Interview with Phil Day, creator of Sol tabletop RPG

Hey there guys,

Well, it’s a new year, and I’m back to writing. Not gonna make any promises about regularity of content, but we’ll see how we go. Hopefully I can coax Jimbles into coming back and doing some more posts as well.

Anyway, for those of you who aren’t Canberra based, we have a yearly convention here called CanCon that covers card games, board games and war games. I’m actually not sure if it has much of an RPG component, I’ve never really seen groups there for it, but it could just be that I’m not looking in the right areas. Happens on the Australia Day long weekend every January, so it was on not the weekend before last. I don’t normally play in any games at the convention (I gave up competitive play for card games a few years ago, and carting around my army for Hordes is too much effort on the bike), but I make a point of going and checking out the vendors. There’s usually some good deals on games, and I often find a lot of more obscure RPG books (or even just some older stuff that isn’t as easily found these days). Anyway, while making my rounds of the various stores, I found a table advertising a Kickstarter campaign for an RPG called Sol. Of course, being me, I had to stop and see what it was all about. So I got to chatting with Phil Day, the creator, and Kirk Hone, the chief play tester about what the game had to offer. While I didn’t have a huge amount of time to talk with them, I got a bit of a feel for the game, and started to understand just how passionate about it they are.

Based on the quick chat I had with them, I was intrigued. It sounded like a fairly simple system, with a focus on letting the GM (or in this case, Adjudicator) tell stories without having to worry about a vast library of rules and the ways everything interacts with each other. . Don’t get me wrong, I love my Pathfinder and Shadowrun games, but they do tend to get pretty complicated at times. I’d say it’s not uncommon to have to pause Pathfinder sessions I run at least two or three times a session for around ten minutes at a time, just to look up and find out how certain rules actually work. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just what happens when games have so much content. So sometimes it’s nice to see a single book system that’s designed to have simple core rules, and runs on the old school ethos of “if the rules don’t cover it, the GM makes the call”. Yes Rule 0 still exists, but these days it’s often used as a way of saying “for the sake of time, the GM will make a call now and research how it should have worked later”, rather than “the GM thinks rule of cool says it should work this way, and he’s not being unfair about it, so why the hell not!”. I guess what I’m saying is that as more rules are available for games like Pathfinder, players inevitably want to use them, and often aren’t happy to be told that certain things don’t work in the game they’re playing in. I get that, after all, if I spend money on something, I want to use it, but it can definitely bog things down. So the more I thought about this game, the more interested I was. When I got home (with a pile of books and games strapped to the pillion seat of my bike), I jumped online and checked out the Kickstarter (take a look for yourself HERE). I was interested enough to pledge straight away, and also sent Phil a quick message mentioning that I’d be interested in doing an interview about the game. When I popped back out to the con the next day to spend yet more money and give my cousin his first exposure to a gaming convention, I stopped by the table again to hash out some details with Phil.

So, a couple of weeks later, here we are. I present to you, the Grassy Gnoll’s interview with Phil Day, creator of the Sol tabletop RPG.

I'm not quite sure what's going on here, but it looks horrifying...

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here, but it looks horrifying…

A quick note before we get started: Based on a comment from a friend saying that he thought the system looked to be heavily tied into the system, which reduced his interest, I thought I better add this in. From what I’ve seen of the rules, I believe they’re generic enough to run pretty much any setting, though low powered fantasy is what I think it’d be best for. If anything it’d just require a little bit of reflavouring (start calling cantations spells or powers instead, whatever you need to). I’m basing this on the explanations I got from Kirk at CanCon, when the discussion of the game included literally no details about the setting but everything still made perfect sense to me. That said, I’ve mentioned it to Phil, and will update this when I get a response about his take on the matter.

Tink: Could you tell me a bit about your background? Did you grow up as a gamer, or was it something you came to later in life? Is there anything in particular that inspired you growing up, anything that you see as having led to you starting to work on tabletop game design?

Phil: My introduction into RPGs was quite slow. As a boy I enjoyed the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books. I particularly liked Steve Jackson four-part ‘Sorcery’. The bookshop I bought these titles form also sold D&D. I remember asking the owner of the shop about it, and she said I was too young to play it. So I left it at that. When I began high school I guess I felt I was no longer a child, so I bought a copy of D&D (the red box version). I read the rules. I, and Kirk, and two others (we were all 12 years old) sat down to our first game – Castle Cadwell and Beyond. Everyone died before going anywhere near ‘beyond’.

From there we continued playing D&D. Eventually ‘graduating’ to Advance D&D – which I never felt was as good as D&D. Along came AD&D 2nd edition, I played this a little, but felt it still paled in comparison to D&D.

I also played Runequest, which I thought was a much better role-playing system. But the character creation was very slow. I also played some others, but I preferred Runequest, while my friends preferred AD&D. Our preferences for different game systems bought about discussion and debate. I argued that the simpler the rules the better, arguing original D&D encouraged more role-playing and could be stripped back even more and be an even better RPG. I started to give this more thought when I got my first part-time job.

I was 15 and washing dishes at Pizza Hut. My idea for an RP was quite simple – to remove as many obstacles in both mechanics and role-playing. The mechanics are inspired from D&D, Runequest, and basic probability. As for the role-playing, I felt a tighter, more psychologically discordant, campaign world would encourage the imagination – just as it does in literature, where a protagonist has restrictions, struggles, to propel them through their quest. Ultimately forcing them to make decisions which define where they’ve come from, who they are, and where they are going.

I also wanted to create a game that only required one core-rule book; an inexpensive and practical core-rule book that is well indexed, containing easy to read charts and crisp black and white illustrations. Most importantly, the core-book should encourage both players and GMs to invent and expand on, not limit them or ask them to purchase more and more books. The beauty of RPGs is the opportunity to invent, and I do feel, with many thanks to Kirk’s hours upon hours of test playing, we’ve achieved this.

Tink: How did the two of you end up working together on this project? Were you friends before it all began, or did you meet in the process of designing Sol?

Phil: Kirk and I are both 41 years old. We met when we were 12. Together, with some other friends, we started playing RPGs (D&D, AD&D, Runequest, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, but mostly AD&D). I almost always was DM. I stopped playing RPGs around age 15, which was the same time I started thinking about Sol (its working title was Utopia). Years went by – roughly 25 of them – and Kirk and I remained friends. Over the years Kirk continued playing RPGs and last year – 2014 – he invited me to a game. After the game I, having not played an RPG for more the 25 years, I mentioned to Kirk I felt the free-play that RPGs once offered had been suffocated by too many rules, and that the DM had become little more than a fact-checker, or at best, a referee. Naturally, this bought about our old topic of conversation: D&D vs. AD&D. It was then that I first revealed that I had an idea for an RPG; the dice mechanics, the classes, the campaign world, etc. Kirk was excited bout the idea and asked me to write to down so he and fellow gamers could play it. From there it grew into a publishing venture.

Tink: There are a lot of fantasy RPGs out there, ranging from the two big ones, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, to the numerous alternative and/or independent offerings. With so many games already existing for this genre, obviously it’s a tough field to break into. What do you think Sol brings to tabletop fantasy gaming that will make it stand out from the crowd?

Phil: I’ve been involved in the making, illustrating, designing, and publication of books for twenty years. The titles I co-publish (finlaylloyd.com) contain essays, short fiction, poetry, and full novels – just as many publishers do. In that way it is no different to the bigger publishers. But smaller publishers, like us, have one advantage: we don’t have to think about market trends. We don’t have to think about reaching the widest audience; instead, we try to publish books that we feel bigger publishers aren’t willing to take a risk with. Not because the books aren’t good, but simply because the title represents a smaller percentage of the market share. My approach to Sol is much the same. Kirk and I are not interested in how to reach the biggest audience. Instead, we hope to reach an audience of RPG enthusiasts who would like a system with less rules and charts cluttering their momentum of play, and a system that is designed for players – particularly GMs – to build on and invent, and where the bulk of the rules – particularly the use of magic, creature creation, and as simple tasks such as climbing a tree – are tasks for a the GM to engage with and improvise on with the players. This, I believe, keeps the game narrative at the fore-front of play, rather than endlessly checking of rules, spell description, or players trumping the GMs decision.

Tink: Can you give a bit of insight into what the design process has been like? How long has it taken to get Sol from being a vague idea to a fully realised system? Were there any major setbacks or pitfalls along the way?

Phil: Much of the thoughts for Sol began many, many years ago. But it wasn’t until I shared Sol with Kirk and he began play-testing the mechanics and ‘feel’ that it felt like an RPG was being fully written. It’s all very well to have an idea, but until you have gamers, with experience, willing to play it, you really don’t know what you have. Luckily for me, Kirk’s RPGs experience spans three decades resulting in an extensive appreciation of various rules and game worlds. And what’s more, the gamers he has tested Sol with have equal amount RPG experience – two of which have degrees in pure mathematics, which allowed them to chew through probability regarding dice rolling.

Added to this, Kirk is also a senior school teacher and has been able to further test Sol with younger players with much less RPG experience. I feel what Kirk has bought to the development of Sol is priceless – you simply can’t resolve such concerns sitting by yourself rolling dice; a game has to played. That said, Sol has been game-tested regularly for over half a year, and is still being tested before we go to print.

So far there haven’t been any delays in designing Sol. I feel this is largely due the responsibilities we’ve each taken on. Kirk is looking after game testing, I’m busy writing, illustrating, etc. And Phil (the third man in our project) is our editor. Once all is done he’ll have the busy job of making sure all is correct before Sol goes to print. Our small team allows us to stay on task having confidence in each other. And because all three of us are equal partners in this project, none of us are afraid to say what we think.

Tink: Obviously play-testing is an important part of the design process. How have you worked this into your project? Do you come up with a major version of the system game and run exhaustive playtests, then write-up another major version incorporating the feedback, or do you work on an, if you’ll excuse the project management mumbo-jumbo, agile methodology, where you playtest side by side with the development process, making changes incrementally as you go? Is it even a combination of the two?

Phil: The core mechanic for all tasks was constructed early on; a single chart requiring the roll of three six-sided dice. Little has changed about this chart, but how it is implemented has changed quite a lot, particularly around combat. We really wanted to keep combat swift and deadly. This meant keeping all rolling to a minimum and making sure each roll contributed to the action – each roll and result should have a sense of anxiety and surprise. The other big changes occured around character creation. Often, what I felt was quite obvious, was not so obvious to the game-testers had my ideas remained untouched they would have most likely been house-ruled out of the game.

In short, there has been a lot of give and take with the game-testing.

Tink: One of the most common complaints about RPGs (particularly the d20 or levelling based systems) is that difficulty doesn’t scale well, causing them to “break” at higher levels. For example, in Pathfinder, the gap between good saving throws and bad saving throws for classes widens so much that in order to challenge those with a good save bonus becomes practically impossible for a class that has the same save as a poor one, unless they spend vast amounts of resources shoring it up or manage to roll a natural 20. Have you taken this into consideration while designing Sol? Do you consider it a problem, and if so, how does the system deal with it?

Phil: Sol doesn’t have a leveling system as such. Instead, the character’s attributes (Strength, Cognition, Dexterity, and Health) improve when they succeed in tasks that are measured above their ability. Therefore, as characters become more powerful, they are more likely to succeed, however, they are also expected to take greater calculated risks. Players who choose to simply gamble on tasks are most likely to pay the consequences, it really does require players to be sure about their actions. There are no saving throws. There is no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’. Like chess, you touch it – you move it.

Tink: There are many different styles of fantasy, and not all systems are suited to all of them. While games like D&D may start off small-scale and fairly gritty at low levels, as the characters level up they tend to become more like fantasy superheroes, and the games become correspondingly more epic in scale. What style of story is your game designed to tell?

Phil: The Sol world is quite detailed – quite political. While at the same time it is very much a dungeon crawling adventure. To try to describe the game world could well undermine how the game is played. But I’ll try and keep it simple:

Sol is a city on the empty surface of planet. One side of the planet, an enormous sea of water, always faces the Sun – this side is called Sol. While the opposite side of the planet is covered in ice and darkness – this is side is called Umbra. The city of Sol is situated between the two. Spending three moon passes (three months) in Sol, and three moon passes in Umbra.

Solian agriculture benefits from the shift from light to dark. From this they have been able to construct a civilization that allows them to remain stationary. A civilization built on mathematical reasoning by the Epistemologists – the ruling class.

The Epistemologists have constructed a civilization that has no gods and no money, offering a utopian existence. But their utopia is partially a façade. Epistemological thinking requires all Solians to take on given tasks, and these tasks train and identify citizen suitable to be trained to venture into Umbra, beneath the snow and ice into endless caverns. The caverns are warm, the deeper they go, the warmer they are. Unlike the surface, the subterranean world of is not so empty. The subterranean world is inhabited by other sentient beings of varying behaviour, size, and cognitive awareness. Solians (player characters) are sent on deeds into Umbra to acquire materials, samples of flora and fungi, even whole or parts of fauna. All of which they are to help Epistemological research into acquiring immortality.

Of course players have the opportunity to disobey Epistemological rule – if they choose to do so they are not alone. There are citizens in Sol who, like the Rebel alliance in Star Wars, are working together to free themselves (the more ambitious hope to overthrow the Epistemologists). But they are out numbered. The vast majority of Solians live according to Epistemological rule unquestioningly, giving no thought to an existence other than what they know. How a player chooses the exist within this world will set them on a path. In a way this is how a player specialises. There are also roles that can be offered to players by the game master that folds them into the political role of Epistemologists. Such roles are kept secret from fellow players; operating a little like an hidden NPC within their character, adding an element of distrust to certain classes.

As for when character become too fantasy-hero, this is somewhat achievable. New found powers are a Faustian bargain. Such powers offer something great, but players who choose to exercise them do so at the risk of losing – what might be – a whole lot more.

Tink: Often tabletop RPGs, or at least their publishers, will live or die (figuratively speaking) on the continuing support of the game, whether through expansions to the rules, adventures, campaign setting guides or other products like that. While games without this may keep a dedicated fan base, publishing further resources can help grow the audience (though conversely, you don’t want to go too far, in case you get people screaming about rules bloat and option paralysis). Do you have any plans for supporting products after Sol is published, or is that something you’ll look into after gauging the reaction to the game?

Phil: We do have plans for future publications. We hope to publish the game modules (adventures/quests, etc) players of Sol are creating themselves. We have already had quite a bit of interest from players here in Australia and in the US. One backer of our project has already submitted a detail description and we are already in consultation with him about writing a module for us, which we’ll design, edit, publish, and distribute. And naturally he will receive royalties from sales. We really want the players of Sol to contribute and expand the Sol gaming experience.

Tink: Earlier I asked about what you think is unique or interesting enough about Sol to grab attention in an already heavily saturated market. On a more general note, what are some of the aspects of the game that really have you excited, that you think players are really going to go for? Not necessarily unique things, but stuff you think it does really well, or is just awesome and needs to be shared.

Phil: Cantations (spells) have tested really well. So has the pace of the game, and how deadly it can be. But what I think I’d find exciting about Sol is the role of the adjudicator (the DM or GM). The rules and world lore assists the adjudicator on how to measure a character’s behaviour. And I don’t mean measure in some right or wrong point awarding way. I mean in a descriptive manner that adds action and mood to the RPG narrative, setting up future rewards, or undesirable repercussions. In this way I feel the adjudicator is offered much more flexible and active role while playing.

Tink: Could you run through a few basic examples of play? Doesn’t have to be anything complicated, just enough to give an idea of how the system plays at this stage in its development.

Phil: I was going to describe how combat and cantations work, but instead I’ve chosen something quite simple, and a little dry, just because it is a little easier than various variables that need to be accounted for in combat or casting cantations:

A player rolls 2d6 for all attributes. Let’s assume your character has a 9 for Strength. And your character wishes jump across a 4m chasm. The adjudicator describes the scene as calm, clear sky, you aren’t at all fatigued, there is plenty of run up on flat ground, and you’re in no hurry. The adjudicator now must decide the grade of the task. Each grade has a modifier added or subtracted from a 3d6 roll. The grade and modifiers are: Unchallenging (U ) N/A, Very Easy (VE) -6 , Easy (E) -4, Challenging (C) 0, Very Challenging (VC) +1, or Impossible? (?) +2. Should the adjudicator award the task as U no die rolled is required, but because the gap is 3m, and the character has ample time to assess the run up an so on, I’m going to give the task a grade of VE which gives the player a modifier of -6 to their roll on a 3d6. The player now must roll 3d6 with a modifier of -6 and hope to get a score either equal to or less than their attribute Strength of 9. When a player character performs a task that is above their attribute grade they are have the chance of attribute improvement. To improve an attribute the player needs to roll 3d6 and score higher than their current attribute score. In the case of the scenario above the player would need to roll higher than their strength of 9. You succeed; your character is awarded 0.5 to add to their current strength of 9, making their strength 9.5.

This above is quite a simple example, but hopefully it illustrates the active role of the adjudicator, and how a character becomes more proficient.

Tink: One last question. Is there anything in particular you do to wind down at the end of a long day? Anything you listen to when working on the game?

Phil: I haven’t been involved in gaming for a quite a while, although in 2009 I did take the World Record on Galaga. I usually spend much of my time designing and making books. When I’m not doing that, I’m drawing or writing.

—————————————————————————————————————-

So, there you have it. I’d like to give a big thanks to Phil for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly (both in the interview and at CanCon), as well as to Kirk for explaining the mechanics to me, and to wish them luck with the rest of the long road to getting Sol published and into the hands of players. I have to say, I’m pretty keen to see how this game turns out, and I definitely plan on running some games in it. I’ve put another link to the Kickstarter page below if you missed the previous one, along with a link to a quick video showing a mock-up of the book that the printer has made for them. There’s 11 days left on the campaign, and they need just under another $3000 to reach their goal, so please, if you’re interested in the game, or know someone who might be, spread the word and consider pledging. Seriously, I want to play this game. Don’t make me come find you and shake you down for your lunch money to make it happen… I’ll do it.

Sol Tabletop RPG | Kickstarter
Sol Tabletop RPG book design | Youtube

—————————————————————————————————————-

Written while listening to Joe Hill’s novel Horns as an audiobook. Highly recommended, even if you have already seen the movie with Daniel Radcliffe that came out last year (well, in the US. Still waiting for it here in cinemas). While the film is excellent, and does a good job of staying true to the spirit of the novel, obviously a lot had to be cut to fit the story into 2 hours. Characters and events are changed, and some of the themes are missing or glossed over. 

Still working on my series of brief reviews to cover all the remaining films I saw from last year’s Canberra International Film Festival. Not sure when it’ll be up, but hopefully soon. Also working on a few more potential interviews, and some reviews. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s