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Game Designer Interview: Liam Routt

This month’s interview is with Liam Routt, who is the Manager – Games and Digital Media at Film Victoria. In the past Liam has been a programmer/producer/designer of computer games and a writer/editor/designer/publisher for a range of tabletop RPGs including working with Chaosium and running his own company Darcsyde Productions.

SRGA:  Liam, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in roleplaying.

Liam: Well, that was a long time ago…

We moved to Australia when I was 9, and early in our time here we stumbled into a little game store and were drawn to a fantasy game called Dungeons & Dragons. We’d always played a large number of boardgames, but this was something a bit new, in that you seemed to create a specific character to play with, and there wasn’t much of a board.

The first time I rolled the dice I got all 6s! (18 strength!)

The first time our intrepid group of adventures opened a door in our first dungeon, we disturbed a lizardman. My character was stunned. It attacked and did maximum damage, and my character died. Welcome to roleplaying!

We had a lot of fun with that game, but were drawn in much further when we picked up a magazine that had an adventure for a game we’d never heard of, with ducks in it as a playable race. We used the sample characters to create some of our own, and eventually tracked down a copy of RuneQuest, which we played for years and years, through multiple versions.

A few years later (I believe, this is a long time ago), we found another game from the same publisher: Call of Cthulhu. That game changed everything for us. We still played RuneQuest a lot, but Call of Cthulhu was so different… We began writing material, teamed up with amazing locals, and eventually I visited Chaosium on my way to university. The rest is (sort of) history.

SRGA:  Tell us about the games you have developed in the past, including those you have run for conventions. Is there something that stands out in common between them all?  (Genre, setting etc)

Liam: Call of Cthulhu provided a setting that was quite different from the standard swords and sorcery roleplaying game. That inspired us to play and create our own material, first at home, and later with others at conventions.

A loose group quickly formed, and created material for conventions, primarily (but not exclusively) in Melbourne for a decade. As a result of the interests and abilities of people in my house, I soon took to overseeing some of the presentation of our material, wrangling writers, artists, layout and the production of booklets for the people who ran the games at conventions, and eventually for sale to players.

Most of what we created was for Call of Cthulhu, but we did a certain amount of RuneQuest and some other material. I loved writing, but I felt most useful bringing things together and getting them published.

My first convention scenario, The Bride of Abhoth, remains a pinnacle for me in some ways, tightly scheduled and yet focused to a large extent on character interactions, rather than action events. I loved the booklet we created.

Once our group (the Cthulhu Conglomerate or Cthulhu Collective) hit its stride we created an array of excited material, each with its own feel. That was a heady time, and while I’m proud of extended works like His Master’s Voice (I, II, and III), I’m at least a proud to have organized game masters and teams year after year, and helped to coordinate the great material that our other talented collaborators created.

The Call of Cthulhu work paved the way for other ventures. I met an amazing person at university, and together we worked on Call of Cthulhu scenario material. But it wasn’t until something completely different fell into my lap that we found our way forward. We arranged the translation of a French roleplaying game of modern-day lives thrown into drama, TRAUMA, and eventually published it, and some original scenario material. We were in print and on sale at GenCon/Origins!

But business got in the way, and before we had a chance to grow our fledgling game, we pulled ourselves apart, victims of living half way around the world from each other, perhaps, and not being able to look each other in the eye often enough.

SRGA:  What motivated you to start creating your own roleplaying game (Corum, anything else?) in the past?  Would you do it again?

Liam:  While the TRAUMA venture died on the vine (I’m sure I still have unsold copies around the house), I still played roleplaying games, and never stopped writing. And eventually I got the opportunity to work with my friends at Chaosium, taking on the Elric/Stormbringer and Pendragon lines for a time, and helping to pull together some really cool books for them.

I loved working with creative people, and helping to refine their material for an audience. I still love that sort of work above all else. It was challenging to work for a company halfway around the world, although the internet had been making things easier and easier since I was in college.

Eventually, though, decisions had to be made, and the lines I was working on couldn’t be published regularly by Chaosium. I helped to pass on our material to Pendragon’s new caretakers, but I had some active projects in the works for Elric/Stormbringer, and worked out a deal which allowed me to publish some books as a separate company. So the same company that had published TRAUMA was reborn, and we released Corum.

Corum was the first of several planned multiverse books, and we were so proud of that work, and excited to keep going. But a number of factors took our legs out from under us, and we never got to the sequels. Business was the culprit again, although this time primarily external forces. We had a chance to refocus on a digital, rather than physical, strategy, but I didn’t believe that it was viable; we were a few years too early.

Time and again, since we closed up shop for the second time, I’ve thought about returning to publishing, especially now that digital releases are common, and PoD services roleplaying games easily. But I guess I’m conscious how easily it can all fall through your fingers, regardless of the effort you put in. And moving into computer games consumed my attention and in particular allowed me to satisfy my need for creativity. My path through that industry was always about completing products for release, working with others to make their work shine, and eventually guiding teams to find their way forward. Those threads all started with my roleplaying work.

We are in an interesting place now, in roleplaying games. I read more than I play, perhaps, but games like Apocalypse World have been as influential for us as The Velvet Underground was for the bands of their day. Creators are shown a clear path to an audience, small or large, that is built on clear themes and character-types, and focused, limited mechanics. Our collaborative work for Call of Cthulhu was always more about the story than the rules, but even that material feels tied down by elaborate static systems when compared to Sorcerer or Blades In the Dark, and working within those frameworks and publisher driven brands is nowhere near as rock ‘n roll as the more modern paradigms. I guess it seems like all I’d need is time, in order to create games in this new era. And how hard is it to find that?

SRGA:  What has surprised you most about your experiences creating / producing games in Australia? (Both tabletop and computer games)

Liam:  A lot has changed in the world during my lifetime, especially for people creating material for a global audience. While it is still the case that you have to work harder to get the word out when you aren’t in North America or Europe, it doesn’t matter as much whether you are in Boston or Echuca – you can create material and make it available audiences around the world.

I was chagrined when I entered the local video games industry to find a hugely talented local sector which was legitimately making games that were sold to audiences around the world. Until I walked through that door for myself I never really believed that was what was going on; it seemed like a smokescreen was making the work done here seem more significant than it was.

In a way I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Hadn’t I been working with talented creatives in the roleplaying game field for years? We had a group which rivalled any in the world at the time for creativity, and I believed that as strongly then as I do now, looking back. I watched, and was part of, that group reaching out and being recognized by “real publishers” for the work they were doing. It was no big thing. I worked for people from way down here in Australia before it was really easy to do so. But still, I was amazed to realize that our computer games developers were really doing the same things…

Game creation is, at its core, about crafting entertaining experiences. There can be a lot of mechanics and technology that go into that, but there is a heart of creativity that drives it, and creates the foundation that speaks to the audience. Creativity is found everywhere. Some places it is fostered, other places it is denied, but it isn’t ever limited to isolated pools. There is no surprise that here in Australia we can create material that is relevant to the world. I suppose the surprise should be that we have the tenacity to push it out from our shores to the rest of the world, when we are so far away.

Nevertheless, I was surprised when Chaosium listened to people from Melbourne, and worked with people halfway around the world, allowing them to create Kree Mountain and The Orient Express and more. I was astonished to enter the video games industry and work on games in the Star Wars and Transformers universes. I continue to be amazed by the quality of video games being made here, and the reach which has made it possible for League of Geeks to bring Armello to the world, for Hipster Whale to be part of changing mobile games with Crossy Road, for a small and touching game like Mountains’ Florence to not only find a global audience, but to do it through a major creative publisher like Annapurna. And on and on.

SRGA:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?  Do you meticulously plan every detail, or spontaneously go with the flow when writing your games?  Is there a difference between a convention game and a game for publication?

Liam:   Wow, what great questions!

I love to plot things out. I love to get pieces in place, and think about how they might be used. I have boxes of filing cards of characters and items from old games, all arranged to help me work out what was going to happen. I love to write, and all these things let me engage with that end of things.

I learned a huge amount from a friend who wrote and ran things with me at conventions, and ran weekly games. And it was from him, as much as anyone else, that I slowly came to understand that presenting a story doesn’t “just happen”; there is a rhythm to it, and you can indeed predict what a group of people will be able to do in a given amount of time.

As a programmer all of this makes sense, and I don’t think you can create material for fixed periods of time without understanding what that means. Things might go a bit faster than you predicted, or you might allow a group to be derailed by a detail (we used to have whole sessions that just contained the “we need to go shopping…” scene; hours lost in an unimportant set-up scene, because that was what the group wanted to do), but you are deviating from a fairly predictable pace, or what can be a predictable pace.

But… when I’m running a game for people… I consciously walk away from all that I know.

Sure, I’ll spend hours preparing, but I’ll toss it in an instant to follow a thread. It won’t be something that the players are pushing to explore, particularly, it will be something that fires my imagination in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Deviations are glorious! And while I often doubt my ability to run a roleplaying session at all, I can’t avoid throwing myself curve-ball after curve-ball, unearthing new characters, situations, clues, and plotlines that I have to create on the fly.

This is part of what I love about the Apocalypse World thread of games – I can literally create a character or situation in “temporary memory” on the fly, and have it almost as completely realized as any other part of the experience. The main challenge is keeping consistency from session to session.

I created and build a years-long regular Unknown Armies game for players based on two paragraphs in the game’s background, and following the threads that we created as we played. It was as intricate and involved as anything else I’ve ever created, but much more alive with potential than would have been possible if I’d formalized it by planning the direction out at any point. I did a lot of work on details, fleshing out things they discovered so that I could keep consistency, but I carefully avoided deciding things that they hadn’t “forced to exist”. Best. Game. Ever.

But writing for publication and presentation is different. Your responsibility is to provide predictability. Perhaps that’s not a static scenario (perhaps it is), but you do have to provide enough so your audience has the pieces it expects, and can execute something for the players around some other table.

SRGA:  What is important to you as a player, and how have you incorporated aspects of that into your own games?

Liam:   My characters are all about belief and motivation. They are often far too internal – brooding or thinking – which doesn’t help the table.

Those are the things which probably most interest me as a writer. The foundation of compelling roleplaying material has to do with establishing and challenging motivation, and lots of motivation is tracked back to belief. I can see, even in recent games I’ve run fairly casually, that I keep returning to these threads; I ask characters what they believe, and push them to discover their motivations and the limits of those drives.

I’ve always been fascinated by faith and religion, as a result. Nephilim was an exciting game for me because so much of what it was “about” had to do with belief and faith, even though it wasn’t directly addressed by the mechanics. Unknown Armies, as well, doubles down on questions of deep beliefs, and manias. And the core of most of the Apocalypse World character profiles comes down to identifying core beliefs and building a persona up from that.

Horror is a perfect genre for challenging belief and motivation. For presenting characters with opportunities to put themselves on the line, and giving players the chance to see those decisions play out. It is no surprise, looking back, that horror was something I was eager to explore in roleplaying, for that reason.

SRGA:  Finally, some fun questions to finish off (give quick answers please!):

SRGA:  a. If a movie was made of your life what genre would it be, and who would play you?

Liam:   Supernatural thriller; Paul Giamatti!

SRGA:  b. If you could bring back any fashion trend throughout history, what would it be?

Liam:   Capes like Dr Strange wore when Gene Colon was drawing him!

SRGA:  c. What personal trait has gotten you in the most trouble?

Liam:   Righteousness! Almost every time I “know” I have to take a stand… sigh…

SRGA:  Thank you for your time, and for being part of the Australian roleplaying community.


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