Some Questions and Answers with James Spahn of Barrel Rider Games

I’ve been a fan of Barrel Rider Games for awhile; the volume of output is amazing. And James Spahn’s The Heroes Journey is a fantastic product, demonstrating how to “own” the rules that you use at the table.

I want to thank James for taking the time to respond to my questions.

Questions and Answers

I’ve noticed you’ve created quite a bit of content for Labyrinth Lord and Sword & Wizardry: Whitebox. Which of your work came first? What drew you away from the first system and to the other? Have you went back? Why?

Labyrinth Lord definitely came first. I heard a few years before becoming involved in the OSR community, but dismissed it. I was still very much into 3.5 D&D and saw it as “simplistic” and “thin.” A few years later, I gave it a second look and realized what I was looking at. I was looking at a clone of the B/X D&D, which was the foundation for my first fantasy RPG, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. I fell in love when I recalled those fast, free-spirit days of my gaming youth. Combined with the fact that I had just gotten sick of the supplement glut that had flooded the market in the wake of the OGL, and I found my first love all over again.

 

I started publishing because of my wife, who is also a gamer. She said to me “If you want to keep buying gaming books at this rate, you’re going to have to make more money.” So, I used an addiction to feed an addiction. Also, right around the time I started Barrel Rider Games a new RPG had just hit the market: The One Ring. It is the third incarnation of Middle-earth to hit the gaming table, and for my money the third time’s a charm. I instantly fell in love with the game. Unlike MERP and Decipher’s versions of roleplaying in Tolkien’s sub-creation, TOR was a game that was built around the source material. Previous incarnations had felt like Tolkien’s material was bent to fit a mechanic. I was so in love with TOR that after reading the original slipcase publication I swore to myself that one day I’d get to write for the game – somehow. BRG was a kind of back door resume.

 

In both cases, it worked beyond my wildest dreams. BRG started with me just writing dollar classes and class variants for Labyrinth Lord, which I did for several years. It has grown to include material for Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry Complete, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Starships and Spacemen (2nd edition), and a few original games like White Star and The Hero’s Journey. Top that off with my mad scheme to one day write Tolkien actually resulting in me contributing to several books in the TOR game line and parlaying that into a lucrative freelance career which includes working for publishers like Frog God Games, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, and Fantasy Flight Games, and I’m left rather flabbergasted.

 

I came to White Box after getting burnt out on Labyrinth Lord writing. As I got older even LL started to have too many fiddly bits for me. White Box’s single save, minimal classes, and reliance on a d20 and d6 almost exclusively really draw me into it. That and the fact that digest-sized books are just so much more appealing to me in terms of portability and ease of use.

 

I’ve dipped by toe back into LL on occasion, but these days I’m mainly focused on White Star, The Hero’s Journey, and White Box. Even that’s slowed, because I juggle BRG work with regular freelance jobs these days.

I appreciate that you released The Heroes Journey as PWYW, tell me a bit about the game. In particular, I’d like to know about your house rules? Do you use all of the ones from book?

I’ve never met a single gamer who played an RPG exactly as it was written. Gamers are creators by nature and we tend to be a bit of a weird bunch. It’s in our nature to fiddle, tinker, and modify things. So with THJ, I wanted a TON of house rules to show that the game could be easily modified to suit an individual group’s style. There are quite a few house rules in there that I would never use, but that doesn’t mean that other gamers feel the same – so if I had an idea for a variant rule and it seemed like someone somewhere along the way might enjoy it, I included it. Also, I wanted to encourage folks to come up with their own house rules by including so many. The game is MADE to be house ruled.

I was a bit surprised by the addition of the Jester class? What brought about it’s inclusion?

A lot of THJ’s classes found their roots on the old Dragon Magazine NPC classes. Duelist, Jester, and a few others. The Jester specifically was included because I really like them and wanted to include them. Part of the reason THJ is PWYW is because it is, first and foremost, “White Box: James’s House Ruled Edition.” It also includes a lot of material previously published, but tweaked for use with this rules set – so I didn’t feel right charging twice for something.

It seems to me the addition of damage reduction for armor creates a more rigid barrier between The Heroes Journey and other OSR simulacra. What has been your experience in crossing between other OSR games and HJ? What have you heard from others?

Reduction Value was something I hemmed and hauled on for a while. But because THJ is a game built around the idea of it being “James’s House Ruled Edition,” I included it because I like it. It helps mitigate the low hit point threshold of THJ, which allows small monsters in large groups to remain a threat. It also makes shields more viable than a simple “+1 to AC,” and reflects how armor is meant to work more accurately.

 

As far as crossing them over with other OSR products, I’ve had little problem. I ballpark a Reduction Value on the fly and go forward. I’ve yet to have it create a genuine barrier at the table.

In most every gamer’s life they’ve misplaced or no longer possess something important in their personal gaming story. Do you have one of these? If so what is it? A little bit of detail?

This is a timely question. Over the past few years I have seriously whittled down my gaming collection. I’ve got from four floor-to-ceiling bookcases to two shelves. I got rid of a lot of treasures. The closest that relates to your question is my Rules Cyclopedia. I parted with it because as much as I love the game, I’m always going to want to run something else. I learned that even if you don’t physically own a product anymore that doesn’t make the memories any less valid or important. Besides, with the way Print-on-Demand is going I don’t think it will be long before everything is perpetually “in print” and available.

What is your motivation for cranking out OSR products? WQ:hat were some early bumps that you encountered on the way? How did you overcome them?

My motivation is built on one question: “What would be fun?” A lot of my ideas come from my long work commute. An idea pops in my head and I hold on to it, twiddle it around in my brain, and then write it. I put it up for publication as an act of sharing the fun. I’ve had a few products along the way where the fun of the concept got lost in the design, though. When that happens, I take a step back and tackle it again later or simply walk away. If you lose the fun in your work then that’ll show on the page.

What has been most surprising about participating as a publisher in the OSR?

A lot of folks in the OSR are people I regarded as kind of living gods or heroes. Eventually I got the opportunity to meet and even work with them, which was a real thrill. I figured out pretty quickly that everyone in the industry is a fanboy or fangirl to one extent or another – we’re all just ordinary people who happen to share a passion. That helps keep ego in check and makes folks a lot more approachable.

 

I’m perpetually amazed by the generosity of the OSR, both as individuals and as a community. Many in the OSR community are willing to give all they possibly can to help out a fellow gamer. It’s a real honor to be a part of that, both as a giver and receiver, and it keeps me pretty grounded most of the time.

I’ve used OSR a few times, what does OSR mean to you?

OSR is about remembering those days as a kid when you wrote kingdoms and castles on graph paper, mapped out your entire campaign on loose leaf paper, and poured through your books to discover a fresh new monster. It’s about wonder and youthful energy. It’s not about any specific game, game mechanic, or period of publication. It’s about setting aside rules disputes, grabbing a fist full of dice and just having fun. The rules in an OSR game are there to facilitate fun and when they don’t do that, they can easily be ignored or modified. When I play or write in the OSR I feel 13 years old again, bound only by what would be “cool” to do – not by some rule book.

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 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 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 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 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 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
gamer?

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 MCing 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