Interview with Arnold Kemp – Author of Goblin Punch
First off, what sorts of things do you make & and how would you summarize what sorts of things you write/design for tabletop gaming?
I write plots, monsters, magic items, and spells for tabletop gaming, mostly vanilla fantasy and mostly OSR at my blog Goblin Punch.
I try to put a new spin on things, either by inverting, exaggerating, and carrying them to their repugnant conclusions. My three most popular posts are A Spell Called Catherine, God Hates Orcs, and 7 Myths Everyone Believes About Druids. You should read them if you haven’t already; they’re very good.
My DM advice articles get a lot of hits, but I try not to write too many articles about how to DM, because DMing is difficult to learn from articles (much like stand-up comedy or oral sex). Instead, I try to write articles about design, especially dungeon design. I’ve read a lot of articles about “How to Structure an Adventure” but relatively few about “How Branched Should Your Dungeon Be?”, and so that’s the type that I write. I think it’s a relatively unexplored area mostly because (a) there’s no go way to analyze a dungeon’s topology, and (b) most folks have never considered dungeon topology as something that could be considered.
I also write about dice mechanics because they are super-important and everyone cares about them. Have you ever looked at the diminishing returns built into abs(1d12-1d12)? It’s beautiful.
My home setting is called Centerra. I started writing it 74 years ago, not as a cohesive setting, and not associated with any D&D game I was playing at the time. It was just a way to sort my ideas by anchoring them to geography. Centerra was just a collection of shelves where I could organize my ideas into neat, related piles. But then the ideas started linking up, conspiring against me, and now the whole thing is a big place with a history that I have to keep track of and I’m pretty much fucked.
What systems do you play/make for? Or is your work agnostic of system?
I mostly run OSR games, but I immigrated into it through the vehicle of 3.5/PF.
I guess I write for OSR, but system is boring. Most people aren’t interested in system (except bottom-of-the-rabbithole DMs like me). People want new content that they can use in their own game. So, while I usually include a line of OSR-friendly stats for each monster, I’ll include a paragraph on its unique abilities, and then several sections about how to use the monster, what sort of loot it has, what sort of plots you can involve it in, etc. My most recent post (Nymphs) is a good example of this.
Like, if I ever did a monster manual, I’d have ten pages on goblins and only a couple of lines would be dedicated to the numbers attached to goblins (spear 1d6) or their special abilities (darkvision. . . and that’s it) and the other 9.9 pages would be spent detailing their psychology, culture, architecture, religion, tactics, weapons, ways to make random goblin encounters meaningful, execrable loot, etc.
So I guess I try to be system agnostic. I try to write (and spend most of my time thinking about) the content that is separate from the numbers.
What’s your gaming ‘origin story’?
I pissed on an electric fence while playing pokemon blue and also there was an eagle.
What are some of your earliest sources of inspiration? What inspires you now?
Goddam everything. Too many things. Sometimes I read a book, and the whole time I can tell that I’m not really getting into the book. I can’t just let go and focus on the story, because my brain is too busy looking for gameable bits. My brain is a looter, a pirate.
It’s the equivalent of thinking about the human digestive tract so much that you become unable to enjoy kissing.
You asked about what inspired me early on, and that’s a pretty boring question in my case. My earliest inspirations were the same fantasy clichés that inspired all little boys. Redwall, Piers Anthony, Dragonlance, the Cloakmaster Cycle, Pirates of Dark Water.
Before I had seen a cliché a hundred times, it wasn’t a cliché, it was fantastic. And then perspective settles in, and we can see how boring our childhood friends are. It doesn’t mean I don’t still love them, I just respect them a little less. (Disclaimer: Pirates of Dark Water is still legitimately awesome.)
I’m actually not reading any directly inspirational books right now. (Although I am reading one on R and another on wine.) But I’m okay with that.
If you pay attention, there’s actually a lot of gameable content whizzing by every day. Look at Trump. Look at Elon Musk’s robo-barge. Look at geophagy in Georgia or the so-very-subtle takeover of Crimea. Look at the 10-year-old girl in the climbing gym. Look at the guy on a bike, hurtling himself into traffic like cars were pigeons. Take any one of those things and mix it with witches, or with dragons, or with goblins, or with religion, and you can find idea seeds.
Inspiration is not hard to find. My fellow nerds build up these huge libraries of experience in their head. Thundarr and Giger and Lieber and a million other worthy things. But the hard part isn’t the starting ingredients–it’s how you combine them. And so while people are accustomed to talking about creativity in terms of inspiration (see also, appendix N), I believe you can benefit immensely from cultivating different lenses, not just libraries.
I mean, learn to see something from a different point of view and all of a sudden you see all these connections that weren’t apparent a while ago. I think this is the missing element when people talk about How To Be Creative.
You take some stupid class and the stupid professor forces you to evaluate everything through a socialist lens. This means pretending that you are a socialist while you read a book. You have to talk about how it relates to communism and what Trotsky would have thought about The Hunger Games, had he read it. And although you might have dabbled, that viewpoint might not have sunk in because you aren’t a socialist.
And then maybe you take another class, and are forced to view The Hunger Games through a feminist lens.
And in another class, you scour it for Judeo-Christian imagery.
But these lenses are not just useful for getting different viewpoints on books; they can be used to write them, too.
If someone starts writing their idea for “witch bike suicide”, the result will be different whether the author writes it from a feminist perspective or a folk tale perspective.
An idea for “Trump dragon” will result in very different results depending on whether the author is a Trump supporter or not.
And until you can write up an idea from a different point of view, you’ll always be locked into your own, monocular point of view. Ideasmithing isn’t just (Thing + Thing). It’s (Thing + Thing + Lens).
Current Mental Bookshelf: Pokemon, Dracula, Mad Max, Vance, Lieber, Cabin in the Woods, Oliver Sacks, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Saga by Vaughan, Bravest Warriors.
Current Lenses: Catholicism (salvation lies only through the church), Atheism (there are no gods), Animism (everything is alive and full of spirits), Fractals (it all looks the same whether you zoom in or out), Lovecraftianism (our species is utterly negligible), Scientific (everything can be explaining without deities and spirits), OSR-style problem-builidng (how to encourage lateral thinking in the dungeon).
(Some of these lenses are mutually exclusive, and that’s exactly the point.)
What are some of your favorite things made by other people?
Maze of the Blue Medusa is hot right now. And many nice things have been said about Deep Carbon Observatory, but not enough. ASE is also brilliant in its purity. Kevin Crawford produces things of enviable quality. And I just read Lady Blackbird and really want to try playing it.
Also booze: St. George’s Botanivore and/or Spirit Works’ Sloe Gin.
Where do you see the hobby going from here?
I dunno. D&D has always occupied a big, monolithic chunk near the center of the hobby. But it’s always been a cracked monolith, since everyone hacks their own games. And so I imagine that we’ll continue to have that big block of D&D with everyone’s homebrew growing off the side of it like lichens.
Do I see anything disrupting that stability?
I mean, the easy answer is technology, but we’ve already had the internet for a while now and it hasn’t shattered the monolith yet. The internet makes it easy to collaborate and share, but it also makes it easy to read reviews for systems that you haven’t played yet, so I imagine that the hobby was beginning to break apart even in the 28.8K days. But it hasn’t broken up, has it? The tenacity of the lingua franca, I guess.
So the game–the printed game–probably stills plays the same, and will probably play the same until IBM programs a computer than can DM better than I can.
The demographics of the hobby might be changing. With the rise of socially-acceptable geekdom in the last decade, D&D is probably less stigmatized than at any other point in its history. Maybe that’s making it easier for marginalized groups to approach such Deep Nerd Shit, and we’ll start seeing more diversity. (Reminder: be socially accepting.)
And there’s a pretty good diversity of analysis, too. There’s a huge gap between how Courtney Campbell analyzes tabletop compared to Ron Edwards (but that may just be the myopic opinion of a hobbyist). And that’s good. More schools of thought, more ideas, more synthesis.
So there’s that.
You know, if I wanted to speculate more, I’d wager that homebrewing is only on the rise. This generation has access to all of the mechanics and adventures of our parents, and then some. There’s big chunks that are now searchable, downloadable, and officially endorsed (such as the DM’s Guild).
And that’s a good thing, too. If you believe that D&D is like science, then it’s true that one dude doesn’t have all the best ideas. Only by putting together the best ideas of many different people do you break through into something new.
Or to put it another way, the best tabletop system isn’t going to be a single published system, since all of the best ideas are spread across different systems. Right now, the best system in the world is run out of a dirty notebook.
How has running a Patreon reshaped how you approach your writing/designing or hasn’t it?
Patreon is mindblowing because I suddenly realized that I had an audience, sitting right there, watching the things that I write. And it was doubly shocking to find out that most of them really like the stuff I write. Sort of like going to bed at night, turning off the light, and then seeing a bunch of people watching you through the window. And they’re applauding.
Thanks, patrons. You’re excellent.
It’s made me aware that a lot of people think highly of my work, which has made me (a) write more often than I would otherwise, and (b) actually proof-read my work (most of the time). I’m also trying to scrape up higher-quality posts (e.g. PDFs and more complete adventure seeds) but I’m pretty shit at getting my shit together.
Can you talk about what you’re working on now/upcoming projects?
There are a million of them sitting in the back of my brain, like premature rabbit babies.
The most urgent project is probably getting my fantasy heartbreaker typed up. Then I have 3 dungeons to finish, 2 megadungeons to start, 4 hexmaps to finish.
I really want to write a book about how to homebrew classes. Just a workshop for how DMs talk to players about the player’s vision for the character, and how to evaluate the different components of a class when assembling them. Simplicity vs Tactical Complexity. Specialization vs Assumed Competency. The Evanescent Pursuit of Perfect Balance.
Oh yes, a bestiary. And a gazetteer.
It’s like a Christmas wish list except I have to write all the presents myself.
What would you like your legacy as a maker to be?
A guy who had a bunch of good ideas and then did more with them than just posting them to an un-indexed blog.
I want to promote the free exchange of ideas. Creators create ideas, and those ideas need to be taken and remixed by others, and from this great big goulash comes the best stuff yet. People need to be compensated for what they right, but good stuff shouldn’t be locked away. It’s a tricky thing, and I think it requires ethics or honor or whatever. This is fostered by a sense of community, part of which is talking to each other and connecting (which I guess is what we’re doing right now).
Let’s not be strangers.