Categorized | Game Designers, Interviews

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Judd Karlman “Dictionary of Mu” Interview

Posted on August 6, 2008 by Flames

The Dictionary of Mu, a pulp setting for The Sorceror RPG, was published in 2006 and became and instant hit among the indie games community for its blending of pulp, horror, low-fantasy and science fiction.

I recently contacted author and game designer Judd Karlman about the Dictionary, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions about this unique and imaginative book.

Give me your elevator pitch for Dictionary of Mu.

It is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom meets Robert Howard’s Conan meets the Bible.

How did you come up with the concept and characters?

Through much of the writing, I was working a late night twelve hour shift driving a taxi cabs. I would write the setting when I got back from work in a chair at the foot of my bed at around dawn while my lady-friend slept.

Because of that, I don’t remember writing a whole lot of it. Many of the ideas came from reading the King James Bible and reading through a ton of books mentioned in the Bibliography of Sorcerer & Sword that I could dig up at a local Friends of the Library Book Sale and local used book stores.

Why use Sorcerer RPG as the system for your setting? What does Sorcerer bring to Mu that is unique?

The seed of the setting was originally posted on the Adept Press forum on the Forge after reading Sorcerer and Sorcerer & Sword straight on through. I thought to myself, “What would I do with these books at the game table?” The Dictionary of Mu was born.

It never occurred to me to bring the setting to another system because it was really born out of reading Sorcerer, its supplements and the books mentioned in Sorcerer & Sword’s pulp fantasy bibliography.

Sorcerer allowed me to bring the ideas of this lost world where dead pieces of history can be summoned and players can either be the world’s damnation or salvation and highlight all of the pieces I wanted shining brightly in play.

You say the Bible was an influence. How so?

Gamers love playing with myth but when many of us do, we play with Norse, Egyptian or with Lovecraft’s unspeakable toys. I wanted to toy with the Old and New Testament and such in a similiar way that Marvel Comics plays with Asgard.

Once I realized how much the Bible’s wonderful and power stories were creeping in, I went back and re-read the King James Bible. Moses, Jesus, Nimrod the Hunter, maybe even some David and Goliath found their way in there. Once the book came out, people were seeing stuff that I didn’t even consciously write to be Biblical, which is fine with me.

The Dictionary, being an actual dictionary, is filled with these seemingly random entries on different places, concepts and people, but as you read this very cool story unfolds. Why did you decide to create the Dictionary of Mu in this fashion? Why not just present it as a straight-out sourcebook?

The dictionary format was great for me as a new game setting writer because it gave me a structure to work with. I had the red sand of the setting under my fingernails but what do you share and what do you leave out?

Putting the setting in a dictionary format allowed me to let the dictionary and the alphabet dictate a bit of what I needed to put in the book. “I need another -m- word…hmmm.”

I like setting books that inspire rather than inform and the dictionary worked well for that.

Tell me a little more about Ohgma and how he became the voice of the Dictionary of Mu. Was it hard writing from the point of view of a madman?

I really don’t remember where Oghma came from, I only knew I wanted to really think about where this otherworldly artifact came from and who wrote it. I re-watched Conan the Barbarian to get into the swords & sorcery mood and fell in love all over again with the late Mako’s performance. After that, it was always his voice dictating the words in the Dictionary of Mu.

This made it so very easy to write. It often honestly felt like it was coming from a source outside of me, which made writing a whole lot of fun.

Are you, too, possessed by the Demon of Words?

I wish I was possessed more lately. I am currently making a real effort to carve out time in my day, every day, to writing. Storn A. Cook is a friend of mine and a co-host on Sons of Kryos and the way he works on his art, the way he is always striving to improve is a huge inspiration to me. I really look up to him in that regard.

So, I’m possessed but I’d love to do a new ritual and get myself an even bigger demon.

The Demons in Mu are incredibly creepy. Tell me a little bit about why you made them the way you did and how you envision the demons working in an actual game of Mu.

Dead, angry pieces of history tend to be pretty creepy, it turns out. Looking at the demons in the book, they are a laundry list of things that upset me: head trauma, genocide and spiders, oh my. But there are also demons that represent things I just think are cool: dinosaurs, magical mirrors and Moorcockian swords.

The demons in Mu tend to be fairly epic and over the top and I credit Scott Knipe’s wonderful mini-supplement, Charnel Gods, for showing me how epic and apocalyptic Sorcerer demons can be. If you like Mu, you will likely love Charnel Gods. Check it out.

Tell me about the “kickers” you gave to the different people in the dictionary and why you made them fully playable characters.

I think that was Luke’s contribution. He mentioned that we needed the named folks statted out and I was thinking about how to do that and realized they could be viable starting player characters. The more I toyed with it the more I liked it.

When I playtested the setting at cons, I had player characters ready-made and baked into the setting, which was nice. The playtesting period allowed me to tinker with the quasi-kickers too.

They aren’t really-really real kickers because their players didn’t author them.

The artwork and layout for Dictionary of Mu are incredible. Tell me a little bit about how the art and feel of the book came about.

I have to credit all of that to Luke Crane and Jennifer Rodgers. Luke and Jennifer really took the text and ran with it, finding readings of the text and thoughts on how to present it all that I would have never dreamed of. Thanks to them, I still pick up the book, years after it was released and I smile when I open it.

When Luke read it, he wanted the book to be an artifact from Marr’d, like some kind of found thing. If it was up to him, I think the book would have been bound in mantischora leather and written in gray blood. He really held my hand and patted my belly throughout the process.

And Jennifer really did amazing work. I can’t say enough about what a pleasure it was to work with her. She really pushed the boundaries past what I had ever imagined. The saddest part of being done with this project was not getting pictures from Jennifer e-mailed to me every few days. I still miss that.

Are there any plans to expand on the setting presented in the Dictionary?

I get asked this quite a bit and really, the only way to expand is for people to play and through play, to create their own entries, as the rules dictate. To present a sequel would really go against everything the Dictionary is about. This is a setting book all about how the written word is not as important as the spoken word when it comes to gaming at the table. That is what the whole damned thing is, a love letter to the worlds we verbally create with our friends and a big middle-finger to the written words that seek to constrain us.

Short answer, no, I won’t be publishing any sequels or city books.

I am tempted to publish a blank book with the same interior as the dictionary, only without any words. Keith Senkowski dropped that idea on me and I think its a gem.

I am also sometimes tempted to write short stories set in that world but it hasn’t happened in earnest. If it does, I’d think about rounding up the posse again and publishing it but that project is so far on the back-burner that its not even tepid at this point.

Is there anything you would do differently with the Dictionary of Mu if you were working on the project now?

Funny, I was on Rob Bohl’s podcast, The Independent Insurgency and he asked me the same thing.

I might make the Descriptors and through the Descriptors, the player characters, slightly more heroic. Maybe.

Maybe not.

It is done and I feel like the narrator, Oghma son of Oghma would get angry with me if I changed a word as written.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I am currently working on 1st Quest, an RPG of young adult fantasy fiction, based on the Solar System that powers Clinton R. Nixon’s wonderful sex, drugs and rock and roll fantasy, The Shadow of Yesterday.

I should have an ashcan out by Gen Con, I hope and get the final project out this year or the next. I don’t rush anything. I’d rather get it done right and late than put out a game that isn’t solid.

You are co-host of the Sons of Kryos Podcast. Tell me a little bit about that.

Jeff and I were doing a podcast about our experiences of play and what was happening with us at the table. Storn moved to Ithaca and went from listener and fan to co-host and treasured contributor.

We love talking about play and we are all really passionate about it; when we go some time without recording I really miss being behind the mic with those guys. It is really fun but it is fun work.

I couldn’t mention the show without mentioning how hard Jeff works on it. He does all of the technical hoo-ha, from editing to actually posting it all up on the internet. It is amazing what Jeff can teach himself to do.

Short answer, Sons of Kryos is a podcast about RPG play hosted be Jeff Lower, Storn A. Cook and me.

If people are wanting to learn more about the Dictionary of Mu or the Sons of Kryos Podcast, where should they go?

Sons of Kryos is at www.sonsofkryos.com and Dictionary of Mu’s site with a pdf of an entry and a character sheet can be found at: www.conspiracyofshadows.com/mu.

– Interview by Michael Erb

I wanted to thank Judd for doing this interview with me, and I hope to have my review of The Dictionary of Mu posted soon. For those of you going to GenCon, you can find Judd and the Dictionary at the Playcollective, booth #2039.

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