Monday, October 29, 2012

An Interview with Henchman Abuse on ASE

A couple of weeks ago, i kept coming up with questions about ASE with regards to my working it into my homegame and at the same time Henchman Abuse was posting teasers about the soon to be forthcoming ASE II, so i shot of an email and asked if i could put some interview questions togother and he said sure.
I also asked over at DoS if he had any questions that needed to thrown into the mix. I think we got some good questions together and even better answers so for your informational pleasure, i present......

(sorry about the formatting, it converted poorly from the doc. questions in black, answers in henchman blood red)

A series of questions about the world of ASE for Patrick W on the near eve of the release of ASE II.

When did you start playing RPGS, Have you continually played or had breaks. Do you gravitate towards being the GM or Player in your earlier groups before ASE

1980, 1981? Some time around then. The oldest kid in the neighborhood started playing, and had a bunch of us younger kids join him one afternoon so he could DM.  It was the Holmes basic dungeon - totally awesome and didn’t follow the rules at all. My hobbit died, and was brought back to life via animate dead, so I played the skeleton.  Once I got the Basic D&D set, I ended up being the DM 90% of the time, probably because I’m bossy.

When did the idea for ASE originate, has this been years in the making or rather recent

It was minutes in the making. As in one or two.  My friend Ted (who plays Mongo) had been bragging about being able to get Thundarr the Barbarian on his cable network, and I had just read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and had come across Blair’s Planet Algol blog and James’ Dwimmermount campaign on the Grognardia blog.  I had been running a Delta Green campaign, and after the fellows said they wanted some D&D instead, I just tossed all that together into campaign salad.

Are the session reports from home games, face to face over a tabletop or are they played online. How long has that group been together and can you tell us some about its dynamics?

It’s all home games.  During crappy weather we use Skype and Fantasy Grounds, but that hasn’t been necessary for quite a while now.  This particular group has been running for about 3 years now, it started with a Delta Green campaign.  Ted and Jim (Mongo and Gutboy respectively) have been with it the longest, and I’ve known them for around 20 years. Chad and Mike (playing Netal/Razoe and George) showed up later after the D&D campaign started - those guys I met at work.  Other guys drop in on occasion as well, but those four are the regulars.

What movies and TV shows or other media have played a big impact on ASE. If ASE had a appendix N of books and comics, what would be on that list?

The number one influence is Thundarr the Barbarian. I love that cartoon when I was a kid.  The whole idea of a post-apocalyptic earth was big back then, due to the Cold War, and the idea that life would go on after but be TOTALLY AWESOME was really appealing.  A whole ruined landscape full of remarkably preserved technology ready for any shmoe who walks by to mess around with!

The second biggest influence was the Planet Algol blog - great stuff there. I read that, and realized I needed gonzo, big heaping piles of gonzo, in my game.

As I mentioned earlier, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is another big one - wow, Gene Wolfe is so very good, he has an absolute mastery of the English language, his ideas are fantastic, and with the various Book-of-the-whatever-Sun series, his Catholicism informs his work without turning it into allegory.

Grognardia inspired me to make a big dungeon out of the whole thing. There aren’t really other Dwimmermount influences in there - I was walking off to gonzo-land and not looking back.

Other influences you can pick out: Doctor Who, Zardoz, HG Wells’ Time Machine, Lost, HP Lovecraft, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, X-Files, Jack Vance

How much of ASE is currently completed, even in a sketchy mental form?  Does you know what's on all the levels, or are there still vast open spaces?

Not a whole lot.  I know that there’s a Lancaster bomber on level 8, that the players can use to go back in time to fight Hitler.  There’s also Dracula somewhere in there, the City of Under-Miami, and a massive complex devoted to rust monsters just to really irritate my players.

I’ve got a document named “ideas.doc” that I just toss stuff in when I think of it.  I go back through it when I’m working on a new level and cherry pick out the good stuff.  It has notes about the stuff I’ve alluded to in prior levels as well, just so I don’t forget things.

There is some excellent artwork in the book and previews for ASE2, are these artists in your local area or the gaming community. what has been the most challenging thing to illustrate?

I saw Brian “Glad” Thomas’s work on Dragonsfoot, and was just wowed - he does excellent action scenes, the expressions on his characters’ faces are awesome.  So I sent him an email and was stunned to find out that he was in my budget.  He did virtually all the art in ASE1, with the exception of a city piece by Andy Taylor (who was recommended to me by Brian).  In ASE2-3, Gustie of the Dungeon of Signs blog will be contributing a bunch of art too, and the player handout treasure maps.  He had been reading the session reports from my own campaign, and put up a drawing on his blog of the death of Netal the Elf that was just fantastic, so I sent him an email and he kindly agreed to do some work for me.  So no, nobody local.

As far as anything being challenging to illustrate, I’ve got no answer there - not only do I not illustrate myself, I really don’t provide any specification.  I tossed out a few ideas to Brian, and then let him do whatever he wants. I’m not an artist and don’t pretend to understand the process, so I just want to get out of the way. What he comes up with is almost always spot on. I did the same w/ Gustie, except of course for the player handouts, which have certain game functions they must meet.  I hope Brian & Gustie are happy working with my vague and nebulous specifications!

ASE has generated a lot of great publicity, and we have seen few detractors - beyond an occasional "too gonzo for me!".  Do you have any idea why this mega dungeon is getting this response as opposed to the more critical reception for some other larger published OSR megadungeons?

Hard question to answer.  I think a lot of this has to do with how many people are buying ASE1, and the kinds of people who are buying it.  As for how many, the answer is “not many” - there aren’t solid sales numbers out there for the other guys except for the kickstarters. The smallest of them, Barrowmount II, has outsold me by a significant number, and I don’t even begin to approach Dwimmermount.  What it boils down to, I believe, is that ASE1 is a niche-within-a-niche.  It’s an OSR product, which cuts your audience way down, and then it’s crazy gonzo science-fantasy on top of that, which turns a lot of people off.

So who’s buying it ends up being people who are really open minded and looking for something different.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my customers are thus at the more creative and avant garde end of the spectrum, and more likely to pour some of that energy into doing things like blogging about their games, sharing the material they generate, and so on.  So I end up with an outsize share of positive attention.

I’m not implying that you’re not creative and awesome if you’re not interested in ASE1 (but why take the chance people?) - rolling your own campaign is of course the ultimate in creative expression.  I’m just theorizing about general tendencies here.

Or maybe people like it just because it’s kind of cool to play D&D with robots and lasers.

In a blog comment you mentioned in a comment that Level 5 (presumably in ASE III) will be effectively a wilderness within the dungeon.  Can you elaborate on that?

Part of level 5 will be standard dungeon - but there will also be Under-Miami.  Imagine a cavern miles and miles long - how many miles I don’t know, because I still haven’t mapped it.  But it’s got a significant chunk of Miami replicated within it, lots of art deco hotels, South Beach, etc.  And then roads head off into the subterranean jungles, full of dinosaurs (because dinosaurs are awesome), golf courses, volcanos, the Bay of Biscayne.  I haven’t really thought it out too much beyond “Hey, Miami Vice except underground”, but players will definitely be able to jack a Ferrari Daytona Spyder and joyride down Ocean Drive.  I expect it will be another Denethix + Land of One Thousand Towers, although with a few more encounter areas detailed so it’s not 100% rough sketches.

Mapping, how do you handle that for the publications, are the levels hand drawn first or just rough sketches?
is there any chance of seeing a side view map of the mountain one of these days?

I draw maps first on graph paper, usually before even thinking about what’s going to be in the rooms.  This is how the dungeon evolved after all - rooms are re-purposed over and over over the millenia.  It’s also a lot easier to avoid analysis paralysis when trying to figure out every room’s purpose in advance.  As I build up a backlog of ideas though, more parts of the complex have to be accounted for in advance, which slows mapping down quite a bit.  This is why megadungeons take so long to write - accounting for all the interdependencies and trying to make 100+ room levels somehow end up seeming slightly coherent.

I then scan the map, and drop it in Campaign Cartographer 2 as a background image, and do the publishable map.  I defined my own symbols to match the old-style TSR map symbols, which keeps the maps from having that obnoxious computer-generated look that those programs can sometimes add.

There will definitely be a side view map at some point, just for my own sanity.  I’m waiting to publish such a thing though, as once it’s done it is a constraint on future maps that I have to live with.

Are there plans to elaborate more on the surrounding areas as outlined in the first book, more wizards, cities towns? Is your focus more on the dungeon or the world, or does that change back and forth depending on players?

More wizards, absolutely!  There are a bunch more in ASE2-3, although they are more likely to be encountered as wandering monsters in the dungeon.  As for gazetteers of the Land of One Thousand Towers, absolutely not - I hate those.  They steal all the referee’s creativity and end up making “canon” out of a sandbox.  It seems very limiting to me.  It’s like the map in the Expert set booklet, that got turned into the “Known World” setting - it was just some flavor to inspire DM’s, and they could fill in the blanks, coming up with all kinds of awesome from these brief names on a map. Then, tons of books detailing each little bit, all the mystery gone. It’s incredibly depressing.

What I’d rather see is people make their own stuff up.  People seem to love the setting portion of ASE1, and come up with all kinds of things I’d never dream up.  Now, what would be cool is if people took all that work and published it or put it in PDF’s or however they want to distribute it and shared it out there.  I know I didn’t make the setting OGL, but if you have a hankering to publish something just ask me, I’m 99.99999999% likely to give you my blessing!

If people are looking for a bit more content, I did publish a loosely affiliated adventure “Fruiting Towers” in Fight On #13, and have a few more adventures in the wings that will eventually see the light of day.  But they’re not about defining setting, and it’d be a shame if people took anything in them as “canon” not to be contradicted.

what can you tell us about the development of the new classes that we have gotten a peek at on the blog, Scientist, Robot, Moktar, Insect Man? will there be more unique classes lower down?

I tried to be very conservative with these classes.  Since my only playtesting is my home campaign, and my players aren’t actually playing these classes, there’s limited playtesting with them - they only get play as NPC’s.

Scientist - this is a technology-themed spellcaster.  He’s got a bit more hit points, but his powers are more limited. He chooses them once and then he’s stuck with that choice.  I was definitely trying to avoid any kind of decision-tree where you have to plan a character’s life out in advance, so there’s virtually no dependencies between powers.  I was trying to go more spells here than feats.

Robot - these are like monks.  I love the whole idea where monks and assassins have to kill higher level characters before they can reach a new level, which inspired the bit where you have to get spare parts from a higher level robot. They have a fixed list of powers as they level, like monks, or they can use normal weapons.  They’re fairly tough compared to monks, but they will struggle to find healing while in the dungeon - they really need scrapyards to repair themselves.

Moktar - this is just a solution to the problem of first level characters dying a lot.  So it’s a fighter analog, with high strength but low dexterity due to buffoonish clumsiness, and a lot of hit points at first level.  That second level takes a lot of XP to hit though, so they don’t end up vastly more powerful than a fighter of equivalent experience, and they have deep communication problems with NPC’s as well

Insect-Men - this is an undead-fighting specialist.  They are immune to undead except for mummy rot (which I left in because otherwise all those Egyptian pyramids in the Lanthanide Wastes would be overrun with insect-men). So if you’ve got a deep and abiding fear of level drain, here’s your solution.  Because I _will_ be draining your levels.

As for more classes - I don’t know.  If I think of something cool, I’ll toss it in.  Maybe mutants would be cool, you could roll for a random mutation at every level.

You’ve suggested that the ASE has 8 levels total, how much of this content is done, and are you still feeling the inspiration and desire to create more ASE content? Secondly how has your approach to ASE and thoughts on it changed since between the publication of ASE I and now, on the eve of ASE II?

I was actually thinking 9 levels - the 8th level is just the last level with an entrance directly accessible from outside.  Levels 2 and 3 are done, I’m just going through proofreading right now - wait, I’m doing this interview now and NOT proofreading, so all delays in publication are now your fault - and then comes layout & publication. Level 4 exists as a partial map with a few notes sketched on it.  I do my best work at the last minute, by which I mean I wait to the last minute to do any work of any kind...

Yes, I’m still feeling the inspiration - this is my home campaign after all!  If I stop coming up with content, it all falls apart.

Since I don’t really plan ahead very much for what future levels hold, there’s not too many ways for me to change my mind on anything.  Well, in my “ideas.doc” I did see one thing - Giant Turkeys - that I have no idea what I was thinking and that will never make it into the dungeon.  There will be no Giant Turkeys.  That is not an awesome encounter.  Maybe somebody else could make it awesome, but that person is not me.  So that is the sum total of design changes I’ve made so far.

ASE has a fairly bright and cheery tone despite its deadliness and the more disturbing themes (slavery, cannibalism and wholesale drug abuse come to mind), is this purely a function of the dungeon’s gonzo elements or an intentional turn away from grim settings?

I couldn’t play a grim setting with a straight face - I just don’t buy it.  I’m way more “Thundarr the Barbarian” than “The Day After.”   So while everything is bleak on the surface, it’s all ripe with potential for endless awesome.  The terrible situations are always very volatile - the idea is that the players get to be the fulcrum of change, in whatever direction they want. So yes, totally intentional.

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Thanks for taking the time to answer our little interview, and i hope everyone finds it as useful as i did.


  1. Great interview. I'm eagerly anticipating the next ASE book.

  2. Good interview!Thanks to James and Gustie for doing this.