Monday, September 5, 2016

Five or So Questions with Slade Stolar on The Indie Hack

Hey all, I have an interview today with Slade Stolar about The Indie Hack, which I really enjoyed checking out. Have a good look at his responses below.

Tell me a little about The Indie Hack. What excites you about it?

I was really inspired by The Black Hack. It's a thin volume--just 20 page--and it cuts to the core of old-school dungeon delving. You've got four classes, you roll d6s, d8s, d20s, etc., you face monsters with HP, and you hope to pass your skill check vs. poison. But all of that can be done in just 20 pages once you've got roleplaying figured out (4 or 5 years in, maybe). I wondered whether something that was more story-focused could work in the same way (I'm not claiming a strong dividing line between Old-school/OSR and Story/Indie/Post-Forge gaming here, I like a mix of both sides in nearly all of my games).

The Indie Hack is my fantasy heartbreaker, which Ron Edwards will tell you to go out and write, if nothing else, just to get it out of your system. I've had notebooks lying around for years with little tidbits of adventures, settings, and mechanics. Recently, I've been playing a lot of games that are Apocalypse World adjacent. I've been watching and listening to people play on YouTube and podcasts. I'd started work on a huge game, maybe 200 pages, called 100 Clones of Hitler!!. Lots of setting stuff. I had a big pack of beautiful, pulpy artwork done up for it (for a fair price, but more than I was used to spending on my own projects). I took 100 Clones to Forge Midwest (Madison, WI) in the spring of 2016 to playtest, and to my great shock, no one wanted to play the Hitler game. I started to question everything: Maybe these people weren't as transgressive as I had hoped. Maybe the title causes such visceral disgust that no one can get past it. Maybe I should have pitched it in a different time slot. Maybe I should have called the game what it's now called, specifically, Might Makes Reich: Stop the Nazi Menace!!, to make it clear that you're fighting against (not with or as) the clones of Hitler. So, that's where I'm coming from.

I took the core dice mechanic out of 100 Clones and polished it up a bit. I started thinking about minotaurs. I started writing a fantasy rule set. I had some new and different and beautiful art commissioned. I took the religion system that I've been sitting on for a few years and mechanized it. I think that these three things are the most exciting to me: the dice-and-details-and-allies-contributing mechanic, the art, and the Goddesses.

In essence, it's 28 pages of dungeon-delving without HP or d4s or XP. There's a stronger focus on players saying how they do things and what happens because of it, rather than saying what they do.

You have a number of games cited in the front of the book as inspirations or as places you borrowed from (the best designers know how to borrow & recontextualize, imo, as much as do something new). What about these specific games really wormed into your design concept?

I borrowed aspects of many different games. Of course, The Black Hack was the main impetus; I was drawn in by the extreme minimalism of it.

I love the statistics of the dice rolling in Apocalypse World, but almost everyone retains the 10+/7 to 9/6- results and I didn't want to do that; I made each result have a different effect, such that rolling a 2 and a 6 is slightly better than rolling a 2 and a 5. Naturally, I liked the deadliness, and the fraught relationships, trading in Barter/Jingle, and the only-ever-hinted-at setting.

I really like Dungeon World, as a game and as a text, and it has a high place on my shelf. I'd run it over 5e or Pathfinder any day. The approach to relationships between the characters is great. Ranged combat (all combat, really) is great. It takes a few steps down the path toward minimalism, whereas The Indie Hack runs.

Into the Odd helped me to re-think monsters and magic items. Monsters aren't really monsters, they're more like magical or strange animals; they become monsters when we have tales of them biting the heads off adventurers. And I'm guessing that the adventurers started it.

I debated what to do with alignment. I think it's usually done poorly in games. And players often use it as an excuse to be jerks. Why would you want to look down at your character sheet and be reminded that you should be at odds with the goals and desires of the other characters? I'd been reading the PDF of My Life with Master and figured a good way to get people to reluctantly do good (or evil) was to give them bosses.

In a lot of fantasy games, you can run into issues of repetition, so what differentiates The Indie Hack? What would players find in this game that they wouldn't find in, say, D&D or Pathfinder?

Yes, there are thousands of fantasy games out there. The Indie Hack is novel in a few ways.

Character creation for three players who have never played takes about 30 minutes, including the time in which they form relationships and tell the GM some facts about the world. This isn't novel, just rare.

The dice mechanic is really neat: you have degrees of success, some of which ask your fellow players for input. Once you roll successfully, you did the thing you were trying to do, and you spend "details" to enrich the fiction: I didn't just hit the Skeletal Soldier, I shattered eight of his ribs, the GM writes "Eight missing ribs" on the monster's sheet, so that the players and the GM can work that fact into the story later if they wish. Details like this count towards defeating the creature.

In terms of time at the table, unlike 5e and Pathfinder, no one has their nose in a book for more than a few seconds. Nearly all of the information used in play is written down somewhere on a sheet or index card on the table, usually written in pencil, and usually written by one of the players. The GM doesn't need to shuffle through a lot of books and papers or hide dice behind a screen. Don't even give the GM the dice.

Regarding the question of repetition, as it's the players who enrich the narrative, it's only repetitive if the players give out the same details time and time again. My bet is that the players will get more and more confident and creative.

I personally love gear in games, but it often can get a little cumbersome - literally and figuratively. Can you talk about how The Indie Hack handles gear and how it might appeal to people who like the concept of gear, but get burnt out with doing complicated math to see how many candles they can accommodate in their haversack?

Gear is lovely, as is the wordplay in this question. In most games, I get a lot of enjoyment out of selecting gear, and a lot of pain out of managing it. When adventuring in The Indie Hack, you'll probably have between 5 and 10 items. For all of the fiddly stuff, you can get 'kits'. If you're playing an Occultist, take "Flasks of Foul Liquids", which contains "Acid, poison, ether, lye, etc." And if you want to have some glue, grease, fertilizer, bat fur, or snake bile for your evil rituals, there's probably some of that also. The candle (one big candle or a bundle of little candles) can take 3 'narrative damage' before it's out, which can be from a long time spent burning or being dropped in a puddle. You can watch as it slowly takes these points of 'narrative damage' and plan out your packing for next session, assuming your characters survive the catacombs. You might take "1 Candle" or "2 Candles", but you absolutely will not have to figure out how many pounds of candles to take.

Finally, can you tell me about some of your archetypes and how they interact with both the setting/fiction of The Indie Hack and the mechanics themselves?

The classes were really fun to write. I took the standard fantasy archetypes and give each one a slight twist. The classes are Veteran, Exorcist, Hunter, Scoundrel, Elementalist, Occultist, and Outlander.

The characters provide information about the fictional world. For example, the Scoundrel might tell us a little bit about the economy and crime of the world. The Veteran might tell us about a great battle (and thereby, the nations or factions of the world). The Outlander is an enigma, here are some of his/her questions: "You can hear them too, can't you (what do they say)? What lies buried deep beneath these hills? Where can you never go? Where must you always return?" You don't have to answer all of them, just a few. Just enough to get the GM's mental gears turning.

The players want a very different type of game if they answer "Where can you never go?" by saying "The Blood-splashed Crags of Southern Tybis, where I can hear their time-hollowed bones whistle in the wind" versus "The bawdy house where I let my second cousin die of tuberculosis four winters ago". The players establish locations and personages in the fiction and set the initial tone.
The initial skills and spells should be familiar to those who've played the classic fantasy RPGs. Typically, the spell gives a guide on writing the "details" that are created by the effect. In essence, spellcasting is little different from combat or diplomacy or stealth or navigation.

I just love the classes. Certain players might have favorites, but I'd be equally happy to play as any one of them.

Thanks so much to Slade for talking with me about The Indie Hack. You can check it out on DriveThru and hopefully take it to the table! 

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