Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Five or So Questions with John Harper

I got to interview John Harper about his current projects, including Blades in the Dark!

What are you currently working on? What projects have you excited?

I'm working on a game about criminals in a fantasy city called Blades in the Dark. It's set in the same universe as my previous mini-game, Ghost Lines -- vengeful spirits, weird electroplasmic tech, lost magic, strange cults, etc. I expect Blades will be a larger product (by my standards, anyway), maybe a 32 page booklet or something along those lines. Like a lot of game designers, I'm very inspired by the Thief video games and this is my stab at a game in that vein.

(Two other current game projects in a similar style are Dagger & Shadow by Matt Snyder and Project: Dark by Will Hindmarch. We're all playing in that shadowy sandbox and it's inspiring to see what they're doing as I work on my thing.)

Blades is currently in closed playtest, but will open up for public playtesting in a few months.

I'm very excited about a few projects my friends are working on. Undying, by Paul Riddle will hit Kickstarter this year. It's a beautifully designed diceless game (hacked from the bones of Apocalypse World) about the deadly predator vs. predator world of vampires. It's my favorite take on vampires I've seen yet. One of the most fun mechanics allows you to actually play out centuries of existence for the vamps, with each game session representing an important night in their immense lives, with decades passing between each. Our playtest game was set in Paris in 1899, 1920, 1944, and would continue on to 2010, 2065, and possibly beyond. So cool.

Sage LaTorra is working on a modern day game of weirdness, somewhat like The Twilight Zone or True Detective, called Black Stars Rise. It's about ordinary people who are confronted with something totally inexplicable and how they deal with it. They don't solve a mystery or anything, they just try to cope with it and survive. You play different people in different places over the course of a series, seeing the weirdness manifest in different ways and gradually building up a picture of some larger horror. It's in playtest now and we're having a lot of fun with it.

And off course Dagger & Shadow and Project: Dark, which I already mentioned. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many exciting indie games in the pipeline I could fill this whole interview talking about them. :)

Blades in the Dark sounds interesting. Can you tell me a little more about it?

It's a type of game I've tinkered with a lot. Most of the games I run tend to be about a team of freelance criminal types operating in a sandbox of some kind: Our long-running Stars Without Number game, the prohibition-era Bootleggers game (another RPG project of mine), the original World of Dungeons series... even all the way back to old Talislanta campaigns. So it's something I enjoy doing and have a lot of experience with. I'm trying to incorporate some of that experience and the lessons learned into the design and procedures of Blades.

For example, I've found that I like to have a flexible central mechanic that can suit a wide variety of situations. But most generic mechanics are pretty bland and the GM has to do all the heavy lifting to convey the tone of the game (gritty, in this case). So I designed a set of three core rolls, representing a spectrum of fictional positions, from worst to best: A desperate gamble, a risky maneuver, and a display of skill. The results of these rolls are primed to spark outcomes that suit the tone and style of the game, so the GM can focus on assessing the fictional situation and choosing the right roll for the moment.

Because the selection of the roll is a judgment call, though, the GM and the players use that decision point to craft their own unique instance of the game. When your blade-master fights three thugs in a dark alley, is that a desperate gamble, a risky maneuver, or a display of skill? The game provides a procedure to determine this, but it's dependent on which particular details of the situation the group values most and gives the most weight in the assessment. So (hopefully), you end up with a mechanic that's consistent, reliable, and responds to fictional details, but is nevertheless a unique construction refined and ratified through the process of play by a given game group.

I'm pretty excited about it! There's lots of other stuff too, like managing your criminal enterprise and dealing with your character's vice and lifestyle considerations. It's been a long process of weekly playtesting and refinement, but it's really fun and the game is starting to come together.

What do you think is inspiring the interest in stealth games recently?

If I had to guess, I'd say it's the impending release of the new Thief video game. We've all been following it through its development for years, and it's influenced our thinking, surely. Also I have to acknowledge Dishonored, as well. The style and feel of that game is incredibly cool and has taken up permanent residence in my brain.

What is the motivation for releasing so many products for free, and what benefit do you see from it?

Most of the games on my site have been created for play by my local game groups. Lady Blackbird was originally made in an afternoon so it could be run later that night for someone new to RPGs. I released them for free because I had already done the work of making the materials, so why not just post the PDF for anyone else who wanted it?

In the case of something like Agon (which I charge money for), the situation was slightly different. It was also born out of play, but the actual product involved writing and publishing a book, which was additional work that I wanted to be compensated for. I have some loose plans to do some work on Patreon, for this reason. There are several projects which I've never committed time to finishing, since the materials I made for local play are not very useable by others. With some patrons, I'll invest the extra time to make them more polished and complete.

The main benefit I see with free games is exposure. Free games reach lots and lots of people They're easy to share. Lady Blackbird has been played by thousands and has been translated into over a dozen languages. I want my games to be played, first and foremost. More play equals more success. So in that sense, giving the games away has helped them become more successful. Not that it's entirely altruistic, of course: that extra exposure helps draw people to my other games that I sell for money. So it's a marketing strategy, too.

(Quick aside: Lady Blackbird is also shared and talked about online for another reason, having to do with its specific construction: it's an adventure module with pregen characters and situation but it has absolutely no spoilers, so everyone can freely talk about everything that happened when they played it, without worrying about ruining it for other people. In fact, it's extra fun to compare your particular game of LB to other people's.)

Years ago, my friend Clinton Nixon made a game called The Shadow of Yesterday, and decided to give the entire text away online, in addition to selling the printed book. People thought this was nuts at the time, but of course it totally worked. Dungeon World has followed in his footsteps by releasing their game text under a Creative Commons license.

Do you have any suggestions for people wanting to layout their smaller games?

Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Find layouts that you like and studiously reproduce them. I don't mean steal the actual art, of course. I mean, measure the text boxes, page proportions, type sizes, etc. and use them yourself. Page layout is a craft, like building a bookcase. Study the canons and classic methods and copy the masters, like an apprentice carpenter. Also, be very suspicious of any typeface less than 50 years old. There are lots of good modern ones, but the glut of crappy internet fonts has lead more than one novice designer astray. When in doubt, stick with the classics.

Graphic design and layout are deep, complex art forms. They're worth learning, for sure, but don't expect to pick them up quickly or easily. Whenever I see someone online ask "How can I learn to do layout and design for my game?" I translate it to "How can I learn to compose a symphony?" It's just as vast a question, with no simple answers, just hard work.

What's next for you after Blades in the Dark?

I'm not sure! There are several projects on the back burner that will come back around again, especially Danger Patrol. I've been tinkering with some board game designs too, which is a new thing for me and quite fun. But there's really no way to tell. I just follow wherever my inspiration leads me.


  1. The mechanic described for Blades in the Dark sounds really cool!

    Also, I really hope Mr. Harper finishes Danger Patrol after BitD. That would make me and many others very happy, I'm sure.

  2. John, dude, you're a personal hero. I can't tell you how many times World of Dungeons or Ghost Lines have helped me improvise a session out of the blue or have turned a boring evening into a gaming-night.

    You're awesome.