Interview with Zero Bufale

I’ve finally caught up on interviews! This one is recent, conducted/presented at Twitch at March 29, just a few days ago. It’s part of a series on influential or notable game designers and publishers, and at some point, clearly, someone blew a fuse and included me.

Here’s the link at Twitch TV.

The good news for anyone here is that I’ve been thinking about how to get away from the same content in interview after interview, partly because I usually receive the same questions, so this time I tried to break new conversational ground. Michele, the interviewer, is aware of this concern of mine and helped stay with more specific or more pointed topics rather than “gee who are you, gee what was the Forge, gee how did you get into publishing.” Since he shares my love of two games – Champions and Over the Edge – we were able to dig into a lot of specific game content, especially how both fed into Sorcerer and what I worked hard to do with Champions Now.

I also deliberately went off-leash at several points, as I’ve grown tired of being such a nice guy and generally getting screwed for it – whatever, I decided, if I feel like saying it, I’ll say it. So whatever entertainment value that may provide, enjoy.

The bad news is that this thing is a monster at three and a half hours – and the event was even longer than that, as we took questions from the viewers for at least an hour further, which aren’t included in the video. I decided to be direct as possible in answering, so who knows how that may be received. I think it may be time to review why such question-sessions are riddled with boilerplate from thirty years ago, or rather, how such things as “how do I control my players so they don’t split the party” are even imaginable, let alone comfort-zone standard topics.


14 responses to “Interview with Zero Bufale”

  1. Great interview

    I really liked the interview and appreciated the punchier style. Regarding the question about the kinds of questions that occur in these sessions: I suspect that a major issue is a lack of a widely shared understanding of and vocabulary to talk about the basics of the activity. Furthermore, it’s been in the interest of many of the people involved in the commercial side of the hobby to actively obscure those basics. (I.e., the figure of “The Game Master” that you have been trying to deconstruct is an extremely important marketing device for people trying to sell a lot of a certain kind of book.) With a question like the one you quote here: in part I think it’s a comfort zone question because there’s a mountain of RPG products out there that are either explicitly or implicitly written and designed in a way that tells the reader that they only work if the GM controls the players.

  2. The boiler-plate questions

    The boiler-plate questions seem to go hand-in-hand with the continued approach of rules writings or advice columns which rely on tru-isms/memes which don't nail down specific techniques (which there are many) to address these "common issues". This goes for many games, across many rule systems and approaches to design. 

    Ill talk about the game I'm playing, but is the current edition of Runequest. The text has "maximum game fun" up front to paper over rules ambiguities rather than having actual explanations on how to apply rules or techniques. 

    Example – the game is vague on ties in resolution outside of combat. If a character has two opposed Runes or Passions which can constrain a player characters behavior, and both rolls succeed. What happens? Does the player choose which one to follow, does the GM? The answer from errata is "do what's most fun", which is entirely unhelpful. We had to formalize a rule based on what we did in play, which wasn't "most fun" rather "here is a consequential choice". 

    Charitably, I think the intent behind some of this advice good. Do what causes the lest amount of friction, but when you dig into it abit it is clearly unhelpful. If any of these sayings actually worked, these questions wouldn't exist. 

    • JC, I had the EXACT same

      JC, I had the EXACT same thought when I read the "Maximum game fun" text after actually playing RQG. My first thought was, "They haven't finished designing this game and this text is here to cover for it."

  3. Escaping the Constraints of Mass Media

    First of all, kudos for speak some (ugly) truth. Something must be in the air because I've found myself saying some not particularly polite things to some people lately to.

    At about the halfway mark in that video Ron says something really interesting about what do we do with superheroes when we don't have to serve the perpetual motion machine that is franchise publishing? How many people see that serialized forever quality as a defining component of what a superhero is? Or if not quite a defining feature, as the marker of "success". I know my superhero is good because I can write about him forever or we played the game for 5 years or whatever.

    This leapt to my attention particuarly because I just happened to recently look at two different games based on two different popular genres of network television. And both games are totally fueled by joking revelry in self-deprecating trope indulgence. If they were just "having a bit of fun" with the genre that would be one thing, but they both felt kind of mean spirited towards the genre, towards the fans of the genre, and towards those of us who would think about playing that genre. "These shows are the worst. We're the worst for liking them. And now we're going to revel in the stupidity of it all as we roll around in dumb tropes."

    And it occured to me that so many of these repetative flaws, which is what a lot of these called out tropes were, are the result of the limitations of network televsion as a medium. I've played both 5 episode and 9 episode games of Primetime Adventures and the difference was night and day. Now imagine doing 22 episodes across 10 seasons with the added pressure of budget concerns, contract concerns, staffing changes, set/location availability and so on. Of course, you end up with some pretty repetative, weirdly shoehorned sideways stuff in there.

    And both these games just kind of go "that's it, that's the genre" and think they're being cleverly insightful and witty about it. And then I heard Ron's comment about superheroes free of the concerns of comics publishing and I just sat up and said, "Yes, there, THAT!"

    • Great points. (I’m curious

      Great points. (I'm curious about which games you're referring to, but appreciate if you think that disclosing them would be an uneccessary distraction to your overall point).

      I wonder if a big part of the rampant dysfunction seen in design, play, and commerce coming from the hobby's institutional/industrial precinct is the widespread belief among those hobbyists that role-playing will always be a lesser/secondary medium compared to novels, television, films, comics, etc. And so the idea that we as role-players can do superheroes better than the people publishing the comics and producing the movies can is alien to them (and probably unwelcome to them as well).

    • Building on Jon’s point about

      Building on Jon's point about role-playing as a secondary or lesser medium — I think many people get stuck in the analogies and don't appreciate or understand the medium in terms of itself, which hampers our ability to speak about the medium. Role-playing is not "theatre with dice" no more than theatre is "role-playing without dice". The point stands if I were to swap in whatever other analogies regarding video games, fiction writing, etc. We can twist ourselves into all sorts of knots without advancing the conversation about role-playing games in and of themselves.

      Asides from hurting the conversation about role-playing games, I think this also contributes to the whole syndrome many GMs have about trying to attain the creative fulfillment (and other objectives) of another medium. The GM as failed fantasy author, failed actor, failed director, failed video game programmer, failed visual artist, etc. They project their other ambitions into the game and then implement the techniques of GM control to shape the game to meet their aspirations. And when it fails to do so, because it can only ever fail, the GM implements even more control (and seeks out more GM advice from the texts or the community). Textbook vicious circle.

      They might be very strong in these other domains, which can add something to the game, but their strength in one area frames the whole experience for everybody. It can create an expectation around the table that everybody has to aspire to a certain baseline of excellence from a foreign medium. Everybody is expected to act well, write well, or draw great character portraits (or whatever else) as a measure of "good" role-playing. But this is counter-factual: games played between non-actors, non-writers, and non-artists run perfectly well. I'd even venture to say that the actors, writers, and artists at the table will benefit from "turning it off" in play.

  4. No leash? Yay! Except …

    I really, really like (and judge as effective comunication) the way you talk about Story Now of late, especially including why intuitive continuity and "story games" aren't it. No way to know where your evolving approach/strategies, your bluntness/leash-lossening, and my own understanding intersect to produce that effect, but as far as I'm concerned, the effect is real.

    I'm not such a fan of the … sweep? scope? to your "that's not even play" opinion as I hear it here. That is, I think there's a too narrow defintion of play conveyed in this particular interview. Similarly, I resist the notion that all fandom is basically toxic. But – there IS toxic fandom, and there IS "play" that isn't actually play, so it's good to hear that said. Besides, HERE (Adept Play) I do want to hear all about the strongest full band Story Now tunes, and not be too worried about other music I may sometimes enjoy.

    • Fandom™ definition has

      Fandom™ definition has changed and been refined. Fandom is not about enjoying a thing, or sharing that enjoyment with others. It is a consumer identity, a lifestyle-brand.

      It is about consumption of the product and related materials. Performing being a fan for others online. Enforcing the social norms of what being a good fan is. In TTRPGS, you see this with folks who claim allegiance to a particular subcultrual identity. Often with bad faith arguments, knowingly distorting history and facts, and attacking/marginalizing/censoring those who go against the grain.

      The toxicity isn't so much about trolls and harassment but forcing conformity and making "consumption" the primary thing a fan does. See folks who buy every supplement and adventure for a game, they barely play.

      Any company with a community manager is cultivating a captive audience, who will always buy a product regardless of if they'll use it.

      It is toxic because the social dynamic moves away from doing the thing for enjoyment in itself – to a whole bunch of unproductive behaviors.

      Check out the seminar Power and Settings for a look at how Glorantha Fandom™ is when folks don't engage as expected and supported.

    • Gordon, I posted something

      Gordon, I posted something here about Ron's card game analogy that he uses in both this interview and the Q&A session he posted there. It might interest you.

    • I’m not such a fan of the …

      I'm not such a fan of the … sweep? scope? to your "that's not even play" opinion as I hear it here. That is, I think there's a too narrow defintion of play conveyed in this particular interview. … HERE (Adept Play) I do want to hear all about the strongest full band Story Now tunes, and not be too worried about other music I may sometimes enjoy.

      We'll have to talk about this in person. I have no idea what you think my definition of play is, in the interview or otherwise, or what you mean by "other music." I don't identify genuine play with Story Now, which I have never said and do not say now. I identify it as the medium in actual practice. There no such thing as a "style" in a medium if you're not producing/using the medium.

    • JC


      Sure, I acknowledged the existence (predominance? VAST predominance? Maybe …) of toxicity – I saw that kind of "fandom" grow at SF conventions through the 80's, 90's, and 00's, so that by 2011 or so, my already kinda-rare attendance became non-existent. I suppose I can't really say much about RIGHT NOW fandoms of various stripes 'cause I'm not really engaged. I belonged to plenty of RPG-related mailing lists back in the day, and now I "follow" nothing on social media. But I certainly feel like I've been involved with plain and simple enthusiasm fandom at times, so I (re)express my concern with overly broad labels.

      The toxicity is a WAY more important issue than my concern, but the concern is there for me, so (to me!) seems worth mentioning.

    • It’s not. I didn’t know, at the time, that the interviewers didn’t keep an archive available. Apparently, appearing once and disappearing is OK with them, and as I say, I didn’t know that until it was all over. I asked them for the original recording but they made “um” noises and never returned.

      Also, this time I didn’t record it myself, which I often do (as backup), and now I never fail to do so. I’ve rescued over a dozen interviews that way.

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