Interview: D. Vincent Baker
Paul Carboni, Play Unplugged, 8/6/12
D. Vincent Baker ~ a.k.a lumpley, is an independent role playing game designer and founder of lumpley games. His work includes the award winning games Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World. He also served as administrator for The Forge, an online community of game designers, from 2008 until its closing in June 2012. You can buy Vincent’s games at the Indie RPGs Unstore or read his musings at his blog.
Paul Carboni (PC) – What inspired you to start making games?
Vincent Baker (VB) – I don’t remember! I was very young. My family always played games and somehow I must have just decided that making games myself was appropriate behavior. Why they didn’t stop me, I don’t know.
I started making roleplaying games when I was 9. My friends and I used to play Zork on my uncle’s Atari 800, and when the computer wasn’t available, we’d play anyway. I would be the computer and my friends would tell me what they did. At first I even made them speak in text adventure commands – “Go north. Climb tree. Get egg.” – but I cut that out pretty soon.
At some point I identified that this was a genre of games that existed, roleplaying, but I’d never seen a D&D book or anything. By the time I had the chance to play D&D in high school, the game I’d designed for myself was (in my opinion then) just as good. In late high school and college I played and GMed a bunch of legit games, but I never really thought they were that great and I was never shy about messing with their rules. Designing and publishing my own games for real was kind of inevitable.
PC – Tell me a little bit about your creative process.
VB – Well, okay, I guess. Since you ask.
I start by getting frustrated that I haven’t published anything new lately, which happens a day or two after I publish something new. I cast about for a project to work on. I always have a bunch of projects I’m working on already, but obviously none of them will do. If they were good, why didn’t I finish them yet? So I think of something stupid instead.
I devote weeks and weeks, sometimes months, to this process of rejecting all of the projects I’m working on and starting a new stupid one instead. I go through notebooks by the case.
Sooner or later, someone around me says something that lights up inside my brain like, I dunno, an icicle with a super bright LED inside, and I conceive a whole game. It’s not related to any of the projects I’ve been working on all this time, it’s pure and new and perfect, sufficient as the man says unto itself.
All I have to do then is give it expression – write it, design it as a real thing, publish it. This is a process of a million tiny decisions and an overall compromise with the disappointments of the flesh.
PC – Do you have any tales you’d like to share about how some of your games came into being? Stories about their inspiration or the trials undergone to make them real things?
VB – Well put! Making something a real thing is nothing but trials. If I told you about trials we’d be here all day and then we’d give up hope.
So let me tell you about the inspiration for my game Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant. One day, I was hanging around with my friends Rob and Troy, and they were telling me about some book about a “space tyrant,” and when it came out that this guy didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of space concubines, I got all agitated. I’m pounding the table, all “NOBODY counts as a space tyrant unless he has HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS of space concubines! Do you hear me? NOBODY.” They’re all, “there there, Vincent. There there.”
A couple of days later, somebody asked me on my blog about IIEE –
Oh hold on. “IIEE” is one of those opaque things that we old Forge monkeys say all the time. It stands for, um, “intent, initiation, execution, effect,” maybe. What it means is, at what point in your character’s action do you go to the dice? You can roll dice to determine what a character chooses to do, like in a fear or morale check; you can roll dice to determine whether a character follows through an action she’s undertaking, like in a roll to hit; you can roll dice to determine the effect of an action she’s already followed through, like in a damage roll. Another way to say it is, “what do we need to decide before we roll, and what do we leave for the dice to decide?”
Anyway, whatever. A couple of days later somebody on my blog asked me something about IIEE, and I needed to illustrate some fiddly technical distinction, and I was sitting at work staring at my work, and there’s that light-up icicle in my brain, connecting this IIEE business with the urgent problem of how many space concubines, and Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant was born.
(Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant is available in blog post form here. It may or may not someday see print.)
PC – Tell me about how you were involved with the Forge. Did you help found it, or did you stumble on the community and rise to prominence therein?
VB – I was in the first wave of newbies after its founding. Member number 130-something, I think. I found it because I’d just finished my first complete game, Kill Puppies for Satan, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t be the only guy frustrated with the state of RPGs and willing to make something. I tried this new “Google” thing people were talking about and found the Forge.
Several years later, Clinton (the forum’s technical admin and host) needed someone to take over for him, and I could do it so I did.
PC – What would you say the mission statement of the Forge was?
VB – I’d say it in two parts.
Part 1: You can create a roleplaying game that works the way you want it to. You do not need to follow convention.
Part 2: You can publish the games you create, and nobody can tell you otherwise.
PC – How was the decision to close the Forge made, and how involved were you in that decision?
VB – It was always Ron’s call. He knew when he founded it that he’d close it someday, and indeed, he did. When he saw that it was time, he checked with me to make sure that I agreed, and of course I did – I could see that it was time just as clearly as he could.
It took us a while to actually close it, though. We could legitimately have closed it, oh, six months earlier, if we’d gotten it together to do so. Ron’s other obligations and projects pushed it back.
PC – What do you think the Forge’s legacy is, or what do you think its major contribution to game development was?
VB – Exactly those two parts! You can create the game you want, and you can publish it if you want. Before the Forge, nobody thought that way. The idea of the lean, focused, quirky little RPG didn’t really exist (even though a few such games did).
It’s hard to remember, or even to credit, how different things were back in 2001.
PC – What are you going to miss about the Forge?
VB – Oh, nothing. What we’ve got now, everywhere, is basically as good as the Forge ever was, and better. It’s no good to get rosy-eyed about it just because it’s gone. I miss 2004, I guess. But I wouldn’t go back to 2004, that’s for sure. 2004 had some cool stuff in it, but today is way cooler.
There are some Forge people I used to have closer relationships with than I do now, and I miss them, of course. But all of those relationships changed for the reasons that relationships always change – our lives and the disappointments of the flesh – not because the Forge closed.
PC – Talk to me a bit about this new, post-Forge era of RPG development. Do you think other communities will spring up to fill the void? What kinds of things do you think we’re likely to see in new RPG’s now that people are exploring what they can do?
VB – No, no other communities will spring up to fill the void, because there is no void. If there were a void, we wouldn’t have closed the Forge. I mean, when was the last time you visited the Forge? Did YOU need the Forge? No! Closing the Forge didn’t create a void, it acknowledged that there wasn’t a void any more.
The community I see now is amazing. The diversity of RPG design I see now is unreal. I wouldn’t know what to predict.
Oh, maybe this. The Forge built on three particular technological developments: PDFs (Do you remember when “buy a PDF” wasn’t a thing? I do.), print on demand, and PayPal. The technological developments we can build on now are, let’s say, tablets, apps, and crowdfunding. We’ve seen crowdfunding games take off already. I think we’re likely to see new RPGs designed to be, I don’t know what! Played on your phone?
PC – Do you like to be a GM or a player? Why?
VB – I like both, of course, but put me down just over on the GM side of the line.
I played fully co-GMed for a lot of years, before this business of the lean, focused, quirky little RPG took over, and I’m starting to get the itch to go back. I think I’m now, all these years and games later, competent to start trying to design a co-GMed game.
PC – Which old games do you have a soft spot for?
VB – Ars Magica. Talislanta. God help me, Shadowrun.
PC – Thank you for the interview. In closing, what advice would you give to aspiring designers?
VB – Play all the games. Play every kind of game. Board games, card games, video games, gambling games, sports, solitaire, puzzle games like crosswords and Sudoku, exquisite corpse games, browser games, war games.
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