Paul Czege discusses Traverser

Interview Transcript

MARX: So, today we’re talking to Paul Czege. Hi there, Paul!

PAUL: Hello.

MARX: Paul, could you take a minute just to introduce yourself and tell us what you do in the indie tabletop role playing game space?

PAUL: Sure. So, I’m Paul Czege, I design tabletop role-playing and storytelling games, and I’ve been doing it for, well, as a kid, I did it in high school, I never published anything. But I’ve been doing it seriously, I’ve been making things available to people out there on the Internet since the early 2000s.

MARX: Yeah, it’s an impressive back catalogue. Do you want to tell us some of the stuff you’ve made in the past?

PAUL: Sure. If your listeners have heard of me, it’s probably because of my game My Life with Master, which I published in 2003. It won the Diana Jones award, it’s the first thing ever published and charged money for. You play the minions of a horrific master, and it has a narrative arc that plays out in 3 to 5 sessions, and that results in the death of the master, and the thing that made it different and that caught everybody’s attention was that it treated the end of play as a creative destination. Before that, everyone wanted campaign play. That’s the one people might’ve heard of, I have another game from 2014 that I ran a kick starter for, called The Clay that Woke. That one’s a Deisler system, as a token drawing system, the player characters are playing as Minotaurs in a civilization that’s declining, it’s in decline, from a prior era of greatness, and you play these Minotaurs. They have a code of life conduct that they adhere to, and they have their different archetypes, there’s a philosopher Minotaur archetype, an advocate, a soldier, a leader archetype, and they’re different interactions that they have with each other to be effective and maybe the society that you’re in will enter into a new era of greatness. Or not.

MARX: Yeah, that’s one of the games that I saw first from yourself, and I was very taken with it, because it’s beautifully written, beautifully drawn, it’s very clever, and the themes that it deals with and the themes that it talks about are smart. And I sort of feel like they were ahead of their time. Someone described it to me the other day as OSR before OSR was a thing. I don’t know if that sort of matches with what your vision of what that game is about.

PAUL: Yeah so, my inspirations for that game are the role playing game Jorune, which has this really rich setting in a very multicultural, and a way, and the setting has this, it feels like it’s lasted forever. It has this long stretch of cultural history to it. And I really liked Gene Wolfe, The Urth of the New Sun books, The Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, that particular series also has a very rich setting. I wanted to do that. There was a conversation way back, at The Forge, about the idea that you can create a role-playing game where the player characters are really rich, fleshed out characters. But if you do that, you want the setting to be kind of sketchy, because the material you’re dealing with is the characters. And, the flipside is also true, that you can create a role playing game with the rich setting, but then if you try and put really rich characters into it, it can be creative overload. So you can create a rich setting, and then have sketchy characters to start with. And that was sort of the underlying thought around the way the game is put together. Your Minotaur character, it takes you moments to create. You pick your character archetype, and that tells you what your starting stats are, and it gives you a starting supply of tokens, and that’s pretty much it. You’re ready to go. You’re a nameless Minotaur, you’re working a job that you didn’t get to choose for yourself, and encountering the game world.

MARX: That whole mechanic about putting tokens into a central location and then drawing them out again, I think younger me when I first tried it was kind of blown away, like it was such a different way of doing things than all of the role-playing games I’d seen before. It was just one of those moments which kind of defined the way that I thought about games. I love that book, I love the way it’s drawn, everything. I just think it’s wonderful. And if you haven’t seen it before, then you must go and see it because it’s wonderful.

PAUL: I’ll tell you one thing quickly, that particular token drawing mechanic was inspired by a board game called Claustrophobia. Have you played Claustrophobia?

MARX: I haven’t, no, but I’m fascinated that it came from a board game. It’s a very board game-y mechanic, isn’t it?

PAUL: I mean it’s really adapted from that, but in the board game, it’s a miniatures based thing, and there are tiles on the table, and your miniatures have an objective to escape while they’re being attacked by opponents. It’s a two player game, and the game master role, or the opposition role, the monster role, they have a chart that they can buy adversity off of based on dice rules. So if you roll two sevens, or all odds, or all evens, you’re looking at what you wrote, and then you decide if you want to use that role to buy this option, or that option. So the early draft of The Clay that Woke, I wanted it to be a buying option, where the tokens you drew out, and then you would look and see if you could buy the outcomes that you wanted. But it ended up evolving into more of an oracle, where you kind of go down the shopping list in order and you get the first outcome you can afford. But it was inspired by that game. The other thing I would say is that, I mean you’ve talked about how much you like the book, and what I think about what I’m doing as a game designer, the thing I really need to accomplish, is I really need to inspire people to want to play the game. That’s a big challenge. You know, if my mechanics aren’t perfect, if there are design flaws in the game, it doesn’t matter as much as if I can figure out how to inspire people to play, and then they’ll overcome that stuff. The Clay that Woke was really me thinking about this whole landscape of fantasy role playing games that nobody ever plays. And they all sort of have common characteristics to them, they start with a section about character creation, maybe they have some example of play texts scattered around, they’ve got a whole section of the creatures in the game world, they have a section on game mastering at the end, and they’re all sort of organized in that way. And you know, I felt like if I write a game and if I organize it in that same way, like a textbook, and nobody plays it, then it’s a missed opportunity to have tried to be inspiring in some other way. So I wrote The Clay that Woke, the text of it, I wanted it to hook people and just draw them through the whole thing. There’s a game called Earthdawn, and it’s 90s. It’s got a rich setting, it’s got complicated characters, and if you sit down to play that game and you’re not really familiar with that game world, the players have to figure out how to be educated about the game world, and that’s hard. They published that game, they published a series of novels, a trilogy, I think to try to inspire people to read them and understand the game world, and then play the game. And the same way that if you play a Star Wars game, everyone has the context of understanding Star Wars because they’ve seen the movies. It’s the greatest asset that the Star Wars role playing game has, the fact that the movies exist. So that everyone knows what the themes are, and everyone knows what the world is like, and what’s an appropriate action for it bounty hundred to, and what’s not. And the thing is with Earthdawn it didn’t work. Only game masters ever read the novels, the players never read all the novels, they just wanted to play the game. And so I wanted to write some thing that I hoped somebody would start reading it, and it would pull them through the game text. They’d get fiction entwined with game mechanics entwined with setting information, and by the time they got to the end, they would have internalized everything they needed to know. They’d understand the game world, they’d understand the mechanics well enough to be able to play a character, and it would be a fun reading experience all the way through.

MARX: You can see that when you read it, that what you’re trying to do is not write a game text, you know, a manual to play the game. You are writing a lot of things all in together, and it does pull you through. And lets you understand what your writing process was, and your design process was in a way, and in a way it lets you understand what the themes and the mechanics of the game are. At the same time, which is not easily achieved, and which is not done widely enough in indie role playing games at all. It’s funny that you mention Earthdawn, the way that you describe that is exactly how I feel about big games like Shadowrun. I feel like you need to know a lot about Shadowrun before you can even play it, which is, like, that doesn’t work for me. I prefer my settings to be, as you said, either very rich with scant characters, or very scant with rich characters. Yeah, I think it’s a great text. 

PAUL: So I’ve written another game. It’s called Traverser, and the reason it’s not out there is that it needs the same kind of text that The Clay that Woke does. It needs a text where the mechanics and the setting information and fiction are entwined together and do the same thing to pull the reader through the text. And it’s really hard to write that. It’s the best game I’ve designed, and yet, I have to figure out how to get myself into the headspace where I can write another text like that, and it’s really hard.

MARX: That sounds really cool. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it?

PAUL: Yeah, I will. It’s a game that’s kind of getting away from me, in a way. I started designing it in, I think it was 2015. 5 years ago. It was on the heels of The Clay that Woke, and I thought that after The Clay that Woke that maybe somebody else would be inspired to create a similar kind of game text. And they hadn’t. And I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and so I came up with the idea for Traverser. The player characters are women ex-soldiers from a corporate war, so it’s essentially a science fiction game. And it takes place after reality breaks. Reality tears itself apart, and then stitches itself back together. It’s kind of like reality giving a gift to humanity, because it’s better after that. There are no prisons, it’s no common currency, no central government. And the player characters were soldiers in this corporate war, and they had quantum reality powers. And when reality breaks itself apart and stitches itself back together, the whole context for that war is just gone. So they take the quantum technology out of them and just cut them loose. But, they also have their quantum reality powers, except now when they use them, there are consequences. Like, their history can be edited, parallel realities that things didn’t happen the way they thought they happened. Or, the way they remember them happening. And so, you end up as you’re playing, you end up holding a sort of mental representation of the character in your mind, as it becomes complicated, because who are they really? Are they who they think they are, are they not? You become this sort of complicated character with multiple paths.

MARX: Yeah, different timelines and alternate versions of oneself.

PAUL: Yeah, it’s the best game I’ve ever designed.

MARX: It sounds amazing.

PAUL: The core mechanic for it is a, it’s a card-based diceless mechanic, and it’s emotionally productive in ways I have never designed in another game. You’re making choices with each other, and then comparing cards, you’re making blind choices, and when you agree, you and the game master feel this connection. You’re interpreting the fiction the same way, you want it to go the same way, you want the same outcome, and it feels like nothing else you’ve ever played. You’ll realize when you play it that all other games are about disagreement, in some way or another, the game master is setting some target number, or the game master is creating a challenge for you, or opposition for you. But this game is about agreement. This is about feeling like you both want it to go the same way, and it has strategic elements as well, so it’s not totally like, “hey, do we agree on this kind of thing?” If you feel like you disagree, you can still win, and get the outcome you want, not the one the game master wants. Like I said, it’s sort of starting to get away from me. I haven’t written a text, but I ran it, I ran two sessions of it for GauntletCon a few years ago. One of those players asked me if he could have my draft rules so that he could run it for the gauntlet at some point. And another player that played in it when he ran it asked me if he could have my draft, and if he could run it. He’s run it several times now, and I’ve never had that happen to me before with a game. Usually, you publish a game, and you have to figure out how to promote it, you have to get people to know it exists, and want to put in the time to learn it and run it, and this is very different for me. To have people who are trying to figure out how to run it from my very, very imperfect text. I really need to figure out how to write it, because it’s escaping me, you know, without me having written it.

MARX: For sure. I mean if it’s the kind of thing again, which is gonna be intertwined fiction, and text, and method text and all that, running through a single thread for a book, then yeah, that sounds like it’s gonna get a challenge to write that needs focus.

PAUL: Focus is hard during the pandemic.

MARX: Oh absolutely.

PAUL: I can do stuff in dribs and dras, but that kind of writing needs a lot of focus. I launched a Kickstarter in February for a choose your own adventure story, and it was mostly written at that point. It’s called We’re Just Friends, and it’s the story of, you know, the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and they had a lot of them that never had any myths written about them. They just appeared on pottery, or they appear in some cosmological origin story because they conceptually represent something that the writer thought was an important aspect of the cosmos. But there’s no myths about them. And this is about one of them that has no myths about her. Her name is Philotes, and she’s the goddess of romantic friendship, or at least that’s my interpretation of who she is. And this is a choose your own adventure story about her, and whether she’s going to achieve her potential as a goddess in the modern area. You know, is this her time? Is she gonna do what it takes? I had it 80% written, and I was supposed to deliver it this summer, being able to finish it is hard, so I just had to apologize to my Kickstarter backers, saying, you know, I’ve done little onesie twosie small games on Itch.op over the past few months, but that’s a different kind of, I can do that in between helping my son with his remote learning, and text don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to be in a flow when I’m writing them. But this I do, so that’s another writing project, and that I gotta finish.

MARX: It’s in the stack. Well, it sounds really cool, and I hope that you can get around to it soon and have it out there, because I would genuinely love to see it, it sounds amazing. Especially if it’s like The Clay that Woke, which I do often cite as one of my inspirations. So, a while back there you mentioned something about The Forge, and your name is one that’s often linked to The Forge as it was back in the day. Do you want to tell people about what it was like to be part of that movement?



PAUL: Yeah. So did you know Bill White?

MARX: By reputation.

PAUL: Bill’s writing a book about The Forge, did you know that?

MARX: No I didn’t, great! 

PAUL: He’s writing it for an academic press, so if you want the PDF I think it’s $90 or something like that. So he interviewed me for that. The book starts off, and Bill is having a conversation with Michael S Miller, who was also a participant at the Forge. He designed a game called With Great Power. Michael’s wife is the one who invented games on demand. So Bill and Michael are at a convention together, and they’re having a conversation, and Michael says something like, “people are starting to forget about The Forge.” And Bill starts thinking, and decides to write a book about it. So it’s his effort to instantiate the legacy of The Forge, and he interviewed me for that book. I’ll tell you the quick version of everything I told him, I was nothing before The Forge really. It was the end of the 90s, you know, everybody thought that role playing games were a solved problem. You wrote them a certain way, you publish them a certain way. Core book followed by splat book, by splat book, by splat book. You hired free answers. If you wanted to work in the hobby, you started off as a freelancer writing splat book content. The game mechanics were stat plus skill against the target number, maybe it was a die pool, maybe it wasn’t. That was what a character looked like. And then you’ve got a multi page character with stat plus skill, game mechanics. Every game text had this rule zero thing there that, oh if the mechanics don’t work for you, you can change them, you can do what makes sense kind of a thing. And then The Forge said there is a lot more possibility than that. If your education is the games of the 90s, that’s a narrow education, because there’s so many more possibilities of that. That particular message is the legacy of The Forge. That’s what unlocked me, it made me realize that game design was my creative medium, and that I could create games like My Life with Master. I thought differently about everything, you know? I mean, you create the antagonist together, the end of play is your creative destination, and you’re working toward it, and that it doesn’t have to be about combat. It’s about something else. The essence of The Forge to me back then was, it almost felt like a research community. Everybody was hunting GeoCities for games that somebody had posted as a webpage, and playing them. And then coming back to The Forge and posting, saying we played this game, we thought it was crazy but it was fun. We were figuring out how human creativity intersected with different social architectures for play. And sometimes I call role playing games social architecture, because you’re structuring collaboration and the creative material that you’re using, the themes that are present in the game. The forge felt like everybody bringing their findings back. If you read Bill‘s book, there’s all sorts of toxic stuff that happens, you know, tone policing in the discussion forums, people were definitely harmed by aspects of The Forge. But I think the best legacy of the forge is stuff like games on demand. We did a booth at GenCon, The Forge to the booth at GenCon. If you went to GenCon, and you wanted to demo a role-playing game before the Forge Booth, you had to sign up. You go to the booth, there would be a sign-up sheet. They would run a four hour demo at 4 o’clock, they had room for eight people or something like that. Or they had it on the convention schedule, or they had table space somewhere where you could go and play it in the convention hall somewhere, but you were looking at playing a four hour thing. And The Forge booth said, why don’t we figure out how to make quick demos? In the booth, you know. And, people would come up and, you’d say, would you like to demo anything? And they were into it. 

MARX: That does sound rad. 

PAUL: It’s easy to get somebody to commit 20 to 25 minutes to a demo in the booth, and Michael S Miller’s wife, Kat Miller, she saw that, and she saw that people wanted to keep playing. And so what she realized was, you know what, people at GenCon, when they’ve got a time gap, they would love to just walk up and say, I would love to play something right now. “I’m wide-open. What might I play?” So she realized, games on demand, we could do it, we could use four hour time slots and people could just walk up with a generic ticket, and pick a game off of a whiteboard. “The Shadow of Yesterday? I’ll play The Shadow of Yesterday. I’ll play Dust Devils, or My Life with Master,” and that’s an enormous legacy of The Forge. It started off, games on demand was in a hotel, that was apart from the convention center. They were bringing in so many generic tickets, there was so much energy, that GenCon moved it into the main convention center, into the hallway right above the dealer hall. Because it was such a big draw for so many people. They were people going to GenCon who would spend their whole time at games on demand.

MARX: That sounds like a wonderful space. And it does sound like a big scene, like a big mood. To me, what it really sounds like is that The Forge and games on demand around GenCon and stuff would have been, I don’t know what the indie scene was like prior to then, but if it was just a lot of people working in isolation and not really connecting, it sounds like The Forge is a seminal moment in how the scene moved forward from that point. And that sounds like very much the kind of thing I’m interested in learning about, because I love indie, that’s what I do.

PAUL: The indie scene before The Forge was some gamer who decided that they wanted to create a game. They’d design it, they’d figure out how to do this traditional print run of 3,000 copies, and they’d figure out how to afford a booth at GenCon, which would cost a fortune. Or Origins. And they’d show up there with no, nobody knows who they are, you know? And they hope to sell some copies, and create some energy. They’ve got their one core book sitting there on the table. Maybe somebody went to the Gama trade show in Las Vegas before GenCon with their game, to try and create some market awareness. Maybe they bought some ads somewhere, but really people weren’t selling PDFs online. They were trying to publish their game in the way they thought game publishers did it, they weren’t breaking the rules. Lulu Press didn’t exist, you couldn’t do this, have your game sitting up for print on the internet, on demand for anyone who wanted it.

MARX: Yeah, there was no Lulu, there was no DTRPG, these spaces did not exist accessibly at the time. 

PAUL: And the discussion forums, there weren’t design conversations in online discussion forums. They were dominated more by game fans than designers. The Forge is absolutely a turning point in gaming. It totally is.

MARX: It’s kind of a shame that we don’t have that game design space where people talk about game design on Twitter, it’s a different kind of mood I imagine. There are voices out there, people who talk about their process and their game design. But I feel like it’s not the same thing. Sometimes I lament that I was not around earlier.

PAUL: Like I said, to me it felt like a collective research project, and I think that’s the element that’s missing. If you follow Epidiah on Twitter, he tweets about his game design efforts, people sort of sound off about what they’re doing as a designer. But there’s not this sort of concerted research project, where groups are playing games experimentally, trying things out, and then bringing their findings back to discussion forums, they’re figuring out human creativity and storytelling. It’s as simple as, if I’m playing a storytelling game I’m turning over a card, and it’s a prompt for something that I have to do in the game. Is that prompt fun, or not fun? Is it frustrating, or is it fun? If I do enough of that, I can figure out a pattern that makes sense to me, and try and make a game around that. That’s the activity that you don’t see now, is the experimentation. That’s the part I miss the most.

MARX: I think you’re right, like to a certain extent Itch helps to fill that space a little bit, because people produce things on there that are small and experimental, and by virtue of putting it out there and people are discussing it, and putting reviews on it, then there is a kind of parallelism to what the original intent, or what the original outcomes of that research program were. Yeah, it’s not the same thing, and I think it’s something that indie would really need, and tabletop role playing games would really benefit from. 

PAUL: As a creator, a lot of my energy is contrary energy. I see a game, and I think “that was a missed opportunity, I could do better than that,” you know? Or, I see a game and I’m frustrated by some aspect of it. My Life with Master was absolutely born out of frustration with what I thought was a narrow way of looking at games. You know, the games of the 90s felt narrow to me, and My Life with Master was my sort of contrary energy that sort of took me through the process of designing it, and getting it done. The thing I see about Itch is it’s also driven by a lot of contrary energy. Designers are creating things on Itch that are a poke in the eye to the post-Forge style of indie game or storytelling games, you know? They’re rituals of imagining yourself as a character but without any narrative bolted onto them, whereas narrative art was a big part of The Forge-era design scene. But, you can find tons of games on Itch that have no aspiration to deliver anything that’s even close to a story. It’s imagining your identity, or expressing it in a certain way.

MARX: Yeah, I talked to Georgie Bats a few weeks ago, and Georgie has not been in role-playing games very long, and their whole schtick is writing poetry games, writing lyric games, and this kind of lyric game movement where you are very loosely attaching mechanics to poetry, or mechanics to storytelling, and barely even doing that, yeah it feels very counter to some of the theory I’ve seen come out of The Forge era. I just think that’s a really interesting contradiction, and it’s interesting what you’re saying about it being contrary energy, that’s kind of fascinating. 

PAUL: I appreciate the contrary energy, I mean I feel a great deal of connection to that. I think it’s hard to find yourself as a creator if your contrary energy is, you know, only a year and a half old. It’s hard to be 22 years old and a game designer driven by contrary energy. So a lot of people, you know they might talk about their Itch games as a reading experience. I mean for me, there is nothing else like tabletop role-playing games, as a creative medium, because a role-playing game is a set of instructions that you expect the play group to follow, and there is a whole audience conditioned to follow those instructions. Tabletop gamers are used to being given instructions and following them, and that’s not like any other art form.

MARX No.

PAUL: It’s not like music, or being a novelist. A novelist doesn’t tell you what actions to take, and then you take them. Tabletop games are unique in that way, and powerful in that way. So I think a young designer that’s saying, “hey you don’t even have to play this game.” I can appreciate the contrarian energy of that, saying you’re designing things that look like you have to play them, but you don’t have to play them, they’re reading experiences, they’re expressive. But I think you’re throwing out the real power of the medium by having that be your contrary energy. If that is your contrary energy I think your contrarianism is focused on the wrong thing. 

MARX: Yeah. I suppose it would be like a painter saying you don’t have to look at my paintings, or a musician saying “hey, it’s okay just to buy my CDs to look at,” something like that. I’m sure there are a lot of musicians that would probably say that, actually. But, you know, in some sense the kind of, the experimentation is interesting, but I take what you’re saying about, you’re missing the point, you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water by saying “don’t play my games, just read them.” But that’s interesting.

PAUL: I’m a contrarian designer. I love contrarian energy, but that particular contrarianism seems like it’s missing the real power of the art form.

MARX: If you like we’ve had some interesting conversations there. There’s a lot that your experience can lend to the scene, and yeah. Thanks very much for saying it all.

PAUL: Well, thanks very much for having me.

MARX: No problem. Paul, do you want to tell us where we can find you on the internet, and what projects you might have coming up in the next few months?

PAUL: Sure. My primary website is halfmeme.com, I sell games on Itch.io as well, and you can find me pretty easily. It’s Paulczege.itch.io. I tend not to cross the streams on those, I tend to treat Itch.io as a separate project of super experimental stuff, and stuff that’s all sort of, I don’t know. Just trying to push the boundaries. It’s more of a window into who I am as a designer trying to figure out what’s possible. People say “hey, wait a minute, why can’t I find your games from Itch.io on halfmeme.com?” They’re sort of separate projects to me. And I’ve used Kickstarter as well in the past, The Clay that Woke was a Kickstarter project, We’re Just Friends is a recent Kickstarter project. And I”m on Twitter @PaulCzege.

MARX: Yeah, brilliant. So that sounds like good places where you should go and check Paul out, and Paul’s work, because his voice is always interesting to hear from. All that’s left for me to say is thank you very much for coming on Yes Indie’d Pod, I hope to hear from you again in the future.

PAUL: Thanks, anytime.

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