Tea Leaves! Rat People! Odin!
A Conversation with Greg Stolze

Tea Leaves! Rat People! Odin!
A Conversation with Greg Stolze

Greg Stolze has worked on games for White Wolf, Atlas Games and Arc Dream Publishing, among others. He’s a game designer with a love of streamlined rules and good storytelling.

Stolze, in the words of James Lowder, editor of the Origins award-winning Hobby Games: The 100 Best, has been “a key player in several of the most compelling and creatively vital games in the history of the RPG form: Unknown Armies, Feng Shui, World of Darkness,.”

“Greg has the ability to collaborate effectively in those sorts of shared-world projects, but also the individual vision to drive a solo undertaking like Reign, where he stands front and center. It’s rare for a writer to handle both types of design with such aplomb.”

Stolze developed the One-Roll Engine (ORE), a fast and furious d10 system, for games like Godlike, Nemesis, and Reigns. If you’ve ever wondered about hard dice and wiggle dice, check out the Quick Start rules for Wild Talents.

Below, Stolze and I talk about game design, world-building, and the joy of play-testing, but he refused to make predictions for the future of the RPGs.

“I could blather on about how I think you’re going to see finer subdivisions of the fanbase, ever-more-precisely targeted niche products and that the Internet will make that profitable,” Stolze said. “But I’ve got a bad track record with reading tea leaves.”

Jones: Do you have a game designer’s philosophy?

Stolze: I never really sat down and thought through a Statement Of Intent for my work. I just stumble along and follow my intuition without examining it too closely. I think you can really hamstring yourself with excessive navel-gazing. If you over-analyze [yourself], every decision becomes momentous and you get paralyzed. Whereas if you just take it lightly and ask yourself, “Would the fans enjoy an attack from a giant feral pig at this point?” you can move along without being bogged down.

Sometimes I start with an idea and ask myself how to use mechanics to pursue or investigate that idea. Sometimes I come up with a good mechanic and look for a setting where it can be applied to best advantage. Often I’ll have two separate ideas and at some point they collide and — bam! — fission.

I’ll give you an example. Right now I’m working on Progenitor, which started out innocently enough as an internet thread about contagious superpowers starting in 1968. So I was building up this mythology about this Kansas farm wife who becomes the setting’s equivalent of Superman, and how she inadvertently creates her own Lex Luthor analogue in Vietnam. It was ticking along quite merrily, though the work of getting all the history and figuring out how it would diverge was pretty daunting.

Then at some point — again, during an internet exchange — someone was talking about Wild Talents gadgets and what happens when gadgeteers use the “Manufacturable” Extra to invent the optical computer chip in 1972? And I thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a mechanic in place to track how PCs and other Wild Talents superheroes change the progression of technology?”

From there it was a short hop to “Gee, what about metrics for the progression of history in general?”

And then one more short jump to Progenitor left me blinking.

Now, a big goal of Progenitor is to provide a stock history of the last third of the twentieth century, alongside a non-PC Progenitor history, and along with that, gauges to measure the changes that PCs inflict on the global zeitgeist.

One more jump got me to the idea of one-roll charts for global and personal events that arise from the changing metrics. If the PCs do nothing while the War and Suspicion gauges rise, they’re going to be dealing with the personal fallout of violence and intolerance in their own lives — and there may be the possibility of getting involved in an international incident.

So Progenitor went from being a forum post to being a set of rules that (hopefully) you can yank out of the setting and apply to easily creating recent alternate histories based on the follies and foibles of your PC group.

Jones: What’s the secret to a challenging encounter?
Stolze:
To a challenging encounter? I’d say it’s balancing a bunch of different factors. Character abilities and limitations. Player personalities and what they’re likely to do. Wiggle room to allow for freaky dice stuff. I always try to anticipate a lot of different possibilities, while accepting that no way can I foresee them all. (I mentioned my bad luck with tea leaves, right?) The idea of “only one right answer” is pretty poisonous. I’ve spent a lot of my effort these days trying to keep that sort of influence out of design.

I’d expand to say a good encounter is one that feels genuinely in doubt. Ideally it is in doubt, but some GMs and groups get along just fine with encounters that can’t actually be lost, or encounters that can’t be won.

A good encounter is one where something advances, no matter whether the PCs succeed at their goals or fail.

If I were writing Unknown Armies today, I might have the advancement system simply be, “The first time you fail at a skill roll in a session, that skill goes up by 1%.” Let people do this for as many skills as they want. That tweak right there does a couple things. It encourages players to try lots of different things, especially with low skills, because no matter how badly you fail, you always have something to show for it. That approach evolved in A Dirty World where, often, the way to min-max your character is to have terrible things happen to him. Or have him be a terrible thing that happens to other people.

Jones: What’s the best part about building a world?
Stolze:
For me, it’s getting to play all the ‘what-if’ games with social structure and physics. What does a world with a stationary sun look like? What are its plants? How does that influence religion and science. Without the periodic rhythms of the sunrise and sunset, do people develop such a concrete sense of time? With stationary objects for navigation, do they travel more?

Often [a world starts] with a very small seed. The setting for the unproduced Gates of Ivory is the collective unconscious of humankind. I’d been reading Sandman and hearing people talk about how there weren’t any good dream games, and then I heard the song “Type” by Living Color and the lines “This is the place where the truth is concealed” and “This is the place where the lies are revealed” stuck in my head, somehow getting glued to the old myth about the Gate of Ivory through which truthful dreams come, and the Gate of Horn through which false ones emerge. What if dreams and nightmares are supernatural entities, meant to perform some essential spiritual function, but they’ve gone out of whack and are in conflict? What happens to the world when the dreams are winning? What happens when the nightmares get the edge? How did Freud influence all this a hundred years ago, and how is modern research into brain activity influencing it now?

Jones: How do you know when the “seed” will/can grow into a world? Is there a certain… something?
Stolze:
I guess it’s like a tomato plant. You plant ten seeds. Eight sprout. Seven thrive. One bears fruit.

Jones: What’s at the heart of a good world for you?
Stolze:
That’s a tough one. The temptation is to say ‘consistency’ or ‘a compelling central conceit’ but there are plenty of great shared settings that have neither I guess I’d say that elusive quality called richness where you feel there’s always something unexpected over the horizon or under the next rock.
You can get that from consistency (Middle Earth is a fine example) or a compelling central conceit (Narnia, the Cthulhu Mythos) but you can also get it from a writer with an overdeveloped creativity gene shouting, “Interplanar merchants! Ghouls who are really foxy chicks with transparent skin and organs! Rat people! Odin!” and selling it passionately.

It also helps to be a good writer. I’m tempted to say that’s essential, if words are your media. There are lots of well-conceived worlds that are trapped in their creator’s skulls because he lacks the craft to show us what he finds so wonderful. By the same token, I think there are some worlds that are more wonderful to the reader than the writer because the writer knows that fascinating detail A is just a stub, or a Rorschach blot, or hand-waving bullshit, but the reader takes it as a significant sign.

Hey, I’ve got an example of that last one from my own ouvre. Check this out: I got to write Days of Fire for the old World of Darkness setting, which I took as a license to play with all the toys and break ’em if I wanted. So I wrote this long obscure prophecy thing with faux verse and highly disguised in-jokes and all kinds of stuff that would make readers of a particular line sit up and go, “Oh! Oh! He’s talking about the Nosferatu there!” So one of these verses was…

[62]

Then comes a woman bearing a chisel
That glints like starlight
Rings like song
Bites deep like the lion’s fang
Her tool is cold as winter’s breath
Bright and swift as death
But what it carves is not mortality but the path around it.

What does this mean? Nothing. It literally has no meaning to me, who wrote it. But by gum, when the book came out, artist Vince Locke had drawn such a gorgeous, fascinating illustration that I was terribly curious about what it meant.

Jones: What role does collaboration play in world-building?
Stolze:
Collaboration is key. At its best, you bounce ideas off one another and get a constructive feedback. When John Tynes and I wrote Unknown Armies, we found out (years after) that each of us secretly thought the other had done the most work. I thought John had developed all the interesting, visionary novelties and I just spackled them together with rules and connective tissue. John thought he’d handed me a half baked batch of underformed concepts, which I then somehow wove into a sensible and coherent whole. That’s a good collaboration.

With Unknown Armies, Tynes and I had sympathetic outlooks and there was an assumed respect, so we each felt the freedom to say, “I don’t like that idea, it doesn’t fit and here’s why” without it becoming a big personal issue.

For a while, I was the developer of the game Feng Shui, which meant kind of inheriting a whip hand from Robin Laws. That’s a fun position to be in, honestly, because you get to hand out assignments to writers that you think will do well, and you can cherry-pick the good bits for yourself. “I’m going to write the intro fiction while you work on a list of 20 new vehicles — with full stats now! Have a good time.” But at the same time, you have to keep everyone on the same page and it’s like herding cats.

As a developer, you have to have a clear idea and be able to communicate that idea clearly from the get go. Otherwise you’re going to get a lot of inappropriate stuff from frustrated writers who don’t understand why you’re making them do it over. You also have to be willing to drop the pill on stuff that’s good, but not the right kind of good.

Jones: How has your understanding of world-building changed over the years?
Stolze:
Understanding that once I let it go, it isn’t mine any more. For the first few years of Unknown Armies, I’d read the mailing list and there’d be this voice inside raging. “You can’t do that with my game! That’s not how it goes! You’re getting it wrong!” But over time, seeing how much people gave to the game when they were given authorial ownership of it, I came to a much more hands-off stance.

Besides, it’s not like I could kick down their doors and take their game books away.

Jones: With world-building, whatever you do don’t…
Stolze:
…let your understanding of a topic spoil your enjoyment of that topic. You can be a firefighter and still enjoy watching “Backdraft,” despite the howling inaccuracies it lovingly embraces.

Jones: Whatever you do, be sure to…
Stolze:
…do your thing, not someone else’s thing ‘only better!’ This is the essence of what Ron Edwards calls a Fantasy Heartbreaker,a game that really just wants to be D&D only with one or two things that irritated the writer changed. And the fact is, you’re probably not going to write a better Lord of the Rings than Tolkien did.

Jones: What is the most successful game you’ve ever contributed to — and how do you define that success?
Stolze:
Gah, impossible to say. Unknown Armies has had a long run and inspired a lot of very thoughtful, intelligent and intense play, and it’s mine in a way that (say) Vampire: the Masquerade isn’t. V:tM I contributed to, but in the same way the guy who decorates the bathroom in the skyscraper ‘contributed’ to the skyscraper’s construction. With UA I was the architect. With the World of Darkness, I was the guy decorating the can.

(Okay, with the World of Darkness, I wound up being an important decorator for a couple floors. For D&D4 I am, so far, a guy decorating the bathroom. But hey, it’s the executive rest room at least!)

Reign is ‘mine’ even more than UA, and it has certainly been more profitable month-by-month. But it hasn’t cast the wide shadow UA did, because (after all) it’s a fantasy game, and it’s awfully hard to stand out with a fantasy game.

Jones: Anything new on the horizon for Unknown Armies?

Stolze: Sadly, no. It’s really gratifying that there’s the demand, but I don’t have a kick ass UA inspiration, and I don’t want the first thing after a big hiatus to be a big letdown. You can see how that’d be a nail in a coffin, right? I have so much stuff I’m enthusiastic about writing, I don’t want to just go through the motions for something I think will make money in the short run. In the long run, that erodes the trust, and I’m kind of running on trust these days. Plus, it would be a drag to revisit something I used to be so juiced about without something fresh to get the juices going like before.

Jones: What can my group expect when they give Reign a try?

Stolze: Reign ‘s approach is that a truly epic hero is measured not by his body count or his personal power, but by the way he shapes people’s lives. (Same for an epic villain.) Countries and cults and conspiracies — the kinds of power groups that create so much interest in both WOD iterations — get statted up like characters in Reign. If you want to have your nation throw up a naval blockade around your neighbor, it’s no longer just a GM fiat whether it works or not. It goes to the dice. You can serve your country in a measurable way. Or, if you prefer, you can use it as your personal bludgeon.

Jones: What do you play in your home game?

Stolze: Often whatever I’m playtesting next. Just got off a long fun run of Don’t Rest Your Head – I was a player, not GM, so I got to act out. It’s always a fun game when your character winds up standing in the wreckage of a police station screaming, “There were many, many ways you could have avoided this outcome, and you wouldn’t do a single one!”

Playtesting ORE has worked better than I hoped. I thought, when I was conceptualizing the system, that it might work out rather nicely to have two different measures of success for each roll, but when I started really tinkering with it I found that it worked far more quickly and comprehensively than I’d hoped.

Or the system that became Meatbot Massacre. I initially planned for that to the be engine behind Godlike, but when I tried to run a small World War II skirmish I realized that, while it was intriguingly detailed, it was a nightmare for the GM. There was just no good way to make tactical decisions for ten troops and track all their injuries and effects. So I used it for a setting where all conflicts would be one player/one critter.

Coming up, I really should be playtesting stuff for GenCon. I’ve got Leviathan, which is a kind of ORE bio-terror Tom Clancy-ish game. I’m warming up a scenario to test the intricate medical rules, to see if I can run House or E/R with it.

I’m also working on eCollapse. That’s dual statted for Wild Talents and for its own dedicated card system. The built-in system is kind of memory based, so it really rewards you for paying attention.

Our thanks to Mr. Stolze for speaking to our Kobold Diplomats! We’re looking forward to paying attention to whatever madness he cooks up next: teatime for Loki is just a start. Please subscribe to Kobold Quarterly today.

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