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?
Written by Marco Rafalà (The One Ring, Star Trek Adventures, Lex Arcana, How Fires End) and illustrated by Jon Hodgson, Horror at Herrogate is a full-length .pdf adventure for BEOWULF: Age of Heroes.
Nightmare lingers at the small fishing settlement of Herrogate, threatening the people and the treasure seat of the lord Thorfinn. Dare you confront the dreadful dréag, the nightstalker, the breaker of bones, the creature unkillable by mortal hands…?
But you’re a Hero. Seriously, how else would you spend your weekend?
The scenario comes with three poster-sized battle maps, tokens for VTT, new Follower cards and separate NPC artwork to show to your players.
A month after the game’s publication, we ask Jon Hodgson and Jacob Rodgers how they think it’s all gone…
It’s been a month since BEOWULF was loosed to the public – were you nervous before the release?
JACOB: Yes, I certainly was. It felt like we had done the best job we could, but you never know what others will think of it. I’m glad that it has had such a positive reception.
JON: Gosh yes. This is a really big one for us. While our first book as a team was the Creature Collection for Scarred Lands, which we made for Onyx Path Publishing, this was the first one that’s truly “ours”, and there’s always that fear you’ve just done it all wrong. Somehow.
You and the team have poured a great deal of love into BEOWULF – can you estimate how many hours’ total work has gone into the setting?
JACOB: It was a gleam in our eyes back in 2018. It took a good long time to hash everything out, between other work and the challenges of 2020. The good news is that we feel very confident in the direction we’re headed.
JON: I think I’d prefer not to guess at that in case my accountant is reading. Too many hours. We seem unable to just bash stuff out. Every part was worked within an inch of its life. Which is good in the end. BEOWULF feels very complete and whole.
What did you find hardest? And what was the best fun?
JACOB: Jon and I have mentioned before that the Followers system took a lot of work. But it also led into the thing that “clicked” the most for me — burdens and gifts. Once we had a consistent presentation, I knew that we could use the concept for any space in the game where we wanted to present options to the Player.
JON: I think the bit for me that was hardest was what became the Alignment Die: we wanted a mechanical system for alignment, which tied into the outlooks of the two faiths represented by Alignment in BEOWULF. It was really hard, and certainly not one where inspiration struck and things fell into place easily. We got there though – thanks to Jacob coming in with a wholly different approach. The most fun thing was drawing all the swords. Love a sword. I did a little cry when I got to stand near a Ulfberht sword in the National Museum of Finland back in the before times. I am that much of a sword nerd.
BEOWULF is designed for duet play, and to follow the mythic feel of the original poem – hence it’s seen a significant tweak to the 5e rules. Do you think this has been well-received?
JACOB: 5e is often seen as an inflexible system, with its adherents expecting a certain style as well as mechanics. However both of those are actually very mutable within the system. Player response has shown that folks will go for pretty extensive changes to the core assumption if you tell them the whys and hows of the new mechanics.
JON: Playtesters, backers and then early adopters have definitely reported enjoyed the ease of setting up a “group” for BEOWULF. You literally phone a friend. And much of the feedback we’ve had to date has been very grateful for a complete, grounded “Dark Ages” 5e. We have a couple of groups playing it multiplayer too, and really digging it.
You’ve had a lot of critical acclaim, from authors and gamers both – including other creators of BEOWULF settings. Do players need to know the legend to be able to play the game?
JACOB: Absolutely not. We provide a tremendous amount of setting info and opportunities for research. However, at its core, all you need to know is that a Monster is threatening the people over there and that you’re a Hero who’s going to go make everything right. It can be very simple and straightforward.
JON: Yup, as Jacob says, this was a key point. We wanted a framework into which you can slot your own knowledge, whether that’s the first two episodes of Vikings, or knowing the poetry of the Finnsburgh Fragment off by heart.
Recently, Jon, you won a poll for best gaming artist – beating some very well-known names indeed! Where does the inspiration for your BEOWULF art come from?
Jon: Yes that was all rather weird, although jolly nice of people. I’m very lucky to live in a place which allows views of some truly epic scenery – The Ochil Hills and the Trossachs here in Scotland. It’s just so moody and melancholy, with ever changing light and an ever-changing quality to the air, that it’s hard not to be moved by it. I’m also just a history nerd, and I love reading and researching this stuff, and trying to spin gaming gold out of some quite dry straw.
BEOWULF already has some gorgeous accessories – dice and dice trays – and it has a whole treasure hoard more incoming – Inspirations tokens, and real metal minis. Do you feel these are necessary to play the game? Or were they just something you needed to do?
JON: We’ve made sure you don’t need anything other than dice and a pencil. Maybe some paper would be handy. I think that’s a really core thing to RPGs in my mind – they are very accessible to those of us without the budget for all the fancy toys. And as has come up on line lately, we as creators often aren’t in the bracket to get all the toys. So it matters that they’re not necessary. You can get a great gaming experience making your own tokens. Of course we also want our accessories to be really, really nice, so that if you do drop some pocket money on them, they’re good value.
When it was released, BEOWULF made the Top Ten bestsellers on DriveThru – no small achievement for an indie company. So what’s next, what additional adventures are waiting for us as we travel the Whale Road?
JACOB: We will be releasing our first digital expansion pack to backers and that will include an adventure alongside other new materials. If you didn’t get signed up for that, the adventure itself, Horror at Herrogate, will be available for purchase on DriveThruRPG.com. That’s just the first one, and there will be many more.
Jon: Yes! There is plenty more where that came from!
YOU DID IT! The day after its release, BEOWULF: Age of Heroes was an instant Top Ten bestselling title on DriveThruRPG. Give yourselves a good round of table-thumping and a big ol’ flagon of mead!
Needless to say, we’re over the MOON – really, really pleased to see our Hero doing so well.
But the tale doesn’t end there!
In the Handiwork Games store, we have all our beautiful BEOWULF accessories for pre-order – so if you missed these on Kickstarter, you can place your orders now. Find our Compass and Inspiration Tokens, both from Campaign Coins, plus the real oak box.
And find our specially-made, white-metal minis, along with wolves (who doesn’t need wolves), and the full digital minis pack that allows you to print your own.
And don’t forget to place your pre-order for the print book version, coming very soon – because books are always the best. (You’ll get your .pdf download free as well).
And still, the tale continues…
Jump on over to our YouTube Channel to find our newest RPG panel. In this one, Danie talks to Jon about BEOWULF, and to author Lou Anders about his Viking Age 5e Kickstarter Norrongard, Thrones and Bones. Jon and Lou shed their insights on the recent rise of role-playing, on adapting the 5e system, and on who they’d like to game with, if they could.
You can also catch Jon and Jacob Rodgers in the first of our BEOWULF podcasts!
Happy Friday – and BEOWULF IS RELEASED ON TUESDAY!
YES! From 16th Feb, BEOWULF: Age of Heroes will be available on DriveThruRPG, and honestly, this is a 5e game setting like you’ve never seen. Offering 276 pages of breath-taking artwork, of tables and locations, of monsters and meadhalls, and of Portents and Inspirations, it travels the Whale Road holding true to the lore and feel of the original poem.
BEOWULF: Age of Heroes features a foreword from Maria Dahvana Headley, and has already been called ‘something really magical’ by Will Hindmarch, and ‘a vast treasure hoard’ by Francesco Nepitello. We’ve shared it with our author friends, as well, and Snorri Kristjansson says it’s , ‘brimming with brutal authenticity’.
Play our specially-designed ‘Hero’ class, and choose from six sub-classes based on your ability scores. You can be the mighty Bench-Breaker, the wily Riddle-Reaver, or the sturdy Ox-Blooded. And you can come from a range of backgrounds: you might be the Chosen One, or Adrift and seeking answers. You may be an Avenger, or of Noble Blood.
And don’t forget that BEOWULF is designed for duet play – one GM and one PC – though it can still be played in a group!
Finding out about role-playing in the world of Beowulf, here’s Danie, speaking to our own Jon Hodgson, and to Jonathan Green of Fighting Fantasy who’s just launched his own Beowulf Kickstarter…
Please do check out our BEOWULF store, with Viking-pattern dice, and dice-trays featuring Jon’s distinctive artwork and designs from Paul Bourne. And, also from Tuesday 16th, it will be open for pre-orders of our gorgeous Tokens (thank you Campaign Coins) and real metal minis.
Follow the Whale Road, and join us on our Socials:
We chatted to the lovely Jonathan Green about Beowulf games. Check it out:
Our own BEOWULF: Age of Heroes PDF is released on the 16th of February, accompanied by a pre-order for the print book and accessories. You’ll be able to get the PDF free with a pre-order of the rulebook.
In more of this week’s news, Jon was a guest over at The Smart Party’s RPG Podcast, talking about The One Ring, BEOWULF, The Forest Dragon, a|state and much more. Thanks to Gaz and the team for a great interview!
Back at Handiwork, we had a chat of our own – with top game designer Jacob Rodgers. Co-creator of our BEOWULF intro-adventure The Hermit’s Sanctuary, Jacob told us how he made the adventure work for one player and one GM, how to GM a really good campaign, and he answered that ever-pertient question: how do you make your players follow the adventure, and not go off on a tangent?
Don’t forget: our BEOWULF Late Pledges are ending very soon. Please get those pledges in, anywhere from a single shiny pound, and help us bring the legend to life.
And remember, this Christmas, support your local and indie businesses! Game designers, crafters, bookstores – we can’t give you shiny ads full of tinsel and snowfall, but we can offer you the best in tabletop role-playing goodies, in supplements and adventures and glimpses into other worlds, and in every kind of pretty gaming merch.
Jacob Rodgers is a writer and designer of role-playing games and more. His credits include material for The One Ring, Adventures in Middle-Earth, WarHammer: Age of Sigmar: Soulbound, The Ruins of Symbaroum and other systems, not to mention BEOWULF: Age of Heroes and The Hermit’s Sanctuary. He lives in Georgia (the US state, not the independent country).
Here, he talks to us about role-playing, about BEOWULF and about how to GM a really good game…
What are the core components of a really good RPG?
Any role-playing game has to serve multiple functions over its ‘lifetime’ in the hands of a player. When you first pick it up or download the .pdf, it must impress and inspire you — with its themes, its language, its art, its design (both graphically and system-wise).
Next, as you begin to read it for that crucial first pass, it must serve as an excellent teacher, providing clear instructions and sufficient examples so that folks can grok the game. Note that this is not just the writing choices, but graphic design can have a huge impact as well. Folks need to be able to visually identify topical breaks, optional rules, worked examples, etc. The recent Cortex Prime, written by friend-of-the-studio Cam Banks, has some fantastic work in this area.
The final function that a rulebook must serve is as a reference for game prep and in-game questions. The first function can be served again by having lots of good examples, random tables, and inspiring artwork. It’s absolutely fantastic to have an illustration provide the seed of an adventure and then to provide the tools to flesh out that seed and turn it into something ready to run. Fortunately for us, BEOWULF has a fairly strong structure and one of the chapters steps you through that structure piece by piece, so a GM can take their idea and write an adventure that they know will work in the game. And we will have lots of direct reference material in a separate easy-to-find section in order to make running the game super easy.
For BEOWULF, how closely does the game-path follow the original legends?
Fairly early on we discovered that there’s a repeating pattern to Beowulf, and that pattern shows up in surprising places — for example, the original Scooby-Doo cartoon. And, of course, we shouldn’t be too surprised — after all, Beowulf is one of the oldest bits of English literature we have and established a lot of tropes.
The actual path for both book and RPG is that the hero learns of a place plagued by a Monster, goes there and does some investigation, learns how to deal with the Monster (some secret weakness usually) and then does so. Most of the time they are rewarded for their service, but (and this part didn’t make it to Scooby-Doo) sometimes the Monster is too much for the Hero and they suffer a fatal wound. It’s the very stuff of adventure storytelling, whether literary or gameplay.
When designing the BEOWULF manual, what did you have to consider?
Well, of course, we wanted to keep all of the above in mind, not only the considerations about how the book’s utility to players will change over time but also how to evoke the feeling of the poem and the Migration Era (the poem’s time setting) in the choices we make for art, language and examples.
We also had to make sure that we were fulfilling our promises to make something that worked for a single GM and a single player, so that the game is always challenging and fun and doesn’t get bogged down if the player is temporarily stumped by the story. That also meant that we had to make decisions about the 5e rules engine. We want the game to be familiar to players who know 5e but we also want to make sure that the rules are at the service of the story and the setting, not the other way around.
Do you have any advice for a GM running the BEOWULF game?
Always be a fan of your player. While the GM should administer the setting and the challenges in a fair and impartial way, it’s always a good idea to cheer on your player when they’re clever or lucky or both. After all, the game is a story in the very framework of the setup (we imagine that every BEOWULF adventure is a scop telling a story about a hero to an interested group of listeners) and most stories are about a Hero overcoming the Monster, not the other way around.
Also, we’ve found that the nature of the game can shift dramatically between players. You can run the same adventure for two different players and, because of both mechanical choices (for example, the Hero’s alignment between the Old Ways, the Church or staying Neutral) and roleplay choices, the adventure might go very differently each time.
Motivating players (making them take the right cues) can sometimes be a struggle. How can you make sure your PCs follow the right plot hooks?
This is something I try to always consider, especially in starter adventures. There are certain clues and tropes that veteran gamers tend to pick up on that newer folks might not identify. (Once while running a completely improv session, the players insisted that I intended them to follow a particular path in the forest. I did not, I was just trying to get across what I saw in my mind’s eye. But that extra bit of description implied to them ‘adventure this way’.) So it can be worth it to break character with newer players and discuss things, especially if they’re playing it too safe. Remind them that they’ve signed up to play a Hero in this game and Heroes take risks.
The other thing that I often do (and admittedly this is something that becomes easier with practice and experience) is to be willing to rearrange the adventure. I’ve relocated entire groups of enemies to put them in contact with the characters, had family members track down the PCs to insist that they take action against a threat, and wildly changed timeframes to make sure something happens where the players can see it. But the best solution? Make the player right. Connect the plot hook to whatever the players have clued in on and make it so that if they pull that string then they make progress in the adventure.
Do you prefer a ‘storyteller’-type GM, or one that lets the players lead the game?
For BEOWULF in particular, one of the excellent parts of it being a duet (1 GM, 1 Player) game is that you can adjust the scale very easily. With only a single player it is very easy for them to be in charge and they can go and do whatever they want. If the player is a bit less active or stumped for a way forward then the storyteller GM component can come forward and you can introduce more elements that drive the player to action.
For other games, I vary my approach. For example, with Ars Magica the characters (especially the wizards) tend to have very strong personal motivations and you can just provide a sandbox for them to experiment within. Other games, like Pendragon, it feels more right to set a quest in front of them and the game’s assumed structure (that the knights have a lord that they are sworn to) makes that easy.
How would you create – and play – a really convincing PC? What would you think about?
Here’s a deep dark secret — I’m a terrible player. I’ve just spent too much time on the other side of the table and I enjoy GMing so much I’m almost always a forever GM.
That said, when I do get a chance to play, I do try to think about a character’s relationships and context. After all, most everyone has the same basic wants and needs, it’s just a matter of who is around them and their way of social interactions. And that affects how they express those wants and needs.
Thank you for talking to us! You can find the LATE PLEDGES for BEOWULF: AGE OF HEROES still on Crowd Ox – but time is very short!
Morgan Davie is one of the writers of a|state, and has popped in to tell us little about the new edition, and about the brand new primer, ‘Nicely, Done’, now available from DriveThruRPG.
Hi Morgue, and we’re very pleased to talk you, here at Handiwork Games!
Can you tell us a little about the cult RPG hit a|state? Is it fantasy or SF, utopia or dystopia?
I recently described a|state to a friend as “electro-punk anti-Thatcher dirty humanist SF” which demonstrates the futility of assigning it a simple label! It presents a dystopian science fiction vision, but more grimy than grim, sad and angry and loaded with black humour.
What is The City, and why is it a good place to start?
The City isn’t just a good place to start, it’s the only place you can possibly be, for it is cut off from the rest of the world. Residents can see the stars when the fog clears at night, and they can send out machines to collect raw materials from the world around them, but none of them can leave. Everyone is trapped in The City, desperately trying to find enough security to sleep easy. That’s where the characters come in: their corner of The City is under threat, and it’s up to them to stand up and fight back!
Who are some of your favourite characters/NPCs?
A|state doesn’t strongly emphasise pre-established characters. Each group will populate their own corner of The City with unique characters and there’s nothing more important than that! However, if I had to pick a favourite it would be Janus Kripitsch, the Lostfinder of Mire End, a generous soul determined to help those in need in return for a hot meal or two. (Janus is also a pre-generated character in Nicely, Done, the a|state Primer adventure!)
What kind of PCs would suit the environment? Are there character classes, as such, or can a player build something of their own?
Characters in a|state are built around seven archetypes called “playbooks”, but it’s easy to tilt any of them into whatever form you like. The archetypes are useful starting points, not straitjackets! The seven playbook options are: a community stalwart (e.g. an activist), a technical expert (e.g. a creator of clockwork computers), a warrior (e.g. a deadly ghostfighter), a wayfarer and explorer (e.g. a lostfinder), a smooth operator (e.g. a fixer), a wastrel (e.g. a thief), or a master persuaded (e.g. a journalist).
There are many different types and styles of RPG. Would you describe this one as adventure-based, story-based, or something else?
This game is all about a situation. The characters are known troublemakers, working together to keep the local community safe from outside forces. There are plenty of adventurous missions, where the characters take incredible risks as they take the fight directly to the dangerous powers arrayed against them. These are interspersed with periods of downtime where the characters pursue their personal goals, mix with local NPCs, and try to burn off the great stress of their shared purpose.
Would you need previous RPG experience to be able to play the game/primer?
a|state is a Forged in the Dark game, complete in the book. Anyone can pick it up and work out how to play, no prior RPG experience needed.
The primer, however, is just a taster and assumes the person running the game knows how Forged in the Dark games work.
And finally, tell us what your very favourite thing is about a|state! What are you proudest of?
It’s just exciting to be working on a|state! The original vision of The City presented by its creators Malcolm Craig and Paul Bourne took my breath away back in 2004. It feels great that we can return to it now, and make it come alive more vividly than ever!
Thank you very much for stopping to talk to us!
You can find out all about our a|state primer – here!