Serial Building In A Time of War

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Back in 2008 as I worked with Herb on sorting out the upcoming A Time of War role-playing rulebook, a suggestion was made about the short stories that would be peppered throughout. As the stories were a key component within the BattleTech core rules – to better show the richness of the universe – they were also a more subtle way to showcase the various rules within the next section. While this didn’t always match up, it was mostly successful.

With the RPG book, we intended to do the same. However, I pitched a concept that not only would each story highlight the next rules section, but also carry through as a connected serial. This would help illustrate one of the primary motivators for role-playing games in general. After all, RPGs are all about playing a character within the setting. So why not do a subtle take on the typical episodic campaign arc that is commonplace at gaming tables?

You’ll see in my finalized version that went out to the assigned writers how this worked for our character stories for the ATOW book. Each chapter focused on a different character’s POV, as well as advanced our intrepid heroes along the campaign path. You can then compare these final notes with the final product, and see how each writer interpreted them.

ATOW Story Elements

I figured this would be a fun little ‘behind the scenes’ bit from my archive, as I start to clean house after my decision last week. I may show a little more in the weeks ahead, so keep your eyes peeled!

Artistic Character

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Klaus Scherwinski, artist, illustrator, and way-cool guy.

Last we met, we’d figured out our scope and direction, sketched out our character ideas, and begun sorting out the method of our medium. I’d like to expand on that for this installment, as it’s probably the most-asked question I’ve fielded since the rollout of the IHProPath project.

Why not photographs?

Part of the answer goes back to a concept I mentioned previously: “future forward.” By placing our characters and their scenes a bit forward in the future, we would not be beholden to the stricter details of today. I realized this early on during our character design brainstorms – one of my experts asked me what type of gas chromatography mass spectrometer devices we’d have shown in our student scene. I balked at that, because I first had to look up what that terminology meant!

It became fairly evident rather quickly that aiming for the ‘here and now’ was not going to work. It would mean slavish adherence to every detail, to make sure we got it all absolutely correct. That process alone would add months, if not a year or more, to our tightening timeline.

It would also impact how we presented the images. Photography was the first consideration but it was soon pushed aside after the above implications. Never mind constructing the ‘perfect’ scene with all details covered – finding the right subjects would also increase the project’s time. (And budget!) Rather than go into such mind-boggling detail, I turned to a mainstay I have used in my ‘other’ life as a game freelancer: illustrative art.

Art Trumps Photography

Using artwork has a number of benefits, the biggest being the ability to create a future reality with regards to workspaces, equipment, and backgrounds. By using real-world elements in combination with more futuristic stylings, we would cement the image with identifiable material for the audience while still conveying the idea of just-beyond-the-horizon technology.

ecp-clipUnsure what I mean? For an easy illustration, look at the tablet in the hands of Melinda, our Early Career Professional. The shape, size, and obvious use of the device easily tells you of its function. But by making the screen holographic and transparent, we’re seeing a common tool of today ‘futurized,’ adding to the scene’s more advanced bend.

Notice the other object in the background, to the left of our futuristic tablet? You can easily identify it because it has a familiar shape and is a common item found in setting of the piece – a fire extinguisher. You automatically processed its presence without actively searching it out, and that helped cement the entire scene for you.

So then, my next question – how difficult would it be to recreate this entire scene as a photograph? And if we could, imagine the cost! The illustration conveys a much richer and complex snapshot at a fraction of cost that a photograph could do.

Enter Klaus

Of course, you need to make sure you’ve hired an artist with such skill and capabilities. Fortunately for AIHA, I have a few in my arsenal of contacts.

I quickly put together a Call for Artists document, which gave an outline of the project and a request for a (very) rough sketch based on a sample scene I provided. The Call then went out to several illustrators who have worked in various entertainment-oriented industries, such as comics, animation, video games, and tabletop games. While I did have a shortlist in mind, I wanted to see what this community could come up with.

A few artists responded to my proposal, about half submitted sketches and follow-up questions. Much to my surprise and delight, Klaus Scherwinski, an artist I have worked with extensively on game product in the past, was one of the respondents. He requested a Skype call, during which he proceeded to not only ask great questions about the project as a whole, but also gave some creative suggestions that we’re incorporating in Phase II, coming in 2017.

Klaus is an accomplished illustrator, working as a creative artist for more than a decade. Based in Germany, he’s worked on comic books, game publications, video game art, and at the time, had just begun branching into full-blown animation. When I found out he was not only available for the timeline of our project, but also excited about participating in something revolutionary in a completely different industry, it was a no-brainer to tap him as our lead illustrator for the project.

It would be up to him to give life to our burgeoning vision.

Collision of Culture

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Art by Klaus Scherwinski and Luisa Preissler; ©AIHA; used with permission.

I distinctly remember when the idea first popped into my mind. It was during the first all-staff meeting at my new employer, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). I was only two weeks into my new position as a Content Specialist; hardly an expert on the Association, its membership, or its subject matter.  (Go ahead and google “industrial hygiene;” I’ll wait. I did the same thing when I got the job interview…)

The more creative side of my brain – the part that has kept me gainfully employed as freelance writer and designer in the tabletop game industry – perked up during the presentation on the Association’s new Career Stages initiative. (“I sense opportunity!” Yes, my brain interrupts me a lot during meetings.) Extensive study and discussion by various committees had finalized an infographic that delineated the profession into various knowledge areas, tracks, and career stages. Made up of four stages, three knowledge areas, and three career tracks, these 12 segments encompassed the life cycles of careers that involved industrial hygiene.

The question being posed to the staff, at the time, was a way to properly identify and then represent to the membership – and ultimately the public – at large.

The immediate difficulty, as I saw it, was properly describing in simple terms the areas, tracks, and stages. As presented, the descriptors were text heavy and unwieldy for any casual audience. How could one properly introduce these stages to an audience that probably had limited knowledge as to the IH profession?

At that time, I considered myself a member of that particular audience, being only six days on the job.

As the meeting went on, I found myself thinking back to my games experience, both in developing and playing. I’d just started to introduce my local group of players to Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (SW:EOE) roleplaying game (RPG). As with most RPGs, the rulebook had information on creating characters to play within the Star Wars universe. (“What’s an RPG?” you ask? Here’s a great, succinct explanation.) These ‘basic’ character archetypes are a staple in most of the popular RPGs and feature pre-made stats, record sheets, background, and artwork. It’s an incredibly simple way to introduce new players to character roles within the universe.

What if there was a way to take the Career Stages concepts and merge them into some hybrid form of archetype characters? After the meeting, I went and pulled up a couple of these sample character sheets and called over Sue Marchese, the Director of Communications and my immediate supervisor. In halting detail, I spewed out my idea, gesturing at the characters on my monitor. To her credit, she didn’t immediately give me a weird look, nod, and pat me on the head. (I’ve since discovered she’s as much of a genius risk-taker as I am.)

Marcus station game of life screen

Station art from the AIHce “Game of IH Life” concept. ©AIHA; used with permission.

She actually stopped and thought for a moment, then gave me a weird look. “Write up a proposal and we’ll talk to a couple of people.”

I churned out a rough proposal over the next day, including several different archetype examples from games I’ve worked on or participated in, such as Shadowrun, MechWarrior, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and Cosmic Patrol. The project was tentatively called “AVATAR,” so named after how people online tend to use picture representations of themselves in various communities.

Fast forward 16 months. At AIHce 2016, AIHA unveiled its new IH Professional Pathways program. A work in progress, IH Pathways is an initiative that, when fully completed, will accomplish three goals:

  • Represent to the public what an IH career looks like
  • Provide direction and support for current IH professionals in crafting and refining their own career paths
  • Categorize essential resources and materials for current IH professionals to succeed at their current position

Over the coming months, I’ll share stories and insight into this developing program, which I believe is a unique take in the association world on career development and outreach. If you haven’t already, please visit the new IH Pathways portal and check out what we’ve already done. (Or at least, enjoy the art created by my friend and colleague, Klaus Scherwinski.)

There’s a lot more to this 16 month journey, involving a bevy of talent and your usual storyline tropes. (I’ll be sharing more in subsequent articles on LinkedIn, on Synergist NOW, and my own personal blog.) Stay tuned, as our epic voyage is just beginning!

Deconstructing Campaigns

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Welcome back. So, the question we left off at:

Would we make the GenCon print date?

Probably.

During the process of building this book, we had one big speedbump that altered the composition of the book. [Edited to add more information that I’d forgotten. Thanks for the reminder, Ray!]

The cover for the book obviously changed:

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As writing wound out and began the edit process, a BIG problem popped up.

We had no ready artists in the pool who could tackle the full-page illustrations that normally divide the chapters. These pieces of art are heavily tied with the fiction pieces. With time winding out and a “let’s see if we can make GenCon” mentality, there was no time to find or schedule quality artists for that task. (The pool is shallow, and our usual suspects were booked up with other work.)

With that in mind, and because upper-level people decided to pair the book with stuff being put out by the computer game license holder Harebrained Schemes (and their in-development BattleTech computer game), the decision was also made to feature two old-school things: the redesigned Marauder (a nod back to the game’s inception and ‘Mech art more than two decades ago), and a mercenary unit that was popular among fans many, many years ago. (Said merc unit has been deceased in the game’s timeline for the last 15 years.)

The intent was to capitalize on HBS’s perceived success of their current project among the older, long-time fans by offering a product that would tug on the nostalgia strings.

And, as you can probably guess, it’s not a decision I necessarily agree with. The reasons are vast and veer a lot into NDA-area topics, so I can’t nor won’t detail them here. But it’s also a decision made above my head, and thus irrefutable. (Normally, the project developer has a lot of say with regards to cover and interior art, as well as content.)

This decision, however, cascaded into the book itself. We now had a cover that did not jive with the story being told inside. Normally, it’s not a terrible issue because we do have rulebook covers that don’t quite mesh with interior fiction.

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But because the epic story being told within the book is set at a time that is more than 100 years in the future from HBS’s game content – and with the book being tangentially tied to that company’s game property – the fiction was ultimately deemed too jarring for the nostalgia crowd.

Combined with the fact we didn’t have interior art, the painful decision was made to completely cut the fiction from the book.

Thus, Campaign Operations will be the only core rulebook that lacks story fiction buffering the chapters.

Good news, though! Philip’s story will be told through different means, most likely as a soon-to-be-released novella. Julian Davion’s story is very compelling and deserves to be out there for fans to enjoy, so we’re working hard to make sure that still happens.

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Aside from that, we did some interior switching and tightening. The Advanced Linked Scenarios morphed in the writer’s hands to a more narrative ruleset. This is an easy-to-follow campaign structure for those players who don’t care to spend hours playing “AccounTech” but still love linked games that tell a story. We then obliquely altered the Map-Based rules to expand on that, followed by the more complete Custom Chaos rules.

I also made sure that the Chaos Campaign rules included were as up-to-date as possible, folding in errata that popped up after the Total Chaos debut in 2012. Additional tweaks were made as well, based on suggestions by various players around the world. While not all 3,000+ Options, Objectives, and Special Rules were included, a sizeable portion did make it in so that GMs could find inspiration for their own games and stories.

And, as a nice little extra, I built and included a track that covers an incident involving Clan Coyote in 3103. A hint for the future? Time will tell.

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Finally, we slammed the book through editing and layout, with some key playtesters checking over examples and functions. Because much of the book was cut material from other rulebooks and supplements, they had already suffered multiple rounds of review. (Mike Miller’s solar system rules, in particular, went through FIVE review processes over the course of the last five years, due to it being assigned and then dropped from various products.)

And so now? Yes, we will make the print deadline. Copies will, barring printing or shipping calamity, be available in limited amounts at GenCon. The digital release is slated for the July 4 weekend. And we’ll probably see this in local stores coming this fall.

Preview the Table of Contents and Intro.

What does that mean for me? Well, it means that I’ve pushed out the fastest core rulebook of the series; less than a year from idea proposal to print. It also heralds what may be the last of my BattleTech projects. (There is one other in the wings that may or may not see the light of day at this point; time, money, and other factors will determine its fate.)

My writing debut in the line started with the Chaos Campaign ruleset. If this proves the end, it’s fitting to cap my run with BattleTech by sharing my inner thought process on track creation with fans and players. Story creation is what I love most; putting together a rulebook that will impact players for years to come is a fitting milestone.

Enjoy.

Constructing Campaigns

A year or so ago, I received an email from Randall Bills, the de facto Line Developer for BattleTech (and my “boss” in as much as a freelancer can have one). “We’ve got a bunch of stuff we had to cut from Interstellar Operations,” he said. “We want to add one last rulebook to the core line, and it’s all about campaigns. Interested?”

Skipping-skipping-skipping…

Ten months ago, I accepted the request I manage this new rulebook concept called “Campaign Companion,” which was to be a softcover supplement much like the Alpha Strike and A Time of War RPG Companion books. Within a week, it was then turned into a hardcover book. And after another week, I was told the new name would be “Campaign Operations.”

At this point, I had only seen three sections of this new product idea.

If you’re familiar with the BattleTech core rules series, you’ll know that each section is separated by a short story that nominally addresses the in-game fictionalized aspect of the following rules section. So I had to immediately figure out what that was going to entail, as well as sort out the rest of the material. This was slated for a summer 2016 release (a la GenCon), and these core books are notorious for being sloooooooow to push through the pipe.

Fortunately, I had a few aces up my sleeve.

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First, I had three already-written sections: Mike Miller’s bounced-around Solar System construction rules (originally written in 2011); Formation Building, which covered a bunch of AS addendum rules; and a partially built Combat Effectiveness Rating formula (because that’s what it was) for Creating a Force. That last one, in raw form, was well over 20,000 words, highly mathematical, and contained enough granular detail to construct a seaside beach.

Second, I immediately decided to go the fiction route I’d built for A Time of War, where the stories were all interconnected. I figured this was a great spot to further the current plot of the 3145 era, and combed through the constructed timeline to see what was what. I needed a major invasion incident that had some major players involved, in order to make it interesting and worth having nearly 24,000 words written about.

The retaking (and subsequent loss again) of New Syrtis. Perfect. That was a Julian Davion story – a fan favorite character.

Rather than farm it out to a bunch of different writers (like we did for ATOW), this one needed a solid, consistent voice. As Jason Schmetzer was otherwise occupied, I knew Phillip Lee was the perfect choice. I jumped quickly and got him locked in.

But what else was needed?

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Ever since the debut of the Chaos Campaign ruleset and tracks back in 2004, fans of the game have been asking for rules on how to construct their own tracks. For various reasons, we’ve never had the opportunity (or desire) to put them out there – but now was the best window we had. So I slated that as a primary section for the book, and assigned it to myself.

Still wasn’t enough stuff to fill a core rulebook, though. Imagine that, we were actually lacking for material! (I had put my foot down earlier and restricted Randall’s mathematical and table-heavy treatise to 8,000 words (that’s 10 pages).) Since we had these beautiful isometric world maps in various digital products, why not consider something for those? And what about players who don’t like doing a lot of math and record keeping, but just want to blow stuff up in a story environment?

Thus, the last two sections came together: the Map-Based Campaign, and the Advanced Linked Scenarios.

I selected my writers, assigned the work, and off we went.

I’ll spare the details of various delays; they’re not all that interesting. The biggest question that evolved: would we still make the GenCon print date?

 

Building Battles

I’ve been pretty quiet about my latest project in production, Campaign Operations. And I’ll probably have a lot more to say about it in the coming weeks leading to GenCon. It’s the first major rulebook I’ve had the pleasure/hell of managing.

So until I do that, bask in the final cover.

Campaign Ops cover

Campaign Operations contains rules for generating and running any type of force within the BattleTech universe. From a single pirate BattleMech all the way to regimental combat teams, players can scale to their own taste. Additional rules cover running campaigns, from battlefield roles and force-building, to missions and the Warchest campaign system. Expanded OpFor rules allow for the easy generation of large-scale forces that mesh with the deployments from the dozen Field Manuals published over the years. Finally, complete solar system construction rules allow players to tailor their campaigns even further with unique worlds to defend or conquer.

Digital version releasing (tentatively) around GenCon 2016.