John Stater is the prolific creator of Blood & Treasure, Pars Fortuna, Mystery Men!, and Tales of the Space Princess. He wrote Hex Crawl Chronicles for Frog God Games, and is docmenting his own massive hex crawl setting in the magazine, NOD. He has several new projects coming out, including Tome of Monsters (for which I provided some drawings), Grit & Vigor, and a series of Basic-style iterations of Blood & Treasure designed to emulate specific fantasy genres. His blog, The Land of NOD, is a wonderful resource for gaming ideas, thought experiments, and truly peculiar character classes.
What is your history as a gamer?
John Stater: I began gaming in 6th grade—so about 12 years old. A friend of mine had seen his brother play Moldvay basic with some friends, and we tried to recreate the game ourselves based on his memory of what he'd seen. We probably didn't get it quite right, but I loved it and got my mother to buy me Basic D&D (from Toys 'R' Us). And the Expert D&D. And then Advanced D&D. And then Gamma World. And then Star Frontiers... you get the idea.
You have written OGL-derived games in several genres: Mystery Men!, Tales of the Space Princess, Pars Fortuna, and a handful of forthcoming titles, like Grit & Vigor. What is your approach to using game mechanics to model genres?
JS: I usually use some variation on the mechanics in D&D since I know them, lots of other folks know them, and they work reasonably well. They do model a particular kind of game, though, and there are times when a particular genre needs something different. In those cases, I try to figure out how to tweak, rather than replace. In Mystery Men!, for example, I tweaked the magic system into a super power system, but more or less had to replace the movement system so that I could model normal people and people traveling near the speed of light in the same system. I guess, for me, I try to keep it as simple as possible (focus on results, rather than process) and to keep the rules as familiar as possible so people don't have to spend too much time learning a new system, and can focus instead on playing the game.
Do mechanics and flavor need to be integrated?
JS: I think so, but it's tricky. You want players to feel like they're inhabiting the genre you're working in, without making them feel as though they are being locked into playing out genre tropes. Using Mystery Men! as an example again—it definitely has a comic book feel, but comic books are stories—the good guys generally win, the bad guys lose. As a game, that doesn't make sense. So, players in Mystery Men! might be amazed at how effective guns can be at killing their heroes - not as effective as guns killing people in real life, but more so than in a comic book where the outcome is determined by the writer rather than the dice.
Blood & Treasure, on the other hand, is much less about flavor, relying on the expected conventions of FRPG worlds. Instead, it seems to be much more on constructing a toolkit of interesting technical options for solving basic rpg problems, like skills checks and movement rates. How did you develop B&T?
JS: I started writing NOD and its hex crawls in the Swords & Wizardry system, because it's very simple in terms of rules. Unfortunately, it models itself closely after a particular version of D&D, and I wanted to be able to use a little bit of everything—I've run and played in everything from Moldvay Basic to 3.5, and I'm not an edition warrior—if I think it's cool, I use it. So, in writing the hex crawls, I often had to devote space to converting monsters and spells and classes. Eventually, I thought I might just do a quick publication of all those things from the SRD to Swords & Wizardry format so I could refer back to it rather than devote space in the magazine to the conversions. As I started that process, it dawned on me that I could just make a retro-clone that embraces all the editions up until 4th.
Were there any legacies of the original game that you considered problematic, but too established, either mechanically or in the mind of the player, to get rid of?
JS: No - I'm comfortable with all the core mechanics. I wanted a game that could be played using material from all the editions, so I didn't want to stray from them. There were mechanics from the more recent editions that I thought were too complicated and clunky, so I tried to replace them with something more streamlined whenever I could - the task system and special combat maneuver systems come to mind. I always think of that old SNL sketch, where William Shatner was addressing the Trek convention and said, "You've turned some TV show I did as a lark 20 years ago and turned it into a colossal waste of time"—if a mechanic is more complicated than roll a dice and see if you beat X and seems to bog down play—to turn it into a colossal waste of time in other words—it needs to go. We're playing a game folks—not trying to model an alternate reality. Just roll a couple dice to grapple the damn orc and get on with it!
JS: Mechanics are there to keep the game from turning into arguments between creative and competitive players. I think they should step in when it's not clear what should happen next—when it's a toss up, and to keep the game challenging (i.e. you find 2 tons of treasure—how do you get it out of the dungeon?)
Some OSR folks take a very spare approach to classes. You are not one of them. B&T offers 26 classes, including variants. And both Nod and your blog offer up exotic and boundary-pushing classes, such as the Gourmand, the Curmudgeon, or the Canting Crew (a Time Bandits-inspired team that advances by adding members). What is your approach to class as a game mechanic in general, and how do you go about designing classes?
JS: Making new classes is just fun for me - they're like writing short stories for game designers. They're obviously all optional, of course, so they can't do any harm—people can certainly play in NOD without using any of them if they wish. When I make a class, I try to think of an archetype, especially an archetypal character (remember, a 4th level ranger in AD&D is really just a 4th level Aragorn) and the tropes associated with it and see if I can make something mechanically interesting. A good rule of thumb for me is that if I can't come up with 9 or 10 level titles (i.e. synonyms) for the class, it's probably not broad enough to make it into a class. Sometimes, I'll think of an interesting game mechanic and build a class around it—I think the idea of using the turn undead tables to model commanding elemental spirits was what inspired the elementalist class I wrote.
You have great level titles. As much as I love B/X, the level titles are pretty groan-inducing. Is the effort you put into titles for aesthetic satisfaction, or is it a test of the cultural depth of a given character concept? If there’s not nine variations of a given character concept, is it too niche to be a class? How complicated do you get when figuring out things like XP-amounts for leveling, when you design a class? Do you have formulae you go by, or do you intuit it?
JS: XP is intuitive—and with B&T I use three different ranges to keep it simple. I play it fast and loose with XP—it’s really just about keeping the really powerful classes one level behind and the really weak classes one level ahead of the pack.
The level titles are part about making sure the class has enough breadth and depth to make it worthwhile, and partly just the fun of playing with words.
Have you had a chance to playtest the Canting class?
JS: No—I wish somebody else would give that class a spin and let me know how it works. Between my real job, freelance work and hobby writing, I get precious little time play or run games.
I want to run a mini-campaign about a clan of kobolds trying to protect the treasure of their missing god-dragon. A variation of the Canting Crew seems perfect for that. Now I just need a good mini-game for building traps.
JS: I did that skill challenges thing – might be useful for the trap-building.
Bloody Basic is a forthcoming series of games that use a simplified B&T core to model specific genres and periods, such as “fairy tale” or “Victorian.” Given the volume of options contained in B&T, how are you choosing what sticks for Basic?
JS: Can I think of four races and four classes that typify the theme, and are there enough other little tweaks to keep the edition different from the others, and thus possibly worthwhile for people to spend their hard-earned money on.
One of the Basic books is Modern Adventures. How does this book differ from Grit & Vigor?
JS: At this point, I think I’m actually going to go for a Jules Verne theme for the game that was going to be Victorian. I’ll probably also do a Post-Apocalypse edition as well. Grit & Vigor will make a nod towards mysticism and psychic phenomena, but it will be pretty well grounded in non-magical adventure fiction.
Grit & Vigor has a great cover: a cropped-in George Bellows drawing with the blockly, distressed title dropped out in white. It’s a concise evocation of pulp masculinity. The visual sophistication of your covers really stands out in the world of the OSR, where design is often characterized more by enthusiasm than skill. How important do you consider the visual packaging of your work? Do you have a broader interest in graphic design?
JS: Yeah—I think a cover needs to look good to attract people to a product. Since I haven’t much graphic design skill and my main tools are Excel, Word and Paint, I have to keep it simple. Fortunately, my tastes run towards “minimalism”.
How far out have you planned the Land of Nod?
JS: I have a thumbnail sketch for most of the regions of the world, some more detailed than others—usually because I set an actual game there at some point. Most of the world I make up as I go along, which is why I try to keep the overarching details and "history" of the world light—I don't want to come up with an idea and not be able to use it because it contradicts something else I've already written. Game worlds are there to be played in, not studied - keep the details scant and focus on giving the players something fun to do.
You have made the occasional reference to the Land of Nod having a Dreamlands-like relationship with this world. Is this an established conceit of the game-world, or are you just having fun with the name?
JS: My original idea was to have it be a world formed in the mind of a dreaming deity and encompassing the dreams of everyone who ever lived. I don't worry too much about what the world really is, though, as long as people are having fun slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in it.
Are you running any campaigns, now? What are they like?
JS: I run one campaign on Google+ that is actually the original playtest campaign for Blood & Treasure. Four players are still active, and they're delving the depths beneath the city of Ophir on the Wyvern Coast. I also ran a successful Mystery Men! campaign that involved Nazis making a superhuman frankenstein body for the brain of Hitler—that one wound up (the Nazis lost!) about a year to two ago, and I hope to find time to bring that brave band of heroes together for another romp soon. I wish I had about 30 hours in the day to get all the things in my head down on paper (or pixel, as the case may be). I'll probably get a playtest campaign of Grit & Vigor going soon, and I wish I had time to do some Bloody Basic one-shots online.
What is the appeal of the OSR?
JS: It's what I grew up with—it's what I know. I have no qualms about modern or alternate systems of play, but with the time constraints I have to deal with, using familiar mechanics and tropes that I grew up with helps me get things done. And after all—it's all about having fun with people—doesn't matter if you're playing five card stud or Texas hold 'em—the interaction with others is what's important.
You can find John's work at his blog, The Land of NOD.