Featured: Derek A. Kamal

So even though Thunder City or The Homes are fixed worlds, there is enough going on in the margins, and enough wiggle room for creative players, to hopefully make it feel bigger than it actually is on paper.

We take a look this week at the wonderfully imaginative worlds of Derek A. Kamal (he/him). Derek is an independent game designer and writer publishing under Shoreless Skies (www.shorelessskies.com). 

Derek’s games have drawn international praise for its accessible themes and vivid, exciting-to-play-in worlds. We speak to him about two of his games, The Dig and the zany favourite Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse.

The Dig allows players to explore the lives subterranean dwarves, focusing on character and teamwork through a collaborative, GM-less framework. In particular, the game proceeds with five story rounds: Opening, Social, Material, Craft and Finale. What considerations did you have in mind when setting up this five act structure? How does this affect the storytelling in the game?

Derek: The idea was to create enough of a structure for the players to be able to tell their stories without a GM to guide them. I did this because (1) there’s not always a willing GM around and (2) because I had short stories in mind (rather than the “novel” of an RPG campaign), so it seemed feasible to keep The Dig GM-free.

The three middle rounds force players to act in different contexts, allowing them to show how the different actions they take affect their community and their characters as individuals. It’s all about putting guard rails so the players can go crazy within those constructs and tell the stories they want to tell. 

Could you tell us some of your favourite Ventures? Did they go well, or so, so wrong?

Derek: I can’t explain why, but I’m a big fan of references out of context. It’s like a wink out from the game world to the players in the real world.

So when I ran a venture at GenCon of 2016, we somehow ended up excavating a huge statute of some dwarf of legend. But the excavation wasn’t enough; we had to make it a full-on spectacle, complete with CanCan dancers. The high point for me was a reference to Blazing Saddles when one of the dwarves shouted “I’m working for Mel Brooks” and punched the choreographer.

Most of the table was a group of dudes who were longtime D&D friends that didn’t know what they were getting into; I don’t think they were expecting things to take such a left turn.

Your most recent release Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse has been awarded an ENnie for Best Family Product, congratulations! This is an awesome light-hearted game of mice and their motorcycle clubs that is introducing new players to the Fate system. Were you specifically designing for family experiences or did that come out naturally from the theme you were writing to?

Derek: Well thank you! I was very pleased when we won. The specific design was to make a world where mice on bikes have adventures and that’s about it. When your inspiration is The Mouse and The Motorcycle, a cute, familial vibe naturally follows.

Taking biker mice out of a family-friendly context feels a little unnatural (it happened a few times during playtesting) and even though there’s space for folks to play more “adult” stories using HMTM, it really works best when it’s cute but tough. I was a little worried about using Fate in a family game, but the engine is so malleable that it’s easy to use with kids or less experienced players.

And we have a Fate Accelerated adaptation coming out soon! 

In both The Dig and Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse, there is a palpable sense that the world is large and wondrous and full of adventure, all ready for little you to jump right in and explore. What draws you to these sorts of stories? How did you incorporate this sense of a world of endless possibilities into your design?

Derek: I’m glad you noticed this! Ever since I stumbled into fantasy literature I’ve been drawn to big, sprawling worlds, and becoming a bit of a Tolkien addict certainly amplified that tendency. His work (Tolkien’s) is so successful because there’s a constant pointing to the margins; the borders of his stories aren’t hard lines but blurry ones. I try to let that come out when I write settings, which is actually my favorite thing to do (as opposed to writing rules and game mechanics).

So even though Thunder City or The Homes are fixed worlds, there is enough going on in the margins, and enough wiggle room for creative players, to hopefully make it feel bigger than it actually is on paper.

And lastly, what singular issue is important to you right now that you want us to leave here thinking about?

Derek: I find a lot of my work, if it must have a theme, veers toward reflections on community and collective identity. The way we love one another (even our enemies) is probably the singular most important factor to life on this planet.

I would encourage everyone to think about how best to achieve such an end, and put forth that our spiritual health is vital to this endeavor. The gaming table is a great place to start practicing. Telling stories draws us together and that togetherness can cause rub from time to time; use moments like that practice love. I’m not very good at it but I hope to improve!

Derek can be found online at @ShorelessSkies on Twitter and Instagram, where you can follow him for more cute and hardcore mice and stay tuned with developments on the FATE Accelerated adaptation!