Interview: Gareth Hanrahan (@mytholder) designer of Lorefinder from @PelgranePress

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 Gareth Hanrahan, author of Lorefinder which is presently nominated for Best Rules. 

Take a moment to introduce yourself to us.

I’m a freelance writer and game designer based in Ireland. I spent seven years working for Mongoose Publishing, where I worked on the 2nd editions of Conan and Babylon 5, the 25th Anniversary of Paranoia, and the new edition of Traveller among others. I’m currently line manager for Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who, Laundry Files and Primeval games, and working on projects for lots of different games.

You have a long history in the roleplaying game field? What was the first game you worked on as a designer?

I think that was Infernum, the “you’re all demons in hell” game. Although “designer” implies careful preparation and forethought, which wasn’t the case there. Infernum was three 256-page books of new setting and interlocking rules, and I had six months to write the whole thing. That was a hell of schedule, pardon the pun.

How were you introduced to roleplaying games? Have you played them continuously since then?

There was a Tolkien day in the local library when I was eleven or so, and a group from the local university ran MERP. I was completely hooked. I played them continuously as soon as I could assemble a group and actually found a rulebook. (I found what I thought was MERP, but it was actually an insanely complex boardgame with similar box art. I spent a few weeks trying to make it work as an rpg.)

What were the games that were most influential on you both as a player and a designer? Are they the same games?

As a player – Call of Cthulhu was an absolute revelation to me. Unknown Armies, Blue Planet, Legend of the Five Rings

As a designer – all of the above, and add in GUMSHOE, Spirit of the Century, and a lot of board games. I write a lot of convention scenarios, and there’s a definite crossover between those designs and board gaming.

You’ve worked on some new editions of older products and several licensed products. Are there any challenges unique to handling those sorts of properties? Are your design goals different at all than if you are working on an original game design?

Oh, definitely. If a game’s getting a new edition, then there has to be an existing fanbase out there who love the game. You’ve got to keep them happy while also opening the game up to new players. That means you’ve got to have enough new material to justify the new edition, while preserving the appeal of the existing version. So, your first design goal is to identify what makes the game memorable and fun, and you don’t touch that. Then you start looking for the problematic sections.

Sometimes, they’re obvious – with the second edition of Babylon 5, for example, I knew exactly what needed fixing, like space combat and the politics rules. In other games, the right changes aren’t clear. It’s even trickier when you’re dealing with a totally fresh version of an older game. There, you’ve got scope to change the whole rule system, but it still has to feel right. The key is understanding the experience of the game; rules are just a way to produce that experience.

When you’re designing  a game, how do you start?

A bit of a non-answer – it depends on the game. If you’re working with an existing ruleset, like d20 or FATE or GUMSHOE or some other house system, then you start there and build on it. If starting from scratch, then identify the core activity of your game, the thing the players do most during a game session, and make that work first.

If someone wanted to get into designing games, do you have any advice from your experiences that you could pass on?

Write scenarios for conventions. It teaches a lot of useful skills, and you get immediate feedback. It’s a great way to hone your skills.

With Lorefinder, why Pathfinder and Gumshoe?

Simon Rogers and Robin Laws already had the idea of merging the GUMSHOE concept with other games. We discussed various options – Traveller, for example – but Pathfinder was the obvious choice. It’s an open rule system with a lot of fans.

,What were you trying to accomplish when you wrote Lorefinder? What do you think makes it special?

The core aim of GUMSHOE is to streamline play by removing unnecessary rules. If you’ve got the skill, you get the clue to need to move onto the next scene. If you spend points from a skill, you can reliably get extra benefits. With Lorefinder, I wanted to graft that idea on without tampering with the dungeon crawling, spell-flinging combat rules and other d20isms.

The tricky bit was swapping in the new skill system without breaking anything.

What do you hope players take from using Lorefinder?

Even if you don’t use the investigative rules, the GUMSHOE philosophy is a great tool for breaking down a scenario into its components. Is there a way for the players to get from A to B to C? How do they know where to go? What meaningful choices do they have? Where’s the drama? How does the adventure work?

Do you think that investigative games are an underutilized play style?

I don’t think so. Actually, you could argue that investigation is one of the most common play styles, although it isn’t always presented as such. Any game where the players have to uncover information and then act on it is a form of investigation. It doesn’t matter if it’s presented as an actual mystery (“who killed the king?”) or a problem to be solved (“how do we kill the king?”) or a dungeon crawl (“how do we get to the next room”). Most games employ a mix of play styles from session to session in differing ratios. I do think that investigation is tricky to get right, though, and GUMSHOE’s designed to help with that.

For me, personally, I’ve started to learn as a game master that if failure doesn’t have an introducing result, then failure should not be an option. Lorefinder seems to be coming from a very similar place. Do you think that is a fair assessment?

Pretty much. There are some situations where it’s ok to say “you try it and it doesn’t work”, but in general, yeah, unless you’ve got something interesting to do to the characters when they fail, don’t let them fail.

The original inspiration for GUMSHOE – and hence, Lorefinder – was the possibility of a failure in an investigative game throwing the whole thing off track. If the players need to find the clue to move forward, then don’t make them roll dice to find the clue and stonewall them if they fail.

Describe for us how using Lorefinder might make an investigative scene play out differently than if you were using the default Pathfinder rules.

Sure. The player characters are investigating a haunted lizard man temple and they suspect the High Priest of the vanished cult has become a vampire. The GM plans for them to translate the ancient lizard man glyphs and work out that there’s a secret inner sanctum to the temple, the God’s Egg.

GM: You enter the shadows of the temple. Green vines twine around the crumbling pillars, and you see strange carvings under the leaves.

Player 1: I look for a secret door.

GM: Roll Search.

Player 1: Er, a 4 plus my Search of 4…eight?


GM: You don’t find anything.


Player 2: I cast Comprehend Languages on the carvings.


GM: They’re lizard man glyphs – this was once a table. Do any of you have Knowledge (religion)?


Player 1: I do!


GM: Cool, roll!


Player 1: I get a 10!


GM: Er. The DC is 20. You don’t remember anything of use.

Now, via Lorefinder:

GM: You enter the shadows of the temple. Green vines twine around the crumbling pillars, and you see strange carvings under the leaves.

Player 1: I try to use my Engineering to find a secret door.

GM: Based on the relative size of the ruins vs the areas you can see, you’re pretty sure there must be more to this place, but you can’t find a door under all these vines. If you spend a point of Engineering, you’ll find it but it’ll take until after nightfall.

Player 2: We can’t wait that long. What about the carvings? I’ve got Linguistics, can I translate them?

GM: Sure. This was a lizard man temple, once. The glyphs talk about how this place is sacred to all the gods, and how only the priests can enter the God’s Egg.

Player 1: I’ve got the Religion skill. Can I figure out where the entrance to the Egg is?

GM: The priests would circle around the temple six times, so the entrance should be right over there.

Player 2: Hang on – all the lizardman gods?

GM: Yes, why?

Player 2: Did they have a god of life, or undead-smiting or something?

GM: Yeah, Ssh’hua, She of the Shimmering Scales.

Player 2: So, this temple included a shrine to her, right? Can we activate the shrine? She must be pretty annoyed at a vampire hanging around her sacred temple.


GM: Cool. Spend two points of Religion and describe how you activate the shrine, and you’ll get a bonus when fighting the vampire.

If someone hasn’t run an investigation campaign or session before, why do you think they should consider doing so, presuming you do?

It’s one of the things that makes roleplaying games what they are – the ability for the players to delve deeper into the fiction.

Have you considered adapting the Gumshoe rules to fit more systems? I saw a lot of clamoring in the comments section on the Web site.

It’s a possibility, but there are no firm plans yet.

Were there any design challenges that surprised you while making Lorefinder? Maybe something that you expected to be easy but turned out to be more difficult?

Disentangling the skills from the combat system was trickier than expected. We tried to keep the Pathfinder rules as intact as possible to make it easier to use existing Pathfinder material with Lorefinder, which meant preserving moves like Feinting in the new skill system.

Did you have any ideas during the development of Lorefinder that you just weren’t able to make work?

In the original draft, it was more focussed on fantasy crimefighting. The final game is a little more open. While GUMSHOE was originally pitched as a system that handles investigation really well, it’s really a system that handles procedural stories really well, so we pushed it towards ‘classical’ adventuring a little more.

Do you think that this is a product that would be harder to make before PDFs? On the other hand, do you think that the ease of getting new products out there has made it harder to get noticed?

There’s a print version of Lorefinder, although it was a short run. I don’t know if Lorefinder couldn’t have existed before PDF – in some ways, it harkens back to old add-on products like The Primal Order. It couldn’t have existed before the OGL, of course, at least not comfortably.

As for getting noticed – Lorefinder did show up in Pelgrane’s list of Hidden Treasures, so visibility must have been something of an issue, but I’m not sure if it got lost in the flood of new products or if we didn’t make its benefits obvious.

It certainly was a wonderful surprise to get the Best Rules nomination in the ENnies!

If you could sell someone on Lorefinder by telling them just one thing, what would it be? In brief, what makes Lorefinder awesome?

Fast, simple, evocative investigation rules to make fantasy investigation games sing.

Is there anything you can tell us about products that you have coming down the pipe?

I’ll take the opportunity to plug my own Rakehell game (Ed. Note: Link to the official site’s Rakehell category), which I’m currently working on. It’s a FATE-powered game set in 18th century England. You play highwaymen and rogues who’ve sold your souls to the devil. Now you’ve got to steal them back!

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I’ll be at GenCon this year for the first time in years (I live in Ireland, so popping over to Indy is non-trivial). I’ll be at the Cubicle 7 booth when I’m not running games.

Where can people find you on the Internet? Where can they buy Lorefinder?

My personal site is www.milkyfish.com, and I’m on twitter (and most other social networks) as mytholder
Lorefinder’s available from the wonderful Pelgrane Press (Ed. Note: Link to the store).

Thank you again for your time. Congratulations on your ENnie nomination, and good luck in the future.

Thank you very much!

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About Michael

Michael is an enthusiast about a lot of things, including indie games, roleplaying games, board games, and comic books that wanted to help create a place where he could bring things to the attention of those with similar interests. Futile Position is a true labor of labor, which he hopes continues to grow through the support of the great readers who have come upon this page.

24. July 2012 by Michael
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