An Interview with Robin D. Laws; Writer, Editor and Role Playing Game Designer.
Robin, your work on games and fiction spans decades and genres –Talislanta, Star Trek, Earth Dawn, Warhammer, as well as your own systems Rune, The Dying Earth, Over the Edge, Feng Shui, the Gumshoe System, the DramaSystem and more. Your career with role playing games is among the most distinguished in an industry that has seen many changes. What advice might you have for designers and writers today to find good partner companies, and to become successfully established?
R: There's a paradox inherent in asking people who've been successful for a while about their career paths. In any creative field the trick is to spot a you-sized hole and then fill it before someone else does. That spot isn’t there anymore because the person you want to emulate has already filled it. Also, things have changed enormously since I started in the early 90s.
That said, what I would advise is to get involved in online communities and hopefully finally in face-to-face interaction with the games and companies that excite you. Making sure that you work with good partner companies is a matter of doing a little bit of behind the scenes sleuthing to discover stuff like how far behind a company is in its production schedule, whether they pay freelancers on time, how pleasant they are to work with, and so forth. There's really no substitute for going to Gen Con and leveraging the profile that you built with your online activities to earn face time. If I already kind of know you from the cool stuff you’ve written about my games, you’re going to make a bigger impression on me than if you’re approaching me cold and I can’t tell how much you know about the lines I work on.
Of course, face to face contact gives the people you’re meeting the opportunity to evaluate you, as well, so you have to make sure that you present yourself as together and personable and fun to be around.
When you do get work, be on time, hit the specs you’re given, and require as little prose editing as possible. Having great ideas is important too but the power of reliably delivering quality work on time can’t be underestimated.
I’ve been enjoying listening to your podcast with the excellent Kenneth Hite: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff. You often discuss film and fiction as well as games. Your notes from film festivals are particularly fun to listen to! Narrative structure seems central to your approach to game design, as shown by Hamlet’s Hit Points and the DramaSystem. What led to this, and how has it shaped your designs over the years?
R: I thought of myself as a writer from a very young age, but never considered gaming as an outlet for my work until fairly late, when I kind of fell into it backwards. Originally I thought that I was going to be a playwright. Although I've always been analytical about story my sensibility is as much a literary or art-house perspective as it is rooted in geek culture. When I first started out it seemed liked there was a big unexplored territory in looking at the way narrative is constructed in other forms and applying those techniques to role-playing games. That's why for example Feng Shui is an emulative, not simulative, game. It's more interested in modeling the way action movies present themselves than in caring about the real world effects of things like gun calibers or body armor. In hindsight emulation seems like a pretty obvious approach but at the time it was very much running against the tide of the simulative of wave of games that preceded it. The interest in Hong Kong movies in particular came out of my festival going because the Toronto film festival (then called the Festival of Festivals) was one of the first to highlight those movies for a western audience. So, just ahead of the curve, I got to see something that I knew would become a geek favorite genre before it hit, a result of the cross-pollination of high and pop culture.
Throughout your career, you’ve also examined how role playing games work. Back in 1994, your essay “The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs,” was a call to arms for players, designers and GMs to look critically at rpgs as a new artform. In the 21 years since then a lot of pixels have been burned talking about rpgs. You've made influential contributions, such as Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and the insights in Hamlet's Hitpoints. What concepts and ideas of others do you find have contributed to play and design?
R: Criticism by gamers can fall into the trap of not being descriptive but rather proscriptive. A lot of critiques really operate as disguised manifestos for the writer’s preferred play style or design focus. The things I most value work to find a vocabulary to refine and spread practical play techniques in a way that makes game sessions better. So for example whoever* nailed down the concept of failing forward in its RPG sense deserves a huge amount of gratitude on the part of gamerdom. [NB: Here is a nice summary of Failing Forward.] But I have to admit that I don't spend a ton of time following role-playing criticism. This is a comment not on its importance but on the ever-escalating time demands facing a full-time freelance creator in today’s incessantly connected environment.
*R: The Twitter hivemind can’t quite agree and I am loath to misattribute.
In your 1994 essay, you made some predictions that have come true: Jungian game analysis is actually being done by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Whitney Beltrán; the issue of how game mechanics affect the narrative in a game has been a well-traveled path in indie game design; and the ghost of Goethe’s three questions for the art critic (What is the artist trying to do? How well is it done? Was it worth doing?) haunts Jared Sorenson, Luke Crane and John Wick’s Big Three (or four) Questions about game design: (What is your game about? How is your game about that? What behavior does your game encourage or reward? and How do you make this fun?). Are there other elements of “The Hidden Art” that you’d like to see followed up, or new directions you think we could go today?
R: In the early days of any new form or movement the artists and the critics are often the same people. This is because if you're doing something new the people making the new thing are the only ones qualified to form a vocabulary around it. For example when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their circle were creating bebop they had to come up with a new iteration of jazz talk in order to discuss it with each other. In a mature field you need and want a distance between the practitioner and the critic. We're starting to see that happen with people coming at tabletop from an academic point of view. This is a maturation I’m happy to see, so we’re getting more than people trying to either justify their game designs or to confer legitimacy on their preferred play style. When I wrote that essay that wasn't really happening: its point was to predict and encourage it. Now that it is happening it would be self-contradictory of me as a practitioner to tell the new wave of academics what to look at. Though if someone wants to be the Northrop Frye of interactive narrative I’m down with that.
What conventions, festivals or online communities do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of games and game design?
R: I go to Gen Con and Dragonmeet every year. As I don’t need to tell you, being a guest at a mid-scale European con has much to recommend it. I don't spend a lot of time online discussing games and game design. My main outlet for that sort of thing is the podcast discussions I have with Ken every week.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Robin D. Laws designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Robin is the Creative Director of Stone Skin Press and has edited such fiction anthologies as The New Hero, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop's New Fables. You can hear more of Robin's thoughts and game insights at his podcast with Kenneth Hite: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.