Archive

Posts Tagged ‘roleplaying games’

Zoats: From Warhammer to 40K (and back again)

March 28, 2020 6 comments

 

 

A little while ago, I wrote a post about the Ambull, a Warhammer 40,000 creature that had a (very) short career in WFRP. I was inspired in part by the Ambull’s reappearance in Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, and back in January Games Workshop revealed a new Zoat miniature for the same game.

 

The Zoat’s history in Warhammer and 40K is a troubled one. Its origins are tied up with those of the Fimir, which the excellent Luke Maciak discussed in a post on his Terminally Incoherent blog a few years ago.

 

In short, Bryan Ansell came in one day with a sketch of a Zoat, and wanted the creatures added to WFRP as a new race which would be distinctive and unique to Warhammer. We already had Warriors of Chaos and the recently-released Skaven, so we writers thought Warhammer and WFRP were pretty safe on that score, and to be honest we didn’t find the sketch too inspiring. By the way, I vaguely remember that Bryan put a note on the sketch giving the pronunciation as “Zow-at.” I don’t know if anyone else spotted that at the time, but we all pronounced the name to rhyme with “goat” and as far as I know everyone else has done the same ever since.

 

Bryan was not discouraged by our lukewarm response to his idea. He told us that Zoats would have to go in, or we would have to come up with something else that satisfied the same requirements. That was when Jes Goodwin, Tony Ackland, and I began to develop the Fimir.

 

 

WFRP1

Zoats from the WFRP 1st edition rulebook. Left: Bob Naismith. Right: Tony Ackland.

 

To be on the safe side, I also wrote Zoats up for the WFRP 1st edition rulebook. Perhaps some memory of The Dark Crystal was rattling about in my brain at the time, because I ended up making them reclusive forest mystics and possible Wood Elf allies. Rules for Zoat allied contingents appeared in Ravening Hordes for Warhammer 2nd edition and Warhammer Armies for 3rd edition, but they never really caught on and by 4th edition Warhammer they were gone. They reappeared in the Storm of Magic supplement for Warhammer 8th edition in 2011, but never re-established themselves firmly in the lore of the Old World.

 

Warhammer Armies

Zoats from Warhammer Armies.

 

 

Zoats did rather better in Warhammer 40,000. The masters for the slow-selling fantasy miniatures were given face masks and futuristic weapons, and they got a new backstory making them a servitor race of the Tyranids. More on their 40K career can be found on the Warhammer 40,000 wiki, and of course that is how they came to Blackstone Fortress, in the form of a single miniature.

 

zoat-2020-1

The new Blackstone Fortress Zoat.

 

 

I don’t expect Zoats will reappear in Game Workshop’s reboot of the Old World setting, or in anything Cubicle 7 publishes for WFRP. Still, for those who may be interested I have done a quick WFRP 4th edition profile for them, based on the entry in the WFRP 1st edition rulebook. Let me have your thoughts. Also let me know if you feel inspired to use Zoats in a WFRP adventure, or if you know of any appearance in an official Warhammer or WFRP publication that I have missed.

 

Needless to say, what follows is in no way official and should be considered a fan work. No challenge is intended to copyrights or trademarks held by Games Workshop, Cubicle 7, or anyone else.

 


 

ZOATS

 

WFRP1_RulebookIn many parts of the Old World, Zoats are regarded as creatures of legend. They are solitary by nature, living in the depths of the most ancient forests. Despite their bulk, they are quiet and reclusive, and can move through the densest undergrowth with hardly a sound. Occasionally, they have dealings with the Wood Elves, and on rare occasions they have been known to make contact with Humans. It is said that they strive to keep the forests free of monsters such as Beastmen and Goblinoids. Ancient Elvish songs tell of single Zoats coming to the aid of beleaguered Wood Elf settlements.

 

Zoats are centauroid in appearance, standing some six feet high and eight feet long. Heavy plates of fused scales cover their shoulders, back, and hindquarters. Their heads are reptilian in appearance, with a broad, slightly domed skull, large eyes, and a wide mouth that gives them a wry expression. Colour ranges from dark brown through maroon to purple. They do not wear clothing or armour.

 

Their characteristic weapon is a long, two-handed mace whose tip is a cylinder of black stone bound in a silvery metal. The head is carved with strange runes that are indecipherable by other races. All Zoats seem to speak a common grinding, rumbling tongue; they may also speak Eltharin and occasionally the local Human language.

 

M WS BS S T I Ag Dex Int WP Fel W
7 59 25 50 50 50 25 43 45 43 40 19

 

Traits: Arboreal, Armour 3 (body/hindquarters, Armour 1 (elsewhere), Night Vision, Size (Large), Stride, Tracker, Weapon +8

 

Optional: Spellcaster (Amber)

 

Zoat Mace

Price Enc Availability Reach Damage Qualities and Flaws
N/A 3 Exotic 3 +SB+6 Damaging, Impact1, Pummel, Unbreakable, Tiring2

 

1. A Zoat Mace wielded by a spellcaster is normally inscribed with a mystical rune that gives it the Impact Quality.

 

2. Only if the wielder’s SB is 3 or less.

 

Great Cats and Elven Beastfriends for WFRP4

March 19, 2020 5 comments

Those of you who have seen the Enemy in Shadows Companion for WFRP 4th edition will have seen a mention of “great cats” in the chapter “On the Road.” This little encounter features a werecat as well – a creature never seen before or since in Warhammer. It all dates back to the very first days of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in late 1986.

I’ve blogged about “On the Road” before, and if you are interested in why and how I wrote this piece you can read all about it here. As the Warhammer setting developed, werewolves and other were-creatures disappeared: to the best of my knowledge, the last mention of a lycanthrope in an official Warhammer publication was in a WFRP 1st edition adventure called “The Howling Season,” published in the Warhammer Companion (which Cubicle 7 has just made available in electronic form). That was published by Flame in 1990.

Lycanthropes in the Old World are a subject for another day, when I have more time than I do today. But since Andy Law just posted an intriguing short article on cats in the Old World – complete with a Henchman career – I thought I’d take a moment to tell you what I know about the great cats of the Old World’s forests.

It started, like most things Warhammer, with a miniatures ad in White Dwarf.

Image result for citadel elf animal keepers

Game stats for Warhammer 3rd edition appeared in Warhammer Armies, with a name doubtless inspired by a fantasy movie from 1982.

Beastmasters

I made sure that the 1st edition WFRP rulebook covered all of these beasts, including the cats. I imagined markings like those of a European wildcat (Felis silvestris), but a size and shape somewhere between cheetah and mountain lion, like the miniatures.

WFRP1 cat

…and I wrote up a Beastfriend career for Wood Elves which appeared in the Warhammer Companion (did I mention that you can get this rarest of WFRP supplements in PDF form? I’m sure I did.) which was reprinted in Apocrypha Now.

Beastfriend illo

And there it ended. The great cats disappeared from Warhammer lore and were forgotten. When the Enemy in Shadows Companion went to Games Workshop for approval, the mention of great cats raised some eyebrows because no one remembered them. A small text box was added to the 4th edition version of “On the Road” for the benefit of surprised readers, along with a stat box for the cats themselves. (Sorry, I’m not going to violate copyright and show it here, but then you’ll already have it in your copy of the Enemy in Shadows Companion – or the one you’ve been meaning to buy, right? Right?)

Well, then, all this is very interesting, but who cares, really? I suppose it depends on whether you like cats, or Wood Elf careers, or both. One day I hope I’ll get round to writing up a Beastfriend career for WFRP 4th edition, but until then you can improvise one.

Start by creating a Wood Elf Scout or Hunter character (or some other career, at the GM’s option) with suitably high scores in Animal Training and possible Charm Animal and Animal Care. If these skills are not available within the career path, follow the Training rules on page 199 of the WFRP rulebook.

Next, create the beast using the stat block from the Enemy in Shadows Companion (What? You still haven’t got a copy? Do I have to stop being subtle?) and run it through the Henchman career in Andy’s blog post.

If you prefer a Beastfriend with a hound, Andy’s got dogs pretty well covered here. For bears and boars, you can find base stats in the Bestiary of the WFRP rulebook. After that, you can either design your own Henchman career, or use the Trained Trait to cover the beast’s abilities.

What do you think? If you design and/or play a Beastfriend using these improvised rules, comment below and let me know how well it worked – or didn’t work. Meanwhile, I will add a 4th edition version of the Beastfriend to my long, long list of things to get round to when I have the time.

The Ambull: From 40K to WFRP (again)

March 14, 2020 4 comments

 

The Ambull is a beast that originally comes from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook. It was adapted for WFRP in an adventure called “Terror in the Darkness,” which appeared in White Dwarf 108 (December 1988). Back in 2014 I posted about this adventure, and the series which it was intended to kick off.

 

Ambull 1

The Ambull from 1988. Art by Tony Ackland from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook. Miniature by Citadel Miniatures.

 

 

That was the Ambull’s one and only appearance in WFRP to date, although the beast has made a comeback in a Warhammer Quest product titled The Dreaded Ambull. There’s a new and terrifying miniature to go with it, and now seems like a good time to update the Ambull for WFRP 4th edition.

 

The Ambull in 2019 (Games Workshop)

 

 

The Ambull

 

The Ambull is a large, barrel-chested creature with an ape-like stance. Both arms and legs end in iron-hard claws used for tunnelling through stone. It spends most of its time underground, preying on other subterranean creatures. As it moves, it creates vast tunnel systems·of remarkable complexity. Ambulls are uncomfortable in large, open spaces and do not enter them willingly. Stalking and ambush are their favourite tactics, closing rapidly with prey in order to minimize exposure to spells and ranged attacks.

 

The Ambull attacks with two claws and one bite. It can divide these attacks between two Average sized opponents if it wishes, attacking one target with one claw and using its other two attacks against a second target.

 

M WS BS S T I Ag Dex Int WP Fel W
6 50 50 50 50 20 20 14 43 20 38

Traits: Armour 2, Bestial, 2 Claws +8, Dark Vision, Enclosed Fighter (as Talent), Jaws +8, Size (Large), Tunneller (see below), Tunnel Rat (as Talent)

Optional: Armour 3, Belligerent, Brute, Hardy, Immunity to Psychology, Size (Enormous)

 

New Trait: Tunneller

The creature can dig through soil at 2/3 its normal M score, and rock at 1/3 normal M.

 

In “Terror in the Darkness,” the lone Ambull was said to have come to the Warhammer world from its 40K home on the Deathworld of Luther MacIntyre IX by some unknown means. At that time there was a strand of Games Workshop lore, never fully explored, which posited that the Warhammer world might be a remote feral world in the 40K universe. You can use that explanation if you like, or you might decide that Ambulls are native to the underground parts of the Old World, and the existence of their species is well known to the Dwarves, the Skaven, and other underground peoples.

 

The Gong Farmer: A Career for All Editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

January 22, 2020 12 comments

Updated Feb. 22nd, 2020.

With thanks to the following commenters: Onno Maat and Peter Tracey (WFRP 4th edition group, Facebook); Simon Landry and Ricky (via WordPress); and @RoderiHamilt (Twitter).

 

Ever since Our Heroes ventured into the sewers of Nuln in “The Oldenhaller Contract” way back in 1986, WFRP has had a certain association with the grimier, less pleasant (and less pleasant-smelling) aspects of life in a medieval fantasy world. Rat Catchers have come to define the anti-heroic ethos of the Old World, but there are greater heroes, as yet unsung: the silent night-time armies of gong farmers and nightsoil men (and women) who nightly move uncounted tons of human waste from those homes which have no sewer access.

A while ago, I posted a version of this career for WFRP 1, 2, and 3. Here is an improved and corrected version, with details for 4th edition added. Enjoy – and leave comments below. I’d love to have your ideas on how this career might be improved.

Gong Farmer1

The gong farmer has the least enviable job in the Old World. In towns and other settlements without a sewer system, the gong farmer gathers up all human waste and deposits it in a communal dump or cesspool outside the walls. Often permitted to work only at night, gong farmers are also known as nightsoil men.

Owing to the nature of their profession, gong farmers are able to remain calm in the face of things that would disgust and even nauseate ordinary folk. They are also well able to resist disease and poison through long exposure to the most noxious of substances.

The job is not without its compensations, but they are few and unreliable. Gong farmers have access – albeit at night and well supervised – to the houses of the great and good and can find themselves privy (pun intended) to household secrets as well as having a unique insight into their state of health. In addition, the by-laws of many communities allow gong farmers to keep any coins, small pieces of jewellery, or other items of value that they may find in the course of their work.

 

FIRST EDITION PROFILE

 

Advance Scheme

M WS BS S T W I A Dex Ld Int Cl WP Fel
+2 +2 +10 +10

Gong Farmer 3

Skills
Immunity to Disease
Immunity to Poison
Very Resilient

Trappings
Ragged clothing
Shovel
Wheelbarrow
Lantern

Career Exits
Agitator
Beggar
Grave Robber
Labourer
Rat Catcher
Rogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

SECOND EDITION PROFILE

 

Main Profile
WS BS S T Ag Int WP Fel
+10% +10%
Secondary Profile
A W SB TB M Mag IP FP
+2

 

Skills: Common Knowledge (local community), Perception

Talents: Night Vision, No Sense of Smell (see above), Resistance to Disease, Resistance to Poison, Strong-Minded

Trappings: Ragged clothing, Shovel, Wheelbarrow, Lantern

Career Entries: Bone Picker, Peasant

Career Exits: Agitator, Bone Picker, Grave Robber, Rat Catcher, Rogue, Sewer Jack (Ashes of Middenheim), Vagabond

 

 

THIRD EDITION PROFILE

 

Basic Career: Human, Halfling

Basic, Menial, Social, Urban

Primary Characteristics: Toughness, Willpower

Career Skills: Athletics, Discipline, Folklore (local area), No Sense of Smell (see box), Observation, Resilience

Talent Slots: Focus, Resilience

Stance Meter: 3 Conservative, 1 Reckless

Advances

Action Talent
2 1
Skill Fortune
2 1
Conservative Reckless
2 1
Wound
1

 

Typical Trappings: Ragged clothing, Shovel, Wheelbarrow, Lantern

Career Ability: Your Resilience checks gain 1 fortune die when resisting disease.

 

 

 

FOURTH EDITION PROFILE

 

This four-level career is based on an account of the “nightmen” of medieval Leiden in the Netherlands (see “Further Reading” below). The “hole-man” climbed into the cess pit and scooped out the waste, passing it up to two “tub-men” who transferred it to their barge under the supervision of their foreman. The city of Ghent employed an official known as “the King of Dirt” to ensure that all sanitation regulations were followed.

The gong farmer is a Burgher class career. If random generation is being used, a player who rolls a beggar may choose a gong farmer instead if the GM agrees.

Gong Farmer Advance Scheme

WS BS S T I Agi Dex Int WP Fel
💀

Career Path

Hole-Dropper — Brass 1

Skills: Athletics, Climb, Consume Alcohol, Cool, Dodge, Endurance, Melee (Basic), Perception

Talents: Beneath Notice, Night Vision, Resistance (Disease), Very Resilient

Trappings: Bucket, 20ft Rope, Shovel

Tubber — Brass 3

Skills: Drive or Sail, Gamble, Gossip, Haggle, Stealth, Swim

Talents: Coolheaded, Hardy, Resistance (Poison), Sturdy

Trappings: Leather apron, Barrow, Lantern and Oil

💀 Foreman — Brass 5

Skills: Bribery, Charm, Evaluate, Intuition

Talents: Acute Sense (Sight), Blather, Coolheaded, Dealmaker

Trappings: Gong Farmer Crew, Boat or Cart, Hand weapon (Boat Hook), Leather Jack

King of Dirt — Silver 2

Skills: Intimidate, Leadership

Talents: Commanding Presence, Etiquette (Guilder), Read/Write, Wealthy

Trappings: Badge and Diploma of Office, Crew of Assistants (Tax Collectors)

 


No Sense of Smell (Optional Rule)

The character literally has no sense of smell. Their olfactory sense has been completely destroyed by long exposure to foul-smelling substances or through some other circumstance. They automatically fail any dice roll that depends upon smell — but they are also unaffected even by the most nauseating smells they encounter, or by alluring scents that might be used to entrap others. Poisonous gases and drugs in vaporous form affect the character normally.


 

FURTHER READING

 

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gong_farmer

2nd edition version by Colin Chapman: http://www.scribd.com/doc/156852704/Warhammer-Fantasy-2nd-Edition-Gong-Farmer

Archaeology Magazine “Of Cesspits and Sewers: Exploring the unlikely history of sanitation management in medieval Holland”: https://www.archaeology.org/issues/327-1901/letter-from/7205-letter-from-leiden

 


 

Images taken from 18th century nightmen’s cards (Wikimedia Commons).

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and WFRP are trademarks owned by Games Workshop Ltd. This article is a fan work and is not intended to be official or to challenge any trademark or copyright of Games Workshop or any of its licensees.

 

2017: The Year in Review

January 8, 2018 1 comment

2017 was not the best of years, but it still brought several things on which I look back with pride – and a few things that make me look forward to 2018. Here are the year’s professional highlights from my point of view:

HAWK: Freedom Squadron
I have blogged before about my love of aviation, so when My.com approached me to work on this bullet hell shooter game I was intrigued. I crafted the main storyline about a ragtag band of heroes coming together to help a peaceful nation resist its brutal neighbor. Released last January, the game has topped five million downloads and seen a billion enemy planes destroyed. It is available at the iTunes Store and the Google Play Store.

 

Fenix Magazine

 


This tabletop roleplaying magazine from Sweden has a mix of Swedish and English content, the latter provided by renowned writers like Kenneth Hite, Pete Nash, Will Hindmarch – and lately, me. I highly recommend checking out their all-English Best of Fenix volumes, which are available in PDF form from DriveThruRPG and other online retailers. I describe their content as “thoughtful articles for grown-up roleplayers,” and whatever games you read or play, you will find something useful and interesting within their pages. I contributed to four issues in 2017, and I have plans to continue in 2018.

  • Fenix 2/17 included a reprint of “As God is My Witness,” a systemless article on the Medieval practice of trial by ordeal which was first published in Imagine magazine in 1984, and “CSI: Fantasy,” a new article on forensic folk-magic from European tradition.
  • For Fenix 4/17, I wrote “Bloodthirsty Blades,” a review of cursed swords in myth and fantasy literature, with some ideas for the GM to make them into a major part of a roleplaying campaign.
  • Fenix 5/17 included “When is a Dragon Not a Dragon?” taking examples from myth and folklore to show how dragons can be more than just a powerful boss monster.
  • Fenix 6/17 included “Creating Cults,” an examination of cults and cultists, examining the structure, organization, and goals of six different types of cult for a fantasy campaign.

 

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 4th Edition

WFRP-4th-Logo-550Toward the end of the year, British tabletop RPG publisher Cubicle 7 announced that they had won a license from Games Workshop to produce a fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the game that arguably started my career thirty-odd years ago. I am not allowed to go into too much detail, but I have contributed some writing to the core rulebook and I am currently in the planning phases of a project called The Enemy Within Director’s Cut. I will be going back over the beloved campaign, making some changes based on the experience of thousands of games played over three decades, and adding some new material to bring this version more into line with the vision that Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher, and I developed for the original. That is all I can say for now, but keep an eye on this blog and the Cubicle 7 web site for more details.

 

Colonial Horrors: Sleepy Hollow and Beyond

Another proud achievement this year was the publication of this anthology of early American horror fiction, all set in or around the Colonial era. I tracked down some great stories by writers famous (Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft), obscure (Charles Brockden Brown, John Neal), and better known for writing outside the horror genre (James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne). The book has garnered some good reviews, and I am hoping to edit more anthologies in a similar vein.

 

WFRP Memories: A Rough Night at the Three Feathers

October 27, 2017 4 comments

 

Orlygg at the Realm of Chaos 80s blog has just posted a very nice piece about “A Rough Night at the Three Feathers,” which I wrote back in 1987. I wrote it largely as an experiment, to see whether multi-plot adventures could even work: people liked it, and it has gone on to be one of the most-reprinted pieces written for WFRP. After its original publication in White Dwarf 94, it appeared in The Restless Dead, Apocrypha Now, and – with Second Edition stats – in Plundered Vaults.

I’ve returned to the same format twice for WFRP, and once for d20. “Nastassia’s Wedding” appeared in Pyramid #19 in 1996, with stats for GURPS Fantasy was well as WFRP, and the Third Edition adventure The Edge of Night included a society party where Skaven were just one of many problems. “The Last Resort” in Green Ronin’s Tales of Freeport returns to an inn location, on a night beset with mummies, assassins, loan sharks, serpent cultists, and more.

In 1987, though, all this was in the future. My initial impetus for writing “Three Feathers” was the popularity (at the time) of bar-room brawl scenarios. White Dwarf 11 started it off with “A Bar-Room Brawl – D&D Style” by Lew Pulsipher, which was reprinted in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios. Others followed – including “Rumble at the Tin Inn” for RuneQuest – and when WFRP was published in 1986, we knew it would need some adventures and articles in White Dwarf to support it (more on that here). One possibility was a bar-room brawl scenario – they were simple in structure and should be fairly quick to write, which was just what was needed since there was no official budget and schedule for producing WFRP support material during work hours.

I set to work, coming up with the Three Feathers inn (though in my mind, the feathers were bunched together on the inn sign, like the three ostrich plumes of the Prince of Wales’ insignia) and a diverse cast of characters, each with a reason for being there and some cross-plots that would bring them into conflict with others. But, as I always do, I had way too much fun developing the characters and plots, and the concept grew beyond the needs of a simple bar-room brawl scenario. First, I thought I would pick one plot, develop it, and file the rest away for future use – but then I had an idea: why  not use all of them at once?

In my mind, the Three Feathers’ inn sign looked a little more like this – but without the crown.

As far as I knew (and still know) it had never been done in roleplaying games before, but there were strong precedents in other media. On stage, colliding plots have been an element of farces since Roman times. One commentator described “Three Feathers” as “a classic British hotel farce,” and anyone old enough to remember the names Ben Travers and Brian Rix will know exactly what he means. I wanted to capture the manic action of farces like Fawlty Towers, A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, and so on, blending it with the sneaking action of caper comedies like The Pink Panther.

I had to think quite hard about how to present the adventure. There was no way to know what might happen with all these plots taking place at once, especially when a group of PCs got involved. So I simply described the location and the NPCs, outlined each plot, and compiled a timeline of what should happen if the PCs weren’t there. A few words of encouragement for the GM (which can be summarized in Douglas Adams’ timeless words, “Don’t Panic!”) and off it went to White Dwarf.

Honestly, I had no idea whether it would work or not. I knew that I could handle it as a GM, therefore it was theoretically workable by others, but had I set things out well enough? Would it just confuse people, or would it all come crashing down mid-game leaving players and GMs dissatisfied and angry? It was a great relief when the first positive responses began to come in.

Oh, and WFRP did get a bar-room brawl scenario of its very own, just a couple of months later. Jim Bambra and Matt Connell wrote “Mayhem at the Mermaid” for White Dwarf 96. Then the fashion for bar-room brawl scenarios faded, and as far as I know people simply stopped writing them. Today, they are a largely forgotten style of adventure: perhaps a blogger somewhere will trace the history of the form and assess its lasting contribution to RPG adventure design. I would certainly be interested to read it.

Oh, and one last piece of trivia. I got the title from a Western called A Rough Night in Jericho. I have never actually seen it, but evidently it includes a bar-room brawl scene, as I saw a still somewhere or other and the title stuck in my mind until I stole it for “Three Feathers.” Make of that what you will….

More
My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography
The Restless Dead: The Forgotten WFRP Campaign

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!