Friday, July 20, 2012

Interview Time: Sean Patrick Fannon

When I started Rogue Warden, one of my goals was to go around and interview a number of my friends and colleagues in the RPG industry—partly to help raise awareness of the blog, of course, but also to get some insight into the professionals that create the games I love. Today’s interview is with a man I would describe as a rogue, a colleague, a Game Master, and a friend: Mr. Sean Patrick Fannon.

Sean with his fiancee, Carinn Seabolt. Sean, you lucky dog!!

I’ve known Sean for several years, having run into him in a particularly memorable (and somewhat embarrassing) incident at Gen Con during its last year in Milwaukee. I got a chance to play in one of Sean’s demo games that year for Shards of the Stone, and I could tell right away that Sean had a notable passion and love for games.

I had known of Sean’s work before meeting him due to my deep appreciation of Champions 4th edition, and Sean worked on many of my favorite books of that line.

Later on, Sean gets the credit for introducing me to (at the time) a new-fangled RPG system called Savage Worlds—I was particularly impressed by how that system handled 20+ players at the same time in one of Sean’s Shaintar convention games!

I’d like to call out a couple of really interesting and thought-provoking pieces written by Sean: the first being the Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible and the second being his Project ’77 "gamer manifesto" post.

Currently, Sean has finagled his way into a great position as the Customer Marketing and Communications guy for DriveThruRPG. Also, Sean is the man responsible for single-handedly convincing Kevin Siembieda to bring Palladium Books into the 21st century by offering PDFs of their products on DriveThruRPG. Way to go, Sean!

Sean wrote the excellent "How to use Enemies" chapter in this book.

Lastly, I’m pleased to say that Sean and I are colleagues, having worked together on projects including the ENnie-award winning Creatures Anathema. Take it from me, Sean’s a talented writer and one HELL of a GM.

If you want to know more about Sean, check out his blog and this episode of The Game’s The Thing (it’s an eye-opener!)

Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
(See the rest of the interview after the jump... it's a big one!)

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

Sean: In 1977, I discovered D&D thanks to a "GAMES Magazine" article, and got my mom to buy me the early boxed set (the one with the powder blue rulebook inside). I had a keep on the border of some lands, and no one to teach me a thing about what I was doing. I honestly believe my impetus to become a designer of worlds and a writer of gaming stuff came from that "first one into the wilderness" beginning. 

From that beginning, I forged ahead as a gamer, GM, and writer/designer with a heavy focus on the immersive qualities of roleplaying. For me, it's always been about creating the environment in which all of us get to tell stories like the ones we read and watch. With Star Wars releasing the same year I discovered D&D, you can rest assured the sweeping, epic qualities of action/adventure cinema have always been a huge influence on me, and remain so to this day.

A man wears a hat like that, isn't afraid of anything.

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

Sean: At some point, all of the worlds and characters and stories I'd created convinced my players and friends that I was at least as good as anyone being published at the time. This was the mid-eighties, as the RPG industry was just beginning its meteoric climb from a "some copies sold at conventions" to a pervasive presence in any store likely to carry games and toys. 

I finally decided to take my shot at writing professionally by submitting a review to Scott Haring, who was Editor-in-Chief for "The Gamer Magazine." I got a few published, and that was all I needed to decide it was indeed time to dive headlong in. At this stage of things, there was no easy access via the Internet, so face-to-face and mailed letters were still the best way to communicate with the publishers you wanted to write for.

(Note that self-publishing wasn't the easy way in that it is today; if you didn't work with an established publisher - who was taking all of the financial risk to develop, prepare, and print a product as well as the massive effort to sell it through the distribution networks - you were going to have to come up with rather significant financial capital just to get a single book done and out yourself.)

I've always been pretty good with in-person encounters, and I had plenty of friends on the staff of DragonCon. I got myself a Staff badge, hit the floor of the exhibitor hall on set-up day, and proceeded to help the folks of Iron Crown Enterprises and Hero Games set up their booth. Hero was partnered with ICE at that time to publish all of the Champions and Hero System stuff at that time, and that was the realm I wanted to play in as a designer and writer. Helping them gave me an opportunity to not only introduce myself, but make a pitch for a game product.

The Final Reich - a modern-day team of Nazis and their organization.

They pretty much rejected it out of hand; they'd just had to recall Wings of the Valkyrie, a module where the superheroes had to actually save Hitler to save the future. This did not apparently sit well with an influential Jewish organization, so ICE yanked it rather than deal further with the controversy.

Fortunately, I'd impressed them enough to open the way for another pitch, which is where High Tech Enemies came from. After that, I was on their list, and eventually became the Continuity Editor for the Champions Universe for a time. At that time, success bred success, as other companies and editors wanted to work with folks who had proven they could write and get work in on time.

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

Sean: People live in worlds I create or help to develop. I really can't think of anything more heady than that.

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

Sean: I'm one of the very few people I know who enjoys a steady paycheck and insurance benefits in this industry, and I still live literally paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who treats their role in the RPG industry as their primary income probably lives well below the poverty line. 

Alas, poor Shards of the Stone--a great concept, dead before its time.

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

Sean: I have no illusions about how much time, effort, and struggle is involved in making this a career. At the same time, things are so very much easier than they were at the beginning. In just the five years you mention, technologies and techniques have developed so rapidly that literally anyone can go from fan to published creator in a single night. Nothing stops anyone from getting into this professionally - except themselves. You still have to actually do the work, instead of just talking about it.

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?

Sean: Using the tools and tech that's available now, I see building teams around an idea and moving forward with everyone owning a piece of the total result. It's not possible to cut everyone in for a percentage of the revenue of a specific product without anyone fearing "getting screwed." Using the royalty system of a site like DriveThruRPG, you can do "moment of transaction" royalty splits; each time a product is purchased, each person that's a part of it gets their cut instantly.

Frankly, I'm kind of surprised we don't see more of this happening than we do right now.

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?

Sean: With the "Everyone Can Play" atmosphere of the `Net, it's more important than ever that all of us who represent the working professionals of the industry act in a fashion that provides the right example. We don't need to be stiff-necked and difficult (leave that to the better-paid non-gaming sector), but we can certainly maintain a level of mature composure and professional demeanor that gives our customers and fans confidence in us as they support us.

Freelancers best serve themselves by communicating effectively with the teams they are working with. They need to hit their deadlines, and if for some reason they can't, they need to let their editors and developers know as soon as they do. Freelancers also need to ensure they respect the properties they are being allowed to play with; if they bring too much into a project that isn't really compatible with what has gone before, they force their editors to do a lot more work to get the product in shape.

Publishers need to be forthright about all of their expectations right from the start. At the same time, they can go a long way towards easing new freelancers into the process by providing helpful tools and examples of what they need and expect. I recently finished a project with Fantasy Flight Games, and I was massively impressed and pleased to work with an actual template they provided for my writing; it provided all of the headings and related formatting right in the document, which meant what I ultimately delivered fit neatly into their development and layout process right off.

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

Sean: The money. It is a sincere shame that we all work just as hard as any other creator of entertainment, yet most of us cannot really make a decent living at it. Unfortunately, the realities are that our customer base remains a niche marketplace. The pie we're all scrambling to eat from is only so big, and that means there's just not the kind of revenue flowing through that the electronics industry sees - never mind the fiction, television, and motion picture industries.

I'd just like to see easier access to health care options. Too many of my colleagues have to hold onto jobs they utterly despise in order to have crappy insurance that barely takes care of them and their families.

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

Sean: I'm very active in social networking, especially Facebook and Google+. As well, I go to a lot of conventions (a LOT of them), and I love doing panels where I can talk about all of this stuff. Most importantly, though, I love just sitting down at the gaming table and playing with my fellow gamers.

A must-own for any serious roleplayer.

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

Sean: At one point, I would have said writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible. However, in 2010 Haiti was hit with a 7.+ earthquake and it literally rocked the world in many ways. Chuck Childers (my colleague at DriveThruRPG, where I work now) and I jumped on a plan to pull together products from all of the publishers that wanted to help and do a kind of "mega bundle" for raising funds. We figured we'd help pull together a few thousand dollars, if all went well.

We raised nearly $179,000.00, which we donated to Doctors Without Borders (that was Carinn Seabolt's idea, the love of my life). 

Creating and developing a means for our culture to be more socially conscientious and effective in helping the world be a better place? That is, undoubtedly, my greatest achievement so far in this industry. 

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

Sean: I don't write nearly enough. A complete lack of effective time management, mixed with other issues and distractions, has kept me far from my potential for the amount of work I should have produced by this stage of my career.

One of my favorite Champions 4e books!

RW: Your book, Hi-tech Enemies is one of the best Enemies books for 4th Edition Champions (IMHO). Can you tell us a bit more about the Destruction Company, Doc Digital, or the development process of the book in general? Were Sci-Fi and Fastball former player characters of someone in your group?

Sean: Wow, it's been a long, long time since I thought about that book! Thanks for the very kind words. 

Here's the funny thing - many of the characters created for High-Tech Enemies were created whole cloth for that book. I had a few technological and scientific enemies in my ongoing campaign, and the Montgomery family was very prevalent in my personal "mythology," both as a GM and as a player. So Master Control had been the main villain for me for quite some time, and the STRIKE Units had been plaguing my players for a while. As well, Crossbow and Stellar Paladin (though the latter was originally called Starknight when I played him, way back in 1984-86) have always been player characters for me.

The Destruction Company was also an infamous villain group in my campaign, and the Weasel remains the single-most hated supervillain I've ever put into a game.

Pretty much the rest of the villains - and their stories - came up as I developed the book from scratch. Granted, I intentionally wove various stories together as I did so; I've always loved having a sense of continuity and back story for the villains, and tying all of them into the framework of the campaign overall. I didn't mean, at first, to create a continuity whole-cloth for the what would become the Champions Universe, but somehow that's a major part of what happened as I wrote up all those stories, relationships, and backgrounds.

Doc Digital and his group sprang forth from pure inspiration, and that remains one of my favorite creations for the C.U..

RW: Hi-Tech Enemies tied in to two other 4th Edition Champions books; Corporations (for Montgomery International) and Allies (for the Cyber-Knights). How many years were the Cyber-Knights active in your home campaign? (My personal favorites are Crossbow and Heavy Duty)

Sean: Again, the Cyberknights as a group never actually existed in play form; Crossbow was a personal player character for me for a long time, and Hardwire evolved from another character I played for a bit. I built the rest of the team around them, strictly based on the fact that they'd been mentioned so much in High-Tech Enemies. 

They became very real after publication of the book, though, and frequently assisted other hero groups in my campaigns afterwards.

Part of any good Champions 4e collection...

RW: When you designed The Mutant File for 4th edition Champions, what were your biggest influences? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of that book?

Sean: Naturally, Marvel's take on mutants and their place in society strongly informed everything that had been done with mutants in the Champions Universe by the time I got handed the book. My goal was to tap into that particular gestalt while still trying to create distinctive elements that were unique to the CU.

At the time, I really enjoyed creating all of the stuff I did for Genocide. In hindsight, however, I have to admit that so much of it was very derivative of existing material in comics. I still think the characters and agents are cool, but I really could have stretched farther than I did.

I think the Downtrodden remain some of my favorite characters, and I truly enjoyed riding the line between villainous and sympathetic with IMAGE.

RW: Can you tell us more about your thoughts on the Downtrodden (the mutant superpowered biker gang led by Fry Daddy) and Genocide?

Sean: The Downtrodden are generally decent, but they're mostly just a bunch of people out on the road, trying to get by. I've had a lot of fun using them as surprise allies in various stories, especially when Voodoo needs to reach some heroes and let them know about something happening on the Grand Scale. 

As with all my character stuff, these folks just start writing themselves. I come up with a bare-bones concept, and then start writing and see where it goes. The relationship between Fry Daddy and Tabitha literally wrote itself as fingers hit the keyboard. I love that.

The same thing happened as I was working on Genocide, and even though much of it is conceptually derivative, I remain proud of the fact that all of the characters stand up as their own people. The inner workings, conspiracies, and the rest of it just gelled together, and it is a scary and effective organization.

Immortal Legends indeed...

RW: I believe that your fantasy RPG setting, Shaintar, represents one of your greatest accomplishments in gaming. Do you feel that’s true?

I know that my most well-known work is either from my original association with Champions or writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible, but I do feel that Shaintar is my very best work - especially the new stuff about to be released by Reality Blurs.

RW: Shaintar has lived both in convention games, online, and in your home campaign across the country. Can you tell us more about how you’ve developed this world for so many years?

Sean: That would be a long essay all by itself, Ross. :-D

Let's just say I started with a keep on some borderlands of somewhere back in 1977 and, having no world to work with, I started building one. Over the decades, that world evolved organically, benefiting from all I was learning about world-building, story-telling, and running good campaigns. Inspired by fantastic people like Ed Greenwood, Lawrence Kasdan, and Joe Straczynski, as well as exceptional game masters like Albert Deschesne, Mike Dean, and Marcus Pregent, I learned a great deal about making a campaign setting full of story potential and a compelling place for players to inhabit with their characters over the long haul.

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?

Sean: My job isn't to create inviolable rules of play. My job is to create processes and tools that foment creativity and facilitate creative shared storytelling. If I empower a Game Master with a set of rules and guidelines that give him or her confidence in making good on-the-spot decisions, I am successful. If the players had a great time and want to play again, that goes in the Win column.

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

Sean: Street samurai with a serious paladin complex. This would, of course, make me very unpopular with other shadowrunners. I know this already from painful experience...

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

Sean: Kind of funny, that, because inevitably any system I become enamored of becomes one I want to work with. I'd say BASH! (Basic Actions Super Heroes) is one at this point, though I am already doing some development in that area. I love its clean resolution, its flexibility, and the ease at which it handles most superheroic combat situations.

I want to give props to Pathfinder for getting the OGL version of D&D right. I am also keenly interested in the Ubiquity system (though, again, my non-involvement with it may not last very long).

I will always love both Torg and Rifts - not for the system, in either case, but for what they accomplished in terms of epic genre-twisting and big stories.

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

Sean: Confident and clear communication, and a respect for what has been done already. Whenever someone comes crashing through the door with the idea that they know better than anyone else, all I can do is remember how I felt that way... and how wrong I was. 

Someone who talks a lot about something but has little to show for it? Instant red flag.

Finally, if you wish to be a professional game designer/writer, you must be willing to use proper words, grammar, and spelling in all forms of communication. If you tend towards "l337" or "Text-ese," I tend to not take you seriously. Yes, this even means texting; don't use "I have something 4 u." Take the time to write "I have something for you," if you want me to not put a block up where you are concerned as a writer.

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

Sean: Savage Worlds - just about anything.

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