Folks I Admire: Leonard Balsera
One of my closest and dearest friends in the world is Leonard Balsera. I figure that to celebrate getting the Golden Geek for Fate Core — which he and I spend many months bleeding for — I should tell you about my friend Lenny.
How We Met
I met Lenny the Wednesday evening of Gen Con 2007, shortly before the Diana Jones Awards, in the Embassy Suites Lobby. Fred Hicks introduced us, and for some damn reason Lenny already knew a bit of who I was and thanked me for supporting the game or something. Then we started drinking. Then we went to the Diana Jones Awards and drank. Then we hit up a bar or two after that, shot the shit and drank.
I recall him offering a homeless guy to have a beer with us, and that honestly put me out of my comfort zone. But…I kinda felt like that night, I should just let myself be out of my comfort zone. This lesson would stick with me ever after. (The bartender refused to serve him, though, and I recall Lenny giving him some money and wishing him well instead.)
He was crashing with the rest of the Evil Hat gang — and this was years before I would join up with them — in some offsite hotel. So, at 3am, I told him to just crash with me, because screw dealing with a cab after drinking for several hours.
Neither of us had hangovers the next morning. We’ve been goddamn bonded friends ever since.
Lenny mixes professionalism with irreverence, as do I. When he requested me to come onto the Dresden Files team to be his co-designer, I was humbled, because Lenny is one of the sharpest designers I know. He has a great eye for game economy, and I credit much of my eye for that with our many lengthy conversations. And the way he throws himself into a work is passionate and inspiring.
(In fact, in the early days, part of my job was to tell him to stop doing that when it became a tangent and we were on deadline.)
More importantly, though, is that as a creative person, Lenny isn’t arrogant. He is loud and boisterous, and you might say that he “plays arrogant on TV” for laughs, but in working with him that all slides away. No one takes criticism like he does — on language choices, design choices, narrative choices, you name it. He will defend what he believes is the right choice, but his defense is to explain himself and listen to why you have a different conclusion.
I seriously wish I could bottle that and give it to every other designer in the hobby. That includes myself, because I can become stubborn, and when I recognize that I take effort to think “What would Lenny do?”
To give a specific, let’s talk about the first draft of Fate Core. I read over the basics and the aspects chapter, and rejected it. I gave it back with two notes:
- This is phoned-in, and you were clearly bored writing it.
- Your audience is unclear. One moment, you’re speaking as if to someone who has never played an RPG before, the next as if to a Fate veteran.
There’s a lot of people where, if I gave that sort of overall rejection, would come back defensive or resentful. Lenny just said “Damn, you’re right. Okay, let’s talk about fixing those problems.”
(Incidentally, fixing the first problem required us to redesign Fate, and address all of the issues in the Dresden build that we were constantly unhappy with and frequently explaining around. So if you like Fate Core, and judging by the Golden Geek quite a few of you do, then you have Lenny’s self-honestly and professionalism-over-ego to thank for that.)
If you’ve ever seen me comment with “unfuck this” in a manuscript, and that comment is intended for the writer to read, that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a creative. It comes from doing that with Lenny, as I don’t necessarily need to tell Lenny more than that, I don’t need to handhold him, that he knows it’s not personal, and I know that if he needs more guidance that he’ll ask. If I believe that to be about you as well, I’ll write “Unfuck this” when working with you (if casual profanity is your thing, of course).
He also pushes me to new heights. I tell a short version of one such story in the back of Mythender, starting with “I blame Leonard Balsera.” And he did it recently when we jammed together over IM to rehash Fate boosts. And we’re doing it again on other, not-entirely-disclosed projects.
I’ve been rambling for 750 words now. Honestly, I didn’t know what to write on this, because how do you encapsulate in a blog post one of the friendships that fundamentally changed you personally and professionally? I suppose the answer is that you can’t, but you can scratch a little of the surface.
Here’s to you, Lenny, you beautiful fucker.
 The first answer is generally “rum.”