Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Interview with a Designer: John Bennett

This time I interviewed John Bennett, who discusses Shadows over Vathak and his career as a designer and developer.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi, my name is John Bennett. I’m a native New Englander and resident of shadow haunted New Hampshire. I’ve been playing RPGs (beginning with 1st Edition AD&D) for about 27 years. I experienced my first moment of nerd rage at the age of 10, when 2e invalidated my half-orc fighter (and got rid of all the demons and devils). Besides my stereotypical gaming/nerd passions (Howard, Lovecraft, Smith and copious amounts of anime) I’m a beer and cigar enthusiast.

How did you get into RPG design?

I entered the 2011 Paizo sponsored RPG Superstar contest because it looked fun and somehow made it to the Top 8. Well, I was right, and it really was a lot of fun. I call it getting “bit by the freelance bug.” Shortly after my run, Raging Swan Press announced an open call for freelancers to work on their Tribes line. I submitted a pitch and it got accepted. I was already a big fan of Raging Swan products so I was familiar with the Tribes line. Familiarizing yourself with the products of the companies you want to work for is a tip I highly recommend. Post honest reviews of their products and engage the designers if they are active on forums you frequent.

What kind of projects have you worked on in the past?

I’m pretty lucky in that I’ve gotten to work on a wide variety of projects in different design areas. To highlight a few- I did a module, “Against the Cult of the Bat God,” for Raging Swan Press which is currently on 3rd party Pathfinder publisher reviewer, Endzeitgeist’s, candidates for his Top 10 of 2015 list. I also did spells, symbiote feats, some monsters, items, and other miscellaneous stuff for Zombie Sky Press’s “It Came from the Stars” which was number 5 on Endzeitgeist’s 2014 list. I’ve got a couple of cool projects with Paizo that haven’t come yet that really stretched my design chops. Currently, I’m also serving as the line developer for the “Shadows over Vathak” campaign setting published by Fat Goblin Games which I’ll discuss here in a minute.

What have been your best experiences?

Freelance writing has really enriched my life. One of my best experiences was going to PaizoCon in 2014 and meeting a lot of designers (both Paizo employees and 3rd party publishers/freelancers) that I only knew tentatively online through various forums. We have a great community of designers who are eager to work together to bring the best possible projects to the customer’s gaming tables. As always, I really enjoy getting feedback on products and hearing stories about how I product I wrote was used in play.

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

I’ve been writing since the age of six and I have a bachelor’s degree in Film Production, so I am very story focused. In a way, I consider myself more of a wannabe writer who happened to fall into game design as an excuse to write. Every feat/spell/item, in my mind, has a story about how it came to be and I try to get that out as much as possible whether it’s my own work or something I’m developing. I also seem to do well when my products contain an element or draw heavily on horror. I joke that it’s my proud New England heritage showing through (Poe, Lovecraft, King).

As a designer and developer, I think the challenge is always to improve on your rules crunch. This isn’t just being able to write concise, tight rules, but keeping up on all the material Paizo produces to make sure something you wrote/developed doesn’t become too wonky to use when paired with something else. Also the challenge is how to get more hours in the day so I can write more stuff!

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

My answer on this is a bit clouded based on the fact that I am a designer and I mostly GM. I think what makes a great product, regardless of system, is that you can steal at least something for your game, whether it’s just the setting of an adventure, an idea behind a spell, incorporating a feat into the mechanics of the game you are playing, or even stealing whole rules mechanics. As I mentioned earlier, I’m all about story. I read a lot of non-Pathfinder gaming material for the story and what I can steal to improve my game and enhance narrative play. Products with this universal appeal are what I tend to both write and buy.

You serve as the line developer for the Shadows over Vathak campaign setting. What can you tell about your work as developer?

As the line developer, I work with Fat Goblin Games’s owner, Rick Hershey (also our artist and layout guy) to come up with ideas for new products. Once we agree on a product, I create a general outline of what’s to be included (the various sections, how many spells, items, monsters, etc.). Depending on what product it is, I either write it (I handle our Player Guides, GM Guides, and regional adventure modules) or assign it to one of the freelancers we work with. In the case of freelancers, I take their turnover and do a basic grammar/rules edit. I also tweak anything in the background flavor to ensure it matches the themes and continuity of our world. Because I have a big picture view of Shadows over Vathak, I make sure things are in line with the direction of the setting.

What can you tell about the products in the Shadows over Vathak campaign setting?

Before I dive in, for readers not familiar with “Shadows over Vathak”- it is a Lovecraftian survival horror campaign setting in which the Great Old Ones are awakening and their spawn are in conflict with the cities of mankind. It was created by Jason Stoffa and Rick Hershey as part of a 24-hour challenge. I came onboard as line developer in 2014.

So, for productscurrently we are creating a Player’s Guide, GM’s Guide, and adventure module for each of Vathak’s six regions. We’ve finished up our first region, the Colonies, and are working on plague-ridden Ina’oth next. Our freelancers are doing support products that tie into the regionswe have one on spells, monsters, secret societies, and haunts. Each of these smaller products ties into the larger regional guides and adventures. We are trying to create a lot of synergy with our material. We also have racial guides for the unique races living in Vathak. We released the fearsome bhriota last year and are currently working on the next one. Plus, I’m working on a short, free adventure to run at conventions as an introduction to “Shadows over Vathak.”

As a developer, what skills and characteristics do you value the most in a freelancer?

Timeliness of submissions first! So far, I’ve been lucky on this end, but you hear a lot of horror stories about what happens to projects when writers are late or worse, suddenly disappear. Freelancers should also be receptive to feedbackwe all need to be. More so than rules knowledge, I want freelancers who are creativewe’re hiring them to think up of cool stuff and that’s why people buy it, to read cool stuff they didn’t think of. We can always massage the rules elements during development.

How do you generally find new freelancers to work for you?

When we need freelancers, we do an open call through both our website (www.fatgoblingames.com) and our Facebook pages (we have one for Fat Goblin Games and one for Shadows over Vathak). I encourage all prospective freelancers to have a writing sample available. In the future, we will also be using the Open Call sticky found in the Compatible Publishers forum on Paizo.com.

What advice would you give to aspiring freelancers?

First, if you’re serious about freelance, make sure you do your researchfind a company whose products you enjoy, find out what else they write, find out what conventions they attend. Second, conventions are great places to network with publishersit puts a face to a name. Third, if you can, find someone who can serve as a mentor, especially a publisher or seasoned pro. Depending on your aspirations, you may wish to move from freelancer to publisher yourself one day and they are two very different worlds.

Is there anything else people should know about you?

I will be attending PaizoCon again this year! I hope to be running a playtest of a new “Shadows over Vathak” adventure as an official event (with free swag provided, of course). I am also looking forward to meeting new people so please, if you have any questions about “Shadows over Vathak” or about how to break into/manage your freelance career, I’m more than happy to talk with you.

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