Malcolm Craig on the Joy and Pain of a|state

Malcolm Craig, co-creator of a|state, took some time to chat to Jon about the game and his background in RPGs. To those in the know, it was a pleasant surprise to see Malcolm back working on a game, since he’d formally retired from RPG work to concentrate on his career as a lecturer in history. Somehow Handiwork, with the help of Gregor Hutton and Morgan Davie, managed to lure him back to revisit his very first game, a|state.

Jon: You’ve written a bunch of RPG games. What do you like about rpgs in particular?

Malcolm: That they permit a group of friends to gather together and collectively create stories. Of course, you don’t need a game for that, but RPGs do help to facilitate that kind of thing. 

Do you have a favourite RPG?

I could lie and say Living Steel. Given that a lot of people I know from the old indie RPG days might read this, it’s an awkward question to answer! Really, though, I’d have to say Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils has always stood out. It was the game that opened my eyes to the ways in which players could have a crucial role in determining the direction of the fiction, and where the mechanics had a well defined, crucial impact on that. And also Matt Machell’s Covenant, probably the most criminally under-rated British RPG of the 2000s.

I need to check out Covenant – I remember you recommended it to me many years ago, and I’ve never got round to reading it (sorry Matt!) I of course know Dust Devils, having made the cover. It really blew my mind when I first read it.

You work as a lecturer in modern history now. Does that inform your gaming work? And if so, how?

It’s funny that the games I wrote that were overtly historically influenced – Cold City and Hot War (and hello to the four or five of you who recall those games!) – came about prior to my return to academic life in 2008. Since my undergraduate days I’d always maintained an abiding interest in the study of history, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make a career of it. I think that key to being a good historian is to have a sense of empathy for the past, and an understanding of its nuances and complexities. I firmly believe that the setting embedded in the second edition of a|state is more nuanced and complex because my own understanding of such things has matured and expanded over time. 

a|state is a weird name and totally ungooglable. While I personally enjoy the naughtiness of this very much, where did the name come from? And no comment is an acceptable answer.

I literally cannot remember. Honestly. It did have some obscure meaning, I think. But the ravages of middle age mean that whatever it might have meant is lost to the mists of time and innumerable low pubs. Despite that, I quite like it as something of a cypher. I mean, do we have to make everything in the world accessible by the one, omnipresent, overbearing search machine? I kind of like it that you have to work to find the game online. 

It is absolute madness, but I tend to agree. So go on, give us an elevator pitch for the setting of a|state. What’s it like? What do player characters do?

A seemingly never-ending, decaying urban dystopia of canals, tower blocks, tenements, and megastructures, where you fight the forces of oppression and prejudice in an atmosphere of superstition, folk tales, and wild rumour.

I know you really don’t like using the terms steampunk or cyberpunk to describe a|state, and it’s very firmly “dystopian sci-fi”. What’s the deal with steampunk and cyberpunk? What are they that a|state is not?

A lot of – but not all – modern steampunk uncritically deploys the tropes of imperialism and of a deeply racist, classist society without ever interrogating those crucial subjects. You never see steampunk enthusiasts dressed as an out of work, one-armed miner slowly dying of black lung, or a teenage girl from the country forced to work 16 hour days in a colonial sweatshop, do you? It’s all Lord Coghat the 3rd – Big Game Hunter Extraordinaire, or the Honourable Bagatha Sauce-Quickly – Queen of the Babbage Engines.

Yes, it seems steampunk is a jolly fantasy thing which, more or less by design, generally doesn’t have much in the way of a critical approach to that subject matter. And that doesn’t seem a good fit for a|state, despite it sharing some Dickensian influences.

And cyberpunk is essentially meaningless as a term these days. When Gardner Dozois popularised the term (which was originally the title of a Bruce Bethke short story) in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t simply an aesthetic description. It was also a more philosophical descriptor used to cover a quite disparate range of emerging writers drawing on a variety of literary traditions and writing in a variety of forms. Nowadays cyberpunk is applied any near future/seeming near future, drones, urbanism, guns and violence setting. To be honest, there’s only ever been one truly cyberpunk RPG, and that’s Gregor Hutton’s Remember Tomorrow.

Yeah I’m a bit of a Gibson nut, and quietly feel the lack of the “confused every-person outsider” protagonist in RPG iterations of the genre. It seems everyone wants/has to be Molly Millions rather than Chevette or Berry Rydell. And I get why, but still.

a|state draws upon a different set of assumptions, both aesthetically and philosophically. It’s not about the collision between human and machine, or a Toffler-esque ‘future shock’, but about the collision between human and human, about the nature of class, of identity, culture, and society. The people of The City are essentially trapped in a world where there is no future, there’s just the passage of time.

I can see elements of JG Ballard and Mervyn Peake in The City, the setting for a|state. What other literary or film influences should we be aware of?

There are a lot, and I hope that if the Kickstarter campaign does well enough, we’ll be able to include an annotated mediography in the book. I’d like that very much. In cinematic terms, there’s no more important touchstones than Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s short film The Bunker of the Last Gunshots and their first two feature films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. It’s not just the visuals, but the human interactions and the general air of oddness that pervades these works.

There are a huge number of literary influences. Two in particular that are worth highlighting are Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle and Jane Jacobs’s 1961 non-fiction book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The former is a gut-wrenching examination of the condition of Lithuanian immigrants in early twentieth century Chicago. The latter is about the dehumanising effect of certain forms of urban planning. No, really, it’s still a genuinely great book.

Are there any parallels with or similarities to other gaming settings?

People certainly draw parallels, even if I don’t see them! The popular one is the mighty SLA Industries. It and a|state are both games that originated in Scotland and have dark, urban settings. And that’s about it. I’ve always admired the Nightfall team and their work, and I think we all find it rather amusing that – in the past – some people have become rather exercised about two games with very surface level similarities. But, it’s really like comparing Teenage Fanclub and Boards of Canada. Both originated in Scotland and both produce music, but that’s where the similarities end!

I still can’t get over the fact Arab Strap and The Cocteau Twins both hail from the Falkirk area.

It’s a setting that is explicitly on the side of the disenfranchised and oppressed and against big business, rentier capitalism, and prejudice of all kinds. Some people may not like that in their game settings, and that’s fine. It’s not for everyone. A lot of the settings I grew up with and played a lot – 2300AD, Traveller, etc – were firmly embedded in colonialism, where as a|state is fundamentally decolonial in its approach to questions of race, class, gender, and so on. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then the game is perhaps best avoided. 

Is it enjoyable to revisit The City, the setting of a|state? Or has it been a painful process?

Both, I’d say. It’s been painful in that it brought home to me the many instances – entirely my responsibility – where there were uses of language that made me cringe. I mean this in the sense of unacceptable attitudes towards mental health, some moments where offensively gendered language was used outwith colour pieces, and other moments where it was clear the text was written by someone who was not fully mature or sensible of the world around them.

It has been enjoyable, though, to make the setting what it really should be, and to be given the space to make it inclusive and accepting. What’s also struck me is that – at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing – some of the stuff is actually pretty good. Mire End, Dreamingspires, Burningfell are all places that I’d largely forgotten about but have once again become enamoured with.

I think there was always some amazing writing in a|state. In terms of setting, what’s changed in the new edition? 

In the broad strokes, nothing much. It still has all the stuff that people enjoyed from the first edition. Any setting changes have been made to make the setting just a little more cohesive and reduce some of the kitchen sink aspects that were there originally. On a personal level, the changes also reflect wider knowledge and experience. For example, what were previously the macrocorps are now the Trusts (the late nineteenth/early twentieth century US term for businesses such as Standard Oil or US Steel), a name change that better reflects their nature, aims, and influence.

The geography of The City has also been altered slightly, to bring the detailed areas into the region covered by the Three Canals Authority. This has the advantage of (mostly) leaving the rest of The City as a tabula rasa where groups can create their City.

You’d sworn off roleplaying games some years ago. What is it about the amazingly talented and innovative Handiwork Games that lured you back? 

Our house needed a new roof, and journeyman historians don’t earn as much as some howling idiots in the media would have you believe. Joking apart, it was Jon and Paul’s enthusiasm for a new edition, plus the chance to work with other old friends like Morgue and Gregor that pulled me (temporarily) back in.

What’s it like to be working with so many of the old team? Do you think you’ve changed? Has the working dynamic changed?

We’re all older, greyer, and more timeworn, certainly. Especially me. It’s great to be working with everyone again, though. Paul and I had a very long and fruitful working relationship, as well as being good friends, so it’s nice to pick the work aspect of it again. It’s lovely to be part of the team, although we are all painfully aware that we are a collection of white, middle aged men! That’s why we’re being careful to involve a much more diverse range of people in the project if we can. If it’s only our voices being heard, then the entire thing will rapidly become stale and boring.

If you had to pick one new favourite thing from a|state 2e what would it be?

Without a doubt it’s the way the mechanics now make the game the way it always should have been. It’s about people fighting for their corner against oppressive forces, speaking truth to power, and making meaningful change in their community. A second thing (is that allowed?) is Paul’s art. It was what always brought The City alive. Allied to the work that Jon and Scott have put in, the new edition is visually vibrant and engaging.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Malcolm, appreciate it!

No problem. It’s been great to see how many people have signed up for the Kickstarter alert already. And it’s exciting to see momentum building.

You can sign up to be notified when the Kickstarter for a|state second edition launches here.

And find out more about the game here.