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Interview with Author and Game Designer Robin Laws

Posted on March 24, 2011 by Flames

Flames Rising is pleased to present an in-depth interview with author and game designer Robin Laws. An industry veteran, Laws has published role-playing games, supplements, novels and fiction for several companies. His works range from The Esoterroists, produced by Pelgrane Press, to his upcoming Pathfinder novel, which will be released through Paizo this spring.

Today, we sit down with Robin to discuss horror in role-playing games, his work on the GUMSHOE system, and his endeavors as an editor and novelist.

How do you feel GUMSHOE fits into the horror genre?

In role-play, investigative and horror role-playing are synonymous. The granddaddy of them both is Call of Cthulhu. In that vein, we wanted to take a look at how you run investigative play and streamline it. Even today when you go to a gaming convention, people want to play CoC. In the minds of role-players horror and investigative games are the most popular.
A natural outgrowth of GUMSHOE fostered four iterations: three horror, one superhero. Even the superhero game, Mutant City Blues, has strong elements of gothic horror.

Did you have specific elements you wanted to avoid in Gumshoe?

In some investigative games, a player has to roll to see if there are clues, just like rolling for treasure in D&D. When you don’t get treasure, you can still play. When you don’t get a clue, you can’t move forward in your game. GUMSHOE splits the abilities where failure is never as interesting as a success, but it’s still valuable. So, if you use a GUMSHOE ability you can get the information without rolling. In horror particularly, fear of the unknown requires you to put those pieces together to identify the monster. Without your ability to pick up vital clues to figure out what’s going on, you’re distracted from the horror element because you’re stuck.
With GUMSHOE, once something comes through the door, you have the option of failing or succeeding, which are both interesting and applicable to the game at hand. General abilities work in a more traditional way to help you control when your character succeeds and fails.

The Trail of Cthulhu game line also uses the GUMSHOE system. Can you elaborate?

Ken took my rules and ran with them for Trail of Cthulhu. That was the book that Ken was hatched to write.

My most recent ToC sourcebook is The Armitage Files. Every game has sort of an experience or touchstone to be the core currency of that game. In DnD the map is the core currency of that game to perceive and remember the positions of your minis on the map. In CoC the handout has always been that core token. Anyone who has played the giant campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep remembers those handouts. The Armitage Files takes the handout and makes it the core focus of an improvised campaign. The files are ten documents that get more and more fragmented, eventually foretelling the end of civilization. These notes are appearing mysteriously at Miskatonic U and they are somehow coming back from the future. Here, you come back and investigate those notes to prevent its horrible future from coming into being.
Each document is full of references. Players pore over them and decide what interests them. So rather than having a pre-written scenario, it serves as a springboard for a player-driven improvisation. This is a fresh approach to a big Cthulhu campaign. One of the big goals I have is to not just provide that fun experience of using something, but change the way that people think about games. Trail of Cthulhu is a great example of that.

What’s so horrifying about a game like Mutant City Blues?

Contemporary gothic horror in our modern day is prevalent through our police procedural shows like CSI, etc. The brutality of the crimes, like autopsies, forensics, serial killers, is much more graphic and violent than they have been in the past. The contemporary equivalent of Dracula is the modern serial killer; many of these themes can also be tied back to police shows. In the end, the police are the heroes who triumph over crime.
In Mutant City Blues, it primarily a police procedural game, but it has a lot of darker imagery that goes along with that. You play a detective who’s a part of the Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, solving crimes within the city’s mutant community.

Do you have any horror gaming experiences that stand out in your mind?


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Fear Itself puts ordinary people in horror movie situations. It’s more like a traditional movie where they’re not extremely competent than the typical horror RPG. It was interesting to see the shift in attitude and the real scares that were going through with the members of my playtest group. They played gamers in the main scenario, which requires you to go off to a fantasy LARP in the woods. When they began to identify with these characters as real people, the gaming changed. There were some moments in that where you could see the horror at the table when they encountered demonic creatures. They were reacting like a horror audience would. The characters are more ordinary on the one hand, but more realistic and therefore more vulnerable. And that’s what horror is all about when you get down to it – vulnerability in the face of predation, violence, the uncanny, or the cosmic void.
In Call of Cthulhu when your character gets eaten, you’re resigned to that. Especially if you’re playing at a convention, but in this particular situation the distance between player and character was much thinner.

Any other recent games stand out in your mind?

Before Dragonmeet, I had the first chance to run a game with Ken Hite. We rarely get a chance to sit down together and play the games we work on. So, I ran a session of the new Dying Earth project. It was a joy to behold the Pelgrane staff backstabbing each other at the table. The premise is that all of the characters wake up after a hideous debauch and are now prisoners. Allowed the previous imprisoned staff to escape OR figure out who’s the lowest on the totem pole. The players dove completely into the spirit of the game and paid attention only to the jockeying for petty power, not even nodding in the direction of escape. That’s for the Dying Earth Revivification Folio, which updates the main game to the new streamlined Skulduggery iteration of its original rules.

Besides your work as a game designer, you’re also a novelist and have penned short stories. Can you tell us about your works?


I wrote an Over the Edge tie-in novel called Pierced Heart, which was published through Atlas Games. It has a lot of contemporary weirdness in it, with William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg influences. Atlas also published a fantasy original novel called The Rough and the Smooth, featuring anthropomorphic naked mole rats, violence, and an wholehearted embrace of salty language in the fantasy genre.
Then there are my Warhammer Fantasy novels mixing dark humor and horror. My main character is Angelika Fleischer, a battlefield looter. She’s a reluctant hero in a world of near-constant warfare, who does the right thing despite her conception of herself as entirely selfish. The trilogy includes Honour of the Grave, Sacred Flesh and Liar’s Peak. It’s now available through Black Library in an omnibus collection, including two hard-to-find short stories.
Freedom Phalanx was a City of Heroes tie-in novel, in which the bad guys seek to take over Paragon City by increasing its ambient fear level.
One new novel I’m happy to announce will be coming out through Paizo. It debuts May 11th and it’s called The Worldwound Gambit for Pathfinder. The story is a fantasy heist, but the marks are demons headquartered in a hideous living tower. The Hollywood style quick pitch for this one is Oceans 11 meets Lord of the Rings.
For short stories, you can find my work in the Book of All Flesh. My story there also appeared in Best of All Flesh. “Susan” gets into issues of zombie gladiatorial combat and prostitution in a post-zombie environment.

Earlier, you announced you’re the Creative Director for Stone Skin Press. Can you tell us about it?

Stone Skin Press is the fiction arm of Pelgrane, whose publisher is Simon Rogers. The Christmas before last, Simon casually asked if I was interested in putting together a fiction anthology. I had a theme already in mind and before I knew it, by a series of ineluctable steps, he cleverly turned this into me managing an entire line. We discuss themes and I recruit writers to pen short stories. Then, I collaborate with authors to punch up the stories and make them shine.
These anthologies are not open call. Instead, I’m recruiting authors and commissioning stories. Emotionally, it’s easier for me to identify more as a writer than an editor and this affects the way anthologies are put together. One way I’m doing that, is that the Table of Contents are more targeted and I’m trying to bring in other people from other fields as well to bring distinct voices to these themes. So there’s no slush pile. Authors who are interested in possibly participating should check out our non-submission guidelines, which ask for a CV and a rundown of your social media presence.
Of course, one of the things we’re looking at is to see whether or not the math for anthologies has changed. By taking the Pelgrane Press model, which relies to a significant but not exclusive degree on direct sales, including electronic sales, we hope to build a community around really good products to see how successful they can be.

You’ve also written screenplays and comics. Can you describe those experiences?

My degree was half playwriting and half screenwriting. Not long after university, I found an audience for my writing in the role-playing field. Although this was not the initial plan, it offered a lot more room for innovation. If you’re writing novels or plays or even film, you’re competing with a long-standing tradition.If you’re still working in role-playing, you’re still working in a 30 year field that hasn’t shaken itself out yet. Tiny, tiny field, but the space you have to explore your limits is huge. It’s a great industry to use as a base to form a community around one’s work. The same is true for other professionals as well—many of whom we’re tapping for various Stone Skin Press titles.
My experiences have been varied; I wrote for Marvel for a year. Although I wrote a ton of stuff that remained in development, what was published was Hulk: Nightmerica and a nine-issue fill-in run for Iron Man. Now I write a comic strip called The Birds, which appears on my blog. An anthology of the first three years of the strip is already available from Pelgrane. Volume Two is coming soon, entitled The Birds: There Goes My Dream Job. John Kovalic has agreed to do a guest strip, just like I did for Dork Tower earlier this year, and Jonathan Tweet is writing the foreword.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of gaming. Where do you think it will go?


When tablets become ubiquitous that will change tabletop gaming as we know it, because what you can do as a designer will also change.
For Ashen Stars, the GUMSHOE space opera game I’m designing, one of the challenges was doing the space battles. The end result can’t be too clunky because GUMSHOE is rules-light. Imagine what would happen if I could manipulate things on your tablet as if you were a crew member. The underlying rules, as rendered into a dynamic app by the software team, could permit a much more involved system whose complexities would be invisible to the user. Eventually we’ll see the merger of rule book and app, moving away from tools that only automate the rules on the page.
This technology is also exciting because it gives designers the chance to appeal to people that don’t have a lot of experience gaming. Even the WoW games have a frame-of-reference for people that aren’t gamers. Remember how tough it used to be to explain tabletop gaming to ordinary humans? Now, you say, it’s like Warcraft except you’re sit around a table and boom, explanation made.
Geeks are taking over the world because you need to be a geek to navigate this new system. Some of them are even girls. A test case for what the geekly future is like would be Finland. It’s an alternate universe where Vampire: the Masquerade was the first major hobby game, not wargames or even D&D. Because of this variant history, the people who show up for conventions like Ropecon are a cross-section of regular-looking teenagers—with gender parity! Yes, it’s half boys, half girls. Imagine the possibilities as global culture opens up and unites beyond the western world.

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