Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Interview: Robert Howard of P&PG

You asked for it, so we’re giving it to you. Interviews. Starting this month RPGX is going to start bringing you more interviews with game developers, writers, directors, editors and authors. Anyone you ever wanted to talk to in the gaming industry has made our list. We chased down and bugged everyone we could find.

This month I wrote an article called: Is There Anybody Out There? The Internet's Top 10 "Gamer Finder" Sites In which I named as the number one registry on the internet. Shortly after making the decision of making them “#1” I decided that I would also interview the man responsible for the site’s success. After talking with Mr. Robert Howard, I found him to be a very real sort of gamer / developer. Below is the interview I had with Mr. Howard in which I discovered just how much we had in common as gamers, site founders, and visionaries for the future of gaming.

What first gave you the idea to provide this type of player registry?
When I was “growing up,” the way to find players and games was to go down to the local comic book or hobby shop and tack something up on the bulletin board. Another tactic was to hover around the roleplaying section in the local bookstore for hours browsing books. It was a very time consuming and often unfruitful process.

The web opens up a vast new arena for connecting with people, or social networking if you will--which just happens to be all the rage at the moment. Unfortunately, what I found was that the tools that were out there were kludgy or ill-suited to the task. Finding someone on the WotC forums involved paging through hundreds of pages of posts. Like any enterprising developer—and a gamer that wanted to use these tools myaself—I thought, this can be done so much better, and I know how to do it.

Has it personally helped you locate other players for you own games?
Ironically, by the time that I got the site up and running, my gaming group was pretty solid and I wasn’t looking for any more players. It wasn’t until a year later after I moved to Seattle that I finally had a chance to give it a spin myself. It took under two weeks for me to put a group together from scratch, and I was impressed by how well matched my players and I were.

Did you ever think it would grow as big as it has?
I hoped it would. I felt that I had the best tools available on the web, but even the slickest interface wouldn’t mean anything to someone if they couldn’t find other players to game with. I actually think it will grow a whole lot larger as the word continues to spread about the community we’ve built.

What future plans do you have for improving on the site?
My to-do list of features that I would like to add is extensive. I have literally pages and pages of ideas. Currently though, our main focus is on enhancing the Player Registry and creating more tools for both individual gaming groups and local gaming communities. To this end, we’re actually going to have a pretty major addition to the site in the near future that is going to add a lot of new social-networking type functionality, including the ability for members to carve out a section of the website for their own private or public gaming groups. I’m very excited about it, and I think it is going to be a big boon for our members.

Do you currently or would you consider networking with other sites on a more direct basis to widen the scope of your site or to offer more services?
I think there are a lot of crosspollination opportunities out there for P&PG and other sites. To give an example, I recently ran across a play-by-post (PBP) website that has some amazing tools for PBP gaming. They also have a “game finder” section specifically for their site. My feeling is, why not widen the exposure their PBP games get by bringing in a feed of the games looking for players into the P&PG database. This would help both sites. We’d be able to help our members find more options for online games, and they would be able to reach a wider audience. By the same token, I think we could offer a lot to the publisher websites who would like to provide their members with a great tool for finding other people who play the same game in their area.

What interests do you have outside of role playing?
Well, I have a wonderful wife and two-year old who occupy a lot of my time and attention, and running the P&PG website takes up a fair chunk itself. I’ve actually always been interested in martial arts. When I moved to Seattle, I decided to take it up again, and I joined a phenomenal dojo studying Chito-Ryu style karate. Top that off with a strong passion for computers and fantasy/sci-fi fiction.

Where does the strongest following of the site seem to come from geographically?
The largest group of players registered in a single area would be Dallas/Fort Worth, followed closely by a few others like California and New York.

Would you say that is because P&P gaming is more popular in that area or for some other reason? Dallas is a unique story. While DFW definitely has a large concentration of roleplayers, it is also where the Pen & Paper Games website got its start. When I was first starting the site, I reached out to the Dallas RPG Group organizer, Ron Pyatt, to try to see if he could help spread the word in the Dallas community. He had been looking for a long time for something better than that would be more tailored to the RPG community. Don’t get me wrong, is good at what it does, but their focus is on a larger community in general. Ron even loved the limited prototype that I had built, so we collaborated on merging his group with the larger PnPG community. So, the very first members to join were all brought in en masse from the DFW RPG group.

Have you noticed a particular age group that is attracted to the registry (or P&P gaming)? Most come in somewhere close to my age, between 26 and 35. What really surprised me was that our oldest member is ninety-eight years old. Can you believe that? Our second oldest is eighty-eight. I hope that when I’m that age I am still spry enough to whip it up with the younger folks for a good ole’ jaunt of PnP! Anyway, I’m a report building kind of guy, so I whipped up a quick chart showing our age bracket breakdown if you’re interested.

Allot of people enjoy play by post gaming, does you site currently support an area for this type of playing? Absolutely! We have a number of currently running play-by-post games going on right now, and in fact, we recently added a new integrated forum dice roller to help facilitate online play.

How easy is it to gain access to these types of games and how would you say they differ from P&P style gaming? The play-by-post section is open to all visitors to checkout. Most of the current running games are probably full, but any member is free to request to start their own game on the forums. All they need to do is send an email to or send an IM from their account to Farcaster to get it set up.

As to their differences, play-by-post (PBP) games generally focus on social interactions over strategic play, simply because resolving combat can take a lot of time when strung over a long series of posts. Probably one of the most attractive elements of PBP games to me is that the medium encourages more descriptive language from the players and game master instead of simply rolling the dice and announcing the result. In the interest of full disclosure though, I have never personally played or run a PBP game. I prefer the face to face nature of table-top gaming.

Do you currently attend conventions in (or out) of your area?
Since my move about a year ago, I have not yet attended any major conventions. I have gone to one of the mini-conventions that the Seattle D&D Group sponsors, which was a lot of fun. Pen & Paper Games has been pleased to help sponsor several RPG conventions recently though, including NOLACon in New Orleans and TempleCon in Providence, Rhode Island. Sadly, I couldn’t attend personally, however.

Would P&PG be interested in making an appearance at some con's to help boost it's visibility. (Possibly with RPGX as a joint effort?) I’d love to. Just ping me with the details. I’ve actually been looking for an excuse to come back down to Dallas – Seattleites have no concept of good Tex-Mex and I’m dying for some fajitas!

As an aside, Pen & Paper Games is also happy to help promote conventions, big or small, by getting the word out to our members when there are conventions coming up in their area. Organizers interested in a co-sponsorship opportunity should email us at

Best estimate: How many people would you expect to be on the registry by the end of 2008. These things are really difficult to estimate. Currently we have over three thousand player profiles, and if things were to continue at their current place, we’d probably have somewhere around five thousand by the end of the year. However, often these things tend to snowball as the word starts to get out. And honestly, I think this is going to be a break-out year for Pen & Paper Games. Even in the first few months of 2008, our community forums have been exploding with activity way beyond my expectations.

Do you work in the games industry full time or do you have a day job like the rest of us geeks? In real live, I’m a mild mannered reporter. Well, not exactly mild mannered. And, I’m technically a “report developer.” Not to get too technical, but I am a database developer for a major telecommunications company.

How long have you been playing pen/paper (and other) type games?
I got my first introduction to roleplaying games at about ten years old. Ever heard of Bard’s Tale? I used to play that game for hours—or even days at a time—on my Commodore 64. It opened me up to a whole new world of gaming. I enjoyed it so much; it was actually my step-father who suggested I should check out Dungeons and Dragons. So, around twelve, I picked up the old “Red Box Set,” and began my lifelong addiction. I’ve been playing now for somewhere around twenty years.

What is your favorite game / genre?
I’m very partial to fantasy, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. It’s where I got my start, and where I am most comfortable weaving interesting stories for my players. I occasionally enjoy a jaunt into other genres, but I always end up returning to my favorite standby.

What advice do you have for RPGX or any other person out there trying to be successful at creating something useful and unique to the gaming industry or Internet? I have to admit that it feels a bit strange to be asked that question. I don’t count myself amongst the greats. Nor do I see myself as particularly savvy when it comes to things like marketing or strategizing. What I did have is an idea on how it could be done better. I think that in the vast expanse of the internet, innovation is the key. If you do the same thing every one else is doing, its difficult to stand out in the crowd. This is particularly true if you’re an upstart like P&PG without the benefit of thousands of advertising dollars.

Second, the old adage, “If you build it, they will come,” is bunk when it comes to the web. You can’t just put up a site and wait for your audience to find you. P&PG has spent a grand total of perhaps a couple hundred dollars or so on advertising over the past year and a half, but we have spent a lot of time networking with other sites and gaming communities to help get the word out there. This has been critical in helping build the community.

I had a great time working with Mr. Howard an have started discussing the possibility of adding him on to the RPGX crew as a casual writer. Keep an eye on the site for more works by this person here at RPGX.