Meet the Publisher: Ava Islam
Today's Meet the Publisher interview is with author Ava Islam. Ava crowdfunded Errant, a fantasy rpg, as part of 2021's Zine Month, and is getting ready to release it soon. She was kind enough to answer some questions. Errant is available for preorder here.
Question. You've written Errant, a rules-light fantasy game. Can you tell us a little bit about Errant; what your goals and influences writing it were, and what your general process was like?
Answer. So the second half of that tag line is "Rules-light, procedure-heavy". The birth and evolution of that particular little marketing slogan is something I find quite amusing, as its metastasized out of my little sphere of influence, but the tag-line itself, for effective as it has been, is something I feel a little constrained by. The 'rules-light' part definitely feels like it arises out of my insecurity of having begun writing a ruleset in the late OSR era, a time where ultralights such as Into the Odd, The Black Hack, Maze Rats & Knaves were en vogue and the game I was making by comparison felt large and ungainly (similarly, I often feel this way about myself; coincidence? Sometimes I self-deprecatingly refer to both Errant and myself as Rubenesque, and perhaps one day I could say that without self-consciousness). While I do thing Errant's length actually belies its simplicity (I aimed to ensure that the overhead and complexity of each individual rule was on its own quite simple), it is still a good deal more complex, mechanically dense and interwoven, than most ultralight RPGs with only a few, discrete, hermetically separated rules; rules-medium would perhaps be a more honest appraisal.
As for the procedures part, this is at least where I think the unique and most useful qualities of Errant come in to play. I had initially pitched an earlier draft of the game to another publisher, who rejected it for not really distinguishing itself as valuable in reference to the myriad other classic-ish fantasy games out there, which is what pushed me to emphasize Errant's utility as a collection of procedures. I have now been asked many times for a theoretical explanation of what exactly a procedure is, to the point of which the term has somewhat faded into incoherency, but I do find that folks tend to 'grok' on a gut level the distinction between a rule vs a procedure, which is part of what makes the tag line compelling (quote the Ferrell & Heder opus Blades of Glory: "nobody knows what it means! But it's provocative."). For me procedures are the underlying structures of play of different game scenarios which shape the agentive structure of the player; the framework provided in which decisions are made. As such they are generally more fluid than rules, adapting and mutating to the needs of the moment. The core structures of Errant are based on the hyperformalization of D&D's time-keeping system developed by Brendan S. of Necropraxis, The Hazard System, but it also provides (I hope) a fairly unique and interesting assortment of such procedures for situations such as handling downtime, chase scenes, mass battles, alchemy, etc. If nothing else, I hope Errant serves as a sort of repository or toolkit for others to draw upon when looking for materials for there games.
My process for writing Errant, as is slightly alluded to above, was largely syncretic (or less charitably, larcenous). Errant started as a collection of house rules for The Black Hack 6 years ago, after I had given up on my experiments of trying to align 5e with a more OSR playstyle. However, despite consuming blogs and OSR books at an insatiable rate, I often found that I had a hard time grasping exactly how an OSR style game was supposed to be played, on a moment-to-moment basis. There was at one point a solid 2 weeks I spent trying to figure out how exactly a hexcrawl worked, on like, the narratorial level for the DM; I was like "ok, but how do players actually move from one hex to another?" This was compounded by the aforementioned wave of ultralight OSR games which were the first OSR rulesets I really mechanically engaged with, avoiding the early TSR editions out of aversion for their complexity or clunkiness (while I still am not super fond of the mechanics of those editions, when I later began exploring them in earnest I found that they contained exactly the sort of procedural play explanations I found lacking in ultralights; its a bit of a cliche that minimalist games are not actually that minimalist because they rely on a huge foundation of shared play culture experience to fill in the gaps, but I really didn't viscerally understand that until I returned to these games after having already figured out the core structures of classic play for myself). Errant evolved mostly out of a method of me trying to answer these questions for myself as I played and ran games, my grant experiment in trying to teach myself to understand OSR play, which practically looked like me stealing any interesting methods for adjudicating or running particular kinds of scenarios out of any and every blog or rule book I came across, and synthesizing it into the chimerical mass that eventually became Errant. After a certain point my odd little collection of gaming bric a brac had enough weight that it began hypertrophically morphing into a bespoke ruleset somewhat of its own accord.
Interestingly enough, I find that this sort of 'proceduralist' approach to design seems to now be somewhat au courant. I've already mentioned Necropraxis, who I think really brought these sorts of ideas to the fore within the OSR scene (though his definition of proceduralist I think is somewhat distinct from mine), but there's a generation of similarly upcoming games, such as Prismatic Wasteland, His Majesty The Worm, and Icosa that I find share similar design concerns to Errant. As well, folks like Ben Laurence, Gus L, John Bell, and Nick Whelan have all been exploring this kind of design space in their blogs and various projects (of course, all the aforementioned people and I are in each other's orbits of influence, so this isn't super surprising).
Q. With Errant due to come out soon, do you have any future projects coming up that you'd like to share with us?
A. There's a few adventures due to come out very soon after Errant's release; one by Nick Whelan and another by Gus L. As well, there's an Errant conversion of Gus' adventure "Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier" that should release around the same time. Beyond that, for Errant specifically, I'm planning an expanded version of the book that will add a section for Referee's with advice, essays, methods for building a campaign, tools, tables, generators, and libraries of magical items and monsters, and a setting/adventure called "In The Court of the Avian Kings" that I imagine as the B2 for my system. For Kill Jester more broadly, we're also exploring other product lines that explore our varied design interests. One of the three Jesters, Ty, is working on a series of urban modern horror adventures called Fringe Variables; the first in this series is called Swineheart Motel, and is being playtested right now. I have a simmering idea for a project that is sort of an experiment and exploration of a lot of things I find compelling in RPGs right now outside of the OSR-sphere; OC and FKR play cultures (c.f. John Bell's excellent "Six Cultures of Play" essay), tactical combat, and games which combine a system with a specific, finite campaign (Yazeba's Bed & Breakfast is doing something similar). If this experiment comes to fruition, I also envision it as a series of different games united by a mechanical engine but with distinct and discrete campaigns.
Q. You've got an all-star "who's-who" list of contributors and influences (I'm especially taken by the art that I've seen from Morrie B, who I really wasn't aware of until you started sharing her work). Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative process with this group? I'm both attracted to the idea of collaboration (I find the way I write to be pretty lonely at times) but also intimidating.
A. Many of the people I'm working with on Errant are part of a close-knit community of creators that was started and is curated by Nick Whelan. I really owe the existence of Errant to this community broadly, and Nick specifically. I think he's created an excellent space of people that are genuinely friends, who intellectually enrich each other and materially support each other. We generally collaborate on a bunch of stuff together; if you look at the authors of Bones of Contention, or the contributor list for projects like Barkeep on the Borderlands, you'll immediately start to notice what names begin to reoccur. Generally the day to day is mostly just conversation of whatever topics are on hand, while also there are spaces for skill-sharing and question asking on topics like art, layout, design, etc. When a group member has a project, generally there are hands on deck who jump into help out with editing, layout etc. Generally this is sort of an informal work-trade network, as it pretty much works out that people get and receive help in pretty equal proportions, which ends up fostering more of a hobbyist, collaborative energy since working out payment agreements and contracts aren't the first thing that has to be worked out before a project begins, though of course if projects get to a funding or selling stage then people are always willing to pay fairly. We also run a mutual aid fund within the community which is something I'm really immensely proud of. Honestly, without this community, I would not be a part of the RPG community in the way that I am now; most of my time in the OSR was spent lurking on the fringes, not interacting with the community, and not really knowing how to break in to form relationships. Had I not signed up for Nick's game, I think that still would have been the case (which also to me underscores the vital importance of play as the actual core activity which unites this scene). Even beyond the RPG sphere, these folks are now some of my dearest friends, and if I'm being real, as someone who worked from home even before the pandemic, my main form of social contact. I would be a much lesser person in innumerable ways without them
For Errant specifically, Nick was instrumental in getting me past a phase where I was extremely worried about the financing I would require to even get the art and layout necessary to get a serviceable Kickstarter page. It gave me the confidence to ask other people around me for help, and he and everyone else really rallied around me. In his own words: "We are all criminally underpaying one another. It's important to do our best, but small art only survives because small artists help one another."
I would emphasise this point most for any creators, in that it is important to have a community of folks you trust and respect and who support each other if you want to be successful and happy. If you don't know how to find one, well at least in RPGs you have a built in mechanism for connecting you to other people: play games, connect with people, form real, genuine relationships.
Q. I know you don't like questions about how you got into gaming, so let's switch this up for you: I'm deliberately trying to interview women and minorities, instead of just the steady stream of middle-aged white guys who are very vocal in OSR circles and tend to drive out minority voices (thinking of Emmy Allen, here) or, at the very least, speak much more loudly. Can you discuss how your minority status has affected or influenced your game design?
A. This is a really knotty question to answer because in a lot of ways, I feel like my tastes and interests align pretty closely with what you'd expect of a stereotypical RPG player. I grew up on the same standard diet of fantasy and sci-fi books, comics, movies, tv-shows etc. as your bog-standard nerd, along with the general Western canon; as a youth I gravitated towards the same spaces (4chan et al) and intellectual predilections (nu-atheism, strange libertarianism, etc.) that we associate with the most uncouth and base specimens of the white male nerd. I'm functionally monolingual, thoroughly anglicized. But the "-cized" part is the key differentiator, isn't it? I am the result of a deliberate process, the function of specific historical forces (most notably colonialism) that worked upon me to produce the specific subject position I inhabit today. Even as I read my Rudyard Kipling's and my Arthur Conan Doyle's and my Eragon's, even as I participated in all the domains of white male nerddom, there was always the (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) awareness of alterity, that my relationships to the affective structure of desire in the spaces I inhabited were in some difficult to describe ways fundamentally different from people around me.
The racial aspect was obviously the one that I was most conscious of; its hard not to read the pulp Victorian adventure classics and not be aware of the constant spectre of race and colonialism suffusing every page. Yet, of course, as a child primarily the white heroes of these stories were my points of identification. This is a process Fanon talks about in Black Skins, White Mask, of an Antillean child reading comics such as Tarzan in which the heroes are white and the evils are coded black, and the cognitive bifurcation this causes, as the child both regards himself as white but is aware of other's awareness of himself as black, especially once this child leaves the Antilles and goes to Europe, the resultant double consciousness. As a child, I particularly loved the Drizzt books, and as a first generation immigrant, I definitely identified with him; someone who was good despite the barbarity of his race, who overcame unfair prejudice (not unfair because its wrong to hate drow, since drow are demonstrably evil, but just in a liberal moral framework of tolerance in which we should be race-blind and judge everyone as individuals) by proving himself to be aligned with the civilized values of the lawful word, indeed to be so self-sacrificing and heroic to be an even greater exemplar of them than the native surface dwellers. As a child I was constantly lauded and praised for my skills and facility with English, and I would boast about the fact that I was more linguistically gifted than native speakers; I aligned myself with Western intellectual values and traditions, had an insufferable affectation of only speaking "The Queen's English", and in general considered my native Bangladeshi culture to be regressive and backwards (also due in part to the fraught and complicated relationship I had with my parents, only exacerbated by the distance imposed between us as I slowly lost facility in Bengali). Yet at the same time also, in the most basic aspects of my habitus, what I ate and the way I ate it, the way I cleaned and groomed myself, what I wore around the house, our extended community of fellow immigrants (and the network of other 1.5 generation immigrant kids I grew up with) still placed me fundamentally in a different world that felt totally apart from the broader one of school and the greater culture we lived in; the difference between these worlds felt vast and insurmountable, and mutually irreconcilable.
My relationship to gender and sexuality was more difficult for me to understand as a child, more felt than known, but it still produced the same effect of feeling a strange displacement from those around me, a not-quite-fitting into the structures and physicality of masculinity that I was expected to. Now I often find myself feeling in a zone of double displacement, where because of my transness I am excluded from my Bangledeshi-ness, and because of my Bangladeshi-ness, I never quite fit into the expected mold of transness, and because of both I will always be excluded from fitting in entirely to dominant mainstream structures, even as I am acculturated to them and my desires are shaped by them.
Last year I wrote an adventure that was in a setting inspired by pre-colonial Bangladesh; it was one of the most excruciating things I ever had to write. I had no common vernacular to draw on, no frames of references to fully understand what I was writing, and I was alienated from archives of knowledge by my illiteracy in the language, while being constrained by the necessity to somehow present myself and my work as an 'authentic' subject. It was an experience homologous to trying to write something creative in another language, one I had no facility in; my fundamental ability to be creative, to express myself, which requires having a repository of cultural tools and symbols to manipulate, was totally removed. I longed to be able to write something with knights and evil wizards in towers and strange creatures in the woods. I am a colonial subject; my desires are colonial desires, my fantasies are colonial fantasies. I like D&D because I have been raised on colonial adventure stories, of Conan's and Crusoe's, of exploring and conquering harsh and foreign lands. Everything in my life is marked by this hybridity, by transition, by existing in-between and neither. There is no 'authentic' self I could portray.
In a broader way, I guess, this is the relationship my particular subject position creates in my game design. Errant like I said is a syncretic mish-mash of various things that have influenced me, as much of a bizarre hybrid that I am. In making that, I also have to contend with the idea of trying to create something in a framework that in certain fundamental, structural ways is built to exclude me; of shaping myself to fit that mould, and shaping it to fit me. Of the constant double consciousness of knowing something both is and is not for me, of desiring something that does not necessarily desire me back. The constant awareness of the subtle dislocation of it all.
Lineage and influence also plays a big part in this. There is both of course the broader aesthetic influences of the OSR scene, the aforementioned colonial adventure pulp stories that underlie the narrative structure of the game (even further beyond, the rationalist Enlightenment conceptions of things like the body or the mind that gird the mechanical philosophy of simulating actors and the world they inhabit), to Gygax's well-documented misogyny and racism, to the more immediat and corrosive influences in our niche little hobby. Personally speaking, Zak's blog was my gateway to the OSR, and the works of many people in this scene who I do not want to promote remain incredibly influential to my thinking and design. I think about this often; I have a tattoo of Lovecraft's tree-branch version of the elder sign tattooed on my wrist, imposed on my veins. I think of Lovecraft and his status as a father of the modern fantasy genre; I think of the way in which his horror is so often not concerned with the cosmic but the body, of the fear and revulsion of bloodlines, lineage, miscegenation. I think about what it means to claim myself as a descendant of a person who hates me; I think about fathers, and bloodlines, and how every institution that I owe my development to as a person (my parents, my schools, my ex-partners), have all in some way or another been fundamentally abusive. I wonder what to make myself with all that.
I think lately I am growing the confidence to let myself be and exist as the strange mutt that I am. I am becoming less concerned with what I ought to be, and what moulds to fit into, than in discovering my own interests and desires borne out of the confluence of the things that make me. One example I think is the fundamental shift in my relationship to OSR play, now that my project of trying to understand it with Errant is completed; whereas before I figured myself as an aspirant, trying to attain something that felt out of my grasp, I now feel pretty confident that I actually have a truly deep and comprehensive understanding of the systems, history, and design of the scene (in many ways I feel like Errant only can exist because the OSR scene, as a historical entity, is over and thus Errant stands as my summation of the questions and answers it produced). I know often find myself pushing back against certain orthodoxies or aspects of design that I previously accepted without question as being flawed; I find myself again interested in the things that I long thought symptoms of heretical or incorrect play yet which I had always enjoyed, like min-maxing character builds and elegant but deep mechanical systems and character backstories, all of which are antithetical to OSR principles (associated more with the 5e crowd, which the OSR has grown increasingly hostile towards after its initial warm reception of the edition back in 2014). I carry certain lessons and predilections from my time learning OSR design forward, but I find I am no longer content or able to try to fit orthodox moulds. I remain where I have always been, in liminal third spaces, but I no longer am yearning to leave them; I find myself quite comfortable here.