Alex Flagg & Patrick Kapera Talk Mastercraft

September 14th, 2009 by Ed Grabianowski

cgintAlex Flagg and Patrick Kapera are the founders of Crafty Games and the minds responsible for Spycraft and Fantasy Craft. In this exclusive Robot Viking interview, they explain the genesis of the Mastercraft system, explore some of the details of Fantasy Craft, and clue us in to some of the cool stuff they’ve got planned for Crafty games in 2010. Plus, gratuitous Vin Diesel worship!

Robot Viking: Fantasy Craft is the “epic fantasy” version of your Mastercraft system. What other genres and settings do you have planned?

Alex Flagg: While there are always many ideas floating around Crafty HQ for products, the next major genre expansion for Mastercraft is Ten Thousand Bullets, a street-crime noir game set in the modern day. In addition to being the first modern toolkit for Mastercraft, Ten Thousand Bullets will also feature a fully developed city setting rife with corruption, complex characters, and classic noir plots for the characters to run riot in — be they on the side of the law, the gangs, or just themselves. It’s all about creating a space, rules, and situations rich with storytelling opportunities, then letting each group carve out their own destiny in the streets of Empire City. That’s why the tagline is “Get Yours!”

Like Fantasy Craft, Ten Thousand Bullets will be followed up with print products that will continue to expand the game’s scope and take it in ways you might not expect… but that’s for a later interview.

Patrick Kapera: Eventually we expect to cover all the biggies but next year’s all about Ten Thousand Bullets and… another Mastercraft core book we haven’t announced yet. Shh! It’s a surprise. Mostly.

RV: Fantasy Craft uses Open Gaming License material, so a lot of the core systems should be familiar to anyone who’s played 3rd Edition D&D. It’s not a D20 game, though. What’s the difference?

PK: Like all Mastercraft products, and Spycraft before them, Fantasy Craft incorporates a wide range of what we consider upgrades to the core d20 system. As an example, players gain action dice for innovative problem-solving, roleplay, and otherwise enhancing the game, and they can spend them to boost die rolls and damage, heal, activate special abilities, and even change the consensual game reality through narrative control.

Mastercraft and Spycraft aren’t purely combat systems. Our skill system is in our opinion the most robust of any OGL game on the market, covering thousands of potential applications with easy-to-use but powerful checks. You can run an enjoyable, mechanically supported campaign without swinging a single sword if that’s your bag, and if it’s not, we also incorporate skills heavily into the fighting end of things; characters can feint and distract enemies, tire them out, and anticipate their actions, gaining a host of in-game benefits.

Spellcasting is also skill-based, so Mages and other arcane casters grow in power as they invest in their knowledge of the magical arts. Though most spells in Fantasy Craft will be familiar to d20 and OGL players, they’re organized a bit differently — into eight Schools, each with three Disciplines — which adds a bit of character to the commonly accepted mix. Spells are also meticulously balanced by level and utility, and extensively playtested magic rules support every aspect of casting.

If tactical combat’s your thing, we’ve got it in spades: stances, tricks enhancing everything from weapon specialty to advanced physical regiment, positional modifiers without the need for a combat grid, stress and subdual damage to allow for non-lethal victories, and tons of ways to make every fight uniquely fun.

Characters also have access to unprecedented customization, including a two-part Origin system where you choose a Talent and Specialty (or Species and Specialty, if you’re non-human). These represent what you were before the adventure starts and generate unique traits you bring to the table. All classes gain new abilities each and every level, and most offer selectable abilities around Level 5–6. Proficiencies let characters choose their martial strengths, and Interests let them focus on hobbies and studies (including Alignment).

And of course, all our OGL games are fully standalone, with complete rules for building and developing characters through all 20 levels of play, so they don’t require any d20 products to run.

AF: One of the biggest innovations in Fantasy Craft is our NPC- and creature- building system, which is point-based and level-free. You start by choosing each part independently from the rest, which generates an XP bounty. These parts include everything from ability scores to customized attacks (bites, mind blasts, fire breath, and the like) to qualities like resistances, feats, and special abilities. To prep an NPC for play, you simply reference the adventure’s level against the creature’s statistics and voila! You have a balanced NPC set to challenge the heroes at that level. Likewise, the XP value is multiplied by the adventure’s level, meaning that the players always get the right amount of experience.

This means the GM is never limited in what kind of enemies he can throw at the players. Want the party to fight a red dragon at Level 1? It’ll be a hard fight (or it should be), but you can do it. Need orcs that aren’t pushovers, even at Level 20? Fantasy Craft can do that too. The point-based system lets a creative GM come up anything he can imagine… but for the GM who has more books than time to prep, we also include an OGL conversion guide to bring existing monsters over to your game.

My favorite system, however, is Alignments, which encompass all sorts of divine and belief systems, from axiomatic (Good/Evil) to religious to even elemental affinities or birth signs. GMs can design a new Alignment in under 5 minutes by making a few simple choices about the skills, ritual weapon, avatar, and paths that best represent it. Priest and Paladin class abilities key directly into the Alignments present in your campaign, meaning that your choices as a GM shape the way those classes play at the table, without requiring any serious work on your part.

Chapter 7 of the book is loaded with stuff like this — easy ways for a GM to make calls and have them integrally reflect the function of his game at the table. Campaign qualities let you quickly amp up, dial down, add, or exclude whole elements of the system just by spending a few action dice. You can quickly change combat, treasure, magic, or miracles on the fly. Travel encounters and treasure are lightning fast and require no prep time. And then there’s Cheating Death… :)

RV: It looks as if some of the tweaks to combat and skill checks in Fantasy Craft address some common complaints with OGL-based rules. Was your initial goal to “Patch” the OGL rules, or were these rules created more from the ground up?

PK: We very rarely work directly from the SRD. We haven’t with the core system since Classic Spycraft, where Kevin Wilson and I poured over 3.0 targeting places for modification and improvement. The only other time I can think of that it’s happened is the Spellbound series, which explores D&D-style magic, and even then we do our own thing (as we mention above). Pretty much everything else we do expands or refines our own system, which went directly from 3.0 to Classic Spycraft to Spycraft 2.0 and now Mastercraft (we skipped 3.5 altogether, for example).

I find this liberating, as it doesn’t shackle us to what the mothership is, or was, doing. We’ve always been able to deal with our own issues, identify our own strengths and weaknesses, and make informed decisions without worrying about what’s happening “over there.” It’s also helpful for (most of) the players, we think, as they only have to worry about what’s on the page.

AF: Yeah — what you’re seeing in Fantasy Craft is essentially the product of continuous development over the last 7 years. Many, many of our systems have been created from the ground up over time, mainly as evolutionary processes or stuff that came out of our player base: team checks, Downtime, the NPC system… While players familiar with OGL games should recognize many of the base mechanics immediately, there have been many subtle tweaks and some outright reconstruction to fit the needs of our games and audience.

RV: Fantasy Craft looks like a great toolbox for GMs and players to pick and choose from and assemble their own game world. What lead you to create that type of modular system, rather than building a system around a campaign world or a system focused on a certain style of game?

PK: We were initially hesitant to release a fantasy version of our system because we weren’t sure we could do it justice. Fantasy speaks to role players more than any other genre. Everyone has their own “perfect fantasy experience,” especially when it comes to system and setting. We didn’t want to thrust people into our world, let alone make the system a slave to that, because that wouldn’t serve the audience. It would be just another heartbreaker people had to patch to really own.

It was this desire that spawned Mastercraft. Once we knew we wanted to make a game that was all about GMs and players making the game theirs, it was an obvious step to build a universal system that could do that in any genre. We still release settings, of course, and some of them skin their respective Mastercraft toolsets a bit more brazenly than others (Ten Thousand Bullets, for example), but all Mastercraft books have this same sensibility: it’s your game and your world. Here’s how to bring it to life.

AF: Like PK says, fantasy as a genre is very, very difficult to put into a box because there are so many books, movies, games, and other sources of entertainment to draw from. We tried to keep setting out of the rules as much as possible so the players could take ownership of the game and fit it to their own vision.

That said, Fantasy Craft does have settings coming in future products that express some of our own twists on core fantasy genres. Epoch is a Native- and Meso-American themed sword and sorcery setting featuring mighty-thewed tribesmen fighting a desperate battle against invaders and their demonic masters. Godspawn, our epic fantasy world, plunges the heroes into a forestalled Ragnarok, throwing down with gods and men across a shattered mythological landscape. We think there’s a lot to get excited about in these settings, but we didn’t want them getting in the way of the game’s core message — that first and foremost, your choices make it the game it is.

RV: What is the relationship between Mastercraft and Spycraft 2.0?

PK: Mastercraft evolved out of Spycraft 2.0 as a simpler, faster-play version of the same rules. We like to call the two “portable,” as they’re not 100% compatible but they’re about 90% alike. Some of the most complex or densest of Spycraft’s rules don’t exist in Mastercraft, or have been modified to run more smoothly or quickly. We also incorporated the wisdom of nearly five years with the bigger system, making it leaner and meaner than ever.

In my opinion, the biggest differences between the systems are obvious when you look at the contexts under which they were made. With Spycraft 2.0, we were trying to create a concrete set of rules that could stand up to the rigors of an organized play environment (which we had at the time in Living Spycraft). That game was also built to be the conduit for many different settings, some of which weren’t even modern. So it was a sprawling and exacting affair, which is awesome if you’re after an extremely tactical experience with lots of logic leaps to allow the non-modern stuff. Not so much if you’re playing a casual home game or trying to fluidly kit-bash.

Mastercraft, on the other hand, brings over all the power and utility folks loved in Spycraft and marries it with a home game, make-it-yours sensibility. It’s not so much about establishing one way to do everything as offering folks enough tools to figure out how to best do things for themselves. Lots of Mastercraft sub-systems build on player and GM ideas, rather than the other way around. As AF mentions, the Alignment system in Fantasy Craft, for example, lets you use ideologies, faiths, cosmologies, or anything else you can imagine as the basis for a slew of mechanics, from faith magic to turning to monster creation and more.

As we mentioned earlier, Mastercraft can still be used for lots of settings — we’re doing five in-house worlds for Fantasy Craft alone, and we’re already starting to see tons of awesome stuff from third-party publishers like Reality Blurs, Revenant Games, and others — but each genre is presented independently. This is another big difference from Spycraft 2.0. There isn’t any confusion about what a Mastercraft book offers — you look at Fantasy Craft and that’s pretty clear. The same will be true of Ten Thousand Bullets. Labeling these game lines as Mastercraft means they’re built to be compatible — not portable, but 100% compatible — with each other. Just as people can mix and match the modular rules in each release, they’ll be able to mix and match the broader systems across the whole of the Mastercraft, letting them kit-bash on any level. And we all know what happens when you mix, say, magic and monsters in a modern street setting…

RV: Some of the inspirations for an epic fantasy RPG are obvious (D&D, Tolkien), but I’m curious what other sources you drew from for ideas. For example, what was the inspiration for the Edgemaster?

PK: Well, I had Inigo Montoya in mind m’self.

AF: Inigo’s certainly one possibility. In my mind, the Edgemaster is your classic “guy who’s dedicated himself to mastering the blade” — an iajutsu duelist, a gladiator, Jet Li from Once Upon a Time in China, or any one of a host of fighting-game characters out there from our formative years. :)

RV: The monster templates are awesome and a lot of fun to use and experiment with. Were there any that ended up on the cutting room floor?

PK: As far as I know, all the ones from the outline made it into the book. AF?

AF: There were a few that I wanted to stick in that didn’t make it, both for space purposes or because they ended up being a better fit for some of our forthcoming settings. For example, the Fallen template represents a character corrupted by magic and turned to darkness — cool, but directly related to the Epoch setting. So we can safely say that you’ll see more monster templates in the future!

RV: We’ve just signed a production deal for “The Making of Fantasy Craft: The Movie,” in which the creators of the game are stalked by a Ghostly Dire Skeletal Kaiju Dragon (played by Nicole Kidman). Who would you cast in the lead roles? Who would play your Kobold sidekick?

PK: First of all, owie! Let’s hope Ms. Kidman, or her agent, aren’t gamers like, say, Vin Diesel. And while I wish I could cast him as the God King Emperor of Happy Happy Fun Time (that’s me – ask anybody), I don’t think the reality could live up to that hype. He’s bald, though, so maybe if we put him in the Fly pods with Kiefer Sutherland and Steve Buscemi and pressed puree, we’d have something. Maybe.

(I was once been told I look like one of those three, though I was in my late teens, I was still thin, and I’d been experimenting with some seriously spiky, seriously highlighted hair. Hey, piss off! It was the 80’s!)

Kobold sidekick? I vote for Steven Wright. Sure, he’s tall, but if they can turn Andy Serkis into Gollum anything’s possible. Plus, don’t tell me that voice and that ‘fro wouldn’t rock comin’ out of a snarky, warty, jittery dog-lizard. (Oh yeah, he’s keepin’ the ‘fro, man. That’s key to the whole thang!)

AF: I would need to be cast as a hapless everyman, caught between the “real world” and one of his imagination. Maybe Toby McGuire but with a goatee, or Robert Downey Jr. in his coke phase.

But I would totally cast Christopher Walken as the kobold sidekick, so whoever plays me is irrelevant.

PK: I can see it now: “I got a fevah… and the only prescription… is more violence! And cowbell, of course… More cowbell…”

RV: Any other upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

PK: Welllllll, since ya ask… Oh, sorry. Still on Walken. ;) We’re gearing up for our biggest year yet in 2010. Beyond Ten Thousand Bullets and that other Mastercraft core book you’ll see new print products for Spycraft and Fantasy Craft (including those settings we talked about), some hybrid products, Vow of Silence (a sort of X-Files setting if Mulder and Scully were fighting warlocks instead of aliens), that Spellbound SRD magic conversion book, and the Mistborn RPG, which is based on the fantastic novel trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

AF: I’m super-stoked to see my baby, Ten Thousand Bullets, finally join the world (it’s now in its 24th trimester), but Mistborn’s a close second. Brandon Sanderson’s dark fantasy world just screams “Make and play me!” We’re working very closely with Brandon (who’s now finishing off a little series called the Wheel of Time — you might have heard of it) to develop a new, highly story-driven rule set for our literary licenses. It’s the perfect vehicle to marry the dynamic action and unique magic of the Final Empire to life at your game table.

Even better, Brandon’s letting us carve out some new territory, explore magic only hinted at in the books, and play with a lot of the Scadriel’s secrets along the way. So this book will not only be a great game but the perfect companion for fans of the novels. It’s new territory for us, but that can be said of a lot of things these days. I think the best really is yet to come from Crafty Games!

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One Response to “Alex Flagg & Patrick Kapera Talk Mastercraft”

  1. Comment by ggodo

    I like this idea. Books full of modular stuff you can pick and choose from. Always made more sense to me than a clearly defined setting with it’s own mythology. My DM makes his own settings or tweaks the system to fit existing ones that arenot commonly used. currently we’re playing a Legen of Zelda campaign. Deku Wizard GO!