RPG Industry Professional Interview: James Wallis
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James Wallis is a thirty-year veteran of the RPG business, having started his first fanzine aged 15 while at boarding school in the UK. He's best known for setting up Hogshead Publishing, the first British RPG publisher to crack the American market since Games Workshop, and publishing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st Edition), Nobilis 2e, SLA Industries and the ground-breaking New Style line, including his own award-winning game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which jump-started the entire story-games movement by mistake. He also designed Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game. These days he runs London-based games consultancy Spaaace, administers the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, and is Kickstarting his first new RPG in fifteen years, Alas Vegas!.
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1. Board Game Designer: James Wallis
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
Any other gamers in your family? How did you get into the hobby?

We weren't a big games-playing family, though both my parents enjoyed a lot of card-games and taught them to us, but usually in simplified or weird variants--so not bridge but whist, and not poker but whisky poker. My mother used to be so good at Racing Demon that she had to wear gloves to slow herself down so we could compete. And we had Monopoly and Cluedo and Scrabble in the house, but that was about it.

My proper introduction to games came at boarding school, which is not the wonderful world of camaraderie and japes seen in Harry Potter. AD&D was my escape, and for a long time it was the only game I played. Started a fanzine, started playing a lot more games--Nuclear War was a particular favourite. Sold my first pro article to a games magazine aged 17 and that was that.

These days my wife likes some Eurogames, mostly Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and I'm trying to raise my kids into the hobby. Fingers crossed. I could do with some regular opponents.
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2. RPG Item: Classic Organizations [Average Rating:8.75 Unranked]
RPG Item: Classic Organizations
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
Did any of your previous jobs or education help you become a game designer?

None of my jobs or education particularly helped me to be a game designer, but some of them certainly taught me the organisational and analytical skills that a designer in any field needs to stop their world imploding into piles of unfiled paper and unpaid bills. Having said that, I did do design at A-Level (a British exam that you study for in your last two years at school) and that taught me about the classic principles of design, what a lot of people now dismissively call 'waterfall'. Understanding that iterative process of creation and refinement has served me well.
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3. RPG Item: Mutants in Avalon [Average Rating:5.66 Overall Rank:7657]
RPG Item: Mutants in Avalon
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What was the first project you worked on? What was that like?

I'd edited two fanzines and wrote a bunch of magazine articles before I got my first contract in the industry. But I went to Gen Con in 1989 and Erick Wujcik, who I'd been corresponding with because of my fanzine, introduced me to Kevin Siembieda at Palladium Books, and Palladium had a book set in the UK with an author who'd just dropped off the project. It was Mutants in Avalon, for the After the Bomb line of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG. My first professional credit.

Writing it was fun. Palladium has an unfair rep in the industry but they've launched the game-writing careers of an awful lot of designers who went on to do significant stuff in the business. And they paid royalties, and the cheques used to come in exactly when they were supposed to. For the RPG business that's a real rarity.
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From gallery of sdonohue
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What’s the most recent project you’ve worked on and what’s great about it?

Alas Vegas! It's on Kickstarter right now. It's an self-contained RPG package of rules and adventure that plays to conclusion in four sessions, set in a shadowy version of the casino city. The player-characters start the game by digging themselves out of a shallow grave on the desert. It's midnight, they're naked and they can't remember anything about anything, including who they are. The rest of the game is their journey to work out where they are, recall how they got there, and deal with the repercussions. It's not the journey that they were expecting.

I describe it as Ocean's Eleven directed by David Lynch, or The Hangover meets the Prisoner. I'm really proud of the mechanics and the way they're integrated tightly with the background. I think it's some of the best design work and some of the best game-narrative work that I've ever done.
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Family: Dungeons & Dragons
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What games influenced you?

Oh wow. Too many to name, but D&D/AD&D was a huge influence. When you consider what a paradigm shift that game was, and how many of the core concepts it got absolutely right, in a form that has never been bettered, it's a stunning piece of work. Classic games--often overlooked, I think any designer should have a good grounding in the basic card-games and board-games that have survived for hundreds of years, because there's a reason for their longevity. Empire of the Petal Throne for its worldbuilding. The Ghostbusters RPG was a big influence on The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and taught me how to capture and convey the atmosphere of a setting, not just its details. Toon. Car Wars for the sense of being a simulated world in slow-motion. An obscurity called Dark Cults that was one of the inspirations for Once Upon a Time. Tales of the Arabian Nights. Diplomacy. Catan. Pit. But I've taken something from almost every game I've ever played. My games collection isn't a library, it's a toolkit.
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6. Board Game: Risk Legacy [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:326]
Board Game: Risk Legacy
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What are you playing right now or most recently?

Alas Vegas is in playtest. Beyond that I've not been playing much regularly--I'm a member of a group that gets together to playtest our own new designs, and I'm trying to get a new games group off the ground mostly to work through many of the unplayed titles on my shelves. But the two things I am desperate to play and can't find anyone to commit to are Risk: Legacy and the Z-Man edition of Tales of the Arabian Nights.
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7. Board Game Designer: Robin D. Laws
Board Game Designer: Robin D. Laws
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
Who is one of your favorite RPG Designers?

Just one? Blimey. It's tempting to say Gygax or one of the designers I regard as mentors or influences, but I'm going to have to say Robin D. Laws. The man is a powerhouse of innovative design. He has a lot of ideas and most of them are inspired. DramaSystem, which he Kickstarted with an ask of $3000 and which made $93000, is brilliant: simple, clever, very funny. I look for games that make the players laugh. Robin's games make people laugh more than almost any other I can think of, even though they're not humour games.
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8. RPG: Empire of the Petal Throne [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:363]
RPG: Empire of the Petal Throne
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What RPG do you wish you had designed?

Empire of the Petal Throne. Well, probably Call of Cthulhu, to be honest, but CoC is a game I respect more on the page than in play. EPT's world, Tekumel, lives and breathes and when I think of it I know the characters I have played there are still living their lives within its weird but perfectly structured cultures. That's not true of any other RPG I can think of: when the game stops the characters freeze into a kind of limbo. But I've not played Kharit hi-Ranmyal hi-Utu-Tengmai for maybe fifteen years, and in my head he's fifteen years older now, still pompous, still trying to raise the money to bring his guild back to its former glory. To be able to create a world like that.... And it was the second RPG ever published. Just extraordinary.

Really, I have to say Empire of the Petal Throne because if I had designed Empire of the Petal Throne then I would be Prof. M A R Barker, and that would be awesome.
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9. Board Game: Whoowasit? [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:2565]
Board Game: Whoowasit?
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
What non-RPG (either card, board, or video) games do you play?

Oh, loads and loads. I play more board- and card-games than RPGs these days: it's hard to coordinate a proper open-ended RPG campaign around the constraints of having a family and time-commitments, and that's partly the thinking that led to Alas Vegas. I have a curious five-year-old, and I had the pleasure of introducing her to her first Reiner Knizia game a couple of weeks ago--it was Whoowasit? and she absolutely loved it. I have to say that if you've got a kid, then the list of the top games for kids on BGG is absolutely golden. Not a miss among them. Particular favourites: Tier auf Tier (Animal upon Animal) and a little Gamewright title called Go Away Monster, which is simple enough for a two-year-old to grasp without Daddy getting too bored even after repeated play.

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10. RPG: Lace & Steel [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:625]
RPG: Lace & Steel
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
If you had to point someone to an overlooked RPG product, what would that be?

Normally here I talk at length about the Ghostbusters RPG, but that's now generally acknowledged as a classic so there doesn't seem much point. I wrote it up for Hobby Games: The 100 Best if you really want to know what I think of it.

If we're talking about obscurities then it has to be Lace and Steel, a late-80s title from The Australian Games Group. Set in the seventeenth century--one of my favourite periods of history--it's a world of swashbuckling excess, with a bit of magic and quite a lot of satyrs and centaurs. It's a world where dueling and verbal repartee play an important part, and it uses the same card-based system to resolve both. Which is genius. The presentation and the tone are absolutely spot on: it's a really evocative read that demands to be played. I refereed a really lovely Lace and Steel campaign around twelve years ago and it was a joyous experience.
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11. Board Game: Tea Time [Average Rating:6.02 Overall Rank:7764]
Board Game: Tea Time
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Microbadge: Ultimate Image UploaderMicrobadge: Ultimate ReviewerMicrobadge: 2020 Ultimate SupporterMicrobadge: Ultimate RPG Uploader - This user has 500+ entries and is in the RPG Geek Hall of Fame!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level VI -  Is six any more shiny? ... Well, it's one shinier isn't it? ... Okay, why don't you just make five a bit more shiny and then that would be the most shiny? ... Because these go to six.
*Bonus Question* What are you drinking right now?

Herbal tea. Have you any idea how late it is over here? Running a Kickstarter is a full-time occupation if you're doing it properly and I've not been to bed before 2am any night this week. Which, when small children are going to wake you at six, is sub-optimal. I don't really like herbal tea, but it does help me sleep, and right now I really need that. Three more weeks of Kickstarter to go...
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