Interview: Psi-punk RPG designer Jacob Wood
Psi-punk, a Fudge-based RPG, is currently Kickstarting. This is a really great interview with Jacob Wood from Accessible Games, and Jacob provided a ton of interesting information. They’re also giving away T-shirts if you take a flyer for the game and post it at your FLGS. So that’s a win for everyone.
You got into roleplaying games at about age 12, starting with Rune Quest and Dungeons and Dragons. What grabbed you about roleplaying games? What games influenced you as a designer?
I think what appealed to me the most about role-playing games was the shared imagination and storytelling opportunities. It’s not really something you think about when you’re young — probably what I loved the most back then was the fact that I got to be a guy with a sword and kill evil wizards. In retrospect though, that wouldn’t have been quite as fun if I didn’t have my friends to share it with.
As a designer, nearly every RPG I’ve ever played or read has had some sort of influence on me. It sounds like a lame cop-out to say that, but I think it’s true. I’m constantly looking at games from both a design standpoint and from a storytelling standpoint. I also have a wide range of other game design ideas that go beyond the Fudge and cyberpunk aspects of Psi-punk.
Perhaps the biggest influence on my current design philosophy, however, is Fudge (surprised?). What struck me about Fudge immediately was its unique Trait Ladder mechanic, its scalability, and its license to tinker. Fudge empowers both GMs and players to tweak the system, which is something not many games do. You’ll find that virtually everything in Psi-punk, from the skill set to the cyberware and psionic powers, are labelled as “examples.” That’s because I want to encourage players and GMs to come up with their own skills, equipment, and powers as fits their characters or their goals for the campaign.
As part of your mission, you are trying to bring out a discussion about accessibility in games, and have written several posts on the subject. What can game designers do to be more cognizant of making their games more accessible?
There are a few things that they can do, and it does differ by product and design goal.
First, I want to point out that not every game is for everybody. People have a wide range of interests and abilities, and game designers shouldn’t feel pressured to design for the lowest common denominator.
For example, D&D requires quite a bit of math — both during character creation and during play. It can be difficult for people who have a hard time with quickly adding or subtracting numbers, it can be difficult to pick up without some form of assistance. I wouldn’t expect Wizards to tone down the game’s rules to include less math just because some people have difficulties with it though — I might simply suggestion alternate options for the math-challenged. D&D‘s mechanics are designed to simulate a wide variety of techniques and tactics, and they’re good at what they do (generally speaking).
For people who prefer less math but still want to enjoy a fantasy role-playing experience, Fudge or Fate would be a good fit. The math is simple and gets out of the way of the storytelling.
The point being, I feel that designers should first approach game design with their intended purpose and audience in mind.
Before publishing though, there is something that every designer/publisher absolutely should focus on, and that’s the ability to put those rules into the hands of their intended audience. That means they need to be made electronically accessible; PDF documents must be tagged for reading (I’ll be doing an in-depth look at what this means on my blog; that’s currently in the research and analysis stage) so that screen readers such as JAWS and ZoomText are able to parse the text.
Screen readers are an increasingly important type of software that help not just the blind, but also the dyslexic and physically disabled interact with their computers. They make it possible for people with certain forms of disabilities to read text, but the documents have to be prepared in such a way that the screen readers can handle them.
Nowadays word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, make it pretty simple for designers to do this as part of their writing process. Just by using stylesheets to mark up text, authors are taking the first steps toward tagging their documents. Again, I’ll get into a more technical discussion on my blog at a later date — that’s sort of beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here.
In short (though it may be a bit late for that), publishers need to take steps to make their documents readable by people with disabilities. Just because they look good on the screen doesn’t mean that everyone can read them.
The last point that I would like to make on the topic is that I feel there should be more games tailored specifically to the disabled gamer audience. At some point, I do intend to write up an “Accessible Fudge” game, with the intent on making it as simple as possible for people with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities. That’s not really my area of expertise though, so it’s going to take a lot of research and perhaps finding a few experts to work with.
I feel that there can be a game for everyone, and everyone deserves to experience the joy of social gaming (such as role-playing or board games), but some of those games just haven’t been designed yet.
What do you think makes Psi-Punk special?
Quite a lot, actually.
For starters, I built Psi-punk from the ground up to focus on two principle setting aspects: the existence of psionics in a futuristic (cyberpunk-esque) society, and the effects they have had on the world at large. In many games, psionics are included as a sort of substitute to a magic system; they seem to exist just to offer supernatural powers to players, but they don’t really feel like they’ve been integrated with the system or the society at large.
In Psi-punk, virtually every aspect of daily life is touched by psionics in some way. In order to prevent the psychically-gifted from taking over all of the best jobs, one company developed a type of technology that emulates psyonic powers and has put that technology into the hands of the general public in an effort to level the playing field. That technology, which they call “magic,” drives almost every new technological advancement, from renewable clean energy to the ability to morph one vehicle into another.
I asked the question: “If this technology was prevalent in society, how would that change the way we do things?” The results, if I do say so myself, are both clever and interesting.
Aside from the game’s unique setting, I also designed the rules from the ground up to be very character-oriented. Players get to choose and tweak everything they desire, and the rules both allow them to do so and get out of the way so they can explore for themselves what their characters are like. They also get out of the way during play, ensuring that players are able to equally share the spotlight, even if they’re not playing the hacker during a ‘Net run or a driver during a car chase.
What is an awesome thing that could happen in a game of Psi-punk?
Anything you put your mind to. (Get it? It’s a psychic joke.) (Ed. Note: I do.)
I’m particularly fond of the concept of “soul jacking.” Yes, it’s just as rude as it sounds.
When I first found ‘indie’ roleplaying games in the early 2000’s Fudge was one of the first ones that I came across. It’s a really neat, fun system that has been overshadowed by Fate over the last several years. Why did you choose Fudge?
In my opinion, Fudge offers the right amount of “crunch” and “fluff.” Fate seems to be even more rules-light than Fudge, and I was looking for something that was a good mix.
Also, I went with Fudge *because* it has been overshadowed. Maybe I’m just the type to root for the underdog, but I felt like Fudge, as the father of Fate, deserves a bit more attention.
I love how you went with the art that you did. How did you come into contact with Melissa Gay? How important do you think the art is for the feel of the book?
I met Melissa through the forums at RPGGeek.com. Someone else was asking about how to find artists for their game when someone on the boards mentioned Melissa. I needed art for myself, so I went ahead and contacted her.
Melissa is super enthusiastic about the project and a delight to work with, so I know that what we’re going to see out of her is going to be great. And have you seen her portfolio at MelissaGay.com? My goodness, she’s amazing!
That’s important, because a game’s art sets the tone and feel for the book. It offers readers an idea of what the designer envisions for the setting. Even though players are welcome to change anything they’d like — up to and including the setting — the art for the book serves as an example and as inspiration to people who may not otherwise have an idea of what to do with the material.
Plus, it’s pretty to look at.
What are your future plans for Psi-punk?
I have a few things in mind. First, I will be writing an adventure or two for some of our highest-level Kickstarter backers (so be sure to get in on that while you can!) These will be top priority.
Also, I’m already in the idea and outline phase of a supplement that will further detail the world’s organizations including gangs, megacorporations, police, and even ghost cartels.
I would also like to go into more detail about the world’s governments, militaries, and so forth.
Anything else you would like to share?
I’m really excited about all of the positive feedback and support I’ve seen so far. If you’re reading this, please remember to share with your friends and consider joining our crowdfunding campaign! Psi-punk is going to be great — I’ve heard as much from our playtesters — but we need everyone’s help to spread the word and to make sure we can properly fund the project.
Where can people find you online?
To read more about Psi-punk, visit the developer’s blog: http://psi-punk.blogspot.com
To pledge toward the Kickstarter, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/accessiblegames/psi-punk-a-fudge-cyberpunk-rpg
Thanks for checking out the interview! What’re your thoughts on the psionics-meets-Shadowrun style? And Fudge as the system of choice? I think the art looks really freakin’ sharp.