Today we bring you an interview with our good friend Nic from Owlman Press. You have already heard about his work in this space from our review of Skum of the Stars https://manaburnt.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/skum-of-the-stars-an-rpg-review/
How did Owlman Press start out?
Nic: I was raised on a farm in rural New South Wales. I grew up with a lot of Western movies and developed from a young age a love of the genre. As I grew older, I really wanted to make my own. That said, for someone who grew up wanting to write the area near us didn’t cater to many interests. It was either football or fishing (there was also tennis, but that was for the weird people). Writing certainly wasn’t one. So, I pretty much felt lost all the time, unable to explore my interests until I discovered that the nearby town had a comic store. There I discovered roleplay games in the form of Deadlands: The Weird West. My first experience playing was as the Game Master and I quickly found that the role gave me a vehicle to tell stories and develop writing skills in a way that I just didn’t have access to anywhere else. Again, after playing that for a bit I really wanted to make my own. By the time I was doing my PhD, examining the role of Tonto in the Lone Ranger, I’d consumed enough Westerns and a wide enough array of games to get a sense of what I both wanted to do and do differently with both. My first game, Frankenstein Atomic Frontier, really started as a vehicle for me to both – write westerns and roleplay games. Owlman Press came out of that. I typically flesh them out into actual background and add the rules. We also have great body of friends who help us develop our concepts and come around regularly to play. If you look in our books, you’ll see the same names popping up over and over again.
I guess this is just a fancy way of asking, how do you guys get to be so cool?! Because you are parenting, working, researching, making games…I mean, do you sleep?! It takes some pretty special kind of person to get going what you have. What is your secret? Do you struggle? We all know it is hard for independent creative people like yourselves to keep things going.
Nic: How did I get to be this cool? Easy – I do what every other cool Australian does. I hunt and kill a Dropbear every morning before sunrise, and then eat it for breakfast. Science and other sources show that eating a Dropbear is guaranteed to make you cooler. In all seriousness, however, I’m going to take the first part of that question as a compliment. I’m honestly just following my passions.
In terms of the time it takes to research, parent, sleep, make games and all the rest – we always strive to find a balance and incorporate one thing into another. My research field has shifted this year from Genre-focused to Gamification-focused. Genre is still in there (I’m currently writing about the television series Westworld for Westworld & Philosophy, but from an RPG point of view), but most of my research is currently experiencing some sort of game-orientation. Likewise, with kids, we work them into the process as well. They’ve sat down and played Skum of the Stars with us (most harrowing GM experience of my life – I was terrified they’d hate their Dad’s game!) and my oldest helped write Kaiju Crystal Monster Battle for Big Damn Sci-Fi. So, in many ways, one thing bridges into another. It is always busy, but every day is full. Photoshoots often also become family outings – or days when the kids end up getting their faces painted!
How many projects do you currently have going on at OP? Is it just the RPG Skum of the Stars or are there more things running in the background?
Nic: I think “backburner” rather than “background” is a better analogy. As the above question noted, the plate is pretty full! And I like to see each project come to its fullest potential. So, yes, Skum of the Stars is the only one in development at the moment. That said, I typically have a few ideas that I transiently like to explore every now and then and many of these wait in the wings until such time is right that the can be explored more fully. These projects typically get opened up again in a spare moment, played with and stirred around a bit, and then put back into the box. Most of these ideas will either come to light eventually or be put into some other game. The rules for running businesses in the forthcoming Skum of the Stars Core Edition started out as a set of kingdom-building rules for another game that never went anywhere, for instance.
That said, there are other projects that I’m working on at the moment that border onto Owlman Press and other areas I work in. The main one is Batmania, a game I am developing with local Anthro-Historian Paul Michael Donovan. Based on the history of Melbourne, the project itself is an exploration of gamification, interactive history, and alternative research outputs. It is out of the playtesting stage and, being a board game rather than a roleplaying game, into the prototyping stage. We should have something to unveil in the first week of December this year!
With regards to Skum of the Stars itself, we have a few questions. The first one really has to do with the title. Where did it came from? It’s pretty flash and daring, isn’t it? But at the same time, it has humour to it. From our review and reading through the game we got the impression this was certainly part of it – I mean, are we reading this right or are the hints to Warhammer, Firefly, and the like accidental?
Nic: When we first started playing Skum of the Stars here in my home, we didn’t really have, well, any setting. Most of the rules were there (more or less). When I put forward that it was Space Opera from the “bad guys” perspective we ended up with an Angel mercenary, a Space Drow assassin, a Demon sexual deviant, and a bunch of violent robots – so needless to say, people were mucking around, trying to get the gist of the game. At one point during the game, as the Crew were travelling between planets, I started to sing Franco Migliacci’s Django theme song at them (definitely not to), substituting “Django” for “scumbags.” The phrase “scum” made everyone thing of Star Wars and it just stuck after that. In terms of “flash and daring” I would say the entire premise of the game is. Most games work from a default of heroism, or else pose that the villains are some sort of unredeemed psychopath. Its hard being nuanced villains. But the game has built into it a rewards-consequences pairings with the Infamy system. You can’t gain the benefits of being an outlaw or desperado without attracting the penalties, and vice versa.
In terms of tone, I try to balance out aspects of the setting in terms of drama and humour. It’s been my experience that when we sit down to roleplay we want doses of both Aliens and Rick & Morty – but not necessarily one or the other all the time. That also comes back to being the bad guys. Sure, civilization in the galaxy has fallen and that would be terrible if it were not so darn profitable! In part, that tone also comes back to the Westerns I grew up with. A lot of them take a “slice of life” approach to storytelling. With the Western connection in mind, there are definitely inspirations from Firefly and other greats of Space Opera in Skum of the Stars. Naturally Star Wars is also one, though because it is so distinct and popular I tried to avoid it and went by way of the Incal along with Valerian & Laureline instead.
And with that regards, where is the game getting inspiration from? We know you are a fair bit into sci-fi…Anything in particular that pressed your buttons? And was the setting and general tone of the game something that influenced the choice of system?
Nic: In terms of inspirations, the big influence on the game’s mechanics that people seldom pick – which I’m honestly quite surprised about – is Ben 10. If you think about the way in which aliens function in that cartoon as walking, talking themes (tough guy is a lump of diamond that shoots diamonds, four armed monkey is quick and jumpy, and on it goes). Naturally, its designed that way. Kids need to “get” the concept of each alien Ben turns into within mere seconds of the transformation itself. You see their corresponding cultures, it develops the base concept further. But in terms of concept and explanation of different aliens, I really find it frugally profound in a way that something like Star Trek struggles to be at times. Part of that’s the need to balance personal and cultural character, Worf is just a Klingon stereotype without his bad poetry. But then, when you’re on DS9 and there’s a Klingon restaurant with a vendor that gives better service if the customer argues – what exactly is a Klingon? Are they these raving maniacs who shoot each other for command of a starship? Or are they this jolly, quirky cultural exaggeration. Something is lost in the exchange. In terms of what pushes my buttons, then, I really like space opera with evocative settings. Specifically, those that gets down in the dirt and show it to be dirty – so to speak. Stories that aren’t about lofty ideals or causes (at least not at first) but rather get down into the grit of their settings and its problems. Where people and governments do shit things to each other now and then, not because they’re bad but because that’s what it takes to win sometimes. So, in that sense, I tend to enjoy broken universes (Defiance, Prophet, East of West, Justice League 3000), micro-settings (Babylon 5, Copperhead), and ones with realistic (at time brutal) governmental behaviour (Mass Effect, Farscape, The Omega Men).
Actually, could you tell us some more about the system, because this is unique. What were you trying to achieve with this type of mechanics? We assumed it may have something to do with how combat seems to work in this universe – but that is just a rather polite guess. Please do tell!
Nic: At base, the mechanics are meant to achieve a lightweight rules set that emphasizes an evocative space opera setting over a universal approach. They work well for Space Opera, but I’m not putting them forward as a set that should be applied to every genre. Rather they are made to evoke the kind of things that happen in Flash Gordon or Star Wars. Flash is on Mongo for all of five minutes, but he can swing a sword and fly one of those space bikes. Likewise, you watch Empire Strikes Back and see that even Han can figure out how to use a light sabre, even though he doesn’t know the first thing about being a Jedi. People have a set of broadly applicable general abilities, narrow specialities and big backstories – and that’s what we’re trying to achieve by folding Skills, Feats and background into Talents.
It’s interesting that you mention the combat system specifically. In the Beginner’s Edition for Skum of the Stars we mention a forthcoming Core Edition (just out of proof reading). The Core Edition has two combat systems. With each we’re trying to achieve something different. The first is the one people are probably familiar with – an expanded version of the Beginner’s Edition system. That one is high narrative. No miniatures, all description. It’s the one myself and my players tend to favour the most. The aim of that one is to simply provide some structure and precision of timing to moments of high drama. In that sense, it’s meant to encourage cinematic action. The first we call Narrative Combat. The second combat system is probably more familiar to players of Dungeons and Dragons. It uses miniatures and a battle maps, and is titled Tactical Combat. Essentially, that’s where people put down their miniatures on the map and move in a fairly rigid order. I don’t necessarily think one is better than the other – it really just depends which one the player group prefers.
Oh, and what about Adam, how did you come across him and managed to get him to do your illustrations? Did you find the whole artistic experience frustrating? We know many game designers encounter this problem.
Nic: I understand that there is often a disparity in RPGs on the smaller press end between writer and artist payment expectations. That is to say, writers know they will get paid after production is complete and artists often require payment up front. That basic schism is simply the nature of the industry at the moment.
Adam Gillespie and myself are from the same area. He was “town” where I was “country.” We met through that one, same little comic store which was owned by a mutual friend and got to know each other playing in another buddy’s D&D game. This was all pre-home internet, pre-ebay for rural Australia so our access to popular culture was quite literally what that comic store was willing to get in. And naturally, the Comic Shop Guy had a big say in what was or wasn’t going to make it into the store. We have quite similar tastes and I think that experience of swimming around the same small pond is responsible for that. Anyway, Adam was developing his art at the same time as I was developing mine but we never really collaborated back then, and eventually both of us moved away – Adam to the New South Wales coast, myself into central Victoria. We got back in touch through a mutual friends Facebook a few years ago. Last year, I saw Adam put up a few sketches from those our old RPG days together and we got talking about doing a game. And well, we got started on it and on that level, Skum of the Stars is really a collaboration between us. We respond to each other’s work. Any outcome from that process is shared.
What can we expect next from Skum of the Stars: is there more to come, or are you done? Will we get to hold a paper copy in the future? Expansions maybe?
Nic: There is definitely more to come. I’ve mentioned the Core Edition a few times already. That book will be around one-hundred-and-fifty pages, illustrated by Adam (naturally) and be available for Print-on-Demand (and PDF as well, naturally) through RPGNow. Given the size there are a lot more rules in that one, not to mention a heft chapter of background on the Blood Empire and its fall. There is also a section on Specialist Backgrounds – a cadre of, well, elite and high concept in-universe special abilities for players. In there we have spell-list-free Sorcery (players can do whatever they want! The rolls get harder and the penalties for failing worse), symbiotic mecha, and rules for ruling one’s own patch of planet. Starships also get a few more specific details, the Armoury section get Modalities (different styles of technology) along with services and, well, I can go on but essentially, the Core Edition isn’t any more complicated to play than the Beginner’s Edition. But it is a lot more supported in terms of what it offers. Aside from that, we have been doing short-release PDF-only products each much to bridge the time between Beginners and Core Editions. After the Core Edition is released, you’ll be seeing Skumbag magazine come out each quarter to provide continued support and content to players. There are also a few fiction writers waiting in the wings, so to speak, and penning stories based within the universe such as Dan Hunt of Eclipsing of Sirus C fame. So yes, there is much more to come.
Regarding Owlman Press: what is the ultimate goal? How far ahead into the future of your beautiful enterprise have you wondered? Do you have a clear plan of what comes next? Things you want to expand into like board games? Comics?
Nic: I have something of a bug with board games. When I was working with Dryden House, I was lucky enough to be game designer on the Dryden Space Battles desktop wargame. Essentially a little space-ship battle game that bundled everything up into a neat, poker-sized deck of cards. Really a good package. Played like a Cadillac once you got the hang of it. Unfortunately, it’s now out of print. I’ve wanted to do another one since. So, with that bug I was bitten by, I’m toying with the idea of board games at the moment. I’m not sure if anything will come of it, but the emergence of print on demand and third party board game development makes it more appealing and easier every day so we shall see. Oh, and there is Batmania I mentioned earlier – that falls into the research category for me.
In terms of Owlman’s general goals, we are at the moment specifically focused on roleplaying games and anything we do in the future other than that will be either based in Skum of the Stars in terms of setting or derived from its system (something like a small, one off game book). I’m always open to new ideas and creative voices. But the main goal is really to continue to build and expand on the commitment we’ve made with Skum of the Stars.
Are there any tips that you would give to people out there trying to follow your footsteps that you wished someone would have told you about before you started your journey.
Nic: Set your goals before release. My first game – Frankenstein Atomic Frontier – flailed for a while. It got purchased and received positive reviews (still does!). But I had no real forward plan for it, so it eventually petered out in terms of what I could put out and release – both in terms of writing and play testing (I still have a MASSIVE rules expansion sitting on my desk for it called The Rangers that adds both survivalism and a huge sandbox style setting with a modular campaign. Just not going anywhere without playtesting). And it’s hard to develop a following if you make it hard for fans to know what is coming out or when. Skum of the Stars has a lot more focus because I’ve learnt the hard way about things like forward planning and building fan bases.
Also, play your own game. It’s not really something that I wish I was told, but came to understand as important. If you want to do a high fantasy generic rules set, you’re instantly in competition with Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and a whole mess of others. Figure out what you do distinctly or better than them and emphasize the fuck out of it.
And finally, this is a bit of a tradition now for all of our interviews. Would you be so kind of sharing with our readers your ultimate, hard-core, geekiest passions? (Apart from your job obviously!)
Nic: Alright, so, I have a huge Frankenstein fetish. I own more than a dozen copies of the original novel and a whole lot of adaptations and derivative works in literature, comic, film, and a whole mess of other forms. Central in our bedroom there is a shelf that’s essentially “off limits” for touching and sitting objects called my Frankenshrine. It’s a collection of collectables such as pop vinyls, dolls, toys, action figures and other items that all depict the Monster (or other Monsters). Lots of people find solace in books… I found my solace in just one.
That is all from us today – get hooked on Skum of the Star, right now! http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/200737/SotS-Skum-of-the-Stars–Beginners-Edition