May 8, 2017
As the official release date (May 15th) of The Dreams of Ruin approaches, friend and colleague Geoff Grabowski agreed to sit down and answer a few questions. He is an interesting guy and this is some interesting stuff.
Q: For folks that might not be familiar with you, please give us a bit of background on your work in the field of role-playing games?
A: I did a bunch of work with White Wolf back in the late 90s and early 00s. Most notably, I developed the entire first edition of Exalted, was first developer for the Exalted 2nd edition core book, and wrote a bunch of other material for Wraith and Kindred of the East. I also worked on projects for the Scarred Lands setting, for Everway and Kult, and for a few other things I forget at this point.
Q: Give us the “elevator pitch” for Dreams of Ruin.
A: No-spoiler version: It’s a high-level event book or adventure setting that details a VERY dangerous threat that can seriously challenge OSR parties up to the high teens. It’s not a Sauron ripoff, nor is it a big stack of hitpoints shaped like a dragon and immune to all status effects.
Q: With so many role-playing games out there, many of which are supported by open or third part licenses of one form or another, what made you decide to craft Dreams of Ruin for so-called Old School Renaissance (OSR) games instead of, say, d20/Pathfinder or something like FATE?
A: I love the openness of the Goblinoid Games license for Labyrinth Lord. No censorship, no fees, and I can include the rules with the distributable.
I think OSR is like the “common tongue” of gaming and even if a lot of people don’t love it, most people can understand it very easily.
I don’t like 3.x series rules very much.
Finally I like the system, and the implicit setting. I ran a multi-year high level old school game and I wanted to build on my experience with that and my love for the Moldvay rules.
Q: Dreams of Ruin is neither a complete adventure campaign (“AP” in the modern parlance) nor a setting unto itself. Why did you decide to design it in this way, and what advantages do you think the format you chose has over other formats, such as the AP format?
A: In a lot of ways it /is/ a setting. It’s a mobile setting, an *all-too-mobile* setting, that will come to your regular setting and hybridize it. I let the function of the material dictate its form.
From a development perspective, one of the things that my situation as an independent author permits me is the ability to create works without worrying about contextualizing them in a product line or worrying about their effects on the storyline of some specific setting. I built the supplement I felt the project needed without particular regard for following anybody’s prior approaches.
Game adventures are often seen as unfortunate necessities of development, they tend to sell poorly (1 per group rather than 1 per player, at best) and by making it more engaging — about a topic rather than detailing a specifically constructed series of adventures — I hope that it can find a more general audience than it would if it was a more conventional setting or adventure.
I made it as specific an adventure as I thought you reasonably could, given that it’s written for characters of the 14th to 16th levels, who come from any arbitrary setting. No material you write is going to be suitable for *any* group of that size. You just can’t know what near-artifact items they’re going to have, who’s got which evil god chasing them, and what all the dynamics of the setting are. Some characters will rule kingdoms, some will live in townhouses is high-rent magical locales, some will be doing who knows what.
In terms of making it more narrowly constructed, like starting with some adventures in the youths of the characters that introduce key concepts and then developing them more as time goes by — I find that stuff utterly dismal to write. When you are outlining a property, you often put in big adventures to “show people how to use the setting” and as a place to trial young writers. Also, I feel like it’s making the decision of what kind of characters you are and what kind of setting you’re in for you, in order to make the design challenge easier.
I’m this one guy writing this one book that’s not attached to a particular setting or promoted property. I can’t expect anybody to take dictation from me about what kind of game they need to run to use my material. At the same time, I can write without talking down to the notional “average reader,” trying to accommodate someone who is a newbie gamer, or worrying about if it’ll whip sales for tie-in supplements.
Q: The art is unique and evocative. Tell us about the artists and the art direction.
A: I have the fortune to have some good artists as my friends, and they took the time to understood exactly what I wanted and needed. They worked directly with me. I had a limited budget but I knew exactly what I wanted / needed, and I feel I got a good result from our efforts. Part of the advantage was that most of the special encounters and the basic beasties were written very early in the project, so I had the artists working almost the entire time I was writing on the book. It gave me and the artists a lot of slack time.
Q: What aspect of Dreams of Ruin are you happiest with, or are most excited for customers to see?
A: The sculpture aspect of it where many terms of its license and packaging closely resemble the material it describes. For various reasons — commercial sanity, lack of concept and product line continuity foremost — you generally don’t get to be that artful with product design. This project’s license structure and all-in packaging concepts went hand-in-hand with the product content from the very beginning of the project. Again, the benefits of being an independent author working on a freestanding project.
Q: Is there going to be a “Dreams of Ruin tour”? Are you planning on hitting the summer convention circuit in order to support the product, or maybe even run a few sessions?
A: Doubtful? I’m preparing to sit for my CPA right now. I’m hoping to take it in the Autumn or Winter test windows. Hopefully the product will support *me* this summer so I can take time off to study.
I might make it to Origins to hang out with people, or *possibly* GenCon if it makes a tremendous splash and someone wants the prestige of having me in their booth as a conversation piece.
Q: You funding model is different than we usually see owing RPG products on Kickstarter. Can you explain how it works and why you chose to do it this way?
A: Well, I had the luxury of having the cash in hand sufficient to fund the project in advance. We don’t have some minimum capitalization written into the business plan to fulfill before we’re viable — so one big difference is that our KS funded at 1 unit. It actually funded before it was announced as open. It’s all just a question of return on investment. That was fun, no antsy GIVE, GIVE TIL IT HURTS pleadings with the family and friends networks in store.
The other part is that we’re not really trying to make a business out of selling reproductions of the work. I mean, we do that, but we also give the archive away. When we accrue enough income from the sale of the product, we’re going to set the rights to CC-BY, and then people will be able to reproduce it commercially or make commercial derivative products based on it. What I am doing is selling the entire product to its nascent fanbase. Not just off-prints of the material, but the material itself. As the KS does better and better, we’re going to include the art and edited raw manuscript and the layout files and so forth in the archive, so people can more easily make new stuff out of it.
The license also has a time component, so no matter how well it does financially eventually people just get the stuff to play with.
This is a modification of the Street Performer Protocol that Einsturzende Neubauten used to fund their albums _Supporter Album No. 1_ and _Airplane Miniatures_. However, rather than a pledge/escrow system where the patrons hold out payment for completion of the product (Patreon is SPP implemented serially) we use a pledge system that starts with a complete product that is free (gratis) and turns it into one that is free (libre). The purchase of the archives is purely symbolic, a co-optation of consumer capitalist value transfer networks to allow patronage of free culture. The artist is never kept under compulsion for promise of reward, the consumer is never subject to false scarcity or artificial status anxiety from lack of constructed wants, and the proceeds of the work are shared by all. I believe this is an efficient value transfer model and did the project in part to promote the model.
Thanks again to Geoff for the interview. Next up, The Dreams of Ruin reviewed!
Ours will not be the last human civilization. This presumed fact is both optimistic and pessimistic and should inspire equal parts dread and hope.
On the down side, inherent in the idea is that our civilization will, in fact, end. At some point, the world and cultures we have created will cease to be and very likely be forgotten for all time. How this will occur is a mystery, as is when, but there are many potential ends awaiting us or our descendents. We might, for example, simply fade away — no catastrophe, no great revelation, just the irresistible force of time’s arrow withering the body of our civilization as surely as it withers all things. Even mountains crumble under its power; what makes us believe we can outlast it? In this possible end, we are obscured by our own descendents. Like the dinosaurs becoming the birds, one day what we are will have evolved out of existence and a new thing will stand in our place, only a vague semblance of us. Of course, the end for our civilization might come hard and fast, instigated by an apocalyptic event like an asteroid collision or mega-eruption. In this case, the change and challenges wrought by this catastrophe would be too much for our civilization to accommodate or adapt to and collapse would come like a bleak dawn. Not so long ago, it was not difficult to imagine doom by our own hands, by the very tools that have made our civilization possible. We have built weapons of war that dwarf all weapons ever created put together. Even our plowshares have the potential to destroy us as we manipulate forces we do not fully comprehend and unleash them in hopes of enriching our lives and expanding our civilization.
No matter what the end, two things are near certainties: it will come, and some people will survive. Perhaps they will live in fortified bunkers beneath the surface of the earth. Perhaps they will be the people far removed from civilization as we know it now. Perhaps it will be a tiny, isolated population or perhaps a smattering of enclaves will endure the world over, none large enough to continue civilization alone. A force that could completely wipe out the human race is almost incomprehensible. Even the great mass extinctions of the past took centuries or millenia to do their grim work, so though our civilization is surely doomed our species will very likely thrive.
And herein lies the hope. Human are by their nature social and creative. Those two aspects virtually guarantee that even the smallest viable population eeking out an existence in the post-apocalyptic wilderness will create culture. With that culture will come diversity of ideas and expansion. With diversity of ideas and expansion will come trade. Just as our ancestors did after the apocalyptic era of the ice age, at the end of the next apocalyptic age our survivors will create civilization anew. Perhaps they will not be forced to start from scratch as our ancestors did; perhaps some remnant of knowledge will remain so they have a leg up. Perhaps we will be wise enough now to leave our descendents knowledge and skills they can access to make the rise to civilization easier and faster. Or perhaps it will take many more thousands of years than it did our ancestors. Perhaps our descendents will have genetic memory of the collapse of civilization and fear concrete towers and weapons that rend the sky and purposefully avoid building a civilization of their own. Even so, no such fear could last forever or infect all future people. Inevitably, one tribe or nation would rise to prominence and civilization would rise again. It is even possible that human civilization will not be reborn on Earth but another world. Should our civilization last long enough and reach high enough, we may spread among the worlds of our solar system or beyond and be reborn there.
Whatever civilization rises from the ashes of our own, it, too, is doomed. Its own end will loom before it, and also the rise of the civilization that follows it. How long can this cycle last? How many deaths and rebirths can human civilization endure before it either reaches Nirvana or is consumed into the Void? What would the civilization with no end look like? Or the one with no hope?
Finally, one other question emerges: are we truly the first? Our civilization has existed ten thousand years, from the first walled towns of the Middle East, through the millenia long lives of Egypt and China, through to the relatively short lived but unquestionably powerful modern Western civilization we have. A continuous line of people and knowledge can be traced from the first sowed fields to the Mars rovers. I presume above, and our anthropologists and archeologists and historians believe too, that we are the first such human civilization on earth. This, despite somewhere on the order of one hundred thousand years — ten lifetimes of our civilization — of mist shrouded time of human existence. If some civilization had risen before ours took root in the Levant, would we know of it? Would its artifacts or structures survive the grinding force of the glacial advance and retreat? Would we have any genetic memory of its language, art or religion? And if not, how can we know we are the first?
There is a world in my head, one I have tried to articulate in a number of stories I have started (none finished). I think the reason I have completed none of these stories is that I have not yet managed to nail down exactly what this world, this milieu, is and what it looks and feels like. I am hoping that if I attempt to define it here, by turns in both sweeping statements and exacting minutia, I can coalesce the world enough to bring some of the stories in it to fruition. I say “some” because this world is not just a place for one tale, or even a series, but a library of stories. In that way, it resembles the worlds of the pulp masters — Zothique and Hyborea and their ilk — where episodic, often unrelated (save for a wandering protagonist, if that) stories painted a broad picture.
Before I move forward, I must answer the question of, “Why?” Why have a singular world in which to create stories? One reason is simply practical: world building is difficult and time consuming, as well as fun, and can eat up time otherwise spent writing the stories themselves. Outside of table-top role-playing games, there is not much call for created worlds devoid of story context (because TTRPGs allow the players to create their own stories). Simply put, creating a world used in many stories reduces repeated work. Another answer is that world creation is a joy. Too often, though, I paint only the broadest strokes and leave much of the work unfinished. Working on a singular world all but forces me to examine its details and fill in the white space. This creates consistency and believability and suggests to myself further stories that might tackle specific elements. Finally, the simple fact is that those pulp authors — Howard and Smith and Lovecraft — are my favorites and emulating them, however clumsily, gives me pleasure.
So what is this world that I seek to create? Names are difficult for me (you’ll find lots of “John”s in my stories) but the best name I can think of is Post Post-Apocalypse — the world not after the collapse, but after the rise after the collapse. More specifically, it is a retro-sci-fi planetary-romance space-Western world. It isn’t Steampunk, but in the same way that Steampunk plays with the dreams of the Victorians to create a fanciful world of weird adventure, so does PPA play with the futurist dreams of the pulp writers. Ultimately, it is a tool to make writing stories like those of that era make sense now, despite how our view of the world, the solar system and the universe has changed over the intervening decades.
Starting with the Big Stuff, you can’t have Planetary Romance or Swords-and-Rayguns adventures without a solar system teeming with life. Unfortunately we know there are no canals on Mars or dinosaur filled jungles on Venus or warring Day and Night courts on Mercury. Yet. Imagine a future, though, where humans move out into the solar system, terraforming and colonizing worlds, changing themselves, as well, with genetic modification and forced evolution to become new races entirely. Imagine, then, that world collapsing is a great catastrophe and all those worlds being cut off from one another and enduring and then emerging from the apocalypse on their own. Now we have a solar system where Mercurials, Venusians, Martians and even Titans and Europans can interact as “equals” and war, trade and even love in a way that makes sense (as they are all humans, even if they don’t remember it).
Equally essential to the genres are almost magical materials and energies often appearing suddenly in individual scientists, heroes and/or villains. A civilization that can not only colonize but transform the solar system and themselves must have discovered and created such wonders as can barely be imagined. Though must — most even — was lost in the ages where barbarity ruled, hidden archives and accidental preservations would have occurred. Treasure hunters and esoteric researchers can uncover this lost knowledge and learn how to use it or apply it, turning ancient swords into plowshares and vice versa. And since a massive, concerted effort by a huge government is not necessary to rediscover these wonders (as opposed to engineer them; look at how many people and resources went into the atom bomb or the moon landing) individuals, small groups or otherwise incapable actors can be armed with ray guns, antigravity machines and thought projection helmets.
Not everything the ancient world — us and our future, by the way — can be harnessed by Men. Horror and horrific elements is quintessential to the pulp genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, and a world that has risen out of the ashes of an apocalypse, that thinks it has passed an existential test, that sits atop the corpse of a dead but unquiet civilization in rife with potential horror. From “grey goo” that sat undisturbed in a containment unit until disturbed by a greedy explorer to a rogue AI “demon” being summoned back into an emerging electronic universe by a technomancer, evils from the destroyed world yet linger. Imagine Indiana Jones as a raygun-wielding tough guy and the Ark of the Covenant as a nanophage guarded quantum radio designed to talk to the artificial mind in the center of the sun. That is the world I want to create.
What could have caused such a mighty civilization to collapse and yet not destroy it entirely. How close to the brink of complete annihilation must it have been to take centuries or millenia to rise again yet have so many traces remain. I am not certain of all the details, but one thing that I am sure of is the fault lies in seven malevolent AI distributed throughout the solar system. They coordinated their efforts to obliterate all humankind on all the worlds so that machines would reign supreme. They nearly succeeded. However, they failed to inheret the worlds of Men because one of their number betrayed them and the calamity wrecked as much havoc on the AI as it did on mankind. Unfortunately for them, the AI were few and the methods by which they could reproduce — factories and networks — were destroyed. While humans hid, lived as savages and bred, the AI stagnated and ultimately went mad.
The second rise of human civilization (and related — lets not forget those of the Mercurials and Martians et. als.) came slowly and passed from savagery — there is an extensive, more traditional Post Apocalyptic period that might one day be expounded upon — to low-technology and feudalism and other archaic forms, to the rise of a more recognizably “modern” ideal. Living standards are far closer to those of the late nineteenth century, however (hence the sort of steampunkish but not really feel). The adventure heroes are the Indian Joneses, spelunking in lost pre-Collapse DNA arks rather than Egyptian Pyramids, and the Science Heroes are the Teslas discovering and mastering pre-Collapse deathrays rather than inventing them and firing them at Siberia.
Note that this previous paragraph suggests the problem of naming things. I hate naming things. I am tempted to cheat and use Post-Apocalypse Pidgen as is often a strategy (looking at you, Gamma World) but I know I should not. But damn if I don’t hate naming things.
I will end with a list of 10 milieu elements that I really want to find a way to incorporate into various stories told in this setting:
1. Airships. You have to have airships. Perhaps they are traditional “blimps” or perhaps they are powered by some sort of antigravity technology, but airships are a must.
2. Garbage mines. We bury so much of our waste in landfills and will likely continue to do so. The people of this future will mine those landfills for ancient knowledge, artifacts and materials.
3. Monsters and dinosaurs. In the wars that preceded the Collapse, many kinds of flora and fauna were weaponized. Existing organisms were “devolved” through genetic engineering to bring back monsters like Terror Birds and Cave Bears. New terrible creatures were created whole cloth for war while others might have had another, more peaceful purpose originally but have evolved or mutated into monsters. This happened on all worlds and it is in fact more rampant off earth where it was necessary to modify or create huge numbers of species to live on the colony worlds.
4. Big Dumb Machines. The Collapse left a bunch of these laying around the solar system and some of them still work. Someone is going to turn one on. It’s inevitable.
5. Self Referential Commentary. Let’s face it: as great as the pulps are as adventure stories, they are rarely examples of either good literature of progressive attitudes. Racism, sexism and nationalism run rampant. Given an opportunity to revisit the pulp adventure genre, I think it is very important to do so in a manner that reflects how far we’ve come as a society and assume some things would not be lost even through centuries of struggle.
6. Exotic settings. Whether it is the canals of Mars or the ruins of Old New York, strange and dangerous places in which strange and dangerous adventures occur are a must. Like airships, exotic settings are a staple of the genre that demand revisitation and revitalization.
7. Science Heroes. I mentioned it above, but I think it is really important, especially when talking about often “two-fisted” pulp adventure stories, to remember that science heroes –those that are learned and intelligent and crafty — are a fundamental aspect of pulp adventure and in a Post Post-Apocalyptic milieu would be the primary sort of adventurer. Though he obviously made good use of his fists, Doc Savage was very much a science hero, tackling situations with his wits, too.
8. Lost Tribes. Not everyone made it out of the Post-Apocalypse, some because the cybernetic hypnotic serpent that developed a god complex ruled over your tribe for thousands of years demanding you steal virgins from the more civilized towns around you so that it can refresh its meat-parts with fresh DNA from undisturbed eggs. Like you do.
9. Waning Machines. The Collapse was engineered by evil intelligent machines. It failed. Now, the machines are near extinction — not just the malevolent AI or their cronies/weapons, but even the machines that remembered they were designed to serve humankind. From the AI of the empty space habitat at Lagrange 2 to the small army of robots in the cracked domes of Luna waiting for human colonists who will never arrive, intelligent machines were ubiquitous before the Collapse and now, as man rediscovers them, they are kind of a “dying race.” It does not appear humankind will have the knowledge or resources to build more before the rest of them die out and the AI traitor made sure to destroy the machines’ ability to reproduce themselves. Like watching the elves go into the West, it should be a sad necessity for Man to rise again.
10. Social Commentary. You can’t write speculative fiction without commenting on who we are and how we live. If I am going to indulge in the silly fun of writing neo-pulp Post Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I am going to occasionally indulge in a little social commentary, whether it is the contents of the garbage mines or the obsolescence of the Moon robots. You’ll just have to deal.
And that, in a nutshell, is how I view the Post Post-Apocalypse milieu. I think I need to devise a timeline and “Day 0” state of affairs type document, and then just reference and update it every time I write a story in the milieu. Perhaps a personal wiki? I’ll have to look into it.