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Subject: RPG Geek of the Week #97: Allen Varney (Allen Varney) rss

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Matt Forbeck
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I'm thrilled to announced our ninety-seventh Geek of the Week, the legendary writer and designer

Allen Varney
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Allen Varney has designed three board games, written eight books and over two dozen roleplaying game supplements, and published over 300 articles, columns, and reviews. He's best known as the designer of the 2004 Mongoose Publishing edition of the classic satirical science-fiction RPG Paranoia. He also packaged the Mongoose Paranoia support line for the first two years of its run, 2004-06.

Allen started in the game biz in 1984 as an assistant editor for Steve Jackson Games, where he edited Space Gamer magazine under Editor-in-Chief Warren Spector. In 1986, he left SJG to work freelance for companies such as TSR, FASA, West End Games, Hero Games, and White Wolf. His bibliography is on his home page, www.allenvarney.com -- though he says he really needs to update.

Allen has also worked in computer games. Most recently he co-wrote the original design document and wrote the cutscenes for the 2010 Nintendo Wii videogame Disney's Epic Mickey from Junction Point Studios. For many years Allen was the most frequent contributor to the online gaming magazine The Escapist.

I've known Allen and counted him as a friend for more years than I care to count. He's one of the sharpest writers around and has a fantastic analytical eye. I'm looking forward to reading along and learning more about him too.

Poll: Poll: Allen Varney: Two Truths and a Lie
One of these statements is a lie about Allen Varney, can you guess which one?
Which of these statements about Allen Varney is a low-down, dirty lie?
  Your Answer   Vote Percent Vote Count
I designed the Pelgrane Press logo.
42.3% 11
I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
42.3% 11
I used to live in Kuala Lumpur.
15.4% 4
Voters 26
This poll is now closed.   26 answers
Poll created by mforbeck
Closes: Sun Nov 20, 2011 6:00 am


So Allen, welcome to your Week of Geek. Let me start things off with a big question:

You're a renowned world traveler. What is it that drives you to strike out for far-off places, and how have your experiences informed your writing?
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Allen Varney
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Thanks, Matt! As everyone can see from my profile, I registered here at RPGGeek in December 2005 (back when it was "Geekdo"). Now -- almost six years later -- fame at last! I'm proud to follow not only Matt Forbeck, whose work I've admired since his 1991 debut with Western Hero, but also RPG Geek of the Week #76, Paul Baldowski, who contributed to my 2004 edition of PARANOIA and also wrote the 2006 supplement The Underplex.

I see most Geeks-of-Weeks begin with a standard set of questions, so I'll tackle some of those first. If you have questions about PARANOIA or the other things I've worked on over the years, shoot!

vestige wrote:
What got you into RPGs? Did you have a favorite game as a kid? What got you into game design?

In 1976 I attended a presentation at the local library where a fellow introduced and demonstrated white-box D&D. The idea fascinated me, and I soon got the books and made my first fumbling attempt at a dungeon. Then, through an ad on the back cover of Analog science fiction magazine, I discovered Metagaming's first Microgame, Steve Jackson's Ogre. I loved it! I became a big Metagaming fan and bought all the Microgames, as well as many SPI science-fiction wargames. I started writing for Metagaming's magazine The Space Gamer, which was later sold to Steve Jackson when he started Steve Jackson Games.

After a time, I looked at all these games I owned, with no one to play them, and decided I had to recover some of the money I'd spent. So I designed a game, "Pawnsoldier," and submitted it to SJ Games. Steve eventually published it as Necromancer, first in Space Gamer and later as an independent Pocket Box release. Then I did another, Globbo, which Steve also published. At that point he invited me to become Assistant Editor at Space Gamer. I moved to Austin in 1984 and worked for SJG until 1987, when I left to go freelance.

Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
What's your favorite monster?

I'll go with dragons -- smart, cunning, experienced, widely various, highly motivated yet with unique individual goals, and able to engage a group of player characters either physically or intellectually.
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
What's your favorite beer or other drink?

Assam tea, strong enough to take the enamel off my teeth.
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
Which boardgames do you prefer?

Cosmic Encounter, by a mile! It's been my favorite game for 30 years. I like the Fantasy Flight edition best, the Mayfair version second. In card games, I'm a huge fan of Dominion.
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
What's your favorite meal?

The five-vegetable plate at Threadgill's here in Austin, Texas.
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
Will you congratulate your BGG and VGG counterpart and ask him/her some questions?

Will do!
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
What was the strangest character you've ever created?

For a Champions campaign I created a disturbed six-year-old orphan, Joey Doe, whose telekinetic powers manifested as a not-so-invisible playmate, Mister Meanie.
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
How far did you get in the Dungeon of Doom?

Haven't played Talisman since the first edition! Nowadays I don't see the point; there are so many great board games that pack just as much interesting play into two hours or less.
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Hooray! Congratulations. 97 already...

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Allen Varney
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Ugavine wrote:
Bucket of dice or minimal dice?

I used to play Champions a lot and developed a fondness for double handfuls of six-siders. Nowadays my tastes have gone to the other extreme - 2D10 or 3D6 seems quite enough.
Ugavine wrote:
What is your most used RPG book?

While working, I'm always checking the PARANOIA rulebook for something or other. In my history as a gamer, probably the great Champions Fourth Edition, the Big Blue Book.
Ugavine wrote:
What is your most prized RPG possession?

I used to own the Eon Cosmic Encounter and all nine expansions, but a few years ago I handed off the set to a friend. Now I prize the nine excellent D20s, in PARANOIA security clearance colors, gifted to me by Bob the Dice Man of Reapers Revenge in August 2005 when I was Guest of Honor at Consternation in Cambridge, UK.
Ugavine wrote:
If you could visit any RPG world for real which would it be?

The Old Republic in Star Wars. I'd like to live in one of those incredible high-rises on Coruscant. I'll bet the food is terrific.
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hammerman wrote:
What is your favorite roleplaying game?

Historically I've played more HERO System (up through Fourth Edition) than anything else, but that was long ago and I no longer prefer such rigorous quantification. I like the spirit and original thinking behind a lot of today's indie RPGs, but I haven't had opportunity to play them. Considering both the rules set and its overall support line, I'd probably go with Call of Cthulhu. I'm like most of RPGGeekdom on this count, because as I write, CoC is ranked #1 on the big list!
hammerman wrote:
What is your favorite die?

The D6, in threes or occasionally fours. Love that bell curve.
hammerman wrote:
What is your favorite book?

No single book, but I love the work of comics writer Alan Moore.
hammerman wrote:
And film?

I can watch just about any Fred Astaire dance number over and over.
hammerman wrote:
Choose one: sword, axe, or bow?

Bow! Preferably at a range long enough that I can run away when I miss.
hammerman wrote:
A genre you have never tried and you would like to?

For years I've yearned to play Paul Czege's My Life With Master. That game was my principal design influence when I was revamping PARANOIA in 2004 -- except I hadn't played it, and still haven't! I just admired the rules so much I had to steal from them.
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Astinex wrote:
What's the most common time you hold gaming sessions, and why?

Friday evening, when everyone's ready to blow off steam from the week's tensions.
Astinex wrote:
You've just finished writing your first RPG book. You've got an interested publisher, but they want to change an aspect you feel is important. Not making the change is a deal breaker for the publisher, do you allow the change or look elsewhere for publishing?

Nowadays I'd publish the book myself. The barriers to entry are falling so quickly, there's little of value a legacy publisher brings to the deal.
Astinex wrote:
A local group you know is about to run one of your favorite RPGs. You're invited but a member of the group is a person who you don't like gaming with. This person isn't a bad person, their style of play just grates on your nerves. If you don't play, chances are you won't have another opportunity to play this RPG for a while. Do you join the game or take a pass? Why?

Pass. Good games aren't supposed to be annoying.
Astinex wrote:
If you had to choose one, would you play a GM-less RPG or one that needs a Gamemaster? Why?

If I could be sure of an imaginative group, I'd choose a GM-less design, especially one that engages the creativity of everyone at the table. It saves time, distributes the effort, and ideally helps everyone get more deeply involved.
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vestige wrote:
Do you (or did you in the past) go to gaming conventions? Why or why not?

I've been to many gaming conventions, most recently the fabulous Essen International Spiel, the largest tabletop gaming event in the world. I wrote about my trip to last year's Essen Game Fair for The Escapist: "An Innocent at Essen."
vestige wrote:
What's your favorite place to visit (either local or exotic)?

San Francisco, for its beauty, culture, climate, and food.
vestige wrote:
What's your favorite part of RPG Geek?

Its fine index - where, I'm pleased to see, my edition of PARANOIA is currently #30 out of 4,000 products, the highest-rated of all the game's versions!
vestige wrote:
Have you ever tried a play-by-forum game?

In its day, the Paranoia-Live.net forum game was a terrific exhibition of concentrated Alpha Complex fun. The board and the game have dwindled in the last year or so, but the archives are still worth a look around.
vestige wrote:
Beach, countryside, or mountains?

I'm a city boy by preference, so I dunno. I suppose the countryside, for a while, if it's pretty enough.
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mforbeck wrote:
You're a renowned world traveler. What is it that drives you to strike out for far-off places, and how have your experiences informed your writing?

Before my early 30s I'd never thought much about travelling, but when a friend told me in early 1984 about round-the-world airline tickets, I felt a sharp and instantaneous reaction: "I want to do that." At the time I was struggling with a prolonged and painful writer's block, such that I could hardly sit at the computer. I needed a big change. With a small legacy left to me by my grandmother, I bought a round-the-world ticket from a San Francisco bucket shop and set out on a seven-month backpacking trip that took me to nearly a dozen countries. The trip broke my block wide open and made me recognize how much I loved gaming.

Since then I've travelled across sub-Saharan Africa (1998-99 -- on my home page I've posted the African Dispatches I wrote from there) and, last year (2010), started a coast-to-coast trip across Canada, beginning at the easternmost point (St. John's, Newfoundland) and heading west. Unfortunately I had to break off the trip in Montreal due to a family emergency, but I'll finish it someday!

I recommend foreign travel to any writer who wants to gain a broader understanding of the world and humanity. It can help with game design, too. In 2009 I wrote about the meeting of travel and game design for The Escapist: "Postcards from the Road."
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Jan
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Congratulations!

here are my usual questions.

- What's you're favorite monster?
- What's you're favorite beer or other drink?
- Wich boardgames do you prefer?
- What's you're favorite meal?
- Will you congratulate you're BGG and VGG counterpart and ask him/her some questions?
- What was the most strange character you've ever created?
- How far did you get in the Dungeon of Doom?
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Already answered those, Barad, thanks!
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Jan
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Damn you got me there!

So how do you feel about a green little man from outer space controlling the earth and letting everybody eat fish on friday followed by brocolli?

Ow and the Dungeon of Doom wasn't from Talisman, it's a game we ran here on the geek a couple of months back.
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Congratulations, Allen!
Allen Varney wrote:
Barad_the_dwarf wrote:
What's your favorite meal?

The five-vegetable plate at Threadgill's here in Austin, Texas.

Although 1000 miles away, I still proudly own a Threadgill's tshirt, but I prefer the chicken-fried steak.

Did you come up with the famous "falling from great heights" table in Paranoia?
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Congratulations, Allen! goo
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Congrats Allen!

A What was your best RPG purchase of the last year or so? Why?

2 What's next on your RPG acquisition list? Why again?

d10-3 Are you currently working on anything in the RPG pen & paper world? Can you spill any details?

Enjoy your week!
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agorski wrote:
Did you come up with the famous "falling from great heights" table in Paranoia?

I wish! That was the late Erick Wujcik, in his 1986 adventure Clones in Space.
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You probably won't remember me but you and I swapped a few notes about creating a cinematic game on Red October.

Still playing Champions?
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brumcg wrote:
What has been your best RPG purchase in the last year? Why?

A ticket to Essen, Germany, where I attended the 2010 Essen Game Fair and saw the huge Hall 5 packed full of roleplaying dealers from across Europe and North America.
brumcg wrote:
What is your next likely RPG purchase? Why?

Looks like it's going to be some RPGG GeekGold, so I can upload a frickin' avatar for my forum topic! Edit: Thanks to sdonohue for the hefty tip!
brumcg wrote:
Are you currently working on anything in the RPG pen & paper world? Can you spill any details?

Yes, I'm putting together a new line of PARANOIA ebooks -- but not game books! --that I plan to announce before the end of November. Stay tuned!
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sdonohue wrote:
You probably won't remember me but you and I swapped a few notes about creating a cinematic game on Red October. Still playing Champions?

Red October! The primordial mid-1980s BBS for Hero Games fans! Those were glory days, when we had to send each individual text character over the phone line by whistling a specified weird song.

I haven't played Champions in years, but I still follow Hero Games news closely and look in on the forums every few months. It's heartwarming to see Steve Long and Darren Watts carry this 30-year-old game to the greatest heights of support and quality it's ever seen. I interviewed Steve for The Escapist in 2009, at the debut of the Champions MMO: "Age of Hero."
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Congratulations Allen! I think you are now officially our most on-the-ball GotW ever! And I'm glad to see you've got that avatar.

So here are some less generic questions:

1 There are very few comedy RPGs, Paranoia topping the heap so far as I know. What's hard about comedy? And why are you good at it?

2 What's great about Austin?

3 What other kinds of games (board, video, LARP) do you most enjoy? Do they inform your RPG work?

4 What's comes first when you start to design a game, mechanics or story?
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Congratulations, Allen! What, in your view, is a geek, and how has it changed (if at all) since you started your career?
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vestige wrote:
There are very few comedy RPGs, Paranoia topping the heap so far as I know. What's hard about comedy? And why are you good at it?

In the late 1980s and early '90s, PARANOIA entered a period of steep decline at its original publisher, West End Games. After the departure of the game's original brilliant line editor, Ken Rolston, and a couple of short stints by successors Doug Kaufman and Paul Murphy, the line fell to people without wit or intelligence. They relied on what I call "simulated humor" instead of actual humor: glomming "synthe-" and "-cycle" onto every third word, retelling stale jokes a thousand times, and relying on goofy pop-culture parody.

PARANOIA is not goofy. PARANOIA is a game of fear. The tone is darkly satiric, but it's a fear game as surely as Call of Cthulhu. The difference is, the main threat in PARANOIA should always be from your fellow players. Situations that inspire mutual distrust lend themselves to satire, if you look at them from a sufficiently mordant viewpoint. Either you naturally have that viewpoint or, it seems, you just don't.

vestige wrote:
What's great about Austin?

Austin, Texas is a terrific place to live for its culture, intelligence, and energy. It's a state capital, home to a flagship university (U of Texas), and a major high-tech center. The live music scene is unmatched, theater and film have active communities, and the food is excellent. Austin is friendly and laid-back, too, not at all stuck-up.

The problem here is the climate. This year Texas endured the hottest summer of any state in US history, and the drought is extreme. The trend of temperatures and rainfall over the last decade is troubling. I hate to say it -- I've lived here since 1984, minus a few extended trips -- but I think before next summer I'll have to get out.

vestige wrote:
What other kinds of games (board, video, LARP) do you most enjoy? Do they inform your RPG work?

I love German-style board and card games. The crossover with RPG work there is pretty minimal. The influence of videogames on tabletop RPGs is prominent in (for instance) D&D 4e and will probably spread even more widely, but so far I haven't found much tabletop inspiration there.

vestige wrote:
What comes first when you start to design a game, mechanics or story?

I've never met another designer who thinks this way, but for me the initial impetus is deciding how I want the player to feel. I try to design mechanics or narrative elements that induce a specific psychological state, and then I connect them as best I can to sustain that state, or vary it as needed. An example in PARANOIA's 2004 edition is Perversity points, which players can spend to influence not only their own die rolls, but those of other players. You'd be surprised (or maybe not) how fast this puts players at each other's throat.
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Congratulatons, Allen!

Enjoy your week in the sun!
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bfischi wrote:
Congratulations, Allen! What, in your view, is a geek, and how has it changed (if at all) since you started your career?

Heyyy, you look familiar. Didn't we travel across Africa together? Don't I live in your house? Yeah, I remember you now. Welcome to RPGG!

The geeks are pretty rapidly inheriting the Earth. It was once a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, but now "geek chic" is starting to make intelligence almost semi-respectable. I think it's because Facebook has made gamers of us all. We have a fine media-savvy spokesperson in Dr. Jane McGonigal, and a worthy pantheon of gamer-gods like Magic designer Richard Garfield. This is perhaps the best time in modern history to geek out.

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Allen Varney wrote:
vestige wrote:
What's great about Austin?

Austin, Texas is a terrific place to live for its culture, intelligence, and energy. It's a state capital, home to a flagship university (U of Texas), and a major high-tech center. The live music scene is unmatched, theater and film have active communities, and the food is excellent. Austin is friendly and laid-back, too, not at all stuck-up.

The problem here is the climate. This year Texas endured the hottest summer of any state in US history, and the drought is extreme. The trend of temperatures and rainfall over the last decade is troubling. I hate to say it -- I've lived here since 1984, minus a few extended trips -- but I think before next summer I'll have to get out.

Austin is the only place in Texas I would consider living. I sympathize about the climate after living in Houston for 22 years! My solution: moving to a smaller mile-high altitude town away from the city problems and horrible climate.
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Jordi Boscà de Vasconcelos
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Congratulations Allen!

Enjoy your RPGGotWeek!
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