Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Five or So Questions with Epidiah Ravachol on Swords Without Master

Tell me about Swords Without Master. How excited are you?

I could almost throw up, I'm so excited. And wracked with fear. This project has been on my plate for almost four years now, and it's come to mean a lot of things to me. It is one of the starting points for the journey that has led me to Worlds Without Master. So it's quite fitting that it should be a part of the ezine.

By the time this interview is up on the web, Swords Without Master will probably be out and I'll be feeling a whole different set of emotions. But right now I'm in the limbo between being done with my part of the game and awaiting its release. This is a tough place for me to be. I get real antsy and the brain starts cataloging the most annoying of all possible futures. I get in a lot of imaginary Internet fights during this time. History has shown that none of them actually come true, but a boy can dream.

But I am excited! I cannot wait to see what folks make of all the new stuff that's available for the game since "The City of Fire & Coin." And I'm eager to start working on the next step, even as I debate what that next step is. I have a trilogy of shorter games designed to teach the best practices for playing Swords Without Master that I may turn my attention to soon. Or I may indulge in my bestiary addiction and start putting together a Book of Perils for the game.

But there is no refreshing splash of cool water like writing fiction right after crossing a massive desert of game text. And I am secretly most excited about that.

Wolfspell was a huge hit. Tell me a little about your inspiration and design process. What made this cool game happen?

Wolfspell begins with the short story "One Winter's Due." The idea of two badass sisters who must transform themselves into wolves in order to fulfill conflicting oaths came to me at my own sister's wedding. The story was an absolute pleasure to write, but long before I had finished it the game designer in me began lamenting that I "wasted" such a good premise on, of all things,fiction. What followed was a mighty battle of guilt and passive-aggression betwixt the two halves of Eppy until an uneasy peace accord was reached with the compromise that both got to use the premise.

It's been a little bizarre since then. I've really enjoyed reading the play reports of Wolfspell. This is nothing new to me, and I often enjoy hearing what people are doing with my games. But since this one started as fiction first . . . it may be a bit like the difference between a composer hearing someone play their music and a musician hearing someone cover their song. Cool, but definitely a new experience that took a bit to get used to.

For those of us newer to your work, tell us about 'The City of Fire & Coin."

"The City of Fire & Coin" is a free preview adventure for Swords Without Master. You can download it here:

It came out in June of 2012. It's a bit of an experiment in game text. The whole thing is meant to be read out loud as you play your first game. So it presents the rules in a particular fashion modeled on how I teach the game when I run my demos, which, as it turns out, is very different from how rules are typically presented in a game text.

This method has its advantages and its disadvantages. You can open the PDF and start playing right away, without anyone in your group having read the rules before. And many have done so. But it does not make a particularly good reference book. The rules are arranged in the order you will need to learn them, not by associated concept. That plus having to read as if the rules were being read to you, make things a little difficult to look up. A bit like having to find the right spot to watch in an instructional video.

"The City of Fire & Coin" is meant to be part of a larger whole. The idea is that the eventual form Swords Without Master will take a number of different approaches to the rules, so people can pick and choose the ones that work for them.

There's a lot more to the game what what's in the preview, but it gives a really good look at the basics. "The City of Fire & Coin" contains just about all the rules you'll find in the first half of the Swords Without Master text that appears in issue three of Worlds Without Master. And those are basically the only rules you should be using the first few times you play. Once you get a hang of the system, you can start adding some of the other stuff found in issue three.

What has been the biggest challenge of Swords Without Master?

I fell just a bit too in love with it. I can get caught up in big projects, in a recursion of revision, trying to hammer out one, giant, beautiful, perfect product. You can always add something to a project like that and it could go on forever.

Last year, when I put out Vast & Starlit and What is a Roleplaying Game?, both of which are about 500 words long, I had a bit of a crisis. The concept to execution times on those games were tiny. Especially compared to the four or so years I had been plugging away at Swords Without Master at that point. It started to seem a bit hopeless. Why the hell was I writing all these words for something that I've explained in 10 minutes? I honestly considered abandoning the project at that point.

That is, ultimately, why I decided to publish it in Worlds Without Master. To force myself to write a much smaller version of it--though it still turned out quite a bit larger than I had planned for--and to give myself a venue for future exploration. It turned out that last bit was the most important bit. As I was stumbling over my deadlines, it was helpful to remind myself that I don't have to shove all my design into this one text. I could leave some ideas out for now and concentrate on the most important parts.

In the end, I shoved a lot into there anyway, but it was still tremendously helpful knowing I didn't have to shove it all in there.

What did you enjoy most about creating Wolfspell - the mechanics, writing "One Winter's Due," both, something else?

That game fell together so easily. Or, at least, that's how I remember it. I think there was a few early drafts that were just wrong, wrong, wrong. But when I hit on what I was doing, it just flew out. And the early playtest was pure joy.

Oh, but the best part was researching the wolves! What a lovely excuse to sit down and watch whatever I could find on the Internet about wolves.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five or So Questions with Sage LaTorra on Black Stars Rise and More

I got to interview Sage LaTorra about his current projects, like Black Stars Rise!

Tell me about Black Stars Rise and your other current projects. What are you excited about?

Black Stars Rise is a game I'm working on with Adam that draws on X-Files, the comics of Jeff Lemire, and certain parts of the Cthulhu mythos, especially True Detective. I actually started working on it last year but had some trouble explaining the type of game I was going for. Then True Detective came along and now it's easy to use that as a touchstone.

What's exciting there is mostly how we're messing with moves and relationships. It still uses a lot of Apocalypse World move elements, but how you get those moves, and how they change during play, is considerably different. We're also exploring some really cool ideas for covering the normal parts of life, though those are still in design.

Also with Adam, I'm working on Inglorious, our Dungeon World war supplement. For me the most exciting bit there is how we're approaching mass combat rules. I think most battle rules for RPGs are heavily influenced by adversarial tabletop wargames, things like Warhammer 40k. We're drawing on the adjudicated, anything-can-be-attempted war games that were popular training military commanders, in the vein of Verdy du Vernois. Instead of swapping to a more cut-and-dried balanced war game our mass combat system is about judgement and information.

Those are the main projects, though there's a few things that are either earlier or I'm less involved in. Adam has a Mass Effect-styled game in the works that I've given some feedback on, but it's so early I don't know what direction it will take, or how much I'll be involved. I also recently played Apocalypse World: Dark Age and immediately wanted to make stuff for it. I have no idea what the future of that is, since Dark Age is so early, but depending on where Vincent goes with it I could see my stuff ending up being a separate game, a supplement, or fodder for Vincent to make his own stuff.

What are the key elements of shows like True Detective and X-Files that you want to show through in Black Stars Rise? What are you doing mechanically to evoke them?

Well first it's probably worth mentioning that the way the X-Files connection is presented is "it's like The X-Files, but Mulder and Scully never show up."

With that in mind, BSR is focusing on people caught up in a mythos that's beyond them. You might be a detective, sure, or have a weird old book in your library, but you're not playing an occult investigator (or at least not when you start). You're a person who's caught up in a twisting world but you still have the touchstones of a normal life.

The other big element is the mythos. We're trying to make the game helpful in building your own mythos, like The X-Files black ooze and smoking man, or The King In Yellow. Your characters will see aspects of it, and across multiple characters you as a player will see more of it.

True Detective is a great example of normal people caught up in something bigger and stranger. While they are investigators, they're homicide detectives, not occult explorers. Then as this case takes over their lives it twists them.

Tell me a little about the website you have for Black Stars Rise. What motivated you to make it and have so much information for free?

Free is good. Right now what we need is play and feedback, and we want that from anyone who's interested, so why not make it free? Eventually, if we continue to like where the game is headed, there will be versions that aren't free. But at the moment the best arrangement for everybody is to make it free.

I'm also glad to feel like I'm giving back to gaming as a whole. These ideas are more useful when everyone can use them freely, not just read them for free.

I trust that, if we get to the point where we ask for money, people will help us out and pay. Money does help the game creation cycle going.

What do you think the benefits are to hacking games as opposed to creating your own core system? How far do you think you have to go before it's no longer a hack - and is Black Stars Rise going to go that far?

Everything's a hack, or nothing's a hack, depending on how you define the term "hack" (which probably depends how much you like the word). Play is hacking in a lot of ways.

Personally I tend to call it a hack as long as it still requires another game on hand to play or learn. Once the text is self-sufficient, even if it's re-explaining things from another game (like we did in Dungeon World) it's no longer a hack to me.

What do you think makes Black Stars Rise have such a unique experience for those who play it?

I'm not sure any game produces a unique experience. Games are tools, so I think what most games do is make certain experiences easier. It's possible to, say, do a fast-paced action game in d20, but you'd have to put a lot of work in to get all the rules down to the point where you could actually move at a fast pace.

The thing we're trying to make easy with Black Stars Rise is playing as a person who's entire world is shifting around them. To that end, we're doing a lot of things with hidden information. All the basic moves have a normal version and a number of 'wounded' versions. In certain conditions you'll wound a move, which means flipping it over and revealing the wounded version, which is different than the normal one. Each character may have a different wounded version of each move, so maybe under pressure your character gets shakey and mine gets panicky.

The other bit that's not quite there yet is that we want to make the everyday routines of life both useful and dangerous. These are the things that keep you grounded, but also the things that can drive you even further away when they go wrong. We haven't nailed that yet, but I think we'll have something to show soon.

One thing that I think needs to come out of that is the ability to both play day-to-day and to jump ahead years. True Detective does this wonderfully well, it's a huge inspiration. We see that these people have normal lives, and see how their priorities between all the things in those lives, plus all the elements of the case they work, play on them.

Thanks, Sage, for a great interview!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Five or So Questions on Piece of Work

I interviewed John LeBoeuf-Little, Kit La Touche, and Austin Bookheimer from Transneptune Games  about their current project, Piece of Work. Piece of Work is a cybernoir game, blending the grit and grim of noir themes with the high-tech punch of cyberpunk.

Tell me a little bit about your current project. What should I be excited about?

(JOHN) So, Piece of Work is set in the near future dystopia, with cyberware and megacorporations. You've been pushed out of society by an unjust system where citizenship is predicated on having a job. Now you have a grab-bag of personal problems and almost certainly a grudge against the people who've done you wrong. It's quiet tension punctuated by staccato action. We call it cybernoir.

But enough with the pitch. The game has a ton of things I'm really excited about. We've spent an amazing amount of time trying to get the tone just right - cybernoir is surprisingly fragile to maintain, so every mechanic we have is tuned to keep attention on the parts that matter. It's a pretty sweet mix.

I love the die mechanic particularly. We ask questions at the table about why your character is doing whatever they're doing. Based on how you're doing it, for whom you're doing it, and why you're doing it, you get better or worse dice. Each game I've played, there's been this wonderful moment when someone picks up the dice and thinks about what's about to happen and you can basically eat it with a fork because they say "No, damnit, this is about revenge" and everyone gasps. It happens all the time and I love it.

Give me a little more about cybernoir. What kind of play will I find in this genre?

(KIT) So, we start with the familiar near-future dystopia: corporations have become the de-facto powers of the world, everything and everyone is ground under them and their profit motive. (Of course, "near-future" is perhaps a bit optimistic; we keep coming across things we thought we made up for this in the news.) But instead of the usual "they supplant governments", we decided that governments are a useful tool for them—privatize profit, socialize loss, right? So, that's where the System comes in: citizenship, and all the benefits and rights that comes with, is contingent on employment, but there's a cost to having non-citizens around, so a system alarmingly like debt-bondage comes up, where the unemployed are given employment and limited citizenship benefits, but without real choice in what they do.

So that's the world, right? You are people who've fallen off the corporate ladder, and are dangling above the precipice of the System. You're probably doomed, like Deckard in Blade Runner, to be unable to make the world you want, but maybe you can help get someone else to safety, to salvation, to justice, and in the process, get yourself part-way to redemption.

There's a kind of beautiful hopelessness baked in—I've mentioned Blade Runner, but perhaps it's worth also comparing it to neo-noir cinema like Chinatown or Romeo is Bleeding. Everyone knows the end of Chinatown, right? "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." You're almost certainly gonna be dragged down into the mud and gutter, but you stand a chance of doing something selfless and good before that. You're in too deep to save yourself.

(JOHN) So all the things Kit mentioned are completely correct, but I thought I’d add that cybernoir is a complex of two other genres - noir and cyberpunk.

Much of old film noir is about proper ‘society’ and with the protagonists not really fitting that mold. Often, something has changed them to make them outsiders - they were falsely accused of a crime, or got mixed up with the wrong crowd, or they couldn’t let something go. They’re filled with iconic personalities, and everything is connected somehow.

In cyberpunk, there’s the disaffected oppressed, striving in spite of a massive, uncaring, inhuman world that sees humanity as a product to be commoditized.

In cybernoir, you get an interesting blend of these two - the characters are people who no longer fit into society because of these very noir reasons who are then exploited by the system for the benefit of those in power. They have very noir sensibilities - for them, everything is personal. But they also have very futuristic abilities - cybernetics and other advanced technologies.

What went into designing the die mechanic? How does it work?

(JOHN) Oi. We’ve been tweaking the die mechanic for a long time. It started out as a cool mechanical toy - roll three dice and take the best two. Each die was always intended to be scaled up or down independently, using any of the standard sizes (up to d12). Each of the dice represents a different thing - your character’s motive, what gear you’re using, and for whom you’re acting. But it didn’t used to be so cleanly delineated.

I forget who first suggested that there be a die for your character’s Motive, but it fit perfectly. You get a better die for motives that are more noir. If you’re doing it for money, you only get a d4. If you’re just in a hard spot and you have to roll anyway, that’s a d6. If you’re acting to get respect, that’s a d8. If you’re doing it out of passion - love or hate - you get a d10. And finally, there’s a motive that particularly drives your character based on its perspective, so you might get d12 when you’re trying to find out The Truth or you might get it when you’re trying to Clear Your Name.

In our earlier playtests, the other two dice were Gear and Cyberware. But it was pretty clunky. We tried a bunch of things - rules for gear breaking, ways of making cyberware more distinct from gear… what we finally came up with was that two dice dedicated to Things was a die too many. This was kind of a frustrating time for PoW; I’m pretty sure this was after Kit had returned from Metatopia, and at the time, the game kind of looked like a cyberpunk heartbreaker with a vaguely interesting die-mechanic. It was a misguided mess.

We had one of our famous kitchen conversations where it came out that I really wanted three specific stories for Piece of Work - noir and cyberpunk, but with an undercurrent of hope. I wanted players to eventually get charged about the world and to at least try to do something to make it better. And that wasn’t being reflected at all in the dice. That galvanized the third die as a kind of activism die - we call it Scope in the game. You get better dice for acting on a bigger scale - if you’re acting just for yourself that’s just a d6, but if you’re helping a friend that’s a d8. If you’re helping someone who’s innocent, that’s a d10. If you’re trying to save the downtrodden in general, that’s a d12.

Oh, and I guess I should talk about the other side of the roll - where you compare your result to something. We’ve had a few false starts with that as well; originally it was entirely set by the GM, then it was set by the GM but depending on circumstances might be increased or decreased, and sometimes if you had gear it might go up or down… anyway. What we have now is that you ask yourself questions about the situation and based on the answers, the target goes up or down in fixed amounts. Questions are a design theme that permeate through most of the game. In this case, it’s questions like “Is it dangerous?” or “Do you have back-up?”

The result of all this is when you want to break into a file cabinet for records about where the corporation moved your family after they fired you and you have a kick-ass lock pick set you scored while growing up, you get to roll better dice than if you just want to boost some intel in order to sell it for cash. And if it’s immediately dangerous or requires a light touch, then you need those better dice.

What's your favorite scene you've played out in playtest, and how do you think it's unique to Piece of Work?

(JOHN) There’s a bunch of really good ones. I think there was a great moment where our ex-assassin clone ended up wanting to get some information out of her friend’s father, but her Professions were shaped pretty narrowly - she was mostly a killer. So to get the information required her to beat up this old man, because she didn’t know how to be any other way. It was a very emotionally charged scene.

Another one that was really good was a scene at the end of a session mid-way through one of our playtests. The previous session the heroes had done a raid on a corporate research facility. They’d found out some uncomfortable truths and spent the whole session trying to damage control fallout from crises, but it didn’t really work out. The last scene was them in a safe house, staring at a pile of cash they’d ‘liberated', drinking scotch, and saying nothing to each other, because things had just gotten that messy.

What's up next after Piece of Work?

(KIT) OK, so I am really excited here. First, "Transneptune Games" is really a loose collective, so we're all working on things at the same time—John's spearheading Piece of Work, while Austin's working on a few different things, including his own take on cybernoir, where everyone plays facets of the main character's memory of an event, and you reconstruct things, in a world where memory is editable and pluggable.

But what I'm working on is maybe our next most far along thing. It's called Et in Aradia Ego, and it's a game about young people carving a space for themselves in the manner-bound world of Jane Austen, in a game of manners, madness, and magic. You're not perfect demur well-mannered people, and you've caught the attention of a fairy who wants to help you get what it thinks you want, all to its own ends.

This time period and topic are really interesting to me. It's easy and tempting and wrong for modern readers to see it as a very proper and laced-up period, but it was in so many ways acutely modern: you've got Romanticism and Byron, proto-free-love utopians like William Blake seeing ecstatic visions of magical beings, awesome feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, and the birth of modern scifi from her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. On top of this, the King is mad (and, worse, German!), and mumblings about Republicanism rear their head. That's without even getting into the fact that the country is at war with Bonaparte, but, just like recent US wars, doing its utmost to ignore that on the homefront.

So, there are a number of things I like about this period—it's really unstable, uncertain which way to grow, torn between the poles of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—and adding in a "helpful" fairy who's really trying to abduct you for its own amusement just heightens it.

The game focuses heavily on relationships, and asks you to make a lot of judgment calls about how interactions went, while building up dice from every interaction towards a moment-of-truth roll. At least, that's how it is now—it's been through many incarnations, and might take some more before it's ready.

Thanks to John, Kit, and Austin for a great interview!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Five or So Questions with Jessica Hammer

DO YOU WANT TO LEARN FROM THE HAMMER? Well, I did, so here's an interview.

Tell me about your current projects. What's got you excited?

As a professor of game design, I wear a lot of hats. I'm a game designer, a game scholar, a game researcher, and a game educator. So I'll tell you about the project I'm most excited about in each of those areas. Of course, they also overlap and relate.

As a game designer, I'm most excited about the space horror larp I'm writing with my long-term creative (and life!) partner, Chris Hall. We're exploring how constraining communication can produce both intimacy and conflict between players. Specifically, we're looking at creating rules around when people are allowed to speak, and how they can speak differently in different situations. Outer space is the perfect narrative backdrop - in space no one can hear you scream! Plus, designing a space story integrates one of our other goals, which is innovating with technology in larp. Since I'm in a computer science department, I've got access to some really interesting technical resources that will help us achieve our creative goals. We're still in the early design phase, but it's already looking super interesting!

As a game scholar, I'm most excited about a book chapter I'm writing on technologically-mediated role-playing games. Playing online makes some things harder, and some things easier - and different technologies create different opportunities and challenges. I'm covering everything from old-school MUDs to Hangout play; I'm hoping this will be the definitive reference on the state of online role-playing, and a challenge to game researchers to take this subfield more seriously.

As a game researcher, I'm excited about collecting data on how larpers are already using technology. I'm looking at how players, larp writers, and game organizers use digital tools to be more successful in their various roles. Right now I'm just collecting a broad swath of data to get a sense of what practices are out there, but in the long run I think this information can tell us something about, for example, what kinds of creative and pragmatic problems larpers are trying to solve.

Finally, as a game educator, I'm very excited about a series of workshops I'm developing on playtesting. Playtesting is an important skill for any game designer, but there aren't a lot of great ways to learn it. I've broken playtesting down into a series of core skills, and I'm creating exercises that designers can use to practice each skill individually. I'm also working with new game designers to see what kinds of materials and supports help them playtest most effectively. Right now the workshops are just for my students at CMU, but eventually I'll be sharing them with a larger audience - hopefully as soon as this fall. I think they'll be helpful to a lot of people in the game design community.

Playtesting is a really big deal! What suggestions do you have for people new to playtesting?

The number one thing I tell my students is "Step back and shut up." It's incredibly hard to watch people play your game without intervening. As a designer, you know the kind of fun that you want them to have! You can show them exactly what to do! But you don't come in the game box, so your job is to act like you're not there. Unfortunately, if players know you're there, they'll often ask for your input or otherwise tempt you to get involved. One thing you can do is practice a canned response to players trying to interact with you. I like phrases like, "That's a great question. I'll make a note of it." It lets them know you've heard their concern, but it encourages them to focus on the game rather than on you.

The other important lesson for people new to playtesting is to be careful about your data. Your own observations are only moderately trustworthy; it's easy to see what you're looking for instead of what's there. If you can videotape the session and watch it a couple of days later, that will often help you get some critical distance. You can also make a checklist or other worksheet for yourself. If you have to write it down, you're less likely to fool yourself! As for player feedback, asking people for their opinion is surprisingly tricky. Many people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Others will try to solve the game's problems without being able to articulate those problems effectively. You want to develop the skill of deep listening. Deep listening lets you understand what prompted the player to say what they did. That way you can respond to their in-game experience without letting yourself be overly influenced by specific design suggestions (which are often not that helpful).

Of course, in a few months my suggestions will be "Learn about playtesting from my workshops and materials!"

What do you think technology can do for us in tabletop and LARP that it isn't already doing?

That's a great question, but it's one I'm quite deliberately not going to answer. I don't think we understand what technology is already doing for tabletop and larp particularly well, so I don't think we can effectively see the possibilities. That's part of why I'm gathering the data I'm gathering.

That said, I'm especially interested in ways technology can make it easier for people to learn new games. Reading game rules is an ineffective way to learn for most people. For example, what if your phone prompted you with relevant portions of the rules as they came up during play? Making games more learnable is going to be a huge part of broadening the audience for role-playing games, so I think this is both an interesting and important question.

As a professor, do you think that the game design industry is growing and developing? For either yes or no, why?

In my first two months on the job, I've already had the chance to work with some brilliant, visionary students whose ideas could reshape the face of games. The question is whether they'll get the community and institutional support they'll need to have a larger impact. I hope they do - and I'm providing it where I can.

What is your biggest goal right now for games?

I want to democratize game-making, especially for people who don't think of themselves as "gamers" per se. I think there are lots of voices and perspectives that don't get respected in the game world. The more people we include, the richer the language of games becomes - and that's something I very much want to see.

What's up next for you after these exciting projects?

Right now I'm working on putting together my research agenda for the next five years. It looks like I'll be examining how games can change the relationships between players, both in terms of strengthening close ties and giving people access to different social networks. Figuring out some interesting questions in that space is really fun - I love playing with ideas! I'll be teaching a game design class in the fall, which I'm very much looking forward to. And I'm hoping to start working with my first graduate students in September, which I expect to be both inspiring and fun. I have a lot to look forward to!

Thanks Jessica! For those interested, Jessica also has a Patreon for her book reviews, which are top-notch!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Five or So Questions with Matt Weber on Gemstones and More

I interviewed Matt Weber on his work for his new project, Gemstones, and about his thoughts on gaming and music. 

As well as being a gamer and all-around cool guy, turns out you're also musically talented! Tell me about your current musical projects. What's up next?

I have two current composition projects.

I was hired last year by the talented writer, comedian, and ventriloquist April Brucker to turn her hilarious autobiography into a musical. We're about a half-dozen songs in, with roughly as many to go. This project is an opportunity for me to flex my jazz and pop muscles. We're not aiming to score for a full orchestra, for a variety of practical as well as artistic reasons; rather, we are using a small jazz ensemble of piano, bass (either electric or upright depending on the song), drums, and a multi-instrumentalist wind player who can rotate between flute, clarinet, and all four types of saxophone. One of the actors will also play acoustic and electric guitar, since that character, the main love interest in the story, is a budding rockstar. I've been working the guitar into the ensemble for the songs that are "in fiction."

I'm also working on a piece for Version Excursion Dance ensemble in Seattle. The director and choreographer of that ensemble, Erin Boyt, contacted me about an upcoming project of hers and asked me to write a new piece for it. This one is genre fiction related, as it is a dance adaptation of the famous early science fiction film Voyage Dans La Lune. The music I am writing alternates between a pounding, movie-soundtrack style and slower, more meditative and chromatic sections. One of the most exciting aspects of this work for me is that I am learning how to write for an instrument that is new to me, the accordion. (The full ensemble is piano, accordion, trumpet, and classical percussion.) Also, because it is so very different than the musical, it doesn't really occupy the same brain space and so I can switch between them with little difficulty—the one functions as a break from the other.

Over the past ten years, I've become increasingly frustrated by my compositional ability outstripping my performing skills. I do sing and play the piano, but not nearly as well as I compose. To remedy this gap I've just begun taking piano lessons again, for the first time in far too long. I found a great teacher who can help me with all genres of music and who is willing to work thoughtfully to accommodate my small hands. I'm still getting in the swing of a regular practice schedule again, but it feels really great to be doing it. In about six months to a year I'd like to begin performing my pop and musical songs in front of live audiences.

Finally, I have a live performance of one of my pieces coming up. The work that is premiering was actually finished in 2012 but I haven't had a chance to get it performed until now. It's called Gemstones. It's for string quartet (a very traditional ensemble consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello) and you can hear a pretty good MIDI simulation of it here. Stylistically it's a fusion of Chopin (mid-19th century, very traditional Romantic), Ravel (early 20th-century, on the border between traditional tonality and modernity), and my own metric twists. It's going to premiere on April 22nd at 8 PM as part of a concert of the New York Composers Circle. (St. Peter's Church, 54th St. and Lexington Ave.) I hope to have a studio recording available soon after.

What was it like to work with a dance ensemble and with a new instrument, both at the same time?

I'm fortunate to have some great support with the "Voyage 2014" project. Erin, of course, will be doing all the choreographing, and she has been extremely clear and professional in terms of what she wants from me. We mapped out the scenes, I sent her some early sound-sketches and proposals for how I would expand those ideas as the plot unfolds, and now, with her blessing, I am working on fleshing out those plans. In a few weeks I'll send her a MIDI version of the full score, so she can begin working on the choreography, with the proviso that the rhythms won't be completely the same as what human players will do. She may also ask for any necessary revisions. In the meantime she'll begin gathering players to make a studio recording.

I've consulted with various online sources to figure out the scoring of the accordion, as well as talking to a friend of a friend who plays. One huge advantage of being a composer today is the vast number of free scores and guides available on the Internet. It turns out accordion is pretty similar to the piano in a lot of ways, so figuring out the interplay between those two instruments is one of the major challenges of this piece. Having them "double" (play the same material in parallel) is possible for some of the time, but not something you want to over-use. I'm definitely going to check in with the guy who actually plays again before I send the score to Erin. I also may need to make some revisions once we find our actual player, since accordions can be somewhat idiosyncratic in terms of their exact highest and lowest notes.

What is your favorite method of enjoying music as a consumer?

Great question. Ideally, it's going to concerts. Especially for jazz, I find the energy of the live ensemble to be unrivaled. Lately I haven't really had the time or money to go. (I used to write reviews, an awesome site for new music founded by my former classmate Thomas Deneuville. That work got me free tickets and CDs, but I haven't had the time for awhile to really do the kind of quality writing that site deserves.) I've made some changes in my life recently as far as how I handle work and finances, and once that stabilizes a bit more I'm hoping to be able to go back to hearing concerts at least once or twice a month on weekends.

In the meantime, I use Pandora frequently. I curate my stations pretty aggressively. I have one for rock, one for softer folk rock (that's actually my favorite), jazz, modern classical, soundtracks, Broadway, and a few others. I'm listening to my rock station as I'm typing this. :-)

There's another thing I'm hoping to carve out more time for as my life continues re-stabilizing after recent upheavals, and that is score study. That's when you really delve into a piece, listening to it multiple times while looking at the printed score. It's a great way to get into the nitty-gritty of how to orchestrate certain sounds and take a piece apart, but it's pretty time intensive. Also, despite the wealth of material available online, I prefer to have printed scores so I can mark them up. They're expensive but I have a backlog of ones I still need to work on sitting on the shelf (much like with other types of books!).

What do you think are good examples of commonalities and relationships between gaming and music that you are familiar with?
I'm pretty much obsessed with the idea of emotional clarity in narrative, as explained brilliantly by Film Critic Hulk.

I look at the rise of folk, rock, and pop in the 1950's as a response to the increasing rarefication and inaccessibility of classical music at that time, as exemplified by composers like Stockhausen and Schoenberg. To some extent jazz was experiencing a similar audience disconnect, with the rise of the bebop style throughout the 40's. Bebop can get very dense and complex to the point of being off-putting, despite the virtuosity of the players. (The 50's is when the famous and influential "Kind of Blue" jazz album was written, with its very simple, modal harmonies, so within the jazz community, as well, there was a dialogue surrounding this problem.) Pop musicians plugged into what was going on at that cultural moment—the rise of youth culture, the civil rights movement, later on Vietnam—and helped people both to understand and to feel understood. Whether or not that's a good thing is beside the point, it's just how art works.

When I craft a piece, I always aim to make the emotional arc as clear as possible to the listener. With songs, this can be somewhat easier, since you have actual words to fall back on to get your point across, but it's no less important in instrumental pieces. An instrumental piece is absolutely an emotional journey just like a love song, a novel, a movie, or, yes, a roleplaying game (I'm getting there, I swear!). There are tons of examples but one that I find absolutely stunning is *Brahms' First Symphony. He was living with the pressure of insanely high expectations, including frequent comparisons to the antecedent genius of Beethoven, and it actually took him fourteen years to complete the symphony. It is full of doubt and tension but then, finally, after endless struggle and backsliding, ultimate triumph. It thus represents its own compositional process, the emotional journey of the composer, which in turn becomes that of the audience. Amusingly, Brahms' hard work paid off so well that the First Symphony is nicknamed "Beethoven's Tenth."

By the way, tonality definitely isn't necessary for a work to have emotional resonance. I've both heard and written some post-tonal pieces that I thought were very moving, but in that case the composer has to find some way of connecting with the audience other than through a traditional chord progression. (Good examples include Short Ride In a Fast MachineDifferent Trains,Concerto For OrchestraLigeti's Requiem, and Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima. Also, most people seem to like my Sequence No. 1.) Tonality is simply a very easy way of connecting with listeners' emotions because it has such a long history and there is so much ingrained, completely unconscious ritualization of our reactions to tonal music. But a lot of contemporary instrumental music doesn't give listeners much of anything to latch on to. Highly educated audience members may appreciate certain technical nuances of the playing, but they are no substitute for a melody, a rhythmic pattern, or even a recurring tone "color" that can give us some reason, any reason, to just care about the piece.

Now, at long last, let's talk about gaming. What is the bare minimum requirement for a roleplaying experience to be enjoyable? For me, and I suspect for most players, it boils down to a reasonable frequency of chances to make impactful decisions within the narrative. The exact definitions of "impact" and "narrative" can be enormously varied! For instance in jeepform games there may not be many opportunities to actually influence the outcome of the "plot," such as it is, but players have many chances to show how the unfolding events impact the characters' emotions. Whereas in an old-school dungeon-crawl the characters' emotions may be less important, but players have unimpeded freedom to approach the challenges of the dungeon in whatever crazy ways they can dream up. But every successful game I've either played in or run has one thing in common: the players are all on board with a single, central premise.

A recent example: at Dreamation I co-ran a Mouse Guard LongCon campaign with Mark Diaz Truman, Marissa Kelly, and Brendan Conway. Even though there were three to four tables of mouse PCs at any one time, with quite a few individual issues to deal with, part of the reason the game worked so well is because we started from a very basic premise: Pebblebrook, the westernmost mouse town, has suffered from an earthquake. Literally every single problem the guardmice faced, from labor disputes to possible weasel invasion, either stemmed from that initial situation or were a complication to it. So, throughout the campaign, everyone in all their diverse quests kept focused on the big question of the ultimate fate of Pebblebrook and the rest of the mouse territories. That unity not only helped everyone to invest emotionally, but also made it relatively easy for PCs to move between tables and quickly figure out ways to help each other. The PCs' actions felt weighty because they fully understood the stakes.

To talk more broadly for a moment, a great deal of the development in RPG design in the new millennium can be seen as a backlash against increasing convolution throughout the 90's. So many games from that era, such as Vampire: The Masquerade or Earthdawn, not to mention much of the material for 2nd Ed. D&D, had incredibly interesting premises, but didn't give gamers clear, concrete instructions about how to actually turn those broad ideas into specific campaign frames. Often the mechanics contradicted the intended themes of play. The worst game texts actually encouraged deliberate obfuscation, not just of specific NPC actions, but of entire plotlines! It's very hard as a player to buy into a game where it's clear there are many Important Things afoot but you have no access to or understanding of those Things.

Contrast those games, with their huge worlds and endless possibilities, with indie classics like Dogs in the Vineyard or Don't Rest Your Head. Both of those RPGs, and many others besides, are strong precisely because they are very limited. Some people may be turned off by the very idea of, for example, Mormon paladin gunslingers, and that's fine, but for those who do try it out, the game delivers exactly what it promises. Once again the value of simplicity is clear. Games of Dogs can get very complicated, of course, but those complications arise organically from a straightforward (albeit nuanced) premise that you have to buy into to even get started playing.

So that's how gaming and music are tied together, for me. It's not about writing songs from my character's point of view, or instrumental music to represent some piece of gaming fiction, though I've done both of those things and hope to do more in the future. It's about the importance of simplicity, and the inherent need for all successful narratives to have an emotional center.

What's up next for you, beyond Gemstones?

Well, Gemstones is essentially done, though I need to make arrangements to have a studio recording made. But once I'm done with that and the musical and the dance project, I'd like to put out an album of piano music. I'm looking at Kickstarter or a similar crowdfunding site for it. (I have ethical concerns about KS because of its links to Amazon.) I want to start with a relatively small, manageable project, which is why I'm aiming to make an album of music for just piano. The most important thing is for it to be very professional, in terms of the video, the look of the project site, and so on—all things that I'd really need to outsource to do them justice. So I'm going to take it slow, and aim to be the tortoise rather than the hare.

I've seen some pretty convincing arguments that crowdfunding is actually not such a great way to grow your audience; rather, it's a way of getting money from people who already know you. In all honesty, even if that's true I'm not sure if I care that much. I am working on other ways of expanding my name recognition, but in the meantime, my true goal as a musician is simply to be able to hear my own music as I intended for it to sound. If all I manage to do is get recording expenses covered, that's fine. Of course, some larger-scale (i.e. orchestral) projects require more formal, institutionalized support, but I figure that sort of thing will come in due course if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.