A few months ago, like setting a message in a bottle, I asked Patrick Kapera and Alex Flagg of Crafty Games if they might answer a few questions. And, like the tides of Earth, the tides of the Internet brought that bottle back to Game Knight Reviews!
But I’ll let the Q&A speak for itself…
Q: Crafty Games has been around since 2005, producing the Fantasy Craft, Spycraft, and now Mistborn games for what seems to be a very dedicated audience. When you spun off from AEG, what were your goals for the new company? Have you met those goals? And what are your goals for the company and your games going forward?
A: Crafty Games started off as a boutique house focusing entirely on PDF production, way back when PDFs were still a relatively new force on the hobby market. We very quickly wound up moving in to print, however, as part of Mongoose’s Flaming Cobra imprint. Eventually we went independent and now we’re a full-service RPG publisher, experimenting with new formats and game lines. So in many ways we’ve dramatically surpassed our original expectations, and with what’s in development for 2012 and beyond we’d say that’s a trend that will continue for many years to come.
Q: Spycraft was born in the heyday of the D20 movement. How has the Mastercraft system changed and grown from d20 over the last decade? Any hints as to what’s in store for the system going forward?
A: Spycraft was the first modern D20 game on the market, actually predating D20 Modern by several months, and it’s evolved quite a bit over the last decade. The first edition — what we now call “Classic Spycraft” — was a pretty straightforward adaptation of the core 3E engine, though we made skill use core to our design and added several features that are still popular today, like action dice, customizable threats, and objective-based experience.
Later, Classic Spycraft shifted gears a bit to encompass the military and counter-terror genres, and simultaneously we were seeing more and more fan adaptations of our system that took it in entirely new directions. This situated us for the second edition of the game, Spycraft 2.0, in which we took all the things folks loved about Classic and really blew the doors off, adding tons of group-controlled choices to fundamentally change not just the flavor of your game but also the rules. A fan favorite section of Classic, the chase system, was expanded to cover lots more activities common to modern play, from brainwashing to seduction to hacking, and we also opened up the game’s core premise to allow for the myriad modern variants people were building.
This eventually drove the game in some pretty unexpected directions with the development of modern fantasy material, and that paved the way for our first Mastercraft game, Fantasy Craft. In a lot of ways Fantasy Craft was the first full Crafty Games line, in that it was produced entirely by our team (Spycraft 2.0 was developed while Patrick Kapera was still working at Alderac Entertainment Group, and that core book’s first printing was in fact AEG’s last Spycraft release). Fantasy Craft is also a bit transitional, in that it’s a return to a single genre (albeit a rather expansive one), and also in terms of the Mastercraft engine.
Mastercraft was conceived as a nexus of sorts for many of our “flagship” product lines — a way to indicate that they share a common DNA. There’s a disconnect out there that it’s intended as a GURPS-style engine, where everything produced for multiple lines is 100% compatible, but that’s never been the intention. Rather, Mastercraft was devised to indicate to customers that games bearing the logo are offshoots of a core mechanic and share common design ethics. Think of Mastercraft as the center of a bicycle wheel, with each Mastercraft game line a spoke coming off of it.
Unfortunately, this idea hasn’t resonated very well with the customers. They like the idea of linked systems but the near-instant assumption of compatibility between two or more games sharing a logo seems to be so reflexive as to be possibly insurmountable. We’re still looking at how that will impact future games we develop using the core mechanic and design ethics, including the next two in the family: Spycraft Third Edition and Ten Thousand Bullets.
Those two are in fierce development now and we expect to start talking about them at this year’s Crafty Games: Declassified Seminar at Gen Con Indy (SEM1233542). What we can say about them now is that they’re each initially focusing on a single genre (espionage and street crime, respectively), and that while much of the familiar system is still very much in the mix, we’re also hard at work to update the rules to meet the needs of each genre and the evolving market and customer base. The games are also intentionally being developed in tandem, so this will be one case where two games in the family will in fact be 100% compatible (though this doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily share all the same components).
Q: In an era of RPGs where rules-light systems are getting as much press as more old-school products, has there been any pressure to simplify your systems for a more CRPG-savvy audience?
A: We’re glad you asked actually, because it’s directly related to those evolving market and customer changes we mentioned previously. This is something every game producer has to consider if their line continues more than a year or two. The hobby games market ramps up to the “next thing” pretty quickly but it also tends to shift in cycles. Over time the desired levels of simplicity vs. complexity, innovation vs. familiarity, depth of catalog vs. utility of the core, and other factors tend to fluctuate in predictable patterns, but there’s still always a need for things to feel fresh.
Feeding that desire should be the heart of any forward-thinking design house in our opinion, and it starts with being open to system development on its own terms. You want every new release to feel like its own animal, and for GMs and players to embrace it on its own merits, and that starts with a general candor in your own process. It may seem obvious but if you really want to embrace innovation as a core part of your design ethic then you need to remain open-minded about what might constitute positive change to an existing system. You have to be willing to experiment. If we didn’t feel that way we’d never have created Spycraft 2.0 or Fantasy Craft, and that sentiment is right at the center of our thinking with Spycraft Third Edition and Ten Thousand Bullets.
To bring it back to your original question, we don’t think it’s as much about responding to pressure as it is about trusting your gut and knowing when you know you can do better. Right now lots of gamers are saying simplicity is where it’s at, and maybe that’s true for many games. We happen to think there’s a strong case for simplicity, and that we can speak to that goal without compromising what makes our games so useful and fun. The jury’s still out on where this will take us with Spycraft and Ten Thousand Bullets.
Q: It’s obvious from looking at recent Fantasy Craft, Spycraft, and Mistborn projects that look and feel is important in a particular book. Your artwork, page layout, and even font choices are tailored for a particular audience to evoke a “spy” or “fantasy” RPG environment. Who handles this aspect of your books because they are doing a spectacular job!
A: That would be the province of the impossibly talented Steve Hough, another veteran of Alderac Entertainment Group. Steve developed most of AEG’s signature looks for many years, and he’s been part of the Crafty Games family since the very beginning.
We’ll definitely pass along your kudos, though we’re not sure how we’ll pay for the extra office space to house his swelling ego. (We jest — we had to go in for a time share for that long ago.)
A: Like everyone out there we all cut our teeth on various early editions of D&D but our experiences since then run the gamut. Pat’s first love was West End’s TORG (“The Other Roleplaying Game”), but he’s pretty sure the amazing minimalist horror game Dread holds the title as his favorite RPG of all time. Alex’s longtime love is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Erik Yaple is a Star Wars junkie, and Steve Hough has played an awful lot of Cthulhu over the years (which is also true of Pat, to be honest).
The Crafty gang is currently playing in Pat’s latest opus, a hybrid build of Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu and the core Savage Worlds Deluxe Companions (especially Horror and Supers). It’s a low-powered, heroic pulp-noir horror game largely based on the legendary Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign by Chaosium, with liberal splashes of the Adventure! setting by White Wolf set against the early, chaotic months of World War II. Did we mention that Pat loves hybrid games? ‘Cause he does.
Alex is running a Delta Green game for his regular Oregonian crowd, Erik’s prepping a mammoth Star Wars d6 game, and we’re all priming to playtest the new Spycraft and Ten Thousand Bullets material sometime this summer. Never a dull moment!
Q: Crafty Games also seems to care deeply about writing clearly and consistently in your books. Are there any tips you can share with prospective writers to help them achieve similar results?
A: Honestly we’re still learning as we go. Pat got his start as an editor (he entered the industry as an editorial intern for AEG, under the inestimable D.J. Trindle), and he’s always been extremely focused on consistency of language and continuity of care across all of his projects. That’s carried through to everything Crafty Games releases but now that the company’s growing one of the biggest challenges is maintaining that level of care across an ever-increasing library of content. It’s one of the reasons our titles are sometimes a little slow to release or update, though we’ve spent a good deal of time spinning various editors and line developers up to assist, and so the problem is lessening over time.
We wish there was a magic bullet that we could pass along but in truth it boils down to organization, focus, attention to detail, and patience. Speed simply isn’t your friend here, and in fact it’s usually your enemy. There are going to be days you realize something you did with the text a while back will warp or cloud some other part of the presentation, and if you’re invested in this part of the process you have to mark your place and walk the work back, step by step.
Extensive guides help, especially if you’re after a uniform voice like ours. We’ve historically gone so far as to establish very specific ways of expressing certain rules, such that the same mechanic only ever appears with one phrasing, though that’s also led to certain readers complaining that our products read like text books, so we’re easing that back a bit with current releases. This is a common issue for fastidious editors — you can easily suck the energy out of a piece unless you’re very careful.
A: Most of the biggest hurdles were logistical. When you’re doing anything for the first time you want to take whatever production time estimate you have and triple it. Seriously, start there and you’re much more likely to hit your deadlines than if you rush toward some projection based on “similar” experience. We know this and yet the Mistborn Adventure Game posed some rather peculiar scheduling issues in that Brandon’s fourth novel was on the way and we wanted to release as near to it as possible. We foolishly decided to press for a fall 2011 release when we really should have planned for spring 2012, and so now the project’s essentially late on a lot of fronts. That’s unfortunate, and like anyone else, we small business owners live and learn.
Conversely, the creative end posed few problems. We’ve wanted to produce an “indie” line for some time and Mistborn’s narrative nature made it the perfect fit. Brandon was a dream to work with — very involved and supportive yet more than willing to give us our own space to play with the world. As expected, Scadrial’s unique magic system was the toughest thing to get right. It’s complex and features fairly rigid rules, and like anything primarily developed for storytelling it’s better suited to the particular needs of drama than the rigors of a game environment.
Fortunately Brandon’s a gamer at heart — he plays RPGs just like the rest of us — and he’d already laid a lot of the groundwork. Our principle challenge wasn’t so much figuring out how to adapt the magic as build a game that offered enough versatility and flexibility to support it, without undercutting characters who don’t use it. We also wanted ground floor options for non-physical combat, which is what led to the three-pronged social, mental, and physical Conflicts system in the final release. From there it was mainly a matter of making sure characters had ample and equal opportunity to pursue all three paths, and that the magic systems supported them as well.
Q: How has the Mistborn Adventure Game been received by the gaming community? Are you surprised at the response? What’s next for the new product line?
A: We knew the game would do well from the start but the overwhelming passion and commitment of the readers and players has still been phenomenal. There have been bumps, to be sure — almost entirely related to the delays we mention above — but overall the experience has been amazing. This was a big departure for us in many ways, and it’s both validating and inspirational to see the game being embraced out there in the wild.
Follow-ups for the Mistborn Adventure Game are currently in development and will feature both print and PDF products. For the trilogy period readers can expect us to dedicate releases to many of the most compelling facets of the world, including several cities, the various human castes, the Kandra Homeland, and the Terris Mountains, for a start. We’re also working on a supplement for the period of the fourth novel, The Alloy of Law.
A: Spycraft Third Edition, Ten Thousand Bullets, and Alloy of Law are all pretty big deals, though which arrives first will depend on how they move through development (we don’t like to project release dates too early in the process). In the short term we have a lot of very exciting little products coming for Fantasy Craft, including the long-anticipated Spellbound print and digital product, which covers all things arcane for the game, and features our trademark blend of powerful utility and high adventure flavor.
Q: What do you think about the “D&D Next” movement announced by Wizards of the Coast? Is it a good move for the RPG industry in general?
A: There’s an old saying: “As goes D&D, so goes the industry.” That has more to do with the business end of things than anything else, but it boils down to “a strong Dungeons & Dragons benefits everyone.” That’s still true, even with all the seismic changes we’ve seen over the last several years.
With that in mind we’re in favor of anything that strengthens D&D and its position in the market, and we’re watching D&D Next with the same hopeful eyes as everyone else. Wizards has assembled a truly incredible team, that’s for sure, and we like a lot of what we’re hearing. They’re still very early in design though, so where they land is anyone’s guess.
Q: Lastly… If there’s a question I didn’t ask that you’d have liked to be asked… What would it have been and what would your answer have been?
A: That’s very kind of you to ask. We’d love for the question to be “What are your plans for the Bond license?” but since we’re not impossibly lucky millionaires we’ll have to go with the best question for any small company: “How can folks help?” The answer there depends on who you are and what you can do, but the biggies are talking up our products, getting our books in stores, and volunteering to run our games at conventions and game days. Like any cottage publisher the thing we need most is exposure, and since we can’t be everywhere the very best way to achieve that is through our readers and fans.
We’re always looking for enthusiastic volunteers, both at shows we attend and again, at conventions and game stores everywhere. At shows we attend we offer a wide range of benefits, often including crash space, a free badge, and product. We can offer some of that to folks running at any convention, and we compensate everyone who runs events for us at any location, so long as we can verify the events happen. Anyone who’s interested in helping should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
As to getting our products in stores, it starts with finding those retailers who haven’t chosen to stock our titles yet and letting them know there’s interest in the area. Once that seed’s planted, you can point the store at Studio 2 to order any of our books. Details are available on our website: www.crafty-games.com.
All of this and any effort to get the word out starts with joining out community. You can find us at any of the following, and we regularly join the discussion ourselves, so don’t be shy.
- www.crafty-games.com/needtoknow (our RSS feed)
Thanks again for having us on. We appreciate the questions and look forward to doing it again real soon. Take care!
A huge thank you goes to Pat & Alex for answering all of my questions! Best of luck with all of the cool stuff going on at Crafty Games!
- Game Review: Fantasy Craft by Alex Flagg, Scott Gearin, and Patrick Kapera from Crafty Games – Chapter 7 (gameknightreviews.com)
- Game Review: Fantasy Craft by Alex Flagg, Scott Gearin, and Patrick Kapera from Crafty Games – Chapter 6 (gameknightreviews.com)
- Mistborn Adventure Game (Atomic Array 061) from Atomic Array (atomicarray.com)
- Fantasy Craft (Atomic Array 032) (atomicarray.com)