Tabletop Developer Interview: James ‘Grim’ Desborough

Scrumpmonkey is here with a fantastic interview with tabletop game dev James "Grim" Desborough, talking about tabletop dev and industry aspects.

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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

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
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.
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