We asked Jon some questions about a|state, which is fully funded and blowing through stretch goals right now on Kickstarter.
Hi Jon, so you’re basically the person in charge of Handiwork Games – what brought you to a|state?
Hello! Yes! It’s a roundabout story that goes back many years, which includes some amazing coincidences and crossings of paths! So way back in the early 2000s, hanging out at rpg.net, I became aware of this Scottish game developer called Contested Ground Studios. They had a very slick website, and presented a really interesting and weird game called “a|state”. I liked how gutsy they appeared, and how different what they were doing seemed to be – it seemed really high end, and I can recall wondering who these mysterious people were.
A few years later, I moved to Scotland, and got to know the people behind it – Malcolm and Paul, along with Gregor Hutton, Cat Tobin, Morgan Davie, John Wilson and Iain McAllister. Good folks, all. Contested Ground was fading away a little bit at that time, but I was busy working at Cubicle 7, and recruited Paul to work on graphic design there.
Paul was doing a day job, which seemed like madness, so I got him introduced and brought on board. And we worked together for years on things like The One Ring and Doctor Who Roleplaying Game. I have huge respect for Paul’s abilities, and I think he really is one of the best graphic designers in tabletop games. Alongside that, I got to know Malcolm better too – and by pure coincidence, I moved to Falkirk where they are both from, and where a|state was originally made. We’d occasionally grab a pint. Malcolm commissioned me to make the cover to his brilliant indie game “I lost my Heart to a Starship Trooper” and paid me with a ticket to see My Bloody Valentine at Glasgow Barrowlands. That kind of thing.
Fast forward a few years, and there were big changes at Cubicle 7. Finding myself increasingly unsatisfied there, I left the company, and when I heard that Paul was also keen to move on, I was delighted to be in a position to offer him a job at Handiwork Games.
It didn’t take long for the topic of a|state to come up. I thought it was a really impressive setting, but we knew Malcolm was retired from games design, and seemed unlikely to return. Then, at one fateful Tabletop Scotland convention, Gregor Hutton, ever a man of mischief, suggested we do a|state with the Forged in the Dark rules. He lent me a copy of Blades in the Dark, which I devoured and loved, and could see the fit. (I still have that loaned copy. I think it’s mine now.)
And incredibly Malcom agreed, trusting that we would handle it right. And I think we’re doing just that.
I think very simply put, it’s a really, really interesting setting. I’ve had the pleasure of making some art for the game, and I love it.
How would you describe a|state as a setting?
It is hard to do that – it doesn’t fall into easy pigeon holes, and that’s a reason I like it. It’s definitely a smart, literary, dystopian scifi. It’s heritage comes from JG Ballard and that ilk – while clearly that’s “genre” stuff, it’s not as.. pulpy? as a lot of stuff I see around. It’s quite cerebral, rather than about pew-pewing stuff. It has a strongly unique voice, and even more so now that the system fits the world so well, and focuses play on fighting for your corner of The City, trying to make it better against all the odds. It’s very aware, and it’s very well read.
It’s also very British, and particularly Scottish, being set in the slums, and about fighting authoritarian powers that be, with slim chance of lasting success. But it’s also a very hopeful game, about community and fighting back. I think we need a bit of that just now.
I also think with the imagery that Paul makes for the setting, there’s this other unique strand to it all, which really broadens it. I realise this is terrible marketing – I should be able to trot out a snappy elevator pitch that tells you immediately what it is. It’s weird, it’s multilayered, it’s intelligent, it’s Dickensian, dystopian, it’s bit like Gormenghast, there are canals and endless backstreets, there are these intriguing different levels of technology: if you’re poor it’s more like the Tom Hardy series Taboo, but set hard against a much more advanced set of technology for the rich. There are supernatural elements to the setting too, making it very strange and unique.
The Kickstarter page does a better job of explaining all this. I revel a bit too much in its weirdness to be a good salesperson! I hope the enthusiasm comes across. I think it’s brilliant, actually.
What’s it been like working on the new edition? How does it compare to BEOWULF for example?
BEOWULF was something I was personally much more directly involved in – writing a large chunk of the book, illustrating most of it. It was our first release and our chance to establish what we were about, and what we could do. a|state is different in that really I just facilitate the team, making sure they have what they need and space to work. I occasionally suggest things, and steer “product stuff”, but largely it’s been a delight to let the team get on with it. I think we’re making something that’s very different to BEOWULF – it’s not 5e, it’s scifi and so on, but which has a clear continuity with the quality and commitment involved. It’ll be another very beautiful book.
An area where I’ve been more directly involved is something we’re revealing today – The Three Coins.
What is The Three Coins?
It’s an idea I absolutely adore. So the campaign is going great, and we wanted to make another reward that comes from within The City. The compass rose we’re making is already something you might find in the pocket of a City-dweller, used as a navigational tool, showing which way is leeward and so on, while also being a tool to play the game – you combine it with the play mat and track the implications and results of your decisions within the system. I love that stuff.
So The Three Coins is a stretch goal that’s just over the horizon right now. It builds on that in-world artefact idea – it’s a zine-style roleplaying game from within The City itself, a game within a game.
We’ve spent a long time figuring this one out, and it’s been an absolute joy for a bunch of reasons. I think it’s really smart, and it tells you so much more about the nature of the setting, by delving into what the common people who play the game see as aspirational and imaginative. In our world we play fantasy roleplaying games about slaying monsters and collecting gold. What would people living in the inescapable dystopia of The City play? And how would they play it?
I love that it’s a zine – I have huge admiration for the zine scene in RPGs right now. I’m kinda old, and I like my very fancy presentation. But the raw energy in zines is astonishing, and this is our tribute to that. It’ll be a short piece, a little square magazine with a card cover, but a full working rpg in its own right.
We’ve also made it layered within the setting – the zine you’ll be able to add on to your pledge is presented as an in-world artefact. It’s a scholarly work researching the story-telling, coin-flipping game played by people in the streets. Which was then confiscated by the authorities for being too subversive – escapist imagination and indeed fun is always repressed by authoritarian regimes. They don’t like it. But then, somehow, this book has escaped the hands of the authorities and has been annotated by a skilled player of the game Three Coins, to present a lot more cultural information that the scholarly authors missed or got wrong – there are regional differences in how the game is played in The City, and our annotator is keen to correct the mistakes of the book, as they see it.
It’s a really lovely idea, and I hope people like it. It’s a real testament to the holistic ways we’ve found of working – the idea was floated, and kicked around very collaboratively, and then suddenly Morgan had this text which was perfect. I then made a cover, Paul’s designed some beautiful coins – If we can gain enough support we may even be able to offer a set of coins from The City so that people can play the game with more in-world props! Malcolm has constantly supported the thing with extra details from his knowledge of The City and the real world history that informs it. Gregor has chipped in loads of cool stuff too.
A game within a game. I love it. And I now have to go – it’s an incredibly busy day with BEOWULF releases, stock getting collected for game stores and mail orders heading out! We’re also very close to unlocking a stretch goal at the campaign page.