I’m extraordinarily humbled that the Italian edition of A Penny For My Thoughts is premiering this coming weekend at PLAY in Modena. As a lead up to this, Gioconomicon published an interview with metoday about it. Lest you think I speak Italian, here’s the original questions and answers:
- Tell us something about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
I’m a thirty-something software engineer living and working in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to playing RPGs and board games, I love to cook, I’ve taught wine tasting classes, I’m a cycling fan, I used to do triathlons, and I’m getting back into running after a prolonged absence. My wife and I love to travel, which upsets our cats.
- What’s your gamer history? How did you came to game design?
I started roleplaying with Red Box D&D, though I didn’t do a lot of playing in the early years. I read a lot gaming books, particularly the Dragonlance ones, but it wasn’t until after college that I started playing a lot. I was working at a software company when D&D 3e came out, so it was a great opportunity to get back into RPGs. From there I started going to conventions, working on the demo teams for Atlas Games and Steve Jackson Games.
In 2004 I attended GenCon for the first time. That was the year My Life with Master won the Diana Jones Award. I’d been a semi-regular reader on the Forge for a few months, so I bought MLwM and a bunch of other games at the Forge booth. That was really the gateway to game design for me.
- Why did you write this game?
A Penny For My Thoughts was originally designed for the Game Chef 2007 competition. I hadn’t done Game Chef before; the timing and my enthusiasm for it just happened to coincide that year. I was actually on a ski trip with my wife’s company when the ingredient lists were announced and I didn’t have Internet access, so I had to call my friend Josh Roby (designer of Full Light, Full Steam; Sons of Liberty; and a primary contributor to the Smallville RPG) and have him read them to me. Many of the initial concepts were worked out in the back of a bus heading up to the ski resort.
- Why did you choose to write the game as an “in-world” artifact? What challenges came from this decision? What rewards?
The root was probably a playtest for Ben Lehman’s The Drifter’s Escape that I was involved in. My friend Roy said that what he liked about that game was the sort of choices he had to make as a player were exactly the sort of choices his character had to make. I liked that idea, and I wanted to do the same sort of thing in Penny. Once I made the decision to make the procedures something that the characters in the fiction would be doing, it seemed natural to make the book an in-world artifact.
Executing it was tricky. The best choice that I made was to use Dr. Tompkins as my mouthpiece. By creating a character to write through in the active voice — rather than write a generic manual with unclear authorship — I made a lot of my job easier. There were, of course, things that I couldn’t have Tompkins talk about, so I compromised and put those in the last chapter. I think the book benefited from that decision; it’s much more compelling and sinister than it would be otherwise.
- How did you develop the internal currency?
One of the ingredients from Game Chef was “currency” (the other two I used were “memory” and “drug”), so I knew I was going to have to use it somehow. The title was actually one of the first things that came to me (playing on the English expression “a penny for your thoughts”), which sparked the idea of using pennies.
Conceptually, I was thinking a lot about how the Fan Mail mechanic in Primetime Adventures makes other players’ approval of your actions concrete. I was also thinking about a game of The Mountain Witch we’d played recently. We’d used poker chips to represent Trust in the game, and when players wanted to increase their Trust in each other, I made them physically hand over the chip. I was interested in design something where most of the mechanics involved appealing to the interests of the other players, and the pennies provided a way to make that real.
- Who did you write this game for?
I wrote it for myself. Game Chef was an experiment; I just wanted to try out some ideas. I got enough positive feedback from that process that I decided to try publishing it. Getting the book into print was another experiment. I learned a lot about designing, about writing, about publishing, and about myself, which was my real goal.
- How was your development process? Has playtesting changed some fundamental part of the game?
It was long, mostly because I wrote slowly and I procrastinated a lot. The fundamental mechanics didn’t change during development, so they’re almost exactly the same as the Game Chef version. What playtesting did point out was a need to get people on the same page when starting out. Some playtests had a problem with everyone coming in with different and contradictory ideas about what sort of world they were in. That’s where the Facts & Reassurances document came from. It was a way to establish a few ground rules to keep things coherent. Of course, once my editor — Ryan Macklin — and I decided to add that element, we realized we could use it to do alternate settings. It let us turn a weakness into a strength, which made me quite happy.