Wood Ingham On the Art and Tragedy of Game Design

I've decided it would be in poor taste to make a pun here, so you'll have to come up with your own.

I've decided it would be in poor taste to make a pun here, so you'll have to come up with your own.

If you look carefully through the comment threads that accompany some of the reviews of White Wolf RPG supplements here at Robot Viking, you might notice that one of the authors frequently stops in to join the discussion. That author is none other than Wood Ingham, freelance game designer, contributor to many White Wolf games, and creator of satirical sci-fi RPG MSGtm. Wood offers his insights into the art of game design, plus a few hints at upcoming White Wolf releases in this exclusive Robot Viking interview.

Robot Viking: How did you break into the gaming industry? What did you do before that?

Wood Ingham: Well. Bit of background: as a teenager, I was massively into Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade. And then in 1994, I gave it all up. Girls and stuff, see. I gave away or sold most of my rulebooks and that was it. And then about seven years later, some friends found a copy of Call of Cthulhu in a second-hand bookshop and we ended up playing it. Before we knew it, we were playing through the whole of Masks of Nyarlathotep and I was buying back my copies of Vampire and that.

Anyway, I’d been working freelance as a writer for a fair few years. Most of that was journalism, particularly on religion and politics. In about January 2005, I was having a dry time with markets, so I did the Big Push. Agents, magazines, newspapers, charities, publishers of fiction and non-fiction, all sorts of people. I’d done a bit of RPG work for a zine called The Black Seal and I thought, just for laughs, I’d send something to White Wolf. I wrote about five thousand words on a factory farm that bled people to death and sold the blood to vampires, popped it in an envelope with a covering letter and thought no more of it.

Over the next month, I got rejection after rejection. Some of them were pretty nasty. And then Will Hindmarch pulled my thing off the slushpile, mailed me and said, want to write for us? They were the only people who bit.

I have to be honest: at the time, I found that pretty depressing, in a sort of “Is this really all I am good for?” sort of way. But it’s fun. And White Wolf are one of the best and most consistent clients I have now. They’re good people and I’m glad they like my work enough to hire me.

RV: What do you think are the most vital skills necessary for someone who wants to work as a game designer/writer?

WI: I think that you have to be able set the balance between writing clearly and technically and writing in an entertaining fashion. These are entertainments, right, and writing a rulebook that reads like a physics textbook is silly, because it is not fun to read. On the other hand, you can be visionary and wild and hilarious, and your rules can be incomprehensible. And that’s no good either — I simply cannot see the point of a game book that no one is going to play. I mean, the book should be entertaining, but the real fun should be in the playing of the actual game, and the entertainment derived from reading a rulebook is valid mostly in terms of how that feeds into actual play, how the background text inspires you and the rules facilitate that.

Anyway, it’s really hard to do. I am not sure I really have this balance down yet (as opposed to colleagues like Chuck Wendig and Matt McFarland, for example, who are experts at this sort of thing), but I’m trying.

RV: What are some of the White Wolf games and supplements you’ve worked on?

WI: Oh, crikey. I’ve contributed to nearly forty now. The good stuff, then: I’ve worked on the main rulebooks for Changeling: the Lost, Promethean: the Created, and Hunter: the Vigil, along with all the supplements for Promethean and Hunter. Shadows of the UK contains some of my best writing. Shadows in the Night, which is the Mekhet clanbook for Vampire, was about 80% my work. A lot of people seem to like Requiem for Rome and Fall of the Camarilla, in which I was one of the bigger contributors. I am fond of Legacies: the Sublime and I think what I did in Reign of the Exarchs was pretty good. The blood farm story that got me hired came up in a couple of the books eventually.

On the other hand, while my name appears on Damnation City, which is for my money the best supplement White Wolf have done for years by a mile and a half, I only supplied about ten pages out of more than four hundred. Likewise, Secrets of the Ruined Temple is easily one of the most useful and interesting supplements for Mage, but I only did a couple pages in that one.

RV: Out of those, which bits of design or storytelling stand out as your favorites (like the WWI trench vampires, for instance)?

WI: I am quite fond of the gas vampires, actually. I am glad they let me get away with them. I got to write a story in Night Stalkers about Robert Graves teaming up with Siegfried Sassoon to destroy one of those guys, and no one seemed to notice, but that’s one of my favourite things ever, in Wolf terms.

I like some of the characters I created. There’s Frances in Shadows in the Night. She was inspired by my friend Becky Lowe (one of the writers and models in MSGtm). I’m fond too of Mr. Theleme, the ancient French guy who rocks up in all the Hunter supplements. He was never supposed to. I just ended up liking him so much that I kept bringing him back. I happen to know that his very presence in all these books annoys the fuck out of some internet fans, but it’s too late for me to care. So I don’t.

In actual design terms, I am kind of proud of my history sections. I like dividing them up into chunks of documentary evidence that you could use as handouts followed immediately with direct ideas about how you could use them in a game. Sometimes that’s more successful in some books than others. I like the ones in Asylum and Night Stalkers best, I think.

RV: When you’re working on a game, do you start with a story and fit it into the rules system, or use the rules as a framework to wrap a story around? Does the approach change depending on who you’re working with, or the type of game?

WI: It’s sort of halfway, actually. In that, the rules should drive the story which drives the rules. It’s not like writing a real novel. I mean, sometimes the fiction and rules don’t fit with each other — and I am sure I have done that, but if I have, it’s wasn’t through lack of trying.

The approach changes a bit in that the rules are about different things. So White Wolf stuff is all about characters, so we strive to create interesting characters who inspire readers, and strive to create character options that give players stuff to do. On the other hand, if I am writing something for Call of Cthulhu (I am right now, actually), the game’s all about the adventure scenarios, which are completely focused on the plot and the big squiggy monsters who want to eat you or squash you, and so the focus shifts away from the character and onto the mystery and the unwrapping of the pass-the-parcel. If that makes sense.

RV: How would you say writing for an RPG differs from other creative endeavors (writing a short story or a script, for example)?

WI: Well, for one, it’s not an art so much as a craft. Like an artisan making a chair by hand. It’s like, it’s a functional item, and it can be beautiful, and it can even be a work of art… but it’s pointless if you can’t park your arse on it.

Likewise, it’s nice if you can create a game text that creates in people an emotional reaction, but in the end if it doesn’t help you play a game, it’s not really much use.

RV: What lead you to create MSGtm? Was there some kind of sudden epiphany, or was it an idea and theme you’d been thinking of for a long time?

WI: I had been working on it for a long, long time. I think that the first background ideas came up long before I ever got back into games, partly through reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo. It was a backdrop for some of the more depressing fiction I was writing.

I wanted to come up with a game that didn’t need dice and had a competitive element, and was about these horrible corporate quandaries. My first playtest versions were deadly serious. I mean, ridiculously grim and humourless, all about the tragedy and the dehumanisation. I can’t remember the point at which I thought of making it funny. It was the best idea I had, though, because actually the mechanics work well with the black comedy, and the comedy fed into the mechanics (like the “Getting Away with Murder” rule, for instance). And also, it means that all my left-wing ideas about capitalism and branding are softened a bit. I mean, a lot of the stuff I say about the Company is pretty much what I actually think about real-world capitalism, but if you just tweak it a bit, add a couple of bullshit Sci-Fi elements and make your voice a bit sarcastic, a bit arch, it can get right past people who wouldn’t buy it straight.

Still, I remember someone said something about the game’s setting a few months ago, and I was like, “What setting?”

Also, I wanted something that you could play through in one go. RPGs come from that old-school culture in game design that favours really long games. I mean, board games like Risk and Civilization and Monopoly are all about playing all night. They take ages to play. Likewise, Dungeons and Dragons — and don’t get me wrong, DnD is a great game — is about playing for weeks and weeks and weeks and months and months until you get bored and play something else or you get to smack the gods in the mouth. You need a time commitment.

On the other hand, anyone can pick up a copy of Carcassonne, get the basic rules and be done with it in a couple hours. And to be honest, most people who aren’t gamers don’t have the time and commitment to spend all night playing Risk, let alone playing DnD for six hours every Thursday. Or whenever. So it was important to me to create a game that you could play in the space of an hour and a half, two hours maybe, that had a winner and a definite end (although it can be extended if you really want to). And actually, I have had far more success playing MSGtm with people with no RPG experience than I have with people who are hardcore gamers. It’s an RPG for people who prefer Carcassonne to Risk.

Finally, I wanted a game that wasn’t about killing things so much as your response to that. The game’s dependent on me only really caring about characters’ personality traits in RPGs. The stakes are based upon your character’s conscience and your self-esteem.

One guy on a forum, right back at the beginning, downloaded the free beta I did and said something like “this bears about as much resemblance to an RPG as the Sims does to a first-person shooter.” And he was being critical — he hated it — but I could only take it as a compliment. He more or less nailed what I was trying to do.

RV: Any plans to expand on MSGtm?

WI: I don’t know. I am not sure I want to . I might do a little book of situations, and I have already thought of ways to improve on the rules, so maybe there might be a revised version sometime down the line.

I thought of a way to use the double-blind system to model other kinds of story, though. Maybe other versions of the game might one day emerge. I don’t know.

RV: What advice would you offer to independent game designers who want to self-publish their work?

WI: I think the best thing to do is to just have a go. There are ways to start out that don’t have any overheads beyond your work, and it’s easier than ever to produce something that looks professional. Have a go and see how you do.

RV: What are you working on at the moment (White Wolf or otherwise)?

WI: Well, I can’t say too much, but I’m quite excited about a book for Vampire called Danse Macabre, which should be out come the end of the year. Likewise, World of Darkness: Mirrors is something else I can’t actually talk about. The Wicked Dead comes out soonish, which is the first book I developed and commissioned for WW. And the fake vampire bible that I wrote a big chunk of, the Testament of Longinus, comes out next month.

I am, like I said, in the preliminary stages of writing a Call of Cthulhu book and I’m also working on the basic ideas for a self-published horror game that works a bit like MSGtm, only you’re only allowed to have one player get out alive, and the players find ways to kill or destroy their characters in the most frightening ways they can think of. Its working title is Shudders.

[MSGtm is available in both PDF and print formats at Indie Press Revolution.]

7 Responses to Wood Ingham On the Art and Tragedy of Game Design

  1. Pingback: John Heron Project » Blog Archive » Intervewed, again

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