Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Interview - Lee F. Szczepanik


Please welcome to the blog Lee F. Szczepanik of Daring Entertainment!

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

Hey, thanks for having me. Well, to those who don't know Daring Entertainment, I'm Lee F. Szczepanik, Jr., the company's creative director and one of the partners. I'm the guy behind War of the Dead, World of the Dead, Hellbrood, and all the other stuff. I've been a published author for over 25 years, starting way back in 1986 at a pretty young age. I've worked in novels, short stories, comic books, television, and jumped into creating RPGs around 2005 or so.

Other than that, I've four kids all ranging in age from 19 years old to 3 years old, just turned 40 on Christmas, and need to find a way to get more sleep at night.

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

I started roleplaying around 1988. Unlike a lot of my fellow gamers, I didn't start with D&D. Outside of Ravenloft and Dark Sun in AD&D 2e, I've barely played any edition of D&D. My first exposure to RPGs was through the Marvel Superhero Advanced Set. I saw it at a Waldenbooks, bought it out of curiosity, and started running it for my cousins and siblings. Matter of fact, we started with the Nightmares of Futures Past supplement/adventure.

From there I'd played a ton of games, ranging from Shadowrun (1e through 3e), Elfquest, Stormbringer, TORG, Star Wars d6, DC Heroes (Mayfair), Amber Diceless, Vampire: The Masquerade, Paranoia, Witchcraft, Mekton, Cyberpunk 2020, Toon, Teenagers from Outer Space, you name it. We didn't get into the two game systems we've licensed until much later: M&M 2e the year it released, and Savage Worlds in 2007 after discovering the Rippers setting.

In all those years, I've been primarily a game master. My game time has diminished a bit in recent years, but that has a lot to do with my own work schedule (outside of RPGs, I have an upcoming novel trilogy through my literary agent that I am also working on), general group work hours, and other daily grind stuff.

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

For me, it's the creative aspect. Looking way back to early teenage years, even before I discovered RPGs, I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading and creating at an obsessive pace. RPGs have always been an instant way to create and (hopefully) have others enjoy it, regardless of what table or group.

So, most definitely the creative aspects of running or playing a game are the huge attraction and what I enjoy the most. We aren't too heavy in our personal games on playing the rules "as is" or even designing a house rule for everything. The way we game, it's story and character first. If there's a hole in the rules, we'll just ad-hoc a die roll and move on. I think it's one reason Amber Diceless got so much play out of us in the past, and why we've always prefered simple systems like Marvel Superheroes and Savage Worlds (sans the minitaures rules, as we don't use minitaures either).

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

I think my all time favorite game is a tie: Marvel Superheroes and d6. Both are very good at doing what they are supposed to do, and then getting out of the way. Both systems have also, for reasons I don't understand, really got my creative juices flowing for creating adventures.

Of the current games, Savage Worlds is a modern favorite. Now, I'm not saying that because I license it. If the game ever changed too much with a new edition that the statement stopped being true, I would close off the product lines and leave the brand. Honestly, if I can't creatively get behind a system, then how can I create for it, right? But Savage Worlds is a big one for me, and also why I became a licensee.

I've also become a huge fan of FATE and BRP in recent years.

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

I haven't had time to play in a few months, what with the recent Kickstarter, Holidays, and all that chaos. We are currently batting around ideas for what we want to start gaming, and are about to introduce my 14 year old son to the hobby on a steady basis. Early ideas being tossed around right now are: Rune Punk (Savage Worlds), Marvel Superheroes, and Marvel Heroic (the new game from MWP).

We want something simple so that the brand new player isn't boggled down in a ton of rules, and can get into the meat of what roleplaying is about for us. Of those three, we are leaning toward Rune Punk because it is light, fun, and they want to resurrect a few of their old characters for it, some of which were great comic relief.

The jury is still out, though, and we are still looking at other possibilities.

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 it’s 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?

I always chuckle at the death-knell conversations. If you play MMORPGs like I also do, pick a forum— after the huge moves to F2P and B2P, and the failure of Star Wars: The Old Republic, people have been sounding the MMORP death-knell for a little over a year now. Reminds me so much of the RPG industry.

For one, the RPG industry is going to have to shift because society and how we interact has shifted since RPGs first appeared. Digital formats and direct selling are rising. Not only that, and I don't have the answers on this one or I would be developing the platform through Daring myself, but the industry has to find a common, effective way of playing RPGs with friends and family online. That is going to be key to the future. We have some decent methods that are currently being used, I just don't feel it's where it needs to be for the health of the hobby, yet.

Other than that, I honestly don't see the three-tier distribution system as being part of the industry's future. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against game shops and try to support them as much as I can at my current company size. I am, however, growing to become more and more unhappy with the distributors. Unfortunately, the entire distribution system is seriously outdated. Although we are still working on business models, Daring is already looking at eventually leaving the distribution system and doing more direct sales. Not only between us and our customers directly, but also with Chronicle City's possible help in reaching retailers directly, providing tangible incentives for running demos of our games, and so forth. Right now, I am losing a huge piece of the MSRP just to have the "street-cred" that I am being distributed, just so I can then sit on the warehouse shelves unless some customer walks into a shop to "special order" the book. Since we aren't WoTC or MWP or one or two others, few actually shelve us. By the time it's done, that MSRP is lost, we don't even see shelf space in a vast majority of stores, and we make a little over $5 on a $30 book just to be a "special order".

I'd rather target the shops directly, work out incentives to get the books purchased by them and shelved, and then build a network of people to run/demo the games in the shops and expose them more (and hopefully move them off the shelves).

The days are closing on distributors taking 55%-59% off our MSRP, or playing sour grapes because we used Kickstarter (never mind that their outdated gustapo model is why many of us are forced to look at Kickstarter).

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

Hellbrood: Countdown to Invasion. That book turned out better than I'd hoped when I started writing it, and I know where the products are heading in the future. I love that setting, the adventures/stories, and all the things coming on the horizon.

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!

Well, like any industry, this one has its share of horror stories. I'm not going to mention any names, as that won't benefit anyone (especially Daring for doing it), but I've already caught one extremely popular game designer in a particular genre directly plagarizing older games and getting away with it. Heck, he not only gets away with it, but the company he's with sells such games hand-over-fist. And I don't mean using OGL material, which is allowed. I mean directly taking a lot of text from pre-OGL games and using it word for word in different products without even an acknowledgement. Needless to say, I stopped purchasing from that company. I never want to see any company go under, but in recent years that one has been floundering a bit, and I smile. Those companies deserve it.

Another has been dogging us since I entered the industry in 2005 as Arbor Productions. They've tried to rip us off and be cute about it. After they got caught with that, they then tried poaching our talent by offering better pay and then locking them down with a "conflict of interest" on working with us— and it darned near worked to hurt us at one point. All I will say to close that topic off is: we're still here.

But to be honest, we actually have more good stories than bad. I've gotten to know a lot of really good people, not only as a game designer, but in some cases beyond the industry.

Wiggy over at Triple Ace Games might live across the pond from me, but when it comes down to it, the man is a true long-distance friend. He'd helped me through a personal crisis back in 2009, we've talked a ton about personal lives and issues, and he's just one-of-a-kind. There are times I'm not sure I would enjoy doing this as much as I have over the years if not for Wiggy.

Mike Dukes is another great guy. Although he doesn't do the industry full time anymore, he and I are still in regular contact. He still works with me when I need the help, and he's a terrific guy all around. He's having some great opportunities open up for him in his real field of employment, and I honestly wish him nothing but success. He's one of those guys, like Wiggy, that if I can help him in some way— I'll do it, no questions asked.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now we are completing World of the Dead since that Kickstarter was successful, and this spring we are launching the Hellbrood Kickstarter.

I am working on a complete relaunch of GET Into Action for Savage Worlds, which will debut with a 5-part adventure book done in the style of the old G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero 5-part miniseries cartoons, and then head right into the "Season One" plot-point campaign setting book. We are going to offer the 5-part miniseries for free (or with a discount equal to the price of the original GET Into Action, depending upon the new product's MSRP) to everyone that purchased the original PDF since 2009.

Outside of that, we are designing the Daring Adventures Roleplaying Game, which uses a version of the OpenD6 license. Dave Martin, a new Savage Licensee and owner of Protagonist Games, is our Brand Manager for that entire upcoming product line. We also have 2 settings already in the works for it, and a ton of support products. Dave and I have been d6 gamers since the beginning, and in all honesty, if given a free choice, d6 is our #1 go-to system for gaming. We can't wait to get this updated, revised, and expanded version of the system out there.

I can't say too much beyond that, as anything else would be a 2014 or beyond endeavor.