Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interview With BTRC's Greg Porter

Today I'm pleased to interview the founder of Blacksburg Tactical Research Center, or BTRC. Greg Porter is author and publisher of numerous RPG and wargame titles, including EABA, CORPS, and Macho Women With Guns. Greg agreed to a Q&A session with RPG Blog 2, and here's how it went down:

How did you first get into gaming, and how did that lead to your current game publisher endeavors?

Grew up in a small town where I had only heard of such things as rpgs. First thing I did at college was to investigate and join the student organization for rpg'ers. Constant exposure to crappy rpg rules led me to think "I can do better than that!". And with those words I was damned...

How do you handle bad or mediocre reviews? It has to be hard to hear criticisms about products on which you've put in hard work.

I get so few of them that it is not much of a problem. But, it happens. The only thing I ask from a review is that it be accurate and have enough information to let a potential buyer make an informed decision. If what I wrote turns out to be a dud, then that's the way the cookies crumble.

EABA (End All, Be All) is your generic, universal-style RPG system. Can you give us a "quick hits" version on why potential customers will want this product over the numerous other generic/universal systems on the market?

Intuitive instead of “look it up“. One modifier table to handle 90% of real-world interactions (combat, movement, etc). At its core, realistic combat and damage effects, but with heroic options as needed. Lots of unique gameworlds that stray far from the beaten path.

What are the inherent challenges in designing a generic or universal RPG system? You worked on EABA for over two years, correct? What were the toughest parts of the design process?

Deciding when to stop tinkering with it. And the paranormal power system. There is always something that ends up taking far more time than it should in the design process.

It seems that most EABA settings expand from a "what if?" series of questions, followed by a logical expansion of the basic premise. What do you think are the benefits of this approach?

Internal consistency. I try to look at all the logical consequences of the game's premise. Society, technology, economy, diplomacy, the works. For instance, what are the side effects of magic? Do mages end up ruling everything? How does it affect warfare? What are public attitudes? Is it a genetically passed trait? What does it do regarding the development or hindering of certain technologies? All of these are dependent on the power of magic, the frequency of people with the talent and the training required to be a mage. You have to do the same calculations for anything radically different. Starships, time travel, nanotech, whatever. You can't just say "I'm going to add this because it's cool", you need to figure out what happens after you turn it loose.

A unique setting will have all kinds of side effects that you don't see until you start digging into how the pieces interact, and most of the time these side effects have all kinds of adventure-generating potential.

CORPS was BTRC's first shot at a universal, generic-type system. What lessons did you take from CORPS when designing EABA?

CORPS went too far on the simple side, I think. I kept the notion of six attributes, skill specializations and using some fraction of an attribute as the floor for doing things you have no skill at (in CORPS that would be Aptitude). I went for more of a "look and feel" approach with EABA, working with game table dynamics. You know, everyone watching as you roll a big handful of dice? That sort of thing. CORPS, with its lone d10 system, was very good, but a little too sterile in that respect.

As a small-press publisher, what are your primary methods of pushing knowledge of your products? Do you see BTRC "hotspots" with higher concentrations of BTRC product players from having fans in a FLGS? Are there geographical areas where knowledge of products like EABA seems much higher?

I used to do the whole three-tier system, me, distributors, stores. Now I just publish online, and people can download the pdfs. If they really want hardcopy, I have that option through a couple different print-on-demand outlets. My “hotspots" are mostly online. I do not know of any concentrated geographical distribution.

You're also into the wargaming side of things, with several product offerings along those lines. How much does your wargaming and roleplaying business overlap? Do you a large crossover between the two?

Since it is all my design work, it's all one business. There is no real product overlap, and as far as I can tell, no real audience overlap. People who buy EABA don't necessarily run out and buy a board or card game I did, or vice versa. There are a number of people out there who will buy anything with my name on it, just because they know it will be a good read, even if they never use it. I'd rather people used it, but it's nice having a good reputation.

Do you think there's a place right now for small press publishers in the traditional three-tier system?

I think the entrance threshold is higher. For something brand new, fairly high indeed. However, you'll notice that some well-known properties from former major players have been brought back by new companies (BattleTech rpg, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, etc.) and the name-brand recognition helps them get into the distribution chain a lot better than "You've never heard of me but I've got a new RPG, wanna buy a few cases of it?". The down market means everyone is being conservative, and that is not good for someone on a small budget trying to get retail shelf space and major distribution.

On the other hand, the ease of publishing online means that anyone can publish in that way. It used to be that you had to go three-tier to have any audience at all, which limited the number of new entries and meant you had to be pretty dedicated. Nowadays, anyone can go the online route. This is good, because it lets good designs with no money behind them see the light of day. And this is bad, because there is a cornucopia of crap you have to wade through to get to the good stuff.

How do you approach playtesting a new product?

In a fairly standard way. Find an audience interested in it, and turn it loose. I'll hit boards on other sites, or recruit from within the EABA community. Since the EABA rules are pretty solid, I really only need to test out the gameworld, which is fairly system-independent. If it is a fun gameworld, the system is irrelevant.

Some of the playtesters are merely blindtesters, who simply look over the rules from an intellectual standpoint and find errors in consistency and side effects of the background I have not considered. The trick is to find playtesters who fully understand they are not getting a polished product, and can live with the updates and revisions.

Fires of Heaven, an upcoming EABA supplement, appears to be huge. Can you tell us a little bit about this product and what to expect?

First, Fires of Heaven is not by me. The primary author is Patrick Sweeney, who gets the credit for most of the book. It is huge. Lots and lots of background material for a space opera campaign.

I was originally tapped by Patrick to do a space combat add-on for a Hero System supplement he was doing. That supplement was Fires of Heaven. It fell through with Hero, and somehow it ended up in my lap. After converting the whole mess over to EABA stats, there you go. My contribution is, as before, the spaceship design and combat chapter. And all the gruntwork on layout, etc.

What else is coming up for BTRC?

Gobs. More gobs. More than I can keep track of. I'm working on a strategic level zombie game for Lock N' Load. I'm working on a steampunk EABA supplement, superhero EABA supplement, a wierd sort of alien abduction EABA supplement and early notes on EABA version 2.0. I'm also working on a card game called Alien Zombie Tentacle Apocalypse (you don't have to outrun the tentacles, you just have to outrun the other players...), a tile-based dungeon crawl, and something involving school buses trapped on railway crossings. And half a dozen others in various stages of development.

Lastly, because I will be considered remiss if I don't ask it, will we ever see anything else for Macho Women With Guns? How the heck did you come up with that title?

On the first question: I'm going to buy an iPad and see what potential there is for a big 'ol interactive pdf full of easter eggs. So...someday. On the second, MWwG was from the days of Black Widow Company (look, Madonna as a mech pilot!) and numerous other game supplements whose main claim to fame was lurid art.

Sooo...I just eliminated all that time-consuming crap about design and background, took the basic selling premise of these products (scantily clad women, guns) and turned that into the entire product. Ergo, Macho Women with Guns.

In looking up the art for Black Widow Company, I found it ironic that the 2009 "Time of War" Battletech RPG has a cover with a man in sensible fighting gear, and two women. One, front and center, in tight shorts with exposed midriff, and the other in skin-tight something or other. The more things change, the more they stay the same...


Normal said...

Great interview! If you're reading this, Mr. Porter, I had a lot of fun with CORPS back in the day-thanks. It's great to hear you have so much in the works, too! Maybe I do need to check out EABA. Damnation, Zach, I do not need a Gaming ADD flareup! ;)

Badelaire said...

Not a bad interview, but I put Porter's works squarely in the category of "games people buy because they look cool, but almost always just sit there and never get played".

I'm sure someone out there plays his stuff (like the guy above), but even back in the late 90's when I picked up CORPS, I thought there was way too much ego involved in the system. The whole "Look, for the first time ever in an RPG system, if you're 'this good', you don't have to roll the one die that you roll to do everything in the game" thing just set my teeth on edge, along with the game's treatise on how, "unlike all those other crappy RPGs you've read, this one shows you how combat really works" (this is the same reason I utterly loathe The Riddle of Steel RPG).

I know that's probably not how Porter was thinking, but that's how it came across to me, as so many RPGs of the 90's small press / indie vein felt back in the day. These days, when everyone and their brother has a blog or facebook fan page, and has put out a small press RPG in some fashion or another, it's not really that big a deal, but back then, something like BTRC was a lot less common and the impressions I took from it carried a lot more weight.

So long story short, I am sure Greg Porter is a talented and capable RPG designer, but from my days of digging through USENET and seeing BTRC related content there, as well as picking up and reading the game itself, I will be forever biased against his works. C'est la vie.

Zachary The First said...

@Badelaire: Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t around the internet for RPGs at the time you mention, so I guess I don’t have the same stigma or viewpoint. I can understand having something turn you off of a game or line. I’m glad that hasn’t been the case with me and EABA!

Will Goring said...

I've probably spent as much time playing BTRC games as all other publishers combined, and I can assure you it's not (just) because they look cool, it's because

a) The settings are always interesting, and
b) The systems tend to hang together better, and surprise me less than anything else out there.

I get the "it's a lot about Greg" thing, though, and I can see why it might put you off; I just tend to look at is as one of the benefits of Indy games; you get a sense of who wrote it and where they were coming from, unlike the somewhat sterile products turned out by the big players.

Obviously, it either works for you, or it doesn't, and I'm not here to try to change your mind; just wanted to present a counterpoint. :)

corey_s said...


I've had experience reading rpg's with somewhat of an 'egotistic' slant, or too much wordcount spent on "look how awesome this system is"... but I've never detected that in any of BTRC's stuff... and certainly not to the extent that you seemed to have felt with CORPS. In fact, one of the things I've always greatly admired about Porter's rpg's is just how straight-to-the-point and terse-but-clear he keeps his text.

I opened my copy of CORPS and tried to seek out any of the 'ego' you described, and simply was unable to... unless you consider excerpts like the following to be full of gloat:

"The CORPS skill system makes the basic assumptino that everyone, regardless of their level of skill, has a 100% chance of success, at their level of competence. Everyone, regardless of talent, can automatically succeed at some tasks."


"One of the nicest features of the CORPS skill system is that you don't need to roll dice to do a lot of things. If the modifier make your skill equal or greater than the Difficulty of the task, you automatically succeed."

or (on the back cover:)

"[...] Rules you can remember. Dice you don't have to use. [...]"

... that's as egotistic and vain as it gets... certainly no "treatises" or gloating comparisons to other systems.

Maybe you're thinking of a different game.

Zachary The First said...

Tone is a weird thing in games. What one person reads as setting their teeth on edge, another may see no issue with.

clash bowley said...

Niiiice! *Someone* doesn't spill his brains on the floor when asked questions! *Someone* doesn't panic and write utter nonsense when pressed! *Someone* sounds like a literate adult human instead of a drunken ape with a crayon!