It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with Ken Spencer of Why Not Games to talk to him about his hobby, his company and the games he produces.
A firm favourite game of mine over the last couple of years has been 'Rocket Age' - my love of the pulp exploits of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers adventures, as well as 1950s Republic Serials, was my initial draw to the game but I was impressed with the rich, detailed world that Ken had created for his high adventure science fiction game.
Welcome to Farsight Blogger! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Ken Spencer, writer and game designer. I am also the co-owner and creative director at Why Not Games. Before embarking on a writing career I have been an archaeologist, GIS technician, and educator.
What got you into the wonderful world of tabletop gaming?
I was a lonely Navy brat tired of being jumped form posting to posting. I had always been interested in sci-fi and fantasy and my father was an avid board gamer (mostly Avalon Hill). We were living in this wonderfully creepy house in the foothills of the Appalachians. The house was a classic Victorian, creepy basement, attic, old oak tree outside my bedroom window. There was a cemetery between the town and us that added to the overall vibe. I was new to the town and not making friends, so I spent a lot of time reading. I discovered Lovecraft and was introduced to Heinlein and Niven there.
I saw an ad in the back of a Conan the Barbarian comic for this Dungeons and Dragons game. It looked like my father's Avalon Hill games: bookshelf box, colorful cover, dice, and tables. I saved up my allowance and bought it at a Kay-Bee toy store at the mall two towns over. I fell in love that first night playing through the solo adventures in the book and just kept going.
You've got quite a writing history, with work for Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Chaosium, Frog God Games, Alephtar Games and Steve Jackson Games. What kind of work did you do, and how did it feel working for such illustrious publishers?
I have worked on a lot of projects in only nine years, mostly as a freelancer. My first paid writing gig was with Alephtar, I wrote two adventures for Veni, Vidi, Vici, a mini-campaign for BRP Rome. I still do some editing work for them. They are a good outfit that is easy to work with and pays on time. For Steve Jackson Games, I wrote several articles for Pyramid, including my first foray into pulp sci-fi with the Europa Universalis series detailing a GURPS setting where Romans go to Mars and Venus. These articles were a headache to write. The system is complex and unforgiving, but they always paid in full and on time.
My first big project was with Chaosium, a BRP pirate setting that ended up being called Blood Tide. I really pulled all the stops out on this one. I love the BRP system and pirates, and being a Navy brat maritime lore was right up my alley. I threw in all manner of things, an Undying Ponce de Léon ruling a decaying kingdom in Bimini, multiple magic systems including a flexible casting voodoo system inspired in part by Ars Magica, killer mermaids, a blend of Old and New World mythologies, clockwork puritans, you name it. I love writing settings and fiddling with rules systems. At the time Chasoium was in chaos. This was before the new management took over and it took years for Blood Tide to be published. The entire process was frustrating. There were delays, confusions over how many books they wanted, months with no response from the publisher, and all manner of trouble. In the end, the book was published and I was paid, so there is that.
About the same time I was finishing up Blood Tide I started work for Frog God on Northlands Saga. What started as a series of adventures grew into a campaign length adventure path and setting guide. Frog God is easy to work with and pays on time, something that cannot always be said about publishers in this industry. In the end we created Northlands Saga Complete. The kickstarter was successful, and the book that resulted was huge. The Pathfinder edition is over 800 pages long, plus there are a hundred pages or so of fiction and adventures that were part of the kickstarter.
Most of my work has been with Cubicle 7. I created Rocket Age and took the idea to them for publication, and worked on their World War Cthulhu, Lone Wolf, and One Ring lines. While I enjoyed the work on Rocket Age, I had less creative control over the other projects, especially working with One Ring. This is to be expected when working full time for a publisher and especially so with a licensed property.
What made you want to start Why Not Games?
I wanted to write what I wanted to write in the manner I wanted to write it. I also wanted a larger share of the profits from my work. One day I was having coffee with Sam Parish and complaining about all of this when she interrupted by saying, "Why Not?" That was the moment Why Not Games started, the dream of running my own shop. Not too long after that I bought Rocket Age from Cubicle 7, partly to get control over my own IP and partly because they were planning on ending the product line and there was still a story to tell.
A big part of making this decision was that my wife was on board from the start as co-owner. She brings a lot of business, marketing, and graphic design experience to the company. With her, some friends, and even our son pitching in, well, what's better than launching on a Quixotic quest with your friends and family?
Rocket Age is your primary game (I bought it a couple of years ago and really enjoy it), so what was the attraction to pulp-action art-deco sci-fi adventure?
I am glad you like Rocket Age. I have always been a big fan of sci-fi. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galatica and others. The first novel I read that wasn't children's literature was Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Even the fantasy I write tends to be rather sci-fi in approach.
Most of my writing has a very pulpy feel. I like over the top heroics, dastardly villains, and lots of action in my games. The group I have played with the longest pointed out that all the games I run for fun are pulpy. We've done pulp Ancient Rome, pulp fantasy, pulp Noir, pulp Cthulhu, pulp Westerns, and more. I think this style of game builds memories that can last, especially if the players can work in some melodrama. Even Northlands Sage is in part pulp inspired, or at least the sort of theme that 9th Century Scandinavian pulp would take. What is the Saga of the Icelanders or Beowulf if not heroic action and adventure? Aren't the heroes bigger than life and the action epic? Isn't that what most role-playing games are aiming for?
Part of my love for pulp has been a fascination with the world of the 1930s. You have the world at a cusp, the boundary between map and the blank areas is closing just as technology and society are changing. You have huge social upheavals, a restructuring of the economic order, and the looming threat of fascism. Why not add in aliens, rocket ships, and RAY guns? The look and feel of the era, both the gleaming art-deco and the gritty soup kitchens, are easy for the reader to grasp. You have room to tell stories of two-fisted heroes, but also space to talk about the plight of the worker and effects of rampant greed, racism, and sexism. It really is a pivotal and intriguing era in world history.
What else can we expect to see in the future?
More Rocket Age. We just published our first entirely in-house episode, Slaves of the Earthlings that pits our heroes against slavers from Earth who want to kidnap freed Martians and force them back into bondage. The characters must work with an agent of the Tubman Battalion, an arm of the Lincoln Brigade (an Earthling-Martian organization that is seeking to end slavery on Mars and has already sparked one successful slave revolt). Krystal, wife and co-owner, is working on getting all the existing Rocket Age products ready for POD. We started with Heroes of the Solar System since it had been out of print for so long.
Next month we hope to release our first Rocket Age fiction anthology with stories by Ed Greenwood, Andy Peregrine, James Spencer and me. Depending on how well received the first anthology is there will be more, and possibly even a novel or two. A major part of growing out IP is to branch outside of tabletop games. We want everyone to enjoy Rocket Age, tabletop gamer or otherwise.
Currently there are two other Rocket Age products in the works. Imperial Jupiter, the long awaited sourcebook on Jupiter and its moons is finished and waiting for art to be completed. There have been some delays, but we are back on track (and looking for artists by the way).
I am nearly finished writing the adaptation of Rocket Age to the 5e system. This has been eating up most of my time the past few months with writing, editing, and playtesting. We hope to have the first book, Player's Guide to the Rocket Age ready for outside playtesting in a few weeks (contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the playtest). Tour of the Solar System, a setting and GM's guide, will be done shortly afterwards. You can follow our journey on rpg.net in the Rockets Away! column starting in May. Both will be previewed at GenCon this year with several events and we hope to launch a kickstarter in the fall.
After that, even more Rocket Age. The sourcebook for the outer planets, Edge of the Solar System is being worked on; it is too early to even hint at a release date. We have four more episodes ready when the schedule opens up. There are also going to be adaptations of all the current books and episodes to 5e. Speaking of the episodes, we are looking at getting those into larger print distribution, possibly as a complication. From this fall going forward all Rocket Age products will be published in two versions, one for the Vortex system and one for 5e.
After that, we have some vague plans but nothing more than a few outlines and a stack of butter themed post-it notes (thanks Brian). I would like to do a technology book that gives more Ancient Martian artifacts, rocket ship design rules, and other goodies. There are notes for a book of alien beasts and other foes. I have a little more than an outline for Canal Era, a new core book for Rocket Age that is set on Mars thousands of years ago at the height of the Canal Era. It has a very post-apocalyptic science-fantasy feel to it.
Your other games include 5e compatible supplements…
Right from the start we wanted to do some 5e compatible products. We saw a need for races beyond the usual elf, dwarf, human, and so forth. Weird Races (5e) is an attempt to not just add more race options, but to look at races in an entirely different way. While we have the stat blocks, feats, spells, and other play material you need, we also take a more anthropological perspective. What do they eat? How do they marry? What are their philosophical and religious views? When you begin with these as the questions you develop something more than a set of numbers on a character sheet.
We started with anthropomorphic animals since they give an easy hook for people to imagine. We all know what a cat is, and the Caturday are very cat-like, just as the Surial are based on bears. Going forward, we plan to branch out into some utterly weird territory. Next up is Little Grey Aliens, which takes the grays of popular folklore and turns them into a playable race. This book focuses more on their technology and how to use them in your campaign, which we hope is a fish out of water. Imagine a member of a Grey survey team who wandered off and missed the ship back home. Now, lost on some strange world, they have to find a way to survive with nothing but their wits and a proton blaster.
There are around a dozen weird races in the playtest stack and as we work through them we will polish up and expand the bare bones outline and stats into a full book. Rocket Age is our primary product line, but we plan to put out at least four weird races a year. Just a hint of what we have going on, there are two reptile based races, a set of races inspired by Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu, as well as a set inspired by classic horror monsters.
Tell us more about Weird Planets.
Weird Planets is our planned Starfinder compatible product line. They will be small books, around 25-30 pages, each detailing a solar system, the planets there, and the native intelligent species. A lot of Weird Planets comes out of our experience with Weird Races, particularly how to make a short title of utility to both players and GMs. Each Weird Planet title will feature adventure hooks, new gear, new monsters, one or more new playable species, and other goodies we can fit in.
The first Weird Planet is Catopia Prime and details the Kåtze System, its planets, and the native Caturday. Yes, we are going for cats in space with this one, though not all of the Weird Planets will be Weird Races in space. The Caturday are explorers, traders, and pirates with technology on par with other species in Starfinder. Their home world and the rest of the system provide a fine place to stop over as well as sources of adventure. We detail every planet, from the smallest dwarf planet rock to the biggest gas giant. We are nearly done with the art on this one and are looking at a release early this summer.
What does the future hold for Why Not Games? More RPGs, or perhaps some branching out into other tabletop games?
We want to take Rocket Age to the very heights of geekdom. There are not any solid plans as yet, but we would like to do other types of tabletop games using Rocket Age. I have some notes and a mock up card game I have been working on, and there are notes for a board game but nothing definite. Although they are nothing we are equipped to do in-house, we are open to other media for Rocket Age, such as comic books or miniatures. We just aren't there yet. Keep in mind that my education and work experience is as an archaeologist, I tend to think in rather long time frames. In short, Why Not Games and Rocket Age are not going away, just going up, and who knows what we will find out there among the stars?
With Slaves of the Earthlings we feel we have started to hit our stride, keeping in mind Why Not Games is not even a year old. We have had some success with Caturday (5e) and Surial (5e) and got some of the kinks out of our process. There will be more of these small products, more weird races and some weird planets for Starfinder (I am looking at the art for Catopia Prime and it is going to be a gorgeous book of cats in space) plus some small 5e books. I have to take a break every now and then from Rocket Age to clear the palate. Check our website at www.whynotgames.com for the latest updates.