Categorized | Interviews

Interview with Andrew Bates

Posted on December 10, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Fits and starts. My folks gave my oldest brother the red boxed D&D set; he wasn’t too interested, so I poked through it and thought it was kinda cool. We moved so much when I was young, though, that there wasn’t anyone to play with. Then, late in high school I fell in with a few guys who played a little D&D but were more into games like Traveller and Twilight 2000. It was a casual thing for a couple years, then off to UW-Madison I went. My sophomore year of college — out of boredom, mostly — I tracked down a gaming group that met at the Memorial Union. It was a loose club that got a room each weekend, and different games were usually going on. Some of the gamers were purely combat and power-up types, others were waaaay too into roleplay (sorry, but I refuse to call you by your character name when we’re not actually playing the game). Luckily, I found a crew with a philosophy similar to mine, that gaming is a fun pastime and a great creative outlet, but, in the end, it’s just a game.

Anyway, those were the days of Cyberpunk and Champions with forays into D&D and Star Wars and Paranoia and even home-brews. (You’ll notice no mention of World of Darkness games. I played all of one session of Vampire prior to coming to White Wolf. Go figure.) Some of us had enough things in common outside of gaming — in large part, the fact that we actually did things *besides* game — so we hung out and even ended up pursuing similar fields. I must credit Jon Leitheusser for actually helping me make the move to the professional side of things. He’s a big shot designer for WizKids, now, but he started back at a bookstore and comic shop and from there to Capital City Distribution (which Diamond later bought). I rode his coattails from Pick-A-Book to a customer service gig at CCD; one day, some White Wolf sales folks came by to demo this Rage card game. They took us reps out for drinks afterward, and I learned that they had a sales position open. I hate selling, but I can be good at it. More importantly, I thought that being at White Wolf would give me a decent chance to get into the creative side of things — writing and illustration.

That is, in fact, what ended up happening. After a year in sales, I bugged the crap out of management to get the chance to develop White Wolf’s new sci fi game (why they gave me a shot I still don’t know — I’d written all of one freelance assignment for Dark Ages at that point). It involved working with Mark Rein-Hagen on Exile initially, but then he wanted to produce that through other means so I was charged with coming up with a new sci fi property that White Wolf would release that next year — within 10 months, in fact. I had a ton of help on that — literally everyone at the company had a say and I did my best to incorporate as many of the ideas as possible (to mixed results), and the end product was what we now know as Trinity.

From there, it’s been a few years of freelance RPG writing and development (exclusively for White Wolf) and illustration (primarily White Wolf), plus four novels to date (for White Wolf). I’m now living not-so-high on the hog as Sword & Sorcery Studios managing editor — primarily administrative, coordinating talented freelance developers like Bruce Baugh (Gamma World) and Joseph Carriker (Scarred Lands) and Mike Johnstone (Warcraft RPG) and Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea (Ravenloft), plus the occasional indulgence in actual development (d20 versions of the Trinity Universe games). And I still dabble in illustration, as you can see from, my not-very-frequently updated web site.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the gaming industry today?

I’d say it’s two key things: breaking into mainstream acceptance and losing the negative stigma. There’s been a lot of progress with the latter — sure, many people still think of gamers as socially maladjusted nerds. (Which isn’t too far off the mark, but then, in my experience, pretty much everyone is maladjusted in some way, and nerdy about some hobby or other. Take sports fans, for instance. The hard-core fans can go into all sorts of detail about their favorite sport — or sports in general — and are happy to argue the topic all day and night. But try bringing up something else — whether something “deep” like philosophy or just talking about some current affair — and you’re on the receiving end of a glassy-eyed stare.)

That stigma has something to do with why games have so much trouble being accessible to the mainstream, but I think a bigger problem is that the entry threshold is too high. It’s not easy for someone who’s never played a game to hop right into it. You have these rules and this setting and a character to make — it takes some effort. I’ve met a number of people who don’t look down on gaming per se, but they just don’t have the interest in taking all that prep time on something that’s “supposed to be fun.” And, when they can pop open a board game or a video game and get going in just a couple minutes, why should they have to bother?

Answer being, playing an RPG can be fun and rewarding; it can improve your social skills and be a healthy outlet; it can stimulate creativity, problem solving, and working well with others. All good stuff, but requiring you to clear that big first hurdle of first having to learn the game.

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

Designing and developing Trinity. When I lobbied for the gig, I was confident I could do it. I’m a creative guy; I love making crap up. But development is more than just making up stuff. You don’t just think of a book concept, get some writers to write, put it all together in the correct chapters, and hand it off to the editor.

As a developer, you must have a strong central concept that is not only creative and has a unique spin but that is marketable. You must be able to look at every idea and determine not just if it’s a good one but whether it also is appropriate to the project. You must be able to coordinate and encourage the writers on a project. You must be ready and able to step in and do whatever design work is necessary if a writer falls down on the job or if some unforeseen circumstance occurs.

You must be able to work with the art directors and appreciate that you’re both contributing to the project equally. You must shepherd each project from initial concept to final layout, and you must be able to juggle multiple projects all at different stages at once.

I think I have an excellent handle on how to do all that now — I hold up Adventure! and Mummy: The Resurrection as prime examples — but Trinity was my first gig. I had no clue what the hell I was doing. The fact that it turned out as well as it did — flawed, absolutely, but packed with a lot of great stuff — amazes me.

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

Trinity was rewarding because of the challenge, but I’d say it’s a tie between designing Adventure! and developing it with Bruce Baugh, and writing the Year of the Scarab fiction trilogy. Adventure! is a great package — a complete setting with rules that exist purely to support the game world and the mood of the genre, and it’s unabashed fun. The YotS trilogy was my first attempt at writing a novel — not just a novel, but three of ’em, back to back. It was agony and a blast, often at the same time. But, best of all, I actually enjoy reading ’em. I’ve never felt inclined to peruse a game book I worked on, but it’s kinda fun to flip through a chapter or two of one of my novels every so often. (And cringe-inducing at times; I’ve found more than a few plot points, bits of dialogue, and characters that, in hindsight, I would’ve handled far differently.)

Let’s see: Artist, Author, Developer, System Designer, Novelist, Editor…is there anything you haven’t done in the RPG industry?

Don’t forget retail sales, distribution customer service, publisher sales and marketing — oh, and consumer and fan. So, no, I don’t think so. Critic, maybe?

What exactly is a “Managing Editor” anyway?

It’s in large part a jack of all trades. I’m responsible for establishing the Sword & Sorcery release schedule and for making sure that the products come out on time and of good quality. That involves a ton of stuff — submitting book and game line proposals to management, determining the best months for release, matching up the most appropriate developers with the different projects, keeping them on track with the design schedule, overseeing contracting and pay schedules for all the text creative contributors (thankfully, the art directors worry about the art end of things), coordinate with the art directors on art and layout and printing matters, coordinate with sales and marketing on solicitation and distribution matters, and a handful of other things I’m probably forgetting at the moment. Plus, I need to step in with development or editorial assists whenever the need arises.

So, y’know, I’m awash in free time.

As an artist, do you have a favorite medium?

I can’t paint to save my life, and what little I know of computer design and illustration is self-taught. I’ve dabbled in a few other things, but far and away I prefer pencil and pen-and-ink illustration. And, within that, I really enjoy cartooning. I did a comic strip in college and entertain ideas of giving that another shot some day (or comic books — Jon and I talked about that more than once, but we were too lazy to do anything with it). I don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but in the meantime I get the occasional freelance gig for which my cartoon style works well, so at least I keep my hand in.

Where do you see art in the RPG industry headed?

I can’t even begin to predict. Well, okay, I can begin, at least. I don’t think pen-and-paper RPGs will ever be more than a marginal entertainment medium. I think there’ll be more of a move of RPGs acting as source reference for other, more mainstream, entertainment — video games, movies, and the like. We’ve seen that to a certain extent already with the intellectual properties of White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, FASA and the like. Beyond that, though, there’s no telling what that’ll mean for the core roleplaying audience.

I do wish that we — and by “we” I mean everyone in the RPG industry — had more resources to draw upon in communicating with the fan base, in developing concepts and marketing them, and in general getting some muscle to push the industry to a wider market than it stands currently. The grass roots, word-of-mouth level of things is great and something that I hope never goes away, but it only goes so far.

What differences and/or challenges do you face when writing a fiction novel vs a RPG sourcebook?

Rich Dansky gave an excellent answer in his interview (hey, kids, check it out if you haven’t read it yet — and take a gander at his picture; isn’t he dreamy?), so this may sound familiar:

I faced two major factors/challenges. In RPGs, the goal is to create plot hooks, story opportunities that the players will then pursue with their characters. As such, any concepts or characters you create are to facilitate story options and enjoyment for the people playing the game. In fiction, the goal is to tell a compelling story with interesting characters. You want to take the reader on a ride that should be interesting, exciting, and surprising.

In RPGs, you provide the plot threads but expressly leave them unresolved. In fiction, you can create as many plot threads as you want, but you’d better resolve them all or at least have a valid creative reason for leaving something open. In RPGs, the characters you create are there to support and create conflict with the heroes of the piece (the player characters). In fiction, you control every aspect of character, and must create intriguing and compelling figures no matter how large (or small) their roles.

I much prefer writing fiction.

What was your inspiration for the Carpenter character?

This is gonna sound sooooo geeky.

I created Carpenter for my friend JD’s Forgotten Realms campaign back in college. I was burned out on fantasy and wouldn’t have even played if he hadn’t been my roommate and was running the game in our apartment. (Since I’m there, I might as well play, right?) So I created an illusionist/thief (I think the race was moon elf). Other than that, I had no clue on the character, not even a name, even after the game had started.

JD started things in this bazaar, introducing each of us separately and seeing what we were up to to determine how we’d meet. He asked what my character was doing. Drawing a blank, I shrugged. “Uh, he’s, um, doing parlor tricks for passersby for money.” So JD rolls a die and says my character had earned, like, 5 copper pieces or something. “HOW much?” says I. “How long has he been there?” JD shrugs and rolls another die; all morning, apparently.

Well, that just pissed me off. My character’s working his butt off for these yokels for half the day, and all they can pony up is 5 measly copper? So my character calls up a volunteer, casts hypnosis on this dude and whispers in his ear, “You are in the middle of the drow city, surrounded by dark elves, and they all want to kill you.” This poor farmer fails his save, looks around in horror at the small crowd, screams, and breaks his leg as he runs off the edge of my character’s little performance stage. So my character scoops up the copper, bows to the crowd, and heels-and-toes it out of there.

There was a pause of surprise around the gaming table, and then JD says that the other PCs are wandering by just in time to see the last bit of all this. Being PCs, they chase after my character. I have him duck into the back of a barn and then cry out in surprise as he falls to the dirt and casts alter self. The PCs run in to find a dirty human stableboy griping about some elf that just ran by and knocked him over. Again, being PCs, one of them stays with my character while the other goes out front. There, of course, is the real stableboy, who didn’t see anyone go by. By the time my character was confronted with this, his spell was about up anyway, so he dropped the illusion and faced the other PCs with a shrug. “Okay, you caught me,” he said. “So? Now what?”

I realized that the character felt entirely justified in what he’d done, and who were these yahoos to come chasing after him? Just more distraction and aggravation, nothing to truly concern him. The entire personality clicked in an instant: he was a supremely self-centered egotistical bastard, and screw anyone who got in his way.

I called him “Carpenter Styles” for no good reason, except that it sounded clearly like a fake name. He was a blast to play after that, and even though he never intentionally tried to screw over the other PCs (at least, not on anything important or life-threatening), each PC tried to kill him at least once — even the paladin. Pretty much all the players got pissed at him, too.

Then, years later, I asked Rich Dansky if he had any rules stuff he wanted help playtesting for Wraith 2nd Edition. He wanted to see how spectres would work, so I offered to write one up for the next session. Make things a little less obvious than if he introduced one as an NPC, y’know? I didn’t have a clear idea what spectres were, but once I read up on ’em, Carpenter came to mind immediately. He was written up with starting character points, no tougher than the other four PCs, but in the course of that one session almost single-handedly destroyed the other characters before having to hightail it out of there to save his own skin. Through most of it, Rich didn’t have much to do but look on in bemusement and adjudicate our actions.

Carpenter took on a life of his own after that. I believe Rich asked if I wanted to contribute some content to the Shadowplayer’s Guide, which I wrote as tips from Carpenter. Then Rich did some great stuff with him for Hunter’s The Walking Dead sourcebook. When I pitched my fiction trilogy to Stewart Wieck, Carpenter was naturally the main antagonist — and, much to my surprise, Stew was fine with that. I just had to add vampires to make sure that the books appealed to our Vampire fans.

What are your thoughts on the fan response to Carpenter?

Pretty much the same as Rich during that playtest: bemusement. I’ve found that there are few people who are lukewarm regarding Carpenter (except, perhaps, his presentation in the Hunter video game, but, then, that was a hybrid of a pre-existing character design with Carpenter’s personality). You either love him or hate him… or, often, both. He’s a great antagonist, though, so I suppose it’s no surprise that people would like to use him for games or get a kick out of his antics in the YotS trilogy.

One of the things I like most about him is something I don’t know that the fans realize — which is, simply, that he’s nowhere near as powerful as he lets on. He’s no slouch, but any real movers and shakers in the World of Darkness could dust him in a stand-up fight without breaking a sweat. His main thing is his willpower; just can’t beat him down. But he’s also a sneaky bastard, and knows how to use what skills and powers he has to best effect. It’s a nice change, I think, from uber-powerful baddies.

If you could have written or developed one more World of Darkness book before Time of Judgment, what would it have been?

I was interested in writing another novel featuring Carpenter and/or Thea; maybe also exploring some of the other WoD signature characters as a part of that. I didn’t think the YotS trilogy did big enough numbers to warrant further books, so I never brought it up to our fiction manager, Phil Boulle. I finally mentioned it in passing and he said he was actually open to the possibility. I was pondering proposals when we got the internal announcement about the Time of Judgment, so it never went further than a nice idea.

What RPGs are you currently playing? if any?

I’m in a pair of d20 games that alternate once a week. It’s equal parts staying familiar with the d20 rules due to my S&S responsibilities and as a fun way to blow off steam. Otherwise, I just don’t much have time for gaming with the other stuff I have going on in my life.

What’s next for you?

For my day job, it’s more of the same at the moment — coordinating current and upcoming Sword & Sorcery releases, although with more hands-on development than in the past. Otherwise, I’ve been planning for far too long to start another novel, one that’s totally my own thing. I want to see how well I can flex my creative and storytelling muscles with concepts that are my own from the ground up. I’ve done a lot of plotting and characterizations; the concepts involve a setting that could easily develop into more than one novel, so I’m excited about the creative possibilities. Really, there’s no excuse to not start it other than that I’m prone to procrastination. I just need to get off my ass and start writing the damn thing.

For more information on Andrew Bates, visit his website at

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