Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ennies 2013: A Rogue Warden's Critique

Greetings, readers!

Today’s subject is going to be another controversial one (and is bound to ruffle some feathers!), because it involves the Ennie awards program for 2013. In a previous blog post, I covered different awards for the tabletop RPG industry, including the Ennies. And at that time, I considered the Ennies to be a good—perhaps not perfect, but good—representation of industry awards. However, this year’s setup of the Ennies has definitely changed my opinion, unfortunately, not for the better.

Thank you, Mr. Jay Sherman.

To paraphrase Fight Club: I am Jack’s crushing disappointment.

Full disclosure & Counterpoint

Before I get into the meat of this discussion, I first need to address some relevant issues. Anytime you invoke serious criticism of an awards program, there are going to be questions about the critic. In this case, there are two main things I need to talk about in the interests of full disclosure: First, I had a nominee in a category this year—this blog, in fact, was a nominee for the Best Gaming Blog category. Second, a product I am going to talk about later is the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner box. While I have no direct connection to this product, I worked on the main core book for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and I worked full-time for Fantasy Flight Games (the product’s publisher) for three years.
Here's me in 2009 with awards for Creatures Anathema,
Disciples of the Dark Gods, and Dark Heresy

As a counterpoint, I want to make sure and note before we get any further that my criticism of this year’s Ennies has absolutely nothing to do with the winners. I have no issues with why any particular product won in any particular category. My concerns for this year’s program are purely focused around the nominees (some of which, of course, went on to become winners), the Ennies ceremony, and the judging process itself.

The next counterpoint I want to make clear here is that I have no personal dislike for any of the products I’m going to mention—they’re all quality products. There are some choices made about those products that I am raising questions about, but the products themselves are not at all under fire.

Hopefully getting these points across early in this post will help us keep the discussion centered around the issues rather than doubling back onto the critic (in this case, me!).


Let’s dive into the nominations for this year’s Ennies. The nomination list is no longer available from the Ennies site, but you can find a list online. From this year’s list, there were two nominations that I feel are highly questionable.

Let’s look at one of the nominees for Best Production Values:

If you click on the link for this product, you’ll see what it’s all about with regards to production values. It’s got a nice, solid look. Character sheets, box art, it all looks like it was aimed at an old school product from the 80’s and it doesn’t strike too far off the mark.

However, if you take a look at the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box, you’ll clearly see that these two products are simply night and day in comparison. The Beginner Box’s artwork, graphic design, dice, character sheets, layout, and trade dress are all (In my opinion) clearly superior. While I have nothing against the Hyperborea boxed set (and in fact would love to own a copy), I can’t help but notice that having this product nominated for production values while the category ignores the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box makes no sense at all. (see the Judging section below for some more thoughts on this)

Let’s hope that the judges for next year carefully consider ALL the products submitted for the Best Production Values category so that it truly reflects the best the industry has to offer.

Another nominee I’d like to talk about is for the Best RPG Related Product category:

This is definitely a beautiful book. It is a product of the literary juggernaut that is Random House, and being a Game of Thrones fan myself, it is something I’d enjoy having on my shelf.

With all of that said, however, I’m puzzled as to how this is an RPG Related Product in any way. It’s not a game, nor does it reference any of the Game of Thrones games (Guardians of Order or Green Ronin versions). (Editor's note: I suppose you could make the argument that George R. R. Martin plays RPGs, which he does, but... still seems very reaching to me) I’m also very uncomfortable with the idea of opening up this category to products from companies like Random House, who have resources orders of magnitude higher than other companies in the same category. It’s like letting a silverback gorilla take part in a weightlifting competition.

Just how far afield can “RPG Related” wander from the RPGs themselves? If a Random House collection of maps for a novel series that has been made into RPGs counts… why not a video game like the Dragon Age console series? (At least there would be a fairly direct link to RPGs there, and they would at least be games…) Why not movies like the Hobbit? (since it is connected to the One Ring).

None of the other entries on the list give me the same pause for concern that the Random House book does. I can only hope that the judges will think twice about this in the future and keep the Ennies focused more strongly on the RPG industry rather than wandering so far astray.


A former judge named Chris Gath wrote a blog post entitled “Ennies Expose” about this year’s judging. Chris was a former judge for the Ennies previous to 2009, and has often posted at under the handle “Crothian.”

Chris claims in his post that the judges failed to discuss the nominations in real-time (according to Chris, this is normally done through skype). In this blog post, it is further alleged that one of the judges for 2013’s nominations refused to consider the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box for any category due to a dislike of its unusual dice mechanics.

I highly encourage you to check out the blog post and the comments section below, where other former judges (such as Jody Kline) weigh in with opinions such as “…the fact that you all didn’t convene a live panel to decide on the nominations is disgraceful.” Other posters, including judges from this year’s program, defend the decisions made in their own words.

The debate about this expose was fought primarily through comments attached to blog posts—there hasn’t been any official response from the Ennies themselves. Some other ENnies officials (such as Submissions Coordinator and Publisher Relations guy, Hans Cummings) have publicly claimed that Chris Gath’s expose is completely wrong, and point out that he hasn’t been an Ennies judge for over four years.

I don’t believe there’s much left to say here but to present the two sides of this issue and let you, the reader, make up your own mind.

For me, it seems clear that leaving the Stars Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box out of the Best Production Value category was clearly a huge mistake. Its absence makes me question whether it should have been left out of other categories it was submitted for as well.

Beyond that, my largest concern is in regards to the Judging process, specifically the need for some kind of live skype call to discuss the nominations. I believe that the judges should make every effort to communicate in real time, whether that is through skype or some other interface. I believe that this kind of communication is crucial to the process, and as one poster said, “There are too many nuances that you can’t tell through the written word alone.”


I attended the ceremony for the Ennies this year at Gen Con, as I have every year for the last five years. This year, the ceremony was particularly noteworthy… but not in a good way. Let me explain what I mean.

I only wish the Ennies ceremony could be this cool.

The audience were, in general, not paying a lot of attention to the ceremony itself. People were talking, laughing, and mostly ignoring anything happening up on stage. This was not improved by the presenters—without going too much into detail, I’ll simply say that the presenters were very ineffective at getting the audience to focus, applaud at the right time, or even to sit down when the ceremony was ready to begin or resume after the intermission. The overall management of the ceremony failed to establish the right mood for taking the awards seriously, which stands in stark contrast to (in my opinion) how the ceremony has been run in the past.

The presenters were not simply being ignored – at least one of these presenters was clearly very intoxicated. He staggered on stage, rambled on at the microphone, and slurred his way through a few words about the category. In my opinion, this was very much not appropriate to the Ennies.

There was at least one category where no one at all showed up for the awards, both gold and silver. WOTC was likewise noticeably absent, especially when their joke-y “Imperial March” music is playing for a category they won. If the Ennies has complete absences for both entire categories and some of the largest companies in the industry, I’d have to say that my opinion is that something is very wrong.


Again, the points above are all illustrating my own opinion. I encourage you to check out the program for yourself--YMMV. With that in mind, here’s what I took away from the overall conduct of the 2013 Ennie awards program.

Based on the nominations and the discussions engendered by Chris Gath’s blog post, it seems clear to me that the judging process for nominating products needs some reform, particularly with regards to selecting appropriate products for the appropriate category and with regards to some form of live discussion of the nominations.

Based on what I observed at the ceremony, the Ennies have a serious problem with people simply not taking the awards seriously. Certainly not the audience—they were talking, joking, and far more intent on getting drinks from the bar than on honoring the awards themselves. Not the presenters, either--they showed a distinct lack of “giving a damn” about the ceremony as well. Some of the nominees themselves did the same by failing to even show up. Nothing sabotages the impact of the Ennies by having zero winners come up on stage for an entire category.

It’s fair to say I’m very concerned that there’s even a perception that the judges, the audience, the presenters and the nominees aren’t taking the Ennies seriously. If they won’t, who will? The Ennies should be something that we as gamers and game industry professionals can all be proud of. The Ennies should be, above all, a true measure of quality. To improve the Ennies, I believe we need some changes in the judging of nominations and the operations of the ceremony.

I should add that I am being this critical because I love the Ennies so much – to me, they were the first real RPG industry awards I could believe in, ever since their inception. I believe that the Ennies can be, and should be, the standard by which other industry awards are judged, and I hope that they can reach their true potential. Ultimately, I hope this blog post helps start a conversation that leads to discovering new solutions (one thing I wish this post could offer more of). 

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

If you agree, disagree, or had a completely different view of the Ennies this year, please don't hesitate to chime in in the comments section below! I'm particularly interested in the thoughts of other folks who attended this year's ceremony or ceremonies in years past who can compare the experiences.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview Time: Shane Lacey Hensley

Greetings readers!

Shane is no stranger to wearing a convention badge!
Today we have a great interview with Shane Lacy Hensley, the head Savage at Pinnacle Entertainment Group and creator of the Savage Worlds RPG system. Shane is also a novelist and has some impressive credits in the Video Game industry as well, from City of Heroes/City of Villains to End of Nations.

Some of Shane's most recent projects include the amazing Weird Wars Rome setting for Savage Worlds. Possibly one of Shane's most enduring creations is the Wild West horror RPG known as Deadlands.

Shane is not only a notable luminary of the RPG industry, he's an extremely nice guy and a dedicated professional. It's a pleasure and an honor to feature Shane's interview here on Rogue Warden, and I hope you'll check out all the interesting answers he provided to my questions!

As usual, my questions are all in red text.

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

SH: I got started as a freelancer with West End Games, then did work for everyone from White Wolf to TSR to FASA, including a couple of computer games. Later on, I started Pinnacle Entertainment Group where we created a historical miniatures game, a World War II collectible card game, and then the Deadlands and Savage Worlds roleplaying games. I also owned a retail store in Blacksburg, VA, on and off for about ten I've done just about everything but distribution.

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

SH: I wrote a Halloween TORG adventure for our group in college. My friends seemed to like it, so I sent it in to West End Games. They pretty much slit their wrists in red ink on it, but I made the changes and Greg Gordon and Scott Palter were kind enough to accept it. From that point on I began working very hard at following the guidelines of the companies I was working for, hitting guidelines, and trying to write engaging, clear text. You can judge for yourself how well I accomplish the latter. ;)

SPQR spells awesome.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

SH: Wow...that's a great question. I guess in my heart of hearts I like to create worlds and situations and see how people interact with them. I have many friends in the industry who really just want to be novelists and think this is a stepping stone to that. I like writing novels too (I've written three), but I truly do love making game worlds and adventures. And I *do* like hearing about people's adventures.

For freelancers and mid-tier publishers, it's also wonderful to work at home. Yes, you will work more hours than you would in an office, most likely, but they're your hours. If you have the discipline to work at home and not get overly distracted by all the entertainment options we have today, it can be a great life. If you have kids, it's a challenge to work around then, but it's also great to be there at home for them far more than most people can.

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

SH: The business side of it is a challenge. Pinnacle is lucky to be in a position where we're very profitable, but it took over a decade and a half to get there.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 8 years?

SH: You're asking questions I've never seen before--kudos! I'll answer for me personally--you probably have a better perspective on what it might be for others. I guess in the beginning it was all about becoming the next TSR or Games Workshop. I had visions of an almost college-like compound where all our people worked. Life would be a mix of hard work and hard play. Seems a little silly now, but when I was 21 years old, that was the dream. When that didn't happen, I went into computer games for about 10 years. The pay for that kind of work is excellent, but the hours are demanding and I wound up being a manager (Executive Producer) rather than being creative so I found it less fulfilling than running my own company. These days, I work at home it's all about making sure we stay stable and are able to keep going for years and years to come. I love the freedom it gives me, not only personally but also creatively as we can do any project we want. I don't have to convince someone to do it besides myself.

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: The main thing we do these days is make sure the money is already there to pay everyone and print the project before we start it. Sounds naive to do it any other way, but in the late '90s and early 2000s when mis-tier publishers like Pinnacle had a staff of 21 people and made a constant stream of setting and "splat" books, it was truly "publish or perish." That meant you were constantly "floating" money from freelancers to printers to staff. It was very dangerous and caused lots of problems. We abandoned that by about 2005 and became a "cash" company.

I think the modern-day equivalent--since most people aren't in a "publish or perish" mode anymore--is over-promising on Kickstarters to the point where they actually lose money once all is said and done.

That's the business side. On the more creative side, I'd say we start with a bit more focus on each project than we used to. Deadlands was a huge sprawling world designed to last for decades--and it has. Something like 50 Fathoms, a newer release from us, is designed to last for a few years and tell a more focused story.
A blast from the past, and a great RPG book.

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: I think they're the same, actually. Timeliness is #2. Yes, I said #2. Number one? Write well, pay attention to the company's writer's guidelines or style guide. The vast majority of my time at Pinnacle is spent either asking a freelancer for rewrites or rewriting the text myself. Number three--write something the reader / player will love and remember for the rest of his life. 

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

SH: We have a great shortage of games designed for kids so our hobby is slowly aging out. George Vasilakos and I tried to do an Adventure Time game but Cartoon Network wanted too much. George has picked up the torch with Adventure Maximus, however (see and I hope we'll see more of that in the future.

RW: What do you feel is the best way for a game industry professional to engage with customers and fans?

SH: All the usual ways are great--forums and Facebook--but you do need to keep a *little* distance sometimes or you'll wind up arguing / discussing the most inconsequential details with a person who just can't let it go when you should be focused on a thousand other things that keep your business going. 

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

SH: Surviving. ;) 

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

SH: I cosigned on all of Pinnacle's debts in the early days. In 2004 things got very bad. The OGL was in full swing and we didn't handle it very well. We dual-statted our books but our fans thought we'd abandoned our own very popular system. We also didn't do a good job with the d20 products we did make--our hearts just weren't in it. At one point we were about half a million dollars in debt. So I laid off all the friends I'd hired--which was incredibly painful, of course--dug in to do most everything myself, and dug out of all but the last $144K. That was a Small Business Administration loan and I knew I had to get out from it or Pinnacle would close. I made amazing progress, worked my heart out, and got every individual paid; but this last bit was more than I could handle and still print books. Since I was personally cosigned on the loan, I declared personal bankruptcy. (Pinnacle did not go bankrupt--just me.) That was hard and felt like a personal failure for several years--my family is very big on personal responsibility.

In hindsight and now that I know a lot more than I did then, I'm very proud of how I handled it. But at the time, I was a wreck. I think I hid it pretty well from most, but I developed some serious health problems and it took many years to get back on track. When I did, I vowed to be a "cash" only business with everything paid for up front so I'd never get in that position again.

RW: How do you feel about representation of awards and recognition for quality in the gaming industry?

SH: I have a shelf-full and I appreciate them, but personally I care about the reaction of our fans more than awards. I don't say that to sound pretentious or ungrateful--but the awards processes are a bit...arcane at best, directed at worst, and seem to change every year, so I don't pay much attention to them these days.

RW: What is your favorite part of a gaming-related convention?

SH: The people. I'm fortunate enough to get asked to be a guest at conventions all over the world, and I'm always nervous as I jet out to some strange corner of the earth. But once I get there, inevitably and without exception, I find myself surrounded by guys and gals just like me who love to game. 

RW: What are some things that the video game industry and the roleplaying game industry could learn from each other?

SH: I think games like Minecraft are teaching video games that people like to create--which is something we see in the RPG industry every day. When I see how many different and varied settings are being run with Savage Worlds at a convention like Tacticon--everything from the somewhat silly "Post Apocalyptic Willy Wonka"  to more serious horror games and official setting--it's very evident how creative gamers are.

Vice-versa is going to be a little boring to most, but RPG companies need to understand the importance of marketing. My numbers are a little out of date now that I don't do video games for a living anymore, but I think the marketing budgets for Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption, for example, were twice the development budget (they certainly exceeded it). I think we in the RPG industry think once we've finally put something out that it's a matter of posting it on Facebook and moving on to the next project. And it certainly doesn't help that there's no easy way to market anymore--even if you have the money to do it. When we started Deadlands we sent posters to roughly 5000 game stores in the US. Now there are probably no more than 500 or so. There's also no central magazine or website that everyone goes how DO you market your RPG? We try many different venues in addition to the standard social media sites and are still figuring this out ourselves.

RW: Savage Worlds has become the foundation for a large number of wildly different campaign settings. Have you found any interesting trends about Savage Worlds settings? Are there some genres that you would like to see more or less represented?

SH: The only trend I see is that there isn't one. At the last convention I want to there was everything from the post-apocalyptic Willy Wonka game I mentioned above to a dark "Archangel" setting to our own settings to those of our licensees. 

RW: Do you have any good stories about the development of the Deadlands concept?

SH: When I first ran it for Matt Forbeck and Greg Gordon, I already had poker chips as "Fate Chips." But after the initial adventure in which the party took out a giant "chigger" queen (an insect that in the real world supposedly burrows into your skin), Greg had the idea of adding a "Creature Chip" to the pot. That chip could be used as a blue Fate Chip, or it could grant a one-shot use of a power associated with the chigger queen. (He called it the "Chigger Chip.") That didn't exactly work out for other reasons, but we did turn it into the "coup" power that Harrowed can gain by killing certain monsters.

Wild West action plus undead cowboys... its an amazing setting!

RW: If you were a post-apocalyptic survivor, you’d be a…?

SH: I'd want to be a wasteland warlord, but I'd probably be a loner scav type. 

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

SH: FFG's 40K game that you, our illustrious interviewer, are largely responsible is a favorite, as is the original Warhammer RPG from Games Workshop. I did work on TORG, but it will always be one of my favorites. I was also a huge GURPS fan for many years.

(Editor's note: Shane obviously has excellent taste!)

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

SH: It'd have to be Savage Worlds, I'm afraid. The excitement and unpredictability of exploding dice, the ability to play anything, Bennies, and the ease of running and playing are what I was always looking for. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Accursed Reddit AMA Happening Now!

We're running an Ask Me Anything on Reddit for Accursed today starting at 1 PM CST. Feel free to drop by and ask any questions you want about Accursed to Ross Watson, the lead developer!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tracon Report: A Rogue Warden goes to Finland

A Finnish werewolf in Helsinki

Greetings readers! This blog post is all about my recent journey to the Nordic country of Finland to attend Tracon 8 as the roleplaying Guest of Honor. It’s going to be a pretty long report, since I was in Finland for almost a week. I met a ton of great people and went to a bunch of different cool places, not to mention the convention itself.

Check out more about Tracon after the jump!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Accursed: My First Kickstarter

Greetings, readers! Today’s Friday the 13th, the perfect day to launch the kickstarter for my new RPG setting for Savage Worlds called Accursed.

Accursed is a dark fantasy setting where players take on the roles of classic monsters fighting back against the evil that threatens their world. I could talk about the setting all day, but if you want to know more, I’m going to point you towards the official Accursed Blog.

Instead, I want to talk about kickstarters today. When John Dunn, Jason Marker, and myself decided to do a kickstarter for Accursed, we knew we didn’t want to screw around.

We wanted to do this right.
Here's the awesome cover for Accursed by Alberto Bontempi!

We looked at a bunch of kickstarters that have failed, and even worse, kickstarters that succeeded and then never produced a product (such as Dwimmermount). This fate was not going to happen to us. 

We analyzed over 30 different RPG kickstarters, trying to figure out where they went right (such as Fate Core) and where they went wrong. Then, we took those observations and applied them to our own launch.

Talking about the things we learned would be a very very long conversation, but I do plan to get more into that once the Accursed kickstarter is over and I have some real-world experience to back up my research!

One piece of feedback that we received that I thought was very insightful was that “you shouldn’t let your caution overshadow your love and passion for the project.” It is true that we were very, very focused on doing this kickstarter responsibly, but it is equally important to communicate how excited you are about the project as well.

Speaking of being excited about the project, I’d like to ask all my readers to please take a moment and spread the word about the Accursed Kickstarter—and most importantly of all—why you think it is special. Your help and support means the world to me, and I deeply appreciate it.