Sunday, May 22, 2016

Barry Blatt: RPG Game Writer, Amateur Historian, Blogger, Retired Professional Clown

Barry age 20.
Barry Blatt is the first GM I had played with since 1982. His England Upturn'd campaign is slated to be released this week by Lamentations of the Flame Princess (May 24th, if all goes well). After reading posts from his play testers back in 2014, who were all gushing over his campaign, I knew this was something I had to play. I jumped on the chance as soon as I became aware that Barry would be running more sessions. That campaign started in December 2014, and despite a few breaks, we were still playing weekly games earlier this year. Unfortunately, the last couple of months of play were difficult to schedule for members and our sessions ended in Feb, but I hope we get back to the game soon. We had finished with the material from England Upturn'd and started exploring a confusing, yet exciting turn within the game world that I don't feel comfortable discussing in case (hopefully) this is a new project Barry is working on for publication.

One of many exciting aspects of this English Civil War era work is how Barry has created what I guess can be termed 'sub-classes' from the political alignments and religious affiliations of mid 1600s English society. This includes rules for additional magic that can be performed by those of particular persuasions. Roundheads, Ranters, Diggers...if these don't make sense to you now, they will, and you'll be just as blown away as I was with how well Barry collected, wrote, and presented this material (and I think what I've read wasn't even the finished edits). This is a tough, gritty campaign. It was full of perplexing twists, and surprises. I found myself seriously frightened with suspense quite a few times, like when Christian Goodlucke, my 17 year old female character hid in an abandoned church while something (won't spoil it but these things are creepy as hell) searched for her outside. I lamented the capture of the sullen Abel Fell, my first character, then the whole party rejoiced as he was found and rescued, only to meet his demise shortly after at the epicenter of an event, the magnitude of which is too staggering to imagine.

Barry is the perfect author for a historical based campaign like this, the guy seriously knows his stuff. I had assumed for months that he was a historian or university professor. I think everybody thought he was. I was surprised to find out he wasn't. As for his GM skills, Barry is outrageously awesome! I've talked to another member about this and he overwhelmingly agrees. Barry plays out all his NPCs so easily and convincingly. He should be an actor too, well, he was a professional clown.

Barry, Thank you for participating in Appendix N Happy Meal. And THANK YOU for all the work you've done on England Upturn'd, I'm excited about it's release this week and I hope we can get together again online sometime soon.

Favourite Toys

What were your favorite toys during child hood? Like, the TOP 3 TOYS of all time and pick your favorite of these toys. What is it about any of these toys you most identified with? What made this so special? How did you play/enjoy this toy? (shared or solo play).

Barry: i. My telescope. I was a nerd, a serious nerd. I did astronomy. The telescope I had was pretty weak and next to useless, but I spied on the moon with it, spotted the four biggest moons of Jupiter and on a very clear night (not many of them in my hometown in the UK) I once saw the rings of Saturn. It was best at doing sunspots though, focusing an image on a postcard on which I'd fill in the spots with a felt tip pen, watching them cross the disc of the sun and seeing the patterns change from day to day. 149 million kilometres from my bedroom to the sun and I could see it all happening. 

ii. My geology hammer. Did I mention I was a nerd? Other kids took buckets and spades to the seaside, I took a geology hammer and a field guide to invertebrate fossils and spent many happy hours clambering over rocks and scaling cliffs, splitting slates and belting limestones and scaring my mum to death. Found a crinoid once, not a particularly good one, but it made a change from fragmentary trilobites and ammonites and ancient wormcasts.

iii. More conventionally nerdy was my model soldier collection. My thing was Napoleonics, I even cast my own tin soldiers, again scaring the crap out of my mum by melting alloy on the hob at home and churning out regiments. I wasn't that good at painting them, and the detail on the tin ones was bit lacking anyway, but I did my best to copy the uniforms depicted in the books I borrowed from the local library. I'd battle my friends in endless re-runs of the Waterloo campaign, Quatre Bras, Ligny and the main event itself, plus bits of the Peninsular War and the invasion of Russia.

Favourite Films & TV

What were your favorite films or TV during childhood and what age were you for each favorite? What did you identify with about these shows? Do you think these shows had an influence on the adult you? 

Barry: i. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What's not to like? As an eight year old the whole set up of silly ker-niggits, killer rabbits and Gilliam animations was just marvellous. I don't know if I identified with anything in particular, but did shout 'NI!' at a good many people in the school playground. Influence on the adult me? I still love Monty Python of course and it certainly somewhat influenced my efforts at being a stand up comedian, the charity pantomimes I put on and my generally stupid sense of humour.

ii. Dr Who. John Pertwee was the doc in the first shows I remember, followed by Tom Baker. Foppish English eccentrics vs 'orrible planet mangling monsters from outer space armed only with a screwdriver and being a smart arse. I think I identified with the smart arsery more than anything else, I was after all the only kid in my class who could spell Ordovician, had dug up a Crinoid and could tell you what a Solar Cycle was. Not sure this influenced me as an adult though for a while in my late teens and early twenties I did have Tom Bakerish hair and a silly hat. Don't like most of the 'New Who' though. The adult me has little patience with yawning plot-holes and special effects laid on thick to cover lack of story and weak scripts.

iii. Open University. When I was a kid the Open University still broadcast early in the morning and late at night on BBC2. My dad was doing an OU degree and had to watch those relating to his course, but I watched the lot - lectures on Biochemistry, the history of the Enlightenment, Topology, Renaissance Art, Shakespeare, all sorts. This definitely influenced me as an adult. It gave me a good few years headstart on all of my peers in pretty much any school subject you could care to name since I was imbibing university lectures while at Primary School and I still marmalise all comers at Trivial Pursuit and pub quizzes since I still have a brain chock full of peculiar factoids.

Favourite Books

Barry: Before I discovered D&D I had already read pretty much everything by Tolkein and Michael Moorcock, most things by Fritz Leiber, and some HP Lovecraft and RE Howard, plus Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Arthur C Clarke and wedge of other fantasy and sci-fi. My dad is a very clever guy but has pretty bad dyslexia; he learned to read late and even now his written English is pretty basic and barely grammatical. When he realised I was getting the gist of reading at four he was overjoyed and told me I could read any book in the house, so I did, including his sci-fi collection, his university textbooks and the collected works of Graham Greene and DH Lawrence he'd got form the book club and never finished himself. Not sure he really meant those last two, they were pretty eye opening stuff for a wee kid. 

So naturally I ended up writing myself, starting my first sci fi novel at seven, stuff about an alien invasion of Earth. I wouldn't say that outside that writing I really did much imaginary play other than with my toy soldiers where I was of course the Duke of Wellington and/or Napoleon, blasting bits of turn-of-the-nineteenth century Europe to bits.

I did invent my own wargames coming up with a near future game set in earth orbit (board had a lot of concentric circles and manoeuvring from one orbit to another to get the drop on enemies) but it wasn't much good. I also had a map of Europe on which I played out the Napoleonic Wars on a massive scale, but only against myself. My friends just weren't as into the idea as I was at the time, though in our teens they kind of caught up and we spent a lot of time on such classics as Kingmaker, Apocalypse, Divine Right and Squad Leader.

Play Community

As a child how did you feel about how you fit in with the rest of the world or community or friends? Like, were you very social or did you prefer spending time alone? Your environment, was it rural or urban? Were siblings a big part of your playtime? Did adults interact with you in game play, and if so was it structured play (sports, scouting, clubs, etc.) or free form? 

Barry: I lived in a grotty small industrial town which consisted of three housing estates and chemical factory. I never joined the scouts or anything like that and I only had a few close friends. We did explore the local area as far as we could without falling into some kind of toxic waste or getting mown down on the M25 motorway. There were lots of chalk pits and half-abandoned mental hospital that was as creepy as it sounds. 

Adults left us pretty much to our own devices most of the time, the only interaction I can think of was me and my friends dragging our long suffering mothers round the various big museums and galleries in London where we (especially me) would baffle them with explanations of evolutionary theory in the Natural History Museum, the history of ancient Assyria and Egypt in the British Museum and what Dadaism was all about in the Tate Gallery (Open University!). I did spend a lot of time alone with my scientific doodads, and reading and writing. I had pretty much zilch to do with my sister. She thought I was barmy then and still thinks so now. She never inherited the 'nerd gene' or whatever it was that I had and rarely picked up a book. My brother is ten years younger than me and though I led him the first few steps into nerdery when I was still at home introducing him to D&D (though he preferred Warhammer 40K) he never really went the whole hog.

Playtime Impact on Adult Games

Do you have any thoughts about any aspects of your childhood playtime that might have influenced your passion for RPGs? Have you ever intentionally incorporated memories of childhood playtime into game work you have created as an adult?

Barry: Of course there are plenty of aspects of childhood play that influence RPGing now. It was then I started to pick up the knowledge of science and history and love of learning about such that continued through my teens and into adulthood. I had the urge to write, to get what was in my imagination down on paper though it is far easier to do this through the half-way house RPGs where you can leave everything barely sketched out and let the rest of the players fill in the gaps as and when needed than writing a novel of your own. Still never finished a proper novel, and I don't think I ever will.

None of the stuff I actually did as a kid has really made it into any RPG material, though a lot of the things I read have. But then I never really did much, there just wasn't the opportunity where I lived, it was a boring dump I left with zero regrets when I was 18 and hated going back to. Fortunately all my family have left the area too so I'll never have to, it's just a sign on a railway station on the line out of London where you don't open the windows in case the wind is blowing the wrong way and you get the stench of what is left of the old works coming in. 

Desert Island Media

What are the top 10 things you would want to have on a deserted island - music recordings - films - books - TV shows - comics - games - or toys? 

1 The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. A short novel with a miraculous amount of good stuff packed in and an admirably goofy sense of humour about the essential tragedy of it all.
2. Richard II -  the BBC Hollow Crown version. Fantastically acted version of one of Shakespeare's lesser known history plays.
3. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn. My favourite history book, charting the millennialist peasant movements of 1000-1600AD in all their loopy glory.
4. The World Turned Upside Down by David Hill. My second favourite history book, the history of religious and political radicals of the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth
5. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Lovely fantasy/sci-fi with lots of erudite little corners.
6. Ran dir Yukio Kurosawa. Samurai do King Lear. A bit OTT, but I like it.
7. Mother Sky by Can. A psychedelic classic from their 1970 album 'Soundtracks'.
8. La Mystere de Voix Bulgares, a collection of Bulgarian choral music that sends shivers down your spine
9. Laxdaela Saga - fantastic Icelandic saga, be nice to have a book on Icelandic to go with it; if I'm on a desert island I might as well learn to read it in the original language.
10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick. I love loads of his novels (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Man in the High Castle, Ubik etc.) but this is my favourite. 

Barry's Blog - Expanding Universe:
England Upturn'd: An extraordinary adventure set in England on the eve of the British Civil War. Available May 24th, 2016, from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

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