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Interview with John Watts of Independence Games

This interview originally appeared in Cepheus Journal #008, and was reprinted with permission in the November/December 2022 issue of Freelance Traveller.

In the first of what I hope will be many interviews with Cepheus Engine publishers, writers and artists, I had a (virtual) sit down with the owner of Independence Games, John Watts. One of the bigger publishers under the Cepheus Engine banner, I found our conversation fascinating. I hope you do, too.

CJ: First up, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for our readers. Could you tell us when did you first get into roleplaying games, what was your first and what is your favourite?

JW: The first RPG that I ever played was TSR’s Star Frontiers. I had watched kids in my junior high school (what’s called middle school in most places) playing D&D and I wanted to play but I never did. When I approached my parents concerning D&D, it was the height of the “Satanic Panic” and they had read the horror stories and refused to allow me to play.

So my solution to this was to get into Star Frontiers. The mall that was within bicycle riding distance of my home had a toy store that had some TSR products in it and I bought the Star Frontiers box set. My parents, particularly my Dad who loved science fiction, had no problem with it and I loved the game.

After that I got into Victory Games’ James Bond 007, a game which I still love and, honestly, is still my favorite rule system. I love the skill system in that game and the chase system.

After that, my gaming group and I wanted to get into science fiction again and we discovered Traveller in 1987. After that, the majority of my gaming became me running Traveller though we never really cared for the Third Imperium setting.

CJ: Your company, Independence Games, used to be called Gypsy Knights Games. When did you first start the company and is this your first foray into RPG publishing?

JW: The company started in February of 2011. That was the first time I'd ever been involved with any kind of publishing.

CJ: How did you get into writing roleplaying games and what do you enjoy most about it? What inspiration do you draw from?

JW: Well, as I was saying before, in 1987 my gaming group and I discovered Traveller. Quite honestly, we loved the simplicity of the system, but we were not enamored with the Third Imperium setting so we made a few changes right off the bat to change it to be something we’d enjoy. In 1988, I left home and went to The University of Georgia and took my Traveller campaign with me.

When I got to college, I took the smaller changes that I’d made and continued the campaign with new players that I met at the university. Again, this new set of players agreed with the players from my hometown that we didn’t care much for the Third Imperium setting and the players tasked me with coming up with something else that better matched our idea of how science fiction should be. I had recently gotten into Westerns and so that was a huge influence as well as my recent discovery of the British TV show Blake’s 7. So I distilled those two things and my love for other media and books into what would become Clement Sector.

So as early as 1989, I was writing supplements, rules changes, and planetary systems for my players to read to get an idea of the setting. I never considered publishing any of that until I discovered in 2010 that Mongoose and Marc Miller had made the Traveller rules OGL. At that point, I started making plans, put together a business plan, and went into publishing the setting I'd been using for 22 years as Clement Sector.

CJ: Independence Games, how did that name come about, and would you like to share why you change the name from Gypsy Knight Games?

JW: Gypsy Knights had been the name of my gaming group since the early 90s and, in 2011, when I decided to begin publishing, it seemed to be the natural name to use for the company. In doing so, I fully expected that the members of the gaming group would also make contributions. As it turned out that really wasn’t the case, so that was one reason that I decided there should be a name change.

The name of the gaming group stems from a campaign that I ran at a game shop in East Ridge, TN. The guy who was playing the captain was a guy named Tim Lee who thought it would be clever both as a nod to his last to name the ship “Gypsy Rose” as in the famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy Rose was the ship used by the characters until the end of that campaign when they became rulers of their own world. At that point, the captain, now king, determined that they would be “Gypsy Knights”. Hence, the name of the gaming group and, later, the name of the company.

I embraced the name not only because of the gaming group but also because, at the time, I worked in construction. Those who were “independent” and were not part of the local union or part of a large corporation were called “gypsies” which carried the implication that they were independent and that was something I wanted to convey with the company name.

So I’d never really heard the term used as a pejorative nor did I think it could ever be offensive to anyone. I’d never heard it used as any sort of negative term, so it somewhat took me by surprise when folks began telling me that it was around 2015 or so. As I looked into it, I determined that it seemed to be a pejorative in Europe and the UK, so I started taking time to kind of look at changing the name… something I had considered since the first paragraph of this story became true. The troubles with Mongoose and all of the resulting problems of changing 30+ books at the time, resulted in me shelving the name change idea for a while as I had to retool everything for Cepheus.

By 2019, it became obvious that a name change was not only something I wanted to do, but something that was needed as we continued to be more popular in places that might find the name somewhat offensive. So I started looking for replacement names and was shocked that the name I wanted all along, “Independence Games”, was not taken. So I acted rather quickly and changed the name of the company within a day or two of this realization.

I’m in the business to sell games. I want people to have fun. I’ve no intent or desire to offend anyone, so that coupled with my earlier desire to change the name anyway made the name change a no­brainer.

On top of all of that, “Gypsy Knights Games” has an error built right into the name. As I intended to have the company be a group effort of my gaming group, it was originally intended to be “Gypsy Knights’ Games”. As it became unclear if this would be the case, I left out the apostrophe. Over time, folks thought I was the “Gypsy Knight” and it was “Gypsy Knight’s Games”. The error in the name of the company irritated me greatly and that was also a major contributing factor to the change.

CJ: Besides yourself, does Independence Games have any other members on the team? If so, when and how did they join Independence Games and what unique qualities do they bring?

JW: Technically, the only employees of Independence Games are myself and my wife who handles some of the money transactions. So in a technical sense, there’s only two employees of the company. My wife and I are in Ringgold, Georgia which is a suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee in the Southeast US.

However, we do use many of the same freelancers on our products and I value them as members of the overall team. Our current freelancer team includes:

Michael Johnson: Michael is a civil engineer from Perth, Australia who has become the Independence Games starship design guru. I’m not a fan of making starship designs, but Michael loves doing it and he has designed some amazing starships for the company. Michael has been responsible for writing all of our starship books and The Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture which is our starship design system for Clement Sector. He’s also written our military guides such as Hub Federation Navy, the Wendy’s series, and the Tim’s series. Michael has been with us since some of our earliest days.

Ian Stead: Ian is a professional artist from the UK who is, in my opinion, the greatest starship artist working today. I was lucky enough to get Ian doing some work for my books in the earliest days of the company and he’s still working with us on the books today.

Jennifer Leonard: Jennifer is a comic book artist from my local area who has worked with Zenoscope and several others. I met Jennifer through a local comic book shop and she’s been doing art for the books for several years now and we’re happy to have her onboard.

Curtis Rickman: I’ve known Curtis since I was in high school and his attention to detail has made him a fantastic editor. Curtis goes over everything that is written for Independence Games and catches all of the dropped words, grammar errors, and misspellings and tries to keep us error-free in that regard. Curtis has been with Independence Games since the earliest days as well. Curtis lives in Missouri.

CJ: What was your first product, which is your best­selling product and which product are you most proud of?

JW: Our first product was a supplement introducing the world Kyiv in the Cascadia Subsector. This was one of many worlds which were part of the setting I’d worked on in college and it seemed like a natural start for the Quick Worlds series of books which was the first series we published.

Clement Sector is both our best­selling product and the one of which I’m most proud. It’s the setting book for the overall Clement Sector game and really the foundation for a lot of the products we publish.

CJ: Independence Games has a range of settings/rules, including Clement Sector, Earth Sector and Rider. Was there a plan for how these titles came out, or just an organic growth, or maybe something else?

JW: Clement Sector is, for the most part, my campaign for my gaming group with some additions made from our freelancers as well as things that I thought would be improvements to the setting. There was a definite plan for how the setting would be brought out to the public in the form of the setting book and supplements. Some of that got derailed in 2016 with the “messy divorce” from Mongoose, but after that was placed firmly in the rearview mirror, we were able to get back to the overall plan of introducing people to the setting.

Action Movie Physics was next. It was based on the Classified SRD which was retro­clone of the James Bond 007 game to which I referred earlier. It was my attempt to create an “action movie RPG” which met with limited success.

Earth Sector came after that. Earth Sector, while a bit of a separate game, is really just an extension of the Clement Sector setting. A lot of people online and at conventions would approach me and ask me to tell the story of what happened in Earth Sector after the wormhole (or “Conduit” as we like to call it) collapsed and the two sectors were separated.

Whereas Clement Sector was largely something I created over time from the late 80s to the early 2010s, Earth Sector is a newer creation and something whose creation is still ongoing.

Rider comes from my love of Westerns. In all honesty, I’ve always wanted to make a Western RPG and that affected the design of Clement Sector. With the advent of Rider, I’ve achieved my goal of creating a Western RPG and we’ve just recently released New Liberty, which is a setting book for Rider.

CJ: What attracted you to the Cepheus Engine? Which of your titles was the most fun to write?

JW: After the Mongoose unpleasantness, we were faced with finding a new way to continue publishing our setting because we had absolutely no desire to work with Mongoose after that in any way. At first, we had felt the best thing for us to do was just use the OGL portions of the Traveller rules, but Jason Kemp approached us about his recent creation of Cepheus Engine. So we happily moved everything over to Cepheus.

I’d met Jason at GenCon and played in several of his Traveller games there, so I knew him to be a quality individual and I was happy to throw in with Cepheus.

I have fun writing all of the books I’ve written. Despite this being my primary job and the sole way I make money to pay my bills, it’s still a lot of fun for me to do. By far, this is the best job I’ve ever had. Most recently, I had an absolute blast putting together New Liberty, working with a new freelancer (TA Maps) on the town itself, and coming up with all of the NPCs who inhabit the small town.

CJ: What are you working on now? Any plans for future titles you would like to share with our readers?

JW: My current project is putting the Clement Sector Core Setting Book and Clement Sector: The Rules (our version of the Cepheus Engine) into a single book. So sort of a version 2.5 I suppose as we’re making a few minor changes that I’ve always felt needed to be made (For instance, I hate having Social Standing as a stat…) and repairing a few errors that slipped into the original books.

After that, we have more adventures planned for Clement Sector, more expansion of Earth Sector in the form of more subsector books, another Wendy’s Guide to the Fleets of Earth Sector, more Tim’s Guides set in Clement Sector, and more adventures for Rider. So tons more to come from us!

CJ: Besides DriveThruRPG, what other avenues are available for purchasing your books? Any other web presences (blogs, Facebook, etc.) you’d like to promote for Independence Games?

JW: We also have a webstore that is here: https://independencerpgs.com/.

Currently, you can only buy PDFs there, but we’re hoping to get print books available there soon as well.

We have an active presence on Facebook, MeWe, and Discord. If you search for the Independence Games Discussion Group on Facebook or MeWe, you’ll find us there. And this is an invitation link to our Discord server where we talk about all of our games: https://discord.gg/846ypJtCaH

CJ: Do you/Independence Games, ever make it to any conventions, at least before Covid? Do you get to interact much with fans?

JW: I love going to conventions and usually make it to several across the Southeastern US where I run games, do panels, and sell books. We also usually get to TravellerCon/USA in Lancaster, PA each year as well. Covid has put a serious dampener on all of that unfortunately for a variety of reasons, but hopefully we can put that in the rearview soon.

We definitely have a lot of contact with fans online in the online discussion groups, but I do miss seeing people at conventions and hopefully we can get back to that soon.

CJ: One final question, what do you like to do to unwind when you’re not writing?

JW: I read a lot. I tend to read a lot of detective and crime novels. I’m currently working my way through Robert Parker’s Spenser series and I just finished Lawrence Block’s Scudder series. I'm a huge fan of the Longmire novel series by Craig Johnson.

My wife has recently gotten me into watching Formula 1, so I do love to watch a race on Sundays when they are on TV. I do play several of the Paradox strategy games such as Imperator: Rome, Stellaris, and Europa Universalis.

And I’m a member of the Chattanooga Irregular Wargames Association where we tend to play miniatures wargames of various types. We’ve recently been playing a campaign of Eastern Front WW2 and before that we were playing a Gaslands campaign. I’m probably the only wargamer on the planet who hates painting miniatures, so I tend to play more than collect.

CJ: Again, thank you for your time, John.

JW: Thanks for interviewing me! It's been fun!