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Subject: Interview with designers Mike Krahulik and Mike Selinker on Ludology rss

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Geoffrey Engelstein
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Ludology Host and Dice Tower Contributor
On Ludology episode 137 we are pleased to welcome two of the designers of Thornwatch, Mike Krahulik and Mike Selinker, to discuss their game design process, and their views on gaming culture. Mike Krahulik is the artist for the popular webcomic Penny Arcade and co-founder with Jerry Holkins. Mike Selinker is founder of Lone Shark games, and designer of many titles, including the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.
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Mike Selinker
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engelstein wrote:
On Ludology episode 137 we are pleased to welcome two of the designers of Thornwatch, Mike Krahulik and Mike Selinker, to discuss their game design process, and their views on gaming culture. Mike Krahulik is the artist for the popular webcomic Penny Arcade and co-founder with Jerry Holkins. Mike Selinker is founder of Lone Shark games, and designer of many titles, including the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.

Mike K and I very much enjoyed this interview. So much fun chatting with some fine game design minds.

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culix _
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This was a great interview and very informative. Thanks to everyone for doing it!

I typed up a partial transcript, in case other people are like me and learn better through text than audio. Many thanks to Ludology for granting permission to post it here.
(And kudos to Ludology - good interviewing. I think you guided the discussion well. I learned a lot listening to this.)

If anything is incorrect just shout.

MK: Mike Krahulik
MS: Mike Selinker
LUD: Ludology interviewers

bolding is my personal subjective highlight of things I think are interesting.


Background of Thornwatch

MK: Thornwatch started as me running my own D&D campaign. I was modifying the game so much with my own rules and tacked on bits, I decided to start over from scratch to fix the problems I was having. It was designed as something to play with my gaming group on a Monday night instead of playing D&D.

3 years ago Lone Shark moved into the PA building
From Child's Play, the winner won a night of games with Penny Arcade.

MS wanted to see MK's game, but MK wasn't comfortable showing it to anyone else.
MS set a deadline of 3 days for MK to show it to him.

MS: I went into the game thinking "Okay, I'm going to give some feedback, like I always do, with lots of game designers". Instead my reaction was: I LOVE THIS GAME. This is fantastic. I want to play more.

MK: But there wasn't any more to play. I barely had enough game to show off.

MS: I thought about it for a few days and said: you're sitting on something people will really enjoy. If you take it seriously you will have significant impact on what people think about when they think of RPGs and boardgames.

That set them on the current course.

MS: I started off saying that PA should make it themselves, but it's hard to make a complicated game. Then we decided to make it together. I jumped on [the opportunity] as quickly as I could before they could change their minds.

Game Design Process

MK: Creating this game was my first attempt at game design. I was doing small bits to modify the rules, but never decided to sit down from scratch to make a whole game.

MS: Nobody sits down from scratch to design their own game. They just create a problem in their head that they want to try to solve and see where the process leads you. Eventually you stumble onto something that works.

MS: I was thinking "I don't have enough time to play RPGs the way I want to play them any more. Is there a way to get the feeling that you want out of an RPG but in a more bite-sized space?". So far I've spent 4 years of my life trying to make it work, so actually perhaps I *did* have enough time to play RPGs.

LUD: How much of the creation process was just drawing and creating something new?

MK: It was a lot like sketching. I have notebooks of drawings and cards and how they'd work together. Every once in a while I'd feel comfortable printing something out and try to playtest it.

MS: eventually your brain wants to kick something out to show to other people, but you're not sure when that hits. It's a process of think, execute, think again. Repeat.

Design Goals for Thornwatch

LUD: Thornwatch is not a roleplaying game, but now is very interested in narrative roleplaying games. It makes the game style very accessible. You can grow in many different directions. That's the huge plus that Thornwatch brings to the RPG space - marrying roleplaying games with boardgames.

MK: Making it easily accessible was one of the key things I wanted to fix. One was the preparation. It's hard to get people around a table and then also say "please spend time creating a character". Not everyone has time or energy to do that.

MS: Not everyone has the ability to do [preparation] well. Even if you have the time and the interest you might not be able to fulfill the thing you're trying to accomplish. "What do I mean here?"

MS: Not everyone can turn to the design team at PA and Lone Shark and get world class responses. Making a game like this is inviting people to be part of the collaborative process. Trying to create something that makes people excited about the concept of expressing themselves, even if they're not comfortable being part of the whole 'roleplaying' scene.

MS: You want to cut away all of the social and skill barriers to being part of a really fun experience with your friends. We feel lucky that people have responded well to this method when people put it out there.

Background Lore and Impact on Design

MK: The Thornwatch are ghosts summoned by a magical ritual when someone really needs help. This lets you get right into the action of the game. I had a lot of people in my playgroups whose eyes glazed over when you start reading the adventure. When you are summoned as a member of the Thornwatch you have a mission to do, and the game starts right away

MS: This design puts a burden on the game designers to take the burden of setup and starting away from the people at the table. Fast setup is atypical for anything with RPG roots.

MS: We wanted a system based on MK's original design that allowed for the dramatic action environment that still felt like you were telling a story.

Design Goals: Simplify

Our design mantra: everything fiddly or unenjoyable about RPGs had to be killed. Replace them with systems that are incredibly fun and dynamic.

e.g. you appear on a map. normally you strategize and describe where to go etc. In Thornwatch, you're already as good as you'll get, and you appear in the thick of the problem and just go.

The Wound system was the first mechanic; what everything was based on. Everything else came out of that. "You have a deck of cards and I'm going to pollute it".

Step One is: stop the players from making any notes at all on any sort of character sheet.

MK: I never wanted the players to have to do any kind of math.

The Momentum system was not there when MS showed up.
The first thing MS said was: "There's something this game needs - for me to have all of your pencils! You never get to have have that tool again". This required a very different solution for how to track things like initiative and monster health.

The Momentum System and Player Engagement

LUD: How did the Momentum system come about?

MK: We were sitting at the table looking at Momentum cards, and I said "These are the cards that we use to track initiative. Is there something we can use to track damage too? What happens when this zombie gets hit?" Jerry reached across the table, grabbed the card, and moved it down in initiative and said "What if that happens"? We noodled over that for an hour. Soon, the momentum deck came to be.

MS: The Momentum system creates some effects that are obvious, and some that are not obvious but awesome.

1. Everyone has a clear understanding of whose turn it is now.
MS: "If people are ripping off our game they ought to start here. Just give everyone a card and tell them it's their turn."
2. Damage delays people acting. So if the monsters get knocked down on the track they don't get to go yet. And everybody is really happy about that.

The whole point of combat in Thornwatch is to keep hitting monsters and pushing them down until they hit the edge.

Not Obvious: Any work you did to push a monster in one round, if you don't knock them off it resets.

MS: This is a very powerful game design tool. The most powerful dynamic engine of the game is: we have to act. We have to coordinate. We have to strategize. There is no just letting everyone take their turn, because it might be for nothing. You have to ask "What are my resources this turn? In this specific situation, with these cards in this order, what can I do to help?"

MS: So every round is completely different. Every round is a brand new puzzle to solve.
It pushes players to focus, even when it's not their turn.
Every turn matters and you have to be paying attention. What are the other players doing? How can I help them make this a successful round?

MS: We used this as a metric during playtests for PAX South and PAX East.
During playtesting, other people watched for how long each turn took and how many cards people had in front of them. Those are details you care about. But I was watching to see: is anyone leaning back and on their phone?

An the answer was 'no'! All players were leaning in to the table, pointing at things, looking at their hand. Constantly, for a couple of hours.

It's not a bad game when people have downtime. But if you can eliminate all of it it's a very special place to be.

Playtesting and the creation process

LUD: You get so much from playtesting. Comments can be helpful but you get more from watching people play the game. Watching how players respond to the game. The key is players are involved all of the time.

MS: MK and I were in different spaces for the playtest. MK was learning from what people who were playing with him were doing. MK was running tables. That was important because he is the narrative soul of this game. When you play Thornwatch it has to feel like MK running a game.

MS: You can run your own game and your manifestation will be just as good as anyone else's.
But the default Thornwatch manifestation will feel like MK is running the game.

MK: One of my frustrations with D&D was with players pulling out their cellphones when it wasn't their turn.

MS: When we started making Thornwatch, it wasn't about the experience that I could bring to the table. I did not want to be the canonical judge of the game. I wanted to see how people adapted to being like MK in the Judge role.

So we started figuring out MK's rhythm and running games like that. Used that to establish the baseline and then start modding the game from there.

It was not a smooth process.

MS kept telling MK "you don't come in the box". MK found he was still holding a lot of the game in his head. Doing a lot on the fly.

MK: MS and the rest of the team would ask "Where does it say that that works?". I didn't know, I was just doing it.

MS: We helped MK put game elements into mechanical rules that other people could then do.

MS: I would think "I can tell you're doing something that I don't understand". MK was thinking many moves ahead. I had to get into the mindset that MK is in when he's setting traps for the players and expecting a certain outcome.

MS: This was a good experience to have someone else be the primary creative person and work around the space that that person was generating. When we brought in Chad and Rodney we had a team with a number of skills to bring to the table.

MS: We took at least some examples of everything that's in the game and put it into the print-and-play. We couldn't fit everything. It's the longest print-and-play I've created.
It includes a long feedback form that we really care about. Tell us what went wrong; what you would like to see better, do differently, opportunities to expand the game. We have gotten amazing and strong feedback. People seem excited about where Thornwatch is headed.

The Judge - Shepherd or Opponent?

LUD: Is the judge trying to win the game, or trying to help the game happen?

MS: This is the central question

MS: Lone Shark has a policy we have hidden behind for many years: we do not adjudicate social contracts. Our job is to give you a game, and you can play however you want to play it.
e.g. Pathfinder card game - when someone dies - the game says you have to start completely over. We know many people ignore that, throw some cards back in, and start over. And that's great.

In this case a really important question is: does the Judge *want* to be on the side of the players. And the answer is not obvious. We've had Judges who play this game and get into bloodthirsty mode and say "I want to win this thing. All of my objectives and none of yours will be accomplished". Others say "I'm just trying to make a story happen".

In Thornwatch there are not as many tools to do rules fudging as DMs have - Judges can't fudge die rolls. But what you do with your resources is in the Judge's hands. The Judge is a player.

MK: Originally my vision of the Judge was a facilitator. Their job is to lay out the story for the players, guide them through it, and make it as dramatic and exciting as possible.

We went back and forth when designing. We realized we needed to give the Judge more to do. Needed to make them an actual player. Eventually we did, but we never settled the idea of 'Does the Judge have to win? Are they motivated to win?'. This is something each judge has to decide for themselves.

You can try to make a fun exciting story. Or you can just try to kill everybody.

MS: Thornwatch is like Descent where the Overlord earns tokens that lets them buy bad guys etc. But as the Judge, if you think a player is roleplaying a good way they can get a bonus die.
This is totally subjective and if you're playing for blood that takes on a different characteristic.
No one would say that the Overlord in Descent is not trying to just kill all of the characters.

MS: I wrote a horrible puzzlebox adventure for Descent for characters to die in. But that's not how my brain works for Thornwatch.

MS: It's great that Thornwatch accommodates many different parts in the spectrum of that space, and can handle that without breaking. The Judge role is a very dynamic space.


MS: The other thing going on in Thornwatch is the storyboards.
Thornwatch is built out as a Choose Your Own Adventure, but depending on the outcome.
The Judge sets the parts in motion. They know where it can go, but they can't control that it gets there. That's a unique part to the game; you can set up the parts that you want to occur, but there are still other players who help decide the outcome with you. It's a very collaborative game. We want it to show up in a lot of places.

Cosplay and Progress Persistence

MS: We also hardwired cosplay into the game - through wearing knots.

MK: In the Eyrewood, someone who has lost something dear to them will tie a different knot that in someone who is in deadly danger.

We manifest this in each storyboard adventure.
At the end of each adventure you get a persistent knot you can tie. You can use it to cause some kind of game effect to occur. That's neat because you'll see people walking around conventions and indicate that they are ready to play.

To tie it together they came up with a weird answer to the question of "how does persistence work?", because it applies to the player not the character.

MS: Thornwatch has the ability of persistence to be literally tied to the individual player.
We paid homage to the idea and said people will like it, but we didn't really believe it until PAX West. We put birch trees in the Thornwatch demo booth and let people tie knots when they sat down to do a demo of the game. It was so powerful. It was emotionally riveting for people to have a consequence of their game by tying their own knot in the tree. When they finished we would tie a specific knot around their wrist and people would walk out staring at their hands.

Art, Communicating Information, and Designing Visually

LUD: Let's pivot and talk about art and the game board. The Thornwatch board is set up to look like comic strip panels. How did your work in illustration carry over to the iconography and making the game easy to understand?

MK: I'm a visual thinker. The easiest way for me to work is to start building things. Rodney made the map modular and turned the map areas into 3x5 map tiles. I thought about the shapes of the tiles and what they could be. They could be like comic book frames separated by a gutter. Beautiful background painting that your characters sit on top of. It all came together in a couple nights. Being a cartoonist that's the way I think. People may have expected that from a game I made. But the other designers didn't expect that.

MS: Starting out we had a top-down map. The 'Stanley Kubrik effect' of standing above humanity and watching it act. That was not getting the effect that we wanted. We saw the monster tokens not fitting on the environment - that's because they're viewed as if they're in perspective. You can see the face of the monster. But the map is shown from overhead. I don't have the tools to articulate the feeling of that problem and come up with an outcome. I would come into the sessions and tell you the problem with no idea of how to fix it. Creating Thornwatch is an interesting process because I wasn't the person coming in with all of the answers. It's such a visual game. But I could identify issues: not getting the intimate environment and perspective that we wanted to get.

MS: I would say 'Can you solve this problem visually for me?'. Often the team came up with different solutions that could be wedded together.

Like storyboards: we wanted them to look like comic book panels, but also needed them to communicate game information. Can we figure out a solution?

MK: We had discussed the problem of information. How do you get it to the people that need it without covering the table in a bunch more junk? Rodney had the idea of storyboards that told an adventure in a way that was very modular. You look at the front and it would say the rules for this adventure. Flip it over and it says "Did you win? Do this. Did you lose? Do that. Do you want a side mission?"

The storyboards are the beginning of the adventure. They should set the tone. In comics you call this the Splash Page - the first big thing that you see that kicks things off. It shows you where you are, what you're doing, and you have the rules panel right there.

MS: MK described it as a visual problem, but I described it as an information flow problem. I'm a cultist of Edward Tufte. How do we want people to respond? So often [when creating games] we are stuck in the mode of "the game designers have to do their job. Then turn it over to the graphics team and they do them what we tell them to do". I want the solutions early. I want them in the game design process. Having a visual thinker like MK is huge. We can ask "why are we not getting the effect we want?", and MK would come up with things that there is no chance the design team would come up with. And it went the other way too. MK would come up with rules and Chad would see deep ramifications from them.

MS: Its one of the most unique teams and processes I've seen put together. There has been nothing like this in my life experience. There are a few people who can do this all themselves. James Earnest knows everything he needs to know about what he wants the artist to do. He does all the graphic design, game design, and information flow. It's great for me to be surrounded by people who have all of those skills and have spent their lives putting those skills to use in other environments.

Collaboration and Empowering Workflows

MK: I'm a collaborator at heart. It feels the most comfortable. My favourite thing is finding someone who is very good at something and helping them with the part they're not good at. Working that way has been a blast.

MS: I feel the same way. I've had many projects where you see my name on the box but in the TOC you see a hundred people.

[discussion of MS side project with a ~40 person team and keeping it a secret before launch]

"My coworker joked 'two people can keep a secret if one of them is Mike Selinker'"

MS: I thrive in the environment where people can throw ideas back and forth and have no incentive to hold back. Penny Arcade have built everything out of that principle. The PAX conventions have a team of Enforcers that come to the convention to run it. They are fully empowered to solve nearly any problem. Other conventions have a top-down authority structure, where security guards say "we can't do anything unless the managers say it is okay". That is simply not the case at PAX. At PAX the person at the front of the contact chain solves the problem unless they have to escalate.

MS: This fits nicely with how we do games at Lone Shark. Everyone brings what they can, and have to feel empowered to make the kinds of games they need to create.


[Then comes a discussion of PAX and why it's awesome. Callouts for other projects they're working on.]

Parting Words - Meet Your Deadlines

MS: Working with MK is great. Having someone on the team that knows how to hit a deadline on a daily basis: never undersell that.

MK: It's key to success. Pick a schedule and stick to it. Meeting deadlines is huge.
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