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2015 saw the release of the Swedish roleplaying game Järn (Iron), written by Krister Sundelin. The game takes Basic Roleplaying as its starting point, but goes off in an entirely new trajectory for BRP. When an English version was planned, I contacted Krister to ask him about the game.

The interview will be published here on the forum, one question at a time. Krister may also drop by at the end of the interview, to answer any additional questions from you. 

Krister is a well-known RPG writer in Sweden. He's got many games, scenarios and sourcebooks on his CV, and a reputation for writing high-quality products. Järn is his latest offering and the Swedish version has been very well received, both in media and by the RPG community. 

Warning: This thread contains some explicit criticism of BRP. It does not mean Clarence Redd or Krister Sundelin dislikes BRP - on the contrary. Keep in mind that this is a creative discussion about how RPGs can develop and change over time, depending on the needs of writers, GMs and players. If you find some tidbits that inspire you in your gaming I will be very happy. If not, that's ok too.

 

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2015 saw the release of the Swedish roleplaying game Järn (Iron), written by Krister Sundelin. The game takes Basic Roleplaying as its starting point, but goes off in an entirely new trajectory for BR

CR: Yes, "fail forward" is a beautiful concept!  The clan-making rules have been highly appreciated since the release. Could you describe how they work and the role they play in the game? KS

If it gets translated, I will push for keeping the title "Järn". Metal umlauts and all. Also, woo! My first post here! Hello everyone! Nice to meet you all!

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CR: You proudly state at the beginning of the book that Järn is a version of BRP "that you can live with". The basis for the game is clearly BRP - what parts of BRP did you find most troublesome?

KS: I have three main issues, and a lot of smaller ones.

I have never been too fond of how attributes and skills coexist in the classical BRP. Skills are used in one way, while attributes are used in another way – if used at all, after having derived other values like base chance, mana points and hit points from them. It’s like two different systems, at least, and they don’t cooperate. There are systems that integrate attributes and skills seamlessly – Fuzion and World of Darkness comes to mind – but BRP is not one of them.

Another issue is BRP’s “feature creep”. Feature creep expresses itself in so many ways – new skills, new subsystems, new procedures, advance initiative, action slots etc. It’s almost as if BRP was designed bottom up from feature creep, adding skills to a system based on attributes, and that feature creep culture kind of got hold. The “hackability” of BRP is a mixed blessing, really. It’s so easy to add stuff to the basic core that game designers often just add stuff, not thinking of the consequences or total “weight” of the system. I really like Sandy Petersen’s approach in Call of Cthulhu where he actively works against feature creep in version after version.

The third issue is what I would describe as blandness, especially of the basic core. Now, there are some people that prefer a system that doesn’t get in the way of the acting, and I respect that. In some cases, it’s even preferable, especially if compared to the “weight” of a feature-creeped BRP. However, coming from a “neo-trad” perspective, I prefer systems that support my game, rather than systems that don’t get in the way of my game. 

Now, you may think after this tirade that I hate BRP, but the core is extremely flexible and intuitive. The percentage value directly translates to a chance of success, and you just have to change the skill list to get a complete game for a different genre. And there, I think, is the core and basic strength of BRP: percentage skills. So when building Järn, I started from there.

 

CR: So, if I understand you correctly, you stripped away as much as you could of BRP. Did you then craft the rest of the system from the ground up, with the d100 skill mechanic at the center? What else did you bring over to Järn?

KS: Pretty much. I kept hit points too as I felt that was integral to the BRP feeling, but as I got rid of attributes as well, I couldn’t base hit points on SIZ+CON. 

And then I stole from everything else (“only be sure always to call it, please, ‘research’” as Tom Lehrer joked in his song “Lobachevsky”). Opposed rolls work as in Pendragon, critical success/failures work as in Unknown Armies, I use a staged hit point system akin to Vitality/Wounds in Star Wars d20, skill challenges from D&D4, combat stances from Greg Stoltze’s Usagi Yojimbo RPG, “fail forward” and hard choices, and so on. Some of these are BRP based games, most are not. 

I definitely didn’t want a game where a failed roll meant that you just made another attempt at the task. I wanted a game where failures meant that the story progressed anyway. Some of this has already been modeled into games, almost as an afterthought. In old D&D and OSR games, each attempt means greater risk of encountering wandering monsters, but that is a consequence of time management and rolls on the Wandering monsters table. 

So I looked at indie games for inspiration. I built a conflict system where a failed conflict meant that you either had to accept the consequences of your failure, or escalate the conflict to higher stakes. I had “fail forward” built into the game: the story progresses but in an new direction as a result from a failure, rather than comes to a halt. So you can move to the new location even if you fail your roll, but then you have to get your bearings on the next turn. You can climb the wall even if you fail the roll, but you get discovered, or you lose the rope so that the others can’t follow. You can remain undetected, but you leave traces behind or can’t get to where you want in time. It's not just system, it is also a culture that has to be nurtured.

 

CR: Yes, "fail forward" is a beautiful concept! 

The clan-making rules have been highly appreciated since the release. Could you describe how they work and the role they play in the game?

KS: The clan has two distinct roles. From the characters’ perspective, the clan is home, family, insurance policy and retirement home, as well as a political battleground. It’s where you belong, but also your greatest opponent. A lot of the stuff that happens to the characters happen inside the clan.

In the meta perspective, the clan is a source for stories, an extention of the characters, and the players’ property. The players create the clan, so they invest in it and care for it. That means that any story that the GM digs out of the clan is a story that the players will care for and be motivated to participate in, as opposed to any mission that an NPC may offer to the characters. 

Basically, the clan is about mapping relationships. There are some nodes already on the map, to give the players somewhere to start. With a blank sheet of paper, players are often stuck at the beginning. But give them a few seeds and their shared creation will grow. 

So, the relation map starts off with the characters at the center, and some important clan NPCs around them – the thane, the war master, the weaponsmith, the godi (speaker of the gods), the völva (spirit caller), the shipwright, and so on. At the edge are some important things from the surrounding environment, like the Governor from the Empire, the Underworld, the Mountain, the enemy clan, etcetera. 

Participants, including the GM, take turns to define these roles and draw relations between them and the player characters. This goes on until the GM can identify at least one conflict that can be used to initiate the first adventure. That first adventure is given in skeleton form: have a conflict – the one that the GM identified – have the conflict lead to a journey, travel, have a fight, and return home.  The GM can fill in the blanks using the relation map and all the stories that evolved with the map.

The clan is also a living breathing entity that changes and evolves over time. When the characters return home from that first adventure, the fight and the conflict will both add something to the relation map. Until the next session, the GM uses the scheme to come up with the next story, which in turn will evolve the relation map even more. 

And since the new adventure is firmly grounded in the relationships that the players created, there will not be any problems starting the next session. You will never have to accept the previous unknown uncle inviting you to his mansion, because he was never unknown to you in the first place – you invented him!

 

CR: As you mention, collaborative creation and storytelling are big parts of clan construction. Can you elaborate on that; what effects have you noticed around the gaming table in actual play?

KS: Well, it’s their clan. They care about it as much as they care about their own characters. They’re emotionally invested in every aspect of it. 

So when I use a particular person as a villain, they hate that NPC, and they love to hate her. But then, there are the entanglements to people that they like, and those will have consequences, so they can’t just kill her. They stop and interact with the villain, rather than just go “off with her head” at the first opportunity. Instead, they go to political manoeuvering and emotional manipulation to destroy the villain’s character before they can kill her.

In a similar manner, if some NPC that they like sides with the villain, they take it very personal. It’s a betrayal of trust. 

One effect of this particular implementation is that the players get to slot certain labels on relations, for instance “despises”, “is lover to”, “has a debt to”, “hates”. Nobody loves or is loved by everyone. There will be tensions in the clan, and they’re a godsend to GMs. Adventures write themselves in a way, or perhaps the players unwittingly write them for the GM. They’re all there in the relation map, ready for you to pick up. Sooner rather than later, there will be repercussions from the characters’ actions, causing a response from other clan members or from the enemy clan or even the Empire, and boom! you have a new adventure for the next session. 

I have seen parts of this before, when good GMs pick up on cues in characters’ background stories, when players pick up on the GM's recurring NPCs, or when the campaign grows complicated and you have to build relation maps for NPCs to see the big picture. But unless you start with doing relation mapping at character generation with the players, you rarely get these emotional investments from start. You get it eventually, but not from the start.

The drawback is that it’s trickier to publish adventures for a player-generated clan. You simply don’t care about the old mysterious man in the corner of the inn holding an old mouldy map. You have to build tie-ins to the clan for him instead, and as an adventure author it’s hard to make tie-ins to a clan that you have never seen.

 

CR: I'm quite picky when it comes to art in roleplaying games, and to me Järn is treading a bit of new territory with its striking graphic illustrations and gender conscious content. But, taking a broader view on illustration, will RPGs in general ever get out of the habit of depicting women as sexualized objects? I read a comment by Neil Gaiman that superhero comics are male adolescent power fantasies - is that where RPGs are stuck too?

KS: I think that Neil Gaiman is quite right about superhero comics, and you’re right too: RPGs are to a great extent male adolescent power fantasies. But that is slowly changing.

One problem is that the makers of RPGs in many cases are fans of the adolescent male power fantasy, often the same fans that made games in the naughties or nineties, in some cases even the eighties. Many simply do not see the problem since you can choose your character’s gender and do whatever you want. Some even think that they would lose customers. They got it completely wrong. 

First, both superhero comics and RPGs can be a lot more than just adolescent male power fantasies. Look at Marvel’s X-men for instance: the longest running relation drama in comics ever, and itself a commentary on minorities civil rights (sadly, many never realised)! In RPGs, this realisation is slowly coming from indie games and story games, that actively look to explore a premise rather than just murderhoboing. 

Second… let me go back to the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. It didn’t sell that well to the regular RPG audience at the time. It sold well, yes, but not to D&D players. Nobody could touch that mammoth. By trying to play for the same market, they just couldn’t compete with the gorilla. D&D owned the market. 

But Vampire did something different: it opened up an entirely new market, incorporating the aesthetes, the goths and the romance novel readers – the other group of lonely outsiders at the time. And half of them, if not more, where female. Yes, Vampire was a power fantasy too, but the point is that it was aimed at a new unexplored market. I still don’t know if it was marketing genious or a happy accident.

The lesson from Vampire is that when RPGs (and comics, for that matter) are just **male** adolescent power fantasies, they effectively cut out half of the potential market. 

It’s not that hard to change. You don’t even have to leave the power fantasy. Pick up your D&D5E PHB, and read that section on gender on page 121 that includes transgender characters. Look at the illustrations: the illustration of humans feature a coloured woman in a role of power and agency. 

Having people across the entire spectrum of ethnicity, gender identity and many other aspects – not just in illustrations, but in example characters and important NPCs – invites to your power fantasy and enables them to create their own. One person of colour told John, one of the illustrators of Järn, “finally I found myself in a game!” Open up your games like that, and you have practically doubled your potential market overnight. To not do that is just plain stupid from a market standpoint. 

We’re still not good at it, but we are learning. I learned a lot from Ronja and John, the illustrators of Järn.

The only thing I’m not willing to give up is the adolescent. I’m still 13 at heart.

 

CR: After a very successful crowdfunding campaign Järn has recieved excellent reviews in Sweden - what are the plans for the future of the game? 

KS: I’m not completely finished with the crowdfunding campaign. There are still stretch goals to be written, but that’s coming along nicely.

We’re looking at translating the book to English, but the cost is rather high. I could translate it myself, but I would need an editor – cheaper than a translator but still a big cost – and it would tie up my writing time to that project. 

In the future I want to write more books for Järn – adventures, campaigns, setting books, that kind of stuff. I’m not done exploring the world-tree in Järn, not even with the stretch goals. That will just be the introduction. 

I like Pathfinder’s adventure path concept: a series of adventure books that comes together as a campaign from level 1 to 15ish, with a corresponding setting book and player’s guide. If I can find additional writers, I would like to have a rather high publish rate, like a new book every two months, but as long as I’m the only writer, I think the rate will be limited.

I think that the future books of the Järn line should be thin, 64 pages at the most and preferably thinner. One of Järn’s main selling points is that it is not a 500-page tome, but rather 112 pages. 

I don’t think that I will write an official world book for Järn. The core of the game is the clan and its surroundings that the players create by themselves. It’s their world. I don’t have to dictate how the world is in detail. Instead, I want to give them resources and inspiration, a smorgasboard that they can pick and choose from. I think this approach, and thin books, will work nicely with the adventure path concept. 

I leave our conversation with a feeling that Järn is a game very close to Krister Sundelin’s heart and that we will see a lot of support for it the coming years. The combination of a stripped down BRP engine together with collaborative storytelling elements, makes it a very compelling offer on the contemporary RPG scene. Let’s hope it will make its journey into the English language soon.

Edited by clarence
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There is a setting implied - a shamanistic iron-age world based on clans, resembling northern Europe or Scandinavia - but there are no maps or nation names; world creation is a collaborate effort. Krister will tell you more in a later question. And I'm sure I can upload a character sheet. 

@Simlasa: Neo-trad (neo-traditional) is a new take on traditional gaming. Starting with the simple and fun games many played in the 1980s, they often add in elements from indie games. It can be storytelling devices, rules for generic conflict resolution or something else that enhances the gaming experience.

Did Järn only keep the d100? No. BRP has been THE roleplaying system in Sweden since the early 1980s (leaving D&D way behind for example). We all grew up with various versions of BRP. But Krister, among others, felt BRP could be taken a step further, not unlike the ideas driving Alephtar Games to write Revolution d100. More below on Krister's thoughts on Järn versus BRP. 

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Sorry if it came across like that. That was not my intention. Both me and Krister have played countless hours of BRP. I guess you can see Järn as Krister's ultimate stripped down houserule collection after all these years. 

Edited by clarence
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4 hours ago, clarence said:

 

 

"Another issue is BRP’s “feature creep”. Feature creep expresses itself in so many ways – new skills, new subsystems, new procedures, advance initiative, action slots etc. It’s almost as if BRP was designed bottom up from feature creep, adding skills to a system based on attributes, and that feature creep culture kind of got hold. The “hackability” of BRP is a mixed blessing, really. It’s so easy to add stuff to the basic core that game designers often just add stuff, not thinking of the consequences or total “weight” of the system. I really like Sandy Petersen’s approach in Call of Cthulhu where he actively works against feature creep in version after version." 

I don't know what "Neo Trad" stuff your mate Krister is smoking, clarence, but he probably should ease off the hallucinogenics for a while. Then he might come across as rational and reasonable, and not utterly bonkers.  :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Conrad
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@Conrad You might want to save that question to Krister (though you might want to hold back on the part about smoking). And, just for the record, Krister Sundelin is not "my mate". He's a well respected RPG writer and as a BRP player I find his thoughts on RPG development interesting. I wanted to share some of them with you. Hopefully at least some of you agree. Let's get on with the next question/answer.

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1 hour ago, Simlasa said:

"I guess it sets me off when the first post about his Wonderful New System (tm) is telling me all about what's wrong with BRP.

Kind of like spittle instead of a handshake."     In Krister's favour, none of what he writes counts as a viable criticism of BRP for anyone but Krister.

 

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CR: So, if I understand you correctly, you stripped away as much as you could of BRP. Did you then craft the rest of the system from the ground up, with the d100 skill mechanic at the center? What else did you bring over to Järn?

KS: Pretty much. I kept hit points too as I felt that was integral to the BRP feeling, but as I got rid of attributes as well, I couldn’t base hit points on SIZ+CON. 

And then I stole from everything else (“only be sure always to call it, please, ‘research’” as Tom Lehrer joked in his song “Lobachevsky”). Opposed rolls work as in Pendragon, critical success/failures work as in Unknown Armies, I use a staged hit point system akin to Vitality/Wounds in Star Wars d20, skill challenges from D&D4, combat stances from Greg Stoltze’s Usagi Yojimbo RPG, “fail forward” and hard choices, and so on. Some of these are BRP based games, most are not. 

I definitely didn’t want a game where a failed roll meant that you just made another attempt at the task. I wanted a game where failures meant that the story progressed anyway. Some of this has already been modeled into games, almost as an afterthought. In old D&D and OSR games, each attempt means greater risk of encountering wandering monsters, but that is a consequence of time management and rolls on the Wandering monsters table. 

So I looked at indie games for inspiration. I built a conflict system where a failed conflict meant that you either had to accept the consequences of your failure, or escalate the conflict to higher stakes. I had “fail forward” built into the game: the story progresses but in an new direction as a result from a failure, rather than comes to a halt. So you can move to the new location even if you fail your roll, but then you have to get your bearings on the next turn. You can climb the wall even if you fail the roll, but you get discovered, or you lose the rope so that the others can’t follow. You can remain undetected, but you leave traces behind or can’t get to where you want in time. It's not just system, it is also a culture that has to be nurtured.

Edited by clarence
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4 minutes ago, clarence said:

@Conrad "You might want to save that question to Krister (though you might want to hold back on the part about smoking). And, just for the record, Krister Sundelin is not "my mate". He's a well respected RPG writer and as a BRP player I find his thoughts on RPG development interesting. I wanted to share some of them with you. Hopefully at least some of you agree. Let's get on with the next question/answer."         The fact that Krister just waffled a load of codswallop about BRP does not endear him to me, and most likely to others who love the game. I don't care if he is the Queen of Kaijutopia with golden biscuits on top, if he waffles rubbish that has no real bearing on BRP, in an attempt to foist his "Neo Trad" game upon us, then he should be ridiculed for being a pretentious ass, or do all game designers sound like him?  :)

 

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Well, I'm a bit surprised here. I thought we all enjoyed being here at BRP Central because: 1. We like BRP, 2. We like to discuss what is good about its different versions, what we don't like about them, and what can be improved. That's exactly what I'm doing here.

All of the things Krister Sundelin is bringing up here as criticism I have heard from other people over the years. A reader's reaction to this criticism can be: "They are stupid and I don't want to hear when they say stupid things about my favorite system". Or they can think: "Ok, that's interesting. I don't agree, but I think I can see where he's coming from. That comment in the middle I don't even understand. But that last bit - I might even try that in my own houserules..." 

As a precaution I have added these lines to the first post:

Warning: This thread contains some explicit criticism of BRP. It does not mean Clarence Redd or Krister Sundelin dislikes BRP - on the contrary. Keep in mind that this is a creative discussion about how RPGs can develop and change over time, depending on the needs of writers, GMs and players. If you find some tidbits that inspire you in your gaming I will be very happy. If not, that's ok too.

 

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3 minutes ago, clarence said:

All of the things Krister Sundelin is bringing up here as criticism I have heard from other people over the years.

 

One only has to look at the many, many d100 games where the designers have attempted to streamline BRP's system and/or add elements of other games' systems to the BRP core. Unless I misunderstand Krister, this is what he has attempted to do with his Järn, too: A simpler BRP-based d100 system with some of the - in his view - good ideas from various other mainstream and indie games.

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I take this thread as something of an advertisement for this new Jarn thing. Kind of like people who plump for their Kickstarters on various other forums.

It's placed on a forum called 'BRP Central'... so it just seems like a clumsy bit of marketing to lead off with 'here's what I fixed about your broken system'.

I'm not attacking/insulting anyone personally... certainly not Krister. I'm just commenting on the presentation.

In the big picture I really don't care, I've got no interest in Revolution D100 or other 'neo trad' stuff (so far). I'm just saying I think it was a misstep if you're looking for a receptive audience.

Edited by Simlasa
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3 minutes ago, Simlasa said:

It's placed on a forum called 'BRP Central'... 

Since the forum board calls itself " The chief Basic Roleplaying forum for the Great Family of D100 RPGs", I would not count this as a foul. :)

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1 hour ago, clarence said:

All of the things Krister Sundelin is bringing up here as criticism I have heard from other people over the years.

 

So? Any system out there has something someone doesn't like about it. I know people who absolutely refuse to play anything D100 or roll-under. As Conrad points out, it's just their opinion.

I just thinking selling your new product is better served by a positive presentation of its strength... that versus addressing the weaknesses in the system it's supposedly improving on.

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36 minutes ago, Simlasa said:

I'm not attacking/insulting anyone personally... certainly not Krister. I'm just commenting on the presentation (which In the big picture I really don't care, I've got no interest in Revolution D100 or other 'neo trad' stuff (so far).

While I respect your opinion, I kindly request that you do not attach undesired labels to my work.

Some of the ideas in this Jarn game are interesting. Some other points I disagree strongly and firmly with. The point about making characteristics percentiles, for instance, is the exact opposite of what you find in Revolution D100. Clarence has chosen to describe Jarn as "Neo Trad" and to mention my game, too. This does not mean that it has _anything_ to do with Swedish variants of BRP. Please comment about my work on the basis of what _I_ say about it, or what you read in it, not on the basis of comments about unrelated games. Sticking labels with a negative (for you) baggage on stuff will do us no good.

The "games with this label" versus "games with that label", quasi-tribal attitude has done a lot of harm to the RPG hobby. BRP was almost immune from this insanity (pun not intended) until recently. Let us avoid the contagion, please.

That said, let us go forward with the interview. Krister is perfectly entitled to criticise BRP or whatever game he has played long enough to master it and believe he has spotted its weak points. And we are absolutely entitled to disagree with him. Assuming we do this in a civil manner.

Edited by RosenMcStern
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I've been civil.

But I do see your proposed game as fitting Clarence's description of 'neo trad'... based on your own descriptions elsewhere. I'm not using it as a pejorative... I'd never heard the term before this thread... but labels ARE useful for following interests and tastes in games. I don't think you can really expect to exert much control over how your game gets labeled once you put it out there.

Edited by Simlasa
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5 hours ago, rust said:

Since the forum board calls itself " The chief Basic Roleplaying forum for the Great Family of D100 RPGs", I would not count this as a foul. :)

Nor would I... my gripe was about form, not content.

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I am not publishing this interview for marketing reasons. I interviewed MOB a few months ago for the Swedish RPG magazine Fenix, to present the new Chaosium to the Swedish audience. Now I thought it would be of interest to BRP Central readers to hear the thoughts of someone taking BRP apart and then putting it back together again in a new way. 

I thought this forum was stable and sensible enough to handle criticism, and that it can spark new ideas, not tribal wars. I hope I wasn't wrong. 

And sorry for dragging Revolution into this. Järn and Revolution both use BRP as a springboard to develop interesting new RPGs, but they share very little else. 

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14 hours ago, Trifletraxor said:

Will we see a character sheet on the way?

After a little research I found the link to Järn's character sheet (which is of course in Swedish). In my opinion it does not look that much simpler than the usual BRP character sheet, for example the number of skills seems to be almost the same.

https://rollspelssmedjan.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/handlingsval-2-17.pdf

Edited by rust
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