Designer Interview: Ben Lehman
Posted 08.28.05 in Interviews
Ben Lehman is the author of Polaris and co-owner of TAO Games. Polaris is available for purchase through Indie Press Revolution.
What games have you designed?
Polaris, which just debuted at GenCon this year, is pretty much my one and only finished game. You could also count Over the Bar, which appeared last year in the No Press Anthology, but that's not so much a game as an extended “guy walks into a bar” joke.
Like all game designers, I have a bazillion "husks"—half or all finished games that languish for that last little bit of love that they need.
What's your day job?
At present, I'm pretty much just a bum. I'm traveling from couch to couch of a bunch of other game designers. So no day job—game design is my only source of income.
I'm traveling, slowly, to China. Once there, I expect that I'll have a job shortly, but Polaris sales are probably going to account for around half of my income even then.
Where do you live?
Originally, I'm from far northern California, tall tree country. Right now, I'm visiting a friend in Heidelberg, Germany.
What are some of your favorite games and why?
Hoo, boy. That's sort of like asking the guy at the record store about his favorite bands. Right now I'm really grooving on Primetime Adventures, Breaking the Ice, Under the Bed, and Dogs in the Vineyard. But the answer to that question is going to change moment-to-moment.
Games which I consistently go back to for inspiration as a designer are AD&D, Marvel Superheroes, D&D 3rd Edition, Riddle of Steel, Cyberpunk, Sorcerer, Wyrd, Amber Diceless and Nobilis. Some of these games I wouldn't play these days (others I still do, and enjoy), but they all have great things to teach me, as a designer. I'm reading and digesting Sex and Sorcery right now.
The game that I haven't played that I'd really like to is the long-delayed and now-done Legends of Alyria.
Is there some key element that you feel is necessary for an enjoyable session of role-playing?
A good session is one where you have all the people at the table really psyched up about the creativity going on—both each other's and their own.
The key element to that, I think, is trust. It takes an enormous amount of trust in other people to let them into your own creative products. There's a lot of throwing around about how characters are really us, or really our shadows, and I don't think that matters so much. They are people that we came up with—necessarily that's our guts right there on the table. To let someone else go and poke around in your guts, that takes serious trust.
That was totally cribbed from Vincent, BTW.
What game has most profoundly impacted your development as a role-player or as a designer?
There are so many, a lot of them listed above, that it is impossible to pick out just one. In Polaris, I list a big old set of games that inspired me, and even that's incomplete and just for that one game.
Right now, I'm tempted to say Riddle of Steel, which was pretty much the first game I played with serious and powerful plot-structuring mechanics, and a reward mechanic that really spiked the point of play.
Ask me again tomorrow and you'll get another answer.
Do the games you've designed share any common themes or features?
I'm really afraid to answer that question in totality, because I'm afraid I'll pigeonhole myself. I really just design the games that come into my head, which is everything from role-playing board games about ancient Chinese philosophers to Mayan ball game simulators to fantastical stuff like Polaris to abstract mechanical systems.
But I can look at what I have designed, in hindsight, and begin to see connections. I have a present project which builds on and extends the theories of fantasy world-building that I began in Polaris. Polaris is really just toes in the water. This other project is more like the deep end.
Oh, and I'm interested in making games which don't suck, but that's sort of, “duh,” isn't it?
What’s the most important thing a game needs to do in order to be successful?
It needs to generate successful (fun) play, which means that it needs to build trust.
Again, I'm cribbing from Vincent here, but that means it needs to lay out a set of expectations for each player and permissions that will allow them to accomplish said expectations.
How do you tackle game design? What's the process like for you?
Slowly. Each game is different. Usually, I write a rules outline first (and often never get further than that), but Polaris was all setting first, and then trying to write a set of rules that could fulfill the promises of that setting.
I think it is really key not to nail anything down in the design process. My brain needs to jostle and jiggle the elements around, and every time I get attached to something I end up regretting it.
I talk to other designers who are better than me, and steal from them. If I don't have a chance to talk with them, I read their books and steal from those.
Each designer, each game, is different. The important thing is to pay attention when it comes.
What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?
Oh, jeez, tons. This is my Blog is devoted to exactly that—advice to myself and other game designers.
My main advice is: Know exactly what you want players to get out of your games, and write / produce / sell it so it does exactly that. This covers everything from gritty mathematical rule design to marketing. I don't excuse shoddiness at any level. There's two longer articles about this here and here.
- Lessons for Designers [at The Forge]
- I want to play the “Bang hot goth chicks” game [at Ben's blog]
Secondary advice: Finish a game. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be good and done. See these two articles for more.
- Great White Games
- Great White Games #2 [both also at Ben's blog -ed.]
Tertiary advice: Write a game that you think is awesome. If you can't love your own writing, you're fucked.
Quaternary advice: Read Vincent Baker's anyway, Ron Edwards' the Forge, and Chris Chinn's Deep in the Game. They hit this shit right on the nose, every time.
Oh, and Jasper, I totally need to take you to task for "aspiring" in that question. The advice for people who've never finished one game is the same as the advice for people who've finished ten.
Is there any major change that you see the hobby going through, either now or in the next few years?
I'm really wary of talking about "the hobby" as a whole. Fundamentally, RPGs are played in mostly isolated play-groups, and any sort of sea-change amongst those groups is mostly the schemings of madmen and not anything close to reality.
So I guess, whatever. What is important to me is that I can buy and play my favorite games, and play them with my favorite people, which I don't see changing, well, ever.
Is there anything you’d like to see happen within the hobby?
I'd like to see more amateur game designers, by which I mean those of us whose primary design motivation isn't money, because it is my feeling that amateurs produce, in this case, much better designs. Other than that, I don't really have a care outside my own personal play-groups.