Friday, October 21, 2005

Interview: K. Scott Agnew of Morrigan Press

Today I'm going to switch gears from my usual reviews and rambling on about SF stuff. Today I'm going to post an interview I recently did with K. Scott Agnew of Morrigan Press. Morrigan Press is a Pen & Paper Role Playing Game company located in Canada. Don't know what a Role Playing Game is? Then click on over to for more info.

Name: K. Scott Agnew
Hometown: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
Favorite Food: fettucine alfredo
Favorite TV Shows: Jeremiah, Firefly, Lost, Over There, Out of Order
Favorite Movies: Fight Club, Rules of Attraction, Waking Life

Marx Pyle: Please explain how you first became involved with role playing games, both as a player and as a game designer.

K. Scott Agnew: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... Well not really another galaxy but it was a long time ago. I started roleplaying with a buddy of mine back in 1979 at the tender age of 10. My friend received the old D&D boxed sets for xmas (the basic and expert sets with the Erol Otis covers) and we went from there. After surviving the perils of the Keep on the Borderland and exploring the Isle of Dread we moved onto AD&D and probably played every published adventure between 1980 and 1987 along with tons of our own design. We were there when TSR released the Forgotten Realms (having read about Ed Greenwood's world in Dragon magazine for years) and revelled in Dragonlance (I played Tas through all DL modules). We also played a lot of Gamma World and Star Frontiers with a smattering of Top Secret thrown in for good measure. Non-TSR games of interest also included Traveller, Twilight 2000, Talislanta, Jorune, and later the original WHFRPG.

From late high school onwards, I turned more and more to my own creations and less on published material. University saw a slew of world building on my part. After Uni, things took a downturn when it came to RPGs for me. The day to day struggle of finding a job not to mention marriage and children meant little to no time for playing games. That said, the world building continued throughout the 90's even though playing RPGs had pretty much ceased. For me, world building is a hobby unto its self. I credit my fantasy worlds and sci-fi galaxies with keeping me sane in an otherwise hectic and tumultuous period of my life. It was my sole creative outlet at the time the corporate world was trying its hardest to suck my soul dry. When D&D 3.0 was released, I, like many lapsed gamers, got back into the hobby again. This also coincided with a point in my life that saw stability return. I was working in a good job with excellent income, my wife had graduated law school a few years earlier and the kids were growing and content. While still not playing nearly as much as I had in my youth, RPGs were back for me.

How I got into the industry is a bit of a weird story. I was sitting watching TV one night when I stumbled upon a show called Jeremiah (on The Movie Network here in Canada. It's a Showtime series in the US). It intrigued me and in the coming weeks I found myself anxiously awaiting the next episode. One day in late 2003 I was watching Jeremiah and thought to myself: "myself, this would make an awesome RPG setting." so I walked 20 feet to my computer and did a quick Google search. I found that the Jeremiah intellectual property was owned by Platinum Studios (the guys behind Men in Black) and shot an email to the head of the company and the executive producer of the TV show. Long story short, within a week I was on the phone with Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and began negotiating for the RPG rights to Jeremiah. Now keep in mind, I don't have a company at this point nor do I know the first thing about publishing. Anyway, I got the rights but rather than make a piss-poor attempt at creating and publishing an RPG, I opted to find a publishing partner which is where Mongoose Publishing comes in. Since Mongoose already had Babylon 5 and Jeremiah was created by the same person who created B5, they agreed to publish the Jeremiah RPG. While designing Jeremiah I also began exploring and doing research into publishing and by the time the Jeremiah game was nearing completion, took the big step of creating Morrigan Press.

Marx Pyle: Why did you create your own role playing game company? Also, why was it named Morrigan Press?

K. Scott Agnew: While working on Jeremiah was fun and educational, I quickly discovered that working as freelance game designer was NOT going to pay the bills. By this time I had given up on the Dilbert lifestyle of the IT industry and wanted to do something on my own. I've always had a strong independent streak and so starting my own business was very appealing. So, I did the research, wrote a 40+ page business plan, secured both private financing and bank loans and started up Morrigan. I named the company Morrigan Press after the Celtic goddess of battle and death. Being of Scottish descent, I've always had an affinity for things Celtic and this goddess seemed an appropriate name for an RPG company. Since then we've grown to have several fulltime employees and an army of regular freelancers.

Marx Pyle: How did your company come up with the idea of creating the Omni System rule mechanics? Also, why did Morrigan Press decide to go this route instead of using d20?

K. Scott Agnew: I knew new game companies come and go on a regular basis and had no desire to become one of these statistics. I also started this company as a full-time job and not a hobby I do on the side. With this in mind, I knew we needed to find an anchor in the form of a license so gamers who might not have heard of Morrigan Press would still be familiar with our products. I was a fan of Talislanta "back in the day" and immediately sought out this property. It seems my timing was perfect because the previous publisher of Talislanta had run into trouble because of the Wizard's Attic fiasco. Again, long story short, I basicaly bought them out and secured the license to Talislanta from the game's creator, Stephan Michael Sechi.

We rebuilt Talislanta and quickly released several new books after fans had only had 2 releases in the previous 10 years. While I had always been a fan of the setting, I quickly learned that the new 4th Edition rules for Tal were incredibly elegant and easy to use. The magic system in particular is a masterpiece IMHO. Why Talislanta is not a blockbuster RPG is a result of what I consider one of its strengths. The world is weird and alien to most gamers. There are no elves, dwarves or halflings to be found but yet there are over 40 playable races. Gamers either love this or hate it. The alien-ess of Tal meant that many gamers would not try it. They wanted to Toliken-fantasy staples.

So, with that in mind, I decided the system itself was masterfull and so we went to work redesigning and adding to it to divorce it from the setting of Talislanta. The result was Omni. While the core mechanics are based on the TaL4 system, we made many changes to make the system generic instead of tied to a specific setting or even genre of game.

As to d20, we explored that route. Our first book was actually a d20 edition of Talislanta. It sold extremely well but we knew the d20 system was not the perfect fit for Tal so we opted to maintain the Tal4 system as well and have dual-statted adventures and sourcebooks for both systems. Over the past 2 years, we have witnessed the steady decline in d20 sales and opted instead to take something we already had (the Tal system) and turn it into a competitor to d20 rather than try and carve out a decreasing slice of the d20 pie for ourselves.

Marx Pyle: Has it been hard for Omni System products to compete in this d20/OGL dominated marketplace?

K. Scott Agnew: Not even close. While still in the early days of the system, Omni has been selling very well, surpassing our initial expectations by a considerable amount. With the decline of d20, gamers seem to be exploring other systems again and Omni is about as elegant as the come. For those who like the roleplaying aspect of these games, Omni is perfect. It's rules light and there is no need for a stack of 20 books to play a game. In fact, once a player has memorized a 5 line table, there is no need to open a book during play. On top of this, we have also listened to gamers over the past couple of years complaining about the rising price of game books. Do you need a hardcover, glossy color pages and Todd Lockwood or Ron Spencer art in every book to enjoy a game? We think not and so opted to produce Omni books with excellent production values but without all the bells and whistles that other companies are currently using. This keeps our expenses a bit lower and we can in turn sell books at $20 instead of $40.

Marx Pyle: What do you think of d20 and the OGL? Do you think it has been a good thing for role playing games?

K. Scott Agnew: Absolutely! It re-energized the industry in a big way. The OGL in particular is an excellent idea and I've always liked the idea of publishers coopertaing to make better games and the OGL is one way that is possible. While our games are not intended for the d20 market, we still use the OGL and have been able to adapt d20 Open Content for some of our games like High Medieval.

Marx Pyle: Does the Omni System use the OGL?

K. Scott Agnew: Yes and no. We do publish Omni under the OGL but the core mechanics are deemed Product Identity and therefore closed. Our skills, talents and equipment sections are normally released as Open Content though. Creature stats on the new Atlantis Bestiary are also being released as Opne Content as well. We do license the core Omni mechanics to interested publishers but we have no intention of putting the entire system out there under the OGL. The Open sections of Omni books allow publishers to use a common set of skills, talents, creatures, etc while keeping the core of the system under our control through a separate license.

Marx Pyle: What do you believe are some of Omni System's strengths, as compared to other d20 games, including d20 "spin-offs" like True20, Spycraft 2.0, and Anime d20?

K. Scott Agnew: Omni is not a d20 spin-off. That's said, the Omni System requires only a single d20 to play and I think that is why some people confuse Omni with d20. Unlike d20, Omni is a rule-lite game.

Marx Pyle: What do you believe are some of Omni Systems strengths, as compared to other non-d20 games, such as GURPS, Unisystem, or the Action! System?

K. Scott Agnew: Elegance. Omni is a rules-lite system that let's players simply have fun playing the game without the need for searches through multiple tomes of rules. The whole system fits into one 160 page book. That's all you need to play really (assuming you are using a homebrew setting). There is one single mechanic used for all task resolution be that skill use, combat or spell casting. There are no classes or levels and players actually construct their own "class" as part of character creation. It can also be used in any genre with little to no modification required. We have books currently in production for the horror, sci-fi, super hero, japanese, steampunk and modern genres with others coming behind those.

Marx Pyle: Will Morrigan Press be creating any other d20/OGL products, or will all future books be made with the Omni System?

K. Scott Agnew: At this point I think we'll be sticking with Omni for the forseeable future. I believe the d20 bubble has burst and while I have nothing against the d20 system, I don't believe it is the be-all and end-all of gaming systems. It works great for D&D and Sprcraft and Star Wars but that doesn't mean all games need to be d20. Vive le difference! Talislanta products will continue to be dual-statted for d20 and the recently released Talislanta Menagerie contains over 300 Talislanta creatures complete with d20 stats for each. We've actually found that we are selling more of these to d20 players looking for new monsters than we are to Tal fans.

Marx Pyle: Currently, what are some of your strongest products, and what does Morrigan Press have planned for the future?

K. Scott Agnew: The core Omni System and Atlantis: The Second Age are our two strongest products right now. Talislanta continues to have a strong and loyal fanbase but the new Omni genre sourcebooks and Atlantis are currently our growth lines. Atlantis is about as deep a setting as you'll ever find and it actually covers the entire globe (our own globe in a bygone age). We had a limited release at GenCon and nearly sold out but this print run was flawed with some binding issues and so we are now waiting for the second print run to return from printing so we can get the game into general distribution.

Marx Pyle: Thanks again for agreeing to the interview.

K. Scott Agnew: Thank you for listening to me ramble (or read me ramble I guess).

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