MARX: So, today we’re interviewing Federico Sohns. Hi Fed!
FEDERICO: Hey! How you doing?
MARX: Great, thanks. It’s quite exciting to be recording this podcast. Hope we’re gonna have a good chat. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and we can get to talking about Nibiru properly.
FEDERICO: Okay!, Yeah, I’m basically an Argentinian games designer. I moved to the UK about five years ago, so most of my life living over there. And now here. I come from like, a family of musicians, so art has always been basically everywhere, literally, because my house was used as like a music school for a long time. So, yeah, like I have a pretty, a sense of artistic background. I originally came to London because I wanted to study acting, but I ended up doing games.
MARX: Like all the best people, yeah. That’s quite a journey, that’s cool! And your company is Araukana Media?
FEDERICO: Yeah, Araukana Media. That’s basically what I do outside of work, my day job is at Modiphius Entertainment.
MARX: You have a game out at the moment, which is called-
MARX: Can you tell us a little bit about Nibiru? And then we can get into a bit more of the setting and the mechanics.
FEDERICO: Sure. Nibiru is basically a science fiction game of lost memories. The players take on a role of vagabonds, which are basically amnesiacs lost in this massive space station that is home to millions of people, and they kind of try to find their way in like, this new melting pot of cultures that are generally completely alien to them, while trying to recover the memories of their past. So yeah, that’s basically the elevator pitch.
MARX: Sounds fantastic. And if you haven’t seen this book, I’d seriously recommend picking it up because it is very, very pretty. It’s just full of art, and very beautiful art at that, and it’s very well written. Its layout is absolutely fantastic, so all I can say is definitely go pick this game up because it’s really really good. You say it’s science fiction, so if you’re looking at the scale of where, I don’t know, you’ve got Bulldogs, and it’s light hearted, A little bit silly and irreverent, and at the other end you’ve got something like, I don’t know, Dark Heresy. I in the middle you’ve got something neutral, like Traveler. Where does Nabeiru fit on that in sort of mood and setting?
FEDERICO: It’s kind of like, not grimdark. It’s probably in the middle. When it comes to it, it lives there in the middle, and it’s, although it has like a pretty big emphasis on, like, scientific accuracy and some facets of the games that are specifically about delving into the hows and whys of the space station works, and how people’s lives are conditioned, like there’s that. But there’s also some like, weird and fantasy-ish elements to it.
MARX: Yeah. So what caught my eye, there’s this whole chapter on astrophysics in games, and aside from like half a page in classic Traveler, I don’t think I’ve seen that before in a sci-fi game. And certainly don’t see that in many games, where you see someone taking a scientific magnifying glass to the way that it plays. But I love it, I think it’s fantastic, you have this whole concept of gravity in the game, and the way that that works and make people comfortable and uncomfortable, that’s really cool. I can’t tell you how much I like some of these mechanics. Getting down a little bit more into it, I start applying three basic questions when I start getting into a game, which I have literally sold from others. Who are the characters, what do they do, and how does it engage players? Looking at Nibiru through that lens, what kind of characters are they? I mean, you said they’re vagabonds, they’re amnesiacs, but how do they interact with the setting?
FEDERICO: well, mostly, they tend to go about their business, I think in a way, the stories that you tell them this game are basically kicked off when the first memory arrives. Basically, when they start to recall these memories, so it could be that they just basically woke up in this space station and they start to remember, or they could’ve been living there for years, and suddenly they see something that triggers that, and they start remembering stuff. So, the start of the story, and the way that the story is driven is essentially as they start to remember. So, that’s basically the gist of it. They remember, and, generally, the stories kind of frame them as a sort of like, let’s say marginalized group, in a way, and that they do have this kind of feeling that they’re out of place that comes from the fact that they don’t really belong in the station, or at least they feel like they don’t belong there. So, there is a struggle when it comes to integrating and, kind of like, finding their place in society, while at the same time struggling with the fact that, well, they don’t remember who they were. And they slowly start to kind of like, get those memories back.
MARX: That’s really interesting. Like, hearing about how it’s a marginalized group, that sort of clicks a lot with what’s sort of happening with a lot of indie RPGs at the moment. How do you kind of reinforce that element of the setting and the characters?
FEDERICO: There isn’t a specific mechanic to their social status. I mean, this is mostly I think that is basically saying the book as for, for example, the way we write stories, and story hooks are framed. And how, essentially, they’re, I wouldn’t say they are persecuted, but they do kind of have this thing from time to time that they might give away that they come out like they had this thing, they don’t fit exactly. Yeah, that’s what I would say, for that.
MARX: I think what you’re saying is that, that is the point of the story you’re trying to tell, rather than, that’s not a side aspect, that’s kind of the court. One of the things that I have, it’s just like the setting in general. Nibiru is set on this enormous space station, and it is exquisitely designed. So, you’ve got a whole chapter on the astrophysics, but I was going to say the maps, and the prose, which mix fantasy and hard science and really it’s very wonderful. I really like it. And, we’ve got full color art the whole way through the book, and the maps are very evocative of what you’re trying to get across. Do you want to talk a bit more about how you aligned the feel of the settings to the theme of the game?
FEDERICO: Yeah, sure. It’s a really cool thing that, well Olivia Hill, who edited Nibiru and wrote iHunt, kind of talks about from time to time, about how there is this idea generally, in TTRPG design mechanics and setting and theme, all of these aspects need to be divorced from one another. And in a way, the way that a lot of the setting material is framed is done in a way that kind of like, enhances this theme of memory and remembrance. For example, the settlement that is featured for Antumbra, the core region of the space station, it’s a city, sure, but in the past was sort of like this big imperial power, and that today it has kind of like, fallen out of grace. Like this empire crumbled. And it has the sort of identity crisis in its midst, like there’s different factions, some that want to progress into some sort of like new society, with different tenets and values, but the more traditional is part that is kind of like, touting this idea of returning to the days of glory. So there’s a very big feeling, there’s a huge weight, in terms of memory, and that part of the setting for example. I also kind of did a little bit of an explanation, a little while back, on Twitter, looking to another part of the setting, which is Penumbra. And the fact that in Penumbra, there is sort of this battle in how you tell how the past is framed. Like there’s the whole place where there is, there’s interaction between colonies and the colonizers of this place that is more removed in the space station, and how the people from the colonies tell the past of how the place was colonized, and how the colonizers tell that past. So, the past and the remembrance of that past becomes a sort of double edge knife that different factions manipulate to back their own narrative of history, and who has the right to what. That’s kind of like examples, sparse examples, of how the setting is built within different social frameworks, like where the conflicts are based around the struggles of memory and the past.
MARX: That’s definitely the feel it gets across, but it’s a sort of post imperialist state that’s kind of coming to terms with what it is now, but also trying to hold onto the memories of what it had before. Talking about memory, I’d say that it’s a pretty strong theme throughout the game, most of the mechanics that you set out in the third part of the book deal with these mechanical representations of memories. And this system is very lean in general, I think it was 12 pages of mechanics in a 200+ page book?
FEDERICO: More or less.
MARX: That’s very lean. Most of the time you’re just taking a handful of days, and rolling them, and looking for fours. And that’s it. And then comparing the total to what your opponent rolls. There is something like half a page of combat mechanics, and a lot of that is just advice.
FEDERICO: Yeah, more or less.
MARX: Quite a lot of that is just a warning that combat is very likely to be extremely dangerous for your player characters. I really like that actually, that’s a strong thematic reinforcement of what you’re trying to get across. I’d sort of wanted to ask you why you opted to move away from a traditional combat focused model of TTRPGs. Because that’s very much what people come to TTRPGs for, I suppose. What you’ve done here is kind of the opposite, and it’s very much about memory and healing and emotion.
FEDERICO: Well, I think that, and this is kind of like a jab at the sort of more Western-centric schools of design, and how generally, a lot of the framing of how narrative progresses in a TTRPG has to do with this sort of like, balance of power, and specifically about power exerted through violence. So I wanted to shy away from that, because, to be honest, even when you consider that vagabonds are not at the top of the food chain in any way, generally, it means that if they would want to engage, or if they wanted to come and basically thrive based on their power to exert violence, that wouldn’t go well. And it’s also the style of play that I just don’t like, in particular. I think that there’s so much in terms of like, the actual design space that is unexplored when it comes to solving conflicts in ways that are not about violence. Because that’s the other thing, I’m not sure if I’d even frame it by calling it combat, I’d probably call it violence. It also didn’t feel very realistic, like this idea that you will basically go around the world and keep yourself safe, and keep yourself thriving and trying to remember your past by just murdering everything that crosses you, like some nuisances or some thing. That’s kind of the take.
MARX: that’s the sort of thing that you see in a lot of TTRPG‘s out there, that kind of emulate the model of MMORPGs now. They take what people do in video games and try to make it a tabletop experience. But I think in indie, people are moving away from that. They’re saying like, well we have all of these violent video games. We have all of these things that are very much driven by style and graphics and sound effects, and we’re moving away to a narrative that tells stories that we want to tell, telling stories that we want to tell together. And that’s, that’s definitely something that I feel is a big movement in indie at the moment. On the other hand, what a lot of other RPG’s tend to shy away from is the mental aspect of injury, and trauma. And that’s given a great deal of space and a great deal of detail. In particular, it’s relating to memories, capital M memories, both new and old. And there’s this excellent narrative, where both players and characters learn about the past at the same time. That is really very wonderful. Can you tell us something about how that works, and if you can, a bit about how you came up with that, because it’s very different to what I think you would normally see.
FEDERICO: Memories, the memory mechanic. When it comes to memories, basically what you have is, I want to create a system that rewards players for putting out their ideas, for writing, basically, their ideas or what they feel like writing. I think people just love coming up with ideas for characters, they love writing backgrounds for their characters, and it’s a very common occurrence that people will just go on their own and just write the background of the character. And I wanted to kind of like, mechanize that, and put it in a sort of framework that would be like, listen, this is going to be the core of the experience. We’re going to do this bit by bit, like these small little memory memory entries. And essentially, as we do that, I want to start rewarding the writing of memories, like these snippets of backgrounds, and I want to expand on that. So memories are the main drive of that, basically just putting down whatever it is you’re writing and that you think about. They kind of have this built-in prompt, which is when you’re rolling for something, you know what you’re rolling about, so maybe it’s about, I don’t know, doing parkour or something like that. So you kind of have a built-in prompt, and then you write that down and you develop the character. And as you continue doing that, revelations are there to expand the design space, or the creative space, where you’re like, OK, maybe now I’m going to try writing this in rhyme, or maybe I’m going to try to write a longer story across memories. And essentially, that’s kind of how it works, yeah.
MARX: I really dig these revelations, they are very well designed. That one about rhyme is probably my favorite. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I would like to do, much to my players’ chagrin really. You’ve mentioned to me before that you thought these were very fun to write. Which ones are your favorites?
FEDERICO: I think my favorite is probably the one that kind of like, has you concoct some sort of poison made out of your darkest recollections, and the potency of the poison is defined by how many negative memories you’ve written in the last page. I think like, design wise, that was the funnest one to write. And also, the one that, I think the one that gets the weirdest one, which is the one in which you just tear a page, the journal page, and you resurrect someone with those memories, with the memories of that page. That was very fun to come up with.
MARX: That’s very cool. It’s very evocative, I like that a lot. It’s very interesting to hear how these work. When you play tested this, when these came out, did you get the rewards you expected, or did you get something unexpected? Which is even more interesting.
FEDERICO: I got both. I got people basically just, it was just the best feeling ever, like if you design games, I got people talking a lot after the sessions about the possibilities, maybe if I pick this revelation and you pick this one, we could do this, and oh my god that would be super weird, that would be like you’re having my memories, and I’m depositing your memories in this object, and stuff like that. And it got really fun.
MARX: That sounds really rewarding. I think this game must be quite cathartic to play as a player, because what you’re writing down, you’re writing down ideas about something your character, you don’t know whether or not your character has experienced this, and I’m sure that in some way, there’s no way you can’t feedback your own experience into this. And that must be, that must be quite intimate to play, quite personal.
MARX: As a GM and for a player, that sounds like it would be a rewarding experience. And the kind of thing that I would like to be able to emulate as a designer, is certainly that feeling of, oh this is just two people having a conversation, but with the whole other group of people as well. That sounds very much like my kind of game design.
FEDERICO: And it’s also one of those things that, it gives a lot of gravitas to the actual character. Like, it’s happened specifically with longer campaigns, and as the game continues on with time and you see pages and pages of journal pages, you realize that there’s this really big connection between the player and the character. Which is another reason why I think it was a good call to kind of like, get rid of, or at least warn against violence, because there’s a lot of attachment developed over time in the group.
MARX: And if you’re building up the fourth wall relationship between your character and yourself, suddenly, actually that’s quite scary that your character might die. I think it’s a very good and very subtle content warning there. Like maybe don’t fight because you might get hurt, and that might actually hurt you. As I said, it’s a very leanly designed game, in terms of what’s written on the page, but there must’ve been a whole funnel of contact that went into producing this very smart, short and sharp design. Is that your general approach to game design, you come up with a load of ideas and then narrow it down? Or are you able to build up the system that you want from scratch?
FEDERICO: It’s always from scratch, always from scratch. I think I am very lean generally when I’m thinking of building this stuff from the ground up, and I think that, one of the privileges of working on your time with your own, at your own pace, and on your own game, is that you’re not constrained by any sort of like, preconceived notions of what a game has to have. So, you can start being like, hey, I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do that, I want to communicate this idea particularly, I want to explore this theme, and I’m basically to the ground up about the mechanics. And if it doesn’t, I’m not going to use it. Because that’s another thing, Nibiru does away with like combat, it does away with skill lists and attributes, there’s so much stuff I don’t use. And in the same vein, I think that, even by using dice, and having kind of like this struggle task resolution system, I am compromising a bit. But if I were to design a game that is about, I don’t know, a guild of mountain dwellers that are excavating a mountain, they have guilds or something, I would probably be like, you know, I’m not using dice. I’m going to use this set of stones that communicate the feeling of being much better, and I’m going to trade the stones, and if it’s about like, the issues between guilds and trading, it’s going to be not about like, how you can do this or how you may not be able to do that. But you’re going to be talking about maybe, a system in which you just trade stones, and you decide what you want to see, and you maybe abstain from certain things. That’s the thing with indie games. You can do whatever you want.
MARX: Yeah, I see what you mean. And exactly as you said, if a mechanic doesn’t feed back onto something that you think that the players would find interesting, or something that reinforces your setting design, then there’s no point having it, because that’s not what you’re doing. And not producing a very generic system which can tell hundreds of thousands of different kinds of story, but you’re focusing on two, three, four different kinds of story. Trying to build stories based on that, and based on the setting you’ve got, rather than being very generic and, oh I can tell any kind of story.
FEDERICO: Yeah, exactly.
MARX: I think you explained it much better, and also I think I really like the sound of this mountain dwelling game with stones, so maybe make that next.
FEDERICO: There’s a lot of this that is, like there’s a lot of baggage I think that designers can consciously get rid of, but at some point, there’s a lot of baggage that is unconscious. And even how we frame and think about, for example, something like tasks or solutions, maybe you don’t use dice. Maybe you don’t use stones. But if the question is still whether you can do this or not, maybe that’s something, that’s like one of those like, unconscious things that we tend to have, like this baggage. That question being like that. And maybe not posing the question, like maybe you can do whatever you want in this game, but you get to choose different outcomes, and the way you build your character has to do with the sort of effects that you want to see in the world given your actions, and the way you exert your power, more than whether you can or cannot. So maybe you use the stones, and because you’re building towards using the stones, your actions are going to focus on making the tunnels grow faster, or maybe because you’re building your character to use those stones instead, you’re going to focus on the well-being of the community, and stuff like that. So I think that there’s a lot of deconstruction when it comes to the tenets of what we have, which is great to try and experiment with.
MARX: That’s exactly right, as you said we have all this baggage from, basically Gary Gygax and basically the first Dungeons andDragons, which is basically you have a GM, and you have players, and they roll dice, and they solve tasks, and they exhibit violence and colonialism on others. As a scene, I think indie has always been against that, and it feels more and more, as time goes on. Your game is a game that flies in the face of what notions of what traditional RPG should be like. So Fed, you and I are both members of the San Jenaro Co-op. If you, the listener, haven’t heard of this, it’s a worker co-op of indie game designers. And it’s modeled after striving for better rates of pay in the industry. On the whole, I would say that it’s pretty wholesome. You’ve personally been around the industry and the co-op a lot longer than me. Can you shed a little bit of light on the system that we are fighting against?
FEDERICO: Yeah totally. It’s, at a certain point I think that this is kind of one of those questions that is more of like a high-level, kind of philosophical question in a way. But, to be honest, we have a business model in the industry that is, basically tailor-made, or has been made, on the back of like, exploited labor. For years. For a long time. To think about the fact that the people that are in control of like, a lot of the big companies, are not exactly making, doing the paycheck by paycheck thing, and they’re not producing cheap games at the same time. Like if you’ve seen the stuff that’s been put out for ages in the industries, it’s very high production value things. It’s one of those things that, at a certain point, you have to start to kind of question if it’s actually that they can’t afford to do this, or if it’s really one of those things that, you know, they should just turn and be like, listen, we’re producing these massive hard-core pseudo-coffee table books, and we are paying ourselves a fat check. While at the same time, I’ve seen my Twitter feed, it’s like chock-full of GoFundMes, and campaigns to rescue yet another freelancer or writer in the industry. And to be honest, seeing what the indie space can do, and then seeing the margins from all sides, because I have my company, I’ve done my little site things in the middle, and Nibiru is kind of like a halfway thing where it’s an indie game, but it also has those production costs from what I guess you could call a AAA game. It’s one of those things, there’s no reason why it couldn’t change.
MARX: We’ve made a broad for our own back with these very expensive coffee table games as you’ve talked about, because now people expect all TTRPGs to look like Dungeons and Dragons. And that’s not feasible, you know? People want indie games to be interesting, but they also think they should be beautiful, and also that they should cost $15. And that’s not an equitable model for anyone to follow. So yeah, it’s interesting that we are both in the co-op, that you do stuff which is aligned to the AAA.
FEDERICO: Basically I guess, when it comes to insight on how everything is kind of working, on the different sides of this question. And it’s one of those things where, as you just mentioned, the same thing regarding the pricing of products. The AAA, the big companies, have been pushing for a higher quality production quality in these games, for higher profits, and at the same time, for really low prices for the product that they’re putting out. And it’s very evident that, from all the corners that they could cut, it’s always the freelance writers and the artists.
MARX: I think then the best way forward is for all of us to join together and form a co-op of indie game designers. I think that’s certainly a model that I think would be good for the future, would be for workers to own what they are producing, and for us to all work together and kind of fight back a little bit against the Dutch auction of freelance writing, which is pretty hurtful to everybody. Fed, do you want to tell everybody where they can find your games, and where they can find you, if they want to chat to you, and so on?
FEDERICO: Sure. Nibiru, you can digital on Itch, and the Modiphius web store. And the Modiphius web store particularly you can get the physical stuff for Nibiru. Very important, it’s very cool.
MARX: Definitely do that, please do that.
FEDERICO: That’s basically it. And if you want to message me, I’m on Twitter, I’m @FSohns. And yeah, just send me a message.