Monday, April 17, 2017

Five or So Questions with Todd Nicholas on The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Todd Nicholas on the new game The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power (SCUP) which is currently on Kickstarter! It's a Powered by the Apocalypse game of dark fantasy. Check out the answers below!

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Todd!
Tell me a little bit about The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power. What excites you about it?

Excellent and appropriately timed question! The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power (SCUP, for short) is a dark fantasy tabletop role-playing game by myself, Todd Nicholas, and my friend Thomas J. It is a hack of Apocalypse World that uses the core mechanics of that game to explore the kinds of political intrigue you would see in something like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, Imperial Radch by Ann Leckie, and the TV show Vikings. We’re currently Kickstarting the game and it’s doing quite well, so we’re happy to finally get it into people’s hands. Tom and myself have been working on this game on and off for a number of years. We started because we had just played a game of Apocalypse World and we thought those mechanics might work well for a fantasy story about power, politics, and intrigue. We were never quite sure if we wanted to make SCUP a polished game that we put out into the world in physical form or just keep it something we passed around as a PDF, but there seemed to be enough interest in it that we decided to go ahead on it.

What excites me about SCUP is that I love that we’ve given players particularly powerful moves to affect their fictional world. The thing Tom and I spent the greatest amount of time on in the design of SCUP was the moves for character classes. We wanted people to be able to do big, dramatic things. For example, one class is called “The Beloved.” They’re sort of a preacher or prophet type. One of their moves lets them see and confront the inner demons of NPCs, permanently changing them in some way. The first time we actually had someone use this move at the table, and they were literally having a duel of wits with the manifestation of another character’s worst fears in an effort to help the character conquer them, we were incredibly stoked to be able to give players that sort of narrative agency. So yeah, that’s my answer. I like being able to watch people do bold things in our game that let them get their hands nice and dirty.


What have you done with SCUP to take the PbtA mechanics and make them really mesh with the fiction and framing?

The PbtA system already does a nice job of focusing on close up character drama, but we have created a number of mechanics that really drive this home. In particular, we have focused on giving the MC moves to push social hierarchy in their toolbox of moves. They have a different set of moves to use against common PCs and noble PCs, for example. Additionally, characters may be in the employ of a Patron or may be called on by a Faction to fulfill a duty or obligation. We wanted to push the idea that this game is about reputation, information, hierarchy, and obligation using mechanics such as these. Mostly, though, we want people to have fun getting involved in intrigue between characters!


You mentioned "The Beloved." Tell me about some of the playbooks - who are they? How do the moves help tell the story?

What we’ve really focused on in SCUP is playbook moves that really drive the narrative and give players a chance to do big things in the fiction. Because the game is about intrigue and power, many of the moves focus on things like getting and spreading information, or making big, dramatic things happen in the gameplay. For example, I played a game last night at Forge Midwest with some folks. There was an NPC named Faela that two PCs wanted alive, cause they needed information from her, and one PC was tasked to assassinate. That PC, playing the class The Black Hood, rolled her move Their Eyes Never Open, which allowed her to assassinate an NPC within her reach. She had already snuck into the Ziggurat where the NPC was, and succeeded at her roll, allowing her to kill the character. When the other two PCs reached her, they found her deceased, but one of them, playing the Bloodletter, took her body and rolled his move God Complex to attempt to bring her back to life, though she came back as something awful, barely able to provide the information he needed. Meanwhile, a player playing The Voice, an advisor to the high priestess who ruled the city, had been using her move An Ear at Each Door to have her network of spies to gather information on the Priestess’s enemies which she ultimately used to betray the Priestess and claim power for herself. These are the kinds of blood-opera moments we’re really hoping players use the moves to create in games of SCUP.


What elements of your fictional inspirations were the most important to your design? 

If you think about something like A Song of Ice and Fire, you think about the big things that George R.R. Martin makes happen in that world. Characters die, the world changes, relationships change, etc. As such, we wanted to make sure that the MC and players had a lot of power to affect the world in compelling ways. To give you an example, we have something we call “end of season moves,” which are triggered by the players when a campaign is nearing its conclusion. They give the players the ability to mechanize something like, say, the Red Wedding from A Storm of Swords. Most PCs wouldn’t just drop something that game changing on their players, but the end of season moves give them permission to, with the player’s input. 

Additionally, we thought very hard about the kinds of characters in the books we used as inspiration. The playbook of The Screw, for example, is very much based on Sand dan Glokta from The First Law while The Voice is modeled after Littlefinger from A Song of Ice and Fire and Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings. We wanted the players to feel like they had more options available to them than fighters, wizards, and rulers. We wanted them to have characters that were powerful in more subtle ways, more backroom ways, etc., which is often very important to political, dark fantasy.


What makes SCUP special to you, as a creator and gamer each?

SCUP is the first game I really started designing. I designed it with Tom so we could play something fun with our friends. Some of the campaigns we’ve done with SCUP have been some of my favorite gaming experiences, and the fact that something I created with my friend, on a lark, just to have some fun is going to be a real thing in the world that hopefully brings some fun to other people’s gaming table is genuinely humbling and astonishing to me.

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Thanks so much to Todd for the interview! I hope it was a good time, and I hope all of you enjoyed reading about it. Check out The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power on Kickstarter now! 


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