Origin Awards Interview: Henry Lopez, Head Writer of Paradigm Concepts

The 38th Annual Origin Awards were presented at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio on June 2nd. Arcanis from Paradigm Concepts, created by Eric Wiener, Pedro Barrenechea, and Henry Lopez, won the award for Best Role-Playing Game. The transcript of my interview with the head writer, Henry Lopez, follows.

Morgan Dempsey: You’ve previously described Paradigm as “a group of young IT professionals that share a passion for gaming.” When you began making games, what was the story you most wanted to tell?

Henry Lopez: I’m not sure that description still applies after the dozen or so years we’ve been in business. I’m in my late 40’s, but when we started I suppose we were relatively young. LOL.

Oddly enough, our original goal was to publish a game called Pulp!: The Age of Menace, which was my take on fast action/cliffhanger/masked avenger stories set in an alternate history to avoid the pitfall of the players knowing that ‘in such and such a year, Japan will do X so that can’t happen’. I have always felt that the one thing that Pulp RPGs failed to do in the past was to create an engaging and entertaining world setting that was not a boring Social Studies lesson from your High School days.

And without realizing it, that’s what set us on the path of living up to our tag line, “We create new worlds for you to play in!” without it having been a concrete plan of action to begin with.

Half way through designing Pulp!, the D20 license was announced and I saw an opportunity to delve into my favorite genre’: Epic Fantasy. So PCI put Pulp! on the back burner temporarily (I’m not sure if after 12 years we can still call it that) and quickly adopted a world setting I had been developing for a possible novel I had in my head.

But from the start, we wanted Arcanis to be different from what had come before. I knew that there were going to be those who were going to cover the “classic” model of D&D, so we decided to create a world for mature players who had been playing said classic style for years now and were craving something new. Thus, Arcanis became a world of deep shades of grey rather than stark blacks and whites so far as morality was concerned. No one in Arcanis was completely a good or evil. Like us, they had their virtues and their flaws and this created NPC’s that the players truly cared about.

The other mantra we had at PCI was: “It’s the story, not the stats!” The story was the driving force behind our setting and adventures. We felt that compelling stories that grabbed people’s attention and immersed them into the life and death struggles of those who walked the lands of Arcanis would create something really special and we like to think it did.

We had great success with D20 Arcanis and its Living Campaign, which WotC and the RPGA graciously allowed us to run as part of that organization. Our following swelled to worldwide proportions and pushed us to innovate even further. We ran huge events called Battle Interactives whose outcomes would shape the direction of the story and our players loved that. They wanted their actions to affect the world and the story being told. The tag line for the Living Arcanis Campaign was “Leave Your Mark Upon the Shattered Empires” and we certainly gave them every opportunity to do so – even as I pulled my hair trying to figure out how to salvage my storyline after the players did something completely out of left field. During the seven year run of Living Arcanis we gave away over 150 full blown adventures and still the players wanted more.

But there were times when trying to get Arcanis and its rich history to mesh with D&D rule ste was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. So while we owe much to WotC and D&D, when 4th edition was announced, we decided it was time to forge out on our own. We labored for 3 years, designing and redesigning a new system and in 2011 launched Arcanis: The World of Shattered Empires RPG along with a new living campaign known as Legends of Arcanis.

With the achievement of winning the 38th Annual Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game our time and efforts were vindicated, though I must say that the real reward was the knowledge that our fellow publishers and store owners believed in us enough to vote us onto the short list of nominees and that our fan base cared enough to carry us over the top. It was a great honor and a humbling experience.

I seem to have rambled on for a bit, so for those just skimming this article and looking for a quick answer, the stories we wanted to tell were those with strong, three-dimensional characters and compelling plots that drew the players in and led them on a wild roller coaster ride each and every time.

MD: What aspects of the gaming experience are important for you, both as a player and as a creator?

HL: First and foremost – enjoyment. These are games, after all and they need to be fun. No one wants to go on vacation and be stressed. Likewise, not many people want to sit down and play a game and end up bored to tears.

Secondly, but no less important, is that the players are pushed a bit out of their comfort zone. I normally do this by giving them an adventure that they think is going one way and then turns 90 degrees and everything they thought was right is wrong. The classic Arcanis twist is the “bad guys who are actually good guys, just with conflicting agendas”. I’ll never forget a table I ran during the D20 days when the Heroes discovered they were fighting a band of paladins. They weren’t evil or fallen – they just had a conflicting point of view that put them at cross purposes with the players.

And that’s when the Role Playing begins! When all your confidence and assurance that these evil guys have to be put to the sword is suddenly turned on its head and the villains turn out to be reasonable people with an agenda that’s no less noble, but at direct odds with yours.

Bottom line – as a player and creator, I want people to enjoy themselves and have a memorable experience! Sure, it’s great fun to blow off steam by mowing through a horde of orcs after a bad day at the office, but after the zillionth time that occurs, the retelling of that story grows stale. But pit them against a group of paladins that believed they had to sacrifice a village to save the entire kingdom and what you did afterwards, and you’ve got a memorable story to tell for some time to come.

MD: Looking at your library of works, it’s clear you are steeped in fantasy and horror settings. What sort of research do you do, and how do you decide what you’re going to work on next?

HL: I am a product of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, not to mention the reprints of those great old pulp stories of Doc Savage and the Shadow. Needless to say, they were a great foundation that led me to others such as P.J. Farmer, Asimov, Karl Wagner, Moorcock, Herbert and many others that gave me a large landscape of ideas for my mind to germinate within.

The research I do depends on what I’m writing. When writing for Witch Hunter: The Invisible World, a game I call a Colonial-Swashbuckling-Horror-game set in an Alternate History, I need to read up on the period and society I’m basing the story on and then find interesting and innovative ways to change or twist it.

When writing for Arcanis, I have to go back and research what I’ve already written – and between my work and those of freelancers and contributors that have added to the Arcanis milieu, that can be a chore. Luckily I have a pretty good memory and know where to find the answer if I don’t know it off the top of my head.

After coming up with an idea, I also do a quick reverse search (as I call it). Has this story already been told in this manner? I have a pretty extensive library of fiction and non-fiction books, but thank Heaven for the Internet and Google, which makes my life a lot simpler in researching this question.

As for what do I decide to work on next, that’s dependent upon production schedules and what needs to get done. We have production meetings where we plan out two years in advance (at least in broad strokes). Then it’s just a matter of following the “BIC” (Butt in Chair) approach to writing and get it done.

MD: What parts of creating Arcanis were rewarding for you? What challenges did you encounter that surprised you?

HL: I would say that the world creation process was the most rewarding on a personal level. I love to create long spanning histories whose echoes still impact upon the modern age of Arcanis. I wrote several thousands of years of history for Arcanis (no, not year by year, but in large swaths of centuries) and delight in having the players stumble across something that completely turns what they thought they knew upside down.

When we wrote the original Codex Arcanis, the source book that describes the world and its peoples, each chapter was written from the point of view of the (in character) writer. This leads to details in one chapter contradicting “facts” in others or evidence found during adventures that invalidates or overturns what was established in the Codex. That was all done on purpose and is a delight to see the players peel the onion a little more as they try and get to the core truth of what’s really going on.

The other byproduct of writing and creating Arcanis that is most rewarding for me is the community of players we’ve brought together. These men and women are all intelligent, good natured and good hearted people that truly love the world they’ve helped create by playing in it. I love it when they shake their fists at me and smiling say, “Darn you, Henry!” and I immediately know what adventure they just went through. But they love their “Oh No!” moments as much as I love crafting them.

The greatest challenge we’ve faced is the resistance of some players to learn a new game system and this truly perplexes me. I grew up gaming in the late ’70’s where part of the fun was learning how to play new games and seeing what new ideas and innovations they brought to the table.

Now, there’s been an entire generation of gamers that all they know is D20 and its iterations and feel that everything should fit into that box. Personally, I find that to be sad as they are missing out on some great stuff from lots of very talented and creative designers.

MD: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you started writing games?

HL: Develop a thick skin. By that I mean that you work into the late hours of the night, sweat over the most minute details, caring for your product like a mother cares for her newborn and along comes someone and calls your baby ugly.

It takes will power not to sock them in the mouth, but then you take a breath and think, “Different strokes for different folks”. Not everyone is going to like what you produce and though every mean spirited word is like a stake through the heart, you’ve got to smile and shake it off. Unfortunately there are some people who delight in bringing others down and that’s just a fact of life; the sooner that’s accepted the better off you are.

But I don’t want to end this interview on a down note, so I’ll also say that the best advice I can give any writer out there is to write what you enjoy. Sure, you may need to write what some editor assigns you to do and you need to do the best job you can while doing that, but put your own spin on things and make them yours. Don’t be discouraged when you get back a manuscript with more red on it than the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; learn from that and forge on. Little by little, you will find your own voice, leading anyone who reads something you wrote to say, “This has to have been written by X; it has his/her style all over it!”

About the Origin Awards

The Origin Awards are voted on by the attendees of the Origins Game Fair and presented annually by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design to recognize outstanding achievement in design and production in games and game-related material.

About Paradigm Concepts, Inc

Paradigm Concepts, Inc, is a Florida-based publisher which has been releasing its award-winning games for over a decade. They have previously won the Origin Award for Best Role Playing Supplement for “Codex Arcanis.” For more information, visit www.paradigmconcepts.com/.