Creative Colleagues: Domini Gee & Erin Onufrichuk

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.

Domini Gee and I met recently at a mixer for video-game developers. There she told me about her upcoming project, which she has developed with Erin Onufrichuk after they met at Global Game Jam. After finishing her Master’s degree, Domini has worked as a writer, proofreader, and game tester. Erin is a co-founder of EXP-resso Mutt and works on many weird projects. Having joined forces since 2015, they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign for Camera Anima.

What are some of the games that inspired you to design your own games?

Erin Onufrichuk

Erin Onufrichuk: I’ve been playing games since I was a little girl, so I want to say Spyro for Playstation One is what started it. Without that series, I don’t think I would have even thought of making a game. I could list a lot of games, but I want to say more of it is the indie world. Small teams create big things that make you happy, and that’s what I want to do. 

Domini Gee: Final Fantasy was a formulative series for me. I’d played Sonic, Pokemon, Digimon World, and more than a few movie-to-game adaptations, but I don’t think I started thinking of games as a way to tell stories until I watched my sister play Final Fantasy IX—and subsequently stole it to play myself. While I did a lot of writing growing up, I didn’t start thinking of applying that to videogames until I took a course on videogame history. My professor mentioned that the university would be starting a videogame design certificate, and I thought, “Wait, that’s an option?”

What is Ren’Py, and how did it help you build your game?

Domini Gee

DG: Ren’Py is a free visual novel engine geared toward helping you create interactive stories with an emphasis on text, images, and sound. A large part of why I started using the engine—love of visual novels aside—was because it’s friendly to non-programmers. The engine generates a save system, a basic set of menus, and start-quit functions off the bat, allowing you to focus on making your game. From there, you can make things as complex as you need.

With Camera Anima, point-and-click gameplay has been the core mechanic since the first demo but the gameplay’s become more refined as we’ve grown more familiar with the engine.  In the first demo, it was a basic hover-click-feedback loop. In later demos, we added things like an inventory system, item equips, and an exploration wheel. There’s a lot of other backdoor stuff that happens to get it to work but, for someone not trained as a programmer, I feel pretty good about what we’ve been able to do thanks to the engine. 

You each have your own areas of expertise, but in what ways do you join forces on the same tasks and directly influence each other’s creativity?

EO: I’d say we join forces in the sense Domini writes the vision and I just pull it out of the digital ink. We both see what something should look like in the end of things. 

DG: Yeah, having someone else involved not only gives you a second set of eyes but it also makes you feel responsible for making sure the other person can do their work. There are concepts that seem straight-forward in my head, but then when I explain it to someone else and they aren’t clear to them, then that tells me it’s time to take a step back and make sure we’re on the same page.

What is the enduring appeal of Steampunk? And how did you decide what other fantastic elements to add to it in your game?

DG: A large part of Steampunk’s appeal, at least for me, is that it’s a romanticized twist on the past. While the Victorian aesthetic is a common base, you don’t haveto be historically accurate. You can pick and choose which aesthetics appeal to you.

With Camera Anima, we used steampunk’s fantastical elements to explain why concepts we had were possible in this world but not ours. The reason the main setting is floating islands? Because it’s filled with aether deposits. The reason technology can be more advanced in certain areas? Its reliant on alternative energy sources like phlogiston and aether crystals. The reason there’s a serial-killer automaton? Because I was drawn to the image of a Jack the Ripper style antagonist, but as a robot.

What are your earliest impressions of crowdfunding and the ways it helps (or hinders) you creatively?

EO: I’m currently waiting for an overdue reward from crowdfunding, which puts a sour taste in my mouth. That makes me understand that someone else might also feel that way. Other than that, I think crowdfunding is an excellent thing, it breaks down so many barriers for creatives. It teaches you the value of marketing yourself to the niche you want to fill.

DG: I agree that the idea of disappointing a bunch of people who’ve put faith in your vision is scary. However, crowdfunding has also pushed us to consider our audience sooner. We have an opportunity to get feedback and implement it.

How do you account for the enduring appeal of point-and-click games in a world of action shooters and RPGs?

DG: I think it helps that point-and-click’s a genre that has helped create a lot of many memorable games. While people think puzzle or adventure games, point-and-click is one of the first mechanics that comes to mind. It’s also a very flexible mechanic. If you can move the cursor and click on something, you can use it. The nature of point-and-click is relaxing and encourages creative thinking.

EO: Shooter games make me panic. I don’t ever think I have enough time, and sure enough I’m down for the count. Point-and-click has a nicer attitude, and the story is what I really care about when it comes to a game.

To follow their current projects, check out Domini’s and Erin’s websites. And don’t forget to take a look at Camera Anima on Kickstarter.

Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

The inevitable Marc Tassin.

You’ve met Marc Tassin once or twice before on this blog. The former director of the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con, he’s also a world-creating game designer. Half of his basement is a game room, and the other half is a shrine to Star Wars toys. A gamer since the 7th Grade, he designed his own RPG in high school and sold his first Dragon Magazine article in 2004.

His latest Kickstarter introduces the next wave of his grand opus, the World of Aetaltis. If you happen to be at Gen Con this year, you can find him at various events. If you whisper, “Dave sent me,” he might have a little gift for you.

You’ve mentioned learning from mistakes in previous Aetaltis Kickstarters. What would you have done differently?

I would have published the full campaign setting first. The books we put out got people excited, which is awesome, but when we couldn’t immediately follow up with the full setting it made it tough to keep people engaged. In fact, the more excited you get people with a thing, the more disappointed they are when they can’t immediately get more.

I’d also trust my instincts more. When we started, I ran with my crazy ideas, and it went great. Once more people got involved with the project, I got nervous. I grew conservative and tried to emulate what other companies did to make sure I didn’t let down the rest of the team. Instead of making things better, the safe path ground the whole project to a halt. It wasn’t until I stopped worrying about “the way the rest of the industry does it” and trusted my ideas that everything started popping again. And it’s way more fun doing it this way.

“Droth’s Blessing” by Russel Marks.

Aetaltis seems to have something for everyone, but what are some of the unique features of the setting? How do you balance the familiar with the unexpected in creating a world for gamers who are used to certain tropes but who don’t want the “same old” all the time?

There are a ton of new things to discover in Aetaltis—new races, new monsters, new lands—but I think the most unique aspect is the story I’ve wrapped around the world. It’s a story that is tied to the larger story of the universe where Aetaltis resides, and it hints at deeper mysteries that could significantly impact the world and its people (and thus the players).

And while it draws on traditional heroic fantasy ideas, I’ve added some modern twists. 

As an example, I included a clearly identifiable set of “bad guys,” the endrori. These are monsters who it is morally and unquestionably appropriate for the heroes to fight and defeat. At the same time, I’ve woven in more modern ideas about how something becomes “evil,” the issues of nature vs nurture, the question of personal choice, and the temptations of power. So you can still go out and fight the orcs without guilt or doubt, but there is a deeper story underneath it that taps into more modern concepts about the nature of evil.

As for making cool fantasy tropes and classic fantasy stuff work, I think it’s all about working out what made it a trope in the first place. Why is it that dwarves building grand underground cities is a requirement for us to recognize a fantasy race as dwarves, whereas other elements you can leave out and no one even notices? If you can work this out, and I’ve spent a ton of time working on this, you figure out what you can safely change while still benefiting from what we love about the thing.

Kevin Fiege (the guy behind the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is my hero when it comes to this. The guy has found the perfect formula for teasing out what makes Marvel and its characters part of the modern mythology of western culture. He knows which elements he can tweak, and which you don’t mess with. If I can pull of just a little of his magic with classic fantasy and Aetaltis, I’ll be thrilled,

Fiction for game settings seems less prevalent these days. Why do you think that is? Has something replaced it? 

I don’t think the problem is that something replaced the fiction for fantasy settings. In fact, I strongly believe that a market for it exists, maybe more today than ever before, but the state of the publishing industry makes it tricky for game companies to make it work financially. The things that made it possible to get amazing game fiction into people’s hands in the past aren’t there anymore. One of my goals with Aetaltis is to crack the code that lets us turn this around. Wish me luck on this one! I’m not the first person to try to solve this problem, but I’m going to try.

“Owlbear Attack” by Russel Marks.

More and more celebrities have become vocal about their love of roleplaying games, some of them even playing in online videos. Are the fans they’ve attracted different from “old gamers”? 

I love how many people are getting into roleplaying games. I couldn’t be happier. And it’s no surprise to me that this is happening. Roleplaying games are a blast. And the people discovering roleplaying games today aren’t any different from the veteran gamers. There are the usual generational differences, but that’s got nothing to do with the game. As gamers, they’re exactly like the folks who have been gaming for years.

What is the single most important element of a fantasy RPG adventure? A compelling villain? An intricate map? Gnarly monsters? Awesome treasure? Something else?

You need all that stuff, but the most important thing? A clear goal. If the heroes have a clear goal set before them, it drives the entire adventure. Every encounter is about that goal. Every creature they fight is an obstacle between them and their goal. And once they achieve the goal, they know they’ve won and have the satisfaction of having clearly achieved victory. And you don’t need to write the goal for them. If you can write the adventure in a way that compels the players to commit to a goal of their own right at the start, that works even better.

The World of Aetaltis Kickstarter has almost met its funding goal already with 24 more days to go. Go take a look!

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…

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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.