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Interview with S. John Ross

S. John Ross [1] is a prolific game designer, with credits [2] that include Last Unicorn Games’s Star Trek, oodles of GURPS titles and Risus [3], a free online RPG. More recently, he has produced a variety of products for his own company, Cumberland Games [4].

He authored the TOS Narrator’s Toolkit, a GMing resource for LUG’s Star Trek RPG, and is also well-known for the free GMing articles he’s written over the years, notably the very handy Big List of RPG Plots [5] and Medieval Demographics Made Easy [6].

In this email interview, I chatted with S. John about his GMing style, Risus, writing for GMs and, by the end of it, sex.

Treasure Tables (TT): Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, S. John. It’s great to have you here.

One of the things that interests me most about you and your work is that creatively, you’re all over the map — in a good way!

S. John Ross (S. John): Thanks! I write as I game, and I game like a whore, so there you go.

TT: It’s tricky to know where to start, but let’s kick off with Risus [3]. What led you to create Risus?

S. John: In terms of the game’s prehistory, the basic idea was to re-jigger the Ghostbusters, 1st Edition rules to make a comedy-gaming equivalent to GURPS. The result was a series of half-assed iterations of “GUCS” – the Generic Universal Comedy System.

In terms of actual Risus, necessity was the mother. I was part of the Tales From the Floating Vagabond team at Avalon Hill, and while I loved the strangeness of it all and the bizarre tensions of the team atmosphere, I didn’t really care for Vagabond‘s rules at all … I found them deadly in a Paranoia way without Paranoia‘s justification, so I needed a homebrew system to play Vagabond with. The old GUCS notes became the foundation for my homebrew Vagabond alternate. Since I still had the GUCS ideals in mind, I wanted Risus to handle both Toon-style play – where people can bash on each other all day without worrying about lethality – and Paranoia style play – where everyone is bound to die so there’s no worry about lethality. Hence one of the game’s very few actual design contributions: the outcome of combat depending on the attacker’s intentions and style. That made me smile immediately as I wrote it, because I’ve always had a fondness for badass pacifists who can beat you without beating you, and I looked forward to playing a game that catered to that without handwaving. Or at least, with the handwaving built right in.

So in the new “Vagabond” version, it was still very obviously a riff on Ghostbusters (compare the TN benchmarks sometime), but included enough nuggets of new stuff, plus useful inspirations from other games – DC Heroes, Tunnels & Trolls, OtE, GURPS and so on – that it began to feel like its own game instead of just a house GB variant.

So I gave it a name, using a Latin dictionary I’d borrowed from a friend of mine for naming magic items with. I would have kept “GUCS,” but by then TWERPS had done that joke and better, to boot. The original draft to bear the Risus title had all the fluff that bloats the current draft to its unthinkable six pages, including the William Shatner joke and the cajun ninja. That’s because I figured I might be able to sell it as an article to a gaming magazine. Didn’t happen, obviously, so – inspired by Fudge, which my friend Marty was very excited about – I just posted it for free on the BBS echonets I was addicted to, and from there it crawled out to the Internet and found fans. Been quite a trip since then.

TT: Shifting gears, what was it like to write the LUG Narrator’s Toolkit?

Like writing anything else, except I had to use the word “Narrator” for GM, which made me wince every type I typed it. I’m very proud of the book, though … along with the Risus Companion [7], those two make up the core of my GMing-advice library. Fly From Evil [8] will skunk them both, but not without liberal self-borrowing.

And when I did GMing advice for Mage, I had to type “Storyteller,” so on balance, the LUG job was easier.

TT: Can you give us some details about Fly From Evil?

S. John: Well, keeping it to topic, the GMing section is a fair chunk of the game … somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of the total wordcount depending on how many sample adventures I end up including, since mystery gaming and historical gaming can both be intimidating topics. I want the GM to feel nice and comfy and ready to kick some ass. In there, I’ll be tackling a lot of the expected territory about adventure design and genre motiffery and engaging-the-senses and whatnot, but also some more unusual things, like specific scenework … How to get the most from a cat-and-mouse style action scene, for example, techniques for roleplaying an NPC that’s being interrogated.

For my approach to genre-related advice, my recent GMing-advice sections in Pulp Hero qualify as a fair teaser for how I’ve approached FFE.

TT: Are there things you do when writing for GMs that you don’t do, or do differently, when writing RPG material in general?

S. John: My sense of humor becomes 5% more self-indulgent, which is astonishing. But otherwise, no: it’s the same dense and hopefully practical stuff I always do, really.

TT: In terms of GMing, if we sat down to play together, what are the first ten distinctive things I’d notice about your GMing style?

S. John: You’d notice the lime-green thong underwear, first. Then you’d overlook the other nine things and wonder why I’m not otherwise wearing pants.

TT: I’m wearing one of those myself, so I don’t think the shock would throw me that much — but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. 😉

With the thong at the top of the list, what are the next nine items?

S. John: The very next item would be a gleam in my eye that suggests that I’m not the sort of GM to provide Top 10 lists. Although I’m pretty likely to chat with Paul and, later on, dress in Velcro and jump at things.

Besides, the things I notice most about my GMing style almost certainly differ from what you’d notice, so it’s tough to roleplay you. I don’t even know your stats.

TT: What are your weaknesses as a GM?

S. John: Call of Cthulhu. I’m a sucker for it.

TT: The perils of email — I can’t tell if you’re not interested in the question, or if I didn’t provide enough details. I’ll go with the second one and hope for the best.

No GM is perfect, and as someone who has written an awful lot of cogent GMing advice (not to mention tons of RPG material), I’m interested in hearing about what you’re bad at. Or if you prefer: Spill it, Ross! 😉

S. John: I used to say “um” a lot, but I’m a big fan of audio recordings, which are a great way to cure “um.” I’ve been taping my sessions since the early 90s, on and off. I’m pretty well past the “ums.” Great for pacing, too … You listen to a session, you can hear exactly where the flab can become firm.

What I’m still bad at after all these years? I don’t know if the notion even applies … What I mean is: there are probably lots of things I would be bad at, but I don’t do those. There are genres I’m weak at. I’m not a great superhero GM, for example, because I can’t do the genre in earnest, and it’s a genre that only rocks in earnest. Irony undermines the beauty of superheroes, and I can’t give you that as a GM, so I don’t waste your time with it unless a particular campaign notion snaps me out of my normal limits. That sometimes happens.

As a player, it’s different. If I spot a weakness in my repertoire I build a character around it, because I like exploring every point on the spectrum. I’m much more of a whore as a player. As a GM, I have so many wicked licks on the guitar and can burn the keyboard so well that I don’t even try to play the vibraphone. Since there are always multiple GMs in my groups, and we trade off a lot, I’m content to GM from my strengths. We’ve got Paul if we want a kickass superhero game, so we cover each other’s back, you know. We’re a well-rounded party. Good marching order. And we know the Shakespearean bit about a ‘sea change.’

TT: Do you prefer to GM or play, and why?

S. John: I prefer a healthy diet of both. Seriously, I could never survive on just one or the other. The playing experience is the soul of what makes RPGs distinct as a game-form and so powerful as a medium – the thrill of tactical infinity, the groovy sensation of seeing your real-life camaraderie with your friends translated into another world. It’s a miracle medium; it’s magic juice. Gotta taste it regularly or I feel cast out from paradise. But with GMing you get the pleasure of being host to that experience, of making it possible. It’s like hosting a feast; it’s a way to give something special with your skills, Little Drummer Boy style. “Check … for door traps, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. You found one.”

I love my friends and so I do my humble best to give them a rocking session, where the bass rattles the windows and later the universe explodes for their pleasure. Plus, on the side of pure vanity, I’m very sexy behind a GM screen.

TT: This might be a bit of an odd question, but are there any similarities between GMing and cooking, or writing RPG material and cooking?

S. John: Absolutely. Cooking, sex, and GMing are three things I’m constantly comparing. Of course, all of my RPG books include cooking and sex, so that’s not a big shock I guess.

TT: So, how does gaming stack up to sex? What’s your favorite thing about each of them?

S. John: I like sex much better, but to bring cooking back into it: that’s one of those “stuffing or mashed potatoes” type questions. My favorite thing about gaming is the people, the camaraderie and affection. And the funny voices, of course. All the gewgaws and books and thirty-sided-dice aside, gaming rocks because it’s playtime with pals.

Same answer for sex.

TT: Thank you again for doing this interview, S. John.

S. John: Sure, man. Fun times. Good gaming!

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Interview with S. John Ross"

#1 Comment By Jeff Rients On June 29, 2006 @ 7:21 am

Nifty interview! Thanks a bunch!

#2 Comment By ScottM On June 29, 2006 @ 8:20 am

There was certainly a lot of wiggle– like jello on a fork– when you asked after his play style. While I don’t think this was the most informative interview you’ve ever done, it really formed a strong mental image of the guy. From the way he jokes, he’s definitely someone I’d like to hang out with.

#3 Comment By Martin On June 29, 2006 @ 9:08 am

Jeff: I’m glad you liked the interview. 🙂

Scott: I learn something every time I do an interview, which is one of the many things I like about doing them.

In this case, I learned that I need to have better fallback and recovery questions, in case some of my initial ones (which aren’t all standard interview fare) don’t go over well.

And I agree that in terms of new GMing tricks and ideas, this was one of my least informative interviews — but in terms of gaining insights into the interviewee’s character and personality, probably one of my more informative. S. John is quite a character. 🙂

IMO, Luke’s interview hit the best balance of those of those two factors.

#4 Comment By Abulia On June 30, 2006 @ 10:42 pm

“There was certainly a lot of wiggle– like jello on a fork– when you asked after his play style. While I don’t think this was the most informative interview you’ve ever done, it really formed a strong mental image of the guy.”

Well, that’s something of an understatement. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t more forthcoming and accomidating; I’m sure he has some good information to share.

Thanks for taking one for the team, Martin.