Interview with Scott Dorward

Is is a great honour and pleasure to announce that Scott Dorward, a prolific freelance writer and editor best known for his work on a number of games with Cthulhu in the name, has agreed to give us a short interview. Scott is also the author of Fairyland, a terrific scenario, the review of which you may read here.

Writer, editor, line developer, podcast presenter – when it comes to Cthulhu you have done it all, not to mention the things you have done outside the franchise. Yet – correct me if I am wrong – being a game developer has not been your first career choice. It follows that one does not necessarily need to be professionally educated in game dev in order to be successful designer. What is your opinion on comprehensive – although not exhaustive – game dev education available nowadays?

Certainly, the idea appeals to me greatly. I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years, almost of them being self-taught. There are certain skills which people had to learn the hard way by doing lots of things wrong or by honing their skills gradually over time. I think that education would help people get over those initial hurdles – that’s almost certainly a good thing.

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

That is a combination of things. As writers – just understanding the craft to begin with. Not necessarily how to tell a story, because role-playing games are strange like that: instead of telling a story you are giving other people tools to tell their stories. You need to understand how stories work and you need to understand what the building blocks are. And you need to be able to communicate clearly.

As an editor, you need to know all those things and you need to understand how to manage people, how to organize projects. It’s a combination of a lot of different skills. The other important thing is to be able to learn by doing. I think a big part of game development that various people struggle with over time is the act of actually playing the games and developing them through play. I think that’s a huge part of it, a skill in itself. That, I think, forms the bedrock, and writing and organization sits on top of that. First of all, you’ve got to understand and love gaming.

Fairyland seems to have been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark game system developed by Graham Walmsley. Is it in fact so or have you adapted an already formulated idea to suit these particular mechanics?

No, this one was written specifically for the Cthulhu Dark. And there were a few things that led to it being very specifically for that. The first was that I read Graham Walmsley’s rather excellent book on lovecraftian gaming called Stealing Cthulhu. It’s got all sorts of ideas about using standard lovecraftian creatures in different ways. I started thinking very much about a particular kind of creature and how I wanted to try something very, very different with it.

The other is that there is a very simple thing in Cthulhu Dark that I feel shapes the way games go. There is this one rule in the combat system: if you fight a monster, you die. And a lot of lovecraftian games I’ve played over the years have involved a lot of combat. That changed the tone of those games, made them less horrific and more “let’s find out what’s going on and then deal with it like heroes”. And I wanted a horror game where the protagonist always felt like he was on the back foot, where he was nervous about what was going on, where the odds seemed overwhelming and bleak. Cthulhu Dark seemed like the perfect system for that because fighting back was never going to be an option. The best you could do was to find what was going on and survive it.

I daresay that Fairyland has a moderately low entry threshold. What was your target audience and do you feel that you have met their requirements?

I very rarely think of things in terms of trying to write for a particular audience. I get ideas for scenarios or game settings, I just develop the ideas and hope that they will find an audience. Fundamentally, I suppose I’m just writing for the people I normally game with, either in my local groups or at conventions. I assume that there are other people like that around the world who will enjoy it.

So you had specific players in mind.

Oh, yes. Because I tend to run many games at conventions, I very rarely know who I’m going to be running stuff for. I also run many games online as well, so I’ve played with people all around the world, lots of whom I’ve never met before. At the same time I play with a lot of people I know fairly well.

If you don’t know the kind of audience you’re taking your game to, you tend to have to try to make it as flexible as possible. This goes back to what I was saying before about not necessarily trying to write stories but rather giving GMs the tools they need in order to run the stories or create their own. I think that this degree of flexibility is absolutely essential to make role-playing games fun for as many people as possible. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, but I think on the whole I’m trying to make things as universal as possible. The only real audience I’m trying to write for most of the time are people who like horror stories.

There is something nearly effortless in the way that the text is structured. Was it a conscious decision to organize it like that or is it simply your usual style?

It’s very similar to my usual style. Fairyland was actually one of the earliest scenarios that I wrote for publication and well, I’ve had a lot more practice since then. But text structure is something that I feel strongly about. The purpose of a scenario as a written text is to explain things as easily as possible to the person that will end up running it and presenting it to another group. You are not writing a story, you are not doing anything clever with the text and you are not necessarily making it fun to read the same way you’d do with a bit of fiction. There may be great surprises or reveals in the scenario, but you don’t want those to be surprises to the GM as he or she is reading through it. Because again, the game has to be explained as clearly as possible.

It is a very conscious thing for me to make things as easy as possible to absorb. It is what I as a GM would want to get in someone else’s scenarios. Certainly, as an editor, this is something that I insist on. I’ll simplify the prose, I’ll restructure things so that the ideas flow in a more natural form. It’s got to the stage where I’ve actually written quite a lengthy document for people who write for World War Cthulhu about exactly how I want the scenarios to be structured, how I want them to explain things, what I expect from the prose and so on.

Europe Ablaze, an adventure anthology for World War Cthulhu – of which you are the line developer – contains six SOE-centric scenarios set in the Second World War. It is true that it offers much variety, yet, mayhap, not as much as one might expect. Those six scenarios are set in Spain, France, Belgium, Norway, Italy and Greece. Will there be a continuation and if so, can we hope for at least one scenario set in Eastern Europe? Operation Anthropoid, Krystyna Skarbek and her exploits, Slovak National Uprising – surely there is no shortage of inspiration there.

I don’t think this has ever been officially announced but there is a half-written campaign which got delayed because of the Cold War material and it is actually inspired by Operation Anthropoid. I hope it will come out either towards the end of this year or perhaps early next year. I always very much wanted to do something set in Poland, just haven’t had the chance yet because the Cold War Kickstarter came along. We have developed a few Darkest Hour books and suddenly the focus was on developing this new line.

And now, for a harder question: what, in your opinion, makes a Cthulhu scenario marketable? What does a modern Cthulhu enthusiast yearn for in a scenario?

This may sound like an evasion but it’s not. I don’t think that there is any “one size fits all” solution. Different groups want vastly different things from games. I’ve played with players who very much see Call of Cthulhu as an action-adventure game, see the scenarios as things to win and monsters as things to be beaten and overcome. I’ve also played with groups who play in a much more emotionally-driven and character-driven mode. They see it as being about desperate last stands, acts of heroism or just doomed characters on their final death spirals down into oblivion. I think that the appetite for all those things is there as much as it has always been.

In the 1980s a lot of the scenarios were generally more action-oriented. There was the expectation that you’d go out there, you’d learn all the details, you’d find out what the threat to be beaten was. Then you’d stock up on shotguns and dynamite and go and blow it up. There are still plenty of scenarios coming out like that. I think that Pulp Cthulhu – which has just been released in PDF form – is going to revitalize that side of play. And that’s great.

But I also think that there is perhaps a bit more of an appetite for what Pelgrane Press in the Trail of Cthulhu game and Graham Walmsley in particular started to do as purist games. There is an anthology called Nameless Horrors that I did with Paul Fricker and Matthew Sanderson. It is very much an attempt to do those very grim, very downbeat personal and emotional horror games and make Call of Cthulhu frightening again. It will be very interesting to see how well that’s received.

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

I think yes. The environment that got me into game design was very much like that. I started getting into role-playing games back in the early 80s and it never really occurred to me to write stuff for publication until ten years ago. The thing that set me on that path was a group in UK, starting around 2003 or 2004, called The Collective Endeavour. They developed their own games and instead of going out to other publishers they’d publish them themselves in very professional formats. Among them were people like Malcolm Craig who did a/state, Cold City, Hot War and Gregory Hutton who did 3:16 and Best Friends. What they did was show that people who were self-publishing were capable of producing games that played as well and looked as polished as anything that’s coming out of larger publishers. That was something of a revelation to me and I became friends with lots of these people by gaming with them at conventions. And that convinced me that self-publishing is a valid option, and not just for people who are starting out on their writing careers and are looking to build a reputation for themselves.

Thank you very much.

Author: Urszula Chmielewska