Intervew with Meg & Vincent Baker (compiled from the NSR Discord)

Meguey and Vincent Baker hosted and AMA on the NSR Discord from March 18th, 2024 through March 25th, 2024.

The AMA is compiled here with permission from the Bakers. The AMA is presented in semi-chronological order, grouping answers/replies to the same question together.

The only alterations to messages were to remove unnecessary quotations (to ease with reading) and to replace the Discord ID numbers for Meguey, Vincent, and McDowall with their actual names.

The original AMA can be found here: Discord

Edit: I accidentally referred to Meguey by the wrong name. All post have been modified to correct this.

Vincent:

Hi! Meguey and I will be here for any and all questions on this coming Friday, March 22. We’ll be around pretty much the whole day, US Eastern time (UTC-4). Ask away!

Meguey:

(So tempted to start from the bottom and work up! )

Good morning! We have coffee and computers and answers that are hopefully satisfying or thought-provoking or both! We’re answering jointly, so unless we have different answers, you’ll only see one of our names.

NSR:

Awesome! Thanks for doing this. You guys transformed the RPG world forever. How do you feel about having had such a massive influence on the hobby?

Vincent:

How do you feel about having had such a massive influence on the hobby?

Well, for me, the worst part is, I’ve been in the spearhead of change for 20 years now. We threw bricks through the windows of established 90s games in the early 00s, and now PbtA is throwing bricks through the windows of established D&D in the form of Daggerfall. In some gamer circles I’m like a war criminal, and my google alerts make sure I always know it.
But far more importantly, the best part is, the opportunities and connections it’s given us. We have close friends and dear, trusted colleagues that we never would have met without our game work. I wouldn’t trade them away for anything.

NSR:

First, possibly, banal question: what inspired you to create a more simple and narrative-focused system? Was it a deliberate choice to push against the more crunchy combat-centric systems of the years before (DnD 4e, Pathfinder 1e?)

Vincent:

Definitely! But it goes back further than 4e and Pathfinder. I published my first game (a zine) in like 2002. What we were pushing against in those days were the crunchy systems and bad GMing advice of (many) 90s games.

NSR:

It’s especially super nice to hear that GMing advice was part of the reason for making PbtA. I think today most of the TTRPG that suffer from disagreements in the community (cfr. 5e) are plagued by bad GMing “tips”, which drive players out of games, into fights with one another, and onto r/rpghorrorstories. This, in my opinion, stems from the lack of a creative vision: 5e in the eyes of the modern consumer (for which, sadly, 5e is the only RPG there is) was meant to do everything, but failed (beacause an RPG that does everything is IMO imposiible), so everyone disagrees on what GMs should do in any given situation.

Games with a strong creative vision direct the GMs into being able to play effortlessly, intead of burdening them with designing the game in place of the designers. This lets the GM be a player, as they should be.

NSR:

what kind of GM advice did you feel was particularly offending back then?

Vincent:

A lot of game books in the 90s told the GM to prep a storyline in advance, then to manipulate the players and the game mechanics however necessary, to see the PCs through it, plot point by plot point. A lot of the going GM advice was like, “when the players destroy your plot, how to get them back on the rails.”

A funny thing is, when we talked to the designers of some of those games, several of them confessed that they didn’t, in fact, run them that way. They mostly ran them by setting up interesting situations, throwing the PCs into them, and following through with the consequences of the choices the PCs made. Imagine that.

NSR:

As people who have influenced an entire scene, what are your biggest influences? What were your biggest motivations when creating AW?

Vincent:

So many influences! AW has a whole chapter dedicated to them, it’s hard to sum up in a single answer. I guess the top 3 would be Basic D&D (Moldvay ed.), 3:16 (Gregor Hutton), Sorcerer (Ron Edwards).

One of our biggest motivations was, at the time we were young parents with jobs and stuff, and so were our friends. We needed games that delivered a lot of punch in a 1.5 to 2-hour session, without asking anybody to do too much prep or too much unsupported improv. Apocalypse World was our bid.

NSR:

What are the most common misunderstandings about PbtA games or Apocalypse World specifically? (if there are any)

Vincent:

Oh, now here’s is a weird, abstract answer for you. I think that there’s a common misunderstanding of game design at large — the biological metaphor, the idea that a game has ancestors — that hits PbtA especially hard. The fact is, new games contradict the games that came before, at least as often as they build on them. PbtA should best be seen as a movement of contradictions.

NSR 2:

Oh my goodness…

TTRPGs are…Hegelian

Ty so much both of you! This is such a wonderful and insightful AMA!

NSR:

Thanks for doing this! Which of your lesser known games do you think give the best sense of who you are as designers?

Vincent:

I think that hands down, the game that gives the best sense of who Meg and I are as co-designers is Under Hollow Hills. It’s so good, and I so wish that it got more attention, that I’m going to link to it here: http://underhollowhills.com/

NSR:

Easily in my top 3 games to run, it’s a masterpiece.

Meguey:

The game that gives the best sense of who Vincent is as a designer, I think, is the Wizard’s Grimoire series. It plays with the power dynamics of who is responsible for what part of play, it’s extremely flexible in it’s social footprint, and it’s FULL of little jokes that Vincent is both telling himself and setting up for players to discover.
The Wizard’s Grimoire Series – lumpley games

Vincent:

I think that the games that give the best sense of who Meg is as a designer are Playing Nature’s Year (https://payhip.com/b/g01A) and her Miscellany of Mending (https://payhip.com/b/OlE7W). They’re both so kind, and approachable, but they’ve got this hard-nosed survivor practicality underlying them. Kind but never soft.

NSR:

What are some of your favorite ways that other designers have built on the framework laid out in Apocalypse World?

Meguey:

There are a lot of cool PbtA games out there doing cool things, but my favorite ways that folks have used the toolbox we opened is to build things that reach beyond tabletop role-playing and into the wider world.

Rachel Beck used the PbtA toolbox to help kids and teachers have better connections and more effective learning. That potentially changes the course of those kid’s lives.

Nathan Black & Sean Nitner et al used the PBTA toolbox to make Big Bad World. This supports a more thoughtful, compassionate and inter-woven convention-going experience, with positive ramifications long after the convention. That actively builds community and opportunity that has demonstrably changed people’s lives.

That kinda rules.
https://www.glitchlogs.com/growing-the-apocalypse/

NSR:

FMK: hardholder, hocus, brainer

Vincent:

F brainer, M hocus, K hardholder.

NSR:

What were like, biggest influences on your later PbtA designs that came from other people doing their own thing with PbtA? Was there ever a situation of someone discovering/inventing something in the PbtA space that had you go like “wow! wish I’d thought of that myself and earlier,” or something like that?

Vincent:

What were like, biggest influences on your later PbtA designs that came from other people doing their own thing with PbtA?

From the first wave of PbtA games, I committed to creating games that defy PbtA conventions, as they develop, instead of iterating and building on them. I’ve been committed to bringing in outside influences and outside ideas. It’s meant that while I’ve surely picked up a move or two here and there from other games — the most likely sources being Super Destiny High School Rumble (The Five Wits) and Monsterhearts (Avery Alder) — our own later PbtA designs have been out of step with others’.

Was there ever a situation of someone discovering/inventing something in the PbtA space that had you go like “wow! wish I’d thought of that myself and earlier,” or something like that?

There absolutely have been! It happens all the time. One example I always go to is, the way Wolfspell (Epidiah Ravachol) uses reading a situation to really cast you into the mindset of the wolf side of your character. That’s been an influential idea to me … but I can’t really point to anyplace I’ve concretely used it. The various special perception moves I’ve designed since then, don’t quite do the same thing.

Or, I think a lot about how Belonging Outside Belonging creates a rhythm of strong plays and weak plays, but I’ve never brought those specific techniques back into my design.

NSR:

Where do you stand on objective truth vs. “it’s all a matter of preferences” right now? Are there non-trivial facts about game design that hold universally or is it all a matter of taste?

Vincent:

Right now, I think that game design has interesting technical constraints. Different constraints depending on the medium — ttrpgs have different technical constraints than playground games, than computer games, than con games etc, and always evolving with technology — but real and non-trivial constraints.
Within those constraints, though, it’s all to taste and inventiveness.

NSR:

This is amazing tysm!
Q1: What do you think about no-dice no-masters rpgs (a.k.a. belonging outside belonging), in terms of pushing the PbtA engine forward?
Q2: Any insights on the prevalence of PbtA-inspired trinary result dice rolls on modern games? Any thougths on alternatives you personally think are cool but unexplored yet?
Q3: Thougths on SRDs? Some are like design manifestos while others are like a system wiki. What makes a good one? Again tysm for this and for all the inspiration over the years!

Meguey:

1. I don’t think about that in terms of pushing the PbtA engine forward, but more as if PbtA was the forest floor, and various things can fruitfully grow from that foundation. So Forged in the Dark and Belonging Outside Belonging and Firebrands Framework etc etc all draw on the same foundation, and may give different experiences, but I don’t really think of any of them as being sort of the thrust of PbtA, if that makes sense.

2.a. I do kinda love it? I want more options and choices and agency for everyone always, so unless folks specifically sign on for a percentile system or such like, trinary results foster that agency, generally.
2.\b. There’s some under utilized card-game mechanics that are pretty neat. The challenge seems to be avoiding off-loading too much of the fictional space into the card game.

3.A good SRD is one that communicates to the user more insight or information or step-by-step procedural breakdown than the text alone, in a way that’s useful to that user. That may vary mightily based on the game needs or the author’s time/ability/desires! Thinking about the corollary, in video game walk-throughs or in IT troubleshooting, some are super detailed, some are a handful of hints, some are bafflingly obtuse because my experience is not the same as the SRD/walk-through/IT doc writers!

As designers, we do our Very Best to convey the whole of the design in the text. Occasionally there’s potential for an SRD (tag-teaming Vincent to talk about the one in the works for AW), but sometimes it’s an arm-flailing head-scratching case of “well, you roll a bunch of 6 sided dice and you move them around and tell stories? I dunno, it’s in the text? Ask me a discrete question about a rule??”

Also! Thank you for your kind words!

Vincent:

Any thougths on alternatives you personally think are cool but unexplored yet?

Yeah! Apocalypse World’s immediate predecessor was a game we never finished called Storming the Wizard’s Tower. It included versions of several of Apocalypse World’s moves, but it used a dice pool, with 1-3 as misses and 4-6 as hits. When you read a person, read a situation, attacked someone — you would ask 1 question or choose 1 option per hit you rolled. For those moves, “on a 10+ choose 3, on a 7-9 choose 2” was a compromise, not as good as the original version. The Wizard’s Grimoire brings this system back, but I’d love to see other people take it up.

Thougths on SRDs? Some are like design manifestos while others are like a system wiki. What makes a good one?

I’m personally going for a design manifesto.

NSR:

Worlds Beyond the Infernal Breach use this system and I love it

NSR:

What do you think are the adv. and disadv. of switching the PbtA 2d6 system to a d20 system with the enhanced level of granularity seen in the Lavender Hack of DW for instance? Thanks for your time and your contributions to THE GAME!

Vincent:

I don’t know how the Lavender Hack does it precisely, but I’m generally in favor of switching dice to better serve each particular game’s needs. A d20 in particular has the huge advantage of its association with D&D.

NSR:

What software tools do you use to make game materials (from play testing to final publishing) and when in your process do you use them?

Vincent:

I’m still entrapped by Adobe, sadly. Our household has generally switched over to Affinity, I’m the lone straggler.

I create games straight into layout. Sometimes I’ll draft text in plaintext first, not always, but for play material like character sheets and stuff, always in InDesign. For me, the physical constraints of what you’d call product design, are an essential part of game design. Or to say it another way, from the first moments, I’m creating a prototype, not just text.

Meguey:

The number of google docs with half a game in them is a Big number! After that, I tend to be a bit more tactile in playtesting, so it’s lots of post-its and 3x5 cards and etc etc. Then when I have something worth looking at layout and thinking about art, or I’ve iterated enough character sheet design to see what might actually work, it’s Affinity Publisher.

NSR:

What in the world of gaming (tabletop or otherwise) are you and Meg most excited about these days? And where are you focusing your combined creative efforts?

Meguey:

For years now, maybe decades, the design space that’s most interesting to us, individually and collectively, is places with different shapes and social footprints, like nano-games in the aughts, or Apocalypse World’s focus on immediate payoff in terms of time, or the whole game jam / zine scene, or the sort of “born digital” stuff that developed in 2020-2022 to accommodate pandemic constraints, including digital conventions like the upcoming Big Bad Con Online Big Bad Online 2024 | Mightycause

Vincent:

And where are you focusing your combined creative efforts?

At the moment, as it happens, we don’t have a co-project going. My main creative effort right now is with Tovey, our 18 year old. We’re working on a phantasmagoric fantasy game, working title The Demon Tree, and oh my god it’s a thrill. It’s coming together like magic and working with Tovey’s nothing but fun.

NSR:

What do you believe will be the next big trends or developments in tabletop role-playing games? Which changes or innovations do you think could revolutionize the industry?

Vincent:

It’s not even a prediction anymore to say online play, but I think that we’ll see games designed from the ground up to take advantage of the strengths of online play, and to minimize its weaknesses. Then sooner or later, one of them’s going to be an explosive success, and change everything for everyone. I can feel myself falling behind!

NSR 1:

Hi Meg! We met briefly in the lobby post-Metatopia and you gave some great advice re: starting in IndieTTRPGs. For the benefit of everyone I’d like if you could repeat/expand on that.

I’m a young game designer about to publish my first successful Kickstarter and I’m at a point in my life where I need to make a career shift. I’m debating whether or not to pursue IndieTTRPGs as a full-time profession or pursue this on the side, what advice would you give me?

For Vincent or Meg, I revisited lumpley’s website and noticed that your children are also listed as designers in your company. At what point did they decide to start making their own games? Was it something that seemed inevitable for them?

Vincent:

It did! I’m sure they all started making games before they were 10.

I think that Meg and I are harder on them as designers than we’ve ever been on any of the other young creators we’ve known. They’ve each individually made the leap from childhood, student game design to become our genuine collaborators. It’s wildly cool.

NSR 1:

I’m abnormally excited to see and play their games!

Meguey:

Short story time! 20 years ago, our daughter Meredith was 7, hanging out with Vincent and Joshua A.C. Newman, playing LEGOs, and she said “There should be a game where you make giant robots out of legos and then you fight” and Vincent and Joshua said “Yes. Yes there should.” So arguably, by age 7?

We literally call it “the family curse of game design”, and if you hang out in our house too long, it has been known to be mildly contagious!

I think this sort of “doing what the parents do” is very similar to lots of families, though - my sister owns a construction company and her kids think it’s just a regular thing to build a new shed or travel trailer or treehouse or whole entire studio, because they have seen it done in a matter-of-fact way. Our kids see the same thing for game design and publishing a book.

Meguey:

I’m a young game designer about to publish my first successful Kickstarter and I’m at a point in my life where I need to make a career shift. I’m debating whether or not to pursue IndieTTRPGs as a full-time profession or pursue this on the side, what advice would you give me?

Ok, here’s my honest-to-goodness advice, which I believe is the advice I gave you at Metatopia: do anything else first. And also design games. Whatever you do to pay the bills, do it. And also design games.

Living off your creative design work is Not Easy, and there are very few folks in what gets called “the ttrpg industry” who do so. I have a job as a museum curator, and I hunt grants with a dedication that comes from liking to eat and have a warm safe place to sleep. Until 2016, Vincent had a job doing AV/tech support for the local teaching hospital. And we also design games.

There’s a true saying, that success in any creative endeavor takes a decade of hard work, and overnight success takes 15 years of hard work. The thing is, to be enthusiastic about your design work, talk about it, run your games, for heaven’s sake finish your game (meaning playtested, proof-read, edited, ready for layout) BEFORE you crowd-fund; there’s little that will crush inspiration faster than promising folks you will be inspired and accepting their money on spec.

In terms of work, you need three things from a job: people you like being with, a sense that you are learning something or are part of something you feel good about, and enough money to pay the bills. You can get by for a while with two out of three. Lots of us occasionally have to buckle down and just pay the bills, but it’s not really sustainable. So make your career choices in terms of what will give you the most useful life experience or will best cover your costs or puts you around folks you like and can learn from. And also design games. If you get a chance to make the jump to full-time game design work, weigh it against those three things, and you will be able to know if it’s actually viable, of if it’s not yet the right time.

NSR 2:

This is all so very very true.

NSR:

What are your thoughts on rules and mechanics vs. narrative and storytelling? PbtA games have a nice balance of the two, but it often feels that as they’ve evolved they’ve become more mechanically dense over time

Vincent:

I kind of agree. Outside of moves, Apocalypse World has got just a couple of mechanical systems — harm, experience, barter — and they’re pretty targeted. Some PbtA games since have essentially kept Apocalypse World’s plus added more mechanical cycles on top, when I think that paring down and re-targeting might have been the better approach. Just an impression, though, I’m not sure I could point to a specific game.

NSR:

I just want to hear any weird anecdote about having a runaway indie success in the aughts. Dogs in the Vineyard made a splash even in my very offline RPG circle at a time when we didn’t even really consider that there would be RPGs published like that. What do remember being radically different from someone publishing an RPG zine today?

Vincent:

OMG. It was before not only crowdfunding, not only social media, it was even before search engine optimization. My first game was a zine called kill puppies for satan, and for literal years if you searched for “puppies” on Google, kill puppies for satan was in the first 3 results. I got so much hate mail I can’t tell you.

That game also caught the attention of Kenneth Hite, who’d then be instrumental in Dogs in the Vineyards’ success — but I don’t know if he encountered either of them online, I think he probably got them from me directly at GenCon in 2003 and 2004. We didn’t have kickstarter, we had to lay out for a box of books, lug them to GenCon, and cross our fingers.

Oh, too, Dogs in the Vineyard, which was a legitimate runaway indie success for its time, only sold a few hundred copies a year, with lifetime sales not much over 3000. Today, it’s pretty easy to have a bigger reach and a bigger audience than any of us ever dreamed of.

NSR:

For Meg, are there ways that game design feels like exhibit design and curation to you? Does anything connect those two parts of your professional life?

Meguey:

Exhibit design and game design and book design all overlap, for me. In each, I’m hoping to convey the story and information I have to share in a way that is evocative and provocative, to encourage conversations and inspire new ideas, including reexamining old ideas.

Collection curation is a constant weighing of what voices are well represented, what voices are missing, what is the weight of a story, that it might give more value to a worn and damaged shoe, for example, than a pristine shoe that is otherwise identical.

Designing exhibits also involves a TON of editing and rewording and double checking facts and trimming down to the essential story, working within the constraints of space and time. All the white paper in that case has been through at least three drafts.

The museum bit and the game design bit are pretty closely interwoven, and constantly reinforce and inform each other. It’s all storytelling.
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