Games of Spring: Talking to Duane O’Brien about Octo

 

I love odd shaped roleplaying games. I was a gamer kid, realizing very quickly that D&D itself was not for me, but gravitating towards the more unusual elements of the hobby. There was an old, battered set of the original Traveller rules in one of my classrooms that I utterly loved, even though I never actually played the damn thing. Just the combination of science fiction (Very much my bag at that point even though these days I’m quite the horror boy too), the things you could do with the rules and the way they simultaneously guided and freed up your thought processes was something that fascinated me at the time.

Now I realize it’s because a good roleplaying game sits in the middle of a fascinating intersection of media. There’s elements of improvisational theatre to it, as well as shared world universe building and the sort of narrative architecture that good TV shows tend to have. Each module has a beginning, a middle and an end but each one is just that; a module, something bolted onto a larger framework. The construction of that framework, of simultaneously setting down a coherent set of rules whilst keeping your GM and players free to act fascinates me, and it’s something I’ll be talking about here fairly regularly.

Which is why Octo arrived at exactly the right time. A brainchild of Duane O’Brien, it brings together eight of the best designers working today to produce games based, for this first collection, on the concepts of Spring; rebirth, renewal etc.  The catch is they have one piece of paper to fit it all in. With a concept like this, and all proceeds going to charity, Octo’s as altruistic as it is challenging. I talked to Duane about the project, the people involved and what led him to create Octo.

 

What were the first games you played? What dissatisfied you about them and what did you like?

As far as tabletop RPGs, I think the first one I could say I actually played was the original Marvel RPG, and that wasn’t until college.  And at the time I was really aggravated that there was so little room to fudge the system in favor of what would be cool.  But I think I was also in that early gamer space of “I WANT ALL THE POWERS NOW” so what I thought would be cool probably wasn’t.  The GM played things pretty straight by the rules, but I loved the stories he told.

Later I played a lot of Changeling, but the game was pretty loosely based on the rules.  And the world.  It was wild times.  Much more story oriented, a lot of us riffing off each other and drinking too much… well too much everything really.  Toward the end, though, I felt like the system wasn’t giving us much.  It could be because we’d thrown a lot of it out.

Next came an extended GURPS fantasy game.  It was fun, but there was this guy in the game who really knew GURPS and who could basically do everything any of the rest of the characters could do, better.  That wasn’t so much fun.  It kinda takes the sting out of the party’s grand plan to shrink a guy, put him in tiny rocket, fire it into the mouth of a dragon, hope he gets swallowed, then wait for him to start summoning demons in the dragon’s stomach when there’s a guy at the table who basically just kills the dragon in one turn using Math.

 

How did you get started in game design?

Early on it was computer games.  I got this really awesome interactive fiction game from the library once, where you went into a cave and found a hermit and killed rats and it was all very stabby.  But I kept dying, so I copied it and started editing the code so that my Charisma was really high and everyone would love me and fight to protect me.

I was that guy in High School who bought and poured over every Top Secret book but never got to play it.  My uncle asked me to run the NPCs for a game of Recon he was doing once, and I didn’t really understand that my job wasn’t to try to kill the players as hard as I could.  I later ran a game for some of my friends that was basically Red Dawn happens in our home town (I think).  I probably still have the map for that.

I dabbled a bit here and there, and made bits and pieces of smaller things and did scenario design and played a bit with level design but it wasn’t until around ten years ago that I dove back in.  Again, first with some computer game stuff and later with Shambles and some other games.  Mostly weird niche stuff.

 

On the day that every old D&D supplement hits PDF, what sort of effect do you think that’ll have on the industry?

 

I think what effect it has will entirely depend on how it performs for Wizards and what they do next.  If they treat it like a cash grab then I expect the effect won’t be very significant.  People who want the material legitimately will get it, WotC will make some money and everyone will move on.  If it does really well for them and they embrace it, maybe it’ll encourage other big game companies to make their legacy materials more easily accessible.  Some of that is shifting a bit in the past couple years, but I think it can still improve.  Given the choice, I’d rather see the bigger game companies release their older stuff digitally and focus their energies on making new, awesome games versus laying on top of their hoards of old IP like great smouldering dragons.

 

What led to the creation of Octo?

It kinda fell out of a cloud of stuff.  My friend Will and I had been postulating for a while that there was room out there for an analog gaming zine.  I like to encourage people to give to or support charities in general, and I enjoy doing charity fundraisers with a twist.  Then last year I went to Big Bad Con and Jackson Tegu had these little RPGs stapled into bundles in old manilla folders and I said “Yes, this.  That’s the thing.”  I approached a couple people between then and now to see if they would be interested in contributing, and then suddenly it was the first of the year.  I wanted to get the first issue out in my March, and so I went back to the contributors, verified they were still in, we found a few more and then pulled the trigger, ready or not.

 

What’s included in Octo?

There will be 8 one-page RPGs from 8 different contributors.  This first one is called Games of Spring.  I’ve asked for games on, around, or including spring type themes – things like Rebirth and Thawing and so on.  The only constraints I’ve laid out is that it has to fit on one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper (both sides), and that it has to fold at least once (because it’ll be shipping in a digest sized envelope).  I’ve seen a couple early revisions of games, but that would be telling 🙂

The games themselves will be bound up or collected or foldered like an old school zine.  I don’t know quite what that will look like, because I don’t know how everyone is folding their stuff up yet.  But I’d expect it to look like it was assembled hastily over a weekend long drinking binge fueled by burritos and old sci-fi movies in some guy’s living room.

For people who choose to throw a couple bucks my way directly to help pay for shipping, I’ll be tossing in something else, possibly my own game or something. Like the prize in a box of cracker-jacks.

 

Who’s in Octo?

The contributors are Filamena Young, Tracy Barnett, Niki Hammond, Jackson Tegu, Renee Knipe, Hannah Vietmeier, Robert Bruce and Ross Cowman.

 

What led you to choose those authors?

As soon as I saw Jackson’s games and how he had packaged them I knew what I wanted to do.  And I knew I wanted to ask him to contribute. In fact when I emailed him I basically said “This is all your fault.” Then right around when I was kicking this idea around there was a big discussion on Twitter about why there aren’t more women in the field of game design.  As a direct result of some of that conversation, I made a conscious decision to approach women who design games to see if they wanted to be involved in the project.  That’s how I met Niki. Filamena I already knew from the onlines, we’d worked sorta together before on a couple projects at Machine Age Productions (I contributed some flavor stuff to Maschine Zeit and helped bring about a game called Terminus Est [I think it has a new name now]). Tracy’s work I already knew and I reached out to see if he’d be interested.  Renee, Hannah, Robert and Ross all came in through referral from the other contributors.

 

You mentioned your own game might be thrown in for people who chip in for shipping. Tell us a little about that.

If I were to release it today, it would be a sheet of paper folded into a small booklet with the title “I AM A DINOSAUR” and when you open the booklet there would be a drawing of a dinosaur and it would say RAWR!

Obviously it needs some work.

 

You’ve gone for a limited print run and a price tag that requires people to donate to charity. What was the thinking about that?

The limited print run, analog only is sort of a reaction against the thing I was talking about earlier with big game companies releasing stuff digitally.  In an environment where more and more stuff is going digital, I wanted to do something physical that you hold in your hands. Getting something in the mail is still cool.  Books have smells.

The print run is limited basically because I didn’t want to be on the hook for storing and selling them in perpetuity.  Also because it fit in with this rough goal of raising about $1000 for each charity.

 

Your point about using a real, finite product to differentiate from the mass of big company PDFs is an interesting one. Do you see that as a direction smaller press companies will head further towards over time?

I think we’ll see some of it, but the smaller press companies are the ones who really need the digital long tail more.  I think more likely we’ll see great unique exclusives for people who get stuff early. There’s more motivation for smaller press companies to do that.  I think we see some of that now in the way some games run their Kickstarter campaigns with exclusives.

Do you have plans for a second issue?

I wouldn’t say plans, but I have hopes.  If this one does well I wantto do another one.  Or two or three.  It’s a bit of an experiment in a lot of ways, so it’s hard to plan.  I’m not looking past what’s out there right now.  I want to see how this does, and if there’s room for another one I’m certainly game.  I’ve had a number of people approach me asking to contribute to the next one if there is one, so there’s interest at least from the designer side.

 

What’s next?

We need evangelists.  Or something similar.  Street Crew.  We think we’re doing something pretty cool here, and we need people to know about it.  And not just to know about it but to say “That’s really cool.  I’ll give some bucks to charity for that.”  No matter how interesting or neat the project it is, the primary goal is to raise money for the charities.  So if we don’t hit that, it was still a valid experiment, it just probably won’t be repeated by us.

 

Tell us a little about the charities you’re donating proceeds to.

The AIDS/Lifecycle raises funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center.  They run a wide variety of outreach programs to help combat the spread of HIV, they do a lot of work in their respective communities to assist those living with AIDS and HIV, and they do some international work as well.  I’ve ridden the event a few times, but this will be my first time back in a while.

The Tour de Cure raises funds for the American Diabetes Association, which funds research and provides services to those living with Diabetes.

The Against Malaria Foundation purchase and distributes malaria nets across the globe, as well as reporting on the impact of distribution. They’re one of Give Well’s #1 ranked charities for last year.

Donors Choose allows individuals to buy school supplies for projects in schools across the US.  You can choose what project you’re supporting and for which school, so you get a great deal of control over where your donation goes and how it’s spent.

 

 

Thanks for talking to me, Duane. Octo is available for order now from:

 

www.aterribleidea.com/octo

 

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