January 19, 2012

[Interview] Mike Olson about the Atomic Robo RPG

Atomic ROBO vol.3.1
When I heard that an Atomic Robo RPG was coming out in the future I writed to Mike Olson, the lead designer, to ask him for an interview. 
Guess what? He said yes and I came up with the 7 Questions of Doom (a totally unjustified cool name). 

Mike Olson is a freelance RPG writer and designer. His credits include Legends of Anglerre and The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition). He writes his stuff into the 
Spirit of the Blank blog so go check it out!

1) You knew and liked the comic book before? And Now?
Actually, I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not know Atomic Robo before Brian Clevinger approached me. I mean, the name sounded familiar -- maybe I'd seen a poster or something for it at San Diego Comic-Con -- but I knew I'd never read it. It took me a while to realize what a sizable fanbase it has. I was already excited about making it into an RPG, but after seeing the outpouring of enthusiasm for it online, that excitement has only grown.

In his initial email to me, Brian was good enough to attach a PDF of the first issue of volume 6. By page 2, I was compelled to reply and practically demand to be involved. Back then, there wasn't necessarily a clear idea of what developing the game would involve -- Brian got in touch with me after reading The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition), so there was that -- but things really took off once Evil Hat entered the picture. It immediately went from being a small-scale, probably Kickstarted game to a major release for a widely respected game company.

Anyway, since then I've devoured everything Robo-related I could get my hands on. I love it. I often describe it to people as "Buckaroo Banzai, but Buckaroo's a 100-year-old robot built by Tesla." Buckaroo Banzai has been a favorite movie of mine ever since I saw it as a kid, and Atomic Robo has that same awesome, science-fueled, modern-day pulp vibe.

2) What will be the role of Brian Clevinger?
Brian's going to be doing the heavy lifting in terms of defining the world of Atomic Robo as a setting -- background info, a detailed timeline, important characters, etc. That leaves me to take care of the mechanics, for which I am eternally grateful. We're lucky that Brian and artist Scott Wegener are gamers themselves. They get what we're doing and are at least as enthusiastic about it as I am. In fact, even before Robo was published, they wanted to one day make an RPG out of it. And here we are!

The Atomic Robo by Nic Klein
3) The engine behind the ARRPG will be the FATE system, one of the most recent engines that have won the public's favor. Would you like to explain to those who has only played D&D, why should try a game using the FATE engine?
Well, for one thing, D&D as written limits you to playing in fantasy worlds built with certain assumptions. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- I play and enjoy several editions of D&D, from Basic to 4E -- but FATE doesn't come packaged with the same kinds of restrictions. It also uses language and common sense as game mechanics, in the form of aspects, which has always impressed me. FATE isn't a tactically focused game like some editions of D&D are, but there are definitely tactics and strategy involved in the form of skills and maneuvers. If you're new to games with a more "narrativist" bent, FATE nicely straddles the thin divide between traditional games and storygames. At its core, it uses a simple mechanic -- roll dice, add a bonus, try to beat a target number -- but adds to that tools to let players affect the game world in ways that they typically can't in D&D.

4) Which version of the FATE engine you will be using?
I'm designing a new iteration of FATE based on the in-development Fate Core that Lenny Balsera's working on right now. Very exciting stuff -- for a fan of FATE like me, it's pretty cool to get to a behind-the-scenes look at Fate Core. If you're currently familiar with any existing FATE game, you'll find the Atomic Robo RPG very familiar.

5) Atomic Robo shares some themes and some atmospheres with Spirit of the Century. Besides Robot, what do you think will be the main differences between the two settings?
One big difference that I absolutely love about Atomic Robo is the total absence of magic or mysticism. Now, I like those things as much as the next guy, but it's great to see a setting that takes a firm stand and says, "No -- science!" That's not to say there can't be phenomena that are seemingly supernatural, like Edison's Ghost or the Vampire Dimension or Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space, but Brian and Scott make it very clear that in Robo's world, all of these things can be explained by science. there's very much a sense that no matter how super the super-science gets, it's all grounded in something that's at least theoretically possible. That's very appealing.

And although SotC and Robo both have the '20s in common, for Robo, that's just one era in which to set stories -- stories that can span the entire existence of Atomic Robo himself, as we've seen in the comics. There's just so much there to work with, and Brian and Scott have done an excellent job of presenting a sort of action-oriented timeline of the 20th century through Robo's eyes.

Both of these combine to produce something that's superficially similar to SotC, but tonally very different, in my opinion. In my experience, SotC's often about over-the-top action and plots, whereas Robo's hard ties to real-life historical events, people, and science make it feel more connected to the real world. It's an interesting comparison, because they're both likely to have pulp tropes like masked vigilantes, brain-in-jar villains, and super-science devices. But one has science as something of a stand-in for magic, and the other has Carl Sagan.

When he says Carl Sagan, he means it!
6) What's the first thing that you are gonna be designing? From were your work will start?
A top-level design goal is to make ARRPG a true pick-up-and-play game. The delay between getting a blank character sheet and starting play should be five minutes -- ten minutes, at most. It also has to be a highly flexible take on FATE to allow for characters like Sparrow, Robo, and Dr. Dinosaur to all exist and be story-relevant. In fact, the bulk of design will probably go into how characters are made and how skills are treated.

So skills will be a top priority. Fred Hicks and I have had some fruitful discussions that are probably going to alter many basic assumptions that many FATE games make, starting with skills, but also including Refresh, stunts, and advancement -- while, as I said, remaining recognizably FATE. It's a challenge, no doubt about it, but we're up to it.

Sorry to be so vague, but it's hard to be anything else right now in light of the fact that it's all pretty much "ideas" at the moment. Real work begins next month, and I'll definitely be previewing stuff on
Spirit of the Blank and AtomicRoboRPG.com.

7) When do you plan to be ready to do the first playtests?
A few of us will be running public playtests at GenCon this August, but we'll be soliciting for playtesters before then. When exactly, I don't yet know. I'd have to have something for them to playtest first. News of that will also be on
Spirit of the Blank and AtomicRoboRPG.com (and EvilHat.com and RPG.net and Google+ and Twitter and Facebook -- it'll be hard not to hear about it, in fact).
For anyone reading this who wants to get on the playtester list early, all you have to do is drop me a line and ask!

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