Interview with Carsten Damm – Former Earthdawn Line Developer

The following interview was created in cooperation with Drucifer and is published simultaneously on the most recent Tableau Infractus # 11 and here on the Blog.

We’re both honored to interview one of the most influential persons to the fantasy roleplaying game Earthdawn since Lou Prosperi back in the days of FASA. Carsten Damm, aka Dammi, has served and shaped the game as Line Developer at RedBrick for the past six years, after being a long-time contributor to the Earthdawn community in the years before that. He also worked on various other games and products RedBrick has under license. He announced stepping back from his Line Developer position back in September 2011, so we think it is our duty to interview him about his journey, his experiences and his opinions on the work accomplished with RedBrick and especially Earthdawn.

Q) Let’s start with a simple question going way back when. Who introduced you to Earthdawn? Because without that person you wouldn’t have become involved with the game in the first place, so who shall we praise?

A) Praise me! (Just kidding…) The truth is that no one introduced me to Earthdawn, I discovered the game on my own.

I recall thumbing the copy at my local game store on several visits, and wasn’t sure about it. I had glanced over the flyers a few weeks earlier, but those weren’t around anymore to make a connection. Combined with my limited understanding of the English language at that time, those cursory looks at the rulebook brought up the (misguided) thought that it was a fantasy game set after a “regular” nuclear apocalypse with lost technology, a setting combo that didn’t really kick me at the time. However, when Mists of Betrayal came out, this changed. That adventure book had an awesome and unique feel to it (to me at the time at least), and was ultimately what roped me in to buying the rulebook and the gamemaster screen on top. I had seen and played a couple of other fantasy settings before, but none of them had that special spark to flare up my interest. Earthdawn was different in that, even though I didn’t see it at first.

Q) Did you ever think you would end up becoming Line Developer for Earthdawn?

A) I first met Lou Prosperi and Jeff Laubenstein at the Spiel’96 in Essen, which was my first attempt to contact the people behind the game. I wanted to contribute to the game in some way, but was completely clueless about the workings of the industry and publishing in general back then.

That meeting changed things, as Lou’s open invitation to get involved via the Earthdawn Mailing List helped realizing that I could actually have an impact on the game at some point. The internet was in its early days at the time I might add, and the Strands website as well as the fabled Earthdawn Mailing List were pretty much the only online things for fans to explore.

But to get back to the question: no, I never thought this would actually happen. When things started with RedBrick, I didn’t even think about that position either—my goal was always to make Earthdawn an even better game, so being able to work on a revised edition was all I needed to be happy. James offered me to use the title right after Earthdawn Classic was released, because I had essentially become the driving influence behind the whole effort and helped planning the next releases to come. I was proud to bear the title, because it was a reward for my work and enabled me to steer the line the way I intended to.

Q) At the beginning you were a fan (and still are we assume), and you did a lot for the community starting with the works on your page Tell us a little bit about the time when you were active as a fan and what changed when you became an "official" Earthdawn developer.

A) Despite my involvement with the german community, I was always more drawn to the international scene because that was closer to the source. I never had a deep connection to translated roleplaying games: my first exposure to roleplaying was, opposed to most other Germans, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay instead of Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye, which is germany’s D&D in a way). Things started in earnest with the Earthdawn Journal, a couple of years before the german community actually became that strong.

Anyways, Earthdawn slowly drifted away from what I imagined it to be after FASA folded. I was frustrated by the other publishers because all my attempts to get involved failed one way or the other, and the books they released didn’t really work for me.

ww_e_thumbSo I started to publish things myself. We were running Earthdawn games at the time, and the first PDF I released was Woodland Whispers, an adventure created for two gamemasters and two groups. It was the result of a private game session over a weekend vacation, getting my old and my new Earthdawn groups together for play once a year. The community liked that one very much, and I received a lot of feedback on the piece, which spurred my motivation to do more. I released a number of adventures over the years, including Ardanyan’s Rache (the original version of Ardanyan’s Revenge) and even a translation of Woodland Whispers. This brought more life into the (already active and very creative) german community, so we ended up doing a fanzine as well.

When I “changed sides,” this went on for a while. The biggest thing that changed was more professionalism among those involved, really. We were blessed to have Kathy Schad aid us all the time, and being able to create printed books instead of fanwork PDFs felt pretty cool—especially since we build everything from the ground up, as we were among the first to use print-on-demand to produce a major game line. The downside was that it all took way more time than I originally intended to spend on my hobby. Not that I regret this (here’s to my wife and son who supported me all the time!), it was very motivating, educating and interesting to be a part of that. I learned a lot during that time.

Q) How was it that you became involved with RedBrick. Earthdawn has a very interesting past, with multiple variations, First Edition, Second Edition, Classic, and now Third Edition. In all that time, have you always had a hand in the development of the game?

A) James contacted me shortly after RedBrick was founded because he knew me from the community. I was asked to help out and provide feedback and any other help I could imagine. However at the time, I was about to put Earthdawn to rest because I had already spent a decade with it and got basically nowhere professionally. James’ request came at the same time I considered writing material for Arcane Codex instead (another german roleplaying game that was just released at the time, and whose creators live right across the river). I turned their offer down a few weeks later, as my rekindled passion for Earthdawn was stronger.

A year later (late 2005, I think), I roped Kathy in because I always admired her passion for the game and her great artwork. I wanted her to do the cover art for Ardanyan’s Revenge, and then she stuck around to do way more than that over the years. In fact, I think that without her layouting expertise, we wouldn’t have been able to print the core rulebooks via Lulu at all—there were a lot of technical problems holding us back with those “bricks”.

From the german community, I contacted Eike-Christian Bertram and Lars Heitmann (among some others who didn’t follow) to help work on the Namegiver’s Compendium because I needed more people firm with the mechanics in the team. The team had seen a lot of change during development, and apart from those people that remained, there was need for more people that were able to stick around long-term and deliver material. Those two fit that bill and I am happy they are still around!

Q) How was it to produce official Earthdawn stuff with RedBrick having acquired the Earthdawn license?

A) I was happy about the chance to finally work on a new rulebook, as I had already toyed with the idea of creating a big tome combining all the bits and bobs from the sourcebooks into a single volume just for the kicks of it. I also had thought a lot about print-on-demand at about the same time, but not in combination with Earthdawn. It was an emerging technology back then, with only a handful of businesses available. When James came along with a combination of these ideas, I was of course very excited!

It also was a ton of work, though. Not many of the people we started out with followed through (and who can blame them, this being a hobby and all). I’m happy we managed to get this done, both with actually finishing the rulebooks as well as becoming one of the first print-on-demand publishers in the RPG industry.

Q) You had to make some hard decisions when you released the most recent Earthdawn Third Edition in 2009. How risky was it to release another edition of the game, without knowing if it would be accepted by the fans? Or were you confident that the improved rules and changes would save you the day? Which reaction of the fans did you expect and were some of your prejudices confirmed?

fcedawngmsA) We were basically forced to do this, there was no other choice (other than calling it a day and retire RedBrick completely). The reason was Lulu, which suddenly and without warning changed their shipping costs and demeanor (they also dropped a bit in print quality, which also was a bother for a while). Lulu was the only print-on-demand publisher who provided exactly what we needed, but with those extremely high shipping costs (and they weren’t low before that either), no one really considered buying our books anymore. There were a couple of options we investigated, including working with Mongoose Publishing. In essence, they offered to do pretty much what Lulu did for us before--with the notable difference of catering to the specialized RPG market. It was also a faster way of getting back into things than starting over with nothing, so we went with them.

We had to come up with a new edition and thinner books as a requirement, however, so we created Earthdawn Third Edition implementing the rules models we already had in community testing. The Alternative Discipline Mechanics were overhauled as well as a whole lot of other things—within a timeframe of only four months. That was an extremely busy time, but we did great.

Q) Speaking of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of? Be it a book, the ambitious plans you had for Earthdawn, or whatever?

A) The whole thing. We pioneered with a business model that was (measured against our expectations) wildly successful, and we managed to take the extremely active Earthdawn fan community by the hand and create a slick new edition of the game, one that both honors its roots and doesn’t have to hide behind other games on the market today.

I helped turning a rag-tag band of devoted fans into a wonderful and very professional team that created quite a heap of stunning books--eleven for Earthdawn Classic and no less than twenty-three for Earthdawn Third Edition (so far and not counting PDF-only releases). We did all that in our spare time, driven by heartblood and inspiration of the game itself.

I learned a lot during this time: from group dynamics to project management, from layout to print preparation, product financing, networking and international relationships, how to lead and crack a whip (on volunteers!), and the workings of the roleplaying industry behind the curtains. I also learned a number of valuable lessons on trust, friendship, and loyalty.

I’m very proud of all this, the workflow behind it, and the heavy shelf of books I am looking at when sitting at my desk.

Q) You didn’t meet the rest of the RedBrick team very often, but you were last year at the Gen Con in Indianapolis, how were your real life contacts with the rest of the team over the last years?

A) GenCon was special. I remember five of us locking ourselves in and brainstorm Equinox all afternoon and evening—we did get a lot of stuff done which would have taken days on the development forums. Other than that, the only person I frequently meet in real life is Kathy—usually at the local conventions twice a year. Even the other germans are too far away for a meetup (although we tried). There are a handful of people I never met in person though, albeit I was to the US twice and some of them made it to Germany. Maybe that’ll change one day!

Q) Before you resigned, you mentioned a handful of books being in development for Earthdawn on your blog. Would you mind telling us more about these, and if there's hope these will be released at some point?

A) The first one, Lost Dynasty, is a fully detailed adventure set in Landis. Like our other "big" adventure books, it's pretty detailed and even includes a chapter from the Great Library detailing the history of Landis. Second, there’s Legends of Barsaive contains stories, tales, and legends from the lands of Barsaive. It's been in the works for quite a while and will include the results of the Open Call we ran a while back. Both of these books are almost ready, and I have no doubt you will see them released somewhere soon.

Then there's Nations of Barsaive Vol. V: Blood Wood. The title says it all, I think--the book is supposed to be a rework of the old first edition title, laying the groundwork for the next book, Elven Nations. Elven Nations details the remains of the Western Kingdoms and Shosara and dives right into the rich elven culture beyond the Blood Wood. I was (and still am) very excited about this one, because I have worked with two very talented people to get the content right.

Jerris: City of Ash is a city book taking us back to Barsaive, visiting the city closest to the Poison Forest and the Wastes. I always loved that area and the eerie atmosphere of that place, so go figure why this book was on my list. Probably the final installment in the Nations of Barsaive series was going to be Nations of Barsaive VI: Iopos, detailing the home and history of the Denairastas clan. I can't seriously say more about this one without giving anything away. All of these books were in various stages of writing and development when I stepped back, and I am still in contact with the authors providing assistance where I can.

Taken together, all these books contain the main building blocks needed to publish an epic campaign called Chronicles of War, which aimed to finally push the brewing conflict between Throal and Thera over the edge.

Q) What's Chronicles of War supposed to be, Barsaive at War done right?

A) With both Earthdawn Classic and Earthdawn Third Edition, we chose the current time of the setting right after the events of the epic Prelude to War campaign formerly released for the first edition of the game. The material presented in Prelude to War, as well as the implications of the events that happened in that campaign found their way into our books and have been made part of the setting so that even those people who never played first edition and/or Prelude to War know what has been going on. We chose this spot because Barsaive, already a melting pot of various factions and cultures clashing into each other, was on the verge of change. There's a lot of tension and a wide variety of possibilities, and it is only a question of time until things start burning bright. Nothing lasts forever, but one thing is certain: Barsaive will never be the same again.

Many veteran Earthdawn gamemasters either continued their campaign using Living Room Games' Barsaive at War, Lou Prosperi's original outline (which has been circulating the internet for nearly a decade now), or found their own way to resolve the conflict between Throal and Thera. But what's with those who have started their campaigns with Earthdawn Third Edition and are waiting for an epic campaign that goes beyond what our regular adventures and Shards have to offer? My intention for Chronicles of War was to deliver to them first and foremost.

barsaive_at_warSo, to finally get back to your question, Chronicles of War is not “Barsaive at War done right.” Because, let's face it, that book has been done twice already. The intention was neither to use the original outline nor was it to reuse or even "fix" LRG's Barsaive at War. There is really no need to do this, especially since our overall situation is not what it was for FASA and LRG back a decade ago. We're working in different times, have different goals, and different visions--all of which factor into Chronicles of War becoming a different and fresh new chapter in the history of the Earthdawn game we produced in the past years. Of course, there are a couple of ideas that naturally emerge out of the existing situation, so there's no doubt some people would compare that book to Barsaive at War at some point or even mix the ideas provided. That's totally fine, but adding oil to a "which one is better" fire on our part deliberately is out of the question. My guess is that people would have liked them both, and even veteran gamemasters would be able to find something they can use in their campaigns.

Developing and writing an outline for this was an honor for me as Line Developer. My focus was to make sure the player's actions will have a real impact on the events presented in that book, addressing one of the major complaints people had about the old campaign. The adventures are set up in a way that adapts to the player's decisions, so their successes and their failures will directly steer the outcome of that campaign. So yeah, there will be an overarching plot, but how it goes and how it ends will ultimately depend on the player characters. This goes with a couple of implications, of course, so go figure...

Q) All that said ... why did you leave?

A) All I can give you is this in a nutshell: RedBrick is changing, but I am not.There are a lot of reasons for my decision to step back, but most of them are personal and not meant for the public. Given my history with RedBrick and Earthdawn (as well as my agenda outlined above), you know that it isn't something I would do spontaneously. It was a very tough decision, but I am happy I made it. I wish RedBrick all the best in their future endeavors. I know they have big and ambitious plans, so I’m pressing thumbs they come true!

Q) What are your hopes for Earthdawn’s future?

A) I hope and expect to see most (if not all) remaining Earthdawn Third Edition books come out, at least those that saw some development work in the past months and years. I had a real blast working with the various authors and I hope for them that they will be able to hold the printed results in their hands at some point. Same counts for a couple of additional manuscripts I didn't mention above. Controlling that isn’t in my hands anymore, however, but I am going to assist the team wherever I can and help the authors to get the vision of their books implemented the way we planned them.

Q) What is the future for Equinox and Vampire City?

A) equinoxPro-Indie and Equinox have always been somewhat separate from RedBrick, which is why we had them under a RedBrick Germany label. This didn’t survive the recent changes and wasn’t moved to the new website. As a result, Pro-Indie and Equinox are out of the public view at the moment. Development had stalled for a while, but we're gearing up to continue by the end of this year. Vampire City is still in layout and now that our latest book, BARBARIANS! has come through in a beautiful full-color print, we are ready to finish Vampire City (also in color) and release it in the new year.

Equinox will take a while longer to release, but 2012 is going to be an interesting year for that game.

Q) Any idea when there will there be a new Pro-Indie site for the BARBARIANS! and Western City games?

A) Likely by the end of this year. We are working on a new website presence, even if it is just a small one. You can still get all these on DriveThroughRPG, however. Keep an eye out for returning sometime soon!

Q) Will there ever be a chance that Zwielicht, and Das Vergessene Tal will see a fan produced English translation?

A) Zwielicht is actually available, only in slightly different form: Tournament Troubles (from the Earthdawn Shards Collection Vol. One) picks up on the same ideas I used in that fan adventure. The structure and ending are a bit different, but keep in mind that Zwielicht was originally written for two groups and two gamemasters for an Easter vacation (or convention experience). It is very specific in some parts and not suited to a broader audience without some changes--those I made for Tournament Troubles!

I know that there has been some effort made to translate the Das Vergessene Tal campaign in the past. I am not sure it will ever be finished, but I wasn't involved in the translation effort so far. That's something Eike-Christian Bertram is more likely to answer at this stage.

Q) We thank you for the interview, it was a pleasure. We both wish you all the best for the future!

A) Thanks! Keep up the good work!

1 Response to "Interview with Carsten Damm – Former Earthdawn Line Developer"

  1. Tim Jones says:

    I enjoyed reading this interview - Carsten was the editor for my Earthdawn Novel "Anarya's Secret", the first in RedBrick's line of Earthdawn novels, and he was a great help and a pleasure to work with!

Post a Comment

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes | Converted by BloggerTheme