Friday, August 26, 2016

Five or So Questions with Eric Simon on Rockalypse

Hi all! I have an interview today with Eric Simon of Four-in-Hand games about his upcoming game, Rockalypse (quick start on DTRPG here!), which is currently on Kickstarter! It sounds really cool, but I'll let Eric tell you all the details! He talks, too, about system choice and how it's important for how a game plays. Good stuff!

Tell me a little about Rockalypse. What excites you about it?

I'll start with my usual tagline: Rockalypse is the post-apocalyptic game of musical conflict. The quick high concept is "Scott Pilgrim meets Mad Max," but it is every movie, comic, or TV show you've ever seen where someone pulls out an instrument or takes to the stage and fights someone with nothing but the power of music (or dance). One of the things that continues to excite me about this project is just how many inspirations keep showing up in media. Just this week I've watched The Get Down and Kubo and the Two Strings, both of which present different but equally evocative representations of the musical-battle motif. This is a concept that is ripe for play. It seems to be something most people can wrap their minds around fairly easily, simply because of how much source material is ingrained in our pop culture.

Tell me about the system for Rockalypse. What are the basic mechanics, and their inspirations?

Rockalypse is built on Fate Core and is specifically designed to tap into the strength and uniqueness of that system. In particular, collaborative combat and non-physical damage are essential to the feel of the game, and Fate does those things better than just about any other system. The first thing you'll notice is that I've removed Fighting, Shooting, and Provoke, and added in Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Rhyme. Melody and Rhyme are now the two main attacking skills, Rhythm and Will are the two main defending skills, and Harmony is an especially powerful support skill. I've also built in a bunch of new stunts for those skills and for many of the regular skills for use in combat. Athletics has a stunt that allows dance to be incorporated into the conflict just like the other musical skills, Crafts becomes the main representation of offstage technical work, and even Stealth and Deceive have uses within a performance.

The other key difference is how combat is structured. I really wanted to emphasize the collaboration, so I broke initiative into different "counts" divided by types of actions. The first count is for Overcomes, the second for Creating Advantages, the third for Attacks, and the fourth for any Defends that happen because of those attacks. This encourages the group to really talk through and plan how they're going to approach each round (or "phrase"). Cooperation is heavily encouraged by the structure and by the stunts attached to the various skills. For instance, a sound and lights technician can use Crafts to create advantages that provide a +3 instead of a +2 when used by their bandmates, but only if they themselves are not performing on stage. Meanwhile, a Rhythm player with the Perfect Time stunt can defend on behalf of her bandmates when they are attacked.

All of the new mechanics are designed around the idea of getting people to engage first with the things that make Fate awesome - aspects, collaboration, narrative positioning, and so on - and second with the fun of describing a musical performance spectacle. Because of the way everything works together, it also makes the Attack and Defend rolls much higher than those in most other Fate games once you get a few phrases into a combat. That helps to give it even more of an epic feel that's appropriate to the themes.

What would a typical session of Rockalypse play out like?

I strongly recommend a solid session zero at the beginning of your campaign, but assuming you've already created your game and you're into the story itself, Rockalypse resembles many other roleplaying games in how it plays. There's still adventuring to be done with the usual amount of exploring, talking, and puzzle solving. But when there's any kind of throw-down, it happens with music instead of fists or guns. I generally aim for a 50/50 split between conflicts and story-driven adventuring. Like most games, that exact balance will vary from session to session, but overall that should be about where you end up.

How did you come up with the concept and what made it fun for you?

This game emerged out of a thought experiment I started a couple years ago. At the time, I was working exclusively on my Steamscapes setting for Savage Worlds, and every once in a while people would ask me if I planned to convert Steamscapes to Fate. My answer was and still is no, because I feel that Savage Worlds is the right fit for that game. But those conversations got me to ask the question, "If I were to design a game that HAD to be run in Fate, what would it be?" After a few months of thinking, I hit on the core idea for Rockalypse, and I've been developing it ever since.

Part of the fun in development has definitely come from the great players I've had in all my demos and playtests. I love seeing all the different approaches they take to their bands, their characters, and their settings. Both Fate in general and Rockalypse specifically help to bring out the creativity in players, and it's been a joy to be a part of that.

The other thing that's been entertaining about the process has been the research. I always enjoy my historical research for Steamscapes, but Rockalypse has allowed me to approach research from a very different angle: watching cheesy movies from couch. And while some of that has still felt like work - I am much more familiar with the Camp Rock oeuvre than I ever wanted to be - I have still managed to find some surprising gems. My more obscure recommendations would include Bandslam (probably the most emotionally genuine teen band movie I've seen), Wild Zero (J-Pop stars vs. zombies with a trans-positive romance), and Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks (some may scoff, but it has even better band battles than Scott Pilgrim).

One last thing - you said that this game fit for Fate and that's where you started. What did you do research-wise to design a Fate game, and how do you think your experience designing Rockalypse has influenced your design style?

When I first started, I did a combination of reading, listening to actual plays, and playing a few pick-up games with people who know the system well. I am also very fortunate to live in a city where I can meet up with other prominent game designers such as PK Sullivan and Tara Zuber, and I get to have conversations with them about the things that they have done with Fate and seen others do with Fate. PK in particular came on very early to help me playtest Rockalypse and give me feedback on the mechanics. He really helped me work out some of the early kinks.

As far as my own design style goes, one of the things I did with Rockalypse was to pull myself away from the heavy setting focus of my other work. Steamscapes is extremely setting-dependent, but I knew I wanted more flexibility with this game. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing a game where the setting is created by the players every time you play, and it has been very rewarding to see that pay off. Otherwise, I really feel that Rockalypse has been a good test and example of my overall design philosophy, which is to always look for the right match of theme, setting, and mechanics. I think the best games are the ones where all three of those things work together to support a cohesive play experience. That's what I'm always striving for.

Thanks so much to Eric for the interview! Rockalypse sounds like a fun game that can definitely hit some flavor buttons for a lot of people. Check it out on Kickstarter!

This post was supported by the community on