The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Thursday 23 April 2015

RPGPundit Interviews: Alexander Macris

This is an interview I did with Alexander Macris, of Autarch games, mostly regarding his upcoming product "The Sinister Stone of Sakkara" (currently being crowdfunded).

I want to note, for the record, that I technically work for Alexander on a website he supervises under his day job with Defy Media.  However, I really don't think that affects the tone of my interview questions; still, full disclosure blah blah blah.  This interview has nothing to do with that job; I'm NOT being paid in any way to do this interview, nor promised anything for it.  Also, the interview was my idea, and not his.

So, let's get to it, shall we?

Pundit:  First, by way of introduction: you are technically my boss at Defy Media, but this is not an interview about that.  You do understand that I will not be treating you any differently than I would anyone else I interview, and may throw you some hardballs here as we go along, right? 

Macris: If you don’t call me swine at least once and follow it up with a fiery barrage of F-bombs I’ll be disappointed.

Pundit:  Let's be honest: you're here to sell something.  So, what is it, this new kickstarter project of yours?  And why should my audience pay attention?

Macris: In any case the Kickstarter is for a product called The Sinister Stone of Sakkara. It’s an introductory adventure for the Adventurer Conqueror King System. It’s the first adventure written specifically for ACKS, and the first set in the Auran Empire setting. I know some members of your audience are fans of ACKS (one called it his “Platonic ideal” of D&D!) so I’m sure it’s worth their attention. For those who don’t actively play ACKS, it’s a harder sell of course! I’d recommend this module to them for the following reasons:

First, if you like old school D&D type games in general, this is one of the most extensive and fleshed out starter adventures since the original Keep on the Borderlands. It has a full starting base (the fort of Türos Tem), a small wilderness sandbox, and a 100-room multi-faction dungeon to explore. Porting these to your favorite retro-clone is relatively trivial.

Second, the module is set in a Late Antiquity setting, an awesome time period of decadence, extravagance, and decline that deserves more attention and support. We offer a fully mapped and keyed fort, bathhouse, eatery, and more. One of my favorite features is the Extravagant Imperial Banquet table, which offers up such amusements as “appetizers of spiced honey-sweetened cheese, a main course of roast boar stuffed with blood sausage with a side of fried green beans in fish sauce, accompanied by Tirenean dry white wine mixed with honey, followed by a dessert of plum fruit tarts, to be enjoyed while the tragedy Ulkyreus in Winter is performed by a troupe of itinerant thespians.

Third, the dungeon itself is a splendid combination of a historically-minded ruin (loosely based on Sumerian architecture) with a gonzo Lovecraftian hellhole, tied together by a cool hook (the eponymous “Sinister Stone”). Matthew Skail, the dungeon designer, really instills a sense of cumulative horror as the creepy images and icons found in the upper level are revealed to be more than just artwork later on. Some of what’s in the lower level is horrific enough that Raggi would be proud. The Abominable Mutations table is one of my favorite bits:

"17. Viscous Bile: The character’s stomach acid becomes incredibly strong. He gains a +2 to saves versus ingested poisons. In addition, once per day, he can spit a glob of acidic vomit at a target up to 30’ away. If he hits the target (a normal ranged attack throw is required), the acid will inflict 2d6 damage, and all within 10’ must save versus Blast or take 1d3 splash damage. The acid will not affect metal or stone, but will dissolve through 1 inch of wood before exhausting itself. The character’s lips and teeth partially melt away each time he spits acid, resulting in a cumulative -1 to all reaction rolls (to a maximum penalty of -4)."

And of course, if you were interested in checking out ACKS, this module makes it really easy to do so. Though I had to laugh at this initial question because I’ve historically been awful at explaining ACKS. I think my first blog post on the game was about the mathematics of medieval agriculture and one of my friends commented “I’m not sure that’s the best way to market your game for mass appeal.” Hopefully I’ve gotten better since then.

Pundit:  I like the sound of 'gonzo lovecraftian horror' (and for that matter, decadent antiquity).  And I especially like random tables.  But of course, you know that, so you may just be trying to push all the right buttons. 
So the next two questions that would be of immediate relevance I think are: are we to assume this is easily usable for any OSR rules that aren't ACKS?  Or is there something that would prevent that?
And also, how much of the product is just adventure, and how much is other stuff (setting, rules, spells, items, random tables, monsters) that could be used by someone who had no interest to run the adventure as such?

Macris: There's no reason it couldn't be used for other OSR games. We're all building from the same chassis. Obviously the closer the game is to the chassis that ACKS started from (BX) the easier the conversion will be. I've converted to and from BFRP, BX/LL, BECMI/RC, LOTFP, OSRIC/1E, and 2E without problems, usually on the fly as I run.

One of the antagonists uses a class that is specific to ACKS, but we provide all the information about her class abilities in the module text, so you could just treat her as a special monster without issue. Some of the information in the module will not be useful to someone who isn't running ACKS, but almost by definition they won't care. E.g. if you aren't running ACKS you probably don't care that you won't get to use the ACKS demand modifiers for mercantile trade that we've provided!

Pundit: Tell us something else about Sinister Stone that has not yet been revealed anywhere.

Macris: One of the antagonists is a young dragon that has been twisted into a mottle-hided fetid-gas-breathing wyrm by the evil radiations of the sinister stone. He lives inside the ruins of a ziggurat where the Zaharans once sacrificed countless victims to fuel the artifact.

Pundit: Ok, that's certainly evocative.  Now tell us about one of the random tables that hasn't been mentioned yet. 

Macris: Have I mentioned the Abominable Mutations table to yet yet? That's one of my favorites. It reminds me of the awesome Games Workshop supplement Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness with its grotesque mutations for the champions of evil. Here are some sample entries:

Tentacles: The character sprouts a set of tentacles from somewhere on his body (usually his abdomen or chest, but the source could be anywhere the Judge desires). These tentacles are as strong as the character is, but lack the manual dexterity of hands and arms. The tentacles cannot wield weapons effectively, but they could hold a torch or other objects, or hold the character up while his arms remain free. In lieu of his normal attacks, the character can attack with his tentacles twice per round, inflicting 1d3-1 points of damage with each (plus his Strength modifier, if any). When the character reaches level 5, his tentacles become capable of harming creatures requiring magic to hit. The character suffers -2 to all reaction rolls due to his monstrous form.

Wings: The character sprouts a pair of bat or insect wings. While these do not allow actual flight, the wings do allow the character to make large leaps (as the jump spell) in places where his wings are free and he has enough room to maneuver. The character must be carrying 4 or fewer stones of encumbrance in order to benefit from the wings. Normal armor, if worn, is quite uncomfortable and prevents the wings from being used at all. Special armor allowing the wings to be used would cost at least twice normal price, assuming a blacksmith could even be convinced to work for a mutant.

Bubbling Skin: The character’s skin is constantly covered in hideous red boils and blisters. As a result of this deformity, the character suffers a -2 to all reaction rolls. However, when burned, the blisters burst and protect the character’s skin with a protective pus, giving him the equivalent of permanent fire resistance (+2 to saves versus fire and -1 damage per die).

Pundit:You're already funded, so now we're getting into stretch goals and special pledge levels.  You've already revealed the first two bonus goals; what kind of bonuses can you hint at? Hell, since I'm giving you this interview you're pretty guaranteed to hit bonus goal 1, so you may as well just reveal the third one!

Macris: It will either be a random table to assist the Judge in generating setting NPCs on the fly or a primer on the campaign setting. We're still gathering feedback from the playerbase.

Pundit: You planning any other limited backer levels?  I remember that when I consulted for Raiders of R'lyeh, a unique backer level (that I agreed on) was that for $2000 you'd get a bunch of stuff plus the RPGPundit would fly to where you live and run a game for you (of Raiders, or any of his games).  Do you go for those kinds of gimmicks?

Macris: Most of our past Kickstarters have included gimmicks like that. For ACKS, for instance, we had a reward level wherein a patron met up with me one-on-one, rolled up an epic hero, and adventured with the original Auran Empire campaign players. (That character later appeared in Domains at War, too). However, for The Sinister Stone of Sakkara, we've eschewed some of the more esoteric rewards. Autarch may have gained some respect for *finishing* Dwimmermount, but it didn't gain any kudos for its logistical prowess, and we want to keep things clean and simple this time around. I'd rather rebuild our reputation by delivering a timely Kickstarter than complicate matters in the hopes of extracting some more revenue.

Pundit: Since you brought Dwimmermount into evidence, as it were, I'll bring up something I was meaning to anyways in this interview.  I do think that most people feel like you, on the Autarch side of things, handled the fiasco that was Dwimmermount as well and as honorably as you could possibly manage given the shitty circumstances.  But there is an element of "reputation rebuilding" required here.  What do you think you can say to people to reassure them that this time things will be very different?

Macris: I felt that I had to address this directly in the Kickstarter itself, and I spent some time on that explanation, so I'm going to repeat it here. "Having learned from past experience, we are adopting a different approach for this Kickstarter:
1. The product has already been written. All of the text and maps for the adventure are finalized. As soon as we are funded, Conqueror-level backers and above will get the texts and maps so they can immediately begin enjoying the product.
2. Backer rewards have been streamlined into a small number of tiers with clear-cut rewards without a large number of special cases that can complicate and confuse our logistics.
3. Bonus goals have been carefully plotted out to be delivered within our overall framework without causing delay.
4. The Kickstarter as a whole is less ambitious in scope than the sprawling Dwimmermount mega-dungeon and entire rules sets of our two prior projects."

I suppose you could say that we studied what went wrong with Dwimmermount, and we made sure to control against those issues. That doesn't mean other issues can't arise and screw things up - as Von Moltke says, "no plan survives the first day of battle" - but they'll be new issues at least!

Pundit: Quite a few years back now, I had pitched you the idea of you publishing my Arrows of Indra game, which instead ended up being published by Bedrock Games, to good results.  The reason, ultimately, why you didn't take me up on that one was because you wanted me to make it for ACKS while I didn't want to go that route.   Do you now still feel that you will most likely only continue to make ACKS products, or do you now think you might someday publish some other kind of game or non-ACKS supplement?  

Macris: For the foreseeable future we intend to publish ACKS material. We have a large volume of material nearly written: Guns of War, our LotFP-compatible rules supplement for early modern mass combat; Lairs & Encounters, a Judge's supplement with dynamic lairs and advanced monster rules; Heroic Companion, a supplement to flavor ACKS for heroic fantasy; several modules; and of course one day the Auran Empire Campaign Setting.

If we do deliver something outside of ACKS, it will likely be to push something outside of RPGs - a miniature game, boxed boardgame, etc.

Pundit:  Going back to the Dwimmermount, I think that (aside from having trusted in the wrong person), one of the big issues in kickstarters in general is when people haven't finished the writing of the product before starting. I know that if I were ever to do a kickstarter, I would insist with any partner (because you know, I'd only be the writer, not the publisher) that the writing would need to be done before we start the crowdfunding.   Do you think this is always the right way to go?  

Macris: I agree with you. At this time I cannot even imagine launching a Kickstarter without having the book already written.

Pundit: What do you think the usual suspects will find to be offended about "sinister stone"?

Macris: I couldn't begin to guess.

Pundit: So when you say you couldn't begin to guess, do you mean that literally?  When you are working on game design, in both writing and art direction, do you in any way try to worry about whether something might conceivably be offensive to someone? Or would you say that, in this day and age, that's a completely wasted effort?

Macris: Yes, I mean that literally. I am always surprised when these sort of discussions crop up, even today in these outraged times. No, I don't worry about whether the material I'm working on could offend others. I'm certainly not trying to shock or offend (the way James Desborough does, sometimes, for instance); but neither am I trying not shock or offend.  I just think tastes vary. What offends me might delight you; what shocks you might bore me.  Some people will love ACKS, some people will hate it, and others won't even care enough to have an opinion at all. I'm thankful we live in a world where there are RPGs for every taste and palate, and opportunities for any RPG designer to release a game that will appeal to that taste, however niche it might be. It's a great, exciting time for creators and gamers.

Pundit: Ok, final question: what do you think the future looks like for the OSR?  Will more conventional rulesets and adventure modules be what moves it forward, or interesting and new rulesets and settings, or will it increasingly become about more radical "gonzo" or otherwise unconventional settings?  Is there room for anything else that will really surprise people in the future? WIll the OSR continue to grow, or is it at its peak now?

Macris: I think it will continue to grow, but the newer products will not be retro-clone rules sets.

The rise of the retro-clones was driven by several trends: (1) Dissatisfaction with contemporary games such as 4e D&D and (2) inability to commercially purchase the older rule sets. Most of the classic rules sets are now available either straight from the publisher or as retro-clones. And many people who were playing OSR games are now playing or talking about 5E. 5E seems to be, if not part of the OSR, at least compatible with it.

It seems apparent that 5E will not have as many adventures, splat books, and supplements produced by Wizards as its predecessors enjoyed. If so, then a broad, easily-accessible license for 5E could inspire a flourishing development community to create products that Wizards will not, and I'm sure many of those will be part of or rise from the OSR.

Meanwhile, the existing OSR games will be competing with 5E. Role-playing game systems compete not just by their mechanics but by their strength as networks - number of available players, number of available gamemasters, amount of supporting content for gamemasters. So the OSR games that flourish will be the ones that have existing bodies of players, GMs enthused about running the game, and a volume of support product to keep the game alive.

So these trends make me think we will see fewer new rules sets but lots more more adventures, maps, settings, and so on that are either part of the OSR or at least OSR-inspired.

So that's it; thanks to Alexander Macris.  Check out his kickstarter!


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Billiard + C&D's Crowley's Best


  1. Lost all interest when "gonzo" was invoked...gets thrown around and usually means "I think I'm being so cool with things that make no sense!"

    1. It can mean that, I agree. It can also be used more appropriately, in the sense of its original definition: as a weird kind of trans-realism (like 'magical realism' on drugs). Where things very explicitly are supposed to make internal sense, even if the end result is something very crazy.

      How can I better explain this?

      Ok, so "Lost" is 'bad gonzo', because even as it claims that it makes sense it actually had no larger plan, never did, and was smug about how 'surreal' it was for its own sake.

      On the other hand, "Adventure Time" is GREAT Gonzo, because it's really crazy, but it generally DOES make sense (you gradually find out or can read-into the story that underlines the reason the world in Adventure Time is what it is), while not being in any way smug about how awesome it is.

      In RPG terms, the difference between a good and bad gonzo setting is that the bad one is pretty much like you describe: it's a world that makes no sense, and the designer is almost proud for that fact. He may as well have (and indeed, may well have) just rolled totally random tables to get his world and made no effort to tie it together coherently (though sometimes alluding to some kind of Super-Secret Purpose he doesn't care to discuss).
      A good gonzo world can be totally weird and crazy and fucked up, but it actually can say "these fucked up things are the way they are because of a and b and c and d".