Steve Jackson is one of the luminaries of the role-playing industry, having been around and publishing since the late 70s/early 80s. His GURPS system is possibly the best known, and was certainly likely one of the first, universal role-playing systems. Of particular interest to readers of this blog, however, is The Fantasy Trip. The game, designed as a modular, mini-game with role-playing components, was way ahead of its time, and is often compared to D&D 4e with respect to the tightness and quality of the ruleset. Steve regained the license to publish the Fantasy Trip in 2017, and in 2018 Kickstarted a successful reprint of the game. In addition to this interview, Steve was recently a guest on the Wobblies and Wizards podcast.
Question: For folks unaware of TFT, can you give a brief elevator pitch of the game? Retroclones are really popular right now; what about the Legacy edition of TFT sets it apart from the bulk of (D&D-influence) clones.
Answer: Well, it started as a hex-based combat system for fantasy games; we still sell the standalone magic game, Wizard, and we give the combat game, Melee, away for free as a PDF. Success with skills or magic uses a 3-die roll; that is also the roll to hit a foe. The base game uses only d6, though polyhedra have crept into some encounter tables and so on. We publish a zine, Hexagram, about three times a year, and a variety of support throughout the year.
Q. One of the things that TFT is known for are the micro-adventures (called Mini-Quests originally) that are available for it. You've got a number of these in stock. Can you talk about any of these that really stand out in your mind?
A. The Quick Quests are up to #8 or 9, I believe, with more coming. The idea is to create an adventure setting that can be tied into an existing campaign or used as a stand-alone lasting one or two sessions. I edited them all and like them, but the “bad guys” in the very first one stand out for me . . . they had more development than a lot of PCs do, they’re not inherently evil, and I hope that some GMs keep them around as recurring foes or patrons.
Q: Can you talk about the process of adapting GURPS to a specific world and setting (such as Discworld or Girl Genius) as opposed to a specific genre? I'm curious as what is involved, and what design and aesthetic decisions influence the design of the book. Specifically, what kind of process is involved in adapting GURPS to the tone of the genre or setting.
A: I don’t know if I can give an answer that would help others. The system gives a good underpinning for whatever mechanics are required, and has only a little flavor of its own - it’s like a mild chicken stock that lets the other flavors come through. What is absolutely necessary is to find a writer who can just LIVE the subject,, whether it is Discworld, Ice Age, Revolutionary France, or whatever! We have been fortunate.
Q: I talked a bit with Phil about how he views POD as changing the game industry, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how the industry has changed, especially with the ascension of Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms. Also, have you thought about expanding the third party license to other companies beyond Gaming Ballistic?
A: Between Kickstarter, desktop publishing, and cheap Chinese manufacturing, the barrier to entry for game publishing has nearly vanished. You don’t even need a good idea; you just need to understand Kickstarter marketing. This has produced some fine indie games, and a whole lot of stuff that would never have seen print, let alone found a following, in the market of 15 years ago. Collectors, distributors, and retailers are overloaded with new titles. If you don’t have flashy illustrations, the quality of the design doesn’t matter. And it really helps to include plastic toys.
We would be willing to consider other publishers for a third party license . . . if we thought they could be as quality-driven, reliable, and generally excellent as Ballistic has been. I have just granted my blessing to Alvin Helms to do an independent fanzine, which he will call GATE. One other one-shot licensed adventure is coming up; I can’t give details yet.
Q: Finally, tell us what you've got coming up? Any products that SJ Games has in the works, but also specifically what you've got planned for the Fantasy Trip in the next few years. Also, a friend wants me to ask if you've got any plans to follow up with some sci-fi stuff for TFT, like what was introduced in MQ #5.
A: The big release for the next few months is the very-long-awaited TFT Bestiary. It finally settled at 192 pages. I am working now on what I think will be my final editing pass. There will be several more Quick Quests, since the response to those has been good. Also coming up soon are The T’reo School, a sourcebook about an academy of combat magic; a few solos of various sizes; The Rose Labyrinth, an adventure setting with color maps and a sheet of lore. There will also be more STL miniatures; the next set will be Foes 2. Farther out on the horizon are a couple of possible collections of longer adventures.
I have no plans to do SF stuff in TFT. I don’t think it’s a great fit, and fantasy keeps me busy!
As to other releases from SJ Games: Recent “big deal” releases were the Munchkin “Batman” game and the new edition of Car Wars.
Kickstarting later this year are reprints of two classics to which we were able to obtain the rights: Tom Jolly’s Wiz-War, and Groo, the Game, based on Sergio Aragones’ character. Both of those have been out of print for a very long time and I’m excited to have them back.