Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Man Behind the Wampus: An Interview with Erik Jensen

As far as I can remember, I first "met" Erik Jensen online when we were yelling at each other over 4e's debatable merits. But a chap can't stay cross with another chap for long, and I've since come to see Erik as the exemplar of someone smart and interesting who takes an old game with an expected playstyle and uses it to do his own inimitable thing. His blog, Wampus Country, should be on your reading list; waiting for a new post is like waiting for Christmas: torturous anticipation, but completely worth it.

Q: In my opinion, Wampus Country is one of the great unpublished settings. Can you give us a brief description of it and how it came about?

I think we can agree it’s “unpublished”, at least! The gimmick behind Wampus Country is that it’s intended to be a frontier-exploration thing that’s sort of on the edge of dream logic, or seen through a child’s eye in some ways. Instead of a ‘mythic underworld’, it’s the mythic frontier, where the lands rarely-trodden by civilized man feel no particular need to conform to man’s physics. The other feature that varies from standard D&D is that the tech level is what I’d call “mixed 19th century” - Wampus Country has reliable revolvers, for example, but no electricity or steam power. I wanted to keep the explorers on horseback and try to maintain a “Lewis & Clark” vibe initially. The original concept was to mash up American frontier tropes - like tall tales - the way regular D&D mashes up European folklore and mythology with willy-nilly abandon. And, on top of that, Wampus Country is sort of a twisted America, but in a loving way rather than a cynical one. I don’t know if that intent always shines through, but it’s there in my head.

I said ‘intended to be’ earlier because the campaign, and the setting, have wandered a bit from the initial concept - I suppose that’s a normal, organic development. Wampus Country has veered more deeply into comedy and satire in actual play. What was supposed to be West Marches with pistols has turned into a kind of episodic sitcom. And I’m not complaining about that - there are plenty of games and campaigns out there with a wild west inspiration, or even tall tales, but I might be one of the only ones consciously doing D&D-America-as-loving-sitcom. Whatever that means! The influence of my son has been very strong from the early days, as he’ll come up with things I wouldn’t, or see things from a really original childlike perspective. He’s an important part of Wampus Country and has a role in creating the setting; he’s also been a player.

Q: How does prepping adventures for Wampus Country differ from prepping adventures for a more traditional fantasy setting?

There are two questions in there, because part of it is Erik’s GM Style, and the other part is Wampus Country. I’m an improv guy at heart - I spent a lot of time in college performing improv comedy - and my preferred way to GM any game is minimal prep. I’ll have half a page of notes to riff off of, and most of that will be ridiculous NPC names over which I’ve agonized. I imagine some other GMs draw and redraw dungeon maps to get them perfect; I recite silly NPC names and practice accents on my morning commute. And, actually, I guess that’s where you see the overlap between a desire for minimal prep, and really trying to hit those Wampus comedy notes. When I prep to run Wampus Country, I have to make sure I’ve prepped and seeded those opportunities for escalating danger and escalating ridiculousness. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - I think when you’re running a game that’s meant to be a comedy, you have to be ready to seize opportunities and weirdness when they pop up. You probably need the right players to really make it sing, but I’ve yet to have a player who didn’t get warmed up and throw some comedy down. Players need to buy in to the genre. Just as you’d expect a certain level of lethality from an old-school game, you have to be ready for a certain level of nonsense. When you play Ghostbusters, you kind of want to get slimed. The other change I’ve noticed - and this is player-driven - is that Wampus PCs, or maybe their players, are reluctant to kill off NPCs. Especially if they’re amusing. It’s like there’s implicit buy-in that some NPCs - or maybe even most of them - “deserve” to be seen again on-camera. We’ve ended up with an immense roster of NPCs in and around the starting areas because of this, so there are a ton of potential interactions between NPCs, and between NPCs and PCs.

Q: One of the things I really admire about Wampus Country is that it led to my favorite house rule to come out of the old-school blog scene: It Gets Worse. In what ways does that house rule change D&D's usual mode of play?

Your favorite? That’s high praise, and a strong statement. One hopes that it changes the mode of play because it removes some of the fear of lethality and drives players to attempt really heroic or ridiculous stuff, which was what I was aiming for. But I have some news for you: It Gets Worse only sort-of works in play so far for me. That might surprise some people, so let me explain. The concept is that when you hit zero hit points, the PC doesn’t die, they just get placed in a more difficult or weirder situation. Complications instead of PC death. It works great as a guiding principle - this is a tall tale, a picaresque comedy, and the best way to get out of a bind is to escalate and change the sort of bind you’re in. Every player knows that if their PC gets in a bad way, things will very soon Get Worse and they’ll have an opportunity to squirm out of something even more ridiculous. And that’s great.

But here’s the problem: Wampus Country has evolved into the sort of game where PCs almost never get reduced to zero hit points. There are several reasons for this. First, I’m not much of a lethal GM most of the time, so there’s that baseline. Second, the players I’ve had are not, typically, uncautious types. Combine these, and you’re not threatening PCs very often - not physically, anyway. They have their care-abouts, and those get threatened pretty easily, but again, that’s shifting the tone of the campaign. I sometimes think that It Gets Worse would work better for someone that isn’t me. Is that weird? And, it’s worth noting, some other seemingly-clever rules tweaks designed to enforce internal genre - like the Wampus Country Hat Rules - only sort-of work in play as well. We always forget the damn rule, or again the minimized lethality means that a rule originally designed to get a new saving throw is less necessary or desirable. The Hat Rules actually work better adapted to 5e, where the right hat just gives you advantage on every appropriate save. There, done. I think the first version of a house rule is often very clever, but it’s the third or fourth version of it that can actually approach elegance. The process is iterative, and it can be rough to see your clever contribution just plain not work.

The takeaway: mechanics that reinforce campaign concepts are easy to dream up, but not always easy to employ. No plan ever survives contact with the players. It’s an evolving thing. But the point of it - and what probably drove the conversation around it’s creation, adoption, and discussion afterward - is that I think at the point when It Gets Worse was posted, we were at one of the peaks of the “Old School Is Lethal!” sine wave. As a deliberate counterpoint, it got some attention - and maybe more than it deserved, because of the context. But nothing happens in a vacuum. The gaming “scene” is a conversation.

Q: Another thing that I admire about Wampus Country is its longevity; it's been an on-going game for a number of years and an impressive number of players have gotten a chance to explore the setting. Do you have any advice you'd give to a fellow DM who is looking to run a lengthy, open-table campaign?

Wampus Country has been on painful hiatus for far too long, and that’s entirely on me as far as prioritizing work and family stuff far ahead of the backburnered hobby stuff. But it certainly had a nice run in its first push, and I’m proud of that. Something like fifty different players with seventy different PCs have taken a dip in the Wampus Country pool, and I guess that’s nothing to sneeze at when you’re talking about open tables. For a while there Wampus Country was the only consistently-run FLAILSNAILS open table, as some of the earlier campaigns had either gone closed-table, or weren’t running every week at the same time. I tried to run every Friday night, and there were some play-by-posts in parallel at several points as well.

I don’t think there’s a secret to running a lengthy open table. You just do it. Run your game. Schedule your game. Shill for your game, and play in other people’s games if that’s an option - building that community is important, and people who see you’re a fun person to play with will be more willing to try you out as a GM. I think the trick is that if you’re going to do an open table, you have to really embrace the open table. You can’t get disappointed when players don’t pick up the leads you wanted them to chase, or when your favorite PC’s player doesn’t come back. You just run, run, run, and let the campaign build itself. You can’t give up. If something tanks, oh well, you move on. My first play-by-post didn’t run right and I was disappointed with how it all worked; so I learned from it, and tried again with a play-by-post that tried to play to the strengths of the format, and that one was more successful. It’s all a continuing experiment.

Q: One thing I always associate you with is Transformers. What is it about them that captured your imagination? And have you ever found a way to translate that love of transforming robots into an rpg?

A: That’s interesting, I don’t think I spew about Transformers that much in social media, but I’m definitely a fan, as is my son. I loved the toys, the comics, and especially the cartoon, and I love the continuity porn of the various versions. I like Marvel Comics’ continuity porn as well, but that’s probably a more common malady. Like any kid in the 80s, I had my fill of Transformers and other mecha stuff. But the Transformers - like their cousins, G.I.Joe - had that amazing cartoon which was, after the season, an amazing mix of superheroes, sci-fi, pulp stuff. I think it was the blend that hooked me. Marvel Comics, when they’re good, work a similar magic of blending genres into this monstrous, beautiful thing. D&D’s another offender. The 80s were a good time to be a kid and learn about crashing genres.

Transforming robots in rpgs have not had a great history. None of them have caught on in a general way, even though there are “big names” in mecha games. There are plenty of games that have done it, but the ones I’ve seen so far are either too crunchy for me - I’m thinking of Mekton and HERO here - or they are more about mecha as a genre than the actual mecha. Someone once tried to sell me on Bliss Stage as a mecha game, and that’s not what the game is about, not really - it’s a relationship game that happens to have mecha in it. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted, and continue to want, a game that does all the adventure stuff well, and the custom robot characters well without needing a calculator. They always say to write what you’d want to play, and of course that’s true, but...I have told myself for years that I should write a game that includes transforming robots and tokusatsu stuff, and like most gamers I’ve tried to write it half a dozen times, but the moral of the story is I’m not a game designer. Or at least, not a from-scratch guy. I have the setting all set in my head, I’ve posted about it in the past, but it’s a covered-in-cobwebs type project at this point.

Q: You're currently involved in TridentCon. What are the most difficult parts of organizing a gaming convention? What are the most satisfying parts?

TridentCon is very small - last year we had about seventy attendees, we’re hoping to break a hundred this year. The difficult part is that although I have some helpers this year, it’s still essentially a one-man show, and trying to get things prepped while balancing the day-job and family stuff can be difficult. Getting other people excited about an event that isn’t happening for six months is a challenge, but that’s when the groundwork has to be laid. Finding a site, recruiting good GMs, publicity. And growing the thing each time means you can’t just fall back on what worked last year - there’s always something new to do, something new to learn. It’s definitely satisfying, though, once the con starts - walking amongst the tables and hearing the laughter, that’s the payoff. TridentCon is building up to be a little con that’s big on dungeon crawling games of yesterday and today - we have D&D5e and Pathfinder, many many offerings of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and even sessions of Castles & Crusades and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea lined up. That’s a lot of fantasy, and it gives the proceedings kind of a family reunion vibe, even though we have other games - FATE, Shadowrun, for example. This year TridentCon happens to be on the same weekend as a gameday in Washington DC, but that event is 18+ and focuses more on indie and under-publicized games, which is great, because there’s something for everybody. Gamers in the mid-Atlantic can go to DC and drink beer while they play Night Witches, or they can bring their twelve-year old to TridentCon and teach ‘em how to stab goblins. I don’t see it as a competition, any time gamers can get together is good by me.

The whole point of TridentCon was to bring gamers together for charity, in the same way Save Vs. Hunger has done so successfully. In our area there is strong organized play presence for both 5e and Pathfinder, but there are also naturally these little home groups that never talk to one another. I want to get them talking to one another and cross-pollinating, and the con is one way to hopefully do that. At the same time it’s showing the community that we can give back, visibly, as a group. And I confess that I enjoy reminding the public that “gamers” didn’t always mean sitting in front of the X-Box.

Q: What's next for Erik Jensen?

We’re expecting our second child around Christmas, so that’s my major household focus at the moment, but I have hobby plans as well, and I want to get some of those out the door and in print in the coming quarters. It’ll all be under my Daydream Tiger imprint, so watch for that logo.

I always get questions about the Wampus Country Almanac, which is the notional setting book for that campaign, based on the blogposts and the actual-play. That’s still in the works, because it needs to be completely written before I start scraping together art and layout. It’s not just a matter of bundling the blogposts, because let’s face it, blogposts alone don’t necessarily give you what you’d need or want in order to make a setting book. A lot more material is needed, and I want to make sure it’s good material, drawn from play where appropriate, and in the proper Wampus spirit. I don’t want to pad this setting-book with things that a reader would expect from a non-Wampus book - like NPC stats you’re never going to use, long lines of hit points for first-level bandits. Nobody wants that from this book. The Almanac needs to be a summation of Wampus Country, and be a good setting and a good read, even if that means sacrificing some other things. I think in the case of the Almanac if I have to make choices between “entertaining” and “useful at the table”, I’ll choose entertaining every time, although that might buck current fashion. I want this to be the book you flip through over and over on the john, trying not to laugh out loud, and you’re always finding new little things throughout. The presentation will be a layout nightmare; in my head there are marginal illustrations and fold-ins and cut-out paper dolls and comic strips and sheet music and recipes and all manner of crazy crap. A mix between a farmer’s almanac, a kid’s magazine...but it’s a setting book. You learn about the setting through this in-universe artifact, that’s the goal, and the whole thing is just chockablock with adventure hooks. Although I started running Wampus Country with Labyrinth Lord, the Almanac will be system-neutral.

There are some adventures in various states of completion that should come out first, though - non-Wampus stuff, probably for DCC. There’s one about Mayan vampires that I started years ago right after that first Secret Santicore, that one’s nearly done, and I think once I break the seal the others will finish up in sequence. I’d like to present those in a magazine-style format that feels kind of like Savage Sword of Conan and those sorts of magazines, color covers with black and white, almost newsprint interiors. I want the covers to really express a pulp vibe - I really like things that look like other things, and I think that will match the DCC milieu just fine. So all those adventures, when they start rolling out, will be titled and numbered like issues of a periodical - the working title is Tales of Valor & Sorcery since it would allude to my sons’ names. This really is a family affair! Another adventure in the pipe, one that I’m playtesting at TridentCon, involves surviving and escaping a dwarven prison. That’s been fun to mess with because I can play with all these “prison movie” tropes, and there are tables for generating your prisoner - their crime against dwarfdom, a d30 contraband table, and all of that. Obviously, there’s a comedic aspect. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and frankly I don’t think I know another way to be. We’re hoping to combine that funnel with another adventure a friend is writing, plus a bit of a hexcrawl, and call it all Heavy Metal Devil War, since it’s about dwarves versus infernal terrors. If the hexcrawl portion is seeded with a hundred different music-related jokes, well...don’t be surprised. But if you can’t get behind dwarf berserkers in KISS makeup, you’re probably not the audience for this particular romp.