Interview with John Snead

with John Snead

Hi John, welcome to RPG Review. Let us start with a common question, how did become involved in roleplaying games? What were the first games you played and what did you think of them?
I started back in the early 80s with AD&D, I loved it at the time, but can't ever see myself playing any form of D&D again.
What games are you currently playing?
Sadly none at the moment. Until December, I was in a short playtest campaign run by Ben Lehman called Thousand Kingdoms. A few months before that, a three year free-from campaign run by our primary GM ended. She'll be starting a new one in a few months, which will likely last between 2 & 5 years. Other than that until last year I was also in a 2 year long Amber Diceless RPG campaign. Unlike most RPG designers, I vastly prefer playing to running games.
You have an extraordinary list of RPG credits associated with your name; White Wolf and Atlas Games' Ars Magica, Chaosium's Nephilim, Last Unicorn's Star Trek, supplements for White Wolf's Trinity, Exalted, Mage: The Ascension and The Awakening, and others, Green Ronin's Blue Rose, Posthuman Studios' Eclipse Phase... It's an extraordinary range. How do you find developing across such a wide variety of genres, styles, and game systems?
I started out looking for any work I could get and was both persistent and lucky. For the past 15 or so years, my name is sufficiently well known that if there is work available that I'm interested in, I can usually persuade someone to let me help.
Do you think your varied educational background has helped?
Dear gods yes. I have degrees in Math, History, and Cultural Anthropology and what amount to minors in Classics and Physics. I use elements of some of these in every gaming project and all of them in some.
Of the various games and supplements that you have designed, which one are most pleased with and what generated that sense? Conversely, are there any that you're not entirely happy with?
There are books I'm exceptionally happy with the entire work and others where I'm only happy with my part. My current project – writing most of the Traveller conversion of the Mindjammer RPG is one of the first type, as was Stellar Frontiers (the space and teleportation supplement for Trinity), Scavenger Sons for Exalted, and everything I've done for both Changeling: The Lost and Eclipse Phase. In contrast, I'm very pleased with all the writing and editing in my mythos SF RPG Eldritch Skies, but the layout (which I did not do) was well less than perfect. Also, I loved working on Dreams of the First Age for Exalted, and think I did some fantastic work, but the entire project was problematic because it was set in one of the least interesting times to play Celestial Exalted, and some of the rules (written by other authors) were less than ideal.
As for being dissatisfied with my own work, I'm happy with most of my own work, but several of my early projects clearly show I had a long way to go. I honestly wish all copies of the first edition of Faeries for Ars Magica would vanish of the face of the earth. I love my work on the 2nd edition (put out by WOTC), but 1 st edition was a mess.
Many of the books you have written have been a co-authored process. This is especially a feature in White Wolf games where, even in their core rules, there is usually several authors rather than a few. What difficulties does one encounter having such a large number of writers working on a cooperative project? How do you get around various creative and design differences?
I love working with other people. Difficulties are typically minimal because we all work for a single developer and it's the job to handle disagreements and questions (which I'm finding to be a fair amount of work since I am now the developer for Trinity Continuum: Æon). My favorite part of collaboration though is playing with other people's ideas and seeing what they do with mine. Exalted has a large amount of this – I created a number of locations and cultures in Scavenger Sons that other authors expanded on in later books in ways that I dearly loved. Even on a single project, I find the process of discussing our goals and plans with other authors to be exciting rather than frustrating.
For over fifteen years you've been a full-time game designer in an industry that's not exactly known for being a path to great riches. In this issue we have fellow author Stew Wilson make some critical comments concerning declining pay rates for freelancers. What are your thoughts on how RPG game authors can generate a living income?
You need to write rapidly and well, and constantly look for new work, even when you are currently busy. Kickstarter has definitely improved the RPG market a great deal, and these days well more than half of my work is associated with Kickstarters. However, that said, the pay is terrible and the fact that one of my partners is a CPA definitely helps. RPG writing as a single source of income is likely impossible unless someone has inherited a house in a location with a very low cost of living.
You're currently working as the developer for Trinity Continuum: Aeon, the second edition of the Trinity RPG. How has that process been? Can you give us any insight to what's going to be included in the new game and what supplements we can expect?
Until recently, the process had been frustratingly slow, in large part because of the necessity of creating a new core rule system (the Storypath system), which needed to be mechanically robust and to be able to handle playing normal people, pulp heroes, psychics up to the level of the X-Men, and supers up to the level of power of Superman. This is an exceedingly non-trivial task, and while I was only peripherally involved in actually creating these rules, they took a long time to finalize. They are at last done and seem to work (they haven't been done for very long) and the rule portions of Trinity Continuum: Æon are being written as I write this.
Trinity was very much of a late 90s game, with features I saw in a number of other SF games of the time, like finding ways to remove character's access to mobile communications and mobile data access. I didn't think this was an interesting solution at the time and it's ludicrous now for any high tech SF game. So, Æon has ubiquitous mobile data, augmented reality and all of the other technological wonders one would expect in an early 22nd century with interstellar travel. Also, my goal is to have the psychic powers be both somewhat more powerful (except for teleportation, which was definitely powerful enough), while also being more flexible. Also, the game will not have any sort of on-going metaplot. It's set in 2123, 6 months after the teleporters return from the stars, and that's the time all supplements will be written about. Finally, I love how Trinity had a global scope, with nations all across the globe being important, but as was true with most 90s RPGs, the execution of this was less good than the ideas, and so I've been trying to actually do justice to the world's diversity in this edition. When possible, I've hired authors who live or lived in the regions they wrote about, and I think we've done a good job of fairly representing the world of 2123.
I'll be thinking more about supplements after the current book is complete, but the current plan is for a Tech Manual (a book of more gear and also discussions of technology and more tech-related rules), a book detailing Earth and Luna even more, and a book detailing the various colony worlds more and providing additional worlds to explore. After that, I have plans, but they are less definite.
-John Snead