Including an exclusive sneak peek from the upcoming Spire supplement Strata.
Update 16th October: The Strata Kickstarter is now live!
At UK Games Expo 2018 I managed to drag Chris Taylor and Grant Howitt away from their perpetually busy table for a few moments to chat to me about barbecue tours of the American south, celebrity roleplayers, making D&D satanic again, and of course their magnum Opus, Jason Statham’s Big Vacation. Even though they did sell out of physical copies of that before I could get my hand on one. Oh, I think this game called Spire was mentioned too.
Mottokrosh: I‘m here with Grant Howard and Chris Taylor from Rowan, Rook and Decard. Thank you very much for joining me. Let‘s start with the easy stuff. I know you‘ve travelled a lot. You were in England and then you were in Australia.
Grant: And New York.
Mottokrosh: And now back here?
Grant: For a while yes.
Mottokrosh: Is it the same for you?
Chris: I spent long periods of time visiting Grant in those locations, but it‘s Grant that travels.
Mottokrosh: So why all the travelling?
Grant: So my partner Mary.
Mottokrosh: Yes, who I‘ve just met.
Grant: She works for the Guardian, and she is very good at what she does, so they basically parachuted her around the world. She went to set up the Guardian Australia, she founded that as part of a team, and then she was flown in to support Guardian US in New York, where we were supposed to be for two years, but then they changed editors and head editor so now they‘ve brought us back to England a year and a half early, along with all of our massive American furniture we‘d bought. And now we‘ve been in London since then.
Chris: But it‘s been great as it gave me a chance to go to Australia, and America, and all round the world.
Grant: We got to do a barbecue tour of the American South.
Mottokrosh: A barbecue tour? That sounds fun.
Chris: We went explicitly for barbecue.
Grant: We drove a 1000 miles for ribs.
Grant: I say we—my boy Chris can drive.
Chris: I drove a 1000 miles for ribs.
Grant: I can‘t drive.
Mottokrosh: So did you go to any of those, what do they call them, trailer barbecues?
Mottokrosh: What is the term for them? I forget.
Chris: I don‘t know, but it was delicious.
Grant: The first one we went to, it was in Huston, wasn‘t it?
Chris: It was in Austin. Yeah, no, it was in Huston as we landed. No, it was Austin.
Grant: Yeah, the first one was in Austin which we went to, and we had I think the best ribs of my life. Just in a trailer next to a motorway.
Chris: And then we drove essentially from Texas to New Orleans, and then straight up to Memphis.
Mottokrosh: That feels like a long way.
Chris: It‘s an extremely long way. It‘s a good deal longer than England.
Mottokrosh: This segways immensely nicely into my next question, which is far more local. Because you guys have a history with the city of Norwich in some way?
Chris and Grant: Yes.
Chris: That‘s where we went to university.
Mottokrosh: What year? If you don‘t mind me asking, sorry.
Grant: That’s alright. We started 2005 and graduated in 2008.
Mottokrosh: I graduated there in 2000, so that‘s why I asked. Were you in Games Soc as well?
Grant and Chris: Yep. It‘s still there.
Grant: I was President, and Games Officer.
Mottokrosh: I was Comms Officer I think for many years, and Pub Crawl Officer for a while.
Chris: It‘s an important position.
Grant: Mary and I were joint Pub Crawl Officers, we loved that. The main reason why I was in power and Chris was in power, was so we could run a LARP without anyone stopping us. In the congregation hall.
Mottokrosh: Are there still the Sunday LARPs?
Grant: Yeah, we used to go on the Sunday LARPs as well.
Mottokrosh: So, you‘ve got these one page games that you do every month. Do you ever worry that you‘re going to run out of ideas?
Grant: Every month.
Grant: Every month we worry that we‘re going to run out of ideas. Some months we do.
Mottokrosh: What do you do about it?
Chris: Occasionally we ask Twitter; that‘s how Jason Statham‘s Big Vacation came about.
Grant: I‘m going to say it is our masterpiece. Our magnum opus.
Mottokrosh: It hasn‘t got quite the same traction yet as Honey Heist, but I think it‘s going to get there. Have you tried reaching out to Jason Statham himself? Or his estate?
Chris: We‘re really worried he‘s going to go‚ “What is this? I don‘t like this.”
Grant: I‘m really worried he‘s going to go “I’ll fucking cut you, slag,” and kind of emerge from the sand and kill me. I‘m really worried.
Mottokrosh: He‘s more of a kung fu person I think. It‘s probably going to be bare hands if anything.
Grant: He‘ll probably kick me to death with his big powerful legs.
Mottokrosh: There are more and more celebrities who are admitting to liking D&D and stuff like that. And obviously my man Vin Diesel. I don‘t know why I said “my man” there at all! I guess he‘s on the poster on the wall, or used to be on the wall of a friend of mine, but that‘s as close as we get. Sorry.
Grant: That‘s fine.
Mottokrosh: What was my question? Did I?
Grant: Something about celebrities playing D&D?
Mottokrosh: Yeah. Because nowadays it‘s not so gauche anymore as celebrities to come out as it were, “I am a gamer.”
Chris: There‘s still an element of that though. Like they have to admit that they‘re a gamer rather than just being a gamer. Which is a bit weird. But it is nice.
Grant: It‘s nice to have. I‘d love to play with Stephen Colbert. He seems like a good person.
Chris: He seems like a good egg.
Grant: A good egg, yeah. I liked him when he had the beard. He looked good there.
Chris: And there‘s things like Critical Role and that sort of stuff that‘s doing wonders for the profile.
Mottokrosh: Well, right. Because we have the actual plays everywhere now, and role playing games haven‘t been any more popular ever than they are now. They‘re everywhere, even if it‘s just people watching them or whatnots. But one thing I see is: we have completely lost that element of being satanic and dangerous.
Mottokrosh: What can we do to get that back?
Grant: There‘s murders. A drowning would be good.
Chris: Educational fires.
Grant: Yes, some fires.
Grant: I think things like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and stuff like that, are sort of trying to sort of veer towards the sexy edge of it.
Mottokrosh: I‘m not sure you can consider everything they do as “sexy.”
Grant: Not everything, but I think when I read the books and I want to read that sort of thing, it reminds me of the old school, sort of like “Oh, this is kind of dangerous.”
Mottokrosh: Have you read “Fish Fuckers?”
Grant: I‘m aware of “Fish Fuckers.” I really like his other work. Laughter.
Mottokrosh: Kelvin Green. I haven‘t read it yet, I‘ve only thumbed through it. It looks amazing, as always.
Grant: He seems to know his shit. I‘m very impressed by his work.
Mottokrosh: Oh, but talking about satanic stuff, are you aware of the comic from back in the day by Jack Chick?
Grant: Yeah, yeah. I got one of these. “I don‘t want to be Debbie anymore, I want to be Elfstar.” Sorry, other way around.
Mottokrosh: Have you seen the movie?
Grant: Yeah, no sorry, I‘ve seen JonTron’s take down of the movie. Back before JonTron was very problematic.
Grant: If you don‘t know who JonTron is, don‘t worry.
Chris: Somebody on YouTube. Did a review of it.
Grant: A regressively funny racist.
Mottokrosh: Okay. Because there‘s the movie, it‘s only like 40 minutes and it‘s pretty funny. But they also released recently a behind the scenes, or a making of, which is also of course a complete satire. And it‘s fantastic. If you haven‘t seen that yet…
Grant: It‘s worth a try.
Grant: I‘d like to try and work more on putting secret spells and messages into roleplay games, I think we can do a lot with that.
Chris: Yeah, like an ARG.
Grant: Yeah, like an ARG, but real magic.
Mottokrosh: Yeah, like back in the day you had like Judas Priest apparently putting backwards messages into their records.
Chris: Like that, but every seventh word in an RPG, you know?
Grant: Read an RPG backwards, a portal will open, Bob‘s your uncle…
Chris: Cosmic power.
Grant: Satan‘s your uncle.
Mottokrosh: That answers a question I was going to have.
Mottokrosh: Do you ever feel like there isn‘t enough in the book format and you want to try something else outside of that format? But I guess we‘ve got there with the goat sacrificing and stuff, right?
Chris: There is stuff that we‘ve—I say we—that Grant‘s done that, like with one of his one-pagers, Streets of Karazun, which is a foldable booklet.
Chris: Everything else is a single page. And this reveals stuff as you go through the adventure.
Grant: We‘ve got a game on a t-shirt, we have Honey Heist on a t-shirt, the world’s first wearable RPG. We‘re at the forefront of wearable technology and want to get it on the record.
Mottokrosh: So a person looking at you can read it, right?
Grant: Yes, except the GM section, which is upside down.
Mottokrosh: Ah. Well that‘s cunning.
Grant: It‘s pretty special.
Grant: I think we should try and push the envelope with what games can be and do, and through the one page stuff we‘re trying to—well, I’m literally pushing envelopes, as it were. I think right there, there‘s a lot of room from outside of the big arse tome, with serif fonts in it, and like “Here are 300 spells.”
Chris: We‘ve got that! We need more!
Grant: So I‘m interested to see what we can do in a different formats, in different, like what we can do with technology, what we can do with live. Obviously you [looks at Mottokrosh] program apps yourself, I think one of the things which you [looks at Chris] have been interested in doing is using apps in some way, or like voice chat to separate out communication between players for our games. So only one person can see the monster, and that sort of thing, and we‘re very interested in that.
Mottokrosh: That sounds like it would work quite well over an online game, like Roll20.
Grant: Yeah, I mean, for me I really like face to face stuff, and playing together. So having something where people can use their phones, considering everyone has a computer in their pocket now, so some way we can use that that‘d be very interesting. But we can‘t program for shit.
Mottokrosh: That can be resolved I‘m sure. If only you knew someone who made apps or something like that.
Grant and Chris: Laughter.
Mottokrosh: Do you ever use the Spire Companion app?
Grant: I haven‘t run Spire in quite a while.
Chris: I used it during my playtesting.
Mottokrosh: Alright, cool.
Grant: And then you got the players to use it.
Chris: Yeah. And then they all now use it in their games separately.
Grant: So yeah.
Chris: But honestly we have so little time to actually play games.
Mottokrosh: Well, we should talk about Spire briefly then, although I don‘t think there‘s much that we can talk about that isn‘t already covered in the podcasts that you‘ve done or the recently released directors‘ commentary. Which I haven‘t had the chance to listen to yet because…
Grant: It‘s 8 hours, man! It‘s too long.
Chris: Laughter. You don‘t have to, it‘s fine. It‘s not a requirement.
Mottokrosh: Well, I‘ve downloaded it all, but apparently one of them is mixed up, so I‘m going to wait until the podcasts come out, because then my app downloads it for me in the right way and in the right format as I‘m lazy.
Grant: Sounds very civilized.
Mottokrosh: Laughter. Do you have any more plans for supplements beyond the campaign frames, because you‘ve done a bunch of those now and they‘re fantastic.
Grant: Yeah, Kings of Silver.
Mottokrosh: Kings of Silver just released.
Chris: We‘re working on—essentially the end of the setting of the book is divided up by the domains. So it‘s academia, order, etc. We‘re doing essentially a book for each domain. The one we‘re doing at the moment is high society, so it deals with Amaranth, Silver Quarter, Ivory Row and the higher echolons of the place. So it‘s got some things like drow noble houses and their interactions in it.
Grant: One thing that I’m really weary about doing is just writing fluff. So rather than having, “these are the ladies of the drow noble houses,” you get a paragraph about each, and then if you play a drow from a noble house, you get a specific class power, which you upgrade into.
Grant: So it‘s like, the Issen Knights don‘t use armour but they‘re better with swords, and the Grindle Bound have a special charm which halves damage from bullets.
Mottokrosh: Both of which of course are mentioned in Kings of Silver, or feature heavily in Kings of Silver. I had a follow up question immediately, and I‘ve completely forgotten it. Terrible!
Ah yes, I really liked that in Blood and Dust, even in the very early Kickstarter where you had, you talked about different factions, and then just gave some names and some traits for them, so you could very quickly put them together like that.
Chris: Yeah. That‘s mainly because we don‘t want people to feel as if we‘re telling them the world. Everything is rumours. That‘s why if you look at, “Why is Spire here?” There‘s 13 responses to that question.
Grant: Someone asked me, “Why is Spire here?” and I said, “You want the real canon answer? Do you want to tell everybody?”—“Yes!”—“I don’t know. It‘s made up.”
Chris: It‘s very true. It‘s great. But we‘re trying to do that with everything, with all the follow ups so nobody feels… If you‘re playing, like, Pathfinder, and you don‘t know what‘s in a certain wood, you‘re kind of left out if the other players know.
Mottokrosh: Yes, yeah. You have the canon lore.
Chris: In Spire that‘s completely impossible as nothing’s true. Everything is a lie.
Grant: We were really inspired by Unknown Armies and that, especially the second edition of Unknown Armies which had at the start of every chapter “Things you hear on the street,” and we both loved those. So we wanted to try and make adventures that focused around rumor and hearsay, and “Here are some ideas, go!” Because we don‘t really run pre-published adventures. We‘re not really huge fans of them.
Chris: I love reading pre-published adventures, I love taking the scenes out of it.
Chris: But, I‘ve never run one from start to finish.
Mottokrosh: Do you find that the people who publish the adventure just assume too much about what players are going to do and the moment they don‘t do the right thing, trying to reference these things is incredible hard.
Chris: Yeah, it‘s so difficult. Especially in the more complicated games, and longer campaigns, where you‘ve got to be referencing certain sections of the adventure every time.
Chris: Whereas in something like Spire, you just go, “Well, what do you think?”
Grant: Yeah. “What‘s there?”—“I dunno.”
Mottokrosh: “What sounds cool?”
Chris: “What‘s going on here?”
Grant: Do not plan. You‘re not allowed to plan.
Mottokrosh: Laughter. Yeah. Not allowed to plan. Cool. So we talked briefly about the different sort of formats but is there anything you would like to try out that you can‘t for whatever reason? Beyond maybe the programming thing? Or any other formats that you‘ve thought of, or ideas that you‘ve had and gone “That’s monstrously expensive,” or “The world just isn‘t ready yet?”
Grant: We‘ve got some stuff in the pipeline, like experiments that we‘re doing. I‘ve written most of—I’ve written half of a war game—based in Spire, and I‘m interested in seeing what happens. But honestly—
Mottokrosh: Does it involve mech suits?
Grant: It does not involve mech suits. Chris banned mech suits from Spire.
Chris: Yeah. They‘re not allowed in Spire.
Grant: Expressely. I mean honestly in my first draft, humans had like crow style mech suits and powered armour and Chris was like “No, you can‘t have them,” and I respect that. Someone’s got to keep me in check.
Mottokrosh: We do have demonic infused machines from the gnolls, right? From back in the wars.
Chris: But crucially that‘s not in Spire.
Grant: Yeah, that‘s not in Spire.
Mottokrosh: Spire adjacent.
Grant: I think I wrote that war game, and then I walked around [the UK Expo trade halls] and bought one today, and I think I‘m going to stop.
Mottokrosh: There are a handful of war games out there.
Grant: Yeah, there‘s a shit ton of war games and war board games. That‘s the thing, I‘m kind of like, if I write a board game, or a war game I‘ll have to get it immaculate and incredibly right the first time, otherwise it‘s a waste of money. So I think I‘m going to try to do it as an exercise and see what I can learn, but not really hope to publish it in any way.
Mottokrosh: Because you would also have to get miniatures done and right, and they would have to look amazing.
Grant: We’re toying with card models with standees. One of the ideas we had was that you‘d level up a character you‘d played and you‘d get different pictures of them. Which would have different equipment and stuff on them. But it‘s just, “Maybe we should just focus on what we‘re good at, huh?”
Chris: Yeah. I mean we fill a really nice niche in the RPG world.
Chris: And I don‘t think we can fill that same niche in a war or board game world.
Grant: There’s not enough of us to spread around the niches.
Grant: Honestly, we‘re really happy with the way things are going. We have a business, which is successful. That‘s nearly paying us both a living wage, which is “Yes!” Which is nice. We‘re doing pretty well out of it, and we hope to carry on doing well. And Spire’s got an incredible groundswell of support and people are talking about it and playing it. People have been coming up to the stall and saying things like “Oh yeah, I heard two people talking about this, can I have it please?”
Chris: Or rather wonderfully, people looking at it and I’m going “Oh, do you want to have a look?”—“Oh no, I already own it.”
Grant: “I just wanted to come and smell it…”
Grant: So yeah, we‘re going to stick with Spire and we‘re going to keep spreading the world. Maybe set some games in other parts of its world.
Grant: That we are interested in. Like games about humans hunting monsters, or a war with the gnolls. Or whatever the fuck it is the high elves do in the North.
Chris: The idea is to stay focused on Spire, with side projects elsewhere.
Chris: Rather than drop this, and pick up another thing. Definitely not doing that.
Grant: I think we can carry on writing rules, carry on writing setting and maybe make people’s experiences richer.
Mottokrosh: You have just released the Resistance Toolkit, which describes the underlying ruleset for Spire, and how you can use it to create your own resistance based games. Is that description accurate? What pushed you to do this?
Chris: It’s accurate. We sort of started thinking of other games that would really work with the resistance system. We wanted to support Spire and wouldn’t have time to do both so thought it best we let other people do it.
Grant: There’s a lot to explore there, and we can’t really afford to focus on stuff that isn’t Spire right now. Hopefully we can see what kind of things other people do with it, so when it comes to whatever our next game is, we can adapt the system in some weird and interesting ways.
Mottokrosh: You call it a toolkit, because there is still a fair amount of work involved to use it to power a game. This is especially true when it comes to advances, which, from a player perspective, is the shiny of Spire for characters. But of course in Spire they are hugely tied to the setting—which makes them so evocative. What is your advice for resistance GMs in creating their own advances?
Chris: Think carefully about what you want the advances to achieve and keep it closely tied to the core concept of your setting. If you keep making too few advances for a class think carefully whether it’s best as a shorter extra advance. Your core classes are where everything is going to shine—make sure their abilities grab a player and make better stories.
Grant: Honestly, we don’t have a formula for it, or anything—with a game as loose and narrative-focused as Spire, we can’t hope to balance anything with tremendous accuracy. When we wrote the abilities, we kept it vague until we got a feel for it, and then went back and updated old abilities to make sure everything fits together. It’s an art, not a science.
Mottokrosh: Finally, you’re about to launch a Kickstarter for the first hardcover supplement for Spire. It’s called Strata, and features a bunch of adventures and setting goodness. What’s particularly notable is its expanded cadre of authors. What made you reach out to outside authors for this book?
Grant: We don’t have time to do all the writing! If we want room to experiment with different projects, we can’t spend all of our work hours writing a sourcebook then getting it through Kickstarter. Taking the adventures written by other folks and working them into the High and Low Society theme of the book really added some weight to it, and I think people are really going to be inspired by what’s on offer. They’ve all added their own spin to Spire—something which we want every group who runs it to do—and it’s been incredible to see them imagine stories based in our world.
Chris: There’s too much Spire for just us to cover. Because the setting is so vague and implied rather than concrete—the dozen of so possible origins of Spire in the core book, for example—we can easily let other creative types put their diverse viewpoints into the setting and make it all the richer.
Mottokrosh: Thank you very much, Chris and Grant! And here to leave you is an exclusive art sneak peek from the upcoming Strata book, by artist extraordinaire Adrian Stone, depicting noble-born lineages of drow who can access special advances.
Update 16th October: The Strata Kickstarter is now live!