Interview with Vincent Venturella of Venture Land Games

Hello, Mr. Venturella. Thank you for taking the time out to interview with us.

First and foremost, tell us a little about yourself, your gaming experience and your writing experience.

I started playing RPGs 25 years ago. My road to RPGs started in two ways. I was super sick on vacation and a friend gave me The Hobbit to read while I was stuck in bed. I finished in it in a day and immediately started on The Fellowship of the Ring, I was hooked. I didn’t know RPGs were a thing; I just knew I loved fantasy worlds. Later, I found myself in Walden Books (now I sound like my Grandma saying she was down at the Soda Fountain) and I was entranced by the cover art of these strange D&D books. I just asked one of the associates what I needed in order to play and they gave me the Player’s Handbook, DMG and Keep on the Borderlands. My friends and I spent several months playing completely wrong until we eventually found an experienced DM. I wouldn’t say our games were amazing or groundbreaking, but we certainly had fun. D&D was of course the gateway drug; soon I moved on to Rifts, Vampire, GURPS, Mechwarrior and anything else I could get my hands on.

Everyone who plays RPGs dabbles in design, that is the beautiful part of this hobby. We are all entitled to make changes and make the game our own. On a road trip in 2003 my friend and I were discussing wanting to play a cyperpunk RPG but being unhappy with anything that was on the market. Looking around, I noticed the OGL and so our first game was born; Future Lost. It wasn’t great and it was rife with all sorts of problems, but it was fun and it gave me the taste for design. Since then I have designed 4 more games including the most recent; NGS, the Narrative Game System.

For perspective and context purposes, tell us what other systems you have played and enjoyed.

I would be hard pressed to find a game I have played that didn’t have something great in it. If there is one thing I have learned it’s that making something like an RPG is an act of real love for your product. I have never met a designer who didn’t invest their heart and soul into their game, and such dedication doesn’t always equal a great game, but it means there are always some great ideas.

A sampling:

D&D: What is not to love? As the father of it all, D&D has an incredible legacy. I love that it has created a shared vocabulary and set of experiences that so much of our community shares. What I think I love the most was the insight of Rule 0 – the reality and acceptance that the designer can never write enough or make rules smart enough to cover every situation. The GM has to be the author – of their worlds, their story and ultimately, their experience.

GURPS: I love the idea that a game can be a template for any setting and so many different experiences. That idea was definitely a big inspiration for us with NGS.

Vampire: This game was a revelation for me on two levels. First, it was the first game I played that was really focused on the narrative and an evolving story. Second, I loved how much you could make a whole game focused on the exploration of a single theme, tone and concept. From rules to even art direction, this game sold you on its world.

FATE: Fred Hicks and team are incredible designers. The game they created, like GURPS before, showed people that you could have a game that allowed exploration of so many different worlds and settings. I also liked their mechanics because they showed you could keep things simpler and still have a rich experience.

There are so many more, Battletech (Who doesn’t love Giant Mechs shooting each other), Rifts (Kitchen-Sink Sci-Fi where anything from a homeless man to a godling are legitimate characters), Burning Wheel (Incredibly inventive and smooth mechanics that pair well with the ability to tell a story), Marvel Superheroes (probably some of the most creative design around Super Hero powers). I could go on, but I think I have beat the drum enough.

What is Narrative Game System to you?

In simple terms, the game I am most proud of designing of everything I have done. To talk about the actual game, NGS is a rules-light game focused on collaborative story-telling. The three things I love the most about NGS are the following.

1) The ability to play in any world, any setting, anytime. Its our catchphrase, but we really mean it. In the updates of our Kickstarter, we have a complete cooperative setting-build. We go from nothing to a ready-to-play world in an hour and a half. We are very proud of the guidance and method we offer in NGS to empower not only the GM but his entire group to create an engaging and compelling world, fast.

2) The ability to collaborate in your story-telling at every point in the process. Our focus on collaborative story-telling is total, you make your settings together, you make your characters together, you tell the story together and you even assign experience together.

3) Simple, but powerful mechanics. Our mechanics are very light; it is basically 4 mechanical abilities with a single die + a bonus. It’s so light that it never gets in the way of the story. I have seen people I would never describe as role-players come out of their shell and try things they might otherwise never do because they weren’t worried about the mechanics or failing, they were just thinking about the story and completely immersed in their characters.

What inspired you to write Narrative Game System?

It was a combination of factors. I was interested in tackling a common problem, mechanically forced character and story design. What I mean by that is that if you have ever played an RPG, then you probably experienced something like the following.

You show up to a new game with a character idea, lets say a grizzled space pirate or a dwarven bounty hunter, it doesn’t matter. You have an idea. When you then start to go through the mechanical choice points of the game (perhaps there are tens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of choices you make) you will come to the following dilliema. You come to a choice between A and B. A is the more “powerful” choice within the context of the game, but doesn’t actually align with your character. “B” is for your character but “weaker” in the same context. So what do you do? Do you change your character and play what the game forces you to do? So you end up with a different character than you intended. On the other hand, you can choose “B” and stay in character but then risk having a negative play experience. I wanted to design a game where you made one mechanical choice. If you want to be strong or good at combat or a master of necromancy – then you are, its one choice. Everything else is choosing what matters – who your character is. I wanted most of the character creation to focus on your character’s past, present and future, their goals and motivations, their flaws and failures. That leads me to the next item that led me to the game.

I was very interested in creating a game solely focused on collaboration. As I said in our Kickstarter video, if you wanted to play a game by yourself, why did you have 5 friends come over to your house? RPGs have always been about collaboration, you were on the adventures together from the first games of D&D. I wanted to make sure we took that idea all the way. So we set about to design a game solely focused on working together, players and GMs, to craft worlds, characters, stories and ultimately, the experience.

A common debate in the RPG design industry is narrative story making vs. tactical simulation vs. a balance of both, such as in Ron Edwards’ GNS model of Role Playing Theory. What is it about the narrative to you that makes it paramount, over say tactical aspects of the game or structured rules of the game?

I think the GNS model gets invoked where Ron never intended it to. By that I mean people use it to try to say that one game or type of game is superior, or that there is some perfect game that could be written. Edwards later moved to the Big Model and I think that accurately captures something; there is no perfect game. I think it goes back to Howard Moskewitz and Pasta Sauce. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIiAAhUeR6Y). Basically, the story breaks down like this – A man was charged to create the ultimate pasta sauce and after copious research he came back and said it was impossible. There was no one perfect pasta sauce. What they needed was 3 pasta sauces, (or more) to meet the various tastes in the market. This has become the norm in food, when we go to the grocery, we don’t expect one perfect coffee or cereal or anything like that. Instead, we find the one (or even multiple) that suit our tastes. Somehow, we haven’t made that move in gaming.

I think Ron’s insight was in identifying the Creative Agenda. The appropriate game and the nature of the rules and experience is all about the group being willing to agree to a single creative agenda. I love both rules light and more mechanical RPGs; both offer a unique experience depending on the creative agenda I am pursuing.

So there isn’t something that naturally makes the narrative more paramount in all cases. It’s only relevant if you are pursuing that creative agenda. My feeling would be if you are seeking after a story-driven, narrative experience, then what you should be after is the lightest touch of mechanics possible that allows for the most immersive and collaborative story-telling, and I think that is what NGS delivers.

What is more satisfying to you when playing in an RPG – a great single session of story making or the extended story made over many sessions in a campaign?

I would say either can be great. Undoubtedly every gamer carries stories and memories of some game that only ran one or two games but produced something that sticks with them. In the end, though, I love the ability of a story to develop over time. I think there is something deeply rewarding about working with your friends to create a shared experience that you will all carry with you for the rest of your lives, and something that rich can only happen over a protracted series of sessions where people have successes and failings and basically experience all the complexity of life itself within the game.

What are you most proud of in this work?

I touched on this in detail earlier, so I would simply say the whole product. It has been a true labor of love from my entire team. One additional item I didn’t mention earlier was that in the NGS book, we focus a great deal on the behind-the-scenes. We are trying to show everyone not just how to play the game but why we made the decisions we did and empowering them to change things to tell the narrative they want to tell. If NGS helped people tell deeper, more engaging and exciting stories, then I would be very proud indeed.

What is in the future for NGS after your Kickstarter?

We have already reached our funding goal and now it’s a question of how far into the Stretch Goals we will get. Kickstarters are such an emotionally involving experience, its hard to imagine until you do it and even though I read so much and thought I was mentally prepared, you are never really ready.

One great thing about NGS is we don’t intend to write more books of rules to sell people – we don’t need to, everything you need for a lifetime of play is contained in that one book. We would like to continue to foster the collaborative aspect of the game, so after the book is published, we want to create a community where people can come and share their experiences. We want to give them a forum to share the worlds they created, the Narrative Abilities they have made and the stories they have shared. The game is about collaboration in play, and I would love to see that extend all the way up to the collective experience of all of our players.

Thank you for this great opportunity. I would encourage everyone to visit the Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/617292343/ngs-the-narrative-game-system) or visit www.venturelandgames.com for additional information.

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