Thursday, April 01, 2004

Ann Dupuis: The Before Time

With the recent announcement by Grey Ghost Games that Fudge's future is in Open Gaming, we thought it was high time we sat down with Ann Dupuis and asked her to discuss Fudge, where it's been, and where it's going.

The good news is she responded to our questions quickly. The bad news is that we were overenthusiastic! Not only did we dump a world of questions in her lap, we also asked several which she just isn't ready to answer yet. So, here we find the first part of our interview — a retrospective on Fudge and the current projects rumbling around the rafters at the Grey Ghost. In part two of our interview, in a later issue, we'll be looking to the future of Fudge, and in particular, those key questions about Fudge and Open Gaming that are burning in your hearts as well as ours.


FF: Let's start with an easy one. Why "Grey Ghost"?

AD: Ooh, that's not an easy one at all. Or at least not a short one.

I answered this and other how-did-you-get-started questions in another interview, by Jody Harkavy of the roleplaygames.about.com site.

And yes, that's me, on "Shazaam," my half-Arab pony, in a "native costume" class at an Arabian horse show.

FF: How'd you get involved with Fudge?

AD: It all started with GURPS, actually. My husband and I were involved with a small convention in New Hampshire, called "Dovercon" (although it was no longer held in Dover NH). I was the art show director, among other things. One year we went to a seminar by a games author, Steffan O'Sullivan, introducing gamers to the GURPS roleplaying game system. That was the start of a beautiful friendship — with GURPS, to be sure, but primarily with Steffan.

Our interest in GURPS led to my writing some things for Steve Jackson Games, which segued into writing for TSR (Paul and I continued to play D&D while playing GURPS), so in a way Steffan launched my writing career...

FF: When did you decide to take on commercial publication of Fudge, and why?

AD: When? I don't recall a precise moment when I thought to myself, "Aha! I'll become a Fudge publisher!" The idea was certainly growing on me throughout 1993 and into 1994.

The "why" part is another long story. Ready?

In 1990, I began my game writing career with an article in Steve Jackson Games' Roleplayer! magazine and an adventure in Dungeon! magazine. That led to some actual book contracts — GURPS(r) Old West for Steve Jackson Games being the first.

At that time, I was already thinking of becoming a publisher as well as an author. In 1991, some friends and I began the process of forming "Evil Twin Publishing Corporation" and obtaining a license to publish GURPS adventures. Our first one was going to be a GURPS Old West adventure. Steve Jackson had pretty much abandoned any GURPS sourcebooks less than 96 pages, as they simply weren't profitable for a company with overhead expenses such as office space and payroll (pesky things that they are!). So we were going to publish several shorter works, 64 pages or less.

Why become publishers at all? For all the same reasons many people start their own business — to be our own bosses and to make money doing something we enjoyed.

For various reasons, "Evil Twin Publishing Corporation" dissolved before publishing anything. But two things grew out of that initial attempt.

The "publishing" bug kept growing — and, a chance encounter at GenCon in 1992, while I was displaying an Evil Twin Publishing Corporation business card on my attendance badge, led to my receiving my first contract for TSR ("Night Howlers," a lycanthropy sourcebook for D&D).

Fast forward a year or so, when I was working on another book for Steve Jackson Games. This one was one that I'd submitted a proposal for, rather than having it drop into my lap as GURPS Old West had. (That's a long story, too, but I won't tell that one here.)

In short, I was working on "Animal Companions" for GURPS.

I was also working on my second project for TSR, "Champions of Mystara," a boxed set requiring lots and lots of words and maps.

My work stalled on "Animal Companions" for two reasons that occurred pretty much simultaneously:

I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make GURPS's "Fatigue" rules work for both housecats and elephants (the normal Fatigue mechanics were based on Strength),

and

I realized I could meet one deadline or the other, but not both.

At the time, TSR, being the "800-lb gorilla" of the gaming industry, paid so much better than Steve Jackson Games that the choice was pretty clear. So I told my managing editor at Steve Jackson Games that I was going to have to put Animal Companions on hold while I finished up Champions of Mystara. I intended to get back to work on Animal Companions — and solve that darned Fatigue problem! — but the editor told me, basically, not to bother. (That's yet another long story...)

So I set Animal Companions aside, and concentrated on TSR products for the next few years.

In the meantime, Steffan began tinkering with his own game system. I wasn't paying all that much attention in the beginning, frankly, being busy with TSR and still tinkering with GURPS a bit. But I did pop in now and again to see what Steffan and the other folks working on Fudge were doing.

I gradually became more involved with the Fudge project, as the system developed and grew.

And then Steffan introduced Scale, which provided the perfect solution for the problems inherent in describing housecats and elephants in the same game system. I knew then that Animal Companions was meant to be a Fudge product, and my interest in Fudge became much stronger.

But before I could have any hope at publishing Animal Companions and have it be commercially viable, I had to establish Fudge as a "known" game system.

That took rather longer than I'd expected....

In the meantime, I kept getting sidetracked into other interesting Fudge projects. So "Animal Companions" kept getting put off....

Oh, and since then, the GURPS Compendium has linked the Fatigue rules to Health rather than Strength, but that elegant solution eluded me all those years ago. (Scale's better, anyhow.)

FF: Brief history lesson time. Fudge has gone through several versions. Can you give us an overview, starting back with Wild Mule?

AD: I've published Fudge as a "core book" three times so far:

The Wild Mule edition in 1994 (grand total of 200 copies printed, of which a few still remain — signed and numbered, for any collectors out there!

The first Grey Ghost book, "Fudge: A Role-Playing Game by Steffan O'Sullivan," in 1995 (that was when Steffan announced he was happy with Fudge and was done tinkering with it)

and then "Fudge Expanded Edition," when it was time to reprint Fudge. The "Expanded" section was in response to the oft-voiced complaint that Fudge wasn't a "complete game" playable "out of the box" (something that Steffan and I actually disagree with, by the way, but it was a good excuse to create a new edition).

Now we're working on the almost-10th-Anniversary edition, which will contain everything in Fudge Expanded Edition and a bunch more material. This will be the first hardcover edition of the Fudge core rules, and should be out later this year. More on that later.

FF: What's been the biggest frustration or obstacle you've faced with your commercial venture with Fudge?

AD: Money. There's never enough of it.

And time. There's never enough of that, either.

FF: How about the biggest success — personally or commercially — with Fudge?

AD: My biggest commercial success with Fudge hasn't happened yet.

My biggest personal success with Fudge was finally "grokking" the system — really understanding it, on a deep level. It took me years as a Fudge player, GM, designer, and publisher before I truly understood the system.

Now I just roll the dice and fudge the rest.

FF: You publish a number of Fudge products outside of the core rules. Do you have any favorites among them?

AD: Terra Incognita, no doubt about it. Scott Larson did a terrific job, and it's due to his diligence and persistence that the TI "errata" sheet is so short. (All errors were mine, by the way.)

I also love the way he keeps up the "nagssociety.com" website, with "daily dispatches" from the Nags Society. I truly wish I had the resources to support that website more fully, Scott could do wonders with it.

Terra Incognita is simply my favorite roleplaying game, as either a player or a GM. In fact, my husband Paul's starting up a campaign again — the first one in years (we've been very busy!). He asked us what genre we wanted to play in, and the decision was instant and unanimous: Terra Incognita! We left the timing up to him, we didn't really care whether it was on the Victorian or Pulp end of things. Pulp adventures throughout the world, here we come!

FF: Any poor sellers you'd love to see do better?

AD: It depends on how you define "poor seller." In one sense, they're all poor sellers. Except for the actual Fudge books, I've got stock left of everything I've published. I typically do print runs of 2000 copies. Ideally, that would last only a year or two. Gamemaster Secrets would have been sold out in 2 years if I hadn't made the mistake of increasing the print run to 3000 copies. Shortly after that book came out, roleplaying game sales took a nosedive, and they haven't yet recovered.

Still, Grey Ghost typically does better sales on initial release than many small press publishers. We usually sell 500-1000 copies right off the bat (1200 copies of Gamemastering Secrets), compared to about 300 - 500 copies by the typical new or small-press company.

"Gatecrasher 2nd Edition" was our poorest seller, and it didn't deserve that. A big part of the problem was that it was only our second book, and the first stand-alone Fudge game commercially produced. At the time I was new to publishing and still fairly new to Fudge. It would be a much different book if I were to produce it today.

It's a quirky setting, and set off the "It Must Be Mine!" reaction in a few customers and retailers when I was advertising it, but never really caught on.

Fortunately, the Gatecrasher setting has found a new home. Domibia Games owns the property now, and has some great plans for it. Fudge is no longer an unknown system, plus they'll be retooling it for d20 and the Action! system under the Open Game License. Domibia Games will produce a much better version of Gatecrasher than I was able to almost a decade ago. With good marketing behind it, and better-looking books (they've hired some really good artists and know more about layout and art direction than I did back then), Gatecrasher has a really good shot at catching on.

FF: Is the Animal Companions project dead, backburnered, or something else?

AD: Something else.

It turns out that I wasn't ready to write that book a decade ago, or even a couple of years ago. I've learned an incredible amount about animal behavior in the past few years, working for the first time with a young, "green" horse (never been trained to be ridden before I got him) and with two "difficult" dogs (one of whom came to us with fear-aggression issues).

Plus I've amassed an impressive library of animal-related resources over the years. Good books on camel training eluded me for a long time, but I've tracked a couple down — sadly out of print, and sadly going for $80+ each now, but I'm likely to bite the bullet on those as soon as the Deryni game is out the door.

Animal Companions, when it's finished, will bear very little resemblance to those first 5 chapters I'd uploaded to the Steve Jackson Games bulletin board system for "playtesting" when I was writing the book for GURPS. But it will be the better for it.

FF: Are you working on any writing projects of your own?

AD: I'm doing some re-writes for the Deryni Adventure Game core book. The original author turned in the rules chapters, but they didn't quite have the implementation of Fudge I'd envisioned for the Deryni world when I contracted the project out. So while Aaron Rosenberg finished all the background information and GMing chapters, having picked up where Jennifer Brinn left off, I started rewriting the rules. I got bogged down in other things, and the project stalled for a while. But Nancy Berman, the editor, and I are chugging along again and should get it ship-shape pretty soon.

After that, I'll be turning my attention back to the Animal Companions manuscript.

On a more personal note, I'm also working on "Barney's Good Dog Owner's Manual," a what-to and how-to for first-time or inexperienced dog owners. It's dedicated to Barney, our Canine Good Citizen and registered Therapy Dog, who we lost to cancer a couple of years ago.

FF: What's the story behind your decision to acquire the rights to Deryni? How's that working out?

AD: Ooh, my goodness, this story's longer than all the others combined! It includes a lot of serendipity, intercessions by good friends, amazing coincidences, and even a far-reaching curse that's touched everyone who's had anything to do with the Deryni Adventure Game projects!

The story also involves new friends and incredibly wonderful experiences. Katherine Kurtz has been marvelous throughout — I couldn't have asked for a better licensor, and certainly hadn't expected our business relationship to rapidly evolve into friendship.

Ask me again once the Deryni Core Book has been released, I may actually have time to tell the story then.


Join us next time for Ann Dupuis: The Once and Future Game.