Creative Colleagues: Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

Mike Selinker

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first met Mike Selinker when he was wrangling volunteers for a convention, and I was on an embassy to smooth over some friction between RPGA contributors and the staff I’d just joined. It was a high-stress environment for everyone, not entirely conducive to the the best of first impressions. Fortunately, Mike’s charming wife, Evon, later went out of her way to offer me a home-made sandwich while I was running a game. Home-made sandwiches smooth over all manner of false starts.

A few years later, after I’d moved from Lake Geneva to Seattle, where Mike was already working for Wizards of the Coast, I’d got to know him better through a few social occasions but mostly through his design work, which I admired. I wanted his crossword puzzles in Dragon magazine, and he agreed to sell me some. That’s when we became actual colleagues. Since then, my respect for his work has only grown.

Mike and his team at Lone Shark Games made a huge splash with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game a little while back, and now they’re launching their own game, Apocrypha, via a Kickstarter campaign.

1. For the lay-gamer, what’s the essential difference between a puzzle and a game? And what are some of the different design challenges of each form?

My definition, after years of trying to figure that out, is this:

A game is an activity where, if fairly constructed, two sides given the same advantages will have a roughly equal chance to win. A puzzle is an activity where, if fairly constructed, one side will have all the advantages, except that the disadvantaged side is expected to win.

I speak a lot on this subject here.

They are quite different to design for, of course. But I think they have very strong similarities. You are always aiming for elegance, interactivity, and the spark of brilliance. You get those three, you’ve got something great.

2. What’s so compelling about apocalyptic settings? Do they work better when they are linked to the dominant religion of the target audience? That is, is the Exorcist creepier than horror stories based on non-Judeo-Christian lore?

Apocalypses themselves are boring to me. The time right before the apocalypse, though, that’s the gold mine. When we are at a point of tension, where we don’t know what our way of life will become, that’s where the good stories come.

The religious aspect is interesting to me. There’s a little bit of “write what you know,” and because I know that stuff, it’s easy for me to write about it. It’s easy to wreck something that you understand.

But it’s also hardwired into the Christian culture. We have a lot of people who seem like they wouldn’t mind if the Book of Revelation showed up tomorrow with all its dragons and trumpets. Me, not so much. But boy, is it fun to write about.

That said, when there’s a set-up you give me, and you’ve spent two thousand years working on it, you shouldn’t be surprised when I leap on it and twist it to my purposes.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

Art by Matthew Stewart.

3. What are some of the differences between the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Apocrypha? And how do those differences reflect the difference in setting, tone, and atmosphere?

They’re siblings. They don’t talk a lot, and one of them moved into the creepy shack behind the Piggly Wiggly, but they definitely share the same DNA. You build a character, it improves over dozens of games, you beat scenarios, you get new stuff. But they depart from each other from there. Character growth through memories is a whole lot different than character growth through “level progression.” Pathfinder is linear, and Apocrypha is nonlinear (and occasionally non-Euclidean). In Pathfinder, exploration is easy and helping is restricted; in Apocrypha, investigation is restricted and helping is easy. All of that comes from the setting and atmosphere: In Pathfinder, we want you to feel like you’re in charge of the world; in Apocrypha, we want you to feel like the world is closing in on you.

4. You’re immersed not only in games but in geek culture. What are some of the most interesting overlaps you’ve found between games, fiction, music, television, and other geek media?

Somehow, I became the w00tstock Generation’s board game designer of choice. My games aren’t notably better than those of my friends, but I fit into that world really well. So I hang out with famous authors and geek musicians and TV writers and comedians, all of whom share a love of the same things I love. And when one of us has a crazy project, all of us get involved in that thing in some way or another. That’s why, at Emerald City Comic Con, I didn’t share a booth with another game company; I shared a booth with artist Patrick Race and musicians Molly Lewis and Marian Call. When you look at all the projects all these people do, we are kind of a traveling freak show, and you never know who’s going to show up.

5. Puzzles and games depend on rules, while many aspects of creative art seem to defy or at least resist such restrictions. How does the friction between structure and imaginative freedom hinder a creative work? How does it improve it?

I am a creator of boxes. To get through the day—to actually make anything at all—I have to close off some avenues of creativity and try to define what it is I’m making. But I can’t do it in such a way that limits the possibilities of the work I’m creating. So I start by making a box that is probably impossible to fill. And along the way I find the challenges of filling that box, and come up with solutions that fill it and expand it and change it from square to round. So while some people will say “Think outside the box!” I instead say “Make your own box!”

Also, I pay really creative people to figure out how to do the things I think are impossible. They usually wrack their brains to come up with something amazing, and then I say, “See, I knew it was possible all along!”

Keep an eye on Lone Shark Games at their website or on Twitter. Mike’s also on Twitter.

And don’t forget to check out the Apocrypha Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Fred Fields

Fred Fields

Fred Fields

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first met Fred Fields at TSR, when I was in periodicals and he in the art department. We didn’t spend much time together, but he was always friendly and cool, and nearly every month I’d see his latest work on the cover of one of our latest products. His was one of the styles that helped define the Forgotten Realms novel line.

Fred has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for an ineffably beautiful and hideous Cthulhu dice tower, available unpainted, airbrushed, or painted by the master himself. Check it out, especially the video of his sculpting the tower.

1. As an artist who often uses life models, you also envision some unearthly subjects. Do you draw purely from your imagination? Or do you start with a real object/creature and add variations?

Well, you hit on an interesting point. Mixing photo reference and imagined things and making them look like they belong together is a challenge. If I take photo reference of people, props, costumes, and places, then how do you make the imagined creatures artistically fit into the mix? Early in my career I would just make up creatures. They never really looked like they belonged in the paintings with the other characters. I know that some illustrators would sculpt their creatures. I knew I could sculpt a bit so I started sculpting small maquettes. I’d sculpt monsters and photograph them in the same lighting that I shot the characters in. Suddenly the monsters seemed to not only belong in the painting but they became more believable. More alive!

2. Many illustrators of the fantastic are drawn to the Cthulhu mythos. What is it about those subjects that most appeals to you?

Well, I came late to the party. I was not a big reader as a kid. I started listening to audio books while I work. I decided that there were a ton of classics out there that I needed to explore. “The Call of Cthulhu” was one of those classic stories. When I worked for TSR, I did a painting for a cover depicting a mindflayer. At the time I’d never heard of Cthulhu. Once I became aware of the story that visually influenced the mindflayer, I really wanted to paint a Cthulhu. There are so many different ways that he has been depicted. The descriptions in the story are just enough so as to let the imagination fill in the dark and slimy blanks. I think every illustrator enjoys depicting a classic character while putting their own mark on it, especially if it’s been depicted by some of the great illustrators. It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

4. Since you weren’t a big reader, what attracted you to fantasy illustration? Who were some of the artists whose works drew you to embrace their subject matter?

I always had an affinity for Fantasy movies. I grew up on Jason and the Argonauts, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Dragonslayer, Bakshi’s The Hobbit and Fire and Ice. I was fairly young when my parents bought for me the first two Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta books. I’m not sure why they knew I would like it, but it was my first glimpse into the world of fantasy art. In fact it was my only window. I pored over those books. I knew every brush stroke of every painting. My drawings began leaning toward what I was seeing. Every time Frank put out another art book, I bought it. I was really limited to the books that the local book shop carried. I later picked up The Fantastic Art of Boris and Michael Whelan’s first art book. It wasn’t until I was older that I began looking back in time at the works of the old masters.

4. Working in different media can require a writer to adapt mentally, but I can hardly imagine how difficult it is to move between sketches, paintings, sculptures, and other visual arts. How do you adapt?

I actually find each shift as a breath of fresh air. If I’ve done several paintings in a row and get a chance to do a sculpture, it’s a welcome change of pace. Sketching is the foundation for both paintings and sculptures, so I do that rather often. Honestly I see the different disciplines as different spokes of a common wheel. It’s all art to me. But if I go too long without painting, I get anxious and grouchy.

5. Just as writers draw inspiration from films, often for their scripts and performances, I imagine the same is true for visual artists. Are there particular filmmakers whose works inspire you? Art directors? Make-up artists? Special-effects? 

I draw from a lot of different places; paintings, film, stories, song lyrics. My favorite films don’t necessarily inspire me artistically. Some do but most don’t. The Godfather isn’t going to give me ideas of how to paint a wizard. I do sometimes seek out genre movie to fit a project. I appreciate CG art and effects when it’s believable. I appreciate directors who know how not to overdo the CG art and effects. CG art and effects should be used to enhance a movie, not overwhelm me or distract me from a bad story. I appreciate make-up special effects. Back in the TSR days, I had a subscription to Fangoria Magazine.

I think that when it comes to inspiration it isn’t so important where you get it from but that you get it and on a regular basis. You can’t just continue to take from the creative tank. You have to nourish and replenish the tank and do it often. I get more inspiration from a Museum than anything else. It makes want to rush home and paint.

Check out Fred’s Kickstarter, and keep tabs on his future projects at his website.

Radovan & the Count on HBO

At least that’s part of the wish-fulfilment Photoshopping from Gnomatsu, who envisions Sean Bean as our favorite Hellspawn and John Malkovich as Varian Jeggare. I never considered these two actors as models for the characters, but now that I see the images he chose, I can hardly imagine anyone else in those roles. Just put a bigger smile on Sharpe and trade that powdered wig for Varian’s long black hair, and see if you don’t agree.

Check out Gnomatsu’s glorious mock TV-series posters here.

Creative Colleagues: Keith Baker

Keith Baker

Keith Baker

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

While I knew him by reputation, I first met Keith Baker at the Calgary Comics & Entertainment Expo, where we indulged in that hoariest of author traditions and traded our novels. You may know him as the creator of the Eberron setting or the deliciously wicked Gloom card game. At the time of this post, he’s minding a Kickstarter campaign for the Phoenix: Dawn Command card-based roleplaying game, which I just noticed is now a Kickstarter Staff Pick!

When he’s not designing games or writing fiction, Keith walks the earth like Caine from Kung Fu, running games for the common people everywhere.

1. All roleplaying games have an element of story, and you’re a novelist as well as a game designer. In what ways do you approach story differently in prose fiction compared with a roleplaying game? And how about a card game? And other sorts of games? 

My favorite thing about RPGs is that they allow collaborative storytelling. When I write a novel, it is inherently my story. When I run a session of an RPG, it’s something that I am creating with a group of people. When I traveled the world in 2009, I ran a particular D&D scenario 59 times. No session played exactly the same, and it was always fun for me to see the new approaches and ideas that each group brought to the table. It also lets you tailor elements to the individual group—what do they care about? What frightens them? This is also what I enjoy about my card game Gloom. Storytelling isn’t required, but the game provides a framework that helps inspire stories, and the things that people come up with are my favorite aspect of playing the game. My current project Phoenix draws on both of these aspects—calling on the players to collaborate in the story, and providing lots of optional hooks for to inspire storytelling.

2. Tell us more about how death strengthens and defines the characters in Phoenix: Dawn Command? What inspired you to use death as such an integral element of the game’s story?

The defining element of the heroes of Phoenix: Dawn Command is the ability to return from death stronger than before. You don’t gain power by killing others; instead, you advance by dying and learning lessons from each life and death. Mechanically this is represented by adding cards to your deck—gaining new ongoing and short-term abilities, along with additional health and mystical energy.

However, there’s a few restrictions. You can only come back seven times. You don’t come back right away. Each time you die you become stronger, but you’re also getting closer to the end. In addition, the abilities you gain are based on the reasons for your death. We have six Schools in Phoenix, each of which have certain powers and each of which is tied to a different sort of death. If you died because you weren’t tough enough, you will learn Durant lessons—abilities that help with survival. If you died sacrificing yourself for others, you can gain Devoted powers that help you strengthen others in the future. And so on. So it’s not just a power bump; it’s about thinking of what brought you to death and what you’re taking away from it, which helps create a sense of character evolution.

Why death? In part it’s tied to the setting of the game. Phoenix takes place in a world that’s been fighting a losing struggle against a host of supernatural horrors. At the start of the game, even the true nature of the threat remains a mystery; one of the most important things players can do is to learn why these attacks are happening. As a result, you are regularly placed in situations where the odds are stacked against you and where success of the mission is more important than your own personal survival. It’s a setting that frequently calls for heroic sacrifice, but in most games choosing to die simply isn’t an option. In Phoenix there are consequences for death: again, you have a limited number of lives, you don’t come back right away or where you died, and most missions are time-sensitive and there will be consequences if the entire team falls. It’s not a trivial thing, but it’s a setting where sacrifices have to be made and a system where you can make those sacrifices without its being the end of your story.

Phoenix

Cover by Veronica Ewing.

3. Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game that uses cards instead of the traditional dice. What advantages do cards offer this particular game? 

The most immediate effect is that cards offer the players a greater degree of narrative control. In a dice-based system I can see a demon, make a dramatic heartfelt speech, use my biggest attack… and then roll a one. In Phoenix, I can look at my hand and tell if I have the cards I need to make that attack successful… and if not, what I’d have to sacrifice to push myself beyond my normal limits. Card draw is random, and I may simply not have what I need to succeed in a particular moment. But if that’s the case I know that, and it becomes a question of how I can contribute with the cards I do have.

Essentially, this is a game where you may be laying down your life to make a last stand… but at least you have a sense of exactly what you can accomplish with that sacrifice instead of having that be entirely up to chance.

4. Now that you’re in the thick of a Kickstarter campaign, what has surprised you about it in either a good or a bad way? Does the platform aid your creative process (with backer feedback) or drain it (by making you act more like a business manager)?

The actual act of running the Kickstarter—handling day-to-day questions and communications—isn’t that bad. But frankly, I’d never have done this on my own precisely because of the amount of business management that’s involved around the Kickstarter. Getting quotes from printers. Figuring out domestic and international fulfillment. Warehousing. Distribution beyond the Kickstarter. I love writing and designing games, but this isn’t my strength. Luckily, I have a business partner who’s on top of all of those things and gives me confidence in our plans. But it’s not something I’d going into casually. Money can solve these problems—there are people you can pay to do all of these things—but it’s important to realize that there’s far more to a successful Kickstarter than just having a good idea for a game.

5. Many gamers and game masters are storytellers, but not all end up producing fiction, games, or comics themselves. Where’s the bridge that leads from gaming as a hobby to designing or writing professionally? Are the tools different? Is it a matter of butt-in-chair? Is it a question of talent?

One of the big questions is the motivation for making the leap. For many people, the best part about gaming is creating a story with friends. When I was running games around the world, one of my hosts described it as creating a “personal mythology”—stories that bound his friends together, but had no real meaning for anyone else. It’s much harder to create a product that anyone will like than to come up with a story that you know your personal friends will enjoy. Beyond that, it’s the same as any other sort of writing: starting with a good idea, having the discipline to see it through, and being prepared to deal with rejection or the need to make changes to meet the needs of the final audience.

So if there’s a gaming group that’s been creating amazing stories and having a fantastic time for a decade, I don’t consider them failures for not taking those tales to a wider audience!

 

Keep tabs on Keith’s latest projects at his website or on Twitter.