An interview with Jimmy Maher – Part 1
Jimmy, your new game, The King of Shreds and Patches, is heavily based on a scenario of the same name written by Justin Tynes for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Since I am interested in the relations between RPGs and interactive fiction, I would like to know more about why and how you made your adaption, and what you learned from it.
So let me start at the beginning. What gave you the idea to use an RPG scenario for your interactive fiction game? Did you simply like The King of Shreds and Patches so much that you wanted to acquaint more people with it, or did you expect some design benefit from using an existing scenario?
Well, perhaps I should first say that I actually don't have a huge amount of experience with tabletop RPG's – or at least not with modern ones. Like just about every American nerd who grew up in the 1980's, I did play some Dungeons and Dragons, although it was never my favorite; I spent much more time with the old-school TSR games Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes.
That said, I hadn't seriously played or really even thought about RPG's in many years when I happened to acquire a rather wonderful book on interactive storytelling called Second Person, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. More than a third of that volume is devoted to tabletop games, and this reignited my interest in tabletop RPG's, not really as a player (although I would certainly like to try again should I ever find enough like-minded folks) but as a source of lessons and inspiration for computer-mediated interactive storytelling. In particular, a couple of articles in the book on Call of Cthulhu led me to purchase some of Chaosium's back-catalog on the Drivethru RPG site. CoC really floored me, both with the depth and sophistication of its adventures and with its subversion of the standard D&D meta-narrative of the player's progression to ever greater heights of power.
The King of Shreds and Patches, which can be found and purchased on Drive-Thru RPG in the Strange Aeons anthology, struck a particular chord with me in dealing with one of my favorite historical periods and involving my favorite writer, Will Shakespeare. (My wife always laughs that I treat my Complete Works of Shakespeare like Christians do their Bible.) Thus, the biggest reason for the adaptation essentially was indeed that I liked the original a lot and was excited by the challenge of bringing it to another medium, in a similar way I suppose as a movie director might read a book and immediately want to film it. King is my first real work of IF, and it's a hellaciously ambitious one at that; I undoubtedly benefited hugely from being able to use the original adventure as my design document. And it suited my own particular strengths and weaknesses; I've never been terribly good at inventing compelling fictional scenarios from whole cloth, but feel like I am reasonably good at evaluating, embellishing, and adapting what already exists. Finally, I knew that if I spent a year or more (and in the end it turned into more than two) working on an ambitious game, I wanted as many people as possible to play it, and thus wanted to appeal to those outside the traditional IF community. (This is a lesson I learned from Peter Nepstad's relative success with 1893; don't "sell" IF for its IFness any more than you sell a book for its bookness, bur rather "sell" it on the basis of its subject matter.) This worked out well; while it hasn't exactly gotten Blizzard shaking in their boots, King has gotten a fair amount of exposure around the Internet, with fans of Lovecraft and Cthulhu and also in other places. I've had about 2500 downloads so far from my personal site, which is likely far more than I could have gotten by appealing to the traditional community alone, and lots of positive comments from people who do not normally play IF at all. Who knows, perhaps some will decide they'd like to play (or even write) some more after my game?
You were impressed by the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and I think I understand why. At the same time though, reading through the original scenario for The King of Shreds and Patches makes me cringe occassionally. Even accepting the fact that the players are simply along for the ride – which is perhaps less forgivable in a tabletop RPG than it is in interactive fiction – it still seems as if the Call of Cthulhu system is working against the design goals of Justin Tynes as often as it supports them. Take the many locked doors in the scenario. The story simply cannot go on if the player characters don't get past them, because they'll miss vital clues and cannot continue the investigation. So what happens when everyone fails their lockpicking rolls? Or take some of the hidden stuff that the players simply must find. What happens when everyone fails their perception rolls? Again, from the point of view of the story, failure is not an option; but the system cannot guarantee that failure will not take place.
There are even a couple of points were the rules explicitly encourage the Game Master to fudge the dice! If there is a clear sign that a system is not doing what it ought to do, it is that people tell you to fudge the rolls.
So I would venture to guess that the scenario's and setting for call of Cthulhu are far better than the underlying system. This is true for a lot of RPGs that were created in those decades, by the way, GURPS and the Vampire / Werewolf games coming to mind immediately.
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I had the same response to all those skill and ability checks. Only one of the pre-generated PC's has the Locksmith skill, and that at only 40%. What happens when – as is possible, indeed almost probable – this player fails his Locksmith rolls both at Croft's front and back doors? "Sorry, folks, you fail to get inside the house and London gets eaten. See you at next week's game!" And all through absolutely no fault of the players. Or are the players supposed to be allowed to roll again after failing? I searched absolutely everywhere for an answer to this basic question, and came up blank. And if they are allowed to just roll until they succeed, what's the point of having the skill check at all? Either way, the whole situation seems rather ridiculous.
The whole Call of Cthulhu design seems way too dependent on the luck of the dice, which may simulate the unfairness and irrationality of the Lovecraftian universe or something, but doesn't seem much conducive to a satisfying game. So, yeah, it's the sophistication of the settings, stories, and themes that appeal, not the actual ruleset. Which is probably at least part of the reason why I decided to throw said rules completely overboard for the IF adaptation. Were I to run CoC as a tabletop game, I think I would be likely to go with Trail of Cthulhu, a new ruleset by Peregrine Press that advertises that it assures the players find the clues they need to find when they look in the right place for them, regardless of the dice. I understand that ToC has fairly extensive notes on adapting classic CoC scenarios to its new, saner (ha!) system. (All of this comes by word of mouth, however; I haven't sprung for the system myself.)
Let's go back to your game. It might seem to those who have never tried as if the process of making an IF adaption of a roleplaying scenario is pretty straightforward, but I suspect that in practice there are many stumbling blocks and unforeseen difficulties. If I'm right about that, could you tell us what the major stumbling blocks that you encountered were?
It's not as straightforward as you might think. Certainly not as much as I thought going into it. :)
I think that Call of Cthulhu scenarios are actually uniquely suited for adaptation into IF, in that they tend to involve investigation and intellectual sleuthing more than they do combat or other forms of action. I can't imagine trying to adapt a typical Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawl into IF, nor even most of the modern independent RPG's; not the former because it's all about combat and (your work on an IF combat engine aside) IF currently sucks at combat, and not the latter because it emphasises so heavily interactions among players, which is a real problem when you only have one player.
That said, plenty of changes had to be made even to King. An obvious one is that four to six players had to be condensed down into a single PC. I simply chose the pre-generated PC from the original scenario that I found most interesting, and then enhanced his two- or three-sentence blurb into a full backstory while also giving him a few necessary skills and connections his companions had in the original. I actually think that a Cthulhu scenario works better with the player as the lone investigator; would Croft's house have felt as spooky if five or six people were crowded about the man's bedroom? In this sense, at least, I will humbly (?) claim that my adaptation may work better than the original.
Another major mechanical difference between tabletop RPG's and IF is in the relative emphasis they place on PC versus player skill. When the group encounters a locked door in a CoC scenario, they generally figure out whose PC has the highest Locksmith skill, and this player then attempts to open the door by rolling less than that number on a die. She may not know anything about locks herself; she relies on her avatar's in-storyworld knowledge entirely. All of the details are abstracted for her into that percentage chance of success, which is all she cares about in the end. When a player encounters a locked door in an IF game, on the other hand, she starts looking around for a way to get past it, which generally involves solving a puzzle herself. The more abstracted tabletop RPG approach feels unrealistic and unsatisfying in an IF game, just as the detail-oriented IF approach would feel tedious and unworkable in an RPG session. Thus, I had to convert all of the "choke points" of the original scenario where abilities and die-rolls come into play into other sorts of challenges (generally puzzles) for the IF adaptation. In the original scenario, then, entering Croft's house for the first time requires only a couple of successful Locksmith roles; in the IF adaption, it requires solving a few puzzles. My game actually does not model any of the CoC rules at all. I could likely have made the adaptation without even having access to the main rulebook.
Those were probably the two major, obvious changes. Beyond them, though, I had to do a lot of my own invention in fleshing out the scenario, which was written in quite general terms in many places. Several characters are completely my own invention, as are several other quite major elements of the game. All the stuff about the printing press, for instance, was inspired more by a visit to the Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany, than by anything in Tynes's scenario. To use another movie analogy: a screenwriter adapting a novel must do much more than simply transcribe the novel's scenes and dialog into a script; the two mediums are simply too different to allow that. The situation was similar here.