Interview with Reality Blurs President, and author of Realms of Cthulhu, Sean Preston

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to run a session of Realms of Cthulhu for Savage Worlds.  I wrote a review for the setting which can be found by clicking here.  If you aren’t familiar with H.P. Lovecraft or the twisted, dark themes of which he wrote, I recommend you start there.

In my review I asked the community for some good interview questions they would like to see answered by Reality Blurs President, and author of Realms of Cthulhu, Sean Preston.  You guys delivered with some fantastic inquiries!  Honestly, for those who asked multiple questions, you made it tough to pick the best ones!  Sean has been so busy with GenCon that he needed to get through that before he could answer, but now he’s recovering his sanity he is able to push aside some time and get to them.  Let’s not delay any further; as always we’ll start with my questions then roll into yours.

Nundahl: I’ve made it pretty clear that I am a huge fan of Savage Worlds, but I’m hoping you could touch on what it is about the system that drew you in to write for it in the first place, with your first setting, Rune Punk.

Sean: When I first discovered Savage Worlds, it was not so much from wanting to become a game designer as it was a quest to find a system that would incorporate the style of play that best suited myself and my group of players, a style of play that I eventually labeled “story-forward” — a style that allowed the rules to fall (for the most part) into the background and enabled the group to be a part of an interactive story without the restrictions of some systems that steered the style of play in one direction or another.

After playing it a few times with the gang, I decided that I wanted to move into the industry as a professional — a thought that they immediately questioned — and began to develop a setting that would build upon the Savage Worlds strengths of blending various elements of technology and magic. When I decided that, I drafted a rough outline of what I wanted the world to contain, and what mechanics would be necessary to fulfill those goals. I’ve always loved steampunk and dark fantasy, so I pitched this to Shane in a short “elevator pitch” style of email, and after getting the green light from him, I began to develop in earnest. I learned a lot during the development process, and am still pleased with RunePunk which remains unique, despite the recent increase of steampunk in RPGs. I could wax on and on about RunePunk, but rest assured, you’ll be seeing more of the steamy city of ScatterPoint. Its future is far from over.

Nundahl: It is obvious to anyone that has read Realms of Cthulhu that you must have done a great deal of research to prepare.  Aside from books written by Lovecraft and other mythos authors, as well as of course Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game, do any resources for inspiration or information stand out in your mind?

Sean: You might say that I’ve been preparing myself to write Realms of Cthulhu my whole life. I read pulps that my brothers collected as a kid, and was immediately drawn to dark horror having grown up with reading tales of Poe and Howard and Derleth. One of my prized possessions as a teenager was an old copy of Supernatural Literature in Fiction by HPL that my brother found at a flea market. I devoured it immediately. After high school, my path was set and I got a degree in English Literature from The Citadel.

My background includes reading a lot of the world’s masters, such as Kafka, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Whitman. That however is less salient to the question asked. Let’s just say, I have a solid foundation of literary inspiration tucked away in the old gray matter, and move on more precisely to the question at hand.

When we sorted out the details with Chaosium and Pinnacle, and Realms of Cthulhu was to become a reality, I deliberately set myself to reading through scads of Lovecraft and Derleth, and watching a lot of really bad — and a few good — horror movies. Researching is one of my favorite parts of the process. I take notes as I proceed on points or aspects I may want to hit and salient details that I want to convey to my target audience of fellow gamers. Conversations with gamers and designers certainly helped in this process, as developing in a vacuum is something I certainly do not recommend.

Some of the works I heartily recommend include Titus Crow by Brian Lumley (for those seeking insight into running a sustainable Cthulhu campaign) and The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia by Daniel Harms which is an excellent resource on Mythos knowledge in general.

Nundahl: Do you prefer to be a player or a game master, and can you tell us what you enjoy most about each?

Sean: I prefer being a GM. It’s the role I’ve noticed most game developers fall naturally into and start from. The player perspective is somewhat different and is a refreshing change of pace. Currently, I’m in a homebrew fantasy campaign a buddy of mine is running. It’s fun to focus and develop one character’s story, rather than creating entire worlds, but ultimately, I prefer to create the game space for people to play in.

Nundahl: Before I open up to questions from the readers I have one last question.  What advice can you offer to the young game designer who is eager to make his break into the industry?

Sean: Short answer: don’t; it’s madness. Now, with that out of the way, I’d advise the potential designer to find both a genre and system they are passionate about, become active on relevant forums, refine their skills, know the system(s) inside and out, and be able to craft a sentence that grabs the audience by the throat, and be relentless in the execution. Honestly, unique ideas are all over the place, but at the end of the day, it is the execution of said ideas that separates the hobbyist from the designer. Whatever you end up working on, you’d better love it, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. Luckily, in my position, I get to work on things that I love, but there is a lot more work involved in being a publisher than just being a writer. If you want to write, don’t plan on being a publisher, because you’ll be wearing many hats, and the hours are extremely long. You do, however, get an opportunity to write from time to time.

Reader Questions

Gerhb:  “What is your favorite Lovecraftian tale or otherworldly being?”

Sean: The second part of the question is easy, so I’ll answer that first. I have a warm, angular spot in my heart for the Hounds of Tindalos. Others I enjoy are the Deep Ones (that I view as the foot soldiers of the Mythos) and Mi-go (that function quite well as aerial support.) As far as favorite tales go, it is easy to say At the Mountains of Madness, but I would be lying. It’s certainly a solid tale, but I’d have to rate The Rats in the Walls, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and Pickman’s Model among my favorites. This question is like ice cream however. I like lots of ice cream. Ultimately, the choice depends upon the time of year, my mood, and the position of the stars…

Eric: “When writing Realms of Cthulhu, did you try to stick to Lovecraft’s vision of a meaningless and chaotic universe, or do you prefer Derleth’s interpretation, where the gods are classified as good and evil?”

Sean: Good question. Early in the design process, I bounced this off the team, and read numerous forums hither and yon about what people were looking for in a Mythos game. A number of them appreciate the nebulousness of the traditional Lovecraftian approach, while a smaller demographic wanted more clarity. We blurred things a bit. I knew that Savage Worlds would be speaking to a new audience, one that may not have much familiarity with the Mythos, and found that it would make more sense to provide the Keeper with clear descriptions of the canon creatures — my interpretation of them — while giving them all the tools necessary to modify them. It’s essential for the Keeper to know what’s going on, even if no one else does. From the positive responses we’ve received, this approach has served us in good stead.

One overwhelming truth I held to in the design process is that good and evil are really irrelevant to beings as powerful as Cthulhu and its ilk. We provided motivations that enabled these higher powers to interact with humans for one reason or another. While I love all the myriad interpretations of the Mythos, at the end of the day, we have to make certain it resonates for the Keeper and his group.

1Point618: “Was there something particular that attracted you to [Savage Worlds] that had to do with how it would integrate with the setting, or was the choice more one of liking SW?”

Sean: For me, the decision was easy. I’ve been developing for Savage Worlds since 2004, and knew that some people didn’t think the system could do anything but pulp. Some of my friends thought I was mad for wanting to provide anything other than a pulp experience for Cthulhu, but I convinced them it could do so much more. The big trick was getting the Sanity system right, but I had solved that conundrum in my developmental work for True20, and knew it wouldn’t be too difficult to refine the system I had originally developed for Agents of Oblivion and make it work within the Savage Worlds context. Naturally, we tested it thoroughly, and it was an iterative process, but we finally arrived at the finished design — a design that has been well received. It delights me that people are using the four play styles to craft the game that they want to play. We also knew that RoC could serve as a capstone setting, and the modular nature of design could be easily integrated into any of the existing (and, hopefully, future) properties released by us and others.

LoMerc: “When you play Realms of Cthulhu, do you require someone in the party to be a psychotherapist? It seems that without one, the game is almost impossibly tough because of the madness penalties.”

Sean: Absolutely not. It’s not much different than mandating a healer in a party. It’s certainly a good idea, but not strictly required. Any character who takes Knowledge (Psychology) can certainly take a crack at helping someone losing their grip, and a number of archetypes have that to a degree, such as con men and gamblers. I know in most traditional Cthulhu games I’ve played, one person typically plays a psychotherapist. In groups without one, I’ve noticed people treading a bit more cautiously.

Thor: “With other Cthulhu based games out there (Call of Cthulhu, ect…) how does Realms of Cthulhu separate itself from the others and bring forth a truly terrifying Lovecraft setting?”

Sean: Realms of Cthulhu provides you with all the tools you need to craft a game that is as pulpy or as dark as you desire. This core book is a toolbox at its heart, and it lets you play a game that is two-fisted action with a splash of terror, or create a game that is as deep and hopeless as some of Lovecraft’s traditional works. Additional materials in development, namely Echo of Dead Leaves, will take you to the southern city of Charleston where all-new horrors await. This first book was intended to enable you to take our sandbox and play in your own playground. Soon enough, you’ll be playing in ours.

Magehammer: “What is your greatest strength as a game designer?”

Sean: The ability to intermingle setting design with mechanical design wherein the rules fluidly integrate into the base (core) system and just make sense. In other words, I try to make certain the mechanical elements make sense for the settings we’re developing. For example, in Realms of Cthulhu, there are a handful of edges and hindrances, and a spare few setting rules, but those setting rules fundamentally change how the game is played, but you read them and immediately understand them. It takes established SW players only a moment to review these changes and get it. At the other end of the spectrum, Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin has a huge number of edges and hindrances, but it has a different design goal — to let the player create the kind of robust kesshi (hero) he wants to play in an oriental setting. As these rules come into play incrementally and the player has ownership, there is no slowdown in play. It takes more time to design in this manner, but it is very rewarding at the end of the day. The best design is that which goes unseen. When people open up Realms of Cthulhu, or any of our other books, and say, “this makes sense” or “this is so obvious” then we can smile knowing that we’ve hit the sweet spot of design (and we can pause to reflect on the countless iterations it sometimes takes to distill things down to that level of “simplicity”).

Dan Petrocelli: “Did you experiment with other sanity systems before simply converting the wounds system over?”

Sean: Not really. I knew how to best approach it, as the Sanity system I developed for True20 was a precursor to my work in Realms of Cthulhu, and it had been well received by the community. While there certainly is an analog to the wounds system, it is not a literal conversion. The commonalities that do exist were conscious parts of the design process. The biggest obstacle to address in making it work within a Mythos context was how to handle the miniscule bits of sanity loss one gets in Call of Cthulhu and make it work within the design parameters. Finally, we hit upon Sanity being ablative, where it could gradually be lost over time. Additionally, we had to add in the half-steps of Sanity loss, or it would be entirely too gross of a loss. This occurred when you gained dark insight by seeing a creature or skimming a tome. Mental Anguish served us well, as emulating the physical damage paradigm made sense and allowed people the opportunity to spend bennies when making their Guts roll (evocative of making a Sanity check in CoC). The final dilemma in discarding Sanity Points was how to handle magic and rituals. Hitting upon using Knowledge (Mythos) as a driver of spell performance was simple and elegant, as it already accounted for a loss of Sanity and gave us the mechanic we wanted wherein those who knew the most secrets were fragile from their exposure to mind-rending horrors.


Nundahl: Is there anything you’d like to plug or do you have any closing words for our readers?

Sean: As a general rule, I like to let our products speak for themselves, but we’ve a few products that we’ve just wrapped up that cannot speak yet, as they haven’t made their way into the wild at this point. I speak of Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin and Art of War. These two products — one for Savage Worlds and one for Showdown — have been equal parts labor and love, and will be wending their way out to you very soon. The RPG sold out of pre-release copies at Gen Con. If you dig SW, you will dig this stuff.

Shaintar and Agents of Oblivion are the next big settings in our sights. Mythos Tales: Volume I should be lumbering your way before too terribly long, while I work away on Echo of Dead Leaves in the shadowy recesses of my room.

I want to thank you all for supporting us through thick and thin as we grow. Once upon a time, Reality Blurs was just me. Thanks to you all, it is growing into the thriving, dynamic company I always knew it could be. On behalf of my team, I thank you!

Nundahl: Sean and Reality Blurs have been awesome to work with throughout this interview process.  Even with their hectic GenCon schedule they stayed on top of communication and I can’t wait for their next project to come out so I can jump on another review.  Sean is also pretty active on Facebook and Twitter so look him up, he’s a lot of fun to talk to or follow in a world ending cult, just a thought.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

[tags]Savage Worlds, Reality Blurs, rpg, role playing, games, interviews, Lovecraft, Cthulhu[/tags]

4 thoughts on “Interview with Reality Blurs President, and author of Realms of Cthulhu, Sean Preston

Add yours

  1. An excellent interview, as usual, Nick. Thanks for taking the time. Sean is one of my favorite people to talk to at conventions, so I;m glad we got him here on TC.


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