John Kim is one of the most active and prolific RPG thinkers on the web, with a well-known personal site (simply called John H. Kim’s Role-Playing Game Page) that covers everything from RPG theory to convention reports. John’s LiveJournal is one of my regular reads, and he can be counted on for thoughtful and insightful gaming commentary.
So what’s he like as a GM? John was kind enough to answer that (and several other questions) in this email interview — and in the process, he provided enough RPG links to keep you busy all week.
Treasure Tables (TT): Thanks for letting me interview you for Treasure Tables, John (and for waiting so patiently for me to send you my questions!).
You’ve been writing about gaming on the web for several years now — how did you get started, and what keeps you going?
John Kim (John): Well, I started in 1992 or so joining in on Usenet newsgroups, in the rec.games.frp group. At that time, I was a grad student in physics. In 1994, I started learning about the web, which was still more a scientific tool at the time. So I started putting stuff from discussion up on my home pages.
As the web grew, I started keeping links to neat stuff like all the free RPGs which people started posting as the web grew. And it just started building out piece by piece from there.
Since then, though, I’ve found that maintaining my site has been a great source for organizing my ideas and keeping them around. I’ve got several dozen directories, and whenever I come across something interesting I try to write it down and link it in somehow. If it’s not formed, then I mark it on a to-do list somewhere. And having been around for a dozen years, stuff just keeps accumulating.
I never throw stuff away, though I will put things in non-public directories (usually other people’s stuff).
TT: I found an entry for “John Kim” in the RPG database on Pen & Paper — is that you? Can you tell me a little bit about your published work in the RPG industry?
John: Funny thing, that. My credits are almost accidental.
So in 1990, I mailed an article for publication in the Hero Games magazine. It was my house rules for fixing problems with Move-Throughs and velocity issues, which was something of a gaping logical hole in the rules. I thought it was a really elegant fix, and it eventually got passed around via newsgroups and email lists. However, I never heard back about the article itself.
Over ten years later, the new Hero Games crew contacted me that they wanted to adapt in my system as alternate rules in Hero System 5th Edition. I was stunned, but of course was happy they did. (They didn’t write it up quite how I would have liked, but they gave me a fine credit.)
The Aurora credit is for helping out a friend. I went to U of Chicago for undergrad where the gaming circle included Ken Hite (now a big-shot RPG writer), Chris Lehrich (author of the indie game Shadows in the Fog), and Stephen Mulholland (author of the indie game Aurora). All great folks and great gamers, by the way. Aurora is an experimental hard science fiction game, and I gave Stephen feedback about physics and some other scientific stuff.
I’ve also got a minor credit in Fudge for the discussions on rec.games.design that generated the game. My contribution there was convincing Steffan to add a token section on personality traits.
TT: I loved your article on Buffy adventure design, and even in draft form it’s a great example of how sharp your writing is. What are some of your favorite articles, essays and posts that you’ve written, and why?
John: Well, I’m still fond of my rgfa FAQ and the Threefold Model FAQ from back when. (I have something of a tick that Ron Edwards really should have coined new terms rather than using “Simulationist” for his GNS model, because it’s made it impossible to talk about the original model.) I think the next step in this was my essays Story and Narrative Paradigms in RPGs, Simulationism Explained, and Immersive Story: A View of Role-played Drama.
I like these because they push the idea of RPGs as not just trying to imitate drama in books and/or movies — but rather to have distinctive structure(s) of their own. It remains a controversial point after many years, but I keep pushing it.
There’s also a lot of just fun stuff. There’s my Buffy article that you mentioned. There’s my murder mystery party game, The Business of Murder, because it’s a great game for non-gamers. There’s an essay called Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems, because it pushes new ideas in fantasy settings. Oh, and my two gender articles, Gender Roles in RPG Texts and Gender Disparity in RPGs — because they start on a big topic that needs more discussion.
TT: Let’s turn to GMing — what are you currently running, and what are you planning to run next?
John: I’m currently co-GMing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer campaign which is in its third season (40 episodes). It’s called “Silicon Valley Slayage” and concerns a bunch of Internet professionals.
Season One was GMed solely by my friend Bill, and I played the Slayer — Dorothy Comisky, better known as Dot. In Season One, the PCs organized themselves as a startup. In Season Two they expanded but then sold the company to save the world. In Season Three they’re more roommates moving on in their lives.
I’ve got several ideas on the burner, but two are most prominent on my mind.
The first I’m titling “Dawn of Fire.” It’s an experimental D&D campaign that breaks down many of the usual conventions. I wanted a game which kept the core action elements — fighting monsters in mapped dungeons — but twists them to have new meaning.
Basically, I take Greyhawk and destroy it in an apocalypse where dragons multiply like rabbits and overrun the face of the planet. The remnants of humanity’s only hope of survival is by escaping down into remote underground ruins and building new lives and communities there.
It’s cool to me because it keeps much of the core of D&D, while reversing many of the other assumptions. With no society, gold is worthless. The dungeon isn’t a place to loot: It’s your new home.
The other one is a game called “Queensland,” set in the world of Wen Spencer’s novel A Brother’s Price. This is a world of 19th Century technology — sixguns and stetsons — but for thousands of years, a genetic syndrome has meant that less than 1 in 10 live births are male. As a result, men are prized chattel valued almost solely for reproduction.
So the PCs are a clan of sharp, gun-toting women embroiled in intrigue and possibly rebellion. It’s in some ways similar to Buffy’s role reversal, because I think it makes a difference when the butt-kicking tough guys are women. However, unlike Buffy this is a gritty, realistic world with concrete reasons for its social order. I’m homebrewing the system for it — it’ll be a card based system drawing in part on Deadlands and Savage Worlds.
TT: What would you say are the 5 things you do best as a GM, and how can other GMs improve in those areas?
John: Good question. I think the first is that I have a fair fraction of NPCs who are dumb, ignorant, and/or humble. Too often, GMs fail to make such flawed NPCs, and as a result players (correctly) take what NPCs say to be the mouthpiece of the GM. This just takes discipline to separate what the NPC knows and wants from what you know and want.
Second, I restrict the scope of my games. This means that I keep adventures in the same area, reusing locations and NPCs. Not only does this reduce my prep time, it means that the players are familiar with and invested in the elements of the game. Learning to do this has been a big shift for me over the past ten years.
Third, I’m pretty good at portraying interesting characters. I don’t do voices or accents much, but I do some mannerisms, gesture, and posture. There’s no easy trick to this one, though. I did some theater for a time, though it isn’t necessary. I think it helps to be a player regularly, where you can concentrate on the character.
Fourth, I’m obsessive. (Heck, look at my web pages. :)) So while I don’t detail everything, there are key aspects of the game that I’ll have turned over in my mind dozens of times and jotted out a pile of notes for. Put another way, I take my games seriously, and I think that enthusiasm helps draw other players in.
Fifth, I’m flexible in my style. While it’s not necessary, I think it gives perspective and new ideas to try different types and styles of games. While most of my games have been mid-to-high crunchy tabletop, I’ve tried diceless tabletop, MUDs, larps, indie Narrativist tabletop, wargames, and so forth.
TT: Along the lines of the TT post Write Your Own Naughty List, what are your GMing weaknesses?
John: I have trouble with managing player dynamics. The party in my game will sometimes be leaderless, or lacking motivation. A good group of PCs needs tension but not division, and leadership but not micromanagement. That’s tricky, and is primarily a player job, but I also need to help diagnose and give advice as a GM.
I will commonly forget NPCs who are there because I’m concentrating on a block of other NPCs. I think this is generally difficult, but it’s often something that bothers me in play when we all say, “Hey, wasn’t Nina with us? What happened to her?”
I have a tendency to experiment, which is different than being reliably entertaining — but that’s a mixed blessing I’m happy with, not a fault I want to fix. But it does mean that occasionally I have sessions which fizzle more than bang.
TT: John, thank you again for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything you’d like to add, or share with TT readers?
John: Well, I’ve been answering questions about me, but the most important thing I hope people get from my webpages is how much stuff that other people have done out there. There are hundreds of RPG systems — some free, some cheap — that are out there. There are hundreds of great essays with theory, practical advice, scenarios, and so forth.
I have a collection of links on my blog for other people’s blogs, as well as sites like Roleplaying Tips. A special plug for Ken Hite’s column, Out of the Box, and of course your blog, Treasure Tables. I am amazed at Matt Turnbull’s Fill in the Gap column on RPGnet. Then there’s all the great new games: like the Parlor Larps series, Ben Lehman’s Polaris, Levi Kornelsen’s Perfect20, Chad Underkoffler’s Truth and Justice, and more.
Oh, and watch for the 2005 Indie RPG Awards, which are being privately nominated now, and will be given and announced at GenCon Indy (heh) in August.
TT: Thanks, John!
(I’m still learning the ropes as far as doing interviews goes — what did you think of this one? What kinds of questions should I ask in future interviews?)
I think you’re doing great with these interviews, Martin! I’m also happy that you’re including the “naughty list” in your interviews, as it shows how even the big names in the industry have their weak areas. It’s a real morale boost for myself to know that I’m not the only one with a “naughty list!”
Keep up with the interviews, I’m really enjoying them!
I have to agree with Lilith on the interviews, they are great!
I’m not sure how you would do this, but how about asking your interviewees some of the questions that come up on the forum (maybe the most recent “hot” topic or two, for instance), and see what advice they might have. That way, you ask the bulk of the questions, and the “forum” gets to ask a question that is of particular importance/significance at that time.
The answers provided might be enlightening. (That is assuming they don’t already belong to the forum.)
This interview seemed shorter– was it the format or anything else you can put a finger on? Perhaps it’s just my perception…
Lilith: That’s pretty much what I had in mind when I started asking prominent veteran GMs what they did badly. It still feels a bit odd sometimes, but I think there’s a lot of value in the question — and the answers. 🙂
DMN: I like this idea a lot. I’ve been trying to decide who to approach next for an interview, so I think I’ll just move that decision into the forum — thanks for the suggestion. 🙂
Scott: That’s funny — I looked it over again when it posted (I usually queue my posts up the night before, so I don’t have to worry about them in the morning ;)), and was struck by how long it was. 😉
With the exception of Luke’s interview — the only one I’ve done over IM — they’ve all had about the same number of questions, and John’s answers went into a lot of detail.
Did anyone else find John’s interview longer or shorter than expected?
Very good interview. Sounds like a cool guy and one whose website I must check out.
Just wondering if he has links to d20zines.com.
There are some great advice articles there and some cool GM Tables 😉
(Yeah, those ones I couldn’t get into GM Month on time ??)
I’m glad you enjoyed the interview, Connors. 🙂
(And if you write a GMing table/article you think TT readers would particularly enjoy, feel free to email me and let me know.)
Never heard of this guy, but I assume that’s from my inexperience, not his lack of prominance. Regardless, I found what he had to say very interesting. I really enjoyed the material. Made me think “That’s pretty darn cool. I remember it more than a few days.” quite a few times.