Tabletop Developer Interview: James ‘Grim’ Desborough
First of all introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.
Hi. My name is James ‘Grim’ Desborough. I’m 39 and a Sagittarius. My hobbies include making games, playing games, modifying games and arguing about games.
OK, I am a tabletop RPG, board game and card game designer. I’ve been playing games the overwhelming majority of my life – over 30 years – and I’ve been making my own virtually that same amount of time. I’ve worked with Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackson Games, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Mongoose Publishing and many others and I also run my own independent ‘label’ Postmortem Studios as well as being creative director of Chronicle City. I’ve also worked on stories and writing for a couple of online social games.
I’ve been working professionally in gaming for 16 years and as an indie for longer – though ‘off-label’ – back when there was more of a ‘zine scene. My main interest in games is how open and free they are, compared to other forms of entertainment, and I’m fascinated by how a game’s rules interface with the setting to provide a tailored experience. System matters. I also tend to find more controversial concepts, settings and ideas more interesting, which gets me into trouble fairly often. As well as games I occasionally write erotica, as well as non-kinky fiction as well. I’m trying to find an agent and publisher for my first full length novel right now.
What is your favourite aspect of a tabletop game to work on?
The background. Balancing plausibility, genre, the necessary rules etc, with the background and pulling it off are a challenge, but it’s coming up with the background at the start which is most interesting to me as a whole and – for me – a necessary first step. It was a big challenge working on Machinations of the Space Princess since – by design – it has no explicit setting or background. So that was the opposite of how I normally work.
What do you think of the current state of the traditional games and tabletop RPG industry, does it foster creators sufficiently?
Tabletop gaming is a relatively tiny niche, if you ignore the rise of European style board games, but the players of those have less and less crossover with the RPG community all the time. Boardgames also have a much higher buy-in to produce, so even with services like The Gamecrafter (brilliant site for prototyping games, check it out) and crowdfunding via IndieGoGo and Kickstarter those are less common – and trust for crowdfunding is severely waning in the board/card/RPG community with several high profile failures or delays (Atlantic City, Call of Cthulhu).
We also have a pretty deep three-way, ideological divide between the politicized Indie scene, the non-politicized Indie scene (groups like the Old School Renaissance) and what passes for large scale companies in this industry trying to walk a tightrope between the two.
Tabletop gaming is supposedly very popular again, at least, lots of people are playing D&D still, but you wouldn’t really be able to tell in the way you could in the 80s. With bookstores closing, games shops shifting to collectibles and board games and no RPG media it’s hugely challenging to get the word out about your game and people treat crowdfunding like it’s pre-ordering, rather than risky venture capitalism. It all makes for a very, very challenging time economically, let alone anything else.
The atmosphere around tabletop RPG discussion is particularly febrile and vicious, ‘because the stakes are so low’ to quote Sayre. It’s similar to the ‘social justice warrior’ conversations and arguments going on in computer gaming, but rather than designer versus media and vice versa it’s much more designer and customer versus each other, with no proxies. So it’s even worse.
The short answer is that everything is in severe flux, there’s not much going on that does foster creators, rather it challenges them. From a hostile atmosphere towards aspects of game design (like art, or Exalted containing mind control powers that could potentially be used in a ‘rapey’ way) to the financial difficulties that come from botched crowdfunding, no significant games media and more demands on people’s money there’s little going for you. The couple of things that are going for you are the low barrier to entry to writing and publishing a game and the wide availability of decent stock art.
What do you think about the about the recent acceleration of physical card-games and traditional games moving into video games?
It’s interesting, but I’ve not really been able to look into it very much. Funding an app version of, say, Call of Cthentacle, is so far beyond my budget I can’t see a way to make it possible. It’s something only the larger companies – such as Fantasy Flight or Games Workshop – can either fund or draw the attention of app devs to. It’s something I’d like to do and I’d like to write a tabletop game with an (optional) app-based support system but it’s just outside my budget and expertise. One thing that does worry me is the compulsory integration of apps into some board games. The idea that a board game – ostensibly an analogue game made of paper and ink – could become unplayable and obsolete due to the removal of an app or a company going bust is anathema to me.
Some people seem to regard your work as “triggering”, why is that and is that kind of complaint common in the tabletop community?
Everything that computer gaming is going through now, with regard to ‘Social Justice Warriors’ etc, we went through years ago but there was no push-back then, no Gamergate or its equivalent and now the lunatics are running most of the asylum, if not quite all of it.
When I put out Hentacle in 2004 there were some comments on RPGNET to the effect that it was ‘fetishised child rape’. Most of that was laughed off by most people but when I chose some particularly funny outrage comments to include in advertising copy for the game moderators and owners from RPGNET pressured and threatened RPGNOW until I was forced to change it. Not dissimilar to the more recent problems with Gamergate: The Cardgame. Back then the community hadn’t lost its mind, but designers and website owners had begun to, and it’s only gotten worse since then.
I mentioned the outrage aimed at Exalted’s mind control powers, but it’s hard to find any game any more that hasn’t been targeted by outrage. Numenera was attacked for merely having a succubus like creature in its bestiary, every product by anyone seems to be gone over with a fine tooth comb. Seeing Exalted come under fire was strange, since White Wolf and Exalted in particular were always progressive darlings. People will go back and go through ten-plus year-old work looking for something to spin in an incriminating way. It’s like being targeted by the Witch-Smeller Persuivant.
I’m interested in topics that others find controversial. Especially political and sexual topics. So I’m a red-rag to a bull from some of these people. I also never bowed my head or changed my ways when accused of nonsense I haven’t done, and I’ve become a free-expression advocate. All of which makes me much worse in their eyes. It’s not an easy life, but at least it’s consistent and ethically sound.
So yes, the complaint is common, endemic even. I’m still trying to find good ways to deal with it while continuing to work unmolested. Gamergate’s been a huge source of hope that this state of affairs can be resisted.
You’ve worked with high-profile companies like Wizards of the Coast but you also work on your own releases Postmortem Studios, how does working independently compare to being part of larger projects?
I much prefer to be my own boss. People like Wizards are the only ones that pay a decent wage, but compared to the rates in other industries its still shockingly low and payments for writing – and art – from companies haven’t really changed much since 2000, so they’ve gone down in real terms. Working for larger companies is also a lot more work with a lot more people sticking their oar in and wanting changes and modifications. Then there’s the delay until publication and if they don’t use what you’ve written for the project you may not get paid at all.
All things considered then, I prefer working for myself these days. Total control, can write about what you want, in the way that you want, and you’re not left in limbo for a year or more waiting for it to be published.
I’ve heard you and others speak about issues running games at tabletop conventions in recent years, what issues face those wanting to run their own RPGs at public events?
A lot of these are problems that haven’t quite occurred yet. The big problem is anti-harassment policies. How can I be against anti-harassment policies? Because by-and-large they’re not actually anti-harassment policies.
There’s been a big push to implement these, despite conventions since the 1970s or before getting by just fine – including dealing with harassers – without them. What these policies, mostly modeled after the outlines in the Geekfeminism Wiki do, is to expand the definitions of harassment beyond the bounds of anything like common sense, into art displays, book covers, cosplay as so forth.
This is how we’ve ended up in the ridiculous situation of skirts being measured at PAX, cosplayers being told to go and change and so on. The last Dragonmeet I was at a group of us sat around a table laughing about their anti-harassment policy, but I went around and checked the stalls and games on show after that conversations and about 80% of exhibitors, and games, were technically breaking the anti-harassment policy. All it takes is one arsehole to make a fuss and the convention would essentially be busted, likely bankrupting the organisers. Most of these policies also have built in language to the effect that any complaint has to be taken seriously without special judgement, so all it’s going to take is a con with that one arsehole and it’s potentially ruined.
This has already happened to individual speakers – such as Violet Blue – at tech and computer security conferences, it’s happened with the ‘Listen and Believe’ incident around the Honey Badgers, it’s happened with Jessica Nigri being made to go and change outfits and these are just a handful of the more public incidents. So it’s not like I’m pro-harassment by being against these policies. It’s more about being pro sanity.
Let’s face it, most games are about fantasy. They depict fantastical and beautiful people – sometimes not in a lot of clothes, and fantasy violence. Things that are against these policies. Then if you’re running a game you might have a villain in it do something villainous. Hell no, Trigger Warning required.
That’s the other problem, if you’re running a demo or an open game you never know if the next person sitting down at the table is going to be one of these arseholes, so it puts you on edge, especially if you’re also selling goods. Cons are a serious outlay and if you have to leave, that could be it for you, no chance of making your money back. X-Cards are probably peak stupidity so far as this goes.
What game or expansion are you most proud of working on in your career?
I don’t think I can pick just one. I’m proud of starting off the whole Munchkin phenomenon, even though it’s bittersweet and equal regard should be given to my writing partner Steve Mortimer. Otherwise… Gor isn’t out yet, but I’m proud of having had the fortitude and will to press on with the project and get it done. I’m just stuck waiting on the art, but the artist – Michael Manning – is someone I’ve wanted to work with for years and it’s worth the wait. Agents of SWING hit the right notes, though it needs a new edition. I’ve always loved Bond and all the weird spy shows of the 60s and 70s and I think my enthusiasm carried the game across well.
Machinations of the Space Princess was a big, complicated project, so I got a real sense of accomplishment from finishing that, plus I got to work with Satine Phoenix, who is lovely and awesome and talented, so that was great. Resurrecting PROJECT from a very old idea that someone else (Whitt) had and turning it into a finished game was a brilliant feeling. I’m kind of always on to the next idea and the next game and that’s – usually – what I’m most enthused about day to day.
You’ve been outspoken and also heavily criticized for your comments on the lack of freedom of expression in the tabletop world, why is a seemingly vital debate so difficult to have?
Because you’re trying to have a conversation about free expression and they’re trying to have a conversation about representation, feminism, the alleged influence games and art can have on people and a host of other stuff originating in the darkest corners of pseudo-academia. So you’re having two different conversations, but they’re constantly accusing you of racism, sexism etc as a means to carry their argument. Most people shrink in the face of those accusations, because they’re horrible things to be called and they stick, even when they’re utterly untrue.
I decided not to shrink and to fight back. So I’m now a racist, sexist, rape-apologising ‘edgelord’, and it has cost me. It’s a vital debate to be had in society as a whole. This same culture war is going on everywhere. Do we want to retain free expression and let people moderate their own media input or do we want to restrict everyone on the basis of bad research that’s contradicted by proper studies? The saying about trading freedom for security is well known, but what about trading freedom for comfort? That seems even more insidious and dangerous to me.
That’s why the debate is so important. I just wish I didn’t let these people get to me so much. They shouldn’t matter, but I see myself as a good person so the accusations around not being, do cut. Not the trolls, but the ones that mean it.
What type of games would you like to see more of in the tabletop realm?
I want to see more experimental and far reaching material. Not necessarily when it comes to mechanics, but in the implications of the world design. Narrative games seem to be played out to me now. Games like Apocalypse World are barely comprehensible outside of their fan-clique and simply don’t seem to work well. That push has driven a lot of simplification and design/game streamlining but I think it’s reaching its limit. The indie scene needs to become indie in the proper meaning, rather than activism.
I think we also need a muscular reassertion of the idea of FUN.
What is your opinion of people like Wil Wheaton & Felicia Day who position themselves as the ‘face’ of the tabletop community?
Before Gamergate I rated both of them, in their professional work and in their positions as that ‘face’. However I’ve seen both jump on the bandwagon, both ignorantly attacking a consumer revolt which, ironically, is fighting for freedoms which they – as actors – should also be fighting to preserve. Wheaton, in particular, was specifically a dick (in violation of his own law) to me by making a mountain out of the fact I (stupidly) conversed for four whole tweets with a bot on Twitter. Day pointlessly panicked over some random trolling and smeared everyone involved on that basis.
As such, I don’t think either can meaningfully claim to be knowledgeable geeks or to speak for a community they’ve maligned. We need more and better faces, people from the community perhaps who aren’t just trading on their reputation and fame from elsewhere.
In October last year you controversially had an interview removed from the “Escapist Magazine” for reasons that seems unclear and contradictory to me, would you like to give your account of what happened there?
I still have no real idea and they’re not entertaining any more conversation on the matter. After much wrangling and speculation all I could gather was that there were accusations of ‘harassment’. I was never told what I was supposed to have done, where or how and from my point of view I’ve never harassed anyone. This must be some strange new definition of the word ‘harassment’ I was previously unaware of.
My best guess is that it’s because I was very briefly in the #Burgersandfries channel trying to work out what the hell was going on, that was the reason. As someone with depression, and someone who had backed and recommended Depression Quest, as well as contributing to Quinn’s mugging fund, I was very concerned with what was going on, quite angry and B&F was the only place to get information. Seems like a weak-arse reason to pull a review. I’d initially thought it was because I know Macris and we’ve talked a bit before, but that wasn’t it.
If you could work on any series, any series at all, what would it be?
Now that I’ve done Gor, which was a challenge I wanted to do for some time, I’m not sure. I’d love to do The Boys or Zenith as an RPG, more serious superhero stuff hasn’t been done particularly well in the past. I’d also love to do a hard-Steampunk game, derived from The Difference Engine, rather than all this cartoonish ‘stick a cog on it’ Steampunk that has taken over.
I’d have liked to have worked on the current Lord of the Rings game, but I’m fairly sure it would be a huge pain in the arse as the Tolkien Estate can be quite finicky. I’d also have loved to do a Barsoom RPG, but the ERB estate are even worse than the Tolkien one and international law on public domain works is a minefield, especially with regard to this period. They’re all public domain in Australia for example, but this isn’t the case everywhere else.
Of existing RPG lines… I’d like to get involved in a 5th Edition D&D version of Darksun or Planescape – but I don’t see that happening for a while. I fucking love Iron Kingdoms and I’d love to write for that, but Privateer Press seem to do their own thing and output for Iron Kingdoms isn’t that rapid – the miniatures are their main concern and quite rightly. I’m too used to working for myself these days really.
Your work errs on more of the adult side of the tabletop world, how much demand is there for people to have their less safe for work preferences catered to in an RPG world?
This is part of why it fascinates me. People will indulge in any amount of violence in a game without batting an eyelid, but throw in some sex and they lose their minds. It’s infuriating. Sex and romance are such major motivators in society and personal actions it seems ridiculous to ignore it or shuffle one’s feet in the way many do. Sure it’s uncomfortable to describe sex acts while sat around a table with a bunch of other fatbeards but you don’t have to be explicit to make it a factor in play, in the game world.
I got a lot of flak (post-hoc) about a comedy supplement I wrote called Nymphology, about sex magic, but I was trying to smuggle a serious point through when I wrote that. If we had magic, what would we do with it in regard to sex?
I mean look at the world of sex in real life and what we do to each other or the uses we bend technology to. Many internet innovations were driven by pornography, which also settled the high-def DVD battle. Using virtual reality for porn (the Oculus Rift) is a huge controversy. Real Dolls attempt to create ever more realistic, literal, sex objects. There’s games with squeezable boobs, people hacking webcams or sharing CCTV footage of couples having sex, people getting catfished by fictional profiles, flying thousands of miles to spend a day with a sex partner.
So what would us sex-mad humans do with magic and sex? A whole host of stuff, not all of it good. I think online play also opens up avenues for less squeamish play for people. In my research for the Gor game I discovered there’s a huge number of people, primarily women, playing out the Gorean world online in Second Life. People have been roleplaying sex online since… forever. There’s an untapped area there that I find massively interesting from a design point of view and, to reiterate, to divide between people’s reaction to explicit violence and their reaction to explicit sex is something I simply don’t understand.
Lastly where can people find you and where can we find more details on your projects? Shill now or forever hold your peace.
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