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Cats 1, Dolphins 0: An Interview with Keith Baker


During the course of my career in the games industry, I have had the good fortune to work with a huge number of talented people – sometimes more than once. Keith Baker is one of those people, and over the coming months I hope to feature others.

 

I first met Keith in 1995, when I went to work for a Georgetown, DC multimedia house called Magnet Interactive Studios. I was working on edutainment-infotainment products that included interactive CD-ROM adaptations of Donald Silver’s One Small Square nature guides; Keith was working on a CR-ROM game for a client who had a great idea about a water-ball orbital station where dolphins programmed computers using sound. That game never saw the light of day, and after we both ended up at Boulder, Colorado MMO shop VR-1 Entertainment in 1996, neither did several other projects, including an audio MUD (think multiplayer online interactive radio drama) and the highly-anticipated pulp-horror MMORPG Lost Continents.

 

Lesser souls might have given up and gone into insurance, but not Keith. In 2002 he won the Wizards of the Coast Fantasy Setting Search with Eberron, which made him a household name in the D&D community. Not content with that, he created the hit card game Gloom for Atlas Games, which has now turned into almost a dozen products and expansions. Now, he has founded Twogether Studios to get more of his games out into the world. The latest one, Action Cats, is a feline-centric storytelling game with crowdsourced images, which could make your moggy a star. Yes, I know: that’s just the way his mind works.

 

But enough from me: Keith is more than capable of speaking for himself.

 

 

 

Hi, Keith, and thanks for this interview. We’ve just seen how I would introduce you – now, how would you introduce yourself?

 

I’m Keith Baker, and I’m one of the luckiest nerds in the world. I got into D&D when I was in elementary school, and from that time I knew that there were people whose job was to make games and I wanted to be one of those people. Of course, I had no idea how to actually get that job. After college, I stumbled by chance into an opportunity to work at a computer game company — the long-defunct Magnet Interactive Studios – where I had a chance to work with many RPG legends, like Ken Rolston (Paranoia), Zeb Cook (Planescape), and, of course, Graeme Davis (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Colonial Gothic). This was a great opportunity to hone my skills, and over the course of years I worked my way up to the position of lead game designer.
I worked for a number of other computer game companies over the years, and along the way I finally made inroads into the tabletop industry. I did freelance work for Atlas Games, Steve Jackson, Green Ronin, and Goodman Games. Finally, in 2002, I got frustrated with the computer games industry and decided to try freelance RPG writing full-time. I should have been doomed, but that was the year Wizards of the Coast announced its Fantasy Setting Search — eventually choosing my world of Eberron as the new setting for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5.
The first Eberron products were released in 2004, and the same year saw the release of my transparent card game Gloom. I’ve been tinkering on various projects ever since. In 2014, my wife Jenn Ellis and I founded our own game company, Twogether Studios. We released our first product — the tabletop RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command — in 2016. This year we’ll be releasing Illimat, a classic card game we created with the band The Decemberists, and we’re currently Kickstarting our next game, Action Cats!
 
Eberron still has a great many fans. Tell us how you came up with the idea. Are there any future plans that you can share?
I submitted seven ideas to the Fantasy Setting Search. Eberron was the last of them — one I added in just because it seemed like fun. It incorporates a few things I enjoyed. The first is the idea that since arcane magic in D&D behaves in a scientific manner (it’s reliable, repeatable, you can teach a spell to another wizard or create a new spell), why wouldn’t it be worked into society in the same way we use science? How would the world evolve with magic as a tool instead of in the hands of a few wizards? I blended this with two themes I enjoyed, film noir and pulp adventure. This was further influence by the fact that between 1999 and 2002 I’d been working on a pulp-themed MMORPG called Lost Continents – so I had pulp on the brain.
At the moment Eberron is in the WotC vault. I post Q&As on my personal website (keith-baker.com) every few weeks, but I can’t do any more with it until WotC opens it up. I think this will eventually happen, but I don’t know when.
Gloom is a unique game in  many ways: transparent cards as a mechanic rather than just a gimmick; a goal of making your characters miserable and other players’ characters happy; and a quietly twisted sensibility. How did you come up with the idea? What can you tell us about future expansions?
Gloom had two points of origin. The first was that I saw a deck of transparent plastic poker cards and thought If you can print on transparent plastic, I want to make a game that actually DOES something with that. The second was that my significant other at the time had a really hard time with games where she had to do mean things to other people — which meant that when we played such games with friends, she’d always do all the mean things to ME. So – as a longtime fan of Edward Gorey, the Addams Family, and similar things – I made a game where you do NICE things to other people. It was a purely semantic twist, but it worked.
As for what’s next for Gloom, we recently released Gloom in Space, a sci-fi twist on the concept. There are a few things in the works, but nothing I can talk about yet.
The Doom That Came to Atlantic City is another unique idea: it might be described as “Cthulhuopoly.” Its journey to the market was a hard one, but I’m sure anyone who has played the game would agree it was worthwhile. Once again, how did you come up with the idea? How long was it in development before you were ready to Kickstart it? What lessons can other hopefuls take from your experience? Do you have any plans for anything similar?
The original idea for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City came from my friend Lee Moyer. A talented artist and connoisseur of all things Lovecraftian, Lee created a strange blend of Arkham Horror and Monopoly. It was interesting, but not really a game… and as I was a budding game designer, he asked me to take a crack at it. We kicked around various ideas for years before hitting on the final formula: the idea that you were playing the Old Ones themselves, stomping around and destroying the city.
We didn’t originally plan to Kickstart it; we had a contract with Z-Man Games, and it was just about to go to print when that fell through. So we had a game that was basically ready to go to print. When Erik Chevalier came to us and wanted to kickstart it, it seemed like a fairly foolproof idea… but it turns out those fools can be surprisingly clever. Lessons learned: Never get involved in a Kickstarter where you’re not in control and you don’t know the person who is. I trusted that Erik Chevalier was being up front and was an honest person; neither of those things turned out to be true. He lied to Lee and me, and to the backers; he spent the funds on everything but making the game; and ultimately, we had to cancel the project. Cryptozoic came to the rescue, making the game and giving it to backers of the Kickstarter at their own expense. But I’ll never give my name or a game of mine to another Kickstarter campaign unless I know everything about the project and the people running it.
While Doom is a fun game, board games aren’t a primary interest of mine, and I don’t have any particular plans to follow up on it.
Phoenix: Dawn Command was Twogether Studios’ first release. What’s it all about, and what sets it apart from other titles in the increasingly-crowded tabletop RPG market? How do you see that market, and how has that insight shaped your approach to designing, producing, and marketing the game?
Phoenix: Dawn Command is a traditional fantasy RPG. A gamemaster guides a group of players through an unfolding story. You are heroes in a fantasy world besieged by a host of supernatural threats. The dead are rising to prey on the living. There are ghosts, skinchangers, plagues, mass hysteria. You are one of the only people with the power to face these threats, but you may not live through the experience.
But that’s OK, because in Phoenix, death is how your character grows stronger. When you die, you eventually return stronger than before — but you don’t return right away, you don’t return where you died, and you can only return seven times. So each death gives you more power, but it also brings you closer to the end. Phoenix uses cards instead of dice: while there’s still an element of randomness, this gives players more narrative control. You know what your character is capable of, so there’s never a wasted action. If you don’t have the cards you need to pull off a particular action, then you must figure out something you can do with the resources you have in the moment. Alternatively, you have a pool of mystical energy you can burn to push beyond your current limits, essentially buying success… but when you run out of that energy, you die. So in Phoenix, death doesn’t happen because you failed a saving throw or because an orc rolled a critical hit; it happens because you chose to make a sacrifice. Nine times out of ten, deaths in Phoenix feel like a triumph: it lets you have these amazing dramatic moments you just don’t get in stories where death is a failure.
With that said, the tabletop RPG market is a small thing. We overestimated both the demand and our own reach. Phoenix is a beautiful game, and I’m proud of both the design and production. But we have a lot of work ahead of us to get more awareness of it out into the world. We are going to be continuing to support it, but honestly we are still figuring out the best approach, especially given our limited resources as a two-person company.

Illimat is another unique idea, and has done very well on Kickstarter. What’s it all about? How did you come to work with Portland indie band The Decemberists? When will it be available?

 

Many years ago, the band The Decemberists did a promo photoshoot where they were a secret society playing a mysterious game. They made a board for this nonexistent game, took some pictures, and never did anything with it. Fast forward to the future. They’re Gloom fans, and we cross paths over Gloom. They say “We’ve got this weird board… could you make a real game out of it? And could it feel like it might be a hundred years old and people have just forgotten about it? And be a little like a card game and a little like a Ouija board?” And I, of course, said “Yes.”
Illimat has the bones of a classic card game, drawing on games like Cassino and Scopa. But it’s new and different, and has a dynamic twist that will appeal to modern gamers. It’s played on a cloth board, but the game box itself is also a component. You set the box in the middle of the board, and its orientation determines the seasons of the different fields on the board, which in turn determines what can be done in those fields. As you play, you can change the seasons and thus interfere with your opponents’ plans.
I’m very happy with Illimat. I feel it accomplishes all our goals. It feels familiar and compelling to anyone who’s played a classic card game, but it has twists that make it unlike any of those games. And it’s visually beautiful and enigmatic. We expect it to be available in early October.
Action Cats has just been announced. Could I really get my cat (if I had one) featured in the game? Where did this idea come from?
Action Cats is a simple storytelling game. Each card has a picture of a cat on one side and two story prompts on the other side – the beginning and end of a sentence. So one card might say “This cat is a famous game designer…” and “… and would like some appreciation for that.” Each round, the judge takes the top cat and tells everyone what its name is. Everyone else combines two cards from their hand to create a story about that cat, and then presents their story. While you can just let the card text stand on its own: “This cat is a famous game designer”, you’re encouraged to elaborate on the story. Which particular games did this cat design? Did he create Settlers of Cattin’? Call of Cathulhu? Why does he (or she) feel so underappreciated? Like Gloom, this is where the real fun comes in… and the pictures themselves give a lot of inspiration for colorful stories.
This began as a simple idea I just put together to play with friends. I took pictures of my friends’ cats and did a print-on-demand deck. But we had so much fun playing it that we decided to make it a real thing. It’s a simple game, but it’s fun, family-friendly, and great for people who have little experience with games, but who love a cute cat picture. We’re running the Kickstarter campaign now, and we’re keeping it very simple. Anyone who backs the game can submit pictures of their cats, so your cat could be in the game! We aren’t doing any complicated add-ons, and we’re printing the game domestically — so we expect to have the game in the hands of backers by the end of the year! The Kickstarter only runs until August 1st, so if you want to get in on it, act now!
Is there anything else we should know about Twogether Studios? What does the future hold?
Jenn Ellis and I officially launched Twogether Studios in 2014. I’ve been making games for decades, but while I might love game design, I have no head for business. Jenn’s history is in product development, and she’s the people and products side of Twogether: I come up with games, and she makes them real. While our products – Phoenix, Illimat, Action Cats – are extremely diverse, they’re all games that bring people together, and they all share an element of whimsy and creativity. In the immediate future, our focus is on supporting Phoenix and getting the other games into the hands of backers and stores, but we’re always thinking about our next project!

What is your favorite monster from all of mythology and gaming? Why?

 

It’s a hard choice, especially because gaming often messes up the myths – such as the rakshasa that can be killed by an enchanted crossbow bolt, thanks to Kolchak the Night Stalker. I have a fondness for D&D‘s medusa thanks to my novel The Queen of Stone, but again, that’s a very different entity from the gorgon sisters of Greek mythology… though I do love the name “Euryale”, and I’ve used it in a few different places. I like exploring aspects of creatures that often get overlooked. In the case of the medusa, I liked thinking about what it means to have living hair. Can the medusa control her hair, or is it like a cat’s tail, an instinctive indicator of mood? Can she see through the eyes of her hair?
But if I had to pick just one, I might pick the Yule Cat of Iceland. Because it eats children if they don’t get new clothes for Christmas, which is the best excuse ever for why you should be GLAD you got socks as a present.

 

What do you read for inspiration? For fun? 
I love mythology and folklore from almost any culture, both for entertainment and inspiration. I’ve enjoyed some modern reimagining of such stories, such as Kat Valente’s Deathless. History is always useful; at the moment I’m reading The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk.
What do you watch for the same reasons? What do you never get tired of re-watching, and why? 
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones. It has its ups and downs, but it’s generally fantastic fantasy. I’ve gotten a little worn out from all the superhero shows, but I loved Legion, and I’ve already re-watched that, some episodes more than once. I love the writing, the cast, and the general approach of being a show set in a world of mutants that’s not in any way a superhero show. I loved both Fargo and Mr Robot, again because of the plotting and writing. And I’ll always go back to The Middleman for a laugh.
Re-reading, same question?

The Dictionary of the Khazars (Milorad Pavic) and the Irish epic The Tain. I enjoy the style of each, and there’s always something new in The Dictionary of the Khazars. And if I’m working on something for Eberron, I’ll often go back to The Big Sleep, which I definitely prefer in written form.

Many thanks to Keith for taking the time out for an interview in the middle of so many game projects! You can find him online here:

What are you still doing here? Go and check out Action Cats right now!