I know that you have been eager to proceed upon your quest – but SURPRISE! An NPC has materialized from the shadows to impart ancient wisdom upon you before you begin your perilous journey into the realms of Gamemastering.
This month I am pleased to feature Katrina Ostrander, a Fiction Editor at Fantasy Flight Games. Not only has she also worked in the development of RPG’s, but she is also a seasoned GM.
Gather close, then, around the campfire, and hear her tale…
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself: What first got you interested in game design, writing and GMing?
I first became interested in writing long before I got into gamemastering or game design, but writing was what eventually got me into both of those things.
For me, learning to read, type, and write all happened at around the same time in early elementary school. Books were my childhood love, and writing seemed like a natural extension—they were both for telling stories, so I didn’t really make a distinction between them. I grew up consuming voracious amounts of fantasy and manga, and I tried my hand at writing both fanfiction and original fiction at various points along the way.
It was through fanfiction that I discovered play-by-post (PBP) roleplaying games, which were essentially collaborative storytelling games in which everyone played one character. There usually wasn’t a GM, just an administrator who helped approve character applications and coordinated the main storyline. Game mechanics were basically non-existent. Nevertheless, play-by-post games set me up to finally try tabletop role-playing games in college.
I first took an interest in game mastering the morning after I played in my first-ever RPG session. My college boyfriend had a group that was willing to accept another player, so I tagged along that night and made a new character alongside everyone else, a Duskblade, I think, or a Favored Soul.
The party started locked in a dungeon with no means of escape, so we waited. And waited. And waited…until the DM decided to get the session going and suddenly there were explosions and elementals and combat! Our chance at a prison break was at hand! By the time XP from the encounter had been doled out it was 2am and we passed out at the apartment where we were playing.
In the morning I remarked that it wasn’t really all that fun, we were kind of at the mercy of the Dungeon Master for the story to happen, but it seemed like it could be fun. “What if I ran my own campaign?” I asked, and my boyfriend helped me brainstorm a premise and plot that morning.
I didn’t get to play Dungeons & Dragons again that summer, but I did join up with the Role Playing Guild at my college that fall and got into a Dark Heresy campaign (the first edition by Black Industries had just came out). After I got a couple more sessions of play under my belt, I asked if I could try my hand at GMing. I used a fan-made adventure I found on the internet so I could focus on the practical aspects of running a session: the mechanics, pacing, acting, improvising, and so on. It seemed like the players had a lot of fun, and I was hooked.
Game design and development came a lot later. I had a lot of mentors in my college RP Guild who were generous in loaning a poor college student RPG books. Those mentors were also invaluable sources of advice and anecdotes they had from decades of playing and running their own games. There was a culture or spirit of homebrewing and design among the guild members (many have gone on to create their own RPGs and board games), so I also began to try my hand at it as well in fledgling steps.
I started by creating modifications of existing games I enjoyed and porting systems into different settings. The games and campaigns I wanted to play didn’t exist yet, so the work fell on me to craft something usable. They were rough attempts, but they gave me a lot of hands-on experience with game development. Game design is another beast entirely, one that I’ve had brushes with at various points, but creating a system from scratch is very different from adapting and refining an existing one.
When I accepted a position as an Associate Role-Playing Game Producer at Fantasy Flight Games, I really got to dig in and learn from some very talented developers and designers about writing and role-playing games. I don’t think there’s been a day that I’ve worked at FFG where I didn’t learn something new about games.
2. You’ve worked in the past as a game developer for Fantasy Flight. What were your duties in creating a game from start to finish?
I didn’t have a hand in the Star Wars: Edge of The Empire Core Rulebook or the initial line plan, but I did have a lot of freedom to develop individual supplements and adventures. For a sourcebook like Fly Casual or Lords of Nal Hutta, I’d start with a basic product premise like “a rules supplement for smugglers” or “a setting resource for Hutt Space.”
The first step would be brainstorming the major content to include. What sorts of things would I want to see as a player or GM? What topics have the other books covered, or not? What’s cool, salable, and fun? This step would also entail going back to the source material, like the movies or cartoons or novels or comics, for inspiration. The RPG department is a very collaborative one, so we’d also have meetings to brainstorm additional ideas as concepts. After this research and vision phase, the developer cooks up a very basic outline of the book and gets that approved by management and the licensors.
The next step is to solicit the writers who will transform that outline into an actual manuscript. We have a pool of writers to draw from, but it takes some emailing back and forth to find out who’s available to write what, especially because there are certain writers who are really great for fluff and others who are better with mechanics. Everyone has their specialty, whether it’s adventures or guns or spaceships or extreme EU trivia knowledge, so you try to give assignments according to everyone’s strengths and preferences.
Once you’ve hired the writers and gotten more detailed outlines about their specific plans for their sections, the next step is to start liaising with the art department to get the cover and interior illustrations commissioned. First we have a concept meeting, a sort of “dream out loud” conversation all about the cool imagery from the books and ways to engage the players with the material being presented. From there, the developer will write up some art briefs and submit them to the art director for “grooming.” At first it was hard to wean myself off of painting a picture in words and instead give the artist some freedom by simply providing a list of things I needed from the art. But you pay these people to have a better sense of visual storytelling than you do, and they come up with stuff you’d have never thought of. And damn, the end result is amazing.
By then the first drafts begin to come in from the writers, and it’s time to put on your developmental editor hat. How is the writing overall? Is there anything that needs to be trimmed or expanded? If it’s an adventure, are there plot holes, do the NPCs all have motivations and seem believable? The list goes on. So you write up your editorial feedback and send it to the author to incorporate into his or her revisions. A second draft comes along and you repeat the process until you’re both happy with the outcome and it’s ready to be sent to a copyeditor.
While the copyeditor does his or her work, the manuscript also gets sent out to playtesters who will check whether the new mechanics or the adventure is understandable, fun, and balanced. As the developer, it’s your job to read all the playtest reports and decide what to implement or not. Sometimes that means rewriting sections of the text yourself to get it to where it needs to be.
Finally, with the final art and copyedited manuscript in, you combine the two in an InDesign template. The layout phase is like trying to solve a puzzle that has multiple different solutions; where should this image go? Are the headers lining up nicely? What’s the best way to format this information for the reader? And so on. The developer works with the graphic designer to treat the art and create any additional design elements, and once it looks the way you want it to, it’s ready to be sent to the proofreaders and shown to the rest of the department for peer review.
Once everything is polished and perfected, the final product goes through various approvals processes and ultimately gets packaged to be sent to the printer. The developer also works with the marketing department before the book is released to come up with exciting previews to generate interest in the product.
Of course, you’re juggling two or three or more products at various stages in the process, so you’re never at a loss for things to be working on! It’s a lot of work, and requires a tremendous amount of organization and troubleshooting, but it was also a ton of fun. And the feeling of seeing one of your books on a shelf at an FLGS or Barnes & Noble is incredible—doubly so when you see people playing and enjoying it. 10/10 would recommend.
3. What advice do you have for women who want to get a job in the gaming industry? What education and skills will they need?
Jobs in gaming industry encompass a tremendous number of possible skill sets! Like any corporation, businesses in the gaming industry have lots of different roles to fill, from the content development team (writing, design, and art) to the graphic design and production teams, and even the sales/customer service/marketing side. So you should consider your existing talents and experience, and think of how that might fit into a business more generally.
One skill that I think has tremendous applicability across the board is project management. It basically requires a combination of organization, people skills, attention to detail, and a certain degree of jack-of-all-trades-iness. Whether the company is creating board and card games or video games and apps, they’ll need people to shepherd the process from point A to point B, and in my anecdotal experience, there seem to be fewer people able to manage projects than there are people who want to contribute to them in a creative capacity. But that’s how I got my foot in the door, anyway.
As far as education goes, I haven’t seen as direct a correlation between majors and job duties (and not everyone has a degree), but a liberal arts education helps cover the sheer breadth of info that someone working on games might need.
My number one piece of advice to someone still in college is to get yourself into a leadership position of one or more clubs or organizations, literary or gaming-related in particular. You get to learn how to work within a system and you end up teaching yourself a ton of random stuff that will pay off later. More than that, my time as the Editor-in-Chief of my college’s literary magazine and the President of my college’s Role Playing Guild taught me how to be confident and work with others. If you have social anxiety or low self-esteem, which seems more prevalent among creative types, putting yourself in those kinds of positions (that might feel uncomfortable or even scary at first) can go a long way in helping you acquire the composure and maturity necessary for a professional setting.
You also end up doing a lot of accidental networking that way. The more people you know, the more people who know you, and that helps open up job opportunities. I know that’s pretty standard advice, but I think it’s relevant in the game industry especially. Look at the credits page in your favorite game books, and follow those people on social networking sites (especially Twitter). You never know what sort of industry news or opportunities they might pass along, and many of them keep blogs where you can read about what it’s really like to work in these kinds of jobs as well.
I think as we continue to see growth in the hobby market, more and more positions are going to be opening up at these companies. So look up the websites of any and all companies whose products you enjoy and bookmark their Career pages. Check back every couple of days or so, and make sure your resume is updated in case you find a position you’re qualified for! Then, craft a job-specific cover letter that makes explicit how your experience directly applies to the job duties in the listing. Be prepared to bone up on your knowledge of the company beforehand, especially as it relates to products. Send it in, and cross your fingers. And don’t forget to negotiate on your starting salary. It sucks, and women especially have trouble with it, but it’s a part of the game.
4. Tell us about what made you start GMing for games, and your experience being a female GM. Did your gender ever cause difficulties with your players or finding groups?
It was that one kinda “meh” experience playing D&D for the first time that really pushed me to see if I could do better. There wasn’t really any need in my group for a GM at the time, but I had the support network and the drive to give it a try. Now I find that, to a certain extent, I prefer GMing to playing.
Overall I’ve actually had very positive experiences as a female GM. The hobby isn’t perfect, but I think that among my generation (Millennials), we’re much more inclusive and diverse as a whole. I’d be willing to bet that more women are playing than ever before, but I don’t know if anyone has tried to collect that data.
At Gen Con last year I actually had a male player tell me “I’ve had better experiences with female game masters overall” when he chose my demo table over a male coworker’s, and we had to laugh—that was certainly something I hadn’t heard before! If I had to interpret that, I think it indicates that the hobby is open to different gaming paradigms and perspectives—women have their own experiences to bring to the table that enrich the game overall, and to shun or stifle that would be a loss for the hobby. The same could be said of other voices that historically have had less representation in tabletop RPGs.
There was only one time that I can remember that my gender affected my ability to play. When I was in sixth grade, one of my friends brought her brother’s copy of Dungeons & Dragons third edition over to a sleepover party and we spent the whole night making characters. We tried to play a session, but it was difficult to navigate the flow of the session without having watched it played before. We tried asking the girl’s older brother to demo it for us, but he wanted nothing to do with a gaggle of twelve-year-old girls. If he’d said yes, perhaps I would have gotten into the hobby sooner. But as someone who’s since had to deal with younger siblings and their friends, as well as volunteered to run role-playing games for tweens and teens at my local library, I can understand that teaching RPGs to young players requires a lot of patience.
5. I’ve heard from some women writers that they’d like to try being GMs, but are intimidated by game mechanics. What advice do you have for them?
The cool thing about role-playing games is that there are so damn many of them, you can do a little digging and find a game that’s the right level of “crunch” or “rules-heaviness” for you. There are a lot of games that have fewer rules and complexities, and if you spend some time on a site like LearnTabletopRPGs.com you can get a sense of the breadth of options available out there. I think one possible barometer is to look at how many pages long the Combat chapter is; the shorter, the fewer game mechanics you’re likely to have to keep track of.
RPGs that borrow some elements from the “story game” genre are also going to feel more narrative. These kinds of games are great for a writer who wants to branch out to role-playing games without getting overwhelmed by lots of rules complexity. Indie RPGs tend to borrow from “story games” more than traditional RPG companies, but even the mainstream RPGs have become much more story-focused in the last few years. There are even some diceless RPGs out there, which will feel similar to anyone who’s done forum play-by-post roleplaying (or played make-believe as a kid).
No matter which system you do end up trying to GM, the key is to try to wrap your head around one element of the game at a time. You don’t need to play with all the rules at once in order to have fun. Figure out the core resolution mechanic, get down some basics of combat, and then try to learn the other systems like magic or social intrigue. Some systems even have beginner games or starter sets designed to teach rules elements one step at a time to avoid feeling overwhelming.
Other than that, I would definitely try to have your first group be a supportive one. If you have the luxury of playing with people who already know the system, they can be a great help with remembering all the rules and nuances when you’re also juggling all the other responsibilities as GM.
Most of all, find a game that you genuinely want to play and have enthusiasm for. That way, if and when you do have to dig in and read the core ruleset, you don’t feel like you’re studying for a test.
6. As a GM, do you prefer to run pre-made adventures or create your own worlds and campaigns? And why?
I think I prefer to create my own worlds and campaigns, but I’ve certainly run a good number of pre-made adventures! There’s a lot I can still learn, both about gamemastering and game development, from pre-made adventures: what were the trends in adventure design when this was written? What works? What doesn’t? How does this adventure achieve a certain thematic or dramatic effect? And so on. And a cool story is a cool story regardless of who wrote it.
In certain circumstances pre-made adventures can save time, and I’ve cannibalized or reskinned my fair share of published adventures when I was lacking inspiration for a particular week or wanted a pre-built encounter that was balanced. On the other hand, it’s definitely possible to botch a pre-made adventure if you have to run it on the fly without having read through all the material, and in those cases I think I’d be better off improvising.
As an aspiring writer, however, the impulse to homebrew my own material is very potent. I’ve been prepping for my upcoming campaign for almost six months now, which is the longest I’ve ever spent generating material before a campaign. Most of that time has been spent worldbuilding and plotting out the main storyline, and I’ve been tackling it in a similar manner to novel outlining. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been enjoying the preparation in and of itself.
At the end of the day, I prefer to run a campaign of my own creation because I can pour my heart into it and customize it just so for my group. Put simply, I’ve had the most fun running my own material.
7. Do you have a favorite gaming system? Are there any in particular you would recommend to a brand new GM?
My favorite gaming system is whatever one I’m running at the moment! Of course, Dark Heresy has a special place in my memories, and it’s been amazing being able to playtest the second edition and watch the evolution of the game I started with. Actually, one of my favorite campaigns of all time was played using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition. The way the dice symbols interacted with the action cards was a lot of fun, and of course the setting is one of my favorites.
Concerning games I’d recommend to a brand-new GM, I’m pretty partial to any of the Star Wars Beginner Games from FFG. They introduce the different dice mechanics and rules complexities one step at a time, a lot like a learn-as-you-play video game tutorial. And once you’ve finished gamemastering the module included in the box, there’s also a free downloadable adventure that will give you more practice with running different types of encounters.
If Steampunk is more your style, Lady Blackbird is a fantastic little D6 dice pool system that’s very intuitive and easy to learn (not to mention free). It’s very character- and story-oriented, and it’s well-suited to a single night of play. The session could end up like an episode of Firefly or more like Star Wars: A New Hope, or you can play one of its many genre hacks. You could also come up with your own list of Traits and Tags to adapt your favorite setting to the system. Here’s an example of how I began to adapt it to the world of the Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop.
8. Do you have an online portfolio or any social media accounts where we can follow you and your work?
My friend was recently GMing a champaign with some friend online and was having constant internet issues. He decided to change provider through Usave. He saved a bunch of money and got a better connection as well!