An Interview with Robin D Laws

RetroPunk, our Portuguese translators, interviewed game designer and Pelgrane Press stalwart  Robin D Laws and allowed us to publish the untranslated version here.

How long have you been into RPGs?

I started playing with blue box Dungeons and Dragons in 1979.

Do you have a regular game group? What are you playing right now?

A regular play group is essential to any working RPG designer. My group meets once a week; I subject them to whatever I happen to be designing, or familiarizing myself with in order to design, at the moment. Right now we’re playing Ashen Stars, the forthcoming GUMSHOE space opera game.

In your opinion, which would be the best systems and scenarios, excluding GUMSHOE.

As a freelancer who might be at any time called on to write source material for any game, it’s part of my job not to play favorites, but to understand the cool elements of any design. There is no best system, though a particular game can be the best for a particular group, with its unique mix of tastes. Even these will evolve over time and even according to the whims and moods of a given evening.

That said, games that exerted a big influence on my development as a gamer and finally as a designer include RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Zeb Cook’s Crimefighters, and James Bond 007. A current design I very much admire is 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

How was your first contact with the RPG “industry”?

My first published work as a writer/designer appeared in 1992, with GURPS Fantasy II and additional material in Jonathan Tweet’s Over the Edge. Both of these opportunities came about from contacts made via Alarums & Excursions, a gaming-themed APA. Its mimeographed, participatory format provided an Internet-like forum for discussion and collaboration before the web existed.

How do you see the RPG industry today?

The form is still less than forty years old and therefore still in its creative infancy. Think of where film was four decades after the Lumiere brothers. In particular, we’ve barely scratched the surface in exploring how to understand the inner workings of other narrative traditions and bring those insights to bear on our form. New avenues of distribution and print-on-demand technologies provide exciting new openings to get cutting-edge material into the hands of gamers. We are limited only by our creativity and by the ingrained habits of gamerdom. The first of these is not an obstacle at all; the second, less of one that many people prefer to think.

There is an amazing portfolio developed by you. What motivates you to create more?

The prosaic answer is that publishers contact me and hire me to create games based on settings, properties or ideas they want to turn into games. Sometimes they’ll ask me to pitch ideas and choose between them. In other instances I’ve been presented with a brief and look for an innovative and functional way to implement it.

The more high-flown answer is that, as mentioned earlier, the form is young and presents an incredible untapped potential to do new and exciting things. Its creative territory has only been lightly explored. It’s like the chance to be a jazz musician or film director working in the classic eras of their forms. The RPG designer today has the same room to make a mark on the field as Charlie Parker or Alfred Hitchcock.

After the play testing phase and official publication of the book, do you play in any table, whether as GM or player? How do you view this experience? Does it makes you take notes of what could be improved, corrected, etc.?

Usually I don’t have time to revisit published games, because I’m onto development of the next thing. Skulduggery is about to be published as I write this, but my design mind is already completely trained on Ashen Stars. When I do go back and play something older, I treat it as much as possible as a chance to just have fun and forget all of the elements that could have gone another way. As in any creative field, perfectionism can drive you crazy if you’re not careful. It’s important to preserve the fun part of gaming. Unnecessary analysis can burn you out.

Generally, how do you see the acceptance of the Gumshoe system by players?

When you first release a game that breaks with longstanding tradition, you get two parallel responses. Some people latch immediately onto the innovation and become your first wave of supporters and spreaders-of-the-word. Another group doesn’t necessarily want to buy a new game system, or feels a strong tribal identification with an established game, or way of doing things. They resist the new idea, sometimes in an informed way but often based only on a faulty, indirect impression. You then get a wonderful controversy that helps to build attention for your game, even it if occasionally causes your publisher a certain amount of heartburn.

In the next stage, the people for whom your idea is suited find your game, with the help of the enthusiastic first-wavers. You then get more positive feedback than negative, as all but a few holdovers from the controversy move on to being skeptical of even newer games. GUMSHOE has now reached that sweet spot, which is extremely gratifying. Its approach to investigation has now worked its way into the universal gamer consciousness. Now we can expand it to new genres and settings and have readers immediately see what we’re on about.

The play style is more narrative, which greatly favors the players’ role-play. Do you believe that this style can bring difficulties to the players who are starting in the hobby or would say it is a more indicated for mature players?

It can trip up players who are accustomed to, or have a predilection for, seeing game rules as simulating an imaginary reality, as opposed to emulating the way fiction works. It’s easier to learn a new approach than to unlearn an old one, so it’s often the most experienced players who have the biggest trouble with this shift in emphasis.

Since we are talking about the style of play, what is, in your opinion, the best point of the system? Would it be the “innovative” element of  system?

It lies in the perception that failing to get information is almost never interesting. Stories, especially investigative ones, are driven by the revelation of new information. In general roleplaying has overestimated the entertainment value of failure, and leaves its characters stymied way more often than in the fictional genres we draw inspiration from. This is why even the system’s general abilities, like Athletics, Piloting, or the various mutant powers from Mutant City Blues, give the players greater control over when they succeed and when they fail. Players decide when to spend to increase their chances of victory even in non-informational situations, gaining narrative control while maintaining the element of surprise.

How do you see the publishing of Gumshoe in Portuguese?

It’s always exciting to see your work translated into another language. Each national gaming scene is based on its own unique assumptions, shaped in part by where the state of the art was when RPGs first appeared in a given country. To an outsider, the relationship between the Brazilian and Portuguese scenes is an intriguing one. I hope to learn more about roleplaying in Portuguese through this experience—and of course hope gamers enjoy their encounter with the system.

The Pelgrane has already started publicizing your new GUMSHOE game, Ashen Stars. What awaits us in this game?

Ashen Stars is the next full-length standalone GUMSHOE game, on a par with Trail Of Cthulhu or Mutant City Blues. In this gritty space opera game, the PCs are lasers, freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers operating in a remote sector called the Bleed. They’re needed in the wake of a massive retreat by the Combine,  the utopian empire that colonized it. Amid the ashes of a devastating war, the lasers solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space—all on a contract basis. They balance the immediate rewards of a quick buck against their need to maintain their reputation, so that they can continue to quickly secure lucrative contracts and pay the upkeep on their ship and their cyber- and viroware enhancements.

What do you hope for the future of the Gumshoe? What can we expect from Gumshoe from now?

We’re going to continue to explore the various investigative genres, even those players may not immediately associate with mystery-solving. Will Hindmarch is hard at work on Razed, which brilliantly brings the GUMSHOE model to post-apocalyptic play. If you prefer your apocalypse Lovecraft-flavored, Graham Walmsley is doing innovative work on an post-rising campaign book for Trail of Cthulhu. The next, as-yet-unannounced new GUMSHOE game from me will put a uniquely GUMSHOE spin on another RPG staple genre, and will enable me to once again collaborate with Kenneth Hite. So look for plenty of investigative exploration in the months and years ahead.

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