Exilian Interviews: Phoenixguard!

Started by Jubal, January 18, 2024, 10:32:45 AM

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A Conversation With: Phoenixguard!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

The RPG design team at Norbayne have been key parts of the Exilian community for many years, especially their captain and lead designer James Gatehouse (Phoenixguard09). We caught up with him for a chat in our latest Exilian interview, now going up as Exilians 150,000th post! Read on to find out more about the project, the influences and issues on indie fantasy RPG design, and a fair bit of nerdery besides...

Jubal: So, we're here mostly to talk about your tabletop RPG project Norbayne, but first, let's talk about you: what got you into tabletop RPGs to begin with?

Phoenixguard: Hey Jubs, thanks for having us here. For anyone not aware, my name is James Gatehouse. I am the initial creator and lead developer of the Norbayne tabletop role-playing game.

The story as far as my initial tabletop experience is, I think, at least a little atypical. I went to a pretty fundamentalist school in my early years. Dungeons and Dragons for instance was a complete no-go, I was somewhat ostracised because I had read Harry Potter, the whole Satanic Panic made somewhat manifest in suburban Queensland, Australia. Narnia and Lord of the Rings were fine though, so there was some form of acceptable fantasy - though I must admit, I did not get into Lord of the Rings until just before The Two Towers came out in cinemas. I think my first dabbling with a tabletop game was perhaps around early 2003, with a kind of bizarre, dice-less, largely solo-player narrative adventure game with a real kitchen-sink fantasy setting. Somehow, I managed to rope my poor mother into playtesting it for me, which still to this day means a great deal to me, though she has never let me forget what a sacrifice it was for her to sit through!

Around that same time, I got absolutely hooked on Lord of the Rings and devoured absolutely everything Middle-Earth related I could get my hands on. At the end of 2003, after the theatrical release of The Return of the King, I received a copy of the Games Workshop Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game starter box. I was quite young at the time and it took me a fair while to properly parse the rules, but I found it absolutely fascinating. I spent truly unreasonable hours learning the game, painting the miniatures, crafting terrain, playing against myself, memorising the rulebook by rote and soon, I was creating my own rules content as well, coming up with new units and an unreleased 'campaign' type system for you to create your own little warband. I would have been insufferable as a child (still am by most accounts).

I progressed into Warhammer pretty smoothly from that point, crafting another homebrew RP system to use with the Warhammer Fantasy setting, this one relying on D6 dice pools. Not long after running a few games of this at school, I was introduced to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons and played a few games, but I was never really enamoured with the D20 system.

Since that time, I've dabbled a bit in a few different tabletop systems, particularly enjoying the 2nd edition of Fantasy Flight Games Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing Game, which gave me a great appreciation of the versatility of a percentile-based system. It is an appreciation which has informed many of the design decisions which have, in turn, given rise to Norbayne.

A draft title page from an earlier Norbayne version.
Jubal: And what made you start work on the Norbayne setting – were there particular media or ideas that inspired it, or did it just grow out of the play culture at your own table?

Phoenixguard: I think it was late 2011. I had been struggling for months to write a story. I had all the ideas for an interesting setting and world, but could not come up with a compelling story to write. The depression was setting in alarmingly quickly, until a friend of mine at the time (now wife), Stephanie, told me one evening, "Don't write a story then, use the world you've created for something else."

In hindsight, that advice seems very simple, but at the time, my mind was blown. It hadn't occurred to me to even consider such a thing. So I think maybe ten months passed, where I worked on this thing basically in secret. I put together what I felt was quite a robust system to go with the setting and then began to invite a few people I thought may be interested. At the time, we didn't actually have an explicit table as such, it was the playtesting of this game which brought our gaming group together. Thus was the Three Coins campaign born, which would last approximately nine years in the end, albeit with a couple of hiatuses in there due to various real-life scheduling issues.

Jubal: Can you give us a quick pitch – what makes Norbayne stand out for you and what makes it differ from other TTRPG settings out there?

Phoenixguard: From a setting perspective, there's a bit of everything. We've got some allusions to an almost space operatic in the deep past of the setting, a classical fantasy kind of feel with some unique twists to the formula and then a legitimately in-depth evolutionary origin for the various species at large in the world. I think we've hit a really good balance between providing a detailed framework and providing enough freedom to come up with your own parts of the setting.

On the mechanical front, it's elaborate. We're a hard class-based percentile system with a fully independent ruleset and multiple ways to play baked into the core rules. While we may have a hard class-based design, the customisation available to you within your Class selection is prodigious, and to be fair, is probably the biggest part of why we're still in development.

Jubal: If you could pick one place and one character that really sum up the setting for you, who and where would those be – and why?

Phoenixguard: I'm afraid I really can't pick a single place or character right off the bat, but I think the initial Three Coins group is pretty representative of the setting. For that matter, there are worse locations to consider than the independent township of Summer Hill, in which we spend a great deal of time throughout the course of the Three Coins campaign. A Midland town sitting on the border between two powerful kingdoms, Summer Hill society is a conglomeration of various peoples, as are most towns throughout the Midlands of Norbayne come the modern era. One big design concept I wanted to emphasise right from the beginning was to stay away from the idea of great monolithic cultures being demarcated by species. In some places, this is still the case, but these cases are largely the exception, usually due to remoteness of location and the deliberately insular nature of the culture itself. By the modern age of Norbayne, most of the more populous settlements will have a mixed species population, and the society reflects this.

As for our initial playtest group, in large parts they defined the quintessential member of their people. For instance, George's character, Harold Oakenshield provided us with a great example of just what an Invarrian was. He threw himself into the physiology of the species, for example always asking specifically if he could smell anything when I asked for Perception Checks, but he also really embraced the mentality of the Invarrians, their dualistic nature and dichotomy between their generally fun-loving personality and their inherent thrill in causing destruction.

He wasn't alone in this. For instance, Steph's Danann, Maebh Preachain-Eite really delved into the psyche of a Fell Clan Danann who had imposed a form of self-exile upon herself.

This is not to say we have not had similarly well-fleshed out and compelling characters since this time. Steph again has really hit the brief perfectly with another Danann, Bedelia Ceanndorcha in our Forgotten Glories campaign for example, nailing the concept of the Fell Clan Danann trying to exist in a society she really doesn't quite understand, all the while dealing with her own, personal historical trauma.

Jubal: The aesthetics of much of Norbayne have a European feel – with for example the highlanders having very Scots aesthetics, some celtic myth terms like Danaan used. But, of course, you and your team are all Australian. What do you think is the attraction of building that Europeanism into your worlds – and how do you think your experiences and surroundings growing up in Australia might have influenced Norbayne?

Phoenixguard: In large part, this particular influence has come from me. The Lord of the Rings in particular was a huge influence upon me and most of the work I have done, even outside of the Norbayne project. I'd consider the Warhammer setting to also be a significant influence too, which definitely has a fairly strong European feel to it as well. I think personally, it's a matter of comfort. I understand European folklore and languages quite well and can therefore incorporate it more easily as inspiration for my own works.

That is one thing to note, I guess. A lot of the structure of the setting is built around my personal love for and interest in languages. We use real-world languages to help us represent the in-game dialects (similarly to what Tolkien did, what with using Old English to represent Rohirric for instance, though I am not talented nor mad enough to construct my own languages), and as such, relationships between languages in the real world can help reveal various relationships between the languages, peoples and cultures of the world of Norbayne. It's a fun little game you can play while you make your way through our years of collated lore. 

Some highlanders from Norbayne's, well, highlands.

Jubal: To return to the other part of the question about whether there's any 'Australian-ness' in how Norbayne has come together, do you think your relationship to that European folklore differs from authors who live in Europe, in aspects of landscape, wildlife or culture that might resonate differently for you?

Phoenixguard: Oh definitely, no doubt at all. I think being so far removed from that European 'base' has given our development a sense of other-ness. There's a sense of it still being mysterious and foreign, without it being wholly unrecognisable and unfamiliar. Particularly from a landscape perspective, Australia doesn't exactly have mountains, or at least not really in the sense other continents do, so there is a sense of the mountain ranges of Norbayne feeling perhaps a little more fantastical as a result.

There'd be quite a few things in that vein too, for instance, wolves. Wolves in many places in Europe are a very real and somewhat mundane creature (for all they are endangered in many regions today) however from an Australian perspective, there is so much mythology built up around those animals which cannot be experienced in day-to-day life. The Norbayne setting treats various species and variety of wolf perhaps more seriously and with more reverence (not sure if it's the correct term) than other comparable settings may.

Jubal: You mentioned Warhammer and Tolkien as core inspirations. Warhammer in particular is a sort of "bucket of oddments" approach to a setting, whereas Tolkien's work has something of a more internally consistent and less anarchic feel (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). Which of those approaches do you think better characterises how you build fantasy?

Phoenixguard: I think I aim for somewhere in between, as close to the centre as possible, while pushing to one extreme or the other as the whim takes me. While that sounds anarchic and unfocussed, I think it adds to the depth of the setting as, ideally, we'd like to think there should be something for everyone.

It's probably fair to say I aim for internal consistency everywhere I can and have spent countless hours mulling over the evolutionary paths of any given ancestry in an attempt to tie their birth into the setting's prehistory, but sometimes, just as in the real world, occurrences can be wild and unexpected and there may just be no explanation every now and then, which just adds to the mystery and excitement.

I hope so, anyway. 

Jubal: Norbayne is a setting first and foremost but it's also a completely independent game with its own rules. What made you decide to develop Norbayne as a totally independent system, rather than a setting supplement for a major published TTRPG rule set?

Phoenixguard: In light of the recent Wizards of the Coast Open Gaming Licence drama, I'm very glad I chose to do something different. Largely, I struggled to find a system which properly modelled the specifics of how I wanted the setting to be represented. The WFRPG, while excellent and a favourite of mine, doesn't lend itself particularly well to being translated to other settings. I've never really liked most D20-based systems and I definitely did not want to work with Vancian-style casting for Norbayne's various magic systems.

In the end, it almost felt like less work to build a system from scratch, as compared to chopping and changing something which already existed to make it fit reasonably well.

I remember the very early days of the project, trying to show people and explain it to them and I'd regularly be met with a barrage of, "Why don't you just use the D&D rules?" Considering that fact, you would think I'd have a better answer for this question by now.

GMing Norbayne: Phoenixguard in action
Jubal: Could you give us a blow-by-blow account of a quick example combat round, to give people an idea of how some rolls might play out in your system?

Phoenixguard: Of course. I'll try to keep this as brief as possible, as while on the tabletop this is usually pretty quick and efficient, in prose it might come across a bit rough.

On any given combat round, each participant would act in Initiative order, which is determined by rolling a single d10 and adding it to your character's Initiative Statistic. For example, let's say two of our longest running characters, the sisters, Mathlynn and Aracaeda Cild-Ailith are going to have a little sparring match to pass the time.

They'd each determine their Initiative, with the higher result acting first. In this case, it is likely Aracaeda would act first as she has the higher base Initiative, but there is a chance she'd be slow on the uptake. For the example's sake, let's say she rolled higher. Each character generally has a Movement Action and a Full Action to utilise on their turn. Aracaeda may move up to her Speed Statistic in feet as a Movement Action every turn. In addition to this, she may elect to perform a Full Attack with her Full Action or a Quick Attack with a Half Action. By electing to do the latter, Aracaeda may hold a Half Action in reserve to use as a Dodge or Parry should the occasion call for it.

She does so, moving into close combat with Mathlynn and making a Quick Attack with her longsword. She must then determine her target number to hit Mathlynn. By adding her Dexterity Statistic to any bonus she may have to her Close Combat Skill and her longsword Weapon Proficiency and then subtracting any situation negatives she may suffer to the target number, Aracaeda can determine her target number. She may then roll a d100 to determine her success, wanting to get as far under the target number as she can. She will then advise the Games Master of how many 'degrees of success' she achieved, by determining the difference between the '10's' die of the d100 and the '10's' place value of the target number. For example, if her target number was '87' and she rolled a '24', she would have achieved 6 degrees of success.

Mathlynn, should she have a half action available to her, may attempt to Parry or Dodge this oncoming attack. She would do this by either rolling a d100 and attempting to achieve higher than Aracaeda's target number to hit, or alternatively rolling under her own Agility Statistic plus any bonus she may have to her own Dodge Skill. In this case, Mathlynn knows Aracaeda's target number is very high and so would likely attempt to dodge the strike. Should she succeed, no Damage would be done, though on her turn, Mathlynn would only have a Half Action with which to perform any activities, as she would have used a Half Action to perform the Dodge Check. Should she fail to perform the Dodge, she would of course take damage, equal to Aracaeda's degrees of success to hit, the damage value of her sword and her Strength Modifier, plus any other bonuses Aracaeda may have. This would then be mitigated by any damage reduction and resistances Mathlynn may have, with the final total subtracted from Mathlynn's current Health total.

This is our basic close combat mechanic, though different weapons, armour, Talents and other abilities can cause this initial mechanic to take on further varied forms. On her own turn, Mathlynn, a Necromancer, may well seek to raise some nearby corpses and use them to apprehend and detain her sister.

Jubal: What have been some of the biggest problems and changes you've had to make on a mechanics and rules level to the game over time, and how do you approach those challenges?

Phoenixguard: We've seen quite a few major paradigm changes to the system over the years. I think the first big one (and likely the most contentious in practice) was implementing Soulfire as a generated Statistic for your character. Previously, we balanced magic by making it very dangerous, but it quickly became apparent this was not particularly working. As such, I reduced the inherent danger of Arcane Magic by a little and incorporated Soulfire as a way of tracking your character's ability to sling spells around. There was a varied reaction to that change, let me tell you.

On the one hand, about half the party were very happy with the change, while particularly Steph, who was playing a Mage, could not have felt more differently.

I think the most important thing we've had to embrace with regards to this is the fact our stories to date, while the game as a whole is now largely realised, remain playtests. As such, when a balancing issue does become apparent, we normally try and implement fixes in between sessions. In recent years, this has become significantly less prevalent, but I can't deny, it has taken some cooperation and understanding from the playing group.

Jubal: Can you talk a bit more about how you deal with that playtesting element? Are there particular guidelines you have to set yourself with how to approach rebalancing and other issues, like not changing too many elements at once, or do you just reshuffle the game as needed and eyeball the outcome you're after?

Phoenixguard: Again, probably a bit of both. I try my best to factor in the feedback from each of the players at the table and any reports I may get from outside it. I personally try to make changes to a certain mechanic or area of the game in one hit and hope not to change too many other major elements at the same time in an attempt to help the players keep track of changes when they occur. By dint of the various campaigns we play though, this can be somewhat difficult at times, which again, as mentioned previously, requires some understanding and cooperation from the players.

As the ruleset is, to be frank, pretty sprawling at this stage, there's certainly an element of simply eyeballing changes and trying to monitor it in play. We are lucky to have a few members of the team with a bit of an analytical bent. Previously, one of our inaugural players, Geoffrey, provided us with some significant statistical breakdowns for a fair few concepts to help give us an idea of places we should look to redress, which was very useful.

We are bringing quite a few new players into the game in the next few months too, which I'll mention again a little bit later. We're definitely hoping to continue to build up our resources in this area as we are constantly looking for different perspectives and experiences to help us enrich the game experience.

The Norbayne team busy with a long Hallowe'en playtest session
Jubal: Of course, Norbayne's a team project: how do you balance different people's inputs and interests, and how important is that collective part of the effort to what Norbayne has become?

Phoenixguard: It's been huge, right from the outset. I mentioned before how we've had so many elements of the setting informed by the creativity of our players. So much of the Invarrian society for instance was laid out by George initially when he played Harold Oakenshield in Three Coins, but then a lot more of it was codified by Bri when she put together an elaborate backstory for Assar Eiliert upon the resumption of The God King campaign.

Skye has been huge in this area too. There's a lot of depth in many different places which is owed to Skye, firstly as a player, then as part of our development team and, more recently, as a games master too. We have a private chat where Skye just asks me random setting-related questions, which I may or may not end up finishing the answers to.

The balancing act has been interesting. I think it's fair to say, from a setting and lore perspective, the entire team is more than happy to cede overall decisions to me, but I guess I'm lucky in that the whole team has a good grasp of the feel of the setting. Most discussion surrounding, "Can I do this in the setting?" is normally very positive and built around discussing exactly how such a thing could work. It is very rare I've had to say to one of our players, "No, it doesn't work like that, you couldn't do such a thing."

The rules and system differences can be a little more contentious. Again, normally the final decision pretty well comes down to me, but there's been a few times where I've been outvoted. I try to remain as balanced and even-handed as possible and I've had to learn to take a step back and let others provide their input even in those situations where I disagree.

The key principle we've really tried to push recently has been the idea of, 'Responsibility, not ownership.' There was a tendency in the past where individual developers would feel a sense of ownership over concepts and elements of the game they had worked on, which led to a feeling of discontent upon other members of the team running an eye over those elements and offering feedback, or, in my opinion, even more distressingly, a sense one could not work upon a certain concept or class because it was one individual's personal project. We've consciously tried to move away from this, seeking a holistic design process which encompasses the core team as a base and referring to our consultant team as required.

Jubal: And to give people an insight into your next steps, what can we expect from Norbayne in the near future?

Phoenixguard: At this stage, we're getting mighty close to launching our Kickstarter campaign. We've been dedicated to making sure the actual content of the game is completed before launching the Kickstarter, so all we will need to do is fund the artwork and overall design of our product and then printing and distribution costs.

We're currently in the process of really opening our playtesting group too. We've had a significant influx of interested newcomers looking to play some one-shot games with our development team after we put out a call to arms of sorts.

Steph and I got married last April, so we're taking a little bit of time to enjoy that before launching into what is shaping up to be our biggest year yet. Between our newcomer one-shots, the launch of Arc 3 of Seven Stones and a Pale Shadow and hopefully the release of our Great Maw table-read, there'll be plenty of content to experience in the lead up to the Kickstarter campaign.

There's also been a little bit of talk around a streamed game, though I probably shouldn't say too much more about that.

Jubal: And finally, where can people find out more about the game?

Phoenixguard: At this stage, a lot of our material is based here on Exilian. We will be moving to our own website in time, but we'll be maintaining a strong presence on Exilian to discuss elements of the game moving forward.

If you'd like to join our community and keep abreast of any and all updates, please join our Discord. You'll note we're still taking expressions of interest for prospective newcomers. At this time, we're only able to cater for players local to the South-East Queensland area in Australia, however we are working to incorporate a remote option for our friends further afield.

Lastly, we have an Instagram page at the moment, where we've historically posted all kinds of concept art, fan art and sometimes photos and snippets of video from our sessions. Feel free to give us a cheeky follow on there.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...



I've spoken with you privately of course Jubs, but thank you again for hosting us on here and putting up this interview. It's been an honour and a pleasure.
The Norbayne Campaign Instagram page. Give us a cheeky follow if you like. :)
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Quote from: Phoenixguard09 on February 01, 2024, 09:25:00 PM
I've spoken with you privately of course Jubs, but thank you again for hosting us on here and putting up this interview. It's been an honour and a pleasure.
Likewise! I should really do a few more of these sorts of interviews, too, this was fun.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...