A few weeks ago, I reviewed Fiasco (here and here), by Bully Pulpit Games; a game about ordinary people, attempting ambitious plans, and flailing miserably. During and after my review, I had a chance to exchange emails with Fiasco’s creator Jason Morningstar, and got to ask Jason about his GMing philosophy, about his company Bully Pulpit Games, and of course about Fiasco.
Jason, let us start by having you tell us a bit about yourself, how you got into RPG’s and what you are playing right now.
I’m married to a wonderful librarian who specializes in teen services. I work for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a departmental Webmaster. My roleplaying began in 1977 or 78 with white box D&D. The games I played the most, that sort of chart the evolution of my interests, are AD&D, original Traveller, The Morrow Project, The Fantasy Trip: In The Labyrinth, Bureau 13, GURPS, FUDGE, and many, many small press games. The games that get the most play at my table these days are Prime Time Adventures, Solar System/Shadow of Yesterday, and lately Archipelago II.
I’m in two weekly groups and occasionally podcast as one of the Durham Three. The company I co-founded, Bully Pulpit Games, has produced The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, Grey Ranks, Drowning and Falling, and most recently Fiasco. We have two additional games in development: Cowboys With Big Hearts and Medical Hospital.
What themes from OD&D do you think are missing in more modern RPG’s?
In terms of themes, I sort of miss the wide open sandbox play that was the presumed mode of OD&D – not only in game play, but also in the wide open nature of the very sketchy rules. You really had to make it your own and it was without precedent. Although my games are much more sharply constrained, I hope that they evoke some of that DIY aesthetic from a different angle.
Do you prefer a rule set with a strong central mechanic, but is open enough to take that central mechanic and apply it to different situations?
I am a big proponent in games that incorporate system in a meaningful way. Rules have to inform play, so I don’t want to see encumbrance rules in a game that seeks to emulate a Jane Austen novel. I prefer a game that is ruthlessly focused on its theme, is luminously clear and functional, and is a joy to play. How those things are integrated is going to depend on what the designer is trying to do. I think you can do all these things and still have a free-wheeling sort of game, and The Shadow of Yesterday would be a prime example of this. The game is essentially an exploration of what it means to be human, and no matter how you drift it (and I drift it a lot), the system effortlessly reinforces this.
So you have played a pretty wide range of games from OD&D to GURPS to Prime Time Adventures. What kind evolution have you seen your GMing style go through from your first time behind the screen to today?
I love to GM, and I love the various bits of authority the GM role provides. My games atomize this and spread it around, and this impulse stems from my enthusiasm for the role and the fun and satisfaction it brings. I still really enjoy the traditional dichotomy of players and GM, although these days I am very permissive and relaxed about things like scene framing, endowment, and player agency in games that don’t necessarily presume those things.
Of the games you have listed, as well as any that were not on the list, what were the three games that have been the most influential on your own GMing style, and what did they contribute to your GMing skill set.
- FUDGE because its toolkit nature encourages experimentation on both the mechanical and social levels.
- Prime Time Adventures because it requires a deep level of cooperation and flexibility on the part of the GM, who has to work hard to support the player character’s issues within the fiction and encourage interesting conflict.
- The Shadow of Yesterday because it was the first game I played that actively called out the things players were interested in and rewarded them for pursuing those, and because, like PTA, it was generally impossible to plan ahead.
So one thing I have noticed about Bully Pulpit is that you cover a lot of different settings: Grey Ranks to Fiasco to Medical Hospital. There does not seem to be a setting that you are unwilling to explore. Would you say that that is part of the small press spirit, or is that more of a Bully Pulpit philosophy?
My friend John Stavropolous, who is really brilliant, pointed out recently that a key divide is that at small press scale (small print runs, nimble development, focused distribution) a designer/publisher can afford to ignore the larger market somewhat. I don’t need to have an open-ended fantasy product and a line of supplements, I can take risks with unfamiliar themes, genres, mechanics, approaches, ways of distributing content. It’s not a value judgment, because obviously there is a huge audience whose needs are being met by larger companies. But if the idea of a game about teenagers coming of age during the Warsaw Uprising and nothing else excites you, that is a weird project and a huge risk that makes no sense for a big company to sign off on.
Taking a moment to talk specifically about Fiasco, can you tell us how you came up with the concept?
Fiasco started out as a game about the founding, evolution and growth of a town, sort of a Raymond Carver-like look at people across generations in a slowly changing setting. The killer app of that idea was the way it privileged relationships over characters during initial setup, and while the “build a town” thing didn’t really work well, the procedural elements were obviously very strong. I looked to my own unhealthy interest in movies that embrace a certain dark tone and saw a natural match. I had a couple of very specific design goals that it also accommodated well – no prep play, a complete, satisfying experience in a single session, and minimal overhead.
In Fiasco, I thought it was brilliant how you allow the player to either frame the scene or complete it, but never both, and how the dice played into that mechanic. Was that mechanic the result of your recent atomization of the GM authority, or did that come about by the creation of the mechanic in Fiasco?
You are referring to the central resolution mechanic in Fiasco, which allows a player to establish a scene (defining everything about the location, the circumstances, who is there, what it is about) or resolve it (deciding if the outcome is positive or negative for his character) but never both. This evolved over time, through playtesting and conversations with smart friends, from a pretty standard “frame the scene, define what is at stake, resolve the conflict” through “divide stake-setting and resolution” to what it is in the published game – something much more subtle and open. This was strongly informed by my experience with structured freeform, particularly the Nordic Vi åker Jeep school of game design, which I am a big fan of. I’ve been playing with different ways to distribute authority for years and it continues to evolve. The establish/resolve and positive/negative outcome thing puts a lot of trust and responsibility on the players to find a way that works well for them.
Can you share any detail about your two games in development: Cowboys With Big Hearts and Medical Hospital?
Sure! Cowboys With Big Hearts is my experiment in making a “GM-heavy” game with centralized authority – it is a very focused one-shot (with lots of replayability) that tells a sort of spooky story about dying cowboys, at the death of the romantic west, going on one last ride.
Medical Hospital is the medical game of medical melodrama. You play over the top surgeons caught up in lust, greed, and ambition and resolve your interpersonal conflicts by actually performing surgical procedures. It is super weird, and you will learn way more about gastroenterology than you ever thought you would in a roleplaying game.
Before we conclude, the great Gnome Martin Ralya created something called the GM’s Naughty List , a list of things as a GM that you could improve upon. What would you put on your naughty list?
Interesting question! You’d have to ask my friends to be sure. I think I am weak at reading players and incorporating their contributions, in systems that don’t do this automatically. I tend to over-prep in a way that might over-focus the game’s theme or tone, because I love research, and all my background stuff may end up being suffocating or ignored.
Thank you Jason for your time and for the great work you and Bully Pulpit are doing. Fiasco, Grey Ranks, and the rest of the Bully Pulpit’s games are available now on Indie Press Revolution, DriveThruRPG, and on the Bully Pulpit Games.