+Tim Shorts over at Gothridge Manor just wrote two pieces on the Sleep spell. 

It called my attention to something that I didn’t pay much mind to, since I play a boring old fighter. Or young fighter. Whatever.

Tim’s character Minister has used sleep to good effect before, but I didn’t really realize how darn powerful it is. Rather than just start tweaking from the get-go (I’ll get to that later), I thought I might first look at how such a power is handled in the two games I actively play, and one I’d love to play a game in.

D&D (5e) and Swords and Wizardry


These two really aren’t that different. In S&W, you can impact a certain number of hit dice of critters. 1 at 4 HD (4 HD total), 1d6 at 3 HD (about 10 HD total), 2d6 at 2 HD (14 HD total), and 2d8 at 1 HD (9 HD total). 

For DnD 5th edition, casting this at first level you roll 5d8, and you can put that many HP of creatures asleep. Since the monster HD is a d8, by and large you’ll, on the average put 5 critters to sleep, or 5 HD.

Comparing the two, I think that the D&D version is clearly easier to adjudicate. You start from weakest to strongest, and put to sleep creatures until you run out of HP, and if your pool of HP don’t cover the next critter on the list, you’re done.

For S&W, the spell is a bit odd, and clearly the best way to throw it is against 2-3 HD creatures. And if you have a group of mixed foes . . . huh. Not sure. I think a better way would be to roll (say) either 3d6 or 2d8 (likely 2d8) and you can put to sleep that many HD of creatures, and steal a page from D&D5 and start from the weakest.

Because, wow . . . no saving throw. If you’re impacted by the spell, you’re just o-u-t out, and snoozing for a minute (D&D) or an hour (S&W). Against PCs of low-ish level, this is bad, bad news. 1d6 creatures at 3HD (3rd level)? A good roll can snooze half the party. 

Darn good reason to have at least one elf or something in the party!

GURPS

Now, there are a few different versions of magic spells in GURPS, so we’ll hit two of them. 

GURPS Magic – Standard Skill-based system
The basic Sleep spell costs 4 fatigue points (a normal human starts with 10, but casters will maximize this; I expect 15-20 to be more usual, plus mana stones, and discounts for high skill). You have to roll to cast it, but that’s probably not a big deal unless your subject is fairly close. A caster worth his salt will likely have high IQ and as much Magery as they can eat. Still, range penalties are -1 per yard of distance, and the subject can resist if he wins a Contest of Skills, often based on HT, against the spellcaster’s skill (subject to the rule of 16). 

If it works, the single victim drops for 8 hours of normal sleep. If awakened, they’re stunned for a bit until they snap out of it.

The more apt comparison, of course, is mass sleep. That has a base cost of 3, minimum radius 2 yards. . . so 6 FP for 2-yard raddius, 9 FP for 3 yards, etc. Everything else is basically the same as Sleep, though by rules-as-written you need to already know Sleep and have IQ 13 or higher – and Sleep has a “prerequisite chain” as well.

This is clearly depowered compared to D&D and S&W. You have to first make a skill roll to cast the spell, and even you have to win that Quick Contest to overcome the subject’s resistance. That being said, spells get high enough for few enough points in many cases (due to lots of IQ and Magery) that the Rule of 16 exists for that purpose. Only on a critical success is it a freebie.

Thanks to the comments for pointing out some errors with my assumptions

Ritual Path Magic
Another system that is gaining in popularity, and is a highly interesting alternative to the standard skill-based system, is Ritual Path Magic. This system uses a framework based on Powers, and is considerably more flexible, but requires a lot of GM and player participation, and no small amount of oversight, and a GM willing to say “no.” 

Still, +Christopher R. Rice has a substantial amount of mastery with the system, and he created for me three versions of an RPM sleep spell.

Sleep

  • Spell Effects: Greater Destroy Mind.
  • Inherent Modifiers: Affliction, Sleep.
  • Greater Effects: 1 (×3).

This spell causes the target (who must be within 30 yards) to fall asleepfor the next 12 hours if he fails to resist.

Typical Casting: Greater Destroy Mind (5) + Affliction, Sleep (30) +Duration, 12 hours (6) + Range, 30 yards (7) + Subject Weight, 300 lbs. (3).153 energy (51×3).

Mass Sleep

  • Spell Effects: Greater Destroy Mind.
  • Inherent Modifiers: Affliction, Sleep + Area of Effect.
  • Greater Effects: 1 (×3).

This spell causes multiple targets in a 10-yard area (who must be within 30yards of the caster) to fall asleep for the next 12 hours if they fail toresist the ritual

This Casting: Greater Destroy Mind (5) + Affliction, Sleep (30) + Area OfEffect, 10 yards, excluding up to 4 subjects (10) + Duration, 12 hours (6) +Range, 30 yards (7) + Subject Weight, 300 lbs. (3). 183 energy (61×3).

Sleeping Curse

  • Spell Effects: Greater Destroy Mind.
  • Inherent Modifiers: Affliction, Coma + Extra Energy.
  • Greater Effects: 1 (×3).

This spell (a favorite of wicked godmothers and evil faeries) causes thesubject to enter a coma (p. B429) which lasts until the spell is broken orthe subject is kissed by their true love (commonly a prince).

This Casting: Greater Destroy Mind (5) + Affliction, Coma (50) + Duration,Until subject is kissed by their true love (24) + Extra Energy, +61 energy(61) + Range, 30 yards (7) + Subject Weight, 300 lbs. (3). 450 energy(150×3).

Looking at the three, each is cast by rolling against the Path skill in question, and resisted by the better of Will or HT (but still a Resistance roll, I believe – the same Quick Contest). The energy gathering phase can take many seconds, and is often done offstage, using a charm or some sort of suspended spell when it comes time for casting it. For that purpose, if you think “spell slots,” you’re not too far wrong, though significant differences exist.

An important modification to RPM is that by spending more energy – sometimes considerably more – you can hit the victim(s) with penalties to that HT or Will roll beyond the Quick Contest. So if you want to drop your average HT/Will 12 adventurer to 6- even before you roll against your skill, you’re probably looking at about 100 extra energy. That’s quite a bit, but it’s doable . . . and that might just bring you into the level of a 1st level D&D Magic User!

Night’s Black Agents


I actually have no idea if NBA has a sleep sleep spell in it. Yep, p. 132, send to sleep. A vampire can put a single target to sleep by spending at least 2 Aberrence points, adding that to a die roll (1d6+2 or more). That roll must be 5 or higher (“more than 4”) for the attack to occur. If it does occur, the victim must make a Stability check of equal or higher to the original attack roll. Against normals, well, they’re probably just out light lights. Against the Night’s Black Agents, which start with Stabilty 4 and may go to 12 or higher, they might have a good chance of resisting. PCs probably don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of putting a vamp to sleep. 

Parting Shot


Wow. I didn’t really have much of an appreciation for how awesome the sleep spell is in D&D. Especially compared to the hit-and-miss nature of most GURPS spells. 

The typical 1st level Wizard can probably count on a DC for his spells of about 13 – 8 +2 for his saving throw proficiency and likely +2 or +3 for intelligence; I’ll assume 13. A foe will likely get some sort of bonus to his save roll, likely again about +1 (for 1 HD) to +3, which means he’s got about a 50% chance to resist. If one wanted to make the 1st level Sleep spell just a bit less automatically nasty, double the dice rolled for HP or HD impacted, but allow a Saving Throw against the effects of the spell. 

That has its own possibilities, for tweakage, but as it stands . . . Sleep? 

Awesome.

A while back I commented that there seemed to be a real advantage to megadungeon play where it came to front-loading the prep. Well, we brought little Melody back from the hospital today, and looking forward to our first night home, I had been hoping to get in a session after we put my eldest to bed.

No way. To make the session concept I have in mind fun, I need to plan a few things out. Sequence out the events, think about the challenges and ‘puzzles,’ figure out some branched scenarios on what the PCs might do.

I don’t think I’d have needed maps today, but I didn’t want to rely on my improv skills to early in the game.

I wonder if what i need to do is make an “effective” megadungeon in the same way that one would map Zork. I don’t necessarily think that the right way to do this would be a ConsPyramid, from Night’s Black Agents, but I could be wrong about that. Actually, I can see how this would be handy.

Some sort of relationship map, like Charles Bartowski made in Chuck, might be just the ticket here.  A few overlapping triangles, a nested Conspiramid/Goals and Objectives map, would allow the players to start dictating the pace of events (like in a megadungeon) instead of ‘no GM worm-on-a-hook, no game’ (which is where we are for episodic play now).

If I can get the game to start (or ideally, end) with “what we need to do next is . . . ” that will allow a whole bunch of agency in the game, as well as feed me plot seeds. I can always break out the locomotive when I need to, but having it be somewhat up to the players, such as “we need to find a frombotzer. Let’s look for a world with the following characteristics and go delve!” will take some of the pressure off.

Still, I do have a fun idea for the next mission. I just need time to flesh it out.

The text transcript of my interview with Kenneth Hite is now live! Sorry it took so long, but there was a lot to go through and life got a bit busy this past weekend!

It was great to revisit my time with Ken by listening to it again, and for those who read faster than we talk, or want it in bite-sized pieces, I hope you enjoy the transcription.

This is a long interview, and an equally long transcript. I’ll go back over time and edit in links and fix any errors in spelling or transcription – feel free to point them out where they exist. The transcript is 19,750 words long, or basically a 24-page GURPS e23 supplement. So please enjoy it. Or even contribute to the Gaming Ballistic Interview Fund if you want to see more of such. OK, plug over. I give you Ken Hite.

This week,+Kenneth Hite generously accepted my invitation to sit down with me and chat about a limited part of his body of work.

I’ll admit to no small amount of trepidation at the opportunity. Ken’s knowledge is so encyclopedic that I wanted to make sure that I’d done my homework – so I purchased some books of his that I’d not had a chance to read yet, and tried to study. I’m 42 – it’s been a long time since I studied.

In any case, not only did we sit down, but he spent over two hours with me. Because the video is just shy of 120 minutes of pure awesome, I’m posting it before the transcript is ready (though it’s in my mailbox already, thanks to+Christopher R. Rice‘s diligent efforts), so you guys will get the weekend to listen to it, and then hopefully I’ll be able to put up the transcript late in the weekend or early next week.

Unlike previous Firing Squad interviews, this one is somewhat heavily edited. I cut nothing of Ken talking – but if you notice that here or there I seem . . . choppier than usual, it’s because I felt that it was best to have less of me and more of him.

In any case: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ken Hite.

MP3 File – Audio Only

Text Transcript  

Note to readers: This is a long interview, and an equally long transcript. I’ll go back over time and edit in links and fix any errors in spelling or transcription – feel free to point them out where they exist. The transcript is 19,750 words long, or basically a 24-page GURPS e23 supplement. So please enjoy it. Or even contribute to the Gaming Ballistic Interview Fund if you want to see more of such. OK, plug over. I give you Ken Hite.

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic):Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. I have the pleasure to be talking with Ken Hite. The prolific writer of many books including Night’s Black Agents and GURPS Horror, which we will be talking about tonight.

As well as the imagination-inspiring Day After Ragnorok. Which I will admit that I have not read in any great detail, but was so cool and Leonard Balsara when I talked to him, mentioned it, which I want to talk to you about eventually.

But just to get going I wanted to welcome you and thank you for joining me on the interview. And really start off the questions with Trail of Cthulhu.

It’s a game in Cthulhu Mythos featuring the GUMSHOE system. I played it briefly, but before I get into the mechanics, it seems like you have long been a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos.

What draws you to it, inspires you about it, and urges you to write a fairly complete roleplaying book about it.

Kenneth Hite (Master of Horror):First of all, thanks for having me own the Gaming Ballistic vidcast or whatever you call it, Doug. I appreciate the invitation.

As far as the Cthulhu Mythos, I think there is a combination of things I enjoy about it. The first is that it is everything that I enjoy and it’s all in one pile. It’s secret history, it’s conspiracy theory, it’s magic, it’s occultism, it’s horror, it’s philosophy, it’s hard science fiction, and it’s all piled up into one place.

So that just is a powerful body of concepts to tool around in.

Also it expands across all time and space, which is handy if you are trying to tell stories and it’s exponent is probably one of the two or three most influential creators of pop culture in the 20th century. And the 2nd greatest horror writer in American history, so just the sheer quality of material (at least at the top end of it). It beats any other fictional universe you want to name. I don’t think anyone else is out there trying to expand Yak’to’pa’fah county or something. Although I’m prepared to be wrong on that [Doug laughs].

There is not a lot of Hamlet fanfic is what I’m trying to say. The Shakespeare verse is fairly hived off, whereas the Cthulhu Mythos is part of our nerd-universe and is growing ever greater.

So I guess those are the sort of reasons to go after it on that level.

And then, why Trail of Cthulhu, it was just the moment at which Simon got the license for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. He thought, “Well, I’d like to get a known Cthulhu guy to do my game.” And asked me to do it.

And of course I’m a freelance writer and Simon is a tremendously . . . well he’s a good publisher, but he’s got a reputation for probity and treating writer’s right and doing a good job with a book and producing a proper book with good illustrations when he’s supposed to.

So for all those other reasons, anyone in their right mind would have signed on to do a game for Simon certainly.

 

Douglas Cole Yeah, I will definitely admit that the book itself is wonderful to read and that is one thing I’ve enjoyed on both Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents that the books themselves make great reading, which is always fun.

Kenneth Hite It’s sort of my job as a writer, is to make sure people want to read the thing. It doesn’t matter how good your game design is, or how good your ideas are if no one wants to read them. So that’s sort of step one: Write prose that people want to keep reading.

Douglas Cole That’s a great point. I think that’s one thing that I’ve been dinged for a little bit on the grappling book that I wrote for GURPS: It’s dry. It is 50 pages of rules from front to back.

Kenneth Hite In fairness, once you’ve opened a book for GURPS called “Technical Grappling” you should know the line of country that you’ve entered. It’s not like [flails arms] “Oh my God, where is the love interest?!” No, it’s pretty much all going to be “+2 to grab the neck,” that’s what it’s going to be for 50 pages. [grins]

Douglas Cole Right. And if you were looking for a love interest in that concept, well there is grappling involved…

Kenneth Hite Yes [grin widens, Joker-eqsue].

Douglas Cole Yes, but this is a family show.

Kenneth Hite Again, the rules have not been written, thank God.

Douglas Cole Indeed . . .[gets a mischievous look in his eyes] Uhhh, you know what, even if they have been, my brain will not wrap around that.

Two things actually, you’ve got your Cthulhu Mythos and Shakespeare. I think one of the interesting things, is that Shakespeare tells great stories, but there is a beginning, a middle, and end to the story.

The nice thing about Cthulhu is it is sort of beyond time and space, and including the Venn Diagram, it is both expansive and non-Euclidian. And it’s spun off some really interesting tales: Hellboy is sort of, or effectively a Cthulhu tale. At least, the movie borrowed significantly from, what seemed to me to be the Old Tentacle Horror imagery.

Kenneth Hite Well certainly, when you look at the way the Mignola draws the Ogdru-Jihad and some of the Hellboy beasties. And Mignola has made no bones about the fact that he is a huge Lovecraft fan and thanks Lovecraft is vitally important.

Part of it is that one of the things that Lovecraft did was that he made the tentacle the signifier of horror in a way that it wasn’t before he wrote.

If you look at people writing horror before him, the signifier for otherworldly horror or horror from outside of our conventional space was a hoof. Even as recently as William Hope Hodgeson, his horrors were porcine. They were pigs.

That of course is a call back to the good ole imagery of the Devil. That he’s an animalistic creature with hooves, whether they be pig hooves, deer hooves, or whatever kind – but they aren’t tentacles.

Pretty much the only guy writing before Lovecraft that does that same thing, M. R. James does it a little bit in Count Magnus, but he doesn’t do it as consistently, I guess, as Lovecraft does. James’ horrors are all over the map, whereas Lovecraft is really hitting that terror of the seafood imagery.

Douglas Cole Do you think he was allergic to shellfish or something? What brought that about?

Kenneth Hite Oh, he definitely thought he was allergic to fish. Whether he was or wasn’t obviously at that level of psychosomatic problem, he’s not fond of seafood and had a very strong physical reaction to smelling it. And when you live in a seaport town the way that he did, he must have been sort of confronted with that frailty, or that danger, every time he walked outside possibly.

Douglas Cole It’s interesting because a rap that I’ve heard on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that “We get that you’re afraid of falling, can we have some other challenge.” And Lovecraft of course, being Lovecraft, managed to take that and do it in a lot of ways and it’s always scary, whereas at least the visual from the Hobbit stuff seemed to get a little . . . over-the-top and intense without inspiring the same fear that it must inspire in Mr. Jackson.

Kenneth Hite Well if anyone had ever died from falling, then it might have inspired the fear, but when the dwarves are falling 80 stories and bouncing, then it’s hard to maintain any tension in the scene. We’ve now established, in canon apparently, that the only thing that can die from falling in Middle-Earth is the Balrog…which seems odd, but what do I know?

Douglas Cole Even that didn’t kill ‘em it – it was the standard sword in the chest that did it. Which mostly does it for most things.

Kenneth Hite It’s a widespread weakness [Doug laughs].

Douglas Cole I’m going to turn briefly to a couple of questions on the mechanics. Did you write the game mechanics for Trail of Cthulhu?

Kenneth Hite The game mechanics are from Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE engine.

So Robin’s GUMSHOE engine debuted in Esoterrorists, and I adapted Esoterrorists and Fear Itself which had come out by then to Trail of Cthulhu.

So sort of trying to recreate as much as I could Sandy Peterson’s original 0th edition of Call of Cthulhu and that became what I called the “Purist Mode” in Trail. And then the slightly more run and gun Choasium-Indiana Jones-Robert E. Howard style mode of Call of Cthulhu is what I call the “Pulp Mode.” The book contains sort of two sets of dials you can use to tune your game for exactly what you want to do with it.

Douglas Cole Yeah, I remember back in high school, that was 1987-88, I think we Ran Call of Cthulhu back then. We played effectively in both modes, because we played a game that was sort of “Pulp Mode” and we went insane and I had to kill a fellow character because he was going nuts and I froze and crushed him and watched him thaw and went gibbering insane after that and that was good fun. And we also played I think it was called . . . Cthulhu 20th Century…

Kenneth Hite Cthulhu Now was the name.

Douglas Cole And it was basically you know, the interesting thing was, and I think we’ll get into this a bit with Night’s Black Agents, is if you give people a machine gun that works and all of sudden horror is a little less scary.

Kenneth Hite It depends on the horror.

Douglas Cole It does.

Kenneth Hite You can have all the machine guns that work you want that work in something like say, Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hell House” and it’s going to be even scarier because now there is mentally disturbed people with machine guns.

Douglas Cole Oh, on the…[laughs] Oh. They’re shooting at you…oh [laughs] That works too.

So I guess the two questions I sort of had, one is about mechanics and if you’re not into the mechanics or whatever, that’s cool.

But I love the concept of the investigative skills: I think that anything I’m going to walk away with GUMSHOE that’s the one. Because “it’s not the clues, it’s what you do with them” makes a ton of sense.

Kenneth Hite That’s the sort of core insight of GUMSHOE, one splitting things into skills in which failure makes the game boring, and skills in which failure makes the game interesting. If the only chance you have for failure is the second half you’ve already made your game 50% less boring . . . which is a victory.

Douglas Cole Agreed. The thing that struck, and again I’m not a rules expert in terms of GUMSHOE. But it’s – at least I think the way the general skills work – if I’m a doctor and I’ve got Night’s Black Agents and I think it’s Medic . . . though I think the resolution mechanic in Night’s Black Agents seems slightly different to me than Trail of Cthulhu. So if I had 8 points or whatever in Medic I was kind of 50/50 for anything I’d want to try for that adventure.

Or is that a misinterpretation of how it works?

Kenneth Hite Well Medic is a special case because there is a special iteration of it in which you spend points of Medic to heal people’s injuries as a First aid type ability.

Douglas Cole So Medic was in Night’s Black Agent’s – was Medic also in Trail of Cthulhu…

Kenneth Hite First Aid was in Trail of Cthulhu. But the differences between Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agent’s we’ve gotten feedback from people who’ve said we really not being able to heal people anymore.

So that’s why if you look in Night’s Black Agents, you can still heal once you’ve gone done to zero – it’s just less effective. But the general notion is that a more normal general skill, like say shooting, if you spend points on a roll you have a better chance of success, right?

Douglas Cole Right.

Kenneth Hite And that’s true across both. The difference being that in say in Call of Cthulhu if you have 75% Pistol, you always have that same 75% which means you always have a 25% chance of failing your shot, right?

Douglas Cole Right.

Kenneth Hite But if you have, in GUMSHOE, you have 8 shooting points, you like you say, you begin usually with a 50/50 chance of hitting, because most things have a target number of 4 on a d6.

If you spend three points of your right you are guaranteed to hit, and if you spend 1 point you have a better chance to hit, and then if you spend no points you are still at as you say 50/50.

So what’s happening in GUMSHOE is its rewarding narrative decision so you decide when you get that hit and when you don’t. Whereas in Call of Cthulhu game you might wind up hitting the exact same number of times, but they are randomized. In GUMSHOE you’ve picked where you are going to shoot, which follows the narrative model of GUMSHOE, whereas Call of Cthulhu has a strong simulationist quality that comes out of Steve Parens reaction to DnD, ultimately, because it comes out of RuneQuest.

Douglas Cole Yeah, Fair enough. I think when I was playing Trail of Cthulhu with the GUMSHOE system, the thing that struck me in general about that particular skills mechanic – and nothing that I’m going to say applies to the Investigative Skills mechanic which I understand, I agree with, and I love – But the general skills stuff – if you’re a great doctor or whatever – wait, forget the doctor because that’s a special case.

In Night’s Black Agent’s and maybe it’s there and maybe I just glossed over it in Trail of Cthulhu, but Night’s Black Agents had very clear refresh rules. Has very clear refresh rules.

So if you chill out in a safe house for 24 hours of game time, you can be a awesome shooter again.

Kenneth Hite Trail has similar refresh rules, but it has less opportunity to refresh than Night’s Black Agents, because in Night’s Black Agents you’re playing Jason Bourne, that’s sort of your default guy and you have to be really awesome.

So one of the goals in Night’s Black Agents is to feed that economy of general ability points, giving you lots of ways to get them back and lots of opportunities.

Whereas in Trail, you’re Randolph Carter at best, you should always be wondering “Is this my last chance? Am I going into this crypt and that’s going to be it for me?”

So the feel of Night’s Black Agents is different from the feel of Trail of Cthulhu, and then in Night’s Black Agents game, obviously the GM can adjust or sort of change up the horrors in a way, and get the horror back if that’s their goal. But the fundamental nature of your character should be ultra competence in Night’s Black Agents and not so much in Trail of Cthulhu.”

Douglas Cole Yeah. And I think that it’s funny. I think that I would have an easier time going back to Trail of Cthulhu having read and understood the drama-forward that was articulated in a better way in Night’s Black Agents. Maybe it was because it was easier to read or I enjoyed the material.

Kenneth Hite It’s also because the game came out four years later.

We had four years of not just playtesting, of playing, playing Trail of Cthulhu. Giving us feedback. Reading people on blogs. Reading people on forums. RPGnet. Yog-Soth-Thoth.com. Or whatever.

Finding out from the users what they thought worked, and what they didn’t think worked. What they missed in the rulebook. There are rules that are right there in the Trail and they never noticed them until we pointed out and said “Hey, man, check this: Page 69, guy!” Or whatever.

It’s questions of organization. It’s questions of clarity. It’s question of Robin and I taking turns rewriting basically the same material over and over and over again. Robin’s really good, and I’m no slouch. Just us.

We’ve basically been polishing the draft of how to play GUMSHOE for five year now. It’s not surprising it got better. Regardless of the difference between NBA vs. Trail as a game.

Douglas ColeSure. Something that has been talked about and some of the other interviews and just as a topic. How do you make and sell and make a living making roleplaying games?

It’s sort of a niche of niche. Roleplaying games is a niche of overall gaming and every individual genre. Night’s Black Agents book and the other pieces, are complete games. It’s not: here’s a Basic book and a genre expansion, say the way GURPS is and I know GURPS is going to try that with the Discworld Game.

Kenneth Hite Well they did it with Transhuman Space and they did it with World War II also. They’ve done it every now and again.

Douglas Cole They have. Is there any thought to taking a step backwards . . . or maybe it already exsists. Is there a GUMSHOE core, and then you can expand it.

Kenneth Hite No. There is a GUMESHOE SRD because the system is now open. But that is not a play a game from this document document unless you are a game designer or a gearhead – a guy who really wants to get under the hood on stuff.

Our thought has always been, like I said, that we always want narrative-forward, narrative-first.

GUMSHOE games are all about emulating a genre or style of story. So Trail of Cthulhu is all about emulating Lovecraftian Horror Adventure, or Mythos Horror adventure. Horror mystery. Night’s Black Agents is vampire spy thriller.

If we ever come up with a game that requires us to alter or twist or bend out of shape some of the core GUMSHOE rules what we don’t want to do is say “Go back to this other book and ignore part of it.”

Douglas Cole Right.

Kenneth Hite What we want to do is present a core ruleset, and then let people look at the game as a organic whole.

Doing a GUMSHOE corebook would irrationally prejudice the status of GUMSHOE the moment that Robin and I put that book together. Whereas what should be given credence is what it says in the actual rule book you’re playing with. Because Robin has looked at it and said “Do this really feel like Jack Vance Space adventure?” Or I’ve looked at it and said “How do I make this look like the four minutes in the middle of the second Bourne movie that I’m really trying to emulate?” Right?

Douglas Cole Right. That makes a lot of sense and I think one of the hard things, and I’m running into this even in my meager thing. People are like “What about this rule?”

And I turn it around and I’m like “What do you want it to be?” And I get “That’s not the answer I’m looking for!” And I’m like “Well look, if you’re doing something that is really gritty realistic and you want someone wrestling around to take one-hundred and twenty turns of GURPS time, because you have a two-minute round and everything’s going on there, then you are going to want to do it this way.

And if you want this to be like Black Widow from Iron Man 2 flipping around twelve guys while Happy the Happy Puncher beats somebody to death, or gets beaten to death in the background, then you are going to want to use these set of cinematic rules and you have to pick.”

And the one thing, one of the many things that I do like about the Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu are presented, is that it is a complete game and some of the work is taken out.

And as I get older Ireally appreciate pruning. As a GURPS author, I offer a toolkit for people to choose from because that’s the way the system is. As a player and a GM, it’s nice to have things done to help you.

Kenneth Hite Both Trail and Night’s Black Agents have like I said, dials that allow you to pick and choose.

So you can play a Night’s Black Agents games that’s more like Natasha Romanov and less like Happy, or you can play a game where people are more…low key spies. They’re more like George Smiley or Paul Christopher in terms of being a desk guy and not a super solider.

And so those are dials that exist within the game, but the game has a very strong default assumption. Part of my job as a writer was to make the reader aware of this default and to make everything feel like “If you don’t do anything, you’re going to be playing this kind of game” and that kind of game that you’re going to be playing is, like I said, Jason Bourne vs. Dracula.

Douglas Cole Right. Which is all kinds of awesome.

So one question I do have – or one comment – is one of the things that strikes me about GUMSHOE as a broad set of rules, is that with the drama forward and with your ability to spend investigative points to sort of promote . . . You can spend points and make a NPC that was kind of an also ran, if the players are so inclined and the GM agrees, you can sort of say “I’m going to spend two points in this” and all of sudden the person of which you are asking a question can be promoted to a major NPC.

And as I was playing Trail of Cthulhu, it struck me as: This could be a hard game to run. It’s, on the one hand story-forward, but you really have to be on your toes when you are running it.

I don’t know if that’s unique to this style of narrative gaming, or if it’s just GMing a good story is always difficult, and when you are focusing on story you are not just…”Here’s 12 orcs and you have to kill them and where am I on the hex map (or square map if you’re playing Pathfinder or something like that)”

So maybe it’s just a harder thing to do, because writing is hard and storytelling is hard than it seems.

So do you have any comments on whether this is an easy game to run or a hard game to run or what modes are approachable versus something where it’s going to leave people scratching their head or frustrated?

Kenneth Hite Well, I think that there . . . obviously our goal, I think everyone’s goal as a game designer is to make a game that is easy to run or at least fun to run.

And what’ hard for you to run is going to vary from player to player and GM to GM.

I found 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons relatively hard to run because there was so much rules mastery to climb. And if I ran this sort of what you were talking about 120 rounds of fist furious action GURPS, I would find that hard to run.

When I run GURPS I run it much more rules lite. I pull it way back. If I’m going to go deep into the tactical woods somewhere, it’s because there is some sort of monster that rewards that sort of tactical game play, and it’s going to be more fun for the players to see them get eviscerated one round at a time, as opposed to run a GURPS game but not with the vary technical sort of rules sets.

And I think that every GameMaster is maybe different. There are people obviously, thousands, tens of thousands of people who have no problem running DnD 3rd edition or Pathfinder because they are doing it right now.

It’s just a matter of what you are willing to get mastery over.

I think as awriter it pays me more dividends for me to get mastery over story-creation, so I find Trail of Cthulhu or Night’s Black Agents easier to run because they reward that story creating habit.

If you are in the habit of looking at story and saying “What do we need for a story to happen,” Running a GUMSHOE game is like falling off a log because it’s just that simple. You make a story, you figure out where the players get into it, you find out, you figure out how they get from A to B and you put guys with guns along the path. And that’s a session. You’re done.

I think that there are mechanics that you can use to make running GUMSHOE easier for people who think that way, and that’s why I tried to put things in like the Vampymrid and Conspyramid to give people a roadmap through.

And that’s why we’ve introduced, we’ve blown out the spine to give that standard structure for the adventure like there is in the back of Trail and the back of Night’s Black Agents.

If you just keep in mind that every gamemaster is going to be different, and every gamemaster is going to need different things, the trick is to write a game that sort of, at the very least supports all styles of gamemastering, and ideally provides more support for the area where the game itself shows off.

In GURPS, the game really shows off when everyone knows the fiddly +2’s, so writing a supplement that’s GURPS Technical Grappling is a great thing.

In GUMSHOE really shows off when the story seems rich and vibrant and forward moving and that’s why when I wrote Night’s Black Agents, there needs to be a mechanic so the bad guys can do stuff and I need to do it so the people who haven’t been spending 20 years of having Nyarlathotep slap people around come up with something. So that’s what I did.

Douglas Cole Yeah just to give a visual that will be fuzzy enough for people can see it [holds up book to camera] so that is the VamPyramid. There is a couple other great little mnemonic devices. There’s the conspyramid, which was really a fun piece, where you say here are all the different levels.

The Association Map seemed to me to be a wonderful thing to tell a deeply layered story.

Kenneth Hite Yeah.

Douglas Cole. . . and . . . Go ahead.

Kenneth Hite That comes from…if you look at like the Wire, you look at any show at which people are trying to find a bad guy there is always that bulletin board in the corner with the pictures and the string.

I think that is a great element of those kind of stories and I wanted to reward players for having that kind of element. My players in the Alpha playtest refused to do it because they thought it was too much work. That’s why there are mechanics in there that bribe players who do it.

So if you put the bad guy into the Adversary Map you get rewarded depending on how many connections you’ve found between him and the other pieces of the universe.

So that I think was…it’s put of my goal for making things feel like the source material in a way.

It also turns out to be a really great way to generate story ideas because players that have been using Adversary Maps the GMs come back to me or they go online and say “I really don’t have to write a game at all because the players are just following their own leads now.”

As a director of Night’s Black Agents, or any kind of GM, that’s like gold to you because you can spend all the time coming up with atmosphere, thinking of special powers of the mind, monsters, or doing something else to make the story interesting because the players have already feed themselves the hook.

Douglas ColeI like the . . . Black Ops, S. John Ross’s Black Ops. I thought that was tons of fun.

Kenneth Hite Yes. One of my three favorite GURPS books of all time.

Douglas ColeI like Jason Levine’s Monster Hunters, which is just really Black Ops in 4th edition. Or you could easily fit Black Ops into Monster Hunters. I love the Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories, and Angel, and that kind of blending of modern day and the supernatural because it’s not boring run-of-the-mill. And you’re not going to have to worry about the terrorist of the week and I don’t need to…

I can live in that world and I’ve done tactical gaming with the GURPS and whatever and for me at least it’s greatly enjoyable. But sometimes it’s fun to be stalked by zombies or attacked by werewolves or yeah you can shoot all you want but you’re shooting at your own shadow.

And the nice thing about the Adversary Map and the ConsPyramid is it’s a great way to just sit down and say “I’m gonna draw a couple of levels here and this is how things work out.”

And here is a deeply layered story and in any one adventure the odds of people – the players – leaping three things and finding you effectively in a mental hex crawl, where you are totally unpopulated, and you’ve got this black sheet of people and they’re looking at you and the pizza’s getting cold and the beers getting warm – unless you are in England is not a good thing. And you just left with nothing to do and the nice thing about this is it doesn’t really take much. “Here are these”…a couple of relationships, pick out two or three relationships per box and it expands geometrically and you’ve got a year and a half of storytelling, plus the stuff the players do to themselves because like “Oh man wouldn’t it be awful if…”

Kenneth Hite Mmmhmm. Yeah that’s I think I mention in either Double-Tap or Night’s Black Agents that if the players have decided the super-tanker is full of blood, then the super-tanker is full of blood, and it’s up to you to figure out why that happened. Because it’s just too cool if that’s what happened.

Douglas Cole Yeah. There is a blog that I follow. He’s a new guy. I call him Mr. Insidious – but I think he calls it Insidious GURPS planning. He’s basically running a GURPS espionage game that has all these layers.

And it was impressive to have a story that was so deep. It felt like a episode of a Bourne Movie or a episode of Alias, which sometimes it gets so deep it’s like “Oh, Dear God,” and sometimes it’s not, and you’re like “Oh! I didn’t see that one coming” And it’s an awful lot of fun.

Kenneth Hite That’s one of the differences with the ConsPyramid, again, the narrative first model implies an end.

That there is a end to the story. There is a point at which Bourne has gotten everyone in Treadstone, there is a point at which you’ve staked the last vampire.

And as opposed to Alias which is just literally flailing around till they get canceled or the X-Files or Lost or these other serial TV that don’t have any notion of where they are going after they run out of ideas.

With Night’s Black Agents you know that there is an end point, and the players know that there is a end point. So what might seem pointless, they know that that ConsPyramid is narrowing to a point up here – so this point up here is Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory or immortal Joseph Stalin or something that is gonna be drinking people’s blood, and they are going to finally take that out or die trying.

That’s a different – I think that is a different kind of feel of either terrorist of the week or mummy of the week if it’s not a part of the story.

Picaresque storytelling is great and there is nothing wrong with it. But for a thriller you lose pacing and you lose momentum if there isn’t a place you are going to I find. I certainly find when I’m watching it.

Douglas Cole Right. Let’s see, so I’m gonna ask you – I’m probably gonna leave GUMSHOE and Night’s Black Agents for a little bit. I wanna do GURPS last. I do wanna ask since we are talking about storytelling and awesomeness and all that.

I have to ask: What led you – what inspired you to take the peanut butter that is World War II and the Asgardian legends that is the chocolate, and mix them together into Day After Ragnorok?

Kenneth HiteI think the main thing that inspired me was the deadline.

That began as a Suppressed Transmission called “Reality Ortha: The Day After Ragnorok” and it was one of those deals where Steven . . .

Steven Marsh is the most long suffering and patient of people. I feel really proud of just lifting him up into Buddhist Heaven. [Doug laughs] He is not going to come back around the wheel again, just for having to edit me for the majority of a decade.

But he would have – he would send me a email and he’d go “Is this going to be a week we are gonna get a Surppressed Transmission?” and I’d say “Sure. Yeah. Absolutely, not problem!” and . . . I forget when the deadline was. It was like Wednesday night, but I’ll say it was Wednesday night was the deadline. I know because it bounced on Friday, right? It used to drop on Fridays. I guess in theory it was Wednesday night, but in reality it was Thursday night [Doug echoes: “In reality it was Friday morning!”].

I would sit there, and watch the clock tick, and I would think “Oh man, if I don’t have something…he’s going to be not sad, but just hurt.”

I would desperately try and think of anything to get the ball rolling. For me, the Suppressed Transmissions would always begin with those quotes.

If you look at my things I really enjoy that quality of the old White Wolf games, where they were just full of the evocative quote material, and I thought that was a fun way to sort of kickstart everyone to go into the right direction was to use that sort of opener quote.

So I began as I would read blogs or read anything, and I would save really juicy quotes in a quote file so that if I found myself dry, I could take one of them and say “Alright you’re going to be a Suppressed Transmission for the day”

And the one I would up finding…let’s see if I can… [rummages through nearby books]. Where are you? There you are. [Holds up a Day After Ragnorok] it’s right there in Day After Ragnorok.

Douglas Cole Okay, yeah.

Kenneth Hite It winds up opening the inspiration section at the thing. Or no, it’s in the…yeah it’s in the opening of the Serpent Fall.

This is from a U.S. War Department Counterintelligence Assessment that was written in February of 1945. So they’re trying to get inside Hitler’s head and figure out if he’s going to surrender, or what he’s got planned and this is right after the Bulge. The V-weapons are going crazy.

So they don’t know what’s going on. This is their Counterintelligence Assessment “The Nazi myth which is important to men like Hitler requires a Gotterdammerung.”

Right? That’s the quote, the US Army wrote that.

So if you take that literally, what that means is Hitler has to be planning for the Gotterdammerung, for the end of the world, right? That’s something that he’s gotta have in his backpocket.

If you’re doing the end of the world for the Nazis it has to be the Teutonic/Norse mythology end of the world. Ragnorok.

From there it was just one little step to “Okay, Hitler’s plan is to bring about Ragnorok” and this is not something original necessarily to me. David Brin did it in Thor meets Captain America and other stuff, but I think I’m the person that pushed it all the way to the end where he actually does try to end the world.

And to mention David Brin again, the secret message is: “the Nazis were shcmucks,” [Doug laughs] so obviously something goes wrong with the End of the World. What defeats the End of the World before it gets started?

That makes me think, okay “The Midgard Serpent shows up. That’s the opening of the End of the World. He rises up out of the sea. Thor, in the original myth, smites him and is killed dead by poison.” What’s going to kill the Midgard Serpent? “

So I thought “Okay, the atom bomb will kill the Midgard Serpent. They’ll fly a B-29 right into the Midgard Serpent’s eye and detonate the atom bomb and burn his brain out.”

And that image then, I’m thinking, okay. Once you’ve done that you’ve still got the Midgard Serpent’s body, this is not reallysolvingthe problem.

So when the serpent falls across Europe and destroys and kills millions of people and you got a trillion ton snake suddenly lying across Europe and Africa. That’s where the story begins for me.

Because that’s send of wonder. That’s high concept sense of wonder. That’s worth doing something about.

Once I had that image of the dead serpent lying across the world I began to think “OK, that I can write. I can get 2200 words out of a dead Midgard Serpent lying across Europe.” As you can tell, eventually I got considerably more than that.

As I was writing it I kept thinking “What’s the core story?” Thor, when he destroys the Midgard Serpent has to be defeated. So what destroys the United States? So when the Midgard Serpent falls it creates a super-tsunami, right?”

Douglas Cole Eastern Seaboard.

Kenneth Hite Then there is also a rain of radioactive serpent venom out of the sky, as the atomized head of the serpent…the rain of the serpent flows in an anomalous polar-eastery and rains down across North America.

So now the entire continent is springing up with monsters. So in North America, you have a new Hyborian Age, you have Conan the Barbarian 1948. Submachine guns and Sorcery.

On the other side of the equation, what happens to the rest of the world? Well, Stalin grabs everything he can, and then I had to think why isn’t Stalin now freezing to death in the world’s worst drought?

So I said we need a secret weapon for Stalin, and that was the Frost Giants obviously. The Jotunn will be on Stalin’s side. So they’re keeping the Soviet Union from freezing to death, for their own purposes. In writing it I ran across a myth of the Sarcarssian peoples of the Caucasus Mountains, which are called the Narts, these are sort of heroic giant figures, which someone else has believed to became the origin of the Knights of the Round Table (which is nonsense), but I came across the Narts reading that book.

And so I thought if there is a Narts connection to the Jotunn then I can do that. Sure enough online I found a guy named . . . what’s his name? Carlorusso’s “Prometheus among the Sarcassians” he’s drawing a parallel between Prometheus and the Narts. Since Prometheus is dead in the Caucasus Mountains it’s the same sort of story.

I’m able to get my apocalyptic material of the giants against the gods there.

What happened to the colonies of the British? Australia and India are what’s left. Where is the British royal family on midsummer’s 1945? Well, Prince Henry – or the Duke of Gloucester – Henry Duke of Gloucester is in Australia. He’s the only survived member of the royal family and he becomes King, so now we’re rebuilding the British empire in Australia? Now we have James Bond and Quartermass, and that ‘Britain is the only important country after the end of the world’ feel.

And all of this is going on trying to get to 2,200 words or 2,500 words so I can send it to Steven so he will be able to dump it into the proper format and put it up.

And that’s where that came from. That sort of desperate urgency. The reason that there is so much stuff in that world is because first of all I’ve sort of trained myself to create worlds in that way. To take the central concept and build out, but also I needed to fill it with sexy goodness to make Steven not mad at me.

Douglas Cole Well that’s a lot of sexy goodness for 2,200 words.

The interesting thing to me as a…we’ve talked a little bit about the ConsPyramid and the Adversary Map, and what you’ve just sort of mapped out is just sort of these concentric rings in a way, or spokes in a wheel. You start with this central concept and you say “Okay, here is something. What does that imply? And here is one or two other things and you proceed somewhere between linearly or geometrically.” And go and go and go.

And you’ve got that spoke and you’ve got however many things and that’s kinda cool and you’ve got a lot of plot seeds there and you just go around the wheel, so to speak.

And all of sudden you’ve got this awesome game world that supports multiple play styles within this world and because you started from a core concept its self-consistent.

I’ve certainly learned something just from listening to how you did that about how to create a interesting game world and story. [Laughs]

I’ll be darn well sure that that’s the next time I plot out a game world, that’s what I’m gonna do. Start with a core concept and say “What does that imply?”

I think it has a lot in common with the sort of science-fiction-y: “If you change one thing. What one thing. Faster than Light travel or often Faster Than Light travel and X.” What happens?

Kenneth Hite [grunts affirmatively] But even with those, they have to decide what core story they are telling.

Douglas Cole True.

Kenneth HiteI could have done… the one thing is Ragnarok half-happens. But if I don’t know that in North America I’m doing Conan – I get, I don’t say I get. One can get design paralysis.

Because I don’t know what happens in North America but it’s like nope, I know what I want. I want this to look like the Hyborian Age. I want there to be a bunch of little tiny city-states. I want there to be no government. I want there to be snake-monsters everywhere. I want wandering mercenaries to be in a sellers market. I want those things to be in a Hyberoan Age, and how do I make that happen to the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and then every decision I make that’s world-building feeds that play and play-style.

I want Britain to be sort of like it is in those 1940s and 1950s stories, that thin red line against Soviet Communism, that thin red line against the Japanese Empire. I want a British spy to be an important person in this world. I want Professor Quatermass to be a important person in this world. Though I had to call him Professor Childermass because he’s not public domain [Douglas laughs].

But the notion is that you have to decide what kind of story you are telling, and then make plausible decisions that reinforce that story, because that’s half of it.

Certainly making a plausible decision is crucial and it’s why I always start with Earth when making a game world, because I know how the Earth words, I live there. It’s documented. It’s the best documented game world in existence. Even the maps are better [Douglas laughs].

But I find that you have to both have a sense of how the Earth’s things react in normal circumstances, and also a sense of what story you want to tell so that the parts that you put into the book reinforce that story.

Douglas Cole Although it is interesting to think when that goes pretty well. And I’m going to offer my own opinions on that. Well, I think, is Babylon 5 where you had a beginning, Straczynski had an end, and you got there with only a couple of network interferences, where he had to compress all of season four and five into season four and then say holy crap what stories do I want to tell in season five.

I thought it was one of the best pieces of continual science fiction, and too your point you, you got to the end of the ConsPyramid, you got to the top. You were kinda sorta done. He had some extensions, but it was good.

Where things went array and I think this is either where poor decisions were made or whatever. Battlestar Galatica. Season one was awesome, maybe the second season the first half was great but after that it lost its way, it felt a little bit like all 172 books of the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series. Where Jordan had the end, he knew what that last scene was going to be and he knew what that beginning was going to be and then he just kind of . . . went places. And it wasn’t always directed.

Like what you described was fairly directed. Here’s my core concept, here’s the Hyborian Age [Ken grunts affirmatively] and such and such between them. As opposed to were going to kind of go around here [mimes a winding path with hands]. It was interesting to see what could go well and what could go poorly.

Kenneth Hite Well, if I was being paid as much as Robert Jordan was, I would have taken a lot longer to get there too [both laugh].

Douglas ColeBut itkilled him.

Kenneth HiteMy market rewards concision, not aimless drift. Trust me; if someone wants to pay me for aimless drift, they’ll see I’m more than capable of it. I just don’t think it’s something the audience wants.

Douglas Cole Do you have an eidetic memory or anything like that? Because you seem to make all these wonderful connections, and you pull them out of the air. And obviously this is your life and what you do, and its good to be good at what you do [Ken chuckles]. It’s how you get there in a way, is that a skill that you have built upon or a little bit of both.

Kenneth HiteI have a trick memory. When I was younger, and before I was drinking, I was probably eidetic. My mom used to claim I knew where on the page something was, which is a sign of a photographic memory.

I can’t take any credit for it any more than I can take credit for green eyes. It’s just a genetic quirk. I think that I have, natively one of those brains that does well on the SATs – the Templars are to the Madam Morris Murder Cult as the Space Shuttle is to blank. One of those type things [Douglas laughs] and then…

Douglas Cole Because there has to be a question on the SATs thatno one can answer.

Kenneth Hite But it’s that kind of analogic thinking I guess. Or analytic thinking to a extent, it’s more analogic, but I think my brain just does that well because I scored really – and again literally this means nothing except for getting into undemanding colleges – I scored well on the SAT. That’s how my brain works.

Because like you say this is my job and it’s also my hobby, I’ve sort of tried to train myself to think like that, and so when I look at a piece of source material, or a piece of geek fun, or a comic book, or a story, or whatever. Part of my brain is now analyzing it and is now looking for both for how it does or doesn’t build as a structure, and what sort of universal joints are in there that could be pulled out given a half spin and plugged back in.

So when I looked at Star Wars in 1,000 A.D. in a Suppressed Transmission, that’s just a matter of knowing enough about 1,000 A.D. to fit Star Wars. And that was tied in because Christopher Lee talked about owning the sword of Charlemagne or something like that. I was like “Well, there we go. Now I have a connection.”

And again, it’s just that matter – you know, I think actually the Star Wars thing was a different one. I think I did Lord of the Rings in 1,000 A.D. which I called Ring of the Lords now that I think about it. [Douglas laughs]

But yeah, it’s just a matter of keeping a eye out for things thatcangive you enough of a connection that you can connect them to other things, or stories that or rich or nubbly enough that you can lay them out and fill them with other stuff that people can still recognize it. That’s why, for all of its flaws, Star Wars really works for that. But it’s all generally going in the same direction as the Jedi order or something. People say “Oh, that’s the Jedi. That’s so cool.”

Douglas Cole Right. Right. As your looking through source material, as you’re reading these blogs, is there a particular turn of phrase or – keywords is the wrong word – or you know…I’m analogic thinker as well, unfortunately I have a tendency towards tangency because even at work, at my day job, which is all science and rigor and all that stuff. Ooo! Wine [gets handed glass from off screen].

Kenneth Hite Oh, you get a beverage.

Douglas ColeI have a great wife.

Kenneth Hite Hey!

[Chuckles]

Douglas Cole Out of curiosity, vaguely globally, where are you right now?

Kenneth Hite I’m in Chicago. The greatest city in the world.

Douglas ColeI went to grad school there – or close by.

Kenneth Hite So, not at UFC then? At Evanston?

Douglas Cole Yep. I was at Northwestern.

So are there turns of phrase that you are looking for as you’re reading some of the source material. Where you are like “Oh, that sets me off in a tangent” or “Oh, that’s something I’m going to be able to connect as something else.” Or is it really just having a prodigious background in oddities and you’re like “Oh, this reminds me of this either because of a turn of phrase, or picture, or temporal event” – how does that work, when you connect this dots like that?

Kenneth Hite Well, some of it works just on a thematic level.

You are looking and if you got two guys who are fighting over who gets to be king – that’s a pretty common story. You can see it in the wars of the Roses, you can see it in every presidential election, but it’s also in King Arthur. Right?

Douglas Cole Sure.

Kenneth Hite Now you’re okay. Once you’ve identified as some kind of squib as the story of King Arthur, you can keep a eye out for it. Then sure enough you’ll see it a lot.

Or a love triangle. You can tie any love triangle into King Arthur. You can tie any father/son conflict into . . . most of British history, but also into Star Wars.

You’ve got these super common, Polokav-level common plot elements that once you – if you want to read reality as fiction, you can recognize them plenty plenty of times. In reality we’d be saying “If this were a movie we’d be saying: Come on, asecond World War?Alsoagainst Germany? And the guystillhas a mustache? What the hell?!” [Douglas laughs]. “Oh yeah, of course Germany’smuch biggerthis time, even though they gotbeaten. They’ll probably have some super-weapon, oh look at that.”

You’d look at that and say this is tiresome unrealistic fiction, but that’s because fiction comes out of our limited experience of the world.

So I think if you start recognizing those historical patterns, you start seeing them everywhere. And a lot of that is just reading history that is at a sort of at a high-enough (the camera is high enough) that you are not reading down to individual quotidian lives, you’re looking at the larger movements of the story. And it may still be an individual quotidian life, it’s just Napoleon’s life or Queen Elizabeth’s life, so you just have to follow along with that.

Then another part of it is that some people or some concepts have a habit of being good and sticky – so the Templers can be fit into virtually anything. Anything you’re reading along with you can mention the Templars and [you’ll be like] “I can now tie that somewhere if I need too.”

Sometimes people do you the favor of deliberately living their lives along mythic lines. Alexander the Great tried to pattern his existence after Achilles, and after Hercules. You’re really really helped out when you’re trying to do anything weird with Alexander the Great.

Napoleon tried to pattern his life after Alexander the Great, there you go, you have a lovely second order of thing. Himmler thought he was a reincarnated Henry the Fowler, so you’ve got a connection there if you want to make it.

It’s just a matter of being aware of things that are going to recur a lot. The Ulmecs are really really interesting, but they don’t show up in a lot of stuff that isn’t about Mesoamerican history. Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare and John Dee show up in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with Tudor England.

So you just have to have sort of a eye out for what shows up a lot. Then read widely. Don’t just read in the area you’re interested in because then you’re only going to read stuff you are interested in. Read science fiction,andhorror,andfantasy, read comics, watch movies. Be a broad consumer and not a narrow consumer and you’ll wind up seeing that more things are beginning to pattern match –especiallywhen you start looking for them – because we’re as a species genetically programmed to pattern match. That’s how we feed ourselves for three million years.

Douglas Cole Right. You know one of the best and worst things that ever happened to me was a brief one-hour seminar on film at Rice University by the master of Hanszen College at the time, Professor Dennis Houston. He loves westerns.

Kenneth Hite As he should.

Douglas Cole As he should. He was like, let me show you this . . . he had this great voice [mimes his old Professor] “Let me show you this! Watch what the camera does. It moves . . . and you see the badge . . . and you see the ring and you see this . . . and this all happens. Nothing that you see on the screen is there accidently. Everything that you’re watching was put there by the director. It all has meaning. There are no random cut scenes in movies. They’re edited.”

And I was like “Oh my, God.” I can’t…I’m so rarelysurprisedanymore by film and TV, that when it happens it’s a wonderful thing. But, it’s like “Oh, crap. They just flashed to this guy when they were talking about the secret conspiracy. Well now we know who the betrayer is.” To your point about…

Kenneth Hite There are ways to do that better or worse. I don’t know if you’ve seen American Hustle – I don’t wanna do any spoilers – but if you are in the habit of watching things for that, at the end of American Hustle you will very possibly have one of those moments where it’s like “Oh, they warned me, but I thought it was one thing, but now I realize, that they actually warned me.”

Or in Brick, The great Dashiell Hammet in a high school Brick, very early in the movie there is a line that gives away the entire mystery. But again, anyone who has read Dashiell Hammet the mystery was pre-given away because Dashiell Hammet only had two endings but it used one of them.

But because the movie is the way the movie is, you don’t parse that as the solution until it’s revealing itself to you at the same time it’s revealing itself to the director.

So what I’m saying is a good editor, or good director – first there are plenty of bad editors or bad directors, and there is all kinds of stuff in there accidently.

Douglas ColeI suppose so, yeah.

Kenneth Hite But also a good editor and good director will feed you the solution in such a way that you miss it and when it comes back you kick yourself.

I think that’s the whole message of House of Games. I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you, and you’re still not going to understand it until it’s too late. Black Swan is the same way. The Darien Aronasky film. He’s literally telling the same story five different ways, and every time he tells – when he tells you the last one – because you are so invested in the story, you are in the moment and you are surprised even, if you are not actually surprised.

But again, if you watch a movie of Othello, you’re not like “I hope that nice Desdemona gets away.” You know that’s not going to happen, right? The difference between a good version of Othello, and a bad version of Othello is that in a good version of Othello you stillcare. In a bad version you’re like “Ah, whatever.”

People say oh, you can’t give away the ending. Any time you watch a Shakespeare play or any time you watch a movie from a book you’ve read the ending is given away because you knew it, right? When we watch the Lord of the Rings “I know he’s gonna get his finger bitten off and Gollum is gonna go into the volcano, I know how that’s going to end, there’s no point watching.”

No! The point to watching is how is it gonna be sold to you. How are you gonna be feed? What are the music cues gonna be? What is the performance gonna be like? How is Frodo gonna react? How is Elijah Wood gonna play it? Those are the mysteries that you are watching the movie to see, and if it’s a good movie you’re gonna want to see it over and over again.

In theory you know how it ends, right? But you don’t, because you want to see it develop.

Douglas Cole You know, that’s a good…I have a whole wall of movies (not behind me), that are basically popcorn movies. I aminordinately fond of Thor – I’ve written on it on my blog.

It’s partly, you know, I can watch it. Watching Anthony Hopkins as Odin (or Odin as Anthony Hopkins) depending on how you put it [Ken laughs] is a wonderful thing and he did it very well.

And I can watch it over and over and over again, whereas if I look at a movie like Black Hawk Down – I read the book, I knew how it was going to end – I think I’ve seen it once or twice. And the same thing, honestly, with Saving Private Ryan – it was such a intense movie that I didn’t feel like going back to revisit. Not because it was a bad story. They werewonderfulstories, but the impact was so high the first time I didn’t need to re-experience it. Where watching Avengers for the 764th time, I can just enjoy the candy of it.

Kenneth Hite it’s the difference between a pleasurable impact and a painful impact. I’m not going to say one is superior and one is inferior. In general, you don’t go back to the things that made you uncomfortable. And the question is to what extant is great art supposed to make you uncomfortable?

I, conversely, have watched Black Hawk Down a lot because I think it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking, and also because it’s a riveting story and a great war movie. My wife for example won’t watch Chinatown a second time.

Douglas Cole Okay.

Kenneth Hite Again, it’s a great movie, and phenomenal story. Robert Town did a great job, but it’s a very emotionally harrowing thing to watch. So, yeah, I haven’t watched Chinatown a lot of times either myself.

Douglas ColeI think the thing that really got me about Black Hawk Down, is I can handle pretty much everything except for the injured solider, because I have this thing about veins. And that didn’t…yes, I still get squicky when I have to think about that scene.

Kenneth Hite And that’s a different question entirely. It’s just a squick factor, you know. As great a movie as Groundhog Day is I can’t watch it all the time, because it has Andie McDowell in it. It’s the same thing. Open vein . . . Andie McDowell. [Douglas laughs].

Douglas Cole My wife was the same way for a long time, until we watched the movie Sliding Doors – she would not watch Gwyneth Paltrow inanything.

Kenneth Hite That’s a different question… Gwyneth is…well – we’re not really doing a film blog maybe that’s a issue for another…

Douglas Cole One of the things I do on my blog, is periodically I have the Apropos of Nothing. Role-Playing and media entertainment is just different kinds of having fun, so you know the concept of taking a film and doing as a roleplaying game.

The question I was actually going to ask, because you queued it in my mind, is what kind of things make great stories, and what kind of things make good stories for roleplaying games?

Do you distinguish in your mind “Oh, this is a great story that I can tell” versus “Oh, this is a great world in which I can tell stories?”

Kenneth Hite The key thing for what I think I a world in which you can tell stories is that the characters haven’t already been written for you.

In 99% of roleplaying games, maybe 90% now, but in the vast majority of roleplaying games, you can’t assume the players are going to play the 5 iconic guys from the show.

If you’re making a Star Trek game – as I’ve made two of – you can’t assume people are going to be Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Ohura, and Sulu. You don’t know that they are going to do that. Even if they were doing original series Star Trek, they might be doing Scotty, Chekov, Mr. Leslie, and Chief Officer Kyle or something. You have no idea what they are going to be doing.

And you certainly shouldn’t be doing that in a world of your own creation, because it’s just very very narrow. It’s limiting.

Most writers, for perfectly understandable reasons, make their characters really central and really interesting and really memorable. So when you’re looking at something like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan is fascinating and interesting and powerful and neat, but his Africa is kind of a blank slate. There is sort of jungle, and some natives, and every now and again a lost Roman city. But there is nothing about Tarzan’s Africa that isn’t true about anyone else’s Africa or H. Rider Hager’s Africa.

Barsoom is a factor of John Carter, not really a factor of Barsoom. The Hyberian Age without Conan you could write stories set in the Hyborian Age, but nine times out of ten you’re just writing Conan fanfic because your barbarian is “His name is Nonac and he’s a whole different guy and he’s from the East, not the North.”

But it’s the same thing. But the great thing about Lovecraft – to take this back around to the Mythos – is he’s the guy who literally thought that the charactersshould be meaningless. Because that was the point. Humanitymeaningless. His cipher characters make the game universe . . . pop!

The background really comes alive for Lovecraft, in a way that even for Tolkien, who was one of the best background guys in the business – There is really only one story and that’s the story of the Fellowship and Frodo destroying the Ring. If you’re playing in that Third Age, and you’re not destroying that ring you know you’re like a B-role story, that meanwhile a bunch of guys in Angmar were doing something. It’s like whatever.

That is the problem with that, and while Middle-Earth is a great world to adventure in, I think it’s harder to pull out what you do if you’re not destroying the ring.

Where the Star Trek Federation is a fine world to adventure in, it’s harder to pull out the what if you’re not the one starship that gets to break about the rules all the time and meet godlike aliens and have all this stuff happen to it.

So I think that a world that is a good place for gaming is a good place for other stories to happen.

If you look at say Harry Potter, and you can imagine stories that are happening and are good and compelling and as interesting as the story of the Boy Who Lived defeating the worst wizard ever, you can tell stories in it.

Or of course you can think about deliberately dropping your gaze or telling stories that are not epic world-beater stories.

World War II: you’re doing a game set in World War II, you’re not going to be the guy who kills Hitler, because spoiler: That’s Hitler. You know you’re not going to be the most important guy in World War II, because thereisno important guy in World War II and that will let you think of a individual story for your setting.

But a bad setting for games, even if it’s a great setting for stories, is one where the stories in the world are so intertwined around one set of characters that it is difficult to impossible to figure out how to separate them. You can’t game in Anna Karenna – the world while it’s the Russian aristocracy, the story is just about one woman making an idiot choice and suffering for it.

Douglas Cole So I think to sort of steer – not steer – but to bring to the last topic. I do a lot of writing about GURPS, and it’s from where I do.

I want to talk about GURPS Horror and Madness Dossier if there is anything you can say about it. There is also a question that a friend of mine asked which is “What part of the original Scott Harring 2nd edition manuscript did you adopt or co-opt, what did you do yourself and how did you get from 2nd edition to 3rd edition in the Horror book?”

Kenneth Hite With GURPS Horror – first of all, a little unfair to J.M. Caparulla, because he of course did the second edition, Scott did the first edition.

I think that what I did at the time, I took my book, Nightmares of Mine, which had just reverted to me after Iron Crown went bankrupt.

The goal was to take all of the horror advice in that, and turn it into GURPS Horror using GURPS Horror which of course I based much of the horror advice in Nightmares on because it’s a really great book.

To take what we took out I believe was mostly just the settings. We took out the 1920s setting. We took out the Victorian setting. Because the notion was that those would have their own GURPS books.

There has been a GURPS…there was a GURPS Cliffhangers coming out at the same time and GURPS Steampunk was in development when I was doing Horror 3rd. The notion was we didn’t need those settings anymore.

Pretty much, most of the meat, and a lot of the words from 2nd edition, and a lot of the words Scott wrote, and certainly some of the pieces of advice I merely really restated in Nightmares of Mine, I left in their original GURPS version.

What I did was I took that little tiny thin book…Steve told me to take out a third of it already, and I replaced it with the larger 128 page 3rd edition book. And when it came time to do 4th edition it was just a matter of build onto that and add more stuff.

Basically as far as I’m concerned…like I say in the introduction to 4th edition, the heart of that book is Scott’s first edition book, and it’s still beating in the 4th edition book. I’m pretty sure if you went over it with a highlighter you can find paragraphs that have moved from 1st to 4th unchanged.

Douglas Cole Sure. Sure. Just looking over it…unfortunately I can’t flash up my 4th edition hardback because it’s in the mail. I am scrolling through the uhh…

Kenneth Hite What?! [rummages through books].

Douglas ColeI am scrolling through the PDF file, I really will admit it’s clear from what you just said that it’s a great horrors about fear and…yeah. There you go [Ken holds up GURPS Horror 4th edition]. Awesome. Good.

Kenneth Hite That is…

Douglas Cole It is pretty. It is pretty.

Anyways Chapter Two: Things That Go Bump In The Night is pick a monster . . . and then Fear of Taint, Fear of Nature, Fear of Madness, Fear of Mutilation, Fear of Starvation, Fear of the Universe, Fear of the Unnatural.

Everyone of these reflections, and there are a half dozen more, every one of these reflections on fear, panic, death, scare . . .the things that populate a horror episode are gone through, and the thing that’s wonderful about this is its got a mini-bestiary and there are stats . . . for zombies (p. 90) since Sean just wrote a entire book on them. Yup, zombie, -111 points, so there are templates.

Kenneth Hite There are abunchof templates.

Douglas Cole There are character templates as well as monster templates.

Kenneth Hite Yeah.

Douglas Cole One of the knocks that GURPS gets, and somewhat unfairly, is that because they are not collected in one place its “Oh, GURPS doesn’t have a bestiary.”

Kenneth Hite GURPS hasthreebestiaries.

Douglas Cole Well, 4th edition does not have aformalbestiary. But what it has is Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 and acrap ton of stuffthat get put in appropriate genre books that you can extract.

Kenneth Hite In the zombie part, there are the zombie as well as lenses for fast and slow zombies under zombie. Then b-movie zombies, which are the non-fantasy version your good ole living dead. Voodoo zombies which are both a undead voodoo zombie and a zombified human template. And so of the zombies there are…depending on how you count lenses there are three or seven different kinds of zombies. So I think that’s pretty good.

And Fear of Death also contains the Mummy and the Lilitu which was a new monster for 4th edition, I think. And the Lilitu contains underittemplates for the Ardat-Lili, the Cihuateteo, which is the Azetec version of the aerial vampire spirit of a weeping woman, the Classical Lamia from Greek myth, the Lamashtu which is a specific demon, and the good ole Strix.

So yeah, there is a lot of stuff (and that’s just under Fear of Death). Yeah, there’s a ton of monsters in GURPS Horror, and that was part of the remit because yeah, you’re running horror so you want to have that.

Douglas Cole Yeah, I think that it’s a great plug for both your book, and a great source of . . . I guess representational piece.

What is it for? Is an orc…what does a orc represent the fear of? Is it fear of madness? Is it fear of barbarian? Is it fear of the other? Is it fear of lack of civilization? Is it fear of random violence? So you say okay this is my monster and it’s going to represent fear of blah and you pick up the book and you say “Okay, am I talking about a fear that has been identified here?” and you haven’t missed much, and you can’t take something directly, then certainly you can improvise.

Kenneth HiteA lot of these monsters can be cast as different kinds of fear. The werewolf can be the fear of nature, or the fear of sex, or the fear of madness, and it just depends on how you want to play it, and how you want to spin it. I just had to put them somewhere. And even that came out of 2nd edition, which may have come out of 1st edition, I don’t have my copy of 1st right nearby where I can double check.

But there is a bit in there where it talks about what does the vampire really represent?

Douglas Cole Yes. That was definitely in 2nd edition. Yup.

Kenneth Hite If you’re doing a civil war vampire, maybe he’s being followed by pigs instead of rats, and if he’s a nuclear holocaust vampire, maybe he’s being followed by glowing cockroaches or something.

So I thought, that’s a kind of neat concept, how do I really blow that up and play with it in 3rd edition. Well since he’s said this once kind of off-hand for the vampire, why don’t I say it really loud, but not just for the vampire but for all the sort of standard monsters? Find all the fears.

When I expanded 3rd into 4th I was able to add more fears again when people said, “Where is the fear of hunger, that’s a pretty big fear, starving to death.” It was more than I would come up with, like the fear of the state, I wanted to have the men in black in there as a monster, because by that time I had suspected that GURPS Conspiracies was not going to come around any time too soon, so I wanted to make sure my Men in Black got in there.”

Douglas Cole Yeah, then there is of course the…in a horror game like Trail of Cthulhu, or whether you’re doing it in GURPS or anything . . . A horror story is hard to tell without certain willing conspiracy from the players.

The advice that’s given in there is…What’s your favorite piece that you put in there to take a campaign and make it horrific . . . or even an episode. That’s the nice thing about horror, is it doesn’t always have to be all horror all the time. You could even say that the second Aliens movie could…the first Aliens movie was a horror flick. The second movie was Action/Horror, but easy to tweak out.

Kenneth Hite Yeah. I think that my favorite piece of advice, is the one that you call up because it’s the more important piece of advice. Horror is different from other kinds of games. Everyone has to want it to happen or else it doesn’t happen.

You’re tapping into . . . not just a emotion, but a emotion that is so much more powerful when shared. And so that notion that horror is a collaboration not a contest is the fundamental insight to run good horror games. If you don’t have that, it’s very hard to run horror no matter how much other advice you follow. And if you do have it it’s very hard not to be able to run horror no matter how much other advice you don’t follow.

That’s why I made it front and center in Nightmares of Mine, which I think is the reason everyone really liked Nightmares of Mine. And then when I turned that into GURPS Horror 3rd edition I made it front and center in GURPS Horror for 3rd , and I’m fairly sure I got pieces out of that in GURPS Horror, and pieces out of that in Chill, and talking to John Hines, and to everyone else who’s tried to run horror. It’s really elementary. It’s fundamental foundational stuff and if you don’t have that you’re just not going to be able to run a horror game.

Douglas Cole You know that’s the other thing that is true not all groups – not just the players – but the characters; and Peter Dell’Orto just did a interesting blog post about the difference between player and character and when writers of games started to really make that distinction. Because that was blended in the first iterations of DnD . . . but you can have a group of characters and say you got six players and whatever, each of them have a character.

Four of them have recognizable fears, and two of them are either not played that way or just don’t have any hooks on the character sheet. You’d almost have to seek out the players and say “Look, what is your character afraidof?”

Kenneth Hite Those players may be signaling they’re just not the type that want to be part of the story. They like playing sidekicks, they liking playing hangers-back, they like playing people or being at the game because it’s cheaper than a movie because they just want to watch the story unfold or maybe they are someone’s boyfriend and are just along to keep their inamorata happy. I think as long as you’ve got four out of six players with hooks – that’ll fill any reasonable campaign as long as the other people are willing to be scared and aren’t going to be on their phone or making Monty Python references or whatever kids make now that Monty Python has been gone 20 years. Whatever kind of useless reference people are making nowadays. As long as they are going to be involved in the emotional content of the story, its less than important there be a hook about them.

Douglas ColeI agree, agree and I guess…

Kenneth Hite As the game goes forward they’ll feel more confident, or accidently take part in the story such that you make them the hook. “Oh remember that timeyoutouched the amulet? Well guess what…”

Douglas ColeI guess the last question – you’ve been very generous with your time for which I thank you – Madness Dossier, rumors and playtest . . . is there anything you can tell us about that.

Kenneth Hite Madness Dossier right now is in the magical production hands of Nikki – whoever does production…

Douglas Cole Nikki…

Kenneth Hite They’ve got it. I did my bit where I picked the quotes to go in the quote box, and I have done my final final final edits based on typos, and space filling, and things like that. So I think my part is done and it’s up to Steve Jackson gristmill to grind it fine as they decide they want to.

I guess in terms of content I have no real problem teasing stuff, if you have more specific questions. But basically it’s the Madness Dossier campaign back from the old 3rd edition [GURPS Horror], and instead of being just three pages or whatever it was, it’s now expanded too I think 48, but I’m pulling up the PDF, and I’ll tell you in two shakes as soon as preview decides it wants to pay attention.

Oh no, look at that. It’s 64 pages! So it’s a 64 page PDF, and it’s a GURPS book – you know what those look like – it sort of follows what they called for in the GURPS Organizations model.

There is the standard stuff about an organization in GURPS. There is different stuff for the kinds of templates, people who are put in charge of…that a part of Project: Sandman. I guess I should hit the high concept for people who haven’t seen GURPS [Horror] 3rd [edition].

Douglas Cole Yeah! Please do! I have GURPS…this. For some reason because this was for 3rd edition I thought this was Horror 3rd edition and I have 4th and I have 2nd and I was looking around on my… Madness Dossier, Madness Dossier . . . not finding it! It’s all over the internet and I can find references to it and how awesome it is, but the edition I missed. [Ken laughs]

Kenneth Hite[Gently mocking] If Douglas Cole doesn’t have it [Douglas laughs] it is not available to everyone.

I guess the basic concept is that around World War II, the US and British governments operating independently discovered that their world was a previous universe. And that previous universe had been edited out of existence when our universe replaced it about 535 A.D. in what I call the Ontoclysm. In a big reality quake, and if you look at GURPS 4th , Dave Pulver took reality quakes out of Horror and made them a part of GURPs 4th physics, and then I took them again out of GURPS 4th and put them into Infinite Worlds for people to follow along.

A reality quake is like a earthquake in which you have one history, and then the earthquake comes along and shifts all the ground around. But since it’s a reality quake, your history is changedretroactively. So the bronze age and the past, and everything we know happened since 535, before 535 A.D. has only been true since 535 A.D. and it’s a concept I took from Mary Gentle’s novel Ash, but it’s also obviously from Boris Hauses Plon Ukbar Orbis Tertius, and I think the most fan accessible version of that isDream of a Thousand Cats, in Sandman –where if a Thousand Cats all dream that they are the dominant species on the planet, it will have always been true. But what happened was that a thousand humans dreamed that they were and humans being dominant has always been true.

And so that’s sort of the notion of a reality quake. So this reality quake in the previous version of history – the true version of history – there are these monstrous entities known as the Anunnaku (which is a Sumerian term) who ruled the world. They ruled humanity and programmed us to obey them by programming our language to contain the core of own subjugation. The Language Sumerian is a perfect control system for human brains, or it contains a perfect control system for human brains.

So after the reality quake happened, our languages still have these control surfaces in it – until these irrupters, these beings from History B – began seeping into our universe and trying to control us so they would be able to bring about a reverse of the Ontoclysm and snap History B back into existence in place of our history, which is called History A.

So the – like I say around World War II the British and American governments figured this out and set up a secret, joint-task force called Project: Sandman whose job it is to keep the Red King asleep – to keep the Anunnaku asleep, and not in our reality.

And so what they do, is go around and they find people who’ve begun believing in the old history, and they change their minds or they kill them. They find irrupters and kill them and cover up any evidence that they were ever there. They use memetics, they use neurolingustic programming, they use subliminal messages, they use the Anunnaku’s own control system against their foes which is perilous on both moral and practical levels, and they’ve begun to develop wetware hacking where they hack your brain with a computer to change the way you think.

So it’s basically a heroic conspiracy of people who are using the worst kind of mind control and subversion, but in a fight against a truly cosmic world-ending evil. It’s the same old standard Western narrative, right? You have to pick up the gun, and be a barbarian, in order to keep the civilization safe, but done in a sort of William S. Burroughs/George Louis Wariz metis and that’s what it is. It’s a mind-space techno thriller I suppose.

Douglas Cole Did this appear in…did David do something with this…I remember this plot outline. I remember the term irrupters. I remember a lot of this stuff and I’m trying to remember where I read it.

Kenneth Hite It gets mentioned in 4th edition very briefly and then it’s more mentioned in Infinite Worlds, but it’s not laid out even to the degree that it was in Horror 3rd.

Douglas Cole Okay. Okay I’m trying to remember if maybe there was a Pyramid article on that.

Kenneth HiteI don’t think Dave has done a Pyramid article on that…

Douglas Cole It would have been Eidetic Memory column, or something like that.

Anyway, because the concepts are familiar to me. And the Anunnaku and irrupters and all those phrases, and I know that I’ve heard this stuff, and to have that expanded into a 64 page campaign book is really neat. Can’t wait for it. I’m a bit of a collector so I’ll be…

Kenneth HiteWell, what kind of collector can you be if you don’t have Horror 3rd? I mean come on.

Douglas ColeI somehow missed it. That might have been from a time that I was doing enough playtesting that I was getting a lot of books for free. Hard to say how that works. It may have been that I wasn’t doing edition pieces. I’m more of a collector now that I have more money. So “one last question:” Night’s Black Agents.

Kenneth Hite Here’s Horror 3rd… [holds up book to camera].

Douglas Cole Excuse me?

Kenneth Hite You’ll recognize it when you see it. This is 3rd edition Horror…

Douglas Cole Yep.

Kenneth Hite Night’s Black Agents. Right.

Douglas ColeNight’s Black Agents, in my mind, would make a great GURPS campaign. It’s got all the tactical crunch, it’s high-powered. It would make either subgenre of Monster Hunters or as a standalone and you could even pull in Sean’s Impulse Buys to do some of the Investigator skill stuff. Would there be any ever possibility of making a spinoff or are you doing most of your creation in GUMSHOE world so you’re a freelance writer so you write where there is interest.

Kenneth Hite Well, I mean, first of all Night’s Black Agents is, I don’t own it. I wrote it for hire. Pelegraine owns that property so Simon would have to license it to Steve, and Steve I’m fairly sure has been turned off to licenses to other peoples games…

Douglas ColeYes..

Kenneth Hite Pretty comprehensively, so that would be the first problem with it. The second is as you note, there is a lot of GURPS in it. In my Designers Notes, I list probably a dozen GURPS books. A lot of GURPS books.

Douglas Cole Okay. That’ll teach me to fail to read the bibliography.

Kenneth HiteI dug through and shout out to Gun Fu, Tactical Shooting, High-Tech, Covert Ops, Special Ops, SWAT, Action, Undead, Monster Hunters, Blood Types, and Horror all of which I went and dug into very thoroughly to make sure that my game contained everything you could do in those games, or at least enough of a grit that you could feel like you were doing everything you could in those games.

I think if you are a GURPS player who absolutely doesn’t want to play any other game, you can buy your copy of Night’s Black Agents and then run it in Monster Hunters.

You take Monster Hunters, you take Horror, you take Blood Types or whatever, if you look at the way I build up the vampires as modular collections of powers, obviously that’s how GURPS builds everything.

Douglas Cole Yeah, as I was reading through it. I sort of read through the book twice, and the first time I read through it I was like “Okay, what are these investigative skills, and what would they be” and then there were some of the pieces, this would be a reputation, and this is going to be an advantage, and this is going to be something else. It’s a easy convert if you want to spend the time to do it, I agree.

So that’s…I have to ask because I had a great time as lead playtester on Tactical Shooting. Did you enjoy that? Do you enjoy the crunch parts of the book, or all you read is story elements.

Kenneth HiteI always lovereadingthem because by and large they are good examples of how to do game design.

I think the core GURPS engine is a great engine, and I love it and I’ve always loved it. When I see people try and mod things with it, it’s usually worth my time as a game designer to see how they’ve modded it.

Now if it’s on a topic I’m really interested in, like shooting, I read GURPS Tactical Shooting and I think that’s a terrific idea, but I don’t think I’drunit because it would slow down a gunfight to a miserable crawl.

If you’re having to do all that calculation in your head and apply all those modifiers all the time its just going to…you know, the gunfight at the OK Corral should last as long as the gunfight at the OK Corral. Or maximally it should last five times as long as the gunfight at the OK Corral.

If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes having a gunfight, you’ve done a gunfight wrong. Because it no longer feels like a gunfight anymore – you might as well play a war game now because that’s what you are doing.

So in my own personal gaming style, I don’t have a need for those rules, but I like reading how they’re done. But that’s because I’m a designer, not because I think that level of detail is necessary, because otherwise we can’t have a gunfight! We don’t how to adjust for windage! Because that’s ridiculous if it’s so windy that it’s really gonna do it add a general +1 and keep going on with your life.

But I think that I have to know that material and then when I’m reading something…obviously Hans-Christian is God’s gift to guns from Germany. So anything he says about guns is going to be worth reading just on its own whether there are GURPS rules or not so there are sort of two or three reasons to read something like that. And then a lot of them are just pretty fun reads, and everything Sean [“Dr. Kromm” Punch] writes is certainly well written and interesting, and clever, and so I just like reading Sean’s prose. I’m not sure I’d want to read any papers he publishes as a physicist, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to read everything he writes for how to shoot people in the face.

Douglas Cole [laughs] Yeah, that is one of the nice things that he’s done. In an interview with him, he talks about it very deliberately which is… He’s done, although I wrote a very technical grappling book and we’ve got Tactical Shooting and there is all kinds of crunch that exists. He writes a lot of stuff that is sort of story, and for a game that gets a bad rap for the core simulation he’s really tried to build up a “You can just tell fun freewheeling stories at any point level using this system.” I don’t think people give it a lot of credibility.

Kenneth Hite Yeah. You can and I certainly have. Every time I’ve run GURPS I run it. I love running GURPS, and every time I run GURPS, I run it at exactly the level of detail that I want and I deliberately ignore the level of detail that I don’t. If it’s something you have to – like Vehicle building – I usually have a friend who is a bigger nerd than me and I say “You are the lucky winner get to build a spaceship so off with you, go build it then come back and show it to me.”

Douglas Cole That’s one of the things that I enjoyed very much – It’s surprised me how much I enjoyed it, but again as I got older and got less time . . . There is a surprising amount of fun in David [Pulver]’s Spaceships. You know, pick 20 segments of mass. Just pick’em . . . and get on with it.

Kenneth Hite That’s the old Traveller way – bulk units or whatever they called it back in the day.

Douglas Cole Okay. I played a very limited game of Traveller and honestly I don’t even think we played because my characterdied in creation, and my friend and I went and played a videogame. On the Atari 2600 or whatever it was, maybe a Commodore 64.

Kenneth Hite Spaceships is like the next logical iteration after the vehicle construction stuff in GURPS World War II. It’s kind of like that but, since it was constrained to follow some real world performance there was still some sort of jiggly-pokely best if you do it in a spreadsheet that I like in my vehicle construction rules.

Douglas ColeThat’s actually there’s a whole . . . any . . .

Kenneth HiteI don’t like them.

Douglas Cole That’s actually gotten me in a little bit of trouble, in that I almost always design when I think about rules I pull out the Excel. When I read a book, I pull out the Excel. If I’m going to drink nutrition shake, I pull up Excel, because I just need it.

But that’s one of the things that occasionally gets me in trouble. I have this mathematical stuff. “Okay, if I do it this way it actually works out and scales right” and then I put that into a sheet …this actually happened to me in Technical Grappling…if you do this, and round normally it’s all good. Peter, unfortunately – far to late – “Why didn’t you just do it byfives?” and I’m like “Aw, hell.” [face palms]

If I would have had this round from ‘you get to 15,’ and then change and then you get to nineteen and you’re still the same, and then you get to twenty and you change and you can wing it and go.

Whereas the way I’ve technically done it in the text the bracket around 15 goes around 13 or 17 or something like that, and that’sjust meanto a gamemaster or a player for that matter.

Last piece, and then I’ll sort of give you the last word and then go. In Night’s Black Agents there is a whole box text about grappling, and it tied into something I thought was fun, which was, and obviously I’m biased, the TV Tropes section on grappling: “Most grappling rules suck because most grappling is really hard to do and is different in other combatant.”

I actually riffed off that in my Designers Notes “It’s really not.” But I wanted to offer up in future, how would I do grappling in Night’s Black Agents, and what I would do is some kind of attack where if you succeed you temporarily lower the other guys Athletics pool, since that’s sort of a proxy for [GURPS] ST and DX.

Kenneth Hite If you’re lowering their Athletics pool, it has almost no impact on the actual course of the game, or the course of the fight, because you’re not spending from Athletics.

Douglas Cole You’re right – you’d have to lower Hand-To-Hand and/or Athletics. So ST/DX…that would make more sense, you’re right.

Kenneth Hite Yeah. In so you’re either lowering Hand-To-Hand and Athletics or Hand-To-Hand and hit Threshold. I suppose you could do that if you wanted there to be a special… Let’s turn this around on its head.

Douglas Cole Sure.

Kenneth Hite Let’s say I was doing a GUMSHOE game based on Gerard Kirsch’s phenomenal book Night and the City which is about the wrestling scene in sordid Post-War London. You’d want to have more of a differential between grappling and other kinds of fighting, because there are going to be more wrestlers involved in your game, right?

Douglas Cole Sure.

Kenneth Hite Or maybe a GUMSHOE Luche book, then that sort of differentiation might become important, because you’d have three stages of a fight.

In normal roleplaying fight or a normal GUMSHOE fight at least there is: either You can still fight, or you are out of the fight. The Health clock is not a measure of how many liters of blood left in your body or whatever. It’s a clock of how long you can stay in the fight.

So being grappled moves you towards the getting out of the fight…[Douglas speaks simultaneously with Ken]. So that’s why I say in the grappling box which you are nice enough to call out. An armlock is the same as punching someone in the head. Both have the same chance of taking someone out of the fight and if you’re really really good at either, you’ll do it.

Douglas Cole The whole point, to your point, if I’m trying to restrain you I win when you can no longer fight back.

You’re not unconscious and your health pool refreshes as soon as I let you go. And that just becomes a dramatic device. Say I’m grappling this guy but I’m not damaging him not breaking his limbs, I’m literally tying him up till he can’t resist. I’m tying him up or capturing him, so I can interrogate him later.

So what happens is you get to negative thing, he’s out of the fight he’s pinned or helpless or whatever and then you let go and he’s health pool instantly refreshes, or whatever pool instantly refreshes, and he could run away but he’s morally beaten and so he’s not going to.

Kenneth Hite Right.

Douglas Cole As you say this stuff, you’re like “Look…” and the same thing as I was looking at this, and the same deal as I’m like…getting hit by a .50 BMG, which is 13,000 Joules is really only one point better than getting hit by a 9mm pistol, and the guy who wrote the old article in 2004 about converting real world stats to GURPS ballistics and all that stuff . . . cringes a little bit. But then I’m like the important part is “Are you still in the fight?”

You know if you’re doing fisticuffs with someone and you roll 1d6 for damage and it’s -1…-2 for fists. Yeah, the damage potential of poking someone in the nose and shooting them with a .50 BMG overlaps. Nobody cares, and if youcarethen what you need to do is find the cool narrative thing that makes it cool, rather than makes you pink mist.

Kenneth Hite If your goal in the game, and everyone agrees that you should have a anti-material rifle that is a instant kill if you hit, that’s easily enough done in GUMSHOE instead of roll health you are instantly killed.

But the trouble is most players are smart enough to know that we don’t have the only anti-material rifle in the world. In fact, if you run the numbers almostall anti-material rifles are in other hands, and we don’t want there to be a instant kill device in the game that takes us out of having fun. And it never happens to Jason Bourne more importantly, as he’s parkouring around Paris, there is a guy a quarter of a mile away that’s like “Okay, whatever. Boom.” He’s knocked off the ridge line and he’s dead.

Thatnever happens! There are compilations of clips on YouTube where it’s like the number of places where a cellphone wrecks the story? You could do a much longer list of places where a sniper wrecks the story.

Douglas Cole Right. Absolutely.

Kenneth Hite Actually bulletproof heroes in popular fiction is not that high, and the number of component snipers in the real world is really very high. I don’t think one is unrealistic and one is not unrealistic really serves anything, because there aren’t going to be snipers that kill you form a mile away in a normal game that is attempting to emulate thrillers anymore then there are snipers a mile away killing Jason Bourne.

Douglas Cole You bring up a great point. Which is why you’re a pro at this and I’m interviewing you.

You bring up a great point which is . . . the reciprocity of it. If you want something where you can reach out 1500 meters and instantly touch someone [snaps fingers] and they are gone, that’s great and you know what . . . that works on mooks.

But the reciprocity of it if you can reach out 1500 meters and do that someone can do it to you. And it’s the old “rocks fall, everyone dies,” or even worse “rocks fall, and this one guy dies,” and he gets to go for pizza or beer because he’s done for the day.

Kenneth Hite Yeah.

Douglas ColeNot conduciveto a social environment where you are getting together with friends.

Kenneth Hite And not conducive to story, because what you want for a story to happen, you want players to take a active hand, and move forward into the world, and they have the perfectly rational expectation that if we set foot outside our bunker, someone will shoot us in the head from 1500 meters, they aren’t going to move outside the bunker. They’ll say “Nope. We’re going to sit inside our bunker and order in pizza and we’re never going to leave, and we don’t care how many vampires are out there, because we’re going to get a lot of garlic on the pizza so we will be safe.” [Laughs]

Douglas Cole The places in like George R. R. Martin’s books where the trope is subverted. You’re going through one of the books – almost all of the books – I haven’t read the whole thing because I was still in the middle of a Wheel of Time when he was…I can’t do this to myself twice.

So my wife has read all of them, and I was reading the first one, The Game of Thrones, and I’m getting into the thing and I was like “Oh yeah, this Ed Stark guy is a great character and blah blah blah…WHAT?! I didn’t see that one coming!” Where’s the hero, where’s the whatever. Oh. OK. Ow!

And interesting, and he does it over and over again. And the only time you can do that is effectively as a writer you have a ensemble cast of a hundred and it doesn’t matter. Especially when apparently you get to see these guys again anyways, but unless you’ve got a list of characters you can just pick off, “Yeah, you stepped outside, and you walked into vampires and his throat was torn out. I hope that your platoon mate can replace him.” It makes a good story but it has to be done well. You have to have the backup character.

Kenneth Hite You can certainly make a bloody killfest in Night’s Black Agents but it should be a fun bloody kill fest.

Douglas Cole Right.

Kenneth Hite Having your throat torn out by a vampire is way sexier than being shoot by a vampire you haven’t heard much less saw.

In my playtest I..we had pregen characters that were Serbian thugs, basically, Serbian mafia. We ran a fight between those guys andonevampire to demonstrate to my players what one vampire could do. And of course he wiped the floor with them.

In the fiction, this was something that happened in a closed circuit camera. They’re player characters had previously bugged that Venetian Palotza because they wanted to see what happened to it. So they get to watch as their pregens are torn to pieces by a vampire and they’re like “Oh, okay. That was very serious and very big.”

But it’s different, because they know that the whole game now is find out when vampires are near and how we kill them first, and howwecan be the guy 1500 meters away.

Because you’ve established a unimaginable horror, but the game is to constrain it now.

Whereas being shot in the head, we know what that is. We live in Chicago. We hear people get shot in the head who never even did anything. But it’s a different kind of a story, if you know the bad guys just hired a sniper. That’s not fun. That’s not interesting, and it doesn’t reward play.

Douglas Cole Right. Okay. One quick question. Does Suppressed Transmission exist in any form right now? Do you fire that kind of thing off any more, or is that not where your energy is channeled these days.

Kenneth Hite The closest thing to a Suppressed Transmission that’s happening now isKen Writes About Stuffwhich is my monthly thing from Pelgraine Press. It’s about twice as long or three times as long as a Suppressed Transmission and half of the Ken Writes About Stuff every other month is a examination of a Lovecrasftian creature from all possible angles.

So there are Deep Ones, Ghouls, Hounds of Tindalos, Shoggoths, and Mi-Go that have been done so far. I’ll be doing Star Vampires next, and so that is half of it.

The other half is either GUMSHOE sort of rules examinations, where and I take a topic and provide a edge. To help your little GURPS heart there, Douglas, I’ve done a GUMSHOE zoom on Martial Arts, a general way to put Martial Arts in any GUMSHOE game. And then mind control to put mind control into any GUMSHOE game.

Douglas Cole I’ll have to admit I saw the something, the note about the GUMSHOE martial arts and I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but I’ll admit I was fascinated about it, and I had a minimal amount of time with Trail of Cthulhu and I’m like “I have no idea how you do martial arts with a system…detailed martial arts system.” The kind of detail I was used to with GURPS Martial Arts. How, or even why, would you reflect that in a system like GUMSHOE?

Kenneth Hite And you would do it because you’re doing it in a story space that is a martial arts story. Like the Bourne stories where the escrima fight is a real important part of the movie, so you want to reflect that so you want escrima to feel that when you’re doing a standard beat down.

You doing a martial arts game maybe you’re doing one of those wuxia stories where everyone is a Shaolin kung fu master wandering around, or you’re doing it in a… In Trail of Cthulhu if your characters have gone to Japan or China, and suddenly martial arts is part of the universe…any time you want to tell a martial arts story, as well as whatever other story you want tell you can bring that out.

It doesn’t add a lot more complexity, it does add a little more obviously, but it’s not GURPS Martial Arts even though I went to GURPS Martial Arts and mined it heavily, like I did Ninja Hero and mined that heavily for it.

But it’s not that complex. It’s an attempt to help everyone bring martial arts flavor into a GUMSHOE fight. It basically gives you free refreshes for saying awesome martial arts things, at its most basic, and that’s really the core. What people want to do is not calculate how many action points they have left, and can I get in a jumping kick. You want to be able to say “I do a jumping kick and kick that guy in the head.” And that’s what that rewards.

Yeah, that’s GUMSHOE martial arts zoom right there.

There is also a sort of Suppressed Transmission style looks at Deglocka, the Bell Project, the Nazi bell. Which is the anti-Grail myth of the 21st century. And a campaign frame Moondust Men where you are playing UFO investigators in the 1970s attached to the Air Forces top secret project Moondust.

It’s that kind of…and a look at the city of Mumbai, which is not really a Night’s Black Agents…not really a Suppressed Transmission thing a sort of broader look at something as opposed to a narrow cast thing.

I think the closest thing you can get right now to Suppressed Transmission is Ken Writes About Stuff from Pelegraine and that may get a little more Suppressed Transmission-y or maybe it’ll stay about as Suppressed Transmission-y as it is now.

Douglas Cole Okay. Excellent. As always I like to give my guest the last word. First a preemptive thank you and I’ll do it again after you’re done. Do you have anything to add or say or what’s coming next or what you like or where the industry needs to go. Wax lyrical about stuff! [Ken chuckles]

Kenneth Hite Well I mean, waxing lyrical as people can tell, is sort of my default state. I’ve plugged Ken Writes About Stuff, which is what I wanted to plug and I’ll mention that I’m still writing stuff for Pelegraine if you want to follow me, most of my stuff is coming out from Pelegraine and you should take a look at those games and take a look at any of the Pelegrain games that pique your interest, and hopefully I’ve written something that will feed that.

I’ll be a guest of honor at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon in Portland, Oregon in April and if you’re watching this before then you might want to go to their Kickstarter and throw them a couple of bucks there are kinds of hoodies and chotskies and stuff if you’re not in Portland or you can pay to make your Portland experience a better one if you plan to go. So that’s a worthy cause.

Let’s see what else is associated with me. I’ve written my fourth mini-mythos book for Atlas games and that should be coming out, not super soon, but probably this year so if you enjoyed “Where the Deep Ones are” and “Antarctic Express” and “Clifford the Big Red God” and “Good Night Azothoth is On Its Way.”

Douglas Cole [laughs loudly and with obvious mirth at Clifford the Big Red God] Sorry, I have a four-year old.

Kenneth Hite Yeah. An ideal book for your four-year certainly.

Douglas ColeI do have…I’m blanking. There is a zombie book that is like “Mommy has festering eyes. Do you have festering eyes?” and it’s a great little parody of a classic, and I got it on my desk at work ‘cause I don’t have it here.

Kenneth Hite The fourth in my series of Lovecraftian Children’s Books is coming out from Atlas Games fairly soon.

I can’t immediately think of anything else I can super-easily plug. You already plugged Madness Dossier quite nicely.

Key Long, my OSR Trade Fantasy Sandbox from Flame Princess if you’re OSR player. Lamentations of the Flame Princess player. If you’re ever dreamed of recreating Vahalla Rising in a Fantasy analogue of Cambodia then this is your chance to do that.

What else? Where the industry needs to go? It needs to go faster where it’s going already, which is to say distributed distribution so you get as close to individual creators connecting with customers, and you start cutting distributors out of it. I think a good retail store is absolutely a part of that connection, though, because they make customers you didn’t know you had yet.

A game store like EndGame or The Source or really top end game store is always going to be part of the mix, and any creator worth there salt is going to try and keep them in the mix as much as possible.

It would be nice if the new DnD brought more people into the game stores to buy stuff and we’ll just have to hope that Mike has done a good job at that.

I think the faster that we can get to the place that all the rest of media is going, then the happier we’ll be when we get there. Because that’s going to be the only stable ground, I think, for the foreseeable future.

Douglas Cole That could easily kick off to another hour long conversation about the fusion of tabletop gaming and computers.

Kenneth Hite That’s a whole different question.

Douglas ColeIt is an entirely different question. Gaming aids where there is a way to replace the face-to-face gaming or supplement it. I can’t have a face-to-face group, I want one, but I can’t.

Right now it’s easy for me to come home, do my work stuff, so the virtual tabletop replaces that. But there is all kinds of great things where you can take advantage of the medium. But that is a entirely different conversation. We won’t go there we’ve been talking for a generous two hours of your time for which I would like to thank you.

Kenneth Hite Although if you are interested in tabletop and computer interface, you can also go to Storyscape, the Kickstarter that my buddy Robin Laws is doing for Slabtown games, which is a tablet-based game, that will have all the fiddly math in the tablet so no one has to remember it, not even a GURPS player. And will make it possible (eventually) to build out a broadly universal game experience from tablet play and their Kickstarter could use some love and maybe you could do a interview with Robin, maybe not a two hour video interview, but maybe something.

That gets Robin to talk about Storyscape because I know he’s really excited about that and I know that anything that comes out from Robin will be pretty terrific. So that might be something.

Douglas ColeI would be HAPPY to do so actually. It’s one of these things where it’s funny because on the one hand I know that creators love to talk about their stuff (as well they should) and for me, as someone who is somewhat new to the blogging thing, I’ve been doing it for a year. It’s – Gee, is Ken Hite gonna spend an hour of his time, or two in this case, which was awesome, with some random guy just talking about stuff, and what I’ve found is that yes, they will.

Kenneth Hite You’re not some random guy, like I said I recognize your name from GURPS contributing and tactical wrestling and the rest of that it wasn’t completely average, but yeah that’s what I’m here for.

Part of that future of direct connection between creator and audience is to you know, let people see the creator, and hear what they have to say. That’s where I thank you for bring me on and giving me a place where I can talk for two hours uninterrupted to your readers, and that’s part of the fun as well.

While I’m plugging people’s Kickstarters, not yet, but in the very near future, the Swedish game magazine Fenix, where I write a column every two months, and I guess that’s the other place you could see a Suppressed Transmission thing from me, is that every two months I do a column for Fenix which is quite often a setting, a full setting. It’s 4,000 words of a setting, and that has a sort of Suppressed Transmission-y feel to it although there are fewer darling quotes because I didn’t want to keep reinventing that particular wheel – there are still some.

They are doing an Indiegogo to do a best of Fenix magazine in English, my stuff is already in English, but they’ll be translating a lot of the other great Fenix content from Sweden, and they do a great job. It’s one of the best general gaming magazines around, it’s just in a language that only 9 million people can read, so they’re trying to expand their remit a bit. So if you are looking at this in Feburary the Indiegogo campaign is probably up in running or you are a Swede or someone who reads Swedish or just someone that thinks 4,000 words of my prose is worth subscribing to a magazine you can’t read, you live in Europe then I recommend Fenix. The people who run it, Tovin Anders are really great people and are total Alpha gamers in Sweden.

Douglas Cole Excellent. So again, I want to thank you for your time and I guess that wraps up a really fun two hours.

 

After my first two interviews, I tried to branch out. I contacted +Fred Hicks, to talk about FATE Core and its success – and he referred me to +Leonard Balsera, who was the design lead on the project.

I gratefully accepted, and when Leonard returned from a busy convention schedule, we set up some time to chat. As always, I gave him a preview of the discussion topics, but we were unafraid to wander afield.

We spent about 90 minutes chatting, and covered his concept of Fiction Forward, discussed FATE Core (and whipped out a character in FATE Accelerated), and talked about complexity and the false dichotomy between “simulationism” and what he termed his “fiction forward” approach.

As always, I will get this interview transcribed, and post it here when it’s ready! Also as always, a bit of support towards the Ballistic Interview Fund would not go amiss.

Full High Bandwidth Version

Progressive Download

MP3 File for Audio Only

Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Okay, good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: a new title. Today, Leonard Balsera has agreed to join me to talk about games.

I’d say I’m not to into lengthy monologues for introductions, but I am. But I’m not going to. So we’ll get right to it.

Looking at the various sources, I’m going to give you a chance to talk about your resume a little bit. It looks like you’ve done work for Pelgrane, GUMSHOE system, and then lead design contribution on several major FATE releases, including pulp goodness in Spirit of the Century. Lead Design for the DresdenFiles RPG, which I just downloaded yesterday to look at it. As well as Lead System Developer for the FATE Core system. I guess you’re working for the Margaret Weis’ Cortex Plus. So what else am I missing?

Leonard Balsera (Game Designer and author of  FATE Core, Spirit of the Century, and Dresden Files RPG): I’ve designed cards for a couple of Munchkin releases. That’s about it.

Transcript continues below the break . . .

Douglas: You may work for Evil Hat, but you seem to wear many hats. Some of them are evil, some of them are just odd

Leonard: [laughs] Yeah, I was lucky enough to get hired by Steve Jackson Games full-time, a couple of Januarys ago now. And, so, I’ve been with them for a while. It’s very cool.

Douglas: I believe it. SteveJackson Games is at least fun to write for, in a minor capacity, at least in my case. And I certainly love interacting with Sean and those guys, and Steven as well.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: Do you run your own games as well as design them? As Sean Punch would say, do you eat your own dog food?

Leonard: I try not to run FATE as much these days. Like a lot of what happened with [FATE] Core was that other games I was running and playing that were not FATE ended up influencing FATE. Like I believe it’s important to not be stagnant as a designer and consume a wide a variety of other stuff as possible. So I tried to sort of keep pushing my own comfort zone. And stuff like that.

Douglas: What systems do you play?

Leonard: Right now I actually just got started with a weekly group to do a Trail of Cthulhu campaign which is GUMSHOE, which is something I’ve worked on, but I didn’t design GUMSHOE, right? So it’s in the clear of things that don’t feel like work.

Douglas: Right.

Leonard: And I play, I have a PrimetimeAdventures game going on for a while. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Matt Wilson’s Primetime Adventures, but it’s a indy chestnut. I’ve been playing a lot of the various apocalypse world engine variants, like Dungeon World, and MonsterHearts, and Tremulus, and that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to keep abreast of all the stuff that everyone is doing.

But yeah, I’ll run FATE at the drop of a hat if someone wants me too. Right?

Douglas: It’s probably like coming home.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So one thing that I do notice is FATE, GUMSHOE, Dramatic Role-playing . . . I’m kind of detecting a bit of theme on [garbled audio], on the other hand you just said, you like to be eclectic. So, heavy on storytelling, light on what we might refer to as “endless lists of stats for guns.”

Do you think that’s accurate on both how you like to play and write? And why is that important to you.

Leonard: Yeah. The thing that I always say when I’m talking on forums (or whatever), is that my biases are very well documented. By that, I mean that I’ve made them and published them. So, there is a general theme in the work I like to do. Shaping the conversation at the table, more by manipulating fiction, then by manipulating a virtual Rube-Goldberg device. Right?

Douglas: Right.

Leonard: So I’m less interested in how fast can this person move across this parking lot at this speed. How likely is it that they can shoot at this other person at this speed. And diving for cover that covers as much of their body and this, that, and the other.

I don’t knock that stuff. And it certainly takes a lot intestinal fortitude, cleverness, grit, and wherewithal to put together something that handles all those variables, but I’m better at manipulating fiction and the processes of fiction with game mechanics than I am doing that stuff. Because I come from a theater background and they are very similar.

Douglas: Yeah I know, you must have let out either a silent or audible cheer when, if you’ve seen it, the interviews of J. Michael Straczynski of Bablyon 5. “How fast does the White Star move?” and he says “It moves at the speed of Plot . . . what of it?”

Leonard: Oh yeah, the speed of Plot.

Douglas: It takes just as long to get from Place A to Place B to make it really cool and there is a reason why timers stop at one second or 007 seconds depending on what movie you’re in.

Leonard: Oh yeah, absolutely.

[both chuckle]

Douglas: So what do you think are the strengths of that sort of dramatic, serve the plot, wright as if you’d been writing fiction or playing in fiction. What are the strengths that compels, compel is the wrong word, but are compelling.

Leonard: [laughs] No pun intended right?

Douglas: Actually, yeah you’re right. I’m played in a couple of FATE games, but as guests. I was an Indian Help Desk Operator. They were like “Here, you’re this guy. Put on a bad accent and do this.” I didn’t really have any rules to go with it and it was more of improvisational theater.

Leonard: You were in a FATE game where you were playing a Help Desk Operator.

Douglas: Yes I was.

Leonard: That’s . . . phenomenal. I want to know about that game.

Douglas: It was +Cameron Corniuk‘s [misidentified as +Jonathan Henry‘s in the video! Sorry!] FATE game and I dropped by to participate, and they were like . . . no, sorry, I dropped by to watch.” ‘cause I supported the FATE Kickstarter, as you can see. So I was interested in this because I had been drafted to it by Antoni Ten Monros. Who…

Leonard: Yeah!

Douglas: So you know Antoni? He was like “This is great, it’s really interesting, it’s very different from GURPS, and you should take a look at it.”

And so I did and I was interested and I supported it, so I showed up to see what I was getting into. And they were like “Oh, we have need of a bit part, how long do you have?”

Leonard: Oh, so it was a NPC you were playing.

Douglas: Yeah, I was playing a NPC.

Leonard: Okay, cool, yeah.

Douglas: I played the role of someone interacting with some solider of fortune who was trying to figure out how to use parts from some obviously stolen, dangerous device.

Leonard: [laughs]

Douglas: So I was happy to help, so I was like “You’re trying to tell me…,” and I won’t do the Indian accent because I am bad at it, but it was funny. “So you’re trying to tell me that you have a part with no serial number – or maybe it was filed off – you don’t have a manual, and you can’t tell me where you got it? So let me help you right out with that, sir.”

Leonard: Yeah, yeah, right.

Douglas: But it was good.

Leonard: That’s funny. I like that.

Douglas: Yeah.

Leonard: To actually answer your question: I think the strengths of that, I sort of loop it all into a term, I call it “fiction forward gaming.” Which is where the mechanics are transparently about manipulating the fiction, as opposed to constructing a virtual world or whatever. Although it’s a little bit of a trap, I don’t know if we are going to get into that or not, but it’s a little bit of a trap. But…

Douglas: You’ll need to get into it now, because I can’t leave a lead-in like that alone.

Leonard: One of the strengths is accessibility. Because I think it’s easier to get people into the hobby if you talk to them about making shared fiction together, and messing around with shared fiction. And you can point to touchstones in what they’ve experienced in books and other media.

So hey you know when you’re watching this TV show, you know there is always this dramatic reversal. When you get to this point of tension, so this mechanic is supposed to bring out that dramatic reversal. Like you’ve seen in these TV shows that you’ve watched.

And I think people tend to get into that more instinctively because everybody has been exposed to media. We’ve all seen TV, and movies, and we’ve all read books. I’m very interested in the potential for accessibility for acquisition in RPG design, right? I’m more interested in more people getting into what we do.

Douglas: No, I agree. I kind of had a similar conversation with people who’re into martial arts. You can’t see my shirt, but I’m wearing a “rah-rah” Hwa Rang Do Dojang t-shirt.

Leonard: Oh cool.

Douglas: And people are like “Hey, you know Tae Kwoon Do, or Hapkido, or Hwa Rang Do,” and I’m like “Until everyone is into martial arts are they are into Monday Night Football; until everyone is into role-playing as they are into Monday Night Football.” (And Fantasy Football is role-playing for jocks, but we can get into that later.) Until it that cache, beating each other up about what system is coolest is doing everybody a disservice.

Leonard: Right.

Douglas: Yeah, I agree.

Leonard: There is that. There is accessibility. And I think that one of the probably biggest strengths is that, as part of that whole idea is that the conversation about fiction is easier to have than the conversation about, let us say, weights and measurements and distances.

Douglas: Sure

Leonard: Because that conversation is easier to have, a wider range of texture is available to you, I think, when you play RPGs that are more fiction forward. If we want to have a experience that is a “horror” experience, if we want a particular kind of fiction: The distance from wanting that, to getting it, is maybe a little shorter when you’re talking about fiction-forward designs, right?

Because all you have to do is identify how does that fiction work, and build around it. I think that it’s easier to manage those expectations and see them to fruition when you have that kind of priority.

Leonard: In summary, it’s easier to hit your aesthetic goals. Easier.

Douglas: For example, obviously the theme of my blog is “Gaming Ballistic,” right? Because I’m one GURPS firearms guys.

Leonard: Right [chuckles].

Douglas:  I kind of wrote an infamous article and then followed it up with an even more infamous article about bows and arrows, which consumed 11,000 words  and Steven Marsh’s soul.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas:  But the thing is, if I’m going to start a conversation about that, I don’t want to have to talk…although my wife is a shooter too, she doesn’t care about how many PSI, or the cartridge, or the this. She wants to know how many little holes she put in the target. And they are many and tightly grouped.

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So that’s a way, a fiction-forward approach to gunplay, and what’s the point of it, and it makes a lot of sense.

 

USS Truman attempts bootlegger reverse.

You don’t need to know how a gun works in order to have it be cool. You don’t need to know how to do a bootlegger reverse to have a cool car chase.

What you need to do is have attention. And it’s funny because, I very recently had to explain to my almost-four-year-old daughter that the reason she’s scared during the TV show is because the shows are not fun without tension and conflict.

Leonard: Yeah, yeah.

Douglas: Don’t worry: Superman is gonna win. But if it’s a cakewalk, you’re gonna be bored. It’s funny though, how that concept has to be explained, at least at a early age. And then has to be reinforced in order to make things fun.

And the fun is the key.

So what do think are the good or valid criticisms – maybe this gets into what sounded like your trap between simulation and fiction-forward – What do you think are the valid criticisms of designing in a way that’s fiction-forward.

Leonard: Well, I think that the valid criticism is that, I think some of what we’ve brought up before, you just said it: For people who are looking to get a specific aesthetic effect, you don’t need to know all these details. Right?

But some people do want to know that.

The criticism is that the preferences that people have, the desires that people have for the medium are diverse. Right?

I can give you a example. So I had a great GURPS swashbucklers game, that was basically . . . the GM did a lot of research on Francis Drake and the expeditions of Francis Drake, and we were all playing as people who were press-ganged, basically, into serving on one of Drake’s ships and then ended up, sort of rising up from the rest of the crew to become his confidants and join in on his exploration of the world. And his voyages to circumnavigate the world, and all that stuff, and getting involved in the politics of court and all that.

And, he did a tremendous amount of historical research for this game, he checked out books from the library, and books from his own personal collection, and the collective logs and stuff from Drake’s voyage. He made scenarios that were based on specific incidents that were described in the logs. He put a lot of historicity in the game.

And arguably GURPS, with its capacity to handle well researched subjects, was a perfect system for that game, right? Because that was a game, where because we were engaging in history we did kind of want ot have a sense of if a ship, a brigantine was armed like thus, which went up against a man-of-war that was armed like thus, right? Under these conditions what would occur?

Douglas: This is how many splinters that brigandine would be in at the end of that, right? [Chuckles]

Leonard: Right. Or you know whatever. What are the conditions where we could manipulate the environment to make X, Y, and Z go down?

There are times where you engage in, like I said the sort of Rube-Goldberg device nature, of the virtual world. I think that fiction-forward RPGs are becoming more popular in that regard, because nowadays computers do that kind of calculation a lot better.

Douglas: That’s a really good point I think.

Leonard: That’s a personal theory of mine. I don’t have any data to back that up.

I can tell you that without that sense of “here’s the parameters of the world” that is sort of built up by the mechanics, and our agreement to invest in that, I don’t think that that campaign . . . I don’t know if that campaign would have been as fulfilling or felt as authentic if it were done with something like FATE. Because what GURPS forced us to do was to get into the details, it communicated a sense of authenticity to invest in that period in time.

I think that GURPS specifically is very good at that, of getting you to invest of the authenticity of a subject. The books are known for that, they are known for their research and engagement with whatever topic it is that particular book is covering.

Like Lisa Steele’s GURPS Cops, is like, I’ve used it in fiction work. Because even as a work of reference it is fantastic, right?

Fiction-forward games can sometimes falter when you’re worried about the authenticity of presenting a particular thing.

I have not seen the fiction-forward CSI role-playing game. Right? Probably the reason why I haven’t seen that is in order to a procedural cop show at that level of detail, you kind of need to be a medical examiner or you sound like a idiot. [Doug laughs].

And CSI takes a lot of liberties, I’m not calling CSI a authoritative source for forensic information, but they have a advisor at least.

Douglas: Whom they occasionally listen to.

Leonard: Right, who they occasionally listen to.

So certainly it’s possible to do that kind of research before you step into a FATE game. We have Fight Fire as one of our campaigns in Worlds On Fire, our FATE setting releases. And that was done by Jason Morningstar, who has a tremendous amount of intuitional experience with firefighting. So that comes across authentically because he provided that research, but sometimes in a particular group, you have less of a ability to rely on the system to give you these things. You have to bring more of that yourself. So that can be challenging.

Douglas: I actually had a campaign go, or a scenario go (that I later tried to sell . . . and that’s an entirely new story). I had a scenario go almost completely off the rails. I was gamemastering a GURPS Black Ops game. 1,000-point, sorry, 700-point 3rd edition characters (they translated as about a 1,000 points in 4th edition). But it was a “gritty” Black Ops game, because I wanted to try that out.

I had given the players suppressors, silencers, for their weapons. They were expecting Hollywood suppressors.

The sniper of the group had a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. It’s a gun that when you pull the trigger your shoulder goes into the next county. You can hear it for ten miles. It’s a huge explosion.

Most suppressors will reduce that from excruciatingly loud, to merely loud. They were expecting that you put this little thing on the rifle and then you go “pew, pew, pew.” And that’s all you hear.

And when they fired off these silenced bullets in the middle of a enemy base, everybody heard them . . . and they were really really pissed at me. Because their expectations of what the game was and my expectations about the verisimilitude didn’t match up. And that’s kind of a counterexample of when, and maybe Black Ops is best as a FATE game, because it’s about the drama and the struggle, is that when the details are wrong and just jars…There was a recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where the guy grabs a double-barreled shotgun and the sound effects guys felt compelled to [makes a shotgun ratcheting noise] make that cocking noise. And anyone who has ever used any gun just [holds face in hands and groans].

And it’s that moment when, “Oh, that doesn’t work with the game.”

And your Francis Drake campaign, it sounds like as long as you were willing to work within in the idiom of the history you got immersion. And I think immersion is the key that either the detail or the “oh it’s the Speed of Plot” can provide.

Leonard: So this is where the trap comes in. You just articulated the trap. The trap is the core truth of any experience in a RPG is that nothing happens at the table without the buy in and the consensus of all the people at the table. And anybody who tells you differently is trying to sell you something . . . probably their role-playing game. [Doug laughs]

And even if you have this sort of agreed upon “Oh this set of mechanics governs this “realistic” whatever variables in this situation yadda yadda yadda,” right? The truth of the matter is always going to be that if the system produces a result that you don’t buy into, you’re going to protest against it.

And if your expectations are too far from what that “realism” actually is, or whatever, you’re going to balk at it.

And then all of a sudden you have disagreements and problems and yadda yadda yadda.

Douglas:  . . . and dice get thrown, and whatever.

Leonard: So that’s why it’s a trap, because if thinking that your design needs to spell out all of these variables, these sort of world-in-motion variables, pseudo-physics I call it, in order to believable or because you need that in order to accept the reality of the game, that’s a trap and I consider it patently false. You would sometimes get more realistic results if you’re playing a fiction-forward game with a sniper who is actually a sniper in real life.

That guy will tell you all kinds of stuff, he’ll justify all kinds of results in the game by telling you stuff about bullet trajectories and what happens to shooters in certain wind conditions and yadda yadda yadda and more detail comes from their experiences than a system, even a detailed system which is supposed to be modeling those variables, can provide.

Real-life is more complex than any game’s approximation of real life.

So I think that both approaches have their strengths, but I certainly would not suggest that one solves problems that the other fails to solve.

Douglas: Yeah, I think that’s true. And the interesting thing to me at least is there are cases where, and I’ll pick on GUMSHOE a little bit, because I was involved in a GUMSHOE campaign: Trail of Cthulhu as a matter of fact and my next interview is Ken Hite and I’ll be talking to him about this a little bit.

KB: About Night’s Black Agents, hopefully, yeah, excellent.

Douglas: This one was a prequel, but then we were going to get into the forward. But the thing that grated me a little bit about the system is that I thought the concept of Investigative skills was and is brilliant. Because the premise behind them is exactly correct: In fiction, you get the clues; it’s what you do with them that matters.

Where I had a problem, and it struck me a little funny, was that my character was a doctor and he had a lot points in First Aid. There wasn’t really a doctor skill with surgery and stuff, there was investigative parts, but not really. But after I used a couple of points of First Aid, I was no better than some schmoe off the street with First Aid 0. I should always be a little bit better, but I should occasionally, a couple times of game have the opportunity to be brilliant.

So the fact that I had a limited number of bandages that I could put on and then I was no better than a untrained guy, bugged me enough that I started suggesting, as I always do, alternate mechanics, and that wasn’t always taken as well as I would have liked.

But that was the thing. The mechanics interfered with the storytelling in that particular case. And that was in the trap level where you couldn’t quite enact the character as you’d like.

But the “how to solve mysteries” was brilliant, it’s just when we came into something we needed to roll dice against that it was sometimes a little awkward.

But let me return to the topic, a little bit, of complexity. I got into a discussion about this on my blog because I posted something that was deliberately inflammatory: and said “Ah! GURPS is not complex, it’s just detailed.” And I got wonderful responses to that because when you say GURPS is not complex, people like to beat on you, and with some justification I think.

Leonard: See, I would agree with you. I don’t think GURPS is actually that complex. I just think it has a high barrier to entry. I was actually having a conversation about this today.

Once you’ve made your character in GURPS, things simplify a great deal. It’s the fact that making your characters requires the process that it requires

Douglas: Heh. And a computer program…

Leonard: Yeah. It like…all of the complexity is front-loaded. Once you have it all down on paper and you understand what it all does and you actually get into the meat of the game, things simplify a great deal. But sorry, go ahead.

Douglas: No, I think that it’s a good point and it leads into the question.

Because one of the things that is pointed out is that GURPS is 550 pages long plus the material, therefore it’s complex. And I was looking at Dresden Files, which is a FATE book, which is supposed to be . . . it’s fiction-forward and rules light, and whatever. Or maybe it’s perceived as rules-lite – and it’s 700 pages of material in the two volumes and 418 of them are character driven. Another 274 describe the world. And since I’ve read all twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen Dresden Files novels it’s not like I’m not invested in it already, so I’m certainly going to dig in.

And Pathfinder is nearly 600 pages. FATE core is remarkably terse, laconic if we wanted to use that descriptor back there, at 300 pages. So complexity/depth: is there a tie between the length of a rules set and “complexity?”

Leonard: I’m going to cheat a little bit and say that I think complexity is a moving target. In that I would hesitate to make a concrete association, to make a concrete assumption about that.

Because…Alright, so Primetime Adventures. You can go get the Primetime Adventures PDF, I think Indy Press Revolution is still carrying it and I don’t know where else is still carrying it so you can get it. That game is a 80-90 pages, six by nine…it’s a booklet. It’s not quite twice as long as FATE accelerated. Right?

Douglas: Sure.

Leonard: The game has one stat.

Douglas: Hah! Really?

Leonard: Yeah. It has how high your Screen Presence is…the goal of Primetime Adventures is to make the greatest television show that never was.

Your character has one stat, and the stat is, the measurement of how much the issue that their struggling with that season matters in that episode. It’s called Screen Presence. So when it’s at three, which is the highest it can be, it’s your spotlight episode. That episode is all about you confronting the issue you are facing that season. When it’s one, your issue is not on camera and you’re gonna be focused more on plot stuff and getting things done or whatever.

I know people who find that game extremely taxing and difficult to run. And complex in that it requires you to do a lot of work to shape the collective story of an episode.

It offloads a lot of narrative responsibility on the player. And the process of creating, of participating fully in the creation of that shared fiction, is a complex process for some people.

The rules are not complex, per say, they are not procedurally complex, but procedural complexity is not the only form of complexity there is in game design. Right?

Douglas: Sure.

Leonard: So I would say there is a direct correlation between a thickness of the book and probably the procedural complexity of the game.

But I would be wary of making blanket assumptions in that regard.

Dresden Files is a good example. That second book is really just a fan encyclopedia of stuff from…it was like the current state of the Dresden Files as of Small Favor, and all the people in it, all the monsters in it, and stuff like that. It had stat blocks, yes, but the core of that text was sort of a fan reference to all the stuff that was in the Dresden Files.

So I would not say that was complex, that it had procedural complexity as far as the game was concerned because it was 400 pages or whatever of prose. Technically speaking, it was prose. So I think that might be possible, to have a game that’s like “here’s your twenty pages of mechanics” and then we’re going to give you 220 pages of setting you’re going to wrap it in.

A/Stateby Contested Grounds Studios. Are you familiar with that one?

Douglas: I am not.

Leonard: They also make Dark City.

A-State I consider to be one of the best setting’s I think I’ve ever read. And a vast majority of the book is setting. All the rules of that book fit in like 20-25 pages of  a 200 something page book. And the rest is pure setting information. Here’s all the context within which you use these rules to figure out what happens to these crazy people that are in this setting that you make up.

Douglas: I was not a playtester, but I have to imagine GURPS Discworld is going to be similar. They have something like a GURPS Lite maybe in the front and then hundreds of pages of “Hey isn’t cool to live on the Disc.”

Leonard: I think that a lot of procedural complexity will take a lot of pages, but there are other kinds of complexity in a game that might drive up the page count without necessarily relating to that.

Douglas: It almost seems to me, also, now that you’ve coined,perhaps, the term procedural complexity that . . . I remember thinking as I was playing GUMSHOE Trail of Cthulhu that because I could spend a point or two or three investigative points and turn a non-player character from a scenario to a critical plot point, that actually could potentially offload a lot of narrative complexity onto the GM. It’s all of a sudden, you know, Spike the vampire was supposed to die and he was gonna die. But the audience loved him so much that you have to write a whole season around him.

Leonard: GUMSHOE is actually deceptive, no, I’m not going to say deceptive. That’s not the right word, it is surprising in that way to me, that it is actually, I think that in certain ways it is as…it requires the GM to be on it. On their toes.

Douglas: That was my impression, that you really need a good GM to…

Leonard: Right. Like just as much as old Basic RP Call of Cthulhu did, or whatever. I think you need to…it privileges a strong GM role. It’s surprisingly so for how thin the ruleset actually is. Because there is a lot of stuff the GM is managing besides, like I said, how procedurally difficult the rules are to use.

Douglas: I’d like to change direction a little bit, and talk a ton about FATE. And get into the . . .

You know, to the people who may be watching: I always give at least an outline of what we’ll talk about to the people that I interview, because I think that’s fair, I’m not looking for “gotchas!” I’m not looking for . . . I’m a booster. I’m not a gotcha journalist and calling me a journalist, is maybe an insult, I don’t know. [Leonard laughs]

But I do want to talk about FATE a little bit, and give you a chance to talk about this system.

So I play and write for GURPS, mostly. I’ve been playing the system for 20 years or whatever (since about 1989 or 1988), and so I got steered to the Kickstarter by a co-author, or co-conspirator, Antoni Ten Munros during the Kickstarter. I supported it, liked it, I have the books behind me [gestures behind him]. But I’d like to take a little tour and I’ve downloaded the FATE accelerated.

One of the issues that I think Sean Punch would readily agree is a problem, or at least a challenge, in GURPS is the cinematic superhero that is fiction-forward. That his powers change with the issue at hand.

Sometimes Superman is laid low by something and the next it’s a trivial thing that his x-ray vision defeats it or whatever. So when you have stories that are really defined by the will of the writer, rather than the caliber of the gun or the velocity of the bullet, or the speed of the boat. So when you have stuff like that, and you have something that basically rooted into reality, a character like Thor…

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: . . . from the recent movie. I don’t have a lot of experience with the comics, but I found myself unreasonably entertained by that movie. I own it. I can watch it over and over. Maybe because it’s gorgeous.

Leonard: Thor is a gorgeous movie.

Douglas: Maybe it’s because I can watch Anthony Hopkins do anything  – and having him as Odin is…I’m not sure if Odin is Anthony Hopkins or if Anthony Hopkins is Odin.

Leonard: He just has a Shakespeare button that he turns on I think…

Douglas: I know, I know. And when you combine it with Kenneth Branaugh who’s poking that button at appropriate times – it seemed to work.

One of the things as I was reading through FATE, I remember thinking “My god, I would have the hardest time statting up Mjolnir in GURPS.” What are its powers, how to define it, whatever. But in FATE, I was like blah, blah, blah . . . Mjolnir’s an aspect, and you can milk it for almost anything.

I wanted to walk through FATE Accelerated. With my cool little print out, I did this little research. I walked through and said “If I were to walk through character generation in FATE Accelerated – and FATE Accelerated reminds me a lot of the old West End Games Star Wars.”

Leonard: Yes! Yes, it should!

Douglas: I once took 15 people simultaneously through character generation in an hour, and we were playing in a hour and fifteen minutes. Fighting the Evil Empire. It…

Leonard: That makes me happy, it makes me really happy!

Star Wars d6 when I was a teenager was totally, that was it.

Star Wars d6, early World of Darkness stuff, Over the Edge, Fung Shui, that stuff. But Star Wars d6 is in the 90s, the thing I played the most the most.

Most of what I learned about what I like RPGs in play and in design, I learned playing Star Wars d6, so that influence is a very conscious influence and has been a conscious influence on me as a designer going forward since then and I’m glad that someone noticed. Because, yes.

Douglas: It was a great game, and one of the best campaigns that I ever ran was in d6 Star Wars, I was kind of disappointed when it went over to d20. Because the thing I loved about it was, it was just so straightforward. It didn’t matter, and that’s the great thing about Star Wars, when you’re playing in a universe that is so operatic. You don’t have to worry about how many kilobleems of energy the blaster does. You go pew pew pew and swing across the chasm, and you swing your lightsabers or whatever.

The only thing that I ever made fun of, and it was at the only Gen Con I was ever at, was Timothy Zahn and the Star Wars d6 guys. The way that I read these rules is that it is easier to reflect a blaster bolt back at somebody than it is to hit them with the lightsaber at point blank range. And they were like “Really?” Yeah, my players have kind of found that they never actually hit people with the sabers because you’ve got the chop off your own arm thing, but if you just encourage them to shoot you with the blaster and you can reflect it back, and it’s a 5 difficulty and its easy.

Leonard: That’s a really good observation about like the whole fiction-forward versus, but I don’t want to say versus because they aren’t in completion really, but we’ll say versus, cause why not.

Fiction-Forward vs. Pseudo-Physics. That rule in Star Wars d6, if you roll 10 or less on the lightsaber roll, you self-injure. That was the rule. That’s why it was easier to reflect a blaster bolt back at somebody, because you just had to roll higher than their roll. There are times when it could have literally been easier.

So that’s one of those things where like, Fiction-Forward you ask the question in a story about Jedi does anyone ever injure themselves with a lightsaber? Is that something we see in the fiction? Ever? No! that’s ridiculous, then you go, no that’s not gonna happen.

Douglas: Right, even Han Solo was able to do a little taun-taun-ectomy without…

Leonard: Right, but that said, in the Star Wars games that I played there were people who just did not carelessly run around swinging a lightsaber who arguably did not have business carrying one. Because that rule was in effect, so both types of constraints can affect the conversation at the table in certain ways.

Douglas: Both Rule Zero, fun is key and the GM sets the scene, and the actual rules of the game, you know. There are a list of a couple of things one can do if that ever became an issue, to make that not happen.

Anyway, back to Thor. No, don’t apologize, I’ll talk about West End d6 forever, It’s one of those games I’d just reach for and go play. You just throw it together and I actually wrote, I was starting to write some fiction back then, About it, and it was just you know…I would digress. And this is where Doug forgets that the interview isn’t about him. And I occasionally do that, because I do like to talk.

Leonard: So if you are ever interested, here’s a hack for you, so like Star Wars d6 if you ever want to add aspects from FATE in the Star Wars d6, right? Expending a character point, right, invoking the Aspect, makes more of your dice wild or does the reroll.

Douglas: Okay . . .

Leonard: Okay. I don’t remember what the term is for in d6, they have dice that can only explode in the positive direction, not the negative direction.

Douglas: Back when I played . . . I don’t remember exploding dice from 1st edition.

Leonard: Yeah, it was something in 2nd edition that they then revised and expanded. The wild die could explode both ways, so 6, you reroll the wild die, there was always a wild die in your dice pool, so when you rolled a 6 on it you always rerolled. And if you rolled a 1 on it, you took that die and your next highest die away from your rolls. So it could be bad luck or good luck.

Douglas: Interesting.

Leonard: Later on, they introduced in other d6 stuff dice that could only explode well or dice that could only explode badly. So replacing your dice with positive wild dice or whatever is a Star Wars d6 hack that I’ve done before.

Douglas: Sure. Makes a lot of sense. You know it’s funny about the invoking aspects: Sean Punch deliberately wrote Impulse Buys to have the feel of invoking an Aspect or spending a character point or whatever, so you could physically grab onto the plot to bend it to your will.

Okay, so let’s talk FATE Accelerated. Mwa ha ha!

High Concept: So “God of Thunder” seems fairly straightforward. And for my Trouble, “Arrogant to the point of foolhardiness” seems about right.

Leonard: I would…I’m in favor of short, punchy aspect names. So, I would probably say something along the lines of: “Arrogant Beyond Measure” or “More Arrogant Than Confidant” maybe is something I would say as a Trouble, but you know, whatever.

Douglas: No, actually this is exactly what I’m looking for. And I’ll say something and you’re like: “This is how, in my experience with FATE in writing the game and designing it, this is a way to approach this that either a novice can embrace or a expert can say “Ah, yes, I’ve learned something.””

In my time of doing martial arts, with Grandmaster Taejoon Lee, and his father, Supreme Grandmaster JooBang Lee, one of the things that I noticed about them and their level of expertise – and the two of them are very different people. But, Grandmaster Lee, the younger one, would make the difficult look easy, whereas his father would make the simple profound. You could go in either direction with mastery.

So, I’m going to say I’ve read the book, FATE Accelerated, once, and I’m going to talk about Thor. So please say this is not what I do, or this is what I do, or would do. It’s a way to make it even cooler.  Because Peter Dell’Orto, who wrote GURPS Martial Arts, likes to talk about the Rule of Awesome: If it’s not awesome, stop doing it. I’m all about making it more awesome, so then we get stories that may pull in that guy watching Monday Night Football. Saying “Hey, come and kill orcs with me,” Or something, and have that be not something where you get shoved into a locker.

Leonard: Well, with aspects the key is, the key to making good aspects is the same key as leveraging the power of language in general. The more stuff you can express in the fewest words, I think the better you are.

So like “Arrogant To The Point Of Foolhardiness.” That’s a fine aspect, it’s a totally fine aspect, it’s clear and I know what it means and I know how it’s going to get in your way, it’s perfectly playable.

The variant that I’d said was “More Arrogant Than Confidant,” so that tells me two things about the character. “Arrogant To The Point Of Foolhardiness” tells me one thing about the character, that they are arrogant to the point of foolhardiness. “More Arrogant Than Confidant,” tells me two things about the character. A, that they’re arrogant that it’s to a extreme; and B, that they use it to cover up for when they are not as sure of themselves. Which I would say is accurate to Thor.

That’s what the discussion part is for, when you make up your Aspects, when you talk in that . . . FATE core. Hold on, I know in your outline there is a future question about how would this be different in FATE Core…

Douglas: No, have at, right now. That’s great.

Leonard: Okay. Fair enough. In FATE Core there is more of a detailed process than there is in FATE Accelerated. Where you engage the rest of the people at the table in a conversation about what you are doing with your character in this particular phase. If you’re choosing your trouble and you’re like “I really want this guy to be freaking arrogant” and here’s my aspect. It’s…you’re directed to open it up to the table to go alright, what do you guys think about this and someone else at the table might go “Do they use arrogance to cover up for the fact that they have a confidence problem? Do they overcompensate with their arrogance?” and you’re like “Yes! That’s what I do. I overcompensate with my arrogance.” Maybe that’s the aspect. Now you have that one.

And that aspect is interesting sort of too, because overcompensates for what? So then we have new questions to ask. But this is the same type of stuff that fiction writers do. This is the same type of stuff that playwrights do when they leave stage directions that are vague. This is the same, the process of engaging language that you would do in any other written medium. So it’s not specific to making aspects, but aspects are just language.

Douglas: So I spent a summer at Actors Theatre of Houston doing stage-manager

Leonard: That’s awesome! That’s totally awesome!

Douglas: It was stage crew. Turns out I was a little naughty in my college career and I had to do some community service. And I went ther and  they were like you need to scrub toilets. And then someone wasn’t there and I was like “I can be your stage guy for the day.” And they were like “if you doing that, you got to keep doing that.” Dude, Rice University, Rice Players, I know a lot of them, “The Show Must Go On”and so on. So I became a fixture there and eventually a stage manager. The process you talk about was exactly what the cast would go through. It wasn’t “Okay, I’m just playing a part in You Never Can Tell. It was who was your father, what did he do, what were your parents like, and what was your first job, and this was so you could deliver twelve lines.” So it sounds like the influence in your FATE Core, and FATE Accelerated less so, but FATE Core especially is really almost Method Acting 101.

Leonard: Well, it is to some degree, but with the proviso that in FATE, you’re given the flexibility to discover yours character also. So it’s less about . . . say you have this aspect, say your trouble is…your character is a veteran that gets put back into service. You’re a veteran that becomes a mercenary after some war. And your trouble aspect is “Scars from the war.”

I don’t need to know what happened in the war for you to have those scars, and maybe you don’t either when you start playing the character. But as we play the game, more and more of that comes out and it changes how you view your own character so you don’t have to do it as homework the way that you do it as an actor building a character. On the other hand, the idea that you’re leveraging the power of text to give you insight into who the person is, like you do when you’re studying a play or whatever. Yeah, that part of it tracks, sure.

Douglas: That’s cool. One of the things that I’ve seen, and I’ve done this, and I’ve seen people do it in even GURPS games is either leave a pool of character points unspent.

Leonard: Right!

Douglas: “Hey I need to sneak down this hallway…” It would be really Awesome if I could, but would be profoundly non-awesome if the game just stops here, because I have no default, I’m defaulting the Stealth.

So I think there is a aspect of getting into the character over the course of days, months, and years that make for great gaming stories and so I totally get where you’re going. The method acting thing was to provoke a reaction, so I sort of apologize for that, but sorta not.

Leonard: But it was sort of successful.

Douglas: There you go.

Leonard: So there you go.

Douglas: So aspects, three aspects, for Thor, I think, at least in my opinion, his defining aspect is Mjolnir, the hammer. He flies with it, he fights with it, he throws it and it comes back, he does cool spinny things that kicks up dirt and makes people go way.

Leonard: If I may?

Douglas: Please.

Leonard: “Mjolnir: the source of my power.”

Douglas: There we go.

Leonard: Because without the hammer he’s nothing.

Douglas: Right. He’s less.

Leonard: So now, there is a double edge on that. It has all that power and you could invoke it for your advantage and you do everything with it, but now there is a way for compels regarding that to come into the fiction, it puts a double edge on that. So there is that.

Douglas: Yeah, I agree. It’s a really interesting kind of catch-22, whosoever holds the hammer has the power of Thor. So is he Thor because he holds the hammer or is it because he happens to be a character who is worthy of holding the hammer and is therefore he is Thor.

Leonard: And with the aspect, the actual play of the game can explore both.

Douglas: That’s really cool. So I guess since you can have two or three in Fate Accelerated, two or three Aspects. I thought that by the end of the Avengers movie, that a second aspect might be “Self-Appointed Protector of Earth.” You know, in GURPS you’d call it Sense of Duty to All on Earth. So would that be…

Leonard: I love that. I love that. So leveraging the power of language, Self-Appointed Protector of Earth…how does everyone on Earth feel about that? Self-Appointed, right? That could bring him into conflict with people who consider themselves the authoritative protectors of Earth, like SHIELD.

So what happens when Thor wants to do something for the good of humanity that SHIELD is like “Well . . . maybe that’s not what’s actually for the good of humanity,” so there’s a prospective conflict that can happen on that. Protector of Earth comes with a strong sense of duty and obligation.

I’m mainly teasing that out to demonstrate what I mean by “leveraging the power of language.” That every word you use, everything that you say, you could of have said “Protector of Earth” and that would have a certain meaning as an aspect, and it would still carry a sense of duty and still playable as an aspect. But then you’re like “Self-Appointed Protector of Earth” and it’s like ‘hold on,’ that brings another angle, the part of that aspect that could become relevant to the fiction could be the Protector of Earth part, it could be the self-appointed part, you have options there.

That’s punchy as hell, I would even consider that to be maybe be a better High Concept, then God of Thunder.

Douglas: That’s fair, especially in the context where Thor is mostly depicted in the comics in relatively modern times. His role as God of Thunder is..

Leonard:..diminished…

Douglas: Diminished…and background. You get to wear the cool cape and have the lightning powers and stuff, but that’s just part of his aspect. I wonder how you would use “Mjolnir, Source of my power and Symbol of the Thunder God” and then you tie that into the High Concept replacement. Because the whole God of Thunder motif is important, but not quite defining to his actions as to the cool stuff that he can do.

Leonard: Or you could put it as, another way to frame that same aspect could be “I wear the mantle of the God of Thunder.”

Douglas: Oooo!

Leonard: So that’s a way of … if you don’t want to put Mjolnir, I would personally put Mjolnir as its own aspect because I want to put Mjolnir on camera a bunch because Mjolnir is Awesome.

But if you wanted to…it’s all about, so this is another thing, so language, selection of detail, emphasis, what aesthetically are you interested in? What do you care about? If your perception of Mjolnir is that it is a symbol of this larger set of trappings, then you don’t have to name it. You can say I wear the God of Thunder’s mantle and that means I have Mjolnir as a part of what I’m expected to have, I have a relationship with the Asgardians and with other cosmic beings that I’m expected to have. And that’s how you emphasize it.

Or you could put “Mjolnir the source of my power,” because what matters to you is putting that hammer on camera and showing what happens when the bad guys take it away or gets limited or he can’t use it or… Like the aspects taken as a whole …you could look at them like a promise of selection of detail about your character.

Douglas: Right. You know I almost wonder if, thinking about it, one of the aspects we haven’t yet defined should be something like “Heir to the throne of Asgard, found wanting.” At least in the movie, one of the things I found compelling was that he started with this arrogance, and then he had that great scene where Odin cast him out. And he realizes that he’s got a long way to go, and for an immortal, that’s a long long long way. So he’s, he knows he’s supposed to ascend to the throne one day and he set that to some indefinite and maybe infinite time in the future. So there is this infinite proving ground he has to go through and that defines him in an important way.

Leonard: Yeah, that would be an aspect. I would. The first thing that came to my mind as simply and hit it as simply as I could would be “I’m not ready to lead yet.” ‘Cause that can influence his current circumstances as well if he is thrust into a position of leadership, that’s something that can create self-doubt.

Douglas: But you’re not king!

Leonard: Right. Not yet.

Douglas: Doing a little Anthony Hopkins. So, okay…

Leonard: See, now you want to play this dude, right? So what’s happening is, that’s part of what the conversation is about, leveraging the power of language. When you are figuring out your aspects. The key is to really figure out what am I invested in about this guy? What about playing this guy is going to interest me? Tuning the aspects to that.

The very very worst thing you can do is take a aspect you’re not passionate about, not playing out all of the ramifications that it might suggest. It’s better to leave it blank. If you are like “Man, I really don’t know what I don’t want my character to be about.” I’m like “God of Thunder, More Arrogant than Confidant, Mjolnir, let’s go.”

But if you get involved in a longer conversation and you’re “Man, I’m really interested in this idea that he’s not ready to be a leader yet, yadda yadda yadda, and that’s something I’d find interesting about a character?” Put it on the page.

Like I said, that’s the key to making good aspects: leverage the power of language and follow your heart. It sounds really Zen and like…it’s probably not Zen to you because you studied martial arts and understand flow in a certain way. Not just muscle memory, but mental muscle memory . . . but follow your creative impulses, follow your heart, follow what you find aesthetically interesting about the character. It’s really easy to get the best aspects.

Douglas: One of the things I find interesting, is I remember my best man at my wedding, my best friend in high school. He role-played with us, but he wasn’t into it the way others were. He would show up and play these great brute characters who were really good at just thrashing stuff, and that’s what he showed up to do. To kill and dismember people in interesting ways.

And that is every bit as much a valid as a character concept, and you can see getting there . . . [Doug gestures off camera] I have the flow chart on my second screen.

You can see coming up with just someone who’s just a bruiser who is just there to dismember people in interesting ways as much as you can a deep angst, angsty is the wrong world, a deep conflicted social mental, like we’re describing Thor, who could be a beefcake – and certainly my wife votes two thumbs up for beefcake on, well, on all the Chris’s. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, are both equally digestible in her eyes, which is a little tough. Although I was Captain America for Halloween.

Leonard: Chris Hemsworth is . . . a fine piece of man. I’ll give you that.

Douglas: You know, I’m pretty much as straight as straight gets, but when he had that scene with just the jeans I was like “Wow.” I’m totally reconsidering my orientation at this point.

Leonard: For real. For real.

Douglas: [laughs] He’s ripped.

Leonard: That’s the same thing in Casino Royale when Daniel Craig comes up out of the water and he’s just like, he’s an Adonis. He’s like…

Douglas: Yeah. I bought two of those bathing suits and now I’ve got at least one child, so it worked. That might be something I edit out: I’m not sure Gaming Ballistic viewers want to hear about my underwear, but we’ll see.

Leonard: Fair Enough [both laugh]

Douglas: anyway. Moving on, or moving into it, although I’m having great fun.

Getting into the approaches, which is a neat way of slimming down. I think I threw down Forceful for the primary, flashy and quick +2, careful and clever, and sneaky, I don’t see Thor as sneaky.

Leonard: Nope. Not at all.

Douglas: So the interesting thing is, and I sent it to you, but I’ll talk it. Let’s look at Loki…

Leonard: He’s exactly the opposite.

Douglas: He’s Thor’s foil. If you start from the bottom [of Thor’s descriptors]: Sneaky is the best, careful and clever is next best, flashy and quick, and forceful not at all. Look at that: they are absolutely dramatic foils as defined by your axes.

Let me ask you a question about that. You guys, when you came up with these approaches. Did you guys think of, three axes with polar opposites and you got forceful as the opposite of sneaky or whatever. Did you think about it that way? How did you come up with these six?

Leonard: You’re going to have to talk to Clark Valentine about that, he was the lead developer for Accelerated. My role on Accelerated was to make Core. I made the thing for him to derive Accelerated from. What I will say is, when I got the draft and I looked at those six things . . . I did I thought of them in terms of pairs. Flashy vs. Careful. And so on, Forceful vs. Clever. I certainly looked at them that way, and I think that Clark did a amazing job of distilling sort of how a great summary list of the way people do stuff that’s very adaptable. Because that’s what approaches are, they’re how you do stuff.

Douglas: That was actually . . . one of my favorite campaign settings for GURPS  . . . and I’m not really bringing it back to GURPS, other than it’s kind of my Rosetta stone: When I was trying to explain to my players, and I never made them learn the system, and especially with Black Ops which is 700 point or a 1,000 pts, or whatever. You just don’t do that to people, it’s not nice. Learn the system and assign 1,000 of these discrete units, which by the way in 3rd edition could be something like 2,000 half-point choices.

Leonard: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Douglas: Don’t think of these, the Combat Op, the Intel Op, and those guys, don’t think of that as a job. Think of that as an approach, the combat op is gonna just go “lets just kill stuff, let’s blow stuff up.” The intel op might still blow stuff up, but they are doing it in a sneaky way. Indirect. Indirect conflict. The security op is looking out for everybody, the science op is let’s understand the bug . . “To defeat the bug we must understand the bug.” I apologize for all who sat through that movie.

Leonard: I love Starship Troopers.

Douglas: I enjoyed it. I love the book. I thought that the movie was more in common with John Stakeley’s Armor than Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But it had Dina Meyer in it. So I’m always gonna rate it very highly.

[both laugh]

Leonard: Fair enough.

Douglas: I didn’t have much use for Denise Richards in that particular role, she was never one of my, but Dina Meyer, I even thought she was great when she made the guest appearance, somewhat recently on the Bones TV show. Still someone who makes my heart go a little pitter-patter. I married a redhead so I’m easily swayed there.

Stunts. That was a little harder for me to grasp although the text was there. The only thing that I threw down was “because I’m tossing a piece of neutron star around as if it was foam rubber I get +2 to move through foes in combat.” That seems to be one of many, that could be extant there. How many stunts does a typical or advanced FATE character have?

Leonard: In Accelerated you can have up to 3, in Core it’s 3 for free and you can get up to two more if you spend refresh. So you have 3 stunts and 3 refresh. So if you want, you can get up to 5 stunts and have up to 1 refresh.

Douglas: Is that person session, per day, what?

Leonard: If it’s during character creation, it’s permanent, but you have five stunts, but if you make that choice to max out your stunts, you have one refresh . . . permanently per session permanently at the start of the game. As you go through the advancement, you get additional refresh as your go.

Douglas: It’s like spending a character point to invoke a stunt. You have a certain number of stunts you can invoke in any given game. But do you have to choose them ahead of time?

Leonard: If you..

Douglas: Sorry, let me be more specific, is it like DnD spells where if you don’t memorize your magic missile, you can’t use it. Do you have to . . . ?

Leonard: No.

Douglas: No. So you have a number of stunts you can use as they are…

I want to thank you for that, I think it’s a great exploration of what it’s like to make a great FATE character. Now I either want to play or run one of these games. Which, really, is the mission. Get people interested in …

Leonard: Can I make one comment about the stunts?

So you’re like, “I’m not sure what stunts I want to give this guy moving through crowds. But I’m not sure.”

Stunts are really interesting in FATE because a lot of people compare them to feats from 3rd edition DnD and Pathfinder. I think that comparison is apt, they’re like the special tricks you can do.

I look at them in FATE terms, because we’re talking about Fiction-Forward stuff. About what is the moment on camera you see with this character? I think that stunt selection is done when you’re highlighting what is that moment on camera.

So when you thought of that, you’re looking at a frame in a movie or a scene or panel in a comic. Where you see, Thor using his hammer to bull through, to bull through hordes of enemies, right? And that’s something that you put on the camera in your mind. That’s a stunt. I think that’s the best way to approach stunts, the fact that you haven’t thought of any more is to me a indicator that you’re not sure what the spotlight moments are for Thor. But that’s something you can easily discover as you play.

Douglas: Also some of it, I’ll admit, is that he does so much stuff with it. He fights with it. He uses it to pave the way. He flies with it. I was really just thinking of all the times he’s…he’s going to be invoking it constantly to beat people down. And that’s what he does and he throws it all cool and stuff and it comes back to him. But I was really thinking about to overcome or move through foes, I was really thinking a lot about just the mass of the thing. Although, obviously the stuff he does with the hammer is pretty cool.

Okay. So I want to go from creation to a little bit to the future, I’ll pretend that there is a tie-in somewhere. But really, I want…the Kickstarter was hugely successful. Was it the most successful role-playing Kickstarter?

Leonard: No. It depends. In terms of dollar amounts? No. but I believe we’re the highest or one of the highest populated Kickstarters in terms of number of backers. We had over 10,000 backers, 3,000 and change of them have started a Google+ community. That is awesome. And I want to give them a shout out because I love you guys.

Douglas: I joined it recently actually.

Leonard: Sweet. There is a lot of great discussion happening over there. I’m very happy for the Google+ ability to tag people in posts, because now I feel like, whenever anyone needs me they can send up the bat signal. +Leonard Balsera: please comment, so I don’t feel the massive weight of obligation of trying to keep up with that group and how quickly they shift through discussions and all this awesome creative stuff they’re doing. So kudos to Google

But I think we’re one of the most populated RPG Kickstarters. I know Monte Cook’s Numenera had a larger dollar amount than we did, but I don’t think they had as many backer’s as we did.

Douglas: I saw one picture of President Obama someone had photoshopped in a cover of Numenara. Okay so…

Leonard: there is a non-Photoshop picture of LeVar Burton holding a copy of Fate Accelerated.

Douglas: That is kinda awesome. People keep telling me that I need to have +Wil Wheaton on this. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m sure he’ll get right on that.” I know he’s a great guy and he does a lot to promote gaming and Tabletop, and I enjoy his work on Big Bang Theory of course. They’re like: “You gotta interview Wil Wheaton!” and I’m like “[sucks in breath] He’s got a million followers on Google, I’m not sure I’m going to stick out that field…

Leonard: You want me to ask him?

Douglas: [Perks up]You know him?

Leonard: Yeah. I’ve met him. I would not say I capital K know him, that would be disingenuous, I have met him a few time and we have acquaintances in common and I’ve hung out with him and he played in a game of FATE core, Ryan Macklin ran it and he got to play in a game with Ryan and Lilian Cohen Moore, and Clark and Amanda Valentine at Gen Con and I got to stop in and say hi and sign his FATE core book. That was really totally awesome. Wil is totally awesome. I mean, I can ask him.

Douglas: Absolutely, part of this is just its . . . is all that I would say is if he were going to consider this, I would encourage him to see the now three interviews I’ve done. There will probably be another one next month with Ken. If he feels this is a platform he can use, Awesome. And if he’s like “I got my own show and I can do better,” that’s awesome too. It’s really about boosting the hobby, which is why I do this.

Kickstarter! I want you to brag a bit. What’s coming, what’s in progress. Since we were talking a little bit about Ken, tell me about the day after Ragnarok.

Leonard: Okay. So on what’s next for me, in terms of all the Kickstarter stuff is Dresden Files Accelerated. Which is Dresden Files RPG that uses the Fate Accelerated engine. That I’m very very very much looking forward to.

Douglas: Have you started work?

Leonard: No. Not yet. Work starts in January, but we have our team. And it’s a fantastic team.

Douglas: I’m a manager of research and development when I’m not dressed up as a costume superhero, and the team is so key. My team will never watch what I’m doing because role-playing, well, maybe one of them will. But I got a great team, and I love my team and given the right resources and the right path there is nothing they cannot accomplish. When you have a group of people around you that you can say GO CREATE, and they’re like, yes, I can do that. It’s a great feeling whether it’s fiction or science.

Leonard: Yeah. I’m really really excited about the team that we have. So that’s that for me. That is the last of the Kickstarter Stretch Goals, so we have Young Centurions coming out. Which is a sort of a young adult fiction inspired Spirit of the Sentury, in the same universe as Spirit of the Century kind-of game for FATE Accelerated that’s coming out.

Douglas: Roman Centurion?

Leonard: Well it’s Spirit of the Century, the people who are members of the Century club, the Centurion’s, it’s set in the same universe. And that is, there is a novel by Carrie Harris that’s going to be coming out. Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. Or Sally Slick versus the Steel Syndicate. Someone’s probably going to kick me later for not getting that correct.

Douglas: [Darth Vader voice]: Your power of alliteration is impressive.

Leonard: I know the Steel Syndicate part, I just don’t remember the conjunction for it is in the middle. And that’s like a young adult novel that has Sally Slick in it as the main character. And teenage Sally Slick dealing with stuff and that’s cool. And Shadow of the Century is on its way, I’m a big fan of Shadow of the Century because I’m not on its development team so I get to cheer from the sidelines and be its fan and rah-rah be its fan. Playtest and we have amazing people on that. Atomic Robo, Mike Thomson’s Atomic Robo, based on the comic by Brent Calinvenger. And that’s awesome! Dresden Files Accelerated is the last of the Kickstarter stretch goals and that’s going to be my thing next year.

Douglas:  If you could get any license and write it personally, what would you do?

Leonard: If I could get any license and write it personally, uhh, man, I don’t know . . . Assassin’s Creed.

Douglas: [Doug laughs] Yes! I’ve not played, but I know how popular it is. I’ve seen Assassin’s Creed costumes at renaissance fairs and people smile and nod, rather than are smarmy and evil when they see that. I could see where that would be fun.

Leonard: I would in a heartbeats, I would do it in a heartbeat. People from Ubisoft! if you are listening: I would develop that game in a heartbeat. Alright, I would not even wait for the heartbeat to finish, I would just do it.

Douglas: In between heartbeats?

Leonard: In between heartbeats, I would develop that game.

So Dresden Files Accelerated is coming, I personally am going to be working on the FATE conversion of a game called Ready Aegis, which was a kickstarted project. It’s its own system, but one of its stretch goals was a conversation for FATE Core and I have been tapped to do that, so I’m looking forward to do that. Red Aegis, the cool, kind of the cool thing is that it’s a generational game, its not just about playing the one hero, it’s playing a generation of heroes over time.

Douglas: Interesting

Leonard: Yeah.

Douglas: So there are bits of it where the hero has to find his mate and have the next generation of heroes and carry on the line? That kind of generational?

Leonard: That kind of generational. I don’t know exactly how they are incorporating it into gameplay where they handle the actual ascent of generation between sessions or whatever they are going to do, but like, that’s the idea. That it’s a epic that spans multiple generations of heroes and its designed that way from the ground up.

Douglas: That’s really interesting. It would give you the chance to play a bunch of different characters in sequence, to have each one be influenced by the one before? That’s neat.

Leonard: It’s neat. It’s been done once, very effectively. A friend of mine, Tim Colpang did a game called Heroes Banner which was a small press game, 2007-2008, I think was when it came out, that handled that concept also, so I think it’s great. I want to, I’m glad that other people are exploring that idea too. While I’m giving shoutouts, HeroesBanner: awesome game.

Douglas: Cool.

Leonard: So I’m going to be working on that and that’s sort of the state of the FATE for me and for Evil Hat at least for the next year.

Douglas: So, Day After Ragnarok?

Leonard: Sure. Day After Ragnarok. Day After Ragnarok is out now . . . so Day After Ragnarok is Ken Hite’s brilliant alternate-history post-apocalypse military-fiction sci-fi pulp, hi. . . there are so many genre’s. That man can just mix genres no one else can I think.

Douglas: I’m going to have to do a lot of research before I talk to him I think.

Leonard: Yes. [laughs]

Yes. That is true.

You don’t really though, you just have to surrender to his, the scope and power of his knowledge about everything. Just let him talk.

Douglas: Yeah. And I’m okay with that. There is a communication principle I was taught when I was a consultant at McKinsey called “Release Your Agenda.”

Leonard: Yes.

Douglas: That’s why I say, this outline that I have, which we’ve actually done awesome on, it’s all well and good, but if you decide you want to talk about something else. It’s your interview. And that’s just to close it out a little bit. Is there anything you want to say that you haven’t had a chance to chat about . . . state of the industry, people you’d like to meet . . .

Leonard: Hold on, I wanted to give you the tiny sales pitch on Day after Ragnarok

Douglas: Oh! Go, yeah!

Leonard: The premise behind it is the actual literal Norse Ragnarok interrupts WWII.

Douglas: [Doug pauses, then laughs] He doesn’t start small. Two huge events…that’s awesome

Leonard: So WWII is happening and then the Midgard Serpent shows up and starts wrecking havoc on the world and we’re forced to detonate the Trinity Device to blow it up.

And we manage to halt the Norse Ragnarok by killing the World Serpent with the Trinity Device, but doing that leaves the world in a blighted state because of the destruction the serpent had wrought. And it’s people, sort of, its cleaning up after the world that both WWII and the literal Norse Ragnarok left behind.

Douglas: What are the major plot points?

Leonard: Well, it depends. There are several different types of campaigns in the setting, in the book, that you could run. So a lot of it is like, what are you interested in playing? Are you interested in playing people who roam in the most irradiated bits of the whatever and help out the people who are caught up in the most blighted wastelands? Are you in that group of people who are trying to do scientific research in order to help bring the world back to what it was? Are you people that have taken shelter in some of the cities that are left? There are a lot of different campaigns that are proposed by the book.

Douglas: Do the Asgardians actually figure in it, or not so much?

Leonard: Yes! There is a mention in the book about more things coming down from the mountains, now that this has happened. The Aesir and the Vanir and the giants, they come down from the steppes in Russia and that kind of stuff. We see them.

It’s a grab bag of amazing, it’s a intersection of Norse mythology and early 20th century pulp grit, it’s just, it was a great playground to be in.

All I got to do was convert it to FATE, I got to do the fiction-forward version of that. And tease out the bits that I think are really thematically interesting about that setting. It was a great opportunity to play in Ken’s playground and I think that everyone should have it.

Douglas: No, it seems to me that it would probably, in a concept that rich, would be a bit of a mistake to try and get into the physics/metaphysics of it . . .

Leonard: Uhh….[doubting noise] You know there is a HERO system version of it. Here’s the interesting thing, military fiction as a genre…

Douglas: Ahhh, good point. Good point.

Leonard:…privileges, or can privilege a lot of that kind of stuff. And so that element is definitely in there too. I think the FATE conversion doesn’t deal with that side of it that much, but it’s certainly there. It’s out right now for Savage Worlds, HERO system, and FATE core. Which I think is awesome and a testament to how robust that setting is. I think all of the versions that you can play it in play to its strengths in one way or another.

Douglas: Cool. So last thing, the floor is yours. Do you want to close out with any comments or challenges? Or state of the industry? Or state of Leonard Balsera.

Leonard: [Chuckles] No, I just want to say that the fact that people are asking me to do shows like this is something that gives me a lot of gratitude. I’m very grateful that people are into FATE. And I’m grateful that people’s gaming has been enriched by it. I’m glad I had something to offer. It’s all that I’ve got.

I think that the media trend, the gaming media trend where you can do shows like this on hangouts where it’s live and on the air and you can have a TV show about gaming, effectively speaking, and you can just do it from your living room is badass.

Thanks to all the people who watched my interview with GURPS Line Editor +Sean Punch in the video format. As promised, though, and for those who can’t or don’t like to watch video, here are two other ways to enjoy it.

First, an MP3 audio file. It’s like 125MB, so be warned: not small.

Next, and this is a 10,000+ word transcript (kudos to CastingWords for getting this done in about a week, for about fifty bucks), here’s the text of the interview.

*****

Douglas
Cole (Gaming Ballistic)
:  This is the first interview that I’m doing on the gaming
ballistic blog. I’d thought I’d try it out. Naturally, since I write for GURPS,
and I love GURPS, and I play GURPS, I decided to have the
interview with Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. Given that it’s
my favorite system and it’s my go‑to for my creative writing as well as my role‑playing,
I wanted to chat with you, ask some questions, and ask you both about GURPS
as a system but also about the industry as a whole.

So
just getting right to it – and briefly since most people who come to my blog
will do it because I talk about GURPS (since I don’t think that
there’s much else about me that’s going to draw people to say what’s Doug doing
today). What is GURPS? Just talk about it briefly as a role‑playing system just
in case we have random strangers coming today.

Sean Punch (GURPS Line Editor, Steve Jackson Games):  If you are random stranger and you’ve played role playing
games but not GURPS, the important thing to know about GURPS is that it’s
generic. It doesn’t have a preferred setting or genre or time period. That it’s
point-build, so you’re not rolling characters, you’re using points to build
your characters to custom specifications. And that it’s based entirely on the
use of three six-sided dice – you determine reactions on those dice by rolling
high, determine success on those dice by rolling low. Pretty much everything
about GURPS can be traced back to these fundamentals. You build your
character with whatever traits in the genre the GM has picked. You pick that
genre out of a hat if you like, but hopefully because you enjoy it, hopefully
because it’s interesting.

You
build a setting using the elements of the system and then you start gaming with
those characters you made. The characters choices and abilities will be from a
huge list that will hopefully be paired down by the GM’s choices for setting
and time period, so forth. You buy them with points. The points don’t show up
much during play, really, but you’re rolling with three six‑sided dice a lot
against target numbers, trying to roll low to succeed.

That’s
the essence of it. Beyond that, it would get into particulars. Anyone who is a
gamer but not familiar with GURPS are more than welcome to come
to me and ask for those particulars, but I’m not going to take up Doug’s time
with that right now.

Douglas:
 That actually makes a pretty good segue into…one of the nice things
about, and you use a particular phrase before, either drinking your own
bathwater or, drinking your own Cool‑aid?

Sean:
 Eating your own dog food.

Douglas:
 Eating your own dog food! That’s your phrase of choice. You posted
several long running campaigns and campaign logs. When you are talking about
how things work in play and the rules and all that stuff, it’s not just “oh
look, here’s an abstract rules, Meta system that’s going on.” You do things – you
play the game. What do you think the strengths of the system that you oversee
are, and how do you leverage those strengths into these long‑running successful
campaigns?

Sean:
 There’re two questions. The strengths of the system, is the quickest
question one to answer. The strength is that it can handle anything. If I get a
crazy idea in mind, I don’t have to seek out a system first. I have some
friends who are very insistent on a new system for each new campaign. I
understand that part of the fun for them.

Say
that you are strapped for time, short on cash, whatever, and as a freelance
designer of games I’m always strapped for cash and time. You want to get
something that can handle just about anything. That’s its big strength. It’s a
big toolkit got all the tools.

As
for how you make use of that, I mostly make use of it by just taking advantage
of the fact that all those tools are there and I’m very familiar of them. If I
have an idea I usually realize it in rules terms often in a matter of . . .
often a matter of minutes. It doesn’t take me very long to come up with a way
to use an existing component, or if I have to fudge something together because
it doesn’t exist then something that’s close enough to what exists. That’s
really the secret.

Now
the secret to the long‑running part, I’m not going to say GURPS can take any credit
off that. That’s got to do with finding a group of players. That’s a whole
other conversation really. I generally game with friends, before I game with
strangers.

I
generally approach a game as being long running to begin with. I don’t throw
everything in the first five minutes. I don’t set off all my firecrackers in one
big batch. I like to have a long term arc in mind. I like to move forwards
various waypoints along that arc, and I like to respond with what the players
are telling me either outright or implicitly with changes to the campaign world
so it keeps it interesting for them.

In
as much as GURPS is generic, it can let me cobble together anything I want
in tools. I guess it helps there, because players seem to be going in a
direction that I perhaps didn’t consider, or maybe wouldn’t have considered. I
can see it coming and I can say, “All right, there’s a book for that or
there’s a rule for that. There’s something that handles that.” I can dig
it out later, or even right now, I can consult the right rule book and it will
give me that.
[Dialog slightly inaudible; I asked Sean to
repeat his point.]


Fundamentally
I just said I can reach for a rule book and I can be fairly sure I either have
what I need or the tools I need to improvise a solution that matches what the
players are asking me for either outright or though their actions. That’s all.

Douglas:
 One of the things that I’ve seen on various boards is “you people never
criticize GURPS.” I’m going to give us an opportunity to criticize GURPS.
What do you think the weaknesses of the system are?

Sean:
 Like any system, first and foremost not perfect. It’s designed by humans.
It can’t consider every possible case, no matter how generic it’s supposed to
be. They have biases. Like any game it privileges certain genres even though
it’s supposed to be generic, it privileges certain scenarios even though it’s
supposed to be generic. It’s only going to be as good as the people designing
it when it comes to comprehension of things like math of science or whatever
used in the model of the situation. Or, not to be too quantitative about it,
only as good as the experiences of the designers with various genres and genre
fictions. If I’ve never seen some anime someone is talking about. I can’t
promise you the system I’ve worked on will emulate things in that very well
because I don’t know anything about it.

That’s
the big weakness really and it’s shared among all role‑playing games but it’s
especially noticeable for generic games because people often assume, rightly or
wrongly, that generic games “will handle anything.” I can come back to that
later, but it comes to, “No it doesn’t really mean that. It means it can
handle most things passively well but some things obviously you going to want a
specialized genre for.”

Specific
to GURPS,
it’s got a few mechanical issues which make it less than perfect in some
circumstances. Because the task resolution is done on a 3d6 system, if you are
not extremely conversant with modifiers that take probability ranges way
outside that and bring it into that range, then you can find yourself wondering
whether the limited range restrictive. Why not roll high and double up to
handle more range?

That’s
a valid criticism if you’re not very comfortable with the system. The system
actually does address those problems with modifiers and with special cases for
high skill but in principle, it’s a built in flaw in the system. I won’t deny
that. Another thing is point build itself because it has implicit meaning of
some kind.

Some
people like to say it means every character is equally powerful. Some people
like to say every character is equally flexible, but whichever of those you
choose it’s not going to be entirely true that the power judgments or
flexibility judgments will agree with any given person’s idea on what’s best.

Like
all point builds, it’s possible to come to degenerate cases where you are
getting way too much for your points. Like all point builds, there are some
things of truly no fair value. Being invulnerable has no fair value. Being able
to emulate what anyone else can do has no fair value. Being a God, really, has
no fair value.
So
with point build, you do have these situations where, if you’re going to be
rigorous about using the points, you are going to always be kept away from
doing certain things in the system, however generic it claims to be.

Douglas:  I remember once in the old Third Edition days, I convinced my
game master to give me the physical equivalent to eidetic memory, which was double or triple the points and blah,
blah, blah. And boy, was he an effective 200 point character when something in
it was four times as expensive as mental skills got an additional
multiplier.That was about my most shameless munchkin moment ever.

Sean:
 That’s an excellent example of what I mean, however. Because it’s point
build, an awful of it in the system is linear in points. I mean sometimes
there’s an increasing scale. But fundamentally, there’s a scale, and it goes up
on how many points you spend and you pile multiplicative effects on top of
arithmetic progression, a straightforward linear progression.

Or
for that matter, if the progression is already multiplicative, I mean you start
throwing powers [mathematical exponents,
not superpowers -Doug]
in there, it’s going to break. If there’s some
scaling that requires you to multiply, or divide, or use a power and they’re
not going to work well, play well, with a different scaling.

The
point system has to assume some scaling. So, no matter what scaling you use,
it’s always possible to order higher, it’s always possible to decide that it’s
too extreme. You want to go lower, and it won’t work as well for you. That’s
unfortunate, but it’s the way it is with generic systems.

We can’t
keep everybody happy at every scale all the time.

Douglas:
 Yeah. No, I think that’s true ‘cause you know you have a box of what…in
a way it’s a lot like the 3d6 curve. You have a place where it works, and if
you have things that are outside that place, then you need to bring them in in
order for everything to relate well.
You
know, an ant and a person don’t do melee well. [laughs] Well, the person might,
but it is a different scale. Well, “ant . . . boot” to borrow from The Avengers. Because why wouldn’t you borrow from
The Avengers?

Anyway,
in terms of strengths and weaknesses, the games that I’ve been playing recently
are, I had one fun moment in “FATE Core,” I’ve been playing a little
GUMSHOE” which is really “Trail of Cthulhu,” and a bunch
of Pathfinder recently, as well as playing a Pathfinder adventure using the DungeonFantasy ruleset (which rocks on toast, but we’ll get to that later).

What
do you think relatively speaking are the ‑‑ strengths and weakness are the
wrong words, but where do you think that some of these other systems that you
might’ve experienced with – and if you don’t, you can ignore that part of it. Where
do you think it fits well, and where does GURPS do better and worse, or really
what is the feel, I guess, of each system?

Maybe,
forget the better or worse absolute. How
does each system make you feel
?

Sean:
 Well, class and level type systems, whether you’re talking about
something as recent as Pathfinder, or you can go all the way back to AD&D or
first edition D&D and all kinds of games in between. So lets take those
games as a set of things.
You’re
familiar with Pathfinder: great. I’ve read the Pathfinder rule book, I’m not
that familiar with it in play, but I’m familiar with the fact that it is
basically D&D 3.5 pushed to the future and I read 3.0, 3.5 and I played
every version of D&D.

Those
systems have going for them the one big advantage, you can jump in more
quickly. Yeah, it’s true that there’s all kinds of options for characters and
as you get on with very high level characters it’s a pain in the butt to keep
track of them all. There’s twenty different ways to get the same result, some
are more efficient than others.

But
you can jump in initially. There’s a known finite set of abilities, a known
finite set of character options, you can jump in and start right away, and no
one has to deal with weird corner cases, or with their inability to do math or
whatever.

There’s
not that many things you have to pick, and most people coming in the table,
even if they gamed in Hong Kong, if they gamed in Sydney, Australia, if they
gamed in Chennai, India, if they gamed in Sao Paulo in Brazil, it doesn’t
really matter. They have all played that system.

It’s
got a basic set of assumptions that everyone knows, and provided you speak the
language inside of the game table, you jump in and you know that your wizard,
or your pirate or whatever will be, for lack of a better word, the same as any
other wizard or pirate, modulo your specific preferences, tics, and choices and
obviously what he looks like, whether he’s got a pointy goatee, and likes a
rapier better than an axe or whatever.
But
the key thing is that it’s got this familiar idea. It’s got this quick start,
not just in the sense of the game is quick to start with, but also quick in the
sense that the gaming group is easy to jump in to.

GURPS
doesn’t have that. The GM has to set out what kind of characters are OK, take a
huge list of abilities and pare it down to the ones that he or she wants to see
in the campaign.
Players
will have to deal with an awful lot of house rules, because there are just too
many corner cases to deal with scale or technology or whatever, the GM would
have to jump in on. You immediately have to consult which of those are they
using, what do they mean, and how to find out about them.

There
are a lot of choices from day one. I mean from the minute you start your GURPS
character, even if it’s a low-powered campaign, you have all this points to
spend, and you spend them as small as one at a time on one point skill or a
perk or something. It can take you a long time to spend them all.

If
you’re spending 50 points on 50 one-point entities, that’s 50 choices. Well,
your Pathfinder character is not going to have 50 choices, full stop. Not even
if you start a little above first level. There are just not that many choices
to make.

So
that’s the big advantage there. Then you get this small thing like FATE which
is the other system I know about. I’d say “FATE” actually has about
as much complexity as GURPS. A lot of people would argue
with me on that. But I don’t think I would step back from that argument, I
don’t think I would step down. Because there’s a surprising amount of stuff you
have to pick at “FATE.” And those traits fall into a surprising
number of bins.

Yeah,
it’s true, there’s not necessarily a set of campaigns. There’s not necessarily
attributes. There’s not necessarily this interdependence of scores on other
scores.

But
there are all these different types of things. Each one is a different dramatic
role. There’s quite a few possibilities in cases where some of them are
completely player defined. GURPS has some player defined
abilities but they fall into narrower boxes. Not so like “FATE.”
“FATE” you can literally define something, you create out of the
blue, whole cloth. You have to debate with the GM what it does, what it’s
capable of doing.

FATE
also does not have the Pathfinder-style ability to let you just jump in and
know what’s going on. Again, like GURPS you have to set up a campaign,
decide what your genre and expectations are, what’s going to be on the skill
list. What kinds of things you want people to have, how many Stunts you want people
to have, or whatever. There’s that.

FATE
is strong in the sense that it’s branded for dramatic play. Which for an awful
lot of players is much more important than mechanistic play. GURPS
is very mechanistic, it’s very realism‑based. It may not be a realistic game,
you finally throw in the superheroes, and the talking snake‑man, and the
telepathic powers. But initially it’s based on realistic roots.

FATE
doesn’t come from there. FATE comes from dramatically appropriate roots which
is a very different origin. Players who are very quantitative thinkers, very
interested in the realism, the real world, these people love GURPS.
They don’t necessarily like FATE and vice versa.

People
who like drama, who very much want their game to be like what they saw on the
screen or in their book, are not going to like very much a system which
restricts them based on what’s physically plausible, as opposed to what’s
dramatically plausible. FATE does that much better.

I’ve
played dozens of other types of game systems. There are game systems without
points but which still have builds, and there are game systems which have
points but no builds. The points are just used to pick over a limited list of
choices and so on, and they all have strengths and weaknesses, everything.

Actually,
I think those games we discussed, the class‑level based games and the
dramatically‑founded games, are really the two biggest departures you can get
from GURPS.
The only bigger departures are game systems considered to be a little bit
experimental. You get games where you do away altogether with dice rolling, or
you get situations where everything’s bid on instead of bought with points.
These are interesting as well, but you can sort of shoehorn them in to one of
these other molds, I think.

Douglas
Cole
:  Yeah, I think that, at least in my experience with the stuff
that you’ve written, I thought that the Impulse Buys book was a great leap towards
being able to have a mechanically‑based system that helped to facilitate more
dramatic play.

I
know that between that and some of the stuff that Reverend Pee Kitty ( Jason Levine ), has penned with Destiny Points, and that . . . we’ve gotten great
mileage in the Dungeon Fantasy campaign with, oh, I swing and I miss. No, I
don’t, damn it! I don’t miss because it would just be way cooler to not miss
here, or it would be really stupid to die this way so I’m going to exert a
level of Plot Immunity based on these Destiny Points, or Luck, or whatever.

That’s
what I’ve found is . . . I look at my personal experiences is, that if you’re
willing to take a step away from the dice every now and then, GURPS
supports a lot stronger dramatic play than people would think.

Sean:
 It does. My particular windmill, that I like to charge at on my fantasy
horse, when I’m not actually trying to get paid, is bridging that gap. I think
it’s actually possible to have a set of physical basics, a realism‑based
foundation, and throw a dramatic blanket over it, and not have one or the other
take over. I think it’s actually possible to have them both working at the same
time. My previous campaign, my fantasy campaign, I did a fair amount of that
and people spend points for outcomes and I had a lot of stuff be Destiny
driven. Their characters all had big Destinies and I didn’t pay so much
attention to character points. People had totals, but they changed a lot based
on what I told my campaign was going to do at that moment in time.
Yeah,
I still had things like weights for swords, and pounds of force for how much
people could pick up and throw around, and people had certain heights and
weights, and so many dollars in their pouch, and so on. I thought that was kind
of a neat thing, that you could have this fundamental realism at the root of
the game and not have it defining the game. Just have it set the, I guess you’d
say, the stop point, or the 1 or the 11 on your volume dial, however you want
to look at it, past which you can’t go. A lot of things within that range to
move around and be interesting.
Douglas:
 One of the things that always amuses me is when you’ve got something
where like, “yeah, well, I have this advantage, and if I lose it then there
better be something that comes back to me to maintain my point total.”
A
couple years ago, I busted up my neck pretty hard, and the next day I did not win the lottery, representing the
fact that I now had a neck injury, so I guess I can buy Wealth with a
disadvantage that I got when I lost the fully functional neck thing.
I
always have a good time when point totals fluctuate in play and stuff like
that.
You
hit on a point which I know you and I have talked about offline. For those who
don’t know, Sean and I are not just strangers, you know we write, I help, I
submit proposals and all that stuff. We’ve known each other for, remotely, for
years.
Sean:
 For a long time, yeah.
Douglas:
 Yeah. Anyway, we’re talking about this, and the realism thing I think is
key. Because it’s right there in the intro, as a bit of fluff text that was
written 20 years ago or more, that GURPS is realistic. You’ve hit on it, and I’ve said it too, plausible verimi
. . . wow, all right, let’s see if I can actually say that. [Supposed to be plausible verisimilitude, which is
apparently harder to say than to write.]
“The appearance of being
realistic,” right? It doesn’t have to be actually, physically real. It just has
to feel that way. GURPS has that reputation for realism, and how important is “realism”
to success in today’s game industry?
Sean:
 I think it’s not nearly as important as an awful lot of people would like
to think, and argue even that perhaps it wasn’t ever important. It’s crucial to realize, poor choice of words
there, but crucial to understand that realism was almost a fad when gaming
first started. Now, I don’t mean gaming on tabletops back in the day with Von Clausewitz moving around wooden ships or something. I mean when role‑playing
games first started. The ’70s. They were, sure, they started in a wargame and
the wargame had some vague connections to reality. You can look at those early
incarnations of D&D, say. You can realize even then there were wizards,
there were people who were, simply put, big. This man was equivalent of 10
fighters. That’s what his tenth level meant. He was equivalent of 10 men.
Realize
no one’s equivalent to 10 men, and no one can work magic. Even those early days
it wasn’t terribly realistic. Throughout, the focus has always been on strange
powers and unusual abilities, and when people have confined themselves to the
real world, usually it’s not the real world as we know it. It’s usually the
real world as depicted in action movies or something like that.
There
are lots of systems out there which have wire fu, action movie realism. Nobody
can actually die or whatever, or they always win because the errors and the mooks
just lose. It’s still not realistic. It’s just unrealistic in a different
direction.
Or
you have people roll out some of the so called hard sci‑fi games or early semi‑soft
sci‑fi games. Well, this is realistic it’s got passion‑like drives that sort
of, maybe could exist…
Douglas:
 Vectors! It’s got vectors!
Sean:
 …or you’ve got Magic…
[laughter
from both]
Sean:  The thing is it’s still not realistic. I guess you could say
it’s a plausible model for an internal existing universe, but it’s not
realistic. Realism as such, I’d say,
is very rarely seen in role‑playing games.
There
are a few games out there which attempted to bring realism to specific subsystems
of what they do. I don’t know how familiar you are with old‑timey or not so old‑timey,
but obscure games. You ever hear of Phoenix Command?
Douglas:  Oh, yeah. Sure. I’ve never played it.
Sean:
 It very accurately depicts what a firearm would do if it hit someone. I’d
say it’s probably fairly realistic. There are games like Riddle of Steel, which do a moderately realistic job of handling swordplay, aspects
including a psychological one, which is nice, because that’s something missing
in role‑playing combat.
The
over-arching systems in which people play aren’t realistic. GURPS
really didn’t claim to be realistic so much as founded in realism. If you look
at Steve’s original intro ‑‑ and I actually went back and reread that for this
interview, because I was curious ‑‑ he doesn’t ever actually say: “GURPS
is a realistic game.”
He
even admits you could do anything you want. You can be a wizard. You can be an
alien, all kinds of things that don’t really exist. You could be a swashbuckler
who could exist in the real world, but certainly not be a cinematic success
that swashbucklers enjoy in fiction.
These
things were all cited as examples of what you could do with the game. What he
meant was that the foundations on which the game would be based would be
realistic. It would use real‑world units of measure; yards, and pounds, and
miles‑per‑hour.
Douglas:
 Sure.
Sean:
 As a Canadian, I can’t say these words and feel good about it, but as
somebody who works at GURPS I can accept this. There will
be things people understood. Instead of using some crazy unit like Zorkmids for money, he just used the dollar sign and called it the generic dollar.
Rather
than start the game out with people having weird powers, people start out with
pretty average physical strength, and size, and weight, and moderately
plausible levels of competence at things.
This
is what he meant. He meant that there would be a bridge between the worlds of
imagination and the world you live in, and that bridge would be formed by units
you know about, behavior you understand, concepts that existed in the real
world. That’s what he actually meant, but – yeah, I almost said “unfortunately.”
That’s not a fair choice of word.
From
my point of view as someone who is responsible for putting words on paper, and
then facing criticism for them it’s unfortunate, but some people take that
beyond the level he intended it and bring that into the realm of everyone has
got to be exactly like in the real world. If a 300-pound man wrestles a 110‑pound
woman he will win, because he’s 300 pounds, end of discussion.
Or,
if I take my car and drive at this ramp and hit the gas and go all the way up
the ramp, I’m going to do some basic physics and we’ll know exactly how far I
can jump. Going “Yoo‑hoo!” and “Yee‑ha!” and leaning on the
horn will not change that.
The
thing is that most gamers don’t really want that degree of harsh, judgmental
realism in their game. Most people want to know, if I play a 97 pound ninja
girl, she can beat anyone’s butt, because she’s a ninja girl. It doesn’t matter if she weighs 97 pounds and is a
girl. And if she gets in a car and goes, “Woo‑hoo!” or whatever the
silent ninja equivalent is and it goes over a ramp, it’ll go further because
it’s awesome. The Rule of Awesome should matter.
I’d
argue that the Rule of Awesome has always been important to gamers, even if
realism never has.
In
the modern‑day games industry, I think the Rule of Awesome is being recognized
as being more important than it used to be. I think an awful lot of game
designers are saying, “It’s not lazy game design.” They’ll say,
“If this is fun and dramatic and cool to the players, it’s OK with me in
the game and the rule set.”
Gaming
designers have gotten past that, and they realize “No. It is OK.”
It’s not lazy, because actually having developed
such rules I can say, all right, a good set of dramatic rules, dramatic rules
that work and that are fun, and help make someone God‑like or don’t hobble
someone, a set of rules that are fun for everyone at the table and not just one
person. The GM, too, not just the players.
That’s
actually very hard to do. In fact, that’s a lot harder to do than a set of
realistic rules, because I’m a former physicist. 10 years in physics. If was
just going to sit down and just develop a mathematical simulation, I could do
that. It’s straightforward. I’ve got physics to guide my hand. I have books I
can consult. That’s relatively easy. It’s a headache at research and it’s
annoying to write, but it’s not difficult. It’s not challenging in a design
sense, whereas dramatic rules are very challenging from the design perspective.
I
think game designers now have reached a level of maturity and experience. They
have not-failed or so-so successful past games to draw upon where they can do
those things now with some degree of confidence, with some knowledge that
people will buy the game and actually say, “Hey! This is kind of
fun.” Not the universal “It sucks, because I didn’t like it.”
Douglas:
 [laughs] That was kind of awesome. Good. I enjoyed that discussion. I
like talking about the industry and where it’s going.
One
of the things that goes into, and I think that ties into a lot of what you are
saying, is “Dungeon Fantasy” with 15 and apparently almost 16 – based
on the leaks that have happened – There is a 16th “Dungeon Fantasy”
volume pending, which I’m sure that lots of people, including myself, are
looking forward to.
But
there are 15 of them, which is awesome. That’s almost as many sequels as
“Star Trek” has movies! Why do you think that’s worked so well?
Sean:
 Well, first off I’m not going to give it too much credit, because there
is the fact that it’s 16, but they are short. Maybe if they were all put
together, it would be merely 400 or
500 pages of stuff. It’s only the equivalent of say three to five old‑timey
supplements.
If
you think about it, we didn’t actually do three to five old‑timey supplements
on any genre that I can think of offhand. We would have lots on individual
genres and maybe one or two volume kind of follow‑ups, but that was it.
It
has gone far, and the reason it’s gone far, I think, in part is because it
actually hearkens back to what I said previously, which is that games like Pathfinder
– the class-level systems – people can jump right in. They know what to expect.
They know what a given class is. They know what the power level at a given
level is going to be. They know they have a small list of things from which to
pick. They are not building on points. They are not throwing things together that
required GM judgment in every step of the way. You are not fighting a battle to
make your character.
GURPS
can be like that. Unfortunately, GURPS can very much be fighting a
battle to make your character, either because the GM doesn’t want you to have
something, the other players are not so cool with what you are doing, there is
a house rule you don’t know about, or you just don’t want to sit down and spend
all of those points.
Dungeon
Fantasy is 250 points. You’re insane and you want to spend it on one‑point
items? That’s 250 purchases. That’s absolutely nuts. That would be a lot of
choice. That’s nuts! What Dungeon Fantasy does is it ‑‑ I wouldn’t say it
prefabricates or puts things in such narrow terms that you are really
restricted and can only make one or two sorts of characters, but it does pare
down the list. It does pare down all the lists. The GM does not have to sit
down and say, “These are the advantages. Here are the goals I’m
using.” They are already pared down. The GM does not have to say,
“Here are the character‑types I want to allow.” They are already
defined. The GM does not have to say, “Here is the genre we’re gaming
in.” Because it’s a well‑defined genre already, and Dungeon Fantasy had
low‑hanging fruit there, because it’s a genre most people know well, but it
also really circumscribes the genre quite a bit.
It
addresses what you’re going to be doing in a campaign. You’re not going to be
spending points on the history skill, because that doesn’t exist.
Who
sits around looking up history books in a campaign which is all about taking
out your weapons and magic spells, blasting enemies, getting richer, buying
better swords, learning better magic spells, wash, rinse, repeat.
“Dungeon
Fantasy” just accepts that that could be fun, rather than pooh‑poohing it,
saying, “Oh, it’s not mature. It’s not a cool style of gaming. Why would
you do that?” Then says, “Even though it’s not mature, not cool,
whatever ‑‑ hey, it’s still a point‑based system, an awful lot of stuff, and we
can add a little extra spin that isn’t present in systems which are purely
about the hack‑and‑slash,” which it does.
I
have got that in there in lots of ways. Sometimes it’s sneaky ways, like
including a not‑so‑violent skill and giving it a use. There are uses for some
skills in “Dungeon Fantasy 2” that you’d really be surprised at.
If you really sit down and read through that you’ll see there’s an awful lot of
stuff in there, which isn’t about hacking and killing and taking treasure.
There
are actually rules in there for finding quest, selling maps and singing songs. Deceiving
people with words instead of violence, and so on. It’s all in there. That’s
something in a game that pure hack‑n‑slash can’t handle. GURPS can.
Likewise,
if you look at some of the character types ‑‑ I’m reluctant to say
“classes,” but they’re basically classes ‑‑ if you look at some of
the character types, there are ones in there that aren’t intended to be violent
first and foremost.
The
ones in “Dungeon Fantasy 4,” the artificer and installer are not
violent character types. The innkeeper from “Dungeon Fantasy 10,” while
he bashes people with a pan when they get unruly, he’s not a violent character
type. Even some of the ones that are traditionally kind of violent, or at least
ran toward conflict, aren’t.
Phil Masters put together the great “Dungeon Fantasy 9,” which I love.
“Summoners” is a cool book. Those spellcasters, if you look at them,
aside from the elementalist, which just runs around blowing stuff up with
fireballs ‑‑ fair enough, he’s destructive, your classic wizard ‑‑ most of
those types are actually really traditional mystics.
You’ve
got the demonologist who deals with entities from another world, usually evil.
He doesn’t have to be throwing curses on people and murdering them, and
summoning demons to eat their souls. He could be there to fight demons, deal
demons, and Phil cleverly wedged‑in possibility that he actually is a negotiator
with demons, or someone who handles social problems with demons in a campaign.
Ditto
the necromancer. Yeah, he can have 100 zombie servants and turn into a lich and
get all creepy, and all that. That’s there if people want it, but it’s not the
only possibility. He can also be someone that does much the same thing ‑‑ deals
with monsters on almost a social level, or at least on a spiritual level, as
opposed on a purely violent level.
The
shaman is perhaps example, being a character who’s a psychopomp
and originalist and not a pure violent adventure‑type. The thing is that that
combination is what makes “Dungeon Fantasy” successful. It’s the
mixture of things people know and recognize ‑‑ what I call the “low
hanging fruit” ‑‑ the violence, the slash‑and‑hack, the fire balls, the
loot, all that good stuff.
It’s
there, it’s not missing. It’s done in spades. The “Dungeon Fantasy11” power‑ups throw in boat‑loads of ways to get better at just that stuff,
nothing else. At the same time, there’s enough of the underlying, generic point‑build
system there that things at go a little out of genre, but that would cost
points that maybe aren’t so well spent in a fantasy campaign, still have
meaning. They could still be put in there if people want to have more
thoughtful characters. You could have in principal in a party of adventures,
where a few people are playing, say, a wizard who blasts things with fireball,
and knight who goes around whacking stuff with a sword, and a thief who goes
around shanking people in the back and taking their wallets.
And
at the same time, a few other people in that exact same group could be playing
a very thoughtful cleric, built with some of the more unusual cleric modifications
in “Dungeon Fantasy 7.” Say, a cleric of love who goes around trying
to get people not to fight, wearing a skimpy outfit and saying, “Look how
sexy I am. Look I’m power of the love god.” You can have someone else
there who’s…
Douglas:  [laughs] I can’t un‑see that, you know.
Sean:
 [laughs]
Douglas:
 [laughs] I’m picturing you in a skimpy outfit, saying, “Pray to the
Love God”…
Sean:
 Yeah, yeah, it’s not my thing.
Douglas:
 It’s, it’s…
Sean:
 But someone could do it, just not me.
Douglas:
 Someone could do it, OK.
Sean:
 And the shaman could be there being like a classic shaman, drinking
mushroom tea, seeing crazy visions, and talking to spirits and spirit wolves
and things. There could be an innkeeper there, whose main job is keeping people
fed, and is really good at it because he’s got 250 points to spend on keeping
people fed, so they don’t starve and they eat very well, and they have very
high morale and everything.
You
can have that party work, and as long as the people playing the hack‑and‑slash
characters weren’t being too aggressive about, “Pull your weight you
bastards! Get into combat and do what you’re supposed to do!” As long as
the people playing the not‑so‑combative characters are not being jerks about
saying, “You’re so immature. Why are you always hacking, and killing, and
looting? Why can’t you have a real
character?” As long as that’s not going on, and that’s not an issue of the
game, that’s an issue of the players, then it handles that.
That’s
one of the things that’s very successful about “Dungeon Fantasy” is
that it handles a style of play, which is encompassing, but also accessible to
an awful lot of people.
Douglas:
 What other genres do you think could benefit from that same treatment and
maybe partially drink from that glass of success?
Sean:
 We’ve had moderate success with the Action series already, as you know.
The only reason that it hasn’t been expanding more is because it’s just the
nature of RPGs is that people are more interested in fantasy than they are
modern day action. It has nothing to do with action sucking or not being a fun
genre, or not being able to succeed there.
We
have got to three books and there’ll probably be others. Jason’s “Monster Hunters” is gone to several books. We have more planned, hopefully. It’s
going to spin off even, into the “Ritual Path Magic” supplement for
Thaumatology sometime in the hopefully not too distant future, because it’s a
cool magic system.
We’ve
had another Action spin‑off. “Gun Fu,” was very much a spin‑off from
“Action.” Those genres, obviously, have a lot of room for success in
that realm because they’re first and foremost, very action‑oriented genres.
“Action,” from it’s title, obviously, but also the fact that it’s
about shooting guns and hacking computers from the bad guys and chopping down
the door with a fire axe, and so on.
“Monster
Hunters” is about taking on vampires that actually are a member of
Congress, and ducking down alleyways as the cops come, after you’ve had a huge
gunfight with werewolves and things. Very exciting, very dynamic stuff, which
at the same time has a flipside.
Action
can mean something more like “Sneakers,” or “Oceans
Eleven,” where you’re plotting and coming up with a big scheme. Lots of
moving parts, lots of team members and specialists, and you’re almost always going
up against a conspiracy. You’ve almost failed if it comes to violence. You want
to pull it off without violence at all.
“Monster
Hunters” is the same way. Yes, it can be hacking down werewolves with a
big-ol’ silver axe and shooting your machine gun full of flaming bullets at the
vampires. It can be like at. But, at the same time, it can be very conspiracy‑oriented.
It could be all veiled and behind‑the‑scenes ‑‑ more “Underworld,”
than “Blade.”
“Blade”
had pretty much no problem at all jumping down in the middle of the highway
with a big‑old bladed boomerang, or what ever he calls that thing, and a katana
on his back. “Oh, you saw me killing people, and Whistler says, “Oh,
you can’t be killing people. People will know you’re out there.” Everybody
knows he’s out there. He’s not subtle.
Whereas
Underworld, we at least have this pretense, that people are trying to
masquerade, not let on that there are supernatural entities in the world. They
do in fact have raging fights and stuff as well, for the players who couldn’t
wait.
Douglas: …and Kate Beckinsale!
Sean: Realize that you have that level
of conspiracy there, as well as that level of violence.
I
think that that those mixtures, it’s very important for future genre treatments
that we do. If there’s going to be a future genre treatment that’s going to
succeed, first, it’s going to be in an accessible genre that people like.
It’s
got to have expectations that people can play to. Dungeon Fantasy has clerics
who heal, you’ve got wizards who throw fireballs, you have thieves who steal,
and so on. Action has, there’s the guy who likes to blow stuff up, there’s the
guy who likes to pick locks and wear a…Usually it’s a hot woman in a tight
catsuit, let’s be honest. But the point is that there are roles. There’s the
guy with gun, he shoots things, he’s a very good shot. The guy drives like a
maniac and never screws up in a car chase.
Monster
hunters has it too. You’ve got the witch or occultist who’s very good at the
secret world. You’ve got the up‑front, come‑through, kick‑people’s‑butts, put‑a‑spear‑through‑their‑heart
martial arts kind of dude. You’ve got somebody who’s good with guns. You’ve
usually got someone who’s good with weird science, coming up with all the weird
weapons they use.
You
have these clearly‑defined roles that everyone expects. You’ve got clearly
defined bad guys, whether it’s tentacle monsters that you take treasure from in
dungeon fantasy, or a scuzzy‑looking scumbag with his bandanna and his machete
in action, or in monster hunters it’s some vampire who’s dressed up in a suit
who’s very proper and know darn well he’s running, he’s behind the scene,
you’ve got to take him out without too much violence. These are well‑known
expectations.
Players
can play both action‑oriented and thoughtful characters.
To
take an example ‑‑ I think space opera would be a good one. I’d like to go
there someday, because there you’ve got clearly‑defined roles.
You’ve
got the square‑jawed Jim Kirk leader captain type. You’ve got the swashbuckling
type, whether the swashbuckler takes the form of the somewhat subdued junior
officer or the upright crazy Han Solo type. You’ve got the token alien. You’ve
got the machine of logic, who sometimes is the token alien and sometimes is an
android, or some augmented human with odd mental makeup, like mentats in Dune.
You’ve got all these other specialist roles, engineers, technicians of every
stripe, fighter pilots, mecha pilots, you name it.
You’ve
got the well‑defined roles. You have well‑defined tropes. You’ve got these
psychic powers, usually you take two flavors, there are evil bad‑guy psychics
and there are nice empathic good‑guy psychics. You’ve got crazy science, faster‑than‑light
travel, ray guns, missiles, and so on.
You’ve
got various types of foes. They could be ugly aliens who are also bad, you
know, they’re bad and they’re ugly. The good‑guy ugly aliens who are lovable
despite being ugly. Bad‑guy humans who are betraying their own species, and so
on and so on and so on.
You’ve
got all these elements. And then you’ve got this possibility of this range of
everything from action to thoughtfulness. You’ve got on one hand, fighter
pilots and crazy people who swing from doorframes while they’re throwing their
big two‑fisted punches and two‑footed kicks and all that insanity, and shooting
ray guns first and ask questions later.
But
the other side, of course, you’ve got people who talk the techno‑babble and sit
around with the computer and solve the technical problems and reverse the
polarity of the whatever and so on. They get to solve things thoughtfully. Even
total uncombatant types who are empathic or diplomatic and deal with the
strange‑looking aliens and the evil humans through mind games and talk and
chatter.
That’s
a good example of a genre I think could work. I think, in principle, anything
which has that scope of character roles alongside well‑known, well‑defined
tropes could be done in this way. Whereas something which doesn’t have much
range, something where all the characters have to be violent, or where all the
characters have to be thoughtful, and where the range of plot devices is, I
think, less constrained, I think it would be harder to do.
Like,
it would be harder to do soap opera. Because in soap opera, everyone is kind of
non‑violent, subdued. Yeah, they have the expertise, but they are fundamentally
all social characters and talkers. There are no well‑defined genre
expectations.
There
are soap operas out there where some of the characters were outright
supernatural. I mean, I don’t watch soap operas, but I’ve heard that there are
soap operas where ghosts of previous characters come back, and where some of
the people are apparently aliens and things.
Soap
operas, likewise, can be very grounded and very set‑oriented. This entire soap
opera’s at a hospital. This soap opera is in this one room. These things exist.
Most of the classic soap operas are very well defined, they’re within a certain
physical set of space and a certain dramatic space. But if you look at that,
that physical and dramatic space is so different from the other physical and
dramatic spaces that soap operas are set in, that it would be very hard to come
up with a generic soap opera.
Douglas:  That’s interesting, because you say some things that really
resonate, because a lot of what you’re describing, I think, are the things that
make successful multi‑season TV shows.
Sean:
 Probably, yeah.
Douglas:
 And even when you take something like, one of the shows that I got into ‑‑
and the wonderful thing about things like Netflix is that you can watch them
all at once, but then you’re starved for things that come after ‑‑ is with a
show called The Unit, which was about Delta Force. You think, “Well,
that’s kind of boring,” because, well, they’re all just bad‑ass soldiers.
But they’re not, because they’re Special Forces.
Yes,
they’re all bad‑ass soldiers, but they’ve all got these distinguishing
characteristics. This person’s an electronics expert, this person can fly any
vehicle. It’s exactly the same thing. In a way, it’s a great role‑playing
party, because everybody can play in the combat zone, but you’ve got all of
these other things.
If
you build your differentiation on top of a general level of badassery, you can
still have all of this flavor and plot, personal‑driven moments in the
spotlight, without being like, “Oh, each and every single one of us is a
clone trooper with no differentiation” ‑‑ a game that I played in grad
school to not terribly a lot of enjoyment. [laughs]
Someone
ran that one, which was less successful than we…We asked a guy to come in and
run a GURPS campaign. As it turned out, he had a homebrew system that
he wanted to try out. He managed to layer that on top of our characters in a
way that, very quickly, we weren’t playing what we thought we were. But, you
know, it was short‑lived, and therefore was worth the time that it took.
Last
question, I guess. Since we seem to have seen the re‑opening, hopefully, of the
GURPS
pipeline…GURPS content is basically fan‑driven. You and some core people
do a lot of work, but really it’s, write a proposal, get it approved, and then
go. As the pipeline for GURPS clears, what message do you
have for prospective creators?
Sean:
 First, a support message, and yeah, this probably comes from our
sponsors, so to speak, as opposed to me personally, is do keep an eye on the
wish list. It isn’t something we consider to be restrictive or a constraint on
what we will and won’t accept. But it is a first level filter and if you are
new, especially, you don’t want to try to broach some topic that we have not
expressed an interest in because you are fighting an uphill battle then. You
are both fighting the fact you are unknown and fighting the fact that we didn’t
have a first-order interest in having that supplement done.
So
we are going to be asking ourselves ‘do we want this person to be the one who
gets the special leave to do something we’re not so sure will sell’ or do we
want to have an author we know and has done stuff for us tackle something like
that because then at least we know the name will sell a few. Yeah, it’s sales
oriented. But it’s a business so I can’t deny that that’s very important to us.
As
well, take the time it takes to read the style guides and formatting guides. I
know that stuff is really boring. I hate it. I’ll outright say, if I could take
this book right here ‑‑ this is the Associated Press style book ‑‑ if I could
take this book right here and just, I don’t know, put it in a fire…I’d probably be happier.
It
doesn’t actually make me happy. I’m not going to turn my camera around because then
it won’t get me sitting down, but I’ve got a whole wall of references. They
don’t make me happy either. They’re all style guides. It’s like dictionary,
dictionary, biographical encyclopedia, more dictionaries. Oh look, another
dictionary. One, two, three, four style guides, two guides to grammar, and oh
there’s a thesaurus there too. And that’s just in paper. Now I’ve got digital
guides as well.
It’s
really bloody boring. I won’t deny that. But, and it’s a big but, the
marketability of – not your game to gamers – but of your manuscripts to us as
publishers is based on how little cost we think we can produce the product for.
If
we think it’s going to be a hard edit then we are less likely to be interested.
When I say, hard edit it could mean a lot of things. It does not necessarily
mean the English language. In fact as an editor – and you can tell I’m an
editor because I’m kind of balding a bit here, look kind of boring, and I wear
glasses – but as an editor I can tell you fixing the English is the easy part.
I can fix English quickly. I can fix English in thousands of words in no time
at all.
But
fixing the other things we want is very difficult and if people don’t follow
the style guide that is what I end up doing. Little things like knowing which
game terms are capitalized, where we boldface, how we format character sheets
in print. Yeah, it’s not part of the fun of writing for games but I can’t deny
that it’s an important part of doing it well and right. That’s important.
I
would rather have somebody be late with their product, be late with their
project, because they say I was going to be on time and then I spent two weeks
reading your style guide and it was 40 pages long, just internalizing that was
a page a night, and I was going crazy.
I’d
rather have somebody say that to me and be late, I’ll forgive that, then to
rush, not having put any thought at all to proper style, and put me in a
situation where I’m going to have to go to my managing editor or at least to
Steven at E23 who manages E23 and is my boss in that regard and say, “Oh
sorry the product you wanted to release is not going to be out in time because
we are still editing it.” Or worse – far worse – “Oh sorry, this product
is going to take twice as long to edit,” which means twice as many
editorial hours. That’s twice as much overhead expense, and possibly that much
longer to show a profit.
That’s
another pointer. The last pointer I would have is don’t get so immersed in your
subject that you forget that you’re writing for an audience. That’s a
complicated one and I’m not sure how easily I can explain it . . . but I see it
often.
I’ll
just say, you may think your topic is the coolest thing since sliced bread but
it’s important to remember that people who are playing a generic game are going
to be big in to possibly a setting you’ve never heard of, very probably a genre
you don’t play, and quite likely a style of play that isn’t your own.
Your
enthusiasm is usually founded in one or all three of those things. It will not
come across to people. What will come across to people is your knowledgeably,
sure. But just remember that you have to be able to reach out to people, pull
them into what you’ve written, and make it interesting to them.
Which
is why even though I have some very strongly held opinions. Everyone knows
them, they see me writing on forums blah, blah, blah, yakking about my opinions
on how you should do this or you ought to do that. That isn’t in my books. The reason
that it’s not in my books is just because I feel that way doesn’t mean people
that buy the book care.
I
don’t like zombie apocalypses where the world is being overrun with zombies,
player characters and heroes that can turn into zombies, the world is gone to
hell, and it’s going to end with everyone dead. I don’t like that. I think
those movies are stupid. I don’t like those zombies. I like the zombie stories
where the people are resourceful. They for the most part survive or if they
don’t survive it’s because they had a chance and they screwed up. And where the
zombies aren’t necessarily overrunning and destroying the whole world. There’s a
threat of that. The zombies are there
primarily, first and foremost as a plot device.
For
example, I know this would make me unpopular with fans of George Romero, but
some of my favorite zombie stories are the “Resident Evil” stories.
You get these specific characters who are very capable. They for the most part
survive, although some of them don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be in a zombie
movie. And the zombies, until late in the arc haven’t taken over the world.
They’re still confined, first to an installation, then to a city, then to a
larger region, and finally I think, they annihilate the world. That’s much more
interesting.
In
my zombies book, what do I have? Well, I have all the zombie stuff, not just
the stuff I like, where the zombies are confined to a secret lab and the player
characters can live. But I spent as much time, or more on those stories where
the zombies are taking over the world, eating everyone and where everyone dies,
and everyone’s incompetent. Because I know, as a writer of zombie stories,
there are other people out there who like that stuff. The same goes for your book if you’re a freelancer, you
have to set aside your personal biases, and finally realize that well, it’s a
generic game, there’s lots of styles of play, and others could possibly combine
the things I’m not even thinking about.
You
have to make sure your game reaches those people. This is most important for
the adventures, if you’re going to write an adventure it’s very important for
you to realize that people have established campaigns, they have established
house rules and established groups.
They’re
not going to want an adventure which can only happen in this one city which
can’t exist in their world, with character types no one’s playing, in a genre
no one much likes, that has an outcome that can only be world‑shattering or
fatal for the player characters.
That’s
hopeless, because in an ongoing campaign, the specific characters already have
lives and home‑towns and expectations. It’s not going to fly; it’s just not
going to fly.
So
you’ve got to make sure your adventure has hooks, for all kinds of gamers. It
doesn’t mean you have to write a generic adventure that has no specific
expectations. That’s impossible – you can’t do that. But what you can do is throw
in asides, on how do you fit in a higher-powered group, how do you fit it into
an existing game world, how do you set things up so this is adventure is a side quest for really powerful
characters instead of the be‑all end‑all for new characters.
A
good example of that would be +Matt Riggsby‘s “Dungeon Fantasy Adventure
One: Mirror of the Fire Demon.” He was very good about making flexible,
his variable numbers of bad guys, bad guys can vary in power. He says,
“OK, this is a desert region, put it in your game world where there’s
deserts. If you don’t have these
kinds of bad guys, just don’t include them. If you do have these kinds of bad
guys, they match with my bad guys
this way,” and so on.
That’s
a great way to handle an adventure. That’s how an adventure should be written for a generic system.
Those are the things I think are the most important. After which is all the
secondary stuff which applies to all kinds of writing I would say.
For
writing a game, among those things is, know
your game system
. I would say that’s in my second category of things. It’s
just an element of style and formatting. You know how the rules work; you know
how the points add up. I consider that boring. It’s the technical path and you
have to be good at it to write for us. But I don’t consider it a separate thing
because every game designer out there, who has someone coming in who has
someone coming in who does freelance work on her system is going to say to you,
“Oh, I want you to actually be working in my system, not some system that doesn’t exist, or something you
just made up that’s in your head.”
Douglas:  OK, do you have any parting shots?
Sean:
 Mostly just thanks for giving me the chance to yak. I like to get the
word out there, let people know there’s a real human behind this. I only wish I
could have some of my other writers come in and form a bit of a panel here,
because it’s a group effort for us. I’m the name in the credits, GURPS
Line Editor, this guy.
But
I don’t take credit for most of what goes out there, I read most of what goes
out there and I have some pull, I guess, but I would encourage people to
remember that we’re real people back here, working hard, often for not very
many dollars, to get the games out there and we’re more than happy to get the
word out, not because we want to get rich or famous, but because we have all
these great concepts in our heads that we want to get out to people. So I
really am for the opportunity to do that.

We started up immediately where we left off with  Dupond ( +Matt Sutton ) character recalling that a military doctor has been experimenting with electroshock therapy to cure diseases. This Captain Watts is actually here at the facility.

He takes this in stride and approaches Dr. Hampton ( +Douglas Cole ) about the statement from Dupond’s countryman that he knows of someone who can cure his wounded eyes. This, of course, being unknown to modern medicine, at least piques his curiosity, and Hampton agrees to accompany Dupond.

Additionally, Dupond looks at the scroll he found, showing it to Dr. Addams, the linguist. The arabic notation refers to the Pharaoh of 1,000 Ravens (Oh. Great.) and looks to be some sort of incantation that is 800 to 1,000 years old. (Ditto.). Dupond is fascinated. “We should try this. Since I was struck on the head, everything is clear. This has been put in our path for a reason!”

Addams: “Yes, but this is incomplete. With more research we could discover more.”

Dupond determines that the scoll has been here for fewer than 50 years, and hypothesizes that a partially-complete incantation might have been responsible for the ravens.

Addams recalls (spending an Occult point) stories of a leader who established a 15 year Reign of Terror during that period, but such legends are disbelieved. The Egyptology experts dismiss this theory, but The Pharaoh, in certain circles, were rumored to be half-man, half-raven. Every 75-100 years, references seem to crop up, and then disappear again.

Dupond notes that perhaps the ritual can cure Addams’ leg. Addams is skeptical, and speculates (correctly!) that the medical staff isn’t going to let him wander around until his leg is properly cast up.

***

Though Dr. Hampton has gotten to know a few of the patients in a short time, his journey across war-torn Europe, complete with being shelled, has rendered him ready to collapse with fatigue. He does so. The next morning, he begins his rounds, surprised at the fairly unsanitary and sloppy behavior exhibited by the “medical” staff. Very few people skilled in surgery (not unusual), but rats, vermin, poor sanitation, and the smell of gangrene permeates every tent.

Most of the doctors are run ragged, and the nurses avoid the head nurse Ogilvy like, well, gangrene. The only one not afraid was Zenna Borden, who we see ministering to a number of different people – none of whom seem to do well.

After a night’s sleep and a hard day’s work, Dr. Hampton finally reports to Major Parker, the camp CO. He is distracted and distant – even confused – while discussing Hampton’s role here, and dismisses him, claiming some errand. He shoves any requests off on Nurse Ogilvy.

Hampton spends a Investigative point on Bureaucracy.

Hampton notes that all requests for administrative control over the camp are diverted to Ogilvy, while the actual medical tasks are handled properly (but desperately). Any organizational or chain-of-command issues, however, are messed up to a fare-thee-well, with Ogilvy having usurped the role of true head of the facility.

***

The journalist, Phillip Gibbs, happens to find that there is another journalist, Jackson Elias, in the compound. He has written on the occult and supernatural perspective of primitive peoples, from a non-believer’s skeptical position. His last work was in 1915, chronicling Mayan and Aztec (he got them frequently confused) rituals, called The Smoking Heart.


Elias is an American with an arm wound. He was trying to get out of Paris on his researches, when artillery interrupted his travels. He found himself in the medical ward here, and his requests for an expedited departure have fell on deaf ears.

He’s currently working on a book about the Thuggees of India, a death cult worshipping Kali.

***

Every time they notice that the injured are not in their beds, they’re shuffled back.

***

Dupond meets with Maurice Bowles, and establishes a time and place to meet. Bowles is very cryptic, but seems sure that he is on the trail of being cured. After the meeting, Dupond relates this, with some amusement and some real curiosity, to the rest of the group.

Dr. Hampton is surprised to understand that Nurse Ogilvy is having meetings that don’t involve the senior medical staff, especially Major Parker. Naturally, Hampton goes in (and spends a reassurance point to let Parker know that he has his back) and expresses doubt that the nurse should be calling the shots. Parker promises to do something, and winds up getting into a one-sided shouting match with Ogilvy, with the Chief Nurse doing the shouting. Hampton barges into the office, and tries to dress down Ogilvy for breaking both decorum in a hospital and the chain of command. Ogilvy looks down her nose at Doctor Hampton, and notes with a glare at Parker that Hampton “might not work out here.” Hampton tries to interject, but Parker actually orders him to be silent and leave the room. Saluting with great propriety and no respect, he leaves.

***

Our investigation and discussion leads us to conclude that Ogilvy, Borden, and Abd Nazari are holding these strange “meetings,” with some of the more crippled among the camp being prime candidates for also attending. They seem like they should be greatly suffering, but are doing so less than they should.

***

At about ten in the evening, after the Nurses ensure the patients in their beds

The GM calls for us all to make Sense Trouble rolls. Everyone makes them but Dr. Hampton.

The night turns into shadow, and those shadows move, as out of each tent four or five soldiers try to sneak out of the tent.

Dupond follows, retrieving his service pistol. Addams follows the crowd, so to speak, while Gibbs engages in some discreet shadowing. One soldier, Gieullme de Charlemagne, with a leg wound, challenges Addams. What are you doing? Going for a walk. Clearly. Why. Abd Nazari suggested it. Oh, you’re going to see the nurse? I’m going wherever Abd Nazari is, and mutters something in Arabic. 

The nurse has found a way to lessen our pain, Charlemagne says. He seems a bit wigged out that Addams has claimed to be chosen of Abd Nazari.

At the meeting, Bowles and Abd Nazari are rather conspicuously absent. Addams and Dupond are there.

Some on-call nurses report that patients are missing from their beds. They wake up Hampton, who goes and reports that some of the more critically injured patients are missing from their beds. He reports back to Major Parker, who delegates it right back to him and goes to sleep.

Hampton fails another sense trouble roll. 0 for 2.

The patients disappear into a basement cellar. Gibbs sees Abd Nazari poke his head out, and close the doors. He also sees nurses and Dr. Hampton poking around looking for the patients. Gibbs waves him down, and tells him that something’s going on. Chanting and whatnot.

While the room seems initially like a regular cellar, looking carefully reveals that there seems to be a small section of a Roman-style house underground, and after a bit of a low passage, there seem to be three fairly large rooms joined together, stonework and doorways well preserved.

Though the stonework is Roman, there are well-carved, unnaturally so, Egyptian heiroglyphs and depictions of a Pharaoh slicing the heads off his enemies. Glyphs for ravens and death, and large casualties in battle. The runes chronicle the successes of this Pharaoh, standing victoriously over defeated foes.

In another room, Abd Nazari, Bowles, many enlisted folks. Behind a podium, there is a relief, nearly 10′ high, of a Pyramid, with the top cut off flat. On top of that, is a nasty-looking skull with the skin removed from its face.

As a woman rises and starts speaking and chanting, Hampton sees that the skull is fairly fresh, the skin definitely human, and the eyeballs seem to be moving. She throws back her cowl, and reveals herself to be Zenna Borden.

“The Pharaoh of 1,000 Ravens seeks your souls and your hearts.” She then speaks a tongue with which none of us are familiar, “Amon Pek, Fari Fari, Ei! Ei!”

An etherial mist forms, fills a basin that we did not notice before, and a green viscous fluid begins to fill it.

Addams ( +kung fu hillbilly ) feels his pain actually begin to subside. It is no longer the searing break from earlier. Ravens fly down into the chamber (through a shut door?!) and land on everyone . . . but Dupond . . . and then fly off. As they fly, a Raven looks at Gibbs, and in his mind, he can hear a voice say ” No hope, no pleasure, no triumph, no bargain. There is nothing you can give that He will accept. He takes what he pleases and will not be cheated.”

Gibbs makes a Stability check, and passes fairly well.

+Nathan Joy says “Just remember, if someone asks you if you’re a God, you say YES.”

Robert Lee Hampton started out in World War 1, May 27 1918, at an infamous hospital in France. We heard rumors of an unanticipated German offensive, which smashed through a few French divisions.

On the 28th of May, my character, Doctor Robert Lee Hampton, heard that some American and British divisions tried to offer some token resistance on the way to Reims. I’m stuck into an ambulance and driven (by a woman by name of Emma “Cheery” Patterson) who got a call to drive to pick up some injured men north of here, and try and get them back to the hospital before the German tidal wave arrives.

She asks me if I’d been to Military Hospital #5 before, and I reply in the negative. She’d been working there since the Spring, and notes that I should report to Major Parker, the Chief Surgeon, and that the chief nurse is Ms Ogilvy, who has a bad rep for being quite the tyrant. We speed onward.

***
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the three other PCs are part of a hodgepodge Allied division, forced to retreat. Six ambulances show up, and the PCs are all shoved into the same ambulance, in a very plot-convenient way.

I’m asked to make a Preparedness roll by +Jeromy French , and I roll a 6, spending 2 points from my pool of 5 for a total 8, which means my Pharmacy skill is improved by 1 (from 4 to 5) for the rest of the session. The others roll to see how injured they are, Jaque Dupond ( +Matt Sutton ) has a mild head wound, but Philip Gibbs ( +Nathan Joy ) and Norman Adams ( +kung fu hillbilly ) were both injured. Norman has a fractured femur, while Phillip has a shell fragment wound to the left forearm. None are horrible or life threatening, but none are fun.

Gibbs is in shock, and Dr. Hampton steps in to treat him, successfully. We speed south towards Reims, with six total patients, plus the nurse and Dr. Hampton. As Hampton works frantically to patch up the head wound, Dupond recounts a vivid dream, dealing with reincarnation and past lives. He’s writing in a journal of his remembered dream as if he mightn’t see another tomorrow. Hampton assures him he will live to see another day, so he can write more slowly.

As he patches up the broken femur, he and Norman discuss his academic background (Citadel and UVA Med School), which Norman declares is respectable enough, since he’s an Oxford Don. Can he fence again? Yes, stay off it and you’re fine.

Finally, the shell fragment is lodged, but removable. “Can you believe the Jerried tried to kill me? Hell of a thing. Not my writing arm,” Gibbs notes, and gives a classic thin-lipped British smile.

***

We continue driving, and the ride is rocky but uneventful, up until the ripping linen sound of big guns tears through the air. Within seconds, the lead ambulance is destroyed, its wreckage blocking our way, and the broken bodies that are not flung about are rapidly burned to death. Cheery stops the ambulance, in shock. Perhaps she knew someone? Unknown, but Hampton shoves her out of the way and gets behind the wheel. He guns it, slamming through the wreckage, pushing it aside to continue through the shellfire pattern.

As we slam through the wreckage, both Hampton and Dupond note that, oddly, a flock of ravens were in the bombardment zone, and as we pass, they all take off together in a flock, and fly south, in the same direction as the hospital.

Matt and I both have Outdoorsman, so we automatically notice the ravens. Jaime elects to spend a point in Occult to get more info on what the flock might portend.

“Interesting,” says Hampton. “I’ve never seen ravens stay put in an active bombard zone. Birds know to fly to the hospital, though.”

“No,” says Norman. “Those were fan-tailed ravens, native to Egypt. There’s a passage in the Koran that indicates that a raven taught Cain how to bury his dead brother. The fact that they’re flying in our direction is . . . well. Death travels with us.”

Cheery Patterson is still beside herself, having just witnessed, we find out, the detonation of her best friend. Dupond leans in and gives her a quote from Hawthorne: “All brave men love; for he only is brave who has affections to fight for, whether in the daily battle of life, or in physical contests.” He consoles her the best he can.

He spends a point of his Reassure pool to calm her and forge a relationship.

We drive for another hour or so, and come across the husk of what used to be lovely manor house, but which has since been shelled into oblivion. It is our military field hospital, surrounded by at least six tents, acting as portable triage and medical centers.

The unkindness of ravens has preceded us here. They decorate the landscape, perching on the tents, roofs, and other places where they can find purchase. The wounded PCs are placed in separate areas, and Dr Hampton is shuffled off to serve his purpose.

Norman overhears a man wandering around, shaking a reliquary of some sort at the ravens and the wounded. “To the scavenger of death, may you weigh each heart to be judged.” An unfamiliar phrase catches Norman’s ear. “What are you trying to save them from?,” Abd Nazari says in Arabic. “To keep the soul going in the right direction; we can pray to many gods,” the man notes. Clearly a reference to Anubis.

An obviously-frocked Catholic priest is traveling from area to area, giving blessings where possible, and Last Rites where not. He mutters darkly when Abd Nazari passes, noting “heathen should not be allowed in a good Christian hospice.”

Gibbs, a devout Catholic, engages him in conversation, and sympathizes with the priest, noting that such burdens are part of our journey here. The priest notes that the Arab is a lackey of Zenna Borden, an apparently “untouchable” nurse who is well-liked by Ogilvy, the head nurse – that in itself an oddity. “She seems strangely incompetent, even in this place. I’ve said too much, my son. Thank you for the cigarette.”

The GM calls for a Sense Trouble roll from Gibbs, who spends a point and nails it with a 7.

At the edge of his vision, he sees one of the injured, who was apparently hovering outside the tent, and clearly overhead the conversation, bolt away from the “arm tent” to the “leg pit.” Gibbs casually strolls after him, not obviously following him.

Nate notes he’s Shadowing, and chooses to spend 2 points. Rolls a total of 3.

Gibbs is stopped at the entrance by a fairly burly looking nurse, who tries to redirect him back to the “arm” tent. Hampton declares that Gibbs is less injured than he seems, and is serving as my assistant, since we’re understaffed.

This puts Gibbs, Norman, and Hampton in the same tent, at least for a moment. “What brings you to the leg tent?” Tensions between the good Father and the Arab praying to Anubis, and the eavesdropping stranger. Nothing more develops from this at the moment.

As Dupond wanders the grounds on his own, he notes the ravens almost seen to follow the funeral processions of the stream of dead and dying. As he walks, he notes that the dead are being buried in what seems to be old Roman ruins – an oddity.

Matt spends a point of his Architecture pool.

While the space was wide and open on the surface, it clearly showing Roman funerary stones. A piece of metal sticking out from the ground looks to be a bronze case used to hold parchment or something. Opening it, a piece of mouldy parchment is revealed, showing pictures that seem fairly meaningless at the time. He tucks the scroll case into his pack, for later study.

As Dupond tours the grounds, he encounters a uniformed Lieutenant, with a massive head wound, who is hobbling purposefully in his direction. As they pass, Dupond tips his hat politely, and the wounded Frenchman greets him back, saluting as much as he can. “You appear to have been gravely wounded, Lt.”

“Yes, I am Maurice Bowles. My sight is truly limited, and I would do well to return to my bed before night falls – I can not navigate the grounds except in brightest day.”

Matt spends another point of his Reassurance pool to bond with him.

Maurice takes Dupond’s reassurance and kind words graciously, and notes subtly that he has heard of a way to restore his sight, and if Dupond comes by his room later, he can discuss it in more detail.

 ***

We end there, since the pacing of the adventure suggests that this is a good stopping point.’

Gumshoe and Trail of Chthulhu: First Impressions

It’s been a long time since I’ve really learned a new game system. I restarted Pathfinder recently, but I cut my teeth on Dungeons and Dragons, so I was familiar enough with it to slide right in.

GUMSHOE, now. I’m not sold on the mechanics of it, yet. The pool-based system is . . . odd. The way it seems to work is that everyone is more or less equally good at things, except for the few times per adventure when you can spend your supply of skill pool. For Investigative skills, if you have the skill, you get certain clues, and can spend points from that pool to improve things, get more information, etc.

It was our first adventure, so I’ll withhold judgement, but my first impression, based on incredibly limited play time, is that GURPS‘ skills plus Destiny Points allow you to (for example) consistently be a better doctor than others, but also whip out a few narrative successes at critical times, much like spending from the pool provides. Right now, I feel like anyone could roll the same 1d6 and have a 50% chance of success.

I’ll presume that most people won’t attempt a no-pool roll, and that drama and implicit niche protection prevents this from happening. And I’m also such a newbie with the system that I can’t yet form a judgement. We’ll see what happens next time.