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Spirit of a game designer – an interview with Mike Olson
30 Jan 2012

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Wenn ich nicht gerade spiele verunstalte ich Medien. Kommt einem zu Gute bei eigenen Rollenspielen wie Malmsturm oder Projekten wie Ratten!, Savage Worlds Gentlemens Edition, Scion, Sundered Skies und ein paar anderen. An und für sich bin ich der Erzählonkel, daher auch die große liebe zu FATE. Manchmal muss es aber auch ein Burger statt Steak sein und so wird gern und oft auch Savage Worlds oder wenn es klasisch sein soll Pathfinder und Konsorten gespielt. Ich probier gern und oft Systeme aus aber die eigentliche Leidenschaft sind die Hintergrundwelten.

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J. Jacobs hat ein Interview mit Mike Olson geführt und es mir als Gastbeitrag zur Veröffentlichung bereitgestellt. Vielen vielen lieben Dank dafür! Das ich an Fate einen Narren gefresse habe dürfte bekannt sein. Dennoch bin ich schwer begeistert von The Kerberos Club: FATE Edition, dem Superhelden Rollenspiel in der Viktorianischen Zeit. Wer sich dafür interessiert sollte vielleicht auch mal im Tanelorn vorbeischauen denn dort gibt Einblicke in das System.

Jetzt aber zu Jans Interview:

Mike Olson is a California based game designer and freelance author who is especially know for his
hacks of Evil Hats FATE System. Speaking of which, he has been part of Cubicle 7s team for
Legends of Anglerre and just finished working on the FATE Edition of Benjamins Baughs
Kerberos Club Setting for Arc Dream Publishing which had its debut this year at GenCon.

How did you get the job of adapting the Kerberos Club to the FATE System?
Several months before Arc Dream put out the call for a FATE edition of The Kerberos Club, I’d started playtesting my FATE supers hack with friends and at a couple conventions. I didn’t even see Shane Ivey’s posts the project online initially — a couple friends emailed me about it — but the timing was perfect. Around the end of May 2010, I dropped Shane a line and basically said, „I have a version of FATE specifically tailored to the supers genre, playtests are going well, and also I have this blog (spiritoftheblank.blogspot.com) where I do nothing but tweak FATE for different genres.“ Within a day, I’d say, he replied and said the job was mine. I was totally psyched.

I was actually at a game convention in Los Angeles when I got his email, and it was all I could do to try to keep it to myself. It was just such great news. I still feel lucky to have gotten the assignment.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process? What was the biggest challenge and what was easier as you expected (or as easy as expected)?

The process for the supers hack began years ago, not long after I first encountered Spirit of the Century. The first game of it I’d played was itself a hack — a fantastic GM in Southern California named Colin Jessup ran a Star Wars one-shot at a convention using SotC, and it just blew my mind. As soon as I got my hands on it, I started hacking it for different genres. In fact, the first game of it I ran was set in the universe of the Futurama TV show. After that I did fantasy games, a Buckaroo Banzai game, a Western game, and others — but I couldn’t work out how to do supers in a way that I liked. It took me a few years of tinkering to get to something that really worked for me.

As for The Kerberos Club in particular, the groundwork was solid, but the particulars changed quite a bit over time. Most of the playtesting was just making characters. Because the FATE system itself has been proven time and again, and the tweaks I’d made to it were solid, the only thing I was really concerned about was how to make competent, balanced characters quickly and easily. We had some difficulties in the beginning just trying to simplify everything, and it wasn’t until after the playtest was over that I hit upon a solution that really worked.

Honestly, one of the biggest challenges was just keeping up with everything. The whole development and playtest process was only scheduled to go from late December to mid-March, which is a pretty ambitious pace. Incorporating playtester feedback and answering questions on the playtest forum online felt like a full-time job. Previously, I’d worked on the Legends of Anglerre line for Cubicle 7, and I’d been totally insulated from the actual playtest process. So suddenly being very involved was a bit of a shock, but it was also the only way to do it, really.

In terms of the conversion process from Wild Talents, though, most of it was fairly simple to put into FATE terms. Convictions became Conviction aspects, Custom skills became Unique skills, powers became Strange skills, and so on. But that book is full of NPCs, and converting each and every one of them into FATE was easily the most time-consuming part of the process. One night, before I’d begun any real work on the project, I was sitting and reading the character write-ups in The Kerberos Club and thinking, „Wow, look at all these characters! And they’re all really cool.“ Then I realized: „Wait — this is all work for me!“

 

How was your experience different from working on Legends of Anglerre?

So different. In just about every way. On Anglerre, I was one of a number of freelancers hired to contribute to the book. We had a lot of conference calls and talked about big-concept stuff, but I wasn’t actually in charge of anything. I took it upon myself to revamp the skills and stunts chapter from Starblazer Adventures to try to clean it up a bit, and shorten it where possible, then I was basically given free rein to write whatever I felt like. So I did the sections on group characters and treasure, because they were interesting mechanical exercises to me. I also wrote a random adventure generator that couldn’t fit in the corebook, so look for it in the Anglerre Companion later this year. We freelancers never had much of a sense of a deadline on most of this stuff. One day I got a draft of the entire book in my inbox to review, and then later a PDF of it laid out, and then one day a hard copy arrived in the mail.

On Kerberos, I was literally the only designer/developer on the project for months, because I was the only one who knew how the mechanics worked. Everything was up to me, from translating Archetypes to compiling a list of playtesters. Shane trusted me to get it done however I wanted to do it (and he had plenty on his plate, besides), so really, I operated largely without any sort of supervision until the time I sent off the manuscript in late March. I was always conscious of a deadline, and tried hard to get out revised playtest materials every week to our loyal army of playtesters. I’m a full-time dad, but I managed to set aside every Sunday to either work or playtest. It was a pretty hectic time. I’m sure it was just what Chris and Sarah went through on Anglerre.

Then came the revisions and the rewrites (and the redesign of the skill-building system…), and multiple rounds of layout, and a flurry of last-minute edits mere days before GenCon. I’d thought the writing and playtesting had been hectic, but it was nothing compared to the end of the development process. Being involved in every stage of that process was stressful, but I’m so grateful for it, because I really felt like I had creative control, and that was amazing.

So… apart from the fact that both projects involved working with roleplaying games that used the FATE system, they had just about nothing else in common. I’d work for either company again in a heartbeat, though. I’m actually about to start writing new material for both of them, so it looks like there are more hectic times ahead.

 

This is the second setting with the FATE rules that plays in an urban environment (the other
being the Dresden Files RPG). From your experience with the Kerberos Club, what brings such a setting to the gaming table?

One of the gems of Dresden Files is the city creation system. It makes the setting a concrete entity PCs can interact with instead of just background material. The assumption is, of course, that you’ll be playing in a game set in a city full of people and places and secrets, devised both by the GM and the players. It’s great for a game like FATE, which easily puts social, investigative, and combat-oriented characters on the same level in terms of narrative importance and contribution. Plus the system empowers players to add to the setting during play, whether by spending a Fate Point to edit or establish minor details, or by changing the course of a mystery with a decent Investigation or Academics roll. The more setting there is to work with, the more the PCs and players can shine.

By a similar token, in The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition), we had the luxury of a setting conceit — the Kerberos Club itself — that binds the PCs together. Since the player characters are all Kerberans living in London, and since the book contains a wealth of information about London (fantastically written by Benjamin Baugh), it didn’t make as much sense to have a city-creation process. The city had definitely been created, as lovingly as any character. Instead, we give players the tools to customize the Club itself: its history, its enemies, its allies, its problems, and so on. You get to decide how your Kerberos Club fits into the London described in the book. So the Club also becomes a character all on its own, and one that changes over time in response to the PCs‘ actions.

Regardless, it’s all about finding ways for the players to interface with the setting.

 

FATE has come long way from an “indie” game and currently gets a lot attention in  the rpgmainstream. As someone who worked a lot with the system, what do you believe are the things it brings to „mainstream gaming“ and how do you think it will (or has) influenced other games.

I like to say that FATE nicely bridges the gap between traditional gaming and so-called „indie“ gaming. It has many of the trappings of the former, with a fairly standard GM/player set-up and a straightforward dice mechanic, along with a healthy share of the latter, especially in terms of shared narrative control. The impact of aspects on the contemporary gaming scene just can’t be denied. For a while there people were bolting them onto everything. I myself ran a Mutants & Masterminds game whose characters suddenly acquired aspects mid-stream shortly after we discovered them.

FATE is also the Honda Civic of RPGs: easy and fun to modify. I haven’t seen anyone run a straight-up game of Spirit of the Century since maybe 2008, and yet that book served as the undisputed FATE 3.0 corebook until 2009 when Starblazer Adventures came out and gave people another option.

Still, I’m not really sure how big of a splash it’s made in mainstream gaming. If I go down to my local game store and ask the average patron what they think of FATE, odds are pretty good they won’t know what I’m talking about. When you consider that „mainstream,“ at least in North America, means Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or World of Darkness, it’s hard to see what influence FATE’s had on any of those companies‘ products. And that’s with Dresden Files selling well.

But I don’t think that matters much, to be honest, because the small-press and indie scene is huge and always expanding, and FATE certainly casts a long shadow there. Icons is a good example of a game that isn’t much like FATE at all, but which incorporates a version of aspects because of FATE.

 

So what’s the next thing we can await from you? Anything in the works? Any plans for the near or far future?

I alluded earlier to some projects for Arc Dream and Cubicle 7. I don’t think I can talk about the C7 stuff right now, but I can definitely say that myself, Morgan Ellis, and Andy Blanchard are working on a PDF compilation of three FATE Kerberos scenarios, to be made available from Arc Dream as soon as we can get it to them. Andy and Morgan are two great GMs who were kind enough to run a session each of FATE Kerberos at GenCon to help spread the word, so when Shane approached me about writing up my own scenario, „The Pyramids of Atlantis,“ I suggested we do all three of them, along with a PC suited to each one and a partially statted-out Kerberos Club. The idea is that it’ll give people a solid starting point for a new Kerberos Club game. I got feedback at GenCon that FATE is a great system, but there are too few published adventures for it. This will address that concern.

I’m not sure I can talk about any of the rest, unfortunately. But I will say that I’ll be doing a series of posts on my blog and on the Arc Dream site about The Kerberos Club. They’ll be a mix of design notes and examples, so keep an eye out for that.

If FATE Kerberos does well, there’s a very real chance that we’ll do FATE versions of some other Wild Talents settings. I’d especially like to tackle This Favored Land, and I’ve gotten requests for Progenitor, so hopefully that’ll happen. If it does, we’ll probably also do a setting-free version of Strange FATE, the version found in The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition), which would be very, very cool. So I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to see these things, you have the power to make them happen!

Thank you very much for your insights and your time.
My pleasure. Thanks so much for your interest!

Das Interview führte J. Jacobs. Eine deutsche Übersetzung des Interviews wird es in der nächsten Ausgabe der Anduin geben.

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