The Games vs Play team celebrated Free RPG Day on Saturday 18 June by heading down for a day of organised play at Gatekeeper Games in North Fitzroy. Ren and I were lucky enough to play an adventure for Crucible, an upcoming fantasy RPG that utilizes a unique coin-tossing mechanic and features an array of non-human character classes including polymorphous plant beings, gregarious insectoids, monumental golem-like creatures and hot-blooded drakes (yes, a two-legged dragon character class!). The adventure was run by Crucible’s creator and founder of Melbourne-based Cosm Games studio, Gareth Hodges. After the adventure I spoke with Gareth about his inspiration for the fantastic world of Crucible, and how he got into roleplaying games.
GvP: So I’ve just played my first adventure of Gareth Hodges’ new RPG Crucible, which was a great experience. It’s a very unique roleplaying game. My first question is: what was the starting point for its development?
GH: Originally Crucible was going to be just another fantasy roleplaying game. The original idea wasn’t terribly exciting. We were tossing around ways to make it a bit more interesting, something with a bit of pizzazz, and one of my team was just playing with pocket change. They literally came back from work, had a pocketful of change and threw it on the table. And it just clicked with us. So we started experimenting with that idea. The rest of the system addresses many of my personal peeves about roleplaying games. So it’s sort of my answer to all the games I’ve played over the last 30 years.
GvP: What are some of those peeves?
GH: One of the things I most wanted to do with Crucible was to express how characters can explore and change their personal morality. Games like Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade and that sort of thing, which have an element of morality, present it in a very rigid manner. And I thought it would be more something that I wanted to explore to give characters a chance to build their own morality out of their experiences and then only be measured against that thing they’ve created. So, a bit of a self-referential kind of thing. My personal GM-ing background is very much in the indie gaming scene. The last 10 years or so games like My Life with Master and Sorcerer, and the very tight narrative focus games have really informed my desire to create something that really targets the thing I wanted to do. So, morality forms the basis for advancement in the game, it informs behaviour, and is built into the world background. You can’t really play Crucible without thinking about moral issues, and that’s what I really wanted to stay focused on.
GvP: Yeah, it’s very interesting like that. Diversity also plays an important part in the game. What were your influences for that aspect of Crucible?
GH: Apart from my own desire to have a game that is explicitly accessible to all the people who are in my gaming circles and in my life, I’m very much an LGBT ally and supporter of equal opportunity and equal rights in that frame. The team that I put together to develop Crucible has non-heteronormative and non-white and non-standard sort of people, people with different backgrounds. The thing that really cemented it for me was GenCon 2015 at the ENnie Awards, which are the industry roleplaying game awards. D&D of course swept the floor with all the awards because it’s a popular vote. The lead developer of D&D, who is a gay man, stood up and said how much he appreciated that Wizards [of the Coast] supported that in D&D. But all there is the 5th Edition book is a paragraph saying, “We support LGBT issues.” Which is great, but I felt it really needed to be followed up with examples of characters covering the spectrum of diversity. So a lot of the design decisions [of Crucible] are informed by that focus on diversity. Anything we can do to remove a restriction on player choice as far as what their character is and what they can do, we chose that direction.
GvP: It also struck me – and I’m not sure if I’m on the right track here – that the character species in Crucible seem to be influenced as much by weird fantasy as by traditional high fantasy. Where did the inspiration for the character classes come from?
GH: My background is science and genetics and biology, and I guess science fiction worlds where you can have the alien as a way to explore what it is to be human. You know, you take on a different form and a different face and use that as a counterpoint to normal life. I thought that just because this is a fantasy game there’s no reason why we couldn’t go beyond the elves and dwarves and halflings phenomena, and do things like in the Raymond Feist novels where there’s an insect race that’s a big part of the Tsuranuanni Empire. A lot of inspiration came from Numenera by Monte Cook Games, which is science fantasy. Inevitably because I work for them I’d picked up on that – though obviously no copyright infringement! But I really wanted to give people as much broad options as I could, and giving them categories like short people with beards, and other short people without beards, and short people who like tinkering with things didn’t seem broad enough. So – reptiles, and insects, and plants seemed to give the most breadth.
GvP: That’s great, having so many choices. Now, to actually make an RPG – and you are almost at the point of launching it – how long did it take and how many people did you need to work on it?
GH: However many you’ve got, you need more [laughs]. I guess this project started serious development in March 2015, and we’re probably looking at proper retail release by the second quarter of next year , so it’ll be 2 years. The most we’ve had on the team is 12 people active. At the moment we’re a lot less than that because life has come up and people have got jobs and stuff. Managing a fluid team is a challenge. But, honestly, what you most need is not numbers, what you need is passion. You just have to be willing to keep slogging away at it. I’ve been roleplaying for 30 years and never imagined I would write a game, until I was suddenly writing a game. So it kind of snuck up on me. But I just had an idea I needed to get out there, and I had enough people around me who thought that idea was a cool idea and wanted to help. So I guess you take what you’ve got, talk around with your friends and see who’s interested in helping out even a little bit, and don’t take no for answer. Well, you can take no for an answer! [laughs] But just keep plugging away, and ask people, because often people will want a creative outlet and be inspired by your idea, and if you give them a space within your game to explore their own ideas, then you can collaborate and make something cool.
GvP: It’s amazing that there are all these games being created. Is there a vibrant community in Melbourne doing this?
GH: Yes, absolutely. Both in Melbourne and the indie game community broadly. It’s a very supportive environment, very collaborative. I mean, people who you would think were competing for the same space – shelf space in shops, and game space – are just more than happy to help each other. Here in Melbourne we’ve got Wade [Dyer] doing Fragged Empire, there’s me, there’s a couple of boardgamey type guys as well – I should know them better but we’re all head down, working on our own things. But the independent games developers community is a very friendly, collaborative one. I’m more than happy to help developers who are at a stage behind me overcome their obstacles, and I’m certainly happy to go to others ahead of me and ask for their wisdom. Usually the only thing that stops people is that they run out of time. It’s not lack of willingness.
GvP: So how did you start with RPGs? You said you’ve been playing for 30 years. What was your first one?
GH: [Laughs] Oh, the D&D Basic “Red Box” set, back in … 1984, I think? I was in grade 5 in primary school, and a bunch of our friends would sit around at recess and lunch with graph books full of dungeons. [laughs] Dungeons of bad ecology! You know, how did you fit a dragon into this room? Just crazy stuff like that. It’s really only in the last 5 years that I’ve taken a more designer view of my work as a GM – [surprised pause]
GvP: There’s a dog inside the store! [a large Labrador dog bounds into the room]
GH: Yeah, hello dog! [laughs] Random dungeon encounter – dog! Maybe I could do a furries game … that should sell with, oh, what’s that game that’s just come out on Kickstater? The dog game? Pugmire! One of my friends in the US is an artist for it, and did lots and lots of cute anthropomorphic dogs for that. Anyway … what was I saying?
GvP: Um, the 1982 Red Box Set?
GH: Oh, yeah, the Red Box Set. So, I started out with the hack and slash and, you know, I tried to run [a D&D adventure] for my grandfather, and he wasn’t enjoying it, so I kept giving him more treasure and more experience in the hope that he would like the game. And that didn’t work! Yeah, it’s been a long journey. I’ve changed styles, through all that. I love GM-ing, I love telling stories, and that’s where I’m at now. Just telling stories to a broader audience than people around the same table.
GvP: That was going to be another question I wanted to ask: what tips would you give to GMs to run an adventure or write one themselves?
GH: First thing I would say is, “do it”. If you have an idea and you think it’s cool, and you’re willing to get a bunch of your friends together and entertain them for a handful of hours, don’t be afraid to just do it. A bit like, you know, Shia LaBeouf – “JUST DO IT!” But be prepared to mess it up the first time, and don’t be afraid of that because everybody does it. Your ideas are cool, have faith in your ideas, and learn from how your players react. Be critical, or at least be analytic of how your players respond, ask for feedback, don’t be too proud to listen to what people tell you about your games, and just keep doing it. Practice really helps, and you will learn a lot just running things regularly. The best advice I could give a GM is run a regular game, and you’ll work out your kinks, and find your style, and you’ll find people who like it. And you know, your fun may not be my fun, but that’s ok, everyone can have their fun, and in the end you’re entertaining a bunch of people who have come to you to set their imagination free, and that’s awesome. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it.
GvP: So, what are some RPGs that you like or admire?
GH: My 2 or 3 favourites are Nobilis, by Jenna Moran. By far the most inspiring roleplaying book I’ve ever read, it’s a game of godlike powers where characters and players embody entire concepts of reality. A lot of the design choices I’m using for Crucible are inspired by that. Just that sense of player agency that comes with it, and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful world that she created. The other one is 7th Sea by John Wick. I’m not paid for this endorsement – I work for John Wick as a writer so I’m fortunate enough to be involved in 2nd Edition of 7th Sea – but years before that I’ve been playing 7th Sea since it came out the first time around. Just that sense of bringing drama into a game, the concept of not having disadvantages for a character but that you have stories that you tell that are dramatic, that may involve setbacks and nemeses and things like that. But they’re not disadvantages, they don’t limit your character, you’re just telling stories that are interesting and exciting. It’s like the Die Hard principle, which is that your victory will mean more to you if you have to walk barefoot over broken glass to get to it! It’s about throwing setbacks at your characters to make them fight for it, make them strive, but not doing it to punish them. Those are my two biggest influences. Some of the [indie] games that have inspired me are one page, tiny little things. There’s a game called Cold Soldier, it’s literally a double-sided sheet of A5 paper, but it just captures something really interesting, and I recommend you look it up.
GvP: I shall! I’ll put a link to it in the interview.
GH: It’s just like this collection of really cool ideas that filter into your brain and then something bubbles up and you end up with something like Crucible. Nothing in it individually is unique, but you can put your own flair and your own style and your own spin and come up with something that people don’t recognise.
GvP: And finally, what do you think will be your next project?
GH: Oh, God! Just the one? [laughs] Well, since producing Crucible I started a games studio called Cosm Games. Not only are we looking at extending the product line for Crucible – so, supplements for Crucible – we’re looking at using the underlying mechanic, the coin mechanic, to run other settings. There’s an idea that we have for a kind of nano-punk game that uses the same idea of throwing metal tokens, but in this case they’re like computer chips, they’re things that trigger nano-machines in your body that activate certain powers. So the underlying mechanic of the gambit system will still work, because it involves throwing handfuls of metal chips or coins, and it still has an in-game reality, but a completely different setting. I think they’re the major projects lined up at the moment, I’m probably going to have two more on the drive home and then forget them. Once you open the box, it doesn’t stop! Oh, I just remembered – I have a historical game that I want to write about the French invasion and occupation of Egypt the late 1700s-early 1800s as well, just because that period of history really interests me. That’s probably not going to be the gambit system, it’s going to be some other kind of mechanic.
GvP: Well, thanks very much for doing the interview, and thank you also for GM-ing what was my first game of Crucible. I really enjoyed it, it’s such a unique game, but you also did a fantastic job of GM-ing it, it was a great story as well.
GH: Thank you, it was good talking to you.
Crucible is currently in the final phases of development ahead of a 2017 release. You can find out more about Cosm Games at their website and Facebook page. Games vs Play is grateful for the permission to use images owned by Cosm Games in this post.