Interview: Evil Hat Productions

Evil Hat Productions Some time ago I asked Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue from Evil Hat Productions for an interview. Since Rob is super busy at the moment, Leonard Balsera was willing to take his place for this interview.

STARGAZER: At first I want to thank you for taking your time for this interview. Before we get to talk about FATE and the upcoming Dresden Files RPG, can you please introduce yourselves to our readers?

FRED: I’m Fred Hicks, and I run Evil Hat Productions, a small press publisher of role-playing games.  I’ve written a few too, contributing to Spirit of the Century and the Dresden Files RPG and Fate, as well as creating the weird little game Don’t Rest Your Head.  I also do book layout and art direction, both for Evil Hat and for Hero Games at the moment, as well as for other companies on a contract basis.

LENNY: I’m Lenny Balsera, and I am the current line developer for the Fate system. I served as lead  system developer for the Dresden Files, and was an assistant developer for Spirit of the Century. I also do freelance work. (Are you listening, RPG publishing world? I do freelance work!)

STARGAZER: What was the first RPG you played and what are you playing today?

FRED: Red box D&D was where I started in the 3rd grade or so. But today I’m playing… uh. What have I had time to play lately?  Mainly board games: Dominion figures in predominately there, though I also go heads-up with my wife over the 2-player game Lost Cities.

LENNY: I started playing Red box D&D when I was in fourth grade, and moved to AD&D 2nd shortly after that. Right now, I’m running a Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies campaign that’s close to finishing, interspersed with one-shots of Zombie Cinema, D&D 4E, and the new Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin.

STARGAZER: On my search for free games I eventually stumbled upon FATE 2.0, the game Evil Hat designed, based on Steffan O’ Sullivan’s FUDGE. Alas it seems impossible to get a look at it’s predecessor FATE 1.0. Can you tell us a bit about that game and when you came up with the idea to FATE?

FRED: Sure. Fate 1.0 is really the loose collection of notes Rob Donoghue and I pulled together to codify our early hacks of FUDGE to support the play of Amber (and eventually Buffy) using that system. It’s where we first brought in the idea of aspects and so on.  But the version of Fate you found, 2.0, that’s really the first form that was put together and firmly established for the public at large, and was the result of us running Fate around the block for a few more laps than that.  So really that’s the first “product” — even though it was a free one — that we got out there in the Fate line.

STARGAZER: What sets FATE apart from other games are definitely the Aspects. Can you explain how the Aspects work in the game and how you came up with that concept in the first place?

SotC FRED: They’re a combination of two ideas.  Before we took Fudge to the point of it being its own thing almost in the form of Fate, I ran a game or two that was in “straight Fudge”.  I did away with Attributes entirely, even then, sticking only to Skills and Gifts. And in those games, I let Gifts establish some absolutes, some things which were simply true about the characters, like “Greatest Poet Of His Generation”, and so forth.  They’d color play intensely, establishing areas in which the character simply couldn’t be beaten without facing an opponent who was in his or her same league, carrying a similarly applicable Gift.

When we started talking about the vaguely-formed roots of Fate, Rob brought in an idea from 7th Sea, where characters *paid points* (instead of getting points back) to have bad things attach to their characters, like a nemesis or a penchant for drunkenness.  This combined with my previous Gift idea to create a sort of alchemical fusion we called Aspects.  You could be the “Biggest Drunk Ever” with these things, but you’d get a positive payoff whenever the Aspect goosed you (eventually we called that a compel, but we weren’t there yet), and you’d be able to utilize it to your advantage whenever you could work out a situation where it would help (“That guy’s just a Drunk, we don’t have to take him seriously” as a lead-in to a surprise attack, for example).

LENNY: I basically look at aspects as “spotlight enhancers” – when good or bad stuff happens to your character, there’s an incentive in play to center that stuff around your aspects. The result is that what occurs in the game is uniquely “about” the main characters in a way that I think is, pardon the pun, compelling. There’s no real such thing as an “everyman” story in Fate – it’s always a story indelibly starring the PCs that are present.

STARGAZER: When I read through the FATE 2.0 PDF yesterday, while preparing a few questions, I noticed that there’s a quote from Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front” in there. Did you even back then have plans
for a roleplaying game based on the Harry Dresden novels, or was this just coincidence?

FRED: I’d known Jim Butcher for years already at that point, so it was a case of liking my friend’s stuff and tossing a reference in there because it was fun to do it. So, sort of coincidence — it was that friendship that eventually made the connection for Evil Hat to produce the Dresden Files roleplaying game.

STARGAZER: Spirit of the Century, your pulp-genre game powered by FATE is supposed to be a pickup game, but it’s a whopping 400+ pages. Some people might be intimidated by the sheer size of the book. What’s the best way for new players to approach SotC?

FRED: Well, first off, let’s address that whole “400 pages is intimidating!” thing with SOTC.  It’s a whopping 400 pages, yes, but in a 6×9 book. Each page is a single column of text, less than 500 words, maybe more like 350. I think people lose sight of that because they spend so much time focusing on page count and not looking at any other physical facts about the book.  The 6×9 form factor was done to make it more “packable” (as in “toss it in my backpack & go”), and to feel more pulpy in the hand, so to speak.  If we’d done it as a 8.5×11 thing, I don’t think the hand-feel would have been quite right, but it would have been more like a 200-250 page game in that format.  Is *that* less intimidating? Because if it is, then the intimidation ain’t in the content itself.

LENNY: And honestly, a lot of the book is really examples and our personal recommendations on how to deal with the various skills and stunts and whatnot. The actual rules don’t take up a whole lot of the book – you can look at the rest of the stuff as a lengthy series of recommendations, but if you don’t learn all the specific trappings for every skill and all that stuff, it’s no big deal and shouldn’t slow down play.

Dresden Files RPG FRED: But to get to the meat of your question: Don’t try to take it in all at once. It’s laid out step by step, with plenty of ways to hit the fast forward button.  Get a group together and do character creation — which is always a social, collaborative experience in Fate, not an act of “lonely fun” where you sit in a shadowed room and make up characters by yourself.  Character creation *is* play — you’ll see that attitude expressed throughout Evil Hat’s games, in fact.  If you don’t like the feeling of being “on the spot” to come up with things about your character during character creation, easy — don’t do it. We have an “on the fly” character creation method that’ll suit you fine.  Don’t want to look through the stunts chapter to find out which 5 you want for your character? Flip to the back of the book and use some of the quick-pick packages we lay out for people there. Or don’t take them right away and add them on the fly during play.

It’s easy to come to the system at square one and think “man, this thing is big/intimidating/complicated”, but it isn’t. You can get familiar with it in small incremental steps, and it gets clear pretty quickly that there’s a lot of self-similarity among all the moving parts — a side-effect of a design principle we call the “fate fractal”. Which is why you’ll see a lot of fans of the system talk about how it’s actually rules light despite the apparent heft.  The heft is simply because we like providing lots of examples, lots of inspiration, lots of advice.

STARGAZER: In SotC you introduced stunts to the FATE system. When I remember correctly, you made some changes to stunts in your upcoming Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. Can you explain us, how stunts work and what changes you made for the upcoming game?

FRED: Lenny, want to field this one?

LENNY: Stunts have a lot in common with feats from D&D 3E and its numerous relatives – they’re a way of distinguishing your character by giving them a few more special tricks and shticks to differentiate them from another character who might have a similar skill set. It’s a way of further focusing what you’re good at – a lot of characters might have a reason to be good with Guns, but there’s the akimbo pistols guy, there’s the sniper guy, there’s the firearms scholar (using Guns as a knowledge skill), and so on.

The main thing we wanted to do with stunts in the DFRPG was unify their mechanical function a little more – SotC’s method was sort of haphazard and rough, taking genre tropes and whatever we thought was cool and adapting it. So there are some stunts that have a little more heft than others, etc. For Dresden, we wanted to open up the possibilities of stunts more and make them customizable, so while we do provide some examples of stunts for each skill, the real mojo comes from creating your own and fine-tuning your character that way.

STARGAZER: Let’s talk a bit about the Dresden Files RPG. You plan to release the game as two books, one containing the rules, while the others is about the world. Why did you decide to split it into two books and will the game playable if you only get the rules?

Dresden Files RPG FRED: For one, because a single 700-page full color full size hardcover book is a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome.  But yes, it’ll be entirely playable with just the rules found in volume 1, Your Story.  You’ll have to come up with more monster-stats on your own, and you won’t have a ton of setting info that’s great for fans of the novels without volume 2, Our World, but some people aren’t looking for setting.  Which brings us to the second reason for splitting the book — it lets people pick and choose what parts of the game they want for themselves instead of having to grab hold of a Ptolus-rivaling tome of infinite slaying.

LENNY: Yeah, the development of the game has been influenced by the fact that we’re all huge Dresden Files fanboys and fangirls on the team – we wanted to be as inclusive as we could with the content. So every day, it seemed, there was something new from the books we could mention, a new thing to stat, a footnote to make. The temptation to provide both a set of complete rules to experience the universe with
and have a workable “fan guide” for the setting was pretty profound. Compound this process over the years that we’ve been in development, and eventually you end up with an enormous tome of a thing. It seemed a crime to cut a majority of that content, so the two-book approach seemed the most reasonable thing to do.

STARGAZER: The development of the Dresden Files RPG took quite a while. What kind of hurdles did you encounter during the development? And where there any cool ideas you had to drop?

FRED: Oh, I’m sure there were all sorts of things that got dropped at one point or another.  But really, we managed to fit nearly all that was awesome into the game and left out nearly everything that wasn’t. Which is something of an answer to why it took so long.  We had hurdles aplenty.  Our first full iteration of the system was crap — seriously, just crap.  It took us a little while to get to where we’d admit that, and when we did admit it, we agreed it had to be nuked from orbit.  So we did.

LENNY: Yeah, that was around the point that I initially got brought on to the project – we came to a realization pretty early on that Fate v2 just wasn’t robust enough to drill down to the level of detail we wanted. So Dresden required us to reengineer the whole damn thing from the ground up, which was an undertaking of rather dramatic proportions. The chronicle of the affair is on our website.

FRED: But a lot of the hurdles were really about not yet being the company that could take on the job.  We were handed a license that frankly outmassed us by a few orders of magnitude.  So in a way the delays were as much about becoming a company that *was* capable enough — and finally, with a development team that was big enough – to really take on all parts of the game.  That alone took us a few years, but it also produced things like Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century, literally as side effects of the whole process.

LENNY: Right. At the beginning of things, Fred and Rob didn’t really know a whole hell of a lot about publishing. (I still don’t.) So there was this period where their main goal turned toward learning about publishing and growing into a business, a role that Fred has risen to manage with skill and equanimity.

STARGAZER: Will there be additional releases for the game after the two core books have been released?Will there be official Dresden Files adventures or supplements?

FRED: Well, to get right to it, we don’t have a license that covers doing anything other than what we’re already doing.  We can negotiate for more if we want, but that would need to be a separate agreement, a separate contract.  And Jim as well as we are invested in the idea of keeping the game manageable for the fans and avoiding too much in the way of supplement sprawl.  That said, I could see us doing a set of adventures in PDF at least, if the demand’s there. But for now I think we mainly just want to get the core game out there and see what people do with it.  Their ideas are almost certain to be better than our own.

LENNY: Keep in mind that there’s likely to be a lot of “unofficial” support on the Internet from us, too. I mean, I plan to be wherever the fan community is, talking about statting future books and whatnot. I could see some free Web supplements happening, stuff like that. We’re Dresden fans too, you know? We want to babble about it at length.

STARGAZER: What are you plans for the time after the Dresden Files RPG is done? Aside from a long vacation, of course?

FRED: Drinkin’.

LENNY: Amen, brother.

FRED: Eventually we’ll recover from that, and we’ll look at getting to work on a Core Fate product, one without any of the setting or genre trappings of the previous couple products.  And we’ve got some other stuff in the hopper for supporting Spirit of the Century, and maybe some new directions to go on as well.  But I’ve been talking, internally, about this “Wall of Dresden” effect.  We can’t see over that Wall. We haven’t cleared it yet. When we do, we’ll be in an undiscovered country.

STARGAZER: Some people claim the gaming hobby is in the decline and will be replaced by other past-times if it doesn’t change. What are you thoughts on that issue? Is pen & paper roleplaying doomed? Do RPGs have to become more like MMOs or board games to attract new players?

FRED: I think it’s the nature of people to look at something that was once familiar at the point that those familiar things start to change and decide that the sky must be falling.  Is the pen & paper roleplaying we grew up with doomed?  Well, no.  I think it’s already past dead in the sense that it isn’t what it was before.  It grew up, went to college, got a job, and had kids.  It’s not the same thing it used to be.  But is that bad? Is that doomed? Is that really “dead”? No, I think it’s just different. Kids these days! With their hair and those pants and their story games. Who can figure!

LENNY: I don’t know. It’s not like RPGs have ever really had a broad, mainstream appeal if you compare them to other types of entertainment. Can you really compare any phase of Dungeons and Dragons’ history to that of any relatively successful board game, even? I don’t like absolute terms like “doomed” – I mean, you don’t really hear a lot about model railroad building, but there are still people who do it, right? It’s probable that the way we’ve looked at producing and distributing RPGs in the past is no longer feasible due to a variety of factors, but some people have been arguing that this has always been the case. The recording industry has been stuttering its way through a similar process since electronic music distribution has become more dominant. Markets change. That’s just how it goes. I don’t think it’s the games that necessarily need to change, as much as the business models used to sell them.

FRED: I don’t think RPGs have to become more like MMOs or board games (though board games are chock full of great ideas these days, as are MMOs).  I think some of them can, some of them should, some of them will.  But there’s no imperative to imitate here.  I think there’s an imperative to innovate, though, and games which don’t are going to wither on the vine.  Companies and designers that insist on doing the same old same old are going to be in trouble.  That’s not a dig on things like the Old School Renaissance either, as I think they’re still doing something new in their revisitation of What Is Old School — whether they admit it to themselves or not. Revivals have their place, always. You don’t ignore your history. But you’ve got to build on it.

LENNY: I think it’s also a potentially a mistake to assume that these audiences will cross-pollinate. There’s no special reason why someone who likes World of Warcraft will like D&D, other than the fantasy
color. Yeah, we can argue about the influence of tabletop mechanics on computer RPG mechanics and whatnot, but that doesn’t really mean anything in terms of actually identifying a market. And D&D 4E *did* have its mechanics influenced a lot by what’s happening with MMOs… has that really helped it any in terms of sales? (I’m asking because I don’t know.)

FRED: All I know is that I’m still playing the pen & paper games. That they still scratch an itch that other entertainments don’t.  From looking at Evil Hat’s fans, I can’t say as I’m alone in that either.

STARGAZER: Recently I noticed a new trend: prolific bloggers start their own companies and publish their own RPG products. What tips do you have for any aspiring publisher?

FRED: More than would fit into the next ten interviews.  If you want to see my thoughts on publishing, I blog about it with some frequency over on — I’m doing my best to run Evil Hat transparently, so folks can look under the hood and see how it ticks, and figure out what parts of it will work for them.  I also did a round up of some of my earlier advice posts, before I started up Deadly Fredly, over on my tumblr, — so start there, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

STARGAZER: Thanks again for answering our questions, good luck with the upcoming Dresden Files RPG and I hope we can talk again in the future!

FRED: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure!

LENNY: Thanks for the opportunity.