Monday, March 25, 2013

Professionalism in Gaming—Giving a Damn



Fair warning, gentle reader; today’s post is one that is highly personal to me and my writing is going to have a fair bit of my own emotions poured into it.

For professionals in the gaming industry, it can be easy to take the job for granted. I’ve found that this concept is just as true for the struggling-to-survive freelancer as it is for the highly-paid video game designer. The game industry simply promotes the idea that it is somehow okay to not care about your work. Medical professionals are the one job I can think of where not giving enough care and attention to your job can result in people’s death – so while it is true that the game industry doesn’t have quite as much at stake, there’s still plenty of good reasons why we should focus, why we should concern ourselves more with what we do—and even more importantly, how we do it.

I’ve talked about being professional before on the Warden. Integrity, courtesy, respect; these are the critical tools for earning respect as a professional in the industry. However, I promise this post isn’t going to just re-hash what I’ve said in a previous post—I wanted to revisit this subject because I feel like I have more to say.

Some simple tasks that promote more care and professionalism:


Improve Communication



This business runs on communication, and one of the primary methods of this is e-mail. Taking weeks to respond to an e-mail is generally unacceptable.

Note: Not to say that I haven’t fallen prey to this exact problem myself. I do always attempt to apologize when it does happen. Mea culpa – we all have ways in which we can improve!


This is especially true when you’re answering a question via e-mail. Many times, answering questions is core to doing business. Freelancers need to know when their assignments are due or asking for clarification on a developer’s feedback. The publisher may be asking for when they can expect to see a signed contract or when they can set up a business meeting at Gen Con.

Some people may think that ignoring e-mail is one way to get across that you’re really busy and/or important—instead, it’s a surefire way to look unprofessional.

Honesty


In my book, respect begins with integrity. A big part of integrity is honesty, commitment, and keeping your word. This applies to a professional’s dealing with customers, colleagues, and clients alike.

So, my words to all professionals: Be Honest. If you’re not passionate about a project, don’t try and fake it. If you feel like another assignment is going to be too much for you to handle before the deadline, say so. This goes both ways – publishers need to be honest too! Not ready to do business on a particular project? Don’t give a bullshit excuse – just say so. This industry has grown-up adults in it, we just need to remember that and act like it.

Take Responsibility


It’s easy to lay blame when something falls through with the gaming industry. Rather than pointing fingers, however, the right thing to do is to take responsibility for your work. This applies equally to both success and failure – it can be possible, for example, to be responsible for an excellent game that was still a failure in the marketplace. Or to produce a mediocre game that succeeds wildly. In any case, a professional takes ownership and makes no excuses. Your work stands on its own, as some of my friends like to say.

For myself, I take ownership of two products that are good examples of this concept:

For Rogue Trader, I am responsible for that product’s success in both design and market performance; the 40K RPGs as a whole make up (and have made up for several years) the third-best-selling RPG in the market. Whenever I need motivation, I often look at Rogue Trader and Deathwatch as examples of success despite the odds, and it carries me through to go that extra mile.

For Complete Divine, I take ownership of that book’s terrible editing. It was one of my first forays into the industry as an editor and it is a good example of why I decided my talents lay elsewhere! Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot and used that failure as an impetus to improve my skills since then.

Meet Your Commitments


In an effort not to unnecessarily repeat myself, I’m just going to mention that professionals turn in their work on time and sticks to agreements that he makes (i.e., honoring contracts and NDAs).

However, commitments are more than just contracts and deadlines – anytime you make a professional arrangement, you need to keep your word. This goes for meetings – be on time and in the right place, or inform the other party if you’re going to be unavoidably late. Be prepared when you’re in the meeting – take notes. Have something to say at the meeting – you don’t have to have all the answers, but if you can at least give the other person something they can depend on (i.e., “I’ll research that and get back to you by 4 PM tomorrow.”), they won’t feel like you’re wasting their time.

Storytime!


I’m going to present here a perfect example that combines much of the above points. This is a true story in that it comes directly from my experience. To keep things on a professional level, I’m using the story as an example but I’m keeping any specific names out of it. The core of this story is “How NOT to act as a professional game company.”

I approached a game company that had a really exciting new product they were working on and a solid history of producing good games. The new product was an all-new IP and I approached them about helping them create and manage the narrative and setting for this property.

The very first warning sign was that, while the company was certainly interested in talking to me about doing some work with them, they absolutely could NOT settle on a time and place for a meeting. We were both attending a large gaming convention, and there was absolutely no reason why this company couldn’t have found a way to set aside 10 minutes to have a conversation about something as important as the core narrative and setting for their new property. (Commitments fail!)

 “We’ll talk about it at the show, just stop by our booth.” That was the extent of the communication from the company to me. I took them at their word and arranged to get into the dealer’s room an hour early on the first day of the convention. However, once again, the company failed to make any effort to set an actual time or place for a real meeting. I was told to chase down another member of the company who was in another part of the convention space. To make matters worse, this person wasn’t even in the space I was told to find him at! Instead, he was in a similar but completely different spot – all in all, it took me over 48 hours to arrange a 10-minute meeting with one member of this company about doing some work with them.

Needless to say, I already felt as if the company wasn’t taking me seriously by this point. At the actual meeting, the person I was sent to speak to was in the middle of a demo. Did he ask me to stop by after the demo? Did he maybe set aside some time to speak to me like a professional? 

Nope. He chose to talk to me during the demo, interrupting what should’ve been a short, easy-to-conclude discussion every five minutes with answering questions from the folks in his demo. He failed to discuss things with me on a professional level and failed to present his product demonstration to potential customers in a professional manner. Red alert! Alarm bells were ringing hardcore for me at this point, and my instincts were telling me that this company was having serious problems dealing with professionals.
At the end of the meeting, the person I spoke to had no real answers for me – despite his self-described role in the company as “the decider.” In order to get any momentum out of the meeting at all, I was forced to suggest to him that he take my proposal to his partners and think about it overnight – I’d return to find out a decision on the next day.

Coming around to the booth the next day, I got a chance to speak to another representative of the company (I had no desire to talk to the previous representative!). He regretfully told me that there was no way they could afford my previous proposal. I pointed out that the kickstarter for the property had taken in hundreds of thousands of dollars and showed him that I could add hundreds of thousands more with my contributions. He continued to insist that the company simply could not afford my initial proposal no matter what. The kickstarter for this project took in over $900,000. (Honesty fail!)

Having dealt with two major disappointments with this company, I was severely disinclined to consider any more business. However, the company did approach me with a third proposal, and we agreed on a payment for my services that was in the low five figures – a significant sum! Before taking things any further, however, I insisted in seeing a contract from the company so that I could gauge just how serious this company was about dealing with me in a professional manner. 

Considering the runaround and wasted time trying to discuss things with them in person, I was feeling understandably very cautious about trying to enter into a formal business arrangement.
Well, asking for a contract was responded to with – silence. Four weeks later, I received one more e-mail from the company. In this e-mail, the company wanted to move ahead right away and asked me when I could start. (Communication fail!)

Not only did they completely ignore my request for a contract, not only did they waste my time with weeks of non-communication, not only was I lied to and given a runaround for personal, professional meetings – now they just wanted me to jump on board and get moving without any kind of formal agreement.

Needless to say, this was the last straw. I had no intention of trying to work with this company any further, and despite the promised riches of the payment, I had no guarantee in the form of a contract and no confidence given their unprofessional behavior that I would actually ever get paid if I had taken the job.

My friend Jason Marker has a fantastic description of this company’s behavior and subsequent professional reputation: “Grab-asstic Amateurs.” I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Being a Good RPG Player



So, this week I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it takes to be a good RPG player rather than a GM. I’m actually in the process of wrapping up a very successful Shadowrun campaign as the GM, and I have to say that this game would not have been nearly as fun or engaging without the players being as great as they are. A lot of emphasis is put on the GM’s shoulders for making a game fun, but I also believe that the players’ active participation is a hugely significant factor. Let’s take a closer look at what I believe are some good player behaviors, shall we?

Just as a quick disclaimer before we get too far into the rest of this article; YMMV. I’m using my own experiences and observations as the basis for the advice and discussions hereafter, but I certainly would not say that all groups are going to respond the same to trying some of these ideas out.

For the Group



Being a good player means looking out for the group’s fun as a whole. Here are some ways to do that:

Offer to Help



Hosting the game can be a great way to contribute. If you can’t host, consider offering to help out with food or drink arrangements. Even something as simple as volunteering to help the GM keep the event organized (such as sending out e-mail reminders or double-checking availability) can keep the game running on track.

Bring the Materials



A well-stocked library never goes amiss!
It can be criminally easy to forget some basic gaming materials; books, dice, or even your character sheet! However, a good player does his best to remember to bring these vital items to each and every game. Hauling along some extra dice, pens & pencils, or some dry-erase markers can make you one heck of a valued member of the team!

Don’t Be a Distraction




There is often a bit of downtime here and there during an RPG; maybe another character has the spotlight, maybe everyone else is taking a 5-minute smoke break, or maybe the GM has drawn one of the other characters aside to provide some unusual information. It’s okay to get out your phone or ipad and distract yourself every so often. However, what is vital is to not distract the other players from the game itself. If you’re going to play a game or watch a video, turn the volume way down or even switch it off so that you’re not interfering with other people’s fun—that’s just not kosher.

Niche Protection



One thing I’ve always sought to do when joining an RPG group is to find a way to make a character that brings something different to the table. Often, this is as simple as asking a few questions of the GM or the group and finding out what particular types of characters are lacking. What I think is most important about this particular activity is to make sure your character doesn’t step on another’s toes. This can also be an example of just making a character that’s too similar to someone else’s.
  
There's room for all kinds!
I played in a Deadlands campaign in Louisville, Kentucky in the early 2000’s. My character was a riverboat gambler, an excellent shot with a gun, and knew a bit about the nasty creatures of the Weird West. Unfortunately for me, I joined the group after my friend George had already brought in his character; a gunslinger based on Jonah Hex who happened to be good at (wait for it) gambling, shooting, and knowing stuff about the supernatural. It didn’t take long before our characters were tripping over each other in nearly every scene, and I definitely wish I had taken my own advice in this incident.

Engage


Don’t just be a bump on a log! Find ways to engage your character in the action. Try and find one moment each session where you try and do something awesome. Often, it doesn’t really matter even if you succeed or fail. What’s important is the attempt, and what it says about your character, his role in the group, or what lies in store for him in the future. At the end of the day, the session will be more memorable and fun for everyone if the other players all feel like everyone was involved. If there is obviously someone “just kind of there” throughout the session, it doesn’t carry the same impact.

Share the Spotlight


This is a true fact.
The spotlight is that moment during the game when your character is the center of attention – it can be an intoxicating feeling! A good player knows that it is good to share that feeling with the rest of the group rather than hog it all to yourself. Find ways to help the other players have their “shining moment of awesome” at least once per session. If the characters are split up or working on different paths towards the same goal, find ways to incorporate the other players into the scene. Have your character give them a call, send a message, or just openly wonder aloud “What Xander would make of all this?” If you can enable the other players to have just as much fun in the spotlight as you do, then you can pat yourself on the back – you’re well on the way to being a good player.

For the GM

Being a good player is also about playing nice with the GM; be part of the solution rather than part of the problem!

Communicate Your Desires and Goals


This is a big one; I’ve always been a proponent of increased communication between the GM and players, but it is important not to overlook that players can and should initiate communication as well.

Take a moment to talk to the GM about your character every so often, just to touch base and make sure the GM understands something about where you’d like to take the character. This can be expressed mechanically through the direction you want the character’s abilities to grow or develop. It can also just be in relation to the story; for example, if you would really love to get your character involved the elven war happening on the other side of the mountains, it is a good idea to remind the GM about that every now and then just to keep it fresh in his mind.

Provide Feedback


Another part of communication with the GM is providing feedback about the adventure and campaign as a whole. What do you like? What don’t you like? If you could change one thing, what would it be? What are you most looking forward to doing or achieving before the end of the game? Answering these questions and talking them over with the GM can really help him not only prepare for next session but for the rest of the campaign. If possible, get the other players involved in the discussion – maybe you can discuss the goals and desires of the group as a whole, or address any issues that may be keeping the game from quite hitting the high points that it could otherwise reach. As with all communication with your group, be sure to keep things respectful and polite – giving feedback should be something you do because you love the game, not offer you a chance to tell everyone just what they’re doing wrong!

Go With the Flow



My ideal gaming group!
Sometimes the GM is going to present a twist in the story that’ll make you say “Huh. Wait, really?” Sometimes, you’re not going to agree with a rules decision. Sometimes, you’ll want to speak up when a spell or an ability doesn’t quite work the way the book says it should.

Here’s the thing—a good player lets it go. By all means, bring it up after the session if you feel it is important to your enjoyment of the game, but don’t bring the action to a screeching halt to tackle an issue right then and there.

If the issue happens to be something dealing with the story rather than the rules, this advice means to give the GM a chance. Sometimes, GMs like to experiment, to change things up in their gaming style in an attempt to keep the game feeling fresh and to keep the fun times coming. I’ve been known to do this myself from time to time, and I always appreciate it when my players just nod and say “Okay. What’s next?” rather than throwing a fit.

Going with the flow also means meeting the GM halfway when it comes to the pacing and the flow of the game. If there’s an obvious plot hook hanging around, consider biting at the hook rather than trying to be all “Lone Wolf” and searching for another answer. Even if you know for certain that the giant monster attacking the city is a red herring for the real crime happening elsewhere, a good player will at least think about engaging with the giant monster for a round or two just to give the GM a chance to showcase an encounter he’s obviously spent some time preparing.

For Yourself


Being a good player is also about helping yourself enjoy the game more on a personal level. Here are some of my suggestions:

Spread Your Wings


Try some new things! This can be as simple as choosing to play a different character type (a rogue instead of a paladin, for example), but perhaps more meaningful and interesting is to choose to play a character that is markedly different from others you have played before. For example, I have a friend who consistently likes to play anti-authoritarian rebels. In this case, to “spread his wings” would mean giving a different type of character a try, such as a constable, city watchman, or even an ambitious politician-type.

Go the Extra Mile

This happens sometimes.

Players who put some extra effort into their characters can make the game more memorable for everyone. It is not too difficult to bring a picture of your character if you can find something appropriate on the internet, or to try out some interesting and unusual “catch phrases” that set your character apart with sound as well as sight.

The key here is to not go overboard. A couple of cool, unusual phrases every now and then can be fun for the whole group; talking in a nearly-incomprehensible accent all night long – not so much.

One last way to go the extra mile is to consider doing some “blue-booking.” This is an approach I’ve talked about before where players can continue to tell the story of their characters in-between sessions, often through e-mail, forum posts, and the like. During my campaign of Shadows Angelus, the players did so much storytelling in between sessions that the website for the game has almost three times as many events happening in blue-booking as there were actual sessions of the game!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Professionalism in Gaming – Getting Paid



Greetings readers, this week I want to talk about some factors of working in the gaming industry—namely, getting fair compensation for your work. This is actually part of a panel I’m scheduled to give at Gen Con this year alongside my co-conspirators John Dunn and Jason Marker. The panel is titled “Professionalism in Gaming” and is going to cover quite a few subjects—amongst them contracts and payments and the like—but I’m taking this opportunity to give a sneak peek (as it were) at some of my own opinions on the subject of payments for freelance RPG writing.

 

Contracts

All too common in this economy.
I always work with a contract. This is, for me, an ironclad rule. Even when I’ve done work with people I consider trusted friends, I’ve always insisted on a contract. I firmly believe that a contract is necessary for professional work – it provides a clear description of the expectations on both sides and gives both sides a form of recourse if anything unexpected happens. I would strongly encourage any new writers, artists, editors, or anyone doing any professional work in the industry to always… ALWAYS get a contract between you and the employer. In my opinion, it’s just that simple.

 

Communication

As in every aspect of business, communication is vital for a freelancer. Make sure you touch base with the developer in charge of your project every so often; there’s no need to ping every day or even every week, but regular contact is completely reasonable. During my time as a developer, I always e-mailed a pre-agreement to a freelancer that I was planning to contract for work. A pre-agreement was basically just a statement from me stating the pertinent facts of the assignment I wanted to offer him; this included the date the project was due to be turned in, the word count requirement, and the compensation he would be paid for his work. A quick e-mail like this takes hardly any time and helps clear up any misunderstandings before you get to the stage where contracts need to be amended.

I found the pre-agreement method to be a very useful tool, as it kept me from having to change any contracts once they were written and sent out by the accounting/legal department, and my freelancers appreciated the additional step of communication and clarity about what they were getting into.

In the business of being a freelancer, the contract for your work is one of the last places you want to get a surprise…

 

Getting Paid

I’ve worked in the game industry for over 13 years now, and I can tell you that I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. One of the ways in which I’ve been very lucky is that I’ve always been paid for my work. I know several of my friends and colleagues who have, at various times, had great difficulty getting their just compensation for their work from different employers.
While getting the check in the mail is great, that’s actually only half the story. Getting paid ON TIME is the second half of the equation (and another reason why contracts are super-important; they spell out just how much time you can expect between turning in your work and getting paid).

I helped build the RPG department at Fantasy Flight Games up from a small team of two to a large and engaged group of six-plus designers. One of the early rules I wanted to make iron-bound was that OUR department always paid our freelancers, and we always paid on time. This was a professional goal of mine since I had began writing in the industry, and it was extremely important to me to make that happen. I’m still very proud to this day that the FFG RPG department has a sterling reputation in the industry for professionalism and dealing well with freelancers.

At the top of a good reputation for a company is whether it can be trusted, and trust starts with paying people for their work on time.

 

Royalties vs. Flat Rate

Let me be clear: I’ve never worked for royalties. I’ve been offered a chance to write for royalties more than once, but I’ve never taken the bait. Instead, I’ve always chosen to write on a for-hire basis, getting paid a flat rate for my work. Typically, the compensation for RPG writing involves three things; a fee (calculated on a per-word basis), a writing or development credit in the finished project, and a complimentary copy of said project when it is published.

If only it carried over into real life!
If you want to write for royalties, go ahead – just be aware that you’re selling your time and effort in return for a future payoff. And royalty payments are, in general, more problematic (as in, anything that can go wrong with mailing one check is now spread out over several checks).
In the end, I’ve often wondered “why not just publish it myself?” rather than accepting royalties as payments.

Now, in the era of the internet, royalties are becoming a lot more hassle-free. Publishing electronically (especially through reputable merchants like RPGNow/DriveThru) has made the royalty model a viable one for many creators.

 

Know your Worth: Writing Rates

A quick note about writing rates: the RPG industry pays an extremely low rate compared to other types of writing-for-hire. For example, writing for an established magazine or web-page like the Escapist is likely to pay far higher rates than the ones listed below. It is a sad truth of the industry that writers are generally undervalued and underpaid; often this is a symptom of small budgets and small print runs, a result of a niche market.
Since I’ve been working in the industry, the numbers have changed, but not much – here’s the word rates as I know them, at least as current as 2011 (when I was last a developer). So, YMMV – this is the information as best as I know it from my own experiences.

 

.01 per word

This level is generally only paid by very small companies or for very small projects. Often only beginner writers work for this rate. When I was just getting started in the industry, I took jobs for this rate.

 

.03 per word

This is the standard rate for a new writer in the RPG industry. Most of the larger and more successful RPG companies pay out this rate for a first-time writer doing work for them.

 

.04 per word

This is a standard rate for an established writer in the RPG industry. Once you’ve got a few published projects under your belt, this is the rate you can reasonably expect.

 

.05 per word

This is a top rate – and often the most that many publishers can reasonably afford. Top writers in their field, skilled authors, or those with tons of experience in the gaming industry command these rates. It generally takes steady work for a publisher (and remember that a professional writer turns in quality work ON TIME!) for roughly a year (or half-a-dozen individual projects, if basing it on number of books rather than time) before you can expect to get this kind of rate.

 

.06 per word or higher

This is a top rate; only extremely well-known designers and writers can command these rates. Alternatively, it means you’re writing for a extremely well-established or successful company. I would generally expect to see rates like these only from top-tier publishers like WOTC and Paizo.

 

Credits & Comp Copies

Sometimes the answer is "throw money at it."
No one should ever write for RPGs with the goal of getting rich – but there are two other benefits that come with writing for the RPG industry. The first is your name in the credits (depending on your involvement) as a writer, designer, or developer. Credits are very important in this industry, as you will often find your expertise, abilities, and professionalism are going to be weighed due to your accomplishments. Therefore, it is very important to get your name spelled correctly and receive the correct attribution for your work in the credits of any project you work on. If you find out later that your name was misspelled, left out, or given the wrong attribution, it is important for you to contact the publisher and attempt to get the mistake corrected as soon as possible (hopefully to be present in a second printing, if there is one).

When it comes to complimentary copies of the project, there’s a good reason why these are important rewards for freelancers. Just having the physical copy of the project on your shelf can provide a great sense of accomplishment; having an extra copy to send to a family member only makes that sense greater. It’s just cool to have a copy of your own book as a reward for your work. Again, I feel this is an underrated feature of many work-for-hire contracts in the industry, and I’d like to encourage more publishers to take it more seriously.

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.
Llllladies.
 
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!