Sunday, July 3, 2016


Kevin Crawford of Sine Nominee Publishing was kind enough to talk with me recently about his new game Godbound. It is an innovative OSR ruleset for playing god-like characters. But it is much more than that suggests, as Crawford has put considerably thought into the mechanics and moral questions that arise from such a concept. He explains in the interview below. 
If you are interested in learning more about Godbound, check out the deluxe sales page at Drivethru RPG or the free version HERE

Brendan Davis: What is the basic premise of Godbound?

Kevin Crawford: Heroes in a run-down fantasy world of decaying wonders and uncertain natural law are suddenly graced with divine power. The player characters need to decide how to use that power, and how to deal with the parasite gods, monstrous tyrants, eldritch sorcerers, and other insidious perils that canker the world.

BD: What were your main sources of inspiration for Godbound?

KC: I wanted to ask questions about the root of ethical norms, and what kind of moral choices you could make if granted tremendous power and no obvious checks on your choices. In the absence of a revealed moral code, how do you make decisions? You have the power to shape whole realms to fit your conception of the good-how do you decide what the good is? To what extent are you willing to act on other people's wills, or change their fundamental natures? Is there even a universal ethical norm you can subscribe to, or if not, how do you deal with a universe that lacks any absolute reason for preferring happy kittens over infant torture? And if there _is_ a universal ethical norm, who decides what it is and where do they ground its authority?

From a game-play standpoint, the obvious inspiration was Exalted. I've sunk hundreds of hours into playing Exalted 1e, and there's a lot to love about all the iterations of the game. The latest edition does a lot of great things and makes many people extremely happy. But among the many things it is, "low crunch" is not one of them. I wanted a much lighter game with a greater degree of PC power and more GM support. So I wrote it.
Art by Jeff Brown

BD: What kind of cultures can people expect to see in the setting?

KC: On one hand, whichever cultures you put in, because Godbound does not presume a specific campaign setting. Still, the example realm of Arcem provided in the book was designed to give plenty of open space for different cultural styles, whether the steppe nomads of the Toban Plains, the T'ang Dynasty-inspired society of Dulimbai, the Roman Zulus of Patria, the Ethiopian-styled High Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse of Ancalia, or the cyberpunk-tinted near future tech of the Bright Republic. The autocossacks of the Iron Tsar in Nezdohva borrow elements from early modern Russia, and there are the pastiche-cultures of the Atheocracy of Lom, the Bleak Reach, and the Howler tribes as well.

BD: How does a Godbound campaign differ from a more typical fantasy Campaign?

KC: PCs begin at a power level far beyond that which most campaigns ever reach. Depending on the way they focus their abilities, they can chew through a military regiment in moments, turn ten miles of desert into crop-heavy farmland, cure every sickness in a city, reroute rivers, or utterly enslave people's wills. Ordinary men and women only have a chance to overcome them in huge mobs, and even that may not work against more martial Godbound. Only heroes, monsters, and other divine entities have a chance to stop them one-on-one, and so much of the combat conflict that appears in a campaign revolves around fighting these enemies and their swarms of lesser minions.

More significantly, however, Godbound campaigns revolve around changing the world and creating the societies, nations, and physical realities that your PC wants to create. The mechanics for using Dominion, nurturing cults, and interacting with factions are all built to encourage PCs to leave their mark on the world and change the things that aren't as they think they should be. Much of the conflict and tension of the game comes from dealing with the consequences of these changes, or facing down those forces that have different ideas about how the world should be. 

BD: Can you describe the system for Godbound?

KC: It's derived from my Scarlet Heroes one-on-one RPG; it's basically an old-school framework redone so that Godbound PCs are enormously more resilient, while keeping easy conversion compatibility with other old-school adventures and resources. You can lift existing material and use it in Godbound, either as easy sources of monsters and ruins or as ideas for what kind of minion-creatures or enchantments your Godbound heroes might want to create.

The largest diversion is the Effort mechanic. Godbound have a few points of Effort- two to start with- and they commit this effort to fuel their divine powers. When they stop using a power, they get their Effort back, thus limiting the amount of divine mojo they can keep running at once. Triggering exceptionally potent powers might commit Effort for longer periods, leaving them to regain it at the end of the scene, or even at the end of the day.
Art by Aaron Lee

Godbound PCs bind "Words", the Words of Creation that touch on realities underlying concepts. You might have a Godbound of Death, Fire, and Passion, for example, while other has Sword, Endurance, and Command. You can learn special gifts from these Words to have easy and regular access to favorite powers, or you can commit Effort for the day to trigger miracles that mimic these gifts or similar effects. Thus, a Godbound always has access to all the powers of their chosen Words as long as they have Effort left, but they can choose to master specific gifts to have easier and cheaper use of them. 

BD: What were some of the major challenges you faced while developing the system for Godbound?

KC: Supporting the idea of Godbound PCs as actual world-shaping divinities rather than just high-level adventurers or fantasy-flavored superheroes. It's not mechanically hard to make a superhero- you make a world, assign numbers to things, and then give the superhero bigger numbers than most things. Whatever system you use, just make the superhero more of it. Give them extra oomph and a big slew of special powers, and you're set.

If you want them to be able to actually affect the world, however, things get hairier. Traditionally, superheroes don't fundamentally change the world around them. If they do, it's in the course of a story that plays up the aversion of that trope. PC divinities, on the other hand, need to be able to leave their mark on a world, whether that consists of a species of divinely-created warrior-minions, a magic citadel, a blessed nation, an ensorceled shrine, or an entire paradise-world.

It's not enough to just give them powers that supposedly do these things. The more handwaving the GM has to do, the more reluctant everyone is to try to do these things. Most GMs feel much more comfortable when they have a clear framework in which to adjudicate major creations, and so I had to develop the Dominion and Faction systems to make things comfortable.

BD: The art from the previews so far is genuinely stunning.  Your books already have a reputation for quality but this seems like a whole other level. What motivated you to do full color and who are your artists?

KC: A mix of ambition, curiosity about how a full-color game would be to develop, and cold-blooded mercantile interest in whether or not an expensive art buy would pay back in sales. I did Starvation Cheap as a shorter full-color piece first to warm up and build a stable of artists, and Godbound was my first effort at a full-color, full-sized game.
Art by Tan Ho Sim

My very capable artists are the redoubtable Jeff Brown on the cover and some interior pieces, Christof Grobelski, Aaron Lee, Joyce Maureira, and Tan Ho Sim on interior art, Maxime Plasse for cartography, and Craig Judd on designing the character sheet. The reliable David Lewis Johnson and Miguel Santos did the b/w line work for Sixteen Sorrows. I can readily recommend any of them to other publishers looking for artists.

BD: Each of your products and the concepts behind them seem very strong; do you have a governing design philosophy?

KC: Write things that GMs can use. Now, I love players as much as the next publisher. There are a lot of them, and they'll try all kinds of goofy things for you if you ask them to. But ultimately, you need the GM for most traditional RPGs, and if you don't have a GM, you don't have a game. Therefore, if you want people to play your game, you need to make it as friendly and helpful as possible to the GM. If you have a GM who's a fan, you'll get players who are fans. It doesn't always work the other way around.

Therefore, I always try to think about what exactly a GM is going to do with whatever I've just put on the page. How are they going to read it, understand it, and use it in play? When I write a set of rules, can I imagine some harried GM actually following the steps I outline, or have I made a lovely mechanical confection that can't survive the rough and tumble of an actual game table?  I try to stay away from nebulous advice chapters and general guidelines and instead put in specific step-by-step procedures for creating things. In my experience, if you can't distill a piece of creation advice into at an example workflow, you might not be saying anything useful. Talk is cheap. Generation tables that actually produce X are a different matter.

BD: What advice do you have for aspiring game designers or those looking to break into the industry?  

KC: Be prolific, be good, and be distinguishable. No matter how good you are, if you don't make a lot of products, you will not make significant money. Sure, you might write a shock hit, but you might get hit by a meteor, too; for 99.9% of us ink-stained wretches, your income is directly correlated with how many products you have to sell. Moreover, because we work with PDFs and POD print, we can keep our back catalog "in print" indefinitely. Every new fan is a chance for them to go back and buy your back catalog, so you need to give them as much as possible to enjoy.

And they need to enjoy it. Shoveling 47 one-page list products out every Tuesday won't get you anywhere. You need to be good at what you're doing, writing good stuff. It has to be polished, clean, and suggest that the publisher actually knows what they are doing. It doesn't have to have Zak Smith avant-garde sensibilities or James Raggi art budgets, but it needs to be _solid_. Good writing, decent layout, respectable art.

Lastly, it must be distinguishable from the mass of free and cheap RPG content being churned out. It doesn't matter how great an orc cave you've just made, people looking for orc caves have 4,811 different options in that genre, and yours has to be ridiculously good and ridiculously lucky to catch their attention. Something about the stuff you write has to be unique, or at least uncommon, and you have to provide it consistently. For Sine Nomine, that shtick is GM support and sandboxing. Everything I do is sandbox-flavored and built for GM comfort. People looking for those things know to buy Sine Nomine stuff, the same way people looking for daring art and a grindhouse metal sensibility know to buy James Raggi stuff. Whatever you do, people have to know that to get your kind of stuff, they need to go to you.

BD: I’ve seen you mention you are working on a Ming Dynasty historical setting. I think a lot of people would be interested in that. Can you give us a sense of what to expect when it is ready?

KC: I wouldn't expect to see it for another 3-4 years at a minimum, probably after my Tudor England 1555 game gets settled, and likely using the same Stars Without Number-inspired mechanical framework. With both games, the goal is to give you a combination sourcebook and alt-history game, where the outline of society and history is fundamentally the same as in the real world, but the existence of magic and the supernatural is woven into the cracks and gaps. The intent is that if you want to play in London 1555, you can pick up the Tudor game and run a straight historical game and it'll work. You'll have all the information you need and the GM tools you need to actually make Marian England adventures and conflicts, and not just Generic Low Fantasy in Ruffed Collars. With the Ming game, the idea is that you pick up the game and it does the same thing for Ming China 1555. Needless to say, one of the two is _substantially harder_ to execute than the other. It's going to take me at least three or four years to work through the research material I have and learn what I need to learn in order to digest things properly for a casual GM's use.

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