AprilTTRPGMaker: a month of interesting questions!

In the run-up to April, Kira Magrann (one of our authors for Legacy: End Game!) posted the image above – 30 questions for RPG designers to provoke thoughts and get us talking about our design process. I posted my answers on my twitter and G+ pages over the month; now that the month is over, I’m compiling the answers here. Enjoy!

1. Who are you?

Hello! I’m James, a research scientist in my late 20s living in Oxford, UK. I’ve been designing RPGs for just over 10 years now, starting with the 40-person, term-long parlour larps my uni society put on and branching out into pen and paper rpgs about 5 years ago with Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. Since then, under the UFO Press banner, I’ve released a few storytelling card games, a monthly stream of micro-RPGs on Patreon, and the Game Chef finalist Weave.
I try to draw inspiration from a wide range of sources: my training in disease ecology and evolution, a lifelong passion for reading sci-fi and fantasy, interesting mechanics from video games and board games, and so on. I’m helped in this by my wife Liz, my co-designer on most of my games (though she disdains social media). Our son Jasper is less helpful, but to be fair he’s only just got the hang of walking!

2. Where ya at?

I’m based in Oxford, UK – it’s my university town, and I’ve been living here for more than 10 years now. The University RPG group – http://users.ox.ac.uk/~rpgsoc/ – was hugely influential in getting me to where I am today. Before coming to Uni, I’d never played a tabletop RPG; within a year of joining, I’d played a dozen different games and had started running my own larp with a group of five friends. Its wiki is still up at http://brokenworld.chaosdeathfish.com/ – I was behind the magic system and project system, which are embarrassingly clunky and over-engineered now I look back at them! One big thing they do I haven’t seen anywhere else is the Society Game – a new freeform larp system written every year, often by people who haven’t written one before but drawing on the society’s expertise, that’ll run for 1-3 terms. In structure, I guess it’s closest to Mind’s Eye Theatre, with weekly meetings and wiki-submitted downtimes between them, but in my time there they’ve covered generation ships, superhero politics, post-apocalyptic rebuilding, steampunk victoriana, a Stargate/Norse Ragnarok mashup, and more, each with its own bespoke system. I’m particularly fond of Education (http://education.chaosdeathfish.com/) and Reunion (http://reunion.chaosdeathfish.com/), my homages to Harry Potter and Lost/The Lost Room respectively.

But really the biggest thing the society did for me was present an incredibly welcome, inclusive and challenging environment that helped me really get over my conservative evangelical upbringing, embrace my own sexuality, and forge lifelong friendships and relationships. In addition, the culture of constant design, improvement and improvisation really helped me find my design feet. I don’t attend society events much these days – too many excitable teenagers to really be comfortable there! – but I’m always happy to see them doing well and trying new things.

3. Why did you start making games?

Pretty much the same reason I started GMing – it was the only way I’d get to experience the games I wanted to experience.

As I discussed yesterday, I got my start writing systems for freeform LARPs. There was something in writing magic systems for them that really called to me – thematic, punchy abilities that expressed the setting and game characters a clear sense of their abilities in a way that numerically-rated skills didn’t. Looking back, there’s a lot of the groundwork for my PbtA design work there.

My first tabletop design work was probably making custom player options – charms for Exalted, legacies in Mage, a few Dungeon World playbooks, that sort of thing. It was a PbtA design contest in September 2013 that gave me the impetus to make something standalone and original, and within a month Legacy v1 was complete. The £20 gift certificate I got for coming second in that bought me some drivethrurpg stock art, and the rest is history…

4. Describe Your Work

I try to make games that take you to new worlds. Unique worlds, really – I don’t enjoy writing setting material, so I try to give each game strong worldbuilding tools so that each group has a bespoke world to play in that they have a strong personal attachment to.
I want to provide experiences that are, let’s say, under-served in the TTRPG space. Games about rebuilding and community, games about identity and personhood, games about high society and farce. Games that are welcoming and inclusive, not just by displaying the whole range of humanity in the art but in making it possible to tell stories that have nothing to do with the use of violence and the accumulation of power.
Plus, well, I like games that make the players feel cool and creative. If someone can walk away feeling that they were responsible for something awesome that happened, that’s perfect for me.

5. Favourite game you’ve worked on?

If I had to limit it to specifically Tabletop games (aka no LARPs), it’d probably be Weave. In my experience, it never fails to tell interesting stories, and gets across its message really nicely. Plus I’m very proud of the layout I did for it – it’s nothing complex, but it really helps drive the embroidery/tailoring theme.

6. Favourite Game Mechanic

Eeesh, this one’s tough. From my own work, the one that gives me most consistent joy is the way family creation and world creation are weaved together in Legacy, so that your group’s character gen decisions shape the world in an almost subconscious way.
As for best game mechanic anywhere, it has to be AW’s moves. They’re such a clear, potent way of making your game evoke the themes you wanted. It was a revelation to see that can just write ‘when [genre-appropriate thing] happens, it has [genre-appropriate result]’ as your system.

7. Your Workspace

Mostly? In a cafe, or on the train to or from work. 3 hours commuting each way leaves a lot of time for writing!

8. Your routine

Kinda chaotic? As I described above, my most intensive design work is done on the train. When I’ve got something particularly lighting a fire in my brain, I’ll also write in the evening watching TV, in the weekends, late at night, etc

9. Your Process

An idea has several stages in its life cycle:
1) Paper: scraps jotted down in a notebook.
2) Notes: small text files on my phone or in Scrivener.
3) Layout: fleshed out with graphics etc
4) Playtesting: seeing if it all works!
[GOTO 3]

10. Best game to relax with

When I’m just looking to unwind, I like something fulfilling and repetitive – at the moment, that’s Into the Breach. When running games, my comfort food is games I can run with zero prep – Psi*Run is perfect.

11. What’s yer brand?

I’m sure many people are feeling discomfort at this question, but it’s worth considering. I think I try to seem socially-conscious, self-effacing and enthusiastic about the stories my games can help people tell, no idea how well I do! 😅

12. How do you get your work out there?

1) Drafts go out on my Patreon
2) Small games are released on the Patreon for free.
3) Big games get funding and buzz from Kickstarter and are then sold on DriveThruRPG or at my website: ufopress.co.uk/shop/
I try to make my games as an ongoing conversation – here, on twitter, and on the UFO Press discord (discord.gg/WWAcac). I feel like the sooner you have a game-shaped thing you can put in front of people, the quicker you’ll be able to see the heart of the fun, so I aim for rapid, playable prototyping.

13. Your Influences!

@GregStolze ‘s Unknown Armies was my gateway drug away from D&D – specifically, Jailbreak. Play it! Following that, @Burning_Luke‘s Burning Wheel was eye-opening. That lead me to @lumpleygames‘ thoughtful RPG theories, and then @dreamaskew showed me beautiful ways to put it all into practice My day-to-day design’s inspired by a whole mess of things, but those 4 are foundational.

14. What are your dreams and plans?

My dream is to become a world-renowned and famous RPG designer. As that isn’t really a vocation that exists, I’ll settle for being able to make RPGs as my full time job. Plan to get there? Keep putting in the work, and try to improve as I go.

15. Do you design in public or in private?

Definitely public! I send drafts out and talk about my ideas from the first point that something’s playable to basically just before sending a book to press. I’ve tried to cultivate a good group of people to discuss design with on my patreon and discord, and their feedback has made my games a lot better than they would be otherwise.

16. Any design partners?

I have two main ones – +Elizabeth Iles, my partner in everything, who’s an invaluable sounding board and has a really great eye for genre emulation, and +Douglas Santana, whose tireless energy and hustle has been a real propulsive force keeping Legacy (and UFO Press in general) moving forwards.

17. Favourite form of feedback?

Playtest reports! Saying ‘we did this, this worked great, this didn’t’ is really valuable. The best is AP of my games, though that can be incredibly painful to listen to when you can just hear the game going awry because you worded a rule poorly!

18. Current Inspiration?

Probably Persona 5, but given I’m about to start a deep dive into Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer that is almost certainly going to change.

19. Game most essential to your design?

Not going to beat around the bush – it’s Apocalypse World, of course. Next!

20. Favourite design tools?

Let’s see… anydice for checking dice mechanics, InDesign for writing/layout, an A5 Lechturmm notebook for taking notes, Scrivener or Ulysses for compiling and organising these notes.

21. How many playtests?

I’ll playtest as much as I feel a system has emergent properties or complex rules. The thing with fiction-first rules writing is that there’s little that can go wrong in the old sense of numbers not adding up, but there’s still the question of whether it’s fun. So everything you’re going to charge money for, you should play at least a couple of times. If you’re charging a lot for it, or it’s more than a few thousand words long, you should also try to get someone else to run it too.

22. How do you document ideas?

As above – a sturdy notebook in my bag, iAWriter on my phone, Ulysses and Scrivener on my iPad/laptop, not to mention blogs, G+ and discord.

23. People who’ve helped you?

The SomethingAwful Tabletop Games forum was where I cut my teeth on tabletop games design, and has consistently had my back on crowdfunding. The folks at Oxford Uni RPGSoc have been supportive and mind-expanding. I’ve been really thankful to +Jason D’Angelo for his insights in PbtA tech, +Lowell Francis for running Legacy way back when and getting me interested in The Gauntlet, +Brie Sheldon for giving me space to talk about games on their site, and +Douglas Santana for giving me the drive to keep working on and perfecting Legacy. There’s many more!

24. Most notable achievement?

Mercantile – getting Legacy 1 to Platinum on DriveThruRPG and raising >£90k in crowdfunding for Legacy 2.
Design – getting to the finals of Game Chef 2017.
Personal – being a father to a lovely, inquisitive and kind 18-month old.

25. Being a TTRPG designer means?

Always looking at whatever piece of media you’re into at the moment and wondering ‘is this a story I can bring to people’s tables?’

26. Blogs, streams, podcasts?

Mainly non-RPG, but Shut Up and Sit Down is great for all 3. For RPG AP, there’s the Gauntlet of course – Pocket Sized Play and We Hunt the Keepers are amazing. I’m also a regular listener to Friends at the Table and The Adventure Zone. For blogs, I enjoy https://ageofravens.blogspot.co.uk/, http://www.bluestockings.ca/, and http://rowanrookanddecard.com/

27. Feature an RPG designer.

At the moment I’m really enjoying the designs of +Erika Chappell – she has a really cool perspective on combining high-crunch play and PbtA, combined with that sort of deep interest with plane mechanics that draws you in so that you can’t help but share in the fascination even if you know nothing about the subject!

28. Favourite Interview?

Probably the one I did with +Richard Rogers on +1 Forward: http://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/1-forward/legacy-life-among-the-ruins-2e I’m really proud of the love letter I made for it, and we really got to the heart of what I loved about designing Legacy.

29. Your community.

I have a few! First up, my real-life community of Oxford roleplayers – +Elizabeth Iles, +Peter Morgan, +Ellie Williams, +James Grover, +Chris Longhurst and more. Really, absolutely foundational to getting me started in RPGs. Then I have SomethingAwful’s Traditional Games subforum. The rest of the site is, well, awful, but the community there – +Paul Ettin, +Jacob Randolph, +Erika Chappell and more – are really insightful, entertaining and devoted to the history and craft of RPGs. Then there’s G+. Thanks to the circle-sharing efforts of +Sage LaTorra in the early days I got plugged into a wide-ranging network of RPGers, and made connections I’ve maintained to this day. Finally, there’s the Gauntlet. I first got turned onto them when they posted AP of Legacy, and the things they liked (and didn’t like) about it spurred me to make 2e. Now that I’m a paid-up Patreon supporter with access to their Slack, it’s a hub of great conversation about games, far more Actual Play than I could ever consume, and a truthfully caring and welcoming arena. I’m very thankful to all these communities for the support they’ve provided!

30. Top Tips and Advice

Here’s what’s at the top of my brain: Nobody ever runs a game as written. The game documents are a tool, a way of preparing and inspiring a group so that the story they tell is entertaining and in line with what you as a designer wanted to happen. But this means that you must write your game expecting it to be refracted, distorted, emulated by each individual play group. And it also means that every choice a GM makes, every decision a player makes, is them drifting your game, making their own little design decisions, and telling the story they want to tell. You don’t own the stories they tell, no more than a parent owns their children.