[26 June 2008]
Tabletop roleplaying games—the kind you play with pencil, paper, and weird-looking dice—have long been associated with that enduring cultural phenomenon known as Dungeons & Dragons. Initially launched way back in 1974, the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game (RPG) went on to establish an entire industry. The venerable game released its much-anticipated fourth edition in May of this year, and over the course of its history has inspired countless books, films, comics, and videogames.
Now published by industry titan Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), D&D still reigns supreme as the most widely-played and best-selling RPG game system, but those outside hardcore gamer circles are often unaware that hundreds of other tabletop RPGs are published worldwide. The D&D-style, or “swords and sorcery” game, is but one genre among dozens. You can battle the Galactic Empire in the official Star Wars RPG (also published by WOTC), or fight ancient, unknowable evil in the popular Call of Cthulhu games, based on the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
In fact, pretty much any genre you can find in the fanboy area of fiction bookshelves is represented by a dozen or more games in the tabletop RPG world: space opera, horror, cyberpunk, western, superhero, anime, espionage, alternate history…the list goes on. Hybrid genre games are popular, too—the horror/western, or the superhero/alternate history. The dawning of the Internet, with its various methods of digital distribution, has launched a new wave of independent game design companies that publish by mail-order and PDF. Several universal game systems are built to accommodate any kind of story, and a hyperliterate indie scene has developed, offering role-paying milieus in which players assume the roles of resistance groups in occupied Tibet (Tibet: The RPG), Napoleonic-era pirates (Privateers and Gentlemen), or teen soldiers in Warsaw, circa 1944 (Grey Ranks).
In January 2008, a brand-new RPG hit game store shelves—one that had been highly anticipated for several reasons. Alpha Omega: The Beginning and the End, published by start-up Mind Storm Labs out of Ottawa, Canada, had been shrouded in secrecy as its creators mounted an online viral marketing campaign to build buzz. One of the game’s prerelease websites—“Ethan Haas Was Right”—was designed to provide some hints about the game, and a narrative back story to Alpha Omega world. The website was attracting attention on its own merits when a strange thing happened.
In a weird Information Age snafu, bloggers incorrectly identified the ambiguous Ethan Haas website as being part of another viral marketing campaign. Specifically, it was thought to be associated with the then-unreleased, hugely anticipated monster movie Cloverfield. Some mainstream media outlets repeated the erroneous rumor, and since fans were desperate for any information on the closely-guarded film, suddenly Alpha Omega found itself awash in intense, if accidental, publicity.
Since officially launching, the game has been distributed in the US and worldwide to great acclaim. The first “core book”—which outlines the Alpha Omega world and provides the basic game mechanics—is an impressive and frankly beautiful 400-plus-page publication. Hardbound, with professional-level design and generous interior art, the book outlines a game that is freshly imagined, sophisticated, and ambitious.
The world of Alpha Omega mashes up several RPG tropes. It imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which a handful of city-states and fortified arcologies populate a planet that is otherwise wild, toxic, and wholly untamed. High technology still exists in the “Cities”—the Internet survives, you’ll be happy to hear—but in the “Wilds” it’s all about sawed-off shotguns and roving bands of mutants. Atop this basic narrative chassis Alpha Omega provides themes and subsystems regarding supernatural magic, genetic manipulation, extraterrestrial races, ancient prophecies, gothic horror, and the suggestion of a cosmic war between angelic and demonic forces.
If that seems like a lot to bite off—well, yeah, it is. It’s a testament to the designers that the world of Alpha Omega, as presented in the initial core book, comes across as complex and dense rather than scattershot or overcooked. Still, there are a lot of blanks to be filled in as the game world evolves. The first official published adventure, “Milk Run”, is now available for free PDF download, and the creators plan to further expand the brand into videogames, novels, and comic books.
In a series of e-mail interviews, game creators David Carter and Earl Fischl, along with company president Tom McLaughlin, discuss the genesis of the Alpha Omega world, the intricacies of launching an RPG start-up company, and the ascendancy of gamer culture worldwide.
PopMatters: I actually came across the game via the weird Cloverfield viral marketing mix-up. That seems like a happy accident for you. Did you get a boost in visibility when all that went down?
Tom McLaughlin: It was a really interesting experience for everyone involved. We launched the Ethan Haas Was Right website in late June (2007) and began leaving messages and clues across the Internet about a mysterious website that had just appeared. We began receiving, what we thought at the time, was great traffic to the site.
However, once the two marketing campaigns were linked it just exploded and we started receiving millions of hits a day and tens of thousands of emails. Within 24 hours the majority of online and print media outlets, including the mainstream press like USA Today and Forbes were running with the story.
We tried leaving in-game messages through some of the characters, to let players know the two were not connected, but that just created more debate and conspiracy theories. It also didn’t help that Paramount contacted YouTube to have our video clips taken down. Even after our the marketing campaign ended we still had people coming up to us at conferences and telling us they didn’t believe we were real. They still believed we were part of some elaborate marketing ploy by [Cloverfield producer] J.J. Abrams.
A great unexpected result from it was the exposure a table top RPG received in the mainstream media. We received a lot of emails from people who never played an RPG before, or had years ago, and this got them interested in playing again.
PM: What is the genesis story for the AO world?
Earl Fischl: AO got its start way back around 1994-95. At the time. I had been working on what would become the foundation for AO‘s setting—a world wiped clean, humanity forced to relinquish control and put in its place by a savage, primal wilderness which had clawed its way right to the gates of the few remaining mega-cities. I always loved the hyper-urban world of cyberpunk, and the primal feel of monster-filled, savage wilderness. I had been reading a lot of stuff by guys like Zachariah Sitchin, Alan Alford—all kinds of other stuff about ancient astronaut theory, the nephilim, etc., and was intrigued by genetics at the time. Kind of a weird combination, but that was really the mix that got the whole thing started.
My earliest setting notes referred to the “world remade” and I loved that idea of starting over; of destroying the world as we know it and building something new. There’s something freeing about apocalyptic stories and the world that sometimes follows. The idea of the Evolutionary War [a cosmic war between angelic and demonic entities] became the pivotal device for unleashing the apocalyptic scenario required to “remake the world,” and create what are almost two separate settings—the Cities and the Wilds.
In 2004, Dave and I met at a Halloween party, of all things, and the conversation led to this game I had been working on for years, which was originally called 2090. We started working on it together, and things exploded. We were on the same creative wave, and the rest is history.
PM: The world of AO is very ambitious, and seems to successfully combine several genres. The cities and arcologies provide a cyberpunk feel; the Wilds more a Mad-Max/post-apocalypse flavor. Then the magic system and the aliens together bring a Cthulhu vibe of cosmic horror. It seems you could run a dozen different types of campaign in the same world. Was this deliberate—to bring together these elements into one system?
EF: The blending of genres occurred naturally, maybe unconsciously. AO is the kind of fantasy world I’ve always wanted as a fan and writer, and luckily Dave and I shared that.
I grew up on science fiction, fantasy and horror. For me, that was it. I didn’t want to watch, read or play anything else. In retrospect it is amazing to see what influences come through during the creative process. I mean, everything owes a debt to what has come before. I’m lucky to have been in an environment which exposed me to a lot of great influences from a very young age. I still remember the first time I ever watched Jaws, or The Road Warrior, or read Neuromancer or Dracula. AO is the natural result of those influences, and a whole lot more, coming together. It definitely wasn’t the result of carefully planned market research or a ploy to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We simply created the world, and ultimately the game we wanted. Hopefully others like it as well.
It is kind of funny actually. I had come across Lovecraft and certainly knew who he was, but never really got into it years ago. When we were running the Ethan Haas story, and I was writing the Journal, people started saying the journal pages we were releasing look like Lovecraft. I had to run out and start finding Lovecraft’s stuff, which of course I’m a big fan of now. Unfortunately, you could spend your life gathering influences and never get any of your creative work done, so Lovecraft has come to me late.
PM: What are the steps you took once you’d outlined the world, to begin the process of actually publishing and distributing the game?
TM: We made the decision very early on to publish ourselves as we intend to produce several publications including novels and graphic novels set in the Alpha Omega universe, as well as other games based on our 6-6 rule system. We didn’t seriously look at distribution until much later in the development cycle. We knew as a young company we had to have a finished quality product to show distributors before we could get them too interested or commit to supporting our products. Once the core rulebook was finished and we began previewing it to distributors we received a very positive response which has resulted in us partnering with several distributors in the US and around the world.
PM: The art in the core book and on the website is fantastic. I don’t know anything about the art side of things—how do you go about getting the artists you need for a project like this?
David Carter: That’s a good question and to be honest, when we started we weren’t certain how to find talented artists ourselves. We started by searching on the internet for various fantasy and science fiction artists and seeing if there were any communities where we could observe a lot of artist’s work at once. A few days into our search, we found conceptart.org and saw a lot of artists that had styles that we thought would be compatible.
We posted an ad on the site and provided an email address where interested artists could send us submissions. After ten days or so, we had received over 200 submissions! We rated each artist on their ability to draw characters, creatures, equipment, vehicles and action scenes, making notes about individuals that stood out in each category. We made a short list of five artists and offered each of them an opportunity to draw three images based on a general description of our world. Three made the cut and we started right away! The pace was extremely intense and we really pushed the artists to perform at a rate they had never experienced before.
Aaron Panagos, our Lead Concept Artist, and Matthew Bradbury, our Lead Illustrator, worked incredibly hard; basically putting their lives on hold for five months and performing incredibly, exceeding our high expectations. Now they’ve set the bar at a high level and have to match their performance for our upcoming Creature Manual!
PM: When developing the game, what was your playtesting system?
DC: Once we had the first draft of the game completed, we were quite happy. We thought it was a solid system with few omissions and little room for improvement. We felt it was ready for testing, but figured players would not find many holes in the system or setting. We could not have been more wrong.
We formed three beta testing groups of five to six members each and let gave them some time to look it over. Over the next eight months, we met for weekly review sessions where our testers presented issues that arose during game play. We would then spend the remainder of the week resolving those issues and returning the next draft for review. These sessions were lessons in humility that revealed how naïve we were about the state of our first draft. We had some incredibly intelligent and experienced gamers working on Alpha Omega and after each testing period, the game was clearly becoming more and more solid. Although the experience was stressful and hard on the ego at times, the result was well worth the struggle and we are extremely grateful to each and every game tester that helped us.
PM: Is there an effort to market the AO game outside the usual realm of tabletop RPG-ers? Are you looking to get a more mainstream crowd, or to target videogame and MMORPG players?
TM: There are a lot of stories to tell in the Alpha Omega universe so we chose the table top RPG setting to tell our first stories because the medium allows us to paint a really detailed picture of what the AO world is like and who inhabits it, plus we are also all die hard RPG-ers! Our main focus right now is developing content for the AO RPG, including modules like “Milk Run”, and our Creature Manual, which will be released this summer. We want to take the AO universe into other mediums when the time is right and when we think it’s most beneficial to the development of Alpha Omega.
PM: With the now near-ubiquity of Internet, video chat, etc. it seems the idea of “distributed” tabletop gaming is now much more feasible—the idea of playing a tabletop game with 5 or 6 people in physically remote locations. Is that something AO is keeping an eye on?
TM: Absolutely. We are building tools into our website that allow players to easily find other gamers in their area, contact them thru our website and begin playing together. With software like Skype it’s really easy for players who enjoy the same style of role-playing to connect with one another.
We are also encouraging community involvement, in April we will launch the New World Science and Engineering Commission website ( www.nwsecom.com) which will allow players to contribute creatures, weapons, vehicles, equipment, etc. they have “discovered” during their adventures in the Alpha Omega world.
PM: What does tabletop RPG play offer that MMORPGs or videogames in general cannot?
DC: The major advantage that tabletop games have over MMORPGs or video games is personal interaction. Although many video games allow you to communicate in person over the internet with built-in audio or chat features, they can never reach the level of social interaction that accompanies table top role-playing.
Sitting around with friends and sharing the experiences created by GMs or storytellers all while happily enjoying food and drinks that are entirely unhealthy cannot be replicated with video games. Laughing together over the misfortunes of characters or imagining their triumphs and accomplishments after the dice have been rolled cannot be sufficiently emulated through video game platforms and I believe this is the main reason table-top gaming continues to thrive despite the simplicity of the products used to play them.
PM: Fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes—all these are certainly dominant entertainment genres in TV and film. It seems that gaming culture is joining this trend in recent years as well, “coming out of the closet” and shedding the geek reputation. Would you agree with that?
EF: Absolutely. That’s a trend which has been gaining momentum for a long time. Games, gamers and game developers have huge sway in popular culture these days. A great deal is owed to games in terms of inspiration for projects we all know and love in other media, probably more than any of us realize. A lot of creative people working in fields like film and TV play these games and those influences and the creative exercise of gaming itself, certainly creep into their work.
It’s actually a pretty relevant question for us. We grew up loving table-top RPGs and felt we owed a lot to them for the inspiration and creative outlet they offered us. That’s the biggest reason Alpha Omega is a table-top RPG first, and not a graphic novel or a screen play or something else. Those things will come, but we’ve always planned and written Alpha Omega to be an evolving world—the kind of thing that grabs the imagination and fuels it. RPGs are perhaps the best way to engage a group of imaginative, creative people and make them a part of telling exciting stories and building a great fantasy world and that’s what we’re about. Where it goes next…we’ll see.