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Dav Harnish, Author Interview

Posted on March 31, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

A long time ago, one of my cousins introduced me to that old Cyberpunk Boxed Set, where all the cybernetic rules didn’t work. That pretty much hooked me. From that point on, I decided that it was the only way to play a game.

How did Obsidian evolve? Where is it headed?

Obsidian began with Micah. He had created some homebrew rules for a game he was calling Bleak Future. While that game has little resemblance to the finished product (Kultists weren’t evil, and Alters were the main antagonists, there was no Zone in early editions, etc.), it was the beginning. At some point during the design, I started helping Micah form a world around his setting, and twenty pages turned to one hundred, then two hundred. Micah asked me if I had ever thought of publishing a book, and we started doing some research on how to go about it. It all moved quickly once we decided to publish… I think it was about a year from when we said, “do it”, to it being done. Of course, much of the material was already written.

As for where it is headed… well… I am finishing Legends 2 and 3 (I am writing them together). At the conclusion of the trilogy, very little of the Obsidian World will remain exactly as it was. This isn’t to say that everything must or will be different, but a good number of changes occur. While I won’t dump the whole plot, I will say that some of the major players will be: The Circle of Stagnation, the Darchomen, Hazlia, The Box of Under, and Jericho Fayne.

What do you see as the difference between working for a big name publisher and being small press?

Well, primarily, being small press means that everyone has a lot of say as to what happens. While Micah or I might have some idea for a direction, either of us could (and often, do) change our minds. In addition, we are able to respond more to player reaction. I never really thought very hard about doing a book on Law or the military, but enough people asked for it on the BBS, so I figured I would see what I could muster together. That, and the fact that I feel fine about co-opting prominent members of the fanbase to just tell me what they want.

When working with one of the big boys, there is a sense of “beat it to fit, paint it to match”. There is a definite script that the world will follow, and if you have an idea that fits outside that scheme, you will have one hell of a time selling it to them. There ARE exceptions. Shadowrun (FanPro) is something that the individual can come up with an idea and still be heard and possibly listened to, but for anything larger than that? Forget it. I prefer the smaller press, there is less control over your work, and you get to be as graphic as you feel you need to be… no topic is forbidden.

What motivates you when you’re writing? How do you keep your ideas innovative?

Well, for most of my stuff I get ideas from music. However, occasionally, personal matters do influence my writing. For instance, I am writing a Law supplement for Obsidian right now, and I just got done serving a week in the Cook County Jail… Which is NOT fun, but on the other hand, I can now write about the correctional facilities of the Zone with a bit more authority.

Most of my ideas start as a weird fancy I am having just before falling asleep. Bizarre and disturbing imagery, or random quotes and lines that I constantly want to work into my writing, and a lot of it based upon music lyrics (or what I think the lyrics are for a lot of songs). From there, the images flash by and I see what I can hold on to.

What advice do you have hopeful authors trying to get into the gaming industry?

If you are designing a game for sale, then the best advice I can give you is to go to the Forge. It is a website for designers and publishers in the industry. Everyone there is great (I haunt the boards there quite a bit), and will direct you to resources, give you horror stories, and hook you up with all the contacts you need. Their website is www.indie-rpgs.com (and please note, I have NO actual affiliation with them other than just being a voice in the community).

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the gaming community today?

I think that the industry is learning that their customers are more savvy than they gave them credit for. White Wolf, who has always been, to my mind, one of the larger parties to “never trust the customer”, is learning that fluff won’t cut it. That new Gehenna book? PLEASE. It says nothing. It keeps talking about ultimate badness unleashing itself, but then gives no substance. In the end, the book says “whatever the Storyteller wants to happen, happens”… great. I didn’t need a $30 product to tell me that. With the rise of the small press publisher (Sorcerer: The RPG, My Life With Master, Dead Meat (a freeware zombie game for you horror fanatics out there!), Paladin, Donjon, Little Fears… all of these are small press games with gusto. And people are buying, playing, and enjoying them. It is eating into the big boys of the industry… and I love it. Trust your customer base to have a spark of intelligence, stop spending six pages on swimming rules, give us the goods, not some crap we will never use. (Has anyone ever noticed that any game with rules for swimming tends to be horrible? Also, all the rules for swimming always mean you will die swimming. I mean, I can swim around for hours if I need to, dead-man floating and what-not, and I’m no professional… why then do I always seem to die in three rounds when swimming in most games?)

What makes for a good night of Horror gaming?

NOW we’re talking! First, let me plug the games I love for horror gaming: Little Fears, Call of Cthulhu (but not that d20 crap), Kult, Sorcerer: the Role-Playing Game, Violence Future (ha!), and I suppose I can run a good horror game through Obsidian (though guns the size of your mother tends to cut into the terror aspect).

As to what goes into it? A good group is paramount. You can’t just have some kids off the street, or immature little twits. You need a group that wants to be scared, is willing to be scared, and knows when to crack jokes and when to stop with the laughing (which is not to say that humor is not welcome in horror, I think some of it is necessary). Then, you need a good concept. Throw it all out there and let the characters pick-up what threads they may, then close that net around them. Let their interest be the thing that damns them. Horror is not jumping at the cat leaping from the fridge, horror is that deep fear of knowing that in some cases, you lose no matter what, because you have morals and beliefs that prevent you from being a beast. Horror is always a moral terror, not just grossness and goo. You need to confront the characters with moral decisions that they HAVE to make, because they are human. THAT is the key. When a player understands a character’s own morality, then they have a character, not some piece of paper with dots and numbers.

What RPG(s) are you currently playing (if any)?

Obsidian, Kult (1st edition), Sorcerer: The Role-Playing Game (the Urge setting), and My Life With Master

What keeps you busy when you’re not gaming?

Booze, sex, smoking (remember kids, smoking makes you cool). Seriously, I write, I read at least two books each week. I have a day job. On weekends, well, the first three words of my answer apply… I go to clubs, hang with friends, and basically let loose for 72 hours. Generally, I live a pretty hedonistic lifestyle punctuated by attempts at writing.

What’s next for you?

Well, Obsidian isn’t finished (yet). But, I have some side projects I am working on, and I freelance for other companies. In terms of the gaming industry, I plan to launch a few new games by GenCon under a new imprint, and see how that goes.

I’ve been talking to a few people about doing novels, rather than gaming books, and I may have some short story deals that will come through. I’d like to do some fiction, but we’ll see what happens.

You mention GenCon, what makes a good Con experience and what makes you groan?

Honestly, I love going to conventions and meeting new friends. The convention hall is a good time, but the real fun is after the halls close and everybody is out at some club or show having a good time. I get a lot of book ideas by listening to what people are responding to in our books. When I get to talk to fans or critics, I take it all in and beat it into shape. Half of the Obsidian line is based off of ideas Micah and I have for where the world should move, and the other half is responding to what the fans want. I like doing things that way, it makes the world more dynamic for me to work with.

A great con experience for me is finding a new game publisher of a bunch of people that had some idea that some of the larger companies would never touch with a ten-foot pole. But they had a great idea, some new revelation toward gaming, and go for broke. Not all of them are great games, but it is always fun to see someone else’s vision of what gaming should be. (Especially horror/fear mechanics… I’m always interested to see a new mechanic for emotional response like that. I think it may be the hardest thing to design and have someone respond to with an “oooh!” reaction)

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