Malcolm Craig is the brains behind the a/state RPG. This e-View was conducted just before a/state was in the shops. Malcolm’s one of those rare people; a Scot who’s moving and shaking in the RPG industry. More information about a/state and Contested Ground Studios can be found here and GameWyrd’s preview of a/state is right here. GameWyrd’s questions appear in strange blue and Malcolm’s answers are in typical black.
1) You’ve been working on a/state for years, it’s going to be released very soon… do you think it’s going to change your life? What will you do with yourself without the core game to work on?
Well, other than writing a/state, I’m pretty busy with other things. A full time job in marketing helps pay for a/state and I also run an alternative music night-club in my hometown of Falkirk. Then there’s the snowboarding and mountain biking, which I haven’t managed to do as much of as I’d like to recently, mainly because of spending a lot of time on a/state. Once the game is out, there won’t be any resting on laurels. There’s supplements to finalise, correspondence to be entered into and, most importantly, supporting those gamers out there who have spent their hard earned cash on the game.
2) Those of us who know about a/state are chomping at the bit to get at it but the harsh truth is that most gamers out there haven’t even heard of the game. Do you honestly think you can change that or are you doomed to be a small Scottish company with a little known RPG?
I think it’s a harsh truth faced by any small business, not just a small games company. The only way to effect any kind of change is to get out there, be proactive (God, I hate that word!) and try and build a fan base. We’ve been very lucky so far in that we’ve managed to build a core following for the game, mostly of people who are really enthusiastic about the concept. It’s immensely gratifying when people come with their own ideas for the game, contribute to forums or send stuff for the Mire End Tribune (our newsletter/mini-supplement). However, there still remains the problem of expanding beyond a core audience and making the game something more than a cult thing. Without spending vast sums on advertising, the only really effective way to do this is through word of mouth and effective PR. A personal recommendation is worth any amount of glossy advertising. All this having been said, a gothic-horror SF RPG isn’t going to capture the same size of market segment as, for example, traditional fantasy. We don’t take this as a bad thing, establishing a niche and making a/state a viable brand within that niche is a good thing.
3) How would you respond to people who roll their eyes and make sarcastic comments about “another gritty sci-fi game from a British company”?
And which particular gritty sci-fi game from a British company would you be referring to, hmmm? I think we all know that there are games out there to which a/state has certain surface similarities. However, a/state is an original concept with many features which set it apart from games which perhaps have a similar dark, urban setting. a/state comes at the SF angle from both ends, the grimy, gritty, steampunk-esque end of the technological, social and cultural spectrum and from the shiny, hi-tech, uber-advanced end. To use literature as an analogy, it’s kind of like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad sat down with M R James and Arthur Machen round at Samuel Delany and William Gibsons house and decided to write a game. Oh, and Mervyn Peake popped round with pizza part of the way through and Cordwainer Smith stood outside the window shouting helpful suggestions.
In many ways, there seems to be a particular talent in the British games industry for writing darker, more gritty RPGs. Perhaps it’s the rain. Maybe it’s the railway system. Perhaps it’s temperature. Who knows? Personally, I prefer that kind of gaming. I find that ‘fluffy’, ‘safe’ games settings a bit cloying and unrealistic. There’s more satisfaction in a game to be found (in my opinion) playing a character who has to struggle against oppression, greed and the human talent for causing suffering.
4) Characters playing a/state will quickly discover that they can’t leave The City. Is that The Mystery, the key point, the focus of the game? Are you prepared for the risk of this single issue dominating the game?
I agree, it could be seen as a problem having one mystery dominating the game, but to be honest, I don’t see the enclosure of The City as being the single main issue or it coming to dominate play. There are many mysteries, both large and small, within a/state. Some of these are included in order that GMs can come up with their own conclusions about them and integrate them with their own campaigns, others will be used in adventures and campaigns. Players and GMs are encouraged to come up with their own explanations of what is going on.
Returning to the enclosure of The City, to the vast majority of people in The City, it just isn’t an issue. A useful analogy would be that of someone living in medieval Europe. To the majority of people, the Atlantic ocean is a barrier which has absolutely no effect on their lives. Yes, some might have heard of it, but for most it’s just a story. Hardly anyone really cares if it’s possible to cross the ocean or, indeed, if any thing lies beyond it. It’s the same with The City. Most people are simply concerned with the day to day business of surviving. When you have a family of four kids, are on the breadline and work a thirteen hour day in the factories of Burningfell, the deep issues of why people can’t leave The City are really not the first thing on your mind. OK, so player characters might be a different case, but unless a GM makes it the focus of his or her campaign, then it shouldn’t really dominate.
5) Is a/state a political game? Are you making a stab against corporate culture? If Bandai came along and offered you a million pounds plus %10 royalties for life for a/state – would you sell?
Not so much a stab at corporate culture, more of a reflection of political ideals. I’m not some sort of raving anti-capitalist with a soapbox to stand on, I don’t think a game world is really the proper environment for that sort of thing. Now here comes the academic bit: Western liberal capitalist democracy is basically the only system that works on a large scale. If anyone has the time, check out ‘The End Of History And The Last Man’ by Francis Fukuyama which goes into detail on that very subject. While capitalism has a ugly side, it does, in the main, work. Without capitalism, I wouldn’t be able to have the time to write a/state. However, a/state reflects both the ugly and nice sides of the western system. In the game, the macrocorps can be oppressive, destructive, uncaring, manipulative and sinister. Then again, they also provide food, water, power and living space for millions. On one had, they can be perceived as ‘evil’ while on the other hand, they actively preserve the lives of many people. I prefer not to see a/state as having strict distinctions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, there is no black and white division in the game. Everything comes in shades, what one man may see as bad, others may see as necessary to preserve something good. Many games employ strict divisions in order to give the characters motivation. High fantasy generally employs a strict good/evil symbolism so that the characters can go “Aha! It’s the evil wizard! We are good, therefore let us smite the foe!” Whereas in a/state it’s all down to individual perception. In the scheme of things, the game is all about hope. Referring to the rules system for a moment, characters improve more quickly by engendering hope in people, communities or even the entire city than by going around shooting people and stealing stuff. Consequences play a big part in the game: “Open fire!” shouts an over-zealous player. Cue massed gunfire in a confined urban environment. How many shots actually hit the target during the confusion? Not many, I’ll bet. So who do they hit? Through rotting brick walls and in to a small child? Do they take out a mother who is the only person in a poor family who earns a wage? How do they deal with such things? How do their actions affect people? These things are important because in essence, a/state is firmly rooted in human affairs, in the life of the person on the street.
What would I do if Bandai came along waving cash and promises of fame and fortune? Find a pier and invite them to jump off the end of it. When you deal with a big corporation, you end up losing a lot of intellectual and artistic freedom. If a/state was published by a big company, it wouldn’t be the same game. The darkness would become lighter, the language would have to change and elements would be removed wholesale. I have to admit that there are elements within the game which are harsh and often unpalatable. Some of the story snippets which appear before the description of city areas are fairly grim, often dealing in situations which we would rather not confront: murder, prostitution, torture, slavery, degradation, addiction, revenge and violence. These are all fairly unpalatable concepts, but ones which serve to show the darker side of the human character. Then again, there are stories of hope, optimism and resilience in the game. There’s no point in showing the grim side of things without also showing the lighter side of things. As I’ve said previously, the game is primarily about hope. The grimness only serves to show what the characters must struggle against and that what they do helps relieve these appalling situations. If another independent games company came along with a bigger budget and a desire to have a/state as one of their product lines, then we’d be happy to talk to them.
6) What might future supplements going to bring to the game? Is technology going to improve over time in the game? Are you going to answer or introduce mysteries?
To answer your questions in order, we do have a slate of supplements planned for a/state. The first of these will be relatively small (and cheap for gamers to purchase!) but good value for money. The working titles is ‘The Lostfinders Guide To Mire End’ and focuses in greater detail on the burgh of Mire End which is featured in the main book. It’ll be the first in a series of guides which will give greater depth of detail on individual areas of The City. Now, some might say these will just be a rehash of stuff in the main book but honestly they won’t be! In the main book, you get about two pages on each area, in the guides, you’ll get 32 pages, with maps, NPCs, locations, organisations, adventure nuggets and a full short adventure set in that area and utilising all the new stuff mentioned in the guide. Bigger supplements (and these are all working titles) include ‘Avenues & Alleyways’, ‘Captive Market’ and ‘The Once Before’. ‘Avenues & Alleyways’ goes into more detail about The City as a whole and introduces at least twenty new burghs, parishes and areas of interest such as the chaotic Dark Cross Railway Yards, the claustrophobic Crouch Lanes and the terrifying Soulsgate Debtors Prison. ‘Captive Market’ goes in to detail about the macrocorps, giving personalities, products (although it’s not an equipment guide!) and adventure ideas. ‘The Once Before’ will be a very big campaign pack which will go into some of the deep mysteries of The City.
As for technology, it’s pretty static in The City. In many cases, there’s no need or desire to improve things. The rate of progress is very slow, there have been very few advances in the last few centuries and things have reached a state further progress is very unlikely. It’s interesting to see players reactions to technology in the game. Many expect instantaneous communication, with mobile phones and the like, but as radio won’t work in The City, it’s a much more cumbersome than that. Imagine using a 19th century telephone exchange or telegraph system. Now imagine thousands of those all jumbled together, connected by a chaotic, impenetrable communications network. Makes communication a lot more difficult, which means the PCs have to rely on more subtle (or not so subtle), methods of sorting things out.
Will mysteries be answered? Yes, to a certain extent. There’s no overarching metaplot or story arc in place which is going to screw up a GMs campaign at some point but yes, some of the mysteries may be answered. Or perhaps clues will be given which will allow GMs to integrate answers into their own style of campaign and fit their own conclusions and explanations. Further small mysteries may be introduced, but all the big stuff is already in place: The Shift, the enclosure of The City, The Shifted beings, etc.
7) If the worst happens and a/state doesn’t take off, if people don’t buy it, if you’re left with boxes of the book is that because most gamers just weren’t ready to stop their orc bashing and try something new? Is it their fault?
No, it’s never the game buying publics fault. In the end, it’s their decision whether or not to spend their money on our game. If it doesn’t appeal, then people won’t buy it. A game can fail because of many reasons: it’s shit, it’s not publicised properly, it doesn’t hit the market at the right time, etc. Now, we know our game isn’t shit, so that isn’t going to be a problem. However, getting the name of the game out there is a big thing. It’s all a matter of constantly dripping out publicity, gaining positive attention and so on. So many brilliant games have never achieved the success they deserve because they just didn’t fit in with the mood of the time. Then again, some games which really aren’t that great manage to achieve huge success for totally inexplicable reasons. We’re convinced a/state will be a success, mainly with more mature gamers who are looking for a more thoughtful, dark, character driven style of game. a/state should have broad appeal because of the scope of the setting. I say should, because until the game is actually released, you just can’t make any kind of call on whether or not it’s going to sell.
People play the kind of games they want to play and there’s very little you can really do to influence that. My experience from promoting a/state is that some gamers are very narrow-minded (I use the term in a purely descriptive, not pejorative, sense) in what they want to play. Some people have asked about a/state, then turned away as soon as they find out it’s not fantasy. Others have been interested by the SF elements, but turned off by the gothic horror aspect. Then again, there have been many people who have been intrigued by the setting and its combination of tropes from different genres. To be honest, calling the game “SF Gothic Horror” is a tag of convenience, using terms which are easily recognisable. I’d have preferred to have just stated that a/state is “weird fiction”, but many people would be wondering what on earth I was on about. Categorising stuff has always kind of bothered me: “Oh, it’s a fantasy game” or “Oh, it’s a horror game” and statements like that tend to lose their meaning when faced with settings which blur the boundaries between commonly accepted genres. a/state has elements of the accepted genres of science fiction, horror, crime story, scientific romance, classic literature and so on. So how do you describe it? Well, I’ll stick to weird fiction for the time being.
8) What/Who have been your main influences from the gaming industry? Who’d you most like to work with?
In terms of what games I’ve enjoyed playing, stuff like 2300AD, Living Steel, MegaTraveller, Skyrealms of Jorune, CORPS, Blue Planet, Call of Cthulhu and Cyberpunk has always provided good gaming experiences. Bit of an SF bent there, but that’s primarily what I’ve been into since I was a kid.
Games writers whom I’ve admired include the likes of Marc Miller (Traveller, 2300AD, etc), Jeff Barber (Blue Planet), Dave Allsop (SLA Industries) and Greg Porter (CORPS, Timelords, EABA, etc). I like their work for a variety of reasons, for example I think that Jeff Barber (along with Greg Benage) created one of the most innovative and interesting SF gaming worlds for years with Blue Planet.
Who would I like to work with? Pretty tough one that, as it’s hard to say if you’d like to work with someone without having had some sort of personal contact. He’ll probably give me a kicking next time I see him at a convention, but I’ve always liked the writing Gareth Hanrahan has done (you may recognise his name from such games as Blue Planet). His adventure ideas are always interesting, so that’d be one person. As for others, to be honest I don’t know.
9) If you could take back time and do something differently with respect to a/state and Contested Ground Studios – what would it be?
I’d like to know all the stuff I know now about printers, distributors, fulfilment houses and the games industry before I start down the route of producing a game. Honestly, it’s been a real learning experience. If anyone out there is thinking of going the same route, please drop us a line (at [email protected]) or (if you’re close to hand) buy us lunch! We’ll tell you the horrific truth and hopefully allow you to avoid all the pitfalls which have plagued a/state. Our initial naivety and lack of experience has been one of the things which has made getting a/state to print such a drawn out process.
10) What makes a/state better than any other game out there?
The free cheese slices we’ll give away with every copy.
In all seriousness, the game that’s better than all the others out there is the game that you enjoy the most. a/state has an intricate, persuasively detailed, coherent, mystery-filled, rich background that has been created to offer as many possibilities as possible. Is it better than any other game out there? Only the games buying public can answer that. I think it’s better, in setting terms, than a lot of games out there, but then again, their designers would probably say that as well!
(GameWyrd notes – We’re in the Out of the Box section now. A couple of unusual questions for which we expect unusual answers!)
11) You just happen to find and open an old bottle. A genie pops out and reassures you that it’s an entirely honest genie and won’t pervert your wishes, of which you have three, at all. What do you dare wish for first?
Wish 1: All laminate flooring everywhere in the world would disappear, never to return.
Wish 2: People would stop misusing the word ‘tranche’.
Wish 3: I’d wish for peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Bollocks I would! I, like any other rational person, would wish for a gigantic pile of cash. Enough to be stupendously rich for ever. Bwahahahaha! Be honest, faced with a genie and three wishes, who isn’t going to ask for vast wealth? I mean really, come on. And the first thing I’d spend it on would be an insanely modified Nissan Skyline GT-R R33 with the full NISMO treatment and 600bhp under the bonnet. Bit of a car geek, really.
12) You’ve been given a suitcase full of small white d6. The challenge is to use them in such a way that gets you into the news – the more coverage the better – what do you try first?
I’d write a reality TV show called ‘Do Or Dice’ in which contestants are given a suitcase full of small white dice and have to think of ways to use them to get into the news. Then I’d nick their ideas and write them here.