Friday, May 12, 2017

Five or So Questions with Kevin Allen Jr. on Trouble for Hire

Today I have an interview with Kevin Allen, Jr., creator of Trouble for Hire, which is a game about road warriors and is currently on Kickstarter! Road warriors are pretty cool, and Kevin was real cool about answering my questions. Check 'em out below!


Tell me a little about Trouble for Hire. What excites you about it?

Trouble for Hire is a game that lets 3-6 friends create stylized, fast-paced, road adventure stories set in a trash-culture pastiche of the 1970’s(ish) American West. It’s kind of a reverse roleplaying game; There’s one character –a tough/cool Mexican wheelman– who the game focuses on, while distributing the responsibilities of a traditional GM between the other players. These roles shift throughout play, so everyone gets a chance to do everything in the course of a session. It’s rules light, plays a whole story in single session, and is chock full of really unique color.

What about all that has me excited? Well, beyond the general excitement of publishing a project that I’ve been working on for a little over half a decade, and getting to work with some of my absolute favorite artists, the thing that I’m most jazzed about is seeing what people create with the world I’m giving them. There’s so many games on the shelves, great ones even, but they’ve been telling the same kind of stories in the same kind of worlds for a long time now. Fantasy sword bros. Steampunk gutter thieves. Spaceship superhero armor dudes. I love those games; I play the hell out of those games, but I always wondered where were all the games about Jane Fonda and Warren Oates trying to smuggle 8 kilos of California Kush through Petrified Forest National Park? Trouble for Hire is THAT game. Getting to see the unique content that people make, to hear about their adventure stories: That’s what I’m excited about. I’ve assembled what I think is a really rich toy box, and I can’t wait for people to play with it."

I love this idea of one player, many GMs. Tell me a little more about these roles that the GM style players have - what keeps them involved? How much control do they have?
Glad you're as keen on the Roles as I am. They break up traditional GM duties and assign them out in themed abstract chunks. There's a role for setting stuff, antagonist npcs, neutral npcs, the main character's sidekick or allies, and a few more. There are roles that are optional, depending on if you want them in a particular story or not; one for supernatural stuff, one that introduces a second major character. There's even an Editor role who doesn't so much create content like the other roles do but remixes it (with things like flashbacks and insights) like a live dj scratching your story instead of records.

There were a couple design problems I was looking at when making trouble for hire that speak directly to this issue of control and how it engages your interest in the story and as a device of play. The big one was ‘how do you make a group roleplaying game about the strong silent loner?’ Wolverine is cool in comics, but when he comes to the gaming table he tends to fall flat. The answer I came to was character non-monogamy, allowing everyone at the table the chance to be Wolverine (or in this case, Mexican smuggler Ruben Carlos Ruiz). Once I resolved to have the main character change hands in play it made sense for the rest of the responsibilities to do so as well. Every role has tricks they can pull, situations they can create in the story, general abstract territories they each lord over. When you first start playing certain roles appear more useful or engaging than others (who would want to be unnamed background characters when you could be the big bad villain?) but you’ll quickly realize they all do cool tricks –tricks that the story is just begging you to pull off. They give you ideas for ways to tweak the narrative. Eventually you realize that the scene you’re playing would be greatly enriched by the addition of some unnamed background characters, perhaps the kind who will eventually turn into the big bad villain, but as yet their allegiances are unknown.

The roles offer players a great deal of control. They are more about enabling fun storytelling than putting boundaries on what you can and can’t do. There’s plenty of overlap between the roles and any big important game thing (like initiating challenges where dice get rolled, or advancing the turn rotation) are backed up across many players. It’s less you only get to play with this corner of the sandbox and more you can play with the whole sandbox, but you have to look at it through these particular tinted glasses.

Sweet line art by Amy Houser.
What's gone into the design process, technique and testing wise, for Trouble for Hire over the time you've been working on it? 

I started working on this game way back in 2010. For the first year the game shapeshifted around in different forms before settling into essentially what it is today. I’ve been testing and playing the game since then. Hundreds of hours. It’s the most extensive review I’ve ever given a project before publishing –not because there were unresolved issues, but because I was really enjoying playing the game and crafting the world. A creator’s intention is interesting to examine, but ultimately I believe that art (in this case a game) belongs to it’s audience. My opinion doesn’t matter at your gaming table, I’m not there to lord over you and dictate what’s kosher, so I’ve spent a lot of time with the text making sure it’s jam packed full of my voice and ideas.

What non-game media did you watch or read (or rewatch and reread!) to get ideas, flavor, and style from for Trouble for Hire?

This game was very much born in a cauldron of simmering influences, the biggest being post-western films of the 70’s. By post-western (and I go into this topic a bit more in-depth in the game text) I’m talking about a movement/realization in the latter half of the 20th century that the noble story of the western hero (read: white cowboy) was perhaps not as noble as it once seamed. Or perhaps the vicissitudes of modern life had rendered the romance of a “wild west” irrelevant. Either way, filmmakers started examining the role of the loner hero and a conflicted national identity. Sometimes that influence was serious (i.e.: Vanishing Point) and sometimes less so (anything with Burt Reynolds hassling Jackie Gleason). I present a pretty robust “appendix N” in the game, including a number of inspirations that might not normally be found in a gaming context. I took a lot from the paintings of Rosson Crow and Wes Lang, the photography of Neil Krug, and a musical combination of old school outlaw country, stoner metal, and Mexican narco ballads.

What are some key moments of play you've seen that just really exemplify Trouble for Hire as a game and experience?

There are three flagship adventures included in the game that represent kind of the purest expression of the setting and it’s themes (there’s a bunch of other adventures included too, that deviate from and play with those themes). The one included in the preview document –“Hollywood Brad Freeman’s Special Delivery”– is an adventure that centers on delivering a mystery box to a biker gang and the tribulations that occur along the way. I never declare what’s in the box, that’s for players to discover at the table. It’s always the first question I ask when I hear from people who played the game. What was in the box? Best answers: A solid gold phallus from an ancient Aztec temple; a sex tape featuring president Jimmy Carter; and thousands of poisonous scorpions. I’m really proud to have made a game where those are all totally reasonable and fantastic solutions. I can't wait to see what else people put in my mystery box and what they get out of Trouble for Hire.

More gorgeous line art by Amy Houser.


Thanks so much to Kevin for answering my questions and sharing about Trouble for Hire, and thanks to Nathan Paoletta for hooking up the interview! Please take a minute to check out Trouble for Hire on Kickstarter today, and share this post around! 

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