Kristine Chester, Fanboy Comics Contributor: Every tabletop gamer has a story about how they were first brought into the hobby. How did you become a gamer?
Tracy Barnett: I encountered D&D when I was young, maybe eight or nine. I ended up owning the Red Box and the Blue Box, but I never really *did* anything with them. It wasn’t until college when a co-worker invited me to play in his D&D game right as 3rd Edition was released. I was hooked. I bought nearly all of the 3rd and 3.5 books and played with mostly the same group for 3-4 years.
KC: What inspired you to start designing your own games and to create your own RPG company, Sand &
Steam Productions, and what have been the rewards and challenges of having your own company?
TB: To start designing just seemed to be something that I needed to do. I’d throw half-hearted attempts towards writing (fiction and such), but I never had any follow-through. Then, I got an idea that seemed to stick. I decided that I was going to actually make it a thing. That thing was a campaign setting that’s now called Shadows of the Collegium, but it began life as Sand & Steam.
I began Sand & Steam Productions after I decided that I needed to publish my first RPG, School Daze. I wanted to make sure that I was able to handle all of the business of RPG publishing properly and, to me, that meant making a company.
The rewards have been . . . pretty damn amazing. As I said before, I’d given half-hearted attempts at work before. Creating Sand & Steam Production and making School Daze into a real thing has sort of been the fulfillment of all of those previous, unfocused attempts. Creating something that is full and complete, and getting that thing published has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my adult, nay entire, life.
The challenges are, well, challenging. As you might imagine from the previous attempts that I keep mentioning, follow-through and goal-setting have never been my strongest suits. Doing work like this is often a solo task, and it’s very easy for me to get distracted by the myriad of delights of the digital world (the Internet and video games). Sure, there are self-imposed deadlines, but when you’re the one setting them, it’s sometimes easy to “adjust” my schedule and spend time not working when I should definitely be working.
KC: You've been very open about the design and business process for your games and even have the School Daze rules available for free on sandandsteam.net. Why have you decided to make Sand & Steam so open, and what advice would you give to others looking to do the same?
TB: The initial reason for the openness was born of fear. Part of my follow-through issues were and are rooted in self-esteem issues. This isn’t an uncommon problem for creative types, and I sought to overcome it by giving people a chance to tell me how much my work sucked. Instead, I got positive feedback and openness became a way of design life for me. I also have a bad time keeping things to myself, so when I get excited about an idea, I immediately want to share it. The tricky bit is to not attach expectations onto that sharing. I’ve only got so many hours in the day to work on things.
Along those same lines, I hope that my work, whatever work it may be, will help and inspire others to create their own games, books, whatever. As gamers, we constantly work with, alter, and shape game rules. If people want to do that with the games I’ve made, then more power to them. Plus, it’s free publicity. If someone likes the rules after a read-through, then maybe they’d like a fancier version. Either way, if they like it, it’s someone else playing my game, which is really cool.
If someone’s looking to do open design of any kind on your own, my advice is this: do it. Put it out there, be positive about your work, and don’t expect feedback right away. It takes time. But, and trust me on this one, people are seeing what you do, even if you don’t think they are. It also helps to take the time to meet people at gatherings like conventions. This industry isn’t so large that we can’t afford to help one another, and I wouldn’t be doing this if not for the advice and help of other excellent people in the industry.
KC: School Daze was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Overall what were your experiences using Kickstarter, and do you have any advice for others planning to fund their projects the same way?
TB: Using Kickstarter was interesting, to say the least. Given how I wanted to publish the game, Kickstarter (or crowdfunding of some type) was about the only source of capital I could think of. I sought out a lot of information about best practices and management of a Kickstarter campaign, as it’s kind of a new thing in the industry. People like Fred Hicks and Daniel Solis were invaluable in that regard, as they’ve written a lot about their own experiences with crowdfunding.
As for advice, the biggest thing is to do all of your research before you start. Make sure you know how much everything is going to cost, including shipping. Did I say that loudly and clearly enough? Make. Sure. You. Know. Your. Costs. This isn’t a small thing, here. The math can screw you over horribly if you’re not accounting for everything, including making more money than you expect. Kickstarter is a viable and valuable source of funding for RPG projects but make sure you do your homework.
KC: Let's talk School Daze! School Daze is a fast-paced, easy to play RPG set in high school. What were the origins behind the setting and game mechanics?
TB: The majority of the game was designed as I was driving a twelve-hour road-trip. I took a joke from Twitter (having Ranks in Lank) and started rhyming works with Lank. As I came up with more rhymes, I realized that I was describing high school students. Pair that with a Favorite Subject and you’ve got a relatively complete picture of a high school student, at least as seen by their peers.
Once I had that, and got over the shock of having actually designed a “real game,” I knew that I needed a mechanic. I wanted something light and fast so I settled on a single d6 roll, with success happening on a five or six. It turned out that my instincts were good, because the mechanic turned out to work. I highly doubt that I’m going to get as lucky with later designs.
The setting is relatively open. It’s a bundle of high school tropes called Trowbridge High and is designed to be a place in which good high school stories can be told. That means that the players have a lot of agency in adding to the setting. The school is left deliberately blank, and the book only adds a little history and a slate of staff and faculty, all of whom are optional. The school is yours. Take it and make it what you want it.
KC: Between listening to actual plays and my own opportunity to play the game, School Daze seems prone to having over-the-top moments of awesome or wackiness. What's been the most awesome and/or strangest moment you've had in a session of School Daze?
TB: A sentient, tentacled, mystical keytar being played by a transformed Icon of Rock while standing on top of a dome of electricity, which was generated by band students with modified instrument/weapons surrounding the football field, all while Blood Bowl was being created where a football game had originally been. Oh yeah, it was also raining soot-covered kittens and two science geeks were battling for dominance at either end of the field.
Epic is such an overused word . . . but that game was epic.
KC: You recently started working on your second game, Terrorform. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
TB: Terrorform came from the idea being left behind when humanity departs Earth. Earth is so badly damaged that humanity decided to leave the planet for a while to terraform it and "throw the reset switch” on our own world. The game should, if all goes as planned, play out over five consecutive generations of the Forgotten as they survive and are changed by the various phases of the terraforming process.
By the time the last generation rolls around, they’ll have to deal with the descendants of the people who left them behind. In the endgame, the returning humans will be the invaders. I want to see what that looks like in play. I hope to have the experience be very story-driven, and as such, am looking at using FATE for the game system.
KC: This being Fanboy Comics, would you care to geek out with us about your own favorite games, TV shows, or comics?
TB: As of the writing of this, I’m going back through all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as I’m a huge fan of the series and many of the things that Joss Whedon has done. In terms of games, I’m playing Pathfinder, will always play Savage Worlds if given the chance, and am doing a lot of reading of different FATE games for Terrorform research. I’m hoping to read more comics, but it’s a matter of time, access, and finances. I have not enough of any of those to justify a comic habit.
KC: Lastly, what would you like to tell our Fanboy Comics readers who would like to learn more about you and your upcoming projects?
TB: If you want to know more about what I’m going, you can hit up sandandsteam.net or follow me on Twitter, @TheOtherTracy. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!