Monday, August 31, 2015

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ken and Zak Talk About Stuff

Kenneth Hite was the first person in the mainstream RPG scene to recognize what we were trying to do with Vornheim--or at least the first one to say anything about it. When I heard that, I decided he must be a pretty sharp guy. When he came over and ran Night's Black Agents at our house I realized he was probably one of the sharpest guys in history. And definitely one of the sharpest about history.

For fans, the man needs no introduction--but I hope this interview will offer a window into at least one or two things about Ken you didn't already know. Those new to Ken just need to know he's the idea-factory behind Trail of Cthulhu, the horrible wartorn survival magic-poisoned LotFP setting Qelong, the bold and bizarre Day After Ragnarok alt-history setting and dozens of other excursions into well-researched wrongness.

When and how did you start with role-playing games?

I started playing with D&D before I ever played D&D -- in junior high, my pal Steve loaned me his AD&D MONSTER MANUAL, which came out before the other two books did. So all that summer I built monsters using rules I made up based on the numbers in the book, which is the kind of on-the-nose detail rightly rejected in a novel.

Anyhow, my friends and I started playing D&D that fall, from a combination of that book, the Basic set, and then AD&D, eventually settling into an AD&D campaign with me as the DM. A little TRAVELLER in church youth group, because the youth pastor had the Little Black Books. Then TOP SECRET (which Santa brought us as a misguided "family game night" game), then my one true love CALL OF CTHULHU, from the moment it came out in 1981.

When and how did you start as a professional in the industry?

So I moved to Chicago for grad school, and that meant I could go to GenCon for about $20 by running games for Chaosium -- back then, they badged you in, piled you like cordwood in a hotel room, and bought pizza most nights, so my cost was train fare and liquor. At this same time, I was doing a kind of "free-jazz" improv alternate history game with two history majors I met at the University of Chicago SF Club, Craig Neumeier and Mike Schiffer, and running my Monday campaign for them and some other SF Club people. At one of those GenCons, I bought (or traded for) GURPS TIME TRAVEL by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford, which included the "Infinite Worlds" campaign frame. Mike and Craig and I noticed that Steve Jackson Games had very clear submission guidelines and an unsupported alternate-history setting, and we had all these settings just sitting there. So we wrote a sample alternate history and an outline and sent it in as a proposal. Which went nowhere, except because I had a Chaosium badge, Steve Jackson couldn't dodge me asking about it every GenCon.

One of my players in that long-running CALL OF CTHULHU campaign eventually got a job at Iron Crown, and he got a playtest copy of the NEPHILIM rules from Chaosium, thought "who do I know who should see a game of magical historical conspiracy" and sent them to me for comment. I wrote about 11,000 words of back-sass and sent them to him, and he sent them to Chaosium and right about the same time that Steve Jackson finally looked at our proposal (and accepted it immediately) I got an email from Greg Stafford His Own Self asking me if he could use my playtest feedback in the rulebook, and what was the next book I wanted to write for the line? So in almost the same month in 1994 I had two RPG writing gigs. The rest was just keeping at it; I wound up as Line Developer for NEPHILIM before Chaosium's first or second bankruptcy, and wrote a bunch of books for Steve, and then White Wolf, and then I got hired to design two STAR TREK games back to back and here we are today. In about 1997 I decided to do it full time (or rather my wife Sheila decided she'd rather be married to a happy game writer than a grouchy insurance company tech), and one or two really dodgy years aside, it's pretty much kept the lights on ever since.

What is it about RPG people and the insurance business?

Insurance work is like fast food for people with college degrees. They need a ton of drones to process their hellish oceans of data. Or they did in the 1990s, anyhow, it's probably all done with big data in Bangalore now.

You're known for setting work that's informed by a lot of research--both in history and
in the genre--can you tell us anything about the process of turning research into fiction?

All I can do, really, is quote someone much better than me at the same trick. Tim Powers says that at a certain point you stop researching a novel and start uncovering a secret history of the world. The human brain is hard-wired to pattern-match -- it's how we saw fruit in the trees when we were monkeys, and it's how we see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich now, and it's how Lovecraft or Powers or I build fiction out of suggestively shaped fact, except we're doing it on purpose. Start with the premise -- if DRACULA were a spy novel, what else would be true? and then start looking for weird little facts that fit the legend you're inventing. George Stoker being a sometime asset for the Foreign Office, for example; or a startling number of British Intelligence higher-ups dying suddenly the same year as a major earthquake in Romania; Bram Stoker cutting the final earthquake scene out of his novel literally just before it went to press. I knew the last of those three facts before I started, but when I looked for more they always seemed to appear, because my brain was seeing where unconnected facts -- about DRACULA, and earthquakes, and the history of British espionage -- could be connected.

Re: Pattern-matching: that's a lot how making a collage works. I have no idea if that's a question, just an observation. You get a certain density of ideas and some begin to rhyme and it makes a dream-logic.

Yeah, to some extent trying to explain any of this stuff in writing is like dancing about architecture, as Martin Mull put it. Once you've been doing sculptures long enough, you see the elephant emerge from the block of marble. I do especially like the metaphor of facts and fictions "rhyming," because that's very much what it feels like in the moment.

Last I knew you were playing Call of Cthulhu regularly at home--anything else?

I haven't actually been able to play CALL OF CTHULHU regularly for a while now -- one of my core players has a major Lovecraft allergy. We were playing NOBILIS at home, I think, when I ran NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS for you; then I ran a CODA-system space game after building the setting with MICROSCOPE, and now I'm running UNKNOWN ARMIES set in the Old West. Each scenario occurs one year later than the last, so we get a good historical sweep out of it.

So do you set up your home campaign as a series of scenarios--almost like modules? Like Mission A then Mission B…?

My home campaign structures vary. Sometimes it's a fairly clear series of missions or modules; other times it's just sandboxing and I build (or co-build) emergent adventures around whatever trouble the players get into. In this campaign, it's kind of a hybrid of those two structures: I tell them which historical event that year their characters will realize contains UA weirdness and then build a sandbox inside it for them to play in.

How do you try out new stuff--with a home group or usually with designers?

It depends. Usually I'll play something with the designer or with some alpha GMs who I know from the convention circuit, but often I'll bring something back, like MICROSCOPE, and the home group will be interested in giving it a whirl. Metatopia is a game design convention, and I wind up alpha testing a lot of new games there as part of my Guest of Honor duties. My own new stuff is usually not a whole new system, but a subsystem -- when I was at Last Unicorn and Decipher we'd play parts of those games as we designed them. I ran a little 13TH AGE when I was developing the BESTIARY for it. I did run a full alpha playtest campaign of NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS while I was designing it, just to make sure GUMSHOE could handle becoming a thriller game, and I think that worked pretty well. But mostly my home game is blowing off creative steam, not an extension of my work day.

Your schticks are history and horror: both of which have been controversial lately--at least on-line--it's been suggested that playing games where bad things happen is covertly a way to enjoy or encourage bad things happening to people in real life. What's your take on handling subjects in games people might consider difficult? 

I write games about what interests me, which includes, as you mention, history and horror and the broad overlap of the two. My general take is that people who worry about being influenced by horror or the past should avoid playing games about those things -- there are plenty of great fantasy or space games out there. Anyone who opens a game by me I expect to be interested in a game by me on the topic, so I write for them. I treat my audience as adults capable of differentiating between fiction and reality, and between villainy and self-help advice, and in 20-odd years of doing this, I can count the number of times I've been wrong on the fingers of one hand. One Norwegian guy on Usenet got way too interested in authoritarian early 20th century ideology because of my description of Wilhelmine Germany in GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS, but I have to consider that a fringe case.

So you don't buy the significance of the "we're all unconsciously affected in subtle ways by bad ideas" thesis? Or do you just figure if you are it's your own fault?

"Unconsciously affected" is the kind of red flag phrase that just screams "no causal link" to me, especially with regard to putative grownups. So yeah, if you play a game I wrote set in the 1930s and come away more racist or sexist or Freudian or fascist or Stalinist, yes I think it's your fault, not mine or even Stalin's.

Can you run down what you've got that's out right now and what each thing is about?

I can hit some highlights, certainly. DAY AFTER RAGNAROK is my post-WWII post-apocalypse "submachine guns and sorcery" setting, currently available from Atomic Overmind for SAVAGE WORLDS, FATE, and HERO. Writing that involved destroying the world in 1945 except for the parts that looked like Conan and Professor Quatermass.

QELONG is my damp, horrible sandbox hexcrawl for our pal James Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's "fantasy fucking Cambodia," which if you know anything about the history is even worse than "fantasy fucking Vietnam," but I put enough spins on it (and invoked enough 20th century horror) to warrant keeping it in a secondary world, not just Solomon-Kane-ing it into the 17th century.

TRAIL OF CTHULHU is my adaptation of CALL OF CTHULHU to the GUMSHOE system; my most recent thing for that is the "Occult Paris" chapter of DREAMHOUNDS OF PARIS by Robin Laws.

I'm also writing a monthly PDF series for Pelgrane called KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF. We're in the third series of KWAS now, and you can subscribe or buy the singles individually. I've done campaign frames like MOON DUST MEN about UFO crash recovery teams in 1978, and THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT in which you play Christopher Marlowe and his occult poet pals fighting demons and Spaniards in the 1590s, and TOMBHOUNDS OF EGYPT which is about crooked archaeologists in 1930s Egypt for TRAIL or any other GUMSHOE game. They might be GUMSHOE rules "Zooms" on historical magic like voodoo and goetia, or mind control or martial arts; or expansions for other GUMSHOE games like MUTANT CITY SPIES (my "S.H.I.E.L.D." expansion for MUTANT CITY BLUES) or XENO-ARCHAEOLOGY! for ASHEN STARS. Every other month so far has been a "Hideous Creature" from the Cthulhu Mythos, looked at from all different angles to let Keepers change up the too-familiar Deep Ones and such and put back the Lovecraftian mystery. And in some of them I just talk about stuff like the Nazi Bell project, or the Spear of Destiny, or Lilith.

On that same note, I'm doing a column (in English) for FENIX magazine in Sweden, usually either a setting, a campaign frame, or a mini-RPG. A bunch of those have been collected in three volumes of THE BEST OF FENIX (all in English), which should be available in PDF at least by now.

Hell, you can still buy my SUPPRESSED TRANSMISSION collections in PDF from Steve Jackson Games, which were me doing the same thing as KWAS, only much faster and younger and crazier. My Mekons era, not my Waco Brothers era.

You can also pick up most of my GURPS work from SJG, of which I most highly recommend GURPS HORROR 4th edition, which contains virtually all the good advice from my long-ago guide to running horror games, NIGHTMARES OF MINE, plus decades of good advice I've learned since or recycled from the earlier two editions of GURPS HORROR. Only about a quarter of it is GURPS rules or stats, and in the post-D20 age I don't want anyone saying GURPS stat blocks are too much work.

You know all about NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS, of course, and the Big New Thing for that is THE DRACULA DOSSIER, which is a massive improvisational, collaborative campaign based on the premise I mentioned above -- that DRACULA isn't a novel, but the after-action report of a failed 1894 attempt to recruit Dracula as an asset for British Intelligence. It includes DRACULA UNREDACTED, which is Stoker's full first draft "unredacted" by me and by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and annotated by three generations of MI6 analysts trying to figure out if "Operation Edom" really ended in 1894 and discovering that nope, it's still trying to run Dracula as an operative in the War on Terror. So all the weird stuff in Stoker plus those annotations leads to over 200 encounters -- NPCs and organizations that might be innocent or part of Edom or minions of Dracula, locations and objects that might be innocuous or deadly dangerous, all depending on how the players approach them and how the Director puts them into the game. The DIRECTOR'S HANDBOOK combines all those various versions, plus some possible Capstone climactic endings, plus some campaign frames to add Cthulhu or undead Nazis if you want, and the overarching blueprint to help you shape your campaign the way you and the players want it to go.

Ok, Bram Stoker's Dracula: I gotta ask you. The prose in that book just puts me to sleep every damn time, aside from one or two passages in the beginning when Dracula first shows up, it seems so deadened and attenuated. Aside from the invention of Dracula himself (who's a great villain, obviously) what are you seeing that I'm not?

It may just be a stylistic preference: I like 19th century prose better than many people (although I don't possess the Dickens appreciation gene, so it's not like my taste is bulletproof here). I genuinely enjoy the narrative elisions created by Stoker manipulating the epistolary form -- so much so that I've written a whole game about them, in fact. The structure of the novel is bloody brilliant -- I feel very bad about deforming it in DRACULA UNREDACTED. Dracula's appearance in London is also wonderfully suspenseful and terrifying, and the thematic and character contrasts between the hunters' Christianity and reason vs. Dracula's diabolical animalism in the novel keep paying off. Finally, of course, as a cultural window into the late Victorian mind it's just plain unsurpassed as a historical document.

Is it generally true that the more alt-history a setting is, the more you like it, or are you also into less-grounded things like Traveller or Toon or 40k?

I find it easier to buy mentally into settings connected to something real, usually history or legend or geography -- this preference holds in fiction, too. I prefer secret history to secondary world fantasy novels, for instance, and that holds for RPGs even moreso because the setting is so much more important there than in a novel. Even my homebrew D&D setting in high school was a heavily modded "fantasy fucking Byzantine Empire." That said, I like adding magic or myth or weird science or superpowers to the alt-history or secret-history setting -- even a straight history game is more fun for me with time travel in it. I liked the TRAVELLER setting well enough, though when I ran TRAVELLER I redesigned it for greater astropolitical plausibility (at least to me). I've never played WARHAMMER of any stripe because I didn't do it when I was thirteen (because it didn't exist then) so I missed the WH recruitment window. I can imagine playing one good afternoon's worth of TOON, but why?

What are you working on now?

We're still doing the rest of the stretch goals for THE DRACULA DOSSIER right now; I'm finishing my polish on THE EDOM FILES, which is a connection of adventures in Operation Edom's history from 1877 to the 21st century; Gar is finishing the EDOM FIELD MANUAL, which is a vampire-hunting manual disguised as a streamlined NBA starter kit or vice versa; then I get to watch 36 or so Dracula movies for THE THRILL OF DRACULA, a book about adopting and altering Dracula for your game using the movies as examples.

I'm also writing a big expansion for the MOON DUST MEN campaign frame that we're going to spread out over a couple of KWAS issues, and will probably involve writing some dogfighting rules I will need to playtest, and I'm getting started on the GUMSHOE adaptation of DELTA GREEN, called THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN. You play DELTA GREEN agents during its heyday as an authorized anti-Mythos operation: the 1960s. So it's back to Cambodia for me, then.

I had a lot of fun playing your Qelong setting for LotFP--especially fighting lotus monks--do you get to play all the things you write? If not--do you ever wish you did?

I don't have time to play all the things I write, and in fairness if I did, I'd probably squander a bunch of it hanging out with my wife and cat instead. Sometimes I'll write a scene or a mechanic and I'd like to run it or play it out, sure, but it's more fun to play stuff I haven't written yet. I get surprised more often, that way, anyhow.

It seems like setting stuff is mostly your thing--are you happy to let other people handle
the mechanics, or do you get ideas for fiddling with that end of things that you'd like
to publish?

I don't really consider myself a soup-to-nuts system guy, although I learned an awful lot about mechanics designing two back-to-back STAR TREK RPGs with different mechanics, and then reviewing games from all over the design spectrum for a decade for my column "Out of the Box." When I write for GURPS or SAVAGE WORLDS part of the fun is coming up with (or repurposing) mechanics to fit the setting or story, just like I did for NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS or even QELONG. If I get a really good idea for a mechanic I can usually either put it in KWAS if it's GUMSHOE-able, write a mini-game around it for FENIX, or shop-talk it at Metatopia, so I keep the urge pretty much under control.

You consulted on D&D 5--was there anything that surprised you about that process?

I was most surprised to be asked, actually. Like you say, I'm better known -- and better -- as a setting guy, and they didn't ask about that. But I did cut my teeth on D&D, and I've played every edition except 2nd, so I had some notions. Everyone at Wizards was very nice and professional, as they have been ever since they laid me off back in 2001 after buying the box I came in.

Are there any developments in games outside your own sphere you're excited about?

I'm crazy excited about the new technologies in tabletop wargames. First, the card-driven rules that Mark Herman invented in 1994 have finally come into their own in the last decade, mostly from GMT. That really lowers complexity while keeping flavor and feel strong. GMT is also cracking the very tough nut of the counter-insurgency wargame, with Volko Ruhnke leading the way. If we can get a real breakthrough in tactical game design the way we have in strategic games, that segment will go nuts. We may have already gotten it; I get so few chances to play wargames that I mostly concentrate on strategic stuff.

What wargames do you like? Whats your history with that?

Right now I'm very excited about the GMT counter-insurgency series and the strategic-level card-driven games in general, like I said. FIRE IN THE LAKE and NO RETREAT! are two great examples of what I'm talking about. I still play WASHINGTON'S WAR (nee WE THE PEOPLE) and love it. I started playing hex-and-counter wargames before they had hexes -- my dad bought the first GETTYSBURG game from Avalon Hill back when the board had squares, and he taught me to play it so he'd have someone to play. I played GETTYSBURG and a lot of other old AH grand-tactical games and then got very into PANZERBLITZ and its sequels, which led me down the hyper-tactical rabbit-hole of SQUAD LEADER and ASL which wound up killing my wargame interest for a while (that and STAR FLEET BATTLES -- take four hours to play 1/32 of a second!). Later I found RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN which got me into the operational and strategic scale stuff and that has stuck with me ever since. (I played a lot of WAR AT SEA in college, too, but not before or since.)

If you could give one piece of advice to wannabe RPG writers, what would it be?

Make your name by producing good work for a system with a lot of players. In my day, you had to get hired to write for D&D or RUNEQUEST or the new hotness; now, virtually every system you care to name is either open or the license is ridiculously friendly. Write what you want to play now, don't bother to fix what you think is wrong with whatever system hurt you in 8th grade. Between PDFs, POD publishing, Kickstarter, and the whole indie-DIY ecology, you can be a real life RPG writer from the jump. Make sure you hire (or sweat-equity) a really good artist and layout person so your work doesn't look bad, and make sure you've read enough good writing that you can tell that your work isn't bad. People say to hire an editor, and although I never have, I got very lucky and was edited very well and brutally my first day out by Susan Pinsonneault. Since she's not in the game biz anymore, you should probably hire someone.

If you could give one piece of advice to the RPG industry as a whole--assuming they'd take it--what would it be?

They seem, mostly driven in good Marxist fashion by the changing means of production, to be finally taking my advice, which I've been offering since about 2005. Which is: stop thinking of games as insanely expensive, hard to sell magazines that have to keep going forever. Think of them as small press books, which in fact they are. Not every novel is a series; not every game needs splats and expansions. Most don't. Or if they do, the aforementioned crowd of DIY types will do it, and do it from a place of obsession, not a place of needing to fill a hole in the lineup. Maybe publish a game that can support a "trilogy." Maybe not. But don't push it. Publish what you would rather eat ramen than not publish, because you'll be eating ramen either way.

Damn, good point! Thank you for your time, Ken!

And now, a word from our sponsor...
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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Art Economy In Vornheim

For a moment a terrible hunger lit up her eyes. But it turned slowly into indifference. "Besides," she said, "I would not go if they did. Why should I go? The High City is an elaborate catafalque. Art is dead up there, and Paulinus Rack is burying it. Nothing is safe from him-or from those old women who finance him-painting, theatre, poetry, music. I no longer wish to go there." Her voice rose. "I no longer wish them to buy my work. I belong here.

-Viriconium, M John Harrison

Sooner or later, the party will be paid in contemporary art--a small canvas by Aelfron Aelrey or a book of poetry by Princert with illustrations by Scraptric in with the ill-fitting ringmail and headless coins.

The good news is: By weight, art is worth more than almost anything else--hundreds of thousands of gp-and-therefore-xp. The bad news is: Its value depends on the whims of the salon critics of the High City.

The solution that presents itself most immediately to the conscientious FLAILSNAILER or murderhobo--assassinate the opposed critics--is impractical. This only creates martyrs of the physical bodies, leaving their philosophy intact to be carried on by those they were already influencing anyway. The party's goal is to discredit the hostile critics philosophically in such a way as to increase the value of the artworks they opposed, thus rendering the adventurers wealthy.

This is less dull than it sounds.
In the Vornheim salons, the current rage (in every sense), is Arbitrism, which is difficult to summarize, but let's try:

Since at least the Hex King's War it's been immediately clear to anyone that Vornheim's cosmopolitanism is imperfect--those of the Southern Continent are scarce, those of the Eastern are unheard of since the time of Ping Feng, women are wary of the Laws of the Needle in the low districts, dwarves will not mine any stone in mixed company, half-elves fear for their lives in the Prussing Fields--the city is in many ways an ignorant place. The people do, after all, worship pigs.

Arbitrist critics blame all this--and the decadence that results--on the city's many poets and painters--focusing particular bile, among contemporary artists, on the writer Flameward Ragged Dei, a human living among elves in Nornrik, and the creatives associated with his small publishing house and its philosophies--Insane Etiolation Process, which, for practical purposes, is nearly all of the good ones.

The Arbitrists survive through intellectual arbitrage--that is, taking ideas that were discarded as useless in their native fields--philosophy, natural science, the academy--and importing them to the world of art, where their exoticism grants them a dazzling currency among the status-anxious neurotics of the collecting class.
Once an artwork is acquired, the more hostile critics are discredited, the more the work will be worth once sold. A poem by McCoffering Ginny is worth ten times as much in a world where the "red wizards" of The Awful are exposed as frauds.

The methods employable to discredit an Arbittrist depend somewhat on the critic in question, but it is safe to assume they are all discreditable since the philosophy itself is inaccurate. No sane, intelligent person could honestly hold it, therefore the critic must be insane, unintelligent or dishonest.
Typical vulnerabilities of bad critics include most or all of the following:

1. They possess a documented and widely-attested official history of madness, and their doctors will argue that their critical views are a result of this madness.

2. They are charmless and slow-witted--any personal contact with members of the salons of Vornheim will immediately convince interlocutors of their inanity.

3. Creative-critical dissonance: they have created hidden works slathered thickly with the values they despise.

4. Personally terrible--they have committed grave and secret misdeeds in dark corners, from which their stentorian proclamations are a GOP-ish distraction.

In the case of 1, 3 and 4, documents or NPCs attesting to this can be treated as a kind of treasure to be sought across the hexmap or dungeon, or buried in a drawer at the end of an investigative scenario. In the case of 2, the goal is likely to convince the critic to appear in the salons of their own accord via social maneuver.

Further, all proponents of Arbitrism are, consciously or not, agents of the Red Hand of Tiamat--preparing the world for the coming of the lava babies. They are not without defenses, and the party may find themselves set upon by assassins and slanderers.

The physical location of critics is rarely considered to have any import in the salons--some occupy the city, some live East of Yoon Suin--they propagate their ideas via proxies. Hurling Tracing earned her name by periodically dropping copied artworks from a window of a tower in the Mulched Fen.

They go about in high dudgeon, and finding one is generally no more complex than tracing the rail of snickers and eyerolls back to the source. To find out the critic's current obsession, consult the table:

What's the Arbittrist  Mad About Today? Roll d20

1. Famed director Orgel Ooclas has created a fantasy for the theatre concerning wizards and steel golems that dwell beyond the stars. In a revised version, one character, a beloved rogue, loses initiative in a tavern brawl when previously he'd won, causing a wide outcry of "Slann drew first" among the theatre mobs. The Arbittrist cites this popular reaction as an example of "poisonous manhood" and the work itself as "imperialist propaganda"--though admits to never having seen it.

2. The Arbittrist has become enraged by the word 'madness'--claiming it is has the effect of devaluing the opinions of the lunatic so labelled. 

3. A fad for erotic openness has swept the women of Vornheim. The Arbitrist is suspicious, claiming it is a cover for some darker force.

4. Serialized poems concerning the adventures of a scion of a high family of Vornheim who adopts the affect of a bat and protects the weak from violence and predation have gained favor with the young and young-hearted of the city. The Arbitrist is opposed. As a member of even a fictive upper class, imaginative sympathy for this Bat Man is unimaginable.

5. Parents of the city have begun constructing "sand boxes" wherein children might build from that humble substrate towers and homes for dolls and imaginary friends. It has come to the attention of the Arbitrist that it is a frequent practice to dismantle these miniature residences and sometimes even abuse the toys who dwell therein. The Arbitrist is alarmed that those who enjoy these "sand boxes" do not use them to simulate creation rather than destruction.

6.  The practice of counting "Hitting points" in schools of duelling is reviled by the Arbitrist--who claims it saps the creative expression of duellists.

7. Conservatory students, aged 8-11, have lately performed--to wide acclaim--the brooding and experimental ballad "Forty Six and Two" originally composed by Memes Canard Keyplan's Implement Quartet. The Arbittrist has railed against it on the grounds that the young girl singing the lead part does not grasp the true and esoteric meaning of the piece.

8. The Arbittrist is enraged by the hair style affected by an artist of the Warm Quarter.

9.  The word "barbarian" has been declared upsetting, as its etymology refers to the brutalities of the past.

10. Playwright Lost Weevil has created "The Scavengers"--a work wherein a god of mischief contends with an archer, a spy, a patriot, a knight in gold armor, and a gamma troll--receipts have been unprecedented. It is the Arbittrist's opinion that Weevil's entertainments serially insult the women of Vornheim, this one most of all.

11. It is an established fact that humans and demihumans often have bad ideas. It is the Arbitrist's notion that all humans unconsciously adopt all of these bad ideas and that, therefore, they are all loathsome, including themselves.

12. A group of sculptures purporting to depict creatures of the Lower Planes has been produced--the bodies are distorted and erotically charged. The Arbitrist claims their shapes insult the women of Vornheim.

13. Another Arbittrist has called for the censorship of the work of starry-eyed author and fantasist Geil Mainann. Mainnan, in turn, has responded by saying he shouldn't. The Arbittrist cites Mainnan's behavior as a clear case of harassment.

14. Rann Ice, author of erotic works concerning vampires, has defended a fellow author against an Arbitrist critic claiming she should be sexually assaulted. The Arbittrist cites Ice's behavior as a clear case of harassment.

15. The popular art works have inspired young women of the city to wear outrageous and revealing fashions in imitation of their heroines. The Arbitrist feels this insults the children of Vornheim.

16.  The Arbitrist has written a play. The Arbitrist is now disgusted by it--claiming the many hours spent writing have rendered it familiar and contemptible--and wants no part of the production.

17. The toymaker Rike Pearls--has hired an anti-Arbitrist artist and critic as consultant at the toy factory. The Arbitrist is incensed.

18. It has been widely reported that adventurers inside the city and out have taken to slaying dangerous and predatory beasts rather than ignoring them or allowing the parties themselves to be slain. The Arbitrist finds this practice "othering".

19. Teratophilic pornography from the East has lately appeared in the bedrooms and evidence-vaults of the city. The Arbtrist has declared it and its inculcators anathema.

20. An illustrated guide to Gyorsla and Voivodja has been recognized with some minor awards. The Arbitrist is displeased.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Desserts Aren't Always Right

So using Legend Lore, Mandy's sister figured out the symbol on the floor of the square room...
(that thing in the middle)
...meant you had to rearrange the rooms in the dungeon until they matched that pattern in order to get out.

Because in the Gem Prison of Zardax: (highlight for SPOILERS)....

The doors lead to a different random room each time you close and re-open them.

One room had the sphinx in there--blinded with magic sapphires by forces unknown.

Another had a secret door with 12 vampires behind it. As well as an altar to the Red Hand of Tiamat with a pair of ruby chalices.

Karolyn, who spent last session playing and losing two of the other players' pet dogs and pigs becaue her own cleric was temporarily out of commission received an apposite fortune...

...and made a new character--an Alice.

Just as she showed up, a horde of high-on-fire dwarves showed up, setting everybody's stuff on fire...

After they were dispatched but before they finished the shape and escaped, Karolyn decided to see what happens when you drink fire-dwarf blood from ruby chalices.

Not good things, really.

She immediately became a zealous adherent of the Red Hand. Though a Remove Curse was dropped on her forthwith, she didn't walk away normal...

Mariah is her character that got turned into a stomach
So that's a whole thing.

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Only 29 copies left via mail order. After that you better
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Monday, August 17, 2015

Ghost Prison of Inverness

Third in a series...

Ok, so the good (or at least passable) bits of the classic old module Ghost Tower of Inverness are...

-The illusory ball that seems to kill you but doesn't

-The room where you have to move the way a given chess piece in your position might

-4 thingies that do not look like keys that you have to figure out fit together to make a key

-Bowser-fight-level-style fire-giant-with-sea-of-flame area with fake stairwell and antigrav bit

-A force field at the end of the adventure that you have to destroy bit by bit, but hurting it also proportionately hurts you

So what can we do with only those bits?

Basically we're remaking this guy as a  '70s Dr Strange-style location. It's a one-shot funnel dungeon with some gimmicks. There's a mcguffin (The Jewel of Masterful Perspicacity or whatever) defended by an imprisoned guardian who lives inside a pocket dimension in the tower.

Alright, first floor:
The front door closes and locks automatically once you go in and can't be used again until the door out of the final room is opened.

Describe these places as spooky. And in each of these rooms we have a monster. Something ghost- thematic like a banshee or an animated object. Also, we have a giant rolling ball that comes down the stairs and crushes whoever goes onto the stairs. Maybe add some grounds around it with more monsters if you like. The 4 pieces of weird metal that form a key are hidden on this floor.

Here's the thing about these monsters and the smooshing ball:

-They're all incredibly overpowered.
-They're all illusory.

When these things "kill" a PC, the PC is transported to the second level of the tower.

In play, everyone will accuse you of being really unfair for a few seconds, until you tell whoever died that they reappear in a room with squares on the floor.

Each person who "dies" ends up in a different one of the perimeter rooms here:
Anyone who "lives" and gets up the stairs ends up in room 8. The door seals afterward and there's no way back down.*

This map is not a traditional map: all that black space isn't stone, it's a sea of lava. This is more an arrangement of platforms than rooms.

Every room here on the second floor has checkered floor tiles.

On platform 7 there's a fire giant (or fire demon, or spiky lizard-turtle boss, or whatever)--an imprisoned angry guardian presence is the point--that hucks rocks at you. Each time it rolls a miss or rolls max damage on at least one die, it puts a big hole d4 squares in size through a platform. There's lava there now.

Also: there are fire bats that try to take your stuff, knock you over, and set you alight.

In addition, anyone who "died" on the first floor appears on their platform on one of the extreme edges in the place a rook, knight, or bishop would start appear on a chess board. If they don't move like their chess piece, they get zapped for some amount of damage that won't kill you in one hit if you're healthy but that you will regret. (Scale to taste.)

The "doors" on the map aren't doors--they're (hidden) anti-gravity columns. You'll fall up until you hit the ceiling (60 feet up) unless you manage to twist out of the column, in which case you fall down.

The giant boss has a magic field around it--it is only vulnerable to melee attacks and doing damage to the field does damage to you.

Because of the movement restrictions, it can be impossible for a given PC to move traditionally toward the giant--if another, unrestricted or less-restricted PC moves them, they are ok, also it is possible to do shit like build a bridge out of debris. Flyers must follow the paths as well.

Killing the boss exposes the mcguffin hidden in its heart. The only way out of the tower is through a hole in the ceiling. The 4 pieces of metal from the first level interlock to form the key.

Optional extra--when you leave the tower you're in the past, and going back in and then out the front door returns you to the present.

*EDIT: Someone points out this means you can get stuck up top forever if you don't collect all 4 bits the first time. Ok, so the door back down to level 1 re-opens if you kill the boss on level 2.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

45 Questions

There's that RPG-a-day thing going around. Figured I'd do them all at once.

1. Forthcoming game you're most looking forward to:

Break!! Also I am looking forward to seeing Jeff Rients' Broodmother Sky Fortress come out. I think it'll change how people look at introductory modules. Or it should.

2. Kickstarter game you're most pleased you backed

I'm glad I supported Kingdom Death.

3. Favorite new game of the last 12 months

5th Ed D&D

4. Most surprising game

This is impossible but interesting. Let's list some surprising games:

-Monsterhearts surprises me that it's so popular with the people it is popular with in sort of a Poe's-Law-wow-satire-is-impossible way. Though I do know some very nice people who like it, too.

-Torchbearer surprises me that it exists at all. I can see Burning Wheel as kind of the postForge's version of a RIFTS-era heartbreaker design (Why not add this to D&D? And this??? AND THIS????) but a game that actually straight up tells you it'll take maybe 10 sessions to even wrap your head around the mechanics and that challenge-via-mechanical-mastery is kinda the point plus all it does is simulate low-level dungeoncrawls seems like a smoke signal to a tiny community on the moon I never knew existed.

-5e D&D surprised me by being good.

-Palladium games surprised me when I look back on them now to see how obviously clumsily designed they were. Which I suppose everyone and their dogwalker's mom's landscaper's housekeeper knows, but it's worth pointing out it was surprising, when I first entered the blogosphere, to have it pointed out since those games were so goddamn fun for us as teenagers. Which fact, I suppose, in turn might surprise designwanks retroactively.

-Cthulhu continually surprises me with how easy it is. People just get it. It also surprises me because you can use it to run anything, including Night's Black Agents or Chill, and it's better if you do.

-Marvel Superheroes--FASERIP--surprises me with the fact it's still unsurpassed in the genre yet also not officially updated.

-I was surprised to see I didn't like DCC quite as much as D&D. The one or two extra steps seem to slow combat down jusssssssst enough that you get less done in a session. I still like it, but getting the DCC magic to fit into a game that moves at a speed I like is an unsolved problem.

5. Most recent RPG purchase

Yoon-Suin. Which was a good idea.

6. Most recent RPG played

Call of Cthulhu as player. As DM: D&D, natch.

7.  Favorite free RPG

Marvel Superheroes

8. Favorite appearance of RPGs in the media

I am going to say "…other than ones I was involved in".  I liked the D&D references in the Renaissance Fest episode of Home Movies. Home Movies was awesome. Nothing is better than Home Movies.

9. Favorite media you wish was an RPG

I think a good RIFTs-style/anime or anime-able game is still yet to be accomplished.

10. Favorite RPG publisher

Nobody beats LotFP.

11. Favorite RPG writer

I am not gonna pick between my DIY D&D pals--but they're my favorites.

12. Favorite RPG illustration

That Adrian Smith drawing I couldn't shut up about is probably a fierce contender, but that also feels like a Sophie's Choice, so fuck it.

13. Favorite RPG Podcast

I don't really listen to them. I will eventually. I promise.

14. Favorite RPG accessory

15. Longest campaign played

The D&D ones I'm in now.

16. Longest game session played

Oh the epic all-day player-vs-player 3 rogues-vs-3-fighters session Scrap Princess ran where we invented a code language and cloned ourselves and turned people into houses and hid and stabbed and threw acid and still lost.

17. Favorite fantasy RPG

Dungeons and Dragons. Though, y'know, if I was playing Warhammer right now I might say Warhammer.

18. Favorite SF RPG

Rogue Trader. Or maybe RIFTS, still.

19. Favorite supers RPG


20. Favorite horror RPG

Call of Cthulhu

21. Favorite RPG setting

The 40k universe.

22. Perfect gaming environment

There's enough free pornography on this blog already.

23. Perfect game for me

24. Favorite house rule

Reaching into the box of miniatures to summon a monster.

25. Favorite revolutionary game mechanic

Whenever they invented random tables

26. Favorite inspiration for your game

The players fucked up ideas, honestly

27. Favorite idea for merging two games into one.

28. Favorite game you no longer play


29. Favorite RPG website/blog

There's enough pointless fighting around here without me going and pissing everyone off picking favorites.

30. Favorite RPG playing celebrity

Ditto. I like the pots and pans in my house right where they are, thank you very much

31. Favorite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing

We're supposed to say friends. Which is ok because it happens to be true. I've met a lot of genuinely (like: world class, genuinely) great artists and writers in the RPG scene and some people I just like a lot.

Ok, I'm adding more:

1. Worst game you ever played

S/Lay With Me

2. Interesting rule embedded within otherwise baleful game

Scripted combat from Burning Wheel seems like it might have a use in like a mech combat game or another game where combat is supposed to be slow

3. Game you never played but you knew it sucked just looking at it

Misspent Youth

4. Game you most wish didn't suck

Tenra Bansha Zero

5. Game about which you have the most mixed feelings


6. Old game most in need of an upgrade


7. Game you can run with the least prep


8. Game with awful art (and who you wish you could hire to fix that)

Traveller. Danni Zamudio.

9. Best houserule you've seen in action and now use in your own games.

Jeff Rients "Party like it's 999" Carousing Rule

10. Game you've most changed your thoughts/feelings about

D&D. I used to assume that one of the decades worth of variants on D&D would turn out to be better. They aren't.

11.  Game you'd use to run just about any setting if you had to


12. Game that haunts you and you're not sure why

DC Heroes

13. Game that would probably be most fun to play a bee in

Rolemaster. D1000 sting crit chart sounds great.

14. Best Star Wars game?


15. Game that's good in theory but you're kind of on the fence about it to be honest


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why Break!! Will Probably Be Amazing

Reynaldo MadriƱan is a familiar face in DIY D&D circles--he runs a campaign that's Nintendo on top but pure old-school under the hood. Every session I've ever played with him--in Kenneth Hite's Qelong or his own Bavovania setting--has been a blast.

He's currently working on publishing a project called Break!! with a fantastic anime-style artist named Grey Wizard that really shows a different side to the OSR/ DIY RPG revolution. It promises all the color and frenzy without the pointless mechanization or soap-opera knee-hugging that've plagued so many previous attempts at the genre.  So I asked them about it....

-Rey: In one sentence: What is Break!!?

Pretty much the game I’ve wanted since I was 9 years old and realized that regular D&D had no way to play robot characters.
-Grey: In one sentence: What is Break!! ?
A tabletop game but also the love-child of an instruction manual, a game guide and concept art book.
-Grey or Rey whoever feels like it: Why is it called Break!! ?
R: I took the name from an old joke my friends and I made about the Guilty Gear video games: ‘The game works because everyone is broken.’ In most fighting games, you have a couple of standard characters and one or two off-the-wall ones that change up the game. Guilty Gear is full of over-the-top, colorful, dynamic characters. There is no boring one, and that’s how I want BREAK!! to feel.
G: Rey has always called it BREAK!! I never really challenged it as I liked the powerful simplicity of it. I am also a fan of Rey’s use of double exclamation marks as a bit of textual branding. I guess it was a working title that kinda stuck. I can’t see it changing now as we’ve become very attached to it… but we should probably force ourselves to consider alternatives.

-Rey: You're doing all the rules and writing Grey's doing the art--is that right?
G: Broadly correct. Rey is the game designer, I am the art department. Although it feels less binary than that. We don’t follow a traditional waterfall process (write, layout, commission art) its more a scruffy, iterative collaboration.
R: Yeah, what Grey said. Most of the time I’ll write a thing, Grey will look over it and make suggestions (good ones, I should add) and then I’ll go back, tweak it and he’ll draw stuff from it he thinks looks cool. He’s had plenty of great suggestions too - neither of us have enough of an ego to balk at the others critique, either. Or maybe we do have big egos, just really resilient ones.

-Rey: We already have Exalted and some translations of Japanese games--how is Break!! different?
Exalted (at least the one I ran) is a wonderful, clunky mess, kind of like a Shonen Jump version of Rifts. I feel like BREAK!! is more cohesive because it’s just Grey and I, but it probably looks very similar from the outside. I feel like Exalted, though tonally and stylistically separated from Vampire and other White Wolf games, is still very structurally similar. Your character really is much of the setting there, their inner turmoil is at the forefront.
BREAK!! at its core, is a game about adventuring in a world that’s much larger than you are yet still managing to make a difference. It’s architecture comes from stuff like Stormbringer, Warhammer Fantasy and, naturally D&D. Your character is still very important, but they are designed to be your means of interacting with the game’s setting (or whatever the GM puts in front of you that day) and it makes the two games feel very different while actually playing.
Clearly both games can do both those things without much issue, but the focus is different.
As for the Japanese games that have been translated, many are very precise and granular rulesets. You play them to get a very specific kind of experience, to emulate a kind of show you like or to get battles scripted just so.  BREAK!! is a much looser, more customizable game, with a more relaxed system - I’ve taken some cues from these Japanese games (especially implementing a flexible, but clear rules procedure) but it’s still quite distant from them.
-Rey: What's "anime-influenced" mean for you in terms of the rules or background?
Seeing as many Final Fantasy tropes, for instance, were derived from D&D, are there any practical differences?
The style of Anime/Manga that influences BREAK!! has a very permissive aesthetic. If it were more realistic, a lot of the things I am trying to squeeze in there would look silly (in a bad way). I also think that while Japanese Fantasy has been clearly influenced by D&D, it’s gone in it’s own direction, enough that it’s worth mining for inspiration. 

-Grey: What are some artists or works that influenced your conception of Break!! ?
Cel shaded animation is a big influence on my art. The practical limitations of hand-drawn animation meant you got these atmospheric, painterly backgrounds with crisp, simple characters on top. There’s something about that combination that I love. I hope, that if they squint, readers might think BREAK!! is based on some obscure animated show.
The game has also clearly been influenced video games as well, but there’s other stuff mixed into the DNA too, including, of course, my early exposure to 80s fantasy artists. There will be a few affectionate references to particularly influential works scattered throughout the book.
Of course, Rey’s setting has been inspirational too. He’d matured it over several years of play in his home game but has been gracious enough to let me interpret/add to it. There was something about what he’d written that made me want to draw it!
For the books layouts I’ve gone for a minimal/modernist approach. This seems to be a fairly atypical route for the RPG market but I think it’s unobtrusive style creates clarity and lets the content (words and art) breathe.
-Rey: Will the characters have more wuxia-style powers than in traditional D&D? If so--are combats going to take longer than in a typical D&D game or does it play about the same?

R: Some will! Like one Calling is very much based around old chanbara movies and wuxia style abilities, but it’s not the primary focus. There are Sword in the Stone style wizards, fighters who are a bit too brave for their own good, She-Ra/Sailor Moon hybrids, even one type that’s basically a competent but relatively mundane character with an exceptionally well stocked backpack.
Combats are quick and comparable to D&D, but there might be a lot of variance in the length of battle depending on the circumstances. Fighting a group of well armed mooks is going to be short and ugly but fighting really, really big monsters might take more time since it’s a mini-dungeon mixed with a boss battle.
G: The combat stunt system, weapon abilities and battlefield conditions will also colour the combat experience.

Grey: So the graphic design in the manual looks light-years ahead of any RPG I've seen lately in terms of user-friendliness--are there any ideas or guidelines that you used to make this work?
Thanks, that’s nice to hear.

I’ve applied a few HCI principles to the design, which I am familiar with because of my day job. Not all are relevant to printed books, but many are: readability, know your user, be task orientated, anticipate needs, be consistent, etc. At a high level this has affected they way we have structured the book and it’s content. I’m hoping cross-fertilizing in this way will yield more interesting results than building on the perceived wisdom. As this is my foray into RPG book design I am also unacquainted with the perceived wisdom!
The BREAK!! core rules are effectively a reference book, so I see navigation as key to usability. A reader will need to jump to a specific page, and then quickly locate the desired extract. This has been the primary objective of the graphic design.
With regard to finding the right page, there are a few things I’m trying. Sections and sub sections titles will be visible in the margins (similar to a dictionary). Additionally, every section (and sub-section) will be clearly numbered for easy location and cross referencing (like a legal document). Lastly, sections will be colour coded, as a secondary cue to the numbers, so when flipping fast you will still know where you are.
Once you’ve found the right page you’ll need to find the right segment. One of the big ideas was to distill the content into three ‘types’ based on their function to the user, and then to visually distinguish them from one another. Firstly, there’s descriptive flavour to set the tone or inspire with illuminating examples. Secondly, the mechanical rules presented in simple bulleted sentences. Finally, when needed, direct interaction with the user to discuss customisation or interpretation of the rules. This way a reader can quickly identify which block of text is the relevant one. A new player that wants to get the gist of a calling can simply read the flavour text while a GM might want to refer to the crunchy section to refresh his memory or absorb the GM tip.
The art should provide visual landmarks too, to help the reader orientate themselves and provide an alternative way to recall a rule or ability (rather than having to remembering the title or section number).
Also, while good clear writing is great, information can sometimes be conveyed in more succinct ways, such as flowcharts, icons or diagrams. A simple one-page flowchart can explain a complex non-linear process much more effectively than reams of prose. I’m always trying to identify when I can employ one of these methods.
What I’m really looking forward to is a digital edition of the rules, there’s a lot more potential to make the book more usable. I want to be more ambitious than a hyperlinked PDF.

-Rey: How does magic work in the setting?
R: Well, I had this really elaborate magic system worked out that I subsequently discarded one night in a fit of pique. The system is much more simple now. At this point, every character Calling has about 16 or so elective abilities to pick from as you go up in Rank. Caster and Gestalt type characters have magic abilities built into this list - these abilities have supernatural qualities or do crazy shit, but they also affect your character’s allegiance score with cosmic forces of Light and/or Dark.
Allegiance is both bad and good - swinging too far to one side can be inconvenient, naturally.
Rey: How do Allegiance scores work? Do they change how you play you character?

Every time you pick a Magic Ability, you get a Light or Dark Allegiance point depending on which end of the spectrum the ability is associated. Player characters can accrue around 6 or so elective abilities from Rank 1 to Rank 10, this gives them a choice to either select a mix or max out one or the other. Once you have 3 on one end you gain a ‘Gift’, which is some sort of transformative blessing from cosmic things on that spectrum. Light might give you eyes in the back of your head or patches of reflective crystal on your skin that reveals all lies. Dark could grant you a second soul that lives in your hand or filaments that writhe under your skin and occasionally burst out to defend you. I’ve tried to make sure these all have a good and bad aspect to them - you’ll hand over a bit of what you are to these alien energies in order to draw power from them.
If you manage a total of 6 on either end, you change further. At some point, there should be rules about Apotheosis but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.
Allegiance Points also have an effect on certain items and locations in game. The Sword of Aken will not unsheathe for anyone who does not have a significant Light Allegiance, the Four-Masked Asura of Jie will not speak to anyone with insufficient Dark Allegiance. The Grey Door will only open for one who has no points of Allegiance whatsoever. Naturally, Game Masters are encouraged to make up their own versions of these things.
One thing I try to stress is it’s not a good versus evil thing so much as two immense organisms of living energy drafting people into a war that they can’t really understand. The people of the game’s world tend to anthropomorphize them, but it’s just as common for them to be seen as a simple energy source. They generally don’t affect your character’s personality, but they do change how they work mechanically and how NPC’s react to them, so it’s up to each player to reflect on how that affects their character in the fiction.
Are there any other characteristics or mechanics like that which are outside what D&D players would expect?
R: Modifiers in general are much simpler and have a lower impact than they do in most forms of D&D as much of the game functions under a “roll under” mechanic.
Some Magic has different sorts of limitations on use than the standard Vancian stuff. One powerful attack spell hurts you a bit if you try to use it more than once in a battle, summoning certain creatures a repeatedly increases the chance that they might break free of your control and turn against you, that kind of thing.
I mentioned this earlier, but fighting very large monsters in BREAK!! is very different from fighting them in D&D - it’s a much rarer and more involved experience, too. You’ll need to move around the surface of the monster to get to the best strategic point.
Getting hurt and dying is very different than it is in D&D. It involves little Legend of Zelda style Hearts and an Injury Table. You have a few hearts for every dangerous situation, which refill whenever you enter a new fight or tight spot. You lose 1-3 hearts whenever you get hit, once they’re all gone you suffer a more permanent injury. These Injuries will make things more difficult for you, or may even kill you. So though the risk of death is still there, but this replenishing system means you’re not deterred from entering a battle because you got mauled early on.
It’s also much more common to recruit enemies and even monsters in BREAK!! than most other RPGs, I think. There are even a host of pets and companions listed in the Equipment section. Followers in general are more precious than the are in D&D.
There’s a ton of stuff actually. There’s plenty of familiar things in the game so people can get into it pretty quickly, but of course there will be lots to distinguish it and keep people engaged.
Grey: Is there a specific tone you're trying to hit?
There are actually a few in BREAK!! We wanted to create a unique tone for each of the specific areas of the game world. The Wistful Dark is melancholic but hopeful, the Blazing Garden is wondrous and bombastic, the Buried Kingdoms grotty but humorous, etc. However the core book has a prevailing fun, bright, energetic vibe. We will hopefully get to better exploit the individual region themes in follow-up splatbooks.
Grey and Rey: How does the collaboration work--does Rey just write stuff and then Grey draws what Rey asks for or is there a more complex back-and-forth?
G: The project started organically when I idly suggested if Rey wrote an RPG then I’d do all the drawings. Then we just both started doing stuff. The process is basically like this: We share work with each other, get feedback, then develop it until we are both happy with the end result. I think it’s fair to say we are making it all up as we go along, but the fact that we don’t have a deadline has meant the process has been fun and experimental thus far. What I think is especially interesting is that we’ve developed the art in tandem with the rules right from the start, rather than waiting to the end when all the creative decisions are resolved. Lots of good stuff has come out of our meanderings and our ability to riff off each others stuff. This is what’s so great about DIY, it allows you to be inefficient and play around. We’ve been drifting along like this for a while but now we’re entering a new phase, with a more solidified design we can be more productive and get it finished. 
R: Yeah, it’s like Grey said - we do everything from Google Docs so he would make all these suggestions that show up in bright pink and I used to joke he was dumping pepto bismol all over my hard work!
I will steadily click along at my own pace (usually 30 Mins - 2 hours of writing every day) but he is now keeping me focused on the stuff we need done, rather than what strikes my fancy at the time.

Grey and Rey: If someone already is happily playing a D&D campaign are there any rules or ideas that are in Break!! that you don't think are anywhere else that they might want to take a look at?
R: I think the Stunt and Trick rules click nicely into D&D and similar games. All the little rules for Adventurer Downtime (I.E, what your characters do between proper sessions) would fit in as well. They cover stuff like crafting items, looking for adventure hooks, investigating a particular interest, flirting with NPCs, starting crap because you’re bored or just relaxing since you messed up your arm during that last fight. Nothing too complicated of course, and it all leads to you having more to work with when you come back for the next game.
What are the classes?
We use the term ‘Callings’ because, although similar conceptually, has broader use in the game (I think it’s also slightly clearer for new kids too). There is a form of soft classification among the callings. The non-magical types are Warriors and Specialists. Casters are totally focused on Magic. Gestalts can choose from some magic and non-magic abilities. Genera are old style ‘Race as Class’ types, but reserved for things that don’t work well as regular character species.
So the callings are:
Champion - Courage/Bravado and aggressive action based fighting type.
Raider (Warrior) - Mobility and precision based fighting type.
Factotum - Knows/Has the right stuff skill type.
Sneak - Sneaky/Acrobatic/Stabby skill type.
Battle Princess - Protective/Healing Mage-Warrior type.
Murder Princess - Destructive/Berserking Mage-Warrior type.
Sage - Helpful/Hexing/Practical Wizard type.
Heretic - Bad News Summoning/Sealing Wizard type.
Fairy - Diminutive Support/Trickster Magic type.
War-Mechanoid - Hunter Killer Mecha type
Obake Mystic - Shape-Changing Magic type.
Immortal - End Boss in training type.
Some of these will be available in a play test document. The other Callings will follow in the full book, and I love making them so expect me to come up with a new one here and there for fun. Some on the blog, some in the books.

Can you tell us any more about the default setting?

R: The Sun-Machine is broken. Day and night are geographic features, rather than temporal ones. The world is broken up into four main regions.

The Wistful Dark is on the Night side of the world. It is a place filled with abandoned cities, strange old temples, luminescent fungal forests, and terrifying monsters that prey on those stuck in the Shadowed Lands. The fortunate build cities around pieces of the broken sun (Called Star Shards) and engage in unfortunate politics. Others collect in the dark places around the mournful song of the Hollow Queen.

The Blazing Garden is on the Day side of the world. The most intact and functioning piece of the Sun Machine hovers above the great City of Aeon and illuminates half the world. It is filled with immense creatures fed by the constant light, overgrown jungles, and orphaned technology. Regulus, the Emperor of Sol, moves to conquer this region and an alliance of others moves to oppose him.

The Twilight Meridian lies in the divide, and is mostly sea. Naval and Skyship are more common in this region for reasons of necessity. On the Seven Holy Isles eager warlords clash as often as philosophers trade eager barbs. The Galvanus Peninsula provides a haven for both trade and piracy. The Metal Continent holds the secrets of the world before, as well as many of its horrors.

The Buried Kingdom has never seen the Sun-Machine or the Night Sky, and feels no great loss for either. Here Old Dwarven Industry combats a New Goblin Order for control of the rails and the expansive tunnels that run through it. Forbidden ruins rest among the stone, and the Unterkin hide from those who would exploit their gifts. All speak of a place called “Promise”, which is said to be even further beneath the rock at their feet.

G: It’s worth noting that we’re not revealing too much of the history/lore in the book, as absorbing long expositions are dull (and restrictive) but the great thing about having it all figured out is that you have a solid foundation for the all the books concepts. It functions like an editorial/visual styleguide or an author’s character backstory, you don’t ‘see’ it in it’s naked form but it’s there in the background ensuring everything is internally consistent and connected. Players, if they’re inclined, might be able to piece the mythos together themselves as a meta-objective.
R: I find it much more interesting to tell the story of an RPG’s setting through adventure elements, items, and other in-game stuff. Your background info should give just give a taste, and leave the rest for the players to find out (assuming they care) or for the Game Master to invent.

How deep are the magic and advancement going to be in the first book? Is this like modern-D&D-level deep or are you starting small?
It’s a little different from D&D. Character’s core competencies get better as they grow in Rank, but the elective abilities you choose will broaden the scope of your character rather than pump up the numbers or damage you can do. I also try to make sure the abilities that you can get early on scale in some way so they are still useful even when compared to the more potent ones you acquire later on. I want people to be adding to a repertoire rather than simply replacing one method with the next big thing.
Otherwise progression is pretty similar, you go from a mostly competent greenhorn to potentially god-fighting heroic type. Ranks go from 1-10 for characters in the core book, with 11-15 being proposed as a totally different kind of epic style progression coming later. Really tough monsters and antagonists can go up to rank 20.

-Grey and Rey: Have you playtested it? Anything fun happen during that?
R: I have playtested a bunch as the game has evolved. I think my favorite parts have always been how excited people have been over their abilities or how good the art looks - or how happy they are that there is something called a Battle Princess, but there has been some fun specific stuff too.

One character who stocked up on treats managed to convince the minions of a warlord to abandon their posts for candy. We had a Chib Sage who was quiet and thoughtful throughout the whole game go on a kamikaze run against an enemy armed with explosives and through sheer luck managed to survive the resulting kaboom. One Champion lured a powerful Skeleton Knight onto a steep ledge and kicked him off it before he mauled her, saving the day. That last one was kind of hilarious in context, another player joked she had finished everything before the “Boss Music” had a chance to play.
Thank you Rey, thank you Grey, and now, a word from our sponsor: