Recently, I had the good fortune to interview Kenzer's Mark Plemmons. We discussed Hackmaster Basic, Aces & Eights, and other Kenzer items o' interest. Thanks to Mark for taking the time out of a very busy schedule to do so! Here's how it went:
1) Mark, thanks for agreeing to this Q&A. For the readers, can you explain what your day-to-day responsibilities at Kenzer & Company detail?
MP: (laughs) That's a long and complicated answer for your first question! Aside from editing and writing product, I serve as Art Director (assigning art and managing freelance artists for all our gaming products), do layout work, handle customer and distributor inquiries, ship orders and manage the warehouse, update our web store, manage our convention presence and keep watch over our volunteer HackMaster Association.
2) Kenzer's work on HackMaster, Fairy Meat, Knights of the Dinner Table, and other works often comes across with sort of a mock-serious attitude. Is this a product of the attitudes and personalities at Kenzer?
MP: I think so, yes. In my experience, it's a common attitude among groups of gamers hanging out together, and David Kenzer, Steve Johansson and Brian Jelke were friends for years before forming Kenzer and Company (with Jolly Blackburn and then myself coming on later). So the intent is, first, to make games that we like to play and then hope that other people like them too.
3) Speaking of personalities, what's the office environment like at Kenzer?
MP: It's really pretty quiet, most of the time. Jolly works from home, and David has a full time job of his own, so it's usually just Steve and I here. Lots of work is done over phone calls and emails.
4) Do you guys follow any blogs, message boards, or RPG news sites in particular to gauge fan interest or reaction?
MP: Google is my friend. My main visits are to RPG.net, Dragonsfoot, theRPGsite, and ENWorld (in no particular order), to name only a few. Of course, we also have thriving discussion forums on our own website, and encourage everyone to visit and post there.
5) What's the reaction been to the new edition of HackMaster? What have been the most and least pleasant things you've seen written about it?
MP: Overall, the reactions have been quite positive. It's always great when readers gush over your work, and disheartening when someone pans it (too often while seemingly only having made a cursory read-through), but I try to learn something from every review. I think the most negative comment was that it lacked an index (which we have as a separate PDF, and also included in the PDF edition). The most pleasant comments tend to revolve around the combat system. Players like that it keeps them involved all the time, instead of having to sit around and wait for their turn.
6) With Erol Otus doing the cover for HackMaster Basic, did you get to interact with him at all? If so, what was it like working with him on that?
MP: Yes, I've been working off and on with Erol for several years now, since he painted one of our previous HackMaster edition covers. He's a great guy and wonderful to work with, though we usually only converse via email. It's actually a pretty straightforward process and probably fairly boring for your readers... I give him lots of details about what I'd like to commission, and if he agrees, he emails pictures of the various stages (sketch, color and final) for approval. We make any comments, he revises, and we move on to the next stage. Since the HackMaster Basic cover riffed on one of his previous D&D covers, we didn't have to do a lot of brainstorming; the scene was already set.
Oh, here's a little tidbit... Erol added a mysterious, shadowy figure with an oblong head and long tentacle-like arms in the background of that cover, which inspired me to design a new monster based on it. If all goes well, you'll see it in the Hacklopedia of Beasts as the "ildtritch."
7) What can we expect from HackMaster Advanced? How will the transition work between Basic and Advanced?
MP: HackMaster Basic is, as you probably know, a simplifed version of the full HackMaster rules, taking players from levels 1-5 and providing enough spells, monsters and other basic rules for that. The full HackMaster rules will go from levels 1-20, including everything that was in Basic and expanding on it with more classes, rules, equipment, and so forth.
Oh, at the moment, the plan is to just call it HackMaster, not Advanced HackMaster, though I suspect the term will linger among players for a while.
8) HackMaster Advanced aside, can you give us a look at what's coming up next for HackMaster?
MP: In the very near future we've got several more adventures planned (at least two in print and several more in PDF), as well as the Hacklopedia of Beasts. As well as providing several hundred pages worth of monsters, this is really going to be a beautiful book with lots of special features you don't usually see in monster books (sorry, ask me no more just yet). If you've seen our incredible Aces & Eights core rulebook, you know what sort of design quality we're trying to meet and exceed.
9) What were some of the toughest design decisions you guys had to make with the new HackMaster edition?
MP: Actually, David Kenzer and Steve Johansson handle most of the design decisions, though of course those get further modified by in-house and volunteer playtesting. They'd have a better perspective on that than I would. My job is primarily to add the descriptive text and flavor. For example, Steve wanted a Peryton monster written (see Knights of the Dinner Table magazine #163). After our initial discussion, I'll write the description, ecology, habitat/society text, any examples, and so forth, and I'll take a first stab at the combat, but he'll usually write up the actual stats and finalize its combat tactics.
10) As you know, there's a definite movement out there right now towards not only "retro-clone" gaming, but games that inspire a classic RPG feel--HackMaster 4th was one such game, and I think despite the rules changes, people expect the same from the new HackMaster line. Here's your chance: what does HackMaster do to rise above the competition? Why will people want to give this a look?
MP: Anyone who's interested in that grim and gritty old-school feel, where danger and death lurked around every corner, should definitely check out HackMaster Basic. Rather than attempt some sort of "copyright-free copy" of Basic D&D, we wanted to get back to how playing D&D felt to us back in the day, while revamping and streamlining some of our original material from HackMaster 4th edition and Aces & Eights. I could go on for pages and pages telling you what I like about HackMaster Basic, but I'll try to sum up a few of my favorite things. We have lots of previews on our website if your readers are interested in reading more. One website (http://www.hackslash.net/?p=589) also has a list and links to lots of HackMaster Basic reviews.
- You don't start out as heroes; rather, you're trying to make your way in the world and build your reputation - if you survive.
- A combat system where everyone is involved all the time; unlike many games, you don't have to sit and wait for your turn to come up.
- Shields block hits instead of making it easier for your enemy to miss you
- Clerical healing works better on anointed followers of their deity
- Mages get Spell Points they can use to further modify spell damage, duration, and so forth
- Thieves emphasize the scumbag aspect over the superhero (they're also the only class with Luck Points)
11) The Western RPG Aces & Eights made a lot of noise when it was released. Are you still seeing a dedicated following to the game, and are there any plans for expansion with that game?
MP: There's definitely still a strong following. In the last two months, we've released four new Aces & Eights books, with more planned for the future.
12) You have credits in many of Kenzer's Kingdoms of Kalamar products. Kalamar was one of the most-detailed and well-supported D&D settings. Is it difficult to ensure continuity and theme across as many books as were released for that line?
MP: Oh, yes. Fortunately, now that the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting is the campaign world for the new edition of HackMaster, we're able to start (mostly) fresh. We're keeping the setting as intact as possible, but making a few minor tweaks to bring in some of the most loved bits of the old HackMaster setting (Garweeze Wurld). Just to name some examples, the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting now includes Frandor's Keep and will eventually be home to the pixie-fairy and grevan races.
13) Kenzer is another one of the American Midwest's numerous gaming companies (one state over from me, in Illinois). Do you think there's any attribute or reason that the history of traditional fantasy roleplaying can be traced through the Midwest, and why it remains a bastion of gaming today?
MP: Maybe it's something in the water? No doubt it all comes back to Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their circles of friends and family. You've got the pioneers of role-playing games, the origin of GenCon, TSR, D&D, and more all in this one little area. The gamers that are here know about that connection, and are passionate about it. Those who are really passionate about it often go on to emulate Gary and form their own companies.
Thank you, Mark, and best of luck to you and all the folks at Kenzer. Keep those fires burning bright!