Total Con 25 Game Designers Panel

From right to left: Jay Libby, Gary Astleford, Jeff Talanian, Ben Gerber, James Carpio

Brimming with anticipation I attended my first gaming convention on Friday night. Total Confusion celebrates its silver anniversary, which portented a good time.

Despite the rain and the snow I arrived at the convention in Mansfield, Massachusetts. The venue is expansive and constructed with a good flow for people to travel. I had some time to kill before the start of the Game Designers Panel, which I used to survey the lay of the land.

After a handful of minutes I stumbled on the registration room, at the back of the building, checked in, got my swag bag, didn’t get my t-shirt, inquired on the panel’s location and meandered into the auditorium.

The previous panel ended early, which enabled me to get a good seat up front. Entrenched into a comfortable chair I pulled out my iPad, wireless keyboard, iPhone 4, and Zoom H2. The iPhone snapped good shots of the panelists chatting amongst themselves. Those shots promptly made their way onto Facebook despite the inability to get online with the iPad. The hotel required a special passkey, which TotalCon staff failed to provide when I first inquired as to the availability of free wifi.

A few moments the Zoom H2 stood in a secure and upright position capturing the distinct voices of the panelists as they responded to moderator Blix’s questions. The five member panel stated their credentials, discussed their best and worst game design experiences, and shared their modus operandi for design. The small but passionate crowd sat, enraptured, and then asked a few questions as the hour drew to a close.

Although I am not a game designer, and likely will never be one, the session was fascinating. Below you can find my notes from the event. Please accept my apologies for any errors they contain. I typed them up on my iPad, which may have contributed to any errors.

Peter Blix Bryant, artist and writer and co-host of the TriTac Podcast, is moderating.

From right to left

Jay Libby- known for cyberpunk art, wrote for Dr. Who aliens and creatures book, freelance artist. wrote free gi joe rpg.

Gary Astleford- freelancer worked for wizards, fantasy flight. Did Warhammer Online and is at 38 studios.

Jeff Talanian- Northwind adventures doing sword and sorcery adventures. Worked with Gary Gygax for Castle Zagyg and got a credit for it.

Ben Gerber- Owner of Troll in the Corner gaming website. publish pdfs for pathfinder.

James Carpio “Dregg”- Chapter 13 press co-owner. Working on savage worlds ruleset. Wrote for exile studios.

Questions to the panel

How did you get started in gaming?

common threads of wanting to write, websites, stumbled into.

Asteford got into it via star wars rpg, going to gencon and making friends.

Talanian fell into it. wanted to be a fiction writer. Started in ’90s. wrote a novel in 2000s, spent 5 years. finally thought he couldn’t publish the novel. stumbled into gary gygax wanting freelance writers for a project. e-mailed gary, got a reply the next morning. gary accepted him, worked for gary until he died. side work for troll lord games.

Gerber has a degree in medieval studies, decided he should get into gaming. Troll in the corner website. Publishes on DriveThruRPG.

Carpio started writing in 1995. Nothing serious. did play testing for eden studios for beyond human. then with army of darkness rpg and also proofreader for it. full time staffer wanted him to help with a players guide for a zombie set. got paid and then ended up at excise studios.

What is your favorite project, when you look back you enjoyed the most.

Libby dr who aliens and creatures. always wanted to write for dr. who. “That was awesome.”

Astleford said hard to pick one but they’re not all good but all fun…except one. the children of the horde wrap supplement for war hammer fantasy 2nd edition rob schwalb and steve darlington were really good. was partly responsible for why ea mythic hired him for warhammer online.

Talanian said working with gygax was a dream come true. is like working with stan lee on a spider man comic. working with gygax was the
pinnacle. [My note: He seems really passionate about that and it looked like he had a tear looming in his eye]

Gerber designed a goblin magician that makes magical items that almost work. is a lot of fun creating those supplements. the gobbos 3 hobbies are knitting, finding things that are pink and something I missed

Carpio hollow earth expedition secrets of the surface world, loves alternate history and 1930s pulp era setting.

what was the most difficult project you ever worked on

Libby gangs of night city book for cyberpunk. had the fem nazis, he wouldn’t be allowed to publish them though. many variations of the gangs. 24 images in 7 days, was theartist.

Astleford fire born rpg. had to devise the old world, world before history. scope was originally entire world. did lots of mythology research. pre-history etc. needed to do 40k words, had 22k words done. project was scaled back to just europe and then half of his work was not needed. submitted everything on time, then nothing but silence. most of his stuff didn’t get into the book. head honcho at ffg liked the old world, took what he wrote
and had it rewrote such as design of atlantis. not much survived the edits.

Talanian his current project, complete rpg astonishing swordsmen and sorcerers of hyperboria. 2 year ride so far. rooted in traditional themes i.e. gygaxian and arnesonian themes. main aspect is not just a rule system, “a setting ingrained into a rule system” love craft, howard, and smith are his primary literary influences. a big challenge is to not write this as fiction. make it so there can be clear cut rulings. “doesn’t want to be a storyteller” and needs a robust rule system.

Gerber works for his himself. “I can be sometimes an idiot.” finishing 115 pg sourcebook where he’s writing 90% of the text, getting editors, play testers, artists, etc. is his first attempt on this scale. has 5 or 6 months to go.

Carpio all flesh must be eaten book that was canned by eden studios. i’m gonna eat you suck a, is a blaxploitation title. he had parts about the kkk, “can you write something about white supremacy but make it kinda pc?” the 80k words he wrote, the ip finally came back to him, sat in limbo for 5 years. lots of waiting.

everyone has their own process, what is your design process, outline.

Libby designer does nto pay bills so have full time job. immerses self in the genre, don’t look at something else or throws him off. did a mech a title and had to watch transformers, watch anime mechs etc. uses post its.

Astleford was after work when he had a day job. isn’t freelance anymore. children put a dampener on creative impulses. usually at lunch or after work. used to be a buyer for a biomedical company. would go to a coffee shop, listened to music that dictated tone, strong coffee. would design at night. works for a computer game company now. most creativity goes into day job.

Talanian must be 7 days a week. must write every day. stephen king writes every day, xmas etc. even if you only write 50 words…it is so important. he has a journal program on laptop. discusses what accomplished in last writing session, plans for future writing on that day, is a starter to get the juices flowing. is a part time thing, does it almost ever day. sometimes 4 hours sometimes not. coffee shop writing helps. the white noise and strong coffee is helpful. has 3 kids, will type on laptop while kids bathe. must make the time to write.

Gerber it is 24/7. works with computers, typing out ideas on e-mail. has 2 kids. after kids go to bed, puts on headphones with loudest music, then starts typing. hates to write but loves the “having written” writes until he’s half asleep. starts each session looking at what he wrote before.

Carpio sporadically write. gets a lot of energy, lets it out, and 2-3 weeks later waits for inspiration. immersion is big. music, day worth of movies, caffeine and his day job. gets inspired while at his day job.

what are your feelings on how new media has affected the industry? internet, Facebook, etc.

Libby Facebook helps him to get closer to people in the industry but that’s it.

Astleford internet made him want to do what he does. has made communicating with publishers and studios easier, less intimidating than phone calls etc. world is now a smaller place = good.

Talanian is good and bad. good = lot more opportunities for communication with designers, creators, and passionate people who are not on the creative end. dedicated fans have interesting insights. bad = too involved with that process can cause self to spend too much time caring about what the fans want and think. take internet opinions with a grain of salt. don’t let it control you.

Gerber wishes he could suck internet out of computer and into his brain. all his publications are on new media. you must print out his stuff cause his stuff is all digital. started off with website, got 40k visits per month and then grew into publishing. need filter because people are dumb on internet due to perceived “anonymity” new media really is wave of the future.

Carpio Facebook is amazing thing, taught him other designers are actually human too. think the designers are “gods amongst men” but can meet them online etc and learn they’re people too. mike pond smith, jamie chambers of serenity rpg, jess hartley etc. robin laws is his hero. met him a couple times at cons. but myspace and Facebook facilitated conversations on a personal level. robin laws noticed him in person at gencon and knew his name.

discuss what currently working on, future plans, and where find stuff

Libby g-core, trying to put stuff out weekly. buy the pdf, you get fan club card, get gm screen, card gives you free stuff at cons. thinks he’ll be doing this for 2-3 years. google jay libby

Astleford work for 38 studios on a new mmo. can’t talk about it. big huge games making a rpg set in same world as mmo. go to wrecking in the and find him at most of his stuff is not in print. firestorm inc doing a project for them for a cybergen project.

Talanian has his rpg coming out this year, astonishing swordsmen etc. charnel crypt of the sightless serpent is an adventure for the same system. a mythos short story will be in a sf/horror. Go to and find him on Facebook

Gerber can be found at He is doing a pathfinder sourcebook and does a podcast Old School Gaming is the name. doing some board games. is on Facebook, reddit, and twitter as trollitc

Carpio is making savage worlds bad mothers tales from the funk. supplement coming out death ray z is coming out before the main book. zombie type stuff.


compare working for larger corporations and working for self. how difficult is it to keep
what you make as a whole or do they tear it up as they want.

Carpio says depends on company. excel studios used everything as written minus some editing. eden studios nitpicked until it was in limbo for 5 years.

Astleford says depends on the IP. war hammer and star wars have lots of oversight. lucasfilm is very picky. almost everything ever written went into the books as written even sw. unless an adventure didn’t get in because of word count. a planet name was changed.

when writing for self/smaller presses how to deal with editing, how harsh do you want
them to be.

Talanian said you must realize you are not god, what you create isn’t perfect. must trust in an editor to pick apart what you’ve done. someone else with fresh eyes needs to make good changes with content. you can get too close to a project, don’t see own mistakes i.e. clarity and verboseness (not a word). must find someone who is quality and pay them.

Gerber has two people, tracey and nick (edits for his site), who can pinpoint where he went wrong. his grammar not the best but their’s is a knife edge.

Libby said his wife edits, she isn’t a gamer so she can say what doesn’t make sense. if she asks him to explain then he knows others will too.

dichotomy of the rpg market shrinking, companies going under and making less money yet biggest explosion of new publishers.

Gerber said it is really easy to be a rpg publisher if you do it yourself and do it online. 1 e-mail, 3 buttons, and a little bit of artwork gets it done. What you make may not be good but at least you are pubslishing it. online is rapidly gaining momentum. time to print can be 1 day. gaming sales etc just made enough to purchase his latest dominion supplement. doesn’t see the hobby shrinking.

Carpio said white wolf publishing has given up on traditional publishing methods. gonna be doing mainly print on demand. won’t be spending bulk loads of cash for overseas or printers. will have customers order online and then print the copy. industry speculation when a 5th ed of dnd comes out will be completely digital. DDI is prime example for next example. online subscription only.

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