415px-Thundsham

The Legendary Thundrax, Canadian Powerhouse

The world knows him as Scott Bennie: born 1960 in Abbotsford BC, son of local teachers James and Alice Bennie, and younger brother of Vancouver radio announcer/producer Jim Bennie. I first met him as Thundrax, The Legendary Canadian Powerhouse. We met in the MMORPG Champions Online.

I discovered Scott’s long history in pen and paper and computer RPG the more we interacted. His thoughtful play style and engaging stories revealed a gamer of rare talent. His contributions to the field are numerous and well regarded. He’s one of two friends of mine who have an entry in the IMDB. A few weeks ago, Scott agreed to an interview. I’m happy to share his thoughts with you.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into game design and writing?

My involvement in game design predates my involvement in Champions. I was first published in early 1981, in Dragon #52, doinga Bounty Hunter NPC class for 1st edition D&D. A person had suggested the class in an earlier issue of Dragon and Kim Mohan had essentially said: “Hey, anyone want to give this a shot?” I said why not, wrote up an article, and miracle of miracles, it was published.

Later that year, a friend came back from Pacificon raving about a new game that had been released there called Champions. He raved about it, and I loved superheroes and comics, so I bought the only other copy in Vancouver and ran it with friends. I later reviewed it in Dragon. Eventually, I got to know some of the publishers, submitted scenarios and some articles for Adventurer’s Club, and eventually worked my way up to full supplements such as Villainy Unbound, Day of the Destroyer, and Classic Enemies.

I got into the computer game business via connections made in the PnP field, namely the late Aaron Allston. Brian Fargo wanted to hire Aaron for Interplay, but Aaron wanted to remain a freelancer, so he recommended me instead. It took me awhile to get on to some of the differences between computer games and PnP games, and I don’t think things really clicked until Star Trek: 25 — I have a tendency to be too detailed in what I’m attempting to simulate — but my career at Interplay had its fair share of successes as well as failures, and I look back at it with some fondness.

When and how did you start role-playing? When do you make the transition to online role-playing?

I started RP-ing in 1977. I heard about this weird new game called Dungeons and Dragons that some friends played at V-Con (Vancouver’s premier SF con) let you be the hero of your own fantasy novel. The concept really hooked me, as I’d entered my Tolkien fanatic stage of my literary development several years earlier. So when the next year’s V-Con occurred, I decided to attend.

My first excursion into the dungeon involved me rolling up a cleric, then promptly dying a half-hour into the adventure from one bite by a giant rat. Ooops! The next year, however, I had a substantially different experience; I rolled up another cleric and set out on an adventure, and the DM rolled a random encounter – Tiamat. My fellow party members fell to their knees and begged for mercy -some heroes, ha! – while I took off my armor and dove into a nearby river. Tiamat, having dined well on craven adventurer, got to attack me. All five of her heads missed, while her tail hit me for one point of damage.

Dice, gotta love them.

The moral of the story was; one giant rat > five headed dragon queen.

So I was hooked. I collected the AD&D books as they came out, gathered a gaming group, then another in college. I was on my way to becoming an RP fan.

Online RP came much later. I loved single player RPGs (Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Alternate Reality and others). I had friends who did MUSHes but never got involved. I did try Ultima Online, but the gankers turned me off early. When, years later, City of Heroes came out, the siren song o superheroes drew me back. I played from launch for close to two years, but a lot of my friends had jumped ship to WoW, and I joined them eventually. When Champions Online was announced in 2008, right after Champions of the North 5e had been published, I had to see what Cryptic was doing with my babies, so I joined in late alpha.

What did you think of Champions Online when you first saw it? What was the transition like from tabletop to online RP like for you? What are key differences?

My first impression of Champions Online was fairly negative. Things were still pretty rough, and I have never been a fan of the tone of many of the initial missions – too jokey and too in-jokey. But after bouncing off the game a couple of times, by late beta, I had begun to have a lot of fun. Champions Online is a strange game -for me its whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

It took some effort to get into the RP community. I didn’t come into CO via Virtue, like so many other players. so I felt like a stranger. I’m very slow to assert myself in the company of strangers. Rune (of the Silver Age Sentinels) was very helpful; I had made contact with him on Atomic Think Tank, bemoaning my outcast plight and he was kind enough to take me into his wing and introduce me to bits of the online community. I was waylaid when my computer died and I missed the first Bloodmoon (an event in Champions Online), but I was back shortly after, and I began making contact with CORP (Champions Online Role Players) members. So I insinuated myself into RP like a fungus, making a lot of friends at once. But I hate cliques, and I like to be as open to as many options as possible. That’s why, RP-wise, my PC Thundrax often appeared to be the Wolverine of the Champions Online universe, guest-starring everywhere. It also gave him a much higher profile than he should have had.

The transition from tabletop to online hasn’t always been smooth. You lose a lot of communication without the face to face element, and it’s even harder to maintain engagement. You always wonder if the person who dropped out did so because they DCed (disconnected), or they just lost interest in the scenario. There’s a definite disconnect in RP approaches, based on how the player came into RP. I like scenario-drive play, modeled on tabletop sessions, but then you get people who didn’t come into MMOs from tabletop, who don’t realize how to conduct themselves in a scenario, who hate structure, and they can get downright nasty to people who stage scenarios, accusing them of an elitism that is often unwarranted. Then you get people who come from tabletop who aren’t used to such a mobile RP environment, one that often plays more like a LARP than a traditional tabletop group, and they ghettoize hub based play. It can lead to fractionalization and hurt feelings.

If we were to look at RPG’s in ages, like comics, where do you think we are now? What do you think the future of RP will look like?

Sadly, I think we’re in the Copper Age. With the exception of single-player RPGs such as Fallout, monetization and the need to marry content with the need to put food on the developers’ tables. The cycle of stimulus-reward is constant, at least in smaller titles, and whatever the developers think will immediately sell gets priority. There are few “long tails”. How will the future look? I think we’re getting toward the end of the development of graphic technology, but whether we’ll be doing 8K+ tech in VR or on a screen remains to be seen. I really hope we get to new ease of customization of RPs powerful and easy to use construction sets, built for collaborators to bring their strengths to a project.

But my priorities aren’t the same as other people’s. People who work on something like the Foundry (a content creation system available in a the MMORPG Start Trek Online) spend a lot of time niggling over environments in a way that doesn’t appeal to me in the least; I want a good story with good fights, if appropriate and I’m happy with very little work on customization. That’s why I want good collaboration tools, so we can have the best of both worlds. My vision for future RPGs is more along the lines of people working on a wiki together. One person making a remake of CoX? Unfeasible. But a hundred? A thousand? Very doable.

When role-playing with others, what do you think are the key elements you want to keep in mind while playing face to face or in person? Are they the same from medium to medium, or do they differ? What makes a good role-player in person? What make a good role-player online?

I think the lack of personal contact in MMOs mean that we have to work much harder to support each other and build chemistry as a group. Looking at recent sessions I ran that were unsatisfying, I realize that I couldn’t just rely on the central premise for the player to react to the situation, I had to work more actively to incorporate them. I think players can also do some heavy lifting here: if a player only interacts with the GM or a single other player in a scenario, it’s far more likely to be a failure than if the player is reaching out to the group, having broader interactions with more people. RP is a collaboration of players and GM, and no one should be left out in the cold. We lift each other.