Interview: Bill Coffin

Bill Coffin Recently there was much talk about West End Games on this side of the internet and one name that cropped up regularly was Bill Coffin. Bill Coffin is a RPG industry veteran and the designer of Septimus, the only game that was ever released under the OpenD6 logo. I thought it could be interesting to talk with Bill about Septimus, WEG, the gaming hobby and the industry, so I asked him for an interview.

STARGAZER: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Can you please begin by introducting yourself to the readers?

BILL: My name is Bill Coffin. I am and RPG writer and designer, known primarily for my work with Palladium Books in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, I published an RPG with West End Games called Septimus, a sprawling space opera game based on the D6 system.

Much of my work lately has been on getting a small publishing company off the ground called Reliquary Press. We publish fantasy, science fiction and horror novels. I have published my King Arthur novel, Pax Morgana, through it, but we’ve got some other titles on the market too, such as From the Herald’s Wearied Eye by Jessica McHugh, Succumbing to Gravity by Richard Farnsworth and Warhead by Ricardo Delgado, who is also an artist for Dark Horse Comics.

During the day, I’m a business journalist. I run Risk Management magazine as well as an associated blog (www.riskmanagementmonitor.com), podcast and Twitter feed. My work has been featured also in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and a number of other trade publications.

Most importantly, I’ve got a great family. My wife Allison and I have two children, and we live in New Jersey. It’s not nearly as weird there as that Jersey Shore program would have you believe.

STARGAZER: What was the first roleplaying game you ever played and how did you get into gaming?

BILL: I’m one of those old school gamers, so my first game was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, when I was about nine years old. However, I found it a little complex for my liking (and my brothers preferred something simpler), so we spent a lot of time playing that classic Moldvay Basic D&D boxed set, and from there we hit every other boxed-set TSR RPG to come out during the 1980s – Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Top Secret…you name it.

What got me into gaming was that I had the luck of growing up during the golden age of the RPG hobby. Back then, RPGs were something new. It was before immersive video games, hell, even before cable TV and home video, so an RPG really was a doorway into other worlds. The replay value was off the chart, and for imaginiative players, it provided truly endless replay. When you’re a kid and your friends all game, getting a group together is never a problem. So I just got into gaming and never really left.

STARGAZER: Are your currently in a roleplaying group and what are you playing?

BILL: Nothing currently, alas. my gaming group is now very small, and we generally cant game except by way of e-mail, which has its pluses and its minuses. We’re getting a Pirates of the Caribbean” type of game going using D20 Modern as the ruleset, but since it’s PBeM, the actual rules stuff will be handled by me off stage, so the game remains as immersive and as narrative for the players as possible.

STARGAZER: What is your all-time favorite RPG?

BILL: That’s a hard one. Palladium Fantasy, I think. I played that exclusively for so long, and wrote so much for it, it’s kind of in my blood. However, the game mechanics of that are way too heavy for my tastes anymore. I much prefer something simpler, like AD&D or Castles & Crusades (a much more elegant retelling of the AD&D system).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness also has a huge place in my heart, mainly for the utterly superb After the Bomb setting, which my friends and I played the hell out of. Rest in peace, Erick. Your games did wonders for me.

STARGAZER: Can you tell us when you first got introduced into the "industry"?

BILL: Back in the mid-late 1990s, I took a break from novel writing (I had published two at that point) and submitted a sourcebook pitch to Palladium for fun. I got picked up rather quickly by Palladium, and the pay was great. Working with Palladium was really fun and rewarding, and it was just really easy to keep that going. After a while, I was working contracts on a regular basis. I suspect that maybe had I not gone full time with Palladium and just kept handling individual projects for them, things might not have soured between Kevin and myself. But I’ll never know. Alas.

STARGAZER: You are credited in quite a few RPG products. What game was the most fun to design and why?

BILL: Systems Failure was a special thing because Kevin had this wild idea for a game setting and I asked if we could just bang out a quick RPG for the setting, something small and light, like Robotech or TMNT. He went for it, and we got that thing turned around in just about a month. What a whirlwind job that was! I was really proud we pulled it off, and the fan response to the game was quite enjoyable. I got e-mail from more than a few real-life militia who said they had a copy of the game in their bunkers. A rare distinction, to be sure.

STARGAZER: You latest game, Bill Coffin’s Septimus, had a pretty troublesome history. As far as I know it has been cancelled at least once and you considered various systems before it finally got released at WEG’s first Open D6 product. Now Eric Gibson, owner of WEG has returned the rights to Septimus back to you. Can you tell us a bit more about Septimus’ history?

BILL: I’d like to begin by saying that my dealings with West End Games have really been with one person, Eric Gibson, who has since taken an indefinite hiatus from the gaming industry. Eric is a really nice guy who has only ever wanted to produce quality games for people. While we were never able to really make Septimus work as initially planned, I have no hard feelings about it, and I wish Eric the very best.

My deal with West End was originally based on a fixed period of time between my signing of our contract and Eric’s publishing of the game. I delivered the game, and that initial time frame expired, so I called in the cancellation option of my contract. While weighing my options for what to do with the game,Eric came back and offered to pay me up front for publishing rights to the game, which was to be released at last year’s Gen Con. It was a very fair deal, and I took it, but unfortunately, Eric couldn’t get the game published by convention time. He had a bunch of softcovers done up through Lulu (I have a few here at my house), and we sold a bunch at the show, but that’s about it. During all this time, there was the whole preorder fiasco, which pretty much happened apart from me. After a while, Eric decided to get out of WEG, and he very graciously returned the rights to Septimus to me, rather than have the game linger in limbo. I am very grateful to Eric for his consideration.

At the moment, I am sending out electronic copies of Septimus to anybody who asked for one. I’m also working on a version of the game that I can upload to vendors such as RPGNow and DriveThruRPG where it can be sold for $0.00. That way, the game will stay a free D6 product into the future. Of course, I need to square that with Eric, but I’m hoping he won’t mind.

STARGAZER: I think you once mentioned on the rpg.net forums that you were interested using FATE for Septimus. Is this still an option for a future rerelease of Septimus?

BILL: Anything’s possible. I seriously considered converting the game from D6 to FATE because I’m a huge fan of the FUDGE system, and FATE is a really nice retooling of that. There was also a fair amount of enthusiasm for FATE, so I might convert the game over for them, regardless.

One option put forth to me by a fan, and one that I have considered for some time, is to simply make a systemless setting book for Septimus, akin with what Green Ronin did for Freeport. That way, folks can take the system and do what they want with it.

STARGAZER: Recently I noticed a trend that RPG bloggers start their own small publishing companies or pitch their designs to big publishers. What do you – as an industry veteran – recommend to anyone who is interested in getting a job in the RPG industry?

BILL: Don’t expect a whole lot of money out of it. I once heard the best way to make a small fortune in this business is to start with a large one. Now, with print-on-demand publishing these days, the barriers to entry for this industry are lower than ever, especially for outfits that choose to publish digitally. (Honestly, I hardly ever buy hard copy games anymore; almost my entire library exists on my laptop.)
I think the key here is this: if you love RPGs, and if you love writing them, then by all means, why not fire up your own operation and throw your work on the market? I know the bigger publishers would rather things boil down a bit, but if you’re a startup, this is a great time to get into the business. It really all comes down to something Kevin Siembieda once told me, and it is absolutely true: you have to be a fan of your own work. If you are, then you’re well on your way to making it. If you’re not, then you’re probably in the wrong line of work.

STARGAZER: The internet and the various social networks have changed the way game designers, publishers and artists communicate with their customers. How do you use the ‘net to stay in touch with your fans? Are you on Twitter?

BILL: I tend to use RPGnet a whole lot, but folks can always reach me at bill.coffin@gmail.com. I’m finally getting off my lazy butt and getting my own site up and running over at www.billcoffin.me (which will remain that way until I get billcoffin.com back). You can reach me on Facebook and you can follow me at www.twitter.com/bill_coffin.

I’m also a big fan of podcasts, and I occasionally get a guest spot on a cool show like Kicked in the Dicebags. I’d like to get my own podcast off the ground; the key is making sure the content is unique. I’m talking with fellow writer Jason Vey about something that mainly focus on writing and the geek stuff that inspires guys like us. I’d like to think folks would listen to something like that. We’ll see. 🙂

STARGAZER: Thanks again for taking your time for this interview!

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