Fellow Designers: Scott Starkey & Carl Klutzke of Dogtown Games

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Dogtown GamesWhen preparing for my last “Fellow Designers” post about David Whitcher, I asked David who he thought would be good designers to put on my list to interview … he pointed me to Scott & Carl of Dogtown Games.

The Mother Lode of Sticky GulchI first became aware of Scott Starkey in the early days at the Board Game Designers Forum (probably 3 or 4 different wiki software changes ago for that site) as a smart designer who also was a good artist.  He was just releasing “The Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch” at that time.

I met Carl Klutzke for the first time at last year’s Protospiel in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I was impressed with the clarity and directness of StoryCardsCarl’s feedback on the designs during that get-together.  And I had a very good time dying very quickly in a futuristic group robot-piloting game.  (Beware the vermin — they will destory your machinery!)  Carl’s “StoryCards” is the other main product available from Dogtown.

I sent Scott & Carl a list of the same questions via e-mail and received responses from each of them.  Here is how that exchange turned out …

Q1> Your Dogtown Games site shows 2 games — “Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch” and “StoryCards” … people can read the game descriptions on your site, but I’d like to know more about when were they developed and how did they come about?

Scott: In early 2000, had an epiphany – or perhaps a New Year’s resolution – to stop being a game-design hobbyist, and become a game designer. That distinction opened a flood of ideas for me, including Mother Lode and a few others which have continued to be hacked on. So, the context that we think about ourselves can make a big difference.

Carl: StoryCards was published in 2007.It was the first roleplaying game ever tested at Protospiel, in 2006: the players had a good time, but the boardgame designers weren’t sure how to give much useful feedback. At that time, however, from the feedback there and from various other playtesters, I decided that it was worth publishing. I had no idea how to acquire a publisher for such a thing, so we did it ourselves. It’s been a good experience.

In some ways StoryCards had been in development for decades, as I had more and more exposure to many different roleplaying games and became dissatisfied with them all. Most old-school RPGs had too many rules, and it interrupted play to have people look them up. And it was silly to have to look those rules up anyway, because most of the situations could be adjudicated with common sense. On the other hand I’ve played a lot of Amber Diceless RPG, which has an amazing setting, but the character attributes are unbalanced, and having the GM arbitrarily adjudicate every single decision put too much pressure on that role and also eliminated the excitement that comes from crits and fumbles in random systems. So I had a lot of vague and uncongealed ideas about how to make roleplaying better, but no core to build upon.

I stumbled across the idea of using cards in 2005 or 2006, I’m not sure when. I was trying to make an RPG that didn’t have a game master (still working on that) and came up with the idea of doing tarot-like card readings to generate adventure ideas. That opened the floodgates to having readings help generate characters, to using card draws to resolve actions, to giving the player hands of cards to help each other and to influence the story, to drawing cards to select the mashup genre setting for the adventure. And I focused very hard on making the game streamlined, to create a pick-up roleplaying game, because I want to spend more time playing than I spend creating characters and adventures. It wasn’t until the game was nearly published that I remembered a previous card-based RPG called Everway, which uses some very similar mechanisms, and I had some concern that I’d unconsciously plagiarized that game, but in the end I think we’ve created a game that’s as distinct from that one as much as different dice-based RPGs are different from each other.

As for the origins of the cards themselves, that’s described in the manual, which is a free PDF available from StoryCardsRPG.com.

Development on the game hasn’t actually stopped. Because the rules are published as a PDF, I intend to improve upon them. I keep seeing great ideas to borrow from other RPGs, I keep thinking of ways to make the game start and play more smoothly, and I’m still working on ways to minimize or eliminate the role of the GM. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to progress on that the way I’d like. But I’m still working on it, and Scotto keeps encouraging me to do so.

Q2> How did Dogtown Games come together?

Carl: I’ll let Scotto field that, since it’s mostly his baby. He’s mostly letting an old friend ride on his coattails.

Scott: Well, I’ve been wanting to produce (and publish?) games ever since I was in high school, and fiddled around with several designs. As I’ve mentioned previously, my early year 2000 epiphany changed my way of thinking about me designing games, and as a result, ideas flowed to me quickly after that point. Dogtown Games came about to bring some of those ideas to fruition.

Dogtown Games is also a vehicle for my illustration business. I have chiefly illustrated game art, but will do other stuff if asked.

Q3> What are your favorite types of games to play?  What games & designers have influenced your designs?

Scott: I like all sorts of games. In college, a group of us (including Carl) got together every Friday night and played Eon Cosmic Encounter, at Dan Lawrence’s house. Dan was the programmer and designer behind one of the first graphic computer RPGs, Telengard, published by Avalon Hill. I learned a lot from our Cosmic Encounter games, and discussing game design theory with Dan and Carl. As a later influence, I’ve also played quite a few games with the German board-gaming platform Brettspielwelt, which introduced me to several games I would have never played otherwise. There I was introduced to RA and Puerto Rico, which are two of my favorite games now. I tend to like shorter games, but in spite of that, I love Die Macher which can run 4-5 hours. It certainly doesn’t feel like a 5 hour game, and experiencing it (from a game design perspective) is like watching the gears of a finely crafted watch. It’s elegant and wonderful.

Personal plug time: As for role-playing games, I love Carl’s StoryCards, because it reflects the way we like to do role-playing, and has evolved out of us doing RPGs going back to high school, really. (We’re talkin’ the 80s here, man!) The method which quickly creates adventures and characters has led to some amazing one-shot adventures that still stick in my mind. I didn’t design or invent StoryCards, but I am a satisfied customer!

Carl: I like all kinds of games, but RPGs are my favorite. I spent my formative years surrounded by cornfields, so the urge for adventure and travel has always been strong. Also I much prefer to play with my friends instead of against them: I find the recent trend toward cooperative boardgames (Lord of the Rings, Pandemic) very exciting. I also like games with intricate rules and/or components that lead to unexpected emergent events: Cosmic Encounter, Dominion, and Magic: The Gathering are good examples.

Q4> What are your favorite types of games to design?

Carl: I suppose like most people that I prefer to design games that I’d like to play. So that means games that simulate adventures, and games that have cooperative elements (whether or not they are fully cooperative). I also have an itch to design a game where the players build things in such a way that they not only are effective but also self-expressive: not much progress on that yet.

Scott: Whatever I’m working on currently is my favorite type of game! 😀  The idea just hits me to design a certain type of game and I usually plunge in. I guess I try to combine my loves of German “family style” games, and my love of rules-in-the-cards Ameritrash like Cosmic Encounter.

Q5> How do you go about the design process?  Any tips you would like to leave for other designers?

Scott: My ideas often come from trying trying to meld a clever mechanic with a clever theme. But the clever theme is the fun part for me.

My best advice: Try to simplify whereever you can. Keep only the rules and components that are essential to making the game fun. Extra rules makes your game more complicated for people to learn and limits your audience. Extra components makes your game more expensive to produce, and limits the number of publishers that will look at it.

Also, if you gather a group of testers, try to resist the urge to play, yourself. You will be better able to judge how the session runs if you are not one of the players. (Play if you have to, but if you have enough players, don’t.)

Carl: What works best for me is to set aside time to work as soon as I get up each morning. At that point my creative self has woken up but my inner critic is still asleep, so that’s the best time for me to generate content without telling myself that it’s too stupid to use. Doing that every single day is ideal, but it’s hard to make it a priority without a looming deadline: having to get a prototype together for Protospiel helps immensely with that.

Creativity seems to be a cyclical process: come up with as many ideas as possible, then discard all but the ones that work best together. Do that a few times, develop a prototype, playtest, repeat.

Playtest, playtest, playtest, playtest. It’s nearly impossible to evaluate your own ideas, and you can’t see what you can’t see. Multiple perspectives and suggestions gives you more raw design power than doing it alone.

In addition to playing a wide variety of games, I read a lot on topics like usability, creativity, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics. I hope that gives me some insight into what makes a game exciting and fun. But there’s no substitute for working on and playtesting your own games. Our brains learn best by making as many new mistakes as possible: you can’t make mistakes if you’re not creating.

But any advice you take from me should be taken with with a block of salt. I haven’t really accomplished that much yet. Much of what I’d say is drawn from studying the advice of others at least as much as from my own experience.

Q5a> Do you participate in a regular designers group?  If so, how does that influence your process?

Carl: Scotto and I started a monthly game design circle a few years ago. It’s usually just the two of us playtesting each other’s latest designs. My son has developed some good playtest insight as well, and he’ll be joining us at Protospiel this year. We’d love to have some other designers join us: if you’re within driving distance of mid-north or central Indiana, please let us know!

Scott: As Carl mentioned, we have a “Game Designer Circle” which meets fairly regularly at Carl or my house (and very occasionally elsewhere). It’s sometimes just a “Game Designer line-segment” with just Carl and me. So, yes… if there is anyone out there in the Lafayette to Indy area, please contact us.

Q6> How often have you attended Protospiel/Pow-Wow type events, and what do you get out of them?  Any interesting stories you’d like to share?

Scott: I’ve attended Protospiel every year since 2006, I believe. To any readers, if you have never been to one, and you are seriously designing games, you should really come. It will be in Michigan again this year, but heard that the group from Texas is starting a Protospiel South there this year. There’s also a Protospiel West that has floated around the west coast.

I have more fun at Protospiel than at a “conventional” convention. There are really some good games that are brought to the table there, and after a little polish by some very smart people, they become great games. To be part of that process is a great joy.

Carl: This year will be my fourth Protospiel. I look forward to it more than any event all year. I love learning new games, and I love helping people make their games better. Sometimes I have so much fun playing other peoples’ games I have a hard time bringing out my own to playtest. Getting feedback can be exhilarating or traumatizing–sometimes both!–but it’s incredibly valuable if you want to make the best games you can.

I’m not familiar with Pow-Wow. I’d love to find something like Protospiel for RPG designers: maybe Dreamation qualifies, I haven’t been there.

No interesting stories immediately leap to mind, and for the sake of actually sending you a reply someday, I won’t try to dredge one up. I can say though that I’m absurdly proud of the fact that the photo on the main page of the Protospiel website shows me standing over a playtest of Scotto’s Survival Island Deathmatch.

Q6a> Any other games-related cons/events that you attend and would like to share your experiences about?

Carl: I attend one or two local cons a year, but the only other major con I attend is GenCon. Mostly because it’s also local: in 2007 and 2008 it was literally across the street from where I was working. Scotto and I have run StoryCards events at GenCon for several years, even before the game was published. That’s been fun but frustrating: event registrations will usually fill up, but that doesn’t really mean anything as far as what attendance to expect when the event time arrives. We’ve had games where everyone showed up and brought friends, so there were more players than we’d planned. We’ve had other games where only one or two show up, or nobody at all. So this year we’re going to see about getting in with a room of other indie RPG games, called Indie Game Explosion. That sort of collective presence seems to work much better than trying to do anything by yourself.

Two years ago I bought a share in the Forge’s booth so I could promote StoryCards and be able to sell decks at the con: you’re not allowed to sell at Gen Con unless you have a dealer booth. That was a great experience, and I sold enough decks to break even for the cost of my share. But I could only do that because it was my first year: the Forge has an extremely generous program to help fledgling developers like that: the first year the buyin is minimal, the second year it’s twice that, and after that you need to make other arrangements so that the Forge has room for other newbies to come in. However, I’m not excited enough about marketing to sell my game the way I should, so it seemed unlikely to me that I would be able to break even when my buyin doubled the following year. Fortunately by that point I’d been contacted by Indie Press Revolution, a web-based operation that does collective marketing and sales for indie RPG designers. Now I don’t have to get a booth presence at GenCon: I can run games and then direct the players to the IPR booth for purchases.

I guess the main thing I’ve learned is that if you’re going to self publish a game, building relationships with other people is invaluable. There are some great people out there who are willing to help, I suspect even moreso in the boardgame world than in the even smaller indie RPG world. I’m very grateful for the assistance I’ve received.

Scott: Like Carl, I have attended GenCon for several years, and had a booth for a couple years. The booth prices are out of my price range, but I’m glad I did it when I did. But it’s hard work!

Q7> What are you working on currently?

Scott: Um… super-secret stuff that you’ll have to see at Protospiel! 😀

Carl: As I mentioned above, I’m still kicking around new ideas for StoryCards. I’ve also been making more changes to the cooperative robot piloting game you played last year. I’d like to get both of them prepared to bring to Protospiel this year. I’m really glad to have that as an objective deadline each year, because otherwise I’m not sure I’d drive myself enough to get things done. I love designing games, but there are just so many other interesting things to do–especially when you have a spouse and kids and an Internet connection–it’s hard to stick with your priorities and keep making progress without some external pressure to motivate you.

Q8> What are your hopes/plans for the next couple of years?

Carl: I’ve wanted to be a professional game designer since high school, probably even earlier. I’ve had a very successful IT career that’s always felt like a disappointment because it wasn’t the career I wanted. I’ve decided that I’m tired of living that way: I need to enjoy my career for what it is and also enjoy making games because it’s fun to do. Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com has what he calls his “sex and cash” theory: creative people do some things because they’re exciting and sexy, other things we do because they pay the bills. We all dream of combining the two, but not many people manage it. He’s observed that the people who are at peace with that division tend to make more progress in both areas. Right now my wife’s studying toward a career that could replace my income, possibly allowing me to stay home and design games full time, but that’s in the future, and that plan could be derailed in any number of ways. For now I’m in an analysis career that lets me use a lot of the skills I also like to use for game design, while still allowing me enough personal time to spend with family and friends and work on my games, and that’s great.

I definitely want to put out a second edition of StoryCards. I want to get the robot game in a state to find a publisher: I have some concerns about that, because the game will have a lot of bits and could be expensive to produce, but it will be the game it needs to be. I’ll keep shopping it around to publishers and in the meantime work on the next game, whatever that turns out to be.

Scott: Well, I signed a contract for a game I tested at Protospiel, and will be published by (company name redacted). I’m pretty psyched about working with them! I am trying to help them iron out a few details before publication. When they publicly announce a release date, I can say more then. Whee!

Aside from that, I’m not an aggressive person by nature, but I am trying to be more aggressive when it comes to selling my product to others. So expect more good stuff in the next couple of years. I have some good, sellable, fun stuff that is waiting to be published. I need to either produce it myself, or have someone else do it for me.

Thanks to Scott & Carl for taking the time to work through my questions!

(I will on occassion discuss another board game designer or computer game developer with a “Fellow Designer” post.  Also, watch for me to spotlight some of my own games with “Spotlight On…” posts, and look at games and creative works by other people with “Others’ Works” posts.)

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