Interview with Robert Bohl

This is my first, in what I hope to be many, interviews with game designers.

I’ve already reviewed his Misspent Youth, and Robert was kind enough to take the time and answer my questions.

TakeOnRules: What got you into gaming? When did you start?

Robert Bohl: When I was a kid, we had friends of the family who would often babysit us. The father would play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 📖) with his teenage daughter and friends. This would’ve been about 1978, so I was roughly 8 years old at the time. I wanted to play so badly but they didn’t want me to play. This really upset me back then, but I get it now.

At some point a couple of years later, I got D&D Basic red box, I believe the Moldvay one. There’s a module in there that I used to play by myself on drives to and from my grandma’s house. I used to think this story marked me as a sad, lonely, little kid, but then in the past few years I encountered Moldvay Basic again and discovered that solo play is an option they give you in the book.

I’m not sure how long it took for me to find other people to game with, but I was definitely gaming regularly by the age of 12 or 13 with my friend Judd Karlman (author of Dictionary of Mu and one of the hosts on the now-defunct but seminal and excellent Role Playing Game (RPG 📖) podcast, Sons of Kryos).

TakeOnRules: What keeps you gaming?

Robert: I love making shit up with my friends. 30 years of gaming has given me creative brain damage, such that my creativity is best expressed in small groups of about 5 people. That’s why I’m so grateful to the Forge-derived design community for opening up a design space that puts collaborative creativity in the forefront.

Also, I have met so many wonderful, amazing people in this hobby ever since I started going to conventions in ‘05. I’m an extrovert and get totally fucking charged up by chatting with people and hanging out with them. Whenever I come back from a convention I feel so creatively energized and happy, I’m practically buzzing.

TakeOnRules: Regarding gaming, what do you look forward to in the coming years?

Robert: I look forward with joy to the design fallout from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. That game is overstuffed with innovations that are mousetrap-genius. I’m not only talking here about cool Apocalypse World (AW 📖) hacks like Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel or Monster of the Week by Michael Sands. I’m talking about the stuff that can be mined for other games, like explicit agendas, countdown clocks, powers triggered by fictional circumstances, and so much more. I’m talking about what it teaches game designers.

TakeOnRules: What was the impetus for Mispent Youth?

Robert: When I first got into the Forge and the games developed at and around it, as I was saying before, I was totally jazzed. But at the time, there were no science fiction games (Joshua A.C. Newman’s Shock: Social Science Fiction was available in playtest doc form but it wasn’t ready yet). There was also a heavy focus on players being the source of one another’s antagonism. I think a bit of that’s fine, but I really don’t like competing with my friends (because I become so viciously competitive), so I wanted a cooperative science fiction game. No, more than that, I wanted a science fiction game about friendship, both because I enjoy the experience of playing a group of friends, and as kind of a response to my design community.

The final piece was a game Judd and I played of Cybergeneration at DexCon 2005 or Dreamation 2006. Design-wise, I’d describe it design-wise as a straight mainstream game in the White Wolf tradition. I didn’t enjoy it as much as most of what I was playing by then, but there was something about the game’s ideal play-group setup — a group of teenage buddies — that I found a great deal of fun.

After that, Misspent Youth started to click into place.

TakeOnRules: What are you working on right now? Don’t just give me a title, but tell me about it? (Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics)

Robert: The next game I’m working on (in between finally, seriously working on a screen-friendly Misspent Youth Portable Document Format (PDF 📖)) is called Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics. It’s a game where you’ll be telling stories about the lives of stand-up comedians who are regulars at the same club. The title refers to the fact that, apparently, many comedians have lives full of addiction, narcissism, abuse, humiliation, and other indignities. It appears that if your life is shit, it makes great compost for comedy.

It’s very early in the design stages, but I have an idea of some of the mechanics:

  • you create your character as you play and begin only knowing your Damage (what’s wrong with you that makes you turn to stand-up),
  • it fractures up the duties assigned to Game Masters (GMs 📖) and players and reassigns them dynamically,
  • you’ll have two characters,
  • it’ll be card-based,
  • it looks like it’ll have a spotlight mechanic, and
  • you get resources by making people at the table laugh for any reason.

TakeOnRules: What is the impetus for your next game? What are you hoping to accomplish with your “Sad & Miserable” game?

Robert: As far as fictional inspirations go, I want the game to feel like the FX television show Louie, the Judd Apatow movie Funny People, and the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. I want you to make stories that are hilarious and touching and sad and invigorating.

I also want to show people that everyone is capable of being creative, but that’s my aim with every RPG.

But the literal impetus is the shrewd insight of Emily Care Boss (designer of Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, Under my Skin, and Sign in Stranger) and Epidiah Ravachol (designer of Dread, Time & Temp, and the forthcoming Swords without Master). I finished final work on Misspent Youth in July of 2010, and by last summer, began to be frustrated that I hadn’t gotten to work on my next game. I had a number of ideas and I needed to pick one and get going. Eppy introduced me to this design technique called playstorming, wherein one person brings the idea for a game (the “game bearer”) and the group spontaneously come up with rules and try them out, playing — slowly and fitfully — through an RPG session as you craft the rules. The game bearer is in charge of the proceedings and accepts or rejects rules as she wishes. I figured playstorming would be the best way to get going, so I invited them over.

When they arrived, I presented the ideas and they were very enthusiastic about S&M. As Eppy put it, “I’ve seen these other games, but I’ve never seen THIS game.” Add to that a fun evening that I’ve been trying to recreate since, and I had the steam I needed.

TakeOnRules: What are some of the resources you’ve used for your upcoming game “Sad & Miserable”?

Robert: I’ve used Google+, Facebook, and Twitter to put together a contact list of real life stand-up comics and have been hitting them up with questions. I’ve also been using Google+ extensively to preview the game and solicit feedback.

I’ve been going to actual stand-up shows to sink in the reality.

I’ve watched tons of stand-up documentaries (particularly I Am Stand-Up), listened to every episode of WTF ever released, and begun to read The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter. I’m actually hoping for more research, especially non-fiction, non-biography books on stand-up, so if anyone in your audience can point me to something I’d be grateful.

I’ve used Wikipedia to research card games; I currently want to have a different kind of card game for each scene type but we’ll see how that pans out.

Most-crucially, I’ve used my local design community. Emily, Eppy, Joshua, Meguey Baker, and Vincent are all vital and essential resources. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a group of colleagues to bat ideas back and forth with, to go to for sincere criticism, to go to to get your confidence and enthusiasm rejuvenated, and to commiserate with.

TakeOnRules: What game do you wish you would’ve designed? Why? Go ahead and include more than one (only one in depth explanation please).

Robert: This is going to sound douchey of me but I only wish to do my own stuff, better. There are a number of games whose designs I admire intensely: Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson and My Life with Master by Paul Czege are two in particular that can never be mentioned enough.

However, I somehow find it easier to imagine what components of other people I want to copy and graft onto me. I want Joshua A.C. Newman’s visual design ability, I want Fred Hicks’s ability to organize and run a business, I want Luke Crane’s ability to stay on task and finish things, and I want Vincent Baker’s insight.

This is not to diminish any of these designers’ skills in other areas, of course, it’s just those are the skills I feel like I need to steal.

TakeOnRules: Gamer shame, do you have any? At work or with family, are you a closet

Robert: I experience gamer shame to a degree. I don’t hide the fact, really.

When I’m at a convention, though, and I see people acting like stereotypical gamers (having bad social skills, smelling bad, etc.), that gets me inexplicably bummed-out and that probably comes from vestigial gamer shame. I’ve got complicated feelings about it.

TakeOnRules: How often do you play role-playing games? Are you typically the GameMaster?

Robert: Not nearly as often as I’d like. I have two semi-regular groups, meeting 2-3 times a month when we’re not suffering scheduling nightmares. Right now I’m playing in a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and I’m Master of Ceremonies (MoC 📖)ing Apocalypse World. Although these two games have a GM-like role, most of my ongoing gaming for the past couple of years has been Joshua’s Shock: Human Contact, where each player is the GM up to 4 or 5 times a session.

The other big source of gaming for me comes from conventions, but I’m usually running Misspent Youth there, so I guess you’d say I GM most-often (even if the role of The Authority in my game is different the GM role in most others).

TakeOnRules: What is your favorite non-RPG game?

Robert: Hm, well, I’ll leave off consol-based dialog-tree-having RPGs like Mass Effect or Fallout. I guess Rock-Band-like games, but I can disappear into a black hole of that for hours. I enjoy it way more when playing with friends, at least then it doesn’t feel like such a time suck.

Other Resources

Podcast Interviews with Robert Bohl