Interview : Contested Ground Studios

We talk to Malcolm Craig of Contested Ground Studios about a/state, a game of urban SF horror

Contested Ground Studios have been making a bit of a buzz on the net of late. The arrival of a/state lite, a demo version of their soon to be released game a/state, has caused a good deal of interest. In an effort to find out more about this new company and their product, we tracked down Malcolm Craig and asked him to enlighten us about the game, cities, and inspiration…

First off, tell us a bit about yourselves and Contested Ground Studios. Why did you decide to take the plunge into publishing your own roleplaying game?

Well, Contested Ground Studios is essentially four people based up in Falkirk in sunny Scotland (which may go some way to explaining why the weather in a/state is so terrible). There’s me, Malcolm Craig, who writes stuff. Paul Bourne is our in-house digital artist, graphic designer and bass player, John Wilson is our Internet guru/business manager and Iain McAllister is our editor-in-chief (and he’s also developing our next big release, Mob Justice). a/state would be nothing without the involvement of these guys. There’s also a load of other people who have given advice, time and encouragement to us. James Wallis of Hogshead Games was, and is, an invaluable source of information and support.

Then there’s friends such as Mike Beck (who came up with the “You will never forget The City. But The City will forget you” tag line), Justin Matters, Janet Pashley, Liam O’Connor, Baz Johnston and Brian Pickles who all helped is in one way or another. And I must give a big mention to Rab Robertson, our unpaid proofreader and pointer-out of my grammatical errors. Rab has done sterling work on a/state and without him, it would be a far less decent product.

It’s a question I keep asking myself: “Why the hell are we doing this?” The answer is simply a desire to actually produce something that gamers will think is worth buying. We started out by doing a website where a/state stuff was posted and you could download information about the setting. Back then, it was essentially systemless, but after some very positive and encouraging feedback, we thought: “Why not? Maybe we could actually publish this?” It all just snowballed from there, leading to panic attacks, cold sweats and moments of existential self-doubt.

Describe a/state without using the words balance, playability, storytelling, realistic or unrivalled.

Gothic horror hard-SF. Perhaps a rather odd combination of speculative fiction types, but ones I think work rather well together. As the writer, I like to think that a/state is an immersive, intricate, persuasively
detailed setting full of mystery, incident, detail and character. Not just character in the human sense, but also in the character of The City itself. One reviewer rather interestingly noted this, saying that The City was a character in itself, one which had to be interacted with.

This is satisfying, as it’s something I actually set out to achieve.So many RPGs have brilliant settings which fall down because, although the setting may be beautifully detailed, it never actually feels like you’re interacting with the environment itself. a/state also has fairly socialist leanings, which is more of a reflection of my own political views than anything else. The theme of social injustice features strongly in the game, shown in the pitiful state in which most people find themselves.

Not that I’m for a moment trying to foist any kind of agenda onto people, it is after all just a game. Another strong element of a/state, perhaps the most important element in the game, is the belief in hope and the ability of people to do good despite the crushing horror they find themselves surrounded by. I realise that’s all a bit heavy for an RPG. Oh well, back to the drawing board (or laptop, in this case).

The background sections of a/state lite have a nice feel of claustrophobic city living. Is there anything you’re particularly pleased with in the setting?

I’m just amazed it’s all come together. On a more serious note, I’m personally pleased with the environment of The City itself, the way that we’ve managed to produce an internally coherent and consistent setting. Cities are fascinating places, which is one of the many driving forces behind a/state. The way that history piles up in a very visual manner in a city, with gothic churches standing next to concrete towerblocks, brick tenements alongside glass offices and so on. Then, there’s the horrible fascination that the underbelly of urban life holds: what is hidden in old cellars, what lies up a dark alley, where ancient tunnels lead and all that sort of thing.

Cities are at once both entrancing and repelling creations. The original idea for a/state actually took shape on a train journey from Billericay in Essex into central London. As the train headed deeper into London, you could see ancient foundations and tunnels alongside the tracks, rows of brick houses squashed up next to concrete blocks. It made me wonder about how it had all evolved and accreted over the centuries.

Well, actually what I probably thought at the time was “Wonder if I should write a game set in a huge city?” and the more philosophical elements came later or were made up by me in an attempt to give myself an air of completely unjustified intellectual credibility.

One of the common problems with RPGs is having to know too much of the background before you start playing. How much of the a/state background would a starting player need to know?

Difficult question to answer, but I don’t think that a player would need to have an in-depth knowledge of the setting before starting out. In truth, it’s probably better that their knowledge is limited so that this enhances
the feeling of mystery and the unknown. Most people in The City live in a similar situation to people in medieval times, rarely travelling more than a mile or two from their place of birth. Knowledge of other
places is limited, insularity, folklore and superstition are rife. As an example, many people in The City believe it is limitless, extending on forever. So while this is not true, it has become the truth in their minds. As a player, it would be helpful to know about the area in which you live and work, but beyond that a detailed knowledge of The City isn’t really required for beginning play. On the other hand, I do think we ask quite a lot of the GM. The setting is fairly intricate and complex and requires the GM to invest time in reading the book and having an understanding of The City. However, I’d like to think that we produced something that is interesting to read and would provide an enjoyable experience for the GM.

Reading the lite version, I was vaguely reminded of both SLA Industries and Perdido Street Station…

I think SLA Industries is one of the most interesting games to have appeared on the RPG scene ever. I take my hat off to Dave Allsop and the guys behind it, as it’s always been a game which has seriously impressed me. To be honest, one of the considerations when writing a/state was not to be like SLA. As for Perdido Street Station, I can only say that it’s a fantastically impressive novel, as is all of China Mievilles work. I first read PSS after doing a lot of the development for a/state and was concerned that there might be similarities.

However, China being the very nice chap that he is, assured me that any similarities were purely superficial (and that he liked the game, which was nice!).

What have been the main influences for the setting? Are there any books that you’d recommend reading when looking for inspiration for a/state scenarios?

The main influences for the setting are many and varied. Some authors I’d like to single out are Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Mervyn Peake, Cordwainer Smith, Jeff Noon, J G Ballard, Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, Steve Aylett and, latterly, China Mieville. The list could go on and on. I do have a long list of novels which have provided inspiration in some way, but it runs to a couple of pages and would make extremely boring viewing. However, a few books which I would recommend are: Great Expectations and Hard Times by Charles Dickens,The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad,The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake,The Bridge by Iain Banks,The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer SmithThe Island of Dr Death And Other Stories And Other Stories (no, that really is the title of the book) by Gene Wolfe,Perdido Street Station, King Rat and The Scar by China Mieville,The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss,Dhalgren by Samuel Delany and A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

Cinema has also exerted an influence on the game. Movies such as Jacobs Ladder, Avalon, Ghost In The Shell (obvious, but brilliant), Kiss Me Deadly, Hell Is A City, Amadeus, Great Expectations, Angel Heart, the list could run and run. I was amazed by the cinematography of Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon when I first saw it (even if it was on a slightly fuzzy video copy), visually it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. I really do take my hat off to Oshii-san for producing some truly memorable visual experiences such as Avalon, Ghost In The Shell and Jin Roh. There a lot of seriously underrated films out there that contributed in some way to a/state: the previously mentioned Jacobs Ladder and Angel Heart are two exceptionally fine psychological horror films which never seem to get the credit they deserve. In films and games, horror shouldn’t just be about slashed corpses, nasty monsters and faceless men with axes, it’s all about suggestion, uncertainty and mood. The best way to produce horror in a game environment is through fear of the unknown or by subtly altering the familiar to produce unease.

Non-fiction works have also been a big influence on the setting. Ones which I’d particularly highlight are Antony Beevor’s magnificent Stalingrad, Roy Porter’s Mind Forg’d Manacles (which deals with the pre-Victorian treatment of mental illness in England) and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s seminal work on the Japanese underworld Speed Tribes (although this one is semi-fictional). Stalingrad is one of the best evocations of horror, degradation, brutality and courage that I’ve ever read. The conflict on the Eastern Front during WWII is, to my mind, one of the most horrific and scarcely believable episodes in human history. The sheer brutality of the fighting, the awful conditions and utter hellishness of it all really boggles the mind. Yet, in the midst of all this terror, there were examples of the greatest courage, honour, dignity and self-sacrifice.

I found it a very affecting book and in some ways I’ve tried to grab hold of the feeling evoked by it in a/state. Like the Eastern Front, The City is full of horror, despair and cruelty, yet within all of that there is hope and goodness. I wouldn’t recommend Stalingrad as light bedtime reading but it is a history book that is accessible, readable and emotive I’d don’t know if I’d particularly recommend any works when thinking of a/state scenarios, I think that anything that the reader enjoys and feels would fit could be used. However, I’ll now completely contradict myself and say that anything by Michael Marshall Smith (particularly Only Forward, Spares and One Of Us) are great sources of ideas. As are short story collections like the classic Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (edited by Bruce Sterling) and (believe it or not) Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories! No, really, read them!

Fog shrouded London, crime, beggars, thieves, industrialisation, men with hats, pipe smoking, they’ve got the lot!

Tell us a bit about the system, how did you go about designing it? What were your priorities?

System was one of the big bugbears when it came to the game, as I’m mainly a background and settings kind of guy, rather than an infrastructure designer. We could have gone for a generic, open source system such as EABA or D20, but in the end we felt that doing our own system which integrated with the game world was a better bet. I’m not going to go off on a big anti-D20 rant, but the homogenisation of the games industry worries me somewhat. I personally don’t think that D20 is appropriate to all the settings it’s been applied to, with knock-on effects for the game itself. While, when running games, system has never been a huge thing for me, a good, appropriate system does add a certain ‘feel’ to a game. For example, hard-SF games just don’t feel right if you have to use D6’s. Whereas percentile based systems are ideal. It’s just a feeling that you get from the system, like with Shadowrun I always had the feeling I was playing D&D because of the number of D6’s flying about. In the rush to latch on to the undoubted marketing advantages of D20, some games are missing out on the advantages that a specifically tailored system can offer.

Now, all the above isn’t to say that the a/state system is perfect in any way, shape or form. The priority was always to produce something which enhanced the game, fitted in with the setting and was, most importantly, simple enough that it didn’t interfere. The rules presented in a/stateLite are a very stripped out version of the main rules, but in essence they present what the system is all about: simplicity and ease of use.

Which design decisions did you have the most problems with? Which are you most pleased with?

Combat was a big thing. It had to be deadly enough to give a feeling of realism and convince players that fighting was not always the best option, but also not too deadly, as you don’t want players dropping dead every single time someone punches them. Striking that balance was difficult. In the end, although injuries are dealt with in fairly abstract terms, it works well enough. I’m really pleased with the full character generation system, as it allows full, rounded, interesting characters, not just rows of numbers. I’ve always admired the Chaosium system used in Call of Cthulhu for it’s simplicity and elegance, so in real terms I was attempting to achieve a similar result when designing the a/state system.

How much has the game evolved since it’s original form?

A hell of a lot is the short answer! The original idea was for a mega-urban hard SF cyberpunk game set in a continent-spanning city, sort of the ultimate cyberpunk game. This gradually metamorphosed into a darker, much more gothic setting which eventually became a/state (after being called Shift, The City and a few other things along the way). In the end, I think a/state has become much more than the original concept, slightly more original (which sounds dead pretentious) than the rather tired and dated cyberpunk ideal. a/state now combines the best and worst of human existence. Horrific places such as concentration camps, insane asylums and slums find their place but alongside the great things than people can do as well. I’ve tried to avoid the black and white, good vs evil distinctions which you find in some games.

Which RPGs do you enjoy, and which have influenced you when writing this one?

Oooh! Let’s see now – The first RPG I ever played was Call of Cthulhu, a game which I still think is one of the best RPGs ever written. I think the adventure was called ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ or something like that. Then the same night, I played my second ever RPG which was the much-maligned Twilight:2000 1st Edition. Twilight got a bit of an unfair rep as a stomping ground for macho survivalist fantasies, but we tended to play things on a more human level, dealing with the effects of the Twilight War, how people coped and suchlike, rather than just running round with M-16s laying waste to the Polish countryside.

That having been said, hard SF was always a favourite of mine and the now defunct GDWs 2300AD was always my favourite to run. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Blue Planet, which I find to be a highly original, innovative and refreshing take on traditional cyberpunk tropes. Very recently I’ve started running a few one off games of Cthulhu again, which has proved to be most enjoyable. There’s also a lot of games that were never particularly popular which I quite like, such as Living Steel, CORPS and Hawkmoon (anyone remember that?).

What have you got planned for the future of the game?

Many, many things. Our firstmajor supplement for the game is tentatively titled ‘Avenues & Alleyways‘ which will provide information on further city areas, maps, NPCs, locations and so on. Big chunks of it are already written in fact, which is quite handy from a production point of view. Beyond that, we’ve got a whole slate of supplements that we’d like to produce to support a/state such as adventure packs, campaign packs, more information on the macrocorps and other organisations, perhaps more on The Shifted and so on an so forth. There are some big mysteries inherent in the setting and small parts of these will be revealed as time goes on. However, it’s really up to players and GMs to decipher things for themselves  and make their own minds up as to what is going on in The City. We’re also going to be producing a series of affordable (OK, perhaps cheap is a better description) guides to specific areas of The City. They’ll be sixteen pages each and include expanded details on a particular area, maps, NPCs, locations and adventure nuggets.

The art in a/state lite is very evocative, who are the people behind it?

It’s actually just one person behind it, my very talented and imaginative partner in crime Paul Bourne. The great thing about Paul doing the art for the game is that he manages to render the written word into images
in exactly the way I imagine scenes, characters or buildings to be.

That’s a great thing to have in an artist. Paul has also influenced the setting by producing some art that was just way beyond what I expected and actually caused me to change areas and buildings to better reflect
the art.

Do you give them a set specification, or let them just draw cool stuff?

Half of the time the art is based on stuff I’ve written, the other half Paul has come up with on his own. Sometimes we’ve sat down and said “Right, we need a…” and Paul has gone off and designed the item or scene in question, usually getting it spot on first time! As a recent example, we needed a picture of a car for the game (although they are very rare and expensive). I had a visual image of something that combined the look of 1950’s American cars and modern sports tourers, yet being sinister and threatening at the same time. We looked at certain cars, particularly the Buick Y-Job which is reckoned to be the first ever concept car, and then Paul went off an did his thing! The result was fantastic and one which entirely fits the initial concept. Paul also designed most of the weapons in the game, despite not being an authority on anything to do with guns. I think that helps, in a way, as it allows the artist just to go for a certain look or feel, without being constrained by images of how guns really are.

A lot of the art seems computer generated, was that an intentional choice?

CG art is now Pauls preferred medium of choice, although he is also  a very talented airbrush artist. CG art is a medium which seems to be rather under-used in the RPG world, although that will probably change in the future. Having a game which uses purely digital art certainly marks a/state out as something different (although, I hasten to add, not unique).

I was impressed with the layout of the lite version. Are you keeping a similar layout for the
final product?

Yes, the overall layout will be the same, with a few tweaks here and there to clean things up and give greater clarity. Again, the layout and design was entirely down to Paul who did a really nice job with the almost art deco style of the pages. We took a decision fairly early on to keep the page tone as ‘light’ as possible. Some game books are a bit heavy on page furniture, which we thought made things a bit ‘busy’ and took up space that would have been better used for art or text. Although the game itself is fairly dark in tone, keeping the layout light makes it more readable and accessible.

Which are your favourite player characters from playtesting? Did any of them worm into the book as NPCs?

Yep, there are a couple of playtest characters in the book. Perhaps my favourite is Janus Kripitsch, the Lostfinder from Mire End. He was the first character I actually sketched out for the game and features fairly heavily in the full version. There’s a short story in the full version of the game called ‘A Sense Of Common Indecency’ in which Kripitschis the lead character. For some reason, I kind of like the idea of an ethical, community-focussed private investigator who relies on the goodwill of the people. Maybe something of a subversion of the traditional hard-boiled, tough guy gumshoe stereotype. Jane Card is another playtest character who found their way in. She’s a Ghostfighter; stealthy, uber-proficient knife fighters. No game is complete without a ninja type character, ninjas are just cool. But ninja in a/state would be ridiculous, so we’ve
got Ghostfighters!

When can we get our grubby little mitts on the game?

April 2003 is now our projected release date. There have been a few minor setbacks, but to be honest, we’d rather take our time and produce as error free, coherent, consistent and worthwhile product as possible. When you’re asking people to part with over 20 quid (£25 actually) for a game, it had better be worth their money. However, we have now taken the decision to produce the game as a lavish hardback. Which is nice.

Thanks to Malcolm for taking the time to answer our questions.

To find out more about a/state and Contested Ground Studios, visit www.contestedground.co.uk/

Interview © 2002 Matt Machell and Contested Ground

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