Donna K. Fitch
I am thrilled to present to you Greg Stolze, creator of some amazing, weird, creepy and wildly imaginative roleplaying games. I’ve been a fan of Greg’s for a very long time. Read on!
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?
Greg: No glowing meteorites, but I did read a lot of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Lovecraft—the usual suspects. As for game design, I’d played Car Wars and AD&D [Advanced Dungeons & Dragons] throughout junior high and high school, but never really thought it through as a career. Then, when I was in college, and a lesser theater nerd, one of the glamorous older theater nerds said “Hey, I’m in this game and you’d probably like it.” The game was run by a young insurance salesman named Jonathan Tweet, who would go on to redesign D&D a few years later, but not before enduring me saying, “Wait, so people get PAID to write this stuff? I could write this stuff. I want to get paid. How do I do it?”
In the end, it’s the classic success story: I got lucky and I knew a guy. I also worked hard and put a lot of energy into it, but … yeah, if you want to get into game design, it helps to politely and respectfully connect to the people who are doing what you want to be doing. In this age of Twitter, it’s easier than ever, albeit harder to stand out, perhaps.
Donna: You’ve created and collaborated on a wide range of highly creative roleplaying games—from Usagi Yojimbo and Unknown Armies to Delta Green and Reign. What were some of your gaming influences? You mentioned you played Dungeons & Dragons.
Greg: Oh yeah, I still have incredibly battered second edition AD&D books from the late eighties. My DMG [Dungeon Master’s Guide] from then literally looks like it was in some kind of horrible industrial accident. (I bought it secondhand and it looked like that when I got it.) I also have one of the old Monster Manuals with Cthulhu and Elric in it, horribly scarred from being used as a makeshift clipboard.
Jumping into Jonathan Tweet’s game (which would eventually turn into Over the Edge) was like a real shock of cold water in terms of genre, open-ended character design, light rules, players throwing stuff into the plot at random, and the idea of investigation as a core loop. It certainly redirected my game thinking hard to the left.
Donna: Unknown Armies is the only roleplaying game I’ve played that completely freaked me out—or maybe that was our wicked game master. To me, the setting opens up the possibilities for great character development and bizarre experiences for the players. What was the origin of this game and how did you come to collaborate on it with John Tynes?
Greg: So, the progression went that my Tweet connection aimed me at Atlas Games as they were planning supplements for Over the Edge. Tynes, myself, and Robin Laws had all glommed on to one particular aspect of the setting and contributed to a book called The Myth of Self, about psychic entities that conform to the expectations of those around them, and the scumbags who exploit them. That was the initial connection, and we hit it off.
At that juncture, Tynes was a little burned out on the Cthulhu Mythos from doing all the Pagan Publishing stuff and wanted to try a new direction. In cosmic horror settings like Call of Cthulhu, the horror arises because you’re helpless, because humanity is insignificant cosmic grit in an incomprehensibly vast engine. He wanted to do something far more humanist—the horror coming from our callousness and cruelty to one another. If humans are the most spiritually powerful entities in the cosmos, then every terrible thing that happens in our lives occurs because someone thought it was a good idea. That’s horrifying, too.
The Unknown Armies collaboration was a really good one. Years later, as we were reminiscing, it emerged that each of us had secretly felt that the other one did all “the real work.” I was like “Whaaa? You invented the cosmology and the themes and vibes and all I did was work out some rules and put a little more structure around it.” Tynes replied, “From my perspective, I came to you with a handful of half-baked ideas and you turned it into something that actually made sense and could be played.” I guess the people with business degrees call this “synergy?”
Donna: One of my most memorable gaming experiences was playing a Godlike adventure run by Shane Ivey (see “Frightful Fun” January 2019). Explain the premise of Godlike and what interested you about the setting and time period.
Greg: The premise of Godlike is that superhumans start appearing in World War II. Their powers are all fairly narrow, and extremely vulnerable to interference from other “Talents” (as the people who can violate the laws of physics as casually as you tie a shoe come to be known). It was, again, a situation where someone from Pagan Publishing had a notion and said, “Well, who’s good at writing mechanics?” In this case, it was Dennis Detwiller asking, and John Tynes said, “Well, Stolze did an OK job with Unknown Armies; talk with him.”
The setting is all Dennis; he came into it with the premise, the tone, and the timeline all planned out. My job was to make some mechanics that were fast enough that we could avoid gaming’s dreaded “twenty minutes of thrills packed into four hours” problem, and which were deadly enough to suit his tastes. Dennis was always pellucidly clear that he did not want superheroics to change the course of the war. At some point, Kenneth Hite (game writer, historian, scholar, and bon vivant) had a comment along the lines of, “Oh, you can tear apart a tank with your bare hands? Great. The Germans had 2500 of them at Kursk.” This boiled down to the tagline “You’re larger than life. But the war is bigger than you.”
Donna: On a more philosophical note, what is necessary for horror games to work, from a design perspective? How do you evoke horror in players?
Greg: Horror is premised on uncertainty, so already gaming has the advantage of those damn indifferent polyhedrals, spreading chaos every time you cast your lot on the table. More specific types of horror also benefit from a gaming setting, as opposed to a book or a movie or a podcast.
One type is the cosmic horror approach which, as I mentioned earlier, is all about how you, in the grand scheme of things, are a rounding error. This can seem particularly personal in the second-person space of an RPG. It’s not just Randolph Carter hearing a ghastly voice, YOU hear it. The thespian aspect of not only inhabiting a character, but improvising their decisions, makes it very personal.
That character piece is even more present in the more personal horror, stuff like Vampire and all the World of Darkness material I worked on. The facile gloss on it is “the monster is you,” but it’s been popular because it can be much deeper than just “Oh, yeah, I’ma go drink some blood and violate some taboos!” If you identify with your vampire character deeply enough, you realize you’re really behind the 8-ball. You need to harm others in order to survive, and sooner or later you’re going to run out of excuses for why that’s OK. That puts you in the position where your happiest option is self-destruction … only nobody really wants to be destroyed, either. So you make a series of increasingly desperate compromises.
The two come together in Delta Green, which blends the personal horror of “I have to do terrible things as a consequence of my decisions” with the cosmic horror of “… and it still may not be enough.” Delta Green puts you in the position of a government operative tasked with keeping Cthulhu Mythos activity secret and protecting people from it. The persistent question is not “how much can you do?” (because you eventually realize the long-term answer to that is “very little”) but rather, “how far are you willing to go?” It’s a game that offers you all kinds of social authority—you’re a badge-waving agent with a gun—but proportionate responsibility to do terrible things because the alternatives may be worse. Sometimes you take a chance and say “No, I won’t do ______—I won’t frame an innocent woman, or kill a prisoner in cold blood because he’s part of some ritual, or study mind-destroying magic which I might need to stop this reality incursion I can’t even really understand.” Sometimes, you even get away with it. But sometimes the body count of a Delta Green agent retaining their morality is much higher than if they’d just despaired and succumbed to expediency.
Unknown Armies is a little less hopeless than Delta Green. (I mean, just about everything is.) There, you’re stymied and helpless much of the time, but there are avenues to power … if you’re willing to alienate yourself from normalcy. To gain mystic power in UA is to give up a lot of your freedom to taboos and forbiddances that would certainly worry your family and make cops think they ought to pull you over. Delta Green is about agents of order trying to suppress chaos. In Unknown Armies, you play as the chaos, the reality deviants, the revolutionaries who are mad as hell and willing to burn down conventional sanity in order to build something better from the ashes. It’s a character-focused game where you’re all desperate obsessives. As with Delta Green, it’s a lot of asking, “Is this too far? How about now? Or is this not far enough?”
Donna: Your work has always been innovative, including ways for gamers and readers to acquire it. Explain the ransom method. How do your experiences with it compare to the Kickstarters you’ve run?
Greg: The ransom method works like this: I make a game or write a story. I tell people “If the whole wide world, collectively, gives me $700, I’ll put this piece up on my Web site for free, in perpetuity, under a Creative Commons license so that everyone can get it, not just the people who paid. If I don’t get the money in a month? The work goes unreleased.” Sometimes, I’ve brought stuff back and tried again, but for the most part, when something doesn’t clear I assume the market has spoken.
This arose from a combination of laziness, and familiarity with NPR pledge drives.
When PDFs were first coming out as a way to release stuff online, without people having to buy a physical magazine or book, it was clear that the costs of becoming a publisher had just dropped through the floor. The problem seemed to be piracy, which we all knew about from our days of copying games on five-inch floppy disks. I didn’t particularly want to sell a PDF one time and have it get copied a thousand times, but I also didn’t want to price my PDFs so high that I offset the piracy losses. Most concretely of all? I didn’t want to have to figure out how to build a PDF store onto my Web site or mess around with DRM. That sounded like a giant hassle, so I looked for a lazy solution that wouldn’t bankrupt me. My solution was “People want free downloads? They can pay for their free downloads. I’ll just ask for however much money I’m content to make off something, FOREVER, and if I get that, I give it away.”
Initially, people were not just dubious, but actually OFFENDED. “You expect me to pay my money and then everyone else gets it free? You’ve grievously overestimated humanity’s generosity, pal!” snorted many an angry RPG.NET poster. But every time someone threw up one of these tetchy Objectivist screeds against anyone getting anything for free ever, I noticed that I’d get a nice little bump of silent pledgers. Make of that what you will.
Kickstarter came along and made the whole system a lot nicer, safer, and simpler for both the creator and the audience. Before Kickstarter, I just had people give me the money with the understanding that if I didn’t hit my goal, I would leave the work unreleased and give the cash to charity. I was not equipped, organizationally or emotionally, to process a bunch of refunds. KS, on the other hand, can simply hold the data and not pull the trigger on payments until the funding goal is reached. Safer for them, simpler for me.
In my experience, the gas in the crowdfunding engine is trust. They trust me to actually release what I’ve promised, and I trust them to pay me for my work. I’ve really tried to make it easier to trust me. First, I do what I say I will. Unlike some crowdfunders, I don’t ask for money until the work is complete. Usually, you’re not pledging for my promise to write a story, but for a finished story I can put up within hours of getting paid. Second, I provide lots of examples of what you can expect. Honestly, one of my favorite things about this is that I don’t have to engage in hours of marketing a new story, promising people how brilliant it’s going to be. I just have to point them to http://www.gregstolze.com/fiction_library and say “Read some of the free stuff. If you like it, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t, well, OK.” I really, truly, honestly would prefer to miss a sale if that reader would be buying something they don’t like. Maybe I’m a bad capitalist that way, but it seems like a good way to gradually expand the audience long term.
Donna: What is your personal favorite work, of all you’ve designed or published?
Greg: No, you can’t ask me that! The cliché is, “That’s like asking which child is my favorite,” but, you know, sometimes things become clichés for a reason. I love the collected works of Greg Stolze and can find something in there for all my many moods. But I can talk about a few standouts.
One is Unknown Armies, both for the weird humanism-warts-and-all vibe and for the terrific stuff other people have done with it, things I never would have imagined. Oh, and the third edition is the first gaming product with what I’m calling the “Stolzescreen”—a magnetic-clasped GM screen that turns into a slipcase for the books. Long term, I figure that’s the innovation for which I’ll be remembered.
My latest UA novel is entitled You: A Fiction, and I like it because it’s not only fun, it’s told in the second person, which is extremely uncommon in novels but I like to think I made it work. A more cosmic/Mythos novel I wrote is Mask of the Other, in which some chuckleheads in the first Gulf War get their hands on the leftovers of Saddam’s secret occult weapons program, and tragi-comedy ensues.
Another game fave has to be Reign because it really was a case of me doing exactly what I wanted without having anyone else stick in their oar. It’s a high-fantasy setting where the base assumption is that, rather than being shiftless wanderers, the players are controlling people who are invested in societies that are, themselves, capable to making things happen. It arose from me playing a lot of Sid Meyers’ Civilization while asking myself “How come these powerful characters are always doing someone else’s bidding, huh? Why don’t the PCs set the agenda?”
Donna: What would be your dream project, if money and time were unlimited?
Greg: Ooh, there’s several.
I think the setting Progenitor would make a dandy Netflix series. The premise is, in 1968, a Kansas farm wife gets godlike superpowers and decides to go win the war in Vietnam. She is unaware that her powers are contagious, and that she is only the first in a cascade of increasingly numerous metahumans. The book has a timeline up through 1999 and a giant roster of characters.
I have a set of tarot-card mechanics for playing games in which the PCs are either dreams or nightmares, dungeon-crawling for human souls throughout the disasters and triumphs of the 20th century. I’d love to see that come out with each card in the minor and major arcana depicting a relevant moment of history, each done in an art style appropriate for the year.
I’m also toying with an idea for another horror novel, combining billionaire mega-yachts with At the Mountains of Madness. But that’s less of a dream and more of a concept, so you might see that in the next few years.
Donna: What are you playing right now?
Greg: Every Sunday, I’m in a game of Termination Shock, a game of science fiction refugees, that should be coming out in November. I was the GM for the first big campaign of it, which is up online at https://soundcloud.com/greg-stolze. Initially, I’d planned for the game to be extremely grim and desperate, but the first two players (Jose Garcia and Lochlan Sudarshan) really showed me that it needed characters who were half Han Solo and half Niles Crane. So we’re all forming a company to get that published and supported. Jose’s running the current arc, so it’s quite fun to be playing instead of running.
Donna: What games do you have coming out soon? How do we find out more about you and your projects?
Greg: Termination Shock is on the way, as mentioned above. I have a Website at http://www.gregstolze.com where I’m pretty good about updating my forthcomings, and it also has a ton of free fiction and games, paid for by generous patrons. Most frequently, I’m on Twitter, @gregstolze.
Donna: Thank you, Greg! I highly recommend everyone check out Greg’s projects and novels. Let’s hope the tarot-card mechanics idea comes to fruition soon! I also recommend You: A Fiction.
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.