Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Interview Time: Michael Surbrook

Time for another interview! I’d like to introduce my friend and fellow game designer, Michael Surbrook.

The man, the myth, the legend.

Michael and I have known each other for quite a while and we’ve been in the same gaming group for a number of years. I first became aware of Michael back in 1997 when I first located his website on the internet when I was searching for Champions character write-ups.

In fact, I was looking for write-ups for the Ranma ½ characters, and I happened to find them at Michael’s website, along with tons of other characters.

I would say that one of Michael’s biggest claims to fame is that he is the Hero System guy for character write-ups. If you’re a fan of the Hero System, odds are you’ve seen his site at least once.
Whenever people on the Hero forums ask “how do you write up X power or Y ability?” the answer is often “it’s already on Surbrook’s Stuff.”

To see Michael’s website in all its glory, go here: http://surbrook.devermore.net/index/

Animepunk, indeed.

Michael’s written several books completely of his own for the Hero System, including 5th edition’s Ninja Hero (one of the best books of that edition), the Asian Bestiaries, and his own campaign setting, Kazei 5.

Kazei 5 was originally a digital product for 4th edition Champions, and I ran across it not long after finding Michael’s site. The “animepunk” aesthetic of the setting really fired up my imagination, and I used it as a basis for creating my own campaign (based more on Silent Moebius than Bubblegum Crisis), Shadows Angelus.

Later on, I had the opportunity to work with Michael on a number of books for the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay line, including Creatures Anathema (where Michael presented lovely gribbly creatures like the Simulacra), the Radical’s Handbook, Blood of Martyrs, and Battlefleet Koronus.

In addition to his books, Michael is a prolific writer for periodicals, and I believe he has written more articles for Haymaker!, EZ Hero, and Digital Hero than any other author.

Not only is Michael a writer, he is a professional artist as well—his work has appeared in a number of books, including his own. One of the more unusual and special places you can find his artwork is in the venerable GURPS Humanx Commonwealth sourcebook!

In this universe, bugs are our friends.

Lastly, as a friend, I can say with authority that Michael is a gamer’s gamer who enjoys both sides of the screen. He’s a scholar who knows a great deal about many subjects, a thorough researcher who can tell you anything you want to know about mythology and Asian culture.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s begin the interview! As before, my questions are in red.

(Read the interview after the jump!)

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?

Michael: I first started gaming in 1977 when I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Seeing as I was 10 at the time, the “campaigns” went as you might expect, with little to no thought to character development, continuity, or plot. My first real, long-term campaign would have to wait until 1985, when I was asked to be part of a Champions campaign a friend of mine was starting. That snowballed into becoming part of a large gaming group that ran assorted things over the years, almost all of it Hero System. However, I think the last 6-8 years have been the best for my gaming wise, as I’ve been part of your epic Shadow Angelus game, ran my successful 16-session Well of the Worlds game, joined the “Friday Night Dice” group and have been exposed to such systems as Shadow Run, Qin, Unknown Armies, Thousand Suns, and more.

In addition, I’ve since become a published author, working for Black Wyrm Games, D3 Adventures, Fantasy Flight Games, Hero Games, and others. I have written projects ranging from 1,000 to 216,000 words, seen my work published as POD, softback, and hardback books, and even saw a project I worked on win an award!

Michael wrote up one of the Shrine Worlds for this book.

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

Michael: It went like this—I discovered anime in the early 1990s and found I wanted to incorporate certain elements and tropes into a campaign. Since I’d been watching Akira and Bubblegum Crisis and really liked Shadow Run, I combined the two to create Kazei 5. While describing the setting to one of the staff at a local game store, I was told to contact Bruce Harlick at Hero Games and pitch the idea to him. He okayed the project and my first published work came out in 1999.

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

Michael: Being able to point out a book at a book or game store and say “I worked on that!” Also, the sense of creativity you get when working on a project.

RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?

Michael: Well, you won’t make much money. I mean, I’d like to write and create full-time, but my skills and the market aren’t there. On the other hand, as long as I make enough to pay my way to GenCon, I’m happy.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?

Michael: It’s hard to say. My work is for a limited market (for the most part) so I can’t compare and contrast then and now. I can say that with the setbacks suffered by Hero Games, my work for the market has to appeal to a wider base than before. “Vanity” projects are harder to pitch to the publishers.

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?

Michael: If I knew then what I know now, Ninja Hero would look completely different. Steve Long and I both agreed at one point it suffered from being the first (or second) genre book and didn’t follow the established format that came later. I also know that the first Kazei 5 book suffers (in my opinion) from a lack of... how do I want to put it? Finesse, perhaps?

Aaron Allston wrote the first edition of this book. That's a tough act to follow, but Michael pulled it off with style.

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?

Michael: As a freelancer I need to give the publisher my best work and bring it to him on time. If I can’t, I need to communicate any issues or questions I might be having to him as soon and as clearly as possible. To not do so harms both myself and the publisher, as it besmirches my reputation and potentially delays the publisher’s projects and costs him time and money. 

As for the publisher, he needs to communicate his needs for the project in a clear manner, allow for problems at either end, and give definitive dates for material to be handed in.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

Michael: The product distribution system. It seems a lot of good (but smaller market) material simply vanishes because no one knows its there. Print-on-demand, Kickstarter, RPG Now, and the like are changing that, but I know for a long time people thought Hero Games (for example) was out of business because distributors like Diamond didn’t list their products.

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?

Michael: Come up to me and start talking. I don’t bite. ^_^

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?

Michael: Right now? It has to be Kazei 5. 216,000 words, 320 pages. All of it written by me. I even have some art in the book. It might have even gotten an Ennie nomination! Second is Ken Hite telling me he was looking forward to the finished Folk Hero/Mythic America book.

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional? 

Michael: Not getting hired by Hero Games when they were looking for a second content writer. That could (no, would) have totally changed my life around.

(Editor's Note: It would have been better for 5th Edition Hero System, as well, IMHO)

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?

Michael: Encourage flexibility on the part of everyone involved. A game is supposed to be fun and slavish devotion to the rules can wreck that. On the other hand, freely ignoring the rules can lead to the same thing. You (meaning the GM, the players, and the writers) need to balance the two. The rules help define how things work, but can (and should) be ignored in the face of drama, the chance for a PC to shine, or other such moments. Also, if the game is flexible enough, new rules (or rulings) can usually be added without much of a muss or fuss. Just make sure your new rules serve a purpose.

Michael worked on the "Dark Arts" chapter for this book.

RW: If you were a shadowrunner, you’d be a…?

Michael: Dead? I’m 45, overweight, with bad knees and feet. Yeah, make me a drone rigger and keep me out of the direct fighting.

RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?

Michael: Savage Worlds. I really like how fast-paced and fun it is to play.

RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?

Michael: Lack of communication and direction. I have been in two projects I ended up bowing out of because there was no real project lead or a strong idea of what was desired from the design group.

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?

Michael: For a long time it was Hero. But... I’d really like to play some more Savage Worlds, as it’s been a blast every time I’ve been involved in the system before. Then again, Hero is my fallback system....


  1. Heh. As a frequent witness and impromptu proofreader of Mike's work, I feel impelled to add that his attention to detail and enthusiasm for the genre (whichever one he's working on) are a big part of what makes his creations a fun and enjoyable read.

    Well, that, and he has the most bitchin' collection of anime I've seen. ;-)