Writer Spotlight: David Shugars

Like Robyn, I’m here dancing on my own with David Shugars of The Demon Collective, Vol. 1, to talk about his adventure Hush, RPGs in general, and the future of GMDK.

DAVID: This is weird. Introduce yourself.

DAVID: I’m David Shugars. I’m a 27-year old nonbinary writer, graphic designer, and the legal founder of GMDK.

That’s an interesting name. What’s the meaning behind it?

Well, David is biblical, there was this guy…

You know what I mean.

Yeah, yeah. So, ages ago (like July 2018) Mabel Harper organized a discord server for collaborators on her big vampire book. We had talked via G+ before, but that was our first real collaboration. It’s also where I met Comrade, Camilla, Fiona, and the magnanimous Sean McCoy, who was a real guiding force in my decision to get into publishing.

Anyways, the name. So, the discord was called “A Server Full of Demons” because Mabel’s blog was called A Blog Full of Demons. As we were the only ones in the server, that made us demons. As the channel grew and talk began branching out beyond the vampire project, “Good morning, demonkind” became a sort of regular greeting: you wake up, say good morning, and chat about gay RPG things in between working on whatever else you had going on. “Good morning, demonkind” eventually got shortened to GMDK, because we can’t read, and also it’s phonetically “GM Decay” which is sort of what we’re going with in this whole endeavor: breaking down the standard RPG tropes and conventions to make newer, cooler stuff.

Brilliant. What are you doing for this project?

Well, my adventure is called “Hush.” It’s a dungeon-crawl through an ancient dwarven library filled with ghosts, awful bugs, and a very hungry caterp-er, basilisk. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while–one of the very first adventures I ever wrote, I had planned it for an old campaign, but we never got around to playing it at the time.

It started with wanting to make a module that was more “survival horror” than what was on the market. Problem was, it’s really hard to do horror when PCs have limitless resources and prep time, and I didn’t want to have them all beaten up and thrown into a pit without their weapons either.

Reasonable; that seems like a very lazy way to start an adventure, much less a campaign spanning levels 1-15.

I don’t understand that last point, but it doesn’t matter. So, if you can’t take away the PCs time, you can’t take away their agency, and you can’t take away their equipment, what do you do? You take away their senses. Hush is about crawling through a dark maze, deaf and nearly blind, while being hunted by a creature that you cannot and must not look at. It’s a classic negadungeon: the winning move is not to play. Good luck convincing PCs of that, though.

You’re also doing the layout and design for the book, right? What’s the plan with that?

Zines are cool in that you can break every rule of design and still be on-brand. I won’t be doing that, though, because I like my books to be readable. Instead, I’m working closely with Lauren Bryce (our terrific artist) to coordinate the art and design in ways that looks good and scans better. The book is black and white, in the most literal sense: Laurens’ work is heavy and relies on stippling to provide shading, so there’s no actual gray anywhere. It’s gonna be breathtaking.

The Pale Grubs infest every corner of the library, and now they’re in your browser! oooooh~

The Kickstarter has been a great success, and it’s looking like you’ll hit 600% by the end of the funding period. This gives me hope for the future of GMDK, do you feel the same way?

I do, David.

Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming projects that lovers of The Demon Collective might be interested in?

Our editor, Fiona Geist, is working on two of her own adventures right now, illustrated by Joan-Rose Gordon and Evlyn Moreau, respectively. I’ll be publishing an English translation of Vivien Feasson’s post-apocalyptic story game, Liberté, likely sometime in July. Scrap Princess and I have been working on PlaneScrap for nearly two years now, so if you’re looking for dimension-hopping weirdness, stay tuned for more of that.

Oh, and Vol. 2 of the Demon Collective is all but assured. Maybe we’ll do a single megadungeon this time, with each person designing a floor. Or perhaps a big hexmap with each person designing factions that control certain areas. Either way, there’s clearly a market for collaborative content, and I’m happy to corner it until someone better decides to muscle me out.

I’m sorry

David Shugars is on twitter. You can read his blog posts here, where you’re already at.

Writer Spotlight: Mabel Harper

Another round of interviews! Let’s talk to the inimitable Mabel Harper about her adventure, She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep, one of four modules included in The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

DAVID: How would you like to introduce yourself?

MABEL: I’m Mabel Harper, a musician, writer, graphic designer, and trans Filipina woman with a bad case of being extremely online. I’m also a game designer who specializes in horror, vampires, old-school D&D, and spells that turn dicks into snakes.

How did you first get involved with tabletop RPGs?

I’d see Dungeons & Dragons referenced in TV shows and cartoons, and I was already familiar with the D&D Capcom fighting games. So I really wanted to play, but I couldn’t afford any of the books. So, what I did instead was, when I was in 4th grade and we had indoor recess, I would run my own imagined version of the game for my friends using the dice from the board games that we kept around class. After months of doing that, when by birthday rolled around, I begged my mom to buy me what I think was the 2004 D&D Basic game set. The following Christmas, I asked for the Player’s Handbook, and the rest is history.

What inspires your games, the ones you play and the ones you run?

Things that go bump in the night. Monsters, imagined or real (and how they’re not really that different). The deconstruction of power fantasy. Communism. Transfiguring the painful and confusing aspects of our shared existence into something we can more easily process‌—‌and punch, if necessary.

How do those themes play into the dungeon you’ve written?

I mean, it’s an adventure about looting a bunch of old, pale monster nobles that hoard riches and possess dark powers that can easily turn you into a monster if you’re not careful with it (which players, by their nature, never are). I love seducing players with the potential for power and riches, and then dealing with the dangers and fallout inherent to that journey. I hope there’s a lesson to be learned from that… but also, if not, it’s a kickass dungeon with vampires.

Most creators seem driven to design the sort of dungeon they’d like to run. If you could distill your GMing style down to a single sentence, what would it be?

I try to meet my players where they’re at and have the world react accordingly‌‍‌—which usually means chaos.

Outside of RPGs, what would you say is the biggest influence on your creative process?

Black metal taught me to totally immerse myself within an aesthetic. I actually don’t really listen to or make that kind of music all that much these days, but I’ve carried that same sense of aesthetic commitment into everything I do, whether that be really sensual pop music or gritty-ass dungeon crawls.

I don’t know how RPGs have changed the way I’ve approached music, but I will say the worldbuilding that goes into tabletop RPGs is impressive as hell. I think I’m a way better worldbuilder for something like Form and Void because of how much time I’ve spent poring over RPG tomes as a child. a lot of these thick-ass RPG books are so good at putting you in a different place, with entirely different myths, histories, and societies. It’s hard to estimate just how influential they’ve been in that regard. I can’t extricate that component from my creative process. It’s that ingrained.

Okay, last one: are there any other creators who are making the sort of thing you want to see more of?

Is it cheating if i say everyone in the zine we’re putting out?

It is.

Okay, okay. Well, there are a bunch, but i wanna specifically focus on Zedeck Siew, who makes amazing southeast Asian-inspired horror and fantasy. his book with Mun Kao, A Thousand Thousand Islands, whips ass. it’s so evocative and really puts you in this whole other world that its creators very intimately know. and they help you get to know it too.

Mabel Harper is on twitter, has a gaming blog called Blog Full of Demons (Patreon), co-creates a web serial called Form and Void (Patreon), and makes music under several labels, notably Don’t Do It, Neil and NO ANTI. She’s also a freelance writer and designer.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.

Writer Spotlight: Comrade Pollux

Today we’re talking to Comrade Pollux, one of the writers for the Demon Collective, Vol. 1. His own module, Bad Faith, is a gory hack-and-slash adventure set in and around a desecrated church and the village it has come to infiltrate.

DAVID: So how would you like to introduce yourself?

COMRADE: Hi, I’m Comrade Pollux. I like D&D, cheesy fantasy, and socialism.

What can you tell us about the dungeon you’ve written? What inspired it?

My dungeon is about murdering cultists who have started warping reality around their base (and are also trying to murder you). I’ve always been fascinated by cults and secret societies, both as trope-y fantasy enemies and as real organizations with the capacity to do lots of harm. I’ve lived in areas with fair amounts of Klan activity, and the town I went to high school in is home to a church that makes millions of dollars a year “teaching” faith healing to foreign nationals. A lot of that money they use to influence the city government, donating hundreds of thousands to the police and stuff like that. Needless to say, I find that pretty scary, especially since there’s not really anything else in the region that can compete with them economically.

Less depressing inspirations include Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the very first RPG I played and quite possibly my favorite to this day (though the dungeon is hardly something that would fit into a WFRP game). That’s probably where I first really got into the cult as an enemy. A big tonal influence for me is 90’s-era CRPGs and FPSs. I love DOOM and Daggerfall to death. More specific to this dungeon is the game DUSK, which was really the spark that helped me tie together a bunch of ideas which have been floating around in my head for a while. 

That’s really interesting. What is it about WFRP that makes it your favorite?

Well, a great deal of it has to do with nostalgia and happy memories, no doubt. I’m sure I’d still like it if I have the patience to play a game as crunchy as WFRP these days. Now, I knew a little bit about D&D before I played WFRP, mostely from reading play reports and Order of the Stick and things like that, and WFRP just seemed a lot more real to me a lot of ways. I was an edgy teenager and I dug that it was A GRIM WORLD OF PERILOUS ADVENTURE, but the budding historian and medievalist in me used the Old World’s caricatured nations as a gateway to learning about their historical counterparts. The problems that you’re expected to face as a character in WFRP–poverty, corruption, mental illness, bigotry, and yes, shadowy cults–also seemed a lot more applicable to my own lived experiences than the problems that D&D of the day presented.

The murderous Zedekiah lurks in the catacombs beneath the old church, the secret cult’s worst-kept secret.

I’ve never played it, but that all makes sense to me. What system do you play the most now?

These days I mostly play my own homebrew B/X OSR thing, currently called Dagor Dagorath. It’s been four years in the making, and my group just had our 99th session. I can pretty safely say that I’ve stolen stuff from pretty much every OSR blogger that has ever existed at this point, so if you have a blog and you’re reading this, thanks! Keep writing and keep rolling.

If you could distill your gaming style into a single sentence, what would it be?

“Roll the dice and see what happens (it probably involves mutilations).”

That’s something to be respected. There’s been lots of talk about RPGs as art lately. What’s your take on that? Is there anything you think tabletop games do better than other forms of creative expression?

I absolutely agree that RPGs are art. I think the thing RPGs do better than any other artistic medium is allow a group of people to create and inhabit a highly-interactive shared imaginary space. As I write that it sounds obvious, but I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity to create deeply meaningful experiences that’s being overlooked. Books and films have Lore, but RPGs can have History. I read about these campaigns that have run for decades, and I think that’s just the coolest thing, because pretty much everything worth telling about these games is stuff that actually happened in a way that isn’t true of other types of art. You can get similar experiences in MMOs like EVE Online, but even those are about a particular thing in a way that RPGs don’t have to be. You can have games that start out as a dungeon-crawl which then evolve into political hijinks, or a game about merchant caravans, or maybe you discover lost alien spaceships and now you have a sci-fi thing, or all of these in different orders and combinations, because the only limitation on the nature of the shared space is the imagination of the people playing.

Is there anything you’d like to see catch on in the greater gaming community?

Apart from reading tons of blogs I tend to keep to my own gaming group, so you may want to take these thoughts with a grain of salt.

This hobby is an incredible way to forge friendships, so I think we should strive for eliminating barriers to participation both as a player/referee and as a creator/publisher. Partly this is a problem of access: there’s a ton of games I want to play but can’t afford, and the patterns of life under neoliberalism are not exactly conducive to being able to hold a regularly scheduled game unless you’re really devoted, making it harder to get new butts in chairs. There’s also a cultural problem: you don’t have to look far to hear stories about minorities being harassed in our community, which still largely trends white, straight, male, and cis.

Neither of these things are really isolated to us as gamers, however. So I guess you could say what I’d like to see catch on in the greater gaming community is the abolition of capitalism and an end to oppressive hierarchies. Those things belong in make-believe worlds, not the real one.

Also the dice they use for Dungeon Crawl Classics are really cool. We need more sizes of dice.

Last one: which writers/artists are you most excited to see more from?

Anything by anyone who wrote, illustrated, edited, or produced for this project, for one. I feel awed and honored to have my work included alongside theirs. Broadly speaking, I’m interest in fresh perspectives in gaming, either from marginalized communities or simply people who are writing for the first time. There are a few OSR bloggers which have influenced me a great deal–Arnold K of Goblin Punch, Skerples of Coins & Scrolls, Delta of Delta’s D&D Hotspot–and I always look forward to anything they put out. I absolutely have to plug my brother, who runs the blog Profane Ape and is a regular in my own campaign. If you like my stuff, you’ll probably like his.

Finally, to tie this to my thoughts on the nature of RPGs as art, I’m just looking forward to what my own players throw at me. They’re artists as much as I am.

Comrade Pollux can be found on twitter, and runs a gaming blog called Kill Your Dungeon Master.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Greer

One of the founding demons of our order, Camilla Greer is here to talk about her module Night School, for The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

DAVID: How would you like to introduce yourself?

CAMILLA: My name is Camilla, I’m a 27 year old trans woman who works at a board game store in DC. I’ve been playing RPGs for a decade and a half, most seriously in the last three or four years.

How did you get started with tabletop RPGs?

One summer I was on a camping and hiking trip with a friend and his family. When we camped out, he would pull out his 3rd edition PHB, and I my character sheet for Orguk Bloodbane, half-orc barbarian. I still think it’s the perfect place to play D&D.

Ooh, tell me about Orguk.

Classic half-orc barbarian. Swings a big greataxe, loves to drink, fight, and break bones. Shallow as a puddle, but still the archetype I have the most fun with.

Nothing wrong with shallow! Are you playing anything currently?

Yeah! Right now I’m playing in an ongoing beer and pretzels game my roommate runs, as well as a more in depth campaign, both currently 5E. I also GM a lot. In some state of activity, I have a GLOG campaign, and a Black Hack 2e game set in the Ultraviolet Grasslands. I also get to run lots of one shots for friends, I’m ramping up for Princecon in March, and I get to run lot of D&D at the store, for kids and adults.

Any tips on introducing new players/kids to D&D?

Gosh, lots and lots. Lemme see if I can come up with some bullet points.

  • Stay in the fiction. Instead of “can I roll Investigation” have them say “I look around the room, checking for signs of struggle.” It allows you to handle rules, helps them stay in that position of imagination, and encourages them to try things that aren’t written on their character sheets.
  • Let them breath. D&D is all about developing this feedback loop between what the player do, what interests them, and what the DM is providing in response. Newer players don’t have muscles for that, so making sure that every player gets a chance to respond and show you how they feel about what’s happening helps you learn what they want, and hopefully provide that for them by the end of the night.
  • Roll in the open. This one is very much a personal style, but I feel that rolling publicly, admitting when I’m making things up on the fly, etc. makes the casual nature of the activity very apparent, and helps people relax. DM screens are also just like, pretty weird for people who aren’t familiar with them?

I guess those are my biggies. The only way to get better at anything, especially RPGs is to just do it as much as possible. Run as often as you can, for whoever you can, even if it’s not the perfect group, or your adventure isn’t perfectly prepped. My general motto in life is “fail until you don’t.”

That’s excellent advice, thanks for sharing. Can you tell me a little about your Demon Collective adventure?

Yeah! It’s a single site adventure, around a manor falling into ruin. The players will encounter brainwashed proctors who run the place, abducted children trying to escape, and parasitic flying book monsters. There are lots of ways to approach it, and it turns out different every time. It started as a adventure I ran for the kids D&D program at work, the Guild of Heroes, and I’ve expanded on it each time I’ve run it since then.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind while running it?

Honestly, I think the adventure is fairly straightforward. Because there are a handful of different active groups or characters, keeping them from stagnating is important. Think about how their activity will present the players with interesting choices.

The Bookmites protect the children of the school, whether that’s from evil proctors or scruffy adventurers.

What do you generally look for in RPG products? Is there anything that’s really caught your eye recently?

I’m a big fan of crafting my own content. Sandbox adventures or settings that leave gaps for me to fill in is exciting. I like it when the books contain only the good stuff. I can make up a tavern or a thieve’s guild, don’t give me the details. I’m a big fan of Luka Rejec’s Ultraviolet Grasslands. Really excited for the published version of that which should be on the way soon. Mothership is also really exciting to me. It points at a genre that is both very clear in the tropes and situations that will inspire players and GMs, while somehow also being underrepresented amongst RPGs. The design of that rulebook amazes me, it’s so easy to find what I need quickly.

Camilla can be found on twitter, and has recently appeared on episode 145 of the podcast Dragon’s Demize to talk about The Demon Collective.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.