All November here in The Rat Hole we’re hosting the RPG Blog Carnival. This month we’ll be focused on all things Indie TTRPGs, as will all the other contributors. If you want to see what they’re up to, check out the comments on our Introductory post; all the contributors will be there. [Don’t forget the send us your own submission. -Dave]
But to get us started, I had an opportunity to talk with Jason Cordova, indie TTRPG designer and editor, about his work and love of RPGs. Later in the week I’ll post my review of The Between, Jason’s latest game. But for right now I hope you enjoy our conversation!
Brent: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Jason. Could you tell the folks a bit about yourself?
Jason: Sure!. My name is Jason Cordova. I am the founder of The Gauntlet gaming community and the head of Gauntlet Publishing. I am also a podcaster—I currently co-host two podcasts on The Gauntlet’s network: Fear of a Black Dragon, which is about old school adventure modules, and The Trophy Podcast. As far as the publishing side of things goes, I’m the editor in chief of the Codex gaming magazine, the publisher and developmental editor of Trophy, and the creator of Brindlewood Bay and The Between.
B: How did you start playing tabletop games? When did the “Aha!” moment of deciding to create your own games come along?
J: My gamer origin story! I started playing TTRPGs back in the 4th grade. I got a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game but I didn’t really know what it was at the time—I knew it was a game of some sort, but my young brain couldn’t figure out how to play it. Luckily, an older kid came over one day and taught me how to play. I was totally hooked and have been playing TTRPGs pretty consistently since then (though I did take a few years off in the aughts in favor of board games). As for creating games, that’s a very recent development. I had been publishing things for a couple years through the Codex magazine, and doing developmental editing on others’ games, but had never put out something of my own until late 2019, when Brindlewood Bay came out.
B: One of my initial pathways into TTRPGs was through the pages of the old Dragon Magazine, so I’ve long loved gaming periodicals. Can you talk to me a bit about Codex? What do you love about editing for a digest and what are some of the challenges of publishing a magazine as opposed to a game or supplement?
J: Codex started as a little bonus thing for Gauntlet Patreon backers, but eventually grew to be a pretty robust publication. For most of its life, it’s been about featuring games and supplements from designers who did not yet have a foothold in the scene, and a lot of people whose games and artwork you love today got their start in our pages. It has a really strong emphasis on visuals and wild layouts—that sort of “punk” layout style that is so popular in TTRPGs nowadays wasn’t really a thing back when we started Codex. The magazine was definitely on the cutting edge of a lot of trends that are very commonplace now. Interestingly, in a world with itch.io, I’m not 100% convinced there’s even a need for Codex anymore, which is an editorial conversation we’re having. The biggest challenge with a periodical, to be quite frank, is they’re just a total money hole compared to a standalone game. People just don’t want anthologies or collections. Codex has never been profitable, which makes it harder and harder to do every year. It wasn’t a big deal in the beginning when The Gauntlet wasn’t really a business. Likely, in order to keep doing Codex, we’re going to have to give it more focus, and we’re taking steps right now to do that.
B: You mentioned Fear of a Black Dragon, which explores old school adventure modules. What is it about those old modules that catches your eye? Do you think there is benefit in examining what might be considered Classic gaming material?
J: To be clear, we mostly cover modules that are in the old school style (think: the OSR scene) and not necessarily older modules, though we cover a fair amount of those as well. But to answer your question, yes, I think there’s a lot to learn from classic gaming material. The original premise of Fear of a Black Dragon was analyzing OSR modules through the lens of story games or more narrative-focused systems, because I think there’s a lot those two scenes can teach each other about what makes for a great role playing game experience. Likewise, I think the past has a lot to tell us about what can make a great gameplay experience in the present day, and when we look at the older modules on the podcast, that’s the approach we take. I used to think, for example, that I hated boxed text in adventures, because it seemed so rail-roady or canned, but I have actually grown to like boxed text quite a lot and how it sort of “sets the scene” for players. This idea of scene-setting is so important in modern play, and that’s all boxed text really is. It actually makes me a little sad it has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also think it’s really interesting that a lot of things in classic adventures that offend our modern sensibilities is stuff that is there because of the technological limitations of the day. For example, it’s easy to bemoan how long some of those older adventures and splat books are, especially in our era of streamlined design, but you have to remember: they didn’t have the internet, and game creators couldn’t make assumptions about what gamers knew or otherwise had easy access to.
B: For any readers who aren’t familiar with Trophy, could you talk a bit about how that came about? And what is the difference between Trophy Gold and Trophy Dark?
J: Trophy is a system by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet. It’s actually two different games: Trophy Dark and Trophy Gold. Both games use the same basic system at their core, but they are very different games. Trophy Dark is a horror fantasy game about treasure-hunters going into a place that doesn’t want them there in order to get their hands on treasure that will help them fulfill a drive. It’s a one or two-shot game and has a strong emphasis on horror and the idea of “playing to lose,” meaning the characters are going to meet some kind of tragic end and the fun is watching that spiral. Trophy Gold is more like a traditional dungeon crawl game in that it’s a campaign-length game about exploring the forgotten places of the world. Trophy Gold has the trappings of the traditional dungeon crawl, but mechanically it’s very much a story game, with rules that encourage lots of collaborative play at the table.
B: I think I first discovered your game writing with Brindlewood Bay, which I loved. Can you tell our readers a bit about that game?
J: Sure. Brindlewood Bay is a game about a group of elderly women—members of the Murder Mavens mystery book club—who get caught up in investigating and solving murder mysteries in and around the town they live in. They start to piece together that the murders they’re solving are part of a bigger conspiracy, at the heart of which is a Lovecraftian cult trying to raise a chthonic monstrosity from the ocean. I like to say it’s Cthulhu, She Wrote, or Murder, She Wrote meets the Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Mechanically, it’s Powered by the Apocalypse, but it uses a new mystery system wherein there is no canonical solution to who did the murder—not even the Keeper (GM) knows the solution. Rather, once enough clues have been gathered, the players have a discussion about who they think did it. It’s a really fun process, and it actually feels like you’re solving a mystery at the table.
B: And you have a new game out, The Between. What can you tell us about that and what inspired it?
J: The Between is a game about a group of monster hunters in Victorian-era London. The characters learn about various monstrous threats in the city (literal monsters, but also murderers) and they have to conduct investigations in order to learn how to neutralize them. There’s a Moriarty-like criminal mastermind pulling the strings behind the scenes, and the hunters will eventually have to face them in order to save Queen and country. The game was directly inspired by the TV show Penny Dreadful, but it also takes inspiration from things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, British horror classics, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and pulp media.
B: Tonally I think Brindlewood Bay and The Between are very different games, though they share some DNA. Could you talk a bit about that connection?
J: The main thing they share is their underlying mystery system—as in Brindlewood Bay, there are no canonical solutions to the mysteries the hunters in The Between are trying to solve. One interesting thing; The Between actually came first, development-wise. I was working on it before I started working on Brindlewood Bay. I ran into a design problem and actually wrote Brindlewood Bay in order to solve that design problem. Brindlewood Bay was essentially a proof of concept for this idea of an emergent, collaborative mystery system—I wanted to write a shorter game to test out some of the ideas I was playing with in The Between. But Brindlewood Bay took on a life of its own, and even does a few unique things The Between doesn’t.
B: That’s excellent, I didn’t realize that. Do you have plans to revisit The Between and do some tweaking? Or leave that for a future Season release?
J: Actually, when I say The Between came first, I mean it started development first. It wasn’t released until after Brindlewood Bay came out, and so it has all our learning from Brindlewood Bay in it already.
B: Ah, okay, thanks for that clarification. So we’ve seen the mechanical connection between Brindlewood Bay and The Between. Are there broader elements common to all of your game designs that you feel are important?
J: Definitely. My games certainly have a somewhat camp aesthetic. Brindlewood Bay leans into its classic TV inspirations, and even The Between, which is very dark and sensual, has lots of clear pop culture and literary references. In both games, I’m in really direct communication with the reader and kind of letting them in on the joke a little bit. I like to think it makes the games more accessible. My game coming out early next year, Pizza Time, is about a haunted pizza arcade restaurant. So, yeah: there’s always a little touch of camp, a little sprinkle of arch humor.
B: You have a YouTube channel as well. How important to you is it to have a way to share your playthroughs with fans and the public? Does it impact how you approach designing games?
J: I have been playing online almost exclusively since 2015, and since the games were getting played anyway, I figured there was no harm (or extra work) in recording them and posting them up. As I got deeper into publishing, I realized I could use my YouTube videos as a way of teaching people our games, and so that’s been my focus lately. I try to present everything I run as if someone is watching it to learn how to run the game themselves. I’m not sure it’s had much of an impact on how I design, except to say that online play is always important in my work because The Gauntlet is all about online TTRPGs. When I’m making games, I’m always thinking about the online play context and how to take advantage of it. Something we do, for example, is create these highly detailed online character keepers for our games—they’re extremely fancy Google Sheets—and release those at the same time as we release game material.
B: Off on a tangent: if you had to put together a music playlist to give someone an idea of what Brindlewood Bay was all about, what sort of songs/artists would be on there? Same question for The Between.
J: That’s a great question. For Brindlewood Bay, I think you probably want to listen to some classic TV theme songs, since the game is presented as if it is a television show called Brindlewood Bay, and it has classic TV baked into every part of it. I also think about Cat Stevens, who did the soundtrack for Harold and Maude, which also inspired the game in the sense that it’s about an elderly woman who lives life to the fullest and embraces her physicality (Brindlewood Bay has as a major theme this idea that the characters have rich, complex lives not defined by their age). The Between is tougher. I guess I’d have to go with some dark classical pieces; maybe something like Danse Macabre or Don Giovanni.
B: So what’s next? Anything in the pipe, maybe another supplement like Nephews in Peril!?
J: We’re doing a Kickstarter campaign for Brindlewood Bay in January. We’re going to do expanded hardcover versions of the core book and the supplement, Nephews in Peril. We’re going to continue supporting The Between with “season” releases. We just released Season 2, which includes 4 new Threats, a new criminal mastermind, and a new playbook. We’re also developing a podcast to support Brindlewood Bay and all the games (from us and others) inspired by it.
B: Outstanding! I look forward to that Kickstarter, then. Where can folks track you down to find out what’s going on with all these projects?
B: Excellent! Thank you so much for talking with me today!
And thank you all for reading along! Come back Friday for my review of The Between and join us for more Indie TTRPG news and reviews all through November. And make sure to give Jason and The Gauntlet a follow on Twitter (us too, of course)!