Interview: Shane Hensley, designer of Savage Worlds: Deluxe and owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Welcome back to Futile Position’s 2012 ENnie Awards spotlight (Check out the full list of coverage with more interviews and reviews of 2012 ENnie nominees), where I will be bringing you reviews and interviews regarding many of the products current nominated for the 2012 ENnie Awards (click for a full list of nominees). Today’s interview is with Shane Hensley, designer of Savage Worlds and Deadlands, among others. Hensley is the owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Group, whose Savage Worlds: Deluxe Edition is up for Best Game. PEG is also publishing the upcoming Deadlands: Noir and recently released Deadlands: Hell on Earth Reloaded.
Take a moment to introduce yourself.
My name is Shane Hensley, and I have two jobs. I’m the Executive Producer of a video game called “End of Nations,” and owner of a pen-and-paper game company called Pinnacle Entertainment Group. I’m probably best known for creating the Deadlands and Savage Worlds roleplaying games. I’ve written and designed computer games, novels, comics, card games, minis games, and more for everyone from Hasbro to FASA to Cryptic Studios. A complete list of my work can be found on the Company page at www.peginc.com.
How did you get into roleplaying as a hobby? Did you do it continuously since that time?
I’ve read comic books since I was about three years old. When I was around 11, I saw an ad for Dungeons & Dragons on the back of a Marvel comic (the red dragon / “Greetings, mortal worm!” ad) (Ed. Note: Here you go!) and was hooked. I ordered a set through the Sears catalog and have been playing ever since.
What was your first experience in roleplaying game development?
I wrote an adventure for TORG for my college group one Halloween and they seemed to really enjoy it. I wrote it up in detail, sent it in to West End Games, and then made the revisions they asked for. They published it soon after. I did more for West End, then branched out to other companies such as White Wolf, FASA, TSR, and then computer game companies.
What games were your favorites? Which ones were the most influential on the development of Savage Worlds?
GURPS for character development and TORG for its amazing mechanics. It still does some things FAR better than any other system since, including our own. I like to think we more than make up for that in other ways, but Tricks, Tests, Taunts, and Maneuvers in TORG are amazingly cool.
You developed Deadlands back in the 90’s. What did you learn from your time making that game that you carried forward to Savage Worlds? Were there any things that you learned not to do?
KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. And keep it more adaptable. The original Deadlands was designed to simulate the chunky gunfights of Josey Wales or the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It did that pretty well, but was a little clunky and complicated. Once you move into something like Hell on Earth with machine guns and grenades and vehicles and so on, it got unwieldy. Savage Worlds was designed to be as streamlined as possible. We put a ton of work into every rule so that what happens when you use it goes smoothly and makes sense. It’s amazing how many hours we sometimes put into something that gets explained in a paragraph. Mark Twain once said “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” If you think on that a bit, you’ll get it, and we embrace that philosophy when we’re cooking up new Edges, Hindrances, Setting Rules, and the like.
Your company was originally named Pinnacle Entertainment Group, then became Great White Games, and later returned to PEG. Can you share what happened with the name changes?
Sure. After the D20 burst in about 2002, Pinnacle was in bad shape and I thought it would go bankrupt. So I created GWG (I’m a shark nut) to inherit whatever would be left after any settlements. Pinnacle didn’t go bankrupt though, so I kept the name and just embraced it since that’s what we always were to people anyway. And really, Pinnacle / GWG / whatever, it’s all “Shane,” for better or worse.
I believe Savage Worlds came out in 2003 with the tagline “Fast, Furious, Fun!” (or that’s the one I remember when I first encountered the game when your company was still Great White Games). Clearly that was your design goal behind the game. Was that in reaction to something you saw about RPG design at that time?
That’s correct. Yes…our own game, Deadlands, for the reasons I described above, and also because my friends and I were getting older and starting to have kids. We just didn’t have the luxury or weekly six-hour games that moved at a slow pace. We wanted to get more fun out of less time, and that’s something we absolutely did. I can say that now after almost ten years of watching it grow, going to conventions and listening to people, and most of all playing other games that don’t move quite as fast. That’s not a condemnation of other games, by the way–I play lots of other stuff and there are some things other systems do better than us and some things I think we do better than them. But at the end of the day, I’m very happy with our particular mix, our flexibility, and how much fun / action / story / plot / roleplaying you can squeeze out of a session.
Savage Worlds seems to try and walk the line between being fairly ‘crunchy’, with rules to handle most situations, while still playing very quickly. How difficult is it to walk that line? How do you know when you have enough or too many rules?
It’s a miniatures game so the underlying system has to be crunchy and I think that’s good. The rules are there when you want them. But I’ve been running an adventure called Storm Caller at conventions around the world this year that doesn’t use any tactical combat–it’s all narrative. Savage Worlds adjusts very easily to winging situations since the core system remains the same.
How long did it take you to develop Savage Worlds?
The first version probably took about 6 months of playtesting and feedback. But really, I would say we’ve never stopped. There’s always something we can do better or cleaner. The real trick is how often to make changes so that people don’t feel like they have to buy a new edition constantly. That’s why we always put out any changes for free on our website, but i think most all of us want the latest updates in the book–not in a printout stuck inside. So we’re very, very careful about that. Savage Worlds Deluxe is by far the biggest update since the game came out. Besides the production values, the only major changes from then to now are the way melee damage works, the way bonus damage for raises on attacks work, and the Chase rules. We’ve made plenty of tweaks and additions, but the underlying core is still the exact same as it was in 2003.
Were there any rules that you had particular problems getting to click into place?
The Shaken rules are always tough to communicate. I would have ditched them and put something new in a long time ago except they truly model combat quite well. The tricky part for most people is what happens if you’re Shaken and get a second Shaken result–you’re wounded and remain Shaken. That’s the simple answer.
The Savage Worlds model, with the central core book and the setting books (50 Fathoms,Evernight, Necessary Evil, etc) reminds me a little of how TSR built out AD&D when I first start playing. Do you think that model had any influence on you at all? Why did you choose that model?
No, not really. I just have eclectic tastes. I love creating worlds and watching people play in them. I didn’t want people to have to repurchase the rules each time, so we came up with the core rules model. If anyone influenced us there it was Steve Jackson’s GURPS.
Most of the ‘setting books’ you release are Plot Point settings, which provide structured stories with more GM freedom than a typical adventure. How did that idea come about? Why do you think it is a good structure?
It evolved somewhat from computer games like Sid Meier’s Pirates, which has a great backstory that occasionally pops up but otherwise lets you do what you want. It also came from my work on a computer game called “World of Aden,” (also known as Thunderscape) and Deadlands, where we wanted you to save the world…but not to feel like you had to constantly save the world. That meant doing your own thing and having that occasionally interact with the backstory. 50 Fathoms was the first and still the one that works best. Each Plot Point Campaign is very tricky to set up since it has to guide you in some ways but let you wander on your own in others, and not feel heavy-handed or linear in either case.
Besides your own games, you’ve also handled some licensed roleplaying games. How is the development process different between those two products?
It’s not really. We adapt a property like Solomon Kane, for example, into our model rather than the other way around.
The Savage Worlds: Explorer Edition was the first revision of the Savage Worlds rules in 2007, and then the Savage Worlds Deluxe version was released last year (with a new Explorer Edition launching soon). Why did you want to revisit theSavage Worlds ruleset in 2011?
For one, we simply wanted a bigger, bolder, more beautiful presentation, and I think we achieved that. More importantly, since our combat works so well, we had been experimenting with other fiction tropes–such as character backstories, small talk, or how to handle arduous journeys that aren’t just one combat after another. All of those were done as mini-systems you can drop into the game as you like–such as Dramatic Tasks or Interludes. It also gave us a chance to do some major revisions to things like the Chase rules, or add some more hard-and-fast rules to power Trappings.
How has Savage Worlds Deluxe changed Savage Worlds for those that have played the game before?
Mostly it’s just cleaned up a few things and added LOTS of extras you’ll find very handy for lengthy campaigns, or as fun departures from your typical combat-heavy adventures.
You seem to have a lot of fan support. How has your open fan license contributed to that?
First off, Savage Worlds is not an open license. We approve every licensee who gets to use the logo. And for the vast majority, we’ve been thrilled. These companies produce some excellent settings and ideas that bring more people into our community, and we’re very pleased to see how much the base has grown. That’s good for all of us–even other companies as people get generally excited about gaming.
I would also say that Pinnacle has a great fanbase. I like to think it’s because we’ve always seen it as a round table with friends rather than fans or customers. Come meet us at a convention and I believe most people will feel that way as well. The fantastic people we meet and game with come back year after year to hang out and tell us their latest and greatest gaming stories–even if it’s sometimes with other systems. That’s okay by us–it’s all a great learning and bonding experience and really brings us a lot of joy to have so many close friends.
Give people one reason why Savage Worlds Deluxe is awesome.
Ease of use. You can hop in, play, and get a LOT done in a small amount of time. And odds are, you will feel HEROIC. I’m playing in a competitor’s game right now and it’s fun, but it’s very slow (particularly in combat), which means the plot develops very, very slowly. And given how busy all of us are, I’d much rather have the big highlights in 2-3 sessions than 7-8.
Do you have any projects or other information you’d like to share?
I’m very excited about the upcoming Deadlands Noir (Ed. Note: Check out the completed Kickstarter page and the official announcement for more details) and the recent release of Hell on Earth Reloaded. There are also quite a few special surprises coming in the next year or so that I can’t WAIT to announce.
Where can people find Pinnacle Entertainment Group and yourself [as well as buy your products] on the Internet?
Thank you for your time and congratulations on your ENnie nomination.