Rama's Rules of Running an RPG

Article by Jason Rama This is primarily advice for first time Gamesmaster’s, those noblest and most fragile of creatures (rather like papier-mâché Dodo’s). In no particular order:

  1. If you don’t want to be the sort of fixed-minded GM that makes roleplaying a lackluster experience for the players, then before you even start writing scenarios and settings, talk to the players about what they think a ‘fantasy’ game, a ‘sci-fi’ game or whatever type of game you intend to run is. You can then all agree what expectations or limitations the game should have, that way, theoretically at least; everyone stands a good chance of getting what they want out of the game.
  2. Always prepare your game well. Have contingency plans and spare scenarios ‘lying around’. These will save your bacon on more than one occasion. Never underestimate the speed at which players can resolve a scenario that took you months to think of. This particularly happens if you write a linear ‘plot’ for the players to ‘follow’,rather than a ‘scenario’ allowing for many projected courses of action. If you don’t tie yourself down to ‘making’ the players follow a story, you give yourself flexibility which allows everyone will have a lot more fun.
  3. Always write detailed background information on your setting. Plot can come from the players interacting with the environment. It is important to note however, that the background information and setting should be tailored to the players and player character’s motivations and desires, this will make it more enjoyable for the players to explore and adventure in your world. Always remember though, that you don’t have to use all the background information and detail for your players, take what you want, depending on what you need in the session.
  4. Always have control over the environment. Wherever you role-play make sure you have everything you need to set the mood; Music, lighting, snacks and beverages. These can become vital in long sessions as they set the mood and sometimes the pace of what you are trying to achieve.
  5. Always leave the players alone in the room before you start the game, for no more than 5 minutes, leave your selected music running and before you leave the room suggest to the players that they need to think about what they want to do tonight. This will get the players in the mood for the nights festivities. Be careful not to give them too much time to set definite plans, those should really be done ‘in game’. After all, players are supposed to role-play making plans. You don’t want the players turning up and handing you a dossier and saying ‘This is what we want to do, see you next week!’ and then leaving.
  6. Always recap what happened last time you played - this gives the players a chance to remind you of what you might have forgotten, and vice versa, but also to indicate to you, the GM, what the players are focused on doing in the session.
  7. If you want the players to visit a particular place, don’t give the place you have in mind a name. Give the player’s a selection of names to choose from and then just use the place you have designed, this is particularly useful for first time GM’s. For more experienced GM’s, open your scenario up a little, have LOTS of places your players can visit, with different cultures, customs and intrigues. Who knows what your players may uncover? Well, you hopefully
  8. Try and keep the group together as much as possible, letting them have their own storylines is good, but try and keep these instances as short as possible if you’re a first timer. Otherwise you may have players sitting around doing nothing for long periods of time and getting bored. If it is absolutely necessary to do this (The more experienced at GM’ing you become, the more likely this is to happen as player confidence grows in you), give the other players NPC’s that are with the ‘lone’ player to play, and brief them on their temporary character motivations. And if ‘solo’ scenarios aren’t working out or are not very interesting, then talk to the player involved and say ‘I don’t think this is working’ or ‘How can we make this more interesting?’ If two of you can’t resolve the problems, then it’s time to ditch that ‘strand’ and move on to the next one or back to the group.
  9. If you think of an idea of making your job as GM easier for you, then do it, particularly if it involves the players with the story more. There are various ways of doing this; Have players create NPC characters for the game and get them to play them (This can be tricky as players can end up talking to themselves!), get players to write journals of their gaming activities ‘in character’ and read them (This can be soooooo funny!), have players writing scenario ideas and background info for you, encourage players to provide you with research that they have done on your setting (This can save you A LOT of time), the list goes on and on.
  10. If you have created a setting that is unfamiliar to the players, give them a pre-generated character each and role-play a few sessions in this new environment, this will help the players develop ideas and understand the world before they generate their characters.
  11. Never underestimate the power of player paranoia, ideas, and gullibility. Exploit this whenever it is practical to do so. If a player is role-playing their character in a particularly ‘nervy’ way because the setting and atmosphere are creeping the player out, play up to it a little, one player really getting into the scenario like this often ‘raises the game’ of the other players and makes for a better experience.
  12. Warn players that their characters can die! Character death, I believe, is important to RPG’s. I always give the players a chance to do something fatally stupid once and survive, barely. However, you must always stress to the player that ‘they were lucky’ this time and that may be a more considered set of actions would have been appropriate. Then have all the players start thinking of concepts for a second character that they might play if their first character dies. This makes scenarios much more interesting, dangerous places. It won’t stop stupid ideas, but at least they won’t moan too much about the consequences.
  13. Make sure that your NPC’s are interesting characters. Don’t just have them there to provide players with information. Give them their own goals and agendas. A good NPC will be approached again and again by players for interaction value alone (if the character is interesting enough) rather than just for information. As a player, I have many NPC ‘friends’ for precisely that reason. If players ‘cultivate’ these relationships, maybe the NPC’s involved will look on the player’s characters as ‘friends’ too. How would the players react if an NPC friend were killed by an NPC villain? There might be devastating emotional consequences for the player’s characters. NPC villains themselves can make interesting characters to keep around. It’s not always necessary for the villain’s death to be the ending of the story - maybe the villain gets away, the next scenario could be the PC’s reforming as a group and trying to bring him/her to justice, or the villain might not turn out to be the villain after all, just someone who has been badly misinformed, how will the players handle this anti-climax and the supposed villains guilt at all the crimes that they’ve committed?
  14. Make sure that player’s characters have friends and family that they have written about or at least planned. No one exists in the world alone. These can be useful for the GM in terms of hanging scenarios from ("Mr. Mysterio? This is your daughter’s housekeeper. She’s been kidnapped by The Cult of Flatulence!"). They can also be used to motivate the player’s characters in interesting ways and create interesting storylines ("I’m sorry Miss. Edwards, I’m no longer Mr. Mysterio, I’m retired. I’m getting married. If you want help, ask The Wedge. What’s that? The Cult of Flatulence, the people who killed my daughter!!?? Postpone the wedding, I’ve got some ass to kick!").
  15. Use props, drawings, maps, graphics, sound effects, music, etc. to accentuate game play, but NOT to dominate it.
  16. If you run out of scenario or ideas for one night, or you think the players have done enough for that sessions play, then cut the session short. Better to have a short, good session, than a long, patchy one.
  17. Always spend some time after the session asking the players what they thought was good and bad about the session, it’s the only way you’ll improve. Also, every couple of sessions, ask the players how they see their characters developing. This is a good way of developing plot.
  18. Never be afraid to ditch whatever plot or scenario ideas you have planned in favour of things the players are interested in. You may have spent months designing the plot and NPC’s for the story of the Martian Smurg Beast, but if the players are more interested in chatting up the barmaid, use that!
  19. Let players commit to stupid acts, try and subtly warn them they are about to do something silly, but if they don’t take the hint let them run with it. However, there is one proviso to this, stop the idea dead in it’s tracks if it means the whole group of characters are going to get wiped out (Player: "Mr. Mysterio decides to save the group by using his pocket flame thrower." GM: "You’re on a petrol station forecourt!").
  20. Most systems have some method of handing out ‘Experience Points’. These are generally handed out for role-playing well, staying in character, completing missions successfully. However, another good way of awarding experience (Particularly if you’re a first time GM) is to have players set short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for their characters. Short-term goals change from session to session, mid-term goals every scenario, and long-term almost never. It’s useful in terms of judging character success, and it also has the benefit of involving the players in what THEY say they have to do to EARN experience. Goals like this also have the benefit of not being bound to ‘solving’ the mystery or killing the ‘villain’, you can give your own experience ‘bonuses’ for that, they can be aimed at developing skills or obsessions that the characters may have (GM: "Mr. Mysterio gains 20 experience points for finally getting married with a bonus of 10 for apprehending the evil Cult of Flatulence.").
  21. Finally, and this is one that I think most GM’s forget, have fun! It isn’t only the players that are supposed to have fun, the GM is too! If you get stressed by GM-ing a game, then don’t GM. I know lots of players who have tried GM-ing and have decided they prefer to play rather than GM. There’s nothing wrong with this, but make sure that in your group that there are at least a couple of GM’s. That way, you won’t spend the rest of your gaming life designing scenarios instead of playing them. Also, if you're a player, support your GM. Help them out, they are a commodity to be valued. Playing one character can be hard enough, but playing a world?

Social Contract Gaming

It's amazing how often I hear roleplayers say something like "We had a great game of D&D last week, we went the whole session and never used the rules once!" This kind of statement puzzles me. How, if you're not using the rules, could it possibly be considered a game of D&D? Sure the trapping are there, the setting, the rulebooks, the character sheets, the dice, and so on. But if they weren't used, then the actual game certainly wasn't D&D, it was something else entirely.

What they were actually playing, to my mind at least, was their groups social agreement. That often unspoken part of the game, where players agree where the limits are, who can contribute when, and what the limits of the setting and story are.

Now at this point you may be saying, "but we always go by the rules!" And if so, then good for you, that probably means your group's social agreement fits quite nicely with the rules you are using. But think back, when was the last time your GM fudged a dice roll instead of killing a character? Did you let it slide, accepting that this is how things are done, or complain that he cheated? This is a prime example of the social agreement that players should be heroic characters who don't die arbitrarily, overruling the system's rules of character death.

Does your GM allow other players to interject with cool story ideas? I do, it's not part of the rules, but it's an accepted part of the games I play in. If I did it in some peoples groups they'd probably look at me funny, why is he suggesting how his Call of Cthulhu character dies?

Many roleplayers seem to ignore the fact that large amounts of the game rules are un-spoken. That the rules are built into the social dynamic of the group, rather than the rulebook of game they are playing. Long term gaming groups tend to adopt a style that they are happy with, and stick to it. It doesn't matter if they're using Fudge, D&D, Vampire, or GURPS, because they have this unspoken agreement on how they play. In fact it really doesn't matter which game they are using.

For a long time this led me to believe that any new RPG was only useful for acquiring new setting ideas, since most groups would just ignore the system and only play the bits that they liked (i.e. the bits that worked best with their social agreement).

Then I had an idea. What are rules if not a social agreement on who gets to say what happens and when?

So perhaps all those games with rules you don't like, or can't find the sense in, are just the game designer trying to give you their model of the social agreement to play with. To try differing levels of control among players and GM, to try games that focus more on the game, or more in the story than you normally would. As long as the players agree that they want to accept the system's priorities, they can try out a new approach. Of course what normally happens is that players take one look at a system, decide before playing it that they don't like it, and ignore it, returning to their default social agreement.

So what is my conclusion here? Not a great deal other than this: Play a game as written before you fudge or tweak anything. Just because it doesn't seem to work on paper, doesn't mean it's a bad idea, just that it's trying to encourage a style of play that is different from your current prefered style. Try it, who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised.

The Problem with Character Backgrounds

Padding is for Lunatic Asylums...

I have come to the decision that I really hate character backgrounds. Let me re-phrase that: I really hate those overly long, badly written, pieces of florid prose that people write as justification for their character. Don't get me wrong, I like characters to be well conceived, and to have a feeling of depth about them, it's just that I rarely see that in character backgrounds.

Part of this, I imagine, comes from having played and run many a LARP. "Give us a character background and you'll get experience", says the storyteller, not knowing what is awaiting him. The logic initially seems good, if the storyteller knows about your character's past, then he can map the future with greater ease, and know what kind of plotlines will interest you. The logic seems fine, until the storyteller in question gets handed a fifty page essay, filled with, well, padding.

You see the problem is that for many people it has become ingrained in them that a character background, no matter what it actually contains, is a good thing. I would certainly disagree with this. As a storyteller/Referee/GM, I have little concern with what your character had for breakfast the day before he was made into a vampire. I don't care about the annoying minutiae, or useless facts like "My character doesn't particularly like cheese, except edam."

Conflict and Motivation

What I want are the key points, the motivators, the conflicts, the interesting people your character knows, the things that will kickstart your character into the action. Who does your character love, who does he hate? What unresolved conflicts are there in his past? These could be anything, from the enmity of the Dark Lord™, to an unresolved disagreement with the character's brother. These conflicts are the things that can be woven together to make an interesting story, and one in which your character is an integral part. If I can quickly create a conflict based on what you tell me, you've got adventure waiting to happen.

Sure, a bit of extra info is fine, but if I have five (for a tabletop game) or fifty (for a LARP game) backgrounds to read, it can get really dull going through them all, and I'll end up skimming, looking for the interesting bits. Once I start doing that, the chances of me missing cool stuff goes up dramatically.

The important thing is not to hide the interesting parts of your character's background in fluff; don't barrage me with appalling Goth poetry, or a diary that accurately describes the last ten years for your character. Instead write a list of bullet points. Think of the key factors that I should remember when writing scenarios to involve your character.

Making it Easy for the GM

What should you write? Well, it depends on the game, and personal tastes. The easiest thing to do is look at the films or novels that inspire the genre. Think of how you would sum up the characters in question. To give an example, do we know about Han Solo's background? Not really. It's not important to the role he plays in the story. My current preference for character backgrounds is that they contain some of the following:

  • Concept
  • Important events
  • Motivations (including one recently acquired)
  • Connections
  • A statement of intent
  • Internal and external views

The first thing I like to see is a simple summary of the core character concept. Something that tells me exactly what your character is about. "Happy go lucky trickster", "hate filled ex-cop", just a basic summary, nothing too flashy. One of the reasons this is useful, is that by distilling down all those thoughts you have about your character into a single sentence, you become aware of the core traits you'll want to roleplay. As a GM it tells me which way you are likely to jump if presented with a particular situation, ideal for planning plots. A good thing to build in here is an idea of your characters approach to a solving problems. Is he a cautious strategist or a both guns blazing kind of guy?

Important events come next, in my mind, as they help to build the motivations. How many you give will depend on the character, but the important thing here is that they are events that have changed the character's life. Take Batman, the turning point in his life is when his parents are murdered, it sets him on his path and provides his core set of motivations. Again, keep it short and sweet. The details probably don't matter, only the event and how it affected the character. If an event didn't have a profound affect on the character, then what is the point in your GM reading it?

Motivations are a key part of a character background, and most will spring form those events you just described. Again, because they help a GM work out which way a character will jump if pushed. If your character is motivated by greed, then pulling him into the story by offering him money is an easy option. Motivations can be vague, "believes in justice", to specific "searching for her brother's killer", but they instantly give the GM an idea of what sort of story you want the character involved in.

Another key thing here is that motivations that have only recently come to the fore can be a real advantage. They kickstart the story, especially if the GM is aware of them beforehand. Particularly good motivations of this kind can kickstart a whole campaign. Unless all the player characters happen to know each other anyway (and how cliched is that), such recent motivators can provide an ideal way of drawing a disparate group together.

Who you know, and who you care about should be written down. All too often characters in RPGs seem to exist as islands, not actually having anybody they know or care about outside the group.The archetypal brooding loner seems to be a common RPG character, and this can be a wasted opportunity. Every character should have family, friends, colleagues, associates, and minions; people who an be kidnapped or betray them, because these are the things that make for interesting plots.

The most important element of any character background though, is telling the GM either explicitly or implicitly, where you want to take the character from here. I call this the statement of intent. It'll avoid those moments of "My character has no interest in this plot", that occasionally occur. Or at least it should if you have a good GM. If the planned game has a literary bent, then think of the theme your character will address ,phrasing it as a conflict or question helps: "Family vs Personal Honour" or "What will you do for power?". If your game is more concerned with pure action and adventure, then imagine your character doing something cool, what would it be?

Finally, a good practice is to note down how your character views himself, and how others view him. Getting a handle on this will help you play the character, and help the GM fit him into the world.

On the Fly Character Creation

Something to remember is that it's often more fun to discover things about your character through play, to make them up on the spot and run with them. If it's all predefined, it leaves you little room for maneuver. Sometimes it's fun to have gaps to fill in later, or during roleplay. It can take a little work - "What do you mean you are the son of the dark lord, didn't you think it was worth mentioning?" - but it allows you to learn from playing the character, and then apply that knowledge to the background, rather than the other way around. After all, you won't always come up with the good ideas all at once, and this method can also allow you to introduce new plot elements should the character need a new direction after a few sessions.


While this form of character creation isn't suitable for all roleplayers (or indeed all forms of roleplaying), I find it more helpful in story orientated games than the bloated, over-written character backgrounds I've too often seen. Hopefully you will too.

Review : The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

By James Wallis, Hogshead Publishing, £4.99

So tell us Baron, how did you change the face of roleplaying with only a 24 page book?

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not quite a roleplaying game as you might know it. It's a parlor game. A game of tall tales and astounding adventures. Players take on the role of pompous aristocrats trying to outdo each other in the telling of outrageous stories. These stories can be about anything, like the time you tried to climb mount Everest with only a toothpick and a rubber duck, or when you defeated the Belgian army single handed. If you are familiar with the Terry Gilliam film about Munchausen (or the book from which both the film and game take inspiration), you'll know exactly the type of thing expected.

It's only a small twenty four page book, but it is probably one of the most entertaining games you will ever buy. And you should buy it as quickly as possible, because Hogshead, the company that published it, has just ceased trading.

The hard part about reviewing this game is that the game itself is very quick to explain, and elegant in it's simplicity. It is as simple as "One person tells a story, and the others try and interrupt them". I could explain the rules in more detail, but that would mean you wouldn't need to buy it. And I think you should. Like all the best simple ideas, the creators deserve credit in the form of cold hard cash. All stories start with another player asking "So Baron, tell us, how did you...", and proceed in whichever insanely bizarre route the narrator wishes.

The best thing about the book is the writing style. It conveys perfectly how the game should be played, and the spirit in which it should be taken. It takes you through the steps you need to play (Character Creation is as simple as writing you character's name and rank), through the rules of play, examples of play, and suggestions for scenarios (4 pages worth of possible starting lines). It's also written in the style of Baron Munchausen, so it's filled with wildly exaggerated anecdotes and weird digressions, which is exactly how the stories you tell in the game should be told.

Overall: An easy game to learn, which has unlimited possibilities for stories. It's fun, lots of fun. Ideal for playing over Christmas, while mildly (or very) drunk.

Interview : Contested Ground Studios

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