Primeval Games Press

Designer Interview: Tony Lower-Basch

Jasper McChesney, 2 May 2005

Tony Lower-Basch owns Muse of Fire, which recently released Capes.

What games have you designed?

Capes, which takes innocent little superheroes and attaches them to some very subversive GM-free, communications-heavy roleplaying structure.

And I'm currently deep in design on Dulcimer Hall, which takes innocent little super-spies and attaches them to a game of collaborative character development, where you don't decide how your own character is going to grow or change, you only decide who you will trust to have influence over them.

What's your day job?

I take care of my two sons, and support myself with lots of individual tasks, from teaching Jujitsu to transferring people's home videos. And selling games, of course.

I think that means I don't have a day job...but that doesn't sound as cool as “modular economics,” does it?

Where do you live?

Alexandria, VA.

What are some of your favorite games and why?

Castle Falkenstein: I adore games that knock people clean out of the idea that characters are the same as the players, just with swords, or guns, or whatever. Falkenstein was the game that taught me to love that. Victorian adventurers believe in class division, national superiority, stifling gender roles...all things that modern liberal Americans despise. And the game is all about embracing that otherness and having fun in it, even while you still don't (yourself) believe a word of it.

Dogs in the Vineyard: Whoa nelly. I love to watch this one in action. It's a game that scares people, not with what will come at them from outside, but from what comes out of them from inside. Revelatory.

Is there some key element that you feel is necessary for an enjoyable session of role-playing?

Everyone needs the right to ruin the game.

If I come in and play my hardest, roleplay my heart out, and reveal things about myself I didn't even know, that should make the session rock for everyone. Nobody I know disputes that.

But if I come in and play weakly, hide my emotions and don't appreciate others, that should make the session stink for everyone. Very few people I know agree with that. They expect that someone (the GM, usually) should step in to rescue the session, and make it fun in spite of a player who screws up. But once that safety net is in place it gives players permission to be lazy, or scared, or boring. There's no reason to push yourself. It's not like you'll be disappointing anyone if you don't.

These days in any game I play I try to get across a simple message to every other player: "I am relying upon you. If you don't dig deep, I won't have fun." I am constantly amazed and gratified at how many players respond strongly to that message. It's like they've been waiting to be told that all their lives.

What game has most profoundly impacted your development as a role-player or as a designer? That's tricky. So much of my thinking is fusion.

Okay, Nobilis. Not the whole game. I basically read the game, said "Interesting," played it a few times and decided it didn't work for me as a whole.

But there's this notion of Restrictions: They're like Disadvantages, except that they don't give you any benefit when you define them. Only when you use them. And that tiny change in timing changes the entire dynamic of how your characters "disadvantages" work in the game. It makes the players want to get those disadvantages out into play. And that totally frees the GM from having to do that. The player, on their own, can maintain a good balance of being powerful and being limited.

Before reading that, I hadn't been bitten by the system design bug for more than a decade. It just seemed like everything was variations on how you can give the GM power to restrain the players. It all seemed to have been done before. But that one rule in Nobilis showed me that there was a whole world of possible rules, and that "restrain the players" was only the best explored of many possible patterns.

Do the games you've designed share any common themes or features?

Capes and my upcoming projects all share a conviction that the rules are meant to enhance communication. These little tokens, and dice, and what-not that we move around...they're messages. They're an extra channel of data between players: Verbal, Body-Language and Game-Mechanics.

What’s the most important thing a game needs to do in order to be successful?

It needs to get people excited, starting with the game designer. In the market today, word-of-mouth advertising is gold. You get that by infecting people with your passions, not (sad to say) simply by having good product. You could be selling diamonds for pennies, and if you're not convinced that you're giving people a good deal, they won't be either.

So get excited, go to conventions, and demo the game for people. When I'm demoing, I don't do any of this namby-pamby “Yeah...y'know...we could run a demo if you wanted to” stuff. I tell people what I think. And what I think is “You are going to absolutely freakin' love this game, so get yourself over here and demo it right positively, definitely will thank me for having convinced you to give it a try. I will hit myself on the head with this boot if you don't. I'm that sure.”

What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?

My father-in-law says that the role of a spiritual guide is “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think that's the advice I would give an aspiring game designer as well.

To design a game, you've got to believe that people are missing an opportunity. A huge opportunity. If the games that are being played now are doing everything you think can be done then you have no motive to design. So you need at least one (and preferably several) things that nobody realizes can be done. You're going to prove that they're possible and fun. You're going to make a game where you can't fully play the game without doing this cool thing.

And then somebody is (if you do your job right) going to be upset about that fact. Because learning new things is hard. Somebody's going to say “This game works okay if I don't try to do this new thing you talk about...but it doesn't work well. And I don't want to try the new thing, because I know I won't like it. So your game is failing me.”

My advice is to set that as your goal. You want that response. You want to afflict that comfortable person. You want to show them that there is more to this hobby than the things they have learned. They are not done learning yet (and never will be). By doing that you will automatically comfort the afflicted. The greatest affliction in our hobby is that people wonder “Is that all there is? I can do everything my current game asks of me but...isn't there more?” Show them that there is, and they will be comforted.

Is there any major change that you see the hobby going through, either now or in the next few years?

Oh yeah! But none of us are going to recognize it as a change. Spider Robinson said (roughly) “The whole world turns over in ten years, but because you're part of the world you turn over with it, and everything's still right-side up.” These notions that seem radical and edgy in Indie Games a few years, everyone is going to assume that people have always played that way.

For instance, I hear that Dr. Borgstrom managed to make Fair Folk Exalted into a teaching manual for how to deal with the imaginary world through means other than the direct actions of your character. Now that's sneaky. That's clever. That's a main-stream product with massive distribution. The people who play that game are learning new techniques that apply to any sort of game. Expose enough people to how fun that can be, and maybe the idea “Roleplaying is all about encapsulating yourself within the perceptions of your character and never taking a step outside” will seem as hidebound and reactionary as “Roleplaying is all about combat and being tougher than everyone else” does now.

Is there anything you’d like to see happen within the hobby?

Oh yeah. I'd love to see the reversal of a decades long trend: People spend less time in group recreation, world-wide. That sucks.

I mean, there are the same 24 hours in the day that there were ten years ago. I even think I have more free time then I did back then. But I don't organize or play in a fraction of the games I did back then. Gaming used to be like food for me: a staple of life. I'd like to get back to that personally. I'd like to see more people in our hobby get back to it. I'd like to see more people everywhere get back to that feeling in whatever their hobbies and passions are.

I don't ask for much, do I?

Thanks, Tony!

Oooh, can I try my Castle Falkenstein languid hand-wave? “Yes, yes, it's the least I could do...” [languid hand wave]