Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An Interview with Sean Bircher

Regency vampires, steampunk in Asia, duet rpgs...let's ask Sean Bircher about it. Also check out his blog, Wine & Savages.

Q: I know you mostly as a Savage Worlds guy. What is it about that system that keeps you coming back for more?

Savage Worlds gives me everything I need to run games the way I like to run them -- which is with a minimum of preparation.

We all know the most interesting opponents are NPCs, not monsters. Dragons are cool, but they're not nearly as challenging as an evil wizard or corrupt nobleman. I've played a lot of D&D 5e recently. I love that system, but even with the new official rules saying NPCs can be designed as monsters instead of obeying character class rules, it still takes too much work to build an NPC from scratch (especially if you're worrying about Challenge Rating).

Savage Worlds was designed for experienced gamers with limited amounts of time, so it throws some conventional game design concepts out the window. NPCs in Savage Worlds are deliberately not built using the same character construction and advancement rules used for player characters. The limited granularity of the d4 to d12 range in attributes and skills and the relatively compact list of Edges and Powers (equivalent to D&D's feats and spells) means that I can improvise an NPC's stats in moments. And it doesn't even break the system because Savage Worlds is so fast and loose to begin with.

It took me half an hour to build an oathbreaker paladin for my wife's fey knight to fight in 5e. I could have improvised him on the spot in Savage Worlds.

Q: Speaking of Savage Worlds: out of all the rpgs I'm interested in, Savage Worlds has, by far, the nicest online community I've encountered. That said, the most fractious I've seen that community get has been over the recent changes to how the Shaken condition works. I'm curious, which do you prefer: the new or older way of handling Shaken characters? Why?

Funny enough, all that time playing D&D 5e means I haven't really seen the new Shaken rules in action. It seems like such a minor change -- a Shaken character can now shake off the Shaken condition and still act on its turn if it scores a single success on a Spirit roll instead of having to get a success and raise -- but it's a huge change to a system with so little granularity.

The change certainly makes fighting vampires harder. An attack that isn't one of their weaknesses (like holy water or a stake in the heart) can only Shake a vampire. Under the old rules, a group of vampire hunters could hope to keep an undead opponent from attacking back by hammering it with melee attacks until somebody got in a decapitating blow or stab to the heart; chances were good that the vampire would succeed on its Spirit roll but not so good that it would get a raise. The new rules give the vampire a much, much better chance of fighting back every round.

Which I guess means I like the new rules better. 

Q: There are quite a few rpg adventures or settings that are riffs on either the Early Modern or Victorian periods, but on your blog you've posted some very compelling gaming ideas centered on the Regency period. What is it about that era that interests you, what do you see as gameable about it, and why is there so little of it in gaming right now?

The Regency is such an odd time period. It's so easy to think of it as mannered and staid if all you know is Pride and Prejudice, but it was a time of social upheaval and rapid modernization. Jane Austen's career is itself a manifestation of that upheaval; it was suddenly possible for a novelist to make a career out of writing about the middle class and middle class values instead of the nobility. Throw in the wild behavior of the Romantic poets, working class protests like the Luddites, and Napoleon freakin' Bonaparte and you've got as fascinating an era as mankind has ever experienced. Heck, it's when Frankenstein was written!

The most gameable element -- if you're going to ignore the Napoleonic Wars -- is probably the tension between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The latter half of the 18th century was all about how science and rationality would pave the way to a better future, and instead Britain lost the American colonies and the French aristocracy lost their heads. Society as a whole was freaked out and then the king went mad and the worst monarch ever took over. In response, a bunch of young punks dropped out of society and started doing drugs and having sex and that freaked people out even more. The tragedy and weirdness -- the madness -- that surrounded the Romantics is a through line to a great horror setting.

Or you could go the opposite route and just play Regency romance games with your significant other.

It's probably those Regency romances (which I personally enjoy very much) that turn off most gamers. They misread Jane Austen -- seeing only fancy costumes and repressed feelings -- and don't appreciate the social and economic turmoil that underlies her heroines' lives. They don't dig deeper and read about the Prince Regent's decadence; they don't associate the Vila Diodati with the same time period as Sense and Sensibility.

Fantasy and horror fiction about the Regency has been on the rise. There's satirical works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and lighthearted fare like Teresa Medeiros' The Vampire Who Loved Me, but there's also deeper, darker books like David Liss' The Twelfth Enchantment and (of course) Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Mary Robinette Kowal has her alternate history Glamourist Histories series and Galen Beckett has his fantasy world Mrs. Quent series. There's a lot to draw on if you know where to look. With Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on the BBC and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally coming to theaters, I think we can expect we'll see more Regency-inspired gaming in the next two years. 

Q: Speaking of eras that don't get enough love, I'm really looking forward to seeing more The King is Dead stuff from you. Can you give us a brief sales pitch on what that is all about? What are the key elements I should tell my players about to get them to demand that I run it for them?

The King is Dead is about revolution in a Gothic 18th century that never was. A literally bloodsucking oligarchy rules Malleus -- an island nation on the verge of astonishing advances in science and learning -- and humankind is finally rising up to overthrow its oppressors. Throw Black Sails, Outlander, and Turn into a blender with Brotherhood of the Wolf and Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy and you've got The King is Dead.

Characters in The King is Dead are the desperate and disenfranchised, uniting together to take down foes more powerful than any of them alone. Everyone plays a member of one of several secret societies sworn to destroy the vampires. Some societies are parallels to real-life societies like the Bavarian Illuminati and the Scottish Jacobites, while others are crazy concepts like the Captain Kronos-like vampire hunters of the Bloodstained Blade or the Wold Newton-inspired mutants of the Starlight Children. These societies offer material benefits in the guerrilla campaign to destroy the aristocracy like lending characters money, collaborating on scientific research, and even fielding armies. As your character advances, you also get to increase the power and influence of your secret society -- which in turns helps shape the future of Malleus

The opposition is horrifying. The vampires and their allies run the gamut from Renfield-like sycophants to daywalking Dhampirs to Nosferatu-like horrid corpses. The most powerful are protean monsters inspired by the hyperviolence of Kohta Hirano's Hellsing. Werewolves and liches lurk in the wilderness, uneasy allies or enemies to the heroes. The grim, sublime landscape of Malleus itself seems to battle you. There's even a mechanic for Dark Secrets that can turn allies into enemies with the draw of a card.

The King is Dead is distilled Gothic madness: decadence, secrets, revolt against society, and vampires.

Q: You do quite a bit of “duet gaming” with your wife, Robin. Can you explain what that is, as well as any considerations that go into prepping that kind of game as opposed to the more traditional “gaming group” style of play?

Duet gaming is one player and one GM. “Duet gaming” is a term I picked up from RPGnet’s Duets column (which I’ve never finished reading). Functionally, it means the same as what some people call “single-player games” or “solo play,” but implicitly “duet gaming” suggests a closer relationship – either personally or collaboratively – between the player and GM. This might take the form of switching player/GM roles, collaborative worldbuilding, or just asking the player what she’d like to have happen next in the campaign.

With Robin and me, I quite simply do not prep. I tried that during our first few years and it never worked. I’d plot out sweeping, epic story arcs and grand romances, but all of that planning killed the momentum. It just felt forced and dry; because we knew what was supposed to happen, it made getting there dull. Improvisation keeps me guessing just as much as she does; it keeps the passion alive.

For example, I decided that unusually foolhardy orc raiding parties were attacking the elves of the Moonwood. I had no idea why they were doing that, but as Robin’s character talked things through with some NPCs, three options became apparent: it was just a coincidence, the orcs were testing the elves’ defenses for King Obould of Dark Arrow Keep, or the orcs were testing the elves’ defenses in defiance of King Obould. When Robin’s fey knight paladin arrived King Obould’s court as an ambassador to the orc-king, it quickly became apparent to me from playing Obould that these orcs were not his. Since a coincidence would be boring, this means some new foe is challenging both the elves and the orcs. I’m pretty sure this challenger is going to be a hobgoblin war leader, but he might turn out to be working for a mind flayer by the time we get to him.

Also, it turned out Obould had a sternly handsome, Worf-like son. Who knew?

This approach would not necessarily be needed for people who do not see each other every night, who don’t spend an average of two hours a night, four days of the week playing elfgames. One of the joys I feel when I run multi-player games is surprise at the unpredictable choices gaming groups bring to the table. You never know who is going to make the next horrible decision or awesome joke when you’ve got a table of four or five people together, but it’s easy to fall into a rut if it’s just the two of you. Literally not knowing what’s happening next keeps things lively for us.

Overall, the need to improvise makes Savage Worlds a great system for duets because – as I mentioned – I can make a new NPC in moments. We’ve actually been playing D&D 5e together for the last few months, though; it’s been a bit of a challenge because NPCs are harder to build, but the variety of antagonists available in the Monster Manual makes up for some of that. Plus, I just really want to have a campaign last until 20th level for once.

Q: You're also involved in the Steamscapes project as a writer on Steamscapes Asia. What are your top five steampunk influences, as well as the non-steampunk influences that inspired your work on Steamscapes Asia?

Eric Simon hired me much, much more for my familiarity with Japan than for my steampunk bona fides, but I think I can scrabble together at least five steampunk influences.

1) The top influence was certainly the original Steamscapes: North America, which fired my imagination by presenting an entire steampunk world built up from actual history – and engaging with that history, instead of just using it as a backdrop for the usual Victorian scientific romances.

2) My personal favorite steampunk work is the anime/video game franchise Sakura Taisen (AKA Sakura Wars), the story of an all-girl musical revue that also fights demons by piloting clunky-cute steam-powered mecha. I actually had to deliberately ignore Sakura Taisen as much as possible while writing my section of Steamscapes because Eric (who is also a Sakura Taisen fan) didn’t want mecha.

3) After that comes the first two The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. I gave up on Alan Moore during the “Century” arc, but the first two mini-series were awesome.

4) Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana, the ultimate guide to all the stuff everybody steals.

5) Screw it. I’m going to count George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers. No, they’re not actually steampunk. Yes, they’re about a real bastard of a protagonist. Yes, Fraser himself became a bigger and bigger bastard as he aged. None of that changes the fact that The Flashman Papers taught me more about the Victorian globe than anything else I’ve ever read.

As for my non-steampunk influences, those are much easier to elucidate. I’m so lucky that I was hired to write about Japan because I was able to read a lot of manga and watch a lot of anime as legitimate research for the project. I read a lot of actual history books, but nothing can give you a better idea of what people feel about their own history than devouring their pop culture. There were a lot of series that I either didn’t finish (like Intrigue in the Bakumatsu) or maybe a single episode contributed an idea (such as Lupin III), but the following are the ones that contributed most to themes and tone.

1) Rurouni Kenshin was my biggest influence. Steamscapes might eschew wuxia-like magical martial arts, but the fact that Rurouni Kenshin is set only a few years later than Steamscapes’ timeline and that it’s chockablock full of references to genuine historical figures made it an invaluable window into how the Japanese perceive the Meiji Restoration. There are weird bits of history -- like the attempted purge of Buddhism by the Meiji government – that I wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for Rurouni Kenshin.

2) Oh! Edo Rocket might actually count as steampunk, since it’s about a bunch of late Tokugawa peasants who build a fireworks-powered rocket to the moon, but it’s probably too ludicrously anachronistic. It’s another case of using pop culture to inform my research; Oh! Edo Rocket taught me about the malaise the common people felt in the final years of the shogunate.

3) Yojimbo. It’s easy to forget that this film takes place in the late Tokugawa period – if you don’t remember that one of the villains is carrying a revolver. One of my contributions to the geography of Steamscapes: Asia is the Republic of Ezo, an independent Hokkaido that I like to think of as “Kurosawa Land.”

4) Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex might seem completely off-topic, but Steamscapes concerns itself with more typically cyberpunk fare like transhumanism. Puls, when I needed to prove that the Japanese would indeed build robot geisha, I got to just point to the first episode of GiTS: SAC.
5) The biggest contribution that wasn’t manga or anime was the pop group Wagakki Band. They combine rock bass, guitar, and drums with traditional kodo drums, koto, shakuhachi, shamisen, and vocals into a beautifully unique sound. They’re probably my favorite active musical act today, and the video for “Senbonzakura” perfectly captures my vision of the Steamscapes aesthetic.

Q: What's next for Sean Bircher?

Four-in-Hand Games is publishing The King is Dead as a full Savage Worlds setting book next summer, so that means I have to write it. Thankfully, a good third of the book is written already.

I expect there will be a Kickstarter, but we’re going to keep the goals really humble. I hope to be able to do the art using original photography and stock photos – the concept is to make the book look like a licensed game for movie or TV series that doesn’t exist – but I’ll need some cash to pay illustrators if that approach fails.

I plan to organize some playtests in person and online. I’ll definitely be taking The King is Dead to all the local gaming conventions – and that means PAX South and Chupacabracon, so hopefully we’ll get some decent exposure.

I have some upcoming articles for Savage Insider (including a gazetteer for Steamscapes: Asia’s version of the Yoshiwara), but after that I’ll be cutting back on external commitments to concentrate on The King is Dead and the blog. (Unless EN5ider commissions my absurd “Manos:” The Hands of Fate-as-a-D&D-module idea for their Halloween issue.)

Down the line, I’d like to experiment with the AGE System. I talked to Chris Pramas at Gen Con and he said they plan to have a license modeled on the one for Savage Worlds, so it might prove a fun system for future projects (or a conversion of The King is Dead). I have an idea for a playful, sexy swashbuckling setting called Altellus and I’m not sure what system would be best for it. It’s a spiritual successor to the classic Lace & Steel RPG, mixing Greco-Roman half-humans with a vaguely 16th century aesthetic. I expect it might push the boundaries of Savage Worlds’ self-imposed PG-13 content restrictions, and I’m hoping the AGE System (or even D&D 5e!) might be a bit more open to a little cheesecake and beefcake.