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!