Obskures.de recently interviewed three-fourths of the creative team behind 13th Age. (Aaron McConnell was on deadline and chained to his drawing table that week.) In this installment, Jonathan Tweet about his favorite roleplaying games, designers and artists, and what’s happening in the industry.
obskures.de: Let’s start with a personal introduction, and your gaming history.
Jonathan Tweet: My dad was an English professor at a Midwest college that was an early hotbed of roleplaying. In 1977, when I was 12, one of his students showed me the big games of D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne that she and her friends were involved in. One guy was a 21st level illusionist, and he wore a cloak in real life. Larping was still years in the future, and we thought he was a freak.
In my first D&D session, I was the DM. We played a lot of D&D. My second RPG was one I designed. I also played a large number of RPGs, including classics like RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. In college, I met Mark Rein*Hagen, and we had big ideas about what roleplaying games could be. After college, we founded a company to publish games, starting with Ars Magica. That started my career of trying to create new stories in roleplaying games. Whimsy Cards, Over the Edge, and Everway all served that purpose. The prospect of designing 13th Age with Rob appealed to me in large part because it offered the opportunity to bring story gaming to d20 gaming.
obskures.de: What was the first role playing book you owned?
Jonathan Tweet: The Holmes blue book basic set, with dice (before TSR ran out). It featured fixed initiative and scroll creation, two controversial rules I brought to 3rd Edition.
obskures.de: In my opinion, 13th Age has the potential to be the best incarnation of the worlds oldest role playing game since the original Dungeons & Dragons Red Box. What’s the story behind your interpretation of this classic game? Is there any relationship between 13th Age, the success of the Pathfinder RPG by Paizo, and the announcement that 4th Edition is coming to an end?
Jonathan Tweet: When I worked on 3rd Edition, I learned to love D&D. The team tried to return to the adventurous feel of 1st Edition, as an antidote to the generic vibe of 2nd. This return to the roots was a big part of the edition’s success. Another big advance was how customizable your character was. Fourth Edition, however, didn’t emphasize the stuff that’s always been cool about D&D. It featured cool new stuff. The Player’s Handbook had dragon people but not half-orcs. Fourth Ed also limited how much you could customize your character. People who gave 4th Ed an honest shot often liked it because it got a lot of things right, but it didn’t feel like D&D to many of them. Pathfinder met those players’ needs with an improved version of 3rd Ed, and it’s been a big success. 13 Age itself is, according to our publisher, a “love letter” to D&D. If we live up to the potential you see in us, it’s because of the love.
obskures.de: Why should a Dungeons & Dragons/Pathfinder fan buy your game? Why should someone who isn’t familiar with this type of game at all spend her/his money on it?
Jonathan Tweet: If you play D&D, Pathfinder, a retro clone, or some other d20-style game, 13th Age will be an eye-opener. It takes the game you love, livens up combat, and supercharges the story. If you want to keep paying your current game, then 13th Age is full of good combat rules and story rules that you can steal.
For other gamers, they should know that 13th Age is designed to let players customize their characters and even the campaign. That means they can turn the campaign into their favorite campaign ever.
obskures.de: What is the best feature of 13th Age, in your opinion?
Jonathan Tweet: For me, the best feature is the one unique thing, the free-form trait that can really define your character. Maybe the most critical element was the class design. Rob did a great job making the different classes all fun to play for different reasons. He wrote the classes because he’s the one who likes to see the players succeed and have fun.
obskures.de: What is the most important design principle that new game designers should consider when making a game?
Jonathan Tweet: Be valuable. If you’re not creating real value for your players, it’s not going to work. If you’re making games only because you’re having fun doing it, that’s not enough.
obskures.de: What is your favorite role playing game?
Jonathan Tweet: D&D, in one form or another. But Call of Cthulhu has a special place in my heart. It really taught a generation of gamers how to roleplay a believable character. CoC is more about who you talk to than who you beat up, and that was a revelation without which Ars Magica would not have been possible.
obskures.de: Who is your favorite game designer and/or game artist?
Jonathan Tweet: Vincent Baker. He honored me with a first edition copy of Kill Puppies for Satan, so I was one of his first fans. He’s only gotten better, as Apocalypse World proves.
obskures.de: What are your three requirements for a great roleplaying product? What was the last one you bought or read?
Jonathan Tweet: A great roleplaying game gets you excited about doing a cool, new thing with your friends. It does real work in helping you have a great experience instead of expecting you to make it work through improvisation and wit. Its rule system balances well enough that you can lean on them instead of propping them up.
My last purchase was Hillfolk, by Robin D. Laws. He’s another designer who’s always inventing new ways to use games to tell stories, and Hillfolk looks like it might be his best story game yet.
obskures.de: What do you think about the recent projects by your ex-colleagues at Wizards, such as Numenera by Monte Cook?
Jonathan Tweet: Monte deserves all the Internet success he has enjoyed. He’s earned every bit of it by being such a master of what makes D&D cool. Now we’re in for a treat as Monte tackles a major RPG challenge: an all-new setting with all-new rules. Monte and I have a lot in common, so I’m extra eager to see Numenera.
obskures.de: We have a really strange situation in the RPG market right now. The crowdfunding movement seems to have more momentum every day. The former market leader is winding down its current product line without a finished replacement product or a fully accepted development and beta cycle. Currently, a clone without much further system development seems to lead the market. There are many disoriented and unsettled customers. I think this is a huge opportunity for a breath of fresh air. What do you think about this market reorganization?
Jonathan Tweet: If you’re asking me whether this isn’t the best possible time for Pelgrane to release 13th Age, the answer’s yes, it’s the best possible time.
obskures.de: What developments in the RPG market interest you most?
Jonathan Tweet: Frankly I’m a bit overwhelmed at the design talent in the indie movement. A lot of these designers credit me as an influence, but they’re way past me by now. Watching this movement build up over the years has been one of the most satisfying parts of my career. Mark Rein*Hagen and I imagined that there would be bold new ways to roleplay some day, but we had no idea.
obskures.de: Is there anything you’d like to see for 13th Age?
Jonathan Tweet: I’d like to see a 13th Age LARP.
obskures.de: Finally, some fun and quick questions. Role playing is …?
Jonathan Tweet: …further evidence that people have gotten a lot smarter over the last 100 years.
obskures.de: Fighter, Cleric, Rogue or Wizard?
Jonathan Tweet: I have played them each so many times that I don’t have a favorite class any more. In 3E, probably the cleric because they are so damn powerful. More important than class or race is irony, Every one of my characters has to have at least one level of irony in their back story.
obskures.de: Gamemaster or player?
Jonathan Tweet: Gamemaster. I’m good at both roles, but a good GM does more for a table than a good player.
obskures.de: Your favorite game product you worked on (aside from 13th Age)?
Jonathan Tweet: Third Edition. It’s hard to beat helping a small group of talented people cast “raise dead” on Dungeons & Dragons.
obskures.de: When do you get your best ideas for games?
Jonathan Tweet: When I’m thinking about other games. I think about what they do right, what they do wrong, what I should avoid, and what I can steal.
obskures.de: How did Rob get the nickname “Mad Genius“?
Jonathan Tweet: Rob’s vision of D&D was heavily influenced by Dave Hargrave’s game world, Arduin. Compared to regular D&D, that stuff is crazy.