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A Magical Little Ritual: An Interview With Gareth Damian Martin
And Three-ish Days of the TEETH Kickstarter remaining!
Huzzah! You are reading the TEETH newsletter, written and compiled by thoughtful poser Jim Rossignol and salubrious delegate Marsh Davies. This is a newsletter about table-top role-playing games: our own—that we’re publishing over here and also here —as well as interviews, links, and general noodling. Want us to see your work? Get in touch!
An Interview With Gareth Damian Martin
At the time of writing the TEETH Kickstarter has just passed £30,000! I am sure it was obvious to everyone watching that we weren’t exactly anticipating that kind of success, but it can still go higher! To support us please send a link to a TTRPG-loving friend, or use the gentle, healing power of social media to bring our work to the masses.
If you are a regular reader and haven’t backed us yet then you just have just over two days to do so!
And a very toothy thank you, everyone, for being so supportive, for reading our work here, and in the games and in supporting the book itself. It means the world to us and seeing our first ever book being funded so emphatically has been hugely rewarding.
The newsletter will, of course, continue as normal.
-Marsh & Jim
Podcast of the week (or ever, maybe - have we recommended a podcast before?) is The Maniculum Podcast! Run by Mac Boyle and Zoe Franznick, it’s a podcast about turning medieval stories into TTRPG adventures. Mac and Zoe explain: “In each episode, we explore a new medieval manuscript, its connections to modern TTRPGs, and teach you how to adapt these tales into compelling campaigns and amazing adventures. Whether you’re looking to recreate the noble Arthurian tales or incorporate weird and wacky medieval monsters into your campaign, the Maniculum Podcast has you covered.” Amazing!
While we’re on podcasts, Marsh is also very keen on Pontifacts, in which ranks popes in order of something or other. Popeness? Nothing to do with TTRPGs, of course, but nonetheless everything to do with the kind of material we like to see in this newsletter.
Moderately less tenuous RPG link: I am playing the Conan RPG tomorrow, and so I read through all of this thread about the red-haired character in the movie. Red Hair, he is called.
Speaking of supernatural commandos, I think I previously skipped over FIST due to it looking like a dude-with-gun game, but it turns out it is MUCH more interesting than that: “The paranormal secrets of the Cold War are your bread and butter, and you fight for your life to make ends meet alongside others like you: stopping disastrous science experiments, infiltrating occult compounds, neutralizing eldritch horrors—all in a day's work for FIST. Players are typically outnumbered, easily killed, and disliked or hunted by most sources of authority. You don't have tons of money and gadgets backing you up, just your wits and a few tools. War is hell, and you're one of the little guys. FIST is inspired by Metal Gear Solid, The A-Team, and Doom Patrol. It's mechanically descended from John Harper's World of Dungeons, Ben Milton's Maze Rats, and Offworlders, by Chris P. Wolf and Olivia Gulin.” I’ve heard good things from reputable sources, and it sounds RAD.
An Interview With Gareth Damian Martin
Who is this person? Why, it’s Gareth Damian Martin, the writer, game designer and artist that some of you will doubtless recognise from Citizen Sleeper, a game that could hardly blend our interests any more concretely: inspired by the dice-pooling magic of Blades In The Dark’s role-playing systems and combining these sleights of dicery with the satisfying solo crunch of the digital game. Not played it yet? Then do so, right after, or perhaps even before, reading this. We talk to Gareth about the connection between tabletop RPGs and digital games and their - inevitable? - slide back towards an RPG of their own, Cycles Of The Eye.
Jim: Can you tell us a little about your personal history with TTRPGs — what do they mean to you, and why? What are you playing at the moment, and why?
Gareth: So I actually came to TTRPGs late, thanks to some tedious experiences with a Dungeons & Dragons board game in my childhood that put me off the idea for a while. (Although the concept of a +2 Mace became a running joke between me and my brothers for a reason I can't remember). It was only during the development of my first game, In Other Waters, that I found myself listening to the excellent "actual play" podcast Friends at the Table and immediately fell in love with Blades in the Dark through their Marielda arc. From that point on I listened to hours and hours of actual play and even managed to run some games and then a campaign of it, though only for one person. I think the improvisational, unpredictable nature of Blades, when combined with the city full of narrative hooks and factions was what really drew me into Blades and got me to understand what TTRPGs could be. I loved it so much that my second game, Citizen Sleeper, was focused around bringing Blades-style TTRPG elements to a video game. It seemed obvious to me that videogames were missing a trick by ignoring this wealth of mechanics and ideas I had discovered! These days I run a weekly group with a couple of friends (we are playing a Heart: The City Beneath campaign) and listen to or watch actual play almost daily. I find TTRPGs an amazing place to test out narrative ideas, and to come up with new ones, and the thrill of inventing a story on the fly for the players is something I find very addictive!
Jim: Tell us about your experiences with Blades In The Dark.
Gareth: Blades is very special to me, perhaps because it was my entry-point to tabletop games, and I find myself thinking about its structures and qualities on a regular basis. I like the way play is a kind of negotiation between the player and the GM, with the devil's bargains and discussions of position and effect, that often allow the player to express a lot of intent and direction. Meanwhile, through the faction system, clocks, engagement rolls, the game also makes it easy for the GM to respond to that sense of freedom the player has. The player can point at a place on a map and say they'd like to infiltrate it, and the GM can easily build something that works in response almost immediately. There's a flow, an escalation that means as a GM you are often being taken along for the ride just like the player, having to deal with the accrued weight of the improvised consequences as you go on, making this unwieldy mess that all collapses beautifully in the end. These days I am trying to branch out a little more and run things outside of this comfort zone, but I have to admit I always feel Blades beckoning me back.
Jim: And now you are playing Heart: how has that been for your group? What's your take on that system?
Gareth: Heart has been an interesting system to get to grips with. I was originally attracted by the domain system and the loot-focused gameplay, as well as the world that allows for the invention of an incredible breadth of weird settings and creatures (as I prefer to improvise or create my own material within broad systems and settings rather than using premade material). But I have found that what works really well is the idea of "delves" as having "stress", and exploration being a kind of combat where you deal stress to a dungeon or location by exploring it and facing challenges. It is very easy to prepare and run, and makes dungeon creation a less onerous experience for GMs. It's a strange system though, one I am never sure I am running correctly because it seems a little contradictory. For example, much of the design is focused around a short, eight session campaign, but then many of the skills or "beats" (the progression mechanic, like a Blades "drive") don't make sense in such a short structure. One of my players has specced themselves almost entirely around building a network of places, and revisiting them, so in the end I have built a kind of Dark Souls-esque looping map of delves around a central hub, and that has worked out nicely. I have made a map which is the central tool for the players, and they can consult it in order to make plans and play freely. The whole process has actually got me thinking about how the domain system and delves could be used to create a very interesting text-based dungeon crawler, but then that's a predictable line of thought for me!
Jim: Can you tell us a bit about how tabletop games have influenced you as a digital game developer?
Gareth: As I have already mentioned, Citizen Sleeper has been an experiment in bringing some of the exciting work I was seeing in the TTRPG space into videogames. It has been a massively successful experiment, and so I think it is likely to become my calling card as a developer, at least for a while. I think there's an idea that it is impossible to emulate a TTRPG in a videogame, and while that's partially true, I actually think we've moved way past the idea of "complete freedom" being the thing that defines TTRPGS and more towards the idea that distinctive, abstracted design is the key feature of a tabletop game. That kind of abstraction (dice representing luck or energy, clocks representing progress or damage or well, anything really!) is very powerful in videogames, both because it means you can have a massive variety of content with just a few mechanics, but also for its non illusionistic nature. The game isn't trying to be "real" it is a representation that we collectively make real. I love that slightly ungraspable quality, and I think now that it has got into my blood it is likely to influence all my videogames going forward. So I think the influence is something I am actively fostering now, and I hope to continue working in this space for a while.
Jim: Do you think there was a significant difference between the responses of people who understood the tabletop influence of Citizen Sleeper and those who did not? Or did most people "get" it?
Gareth: I actually don't think there was. Early in development I was thinking about making the dice "energy cores" or something because I was afraid people would be put off by the gameiness of it. But after a while I felt like actually the near-universal quality of an object like dice means I should be explicit about what they are. As far as I can tell everyone got the game I was playing here, the conceit of dice as energy, and the associations with ideas of luck and fate. Perhaps TTRPG players might be more eager to roleplay their sleeper, playing the game differently, but the feedback we got from players was often that they "don't usually like games like this, but loved this one" which suggests to me the balance was right.
Jim: Why do you think the TTRPG space has become so interesting in the past few years?
Gareth: I might not be the best to ask, as I have only been part of it for the past few years! I suppose for the reasons I have become part of it. There is a huge amount of interesting work being done, and there is an openness to the scene that wasn't there before (in my view). I think also actual play has had a huge effect, I love watching and listening to people play, discovering the story at the same time they do, it has a quality that few other mediums share and i think that has really boosted the number of people coming into TTRPGs and wanting to play or make them. Which, in the end, is how things get interesting!
Jim: Do you want to talk about your own plans in the TTRPG space? (I wasn't sure whether this was a thing you were talking about yet, so take or leave!)
Gareth: There's lot of work to be done on Cycles of the Eye, the solo tabletop adaptation of Citizen Sleeper and so that will be the focus of my TTRPG work for a while. After that I am very sure I will be planning another tabletop project. I like existing in this crossover space between games and tabletop games, and that's something I'd like to foster as much as possible. Tidebreak (the mothership supplement I have done set in the world of my first game, In Other Waters) was my first taste of it, and since then I have had a lot of other ideas for crossovers and original projects, it's just about finding the time! So watch this space.
Jim: Which games would you urge the readers of this newsletter to take a look at if they haven't already?
Gareth: I've been doing a lot of digging into solo TTRPGs as prep for making Cycles of the Eye, and so now have a ton of those I like to recommend. 1000 Year Old Vampire is a great starting point, as it is so simple but generates some lovely situations, and is very pleasant to pick away at night after night for a long period. I have also been enjoying some more crunchy solo games, where the focus is on a light layer of fiction and some more developed mechanical bits. Apothecaria is a really fun potion brewing game with a little exploration, and Notorious is an excellent solo bounty-hunting game that I have already been daydreaming how to make into a videogame! I also have a special love for A Visit to San Sabilia, which is a journaling game about visiting a strange city. It is very simple but incredibly evocative, like exploring an Italo Calvino story. Finally I should also mention the work of Alfred Valley, my collaborator on Cycles of the Eye and an excellent solo tabletop designer. His post-apocalyptic wandering healer RPG Lay on Hands is a magical little ritual of a game, and I can strongly recommend exploring it and its unusual "oracle".
Jim: Thanks for your time.
More soon! x