A Conversation With…Jason Morningstar

Well, here’s one some of you have been waiting for.  This time Jason Morningstar is joining me. Jason is a game designer, focusing mainly on role playing games and is very active in the indie rpg arena. Some of Jason’s games include The Shab-al-hiri Roach, Grey Ranks (which won a Diana Jones award), and Fiasco. He is a partner in Bully Pulpit Games, a supporter of fledgling game designers, and an all around great guy.

Welcome Jason. Thanks for being on Go Forth And Game.

Tell us about your current projects.

I’ve always got a bunch of things cooking. Right now Medical Hospital,
the medical game of medical melodrama, is supposed to be my #1
priority, but somehow I got sidetracked into this obsessive little
Archipelago hack that models Jacobean revenge tragedy. I’ve always
wanted to do that, and recently dug up a weird game I wrote a few
years ago that models John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera that I never
play tested, and realized that when I wrote it I lacked the tools to do
what I wanted with it. I have those tools now, so I wrote this new
thing that is looking pretty hot. At least to me. On the back burner I
have a pair of lovely, play tested, super cool little games that I have
no practical way to produce affordably. Both are ludicrously focused
roleplaying games that would ship as decks of cards. It’s a weird
problem of production and marketing. Also, in 2011 we’ll be offering
The Fiasco Companion, which will include a ton of ideas for making
Fiasco a very different game – changing the tone from Coen brothers to
John Hughes, for example, hacking the tilt and aftermath tables,
advice for convention play, serial play, all kinds of really fun
stuff. Plus a bunch of really odd playsets showing off the game’s
range. I’m working on that, too.
What is the hardest part of designing a game?

Playtesting.
What is the hardest part of playtesting a game?

Ha! Getting useful feedback from blind tests. Making sure you are
testing the right things with the right sorts of people. Incorporating
incremental changes effectively and thoughtfully. Identifying things
that suck and killing them, including things you absolutely love.
With regard to role playing games, what are some aspects of a good player?

A good player is someone who listens well and contributes with
enthusiasm and grace. I think really good players listen more than
they talk. This is true of people in general.
Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

Definitely B. Dennis Sustaire.
What are you currently playing?

I’m in two groups that meet weekly most of the time. One group is
playing How We Came To Live Here, Brennan Taylor’s game about the
mythic southwest that I just love, and the other group has been
knocked for a loop by summer scheduling. In that group we’re two
episodes into a PTA game, but it has been put on hiatus until fall. In

the mean time we’re doing one-shots. Tonight we’re playtesting my

revenge tragedy thing. Last week we had a LAN party.
How did your company, Bully Pulpit Games, come about?

My friends Patrick Murphy, Steve Segedy and I put it together when we
realized we had some interest in publishing stuff. I’d been exposed to
the Forge publication forum, which was (and is) stuffed with practical
advice for people dealing with printers and producing their own stuff.
It was pretty inspirational and the spirit of mutualism was very
exciting. We were like “we can totally do this.”
You recently had a collaboration with Matthijis Holter.  Tell us about
that project.

OK, so Matthijs Holter is this crazy Norwegian I have never met in
person. He wrote a game called Archipelago II, which is mad brilliant
and that became a real go-to game for me. I believe he proposed a
collaboration, and I was all for it. So we decided to take a hard look
at Archipelago and barriers to enjoying it, and make a game that
addressed those barriers. We came up with a pre-made situation and
pre-made characters, two things you absolutely don’t get in
Archipelago II. We built out a really delicious, conflict-filled
relationship map for 5 characters and built some new mechanisms to
drive the action. I applied what i had learned hacking Archipelago for
a thing I did called Last Train Out Of Warsaw. It turned out great -
it’s called Love in the Time of Seið. I can’t wait to meet Matthijs at
some point and play with him!
You’ve stated that your go to games are Prime Time Adventures and The
Shadow of Yesterday
.  Why?  What is it about these games that keeps
you coming back to them?

Well, I honestly think Archipelago has overtaken TSOY in my brain, but
I will still be playing it. Anyway, these games scratch my itch for
light, flexible, relaxed collaborative play that still provides a
sense of challenge and drama in a fun amount. They are easy to get
into, easy to atomize into two hour chunks (that’s about how long we
play on a week night, give or take), and consistently deliver intense
fun.
You also recently had a Trail of Cthulhu adventure published by
Pelgrane Press.  I was lucky enough to have playtested it and it was a
lot of fun.  Tell us about how that came about.

My friend Graham Walmsley wrote The Dying of St. Margarets for
Pelgrane and suggested I pitch them with an idea. “It’s easy!” he
said. It was, in fact, not easy, but it was very interesting and
ultimately rewarding writing for Trail. Now I’m thinking I’ll ask to
do another, since I love weird horror and have no real outlet for that
enthusiasm. I’ll hit you up for a playtest, Tom! This one will be
considerably closer to home.

I will definitely be up for that! What is next for you?

The thing I’m most excited about is that I’ve been invited as a guest
of honor to Lucca, the largest game and comic show in Italy, this
fall. So I’ll be in Italy for the premiere of the Italian version of
my game Fiasco, published by Janus Design, and having a good time with
my Italian friends and generally eating a lot of gelato.

I see Jeepform talked about on Story Games often.  What is that?

Jeepform is a collection of techniques for roleplaying developed by a
group of Nordic lunatics.

http://jeepen.org/dict/

It opened my eyes to some interesting potential that North American
tabletop tradition simply overlooks. When you see an erosion of
character monogamy in my games, or a blending of character and player,
or metagame knowledge intruding into the fictional space, you can
thank Jeepform. It’s cool stuff.
What is it about Jacobean tragedy that interests you?

Well, revenge tragedy specifically was like the slasher flick of its
day – lurid, over the top, cathartic and horrible. It’s such a
departure from its more staid counterparts of the era. So I love the
transgression and naked crowd-pleasing lowest-common-denominator
aspects. I got turned onto Webster, Ford, Kyd and Middleton in
college.

That is very cool.  I need to look into this more.  I think I will like it.
Who is Dennis Sustaire and why is he an object of admiration for you?

Dennis Sustaire wrote and designed for Fantasy Games Unlimited in the
70’s and 80’s. He wrote Bunnies and Burrows, which is my favorite RPG
ever. It’s a game that presaged pretty much everything. It came out in
1976 and you can see him working on what a roleplaying game can be.
Bunnies and Burrows is crazy innovative.
What is your take on the retro rpg movement?

My friend Clinton R. Nixon is a huge fan of the old school thing, so I
get to play some fun games under his tutelage – Dungeon Slayers most
recently. He just bought Lamentations of the Flame Princess so we’ll
be trying that out, too. My other group had a long-ish run at basic
D&D recently, too, which was really fun. There’s a lot to learn and
enjoy there.
I’m really interested in what people think makes a good player.  And
being a good listener keeps popping up.  So that is a key.  You mentioned a
few other aspects but could you expand on your answer a bit.

If you actively listen to your friends they will tell you so much.
What they want, how what they don’t want can be introduced to delight
and terrify them, what buttons you can push and what buttons you
really shouldn’t. If everyone at the table is doing this it is such a
gift. And it is very simple. Just pay attention, be very deliberate
about caring about your friends and giving them the best time you can.
You play board games too if I remember correctly.  What games scratch
that itch?

I am big into cooperative games. So I am currently loving the very
excellent Castle Panic, we play a ton of Pandemic, Shadows Over
Camelot. I don’t enjoy competitive games as much any more. I’m
actually working on a cooperative board game of my own right now!
That’s a secret.

That sounds really fun.  I would be very interested in that. The Durham 3 – I really liked the podcast.  The format was unique and I learned from it.  But I understand that you all are kind of over that.  Any plans for any new content from the group?

It’s a lot of work and we sort of stopped enjoying it. So probably
not. Thanks for the kind words, though.

You have me very curious about Archipelago II.  Why has it moved to
first place for you?

It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

You mentioned Fiasco earlier in brief.  It’s a uber awesome game.  It’s
the go to game for one of my groups.  And I think your support of it is
superb.  How is it doing for you?

Thanks, really active support was something I committed to and I feel
like it is appreciated and helps sell the game to people who might be
on the fence. The game is doing very well and has gotten a lot of
praise from people I respect. It is also very heartening to hear
positive comments from people playing the game. I’m not getting any
rules questions or confusion, which is a sign that it works the way it
is supposed to. My goal now is to encourage people to make their own
playsets, something you know a thing or two about, Tom! In 2011 we’ll
be publishing the Fiasco Companion, which will include a lot of play
advice, variants, very odd playsets pushing the edges of what the game
can do, a whole new Tilt and Aftermath table combo for doing John
Hughes type romantic comedy. So that’ll be fun! I’m going to hit you
up for some playtesting.
Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Stuff I mentioned:

Archipelago II
http://norwegianstyle.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/archipelago-ii/

Love in the Time of Seið
http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/love-in-the-time-of-sei%C3%B0/11175733

My blog at Bully Pulpit Games
http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/fairplay/

The Black Drop
http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=2322

Forge publishing sub-forum
http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?board=12.0

How We Came To Live here
http://galileogames.com/how-we-came-to-live-here/

Altamaha-Ha
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamaha-ha

Last Train Out Of Warsaw
http://www.lulu.com/product/file-download/last-train-out-of-warsaw/6088186

This has been a great interview Jason. I learned a lot and it was neat to hear your perspectives. I’m definitely interested in playtesting anything. We have 9 Roosevelts scheduled for our next game day as well as testing a playset that I’m working on for Fiasco. And we all have recently picked up Trail of Cthulhu and hope to get The Black Drop and The Dying of St. Mary’s in soon. Thanks again for the interview.

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  • By 2010 in review « Go Forth And Game on January 3, 2011 at 3:25 am

    [...] A Conversation With…Jason Morningstar September 2010 5 [...]

  • By Fiasco aint no Fiasco on February 28, 2011 at 8:46 am

    [...] is totally cool. You should also take a look at this great interview with Jason Morningstar over at Go Forth and Game. Fiasco, game design, [...]

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