Thursday, April 01, 2004

An Interview with Steffan O'Sullivan

Fudge Factor put the irons to the man himself, Steffan O'Sullivan, and got him to confess in this mid-March interview. Read on to find out what the creative force behind Fudge thinks about where it's been, and where it's going.

FF: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into the hobby.

SOS: I've been a gamer most of my life, playing my first children's boardgames when there was still a King in England. Growing up, I played a lot of boardgames, both with my family and neighborhood playmates. Through high school and college, they were mostly Avalon Hill games and card games. But there were no roleplaying games in those days - they weren't invented until after I had gotten my BA and married a non-gamer.

My wife didn't like me gaming, so I gave it up while married. After my divorce, I gravitated to hobby shops to reconnect with the hobby I hadn't looked at in many years - this was the late 1970s. That's when I saw my first RPG - it must have been 1st edition AD&D, judging from the publication date. I perused it for about ten minutes in the hobby shop, intrigued, but couldn't make any sense out of it. So I put it back on the rack and bought a boardgame instead.

But I was still drawn by the concept of an RPG, and in a future visit to the hobby shop noticed Bunnies & Burrows by Dennis Sustare and Scott Robinson. I loved Watership Down, and could instantly relate to the subject. B&B was a very slim book compared to the seemingly endless volumes of *D&D, so I took a chance and bought it. I didn't know anyone who roleplayed, mind you, so was on my own figuring it out.

I read it for some time before trying it in the early '80s. Some things I never did figure out, like levels. (I still don't get them to this day.) But I understood enough to try running it for some friends. I was in my early thirties by then, and the group I first ran B&B for ranged from ages 25-40, three men and three women. Only one had even heard of an RPG before, and he'd never GMed, just played D&D.

We had a blast! We were in a three-year training program at that time, which met one weekend a month in Amherst, Massachusetts. So we played once a month for almost the whole three years - what a great campaign that was. I still had never tried any game with human PCs at the end of the third year, nor ever been a player, only a self-taught GM.

It wasn't until 1984 when I hitched up with the local college gaming club that I finally played a game, as opposed to GMing. It was Gamma World, and though I never understood much of what went on, it was enough to whet my appetite for more. I began to search out human-PC games simple enough for me to understand. I ran Tunnels & Trolls for a bit before discovering The Fantasy Trip (no levels!). I stayed with that until GURPS came out - Man to Man, actually.

The first edition of GURPS was a big step up from anything I'd ever played, but I found lots of holes in the rules. I began writing weekly letters (on a typewriter - I didn't have a computer yet) to Steve Jackson with questions and comments. Must have driven the poor man mad. In fact, he later gave me the title Playtester from Hell, and even made a GenCon badge with that on it for me in 1988.

At any rate, after a year of too many letters, Steve, though he hadn't met me, knew two things about me:

1 I could write. 2 I knew the GURPS system inside out.

So he offered me the GURPS Bestiary contract out of the blue! His writer for it had just dropped out, and he felt he really needed a bestiary to get his game taken seriously. (Some folk say the same thing about Fudge...)

I'm sure you'll have to edit this down CONSIDERABLY, but that's how I got into the hobby, both as a gamer and an author.

FF: Whew! All right... Say you have two minutes to give someone a history lesson on how Fudge came to be... what would that go like?

SOS: I once had the contract to write GURPS Faerie but couldn't make it work. GURPS is fine for human PCs and situations where a player would logically know the laws of the universe, but I couldn't get it to fit my concept of Faerie. This involved not only PCs very far from the human scale (and even farther from each other), but also natural laws that are not consistent. Also, I was beginning to be bothered that some of my players frequently lost roleplaying focus to stop and look up rules as GURPS got more and more complex.

At any rate, I was feeling a little dissatisfied with GURPS, though I still think the core system is a fine and elegant game. About that time, there was an interesting project on the newsgroup about a group-designed game. This was actually the third attempt at this I had seen, and all had fallen apart because no one could agree on very much.

So I started a splinter group, focused on a freeform game. I made it clear that I felt the only way the project would work was if one person made all the final decisions, and anyone who didn't like that was warned from the start not to contribute. I wanted a non-rigid game because my favorite genres are mostly fringe genres, and rigid rules tend to break at the fringes of the hobby. In addition, I'd seen good roleplayers become too wrapped up in the details of the rules and lose sense of their character - I wanted to avoid that. I wanted a framework to allow lots of imagination and creativity in playing a role, and to me that meant focusing on the situations, not the rules.

FF: Who or what would you say were your strongest non-gaming influences on Fudge?

SOS: In no particular order, fairy tales, mythology of many different peoples, stories of Faerie, Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bilbo Baggins, Beren & Luthien, Jack Vance, pre-modern history, The Wind in the Willows, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert Lawson, Musashi, Mark Twain, God, various cats I've lived with, Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tse, George Herriman, Walter R. Brooks, NC Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Watership Down, Robin Hood, Cuchulainn, Laurel & Hardy, Seven Samurai, Zorro, The Court Jester, the Commedia dell'Arte, Zomo the Rabbit and other trickster figures, The Jungle Books, Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, John Bellairs, Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Wibberley, Carbonel, Ursula K. Le Guin, Snorri Sturluson, Ende's Momo, The Swamp Fox, Simon Girty, my childhood playmates, my brothers, my parents, my grandmother, my high-school friend Marshall, and frankly too many more to list. Anyone/anything that stimulated, encouraged, aided and abetted imagination and creativity.

FF: Is that all? — Don't answer that. Try this one on instead: What do you see as the most important part of designing a role-playing game?

SOS: Defining the objective before you begin, and keeping it mind during the whole design process. I knew from the start what I wanted Fudge to be used for, and I knew it had to be simple and avoid tables and charts that wouldn't fit on the character sheet. That was always on my mind as I made decisions about the game. This will be different than what someone else will want their game to be, of course. Their goals may be close enough to mine to be able to use Fudge, or they may need something closer to, say, Rolemaster. Tastes differ: know what yours are when designing a game or even an implementation of a game.

FF: Here's a follow-up — what do you see as the most important part of designing an adventure for a role-playing game?

SOS: Abraham Maslow's theory of creativity. Maslow broke creativity down into two phases. I don't remember his terms (it's been 20 years since I've read him), but phase one is the phase of freedom. Don't let critical thoughts enter into this phase, or even wonder how to make it believable. No negatives, no "That'll never work." Just let things explode into the most outrageous outcomes, with one idea sparking an even more outrageous next event.

When the brainstorming begins to wind down, then go to phase two: the crafting. Now the critical, analytical mind steps in to make things plausible and believable. Link the elements you want with mundane events that no one could doubt would happen. Insert balance into the adventure at this point: make sure there are puzzles to solve for those who like such things, and obstacles to overcome with strength, physical skill, and heroism. Make sure every member of the party will be the center of attention in rotating critical points. (For convention games, I design all the characters, so know in advance what that means. For a group at home, I tend to know in advance what they want to play before designing a scenario.) Make sure it's challenging enough to give a sense of accomplishment, but not so impossible as to be depressing. But don't do ANY of that during the first phase - it kills stage-one creativity.

FF: Fudge was an early, collaborative, internet-based project when it started out. Today we see places like The Forge sprouting up with similar goals of collaboration. Do you feel like you were ahead of your time with Fudge?

SOS: Well, I wasn't the first, so can't really say I was ahead of my time. But Fudge may have been the first to succeed because of my firm belief that committees make lousy games if every member of the committee has an equal voice in the final product. Committees can make solid recommendations, but can have a hard time coming to a consensus. So maybe it was just right on time.

Fudge does have a couple of minor innovations, but really it's pretty firmly rooted in games that came before, and still recognizable as something Dave Arneson, the papa of roleplaying in gaming, could relate to. There are games more creatively different from the norm than Fudge.

FF: Are there any internet-developed games out there these days that have captured your attention or imagination?

SOS: To be honest, I haven't looked at any. I've largely moved away from roleplaying back to my boardgaming roots. I still play an occasional RPG (the most recent was about eight weeks ago as I write this: an excellent Animal Companions adventure by Ann Dupuis' husband, Paul, the best GM I've ever played with), and I GM every year at the local college convention, but that's about it. So I don't read RPGs any more, sorry.

FF: Several things you've written have indicated you have a strong interest in the swashbuckling genre. Was this interest a strong influence on Fudge?

SOS: Yes.

FF: Okay — do you consider Fudge the ideal gaming engine for a swashbuckling game, and why?

SOS: It is for me. But I can't even pretend it would be so for everyone. It works for me because the loose framework supports the devil-may-care attitude you want when roleplaying swashbuckling characters. I personally find it much easier to swash bucklers when I'm not stopping to add numbers and check a rulebook, but will concede that other folks may have different tastes.

FF: What's the strangest Fudge game you've ever seen or heard tell?

SOS: Heavens, too many vying for that prize! Fudge seems to attract imaginative people, and many of these people have ideas that won't work in most "normal" games, so they try them in Fudge. I really can't even remember most settings I hear about, but crossovers figure prominently, as do some bizarre non-human PCs, including players playing bodily parts, diseases, and even psychic/psychotic furniture. I even planned a game once (but never ran it - I stopped going to GenCon) where the GM of the game played all the player characters in a game-within-a-game and the players in the game were warring sub-personalities of the game-within-a-game GM.

FF: Is there anything you'd do differently about Fudge today, if you didn't have it written yet, but were about to start on such a project?

SOS: I think I'd stress the Subjective systems more. I was surprised a while ago to hear someone say Five-Point Fudge was broken because it allowed min-maxing. Now I fully admit Five-Point Fudge is limiting and was designed solely to introduce people to Fudge, specifically people who were at a loss to create a character because of too many choices. But that it encouraged min-maxing never entered my head. When questioned, he said it was because of the experience system. This is a puzzle to me, as to my mind the basic experience system in Fudge is the Subjective one. I guess I didn't make that as clear as I'd like. The Objective systems are mostly in there because other members of the "committee" wanted them. The only really Objective system I use is the the wound track numbering scheme. (I use the Min-Mid-Max damage system, which is mostly subjective in itself. I guess another thing I'd do differently is write the Min-Mid-Max section more clearly - it's probably some of the muddiest writing I've ever done, my apologies.)

FF: Is there anything you'd like to see done with Fudge — a particular setting, a game you'd like to see run — that you haven't seen yet?

SOS: Australian aboriginal myth/legend. I've only seen one RPG supplement deal with the subject at all half well (BTRC), but even then I don't think it did it justice. It's a very rich mythos I've been fascinated with since I was seven years old, I think. Also, classic fairy tales. Again, there have been some attempts at this; some succeed better than others do, but no one's hit it just right that I've seen. And a trickster tale environment - use interlibrary loan to get hold of the lamentably out-of-print Zomo the Rabbit by Hugh Sturton and you'll see what I mean. (Warning: there is another book about Zomo, a picture book, that doesn't come close to doing him justice - don't judge him by that!)

FF: Over on the discussion list, folks sometimes talk about "what it takes to get Fudge to a broader audience". Do you have any thoughts to share on that?

SOS: My own tastes are very far from the RPG mainstream. I mean, I really do think it's more fun to play a bunny than a human or humanoid - how many gamers feel that way? Anything that I think would make an awesome setting is generally met with blank looks by most gamers. So I think the best thing for people looking to reach a broader audience is to look elsewhere than to me for ideas on how to do that.

FF: Given that, was Fudge even "meant" to go to a broad audience?

SOS: It was meant to appeal to people who value, as I do, the ability to be creative and imaginative in roleplaying over having to pay attention to a rules system. Mind you, I like many games with rigid rules systems, but they're all boardgames and miniatures games. (Heck, my favorite wargame right now is The Napoleonic Wars, and that practically requires a law degree just to understand the rules.)

I know that people play RPGs for many reasons, and some players enjoy maximizing their characters' abilities by cleverly taking advantage of rules as they are written. Fudge really isn't for them, though they're welcome to add as many rules to Fudge as they please to try to achieve this. So in that sense, it wasn't really aimed at an extremely broad audience - it was aimed at a specific subsection of the RPG gaming crowd. I don't know even roughly what percentage of roleplayers that is. I believe WotC did some market research on this subject, but I think their results are skewed by their audience. Still, they probably know better than I do, and someone told me their results are published on the web somewhere. Wouldn't hurt to look it up.

FF: We're sure to have forgotten something in this interview. So in conclusion — what was it?

SOS: You didn't ask me any questions that would allow me to show my gratitude to various people, so let me do that now. I want to thank Ann & Paul Dupuis, the original contributors to Fudge, and all the loyal fans over the years for the support and kind words that have made the whole project worth all the effort I put into it. Thanks!

FF: Thank you!