Interview with John H. Kim

An interview with John H. Kim, host of the Indie RPG Awards and Role-Playing website

John, you've been involved in role playing games by writing, running and documenting the industry since the early 1990s. Your encyclopedic website is a great resource for people who want to learn about the successive waves of game design, and spotlighted women designers.You've written for the Knudepunkt (the Nordic larp convention) companion books and published other essays on how role playing games really work. And, for many years have been the steward of the Indie RPG Awards site. Thank you for all that work. Can you tell us how you got interested in role playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?

J: I started with tabletop RPGs from an early age.  Back in the 1970s, my best friend in preschool had an older brother who was into Dungeons & Dragons (TM) , which at the time was cool and new, and I have been fascinated with RPGs since then.  I played a number of RPGs through grade school, including D&D as well as the superhero game Champions and the science-fiction game Traveller - which kindled a continuing interest in science for me.

 What games have you played recently, or want to play soon?

J: I have three tabletop campaigns that I'm playing in - a weekly D&D game, a monthly GURPS game, and a bi-weekly Call of Cthulhu campaign. I also go to a weekly group that does a mix of story games - our most recent games were The Quiet Year, Universalis, and The Play's The Thing. I also do a various larps - mostly at the four Bay Area local conventions I go to, as well as AmberCon NorthWest in Portland. I'm currently preparing to run a voodoo and noir themed larp for KublaCon in May.

You've been part of several generations (so to speak) of game discussion and theory. In particular you were instrumental in recording discussion on the UseNet group, which fed into discussion at the Forge forums and in Nordic game communities. What are the greatest changes you've seen take place? Are there conversations going on now that you are engaged by? 

J: I think the biggest shift has been what transformed in the mid-nineties, which is moving away from advocating for a particular style of role-playing, and moving toward accepting that there are differing creative goals. This is still going on, but (for example) I think there are fewer people who tout story as the only legitimate intent of role-playing, and more people who accept that as an alternative to their own style. The boom of online publishing has brought together a lot of previously disparate groups. Also, the cross-polination of larp - and especially Nordic larp - with tabletop design is an intriguing new direction.

The main ongoing conversation that I'm engaged by is discussion of educational games. I was fascinated by the glimpses I'd seen of material out of Osterkov Efterskol, the larp-based high school in Denmark. I hear about a number of U.S. based educational larps, and I would like to see more discussion of design principles among these.

What do you think are some of the most important ideas that have come out of rpg theory discussion?

J: I do think that the Threefold Model was an important early step in discussion, and another key development from rgfa was the concept of group contract - which the first step into many analyses of the real-world social structure and interactions of games.

 Among a lot of furor in tabletop RPG theory of the 2000's, two that stick with me are Troy Costisick's "Power 19" design questions and Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void". The "Power 19" questions are a compact version of designing with specific intent, which is a good summary of the trend of narrow/coherent game design where each choice is in service to a chosen creative agenda. However, this can lead to literal, reductionist design - where to make the game about love, you have a "Love" stat, mechanics to resolve love affairs, and characters with lots of loving relationships. Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void" is an expression of the vital counter-trend, that points out how the game's focus isn't always the literal meaning.

 An important recent idea is characters as psychological (especially Jungian) archetypes, as advanced by Sarah Bowman and Whitney Beltrán, among others. This is only starting to touch the surface of psychological process. Previous psychological theory tend to regard story and serious themes as goals unto themselves. The more interesting question is what the game accomplishes. 

What's your favorite social medium to talk about games today? Any of them? Why? 

J: My favorite social medium to talk about games is unquestionably to play games with people in person. There are innumerable subtleties and details of play that just can't be communicated without shared experience. This is particularly true of role-playing, which is an improvisational form whose analytic language is still in its infancy.

What conventions have your favorite gaming? Your favorite talks on games and game design? 

J: My favorite convention for play is AmberCon NorthWest, held outside Portland in early November. It has a strong, close-knit community and lots of innovative concepts for tabletop play. The theme of Amber fiction and diceless play gives a common culture without being limiting.

My favorite for discussion of games and game design is the Knutepunkt conventions held in spring in the Nordic countries. It also has some great example games run in the week prior to it, and during the convention, but mostly it is a whirlwind of impassioned people talking about the games that they are dedicated to. Living Games is a plan for a U.S. larp discussion conference similar to Knutepunkt - it will be starting in Austin in May 2016. [NB: The first Living Games conference was run in New York City, March 2014]

Other excellent conventions include local California conventions - particularly Big Bad Con in Oakland in November for innovative tabletop and larp play; and the larp convention WyrdCon in L.A. in September. The Bay Area also has four (!) other major gaming conventions: DunDraCon in February, KublaCon in may, and PacifiCon and CelestiCon in September.

I understand that the website to the Indie RPG Awards has changed to. The awards have been going on since 2002, and the indie rpg movement is going strong. Have you thought about adding a live action component? Do you have any other new plans for the site?

J: Thanks. I think the new website has actually a better name than the old one of "", but unfortunately the old URL is no longer available to redirect, so there may be some confusion. 

Live action games have always been included in the Indie RPG Awards, but there is not a separate live-action-only award category. Notably, the "Nordic Larp" book was on the slate in 2010, and the "Blood on the Snow" with your own larp rules was in 2013. There still are not that many English-language larp designs published each year, certainly not compared to the many dozens of tabletop designs published. At the current rate of publishing and nomination, I don't think it's ready for its own category. 

I will be on the lookout for how to include more larps among nominations, and larp designers among voters, for them to potentially get their own category in a future year. 

If people are interested in discussion of rpg play or design, what do you recommend they read or listen to?

J: I think it depends a lot on what they're looking for. Some people like fast-moving trends such as Google+, Facebook, or Twitter. I think those can be good for getting alerts from time to time, but for in-depth I prefer books and permanent websites on the topic. For larp, both Knutepunkt and Wyrd Con publish books of articles each year. 

Are you working on any games? Are there any projects you'd like to work on? 

J: As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a voodoo and noir themed larp, called "Dark Ridings", where the characters are all practitioners on a fictional Carribean island come to a summit meeting. In terms of game design, I am explicitly experimenting with archetypes and possession - where each character has the option to at some point be ridden by a loa. It's written for a convention audience, which makes it touchy - since I have to simplify and work with American's view of the real-world religious beliefs of Haiti and elsewhere. However, I don't want to stick to only Western culture just because I can't portray other cultures to an equal standard. At least with voodoo, it's easy to do better than the horribly negative pop culture depictions. 

On the longer term, I have been considering a major update to my venerable website, which started way back in 1994. I have been learning a lot more about modern website design in the past year, and I am considering an overhaul that would majorly improve the functionality, making information easily at people's fingertips.