Recently, I had the honor of chatting with the three gentlemen at the core of Crafty Games. Crafty Games
made a name for itself with its “Spycraft” line of games, but is now working on “Fantasycraft” and the new “Mistborn” rpg, based on the books by Brandon Sanderson for next year. Scott Gearin, Alex Flagg and a mysterious character known only as the “God King Emperor of Happy Happy Fun Time,” hereafter abbreviated as “GKEoHHFT” logged on for an in-depth chat. So in-depth that it is too long for a single post. I will post the second part of the interview Monday.
I know, I normally post interviews on Monday, but I thought it might be nice to let a fresh post loose on a Saturday morning for some weekend reading. Depending on feedback, I may do more weekend blogging. For now, read on to learn about Crafty Games latest efforts!
Trask: First question. Tell me about “Crafty Games.” What are its origins and how long has it been in operation?
Scott Gearin: The name part was easy – “Crafty Games” seemed obvious given our origins.
Alex Flagg: We were the design team on AEG’s Spycraft line for 3 years. The company started up at the very end of 2005, releasing our first product, in May 2006 – the weekend of my wedding, actually.
Trask: So you are no longer affiliated with AEG and “Spycraft?”
Alex Flagg: It’s sort of a long story.
GKEoHHFT: Spycraft (the first edition, or what we call “Classic”) was something I pitched for AEG, and developed there way back around 2001. It launched in 2002. It ran for 3 years, as the guys have said, and they went from talented freelancers to invested partners quite rapidly. So when we started work on the second edition – what’s now called Spycraft 2.0 – I brought them in at the ground floor of the rebuild.
GKEoHHFT: That went well and we got what lots of folks consider a successful offering out to market in 2004.
Scott Gearin: Successful offering or 2-handed weapon. The Spycraft 2.0 book is one of the largest in table-top RPG history.
Alex Flagg: AEG was doing some downsizing in summer 2005, and Spycraft was on the list.
Trask: So, in 2005 you find yourselves without a publisher and decide to go it alone?
Alex Flagg: Yes, a little tongue in cheek version is here: http://www.crafty-games.com/about. So we did what any passionate design team would do; license the property from AEG, where Pat (the true name of the GKEoHHFT revealed! ed.)had been employed for 8 years, was it? – and strike out on our own. Then we released the 2.0 second printing, with serious revisions, in may 2006. Our intent at the start was to do PDFs exclusively or almost exclusively.
GKEoHHFT: We wallowed.
Scott Gearin: Threw ourselves into the chipper-shredder that is publishing.
GKEoHHFT: Followed by a string of PDFs, the long-gestating World on Fire print book, and now the upcoming Fantasy Craft.
Alex Flagg: We had seen the success of Ronin Arts and other PDF publishers and thought it was a safe model to follow
Trask: Once you were free of AEG, what specific issues/challenges did you have getting your own publishing company up and running?
GKEoHHFT: Well, for starters, we’re writers.
Alex Flagg: Let me count the ways…creatives are not, by their nature, excellent businessmen out the gate
Scott Gearin: Turned out Mongoose publishing was looking for studios to publish, and offered to partner up to produce print books. We had Spycraft 2.0 in hand, but we also hade the majority of World on Fire ready from time spent at AEG.
Alex Flagg: We love our product, but we have some learning to do to get up to speed, at least, we did. Now we have experience…and scars
Trask: So you had help with the logistics of printing/ laying out the books?
Alex Flagg: Yes, we were quite fortunate in that way.
GKEoHHFT: Mongoose handles the sales and distribution of our print books. They’re our print house.
Trask: Did you learn any important lessons from your “start-up” year that you would like to share with aspiring publishers?
GKEoHHFT: Assume everything will take 3 times as long as it should.
Alex Flagg: Then double it
Scott Gearin: GOOD benchmark, that.
Trask: What did you find the most difficult, other than writing the content? Most publishers I spoke to mention custom art and the graphic design as particular headaches.
Alex Flagg: The ramping up on the business side, learning how to work well and profitably was a challenge for our first year or two
GKEoHHFT: We’re a little fortunate, in that I spent a lot of time in other departments at AEG.
Alex Flagg:We’ve been lucky that way
GKEoHHFT: I had laid books out, worked with artists, and budgeted already.
Scott Gearin: We’ve had to build up a stable of artists. That takes time and and patience.
Alex Flagg: But the fact is, you’re very often at the mercy of those graphic designers and artists. I mean, you can’t do books without them, no matter how good your ideas are
Scott Gearin: I’m used to seeing out books as word processor documents – functional and bland. It’s actualyl quite amazing what layout and graphic design does to bring an idea to life.
Alex Flagg: …and to market
GKEoHHFT: But on the flip side, a lot of AEG’s artists and graphic designers weren’t necessarily in our budget or particularly well-suited for what we wanted to accomplish, so it was still something of an uphill battle. Time is your greatest enemy
Alex Flagg: We did our own graphic design for quite a while
GKEoHHFT: At Crafty, we don’t have the luxury of full-time in-house graphic designers and artists, nor do we have other folks handling the business end of the gig.
Alex Flagg: Pat re-laid out World on Fire, our first PDFs and second printing of Spycraft 2.0 in addition to editing and writing
Trask: Before we start talking about “FantasyCraft,” could you talk about the development process for your games? How do you begin the process of moving from idea to book (or PDF?)
Scott Gearin Step 1 is idea – which really is the easiest part. We keep a pretty good sized folder of all the things we could do.
Alex Flagg: Step 2 – “can we sell it?”
Scott Gearin: We also usually couple ideas to snappy titles so we can talk about them
Alex Flagg: Step 3 – “how long will it take?” Because there are lots of great ideas that aren’t either a) marketable enough, b) that have a large enough audience to justify the time, or c) that will expand the brand in the right way. We come at spycraft from a brand angle, really. It was a pretty big game in the d20 boom, and we’ve always thought bigger though we’re indy-game company sized.
Scott Gearin: And I think an important part of step 2 that we’re looking at more as we mature as a company is is it somethign that can be written by our pool of freelancers or is it something we have to take on personally.
GKEoHHFT: Well, a play experience angle – one that develops the brand – but yes.
Alex Flagg: What I’m saying is we have a large view of the property. We look at it all in context. Rather than jumping from stone to stone, we ask “how big is the river” first
Trask: I am familiar with the “Living Campaign” that Spycraft ran. Did you find this a useful tool to expose the game?
GKEoHHFT: Living came around during Classic. A bunch of our fans back then got together and convinced me, and by extension AEG, that there was an untapped market for it – and there was, for a while. Living really informed a lot of the late Classic material, and heavily informed the design process for 2.0. Which was a good and a bad thing. Spycraft 2.0, as a result, was extremely exacting – in its approach, language, and content. That really spoke to a lot of people, and it earned us a reputation for being one of the leading “crunch” manufacturers on the market. Tournament games have a very specific set of requirements, and one of them is that the game master exercise comparatively little control over a scenario. But it also closed some doors, which took us a while to accept and address. So we may the rules especially robust so that a GC could generally always find a ‘right answer’ in the books. So, as a result, a lot of people felt that Spycraft 2.0 – for its power and utility – didn’t really allow for much GM manipulation. So it was a mixed blessing. There are elements of Living I really miss. And elements I think have never been properly exploited.
Trask: Any fear that you might “over-crunch” the system?
Scott Gearin: We are certainly ramping down the crunch a little bit in our new designs.
GKEoHHFT: Our books from here on in will feature “Mastercraft,” an offshoot of Spycraft 2.0 that’s much more user-friendly, and a lot more open to player and GM personalization.
Alex Flagg: Without throwing out the baby with the bathwater
Scott Gearin: We want all of the crunch to be available, but for it to enter use in smaller chenks, and with it more clear that some of those extra rules really are optinal and only there for groups who want or need that extra level of simulation.
GKEoHHFT: Plus, the language is significantly more organic.
Scott Gearin: We’re lookng at things like having some of the character options come into play after first level so you can get statted more easily.
GKEoHHFT::Everything is framed to be easy to remember and use at the table.
Alex Flagg: I work in the internet industry, so we’re trying to improve the user interface design,if you catch my drift
Scott Gearin: That’s one of the strengths of our design – we look at rules less as “who can this mimic real life” and more as “what behavior will this inspire t the gamming table?” The goal is not a precision simulation, but a fun GAME.
Trask: During the design process, did you look at other games and see things you absolutely hated and would try to avoid in your product?
Alex Flagg: I don’t think we’re quite as jingoistic as that. There are lots of good ideas coming out from designers all the time. We can learn from all design – good AND bad
GKEoHHFT: Wow, that’s… a very tricky question. It’s kinda backward from how it’s usually phrased.
GKEoHHFT: Things we hate (without naming products): mind control is a biggie. We’re not into taking power away from the players. (We consider the GM a player BTW, which is another one.) (If he’s not having fun with everyone else, what’s the point for him?” None of us are fans of mechanics that are entirely suggestive.
Scott Gearin: Huh. I try not to define my environment by what I hate. I’d much rather give kudos to annother designer for an elegant piece of work than to mock a bad piece.
GKEoHHFT: Any rule that involves debate is generally out.
Alex Flagg: Or mechanics that don’t actually have a tangible effect on the game
GKEoHHFT: This isn’t Diplomacy
GKEoHHFT: I think the things we dislike create our boundaries, while the things we love inform our content.
“We won’t do that, but we’ll do anything else – and this over here looks pretty kewl.”
Trask: Your new game, “FantasyCraft” is coming out soon. What made you decide to create a fantasy game?
GKEoHHFT:: The fans They’ve been asking for it since Day One.
Alex Flagg: We’ve been taunting them with it for years
Scott Gearin: 25 years of liking fantasy games?
GKEoHHFT: We didn’t originally plan to do fantasy at all. We started doing some fantasy-related PDFs to give folks some tools to build their own fantasy heart-breakers. Which we felt was the best way to approach the subject at the time. And somewhere in the middle of it all we realized we had a book about it waiting in the wings.
Scott Gearin: Fantasy is one of the strongest RPG environments because you’re not expected to have a lot of ties to the environment. It grants a sense of freedom when you play a character who is their own boss and probably doesn’t even have any family they have to put ahead of their own interests. It’s also a simple environment – limited tools, limited options, easy to grasp.
Trask: Competition in the fantasy RPG market is intense. What sets “FantasyCraft” apart?
Scott Gearin: We’re bringing our strengths to it – a lot of options for characters. A sense of skill and competence to the heroes you play.Challenges of all sorts not just fight scenes. And an ability to interact with the society that runs deeper than selling your loot and restocking on potions.
GKEoHHFT: Completely open-ended critter creation
Alex Flagg: Plus lots of tools for world building
GKEoHHFT: Mix and match skills and artifacts.
Alex Flagg: The important thing we noticed with fantasy is everyone wants to make it their own. So you can control not just the world but the play environment using “campaign qualities”
GKEoHHFT: Massive world building toolset, with six examples to get you started
Scott Gearin: We’ve been working in a modern setting environment where you have that kind of complexity, and we think it can be used to make a fantasy experience that is a little richer than the norm – mostly by getting players and GMs to think about there being more to life.
GKEoHHFT: And our general helping of bad-assery
Alex Flagg: Basically, the fan-favorite stuff from 2.0 is in there for sure. Yes, action dice are there. Mix and match character origins
GKEoHHFT: Origins, classes with something new every level, feats with multiple tangible and broadly applicable uses. And some of the most incredible art in the industry. Ben McSweeney is a GOD.
Scott Gearin:The art is really good. GenCon before last I was very inspired by Hidden Earth Expeditions and Qin. Both had really excellent art and production values. I made the case that our books need to look that good. Fantasy Craft is one we’re gonna be very proud of.
Trask: Tone is a very subjective term when it comes to games, but could you describe the “feel” of the game? High fantasy, gritty and realistic or somewhere in between?
GKEoHHFT: Less dreads, more adorable songs.
Alex Flagg: We actually let GMs set the tone using mechanical devices in addition to narrative ones. These are the aforementioned campaign qualities. They actually mutate the rules of the game, evne on the fly. So you can run with gritty games or super high action if you want
Scott Gearin: Why would we want to dictate that? Every table is different, so while we provide example,s we also offer tools to set the tone you want for your game.
Alex Flagg: The book will both illustrate the differences using the same ruleset with these campaign quality tools as an overlay.
GKEoHHFT: I think tone is something you can emulate in more ways than flavor. It’s about sculpting gameplay, offering tools that engender certain styles of play and various behaviors from GMs and players alike. This comes up a lot in our behind-the-scenes chatter – how do we help folks capture this or that mood at the table, not just with art and graphic design but with rules that bring it out. The difference is, we do it several times with each product, showcasing many different tones of play. Thus our several setting examples in Fantasy Craft. That’s all about showing off different tones and genres. And how Fantasy Craft can do them all.
Trask: When will the book be released?
GKEoHHFT: Winter. We don’t really offer more specific dates until the book leaves our hands.
Trask: Sometime in 2008?
GKEoHHFT: Not until January at the earliest.
Trask: How has the playtest been going?
GKEoHHFT:: Very well. The long-ish production cycle on this one – necessitated by us developing Mastercraft – has offered us a lot of room to fold feedback into the book.
Trask: Any plans for a “Living campaign after release?
GKEoHHFT: Not by us, but a group of fans are working on one. It’s called Wyrmstone. Same crew who currently do Spymaster, which is sort of an extension of the old Living Spycraft cycle.
Scott Gearin: We keep showing them the rules as they’ve evolved so they’ll have a good grasp of the rules even before launch day.
Trask: Any plans for Fantasy Craft supplements yet?
GKEoHHFT: God yes. I was just looking at this yesterday actually
Trask: Care to drop a few hints?
Alex Flagg: First off, some of our settings will be supplements.
GKEoHHFT:Yes, two settings in the book – let’s explain those first.
Scott Gearin: “Sunchaser” is light hearted adventure. Like Tolkien, but not as “imminent peril of end of the world.”
Alex Flagg: Classic high fantasy stuff. “Epoch” is pretty much the opposite. Barbarians battling demons in a prehistoric, Mesoamerican world. Mastodons, saber-tooths, dinosaurs and bloodletting mages are the big bads, in addition to the demons who are despoiling the world, of course
This concludes part one of my interview. Monday we discuss some more supplements for the upcoming “Fantasycraft” rpg and I glean some information about the new “Mistborn” rpg.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer