I did an interview with IXN recently, which is a Spanish-language games, comics, and anime site. Here’s the interview in English, should you be interested in such things as design principles, the overlap between hobby games and video games, and my life.
This Charming Man
First of all, who is Justin Achilli, sometimes also known as DJ Achilles?
I’m the sum of my parts. Game designer, writer, cook, DJ, father, husband, son, and brother. I think in particular, I’m drawn to the things that let me interact with other people, such as playing games with them, cooking a meal for them, or entertaining them on the dance floor. I’m a social creature. Gregarious. Like a monkey.
Could you tell us what’s life for a game designer is like?
For me, it’s a professional career. I work a Monday-Friday schedule at Red Storm Entertainment, and in the evenings I head home to work on Vampire and spend family time. Sometimes there’s travel involved, but for the most part, it’s a steady arrangement until crunch time.
Your blog says you’ve been in game designing for about 16 years, which elements do you think are the most important to create and develop an RPG?
For me, the most important element of an RPG is that it allows players the ability to affect the environment. This is really the heart of an RPG: The gamemaster sets the scene, the players interact with it in some way, and then the gamemaster interprets those actions into results. This is where RPGs run by people currently shine above and beyond computer RPGs, which are limited by the logic developers place inside them. An RPG run by a person has infinite potential player interaction and infinite potential outcome analysis. A computer game is a finite series of if/ then, by comparison.
From a design perspective, that’s easy for a designer to achieve because it’s inherent in the function of the game. The harder part, and the part that takes the most refinement, is creating a unique combination of systems and setting that communicates the essential experience of the game. As an example here, look at Humanity in Vampire. One of the essential experiences of Vampire is the struggle against the Beast, which is a setting component and a system. When those two come to the fore, you’ve got something that’s uniquely Vampire as opposed to, say, a sci-fi exploration game or a fantasy monster hunt.
This is a double question… Which do you like better:
Games with an emphasis on narrative over system/mechanics or vice versa?
I don’t necessarily think that these are mutually exclusive. You can have a game like In a Wicked Age in which the system is constructed to foster the narrative, or you can have a game like Risk in which there’s very little inherent narrative, but the narrative arises as a result of the system’s determinations. For me, it’s more of an understanding of the game I’m playing on its own terms. A friend came over the other day and we played Puerto Rico, for example. None of the narrative that emerged from our session had a damn thing to do with Puerto Rico, but the most notable narrative element that emerged was the fact that my wife forced the endgame situation one turn before the plan I was putting together came to fruition. I was so close!
In terms of a “storytelling game,” we’ve always built the systems to be non-intrusive. We don’t have exhaustive rules for every situation that might occur. I think there’s more narrative flexibility in that, with the story directing the rules interpretations. That’s why you see so many things like “The storyteller will determine.…” It’s not saying that one way is better than the other, it’s just the game we’ve chosen to make. I enjoy both narrative systems like Storyteller and games in which the systems are fun to manipulate as well, like Pathfinder/ D&D.
And, game settings with a rigid, ambiguous or virtually non existent meta-plot/backstory?
Here, I prefer a background that has either a lot of “gaps” between the background facts, or has a very broad background with lot of room to focus in on the details that emerge for my troupe. In the first situation, like Vampire, there are a lot of “hooks” in place that give players room to take one of the setting tenets and then do what they want with it. In the latter case, the setting is vague enough that the facts of the game world are defined over the course of playing the game and as a result of it, and I love that.
What I’m less a fan of is a progressive metaplot, in which the game material is serial, and if I miss a book, then I miss something that developed and my next book may or may not have all the facts necessary to run a game in a world in which the printed detail is paramount. The stories really belong to the people playing the game, and the printed material exists primarily to give them a game experience, not dictate the outcome of their game. If my troupe tells a story about the siege of Miami and the Camarilla wins, but then a book comes out that says the Sabbat wins, I feel disconnected from the game. That’s why we’re mostly working with detailed histories and broad modern trends as opposed to current metaplots with the V20 material.
Besides Vampire The Masquerade you’ve worked in a lot of other games, which ones are the most famous or the ones with the highest profiles? And which ones have you enjoyed working on the most?
I was lead multiplayer designer on Assassins Creed: Revelations, which is probably the title of mine that has the most shipped units. I really enjoyed the freedom of working on Requiem, and I really wish we would have jumped into the deep end with it and changed it more from its predecessor, in hindsight. But most of all, I love working with Vampire: The Masquerade. I love its singular confluence of setting and mechanics, and I can always find some unexplored corner of the world that’s casting its own distinct shadow and use that to tell a story.
As a game designer you’ve not only concentrated on pen & paper games. Which other activities you´ve been able to delve in?
Most of my work is on RPGs, but I actually started at White Wolf working on the Rage collectible card game. I’ve worked on board games, as well, and some amount of writing for the Vampire Mind’s Eye LARP rules. Beyond that, I’ve done AAA MMO development, AAA console action-game development, Facebook game development, and a few novels.
You’re a family man, how hard is it to balance a professional life oriented to fantasy/game designing with your family responsibilities?
Everyone in my family plays games, so we do a lot of that in our free time. We play all different types of games, but I think play is healthy for learning and imagination, so I’m glad my daughter does it, and it’s also a wonderful social activity, so I’m glad I share it with my wife and friends. Nietzsche said that, “Without music, life would be a mistake,” and I feel the same way about games.
We know that V20 was created using Open Development system, who was the first one to come up with the idea and how do you feel about the result? Do you think that the future of game development is geared towards open dev?
I don’t know if the collective of future of game development lies with open development, but I definitely think it offers a lot that benefits designers. From the practical aspects of being able to collect far-ranging feedback on a game in design to the more community-based aspects of building a relationship with the game’s players, Open Development has been a huge boon to the ongoing development of Vampire. Being able to talk directly to players, especially across wide geographical separations, is something we didn’t have 20 years ago when Vampire came into being, and a lot of our decisions were kind of “cowboy” decisions, made based on gut feelings and guesswork rather than with any direct indication that a design decision was the right one. The only real feedback we had to go on was sales numbers, and those lagged so far behind and revealed only such a small portion of the player experience that we were largely developing by trial and error. Now, being able to share a systems or setting draft and integrate feedback is not only possible, but easily done and maintained.
Looking back, how long ago did you started role playing and why? What caught your attention initially?
I’ve always been attracted to the fantastical and fanciful. I remember seeing Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards when I was really young, listening to music that had a unique sound and cool cover art, and indulging imagination. When I was nine, my cousin ran a D&D game in his basement, and that was my first introduction to roleplaying games. Even in my periods of RPG gaming lull after that, I was always engaged in some kind of game, even if it wasn’t a LARP or tabletop RPG. I didn’t even need to be playing directly, just interacting with an imaginary place.
It’s a very different kind of monster being a GameMaster/Storyteller than being a player, how is it that you went from being a player to GM and then to game designer?
I’ve always been attracted to the worldbuilding aspect of game design, so while I was entertaining myself with the worldcraft of character creation, I turned my thinking to a larger scope. Why is this true in a particular world? A lot of that has narrative application, as you’re building webs of motivations for characters or creating cause-and-effect rewards for players to uncover and exploit, but it’s also interesting in a rules and experience context. For example, that’s why Vampire works as a morality story – your power as a vampire comes from an expendable resource, like, say, “mana” or “action points,” but it’s actually blood. You have to take your resource away from someone else and harm them to do it. At what price power? So the thought exercises that came from explaining the why behind the systems really turned my attention to design as a practice.
Do you feel satisfied with your achievements as a game designer? Is there any game, whether in genre or subject, you would like to create or work on but haven’t been able to?
I’m pretty happy with where I am. There’s always more work to do, of course, but I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to steer the direction of a game I love. I wish I had more time to do more playing, more writing, and more conceptual exploration, but that’s a truism of human life, I think. We all want more time. Time is the only resource that means anything, both in gameplay and life.
For example, I’ve been working on Pagan Lands, which is an original-rules fantasy hexcrawl inspired by the weird fiction that started the hobby, as a sort of love letter to why I like to play RPGs. With all of the V20 work that’s been going on plus day job plus a lot of my recent relocation, I haven’t been able to work on it nearly as much as I’d like to. Why not? I NEED MORE TIME, MAN.
Finally, which are your current projects both rpg’s and other stuff?
Right now, I’m working on an as-yet unannounced project at my Red Storm day job that’s pretty exciting, and perfectly in line with my design philosophy. The current Vampire title I’m working on is Children of the Revolution, with Hunters Hunted 2 right around the corner. I’ve got an old-school fantasy game hex crawl shaping up in my tiny bits of free time, and I’ve got a card game that’s ready to play, but that needs some art and graphic design before I can do anything with it. A few more fiction projects (both short- and long-form) have been lying neglected for a while, but I don’t think I’ll make it back to them any time soon with the other projects I have in progress. Everything in its due time.
Thanks a lot for the interview.
My pleasure! Sorry it took so long to get it back to you.
How can people keep up with your projects and contact you?
On Twitter, I’m @jachilli
On Facebook, I’m justin.achilli
Once the V20 schedule stabilizes, I also hope to be blogging more at justinachilli.com. Which, of course, I need to carve out the time to do.
And well, you knew we had to ask: what’s your honest opinion of the Gehenna book? Is it the ending that V: tM needed but not the one that it deserved?
It’s a tough question. I was definitely happy with the Gehenna book, and so were many players. It went to reprint three times! That said, Vampire is an intensely personal game, and I know that it couldn’t possibly conclude everyone’s individual chronicle personally. That’s why we presented the variety of scenarios we did. We had identified the most frequent playstyles and chronicle types that people were using, and then created scenarios specifically suited to those types. That’s the key word, though, “types.” If your type deviated from the most frequent or had some other unique characteristic, we couldn’t possibly have created an infinite book that was all things to everyone.
One of the core principles of storytelling is crafting an end, obviously. All stories have to end. Did Gehenna conclude the “official” Vampire storyline with an appropriate bang or whimper? I think it did. And yet, here we are, talking about Vampire stories that continue long after the end of that particular continuity thread. I think that’s a good sign.