This is a crosspost from my new Medium blog. You should check it out!
Welcome to The Author’s Angle — a look into the minds of Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy authors. I’m your host, Lucienne LeBeau, author of the Silver Hollow Trilogy and short stories.
Recently, through a group and podcast I’m involved in called El Satanico: The Ninth Level of Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Culture, I met a fellow author named John Fountain. I had no idea that he was the backbone and genius behind the RPG When Worlds Collide, a game that a couple of friends of mine had gotten into some time ago.
This Facebook group has a wide variety of interests, and being an author myself, I wanted to feature any of the members who were interested in featuring their work.
I was thrilled when Mr. Fountain sent me a message, and off I went with my interview questions.
If you love role play games, I highly recommend picking up a copy of When Worlds Collide. It’s filled with endless possibilities and is overall a smashing good time.
From Mr. Fountain: Some background to the system.
We published in 2010, but had been working on the system for a few years prior to this, including some playtests. When Worlds Collide was a company first started by a guy named Simon, who said he worked for TSR back in the day, and was the Dungeon Master of the D&D group my wife and I joined. After a while we were brought into the company because we had a certain passion for gaming.
The initial idea was that the company would write short D&D scenarios designed to be played at conventions in a 2 hour slot. That’s half the time allocated for game-play at a typical convention. Sometimes players are late signing up, or have other commitments but still want to roll some dice to feed their itch. This was all to have been done under the OGL, the Open Games License, but it was around this time we heard rumours (who knows how true they were) that the OGL was going to be withdrawn and nobody would be allowed to publish under it. So we thought the only way to be able to publish would be with a home-grown game.
So we started bouncing ideas around, both for mechanics and a world view. I don’t remember whose idea it was to have a system where you could jump between genres with the same characters, but that sparked something and we ran with it.
The initial mechanics were designed by committee, so we essentially had a camel instead of a horse, but I eventually took over the main design role. I had a lot of help from my friend Alistair Dandy, without whom the book would never have been published (he’s also our main GM at conventions, my boss, and long-suffering IT support). The company lost Simon down the line due to creative differences, and other partners either left or took no part in the design process, so it was essentially me and Ali doing all the work, with my wife critiquing the look and format of the book that was taking shape.
I’d been designing home-brew systems since I was a kid, and I brought a lot of ideas in from those systems. But when you’re building a system that has to work for every genre you have to try and account for every eventuality, which obviously is impossible, and was a source of internal conflict for me, as well as trying to balance playability and realism.
What films, books, and other works inspired When Worlds Collide?
I’ve been reading and watching movies for as long as I can remember, and everything goes in and gets jiggled around. So it’s pretty difficult to work out exactly which had direct influence on the system. I think the key thing is HP Lovecraft, who I discovered at around the same time I started gaming. We used to play Dragon Warriors by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson when I was 14 or 15, and moved into the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I used to GM Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia, but we’d also play Judge Dredd, Traveller, and Middle Earth Role-Playing. So all of those were key influences. I stopped playing in my early 20s, and moved on to trying to write my own novels, which never really went anywhere. I went into higher education, eventually getting a First Class Honours in Film & Television, but wrecking my mental health in the process. As to influences on the system itself, there were no real “hard” influences, but looking back films like GI Samurai (1979) and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), and TV series such as Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007) and Sliders (1995–2000) are probably the closest to being ancestors to the system. We had a player at one of the conventions describe the system as “Stargate, but run by Satan”, which I’m more than happy with.
How did you decide upon your gaming system?
As I said, we got a camel instead of a horse, but camels are pretty useful too. We tried to decide on the key mechanic for some time, and settled on a 3D6 system for most things. We figured everyone at least has D6s, and would easily be able to source them. But we immediately blew that out of the water by having different dice for Damage (d8, d10, d12). I was determined never to use a d20, as it’s synonymous with D&D which I really have no love for at all. We also crammed in a d100 for other mechanics too.
Basically, we needed a system that could handle anything being thrown at it. Multi-universes, multi-genres, and the like meant we couldn’t tailor a specific mechanic into a specific game-world: everything had to be usable everywhere. And that made it complex. More complex than I would like, but we were saddled with this initial mechanic, so had to work around it. But it’s not as complicated as many systems out there, when you get used to it. We have Stats (which are your building blocks) and everything pretty much cascades down from them. We have Attributes, such as Life-Points, an exhaustion/KO mechanic called Shock-Incapacity, and everyone’s favourite, Stress. We also have things called Skill-Sets. One of the key things in the game is that we wanted everyone to be able to try and accomplish any task, even if they didn’t have the skill for it. Skill-Sets, derived from your Stats, gave a little base aptitude in various categories. Then we had skills, which we called Expertise, which gave you better chances of success. On top of all of this we had Special Abilities, which set you up above the boring NPCs and filthy peasants. These were key to the system, and we spent a long time hammering them out. Here I think I was influenced by the old Judge Dredd system, GURPS, and the Hero system, as well as various superhero games. Most of the book is devoted to the Special Abilities, and Mutations which can be bad as well as good.
So, it looks complicated at first, and the Character Sheet is a two page info-blast, but it’s still simpler than things like HARN or RoleMaster.
One thing I’m quite proud of is the Hit-Location rule: you just take the raw rolled dice you used for your hit roll and transpose it onto a hit-location chart. You don’t make another roll, like you would in Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest and those kind of systems. It speeds up play once players are used to it.
What’s the best part about having an unreliable reality?
Simply put: you can get away with anything. You can slide players across genres even within the same game, you can keep things fresh. And you can keep them guessing. I like to layer my adventures with horror, regardless of the main genre. That’s coming from being a Call of Cthulhu GM in my youth. I want to make them “feel” something, and if that’s creeping paranoia then that’s all for the better. No storyline is off-limits when reality itself is malleable. Fear and stress are powerful story-telling tools, which is probably why the Stress mechanic in the game seems to be everyone’s favourite. Obviously influenced by Sanity in Call of Cthulhu, but more player centred, we have a mechanic where PCs can lose their minds due to stress, but get to pick how they respond (Fight, Flight, or Hysteria) so they can actually roleplay it in keeping with their character.
The other thing is that you can bring in Mutations and supernatural/paranormal Special Abilities whenever you like: reality is unreliable. And it’s more fun that way.
Where did you find working out the system and writing to be the most challenging?
Definitely the Magic System. I’m not a fan of magic in games, but it needed to be included. I think I went down a rabbit-hole and was never entirely happy with the rabbits I found. I think I made the whole magic system too complicated. At the start, we thought it would be better to allow players to build spell “effects” rather than have specific spells. So we had to design a system that had categories of effects, which also fit into the world-view of the greater system. And it got complicated. Each category needed to have subdivisions and levels of effect. But for the ethos of “everyone can attempt everything” even the hardest levels needed to be achievable. I also got bogged down with trying to make the magic system “realistic” which is a major mistake. It’s magic: it shouldn’t be realistic. I think the core idea was and is still viable, but I tripped over myself multiple times in the design, and it suffers for that.
Where did you find writing the system to be the most fun?
I’m not sure I ever had “fun” writing the system, but I can tell you the parts that have brought the most joy when watching players. Stress and Rift-Travel. The Stress system seems to be loved by the players, even though they frequently try and squirm out of gaining Stress. I wanted to stop Player Characters being sociopaths. So they gain Stress for all sorts of things unless they have a Special Ability that negates gain from a particular source. So, combat for instance is negated by the Special Ability: Battle Hardened. If you don’t have that, you gain Stress from conflicts. The other one which causes consternation is gaining Stress from issues of Morality. Other systems have Alignments which stop you acting in certain ways: When Worlds Collide says you can do what you like, but you’ll suffer for it. Murder, theft and torture are all morally wrong: you can still do it, but you’ll gain Stress, and Stress means you may develop mental health issues. There’s usually a glow of joy from the table when a player hits a Crisis-Point on their Stress track. Some players even do things deliberately to gain Stress so they can have fun role-playing their response. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Of course, you get some players saying “I’m a soldier, I shouldn’t gain stress from killing people.” These players have never heard of battlefield PTSD. Besides, the Special Abilities are there to get if players want to build a match-fit sociopath.
The other thing is Rift-Travel. In WWC different universes, different realities are connected by things called Rifts. These can be natural or artificial, depending on the game you want to play. Travel through Rifts is traumatic, both to your psyche and your DNA. So you get things called Rift Hallucinations, which are horrific mental images that GMs can litter with plot –points or just use to scare the hell out the players. You also get Rift Mutations, which can be free Special Abilities, or things that are deeply disturbing like your eyes and mouth healing over, a giant mouth growing in your stomach, or your skin becoming translucent. There are hundreds of Mutations in the book, all divided into categories. Again, you’ll get some players actively seeking out dangerous Rifts just so they can get some fun mutations. It’s really nice to watch players getting excited about these elements of the game.
Any tips for beginners to this RP?
Don’t panic. It’s not as complex as it seems. It’s just the product of someone with autism spectrum disorder (me) trying to cater for every eventuality. Which is why there are rules for stone slingshots alongside rules for HERF energy cannons and why the Hazards section include rules for characters getting hanged as well as drowning. You won’t need to know all of those rules to play the game. You can wing it, just like we frequently do. If a rule annoys you, chuck it out. Once you’ve bought the game, it’s yours to fiddle with. It’s a big book, filled with a lot of information, but most of that is me waffling on about stuff. The basic mechanic is simple: 3d6 + bonuses vs a Difficulty rating, just like other games out there. It’s the scope of the game that makes it seem complicated. If you need to, grab some of the published adventures: I write the adult-content disturbing shit, Ali writes the fun, sci-fi stuff. Or design your own game-world. You don’t have to keep your players in any specific genre. Use a Rift at the end of each adventure to hop realities, or alternatively just use the system to explore a single reality. It’s up to you. It’s your game now.
This system, and its world rules, are so cohesive it feels inspiring to read and may even bring players to create their own worlds within it. How do you feel knowing you’ve created a world that truly has limitless possibilities?
I feel good about it. The meta-narrative was one of the first things the group came up with: that humans were actually trapped in their own solar system by the ancient “planet builders”, and had to punch their way out by breaking the mantle between realities. And of course, if players don’t like that world view, they can build their own. It was always written with the intention that players and GMs would go and use the ideas as a spring-board. One of our frequent players and supporters has used the rules to run his own campaign and game-world for his gaming group and at conventions, and it works really well.
I just want players to enjoy it. I’m currently working on two other RPG systems, when my mental health issues allow, and I’m hoping players find those enjoyable too. It’s my job as a game designer to give players the tools to build something fun that they can share with their friends. I really hope I’ve managed that, even though our fan-base is extremely small (we only work out of a single convention in the UK). But I’ve made some close friends because of the system, and that for me will always be the most important part. Although selling a few more wouldn’t be amiss. I couldn’t have done this without the support of two people: my wife, who is legitimately one of the loveliest people on the planet, and my friend Alistair who sweated blood to get this book formatted and published, who has been incredibly understanding of my mental health issues, and GMs himself hoarse at the convention.
So, keep gaming, and if you can, support your local games store and TTRPG community members.