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Interview with Wil Upchurch

Posted on February 24, 2005 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

I still remember my first gaming session in 1981 with some of my older friends. I made a fire hero for our Champions game and within 10 minutes I had blown my secret identity and had my crotch ripped out by a villain from the books, I swear her name was Pantera.

In any case, I felt pretty bad about that, and I think I stopped playing Champions for a while (although it remained a favorite game for our group for a long time).

The next memory I have is returning from Fantastic Worlds, a local comics and game store, with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core books. I had bought the Monster Manual, and my friends, two brothers, had bought the PHB and DMG. The DMG was always my favorite, although I still have a fondness for that Monster Manual to this day.

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

This question has been asked and answered so many times, the knowledge base is probably larger than EN World. 🙂 My answer to this changes with time, and is probably different now than it was 9 months ago. I think the biggest problem facing the community of gamers is the dissolution of that community itself. I would blame two factors for this–the internet, and the failure of hobby game stores (let’s not talk about whether or not those two are related).

The internet is great in that it allows for the easy exchange of ideas…EN World’s General RPG Discussion and Rules forums are an amazing RPG knowledge base. I wonder, though, if the creativity expressed on those boards isn’t being sucked out of the real gaming environment. PBP, chat, and email games give gamers outlets, but they also reduce the need to go out and find a real game, even in an area where there might not be much gaming. As in many things, the internet has let the marginal remain marginal, which I don’t think is good for gaming.

Hobby game stores really are the backbone of our community, but too many of them are just shadowy specialty shops rather than the hub of local gaming. I’d like to see game stores focus more on live play and community events rather than just being dealers.

The Source in Falcon Heights, Minnesota is the model of what a good game store/community center should be. In addition to having a large gaming space with full regular tournament and pre-release events, they organize private movie showings at a local theatre and other outings.

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

Boy, it sure has gotten easier lately, hasn’t it? 🙂

While d20 really opened the doors for a few years, I think things are about to get much harder again. Lots of companies have stopped publishing, and those that haven’t have either hired staff writers or give new projects to trusted freelancers that have built up a reputation for quality and timely work.

Of course, you can go the self-publishing route for almost no investment by publishing pdf material through RPG Now. To really succeed as a pdf publisher, though, you’ll need a variety of skills, writing being perhaps the easiest of them. Still, it’s a good way to get noticed. Keep an eye out for open calls, mostly coming from very small or pdf publishers these days, and don’t scoff…they are great places to hone your writing and game design skills.

The traditional route is going to become important again, though, so download the magazine submission guidelines from Paizo Publishing and get to writing…a few articles in Dragon and Dungeon will go a long way.

Where do get your inspiration? How do you keep your ideas fresh?

Are they? 🙂 I’m much more of an implementer than an idea generator. I know a lot of people want to be on the cutting edge and really push RPG design to its limits, but I’m motivated to recreate the roleplaying experience that I had 25 years ago when I first started playing games. Of course, I enjoy the manipulation of the rules and numbers, but that can only go so far. RPG design *has* come a long way since the early days, but I think that perhaps the genre is increasingly being marketed and produced for existing players. I want new players to pick up my stuff and say “wow!”

Of course, the products that I’m most well known for are those that challenge roleplaying conventions, so maybe I’m really just blindly throwing darts like everyone else. 🙂

What has been your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

The development work I did on the Legends & Lairs line at Fantasy Flight Games. It’s tough to keep generic material fresh and useful, and even tougher to bring together a group of writers with different styles, interests, and aptitudes and create cohesive books on the subjects we covered.

What has been your most rewarding work in the RPG industry?

Getting to be a part of the team that brought about Midnight and Dawnforge. It’s rare to catch that lightning in a bottle, and I think we did it twice within a year’s time with those two products. They’re both still extremely interesting and challenging game worlds, even if Dawnforge hasn’t received the level of attention or support that Midnight continues to enjoy.

What can you tell us about your work on Midnight?

I worked on the early development of the game during my time at Fantasy Flight, and when I left that company I made sure to take along a writing contract with me. I was responsible for most of the rules design on the game, while Jeff Barber did the setting design based on our ideas. Greg Benage is the visionary behind Midnight and Dawnforge, and his ability to keep things focused is a crucial element in their success.

I’m a very heroic roleplayer, I like shiny paladin heroes and stories where unequivocal good triumphs over clear evil. Midnight gives me the chance to explore the darker side of things, and I enjoy that very much. Getting down and dirty, writing about the nastiest of heroes, and creating villains so vile that they would feel out of place in a traditional setting.

What sets Midnight apart from other fantasy settings?

Quite a bit, actually. Most settings establish a status quo where conflict is aberrant, evil is confined to dungeons, cults, and perhaps a menacing nation or city. In Midnight, however, evil is ascendant. The only god with power over the world, Izrador, is the god of evil and chaos, and his forces have overwhelmed the civilizations of the world’s main continent. He was trapped on the world at the same time that the other gods were cut off from it. The people now live under the direct control of orcs and Izrador’s clerics, while the final war still rages in the heart of the elven woods and the dwarven mountains.

One other assumption that Midnight shatters is the generic nature and ubiquitousness of magic. Magic in this world is rare, and it is suppressed by Izrador, who wants to consume it to fuel his quest to return to godhood. Casting a single spell or carrying a healing potion can mean death if a character is caught, and the evil forces have terrifying ways of discovering such crimes.

Midnight, as a setting, inspires a level of heroism in the PCs that is not implicit in other settings. It is a much deeper, more psychological heroism that involves helping a doomed people hold onto hope for just a little longer. Midnight helps people tell darker stories while remaining within the fantasy genre. Fans of Call of Cthulhu, and even the World of Darkness, can indulge their inner fantasy geek by taking a look into Midnight.

What can you tell us about your work on Nocturnum?

I came in pretty late to the process, really. That campaign was originally published for BRP several years ago, and we renewed the license (and got a new one from WotC) when the d20 version of the game came about. I did the art direction on the book, which was interesting to say the least, and then took over on the final production about midway through. It’s an interesting campaign, to be sure, and I’ve always wanted to run it (although I’d prefer to do so in one sitting, perhaps at Gencon one year as an allnighter).

How do you find potential authors/artists for your products?

I am one of those authors now. 🙂 Fantasy Flight Games owns Midnight, and I no longer work there, so now they contract out art and writing. This year in particular I have taken on a more active role in the development of the setting, inspired in no small part by the excellent work of the fan authors that put together the Fury of Shadow box set. Midnight 2nd Edition comes out this summer, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to fulfill the setting’s ultimate potential.

I think one of the keys to Midnight’s success has been the amazing art chosen for the books, from the original Thomas Denmark cover to the amazing run of J.P. Targete covers, and interiors by Mitch Cotie, Andy Brase, Cos Koniotis, Abrar Ajmal, and Scott Schomburg.

What challenges do you face when you are editing and/or developing other freelancers’ work?

The biggest challenge is keeping a consistency of voice throughout a product. The co-authors I’ve had on Midnight have all been fantastic, and I think the setting itself inspires us to stay “on key” so much that it’s hard to tell one from another even in our raw form. There is always the urge to second-guess a design decision or to try to mold another’s work to your own style, but that’s not something a developer wants to do to a great extent as long as the work is high quality.

What RPGs are you currently playing? if any?

I’ve recently moved to Austin, so I’m not roleplaying right now. I left behind a long-running D&D game that saw many incarnations. We playtested Dawnforge and my Chronicles of Anyaka adventure path, we played d20 Modern, Dark Inheritance, and Eberron along the way as well.

What’s next for you?

I currently work in the production department at Steve Jackson Games, but I’m still actively producing material for Midnight, working on the 2nd Edition of that game as well as some supplements for this year. I hope to continue my work on the A Game of Thrones RPG this year, as well as a secret project for Guardians of Order that I’m really excited about for 2006. I’ve been doing some work on the Forgotten Realms, which is a longtime dream come true, and I hope to expand that a bit in the coming year, as well as finding time to write more articles for Dragon and Dungeon.

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