Interview – VSCA Publishing

VSCA Publishing is a small publishing company owned by Brad Murray and is based in Vancouver, BC Canada. I originally sent my questions to him but he recommended I also send them to other people in the company in order to get their input. VSCA was nominated for a 2010 Best Rules ENnie Award and won Gold.

Starting off with a more personal question, VSCA has published two gaming products, Deluge, a supplement concerning life after 150 years of non-stop rain, and Diaspora, a critically acclaimed FATE-based RPG set in space. What keeps you going? What keeps you enthusiastic about working in the RPG industry?

Brad Murray: There’s a little whirlwind of talk in some of the places I inhabit about whether or not everyone can design. This has spun of a very useful distinction (to me): design versus production. I’ve always been designing. Since the first session of Dungeons & Dragons I played in the mid 70s, play has always been as much about changing, fixing, breaking — designing — the rules during and between play as it has been about play. As a referee/GM this is probably an even stronger statement, as game preparation and ad hoc rulings during play are also clearly related to design. So, what keeps me designing? Playing.

What keeps me producing? That’s the part where we take all that play-design and try to turn it into something that is both comprehensible and enjoyable for an arbitrary audience. It’s a lot of work. A lot of it involves skills I have not fully developed yet. Some of it involves skills I have hardly developed at all. So that’s basically why: I am only happy when I am learning new things, and so far there has been (and appears to still be) a great deal to learn. When I hit “good enough” (which is not necessarily excellent) I’ll probably become bored and move on to something else.

There is one thing that pushes that turnover point further into the future than it might otherwise be, though: people I don’t know telling me they like what we built. Even just seeing the sales number tick over one gives me that rush. But hearing someone wax enthusiastic about their play or, much better, about the changes they made that made their play both awesome and THEIRS, well that is good for another six months of production.

Toph Marshal: We are very happy, and probably very lucky, to have a smart, fun table (six guys, rotating) where we can play. It’s a table where there’s a lot of trust, and that permits a lot of experimentation. What keeps me going is the ability to share great stories with friends in a fun atmosphere (with good scotch). The games develop out of that atmosphere.
I don’t think any of us think of ourselves as “working in the RPG industry” — we’ve got jobs and the time we spend on games is our play-time. It just happens that sometimes the play-time extends into work hours…

But it’s really easy to be enthusiastic with these guys. In addition to the great table (some of us started playing together in the 80s), there’s a great climate of new, small-press games. Reign, Burning Wheel, and SOTC were our first forays, supplemented by Universalis, etc. But it was SOTC and FATE that changed the dynamics of the table. Everyone wanted to ref this game. That was a signal to us. And since three of us loved good ol’ Classic Traveller, it seemed a natural hack to use FATE to play our kind of space adventures.

The industry is exciting now, because there is a sense (for me at least) that there is more out there. Had it not been for the four weeks of rotating refs in SOTC, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have got into game design at all.

Tim Dyke: I completely second and agree with Toph on his first answer.

Our table is a great place to be, and I have been at it for a very long time. It was the introduction of the various games away from the norm and SoTC was the tipping point that pushed us further.

It was perfect marriage: Traveller & SoTC, which we called “Spirit of the Far Future” this was fun to write and play, and fortunate for us we were not able to get a Traveller license.
This empowered us to make a better product.

I don’t consider myself part of the RPG Industry, and Diaspora, for me, was built out of a Passion for Space games.

Byron Kerr: For me it’s returning from abroad and sitting down at the table with my friends and finding out what they’ve been up to, then making them explain the rules and run a game while I try to figure out what’s going to happen next. The enthusiasm for me stems directly from the fun that I have with my friends when we sit down weekly to play. I want to play fun games with my friends after dinner. It’s that simple for me. The fact that we stumbled upon a way to create games and that people have enjoyed them has been an unexpected windfall. We also have a diverse set of minds at the table who have different gaming interests, while Diaspora was a table collaborative effort, some of the games in development have a primary creator with the rest of us offering insights and suggestions. Finally what I enjoy most about our group is that we’re constructive and supportive of one other. If something isn’t working we point it out and then everyone starts brainstorming potential solutions. There’s a feeling of trust and safety at the table… when we aren’t trying to blow each other up with low-yield nuclear devices.

In 2010, Diaspora was nominated for Best Rules and won the Gold Award. What did you think of the ENnies when you found out that you were nominated?

Brad: Well, because of the way the ENnies works, you pretty much already think something about them before nomination: you have to decide to invest in shipping half-dozen copies of your product, after all. So I was already more than a hundred bucks invested (no judge lives in my country — it’s all international shipping!) before finding out if we were nominated. At that time I hadn’t particularly researched the ENnies except to know they were associated with GenCon and that GenCon is a big deal in the industry. So at this point I can’t say I really had much of an idea what we were in for or even what sort of competition this was.

When I found out about our nomination (and particularly the category, Best Rules) I had honestly pretty much forgotten that we’d made that investment. I was ecstatic to be recognized for the one thing that I respect most highly in a game, though — after all a game in play a year after you bought it is really little more than its rules; most of the other stuff affected your purchase, your ability to understand, and so on, but you probably haven’t cracked the book in a couple of sessions, and so your experience is solely the rules. And then I was doubly excited to see the competition. It seemed like a victory right there to be in that list, in that category.

Toph: I was pretty excited. There was some excellent competition, but it was rewarding to know that our initial effort was seen to have some of the strengths which we saw in it ourselves. There’s a sense that the ENnies are a grown-ups table: that you need to have deep market saturation, a strong dominant corporate presence, etc. In that climate, we could tell ourselves that it was just an honour to be nominated. I’ll admit, though, winning’s better. We’re all pretty proud.

Tim: Damned proud to be nominated, ecstatic to win. I love the game, and kind of miss playing it

Byron: I think my first question was… what are the ENnies and then how did we get nominated? Once it was explained to me I was pleased because we were in good company with the other games nominated and I was proud because I felt we’d made a good set of rules that were not too complex but invited people to get into the game and have some fun.

Did your nomination and win affect your immediate sales? How about long-term sales?

Brad: It’s hard to say, really. There are so many factors at work and it’s so hard to disentangle them (compounded by the fact that I don’t put a lot of effort into trying to disentangle them). Around the time of nominations we were in an accelerating sales period. We had recently released the PDF, which a lot of folks had been waiting for, and a softcover edition that was much more attractive to vendors than the hardcover.

Toph: I’m curious about this, but don’t know.

Tim: The win definitely has opened up some opportunities for us to get into other markets. It may be a timely coincidence, but that’s FATE isn’t it?

Byron: Brad has been the driving force of sales as he monitors it. There might have been a slight immediate bump and as for long term sales; I think that two things evolved from the nomination. The first is that larger companies contacted us with offers (RetroPunk’s Portuguese edition) as well as helping to find a route to get Diaspora (at least) into some brick and mortar stores. Secondly, is that with the nomination and win it helped boost VSCA’s profile in the gaming community so that more people are aware of what we’re doing and what we’re working on next.

Now that we’ve been around for almost a decade, what do the ENnies mean to you both personally and professionally?

Brad: Personally, the ENnies in general are an opportunity to be lauded by my peers. Everyone loves being complimented, and an award is one of those big fat wet compliments that stays around for a long time, partly because it goes on your wall to remind you. And because of the populist nature of the ENnies, which I think is obviously both feature and flaw, those peers are the folks who play our game.

Toph: The ENnies have established themselves as one of the most coveted RPG awards out there. Personally, it’s validating to have Diaspora recognized — it was made for our table, but there is a great satisfaction to find the types of stories we were interested in being played at other tables. Perhaps even more than that, is seeing the way people have taken our game and hacked it into something new: Stephen King’s Dark Tower, Mass Effect, — people are taking their favorite video games and books and using Diaspora to play in that place. Personally, that gives an amazing rush. Our expression of the rules has proved rich for all sorts of stories, and seeing what people want to do with it helps inform the games we are working on.

Tim: To me the ENnies is an RPG equivalent of the Spiel des Jahres. Thanks.

Byron: I hadn’t been involved in gaming for years until Toph dragged me out of mothballs and invited to sit down with two complete strangers in Tim and Brad. I can’t even recall what the first game we played was. Traveller or modern20? All I know is that it was a lot of fun and I’d missed it tremendously. Now that we’ve received acknowledgements from the ENnies for our game it pleases me because it means people are playing and enjoying a game we created together because we wanted to take FATE into space.

Professionally, I hope it means more people of aware of our games and of the games we have in development. I know it also added an adrenaline kick to everyone to focus and apply ourselves to the games in progress; Hollowpoint, Soft Horizon, Chimaera and hopefully Soulscape.

If someone who had never heard of the ENnie Awards walked up to you today and asked, “So what are these ‘ENnies’ you keep talking about,” how would you answer them?

Brad: I would tell them that they are an industry award for excellence in game design and publishing, and that if they are into that kind of thing then they should go check it out and participate, because it’s a rare opportunity to light up your favourite games and the people who are at fault for them.

Toph: Clearly, the ENnies are the most discerning award out there. They set an industry standard for tabletop RPGs, drawing on both judgment (with industry experts as judges) and popularity.

Tim: Same answer as above.

Byron: I’d laugh because not so long ago, when Brad sent an email saying we’d been nominated I said the same thing. I’d vaguely heard of the ENnies but never gave it much thought because we weren’t a ‘game company,’ we were four friends (then five, now six, plus others!) who sat around a table once a week and played various games. Then we were four people who wrote a book and hoped they might sell as many to strangers as we bought for ourselves and our family. But it didn’t stop there, as we enjoyed unexpected success with it.

Now, I’d say, the ENnies are awards that can be earned in the RPG industry, a bit like the Oscars in film making. Games are nominated and then the fans get to vote on them. It is an open field so the industry giants (like the major Hollywood studios) compete with the small independents (like us) and every once in a while, the little guy scores an upset because they came up with something cool that helped people at a little bit more to their games.

You mention “playing” as what keeps you designing. How often do you actually get to play? Do you have a regular campaign in which you’re involved? When you do game, do you always play your own products or do you play other systems as well?

Brad: We try to play weekly. Lately we’ve been pretty good at keeping to that. Right now we’re developing a new game, Soft Horizon, and we’re particularly interested in its long-term viability, so that’s what we’re playing and it’s certainly in the “campaign” scale. What we play depends on the state of our games and our interest in them as projects at that moment. Right now we have three pretty solid ideas that all (well, Hollowpoint might be done, really, and ready to lay out) need play in order to complete, so those are what we play. When we need a break (or just ideas!), we play someone elses games for a while.

Toph: A game is scheduled usually every week. We play (one of our own systems, or something else), and this can spin into a campaign or be a one-off. We’ve sometimes done playtesting (trying out other designers’ systems before publication) when we think that we might be able to shape a game helpfully.

One of the fun things is that everything is done publicly — we have a wiki, and there you can see the notes from the session, nascent rules in development, us bickering back-and-forth about the labels we put on things, everything. There’re not many secrets.

Byron: I don’t get to play much. I live in South Korea but pretty much every Saturday morning I wake up for some coffee and gaming. As I avidly follow what happened on Thursday at game’s night. To help out everyone I’m hoping to organize a weekly Saturday session in South Korea but I live beyond the beyond so getting around takes a while. When I was last home in Vancouver; we seemed to get a lot done. I made Brad play in his own Deluge setting on the theory that if he didn’t like playing in it, in an RPG we hadn’t played before (A Dirty World by Greg Stolze) then he shouldn’t sell it. Soft Horizon, Hollowpoint and Chimaera all got some table time too. It was a productive few months. If I get a regular game set-up here, I want to try to do a lengthy Soft Horizon game to see if it works as well as it reads, since SH has changed a lot since I played it six months ago.

What products do you have in the pipe? Are you developing anything new that you can talk about?

Brad: I don’t keep a lot of secrets, which will turn out to be my Tragic Flaw, I’m sure. We have three products in the pipe. I can’t say for certain which (if any) will actually become books for sale.

Soft Horizon is a Fate relative that produces stories along the lines of Moorcock or Moebius — I kind of epic-scale fantasy psychedelia. That’s what we’re playing a lot of right now.

Hollowpoint is a novel design that lets you play very bad guys doing very bad things in an action-movie sort of way. It’s very attractive for re-skinning and thrives on group play. Think “Heat” or “100 Bullets” or “Sleeper”. It should not be surprising that two of three of those are comic books. Toph’s son really digs this game, which is hysterical.

Chimaera is the most nebulous at the moment and the furthest from being a product. It’s a post-apocalyptic setting where humans need to come together and find allies amongst the mutated wilderness (uplifted BEES!) to carve out some autonomy from the alien demons that want to enslave them, keep them like cattle, and drink from them on a regular basis. It’s really the brainchild of JB Bell, but is now being designed and play-tested with the whole team. It deals directly with viable non-violent conflict and the power of community in the face of adversity.

Toph: We’ve got a lot in the planning stage, that still need a fair bit of work. But here’s the next two.

Hollowpoint is billed as an ultra-violent agent game. It was meant to push aspects of teamwork, betrayal, and character death. It’s got a fun dice pool mechanism that escalates (each conflict is harder than the last), and it turns out that it can be mapped pretty easily onto other genres (with machine-gun wielding angels proving to be particular popular with the playtesters).

Soft Horizon is a plane-hopping fantasy game, where it is assumed you are awesome. I tell my son Jonah that he gets to start off at 20th level, and he has an immediate buy-in — he wants to play, and he gets to design why he’s awesome. And he still chooses to appear as a ten-year-old kobold. He is his father’s son.

Byron: I think Brad and Toph covered these well. I will add I do hope Toph is able to resurrect Soulscape once Hollowpoint and Soft Horizon are out the door. It has a very cool hook that I haven’t seen in many RPGs before.

Thank you to everyone at VSCA for answering my questions. To learn more about them, you can visit their website at http://www.vsca.ca. For more about Diaspora, go to http://www.vsca.ca/Diaspora.

3 Responses to “Interview – VSCA Publishing”

  1. Tracey Michienzi says:

    Great interview!

    Diaspora is definately on my purchase list… but I really can’t wait to see Hollowpoint!

  2. Megan says:

    Fascinating.

    Interestingly, I’ve also likened the ENnies to the Oscars, especially to non-gamers… “The ENnies are like the Oscars only there is more fan involvement with an open vote for the judges, who prepare the nominations then the fans get to pick the winners from the lists.”

    What is really good about VSCA is that everything stems from what happens around their own gaming table. No wonder it works!

  3. Kelly Langner says:

    Very proud of you Brad! But then again, I always have been. Congratulations on your success. Nice to see you’re doing so well. Regards to Tim!

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