Below is an interview conducted with Brad Murray, full half of the team that wrote hollowpoint. Again, only louder:
TEO: Hi Brad. Thanks for taking the time to field some questions that have been torturing us here at BBLG. Well, not all of us, and not really torture so much, but maybe a bit of itching.
First, I know that you, and C.W. Marshall are having a brutal showdown over whether, or not you guys will be releasing Diaspora supplements in the future, and that one of you spent some time recovering from stab wounds in a Canadian ER. Can you clarify who stabbed who, and what about these potential expansions made things get so heated? Also, what kind of weapon was used in the assault?
How to avoid stabbing. Method not depicted: Moving to London.
BRAD: Well, fortunately all stab wounds have been virtual as Toph (C.W.Marshall) and I haven’t been in the same city for more than a year. I left Vancouver for Toronto in April of last year and Toph left Vancouver for London within the month. He’s since returned to our lovely home town.
The virtual knife fights have been fairly dull (dull knives hurt more) and not so much of whether but rather how. I’ve proposed a series of small saddle-stitched books (yes, like the old Traveller little black books) of 48 pages or so each and Toph has been advocating a full-sized book. I’ve conceded the point to Toph (mostly because his idea is better) and asked him to lead that project. He has some great ideas and when they are wrangled together we can start the writing in earnest.
The content, however, was not really a matter of contention. I won’t reveal what it will be since it’s Toph’s project, but it’s exciting!
I haven’t been in the ER since I was five and I won’t go into Toph’s frequent visits there. My wife, however, has taken up a new hobby of falling down the stairs and has consequently been in for stitches — thankfully only once since we got stairs.
TEO: Ouch. The thing about stairs, even if you defeat them, no treasure.
Anyway, the virtual knife fights comment makes me want to take a further detour, and ask if there are any video games that you have found inspirational, or just plain addictive. I just recently weened myself from Skyrim, but patiently await the release of XCOM, which will be the re-imagining of a video game I played for far too many hours a day on my PC back when Pentiums were all the rage.
Why did it only just now occur to me to play XCOM as an RPG using Diaspora? I digress, what video games, if any, have given you insights about game design, or just simply wasted your time in a way you were powerless to control?
BRAD: I think there is an XCOM hack for Diaspora already! I never really got into XCOM; my vices are Civilization (I have them all) and World of Warcraft. I haven’t spent a lot of time with anything else really and these addictions come in bursts. I can’t say any of them have really inspired my tabletop game design–they have radically different resources available to them (video games can track a nearly infinite number of bookkeeping values that would drive you insane at the table) and so it’s risky to draw parallels.
However, from 30,000 feet, Civilization taught me that games can be toys–that it’s just as fun to develop something as to win something. And World of Warcraft taught me that you can play almost anything with the right people and have a riot–I am in the best guild there, full of people who are warm and friendly and helpful and who I’ve known (well, “known”) almost since release. So a tabletop game should facilitate that too — it should allow time and space to enjoy each other as people and friends as well as heroes and villains.
XCOM, by the way, is ideally played with the old Traveller mini-game, Snapshot. Mechanically they are nearly identical and so it only needs a coat of paint to be XCOM.
TEO: I’ll have to check into that hack. I have a couple of players that are absolute freaks for XCOM.
Speaking of Traveler, I know that a lot of the spirit of Diaspora came from your experiences playing that game. Would you mind talking about some of your most memorable experiences with that game, how they shaped you as a gamer, and are there any other games that really influenced how you play, and how you design games?
BRAD: Traveller was a central gaming experience for me. Aside from the many hours of lonely fun I had making subsector maps, starships, and when Striker came out, military equipment, there were countless hours of actual gaming. The most memorable games were over the top:
- A Harnmaster/Traveller crossover in which the vacation planet of a megacorporation was discovered, which turned out to be a place of orcs, elves, and dragons. Of course the senior executives were all dragons, but the best scenes involved orcs trying to figure out a mortar carrier and sub-machinegunning hordes of zombies.
- A straight-up scouting game in which a Dyson sphere was discovered. Unexpectedly, it contained Cthulhu.
- A Ringworld crossover in which the characters, now immortal, played an abstracted long-term game. One became a great lone wandering adventurer, another a political mastermind, and the third returned after a hundred years in an anti-gravity acropolis in which he was attended by dozens of beautiful and attentive people. He had a new skill — God Impersonation — at rank 6.
The newer games that influenced as most would be (obviously) Spirit of the Century, which gave us the skeleton on which to hang Diaspora, and Burning Wheel, which was the first game to make us question our core assumptions from years of D&D and Traveller. Before that it was Top Secret and Twilight:2000 that got heavily re-used for home-spun settings like my shameless rip-off of Jim Stenstrum’s “Asskickers of the Fantastic”. I always preferred local settings, letting werewolves loose in B.C. Place and infesting North Vancouver with zombies created accidentally by the New Coca Cola. And of course there was the Lovecraftian romp, Shadow Over Ambleside.
Core assumptions of D&D look something like this.
TEO: Top Secret S.I. was a game I got for Christmas one year from a friend, and I didn’t open it for years. One day I got bored, broke the shrink wrap, and had my mind blown away. I’m not sure if you played the S.I. version, or if the older one shared the same hit location system, but that was simply brilliant. Cyberpunk 2020 was the first game I played that really firmly smacked around my inner D&D child with the lifepath stick. I progressed to GURPS, Rolemaster, and other more skill oriented stuff as time passed. I played FUDGE, which FATE is a variant of, and that is when the relationship between attributes, and skills came into question. It was quite puzzling really, because attributes seemed almost vestigial, but still needed somehow. FATE came along, and fixed that quite neatly with aspects, which are really just the attributes that are most relevant, rather than a fixed set, of which most will be irrelevant.
Did you spend any time with FUDGE prior to discovering FATE, and the game where you mention a PC impersonating a god seems to resonate into the now a bit. I’ve been trying to catch up on what you’re doing with the game you are currently developing, Soft Horizon. I knew it was to be more mythic, but it seems you are going for an almost Zelazny flavor, allowing the PCs to be superhumans that actually control the very fabric of realities.
Would you mind explaining what Soft Horizon is all about, and how FATE is going to play out within it?
BRAD: Actually I’ve had nearly zero contact with FUDGE, just a couple of play-by-IRC games with someone else running, and that was well after we developed Diaspora. I like the idea of a toolkit game, but I see FATE as that toolkit for me. You just need to tease it out of Spirit of the Century.
Soft Horizon is certainly driven by psychedelic fantasy like Zelazny’s and Moorcock’s. Though maybe not literally a “Nine Princes In Amber” knock-off, it’s certainly a game you could use to play an Amber game and play it very well. The conflict scenes come off very like those novels, where the effort is not so much to win within the established context, but rather to change the context into one you can win.
Originally it was more driven by early Heavy Metal artists like Phillipe Druillet, Enki Bilal, and Jean Giraud (Moebius). Certainly “The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius” was initially a big motivator and forced me to write a bad novel in order to make my vision clear to collaborators. That novel echoes all of the above and directed the game a certain way. Then we started to play it, and that drifted the idea further again, reinforcing some ideas and withering others. Right now play is one-on-one where the viking hat is swapped mid-game, so we wind up with two isolated heroes, their stories braiding around common NPCs and places. This is really exciting for me, emulating a story structure that I love to read (and write).
Right now the game has little to do with FATE. The system is an elaborate off-shoot of the one we used for Hollowpoint, which owes more to ORE than anything else (though it has FATE-like elements grafted onto it). It will be my first game that fails to ignore character advancement!
TEO: I have stepped away from dF myself, because my players tend to be distracted at the least, and put off in the worst cases by the dF. I love them, but have gone with the d6-d6 method, and seen quite a positive response. Seems like a game that involves super powers could really benefit from exploiting d6-d6, and adding steps up, or down (so, d8-d6, d10-d6, or d6-d4, d8-d3, etc). d6-d6 still emanates from FUDGE, but doesn’t feel like it.
Interesting that you’re again pulling some aspects of FATE into a game that doesn’t use the FUDGE dice mechanic. Awhile ago you announced you were working on another game called 0Dark30. That seems like it’ll be a somewhat radical departure from FATE altogether. It’s going to be more of a tactical combat game set in Vietnam with horror elements from what I understand. Rob, from our podcast actually wanted me to ask what inspired you to place it in Vietnam, and asked,”There’s already so many images of horror and bleakness associated with such a setting. Did he choose this setting because of that built-in “value” or because of other reasons, like it’s relatively rare use in gaming?”
Could you explain a bit about that game, and it’s origins, and how much Jefferson Starship were you listening to when it first struck you to write it?
A map of Vietnam. Notice, in no way does it resemble core assumptions of D&D.
BRAD: Zero Dark Thirty (aka No Contact) started as a simple miniatures wargame set in Vietnam just because it’s an era of conflict that interests me. It’s not so asymmetric that it’s dull, but it’s not the well-worn classic environment of WW2. It’s full of moral ambiguity and has several technologies that are not yet developed tactically. It has very rich fictional support as well, which gives anyone interested in the game all kinds of visual and musical cues.
I didn’t want to reinvent any wheels, though, so the game was developed around a mechanism that deals with inflicting harm only secondarily. Instead its core mechanism asks what you do with your Fear. There are only a small number of ways to get rid of Fear so, in a way, it controls you without dictating your actions. Your choices funnel. You make bad decisions, useless or worse, but as a player you try to make those tactically useful. It turns out to be a very compelling problem to solve.
Now given that our dominant mechanism is about Fear, it only seemed appropriate that we add a horror element beyond the horror of combat. See, the horror of combat is really hard to capture in a game because so many games concentrate on making combat central and exciting. I want it to be fun so I can’t undermine that too much. So instead I introduce supernatural (or just inexplicable; preternatural maybe) horror as an analogy for real horror, and this frees the audience to act afraid. This was inspired by some early d20 Modern bait & switch games I ran that were stunning successes and these in turn were based on a few short stories by David Drake that were — you guessed it — Lovecraft homages set in Vietnam and based loosely on his own experiences.
Only tangentially related, I probably can’t go with Zero Dark Thirty as a title because president Obama stole it for his movie. This is very frustrating since it’s an awesome title.
And 0D30 was mostly written to the Stones but I bought some Starship recently to support writing Soft Horizon, and it will fit nicely in this project too!
TEO: It seems like you’re quite into music, cinema, and the arts in general. Are you the sort that listens to music while playing a game, and whether, or not that’s the case what music do you find inspirational, and what bands are your favorites right now?
BRAD: I don’t normally like music on while I game, but when I was writing Myriad for Soft Horizon I got a lot of mileage out of a good play list. I was doing a couple thousand words a night before bed and picking a playlist around a certain mood was helping me grind out the words. Better, if I was stuck, picking a semi-random playlist often kick-started me.
So now I’m play-testing Soft Horizon with some background music and liking it so far. Mostly it just blends in, but occasionally it flashes inspiration at me.
I’m a heavy iTunes user and what I really love is the Genius Mix concept: pick a song and Genius Mix will create a playlist of a hundred songs that are somehow related. So for a Soft Horizon game, depending on how weird or how dark I want things, I might pick “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane) or “Every Dream Home a Heartache” (Roxy Music) or “South Side of the Sky” (Yes) or “Smothered Hope” (Skinny Puppy) and then just find out what I get.
What I like to listen to just for listening pleasure is a little different. I mean, I like all that stuff that’s thematic for the game (it does, after all, come from my music library and it got there because I wanted it there) but if I am turning the music up loud for its own sake I like something noisy, cranky, and lyrical. I’ll start with Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, The Hives, or Elvis Costello & the Attractions. I’ll probably click Genius and see what I get handed from there.
TEO: For inspiration during creative moments I tend to suggest Opeth for heavy, and somewhat mythical flavor, but for gaming I prefer instrumental music, and that niche is filled best by mostly ambient artists like Aphex Twin, or FSOL for Sci-Fi, and actually I should stop there. I could go on at length about different flavors, and genres of music that best suit different vibes, but on the note of vibes I can’t recommend highly enough this particular CD I heard when I was a kid which is just of endless tintinnabulation, which lends a flexible sort of gravity to any situation. It can inspire fear, awe, mystery, euphoria, and tends to depend on the context of the story being told. I tried Googling the term, but came up short for freely available stuff.
Let us step away from the madness of my obsession with all things musical, and pry into your taste in cinema. What films have really given you cause to game, and write, and are there any you wish would make it into the form of a game? What films, filmmakers, and actors are you enamored with?
I must also ask, can you rank your enthusiasm about the upcoming remake of Robocop on a scale between one, and ten?
If Robocop had been made one decade earlier Zepplin might've been on the soundtrack.
BRAD: As you ended the question on Robocop, I’ll start there, since Robocop is one of my favorite films and Paul Verhoeven’s satire always gives me a great kick. I’m certain the new version will not “get it” and will instead be a simple action film, but it might stand on those merits. I won’t pay to see it but I don’t really go to the cinema anyway.
My tastes in film are diverse but not well-aligned with the popular blockbusters — I don’t really get off on super-hero stuff, so that’s half the releases for the past couple of years in the bin. I do like clever ensemble crime pieces — The Losers, for example, certainly inspired Hollowpoint. I love a lot of early film, especially musicals, so anything by Busby Berkley will see re-play. And I adore The Thin Man series.
I think that generally good film and good gaming are at crossed purposes. What makes a great game are the same sorts of things that make a bad film — gaming is visceral in-the-moment story-telling, where immediate interests take precedent over thoughtful development and that’s as it should be. In a film, however, I expect the writer, director, and actors to have taken great care to produce something wholly planned. So you can never really do The Godfather or Miller’s Crossing as a game, but you can do wickedly fun stuff in a 30s gangster genre that are inspired by scenes and characters and relationships from those films. And so, I don’t like trying to map games on films directly. I have an aversion to most games that are licenses of popular media for the same reason, though sometimes a company picks something bad and fun enough that it meshes.
Gene Kelly, Celeste Holm, William Powell & Myrna Loy, James Caan, Ernest Borgnine, Eli Wallach, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser (yes I’m fixating on a single film here)…well the list will go on and on.
TEO: Here is where I was going to ask you for your thoughts on the whole internet controversy about James Desborough, but I think I’ll let that lie unless you have some keen insight that is burning to get out. Instead, I will move onto the final phase of Interrogate the Canadian, which involves a two pronged attack. First, how have you survived so long if your healthcare system is so terrible, and second, and more seriously, is there any advice I could compel you to share with aspiring game designers out there?
BRAD:All I’ll say about the Desborough affair is that one ought to treat everyone with respect, and plenty of people came off looking like asses by failing to do so in that. Nearly everyone, in fact.
Diagram illustrating how to get a doctor's appointment in the US.
As for health care, I have no complaints. I get sick, I go to the doctor, I am healed. For free. If ever I desperately want to move to the head of the line and have a fat wad of cash that says I am more deserving than the others in line, I will be upset with the system. Until then, it’s cool.
And game designers? Design and publish. Nothing is stopping you. The system has been so democratized that it’s almost impossible to not publish now. Get your work in other peoples’ hands and ask for money. Then do it again.
TEO: Well Brad, first I’d like to thank you for your part in bringing Diaspora into my life (I just got Hollowpoint, and hope to develop a similar passion for it), and second, for the time you’ve taken out of your life to answer my questions, no matter how inane.
BRAD: Happy to do this, Teo! Anyone that knows me knows it’s no hardship for me to talk about myself.
You heard the man people. The internet has totally changed the entire game. Go play it. If you want to peer more deeply into the musings of Brad check out his blog here, and if you want to see what VSCA has going on check out the webpage here.
Posted: July 13th, 2012 under Articles - 6 Comments.
Tags: Diaspora, fate, hollowpoint, Interview