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Interview game designer Malcolm Craig

Posted on October 7, 2005 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

It was all the fault of my mate Scott, he’s responsible for everything! I was about 14 and had been playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle for a couple of years when Scott says “You should try a game with us.” My response was “Eh?”, I had no clues what he was on about (I mean, I was 14 and thought that playing WFB with my chaos army was the be all and end all). So I turn up at Scotts parents house one Friday night to find it crowded with about 8 or 9 people I didn’t know. I was informed I was playing Call of Cthulhu and that I would have a private eye called Marlowe (imaginative, eh?). So, without any clue at all what I was meant to be doing, we start playing ‘The Vanishing Conjuror’. One GM, 8 or 9 players. Utter chaos. The game lasted about half an hour, the GM left in disgust and so did most of the players. So Scott starts running Twilight:2000 First Edition. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I felt reasonably proud that I had played in two games on my first night. It was only later I found out that games were meant to last a bit longer than half an hour. You live and you learn.

And I’ve still never finished playing through ‘The Vanishing Conjuror’.

What can you tell us about a|state?

a|state is a very setting-driven game. The characters exist in an eponymous city that they cannot leave. Not that people don’t try, it’s just that they ‘disappear’ if they make the attempt. Most people live at what could be described as an industrial revolution level of technology, existing in dank brick tenements or centuries old, rotting concrete towerblocks. Their homes are lit by hissing gas lamps or flickering electric lights, they subsist on a diet of fish, dog and precious vegetables. Many organizations attempt to hold sway in The City. From the eight macrocorps who jealously guard most of the resources, to the religions (such as the Third Church of God the Architect and the Shining Sky) that indoctrinate the masses to the many other groups (such as the Ancient & Honourable Guild of Fulgurators and the criminal minds of the 3rd Syndicate) that vie for power.

Into this world step the characters, actors in a city of despair and hopelessness. One of the key things about a|state is hope. While groups do not have to be do-gooders, righting the wrong and avenging the needy, the concept of bringing hope in a dark place is one of the central themes of the game. Character creation is very open and flexible (now there’s an over used word in gaming circles!) and players can choose from a wide range of careers and professions: ghostfighters, lostfinders, mudlarks, activists, flowghosts, stringers and many more.

How did a|state develop? Where is it headed?

The gestation period of a/state was fairly lengthy. No, scratch that. The gestation period of a/state was ages long, probably for as long as I’ve been gaming. However, the real starting point for it was probably in a cyberpunk-style setting I came up with in the early nineties. With the unfailing egotism of youth, I stated to gaming friends that all existing cyberpunk settings didn’t satisfy me at all and I, Malcolm Craig, would write something better! I’ve just looked over the 200 or so closely typed pages I did for the setting (set in London in 2035) and I shudder at how bad it was. Suffice to say, I did not manage to write a cyberpunk setting that was better than the rest. Not by a fairly wide margin. Anyhow, all this stuff I wrote was used for a couple of years and then just lay about gathering dust for ages. Cue a railway journey into London…

On this particular railway journey, I was gazing aimlessly out of the window as the train sped deeper into the metropolis. As we moved on, I noticed that the train dropped below the level of the buildings around it, showing the vaults and arches and tunnels which underlay the city. It struck me that there were centuries old churches standing right next to glass office blocks, brick terraced houses with concrete towerblocks looming over them. I didn’t immediately start thinking of writing a game but, looking back on it, that was probably the moment a/state was born.

So, I started writing a setting, mainly to satisfy myself.

Initially, only a few small areas of The City were developed, burghs like Folly Hills and Mire End. Paul (the artist for a|state) and I started work a website to showcase the setting, initially looking at it as a setting we could develop over time and gradually add to. Then, after some particularly positive feedback, we decided to take the plunge and actually make an attempt at publishing the game as a book. Which brings us to where we are today.

Of course, the game didn’t just come from a train journey into London. It takes influence from many of the things that I love in literature and the cinema. Charles Dickens is one of the obvious influences, but there are a whole host of other writers who’s work I enjoy that have inspired me in some way: Mervyn Peake, M R James, Franz Kafka, M John Harrison, China Mieville, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Philip K Dick, the list could go on and on. Films such as Jacobs Ladder, Angel Heart, Kiss Me Deadly, La Dernier Combat, Great Expectations and whole load of others have also had a big part to play.

a|state has grown and developed over a fairly lengthy period of time, with new layers and details being added. The main a|state book is just the beginning. Although it’s very detailed and give a lot of information about The City, it’s only the beginning. The City is a huge place, with plenty of gaps for us and GMs to develop. I doubt we’ll every get to the stage where the place is fully, totally filled up with detail, there now way we could do that! Besides, I always think it best to leave space for other people to come up with their own ideas, their own burghs, parishes, regions and buildings. Some of the stuff that fans of the game have sent to us has been just amazing. It’s wonderful to see people take the setting and come up with their own ideas and thoughts about what they would like to see in it.

Where we’re headed in the immediate future is onwards and upwards! We’re very close to completing ‘Avenues & Alleyways’, the second supplement for the game. This is the first really big supplement, and will detail another thirty city areas, new organizations and offer even more background information on such things as law, health and education. One of the most exciting things about working on ‘A&A’ is having other writers involved in the creation of new areas of The City. While a|state was very much a solo effort (in terms of the writing, many other people gave a vast amount of time and help, for which I am eternally grateful), large chunks of ‘A&A’ are written by others, offering fresh, new perspectives.

But, I have to say, although I did write the game, Paul (our artist) was just as important to the project as I was. Working with someone like Paul is great, as he takes what I’ve written and manages to interpret it in his own way and create art that is often exactly what I had in my head for the way somewhere looks. Then there were many times when Paul did a bit of art which inspired me to go off and write something to fit it in to. It’s been a two way process, with the writing influencing the art and vice versa.

John (our business manager and contributing writer) has also been involved from the point when we decided to actually publish the game. His input and support have been vital to keeping things going. Iain McAllister came on when we were doing the book to provide editorial assistance, but he’s now more concerned with writing one of our other product lines (the forthcoming ‘Mob Justice’) and contributing writing to a/state. Finally, Gregor Hutton joined us recently as our senior editor, bringing with him a wealth of professional knowledge (he’s a full time editor of scientific journals for his day job). Gregor edits, writes and illustrates. A man of many talents.

How dark is the setting for a|state? What can players expect from the game?

I think a lot of it depends on how you view ‘dark’: Is it dark through explicit content, through the themes, through the situations that characters will encounter? I wouldn’t hesitate to say that a|state is a dark setting, but a lot of this come through in the very nature of the setting itself. Hope and despair are two of the main themes in the game, hope being the much rarer commodity. You could make a game superficially dark by having all sorts of horrifying nastiness going on, but to my mind this can lead you down the path of simply being exploitative. I think it’s the situation itself, the inescapability of The City, the grinding poverty and desperation that engulfs so many people and the sheer lack of any bright spot in their lives that gives it its darkness.

An endless line of slashed corpses, destroyed lives and nasty characters does not make a game dark (in my opinion), it just makes it unpleasant to play! In many ways, a lot of the game has be influenced by the real world, from the Stalingrad influence of the hellish battlefield of the Contested Grounds, to the slums of Glasgow in the late 1800’s making their presence felt in places like Folly Hills. And in the end, the real world is a lot darker than any game.

Player expectations are always a difficult one to deal with. Something that one person finds horrifying and disturbing could prove to be risible for another person. What they can expect, on a surface level, is a detailed, intricate setting which gives a huge amount of scope for different adventure possibilities. A GM could easily make the game grindingly oppressive, but hope should always be a key factor.

What can you tell us about the Lostfinders Guide to Mire End?

Because of the very detailed nature of the setting, the information about various areas in The City contained within the main a|state book isn’t as in depth as it could be. I mean, if it was all as in-depth as I would like, the book would be about 2000 pages long! So, ‘The Lostfinders Guide To Mire End’ is the first supplement to take a more detailed look at one specific area, to flesh it out more and make it more of a ‘real’ (in game terms) place.

So what you get is more of the history of the place, more about the people, more about the locations and more about what the place is actually like. And, for the first time, it actually gives you a map of somewhere specific, not just a map of The City as a whole. When coming up with ideas for the book, we were keen to make it appear ‘real’, so the map was drawn (most excellently by our editor, writer, illustrator and all-round Renaissance man Mr. Gregor Hutton) in the style of someone from Mire End attempting to put together a map of their home. So by that token, it’s obviously incomplete and possibly slightly inaccurate, but this is an entirely deliberate design decision: it allows GMs to fill in bits as they feel necessary.

Mire End was chosen for several reasons:

i) It’s pretty much become one of the iconic areas of The City, representative of all that’s worst in the sprawling urban environment.

ii) It was actually one of the first areas I developed when writing a|state, so it’s pretty close to my heart. I think I have more information in my head about Mire End than almost any other area!

iii) Finally, it manages to capture a lot of the elements that are important in the game: hope, despair, community and so forth. None of these things are very far below the surface in Mire End.

What parts of a|state are future supplements going to explore?

Oh, there’s a question that covers a lot of ground! Well, we’re going to continue our line of PDF character supplements taking a look at individual character types within The City. The first one of these, ‘Ghostfighter’ (written by Gregor Hutton) has been a great success and this has very much provided the template upon which the others in the series will be based. Iain McAllister (who has written stuff for a|state before, who did editorial work on the main book and who is currently writing the ‘Mob Justice’ noir/gangster RPG) has completed work on ‘Stringer’, which looks at the gutter journalists in The City.

Coming soon we have two new PDF releases. One of these is a downloadable GMs screen and the other will be the start of another new line of a|state releases. Called ‘Faces In The Crowd’, each of these PDFs will look at ten NPCs of a particular type. So, volume 1 is called (rather cleverly) ‘Villains’, as it looks at…villains. Funny that.

Then we have our big print releases. ‘Avenues & Alleyways’ will be the first of these, giving 30 new city areas and a whole slew of new background information on subjects as diverse and law, education, health and (believe it or not) the use of clockwork in The City! I’m very excited about ‘A&A’, as it contains some really excellent stuff. Then we have ‘Iron Ring’, which is really going to be a big one. This looks at three distinct explanations for why The City is the way it is, what the Shift was and so on. Now, I don’t want to say too much about this one, but suffice to say, all three explanations fit the available evidence given in the main book.

What do you feel are your biggest challenges as an author?

Perhaps when writing for a game setting, one of the greatest challenges is to try and keep things fresh and interesting, especially when you are dealing with a closed environment such as a single city. Things could easily become stale and boring if I just churned out endless descriptions of yet more slums and barrios! People could easily become turned off if each and every supplement was just ‘more of the same’. I don’t want to replicate Mire End, Fogwarren, Dreamingspires and so on in each and every thing that I write. Part of the fun is coming up with areas which are different, which are strange, odd, scary or just provide good locations in which to set a game.

Then there’s the matter of consistency. Keeping the game world internally consistent is a pretty serious challenge. There are many mysteries and horrors within a|state, so its very important not write something which contradicts other things or negates that which has gone before. Even down to the simple level of the names of important NPCs, gang structures and so forth, consistency always has to be at the front of my mind. That’s not to say I don’t slip up sometimes. But shhhhhhh! If we keep this to ourselves, no one will notice!

Finally, I think that keeping your writing style interesting is another important factor. Bland descriptions wouldn’t serve the setting well at all, so I always try to give the text a certain flavour and style. I try to write in a way that I would fin interesting. It might seem a bit egotistical to write for yourself, but I tend to think that if you aren’t happy with your own work, then how can you expect anyone else to like it?

I’m sure there will be other projects in the future. a/state remains our main product line, but I’m very keen to expand things and grow the company as much as possible.

What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the RPG industry?

Hmmmm…I’m trying to look back on the advice that was given to me when starting out and what the best bits of that were. It all depends whether or not you’re attempting to gain work from an established company or forge ahead with your own product.

If you’re looking for work from an established company, please, please, please proof read your proposals and emails. I can’t stress this enough. Even though Contested Ground Studios are a pretty small outfit, we still get a fair number of proposals and submissions. Many of these are well-written, grammatically correct and with minimal spelling errors. Obviously, if English isn’t your first language, then allowances are made for that. Then you get things like “My riting stile is teh r0x0r! You must publicate my stuffs dude!” causing groans amongst the assembled populace. Some people react well to a constructive response, others sadly don’t. The ones who react well are the ones most likely to have some success with their submissions.

Actually going through with publishing your own stuff is, if anything, an even tougher proposition. My main advice would be to think very, very carefully about the product(s) you are intending to bring out. How many gamers out there will actually buy it? What is the size of your market? Be realistic and don’t over-estimate how popular your product will be. Going ahead and spending a small fortune printing 5,000 books and then only selling 1,000 in your first year of operation smacks of a lack of research and preparation. I mean, I’d love to write a game set in an alternative history 1950’s Cold War Berlin where the characters are part of a multi-national team of agents attempting to battle their way through the politics, misinformation and paranoia of the Cold War. Would this be hugely popular? I somehow don’t think so. It’s important to realize that although you may be passionate and enthusiastic about your game (and if you’re not, why are you even thinking about producing it?), but remember that not everyone will share your passion and enthusiasm.

Speak to people who’ve already gone ahead and taken the plunge in the games industry. There’s a lot of great people out there who are more than happy to give you their advice, wisdom, horror stories, tales of success and bizarre happenings. In the very early days of CGS, James Wallis (formerly of Hogshead Publishing, but now sadly no longer part of the games industry) gave us vast amounts of useful advice and wise words. Little things like where to get ISBN numbers from, what printers REALLY mean when they tell you certain things and loads of other stuff. Hell, if people are interested in getting started, feel free to email me at Malcolm [at] contestedground [dot] co [dot] uk and I’ll be happy to impart my own particular thoughts on how a small press games company starts and evolves.

Oh yes, PDF. PDF is a great way of getting started. For a very reasonable fee, places like RPGnow and DrivethruRPG will host and sell your PDFs. For unknown products, sales are not huge (and I mean not huge!) but it does get your stuff out there and can be a great way of getting feedback and ‘testing the waters’.

Actually, I could probably ramble on at great length about this stuff. So I’ll stop. But do feel free to get in touch if you have a warped desire to pick my brains!

What’s next for you?

Well, I’ve recently finished writing a game which is almost as far from a|state as you can get. It’s called Criminal Comedy Capers and is pretty much a game of screwing the other guy over and making other peoples lives hell. It’s very lightweight and fun and not intended to be at all serious. If you have a game of it that lasts longer than 30 minutes, then there’s something wrong!

Then I’m also working on ‘Everlasting Empire’ which, again, is quite different from a|state. I’m a big fan of H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke, the old British comic hero Dan Dare and Arthur Conan Doyle, so in a strange way, ‘EE’ embraces bits and pieces of all of them. It can be played as a serious game or as something more lightweight and pulpy. It’s all about a science-fictional British Empire, where the players are secret agents of various kinds. Unlike many, they are exposed to the dark underbelly of the Empire and get to see the shades of grey that it’s composed of, rather than the shining wonder that most people believe in. There will be moustaches and Senior Service cigarettes aplenty!

And, as always, there’s a whole bunch of a|state stuff to be worked on!

Visit the Contested Ground Studios Website to find out more about a|state.

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