Friday, March 1, 2013

Interview Time: Sam Stewart

Greetings readers! This week I have an interview with Sam Stewart, Senior RPG Producer at Fantasy Flight Games. Sam and I worked together for over three years at FFG and Sam was the first person I turned to for help with the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. Sam's work was instrumental to the success of Rogue Trader and he quickly became a valued member of the RPG team.

I wanted to interview Sam as he has recently had some great success in the RPG arena with the release of Black Crusade and Only War followed by the excellent new entry of Star Wars as an RPG with Edge of the Empire.

Sam is a very gifted writer with a lot of editing chops and a solid game designer who has several good games under his belt and many more on the horizon. If I had to point to a designer to watch in the RPG industry, I'd nominate Sam in a heartbeat. If you'd like to know more about Sam, you can find his BGG profile here.

As usual, my questions are in red text.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

SS: I got started because Fantasy Flight needed an editor for its board game rulebooks. My education was in print journalism, so I have a fairly solid grounding in grammar and editing. My first job with the company was about as entry level as you can get.

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

SS: They say that if you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life. I’ve had jobs in several different fields, but that’s only been true for me in the RPG industry. It’s challenging, interesting, and what you’re working on day by day is constantly changing, so you really never get bored. Plus, you get to make books about spaceships, dwarves, and gribbly monsters! What’s not to like about that?

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

SS: Well, it is a very hard industry to get into, and even harder to make a living in. I have friends who work in the industry and because of expenses like student loans, are barely scraping by.

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

SS: Five years ago, before I was working at Fantasy Flight Games, I had no idea how close-knit the RPG industry, or the game industry in general, really was. For example, just last year I ended up working with Shane Hensley (CEO of Pinnacle Entertainment Group, who does Deadlands amongst other things) who did some freelance writing for Edge of the Empire. This came up partially because Shane is a good friend of my boss, Christian Petersen. So turns out, it really is a small world.

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?

Sam wrote the starship combat and starship construction rules for this game.. and they kick ass.
SS: Plan earlier, plan longer. Turns out you really never can get started too early on a project, because there will always be complications you don’t expect.

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?

SS: I think the most important professional trait for a freelancer to have is to treat their work as they would any other job. This is kind of broad, but it means the freelancer should be courteous to their boss, meet deadlines, be very communicative, and respect all aspects of a contract (including any parts that ask them not to talk about what they’re working on). A lot of freelancers treat their work as a hobby, which I think is a mistake.

On the other hand, I think the most important aspect of professionalism on the publisher’s side is to be quick with feedback and punctual about paying out contracts. I think paying contracts on time is the single most important thing a publisher can do to engender goodwill from their freelancer pool.

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

SS: Does increasing the fan base by 100 percent count as “changing?” But seriously, I think the RPG industry is actually in a pretty good spot at the moment, and has been developing in very interesting directions over the last few years.  

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

SS: Personally, I prefer to meet them face to face, at conventions or game stores and the like. If not that, then email conversations. Basically, any situation where I can interact with someone one-on-one.

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

SS: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Getting that project done with Jay Little has been the apex of my career thus far, although I hope I’ll have even bigger accomplishments in the future.

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

SS: That’s a hard question to answer. I think I’ve definitely had failures and faults in my career thus far, but identifying your own mistakes is always a tricky business.  Budgeting my time is something I’ve always struggled with, so I’ll go with that. Happily, I’ve never had a project that turned out a failure, as far as I can tell.
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?

Sam's first major project as lead developer -- he did a fantastic job!
SS: I’ve learned that the best thing you can do with a ruleset is create one that’s robust but flexible. Basically, the rules should be internally consistent amongst the entire set, but flexible enough that they can cover a wide range of situations. The worst thing you can do as a designer, in my opinion, is try and come up with rules for every single situation that could arise in a game. That just lends itself to bloat and confusion. If you create a ruleset that deliberately doesn’t cover every situation, but is designed in such a way that the GM and players can figure out how to use the rules in unexpected scenarios, then I think you’ve pulled off the best of both worlds.

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

SS: A paladin, probably. Either that or a neutral good ranger.

RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?

SS: Hands down D20 Iron Kingdoms. It’s the game that really got me into roleplaying back in the day, and one of those games that I really obsessively studied as a fan to learn every minute rules detail.

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

SS: The first thing I look for is a professional cover letter and resume. It shows me the freelancer is approaching his submission like he would a job application (which it is), and taking things seriously.
The biggest red flag in my mind is the freelancer who submits fiction as an example of his writing. It’s hard to objectively judge the quality of fiction, and it doesn’t demonstrate any ability to write rules. In addition, I expect freelancers with experience writing for RPGs to submit their prior work as an example. So fiction isn’t a deal breaker, but I’m less likely to take a freelance submission seriously if his or her writing sample is a short story.

RW: What are the best and worst parts about working with a licensed property?

SS: The best and worst parts are actually two sides of the same issue; the IP is already defined. On the one hand, this means you just can’t do some things, because they don’t fit into the IP. You can’t put hard sci-fi in Warhammer 40,000, for example. But on the other hand, because the setting is already defined, it frees you up to focus on the aspects of the setting that are open to interpretation and development. Basically, a lot of the conceptual heavy lifting has already been taken care of, and left you in a big sandbox to play around in. 
Awesome Star Wars smugglers & gamblers action.
RW: What is the biggest challenge about working with a licensed property?

SS: Remaining true to the core IP while still creating something new and interesting for fans to enjoy.

RW: What would you suggest to a fan or prospective game designer looking to improve his knowledge of the industry?

SS: Ideally, I’d suggest they go to a convention, find someone in the industry, and offer to buy drinks or a meal while asking a few questions. But since that’s kind of an expensive proposition, most people will do just as well turning to the Internet and reading blogs like yours. There’re a bunch of current industry insiders who post about their experiences on-line, and reading them presents a pretty good picture of the industry.

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

SS: Edge of the Empire. I’ve GMed several games while working on it, but I haven’t actually gotten to play a character in it yet!

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