Inside the RPG Oscars: An Interview with Former ENnies Business Manager Tony Law

ENnies

It should surprise none of you by this time that your beloved Illuminerdy are interested in the processes — and people — behind what are arguably the most influential awards in tabletop adventure gaming: the Gen Con ENworld RPG Awards, or as they are more regularly known, the ENnies. We say this not just because we recently won the Silver ENnie for “Best Blog”, but also because both I and our #RPGchat guru d20blonde were judges in the distant and long-forgotten past. Yes, dear reader, this is not the first — or even most influential — shadowy cabal of which we have been a part.

Still, as an admittedly still interested party, I approached Tony Law about sharing some of his insight and experiences with the awards with the broader gaming public, particularly as he has stepped down (retired?) as the ENnies Business Manager following this last year’s awards. Tony has been responsible for much of the ENnies’ glasnost over the past few years, greatly increasing its transparency and level of engagement with the community — all incredibly important for an organization designed to represent fan preference from start to finish.

In that same spirit, read on and enjoy!

Tony, how did you first get involved in the ENnies? 

When the 2008 ENnies nominees were announced, the supplement I co-authored, Fire and Brimstone: A Comprehensive Guide to Lava, Magma, and Superheated Rock, was up for an ENnie under Best Free Product. We lost to Paizo and White Wolf. I developed a serious case of sour grapes.

Even though the category was Best Free Product, which literally meant only that the product was free to the public, I was upset that a Quickstart (WW) and a Playtest (Paizo) were even in the same category.

So I posted mean things about the ENnies and how they were biased. But then I decided that, rather than just sit on the sidelines and complain, I should get involved and try to change the process. I contacted Denise Robinson, the Business Manager at the time, and volunteered to fill the PR Coordinator spot she had posted. She accepted my offer and I was in.

When did you become the ENnies Business Manager? How were you chosen? 

In 2009, after working very, very hard in my dual roles of PR Coordinator, Volunteer Coordinator, and Gopher, Denise told me she was stepping down after 2010 and asked if I would take the position. Russ Morrissey officially offered me the position and I accepted and became the Assistant Business Manager in 2010 and the full-time Business Manager in 2011.

What is, in your opinion, the core mission of the Awards?

The core mission of the Awards is to represent what fans like and what fans want. One of the complaints I have heard over the years is that the ENnies is a popularity contest. And they’re right; it is a popularity contest. But that’s what the ENnies is supposed to be.

What are the elements of how the awards are run or structured that have been “non-negotiable” or should/could not change?

It’s supposed to be a forum where the public-at-large picks a panel of judges to represent them and their interests, those judges cull the numerous entries that are submitted and pick what they think are best, and then the public picks what they like the best. That should never change.

I’ve heard suggestions that the ENnies have at least one judge who works in the RPG industry. I’ve heard suggestions that the ENnies should have voting at Gen Con and only those who attend should vote. I’ve heard suggestions that only a panel of RPG insiders should be allowed to pick the winners.

But none of those are truly representative of what the ENnie Awards is all about. Taking power out of the fans’ hands would be a huge mistake and move severely away from what the ENnies stand for.

Looking back, if you could have changed one thing about the awards, it would have been…?

The “Best New Game” category in 2011 should never have happened. It was a category I created to represent games that were published for the first time ever during that year. But the name was a bad choice and I didn’t explain it very well, so people were confused by what it was supposed to mean.

What are the awards’ (or the organization’s) greatest strengths? Weaknesses? 

The answer to both is the fans. I’ve already explained the strengths above but I’m not naïve enough to not realize it comes with its own problems. For example, because of the nature of the Awards, the publisher with the largest fanbase typically wins. This has been true ever since the ENnies started. But while it’s a weakness, it’s not a huge weakness because it accurately represents what the fans want.

The award categories have changed noticeably since the Awards’ inception, most recently with the separation of “Best Free Game” and “Best Free Product” and the addition of a “Best Family Game” category. A few years ago, the big news was the addition of “Best Podcast” and “Best Blog” categories. Is there an upper limit to the number of categories the awards should include? How many is too many? Is there even such a thing? 

There’s absolutely such a thing as too many categories but the upper-limit is very grey. But the ENnies has to change with the times and make sure that the categories properly reflect what the fans are doing. A few years ago, I was able to talk Denise into adding Best Blog because I recognized how significant they were becoming to the fans.

After years of talking to fans about it, I finally decided to split Best Free Game into its own category. And after seeing how many games were being released by parents who wanted to get their own kids, and anyone else’s, into RPGs, I created the Best Family Game.

Creating a category is not easy and is not to be taken lightly. No matter how vocal the critics, the ENnies simply cannot accommodate everyone.

Right now, for example, there is discussion about Organized Play Adventures and whether they should get their own category. Input is being listened to but it’s a slow process and something that should not just be changed overnight but should take time (years, if needed) to change.

Fans and entrants sometimes seem to have trouble divining what separates the “Aid and Accessory” category from “Best Supplement” and sometimes also “Best RPG Related.” What advice would you give to judges (and entrants) on what kind of product should (or should not) be entered in those categories?

Well, RPG Related is the easier one to answer because that’s the category that’s used for products that are not actual RPG items but have an effect on the industry. For example, The Lands of Ice and Fire won Silver this year but it’s not technically an RPG product. But a GM running a Game of Thrones campaign can use the maps to add flavor and immerse the players in the world.

As for Aid/Accessory and Supplement, I would view the former as something that helps you play the game, such as a Battlemat or a program that can be used to uncover maps for players, and the latter as something that flushes out a system by providing extra rules or details to a game, such as a book of NPCs or a book that allows you to take an existing RPG but put it into a different time/setting.

Are there other categories that have caused unwanted confusion and/or angst in the community?

The only category that has caused “angst” is Best Free Product.

Speaking of angst in the community, it seems like there’s a product nomination (or non-nomination) that causes great outrage following the revelation of each years’ nominees. How did you deal with that? How do the judges? Any particularly well- (or poorly-) handled examples you want to share? What would you say to the angry fan who feels his or her favorite products are under-represented in the nominees?

I can’t speak for the judges but, personally, I’ve kept my mouth shut. The problem is that no matter what you say, if someone comes off as truly angry, you’re not going to change their mind. I should know; at one time, I was one of those angry people. However, if a person seems truly open to discussion, and not just wanting to yell and badger, the ENnies will be happy to engage them and discuss their issues. That’s exactly what happened with the Free Product category, they were open to discussion, and one of the reasons it was split.

How many people vote in the awards every year? Has the number grown? Shrunk? Is there a big difference between the number of people who vote for products and those who vote for the judges? Are there certain categories that get more votes than others? 

The number of people voting has steadily grown every year I’ve been involved with the ENnies and we hit a record 13,885 last year. There is a big difference in judges’ voting, which is something I hope gets better, as only 20% to 25% of product voters also vote for judges.

As for categories, I haven’t noticed a distinct voting pattern.

Has allowing “all electronic” submissions had an effect on the number of hard copy submissions? Has dropping the electronic product entry fee brought in more PDF/electronic entries? 

Actually, the numbers have been roughly the same since allowing a publisher to submit either Electronically or Physically and since dropping the fee for electronic submissions.

What’s been the most pleasant surprise working on the ENnies? How about the most frustrating one?

The most pleasant surprise has been meeting a lot of people in the RPG industry who are just great people and, hopefully, will remain friends for years to come. The frustrating one is how much I’ve missed at Gen Con since I’m there is less of a gamer roll and more of a business roll. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stepped down as Business Manager. But since I still wanted to contribute, Gabriel Whitehead, the new Business Manager, was kind enough to let me back into my spot as PR Coordinator.

Any parting thoughts? Questions I should have asked but didn’t?

I want to remind everyone that the ENnies is fan-based. That means that if you don’t like something that we do, you do have the opportunity to get involved. Running for judge is something I recommend for everyone who has issues with us. I’ve encouraged many people in the past to do so but, unfortunately, few have taken me up on the offer.

I would also like to say that the ENnies is, happily, becoming more global. This year saw Shadows of Esteren, from French publisher Agate Editions, win four awards. We also have two judges this year from somewhere other than North America or England. Jakub Nowosad and Kayra Keri Kupcu are in Poland and Turkey, respectively. Yes, shipping costs suck but I truly hope the ENnies continues to grow and become more of a global phenomenon.

Other than that, I just want to say thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed and congrats on your own ENnie win this year.

We’re flattered to have received the attention, and hope we can build on the success for next year. Thanks again, Tony, for all the hard work!

Kennon Bauman is a professional analyst and lapsed historian who knows the sinister secret history of the origin the Twinkie. He currently lives in Germany with his wife, two children, and dog. You can find Kennon’s bite-sized musings on Twitter @theUniverseGM.

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Comments

  1. Hypersmurf says

    “… less of a gamer roll and more of a business roll…”

    I knew you were more of a roll-player than a role-player!

    -Hyp.

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