Interview: Hollowpoint and Diaspora RPG designers C.W. Marshall and Brad Murray from VSCA
Welcome to Futile Position’s 2012 ENnie Awards spotlight (Check out the full list of coverage), 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 C.W. “Toph” Marshall and Brad Murray from VSCA Games, the minds behind Hollowpoint, which is up for Best Game, Best Rules, and Product of the Year. They previously developed the critically acclaimed Diaspora (which won Gold in Best Rules in 2010), so they’ve got some pedigree.
FP – Michael, Futile Position
BJM: VSCA was formed as a business formality. It’s a business license and a logo under which people can expect to find games written by one of our core team of players (who happen to occasionally be writers and artists). It existed briefly as a software consulting firm before it became a publishing company. The core team are the people that I gamed with during the burst of creativity that created Diaspora, played the hell out of it, and planted the seeds for the projects that would come later.
FP: VSCA has covered a lot of ground with designing games from Diaspora, which was a hard sci-fi FATE game, to Deluge, a system-free setting, to aFiasco playset and now Hollowpoint, a sort-of ultraviolent storytelling game. How do you decide what you’re going to do next?
CWM: There’s no real plan, and there are always many things on the back burner. It’s just a matter of what gets brought to the front, and we’re incredibly susceptible to enthusiasm, from ourselves and from complete strangers. Seriously, one piece of fan mail is enough to bump aside a current plan for something newer and shinier. Maybe we should work differently, but for now this is what we do.
BJM: Yeah that’s pretty much exactly it. Whatever the latest shiny thing is, that usually gets a few thousand words written and, with luck, some gaming done. Eventually one of these things gets enough attention that it becomes viable for publication and it goes into a slightly more focused phase of layout and editing. Slightly.
FP: How did you discover roleplaying games? Have you been playing consistently since you found the hobby?
CWM: We’ve each been playing RPGs since the late 70’s/early 80’s, and playing together since the mid-80’s. There was a big gap in the middle there, but at the heart there’s a trust that we know each [of us] is working towards producing something that’s worthwhile.
BJM: There are gaps for sure. I started gaming in the mid-70’s with the D&D basic set (reffed by a friend’s mother!) and adopted Toph into our gaming group within a few years. When that early group broke up for colleges and jobs, gaming petered out. I think, for me, there was a ten-year hiatus at one point and I was brought back by all the enthusiasm for D&D 3e.
FP: When did you start designing games?
BJM: Within minutes of playing them. At the age of 12, I think we had a perfectly publishable Rollerball board game (license issues aside) but the technology was not yet present to amateurize the sport of publishing.
CWM: Designing games was a natural development from our play: we kept hacking away at what we were playing, and soon realized that we could play something that we had designed that served our needs better. Hack, hack, hack.
FP: Was there something that you felt that needed to be added to the roleplaying game field? Did you have a particular voice you wanted to contribute?
CWM: With Diaspora, we feel we really were able to streamline the FATE options that were out there. Hollowpoint, too, hit a new spot for gaming, answering a need that wasn’t being met.
BJM: For myself, the primary needs served were at the table and I only really hoped that there would be a need – a desire even – for them elsewhere. I guess I have some faith that my table is not unique; that my interests are echoed elsewhere. So Diaspora let us play Traveller-esque scenarios (which we grew up on) with a nice modern system we adored from Spirit of the Century. It was fun enough to sell. Hollowpoint grew out of a dice mechanism that I wrote for JB Bell’s project, Chimaera and that no one liked much in that context. I needed a context for it and Hollowpoint hit our table a few weeks later. It was fun enough to sell.
FP: Tell us a little about Hollowpoint and what you hope players get from it. What do you think makes it special?
CWM: Hollowpoint is a hoot to play, and the most enthusiastic responses have come from teenage boys and gaming moms who want to shoot stuff up. That’s not what we would have expected, to be frank, but it’s thrilling to see the ways the game has been hacked to provide ultra violence to people. Hollowpoint doesn’t ask for commitment outside of an evening, but it promises a lot of fun for those who buy in.
BJM: Players get a rollercoaster action-film vibe that’s over in a couple of hours. They get to play angsty soap-opera death scenes as often as they like and they get to be the best at what their characters do. They also get a framework that is supremely hackable – most things we make are secretly toolkits for making other things – and a simple interface between system and setting: if you have a team of bad people on a mission, you have a potential Hollowpoint scenario. Add magic, lasers, bug-men, whatever, to taste.
FP: How do you know when you have enough rules, or not enough, when you are designing a game?
CWM: We always try to pull things away — it’s a real “less is more” philosophy, that looks to strip the gaming experience to something that is tight and elegant and sweet. The strengths of Diaspora are in what we were able to pull away — our streamlined stunt rules are a good example, perhaps. In Hollowpoint, it’s a very rules-light system that you don’t need to explain and people get it. It’s easy to pick up in that way, and doesn’t require a lot of advanced prep for the ref.
BJM: We write too much and then strip it away. I think my software engineering aesthetic comes into play a lot here. I often refactor a game, digging down to find its core abstractions and then try to find a way to expose the game through those rather than through the frilly bits at the top that were first to see the table.
FP: How is it different designing Diaspora, which is based on Evil Hat’s FATE system, versus designing your own system with Hollowpoint?
CWM: Diaspora was a natural response to wanting to revisit Traveller in the modern day, and I think we’ve provided something that is exciting and offers a new gaming experience for players. Hollowpoint was less focused on renewing a former experience, but in creating an opportunity for players to explore ultra-vilence, without the sacred cows associated with characters staying alive. Where does violence take the story? Hollowpoint provides a safe space to ask this.
BJM: Well the process for Diaspora was pretty simple: take what we remembered from Spirit of the Century and play Traveller with it. Whatever rules we couldn’t recall from Spirit of the Century obviously didn’t seem important enough to us to keep, so after a few sessions we started writing down what our new rules were. Diaspora accreted around this. Hollowpoint started with a dice gimmick and grew into a game as soon as we found its theme. Again, though, real play at the table is what elaborated a nifty idea into a publishable game.
FP: What lessons have you learned from each of your projects, including Hollowpoint?
CWM: I’m not sure we’re great at learning lessons, but each project does point us to new areas, where there might be something worth exploring. We’re not interested in re-inventing the wheel, but in developing systems that encourage play in new directions. That’s really what we care about.
BJM: I learned a lot of technical details about my chosen tools but, mostly, I think I learned to just have the nerve to write games I think are fun and trust that I am not alone.
FP: What games influenced the design of Hollowpoint?
CWM: Rather than games, it’s really other genres. We looked to the comic 100 Bullets, to the movie Heat, and other things, trying to emulate a modern ultra-violent setting without being precious about characters.
BJM: What he said. Clearly there are some ideas from games like Reign which use the ORE system, but we completely inverted the purpose of the ORE system, so it’s a fairly distant relative. There are FATE-like elements in it as well, I suppose. Certainly whatever we are playing is bound to influence all new writing.
FP: How long did Hollowpoint take to develop? Were there any parts that took longer than expected to get right? Were there parts that went right into place?
CWM: Most of the mechanics were there at the start — the dice pool system happened to be tuned more-or-less right; it was just a matter of nailing down the presentation of the rules, and turning the screws on a few things like the “teamwork” rules.
BJM: A few months for the rules, and a year or more for the writing, layout, and art. Everything went pretty much as expected given that I already know my weakness for leaving projects to ferment while I chase a new shiny. The mechanism itself was bang-zoom perfect out of the gate I think.
FP: You note on your site that Hollowpoint has not performed as well as Diaspora, but has still performed well. Have you been happy with the reception that Hollowpoint has received? Do you think it is harder to make sales with an original system that people aren’t familiar with? With a more violent theme?
BJM: Hollowpoint lacks the pre-existing fan base that FATE games have and so it requires a different sort of marketing machine and its a machine we don’t really have. So right now it makes the rounds by word-of-mouth mostly. Often my mouth.
CWM: Hollowpoint has been a bit harder sell, but the response has been very enthusiastic, especially from people who are less traditional gamers: people are willing to try a one-off game without the commitment of a campaign, and they are willing to risk a non-traditional format. Some of our most vocal supporters (on G+ and elsewhere) have been women. That, to me, is surprising. but it turns out fantasies of ultra competence and extreme violence are shared between the sexes.
BJM: Yeah the response from people who own it has been huge. And the number of women that love it startled me — when people ask, “what do women want from gaming?” I can now confidently answer “the same thing anyone wants — a fast, fun, competence fantasy”. I suspect we just managed to fail to alienate women in the writing and consequently discover something wonderfully equitable in gaming.
FP: Hollowpoint is designed for one-off play. That appears to be a market that has grown, where you play a roleplaying game more like you would a board game, where it is contained in a single evening. Have you noticed that shift? What do you think are the causes, if you have?
CWM: I think that it’s ever harder to get a full table, as people have jobs, and sometimes a weekly commitment is hard to make. I’m not sure we noticed a niche particularly, but saw things in our own playing that we wanted to have an answer for, and a one-off game happened to fit that need.
BJM: Diaspora plays especially badly as a one-shot so I was happy to discover that Hollowpoint was a natural one-shot. It wasn’t really a market response or a design goal. Just a happy discovery.
FP: What are the advantages to a game that is meant to be played in a single evening, like Hollowpoint?
CWM: Hollowpoint gives a great opportunity to groups looking for a break. It doesn’t require much prep, and so if one player of a traditional game just doesn’t show up, then it can be a go-to option. It doesn’t have any expectation of long-term play, and o it can also be a great break midway through a campaign. It gives a table a low-commitment chance to try something new, and different, in a different genre. It’s fun to fantasize about blowing shit up, and Hollowpoint lets you do it with excellence and style.
BJM: And it gets played at conventions. It’s a natural con game. Um, not like that. Well, in-story, yeah also like that.
FP: Do you go about designing the game differently when you are designing a game for short-term play versus campaign play?
CWM: One of the fun things about Hollowpoint is that players aren’t allowed to care too much about their characters: it’s about the mission and about the story more than the characters — and I think that’s fun in the short-term. It pushes players into a new space, but lets them experiment with it, without the commitment of a longer campaign.
BJM: The design process is no different really, though maybe we pay more attention to how the pace of a single session goes. The game needs to wrap up somehow, which is not something you necessarily want in a campaign game.
FP: Where is your sweet spot for rules complexity?
CWM: We’re really keen on devolving GM authority onto the players. Both Diaspora and Hollowpoint do that in different ways. What seems to be important, though, is removing the GM versus players thinking that seems built into so many games. We want rules complex enough to meet what players want to do, but no more than that. Almost certainly that’s always below where game designers thing it is.
BJM: I have no sweet spots. I love it all. The others have to rein me in or pull me out depending on what my obsession du jouris.
FP: Taking existing systems and trying to make them fit genres they were never intended to (like the Skyrim report for Hollowpoint on your page) has become a big part of the roleplaying game community. Is it interesting, as a designer, to see what the community will do with the rules? Is it ever difficult to not get too precious about how people are using them?
CWM: It’s thrilling for me to see this happen. It’s what I love: we tune a game to what we want, and another table, almost immediately, finds something awesome to do with the game which both enriches the possibilities for play an shows that the system is more robust than we had imagined. Really exciting.
BJM: I love hacking games. I love making games that are hackable. With Hollowpoint I don’t think I’ve seen a single play report that uses the core setting (such as it is). This makes me giddy — it means Hollowpoint delivers exactly what I hoped it would.
FP: How is the design of Soft Horizon coming along? Is there anything you can share about the state of the game? What are you trying to do differently, if anything?
BJM: Soft Horizon is constantly evolving. Right now I’m finally getting some play-testing in (something that really dried up when I moved from Vancouver to Toronto and the game group split up) and so its developing well at last. It seems like it might be a one-on-one game — two players, exchanging roles to braid the story of two psychedelic fantasy heroes in the same world(s). It’s been great fun so far but it still has a long way to go.
FP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
BJM: Grab a copy of Hollowpoint. Play it with your kids (elide the obscenities as you prefer, though I think there are lessons about propriety that can be taught with the text). Play it with your husband. Hack it. Tell us about it.
FP: Where can people find you all on the Internet? Where can they buy your stuff, which is something I presume you would enjoy?
The VSCA is at http://www.vsca.ca and everything pretty much links up from there. Our Lulu store is at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/lulu1546 and from there you can buy hardcopies of everything. If you prefer digital, well, RPG Now is the place to go: http://www.rpgnow.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=3109.
Finally, Evil Hat manages our in-store sales for Diaspora, so you should always check them out at http://www.evilhat.com.