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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?

Grim side 1Tabletop 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.

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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?

Grim side 2A 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.

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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?

Grim side 3I 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?

Grim side 4This 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. is my hub, you can find me there – and links to all the stores that sell my stuff – or on Twitter – @grimachu SweeneyInterviewsGrim Desborough,Interviews,TabletopFirst 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…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­ri­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­i­ty but always hope­ful for change.