The Designers Speak: Author Chad Underkoffler
By C. Demetrius Morgan
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Since Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in the early seventies role-playing games have both challenged and inspired those who play them, baffled and confounded those who don’t quite understand them, and served as a unfortunate target for those with bellies full of venomous bile and pulpits from which to spew forth hatred and derision. Yet little is known about those who write them. This inaugural article of the- hopefully soon to be long running column- The Designers Speak will now attempt to redress that omission by interviewing he great, not so great, and little known authors of role-playing games and gaming products.
Today we begin with the author of such fine role-playing games as Dead Inside, Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: The Roleplaying Game, and founder of Atomic Sock Monkey games: Chad Underkoffler. Mr. Underkoffler has written for, or been a contributing author to, numerous products ranging from GURPS Steam Tech and the (new) Gamma World Game Master’s Guide to a bimonthly column written for Pyramid Online.
Chris: How long have you been interested in role-playing games?
Chad: Since 1981.
Chris: What are some of your favorite RPGs, past and present?
Chad: Castle Falkenstein, GURPS Fantasy II: the Madlands, Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game (TSR), Nobilis, OctaNe, Over the Edge, Pendragon, RISUS, Storyboard from Magus Creative Games (friend's system), Underworld, Unknown Armies (2nd edi tion), Wraith: The Oblivion (2nd edition).
Chris: Why did you decide to write role-playing games?
Chad: At the time, I was getting frustrated and blocked with my fiction writing. Meanwhile, I had been writing substantial amounts of gaming material for mailing (sic) lists and my webpage. It struck me that I could get paid for doing the exact same thing I was doing for free, and that gaming publication was a shorter hurdle than fiction publication. Lastly, it served as a "break" where I wasn't beating myself up over my fiction, and also writing practice for it.
Chris: What led to the creation of the "Prose Descriptive Qualities" system?
Chad: While I had initially considered licensing a system for DI, I was unhappy with most of my options there. The closest I came was pondering the underlying system for OtE. But it just didn't do what I wanted it to.
Meanwhile, I'd started my Campaign in a Box column for Pyramid (as well as my short-lived RPGnet column, Let Me Tell You About My Character...), and in the interests of including systemless ability benchmarks for NPCs, the concept just... grew.< /P>
Chris: Was there any specific motivation that lead to the creation of the PDQ System?
Chad: My dislike of baroque, math-heavy, compartmentalized systems that seemed to slow down attempts at character generation as well as play, wedded to my enjoyment of "do it yourself" character generation systems (like OtE and UA), universal standardized mechanics for almost all situations, and the prose-based ability concept (like MSH or CF). Uniting these latter three things would eliminate the issues I dislike in gaming.
Chris: You mentioned having a "dislike of baroque, math-heavy, compartmentalized systems that seemed to slow down attempts at character generation as well as play". What would you say to gamers who might simply glance at the PDQ System, not e the surface similarities to FUDGE, and assume that it's going to be another weird system in which they have to put silly stickers on their dice? Or worse, assume they have to do a lot a math!
Chad: I'd say that the game uses two standard six-sided dice, and the most usual forms of math are addition (generally 2d6 roll +/- Quality Rank) and subtraction (high 2d6+Quality Rank - low 2d6+Quality Rank *or* static Target Number to genera te Damage/Failure Ranks).
Chris: Well said. Yet, on the surface, the PDQ system bears a uncanny similarity to certain conceptual design mechanics in FUDGE. Was this an conscious effort to create a more straight forward and easier to understand (and play) system based on those design concepts, or did the PDQ design evolve independently of that system?
Chad: Actually, I'd never really looked at FUDGE until after DI's publication, though I'm sure that some of its ideas probably percolated into my head via gamer osmosis. Ultimately, the systems whose fingerprints I see on PDQ most are MSH -- U pshifts and Downshifts are Column Shifts by a different name -- and Castle Falkenstein. (I *think* that CF was influenced by FUDGE, but I'm not sure.) And emulation of the free-wheeling chargen and playstyle of MSH and CF was a definite factor in the de sign of PDQ, but I didn't necessarily see my efforts as a precis or summary of those systems.
So, call it independent, highly-influenced, semi-parallel evolution.
Chris: Who would you say the target audience for Dead Inside is?
Chad: Well, anyone interested in horror and dark fantasy or moral/ philosophical/ psychological gaming, whether they've ever played an RPG before or are an already experienced gamer.
Chris: Was there any specific driving motivation- or inspiration- that led to the Dead Inside concept or design?
Chad: The inversion of the "kill things and take their stuff" mentality into "heal things and give them your stuff." I also wanted desperately to target the game on the elements of gaming that really interest me: the ability to "go off the boa rd" and the ability to "ask why?" -- these two things typify what's distinguishes RPGs from other games.
Chris: Were there any driving influences that helped shape the design of Dead Inside?
Chad: Lots of stuff -- see Chapter 6 for the big fictional and nonfictional works that spurred me on.
Chris: What would you say sets Dead Inside apart from similarly themed role-playing games?
Chad: It can be played in a "closed" fashion -- unlike many RPGs, there can be an endpoint: the PC gets his or her soul back. Until I saw MLwM, I hadn't seen any other RPGs that took that tack.
Chris: As I noted in my review of Monnipir, the PDQ system is almost totally devoid of so-called "Gygaxisms" and, given your remarks about the system being “the inversion of the "kill things and take their stuff" mentality into "heal things an d give them your stuff."” I have to ask. . .
How difficult was this departure from the typical fantasy tropes and expected rules conventions to maintain during the rules building process?
Chad: Not at all difficult. Really, the only issue that was of concern was making sure that all normal activities (climbing, combat, conversation) used the same mechanic, but that's just a resetting of expectations.
Chris: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate the effort that went into creating the PDQ system and the games built upon its foundation?
Chad: About a 7. It just seemed obvious the way it fell out, really (call that a 5), with some additional work on cleaning it up during and post-playtest (call that 2).
Chris: Do you have any words of wisdom to offer would be game designers based on what you learned from the experience?
Chad: Keep it Simple and Focused. Playtest and Peer Review. Seek out people who hate what you're attempting as well as people who love it. Seek out newbies to test your game as well as experienced gamers. Get over yourself, but know when to put your foot down. If you're not good with statistics, find people who are. And you will probably not make much money from the experience, and while simple egoboo is a possibility, don't count on getting it.
The DI mailling (sic) list has a lot of information on rules/system changes and ideas as posed by myself and the DI playtesters. While the playtest files were taken down long ago, the discussion is still there to see. Might be interesting to oth er game designers; might not.
Chris: Are there any insights you could offer to would be game designers on how to keep these- often undesirable- "Gygaxisms" and "D&Disms" from creeping into their game designs?
Chad: Scorched Earth Policy. Burn down your expectations of what the system should do. Figure out what's most important. Look at as many different systems as you can, and systematize any whacky brainstorms you have, to try and figure out the r ules that best combine simplicity and evocation of what's most important. Then refine any candidate ideas ruthlessly so that it works for what you want it to work for, pruning off everything else.
Chris: Will there be, or is there currently, any supporting products available for use with Dead Inside? Does Atomic Sock Monkey plans to publish supporting or other supplementary material to tie in with Dead Inside?
Chad: Well, the IMAGO DECK is a Whimsy Card-esque supplement for DI (or any other game, really) and COLD, HARD WORLD: THE REAL WORLD SOURCEBOOK was published in early December. Both are available from RPGNow: the IMAGO DECK is free, and CHW co sts $8.
Chris: Will there be a print edition?
Chad: DI is available as a direct-sale Print on Demand (PoD) softcover from RPGMall. (CHW is only available as a PDF, currently.) There have been discussions with other publishers about a new, expanded edition of DI into the distribution channel, but that's just under tentative discussion right now.
Chris: If you had to describe Dead Inside in a single sentence, what would that sentence be?
Chad: "You've lost your soul; what will you do to get it back?"
Chris: Does Atomic Sock Monkey have any other games in the works using the PDQ System?
Chad: Well, MONKEY, NINJA, PIRATE, ROBOT: THE RPG uses PDQ, and it's already out. I do have two other games I'm working on right now, codenamed "Sekrit Projekt 7" and "Sekrit Projekt F," but they're nowhere near completion. (Indeed, SP7 -- who se manuscript was nearly done over a year ago -- looks like it'll be torn down to the foundations and rebuilt because of a random brainstorm I had. Luckily, I don't announce games until they're done and available; while this cuts my marketing word-of-mo uth before release, it salves my need to make excuses in public. Besides, that sort of marketing is more geared towards the distribution channel rather than the direct channel, I think.)
Chris: "Sekrit Projekt 7" and "Sekrit Projekt F", you say? Those sound interesting. In a vaguely could-be about secret agent G-Men types, or X-Files conspiracies centering around aliens and UFOs?
Chad: Nope, not really conspiracy. I don't much like talking about stuff that's in-process until it's done, then you can't shut me up about it. The reasons are twofold:
1) There is nothing new under the sun, so one's take on a topic
and the skill with which it is executed are all one has to
distinguish it. This also kind of bleeds into publisher paranoia
and such, a little, but I really do think that the perspective a
topic is attacked from is valuable, and shouldn't be squandered.
2) Talking extensively -- and with me, I usually can't but (see
above) -- about an idea before I have a complete first draft
often removes my impetus to write it to completion. So, being a
little obfuscatory about upcoming works is for my own metal
health and writing discipline.
Chris: Can fans of Monnipir expect to see more of the same fabu humor in these games or will they take a more serious approach?
Chad: Yes and no. Neither will be intended as a pure comedy game, but both will have funny bits, I hope.
Chris: What innovations do you foresee Atomic Sock Monkey bringing to gaming in the future?
Chad: Innovation, schminnovation, as long as I'm rich. Wait, this is the games industry. Strike that and rephrase:
Innovation, schminnovation, as long as it's fun.