Donna K. Fitch
I’m thrilled to introduce you to Geoff Gander, writer and game designer.
Donna: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in game design? Did you read horror growing up? Who were your favorite authors? Did any glowing meteorites land near your house?
Geoff: I wish I’d come across glowing meteorites when I was a kid!
The gaming bug first bit me when I was ten, in 1984. I’ve always loved reading, but the idea of being in an interactive story where there were many possible outcomes—some great, some fatal—fascinated me. I was an avid reader of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels at the time (I now regret selling my collection on eBay a few years ago …), so this wasn’t a big leap for me.
After a few years of playing I began to look at the game settings I played in and began to have thoughts like, “It would be neat if there was a country like ‘X’ here,” “The history of this kingdom doesn’t make sense/has too many gaps/is too uneventful,” or “I wish this setting had more of ‘Y’.” Eventually I started designing my own adventures, which expanded into home-brew settings and entire worlds with thousands of years of history. I guess I’ve never stopped!
Lovecraft was the first horror author I ever read, and (for better or worse) he was for many years the yardstick against which I measured others in the genre. I also read a lot of Brian Lumley and August Derleth (mainly their expansions to the Cthulhu Mythos), some Ramsay Campbell, and Robert E. Howard for epic pulp horror fantasy. Looking back, most of what I read in my teens was either Lovecraftian horror or epic fantasy. With time I have become more aware of Lovecraft’s less desirable qualities, so while I respect what he created and I am grateful that his cosmic horror nudged me onto my current path, my horror reading is a lot more diverse—my current favourites are Matt Moore, Michael Rowe, and David Nickle.
Donna: You wrote a Dungeons & Dragons ruleset for insanity and created a Lovecraftian pantheon of beings. Has Lovecraft influenced your writing? What other writers inspire and/or frighten you?
Geoff: Lovecraft was the first writer who opened my eyes to cosmic horror and the struggle against it. I’ve noticed that this struggle materializes a lot in my writing, but I think that is because it speaks to me on a level most conflicts do not. The very notion that, heroic and mighty as you might be, the powers against which you are fighting are far greater and can easily snuff you out without a second thought, or more likely will ignore you because in their view you don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, is chilling because it sets the heroic narrative on its ear. At the same time, there is a deeper heroism in my mind in fighting against such forces because not only one’s life, but one’s world, is at stake. You fight anyway, because doing otherwise would be unthinkable, and the horrors you face along the way will force you to question your values, your morals, and your own perception of who you are and how you relate to this “reality” that you took for granted. That last bit—questioning reality, am I who I think I am?—pops up often in my stories.
Other writers who inspire me are Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett for their sheer whimsical brilliance, and P.G. Wodehouse for his lighthearted humour and masterful use of the written word.
Donna: You write short fiction in addition to roleplaying game materials. What do you see as the differences and similarities between writing fiction and writing for RPGs?
Geoff: If we’re talking about writing RPG adventures, there are actually a lot of similarities: You have a central plot arc; protagonists and antagonists; sub-plots; decisions that have consequences; and character change and growth (demonstrated through level progression in most games, but also qualitatively through roleplaying).
The key difference between a story and an RPG adventure is that the former is linear, since the narrative arc has been pre-determined by the author and the characters are following a path from beginning to end, and every deviation from that path was planned in advance (so it’s not really a deviation). Roleplaying adventures are basically giant decision trees, and as a writer, you will have the core storyline covering what happens if the players do everything as expected, but knowing the players will do their own thing and have a tendency to go down side alleys, you will need several large branches covering the most likely eventualities. The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels popular in the ’80s are a good analogy. Many of these branches will eventually rejoin the main storyline, but a skilled game writer sets this up naturally to make it look to the players as though they were following their path all along.
At the same time, game writers should always work to create as “real” a world as possible. By that, I mean the world should have a sense of existing before the players arrived, and continuing on after they leave. Over the course of a campaign towns should grow and change between visits, characters should age, and so on. This isn’t needed as much in a novel because once the story is over, it’s over unless it’s part of a series. Likewise, there should be things to interact within an adventure that are not central to the plot, or even related to it at all. In adventure design, this is called “sandboxing,” and it means there is a space in which the adventure takes place which can be explored, and therefore seem more real. This can take the form of random villages to visit, ruins to explore, or creatures to encounter—none of which actually feature in the adventure proper, but still need to be written anyway in a good adventure.
Finally, a major difference to me is that game writing requires the writer to put in a lot of extra detail that the reader (most likely a Game Master) may never use. For example, if you’re writing a sourcebook detailing a fantasy kingdom, you’ll need its history and legends, geographic overview (plus a map or two), politics, economic structure, notes on places of interest and who lives there, information about people and monsters of note, a few sample adventures or adventure ideas, plus a few elements written from an inhabitant’s perspective to get a sense of their culture. Most of this might be written for a novel, but it would be in the form of notes, and likely only conveyed through dialogue.
Donna: Tell us about Sentinel Hill Press’ The Arkham Gazette and the materials you have coming out soon in this publication.
Geoff: Arkham Gazette is an official resource for the Call of Cthulhu RPG that provides new material for the setting. The content predominantly focuses on what the publisher calls “Lovecraft Country”—the area of New England in which most of Lovecraft’s stories were set, such as Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth, Dunwich, and others. The content is geared towards Keepers (Chaosium’s cute term for Game Masters), as the magazine provides new adventure scenarios; new characters or monsters for the players to encounter; new evil tomes to acquire; and so on. Sometimes there are expansions of the setting itself, such as entire towns getting fleshed out for use in the game. Great care is taken to incorporate folklore, legends, and historical information as much as possible to enrich the game experience. The magazine is published professionally, with art—definitely on par with gaming industry standards—and the contents of each issue are vetted by Chaosium before publication, so what you’re getting is officially-approved material. Definitely worth buying an issue or two!
I have content appearing in the next three issues (4, 5, and 6), at last count. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but readers will be getting write-ups of a possibly sinister school in Kingsport (as well as a strange pond just outside of town); numerous strange curios (which may help or hinder) that the players can come across in their investigations; and an adventure outline scenario that could put the players on the trail of a missing journalist. I really enjoy working with Sentinel Hill Press; I’d only stop if they told me to.
More information about Sentinel Hill Press can be found at: https://sentinelhillpress.com/.
Donna: I vividly recall the insanity rules from the original Call of Cthulhu, and still make references to “failing my SAN check” to this day. How did you translate the concept of insanity into the D&D world?
Geoff: I started with a desire to make my fantasy game grittier and more dangerous. I love heroism as much as the next person, but I find a story ending more satisfying (and better for plot and character arcs overall) when the characters return home from their quests with scars others can’t see, and which they can’t talk about. To do that, I needed to explain, to my satisfaction, why a fantasy setting needs sanity rules, because I received a bit of push-back when I started developing them, and my own version of a Lovecraftian cosmology, back in 1999 (see Question 8) for the D&D Mystara setting. I assumed that, even in a fantasy world where dragons, unicorns, orcs, and the like exist, there are still boundaries to what its inhabitants know about the world and how it operates. Everything inside those boundaries, however fantastical to us, is “normal” to said inhabitants. However, anything outside those boundaries tends to defy description, cannot be explained by science, divination, or magic, or is simply beyond comprehension.
In addition to working out rules for how insane asylums might operate in a fantasy medieval setting, I developed a fairly simple system that assigns horrific creatures and events a Horror Rating ranging from 1-20 (20 being the worst), and having the DM roll a secret “Horror Check” by rolling d20 against it. If the DM rolled above the Horror Rating, the character got a shock, but nothing worse than that. If the Horror Check failed, the DM rolled percentile dice to determine whether insanity resulted. There were stacking situational modifiers (good and bad) that could be applied to the roll, but if that one failed, a small buffet of disorders was on offer. Having the benefit of 20 years to reflect on the rule set, there are things I would probably do differently now if I were designing it from scratch, but as a rules add-on it worked quite well, and I know other people have used it.
Donna: What would be your dream project, if money and time were unlimited?
Geoff: I would love to write a sourcebook/campaign setting presenting the Cthulhu Mythos in Canada for the Call of Cthulhu game. I would present the Mythos in the three core time periods (1890s, 1920s, and modern) in a variety of locations (not just Toronto and Vancouver!), and also recruit writerly friends of mine who are versed in Aboriginal folklore to create something culturally authentic and respectful that covers all cultural viewpoints. There would be awesome art, maps, new monsters and other horrors, as well as scenarios to answer such questions as: What really caused the Halifax Explosion? Why did the Norse colony of Vinland fail? And many more.
So many possibilities, and not a single beaver* or hockey stick in sight!
(*Unless they are a hybrid species partly spawned by Yog-Sothoth, in which case it’s okay.)
Donna: What is necessary for horror games to work, from a design perspective? How do you evoke horror in players?
Geoff: Horror, whether in fiction or in gaming (and I consider gaming to be collaborative storytelling, and therefore interactive fiction), relies on emotion—specifically fear, which is highly subjective.
In game design, you can put in all the stats and text box descriptions you like into a product, but everything boils down to how the Game Master paces the adventure, creates a mood, and uses voice and the dozens of other subtle social cues that ensure we feel creeped-out at the right points in a horror game. The effectiveness of these cues also depends on the players, as everyone is unique and what is effective at creeping me out may not work for you, and vice-versa. I don’t think there is a single set of design tricks that will evoke horror in players, but proper pacing, forcing beloved characters to make hard choices, taking away their sense of control, and limiting what they know can go a long way to doing that.
From a game world design perspective, the players need to learn very early on that their heroic characters are up against colossal forces—which may not even acknowledge their existence—and the very likely outcome is death. They may win the day, but a happy ending is far from assured, and sometimes even survival is a victory. Call of Cthulhu does this especially well through the Sanity mechanism you mentioned earlier, which adds to the horror because the players are forced to watch their characters die by inches, one Sanity point at a time, and they know that at best they can delay the inevitable … but the alternative of doing nothing and letting the Great Old Ones return is even worse.
Ultimately, I believe a roleplaying campaign of any genre can easily become an exercise in self-exploration, and, in fact, in my own horror-flavoured fantasy campaign I sometimes deliberately throw my players into situations that force them to re-think their assumptions. This reflects my personal view that roleplaying can be both an entertaining pastime and a powerful tool for personal growth.
Donna: What is your personal favorite work, of all you’ve designed or published?
Geoff: That’s a tough question. In terms of published fiction, it’s a toss-up between four works (all of them short):
- My novella, The Tunnelers, which was my first major release and my only real stand-alone work of fiction (the rest are currently short stories in anthologies). I’ve received a lot of positive feedback on it and I’m currently in the process of revisiting that setting in a sequel.
- “The Wind Father,” a short story set in the Canadian West in the 1880s, pitting a sergeant of the Northwest Mounted Police against the Cthulhu Mythos. I did a fair amount of research before writing it, and I was very proud of how it turned out. It appears in the 2017 anthology, Principia Ponderosa.
- “Full House,” an Alice in Wonderland-themed space opera short story I co-wrote with my fiancée, the lovely and talented Fiona Plunkett (whose photography the HWA newsletter covered recently). It appeared in the 2018 anthology, Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland, and I’m currently writing a new story set in that universe. Space opera is a liberating genre to play in!
- “By a Thread,” a dark(ish) fantasy short story about a magical battle waged in the Norse colony of Vinland, also co-written with Fiona. There are some passages that, even when I read them now, give me the feels.
In terms of gaming, the single thing I’m most proud of is the Outer Beings, which are my own take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I created my own cosmology, cults, conspiracies, ancient tomes, and rules for insanity, which I think capture the spirit of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones while developing something custom-made for the Mystara campaign setting (although it could be adapted easily to any roleplaying world). I even went as far as to create an analogue for the Fungi From Yuggoth as a playable alien race (not all of which are evil in my setting), complete with extensive guidelines on their psychology and hive-like culture to make them understandable to players and Game Masters. They are definitely something for experienced gamers who want a roleplaying challenge.
Donna: What are you playing right now?
Geoff: I’ve been running a monthly classic D&D Mystara (the original D&D “Known World” setting, for those who gamed in the 1980s and ’90s) campaign for about seven years now. I use the original setting and its add-ons pretty much as designed, but I’ve added some Lovecraftian elements of my own design—some of which I have published on my blog, and others can be found on the official Mystaran community hub, the Vaults of Pandius (pandius.com). Sometimes, we jazz it up with one-offs in other systems, or interestingly weird board games.
I also play in a monthly GURPS campaign with some old friends—we’ve been playing steadily for about 20 years(!), and we alternate between space opera, realistic fantasy, and something vaguely X-Files.
I try to get out to my local gaming con (CanGames – http://www.cangames.ca) as much as I can and have been known to playtest my works-in-progress on unsuspecting vict- er, players.
Donna: What’s coming up for you? Do you have other gaming materials on the horizon? How can readers get in touch with you and find out more?
Geoff: I have a lot of irons in the fire—both in fiction and gaming. I’m currently outlining a historical horror novel set in Canada in the 1920s, as well as drafting several short stories in the dark fantasy and horror genres.
Gaming-wise, I freelance for a couple of gaming companies. I can’t say a whole lot right now, but I will be involved in a few future projects with Sentinel Hill Press—still working out some details—and I will be doing some work for Rogue Comet (who have developed a faster version of 5th Edition D&D) and Fat Goblin Games (more details to come). I am also in preliminary discussions with another game designer, who is big on horror, and that promises to be a fun, collaborative project … which is a nice segue to providing information on how to reach me, because social media is where people can learn more when I can talk about it!
I post a lot of gaming and writing progress on Twitter, where I can be reached at @GeoffGander. I also post on my Facebook page (Scribblings by Geoff Gander), and I maintain a blog at geoffgander.wordpress.com.
Thank you so much for having me!
Donna: Thank you, Geoff. This interview has been fascinating!
Donna K. Fitch, MLS, is a long-time HWA affiliate member, Silver Hammer Award-winner, and HWA Newsletter Web Editor and Designer. In addition to novels and short stories, she wrote a now-out-of-print RPG supplement on using cemeteries in d20 games, a gaming supplement called Sahasra: Land of 1,000 Cities, based on a fantasy India, and a chapter of Scott Carter’s Imperial Age: Faeries. Her first gaming experiences involved Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition and the box set of Call of Cthulhu.