On the OSR New Wave, Ian Johnson

I have a confession to make.

First, these interviews were done in a batch, and this one arrived after I had posted the others. So it was done a while ago, but somehow forgotten.

Which is really, really, really, terrible.

Because you know what? Stab City is out. And it is Bad Ass.


That's not a figurative turn of phrase. That's what it actually is. "Michael Baysian Anime Magical Realism"

Like, Hitler clones, cybernetic monkeys, werebeast presidents, ninjas, just more than words can say.
Stab City! is a role playing game about deadly assassins and murderous foes. It is a story game, designed to create "Michael Baysian Anime Magical Realism" adventures, which is a thing that did not exist until Stab City! came along. It's a game about secretive cabals and mysterious organizations battling in the shadows, a world of gritty intrigue, cigarette stubs and dark, rainy nights. It is also a game about ninjas, supervillains and massive special effects budgets. It is one part grindhouse crime story, one part high budget summer action movie, and several parts weird. Stab City! finally answers important questions that people want to know. What would have happened if Haruki Murakami had directed Fast And Furious 6? What would Robert Rodriguez's film adaptation of No More Heroes have looked like? How about Zack Snyder's gritty reboot of The Venture Brothers? Or Hideo Kojima's Saints Row: The Third?

So, Ian is certainly new wave. His blog Monstrous Television is fantastic, and the home of the Muscle Wizard who will punch you in the face with his fireball. You can also find +Ian Johnson on Google+. The game is a playing card based tactical game, but you're already going to check it out so I'll just get on with the interview before something around here explodes and ninjas pour out.

Pitch me on you and your blog right now before I get bored and stop reading this article!

Man, ain't no one can answer that question without sounding like a braggart, but I guess I have to: I like game design more than I like actually playing games. Most of what I write these days is cute math tricks or interesting modular subsystems or investigating game mechanics. I once in a while I write little mini RPGs and post them, which is cool I guess, if you somehow have the friends who you can convince to play a free game you downloaded off of a blog (no one has friends who will play a free game you downloaded off of a blog, by the way.)

Which cartoon not named "Dungeons & Dragons" is  most like Dungeons & Dragons?

The old Ralph Bakshi movie Wizards is about a cigar smoking sorcerer, a sexy fairy queen, a berserk elf and a pajama'd bounty hunter named Necron99 travelling to defeat an evil wizard who is raising an army of (literal) Nazi orcs. That's the sort of gonzo D&D I like.

If you ran across a group of baby orcs in a game;  what do you do with them?

 I'm pretty sure you have to spare them or give them back to the orcs or something. Like, you can just straight ice any orc you meet, but as soon as your GM informs you that orcs have families, it becomes a whole big thing. That's why I like skeletons. Man, no skeleton carrying any moral quandaries.

You all have highly creative blogs. Bryce over at tenfootpole.org has reviews of adventures that are simple and direct, mostly involving killing things in rooms and getting +1 swords. Describe your philosophy behind why those aren't good enough for you?

I think I just got that all out of my system when I was a kid. I was all about traditional fantasy when I was younger, I thought Dragons Of Autumn Twilight was the pinnacle of literature. I must have run a thousand adventures about noble elves and brutish orcs. Eventually you figure out what you like, and you want to incorporate that into your games. I like folklore and 80s pop culture and 70s gonzo fantasy and Japanese horror. I'm just lucky that everyone else is bored enough of traditional fantasy that people think my weird offerings are fresh and interesting. I just write what I'm into.

What is the most important house rule or change you make to the game?

Hah, I almost never use the same house rules twice. I think that the mechanics can dramatically impact the play experience. so I usually tailor the rules to fit the genre and theme. Even something like a return to getting XP only for GP, not for defeating encounters, can change the way people interact with the game. It's a shame D&D moved away from that mechanics. Even though it was probably an accident, the rule is hella elegant and simple, and yet has far reaching ramifications, I just love it.

What's your favorite edition and why?

That's a tough one! I love AD&D because it's very, very good at doing dungeon crawls for your stoned friends on a lazy Sunday.

My favorite edition of D&D is probably 4e. It was the first game that really opened my eyes to how much the mechanics of a game can effect the game experience.  In D&D 4e's case, that experience happened to be a really fun, set-piece based grid skirmish game, which turned off a lot of people expecting D&D 3.5.5, but I've got nothing but respect for +Rob Heinsoo's game design aesthetics.

Thieves? Clerics?

Old school thieves are straight terrible, don't bring that weak shit up ins. Clerics are alright, even though it's been done to death by this point. I mean, a ripped dude with a tonsure and a metal club who kills monsters and loots tombs in the name of God? That's kickin' rad.

What are your thoughts on the proliferation of rulesets for sale?

Oh my goodness, I just think it's charming. I've always felt like the system really matters for a game, so the wide variety of games means I can have something for any type of game I'm running. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e, Dungeon Crawl Classic, and Dungeon World are all games about adventurers fighting goblins, but they're totally unique and different play experiences, and I think that that's wonderful. Gamers are spoiled for choice these days.

How long before the inevitable saturation occurs and we go though the classic fox/hare die-off?

I think most people who buy RPGs at all are the sort of superusers who will buy lots of books over the years. The RPG market will probably be fine, especially with the increase in RPGs designed with minimal investment and a low entry point to attract new gamers, like Dungeon World.

I will say that I'm surprised the market can support retroclones at all. Shit,  I know I just said I liked seeing the way people handle mechanics for different things, but it's hard for me to justify paying for something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess when I've already got a copy of the old AD&D Player Handbook sitting around, and enough gamer friends that I can just ask them to explain Raggi's clever encumbrance system to me so I can hack it into my own game of choice. I guess a lot of retroclones are free downloads, but I have no idea who actually pays money for them, I sure as hell don't.

Do you get to play? 

I keep meaning to play in more of the OSR's infamous FLAILSNAIL games. People are doing some really fun things in those games. I ran a game for a while with a great group that was FLAILSNAIL, and I had a complete blast, but it's hard to keep up the time commitment now that I'm an adult. Family and career and drinking problems get in the way of organizing a consistent game night. Especially in person, because I'm a Seattle gamer and we're all hikikomori hermit homebodies.

What is your favorite class?

I usually play Conans. I just want to cut dudes in half and slay evil wizards with my swole muscles erry day erry day.

There is an alternate universe where the tedious 1980's sitcom was bypassed and instead replaced by D&D. What is the worst thing about this alternate reality?

What, like people played D&D instead of watching sitcoms? So role playing games have a golden age in the 80s, become mainstream, and tedious. If I could visit this world, I think it would be great to see everyone's ideas. With so many people playing, we'd have a proportional increase in interesting ideas, and a proportional increase in niche games. I bet that world would even have a mech game that wasn't horrible!

On the other hand, if I was born into this world I'd probably just hate RPGs because I'm an hipster elitist.

What is the worst player you've ever had?

I don't like playing with the people who like simulationist, really immersive games. The kind of people who remind other players that they can't talk because their characters are in different rooms, or are unconscious, that sort of thing. Dude, shut up, it's a stupid game where we are pretending to be elves. Who cares about that stuff? It destroys the harmony of the social experience that is RPGs, and I won't stand for anyone doing things that ruins other peoples fun in my games.

What is your favorite base version to use?

Ha, I run a "Dungeons and Dragons" game for my brother and his friends which is really just Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson. I usually use AD&D though - I've already got the books and it's really not a bad system for a game about dungeons.

You gain the ability to summon anyone living or dead, and if they are dead, grant them a permanent corporeal form. You take this radical power and do the only logical thing with it. Build a bunker where you force anyone you wish to play Dungeons and Dragons with you. Who do you summon? Who is the DM and what are everyone's characters?

I know it's trite to say Gary Gygax, but every time I read a first hand account of what his games were actually like, he sounds like the chillest of dude. "You wanna be a Balrog? Sure, man, let's make that work." I could list some authors or whatever that I like, but I don't think Haruki Murakami wants to play D&D, so I think I'd go with some people more likely to enjoy themselves, and my personal gaming heroes: Rob Heinsoo, Jay Little, Lucien Soulban, and Ryo Kamiya.

Which is best: Adventure, hexcrawl or mega dungeon? Why?

I prefer adventures. I like a game to have a manageable goal. I prefer one-shots, to be perfectly honest, or mini-campaigns that run 3-4 games. I like to change things up so much, I get sick of running the same thing for a long time. Life's too short to spend it all on one game or one setting.

What is your own personal appendix N?

Whatever I'm passionate about at the moment! Right now I'm into Indian mythology, Japanese ghost stories, giant robots, body horror, street gangs, and drag queen pun names. The only real link between the games I run are inscrutable magicians, beetles, mushrooms and skeletons, four things I hold to be the pillars on which all strange fantasy is built upon.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I like writing games and mechanics a lot. I wrote a high-octane action game about gonzo assassins that uses cards instead of dice called Stab City!, and I'm making a retro-style mecha game right now as well, which I'll probably have done by the end of the week. I really like making games, so I'll probably do that until I get bored and decide I like something else.

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