Geek Native regrets giving John Tanoswski, aka RPGPundit, this interview. Better research before agreeing to this interview would have revealed a tense past. Future events, including harassment allegations, have been disturbing.
The RPGPundit is a game author with titles like “gnomemurdered” and Lords of Olympus” from Precis Intermedia as well as “Forward… to Adventure!” from Better Mousetrap Games among his credits. He also operates one of the most popular roleplaying forums at theRPGsite.com.
Bedrock Games’ forthcoming “Arrows of Indra” will be the latest book to carry his name and in this interview, the RPGPundit discusses the game and the rise of the Old School Renaissance.
If you had the duration of an elevator ride to describe Arrows of Indra to a cynical and time poor roleplayer – how would you do it?
Arrows of Indra is the same fantasy game you played back when you were young, only instead of medieval fantasy world its a more exotic Epic Indian fantasy world. Its old-school, so you can make make characters very quick and get right into the action, and the action is going to be a lot like the high adventure you always enjoyed, only it’ll seem fresh and new to you because of the change of scenery. You totally don’t need to know anything about Indian history, religion or myth in order to play the game, or anything outside of what’s in the book in order to GM it.
If you had the same amount of time to describe the game to a potential future gamer – how would you do it?
Its a game where you play a heroic adventurer in an exotic world; you make your character (who might be a fighter, a mystic, a thief or assassin, a venerable priest or even a monkey-man! among others) and the GM provides the world in which you play and runs the threats that you face. Like in a lot of video games, you go on quests, kill stuff, get treasure, but here you have way more freedom to do all kinds of things that might come to mind.
The game is based on the Age of Heroes myths from India. How familiar do players need to be with those stories to enjoy the game? What about the GM?
They don’t need to be familiar at all; even the GM won’t need to be familiar outside of what he reads in the book. Of course, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going and looking into the Mahabharata, ancient vedic myths, etc. But none of that is required; this is a fantasy RPG, not an exercise in amateur anthropology or linguistics. Honestly, I think anyone who’s played any fantasy RPG before will have no problem with this, because the archetypes are all ultimately very similar: many of the same concepts of myth from ancient India were present in Persia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. The brave warrior-prince, the holy warrior, the dangerous magician, the holy man, sneaky rogues, epic battles; and of course a lot of the monsters of western mythology are descendents of the monsters of indo-aryan mythology: if you’re familiar with Storm Giants you won’t find Maruts very strange, and there are indian equivalents of elves, dwarves, satyrs, animal-men (centaurs, etc), pegasi, etc. And of course, the living dead and demons (lots and lots of demons). So it will all be quite familiar, only with a twist. My playtesters have all been entertained with discovering creatures that are familiar yet curiously different in certain key ways.
Regarding the Mahabharata itself, the Players and GM need not have familiarity with the text; the setting itself is what you could call a “parallel fantasy world”, which is set up at a certain point in the chronology of the Mahabharata (before all the really big events take place, so right when things could start to happen). The appendix includes a chronology of how future events would play out more or less in accord with the Mahabharata story, but GMs are under no obligation to play things out that way at all; if they want to things can play out completely differently.
What sort of atmosphere are you trying to create with the game? Is this heroic fantasy that doesn’t worry itself about the morales of a caste system?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I aimed to recreate the culture of the Epic Indian world; so this is not just western (much less modern) values in “Indian drag”. Caste exists, for example, and has both mechanical and social effects on the PCs. Clan is also hugely important and becomes significant in play unless the GM really chooses to gloss over it. How these sorts of things work (and other details like customs, religious practices/taboos and codes of civil law) are detailed in the game and become an interesting part of play, and its assumed that players should try to buy into the cultural assumptions of the setting. Where I chose to draw the line, essentially, is in going into such minutiae that it actually makes the game less playable; so the first concern is playability, and the second but still very important concern is to try to give the feel of what the society of that world is like. The setting is certainly heroic fantasy, but not one where you ignore the realities of the world (similar, in that sense, to what Greg Stafford did with the Pendragon game).
If you’re asking about whether the game tries to address the moral questions of things like caste from a modern point of view, however, the answer is no. In real life I definitely don’t believe in or advocate things like caste systems, slavery, etc (I would think that would be obvious), but the game presumes that the players will immerse themselves in that world and the point of view that their characters would have from living in it; there are certainly many opportunities for moral dilemmas for PCs in the game, but I think its much more interesting when those dilemmas are based on the moral questions that people actually living in that society would have had, rather than trying to impose 21st century western values on an ancient fantasy setting.
Arrows of Indra uses a random character generation system. Is this a favourite old school method of yours? Or does this reflect on the happenstance of birthrights in the game?
I think a game that doesn’t have random character generation couldn’t properly be called old-school. And yes, I vastly prefer it over point-buy. Random character generation is fast, a bit unpredictable, and it means that you’re dealt a set of stats first and then have to come up with what the character would be like based on these; which ends up impulsing people toward much greater creativity. Often, people end up playing and enjoying characters that they never would have thought up by themselves if they had just been told to come up with something first and then spend the points to make a semblance of it.
How do you think the presence of non-human races influence the development of a caste system?
Well not at all, really; as this is actually covered in the epic myths and not something I had to make up; you have to consider that these epic myths assumed that there were all kinds of nonhuman races out there, and addressed them. The caste system is a social structure in civilized human cultures (the “Bharata Kingdoms”, in the setting); barbarian and nonhuman cultures have no caste system or at least not the same type of caste system. So demihumans or barbarians in the game will either be given an assumed caste (for example, those races that are closer to the gods, Gandharvas and Yakshas, will be treated by default as if they were of the higher Brahmin or Kshatriya castes), or they will be outcastes, not belonging to any caste unless they get themselves recognized as such by their deeds or by adoption into a clan.
There is maybe one thing I ought to point out: in the Vedic period, caste was viewed a little differently than it has been viewed in India in the last few centuries; it was a little more fluid; which doesn’t mean that people could run around switching caste willy-nilly, or just declare themselves to be this or that, but that there was slightly more mobility than just a question of pure birthright.
Bedrock Games and yourself worked with an “old school” system for Arrows of Indra. Do you think there’s a growing nostalgia for earlier system styles?
Well, the OSR (Old School Renaissance) is pretty much the hottest movement in gaming today; and certainly a big part of that is nostalgia, I won’t deny it. But another reason why old-school is so big (big enough that WoTC has hired known advocates of Old School as consultants for their new edition of D&D, or reprinted their older editions and opened up their pdf catalogue to huge sales results) is that this type of RPG is more relaxed, faster (character creation takes a couple of minutes instead of sometimes hours), unpretentious, generally more casual and thus more suitable to gamers who don’t have time to pore over 30 books in order to figure out how to play a game or “build” an “optimized” character, and tremendously fun.
Is the RPG industry moving forward or is there a problem with creativity?
The RPG industry is moving forward, and the OSR is a big part of that; the hobby and industry alike are rediscovering the value of regular RPG games, after years of being stuck in the dead-end streets of either high-commitment games that required ultra-fanaticism to buy into (where casual gamers need not apply) or strange and often idiotic “experimental” concepts that sought to actually change the RPG hobby into something different. The most creative games that have come out in recent years have been games that eschew both of those dead-ends and instead create incredible new perspectives on the classic and by far most successful model of RPG; stuff like the amazing Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Stars Without Number, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and many, many more, of which I trust Arrows of Indra will be in good company.
Have you been tracking the D&D Next project? Did any aspect of public design notes around 5e influence Arrows of Indra?
I’m more than just tracking it. I’m a paid consultant for Wizards of The Coast on the project. I wouldn’t so much say that any aspect of the 5e design notes have influenced Arrows of Indra, as that I’ve been advocating for 5e to become a game that would look a little more (mechanically speaking) like Arrows of Indra and other OSR games than the last couple of editions have been.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Well, I’ve just finished seeing through the publishing of my Lords of Olympus RPG, and am about to see Arrows of Indra get printed. So given that, I might be taking a bit of break from working actively on new projects while I help to keep promoting and supporting these two games while they get established. As for the longer-term, I’m not completely sure yet; Lords of Olympus has been a big success and I’ve had a lot of requests that I do new material for it (a lot of people seem to want me to do a “norse gods” version of that game). I likewise might end up doing some support material for Arrows of Indra. As far as new projects are concerned, I think it might be time to move away from epic myth, and try something different. I might someday write up a gonzo sword & sorcery game or setting, IF and only if I feel that I can add something new to that genre (which has had some excellent coverage lately). I’ve also had a lot of people request that I try my hand at a Modern Occult RPG, which is another possibility for me.
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