Interview Part Two: Calvin Johns and Travis Rinehart of Anthropos Games: THE CONCLUSION

A column article by: Park Cooper

Today: It's time to conclude another interview, involving the world of role-playing games, subsection: tabletop, pen-and-paper type.

Whom: Calvin Johns and Travis Rinehart of Anthropos Games.

This is the site to go to to learn more of them and their RPG-related deeds:

Anthropos Games

And now, the stunning conclusion to our interview:

Park Cooper: Matchgamer time... each of you tell me about your company's first RPG, Early Dark. Sell it as a thing standing out from other fantasy RPGS out there in... only... six complete sentences.

Travis Rinehart: Well, what we've tried to do is create a world that as accurately as possible represents an anthropologically correct vision of human reality (besides magick), and a system that achieves strategy within that vision without being too bogged down by calculation and accumulation. Hopefully, the mechanical system allows for creativity and flexibility, while still being fun, consistent, and easy to remember. A certain level of complexity in the mechanic is necessary for strategy to be a factor, but overkill on this front, a pitfall we feel many of the most popular games fall into, bogs the gameplay down flipping pages searching for a spell or ability. On the other hand, overly simplistic mechanics allow for creativity and flexibility and openness in gameplay but lack strategy and fall into that same "DM is god" trap that kept me from rpgs when I was younger. We've tried to find the sweet spot between the two philosophies. 

Calvin Johns: Something for everyone but probably not for everyone. Six sentences? Okay: 

Early Dark is a dark, low-fantasy game that focuses on human grit and limitations. We have magick and monsters, but both are dangerous, rare, and unspoken of by the commoners of the game world. The cultures and myths are taken from real-world sources, and we do somewhat of a mash-up to avoid replaying Caucasian, Medieval fantasy. We take influence from cultures traditionally demonized, feminized, stereotyped, or homogenized in other games. The mechanics are based on creativity first and rolls second, where players get to declare a move without consulting a two-inch thick three-ring binder. And everything is dark, dangerous, and prehistoric.

A fair pitch, I guess. Obviously, there’s way more rhetoric on the website.

PC: And yet, it's more than just "drawn from" historic sources-- it sounds like it's actual alternate history, if I understand it. Tell me a little more about that.

CJ: Maybe alternate history is a bit misleading. We want the game set in a world with the same physics and on the same planet as our own. But if magick is discovered during the last ice age, there is very little left of overlap

But, yeah, each nation in the game (there are no races, because any intelligent person realizes that race is a mythic category that wasn't even an issue in the world until the last 400 years or so) is a blend of at least two other cultures. This isn't to somehow act as commentary on those cultures, but just to offer some familiar hooks that might help players see things in a different light. The "generic fantasy" setting just rubs me the wrong way as a social scientist. Robert E Howard set a bad precedent (though his books are amazing and useful for other insights) when dealing with race. Tolkien was concerned with stealing fantasy away from the French and re-Anglicizing things, so his was a political move as well. Not all political moves are explicit.

PC: Have you enjoyed any RPG video games? You know the sort of thing I mean...

TR: This is my specialty. When the table-top genre failed to apeal to me, video games came to the rescue. I just finished Final Fantasy 13, which was fantastic, if a little linear. Also just finished Mass Effect 2, which was really good, like a Gears of War shooter with a sweet rpg element grafted onto it. I really liked Morrowind and Oblivion, but my all-time favorite rpg has to be Zelda, probably "A link to the past" or "the adventures of Link" 

PC: So, as far as things with a fantasy setting… Morrowind, Oblivion, and I guess Zelda…?

TR: Diablo is another one, though on the PC, with a basic Fantasy-ish setting I really enjoyed. Fallout I would put in the sci-fi category. Hmmm, oh yes, Dragon Age Origins I was less than impressed with, It was nice and long, and offered a large and diverse world, but I felt there just wasn't enough for my character to DO within the battles themselves.

CJ: I have put myself on a "No RPG" policy with video games

PC: How so?

CJ: I just don't have the time as a student. Video games are more time consuming than tabletop games at times. The one-way stories frustrate me; there is always more I want to do that the games can allow. But I do watch people play all of them. Final Fantasy continues to inspire, and there are huge differences between American sensibilities and those of other countries that really come out in those kind of metaphysical, imaginative games 

PC: Okay, CJ, let's go back to something you mentioned previously, back to how you get to study RPGs as a part of your studies...

CJ: Oh, right. Yeah, I decided on a dissertation topic that focuses on people playing RPGs. Anthropologists study people; we write ethnographies. I just decided to choose a kind of people I'd like to spend the next three years writing about. My advisors are alright with it, and I just got a grant to start up fieldwork, so I must be doing something right.

PC: Good heavens, a grant.

CJ: I have done previous work in Artificial Intelligence and sci-fi literature, so Anthro is something a little new to me. My interest in virtuality just switched from media studies to linguistics and games. RPGs are a perfect way to study low-tech domains of virtuality.

Sadly, having a company of my own really gets in the way of that. Companies aren't as eager to talk with you if they think you're a spy or something

But I'll be spending a few weeks with some pretty big companies in the industry (both tabletop and video) soon. Still negotiating that, so I can't really say any more right now.

PC: Oh ho, sci-fi lit like whom?

CJ: Philip K Dick is amazing. I used him in an MA thesis against Gibson and all the humanist sci-fi people. I have little patience for humanism. I think Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and a few others do really important things as well. And, of course, anime always does more than most fans in the audiences like to notice

PC: Ah, anime! You've stumbled upon yet another of my fields. For that matter (you too, TR,) do you enjoy any other geeky things? (This is not a yes/no question-- list them)

TR: Well, science of course, I used to watch mr. wizard as a kid and actually just last night went and watched an interview with the mythbusters, one of my favorite geeky shows, on UT campus. I have a degree in linguistics which is pretty geeky, and I regularly watch the history and discovery channels. I pretty much just love science and language. But I do think writing a table-top rpg definitely qualifies as one of the geekiest things I've ever undertaken. 

CJ: Evangelion tackles really big issues of spirituality, cognition, the nature of the self; it isn’t just (or even mostly) about an adolescent boy coming of age. I like Berserk as a good portrayal of Nietzsche. Lots of stuff on Hulu gets me excited too. Baccano was awesome. I liked the Shikabane Hime and dozens other. That would be a very different conversation. Anime just has a way of addressing the human condition that doesn't end like 2001 or Predator or (sigh) Gisbon: Human vs. Non-Human; Human wins; not through superiority but through some intangible humanness that just makes the hero one small iota more resourceful than the non-human. Ugh. It's just time for a different paradigm.

My own collection of anime is less based on cultural relevance and metaphysical message, however. I buy box sets on like it's my job. So I have a very substantial collection of the best and worst.

PC: Go to Half Price Books much?
How long have you been here again? ...Not that Half Price isn't in Ohio... Cuz it is...

CJ: I have not. I went a few times with my girlfriend and picked up some French version of Count of Monte Cristo. Pretty good.

It's a good place, but you'd have to go regularly to get the good DVD deals. I will browse the fantasy book section if I need some night-time reading. Though I've recently suffered the grad school fate of eye strain and things, so I've been cutting back on night reading.

Recently picked up the Earthsea books for the first time. Just read all six in the last month.

PC: Mmmm... Yeah.

CJ: Le Guin has a similar non-Caucasian, non-Medieval project that was interesting.

Oh, how could I forget Shadowrun earlier?

PC: I don't know. How could you?

CJ: Never played it once, but I own all sorts of sourcebooks and things. I loved that world years before I read Gibson. The books with all the hackers butting in. Awesome

Yeah, I own an assortment of books for purely reading value, never playing once...

PC: Yeah, I think that's not uncommon of a lot of gamers. So… last Matchgamer question, I think... how do you plan to publicize your product and get it out there?

CJ: Doing interviews for web columns... Doesn't that work?

PC: I heard about you because my gamer buddy Steven befriended/befanned you in Facebook... He's in far west Canada, I have no idea how he found you. Oh, and he's a fairly die-hard history buff, that probably played a part in it

CJ: Early Dark is more of a labor of love. He probably found us on Twitter. I'm active on there quite a bit, though the "in guys" of the industry have little time for a small company.

But, yeah, Early Dark is a labor of love. We need to sell 300 copies to break even, which I think is doable eventually. We'll do conventions each year and hit up new avenues. We're already making small animated trailers for our second game, Centennial Gothic, which will probably be more of a splash as far as novelty goes. Wild West plus Gothic Horror, consciously navigating around-but-in-touch-with Steampunk. It uses only playing cards; no dice. Incorporates fairies, vampires, mutants, lycanthropes, etc. all in an alternate West complete with European expansionists and Edo Samurai conquerors.

Our games are definitely going to be fun for history buffs. They'll catch all the in-jokes, cultural references, slight editorializing, etc.

I like to think we're part of the typical-but-waning Indie media generation. You make something just because you want to and hope it doesn't make you go broke. 

TR: We've talked about perhaps getting some money together with for Early Dark and our next, very different title Centenial Gothic, a steampunk/old west/victorian horror project. We also plan to exhibit the game at several conferences, perhaps one in San Antonio, and Gen Con in august. Weve got a good little group of playtesters and followers on twitter and facebook which we'll use to raise awareness and get the word of mouth flowing. And spots and interviews like this one will be important for introducing people to Early Dark and Anthropos Games in general.

PC: I suppose you live near UT

CJ: I live in a small room in Hyde Park. A happy patron of the Red River campus bus and the number 7

PC: Do you drive?

CJ: I totaled a 1967 mustang with less than 80K miles on it in 2002, and I haven't had a car since

I do drive when my friends drink, however. Both American and European manual if need be.

PC: Ow. Should I ask about the totalling?

CJ: Haha. Just restored the parts in the wrong order

PC: Ahhh! Scary, scary!

CJ: Thought I fixed the brakes and the steering myself, but didn't get new tires. The rain took advantage of that. I think the brakes were more of the problem. The pedal would suction to the floor and just stop the wheels. No anti-lock technology.

PC: Gahhh. Were you injured?

CJ: No. The car was solid metal.

PC: Mmm.

CJ: The front scrunched up, and I just wobbled in the lap-only seat belt.

PC: So then... I think this is our last section...

I've written my own game book (not remotely overlapping with yours, incidentally). 178 pages. I have no one yet to playtest it, I don't have a lot of neat art, I haven't decided if it should be published digitally or what or how.

You, therefore, are ahead of me.

What have you learned, there, farther on the path, that I could learn from. tips? advice? warnings about anything?

Oh traveler from the RPG-making future?


CJ: Well, I can't imagine we're much farther than anyone else on the path. If you've got a solid 178 pages that you like, then you have answered quite a few questions we're still putting off. But, yeah, business-wise we're in full swing and building momentum. The big thing was learning that great artists and freelance writers (unless they have big egos, which are sadly quite popular) are not that expensive. You can “take that trip to California this summer” or “go have a Vegas vacation with the buds,” or you can put the money into getting good art and finding a printer. Not too hard really if you just expect to lose some money as you would on any hobby. That was really surprising. Hold out until you find good people, and treat them professionally. That means, don't kow-tow to “famous” people. If you're the producer, give them feedback and don't settle until everything looks the way you want it. The professional artists appreciate the direction (it is just a job for them after all, and they won't think your game is so special that it deserves special attention or extra thought) and are well accustomed to making changes for their clients.

So, the pro creatives are awesome. I probably just need to get more convention time in with the pro designers, meet people face-to-face. If you just see us on Twitter or Facebook, maybe Anthropos looks like some high school project

PC: because this is the end of the interview, I think we've covered everything I can think of for now. unless there's anything else you'd like to say/add/plug, in which case go for it and toss anything else in

CJ: Haha. My older brother put out an indie rock CD in Detroit and toured with Electric Six and some big English bands for some Midwest shows. He just did it. He was a full-time teacher and still is. My younger brother moved to NY to become a chef after already doing the job for a few years. You just keep building on what you love. Making. Producing. Externalizing. Pick your paradigm: Marx, Hegel, whatever. I have a full-time job, the making games is for fun

I'm actually eager to work with lots of the writers and designers I've met in the online community and at conventions. But getting feet in the door is hard. Finding people to give a free game to has been rough!

PC: How will you (if you get your druthers about it) work with those people?

CJ: There are a hundred companies/brands/studios that manage indie games. IF one wanted to work with us on some games, I'd be up for that. Though I don’t really have time to butt heads over finances, and copyrights, and who owns what parts of a shared project, and who is the bigger deal, etc. Being a student is humbling if anything. But, yeah, if someone was open, we'd do games with them, or share credits or whatever

For instance, if your buddy Steve had some big idea to alter the Persian influences in our game, we'd be more than happy to listen and give him credit in the book and see if the changes worked. We'd love more people on board. If someone is willing to build a personal bond (I have little energy for strictly professional relationships) then we'd love to hear from them.

Oh, and our third game is a Superhero/Cold War Spy mashup. Should be awesome.

Austin people are great but I've been through five versions of a testing group so far. I get them for a few sessions, and then they just start dodging out. But the other groups we have testing out in the wide world now are having a blast. Maybe I'm just a sucky DM. I should write games but stop DMing them maybe. 

PC: No, people are like that. Don't take it personally

CJ: They seem to really dig the game and get a lot out of it. I guess I just suck behind the screen. Haha

PC: I have trouble getting half my students to not just disappear and never come to class again before the end of the semester, and they paid good money to get to attend. People's lives are CHAOS.


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