Interview with Matthew Sanderson

I am pleased to say that Matthew Sanderson, a freelance writer for Vampire the Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, has kindly agreed to give us a short interview. He is also the author of The Angel of the Abyss, a Cthulhu World War adventure which some gamedecs had the distinct pleasure to experience. You can read a review of The Angel of the Abyss here.

 I have taken the liberty of doing some research on Matthew Sanderson, a self-professed Friendly Neighbourhood Cthulhu Cultist. You are a living proof that one does not need to be professionally educated in game development in order to be successful in the field of role-playing games. What is your opinion on comprehensive – although not exhaustive – game dev education available nowadays?

To be honest, until I met Krzysztof a few months ago, it wasn’t something that I was aware that there actually was any formal education programme for. Game design is a very specific niche in education and I am definitely not aware of any courses that there are in the UK or I would have tried to jump on that bandwagon a long time ago. But no, I think it is a great thing. It is an industry that has a wide variety of people coming to it, whether it is people who then go on to mainstream authorship or not. There’s a few writers who started doing role-playing games and now moved on to more fiction realms. And to have a qualification that could get you into the industry and get you writing very specific, very high quality stuff right off the bat can’t be a bad thing.

What skills would you say could help young game designers to achieve some degree of success in the field of role-playing games?

 Well, I learn mainly by actually doing things. I started off running games at the local tabletop club and then went on to the convention scene. And it’s actually one of the things that intersect with my day job. I’m actually a credit analyst by profession. I had a course offered by my employer about designing engaging presentations. So having a degree of oratory skill and being able to project that at the game table helps a lot with actually running the game and running games is key to writing them. The two are hand in hand.

I’d say you have to be very good at running games to be able to write them as well, because they are two sides of the same coin. So start learning to walk before you can run in that respect: get behind the table, get some dice and start playing.

The Angel of the Abyss is set around a real-life operation, specifically, Operation Harling. The scenario appears to remain very faithful to reality when it comes to locations and timeline. I daresay – correct me if I am wrong – you are a great believer in historical accuracy and historical determinism. When and under what circumstances – if at all – would you say it is acceptable to modify and misconstruct historical facts for the sake of better game design?

 It’s very context-dependent. It depends on the event you are looking at. Now, there is one instance for a project I’m working on – myself, Scott Dorward and Paul Fricker are writing a campaign for Trail of Cthulhu – and one of the chapters in that is set during the El Salvador conflict. Some of the stuff that happened there was pretty grim to say the least. It was a really horrific period in history. In instance when I’m dealing with material like that, I will happily downplay rather than edit and take an artistic licence with what’s happening. But that was part of the setting, not something to focus on directly. A bit like with Operation Harling. I started off originally thinking that I’d be able to set the events around the main attack on the bridge. But a friend of mine, Elina, who is helping me a lot with research and is credited in the book, is Greek and she said that it might not be such a good idea since the people involved in those events are still regarded as national heroes. And that it may not be a touchy subject but also not necessarily something that I’d like to go into and start taking artistic licence with, in case I offend someone.

That’s why with The Angel of the Abyss I took the decision to move the action away from the main focus of what was going on, but still had everything take place, just off screen. It really depends on the nature of the event you’re looking at. If it’s something that has this degree of sensitivity or if it’s a bit too nasty, that’s the point where I’m happy to start changing little bits here and there.

You appear to be an avid observer and oftentimes also a funder of Cthulhu-related Kickstarter projects. Basing on your experience, would you say that crowdfunding is a viable way for young game designers to independently publish their first projects? Do you have any tips on how to get a role-playing project funded?

I have backed something in the region of 210 or probably more projects on Kickstarter. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly going through that site. One of the main things that I’ve seen with role-playing, not even just Cthulhu projects, but all role-playing projects on Kickstarter: they will always overrun. Also, you will always have very vocal backers screaming for their product saying “Where is it? Where’s my update?” and it can get quite hostile with some backers on there. So, number one piece of advice for any project creators: have a thick skin.

Also, we have discussed this with Scott and Paul. If we were to run a project, we would ensure that the manuscript was almost completely finished – if not completely finished – before you actually go to Kickstarter. The main thing that Kickstarter should be used to fund is quick turnaround. So rather than paying your writers, you should be paying your artists, your layout, your distribution costs.

If you want to cut out distribution, which is a major headache for a lot of projects – case in point: the Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter, where the postage alone cost pretty much as much as the project funded for – consider print-on-demand through sites such as Lulu as a way to cut out the distribution method and put the shipping costs on the printer. So you’d potentially be looking at giving your backers discount codes for print-on-demand sites. But you would have to make it upfront that a. they would be paying shipping later on and b. it is a print-on-demand book. That would cut out a lot of the headaches. Then all you’d be looking at is layout and paying your artists.

Artwork is a key part of most of the RPG publications. There is only one RPG book I can think of with no artwork at all and that hasn’t even come out yet. It’s the Bible edition of Kult: Divinity Lost. That was actually one of the selling points: no artwork, but it is like a Bible, so nice, wholesome material there.

To publish commercially or not to publish at all – that is the question. Should young game designers publish their work online under Creative Commons and can it truly help to launch their career later on?

This is a question similar to one that was posed by the then White Wolf Publishing. They gave a very long presentation at a gaming convention that I went to in the States, where they showed how traditional gaming stores in the US were on a downward exponential curve and were closing very, very quickly year on year. Which is why a lot of their products went on to print-on-demand and digital formats. Also, they said that in ten to fifteen years the printed medium would be a thing of the past. There seems to be a degree of that happening as game stores are still closing, but then you go to conventions and find out that attendance is going up and up.

I’d say there is a disparity between the two schools. More visibly, traditional publishing is the best route to go. And if you get your product into a store, you’ve got more likelihood of it being picked up on a larger scale. Going and selling purely online limits your audience but still gives you an income.

I’d suggest going small first and starting with that online base. Get a reputation and slowly start building to the point where if you put a larger project on Kickstarter, part of those funds would be used to get out into the mainstream and onto a wider distribution network.

And now, for a harder question: what, in your opinion, makes a Cthulhu scenario marketable? Certainly, classic 90s adventures will always enjoy great popularity, but what, would you say, a modern Cthulhu enthusiast yearns for in a scenario?

That’s a tough one. You know, if you ask Scott that question, you will get a very different answer. I suppose there’s a conception amongst a lot of the traditional set-ups that a lot of scenarios follow the onion plot, the onion structure. You gradually peel back one layer and then there’s another and you reveal more and more of the plot. But I’d say that this is something that was more in line with the 6th Edition and previous.

The material that is being produced for the 7th Edition by myself, Scott, Paul, Alan Bligh and a couple of others out there, well, it seems we’re moving into an almost new format. It’s not ignoring everything that has come beforehand, but it’s taking scenario structures in a slightly different direction, like touching on certain themes that previously would have been anathema to Call of Cthulhu. It’s always had an almost PG-13 rating and no warning light to it unlike other games such as Kult, where you have to be 18+ to play. These days, it’s dealing with things like abortion and generally more adult material that in the old days.

But if you’re looking at the more traditional spectrum, I’d say you should write something that follows the onion structure, where it’s a very traditional A to B to C, maybe set in the 20s, because it’s the environment that everyone classifies as the classic Cthulhu. And maybe use some traditional, recognizable gods, rather than choosing something that is obscure and hasn’t seen the light of day since a particular publication 20 years ago.

Thank you very much.


Author: Urszula Chmielewska