Meeting of Minds – Paul Baldowski
One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.
Images of the games have been kindly provided by Paul. I own an All Rolled Up purchased with my own money.
The world of tabletop role-playing games is ever expanding. Spurred on by the phenomenal rise of Dungeons and Dragons in the last few years, many have turned their hands to creating products and games that offer something different to this cultural mainstay. For me though, the really interesting RPG work is happening in the indie scene.
Paul Baldowski is no stranger to the world of RPGs, having started out writing for Fanzines in the 80s hes written for magazines like Roleplayer Independent, worked on Paranoia and Maelstrom, and has worked on various freelance projects. All this before going independent to make his own games with The Black Hack in 2016.
The Black Hack is a rules light game designed to facilitate Old School Roleplaying(OSR) style fantasy adventures. This was followed by The Cthlhu Hack, designed to take the same rules lite approach to Lovecraftian investgiations. Not content with making popular RPGs, Paul also helps his wife Fil run All Rolled Up, an RPG accessory company that is a mainstay of UK conventions.
Paul was kind enough to give me some time to talk about his past in RPGs, his current projects, and the inspiration behind All Rolled Up.
You’ve had a long and varied career in tabletop RPGS. Can you give us a bit of an overview of projects you have worked on and where you are now?
That’s a question with a lot of potential answer, so I’ll try and keep it brief. My first published RPG work appeared in a fanzine in 1988 and I spent two years in the early 90s writing reviews and articles about play-by-mail games in Roleplayer Independent. PBMs were my first creative outburst. Over about a decade, I designed a dozen or more games that I ran for players across the world.
My mainstream involvement in tabletop RPGs came in 2004, when Allen Varney offered me the chance to write a couple of dozen pages in the PARANOIA XP core rules. I became part of the Traitor Recycling collective that juggled duties on creating content for that edition, including my first solo supplement, The Underplex – taking the adventures into the bowels of the Alpha Complex setting.
In 2009, multiple worlds collided. I studied history, and a little bit of politics, at Huddersfield University in the early 90s and solidified a deep love for the Elizabethan period. Arion Games had acquired the rights to republish and expand Maelstrom, a paperback RPG released in 1984 about adventuring in 16th century England, and I got the chance to get involved with the expansion, including an entire supplement on playing beggars, published in 2011.
I think at that point my confidence must have reached a level where I could turn my hand to personal writing projects, starting small with adventures and supplements filled with random tables. In 2016, David Black published The Black Hack – a simple system for Old School fantasy adventures – which included an open license to reuse the core system. I saw something in there that flicked a switch and got me thinking about theme-driven mechanics. I could see in the midst of The Black Hack a way to gamify sanity and investigation in a way that I thought was pretty interesting.
Six years on, I have published a bunch of books and investigations for Cthulhu Hack and I’m currently working on a 2nd edition. I’ve also found the time to write an Elizabethan RPG of my own, The Dee Sanction, which sees the players taking on the roles of doomed folk pressed into service at the command of John Dee in the Queen’s defence against threats both magical and supernatural.
I’ve also had the pleasure of freelancing a lot – including writing Italy for The Dracula Dossier: Director’s Handbook, The Deep Kalduhr for Trophy Loom, and adventures for Symbaroum, Liminal, The Terminator, and Outlive Outdead.
I told you there was a lot of answer to that question!
You are probably best known for the Cthulhu Hack, a game that takes Lovecraftian horror and distils it into a very small package. What is it like taking such a beloved property, with a well established RPG in Call of Cthulhu, and making something new?
Remarkably easy, in many ways. As I noted in my last answer, the thematic gamification struck me suddenly while reading The Black Hack and once I finished writing the core of Cthulhu Hack I quarantined myself from outside influence. I promised myself that I would only ever use Lovecraft as my source and I would set all other renditions aside.
That the material is so well loved represents a copyright trap for the unwary. Lovecraft’s own stories might be in the public domain, but so much material we game with has arisen from those who came after him, whether writers influenced by his tales or game creators spinning RPGs from his stories.
In the last few years, I have read and re-read so many stories. I freely admit that I haven’t read everything that Lovecraft created, but whenever I come up with an idea I focus my research on his stories, poems and letters. I deep dive into the material, going through it time and again, mining the descriptions, personalities and events for valuable content. When I wrote The Haunter of the Dark – which was nominated for an ENNIE Award a few years back – I read through that short story so many times, time and again. It’s fascinating picking through Howard’s verbose prose and finding my own interpretations.
Lovecraft was, and still is, a controversial figure with some pretty abhorrent views. How do you think modern interpretations of Lovecraft’s stories address these views?
Honestly, I think you call it out and then do better for diversity and inclusivity. He’s not around to make amends, so you just need to do what you can – take the essence of his creativity and keep the rest in quarantine. There are many Mythos games and all of them have done it in more or less the same way, but with slightly different breadth, tone or voice.
Howard was both a creative genius and a terribly misguided man, with unconscionable views on race, religion, and gender. Cthulhu Hack celebrates his imagination; those tales of the forbidden and fantastical that probe the unknown and venture to question our role and significance in the Universe.
You’ve worked on all sorts of project sizes from tiny zines to large projects with Pelgrane Press. What do you get out of different projects and what are the advantages and disadvantages on working on very small projects solo, and larger projects with a team? (may rephrase but I think you get the idea)
I think I get one key thing out of any project, no matter the size or purpose – that being a sense of enrichment and fulfilment, researching a subject in a way I would never otherwise consider and turning that research into something others can enjoy. The variety of focus leads to weird and fascinating rabbit holes.
One thing I do get from big, guided projects is purpose and, usually, deadlines. When someone says they need 6,000 words on a gameable location by the end of next month, I have something hard and fast to work toward. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. As a creative sort of person, vague is going to lead me down so many paths before I get started.
Another thing that comes from projects with a team are ways of working and methods of writing. For example, working with Allen Varney was a lesson on just how wayward my grammar was, and probably still is.
Something I find in smaller, personal projects is the opportunity to investigate things that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. It’s like those big Hollywood stars who do a popcorn-fuelled action movie so they can pick up a vanity project or two. I have found myself struck by an idea at the oddest moment and then run off after it in pursuit of a gameable end product.
Disadvantages in this mix? Deadlines can be bad for stress. Team projects can often be overwhelmed by those with louder personalities. I’m an anxiety-stricken introvert, so that’s never me! Solo projects will always face the challenge of creative ebbs; blocks in the flow that just need to be worked through, one way or another.
How have you found selling through sites like Drivehtrurpg? Do you find it harder to stand out now that there are so many people using the site?
Honestly, I don’t give it much thought. I wouldn’t consider someone visiting Drivethrurpg my primary focus. I guess that they might see something I’ve written and give it a try over someone else if I can entice them, but this isn’t my day job. I think if my existence depended on selling these games I would spend more time worrying about the strategy and tactics of using social media and marketplace visibility. As it is, I’m more worried about drafting process maps and eliciting requirements, as a business analyst!
The rise of Dungeons and Dragons over the last few years has been meteoric. How do you think the popularity of DnD has affected smaller publishers and companies like yourself?
I see D&D’s rise in popularity as a good thing. If a bit of Stranger Things gets D&D more interest and sales, that’s a wider market of potential customers for me to reach out to with my niche product. Not all of those who come to D&D will stay with it or remain singular in their loyalties. For some, D&D will not be what they want long term, while others will enjoy a bit of D&D but appreciate variety to spice up their gaming menu. In those areas, I have the opportunity to find new fans.
I hope that those companies with a ken for D&D have made the most of it and see it as a chance to find a readymade audience. For those outside that circle, I think you have a potential audience primed for games and who know what roleplaying is, but who might need help finding something that fits their unique profile as a gamer. That’s why we have such a diverse and expanding market of games, with more appearing every day. No, not everything in that release is great, but that’s true of any industry or creative space.
Diversity in our creativity is a number one priority on so many levels, because that difference allows everyone to expand and grow their potential.
If you could make an RPG of any intellectual property what would it be and why?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Is there room in this world for a Trumptonshire RPG, I wonder? Or picking up one of those short-lived series that never got room to breathe, like Year of the Rabbit, Counterpart, or The Prisoner. Is there scope for something in the universe of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
You also run All Rolled Up with your wife, Fil. The RPG world is certainly not short of accessories but the main product you make, a sort of roll up RPG carry case, is great (I own one myself). What was the inspiration behind it and what made you want to take it to production?
The All Rolled Up was a collision between the desire of a convention GM to have the absolute essentials to hand and the talent of a craftsperson keen to make something new. We’d been married for 13 years before this perfect storm struck.
I reckoned that there had to be something more than the bucket dice bag, because once you started dropping playing cards, counters and pens in it you just got messy. Yes, there was a pencil case, but then you still had a bunch of stuff swimming around in a small bag.
So, Fil and I brainstormed ideas and created a bunch of paper prototypes, before we finely game on the roll design, which is sort of like a pencil case with an extension. It had room to hold pens and pencils, space for a notebook or pack of cards, and a Velcro-sealed pouch for dice. And the dice bag part had a flat bottom, so that when you had the whole thing open you could use the bag as a sort of dish; you could see all the stuff inside without rooting around.
Fil created about a hundred of them, after we spent months visiting shops buying up geeky fat quarters of fabric. They made their first appearance in the wild at UK Games Expo in 2013, occupying a square foot of the Arion Games stand – and from there the must-have accessories business of All Rolled Up was born.
Now, the dice roll is one of many products. Fil expanded on it by coming up with the original folding dice tray and the interconnectable bittray for holding counters, as well as marketing some innovative accessories like the wipe card, dry wipe counters, and more. Now, All Rolled Up is a one-stop-shop for gaming tabletop accessories, including dice, Indie RPGs and zines, licensed maps, bags and All Rolled Up – so much stuff.
I honestly have little to do with it. In the beginning, I cobbled together a website, but that’s long gone. I used to name all the All Rolled Up and dice trays, but I’ve given that up, too. Fil publishes my games and I work the stand at a bunch of events as the in-house RPG expert. That’s me. But, I’m so proud of what Fil has built from such an off-the-cuff idea. She’s brilliant.
What RPG from a UK publisher are you most looking forward to running or playing?
Just one? I don’t think I can handle that.
I’m looking forward to seeing Salvage Union – a Quest-based game of post-apocalyptic community and mechs – from Leyline Press fulfil so I can run a proper game of it, as I’ve had a lot of fun with the Quickstart version.
I fancy taking a look at We Deal in Lead by By Odin’s Beard, as I found Runecairn – a solo game of doomed Norse warriors – really engaging, but also immediately hacked it into a multiplayer game to run at a convention.
Playing? Maybe Tripod from First Age Entertainment. It’s the system under the hood of Gran Meccanismo, the clockpunk roleplaying in Da Vinci’s Florence from Osprey Games. I know Tripod’s designer, Graham Spearing, and would like to get a game in with the creator. I find other people’s creative processes fascinating and I want to see this one run as it was meant to.
It’s something I find with a lot of games – like Fate, Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World – that I would love to get games in with the creators to see what their vision and handling of the game feels like. There are some games where I’ve read the book cover-to-cover and maybe even watched some actual plays, but I’m still not convinced I grok the true play experience. I don’t know what the solution for that is, other than playing in a game with the creator.