Dark, futuristic urban fantasy is by no means an uncommun genre. With simplistic rules, stemming from experience with indie-games and some peculiar twists, a/state tries to keep the sense of wonder of the setting alive. Gregor Hutton gives some insights in the philosophy behind a/state and explains what makes it a truly unique game to him.
Leronoth: Hi Gregor, we met some years ago at the SPIEL in Essen due to a common friend. I think you had published 3:16 then and worked on the cyberpunk game: Remember Tomorrow. You focus on indie games that experiment with innovaive and minimalistic mechanics. What led you to the RPG community and still fascinates you with the hobby?
Gregor: When I was younger my neighbour was into Tolkien and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, like I was. He was also into RPGs, war games and board games and that’s how I got introduced to the hobby. I’ve never fallen out of love with it – I still adore making stories of wonder and imagination and enjoying them with other people.
Leronoth: Today we will talk about the second edition of a|state that was recently funded on Kickstarter. Congratulations!
What is your involvement with the project? What is your role and how did you came in contact with the team and what fascinates you about the game?
Gregor: a/state is the co-creation of Malcolm Craig and Paul Bourne, who lived in Falkirk, Scotland near to me when it was first published in 2004. I did some writing, editing and illustration on the original game line. Those were some fun times! Flash forward almost twenty years and there is now a Second Edition from Handiwork Games that has been successfully funded on Kickstarter. (Handiwork are also based in Falkirk too … but Scotland is bigger than this makes it sound, honest).
I’ve helped with some of the design choices for the game and a little bit of map-making too. We’ve all known each other a long time – Jon Hodgson who runs Handiwork illustrated the cover for my RPG Remember Tomorrow, while Paul who now also works at Handiwork did the cover for 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars for me. There are also new people on the team, and Jon has done a great job of reaching out for voices new to a/state too.
I’ve always been fascinated by a/state since I first saw it in 2002 when it was in pre-production. The City is unsurprisingly an urban setting, but one with a rich range of people, a potent mix of folklore, lurking horror, class struggle and a twist of Victorian misery, canals and brickwork.
Leronoth: Well put! A/state is a dystopic Science Fiction Setting. How would you define the genre of it and what is the specific twist?
Gregor: It’s difficult to define it in a neat box – the inspiration that Malcolm had for the setting was the layers of built history you’ll find in places like Edinburgh and London. A gloomy world where streets tower over each other, spanning centuries of mismatched architecture and ambition, or where a dripping railway tunnel ploughs through the ground like an addicted archaeologist. The imagery that Paul brought to the game is stunning and it is truly a delight to see him create new illustrations for the new edition, and with Jon and Scott Purdy on additional art duties too. It is a beautiful book. The twist in a/state is that you can never leave The City and it’s not explained why. (There are some possibilities offered on why that might be so, but there is no correct answer to this.)
Leronoth: And what is the role of this trapped characters? What is our goal and what are typical problems that we need to solve?
Gregor: The second edition really drills down on this point. Your characters are a gang of troublemakers defending some corner of The City together. You’ll fight off threats to your canalside home, trying to make this grim and haunted place safer and better, somehow. An example might be a local orphanage forcing their children to make brass fittings for a plumbing company in a burgh on the other side of the canal. They’re undercutting local tradespeople in the other burgh and the orphanage has no regard for the safety of the children. There’s no correct way to resolve the problem, and in tackling it the “trouble engine” of the game system will throw out follow-up complications and drive forward future troubles and directions for play.
Leronoth: One thing that came to my attention was the inclusion of characters of different backgrounds. The game represents a character in a wheelchair and the characters stem from different cultural backgrounds. What is the approach to diversity in a/state and how did it influence worldbuilding?
Gregor: That’s a really great point. Purposefully the artwork for the new edition draws your eyes to diversity and inclusion. So there is visible disability in the art and the text, we hope, highlights invisible disabilities too. Disability of all kinds is an ordinary fact of life in The City and accommodations for accessibility are correspondingly common too. We want the game to be inclusive and positive on diversity so this shaped the world building and game design choices too. Having the ability to Care for someone is as important as being able to Scrounge or Fight. The City is a harsh environment so how have people adapted to that?
Leronoth: You mostly worked on the game mechanics. a/state is “forged in the dark“. What is meant by that and what are the core mechanics of such games?
Gregor: Yes, it was my idea, good or bad, to suggest using the“forged in the dark“ rules as a basis. I think it’s a great fit and would be flexible enough to be shaped to really make a/state sessions “sing”. This is the system designed by John Harper for his wildly successful game Blades in the Dark and available as an SRD from https://bladesinthedark.com.
We used that as a framework and evolved it to best fit the world of a/state. At its heart it is a dice pool mechanic using six-sided dice. You establish what is going on, decide on how you are going to handle the situation (including how risky you want to be), roll the dice and then deal with the outcomes and consequences. There is a larger cycle of play around finding Hope, tackling troubles, generating and resolving stress and consequences, and advancing your character and the “tier” of the group as a whole (which starts out small and local, but has the opportunity to grow in size and power to face larger enemies and threats).
Leronoth: You described the approach of a/state as probably the most accessible for traditional game groups. What do you mean by that and how does a/state realize it?
Gregor: a/state was an “indie game” that was very “traditional” in its style with a rich, baroque setting. The second edition keeps that rich and detailed setting, which will be familiar ground for many traditional gaming groups. A traditional GM will also find the tools in the system work well in helping them to run the game, and not a barrier to play. The system is very adept at allowing everyone at the table to make judgements and choices on the direction of events and characters, but respecting the established world. You can lean on the system mechanics pretty hard to support your playing of the game, but it also has the “hooky” world, characters and troubles that draw many people to wanting to play role-playing games. It’s a short step away from traditional gaming, and with its rich world and in-game situations it should not be as unfamiliar as many “indie” games can seem.
Leronoth: Still, the rules give us tools to form a story rather than just to decide if our characters are successful or not. How does this affect the role of the GM. Maybe you can give us an example how the rules are applied and form a narration?
Gregor: The players have a lot of choice of how they go about tackling problems through “missions” and forming the story. An example could be the orphanage and the child workers. Some groups might decide to seek information and support from a friendly local priest who has been sending rescued children to the orphanage. That might play to the characters’ strengths, outlooks on life and allow some role-playing of that situation. While other groups might decide to deal more directly with the problem at the orphanage (and perhaps without first understanding what is going on) and they are willing to live with the consequences of those actions and enjoy playing their characters in that way. They’re equally valid approaches and the range of characters in a/state means that there are many different ways to approach troubles in game.
The GM judges on the risk and reward of the approach as it seems to them, but the players can then choose to increase or decrease the risk through their actions and game mechanics (such as assisting each other or using abilities that their characters have), and also increase or reduce the potential reward too. Once the risk and reward are finalised then the dice are rolled, you will then all understand the situation and context, and how successful or not the characters have been based on the dice rolls. Everyone then works together to say what happens. This then opens up what options are then open in the aftermath of the roll. Maybe the situation is now resolved, or is more dangerous than before, or perhaps a completely new approach is now required?
The GM may get to inflict consequences and harm as a result of the roll – it could be collateral damage, angry mobs approaching or an outraged plumber from across the canal sworn to take their revenge. Equally the player characters could get their Rewards, the respect of a thankful priest and some mechanical advancements to their characters.
When play advances to the “downtime” section the GM also has some fun choices to make prompted by the approach and outcomes of the characters actions in play. While the characters get to indulge in their vices to de-stress or take part in other downtime activities. And the cycle advances with another potential mission our problem to be tackled.
Leronoth: Now that a/state is funded. What are the plans for the future? How can we purchase the game if we missed the crowdfunding? Are there any additional products ahead of us and what are the chances for localizations?
Gregor: The book is very nearly done and many of the great rewards, such as the play mat, in-game coins and punchboard clocks are being manufactured. They look great! Handiwork are committed to supporting the game and as a result of the Kickstarter there are many digital support packages to come.
I believe that late pledges are currently open at https://app.crowdox.com/projects/jonhodgsonmaptiles2/a-state-rpg-second-edition for those that missed the Kickstarter and the https://handiwork.games/games/astate webpage will keep everyone up to date with progress of the game to hobby shops and online retail.
I think some translations to languages other than English are likely, but Jon at Handiwork would be the person to write to if people wanted that to happen. I think the team would be open to it.
Leronoth: Thank you for the insights!
Images by Paul Borne, cover image by Paul Bourne and Jon Hodgson, (C) 2021 Handiwork Games Ltd. Used with friendly permisson.
A German version of the Interview will also be published on www.zauberwelten-online.de