This interview was written by Andrew Smith and originally appeared at TheStockade.net on April 10th, 2011. The Stockade was a website dedicated to encouraging Australian game designers to get up and create their games, much like NaGa DeMon! The Stockade has been “finished” for a very long time now, and its web hosting expires very soon, so I thought I would share some of the still-relevent articles here.
This is a new feature for The Stockade, called Five Questions With… Our first guest is Michael Wenman. As you’ll see from this interview, Michael is a game designer based in the Sydney area and has been designing in one way or another for a few years. So without further ado, here’s the interview.
Tell us about the first game you made, published or not.
There’s a gradual decline into game design. When I was in high school, I played a few games with my friends, AD&D, Ars Magica, Cyberpunk 2020, TMNT, Shadowrun, Rifts, the early releases of White Wolf’s World of Darkness. I was the group’s fall back GM, because I wasn’t afraid to jury rig the elements I iked from different games to produce a specific play experience. If I wanted a game with a certain combat style, and another style for magic, I’d flat out tell people that we’d be mixing and matching system X with system Y. So I guess the first games I designed were those frankenstein beasts.
The first full game I designed rom scratch was called “Platinum Storm” in the mid 1990s (1994 I think). I guess it was a bit of a heartbreaker, with elements I liked from a few systems, cobbled together and attached to a basic percentile system, then refined to make the odd bits integrate a bit more smoothly. It was a pseudo-japanese setting, basically L5R before L5R became popular; a lot of people at the time told me that no one would be interested in a Japanese styled game. It was 32 pages, black and white in a simply printed red outer sheet, with thirty copies run off at the local Officeworks, these days they’d probably call it an “Ashcan”. I ran a few sessions of it at SAGA (Sydney Adventure Gaming Awards, a now defunct convention), and at $10 a copy I sold out most of my stock over the course of the weekend. I’ve looked back at one of my last copies recently and I can see what a hideous monstrosity it was, but I thought it was good at the time and I still know a few people who’ve kept their copies after all these years.
What do you consider when writing setting material?
There’s an old writing adage that every page should have a hook. In my setting material, I try to produce evocative paragraphs; each containing an element that could form the basis for a story (or at east a scene). Every paragraph may not entice every reader to plunge deeper into the world, but hidden within the words there should be a subtle siren’s call. Within a few paragraphs, most readers should find something interesting to latch onto.
Good setting materials don’t provide static locations that have already been explored, nor do they retell specific events. They offer starting points with directions for players to explore on their own. They prompt exploration and ask more questions than they answer.
I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never really liked prewritten modules. One of the only times I used a prewritten module for a game, I let all of my players read through it. With that knowledge in place we ran a loose game based on the concept that the module had been completed as written a few weeks earlier, and now the player characters had to sort out the mess left behind by the earlier adventuring party.
What’s important to you when you design the connections between the rules of your game and the story it produces?
I’ve aways thought that three factors contribute to the production of story within a roleplaying game: Players, GM and Rules. These three pull at one another in an eternal tug-of-war, and different styles of play emerge depending on which if these elements has the power. If you really want to tailor the story experience from a game, you need to consider all three of these elements. Designing a bunch of mechanisms that infuence story will only go so far toward the whole experience; the same mechanisms will produce very different results under the control of very different GMs and players…some combinations will take on a life of their own, others will die horribly. As a point of fact, I’ve run exacty the same scenario, with the same GM (me) and different player groups at conventions, the change of one element can make or break a game. The same applies to a change of GMs, I’ve played the same game system with the same players and different GMs, ony to see dramatic changes in the way things resolve themselves. Using the same GM, the same players, but different rules sets can also produce differences in the final story type.
In my mind, a good set of rules should address all of these concerns. It should give the GM a guideline on how to run the game (like an automotive mechanic’s manual describing the various mechanisms, their inputs and how to keep them running smoothly), it should give the players some ideas on what to expect and how best to achieve those results (a drivers manual on how to use it best advantage, and the expected outputs from the mechanisms), then it should provide those mechanisms in language as clear as possible, showing plenty of play examples.
In the old days, games just provided you with the mechanisms; they expected you to work out how best to apply them to generate a story. Instead of providing play advice and GM notes, they just give you a bunch of extra rules and mechanisms, or a few pre-written scenarios. These are the tools of story generation in the context roleplaying, but they need a proper user guide before a consistent story outcome is possible. A lot of newer games are better in this regard, describing meta-mechansisms such as scene framing options, division of narrative control and general explanation of how things should resolve in play.
Which games impress you, and why?
I love B-Grade movies, and films where the main producer is the director, and this one person has the creative drive to produce what they want rather than kowtowing to a faceless corporate committee (Quentin Tarantino, Zac Snyder, Darren Aronofsky). In the same way I love the games turned out by contests like “The Ronnies” or “Game Chef”. Contests like these don’t make pretty games tha are flavouress clones of every other product on the shelf…instead they are always pushing the envelope of design. Some games produced are beautiful trainwrecks, absoutesy savage beasts that you wouldn’t want to play in their competition state. But in every contest I’ll find an idea or two that makes me reassess what gaming is about,or consider new approaches to my existing projects. I’ve often found that in polished game products, these innovative ideas are usually the ones that get filed away when the production committee decides that the edges need to be smoothed out. Every time I see a contest I fall in love with another new idea.
One of the few ideas that has consistenty impressed me know for amost two years is more of a quirky mechanism than a game in it’s own right, and that’s Vincent Baker’s “Otherkind Dice”. I first saw them and thought about how eleganty awesome the concept was. So simple, yet capable of such complexity and story drive. I love the concept of Otherkind Dice so much that I’ve tweaked and twisted them for my game FUBAR.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m building a steampunk/art-nouveau foosball table.
But I’m guessing you’re actually referring to game design here.
In that regard, I have a few projects on the go. Firstly, I’ve actually started to see some decent turnover of my game FUBAR, with over 1000 downloads from various websites, and a slow but constant rate of sale for the first supplement “High Plains FUBAR” (switching the genre from cyberpunk to cowboy western), I’m working on updating the core rules and producing a series of monthly supplements for that game range…”All for One and One FUBAR” (pre-revolution French swashbuckling), “Faeries and FUBAR” (fantasy and dungeonbashing), “Close Encounters of the FUBAR Kind” (Conspiracy Theories and Aliens), “Feathers, Fur and FUBAR” (Lycanthropes), etc.
Secondly, my Quincunx project. This is one of those projects where I want to make sure it’s done right, and the first release in 2009 just wasn’t right. This project is linked in with a parallel graphic novel while has taken precedence for a while, as I think about better ways to sort out the game mechanisms.
Thirdly, the goblin labyrinth braunstein. This is project harkens back to the origins of roleplaying. It’s a miniatures game for ten or more players, where each player has a number of their own agendas for the session (some of which involve combat, others trade, negotiation, investigation, or something else). Players interact by moving figures around a cast resin city designed in the style of the movie Labyrinth, they may only interact with one another when their figures are in close proximity (whether that interaction is talking, fighting, healing, or anything else). Since everything in this game plays out in real-time, the thing that slowing down this project at the moment is trying to develop a real-time combat system capable of handling players who control a core character with an entourage of a dozen or more barely competent goblin lackeys (while maintaining a feeling of freewheeling goblin anarchy). Hand sculpting the city is taking a while as well.