How have you developed the brand of Questing Beast?
It started as a YouTube channel and I had a blog from pretty early on. It was just reviews for quite a while and then it branched into making a few products, Maze Rats and Knave, and a couple of adventures. The newsletter is a fairly recent development. I wanted to do that for a couple of reasons, one of which is now that G+ doesn’t exist anymore, it’s really hard for people to keep up with what’s actually going on. Things are really spread out. There are tons of blogs, there are tons of YouTube channels, there’s Twitter accounts and most of these people don’t really follow each other or they just follow each other on that one platform. Because I’m subscribed to most of these I try and keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on overall. I figured it’d be really useful to have one place where a lot of the interesting stuff is put together, so the newsletter helps with that and keeps people updated about Questing Beast. It’s really good to have a newsletter in general because there are people you can talk to directly instead of having to go through YouTube or through Twitter or all those intermediaries. That’s grown really fast.
In your blog, you’ve used the phrase “tabletop adventure games.” How does that compare to “OSR?”
I like the phrase because of the way it puts the focus on exploring and encountering weird stuff. That’s the kind of game that I like. There’s been quite a number of other RPGs, usually beginner box sets in the past, that go by “adventure game” just because I people who published those games realized that it was a more accessible term. It’s what got put on the Labyrinth RPG. The people over at River Horse who were publishing that agreed with me that “adventure game” just sounds better and puts the emphasis where we wanted it to be. It’s definitely not an OSR game in the sense that it’s a game for kids where there’s really no combat or death, so it’s a very different style of game than OSR. But the people at River Horse did take a lot of inspiration from OSR stuff. They wanted the extremely high production values, plus things like layout where every section of the adventure is on a two-page spread so you never have to flip back and forth. I tried to include a lot of OSR-style problems, like weird situations where it’s not obvious how you would solve it. I tried to use that as our principles to build these situations for the Labyrinth Game and I think that turned out really well. People seem to be really liking it.
How has running this review channel affected how you design games?
It has got me thinking a lot more about layout. For the OSR books I review, most of them are kind of on the same page with how you should layout books but every once in a while you’ll run into stuff from other publishers where it’s just a big long stream of consciousness text that’s not designed to be run at the table. Seeing these books has put that more at the forefront of my mind. I often call it “control panel design” where the spread is like a control panel: everything you need is right there so you don’t have to turn the page. I started doing that all the way back with Maze Rats. I wanted every two-page spread to be like a panel of a DM screen. That way you could just print out each two-page spread and then use that to run the game. I continued that with Knave and with probably the other stuff I’m going to write. Once you start doing that, you can’t really go back because you just can’t imagine having to break up text over multiple pages.
Where does your design process start for a game like Knave, Maze Rats, or Maze Knights?
It really depends on what I’m trying to accomplish with it. Knave existed because I wanted something that was compatible with OSR material that I could run for my students like Tomb of the Serpent Kings. Knave was originally called ‘Apprentice Dungeons and Dragons” and was just a streamlined version of 5th edition. I kept taking more and more stuff out until it was just the six ability scores, which I made to work kind of like the OD&D saving throws. I wanted something similar to Maze Rats but for OSR.
I’m working on Maze Knights slower than I would like, but just because my brain keeps revising and trying to rethink exactly what I want out of it. What I’m leaning towards right now is an evolved form of Maze Rats, so it’s definitely not strictly OSR-compatible, but I wanted to push it in a direction where it’s “zoomed out” a little farther than normal. Instead of controlling one character, you’re controlling a couple. It’s a really interesting design space since there are very few if any “war-band-style” role-playing games. I wanted to see if I could make that work.
A big inspiration for Maze Knights was last Gen Con, I got to play a game called Barbarians of the Ruined Earth. I was controlling four characters at the same time and what I quickly discovered was that when you’re fighting you can do all sorts of fun combo moves. You can have characters work together to do things that one character couldn’t on their own. Of course you could do this with a normal D&D party but then if you have to coordinate with all the other players and figure out who’s going to do what. Then everyone’s arguing over whether that’s the best thing to do. But if you control four characters you can just do it. All sorts of fun things would happen. If you have multiple characters, you can move a character to trip a guy and sit on him while another one rips off his robot arm and then beat him with it. Obviously Dungeon Crawl Classics has funnels, but in all of these games it’s always a one-shot thing, where you do a funnel to figure out who your main character is. What if there was a game where you just did funnels forever, where you had three characters and then develop them together as a team? They could develop their own little name or their own theme. Maybe characters would die off and then you would just replace them. It would be a very different mode of play.
I’m working out how to make characters that they’re really simple but they have one or two cool things. Then you can figure out how you can combo them with other people. I want to have at least 36 characters just because it fits with the Maze Rats theme of rolling 2d6. In my flights of fantasy, I want to have 216 of them (Maze Knights character jam, anyone?) so that you can actually roll 3d6, just like you would roll for your stats in D&D, but each roll gives you one of 216 possible characters. That way every war band is wildly different from all the other ones.
I want to get at least 36 classes written before I do more playtesting because that’s gonna be the main sticking point. It’s hard making characters from scratch so what I’m doing now is going back to Knave’s hundred spells and think of that spell as the core ability for a character. It’s a good starting point for me to start breaking out of my mold and thinking about weird characters.
What role does lethality have in the games you run and design?
Ideally people slow down and think more. A good player is someone who thinks before they act. It doesn’t have to be very long but if you’re thinking at all then I’m happy. That’s hard to find with a lot of players. I have all of these rules about speeding up the game and I want the game to go fast but if at any point during the game I see that the players are talking to each other and they’re planning something then I just stop. I like to let them do that for as long as they want because that’s what I want them to be doing. I feel like that creates really good stories, the types of if you go on Reddit and see greentext stories about. The stories that seem like lot of fun are usually about characters getting creative and thinking outside the box and doing something that no one expected. Having high lethality in your game I think makes that more common. Good players slow down their plans. The more planning the better.
I always tell players at the beginning that the game is lethal. “This game is dangerous, you’re probably going to die at some point, and if you do it’s not a big deal. You’ll be out of the game for five minutes while you make another character” and then they’ll be right back playing again. Other times they’re a little bit sad when they die, but it’s good to be a little bit sad because then maybe you won’t do that again. Dying has never really been a big deal as long as you keep your expectations clear right from the beginning.
How does the community influence your design through hacks, scenarios, and other projects?
I don’t know what it is exactly as I consume so much of it they just sort of bleeds in I suppose. Watching the whole OSR blog scene producing games and content constantly is just helpful as an inspiration because it just it normalizes the design process. “This is just what everyone does and if all these people I don’t know can do it, then I can do it too.” It frees you up mentally to try weird stuff and to experiment and to not really care how good it is as long as you’re making stuff. Then you can worry about polishing it later.
That’s been huge ever since I got into the OSR. I think that was one of the big things that attracted me to it as I would look at a lot of the other D&D scenes out there and it’s very much about trying to figure out how the rules work and manipulating the rules, and min-maxing, or creating builds and there was less of a sense of freedom and imagination. The OSR scene really was the opposite of that so that really pulled me in.
In the OSR, there’s an obsession with system, because everyone is building their own systems but there’s also a very healthy disrespect for those systems. The whole obsession with system is replaced by an obsession with setting because in OSR games it is mostly the setting where you discover the places you go, the people that you talk to, and that’s where all of the interest comes from. That’s why you see so many of these blogs that are about people chronicling their setting in the weird monsters and characters.
Empire Strikes Back.
The Hobbit is remarkably good and not enough people talk about how good it is compared to Lord of the Rings as a D&D setting.
What games are you running currently?
Best RPG as a player?
Best RPG as a referee?
I’d probably say Old-School Essentials because of how well it’s designed and clean it is. That really appeals to my design nerd sensibilities and my layout obsession.
That’s all! I had a blast doing this. It was neat to get to pick Ben’s brain about teaching, gaming, designing and the relationship between those categories. Be sure to check out Ben’s stuff (channel, blog, newsletter, and role-playing game company) or even sign up for to join myself and many others at his Patreon. From there you can follow the development of his next game Maze Knights and more!