Friday, May 27, 2011

Interview with James "Grim" Desborough

As Postmortem Studios Week draws to a close, I was pleased to have the opportunity to conduct an interview with founder James "Grim" Desborough, originator of the Shadow World (which I reviewed much of this week), as well as writer of Agents of SWING and numerous other projects. My apologies if my interview skills don't do the subject justice.


TB: First off, you've been around the RPG scene a while, both with your own company and otherwise. Tell us a bit about that. What are some of your favorite books you've worked on?

JGD: I guess I am getting old yeah... *chuckle*. My first forays into publication were photocopied fanzine type affairs. A little mag for a PBM game called Brass Stud that went under just as I was about to get going and a little magazine I put out around my school called HARDWARE, which was full of hand-drawn comics, and little articles put together on my Atari ST. I followed that up with some naughty photocopied source stuff for Cyberpunk that I shouldn't have done... I was 15/16 or so.... go figure... but my first big break came about with my writing Partner Steve 'Big Steve' Mortimer. He's stuck to being an IT professional since, though he helps me out on occasion and we both sob over a whisky now and then that we didn't have a better deal over The Munchkin's Guide to Powergaming as otherwise we'd both be rolling in dough.

Curse that Steve Jackson, curse him.

Also bless him for giving us our first break in writing The Munchkin's Guide because that's what kind of got the ball rolling for me back in 99/2000. From there Mongoose wanted me to do some humour books, which I did, that lead into other work and I've been pottering about all over the place freelancing like a whore ever since, as well as publishing my own stuff since the dot-com bubble bursting left me out of a job for two years and it was either start my own business or become a chav.

TB: On another board, you recently said that the game you made that more people should be aware of is the Blood! RPG. Tell us a bit about that. What sets it apart from other horror games?

JGD: Blood! was a sort of chance find for me and my group, back around 90/91 or so. I was in Esdevium Games in Aldershot - which was this sort of mecca of gaming back then - and wandering up and down the aisles in sheer shock and awe at the amount of goodies there were when a picture of a face nailed to a table caught my eye. I picked it up and bought it, I can't remember what else I bought that day and we started playing it also immediately. I don't know what grabbed us so much about Blood! really, but we've always had a really good time with it. Considering it came out at the same time as Vampire, which changed EVERYTHING, it's unashamedly old school, almost a sort of mash-up between Call of Cthulhu and Rolemaster in a lot of ways but damn it... the crunch WORKS really well for horror. The critical hit tables, the sense of vulnerability, the resource-tracking of blood, energy and health. It shouldn't work but somehow it does.

Anyway, always loved the game and for years was trying to track down Norley Tucker and the guys who'd originally written it, all of whom have gone on to do pretty normal things really! Eventually I tracked them down and got permission to do a re-issue, so I updated the game and brought it back to life. What sets it apart for me is that it's a real labour of love. I adore that game, especially for survival horror, so I was in pure 'SQUEE!' mode the whole time I was re-writing it. What makes it different I think, to the crop of current horror games, is that it takes this more mechanistic approach rather than a story approach. It's visceral and bloody rather than psychological and the mechanics lead the way. You could almost call it 'Old School' I guess.

It shouldn't work, but it does.

TB: Postmortem Studios has a knack for mixing biting social commentary with a healthy mix of humor in your games. More impressively, you make games that are actually playable as well as funny. I mean, WizKid IS essentially a functional Harry Potter RPG. Is it difficult striking that balance between funny and playable?

JGD: Satire is relatively easy, comedy is bloody difficult, especially in games because you'd no real control over what people are going to do with it. That's why I think a formulaic approach - such as I used on Invaderz and Urban Faerie work pretty well. The whole Shadow World line kind of spawned out of my frustrations with the Camarilla LARP society from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, White Wolf's mismanagement, the incompetence, cheating, backstabbing and stupidity of the people who ended up in charge of the group through sheer attrition and the whole revival-goth scene that was going on at the same time. I had my personal demons to exorcise and so Bloodsucker was the way to do that. I'd pretty much gotten that out of my system with Bloodsucker though I had notes on what I'd do in the other games if I was going to do them and, frankly, vitriol really helps in humour, taking the piss out of things comes easy to me. There's a Henry Rollins quote that sums it up I think:

"Like a lot of you I hate. A lot. The difference is that I hate with style and creativity."

Ian Warner came to me, having loved Bloodsucker and we got talking about supplementary material and he wanted to see these other games. Without my scattershot ideas going on and a bunch of freelancing I simply don't have time to do all the game support that I'd like to, so we ended up with him taking over the line - based on my notes - and kind of doing his own thing, splitting the profits. Wizkid is primarily his work rather than mine, though there was a bit of an editing and directing hand going on. I knew I wanted to make fun of slash fiction, the teen witch craze and everything and Ian delivered.

I think so long as you make a solid, fun game, it's going to be playable whatever else you have going on. So... no, I don't think it's that much of a challenge to strike the balance so long as you have a solid system at work behind it. Xpress and Beer & Crisps seem to work for that.

TB: Obviously, Postmortem Studios has little use for political correctness (and good, I say). However, do you think this helps Postmortem as a company, by providing well-written, adult fare...or does it hurt Postmortem as a company, by potentially alienating potential customers?

JGD: It's not so much political correctness that we have an issue with, the idea of being inclusive and thoughtful of others is a good one, the problem we have is that it's used as a stick to beat people with by people who are, in the main, hypocrites and who do exactly the same sorts of things they accuse others of doing. I'm interested in controversial topics, I like humour that sails close to the bone and I'm British - we use swearing like punctuation. If this rubs a few people up the wrong way, fuck 'em. Problems are 90% of the time due to people's comprehension, so I don't let it worry me too much.

TB: When Invaderz Pocket Edition was released, you went with an "app pricing" model, similar to the one that Adamant Entertainment recently abandoned for their ICONS line. How did that fare for you?
JGD: I was a bit more cautious than Adamant and I predicted - rightly - that it would be a boom then a slump as people grabbed all the stuff they really wanted cheap and then... ran out. I think the audience is too small and the product cycle too slow to fully support the app model BUT I do think it has a place. I have a LOT of ideas for little mini games and experiments - like Ace of Hearts - and I have a lot of ideas for things that are fill-in games, the kind of pick up and play stuff you do when someone can't make a session. I think these things - and adventures - are perfect for app pricing, but people are certainly willing to shell out more for a decent game and the difference in sales between $1.99 and $9.99 really isn't that massive. We sold more Wizkids than Invaderz with Wizkids at full price and Invaderz at app price. That said, we sold more Invaderz Pocket Edition - straight away - than we sold of the old Invaderz at full price over its entire sales span.

Cheap encourages people to take a risk, it's great for short indie games, story games or experiments and it means you get your investment back quickly. Great for adventures too. It's really worked with Invaderz, Ace of Hearts and the 6-Pack adventures we do so you'll continue to see app-priced products from me, when it's appropriate.

TB: In the past and present, Postmortem Studios has supported OGL, 4e, Pathfinder, Tunnels and Trolls, and now FATE, in addition to your own, in-house systems such as Xpress. Does Postmortem plan to pursue any more licensee agreements in the near future?

JGD: Using existing systems is a great development shortcut, it's also a more solid basis from which to modify and 'fix' to your needs, as I did with FATE for Agents of SWING. I'm a 'system matters' kind of guy though and sometimes an existing system just isn't right for a game you're working on and you have to find something of your own. We will be using/licensing other systems. A couple of d6 games are in the works - early stages - and I'm in negotiation to use Savage Worlds and Silhouette for potential future projects. I'm also trying to formalise arrangements to produce official - un-buggered with - support for C7's FATE games.

TB: Savage Worlds? Now that's awesome. Anyone who reads the blog knows I'm a HUGE Savage Worlds fan. Can you touch on what that might entail, even vaguely? (I understand if you can't, but the fanboy in me has to ask). 

JGD: That may entail a sort of 'space camelot' game that I was approached with - I'm trying to do more to help other new writers get stuff out there. Also a South American company wants to do a Savage Worlds version of '45: Psychobilly Retropocalypse. They've applied separately but if that gets approved I see no reason why that might not happen at some point in the future.

TB: Shadow World is a parody of/homage to the World of Darkness (as well as other pop culture)...and has spawned three games thus far. How far are you planning to go with it?

JGD: Shadow-World will go on as far and as long as Ian wants to take it. I know some work/thought has gone into Construct and Dogboy but what comes of that remains to be seen. I know Ian's going to take a little bit of a break after Courtesans to work on some novels and things but I'm sure he won't be away for too long. For myself I intend to blog some more support for the games and we'll see if anything comes of that. Cantrip Comprehensive for Wizkid, particularly, I want to finish blogging and maybe write up/edit into a full supplement. Private school settings don't give me the venue to relate the horrors of my own experiences at school *grin*.

TB: Congratulations on the success of Agents of S.W.I.N.G. Will there be any further support for Agents? What about any future FATE-based games?

JGD: Thank you, it kind of took me by surprise... I had lots of plans for support products but the popularity of the game has meant that it suddenly becomes a lot more pressing. I've commissioned Nefarious, which will be a villain/organisation book, I have another adventure - Snake Eyes - which is just about ready to go, I have Control's Casefile which is the GMs version of the Agent's Casefile - and will contain errata, villain, henchman, goon and plot worksheets as well as references and there's plans for Section books and villain books. So there will be support. Part of the problem is that I want to use the same people for the art and the wonderful Brad McDevitt tends to get booked solid. We've talked though and we'll see what we can do.

As I said before I want to support Starblazer and Anglerre by C7 and given the popularity and warm reception given to my spin on FATE in Agents of SWING I may push another one of my projects, a re-take on the Flash Gordon/Rocketship genre up the schedule and do it for FATE rather than d6, the system decision is one I've been umming and ahhing about for a while but this success may settle it.

*Sigh* Too many ideas, not enough help or money.

TB: And just a fairly silly question: Do you have a "dream" project that you have been unable to do for any reason, (maybe it's a license, maybe it's a collaboration with someone who has been unavailable, etc)? If so, what might that be?
JGD: I wanted to work on a game set in Bas Lag, but Adamant beat me to the punch there. I did, at one time, have licensing rights to Peter F Hamilton's work, but no company was interested in pursuing it at the time and I wasn't in a position to do so myself. A dream project... hmm... actually I want to move over to MMORPGs and bring more of a tabletop sensibility and advantage to some of their design choices. So many of them are stuck on a class/level mentality and that's an eventual dead-end, as I think WoW is discovering about now. Some modern design ideas and a more sandboxy style might help a niche MMO stand out from the crowd and be something greater than 'kill them and take their stuff' for 100 levels. So I guess that would be my dream at the moment, give MMO design a dry slap to wake it up.

TB: Anything else you would like to add/pimp/promote?

JGD: Just keep an eye on me please! I'm on twitter, you can find me on facebook, the company blog is fairly active. The one thing I really crave that I don't get enough of is interaction with people who play my stuff. I want that interaction, I want that community, I want to know what people want so please, get in touch, any of those places or the forums on UKRoleplayers that are set up for Postmortem material.

TB: Thanks for your time!
And now I feel like I need to not only check out Blood!, but I wanna see this "Camelot in Space" business for Savage Worlds!

Hope you all enjoyed Postmortem Week...later today I'll post a little round-up of stuff, including one more special Postmortem treat.

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