Thursday, 24 January 2013

Interview - Nicholas Caldwell and John Seal

Please welcome Nicholas Caldwell, the publisher and licensee for the Iron Crown Enterprises- ICE - set of games, and John Seal, the IP owner.

Welcome to Farsight Blogger. Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

John Seal: Hi! Well, I'm an American living in London England and work in the finance industry. I have a family and recently started gaming with my two daughters, a big development for our household and everyone is having a lot of fun. Hobbies include all sorts of gaming - I run a board games night at my local church every other month, have a regular poker group and I'm addicted to conquerclub (online "risk") I was introduced to the former owners and founders of Iron Crown Enterprises in the late 90's and when ICE went into bankruptcy, I acquired nearly all of the assets and intellectual property of the company. ICE was then run by Mjolnir for ten years, and as of 2010 is mainly run by Guild Companion Publications in terms of game creation and development, which is a good intro for Nicholas!

Nicholas Caldwell: Hi! I’m originally from Northern Ireland but have been living and working in Cambridge (UK) as a researcher for a very long time. My principal hobbies are reading and gaming. I got my start in the rpg industry as the freelance writer of Rolemaster’s Mentalism Companion for Old ICE and as the chief editor of an online zine (www.guildcompanion.com) which I founded and managed for over a decade. I’ve freelanced for Steve Jackson Games (writing GURPS Age of Napoleon) and did some modest work for Pelgrane Press’ Dying Earth RPG before writing Rolemaster’s Construct Companion and HARP College of Magics for Mjolnir. Eventually I saw a way to better run the ICE properties, approached John (in his Aurigas Aldebaron LLC capacity as IP owner) and presented him with an offer he could not refuse! He agreed, I created my own company (Guild Companion Publications Ltd), and the rpg licenses were transitioned to it.

Tell us about your RPG history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?

John: My best friend at the time brought home a game and said "we need to play this!" We were both into LoTR and the Hobbit so it was a no brainer. I That was way back in 1979 where we started with D&D and I wrote massive amounts as a DM for several campaigns through the school years, playing several games. Things were quiet for a few years in my early thirties but I have been playing off and on until recently again.

Nicholas: Red box Basic D&D (complete with the obligatory “Where’s the board?” comment from my grandparents) and the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I migrated from D&D to games published as slim paperbacks (Dragon Warriors, Maelstrom and Tunnels & Trolls) because I was GMing on the hour-long bus trip to and from my school, and played MERP & Rolemaster. At university, I started running epic Rolemaster campaigns. I’ve never stopped gaming.

What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

Nicholas: When I’m GMing, it’s all about creating the world and the story, and then having fun watching my players strive to get themselves heroically out of the mess I’ve (or they’ve!) got themselves. When I’m playing, it’s about the camaraderie of friends battling, problem-solving, or fast-talking our way through some fiendish plot and building up a character.

John: I think the tangibility of making a fantasy story "very real". I love sci fi and fantasy, so to be able to be part of "writing a story" at the gaming table is even more entertaining as is the whole social aspect of it. And that's it really, just "living the dream" with friends.

What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

Nicholas: Rules-wise, HARP and HARP SF, I’ve played them, GMed them, and wrote large chunks of the material. Setting-wise, I still love the pseudo-medieval world of Dragon Warriors’ Legend and the freewheeling old-school Titan setting for Advanced Fighting Fantasy. The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is one of the gaming products on my shelf that simply makes me jealous. 

John: Fwooo...tough one. Well, I'm a nut for a Risk game because I love strategy. For RPGs, I have a soft spot for old AD&D. It never really got better from there, except arguably Hackmaster's take on it. But of course at the top of the pile and near and dear to my heart is Iron Crown's HARP as I had a lot of input into that and will continue to do so. I'm running an even more streamlined version of HARP with the kids.

Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

John: Yes but not as much as I would like, but getting a game in once every two weeks. And, playing the streamlined HARP with the kids, "testing" it out.

Nicholas: Yes, usually about once a week subject to everyone’s schedule. Currently I’m playing in a Warhammer 2nd Edition game using the Al-Qadim setting. I have a suspicion that it’s my turn to GM next once that campaign ends.

The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold its own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?

John: Well, having been to a recent con, the thing that worries me most is the demographic profile of the attendees. Sadly, just not enough young people. It’s a real risk and I'm not sure the tide can be turned. But we have a strong original fan base that will give us years to turn that tide, so we have a chance. What is interesting is that the board games night at my church has been a massive success - kids love it as do parents because they are not watching tv, they are not on the computer and they are socialising with real live human beings.

Nicholas: There’s a lot of competition for people’s time, so anything that makes it easier for gamers to keep gaming, whether it’s ready-to-run material to reduce prep time or the virtual tabletops that allow dispersed groups to play over the internet, is a very good thing and we need more of it. Longer-term, we need new blood and to train up the next generation of players and especially GMs

Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?

Nicholas: Now that’s a tough call. In terms of stuff that I have written personally – it has to be  HARP SF & HARP SF Xtreme. I wrote those two together as one manuscript at a time when my health was endangered, put through them private and public playtests and led them through to final publication with my own company. In terms of a project that I didn’t write personally, then the Shadow World Player Guide stands out as the wonder book that still amazes me in terms of quality.

John: I suppose my involvement with HARP where I had substantial input into the drafting of the rules is my most proud “creative” project.  But of course I’m really pleased to have saved ICE from oblivion and managed to have kept it going, though I wish the results in the 2000-2010 decade had been better.

You’ve no doubt mixed with other great names in the roleplaying community – do you have any stories or anecdotes to share? Any horror stories? Be as frank as you like!

Nicholas: I’ve met a number of the great and the good of the industry typically by attending or organising conventions. And they have all been good people that I am very happy to have met and spent time chatting with or gaming with. People, who in some other industry might be at daggers drawn with a potential upstart competitor, are keen to share their advice and help you get started and avoid their mistakes. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t a few bad apples or companies who don’t meet their end of a contract for whatever reason (paying freelancers isn’t optional), but I keep in mind the Hogshead motto of not doing business with idiots.  

John: Ahhh...you want the dirt! Well, I have a policy of trying not to bad mouth anyone if I can help it, or unless they really, really deserve it. But actually, despite some bad behaviour by a couple individuals in all these years, I can honestly say no one (not even those individuals) has been terrible or appalling and almost everyone I met in the industry are really good people! The thing is, I'm an outsider and I don’t know lots of "industry people" - I'm a player and a fan and that’s where my head is at. I bought ICE to save it, but I haven't run it - others have. And I won’t ever make any money on it - I don't intend to - I want all the profits to be plowed back into the business. I am more involved now only because I'm older and have more free time (and more money to "help"). That means I can bring fresh ideas to the industry and to the running of the business, but since I'm a professional investor, I also realize the difficult straits the industry is in. There is still too much piracy and too many cheap (in price and, as a result, in quality) alternatives which cut into the profitability of good stuff. There is no barrier to entry and anyone can start writing up product and chip away at the market - there is tons of free and cheap product...and you get what you pay for...so then people become disillusioned with the hobby on both the cheap stuff as well as less product due to less profits to be reinvested by the larger players, where they struggle to retain fans. Again I say this more as a professional investor in that it’s not an attractive industry to be a business owner, and the behaviour of fans, customers, start-ups and established company alike are all beating down the industry. We have managed to go to a near virtual company model where almost all our costs are variable, which has helped considerably, and we are trying to educate all ICE fans that the more the fan base grows, the more profits can be plowed into new product, the more support product there is, the easier it is to play, etc. – a virtuous spiral, so to speak. So, we can only be the vanguard of the ICE army - we need all those soldiers, the fans, to really make the model successful. The more fans we and the existing fans can help us attract, the more input and involvement they have on our forums and with product development and therefore the more products produced and purchased, then the more value, choice, aid and accessibility will be created for the fans.

What are you working on at the moment?

Nicholas: I’m shepherding a lot of projects at the moment. The giant project is the new unified Rolemaster where we have the first three core rulebooks in a public playtest on the ICE forums (just register on the forums at www.ironcrown.com) to be able to download beta copies and be involved in creating the future of Rolemaster. Terry Amthor will be shortly handing me his next regional module for the Shadow World setting, Emer III: The Southeast, to edit. For HARP Fantasy, I have enhanced versions of Martial Law and College of Magics ready to enter rapid layout, with a wholly new Bestiary being constructed for the line. And I’m also working my way through previously published and unpublished Cyradon material in preparation for a proper relaunch of the setting with multiple supporting adventure modules. Hopefully by the second half of next year, I’ll be able to devote much more of my time to finishing off my own manuscripts and get them ready for publication.