And here we are with another installment of Mothership-related interviews! I am very pleased to get to question Donn Stroud at the purpose-built Possum Interrogation Center for Wayward Creators as I have had a lot of curiosity about how Donn came up with such a terrific module seemingly out of left field. I mean, sure, Donn has been published before, but Dead Planet has made a huge splash and he has been off and running ever since, between further Mothership projects and several(!) Kickstarter campaigns. I managed to hold him still long enough to get him to answer a bunch of questions before he zipped off again at light speed to keep up with his crazy schedule. Let’s go!
Donn, thank you very much for interrupting your busy schedule to answer some questions for my blog! I’ll get back to why you’re so busy in a moment, but first I usually like to start with a background introduction. So: how did you get started playing RPGs, and how did you get involved in making them?
So I grew up in a very rural area. I didn’t even hear of D&D until I was in high school (88-92). I was immediately interested because I had been reading sci-fi and fantasy since I learned how to read. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to play because of Satan. I do remember rolling up a ranger for 1e before I was informed of evils of D&D. Fast forward to 97, and I was living near a used book store that had a shelf of old RPG stuff. I started buying it up. I ran 1e for a bunch of friends on and off, but they weren’t serious enough for me. Baldur’s Gate came out the next year so I decided playing that was good enough. I think I finally started playing seriously around 2010-2011.
As far as making them, I’m not sure. I was never a big fan of published adventures so I always wrote my own. I guess it just sort of happened organically. I think the first “published” thing was an article on heirloom weapons that was printed in the second Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine. I don’t know if Adam Muszkiewicz and I had started Drink Spin Run at that point. I don’t really think I got rolling until I had a couple one page dungeons printed in Mythoard. I plan to reissue/reprint/whatever all these small things in the next couple months under my own publishing company, Psychoda Press.
You wrote Dead Planet after contributing to the development of Sean McCoy’s Mothership RPG. What inspired you about that game to set to work making it the basis of your first(?) full module?
Sean first ran Mothership for a group of us at Gen Con 2017 as a one sheet pocket mod. It was slick, quick, and dirty. I liked it a lot and enjoyed getting updates and discussing it over the next 8 months or so before it was stealth released at Origins 2018. I think I had already sort of pitched Screaming on the Alexis to him before the Mothership zine was even printed. Just the idea of some crazy creature hunting you through the decks of a ship and all you can hear is the screaming and banging touched a nerve. I thought it was scary. Then we sat there and spit balled back and forth while working the booth at Orgins making the module bigger and better. I’m blabbing. What I liked about the system is it was light, deadly, and fun. There are definitely a lot of rulings and not many rules. I like a system to sink into the background so you can just play and not worry too much about the rules.
Dead Planet is one of the coolest modules for any game. How do you think your approach to making a module helped set it apart?
First of all thank you for saying that. Honestly, Dead Planet is the first sci fi thing I’ve ever written. I was messing around with a power armor type RPG based upon the book Armor by John Steakly while Sean was writing the expanded rules for Mothership so I guess that’s not exactly true. That project got put to the side. We’ve talked about incorporating some of it into Mothership, but who has time for all these projects. I guess I don’t really know what my approach is. Of course I want a crazy story with lots of creepy details, but mostly I like to have tables carrying most of the weight in any adventure. I don’t want to decide things. I want to put the flavor in the tables. This place is like these things. Then I want to see what the dice want to show us. It’s kind of like I’m playing with my players. I don’t always know what’s going to happen. I want to discover everything with my players.
I think the thing that really sets DP apart is the organization, right? I’d love to say it’s an amazing story and a horrible place and maybe it comes to life. I don’t know. The first thing anyone mentions about Dead Planet is the layout and design, and that’s great! Sean is amazing and did such a wonderful job laying mine and Fiona’s words and ideas down. (I mean, Sean also did a great job writing his parts).
The tables in Dead Planet are especially excellent. They are terrific standouts in an exceptional product, and it certainly seems to an outside observer that you value randomization a lot in your games. What role do you think random results and randomization plays in RPGs, how did that influence your design goal with them, and what level of randomness do you strive for in your own home games?
Thanks again. All three of us did tables in the various sections. So I think the three of must all enjoy the same style of play. Maybe? Fiona killed the nightmare, all the search the body tables, and the vault sections! That stuff just drips, right? Sean absolutely brought the moon npcs to life with all their various quirks and “what are they doing rolls”! I did the encounters in the Alexis and the encounters on the planet. Those tables are how I like to run a game. You get noise or some atmosphere, and you get some encounters. You get a feeling for everything there just based upon random rolls. I would rather not worry about rolling an encounter die to see if there is an encounter but just build a table that has a bunch of environmental, atmosphere, and encounters in it.
You collaborated with Sean McCoy and Fiona Maeve Geist on the writing of that module. What do you think each person brought to the table for that project that changed your original work for the better?
Sean and I did a lot of the early brain storming over text so who really knows who came up with what. Then Fiona was roped in to do that amazing nightmare table and she ended up being part of the brainstorming. Then she wrote all the Red Tower stuff, and I think helped out on the moon stuff. She also tightened up some of my more rambling prose. The Dead Planet would not be what it is today without all three of us working on it. Then Jarrett came along and really tightened it up with Sean. So I’m going to say it wouldn’t be what it is today without the four of us.
If I were to write Dead Planet alone it would be a complicated ecosystem and history of the dead planet. I would have gone into way too much detail about the evolution of life on the planet and then too much detail about the parasitic invaders from the dead dimension. Luckily I have people to stop me, divert me, and add their own horrible nightmare visions to what I’ve come up with.
Currently you’re attached to co-author A Pound of Flesh with Sean McCoy. What can you tell us about that module’s design and content? Does your approach to it differ at all from your approach to Dead Planet?
With DP it was always horror first. It’s a history of horror and conquest and horrific dreams that make a sentient being into a slave. It was the echos of that horror through each part growing louder and louder until you’re submersed it. APoF was always different. It was pitched as a lawless space station and a cybernetics section with creeping horror as time passes. A warden could use it as is, but also use the tools and tables presented to generate any space station. With a huge cybernetics list, some new weapons and armor, and a gunsmith providing means to modify and enhance a PC’s favorite gun, we’re adding a lot of extra stuff to throw into anyone’s campaign.
What key inspirations did you have in mind for Dead Planet? What do you have in mind for A Pound of Flesh?
My own personal key inspirations for DP were a dream I had when I was young, parasitism, cycles, atrophy of civilization, and ocean life. I forgot until recently that part of the bestiary was based on one of my aquariums I had set up at the time. It was a shrimp tank with an overabundance of snails and a non-parasitic nematodes. These became the crawlers, slime moths, and tri-worms of the dead planet.
The dream that served as a fairly large part of inspiration I had in my high school years. I was alone in a vast field of grass. I knew there was no other human alive. Hounds started barking in the distance and herded me into the direction of a giant ramshackle warehouse. Upon entering I saw that it’s filled with large vats of blood and organs and empty husks of people on hooks. Somehow I knew that I was supposed to remake the human race. So that became the landing area of the island, the gliding gaunt hounds, and the necropolis of the dead planet.
APoF is definitely more straight ahead in inspirations and focuses more on “normal” science fiction. Anything else I can’t reveal because SPOILERS!
(Probably a messed up dream. Don’t judge me!)
Right now, you’re in the midst of an incredibly busy schedule. You’re the creator of a very successfully funded solo(ish) zine for Kickstarter’s Zine Quest, The Lesser Key to the Celestial Legion for DCC. You’re one of the lead creators for that new Mothership module, A Pound of Flesh. You’re also a contributor to the Beneath the Canals OSR Kickstarter. What does this crazy success mean for your career goals? Do you have even more plans for the near future?
I do have a lot of stuff going on. I was finally able to launch my publishing company, Psychoda Press and release a book I’ve been working on for years with a very successful Kickstarter campaign. I’m thrilled it was so well received! I’ve got several future projects planned for Psychoda Press starting with a book by James A Pozenel which will probably launch in June/July.
I’m in the final stages on a Hubris adventure for Mike Evan’s DIY Productions that was started a long time ago.
I think Exalted Funeral just announced that I’ve signed on to write a dungeon module for them. So that should be fun.
You’re also part of the once and former(?) popular podcast Drink Spin Run, a talk show about RPGs. What is the future of that project? Will it return?
We actually might have some episodes that were never released. Adam got super busy with a child and different job, and I wanted to focus on writing instead of podcast recording and production. We always talk about releasing them and recording more. If we can carve out some time…He’s also talked about filling my spot with an alternating co-host.
You survived this far! It’s time for the big finale. At the end of interviews I like to ask creators to plug things they want to shine the spotlight on, whether its their own past works, upcoming works, or the esoteric neat things they’ve enjoyed inside and outside of the RPG hobby. So, what would you like to direct some attention toward?
So many people are doing so many amazing zines right now. I’d point them to Zine Quest. As far as outside the hobby, go into the woods and sit. Listen. Watch. Roll a log. There is so much crazy life out there. Breathe it in. Watch a nature documentary. So much of my inspiration comes from the natural world which then gets twisted in my nightmare mind into something gross and horrific. Or something…
Thanks so much for taking the time to ask me questions.
No no, Donn, thank you for answering! I have been really fascinated with the excellence of Dead Planet, so when Donn’s Lesser Key Kickstarter dropped I knew I would be an instant backer. I cannot wait to get my hands on it. I had no idea at the time that, just a few weeks later, I’d have my name attached to a project his name was also attached to. Huge, enormous nerd excitement over that for me. I think the news about Psychoda Press reissuing some of Donn’s earlier work is also very exciting – hopefully we’ll get to see that before 2020 and have something really slick to fill in this year with. Between things like that, the promise of more Mothership, and all the Zine Quest projects Donn is on, I cannot help but believe 2019 is going to be heavily influenced by his work. Also, Armor by John Steakley (and the… companion… book, Vampire$, which was the basis for John Carpenter’s Vampires) comes highly recommended by me, too. Killer stuff!
One last reminder here: under 24 hours remain in the A Pound of Flesh Kickstarter that Donn mentions here. Go see it and get in on it while you can. For people who read this tomorrow: sorry, friends.
Hopefully my fellow nerds out there enjoyed this interview, because I had a blast asking Donn questions. I think I need to make “tell me one of your childhood nightmares” a recurring question for interviews. It will be called the Donn Stroud Sanity Memorial Question. If you want to tell me about your weird flesh vat nightmares, hit me up below or over on Twitter at @dungeonspossums!