In 2007 I was living in Japan, starved for gaming, and reading about amazing developments and innovations in design I was missing. I wanted to be playing these games, exploring these new ideas about play, and contributing to that conversation. But I was stuck in the wilds of Hokkaido, with no one to play with, and no way in.
Into that situation came my friend Rob. A victim of the collapse of the Nova English school, he was stopping past on his way back to New Zealand. Two or three nights, my chance at gaming for the first time in a year. I wanted something to play with him, something easy and fun, that showed off some of the exciting new ideas in gaming I’d discovered and wanted to explore. I hit the web, looking for something to play. “Donjon” was one of my favourites, but it was too complex, and the D&D parody aspect wasn’t my thing. Dungeon Squad looked fun, but it was too traditional for what I wanted. I knew we wouldn’t have the time or the inclincation for lots of prep or world-building. Time was limited, so I wanted to get into it right away. Nothing on the internet seemed to satisfy my needs: Quick, easy, “player-empowered” gaming.
So I wrote the game I needed myself.
The first iteration was a rough mashup of Donjon and Dungeon Squad, using some bits of my old favourite, Savage Worlds. I wrote it in fifteen minute while Rob waited in the other room. “We’ll play for one scene”, I said, “and see how it goes.”
We played for two hours.
It was fun, it was easy. It showed off some of the exciting new ideas I was reading about. It did the job. There were rough edges, and I made most of the procedures up as I went along, but the idea was solid: If each player is called upon to create just a tiny bit of fiction, something fun and interesting, a little bit at a time, what the group creates together can be something greater and more exciting than they could have imagined.
I played the game non-stop for the next year. I introduced it to everyone. I met friends in Japan who loved to game and we played it every chance we got. I worked on the rules, defining the procedures and honing the rules to get at just what I wanted. Into the mix I added my love of Sword and Sorcery.
I was re-reading a lot of Moorcock, and discovering Tanith Lee and Clark Ashton Smith. The weird worlds these authors created seemed perfect for the games I was playing, filled with the bizzarre and the outre. My old favourite, Robert Howard’s Conan, provided the style of action I wanted to create – bloody, visceral, filled with dangerous feats and daring escapes.
There was something I was trying to get at, something I loved (but not uncritically) about sword-and-sorcery stories. It was the way the characters lived in a kind of limbo, halfway between one thing and another. Conan, half-civilised, half-savage. Elric, caught between his fate and his passionate free will. These characters embodied a conflict that was reflected in the world around them.
Malcolm Craig (of Cold City and Hot War fame) provided the impetus to get the game finished. The game we played convinced me of its potential to provide really compelling fiction. Malcolm was excited about the game, and gave me the push to get it finished.
That was a journey in itself. Publishing is hard – far harder than designing. It’s taken me years to get the game to its final state. In that time, the gaming world has moved on. What was cutting-edge in 2007 is old-hat now. My own tastes in gaming have changed, and what I’m excited about now is not what I was excited about then. On Mighty Thews is now an old-fashioned game.
But when I read over the text, when I look at the emails playtesters sent me, and when I think about the games I played, I can see there’s still life in this game. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not life-changing, but it’s a solid, fun, functional game, and it fills a niche.
If you have a couple of hours to fill, one or two friends, and a love of sword and sorcery stories, you could do worse than giving this game a go. I think you’ll love it.
I’m proud to announce that my game, On Mighty Thews, is available for sale.