Interview: Jason Hardy
I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity a few weeks ago to conduct a brief Q&A with Catalyst Game Labs’ Jason Hardy. Considering his many roles as writer, editor, and Shadowrun line developer, our interview covered a lot of ground. Most of the Q&A – as well as quite a few other interesting interviews and information – are available for download here, in the Aethercon V Convention Program. I thought, however, that people might enjoy getting to read the interview in its entirety, and so here it is:
Q: Now well into SR5’s run, with the classic core rule book areas complete (Grimoire, Chrome, Gear, Matrix, Riggers, Critters), and the release of an alternate setting (Court of Shadows) this year, what are your top priorities for the coming year for both the core line and Anarchy?
Jason Hardy: It’s all still about giving toys to players. With the core books, the focus is on how to give more options and resources to players, and that focus remains the same; we are just looking at different ways to do it. Anarchy is a good example, since it offers a new way to play Shadowrun. We have the Sixth World Tarot coming out soon, and we will be working on a book to examine different ways to use that deck in your game, integrating it in ways that help the fantastic visuals add to the fun of a game. We also have a book called Cutting Aces, which will help players learn how to do con jobs, and provide tools to work that angle of the shadows. And one project I’m especially eager to get working on is The Complete Trog, a book full of guides and tools to playing troll and ork characters. It’s an idea I’ve been wrestling with for a while, trying to figure out the best ways to make it useful, and I think we have developed some interesting angles to make this a book that will be fun to read but also useful in people’s games.
Q: You have expressed an interest in the past in releasing compact, digital-only releases for SR5, such as the Touring the Stars books for Battletech, how has the interest taken/been taking shape?
JH: The ebook line has been a great place for us to try weird things and experiment, and some books like The Way of the Adept and Gun H(e)aven have been really successful. It’s been a slow year for ebooks due to other commitments, but they’re about to start up again, and one thing I’m anxious to see is a series of books exploring Morocco in the Sixth World, because we’ve never fleshed that part of the world out before. I love seeing how these experiments come together, and I’m anxious to put it in the hands of our players.
Q: A large-scale errata project is in the works for Shadowrun, which at the time of this interview has already produced an update to the core rules with a master index. Looking back over the line as it stands now, what are you proudest of in this edition? Have there been any surprises for you in the way things have come together, or appear in hindsight?
JH: I’m proudest of the way we made parts of the rules smoother, faster, and more integrated while still keeping the depth of Shadowrun rules. SR5 is a big rulebook, but that’s what we set out to do—make a game that gives you a detailed universe of options and a way to simulate them. I think the game is deep, but also more approachable than previous versions and, in its core mechanic, easy to learn. I like that combination.
I think the biggest surprise to me is how many directions we can take things. In some way the core rulebook sets a strong pattern for how things like weapon and vehicles will be going forward, but in other ways it takes preliminary steps into parts of the world that can be later taken in directions I didn’t expect. Things like the life modules character creation system in Run Faster and the design of the foundations of the Matrix in Data Trails were not things I expected, but they were the results of creative writers taking the ball and running with it in ways I had not thought of.
Q: In many collaborative endeavors, compromise is necessary in order to complete a project. Looking back at your time with Catalyst, what have been some of the more challenging but ultimately worthwhile collaborations?
JH: The first one I think of was the action point initiative system we were working on for SR5. It had some really good advantages—it flattened the curve a little between really fast and slower players, and it also didn’t make slower characters sit and do nothing while other players took three or four actions. On top of that, it allowed for the introduction of interrupt actions, things players could do to change their course as combat went along, opting for defense possibilities if things seemed difficult. I liked a lot of things about it.
But then we playtested it, and it was slow. So sloooow. And the very last thing Shadowrun combat needs is something that slowed it down. I liked it, but I knew it had to go. The freelancers and I brainstormed, and we developed something that worked smoother and faster while keeping some of the advantages of the action point system. To get to that better thing, I had to let go of the action point idea that I liked.
That sort of thing happens with almost every book. Anarchy is full of ideas from me and the listed writers and designers. Sometimes my arguments won out, sometimes others’ arguments did, sometimes we found middle ground. There are too many good ideas out there for one person to get their way all the time.
Q: For Catalyst, how do releases go from suggestion through to completion? What are the steps and time frames involved in getting a print release onto gaming tables around the world? In your opinion, what works best about this process, and what would you like to experiment with in the future?
JH: The first step is conceiving of a book an adding it to the schedule. I come up with ideas, or I get ideas from our writer pool, and I run them by management, they’ll offer their thoughts, and if we’re all still jazzed by the concept, it goes on the schedule.
Next I draw up a project spec, which summarizes and outlines the project. It has a broad vision of what the book should be, along with a chapter outline and some other elements. Once that document is approved, it goes out to freelance writers, who pitch for the parts they want to write. Pitches come to me, and I select who will write what.
I also write up art notes for the book and send them to our art director, who applies his expertise to making them work better, then sends them out to selected artists.
I usually write some portions of the books, and I offer feedback and thoughts to writers as they move ahead. They also collaborate and communicate on the information going into the books. Then they turn the writing into me, editors, playtesters, and I review it, and it gets sent to layout. Art, likewise, is reviewed as it comes in, then sent to layout when completed.
Laid-out chapters are sent to proofers, and changes are applied. We review again once or twice, then at that point, we have a book! It’s sent to print and electronic bookstores, and we’re done!
Ideally this process takes place over a half a year or so, and multiple books are in different phases of the process at the same time. Building more lead time into the schedule is something we keep wanting to do more of, but it’s not easy—projects have ways of running into difficulties, which makes it tough to keep everything moving and get things ahead of schedule.
As a virtual company, with employees and freelancers scattered everywhere, we’re always looking at different tools to make collaboration work better. InCopy has been great for entering proofing comments, Basecamp helps collaborate on projects, but we are on the alert for other tools that can help communication and collaboration go smoother.
Q: In your own gaming, what have been able to play of late? How much time do you have for the hobby as a participant, and what is your group like?
JH: I’m lucky in that the core of my group is my family—me, my wife, and teenage son. We have a few different sets of friends we play with at different times. Much of the summer was given to Anarchy playtesting, but we also have been playing various flavors of D&D with different friends. I also love board games, and we have a large collection I play with family and a whole rotating group of friends, SR freelancers, demo agents, and anyone else we can find who wants to play.
Q: Online Conventions, such as AetherCon and BrigadeCon, are growing in number, sophistication, and size. How do you see Catalyst’s involvement in these events changing in the future?
JH: Tough to say—organizing cons is not my specialty, and I know even less about online cons. My main goal in any activity like this is to find some ways I can make things interesting for gamers. So if being on panels is useful, I’ll be in panels. If running games is desired, I’ll run games. I’m flexible!
Q: If you were to launch a new SR campaign with a group of newcomers to both it and the hobby, how would you approach it?
JH: I’d do it with Shadowrun: Anarchy. I think the ease of learning it, combined with the chance of every player to contribute to the story, plus the flexibility in keeping the story moving instead of worrying about applying the rules with exact precision, is great for newcomers. Plus, when I’ve played it before, players did things like sliding under a charging gigantic bear, then attacking it from behind, and filling elevators with helium so everyone had to talk in a high-pitched voice for a round. It gets weird, is what I’m saying, but in a fun way.
Q: What do you think is the most overlooked element of the game line from your perspective?
JH: That’s tough to say, as our fans do a great job of picking out just about every detail we put into things. But there are some clues and hints of things going on and moving forward that sometimes don’t fully sink in. For example, I think there was some attention given to the mentions we gave to the Sixth World Tarot before we came out with a tarot deck, but I think a lot of the references flew under the radar—which is kind of how we wanted it. Also, to be both really vague and self-promoting at the same time, I think there were some events at the end of my most recent novel, Undershadows, that will interest longtime fans, but we need to get the book in more hands so they can see what happened and how it relates to one of our ongoing plot lines.
I hope that you have enjoyed this brief glimpse into how Jason does what he does, and the hints of future developments that he has dropped for us. My thanks go out to the organizers of Aethercon for arranging the interview, and I wish them all the best for their extensive online convention which runs from November 11 -13th.