that the GM knows what his gaming group wants far better than I do. I try to make it a point to defer to Game Master discretion on a regular basis. I see the rules as something to provide a general framework for how a session should proceed, but never something that's inviolate. In my mind, story is king. The rules are something to fall back on to help tell a story, not something to drive it.
RW: If you were a shadowrunner, you’d be a…?
I'm a lifelong fan of Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels, particularly those in her Camber of Culdi series. The series focuses on a race of psychics and magicians whose abilities regularly come into conflict with their faith in God, as members of a church that is extremely similar to the Roman Catholic faith. I see the Christian Theurgy path of magic, as presented in Street Magic as being very true to that series. I would absolutely be a Christian Theurgist. I'd probably be human. My spirits would all manifest with an angelic style, based upon calls to the various Archangels. My spells would focus on Illusion, Health, and Manipulation. I'd most likely also work with the Silvestrian order, but I wouldn't be a priest.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?
Storm Knights, assemble!
Torg from West End Games. I've loved the cross-genre play style of that game since I first saw it in Waldenbooks in 1990. After puzzling through what initially seemed like a mind-boggling complex system, I eventually came to understand the core concepts and they just clicked for me. I love the way that the game can start with a feel of total camp, move to one of high fantasy, then to abject horror through the course of a single game session, usually over a series of scenes. I also think that the game mechanics and world description do a fantastic job of enforcing genre emulation effectively.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
I mentioned earlier that I was a coordinator for Shadowrun Missions when it was entirely a fan-based effort. During that time, I saw a number of things that were troubling. Some were routine—e.g. proposals that didn't involve a spell check or good grammar. Others were less common—e.g. proposals submitted with the text color set to orange.
Ultimately, the thing I looked for the most was a sense of professionalism. When an author was offering his services, I wanted to see evidence that he could do the task. A first impression that included a nice CV is a wonderful thing. When that's not possible, one that shows attention to detail (including spelling and grammar checking) helps a great deal. Somebody that knows how to use the Oxford Comma, promises a reasonable delivery date for a well-scoped project, and can differentiate between "they're," "there," and "their" has the potential to be a fantastic freelancer.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Torg. In fact, I'm running a session Monday night. For all the reasons that I mentioned earlier. It's my favorite game. I just wish I had an opportunity to write for it.