Monday 27 June 2016

Interview - Ian Sturrock of Serpent King Games

As a last 'Huzzah!' for Farsight Blogger I'd like to welcome to the blog one of my favourite designers, and the custodian of one of my favourite RPGs, Dragon Warriors, resting comfortabley with Serpent King Games. Please welcome to the site Ian Sturrock!

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

I'm an aging anarchist punk, academic, and geek, not necessarily in that order. I teach game studies and game design at the University of Hertfordshire, which is fulfilling and fun but hard work, and I'm doing a PhD in games and motivation at Glyndwr University. I attempt to find the time to run Serpent King Games, too, but it's almost impossible for me to devote much attention to it till the PhD is in the bag (hopefully early 2017).

Tell us about your RPG history - you've got quite a list of achievements, including the Warhammer, Conan and Slaine RPGs. What got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying, and how did you get to work on such great IPs?

Growing up in Britain in the 70s and 80s, I had three main influences that drew me inexorably towards RPGs: Star Wars, Tolkien, and 2000AD. I think it was the latter that meant my first choice of game, in 1982, was the boxed set of TSR's Gamma World. I'd been going in to the Games of Liverpool shop (then a major distributor and importer of hobby games in the UK, soon to be eclipsed by Games Workshop) for a year or so, but patiently waited till my 12th birthday before picking up the "12 and up" Gamma World. The staff tried to persuade me to look at Traveller or D&D instead, but I read and re-read that back cover, and decided that anything with mutants and rad-wastes was the game for me. 

You have to bear in mind that as kids of the Cold War, my friends and I had expected annihilation at any time; I can remember conversations with schoolmates in primary school in the late 70s about the Three Minute Warning that was supposed to go off once Russian missile launches had been detected, giving us just enough time to get to a shelter (we were pretty sure there weren't any), or, more appealingly, go and punch a hated teacher or something, which was the consensus as to what we would actually do. Then we realised there were probably no warning klaxons in the school, so we figured the first we would know of our impending destruction would be a brief bright flash in the sky, an instant before we were vaporised. 

Anyway... I read that book cover to cover, and ran a game or two for my sister and some schoolmates, but found that once I started running D&D / AD&D, I had more interest from people. Soon I was playing those ridiculous teenage D&D games everyone plays -- 26th level Anti-Paladins and maxed-out evil Elf Fighter/Magic-Users and so forth. We all devoured and swapped the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks in school lunchtimes too. It was a natural progression from those, and D&D, and reading White Dwarf, to Dragon Warriors. I wrote a pretty long blog post about that here, so I will try to avoid repetition and just link to it.

My lucky break to actually get working in the RPG business came by being a relatively early (late 90s) adopter of the internet. I managed to impress James Wallis, then running Hogshead Publishing, sufficiently that he gave me a part-time job in the company's tiny Clapham office. I very much enjoyed working for James, and it's testament to how fantastic a person he is that we remain good friends and occasional collaborators fifteen years on. We most recently worked together on a chapter on Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000, as part of an edited academic collection on wargaming, Zones of Control (MIT Press, 2016). 

Via the Hogshead job, I made contact with Mongoose Publishing, then no more than an idea in the minds of the very young-looking Matthew Sprange and Alex Fennell, for a book called Slayer's Guide to Hobgoblins. A few months later they were expanding and looking for writers. I submitted the Slayer's Guide to Medusas as a writing project, and they liked it sufficiently well not just to publish it, but to give me a full-time writing and game design job. 

Mongoose was expanding rapidly at the time, and I guess due to my lifelong love of Slaine -- the day that first story came out in 2000AD in the 80s, I read it and immediately got to work on a "Celtic Warrior" character class for my AD&D campaign -- I ended up as "the guy who does the barbarian games." Which got me the chance to write Slaine, and then Conan. 

Working with Mongoose was a bit of a mixed blessing. The workload was immense, with an expectation that we could write a bare minimum of 80 to 120,000 words of publishable RPG material per month -- including doing any playtesting, and squeezing in convention demos, the odd editing task, etc. Pretty much every writer I knew in that position burned out after a year or two, me included. On the upside, it meant I got a load of work out there with my name on it, and it was good enough that I won several awards for it over that first year.

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

For me, the characters seem to come alive more than just about any other medium. I love larp, and videogames, and I enjoy watching plays and films, and reading books. All those media can have memorable, rounded characters, but there's something about tabletop RPG that, for me at least, makes the characters more real. I'd love to do some theorising about what the mysterious factor is, that's somehow different. But it's there. 

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

It's tough to pick one favourite, but I think I'd go with Amber Diceless. I love the Amber books. The game, though it doesn't quite capture the details perfectly, does capture the sorcery-enhanced, duelling, assassinating, family realpolitik of them. With the right group, you can run a game with 8 or 10 players, that ranges from intrigue-laden banquets to world-shattering battles to relaxed time spent at home in one's private dimension. The players don't get bogged down in stats and suchlike, because after an adventure or two, they don't quite know what their stats are any more. 

The most recent release that got me really excited was Hillfolk/Dramasystem, a couple of years back. I ran some Iain M. Banks-inspired games at Worldcon 2014 using it, because his Culture novels seem to focus on character interactions so much despite the space opera setting, so it seemed a natural fit.

Inevitably I keep coming back to Dragon Warriors too. I ran a short campaign of the original adventures for some work colleagues last year. 

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

Very occasionally! I ran a game of The Princes' Kingdom recently for my partner and her two kids, and played in a Star Wars game run by another friend earlier this year, but I don't have a regular gaming group right now. I have a few interested friends, though, and I plan to run some Dramasystem games over summer for them.

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?

It will do fine, as a hobby. There will always be a few people who loved the dungeon-bash aspects of D&D more than the roleplaying aspects, and those people will find their gaming needs served better in videogames, or the better dungeon-bash boardgames, than in TTRPGs. People who love both will still enjoy Dragon Warriors or D&D or similar. Then, partly through the maturation of the hobby, and the recognition of it as an art form, and partly through the massive expansion of genres and systems away from those old school approaches, more people will try it out -- people with a background in traditional art or drama, or newer geek interests like cosplay and anime, rather than wargames and comics. That's not, incidentally, a suggestion that art and drama are superior to wargames and comics. Check out Junot Diaz's podcast for MIT's Comparative Media Program for an insight into why, in some ways, geeky art forms are better at answering the big questions of the 20th and 21st centuries than more traditional art forms.

I think the biggest changes we're seeing right now, maybe 15 years after the Indie Games movement began to take off, come from three places: 

1) The aforementioned indie games, which gave designers permission to get rid of complex systems (something Dragon Warriors did in the 80s, admittedly!) and really focus in on the core activity of the game or genre. 

2) Changes in gamer demographics, so that there are now a load of teenage players plus their parents' generation doing a lot of the TTRPG gaming. Neither of those groups, for the most part, wants to spend hours hundreds of hours mastering complex game systems, particularly if they're only playing rather than GMing. The teenagers are used to computer games, which they learn by playing, not by reading the manuals (not that there even are any manuals). Middle-aged players don't have as much time to do system mastery or preparation as they did as teens or students. So for both groups, you want super-simple character generation -- no more spending a full 3-hour session just figuring out a bunch of numbers. Let people pick an archetype, hand them a character sheet (or better, a card) with their core stats on, and get them playing. 

3) The market has fragmented again, after a brief convergence on d20. That means there's not so many fortunes to be made in the industry. You can still pay the mortgage or the rent if you work hard, hit deadlines, get on with people, and produce high quality work, but a large number of publishers and writers in the industry will be treating their work somewhere between a low-paid part-time job and an occasionally paid hobby. The boundary between fan and professional is as blurred as it ever was, and that's really not such a bad thing. One of the biggest strengths of the hobby has always been fan creation and fan labour. There are some incredibly talented fans and semi-professionals out there, doing amazing work. I'm one of them, these days, because my day job pays the rent.  

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

I have to pick one?!? I'm a very proud kind of person, you know!

I think right now, it's probably the academic analysis of romance in tabletop roleplaying games, with a particular focus on Pendragon, which is a chapter in the Game Love Reader from Routledge, edited by Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart. I'm not wholly satisfied with any of my d20 games, because they were all sufficiently constrained by the system and by publisher expectations. I mean, Slaine and Conan are both great d20 games, and I'm very proud of how well I tweaked d20 to directly reflect the source material. In the UK, I keep getting people telling me how much they still love Slaine, especially, and that absolutely makes me proud. But, I can remember picking up Ron Edwards's _Sorcerer and Sword_ as research when I was writing the Conan game, and wishing I had the freedom to junk some of the d20 legacy stuff and make something simple and action-focused. 

And I love all the work I did (originally for James Wallis's Magnum Opus Press) for the Dragon Warriors relaunch, because DW is still my favourite TTRPG for bashing dungeons and a bit more. But I'd love to do a proper 2nd edition (Huzzah! - Jon), that retains the simplicity of the original but offers a bit more player choice. It's just a bit dull that most combats boil down to "stand there and roll to hit, roll for armour penetration, repeat". I'd love a combat system more like that of the lovely, streamlined, fluid, yet tactical and choice-heavy. The One Ring. And for a lot of the things like wilderness travel, environmental hazards, traps, exploration, etc., it would be great to incorporate the kind of ideas that Ken Hite and Robin Laws riff on in their KARTAS podcast, so that again the focus is on choice and storytelling rather than a series of random rolls. So again, DW falls slightly short of perfection in my eyes, largely due to the core system being 30 years old. We've seen a lot of new ideas in game design over that time. I'm seriously proud of the rejig of the Prince of Darkness campaign, though, for the relaunch. 

What are you working on at the moment?

Mostly my PhD, and teaching, and research. You can find out a bit more about my research here, and the teaching I do is all on the world-renowned Animation course at University of Hertfordshire, which I can recommend to anyone wanting to learn games art, animation, concept art, or VFX.

Someday I will get together with the other Serpent King people and make that Dragon Warriors 2nd edition, but it's a big job and we'd be keen to ensure all the 1st edition material remained compatible. 

(Huzzah! - Jon)

Monday 6 June 2016

Hints & Tips - BACK FOR MORE

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Writing stories that keep the players attending your games

When writing a scenario, or any kind of literature for that matter, the author must take several things into consideration.

First, the style of the game must be established, meaning that the atmosphere must be created for the game effectively. If the game is energetic and fast the action and style of writing must reflect the speed and urgency of the situation. Alternatively, if the game is to be slow, mysterious and dark, then attempts must be made to keep the atmosphere smooth and detailed so that the players can absorb the story and characters.

To maintain the atmosphere during writing, and to keep the style consistent, it is best to keep you surroundings similar every time you sit down to write. Keep an ambient soundtrack playing softly in the background with a melody that will reflect the game. If your writing a fast paced game then play the high-energy tracks, keep up the adrenalin with the thought of the action you are trying to emulate. If your writing something a little more sombre, keep the tone low and brooding and, in both cases, try to imagine how the players will react to the designs and situations you are creating.

Secondly, figure out what kind of game the players are used to playing. Also think about each of the Player Character’s (PC’s) aims and styles of character. Try and give a little of something for each player to do to spread out the involvement of each of the friends at the table and try to avoid creating a scenario that really only applies to a portion of the players. If all the players are used to high-energy games then create an original story but with the required amount of guns and action. The flipside of this is to turn the desired story up on its head; the players are big action heroes, so turn down the heat and get serious. Switch the explosions and blaster fire for dark corridors and flashlights, something a little more investigative. Many players will respond eagerly to a complete change of style of play and then be more willing to explore aspects of the game. If they don’t go for it, that’s fine. At least you’ve used that night’s gaming as a test bed to see if you can introduce a new flavour into the mould. It’s advisable to introduce these new ideas every few sessions; if you test new ideas every week and the players don’t respond positively then they might not come back for more.

The plot is the biggest thing of all. It is the flow and content of the story the players will remember. If all they remember is how they took down the enemy, blew up armies and defeated the bad guys then they would be more suited to playing a wargame, not a roleplaying game. Roleplaying should have defining moments, including the conflict, but a lot of those moments should be defined by high levels of drama, the melodramatic stuff that most people have come to expect from films such as Star Wars. When Luke was hanging off that pylon in The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader said ‘I am your father’, it was one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. There was no need for blasters or starships exploding or any kind of physical conflict (fair enough, they had been knocking each other about in a lightsabre duel), but the moment, that defining moment, was what took people aback. You remember the sheer sense of wonder at the flying energy bolts and the ships tearing through the asteroid field, but that sense of drama, of horror, at the revelation of the relationship is the best part.

If the players kill enough dark magic nasties or uncover super-weapon plots on a regular basis they’ll get bored. If you make the games memorable with the situation you put the players in and the problems with the dangers and characters they come across the players will be a lot more interested to see ‘what happens next’. This is what makes soap operas (even dodgy ones) successful.

It has been said that there are only nine basic plots for all genres of story to cover. Romance, murder mysteries etc. This is a bit of a pain. How can you make the story original if you’ve already exhausted a hundred storylines with different modus operandi? Well, the key thing to remember is that its not generally the reason behind the story that drives an adventure’s plot - it is the route the players or the unfolding events will take that make the game memorable. As long as the players get to do something different every week they should keep attending your games. They won’t care that there was another murder in this week’s game, but they will care how the murder took place and for what reasons. Be careful, though, not to try and re-hash old ideas and make them bigger and better than before. The players will know straight away that you are trying to recapture the highs of a past game and won’t respond to it as well. It is originality that keeps the players at your table.

How long do you intend the game to last for? This depends on whether you want to run a campaign or single- to two-night sessions. When writing a long campaign it is always best to design a basic situation, with a rough sequence of events and the lists of goals and non-player characters (NPC’s) to pace out the story. That way, when the players finish the game for the night you can make a few notes about what they did and accomplished and have it affect the sequences of the next game. If you just play out the game week by week to a set curriculum that you have designed to turn into a long campaign then the players will not only get bored with having their PC’s led around by the nose they will also be less willing to turn up for the next game if they think the same thing will happen again. That makes the hard work you have put into the campaign design worthless, especially if the players give up on you. The golden rule is that the game is for the players, not the pages and pages of linear material you slaved over for this very reason.

A lot of GM’s are concerned about how much detail they should put into a game design. Should they list every possible outcome of the story? Should every nuance and capability of the NPC’s be listed in detail? The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much detail you put into a design, as long as you are comfortable with it. If you need all that information then go ahead and get it all down on paper. If you think you can do without it and that all the information you haven’t put down is easily winged, then go ahead and wing it. A lot of the time it will depend on how experienced the GM is. As long as the GM is comfortable with the material he or she has in front of them then they will run a relaxed game, which in turn will make the players feel more comfortable. It’s amazing how pressures on the GM are communicated to the players. The GM is the narrator and their feelings are transmitted with their narrative.

Designing a fresh and imaginative game for keen players is not an easy task if you’re new to the hobby, but it gets easier with practice and exposure to the game and to the players. After a while, new GM’s will get the feedback from players that will make their games more suited to the group’s needs. There are some experienced GM’s who still enjoy working out every fine detail of an upcoming campaign, and there are those who just write a very brief synopses of the story and take it from there, embellishing the game as it progresses. If you’re comfortable with it, do it. But don’t forget to take the above details under a little advisement; after all, everyone who sits around that gaming table wants something from the roleplaying experience and it is up to you to provide it.