Lev Lafayette (tcpip) is the editor and publisher of RPG Review, a free .pdf zine that just released its second issue. He first came to my attention for his series of careful reviews of classic Gygax AD&D adventures, and his willingness to puncture conventional wisdom about these caused some controversy. He has written for ICE's Rolemaster line and has other projects currently under NDA.
Lev was born in Invercargill in the south of New Zealand in 1968. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, and visits NZ regularly. This interview was conducted via email between Oct '08 and Jan '09. Many of Lev's comments have been edited and smooshed together for a better reading experience.
How did you get into your first game?
Entirely by accident. I started gaming in 1981; the first game I actually played was RuneQuest, but I didn't realise it at the time (no, it wasn't on the character sheets). I was in the library with a stack of books and a group playing caught my eye. I watched quietly, worked out what was going on, and then, fairly cautiously (they were a year above me which gave them special authority in the ethos of the schoolyard), started participating.
Everything about the game - the handfuls of odd dice, the challenges, the mapping, the fantastic settings, the roleplaying - which there was quite a fair bit of - struck a chord with me. I knew this was for me.
What was your gaming history after that?
By the late eighties I had started a gaming club at Murdoch University (the Murdoch Alternative Reality Society) that ended up having hundreds of members and published an irregular 'zine, and was regularly attending the Gamers Guild in Perth. I did some playtesting for GURPS Cyberpunk (alas, uncredited although Lloyd Blankenship has recognised my contribution in private correspondence) and wrote Rolemaster Companion VI, which apparently has become somewhat of a collectible.
In 1996 I started an incorporated association called Mimesis which brought out one issue of a pretty good magazine before the ISP we shared space and a mailing address with, and did our email service went under. We couldn't really afford to do another issue (although the second issue is available online), but we did do a fair bit of gaming instead.
By the end of 2002 I was in East Timor, working for their government, and I spent a fair bit of time learning about the people, languages, cultures and mythologies of the Malay archipelago. On my return I started a RuneQuest play-by-email based on those stories which is making its way into a novel.
I currently play with three regular groups face-to-face. One, the Melbourne Roleplaying Salon, concentrates on short bursts of largely (but not exclusively) contemporary independent games. Another group, the Church of Gaming (based at the Melbourne Unitarian Church), is more traditional in its focus. The third group is a straight-D&D 3.5 game, although set in a fantasy version of Australia [this setting, Ralis, is described in issue 2 of RPG Review - morgue].
In the past couple of years I've written more on gaming forums and the like, including extensive playtesting for Mongoose's edition of RuneQuest, Chaosium's Basic RolePlaying and also (less extensively) for Mongoose's Traveller. There is also the sixty-plus reviews I have on RPG.net, a couple of gaming 'zine articles, and my own pet project, RPG Review.
Speaking of your reviews on RPG.net: your series of playtest reviews of early AD&D products, particularly of classic adventures, were quite controversial and sparked a lot of discussion. What started that project?
The project started because the circumstances allowed it. I was playing in an AD&D campaign at the time, and had plenty of time up my sleeve as I had quit most of my paid employment to live off my savings and do some of the things I wanted to do. So for the better part of six months I found myself writing one to two reviews a week for RPG.net and gaming a few times a week as well. It was a good opportunity to go through a lot of classics that had been hitherto overlooked or not reviewed comprehensively.
What kind of additional insights did you get from writing reviews of these old adventures, as opposed to just playing them?
There is always a danger from 'just play' that one can mistake the experience for the game. Gaming is first and foremost a social activity and second a shared story. The gaming experience thus primarily rests on the quality of people that one is gaming with, and their imaginative capacity - not to mention the ability of a good gaming group to quickly houserule something that doesn't make sense or gets in the way of the gaming experience.
When reviewing you can take a step back from the actual experience of a game and review the material both as written and as produced. To be sure, you can get some additional insight from actual play as well, for example, spending far too long looking up a rule because the indexing is shot. A combination of review and play I believe works best. A particularly good review is able to highlight areas of concern, both beneficial and negative, before a new group encounters them. "Different Worlds" always struck me as a magazine that did particularly well with its RPG reviews. They were usually very thoughtful and comprehensive and opened up my vision to a wider range of games.
Each of your reviews had a focus on just one product. If you were to take a broader view and consider that era of AD&D publication as a whole, what would you say was important or distinctive about it?
Although it is oft-stated, the most important feature of early D&D is the obvious and trivial fact that it was first. It provided the basic structure, the principle of fantastic and speculative settings and the notion of adventure. True, it also was initially framed as a single unit wargame, as the rules make clear. But people didn't always play it like that and in a very real sense, the "AD&D era" in the strictest sense wasn't that long. People took the game and used it for their own purposes and styles and very soon after D&D there was the slate of new games which expanded the horizons of what fantasy roleplaying meant and so the hobby has developed and improved.
It's one of the reasons I think that second edition AD&D was poorly received, despite some interesting campaign settings. Although it was a better game in many regards it was also a disappointment that so little had been changed as a great deal had changed in the ten years after the release of the first Player's Handbook.
It seems you have a serious commitment to the idea of an RPG media, particularly in periodical form. What publications have been important for you in the past, and why?
Well, again I'll cite "Different Worlds", some of the earlier issues of "White Dwarf" (around 25-75) and of course "Dragon", although per page I always seemed to get more out of the other two 'zines. Speaking of which before it became an insert for "Dragon", "Ares" was a great, albeit dense, publication. For old RuneQuest/Glorantha players "Wyrms Footnotes" was excellent along with "Tales of the Reaching Moon". Two other "in house" magazines which I thought were particularly impressive included "Adventurer's Club" (Hero Games and ICE), "Interface" (for Cyberpunk) and, to a lesser extent "Challenge". In a more general sense "Interactive Fantasy" hit me pretty hard for the brief time it came out, and I was quite impressed with "White Wolf".
Your "RPG Review" zine sets a high bar for itself by mentioning some of these highly-regarded publications from years past, such as Interactive Fantasy. What role do you hope RPG Review will have in the wider RPG conversation in 2008 and beyond?
That's a very good question and one which I have a great deal of caution in giving a straight answer to; partially because RPG Review has a number of influences. I guess a central theme is the idea that fantasy roleplaying games are a very significant part of our culture. The influence of tabletop pen-and-paper games on computer gaming is immense. The unique aspect of the participants being the creators and audience of an impromptu story is not to be underestimated. Finally, I find fantasy roleplaying games extremely good, due to the immersive and meta-gaming qualities, as education tools as they provide a deep hermeneutic context in a way that a lot of other academic versions of history do not and perhaps cannot.
Now in promoting this general theme, there is a number of different elements that I've been trying to balance. Firstly there is an idea of balancing contemporary directions with past gaming experiences. It is a review 'zine as well, so of course reviews are required. But also I want to see material which people can actually quickly use around the table - so scenarios are a feature as well. Finally, there is the influence of some of the better elements of genre fiction such as books, movies, games and other gaming media.
I know it isn't possible to be all things to all people, but I'll try to make RPG Review a journal of quality content for most people. At the moment I suppose one big issue is getting a better eye in for art and layout. It's not that I can't be more attentive to such aesthetic qualities, it's just that I personally rate content higher than presentation.
How is issue 2 of RPG Review a better realization of your goals for the zine?
Well, I think it's coming along nicely. We have a mix of old (Warhammer, MERP), new (Pathfinder, Grey Ranks) and revived (Dragon Warriors), a non-exclusive setting orientation (Middle Earth), a mix of genre support and computer utilities. The introduction of a regular cartoonist will add to the style of the journal as well. It does seem to be developing a bit of an NZ orientation as well!
It's not doing too bad; about 1,000 people downloaded the first issue and the second issue is doing about the same. More articles from more people would be a great help, or even a letter or two giving us feedback on what we're doing right or wrong.
Could you expand on your comment about roleplaying games as educational tools?
There's three main examples that come to mind and a fourth in development. The first was when were playing our Empires of the Middle Ages game and revising rules as we went. We had a big pile of history and religious books by us as we played so when a heresy or rebellion arose, we could specify what its characteristics were and delve a little bit into the "what if" elements. From that epic game (which spanned from 814 AD to 1453 AD; we picked one twenty year period for an AD&D game and a few regions (Brittany, Wessex, Norway, Sweden, Finland) which last for two years. The players learned a great deal of the history, language, demographics, mythology, religion etc of those regions through actual play. Most importantly they did this themselves, which it is doubtful they would have done otherwise if they weren't involved in a game with that setting.
I can certainly say the same happened in other games that I've been involved since then; the Balkans in the 10th century, the Malay archipelago in the 16th, the Transylvanian region also in the late 16th century and of course, as many would already know, Call of Cthulhu for the 1920s. Even the cyberpunk/paranoia crossover was predicted on the premise of the worst trajectory of neoliberal economics and democratic moral conservatism (that had a New Zealand moment in it as well - the PCs were kidnapped and taken deep into Fiordland). Again it required some serious thinking by all participants on what was likely and possible in terms of technology and society.
You talked a lot about balance in regards to RPG Review. This hints at the enormous variety of game systems, issues, concerns and approaches in the world of RPGs, surely more than a decade ago and vastly more than a decade before that. Are you confident that balance is a viable approach in such a splintered environment? How do you know the time of the general-interest RPG publication hasn't passed?
I would hope that is not the case. Sure I can see the advantage for individual game publishers to lock-in their community into their publications, but I don't think that this would be good for the hobby in the long run. Good design, clever exploration - heck, even "how to behave around the gaming table" conventions require input from a diverse range of sources for maximum adaptability and effectiveness. Yes, it is a lot harder to do this because there's we're into the second literal generation of gamers now and there are so many current and past choices. Now whilst many of those games will fade into obscurity for good reasons (other than poor management, lack of capital etc), even these games often have some excellent particular elements. I can certainly cite one game which I currently run as a PBeM as an example: Powers & Perils.
What are the elements of Powers and Perils that stand out for you?
I cannot say I am overfond of the Powers and Perils core rules, so what 'stands out' is an overly complex character generation system, inconsistent resolution systems, although, oddly a simplistic combat system, a lack of editing and some pretty damn poor artwork. On the other hand the Perilous Lands setting is an excellent product with some of excellent effort in providing detailed cultures and locations with real-world analogues. One can get great mileage out that particular product. I really do recommend having a look through the PnP fan website for detail.
What are some other classic games that deserve a second look today?
I'm a huge fan of Swordbearer, Denis Sustare's Runequest-derived system that made use of classic elemental and psychic humours for the basis of its magic system. It also provided a reason for sacrificial rites as well - to get the psychic humours! It was a tightly written game which is a style I enjoy.
For others, well there's a hell of a list. I recently ran several sessions of Bushido which worked quite well and, with a very similar system, Aftermath! is worth a look as well - it's actually easier to play than a first glance suggests. The Atlantean trilogy certainly is an interesting read as well, and the scenarios (if certainly not much of the system) for Man, Myth and Magic are worthy of being bashed into something that makes more narrative sense. Oh, and Empire of the Petal Throne of course.
More exotically I am impressed by games like Bunnies & Burrows now I actually own a copy (Denis Sustare stikes again!), the extreme high-school RPG Alma Mater, and with a bit of work, the reality-building game by Tom Moldvay, Lords of Creation. Perhaps most unusual is a very impressive script-writing RPG for Dallas, released by SPI in 1980. Now I hated the TV series like the plague, but this would certainly fall into the category of a pretty clever rules-light, narrative RPG.
What are your favourite games at the moment?
The heavily modified RuneQuest Glorantha game I've been running for about a year has been enormously enjoyable. RuneQuest really quite resilient and adaptable to system modifications and as a result you can engage in all sorts of tweaks without breaking the system or a sense of realism. As for the setting Glorantha was so attentive to concerns of mythology and the worldview of a magical universe, as well as being very creative in some common fantasy expressions. By extension, I'm pretty impressed with the work that Chaosium have done with the new Basic Role Playing, and by Ray Turney's variation Fire and Sword.</p>
On a more independent and narrativist tangent, Grey Ranks is a very important example of some of the directions that RPGs can head towards. The author, Jason Morningstar, really has paid attention to setting, narrative tension and development and so forth.
Thanks very much to Lev for being such a generous interviewee! Between the start and end of this interview we managed to meet face to face, and Lev also released issue two of RPG Review, so it feels good to finally get it posted!
Be sure to check out RPG Review!