Primeval Games Press

Designer Interview: Chad Underkoffler

Jasper McChesney, 15 Mar 2005

Chad Underkoffler makes games through his own Atomic Sock Monkey Press.

What games have you designed?

The free Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot and the for-pay Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot Deluxe—a board game.

And two RPGs:

  1. Dead Inside: the Roleplaying Game of Loss & Redemption
  2. Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the RPG

Both use the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) System; the core rules for this engine are available for free here.

I'm also working on another PDQ RPG to be released later this year.

What's your day job?

I'm chief editor for a telecommunications standards organization.

Where do you live?

Alexandria, VA.

What are some of your favorite games and why?

Other than my own, my favorite RPGs are Unknown Armies, GURPS, and the Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set (the old TSR, FASERIP system, though I'm more of a DC Comics fan).

Other games I enjoy include Lord of the Flies, Fluxx, Yahtzee, Apples to Apples, and Wiz-War. I'm pathetic at chess and poker, passable at euchre, and am just a beginner at craps—though I enjoy all four. I used to be able to play cribbage, but I can't remember how to at the moment. I'm planning on learning how to play Texas Hold 'Em and Go sometime in the near future, and some weird part of my mind wants to know how to play Whist, Bridge, Pinochle, and Canasta.

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

“There Shalt Be Fun” is my big gaming goal and commandment. There are some provisos here, of course. It can't just be solitary fun—one player (including the GM) getting all the jollies. It's got to be group fun, social fun—like a good party or get-together.

Now, depending upon the group, what's “fun” is a variable. Some folks have a blast doing deep characterization, others with the hack 'n slash, still others with the pursuit of cool in-game actions, and yet others with breaking up the rest of the group around the table.

Personally, I like a mix. Good character moments, in-game ass-kickery, funny stuff said around the table. So long as everybody's on the same wavelength, and acts with a basic polite consideration for their fellow players, it's cool. I think most of the problems with gaming come from either everyone not being on the same wavelength, or people acting badly, like ill-bred louts.

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

Well, D&D laid the groundwork for all RPGs, so there's that. On a personal level, I think I'd have to say that the following games (in rough chronological order) really influenced my gaming and the way I approach game writing and designing:

  1. Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. Pure fun in a paper package.
  2. A homebrew system a college buddy came up with, and several of us used for various types and genres of campaigns. While appealling to my love of parallelism, I eventually found the game too burdened with rules and special cases. But boy, did we have fun with it. (Hi, Matt!)
  3. GURPS. I read GURPS supplements for fun. I just like the way they're put together. While sometimes they might have been a little dry or academic, they really lay everything out for you. The writers for these books really try to survey the genre or topic, and point out neat stuff for you to track down on your own. I started producing my first paid writing in GURPS-related venues like Pyramid Magazine.
  4. Unknown Armies. One of the best written, flavorful, and fast-paced RPGs since ever. The text grabs you, pulls you in, and makes you say “boy, howdy.” I knew I had to contribute to this game, so when a call for contributors popped up for Postmodern Magick I was in, all the way.

What kinds of things are you interested in doing, as a game designer?

Well, I feel a strong need to challenge the received wisdom of “what a game should do.” Oftentimes, I think games evolve their own weird aesthetic, moving away from their source media and materials. Sometimes that's good, other times, not so much. While this is often attributable to artifacts and optimizations of a particular game system, it tends to reinforce itself in setting and flavor materials. After awhile, “blind spots” (or so it appears to me) arise, where people can't conceive of doing something in a game any other way than it's always been done.

I'm interested in getting back to the source media and materials, subordinating system to that impulse of “I wanna have an adventure like that.” I also like to turn some of these assumptions and blind spots upside down, shake 'em a bit, and see if loose change falls out of its pockets.

Dead Inside, for example, was my attempt to take the “kill things and take their stuff” concept and turn it around to “heal things and give them your stuff,” and make a workable game out of it. I think I did okay with that.

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

I think they're aimed towards finding the Fun. Success through teamwork and synergy. Rewarding creativity. Remaining as simple as possible. Treating the audience like intelligent folks.

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

Well, successful in the marketplace is one thing, and successful in-and-of-itself is another. The first is pretty hard: strike a nerve in the customer base and have the money, talent, and agreements to get it out there. The second is pretty simple: does the game do what the designer wants it to do, and do other people see it?

What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?

Play everything. RPGs, board games, card games, casino games, video games. Read game systems and game rules you never intend on playing. Explore what interests you and is important to you outside of games, and see if it can be brought into games.

Learn to write; learn to revise; learn to edit; learn the wisdom to know the difference (you cannot effectively edit yourself perfectly). Learn to put your money where your mouth is. Pay attention to everything.

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

I think electronic publication—PDFs—will continue to grow. I think that Print on Demand (PoD) will slowly become more acceptable. I think a game distributor shake-up is due, but I have no evidence for any of that, just an odd feeling.

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

Yes, there is. The two things that interested me most in D&D— and thus roleplaying—as a kid were:

  1. A fairly well-put together and interesting article on what the whole deal was in Dynamite! magazine. It made the game appealing to a kid like me, into comic books and science fiction and fantasy.
  2. The brief appearance of D&D in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (both movie and novelization). It was just a game the kids were playing. It wasn't the big point of the movie, nor was it a cautionary tale, or some sort of “look at the geeks!” flag. It was just a game they were playing, and having fun with.

Many people think that getting celebrities to come out and say “Hey, I play RPGs” will mystically give the hobby mainstream cred. Doubtful. What the mainstream needs to see is roughly average people—not freaks from the geeky or anti-geeky ends of the pool—playing these games and having fun, no big whoop.

Also, if someone could nail down a good, acceptable answer to the “how do you win?” question often asked of gamers by people unfamiliar with the hobby, that'd be a godsend. I've tried for almost a decade and a half, with mixed results. You come up with a snappy comeback to that line, and you're cooking with gas.

Thanks, Chad!