Friday, August 10, 2018

Five or So Questions on Reign

Hey all! Today I have an interview with Greg Stolze on Reign, which is currently on Kickstarter! I asked Greg some challenging questions about the role of a game like Reign in modern day, which I hope you enjoy reading!

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The Reign Kickstarter banner showing the two book covers (labeled "funded!") and the text "funding now on Kickstarter."

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

REIGN really was kinda my baby. UNKNOWN ARMIES was great, but that was me and Tynes, so REIGN was really the first thing I did that was all Stolze all the time. Also, it’s high fantasy sword ’n’ sorcery, which I love, and which I don’t get to do as much — somehow, between UA and all my WoD work and DELTA GREEN, I sort of got pigeonholed as a horror guy which is… not inapt. But REIGN is close to my heart.

On a less squishy emotional level, I liked the idea that REIGN took events that had always been matters of “Oh, the GM will hand-wave what’s happening on the wide-scope political scale” and bolted them to dice and stats so that the players can have a new arena in which to go nuts and wreak havoc. I remember in old D&D where, if… fighters, I think?… got to a high enough level they got a keep and I really thought that was interesting! But it didn’t give you any options to liberate peasants or go to war against your neighbors or any of the dramatic stuff of governance. I hadn’t played PENDRAGON or BIRTHRIGHT or gotten into the covenant stuff in ARS MAGICA, but maybe that’s just as well. Having not seen the way anyone else handled it, I built it myself from scratch. I just knew I wanted the collective your characters lead to be as important to the game as any individual PC.

And, well, I had this nifty set of rules I’d built for GODLIKE that seemed like they’d work just as well for castles and crossbows as they did for superheroes in WWI, so I built out from that. I think it worked pretty well.


What are some ways has Reign grown and changed between 2007 and today? What is new, what's been refined? 

In those intervening years, I released a LOT of supplements online, after getting them collectively crowdfunded. Sixteen of them, in fact. Rather than burn all that to the ground and rebuild on the foundation, I thought what the game needed more than anything else was (1) better art in the supplements — that’s kind of the dark side of my “one man show” approach, (2) organization so that you can find what you want to use in a tangle fo optional systems and rules tweaks and (3) a nicer print version, since the hardbacks have been unavailable for some time.

It’s not a big reinvention, and the first two books don’t have a lot of new material, because I honestly didn’t think it needed a ton of work. I’m going through and making the language clearer, finding those decades-old typos and homonym errors, but mostly it’s taking this mess of parts and putting them in an order to be more useful. REIGN was written with the expectation that a lot of people would be using it to toolkit their own settings, and that hasn’t changed.

One change, though, is my willingness to let other people play with the toys. One reason I didn’t write anything for UNKNOWN ARMIES for a while was, quite simply, I didn’t have an idea I thought was really top notch, and I didn’t want to write something just to dump it on the market. Partly, that’s a matter of pride, but it’s also a matter of greed. I don’t want to serve lukewarm stuff because I don’t think that’s how you keep an audience. But when I got a bunch of new writers working on UA3, their new perspectives and experiences and approaches really pushed me to keep up. So I’ve gotten a bunch of fresh new voices and salty old wordsmiths to give me their takes for stretch goals.


How do you replicate leadership in Reign? What do players do when they're leading? What is leading?

OK, these are three very different questions.

Leadership in REIGN is replicated with die rolls, the same way that mighty sorcery and deeds of martial renown are. One of the big pleasures of playing a game (as distinct from running one) is the opportunity to imagine myself as someone with very different skills and behaviors. Someone who’s not shy, for example, or someone who doesn’t get embarrased and uncomfortable with confrontation. Or, y’know, a ninja.

To take the third question second, leading seems, to me, to be a lot of listening to people and understanding them. Good leaders — and I’m thinking certain editors and developers here — inspire a sort of loyalty. You want to give them your best. It’s not just a paycheck. Good leaders draw the best out of you. They see you, not just as the role into which you’ve been thrust, but as the individual adapting to that roll. Good leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of their people, and put them where the strengths are leveraged, and where their weaknesses do the least damage. In real life, I’m a terrible leader. Not the world’s greatest listener, surprisingly dense about people’s feelings sometimes, something of a hermit. But the idea of playing someone who’s listened to and who can organize people into a greater whole… yeah, that’s my fantasy. One of ‘em.

What players do when they’re leading is that sort of organization, understanding and inspiration. Only instead of having to really get through to people with charisma, you can create a character who has that sort of compelling presentation. Your characters can be the kinds of people who make the St. Crispin’s Day speech, even if you yourself are plagued by podium paralysis.

I mean who hasn’t, at some point, fantasized about being listened to and obeyed? That’s the wish-fulfillment REIGN offers.

a blue book and a red book, both with a gold-foil stamped and embossed art of a warrior with a spear and armor, and what appears to be braided hair
The special edition covers are really beautiful!
I asked Greg two sets of questions and then I got a collective response:

Sixteen supplements is a lot! How do you keep all of these things connected and consistent - the fictional themes, the mechanical structures - when there is so much information? Does that amount of stuff end up paralleling to bookkeeping in game?

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You discuss modularity on the Kickstarter page, basically explaining options for different ways of playing. Tell me more about this! How does it work? 

Hah, the answer to these questions is really the same thing… the modularity from the KS is the solution to having the giant pile of supplemental rules and setting material. It’s like when you have a bunch of different LEGO sets, and you build them, and that’s fine, but eventually (if you’re like me) you take them apart and wind up with a giant bin of undifferentiated components. So then you sort them so you can make something new.

In this metaphor, the original supplements are like individual LEGO sets. You can get the sort of… pre-planned experience. The chaotic pile is where the material, as a whole, is now. The organization is what we’re going after with the KS, cross-referencing different stuff so that you can find the thing you were thinking of. Just as importantly, perhaps, we can also help you figure out what to exclude. Not every group needs every rule, so getting that clarified is a pretty high priority.


Why do you think a game about leadership and strategy like Reign has an important place in play in the modern era, during a time that's so tumultuous for so many people?

Hoooo boy…

OK, I’ll start with something from Lynda Barry — I read her book WHAT IT IS, although it feels more like I should say I “witnessed” or “experienced” it? It’s this deep-dive art book about creativity and her intense personal history with it, and it’s very strong medicine. One thing she touched on was the idea of art as “escapism,” and she said she doesn’t think we create or engage with art in order to escape from reality, but to change our experience of it. She didn’t draw to get away from the sharp edges of her childhood, but to survive them.

So we’re in a tumultuous time and I’m writing a tumultuous elfgame. Am I just a little white ball on a golf tee, waiting for a driver labeled “accusations of frivolity” to come slamming down on me for a power drive? Eh, well maybe. Maybe for some people, playing a game where they’re the powerful bosses can be a distraction from doing the gloomy, necessary, unmeasurable work in the real world. But maybe, for some people, playing that game could let them (or help them) believe that change is possible, that individuals do influence these looming power gangs.

Or, maybe it’s OK to just have fun playing the game.

But our creations are always mirrors of our concerns. If roleplaying isn’t INEXTRICABLY creative, you have to work really hard to do it without any aspect of acting, or authorship, or imaginitive innovation. So your feelings about the villainies of modern politics are just about certain to make their way into REIGN, whether you do it deliberately or not. Maybe that’s also OK. Maybe the satisfaction of decapitating an imaginary evil king is just the catharsis you need to avoid screaming at a co-worker about politics until both of you cry.

I’ve thought a lot about why we engage unpleasant themes, intense stories, fictions of tragedy… After all, now more than any time in history, we can access genuine tragedy all the time. Why horror stories? Why make up more of it? Maybe it’s the relief of knowing that THIS awful thing isn’t real. Or maybe when an issue is painful to handle, putting a layer of fiction around it allows the mind to contemplate it more coolly. Consider the game RED MARKETS — it’s about zombies, but it’s REALLY about poverty. John Carpenter’s movie THE THING is about a gnarly space alien, but it’s REALLY about the dangers of trust and mistrust in a cold and uncaring universe. A lot of media that’s about X is REALLY about Y, and REIGN can certainly do that. This clash between the trade guilds of Uldholm while the Dindavarans sharpen their swords can be about how liberals persecute radicals while white-power revanchists snicker up their sleeves.

I don’t know. Maybe creativity shouldn’t teach lessons, but I think it almost always does. Maybe in an intensely political reality, an intensely political game can offer a framework for disentangling complicated feelings. Or, maybe it just promises some kind of paradoxical relief.

the blue book cover with full color art of a diverse cast of characters and the red cover with the same warrior, a dark skinned person in red and blue


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Thanks so much Greg for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Reign on Kickstarter today!

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