John “The Gneech” Robey, author of The Perfect Warrior, recently commented on my post about the 20th Anniversary Edition via Google+. I asked him for an interview and he was kind enough to take the time to chat with me about the best RPG ever. The interview went as follows.
SFRPG.com: Good Morning Mr. Robey, I’m Matt Meade, I run the fan page sfrpg.com. Thanks so much for getting back with me. It was quite a surprise to see you comment on one of my articles!
John Robey: Hiya! :) What can I say, I loved Street Fighter. ;) I don’t know how much I’ll be able to tell you about the game, I was a freelancer who came to it by way of Mage (and of course it was a billion years ago). But I’ll answer what questions I can.
SFRPG.com: Mage was my first White Wolf game and I loved it! So how did you make the transition? Did they just give you the assignment or was a Street Fighter adventure up for grabs and you pounced?
John Robey: Phil Brucato, the Mage line developer, was a member of my gaming group when we were at college in Richmond, and both of us were friends with Bill Bridges, the Werewolf line developer. So Phil tapped me for some Mage work, but I was never a good fit with the whole World of Darkness setting or ethos, tending to be more of a Lovecraftian/Howardian at heart. My memory is that Phil recommended me to James Estes (the SF line developer) because Phil had been a player in my Champions game and knew that martial arts was something I was into. (Phil and I both have a shared love for Kung Fu Action Theater-style schlock… if you can find the movie “Chinese Super Ninjas” sometime, I highly recommend it!)
Anyway, as soon as I heard there was a Street Fighter RPG, I was in love. ;) James and I spoke over the phone a few times about what products were in the pipeline and where we wanted to go with it, and from there we were off to the races. My memory is that Steven Long (who was just starting to make a splash with his Champions material about then) was also getting involved at that stage. We were going to do a great big Storyteller’s Guide next, before the plug was pulled, and we were talking about all sorts of crazy things we could do with that, like animal companions, probably some rules errata, etc.
The biggest problem with SF from a developer point of view is that we were constantly in a rush. We’d go from outline to draft to layout over the course of weeks, so there was almost no editing or play testing, and unfortunately it shows. There are some seriously broken combos floating around in there! But given the history of the actual Street Fighter game and franchise, that’s strangely appropriate. (SF2 invented the “combo” by accident as a programming glitch, for instance.)
SFRPG.com: Animal companions and rules errata? Sounds like the Storytellers Guide would have been awesome! (Maybe Blind Fighting would have been explained in there as well, lol)
Speaking of errata, there has been some confusion amongst players about calculating the damage for Rising Storm Crow and I would kick myself if I forgot to ask for clarification right from the horses mouth :-)
(Basically we’re not sure if the Grab rating factors into the math in the usual way, or at all)
John Robey: To be completely honest, I’d have to re-learn the system to answer that! :) But I can at least give you the thinking behind the maneuver as I remember it, which was that it was intended to be a sort of charging throw. Its real advantage was not that it did a pile of damage (remember that the MC style assumes a high STR in the first place), but that it has the potential to do damage twice, and that you could throw somebody from two squares away– “Suplex from across the room!”
Damage was intended to be figured as with any other maneuver, and it was based on the Thigh Press, which simply lists damage as “+4.” Assuming Thigh Press damage is Str + Grab + 4, then the RSC damage should be one set of (Str + Grab – 3) and one set of ([Str x 2] + Grab). As the page you linked to notes, it’s a great but gimmicky fight opener, intended to become a player’s signature move without being a game breaker.
And we certainly thought the Storytellers Guide was going to be awesome. :D Unfortunately, it never got beyond the brainstorming stage.
SFRPG.com: That’s pretty enlightening, thanks!
You’ve mentioned how tight the deadlines were. Anything stick out in your mind that wanted to add or would have done differently if you had a ton of time to complete it?
John Robey: My biggest regret was that I was kinda “flying blind” when it came to game mechanics and couldn’t do any real play testing. I ran a few sessions of the game with starter characters, and if I remember correctly I also did an evening’s worth of storyless arena-fights with characters of various power levels (up to World Warrior level) to see what the game felt like at different levels. But other than that I was too busy writing to actually do any playing, which is not really the best way to do robust game design. Probably if we’d been able to get some editorial or player feedback, for instance, the question about the Rising Storm Crow would have been raised before it got published. ;)
I was a veteran game-master by that point, so coming up with adventure plots and campaign elements was fairly easy; it was making sure the numbers all worked that I would really have liked a little more time to flesh out. That, and I would have liked to address the “spam an unbeatable combo” problem somewhere in the gamemaster/campaign advice world. I remember in particular, one of my playtesters had a maneuver that let him interrupt an incoming attack, do some damage, and move away. So when he came up against a foe who only had a melee attack, all he did was spam that move over and over again. In a solo fight, nobody could hit him without a ranged attack, and just got beat up if they tried. It was annoying, and it made the fight last forever, but it was also unbeatable using the “maneuver cards” framework as written so I couldn’t really fault him for using it. So one of the things I wanted to figure out, was some method of preventing a maneuver from being used more than twice in a row, or some other solution to the problem.
It was sort of a corner case– most fights were teams against teams rather than single-spar matches– but it pointed at a larger potential flaw, in my opinion.
Also, this topic just made me remember, animal hybrid characters was another item we were talking about putting into the Storyteller’s Guide. It was connected to the animal companion rules, and sort of a stealth way of sneaking bits from Werewolf in, using Blanca as a template for how such creatures might come to populate the campaign world. I was hoping to do a whole “Street Fighter Does Island of Dr. Moreau By Way of Enter the Dragon” adventure based on the idea. :)
SFRPG.com: Yeah I always thought it was funny that the animal hybrids section in the PHB made no mention or update of Blanka!
Perfect Warrior is a very complete and well done adventure in my opinion. Kudos for pulling that off while “flying blind”!
For those of us not familiar with the professional game design process, how much of The Perfect Warrior came straight out of your head?
Did White Wolf just say: “Write an adventure.” and let you go crazy?
Or is it more like: “Write a 60 page adventure for a moderately powerful group, that introduces a non-Bison villain, a rival team, and works a new Style and Maneuver into the story.”?
Were any of the story elements or characters lifted from your own personal sessions as a veteran game-master, (like Tracy Hickman often did for Dragonlance)?
John Robey: Thanks! :) Like I said, the story part was fairly easy– I started running D&D when I was 10 or 11 and was fortunate to spend my college years with some top-notch players, so I had a fair idea of what was needed on a narrative scale.
If I remember correctly, I was asked for an adventure pitch to match the title “The Perfect Warrior” and told that it should be an international chase to rescue the last teacher of a lost art. There might have been as much as the whole back-cover-blurb, but I don’t think so. I want to say that the back cover blurb is what I wrote to pitch the story idea, actually, combined with a rough outline. I tried to find my original notes, but alas, they’ve been lost to the vagaries of time. I did find my manuscript marked up with James’s editorial revisions, in which he mentions that he’s aware that working on Perfect Warrior will conflict with the deadline I already had for the work I was doing on Contenders and that I should finish PW first. That’s the kind of schedule we were on! He also liked that I added rules for Languages in Street Fighter, which I had forgotten that I did. ;D
James praised the manuscript for bringing depth to Street Fighter, but also asked me to tone down my “breezy” writing style for being occasionally distracting and lacking in finesse. Which is a fair cop. ;)
Pulling out my old copy and flipping through it, tho, here are the bits I remember:
The Phoenix, with his whole “Ancient Egypt shall rise again!” nuttery, was basically inspired by Bond villains. In fact, “Street Fighter does Bond movie” was kinda my touchstone for the whole thing. I had taken a course in Egyptology at VCU, and my instructor for that class was perhaps a bit… eccentric… which is kinda where that came from. James told me to really play up The Phoenix’s insanity: it was important to Capcom that we make it very clear that no villains could ever rival M. Bison, so we had to pitch strong that The Phoenix was insane to even think he could.
The Plot Outline in the Introduction is almost word-for-word the outline I used to pitch the book, I think. Or certainly very close.
Belgium! I started the adventure in Brussels as a nod to both Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Hercule Poirot, as I am a fan of both. :) The whole train sequence was a nod to Murder on the Orient Express.
Kierkegaard the Weather Station Guard Dog was named after a wolf puppet I had. The puppet, in turn, was named after the philosopher.
Lester Bertani, the handlebar-mustachioed kung fu master, was modeled vaguely on John L. Sullivan as portrayed in the Errol Flynn movie “Gentleman Jim”.
James was worried about the dramatic confrontation between Master Xaudo and the Phoenix at the beginning of chapter four, saying (quite rightly) that long stretches of NPCs talking while PCs stood around watching didn’t really make for engaging play. I would never write that scene like that now, and probably should have chopped it (or at least seriously condensed it) then. It was James’s concerns that prompted me to add the sidebar about “Schizophrenic Roleplaying” (which is also something I wouldn’t write now, the terminology is pretty offensive).
Tossing Cammy into the adventure was my idea, mainly because she’s my favorite World Warrior and I generally find that in licensed settings, players LOOOVE to meet celebrities (as long as the players get to stay the stars of the show). :) I ran a Star Wars campaign with a Jedi character who was Luke Skywalker’s apprentice and loved every minute of it.
Sadly, I never got to actually run Perfect Warrior. :D Nothing in it came directly from my table, although there are echoes in there of characters from other games I ran. “Backhand Bonnie Brown” is a plucky scrapper gal, which is an archetype I’m always fond of… Bonnie’s just nastier than most of the others I’ve written. Fixer, the silent, steady second in command was physically modeled after my brother (except for the white hair, that was just a flourish); Herc Harrison and Sanjo were me digging into my own neuroses to find villains.
…which I guess is a long-winded way of saying, “It was pretty much just me makin’ stuff up.” ;)
SFRPG.com: I definitely got the Bond vibe playing through, and the spy gadgets and poisons you added come in handy in other adventures as well.
Speaking of The Perfect Warrior interfering with your Contenders deadline, what parts of Contenders did you work on?
Were deadlines just always tight at White Wolf or did it have to do with the Street Fighter licensing expiring soon?
John Robey: Deadlines were always tight at WW; Street Fighter just turned that up to 11. Other lines had a stable of writers, but for SF, it was basically James, Steve and me, plus whoever else they could wrangle, and they were trying to build a body of work quickly, hoping that would help the license to get renewed.
On Contenders, I created The Crusher, Drakis, Sarah Lewis, Jackie Quace, and Dr. Lao; I also wrote about 60% of the Styles chapter and the weapon list under the Duelists section. I also know for a fact that Phil Brucato created Gonzo Bob Hellstrom, because he was originally an NPC in one of our Champions campaigns. :)
I love the cover of Contenders– of all the SF line, I thought it really best captured the spirit of Street Fighter.
SFRPG.com: Backhand Bonnie Brown’s idea of a perfect date?
John Robey: Good question! She’s got such a nasty temperament, it’s hard to imagine her liking anybody enough to date them. Maybe another villain team boss? Her idea of a good time is breaking things or hurting people, so her ideal date is probably joyriding in a stolen car and smashing all the windows as she rides down the street. The closest thing she has to an emotional connection is Fixer, and that’s more a matter of they understand each other than having anything like affection for each other.
SFRPG.com: By the way, what does “Gneech” mean?
John Robey: In the novel Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster, “gneechees” are creatures attracted to magic, that you can only see out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn to look at them there’s nothing there. I was given the nickname in high school, for reasons I can only speculate on. ;) I suspect it’s because I had a tendency to show up unexpectedly, and to leave without warning.
SFRPG.com: Well you’ve been great and the detail in your answers really paints a picture of what it’s like behind the scenes. Thanks for your time! I guess that about wraps it up.
Shameless self promotion time, what have you been working on lately? Where can we see your work?
Any final thoughts?
John Robey: My pleasure! :) I’m always happy to talk about Street Fighter, it was a great game. I’ll also go out on a limb and say the movie was completely underrated, too. ;) The movie’s landing with a thud didn’t kill the RPG, but the movie being a hit might have saved it.
In any case! These days I write and create comics. My current series can be found here: http://roughhouse.surburbanjungle.com
I also have a blog with my writing, gaming stuff, and art, at http://gneech.com. I have recently really got into the new edition of D&D and depending on the new OGL/licensing schema, I’m hoping to start putting out some third-party adventures for it.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane! Feel free to toss me a note anytime, and good luck with the anniversary edition.
Edit 11/25/14, questions from the sf:stg Yahoo Group
neonon22 asks: Back when Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game was released, it seems like it was pitched towards grabbing new roleplayers and was considered an odd fit in comparison with the darker toned World of Darkness games they were publishing at the time. On the other hand, it seemed to be one of the earlier games that were about crazy pulp action, like the later Feng Shui or even White Wolf’s Exalted which supported a more free-wheeling style of over-the-top stunts and so on. As far as you can tell, what was the general feeling around White Wolf regarding Street Fighter at the time? What are your feelings about it today?Have you played any Street Fighter since back in the day?
John Robey: I was never an insider at WW, so I can only say that the impression I got was SF was considered a niche product at best. WW had a strong “roleplaying is SRS BZNS” streak, and it colored everything they did. Certainly the early days of Mage as Phil and I talked about it were more wild and wooly than the game actually became over time. (We started with the Dresden Files and ended up with The Matrix. Go fig.) I particularly remember that the Technomancers were much more fun in our brainstorming sessions than they were in the actual pages of the books. I can’t say with any real authority why that is, although there was a story that someone once asked Mark Rein*Hagen if he’d been beaten up by a machine as a child. ;)
You can certainly see SF trying to cleave to the WW aesthetic in spots… the long and often pretentious pullout quotes at the front of chapters, the mud-and-blood-spattery art, the angst, etc. What made that work was that the Street Fighter game also had its share of melodrama, mixed in with the bright colors and the fireballs. Much of the SF anime is very heavy, for instance, so really your game could go that way if you were so inclined and you’d be doing it right. For myself, I always preferred the high adventure aspect. I saw Street Fighter as basically being a superhero game with a martial arts skin and I was always looking for ways to punch it up.
My feelings about SF today are much the same. :) I love it, and would love to be a player in a game. My regular group has tried to revive it a few times under different GMs (including the aforementioned jetpacks scenario), but for some reason it just never sticks. Some of it is player personalities, I think, and some of it may be the dice pool game mechanics, which have never really been a good fit with our group. I considered trying to do a HERO System version of the game, but ended up deciding the work would not be worth the enjoyment I’d get out of it.
That said, I bought a bunch of the WizKids SF miniatures and I still nurture hopes of needing them for something someday. ;)
outlaws76 asks: Ironically, my gaming group is going through Perfect Warrior now in our Street Fighter campaign! (We alternate campaigns each week.) So tell him it is still being played and enjoyed. The group is about to face down Phoenix.
I’d ask him if he remembers what kind of wacky hijinks the playtest groups got up to. Sounds like there might be some fun gaming stories there.
John Robey: Awesome! :D Tell ‘em to kick that guy’s butt, he’s a jerk. ;)
The playtest groups, such as they were, didn’t do much wacky hijinking. But much later, I was a player in a short-lived campaign where we were basically acting as unwitting agents for a shadowy crimefighting organization, and we ended up assaulting a Shadaloo compound by jumping in off of a blimp, wearing jetpacks. That was a cool adventure. :)
In the compound, we found giant tanks full of mutant monsters being bred by mad scientists, which of course all came busting out and tried to kill us. Fun times, fun times. ;)