Ego Check: Tracy Barnett, Designer of Sand & Steam

Welcome to another installment in the Ego Check interview series. One of the interesting things about running this site is the opportunity to meet new people doing creative things in the roleplaying-game universe. Last month, I was contacted by Tracy Barnett, designer of a new campaign setting, Sand & Steam. Tracy was kind enough to discuss his design process, which includes the unique approach of building his campaign setting on the mechanics of three different gaming systems – Pathfinder, Savage Worlds and Fate.

Welcome, thank you for agreeing to talk with me. Can you introduce yourself to those that may not be familiar with your site, Sand & Steam?

Hello, all. My name is Tracy Barnett, and I am the creator of Sand & Steam, as well as a guy who just plain loves gaming. Especially gaming at conventions. Sand & Steam is a multi-system, steampunk/technomagical campaign setting with a twist: rather than writing the entire setting for the systems I intend to use (Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, and Fate), I am breaking the setting into chunks, and using different systems for different parts of the setting. I think that each system tells certain kinds of stories more effectively, and that there are parts of the setting that lend themselves to those stories.

To that end, Pathfinder tell stories in the Undercity, a series of ruins and natural caverns under the main city of Kage (Ka-shey). Pathfinder is well-suited to dungeon delves, and the kinds of adventures that happen underground. Savage Worlds will tell the stories of the Getters, a guild-for-hire whose primary jobs involve being teleported across Kage—and the rest of the world—to obtain whatever it is they have been hired to obtain. Those stories and high-action and kind of pulpy, so Savage Worlds was a great fit. Finally, Kage is ruled by a body of mages called the Masked Council, who also run a Wizard’s School called the Collegium. The Fate rules will tell the stories of the wizards of the Collegium, with all of the machinations and political maneuverings that take place there.

In addition to the books for those systems that I hope to publish, the setting itself is all CC-licensed, and will remain available for free on the website. I made my choices as a designer to split up the setting in the ways I did, but is a group wants to run a Getters game with Pathfinder, or a Collegium game with Savage Worlds, I want them to have the tools to do that.

What motivated you to design a “steampunk/technomagical campaign setting” rather than a more traditional fantasy-based setting? 

When I ran the first adventure that inspired the city of Kage, I imagined a destination for people to travel to, one that was in the middle of the desert. All I could picture at the time was a city of imposing black walls, with towers rising above them in the middle of the city. From there, I decided that the walls were made of metal, as were the majority of the dwellings in the city. It was only a short leap from there to technology mixed with magic, plus the dystopian view, the “punk,” if you will, to add to the metal city idea.

Beyond that, mixing technology and magic always seemed like a really cool idea to me. Plus, it’s something that Pathfinder seemed to be moving towards with some of the gear and classes in the most recent book releases. I mean, Gunslingers? Oh yea, those fit, and they fit well. When I decided to make the setting multi-system, the steampunk idea worked well with Savage Worlds and Fate.

I guess I could have saved some typing and just said “I think it’s a really cool idea, and one that’s worth exploring.”

As someone who hasn’t played Pathfinder, Savage Worlds or Fate, would it be possible for you to give me an outline of those systems in terms of comparing and contrasting them to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, which is the system I play?

Sure! Pathfinder is probably the system that is the most closely equitable to D&D 4e. Pathfinder is based on D&D 3.5, which was able to be wholly updated thanks to WotC’s Open Gaming License. Much like 4e, all of the major checks (combat, skill, etc) are based on the roll of a d20, plus a modifier. In fact, at a glance, Pathfinder and 4e share a lot of similarities. However, Paizo (the publisher of Pathfinder) retained the 9-tier spell system, spells needing to be memorized every day, and a lot of the flavor of D&D 3.5. They spent a lot of time balancing the classes and making sure that even 1st level characters would be effective, and not spent after one combat session. It’s basically D&D for those who prefer the older system to change wholesale changes that came with D&D 4e.

Savage Worlds is a cinematic action-type game whose tag line is “Fast! Furious! Fun!” Every stat and skill, rather than being a number, is a die type. So you have a Strength of d6, or a Shooting of d8. As a PC, you are considered a Wildcard, and so roll an additional d6 (called a Wild Die) with all of your rolls. You then take the better roll of your two dice. All the rolls are opened-ended as well, so if you roll the max value on a die, you roll it again and add the result. This continues until you stop rolling the max value. Since the most common target number you need to hit in Savage Worlds is a 4, this can help even the most unskilled character succeed at any task. It’s a system that I always find to be very elegant, if deadly (a character start dying after taking three Wounds) when I play it.

Fate is built upon the framework of an older system called Fudge. Fate (and Fudge) uses special dice (Fudge Dice) that have 2 +, 2 –, and 2 blanks. When you roll, the +s and the –a cancel each other out, blanks are null and the result (+2, or -3) is compared to a difficulty set by the GM. Difficulties are expressed using the Ladder, a scale of difficulty ranging from +0 (Mediocre) to Legendary (+8). The thing that sets Fate apart from Fudge is Aspects. Aspects are statement about characters, objects, enemies, or places. Aspects say something interesting about your character. Phrases like “Strong as an Ox,” or “Trained by Master Wu Ching” help describe your characters, but also have a mechanical impact on the game. If an Aspect would be helpful to you, you can Invoke it (usually by Spending a Fate Point) to get a +2 to the result of your roll. It cuts both ways, though, as Aspects can be Compelled by the GM, asking the character to act in accordance with their Aspect, which will grant the character a Fate Point. As well, character can use Skill checks to assign temporary Aspects to enemies, called Tagging, or the even the scene itself. One of my favorite Aspects for a scene, building or enemy is “On Fire!”. Aspects give players a portion of narrative control, as they can use Aspects to add or subtract things from the Scene, or change the state of their enemies thanks to the character’s use of their abilities.

I hope I was able to condense those systems into meaningful descriptions. In all three cases, the best way to see what a system is about is to play it, so at the least, I hope I sparked some interest.

Writing an entire world to fit into three vastly different games systems seems like a ridiculously complex challenge. In addition, it sounds like you want to give tools to allow GMs to run any of the three sections of your world in any of the three game systems. Could you talk about your decision process to spread the Sand & Steam world over three gaming systems instead of one?

In a lot of instances where a campaign setting is written for multiple systems, the entire setting is ported wholesale to each system. A notable example is Green Ronin’s Freeport. It began life for True20, I believe, and now has books for D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds. Every time they decided to work with a different system, all of the NPCs, magic items, spells, classes, and monsters had to be re-statted for each system. Not a huge deal for the change from True20 to D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, since they all come from the same basic gaming lineage, but Savage Worlds is very different from the others.

When I was thinking about Sand & Steam, I began to realize the enormity of that task. I was talking about the issue with one of my game designer friends, and he suggested the split. The premise was to use the setting as a platform for playing games and telling stories, and using different systems for different sections of the setting lets those stories be told more effectively.

From a design standpoint, it makes my job easier, in some ways. I have the ability to focus on certain parts of the world, like the Undercity, and think about it solely from a Pathfinder perspective, rather than having to figure how it will work in three different systems. The challenge becomes continuity. I want players, regardless of which section of the setting they are playing in, to be able to look at what I’ve written and say “Yeah, that’s Sand & Steam.” It’s a problem am continually grappling with as I am writing the Undercity (which is the section I am currently working on).

Draft of map for Undercity

Overall, it boils down to this: focusing specific sections of the setting by assigning them to specific game systems allows me to write the best game that I can for that system, rather than potentially compromising my setting design by over-thinking how the setting will be expressed in three (or more) different systems.

In terms of allowing GMs to work with whatever portion of the setting they choose, that is as simple as stripping any system-specific info from the different sections of the setting that I am writing, and making that information freely available on the website. Since I am writing with that end result in mind, it makes it easy to do that removal. Now I just need to figure out how to get the wiki section my site set up…

It sounds like the philosophy is to design the flavor of the world to be generic enough to accommodate any system, but the crunchier pieces of each section are system-specific? Would you say that Sand & Steam is a single game in one world or three games that comprise one world?

For example, I wonder if GMs, only using the Fate system, run into problems when it makes sense for a campaign to leave Kage and veer into the Undercity. The GM and group must either change the system they are playing or the GM has to devote additional hours to “translate” Pathfinder to Fate for the Undercity portion of the campaign. I’m imagining how challenging it might be if I had to make this decision anytime my party in 4th Edition needed to travel to The Abyss, and The Abyss was only presented in 3.5 rules. What is your solution for GMs in this scenario?

I would say that Sand & Steam is three games that comprise one world. From my perspective as a designer, all three sections are discreet enough that there should be no reason to leave the area that is written for the rules of that area.

That pause was to accommodate the waves of laughter that my answer likely provoked.

My hope, as a designer, and as a GM is that the generic setting material will be detailed enough that any leg-work that GMs need to do to move the game from one area to another will be painless enough to make it a tenable idea. We have all run games in established settings where we think “I don’t want to follow established canon here.” Adventures in the Forgotten Realms come to mind. We take what we like and make it our own. If a game starts in the Undercity, and the group wants to leave, they are free to do so, but with Sand & Steam, the GM won’t have to make up the information about what lies in the city above. They will have the information on the website, and all they’ll have to do is add some Pathfinder stats. I know it’s not as simple as that, but, as a GM, I create new things all the time. Having stat-less setting info would make that job easier.

As well, I am writing each section to be something like a full setting, with enough story and adventure hooks to run multiple campaigns in each section. That may not be the way every set of games goes, though. Recently I had a conversation with someone about this concept and they asked what it would be like to start in the Undercity, have the party find a way out of the Undercity, have them join the Getters (converting their characters to the Savage Worlds rules in the process), play through Getters adventures until the party decided to join or infiltrate the Collegium (converting to Fate in the process), and then end the “campaign” in the Collegium. My response was to go “squeeee!” and to clap my hands like a small child. That would be the ultimate realization of the success of this project for me.

I think that, as GMs, we have all run into situations where the rules we are using just don’t quite seem to fit the situations that are happening in our games. Splitting up Sand & Steam is following that idea to its logical, if extreme conclusion. I hope to develop each section to the strengths of the system it uses, while evoking the entire setting as a whole as I do so. I hope it works.

It seems like it would be helpful to have a guide for GMs on how to transfer characters between the three gaming systems. For example, do you provide suggestions for when a group wants to shift from the Undercity (Pathfinder) to the Getters (Savage Worlds)? How can you make the possible transitions between the three systems easier for the GM and players to navigate?

That’s a great idea, but right now, it’s what I call a “Q2 Problem.” Fancy way of saying that I’m choosing not to address it now. I’m pretty early on in this process, and the Undercity is getting all of my attention right now. As such, I really don’t have another area for anyone to want to transition to; that won’t happen until I write the next area.

That said, some kind of translation guide is something I will have to give time and attention to. To be honest, until I had that conversation recently where some asked about moving from one part of the setting to another, I hadn’t really considered that people might want to do that. You asking me about it reinforces that I was probably naive in my thinking that gamers would want to play in just one part of the sandbox, as it were.

As an aside, this is why it’s really good for me to talk to other people about the project (and one of the reasons I’m having so much fun with these questions). I am really verbal processor, and I come up with some of my most clear ideas through conversation. When it’s just me banging on a keyboard, I can make incorrect assumptions too easily.

Following your point about conversing with others, you have made an interesting choice by creating an opportunity for a dialogue with other gamers through the Sand & Steam website and the numerous Design Diary features. What have been the benefits and consequences of this approach during your design process?

There have primarily been benefits. Talking with others helps me clarify my ideas. For example, my recent work with the Fate system, for a convention game, saw me designing using a system that I had much less experience with than Pathfinder or Savage Worlds. By asking people, mostly via Twitter, to comment on the design process, I was able to refine my ideas, and get something workable written up. There have been a few things that have caught me off-guard, though. For example, when writing the Fate stuff, I was trying to figure out a magic system, and as a quick-and-dirty fix, I used the spell levels from D&D (1-9) as a template. But when I published the info on the website, I didn’t say that at first. I was a little embarrassed by the decision, because I knew I needed something better for the final game. No one said anything, but I realized that I hadn’t shared part of my design process, which is kind of the point of the Design Diary posts, so I pulled back the curtain, so to speak, the next day.

Transparency is important to me. One, talking to people about design is good for me. Two, I want people to see how I got to wherever it is I end up. If I succeed, then there might be a pattern that others can follow. If I fail, then I’m a cautionary tale. Either way, that’s good for the game industry. Finally, it’s just something I believe in. Closing off from the people who you hope to court as fans is a bad idea. Openness can breed trust, especially with a new property. Eclipse Phase is a great example of this. The guys at Posthuman Studios do fantastic work, and they give it away for free (the electronic versions, anyway). They get their product into the hands of people who only have so many gaming dollars to spend. The product is great, and it prompts buy-in from fans without any loss of money on the fans’ part. Good stuff. I’d rather try that than say “trust me, it’s awesome,” and have someone spend even $1 to find out that my game isn’t for them.

When did you start designing for game systems? What are you busy with when you are not working on Sand & Steam?

Other than incidental design stuff for games I’ve run for my home campaigns, I started “officially” designing when I started Sand & Steam back in June of 2011. Sand & Steam is my first design thing that is being seen by anyone besides my players. As such, it’s a learning process.

In the sand with Tracy Barnett.

Besides working on Sand & Steam, I’m in the process of applying to graduate school to get my PhD in Collaborative Storytelling Practices. I also spend time playing other RPGs (I run two games, one over Skype, and I play in a third), living life with my wife, our 8 cats and 1 dog, listening to music, and occasionally playing video games. For money, I am a substitute teacher, and will be student teaching to get my 7-12 Language Arts license this Spring. I love watching MMA, and have a weakness for “reality” TV like Project Runway or Top Chef. My biggest hobby is easily RPGs, though. I also write reviews and articles for both Troll in the Corner, and This is My Game, two excellent RPG blogs.

One can receive a PhD in Collaborative Storytelling Practices? Please tell me more about this; I’m intrigued! That seems to mesh well with your strong interest in roleplaying games.

It’s a focus that falls primarily under the purview of the Eng,ish department, so it’s really a PhD in English. However, Collaborative Storytelling is something that happens in a view variety of venues, from video games, to tabletop RPGs, to fan fiction, to improvisational theater. My hope is to look at Collaborative Storytelling from a variety of perspectives, looking at it in terms of the narratives that created (or not, as the case may be) by the participants, the traditions of Collaborative Storytelling (folklore, ghost stories, etc), and the rhetoric that surrounds it. It’s not an area in which a lot of research has been done, so I’m hoping to be able to convince the admissions board that I deserve a spot in their program. It would be a lot of fun to study the subject, and it would indeed dovetail nicely with my interest in tabletop RPGs.

One good way to thrive as a researcher is to find something that hasn’t been examined yet. Back in 1999, I started to research online counseling and most people had no idea what I was talking about. During my graduate career, I was able to publish articles in that field because it was fresh and new. Now online counseling is discussed in The New York Times. When it comes to research, my unsolicited advice is to focus on a topic that you have a passion for and then see it through. Also, don’t attempt to change the world with your dissertation; keep it as small-scale as possible. Good luck!

I’m curious, how have you integrated your interest in interactive storytelling into the world of Sand & Steam? It seems like that would drive a good deal of your design philosophy.

One thing that will inform my design (once I get around to writing this bit) will be changes to some of the ways in which Pathfinder and Savage Worlds work. Fate already has some of these changes. The example I use is Skill Challenges. I ported the idea from 4e to Pathfinder, and I quite like how they work, cinematically. I don’t like how restrictive they can be, though. 3 primary skills, plus and array of secondary skills at higher DCs feels forced. What I do when I run skill challenges is set the length (X successes before Y failures), a DC range (something that is appropriate for the level of the party), and then I have the players tell me what they want to use. And they’re not restricted to skills, which seems to belie the name “Skill Challenge.” If a player, on their action, can state what they want to see happen, and have that occur using a skill, or an attack roll, and describe their action’s narrative effect on the scene, all they need to do is meet the DC I set, and then describe away. This results in a really dynamic set of descriptions, and makes skill challenges a fun thing to be in, even if the group fails. You lose the problem of “well, I guess I’ll assist this turn, ’cause I don’t have any useful skills.”

It’s an idea that I have to find a way to formalize, but I’ve used it in various sessions, and it has worked very well. As I said before, Fate’s system for attacking, or hindering foes in combat is a lot like this. I guess I want to inject some Fate into my Pathfinder and my Savage Worlds. The formalization is the trick, though. Right now, I’m working on the Pathfinder mechanics (how classes work, etc), so I’ll burn that bridge when I get there.

You have stayed away from designing a region of Sand & Steam to 4th Edition, but just mentioned that you have borrowed from the system. Given how you are creating regions based on the mechanics of Fate, Pathfinder and Savage Worlds, what would a 4th Edition region for Sand & Steam look and feel like for the players? What segments of 4th Edition to you feel are worth capitalizing on in terms of game design?

Oh, man. Quite a few. I will say, as an aside, that I have given thought to doing a 4e section for Sand & Steam, but the terms of the GSL are too restrictive for me to actually do it. I would have to make too many alterations to 4e to fit it in Sand & Steam, and the GLS doesn’t even let you change the height of a race, let alone anything else. Moving on…

The first thing, obviously, are skill challenges, or at least the idea of them. Having a cinematic way to overcome a challenge without resorting to combat (directly, anyway) is an awesome idea. It’s something that gamers have been doing for years, but 4e formalized it.

Next would come Minions. Again, this would be for the cinematic effects. There’s something great about mowing through waves of enemies, or dropping a whole host of foes with a Fireball. I’m debating how to handle Minions in Pathfinder right now. Savage Worlds already has Minion rules, and Fate can handle them as well. Pathfinder doesn’t have anything explicit for them, so rest assured, I’ll be looking to see what lessons I can learn from Minions in 4e.

Rituals are also really cool. Not as they are currently handled in 4e, but conceptually. I don’t like taking the “non-combat” spells out of combat, but I do like the idea of being able to take some extra time to, say, cast Knock out of your spellbook because you didn’t memorize it. If you had it prepared, you could just cast it, but since you need it on the fly, maybe it takes extra work (a Spellcraft check, or some such) to get it done. I know there has been a lot of complaining about how long rituals take to cast in 4e, but I think there’s something there. Maybe not for Knock, specifically, but it’s something I want to explore.

In terms of what the 4e area of Sand & Steam would look like, I would think that the desert around the city would be perfect. However, I would have to be super-duper, extra vigilant to make sure that I didn’t end up making a rip-off of Dark Sun. If I were able to work with 4e easily, and decided to put it in the desert, that would be a trap I could easily fall into. Maybe the solution isn’t to design anything for 4e myself, but to simply suggest that if 4e folks want to play some Sand & Steam that they could adapt Dark Sun to the area around the city of Kage. Not a bad idea…

Suggesting Dark Sun as an example setting to use in Sand & Steam is a simple way to “include” a 4e option. I want to thank you for discussing your creation and going into great detail about the design process. Are there any final points you would like to address?

Lastly, how can readers contact you with questions and start using Sand & Steam with their gaming group?

I feel like I should be thanking you for giving me the opportunity to talk about Sand & Steam, and my design process. It’s been a lot of fun answering your questions. The only thing I want to add is that this is an ongoing project, and feedback from people who check out Sand & Steam is not only encouraged, but it’s kind of vital to how I work. If you see something you think it great, or confusing, or whatever, please let me know.

Contacting me can be done in multiple ways. Email:, Twitter: @Rolling20s, or comments on any of the posts on If folks want to start using Sand & Steam right away, let me know, and I can work on providing whatever information they need. I have a schedule I am trying to stick to, but I might be able to juggle small things around to accommodate people actually playing in Sand & Steam.

Thanks again!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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