Dragon World – Interview With Ewen Cluney

Back in the 90s, there was a lot of silly, fantasy anime that hit American shores. Slayers, gained a bit of a cult following among D&D fans for being “how D&D was in play.” Ewen Cluney, creator of School Girls, Magical Burst, Magical Fury, and other titles, wants to bring those silly adventures to life in his new title, Dragon World.
Using the Powered By Apocalypse Engine and lessons he learned from many years of game design, Dragon World looks to give players the wacky, zany experiences of those old shows.

I recently got a chance to talk to Ewen Clueny about the title, Japanese roleplaying games, and his thoughts on games.

1. I’d like to thank you for agreeing to the interview. Personally, I’ve actually been pretty interested in your upcoming title, Dragon World. Now, the Powered By The Apocalypse engine has been rather popular lately, but never really for humor. What made you feel this system was a good fit for this game idea?

Thanks for your interest in the game!

From a designer’s point of view, PbtA is a method for encoding the logic of a world or a style of narrative into rules, and once you understand how to break things down in the right terms, it becomes surprisingly easy to adapt it to most anything. I hit on the idea for Dragon World when I was (finally) reading through the Dragon Half manga and started to see different things going on in the manga in terms of AW-style moves and such. From that perspective, making a PbtA comedy game is just a matter of figuring out the right kinds of processes and interactions you want the game to entail. The basic structure of moves and such is pretty much the same as in Apocalypse World, but there are quite a few more moves that potentially just humiliate a character.

2. Speaking of humor, many of your titles tend to have a humorous bent to them. It can be argued to be a rare genre in tabletop games. What draws you to humorous games?

The first thing is the simple fact that I’ve always been a fan of comedy in general. As a kid I loved stuff like Monty Python and Ghostbusters, and as an adult I enjoy stand up comics (like Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford) and listen to quite a few comedy podcasts. Although relatively few RPGs explicitly set out to be humorous, it’s been my experience that it’s virtually impossible to sit down and play an RPG without at least some of it being laugh out loud funny. TSR and WotC have at times tried to present D&D as a game of exciting fantasy adventure straight out of Tolkien, but in practice it very often becomes its own kind of comedy of errors. (Or as I like to put it, when you play D&D you aim for Record of the Lodoss War but usually get Slayers.) I’ve also just gotten a lot of fun experiences out of comedy RPGs. Toon was the first RPG I ever owned, and of course there’s Maid RPG, and also a few others like the old West End Games Ghostbusters RPG.

3. Dragon World draws heavily from 90s animes such as the Slayers franchise. What made you decide to base a series off those properties now? It has been a while since they were popular/aired.

As is so often the case, I started on Dragon World mainly because inspiration had struck, without much regard for the commercial viability of it. (Though wanting to take the piss out of Serious Business fantasy did admittedly play into things.) That said, Dragon World’s influences wound up being a little broader than just Slayers and Dragon Half, and newer anime like The Familiar of Zero, other kinds of fantasy like Game of Thrones, and D&D and other fantasy RPGs all wound up in the game’s general fantasy gumbo. If you’re sitting down to play Dragon World, being a big Slayers fan would certainly help, but I think a general grasp of fantasy cliches and a willingness to act silly are more important. I don’t know that I would be pushing to publish it as a fully realized book if it hadn’t gotten as much of a positive reaction as it has though.

4. On your twitter, you’ve mentioned thoughts about doing a kickstarter. Your other titles haven’t used such funding methods before. What is making you try out this new method of funding your projects? Big plans?

The primary reason for doing a Kickstarter is that it will let me do a fully produced book with plenty of nice illustrations and a professional layout. That’s something I have in common with Vincent Baker actually, since he’s said pretty much the same thing about Apocalypse World 2nd Edition and Apocalypse World: Dark Age. I do also make games with much simpler production values, but Dragon World has such vivid imagery that I really want to be able to have plenty of artwork and such. There’s also the secondary thing that it’s an excuse to get some of the folks I know to write material for it. My favorite so far is that Jonathan Walton is making a game called “& World.”

It’s also hopefully going to be a way to get more eyes on the game, which is important because I want Dragon World to be a Creative Commons licensed game that people can make and publish their own material for. I don’t have delusions of it rivaling Dungeon World or anything, but I really want to see what other people could do with it.

5. I’ve actually playtested v0.3 of Dragon World a long time ago. It was pretty fun experience and we quickly found ourselves in a silly 90s anime adventure. What big changes, if any, will there be between v0.3 and 1.0, if you want to drop any details?

By the time I got to 0.3 I was pretty satisfied with Dragon World in terms of game design, and the lion’s share of the new work I’ve been doing on it has been in terms of making it a better book. I’ve been revising the overall text and in particular writing a greatly expanded setting chapter that builds on the elements I had in there already to present the land of Easteros. It’s partly a way to provide players with potentially useful and inspiring material, and partly just an excuse to pack more goofy jokes into the book.


6. It’s not secret that you’re a big fan of the gameplay of the Maid: The Role-Playing Game. Your other title, Schoolgirl RPG, uses the same engine. What inspiration, if any, did Maid play in the development of Dragon World?

I consider Maid RPG to be one of the best comedy RPGs ever made, and it was an important influence on Dragon World. Maid RPG is often about characters’ desires and how those desires can create chaos, which is why each Dragon World character has two Temptations (general things like lovers, money, food, etc. that they want) and a Heart’s Desire (a more specific thing they want, say the love of the prince), and some moves around those. Good comedy characters don’t have to be dumb, but I think they need to have some things about them that can make them act dumb. That’s all the more effective when we’re talking about characters we expect to be more level-headed than that.

Maid also has the brilliant concept of Stress and Stress Explosions. While it was an important step that games like Toon and Teenagers From Outer Space replaced wounding with temporarily being incapacitated, in Maid when you take too much damage (too many Stress points) it instead changes your character’s behavior. Dragon World has a bit of both of those, since if your character is at risk of falling down you can spend a Guts point to stay up, but you risk a Stress Explosion that may make you do something stupid.

Maid also has the ability to get serious now and then. Some of the Special Qualities and other character traits naturally lend themselves to it, and sometimes players just go there by themselves. One of the key concepts in Dragon World is that although it’s a comedy game, it’s okay to be serious now and then. It gives the humor (and the people at the table) room to breathe, and it helps create that much more of a context that you can use as a scaffolding for more jokes. The Principles in Dragon World are in large part a distillation of the techniques I developed through GMing Maid and other comedy RPGs, and that’s easily my favorite thing about it.

Finally, although it’s much more restrained than in some of my other games, Dragon World does have two d66 tables, which are Maid RPG style random events that pop up when a player rolls snake eyes of boxcars.

7. While it was very common around the release of Apocalypse World to name your hack “X World,” what lead to the name Dragon World?

Dragon World has been in the works for a while now, and I picked the name back when “X World” was still the convention for what we now call “Powered by the Apocalypse” games and never changed it. I remember someone posted on Google+ saying they wouldn’t take a PbtA game with “World” in the title seriously anymore, and I figured that Dragon World isn’t meant to be taken seriously anyway, so that works out nicely. The “Dragon” in this case is meant to be essentially the same use of the word as in Dragon Quest, Dragon Half, and so on, less about a World with Dragons (though dragons are an important part of the cosmology of the included setting) and more a statement about the general feel of the world.

Also, when everything is all done, I am going to take a picture of Dungeon World, & World, and Dragon World side-by-side and it’ll be a really dumb/amazing joke that’s been far too many years in the making.

8. There are many fantasy roleplaying games on the market, but not many that focus on comedy. Our hobby collectively, however, often recounts tales of how silly their campaigns turn out in play, no matter how serious they were meant to be. Some of our readers may be wondering why they would need to buy a particular title to get a comedy/fantasy experience. What would you say to a reader like that to get them on board with your project?

I think the way I would put it is that where games like D&D produce adventure stories with moments of hilarity, Dragon World produces hilarity with moments of adventure. Different RPGs help foster different kinds of play, and Dragon World is a particular kind of beast that gives you a particular experience. Specifically, a very silly experience.

9. You’re fluent in Japanese and work in translations. You’re also known as a fan of Japanese tabletop roleplaying games. How much of an influence would you say those titles played on the development of your games in general, especially Dragon World?

As I mentioned, Maid RPG was a huge influence on me, but then I’ll be the first to say that Maid RPG is an outlier even in Japan. Broadly speaking, Japanese TRPGs tend to emphasize strong character archetypes with collections of discrete abilities, and action-packed but relatively short-term play in vivid, over the top settings. Although they don’t go as far as Maid RPG, it’s very common for them to include optional d66 tables to help players quickly define their characters and generally fill in blank spaces with something interesting. In general I think that where traditional RPGs are at their best for long-term campaigns and indie RPGs are often at their best for one-shots, Japanese TRPGs are something of a middle ground, providing a good short-term experience that’s fertile for multiple sessions but doesn’t demand a long-term commitment. Dragon World is similarly at its best for shorter campaigns (though you can go longer if you want, especially if you wait an extra session or two between leveling up), and I like to think that I’ve come up with a selection of quite vivid classes and a setting with plenty of fun stuff for those characters to run into.

In my opinion Meikyuu Kingdom is one of the single most interesting Japanese TRPGs, and I’m at turns jealous and glad that another group (who I’m friends with and are generally great guys) are working on an English version. It showcases designer Touichirou Kawashima’s design sensibilities nicely, and is all-around an interesting game that’s influenced me in a lot of ways. Meikyuu Kingdom takes place in a fantasy setting where, after an event known as the Dungeon Hazard, the entire world is entirely dungeons. You play the leaders of a tiny kingdom (about 40-50 citizens to start with), trying to expand your territory by clearing out dungeons and building up your kingdom. The rules of Meikyuu Kingdom aren’t simple, but many of the pieces that make up the game’s rules are simple in interesting ways. Without Kawashima’s approach to RPG design, it’s easy to imagine the game having more than double the page count. The element of Meikyuu Kingdom that very directly affected Dragon World was in how it handles character advancement. In Meikyuu Kingdom (and some of Kawashima’s other games), instead of tracking XP until you gain a level, you simply gain one level at the end of each session (which gives you +1 to your HP and an additional Skill). When playtesting Dragon World I found that the process of highlighting stats and marking XP that I’d carried over from Apocalypse World wasn’t doing it, and changing that to simply “level up once per session” proved to be an ideal way to cut through that particular Gordian Knot. There were some more details in the implementation, but I found the sheer elegant simplicity of Kawashima’s approach really refreshing.

10. As our last question, I’d like to ask if you have any parting comments for our readers. Something to share, an anecdote about gaming, etc.

When I try to sum up what I want out of RPGs, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “being human together.” I don’t mean that RPGs should always be high-minded art (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but that the real appeal is to come together and do something decidedly human, whatever that might mean to you. Laughter is decidedly human, so I feel pretty good about Dragon World in that respect. But more to the point, whether as a designer or a player, RPGs are a medium of creative expression, and as with any creative medium we each have our own unique perspective to contribute. (Certainly I don’t know of anyone else besides me who would make a game about giant monsters who feel kinda sad, but I’m nearly ready to release a game called Melancholy Kaiju on Patreon.) More than anything, I encourage anyone reading this to show us your own take on things, to create the thing that only you would create.

I’d like to thank Ewen Cluney for agreeing to the interview. As I mentioned, I’ve played version 0.3 of Dragon World and had a blast with it. Roleplaying games that focus their gameplay on comedy aren’t the most common things. If you haven’t played a game like that, I’d suggest giving them a whirl: they tend to be great pick-up titles and play off how silly most groups are by default.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the kickstarter.

This interview was done for the purposes of helping promote and advertise for the listed product/developer and should be regarded as such when making purchasing decisions.


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