Friday, July 27, 2012

Chad Davidson Interview

An Interview with Chad Davidson
by Guest Blogger
John Everett Till

Chad Davidson is  the designer of the alternate 16th century Caribbean indie RPG Heirs to the Lost World, as well as the creator of RPG Inspiration Cards. He is a math teacher at an alternative high school, is happily married, the father of two young children (a girl and a boy), and has two cats - one black, one white.  He is a restless inventor and tinkerer with gaming mechanics, and your best friend at the gaming table: he'll do the math for you!

John Till is the man behind the curtain over at The Everwayan and FATE SF blogs.

John: To get us started, let me ask you to share something about how you came to the hobby. When did you first start roleplaying? How did you get introduced? What was your first RPG?

Chad: Like many of us, I started with AD&D at the age of about 12, playing with my older brother. I slowly moved on to Top Secret, Gamma World, Star Frontier and Gangbusters, and a little Man, Myth, and Magic, and Pirates and Plunder. That got me through high school. I did not really game in college, but in grad school I got back into AD&D 2nd edition. When I moved to the Twin Cities, I took more time off, and then got back into the scene with a couple groups willing to try different games.

John: Where did your design work in gaming begin?

Chad: I remember making my first board game as a school project in fifth grade (based on the Mines of Moria). My first home-made RPG was a James Bond game that I played with several friends before we discovered the James Bond 007 RPG from Victory Games, which I loved. Another early project that followed from this was a hack of the James Bond 007 engine to a pirates setting.
John: So let’s turn to Heirs to the Lost World. How did you go about designing and writing it?

Chad: Making Heirs was truly a labor of love. Like many RPG writers, I set out to write the game I would most want to play. For the mechanics, my main play group at the time and I made a big list of what we liked most in our preferred RPGs. I got the very basics of my mechanics from that. For the setting, I tried to come up with something that could combine all of my childhood interests: pirates, Aztecs, and Maya. Historically, they did not really overlap, so I had to change history. Designing always is easy for me, but the actual writing is more difficult. For me, the key step of design is to playtest. The key step in writing was to set a deadline. My deadline was the birth of my daughter, because I knew my free time was about to dry up.

John: Can you talk about how your dad was an influence on the game?

Chad: My dad was a huge influence on the game. He is a retired cultural geographer specializing in Honduras and Central America. As a child, my family traveled around Mexico and Central America in our VW camper as my dad did research. Scampering over the ruins made me instantly fascinated by all things Aztec and Maya. He also modeled good research for me, checking your sources, etc. Finally and most importantly, he instilled a sense of respect for and the value of differences among cultures. "Culture is not right or wrong, it just is," he says. That is probably why I wanted to make a game in which Aztecs, Maya, and Voodoo were not evil.

John: Just like in real life! I know from your work with Heirs to the Lost World and some of your other unpublished projects that you like alternate history. What about alternate history appeals to you?

Chad: These days (and at my age) players just don't have the time nor inclination to read a big sourcebook of a new setting. Using alternate history, it is easy for players to jump right in. Players already have a familiarity with the setting. Using actual history seems to limit the Game Master. You can avoid those limits using alternate history.

John: What books did you dig into to research the game?

Chad: I get a little obsessive with these types of things so I read everything I could find. I love to read historical fiction when researching a game because it shows the kind of stories that can be told in the setting. I also read a lot of nonfiction as well. There are tons of great resources for both pirates and Mesoamerica out there, and I tried to list all the ones I used in the Heirs bibliography. I'll have to post a copy of the bibliography on my web site.

I will specifically mention Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. It is part of a great series and is probably the single best Aztec reference. I wish there were a single good resource on Voodoo. If someone out there knows one, please let me know.

Image from Lost World Character Maker
John: Alfred Metraux’s Voodoo in Haiti is pretty good. Pirates are pretty popular these days. What do you actually recommend people read (either fiction or non-fiction) to know more about pirates than just saying “ARR!”

Chad: First, I recommend you get the proper mindset. The romantic vision in many people's minds about pirates is far from the truth. But for gaming purposes, that romantic swashbuckling pirate might be more fun to play. Therefore, I would set out to be inspired by what is cool, not what is historically accurate.
For fiction, try out Sabatini's Captain Blood, Dudley Pope's Buccaneer, and Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes. James L. Nelson has several good pirate books. Also, Philip Shea's The Devil's Captain and Kenneth McKenney's These Kingdoms (with Mayans too!).

For non-fiction, Frank Sherry's Raiders and Rebels is good, and Jan Rogozinski has a good dictionary of real and fictional pirates. Apestegui's Pirates of the Caribbean is also interesting because it has a little more of the Spanish perspective than other sources. Peter Galvin, one of my father's students, wrote Patterns of Pillage explaining the fascinating geography of piracy.

John: With respect to Heirs, what were your design goals?

Chad: I have a lot on this on my website ( so if anyone is interested in the details, they can go check it out. My main goals were:
  • Cinematic rather than gritty, like an action movie. (with stunt rules)
  • Tactical, but transparent combat system (not a collection of little bonuses, no need to look at the tables or a book during play, little bookkeeping, natural ways to provide choice in combat)
  • Limited player narration
  • Combine the setting ideas that I thought were really cool when I was growing up (i.e., Mesoamerica and pirates)
  • Have a reason for characters of all types to work together with a metaplot (that could be ignored if desired).
  • Have Aztecs and Voodoo NOT be the evil bad guys

John: If you had to describe Heirs to the Lost World to someone who had never played it, what would you say?

Chad: Okay, the elevator pitch: Heirs is a role-playing game set 150 years after the Spanish conquistadors lost to the Aztecs, mainly because of the magic of Aztec blood mages. Players can portray characters such as Aztec Jaguar knights, Mayan sun priests, escaped slaves who are capoeira masters, European pirates, African voodoo mambos, and the like. You can play sandbox style or use the metaplot involving the Order of a New Dawn fighting the New World native separatists who are trying to re-open the connection to Xibalba, the realm of fear, sealed since the Mayan civil wars.

While the metaplot can be ignored, you really cannot ignore the style and feel of the game. While I think the word "cinematic" is overused, I tried to make Heirs a heroic cinematic game, as opposed to realistic or gritty. Heroes are larger than life and wade through Extras like in action movies.

The game uses a dice pool system in which players decide how they spend their Effort dice each round. Players earn Destiny points (a key resource) by attempting stunts or portraying their motivations and complications. It is tactically interesting, but requires little bookkeeping and no tables and no rules need to be consulted during play.

John: Can you say anything about any memorable Heirs to the Lost World moments you have GM’d or played in?

Chad: Two of my favorite aspects of Heirs are the stunt rules and players narration. The stunt rules encourage and reward players for attempting crazy stunts instead of just saying, "I attack again." This makes players interact with their environment in clever ways. I remember a wonderful beachside battle against zombies in which coconuts, fish, ropes, and a starfish were used more than weapons. (I just posted about this on my blog at

The player narration rules allow players to narrate their own critical successes AND their own fumbles. Probably some of the most memorable moments have been players coming up with wonderful fumbles. One of these that stands out in my head was when a PC attempted to determine if a certain Englishman was lying. The PC made a disastrous fumble on his Insight roll, so the player narrated that his character (a Puritan ship captain) was convinced that the Englishman was possessed by a demon. The player pulled it off wonderfully and kept it going for several sessions.

John: What games were inspirations for Heirs?

Chad: James Bond 007 for its Hero Points. Savage Worlds for its tactical play without much bookkeeping. Feng Shui, Exalted, and Wushu for ideas around stunts. The whole Indie RPG movement for ideas regarding player narrative rights (in critical successes and fumbles). Shadowrun and Star Wars d6 from West End Games for dice pool ideas. 7th Sea for the idea that setting and genre should influence mechanics.

John: What movies and/or books were inspirations for Heirs?

Chad: For movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Quilombo, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (if it was Aztec jaguar knights and African capoeira masters instead).

For books: Captain Blood by Sabatini and On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (not the movie, which was disappointing since I am a fan of both the book and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy)

There were not many book or movie inspirations on the Aztec, Maya, Voodoo side. There are many good resources on Aztecs and Maya, but I used them while writing, not really as inspiration.

For alternate history books, I loved J. Gregory Keyes' Age of Unreason series and Steven Barnes' Lion's Blood.
John: Can you share something about your current projects?

Chad: I just recently released my RPG Inspiration Cards. It is a sixty card deck that is a tool for use in any role-playing game. Check out my blog for more info.

I have two RPG products in the works. The first is a pirate-focused supplement for Heirs called Bad Mojo in Port Royal. It includes, among other things, new paths, ship rules, and an adventure set in Port Royal, Jamaica.

I also am working on a FATE-based RPG game that is still in its early stages of playtesting but is working out very well.

Finally, I have a card game that is almost finished called Aztec Flower Wars.

John: What are some of your favorite games/systems or ones that you would like to try out?

Chad: Probably my current two favorites are Fate and Savage Worlds.
I'd like to try out Danger Patrol, Hollow Earth Expeditions, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition), Don't Rest Your Head, Dragon Age, Artesia, REIGN, How We Came to Live Here, The One Ring, Mouse Guard, to name a few.

John: In any creative project, you can run into dry periods. Has that happened to you? If so, what do you do to break out of that?

Chad: I have had many creative dry spells, but fortunately for me, they were not negative experiences. Working on my gaming projects is my primary creative outlet, but there are times when my family life and work life dominate. I love both my family and my day job, so this is not a big deal, but like many people, I wish there were a few more hours in a day. It is discouraging to see projects drag out so long, but I just try to keep good notes so I can get back to them later.

John: In my experience, you are constantly coming up with new mechanics and alternative ways of making game play fun or interesting. Whenever we talk or meet, you have at least one new mechanics idea – usually several tweaks as well as one or more innovative mechanics ideas. How do these come to you? How, practically, do you keep track of them and reality-test them?

Chad: First, I am a hyper-critical person. This is like a good Aspect in Fate because it can be both good and bad. Whenever I play a game, I instantly start to think of hacks (instead of just enjoying the game).
Next, I try to take good notes. I currently use Evernote to write down everything, and I make sure I tag it well. Finally, I look through my notes every once in a while and try to find matches between system mechanics ideas and setting ideas. For example, I currently have a setting idea that I have tried out with several system ideas, but none of them have seemed to work.

John: I am wondering if you have some advice for people who are considering developing a game of their own. Key lessons? Things to avoid? Ways to get support?

Chad: Before starting, play lots of different games with lots of different people.
  • See if your game is different
  • Read game theory, then choose what to ignore
  • Playtest with different people and groups
  • Find a good, creative, and critical play group with knowledge and experience in many games.

John: So, I know you have had a couple of kids in the last three years! Congratulations! I know the early years of parenting can keep people from the gaming table and slow down game-related projects. Family comes first, after all. So what do you do to keep making headway with gaming projects, as busy as you are? How do you organize your life?

Chad: Well, my gaming time has greatly diminished. I still try to get my projects done, but one-shot games are more my style these days. I really only get to play at conventions and special occasions. I hope that changes as the kids get older.

John: Finally, has being a gamer influenced how you parent? And are you seeing any signs that your kids will become gamers?

Chad: I'm not sure how gaming has influenced my parenting. Regarding my kids becoming gamers, my 2.5 year old daugher loves dice and has some of her own toy soldiers. She knows the difference between "daddie toys" and her toys. It's a little too early to tell with the four month old.

Chad, thanks so much for all of your time, resources, and creativity and game design tips!

Thanks to you both for a great interview!

Here are some handy links for those of you interested in finding out more about Heirs to the Lost World or RPG Inspiration Cards:

Chad Davidson's Design blog:
Heirs to the Lost World main site:
Heirs to the Lost World print book:
Heirs to the Lost World PDF at RPGnow: 

RPG Inspiration Cards are available via GameCrafter:

You may also want to check out the Lost World Character Maker:

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