Interview: Spellbound Kingdoms designer Frank Brunner
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 Frank Brunner, designer of Spellbound Kingdoms, which is up for Best Rules.
Take a moment to introduce yourself.
I’m Frank Brunner. I’m a dad, husband, and physics teacher by day. I’ve been gaming since 1980, when my mom was my first Dungeon Master.
How did you discover roleplaying games? Have you been playing consistently since you found the hobby?
I heard about Dungeons and Dragons in a Dynamite! magazine at school. I grew up in a small town in northern Michigan, and being in 4th grade, didn’t know anyone else who played. So I told my mom about it, and she tried to DM for me. She had no clue what she was doing. It was fun because it was a family activity, but we ended up just saying you know what, wait until next summer when you’re at your cousins, and they can show you how to play.
Prior to making Spellbound Kingdoms, you wrote for Wizards of the Coast. What were you able to take from your time with Wizards? Did you design roleplaying games prior to your time with them?
The biggest thing that I took from my freelancing for WOTC was the desire to do my own stuff. I grew extremely frustrated with the way WOTC would change material that I turned in, usually without any discussion or feedback (to be fair to WOTC, this changed for the better as their experience with freelancers grew, but it was still frustrating not having the final decision over what I wrote). Mike Mearls said at a freelancers meeting once, “Yes, we’ll tear the arms off your baby, but we’ll replace them with new, robot mutant arms!” I decided I was tired of my baby’s arms being torn off.
How did you end up working with Wizards?
I had been writing for Dungeon and Dragon magazines, and Chris Youngs (who was called Chris Thomasson then), moved from Dragon editor to WOTC staffer. He recommended me to their freelancing department, for which I am forever grateful. Chris Perkins was in charge of their nascent freelancer program. The two Chrisses, Perkins and Youngs, are two of the brightest, kindest, and most hard-working guys in the industry.
With the rise of Lulu, PDF publishing, and other options, do you think it is easier to make games now than before?
Absolutely. I don’t think Spellbound Kingdoms would ever have seen the light of day if it weren’t for OneBookshelf, DTRPG, POD, etc.
Do you think it is harder or easier to find games you want to play?
I think easier. The web has made searching and discovering a lot of things easier.
You mentioned Dungeons and Dragons and Paul Czege’s ‘My Life with Master’ as big influences on your design in Spellbound Kingdoms (along with a host of other games). What do you
feel that you took from each of those games, as well as any other influences?
It’s hard to name only a few. D&D was the grand-daddy of them all, so the very idea of a roleplaying game with a GM is one thing that influnced the game. I really think that Gygax’s genius is underrated most of the time. D&D gave us so much: classes, levels, experience, loot, adventures extending over years of real time play. Another thing is D&D’s focus on the hero’s journey, often expressed as “from zero to hero,” is one thing. I think Spellbound Kingdoms flattens out the level curve a lot while still maintaining the story arc of a character going from farm boy to Death Star destroyer. As for My Life with Master, I think it’s the most important RPG since D&D. The idea of a narrative structure hardwired into the game rules is important. A set endpoint is another equally important development. SK doesn’t have either of those as in-your-face as MLWM does, but it offers the possibility of their implementation via Inspirations, per-scene powers, definitions of different scene types, and so forth.
What is your process when you are designing a game? Where do you start?
I don’t have a set starting point. I always do a design document first, but what’s in the document changes. In SK’s design document, I wanted to achieve a few goals. I wanted a fun fantasy RPG (fun is always #1), a game where the setting reflected the rules, a game where combat was both tactical and fast (and didn’t require minis, though I like minis), a game where social combat was actually fun and useful, and a game with a lot of narrative support.
Spellbound Kingdoms was initially released in 2009, how was the reception at the time?
Sales were good compared to my expectations and indie standards, but the critical reception was not great. Deservedly so, as the person that I had been counting on to do the layout didn’t do it. I felt compelled to release the game by Gen Con of that year; otherwise it probably would have languished on my hard drive forever and never been released. So I bit the bullet, threw together a layout, and released the game. Thank goodness game fans are smart and saw that the game’s core was solid, even if the presentation was not.
What led to you revise the rules? What were you responding to?
The rules didn’t really get revised all that much. Just a little simplification on Inspirations, Mood, and Talents. Gear too, I guess. But the main impetus for the revision was the rushed state of the first release. I wanted to clean it up and include a lot more that was omitted the first time around.
I feel like many people that design games do so because they have something they want to add to the field. What did you hope you accomplished with your design in Spellbound Kingdoms that other people haven’t done before?
Definitely true in my case as well. I wanted to contribute a combat system that I think is one of the best in the business. Fast, tactical, no minis needed, full of flavor, and fun. Savage Worlds is a great game, but whenever I see “fast, furious, and fun,” I think of Spellbound Kingdoms’ social and physical combat.
Spellbound Kingdoms definitely appears to try and bridge the gap between ‘old school’ RPGs (like Dungeons and Dragons) and more ‘narrative’ roleplaying games. How do you go about trying to mesh those styles together into something coherent? Or do you agree with that assessment?
I do agree with that assessment. As for how, I think the key is not overdoing it. A few narrative elements go a long way. You also have to remember that everyone’s play style is different. So I tried to make SK very modular, and people can ignore or include rules if they need to.
The combat [is] meant to convey the chaos and unpredictability of real combat, while remaining tactical and fast. How do you manage that balance?
Well, the Combat Primer is available for free on the net [Ed. Note: Here you are], so people can read that and see how I managed the balance. I really think the Combat chapter in the book is the most succinct and exciting way of describing how the combat works. Briefly, you pick a maneuver in one round that allows for certain other maneuvers in the next round. There’s a flow chart for each fighting style. The idea is that each style teaches its own footwork, grips, positioning, etc. so that while Free Sword might allow you to transition from a Spin to a Lunge, the Dagger and Wine teaches you how to go from a Spin to a Dodge or a Feint. Some choices are better for defense, some for offense, and some set up powerful finishing moves.
It looks like one of your goals with the design was to emulate larger world systems, like mass combat, economies, and cultures. What do you feel adding these larger systems into the game adds?
I feel it’s important. One of the design document goals was a larger world that made sense according to the game rules.
You describe the setting for Spellbound Kingdoms and ‘a dark and paranoid magical Renaissance. What were the influences on the setting you described for Spellbound Kingdoms?
I screwed up the setting, actually. In hindsight, the setting should be a single, all-powerful, seemingly inescapable kingdom. That’s what gives the sense of oppression you find in works like V for Vendetta, The Giver, 1984, etc. I don’t think I’ll change the setting, though, because I promised I wouldn’t advance the timeline.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with making Spellbound Kingdoms?
Coordinating it with my family and real-life responsibilities.
What was your play-testing process like? How do you know when you’re done?
I playtested with my regular Buffalo group (I’ve since moved to Lake Placid; any gamers here drop me a line ), the gaming club at the school where I taught, friends at Gen Con, and one more group that I knew through a friend. I wanted to give the rules to people that had never played before and let them at it, and I got a bit of that done with the school group, but not as much as I would have liked.
You have a sourcebook supplement coming out soon for the game. What is it about?
The sourcebook will cover new material in all of the game’s major components: gear, spells, combat styles, alchemical items, engineering items, mass combat troops, monsters, fashion items, and, I hope, a couple of mini-adventures or adventure skeletons set in various parts of the Claw.
Do you have a next project in mind that you can share? Do you have more you want to add to the Spellbound Kingdoms world?
I’ll never leave the Kingdoms. There will always be a book or two in the works for SK. But I do have a new game coming out, too. As usual, the release date is ‘when it’s done.’ It’s awesome. It’s an RPG, although like Spellbound Kingdoms, the combat system is fun to play in and of itself. It has mechanics that are original, which is clearly the thing that SK is known for, so I think SK fans will be happy about that. Also the upcoming game has a more hardwired story arc than SK, although it’s still not as hardwired as Fiasco or MLWM or something like that.There’s character progression from game to game, levels, loot, and so on. It uses cards more than dice, but I promise traditional RPGers will still like the mechanics. The cards aren’t randomized or collectible or anything like that.
Where can people find you and Spellbound Kingdoms on the internet? Where can they buy it? If you could tell people one reason why they should pick it up, what would it be?
I update SpellboundKingdoms.com when I can. By indie standards, there has been a pretty steady fan presence there over the last three years, which I have been very grateful for. You can buy the game at DriveThruRpg.com [Ed Note: PDF is $9.99, hardcover black and white is $29.99 and hardcover color is $54.99]. Hm, one reason to pick it up: it was nominated for an Ennie for best rules! If you like to see novel, solid, creative RPG rules, take a look!