Q&A with Sean Patrick Fannon
Sean has been professionally involved in RPGs and interactive entertainment for the last 20+ years of his life. He has worked on everything from small roleplaying game magazines and fanzines, the Champions RPG (including High Tech Enemies, The Mutant File and Champions Universe), the Shatterzone RPG and the Star Wars RPG, as well as Shadis Magazine, Adventurer’s Club Magazine and Dragon Magazine for TSR.
He has also worked on the Star Trek adventure computer games, the Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, the Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible (2nd Edition), Shards of the Stone: Core. He has been the Origins Game Expo Events Coordinator for GAMA (the Game Manufacturer’s Association), published Shaintar: Immortal Legends for Savage Worlds and much more.
Yes, gaming IS his life, and he loves it. Buy him a beer (Guinness, if you please) and he’ll happily tell you more than you might ever want to know…
As I’m sure the readers know you are a legend in gaming circles and your hand can be seen in a LOT of work over the years. What was the first ever tabletop roleplaying game you worked on and what attracted you to the project?
Legend?! I’m privileged to know plenty of legends in this industry, and I don’t think I can possibly number myself among them. I’m just honoured that I get to work with them (and celebrate with them) fairly frequently. I have been at this a while, though, that’s true enough. I started with articles in Scott Haring’s “The Gamer” magazine back in 1988, but my first real product line that I worked with was Champions 4th Edition.
I was a huge fan of Champions and the Hero System, and I was running a lot of that game in the 80s. When folks finally started convincing me that I could do this professionally, I decided to look into what it might take to get a gig writing for the Hero Guys. I did my research and learned as much as I could about George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, and Ray Greer, along with Bruce Harlick and the great folks they worked with at Iron Crown Enterprises (who was publishing Hero Games at the time). This was before the Internet was quite the monster research tool it is today, so it took a bit more effort – but it was well worth it. I loved the culture of these guys; fun-loving, dedication to quality, and a strong connection to their fan base.
Of course, I was completely in love with the system, too. It was my first exposure to a game system that allowed for organic character creation and advancement as well as a cinematic sense to the action sequences and combat. I discovered that in the Hero System. As I was in the middle of a great deal of creativity with my supers campaign at the time, I simply translated much of that to content that could be used in their current product plans. My love of the concept of an internally consistent universe seemed to appeal to them as well. This, by the way, led to my first chance to work with Monte Cook on the Champions Universe. He really is a great guy and fun to work with; I sincerely hope I get another chance to do so again one day.
In your long career what was the project you least enjoyed working on?
Ooh, that’s an interesting (as in “Chinese Curse” style) question… I need to start this answer by stating that I really appreciate Ross Watson. He is a dear friend, a valued colleague, and one hell of a writer and designer. I am really proud of him and all that he’s accomplished, and he was awesome for bringing me into the Fantasy Flight Games orbit. My first project with them was on the Dark Heresy line, a book called Creatures Anathema. Ross had been a fan of my Champions work, and he really wanted to work with me. I was particularly excited about working with Fantasy Flight; huge company, fantastic products, very high profile. Anything to do with the Warhammer 40K line was a nice feather in the cap, as well.
Unfortunately, I’ve never really been a fan of the Warhammer settings. I figured it would be easy enough to overcome that to get the work done – and it was, frankly. The book even won an Ennie Award, and my work received a lot of praise. However, it was not a fun book for me to work on. The setting is so very dark and sinister, and I tend to be more light and heroic in my tastes. The utter grimness of it all just weighed on me creatively, and I was glad to finish the project and move on to other, brighter things. Ross approached me shortly thereafter to invite me to play an even greater role in the next major core book, Rogue Trader. It was an extraordinary opportunity, with a much higher paycheck and more prestige attached.
However, after a great deal of soul-searching, I decided to call Ross and ask him to find someone to replace me. I told him – and I meant it – that he and the setting deserved someone who was much more a fan and devotee of the property. Fortunately for me, not only did this play well with the fine FFG folks, it resulted in my getting chosen to work on their Star Wars line.
What was your first ever roleplaying game, and why did it appeal to you?
Of course, when I began gaming in 1977, it was through the discovery that Dungeons & Dragons existed at all via an article in Games Magazine. Since no one in my neighborhood was playing, I had to teach myself to be a Dungeon Master and run games. Incidentally, this is also when I first started developing the world that would ultimately become Shaintar; I had a keep and some borderlands, so I needed to create those lands that were bordering each other, and it just grew from there.
Always a nascent designer, even in those days, I began fiddling with the core rules right at the outset. I eventually created my first game, Starchasers, which I am amused to know folks still want me to publish. I think they just recall how much fun we had (it was a blast), but it was so very derivative of D&D, and I can’t even find any of that old material anymore, anyway.
My first love among game systems, as I mentioned earlier, was the Hero System. However, I must also give a respectful nod to the original West End version of Star Wars; the 2nd Edition rules, in particular, did a fantastic job of genre emulation that I believe still informs such game design approaches today.
Although the Shaintar RPG is being made for Savage Worlds, what other game systems have you used your campaign world with over the years?
Shaintar originally was meant to be a Fantasy Hero setting. There was a production plan being considered and everything. Then I got caught up in the effort to craft a “beginner friendly” version of the Hero System, which was code-named “Mozzarella” at the time. As those plans went forward, I agreed that having a solid fantasy setting for the new rules set would be a good idea.
Then came the combined efforts for the newbie-friendly system that the Hero Games crowd engaged in with R. Talsorian, which marked the birth of the Fuzion System. Once again, I agreed to set Shaintar up as the premiere fantasy setting for the new system. Around this same time, I signed on with Obsidian Studios, and Shaintar got wrapped up in the larger Shards of the Stone property – but we were still committed to using Fuzion.
Unfortunately, everything pretty much collapsed; Obsidian crashed and burned, and in a way, so did Fuzion. Shaintar languished for a bit (I actually lost control of it for a short while, but it was given back to me, thankfully), and then I decided to join the d20/OGL party and see if I could make my setting work in those rules. After an entire year of trying, I found myself thoroughly frustrated with the results. I went on a rather famous internal mailing list featuring game writers and designer all over the world and asked for help. No one really could; they all pretty much worked on OGL stuff by the seat of their pants, and the level of departure I wanted to make from the core rules was just too complicated to manage without the non-existent paradigms of balance I needed. Then Shane Hensley, a long-time friend, mailed me the core Savage Worlds rules, as well as 50 Fathoms and Evernight. I’d already had a single play experience with it thanks to my friend, Chris Kucsera, and with his help, I was able to come up with a functional player’s guide for Shaintar in six weeks.
I never looked back.
What are your convention plans this year; are you risking exposure to Con Crud again?
I dramatically reduced my plans from last year, when we hit at least a con a month on most months. I had to, for my health and finances as well as because I have so much more work to do now than even before. Even so, we are hitting quite a few shows. The thing is, with the exception of Gen Con, I’ve had to keep it to shows where the organizers have been willing to help with some of the expenses. Leaving DriveThruRPG/RPGNow to make a go at being both a publisher and a full-time writer means no more steady paycheck or company support for such travel. Fortunately, there are shows that really do want me there, for which I am exceedingly grateful.
We already attended Momocon in Atlanta this year. The rest of the year has us going (in order) to: Conglomeration, April 5-7, Louisville, KY; Alabama Phoenix Festival, May 24-26, Birmingham, AL; Gen Con, August 15-18, Indianapolis, IN; Queen City Conquest, August 30-September 1, Buffalo, NY; and Con on the Cob, October 17-20, Hudson, OH. I’d really love to come over and hit one or two shows in the British Isles. You know, just thought I’d mention that. In case anyone cares. Or something. Please!?!
What advice would you give to someone planning on entering the tabletop roleplaying games industry?
Well, it used to start with “Don’t!”
Nowadays, however, pretty much anyone with some ideas, a decent capacity to write, and an understanding of the game system they want to write for or present can make a go of being involved in the games industry. Really, the only thing that’s stopping you is yourself.
In other words, if you have the desire and at least some talent, all you really have to do is do it. Do the work and put it out there. With sites like DriveThruRPG, you can be your own publisher within an hour, and it’s free. Thus, even if you don’t find someone else to publish your work, you can just do it yourself.
Having said that, this is the Wild, Wild West of the RPG industry now, which means you have all kinds of craziness out there. The quality of work ranges from phenomenal to horrid, with lots of shades between the two. What will set your stuff apart from others is a combination of things, to include:
Editing: Without it, you’re doomed. I’m not talking about your friend reading it and saying “yeah, looks good.” I mean a professional level of editing that actually results in a better, more coherent manuscript.
Art: You don’t have to spend tons; there are plenty of fairly decent stock art packages out there for a fairly modest price. It’s better to have no art at all, however, than illustrate your material with utter crap or thoroughly marginal amateur stuff. Your buddy might be OK for drawing character sketches at the table, but that doesn’t make it a good choice for illustrating your published work.
Marketing: You don’t need a degree in this (I don’t have one), and you don’t need the level of marketing an insurance company applies in order to make you like it and give it money. You do, however, need to put at least as much effort into getting the word out about your stuff as you do in creating it. Read that again – you need to spend at least as much time (via social media and at conventions, especially) marketing and promoting your material as you spent creating it. If you’re not prepared to do that, you’re better off staying at the hobby level.
There’s a lot more, but those are three big ones.
Who would be your ‘dream team’ of players for an RPG?
OK, wow! That’s a really great one!
I will make two lists. The first one is my list of folks that I have had the honor and pleasure of gaming with in the past, who I really would love to have back at my table again. Any combination of the following would be truly amazing for me. Caveat: I am leaving out folks that I currently get to game with, most of whom are also amazing.
In no particular order: Steve Metze, Albert Deschesne, Gayle Reick, Ron Glass, Adam Fivush, Cheryl Curry, Chuck Jones, Craig Henson, Mark Reuter, Chuck Strickland, Patrick Benson, Phil Vecchione, Aaron “Ace” Acevedo, Kevin Ranson, Martin Klimes, Dan McGirt, Brandon Biddy, Ray Greer, Marian Waldman, Bruce Harlick, William Robinson, Mark Arsenault, Max Hufnagle, Paul Wilcox, Jacob Thurston, Coy Hixon, Jason Brown, Coley Brookshire, Alex Smith, Mark Swafford, Stu Adams, Nola Cheney, Chris Kucsera, James Sutton, Dawn Sutton, Jennifer Gubernath, Clint Black, Jodi Black, Scott Bennie, Chris Avellone, Kurt Wiegel, Norm Hensley, Ross Watson, Ron & Vern Blessing
Now for the Celebrity Round, again in no particular order: Shane Hensley, Matt Forbeck, Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Nathan Fillion, Cheyenne Wright, Dave Gross, Anthony Gallela, Ed Stark, Ed Greenwood, Monte Cook, Eddy Webb, Hal Mangold, Jamie Chambers, Steve Wieck, Jesse Heinig, John Wick, Justin Achilli, Keith Baker, Michael Mirth, Mike Pondsmith, Simon Lucas, Steve Kenson
What can I say? I know a lot of really awesome folks!
If money (and licenses) were no object, what would you like to see being made into a roleplaying game and why?
My answer here is one based on timing, since we just watched The Expendables 2. If you’re going to take expenses off the table and grant me a free license without the insanity that would ensue trying to secure it, I’d say an Expendables RPG would be just all kinds of massive, explosive, cheesy shoot-em-up fun.
For all the wonderful and evocative ideas that are coming out of gaming and game design lately, focusing on dramatic tension, shared narrative control, and complex plots and interactions, sometimes it’s just fun to grab the gear, join your partners, and go raise some hell and kick some ass.
We need “Expendables” sometimes, just for the sheer visceral joy of it. That would be a fun game.
How do you manage to juggle so many projects at the same time? With your work in Evil Beagle Games, the newly resurrected FASA, Reality Blurs, family life and who knows what else you’re doing lately, how do you find time to sleep (if in fact you do)?
Well, it bears pointing out that I’ve taken a step back from my role at FASA for the time being; though I remain very close with the folks running things and have some future plans there. As well, Shaintar is no longer with Reality Blurs, but I remain very excited about what Sean Preston has going on with his company.
At the same time, I have been working on a lot of Star Wars stuff for Fantasy Flight Games lately. I’ve got a major project I am finishing up for Shane and Pinnacle Entertainment. I’ve got a project to finish up for Blackwyrm, and I am discussion with Modiphius for some stuff as well. Plus I have contacts almost every week from folks wanting to get me involved with one thing or another.
In other words, that ultimate dream every freelancer has – that of being in demand – has come true for me, and I often feel like the dog who keeps chasing that car around the block every day who finally caught it. Now I’m not sure what to do as I have my jaws locked on the bumper and it’s speeding for the on-ramp of the highway…
I’m old, so sleep is no longer optional- who knew I’d one day discover the joy of naps? As such, I have to work very hard at time management and prioritization. These are not skills that come naturally for me, and I won’t lie – sometimes I get into a bind and have to re-negotiate deadlines and such. I hate it, but fortunately I manage solid enough quality that the folks I am working with tolerate it. Nonetheless, it is a battle I continue to fight, because I don’t have a choice. To get everything done and still have time for life with my family and friends, I must get better at managing it all.
With nearly forty releases planned for Shaintar, the OmniCosm project yet to develop (which has been back-burnered for a very long time now), a supers setting I really want to publish, more great deck-building games like Colossal Clash to bring out, and so much more, I don’t have a choice. I didn’t stay with the whole physics/science thing, so I won’t be inventing a time machine anytime soon.
What does the future hold for you and your many projects?
My entire universe in the next few weeks is Shaintar, both with the release of Shaintar: Legends Arise (which is the core book that covers Novice through Veteran play for both players and GMs in the setting for Savage Worlds) and the Kickstarter that will fund Shaintar: Legends Unleashed (the Heroic and Legendary book) as well as the dozens of products to follow. That is, of course, on top of all the freelance projects I am still taking on.
After the KS, there’s the full writing and development for all those products, of course. Thankfully, the vast majority of the writing is actually done on about two-thirds of them, so I am ahead of the game there. I’m also in the middle of developing a unique sort of cooperative deck-building/adventure game hybrid with Lee Ballew, the designer of Colossal Clash, based on the Shaintar setting. Fully cooperative, I think we’ll be bringing something new to that genre of games. Additionally, if all goes well, we’ll be linking it to something pretty awesome that will make fans very happy.
I am about to start work on a Shaintar-based web comic with Susan Knowles, and that is going to be a lot of fun and very fulfilling.
As I said, I still have the OmniCosm waiting to go forward, as well as my Modern Gods supers setting. I also really want to get into some trans-media development, as I still have hopes and dreams connected to my original Project `77 treatise. I can tell you now that Roll20 is going to be a big part of that as I launch an ongoing, open campaign that any Shaintar fan can have a character in and participate as they can.
Then there is the constant call for me to get into writing actual novels… So, yeah, I’ve got a lot going on. 2013 has already been pretty exciting, and it’s shaping up to be a very important year for me. If all goes well, I should have a lot more happening by 2014 and beyond.
If I don’t lose my grip on the bumper…