Jan 19, 2012

My Version of the Zak S. Questionnaire

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

My weapon and armour creation tables for Runequest-likes. I really like that using it I can avoid giant tables of weapons and armour with only minuscule differences between each entry. Over the past decade, I've been trying to consistently move away from ad hoc lists of things and towards systematic but flexible rule frameworks that allow people to realise their visions through the rules, rather than butting their heads against them.

2. When was the last time you GMed?

Yesterday, January 18th, 2011. It was a bit unusual, since I've normally been playing with that group on Mondays, but we rescheduled this week to Wednesday to accommodate people's schedules.

3. When was the last time you played?

Over a month ago now. I am a player in two groups, one that does WFRP 2e and another that does Dark Heresy. The WFRP 2e group is every other Sunday night, with breaks for the holidays, etc. We're just shifting over to a new WFRP 2e campaign (The Thousand Thrones), so combined with Christmukkah, New Year's, etc. it's been a slow start.

My other group, the Dark Heresy one, has played 4 sessions in the past 5 months. This is down pretty drastically from the once-a-week schedule it was supposed to be on. Our last session was in early December.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

An elvish pretender named Jarek the Snake is about to unite the Children of Night (elves, gnolls, hobgoblins) and have himself declared High King of Eternal Night as a prelude to conquering the Dawnlands at the head of a great horde of cannibals and fanatics.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

I smoke cigarettes and answer questions.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

Shwarma, pizza, and a fair bit of junk food like chips, cookies and candy.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

Not normally, except when I stand for an extended period of time, like a 4-6 hour session.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

Everything the PCs do is interesting, but the most really notable thing that happened was the session before last in Emern, when three PCs were hit with a mutagenic acid that was slowly dissolving them. The party had two Neutralise Poison spells, and two of the PCs who were hit weren't at the session, while one was. The guy casting the last Neutralise Poison spell said "Well, James is here and Matt isn't, so.... I give it to Matt." There was a lot of startled laughter over that.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither? 

It varies a lot. Emern is only semi-serious, so it can handle a lot of tone changes. The PCs don't really make the setting "serious" or "unserious", but individual scenes can be. Generally, when they're out on adventures they're pretty serious, and when they're bumming around Heshtown, the game could go anywhere.

10. What do you do with goblins?

Goblins are people. You can ransom them, kill them, bargain with them, scare them off, etc. Hobgoblins are a player race in both the Dawnlands and Emern.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

I get a lot of ideas from reading books, both fiction and non. I can't say too much here because it's for a campaign that's currently ongoing, but Heshtown is set on the equivalent of San Domingo and I've been reading CLR James' "The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution" with interest.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now? 

The legendary test of 4e where we were deciding whether we were on board with it or not. The DM gave us this quest to go kill some goblins and the goblin king or whatever, and I wrote us a quest card that said "Kill All the Fucking Goblins" and people chuckled and we went on our goblin-killing way into the foothills of some mountains.

As we're passing an abandoned farm, the guy playing our ranger climbs on top of the barn and scans the horizon. He can see some goblins coming. He tells us, and then comes down and says "Why do we have to fight these guys, let's just let them go past and then continue on our way." The moment was perfect, and I pulled out the card, pointed to it and asked "Perhaps you've forgotten our quest?" and we all burst out laughing.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

Stars Without Numbers. I've been thinking of running a game using it for the Emern guys if anyone gets restless from Swords and Wizardry. I always love science fiction games.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

I don't have one. I don't think most RPGs are illustrated well, because I think most art in RPG books is not functional. I know some people are very visual people who figure things out more effectively from images than from blocks of text, but I don't even think those people are served well by RPG art. I would prefer more maps, more diagrams, and more scenes that one could point to and describe cogently as some feature of the world, and fewer pieces where people are standing around screaming, or shooting, or punching one another, or spraying magic lightning, all on featureless backgrounds and without any coherent look to them across the various pieces.

This is not to insult the technical skills of the many fine fantasy and science fiction artists out there, who I do not blame for this. This is solely the fault of whoever picks or commissions the art for in these books.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

I think so. The most recent adventure, on Sword Island, had moments people were describing as "extremely creepy". There were shoggoths, cyber-leechmen, poisonous gas, dank caves, goo golems, etc. My impression is that any game that is based on a dream I had turns out to be really weird and creepy, which is kissing cousin to scary.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

I never have, actually. I've only ever played in one module either, Call of Cthulhu's Grace Under Pressure at Giant Space Telescope Con 2009. I am about to start playing in a second one, the Thousand Thrones for WFRP 2e.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

Two giant couches on either side of a big coffee table, with plush chairs at either end of the table, with adequate leg room and space. I'd like a whiteboard on the table with some markers, room for character sheets, with books stowed underneath, and an ashtray so I can smoke while we play, plus a fan or filter to keep the smoke from building up.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

Harnmanor and Unknown Armies 2e. One's the crunchiest fief construction system known to gaming, the other is a minimalist game of pop-occult pastiche horror.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

Anarchism, Catholicism, Gene Wolfe, the Iliad, Edgar Allen Poe (appropriately enough it's his birthday;I'm mainly thinking of the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym and the Dupin stories), Aristotle, the Lesser Key of Solomon, Dan Simmons, Gnosticism, Georges Bataille, the Invisibles, the English Civil War.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table? 

The enthusiastic kind. Anything else can be taught, or debated or experimented with, but if there's no enthusiasm, then nothing else matters.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms? 

Camping and hiking. Lame as it is to everyone else's answer here, I'm sure, I used to do a lot of camping and hiking when I was younger (I still enjoy doing it), and it helps me flesh out what doing those things is like.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

I'm actually pretty good right now. The only products that I wish existed that don't are the ones I want to write / am writing.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

Yeah, I'll talk to anyone about it. I try not to bore people, but I don't hide the fact that I play D&D, I recruit people pretty aggressively when I need a group, including previous non-gamers, and if people want to know how it works, I'm pretty happy explaining it to them.


  1. Nice to see someone else has an interest in using pre-revolutionary Haiti as a backdrop for an rpg setting. I have been slowly working on that as a setting myself. I've done a lot of changes but that's where the background lays.


    May I suggest adding Laurent DuBois Avengers of the New World to the list of Haitian Rev books along with Jeremy Popkins' Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection. He also has written You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery but I have yet to get around to reading that as well. Not sure the level of your background reading but I thought I'd throw in some suggestions.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions! I'll check them out.

    Technically, the period Emern is set in is well before the Haitian revolution (it's early 16th century equivalent). It's actually right at the cusp of the emergence of the African slave trade, about twenty or thirty years after colonisation of the West Indies began. The second adventure the PCs were on dealt pretty directly with it, as they were targeted for murder because a slaver believed they knew that one of his captains had dumped slaves overboard when becalmed. I chose the period mainly for the "Fall of the Aztecs" feel, but the slave trade and the economics of early imperialism have become more and more interesting to me as I've gotten deeper into it.

  3. So pre Code Noir and before they became the world's most prosperous colony. There is a lot to sink your teeth into with this subject. I find the history fascinating. it also works well in not being another Europe derived backdrop but close enough b/c of the French, English, and Spanish in the area.

    So this would also be around the time that West African religions were merging w/ Roman Catholicism to form Voodoo and the other slaves religions in the area? There are some interesting things you could play with right there.

    Not sure if you have heard about this but the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database might help you out a little w/ issues of the slave trade from a more technical aspect. Looking into the price index it's a little later then what you are looking at but it's a good thing to look into if you haven't.


    Good luck w/ your setting. Following your blog via RSS so I'll be looking forward to hearing what you have to say on the topic.