Updated: Oct 17
It's been awhile since I did any Meet the Publisher interviews, but I'm back with a special one (and it's a long one, which I think a lot of folks like!). Gurbintroll, formerly known as Blacky the Blackball, is best known for the Dark Dungeons game, the first (and as far as I'm aware only) clone of the Rules Cyclopedia. They wrote several similar variations on the theme, with different goals, as well as the well-received FASERIP and Masks games. They're currently Kickstarting Light Fantasy, which they bill as a modern take on OSR games. Gurbintroll has graciously agreed to answer some questions for this feature
Question. Dark Dungeons was my first introduction to retroclones, and since then both you and I -- as well as much of the OSR, seem to have moved closer to BX. Can you talk about how your previous games have influenced.Light Fantasy? How has your thinking about games changed since you first penned Dark Dungeons? Answer: I've certainly learned a huge amount about layout and destkop publishing since Dark Dungeons, if nothing else! In terms of the writing, I think the big way I've grown as a designer since then is that my first few games were very strict clones of their source material that just copied the existing rules but re-worded them to avoid copyright issues. Over time, and I think Blood, Guts & Glory and Lightmaster were my turning points, I've come to realise that getting the feel of the game correct is far more important than getting the rules to be an exact match. That's reflected in Light Fantasy where I've done more work to curate the material and give the game a consistent feel than I ever have before. And obviously throughout the Dark Dungeons series of games I've got better at simplifying and unifying the disparate mechanics of those early D&D editions to make them easier to learn and help them get out of the way of the game. The move away from BECMI towards B/X for this game is more to do with that feel than anything else. BECMI has much material about dominion management and mass combat that are just not suitable for the feel I wanted for Light Fantasy, and while it can sometimes be fun having characters go all the way to 36th level (and beyond) I wanted to rein that in because I didn't want the game to be dominated by high level magic and planar traveling and so forth. I wanted a more grounded game. There's also a unique feel to the Known World / Mystara setting in its pre-BECMI and pre-Gazetteer infancy that's never quite been captured since then. The early authors of that edition wore their influences on their sleeves, and it has a much more "Weird Tales" feel and much less "Tolkien + Theosophy" feel than other editions, even BECMI. I've really tried hard to capture the essence of that in my curation of what material to keep, add, and leave out. Returning to B/X has also been a very nostalgic trip for me during development and testing, because while BECMI is the edition I've played the most, B/X is the first edition - in fact the first RPG - I ever owned, having pestered my parents to get me a copy of the Modlvay Basic boxed set for my twelfth birthday all the way back in 1981, the year it came out. Q. Give us the elevator pitch of Light Fantasy, if you don't mind (actually, since this is a print interview, take as much space as you'd like!). A. My basic design philosophy for the game, which I actually stuck on the cover as a tagline, is "Retro Rules, Modern Sensibilities". The game is for people who want a classic and simple ruleset that doesn't get in the way, but who want to play in a modern style rather than the "old-school" style commonly associated with the older editions of D&D. For example, "old-school" gaming often prides itself in the game's high lethality, with randomly rolled low level characters being extremely fragile to the point where characters are often not even named until they have a couple of levels under their belt. But modern players prefer to create a fully fledged character with a detailed background right from the start, therefore the game takes the randomness out of character generation so you can play the character you want to play; and it dials down the lethality of the game with its rules for incapacitation and poison being specially designed to still give you the threat of death but to make it easy for your companions to rescue you - so you're very unlikely to lose the character you've spent a lot of time on at level one due to a lucky hit or unlucky save. Similarly, modern players want their characters to feel useful at all levels, so I provide cantrip-like abilities to low level magic users so they don't have just one spell per day and I boost higher level martial characters so there isn't so much magic dominance at higher levels (choosing the B/X rules as the basis is a big help there too, since that edition doesn't have the over-the-top high level spells that other editions have). That way neither low level magic users nor high level fighters feel useless.
Additionally, and just as importantly, modern players are much more aware of the problematic colonialist and racist tropes that D&D still struggles with even in today's editions, and Light Fantasy does its best to remove these tropes from the game.
So the game is designed for modern players like myself who want to play with the simpler rules of older games but don't want to have to put up with the tropes and playstyles that are baked into those rulesets.
Q. I want to ask about one of the big elephants in the room, one that you directly address and that will likely cause some in the OSR to react negatively about your project: the colonialist themes that run through D&D. So much of the themes of D&D are based upon colonialist tropes, especially my beloved hexcrawl format. Can you talk about this, and give us a broad overview of how you've tried to address the issue? A. D&D has always been very colonialist at heart. The basic premise where there's a castle as an outpost of civilisation from which the heroes must tame the surrounding uninhabited wilderness is a staple of D&D, but has no roots in the medievalism that D&D drapes itself in. It's actually a Wild West frontier scenario cosplaying as medieval, with the castle taking the place of the fort in which the European settlers live and the various tribes of orcs and goblins taking the place of the Native American tribes. After all, if you look at actual medieval Europe you won't find any uninhabited wildernesses. Sure there are castles, but every part of the land has been occupied since time immemorial and the conflicts are country against country, not settlers against natives. This isn't just something that is being retroactively read into the rules, there are multiple conteporary quotes from Gary Gygax confirming this Wild West inspiration. Of course, the first big problem with that is that of the non-human populations simply not counting as people. They're just enemies and obstacles that are in the way at best and actively evil and deserving of death at worst, rather than being merely the local inhabitants. The fact that the homelands of goblins and orcs are often referred to as "uninhabited" is pretty telling in itself - they simply don't count as people. That's bad enough, but it's made worse by the fact that the way these people are described uses the same loaded terms that racists have used when talking about indigenous populations throughout our empire-building and colonial history. They are "primitive", "superstitious", "savage" and so forth. The fact that humans get to run the gamut from good to evil and from those living in cities to those living as hunter gatherers, while the various non-human people are almost exclusively described in a way that makes them into monocultures is bad. And those monocultures being given various cultural traits of oppressed real world ethnicities and being described in the same language used by racists to describe those ethnicities makes it far worse. Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that people who like hexcrawling or traditional D&D tropes are racist or wrong or bad people. After all I used many of those tropes myself in Dark Dungeons - it had non-human people relegated from "person" to "monster", gave them monocultural tribal societies with "shamans" rather than clerics, and had extensive rules for castle building and settling wilderness areas, and so on. But the problem isn't in the individual use of any of these tropes. The problem is that the constant use of these tropes and language reinforces systemic racism and stereotypes of tribal people and people who look different from us being lesser than us. As for how Light Fantasy deals with this, the big change is that it treats all people as actual people with equal worth. The "racial classes" from B/X have had the racial aspects removed from them, so they're just classes now that anyone can take; and people of any ancestry can be of any class, with ancestry being like gender in that it informs your character's appearance and roleplay but has no mechanical effect. That has an effect, but what has a bigger effect is that there are no people who are treated as monsters. The book's chapter on enemies has no entries for "orc" or "bugbear" or "goblin" or anything like that. It still has all the not-people monsters like griffons and gelatinous cubes and the like, but it doesn't have entries for what are just people. This means no write-ups of orcs talking about their culture as if all orcs have the same culture. You still have people statted up in that section, but they're statted up for their role rather than their race/species. So you will find stats for thugs and guards and nobles and cultists, but those could be elven thugs or orc nobles or catfolk cultists or goblin guards. They are defined by what they do, not who they are. This seems at first glance that it might be limiting because it's removing things from the game, but it actually ended up really freeing. Because I'm not giving stats for specific "monster" people or specific ancestries for characters, it really broadens the scope of the game. If you want to play with traditional Tolkienesque humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs and goblins you can. But equally you can play in a human-only setting, or a setting where everyone is an anthro-species. There's no need to do conversions or tie your campaign down to a specific feel, and different groups (or different campaigns within the same group) can take place in very different campaign worlds. I also provide a sample setting in the game, in much the same way that the original B/X game did, but I'm careful to never mention the species or ancestry of the various cultures that live there so any ancestry can be used as the primary population of any area within it. I'm also careful to make sure that the sample setting doesn't contain frontier areas or "uninhabited" wilderness that's actually populated by indigenous cultures of non-humans. Q. It looks like the setting is Creative Commons, which opens up its use by other authors. Was this intentional? A. Technically it's under the ORC license rather than Creative Commons, but that still makes it open for others to use. This was intentional on my part, but wasn't something specific to the setting. All my games have always been either OGL (and now ORC) or Public Domain, so it was less that I had a reason to make the setting open and more that I didn't have a reason to close it off. I'm not planning on expanding that setting any further than it is in the book - its purpose is to serve as an example of the sort of setting that the game works with, and to provide GMs with a basis that they can start a campaign in and then expand for themselves as needed. As such, I'm absolutely happy for the setting to be open. I make a point of mentioning in the book that I'm not going to add any "canonical" material to the setting that might invalidate anything a GM has added themselves; but of course that doesn't prevent anyone else from adding whatever they want for their own use or to give to others. Q. Finally, can you talk a bit about your plans going forward? You've always seemed to be more focused on system rather than setting or adventures, and I'm wondering about your plans once Light Fantasy is done; will you be returning to it, or moving on to something new?
A. I tend to prefer "one and done" games where the whole game is self-contained in a single book rather than drip-fed over supplements, and I also know that rules are my strong point. That's not to say that I can't run great adventures - at least my players tell me they're pretty great, but that might just be so that I keep GMing and they don't have to take a turn! However, my GMing style is very improvisational, and I tend to either make things up as I go along based on a few bullet-points or take a published adventure as a starting point and then riff on it and weave in and out of it as we go along. That style of GMing is fun, but it isn't very conducive to writing pre-plotted adventures that are much more than a simple dungeon.
With respect to forward plans, I have another game in the works currently, which is Advanced FASERIP - a second edition of my FASERIP game. That's almost complete, and I just left off to see the Light Fantasy Kickstarter through before going back to it. I do have plans to return to Light Fantasy, though. I'm always a little gun-shy about announcing things in advance, because for every game I complete there are at least three or four that stall at the concept or writing stage, so take this as aspirational rather than concrete; but Light Fantasy is actually filling two niches for me.
The first is all about taking old rules and bringing them up to date for modern play style, but the second is that for a long time I've toyed with wanting to do a modern fantasy or science fantasy game based on D&D. That's usually stalled because most editions of D&D have a big multiversal cosmology with astral and ethereal and elemental planes and spiritual outer planes; and demons and devils and the like. While those are all fine for a fantasy game, they really tend to get in the way for a modern game or sci-fi game. Demons and devils and the like tend to interact weirdly with modern religion, as do outer planes full of spirits of the dead. Similarly, planar travel also tends to get in the way of space travel.
It's not an impossible hurdle to overcome, you just have to be ruthless about removing those aspects of the base game when you're adapting it. But I've always found that very unsatisfying. If I want to play D&D in space, I want to play the whole game, not some cut down version.
So one of the goals of Light Fantasy was to take the B/X rules as a starter, because they have almost nothing in the way of planar travel and demons/devils and things like that which would get in the way of such an adaption, and emphasise that aspect of the game taking out what few references to those subjects do exist. This means that Light Fantasy can serve as a base game that can be expanded into a modern fantasy game and a science fantasy game without those expansions needing to list all sorts of aspects of the base game that you shouldn't include.
So I do have tentative - and they are only tentative, no guarantees! - plans to write Light Modern and Light Space games, each of which builds on Light Fantasy and extends it into the modern fantasy and science fantasy genres.
Secret Bonus Questions
These questions were suggested by others.
Q. The one that jumps to my mind is the negative version of question & answer 3. If you take away the colonialism (good job), what are PCs doing in this game *instead?* Like, what does low-level play look like in Light Fantasy? Mid-level? High-level?
A. It's surprising how little taking out the colonialism actually alters the basic game experience, it's in no way essential to the experience. You still do mostly the same things at all levels; I mean it's not like you suddenly can't fight a bunch of goblins in a dungeon any more. It's just that those goblins won't just naturally be living there. They will have a specific reason to be there such as being in the employ of someone as part of a nefarious scheme, and they won't be the only goblins around - there will be other goblins in the area that don't live in a dungeon and that you don't have to fight (there will likely be some who live in town and maybe even one in the party).
To use an example from my home game, the party started at first level with the village being attacked by a bunch of people. The father of one of the characters - a retired adventurer himself - gave their child a magic ring, told them to hide it because it's what the attackers were looking for and he'd explain later, and then ran to the village's defence only to be captured and carried off.
So the low level adventures were defending the village from attack and then tracking down the father and rescuing him from the mercenaries who had carried out the attack. The father didn't know why the mercenaries wanted the ring, but had found out that it was something to do with his old adventuring party, so the mid-level part of the campaign was then traveling from land to land locating each member of his old party and finding out that each of those also had similar people looking for an item of theirs, and recovering said items while fending off attacks from monsters, mercenaries, and cultists who were all trying to get the items.
And as the campaign neared the end and the party were getting high level, they pieced together the clues - the previous generation of adventurers had defeated a powerful extradimensional entity and banished it, but some of its psychic residue was left in the items they had used in the battle. By this point the party had discovered that there were two separate sets of enemies trying to get the items, one group sent by cultists who worship the entity and wish to use them to bring it back, and another set who were sent by a powerful sorcerer from the lands to the south.
As the campaign reached high level, the party confronted the sorcerer - who had the remaining item the party didn't have - and discovered that the reason he was trying to get the items was because he had also fought the entity in the past and he wanted the items so that he could summon it in a ritual to destroy it permanently. The party agreed to put their differences aside and work with him to destroy it, and so the finale was the party fighting off cultists while the sorcerer summoned the entity, and then fighting the entity and destroying it with the powered up items when it arrived.
I'm not going through this because it's some masterpiece of a campaign. It's not, in fact it's pretty generic as D&D campaigns go. But that's the point. Getting rid of the colonialism doesn't mean you can no longer run this type of campaign. There were lots of non-human enemies in the campaign, including the ones that attacked the village at the start, but they were specifically doing so because they were mercenaries employed by the cult and the sorcerer, not because they were "savage" and it was "in their nature" to raid villages. And there were just as many enemies that were human and dwarven as there were that were goblin and orc.
Getting rid of the colonialism doesn't fundamentally change the sort of thing you do in adventures, it just requires the antagonists to have some kind of proper motive for what they're doing instead of it simply being in their nature to behave like that.
A. Another thing I would ask is unfortunately somewhat generic, because I would ask it of literally everyone doing a clone or remix of D&D: Do you care about creating a system that will produce play that resembles particular works of fantastic fiction? That is, do you want game sessions in your system to resemble a book by, say, Jack Vance or Tolkien, and design to that purpose? Or do you see D&D-offshoot games as being about emulating and remixing, well, D&D? It's definitely the latter. I've been playing and running RPGs for over forty years and I'd estimate that I have around a hundred different games on my shelves and in the attic (I'm very much a hardcopy guy rather than a pdf guy), so at this point if there's any particular fiction I want to emulate in play I've probably already got a game specifically for that fiction. D&D over that time has become its own sub-genre of fantasy with its own tropes, and its that sub-genre that I'm aiming at rather than any particular author. Having said that, the original B/X rules that the game emulates did have very clear influences from the short stories of the pulp magazines that were equal parts fantasy and horror, and many of my own additions have clear inspiration from horror stories and films; which is mostly because I love the aesthetic. It is just an aesthetic, though. Light Fantasy is certainly not a horror game - the monsters in the game would be horrific in the real world, but in the context of the fantasy setting the larger-than-life heroes can much more easily deal with.
Q. If Light Fantasy had a soundtrack, what would it be? A. The soundtrack would be done by Queen, to go along with their Flash Gordon and Highlander soundtracks. That sort of slightly kitsch over-the-top bombastic music that doesn't take itself too seriously would certainly evoke the feeling of the way I run the game.