Friday, September 17, 2010

Interview with Arc Dream Publishing's Shane Ivey

When I review of a product, especially one as interesting as The Keberos Club, I want to know more of the people behind it. Most game makers wear many hats and have family lives to balance with their RPG endeavors. So why do they do it? In Shane Ivey's case the answer is simple: for love of the game.

Beside adoring all things Cthulhu, Shane Ivey is a writer, editor, and webmaster. He is responsible for the official Web site of Delta Green, and helps out with The Black Seal. He spent years as a play tester and occasional writer for Pagan Publishing before launching Arc Dream Publishing with Dennis Detwiller. He founded the popular science fiction Web zine RevolutionSF, with contributors including Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Moorcock, Jhonen Vasquez, Caitlin R. Kiernan and many others. He also works as webmaster for boardgame publisher Avalanche Press.

Recently he and Dave Blewer converted ENnie nominated The Kerberos Club into the Savage Worlds system. Tales from The Savage Troll caught up with Shane shortly after Gen Con.

Q. How was Gen Con this year? How did it compare to other years?

GenCon was great. The show had terrific attendance and we worked with Pagan Publishing and Cubicle 7 to get really good placement. And we had plenty of new books in hand, which always makes a world of difference. Last year we weren’t in quite as good a spot and we had very little new product, so our traffic and sales were way up this time.

Q. Which came first, your love of writing or your love of gaming?

Gaming. I was gaming long before I started writing anything other than school assignments.

Q. How were you introduced to role-playing games? What did you play?

I was 10. My best friend in school, a kid named Mike, heard about a new board game of some kind where you moved figures around and had knights and wizards that killed monsters. It sounded fun, so I got my mom to pick it up. It was the “blue box” Basic D&D, 1979. It didn’t come with dice, just numbered cardboard chits that you could cut out with scissors and put in cups. To see if you hit, draw a number from the little d20 cup. Mike and I played it and we instantly fell in love. We were gaming pretty much non-stop from then on. I took a short break for law school. Law school didn’t take. Gaming has stuck around.

Q. Does your wife or kids game?

My wife has played a few games and definitely helps the company in a lot of ways, but she’s not really into gaming as a pastime. My kids love playing role playing games when we sit down to play, but I hardly ever have time to run a game. I would love it if one of them would make the jump from casual player to GM, but it hasn’t happened yet. They do love to play, though. My daughter Becca, who’s now 14, wrote and drew a story that became the inside cover and end papers for our game Monsters and Other Childish Things. My sons Jon and Connor love playing Monsters as well as D&D.

Q. What non-Arc Dream game systems do you enjoy? What appeals to you about those systems?

I can find huge fun in most role playing games. I love In a Wicked Age for its focus on the emotional issues that really make sword and sorcery kick. I mean, a sword and sorcery game that focuses not on hit points and weapon types but on the motivations and relationships of the characters? Crazy. And brilliant. Smallville took some similar tacks with soap-opera super heroics. I haven’t played it but what I’ve read is very, very cool.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve run two very successful mini-campaigns of Aces and Eights, which is a supremely crunchy, detailed Wild West game. It tracks character actions in tenths of a second. It can take two hours to play out a twenty-second gunfight. It has detailed, crunchy mini-games for cattle drives, cross-country chases, gambling, prospecting and bar-room brawls. Character creation takes ages. But it works! It gets you invested in quirky characters that have enough initial depth that you can really build on them, and then if you get them into a gunfight it’s terrifically suspenseful.

Call of Cthulhu was my first great RPG love. I started playing that in 1982 when I was a weary, eighth-grade, three-year veteran of dungeon crawls. The first scenario that we played was Mike and me again. It was a solo game that he ran. My character survived, made it safely home, turned in a book manuscript based on what had happened, and was murdered when the publisher turned out to be a cultist.

I was amazed. Role playing games could be about genuine fear and tragedy. It was like my favorite hobby turned out to have staggering unknown depths. That sensation has pretty much informed everything I’ve done in gaming since then.

Q. You wear a lot of hats for a lot of enterprises. How do you balance family life with your schedule?

If you want to hear bitter laughter, ask my wife how I do it.

In good months, the routine basically is this. On weekdays, while the kids are at school and Rachel is at work, I do Arc Dream. Then a few nights a week I work at the Birmingham News as a copy editor. One night a week is game night with my buddies. Other nights and weekends I spend with the family.

But occasionally there are crunch times when every waking moment goes to finishing a project and getting a book out the door. I’m lucky that my family puts up with those.

Q. The Kerberos Club from Arc Dream Publishing was nominated for an ENnie award this year for best setting. Can you explain how ENnie nominations come about and how a gaming product wins?

The publisher submits products for consideration. A small panel of judges selects the nominees. Then they open it up to a public vote online to decide the winners. So the games that have the broadest groundswell of popular support take home the trophies. Our groundswells of support tend to be deep but fairly narrow—we have relatively few fans but they’re enthusiastic. So I’m very happy that we’ve been selected as nominees so many times, but never shocked that we haven’t won any.

Q. How did the concept for The Kerberos Club begin. What's so appealing about Victorian Superheroes?

Benjamin Baugh wrote it. I don’t know if it had any really specific antecedents, beyond his love of Victorian stories and steam punk. Alan Moore’s comics series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was an obvious inspiration, but Kerberos departs pretty sharply from League.

What’s appealing about it is, I think, that you have this mix of the strange and the familiar. Victorian attitudes and mores seem really bizarre to most modern gamers. In The Kerberos Club we put a lot of work into translating those attitudes in ways that modern gamers could comprehend and play. Ben also had the great idea of making the Club itself a haven for misfits who don’t fit in or agree with Victorian society, so you have a perfectly valid excuse for the characters not fitting in if not every player is deeply enmeshed in that culture.

So you have the formality in behavior and interactions that everybody expects in a Victorian setting, the carefully defined social strata, combined with characters who can do impossible things and who therefore don’t fit any of those social roles and can take pleasure in flaunting them. While flying and teleporting.

Take the recent Sherlock Holmes movie, with Robert Downey, Jr. Add superhuman powers from The X-Men. If that jazzes you up the way it does me, then The Kerberos Club is for you.

Q. Why did you decide to convert Kerberos Club to Savage Worlds?

I love Savage Worlds. And the Superpowers Companion was on the way. The greatest strength of The Kerberos Club is its setting, not the way it uses the rules, so I was curious how well it would translate over. Especially since Kerberos is a very pulpy setting by Arc Dream’s standards. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how Savage Worlds fans responded to it.

Q. How and when did you become a Savage?

A few years ago. I’ve played Savage Worlds pretty frequently over the last few years. My local game group in fact has played a lot more Savage Worlds games than games that I’ve published, just because their tastes are different. Superheroes and horror, my bread and butter, don’t go over as well with the guys, and one or two of them dislike the way the One Roll Engine works.

It’s funny, in a way, because I understand Savage Worlds came about in part because Shane Hensley was playing Godlike and didn’t care for the way its dice work, but wanted a World War II game.

So they’re different animals and they appeal to people in different ways. Godlike and Wild Talents tend to be a lot more stark and less forgiving than Savage Worlds—their action scenes are scary and suspenseful. And they use the One Roll Engine, which lends itself to unpredictable, fast, dangerous action—but which has a very nontraditional way of dealing with dice and rolls.

My own group played a Savage Worlds Slipstream game not long ago, and we played a Savage Worlds adaptation of Northern Crown, the fantasy colonial America setting, which I adored.

Q. Dave Blewer of Triple Ace Games helped translate Kerberos from the Wild Talents rules set into Savage Worlds. Had you worked with Dave before? If so on what other projects?

Dave was a really active supporter of Godlike and a play tester for the very first edition of Wild Talents. In fact one of his Wild Talents characters, Dr. Jurassic, made it into the core rulebook. So when I started considering a Savage Worlds adaptation of a Wild Talents book, it was going to be Dave from the start.

Q. What do you consider your best gaming product?

That’s a little like asking which of my kids I like best. I mean, some of them are definitely NOT my favorite, but the best?

Joking! I’m joking about the kids.

The best thing Arc Dream has ever put together is Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity. Arc Dream put it together for Pagan Publishing to publish it. We put an amazing amount of work into it, and because we were working with top-notch creators that really paid off. I’m immensely proud of it.

Then there’s Progenitor, the recent Wild Talents setting by Greg Stolze. Kerberos was my favorite Wild Talents setting from the start, and Kerberos is in some ways easier to jump in and play, but Progenitor just leaves my jaw dropping. It starts with the central notion of one really powerful superhuman who inadvertently passes superpowers around to others by using them. That first character is an average Midwestern American woman in 1967. Progenitor explores the way the history of the 20th century changes by actions of super-powerful individuals, the ways it doesn’t change when some historical forces are too broad to be reshaped even by a person with superhuman memetic powers, and the ways the individual characters are changed by having that kind of power. It’s really stunning.

Q. How did Arc Dream Publishing come into existence?

I was friends with Dennis Detwiller, who had been part of Pagan Publishing from back when I was a Cthulhu fan who loved The Unspeakable Oath and their early Call of Cthulhu source books. Dennis and I worked together a little on some Pagan projects.

Then he and Greg Stolze put Godlike together. Originally it was going to be a Pagan game—it was supposed to be Pagan Publishing’s first standalone role playing game—but when that didn’t hash out Pagan worked with Hobgoblynn Press (which is now Eos Press) to release it. They hired me at first just to take care of the Godlike website, since I’d managed the Delta Green website for three or four years. But by then I was working full-time as a writer and editor, so I started getting more involved on that side of things.

Long story short, Dennis and Greg ran into conflicts with Hobgoblynn. They became increasingly frustrated. Dennis and I started talking about possible alternatives. But ultimately we really liked the idea of us being the ones who made the decisions about how to handle the properties. So we made a deal with Hobgoblynn and with Greg to have our own company buy out Godlike, we got some invaluable early help from our friends at Atlas Games to kick things off, and we went from there.

Q. How did you start in the gaming industry?

I volunteered to do proofreading for Pagan Publishing. Then I launched my own Delta Green fan website. John Tynes liked it, and he liked the short stories that I’d started writing for Delta Green, so he hired me to take over running the Delta Green website for him. I did a little work with Delta Green before it went on hiatus. Then came Godlike and Arc Dream and I pretty much dove in.

Q. Is owning and running your own company more rewarding than simply creating games for it? Why or why not?

Hmm. Yes, because Dennis and I like being able to decide and control what happens to our creations. But it’s a lot more challenging because you have so much more overhead to deal with. I mean, imagine how much work you think it might take to run a game company. Now multiply that by four or five. That’s probably more accurate.

Q. What new challenges have you faced at Arc Dream?

There’s pretty much one key challenge. We don’t have money. And because we publish roleplaying games, and we studiously avoid the trends in RPGs that are likely to result in massive sales, and we nevertheless pay comparatively well for this industry, we never make money. The cash that we get from the top sellers always gets eaten up by the costs of putting together the ones that we love but that don’t move as briskly. And we have no interest in going into debt when there are all those factors that might make a debt impossible to pay off.

All the experiments that we’ve done in ransoms and pledge drives have revolved around the desire to continue to put together games that we love, and to work with creators whose work we love, have revolved around that essential pecuniary challenge.

The other big challenges are logistical. We just released Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity. It took a lot longer to finish that book than we first expected. And we hired a new warehouse service to handle fulfillment for it, because I don’t have room in my basement office to store and pack and ship a thousand packages all at once. The warehouse had scads of problems on top of the delays that we already had in producing it. So the book has taken forever to reach people, and in some cases it’s not reaching people first who paid for it first, and there are a lot of unhappy fans who put money up to help create it two years ago.

You have to learn and adapt. We handle development and fundraising differently now than we did two years ago. I’m a lot more careful to have a manuscript REALLY done, not just APPARENTLY done, before we [start] bragging about it and putting it up for pre-sales or a ransom.

Q. What's your favorite Arc Dream property?

I love Godlike. It handles World War II action in a way that’s scary and moving and that really digs into characters’ motivations and psyches. It’s a great game for action-packed one-shots, and it’s even better for long-term games where characters grow and become scarred and develop tight bonds when they manage to survive.

I love Wild Talents for a lot of the same reasons. It takes the ethos of Godlike and extends it to the modern day or other settings. Superpowers are strange and dangerous. It focuses even more powerfully than Godlike on character motivation. And I was much more heavily involved in all that, so it’s more personal to me. We’ve seen some amazing properties come about in response to the way Wild Talents works: The Kerberos Club, Grim War, This Favored Land, eCollapse, Progenitor, any one of those would be a campaign that I could play for years.

I have a particular love for Monsters and Other Childish Things, which is another great idea that started in response to Wild Talents. I saw it as a thread on I got in touch with the guy who was brainstorming it and encouraged him to put together a short supplement for Wild Talents that we could publish online in PDF, 16 pages or something. It was so good that I asked him to expand it to a short book, 64 pages, our first actual Wild Talents supplement. That in turn was so good that I asked him to replace it with a full-length game. I was heavily involved as editor in shaping the way it turned out and in fleshing out bits and pieces throughout the book. It was nominated for Best Game, Best Writing and Product of the Year at the Ennies in 2008, and it earned every nod. That was Benjamin Baugh’s first book. He’s been up for Ennie Awards for Product of the Year and Best Writing every year since then.

But my favorite is still Delta Green. That’s not strictly an Arc Dream Property. But Delta Green was co-created by Dennis, my partner, and Arc Dream is responsible for developing new material for it. So, close enough.

Back in 1992, before The X-Files was a rumor, I was a criminal justice student preparing to go to law school with the thought of becoming an FBI agent. And I adored Call of Cthulhu, and had just discovered The Unspeakable Oath, this little handcrafted magazine where these young guys were doing some of the most compelling stuff for Call of Cthulhu that I’d ever seen. Then in an issue of the Oath there’s an adventure that’s all about FBI agents in the modern day, and it was completely horrifying and wonderful. Five years later, Delta Green was the best game book I ever read. Two years after that, its sequel, Countdown, was the second best I’d ever read. I helped a little in putting out a couple of small chapbook sequels, but then Pagan Publishing kind of splintered and Delta Green went on what looked to be permanent hold.

A few years after launching Arc Dream, Dennis and I managed to work it out with the other owners of Delta Green to start putting new books together. We started with Eyes Only, which compiled those little chapbooks and added a new chapter. That means Targets of Opportunity is the first book of all-new Delta Green material to come out since Countdown. We have a long list of Delta Green projects now in the works. They’re going to be great.

Q. What products can your fans look forward to in the near future?

Coming around December we’ll have The Black Devils Brigade, which is our first new big Godlike book in a long while. It will be the first full-size Godlike adventure campaign book. It’s terrific stuff by Allan Goodall, who did such a great job on the Civil War book This Favored Land for Wild Talents.

We’re going to do more versions of The Kerberos Club to continue that experiment: one for the Hero System, one for Fate, one for Mutants and Masterminds Third Edition.

And we’re doing a lot of short-form adventures and things in PDF. About one a week, in fact. The first bunch focuses on Wild Talents, Monsters and Other Childish Things, and Godlike, but we’ll do more for other properties like Reign and A Dirty World as we go.

We’re relaunching The Unspeakable Oath. That was Pagan Publishing’s flagship publication, a quarterly fanzine dedicated to Call of Cthulhu. It went on hiatus in 2001. Well, really it went on hiatus in 1997, then they put out an issue in 2001, and that was it.

Since the two Delta Green books, Eyes Only and Targets of Opportunity, came out well, Dennis and I approached Pagan Publishing and John Tynes, the Oath’s founder and original editor, to see about relaunching it. We hashed it out a bit, and they signed on. We’re going over submissions now for the first new issue. It will debut this December, on the 20th anniversary of the very first issue of the Oath to appear, back in 1990. We’ll publish a small print run along with releases in PDF and the ePub format for iBookstore and Kindle.

It’s really exciting. The Oath is where I stepped into gaming as a semiprofessional. It feels like rebuilding the old beloved family home. Granted, it’s a haunted home because that serial killer ritually sacrificed all those people in the basement way back when. But that’s OK. You always love your first home.


You can keep track of Shane and Arc Dream Publishing on Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, the Cult of ORE mailing list, the Arc Dream forums, and

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