Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Five or So Questions with Chris Longhurst on Pigsmoke

Today I have an interview with Chris Longhurst about the new Powered by the Apocalypse wizard school game, Pigsmoke! Pigsmoke is currently in its last few days on Kickstarter. Check out the interview below.


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

Pigsmoke is a game about playing jaded academics at a magical college -- an amalgamation of Harry Potter and The Thick Of It, to use two cultural touchstones that everyone probably knows about.

What excites me about Pigsmoke -- or any game, really -- is the potential of the stories it helps you tell. And Pigsmoke is, as far as I know, breaking new ground by telling stories about the lives of academics under impossible demands. Like, 'magic school' RPGs are plentiful but you're always playing the students, and RPGs where you play wizards are plentiful, and RPGs where you play academics are... Ars Magica. But Pigsmoke sits in a neat little intersection between all those that none of them really explore.

Also it's PbtA, and I'm a huge fan of PbtA as a system.

What have you done with the PbtA system to make it suit the concept and themes of Pigsmoke?

I haven't done much with the PbtA system, at least not mechanically -- there's a system for tracking time-consuming actions that acts as a limit on how quickly you can do certain things, and I've replaced '+1 forward' with a system of advantage and disadvantage stolen pretty much entirely from 5th edition D&D -- but I've completely replaced all the basic moves to more accurately simulate the life of an academic in a black comedy about bureaucracy. (Imagine a lengthy digression here about how in PbtA the fiction is the mechanics, so changing the fictional triggers and outcomes of the basic moves is changing the mechanics of the game...)

For example, let's say you want someone to do you a favour. There are no moves for simply asking someone for a favour; if you want someone to do you a solid you either have to butter them up (with the schmooze move), or shout at them until they do what you want (with the scathe move). In fact if you do just ask someone for a favour, that's likely to trigger an MC move and those are almost always bad for you.

As a result, in the world of Pigsmoke it's impossible to have a straightforward conversation and exchange of favours. You have to lie to people or intimidate them, and then deal with the complex social tangles those actions generate.

Unless you're the Networker, which is a playbook built around just being able to ask people for favours, or in the Department of Mindbending, which contains several moves for simply compelling obedience. But in those cases you've specifically chosen to be that sort of character doing that sort of thing.

How does magic conceptually and mechanically work and integrate in Pigsmoke?

Conceptually magic in Pigsmoke is vague as anything -- it's meant to be defined as necessary by each group. All that's required for Pigsmoke to function is a) that magic is something that can be researched and studied in an academic setting and b) that it's something that can be taught to other people. For other questions about the nature of magic -- for example 'Can anyone learn it, or only the gifted?' -- the real question is 'Is this relevant to the game right now?' If no, it's not important. If yes, make the decision at the table and that's how it works in that game.

Mechanically, all characters have a Sorcery stat and (except the Fake) access to the cast a spell move. When you use your magic to solve a problem you roll cast a spell and on a hit the problem's solved -- at a greater or lesser cost. If the magic you're using is outside your department's specialty, you roll at disadvantage. On top of that the department playbooks have various moves which address specific use of magic -- maintaining a mob of walking dead if you're with Life and Death, predicting the future for Foresight, and so on.

If you're familiar with Masks you can probably see the influence of the 'don't sweat the details' way that system handles superpowers, which was a strong inspiration for this approach.

What is the fiction of Pigsmoke like?

I mean, it doesn't have to be that way -- the fiction of Pigsmoke is wide open for definition at the table and has room for black, black comedy or even totally serious play if the group is up for it -- but pretty much all the prompts in the book lean goofy because that's the kind of game I run.

Who do you hope will enjoy Pigsmoke and what have you done to make it inclusive for more audiences?

Well naturally I hope everyone enjoys Pigsmoke. I wrote it using singular they instead of he or she, tried to keep explicitly gendered options out of the playbooks (and made sure that the sample names span as many nationalities as I could think of), and I'll be paying special attention to the characters depicted in the art -- I want a good mix of genders, ethnicities, body types, able-bodied vs not, etc. My intent is that anyone should be able to look at this book and see someone at least a little bit like them.

That said, as a hetero-cis white man I'm not really the best at judging this sort of thing -- so I've hired Katherine Cross (https://twitter.com/Quinnae_Moon) to do a diversity consult for me, and write some additional material about marginalisation and academia so that those issues aren't just quietly swept under the rug. She's agreed to do the job but I haven't seen what she's written yet, so I can't really tell you much more than that.


Thanks so much to Chris for the interview! If you've liked reading the interview and have an interest, check out Pigsmoke on Kickstarter right away - only a few days left!

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