Saturday, August 2, 2014

Interview with a Designer: Robert Brookes

This week I interviewed Robert Brookes (RPGSS 2014 top 4). I asked a few questions about RPG Superstar, maps, freelancing and his blog, the Encounter Table.

Welcome, Robert!

RPG Superstar 2015 begins in about four months! What advice would you give to people who are interested in entering the contest?

Don't get discouraged. I can't emphasize that enough, really. There's dozens of great and helpful threads out there about how to make your submissions the best, but the biggest hurdle for me was even getting to the submission part. I entered RPG Superstar 2013 and didn't get past the open submission. Criticism about my submission was pretty hard (but fair) when I asked for a peer review, and it discouraged me from submitting again. I just didn't think I had what it took. But, when the next RPGSS rolled around I did it anyway.

My magic item submission in the 2014 RPG Superstar got me in as an alternate, and by the time I drove home from work I'd gone from alternate to full contestant. If you try and fail, at least you tried. But if you don't try at all you're never going to accomplish anything. Don't give us, don't wimp out, and always try your hardest. The RPG industry is a hard one to break into and be successful in, everyone who's made it did so by working hard and pushing through rejection after rejection. If you want it bad enough, you earn it. 

In this year's RPGSS, which round did you enjoy the most? Which was the most difficult?

I always knew that if I made it to the encounter round I could really shine. That was where I really just let loose and went crazy (and for those who don't recall my encounter was a crashed cryogenics chamber from the Silver Mount that unleashed android zombies.) I had a blast designing it, making the map, and really showing the gamut of my skills.

The hardest round for me was the magic item round. The word count limitation and the very fickle nature of what people think is a "good" magic item made the entire round a crap shoot. I just grabbed something thematic and ran with it as far as I could. That was easily the hardest thing I'd done. 

What do you consider your biggest strengths as a designer? What skills do you seek to improve the most?

I never have an easy time outlining my own strengths. I jokingly put on every professional resume that my primary weakness is kryptonite. You'd be surprised how many jobs I landed after an HR professional laughed at that! But in all seriousness, my design strengths are definitely narrative. I've been GMing and writing for decades and storytelling is just second nature to me. It shows in everything I do, from my bestiary entry in part 5 of Paizo's The Mummy's Mask (the elder sphinx) to the demiplane The Twilight Demesne recently published by Raging Swan Press; these things tell stories, be it of the final life cycle of a sphinx or a secret history tucked away in the core of a demiplane. There's a narrative in everything I write, interleaved between NPCs, sites, and flavor text.

My weakness is probably not being aware of what my weakness is. I just kind of plow through things head first like a bull. I do game mechanics, bestiary, fiction, and everything in between. Maybe it's magic items? I've never liked building the mechanics for them—outside of artifacts which exist to break the rules anyway—so maybe that's my kryptonite! 

Your encounter map in round 3 looked very polished and professional. How did you make it and how much time went into it? Have you been working as a freelance cartographer?

I've been doing fantasy cartography as a hobby since I was a little kid. When I was in 2nd grade my teacher had us read Wizard of Oz and we had a class on fantasy worldbuilding where we had to design our own "Oz" and make a detailed map of it. From that moment on I was enamored with designing worlds that didn't exist. My tools have changed over the years, but the principals remain the same. I exclusively use Adobe Photoshop for my map making, and the map for RPG Superstar probably took about 2 hours to do from start to finish, but that's only because I'm very proficient with the map design process.

The other thing to take into consideration is that I'm always learning. Right now I'm doing freelance cartography work for Raging Swan Press and Amber E. Scott and both have challenged me in different ways. For Raging Swan Press, they want a black and white "hand drawn" feeling to the maps, which—if you've seen my maps—you know is far and away from the color/texture I typically work with. I studied some amazing examples from and learned from the tutorials there how to improve my craft. Like in any creative field, you're always learning and improving, looking to find new ways to do old things. I'm not an old dog yet, so I'm trying to learn all these new tricks while I can.

I noticed that you had designed a bestiary entry for Slave Trenches of Hakotep. How did you get the assignment? What else can you tell about it?

I designed the elder sphinx for the penultimate part of the Mummy's Mask. This came about before RPG Superstar even happened, I'd been aggressively trying to get my foot in the door after resolving to get into RPG Design professionally and was pestering Mark Moreland and Adam Daigle about opportunities. Adam eventually got back to me just before RPG Superstar about a bestiary entry (and not about a restraining order!). He gave me an outline for what he wanted to see and I ran with it. I researched sphinxes on Golarion in mythical monsters revisited, dipped into real-world myths about them, and ultimately decided on the creature you see in print now.

My girlfriend was asking me about my design when I received my contributor's copy (she doesn't play tabletop RPGs but is extremely supportive of my work and interested to hear about it) and I explained it to her without really getting into the nitty-gritty mechanical aspects of it. "When a sphinx grows old," I said, "they don't wear down like humans do. They get larger as time passes and eventually calcify, turning into massive stone monuments to their own permanence. There, their consciousnesses reach out across the stars and beyond to dissect the esoteric secrets of the universe." She immediately got the concept and wanted to know more. Our conversation then diverged into a discussion on sphinx mating habits—which is my favorite segue ever. 

Speaking of assignments, what type of design work are you most interested in?

I love everything. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it's true. While I love storytelling and adventure design I enjoy all sorts of assignments. In fact, the more varied my work is the better as I'm less likely to get burned out from doing the same thing over and over again. New game mechanics, new classes, races, feats, whatever you can throw at me really. I love a challenge, something that really makes me think critically or outside the box. 

You are the founder of the Encounter Table—what is it and who should read it?

The Encounter Table is my passion project. Part of me wanted to get into 3rd Party Publishing with my own imprint, but ultimately I decided that I didn't want to charge people for my work. One of the best projects I've ever gotten involved in was the Wayfinder Fanzine, and the thought of doing something like Wayfinder but on a bigger scale really appealed to me. The Encounter Table sprang out of that love of fan-created content and allows me to play in Paizo's sandbox in ways I never could as a 3pp. The site covers everything, it's like a direct line into my brain. I've got new game mechanics up there, I've made hybrid classes, prestige classes, I've done fully statted out and mapped gazetteers of Golarion towns, fiction, bestiary entry upon bestiary entry... there's something for everyone there, and it's all free.

The RPG community has given so much to me over the years, it's only fair that I give back just as much. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

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