First off, feel free to tell us about the guy behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet, that sort of thing!
I’m Rob Justice and there is a chance readers may have heard about me from my podcasts. I was the creator and host of the Bear Swarm! Podcast for around five years before moving on to the BS! Radio network last year. Now I’m hosing the irregular BS! Podcast and just started a new show, Digging for Diamonds, with RPG creator John Wick about watching crappy media and pulling out good stories for your games. You can check it all out at www.BS-Radio.com
I was born and raised in Minnesota but moved to Missouri when I was twenty-two. I just turned thirty and live outside of Kansas City, MO with my wonderful fiancee (who also proofreads what I write, except for this sentence…). We’re planning on getting married in May, on the anniversary of our first date. Outside of my romantic life, I work as a web developer from eight to five then come home to our two cats, Dr. Girlfriend and Triana Orpheus.
Tell us about Gotham Reborn in a nutshell.
Gotham Reborn is the latest installment in a long-running series of games set in Gotham City. It takes place in a world where Bane didn’t just break Batman, but murdered him. In the backstory for the campaign all the other major superheroes were cleared from the playing field too. It’s a world without Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, or even Green Arrow. The Justice League is gone and the players are the new crop of Vigilantes rising up to protect Gotham City.
The game itself is run episodically and I treat every game session as an episode of a TV series. In between the games I encourage players to write Character Journals detailing events of the episodes from their perspectives and I write little single scenes to add new details or tie episodes together in the form of Webisodes.
There’s a lot of batman-ness going on here, how long has this game been running? How long have you known your players?
The game started it’s life as Gotham Nights, which ran from February 2011 to January 2012, covering 20 episodes including one Christmas special. Then I launched a spin-off series called Gotham Days from February 2012 to July 2012 which was 10 episodes long. I had plans to do a third spin-off titled Gotham Burns but I ended up moving and leaving my old gaming group behind.
At the begining of January 2014 I started Gotham Reborn and we just wrapped up Season 1 with Episode 8 at the end of February 2014. I hope to return and do Season 2 eventually, but we’re taking a little break to explore other universes next. I’ve been living in Gotham for three years now and could use a little break.
My original gaming group (which played Gotham Nights and Gotham Days) was down in Springfield, MO and there were around a dozen people in the game throughout the years. Some I’d known since the first week I lived in Springfield and others I had only met a few days before they started gaming with us. I tend to have a particular style of gaming so my groups are constantly expanding or shedding players that don’t mesh with the rest.
My current group (which played Gotham Reborn) is a hodgepodge of people. Most, if not all, are listeners of my podcasts. Some of them I’ve held correspondence with for years and others I only met when they expressed interest in this game. Out of the seven players, I’ve met only two in person.
How regularly do you play, and where do you play? (If you play online, do you use any certain tools to accomplish your gaming such as Google hangouts, roll20, etc.)
We play every Friday night at 8pm, CST via Google Hangouts. Observers to our games are always welcome too, we just ask you mute your microphones while we play. You can find a link to our Hangout on the portal. With Hangouts we use an add-in app called DiceStream for rolling dice, displaying lower thirds, tracking points, and other basic stuff. I had looked into other tools, like Roll20, but since I don’t do mapping they ended up being more cumbersome than I wanted.
What are your favorite aspects of the cortex system? What are some of its strengths and weaknesses?
Let me clear up something; I hate Cortex. Cortex is the engine that powers games like Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Supernatural. What I’m a fan of is Cortex+. I know, it seems nit-picky. But when you dig into it they are very different games. Cortex+ was introduced with Leverage and used for Smallville, Marvel Heroic, and the upcoming Firefly game. I bring all this up because it’s important to understand when I start talking about the system’s strengths.
Leverage, Smallville, Marvel Heroic, and Firefly are four very different games with a similar feel. It’s not just a re-skinned D20 system; each game actually encourages different behaviors. Leverage (later dubbed Cortex+ Action) does fantastic action games. Smallville (Cortex+ Drama) does character dramas like no other game I’ve seen. Marvel Heroic (Cortex+ Heroic) feels like a comic book with action every few pages.
The downside to all of this is there is very little transitional knowledge. Some of the terms may look familiar but they may function differently across the games. This means that no matter what Cortex+ game you’re playing there is a learning curve. More so when you have to deal with confusion. For example, every game has a trait called Distinctions but these are different things in each game. Distinctions in Action and Heroic are short phrases that you can roll a d8 for if they are in your favor or a d4 if they aren’t. Distinctions in Dramatic are rated between d4 and d12 and have special abilities that can be used when purchased at the d4, d8, and d12 levels.
In short, Cortex+’s greatest strength is its flexibility to capture different feelings. Its greatest weakness, is its flexibility leading to confusion between products.
The campaign site looks very clean and is easy to navigate, there isn’t much custom CSS here, or at all is there?
There is a bit of CSS. Mostly used to clean up a few things and present a more cohesive look. For example, I don’t like character pages re-sizing to fit the window so I set hard limits on those. This way I can get a uniform character sheet look across the board and not have to worry about monitor resolutions moving things around.
Not to sidetrack too much, but I’m actually opposed to campaign portals that use CSS to radically change the look of the site. To me, Obsidian Portal presents a language to it’s users. I should be able to go from campaign to campaign and be able to quickly and easily navigate the site. When sites start re-arranging things and creating sections I’m not expecting it’s like being confronted with a foreign language. It might be beautiful, but I don’t know what you’re saying. I want people to come to my game’s portal, recognize the landmarks, and speak the same language.
Where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game? How much time do you usually take to prepare for a session?
The big obvious one is comic books. One of my favorite things to do in the Gotham games is to present the players with situations that Batman dealt with and see how they handle it. Movies and TV series also play a huge role. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a good inspiration for the more “real” Gotham that I wanted to present. Music is also a big factor for me; I like to give my NPC’s theme songs that express something about them that you wouldn’t normally expect.
I prep in small bursts throughout my week, usually sitting down for an hour or two on Thursday nights to button everything up. For my game I write opening scenes to set the stage, then run most of my sessions from outline. I keep notes about the things I want to cover but for the most part I let my players set up their own scenes, describe their environment, and move the game along. I only step in when there is a lull or I need to push something forward.
Aside from Cortex I’m sure you have played other systems too, if so, which ones?
Haha. I’ve played hundreds of games. Way too many to name here. How about I just talk about some of my favorites? I started with the Red Box for AD&D but it wasn’t until Shadowrun and Rifts that I really started to get into the medium. The various World of Darkness games introduced me to a more dramatic style of roleplaying and were a go-to for years. Dogs in the Vineyard was a real game changer for me by introducing the concept of a bad roll being a good thing. I fell for Houses of the Blooded so hard that I got its cover tattooed on my left calf.
Dungeon World introduced me to the first D&D game I actually liked. Sword Noir has been my choice for hard-boiled fantasy since I was introduced to it. Our Last Best Hope was the first GM-less game I found that actually works (and is generally a brilliant game). Spark helped me realize parts of games I’ve always been missing but never knew I needed. I’m sure I’m missing some, but those are the big highlights for me.
So the game wholly takes place in Gotham City, do your players ever venture out?
Nope. Gotham City is as much of a character as any of the NPC’s or even players. The kinds of people that are at home in Gotham just don’t fit into a Metropolis or Central City setting.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
I had to check my profile. Member Since: December 05, 2007. Pretty close to the beginning, I think. Obsidian Portal started around 2006? I honestly don’t remember how I found the site, but it has changed how I run games. As a web developer I live 90% of my life online so storing all my game information online has always made sense. Before Obsidian Portal I would setup micro-sites for my games but it was always more work than it was worth. It was just easier to jot my notes in a notebook. Obsidian Portal’s wiki system worked great for me when I first started using it and has only gotten better over time. Honestly, I keep coming back because I don’t know how to run a game without it now, haha.
Now that the Reforging has been live for a little while now, what are your favorite parts?
I’ll be honest, I have a terrible memory. I don’t really remember much of Obsidian Portal before the Reforging. It’s been such a vast improvement that I just let myself forget the way it used to be. Since I’m not big into a lot of custom CSS my transition was smooth and the things I had to change were only for the better.
I don’t really have favorite parts, but I have things that I see so much potential in. I guess my favorite part will be seeing how the site grows in the future. I think there are so many great things that can be done and I can’t wait to see everything.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from Gotham Reborn has been so far?
The biggest highlight, for me, is anytime the Jape character shows up in the game. He’s a cop who survived Joker Toxin and now has a horrible rictus grin and laughs uncontrollably. The character is hilarious, creepy, and brilliant. Everyone loves it whenever the Jape shows up but we never know if we’re going to be holding our sides or shuttering from the horror. The player is an absolutely wonderful guy to game with and just seeing him show up is the biggest highlight for me.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.
GM’s, talk to your $&#@% players. Players, talk to your $&#@% GM. Almost every single problem I’ve ever had people bring to me has been resolved with a conversation. Your game is going to be so much better if you can trust everyone at your table, let them in on your thoughts, and work together to tell an amazing story.