Thursday, September 3, 2020

Developer Interviews: Alan Bahr

Growth and Responsibility: An Interview with Alan Bahr

Alan Bahr is the creative powerhouse behind Gallant Knight Games, a company that produces some of the most creative projects on the small press indie game scene. He has helped bring the Brazilian OSR to North America with projects like Knights of the Underbed, and has helped make ultra-light minimalist games, like his Tiny Dungeon 2e, a big part of the current wave of Indie games.

As always on W2tDT, the answers here are unedited, unabridged, and entirely the Author's own. 

W2tDT: You have made a lot of cool games. Some are pretty straightforward, like Tiny Dungeon and Tiny Frontier. Others are really unexpected: like Moods of the Mad King, a game about entertaining a tyrant and Cold Shadows, a le Carré / Ludlum inspired game of espionage that is built on Trust and Deception. You even have a game about playing Gods! Where do you get your ideas?

AB: Oh wow. I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m really inspired by music and art I see, and I find myself responding to cool media I find and using that to try to leap-frog into new styles of games.

From Hell’s Heart was written entirely to use public domain art from a single artist (yes, I found art I liked and wrote a whole game to justify it.)

Which of your games are you most proud of?

That’s hard to answer. I love the whole TinyD6 line, but I think Cold Shadows is probably my favorite. It’s an underserved genre and I’m really proud of what we did (especially considering it was the third game we ever released and it was a big jump for us in terms of mechanics and production.)

Many of your games are built on the super-minimalist TinyD6 engine. It is probably one of the three lightest systems I have played. Why focus on the minimalist angle in games?

Everyone has fun differently, but I found that my style of fun (fast resolution, rules light, easy to teach and play) was hard to find in games on the market at that time (partially because I didn’t know where to look). Tiny Dungeon really lit a fire under me and I wanted to keep going with it. 

What is different about playing a minimalist game vs. playing a crunchier system like Pathfinder? What does a game master have to do differently when he is running a minimalist system?

Well, I think a GM has to be prepared to fill in some gaps. I’m fond of saying in panels that the goal of TinyD6 is to get you 90% of the way there, and the last 10% is all the GM and what makes your game YOURS. 

Obviously, a minimalist game, like an OSR game requires a focus on making rulings not rules, being reasonable, logical, and open-handed as you run the game. And you have to reward player creativity. What do you think is a major difference between playing in minimalist system and playing an OSR game like OSRIC?

On a philosophical level, not much. I think they follow a lot of the same principles in terms of openness towards modification and exploration of what the mechanics can and can’t do. I think TinyD6 is more forgiving in terms of lethality (though that’s a different debate, I suppose), so the GM should feel enabled to make mistakes and grow. It’s a very forgiving and rewarding game system. 

Over the last few years, Gallant Knight games has become, to my mind, a place where you can see some of the most imaginative projects coming out of the small press scene. I’m thinking of games like Knights of the under bed, Gears of defiance, and Solar Blades and Cosmic spells. How would you describe the Gallant Knight ethos for choosing which games to publish? What makes you look at a project and say that it is a Gallant Knight game?

It's super simple: would I want to play this game at my table with my gaming groups? If my gut reaction is “hell yes”, then we’re all in. 

You have a reputation for being a mentor to other game developers and someone who knows how to boost the signal for other developers and great organizations. I’ve noticed your name in a lot of special thanks and Acknowledgements sections of Indie Games I picked up over the years. How important is mentorship, do you think, to this Hobby?

That’s the first I’ve heard of this! I’m gratified to hear that it’s such a thing, but honestly, I’m just a passionate fan of games. I’ve never lost that “fanboy” feeling I get around other game designers, and I just want to see them be successful. 

Is there anyone you would love to turn my readers attention to right now? A worthy cause or a great new project?

Well, at the time of this writing, Gallant Knight Games has For Coin & Blood: Second Edition up on Kickstarter! It’s a classically inspired grimdark fantasy RPG (inspired by RPGs from the 70s and 80s) where you play the stories of gutterscum and villains. 

I’m personally really excited for the Free League version of Twilight 2000. Free League is one of the best and most exciting publishers on the market and I can’t wait to see what else they do.

And how about yourself? What are you working on right now?

Well, we just put Tiny Cthulhu to layout, so that’ll be shipping soon! Other than that, I’ve got a lot of freelance work I owe folks (sorry!) and I’m actually kinda taking it easy on GKG projects for the next few months while I clear our backlog, catch up on errata style busy work, and work to improve our operations. 

I’ve got a few long-simmering projects I’ve recently turned my eye to that I’m very excited about, so we’ve been doing some playtests. 

After I bought my second copy of Tiny Dungeon 2e, I watched the year-long campaign you ran with Victory Condition Games to showcase it. It was a campaign that really went off the rails; you had a character who set fire to things and got other characters killed in almost every session. You had players who would appear and disappear. And you had, towards the end, a pair of completely ridiculous PCs that I don’t think anyone would quite know how to run. I have, since I first conceived this blog, intended to write an article about the after game discussion you had at the end of that campaign. You sat down and talked very frankly about your part in how the campaign had gone so wrong. Especially how the biggest role of the GM is providing direction and leadership to the group. That had to be hard to do in an open forum! To me, it was absolutely stunning to watch someone display that level of self-Honestly. Do you think that campaign has had an impact, good or bad on you in the long term As a GM or as a designer?

One of the great parts of running games online and publicly is that all your mistakes are nice and visible forever. 

It’s definitely impacted how I talk about GMing in the books we publish, how I talk about GMing at conventions, and how I communicate with players (in person, online and through any medium.) 

It was a lot harder on me than I expected, and it damaged some of my self-confidence I think, but if I’m being honest, I needed to be challenged and I feel like I was better after being pushed to grow as a GM.

You made the transition to full time game developer in 2016, and then in 2018 you went back into the full-time workforce for the best possible reason: to be a Dad. So few people in this industry ever get to be developers full time. I'm envious...

Hah! It’s like a lot of jobs where you spend more time doing the non-fun parts than the fun parts 😊

...What advice would you give the guys who are aiming to develop games for a living?

Be patient, be smart with money and finances, and make sure you learn everything you can. It’s a lot harder than expected in some ways (and some things are a lot easier.) Everyone make and plays games differently, so you have to make your own mistakes, so you can grow into the designer that only you can grow into. 

...Do you think it is possible to have financial stability while making games? What would someone need to do to make that happen?

I think this is really a big conversation, frankly. Short answer is: yes. This is a topic that gets me really fired up, so I’m sorry for the wall of text!

But there are some hurdles that need to be adjusted in the industry. Consumers, publishers, distributors, and streamers all share a responsibility to ensure the industry can sustain and support the wonderful creativity that comes out of it.

Piracy is a real problem in the game industry (some of my angriest twitter rants have been piracy focused.) Consumers need to be willing to pay fair prices for the games they want to consume (RPGs are an insane return on investment for what they cost. They’re cheaper than a movie most times and you can do it repeatedly without purchasing more!)

Publishers need to set up and hold each other accountable, both in terms of what we pay freelancers (a sustainable wage), and what we charge. The “race to the bottom” pricing that you see only harms other publishers (and eventually yourself.)

Distribution is a whole can of worms. I’m really glad I have such a great distributor (Studio2 is wonderful.)

Streamers, actual plays, and those who monetize RPGs in artistic and creative format like that have a responsibility to promote and share games. Streaming is such a wonderful new frontier for tabletop RPGs and it’s so exciting to see all the amazing things that come out of that community. It has the potential to revolutionize the way RPGs are consumed, but when wielded improperly it can be harmful too (as can be seen sometimes.)

Thank you Alan, for your time, and a shelf full of amazing games!

Thank you!

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