Primeval Games Press

Designer Interview: Keith Senkowski

Jasper McChesney, 16 Feb 2005

Keith Senkowski is owner of Bob Goat Press. He recently published Conspiracy of Shadows, which is available through Indie Press Revolution.

What games have you designed?

I designed Conspiracy of Shadows, which is published. I just finished writing the Conspiracy of Shadows Game Guide and I'm also working on a new game called Resist.

What's your day job?

I work as a multi-media designer, creating and assembling educational CD-ROMS and DVDs for doctors at the American College of Chest Physicians.

Where do you live?

I live in Wauconda, IL. A distant north west suburb of Chicago, the greatest city in the world (better than stank ass New Orleans Clinton).

What are some of your favorite games and why? (If you like, name your top five.)

Right out the gate with the tough questions, huh? There are so many games that I have enjoyed over the years and you want me to pick just five? I'll split the difference and pick three new ones and one oldie I love.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – That's right. I claim TMNT as one of my all time favorites. Particularly the after the bomb stuff like Road Pigs. I'm not a big animal-people person, but that game just hit the spot. Rules were pretty simple. Character creation was quick (cause you didn't know shit most of the time) and pretty damn neat (the whole BIO-E thing). And you could make and drive bad-ass cars. The only thing that I ever thought was missing from this gem of a game was good chase rules. If those had made it in to the game it would have been perfection.

DitVDogs in the Vineyard is an awesome game. I know everyone talks about the conflict resolution in it and the neat aspect of Fallout, but that isn't what tickles me pink. I love two things in particular about this game. One is the character creation process. It propels you into play and eliminates the awkward beginning you get in almost every other game. I mean, at the end of the process you are role-playing already. God damn genius.

Speaking of god, that is the other thing I love about the game (nice segue there huh?). Vincent [Baker] found a way to make religion important to the fabric of society. A lot of games tell you about religion, but he makes you live it in the game. It is ingrained in the society and takes a part in everything everyone does. Fucking brilliant.

TMW – Ever wanted to play a game that really is about Trust? Try The Mountain Witch. It is an incredible game. It can easily be called a “One and Done” game, meaning you may only play it once, but it is such an experience that no one should miss it. Prior to playing it I never thought that a game could actually truly address an issue like Trust and Betrayal, but Tim [Kleinert] hit that muther-fucker on the mark.

TSoY – Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow of Yesterday does. Cheezy I know, but it is true. Clinton [Nixon] made a fantasy game about people, not stuff or magic or history. All that shit is in there too, but the core of the game is the people and I love that. Everyone's character is important in the game and this is reinforced by the system. Keys and Secrets are awesome. Oh and the art ain't half bad either.

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

Hmm, well besides the obvious stuff, I would say you need an Alpha. An Alpha is the person who steps up and starts shit off. He or she is the person that gives the game its form. Otherwise it becomes chaos. In most games that Alpha is the GM, but that person needs to exist in games without GMs too.

I think you also need to all be in agreement as to what you are trying to do. The terms of this agreement need to be made before play begins too. If half the group wants to play a serious game like Conspiracy of Shadows (plug, plug) and the other half is fired up for some Elfs, shit is going to explode. I mean it will be a crazy-ass mess with dice ending up in someone's ear. Not a pretty sight.

What game has most profoundly impacted your development as a role-player or as a designer?

I would have to say reading Sorcerer. It helped me to not only find the vision I was looking for, but define it. It also proved to me that I to could design and sell a game. Prior to it I was sitting in limbo like every other designer out there. But its impact doesn't end there. It is a very human-centric game, meaning it is about being a person under various circumstances and finding out who that person is. That was always what I wanted in a game and Sorcerer helped me to articulate that in my game.

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

Well I have only one full game under my belt, but my other projects in the works share the conspiracy element. However, I would say that the games aren't about conspiracies at all. Conspiracy of Shadows, the soon to be complete Game Guide and the forthcoming Resist are all really about the human condition. With CoS and the Game Guide I am trying to explore what it is like to be a person who is met with extreme conditions and says, “Fuck this nonsense! I know I can't win, but I'm going at least go down swinging!” With Resist the idea is to explore the differences between everyone's perception of what reality is and how a person deals with this. I'm a Humanist so this kinda shit interests me.

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

A strong premise. It needs to be about something. The everything game has already been done and you can't compete, so don't try unless you got millions to invest, and even then it isn't a safe bet. No, find a specific idea you want to explore via play and run with it.

You also need a system to go along with it. They system has to support what you want to achieve. I mean, if the game is about what it means to be a walrus and you have no mechanics supporting the question, "What does it mean to be a Walrus?" but you have a great combat system, you missed the mark. You have a game that is about combat and not the question you claim as your premise.

There is also other shit you need, like an editor (god do I know this), but those two things are key. Without them you don't have a viable game.

What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?

Do it yourself. Don't go looking to get you game published by the big companies (well big for this market). If you have an idea, do it yourself. Devour other games and when you are done devour some more. If you game is a genre game devour books and comics and anything else you can get your hands on. Steep yourself in the lore of your subject matter.

Of course this doesn't mean work in a vacuum. Go out and get help from other people. Get as much feedback as you can, particularly from people you don't know. There are a ton of good places on the web for this. Also get yourself an editor. Editors aren't just about grammar and spelling and shit. They are about maintaining the focus of the audience and a good one needs to be held onto like grim death.

If you are like me and can do your own art (I went to school for that shit), do it, but be aware that it is a lot of work. If not, either get someone good who can or don't use any art. DitV just has an excellent cover and no interior art and it works. Art isn't necessary, but solid layout is. Once again, if you can do it yourself, rawk on! If not, get someone who has mad skillz. They are worth their weight in gold, much like an editor.

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

Well, on a whole I would say that shit is getting more and more fractured. With the advent of self-publishing being viable, the market is flooded with tons of companies. I see this trend continuing to the point where you will have one or two companies on the top churning out the same old crap and everyone else publishing in small runs or electronically. I also think that the days of the game store are numbered unless they can figure out a way to compete with the online market. The whole mainstream system is stuck in pre-internet practices. I mean, why should I buy game X for $40 dollars at the local store when I can get it for $25 online with free shipping?

Sounds like all doom and gloom, huh? It is just the reality of business. Niche markets always fall into the cracks and suffer from obscurity. But that shouldn't stop us from having fun. The over-all community is healthy (though aging). Just look at how many people come to Gen Con.

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

Oh, there is a ton of stuff I would love to see, but I think the most important is a true entry-level game that can compete with other forms of entertainment. It has to be something inoffensive and boxed that can be sold in toy stores and the Sears catalog. A Walmart approved game. A gateway drug, if you will, that will get 13 year olds hooked. The industry needs to think like big tobacco: get them hooked young and most will become life-time customers.

Thanks, Keith!