I recently had the chance to ask a couple of questions to prolific novelist and game designer Jess Hartley. If you are interested to learn more about her works check out her website and blog.
Hi, Michael! Thanks for taking the time to interview me! Let’s see, introductions, eh? Well, we can start with the easy stuff. My name is Jess Hartley, and for the past 10 years or so, I’ve been a professional novelist, writer, editor and game developer. While I’ve been published in a wide variety of mediums, from greeting cards to magazines, most of my most well-known work has been in the roleplaying game industry. I’ve done extensive writing for White Wolf Games in the past 7 or 8 years, working on everything from novels to setting material to game mechanics. I’ve had the pleasure of working on at least one game product for each of the New World of Darkness game lines, as well as Exalted and Scion. I’m probably most well known for my work on Changeling: The Lost , both the core game and many of the supplementary materials. Recently, I’ve begun to branch out a bit more. Last year I worked on Supernatural Adventures (based on the television show, Supernatural) for Margaret Weis Productions, and was part of a game-related horror collection, “Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas” which recently won Preditors & Editors Fan Awards for best anthology. I also contributed to upcoming products such as Green Ronin’s Family Games: The Best 100, and to Will Hindmarch’s book about gamers and their dice, “The Bones”.
But I’m not just a game writer. I write a regular column entitled “One Geek to Another” which focuses on etiquette, ethics and advice for the modern geek (gamer or no) and I’m currently working on a non-game related fiction experiment called “The Shattered Glass Project.” It’s only been going on since the first of Spring (March 21, 2010) but I’ve been very pleased with the results so far.
What was the first roleplaying game you’ve played and how were you introduced to the pen & paper hobby?
The first roleplaying game I ever played was the Red Box D&D set (which we bought off the shelf at Toys R Us). A good friend of mine, who unfortunately lived too far away to actually teach us how to play, had mentioned gaming and it sounded intriguing. I decided to grab the basic game and give it a try. I’m afraid I wasn’t a very good DM at the time; I literally had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Luckily several years later my friend and I ended up in closer proximity, and he taught me the groundwork of being a good player and a good DM.
What is currently your favorite roleplaying game and do you play in a regular group?
My current favorite RPG is whichever one my friends and I are playing at any given moment and having fun with. While, as a writer and game creator, I can definitely appreciate the value of well-created setting, elegant rules and fun core materials, I think that a good group of people can play even a poorly created game and have a good time, and that’s really what playing RPGs is all about for me – having fun with my friends.
That being said, while I live in a very remote area of Southeastern Arizona (I can see the Mexican border from my back porch) I’m fortunate enough to have a nice group of LARPers in the next town over, and a great community of tabletop gamers two hours away in Tucson. So I LARP on a semi-regular basis with the Nomads of Twilight in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and get the chance to play tabletop games on a little less regular basis with the Southern Arizona Gamers Association (SAGA) in Tucson.
In August of 2009 you helped create Geist: The Sineaters. Can you give us a short description of what that game is about and how it’s different than Wraith: The Oblivion? What was your part in the design process?
Geist: The Sin-Eaters was released at GenCon in August of 2009, but the actual creation process of it began almost a year earlier (at least my part of it – the early groundwork probably was done even before that!) Until I started working in the industry, I didn’t realize how long the process of creating a game can take, so I always like to mention it, so that gamers will recognize the months (and in some cases years) of hard work that goes into creating something that reads and plays like it’s simple. But, enough about that, you wanted to know about Geist!
In Geist, you’re playing a character who was entirely human, although chances are they may have had a little “connection” with the supernatural. Maybe they were one of those folks who was haunted by a poltergeist when they were younger, or they were visited by their Grandmother, only to find out that she’d died the day before. Nothing big and powerful, but their lives were somehow touched by the “other side”. Then, they die… or almost…. On the verge of their becoming “really most sincerely dead”, they’re contacted by a Geist – kind of an archetypal ghost – who offers them a choice. Merge with the Geist and get a second shot at life. Or, refuse, and go on to whatever fate awaits them. Those who agree to the Geist’s proposition become Sin-Eaters. They look human. They feel human (mostly). But they’re not just themselves any more. They have this ghostly symbiote, with its own drives, goals and opinions. And with that symbiote comes an intimate connection with other ghosts, the Underworld, and Death itself.
Geist and Wraith differ in many ways. Like all of the NWoD games, Geist leaves the building of a metaplot up to the Storytellers and players. We tell you what exists, you decide what came before, what’s happening now, and what will come in the future. But more specifically, in Geist, you’re playing (predominantly) characters in the mortal world. You’re still tangible parts of human society, rather than ethereal onlookers who spend most of their existence in a ghost-populated realm. While Sin-Eaters can travel to the Underworld, their day to day life takes place mostly in the “real” world, and the challenges of being a mortal who is surrounded by (and can constantly perceive) the restless dead around them.
Like most White Wolf core games, Geist was created by a core team of writers led by a developer; in this case, there were nearly a dozen (I believe) folks on the team, all held to task by the “iron fist” of prolific and talented White Wolf developer, Ethan Skemp. In terms of what I specifically did for Geist, I got to work on some of my favorite aspects: antagonists and setting. I did the majority of the New York Setting, including the sample krewes as well as a good portion of the antagonists earlier in the book. It was a really interesting project to be a part of, and a great team of creative minds to brainstorm with.
Among the games you’ve worked on is Hunter: The Vigil. What’s the difference between this game and its predecessor Hunter: The Reckoning, aside from updated rules?
One of the awesome things about working on Hunter: The Vigil is that the team included those who had played the earlier incarnation of Hunter and loved it, those who had played it and weren’t crazy about it (okay, I’m being diplomatic – we had a few Reckoning haters on the team) and those –like me—who had never played the earlier version. So I’m probably not the best person to give an in depth comparison and contrast on the two games. What I’ve heard from those who are more familiar with Reckoning than I am, is that by removing the inherent singular background/motivation from the Hunter paradigm (IE: not all Hunters in Vigil are servants of some higher power embued with strengths because of their holy destiny to destroy the supernatural) we created a game that was much more versatile and allowed for far more diverse play styles than the original Hunter did. Specifically, the three Tiers allow for characters that range from “gang of guys defending their neighborhood from werewolves with shotguns and baseball bats” to “high powered military units that harvest and implant supernatural bits into themselves to get the “edge” on their enemies”. While I don’t know whether this was a part of Hunter: The Reckoning or not, I’m also very fond of the “to defeat the monsters, I must become a monster myself” aspect of Vigil. The blurred lines between “good” and “evil” are a very tasty moral playground to me.
Aside from being a game designer you are also a novelist. Can you tell us about your past, current projects? What’s the Shattered Glass Project all about?
My first novel, In Northern Twilight, was also my first foray into the roleplaying game industry, professionally. Set in White Wolf’s Exalted game setting, INT was a great opportunity for me to really dive in to the industry. I was totally inexperienced, and sometimes I’m amazed at how much I didn’t know about writing professionally, or the gaming industry, when I got started. It’s one of the reasons I’m very dedicated to being a resources to aspiring writers now; if I can help someone avoid some of the pitfalls I stumbled blindly into, I totally want to do so.
After In Northern Twilight, I was invited to write a second novel for White Wolf, this one set in their upcoming (at the time) Werewolf: The Forsaken game setting. And, while that fiction novel series was cancelled before any of the books were published, because I was familiar with the yet-unreleased setting material, when Ethan Skemp needed someone to fill in on short-notice on Predators (a W:TF Supplement), he asked if I’d be interested. From there, I spent the next 6 years or so pretty much writing full time game material for White Wolf.
Recently, I’ve decided to branch out some. Along with doing freelance writing and editing work for other game companies, I’m also shopping around my own original fiction novel, La Serenissma, which is set in an alternate history version of Southeastern Europe in the 16th century, and weaves together a plethora of obscure myths and bits of folklore into an elegant and epic tapestry of love, betrayal and revenge.
The Shattered Glass Project is another original fiction effort of mine, although something a bit more edgy and experimental. I’m writing a modern fae short story, and rather than putting it in an anthology or shopping it around to mainstream publishers, I’ve opened it up to Patronages for a limited time period (Spring of 2010, March 21-June 20th) Basically, during that limited time, folks can support the work at one of three levels of financial Patronage, and each level comes with its own benefits. All Patrons will (unless they object) be personally thanked in the Acknowledgments of the story. And only Patrons will have access to the story, in its entirety, for one year from the inception of the project (so, until at least March 20, 2011.) While I will retain copyright, for legal reasons, the Patrons will truly own the only full copies of the story – they will be the only ones who know the tale.
Virtual Patrons will receive an electronic (.pdf) copy of Shattered Glass. I wanted to be certain that there was a level of Patronage that was affordable to virtually everyone who was interested. As a friend of mine put it, we can’t all afford to support an artist or writer on our own as noble families did in the Middle Ages, but by pooling our nickels and dimes, we can help support those whose creations we value.
The next level of Patronages are Artisan Patrons , who will receive a limited edition physical copy of Shattered Glass, hand-numbered and autographed, with an inscription if they’d like. As part of the experiment, I’m doing research into how to make sure that the physical copy is really something special, rather than just a run-of-the-mill paperback like you’d get off the shelf at your local book store. There’s a lot of options I’m exploring, so the final product will depend on how many Patrons become a part of the Project, and how large Shattered Glass as a written work, ends up being. Regardless, I’m really committed to making it something special.
The final level of Patrons–Personae Patrons– not only receive a physical copy of the story, but actually get their name and likeness (or the name and likeness of someone they bestow the Patronage on) as a character in Shattered Glass. The response to the Personae Patronages was so overwhelming that I had to close them after only 24 hours in order to do justice to those who had so enthusiastically committed their support at that level. So, while I’m taking names of those who are interested in future Personae Patronages, the Personae for Shattered Glass are complete. Virtual and Artisan Patronages, however, are still open, and will remain available until June 20th, 2010.
What would you recommend to someone interested in working in the RPG business?
I think the most important advice I can give to someone who is interested in entering the RPG industry is to treat it like the business that it is. So often, we want to work at doing what we love, which is wonderful – so long as we remember that it is still a career. Professionalism, punctuality, politeness – those things will go a long ways towards springboarding your talent, be it writing, art or game design.
As well, never underestimate the power of networking. Getting face-to-face connections built, through conventions, trade shows, gaming events and the like, can be invaluable to your career as an aspiring game professional. I talk about this extensively in a series of blog posts I originally wrote before GenCon last year. They can be found for free on my website (under the non-fiction menu) or a more complete version with a plethora of additional resources can be purchased as a .pdf product through DriveThruRPG, Indie Press Revolution or the Paizo website. It’s called – Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional (Cons for Pros) and retails for the whopping sum of 1.99.
Some people think that the pen & paper RPG hobby is in decline and being replaced by computer and video games especially MMOs. What is your stance on that issue?
I think that it’s indisputable that the RPG industry isn’t selling the same massive print runs that it was turning over in the height of the ‘90s. However, whether it’s “in decline” really depends on how you define that term. I think that the breadth and depth of pen-and-paper RPGs that are being produced today vastly outweighs any time in the gaming industry’s history, in part due to the advent of indie games and small press publishers. The widespread availability of cheap and powerful technology is truly putting the ability to be a game publisher in virtually anyone’s hands (with all of the positives and negatives that that may entail) which means I believe there are more small or indie publishers than ever before. It also gives more traditional publishers the ability to produce products that once might not have been feasible for release because of printing and distribution costs (such as White Wolf’s SAS line or Flames Rising’s Instant Antagonists). Because of the reduced production costs of .pdf and Print On Demand products, there’s a whole sea of new materials out there that might have never seen print at any time in the past. And, with online retailers and resources like IndiePressRevolution or DriveThruRPG, the average gamer has access to more materials than ever before, at the click of a mouse.
Video games and MMOs may have had a part in the changing face of RPGs, but I think it’s an exciting time to be a pen-and-paper gamer and a part of the non-pixelated gaming industry, and I’m proud to be both.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions.
I wish Jess all the best of luck with her current and future projects. It was an honor to do this interview and I am sure we’ll hear more from her in the future.