Every so often, I get contacted by someone who wants me to look over their game and provide them with critique of it. This has two benefits for me: first, I get to learn about other game systems or settings and second, I get to learn about their creator. This second benefit is of particular interest to me, as I often learn tricks and methods others have never tried before.
Thus I received a LONG. And when I say LONG, I mean that was the longest Facebook post I ever saw. And I post 'em long myself! So a LONG Facebook message that led to this interview.
Let me introduce you all to Tobias White. Tobias contacted me to review his RPG called Spooks. Which I will admit, I never heard about at the time, so I spent some time reading up on it:
- Touch of steampunk
Okay. Now I was hooked and I needed to know more. A quick search and the guys ran a previous Kickstarter back in 2013. They are now running another one, for the game expansion. Link to their current kickstarter!. As of today (ten days to go), they are getting quite close to funding. Let's see if we can get them there!
So I did this interview with Nathan Reese Maher and Tobias White to learn more about them and their project. What I learned was quite surprising!
A big thanks to Tobias for providing me with the art.
JP: Who are you?
NATHAN: I grew up on 2nd Edition AD&D Skills & Powers, having started playing back in the early 1990s and have been hooked every since. I have a BA in English Literature and have written several books, both fiction and gaming material wise, since 2011. I love puns, dancing when everyone is looking and making crude jokes in a Mickey Mouse voice. I also have a dance background in classical ballet. Most importantly, I'm married to my best friend.
TOBIAS: I grew up playing the old AD&D computer games like "Secret of the Silver Blades" and I had a few AD&D books, but I really didn’t understand the concept because I did not have a group to cut my teeth on, however I loved the art in them. When I became a US Marine I eventually found groups to play in and became a DM myself. I have been playing on and off ever since. My art education is not only from a traditional university with a BA in Art, but I am also self-taught since very young and I constantly seek to improve my skills because education is still important. My greatest joy in life is imagination and sharing ideas with others with the hopes of creating something special which is why I enjoy creative writing as well.
JP: What other products have you worked on before?
NATHAN: I've produced ?The Wailing Sorrow - Fan Made Ravenloft Adventure?, ?Sticks & Stones - The Free RPG (The Playtest)?, ?Spooks? Welcome to the Great Beyond? (for gaming materials), ?Secrets of the CitySpire - Book 1, A Familiar Love Song? (cyberpunk), ?Rubberband Lazer; Or, The Adventures of Casey Norider and Jaq Synergy - Vol. 1? (space western comedy) and ?Tales of Enoch? (gothic sci-fi).
TOBIAS: As a freelance artist/writer I have done work for budding creative companies such as Tightrope Games LLC and independent writers such as Jim Philips who writes Call of Cthulhu adventure modules and he posts them on Skype of Cthulhu. I also have done work for Bubba Jerky for an old friend of mine and I only bring that up because well Jerky is totally gamer food? Lastly, I am also a video game concept artist doing contracted speculation work with MMOmagic.com and we are getting close to getting a demo completed to present to publishers.
JP: What is your favorite RPG of all time?
NATHAN: Hands down 2nd Edition AD&D - Ravenloft. I'm only 8 books shy of a complete set of both 2nd and 3rd edition books.
TOBIAS: That is a tough call, but I have to say my fondest memories are with 2nd Edition AD&D Planescape and I think I own all the gaming material related to that setting. I think it appealed to me because it was a hub setting that let you travel to anywhere in the AD&D universe.
JP: What is the best/longest campaign you ever took part in?
NATHAN: I ran a group for 2 years called ?The White Dragons? who followed a sky-deity. There was a running joke that the youthful female Bard/Paladin had the hots for the old wizard. One player's kooky dwarf once throttled an old woman for stealing his feather. There was a crossover once where the good characters met their respective evil characters - luckily they didn't fight. I once scared all the players to death when I first introduced Intellect Devourers. They boarded themselves up in a tavern and stoked a fire to prevent them coming through the chimney. Little did they know the townsfolk inside the tavern with them had a few hidden in their skulls.
TOBIAS: There are so many stories I wouldn’t be able to list them all, but my second group lasted for about 2 years and we played almost every weekend. It was a lot of fun and was a great way to blow of some stress? We played a combo of Planescape and Forgotten realms and it ended in Raveneloft, but we shortly ended those heroes because our characters were simply too powerful and it lost its appeal and we moved on to other games.
JP: One word: Spooks.
NATHAN: Spooks? WTTGB is role-playing in the afterlife. Play as Bhoots, Dolls, Ghouls, Ghosts, Skeletons, Vampires and Zombies in an Ancient Egyptian inspired Hereafter. Now with the Mortal Intrusion you can play as exceptional humans, common people, blessed types with religious powers, magi, psychics, those born of fae ancestry and were-creatures while alive. Dungeon delve, solve mysteries, monster hunt, engage conspiracies, encounter historical NPCs, invade the Great Beyond and survive the inferno of the Hellfire Lands, swim the River Styx, explore the Spirit Realm and dive into the dreams of both living and dead. Built for improvisation, quick character generation, unique spell system and an all-in-one encompassing rule set that allows for limitless gaming.
JP: How did Spooks came into being?
NATHAN: When my grandfather died around 2000 ish, I had a dream where I sat next to him on the couch in his old house. No one could see him but me. When everyone left the room I turned to him and asked, ?What is it like?? (in reference to being dead). He, a devote Christian replied in his matter of fact way, ?Nathan... It's not what we thought.? Since then it's haunted me and as my writing career grew I decided that I needed to make something that would reduce the hours of preparation time as a storyteller and make it so that I can improvise better in my games. Tim Burton movies have always been a favorite of mine and I realized that there wasn't very many settings out there like it. So I took what my grandfather told me and started developing Spooks?. I will admit though that outside of Tim Burton I'm also a huge fan of Lucas Arts games - so that's where the comical side of the game shines through. After it was a success a lot of people asked about playing the Living. This was in the plan all along but the question of when wasn't a topic I had even thought of yet. Tobias really spearheaded the Mortal Intrusion and helped motivate the project. I think he was more excited for it than I was - as I had already started writing for a different type of expansion that we may see later on this year.
JP: Tell me about the game system.
NATHAN: Spooks? WTTGB runs off a classless system, using d6s to determine fate. As you level, you gain points to distribute among your ability scores and at each time they reach a new 10s position you gain a skill point to distribute among that category of skills. Dice in this game pool, creating an unlimited leveling system that doesn't bog down the game the higher you go. Every character can use spell cards, with each card representing a different spell. Players can choose to cast spells or they can use the cards to boost their rolls.
TOBIAS: In addition to the system Nathan described, Mortal Intrusion is introducing a new feature called "Organizations". As Nathan mentioned, Spooks? uses a classless system that uses skills, abilities and core character concept to define one’s character, but sometimes a player’s character could use additional flavor and that is where "Organizations" comes in. When a character joins an "Organization" that character gains access to allies, resources, skills and powers the more they become entrenched in the organization, but that character slowly becomes more corrupted by their doctrine and it is then hard to refuse their requests or orders. For example, a character can join the Order of Dagon, but the more tasks they do for the Order then they slowly start transforming into a half-breed Deep One, but they also get cool abilities and powers with those transformations.
JP: What is so unique about Spooks?
NATHAN: I've never played Wraith but I have played Vampire the Masquerade. Spooks? WTTGB as mentioned above is designed for improvisation, the game is streamlined so that very little time has to be spent in preparation. Denizens (monsters) can be built on the fly and so too can magical items and equipment. The game allows you to travel virtually anywhere, encounter virtually anyone from fiction characters like Sherlock Holmes to real characters like Nikola Tesla. The game is also lighthearted and doesn't get bogged down by the seriousness that WOD tends to do. Unlimited advancement and a variety of game genres allows for storytellers to truly build their world the way they want it without core-content restricting play. The best part about Mortal Intrusion is that if you lose your character to a mortal death that individual just comes back as a Spook. Storytellers can choose to transition to the afterlife full-time or have dead characters come back to the Land of the Living carrying with them the shroud of the Hereafter.
TOBIAS: I felt that most unique aspect of Spooks? is that your characters can and often do encounter historical characters who are dead. Not only does this spur the imagination, but I feel that it can encourage both the young and old to take a more active interest in history, so not only is the game family friendly to adult level game, but it is also a game that can be a positive influence on education.
JP: What about Spooks is familiar?
NATHAN: You can play a skeleton who claims he is the pumpkin king and a rag doll by the name of Sally. You can be the ghost with the most while adventuring with a human girl named Lydia. You can play (or meet) Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, or encounter a Mulder and Scully agent-type. Try your hand at an Indiana Jones type or maybe you want a character like Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are so many classic TV shows and movies that you can draw from to inspire your campaign and characters. The best part is that you don't have to worry about how others might view your sessions because with Spooks? anything goes.
TOBIAS: I agree, the way that Spooks? has developed and continues to develop is that you can apply your favorite works of fiction or history and we continue to retain that factor because it helps keep the game fresh and a joy to play. For instance, if you wanted to do a campaign where you combine the elements of Ghostbusters with Beatlejuice then you can easily do so, because the game can adapt to it. Nathan and I discuss our plans for expansions of the Spooks? universe all the time and it safe to say that this flexibility will remain a part of the Spooks? and yet remain its own unique universe where it is light-hearted or as dark as you want?
JP: Bluntly, why Kickstarter?
NATHAN: Kickstarter was the first crowd funding site that I came to and I did a lot of research. Now there are many places to go and we're already talking about experimenting with a few other non-brand titles to see how well it does. We mostly wanted to keep with Kickstarter as it is where all our original backers were from. When I first embarked on this journey for the core rule-book I don't think I realized exactly how much the project was going to cost. After putting approximately 2,000 of my own money into it I realized that I needed to find another way to fund it. Kickstarter gave us that avenue.
JP: What happened with the first KS?
NATHAN: Surprising to both Tobias and myself it was a success. We were looking at less than 50% funded in the final 15 days and I was at the point of giving up hope for funds and then BAM? people came from all walks of life and donated. We got more than what we were hoping for and were able to put more art than expected. I still see the core book as a work-in-progress as I'd like to get more art inside there somehow. I'm sure in time we'll be able to revisit it. The good news about that, is that I don't believe in re-hashing old editions into something new to generate income. We'll update it and people can go and download their updated copy at no cost.
TOBIAS: One of the pitfalls to avoid running a Kickstarter is that you have to keep active in reaching out for the public awareness of your project and the need to be funded. One of our struggles right now is networking, our network to the community is small at best, but growing every day, but we have very little reach, which means that we have to do a lot of legwork in the form of contacting people on the internet, in person, at Cons and anyway possible to spark an interest in helping us out. You can’t be static during a Kickstarter and it is a lot of work and stress, but we believe in our project and we hope that comes across to those who we hope will donate.
JP: How advanced is the current project right now?
NATHAN: I'm a typing fiend. I don't double-back and I'm very committed to releasing early but with high standards. That said, I have a little over 20,000 words typed up and Tobias is in the same ballpark. The original goal was 50k in word size but I think realistically we'll be at about 65-75k when it's done which is far more than what we expected. This isn't taking into consideration any stretch goals we reach which in turn will increase the size of the book. Once funded, I plan to commit a few chapters to final draft and send them to our editor so that we can keep the project moving. If everything goes well, we'll have it ready around August 2015. Why August? I'd like to get another project up on Kickstarter (if we need to) before the year is out and I don't want to be one of those publishers that has multiple projects out at a given time, asking for funds before the first one is done. To me, that's just not right.
TOBIAS: I would also like to add that the first book was sent out in a timely manner, we kept all of our backers updated with the progress and we pushed it to be a quality book and game. We are very dedicated to keeping our promises to our players who are also our customers, because we are gamers as well and we want to be a positive force in the gaming community. Mortal Intrusion or any other expansion to Spooks? will be no exception to our dedication or integrity.
JP: Do you plan on releasing some type of ongoing campaign? Or adventure/campaign supplements?
NATHAN: I'd love to? Tobias plans to as well. I already have a few adventure ideas that will slowly mold the direction of the dimensions but I'd like to have the foundation laid first. We've already put together Dead Living Magazine which features a unique story line that follows a single NPC theme. The first issue is tailored to Edgar Allan Poe, my favorite horror writer, and the Red Death. As far as other ideas, I'd like to write an adventure that was inspired by the first mini-adventure that was created for the Kickstarter backers for the core rule-book called, ?The Bluebell Door?. I sadly work 40 hours each week, am writing several novels and it can be difficult to put my attention to more than 1 major project at a time. Funding is another thing. I love beautiful looking adventures, just like the old Ravenloft ones, so I want to make sure that when we do produce something that it's going to turn heads.
JP: Does the art drive the game design or game design drive the art?
NATHAN: The game was mostly done before I was introduced to Tobias, but I saw something in his work that I knew would help inspire it further. I'd lie if I said that the game didn't evolve a bit as more and more art was produced. Before I gave detailed descriptions of what I wanted and Tobias would work hard at getting it to fit. My mother was an artist and I too took classes so I knew how the creative spirit worked. It wasn't long before Tobias took creative license and the results were great. I realized that the artwork took on its own life without me trying to control everything and in time both the game and the art just synced up.
If anything, I think it is the tiny details that gives the art its most charm. There are several hidden Pris Mascotti's about, repeat NPCs, as well as small literary, movie, TV-show references that it brings you into the world. Watch the recent speed video of the Esper Divergent and just see everything that he sneaks in there.
TOBIAS: I honestly feel that the literary, musical and the visual are all forms of art and they are not their own beast. My Mom is music writer and musician, but she is also an artist who does beautiful portraits. Because of that exposure, I began to understand that there are many parallels in creating art whether they be literary, music or visually oriented and when you combine them and design them to work in concert then the result is awesome. A good example of this would be the The Triplets of Belleville or Fantasia movies. This is part of my philosophy when I do illustrations for my clients and partners.
JP: Do you have any potential stretch goals in mind right now, assuming the project funds?
NATHAN: Many Stretch Goals. The way it's designed right now is to release additional content exclusive to backers such as digital wallpapers, free issues of Dead Living Magazine Issue 1 and Issue 2, Mini-adventures to kick the game off, additional equipment, denizens, magical items and even a new divergent that can be played. The goal is to increase the size of the book and the need for art. If there is anything left over we can move it into re-vamping the core-rules or just make some adventures.
JP: Are you guys planning to attend any of the large cons? Where can we try the game?
NATHAN: Cons are expensive, especially when you factor in hotel stay and booth rental. Right now I'm over in Iowa and Tobias is in California. I do plan to attend many conventions this year in the midwest. I've already been to Gamicon in Iowa City. We plan to hit up Demicon, Anime Iowa, Anime Demoi and Midwest ComicCon. Wizard World is coming to Des Moines, IA but I won't be vending but there is still the possibility of attending. I attended 3 cons last year and so we are expanding year by year. I'd love to make it to the other major conventions but that may still be a few years away. In the meantime, I am considering running a few more demos so people can get an idea of the game.
JP: Are you looking for writers? Artists?
NATHAN: Last year it was Tobias and I, and now we have an editor. With Dead Living Magazine we are looking for fan contributors and pending on their work we may commission one or two to start with something small and work their way up. Spooks? is still new to the gaming world and the fan base is increasing at a steady rate. I'm sure with time I won't have the ability to keep up on the demand and we may have to start expanding the family. Keep that list handy, I may be reaching out to you for it sooner than I think.
JP: Links of interest
JP: Parting words?
NATHAN: Selling my work is a very humbling experience. I always get shaky whenever someone pulls out their wallet and asks how much. Crowd funding is not only humbling but it shows that people believe in your word and promises. I find myself both flattered and beside myself whenever a new backer comes in and makes a pledge. I love hearing from people, even after the donation train has left the station. I like knowing the experiences people have with the game, suggestions and reviews. If you ever find yourself with a free moment and you have a few words about the game, don't hesitate to share them. I feel that all critiques, both good and bad, are your way of telling me that you care enough to have an opinion. Thanks for taking the time to learn about our game and don't be a stranger.
TOBIAS: I agree with Nathan, it is a very humbling experience because you have to really put yourself out there and don’t hold back. As an extrovert, I really like engaging people, especially when it is about creative endeavors which is why I love tabletop roleplaying games. Both Nathan and I have a lot of heart, dedication and drive and we want to be a positive influence on the gaming community, but no man is an island and we need all the support we can get, so we in-turn can send that support right back out, I guess you can call it gaming karma.