Prior to the development of my game Maximum Recursion Depth, I had been doing interviews with other bloggers, which I had mostly put on hold in order to focus on development. Now that I'm freed up on that front, I wanted to get back to some interviews before I get caught up in other projects. First on that list is another one of my oldest blogosphere friends, Mike of Sheep & Sorcery.
Max: What are some of the core themes of your blog? Are they the same they've always been, or have your goals changed over the years?
Mike: Fascinating question. I think I can answer best by saying just how things started. I started reading the Hill Cantons blog as I was looking into the OSR. It really inspired me to start my own blog. I wanted to show people my wacky games ideas and talk about my setting and the way I run games. My blog is unapologetically my self-expression outlet. I dump whatever is in my brain straight into the blog. That usually means I am talking about different settings and worlds that have come into my brain. These settings usually explore ideas of "what happens when the world goes wrong?" I love things like Bioshock or Bloodbourne where humans arrogantly toy with things they do not understand, trying to dominate it with their intellects, and ending up being destroyed by it. I also often think of my PCs as survivors of worlds that have gone off the rails. Children of the Howl comes to mind, as a setting/system thing I wrote about children trying to survive and escape the aftermath of a city hit by a magical disaster.
Max: That was actually something I wanted to ask about.
Max: At one point it seemed like you were interested in turning Children of the Howl into a larger-scale project. Is that something you're still thinking about or working on?
Mike: I've thought about returning to Children of the Howl. It seemed to resonate with people. I've wrestled with how to format such a project because a city has a lot of complexity and I am not sure how to make it navigable for players. Or maybe how to not make it so much work for me and other GMs
Max: What are some of the specific concerns?
Mike: My first idea was to lay out the city into a grid and have each square be a building and the paths could be the lines between. As I contemplated just how many squares it would take and then figuring out a way to line out the roads in the lines between the grid squares, it added up to a lot of work and a possibly quite messy visual situation. I think the best thing to do would be to figure out some kind of an abstracted mega-dungeon situation, but I'm not sure. In a broader sense, I have never actually published anything, and I think I would need a lot of motivation to get an idea like Children into a sellable state.
Max: Ah I see, ya that does seem like a lot of work and scope creep is always a concern but especially if it's your first big project!
Max: You've written plenty of settings which I've enjoyed, I think most of all I enjoyed Inhuman, if I'm remembering correctly that's the one that had that sort of 80s/90s indie comix scifi/cyberpunk sort of vibe, right? But alongside this really gonzo setting, you have things like Children of the Howl, or your really stunning literary analysis of Silent Titans. And currently you've got the Weirdways cross-country road trip Americana game going. Among this variety of sensibilities, what kinds of things would you say you're most interested in right now in terms of tabletop or worldbuilding?
Mike: Right, that was Inhuman. I really liked Inhuman too. It was fun to write. A big interest that I am currently mulling over is making something inspired by the Soulsbourne games. I have been particularly inspired by Elden Ring. I want to be able to make an open world that feels full and free with plenty of things to do without too much work on the GM's side of things. I like the Soulsbourne formula of (insert thing here) was a resource that everyone thought was awesome and relied on, only it turns out that it was super bad. Souslbourne also dips into that fascinating world-building idea to me that human beings shape the world in dramatic ways through the stories that underlie our societies. The effect of human perception/will on reality and its ability to turn the world into hell is fascinating to me.
Max: Admittedly I have not played much of and am not into the Soulsbourne games, but I appreciate how they bring OSR sensibilities, to a surprising degree of verisimilitude, to videogames; whether that's in terms of challenge and deadliness, or the degree of environmental storytelling/worldbuilding. However, and I'm asking as someone who again is not especially familiar with them, but given how similar they are to OSR sensibilities, what about them exactly can be applied to TTRPGs or worldbuilding that isn't already there? That is separate obviously from the thematic points you just mentioned, and maybe that's your primary concern or maybe not, I'm just wondering if I'm missing something.
Mike: The thematic elements are really what interests me about Soulsbourne games. I have rarely actually played them but I love the lore videos and the art from them. I think one major element is that the Soulsebourne games are not traditional fantasy most of the time. They include knights and dragons but they are curiously human-centric and what sentient non-hostile creatures there are usually weird things like decrepit crow men. There is just a lovely originality and a depth to their worlds that just draws me in time and time again.
Max: I wish I could get behind the games themselves because I agree that from what I've seen they're quite stunning and interesting.
Max: You mention here the human-centric elements, and previously the idea of human beings shaping the world and of hubris (I don't think you used that word specifically, but that idea). Would you mind elaborating on some of these ideas in a more broad sense. What is it about these themes that especially interests you?
Mike: This is likely not a particularly nice place to bring this, but I think of Nazi Germany. This was a world reshaped by people believing a hideous lie, birthing unimaginable pain and torment. For the Nazis, I am sure it did not seem so at the time, that they were making hell on earth, but they were. From their alternate reality, the one they had constructed in their minds, this all seemed to be necessary. They may have known it was wrong, I almost have to believe some part of them was able to recognize that what they were doing was wrong, but they submitted their individual free will to the collective consciousness and so they became insane along with everyone else. We can shape the world in hideous ways and birth monsters and this is often the result of a kind of arrogance by a few and the willing capitulation by many. It seems to me that to create a better world, there must, by contrast, be humility, beauty, and love.
Max: I wonder why, given the modern American landscape, you'd be thinking about Nazis 🤔…
Mike: What happens when you drop players into a hellish situation, a world gone wrong, is that they tend to adopt the heroic attitude. They will set the world right if it kills them. I am amazed by the level of goodness that emerges when people are confronted by evil in a role-playing game. No matter what the world faces now, it is the ordinary goodness of decent people that will set the world right. We will not perfect the world. I think that is part of the problem. People think the world is perfectible, that they even know what perfection is, but there is no humility in that and rarely any real love because love requires mutual submission.
Max: That has not necessarily been my experience; I seem to find as many murderhobos or people looking for heroic wish fulfillment as opposed to actual heroic intentions, but I do commend your attitude in wanting to find the love and humility in people.
Max: I think we're working our way around the edges of something else I wanted to talk about and I imagine you anticipated, but I wanted to wait until we had a chance to talk about some other things first since it's a large topic that may very well require the rest of our time. You are a very religious person, and I am very much not, but you and I have talked about this stuff enough before that I am comfortable discussing it with you and I hope you are as well.
Max: If I remember correctly, in the time since I've known you, you've become a preacher, right? Can you talk about how some of your religious beliefs have affected your approach to TTRPGs, or your writing? I imagine there will be a lot to unpack there, but however you'd like to take it and we can go from there.
Mike: It may not surprise anyone reading this that I am a preacher, considering I've already gotten up on a soapbox once or twice 😅. I am a preacher, yes. That happened like three years ago. I think the big effect my religious beliefs has had on my writing and TTRPG stuff is how I understand grace. My last statement kind of describes this. I think, even in the deepest darkest places, you will find moments of unexpected grace, a little light in the darkness if you will. Beauty in ugliness. Goodness in evil. My perspective in my personal faith as a Christian has led me to see these themes as essential.
Max: I will say, particularly after talking with you about it in the past, I've become much more interested in the Christian concept of Grace. While I'm not religious, Buddhism and Taoism have obviously influenced me a fair bit, and I was raised Jewish and more recently I've become somewhat interested in certain religious ideas from Judaism as well such as Tikkun Olam.
Max: You've described the idea of exploring the role of humanity in the world, and of the grace and humility you feel towards your players. Are there other ways you think Christianity has affected how you play or run games? Or how you design settings or campaigns?
Mike: For one thing, it might be important to say that I have run games with elf cocaine, with many titted frog demons, and plenty of swear words. As an aside, for some reason, I really like magic hallucinogenic drugs in my games though I have never used them myself. All of this is to say, I do not censor any ugliness nor strangeness from my games and I allow my players complete freedom. In other words, I do not endeavor to impose my values on other people at the table. I think more along the lines of Tolkien. He was a Christian but anyone can enjoy Lord of the Rings without being put off. Anyway, I do think my games tend to definitely think of evil as real. I tend to think of evil as a kind of sickness just as Christ says. In my games evil is definitely a presence and it often crystalizes into particular characters, usually otherworldly ones. Pretty much everyone is redeemable in most of my games and even the otherwordly demonic things get their chance as well sometimes, but I think my Christianity has made me think that evil is often more concretely real than modern people tend to believe. The whole: "Everyone is redeemable" thing is probably also a Christian influence too.
Max: I appreciate you clarifying. Honestly, if it were not for the fact that I know you, I may have had preconceived notions upon reading this myself, and I imagine I'm not the only one. No small part of why I enjoy talking to you about theology is that you are clearly someone who has thought deeply about these topics- it is not about superficialities or politeness or whitewashing.
Max: Whether in the context of games or more generally, can you elaborate further on these ideas of evil and redemption and grace? I'm asking this somewhat leadingly because I don't actually think these two things are mutually exclusive, but it does seem like, to believe in evil as something more concrete or morally absolute, is somewhat at odds with the idea of redemption or grace.
Mike: I would say the opposite. I recently read a book called Competency Based Counseling that one good way of getting on top of a problem is to disassociate it with yourself. Like there was a story about an artistic girl who had some anger troubles. She had a pretty good idea what that anger looked like and, for her, it was like anger was a big red monster with lots of teeth that would take her over. When I talk about evil, I am literally talking about the demonic and I believe the demonic has an effect on our daily lives. Just like Kronk with an angel on his left shoulder and a demon on his right. Our minds are not sealed vessels but passions and spirits flit in and out of them all the time. When I think of evil as something that holds people captive, that takes them over, I think of them less as people who have done wrong and deserve punishment and more as people who are in need of mercy and healing. That might sound kind of wild but you might think of demons and angels more as ontological constructs if that is more comfortable. The Christian worldview views the world as kind of run by patterns that can be good for people or bad for them. Alcoholism is a big pattern that "possesses" a lot of people. So alcoholics are in need of freedom rather than condemnation.
Max: No that actually does make sense to me. It's a method, or heuristic, for how to take a complicated problem, or one that could be very emotionally or existentially challenging, and making it easier to grapple with or even just accept in the first place. I'm less convinced that it's an objective truth of the universe, and also have a lot of skepticism around the implications of such methods when extrapolated across a society or over time, but I can acknowledge the underlying logic of it and the value it can provide, and it's a really interesting perspective.
Mike: One person I like to listen to said that, at some point you have to jump up. Whenever we see unity in multiplicity, we are seeing something that is more than the sum of its parts. So if you are just listing the different aspects of a thing, you basically have to eventually just "jump up" to the identity that truly represents it. Like the three blind mice. One grabs a tail, another the trunk, and another the leg. All of them cannot really understand the elephant unless they can see the big picture. There is infinite complexity in the world and yet we perceive infinitely complex things as unified things rather than a bunch of little things. Those identities are what an ancient perspective would say are in heaven. Sort of Platonic but not quite.
Max: Well, I definitely agree with the idea that there are complex effects in multiplicity but I usually call that a Statistical Interaction, and the Platonic / Heavenly ideal of systems I call Systems Theory, but I'd like to think on some level I understand what you mean. And I'm also very fond of using the three blind mice as an analogy for thinking about systems in a vacuum vs. recognizing how they interact with other systems.
Max: We're starting to run past time, but at least one more question I'd like to ask is, how do you, or would you, implement some of these ideas in a game? I'm not often interested in new game mechanics per se anymore, but I actually would be really interested to hear how you might think of applying Grace as a gameplay mechanic, or if you think that would be feasible or appropriate in the first place.
Mike: That's a good question. In the Lord of the Rings, Arwen kind of prays that whatever grace she has might be passed to Frodo as she is carrying him to Rivendell. You could think of Grace as a pool of points that a cleric or paladin or even an elf has to power certain spells or miracles. You could kind of use them as a morality system that characters gain grace whenever they rescue someone from a bad situation and then they could use these points to get out of tough situations themselves. Really, the concept is best used as a thematic one. I think it is an awesome idea for dungeon designers to have something in their dungeon that is just awesomely beautiful and benevolent. It can shock players out of their usual state of caution. There doesn't have to be a lot of reason for it but it adds so much texture to what otherwise might be just a drably dark environment.
Max: I do really like that idea of having something so profound, positive, or beautiful, to challenge the Players to actually sit with that, and how it defies their expectations. I've done some stuff maybe a bit like that in the past, and it's surprising how powerful that can be.
Max: This is in itself a really nice note to end on, but before that, are there any last things you'd like to say? Can be related or totally unrelated to anything we've discussed yet. Things you're thinking about or working on that you'd like to share?
Mike: Well people can keep an eye out for further blog posts from me. I think I will be writing more about my Dawn Lit Heights setting in the future. I love it when people comment on my blogs and I think a lot of people do too, so I think we should do that more! A little kindness, humanity, and... dare I say... grace will make TTRPG spaces much better places to be. Thank you so much for asking me to do this! It's been fun!
Max: Of course! That's a big part of why I started doing these interviews. There are so many blogs and so many games, and I know that I can't keep up with everything nor is it fair to expect everyone else to keep up with everything, but it really sucks when you put something out there only to get little to no response, to feel like nobody cares or is engaging with it. Unfortunately I had to put these interviews largely on pause while I was working on MRD, but I'm glad to finally be back to it, and I hope to do more in the future. I'm glad you had fun with it, and I hope we have more conversations like this again in the future.