Who are you and what do you do in the industry?
My name is Kirin Robinson, I’m an avid roleplaying gamer closing in on two decades now of active gaming, and only just now starting to get into game design. I sort of have one foot in the old-school Dungeons & Dragons Revival movement (though I’m not an Edition Warrior – at least I try not to be) and one foot in the indie storygame-ish movement (I often posit that there’s a lot of crossover but I don’t want to offend either) and I basically wrote a love-letter game to early edition D&D called Old School Hack that won an ENnie last year that’s drawn some attention to itself for being presented well. Check it out if you haven’t, it’s short – like 25 pages short – and free: http://www.oldschoolhack.net
My day job is doing motion graphics and animation for movie trailers.
What the heck is Old School Hack? Where did Old School Hack come from?
Old School Hack is a reimagining of 1981 Basic D&D but using some modern gaming concepts. I’ve often referred to it as a sort of “cocktail napkin” D&D because it’s really designed for immediate print-out-and-play and tailored to a sort of off-the-cuff DMing and bring-in-your-crazy-action-ideas for playing. In doing so, it’s a slightly different beast from traditional D&D and that’s probably a good thing. As it stands the game only exists as a sort of beginner-level fantasy game that encompasses only the first four levels of play, but the reward mechanisms within the game often push for a certain zany cinematic madcapness so a lot of people only really play it as a one-shot or for a few sessions.
Obviously there’s no shortage of D&D wannabes or D&D-but-how-someone-thinks-it-should-be-fixed fantasy roleplaying games out there, and I’m quite happy with the idea of Old School Hack being just another among many. I tried to avoid “fix-it” motivated design because I’m actually a devoted lover of straight-up regular D&D, I’ve tried and enjoyed all the editions, and I’m not looking to replace a game that I don’t think is broken.
Old School Hack came out originally from an exploration of the DIY simplicity trend we’ve been seeing in the indie sphere a couple of years now, something I was exploring from becoming a new father and suddenly having limited gaming time due to kid-wrangling and bedtimes and such. I like a gaming session to have a fun and satisfying emotional arc and the complexity of Pathfinder or 4th edition D&D or some of the other mainstream-ish games just didn’t quite achieve that when you’ve only got two or two-and-a-half hours of play, so I was remembering how much faster-paced some of the older editions of D&D could be, and was getting really excited about “bite right into the action” type games like John Harper’s Lady Blackbird (http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/) or Danger Patrol (http://www.dangerpatrol.com/) so I was trying to figure out a way to play D&D, but faster and still fresh. That’s when I found Eric Provost’s Red Box Hack (http://redboxhack.blogspot.com/) which was HIS take on 1981 Basic D&D but transplanted into this wonderfully goofy world of wuxia and animal characters (think Kung Fu Panda-ish) and ran a very successful short campaign using it. He encouraged people to take his (unfinished-ish?) system and hack it and make their own and I wanted to see it dragged back into the world of D&D and that’s what I ended up doing with it.
Up until then my only real exploration of game design was doing homebrew riffs off of existing systems and making campaign documents and (a couple of popular) character sheets and play-aids for D&D and other games. My design process really ended up in the same world, where the rules weren’t some sort of document or book you had to flip through but more a whole series of handouts that you could print as many as you want of and players could easily reference. I don’t want to say this was revolutionary or anything but the game design really did end up being this crazy presentational experiment where the entire system had to look like a visual reference document. I ended up having a lot of fun with that and that seems to be what people have really been interested in as well. I’m hopeful that I’ve broadened the conversation about RPG presentation a bit.
What are your future game design plans?
Well, I’m finally getting around to finalizing the game (it currently only exists in Beta, which is completely playable but also doesn’t have the DMing tools I’d like it to have), and I’m interested in really addressing the whole lack-of-campaign-play issue full-on with the intention of broadening the game to another four levels of play. I hope to release the final Basic Game this year and have most of the next tier (I’ve been calling it the Heroic Game) done and starting to be laid out.
Again a lot of my thoughts have been geared towards design and presentation, and thinking very hard about the more tactile components of how the game is read, shared, and used and played on the table. The Beta had a whole bunch of cool optional construction bits – Action Cards, a Hex turn tracker, Game tokens, etc. – When non-roleplayers look at it, they often think it’s some sort of boardgame. Believe it or not I don’t really consider myself much of a rules innovator, the elegance of the game’s rules are largely grandfathered in from Red Box Hack or stolen from other cool games (there’s a bit of Prime Time Adventures in there, some In a Wicked Age, some 4th Edition D&Disms, etc) and I’ve been absolutely incredibly lucky to have some really smart and clever Playtesters and Old School Hack enthusiasts that have taken the game and looked at it from every angle and offered some very creative thoughts.
This is one of the reasons why I think we’re in sort of a Golden Age of roleplaying right now – between the OGL environment that’s existed for over a decade now and the massive crossover we’re seeing between mainstream and indie gaming, the design discussions have really leapt forward in quality and while there’s (of course) sometimes quite a lot of playstyle conflict and arguing on the internet, there’s quite a lot of questioning and challenging going on which I feel like we’re all reaping the benefit of.
What’s your favorite game (that you didn’t write) and why?
Oh man I am the most wishy-washy and distractible gamer ever, I’m constantly finding new shiny gaming things and my favorites don’t stay favorite for long!
Dungeons & Dragons is probably my one true love, I always come back to it (though sometimes in different forms). I love the epic sense of advancement, the kitchen-sink melting pot of all this mythology and literature, and most of all I love the excitement and suspence of a good dungeoncrawl.
Recent “cool, shiny things” I’ve gotten excited about and played, beyond the inspirations mentioned above, are your own Bulldogs! RPG, which is the first time I’ve seen FATE presented in a way that I really grokked right off the bat, as well as pretty much hitting the flavor of blasters-and-ship-malfunctions science fiction that I like the most; the Leverage RPG which finally presents the “competence infiltration” awesomeness I’ve been looking for in a contemporary-set roleplaying game; and Mouse Guard, which puts the intense-character-driven storygaming in a much friendlier and heroic light by being about teeny tiny badass mouse heroes.
Thanks again for taking the time to ask me about Old School Hack, and gaming in general. I’m a deeply-devoted gaming positivist, I really think tabletop gaming is one of the healthiest recreational endeavors out there and often brings out the best in people – I’m always excited to hear about more games and people taking gaming in new directions.