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.
While I knew him by reputation, I first met Keith Baker at the Calgary Comics & Entertainment Expo, where we indulged in that hoariest of author traditions and traded our novels. You may know him as the creator of the Eberron setting or the deliciously wicked Gloom card game. At the time of this post, he’s minding a Kickstarter campaign for the Phoenix: Dawn Command card-based roleplaying game, which I just noticed is now a Kickstarter Staff Pick!
When he’s not designing games or writing fiction, Keith walks the earth like Caine from Kung Fu, running games for the common people everywhere.
1. All roleplaying games have an element of story, and you’re a novelist as well as a game designer. In what ways do you approach story differently in prose fiction compared with a roleplaying game? And how about a card game? And other sorts of games?
My favorite thing about RPGs is that they allow collaborative storytelling. When I write a novel, it is inherently my story. When I run a session of an RPG, it’s something that I am creating with a group of people. When I traveled the world in 2009, I ran a particular D&D scenario 59 times. No session played exactly the same, and it was always fun for me to see the new approaches and ideas that each group brought to the table. It also lets you tailor elements to the individual group—what do they care about? What frightens them? This is also what I enjoy about my card game Gloom. Storytelling isn’t required, but the game provides a framework that helps inspire stories, and the things that people come up with are my favorite aspect of playing the game. My current project Phoenix draws on both of these aspects—calling on the players to collaborate in the story, and providing lots of optional hooks for to inspire storytelling.
2. Tell us more about how death strengthens and defines the characters in Phoenix: Dawn Command? What inspired you to use death as such an integral element of the game’s story?
The defining element of the heroes of Phoenix: Dawn Command is the ability to return from death stronger than before. You don’t gain power by killing others; instead, you advance by dying and learning lessons from each life and death. Mechanically this is represented by adding cards to your deck—gaining new ongoing and short-term abilities, along with additional health and mystical energy.
However, there’s a few restrictions. You can only come back seven times. You don’t come back right away. Each time you die you become stronger, but you’re also getting closer to the end. In addition, the abilities you gain are based on the reasons for your death. We have six Schools in Phoenix, each of which have certain powers and each of which is tied to a different sort of death. If you died because you weren’t tough enough, you will learn Durant lessons—abilities that help with survival. If you died sacrificing yourself for others, you can gain Devoted powers that help you strengthen others in the future. And so on. So it’s not just a power bump; it’s about thinking of what brought you to death and what you’re taking away from it, which helps create a sense of character evolution.
Why death? In part it’s tied to the setting of the game. Phoenix takes place in a world that’s been fighting a losing struggle against a host of supernatural horrors. At the start of the game, even the true nature of the threat remains a mystery; one of the most important things players can do is to learn why these attacks are happening. As a result, you are regularly placed in situations where the odds are stacked against you and where success of the mission is more important than your own personal survival. It’s a setting that frequently calls for heroic sacrifice, but in most games choosing to die simply isn’t an option. In Phoenix there are consequences for death: again, you have a limited number of lives, you don’t come back right away or where you died, and most missions are time-sensitive and there will be consequences if the entire team falls. It’s not a trivial thing, but it’s a setting where sacrifices have to be made and a system where you can make those sacrifices without its being the end of your story.
3. Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game that uses cards instead of the traditional dice. What advantages do cards offer this particular game?
The most immediate effect is that cards offer the players a greater degree of narrative control. In a dice-based system I can see a demon, make a dramatic heartfelt speech, use my biggest attack… and then roll a one. In Phoenix, I can look at my hand and tell if I have the cards I need to make that attack successful… and if not, what I’d have to sacrifice to push myself beyond my normal limits. Card draw is random, and I may simply not have what I need to succeed in a particular moment. But if that’s the case I know that, and it becomes a question of how I can contribute with the cards I do have.
Essentially, this is a game where you may be laying down your life to make a last stand… but at least you have a sense of exactly what you can accomplish with that sacrifice instead of having that be entirely up to chance.
4. Now that you’re in the thick of a Kickstarter campaign, what has surprised you about it in either a good or a bad way? Does the platform aid your creative process (with backer feedback) or drain it (by making you act more like a business manager)?
The actual act of running the Kickstarter—handling day-to-day questions and communications—isn’t that bad. But frankly, I’d never have done this on my own precisely because of the amount of business management that’s involved around the Kickstarter. Getting quotes from printers. Figuring out domestic and international fulfillment. Warehousing. Distribution beyond the Kickstarter. I love writing and designing games, but this isn’t my strength. Luckily, I have a business partner who’s on top of all of those things and gives me confidence in our plans. But it’s not something I’d going into casually. Money can solve these problems—there are people you can pay to do all of these things—but it’s important to realize that there’s far more to a successful Kickstarter than just having a good idea for a game.
5. Many gamers and game masters are storytellers, but not all end up producing fiction, games, or comics themselves. Where’s the bridge that leads from gaming as a hobby to designing or writing professionally? Are the tools different? Is it a matter of butt-in-chair? Is it a question of talent?
One of the big questions is the motivation for making the leap. For many people, the best part about gaming is creating a story with friends. When I was running games around the world, one of my hosts described it as creating a “personal mythology”—stories that bound his friends together, but had no real meaning for anyone else. It’s much harder to create a product that anyone will like than to come up with a story that you know your personal friends will enjoy. Beyond that, it’s the same as any other sort of writing: starting with a good idea, having the discipline to see it through, and being prepared to deal with rejection or the need to make changes to meet the needs of the final audience.
So if there’s a gaming group that’s been creating amazing stories and having a fantastic time for a decade, I don’t consider them failures for not taking those tales to a wider audience!