Interview: Sean Preston

Sean talking to fans at Gen Con 2010 I first met Sean Preston at Gen Con 2010. I think I had exchanged a few emails with him before that, but it would be exaggerated if I said I knew him. I was actually waiting to speak with the guys from Crafty Games when I noticed that Reality Blurs occupied the neighboring booth. So I approached Sean, introduced myself and asked him to tell me about his latest product which was Iron Dynasty at the time. I don’t remember how long we actually talked but I quickly learned that Sean is not only a creative writer and game designer but also a great guy. He’s definitely among the people that impressed me the most back then. Until this day we keep contact, some of you might actually have been involved in our extensive Twitter conversations. The rest is – as they say – history. 😉

Agents of Oblivion cover Sean’s latest project is “Agents of Oblivion”, a roleplaying game setting for use with Savage Worlds that combines the modern espionage genre with horror elements. But I think Sean can explain this better than I can, so I asked him to answer a couple of questions for us.

Stargazer: Thanks again for taking your time to answer a couple of questions about Reality Blurs in general and Agents of Oblivion in particular. It’s an honor to have you. So, let’s start with AoO. What exactly is it about?

Sean: Agents of Oblivion is what we like to call “the perfect cocktail of horror and espionage”. Heck, we believe this so much we put it on the cover as the tagline. Now, before anyone thinks we’re being cocky or anything, we know everyone’s definition of the perfect cocktail may differ, so we cheated a bit by providing you with all the ingredients to mix your own, suitable to your own refined palate. For those who’ve followed us for a number of years, you know we are all about providing sandboxes and allowing you the freedom to customize the game and still have all the pieces work together without any hassle. At its core, Agents of Oblivion is a spy game with conspiracies and aliens and rival organizations and magic and things that go bump in the night. Well, that’s how I play it. We provide seven different campaign styles—cocktail recipes to extend the metaphor—you can tailor to your own sensibilities.

Stargazer: What were the main inspirations for Agents of Oblivion? Are there any other games, books or movies that played a major role in the creation process?

Sean: I’ve long loved the spy and horror genres and thought they could fit naturally together. As a longtime video gamer, the concept for Agents of Oblivion initially arose not long after I got a Savage Worlds license (back in 2004) and I put together a list of genres I wanted to develop into product lines. This was on the original list and it came to me when I was playing the original Splinter Cell game (before it became the franchise it is today). I thought how cool it would be for Sam Fisher (the protagonist) to have some cool powers he could use and realized there were no games out there that could do this in the manner I was talking about for the spy genre. I scribbled down some notes and realized there was a real opportunity to step into this space. I wrote an adventure (Starfall Jungle, our second product ever) and then entered it into Green Ronin’s True20 Setting Search competition. It later appeared in the True20 Worlds of Adventure and was quite popular.

That was some history, so now let me get to the heart of your question. Inspirations for Agents of Oblivion are as follows (in no particular order) (and some came out subsequent to most of the formative work being done, so are included as good source materials for folks).

Movies/TV Series: The James Bond series, 24, Fringe, Alias, The X-Files, The Shield, Supernatural, Dark Skies, Threshold, Warehouse 13, Ronin, The Bourne Trilogy, The Third Man, Three Days of the Condor, The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, The Ipcress File, Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, The Jack Ryan series, The Call of Cthulhu, In the Mouth of Madness, Pan’s Labyrinth, Law & Order, Hellboy, Le Femme Nikita, Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Torchwood, and Doctor Who

Books: The Dresden Files, anything be Ian Fleming, Len Deighton or Charles de Lint, Monster Hunter International, and The Laundry series

RPGs: Top Secret, James Bond 007, Spycraft, Conspiracy X, Dark Matter, Delta Green, and Cold City

Some interesting facts, I looked to The Dresden Files year ago (before the excellent RPG ever existed, but while it was in development and I did look forward to its release) as a great example of modern urban fantasy. Monster Hunter International was something I was only recently turned on to and it’s a great read. A number of shows, namely the short-lived Threshold, Torchwood, and Supernatural, came out after the setting was fleshed out and I would watch them and say to myself that this sure reminds me of Agents of Oblivion. It was cool to see other media exploring some of the same space I was. Delta Green is something I didn’t read until after the formative work was done. I was culturally aware of it, but people were calling out superficial similarities to the two properties before even reading AoO, so I felt it was wise to read what they were doing to make certain I wasn’t retreading well-loved territory. I was relieved to discover that was not the case. We’re firmly in the spy camp (though you can capably adventure into paramilitary and full-on military operations if you like, though that was not the central part of its design premise). Dark Matter is a great setting and one I looked at after our core material was developed (and again for the same reason). We explore some of the same territory (with the whole “investigating weird stuff” mission statement). Agents turns it on its head a great deal with the introduction of the whole espionage angle. Cold City is something I examined closely early on (subsequent to AoO’s True20 development) and it is a hyper-focused setting in a sliver of time and place and gave me a lot to mull over. I don’t know what direct influence it had on me at the end of the day, but it left a lasting impression. I’m still intrigued by their whole Secret Agenda model and that’s something I can certainly see refashioning down the road. It’s obviously there. Right? It’s not something we wanted to explore with the initial release. Perhaps down the road…Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning Spycraft 2.0. While the first book was not on my radar at the time, this hefty tome held a place close to my computer during my work. I was inspired by the amazing amounts of stuff they shoved into those pages and it blew me away. For the spy side of things, it was incredibly rich and granular and challenged me to take some of the presented concepts and incorporate them into Agents of Oblivion.

Realms of Cthulhu cover Stargazer: Like many of your other games before, AoO uses the Savage Worlds rules. Were there any difficulties adapting SW to the espionage genre? And what additions to the core SW rules can we expect from AoO?

Sean: While I’d like to say everything fell with great alacrity upon the keyboard, there were certain obvious challenges, the biggest of which was handling resources. The false start was making the number of points a variable based upon half of Tradecraft +2. This created a double-dipping effect as Tradecraft also served as the delimiter (such as “you must have minimum Tradecraft to take this bit of gear). As a result, there were agents with very little gear of limited use and others with a lot of gear with a lot of juice. Aside from that, it was impossible for us to create any sort of comprehensive loadout packages—there were just too many variables. By making it a flat number of Resource Points (4 at Novice and scaling up), we could create three standard loadout packages (one for each branch) without too much muss and fuss. This greatly improved play. Aside from Tradecraft (which is a new skill), we added a few others, such as Demolitions and TechOps. These were introduced to create a bit more niche protection. By intent, Savage Worlds is not very granular. These added bit of granularity allowed a bit more flexibility when addressing the modern world and is offset by Agency training and loadouts.

I should underscore the biggest design goal for Agents of Oblivion is flexibility. You choose a branch at character creation and have the opportunity to shift branches each time you advance. There are no prerequisites to be in one branch or another. The three branches are Assault, Occult, and Operations and each provides you with a branch benefit which you can change at the start of each mission (essentially, a free Edge). Couple this with the loadouts (again, various gear, spytech/training, and Single Use Devices) you can swap out between missions, and you can radically alter your agent from one adventure to the next, allowing the Director (the GM) to present the characters with lots of different challenges. This also speaks to promoting character continuity and excitement and the opportunity to sample certain Edges and things you may never take otherwise. You can tailor your agent to the situation as presented to you (which may not always be how it turns out).

Powers are stripped of Power Points in an elegant fashion and, if you have Arcane Training, Powers are wide open to you. No more Rank requirements, though you suffer penalties if you reach beyond your grasp. Additionally, there are Power Mods which fundamentally change how your powers work. You can take heal and later take Power Mod: Range and heal from across the room or take the Power Mods: Area of Effect and Selective and heal your allies in the heat of battle! Your mind is probably already thinking of other (more nasty) things you can do with Power Mods already.

Extended Trait Checks, originally revealed in Iron Dynasty, were developed for Agents of Oblivion (just as Defining Interests—which originally were written for Iron Dynasty first appeared in Ravaged Earth, such is our way) and will be new to many folks. They offer up an easy way to handle things which can have a dramatic impact in play—such as defusing a bomb or hacking into a computer system before the guards show up.

For the Director, we offer up seven different campaign frameworks using campaign factors (AC-HOT). They are Alien, Conspiracy, Horror, Occult, and Tech. By adjusting them, you can create the type of game you want to play. We have mission generators, creature generators, and The Spy Sampler where we have detailed overviews of the campaign frameworks presented earlier in the work.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on in Agents of Oblivion and its inherent flexibility should shine through.

Stargazer: There’s a two year old players’ guide for AoO available at the official Reality Blurs website. How close is the material presented in this document related to the final book?

Sean: It’s not available anymore, but I’m more than happy to talk about it. When we released it, it was largely complete, but there were still some refinements we needed to make to it. It was roughly edited at the time—which is forgivable for a free PDF, right?—and many of the core concepts are still in there, just tweaked. We still have Resource Points, Spytech, SUDs, and other such items largely unchanged. Some of the work we needed to do was dependent upon bringing it into line with Savage Worlds Deluxe and expanding some of the material to work well within the changes. The original PG gave you the sense of the direction we were taking, the new work takes you to the destination. In retrospect, it could be viewed as a rough cut. The most beneficial feedback upon reflection regarded two major things—the loadouts and the power system. While they were clear to us, I realized, based upon the large number of questions, they were not quite properly explained or executed. They were near misses. I went back in and cleaned up the verbiage for the magic system and retooled the loadouts which created a cascade effect requiring modifications to Tradecraft, Resource Points, and Field Requisitions. People pointed out the muddled stuff and we made proper course corrections. While it is possible some of this could have been caught in edit, it was far more beneficial to have it exposed earlier on in the design process. Additionally, there were still some questions about the final direction we would be taking Agents of Oblivion. The largest of which was, do we consolidate all of our information into one play style or provide multiple options? If you recall, we released this just prior to our release of Realms of Cthulhu and some uncertainty existed in my mind (though not the crews) of how people were going to respond to the different play styles offered up within those pages. People really appreciated the extra effort we took with that approach, so we wanted to offer up such a sandbox in AoO.

Stargazer: I recently thought about running a game inspired by Charles Stross’ short story “A Colder War”. It’s set into an alternative timeline where Mythos creatures and even Chtulhu himself are weaponized by the superpowers during the Cold War. Do you think it would be possible to run a game like that by introducing elements from Realms of Cthulhu into Agents of Oblivion for example? Or does Agents of Oblivion support “lovecraftian” elements out of the box?

Sean: Agents of Oblivion, as originally conceived, was Mission Impossible meets Cthulhu. When Reality Blurs acquired the Cthulhu license for Savage Worlds, we opted to keep them a bit more separate in terms of product identity and focus. However, as the guy who designed the mechanics for both, I wanted to ensure they played well together (which, I admit, did factor into going with a Power Point free system for magic). Within Oblivion, there is a branch called Sigil tasked with dealing with eldritch horrors. It’s neither explored nor alluded to in Agents of Oblivion. All that being said, I have a clear vision of Sigil and notes about them sketched out and they’ll be making an upcoming appearance down the road—I cannot say exactly when, though I know

Stargazer: Is there anything else you want to share with us about AoO before we move on? Oh, by the way, when do you plan to release it?

Sean: Agents of Oblivion is out now! We released it electronically on October 10th and it climbed to Number One on RPGNow the first day. This was no mean feat since we try to drive traffic directly to our site with special deals, like the preorder bundles we’re offering right now. I’d like to thank everyone for their show of support. You guys responded fantastically and it was truly gratifying!

ID cover Stargazer: In the introduction to this interview I mentioned Iron Dynasty. It’s a game that impressed me a lot. Can you give our readers a short description of what the game is about?

Sean: Iron Dynasty is our game of Heavy Metal Oriental Action. In other words—and here’s the thing because I called it this originally in-house—Samurai Steampunk. While an oriental fantasy, it is based off of historical Japan in a lot of ways before I liberally blurred it up and made it very much a sandbox setting where you can play a lot of different ways. I have three words: giant bamboo mecha! If you like Kurosawa flicks and high-action oriental gaming, you’ll be sure to dig it. I know I’m gushing, but for just pure fantasy it’s my go to game. It’s filled with spell-slinging ninja, angry oni armies, crazy giant robots, and angry ronin. You’ll even find some pirates in those pages and can finally see for yourself who wins in the old ninja versus pirates face-off. It sounds gonzo and can certainly go that way. However, it’s carefully balanced. We here at Reality Blurs like our chaos controlled.

Stargazer: The ID product page lists a few upcoming products. Aside from the Fantasy Craft version of Iron Dynasty there’s also Iron Dynasty: Art of War for the SW Showdown system. So will there be full range of ID miniatures? What else is planned for Iron Dynasty?

Sean: Miniatures are a very risky proposition even in the best of times and we haven’t grown to the point where I’d feel comfortable making such a large investment. There are a number of existing miniatures suitable for Iron Dynasty out there. Now that you mention it, I really need to get Art of War out there! We’ve been focusing on a lot of support products for Iron Dynasty, including a big series of Guidebooks and Kesshi Tales. We’re trying to find a window to release Iron Dynasty for Fantasy Craft (and it will be getting the accompanying support materials. Next up, we’re looking at a plot point campaign, however, we’ve not firmed up the particulars yet, so I’d be remiss at saying more than “we have things in various stages of development”. Yes, I realize it is the typical, cagey stock game designer answer even as I type it, but if I had more particulars we were ready to share, I’d let you know.

Stargazer: As far as I remember Reality Blurs was one of the first, if not the first, Savage Worlds licensee. What made you jump on the Savage Worlds bandwagon that early?

Sean: We were, in fact, the third licensee to make a deal with Pinnacle (back in 2004) and are now viewed, I suppose, as part of the Old Guard. We are the last remaining original licensee with Pinnacle making a deal with 12 to Midnight for their Pinebox material and them sadly shutting down independent operations and Legion (with its principles of Simon Lucas and Robin Eliot) to be subsequently reformed as Triple Ace Games (with its principles of Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams and Robin Eliot). Ed Wetterman of 12 to Midnight and I have been buddies for a number of years now and he worked on Agents of Oblivion with me and presently serves as its line developer.

My path to Savage Worlds is rather unusual. I had been running a weekly game of 3.5 D&D and the players were delving through a massive dungeon. I had worked on this new level to reflect a change in tone from traditional orcs and goblins to a more Lovecraftian vibe (yes, this was in 2004, but I’ve long been a fan of HPL). The introductory scene was to paint a picture to them of this darker, more twisted atmosphere and was exciting…on paper. In play, it didn’t work out well. The one combat took hours and my players (as well as myself) felt it was (rightly so) a huge grind and we yearned for less debates about the mechanics, speedier play, and more fun. I jumped on the computer and began evaluating a LOT of systems. At the time, HARP (by Iron Crown Enterprises), FATE, and Savage Worlds were the three frontrunners. HARP had a lot of crunch and reminded me a lot of MERP (Middle Earth Roleplaying)—I knew this was something my guys, ultimately, wouldn’t really play. I saw FATE as having lot of potential yet neither the system nor I had evolved enough yet for me to really take said plunge (though it certainly has come a long way in the last few years). Savage Worlds immediately drew me in. I knew Shane had something special. I was familiar with Deadlands and I liked the way you could simply and elegantly create characters like those found in novels and cinema, yet, these characters still retained a certain degree of humanity, of vulnerability. While you could be an axe-wielding barbarian or a masterful sorcerer, you were not guaranteed victory regardless of your power level. Uncertainty is a very powerful element to include in a game. This keeps the players’ attention. As a longtime GURPS player (once upon a time), I liked how Savage Worlds offered up a really clean core system and had plenty of opportunities for extensibility. Though I entertained no thoughts for a long time of ever becoming a designer, I was compelled to send off a pitch to Shane about RunePunk and when my crew came over the following week, I showed them my copy of Savage Worlds and 50 Fathoms and said “We’re playing this now as I’m going to be developing for it.” They thought I was crazy then and probably even more so now!

Stargazer: Over the years Reality Blurs has released products for True20, Savage Worlds and Fantasy Craft. Are you currently planning to support other game systems as well or perhaps even to design your own system?

Sean: Yes. 🙂

Stargazer: While I was compiling these questions I talked with a couple of friends and asked them if they had any questions they wanted to ask you. I was a bit surprised that most of them haven’t heard of Reality Blurs yet, a few have heard of your games though. I think you actually jokingly called Reality Blurs “the biggest RPG publisher nobody knows” yourself. Do you have a theory why a lot of gamers haven’t heard from you yet? And is there anything your fans can do to help you change this?

Sean: This one has stymied us internally for quite some time and all we have is mainly theories. I’ll posit a few for you and maybe you or your readers can provide some illuminating answers for us. The most obvious reason is we’ve been historically deliberate in our work. As such, we have a solid reputation and reach a higher level of awareness we aren’t able to capitalize upon as we diligently work on the next thing. We’ve been taking steps with it and this year has been particularly good to us, so I think brand awareness is starting to spread. I’ve been a lot more active in social media and have religiously posted The Razorwise Report on the Reality Blurs site. Another thing—and this may sound weird—but we don’t make a bunch of mistakes in our work. A lot of questions generated on websites and forums are questions about why does x work or how does y work. If we’re on our game, you won’t have to ask us. Other reasons are a number of our games have had things working against us until now. RunePunk is a whole lot of fun, but it is a difficult elevator pitch. Would I change that as my initial release? I’ve thought hard about it and I learned a lot and showed folks I can do some outré design work and it is where I really cut my teeth with Savage Worlds. As we’ve progressed, we’ve increased the number of our releases and are working with settings more within the norm in a number of ways. You might’ve thought Realms of Cthulhu would be our break out game (we considered it as a possibility) and it did radically heighten people’s awareness of my design chops both within and without the community and is well regarded, we just need to give the fans something of real substance to dig their teeth into—essentially, the Savages need a setting to call their own. With Echo, I hope to deliver upon the promise of potential found within Realms of Cthulhu as I clearly define and share my vision of the Mythos. In some ways, I did my job too well, as the Sanity system sings, I recall getting a lot of buzz speculating how it couldn’t be done. Agents of Oblivion is an easy sell compared to a lot of the things we’ve talked about. Horror-espionage? Superspies and alien? Mission Impossible Meets The X-Files? This is something which resonates strongly with gamers and we’re hitting this at the right time, I think. Savage Worlds has greatly matured and its base is expanding and I’m taking strides to be known beyond the community.

I’m proud to claim a base of smart, well-read folks. However, they generally do not post often or are very active on the web. They prefer to email me directly. I get a lot of regular correspondence from folks who write to say “great work” or “thank you” or “you made my day!” This is cool. This shows I’m making a connection with folks and, evidently, folks feel comfortable talking with me. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is something the letter writers and everyone who likes Reality Blurs can do.

Post publicly. I note the people who have issues generally post publicly. I don’t mind that, but if you want to show your support do these things.

  1. Spread the word about us at conventions, local game stores, wherever.
  2. Through social media. Help me get to a thousand followers on Twitter. Why not? Make that happen. If you’re not a follower, use your social media outlets to spread the word.
  3. Through websites.
  4. Support your local game store.
  5. Tell your friends.
  6. Help us get an active community going on our forums.
  7. Send suggestions on what I can do to heighten our awareness. Better yet, post them on our website.

This was a good question and I may have gone a bit long. I thought once upon a time focusing on expanding my brand would be simply perceived as mercenary, but we’re offering some good stuff here. Help me connect. I’m often lost in layout and the reverie of writing and lose touch with the outside world. Together, we can put Reality Blurs on the tip of everyone’s tongue!

Stargazer: Before I let you return to work on Agents of Oblivion there’s something I need to know. What was the first roleplaying game you ever played and how and when did you enter the “industry”?

Sean: I recall being born with a D20 in my hand. Or near enough. I go all the way back to the beginning with Original D&D and Chainmail and all the early loveliness. I was in the industry as a kid, just from the retail side. My family had Viking Hobbies, a hobby store which introduced roleplaying games (D&D at the time, later others) to the Mid-South area of the United States (Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas). I recall doing playtests for Yaquinto (Man, Myth, & Magic anyone?) and meeting Jean Wells. Mainly, I placed orders and such and ran tournament games. Prior to starting up Reality Blurs, I had done some freelance stuff for Neverwinter Nights with Bioware. That’s an interesting story. I became active in the community on day one and they soon after made me a moderator in the DM’s Section. I went on to create the DMFI (Dungeon Master’s Friendly Initiative) and eventually to work a bit with the guys there on The Witch’s Wake, the first free module they released using some of the document support I drafted up. It was my first time behind the curtain, working with developers, and getting to see the early iterations of work. I did do some playtesting for Green Ronin for Warhammer Third Edition for a short time, but within a month of that time I had started up the company and the rest is history. I’ll add a far shorter answer here at the end: Reality Blurs started up in June 2004 (or thereabouts).

Stargazer: Thanks again for taking your time, Sean. It was a pleasure! One last thing, do you have anything to share with our readers that I forgot to ask?

Sean: I think I covered just about everything, though I’d just like to invite people to follow me at RealityBlurs on Twitter and Facebook and to put me in their Google+ Circles for the latest news and mad ramblings and deals. They should also check out The Razorwise Report at where I regularly post about writing, design, and whatever other things that cross my mind at the time. I better get back to it—I’m sure I should be working on something! Thank you. I enjoyed this immensely.

Stargazer: Thanks for your answers, Sean! As always it was a pleasure talking to you! Take care!