Hi Jonathan - Jamie is pretty busy right now (writing his first new gamebook in over ten years!) so I'm afraid you'll probably have to make do with just my answers. Thanks for inviting me. I’ve been an author of gamebooks, novels and comics and a designer of videogames and role-playing games for a good many years now. My 1980s role-playing game Dragon Warriors was recently republished and I am about to re-release many of my gamebooks such as Heart of Ice in print and ebook formats with Osprey Books.
My recent work has been for Fabled Lands LLP, the company I set up a couple of years ago with my lifelong friend and fellow gamer Jamie Thomson. Our Dirk Lloyd books, written by Jamie, have been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Prize, and our interactive take on Frankenstein, written by me and published by Profile Books, has been getting some great reviews from people like the Independent, the Literary Platform, Salon.com and a coveted star review from Kirkus – not places you normally expect to see interactive fiction reviewed!
Tell us about your RPG history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?
It all started in a little shop down Hanway Street which was so full of games and gamers that there was hardly room to turn round. I and a bunch of school friends came across TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne and we’d never seen anything like it. We had to club together to buy that very lavish boxed set – it was about forty pounds in today’s money. On the train coming home, we looked in the box and I remember my friend Nick saying, “You know, I’m not even sure if this is a boardgame…” And so our role-playing days began.
What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?
It’s the way that the story emerges from all the characters we’re playing. No single person drives the plot and the best events are completely unexpected and on-the-fly. I don’t know any other way you can get participatory storytelling like that. You’re creating a group mythology, and we talk about events in our games as if they really happened. Often they matter more to us than real life. I certainly spend more time working on my characters' finances, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever would on my tax return.
What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?
As far as setting goes, nothing can beat Tekumel for me. That’s the world M. A. R. Barker created for Empire of the Petal Throne. Lots of other people since have tried revisiting the idea of a civilization far in the future where culture has reverted to the level of the ancient world and technological devices are regarded as magical. What made Tekumel unique is that Barker was an anthropologist and linguist. He constructed imaginary languages that work, rather than just having random apostrophes through the middle of words! And he travelled widely throughout the Middle East and South-East Asia, so he could draw on convincing models of how a non-modern, non-Western society functions. Tekumel isn’t for everybody, but if you’re willing to stretch your imagination a bit then it will never be bettered.
Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?
Oh yes, even after thirty-six years (eek!) of gaming, role-playing is still the high point of my week. Well, my fortnight now, in fact, as we used to play a couple of times a week but now everybody lives further apart and most of us have kids. But we make sure to get in a game every two weeks and the occasional weekend special.
We use GURPS 4th edition mostly. It often feels like an elephant gun to kill flies with, but it covers everything in every era, and that saves a lot of time. I don’t want to be tweaking rules when we could be focusing on the world and the characters.
As for settings, we alternate between Legend, the skewed take on Dark Ages Europe that I originally created for my Dragon Warriors RPG, and a millennium-spanning epic campaign about a group of immortal soldiers from ancient times. And recently we spent about six months playing in Frazer Payne’s Ghosts of London RPG, which is really tailor-made for a John Constantine fan like me, and I keep telling Frazer he has to put the finishing touches to that and publish it.
The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold its own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?
I really don’t see it as a worldwide movement. After all, I was just saying how Tekumel is the most well thought-out and original RPG setting ever, but you could number its followers in the very low hundreds. So maybe my own tastes aren’t the best measure of what’s going to keep the hobby alive and make the publishers oodles of cash. We just play our games and enjoy them.
Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?
Mirabilis – Year of Wonders, which is an epic comic book fantasy saga about a green comet that appears in the sky on New Year’s Day 1901. The closer it gets to Earth, the more that the line between reality and fantasy breaks down. So you’ve got mermaids in the Thames and Martian ambassadors in Whitehall (if they don’t miss their train from Woking, that is). I’m not just proud of the writing, which is the best I’ve ever done, but I also do the layouts and have to keep raising the money to pay all the artists, colourists, printers and coders (it’s available in the App Store as well as in print and on Kindle). So it is a complete labour of love! I’m still only about a quarter of the way through – we’ve published eight issues so far, about 200 pages’ worth. And it keeps on expanding as work on it, but I’m happy with that.
You’ve no doubt mixed with other great names in the roleplaying community – do you have any stories or anecdotes to share? Any horror stories? Be as frank as you like!
Yeah, sure :) All I will say is that no one is really a saint or a genius, and let’s leave it at that.
What are you working on at the moment?
Mirabilis, the comic I mentioned before, keeps me pretty busy in my spare time and will do for the next few years Also, Jamie and I have created a kids’ SF series (working title Starship Captain) that I expect will be published next year. Profile Books are hoping for a follow-up to my interactive Frankenstein (no, not Dracula). Jamie and I are converting our gamebooks to epub3 format for the Osprey series, and Jamie is writing an all-new book for the launch called The Good, the Bad and the Undead. And we've got a couple of other projects that we're developing with a producer friend out in Hollywood. So that’s for starters…