Monday, July 4, 2016

Leigh Grossman: Game Designer, Author, Publisher, Wildside RPG

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to play in one of Leigh Grossman's game sessions. Leigh had left the Atlantic City area by the time I befriended many of the people who were fortunate enough to sit at his table in the early 80s. In a way Leigh was indirectly involved in me getting back into gaming after a few decades. It was through my wife's mutual friends with Leigh on Facebook that I found out about his Wildside RPG Rules System, which led me to investigate the state of roleplaying in 2010, and that led me to get involved with the games I cherish now. Which leaves me feeling guilty over not playing Wildside yet. 

Leigh is a Professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches classes in writing, Fantasy Literature, and book publishing. He has several fantasy novels and academic books published, and he also runs his own publishing company, Swordsmith Productions. Currently Leigh is running a Kickstarter ending August 4th for a versatile RPG app, Wildside Gaming System App: a free RPG tool, that accommodates not only his own Wildside gaming system, but virtually any game system you play. The scope of this app (which can be used on phones, tablets, and laptops) is so extensive that you need to read the Kickstarter page to appreciate the scope of this project. Although it's called The Wildside Gaming System App, there are customization templates that will allow this app to be used with virtually any system. Definitely a tool I'm checking out for OSR / DCC RPG compatibility.

I'm really excited to present this interview from a home town author and game designer, especially since this is a perfect opportunity to introduce Leigh to the Appendix N Happy Meal, and OSR G+ communities. 

Favorite 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).

Leigh: When I was very young, having something to ride on was really important to me. The first toy I remember was a little red fire engine that was left behind when my family moved to the Atlantic City area. (I was two and a half years old.) I don't know if it was a favorite or not - I suppose it must have been - but I felt a keen sense of loss at it having been left behind. I remember I had other riding toys, like a metal horse and later a big wheel (whose plastic wheels quickly wore out from overuse on the concrete sidewalk). Once I was old enough to ride a bike I took it everywhere, biking the length of the boardwalk to look at the old hotels and play at the amusement piers, or biking to friends' houses.

Once my brother outgrew his legos (do you ever really outgrow legos?) I got to use them. I built spaceships, cities, worlds. A lot of buildings that (lego) ships of one sort or another could dock on. I never liked the lego "people" which were just starting to be available in the 1970s because they took up too much space; a limited supply of legos meant things had to be smaller scale. I used small plastic figures that were widely available for my very limited budget - typically cowboys and Indians but it didn't really matter since they were more likely to be space rangers or undersea explorers. Eventually a collection of small plastic soldiers from various wars and nationalities supplanted the legos - they would be arranged in elaborate battlefields, sometimes over hours, and then played out - the kind of visual representation that eventually led me to wargaming and other simulations and then to RPGs. This was very much solo play - this was about learning how to express things in my imagination; when I played with other kids when I was younger it generally was outdoor play, or at their houses.

Favorite Films and 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? 

Leigh:The one that made the biggest impression wasn't a favorite, exactly. My father was a film professor, and he built a screening room on the side porch of the house (which would become my brother's recording studio after my father was out of the picture, then eventually the room where I arranged giant battles and later ran RPGs). One night, when I was five or so, he showed the movie Titanic (the 1953 version with Robert Wagner and Barbara Stanwyck). Then, because it was getting late, he sent me up to bed before the last reel. Remember, I was five - I didn't know how the story came out. The iceberg had hit the ship, people were trying to deal with the chaos, it was a battle against desperate odds - and I got sent to bed without finding out how the story ended. I think it was the first time it hit me that it was possible to have a story where you never knew the ending - that not all stories ended with happily ever after or the estranged sister being rolled down the hill in a spiked barrel. (By five I already knew that stories often didn't end happily, but missing endings were new to me, and something that still bothers me.)

We didn't have a TV until I was ten years old, so I didn't really have a favorite show. Even with no TV I was passably conversant with Saturday morning (and afternoon) cartoons, which I would sometimes watch from the neighbor's basement. But books had a much bigger impact on me. From the time my mother read me The Hobbit when I was six (it took a year, and the seasons lined up which gave it a greater impact) I tended to think in longer story arcs. Even TV which did have an impact was book driven - like Star Trek, which I only saw (in syndication or film festivals) after having read the original James Blish novelizations. I'm hoping my daughter grows up thinking in story arcs - she's five now and I've been reading her the Narnia books.

Live entertainment had more of an impact than TV I think. For a few years after my father left there were a lot of really interesting friends of the family in and out of the house - actors and folksingers and people with complex lives. (My mother was co-founder of the Women's Center in Atlantic County and the first rape crisis center in the county was run out of our kitchen.) I remember one family friend singing "Stewball was a Racehorse" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" and being totally caught up in the stories. They were real in a way that was much more emotionally intense than most TV and movies.

Seeing Star Wars in the theater did have an impact on me. It was never a favorite film in a "this is great science fiction" sense - by the time I saw it when I was ten or so I had read a fair amount of much better science fiction. But the lines around the block to see it, a year after the film had come out, and the visual power of the storytelling opened me up to new ways of telling stories. I think that Star Wars did a lot to start me thinking about how ideas had to be expressed in different media, and how you had to work with the strengths of the medium you were creating in, not try to force a narrative into a medium where it didn't work. There are a lot of intersections between how I write, how I run games, and how I teach, but being conscious of how the storyteller needs to adjust the narrative to the audience. The kind of narrative I set up for a game is very different than I use for a novel - in much the same way the way I teach a "live" course is different than how I teach an online course. But they are all related kinds of storytelling.

Imaginary Worlds

Think about playtime, did you create games or imaginary worlds as a child? If so, please describe an important original game or play world you enjoyed.

Leigh: I would sometimes create puppet shows or (attempted) parade floats for adults. The worlds I created were mostly for my own use, though. I remember there was a complex narrative involving a family of ghosts and fourteen invisible horses who lived in an elevator somewhere in our house. That was just storytelling, though - I didn't really have a relationship with them or (as far as I remember) think of them as real.

Other worlds were entirely mythological, or set up as scenarios for solo play. I had whole worlds that I would play in when I was playing outside, with improvised props. It was essentially role-playing, but not shared with others until I was older.

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? 

Leigh: I was mostly comfortable with adults, though I would be mortified if I said something embarrassing. My brother and sister were much older, and I did not socialize particularly well with other kids. I had friends, but with a few exceptions didn't have a lot of "best friends" who I was completely comfortable around until high school. I was very social but also shy, and very conscious that I was faking a lot of socialization around other kids. I was picked on, but was also an outsider. It was accentuated by physical abuse I was going through - there were things I couldn't talk about, and when I tried to (like with the police during the several times I ran away from home) it was made clear that no one was going to help and telling others only made things worse. Eventually, I learned that the power of words could overcome abuse, or at least lessen it - but by that time, by the time I could consciously plan to put a stop to abuse without any adult help, the feeling that I was always an outsider even when I was at the center of what was going on had sunk in (and lingered for decades).

I don't think it's a simple cause-and-effect with the abuse - my daughter has a lot of play similarities to me at the same age: Loves to explore, plays well with other kids but prefers to play alone or with a trusted adult and prefers creating her own games to following the "rules."

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?

Leigh: Besides the things I've already mentioned, there was another factor that shifted me from solo play to RPG in groups: When there were friends or outsiders visiting, I wasn't abused. Making friends was a survival strategy at first, not something that came easily to me. Once I'd started doing it, having friends was great of course - I still am close with some players in my original gaming group from the early 1980s. One of the things that abuse did was taught me to step outside myself, to be hyper-aware, to slow time down and plan how to react since reacting in just the right way might get me out of trouble. There were times later when that would be a good thing - talking my way out of a gunpoint encounter, for instance - and other times when difficulty relaxing and being in the moment was a liability. But it meant the transition to gaming was a very happy one. Discovering an environment where an ability to create worlds, to improvise on the fly, to convincingly convey drama and danger were useful for something fun, not just for staying alive - that was a revelation.

I discovered RPGs when I was about thirteen, and gamed pretty much every day that summer. A friend brought home a single sheet of paper printed on both sides with a bit about this new game, Dungeons and Dragons, he'd more-or-less learned at camp and we improvised with that until I was able to find first the basic set and then the first edition books. This was the late 1970s and the books were not easy to find - they were carried by the occasional hobby shop, but mostly it wasn't even a niche market yet in the northeast. Once I started high school I had a regular group meeting at least once a week, and had started rewriting rules that I didn't like into better game mechanics. Pretty soon I was writing my own games. I still have those first books, heavily annotated and filled with printed workarounds. Somewhere I still have a box with all the characters from that first summer.

Lost In Space Survival Question 

You are the last survivor of your crew. You are adrift aboard an intergalactic cruiser. You no longer remember your mission or destination. Your ship sent out a distress signal, but you lost contact with your home planet months ago. Your chances of being rescued are nil. The ship is well stocked with everything necessary for your physical survival. You have no fear of starvation and there are no security threats. On board with you are two AI bots programmed for average human intelligence. You were allowed 10 items of any type of entertainment of your choosing (movies, recordings, books, videos, games, comics). The ship is capable of playing everything you brought, regardless of format.

What choices do you hope you packed away so that you avoid dying of boredom?

Leigh: When I was twelve or so, someone visited who was hooked on the Strat-O-Matic baseball simulations, and a lot of my love of baseball and sports comes out of it. I wrote sports simulations of my own (played with friends but never written for publication) and in its final iteration, it made a fantastic game for solo play. I played out dozens of hypothetical future seasons. So some of those Strat-O-Matic games would be great, along with a selection of Avalon Hill and other 1980s wargames. Mostly I think I'd want the means to write new games, though - while playing other people's games is fun, I really like to play in my own sandbox.


Wildside Gaming RPG App Kickstarter:
Wildside Gaming:
Swordsmith Productions (Leigh's publishing house):

I really want to give Leigh a bump to help spread the word about this app within the OSR G+ community (but wanted to keep this part separate from the intro & interview). So, the following is a few of the items taken from the Kickstarter page that highlights some of my favorite functions of the app. I sincerely encourage everyone to take a look at the Kickstarter.
  • Remote Gaming - supports text, audio, and video chatting with other members of your group, either during games or separately for planning sessions.
  • Maps - view and search campaign and dungeon maps created by your GM or purchased as add-ons.
  • Dice - Roll dice either privately or shared with your group
  • Groups - Join a group created by your GM or other open groups (such as groups devoted to spell writing, players of a particular RPG, or finding players in your area). Share messages to the whole group or individual players. (No more making the rest of the group suspicious by passing notes or whispering.) Give equipment or other possessions from your character to another player’s character in the same game.
  • Roll up Characters - create, copy, modify, update, and print characters, archive past characters. Characters may be free-standing or linked to a particular campaign created by a GM in your group. Characters can be rolled up in the app, or copied from existing characters. The Wildside Gaming System is fully supported, and templates for many other popular RPGs are included. Customized character sheets for “house rules” or your own game can be saved and shared with other members of your group.

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