Mark Pettigrew Interview

with Mark Pettigrew

Hi Mark, welcome to RPG Review. Let us start with a common question, how did become involved in roleplaying games? What were the first games you played and what did you think of them? How much gaming, if any, do you do now?

I started role-playing when I was 12. I had a cousin who was crazy about those massive Avalon Hill war games. (He eventually refought every major battle of WWII in his basement.) He gave me the beautiful boxed set of M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne for my birthday, which was probably the nicest thing anyone ever gave me. I had never heard of role-playing, not even D&D. Barker's world of Tekumel amazed me. The idea of living an imaginary life in that lush, exotic world was mind-blowing.

EPT introduced me to the concept, but what really attracted me to role-playing was a set of close friends in High School. With the right group of people, table-top role-play feels like a very primal kind of storytelling. I can imagine neolithic geeks gathering around a campfire at night and telling similar stories. My friends and I tried a lot of games available in the early 80s—Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and Worlds of Wonder were particular favorites—but it was more about the friendly dynamics of group than the game system. Many of the gamers I knew then remain close friends.

I haven't had time to return to role-playing since college, though I have kept up with a lot of the developments. I own around two dozen GURPS supplements, for instance, though I've never played the game. I think Evil Hat's FATE system is really elegant and clever.

Lately, I've been increasingly interested in table-top role-playing as a form of collective narrative and oral performance. I suspect that most role-players are conscious of this on some level, that they're creating stories that resemble written fiction, drama, cinema, traditional folk-tales, and so on, but that there is also something unique about role-playing. It is a genre or medium of its own, with its own tropes and conventions. I have a background in literary study, and I've considered bringing some of that style of inquiry to role-playing. That's just a fuzzy idea for the time being.

According to legend, you were but sixteen when you were writing the rules for Flashing Blades - and yet you generated a game which still has a loyal following and whose design and density received favourable reviews, despite being published in 1984. What were you inspirations behind the ruleset for Flashing Blades? What did you get right and if you were starting again from scratch, what would you do differently?

I was 16 when I wrote it. I was a fencer, I loved Dumas and Sabatini and swashbuckling films, and I was an avid role-player, so I guess all those interests just came together in Flashing Blades.

As far as the rules went, I swiped every good idea I had seen in other games. A big influence was GDW's En Garde!, which is a beautifully designed gamemasterless RPG. (I just made that word up, but it describes what makes En Garde! unique, both then and now.) My friends and I enjoyed En Garde!, but wanted to play out full-blown adventures in its setting. As far as I can remember, the only point on which I deviated from my models was the design of the combat system, which had a bit of rock-paper-scissors thrown in to modify the standard d20 roll to hit. I wanted to add something that felt like fencing—guessing what the opponent's next attack would be.

What would I do differently now? I would work up a minimalist system with more color, more background, and more panache. These days, I admire FATE, which does a wonderful job of foregrounding narrative fun and keeps the rules to a minimum. And swashbuckling really lends itself to over-the-top storytelling.

Flashing Blades is primarily set in the 17th century of France, although also with the High Seas supplement for the New World and seafaring. What made you choose that setting and place? It does come across as a somewhat cinematic flavour, compared to the rather grim experiences of the Huguenot rebellions or The Thirty Years War.

I think the Early Modern Era in Europe is a fascinating historical period because it seems familiar at first (to Westerners, at any rate), but can be weirdly alien at times. It is also corresponds to the rise of the rapier and the culture of dueling among the elite. And France was at the center of everything in the 17th and 18th centuries. As I was working on Flashing Blades, I was reading biographies of Richelieu and Louis XIV and a book on early firearms, and the period just captivated me.

As for cinematic flavor, I suppose that before cinema and Hollywood comes Dumas' romantic vision (or revision) of French history, that leaves out the nasty bits and dwells on derring-do. The religious wars and persecutions, the horrific living conditions of the poor, witch hunts, poor sanitation, high infant mortality, low life expectancy, not to mention the slave trade, early genocidal campaigns in the Americas . . . Perhaps a highly politicized RPG might include those charming features of 17th-century Europe, but I doubt that it would be very popular. Or fun. I think that, like romantic fiction, historical role-playing leans towards escapism. Maybe that's the definition of the 'swashbuckling' genre: escapist romance, not historical realism.

FGU also released just prior to Flashing Blades was Privateers and Gentlemen by Jon Williams, set in the 18th century. Jon would go on to have some success as a cyberpunk science fiction author (Hardwired). Given some similarity of the two games and having the same publisher, did you have much correspondence with Jon?

I read Privateers and Gentlemen at some point, but I never knew or corresponded with Jon Williams. I'm glad to hear he went on to do further creative stuff. Fantasy Games Unlimited published a real grab-bag of games, very eclectic, with no unifying system or theme (compared to Chaosium or GDW or Steve Jackson or, well, all the others). The only person with whom I had contact was Scott Bizar, the founder and ringmaster of FGU, who was wonderfully encouraging and friendly. I'm still very grateful for all his mentoring.

In addition to the core rules to Flashing Blades, which come with their own adventures, there is also four other scenarios and a seafaring and New World supplement, which came with its own mini-campaign. This is quite a prodigious output over a two-year period, which then comes to a halt. Three questions arise from this: Firstly, how did you get through that much playtesting and campaiging? Secondly, did you have a favourite scenario or setting that worked particularly well? Thirdly, why did you stop producing?

I guess I just had a lot of fun making all that stuff up for my friends. I doubt that a single scenario played out the way I wrote it. I wrote most of the supplements for Flashing Blades as I was finishing up High School and the year after that, which I spent in The Netherlands with my father. I had a lot of time to read European history, visit museums, and write. I actually lived in Leiden, a stone's throw from Rembrandt's birthplace. The 17th century felt immediate there.

I stopped producing game materials for a very simple reason: I went to college and didn't have the time.

Also, at roughly the same time, you wrote two supplements for Empire of the Petal Throne, Jakallan Intrigue and The Tomb Complex of Nereshanbo. Can you tell about those products as well, and your experiences of writing

Professor Barker's world of Tekumel has to be the most compulsively detailed fantasy world ever created. He out-Tolkiened Tolkien. And unlike Middle Earth, Tekumel is not a reformulation of European folklore—it is as thoroughly strange and outlandish as you can imagine. When I contacted Prof. Barker, he sent me a mammoth early draft of his sourcebook for Swords & Glory (Tekumel's 2nd role-playing incarnation), an encyclopedic vision of his world. I read it over several times for the pure fun of it.

I sometimes had trouble convincing my friends to play EPT. Everyone loved the weird aliens and weird artifacts and weird, extremely deadly spells. But learning the world requires a hefty investment of time and energy. At any rate, Jakallan Intrigue was my favorite scenario to write and run, because I was trying to design a (primarily) social role-playing scenario, with lots of probing and gathering of information. That was new for me. I'm all for action-packed role-playing adventures, but social interaction with NPCs often gets short-changed (or reduced to a vague combat model: 'Make a charisma roll to see if you can just hypnotize this guy to do whatever you want').

In March last year you announced on the Flashing Blades email list that "... all of you are free to write, publish, etc. whatever you want for FB without worrying about copyright." Is there any interest in doing a second edition of Flashing Blades?

You'll have to ask the folks in the Yahoo group that one. I'm happy people enjoyed the game and continue to enjoy it.

You heard him... Now it's time to start writing!