Saturday, July 26, 2014

3PP Interview: Jason Nelson of Legendary Games

Before the scheduled break from 3PP interviews, I'm interviewing Jason Nelson of Legendary Games. Personally, the interview may be the one I've been looking forward to the most because Jason was also a top 4 contestant in RPG Superstar. After his run in RPGSS, he has become a very well known contributor with many Paizo credits, and of course, the publisher and CEO of Legendary Games.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Jason Nelson and I am a gamer. I'm a loving husband and father, wife, three kids (one grown, one in high school, one in elementary), and our dog, Jasper. I was born in Seattle and have lived in or near it most of my life, with a brief time living in Nashville, Tennessee. I'm an active and committed born-again Christian and a proud member of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. I've been through a lot of jobs in my life, from farm and field work as a teen to medical transcription and teaching elementary school as an adult. My undergraduate degree was in History, but I eventually completed a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies... right at the same time the job market for college professors crashed! Through it all, though, one of the constants since I was 10 years old was gaming, which has gone from being just my hobby to now my full-time job.

How did you get into RPG design and what kind of projects have you been working on? What have been your best experiences?

It was not long after I started playing D&D in March 1981 that I caught the bug to start designing my own stuff. The first adventure I ever wrote was based off an episode of the short-lived "Blackstar" cartoon, involving a floating city full of zombies under the control of an evil wizard with magic orb, and what I thought was a brilliant climax featuring a wraith dragon (my own creation) guarding a helm of brilliance under a series of 3 separate traps. I DMed for my brother and my friends, usually people years older than I was. I used published modules and modified them or used my own twists, but I was always writing, writing, writing. I posted up thousands and thousands of words on (then later, and later had someone hosted a geocities page for me to compile hundreds of pages of stuff that I had written.

I say all that just to reinforce the obvious point that "getting into RPG design" doesn't start when you get your first paycheck. The only way to get better at writing is to write, and write I did. I sent off a submission to Dungeon magazine back in 1991. No joy. My first paid gig didn't happen until over a decade later, when Julia Martin asked me to write a DMing advice column for the Wizards of the Coast website, which I did for 5 years. I had a few adventures and articles published in Dungeon and in Dragon during that time, but in spring of 2007 that all evaporated when Wizards got rid of their outside freelancers to start working in-house to prepare for 4th Ed, which also shut down opportunities in Dungeon and Dragon, though nobody on the outside knew it at the time.

Cue the first RPG Superstar contest that fall. I entered just as a lark. A "why not?" moment. My item was picked for the top 32, and my first thought was, "That's cool, but I'm probably not going to win." My second thought, though, was, "Wait a minute, why NOT me?" If it's a battle to the finish, let's just start throwing haymakers and see how far we go. My goal was to get through every round, to show everything I could do, and so I did, making it all the way to the Final Four. We turned in our adventure submissions. Mine didn't win. Was that the end? No. Thumbs up to Christine Schneider for being the first-ever Superstar champ, but what does it mean to WIN? I don't have the trophy or the title. But if you look back at the last 6-1/2 years since then what I do have is more writing credits for Paizo than anyone else who's ever been in the contest, from hardback rulebooks to AP adventures, Campaign Setting, Companions, Chronicles, and all the rest. Looking back, I'd call that a win.
I think my most fun project was my first AP adventure, "The End of Eternity," for Legacy of Fire, if only because things were still fairly open-ended in those days and my directive was really to create a Harryhausen-style magical archipelago. I had a map and three paragraphs of text describing what needed to be in the adventure, and I think we pulled together an amazing ride that people still love.
I've had a lot of great experiences, though. Making the NPC parties for the Rival Guide was great fun, I loved doing the mass combat and kingdom-building chapter for Ultimate Campaign, Paths of Prestige, doing a bunch of Monsters Revisited products, the Lost Cities of Golarion, and the list goes on.

Since 2011, I've also been a part of Legendary Games, and that's been an amazing experience in a different way, but that's a few questions farther down so I'll answer that there.

In your opinion, what makes a good Pathfinder RPG compatible product?

A great gaming product of any kind is one where the mechanics and the flavor text agree and support each other. You can have great mechanics and be boring, and you can have exciting text that turns into an incoherent mess when you try to make the mechanics represent what you're describing.
What a great Pathfinder RPG compatible product does is it addresses a place in the game where one or both of those two areas could use more oomph. This could mean finding a gap in the existing rules where an idea or thing is just not explored very deeply or at all, and creating a set of rules and descriptive text that do cover it.

On the other hand, it could mean taking something that has rules, but not a ton of flavor, and dialing up the depth and possibility of what that flavor could mean in a game supplement. The Monsters Revisited products that Paizo itself does work on this principle, but it's definitely an area where 3PPs can dive in.

Instead, you could have an area where the flavor is very interesting but the rules don't really support it. The rules may be entirely lacking, or they may be rooted in a legacy rule handed down from prior editions but that doesn't really have the impact that you think it should for what the flavor says it should be. In some ways, the Mythic Monsters series from Legendary Games addresses this area. We have hundreds and hundreds of monsters for Pathfinder, but a lot of what monsters do was instantiated in 1st Edition and has changed relatively little since then. We thought the mythic ruleset was an ideal platform for creating monsters that live up to their flavor text and their mythological origins in a way that sprang forth from their legacy framework in the rules but let them do some amazing things that made you think, "Wow, yeah, that's EXACTLY what that monster should be able to do!"

That moment of finding or developing a rule that makes someone smack themselves on the head and say, "Wait, you mean there isn't a rule for that? That seems like it should always have been there!" That's the moment of epiphany, and not everything you create will be quite so magically delicious, but you should always be looking for a way to create a thing that fits so well it just feels like it always should have been.

Now, when I say finding spots in the rules that can use more oomph, it doesn't mean what's there is bad, but it proposes the idea that it could be better. For good or bad, Pathfinder is a game of MORE. It is not and never will be a rules-light game. If that's your passion, you are barking up the wrong tree with trying to make Pathfinder be that. The game will continue to grow. There will be more spells, more feats, more classes, more monsters, more of everything. Continuing to find tools to make that expanding game universe more accessible and more appealing, finding the niches to expand and grow and blossom, that's where 3PPs have a place to shine.

3PPs can do things that Paizo can't or doesn't want to do, because their smaller size allows them to make targeted investments in authorial passion projects with less risk than a bigger company that, logistically, needs to structure, order, and sell a few thousand copies to make the numbers pencil out. A 3PP can sell a few hundred of a product and feel that they are doing very well with it. Paizo takes big risks - things like "Rasputin Must Die!" most famously - but 3PPs can do the same thing every day on a smaller scale.

When and how did Legendary Games get started?

The foundation of Legendary Games actually was set right after the first Superstar contest, when Clark Peterson contacted Clinton Boomer and I about the idea of writing an adventure path together for Necromancer Games. We were going to do it for 4th Edition, doing a lot of brainstorming and writing about 25 pages of setting material, but the product eventually fizzled when we gave up on the 4th Ed 3rd-party GSL situation ever getting resolved. However, the seeds of collaboration were planted.

Fast forward to April Fool's Day of 2011 (I kid you not), and Clark came back again with a new twist on the old idea. He was selling out of Necromancer so that his partner, Bill Webb, could move ahead with Frog God Games, so he proposed founding a new company, Legendary Games, with the idea of it being an all-star team of top Paizo freelancers - Boomer and I again, plus Neil Spicer and Greg Vaughan as writers and Rob Lazzaretti on cartography. We would work as a collegial, collaborative team rather than a top-down organization, we'd all share in royalty profits instead of a one-time per-word payment, and we would focus on making the flat-out highest-quality products we knew how. The initial trust was to create support products for Paizo Adventure Paths, and eventually for other products too. After all, who better to write supplemental products than the people who were writing the official products? I happened to be unemployed at the time (aside from freelancing), so I wrote most of the first half-dozen products, figuring I'd see how it worked. If it came together, great. If not, no big loss.

We put out only two products that first year, and eventually Clark turned out not to have the time to keep an active management role, so by the next spring we decided to have me take over. I got the other products we had semi-done on the road to completion and we essentially re-launched the company in July 2012 with 3 new products at PaizoCon that year, and we've been growing nonstop ever since. We have over 80 products out now in PDF. We started putting products in print last summer with the smash hit Ultimate Rulership, and we now have over 30 print products available, including our first hardback book, the Gothic Campaign Compendium, which was a reorganized compilation of the content from our 17 Gothic Horror AP Plug-Ins. We've had two successful Kickstarters already and big plans still to come.

How did you join Legendary Games and what is your role or position?

I was one of the founding members of Legendary Games in 2011 and took over first as Managing Partner and then Publisher and CEO in 2012. Neil Spicer has been my Executive Partner since I took over the company, and last year after GenCon I added Rachel Ventura to the staff as the Business Director to assist me with a variety of administrative and accounting tasks and work on the website, advertising, and Kickstarter management. Over the last year, Alistair Rigg has been added to the crew as the Editor on the mythic line as well.

We still operate as a cooperative team, recruiting new members to the Legendary Games Design Team and coordinating with them about the products they want to do. We still firmly believe that getting great people to work on projects they are passionate about doing is how you get awesome products, so I work with people to find the best place for them to Always Be Awesome.
I manage authors, artists, cartographers, and layout people, organizing their work and planning project schedules and releases. I do most of the marketing and promotion and tracking sales and royalties. Of course, I'm also a major contributor to the writing work that we do, since my first love is actually not management but the act of creation!

What can you tell about the products of Legendary Games?

They're awesome!

Seriously, I firmly believe in the quality of talent we have assembled in every phase of our product creation, and we continue to reach higher and higher. We constantly revisit our products and lines to see what we think is working and what is not and how to make things better.

Our primary product lines are as follows:
  • Adventure Path Plug-Ins: We have supplemental products for five of Paizo's official Adventure Paths, incluing APs focused on Gothic Horror (issues #43-48), an epic journey to the Far East (issues #49-54), Kingdom-Building in a fey-haunted forested wilderness (#31-36), a Righteous Crusade against the demon lands (#73-78), and Pirates (#55-60)! We'll shortly be releasing products dealing with an AP about crashed spaceships and Metal Gods (#85-90), with others in the works as well. I'm sure your readers can figure out the official titles of those APs themselves.
These products include adventures, spells, magic items, monsters, and more, as well as rules supplements dealing with martial arts, cults, mad scientists, alien horrors from beyond the stars, faeries and their impact on the world, an entire line of ultra-detailed playable pregenerated characters, sinister villains with diabolically detailed backstories, and more. We had an entire mini-line devoted just to Gothic Grimoires - tomes of terrible secrets that contained class options, spells, feats, and more, but at an awful cost to the reader who dared brave the backstories behind these books.
  • Mythic Plug-Ins: We've been huge supporters of the mythic rules since they came out, producing one product with mythic versions of every spell in the Core Rulebook, along with over a dozen books of mythic monsters and dozens of small one-page Mythic Minis detailing mythic feats, path abilities, and more. We ran a very successful Kickstarter this past spring to fund the creation of THREE hardback books converting every feat, spell, class ability, and more across the entire line of Pathfinder core books. We ran this in cooperation with Kobold Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Dreamscarred Press, an unpredecented four-way 3PP Kickstarter team-up, but one that produced very exciting results. We're all hard at work now on these books, which will be available for next year's summer convention season.
  • Ultimate Plug-Ins: These are something of a personal passion project, in that these products are designed to supplement the Pathfinder core rulebooks in a variety of ways. Thus far, the products in this line have been the best-selling of anything we've made, with Ultimate Rulership and Ultimate Battle offering huge expansions to the kingdom-building and mass combat rules that I developed in the official Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Campaign hardback. The long-delayed third chapter in this series, Ultimate War, should be available in time for GenCon this year.
  • Splintered Godhood: This is a new product we are launching at GenCon, the brainchild of Clinton Boomer, a standalone game where the players take on the personas of nascent transdimensional deities. Players soon discover that at least one among them is far from benign, with divinity sprouting from the power of ancient and evil Elder Things. The game plays through trying to uncover the motivations and goals of the other players and stopping the ones (there can be more than one) who want to rule everything, or destroy it. At least, that's one way the game can go.
  • Legendary Planet: This is our big project for next year, which I'll talk more about in answer to the questions below.
Can you give us an exclusive teaser about a future product?
We've been asked about whether Legendary Games would be creating products in support of the recent Egyptian-themed AP that is just now reaching its end. The answer to that question is YES! In fact, not only are we creating products for it, but we are also going to be offering a FREE product from this line about some very fun things that you can do to give that AP a new twist, taking the basic concepts of the Mummy's Mask AP but transposing them into a modern or retro-modern context. Jim Groves and Crystal Frasier are working on that one, and it's going to be very cool.
What are the best things about the products of Legendary Games and what type of players or GMs would you recommend them for?
The best thing about Legendary is the people. We are very intentional about the people we bring onto the team at Legendary, because when you buy a product from us we want you to rest assured that you are getting the very same writing talent you get when you pick up official Pathfinder products. You get products written by RPG Superstar champions like Neil Spicer, Matt Goodall, and Mike Welham and a slew of finalists, plus the top-name veteran freelancers in the Pathfinder stable like Greg Vaughan, Tim Hitchcock, Nicolas Logue, and very shortly Richard Pett. The authors on our team have written over 60% of the Pathfinder AP modules from Runelords to Iron Gods and going forward. This is not to say that great ideas can't come from anybody; there are a ton of creative people in this hobby. But if you want the best, the ones that have proven over and over again that they know Pathfinder fluff and crunch like nobody else, that's what you'll get when you pick up a product from Legendary Games. We even use many of the same artists you'll see in Pathfinder products, like Lazz, Michael Jaecks, Jason Juta, Tim Kings-Lynne, and more.
But it's not just about the people. It's about giving those people the freedom to create with passion and bold vision. At Legendary, if you've got an idea and you pitch it hard, we will back you to the wall. Then it's your job to make it awesome, and time after time our people deliver.
If you like vivid description, inventive mechanics, cohesive design, detailed backstory, terrific production values, and the focused awesomeness of the best names in the Pathfinder business, with the surety that these are the same people entrusted to produce much of the official product you are already using, whose qualifications are well earned through consistently delivering the goods time after time after time, then Legendary Games products are for you.

People who play official Adventure Paths, of course, have a special motivation to use our products, because they are uniquely situated to make those APs more awesome, but nothing that we do is tied to tightly to those APs that it doesn't stand up as fantastic all on its own. If you're running a campaign that even veers into the themes of pirates, gothic horror, kingdom-building, mass combat, fairies, demons, monsters, magic, or anything else we've covered, these products will (as we like to say) help Make Your Game Legendary!

What are the current goals for Legendary Games? What are the biggest challenges?

The current goals are to continue growing our sales and reach with print books as well as PDFs, and to branch out our sales into new markets. Some of that we do through pure marketing and connections on the publishing side, but it also is something we do by expanding the scope of what we do.

We've done exclusively Pathfinder work up until now, but we are expanding into some new areas from there, not just in RPGs but also in standalone games like Clinton Boomer's upcoming "Splintered Godhood." We've done a lot of "Faux-larion" as one guy said to me, or setting-agnostic products, but we are now in the process of developing our own setting and IP. We have run two successful Kickstarters already, but we are aiming to do more and bigger in the future. We've done single products that are thematically linked but not directly connected, but we are now planning an interconnected campaign setting and adventure path of our own with the Legendary Planet project we are building towards for next year's convention season - a sword and planet pulp fantasy epic featuring the top names in Adventure Path writing in a lush and vibrant game universe that connects all others.

The biggest challenges are finding enough hours in the day, but also building up our customer base and our name recognition. Getting our products in front of more eyes, and getting the Legendary Games name itself out there. We've done an awful lot already in the two years since I took over the company, but there is so much more room to grow. The original core are still here, but the challenge is to keep that convivial and collegial team atmosphere and that author-centered philosophy of we do what we want, when we want, how we want, as long as we make it great, in a situation where our authorial pool keeps growing and new people are coming in all the time. We want to hold on to what we feel like is the Legendary way. Maybe it's quaint and sentimental, but there it is.

Is there anything else people should know about Legendary Games or its products?

Our big initiative for next year is the LEGENDARY PLANET adventure path and campaign setting project, for which we'll be launching a crowdfunding project probably next spring. We already have plans in motion for a seven-episode adventure path to take PCs up to 20th level, plus a prequel adventure. This is not space opera sci-fi like Star Wars or Star Trek. It is instead sword and planet pulp in the truest sense. Think John Carter of Mars meets Thundarr the Barbarian meets the Mos Eisley cantina against a backdrop of countless planets connected by world-hopping waygates and you're starting to get close to the themes at work. This is a true sci-fantasy mash-up that is all about the heroes and their adventures, and not about who has the biggest spaceship.

Neil Spicer is heading up this AP and coordinating the people beginning work on the campaign setting material, and if you've followed Neil's career at all you know that he is a master storyteller with an eye for detail and characterization even against the backdrop of epic confrontations and worlds-shattering climaxes. He's come a long way since becoming the second RPG Superstar in 2009 and one of my best friends too, but he is absolutely the right person to shepherd this project into amazing life next summer.

Next year will also see the release of THREE massive hardcover rulebooks offering an enormous expansion to the mythic ruleset, the Mythic Spell Compendium, Mythic Hero's Handbook, and Mythic Monster Manual. If you're even remotely curious about the mythic rules, these are going to be the definitive go-to rules encyclopedias for you.

How do you generally find new freelancers to work for you? What is the application process like?

We don't really have an application process for authors. Usually, I invite them, based on working with them in the past on Paizo projects or being familiar with their work. Sometimes one of the other people on the team suggests a new person to recruit, and sometimes they contact us directly, either by email or in person at a convention. Usually we have a pretty good idea about the people we want to invite, but sometimes Neil and I discuss a person's publishing record or we talk to other people who have worked with them in the past to get a sense of things. I explain the Legendary Games business model to the person and talk about products or areas where I think they'd be a great fit, and ask them the kinds of things they've always wanted to do. If it feels like a match, then it's welcome to the team. If not, then God bless you and we both move on. I've almost never had anyone say "No thanks."
For artists, I take referrals from people like Tim Nightengale at Wayfinder and the art folks at Paizo or Dreamscarred or Kobold, discussing talent and reliability but also holistically how it went working with a person. Sometimes I get emails out of the blue from people who have seen us online or had a personal referral. If their style seems like a good fit for Legendary, I talk to them, explain our business model and what we do, and if they're interested we give them a shot. I've learned not to give someone brand new too big a project the first time out; you don't want a project sitting in limbo waiting for that last art piece from an artist who's disappeared on you. If you communicate regularly and turn over great stuff on time, you'll keep getting more work. If things don't work out so well, we move on.

What are the main requirements for a freelancer to work for you? What other skills and/or experience are useful?

For authors, our calling card is that the creative team at LG are all experienced Paizo freelancers and people who have shown their chops at the very highest level, with knockout quality and consistency. You need to turn over text that is professional, exceptional in quality and clarity and imaginative in mechanics and scope. Some people work faster and some work slower, and we all have other assignments to work on, so there is flexibility, but everybody on staff is someone who has shown they can get the job DONE on time and on point. We might make a rare exception to the "must have substantial Paizo credits" rule for working with Legendary, but that would require a strong recommendation from someone on the team who has worked with you, as Alistair Rigg was brought in by Matt Goodall and showed his skills helping on other people's projects for a while before he got to work on his own.

We also look for a certain degree of confidence and willingness to work without a net, so to speak. We've all written tons of stuff on tight assignments, with very specific outlines and word counts. Legendary Games is intentionally author-focused, which means that the authors are responsible for making whatever they do awesome. That's both an opportunity and a responsibility. Your name is on it. Make it great. This is not a company for just sitting there and waiting to be handed something. It's a place where we reach out and take it.

It's also a team, and that means being willing to contribute to the team. It means accepting that everyone in the room is a pro and nobody is too big to give or accept suggestions or critique. If you're at the table, you're at the table, so bring it and be ready to take it. I don't mean to imply we are rude to each other; quite the contrary, our discussions are very fun and professional, but they are also very matter of fact and direct. We're all here to make things awesome. That means that when you take advice from the group, you bring your work back having made it better, but you have the final call on what you're going to do. Again; it's your name on it, and it's going to fly or die based on how awesome you make it.

Can you describe a typical assignment you give to new freelancers? What steps does the process typically include from the freelancer's point of view?

We often have a specific project in mind for a new freelancer when we invite them, often something related to work they've done in the past for Paizo, and they come on board to do that project. Other times we invite them to pitch in ideas on a theme, or throw out some options of things we are thinking about doing and see which ones strike their fancy. In some cases our products have a fairly specific format, like our Mythic Monsters or Mythic Minis. Others have a more general theme, like a "an adventure plug-in for Kingmaker, mid-levels, that does more foreshadowing of the hostile fey influence later on and maybe plays with the idea of the dead unicorn the PCs find way back in the first adventure." That brainstorm-level concept was one that Matt Goodall picked up and ran with, producing "Horns of the Hunted" for us.

However the project starts, we brainstorm ideas in our email discussions, then the author takes those ideas and starts spinning them together. Authors are different; some want more feedback during the process, others work more independently. I work with each according to their preference. Once we get a finished draft, it gets circulated back through the group for comments and suggestions, and the author takes it back. If it's multiple authors, they may be working together or they may be doing separate sections, depending on the work. We get a revised manuscript and circulate it again, and repeat the process until the author and I are happy with it.

At some point during production, I request art based on the product's needs. Sometimes those requests are specific, but more often I give artists a lot of freedom in how they bring an illustration together. Sometimes a great piece of art inspires some changes in the written manuscript, but this is another area where the author has a lot of say on making sure the art communicates the vision they are expressing.

What advice would you give to aspiring freelancers?
  1. Write. Then write some more. Then read. Then write some more. Keep reading and writing. That's the only way to get better at your craft.
  2. Follow the form. A great idea buried in a bowl of word salad will end up in the trash. If your work looks sloppy, it's not a great sign that you've followed rule #1, because in reading and writing you should already know what your final form should look like. The one thing everyone is short of in life and in the RPG business is time, and if you and someone else have equally great ideas but your ideas take twice as long to read and twice as long to develop, then they are going to get invited back to do more work and you are not. Make your editor or developer's life easier and they'll find things for you to do.
  3. Don't overpromise and underdeliver, and don't underpromise and overdeliver. Say what you will do and do what you say. Follow through. If life happens and something comes up, tell whomever your work partner/editor/developer/etc. as soon as you know. Be honest. Don't wait and hope it will just work itself out. You are probably just one piece of the final puzzle, but if your piece is missing there are a bunch of other pieces around the hole that you left that are now left exposed. There may be time to flex things and work it out. There may not, and they may have to get somebody else to pick up the ball that you dropped, but there's a much better chance they'll forgive and give you another shot if you tell them about a problem in time for them to do something about it than if you string them along and they end up left holding the bag because you flaked out and didn't tell them until it was too late to fix anything.
  4. A project is never about everything. Nothing you will ever write will have every idea you ever had. Keep the focus and scope of your project on THIS project. Don't try to make it about too many different things or it will lose the impact you want it to have. Make it rich, dense, and powerful right where it is. Make THIS project awesome. Then go make the NEXT project awesome too. There is definitely a point of diminishing return where you are no longer making THIS project better and you're just bloating it. There is such a thing as a cake with too much frosting.
  5. Never throw anything away. While paying attention to rule #4, this one is just as important. I'm not saying delete all that extra frosting. Far from it! Any good writer will have more ideas than he or she can use. If ideas come up that seem cool but just don't fit what you're doing right now, just keep saving them. Pretty soon, you'll probably have the foundation of a whole new product.
  6. Don't get too attached to an idea. There are always more ideas where that one came from. I used to chuckle when I'd see people talk about RPG Superstar and say something like, "I don't want to submit, because then Paizo will own my idea and I can't use it for my own thing." Well, if you only are ever going to have one idea, then you probably don't need to bother entering the contest anyway. Ideas are cheap, and as you develop your skills of writing you should soon find that you have more ideas than you know what to do with, but not every idea is a good one! Some ideas you think about for a bit and realize they don't really lead anywhere. That's okay. Toss it into your own personal slush file (see rule #5, never throw anything away), but just leave it there and move on. It may never turn into anything, or you may come back to it later and find a new way to use it, but don't let yourself get stuck trying to turn it into something it's not, or to make it fit where it won't.

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