A Word in Edgewise… with James “Grim” Desborough of Postmortem Studios

with James “Grim” Desborough of Postmortem Studios
By Aaron T. Huss

The following interview was conducted between Roleplayers Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Aaron T. Huss, denoted by the prefix RPC, and Postmortem Studios owner/Chronicle City creative director James “Grim” Desborough, denoted by the prefix GR, along with his Camelot Cosmos freelance writer Daniel Jupp, denoted by the prefix DJ. The interview was conducted via Skype messenger on Tuesday, March 12.

RPC: Welcome everyone to another Word in Edgewise interview. Today we are talking with James “Grim” Desborough of Postmortem Studios and freelancer fame. Grim, can you start by introducing yourself and giving us an overview of your writing and publishing background?
GR: Hi, I’m Grim, I am now also of Chronicle City which is now my main job, as creative director alongside Angus Abranson. I broke into gaming publishing with The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming, back in 2000, though I’d been writing on a fan basis before that. I have since worked for SJG, Cubicle 7, Wizards of the Coast, Mongoose Publishing and others. I also write fiction and have a few short pulp stories out as well as some stories in collections, such as Tales of Promethea and my first novel is currently in editing.

RPC: Joining Grim today is the author of Camelot Cosmos Daniel Jupp. Daniel, can you start by introducing yourself and giving us an overview of your writing background?
DJ: Yes, that’s easy as its not as long and impressive as Grim’s CV! I’ve been gaming for nearly twenty five years but Camelot Cosmos is my first published work!

RPC: Is FATE one of the systems you prefer to play?
DJ: I’m very old school and cut my teeth on AD&D and OD&D so I always have affection for those, but FATE is something I’ve got into more recently and really enjoyed. It’s a very intuitive and flexible system.
GR: For myself it’s one we use a fair amount and I found Daniel’s take on it very interesting. Very different to – say – Agents of SWING.

RPC: Grim, is FATE one of those systems you prefer writing for versus some of the other OGL systems?
GR: I am a believer in ‘system matters’. I tend to gravitate towards a specific tool for a specific task. FATE is adaptable, which makes it a common choice, but I also like writing for D6 and I’m excited to look into the possibilities of WARP and 4C amongst others.
DJ: That’s the opposite of me, btw. I think that every system is there as a framework or a suggestion. It’s settings that interest me most.

RPC: Daniel, can you give a brief description of the Camelot Cosmos setting? When it comes to Camelot Cosmos and FATE, what are the biggest changes/adaptations made to accommodate the setting?
DJ: Ok, well CC is a post-apocalyptic setting, but several hundred years after the apocalypse. The system changes are mainly the linking of skills with Aspects. I love the flexibility of Aspects but also found them a bit vague so I linked them directly with skills. That’s ver different to standard FATE.
GR: It was interesting to see how Daniel, a more traditional gamer, came at the FATE system. I think interesting things happen when you smack things together like that. Though I think not everyone ‘got it’.

RPC: Grim, in your professional opinion as a writer and publisher, what makes Camelot Cosmos stand-out from other FATE settings?
GR: Daniel has an attention to detail and background that’s missing from a lot of the more free-flowing, Indie-style games. There’s a very grounded, well-thought out and meaningful backgound to the world that hooks it into a world that’s more than just a backdrop for high-octane action. It feels plausible and genuine. I often talk about the aim of ‘plausibility’ in my own writing, which is a sort of ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to suspension of disbelief without being tooooo heavy.
DJ: Haha! I’m very glad that Grim finds CC plausible though, as that was one of the core aims.

RPC: I appreciate plausibility in gaming, but of course when it comes to the most popular genre epic fantasy, plausibility doesn’t always exist. The same can be said about some sci-fi settings that go over-the-top in terms of technology. How does Camelot Cosmos stay grounded to keep with that concept of plausibility?
GR: Plausibility isn’t necessarily the same thing as realism. A game can be over the top and still plausible, provided it’s internally consistent and follows its own rules. Otherwise, I’ll let Daniel answer that :)
RPC: Very true, but sometimes internal consistency only goes so far when it comes to being realistic. Sometimes the explanations are “because that’s how it works” or something like that…
DJ: It does so by basing everything on interpretation. The setting has different levels of knowledge for different characters. The more educated characters have an understanding of science and the scientific basis of the history of the setting. But other characters interpret things mythologically. I think the presence of both world views in the same setting is very plausible and more like real life.

RPC: Does this produce a more sci-fi fantasy feel?
GR: I’d say so.
DJ: Yes I think so too.

RPC: As a reference point, would you compare that to John Carter of Mars or Warhammer 40k? In other words, does it feel more pulp-like or high-action sci-fi?
GR: More like 40k I’d say, but it’s definitely its own thing and not as grim and hopeless as that world.
DJ: It’s darker in tone so that makes it more Warhammer [40k], at least for me. But it’s not just about combat, and there are powers in place that beginning characters shouldn’t mess with, that’s for sure.
RPC: I’m guessing that incorporates the post-apocalyptic theme…
DJ: Definitely. Think about what would happen if humans survived the Terminator type rebellion, and then rebuilt on feudal models.
GR: It’s a long time after the apocalypse, more Canticle for Liebowitz than Mad Max :)
DJ: Yes, that’s a very good analogy.
RPC: More like the dark ages after rebuilding has started and humanity is still trying to pick-up the pieces?
GR: Perhaps on the cusp of a new renaissance, either out of the dark age or into a new, darker one.
DJ: Well the rebuilding is quite advanced. There are kings with developed nations behind them. But their world view is essentially magical and mythological.

RPC: Considering the books already published, the Player’s and GM’s Books have no shortage of content (in a good way). What are the highlights from each book?
DJ: I think the Players Book is best for the system changes, they are interesting ones even if sometimes a bit unusual. With the GMs book it’s more about the detail I can give on the setting. My favourite bit in terms of writing them was the factions and artefacts sections in the GMs book. It was great fun trying to imagine different ideas on what Excalibur might mean to different people, or how a Wizards Guild would look in a post-scientific world.

RPC: To wrap-up discussions about Camelot Cosmos, what direction is the series taking in the upcoming months if not years?
GR: We’re tentatively looking at a second edition, but not in the immediate future. While those who love the game seem to really, really love it and buy everything. We need to think about the system and presentation to take it to a wider audience. Meanwhile we’ll keep the support coming.
DJ: I’m hoping to bring out more supplements in the coming months, particularly on noble houses, cults and other background details. I have 13 realms to describe in the setting, so there are plenty of future options and I’m really looking forward to exploring them.

RPC: What type of presentation changes are you thinking? If you want to share those here…
GR: More art is the only thing we’ve really settled on, but I think rearranging the content a bit too.
DJ: We can definitely bring more of the setting into the system, but how we do it needs discussion!
GR: Like I said, it’s all quite distant for now :)

RPC: Grim, I’ve seen your name in numerous publications throughout the course of the past few years and am always surprised by how versatile your writing ability is.
GR: That’s flattering and welcome to hear!
RPC: From a professional standpoint, what publication that you freelance wrote (as opposed to published via Postmortem Studios) are you most proud of?
GR: That’s hard to say… Especially given how things can change in editing and when they’re done as a team.
RPC: Even considering team publications…
GR: If I absolutely had to pick I think I would say either Cannibal Sector One for SLA Industries, or Cthulhu Albion: Folklore.

RPC: Would you say that you have a preference toward horror writing?
GR: I like playing with difficult and challenging concepts. Horror gives the most opportunity for that in a more forgiving environment than other genres. I also think it’s a reaction to having gotten my start in comedy books!
RPC: The d20 humoristic books for Mongoose that too many people have taken seriously… somehow…
GR: Yeah, though for the most part they’re not even meant to be played so… I don’t know. People are weird, or possibly dumb, or both. You can’t always write for the lowest or most offendable denominator though.

RPC: I am a fan of horror-influenced or infused settings and find that horror has a way of producing inherent plot hooks. I always enjoy how that style of game produces encounters where player characters are not guaranteed to win. Do those types of things influence your writing?
GR: Plot hooks are important. Players always need something to do. Horror has a way of going after people or having consequences, rather than passively waiting to be killed and looted.

RPC: My thoughts exactly! You are currently putting together Machinations of the Space Princess, either influenced by or compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess (of which you can clarify). Can you take a minute to describe MotSP and what you’ve put together so far?
GR: Machinations of the Space Princess is broadly compatible with the OSR games and with LotFP specifically but does step away from the more traditional sacred cows. It wouldn’t take much to port material from one game to another and I figure old-school people like kitbashing anyway. Machinations is a science fiction, science fantasy game based on the kind of stories found European comics in the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as album covers and fantasy/sci-fi art. I call it ‘Sexy, sleazy, swords and sci-fi’.
RPC: Like 80s heavy metal?
GR: If you mean the magazine, yes (Metal Hurlant). But that whole heavy metal, airbrush art aesthetic.

RPC: I am by no means a grognard, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess just happens to be my favorite OSR game and the one I would choose first (for fantasy that is). It is the type of game that feels familiar while at the same time feeling so much different. How does Machinations of the Space Princess fit with that concept? Does it have a feel like some of the sci-fi games of old or one of the OSR sci-fi games? Or does it stand-out by only being compatible and carrying its own unique flavor?
GR: If we look at, say, Camelot Cosmos, we see a traditional sensibility brought to a new-wave game (FATE). With Machinations it’s really the other way around. Bringing a new-wave/indie sensibility to an old-school system. The familiarity of the system allows me to mess with it and have people understand better. The main thing I took from LotFP was the approach. LotFP is very much Raggi’s game, it’s how he plays, it’s his vision.

RPC: Does that include the bestiary and equipment approach?
GR: I’ve got a toolkit for both but I like to ‘fiddle’ around. I like Raggi’s approach but I intend to give more examples to make things easier for people with less time.

RPC: I’m a fan of his approach as well. I like the concept of making your encounters unique and unfamiliar, especially with an OSR system where players have probably encountered the same creatures over-and-over again for years. How do you plan on keeping the content fresh to avoid players seeing the same, mundane things they’ve dealt with in the past (in-game that is)?
GR: The system for creating critters is as broad as the system for creating aliens. There’s almost endless combinations and it’s fairly swift to make them up. I have also REALLY emphasised in the writing that the game is open to customisation and making up a load of stuff. Also that the universe is a REALLY big place with lots of room for weird and wonderful stuff.

RPC: Obviously this is going to be OGL given the mechanics you’re using, but do you plan on allowing a MotSP Compatible “license” for other publishers to use? Such as allowing them to use the MotSP name and not just the OGL mechanics?
GR: More like an ‘approved’ stamp. People who want to do stuff with it are free to but if they send it to me to have a look through they can get a seal of approval. Like a mark of quality. ‘This is cool in my book’.

RPC: What publication format are you planning for the core rulebook or rule set? A boxed publication like LotFP? A pair of core books like Camelot Cosmos? Or a giant tome that I can use to knock the dog out when he chews up my kids toys?
GR: Boxed sets are problematic to produce in the UK because they’re subject to VAT while books are not. It’ll almost certainly be an A5 or digest sized single book. It shouldn’t be TOO huge though since the setting information is implicit, rather than explicit.

RPC: Do you have an estimated page count?
GR: In word processor form it’s going to top out at maybe 150 pages? It should end up being slimmer than Agents of SWING.

RPC: Do you have an estimated release date?
GR: With my appointment at Chronicle City and with Satine’s schedule being packed we’re not going to make my original target. We’ve set a soft deadline for mid-July and a hard one of August. But if it’s done before, then it’s done before!

RPC: Well, that’s not too far away! Grim or Daniel, do you have anything else you’d like to share with the viewing audience? A plug you’d care to make?
GR: Just keep an eye on developments at postmortemstudios.wordpress.com I’d also say buy my fiction, which can be found on drivethrufiction.com.

RPC: What is your most recent fiction title?
GR: My latest is WILD: http://www.drivethrufiction.com/product/111550/Wild%3A-The-Dark-Canopy

That’s it for our latest edition of A Word in Edgewise. I’d like to thank James “Grim” Desborough and Daniel Jupp for taking some time to chat about Camelot Cosmos and Machinations of the Space Princess.

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