Designer Interview: Clinton R. Nixon
, 8 Feb 2005
This interview is the first of a regular series at PGP. Each week I'll ask a noteworthy game designer a series of questions about role-playing, game design and the hobby at large.
Clinton R. Nixon has released various games under his Anvilwerks imprint, including his most recent project, The Shadow of Yesterday. He is also co-maintaner of The Forge
What games have you designed?
Donjon, Paladin, and The Shadow of Yesterday. I have assorted other supplements and unfinished works. One I'm most proud of is a Sorcerer supplement called "Inside," a parting shot from the passing corpse of cyberpunk.What's your day job?
I'm the information technology director for a small company that travels the US providing technology support to trade shows.
Where do you live?
In one of the best cities in the United States, New Orleans, Louisiana. It's an amazing place, but full of problems. This week alone, my bike was stolen and I had an attempted mugging. It provides some spice to my life.
What are some of your favorite games and why?
Wow. This is a hard one to decide. Here's my current favorites:
- Dogs in the Vineyard. Vincent Baker's magnum opus is a terrifyingly good game. It's wittingly designed to be very playable. That's not why it's so good, though. I'm a firm believer that anything you write, when distilled, is about yourself. DitV makes the characters missionaries in a fantastic Old West, constantly tempted by real demons and a metaphorical one worse: the ease of violence as a solution. Play's intensely fun, which eases the giant lozenge of moral qualms you have to swallow. To see why Vincent's so qualified to write this, read his open web journal.
- Conspiracy of Shadows. Some of the best games out there (Elfs, HeroQuest, octaNe, The Burning Wheel) are what I'd call “response” games, games that are originally written as an answer to a larger mass-produced game. Conspiracy of Shadows is, in my sight, a response to Call of Cthulhu and other horror games, deconstructing them and providing you with a clear way to make a game terrifying instead of hopeless.
- The Mountain Witch. This first game from Tim Kleinert is about ronin samurai all enlisted to climb Mt. Fuji and slay the mythical Mountain Witch. It's an interesting idea of a game: the game is an adventure, and the only real adventure meant to be used with the game. In addition, the mechanics are simple and beautiful, the Zen core of a role-playing game. In play, it feels a lot like Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and that's awesome.
Is there some key element that you feel is necessary for an enjoyable session of role-playing?
A GM. This response is really here to irritate some friends I've been having this discussion with: is a GM necessary?
It fits as a real answer, though. I think the GM fulfills two roles that are immensely important:
- When I role-play I notice that the first five to ten minutes are awkward and odd-sounding, and I often think “This is really what I want to do with my night?” Twenty minutes later, I'm having a blast. The GM is the person that breaks that awkward ice by sticking their ego on the line and being the first to say, “So, there's this magical cauliflower who worships the God of Destruction to Meat. What do you do?”
- He or she is the one that either introduces conflict or resolves it. It's immensely important to separate these roles. Traditionally, the GM introduces conflict, and in a good game, the players resolve it. Sometimes the GM resolves it, and you get bored and read magazines under the table. In some newer games, players introduce conflict. The GM can resolve it, making for that valuable back-and-forth action, or the player might, and then you're back to boredom.
What game has most profoundly impacted your development as a role-player or as a designer?
Sorcerer. I don't want to embarrass Ron Edwards, the author, here, but there's no game that does a better job of explaining how to design and play a role-playing game. If you've read the game, it impacts how you play and design whether you like it or not. In my perfect future where RPGs are considered a story-telling art, and you study them in high school English/communication classes, you'll play Sorcerer between reading Conrad's Lord Jim and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
What kinds of things are you interested in doing, as a game designer? Do the games you've designed share any common themes or features?
At the risk of becoming tangential, I'm answering this with a story. Recently, I decided to “come out” to my folks about writing RPGs. Now, I'm a grown man, so this was a little weird. When I was a kid, it was the heyday of D&D = satanism mania and my parents flipped out.
How I put it to my dad was this: “These games are like testing grounds for moral questions. They give you enough insulation to ask and answer the questions you wouldn't touch in real life. Let's say you're playing and your character comes across a man beside the road who is going to die and is in a lot of pain. He asks you to put him out of his misery. I mean, hopefully this won't ever happen in real life, but if something like it does, you've thought about it first.”
Until that point, I hadn't articulated why I love RPGs. I'm interested in providing a moral framework in which to question and find out answers.
What's the most important thing a game needs to do in order to be successful?
Be the product of one person's fevered imagination. Do that, and express your imagination cogently, and you've made a successful game if even one other person plays it.
What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?
First, don't go into debt. Your game will probably not pay for itself, at least not for a while. That's ok. You're doing this because you love it. Just stay within the realm of affordability.
Second, read. Read a lot. I'm not talking about RPGs here, although they help. Read quality books, but offbeat ones. Check out Jonathan Lethem and James Morrow and Samuel Delany and Christopher Moore.
Third, write at your own pace. You should probably make a reasonable deadline for any project, but make it yours, not someone else's. Don't think “I need to release at GenCon” or anything like that. Just worry about releasing when you're done.
Fourth, playtest. Do that a lot.
Is there any major change that you see the hobby going through, either now or in the next few years?
We're already in the middle of a huge change. Not only are creator-owned-and-published RPGs becoming accepted and known among the hobby as a whole, but you're beginning to not even be able to see a difference in enthusiasm. The release of Burning Wheel 2nd edition, for example, gets as much enthusiasm as a new release from any mainstream company that isn't White Wolf or Wizards of the Coast. And that's awesome.
So that's one change. Hobbyist designers have become mainstream if they're commercial. The non-commercial designer is the next wave to become mainstream. I'm trying to pioneer this with my foray into making my games free to use under Creative Commons licenses. I think in three years a majority of games will be free to reuse.
Is there anything you'd like to see happen within the hobby?
I'd like to see less talk and more play. I'd like to see more intelligent discussion about role-playing inspired by real play. I'd like to see independent designers make six figures and quit their day jobs. Hopefully, some of that will happen.