Interview with RPG Designer James “Grim” Desborough

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Let start at the beginning. How did you get your start in RPG publishing, and what would you recommend to new writers today?

I got my start in games writing producing photocopied fan material and zines – very punk. Would be considered illegal to do these days, I’m sure. I’d sell them at conventions and around school, that sort of thing. Eventually me and a friend pitched a bunch of ideas to every RPG company we could find and SJG took the bait – and Munchkin was born. That was my ‘lift off’, I suppose.

Today I’d tell writers that it is an horrendously fractured and absurdly competitive field. That there’s no rules any more. That they’re probably better off self-publishing, but that it’s a lot more work and needs a fine balance of self promotion and not being a dick. When it comes to the fiction I’ve not cracked that yet.

What writers inspire you the most and why?

I would find it hard to point to any particular authors as I read fairly scattershot. I tend to prefer the science fiction authors of the 60s, 70s and 80s though. Harlan Ellison as much for his scathing wit as his work, Philip K Dick for his oddness. Niven and Pournelle for keeping the fantastical grounded. I grew up on comics a great deal, so Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Pat Mills, Warren Ellis and more are huge influences too.

And you occasionally write fiction as well as design games. Tell us a little bit about your writing.

I’ve written two books, one a collection of short stories called ‘Pulp Nova’ which takes a series of old pulp tropes and tries to update them with a more modern sensibility in some ways… so there’s space opera, cowboy, jungle adventure, vigilante and so on, but all with that slightly more self-aware perspective. Trying to get the best of both worlds. My other is a full length novel called ‘Old, Fat Punks’, which is a sort of political commentary and ‘caper’ book about three ageing punks who decide to assassinate the Prime Minister.

Writing is both easier and more difficult than games… there’s no rules to write and test and think about, but plotting and characterisation in a consistent way presents its own challenges – and the fiction market is even more flooded than the games market. It’s a tough thing to break into.

Tell us about the theme behind your latest novel.

‘Old Fat Punks’ is basically just a scream into the void, I guess. There’s a lot of people my age, older, younger, frustrated with the new status quo. The ethical vacuum on ‘both sides’ of the political spectrum. The populist rhetoric on the right, the authoritarian censorship and middle class prudishness on the left. It feels like a desperate, pointless time, and the OFP sort of channels that. Trying to be funny and thoughtful and to carry a message at the same time.

And Pulp Nova?

Of the stories in there I think I like ‘Ace Slamm’ best. It’s a space opera story with obvious references to well known space opera and it’s probably the least successful of the stories if I gauge by my stated aim… but it’s just fun, damn it.

Onto something a little more personal, why do you think are you considered such a controversial figure in gaming?

Way back in the mists of time there was talk about a reboot of the Lara Croft franchise. It wasn’t very public that the writer was Rhianna Pratchett at that time. There’s this one scene that was shown in publicity footage, of Lara being trapped and placed in what was – apparently – sexual peril by one of the baddies.

This kicked off a huge online shitstorm of the kind that have become banal and regular now, but at the time it was a relatively new phenomenon. People were demanding the game be changed, you know how it goes, we’ve seen it play out hundreds of times. In arguing the toss it became apparent that a lot of people – ostensibly liberals – were absolutely NOT any longer in favour of free speech. Certainly not when it comes to depictions of sexual violence, no matter the context, no matter if the aggressor ends up beaten or killed.

This concerned me a great deal. I’ve always been concerned about free speech and peril, violence, threat – whatever its nature – ‘conflict’, most broadly, is the essence of storytelling. Sure, using rape or sexual violence can be lazy, but it’s not always. That’s subjective and that’s no reason to censor artists.

I wrote an article called ‘In Defence of Rape’ speaking about the use of rape (and torture and murder and other forms of nastiness) in fiction and defending it. Most people, it seems, didn’t read past the title, and I’m still getting near-daily shit over it some years later.

How have your critics affected your work?

The funny thing is that I agree with lots of the aims they, the social justice crowd, claim to be prosecuting. I just put free expression and art first, above those concerns. I don’t think you address social concerns by neutering content. I think you make people think about these things by including (or excluding) them and sometimes you just want to be fun. Now though, every time I do anything I’m half thinking about the reaction. Whether to court it or escape the controversy. I struggle to be free of self censure because the idiocy of the extremes is so toxic.

Has it affected you financially?

It’s swings and roundabouts. There’s a lot of people who will back someone or something that pisses off the PC police, but it makes freelancing and other work harder to get, especially for the (relatively speaking) larger companies who don’t want to deal with any potential backlash.

Short term it’s good, long term… probably bad.

I was reading an article the other day about Van Gogh, and how contrary to popular belief, he made great art in spite of his mental illness, not because of it, and how that’s all the more remarkable. What is your experience as a creative dealing with depression?

I think it can fuel creativity in a couple of ways. First it can give you a different perspective and secondly there is a kind of… fierce introspection and focus that can come with depression. Other times, of course, it just means you can’t work at all. Doubt, exhaustion, misery, they don’t help at all but sometimes aspects of it can.

More harm than help though.

Do you think the negative attention you get has an effect on your depression, or does the debate fuel you?

Anger is better than sadness. I try not to think about it and I wouldn’t want anyone to treat me any differently. When I’m really down though, it does make it worse. The frustration of people not even attempting to listen, understand or see the other side of the debate and being painted as things I’m not (all the *ists) is a constant grind though.

Any closing remarks?

Creative endeavours are hard for everyone these days. If you can, pay artists somehow, especially the independents. Buy a book, chuck them a buck a month on Patreon, remove adblock on their blogs or Youtube channels. Its tough, even for people who are good. A culture of patronage really helps everyone.

 

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