RPG Blog Carnival: Interview with Côme Martin

November marches on and so does the RPG Blog Carnival here in The Rat Hole! We continue our focus this month on Indie TTRPGs with an interview with Côme Martin, designer of Green Garden Mall, Two Summers, and Meanwhile, in the Subway. If you enjoy the interview, please stop back on Friday for our review of Two Summers!

Brent: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Côme. For those not familiar with you and your work, could you tell the folks a bit about yourself?

Côme: Thanks for the opportunity! I’m a 36 year-old English teacher, based in Paris, France, and have been a roleplayer for more than 20 years now. I’ve gone through almost any phase imaginable before I started writing my own stuff four years ago, and here I am today!

B: How did you start playing tabletop games and what drew you into the hobby?

C: That was all because of my older brother, really. A friend of his introduced us to the James Bond 007 RPG, and I found the idea super cool because a) here was a game in which I could play the coolest spy ever and b) here was a game for “adults” I was allowed to play! We never did play it in the end but I’d caught the bug, and next thing I knew I was semi-improvising adventures for my brother and his friends with the Shadowrun system (big, big mistake). This was when I was 14 or so; I continued throughout middle school, stumbling my way through and learning along the way how to play. I’ve always been someone who loves to imagine and tell stories, so discovering RPGs was really a godsend for me!

B: Tell us your “Superhero Origin Story”; when did you first think “I could make games”?

C: There’s also a clear starting point for my “career” as a creator: it’s thanks to Melville (https://melville.itch.io/), a friend and French author who, in the summer of 2017, introduced me to Grant Howitt’s one-pagers, starting with Genius Loci. My world was turned upside-down: I suddenly realized it was possible to create whole RPGs in such a packed format, and Melville tricked me into thinking it was easy to do the same (she’d written a couple of one-pagers herself). So I started with one about time travel, because I’m such a nerd about the subject, stealing everything from Grant’s games, from the system to the random tables. I thought I’d only write one, but again, I’d caught the bug, and I started writing another, then another… And I never stopped writing RPGs since then.

B: What, in your view, sets the TTRPG hobby and design culture in Europe apart from the same community in North America? Or is there really that big a difference?

C: Not much, really, since D&D and its byproducts is also the biggest thing around France. I’d say TTRPGs differ a lot from one European country to the next, though; I understand, for instance, Spain, Sweden and Norway have a lot of games in their own language and a big RPG scene with its own particularities, but in other countries there’s no local TTRPGs and people mainly play games from the USA and other English-speaking countries.

So France has its own share of RPG authors, but you’ve got the same diversity as in North America: people who write OSR stuff (Eric Nieudan, for instance, who I think is also well-known overseas!), people who write more indie stuff, like Melville or my friend Vivien Féasson, author of Libreté; we’ve got a handful of big publishers, another handful of indie publishers, and quite a number of people who, like me, have been self-publishing for years now (Thomas Munier and John Grümph come to mind; note that all these people have games in English!).

B: I think I first became aware of your work with Green Dawn Mall. Could you talk a bit about that game and what led you to it?

C: The idea of doing something longer than a one-pager (or a 10-pager, for that matter) had been in my mind for a while when I discovered two things in the span of the same week: Emmy Allen’s Stygian Library, and Kickstarter’s ZineQuest event. As soon as I played Emmy’s game, I had the idea of making something inside an endless mall; and when I realized it would be too long for my usual monthly production, I decided to try my hand at ZineQuest. I again used a lot of random lists and tables to fill the space, since that’s my comfort zone, but I was still surprised by how quickly I managed to write and playtest the whole thing; not to mention how blown away I’ve been by the game’s reception since! People have told me it was a perfect game for newcomers to RPGs, which wasn’t my original intentio but hey, that’s pretty nice to hear!

B: With Two Summers you have the players exploring a different sort of liminal space, both in location and time. As someone who spent summers away from home this game really spoke to me. For our readers, what inspired Two Summers?

C: It seems it’s always the case with my creations: Two Summers was inspired by another game! There’s a French RPG called Nephilim about which I know almost nothing, except an acquaintance of mine, Cédric Ferrand, contacted me to help write a supplement to the game. It’d be based in the country, he said, and you would play children who spend the summer at their grandparents’ and gradually discover a mythical and magical history surrounding their family… I began to write a system for that, and at the same time I thought more and more of the nostalgia angle of such a concept and what a pity it was to not explore it from the adults’ point of view. With Cédric’s agreement, I ended up not working on Nephilim at all and creating Two Summers instead.

B: While you did write a supplement for Two Summers, Other Summers, which includes some supernatural elements, the initial game has none of that. Was that a purposeful omission and if so why was it important the base game be free of the supernatural?

C: Perhaps because the Nephilim thing I just told you about is packed full of supernatural elements, I wanted my game to have none of it; I think it’s also because I wanted to challenge myself and try to see whether a “realistic” game could still be appealing to people. I understand how RPGs are escapism books and why it’s important to distance ourselves from things by applying a fantastical lens on the themes we explore, especially when they’re hard (see Monsterhearts, for instance), but it didn’t feel like the right approach for Two Summers; or rather, it felt too easy. There’s already a Tales from the Loop game, a lot of Stranger Things-inspired games… I wanted to do something unique, not copy what had already been done, and so I did away with the supernatural. But since some people seemed to regret it, I wrote it back into the upcoming supplement to the game!

B: You have a new game available right now, Meanwhile, in the Subway. As of this interview going live you will have wrapped up Itch funding for it. Can you tell us about the game?

C: This is a game which, guess what, was inspired by another game! Meanwhile, in the Subway is my love letter to Itras By, a wonderful surrealist Norwegian RPG which is all about dreams, improvised situations and a Belle Epoque setting which is just fantastic. It’s my favorite RPGs, one which blasted away the preconceptions of the genre I had when I discovered it, and one I come back to again and again throughout the years. Meanwhile, in the Subway stems from an Itras By campaign I did which entirely took place in the city’s subway: I created dozens of random tables for this campaign, some with hundreds of entries, and it seemed a waste not to do anything with them once the campaign was over. At the same time, I didn’t want to just write a supplement to Itras By which, it seemed to me (and maybe I’m wrong!) not a lot of people would be interested in. I always try to be at least a little original in all I create, and that’s why I ended up writing my own system for the game and make it into a standalone. Therefore, you’ll find the same core concepts in both games (improvisation of almost everything, a surrealistic and dreamlike setting) with a more focused and limited scope for my own little game.

B: The liminal seems to inspire your design, whether its a location (mall, subway) or a time and feeling (summer vacation). What is it about these spaces and times we inhabit briefly that draws you to set games in them?

C: I think the liminal is present in most RPGs, really. Exploring a dungeon, far away from your home? Hunting the supernatural outside of your day job? Venturing the night, away from humans? Three popular mainstream games are all about exploring spaces or times outside of the norm, which is something we’re naturally attracted to as players, because most of the time we don’t want to play what we’re already living through (although there are, of course, plenty of superb “slice of life” games out there!).

I’m not really answering your question there, but it’s because I’m not sure I’m particularly inspired by the liminal in my design, it seems more like a coincidence than something deliberate, or an unconscious pattern, maybe… That is definitely going to haunt me for my future creations!

B: Well, if not inspired by the liminal, you are definitely inspired by other games. Besides the ones you mentioned, are you inspired by or drawn to the games of anyone in particular?

C: Oh, if I were to list the ideas I stole from other games both in Green Dawn Mall and Two Summers, that would fit an entire (game)book… I read a lot of RPGs, at least 3 or 4 a week, mostly things I’ve stumbled onto by browsing itch.io’s ever-growing list of indie and experimental games. I tend to stay away from longer games, both for reading and playing, simply because I lack the time; though I also feel experimental games, even if they are often somewhat flawed, always dare to do things in new ways, sometimes (frequently, in fact) blowing my mind and making me envision some new game-design tricks for my own games.

As for playing, when I’m not playtesting my latest idea (which takes me a lot of time), I tend to play narrative-driven games, often with very light or even quasi-absent rules (other than the rules which frame and direct the conversation).

B: I know you also have a collection of 32 of your mini-RPGs. What do you enjoy the most about writing shorter games? Are there particular challenges to writing mini-RPGs compared to longer form games?

C: I began with creating shorter games because they were easier for me; once you’ve done a couple, the format is not that hard to respect if you allow yourself some room (I talked about one-pagers above but most of my games are 2 to 5 pages). What I enjoy the most about writing them is being able to explore one specific idea, whether it’s in terms of system or setting, without venturing too far into sub-concepts like longer games tend to. My shorter games are generally born out of high concept ideas: let’s play robots on a dying planet; let’s play a dance between Death and a partygoer; let’s play 412 clones on the moon; and so on. Sometimes I want to try and push my limitations: I wrote two mini-RPGs playable in campaigns because of that, as well as a LARP, mini-games that can be combined together, a particularly gross mini-RPG for which I’m infamous in France…

The only real challenge for me for these games is in fact laying them out! I have terrible layout skills, even though I’m improving with the years: I wrote my first games by hand (after Grant Howitt’s own practice) and it looked horrible. I’ve redone all of them on a computer and now it looks slightly better, but miles away from my longer games, which are laid out by paid professionals…

B: The layouts are excellent, so good call. Did you want to shout out some of your layout artists?

C: Yes! A very loud and heartfelt shout out to Nicolas Folliot (https://nicolas.folliot.net/), who designed Two Summers and Other Summers and who is, in fact, well on the way to become my go-to layout artist for all future projects! Besides what he did for me, you should definitely check out Sodalitas (jdrlab.itch.io/sodalitas) which he designed with Jan Van Houten: a rules-light OSR game designed for large groups of players and very short sessions, with a dozen of wonderful one-page adventures.

And although she didn’t do any layout for me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work of momatoes (momatoes.com/) who drew the covers of Green Dawn Mall and Two Summers and who truly is an awesome person: artist, layout artist and game designer extraordinaire, everything she does is pure gold.

B: What advice would you give to someone in the TTRPG hobby who is thinking about designing their own games? Is there a bit of knowledge or inspiration you wish you had at the start?

C: I’d say “Don’t worry if you’re not original”. There are so many TTRPG games, both big and small, and although it’s very much possible to create original games, I wouldn’t put it as the absolute goal for a first game. Heck, my first game, which I mentioned above, had zero original ideas in it, and I’m not exaggerating that in any way! But it was a very good crash course in how to do things, and originality came later.

I’d also advise people to start small. If you’re starting with the idea of a 5-volume game with hundreds of planets to explore, 50 races to play and 5 subsystems for combat, chances are you’ll spend years writing it and never actually get around to making it public. Which is not a bad thing per se if you just want to create for the fun of it, but it might get lonely and depressing. Start with a 2-page game which shamelessly borrows from all your favorite games and go from there!

B: What’s next for you? Anything you can tease for the future?

C: I have tons of ideas for the future, to the point where I have to force myself to only work on a couple of them at the time. The three which are the most advanced are Feathery Adventures, a GMless game meant to emulate pulp cartoon adventures like the ones you’d see in DuckTales; this is my project for ZineQuest 2022, should such an event happen of course. I’m also working on Broken Cities, a reworked and expanded version of my mini-RPG Hungry Cities, in which players take the role both of an extraordinary City in need of Travelers to fix its problem and of Travelers coming to the City in search of something vital. Finally, I’m in the early stages of Hex & the City, which high concept can be summarized as “Sex & the City, but with witches”. The layout on this one is going to be wild!

B: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Côme! Where can folks find you if they want to play your games and keep track of what’s coming next?

C: People can catch me up on Twitter, @comemartin_, though I don’t tweet in English as much as I ought to; they can visit my itch.io page, comemartin.itch.io, where all my games are available; lastly, there’s a small corner of my Discord server (discord.gg/MqGY4CJ) especially made for English-speaking people, come say hi!

I hope you’ll all take Côme up on his invitation! Thanks again to Côme Martin for talking with me, I hope you’ll all take a look at some of his games. If for some reason you’re still on the fence, please stop back on Friday as I review Two Summers, a game of growing up. Until then, take care!

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