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SF Interviews

An interview with Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg

by James Maliszewski

November 22, 1999

Interview with Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg
by James Maliszewski

By now, most readers of RPGnet's Science Fiction Corner should know that I really like Holistic Design's Fading Suns. Not only is it one of the more original and unique SF RPGs to come along it a while, it is strongly supported and boasts an impressive line of supplementary material. Recently, I asked a few questions of its creators, Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg.

What was the initial idea that sparked the creation of Fading Suns? Was there an initial idea?

Bill:The initial idea came from the computer game, Emperor of the Fading Suns. HDI wanted to do a new strategy game and, having already done settings historical (Machiavelli the Prince) and mythic (Hammer of the Gods), it was time to do science! fiction. Andrew and I both wanted to develop a science fiction universe, so the computer game and the rpg grew together.

Andrew: Bill and I had long wanted to create a roleplaying game that would show humans at their most and least noble. When we met up with the guys from HDI, the idea of putting this in a science fiction setting came up. We basically wanted to put all the stuff we most love about science fiction into a game that had some real depth to it. The Emperor of the Fading Suns computer game is about how to solidify humanity without destroying it, and the roleplaying game gets to play with this theme as well as many others.

What are the greatest literary or cinematic influences on the creation of Fading Suns?

Bill: I'm asked that a lot, and it's a long answer. I wanted Fading Suns to encompass just about every sub-genre of science fiction there was, to make the broadest possible roleplaying universe. Thus, there are elements of hard science, cyberpunk, the rise and fall of empires, post-apocalypse, horror, and fantasy. The fantasy element is especially important to me, because it's what makes it different from many other sci-fi settings. The challenge is to integrate these disparite elements. Thus, for inspiration, I would have to point to books that have attempted similar, "broadly-painted" settings, such as E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series, Asimov's original "Foundation" trilogy, Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun," Clark Ashton Smith's "Zothique" cycle, H.P. Lovecraft, and many readings in religion and metaphysics, especially the work of Jung and A.N. Whitehead.

Andrew: Wow, there have been a bunch. I was a science fiction addict as a kid and that's stuck with me. Asimov, Heinlin, Clarke, Norton, Lem –– I loved them all. To that you've gotta add the Gibson and Sterling I read in college (and after). Humanity's relationship to technology is a major undercurrent in Fading Suns, and all of these writers have dealt with it well.

A number of non-science fiction writers have had a major impact on us as well. Umberto Eco's books are a good example of that, as are Lovecraft's. The one you really should make Bill admit to is Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bill loves that stuff and there will always be a pulp facet to whatever we do.

Many gamers claim to see a definite "White Wolf influence" in Fading Suns. Is there one? Did you learn anything from your association with White Wolf that you brought to bear in your the creation of Fading Suns, both as a game and as a setting?

Andrew: I think this question is a little backwards. I started working with White Wolf well before the release of Vampire, and as its first developer set much of how that line (and those that followed) looked and read. Bill was the first Werewolf developer, and he had an equally dramatic effect on how things are done. I'm always amused to pick up a new White Wolf book and see that they're still doing things our way.

Bill: There is an "influence" in that Andrew Greenberg and I were the original developers for Vampire and Werewolf, respectively. Andrew really set the format and tone for much of the early White Wolf style, and his groundbreaking Chicago By Night introduced a new way to view a game setting –– conflict based primarily on a web of interpersonal associations rather than a geographical map. Andrew and I, just like most authors, have our styles, and we carry these styles with us to all our projects. I'm glad our early work found such a receptive audience among White Wolf fans, and I'm glad many of them followed us over to Fading Suns –– along with the new fans unfamiliar with our previous work.

I suspect that most fans of Fading Suns are familiar with your description of it as a "futuristic passion play." Would you mind elaborating on that description a bit? Is there a genuine influence of the medieval passion plays on Fading Suns, or do you mean this more metaphorically?

Bill: The passions plays dealt with the sufferings of Jesus while the morality plays taught Christian lessons. I was inspired by them in the sense that Fading Suns deals strongly with the role of a universal religion of the future, and, since a dark ages feel is integral, the themes of these plays have relevance. The suns are dying, the greatest of civilizations has fallen, and evil besets peoples' lives. The sufferings and triumphs of the future saints are instructional, and, in the era in which the rpg begins, the adventures of player characters can also have a sense of the heroic and holy. In these times, their actions can have cosmic significance, much like the saints and heroes of medieval plays. Players and gamemasters write their own passion plays

Andrew: Again, much of what we are trying to play with in Fading Suns are both the highs and lows of human interaction. Humanity now faces the greatest threat it ever has –– the fading of the stars –– yet even that can't seem to bring people together. Instead it is the rare individual (hopefully, but not always, the player characters) who must provide an example for everyone else to follow. Just as Christ's sufferings and lessons inspired the passion plays, so too can the PCs'. And as everyone who has played in one of my games knows, their characters are gonna suffer :-)

Fading Suns seems to have really taken off. Why do you suppose that is? What approach does it take that previous science fiction games have not?

Bill: Of the feedback I get from fans, the depth of the setting seems to be the most popular element. I think that the game's broad appeal has a lot to do with its wide selection of characters and places - you can be just about anybody from anywhere. Our constant support also helps; our regular product release schedule keeps fans satisfied, and the growing presence on the shelves attracts new players.

Andrew: We've seen a covergence of factors, none of which tells the full story. First of all, I like to think the books are well written and the game a lot of fun to play for newbies and veteran gamers alike. I ran a friend of mine through her first game last Friday, and this petite young lady completely got into running a giant, ferocious Vorox.

A second major factor has been the computer game. Emperor of the Fading Suns attracted a whole new crowd to our games and let us reach folks who don't usually play RPGs. It also gave us a chance to explore parts of the universe that we might not otherwise have, and let us flesh it out a great deal.

A third factor has been its constancy. Not only have the books maintained a constant level of quality, but they come out every other month, just like clockwork. Our fans know they can count on us, and that helps keep them loyal.

A fourth factor has been "game evangelists," our term for the gamers themselves. They've done a great deal to spread the word and bring in new people. Every new gamer they introduce to the line helps spur us on that much more.

In the various products published over the last few years, I've noticed that the Known Worlds are slowly changing and growing. Is this intentional? Is there a story behind the game that you wish to tell? That is, do you have a plan to unfold the history of the Known Worlds in a particular fashion?

Andrew: Yes.

Bill: The story is certainly progressing. There are plot points we are building towards. The forthcoming "War in the Heavens" trilogy finally reveals some of the secrets of the Symbiots, Vau and Anunnaki. The barbarian worlds are about to open up, and a crusade brews; a number of supplements will deal with this area next year, in addition to a Fading Suns computer game, Starship Diplomacy. However, these events allow players and gamemasters to involve their characters in any way they choose –– whether it be as Questing Knights off to the crusades or Scravers staying home to loot the now-poorly defended homeworlds.

Related to question 6, is there a reason for why the stars have begun to fade? Or at least do you know why they are doing so?

Bill: We know, but we're not telling. Not yet, at least.

Andrew: Nyah, nyah, nyah.

As anyone who reads my monthly column can tell you, I am big fan of Fading Suns and its setting. Still, there's one thing that's always bothered me about it. Why is the Universal Church of the Celestial Sun such a knock-off of medieval Catholicism? I'll grant that the medieval Church evokes certain feelings in people, but I've always felt that the Church in Fading Suns should be more different. Am I really off base in thinking this?

Andrew: Different parts of the universe highlight different parts of human history. Remember that there was once a time in Christian history when there was no Roman Catholic Church. It was the Christian Church and all Christians thought they believed the same thing. This is the kind of Church we're trying to show –– one that says it's all-encompassing but is actually split by schism and wracked by heresy.

Bill: Actually, my model was more the Byzantine Orthodox Church; it has all the familiar elements of the West's universal religion but with a more mystical and exotic flavor. Certainly, the Inquisition and the dogma of the Fading Suns Orthodoxy resembles the medieval Catholic Church, and this is useful in that pretty much anybody who plays the game will know what stereotypes to fall back on. But the sectarianism and the details of the other sects hopefully display more diversity than Catholicism itself allowed in olden times. There are hints of Buddhism in even the history of the Orthodoxy, and especially in the Eskatonic Order and Amaltheans. I've tried to let certain details of the Church be a blank slate onto which players and gamemasters can write their own styles. Religion is a tricky issue, and we're out to inform and question, not offend.

Are you surprised by the popularity of Fading Suns? When you were creating the game, did you have any idea that it would prove as popular as it has?

Bill: Yes and no. We certainly hoped it would be this popular, but it has indeed exceeded some of our humble expectations. I'm very glad it's taken off as it has.

Andrew: I've always been amazed by the success of games I've worked on, be it Vampire, Fadings Suns, Star Trek or anything else. When I'm done with a title, I know I like it, but it surprises me to see that other people share my tastes. HDI's goal has always been to design games we want to play, and I'm glad other people want to play them too.

Is there any chance that Holistic Design will create other games that do not take place in the Fading Suns universe?

Andrew: Yes, but it's gonna take a break in our workload. As it is, all of us wear multiple hats, designing computer games, writing RPGs and fiction, and still trying to do outside work so we stay fresh. Thankfully it's a heck of a team, and when we do sit down to design something new, it's gonna be exciting.

Bill: We've been tossing around a lot of fantasy setting ideas, which we'll surely coalesce into form someday, and some more modern pulp-style game ideas are popular with us right now. But we're so busy with Fading Suns, I'm not sure when we'll do all the other things we want to!

Do you enjoy being a professional game designer? Is it an enjoyable occupation?

Bill: Yes, I do. It allows me to not only express my own ideas but to help foster the creative work of others. Fading Suns owes much to the brilliant authors who have added wonderful detail to the setting, and the artists who have honed its atmosphere. Without them, the job would be more work than play.

Andrew: Hate it. Tomorrow I go to work as a vomit shoveler at Six Flags:-)

In college I earned degrees in journalism and history, but never thought I would find an occupation where I could combine them as well as I have in games. When I graduated I went to work for a legal affairs paper covering lawyers, got sick of them, and switched to vampires instead. The only times I've looked back are when I think there might be one behind me.

Like right now.

James Maliszewski

What do you think?

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