Ben Milton Interview (part I): Early Days and Running for Kids

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ben Milton of Questing Beast (comprised of a channel, blog, newsletter, and role-playing game company). He designed the beloved and excellent Maze Rats and Knave. He was incredibly generous by allowing me use his time. Thanks again, Ben!

How did you get into the hobby? What was your first game?

I started playing consistently almost seven years ago. The first one I actually tried was the Decipher Lord of the Rings system. I was big into the movies so we got that. I’ve been into hobby games in general since I was a kid, so I was peripherally aware of role-playing games. I read it and made my friends try to play one session. We had no idea what we were doing and it just disintegrated immediately. I tried some experiments off and on but then it wasn’t until about seven years ago that a teacher that I was teaching with, Andrew Armstrong from DawnforgedCast invited myself and some other teachers to play Pathfinder with him.

Some of the first games that I actually ran as a DM were Dungeon World and World of Dungeons and Into the Odd. From there I found Matt Finch’s Old-School Primer and moved into the OSR.

Which came first: blog, YouTube channel, or game design?

It was the YouTube channel first. I was really into mapmaking and during a meeting at school I was really bored and I just started drawing a map on the back of a piece of paper. I uploaded it to Reddit and it kind of blew up. People thought it was really cool looking and they wanted to know how I was drawing it. So that was the Questing Beast YouTube channel originally. It was just tutorials on mapmaking for quite a while. Eventually I started doing reviews of some OSR books I had because I realized that there weren’t any reviews of them anywhere on YouTube. That became my more popular content and the reason why people were subscribing so I just kept making those.

When did you start making your own games?

I was running and am still running after-school clubs for role-playing games. I was trying a bunch of different things, like Dungeon World and World of Dungeons, which work really well because they’re so fast and light. But then I asked, “How hard could this be?” I was really enjoying Into the Odd, so I said, “I’ll just make my own.” The first one I really finished was Maze Rats. If you go back to a supplement for Into the Odd called Odditional Materials, at the back of that is the original edition of Maze Rats where it is just a straight-up hack up to Into the Odd. Then I expanded it into more of its own system and put more and more random tables in there. The idea was to create a pamphlet that I could easily print out at school and hand out to all the kids. It would have all the rules they needed plus huge amounts of random tables to make their own dungeons with Dungeon Master advice to be a complete, all-in-one package. That didn’t really exist at the time in terms of something really simple and easy to hand out to kids. I spent a year or two making that and it went through tons of revisions. That was the first thing that I published. 

How do you run a tabletop club at your school? Do you involve students, parents, and other faculty members?

Right now it’s me and one other teacher. We have over ten students in the club right now split into two groups to make that work. I run the kids from fourth through sixth grade. That’s a good entry-level age group to get into RPGs and I teach fifth grade so I have a lot of the kids that I teach anyway. The kids that have been there for a while can teach younger kids and eventually start creating their own dungeons and playing their own games. Something I did last year was run one-page dungeons over a couple of hour-long sessions and I’d have the kids draw a map as they went along. Then once they’d beaten the dungeon I would actually give them the one-page dungeon so they could see behind the screen and how simple and easy it is to make these kinds of games or run these kinds of adventures. I would try and be as transparent as possible as to how I was running things and how I was making decisions. I was modeling it for them.

Whenever they were trying to do something outside the rules I would just be really transparent. I would say “Oh, so that’s interesting. I don’t have a rule for that but it seems like your characters are doing this and the situation seems like this, so it seems like it would be about this difficult. What do you think would be a good consequence for failure?”  We just kind of talked about it and then we would just roll. This is what goes on in a DM’s head anyway. I would just verbalize it so they could see how you would do it.

Eventually, we had a whole session where I said, “Okay, the session today is gonna be to make your own dungeon.” I gave them all copies of Maze Rats so they had tons of random tables and resources that they could draw from. They got really into it and took it home. It was all done on one piece of paper so it was really easy for them to see the whole picture. Then the next session I just asked for a volunteer and there was a kid who had already finished his. He just started running because he’d seen me do it and they knew how it was done. I would just sort of stand back and coach them a little bit, but you know, I would mostly let them have at it because that’s how you learn. 

Are kids violent? 

Oh yeah, hyper-violent. It’s all just pure murder hobo all over the place. I don’t try and restrict that at all. What I try to do is enforce logical consequences. “Yeah, you absolutely can decide to try and kill everything in this dungeon but the dungeon is not balanced for you to survive. If you do that things are gonna fight back and there are things that are tougher than you. If you die, it’s not a big deal you can just make another character, but you’re gonna start over now without your XP and have to work your way back up.” Eventually, once you have enough kids that are smart enough to gain a bunch of XP and some levels, they’re really proud of the fact that they’re at level 3 because no one else is. Then that becomes a motivating factor for everyone to start being a little bit more careful. 

How has running the after-school club affected your games’ designs?

It provides me with a really focused audience. My RPGs are really simple, but they take forever for me to write because I get hung up on mechanical differences that hardly make any difference. So what I’ll do is think “What would best serve a game I have to run for 10 year-olds?” It has to be ready in five minutes and has to be as easy to run as possible. I keep those kids in mind and that helps me stay focused on keeping things practical.

That’s what things like the random tables in Maze Rats are for. Same for the DM advice at the back of the booklet. I just kept pushing myself to make it shorter and clearer and more succinct. It was just a couple of pages because kids aren’t gonna read a whole book on DMing. You need to make it as concise and readable as possible. I’ve discovered that when writing systems for 10-year-olds, you end up writing things that are good for adults too because things are a lot clearer and faster.

Link to Part II of the interview

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