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Obsidian Studios: The Shards Project

An Interview with Sean Patrick Fannon

by Sandy Antunes

October 1999

 
This reporter was fortunate to sit in on a GenCon lunch run by Jared Nielson and Sean Patrick Fannon. The meat of the matter? Obsidian's upcoming Shards of the Stone multimedia roleplaying venture, set as one world with many pieces, and launching in 2000. The basic premise is a huge fantasy cosmology, in which industry writers will sculpt their own pieces of the overall 'world'.

Shards will have specific worlds as well as an over-arcing story, making it at once a large shared project, and a collection of creator-driven single worlds. With the general theme of "fantasy", a central tabletop RPG core system, and a mix of tabletop and online interactions possible, the project is ambitious. We interviewed Sean, Director of the project, to provide this inside scoop on what Shards hopes to achieve.


1) Is Shards aiming to follow the 'collaborative world' approach to writing (as many RPGs and some fiction projects do), or is it taking more of a 'multiple lines' approach (similar to Image comics), or is it something different from either of these?

I think it's safe to say that Shards of the Stone will be something of a hybrid between the two ideas, at least when things really get going. I don't want to give away too many secrets (that will part of the grand story that unifies the whole thing), but suffice it to say that individual visions will be allowed to flourish for a time before we start the integration process. Imagine if DC, Marvel, and Image were able to plan a full integration of their unique and best properties from the very beginning, but they managed to have a long time to develop those properties before the integration - that's a pretty good idea of what we have planned.
2) Shards aims to set the 'designer as rock star', by providing both incentives for writers to stay involved past publishing, as well as featuring the writers. Do you feel there are writers in the industry now that have 'star followings'?
Well, I am proud to say we have some of those writers among our collection - Ed Greenwood springs to mind, of course (the creator of Forgotten Realms). Jim Ward (long-time TSR "Big Guy" and creator of Gamma World, among other gems) is another. Steve Jackson, Gary Gygax, and Aaron Allston are also pretty good examples of the "rock stars" of our industry, as are Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
3) You mention Greenwood, Gygax, Jackson, Allston, Ward, Weis, Hickman. Are any of these signed, or is this just 'people you have approached' (and is there a big name who has committed at this point?)
I am not at liberty to disclose details, but you can rest assured that we have some rather blockbuster names on the line (and it is way more than "just talking"). As soon as we are prepared to announce specifics, you will be among the first to know.

I just wanted to acknowledge some of the names that I feel carry a great deal of prestige in our industry.

(Note from Jared: Although we have an open invitation to many people, we are not in discussions with Hickman, Weis, Jackson, or Gygax. They have very successful projects that they are working on and have expressed no interest in working with us on this project. This doesn't mean they aren't welcome. Sean was indicating that they are "Rock Star" caliber authors however.)
4) Obsidian/Shards is being backed by Jared Nielson, who has a checkered reputation in the RPG industry. How do you plan to handle this for getting 'buy in' for the initial launch of Shards?
To be frank, that's a loaded question that paints an erroneous picture of reality. Jared Nielsen (who has risked much in his life to support the gaming industry, which he loves) is one of the individuals who has sunk capital resources into Obsidian, but I am the Director of the studio. The success or failure of this endeavor will rest on -my- shoulders, if anyone's. I have an excellent team of people behind me, and a fantastic Who's Who of creators in our freelance pool for this project. My own efforts in the industry speak pretty well for themselves, and I am proud to be heading up this excellent project with the people I am working with.
5) "My own efforts in the industry speak pretty well for themselves" Oh heck, for those who aren't into HERO and haven't heard of the FRPG Bible, briefly give us a resume. Imagine it's an elevator pitch: you have 30 seconds to get across to someone why they should recruit you. Go!
Well, I'd have to say that I am off the market for now, but just for grins - I started out doing CHAMPIONS product back in 1989; my first book was HIGH TECH ENEMIES. I did a good bit more for them, and I even managed the Continuity of the Champions Universe for a time. I also did some work for West End, and I even managed a Dragon Magazine article (although only one). I spent some time in the computer game industry (Interplay, Infogrames Multimedia, 8th Wonder Games) before getting back to the "paper" industry again. I was tapped to write The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible for Prima Publishing, and we are doing the 2nd Edition of that here at Obsidian (which is slated for Christmas this year, by the way).
6) You use a comic book analogy for doing pieces, then integrating. That's a fairly sound model. Do you anticipate the integration being more akin to, say, the uncorrelated crossovers? In that, things mix, but the individual worlds aren't strongly altered. Or would it be the more threaded ones, where the plot goes through different lines in different ways before culminating?
Your latter assertion is ultimately where we are headed. By the time we are done, the old "and the universe will never be the same" drama line will be appropriate. We want to foment change and growth. More importantly, thanks to the online aspect of what we are building, we expect much of this change to come from the combined efforts of the creators and the players who "live" in these realms.
7) Is Internet access required to really enjoy Shards-- and if so, how much? (1 visit/week? downloads of occasional updates? broadband with streaming video?) Not a marketing answer please-- a gamer one. Already there is debate on GM 'drift' from evolving worlds in paper products, and a rapidly evolving online setting may run into the same actors. Put simply, how much time online will GMs and Players need to spend to get the bulk of 'the Shards experience'?
Shards of the Stone will stand quite nicely as a great multi-faceted campaign world for FUZION Fantasy gaming, and no amount of Internet access is required to enjoy that aspect of the project. Truth be told, each Realm of the project will stand alone as its own world, with support material to boot.

I mean, we are talking about campaign settings for gaming. Simple as that.

Internet access opens the doorway for a great deal of "enhancement" to the experience, because you can use what you know from the paper products to play online, run games online, and interact with other fans. Furthermore, there will be additional campaign support material via the online venues - stuff that may well come out in a book eventually (we are planning "Best Of..." compilations as part of our release strategy), but the online folks will get first crack at it.

The Internet folks will also have a great opportunity to contribute material to the effort, and the best of the writers and artists among them may well discover new opportunities to "go pro."
8) Just what is the 'Shards experience', as in, how would you describe it to a die-hard pen&paper gamer?
Imagine many of the best designers and writers in the industry getting together to create a multi-faceted world, where each Realm has its own distinct flavor and style. A world that promises to step quite a few rungs up the ladder on anything TSR has put out. This is SHARDS OF THE STONE.

The "Shards Experience" will have the classic hallmarks of a great campaign setting, but it has the added advantage of being a place players and GMs can visit and do more with via the Internet - everything from adding to the vast amount of great material that will make this world live and breath to actually playing and running games based on one (or all) of the Realms.
Ultimately, there will be a full online game component, but one where the best GMs out there are the ones running it, and everyone has a chance to make something of the world for themselves.
The best of what comes out of all this will be published in books that the dice & paper gamers will be able to acquire and use - so it all feeds back into the "loop" between the table the the PC.
9) Say I think EverQuest is the epitome of an RPG. Why should I play Shards?
If "fire & forget" gaming is your style, perhaps you won't have as much fun with what we plan for SHARDS as someone who wants a more directed, facilitated experience. If story, character development, and a chance to participate in the world outside of killing everything that lives in it is your idea of a great time, then I promise that where we are taking SHARDS is a place you want to go.
10) One general fear with multimedia projects (which Shards, with its focus on computers and table top, would seem to qualify) is that too often the hobby end can be discarded because it is less profitable than a lower-denominator mainstream end (say, multiplayer worlds or fiction or such). Outside of admitted love for the industry, how do you feel Shards' focus will deal with market forces that push towards profitability over 'art'?
Well, I won't pretend that we aren't out to make money, but we believe that extraordinary quality is part of what will make for a stand-out product. We also feel there is a very effective way to bridge the "paper" side of the hobby with the Internet; the books will support the online games, and the online games will drive interest in the tabletop efforts. We can only make more money by supplying product to both communities, and we really feel there can be a lot of crossover.

Of course, as you say - we have a real love for the old-fashioned, dice-hurling tabletop gaming, and I don't see us ever giving up on that part of the gaming community. If anything, we hope to enhance their experience to an incredible degree. At the same time, these are the people we are most interested serving with our online efforts - people who will bring roleplaying and storytelling into an online RPG community that is sadly in need of just those elements.
Thank you for your time, Sean!
You're welcome!

Sean can be reached at Sean@obsidianstudios.com

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