I recently interviewed Sean Patrick Fannon, whom you might known for DriveThruRPG but actually has a storied history in gaming. He’s also the author of the Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible. He’s worked on just about every other part of the gaming industry. I’ll let him explain…
Michael Tresca: Tell us a little about your gaming background.
Sean Patrick Fannon: In my day, we carved our character sheets on bark, and we used teeth that fell out of our mouths and small rocks as miniatures!
Um, wait, no…
It was 1977, and I’d just spent days upon days watching Star Wars as much as I could get away with. I’d managed to discover an article in an old “Games” magazine in the middle school library where the author had played this strange new “Dungeons & Dragons” for the first time. I begged my mom to get me the first boxed set (not the old 3-book stuff, but the one with the powder blue book inside and “Keep On the Borderlands” in it). I taught myself to be a DM…
A little over a decade later, in 1988, I’m writing for “The Gamer” magazine, published by Scott Haring. A year later, I’m pitching Enemies books to the Hero Games guys.and meeting everyone I can in the industry. By 1996, I’ve written the First Edition of the Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible and dabbled in the computer games industry.
Come 2005, the first book for Shaintar has come out thanks to my friends at Savage Mojo, Pinnacle Entertainment, and Studio 2; this is my magnum opus, the culmination of all my treasured ideas and my storytelling art. It’s a culmination still very much underway, as I am now (via the great folks at Reality Blurs) preparing to release a 3-volume epic of game material for it, presenting what I hope will be considered one of the best heroic fantasy settings for gamers ever. I know, shoot the moon, right?
Along the way, I got more and more involved with the business side of things. Researching and writing the Bible got me started there. Working with Obsidian Studios as the Director had me doing everything – sales, marketing, layout, editing, art direction, etc.. Well, except art – my stick figures look like they have the DTs. I worked with the Game Manufacturer’s Association for a time, and learned a great deal there, too. That’s where I came to truly understand and appreciate the “digital revolution” and how it has affected the games industry.
And now, thanks to the kindness and belief of Steve Wieck, I’m fully embedded with DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, handling communications, marketing, and business development alongside Matt, Steve, and a great team of folks.
Oh, well, there’s also this SilverMeet Studios thing I’ve just helped to start, but that might be for another time…
MT: You’re a published RPG author. What games did you write for?
SPF: Well, as I said, my career began as a featured reviewer for “The Gamer.” After that, I really focused on working with the Hero Games/Iron Crown Enterprises folks on the Champions product line. I did a lot of fun stuff for them, both on my own and as a contributor to a number of great products. I was honored to be the Continuity Editor for the official Champions Universe for a while (I had SUCH plans, but things, they changed…).
I got involved in developing the Fuzion system; learned a great deal from that experience, I can tell you. I know I am a better designer for being involved in it. I also did some work on a Star Wars RPG book for West End, as well as a Shatterzone book. I’ve also done a few things over the years for White Wolf as well.
Honestly, I’ve not been as prolific as many of my colleagues, and my titles list isn’t anywhere near large enough for all the years I’ve been at this. In some cases, this is because of the other work I was doing, just to get food and gas. In other cases, it’s because I’ve been delving into larger, longer projects (the Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, developing Fuzion and the failed Shards of the Stone project, and building on Shaintar are all examples).
Mostly, however, it’s because I’ve not had the kind of focus I could wish for. I believe, however, I am at last hitting my stride there, and these next few years ought to be interesting…
MT: You managed to make the jump from tabletop role-playing games to computer games. How did you make that transition?
SPF: Let me be honest here – my “jump” was more like a barely-controlled fall. There’s only one title on the market today that has my name in the credits – ZenGems, a casual play game by Fresh Games that I helped playtest extensively.
Every other project I got involved with died a painful, crash-and-burn death. I was fired once, laid off more times than I can count, and rode the ship to the waterline on more than one occasion. The electronic games industry is madness wrapped in chaos and delivered in a box with lots of pretty digital art.
There was a time when being a somewhat successful RPG writer could land you a decent gig as either a designer or at least as a story-and-character developer with a good company. I’ve a few colleagues who’ve managed that very well. I was not one of them, though, and my lack of technical aptitude eventually made it impossible for me to see a good road. As with all things, though, I learned a lot about how that industry works, and I brought that know-how with me to where I am today.
MT: You wrote a book, The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible? What’s this bible about? Do you quote passages? Are there any moral lessons you can share?
SPF: Quote passages? Dude, I’m not even certain I have a copy laying anywhere around here (I tend to be rather foolish about giving out my own copies of things).
I can quote the back-cover tag line – “Everything you ever wanted to know about gaming, but thought you’d be too much of geek if you asked.”
I endeavored to write as complete a book about gaming as had ever been done. I wanted to cover more than history and what games there were out there (though I did that, too); I wanted to teach, explain, explore, and demystify. I consider it the greatest reward of my work that many have said that I accomplished all of those goals with the book.
I readily admit that it is long overdue for a new edition…
MT: How does tabletop gaming and computer gaming compare? Do you have a preference? Which is easier to transition, tabletop to computer gaming, or computer gaming to tabletop?
SPF: Tabletop gamers have virtually no problem parsing what’s going on with an online game or computer game. The basic ideas of a character, defined by set abilities and contained within a storyline, are easy to grasp. Most tabletop fans simply sigh and accept the inherent limitations of a computer game as far as story and roleplaying is concerned, instead enjoying the visceral thrills and ease-of-access without having to gather a group.
Those coming from digital gaming to the tabletop have a much harder time, I think, because they are suddenly being asked to grasp and utilize concepts that are otherwise hidden behind code. If they’ve not had much experience with the whole in-character dialog thing, this can be a real stumble for them as well.
Still, we welcome them and hope to convert them all.
AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!! Er, sorry for the evil laugh there…
MT: You were an events coordinator for Origins and GTS. Is there any gaming-related task you can’t do?
SPF: Well, like I said, my stick figures look like they’re suffering from severe epilepsy. Which makes it really interesting that I do a weekly comic strip for the newsletter (gotta thank the drag-and-drop capabilities of Stripgenerator!).
My desire to work in the games industry pretty much had me doing whatever it took. Suddenly, one day, I’m discussing business development with one of the keenest minds in this industry – Steve Wieck, who owned and ran White Wolf and is now my boss at DriveThruRPG/RPGNow – and I realized doing all the things I’ve done gives me some really good insight to help make us successful.
MT: How did you end up becoming the RPG Marketing Coordinator for DriveThruRPG?
SPF: I was in need of some kind of paycheck during a major transition in my life, and Steve offered me a temporary gig helping sort out the filters and related information for all the products on the recently combined sites of DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. There was a lot of data that wasn’t synced up right, and he wanted my expertise about RPGs to help in figuring all of that out.
Funnily enough, I didn’t end up doing a lot of work on that; instead, I found myself getting more involved in helping with Publisher Relations and other projects and ideas related to expanding the marketplace and reaching more customers. Steve and I meshed very well, and I also developed an excellent working relationship with other team members (like Chuck Childers, Mike Todd, and Jeff Montgomery). At some point, I just found myself in these roles, partially due to my involving myself in the tasks at hand, partially thanks to Steve’s mentoring and his belief in me.
MT: Will PDFs be the salvation of the tabletop industry? Or will they be the final nail in its coffin?
SPF: Honestly, tabletop roleplaying spent very little time in the ICU. I’m not saying it wasn’t in there for a short while, but the industry has been long past recovery and is doing just fine these days.
And, yes, I believe absolutely that the advent of the PDF and digital content marketplace has been the source of the revitalization. It is entirely possible for companies to put out strong lines, surviving and even thriving on the quality of the content and meeting the demands of their customers. They can do so without the burden of committing to a print run, warehouse space, shipping, and surviving the mortal combat of grabbing and holding shelf space.
Digital distribution makes this a game anyone can play, and the classic elements of free market capitalism are very much at work here. Quality will out, and so will crap.
Frankly, with us adding in the digital print options, there’s no reason a team of creatives can’t put together a great product with only the equity of their sweat to start. Customers can afford many more products to support their gaming thanks to the far more accessible pricing that PDFs afford.
The only thing that can spell the “death” of tabletop RPGs is a lack of players and GMs willing to put the effort into the game. Thankfully, I see so many of my contemporaries bringing their kids to the tables, and that really gives me hope.
MT: Do you own an e-reader? Do you still read paperback books? And if you do, do you feel guilty about it?
SPF: I’ve been holding out on the e-reader/tablet decision; once we have a sense of how things are shaking out, I may pick one up as part of my role with the company (`cause Steve is an AWESOME boss!).
I read physical books all the time, and there’s not one shred of guilt. When I first started working for this company, Steve purchased and gave me a number of books – physical books, you understand – to read as part of my education.
It’s all about getting content to people in the media that want. There are a lot of companies out there pushing the physical books; we just happen to be experts with the digital distribution.
I look forward to having something to read PDFs on (I’m one of the All Time Great Bathroom Readers), but there are so many great, already-printed books out there in our great room, covering the shelves, and I hope to read a great many of them, too.
MT: What’s the next great innovation in tabletop gaming?
SPF: A machine that allows me to create exactly the plastic painted miniature I want and then spit it out. Yeah, that’ll happen…
Seriously, once someone figures out how to put apps on smart phones and the i-Thingies that all easily integrate together, enabling electronically “amplified” tabletop gaming, that’s going to rock. Combat resolvers (maybe even with sound effects), linked tablets showing visuals on demand, secret-note messaging… it’s all almost there now, but I’m fairly certain the work required for dubious financial rewards has thus far hindered such development.
Still, I can’t imagine it’s long in coming; there’s just too many passionate, obsessive geeks among our crowd.
MT: I have a theory that PDFs will rapidly gain critical mass once e-readers become ubiquitous. With the demise of Borders and the rise of the Nook and Kindle it seems that reality is nigh. How long do you think it will take before electronic publishing outpaces print publishing as the main distribution channel?
SPF: We are watching it happen even now. I frequently have editors and publishing agents from the fiction industry come up to me at conventions, asking me all kinds of questions about what I’ve presented regarding our business and our model. I think the shift of emphasis will be measured in just a few years, at most.
MT: If there’s anything left in gaming that you haven’t done…what would you like to work on next?
SPF: I’m doing it, actually. I’m the Creative Director of SilverMeet Studios, a gathering of seriously talented folks who are working with me to shift the entire model of producing and selling RPG content (and related stuff). This will include crafting a truly shared gaming universe where everyone who wants to can make their gaming experience be a part of the greater whole.
It’s called the OmniVerse.
I also really want to do some straight-up fiction, which I am determined to pull off while I can still type.
I’m also keen to get involved in bringing some real roleplaying to the social network scene. That’s still very much just some ideas, for now.
MT: Where can we find out more about you?
SPF: I’ve maintained a biography page on RPGLife – By Way of Introduction: Sean Patrick Fannon | RPG Life. The best way to get to know more about me, though, is to buy me a beer at a convention and then just ask away. I’m not shy by any standard