Interview: Robin D. Laws (@RobinDLaws), designer of Ashen Stars (and a bunch of other things)
Welcome to Futile Position’s 2012 ENnie Awards spotlight (Check out the full list of coverage including several other reviews and interviews), where I will be bringing you reviews and interviews regarding many of the products current nominated for the 2012 ENnie Awards. Today’s interview is with Robin D. Laws, author of Ashen Stars which is presently nominated for Best Setting.
Please take a moment to introduce yourself to us.
I’m writer and game designer Robin D. Laws, designer of the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among my other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Upcoming projects include Hillfolk, the first game using the DramaSystem RPG rules for personal interaction.
How did you first get into roleplaying games? Have you stayed in the hobby continuously since that time?
I got in with Blue Box D&D just before high school, when the PHB and Monster Manual were out and the DMG wasn’t. There was a period in university where I was only able to read new game books and didn’t have a regular group. But then I got involved in a collaborative fanzine, or APA, called Alarums & Excursions, and from there found myself eventually drawn into the professional side of adventure gaming.
When did you start game development?
In 1993, with contributions to Over the Edge and a GURPS book, Fantasy II.
How did GUMSHOE come about? What were your inspirations and goals in designing it?
I was asked by Pelgrane Press publisher Simon Rogers to design a game streamlining mystery and investigative play. The first step in this process was to understand that it is never interesting to fail to get information, and to design the investigative ability rules around that. So as long as you look in the right place and have an appropriate ability, you get the vital clues, plus lots more besides. This allows us to shift the focus from finding information to interpreting it, and to make sure that sessions maintain forward momentum.
Secondary goals include genre emulation as opposed to reality simulation, and to make rules player-facing whenever feasible.
How did you come up with the idea?
The structure of TV space opera shows like Star Trek or Firefly resemble police procedurals much more than you would think, with most episodes revolving to one degree or another around the solution to a mystery. With that in mind I wanted to remove oft-encountered stumbling blocks to fun space opera gaming, such as the crew command structure and the difficulty of playing completely virtuous spacemen.
What was the development process like for Ashen Stars?
Development for Pelgrane games tends to be very straightforward because the team is small—there’s the designer/author, with Simon giving input, Beth Lewis handling playtesting and editing, and then the visual team—in this case Jerome Huguenin and Chris Huth on art/layout and art respectively. In the design phase there’s not a lot of coordination between separate authors, hammering out of a single vision, and so forth.
The main lesson learned in development was that the space combat didn’t work well enough, and had to be junked and replaced with something simpler. I let myself get off track by interpreting too literally Simon’s request that everyone in the party have something to do during a naval battle. The revised version appearing in the final book goes back to the principle of simple emulation, yet still gives everyone a role. Now each player gets to act in turn, dominating a single round and then turning it over to another player, where before everyone did something different during a very long round composed of various steps. It was both slow and hard to remember, two qualities you don’t want in an exciting ship battle.
What do you think makes Ashen Stars special?
In addition to clarifying the structure of the space opera structure, as noted above, its setting hits the gamer sweet spot by balancing the new with the accessible. The tonal idea that you should think of Ashen Stars as the gritty contemporary reboot of a more innocent older show hits the sweet spot in that regard. It’s comfortably familiar, meaning that you know what to do during play if you’ve ever seen a space opera show, yet at the time just skewed enough to feel fresh.
You also write novels. Do you think that you learn things that carry over between novel writing and roleplaying game design?
Although some techniques work in one form and not at all in the other, both fiction and RPGs are expressions of the story tradition. Understanding how the source material ticks helps to spot stumbling blocks in gaming and find ways to address them. I’ve written an entire book on core narrative techniques as seen through the roleplaying eye, called Hamlet’s Hit Points.
You seem to stay very busy. How do you decide which ideas to develop and which to leave for later?
Mostly it’s a matter of trying to fit competing opportunities into the schedule. As a working writer this is as much a business thing as anything else.
Can you share a little about Hillfolk?
Hillfolk is a game of iron age drama in which you weave an epic tale of love, hate, rivalry and comradeship in a time of hungry empires. It represents the debut of my new DramaSystem rules set, which focuses on emotional interactions between the main characters. It bases itself on the way such scenes are structured in other fictional mediums. Over many sessions you create an ongoing story with the depth, richness and surprise of a top serialized cable show. Think “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad”, but set among a tribe of raiders on the fringes of civilization.
Anything else you would like to talk about?
Speaking of fiction, my next novel, Blood of the City, comes out next month as part of Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line. Featuring a new character and set in the key Pathfinder city of Magnimar, it draws its heroine through an urban world of betrayal, intrigue and revenge.
Also coming soon is my book of weird tales, New Tales of the Yellow Sign. In realities familiar and fractured, historical, ahistorical and contemporary, it plays with the King in Yellow mythos of classic horror writer Robert W. Chambers. I’ll be self-publishing in ebook format, with Atomic Overmind publishing the print edition.
I’m overseeing Pelgrane’s new fiction line, Stone Skin Press, which is now in the final days of its Kickstarter. We’re presenting a series of genre-crossing, boundary-busting short story anthologies, with themes including the iconic hero structure, modern fables, and good ol’ Cthulhu.
And if that isn’t enough plugging, Kenneth Hite and I are launching a new podcast called Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Our first episode is in the can and we’re working out the technical details of distribution as we speak.
Where can people find you and buy your products on the internet?
Ashen Stars and many of my other games, books, and comic strips can be found at the Pelgrane web store. Other products I’ve linked to above. For announcements regarding the podcast and other new endeavors, follow my blog, or grab me on Twitter or Google+.