Clinton R. Nixon is one of the co-founders of the Forge (along with Ron Edwards), and one of the sharpest and most dedicated RPG theorists around. He’s also the creator of FindPlay, a new online service for finding a gaming group, and the designer of games like The Shadow of Yesterday through his independent RPG company, Anvilwerks Online.
In the first of what will be an ongoing series of interviews with notable gamers here on Treasure Tables, I caught up with Clinton via email and asked him about FindPlay, his views on GMing and what connections he sees between designing RPGs and running them.
Treasure Tables (TT): Thanks for giving me the chance to interview you, Clinton.
Clinton R. Nixon (Clinton): No problem! I read Treasure Tables, and I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the posts there. I’m excited to be interviewed.
TT: You’ve contributed a lot to the gaming community, and I thought TT readers would enjoy hearing about some of your recent projects, as well as your take on GMing.
Clinton: That it’s been down a lot? (I’m just kidding, but it is in beta, and has been up and down a lot.) FindPlay is based around the concept of the “simplest thing that could possibly work.”
Unsurprisingly, I’m a software developer. Specifically, I’m very influenced by other software developers like Ward Cunningham and Andrew Hunt. The 37signals guys make a lot of sense to me. So, when I decided to write FindPlay after moving to a new area, I wanted to make a player finder that did as little as possible while still being useful.
There’s some new features that I’ll be adding as I fix the existing ones, including the ability to search greater areas.
TT: You mentioned on the FindPlay site that the concept grew out of a series of threads on the Forge. Can you tell me a bit more about the Forge, and it what it has to offer not only in terms of game design, but for GMs?
Clinton: You went for the hard questions early!
The Forge is a web community for independent RPG designers. I think we’re the biggest one around. Currently, it’s mainly a set of forums for discussion, which isn’t my favorite way to build a community, but it’s what we have.
As a RPG designer, it offers you many different things. First, you’ve got a supportive community and that’s invaluable. Having people who want to see your game, no matter how odd it is, will spur you on.
Second, you’ve got a huge amount of theorizing. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but most all of it is focused toward really figuring out why and how we play role-playing games.
Third, you’ve got the publishing advice of people who have done this before.
For GMs, you have that same base of theory to draw on. Contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot of diversity in this theory, so there’s probably something you’ll find that resonates. The most important thing the Forge offers GMs, though, is what we call “Actual Play.”
This is where we talk about what really goes on in our games – not just the in-game events, but the at-table events. We break down what worked, what didn’t, and we help each other run better games.
TT: As a game designer, what connections — if any — do you see between your design work and your approach to GMing?
Clinton: I design games I want to GM. Period.
To explain more, you’re not going to find me writing a game that, for example, requires me to make up my NPCs ahead of time, at least not mechanically. I can’t stand doing this, and end up changing them in the game, anyway. So, I write games where you can just make them up in play.
As a GM, I got tired of fudging die rolls. They didn’t seem interesting any more if I’d just change them. So in my last game I designed, I added in “the gift of dice” – each player has a certain number of bonus dice to give to other players as they see fit during the game. Even the GM has these. And if it’s important enough to someone, we’ll see bonus dice hit the table to prevent a failure.
Mainly, I write games that try to be easy to GM. I’m not a greatly organized person and I like improvisation when I GM more than anything else.
TT: I’ve read The Shadow of Yesterday (although I haven’t had a chance to play it yet), and I find the IIEE system (“Intention, Initiation, Execution and Effect”) fascinating. Can you explain your thinking behind that system, and talk a bit about what kind of effects it has on the game — especially from a GMing standpoint?
Clinton: Hey, not my system! Seriously, there’s a whole body of thought about this at the Forge.
I’ll answer, though. I think IIEE is the big stumbling block in a lot of games. It seems simple, right? Like, as a player, I say I want my character to do something, I roll, and if I get a good roll, it happens?
But there’s steps in there that you don’t see, one of which being the complicit agreement of all the other players that your action is acceptable to wager. If it’s not – especially with the GM – you’re going to be surprised when you successfully roll and your action gets nerfed by the GM.
TT: Here on TT, I recommended that GMs write down a list of their own GMing faults as a way to improve their craft. What do you think of this idea, and what would be on your “naughty list?”
Clinton: I like this idea a lot. I haven’t tried it yet, so let’s see.
* Holding back. Oh, man – sometimes I get this idea as a GM of something awesome that I want to happen in game. And then I stretch it out and out and out, thinking that, “wow, when my players finally get to this, it’ll be great.”
That’s just about the dumbest thing I do, and I notice when I just make it happen up front, then we get to play out all the great reactions to the situation, which is what I wanted in the first place.
* Having no plan. Ok, so I play all these freaky-deaky indie games where, wow, man, we just, you know, imagine, and we narrate, and wow. (This is my deep thought game hippie impression.) Except that doesn’t work at all. As a GM, you have been put in a leadership position. Take that and serve your players well.
I think of the ideal GM as sort of a biblical leader – be a humble and mighty servant. Come to the table with ideas and then take their ideas and weave them in. Do not – I repeat, do not – come to the table and wait because they’re going to tell you everything happening. (I recently made this mistake at, of all things, a convention game. It was painful to say the least.)
* Giving all my female NPCs totally hot exotic names. I don’t know why. There’s never a Julie, always a Juliette. Sveta gets overused, too.
* Expecting the players to take the conventional route. One time, I planned this great campaign in the Riddle of Steel. I love sympathetic villains, so I made this serf kid whose dad was killed by the nobility. The local duke came to sleep with the serf’s wife and the serf killed him and then was hung.
His poor kid – man, talk about someone who’s got a rough lot in life. So if he learned magic from a devilish fey creature and started a class war, who’d blame him? My players’ characters, most of which were middle class, lined up behind the nobility and shut down that class rebellion like you wouldn’t believe! I was shocked.
TT: What would you list as your top 5 tips for GMs?
Clinton: * Don’t hold back on your fun ideas. Throw the biggest, craziest NPC problems in five minutes into the session.
* Have a plan of what you want to occur. Don’t wait for your players to act – make them react. Then they’ll start acting first.
* Never expect the players to take the conventional route.
* Always give your female NPCs totally hot exotic names.
* Play as many games as you possibly can. Even if you don’t like them, you’ll learn a lot.
And a sixth:
* Write your own game. It’s not as hard as it looks and it’ll teach you a lot about what you really want to play.
TT: Clinton, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me. Do you have any projects on the horizon that might interest TT readers, or anything else that you’d like to add?
Clinton: I never really know what’ll happen with my project list. I’m a hobbyist designer and I publish whatever gives me the bug. That said, I’m hoping to perhaps write some support material for The Shadow of Yesterday soon.
In addition, I’ve had a very light-weight game in development for some time, called “The Face of Angels.” It’s my superhero game based off “Flowers for Algernon,” and yeah, that’s as pretentious as it sounds. I love that story, though.
Thank you so much for this interview. It was a lot of fun and gave me a bit more insight into my GMing skills. Keep up the good work on Treasure Tables – it’s one of the most valuable resources for GMs that I’ve ever seen.
TT: Thanks, Clinton!
(What did you think of this interview? Are there questions that you’d like to see asked in future TT interviews? This is a brand new feature here on TT, and I’m very interested to hear your reaction!)