JP On Gaming

Monday, August 29, 2011

Organized Play People: Jay Babcock, Part 1 (4e, Living Divine, JP gets stumped)

I spoke to Jay many times before I got to meet him face to face. As we were both Triads, we frequently talked. Like me, Jay was chosen to be an admin for Living Forgotten Realms. He quit long before I did. Still, he and I kept in touch.

Unlike myself, Jay took a liking to 4e. Me on the other had… Yeah…

Then the other day as I began thinking about this series, my good friend Lenny (shout-out) comes out and tells me that “some guy” was setting up a new campaign called Living Divine. So I did a quick Google search a who shows up? That’s right Jay’s name! I got on instant messenger and immediately contacted him and arranged to have him in my series of interviews.

Turns out his campaign kicked off at Gencon this year! Now I want to know more…

JP: Hi Jay! Glad you agreed to do this interview. Can you tell us a bit more about who you are? What about your RPG history?

JB: Well, let's see... I started playing RPGs when I was 8 and started running at gaming conventions when I was 11... In fact, I've judged or staffed that particular convention for every year of its existence, since then: some twenty-odd years.

I was part of the founding of my first organized gaming group in 1994. That group - now known as the Vice & Villainy Gaming Guild - still meets and games every week.

I was an Ancient Seer in Ultima Online's interest program for three years, running a team that created storylines and put on quests for that game world.

I helped put together the Aurora program in Eve Online - also tasked with creating quests and game content - participated for six months, and then took over and ran the program for two more years.

I was an active player and author for the Living City campaign.

I served as Triad for the Bissel region (New England) for five years, right up to the end of the campaign. My primary position was convention support, and at peak, I was staffing 16 conventions per year.

I work for Baldman Games, the company that runs D&D Experience and the RPGA events at Origins and GenCon. I serve as head marshal for those three major conventions.

The biggest line item on my resume, I suppose, is my writing. I have been the primary author or co-author on 242 rounds of RPGA and Living Divine scenarios. It's been speculated that I am the most prolific author in the history of the RPGA, but I'm not really interested in titles... just in keeping people entertained.

So... you might say I'm a gamer.

JP: You mentioned Baldman Games (BMG)… Is that Dave Christ’s organization?

JB: It is his company.

JP: I saw that BMG branched into some OP stuff with Ashes of Athas

JB: It is an excellent campaign, that I consider the spiritual sister to LD: I think we've got a lot of the same 'right' ideas in mind, and it's been marvelous to see how we've handled various issues that affect both campaigns.

I would recommend 4e to anyone and everyone. It's really a great body of work.

JP: Is Living Divine linked to BMG at all?

JB: Sure. We run under the Baldman banner at the three big cons, and I work closely with Dave Christ to make that all happen.

JP: What is your official title in the campaign?

JB: I am the owner of the Living Divine Campaign, and also one of the three Council of Elders members (our top-level, global administrators).

JP: What draws you to 4e in question? What particularly attracts you to that game?

JB: I'd say I'm less drawn to the particular game system, and more drawn to the community. I've been working with some of these folks for two decades. They could switch to Chutes and Ladders, and I'd stick with them. (I wouldn't recommend it, though... the level progression is HORRIBLY unbalanced).

That said, I've found that 4e is fine for our needs. Sure, it has pros and cons, just like every other system. It's no better or worse than any other system, at large. And, knowing that it was our target platform, we designed our campaign to work with it. If we were intent on using, say, Pathfinder, we would have worked things together differently, to accentuate some of its strengths.

JP: What is your favorite RPG game of all times?

JB: Spycraft, 1st edition. It is just a fantastic game that can be a ton of fun with the right group. And unlike many of its cousins, no one player-character can really be the star. You have to work together as a team, or you are sunk. Combine that with a fun, fast-paced action-adventure setting, and it's just dynamite.

JP: Your favorite supplement/ adventure?

JB: I don't think, in all fairness, that I could name one as my favorite... or even five, for that matter. I've enjoyed quite a few adventures, settings, and supplements over the years, all with their own bits to love.

JP: Okay then… can you name one that you REALLY did *NOT* like?

JB: One that comes to mind is a now-former OP campaign. I will leave it unnamed, as while the campaign is gone, the folks behind it are still around, and I would not like to start any bad blood.

I was introduced to this campaign by a few folks that were really into it. I lovingly crafted a rich, vibrant character, and sat down to play. I soon realized that to really do anything in the game, you had to take Character Option A or B, or know about in-game events X, Y, and Z, or be a part of Organization Q. My own character really didn't matter. As a new player to the campaign, I was all but useless - and worse, I was bored.

I was not easily deterred. I tried a few scenarios, with different groups. And got the exact same results. I decided that it just wasn't for me.

Years later, I've heard the exact same story from others. Apparently, the campaign was massively popular... if you got involved early on, and stuck with it. If you tried to get in, in the middle, you had no chance.

What I will say is that the experience helped flavor everything I've put together, since.

JP: What are the high points of a home game you run?

JB: I love it when my players are very truly and obviously invested in what's going on, when they can't wait for the next play-session, the next installment. When the compulsive i-phone gamer puts his phone away, when the guy that never pays attention is glued to the table, when the casual gamer whines that he has to wait until next week to learn who shot JR, and whether the bloody glove will fit.

That is a great moment.

JP: What elements do you particularly enjoy in a campaign?

JB: I think my favorite aspect is originality. Don't give me Tolkien elves and dwarves... it's been done, and done to death. Tell me that the elves are the local organized crime. Tell me that the dwarves are the local trade union, striking until their demands are met.

JP: You really need to check out NeoExodus from LPJ Design, then… those are some of the premises I put on myself… Yeah, yeah, I know. This is a shameless plug. I do share your view on that. “Traditional elements” of fantasy need to be revisited.

JB: I promise to check it out, as soon as I have free time. =)

JP: How does Living Divine address the traditional fantasy? Any new races? New spins of existing ones?

JB: Everything in our world is custom tailored to our needs... from the setting and the roles of our PCs, to our monsters. Nothing is cookie cutter.

JP: What would you say are elements that define your writing style? What elements would I expect to find in one of your adventures?

JB: I tend to use a lot of dark humor, often making light of situations that really shouldn't be funny.

I tend to favor the mundane over the fantastical. I hate when fantastic elements become mundane... it ruins the experience for me. When you meet a dragon in my world, I want you to go 'Oh wow, a dragon! Be careful, guys!'... Not 'Oh, yawn... another dragon'.

I tend to use a lot of symbolism and thematic tropes. For instance, in the Bissel days, the weather would generally turn foul while the PCs were heading off on a doomed quest. The worst the weather, the worse things were going to turn out.

JP: That is a great idea… I might steal that for my own stuff!

JB: If you do, then you are doing it wrong. Come up with your own, and institute it from the ground up. You need to really 'make it your own' for it to really work.

JP looks slightly annoyed at this.

JP: Please, continue your thoughts on a “Jay-style” adventure?

JB:Finally, I favor difficult adventures. Not 'kill your character, there is no hope' difficult... rather, I want you to have to work for your successes. I want you to walk out of the climax of my scenarios saying 'Oh, wow... that was tough! I can't believe we survived!' To me, that is the Holy Grail.

JP: I totally agree with you here… I love telling my players that “once you reach the top of Mount Doom, are barely breathing from damage and the environment and are about to throw the Ring into the fire…” That’s when the helpful NPC turns on you and forces you into a major fight.

JB: *nods*

JP: What would you tell those out there about your campaign?

In the world of Living Divine, there are no 'real gods' in the heavens. Rather, every once in a while, a creature is born among mortals with the divine spark. You, the player characters, are among these living immortals, walking the earth, attracting followers, raising armies and empires, fighting for power and survival.

Living Divine is more story-oriented and character-centric, and less focused on combat, than most organized play campaigns.

JP: How does that divine spark manifests? Is it just the fact that they are PCs? Or is there something more?

JB: There is much, much more. A small part of it is that the only real classed characters are gods (mortals just don't have that sort of ability), but it goes well beyond that. In fact, a major theme of the campaign is coming to terms with just what that divinity means.

JP: Why is your campaign the best there is?

JB: It's not. It's simply the one I want to run.

However, some of our players think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread; the prevailing opinion seems to be because we put the focus back on storytelling - whether it's us telling our story, or you telling that of your character.

JP: Why do you think a complete newcomer to organized play should join your OP?

JB: I don't. I would actively discourage it. From the beginning, I've billed LD as 'for mature gamers', and I mean it.

For instance, our campaign uses permadeath: a much harsher penalty than any other OP campaign I'm aware of. An inexperienced gamer is going to have to spend a lot more effort on the rules, just to survive... which means the story and roleplaying end of things will suffer. If they lose their focus, and drift too far towards the roleplaying end of the spectrum, survival will be that much harder.

But, of course, your mileage may vary.

JP: Permadeath… That is when your character is permanently removed from play? Can you expand a little on that? The term is very cool, and definitely grabs my attention.

JB: That is correct. When you die in Living Divine, you are dead for good. There is no 'raise dead' for immortals in the campaign. You weigh risks differently when there is really something on the line.

It also means there is no temptation to have reoccurring dead-again-live-again NPCs. They play by all the same rules.

JP: Why should an old grumpy player - yes. think of me as that grumpy old troll - what is the biggest strength of the campaign?

JB: It's a unique setting... a unique story. It's a different, fresh take on a game that's been around forever, that's been part of our lives, of our cultural fabric.

JP: How did you become a campaign administrator? Why?

JB: *chuckle*

I simply made it happen. LD has been my baby, from the ground up. I just decided 'this is what I'm going to do', and made it happen. That said, my original intention was to create something much smaller... and this beast is MUCH bigger than that. Somewhere along the way I caught the attention and interest of a few other folks... and here we are.

JP: What are you main duties as part of the campaign?

JB: I'm writing all 11 rounds of scenarios for the first year of the campaign. I've created the vast majority of our rules set. I'm recruiting, vetting, and training regional admins for the future years of the campaign. Every document that goes out crosses my desk for editing. And then there are all the details... financials, convention coordination, publishing, advertising, licensing.

JP: Wow! That is a lot… Eleven rounds, you sir, are a beast…

JB: I try. =)

And we've actually been ahead of schedule. Our first three scenarios were available for sneak previews, early in the year. The next three are premiering at GenCon (and are 88% sold out, as I type this!). The final three and the two-round year-end special will be out for the end of the year.

Our conversation goes on for quite a while, so I split this interview into two parts. Since next Monday is Labor Day Weekend, the next part of the series will come out on Sept 12, with the conclusion of my interview with Jay.


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