Six Questions: Daniel Garrison


I first met Daniel Garrison in 2011. He’s a brilliant designer and one of the finest game masters I’ve played with. In 2013 we began working on an RPG project together, which ultimately evolved into Phoenix Dawn Command. But just who IS Daniel Garrison?

Phoenix: Dawn Command is your first foray into the gaming industry. But where does the Dan Garrison story begin? Who are you, and how did you fall into the sordid world of roleplaying games?

I’ve been gaming for over twenty years. When I was ten years old I scored the early 80s Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set – the one with Keep on the Borderlands – from a garage sale. It was in pretty rough shape, with some of the pages and dice missing. My parents were a little skeptical if I was ready for it – the box back then said “ages twelve and up” – but there was no way they could have torn it away from me. Even with nobody else to play with (my brother and sister were too young) I must have read it cover to cover a million times.
From there, I think an embarrassing amount of Bar Mitzvah money went to all sorts of 2d ed AD&D books, and that’s when I tried my first abortive attempts at GMing with my brother and our friends – I was always running games because my friends just wanted to play characters. I went into a new high school where I didn’t know anybody – a science & tech magnet program where everyone was pretty nerdy – and gaming was a great way to make new friends, and it has been ever since. 

You came up with one of the core concepts of Phoenix: Dawn Command – the idea of a game where death is what makes you stronger. What inspired this?
It was killing you, Keith! (evil GM laugh) Traditional role playing games are interesting. We’re exploring genres where people and monsters die a lot – lord knows our characters kill a bunch of things and take their stuff – but death of your own character is always a really touchy subject. There has to be the threat of death – otherwise there are no stakes, no tension to these life or death situations your character experiences. But actually killing off PCs? I can probably count the times on my fingers, even after GMing for twenty years. Nobody wants to die because they rolled a one, and nobody wants to die because the GM executes them by fiat. A lot of GMs (myself included) sort of have an unspoken social contract with their players – even at 0 hp, you’re not really dead. Your healer can fix you. There’s a resurrection spell. There’s no real permanent harm, because gamers HATE permanent harm to their characters – our characters are supposed to grow more powerful, more experienced, not diminished – and permanent death is the ultimate diminishment.

But in the stories our games are supposed to emulate, sometimes protagonists die. It’s usually one of the most powerful moments for that character, where their lives and their meaning is redefined in the moment of death. I think about Boromir in the Lord of the Rings – until he dies, he’s just the jerk who betrays the Fellowship and is corrupted by the Ring. When he dies, he shows how brave and loyal he is, that he’s regretted coveting the Ring, and he saves his friends from certain death. Dramatically, we weigh that scene more heavily than everything we know about Boromir that came before.

I experienced that personally in a game with Keith’s character Summer, in a long term Exalted game I ran – Keith was moving out-of-state and we knew that we had to give his character an exit, and we orchestrated a death that was dramatic, timely and that left this huge legacy that affected all of the other players and the world of the game. It was awesome. And I found myself thinking, as a GM, how do I encourage more of that?

The answer that I came to that became Phoenix: Dawn Command seemed ridiculous at first and then obvious. Take the ultimate catnip for your players – leveling up and becoming more powerful – and marry it to dying. They’ll be lining up to make noble sacrifices and high-stakes risky gambits and last-gasp monologues. And playing a Phoenix, you will, and it’s great.

If you were going to be stuck in a remote arctic colony with only three roleplaying games – other than ones you’ve designed – what would they be?

Oh wow, this is an incredibly difficult question, but a few stand out:

Nobilis (Jenna Moran, Hogshead Press edition) – Nobilis, when it came out, looked nothing like other gaming products. It’s this beautiful white coffee table book that doesn’t fit on your gaming shelf, with fantastic art and layout. It wasn’t the first RPG to completely abandon dice, but it was one of the first, and that was just one of rules of game mechanics it totally broke. It’s a hard game for me to run, not because of the mechanics, but because I set the bar too high, wanting a campaign that’s as beautiful and moving and disturbing and weird as what I read in the book. Every other page or so has these microfictions – short stories between a sentence and two paragraphs – that are incredible. There’s so much inspiration here.

Apocalypse World (Vincent Baker) – Vincent Baker’s two games he’s most known for, Apocalypse World and Dogs in the Vineyard, are both so good, but AW in particular completely turned the way I think about game design on its head. With traditional RPGs, we caution against railroading your PCs but we also encourage it – you need to have a plot, after all. We depend on the GM for the narrative but we also resent them for limiting our characters’ agency, by forcing us to follow that narrative. AW and my favorite of its spiritual successors, Monsterhearts, control the GM’s agency and force them into being responsive to player actions. The scene grows organically and the narrative control is shared as players choose their own consequences. It’s funny as a GM to admire a game where GMs are more limited in what they can do, but it’s awesome – the story goes places you would never come up with on your own, while still feeling natural and dramatically satisfying.

Exalted (White Wolf) – Exalted is an epic martial-arts fantasy setting that combines extremely powerful PCs with a kitchen sink of every sort of fantasy and anime and mythic trope you can imagine – God-kings! Ninjas! Vampires! Dinosaurs! Fair Folk! Robots! When they weighed whether “does this makes cohesive sense” vs. “is this awesome” they just hit the “awesome” button a hundred times. The mechanics are just as wild. Game balance? Whatever. You can basically be invincible with some starting character builds. I love this! Nobody else figures out what the stakes are for the guy who can’t die. I watched a PC parry the moon. The freakin’ moon. Not a scratch. Later on there’s martial arts that turn you into a 4-dimensional being or that create infinite copies of your character or that turn the guy you touch (that invincible guy that can’t die) into an unloved goldfish. How’s them apples? Now, does this present opportunities to break your game? Yes. But Exalted is the sportscar that goes up to 1,000 miles per hour but is only safety-tested up to 100. You can go the speed limit and you’ll be fine. But you’ll be tempted to see how fast it goes. You’re probably okay up to around 300 mph. The resulting crash and explosion is very entertaining.

While Phoenix is the first game you’ve worked on professionally, you’ve created a number of interesting systems and settings in your home campaigns. What are a few of your favorites?

Well, for setting, there was the Exalted game in which we met – Academy of Keys. Exalted usually operates at a demi-god level of power, but the PCs started as mortals, washed up naked on the shores of the Academy, a school/prison for the various types of Exalted. Think Hogwarts, but you can’t leave, and “Defense from the Dark Arts” class is actually “Defense from Your Monstrous Classmates.” The PCs, still human, slowly worked their way up from the bottom of the Academy and became Exalted in the process, eventually meeting and exceeding the power level of their most terrible enemies. There were all these teams of classmates, NPCs who the player characters could interact with, through combat and dueling but also through politics and partying and dating around. There was a baccarat tournament that we invented a new card game for! There was a cooking contest, and storytelling to the death, and a battle of the bands. And lots of murder, and they save the world and crown a new Empress and all that. Just the best sort of sandbox setting, and all the players and my assistant GM contributed so much extra material; I’ve never felt so spoiled as a GM.

For systems, two come to mind. The first, Saints and Devils, was a diceless convention game in a supernatural Western setting. The PCs are these agents of divine justice, but they’re paired up: Saints are these righteous gunslingers who judge the wicked, but they’re each spiritually connected with a Devil, these tricky con men with magical abilities to trick and tempt people but who are forbidden from handling weapons. If either the Saint or Devil dies, their partner dies too, so even if the Saint and Devil don’t see eye to eye they have to watch out for each other. And different Saints can have different ideas of justice: some are forgiving, some want to hang ’em high; the Devils tend to just want to have fun and get away with stuff.

The other system I’d like to mention, Swords and Cups, was my first foray into using cards for conflict resolution in games instead of dice. Inspired by Tim Powers’Last Call, each player has their own deck of tarot cards that they use to represent their character. By making tarot spreads, the PCs could bend or change fate to their advantage depending on the suits they were strong in. Although it went through many iterations, and changed genre a couple times, some of this system became the core of the card resolution mechanic we use in Phoenix: Dawn Command. There’s a lot I like about these systems, and I could see revisiting them again in the future.

What’s your favorite aspect of Phoenix: Dawn Command?

Well, there are a lot of system things that I’m impressed and excited by when I see them in play – the death and rebirth system, the deck-building component – but one thing I want to call out is Traits. Playtesters have done so much with these and I’m always surprised and pleased by what they come up with. We thought a lot about ways that we could give mechanical advantages to people who play their characters well, showing off their character’s style and personality. As a result, we added Traits: they are action cards in your deck, but in addition to have a regular value (“1 Strength”) they have a descriptor that tells us something about your character (“Reckless”). You can just use it as a Strength card, but you could also use Reckless in any kind of spread where you make it work – “I’m tired of these trade negotiations and I kick the table over!” in a social situation, for example. They also have a special ability on them, too – maybe Reckless gives you an extra attack if you’re willing to neglect your defense. Players are never forced to use Traits, but they’re satisfying and a significant bonus, and it really helps define the player characters and differentiate them from each other.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a game master?

It’s hard to think of these things on a large scale because gaming, to me, is so collaborative. I love creating and facilitating these moments for my players, but I don’t usually think of my own – I think of their characters’ most dramatic moments and love hearing about them. That said, I can remember a little one. I ran a Call of Cthulhu one-shot that was pretty outside my normal comfort zone. The characters were investigating this shuttered asylum, and I had a whole bunch of photographs from an artist who explores abandoned locations – with each room they explored I’d give them another creepy, horrible picture of where they were. Rusted medical equipment and disturbing graffiti and wreckage and shadows everywhere. They knew something bad was here and the sense of tension was incredible. In the end, the characters never even got a look at what was living in the asylum – the mood was so intense that once something was chasing them, the characters ran for the car and were happy to escape with their lives. It really stuck with me because that was a game that was almost entirely descriptive, without any combat or social interaction or dice rolling or referencing a character sheet – all the tools I usually rely on. I think it just goes to show how expansive and varied our hobby can be, how it really can encompass anything you can imagine with collaborative storytelling.

Phoenix: Dawn Command will be funding on Kickstarter in April 2015. If you’d like more information, sign up for our mailing list here!


Six Questions: Jonathan Tweet

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted Six Questions. But recently I had an opportunity to talk with Jonathan Tweet, and I couldn’t pass up the chance. Jonathan’s work has always been an inspiration to me as a designer, and I briefly had an opportunity to work with him during the early stages of 13th Age. Now he’s working on something entirely new and different.

jonathanHeadShotIf you’re not familiar with Jonathan Tweet, you may just not have been paying attention. Jonathan’s early design work includes Ars Magica and Over The Edge; OTE is a personal favorite of mine, and influenced Eberron in a number of ways. He revised Talislanta for Wizards of the Coast, and published the card-driven RPG EverwayAnd he was lead designer on a n obscure little game you’ve probably never heard of… the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. After leaving Wizards of the Coast, Jonathan teamed up with Rob Heinsoo to create 13th Age (with a little bit of help from yours truly!). And now he’s working on something entirely new, a children’s book called Grandmother Fish.

The biggest problem in asking Jonathan six questions is that there’s more than six things I’d like to know. For example, how does he feel about D&D Next and Pathfinder? Fortunately for me, David Gross already asked that question, which freed me to focus on some of his older work.

You’ve created an amazing range of games over the course of your career. What’s your greatest strength as a designer and writer, and how is this reflected across your body of work?

I see how things can be different. While I’m good at math, and I have a clear focus on the player experience, that’s not what sets my work apart. My goal hasn’t just been to create new RPGs but to change the way people play RPGs. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do just that a couple of times. Starting in 1987, Ars Magica set a precedent for bringing more story content to characters and to game mechanics. My creative partner on Ars Magica ported the structure to the modern world with Vampire: the Masquerade, which in turn had a big influence on gaming in the 90s. In 1992, Over the Edge showed how simple, free-form rules could allow greater player creativity. That game had a big influence on the indie game movement, and I’m proud of that. In 1995, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Ed rationalized the structure of the rules. That had a huge impact on how people play D&D, and it influenced countless d20 games. People are still playing that system, albeit as Pathfinder under the Open Gaming License. The new RPG from Rob Heinsoo and me, 13th Age, combines my old love of simpler systems and free-form creativity with my renewed love of the D&D experience. Time will tell how influential it proves to be, but I have high hopes. Plenty of its concepts are directly portable to other versions of the D&D game.

I also have a knack for explaining things, and I spent years innovating new ways for people to learn games. I created original-format starter sets for Ars Magica, Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and other games. That “beginner friendly” approach even informs the children’s book I’m doing now, the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers.

In 1992 you introduced the world to the island of Al Amarja with the RPG Over The Edge. The system is flexible and embraces player creativity, and the setting is a great source of inspiration while encouraging each GM to make the world their own. What led you to develop Over The Edge… Both setting and mechanics?

In 1990, I had left my game design career in Minnesota and a failed love affair in Barcelona, and I was back in my home town with a job selling mutual funds on commission. For my friends, I invented an accessible, creative roleplaying game, something much simpler and stranger than anything I would have designed for publication. In terms of mechanics, it was inspired by Chaosium’s Ghostbusters game, which debuted the dice pool mechanic, was super simple, and gave players a little bit of free-form creative license. The setting was inspired primarily by the writing of William S. Burroughs, especially Naked Lunch. My old friend Robin D. Laws speculated about the nature of a hypothetical RPG based on Burroughs, but he wasn’t serious about doing such a game. He inspired me to look into Burroughs, and I ended up doing a modern-day setting filled with reality-warping dangers and unseemly conspiracies.

The mechanics and setting go together. Around 1990, it was considered the height of artistic RPG design to have a fully-realized, original game world, such as you see for example in Skyrealms of Jorune or in Ars Magica. The problem I had with Ars Magica is that new players could not freely use their imaginations when creating characters because the characters had to fit into a particular setting, one that they were not familiar with. The point of Over the Edge was that a player could create a character without really looking at the rulebook. The setting was familiar: the modern day, only as weird as you can envision it. That meant that players could draw on their whole knowledge of the world to invent their characters. And the system has no skill lists, abilities scores, or other crunchy bits that constrain your character concept. The system and setting were both devoted to this core concept: that the new player could make up the character they wanted, and it would be excellent.

In 1995 you created Everway, an innovative RPG that used cards and storytelling in place of dice. What inspired you to create the Fortune Deck, and what do you feel it brings to the roleplaying experience?

Tarot cards appeal to fantasy gamers but also attract people who aren’t sword-and-sorcery fans but who like magical imagery. That was 20 years ago, before fantasy had spread as far into the mainstream as it has today. Our goal was to reach beyond the core RPG market to an untapped audience of potential new players. Honestly, it didn’t really work.

Tarot cards were my answer to the problem of what to replace dice with. Dice are cold, abstract, and numerical. If you think about it, it’s an odd component for a roleplaying game, which is creative and open-ended. In fact, one beginner role-player in my Over the Edge campaign found rolling four dice and adding the results to be too much arithmetic, especially when everyone at the table was watching and waiting for her to name her total quickly. I wanted a resolution system that wouldn’t fluster players like her. Everway’s Fortune Deck plays on the imagery of the tarot to give the player a “randomizer” that inspires the imagination, without arithmetic.

It’s fun to have a randomizer that plays on concepts instead of with numbers. The results can send play into surprising directions that wouldn’t result from a numeric input. There have been many times in play that someone drew the “exact right” Fortune Card, almost as if Fate were stacking the deck. Sometimes the card is so apt that it sends a chill down the spine. It’s fun to plug into that sort possibility with an evocative randomizer.

When your plane goes down on the way back from Australia, you find yourself stranded on an island with four strangers and four games. What games do you take?

Backgammon, Sequence, soccer, and Hillfolk. Backgammon has more randomness than chess, which allows one to play more casually. It also comes with a pair of dice that you can use for all sorts of other games. Sequence is a straightforward, team-friendly game that comes with a double-size deck of regular cards. We can turn that into two regular decks for poker, solitaire, hearts or anything. By “soccer” I guess I mean a soccer ball. Balls offer endless amusement. And finally Hillfolk, Robin D. Laws’ new RPG. It focuses on dramatic interactions between PCs, and it’s setting-neutral. We could play one setting after another, and the game is built for campaign-length play, which would come in handy on a desert island.

Your current project is something entirely new: Grandmother Fish, a child’s first book of evolution. Tell me what drove you to write a children’s book, what makes Grandmother Fish unique, and how your past experience has shaped your approach to writing it.

Fifteen years ago when my daughter was little, I started working on Grandmother Fish, trying to figure out how to make evolution accessible and appealing to a little child. I’ve always been a big fan of evolution, and I’ve got a talent for explaining things, so I started working on a manuscript. They say if you can’t explain something to a child, you don’t understand it yourself, so I took that as my challenge. The book would show a child how our ancestors evolved anatomy that we still have today, such as bones, or don’t have any more, such as tails. A children’s book author, however, let me know that my manuscript was not ready for publication. It was promising but not amazing.

Last September, after leaving Amazon Game Studios, I hit on a way to make the book amazing.  Instead of talking about body parts, like jaws and bones, the book gets the kid to mimic actions, like chomping and wiggling. Kids, parents, and teachers really love the interactive, mimicry aspect of the book. This interactive element makes the book accessible to even younger children than before. Instead of being one of several published evolution books for grade schoolers, it’s going to be the only evolution book for preschoolers.

Evolution means a lot to me personally because it’s not just an abstract scientific fact. It’s the story of how we fit into the epic tale of life on earth. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson says, affirming our connection to all living things is a soaring spiritual experience.

There’s a week left in Grandmother Fish’s fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. What are you aspirations for the campaign, and what’s your next step after Kickstarter? Are there other fields of science you’d like to explore in this way? 

Evolution is by far the science that’s most in need of a book for preschoolers. The rest of science is wonderful, too, but evolution is personal. It’s about who we are, how we got here, and our connection to the rest of the living world.

My original thought with the Kickstarter campaign was to self-publish Grandmother Fish before I got another corporate job in gaming. I didn’t want to go to my grave regretting that I’d never made the book happen because I was too busy pursuing a paycheck. But now that I’ve gotten into Grandmother Fish, I’ve made a couple important contacts in the science fields. Maybe I’ll keep mixing science into my game design career. For now I’m just focused on the Grandmother Fish Kickstarter campaign. That gives me plenty to think about each day.

Our Kickstarter funded on the third day, so at this point my aspirations are simply to reach more people. The more people we reach, the bigger a splash we make with evolution. I would like the success of the campaign to demonstrate that, yes, the country is more than ready for a preschoolers’ book of evolution. If someone merely hears about my book and thinks for the first time about teaching evolution to preschoolers, I can go to my grave happy.

That’s all for now. As of this moment there are six days left in the Grandmother Fish Kickstarter, so check it out now!

Six Questions: Keith Baker

Mr. Baker, drop the question marks and step away from your laptop. In honor of your birthday this week,  I’m commandeering this installment of Six Questions and turning this hexa-inquiry on you!

I know a lot of interesting people. In my book, Keith Baker tops the list.  Writer, game designer, maker of decent snickerdoodles, skilled swordsman and exceedingly gracious and kind to boot.  I admit, I may be a tad biased as I’m married to him.  Since I get to ask Keith questions all the time, I got some help from some friends and previous Questioneers – Thanks to Molly Lewis, Andy Looney, and Ehren Vaughn for their input!

– Jennifer Ellis


Keith Baker. You can talk to me. Tell me, what’s really bothering you?

Honestly? That there’s not enough hours in the day. I have so many interesting projects on back burners that I’ve had to buy a new stove. I’ve got half a dozen game ideas I’d like to flesh out, but I just don’t have the time to deal with them all. Over the course of the last month I’ve narrowed my focus & figured out what I really want to get finished in 2013. But I want to do them all.

Also, what’s really bothering me?

Bluestar: Unpolished Gem or Greatest Unfinished Game Ever?

UNFINISHED? What do you mean, “unfinished”? I have the master in a binder downstairs! “Unpublished,” certainly, but not unfinished.

BLUESTAR was a sci-fi computer game that wove together dolphins, artificial intelligence, and the effects of microgravity on the human mind. It featured a tattooed dolphin protagonist and an organic AI who, in a shocking and innovative twist, becomes homicidal and tries to destroy the station. It was my first outing as a lead game designer, after internationally celebrated designers Ken Rolston and Zeb Cook had each taken their turns at the helm and moved on.

Was it the greatest unpublished game ever? Despite featuring the acting talents of Levar Burton and, well, me – no. When it was finished, my coworker Andy Looney asked me if I’d managed to take lemons and make lemonade. I said that I had, but they were crusty dried-up lemons and the water came from someone’s toilet. So technically it was lemonade, but I wouldn’t want to DRINK it.

Of all of the settlements and cities within the worlds you created, which would you most want to live and why?

Hmm. Off the top of my head, I’d have to say one of the traveling communities of Takalas from the Seven Civilizations sourcebook, because they are AWESOME. I’d also be tempted to live in the City in VR-1 Crossroads, one of the many amazing computer games I designed that you’ve never had an opportunity to play. Crossroads was my attempt to take the text-based MUD and do something new with it… and it shows my long-time love for conspiracies and dreams. The game had two levels of play. You begin in the City, a haven for modern-day strangeness and conspiracies that would certainly seem like home to fans of Fringe, Over The Edge, The Twilight Zone, Illuminati, and the like. But when you go to sleep (in game), your spirit travels to the Dreamworld, a surreal fantasy realm. Where the City is driven by intrigue, the Dreamworld is a place of action; it’s up to you to decide how you want to spend your time. While the Endymian inhabitants of the Dreamworld don’t have much in common with the Quori of Eberron, the Dreamworld was certainly an early model for Eberron’s Dal Quor.

If I had to confine my answer to Eberron – since many people may not be familiar with the Crossroads or Seven Civilizations – I think I’d choose Malleon’s Gate in Sharn, just because I’m a die-hard Gargoyle supporter in the Race of Eight Winds.

In your Six Questions series, why is the fourth question always the best?

The first few questions are usually tied up establishing who the subject is and what they’ve been working on recently. So the fourth question is where you get to bring out the really important, hard hitting questions like “If you were kidnapped by animatronic presidents and forced to work at a Disney Park, what would you want your job to be?” or “What’s your favorite Middle-expression?

Let’s borrow Walter Bishop’s transdimensional window from Fringe. What’s the Keith Baker in the alternative universe like and what is he doing?

Following the principle that people on the other side are fundamentally the same but take different paths, I think he’s still a game designer. He got his start professionally designing pen & paper RPGs right out of college, but then quit after six years to become a full-time MMORPG designer. Needless to say, most people know of him from his work on the international hit MMORPG BLUESTAR; even more know him as the voice of Abacus from the BLUESTAR movie trilogy. However, he considers his greatest achievement to be the Gloom MMO—rather than killing rats at low levels, you want the rats to kill you.

Of the projects you’re working on now, what has you the most excited?

The one I can’t talk about, of course! I’m developing a new RPG with a friend, and I’m excited about both the system and setting. I’ll probably be ready to post something about it in two weeks, and I’m planning on running playtests at the upcoming conventions I’m attending (Wizard World Chicago, Gen Con, and Dragon*Con)! So check back in a few weeks for more details!


Six Questions: Christopher Badell

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

I met CHRISTOPHER BADELL on a secret island in the Caribbean (well, OK, not so secret), but I’d encountered his brainchild Sentinels of the Multiverse well before that. Sentinels is a cooperative card game in which players take on the role of a superhero team working together to bring down a nefarious master villain. One of the things I really enjoy about the game is its attention to continuity. The flavor text of the cards is made up of quotes from the various comics featuring these heroes… except, of course, that none of these comics actually exist (yet). With just these quotes, Sentinels manages to suggest a rich backstory for the characters and world, which makes it far more interesting to play the characters; as a comic nerd, I also appreciate the many homages found throughout this universe. But here’s Christopher… 

What’s your secret origin?

Three decades ago, on a dark stormy night in Maracaibo, Venezuela, a dark-eyed child was born. It’s pretty much all been downhill since then. I got taller and beadier and fought crime!

Really, the interesting origin story is that of Greater Than Games, which is what happens when three friends, each of whom excels in their particular field, get together and make a thing happen. I’ve always told stories and made up games for my friends to play, Adam is a fantastic artist who has been growing in his drawing as long as I’ve known him (which is a LONG time), and Paul is a clever businessman who loves games and gaming and works damn hard to make our dreams become realities. The lines that crossed to bring this company about are pretty crazy, and without the coincidences that brought us together, none of this would have ever happened.

But I’ve said too much already. I don’t want to make it too easy on our greatest nemeses!

Tell me about Sentinels of the Multiverse. What inspired you, both in tone and design? What do you consider the greatest strengths of the design? What would you change if you were starting over from scratch?

As I’d hinted in our origin story, Sentinels of the Multiverse is only possible because of the cooperative synergies between Adam, Paul, and I. Which is appropriate for what came out of that, really. Adam and I have been friends for almost 20 years, and we’ve always been into comic books and games – especially cooperative games! So, a few years ago, we were hanging out and bemoaning the fact that we had never played a good superhero tabletop game. We wanted something that made you really feel like you were playing as a hero of epic proportions! And then we wrote one. It was pretty quick from initial concept to execution. Shortly after making the game on index cards, just for us to play with friends, I played the game with my friend Paul, and the rest is history.

As to the inspiration, it really came down to loving the stories told in our favorite comic books and wanting to recreate that feeling in a game form. Stories of group of heroes working together against a terrible foe in a bizarre environment, like we would read in stories of the X-Men or the Avengers. The best part of those teams is the ensemble cast and how they interact with each other, which is what I love about Sentinels. I am proud of how much we captured the feeling of the team being more than just the sum of its parts. The synergies and the unfolding stories at the table as well as the gameplay that really puts you in the place of a super-powered hero are what I was shooting for – and I feel like we hit it square on the head.

If I were starting over from scratch…? I’d make the Enhanced Edition of Sentinels of the Multiverse the first time. The Sentinels of the Multiverse community is super awesome and let us rebuild the game only a year after it came out, which was good and necessary, but that rebuild definitely did all the things I wanted to do in the first place. We learned a LOT in that first year and a half, and I think the products we make now really reflect that quick learning curve.

You’re sentenced to be trapped in the Phantom Zone for eternity. What three graphic novels do you take with you?

Oof. Yikes. Hmmm, let’s say the Dark Phoenix Saga, Batman: The Killing Joke, and House of M. But then, I’d also sneak a pile of notebooks and pens with me. Really, as long as I could write infinitely, I’d have plenty of stories to keep me company.

You’ve just launched a Kickstarter for an entirely new game, Galactic Strike Force. Tell me about it.

It’s SUPER EXCITING! With Sentinels of the Multiverse, the players all take the roles of heroes facing a powerful villain in a crazy environment. Galactic Strike Force is a group of scoundrels, such as smugglers, bounty hunters, and space pirates, all joining forces against an overwhelming opposition force in a science-fantasy setting. This poor rag-tag team is the last ditch effort to save the galaxy – you have very few resources and fewer friends, and if you’re going to save the galaxy, you’ve gotta work together! The story that makes it go is a blast, and the characters and ships we’ve put together are a ton of fun.

The gameplay is card based, but it feels like the unholy child of a deck building game and a tactical wargame, as you’re upgrading your ship and learning new tricks, but then taking that ship and those tricks into battle against opposition ships. It’s really a ton of fun, especially with more players! One thing that I was very interested in was making the gameplay equally enjoyable for any number of players. With just two, you get the feeling of a couple of wingmates taking down an opposing fleet through hit and run maneuvers. However, if you have a table of six, you can really go head to head, and different people can take different roles, like scouting, tanking, etc. That said, the Opposition forces scale well, and they’re MEAN.

We’ve got lots of updates going on over on the Kickstarter, so definitely go check it out!


You’re a scarred veteran of many Kickstarter campaigns. What lessons have you learned? Any advice for people planning to launch a campaign of their own?

Find your audience before launching your campaign. Be open with your information – make sure people know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Build a community.

Have a plan for how you will run your campaign. Make use of the entire time. Don’t blow it all on the main page on day 1. You have thirty days (don’t run a campaign for longer than thirty days without a damn good reason) and you should use all of those days. Update often, and make your updates beefy.

Make what you love because you love to make it, not because you want to monetize it. Be passionate about it, and share that passion with anyone and everyone.

What’s next after Galactic Strike Force? 

Well, immediately after Galactic Strike Force, we go full-bore into production of Sentinels of the Multiverse: Vengeance, which we teased a good deal with our Shattered Timelines Kickstarter. It’s not just another expansion to Sentinels of the Multiverse – it’s a standalone game that can be played with the existing SotM stuff, but also adds a lot of new things. New heroes, villains, and environments in fancy box that will supplement the Enhanced Edition box nicely, and it gives you a whole new way to play Sentinels of the Multiverse!

Also, we’re going to Australia this summer for PAX AUS, and Germany again this fall for Essen! Not to mention Origins and Gen Con and PAX Prime… whew! Convention season is nearly upon us!

Oh, and on top of all that, we’ve got a few other Secret Projects that we’ll be talking about later this year. And even more plans for next year!



Six Questions: Monica Valentinelli

Editor? Writer? Game designer? Power behind the scenes? MONICA VALENTINELLI is all of these things and more. She wears so many hats it’s sometimes hard to see her beneath them. Recently, she added a new hat to the collection when she took on the role of brand manager (and writer) for MWP’s new Firefly RPG. Somehow she found time in her busy schedule to answer six questions!

What was the first roleplaying game you played? How did you get from there to where you are today?

The first roleplaying game I played was Shadowrun. From there, I went on to a few other games like Vampire: the Masquerade and a lot of board, card, and video games. I didn’t really get back into RPGs until I re-discovered them through small press games like Obsidian: the Age of Judgement and A/State. That’s how I got started writing for games; I edited and wrote some fiction for Obsidian, then I went on to write a few frenetic, ethereal pieces for Noumenon, which is a game inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I loved the variety that small press/independently-owned games had to offer and it was a good way for me to learn the business and figure out what I wanted to do next – much like I’ve done with fiction. The other thing that really helped, was reading, reviewing, and playing lots and lots of games for Critiques are a great way of studying the medium you’re writing for; I highly recommend it.

My work with small presses has been a mixed bag. I’ve dived into really fun projects, but over a half dozen or so have never seen the light of day – some bigger than others, too. All the while, I was balancing day job concerns. I’m guessing that’s a familiar story for anyone who’s ever written a story or designed games. There are the things you want to do, and then there’s the jobs you have to take. So, the work I’ve done in the industry has been married to what I had time to do, what matched my skill set and, eventually, who I wanted to work for. I started writing for White Wolf after I won a fiction contest and put together a one-scene scenario for the new World of Darkness. I put some feelers out to write other game fiction with other, larger companies, but right now my games plate is full.

You’re the Firefly brand manager for Margaret Weis Productions. MWP released the Serenity RPG in 2005. How will the Firefly game differ from Serenity? Why are you excited to be working on the line?

This is a hilarious question. I just wrote about this in a blog post titled “Ain’t No Better Place In The ‘Verse…” for Creative Directions. I’m going to be giving semi-regular updates there to keep people apprised of what’s happening for the line. Here’s what I said about the differences between the two games:

“The new Firefly RPG, which is based on the hit Fox television series by Joss Whedon, is scheduled for a 2013 release; the system(s) are currently in development. Margaret Weis Productions did put out a game based on the Serenity movie produced by Universal Studios in 2005. The system for that game was a science fiction flavor of Cortex Classic.”

Why am I excited to be working on the line? Besides the fact that it’s Firefly? 🙂 I’ve been working on this property as a consultant now for six months or so. In every conversation we’ve had, the fans and the show have been at the forefront of those discussions. How do we create a game that’s uniquely Firefly? How do we make Cortex fans of new and classic systems happy? How do we balance business and licensing aspects with creativity? Working on this line is like putting a puzzle together, to best serve a multitude of audiences, address concerns, and produce a great game. The nerd in me is very happy that I have such a beautiful Gordian knot to untangle.

What makes the ‘Verse an interesting setting for games?

In my opinion, the ‘Verse resonates with fans because even though the stories occur in a science fiction context – it’s a very human place to be. We don’t really see the devastation caused by the Unification War, but we know it happened and witness its effects on the characters, much like many of us may not remember World War II, but understand or feel its long-term ramifications. Using that as an example, though, it’s not necessarily the ‘Verse by itself that’s compelling, it’s the characters and how they work together to survive regardless of where they live. If you live in the Core, maybe things aren’t as great as they seem. Once we get out into the Black, we’re not fighting aliens, we’re facing each other.

At the end of the day, though, no matter how gorgeous any setting is, I feel good games always recognize that both the player and the group need to have something to do. It’s not just about what character you play, it’s also about why your crew is together. What’s the point of sitting around the table if you’re not connected? In my mind, this is why Firefly is perfect for gaming, because the further the crew ventures out into the ‘Verse, the more jobs they take, and the more they need each other to make it through.

When you’re not creating and editing games, you write fiction. What inspires you as a writer? What’s your favorite story you’ve written?

I was a storyteller long, long before I discovered gaming. I started writing fiction when I was 9 and specialized in writing while at university. The possibility of all the stories out there and the gift they provide us is what inspires me. The potpourri of cultures, of different lifestyles and ways to be, the history of what has come before and the potential of what will be – there is no end to what can be done or how or why. I love, love, love, love to build worlds and write about characters that resonate within these environments, highlighting the best and worst in all of us, whether that’s to frighten, inform, or entertain.

My favorite story is the one that I haven’t written yet. I realize this is a non-answer and somewhat meta, but as someone who’s obsessed with her art, it’s an honest statement. I never stop honing my craft and, while I need motivation and a cheering section like many writers out there, I’m always looking forward to what’s new.

If I had to pick one, though, I’d say I had a ton of fun with a vampire noir tale edited by Robin Laws dubbed “Fangs and Formaldehyde.” You see, in my vampire world, if the bloodsuckers get too emotional? They die. In point of fact, it’s very messy and involves blowy uppy noises and large splatters. Cue evil laughter in 3… 2… 1… Anyway, this story appeared in an anthology titled New Hero Volume 1, and that book is available from Stone Skin Press.

Tell me about The Queen of Crows, and where you want to go with it.

The Queen of Crows was one of the first enhanced e-books published with reader extras. It takes place in the late 1850s right before the Civil War and is a story about a Navajo shaman who must make a terrible choice. Because it was an experiment, I stuck to a short story instead of a novel, to see what readers thought. I was pleasantly surprised by the very positive reception, because writing about Native Americans, even in an alternate history context, is taboo – especially for, as one reader put it, a “blonde woman.” But, this story is a teeny, tiny piece of a much larger world of magic, mystery, and intrigue. I built that world on a timeline reaching back to the dawn of time. This story here is the origin of a key player in the Violet War to come. Not only do I have an urban fantasy novel set in modern day times, but I also have several pieces of short fiction and an outline for an RPG.

So what happened? Well, remember that time versus money thing I told you about? Yep, that was part of the reason why this project stalled. Living up to my namesake, the Queen of Perfect Timing, the release preceded the iPad by a few months. Needless to say, formatting images for the iBookstore and eBooks was part of the challenge, as the technology physically couldn’t match my vision at the time. Even now, it’d have to be an app or require a lot of programming to make it fit. That’s the downside to coming up with something cool; once you make it, limitations will throw you off-kilter.

Confession time. When I’m worried about work, my creativity is swallowed up by a plethora of bad Cthulhu jokes and abysmal reality checks. Now that I’m having fun? I’m diving in with abandon and can visit make-believe land more often. Business plan was activated in January; I’ve got a great group of readers and a ton of initiatives in the works like updating the website, etc.

It’s scary, sure, but I’m really hoping people will dig these stories and this world in particular.

What are you looking forward to in the months ahead?

I’m trying not to! I’m really grateful I have the projects I do, because I had a dry spell (coupled with nights ending in obligatory fist shaking at the universe) and it turned me into a sea slug. I don’t think there is anything harder for someone who wants to make something – no matter what that “thing” is – for a living. The fiscal realities, coupled with the knowledge and time involved, can cause a person to go mad. At the same time, I don’t want to focus on that aspect with my readers, either, because that undervalues them. My job is to give them the best stories and games I can, and give them a reason to revisit my work again.


Six Questions: Kenneth Hite

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

KENNETH HITE is a man of many talents, and a keeper of secrets no one should know. You may have played one of his many games, read one of his books, or listened to him and Robin D. Laws talk about stuff. If not, you should do all of these things, right now. Here’s the man himself…

You’ve been creating games for over thirty years. How did you fall into the dragon-eat-dungeon world of RPG design? What do you consider to be your finest piece of work?

I started out creating games, as you note, for my own game group: D&D and then CALL OF CTHULHU, which became my One True Love. I ran lots of other stuff, too, but those were the bigs. One of my old CALL OF CTHULHU players, Don Dennis, eventually got a gig at Iron Crown, which got him a playtest copy of the first draft of Chaosium’s magical-conspiracy NEPHILIM RPG. He thought to himself: “You know who should see this? Mister Magical Conspiracy CALL OF CTHULHU Doofus.” and sent it to me. I sent Chaosium around 10,000 words of back-sass and got the response: “Is it okay to include your comments in the next draft? And what’s the next book you want to write for us?” That response, by the way, was from Greg Stafford His Own Damn Self.

So that started me off. Right around then, Steve Jackson bought the proposal for GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS that I’d been badgering him about at GenCon for the last four years or so, and suddenly I was a twice-published author with two hungry game lines to feed.

My finest piece of work? They’re all beautiful and I love them all very much, of course, but I certainly hope my finest piece of work is my most recent one: NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, my vampire spy thriller RPG from Pelgrane Press. That said, the original-series STAR TREK RPG from Last Unicorn was my own perfect nine-toed baby. It looked like it fell through a thirty-year time warp from 1968. Oh, now see what you’ve done. You’ve made DAY AFTER RAGNAROK cry. There, there, little setting book. I won’t let the bad man in the hat hurt you.


Your Cthulhu 101 is an excellent introduction to the Cthulhu mythos. Where The Deep Ones Are and The Antarctic Express introduce children to cosmic horror. Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning roleplaying game that draws players into the world of H.P. Lovecraft. What draws you to Lovecraft’s work?

First and foremost, he’s just an amazingly good writer. The power of his mythology, and the sure-footedness with which he constructs his stories, get me every time. But I think Lovecraft enjoyed, and I enjoy, seeing the world in the same way: as pieces and fragments of a larger story, one by turns terrifying and wondrous. Lovecraft called this feeling “adventurous expectancy,” and I get that same feeling from both Lovecraft and from things he enjoyed like astrophysics, or travel, or urban life, or research. I feel a great sort of sympathy to Lovecraft, in terms of how his brain determined story and fantasy to work, and on other levels as well. We both love architecture, and both feel stark terror at the modernist sublime. We’re both autodidacts, and share our tribe’s love of the weird fact that confounds and reveals in equal measure. Obviously, we have our differences, too — he didn’t drink and he had weird dirigiste politics, for example — but as writers and readers of the weird I think we’re simpatico.


Lovecraft said that the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. Unlike Lovecraft’s typical protagonists, the people who play Lovecraftian RPGs are often well-versed in the Mythos… and they are expecting frightening things to happen. What advice do you have for GMs trying to bring real suspense to their horror campaign? 

I should send you to a page ref in GURPS HORROR for this, if I really wanted to move product. (Roughly pp. 131-134.) But to put it another, less four-pages-long way, the key to suspense is, precisely, that your audience expects frightening things to happen. Hitchcock used the example of a bomb going off after ten minutes of talk about baseball. You’re watching a movie, the guys are talking baseball, a bomb goes off — that’s shock. Same exact movie, but you add a minute of footage ahead of time showing a bomb being planted under the table — now, it’s suspense. Your audience — in this case, your players — need to know something horrible is happening in order to sense the horror either in the uncanny events around them OR in the absence of such events. With completely unfamiliar horrors, you’re a little bit lost; this is why HPL stories have such long, detailed buildups so that you can get completely into the head of the protagonist. With a very familiar horror, it can lose some of its strength (although even a vampire can still be terrifying — LET THE RIGHT ONE IN demonstrates that) but that same familiarity can allow the players to sense the horror’s approach. The Mythos, right now, is at the perfect point: just familiar enough that you can spook the players with familiar spoor, but just unknown enough that really, almost anything might be inside that abandoned barn.


You have seven thousand books in your personal library. What are a few books you think every gamer should read?

Every gamer? Regardless of genre or style of play? I’d say they should read Thucydides’ PELOPONNESIAN WAR, to get a sense of how history, politics, and war work, and how to turn them into a compelling story. They should read Northrop Frye’s ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, to get a sense of how to break down stories and symbols, core elements of RPGs. And they should read Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, because everyone should read it, it being the best novel in English. Also, it illuminates characters, dialogue, social engagement, and how to depict killing-free crises.

All that said, Charles Nicoll’s THE RECKONING, about the murder of playwright-spy-occultist Christopher Marlowe, is the greatest-ever RPG sourcebook that doesn’t actually happen to be an RPG sourcebook, so check that out, too.


Tell me about Night’s Black Agents. What makes an evening of Night’s Black Agents different from playing in the World of Darkness or Delta Green?

In NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, you play burned spies in today’s shadow world who discover a vampire conspiracy — and worse, it discovers that you’ve discovered it. So it’s hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, as you use your training and tradecraft to find, hunt, and destroy the vampires while running from their own pawns, Renfields, and monsters. The elevator pitch I use is “It’s the Bourne trilogy if Treadstone were vampires.”

The difference between NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS and the World of Darkness is that you don’t play the monster, you play the good guys. Also, while the stereotypical WoD game is about maneuvering for position inside a shadow world of monsters, the standard NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS game is about maneuvering to destroy a shadow world of monsters. I except, of course, HUNTER: THE VIGIL, which differs from NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS primarily in not assuming that the main heroes are really, really badass.

As far as DELTA GREEN goes, its primary difference with NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS is the difference between Lovecraft and Howard: doom versus daring. There are also surface differences: DG agents are usually still government operatives, while the default NBA game assumes the agents are freelancers. But given that NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, like TRAIL OF CTHULHU, is a GUMSHOE game, you could certainly play a DELTA GREEN game with the NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS rules and use TRAIL OF CTHULHU for the Mythos component. (There’s a drift in the back of the NBA corebook designed to let you play spies vs. Mythos games, in fact.)


The phone rings. A producer with $100 million and the connections to get any actors you want is ready to make a movie based on Night’s Black Agents, but you have to lay out the story in the next five minutes. What’s the plot, and who are your stars?

Mossad sniper Natalie Portman and her hacker/sidekick have an operation in the Syrian desert go very wrong when the guy she’s supposed to shoot doesn’t die and suddenly Mossad isn’t taking her calls and someone who knows the Mossad recognition codes tries to kill her and does kill her sidekick by biting his throat out. So she has to recruit help from other sources: an intuitive-eidetic MI5 analyst (Benedict Cumberbatch), a versatile techie thief (Clive Owen), and a badass fighter (Priyanka Chopra), each of whom she assists in defeating vampires in a thrilling set-piece. From clues gathered at each set-piece, the analyst figures out that the vampires are all working for “The Old Man,” a legend in the former KGB, his old archnemesis during the last bit of the Cold War. So they mount a big operation to take down “The Old Man,” who is of course a vampire lord (Max von Sydow) living in obscene luxury somewhere in Eastern Europe. After killing like a million of his army of Renfields, and losing Clive and Priyanka in the fight, Natalie puts a Clive-designed vampire-killing round through the Old Man — only to be betrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch at the last. He, of course, was the Old Man’s rival vampire — his analytical skills come from centuries of practice. Natalie somehow survives (dives into a big tank of blood, masking her scent) and the last scene is her, racking another anti-vampire round into her rifle, sighted in on Benedict Cumberbatch.



Six Questions: Jonathan Liu

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

I met JONATHAN LIU while working on The Doom That Came To Atlantic City. Jonathan writes for Wired’s GeekDad blog,which examines everything from games to stellar phenomena – after all, when is the best time to tell your children about the inevitable heat death of the universe? Recently Jonathan put up a Kickstarter for a game of his own… a Kickstarter that’s slightly unusual in that he warns you to think twice about supporting it.

So Jonathan… What’s your secret origin? How did you get to be the geek… and dad… you are today?

Well, I read a lot as a kid. That’s probably the biggest contribution to my geekiness; that and ’80s cartoons. I didn’t grow up playing D&D because it wasn’t allowed, but I did make up my own “mazes” on graph paper and led my friends through them. They were based entirely on my own very limited knowledge of what RPGs actually involved. Fast forward to a few years ago, and a friend introduced me to Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and I was hooked. I dove into the world of modern board games and haven’t looked back.

As for the “dad” part: I’ve been a dad for just over nine years now. When we first moved to Portland for my wife’s residency, I quit my job(s) and had about six months to prepare to be a full-time dad and house-husband. I’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s a great gig. We’ve got two daughters now and a third one on the way.

Tell me about GeekDad. What does “Geek” mean to you? What are your goals with the blog?

For me, being a geek means being really passionate about things. Sometimes that means taking things a little too far or a little too seriously, but a geek loves to dig into things and explore the world. I personally tend to have broad interests rather than deep interests, which may be less “typically” geeky. I like a little taste of everything, but it means that on any given topic I may not be as informed as others. It’s that whole Jack-of-all-trades thing.

GeekDad has been a really fun way to share my passions, particularly books and board games. I could talk about those two topics forever, it seems. When I joined the GeekDad team I hadn’t seen a lot of board game coverage on the site already, and I’m very pleased to have added board game coverage as a pretty regular part of the site now. What I love about GeekDad is that, beyond being a blog, it’s a community of geeky parents that I’ve gotten to know both online and in real life. I love being able to share with both them and our readers things that I think are really cool. While I do cover releases from major publishers, I also love having a platform to highlight lesser-known projects by people who don’t have a huge marketing budget and name recognition.


As a reviewer for GeekDad, you’ve played more games than I can shake a stick at. You introduced me to Geistes Blitz and Flowerfall. What are a few of your favorite games?

I’m always hesitant to pick favorites, because there are SO many that I enjoy. But for the past few years I’ve tried to compile lists (with the help of my fellow GeekDad writers) of our favorites reviewed on the site. A few of my favorites from the past few years are Catacombs, which combines a dungeon crawl with a disc-flicking dexterity game; and Escape, a real-time cooperative game about getting out of a cursed temple before it collapses. For thematic “Ameritrash” games, my favorite is the Last Night on Earth series, and for multi-hour Eurostyle, I’d probably go with Agricola. And Carcassonne, one of the games that re-ignited my interest in board games, is still one that I play the most, albeit on the iPad usually.

Here’s a few of GeekDad’s best of lists…

The Best Board Games of 2010

The Best Board Games of 2011

The Best Board Games of 2012


As a Geek DAD, what do you look for in a game? What are some games that you like as a Geek, but fail the test as a dad?

Well, my kids are 9 and 6 now, and that three years can make a big difference in the sorts of games they can play. For instance, the 6 year old is still working on reading but the 9 year old has no trouble with it. On the other hand, we’ve found that my younger daughter is pretty good at basic arithmetic and can keep up with her sister there. For my kids I’m usually looking for games that have a shorter rulebook, something that I can explain quickly so we can get down to playing, rather than a long list of details—they love playing games, but they’ll lose interest in a long explanation.

I also love cooperative games with kids—it teaches a different type of gameplay. I do think it’s important for kids to learn not to take competition personally, but with younger kids it’s harder to separate the gameplay from the non-game relationship. (Heck, it’s hard for some adults, too.) Cooperative games let everyone play to win without bashing the other players, which can be really refreshing for family games.

I think playing games can be educational in itself, so I don’t feel that a game has to be overtly “educational” to have value. Certainly I don’t mind if there’s a bit of math and reading involved, but games that are marketed as educational are often more like flash cards or trivia questions with a thin veneer of game. I’d rather play things that are fun, and then figure out what lessons arise from the gameplay.

As for things that I like that don’t pass the dad test … honestly I think for the most part it’s just a matter of waiting until the kids are old enough to appreciate the game or when I feel they can handle a particular theme. For instance, I’m not going to play as many games that have a lot of backstabbing and “take that” because they’re not quite mature enough for that yet. But when I see that they can be good sports about it, then I’ll break those out. Likewise, they don’t mind games with some monsters (like Castle Panic, for instance) but the more realistically-depicted they are the less they enjoy them. While they don’t mind a zombie-themed game like Zombie Dice, Last Night on Earth would freak them out because of all the photos in the game.


You don’t just play games, you’re making one. You’re running a Kickstarter for a game called Emperor’s New Clothes. What’s the game about? Why should I lay my money down? 

The game is based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, about a vain Emperor who gets fooled by a couple of swindlers. Eventually the entire town is roped into the hoax, pretending to see something that isn’t there, until a child points out that the Emperor, in fact, has no clothes. I wanted to create a game that paralleled the story, one that incorporates a scam that works because other players agree to play along. Although it’s not exactly a role-playing game, it does rely heavily on storytelling and imagination rather than being simply a matter of rolling dice and playing cards. Our gimmick is our special printing process, Regulated Optical Operator Screenprinting (ROOS), which makes the game appear invisible to those who probably won’t enjoy the game. Thus, the game is sort of self-selecting: players who can see the ROOS to play the game will enjoy it; players who can’t see the ROOS can ignore it.

For that reason, my Kickstarter campaign is rare in that I’m not encouraging everyone to pledge for it. I want everyone to check it out, and then see for themselves if the game is right for them. If it looks blank to you in the photos, then it will most likely look blank to you when it arrives, so you should probably hold off. However, if you enjoy the photos of the game and gameplay video, then you’ll probably have a very good time playing the game.

What are you looking forward to in 2013?

I’m looking forward to the end of the emotional roller coaster that is a Kickstarter campaign! I’m also excited about (in no particular order): the upcoming birth of our third child, my first trip to Gen Con, and finding time to actually play all of these Kickstarter-funded board games that are starting to show up on my doorstep.

Six Questions: John Kovalic

Today I’m talking with JOHN KOVALIC. If you don’t know who John is, you are clearly a Cylon spy; please report to the nearest airlock. John has illustrated over a hundred games, including hits like Apples to Apples and Munchkin. His comics include Dork Tower and Doctor Blink: Superhero Shrink. He’s even appeared in The National Enquirer. He is a living legend, at least if it’s a legend about a cartoonist accidentally ending up in an embarrassing story in the Enquirer. But I’ll let him speak for himself.

You’ve been producing Dork Tower for over fifteen years. In addition to chronicling the experiences of a community of gamers, Dork Tower has introduced the world to the milliwheaton and revealed the horrifying truth behind Dinosaur Train. How did Dork Tower get started, and how has it changed over the years?

Dork Tower began in 1996, when I was talking with Shadis magazine editor DJ Trindle at GenCon. I’ve been a gamer since the mid-1970s. By the mid-90s, I was working for the Wisconsin State Journal, sneaking in games reviews when I could. I even talked my way into going to GenCon on their dime.

Knights of the Dinner Table had just left Shadis, and DJ said they needed a new comic strip. A geeky gamer comic strip. Needed skill sets don’t come more gift-wrapped than that.

Over the years, Dork Tower changed in about the same way that gaming itself has changed. The characters still represent the same basic Gaming Types that they always have. But their fandoms have grown. Along with mine. I suppose it’s a bit harder, these days, as the basic “Oh my god! GAMERS!” trope has been done to death. But the challenge is enjoyable.

A close friend is moving to McMurdo Station, and the only thing he can take to keep his spirits up are three Dork Tower strips. Which three do you recommend?

Oh, lord. “You have thousands of children. Which is your favorite?” OK. You get the first three off the top of my head, then.

ONE: The “Hey, Marcia! Come and see the Satanist” strip from the early days is one people love, but I always considered the “Are Dark Elves into Leather” strip more of a personal favorite because it defined Igor’s character early on and set the tone for Dork Tower.

TWO: “Matt and Gilly’s Big Date,” from the “Dork Covenant” collection. This won an Origins award, and I’ve always thought it was sort of a sweet little story.

THREE: I’ve been trying different formats out with the online comic strip, recently. And it’s been a lot of fun. If you know what Dinosaur Train is, I’d go with this one. If not, here’s one with “Gilly the Perky Goth on Fake Geek Girls” I was really happy with.

Confession: I know that wasn’t, technically, three.

Carson the Muskrat first appeared in Wild Life, the comic you created for the Daily Cardinal. What was the story behind Wild Life, and what’s your personal affinity for muskrats?

Wild Life actually didn’t start in the Cardinal. By the time I got to the UW-Madison, it had already appeared in the Millfield Newspaper, the Queen Mary College- London newspaper and the UW-Parkside Ranger. After I graduated from the UW, it went on to run in the Wisconsin State Journal in the late 80s, and was picked up for national syndication by Chronicle Features in the early 90s.

My mom had written a comic strip for a kids’ paper back in the States called My Weekly Reader. I’d grown up on comics and learned to read with comic books. I was always sketching, and writing comics in the back of my school notebooks. When we moved back to England, I just decided to show these to the school newspaper, as it seemed the sort of thing a cartoonist should do. School newspapers are seldom picky, and the rest is history.

Little-known fact: “Wild Life” was named after the old Wings album of the same name. I’ve no idea why I did this: it’s not a favorite album by any means. The 1970s were odd.

As to why a muskrat, I also have no idea. In the early days, Carson looked more like a badly-drawn sheep. “Muskrat” sounded funny, though. I finally saw a muskrat when I moved to Wisconsin. It is hugely inconvenient of them not to look like Carson at all.

Another little-known fact: Carson is named after Johnny Carson. Nobody ever asks that, anymore, as “Carson” seems to have become a common first name, possibly after entire generations named their kids after the Tonight Show host. But there you have it.

You’ve created the art for dozens of games, from Apples to Apples and Munchkin to Kobolds Ate My Baby! What was the first game you ever played? What do you enjoy playing today?

My first real gaming love was when I was in England. School friends played World War II wargames with 1/72nd scale Airfix kits and figures, and I was hooked. At a model shop in Bristol, I stumbled across a copy of SPI’s Panzer 44. That called to me immediately and I was soon seeking out all sorts of wargames. It was on a trip to Games Workshop – then a small general gaming store in London – that I discovered the fabled Little White Box set of Dungeons and Dragons.

I try and play as much as I can, but the traditional wargames get the shortest shrift anymore: I simply don’t have time for them. As far as roleplaying goes, I think Pathfinder is magnificent (thus the upcoming Munchkin Pathfinder fills me with fanboy glee). But, if I have to be honest, Call of Cthulhu’s still my main love. I should also mention I’m finding Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu brilliant, though! I’m hoping Marc Miller’s Traveller Kickstarter returns that RPG to its former glory. In all of gaming, the Traveller Imperium is my hands-down favorite.

I play a lot of Euro-style games and party games, too.

Castle Panic, Forbidden Island, and X-Wing were three games I played a lot last year. As far as miniatures gaming is concerned, it’s Flames of War, Bolt Action, Man-O-War and Warhammer Fantasy are my mainstays this year.

Of course, I still love playing Munchkin. I’ve only ever won one game of it, though. The latest Out of the Box games, like FAUXcabulary and Snake Oil, are terrific returns to form.

Speaking of Kobolds Ate My Baby!, you’re currently involved in the Kickstarter campaign for the new color edition of KAMB. What’s your favorite thing about working with kobolds? Can you give us any hints as to what Kovalicness may lurk behind the secret doors KAMB’s stretch goals?

By far and away, my favorite thing about the Kobolds is that they’re just so darned fun to draw. I was very happy with how they turned out: I don’t often get to redesign characters from the ground up. Chris and Dan, of 9th Level Games, are terrific to work with, as well.

As far as hints go, we have tremendous secret guests lined up, and some stretch goals that will take the Kobolds into 3-D deliciousness. Posibly pewter. Possibly plushie.

The first huge stretch goal – the “More Things to Kill and Eat” supplement – was unlocked after only a few days. Jim Zub (of the Skullkickers and Pathfinder comics fame) was also announced as a guest writer for another stretch-goal that was met.

There’s a hugely cool collaboration with another company we may be able to announce, soon. It’s all very exciting. There’s so much fun stuff happening, it’s breathtaking. But hard to keep track of. We were just thrilled to see the new edition fund in the first day: everything else is gravy. Incredibly, mind-blowingly cool gravy.

What are you looking forward to in 2013?

Time off?

Other than that…everything! I’m working on four big projects that take me well away from my comfort zone. The first has already been announced and is being released in May: ROFL!, my new party game, is being published by Cryptozoic. I think it’s the best I’ve ever designed. Plus, the folks at Cryptozoic just fab. If you ever get a chance to work with them, I’d highly recommend it.

I can’t really talk about the other big projects yet, though I may have dropped a hint or two on my Twitter feed. Puppets may be involved in one of them.

Then, of course, there’s the regular stuff: the new Dork Tower trade paperback, Munchkin Pathfinder, Out of the Box new releases, a graphic redesign for a game I love from a Dutch company, and other things I’m certainly forgetting.

 Hum. 2013 seems busier than it did five minutes ago…

Six Questions: David Malki!

Today’s guest is DAVID MALKI! David is the creator of Wondermark, a hard-hitting webcomic that tackles the tough issues other comics are afraid to face, like Bibliophibians, Bears in Ill-Fitting Hats, and the proper collective noun to refer to a group of bogeymen (a “scamper”). Wondermark recontextualizes 19th century artwork with hilarious results, and if you aren’t familiar with it, you should check it out right now. We’ll wait right here until you get back.

 What is The Story of Malki? How did you get to where you are today?

I made a lot of rash decisions! I didn’t have any idea of how hard anything was, so I just blazed forward in glorious ignorance, not realizing that I was attempting the impossible. So anyway here I am!

Tell me about Wondermark. How did it get started?

I decided I wanted to try doing comics in a different way from most other people. There’s a beauty in old artwork that’s extremely evocative, and it’s all out of copyright besides. And as a bonus, the original artists aren’t around anymore to ask permission from. So I decided I would try making comics in a collage style to see if it would work! TURNS OUT: IT DOES.

I like to think that Wondermark occupies a universe parallel to our own, where everyone speaks their mind, has the perfect rejoinder to any situation, has fabulous fashion sense, and can bolt any manner of things together to make glorious elaborate nonsense contraptions. I don’t know if I’d want to live in that world — it’s a bit dangerous as well. But I sure like looking in on it.

One of Wondermark’s recurring characters is the alien Gax, a dapper gentleman who happens to have the neck and head of a brontosaurus. Where did Gax come from, and what’s the secret of Gax appeal?

When you make comics using found art, you’re limited to the kind of art you can find. This means that it’s hard to have recurring characters — you either have to find multiple pictures of the same person (occasionally possible in the case of political cartooning, but not otherwise common) or re-use the same pictures all the time, which can get boring. However, I found that you can re-use ANIMAL faces as often as you like without it seeming repetitive.

So at one point I decided that the alien creature Gax — a throwaway gag at first — could become a recurring character, because his face was easy to mold into new expressions, and also because I established that he was a shapeshifter, so he could look like anything and it’d still make sense. The secret of his appeal is that he speaks his mind and has impossible physiology.

Tell me about Machine of Death.

Machine of Death, most simply, is a collection of short stories, all by different authors, that asks the question, “What if there was a machine that could predict how you die? What would it mean for the world?” Each author started with that premise, and then spun out a different story exploring some facet of that idea. It’s a really diverse and compelling book — we read almost 700 submissions, and picked our favorite 34 — and it became an independent bestseller, shooting all the way to #1 on Amazon the day it was released. Now, it’s been spun off into a card game as well as a second volume of more stories, both of which will be coming out this summer.

Machine of Death started as an idea, became a book, and now it’s going to be a card game. As Gloom players know, I’m a fan of storytelling games that involve coming up with creative ways for people to die. The Machine of Death card game is up on Kickstarter, and has shot past its funding goals. Tell me why I should get on board today! 

I ain’t here to convince you! If you watch our hot video and read the description, and decide it’s not your bag, then stay far away from it. But if you like absurdity and weaving absurd yarns and laughing with your friends about IMAGINARY MURDER, it’s right up your alley. It’s a simple game, light on strategy and high on nonsense, that provides a construct to tell funny stories with your friends and imagine the increasingly-ridiculous deaths of bizarre individuals. Also, if you back it during the Kickstarter, you’ll get bonus decks of literally HUNDREDS of extra cards by many of the top names in webcomics — included totally free, only during the funding period.

You kick a can and a djinni pops out. It promises to grant three wishes, but the only sort of wish it can grant is to turn books published before 1950 into movies. What three books do you choose?

1. The New Century Standard Letter-Writer, by Alfred B. Chambers (1900). This is ostensibly a book of correspondence etiquette that also can be read as an incredibly bizarre psychoanalysis of its author, as he presents increasingly-specific template letters for such typical situations as “Marriage Proposal to a Young Lady to whom the Writer has Never Been Introduced” (p.124); “From a Father to a Gentleman, Forbidding him to Pay any Further Attentions to his Daughter” (p.148); “From a Lady to her Fiancé Breaking Off Their Engagement on Account of his Coldness” (p.169); et cetera, et cetera.

2. The Flying Girl, by L. Frank Baum writing as Edith Van Dyne (1911). Just a really great adventure book about a couple of teens inventing and building an airplane in their garage. A good snapshot of the early days of aviation and, unlike 98% of the youth-adventure novels published in the era, a super fun, engrossing, well-written book on its merits.

3. A Bad Boy’s First Reader, by Frank Bellew (1881). This is a parody of a children’s book that manages to be just deadpan enough that you think it’s real and just weird enough that you can’t believe it could possibly be real. Possibly the only children’s book of the Victorian era to include the phrase “Isabella will grow up to be a wise woman…if she does not die of cerebrospinal meningitis.”

Six Questions: James Ernest

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

Today I’m talking to JAMES ERNEST. James is best known as the brain behind Cheapass Games, and has brought all kinds of fun to the world in the form of dozens of games, including Kill Doctor Lucky, Lord of the Fries, and the recently re-released Unexploded Cow. He’s a juggler, an author, a short film director, and he likes to beat people up. 

You wake up and find that a major Hollywood studio has made a movie out of your life— CHEAPASS: The James Ernest Story. What’s the gist of it, and who plays you?

A brave game designer survives against all odds to make a living sitting in his basement answering emails and buying photography equipment. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both as me.

Speaking of movies, you’ve just started a Kickstarter campaign about making them. Tell me about Deadwood. Any hints about possible stretch goals?

Deadwood is a board game about making movies. Everyone plays a terrible actor on a Western movie backlot, and the goal is to get rich and famous enough to increase your status and get hired for better roles. Which will make you even richer and famouser.

My hope is to raise more money than I could possibly need and use the rest for (a) the betterment of all Mankind (b) to print some other Cheapass Games, and (c) for a weekend in Las Vegas that I am already looking forward to regretting. So far our only stretch goal is to make the game itself better by adding more scene cards (for more variety). But I can be creative if I have to.

This isn’t your first Kickstarter. What lessons have you learned from Unexploded Cow and the other projects you’ve been involved in?

What I’m trying this time is to “keep it simple.” The pledge awards are pretty straightforward, each contains all the goodies from the previous level, and there’s a reasonable upper limit on the higher level awards. I wouldn’t say that I’ve “learned” anything yet, but that’s what I’m trying this time around.

When it comes to game design, do you have a basic philosophy? What defines a James Ernest game?

I like to be entertained by games, and I’m not entertained by solving math problems better than my friends. So I like games where I can do a little roleplaying, tell a little story, be a little silly while I’m playing. Dry “Euro” games leave me cold, but overcomplicated “Ameritrash” games also don’t do it for me. I guess I like a game with a strong theme and simple rules. But doesn’t everyone? 🙂

You’re going to be trapped for eternity in a bar with a duck, a hammer, and three games. What three games do you take with you? Assume that the duck is actually a pretty good gamer.

Well, despite what I said about light games with good themes, if I only have three games to play forever, they are Poker, Button Men, and The Very Clever Pipe Game. Although I hear the duck loves Gloom… 🙂 Actually, if I get only one game, it would be Lou Zocchi’s amazing “Game-Sided Die,” which is a single gigantic die with one face for every tabletop game in the world.

What’s next after Deadwood?

Actually, I have no idea. We just released Unexploded Cow, and we are printing three games together before Deadwood actually ships: Veritas, Fish Cook, and Captain Treasure Boots. After Deadwood, I think I will spend the Fall promoting the games I have, and designing / testing the 2014 lineup.

There’s a good chance that Captain Park’s Imaginary Polar Expedition will get a deluxe upgrade, though I don’t know if it will be a true “Deluxe” requiring a Kickstarter, or just a game in the new Cheapass box. I’m also trying to get a remake of Girl Genius: The Works on the schedule, but that means a big art commitment from Studio Foglio.  And there are some other older games that I know I want to redo: Witch Trial, US Patent #1, and the Spy Game to name a few.

Did you notice we were on io9 this week? They listed US Patent #1 as the #10 top Science Fiction Board Game of all time. So we put up a free PDF of the thing, since it’s long out of print.