Categorized | Interviews

Interview with Game Designer Brett M. Bernstein

Posted on May 13, 2006 by Flames

How did you get started as an author/game designer?

I had been working on a modern-era game with two friends. It revolved around certain elements we enjoyed playing. One of the guys disappeared on us (he still has some of my stuff) and we let it sit for a while. Just after D&D 3E came out, we decided to shift focus from a modern setting to a fantasy one. The key elements changed, but the basis was roughly the same. We brought someone else on board to handle the art. Eventually my other friend disappeared and so I took over complete development. As an interim project, I created The Colonies game and got a handful of art done for it. The artist went MIA also, and I was left on my own. I finished The Colonies with a few pieces of art, not necessarily to my liking, but at least it was something. I handled the rest of the design. The final system was a simplified version of the original and eventually the base die mechanic for PIG’s genreDiversion system. I stepped up development on the original game that prompted all this. After several crashes in Quark, I finally had enough and called it a day. I moved on to work on something I really wanted to create – a diceless system that plays like a conventional ‘dice’ system – Active Exploits (AE). Little did I know that Active Exploits would be the future in PIG’s system mechanics even for our dice systems.

What can you tell us about your work on Unbidden?

It all started with an idea I had about characters with mental illnesses, such as delusions, paranoia, addictions, etc. The premise was to be focused on horrors facing the characters. Some of these horrors were to be real, while others were to be imagined by the characters thanks to their mental problems. I developed a system for tracking dementia and working with personal demons. This system is now part of Active Exploits Diceless and Impresa, although there is yet to be an Impresa-based game to implement it πŸ™‚

While I was working on this, I spotted a game called Unbidden. It had not yet been completed. Mark Bruno was developing it under his Three Sixty Publishing imprint. I had been having discussions with him via email even before that, and I don’t remember the exact details, but I think he decided to devote his energy elsewhere, so I offered to take over publishing and development. We them teamed up on the project. I combined elements from the game I was doing with Unbidden. It added a whole new dimension to the game. I revamped the powers system and added new character options. Between the two of us, we came up with the final product.

Unbidden is still a popular download for us. I’ve been thinking about updating it to our Impresa system, but it really doesn’t fit into my plans right now. Ghost Stories 2 is my priority for horror right now.

What can you tell us about Iron Gauntlets?

It is the best fantasy game of all time!! or Not. Iron Gauntlets is the flagship game for our Impresa Modular system. It uses the same foundation as Active Exploits and genreDiversion i – in fact, it is compatible with both – instead of rolling d10, you can go 2d6 or diceless.

I designed the game from the standpoint that players/GMs always customize their games. Not only is Iron Gauntlets easy to customize due to its modular components, it encourages it. Want a character to be able to see spirits? Add a new gimmick for that purpose. Want to create a new culture from which characters can be born? Add a new background. And so on… It focuses on simplicity yet is pretty comprehensive and consistent. For example, as with GDi and Active Exploits, there are five abilities (plus magical abilities). One such ability, Fitness, covers dexterity, agility, and muscle, but for players who prefer more focused abilities, flairs can be used to better define those different elements of fitness.

Two other important differences from other fantasy games are creatures and magic. Creatures are simple to throw into a game. Abilities can vary for each so no two are the same, but it only takes about a minute to prepare a creature for play. There are four different types of magic, and while the mechanics are the same for each, they have different methods and functions. And there’s no endless list of spells. Crafting-based magic lets you make spells on-the-fly; Divinity magic essentially has the GM act as a deity and influence events based on a priest’s requests, although with skill, this divine influence can be focused by the priest; totem magic uses spirits and the spirit world to work with and manifest familiars; and finally, essence-based magic relies on a character’s inner power to achieve chi-like effects.

We also let you grab the game however you prefer – PDF core rules or expanded edition (includes setting and adventure), or softcover (same as expanded edition). It’s all about flexibility and customizability. There’s some cool stuff planned for Iron Gauntlets — Steampunk Musha, Rune Stryders, and the IG Companion, which will include lots of new rules options like character threads, skill flairs, and convictions, to name a few.

What can you tell us about the genreDiversion line from Politically Incorrect?

genreDiversion started out as a series of low-cost downloads, utilizing a system that was a cross between the one used for Unbidden and Active Exploits Diceless. I eventually developed an updated version called genreDiversion i, which is cross-compatible with Active Exploits and Impresa. The ‘i’ actually stands for Impresa. This new version lets you move characters back and forth between systems, so that you can greatly expand your playing arena. It’s all about standardization and modularity. While our three primary systems may use different dice (or no dice), they are all the same at their cores. The new GDi line of games includes HardNova 2 (a revision of our original HardNova GD title) and Coyote Trail. Many more are planned: Ghost Stories 2 is probably the next title, but I also plan to get EarthAD updated as well as Vice Squad. There will also be an alternate version of the genreDiversion rules called genreDiversion m. The ‘m’ stands for miniatures – this is for our Combat Charge: Miniature Skirmish Rules game. The rules are pretty much the same, but single miniatures are the focus rather than role-played characters, so there are some necessary changes to the ability/skill system.

What can you tell us about the Collaborative and Gamer’s Advantage sections of the PIG website?

My intent behind Active Exploits Diceless was to get other people involved. The system is a free download and it begged for people to modify it with new rules, character options, etc. The original collaborative was wiki-based, a section of the website that let people add their own bits and pieces for Active Exploits. I eventually rewrote the collaborative code from scratch, allowing it to work it a variety of categories and to eventually save the documents in PDF format for those who wanted to download and print the content. People wishing to add their own material for everyone to share don’t have to worry about a wiki’s odd formatting codes. The new collaborative uses a modified version of BBCode, the tags found in the majority of forums, so formatting documents is fairly easy if you post on forums. Of course, it also uses an exclusive advanced formatting system that automatically indents and inserts spaces between paragraphs for a much nicer typographic presentation both on-screen and in print, plus the ability to do image and table text-wrapping.

Last year, we started the Gamer’s Advantage program for diehard fans of our products. People are always asking for more, and while we do provide lots of free content for our product lines (and enjoy doing so), we can only do so much for free. Gamer’s Advantage is a paid subscription service that gives those customers more content on a regular basis, so it is an extension of the collaborative — non-subscribers can preview the material, but only those who pay actually get access and can save it in PDF format for printing,
archival, or whatever. Members also get the added benefit of a 10% discount on our products and special offers every now and then. One such offer now in effect is a special price of only $12.95 for the Active Exploits Diceless Softcover which also integrates our genreDiversion i (2d6) and Impresa Express (d10) rules — so you can build characters using the diceless framework, but easily convert them to the ‘dice’ systems.

What can you tell us about PIG’s Web hosting options?

I believe in supporting other startup RPG publishers. They can use all the help they can get since funds are typically small for such endeavors. One way is offering certain licenses for our material – expect to see certain PIG games/settings appear in different forms. Another is to provide affordable web-hosting to artists, freelancers, and self and small press publishers. We work to get people the hosting they need. Our basic plan is $10/year – it includes a minimum of features, but gets the job done for people who just need a small web presence without banner ads. Artists can get a portfolio site for $20/year, and publishers can get more powerful hosting as low as $40/year, including 10 email accounts, MySQL database, and a variety of ready-to-install web programs like blogs and forums.

What challenges does a small press publisher face in the RPG industry?

I think the biggest challenge is becoming known to people. Sure, capital is an issue as well, but if you have a decent business plan, you can come up with it. Acquiring a fan base is tough. There are different types of people who may be interested in your products and you have to know how to reach them. Trial and error is both a way of life and part of the challenge. Of course, that’s been my experience. It may be different for others. There are tons of other problems that can arise as well, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear me bitch about them – this interview would never end πŸ™‚

What RPGs are you currently playing or running?

I wish I could mention some cool game, but I just don’t have the time anymore. I did play HardNova 2 with a bunch of friends, but that was about it for some time.

What’s next for you?

I finished the CORPS: Diceless Conspiracy Role-playing softcover. It’s now at the printer. This has been revised for AE Take2 and I really have to thank Greg Porter of BTRC for allowing me to revive this property–it’s a fun setting. Sengoku Diceless is now awaiting approval from Gold Rush Games and then it will be released in PDF form.

Currently, I’m focusing my attention on Rick Hershey’s Steampunk Musha supplement for our Iron Gauntlets fantasy game. This is very cool–it is a Victoriental setting, taking place in a Japan-like state, but with new technologies introduced by Europeans. New magics and vocations make this a very cool setting in which to game.

I’m also finishing up Shady Gulch Revisited, a small PDF for our Coyote Trail western game. We decided to delay the release a few weeks in order to provide a more town-centric adventure.

The next two months should also see some other nice releases, which means more work for me. First, our official Cyberpunk(tm) 203X paper miniatures should be completed. Part of our Disposable Heroes line of customizable, downloadable minis, this set is only the first of three for Cyberpunk(tm). We’re also about to sign a contract with another popular game company for a new series of fantasy miniatures. I can’t say who it is yet, but people will be lining up to get these. For legal reasons, I should mention that Cyberpunk is a trademark of R. Talsorian Games, Inc. and used under license.

We also hope to see the Revised Edition of Rune Stryders released soon. It will contain some new art and corrections, and the PDF will be free to those who have already purchased it.

I’ve also been working on The Colonies 2.0 (using the Impresa rules) and Ghost Stories 2 (using genreDiversion i), but because I have to do layout, editing, and coordination of current projects, it takes time. I also do regular material for the Collaborative and Gamer’s Advantage program.

For more information on Brett M. Bernstein’s games, check out

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