Lawyers, Guns and Money
Back for Seconds
Marked for Death
Seed of the New Flesh
Elevator to the Netherworld
Seal of the Wheel
Over the Edge
Player's Survival Guide
Friend or Foe?
The Myth of Self
Atlas and I have had a long, profitable and enjoyable relationship, which is surprising since my first impression was that John Nephew (the publisher) despised me. But maybe he’s like that with everyone.
The other surprise is that so many of the games that wound up at Atlas began elsewhere. Feng Shui began with Daedalus games, helmed by Jose Garcia. Jose had something he really needed to get a game going, which was bottomless enthusiasm and the ability to get everyone else as worked up as he was. Sadly, it turned out that his business incompetence was even more bottomless. My last communication with him was when his bankruptcy lawyers sent me a letter indicating that they were no longer representing him due to nonpayment of bills. He has since, for all practical intents and purposes, vanished from the face of the earth.
Unknown Armies, on the other hand, was originally planned as an Archon Games release but, well, you’ve heard the joke about how you make a small fortune in the game industry, right? Step one: Begin with a large fortune…
That pretty much sums up my experience with Archon.
Unknown Armies started when John Tynes approached me with a passel of ideas for a new game about modern occultism. He was inspired by the way H.P. Lovecraft had created a cosmic mythology that was a definite break from what had preceded it, and he had ambitions t o make a similar break from both traditional myths and the Lovecraft Mythos. He also wanted it to have a goddess who’d been a star in grindhouse porn.
We both just kind of got in the car and put on the gas without having much of a roadmap. That had its effects, good and ill, on the game. Both of us were plopping out ideas, only later trying to herd them all into some mutual coherence.
My bag was, I wanted UA to be a break from what were then the default horror settings — Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness. It wasn’t because I hated those games or had contempt for them. Rather, it was a recognition that I wasn’t going to do what they did better than they did it. I needed to find a new route.
I’ll confess that I was a little fed up with the helplessness inherent in both games. In CoC, no matter what you do, the coleopterans eventually inherit the Earth. The time travelers can tell you all about it. It’s done. In the WoD, it’s not quite that predestined, but there are still vast forces about which you know nothing and can do nothing, while they control everything. All the wretchedness of the world was due, not to the mischief and malfeasance of mankind, but to the vampires or evil spirits or werewolves manipulating the government and big business behind the scenes.
(Interestingly, the new version of the World of Darkness has soft-pedaled that “monsters run the show” angle.)
I never really articulated it, but I wanted UA humanity to be big enough to screw things up all on their own. One day my older brother sent me an email (on a totally unrelated matter — I think maybe I helped him convert a file so his word processor could read it?) with the subject line “you did it” and I really liked the phrase. So accusing, yet so promising of agency and accomplishment! It became the motto for Unknown Armies.
John and I both had strong opinions about where UA should go and what it should be, and we meshed remarkably well. Years later, I confessed to Tynes that I felt a little like a parasite. “You were the guy who came up with the central conceits of the Invisible Clergy and the House of Renunciation and TNI and everything,” I said. “Plus, the layout. All I did was build mechanics and fill in a few gaps.”
Tynes looked at me and blinked and said, “You’re kidding, right? I’ve always felt like you did all the heavy lifting — taking a bunch of half-baked ideas and turning them into something that made sense. And I never could have designed the rules.”
There it is. A testament to the creative power of log-rolling. What I learned from UA is that the best creative partnerships are the ones where each of you thinks the other guy is doing 70% of the work, and you’re the lucky Ringo along for the ride.
The first supplement for Unknown Armies is an interesting artifact, and not just because it has someone trying to crash a plane into a major metro area years before 9/11. One Shots was conceived as a way to get people into UA and let them hit the ground running. (In hindsight, it would have been better to do that in the main book. The biggest complaint people had about the first edition UA core was “It’s full of great ideas, but… what do the characters do?”)
We got a bunch of writers we liked or admired and asked them to write one-off scenarios for our new game. What I find interesting about the result is the variety. The two I did are gritty, low-down, everybody-is-confused-and-violent episodes where circumstances spiral rapidly out of control. Tynes’ is a somber meditation on regret and the price of resisting resignation. Grabowski presented this post-apocalypse buffet, and Dedopulous had this very big-time, wahoo, over the top phantasmagoria.
UA was an inkblot. Different writers saw very different things. At the time, I thought that only Tynes and I were seeing what ‘should’ be there, an attitude that would bring me some grief later on. But as more and more players started describing games, fun and incredibly cool games, that didn’t fit my UA paradigm, I started to ask why my vision of it should be privileged. Especially if I hadn’t been able to articulate it in the core book.
I wrote this book from beginning to end and, with it, tried to
set something of a model for the UA books to follow. One thing I
wanted every ‘faction’ style book to have was some useful
new specific rules — something people would want even if they
weren’t fascinated by that particular group. For this book,
it was the car chase stuff.
I have a confession to make. Postmodern Magic is my least favorite book in the UA line, despite its consistently good sales.
This is the grief I mentioned a bit earlier.
PoMoMa is a bigger and more cluttered grab bag than One Shots could ever have been, and there’s some truly terrific material in it… but th ere was also stuff that I felt drifted way too far from the tone I wanted Unknown Armies to have. Some of it was too light hearted, and I wanted UA games to involve consequences. (One thing I wanted for UA’s magic system, from the very beginning, was the notion that magicians weren’t born special, weren’t blessed or gifted. They got to be that way by wanting it bad enough to cling with their teeth and fingernails, and to pay high costs for their power and insight.) Other stuff violated the idea of free will, which I also wanted front and center.
Free will was especially important for a game, I felt. Your character should be yours alone, and having someone else be able to take it over just isn’t fair. To my way of thinking, UA magic could make you want something, and it could compel you to perform certain actions, but it couldn’t make you decide one way or the other, or have conviction about this or that. I felt some of the material in PoMoMa violated that dictum, which I of course had never bothered to dictate, feeling that it should just be obvious from the emphasis on human choice that ran through the whole thing.
PoMoMa bugged me, and I asked to have more editorial control over future books. I got it, which turned out fine. But I also (eventually) learned that people are going to play the game the way they want, no matter how clear you make it what you want. That’s probably a good thing, too.
Statosphere is what I wanted Postmodern Magick
to be. I’m really pleased with just about everything in the
whole damn book. I guess I’d say this is the point where UA
really hit its stride — I’ve got no major complaints
about anything that followed.
I wrote a lot of this, but not all. Some stuff, I got lazy — I left an outline for other writers and said, “do this.” (Being line developer for Feng Shui had given me a taste of having other writers do my writing for me, and in certain circumstances I liked it.) But it’s still true to my vision. I loved the idea that this huge, ‘ancient’, powerful occult conspiracy was fooling everyone… and nobody more than themselves. Arguably this makes the Sleepers a big joke. If it does, they’re the most dangerous, powerful and remorseless joke in Unknown Armies.
This book’s all over the map, but in a good way. This was really the point where I accepted that Chad Underkoffler’s pulp UA is as valid as my absurd tragedy UA, and James Palmer’s bleak nihilist UA. Unfortunately, the version of “Stoon Lake” that got printed was my first draft, and not an expanded second draft. I’m still not clear how that happened, but it’s disappointing.
One of the factions in UA is named Mak Attax, and I wanted to do a book about them for two reasons. One is that the group (short order cooks conspiring to undermine reality by infiltrating the world’s biggest burger chain) was perceived as too silly for the gritty tone of Unknown Armies. The other reason was that I felt UA was perhaps becoming too sunk in misery, despair, and the evil that men do.
So. My self-imposed goal was to make the Maks a serious group despite their reputation for altruism and impracticality. Of course, I liked the idea that they were impractical, and that most of the occult groups in UA are. While efficient and capable gangs are great for movies and novels, I actually suspect that they’re less common in reality… and should be less common in games. Not just out of some farcical grasp at ‘realism’ but because it makes more sense for the player characters to be the highly accomplished ‘main characters’ if they’re operating in an environment where every screws up some of the time, and some of the people screw up almost every time.
I think it accomplished my goal. I stressed the diversity of the group, demonstrating that some of them had very selfish and ignoble designs on the cosmos, while even the ‘decent folk’ had often endured horrible things in pursuit of something that seemed, at the start, so clean and nifty. Plus, I think the title actually worked, and I usually hate coming up with titles.
The Unknown Armies campaign! This was originally supposed to be an appendix in Break. Today. but it got so sprawling and big that we eventually broke it out into its own damn book. I’m 90% happy with it, though I worry that it’s a bit windy — when I’ve got no deadline, no length limit and no coauthor to rein me in, I find I have a tendency to go in a dozen different directions, and at great length. This can be good, in that I get to say what I want and have scope to find quirky ideas. But it can probably lead to some self-indulgence.
As I mentioned earlier, this started out as a Daedalus game but, well, time makes fools of us all. If you haven’t played it and think you’d enjoy a game where an action like “my character dives through the plate glass window, kicks the pistol from the gunman’s hand while in midair, and insouciantly rolls to his feet without spilling any of his chicken nuggets” can be taken without any particular penalty, you’d probably like it. It’s by Robin Laws, and the setting is essentially “Every movie ever made in Hong Kong.” It involves time travel, but time travel with the “paradoxes from killing my own grandmother” dialed way down and the “excuses to have ancient demons and kung fu warriors duking it out with cyborgs from the future” pushed to a primary position. It also contains the essay, “The Map is Not Your Friend,” which was very influential in my own design work.
When Daedalus went belly up and Feng Shui went to Atlas, I had the job of line developer for a while. It’s the only time I’ve been a line developer, and I learned a lot. One thing I learned is that art direction is kind of neat. Another thing I learned is that being an editor is crappy, crappy, crappy.
From the writer’s side of the keyboard, being a line developer looks like all glory. You get to make all the decisions, you write the outlines and tell the writers what you want, at whatever level of detail you wish. If you know exactly what you desire, you give detailed instructions. If you just have a half-baked idea, be vague and let the author worry about deciphering what you mean. You get to decide which ideas are stupid and which are worthy and what direction the line is going to move.
When you actually get in that editor’s chair, it’s another story. For one thing, writers are flakes! Not all of us, obviously, but enough. I myself have never missed a deadline, and I could never understand why this was such a big deal to line developers… until I became one and had creatives casually detonate my schedule. One artist strung me along to the very last minute before bailing on me and didn’t even bother to apologize. Furthermore, while withholding payment or future work look like dire punishments when you’re the writer, they seem pretty impotent to an editor who needs his word count filled today.
I did have some fun, and I did get to work with some very skilled and talented writers. But I also had to work with some who weren’t terribly skilled, and then had the distasteful choice of (1) redoing all their work myself or (2) walking them through an edit, or several edits, in order to get something adequate.
Maybe I’m too much of a softy to be a good editor. I want to be liked. Editors like Justin Achilli and Geoff Grabowski don’t seem to care if anyone likes them or not. They want to get good results, and if they have to give scathing redlines that make you cry, then scathe they shall. It’s a different skill set, I suppose.
Hell, I can’t even remember what I wrote for this. Excuse me a minute while I go look.
Oh yeah, the arcanotechnician description! That was fun. It’s fun any time you get to write a sentence like “Watching that kitten playfully batting around the head that had once rested upon its own tawny shoulders, I knew I had found my calling at last.”
Feng Shui had, and has, a consistent and coherent tone. This is a tremendous strength for a game. For one thing, it gets the writers on the same page and allows a big stable (like the one that worked on this book) to write stuff that sounds like it all blends together.
This was a book of adventures and I wrote one called “Blood for the Master” in which a giant temple appears in Hong Kong, containing a giant iron statue that comes to life when fed human blood. Good times.
The only Feng Shui supplement where I’m the sole author, I worry that it has that same To Go problem of self-indulgence. Working with an editor who doesn’t get what you’re trying to do is an exquisitely painful experience, but working with no editor at all means you’re in a void and have no idea if anyone is going to pick up what you’re laying down. If I was writing it today, the ‘short’ story at the beginning (which I like and think has a good plot) would be shorter just because people don’t buy these books for the setting fiction. On the other hand, if I was writing it today, I might not have come up with the density of ideas per page that I had. Back then I had no children and more energy. By the same token, I had less focus and experience.
This book also holds a special place in my heart because I used it to threaten Jose Garcia into paying me what he owed for the first two books. He was getting desperate for more product, to earn more profit, to try and dig his way out of debt, and I had a complete manuscript. With this leverage, I was able to get him to take out his checkbook right there at GenCon 1996 (or was it 1997?).
Ironically, after paying he never got a chance to publish it, he went bankrupt and I got the rights back in time to sell them to Atlas. It’s quite possible that I’m the only writer who worked for Dae dalus and ultimately got paid for everything the company published.
This was the first of the purely Atlas-developed Feng Shui books, and the first with me at the helm. The fans seem pretty happy with it, as my design philosophy was “give them lots of chrome-encrusted toys to play with” alongside how-to articles that were (hopefully) illuminating to at least some consumers. But, to my great sorrow, I let a howling spelling error sit front and center at the top of a page. “Athelete” indeed. (One of my pieces in Back for Seconds had a reference to ‘page xx.’ but that one wasn’t my fault.)
Here I really hit my stride, got a bunch of great writers and just had them jam, then assigned fine artists to illustrate the results.
This was the book where I burned out and finally realized that, while I could do the job, I had to work twice as hard as I did writing, to get results that were only about half as good. I’m a much better writer than editor or developer. Honestly, it’s just a matter of math.
This is not just the first game line to publish my work, it was also the game that lured me back into playing.
Back in college… wow, what year would this be? 1990? 1991?
Anyhow, I was a fresh-faced, nerdly young English major with some
buddies in the theater program. One day, one of them (her name was
Mary Oettinger) asked if I was doing anything Saturday afternoon,
because this friend of hers was playing this game thingie and she
thought I might enjoy it.
Previous to that, my hobby gaming experience was D&D from maybe fifth (fourth?) grade until junior high, followed by Car Wars and Star Fleet Battles in high school. Coming to college, I briefly flirted with mainstream, non-geeky entertainments like drinking and losing my virginity, but Tweet got me hooked right back in.
In fact, I’m mentioned in Over the Edge, though
not by name. On page 199 of the second edition, Jonathan refers
to a player “who feels it’s his duty to create the most
powerful character he can get away with.” That’s me
or, in any event, was me over a decade ago.
My name is Greg Stolze and I’m a recovering game munchkin. I’ll say this though: I honestly did not know there was any other way to be. This is why I don’t dismiss twinky players today: They may be annoying, but at least they’re enthusiastic. At least they care enough to study the rules and invest some energy in playing. In some cases — mine, I hope — the annoying aspects of the syndrome can be cured.
Tweet cured them by (1) making it understood that no matter how I bent, torqued and perverted the letter of the rules, I was not going to get the better of the GM and (2) by demonstrating that there was a different level of play — the dramatic, separate and dissociated from the tactical. I was an English major, so I got it, though it probably took longer than it should.
Once I had my breakthrough, I started fiddling compulsively with game mechanics, settings, ideas… and I kept bugging Tweet for advice on how to get this stuff in print. To shut me up, he sent me to Blackburn and Nephew and eventually Tynes, and the rest is history.
Here’s an anecdote. One time I mentioned to Tweet that I sometimes felt like a fraud, since I’d exploited my friendship with him to open doors and get work in print. In other words, I felt like I hadn’t fully earned my success. His reply was, “Greg, of all the hundreds of people I’ve met through gaming, you’re the only one who’s successfully used me as a career-builder, even though I didn’t do anything for you I wouldn’t have done for anyone else. Maybe meeting me was a lucky break, but you’ve worked very hard at exploiting it.”
Over the Edge has left some obvious imprints on my own designs, ranging form the do-it-yourself skills in Unknown Armies to the conspiracy themes that show up just about everywhere. (Hey, they work.) It also introduced me to people who would be critical in my future career — notably Robin Laws and John Tynes.
Good luck finding this ancient supplement. I doubt even eBay has many available. But it does contain my first published gaming article. Will that give it collector’s cachet and make it more expensive? If it does, it probably shouldn’t.
Me, John Tynes and Robin Laws collaborating on a supplement about supernatural drug pushers with a product called Nightmare. What could be better, right?
The problem was, we all approached it from different angles. Tynes was easy to work with and quite willing to alter his part to fit with the rest. Robin and I, however, just did not see eye to eye and had a hell of a time getting our ideas to click together. It’s funny. I like Robin — he’s a great guy, good sense of humor, easy to be around. I like Robin’s work — he’s a giant in the field and I’ve had a splendid time playing and writing for his games. But in all honesty, every time I’ve had to work closely with him it’s left me gritting my teeth.
I think it comes down to approach. I’m not sure, because those unpleasant work situations (and let me stress, this was not yelling and sniping unpleasantness, but just finding the sensation disagreeable) are pretty far back in the past and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge. But I suspect we come at design differently.
Or maybe it’s just that we each were passionately attached to our ideas and didn’t want to have to compromise. In the end, of course, we did.
Like Back for Seconds (which it preceded) this was a grab-bag of characters and plots. I remember with great fondness my sentient remote control. It’s a little bit of a swipe from the Ian Shoales book A Perfect World, but I think I added enough twists — it traveled back in time with a history-warping agenda, and has an exact duplicate programmed to stop it — that I can call it my own.
Most of my writing has withstood the test of time well enough, I think, but I’ll admit that I’m a little embarrassed by the adventure I put in Myth of Self. This was the very first thing I wrote for Over the Edge, though it got published after much other material. It’s not that it’s a bad idea — telepathic cockroaches that are ensnaring researchers in their non-sentient hive mind — but I structured it poorly and over-explained some elements. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that I can see, from the perspective of experience, how it could have been done much more cleanly.
This was a collection of adventures that contains a short, fairly forgettable thing called The Furchtegott File. It was mainly an excuse for me to come up with a bunch of bizarre characters.