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Night of the Living Gamer
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Interviews: James Wallis

 
James Wallis, a gamer since the early eighties and originally a journalist by profession, entered the gaming scene through fanzine publication in the UK. He soon moved on to bigger things, working for companies that ranged from Palladium to Games Workshop. In 1994, he formed Hogshead Publishing out of frustration from having a project called Bugtown get tossed from publisher to publisher. Though Bugtown never made it off the ground, Hogshead survived, building a reputation first for reviving Games Workshop's abandoned-but-popular Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and later for establishing the New Style line of short, experimental and widely acclaimed RPGs. Hogshead shows no signs of slowing down, nor does James Wallis, though he took a few minutes from his schedule for an interview with Allan Sugarbaker.

How were you first led astray into the gaming hobby?

Two people dragged me into gaming, both friends of mine at the boarding school I was attending in 1981. One was Angus McIntyre, a Traveller fanatic who had a number of articles and adventures published in White Dwarf; the other was Josh Astor who ran a very hack-and-slashy AD&D campaign, which he cajoled me into joining. Thanks to Angus I quickly discovered that there was more to gaming than rolling dice and sticking swords through Orcs, and although he dropped out of gaming in the mid-80s (he's now doing research for Sony), I was hooked. I started my first fanzine, WEREMAN, about a year later and I've had the writing and publishing bug ever since.

It was an interesting school. Apart from Angus, three other boys there wrote a book called "What is Dungeons & Dragons?" which was published by Penguin in 1983, and another guy, Alex Scott, wrote the Tudor RPG Maelstrom, which was published by Puffin in 1984. Quite a pool of gaming talent.

What led to the creation of Hogshead Publishing?

Hogshead was the result of a lot of different factors coming together at once. A game I'd been developing for about four years (first for Phage Press, and then for Wizards of the Coast) was suddenly left without a publisher. A friend of mine – Andrew Rilstone, one of my co-developers on Once Upon a Time – and I had started up Interactive Fantasy, a serious magazine about games design and storytelling systems, which was doing rather better than we'd expected. I learned that Games Workshop was looking for a company to take over the licence to publish Warhammer FRP. I was looking for a job. I'd been swearing for years that I'd never set up a games company, but it seemed like a lot of coincidences all at once, and it felt right. I've regretted it a few times since: I've had some great times, but it's been a huge amount of work, most of it tedious administration, and I know it's never going to make me rich. But it's definitely fun.

Of the game projects you've worked on, do you have any favorites?

I've enjoyed everything I've ever worked on; if I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't do it. But the stand-out projects have been Once Upon a Time, Interactive Fantasy and Baron Munchausen, all of which have been enormous fun. Actually the big pleasure of both OUaT and BM has been starting with what were originally very small, very personal projects, done for fun because _we_ wanted to play these games, and seeing how the market has latched onto them and made them big successes. I mean, Munchausen is out in four languages, with the contracts for two more signed. And that started as an idea I had in the shower one day.

Actually, it may be a big cliche but the best is yet to come. I am amazingly hyped about three things we're working on right now: Nobilis, which I believe takes conventional role-playing as far as it can go; Youdunnit, which is my follow-up to Munchausen and is designed as a murder-mystery RPG for all the family; and De Profundis, a horror RPG from Poland which we've licensed, and which is like nothing I've ever read before. This game scares me, and not just because of its subject-matter. It's another New Style game, it'll be 24 pages and $6.95, and I think it'll change the way that a lot of people think about RPGs. It is the most brilliant piece of games writing I've read in a long time – several years at least, possibly decades.

For readers who might not know, could you tell us the tale of the infamous Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay supplement, Realms of Sorcery?

It's a long story; I'll try to keep it short. When Warhammer FRP was released in 1986, its magic system was a bit skimpy and an expansion called "Realms of Sorcery" was promised – in the rulebook – as "forthcoming". Games Workshop did actually commission this book from veteran RPG writer Ken Rolston, but they rejected the manuscript he turned in. If you look at it, you can understand why: it's a great magic system, but it doesn't fit with the Warhammer background at all.

When we took over the licence in 1995, one of the first things we did was commission a completely new version of Realms of Sorcery from Ken and Jo Walton, who at the time had just finished GURPS Celtic Myth. I won't go into the details of exactly what's happened between then and now, other than to make mention of manuscript rejections by GW, divorce, serious injury, and a great deal of editing. What I can tell you is that we FTPed all the files for Realms of Sorcery – about 750mb – to the printer yesterday, and it should be released before the game's fifteen-year anniversary in November. It's 256 pages, covers all aspects of magic in the Old World from low-level hedge-wizardry right up to the new fifth-level Imperial Colleges of Magic in Altdorf, plus expanded details on stuff like Dwarf runes and Wood Elf magic, new classes and careers such as the Kislevite Shamans and the human Rune Masters, who use an ersatz system of rune-creation stolen from the Dwarfs... there's magic for Skaven, greenskins and others in there, seventy pages of spells, rules for creating new spells and magic items, familiars... it's a vast book, and we are really excited by it.

There'll be a softcover version retailing for $26.95, and a hardcover for $34.95. We were offering a limited-edition of 100 signed and numbered leatherbound copies as well, but I'm afraid those have all sold out already.

What can you tell us about Nobilis?

Apart from the fact that it's breath-taking? It really is an amazingly good RPG; beautifully written, really smooth deterministic mechanics, and huge scope. The background is post-Sandman: you play an enormously powerful meta-being, originally human but recruited by a god to help protect capital-E Existence against those who would warp, subvert or destroy it. You take on responsibility for an aspect of reality, so you can become the Power of Anger, or Knives, or Petrol, or Spiders, or Testosterone, or Artistic Perspective, or whatever you want – you get powers derived from this, but you also have the responsibility of protecting it. It's all set against a background that's half real-world and half mythic reality, with heaven and hell, angels and demons, gods and anti-gods, giant serpent things and beings from beyond.

It's a bit of a head-trip the first time you read it, but the game itself is solid as a rock: the mechanics have a wonderful way of freeing your imagination, rather than restraining it, and that goes for the players as well as the GM (or the "Hollyhock God" as Nobilis has it). It's also a natural for freeform and live-action play. Apart from my regular Ars Magica campaign, it's about the only RPG I'm interested in playing right now.

The book itself is going to be huge. Lots of material in there. It'll also be big-format, 11"x11", hardcover, with amazing design and phenomenal artwork: we have new full-page art from Charles Vess, Michael Kaluta, Bryan Talbot, Raven Minura, Martin McKenna, Denise Garner, Al Davison, Frazer Irving, Ralph Horsley, Lee Moyer... the list goes on. If you're ever looking for a present for a gaming friend, Nobilis is going to be an immediate choice: even if they never play the game, the book itself will be a delight. One of the central themes of Nobilis is beauty, and we're trying to create the first beautiful RPG: beautiful to look at, and beautiful to read. I think we're succeeding.

Hogshead's New Style line has regularly caused a stir in the RPG field, with titles like Violence, Puppetland, and the classic Baron Munchausen. How did the product line come about? Where will NS be going next?

New Style was never planned, it just sort of happened. I set up Hogshead primarily to publish my own game designs, but after three years, it still hadn't produced a single book with my name on it. And I'd been trying to design a Baron Munchausen RPG for years, a conventional game where the players play either the Baron or his companions, and it had never come together. Then one morning I was in the shower, thinking about the game, and realised that the Munchausen stories never actually happen, instead they're narrated over a drink... and by the time I got out of the shower, I had the entire game, the rules, the system, everything. I love it when that happens. What's in the book is the rule-system that came to me that morning, plus a few tweaks from playtesting. Very satisfying.

Anyway, I had no idea how it was going to do. Our initial orders were tiny, but we sold a ton of them at Gen Con and various people started evangelising the game, and it became clear we had a hit. So I started looking around for follow-ups. I knew about John Tynes' Puppetland because I'd read the original version on his website, and Greg Costi- I mean Designer X had actually told me about his idea for Violence back in 1994, before I was even thinking of setting up Hogshead, so I went to them... and that was it, really.

What's next? Youdunnit and De Profundis. They're very different products. Youdunnit is an attempt to prove that the words "role-playing game" and "for all the family" are not mutually incompatible. I specifically designed it to be playable by your Auntie Madge, the one who thinks you're either a Satanist or a conjurer, but who likes to watch mystery thrillers on the telly. It's Agatha Christie meets P G Wodehouse: murderous mysteries with humour. Like Munchausen it has one page of rules – because you are never going to get 99% of people to read more than four pages of rules for a game – but it's scenario- based. I think it's the best thing I've ever designed, by a long way. I've no idea if it'll turn out to be a mass-market product, but if it proves that RPGs can be played and enjoyed by ordinary people, then it'll have been a success.

De Profundis is aimed at the other end of the market, the true hardcore. It's the most intense RPG product I've ever read. I'm not saying too much at this stage, but it will disturb you and it will upset a lot of people. Compared to De Profundis, Violence was a kid in kindergarten shouting "Pee! Poo! Botty! Bum!" I'll start saying it now: people who are not sure of their mental stability should not play De Profundis, because it's the sort of thing that could actually drive someone over the edge. It's a _dangerous_ game.

Our resident gamebook fanatic would like your response to the following three words: Sonic the Hedgehog.

Ah, that little blue bastard. (I'm talking about your gamebook fanatic there, obviously.) Yeah, okay, I'm not proud. Back in the early 1990s I did a couple of Sonic the Hedgehog solo-gamebooks for Penguin Books, which sold pretty well. I looked through them again earlier this year and they still stand up, considering I was trying to make a coherent interactive narrative out of a platform game. Subsequently – and your correspondent may not know this – I teamed up with Carl Sargent and Marc Gascoigne to produce four more Sonic books, novels this time, for Virgin Publishing, under the pseudonym of 'Martin Adams'. They were fun projects to work on, the money was okay, and I got to buy a Sega Megadrive (Genesis to you) and claim it as a business expense. So hurrah and all that.

Also from our gamebook fanatic: How do you feel about the collapse of the Fighting Fantasy books and their ilk, and do you feel solitaire role-playing has a future (perhaps in the New Style line, which already has a reputation for genre-bending)?

I'm sad to see Fighting Fantasy and solo gamebooks decline, but I think their time has passed: computers, and the web in particular, do hypertext storytelling so much better and more transparently than print media, and video games can now deliver the same kind of thrills that people were getting from the books much more easily.

What frightens me is that tabletop RPGs are well on their way to becoming as obsolete as solo gamesbooks are, but there's a complete resistance to change among the core gaming community – instead of capitalising and working with the things that make RPGs great and unique, things that computers can't do, people would rather retreat into new backgrounds, new systems of mechanics and more what I call "stupid dice tricks". In this regard d20 is a horrible, horrible step backwards... well, okay, not backwards, but there was an opportunity to turn RPGs into a gaming medium for the twenty-second century, and it was completely missed. Which isn't to say that D&D3e and d20 aren't good games, they are, but they're utterly conventional. And if I was fourteen, with two hundred bucks in my pocket, there's no way I'd buy the D&D3e rulebooks, the Forgotten Realms background and some adventures. I'd get a second-hand Dreamcast, and copies of Shenmui and Phantasy Star Online.

So, as I say, we're worried about the long-term health of the hobby. This is one of the things the New Style line is about: emphasising aspects of RPGs that most mainstream games are ignoring, and showing that it's possible to make amazing games out of them, games that newcomers to gaming will find as fascinating and unique as I found AD&D in the early 1980s. Baron Munchausen is a game that you could never teach a computer to play. You could design an interface for people to play it against each other online, but no computer is going to be able to compete against a human opponent at a game like Munchausen, or Pantheon, or Once Upon a Time, for twenty years at least. Whereas computers have been doing the job of a GM since the late 70s, with the original Colossal Cave adventure, and are only getting better at it.

So how would you have done D&D 3 (and D20) differently, to better take RPGs into the next century?

You know, I wondered if you were going to call me on that.

I think the bottom line is that I wouldn't have taken the job, because that's not what I'm interested in. For me, D&D3e – and d20 for that matter – are like the updates to classic arcade games that Hasbro put out a couple of years ago: Pong with animated character-bats and penguins, Frogger with 3D platform-based screens, Centipede with whatever irrelevant bells and whistles they bolted to that. I have to say that that the D&D3e designers did a much better job than the creators of those pointless abominations but the bottom line remains the same: the scope and possibilities of gaming have got far beyond updating what was available in the 1970s, and that's what I want to explore. I only wish the market had got beyond it too.

D&D3e is an excellent game, and the designers did a fantastic job with it: not only with the innovations that they introduced, but also with their good taste in the – ahem – other RPGs that they chose to inspire them. I also recognise that they were faced with a really difficult job, a balancing act between making the game more satisfying for existing players, or easier to enter for new players. That, I think, is where they fumbled.

If I can digress for a moment – this will return to the point eventually, I promise – my big design struggle, the thing that keeps me awake at night, is the trade-off between simplicity and structure. Everyone likes simplicity. Nobody except the sort of people I try to avoid at conventions wants more rules for the sake of rules. On the other hand, rules are the framework around which an RPG's gameplay – the play of most games, in fact, but narrative games in particular – is built. Take away too many of an RPG's rules and you start to lose that structure.

Existing players, people who already know how to play an RPG, how to run a game, how to write an adventure, don't need so much structure because they already know it. New players, on the other hand, require structure. We old-timers forget just how hard it is to learn to be a GM, just how scary your first adventure can be when you have no clue what you're doing; and the rules need to be there to give structure and guidance to both GM and players about how the whole experience of role-playing works.

This is where I do my unpopular rant about how Gygax and Arneson were geniuses because they got it right – the original D&D game is so heavily structured that it's practically asphyxiating. Of course, that's partly because it was a highly-evolved wargame and derived a lot of its structure from that, but it does make learning very easy. Putting it in a dungeon is a master-stroke: there's a limited number of things that players can do in a dungeon, so both they and the DM don't have to be thinking about too many options or possibilities, and in D&D there was a rule to cover all of them. But the dungeon thing isn't in the rules, it's so much part of the basic setting that it's actually in the name of the game. Okay, once you say "It's in a dungeon" then you need subsidiary rules to cover dungeoneering stuff, but I believe that four- word sentence on its own was the key to how people were able to buy the D&D basic set and figure out how to play: it gave the game so much structure.

Without that, without the restrictions that the dungeon setting gave the game, GMs would have been thrown in at the deep end: there's no way that D&D could have provided a rule for every possibility in a city adventure, or a wilderness, or other planes, or whatever. And telling a GM to improvise or make something up is all very well, but someone playing for the first time doesn't know how, and doesn't want to – he wants the game to either do it for him, or to tell him what to do. It's only after weeks or months of play that he'll develop the feeling for how to do it off the top of his head, or writing house rules. Very, very few people can do that stuff immediately.

It's not just D&D's problem, of course. The vast majority of RPGs are designed for existing, experienced players, even the games that claim they're introductory. And this is a real problem for the industry. Role-playing games look great on the shelves, they have great covers, great layout, fabulous ideas, amazing backgrounds... but as games they're simply too complex, too arcane, too much work and too loosely structured for most potential new players to bother with. If you don't believe me, try explaining the idea of role-playing to your relatives. If that's too complex, how are you going to explain to someone you've never met not only how these games work, but how to actually run one?

I absolutely believe that it doesn't have to be that way. We all know how to role-play intuitively, we did it as kids, we do it today unconsciously as part of dealing with different situations in everyday life, it's the easiest thing in the world. I want to find a way to make role-playing games easy to learn and simple to play, and I know it can be done. The complexity of a good RPG comes from the adventures and the characters, it shouldn't come from the rules. But at the same time, the way the game is structured should guide the ebb and flow of play. You don't need volumes of rules to tell people how to play a game; the gameplay itself should be designed to do that.

I'm talking in airy-fairy fragments. Let me give you an example to tie things down a bit: Baron Munchausen. The game has half a page of rules, which boil down to "One person tells a story, and others interrupt him." But the way the game's structure works is that the other players' interruptions are deliberately geared – within the terms of the game – to give the storyteller fresh hooks and ideas for their tale, in a way that they can choose to accept or reject each one. At the same time they also give the storyteller a brief breather from the mental exercise of making up a story from scratch. None of that is mentioned in the rules, because it's irrelevant: people don't have to know why or how that level of the game works, only that it does.

And – this is the crux of this whole digression – is that's a lesson that most role-playing games have never taken on board. All their structure is on the surface, in the rules, and I include D&D3e in that. And most RPG designers seem to think that rules are structure. A reasonably big-name designer reviewed Once Upon a Time in Dragon Magazine, some years ago now, and said it didn't have enough rules.

I believe we're still in the first generation of RPGs: pretty much everything published since 1974 has slavishly followed the design paradigms that Gygax and Arneson created for D&D: GM, players, character sheets, chagen, combat systems, experience and so on. People have made minor breaks away from that, or they've tweaked the details, but almost no game has taken the concept of role-play to a new level, or even tried. And heaven knows the one game that wasn't going to do that was D&D3e because it's a huge legacy system, it has to remain compatible and faithful to what went before, or it would lose vast chunks of its potential audience. Having said that, I still feel it could have made a lot more concessions to accessibility and simplicity.

Of course, the counter-argument to all that is: why mess with a classic in the first place? After all nobody messes with chess or demands the "next step" or "evolution" of that, except Steve Jackson. Okay, fair enough, and let's ignore the fact that I think chess is dreadful, dull and mechanics-heavy. But chess as it's played is far from the first abstract strategy game of its type: the game has hundreds of generations, over a thousand years of development, behind it. I mean, the first identifiable forerunner of chess was a four-player dice-based game. And I believe the RPG field has got hung up on its equivalent of that four-player dice game, and asking "Should we use the dice differently?" – which is, let's face it, the biggest innovation that a lot of RPGs can offer – is not getting us anywhere.

I can really blather sometimes, can't I?

Hogshead has certainly developed a reputation for publishing some of the most unusual and interesting RPGs around. What's the most exciting thing you've seen lately that you're not in any way responsible for?

Good question. I've got a lot of respect for the guys at Anoch: Mystick is a very cool card-game, and I really look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Meanwhile... my eyes turn east more than west, I have to admit: the French are producing some prodigiously beautiful games – there's a thing called L'Or Des Contes which is simply mind-blowing – and the Scandinavians too. And Poland: I was over there earlier this year for a convention, and there's an amazing atmosphere among the designers there, as if they've just realised that there are no limits any more. De Profundis is the first Polish game that's been translated into English, but there will definitely be others. Their take on gaming is unique. The revolution has already started over there.

The Dying Earth RPG is a really superb piece of work: it's a conventional RPG but you can feel it straining at the leash, trying to be more. There's no question in my mind that Robin Laws is the finest designer working in the industry today: he refuses to be limited by prior art. Rune is another example of a piece of his genius: a competitive, multi-GM RPG that really works. Gorgeous.

I'm very interested to see what Guardians of Order do with Tekumel/Empire of the Petal Throne: it's one of my favourite game backgrounds ever, but no publisher has ever managed to make it commercial. It's too rich and rare, there's too much information to assimilate, and a lot of it is too alien, even for veteran GMs and players. I really hope they make a success of it.

What was the most profoundly satisfying moment that gaming has provided you with?

Let's just say that being a published games designer can have... ah... satisfying benefits and leave it at that, shall we?

Or did you mean while gaming? That would have to be the first playtest of Munchausen, at a convention in Cambridge back in 1997. I had absolutely no idea if the game would work at all; there was a very high chance, I thought, that it would fall completely on its face. And it was the moment when an eight-year-old kid, who hadn't even been there when I was explaining the rules, joined in the circle of players and, when his turn came, made up this amazing story, a really perfect Munchausen anecdote, and handled interruptions so deftly and expertly... that was the moment when all my theories of narrative and structure and simplicity and development, everything I'd pontificated about in Interactive Fantasy and in convention panels on the future of gaming - they all came together in the real world, and I had a big stupid grin all over my face for the rest of the evening.

Visit Hogshead Publishing

[Update: James Wallis shut down Hogshead Publishing in late 2002 and left the industry for a few years. Read the (often compelling) reasons Wallis gave for his departure in OgreCave's exclusive interview from November 26, 2002.]

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