Countdown to IndieCade: Enter Vornheim, RPG City Where Pornstars Play

on Tuesday, Sep. 25th

The Countdown to IndieCade continues today! Only 10 days remain until downtown Culver City is taken over by the International Festival of  Independent Games. Today we go old school, and dive into the world of paper and pencil RPGs.

Zak Smith (aka Zak S.) might just be one of the best known Dungeons and Dragons game masters on the internet. The realms of his imagination are the setting for the series I Hit It With My Axe, in which pornstars with serious geek cred like Kimberly Kane played D&D. The series ran for over 30 episodes on the gamer site The Escapist and showed that the traditionally looked-down on hobby has all kinds of fans.

For this year’s IndieCade, Zak S. has been invited to show off his book Vornheim: The Complete City Kit. Not only a guide to the main setting of the series, Vornheim is a tool for game masters who want to run a campaign in a dynamic urban environment, one of the most difficult conceptual tricks to pull off in any kind of game. [Think about how long it took Rockstar to have the cities in the Grand Theft Auto games feel real. Now think about doing that all by your lonesome and with a polygon count of zero.]

Zak, whose career has taken him from the Yale MFA program to alt-porn and the art gallery, world talked with us about how an RPG book wound up in a festival known for video games, how the indie game world contrasts with the art world, and whether RPGs get the love they deserve.

TURNSTYLE: What does getting into IndieCade mean for you personally?

Zak S.: For me personally, it’s sort of an extension of this thing that seems to happen where things I do get noticed in distant places by people I didn’t know anything about–like I did drawings for Gravity’s Rainbow and next thing I know I’m invited to speak to literature departments, I wrote and drew about working in porn and then Men’s Fitness magazine wants to talk to me. Just kinda happens.

TS: For the project?

ZS: I think it’s cool for the rest of the DIY D&D community that an RPG product–not even a new game, just a D&D-related book–got recognized next to all these much more impressive and expensive and technical things made by budding geniuses. I hope that catches on.

TS: Do tabletop RPGs get the love and respect they deserve in the gaming world?

ZS: In the game scene, people who like to play games love them and people who don’t–don’t, which is as it should be I guess. Pen and paper games take a lotta thought and people skills–not everybody has that extra energy after 8 hours of work or school.

As for respect? No. D&D gets no respect–writers, artists, game designers and creative types of all kinds love it, but it is a very easy target for people on Big Bang Theory to tell very old jokes. But people who like jokes that old are all assholes anyway, so who cares?

TS: How did you come to make a sourcebook out of the Vornheim games? Is the book a reflection of your original notes, or did you have to systematize a lot of your thinking?

ZS: A little of both. A lot of it grew out of the blog I keep about my game–I use it as a kind of notebook and sounding board for new ideas, like “Hey guys, do you think this would work?” Then the things that stick to the wall I kept and built on.

TS: What makes cities particularly tricky for tabletop RPGs?

ZS: Man, you could write a book. Ok: mostly just that these games are about open-ended problem-solving and–unlike a video game–the number of resources a player could bring to bear in a functioning city (as opposed to a little deathmaze with only one or two ways out) is almost infinite. Like in a city, a player can go “Ok, for my plan, I need cod liver oil and five mezzo sopranos” and as a GM you’re like “Well there’s no good reason I can think of why you shouldn’t be able to get them…

TS: Do you pull a lot of inspiration from your players, or is your approach to world-building more about what inspires you to share?

ZS: I start with what I’m into and then, from that, more depth gets added in whatever direction the players are interested in. Like the Church of Vorn was originally just there because my girlfriend wanted to play a cleric. Then a few sessions in she’s like “Ok, well where do I sleep?” I guess in a nunnery of some kind… then “Is there an older or more important Sister I could talk to?” Well I guess there has to be since it’s the biggest city around… stuff like that. There’s a reason there’s a lot about bars and legal procedures in there.

TS: What excites you the most about the indie game scene right now?

ZS: For me, being in the fine art business, what I like is just seeing all this creativity from people who are not the usual suspects with the same resumes. In the art world, it’s a bunch of people who all went to a certain set of schools and have a certain kind of education and are aware of certain approaches to take to creativity that are sanctioned and will allow you to make a living as a creative person and the indie game scene is largely outside that. I got lucky and am able to live my whole life making art–is good to see people who do other things coming in and showing what they got.

TS: What are you looking forward to seeing at IndieCade?

ZS: I am actually dreading it. I think my little D&D book is going to look really stupid next to like laser-guided pink robots that 3D-print custom nanoprobes based on questionnaire answers that rewrite players’ DNA so they have kangaroo legs and then extrude waveform-distorted existential filaments so you can exist and not exist simultaneously in games where players try to score-vampire off each other by degrading each others’ ontology curves and launching attacks in nine dimensions using pseudoextant epistemology mines.

I hope they take it easy on me.

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games starts October 4th with the Red Carpet Awards, and opens to the public on Oct. 6th in Culver City. Return to Turnstyle tomorrow for another developer interview preview from the festival.

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