The Six Ages Team: Robin Laws

Our series of interviews with team members continues with our writer/designer, Robin D. Laws.

What’s your background?

I am a tabletop roleplaying game designer and author. I created such roleplaying games as Hillfolk, Feng Shui, The Esoterrorists, and the upcoming Yellow King Roleplaying Game. My fiction credits include nine novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. I’m the winner of five Gold and five Silver ENnie Awards as well as the coveted Diana Jones Award. You can hear me every week on the podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.

How did you get into the industry?

Robin D. Laws
Illustration by Jan Pospíšil

Through the fanzine Alarums and Excursions (which will feature later in our story) I struck up a correspondence with Jonathan Tweet, eventually leading to my contributing additional material to his groundbreaking game Over the Edge. He says I inspired this by imagining what a William S. Burroughs roleplaying game might look like. At about the same time I got a query out of the blue from Steve Jackson Games, asking if I wanted to turn the weird hunter-gatherer dark fantasy game into a supplement; it became GURPS Fantasy II. That led to additional opportunities and I’ve been working full time as a writer and game designer since 1992.

In other words, I got in when the cutting edge communications technologies were APAs and physical mail.

How were you introduced to KoDP

Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind is about a people escaping from encroaching glaciers, but I owe my participation in it to the actions of ice demons. In 1997 I went to a Glorantha convention in Chicago, planning to meet with the world’s creator, to pitch him on my approach to a new roleplaying game for his setting. A massive snow storm canceled his trip, and here I was at a convention with the meeting they’d flown me in for also out the window.

Another attendee I also knew through Alarums and Excursions: David Dunham. We sat down to dinner together and he told me he had a Glorantha computer game on the drawing board. If only he could find an experienced writer who also knew this very specific world…

We both looked at each other and thought “oh wait a minute” and before I knew I was signed on as head writer for KoDP. Not far into the process it became apparent that writing was also game design work, hence the double credit.

Other than Six Ages or King of Dragon Pass, what’s your favorite computer game?

The simulation of the classic analog Addams Family pinball game, on the Pinball Arcade iOS app.

How did your writing style develop?

Any writer’s voice is a combination of all the various influences you absorb through reading, plus the effort of writing a whole bunch of terrible stuff until the cruft falls away. The secret to developing a unique style is to assimilate so many disparate influences that they, plus your life experience and personality, come together into something no one else would arrive at.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

I’m not saying the game has a big culminating storyline. But if it did, getting the scene branching right for its myriad possible outcomes took a lot of doing and redoing. Hypothetically.

Day to day, the biggest scene writing challenge lay in the tri-cultural nature of the setting this time out. In KoDP, you’re Orlanthi clan folk, interacting with other Orlanthi. In this opening chapter of Six Ages, any neighboring tribe you deal with might belong to your own culture, a closely related rival culture, or a third, quite distinct people. So any scene where you talk to a neighbor required a distinct set of responses for every approach you take.

What was the best part of the project?

Several testers reported finding certain moments genuinely affecting, even moving. That’s the response you hope for as a writer in any medium. Maybe surprising in a resource management game, which you might not think of as a forum for powerful emotion. That’s a testament to David’s original genre-fusing vision for KoDP. It also reflects our shared attitude that, even though the game is set in an imaginary place, that it should have room to reflect the full contradictions of the human experience. With so many scenes to work with I could build in a wide emotional palette, from funny to scary to—depending on the choices the player makes—triumphant or tragic.

The Six Ages Team: Jan Pospíšil

Our series of interviews with team members continues with our lead artist, Jan Pospíšil.

What’s your background?

I have a master’s degree in computer graphics programming, but in art I’m self-taught.

How did you get into the industry?

Self-Portrait by Jan Pospíšil

I’ve been full-time freelancing for over 5 years now (I think). At first I posted my portfolio on a bunch of RPG forums and that got me a few hobbyist level jobs in pen and paper RPGs (which is where I would get the majority of work in the following years). Then in short succession Jeff Richard (then of Moon Design, now Chaosium) and Jon Hodgson (Cubicle 7) contacted me for work and I’ve been drawing for them ever since.

I was a big fan of Tolkien and also drew a lot of historical/ancient stuff and both those areas eventually became my “niche.”

When it comes to computer games, I started by modding during my uni studies. Curiously, neither my computer science degree, nor my modding efforts contributed to my first real videogame job – doing art for KoDP and Six Ages. (I have my continued work on pnp Glorantha to thank for that, I believe.)

What was the first gaming product you worked on, and in what capacity?

I have to admit I don’t remember. Unfortunately I lost a backup drive from that time, so there’s no way to check. Most likely it was a few pieces of black and white art for a supplement book by a small publisher.

The first product I consider a career changer was probably the Guide to Glorantha, for which I painted a series of colour plates.

How were you introduced to KoDP

Someone shared a few pictures from their game in a screenshot thread on the TaleWorlds forums. I was immediately interested, because I’ve never seen a game with art like that. Especially intriguing was a scene depicting Grazelanders, who I recognized as Scythian/Pazyryk inspired.

I had to know what this game was about! The concept sounded incredible and I immediately pirated it and spent a few weeks playing it to exhaustion. (Sorry about that! I’ve bought it on several platforms since then.)

How did your art style develop?

Chaotically and slowly. Before I started learning with some semblance of focus (in uni and on), I did everything by feeling and instinct. In a way that felt more free and I was far more daring in those days.

Now I’m mostly trying to get faster and away from aping my favourite artists too much. (Which I definitely did for some products I worked on, like Angus McBride in Glorantha, or Viktor Ambrus on “The One Ring.”)

I did a lot of ink drawing on Six Ages (as opposed to painting), which was very useful training in hindsight. I also practiced horses a lot, that’s always useful.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

The scope of it. Most projects in the past would take up to a few months to finish, followed by a period of crippling doubt (“Is any of this any good?!”), followed by the joy of seeing them in the hands of happy customers. Working on Six Ages meant four years of not being able to talk about anything I was doing, and there was so much of it to do! Definitely a different experience.

What was the best part of the project?

Seeing it all come together and working with the other members.

Reading Robin’s writing where he’d build on the concepts we came up with in preproduction, meeting the characters he created.

Seeing other artists do their thing and thinking: “Oh man, I wouldn’t have thought of that!”

Reading the testers’ experiences playing the game for the first time.

Other than Six Ages or King of Dragon Pass, what’s your favorite computer game?

Can’t easily reduce that to just one, so…

I’ve spent the most time with Mount&Blade:Warband (thousands of hours probably, since 2006).

The best recent game I played is The Witcher 3:Wild Hunt (I’ve been a fan of the Witcher books since childhood).

My “most interesting/innovative” recent game is Exanima – for its unusual physics-based combat system (having 238 hours played on Steam).

The Six Ages Team: Liana Kerr

Although I (David) get to be the public face of the game, nearly two dozen people helped me make it. I’d like to share some of their stories, starting with our Quality Assurance (QA) Lead, Liana Kerr.

What’s your background?

Liana Kerr
Illustration by Ellen Barkin

I dabble in writing and art, and I’ve studied Japanese for several years. I’ve done fan translations of video games and a little professional translation. I have a huge weakness for RPGs, adventure games and sim games, but I have a tendency to lose myself in games, so these days I just play a couple of mobile games that don’t require much time or brainpower. I’m the primary caregiver to my two children, six-year old Milo and one-year old Felix.

How were you introduced to KoDP

Back in college, my boyfriend presented me with a new game for Valentine’s Day. It was perfect: it had gorgeous artwork, engaging writing, a challenging scenario. I played it over and over, creating happy little Ernalda-worshipping Peace clans, exploring Dragon Pass and learning all the lore. And what of the guy who knew me so well that he gifted me a game that I played for years? I married him, of course! (And eventually we had a child who encourages me to “get lots of cows, mama!”)

How did you get into the industry?

I had been following the King of Dragon Pass blog, and I offered to help beta test the iOS version. “I have a good eye for detail,” I told David, in what may have been an understatement. Unfortunately, David already had as many beta testers as he needed. Fortunately, most people are not very good beta testers. I got in on the next round of testing, and as I hadn’t played KoDP for several years I was thrilled to be able to return to the game. Beta-testing KoDP coincided with being pregnant with my older son, and it distracted me from my constant nausea. I ended up filing so many bugs that I was convinced David was sick of this annoying fangirl who kept nitpicking his game! But instead he asked me to help test the iPad version, and sent me an iPad inscribed with “Queen of Dragon Pass.” When he started adding more new content to KoDP, I started working as a freelancer doing more formal QA, and it’s been my dream job ever since!

What was the first gaming product you worked on, and in what capacity?

King of Dragon Pass is the first game I ever worked on professionally. I’ve also worked on fan translations of some Super Famicom RPGs, both as a translator and finding bugs in the patches. (I translated Metal Max Returns several years ago, and three games that haven’t been released yet, Granhistoria, Metal Max 2 and Tenshi no Uta.) Working on Six Ages has made me want to design games myself. Maybe once the kids are older!

What was the most challenging part of the project?

Making the mental transition from “my job is to find bugs” to “my job is to help make this an awesome game.” I had a lot of issues with imposter syndrome and self-confidence, which meant my tendency was to assume that my input wasn’t very valuable. I mean, who was I to contradict David Dunham on a matter of game design, or edit Robin D. Laws’s writing? But the truth was that my position was unique: as a longtime fan of King of Dragon Pass, I approached Six Ages from a player’s point of view, and so I was not only looking for bugs, I was also looking for scenarios that didn’t make sense, outcomes that felt unfair or unsatisfying, or places where a little extra detail would have a big impact on the scene. For example, when another clan creates a song mocking you, I wanted to know exactly what the insult was! (And Robin came through with not one, but several different insults that are chosen randomly each time the scene appears.)

Our neighbors know us for being the last clan to arrive in the valley.So there are a lot of little details in Six Ages that come directly from my experience as a KoDP player and give you a greater sense of connection to your clan. I always wanted my clan to be known for something, as the other clans are, and in Six Ages your actions will give you a reputation. I wanted a little more focus on some of the recurring characters, and now they give unique advice and have a couple more scenes… although if you want them to be heroes, you have to give them those opportunities yourself.

Having my ideas get implemented and my input valued went a long ways towards boosting my confidence, which in turn made me more likely to give my opinion even more freely. I think Six Ages is even better than King of Dragon Pass, and even though I have seen all possible outcomes of every scene in the game, I still enjoy playtesting it. I’m proud to say that some of that depth came from my input, and hope that other KoDP fans love Six Ages as much as I do!

What was the best part of the project?

I got to be there as it all came together. When I started working on Six Ages, Robin had written over a hundred scenes, but the artwork was all placeholders, there was no music, the UI was incomplete and the advisors’s faces were from KoDP. Plus, there were still hundreds of scenes to be coded, and some weren’t written until well into the game’s development. I worked assiduously on testing scenes, but I couldn’t really visualize the eventual outcome. But with every new build of the game, there was some small improvement: for example, the pixelated placeholder art would turn into a pencil sketch with notes on it, which later became a black and white drawing, which eventually blossomed with glorious color. I tested most of the exploration scenes with placeholder art or sketches, so it was gratifying to run into the finished scenes as I played and experience them as they were meant to be seen. When the music was added, Six Ages really started to feel like a game to me, not just a collection of scenes and sliders. By the time I was able to finish the game for the first time, I felt like we had really created something special!

I also just love finding really great bugs. One of my favorites was the bug where another clan would show up to attack you, then parley with you and offer you tribute to end the attack. Compared with game-breaking bugs or bugs that are hard to reproduce, a bug where people show up on your doorstep and offer to give you loot instead of attack you is a sweet bug indeed. It was almost a shame to report it! Any time negative numbers of warriors die, fractions of a cow get traded away, or nonexistent clans show up at my clan borders, my day just gets better and better. What I love best is when I manage to crash the game so badly that I can’t even re-open my saved game. Because that means we can fix it, and no one else will ever lose their game to that same bug. I get territorial about my bugs; once Six Ages is out, no doubt thousands of people playing it will expose some that I didn’t find, and some part of me is always going to feel jealous of the people who find the best bugs.

Other than Six Ages or King of Dragon Pass, what’s your favorite computer game?

I’d have to say Undertale. I like being able to play a game in a peaceful way — I once played through the original Fallout as a pacifist, although I may have taken a potshot at the Overseer in the end — and I was fascinated by its fourth-wall breaking aspects. I especially enjoyed playing a game that treated my decisions with tangible moral weight and permanence, because I couldn’t help contrasting it with my work testing Six Ages. For the sake of seeing if some minor line shows up right, I might systematically kill off every single noble in my clan. (The debug menu offers me nearly a dozen ways to murder people. For example, I can kill off the whole circle, pick out one noble to kill, kill off all the men or women at once, kill off another clan’s leader… And that’s not even getting into the many ways someone can die within the game.) Or I might force a scene repeatedly to test all the branches, meaning that from my clan’s point of view, they’re being attacked by a dinosaur or a Chaos monster ten times a year. Restore from the previous year, and no one even remembers it happened! I feel my sins crawling on my back…

Restores radio buttons (Unlimited, One, None) from the clan questionnaireMy desire to play with some form of moral weight actually inspired one new option for the game. You can still choose to have unlimited restores, which means if something goes wrong you can restart the year with no penalty. But you can also now choose to give yourself just one chance to restore, or you can play the entire game with no ability to restore at all. When you can only turn back time once, or when death is permanent, the impact of every choice you make is magnified. I have beaten the game on Hard mode with no option to restore (without resorting to the debug menu, of course). So it is possible, but it requires patience, diplomacy, careful preparation and the ability to roll with the punches.