Thursday, 28 January 2021

Interview with W.H. Arthur, RPG Designer/Maker

Arthur's RPG design work is available at https://aryl-ether.itch.io/

During last year’s COVID lockdown/Zine Quest crossover special it came to my attention that fellow RPG designer/maker W.H. Arthur lived in the same town as me. We arranged to meet, face-to-face out in the real world in real time: summer was in full swing and government guidelines had relaxed substantially since the beginnings of the pandemic.

If someone had told us that our next meeting was going to be nearly 6 months later and under full lockdown conditions it is doubtful either of us would have believed it. Nonetheless,  last weekend we found ourselves on either end of a discord call, catching up on the intervening period… a period which has been particularly busy for Arthur.


Despite claims that he is a chronic procrastinator Arthur has hosted 3 game jams on itch.io (#AsianMartialArtsJam, Guided by the Sun and the #AsianCyberpunkJam which is still running), created numerous games and successfully launched (and funded) a Kickstarter for a print edition of his game The Sol Survivor. We began our conversation by talking about this game.

Image text: THE SOL SURVIVOR - A Chinese Mythological Role-playing game. IMAGE: angelic figure with large, fox-like ears hugging their own especially bushy fox tail.
Art by Sam Windsor https://www.instagram.com/samwindsart/

“It’s based on Chinese mythology… in ancient times there were ten suns. They were supposed to take shifts so that only one sun would come up at a time, but somehow they messed up the schedule… and an archer had to shoot the 9 suns down so that only one sun was left… so that it would be “normal”...” “In lots of retellings of the story—especially for a younger audience—they try to add more drama: the archer always almost shoots down the last sun. My game is based on the idea that the archer has shot down the ten suns… and now there’s no sun left in the sky.” The game is a gm-less collaborative storytelling game in which the players share the role of the last sun: you were shot and fell but didn’t die, the titular Sol Survivor. The goal is to once again ascend to the sky, but along this journey various members of a 26 character cast are encountered. Each character is based on the colour and value of a playing card from a standard deck, thus creating 26 different characters (though each with its own double). There are 3 principal roles: the sun, the narrator and the ally. If additional players are involved, they play less significant characters in the scene or provide additional details, with all roles being rotated as the story develops. Each player begins with three cards in their hand: the narrator picks one card to represent the antagonist and the ally player chooses a card to represent the NPC assisting the Sun. Of course, with the existing characters being determined by suit colour and card value, the potential exists for duplicates: “One of the characters is a fox spirit: you may meet one fox spirit at the beginning of the game and then later the character is drawn again… it may be the same character or maybe it is related to the first one you saw: you can tell a more interesting story based on the relationship between the same character type.” The Sol Survivor was originally produced for 2018’s micro RPG jam where it received excellent reviews and achieved second place on the submissions’ leader board (out of 91 entries) as well as being rated highest for its story/starting scenario. The setting’s engine has been turned into an SRD by Arthur and is available here and formed the basis for last year’s Guided by the Sun Game Jam, linked above.



On the subject of game jams, Arthur is currently hosting the #AsianCyberpunkJam (full title: Cyberpunk by Asian Creators Jam. In common with last year’s #AsianMartialArtsJam the event is a response to the continued cultural appropriation and festishisation and of Asian cultures by western/white creators. Arthur expressed his weariness regarding this ongoing problem:


“One of the problems is that... every few weeks a new RPG is released fetishising Asian cultures, but when you look at the writers they are all western writers—white writers based in the US or UK, appropriating Asian cultures. Obviously a lot of discussion can go into what is or isn’t cultural appropriation but lots of the time you get very Asian stereotypes such as everyone fighting for their “honour” or the use of won-ton font.”


Arthur is keen to point out that he does not consider himself an expert on the subject of appropriation of Asian cultures in TTRPGs (pointing out that the Asians Represent Podcast are doing excellent work in that field). Instead, game jams like this help to promote and propagate original creative work by other Asian creators as a counterpoint. At time of writing there are eight submissions: with 9 days left there is the potential for 42 further games being submitted by creators of Asian descent or people living in Asia as immigrants (rather than self-styled expatriates).


Like many people, Arthur’s introduction to RPGs was via D&D, though as recently as 2017. Initial excitement soon gave way  disappointment:

“I had a number of bad experiences… I mean, it wasn’t all bad but there was often a problem with player agency.”


Bemoaning the current trend for high-production livestreams, Arthur believes there’s few online examples of good GMing: building a campaign in collaboration with the players. While this may well be the case with a lot of online shows much of this takes place off-camera or behind the scenes, creating the impression of a scripted performance. Combined with excessively granular worldbuilding, many Gms let the power go to their head:


“When the DM is expected to do all the work they get really frustrated when the players don’t see the content… they get annoyed when players don’t uncover that content and it encourages ‘toxic railroading’ behaviour of the DM.”


After lamenting the proliferation of Critical Role clones we discussed the original Acquisitions Incorporated (the stage show and podcast originally set up to promote D&D 4e), which was perhaps more honest about its status as a performance rather than a replication of a game that you can play too. We further discussed how this linearity has lots in common with CRPGs, noting that by the time 4E was launched CRPGs were vastly more popular than TTRPGs. Arthur has been following Acquisitions Incorporated since Patrick Rothfuss joined the show.


Cover image of a herring gull in a trilby smoking a cigar and drinking a scotch on the rocks. Above them are the words "B'Town Beak-Tectives. The image is drawn in a faux-naïve style using a simple paint app.
B'Town Beak-tectives is available from itch.io now: https://aryl-ether.itch.io/btbt

As a fellow resident of Brighton I felt obliged to ask Arthur about B-Town Beak-tectives, his seagull-noir RPG, featuring an excessive number of bird-related puns for such a tight RPG. It also includes some nice local flavour, while also casually suggesting that the “two-legged mammals” may well be long gone and the seagulls have taken over the town (which they’re certainly on their way to accomplishing). The game is super-light and includes quick generators for characters and scenarios.


We finished our conversation mourning the decline in physical, face-to-face gaming that COVID restrictions have necessitated. While we agreed that online games were more tiring than face-to-face encounters, Arthur hit the nail on the head when he noted that there’s been an accompanying decline in small talk and the quality of social relationships that are established by such games. While I’ve (mostly) been lucky (especially with the wonderful people on the Atelier Hwei and Garblag discords) there is a tendency for people to “hang up” at the end of their games, leaving people somewhat cold and isolated.


But that would be a depressing note to end on, so seeing as Arthur is “not so great  at self-promotion” (his words)  here’s a summary of all the links mentioned in this post and Arthur’s social media details. He makes great stuff: go and have a look, a lot of his games have community copies for those among you experiencing financial hardship, other stuff is PWYW so you can download games for free and then download another (at a more generous price) when you realise they’re worth actual money!


W.H. Arthur on itch.io:
https://aryl-ether.itch.io/


W.H. Arthur on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/Aryl_Ether


Patreon:

https://www.patreon.com/wharthur


Drive Thru RPG:

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?author=W.H.%20Arthur


Cyberpunk by Asian Creators #asiancyberpunkjam

https://itch.io/jam/cyberpunk-by-asian-creators-game-jam


Guided by the Sun SRD:

https://aryl-ether.itch.io/guided-by-the-sun


Entries to the Guided by the Sun game jam:

https://itch.io/jam/guided-by-the-sun-jam/entries


Micro RPG Game Jam:

https://itch.io/jam/micro-rpg-jam/results


Asian Martial Arts Jam by Asian Creators:
https://itch.io/jam/asian-martial-arts-by-asian-creators-game-jam


Asians Represent:
https://aznsrepresent.carrd.co/



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