Creative Colleagues: Jason Kapalka

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with a few questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years

In the summer of 2015, I noticed an intriguing Kickstarter campaign for an “experience” from The Mysterious Package Company. My perfect wife made me a gift of it, and I became an instant fan of the MPC. Even before the final “reveal” of my first experience, I’d become so enraptured that I subscribed to the company’s Curios & Conundrums, a periodical full of puzzles, stories, toys, and other sundries.

Much as I loved the subscription, the MPC’s experiences are the showstoppers. They range in complexity (and price), delivering a number of letters and parcels either to you or to an unwitting friend.

The creator listed for the Century Beast Kickstarter was Jason Kapalka, famous as the co-founder of PopCap games, through which he’d already stolen hours of my life with the games Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled. Oh, he claimed he was merely fronting the effort for the enigmatic Curator, but I had my suspicions. After all, it would take a mind as brilliant as the Curator’s to envision the Storm Crow Tavern, a nerd bar in Vancouver and later in Toronto. In addition to the MPC and Storm Crow, Jason is also currently creating “a series of comically violent horror puzzle games via Blue Wizard Digital.”

As Jason—or the Curator—has launched another Kickstarter, this one with the ominous name HASTUR. I thought it a propitious time to ask him a few questions about my favorite of his creations.

Curating The Mysterious Package Company must be like editing a magazine. What disparate talents must you gather to make that incredible thing work?

The Mysterious Package Company is a surprisingly large enterprise, with around two dozen full-time employees in a large, suitably ominous post-industrial warehouse in a bohemian district of Toronto. The employees, as you might imagine, are a varied lot, ranging from assembly-line packers of crates full of evil artifacts to artisans casting fake antiquities in-house to forgers of aged diaries and documents to assorted writers, graphic designers, e-commerce and website engineers, and—the really scary types—the odd accountant and procurement manager.

Most MPC experiences are collaborative and multi-disciplinary projects that involve a lot of odd specialties, from calligraphy to cryptography. They may start with a creative brief from me but usually end up as a joint project.

There’s a strong Mythos undercurrent to the MPC. What’s your history with the Mythos, especially in gaming?

I’ve been a fan of the Mythos from my teen years and was a rabid fan of the original Call of Cthulhu RPG. As a Keeper, my most memorable experience was a disastrous one-shot that ended with the entire party being ritually sacrificed by Deep Ones; as a player, I was the sole survivor of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, who, half-mad, lame, and hideously scarred, gave his life at the climax to save the world, at least temporarily.

Most recently I was very proud of the Crate of Cthulhu that we offered at the MPC, which is a faithful “physicalization” of the Call of Cthulhu novella, including most of the newspaper articles and statues/bas-reliefs mentioned by Lovecraft, brought together in a reasonably plausible crate meant to have been abandoned in a basement of the Natural History Museum in London for decades.

MPC used to offer a subscription to Curios & Conundrums. What special challenges did that complex wonder pose?

C&C was a very strange project that evolved from a simple newsletter in the early days of the MPC to an elaborately themed quarterly box. In its latter incarnation it was envisioned as a kind of more demented, literate, eerie answer to the various Loot and Nerd Crates full of name-brand merch. Instead, we offered things like papercraft toys of burning Victorian insane asylums and pewter statues of unspeakable Egyptian gods of madness.

It was certainly a challenge creating an entirely new set of artifacts and storylines every couple of months, but I’m proud of the final results.

When you envision the ideal customer of MPC, what sorts of films, books, and games do you suppose are already favorites?

With the exception of our McElroy Brothers Adventure Zone collaboration on Taako, which has a pretty obvious media tie-in, our audience tends to favor horror and mystery material, as you might have guessed. A more divisive line is between the fans of narrative and collectibles and those who are more interested in puzzle-solving. The puzzlers really want intense, challenging riddles and secrets in their experiences to decipher, while the more narrative-inclined fans can be stymied or frustrated by codes and cryptograms. Trying to satisfy both types of customer in that regard can be challenging!

And of course, Lovecraft and related writers are favorites of many of our customers.

How did the first Storm Crow Tavern come about, and how has it expanded? What can visitors to expect to find inside?

The first Storm Crow Tavern was spawned in Vancouver in 2011 from an idea that me and my partners had: if sports fans have sports bars, why can’t “nerds” have a “nerd bar” that appeals to their own interests, from sci-fi memorabilia to board and card games?

The first Storm Crow was relatively modest in size and ambition, but each successive restaurant has expanded in size and, er, grandeur, with the most recently opened location, the Storm Crow Manor in Toronto, being housed in a grand 100-year-old Victorian manor with a seating capacity of over 400, including the patio. The Manor is basically a series of themed genre rooms, from a postapocalyptic cyberpunk lounge with faulty holograms and mysterious steam-blasting pipes, to an eerie asylum bar with haunted portraits and electric-chair seating, to a futuristic Warhammer 40k-inspired space dungeon sub-basement.

The Curator of MPC embodies the sort of courteous, formal correspondence one associates with a bygone age. What made you enlist such a personage in the age of email and video games?

Part of my interest in projects such as the MPC and Storm Crow post-PopCap was due to their real-world, analog nature. I love video games, but I think that many people miss the tactile experience when you get too tied up in digital realms. So the common thread of the Storm Crow and the MPC is that they are both real, physical things, whether that’s a bar or a nailed-shut wooden crate in your post box.

Given that throwback nature, it was natural for “The Curator” to affect a somewhat courtly and antiquarian prose style. That said, the MPC is still largely a denizen of the electronic world, with all of its sales being driven through a web site, so we are looking at ways to “modernize” the eeriness without losing that quality.

You’ve already presented an experience involving the Yellow King. Why have you returned with Hastur? Aren’t you afraid too many unwitting fools will say the name three times?

In fact, we have referenced the King in at least two experiences so far, including the original King in Yellow and then the later Carcosa. So HASTUR is in fact the concluding segment of a “trilogy” of sorts. While it’s perfectly suitable for new customers, longtime MPC fans may find some interesting linkages.

Creative Colleagues: Christopher West’s Big Castle

You’ve met Christopher West here before, but this time it’s for a project all GMs (and many others) will find interesting: a huge set of castle maps perfect for a home base or a villain’s lair. I’ve backed many of Chris’s previous Kickstarters, and not only because he made such beautiful maps for me back in the days of Star Wars Gamer. They’re great both for illuminating an existing setting and for inspiring a new scenario that you design yourself.

Here’s our brief chat about the Halls of Legend.

As a GM, how do you use maps (and miniatures) to create an adventure?

Both as a GM and as a mapmaker, I seek to create encounter locations that will be both memorable and exciting. With that in mind, I will often put together a story arc for my games designed to include specific environments that I’ve already mapped—and I will map specific environments that will support that sort of storytelling. There’s a synergy between the two activities that serves me well.

In essence, I plot my encounters around a cool location for which I have an interesting map, and then give my villains a reason to be there that grounds the story in that location.

You’re famous for SF and fantasy maps. What sorts of maps would you create for horror scenarios?

That depends a lot on the type of horror, honestly. For monster-themed horror, I like to take modern heroes out of their environment and drop them in lairs, either in natural or otherworldly—but far from help, in either case. My Forsaken Lands maps are mean to work for that sort of environment. But for more of an urban nightmare type horror, you can’t beat dark alleyways, slimy sewers, abandoned warehouses, condemned tenement buildings, or a nice slaughterhouse converted into a cultist hideout.

Some gamers hate the 5-foot-square grid, while others (like me) love it. What would you say to the naysayers to persuade them to try the grid?

That’s some treacherous ground on which to plant a flag! Both camps have valid arguments to make, so I try to stay as neutral as possible and invite both sides to meet me in the middle. I do include a 1-inch (5-foot) grid in nearly all of my poster maps, because there are a lot of tactical game systems which you can’t really play without it—but at the same time, I work to keep that grid as natural and unobtrusive as possible, preferring a subtle grid over one that distracts you from the environment. That way the players that want a grid can find it, and the players that don’t want a grid can ignore it.

But, to answer your question: I like using a grid because it can help to sidestep arguments that sometimes arise about cover, concealment, and line of sight during an encounter. If there’s a grid on the map and the objects showing on the map can clearly delineate the positions of walls and cover around your characters, it gives everyone a shared reference point and makes a lot of those arguments unnecessary.

Other gamers eschew maps and minis altogether, preferring “theater of the mind.” What do you feel maps & minis can add to the game?

I’ve run and played in satisfying games that eschew maps and minis, but I really do prefer to use them whenever possible—especially (but not exclusively) during action scenes.

In the middle of combat, in almost every RPG I’ve ever played, the GM has his or her hands full trying to manage the scene and communicate with each of the players, in turn, about the circumstances involving their characters. It’s a lot to keep track of. Along the way, the details of the scenery itself can become overlooked, forgotten, or muddled. But if you have a detailed map of the environment, the GM doesn’t need to remind each player, each turn, about that computer console on the far wall, or the stack of crates they could use for cover, the barrels in the corner that just might contain explosive fuel, or that rickety scaffolding behind the bad guys that a clever PC might find a way to collapse on top of them…

If a map has these details, it can add a richness to your storytelling that enhances your game-play and inspires the players to use the scenery instead of just making dice roll after dice roll until the opponents run out of hit points.

In my experience, games with maps and minis become much more cinematic experiences instead of a number-crunching exercise, and I just love that.

What’s the best moment from one of your own games that involved a map?

One of my favorite stories about maps and minis involves a Star Wars adventure I ran. The players were driving a cargo transport—a floating truck—through a canyon in the Jundland Wastes, when an act of sabotage dropped the truck to the ground and set up what would become a double-ambush encounter with both marauding pirates and opportunistic tusken raiders, on a canyon ledge with a sharp ravine on their left and a tall cliff wall on their right.

But first the player characters needed to unload the truck so they could try to repair it—which meant that when they were attacked, they had crates of various sizes scattered on the ground around the truck. The map in this encounter was hand-drawn, but the truck and the cargo crates were represented with my Sci-Fi Cargo Tiles as individual cut-out pieces on top of the map. The players had their own miniatures for their characters, and I had miniatures for the pirates, their speeder bikes and skiff, their E-Web cannon, and the sandpeople and banthas who crashed the party. It was a big, busy map with all kinds of cover and a lot of moving pieces by the end.

What made it memorable, though, was that all of those pieces of cut-out terrain changed the game in ways I couldn’t have predicted. The player characters climbed on top of them, and hid behind them, but they also moved them around, strategically. As they defeated several pirates, their crashing speeder bikes changed the battlefield dramatically, blasting crates across the map and smashing open one massive container with warning labels—which unleashed a hungry nexu creature that joined the fray and started eating people.

It was one of the most exciting combat scenes any of us had ever been involved in, and it culminated with a crazed bantha bull-rushing the party’s vehicle right over the cliff’s edge—which gave the party’s young Jedi a chance to shine, saving the truck and levitating it back to them with a timely and amazing critical success on her Force power check.

All of these twists and turns were made possible because all of these extra map features were physical objects on top of the map that the players and I could personally manipulate, and that real-world ability to move them around inspired us to do exactly that, narratively within the story. If everything had been drawn in place, the action wouldn’t have been nearly so dynamic.

Be sure to check out Chris’s latest Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

It’s that Marc Tassin again, tireless organizer of the Writers Symposium at Gen Con and tireless creator of his own fantasy setting. He’s launched a third Kickstarter campaign after two successful antecedents. This time it’s not just an adventure or a story collection—it’s a whole world.

After the success of his Temple of Modren Pathfinder adventure and his Champions of Aetaltis anthology, Marc’s going full Greenwood by presenting an entire fantasy campaign setting for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Fortunately for his sanity, Marc has a team of talented collaborators in the form of Mechanical Muse. They’re hard at work spreading the word about this new project while simultaneously shepherding the massive project. Marc’s right in the thick of it, so let’s test just how tireless he is by throwing him a few impertinent questions.

I get the feeling this setting harks back to an era of heroic and epic fantasy that I felt was at its height in the 80s. Does that seem right?

On the surface, I can see it appearing that way. With Aetaltis I’ve definitely worked to create a new world that strikes many of the same chords in readers and players that you’d expect from a classic heroic fantasy setting like Faerûn, Oerth, or Krynn. The key, however, is that Aetaltis isn’t an homage or an attempt to copy the legendary settings of that era. Rather, I’m building a completely new world that draws on the same root sources and ideas that inspired the creators of those settings.

The end goal is to create a brand new world that can stand alongside those settings rather than a world that harks back to them. A tall order, I know, but that’s what I’m working to do. I’m just not convinced we’re done exploring worlds like these. There are still stories to tell and wonders to reveal!

What are the challenges in making the players of a game feel like epic heroes?

For me, the “epic” in Epic Fantasy™ really refers to the impact that the character’s actions have on the history and the world. I think of it like this: if someone was writing a history book about the world, would the events surrounding the characters’ adventure warrant its own chapter? If the answer is “yes,” then we’re talking about epic fantasy.

With that as the definition, the specific obstacles the heroes need to overcome become less important. Could there be a giant large-scale set-piece battle with gathered armies facing off in a final fight? Sure! But if the real events on which everything turns are a couple of tiny heroes sneaking up to a volcano to throw a cursed magic item into it, that massive battle is an exciting bit of background, but not fundamental to the epic nature of what the heroes are attempting to achieve.

One thing I don’t agree with is that heroic and epic go hand in hand. What makes an adventure epic is the scale of the consequence of failure. What makes an adventure heroic is why the heroes are undertaking the task in the first place. Aetaltis is more about the why than the what. For me, the tale of a shepherd who takes up arms to defend his village against a small goblin hunting party simply because it’s the right thing to do, is every bit as compelling to me as the knight that rides into hell to destroy the demon that threatens the world.

world-of-aetaltis

Art by Nic Boone and Mitchell Malloy

Of all the iconic locations in the setting, which one would you say is most original to Aetaltis?

The Newardine Cels are definitely something different from what players have seen in the past. The newardin are one of the races unique to Aetaltis. They are a strange, otherworldly people that are cut from a very different cloth than the other races of the world. They originally came to Aetaltis as off-world colonists, members of a group called the Atlan Alliance. In this alliance of different races, which included the humans, the newardins’ role was to operate the magical gates that the Alliance used to travel between worlds. When the gates cataclysmically collapsed just over three hundred years ago, however, the surviving members of the Alliance were trapped on Aetaltis.

The newardin did not adapt well to life on Aetaltis. They congregated in cities where they constructed tightly controlled compounds that reflected the architecture, culture, and ideals of their homeland. Strange spiraling towers, impossibly thin pillars made out of materials unknown to the rest of Aetaltis’ inhabitants, and unfathomable cultural norms make these cels a slice of another world thrust into the otherwise familiar surroundings of Aetaltis’ other environments.

In the background of the Kickstarter video, you can catch a glimpse of one of these structures.

What’s the perfect relationship between fiction and the canonical events of an RPG?

I think you can place equal emphasis on both. Since we have strong support from both gamers and non-gamers alike, there’s no reason we can’t continue to provide more than one path to Aetaltis. And that’s important to me. Our goal isn’t to create games or write books. Our goal is to create an amazing world that people want to be a part of and then deliver tools they can use to interact with it. Games, books, comics, apps: in the end they’re all just different portals through which someone can visit a world.

You’re producing a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide, and an Adventurer’s Guide—but conspicuously not a book of monsters. Is that because you want to change the paradigm of play? Also, what makes your Game Master’s Guide stand apart from others recently published?

The reason our first monster book is a stretch goal rather than a core book is that what’s important in Aetaltis is the origin of monster, the story behind it, rather than the monster’s stats. This is information we can convey in the three core books without stat blocks. If you understand these origins, you can pull monsters from any of the bestiaries already available fifth edition and fit them easily into the story of Aetaltis.

Don’t get me wrong, we love monsters, especially the wonderfully quirky creatures born out of roleplaying games over the years (owlbears anyone?)  And we certainly have plenty of unique creatures we’re excited to share. That’s why the monster book is the next one we want to publish after the core books. It’s just not a requirement to experience the world.

As for the game master’s guide, the key here is that our guide is designed specifically to help game masters run adventures set in Aetaltis. Whether it’s advice on where in the world to base a campaign that captures your groups preferred style of play or guidelines for introducing your favorite non-Aetaltan character race to the game, our game master’s guide is the key to doing that. This is information you can’t get from other guides.

What are ten things that make Aetaltis stand out from other settings.

  1. Magic, originally a gift from the fallen god Endroren, is as frightening as it is useful.
  2. Endroren is chained to the core of the world, desperate to break free and return to the surface.
  3. The dwarves hate the gods for using their home, the Deeplands, as a prison for Endroren and his minions.
  4. Goblins, trolls, orcs, and many traditional fantasy monsters have only just returned to the world after the wards that trapped them in the Deeplands began to fail.
  5. Adventuring is a respectable occupation thanks to the edicts of Lord Drakewyn of New Erinor.
  6. Humans are not originally from Aetaltis but are travelers from another world trapped there when the gates to their homeland catastrophically failed.
  7. When the gates collapsed, they drew all manner of creatures, landscapes, and beings into the world.
  8. Essence wells, ley lines, essence crystals, and blood magic mean that there is far more to Aetaltan spellcasting than simple spell memorization.
  9. The temptation and ease of entreating Endroren for aid means that every hero must struggle to stay on the path of light.
  10. Not everyone believes that the world gates can’t be reopened…

Join the World of Aetaltis Kickstarter, follow the project on Facebook, or keep up at the website.

 

Creative Colleagues: Dave Barrett

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Fun and GamesDave Barrett’s It’s All Fun and Games is the first in a series of Young Adult novels from the Nerdist’s new imprint through Inkshares. It features the teenage players of a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game who find themselves transported to an actual, factual fantasy world. We’ve seen that trick before, but Barrett breathes new life into the conceit. I imagine hordes of young readers discovering LARPs the way so many of my generation got turned on to tabletop RPGs after reading the late Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame novels.

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Dave’s debut, and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my geeky questions.

Please tell us about your earliest experiences with tabletop RPGs and LARPs.

My older brother, Jim, brought home AD&D from high school in 1981. My first character was a ranger named Fred (I was 8). I remember playing White Plume Mountain and the Against the Giants series as solo adventures—it was just poor Fred. Considering the modules were made for full parties, my brother must have pulled a lot of punches to get me through them.

Later during elementary school, it was the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head for math tests. Anything less than a 90, and no D&D for the rest of the week. I did really well in Math that year.

I still try to play whenever I can. I’m mostly playing Pathfinder now.

My LARP experience is a different matter. It didn’t even occur to me it was possible until I got closer to college and learned about groups like NERO. The lack of internet made discovering these things really difficult! During college and just after I attended a couple events I had been invited to by friends and had a great time, though with busy life and young kids, it’s not always easy to find time for RPGs, particularly ones that stretch over full days. I’ve attended Intercon in Massachusetts, and had a lot of fun.

Chance in the form of dice rolls plays a big part in games. Wandering monsters, after all! How do you create a sense of randomness in a story without allowing it to feel like a cheat?

It’s funny you should ask, because I actually bring this up in It’s All Fun and Games. Playing D&D in the RPGA (and other orgs), I’ve gotten used to the idea of Obligatory Thug Attack, or OTA—a combat encounter designed mostly to sap the party of some of their resources so that when they fight the final boss they’re not at full strength. So I actually included that in the story—before the kids cross over into the game world they get jumped by some random monsters, and someone explains the OTA to Allison.

Once they cross over, though, that’s a different thing. If a scene isn’t advancing plot or character, or providing some sort of backstory, I personally don’t want to read about it. Because I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read, things move pretty directly toward the climax. I’m not writing a module, I’m writing a novel.

Why do you think interest in LARPs has grown so much in the past few decades?

I think this is a function of two things. First, mainstream culture has embraced geekdom wholeheartedly in the last several decades. Between the Lord of the Rings movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Big Screen, the huge successes of webseries like The Guild and LARPs, and of course The Big Bang Theory and World of Warcraft, it’s become OK to get dressed up as your favorite character and go to a convention. For instance, SDCC sells out of passes within minutes each year!

Second, it’s so much easier to find like-minded individuals nowadays. Growing up in Houston, I was able to find our local SCA folks (they were in the Yellow Pages!), but if anyone was LARPing down there, I didn’t know about it. Today, if you’re interested in giving it a try, it’s just a couple clicks away to find a group that’s playing the sort of game you want to get into.

How do you find playing RPGs complements your writing?

Playing RPGs expands your imagination, and without imagination, there’s no writing. I’ve played characters from sneaky rogues to flamboyant pirates to an elderly grandmother who could knit as well as she could cast the evil eye. Getting into a character and interacting with the others in your group—taking what they bring and building on it—is a great way to experience others’ personalities. Personalities that you could then turn into characters!

On the other side, the RPG view does run the risk of making your foils one-dimensional. Players think of elaborate backstories that brought their character to this point in time and spend hours roleplaying with one another. Then, in six rounds of combat they run ramshackle over the baddie and his henchmen, loot the bodies, and move on. Those baddies must have had just as complex reasons for doing what they did, but because they only exist as a speed bump in the overall campaign, we never really think much about that.

For a Young Adult book, where do you draw the line on violence? How about sexuality?

In a fantasy adventure novel, violence is almost a given, simply due to the nature of the genre. Some baddie is going to be defeated by the good guy, who will use swords or magic or both. I’ve used my own kids as my guide—what would I be comfortable for them to read? In most cases, my descriptions are enough to get the point across without being something that will give my kids nightmares. The reader will be creating their own images in their heads, and if someone is envisioning a bloodier battle, their minds can certainly go there with what I’ve provided

Sexuality, I just punted. It’s All Fun and Games isn’t a romance novel (or even a fantasy romance novel). I left myself a little wiggle room if I really wanted to head down that route with sequels, but I’m pretty sure it’s the last thing on their minds right now. Only one of the characters is even old enough to drive, so even if I decide to pair off any of the characters, it’s going to be pretty tame. If readers want a novel that explores teenage sexuality, there are plenty of choices on the market.

Check out It’s All Fun and Games at Inkshares (or on Amazon) and keep an eye on the latest news on Facebook. For your bonus action, follow Dave Barrett on Twitter.

 

Creative Colleagues: Mike Myler

Mike Myler

Mike Myler

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Mike Myler and I have a few friends in common, but I had no idea how much our tastes overlap until we chatted about Mists of Akuma. Film noir? Check. Asian fantasy? Check. Steampunk? Well, we both like that a little, so let’s call that 3/3.

Yours is not the first Eastern Fantasy/Steampunk mashup I’ve noticed. Why do those genres go together so well?

I think that there’s a mystique inherent to both—a sense of the unknown and unexpected that pairs nicely. Also there’s a sort of ramshackle quality both genres can have which resonates when the two interact. The order of descriptors for Mists of Akuma is intentional: eastern fantasy first, noir second, and steampunk third.

It’s an eastern world with dark overtones, and there happens to be steampunk in it, but it’s not an overwhelming presence. I’m a Warhammer 40k junkie, and I adore the relationship that universe has with technology and heresy, so here we’ve combined them. In Mists of Akuma, one of the major elements of the setting are tsukumogami, objects that transform into creatures on their 100th birthday. Because most technology is from afar or antiquated, it inspires fear because that rifle you’ve got might wake up and try to kill you!

Why add noir to the mix? And what do you mean by “noir”?

I’m an early graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Film Studies, so my go-to answer on what qualifies as noir comes from a seminal article on the subject by Paul Schrader in 1971: Notes on Film Noir. You can read the whole bit here, though this link is to the specific part I’m referencing).

The thing to understand about noir is that it was a genre of film borne from circumstance. If you check out Schrader’s article, you’ll find several different stylistic things that tie all films noir, no matter how disparate, to the genre—scenes largely lit for night, a Freudian fear of water, oblique lines in the mise-en-scène. Think about Westerns with their big, wide horizontal landscapes and compare that to films noir—lots of vertical blinds, disruptive vertical shadows, and the like. These are the results of budgetary restraints and production realities, but most of the directors behind these movies (notably Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder) had fled from the rise of Nazism and were masters of German Expressionism. The lack of lighting that creates the dark ambiance of a film noir has to do with energy limits; there are stories of lighting techs breaking down into tears because their producers came down on them so hard. These are all reflective of the US wartime economy and the stylistic choices forced on those movies.

Why is Mists of Akuma a noir setting? The world is predicated for you to lose against a constant battle to retain your virtue. I had a hankering for a dark setting, not something borne out of old school horror but of desperation. The antiheroic roles of noir protagonists was a perfect fit, doubly so because corruption is a major part of the world. It became clear that noir was a term that fits what we want GMs and players to expect when they sit down for a game in Soburin. Victories are few, Pyrrhic, and usually involve a great deal of sacrifice.

RPG adventures come in many forms, from location-based exploration to plot-driven investigations and other variations. What sorts of adventures work best in the Mists of Akuma setting?

City-based adventures have proven the best so far, but we’re building the setting in such a way that quests will be easy to come by. To fight the demon-spewing Mists of Akuma that roil over Soburin, the Masuto Imperial Family has decreed that each of the 23 clans have “bengoshi,” functionaries able to deputize people to help keep order. There’s an obvious love for investigations, and GMs will find the detailed entries we’re focusing on very useful for those purposes. Our first stretch goal is for the DM of my youth to write an adventure to be included in the book: Will of the Palemaster, a module that takes place in a fort during a festival when the Mists of Akuma suddenly appear!

Mists of AkumaPeople who already love Eastern Fantasy are probably already sold on Mists of Akuma, but how do you tempt those who’re used to “classic” (European) fantasy?

I’d point out that this is not a steampunk world—it is a world with steampunk in it—and that Eastern Fantasy is the first descriptor because that’s what the primary focus of Mists of Akuma is. You can still get a lot of excellent use out of the samurai sacred oath, tsukumogami hunter, imperial dragons, oni monsters, 23 distinctive clans, eastern weapons, martial arts stance feats, more than two dozen new race options, character backgrounds, and more. Those who check out the free preview PDFs will find that there’s no shortage of material they can mine for a more traditional game. It’s also not hard to imagine Soburin before foreign technology arrived, so removing the influence of technology altogether won’t be difficult.

What’s a list of 10 films/comics/novels/TV show that inspired Mists of Akuma?

Jeez man, did you do a background check on me! Auugh! I’m just going to list these straight off the top of my head because, frankly, there’re so many.

Afro Samurai

Samurai Champloo

Ravenloft

Warhammer 40k (all the fiction)

Sin City (both the comics and movies)

Eberron (from WotC)

Rokugan (and the original Oriental Adventures)

Jade Empire (on the old Xbox)

The Maltese Falcon (I’ve literally lost count of how many times I’ve watched this movie—prepare for many, many double-crosses), Gun Crazy, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Kill or be Killed, Ace in the Hole, White Heat (so sue me, there’s a lot of really good film noir)

Samurai Jack

Check out the Mists of Akuma Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Paris Crenshaw is one of the friends I first met at PaizoCon, back when I first wrote for Pathfinder Tales. I don’t think we ever discussed the coincidence, but Paris and I both grew up in Virginia, and we almost attended the same university.

When we met, Paris was already writing for Wayfinder in the precious little time he could find between his navy career and family obligations. Since then, he’s contributed to Champions of Corruption, Faiths & Philosophies, the Inner Sea NPC Codex, and other publications.

Now Paris has designed a five-chapter adventure sage for both Pathfinder and D&D. Trail of the Apprentice bridges a gap between introductory games, like the Pathfinder Beginner Box and D&D Starter Set, and the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and the D&D adventure hardcovers. Published by Legendary games, the series is aimed at younger and beginner players. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter, but since it’s already achieved its funding goal, the next three weeks are all about hitting those stretch goals.

Apart from simplified rules, what changes do you make to a roleplaying adventure to make it perfect for younger or novice players?

When I’m writing adventures for novice players, especially younger players, I focus on the structure of the story. I try to keep the story focused, with clear connections between events. Encounters need to flow logically from one to the next. An experienced gamer may criticize this approach as “railroading,” but a more linear adventure is helpful to new players. Games like D&D and Pathfinder are complex. There are a lot of moving parts, and many different components define a single character. When you’re still trying to figure out what things your character can do, having to figure out what your character should do adds another level of confusion. The sheer number of options can lead to paralysis and cause players to shy away from the game. For very low level adventures, I make it clear that certain locations are specifically designed to limit players’ choices. That way, they can focus on moving forward and figure out how their characters can face one challenge at a time. As they gain experience with the game, they can get more opportunities to make decisions that impact the direction the story takes.

Obviously, when working with younger players, content is also a consideration. Having grown out of wargames, tabletop RPGs have always had a tradition of fighting and combat, so I don’t want to try to remove that, but I do want to help keep things clear for players. I want to make sure that the player characters are portrayed as heroes and their enemies are clearly “bad guys.” I think it’s important that this “bad guy” status is based on actions, rather than just by nature of being a certain type of creature. The PCs need to be able to see that if they have to fight an enemy, it’s either because that enemy is trying to hurt them or because it’s doing something clearly very bad. As we get older, we can enjoy delving into the gray areas of morality, but that kind of thinking is challenging for younger players (admittedly, it’s challenging for many older ones, too). Trying to remove that ambiguity can be difficult, because I know that different players are going to have different values. I may not always hit the mark, but I hope I’m able to keep to a decent middle ground while still making things interesting.

What considerations do you keep in mind for the Game Master when designing these adventures? How much hand-holding is necessary? 

In terms of designing the module—the actual printed adventure—one of the things I decided to do was to place full stat blocks alongside each encounter. That stat block is slimmed down to present only the information the GM needs, but it’s on the page where the encounter happens. That way, the GM doesn’t have to go to a different book to find the information he needs about the creatures in that encounter. That’s a pretty significant difference from other modules. Usually, the goal is to provide as much story information as possible and word count is limited by the product’s format. Publishers often encourage writers to reference monsters or non-player characters who already have statistics in other books. Legendary Games let me try my own approach for Trail of the Apprentice, and I think it will help GMs be more comfortable with running the encounters. They can branch out to other sources later when they know the system better.

The other thing that designers can do when writing for new GMs is to rely on tropes. Modern media has really embraced much of geek culture, but gamers have always been the type of people who are exposed to a wide variety of material. We often try to stay away from familiar stories or concepts because we’re trying to offer our players something new and different. That’s great for players who’ve “seen it all,” but when you’re new to the game, especially if you’re very young, it’s actually better to rely on what’s familiar. The players can help you tell the story if they have a sense of how it’s supposed to go. GMs may be afraid that players will think they’re just copying a favorite book or movie, but the truth is that many people enjoy RPGs because they get a chance to be a part of their favorite stories. Embrace that concept.

With a willingness to borrow from tropes or familiar storylines, GMs don’t have to worry so much about forgetting where they’re supposed to go next. As an author, I know you’ve created intricate and original plots, and I’m willing to bet that you have to keep notes to make sure you stay on track. I’m also willing to bet that you have to refer to those notes and revise them as your characters evolve through the story. If it’s challenging to stay on track when you’re a writer who controls all the characters, it’s even more difficult for a GM who has a group of players all contributing their own characters’ actions. It takes a long time to learn how to handle that kind of complexity. By starting with something familiar, everyone can have a good time while learning the game together.

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

In both rules and settings, there’s a spectrum between generic and specific. How generic do you feel an adventure should be to appeal to the broadest audience without losing a sense of setting as character?

While I love world building, I have to remind myself that stories really are more about the characters than about the setting. A good adventure should have a story that brings out the PCs, no matter where it’s set, but many details that influence characters’ decisions are derived from the setting. It’s also true that many things that make an adventure interesting are the little details, which are usually derived from some kind of history or background. It’s hard to create those interesting details for a specific setting. On the other hand, if you base the whole adventure on something that is unique to one setting, it can be difficult to use that adventure somewhere else.

A good example of the latter situation is the The Whispering Cairn, the first part of Paizo’s second adventure path, Age of Worms, in Dungeon magazine. I loved that adventure path, but it was set in Greyhawk, and I’d always been partial to the Forgotten Realms. Without going into spoilers, a specific, legendary magic item features in that adventure. The item just doesn’t exist in the Realms. So, in order to make it fit, I had to come up with a similar item and create a whole new history. I actually posted that stuff on the Paizo message board. It was fun to create, but it took a lot of time and energy. Busy GMs don’t usually have the luxury of spending so much time on that kind of conversion.

Designers can make things easier by placing the adventures in areas that have analogues. Create situations where it isn’t too difficult to change some proper nouns and rearrange locations so that people can use the story in whatever setting the group it using. The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and even Golarion all have areas that are fairly close in terms of culture and theme. They have differences that make them unique but are similar enough that you can adapt modules for use in the setting of your choice. For example, if you’re a Golarion fan, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to play the Trail of the Apprentice campaign in that world’s River Kingdoms region.

Especially in my TSR and WotC days, I met a lot of military gamers. As a Naval officer, what do you think is the particular appeal of games like D&D and Pathfinder to military personnel?

My experience is through the lens of an officer, so it’s perhaps a little different. After college, my gaming took a precipitous plunge, because officers just didn’t admit that they were gamers. I had one or two friends who I knew were gamers, but we were scattered around the world. The rules against socializing with junior personnel to prevent fraternization made it unwise to get a group of sailors together. And ashore, as a Naval officer, building a gaming group with civilians was tough, because we would get underway for weeks at a time, making it even more difficult to keep a campaign going. It wasn’t until later in my career, around 2000 when I was at Monterey, that I met a bunch of fellow officers who were also gamers and we got a group going. Since then, I’ve managed to keep up with gaming, either via play-by-post games, online tools like d20Pro, or more recently, via a regular in-person game with friends I’ve made in San Diego. Now that I’m in my forties, I’m meeting lots of officers and senior enlisted folks my age who are avid gamers. It makes me wish I’d been more open about my geeky hobby when I was younger.

Regardless, tabletop gaming is much more visible and common among the junior enlisted personnel. For some reason, it’s more accepted among 18 or 19 year olds right out of high school than it is in 22 year-olds right out of college. I think the enlisted folks who pass the time with RPGs appreciate that it’s a social game that has some strategy and tactical elements. During long deployments, sailors and soldiers are going to see their comrades every day and get into set routines. For people who enjoy gaming, it can be a great opportunity to really make progress in a campaign. Another plus is that, unlike console or PC games, you don’t need electricity to play. There are tons of software-based tools to help manage campaigns, and most folks can take laptops with them on deployment, these days, but they aren’t necessary. Dice, paper, pencils, and some rulebooks are really all you need. Maybe a little more involved than a deck of cards, but still a great option for passing the time between watches and drills.

What are some of the classic roleplaying modules that influence your design sensibility? And what are a few “modern classics” gamers should seek out?

I didn’t really start playing D&D regularly until 2nd Edition, so I missed many of the true “classics.” But I did get to enjoy many early modules. I clearly remember that sessions from the module Wildspace, the Legend of Spelljammer box set, and the Ravenloft module Feast of Goblyns taught me a lot about dealing with players who weren’t interested in the module’s storyline. That probably wasn’t the fault of the modules, per se, but learning when the players just aren’t interested in what’s going on in an adventure is a skill that a good GM needs to develop. So is knowing that you shouldn’t try to argue too much about physics when you’re playing in a fantasy space setting where entire solar systems are encased in massive crystal bubbles.

Trying to run the Time of Troubles series and playing in the Curse of the Azure Bonds for the Forgotten Realms taught me how forcing the player characters to stick too closely to the events in novels can ruin the fun for everyone. Those modules were fun to read, but the Time of Troubles, in particular, cast the player characters in supporting roles for the story’s main characters. That should never be the case. Things can be going on in the background and the heroes may not be able to influence them, but the players should be the ones making a real impact on the world.

As for “modern classics”? That’s tough. There are so many great adventures being published these days. I love Paizo’s adventure paths. I’ve already mentioned The Whispering Cairn from Dungeon #124, and I think that’s probably one of the best. I’ve been a player in the Kingmaker story and in Legacy of Fire, and I enjoy both of them. Kingmaker in particular puts the player characters in the center of the story and allows the players to shape how that story moves along. However, it was designed as a sandbox, and I don’t think it’s the best choice for new players and GMs because there are so many choices and it takes a skilled GM to keep things “on track” toward the encounters in the later adventures. I also think that the adventures set in Darkmoon Vale for the Pathfinder setting are great: Hollow’s Last Hope, Crown of the Kobold King, Revenge of the Kobold King, and Hungry Are the Dead make up a fantastic series with cool dungeons and other adventure sites and a backdrop that feels like an old Western town. Kind of like living in Deadwood or Lahood (from Pale Rider).

You can keep tabs on Paris on Facebook. And don’t forget to check out the Trail of the Apprentice Kickstarter campaign.