Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Interview - James Wallis

James Wallis
I'm exceptionally pleased to welcome to Farsight Blogger James Wallis. You might remember James from  memorable hits such as Hogshead's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Dragon Warriors. 

James has had a varied and interesting career in the RPG industry and right now he has a Kickstarter campaign on the go - Alas Vegas - which finishes the end of February 2013.

Welcome to Farsight Blogger. Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello! I’m James Wallis. Most people know me from my company Hogshead Publishing in the 90s, the first British RPG publisher to successfully break into the American market. We published Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Nobilis, SLA Industries and a bunch of the early story-games, which we called New Style. The most famous of those is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which I also wrote. I sold the company in 2003 and went off to be a games consultant.

In the late 00s I republished a classic British fantasy RPG, Dragon Warriors in a gorgeous new edition. That didn’t go so well.

But I’m taking a third bite of the cherry now: I’ve got a Kickstarter running for a new weird-horror RPG called ALAS VEGAS. It's rules and a four-session adventure in a standalone package (this is a new format called a 'blast' - the French started the idea a few years ago.)

At least, it was going to be one adventure until Kickstarter got hold of it. Alas Vegas hit its original funding goal in less than eight hours. We added a second setting, a mad time-travel adventure called 'Yet Already' by Gareth Hanrahan, and that got funded in three days. As I write we're not quite six days into the project (it runs until the end of February) and we're busy asking all our designer friends what they can add to the game.

Running a Kickstarter is an amazing feeling. I recommend it.

Tell us about your RPG history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?

I've been playing since the early 1980s, when I was at boarding school. AD&D was the game of choice, and that was it as far as I was concerned. In a few months I was running a gaming fanzine, and three years later I was selling articles to White Dwarf and part of a team that set the Guinness World Record for endurance-RPG play (we lasted 84 hours and raised a lot of money for charity).

What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

Roleplaying is great because it's properly immersive and it tests you on the terms of the game-world, not the game system. I've lost count of the number of computer games I've played where I've been enjoying the characters and the narrative and the setting, and then there's some stupid jumping puzzle or QTE that relies on my dexterity and reaction time, and it's thrown me right out of the sense of being there.

Plus it's a field where there's constant innovation, constant reinvention of the old into something new and fresh. Tabletop roleplay didn't just pave the way for fantasy computer-games and MMOs, it created the models for digital-publishing and e-books, it developed the systems and mechanics that underlie the marketing ideas of 'gamification', and much more.  I have no doubt that the ideas and systems of today's cutting-edge RPGs will start appearing in something mainstream within a few years. It's an amazing, exhilarating field to be involved with.

What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

I still play my own designs a lot, mostly the story-telling card-game Once Upon a Time and the RPG drinking game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and they haven’t paled. I’m kind of astonished how much I still enjoy playing them. I've not been in an actual RPG campaign for ages, but when I was we had amazing times with Empire of the Petal Throne, and Ars Magica.

I read a lot of the story-games and indie RPGs that come out, but I find that a lot of the gameplay is quite samey even if the mechanics are different. One game I did get the chance to play and write for is Robin Laws' HILLFOLK, which had an amazing Kickstarter a few months back, making $93000 from a $3000 ask. It's a fantastic game. Robin wrote one of the very first story-games, Pantheon, for Hogshead back in the day, but comparing the two is like putting a firework next to a Saturn V. Hillfolk is really something else. It deserves to be a massive, massive hit.

Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

Because of small children I don't have time to play much except board-games at the moment, though I can't wait for them to grow up enough to be included. But right now stuff that can be played in a single evening is kind of a necessity. I really like Eurogames, their design elegance appeals to me, and I am still a huge goob for Settlers of Catan. And I play a lot of my own designs-in-progress and little homebrews and one-shots that friends have cooked up.

We're still unpacking from a house-move, but I can't wait to find my copy of Risk: Legacy - if you've not heard of it it's a wargame that comes on like an RPG campaign, it plays over a number of sessions with the same players, each victory or defeat alters the board, there are locked components and new rules that are only revealed if certain things happen during gameplay... it's amazing, made doubly amazing by the fact that it's also still recognisably Risk underneath it all. Well worth hunting out.

When in doubt, I’d rather play something that tells or creates a story than something that doesn’t. That’s the golden rule.

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 it’s 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 spent a lot of the 90s and early 2000s bemoaning the industry’s inability to change or come up with anything genuinely new in the area of roleplay or storytelling games, and I often prophesied its doom due to stagnation. The success of games like Fiasco has brought a new life and a new audience to a sector of gaming, which is great, but I’m not sure it’s enough to save the whole field in the long term.

So much depends, as it’s always done, on what happens with D&D - still the flagship for the hobby, still the game that brings more people to roleplay than any other. But Paizo has adroitly manoeuvred Pathfinder into a not-dissimilar position and they seem to understand what the market wants more than almost anyone out there. Whether they can actually grow the hobby remains to be seen, but they’re doing a heck of a job.

And Kickstarter - I’m sure you’re sick of hearing people saying this, but Kickstarter has disrupted the market in an extraordinary way, in all sorts of markets. Combined with print-on-demand technologies you don’t need to understand distribution or retail or printing any more: you can come up with a cool idea, get a few thousand dollars to fund it and produce your first game at a profit. Kickstarter is preaching to the existing market, of course, but it’s revitalising huge chunks of the market. I mean, even a year ago who could have predicted that a new edition of the Fate rules could make almost a half-million dollars in gross revenue? That’s extraordinary.

Really, what I’m interested to see is how the minis companies deal with the arrival of affordable hi-res 3D printing. That’s going to be a bloodbath.

Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?

I'm really proud of what we achieved with Hogshead, and the fact that we pioneered a business model that's now used by every successful British RPG company. I'm pretty sure that without Hogshead there wouldn't be a UK RPG industry. Beyond that, Once Upon a Time proved there was a market for story-based games and Baron Munchausen jump-started the whole story-games movement, and they're both still popular - OUaT came out in a third edition before Christmas, and Baron Munchausen will have a third edition later this year. But the most exciting project is always the next one.

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!
Oh, good lord. I'm still hoping to get some of these people to do work on Alas Vegas, you know? Get any games designer drunk and they'll regale you with stories of the most astounding behaviour of genius and stupidity in equal measure. But it's a small community and everyone knows everyone, and I'm not comfortable telling tales about people who'll almost certainly read what I say about them. Like I say, buy me a drink or two.

Does anyone ever give you any juicy answers for this question? (Jonathan - No! They don't! Bang goes my intentions of making this a gossip column!)

What are you working on at the moment?

 - and it’s getting bigger by the day. Beyond that I have a few games in playtest: we're developing expansions and spin-off card-sets for Once Upon a Time, and I mentioned the new edition of Baron Munchausen above. Beyond that I've got a prototype of a very fun collaborative drawing game called Drawful, and a few more RPGs including a back-burner project from the 1990s called Cop Show and something that might turn out to be a sort-of sequel to Alas Vegas which will be called either ‘Anybody’ or ‘9/10’.

Many thanks for the interview. It's been a blast. 

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