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

Misspent Youth by Robert Bohl

Misspent Youth by Robert Bohl

From the back cover:

There’s an asshole fucking up your world.  You’re the little bastards who are going to make it right.

Misspent Youth is about Young Offenders (YOs) fighting against the Authority.  One player takes on the role of the Authority and the remainder of the players are the YOs. The rules of Misspent Youth explain with precision the procedures of character creation and game-play.

Misspent Youth uses popular movie plots, with the serial numbers filed off, as examples of the procedures (e.g. Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated series), Star Wars, and E.T.). By using familiar stories, the examples work extremely well at cementing the procedures in my brain…and hopefully other readers as well.

Presentation

The art and layout are very punk fanzine.  Since I’ve never seen a punk fanzine, this may be a construct of my imagination.  The font face is similar to an old type-writer, though not quite mono-space, with letters that aren’t quite filled in – as if the text was banged out using an aging typewriter ribbon.  The text is laid out at non-right angles within text boxes, giving a sense that each section of text was hand mounted for the mimeograph or photocopier.

When I opened the book I had initial trepidation about this presentation, but the writing and examples are very engaging and eventually the distracting element melts away.  In fact the “non-standard” layout helps further establish the intended experience of a game session of Misspent Youth.

Structured Campaign Kick-Off

As part of the first session, all of the players are responsible for deciding the defining the movie rating (G, PG, PG-13, R, etc.).  The players will also define the characteristics of the Authority.  The Authority is something that everyone should revile – SOPA would be a great Authority.  One of the players will need to claim the role of the Authority – they will be the GM if you will.

An Authority will have one of each of the following: Vice (e.g. Absolutism, Fear, Greed, Sadism, Utopianism), Victim (e.g. Freedom, History, Humanity, Nature, Progress ), Visage (e.g. Corporate, Personal, Religious, State, Systemic) and a Need.

The Authority also has one System of Control for each YO.  The Systems of Control are the means by which the Authority exerts its control – brain slugs, PsyCops, shock troops etc.

Once the Systems of Control answer the question “What is the Authority’s blind-spot or weakness or opposition?”  The YOs will use this Exploit as they struggle to take down the Authority.

Then define YOs Clique – what is it that binds these YOs together? It is similar to Fear the Boot‘s much vaunted Group Template. And from their the group brainstorms members of the clique.  Some will be YOs, others fodder for future sessions.

And now the non-Authority players go about creating their YOs, defining each of their five youthful Convictions (i.e. Means, Motive, Opportunity, M.O., Disorder).

Through-out play Convictions inform the role-played scenes and Struggles.  They will also be able to sell-out their Conviction to a more jaded adult Conviction in order to avoid their Hope from being dashed in a given scene – more on that later.

Structured Session

Kicking Off The Episode

Each YO’s player establishes an Authority Figure that is available for the episode – encourage reuse from previous episodes.  Each YO’s player also proposes a question that their YO would like to ask of another YO – the question is only theorized and may come into play at the beginning of a scene.

An Episode’s Scenes

Seven scenes comprise a single Episode.  The rules mechanically skew the winning chances of one side or the other.

  1. What’s Up – The Authority exerts its will and the Clique responds.  This scene establishes what is going on for the episode.
  2. Fighting Back –  The Clique takes on the problem directly. Introduce the first Beat (e.g. a Catastrophe, Complication, Discovery or Reversal) that alters the narrative direction.  And propose the Question that this episode will answer.
  3. Heating Up – Tension mounts and the stakes get higher.
  4. We Won – Everything is going just fine for the Clique.
  5. We’re Fucked – The wheels come off and introduce the second Beat.
  6. Who Wins – Establish who wins and answer the Question.
  7. Dust Settles – Reflect on the episode and setup the next one.

Aftermath

At the completion of an Episode, create or convert an Exploit or System of Authority.

Structured Scenes

One player sets up the beginning of each scene.  This role rotates around the table and the Authority player will likely want to set the “We’re Fucked” scene – fortunately the Authority determines which player sets up the “What’s Up” scene and the role rotates predictably around the table.

The player that sets the scene chooses to either have the scene include an Authority Figure or have one of the proposed YO questions from the beginning of the episode asked and answered.

The player then narrates the first five seconds of the scene – where are they, is anything exploding?  From that point the players free role-play the Scene.

Eventually the Authority initiates a Struggle declaring an Objective – The Authority should be mindful of not letting a scene drag nor moving too quickly to a Struggle.  The Clique responds by declaring their Hope for this Struggle.  The winner of the Struggle achieves their stated Hope or Objective.  The loser does not.

When the Struggle is over, complete a little bookkeeping and close the scene immediately.

Structured Struggle

The Authority initiates the Struggle – Objective and Hopes are now declared.  The Authority then provides a bit of narrative that pushes towards achieving the Objective.  The Authority yields to the Clique asking who’s going to stand-up and respond.

A YO responds – first one to grab the 2 six-sided dice – and roll them. The YO’s player picks a Conviction then places one of their YO tokens on the Struggle sheet on the corresponding number.  The YO then narrates pushing towards the Clique’s hope, incorporating the YO’s Conviction.  The Authority responds with narrating the hit.

The Authority then places one of their tokens on the Struggle sheet – they can claim 7 or other numbers based on the Scene they are in – hence the statistical skewing towards one side or another.  The Authority then narrates their push towards the Objective and asks who’s going to stand-up and respond.

Much like the first YO exchange, a YO will grab and roll the dice.  However, if the YO rolls a number already covered by a token Struggle ends.  Otherwise play continues passing back and forth between the Authority and the Clique.

Structured Struggle Resolution

There are three possible outcomes for the YOs:

  • Winning
  • Losing
  • Winning by Selling-Out

If the YOs win, they achieve their Hope and the Authority loses its Objective.  The YO that rolled the victory then narrates achieving their Hope via the Conviction used on that number.

If the YOs lose, the Authority achieves its Objective and the YOs lose their Hope. Narrate the failure by incorporating your sold-out Convictions and Disorder. Or you can sell-out a Conviction.

If choose to sell-out, you pick a free Conviction and the Authority crosses it off replacing it with a more calloused adult Conviction. You narrate a more jaded response but the YOs achieve their Hope and the Authority loses its objective.

Campaign Conclusion

At the end of the session in which one of the YOs has sold-out on all of their convictions, the series ends (i.e. campaign ends).  At this point there are procedures for wrapping up.

  • Determine which side has won based on the number of Systems of Control vs. Exploits – yes you can win this role-playing game.
  • Narrate the fate of each YO is based on the number of sold-out convictions.  The more a YO sold out, the more likely things have ended poorly for them.
  • One YO may sacrifice their happy ending to change another YO’s bad ending to a happy ending.

Advice Section

Here Robert Bohl steps away from the game designer role and steps into the role of “guy who’s played the shit out of Misspent Youth.”  He gives some excellent, not immediately obvious, advice.

He implores the readers and players to stick with the rules as written.  At least for the first episode.  This game has had some serious play testing and input from some top-notch game designers and play testers.

This Reviewer’s Observations

Long-Term Strategy

Given that there is a “win” conditions, be mindful of the Systems of Control and Exploits.  The opposition can remove or convert one to their cause; Work to incorporate in your YO narrative how these Systems of Control and Exploits are coming into play.

Campaign Artifacts

It’s very unlikely in Misspent Youth that you’ll generate the traditional RPG maps.  You will, however, fill out a Case File for each session with the pertinent information of each scene, character question, and authority figure.  And once the campaign is over, you’ll be able to look back at the story and rebuild a part of it.

Examples

The examples provided throughout Misspent Youth are fantastic.  Since the story is familiar, you don’t have to concentrate on following the plot, but can instead focus on explaining the procedures.  This is an exemplary method which other game designers should consider.

It gets a bit confusing when there are player names and character names mixed through out – including a (YO) or (player) indicator might help.

Structuring the Structre

Robert Bohl does a masterful job of presenting the big picture and getting buy-in.  He then begins spiraling with ever narrowing vision from Series to Episode to Scene to Struggle, all the while providing examples that helped me defer my need to know the mechanics.  The author rewards patient reading and trust.

Bibliography

As I’ve said earlier, I appreciate when games include a bibliography, and Misspent Youth has it:

Buy this if you like sticking it to the Man; you wish you were more of a rebel as a kid; you want well-defined procedures for running episodic sessions; you want a game with procedures for starting that first session; you want a game that builds from session to session; you want to learn how to play an RPG.

Don’t buy this if you have trouble reading old type-writer print; if profanity offends you; if you really need to roll to hit and damage your opponent; if you have a passive group that always asks the GM “And now what?”…wait this game might help cure that.

Or legally download the PDF from Robert Bohl – if you like it send him a donation.  Personally I prefer print copies.  Since I play in the analogue world, I want me rules in that format as well – though having both print and PDF is very nice!