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This interview was conducted by our own Modoc and appeared on his website Rolling Box Cars. It appears here with his permission.
I recently had the good fortune to be able to interview the man behind Torchbearer RPG. This was really exciting for me. I was an early kickstarter backer. In fact, I couldn’t throw my money at the campaign quick enough! Well, enough about me spending money, let’s talk about Thor. This opportunity is just the thing I needed to help spur me on to mastering Torchbearer this year. Damn you Torchbearer! I will win! Ok, without further ado, I present to you Thor Olavsrud.
RB: Let’s start this interview off right, you’re no stranger to the RPG industry. Please tell Rolling Boxcar readers a little about your RPG resume. (feel free to include any links you would like)
THOR: Sure. In late 2003 or early 2004 I made the trek from my home in NYC to New Jersey for a now-defunct little con called UberCon. While there I ran into Luke Crane, who had recently published his fantasy roleplaying game Burning Wheel.
I’d heard about his game online, so I sat down for a demo of the scripted combat system. I think I played a dwarven prince in a fight against an orc chieftain, and we went around for a few volleys before the orc grappled me, locked me up, jammed the sharpened edge of his shield into my face until my armor failed and then finished me off when I hesitated due to the shock of my wound. I was hooked! I loved everything about the game: its aesthetic, its attitude and its rules.
I was (and am) a professional writer and editor, and since we lived in the same city I gave Luke my card and told him that I was available if he needed an editor.
I don’t think I expected Luke to take me up on it at the time, but it just so happened that he was hard at work on the Monster Burner and needed an editor (a friend who is not a professional editor had edited the first published edition of Burning Wheel, but decided one book was enough).
We clicked as a team during that project and we’ve been working on projects ever since. I’ve edited and developed for the Monster Burner (2004), Under a Serpent Sun (2004), The No Press RPG Anthology (editing only, 2004), Burning Wheel Revised (2005), Burning Sands: Jihad (2005), Burning Empires (2006), Under a Serpent Sun Revised (2006), The Blossoms Are Falling (2007), Magic Burner (2008), Mouse Guard (2008), Bloodstained Stars (2009), Adventure Burner (2010), Burning Wheel Gold (2011) and Mouse Guard Boxed Set (2011). I did bits and pieces of writing for Burning Sands, Magic Burner and Adventure Burner.
For a time, I also worked on games outside BWHQ. I edited Michael S. Miller’s With Great Power… (2005), Nathan Paoletta’s carry. a game about war (2008), Michael S. Miller’s and Kat Miller’s Serial Homicide Unit, Brennan Taylor’s Mortal Coil Revised (2009), Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here (2009), Renee Knipe and Danielle Lewon’s Kagematsu, Joshua A.C. Newman’s Shock: Human Contact (2011) and D. Vincent Baker’s and Joshua A.C. Newman’s Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack (2012).
And of course, I worked as designer, writer and art director for Torchbearer (2013), The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (2013), The Petersen Bestiary, Vol. 1 (2013), The Petersen Bestiary, Vol. 2 (2014), The Torchbearer Player’s Deck (2014) and Torchbearer GM’s Screen (2014).
It’s been a busy 10 years!
RB: I would like to focus on Torchbearer if I may (I was a Kickstarter backer). As the creative mind behind Torchbearer RPG, what or who influenced you during the creation process?
THOR: That’s actually a pretty involved question. There were a number of things going on.
Torchbearer is obviously derived from Mouse Guard, so Luke’s ideas and design aesthetic were a big influence. Having spent so many years working and playing games together, I probably couldn’t have escaped that if I had tried.
My polestar for the project was my memory of what it was like to open the red box for the first time as a 12-year-old kid and get blown away by a game. I didn’t want to recreate D&D, but Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and Tom Moldvay were a huge inspiration.
In the Kickstarter video, I related a story from my college years. I went on a caving trip in upstate New York to Clarksville Cave. I had been to Luray Caverns in Virginia as a kid — it’s an amazing place to visit, but it’s a commercial cave with open spaces and electric lighting. Clarksville is a wild cave with lots of squeezes you have to worm your way through — you need a helmet, and knee and elbow pads are very much recommended! It wound up raining heavily while we were underground, so one of the passages we had to go through on the way out had flowing water that was nearly chest deep. It’s an experience that powerfully affected me and I wanted to bring at least a little bit of that into the game.
I should also mention some of the OSR luminaries. I was inspired by Matt Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (and some of his incredibly atmospheric adventures), and Justin Alexander’s blog The Alexandrian (particularly a series of posts called Jaquaying the Dungeon, based on techniques drawn from maps created by Jennell Jaquays).
Finally, there was my paternal grandmother. When I was a boy in Norway, she told the most wonderful folktales. Her influence will probably be quite a bit clearer on the Middarmark setting, but it definitely forms the backdrop of Torchbearer for me.
RB: Imagine for a moment that a second edition of Torchbearer was going to be done, what one thing you would add and what one thing you would remove from Torchbearer? What would they be and why?
THOR: It hasn’t even been two years yet! At this point, I wouldn’t change very much. I’d probably rip out the Asymmetric Conflict Goals paragraph on page 149 and rewrite it because it seems to trip up a lot of people. I may just do it when we reprint.
RB: What does the future hold for Torchbearer? Could we expect to see more published supplements or other add-ons in the future?
THOR: More Torchbearer! I’m plugging away at the Middarmark setting/gazetteer that we promised in the Kickstarter. It’s been slow going, but I think folks will dig it when it’s done! We’re also working on the follow-up book to Torchbearer, which will have rules for taking characters from level 6 to level 10, along with rules for wilderness adventures and a bunch of other stuff. We don’t have a name for it yet, but I tend to refer to it as the Torchbearer Expert Companion. We don’t want fans to wait too long for the content in this book, so Luke and I recently released a free PDF of level benefits from 6 to 10 and we’ll release some higher level spells and prayers soon.
A while back we released simple language licenses that allow people to make stuff for Torchbearer using our trade dress and sell or share it. I’m hoping to see folks release some stuff using those licenses this year. My friend Jared Sorensen has already created and sold a number of new classes for the game and I’m really hoping to see some adventures soon. Sean Nittner has been working on one he calls Stone Dragon Mountain and I think it will be amazing.
RB: Let’s face it, Torchbearer is a little on the crunchy side; how do you sell new folks on the idea of Torchbearer?
THOR: It is a crunchy game, but I’m not apologetic about it. I like crunchy games! If I can see everything a game has to offer in a session or two, I get bored. Torchbearer is a game that takes skill to play well. You’ll get better at it over time. And actually it’s not just you as an individual — playing Torchbearer well requires great teamwork. You and your friends will get better at playing as a team, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Still, I don’t think Torchbearer holds a candle to Pathfinder or Exalted or games like that in terms of complexity. If you play those games, Torchbearer shouldn’t send you running for the hills.
As for selling it? I think people have a lot of love for dungeon delving games to begin with. And some of those people are tickled by the idea that their character could make a wrong turn somewhere, lose their light and die cold, alone and hungry in some forgotten hole. But that end isn’t inevitable. With skill and a little bit of luck you can change your fate!
RB: What advice can you offer to new players and GMs that are committed to learning and playing Torchbearer, but have yet to actually play/run?
THOR: Grab some friends, download The Dread Crypt of Skogenby and give it a try!
Be as descriptive as you can — you want to get the GM to invoke the Good Idea rule as often as possible. Celebrate your accomplishments but really make sure to enjoy the bad things that happen to your characters. Think and act like a team. Keep in mind that the first session is the hardest! Once you have a few Rewards to spend from previous sessions, you’ll have a lot more power to swing things your way. Don’t wait to earn checks. Use traits against yourself early and often so you can camp frequently.
RB: Where can readers purchase Torchbearer?
THOR: You can buy Torchbearer directly from us through the Burning Store. The PDF is available on DriveThru. Your FLGS can order it if they don’t stock it already, or you can get it through Amazon.
RB: For those familiar with Torchbearer and other Burning Wheel products your name should not be unfamiliar to them. Aside from Torchbearer, in your opinion, what is your most important contribution to the Burning Wheel line of games and products?
THOR: Most important is tough. I guess the most recognizable thing is probably the Circles mechanic, which players can use to bring NPCs from their past into the session.
RB: So, what’s next from the creative mind of Thor Olavsrud?
THOR: Right now my primary focus is the Middarmark setting. After that I’d love to do some adventures.
RB: Can you elaborate on the Middarmark setting? What can we expect to see in the wat of modules?
We actually teased the Middarmark setting a bit during the Kickstarter, though we optimistically promised it would be out in 2014 (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/burningwheel/torchbeare...). It’s still coming and Kickstarter backers will get a free PDF when we do release it.
The Middarmark is a fantasy setting that draws heavily on Norse mythology and Scandinavian folktales. Luke likes to describe it as if the vikings had conquered Greenland and Nova Scotia only to find the ruins of the Roman Levant beneath the roots of the forests. It’s got new settlements, monsters, Hero Cults and lots of adventure seeds to inspire GMs. Every place in it has at least one weird thing that could be blown out into a whole campaign by an enterprising GM. It’s also just a small part of a much larger world. One of my friends and playtesters has been noodling around with an archipelago to the west of the Middarmark and I’d love to see fans make the setting their own and add to it if they’re inspired.
As for modules, they’re a bit farther out, so I can’t say anything definitive about them. I’ve been noodling around with one in which you find a legendary castle that was swallowed by a sinister forest generations ago and thought lost, and another involving an abandoned dwarven watchtower. Those may be a little involved, but I’d also like to do some smaller modules that could be played in a session or two, like The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (https://www.burningwheel.com/store/index.php/dread-crypt-of-...).
I’m also hoping that we’ll start to see some folks releasing adventures under our licenses. I know that Sean Nittner is currently working on a module under our Torchbearer Sagas license (http://www.torchbearerrpg.com/?page_id=78) that he calls Stone Dragon Mountain. He’s drawing a lot of inspiration from Tibet and Nepal, and I think it will blow people away.
RB: Will we see you on the convention circuit this year? If so, where can our readers meet, talk and more importantly, game with you this year?
THOR: I’ll be at PAX East with Burning Wheel and the Dungeon World kobolds this year. I’ll also be at Gen Con with Burning Wheel, though our booth situation is in flux at the moment. I’m not sure about PAX Prime, but it’s on my radar — it’s tough because it’s so close to Gen Con and I have a day job. Hopefully we will also be able to resurrect Burning Con this year. Sadly, we weren’t able to hold it last year because our normal venue jacked the rates on us, but I’m hopeful we’ll figure something out this year.
If it’s there and it’s happening, I’ll be running games. The past few years we’ve been a bit lax about getting games on the schedule at Gen Con, but I’ve run a lot of games at Games on Demand. I highly recommend checking it out. There are so many cool games to try!
I’m always happy to chat, so feel free to say hello if you spot me.
RB: What are you thoughts on virtual gaming? Do you have any recommended platforms or interfaces for our readers to consider?
THOR: Honestly, I don’t have a lot of experience with it. One of the nice things about living in New York City is that there’s no shortage of face-to-face games. I could have a game very night of the week if I had the time and energy for it!
I played a game on Google Hangouts once and it was pretty decent.
RB: Please tell our readers what three industry or hobby personalities you would love to see interviewed by Rolling Boxcars and why.
Lee Gold, founder of Alarums and Excursions (http://www.conchord.org/xeno/aande.html). I’d love to hear her take on the founding of the zine and its role in shaping the west coast RPG zine in the early days. (there’s a bit about Lee and Alarums & Excursions in this Jon Peterson article: https://medium.com/@increment/the-first-female-gamers-c784fb...)
Jennell Jaquays, artist, tabletop game designer, and video game designer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennell_Jaquays). Jennell, in my opinion, is one of the greatest module and setting designers in the hobby. Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia, both published by Judge’s Guild are masterpieces. And campaign settings don’t get much better than Griffin Mountain.
Sean Nittner (http://www.seannittner.com/), podcaster (Narrative Control: http://narrativecontrol.libsyn.com/), project manager for Evil Hat (http://www.evilhat.com/home/), game developer and con organizer. I don’t know how Sean stays on top of everything he does, but he’s masterful at it. On top of everything else, he seems to write interesting actual play posts about all the various games he participates in. I want to know where he gets his energy!
Thor, It has been an absolute pleasure to interview you! I have publicly committed to learning and mastering Torchbearer this year (see here). I was hopeful that your were more involved in the virtual gaming scene, but alas you are not. I was going to ask you to run a game so that I could play. Keep me in mind if you ever do decide to run a virtual game! Anyways, thank you for your time and willingness to let our readers get to know you a little better.
I challenge everyone out there to delve into the world of Torchbearer and master the game with me this year! Form your own groups, inspire your friends to greatness or just make them buy the book and run the damn game for you!
Until next time, happy gaming!
This interview was conducted by our own Modoc and appeared on his website Rolling Box Cars. It appears here with his permission.
I recently had the opportunity to interview, Game Designer and publisher, David Brown. David is very active within the hobby and his company, eXtra-Dimensional Publishing, publishes some very high-quality products. You can see my other posts related Adventures in the East Mark: Basic Rule Set to learn about the high quality of their products. This interview was spurred on by the cancellation of their Adventures in the East Mark (English) line of products. So, without further ado, I present to you….. David Brown
RB. I know I was sad to learn that the relationship between eXtra-Dimensional (XD) Publishing and its Spanish partners regarding Adventures in the East Mark was ended recently. For those that may not have seen your press release, can you summarize the situation?
DB. Basic summary is that while we succeeded at delivering our physical products to our backers we required additional investment to produce more units available for retail and combo tiers for future Kickstarter Projects. But distributors are not seemingly interested in carrying our game, often citing price ($59.99 MSRP) and size, and it’s hard to commit to another project launch with debt outstanding from the first. Also, our marketing and community outreach could have been better, despite support by a lot of folks. It’s where I failed, specifically.
RB. If you had it to do over, what one thing would you change that you believe might have had the greatest impact on the future success of the Adventures in the East Mark product line in English?
DB. This one is tough. It’s easy to say that things might have been different if we’d just gone soft cover book versus full box set, but then we would have been just another retro-clone. Yes, the artwork would have differentiated the product, but probably not enough. We definitely sought out from the start to court the nostalgic crowd and the un-inked precision dice with a crayon were my contributions to add to that appeal.
I think if I had to do anything different, I’d have found a way to lower the price of the full-color box set and eliminated the B&W version altogether. That’s what I was hoping to do with the Blue Box.
RB. Would you ever consider undertaking another translation type project in the future?
DB. The translation of the product was very tricky- Pedro Gil and his collaborators liked to use a style of prose that has an intentionally archaic voice in Spanish. Working with that and making it flow well to an English audience was a struggle. We failed initially and had to take a few months going back through it, polishing out as much of the awkwardness as possible. The finished product still wasn’t as note perfect throughout as I would have liked, but we had deadlines and I didn’t want us to become vaporware.
I love what I’ve seen in foreign RPGs, especially those from Europe. There is a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about their games and especially their artwork that really sets them apart. They have a very different perspective as they live in areas that have actually lived through a lot of the epic struggles that we game about.
So, yes, if the pieces were all there and I knew the translation team could get it right, of course, I would. I wish I could have delivered Walküre to the US audience, but the timing hasn’t worked and I didn’t want me to be the delay on that project. Heck, I would do more of East Mark in a heartbeat if I thought I had the means to do it right.
RB. Is there anything the Kickstarter campaign has taught you about being a publisher? Maybe lessons learned?
Cost of shipping, not properly calculated, can kill a project. International shipping is a beast. I’ve seen that Kickstarter has new tools to handle it and I know other companies who only offer a “shipping credit” in the initial pledge.
Also, you want to make a splash with the introduction of your Kickstarter project when it launches, but if the right people aren’t looking when you launch, you can easily get off behind the game. We did OK, but I wish I’d made better inroads with the OSR community before we launch. That was my fault.
And don’t split your first project up with too many add-ons until you’ve hit your initial funding goal. It’s too easy to mistake money earned from them as contributing to your bottom line for delivering your goal and miss the time, effort, and costs associated with fulfilling them.
If you’re new to publishing and product fulfillment, it’s easy for printers and producers to forget that you are new to it. Remind them frequently and ask all the potentially dumb questions. It’s too easy for assumptions to be made and therefore misunderstandings to occur.
RB. What does the future hold for eXtra-Dimensional Publishing?
DB. Well, first we have to continue to sell the product we have. It’s a strong game and just because I’m relinquishing the license so that there is a more likely chance folks will get the rest of the line in English doesn’t mean I will not continue to support the heck out of it. And we still have a few digital offerings to deliver- Tony Reyes’ Lovecraftian adventure and the Beta Blue Box are continuing to be worked on. We have every intent to deliver on those products.
Other than that, I am hoping to focus more on digital only offerings for a while. I love print materials, but I think you’ve got to walk before you run, especially if going in a new direction. East Mark had a following, and as I said before they had defined their product before I came into the picture. Anything else from X-D would be in new areas, so I’ll make no assumption that people will be interested right out of the gate. I have been working on a licensed product for another game line, but I can’t say much on it right now. It’ll be a small release that I’m doing for fun.
My long term goal for X-D will be to RPGs what Image has been to comics. It’s not a perfect analogy, but my hope is to help bring up-and-coming creators together to produce self-owned works. I’m building a network of designers and artists and I hope to help bring them together on projects that they want to do. I make no claim that I’ll succeed at that goal, but I have a lot of passion that drives me to give back to our hobby some of what it has given to me.
RB. In what ways are you connected to the industry apart from being a principle in eXtra-Dimensional Publishing?
I am the lead host on two podcasts focused on Monte Cook Games RPGs- “Transmissions from the Ninth World” (twice Ennie Nominated) focused on Numenera and “Translating the Strange” focused on The Strange. I’ve been a big supporter of what Monte and the gang at MCG have been producing since the Numenera Kickstarter. I started a website “Ninth World Hub” to support a community eager to discuss Numenera in early 2013 and have since been made part of the MCG Editorial Board.
I’ve also started “Legends of RPG” that I hope to become a series of in depth interviews with some of the hobby’s greatest contributors. I interviewed Frank Mentzer for our first episode and it looks like I’ll finally be able to record our second one with Chris Pramas soon. I already have commitments with a list of some big names in the industry and I hope to get to a more regular recording schedule with them.
RB. Our readers would like to know, what are you two favorite RPGs and why?
DB. I’ll skip the obvious answers in Adventures in the East Mark, which I do love, and I am excited about the new edition of “the world’s oldest fantasy RPG”. It would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that game’s prominence and the fact that it’s first edition is what got me started playing.
But I have to say, Numenera is my tops. The setting is so inspiring and I love playing in the weirdness. A huge percentage of the games I play now are Numenera games.
I also love The Strange for its versatility in settings. Don’t miss out on what can be done in The Strange, whether the GM chooses to involve the game’s metaplot or not. You can really capture a game that is reflective of things like “The Fringe” or “Sliders” TV shows. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
RB. Do you play other types of games? If so, what do you play, what attracts you to these types of games and gives us some of your favorites.
DB. I am a near addict in collecting games. I play card, miniature and video games all the time. I think of every game played as mental exercise of some type; each game training different brain “muscles”. My current favs are “Android: Netrunner”, which I love its asymmetrical gameplay, and I’ve been revisiting “Mage Knight: Dungeons” for kicks. Love that game. On my PC, I’ve been hitting Endless Space for hours and I get drawn back into the XCOM re-release all the time.
RB. Will we see you on the convention circuit this year? If so, where can our readers meet, talk and more importantly, game with you this year?
DB. I’ve been to the past two GenCons and hope to go every year going forward. It’s been pretty cool to attend the past two as an Ennie Nominee, so I hope to make it three in a row in some fashion.
I really wanted to go to GaryCon or even the North Texas RPG Con this year, but not looking likely. There are some more local cons to me (I’m in Charlotte, NC area), so cons like Storm-Con, SCARAB Gaming Con, MACE, etc. are more likely to fit my agenda.
RB. Please tell our readers what three industry or hobby personalities you would love to see interviewed by Rolling Boxcars and why.
DB. I owe a huge gratitude to Frank Mentzer for many reasons. I hope everyone in our industry takes whatever time they can, to thank him and learn from him. He’d be top of my list (in fact, he was!).
And of course I’m a huge fan of all the folks at Monte Cook Games. Monte himself has a huge swath of RPG knowledge. Bruce Cordell is also an immensely talented and I’m digging into lots of his earlier work that I missed.
I am very eager to see continuing contributions by Shanna Germain. I honestly believe that her “Love and Sex in the Ninth World” will be viewed as a turning point in RPG games in the very near future. She may be the chosen one to bring balance to… just kidding, but seriously she’s great!
It was my pleasure and my honor to interview David. David, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions and for allowing me to dredge up some of the issues with Adventures in the East Mark. I know I look forward to seeing what eXtra-Dimensional Publishing will put out in the future!
As always, join the Boxcar Nation on G+ for additional discussions and VoIP games!
This interview was conducted by our own Modoc and appeared on his website Rolling Box Cars. It appears here with his permission.
The other day, Peter C. Spahn of Small Niche Games contacted me and asked if I was willing to give his newest Kickstarter project, TROPES: Zombie Edition, rules a look over. After reading the draft of the rules, I quickly figured out he has a sweet little project and that his backers are going to be getting a fun, high-flying, zombie action game. While I am not a huge zombie fan, I think some will be pleasantly surprised with this game. Anyways, I had been wanting to interview Pete and this seemed like a great opportunity. In this interview, I ask Pete about his current Kickstarter campaign and some other fun questions. Well, let’s gets the ball rolling and do this!
RB. Let’s start off by telling our readers about Small Niche Games. What type of games do you design and for what genres?
PS. Small Niche Games is a publisher of original games and game content. The bulk of our products fall into the OSR category (Labyrinth Lord specifically). Most of these titles have been adventures and supplements set in the core Chronicles of Amherth setting, a homebrew that I’ve been fleshing out for over 20 years now. Check out the SNG page here.
On a personal level, I’ve published adventures and/or supplements for a number of game companies including Wizards of the Coast, Precis Intermedia, and others. I’ve also dabbled in a bit of fantasy fiction, including a well-received Viking novel modeled after the Old Norse sagas.
RB. Tropes, Zombie Edition, what is it and what makes it a great game?
PS. TROPES: Zombie Edition [TZE] is the first entry to the TROPES game line. Its system is fast and flexible and uses a handful of d6s making it a great party game. The game itself draws inspiration from zombie films, books, and video games. In some ways, it plays like a board game or video game that also allows for a full range of roleplaying.
Guidelines are provided that let you mimic just about any type of zombie story. I set the default as a fast action romp where characters are fighting zombies, running for their lives, and getting eaten left and right, but you can also play it more seriously if that’s what you want. If you and your group like zombies, all it takes it tailoring the scenario (known as an Outbreak) to your tastes.
The thing to keep in mind is that TZE is specifically designed for one shots. In TZE you design three characters at the start of the game, fold them up, then mix all the characters together. Every player chooses one character. When a character gets killed, the player chooses another character, and so on and so forth, until there are no characters left or the PCs escape the Outbreak. This sort of sets it apart from most other zombie apocalypse roleplaying games where you generate a specific character and then develop his skills and abilities through play.
Another thing that sets it apart is the focus on high-flying action. I’ve played too many “misery tourism” zombie RPGs that were just a slog through a world filled with zombies, horrible humans, and one depressing moment after another. I’m not entirely knocking that style of play–there’s always a place for exploring more serious themes—I’m just saying that it’s not very conducive to a party game. TZE is designed to appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.
RB. My feeling is that the whole zombie apocalypse thing so over done! Obviously you don’t feel the same way. So, why then zombies? (feel free to use the response you emailed me).
PS. Actually, you’ll get no argument from me. The zombie genre had a fork sticking out of it a long time ago. And yet, every time a new zombie movie comes out, tons of people still go to the movies to see it. Zombieland, Warm Bodies, Shaun of the Dead. Not to mention you can’t go anywhere without tripping over a fan of The Walking Dead. Zombies have now gotten to that weird place where many of the “edgier” people who used to enjoy the cult classic Romero films don’t like zombies anymore just because they’ve become so mainstream.
RB. For those interested that might still be on the fence with regards to backing your project, are you considering running short online demo sessions?
PS. I have considered that. It’s something I would have preferred to prepare better for, though. Online sessions have a slightly different dynamic than a home game where you’re sitting around the table with friends, so I’ll definitely have to think on it. I can see where it might be a lot of fun.
RB. You once referred to Tropes, Zombie Edition as a vanity project, care to elaborate?
PS. Most of my products are what I call “vanity” projects. That is, I write something and publish it because it’s something I find useful or fun at the table and want to share with other gamers, not because there’s any great demand for it. No one was pining for an OSR city sourcebook when I made the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay, for example. Now that it’s out, almost all the feedback I’ve gotten, about it, has been positive.
That said, TROPES: Zombie Edition is even more of a vanity project than my OSR products because at least I know there is an active market for adventures and supplements in the OSR. TZE has no fan base, so I’m basically starting from scratch. I think a lot of people will find it a fun game once they give it a read, but that’s always the first hurdle.
RB. What are your plans for the Tropes line of games?
PS. There are a lot of directions I’d like to go with TROPES. It’s a simple, but intuitive system that lends itself well to the action genre. In no particular order or rush to publish, TROPES: Miami Vice, TROPES: Pirates, TROPES: Gangs of New York, TROPES: WWII, TROPES: Old West. Another author has already approached me about a TROPES: Cyberpunk-type game. Time will tell.
RB. You’re no stranger to game design and publishing, but what makes you qualified to deliver on you promises and timetables? Have you run other successful Kickstarter campaigns in the past? Any lessons learned that you are employing here?
PS. I have run two successful Kickstarters. The first was the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay I mentioned above. That Kickstarter exceeded my wildest expectations and set the bar pretty high. The Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay is available now as a free PDF if anyone wants to check it out:
My second Kickstarter project was a fiction novella entitled Time of the Dying Stars: Book One. It is a series of interlinked short stories set in the aforementioned City of Dolmvay. The novella seems to have been well received and is also available as a free PDF:
Although connected by the same source material, these were two very different types of products. The amount of support and encouragement I received during, both funding campaigns was enormous. If I learned anything though, it’s that game content is way more marketable than game fiction. While I’m almost certainly going to run a campaign for the Guidebook to the Duchy of Valnwall sourcebook, I doubt I’ll be running a campaign for TotDS: Book Two. I am proud that I was able to deliver both campaigns on time to my backers!
RB. Will we see you on the convention circuit this year? If so, where can our readers meet, talk and more importantly, game with you this year?
PS. I’m working on getting some of my products into conventions via a third-party vendor, but that’s the only real publisher presence I have planned. As for attending cons, I try to make DragonCon if I can. Someone recently pointed me to a con in South Carolina [Storm-Con] that sounds promising. . .
RB. Please tell our readers what three industry or hobby personalities you would love to see interviewed by Rolling Boxcars and why. (These can be industry professionals, hobby personalities, podcasters, etc)
PS. Only three??? Erik Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern comes immediately to mind, although he says so much on his own blog I don’t know what questions he’d have left to answer.
I’ve always had a good working relationship with Brett Bernstein of Precis Intermedia and I don’t think he gets enough credit for his huge catalogue of games and how solid his house systems are, not to mention his innovative Disposable Heroes paper minis line that was one of the first of its kind.
James M. Spahn (no relation, promise) is another underrated game designer whose work always impresses. In addition to his OSR products, he’s also one of the leading writers of Cubicle 7’s The One Ring game line, so if you like LotR you can’t help but be a fan of James’s work.
Pete, thanks for the opportunity to chat with you about your campaign and about Small Niche Games. The insight into your little world was eye-opening and I had a great time interviewing you. Well, I hope the Kickstarter is a smashing success and Small Niche Games continues to publish great products (I haven’t found a dud yet!).
Sun Oct 25, 2015 12:16 am
This interview was conducted by our own Modoc and appeared on his website Rolling Box Cars. It appears here with his permission.
Every other Sunday I game with the Chief Bottle Washer of RPG Geek, Dave Bernazzani, in his Sunday Mornings in Hell, Labyrinth Lord game. Last year I also volunteered to help organize VirtuaCon and I got to know Dave, the person and not just Dave, the admin. I also got the chance to see a little behind the curtain of RPG Geek; it’s a fascinating place and I am proud to call it home! Dave is a great guy and fun to chat with, but more importantly, he’s a pillar of the RPG Geek community. His volunteerism in the community and the hobby are hands down a shining example for many folks, myself included. I have a lot of respect for Dave and what he does for the community. Over the past two years we have had many chances to chat about all things gaming and I thought it was high time to properly interview him. Without further ado, let me introduce to you Dave or as he is better know at RPG Geek, Wavemotion.
RB: Dave, let’s start this interview off a serious note. How did you become involved as the managing director if I may use that title, of RPG Geek?
DB: I like that title! I might just steal it though it’s not quite accurate. I am granted no special title on the site so I usually just describe myself as “Chief Bottle Washer” and leave it at that. In 2009 Aldie (the owner of Board Game Geek) asked me to help with the classic video game section of a new site he had envisioned called Video Game Geek (VGG). He knew my love for all the classic consoles of the early 80s which I collect. I wasn’t sure what form the helping out would entail but decided I’d give it a try. Prior to launching VGG, Aldie decided to test the waters with what he felt was a smaller challenge – a spin-off of BGG that was specific to Role-Playing Games. RPG Geek was developed and the alpha test was, quite frankly, a bit of a mess. There seemed to be serious confusion as to how to catalog and categorize role-playing games. The taxonomy and hierarchy was significantly different than boardgames. Some games had just one core book (think of your typical Indie or small-press game). Some had a series of books (with the extreme of, say, Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder). Some game systems were borrowed from different genres (Fudge, Fate and Apocalypse World spring to mind). Third party products muddied the waters further. As the existing BGG database structure wasn’t a good fit for the role-playing hobby, I started to doodle a structure on the back of some napkins and presented these rough ideas to the Alpha Team. For some reason, I was rewarded with more and more authority to define the data structure. I then put in place the first draft of what has now become our venerable (and daunting!) Guide to Data Entry (http://rpggeek.com/wiki/page/Guide_to_Data_Entry). So while I’ve never been given any sort of official capacity with the site, the site principals haven’t exactly blocked my help … so I found myself in a sort of unofficial leadership capacity with RPG Geek. I am given top-level admin privileges, but I carry no Admin banner over my username nor do I belong to the private admin email list. As such I’m a unique blend of outsider and insider – but with one purpose: to provide legendary service to the role-playing community through leadership and by setting a strong example. At least that’s what I tell people. In reality I mostly just want a place where I feel I belong and can discuss cool geeky ideas with cool people.
I wish to provide legendary service to the RPG community to help grow our hobby and enrich the lives of gamers everywhere.
RB: Rumor has it your involvement with RPG Geek is all glitz and glamor, is there any truth to this rumor? What exactly do you do to keep the site a pillar of excellence?
DB: It takes quite a bit of my time (which I volunteer) to help out with site management. Much of this comes in the form of empowerment and some semblance of organization. My goal is to let anyone in the community who wants to help do so in the most efficient way possible. If someone has an idea for a contest? Great! Let’s get some prizes behind that, make sure our twitter account (@rpggeek which I handle) gets the word spread, ensure we advertise on the appropriate G+ communities to spread the word. Community members wanted a way to log all of the magazines and zines related to our great hobby – so I worked as a liaison to the site owners to get a system in place to handle periodicals. I created a consortium of interested folks who help make decisions on where things get cataloged in our database (there are lots of fringe cases – don’t get me started on the great miniature debate of 2010!). Mostly I consider myself a lead-by-example member of the community with just enough access to the site developers to get some back-end support for the things we need.
RB: Let’s talk more about RPG Geek for minute. I know there are lots of great things happening there that are not happening at other RPG related sites on the internet. Can you tell our readers some of the things that set RPG Geek apart from other sites. Is there anything specific you are most proud of?
DB: I’m most proud of our community. Really the friendliest place I’ve been to discuss gaming of any kind. Very few flare-ups – we have a group of more than 100 self-volunteers known as the RPG Geek Heroes who really set the tone for the site (yes, anyone can join the RPGG Heroes even if you’re new to the site!). We don’t cater to one game – our database and forum structure gives even the smallest niche games the same forum power as the big-hitters. Beyond the community we have well-supported play-by-forum capabilities (complete with one of the most sophisticated die-rollers around which has been adapted to play every RPG imaginable – even the one that uses the Magic-8 ball for conflict resolution). We have a database which supports not only games and supplements but also links in reviews, session reports, podcast coverage and periodical articles – it’s a one-stop shop in finding out everything and anything related to a game (our off-site links make sure we get you everything you need to research a game even if it’s not specifically contained on RPG Geek directly).
RB: Let’s switch gears a little and talk about VirtuaCon. Labeled as “The Best Three Days in Virtual Gaming”, how did the event come about? What makes it tick and succeed for two years now? What does the future hold for VirtuaCon?
DB: The idea was to bring a full-scale convention that could be attended from the comfort of your own home. Someone suggested it in our RPG Gee anonymous suggestion box (and nobody has stepped forward to claim credit) and we ran with the idea. The model we used was loosely inspired by ConTessa. Our first year we had some growing pains – some unanticipated issues and some technical glitches but it was still an amazingly successful 3 days of virtual gaming. The name is a sort of bastardization and homage to the old 3D fighting game called Virtua Fighter and is so named because the tabletop is all virtualized. The second year we applied much of what we had learned – we had industry guests, speaking panels on a variety of geeky topics, contests, puzzles, tons of sponsors and prizes and, of course, piles of games that ran in time-slots world-wide! We have averaged 60 games with a wide-variety of genres and systems. We have settled on using Google Hangouts (with Roll20 or DiceStream apps) to run our games – had plenty of teaching sessions to get people up to speed and we’re really stoked at the direction we’re headed in coming years. Virtuacon 2015 will take place in October – it costs nothing to attend and we would love to see attendance grow this year (we had roughly 350 people “attend” last year).
RB: In your opinion, why does VirtuaCon succeed where others have struggled?
DB: Part of the answer is simple – we saw what others were doing and did more of the things that seemed to work. If we have seen further, it is only because we have stood on the shoulders of Stone Giants. The other part of the answer is that we have a stable community behind the event – our GMs (and the majority of our players) are people we interact with on a regular basis. They are highly likely to be reliable – showing up for their games on time and they are going to be prepared (both for the game and the technology). In short, the event succeeds because of the community behind it.
Dave on Virtuacon wrote:
The best advice I can give is to urge people
to jump in and come for some part (no matter how
small) of the virtual weekend.
RB: Do you have any advice for our reader that might be considering attending VirtuaCon, virtually that is, this year? Maybe some advice for those that might be interested in being GMs?
DB: The best advice I can give is to urge people to jump in and come for some part (no matter how small) of the virtual weekend. People who were on the fence and decided to come were surprised at how much fun they had – how close it felt to a real convention and the new friendships that followed. The people you meet have a home base back on RPG Geek – so you can, if you choose, interact with those you got along with again. The event can only succeed with participation and everyone who attends helps ensure that there will be future endeavours.
As far as running a game at Virtuacon – my advice would be to join RPG Geek first and get integrated and established with the community before running a game. A large number of the players come from RPG Geek (though we welcome any interested folks) and having an established presence is a sure way to have your game get the requisite number of players to run.
RB: Now, let’s talk about Dave, the gamer. When did you begin gaming and what are some of your fondest gaming memories?
DB: My family grew up playing games – checkers, chess, cribbage and various forms of Rummy. I recall playing Trivial Pursuit every Friday night with the family – super fun at least until someone questioned the validity of the answer and a family argument would ensue that would sometimes derail the game. In 1980 I saw my first Dungeons and Dragons book. In 1981 I got my very own Box Set (the Tom Moldvay box / Erol Otus cover). I had a mix of Basic and Advanced D&D and never really understood the difference sufficiently (I mixed and matched rules as was my whim). I was almost always the Dungeon Master though I did play in some other games that were beyond silly (players starting at or near god-level). I remember one munchkin player who had a country full of arrows and a portable hole that he could reach into to pull any one specific arrow out. I was more of a low level player – looking to stay alive when dog-faced kobolds came charging! To each, their own. In 1983 we tried some other systems – Gamma World and Star Frontiers were favorites. We liked Star Frontiers enough that some friends and I developed a game called Strike Force which we played for almost 2 decades (the 9th Edition is up on RPG Geek now). By the time 2nd edition AD&D came along I was not playing much anymore – and I didn’t get back into the hobby until Wizards released 3rd edition (I read the 3e books but didn’t start playing/GMing again until 3.5). My D&D group is still going strong a decade later playing every other Thursday. We have since switched to Pathfinder and are enjoying channeling our 12-year-old-selves again.
RB: What are some of your favorite RPGs, new or old?
DB: Pathfinder. Basic D&D (anything from the early 80s or earlier), Dungeon World. Gamma World. Dungeon Crawl Classics. Prime Time Adventures. FATE. Mutants & Masterminds. Star Frontiers. System isn’t all that important – a good GM and fun players make the game. Similarly, a bad GM or uninterested players can kill even the best system. I’ll play almost anything with the right group. I’ll avoid my favorites with the wrong group.
RB: Do you enjoy playing board games? If so, what type of games and why? If not, why?
DB: As mentioned, I grew up playing lots of traditional boardgames and cardgames. Cribbage, Monopoly, Chess, Rummy of all kinds, Stop Thief, Risk among others. I became heavily involved in the German/Euro boardgame scene in the late 90s and had amassed quite a collection of newer games (some favorites include Union Pacific, RA, Liar’s Dice, Princes of Florence, I’m the Boss, Shadow Hunters, Lost Cities, Castle Ravenloft, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride). My current favorite boardgame is Riichi (Japanese) Mahjong which I’ve been enamored with for a few years now. I’m happy to play almost any boardgame so long as it’s not overly long – my cutoff is about 120 minutes tops (and prefer 90 minutes or less). With RPGs I can play all day long!
RB: Others have mused that board games do not give them the same satisfaction that playing a roleplaying game gives them. Do you find this to be the case as well?
DB: There are plenty of boardgames that provide RPG-like elements. Shadow Hunters, The D&D boardgames (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon and Legend of Drizzt), Shadows over Camelot and the like, but generally those games don’t provide the same level of freedom of choice that a wide-open RPG can provide. With a boardgame you can explore what’s on the board. In an RPG you can always say, “What’s over that next hill?” and the GM can say “Let’s go find out!”.
RB: How often do you get to game these days and is the gaming face to face, virtually or a little of both? Which medium do you prefer and why?
DB: My Pathfinder group meets every other week. My Sunday OSR group meets every other Sunday Morning (we are playing “Sunday Mornings in Hell” as we romp through Michael Curtis’ Stonehell Dungeon). I play boardgames only at big events now – which is a few times a year.
RB: What do you enjoy playing these days?
DB: Anything, really. So long as it’s with the right people. A near perfect day would be a morning of Riichi Mahjong followed by lunch and then RPGs from afternoon into early evening.
RB: Please tell our readers what three industry or hobby personalities you would love to see interviewed by Rolling Boxcars and why.
DB: Really hard to choose… but I’ll go (without explanation) with: Michael Curtis. Frank Mentzer. Alan Moon. Have fun with those three
Dave, thank you for taking the time to allow me to interview you. You are very kind to entertain the request. I hope our readers have gotten a little insight into what makes the ‘Geek” tick and who Dave is. Also, thank you for the advice about VirtuaCon; it is sounds and on point! Dave knows I have a special affinity for VirtuaCon. Virtuacon saved my interest in RPGs at time when I could not game locally! I know I would love to see the “Geek”, the community we call home grow and continue to be even more prosperous.
Want to learn more about RPG Geek? Come on over and visit us here! The site is very well organized, but as with everything these days, there is a slight learning curve. There are folks like Dave, myself and all the other volunteers at RPG Geek that are standing by to help new folks get acclimated and enjoy all the aspects of the site. Need help, just ask!
Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula
What is this overtext thing people are talking about?
In its nomination for the Diana Jones Award in 2006, the Game Chef design contest is praised highly:
Each year the competition has spawned a number of powerful, widely diverse RPGs and semi-RPGs and is now one of the best break-in points for new game designers and small press publishers. One of its strongest features is its development of a community of review and interest in one another’s projects. Game Chef now serves, effectively, as a grass-roots equivalent of the Origins Awards.
That was in 2006. Since then, the competition has evolved, spread into new communities (and indeed, continents), and generally grown better. Game Chef 2015 will start on June 13, so I took the opportunity to interview one of the global coordinators of Game Chef (the other being Rachael Storey Burke). Let's welcome Josh Jordan on stage!
Josh, please tell us a bit about yourself!
Many years ago I lived in Japan: a pet of my master Yoshi, mimicking his movements from my cage and learning the mysterious art of Ninjitsu, for Yoshi was one of Japan's finest shadow warriors.
Now, I'm a talking mutant rat who is raising four turtles. But to the untrained eye, I look like a high school English teacher in rural Texas.
How did you get into gaming?
My parents and grandparents play boardgames and card games. I’ve been playing those since before I could hold my own cards.
In junior high, my brother and I started playing Palladiums' Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness with some neighbor kids. We quickly added superhero roleplaying games and the occasional D&D. I’ve been roleplaying ever since.
About organizing Game Chef, Josh wrote:
I like the opportunity to inspire new and unusual
games about a particular theme. I like being able to
observe hundreds of talented designers as they work.
It’s as if I have a backstage pass to several geniuses’ desks.
What does gaming mean to you? What role does it play for you?
Gaming in general is a great way to spend time with friends and family. Roleplaying gaming is one of my favorite kinds of storytelling. It has the added benefit that it is collaborative. It is storytelling you do together with friends.
You’ve designed a few games (e.g. Heroine, Doll, or the recent No Longer With Us, co-designed with Dymphna Coy and published in Worlds Without Master #8). Why do you design games?
I design games because it is a fun creative outlet. But more importantly, I design games to help people play stories they haven't played before. I've also designed some of my games, like Heroine, to suit the play styles of specific friends or family members.
For Heroine, your game for telling the story of a young heroine visiting another world, you’ve chosen a stunning visual design by using photos from J. R. Blackwell. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen photography used for illustrations in fantasy gaming (apart from bigger IP brands like e.g. the Lord of the Rings). What inspired you to go for photographs?
I love art. I love creating new and beautiful things. It makes sense to me that game books should be as beautiful as the stories they help us create. At least the bigger budget ones should be. I have nothing against a cheap, simple layout when a designer feels that is the best format for her game.
JR Blackwell is a friend. I love her work. Her beautiful portraits of people with diverse body types, especially her portraits of women, is a great fit to the theme of Heroine. She does a lot of storytelling through the scenes she creates in her photos. I am very happy to have worked with her. I love the way the photos turned out for Heroine and for Shoshana Kessock’s Dangers Untold, which I edited and published.
How did you get into game design, and what were and are your biggest struggles?
Let me tell you a secret. My back story is the least interesting part of my games. I'm a middle class, white, American man. There's nothing about my personal history that isn't true of a dozen other game designers, (except that I'm a licensed Baptist preacher, I guess.) My biggest struggle has always been to complete a project without getting distracted by the next great idea. I love starting projects. I love editing them. I love releasing them. But I tend to get distracted when my projects are about 40% finished. That’s when I start to have ideas for the next big project. Curse my brain!
Is there a common theme underlying your game designs, a shared topic linking them?
Yes. I dare you to play my games and figure out what it is!
What made you decide to become a publisher? And why did you choose the name Ginger Goat?
Ginger Goat is a bit of a pun. I have brown hair, but I have a naturally red (ginger) goatee.
I became a publisher in order to share my games with more people (and to break even or make a profit while doing so).
You run a podcast, Tell Me Another. It is “about all kinds of storytellers and the stories they tell”. That sounds pretty broad, but looking at the names of recent guests, it seems as if storytelling as it relates to gaming features prominently in the show, doesn’t it?
I would say that my interest is in all kinds of collaborative storytelling. I believe game designers can learn from comedians and poets can learn from preachers. Novelists can learn from radio drama scriptwriters. Etc. Many of the collaborative storytellers we have had on the show have been game designers, partly because they are my heroes and partly because I know several of them.
One of my goals for Game Chef this year is
to have over a hundred participants who are
first-time designers. Of those, I sincerely hope
that many are women, that many are people
of color, and that many are not from the US.
Storytelling and gaming is also an academic interest of yours, is that right? Do you have a research project related to these topics?
I am interested in pursuing a PhD in collaborative storytelling, but I am still trying to find the right program. I need to make sure I can take care of my family at the same time. There are some tempting programs in Denmark and Wales, and I'm always open to suggestion.
In other words, there’s a potential doctorate in this area, one or two years from now.
Meanwhile, I have a day job. I teach English Literature to high school students. My interest in storytelling serves me well as we talk about short stories and novels. It also serves me surprisingly well when I teach my students how to write persuasive essays.
How are your experiences regarding gaming and designing shaped by your race and gender?
As a white man, I feel that my race and gender are over-represented in games and in game design. One of my design goals is to make stories about other kinds of people. I love stories about women. I love stories about cultures other than my own, (as long as they aren’t exploitative or exoticizing.)
As a member of the gaming community, one of my goals is to encourage under-represented people to get into the hobby, as players and as designers. One of my goals for Game Chef this year is to have over a hundred participants who are first-time designers. Of those, I sincerely hope that many are women, that many are people of color, and that many are not from the US. In fact, if you are a participant in Game Chef who is a first-time designer, I encourage you to contact me personally so that I can tell you how awesome you are. (If you are participating in a language-community other than English, I may not be able to give you very specific feedback, but I’ll sure try!) First-time designers who participate in Game Chef can contact me on Twitter as @joshtjordan or on Google+ as +JoshTJordan if you would like a little encouragement or hand-holding.
You’ve recently taken on the global organization of Game Chef. That game design contest has grown from a comparatively small event and is now spanning across continents. Can you tell us a bit about the contest and its goals?
Game Chef is an annual game design competition. Each year, the coordinators select one theme and four ingredients. Participants get nine days to create a brand-new tabletop roleplaying game, board or card game, or other analog game.
What does it take to participate?
Everyone can participate in Game Chef, whether you’re a seasoned game designer or have never designed a game before. We welcome designers of all experience levels from all walks of life. I personally encourage first-time game designers to give Game Chef a try. As global coordinator, I’m most excited with helping people who have never designed a game.
Participants design and submit a playable draft of an analog (non-video) game by June 21st, inspired by the theme and ingredients announced on June 13th. Historically most Game Chef games have been tabletop roleplaying games or live action games, but participants should feel free to push the boundaries of what counts as a roleplaying game, an analog game, or a game.
Each participant will also review four games that others submit, and this peer-review process will determine finalists. A winner for each language that Game Chef runs in will be declared, though the real victory is completing a game in the first place.
I design games to help people play stories they haven't played before.
What appeals to you about organizing the Game Chef? What activities fall to you?
Together with my co-coordinator, Rachael Storey Burke, I’m responsible for selecting the theme and ingredients that will inspire this year’s participants to create their games. Rachael and I are also responsible for organizing the various language-community coordinators. This year, Game Chef runs simultaneously in the following language communities: Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, Italian, Korean, Polish, and Russian.
Several things appeal to me about organizing Game Chef. I like the opportunity to inspire new and unusual games about a particular theme. I like being able to observe hundreds of talented designers as they work. It’s as if I have a backstage pass to several geniuses’ desks. I like working with Rachael and the language community coordinators in order to build a sense of community among the participants. And finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I really like encouraging people to try their hand at designing a game for the first time. New designers come up with some of the most interesting games, because no one has told them that their idea is impossible.
Are you still looking for help? How can people willing to support the contest do so?
That’s a great question. There are three good ways to help.
First, join the online Game Chef community in your language. It may be a Google+ community or a Facebook group. It probably also has a presence on Twitter and through email. Make friends and encourage other people, especially new designers.
Second, spread the word about Game Chef. Post about it online, tell your friends, and talk to your local gaming group about it. Point them to http://game-chef.com or to @game_chef on Twitter for more information.
Third, when you participate in Game Chef, make sure you give other participants feedback on their games. Even before the peer-review process, many participants post early drafts of their games. Give encouraging feedback on those drafts and answer the specific questions that the designers are asking about their games. They don’t need you to design their game for them but they probably have specific areas where they want your input.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Josh! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you, Jonas. I’ve enjoyed speaking with you.
The only thing I’ll add is that Rachael and I are very friendly. I promise we don’t bite. People shouldn’t be afraid to reach out online or to stop us at a convention to say hello.
Visit http://game-chef.com/game-chef-2015/ to find links to the GC communities in several languages. You can contact Josh via the social media links given above, or send a geekmail to his RPGGeek account.
You can also contact Rachael through gamechefglobalgmail.com
Josh has been interviewed for RPGGeek by Steve less than two years ago, but while there may be some overlap, I believe both our interviews are interesting and worth your time.
Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula
What is this overtext thing people are talking about?
I had the opportunity and pleasure to interview Whitney Beltrán about her research (larp and archetypes; and games as a means for preserving myths and passing them on) and her upcoming game (Bluebeard's Bride, co-designed with Sarah Richardson and Marissa Kelly). We also talked about how to diversify our hobby: a wider range of games and people to play with.
Whitney, would you please introduce yourself to those of us who don’t know you? Who are you, what do you do?
Hi! I’m Whitney "Strix" Beltrán. In gaming circles I go by Strix. I’m an academic and a PhD student who studies mythology, psychology, and play. I’m currently doing research on larp for Carnegie Mellon’s game lab at their Human Computer Interaction Institute. I also work and consult in the creative industry. I do script doctoring in Hollywood, and work with a variety of publishers in analogue role-playing game design across the United States. I’m very active in the gaming community as a minority advocate, and my advocacy crosses over into mainstream non-profit work as well. I like to surf and listen to J-pop. I’m obsessed with Bollywood movies. I am a mind slave to a Siamese cat.
How did you get into games? Are there more gamers in your family?
I got into games because of my mother. She cultivated my imagination very strongly when I was a child. She was a Lord of the Rings fanatic long before it was cool. When I was born she even wanted to name me Arwen! But my father didn’t agree with her because he thought I’d be picked on in school. She used to read me folktales and myths from all over the world when I was a kid. Some of my particular favorites were those like The Seven Chinese Brothers or Hiawatha. She’s also the person that brought our first Nintendo into the house, and was the one that played it the most. Games and stories have always been a part of my life. It makes sense that I would be so driven to put them together. If RPGs had been around when my mother was younger, I have no doubt she would have been all over it.
I started playing video games before I could even walk. When home computers rolled around and I finally had access to the internet at around age 13, that’s when I began playing text based RPGs online. I played my first in-person tabletop RPG when I was 15, my first larp when I was 19. It’s all part of the same fabric though.
What excites you about games, and what type of games do you prefer?
We all go through phases. At one point online freeform RPGs were my favorite, hand down. Then I was singularly devoted to World of Warcraft for six years. Then I had a strong stint with Dungeons & Dragons, switched over to running Legend of the Five Rings larps, came back to playing a variety of traditional tabletop games, discovered the indie scene, and now I’m somewhere in a muddled middle. In regards specifically to analogue games, I currently enjoy splitting my time between indie tabletop, larps, and the emergent American freeform genre.
A lot of what drives me
is the desire to help
minority groups keep their
cultural wealth alive.
I love beating the tar out of people in video games like SoulCalibur or League of Legends, but I want something else from my RPGs. When it comes to role-playing games I am always about the story. Telling a good story through play puts me on cloud nine. I’m definitely attracted to creating poignant moments. I think this is why my characters die so often! Games make a safe space for us to experience things we otherwise wouldn’t in real life. I see RPGs as an access point to exploring the breadth and depth of humanity. Not only that, but we get to create in concert with other people, weaving the threads of our adventures together. I find that terribly exciting! It’s beautiful to create a story through play with another person. And it’s very addictive too.
We’re probably carrying owls to Athens here, but why did you adopt the nickname “Strix”?
What can I say? I’m a geek. In my early teens I kept to myself, and any time I was faced with a compulsory social situation I stuffed my nose in a book to avoid getting bullied. For a while the only time I really talked to people was online. This was back in the days of Instant Messenger. Online I was a different person, and I was always the last one up chatting. I was quite an insomniac, actually. My friends online correctly perceived that I was a total night owl, and that’s where the nickname comes from. Strix is Latin for owl (because of course geeky teenagers think Latin is cool). It is also synonymous with “witch” and there is a rather dark Greek myth that goes along with the name. I could tell it at length, if you like, but suffice it to say it involves a blood thirsty Thracian princess out for revenge against the gods because Aphrodite made her sleep with a bear. She and her half bear sons start eating house guests and Hermes turns her into an owl as punishment. Pretty badass, actually. Anyway, the name has stuck ever since then.
Badass indeed. Thanks for the night owl explanation, though I’ll admit I assumed that the connection to myth came first, given your interest in mythology. Is there a mythological tradition that holds a special place in your heart, or that you focus on in your studies?
The living traditions of Central and South America are the mythological systems that are the nearest and dearest to me. I served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, and my experiences there are what led me to pursue mythology at a professional level. I’ve always had an interest, but I had come in with an environmental policy degree and plans to become a lawyer or work for the EPA. That all changed after spending time with the storytellers and shamans among the remote areas where I worked. While I was there I took up cultural preservation work, and was very privileged to have access to myths and stories I have never seen recorded anywhere else.
The situation with indigenous cultures around the world is very dire. Far too many are under threat of extinction as local languages and traditions are lost. And not an eventual extinction, we’re talking a time gap as little as 40 years. A global monoculture isn’t good for anybody, and a lot of what drives me is the desire to help minority groups keep their cultural wealth alive. So when I came back from Ecuador the question burned in me. What do I do? How do I do this? It was then that I decided to throw myself into the academy full tilt.
One way to keep the mythic knowledge and stories
of cultures under threat of erosion and extinction
living, breathing, and reiterating is through
narrative play via analogue and/or digital mediums.
Your research questions include psychological processes in larp. Why are you using models from Jungian depth psychology to describe how the engagement with archetypes has effects on our personality?
I often joke that I’m the most Jungian non-Jungian you’ll ever meet. I’m not a Jungian, and Jung definitely has some problems, but I find his model so apt for application to larp that I simply cannot resist exploring the implications. The study of larp is also so nascent that we don’t really have any established models to talk about it with at an academic level. There are a lot of people doing groundwork, but we don’t yet have a cannon. If we want to understand what larp is, what it does, we have to start somewhere. We have to have a language with which to speak, even if it isn’t a perfect language. That’s why in addition to Jung, I often borrow from ritual studies and theories of play.
What aspect of Jung’s theory do you find suitable for modeling your larp theories?
Specifically, Jungian notions of active imagination and archetypal patterns within human psychology.
Is your PhD also on these research topics, or does it have a different focus?
My PhD topic is...complicated. And not entirely sussed out out. I’ve recently passed my comprehensive exams, but I’m still some time away from a proposal proper. PhDs take a long time. My thesis has already taken several quantum leaps, and I’m sure it will take a few more. What I am essentially working on is this: I am looking for ways to preserve the mythic knowledge and stories of cultures under threat of erosion and extinction. Not just preserve, but keep them living, breathing, and reiterating.
I posit that one way to do this is through narrative play via analogue and/or digital mediums. The issue at hand is that the old transmission method is failing. Oral traditions no longer work where, for example, grandparents speak a different language than their grandchildren. That’s something I saw a lot of in Ecuador. Or children go away from their communities to go to school, and would rather play video games and chat online at internet cafes than sit at home. I don’t want to over generalize, but we are seeing big gaps between generations in a lot of areas. So what to do?
This is where my work in psychology and gaming comes in, and this is also where I think my fellow RPG nerds will really get it. When you play a narrative game, a game that tells a story, it’s like watching a movie, but deeper. Why? Because when you play you actively engage with the story. You invest in it, reach out to it, and in some ways it reaches back out to you. This is something we call active imagination. I was raised Catholic, but I couldn’t tell you the 12 stations of the cross off the top of my head. However, I can tell you everything there is to know about Lolth, the spider goddess of the Drow in Dungeons & Dragons. Or Farore, Din and Nayru, the deities of the Zelda franchise. That is because I spent a lot of time actively engaging them with my imagination, through games. Not only that, but also engaging with other people to create the story.
I'm reminded of a video game released last year, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), which was created in collaboration with Iñupiat storytellers, Alaska natives. Is that what you have in mind?
Actually, I was just about to bring that up! Never Alone is a very good example of the type of work I’m talking about. I think one of the most important things about this type of project is that it has to have a strong co-design element. If you’re working with a minority population, the work has to be done with them, and in service to their needs, not for them and for the benefit of status quo consumers.
You are also doing research for Carnegie Mellon. What’s that about?
My work with Carnegie Mellon is very cutting edge. They just opened a game lab out of their Human-Computer Interaction department, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of the lab’s co-leaders, Dr. Jessica Hammer. We’re conducting research on technology and larp, with some very interesting finding so far.
Sounds cool. What are those findings?
I can’t tell you yet! The finding will be published some time late this year. However, there’s been some interesting hints at complex relationships between social stratification and the types of games people seek out to play.
We'll be patient and wait, then. Does the academic perspective sometimes distract from or add to your enjoyment of games?
You know, it’s all one piece for me. I’m an academic because I enjoy thinking, theorizing, and researching. It’s a constant thing that’s integrated with my daily life. If anything, my academic life adds to my enjoyment of games, because I’m always trying to puzzling out what’s going on with them as I play them.
You are currently co-designing Bluebeard’s Bride with Sarah Richardson and Marissa Kelly. What was the initial spark for this game?
It’s kind of a funny story. I’m good friends with Mark Diaz Truman of the IGDN (Indie Game Developer Network). He and a few others hosted a hacking as women event at Gen Con this last year and he made me promise to come. It was at the end of a long day and I had been cosplaying in a complicated corseted outfit, so I was tapped out and kind of grumpy! I schlepped into the hacking event feeling super not into it. However, by the time the event was over I was jazzed about what had gone down.
I was randomly paired with Sarah to come up with something and we found we both had an interested in fairy tales. I was like hey, let’s write a game about Bluebeard! It just felt right to both of us and we jumped in from there. Marissa was originally just supposed to mentor our development work during the hacking event, but she got wrapped up in it too. It was very compelling. By the end all three of us agreed that we would keep working on it, and here we are now! We’ve done several playtests and are in talks with Magpie Games for its release.
What is the game about?
If anyone is not familiar with the fairy tale of Bluebeard I would encourage them to go read the different interpretations of it around the web. It’s one of the more twisted fairy tales out there. Basically, Bluebeard is a rich nobleman who has had a bunch of wives who have mysteriously faded into the background. He plucks up a young virgin from her village and makes her his new bride. He brings her to his mansion and gives her the keys to every room, but he points out the smallest key on the ring and says, “That room you must never enter. Never!” And then he conveniently leaves on an extended business trip.
The genre of feminine horror is
virtually untapped in the gaming
world. We’d like to fix that.
This is, of course, a psychological trap. She explores the mansion and finally is compelled into that last room, where she finds the bodies of all the previous brides. He shows back up right then, and there is a confrontation. There are several variants to the fairy tale, so how it ends depends on who you’re listening to. My preferred variant is the one in which Bluebeard cuts off her head. This is of course very grim, but to me it is appealing because it underlines the violence present in feminine horror.
In our game you play pieces of the bride’s psyche, archetypal figures like the witch, the animus, the mother, and they have to navigate the mansion and find out what the deal is with Bluebeard. Does he love the bride? Is she safe there? Of course the mansion itself is also a metaphor for the bride’s own mind.
How does the design process between the three of you work? Can you give us an example of a design choice you had to make, and how you reached a decision?
We do work in two ways. One way is that we have weekly video meetings to discuss progress, outline goals, and make major decisions. Then we divvy things up into individual homework, or make email threads to discuss an issue at length, and we bring all that back to the next weekly meeting. Our meetings are very structured. We have a written agenda and three roles that we trade off on; facilitator, time keeper, and note taker. It works very well.
We make decisions by consensus. We were having issues in play-test with a particular Sister (one of the archetypes) and two of us felt it needed to be cut. The one who came up with the archetype listened to what we had to say, and then together all three of us decided to take it out of play, at least for now. Consensus is sometimes hard to reach, you have to be willing to give and take a lot, but when we make sure everyone agrees before moving on it provides a really solid foundation to work from.
Since we’ve touched upon the relevance of stories for ourselves and our communities, let’s take a look at the mythic or archetypal level of your game. What would you say can we experience with Bluebeard’s Bride?
That’s an interesting question. For us, the game is about feminine horror, designed from a feminine perspective. That means dealing with issues of agency, power, the need to be loved, being trapped in an impossible situation. If we think about it on a mythic level, consider the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. It’s a very masculine story about masculine power, and how Theseus goes into the labyrinth and slays the Minotaur. But a woman’s story is different. In a woman’s story the labyrinth is your home and the Minotaur is your husband. You may not have the power or the physical strength to kill him. What then? How do you live? What does it mean?
I see Bluebeard’s Bride as a way to take the desperate narrative of feminine horror and shrink it down to a manageable bite size. Putting it in a game makes it safe, or at least safer. You can play the game and feel super creeped out in a good way (I have), or maybe you can use it to find context in your previous lived experiences. What I do know is that the genre of feminine horror is virtually untapped in the gaming world. We’d like to fix that, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in that box.
You’re listed as a stretch goal writer for Dead Scare, a game by Elsa S. Henry that was recently successful on kickstarter. The game is using the popular Apocalypse World Engine. But what is Dead Scare about?
Dead Scare is cool! It’s essentially a pun on “red scare.” It focuses on 1950s housewives during the United State’s deep enmity with the Soviets. A biological weapon is dumped on suburbia and people start turning into Zombies. It’s up to them to save the day.
And what are these “postcard” stretch goals? Are they effectively scenarios for Dead Scare?
They’re setting snapshots. My own postcard will focus on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Once known as Black Wall Street, it was razed in a terrible race riot in 1921. And by race riot, I mean white people went into Greenwood and burnt it to the ground. It was once one of the most prosperous minority communities in America, and it never recovered. The stories of women from Greenwood would be drastically different than the typical white housewife with a picket fence and a chrome toaster, which is why I wanted to have them told.
You are part of the Gaming as Other initiative, working towards a more inclusive culture in our hobby. How are your own experiences in the RPG community shaped by your race and gender?
That’s tough to answer succinctly. Over the years I’ve gotten it from both angles, for being brown and for being a woman. At times it’s been very unpleasant. But on the other hand I love this community and I want to make it an awesome place to be, no matter who you are.
I know that my lived experiences have greatly shaped my viewpoint, and that my viewpoint is different from the typical status quo gamer. In the early days I just kept my head down and pretended to be like everybody else, but I was missing something. I was yearning for stories that I recognized as my own. Now I am much more proactive about bringing inclusive culture into gaming, and about engaging in telling minority stories myself.
You are also part of the Different Play initiative. What’s that about, and what is your part in it?
Different Play is the brainchild of James Stuart. He approached me last year about forming an organization dedicated to fostering the development of diversity in analogue gaming. His idea was to take relatively new designers from diverse backgrounds, give them mentoring and access to people who could, say, lay out their game and such, and then actually pay these designers for their product. So of course I said yes!
We started out with four designers and a Patreon page, and it’s gone really well from there. We needed a minimum of $400 support per project in order to make it all work, and as of right now we’re sitting at more than double that. Some of these games will be coming out really soon, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
It’s beautiful to create a story through play with another person. And it’s very addictive too.
What can I (or anybody) do to make gaming more inclusive?
I could teach a whole class on that! Gaming as Other has a lot of resources devoted to this, so taking the time to check them out on my website wouldn’t hurt. But for now, here are a few concrete tips:
Direct invitation. This is the biggest one. Reach out specifically to people and invite them to your game, your play space, your community, to write for you, or whatever else. A lot of us are so used to being ignored that without a direct invitation we won’t believe you actually want us there.
Showcase diversity prominently. Women and other minorities are often very adept at reading for cues as to whether a certain space will be safe and welcoming. If the primary points of contact are all white dudes, this is a subtle sign that they may not be welcome there, or will have major problems feeling comfortable.
Do not tolerate bad actors. In your community do you have That Guy? The one that tells misogynistic jokes that nobody actually laughs at, or says things like, “Don’t worry, you're not one of those Mexicans.” Well guess what, That Guy disproportionately affects people who are already marginalized and may have a hard time speaking up for themselves. Including That Guy is not the type of inclusivity we’re talking about here.
Play different kinds of games. Everyone enjoys a good murder hobo expedition, but that’s really only one kind of story, and maybe not one that everyone can identify with very well. Try specifically focusing some games on the types of stories that wouldn’t normally be told. Some examples would be Night Witches, a game about badass Soviet airwomen during WWII, or How We Came to Live Here, a game modeled off of First Nation and Native American mythology. A lot can be accomplished by simply changing the setting as well.
Media representation. This is especially for game designers and artists. Put minority folks in you games! Show us that we’re welcome and that we belong by acknowledging that we exist. When we see ourselves in the games that we are playing it goes a long way towards making gaming more inclusive.
Thanks for taking the time for my many questions and sharing your views - I enjoyed our conversation very much! Is there anything you'd like to add?
It’s been a pleasure, Jonas. Coming up I’ll be a stretch goal writer for Epyllion, Marissa Kelly’s fantastic game about playing baby dragons. I’m also working on some game related academic essays and papers that hopefully will be seeing publication some time this year. This includes stuff related to the research I’ve been doing at Carnegie Mellon, so I’m excited! If anybody wants to keep up with what I’m doing they should follow me on Twitter (@the_strix) or add me on Google+. Thank you again!
A new interview in the ongoing series:
RPG Industry Professional Interview: Fred Hicks
To see older interviews in the series, you can check out:
RPG Industry Professional Interviews
Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula
What is this overtext thing people are talking about?
Just over a month ago, Pelgrane Press announced a new regime.
I've had the great pleasure to talk with Pelgrane's new managing director about
gaming, diversity, bringing horrors into the world - and Fear Itself!
Hi Cat! Would you please be so kind to introduce yourself to our readers? Who are you?
Hey Jonas! I’m Cat Tobin, and I’m the managing director and co-owner of Pelgrane Press, a London-based tabletop RPG publisher.
Congratulations on becoming managing director and co-owner of Pelgrane Press recently! What change does this actually mean for you personally, and for Pelgrane as a whole?
Thanks very much! For me personally, this is the realisation of a life goal. While I’ve always had a strong engagement with roleplaying as my primary hobby, this has given me a sense of engagement with the RPG industry that I didn’t have before.
I believe that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. With two partners running Pelgrane Press, I think that we’ll have more scope to develop and grow the business - we’ve published a number of award-winning games, and it’s time to take them to the next level.
Good luck with that! But before we talk more about Pelgrane, let’s keep focused on you for a moment. How did you get into gaming?
My university’s roleplaying society ran a freshers’ event called Assassins, based on Steve Jackson Games’ Killer. I’d never heard of roleplaying, but Assassins sounded like fun, so I went along to the society’s introductory session to see what it was about. When I went back for the second session, I was put into an RPG (FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (FASA)), and the concept of roleplaying blew my mind - I was instantly hooked!
What led you to pursue gaming and games as a job, and how did you arrive at Pelgrane Press?
I’m incredibly passionate about games, and roleplaying games in particular. I think play is so important to us as creative beings, and sadly undervalued by society. I worked in finance for a long time, but I’d spend every minute I could steal writing adventures and working on games, so it became clear to me that I was never going to be professionally satisfied until I was working in the games industry.
I’d done some voluntary work with indie RPG publishers before, so I knew a bit about publishing. Most of my experience in the industry came from running RPG conventions like Warpcon, K2, and Dragonmeet, which is where I met Simon. We talked there about running a Pelgrane Press convention, so I started following Pelgrane’s news, and when the vacancy came up for Beth’s job, I applied for it.
Sounds like a win-win situation for both sides! Touching on a serious subject: How are your own experiences in the RPG community shaped by your race and gender?
I always think about John Scalzi’s excellent post about privilege, and I’m aware that as a white person, I’m playing life on the lowest difficulty setting for race. However, as a woman in gaming, I’m constantly aware of my status as an “other”. Like most women, I’ve experienced gendered harassment in gaming. I’ve had to fight hard to be listened to, and respected, as an equal. Plus, I’ve had to challenge some odd assumptions over the years. Examples are that I only game because a partner does; that I can’t be expected to know as much about gaming as men; that I can’t be a “real gamer”; that my opinions, beliefs, and failings can be generalised to all women, or that other women speak for me. I believe that our little corner of the geekosphere is becoming more inclusive of women, and traditionally underrepresented groups, but I think we still have a way to go.
You’re right, there’s still a lot of ground to cover. I’m sorry you and many others have to experience gendered harassment, and I’m aware it’s up to me (and everyone of us) to contribute to a change for the better, and address the sexist aspects of our culture which we all share - I’m not excluding myself here. - But let’s take a look at Pelgrane Press: Like some other companies, Pelgrane publishes soundtracks for many of their games. Ten years ago, RPG soundtracks were much less common. Is that a growing trend on the market?
I think so, as GMs (and players) are incorporating a lot more multimedia into their games in general. We’ve seen a big rise in online character sheet storage, virtual tabletops, using Google image searches and maps, and I think that’s definitely going to continue as the technology improves. We’re very lucky to have the talented composer James Semple as part of our team, so we’re definitely going to continue producing soundtracks.
While I tend to enjoy listening to RPG soundtracks, I have to admit I haven’t yet used them at the table. Do you use music when gaming?
I do most of my tabletop GMing at conventions, which aren’t great for using music, but I very often use music in larps that I run - particularly atmospheric music and sound effects. We use music a lot in home games I play in. I recently finished (re)playing Masks of Nyarlathotep (3rd & 4th edition) using the 7th edition rules for Call of Cthulhu and we had a pulp soundtrack we used to listen to, which was great for tension, but always made us laugh when the Indiana Jones theme came on!
The 13th Age Bestiary, 13 True Ways, and Dreamhounds of Paris recently were all nominated for the Golden Geek Awards (Best Artwork & Presentation, and Best Supplement) - congrats! But what is in your opinion the most underrated product by Pelgrane Press that deserves more recognition?
Thanks very much! That’s a tough question. Most of my favourite Pelgrane products are award-winning, like Hillfolk and Eternal Lies. However, I’m always surprised that Fear Itself isn’t better recognised - it’s got a great concept, it’s quick and easy to learn, it can produce powerful games of personal horror, and it’s easily adaptable to a wide variety of different settings.
Pelgrane is sponsoring our current RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest (thanks for that). If there was a Series Pitch with Pelgrane Press as the subject matter, what would it contain?
Filling the Void: Every time we publish a new horror book, the creatures in it come to life, and we have to secretly fight them, InSpectres-style. So the themes would be if we should keep publishing, in the light of all the horrors that brings into the world, and whether we have more of a chance defeating Gareth’s, Ken’s or Robin’s monsters!
Nice concept! (I have to admit I’m a fan of InSpectres, so it's easy to win me over for that series pitch...) What can we expect from Pelgrane in the next year or two, monsters or other morsels of gaming goodness? Are there any crowdfunding plans or big releases, do you plan to branch out beyond tabletop role-playing games? Where is Pelgrane heading?
Our primary focus is on roleplaying games, as that’s what we love playing and running. We’ve got two big Kickstarter projects - TimeWatch and the Dracula Dossier - coming out this year. I’m probably the most excited about a very cool book of story games we’re working on, which we’ll be officially announcing online shortly, but will be out in December. Next year, we’ve got The Poison Tree, another epic campaign for Trail of Cthulhu in the vein of Eternal Lies, coming out, which might well be crowdfunded.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for interviewing me! We’re big fans of RPG Geek, so keep us posted on what you’re up to.
Thanks for taking your time, and may you be successful - not just with the monsters you encounter and release into the hands of eager gamers!
For anyone interested in our DramaSystem contest, you still have two weeks to send in your submission. Voting will take place in the second half of April; all the details can be found in the thread: [WINNERS ANNOUNCED] RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest 2015.
Also, I can sense a Homegrown event, playing games using the pitches submitted in this contest...
Fri Mar 27, 2015 10:15 pm
Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula
What is this overtext thing people are talking about?
Lou Zocchi at GenCon 2007 (photograph by Alan De Smet)
Lou Zocchi (born 1935) has been active in the gaming scene for close to fifty years. A game designer, publisher, and distributor, Zocchi is probably best known for his dice. He became the first manufacturer of polyhedrals in the US, starting around 1975. In the 1980s, he invented several news shapes, for instance the hundred-sided “Zocchihedron”. To this day, Zocchi is a strong proponent of dice quality, advocating for precision dice (see for instance the videos embedded below the interview).
I had the pleasure to interview Lou Zocchi about Dice, Gamescience, and Everything. Well, not quite everything. Hope you enjoy it!
(A German version of this Interview will be published in issue #107 of Anduin.)
You were one of the first manufacturers to produce ten-sided dice, and a few years later you invented a true d100, the Zocchihedron. Before that, how did you do percentile rolls for systems like Chaosium’s Runequest (BRP)? Did you use d20s?
20-sided dice were imprinted to read 0-9 twice. If you needed a true 20 outcome as well as a D-10 result, half of the digits were inked with black and the other 0-9 digits were inked green. If the die rolled a black number, it was used as is. If it rolled a green number, you would add 10 to its outcome, so a green 3 would be considered a roll of 13.
T.S.R. was the first company to make a ten-sided shape and sell 7 piece dice sets. They were the first to provide a d-20 which read 1-20. While everyone else making dice changed their 0-9 twice twenty-sided dice molds, I made the mistake of putting a + sign on half of the digits on my 20-sided dice. These were very slow sellers and many gamers didn't want to add 10 to the numbers which came up with the plus sign. After losing a large market share to those who had 1-20 numbered dice, I made a 1-20 shape also.
Who was or is Cliff Polite, and how did the d10 come to be? Were you the first manufacturer of ten-sided dice?
When I saw the T.S.R. 7 piece set had a separate D-10, I wanted to make a D-10. Cliff Polite was a game buff, stationed at Keesler A.F.B. and he worked in their art department. I gave Cliff a T.S.R. D-10, and told him I needed drawings of a 10 sided shape which I could send to my mold maker. To my surprise, Cliff truncated a D-20 into the D-10 shape you see me selling today. If you count each of the diamond shaped faces around the equator of the D-10, you'll discover that there are 10 such diamonds. I was the first manufacturer to supply customers with a ten sided die you could buy separately. The only other way to get a D-10, was to buy the T.S.R. 7 piece set.
When you produced your d3, d5, d14, and other new polyhedrals, what kind of demand did you anticipate?
When I made the 3, 5, 14, 16 and 24-sided dice, I did not expect the customers to buy them quickly because in most cases, there were few uses which required such shapes. I made the first 5 sided die, by boring out the numbers on one of my D-10 molds, and making plugs which could generate 00-90, as well as 1-5 twice, and 00 to 40 twice and 10-50 twice, as well as a set of chess piece faces, which could be used to teach someone how to play chess. There was not much interest in any of these shapes. Later I created the 16-sided die, and found slow sales until someone using a D-16 won a button man contest. Shortly thereafter, the D-16 sold better.
It's possible that Zocchi
misrembers this, and the
d24 contest was run in
Polyhedron #51 (results in
#55). (Did I mention that
RPGGeek's article search
After I invented the 24-sided die, I gave several to the publishers of KNIGHTS OF THE DINNER TABLE, and I asked them to run a contest which offered free 24-sided dice to the gamers who made the best suggestions for its use. This worked out very well, and Koplow asked me for permission to manufacture and sell copies of it.
After I invented the true 5-sided die, which is shaped like a Vicks cough drop, D&D players kept telling me there was no need for a 5 sided die. So I asked them to tell me what is done when you use a magic missile? They replied, you roll 4+1 to get the result. Then I asked what is the total of 4+1? They said 5. So if you roll a 5 sided die you don't have to add 1. Then they said, "What happens when you roll a one?" I said, "you reward the player who has never questioned any of your decisions, and you punish the player who argued with every thing you said." After making the 3 sided die, I got the same argument from D&D players. "There is no need for a 3" they all cried. So I asked them if there are any reasons to roll 4 minus 1. Oh, yes, but I hadn't though about 4-1. In addition to the numbers 1, 2, 3 imprinted on the tips of the die, in the center of every die are the letters R. P. and S. When I tell them that R stands for rock, most of them reply that P stands for paper and S stands for scissors. Because many live action role playing games use the R.P.S. method to resolve combat, this die is a big help in those games where you find yourself playing against a cheat, who is slow to show his hand.
Obviously 1 mm is a very small amount, and he wanted me to take 1/15th of a millimeter off of the 14mm thick prototype. "How did you come up with such a strange finding?", I asked.
How did you make sure your polyhedrals like the d5 have a fair distribution of results?
Kevin Cook has the worlds largest dice collection which I think is on the computer as DiceCollector.com. He told me that a Doctor of Mathematics who taught at a college in Canada, had built a dice testing machine to see if dime store dice rolled as randomly as casino dice.
His test showed that the dime store die rolled one face 6 times more often than any of the others. Because there is only one dimple on face #1 and 6 dimples on its opposite side, I told him that I suspected that the #6 had come up most often because it was on a side which was lighter than the side with one dimple. He never commented on my remark, so I still don't know if I was right.
Because I didn't know how thick to make my D-5, I sent him 11 prototypes, each of which was 1mm thicker than the next. After several months had passed, he told me I needed to make my die 13.85mm thick in order to assure that it rolled every face an equal number of times.
I phoned him for more details. Obviously 1 mm is a very small amount, and he wanted me to take 1/15th of a millimeter off of the 14mm thick prototype. "How did you come up with such a strange finding?", I asked. He said, after his machine had rolled the 10mm thick die more than 5,000 times, he plotted its results. Then he rolled the 11mm thick die more than 5,000 times and plotted its result. Then the 12, 13 and 14mm dice were rolled. He repeated this testing on 6mm thick plastic and 12 mm thick plastic to confirm the performance results, which indicated that a die that was 13.85mm thick would roll each of its faces an equal number of times.
I told this story to everyone buying a 5-sided die. One day, while in a hobby shop, I told the store owner to witness the performance of this new unusual shape. I rolled it 10 times on her glass topped show case and was mortified to see that the die stopped on its large triangular faces every time. Later, I realized that glass and metal surfaces have no give back or bounce which is what causes the D-5 to roll upright.
Because wood and plastic surfaces give the D-5 a bounce back, I urge players not to use glass, metal or cardboard surfaces. Because many players use a wooden table covered by a table cloth, I suspect that the table cloth dampens the bounce back.
You’ve produced the d-Total (“seventeen dice in one”). It is based on a new shape of d24 designed simultaneously by Dr. A.F. Simkin and Franck Dutrain. During your career, did you often receive suggestions for new, interesting dice shapes?
The D-total rolls like 18 other dice shapes, 2 of which no one makes. Who has a d70 or d80? The D-Total is the second time someone has given me shapes I've never seen before. Franc Dutrain was a young guy who wanted to manufacture dice. The tool and die people told him not to come back until he could pay them $10,000. He scrimped and saved for years to get the money. When he paid them, they build the tool and made 30 copies of the die to prove that the tool worked. Then they told him to come back when he had another $10,000 and they'd make him 10,000 pieces. With only 30 prototypes to sell, he had no way to get out of his problem. He sent a prototype to Kevin Cook, in hopes that Kevin would buy his tool. Kevin told me about it and I asked Dutrain to send me a sample. The next day, I received a phone call from Dr. Simkin. He asked me if I would like to see a 24-sided die which could roll 5 different dice shapes. I asked him to send me one. A week later, both dice arrived on the same day, and each was the same shape and size of the other. When I saw that Dr. Simkin had laid out his 5 numbers in a helter skelter pattern, I asked him to lay out the number results, like the numbers on a wrist watch.
He liked the idea and sent me another prototype with 8 digits, laid out like a wrist watch. That is when I paid Dutrain to mail his mold to me.
While the design of the d-Total is intriguing, isn’t it a bit of a paradox for a dice manufacturer to sell a die that can replace all the other dice you produce?
Although this die does everything a dice set can do, it does several other things no dice set today can do. A number of these dice are sold to players who like the idea of using one die instead of a dice set. Furthermore, when rolling the D-total, your players have no idea which element of information you are reading on that die roll, so they can't argue with you. I'm sure many people are dice collectors and buy the D-Total just because they don't have one, while other gamers buy one to impress those who game with them.
The D-total is the 3rd dice idea I've been shown. The 2nd idea I was shown was to make a 0-9 D-10 into a 00-90.
The first idea I was shown is still a secret.
What about those dice testing reports which you mentioned in our pre-interview emails?
I sent several of my dice to be tested on the dice testing machine, and I was pleased to learn that my dice provided a performance very close to that of a casino die.
Two independent dice tests have been conducted and reported on the computer. The first test compared a Gamescience D-20 and a Chessex D-20. Both were rolled 10,000 times. Under ideal conditions, each die face should have come up 500 times. The testers decided that faces which came up 33 times over 500 or under 500 would count as a roll of 500. The chessex face #5 came up 488 times, and was the only face to fall within this category. The gamescience die had 6 faces that were within 10 of the 500 mark, and 13 faces were within 33 of the 500 mark. Gamescience face #14 came up only 295 times because the #7 on its backside, had a protruding clip mark. I used to think that the protruding clip mark was not important, but I know better now. I urge everyone who has a protruding clip mark to cut it off with a razor knife. Doing so will make your die roll more randomly.
Kevin Cook feels this test had several mistakes. Both dice were rolled on a felt topped table, with a felt covered backing board, just like you see in casinos. If both dice didn't bounce off of the backboard, the numbers rolled were not tallied. Kevin pointed out that most of us don't have a felt topped table or felt covered backing board, to roll our dice on. Because most of us play on a wooden table, or a table clothed wooden table, this test should have been made on those surfaces. Furthermore, only two dice were used in this test.
What if the Chessex die used for this test, was not typical of all Chessex dice? What if they had used a Gamescience die without a protruding clip mark on face #7? If someone is going to repeat this test, I'd like them to use 3 or 5 dice from each source to make sure that one which is out of tolerance, doesn't screw up the test. Furthermore, I'd like to see if dice which have all the digits on one side only, inked, and the other faces are without ink, does the weight of the ink cause the plain sides to come up more often?
The second test is "How True Are Your d20s?" This independent test compares Crystal Caste, Chessex, Koplow and Gamescience dice. To illustrate how uniform each die is, they made 6 dice stacks of each companys D-20. If these dice were uniformly made, all the dice in each stack should reach the same height. Only Gamescience dice reached the same height in each of its 6 stacks. They also measured the thickness differences of each die and reported that Chessex dice measured .010, Gamescience dice measured .003, Koplow measured .006 and Crystal Caste measured .022. This puzzles me because they had two additional measurements listed for Crystal Caste. CC opaques measured .006 and CC translucent dice measured .012 differentials.
I see RPGs and CCGs
as the most striking
changes in our hobby.
You still attend conventions. Do you also offer seminars?
Yes, I still offer to speak on HOW TO SELL YOUR GAME DESIGN, and HOW TO ROLL WINNING NUMBERS.
What was the best (happiest or most successful) time Gamescience had in all these decades?
Each time I bring out a new shape, I feel very good. Probably the D-100 in 1986 and being inducted into the Game designing hall of fame in 1987 were my proudest moments. Winning the H.G. Wells award in 1980 for my Basic Fighter and Advanced Fighter Air Combat game and the 1981 Games day award from England for my Star Fleet Battle Manual, getting my The Battle of Britain game published in 1968, publishing Flying Tigers in 1969, and in 1970 the Avalon Hill Luftwaffe board game. Luftwaffe remained on the Avalon Hill all time best sellers list for the next 25 years. I've had so many good years in gaming, it's hard to single out just one.
In 2009, you sold Gamescience to Gamestation, but rumor has it you bought it back some time ago. Can you please clarify and tell us some details about this?
Because Gamescience and Gamestation are in litigation at this time, I feel it is unwise to go into details. We are attempting to start back up again, but having trouble finding a molder.
Are the Gamescience dice from the Gamestation period different in any way?
I was unhappy with their lack of quality control.
What is the current status of Gamescience, and what can we expect from you in the future?
We are trying to find a reliable molder. When we get one, it will probably take more than a year to fill all our back orders.
Reflecting on the decades of hobby gaming history you’ve seen (and played a part in), what differences between then and now are, in your opinion, the most striking?
When I started in this hobby in 1959, only Avalon Hill was publishing serious wargames. Milton Bradly and Parker Brothers offered military titles, which required the players to roll the die and move the indicated numbers of squares. The first to reach the end of the board, won the war. No merit titles is all they put out. I played every Avalon Hill game published until 1968. I was on their play test panel and play tested Bismark, Stalingrad, Afrika corps, Jutland and many others.
In 1972 I started selling Dungeons & Dragons because I was a friend of Gary Gygax. Fantasy role playing replaced board gaming in popularity until the introduction of Magic: The Gathering. I like board wargames best, and playing miniatures second best. I see roleplaying and card gaming as the most striking changes in our hobby.
When did you first play a role-playing game? What was your reaction at the time? Did you perceive it as a new type of game?
I had been selling D&D for more than 15 years when I was eventually lured into a game. I knew what it was and what was expected by my character. I enjoyed it, but I still liked playing board war games better. By this time there were many others selling role playing games, including myself, so although I knew it was different, my dice sales kept me in close contact with it.
As the designer of some Star Trek gaming material in the early 70s, I assume you are a big fan of the series? Do you also like the newer series and movies?
I do enjoy Star Trek, except for the series where they tried to go back to its beginning, before Kirk.
You spent more than 20 years in the Air Force. How did that shape you as a person, and, possibly also as a game designer?
I frequently used my quite Air Force Duty time to work on my game designs. I was an Air Traffic controller and an Air Traffic Control instructor. While working in the Control tower on Saturdays and Sundays when there was no flying, I took some of my game designs to work with me, to work on.
You have been performing shows as a magician and ventriloquist for about sixty-five years now. What’s behind this passion of yours?
When I perform a trick that makes children scream in delight, or fills them with wonder, it is very fulfilling. I can make a crying child stop crying with one of my special tricks. It is just plain fun.
You might be able to watch on your computer, some of what I do if you enter veengle.com Louis zocchi magician. You should find an edited version of my magic show, and maybe a 3:45 video of 10 improbable things I can do with a match box.
You play a few instruments, and, like with dice, you seem to have a penchant for the extraordinary. Can you tell us more about Zocchi the musician?
I started out playing the ukulele, then the violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, Guitar, Electric Bass, Musical saw, snoot flute, slide whistle and 22 foot long garden hose. I'm not a great musician, but I feel that I am competent. Most of the novelty instruments I play, require almost no skill or practice, which is why I play them. I won the Air Force World Wide talent contest in 1971 in the instrumental solo category by playing EXODUS on an 8 point cross cut carpenters hand saw.
Is there something in your life you regret and really wish you could have done differently?
Yes, and I'm sure we all have those regrets until we make the next regrettable decision.
Which games did you play as a child, and what made you become a game designer and publisher?
I liked to play monopoly and chess. When I couldn't get anyone to publish my game, I did it myself. While preparing to print my 2nd game, a friend who helped me lay it out, told me that if I would use the 3 blank pages to advertise his games, I'd have something else to sell. When his titles appeared in my game, I got letters from other self publishers wanting me to advertise their titles and that is how my distributorship started.
Which is your latest game design? And when did you last play one of your own games?
I'm continuously reworking my The Battle of Britain game design, which I enjoy playing more than my other works. However it has been longer than 10 years since I played any of my own game designs.
I've had so many good years in gaming, it's hard to single out just one.
What games have you played most recently, and what games do you hope to play next (if any)?
The Avalon Hill Waterloo game was the last game I played and I'm hoping to play it again because I have an opponent who is as skilled as I and really challenges me. I also like to play Risk with 3 or more people.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Below is the two-part dice videos promised above, from GenCon 2008:
No, not THAT Steve!
The popular Story Games community is changing ownership! Founded in 2004 by Andy Kitkowski, Story Games began as an offshoot of The Forge, welcoming a more social atmosphere with less explicit focus on design. But the community has outgrown its older sibling and is now a thriving place to discuss story games and many other things. Nevertheless, Kitkowski has decided to move on thanks to a new job and his successful RPG publishing business (Kotodama Heavy Industries, specializing in translations of Japanese RPGs). James Stuart, until now a moderator on the forums, will take over ownership of the site. It sounds like, after the transition, we can expect some major changes to the site; according to his farewell musings, Kitkowski sees Google+ as the place to discuss things on the internet and Story Games as more of a community building tool. We can expect Stuart to shift the site more toward that mission.
Free RPG Day is looking for publishers who want to participate in Free RPG Day 2014. All that publishers need to do is sign up and commit to print a set amount of copies that will be handed out for free on Saturday, June 21, 2014. The deadline for publisher commitments for Free RPG Day 2014 is February 21st. (Retailer sign-ups will begin later.) See here for more details.
There's a nice overview of "American freeform" (a sub-genre of "structured freeform") by Lizzie Stark (with contributions from Emily Care Boss) here. As a bonus, you'll get some titles of games still in play test (like a Fiasco LARP by Jason Morningstar!).
For those of you interested in the early history of D&D, Zach Howard at The Zenopus Archives, a site dedicated to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (First Edition), has acquired a scan of J. Eric Holmes' third draft of the book. He's now blogging about his read-through and a comparison to the published manuscript. The first article is here; the rest are accessible from the front page of the blog. In a similar vein, Shannon Appelcline has a brief history of the (newly re-released) Dungeons & Dragons (Original Edition) on this page.
Following hot on the heels of the 24-hour RPG design contest is the 2013 RPG GEEK 48-Hour RPG Contest. Design an RPG from the ground up within any 48-hour window before December 20 and win fabulous Geekgold prizes! This time around, there's an option to roll on a random list for inspiration, and there are other side prizes being set up here.
This week, we've got a new interview with Neil Carr. His most recent project, Companions of the Firmament, was funded by Kickstarter and Neil published his study results on crowdfunding as well.
Thanks to RPGG Newscasters Jonas (jasri) and Steve (sdonohue) for contributions to this article!
Have a news tip for us? Please send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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