with John Dunn, Ross Watson, and Jason Marker about Accursed
By Aaron T. Huss
The following interview was conducted over Skype to discuss the upcoming Accursed dark fantasy setting, for Savage Worlds, designed by John Dunn, Ross Watson, and Jason Marker, and published by Melior Via. The interview was conducted by Editor-in-Chief Aaron T. Huss, represented by the prefix RPC.
RPC: Welcome everyone to another Word in Edgewise… Today we are speaking with Ross Watson, John Dunn, and Jason Marker about their upcoming Savage Worlds, dark fantasy setting Accursed. Starting with Ross, then John, and Jason, please let everyone know what your role is with the project, what parts you are developing, and speak a bit about yourself and your previous RPG writing/publishing experience.
Ross Watson: I’m the Lead Developer of Accursed, and I’ve worked on just about every part of it–I do the art direction and the overall vision of the project. As for myself, I’ve been a gamer for most of my life, and I’ve been a game designer for over 13 years now. I started out working on products during the d20 boom, including some books for WOTC and FFG. I parlayed that experience into working as a writer for Games Workshop and later as the lead developer of the Warhammer 40K Roleplay line for Fantasy Flight Games.
I’ve worked on over sixty different products, and several of those have even won some awards along the way. Some of my more recent credits include Shadowrun: Sprawl Gangers, Dust Warfare, Darksiders II, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and Malifaux: Through the Breach.
John Dunn: I’m handling the role of publisher for Accursed, but I’m also doing some of the writing. This included much of the work on the Mummy and Mongrel witchbreeds, as well as the Witches that created their curses.
I’ve been involved as a freelance writer and developer for Shadowrun, Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and Malifaux: Through the Breach. Melior Via, my publishing imprint, has released Hope Preparatory School for ICONS and M&M3E.
Jason Marker: I’m the lead writer for Accursed. I’ve worked on the Golems and Vargr, along with a lot of the equipment and weapons for the setting. I’m also, as Ross likes to say, “Quality Control”. I say no a lot. I started in the business in 1999 as an occasional freelancer for Palladium Books as I worked as an advertising and editorial photographer. In 2007 I went full time as a staff writer at Palladium where I brought the new Robotech RPG to market and worked on other lines as a writer and editor. In 2009 I went freelance again, and started writing for Ross at Fantasy Flight Games on the Warhammer 40K RPG lines.
Since then I’ve worked on all the 40K RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade, and Only War), the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion RPGs, Shadowrun 4th edition, Through the Breach RPG for Malifaux, and some other, smaller projects.
RPC: Ross, being the lead developer, can you explain the background to how the setting came about?
RW: Accursed came about because I’ve been wanting to build something with John and Jason for a long time. We all agreed that we wanted to do something together professionally, but we wanted to find the “right project,” something we could all get behind and feel passionate about.
I was working with another company as a consultant and I was asked to think of a “Dark Fantasy RPG.”
At the time, I didn’t know what to think — fantasy is a pretty saturated genre in RPGs. So I went home and thought about it some more. I remember thinking about the “Creature Commandos,” a comic book about different movie monsters working together in WWII. From there I started thinking about a way to use that in a fantasy setting. Before long I found some important touchstones and influences like Solomon Kane and Castlevania, Hellboy and Ravenloft. And the rest is history!
RPC: Why dark fantasy?
Ross Watson: It turns out that the other company didn’t want the Accursed setting that I had come up with, so I decided to take it to John and Jason. They both agreed it was the right thing we had been waiting for. Dark Fantasy is a genre that hasn’t been explored as heavily as many other types of fantasy gaming. I happen to really like the idea of a fantasy setting that gives players something different than your typical dungeon crawl or elves-and-orcs. Plus, it’s been years since there’s been anything like Ravenloft!
RPC: Why Savage Worlds?
Ross Watson: We chose Savage Worlds because it is a great system to represent fast, fun, furious, and cinematic action. Although the heroes in Accursed are monsters, they get into situations that are often considered cinematic in many ways. It doesn’t hurt that Savage Worlds has a large built-in audience of fans!
RPC: Did you shop around, looking at other game systems?
Ross Watson: We talked about it quite a bit, but in the end we all agreed that Savage Worlds was the right home for a setting like Accursed.
RPC: Can you provide me with the basic elevator pitch for Accursed?
Ross Watson: Accursed is a dark fantasy setting where the players take on the roles of monsters battling to free a land from the evil influence of the Witches.
RPC: Jason, how are you bringing that basic elevator pitch to life?
Jason Marker: Well, first off there are the monsters. We have six playable monsters called Witchbreeds, and each one is a classic movie monster. There’s mummies, werewolves, golems (like Frankenstein’s monster), Revenants (living dead on a mission, think The Crow), Mongrels, and Damphir, which are half-vampires. Each of the Witchbreeds were made by one of the specific witches as, essentially, super soldiers for their armies. Once they invaded and won, the monsters were cast off to fend for themselves. They are the Accursed. Twisted creatures without souls left to fend for themselves and fighting for redemption.
RPC: When you consider a human character in Savage Worlds compared to a Witchbreed, how do they rate? Are the Witchbreeds considerably stronger? Or do they have more flaws to offset their inherent bonuses?
Jason Marker: Well, here’s the thing. There aren’t human characters. Not playable ones yet at any rate. The Accursed are much tougher and stronger than mortals, that’s what they were designed for. The downside is the curse they all carry. Yeah, sure, a Mongrel may have all these powers granted by the horrible experiments they went through and all the animal parts grafted to their bodies, but they are in constant, searing pain. Each Witchbreed has a specific set of bonuses and penalties related to their curse. So, yeah. They’re tougher than the average person, but they suffer for it with bloodlust or never ending hunger or constant pain or constant existential dread or what have you.
RPC: What mechanics have you created to deal with this bloodlust/hunger/pain?
You don’t have to go into details…
Jason Marker: Those mechanics are linked directly to each Witchbreed’s curse, and the Witchmark with which they are branded. Ross is actually working on that, and the rules are pretty cool.
RPC: Ross, would you like to explain a little further?
One of the core things about the Vargr is that they have a constant, insatiable hunger gnawing at them, part of the price of their curse. This means that Vargr have to eat a certain amount each day (and its not small) or suffer a level of Fatigue.
As the curse progresses, this hunger either gets worse (meaning the Vargr has to eat living animal flesh, constantly on the hunt for his next meal) or better, easing the effects somewhat in return for losing some of the connection with his bestial side.
John Dunn: A big portion of the game, from the perspective of the players, is actually the process of deciding if they want their character to Deny their Witchmark, as they try to recover their humanity, or to Accept the curse and the power that comes with it.
RPC: If you deny your witchmark, do you start to lose your powers?
Ross Watson: In a way, denying the curse means that you are reaching for your humanity. There are stages you go through of defiance, and at the very end an Accursed can find a way to finally break his curse and be free from it. It is a rare and momentous event.
One thing I love about RPGs is that they give you a chance to tell your character’s story. The acceptance or defiance of your curse is one mechanic we’ve introduced into Accursed that gives you a narrative tool to help tell that story.
RPC: I can see the role-playing aspects, but how does that translate mechanically?
Ross Watson: Well, as in the example I gave earlier with the Vargr, the interval before the character needs to eat or suffer a fatigue level decreases. And when the character’s connection with his wolf-self begins to decay, his werewolf abilities lessen somewhat — but in return, the weaknesses associated with that (such as silver and moonlight) also lessen. So the character’s Weakness where he suffers bonus damage from Silver would change the amount of damage he suffers, etc.
John Dunn: Its worth mentioning that those who manage to transcend their Witchmark can gain some extraordinary gifts.
Ross Watson: Fully accepting or fully denying the curse make for some really really cool stuff, as John said.
RPC: It’s an interesting amount of personal balancing from the players standpoint. What direction do they take their characters?
Ross Watson: Exactly.
RPC: How do they weigh the bonuses with the loss of those bonuses? It adds a mental element into the game…
Ross Watson: There are solid reasons, both roleplaying and mechanical, to go either direction. And, of course, if the GM wants a simpler Accursed experience, he can choose to play with just focusing on the standard curses that the characters begin with — we designed it so that there’s a lot of options.
RPC: John, what are you doing from the publishing side to bring out the dark fantasy feel?
John Dunn: Dark Fantasy can mean a pretty broad range of different things, at least to me.
I recall an old comic strip that joked about playing dark fantasy and tripping over a dwarf, when you couldn’t see.
That’s obviously not where we’re going.
Jason Marker: Yeah, there’s not a lot of slapstick humor in Accursed. Most everyone is too hungry and suffering too much to be funny.
John Dunn: Rather, we wanted to set our tone by looking at establishing a setting where there was only the faintest glimmer of hope. A big part of that comes from the design of our world, Morden. From my perspective as publisher, that’s involved a great deal of interaction with both Jason and Ross to make sure that things were dark enough, while still leaving that faint glimmer. However, the other important part of that was in making certain that everything had a strong sense of verisimilitude. It was critical to me that things remained internally consistent and believable.
Jason Marker: Which is hard, because Ross is an extremely optimistic person who loves heroic daring-do, and I’m a fatalistc Slav for whom the glass is always half empty. Of poison.
John Dunn: Right. Nothing like trying to balance on *that* highwire. The other critical element here came in making certain that we had artists and graphic designers who could effectively convey the tone that we sought.
RPC: I never pinned Ross to love heroic daring-do… Can you describe that tone, besides stating it’s dark…?
John Dunn: We were extraordinarily fortunate to have some good connections in that regard. I’m thrilled with the graphic design that we’ve received from Kevin Childress, the cartography from Jeff Preston, and the artistry of Alberto Bontempi. Hellboy and Solomon Kane both are strong examples of the light shining in the darkness. Both are heroes in worlds where people are committing unspeakable atrocities, but I’m not sure you’d want to exactly owe your life to either one of them.
Ross Watson: The tone is that the setting is grim–the Witches have all but conquered Morden, and it is up to the Accursed to throw off the shackles of this evil influence if they can. Things are not entirely bleak–the Order of the Penitent exists to guide the Accursed towards the regions most in need of heroes.
RPC: Would you consider this a setting where once a campaign gets started, the characters are already at a disadvantage over those they are trying to protect themselves from?
John Dunn: It depends upon where they are in the world. The characters are certainly outcasts everywhere, but the Witches (and their banes) are not as active in some portions of the world as they are in others. There are places where the Accursed who have turned against the Witches are hunted like dogs. But there are also places where they can sometimes blend into society without too much trouble, and do not need to fear the banes. This gives the Gamemaster an opportunity to find the tone that’s best suited to his play group. So, when Jason runs it, you’re pretty much hosed.
Jason Marker: Yep
Ross Watson: And when I run it, there’s an actual chance to wipe out one of the Witches and free part of the land.
RPC: Switching gears a bit… Was there a reason you went with character creatures that are akin to gothic horror instead of going fantastical and creating your own?
John Dunn: We actually talked up both sides of that, and we’ve got a pledge level that offers backers the chance to create a new one for the setting in the Kickstarter. We might even create some later down the road for expansions. However, we thought it was imperative to make the setting approachable during the initial stages. One of the ways we wanted to do that was by having races that really were part of the consciousness. If I put up a picture of a Dhampir, or a Golem, or a Vargr, it immediately resonates with most gamers. We thought that was pretty critical if we wanted to establish an audience.
RPC: That’s about all the questions I have regarding the setting. If you’d like, why don’t you guys take some time to talk about the Kickstarter campaign.
John Dunn: Happy to talk about the Kickstarter. We’re launching on Friday, September 13th.
RPC: You can discuss your overall goals for running the Kickstarter. Maybe some of the stretch goals. Or you can talk about any free add-ons. Also, are you looking at linking with anyone else for stretch goals?
John Dunn: Honestly, in the early stages of the campaign planning, I pulled out a calendar and checked to see when the next Friday the 13th of 2013 took place. Turns out next week is the first one. So, last December, we knew when we were launching Our big goal with the Kickstarter is to raise the funds we need to produce the quality of artwork we want in the quantity we need.
We’re lucky to have some great contacts, but we need to be able to compensate them in the way they deserve.
In terms of our funding goal, we crunched a lot of numbers, and to do it right, $10,000 was where we needed to be. In terms of stretch goals, we’re trying to hold things close to our chest for now. We’ve actually already collaborated with the Sasquatches on Primeval Thule and with Sean Patrick Fannon of Evil Beagle on Shaintar.
So, both of them have agreed to provide us with adventures if we hit our initial funding goal.
Beyond that, our first stretch goal is to go full color interior artwork. (If we don’t hit it, we’ll have roughly 25% Black and White interior art.) Our next two goals after that involve fiction. The first one is to have Andy Chambers (best known for his work on Warhammer 40,000, Starship Troopers, and Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty) write the book’s introductory fiction.
After that, we have Mel Odom lined up to write a novella. We currently have stretch goals lined up to roughly $100,000. They involve a lot of people who we were THRILLED to have agreed to work with us on this project, and we really hope to bring as many of them on board as possible. But, first, we need to reach the initial goals.
RPC: $10,000 seems a bit high. What type of add-ons are you expecting to entice higher pledges?
John Dunn: There’s no question that it’s higher than I would have liked, but it’s where the numbers lay. Basic backing levels involve providing the PDF and a number of the stretch goals. Higher levels offer some great opportunities for backers to work with us to develop additional parts of the setting.
Ross Watson: We want to provide the backers with a product that has high-quality production values, including a really nice map, excellent artwork, etc.
John Dunn: At one of the higher levels, backers can create new archetypes along with a Witch that created them. Finally, our highest level – $10,000 – this would completely fund the project – offers a backer a chance to fly to Scotland and play a game of Accursed in a haunted castle with one of the creators. (The good folks at Geek Nation Tours have helped us work this one out.)
Ross raises an important point – we’d really rather offer a top tier product at a slightly higher price than try to cut corners to produce something that left us disappointed.
RPC: What is your back-up plan if the Kickstarter campaign fails?
Ross Watson: Epic levels of despair. :)
John Dunn: Kickstarter pretty much is the plan, Aaron. If we don’t achieve our goals, then the book likely won’t be of a quality level that we’re willing to release.
RPC: Do you have all the writing done, or mostly done?
John Dunn: Principal writing is done on the player’s guide portion, we’re just touching up the layout now. It’s going to be available, as a play test version, to backers immediately upon pledging to the Kickstarter. Obviously, since the project is funding art, that play test version isn’t going to be very pretty.
RPC: That’s a good feature for the Kickstarter.
John Dunn: Thanks! I loved the way that Evil Hat did that for FATE and thought it was well worth emulating.
RPC: Considering your collaboration, the Savage Worlds license, or just Accursed, do you have a road map for what’s next after the core setting guide is completed?
John Dunn: It’s going to depend upon the response, honestly. We have quite a few stretch goals mapped out. If they’re funded, then we’ll be producing them, likely for the next 6-9 months. If they’re not funded, we’ll certainly support the project with adventures and source material, but the pace is going to be slower.
RPC: Is this a plot point campaign setting?
John Dunn: Yes, there will be a plot point campaign in the full version of the setting. There might even be a second plot point, depending upon what happens with Stretch Goals ^H^H^H^H Wait, I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?
Ross Watson: Look at John, revealing state secrets!
RPC: That’s all I had for you guys. Is there anything you’d like to add?
John Dunn: Thanks for taking out the time for an interview, Aaron. It was great to talk about the setting with you. Thanks also to everyone that takes the time to read this. We appreciate folks who are interested and enthusiastic about the setting. For anyone who likes it, but doesn’t have the money or inclination to fund us, we’d really appreciate them spreading the word.
Ross Watson: It was a pleasure, Aaron, thanks for having us on with you.