Friday, August 04, 2006

Interview: Steven Markley: The Bulldog of Good Game Design

Steven Markley has been building and playing games of all sorts since, what, the late-1980s? Having written work for the big games, he has also designed many of his own. He's a quiet master of alternative worlds and generative, collaborative gaming systems -- if you pay attention to gaming, you have seen his work online. He joins us here for an interview.


1. What is the most exciting project you're working on these days?

I don't have as much time to devote myself to writing and the like as I used to. My own RPG projects are long dead, washed away by Katrina, so I devote what free time I have to writing stuff for White Wolf's World of Darkness games (both the original WoD and new WoD). I don't mind this; WW makes great games, and they're worth my love and time.

Specifically, I'm splitting myself between two gaming projects now. One explores fu dogs, fu lions and ki-rin in a Werewolf: the Apocalypse context, an old WoD game line that has been discontinued but that I continue to love and support. Another thing I'm working on is a new game line for the new WoD called Nephilim: the Legacy.

2. What's "gaming" all about, and why should librarians care?

Gaming is a fancy term for play-pretend. Really, that's all it is. Think of it as a play, but the playwrite (called the game master, Dungeon Master, or Storyteller) lays down the foundation of a play, but she lets the players write their character's personalities, lines and actions. The dice, rules and stuff come in to add definition to the characters, decribe capabilities and resolve potential conflicts. Beyond the game itself, it's a great social activity.

See, most of us sit and wait for our stories to be hand-fed to us, occasionally flexing our imaginations within the bounds of what's been given to us, but otherwise not bothering to think beyond that. But RPGs force us to interact with the story and contribute to its telling; there's a certain magic that results from the ideas of four or five people bouncing around a table or living room or wherever. There's no telling where a story may go, and so will always go in directions the game master doesn't expect due to player input. And that's the beauty of it.

3. Lately we've been talking about "Finite and Infinite Games" in the context of role-playing games. Are RPGs "infinite" by nature?

Stories told through RPGs (called campaigns or chronicles) can be infinite, but aren't necessarily by definition. In fact, they usually aren't. Stories have a beginning and ending, and this is true of RPG chronicles as well. A game master may decide that the campaign will revolve around conflict with a certain foe, and will climax when that conflict resolves in some fashion or another (a peace is brokered, the enemy is defeated, the players' characters fail, etc.); the end of the campaign is the resolution of the climax, character subplots, loose ends. This isn't a bad thing. Campaigns are stories, after all, and the most successful ones still follow that time-honored format.

Still, RPGs can be infinite, if the game master and players want it to be. RPGs allow for that sort of thing. A campaign can end, and another can begin with the same characters or in the same setting with fresh characters, letting the story continue while giving a sense of accomplishment to the players. Or a campaign can be run on and on, never reaching any conclusion but simply continuing until the players move away or burn out... and maybe never really stop. Most RPGs aren't run this way, but the thing is that they can support that style of play.

4. When I last checked, gaming was mainly the domain of boys. Is this still the case? Where are the girls?

Usually staying the hell away from us.

Seriously, gamers have a bad image in general, and with the ladies especially. While some of this is mainstream snobbery toward the fringe, I honestly think a lot of it is gamers' fault. For whatever reason, gamers tend to be poorly socialized males that generally view women as objects of desire or unknowable x-factors, not real people. I think that's true of many men, but gamers end to be especially guilty of it. These guys end up being able to relate to fantasy women better than real ones. One must look at archetypal female portrayals in games to see why: cover models in chain mail bikinis, helpless damsels waiting to be rescued, sultry leather-clad vamps, skyclad hippy-esque elves. The objectification of females is pretty overt in RPGs (though less so nowadays), and it makes sense that not many women try gaming, and those that do often don't stick with it for long. Even female gamers themselves are objects of fixation and unwanted attention by their male counterparts.

There hasn't been a concerted effort to bring women into gaming until relatively recently -- with the advent of White Wolf Publishing. White Wolf helped broaden the appeal of gaming, though, drawing more female fans into the hobby. They did this in several ways. One is language they use: they often use "she" as a gender neutral pronoun, instead of always defaulting to "he"; this is something I've picked up, and I apply to my writing as well. (Others, like Wizards of the Coast, have since picked up on this practice as well.) A small thing, but don't underestimate the impact a subtle shift like this can have. Another thing WW did was make female characters strong and viable personalities, rather than merely sex objects (though there is a subtext of eroticism in the contemporary vampire myth, which WW plays on). Finally, the emphasis of WW games was more on the characters themselves and interpersonal interactions, rather than combat tables and beating down the opposition -- so the goals became more about issues personal to the character, and less about concrete goals like leveling up, kill counts or treasure.

Still, there aren't many female gamers compared to males, even in WW games. I think this is a sad thing, but considering all the previous factors (plus others I didn't consider or I'm unaware of) it's understandable.

Here's something funny related to this issue:

5. Manga is pulling many females into the usually-male world of comics. Does this have any affect on gaming?

Not being a fan of that genre, I can't say much about it. I do notice a lot of female gamers are also anime fans. It's possible there's some sort of correlation, there. WW has an anime game called Exalted that's doing quite well, and many fans of the WoD are also Exalted fans, and vice-versa, creating a lot of genre mixing.

6. I reckon Manga might save comics by bringing a whole new generation of readers in. Is there anything comparable going on in the world of gaming to bring in the next generation, or are the Wizards and White Wolves content to settle for the audiences they've got?

There's always an effort by any business to expand their customer base, man. You don't do that, you fail, or at least fail to thrive. Cater to a small core of purists at your eventual peril. At one time RPG publishers targeted only select demographics (gamers and hobbyists), but they've been doing some clever marketing lately. There's been cross-pollenization between Wizards of the Coast's collectible card games (like Pokemon and Magic: the Gathering) and their D&D property; they've also green-lighted two Dungeons & Dragons movies (though the first was awful), and when they showed the last movie on the Sci-Fi Channel cable they advertised the game itself during the movie. Very slick, very smart. WW brought in anime fans with Exalted, has always and still poaches customers from the goth, punk, iconoclast and "counterculture" crowds with the WoD properties, and promotes t-shirts, custom dice, board games and other products based around their games.

7. Computers and PS2s are up, dice and pencils are down -- is the end near for tabletop games? And what about "live action" gaming?

According to some, the gaming industry is having to deal with a shrinking market, but the reduction isn't that much; other figures say that the number of gamers is holding steady or even that there are more gamers. I guess depends on how broadly you apply the definition of gaming or interpret the numbers. But even there is a shrinking number of gamers, that doesn't worry me; it's the lack of diversity in the market that is the cause of concern. And diversity, whether we're talking about a free market or ecosystem, is essential.

Right now, Wizards of the Coast dominates the market, and with the Open Gaming License other publishers can put out d20-compatible books as long as they display the OGL logo and abide by a few other guidelines. Since ecology was already invoked, think of WotC as a whale shark, the undisputed giant of the waters. White Wolf is a great white shark, while smaller sharks in the form of Steve Jackson Games and Guardians of Order claim their share of fish too. This ocean is brutal, because some sharks have gone extinct or are floundering: FASA, Palladium Publishing, Last Unicorn, and many others. And then there are the small sharks and remoras that feed off the giant whale shark, growing fat off the scraps the monster leaves behind: Green Ronin, Eternal Knot, Malhavoc, etc. Hell, even White Wolf got in on the OGL action and made some excellent d20 products. So in a sense, the WotC juggernaut and its OGL setup has been great for a lot of gaming companies.

However, what this also does is reduce the number of systems available. The d20 whores thrive, while other systems fail. If you'll forgive another analogy, think of Wal-Mart running small businesses out of small towns. I'm not saying d20 sucks; it's a fairly good system, and it's nice that pretty much everyone knows it. If you're hankering for a game, just grab anything d20 off the shelves and you're in business with a solid majority of your gamers. But it's not the best system out there, and even if it was a lot of great ideas and innovative mechanics are being lost to bankruptcy as d20 pushes them out. We need options, choices, alternatives. Gamers rarely form around new games, so as a game publisher you're drawing from a pool of existing gamers -- and with only so much time to game and money to spend, many just buy what they're familiar with rather than blow $30+ on something they've never heard of.

There are good and bad sides to monopolies, but something inside me jerks uncomfortably when I see one start to form.

Anyway, to address your question in short: pen and paper gaming as a whole is doing fine, as far as I know, and I don't see consoles and other gaming mediums being direct competitors, as they fill different gaming needs -- it's like saying basketball threatens football. However, there are fewer gaming systems and companies out there, and from what I can see that trend shows no signs of reversing or even slowing.

8. Okay. I'm a librarian, say, and say I want to establish an ongoing gaming meetup for my patrons. I've ordered all the basic game books (GURPs sets, World of Darkness sets, D&D sets, some others), I'm keeping the library's community room open till midnight on Saturdays, and I've even made arrangements to have coffee, cokes, and popcorn! What's next? And how do I keep the gamers happy so that this keeps on going for months and years?

Well, you've got a good start with just that. I'd get the word out there, to let people know that the option is available to them. Do the security setup on the game books. Definitely go for the three Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks (Players Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual), 3.5 Edition: they're popular with gamers, are well-known, and have brand recognition. If you have the budget for it, I'd invest in the "core" books for a variety of other systems; the new World of Darkness and associated game cores are a good bet, as well as 2nd Ed Exalted, GURPS plus a couple of its setting books, and whatever else you think will tickle gamers' fancy. You might even ask patrons what they want and let them vote. Read up on the books and play or run something. After that, the game groups will gel or fall apart based on the participants; you can create an environment for them, but it's the people that make the games. So try to find good ones. (Don't bother with supplying dice, they'll disappear on you.)

And here's a sneaky thing you can do to your players: inspire them to read non-gaming books you have in the library. For example, say you're running a semi-realistic D&D game set in fantasy Renaissance France. Give bonus experience points to players with well-rounded character backgrounds, or that can answer certain questions about that time period, or brings you useful information about the setting. And then apply the info in the game in neat ways. They get an under-the-table education, and you [get] better players.

But you gotta have Mountain Dew. There's no real way you can game without it.

9. What are some of the best gaming books that you know librarians don't have on the shelves? Assume we've got the biggies -- what are we missing?

Well, I've never seen gaming books in any libraries. But the gaming books that are my favorites, the nearest and dearest to my heart, aren't necessarily what's the most popular or most available; it can be a bitch running down out-of-print books, believe you me. In the interests of helping you invest your money wisely and appealing to the most gamers, just go with what I recommended immediately above. For D&D, I've heard the Eberron setting is pretty good, and for the new WoD Vampire: the Requiem is the most popular game.

10. What sort of themes and settings are your own games concerned with?

I've pretty much focused on World of Darkness games since my gaming collection was unexpectedly downsized, and thus modern horror is my forte. There are a lot of variations on that theme, as each WoD game focuses on a different niche. Vampire: the Masquerade's theme is Gothic Punk, deals with the loss of Humanity to the Beast within and the uncaring mechanizations of the Jyhad (the eternal struggles the eldest vampires wage against one another, using other Kindred as their pawns). Werewolf: the Apocalypse's theme is Savage Horror, as animistic werewolves strive to save the worlds of flesh and spirit from encroaching doom while struggling with their Rage and personal flaws. Demon: the Fallen is Dark Revelation, in which fallen angels in the bodies of humans reap Faith from mortals while trying to find meaning in a ruined Creation, and struggle with issues of God, Lucifer and rebellion. Different games offer unique takes on the darkness.

11. What has been your biggest source of inspiration as a game designer?

Wow, big question. I'd have to say I've always been trying to recapture the magic I felt when new games were revealed to me, that fascination with their settings and elements. I never could quite do it, though; no matter how meticulous I was with the game's setting and premise, or how painstakingly I designed the system, it always rang a bit hollow to me -- there was no mystery to it, as I was the man behind the scenes, the guy in the black suit making the puppets dance. Endless rewrites and revisions to revitalize my creations did no good. It took me the longest time to realize that. It's just as well all that baggage was washed away.

I still feel the magic for the two World of Darkness, though... with more love for the old than the new. I enjoy writing house material for those games. I write for something bigger, with broad appeal and that still holds magic for me. It's not my own exclusive creation anymore, but I'm participating in my own way, and some people actually like what I do. I get no money or official recognition from White Wolf, but who cares? I'm not sure I could write what I want to if I actually worked for them.

Thanks, Steve!


Editor's note: In 2005, Katrina turned Steve into a refugee. He considers himself lucky to have survived. He's back on his feet now, rebuilding his life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. If you have questions or would like to contact him, you may do so at ihatealllife {@} gmail {dot} com. Steven is also a life-long friend and blood relative.


Anonymous said...

I love the idea of bringing gamers into libraries. Gaming has been far too misunderstood for far too long... many I know won't admit to gaming if asked. I think it's a better pastime than most.

-Karin Dalziel (

Anonymous said...

I've pulled that before... the denying it bit... in front of a girl I was woowing... that's mighty sad, ain't it?

Let's us embrace dice, yo?

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