Interview: Aaron Thies and Michael Osadciw from SSDC, Inc.

After reviewing Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century a few weeks ago, I knew I had to learn more of the game’s background
from its current stewards – Aaron Thies and Michael Osadciw of the game company SSDC, Inc. Both were kind enough to answer a few questions!

Q: Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century seems to span an absolutely enormous amount of space. How did the setting develop? Did it start small and grow or were you inspired to have a universe teeming with life and activity from the beginning?

[Aaron Thies…] Right from the beginning Battlelords was to be a setting as wider than we could possibly imagine. Anything is possible in sci-fi so we wanted to reflect that. The idea is too make sure it seems enormous to echo our design ethos that sci-fi should be open-ended and that the universe needs the room for the players own imagination to fill in the holes. I think Larry Sims who wrote the original version of the game that we adhere to also gave it the right amount of humor and flavor that has informed the entire setting.

Q: With 25 different races available to play and such a rich backstory for each, what are your personal favorites? What are the hidden gems in the setting you had the most fun creating?

[Aaron Thies…] Battlelords has 27 PC races actually. I have played most of them over the years. My personal favorites are…

  • Mazian – Difficult, but the creative challenge is great.
  • Eridani – The first time I ever played Battlelords was as an Eridani.
  • Python Lizard – One of of longest running characters, most people go for the Ram, but I prefer the slightly smarter (that is not saying much) Python Lizard with a skin toughness.
  • Tza Zen – Most players initially think a Tza Zen is “evil”, but Tza can be given to any Zen who is ostracized.

The hidden gems in the setting… I think we drive a lot of players away with our name. The “hidden” gem is in front of them, but we have done a poor job of showcasing it. The PC races are all very detailed with history, quirks, government, culture, common dress, pets, etc. all the way to favorite food. There is a tremendous base for excellent RP here, but it is not usually discovered until after players have got some killing out of their system.

[Michael Osadciw…] I LOVE playing my Zen, who tries to adventure with no weapons. In a game called Battlelords that seems kind of nuts but it leads to no end of hilarity. It’s the first RPG I’ve played where I could actually really get into a character. Fantasy classes always had too much baggage for me to truly be creative.

For me the hidden gem is the realization when talking to players from all over the place, that no one plays the game the same way from group to group. They all make it fit their personalities and it seems to work. The way I’ve played it has been completely different than the way our main crunch playtest group plays it and yet we both have fun. To me that means we got the framework and underlying philosophy right.

Q: Just about anything I could have come up with equipment-wise has already been created in one or more forms in the gear for Battlelords. Did you start out with all that armor, weapons, and equipment? Or did the lists just grow over time? What’s the best weapon in the Battlelords universe?

[Aaron Thies…] The core rulebook started out with a lot of weapons and equipment. Probably because Larry Sims, the game’s original creator was a fan of war games, as well as spending some time in the military. From there we just came up with more and more equipment. We received feedback that people who didn’t even play Battlelords bought the Lock-N-Load books just for all the equipment.

With all the different armors and armor options there is no best weapon. Everything has some counter, though when your players are on their first few missions they tend to get punked by lasers because they go right through armor absorption. When the players smarten up and add ablative liner to stop the laser damage, then the GM usually moves on to hitting the PCs with Pulse weapons.

Right, the best weapon depends on the situation, so it behooves the players to make sure the group carries a variety of kit. It’s also intentional that there is no “best” item so that player’s will always be vulnerable somehow.

Q: The artwork for Battlelords is stunning in its diversity. There are simple line drawings and huge scenes with many things going on at once. How did you go about gathering the artwork for such a massive book (nearly 300 pages)?

[Michael Osadciw…] Simple. I had no life for quite a while. With little budget for art, the bulk of the work fell on my shoulders, but that was ok, because I was able to make the Battlelords universe look exactly like I wanted to. We’ve had help of course, especially from Jim Carlton who did a lot of race and monster work early on. I tried to make sure that the art looked strange but felt grounded somehow and that the universe was gritty and real. We needed that grounding because we were asking a lot of our players to visualize all of these environments that had no other reference. There is no movie reference, or generic fantasy tropes to fall back on, so we have to show you all of it. Plus I’ve always had a fascination with less than heroic figures in RPGs and illustrating them. We all know our characters are messed up, wounded, ugly people (Charisma is a dump stat right?) so why should the images always be of of rippling heroes and scantily clad, gravity-defying heroines right. Throw in some losers now and again.

Q: Beyond Battlelords and Blood Dawn, what else is going on at SSDC these days? Any new projects you’re working on? Expansions to old projects?

[Aaron Thies…] In the early days Battlelords went through many changes, but the core rules have remained unchanged since 1999. We are working on a revised edition that will streamline the system, and clean it up a bit. As you can imagine, we have collected a truckload of feedback in the last 10+ years.

We are also working to release Engage, our spaceship rules, at the same time we release the revised edition.

We have several other new supplement ideas in the works, like a Core Worlds Sourcebook, revising the Uncle Ernie’s monster book, and several adventure scenarios.

Our recently launched new web site has a section for web tools to aid in playing, and we have several more tools in the works.

We are close to releasing a Battlelords Facebook game, and then a Battlelords Twitter-based game. This will also build towards a full Battlelords video game, which AVPI is under license to produce.

Q: Obviously with 20+ years in the gaming industry, both of you have seen quite a bit of change. Where do you see tabletop RPGs going in the next decade?

[Aaron Thies…] I expect more evolution of better indie produced games, which in turn. have influenced the larger publishers. We have seen the adoption of the PDF by most everyone, and we are starting to see more POD, which I expect to see grow in adoption.

We have also seen the trend of “rules light” games, and I think we may see that turn around again.

The most exciting thing is more games are now focused on roleplay, and playing with various in-game rules/guidelines for encouraging good RP. I think that will continue.

[Michael Osadciw…] For me, I think transforming the tabletop experience to tablets and the internet is where things are going. For me video games are too limiting and plot driven to fully replace the player-created open-ended experience of a traditional RPG. However, your group of friends may be scattered all over the nation, or world, for that matter, so how can you maintain that social connection you had in gaming over the distances. The tools are around, with all of our wireless tech, but it’s integrating everything that’s the trick. The end of the heavy geek-bag is upon us as well, where we’ll all show up with our tablets with all of our source material on them.

Q: Battlelords has been around since 1990. Has the game changed much in the last 20 years? What’s in store for the next 20 years of the game?

[Aaron Thies…] The core Battlelords rules went through a lot of change from 1990 to 1999 (6 editions), but not much has changed since then. In the next 20 years you will see a new edition that is a little less crunchy, and features the rich setting and the deep RP
possibilities of the races. Our races are already very well rounded, and we want to spotlight that.

We have enough supplement ideas to produce stuff forever given unlimited resource, so content won’t be an issue. Our biggest job is growing our customer base in the future and hopefully helping get the sci-fi RPG genre out of it’s fringe niche that it’s been stuck in since Traveler came out.

A big thanks go to Aaron & Michael for taking the time to answer my questions and I wish them all the best with all SSDC projects going forward. Of course, when you have a whole universe in your wheelhouse, expansion is to be expected!

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