Monday, May 2, 2016

Interview with RPGPundit

When the expansion to Betrayal at House on the Hill was announced, I ended up having a short exchange on twitter with the RPGPundit, @KasimirUrbanski. He suggested I might interview him, and I've taken him up on the offer.

First, thank you for agreeing to this interview.


Give us a brief glimpse into your history with gaming.

Well, I've been an RPG gamer since the 1980s. I started out with the “red box” of D&D, as well as a few other popular games of the time. It was only a hobby until 2005, when I started writing a blog as the RPGPundit. The blog proved quite popular, and eventually I was handed the ownership of a defunct RPG-forum named “nutkinland”, on a bet (the bet being that I couldn't make it work where the previous owners had failed). My interest in the project wasn't just a matter of pride, it was also because the largest RPG forum was (and still is) a high-moderation area that was discriminating against both traditional RPG gamers and people with a different political slant than the main clique running the joint.
Within 6 months, my forum, now called theRPGsite, had become (and still is) one of the major and most active general-RPG forums on the internet. Our area of interest there tends toward old-school RPGs (D&D and its derivatives) but we have threads about all kinds of RPGs, and a free-speech moderation policy.

After that, I started writing some RPGs of my own. The most popular of these have been the diceless RPG “Lords of Olympus”, the old-school Indian-themed RPG “Arrows of Indra”, and especially my latest old-school RPG world “Dark Albion” which takes D&D-style gaming and puts it into a magical version of the 15th century War of the Roses (the real-life history that inspired Game of Thrones), with a big emphasis on 'medieval authenticity'. It's been blessed with both rave reviews and great sales.
My involvement in old-school gaming, my blogging and my skill as an RPG reviewer led to my being hired as a consultant to help in the design in the newest (5th) edition of Dungeons & Dragons itself.

I know from the rant over at Problematic Tabletop that you had a hand in Dungeons and Dragons 5e. As a “consultant” to the edition, how much input did you have into the game's development?

Well, obviously the lead designers were the lead developers of the game, and a lot of 5e D&D is based on the best of earlier editions of D&D (including the old-school editions which I'm a huge fan of, and helped with integrating into the new edition). But I'd say I had quite a lot of input as a consultant. I worked directly with the project head Mike Mearls, and over the course of several months we exchanged about 400 emails, where we went into a lot of detail about the early stages of the rules. I helped keep the game modular and simplified enough that it would be appealing to old-school gamers, and helped influence several different areas that ended up in the final rules.

The blogger at Fail Forward stated that you, and others involved in the Old School Rules community are paranoid and nasty people. What's your response to this?

I'd say they're the paranoid and nasty people. They're control freaks out to force other people to do what they want. I'm not the one who wants to blacklist authors and censor books. That's them.
I'll also note that the people behind that blog, and the people who supported it, were behind a vicious attack against me when D&D 5e came out. This attack included making up outright lies about me, including the standard litany that I was sexist, racist and homophobic/transphobic. They claimed that I had been opposed to the use of inclusive language in the new D&D rules, when in fact I was 100% in favor of it and had publicly stated as much. They claimed I'm a transphobe even though Arrows of Indra (a game I had published BEFORE 5e came out) was the first RPG rulebook to feature a transgender character on the cover. They continued repeating these lies in spite of any evidence or statement to the contrary, because obviously the truth is not of interest to their real agenda.

For those of us not in the know, talk to us about the OSR movement, why it exists, and what its objectives are?

The OSR stands for “Old School Renaissance” and what it amounts to is a design movement that has become one of the most innovative and influential schools of RPG-design in the modern hobby. It came into existence thanks to the Open Gaming License from Wizards of The Coast, which essentially provided a legal safeguard to using the D&D rules in third party products. This led to a lot of old-school gamers, gamers who were still playing original D&D from the 1970s and 1980s, making 'clones' of those old rules (because when the OSR started, there was no legal way to buy non-used copies of the old rules), and to write new adventures for old-school D&D.

Eventually, everything that could get 'cloned' did, and later WotC made available reprints of the AD&D and original D&D rules, and PDFs of other early products. But these developments actually led to a new phase for the OSR, of real innovation. In the last few years there's been an explosion of new rulebooks, adventures, supplements and other products that aren't a direct copy of anything from the old-school era but whose design-principles are based directly on the old-school style of system-design.
The OSR today is like a kind of framework of design, where you make the rules 'inside the box' of what fits with the old-school style, but thinking of totally new ways to modify them and totally new and unusual settings that are different from what came before. My own Dark Albion and Arrows of Indra are examples of this, but there's dozens (maybe hundreds?) more, many of which have received awards and commercial success.

Apart from one or two older gaming companies (like Goodman Games), most of the publishers of OSR products are new, small-press or self-publishing enterprises. In spite of its traditionalist bent, the OSR has proven to be a far more successful school of design concept than most previous (more artsy-fartsy avant-garde) attempts to reinvent the rpg-wheel. And the influence of the OSR was proven by the way WoTC reached out to OSR designers while designing 5e D&D.

Given, your previous involvement with WotC in DnD, what’s your response to the list of creators on the Betrayal at House on the Hill expansion?

I don't play that game, so I don't have a personal stake on it. But frankly, I'm not going to judge the creators chosen. Like I said, I'm not a fan of blacklisting or censorship. I suspect that some of those choices of creators were done for reasons totally other than real design skill, but the real proof to me should always be in the product made. As far as I'm concerned, it's the Regressives who care more about who is being picked for a job than how good they are at it; and while if I was going to bet on some of those chosen I'd probably bet against their work being any good, I think that it's the final work itself that should be judged.

The thing is, a lot of the Outrage Brigade crowd are fundamentally incompetents, which is why they want to judge on anything other than ability. In that case, the quality of their work will ultimately prove whether we should give a damn about them or not. Sooner or later, the market will decide.

What games are you currently playing? What other games do you think highly of? What games should be avoided at all costs, and why?

Currently, I'm still running the Dark Albion campaign that I used to playtest my book with, it's been running every two weeks for the last six years or so. I'm also running a second Dark Albion campaign that I host at a local gaming club. Plus, an historical 'wild west' campaign using Aces & Eights; and an extremely gonzo crazy game of Dungeon Crawl Classics (one of those very creative OSR games). That last one will probably end up being a future setting book of mine one day.

To me, aside from my own books of course, I think that old-school D&D and the OSR products are the best gaming material around. There's a ton of great OSR rulesets, each of which is creative in its own way; games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, and many more. The great thing about them is that these games, and any of their adventures/supplements, are all basically compatible with each other, and they're also all compatible with the old D&D books, settings, and adventures. There's also some OSR games that aren't fantasy-based, like the sci-fi games White Star and Stars Without Number.

There's a ton of other games, non-OSR games, that are really great and worth checking out (past and present), but it would take way too long to list them all.

The games to avoid are mostly the highly pretentious “Storygames” that try to turn RPGs away from being about emulating a character in a virtual world and into some kind of process of “addressing a narrative”. These usually have gimmicky rules and tend to crappy at long-term play (or, I would say, short-term play for that matter). Most of these are really evident if you give them a quick look, but since the rise of the OSR some of these avant-garde designers have been trying to latch on the coat-tails of Old School. I'd warn people who are looking into Old-School gaming to watch out for games like “dungeon world” or “torchbearer”, whose fans often try to claim are 'old school' but are in fact nothing of the sort.
There are worse games than those too, including a couple that aren't really games at all but exercises in what we call 'misery tourism' (where you play some poor victim of some horrible tragedy, often with political overtones), but these are so unpopular you're not likely to find them without really going out of your way to look, and they'll be obvious crap to anyone with half a brain.

Thanks again to RPGPundit. He makes a very good point about judging the final work with regard to the Betrayal expansion, though the track record of certain elements is cause for some skepticism.

When you play Social Justice, the world loses.


  1. I hate Sarkeesian, but apparently she regularly attends boardgame meetings, FWIW. I guess that most of the "celebrities" will provide the ideas for the haunts and a real designer will actually design them.

  2. What's a Sarkeesian? Some kind of Armenian Parcheesi game?