I first encountered Spell Saga while I was trying to drum up interest for Entropy among fellow board gamers. One particular gamer was less than enthused about the concept of literary game reviews that focused more on subjective experience than numbers and mechanics. “But,” he said, almost as an afterthought, “you should check out Spell Saga. It sounds like it would be right up your alley.” It was.
At the time, Spell Saga had recently concluded a failed crowdfunding effort through Kickstarter–failed in the sense that it fell short of its stated funding goal but, as Spell Saga designer Todd Michael Rogers makes clear in this interview, a complete success in other, less tangible ways.
Entropy is an online magazine for people who are into literature and writing, but it’s more focused on the other things that they’re into, such as games, TV, movies, music, et cetera. A lot of the readers at Entropy aren’t necessarily engaged with the tabletop or card-based gaming movement. Speaking to that audience, could you talk about your decision to market Spell Saga as a “card-based tabletop novel”?
Well, I was writing a novel, and it took a lot of time, and it took a lot out of me. But around Christmastime, I had a break from work, and I took a break from the novel, and I’d just do anything else. And when I was a kid, I used to make card games, and I decided to see if I could make a card game that felt like a roleplaying game, like a video game. I wanted to be able to play through a story, but there wasn’t a game that I wanted to play. I was at a dark, lonely time in my life, and I was very, very alone, and I thought, “Maybe this could be something that I could figure out.” So I thought about, for years, “How do you make a card game for just one person, like a solitaire style, that would feel like a story?”
Josh [Rizzo, one of Spell Saga‘s co-developers] and I like to say that it doesn’t feel like any other medium. It definitely—it feels like you’re reading a book and writing a book at the same time.
Instead of paragraphs, you have cards. And the story is there. The world is there. And because the game mechanics are simple enough to learn, it becomes very repetition-based, turn-structure-wise. It gives you a chance to fall into the world, much the same as, when you’re used to reading, you forget that you’re reading letters and you can fall past the words into a story. It feels a lot like that, except you’re in control, to some degree. And you’re in another world.
I just played it the other day. I was playtesting by myself, which is fun, because you can do that with a single-player card game. And I sat in the room off and on for like six hours, just by myself, and it was fantastic. It felt like I was in another world. Because the story, it has a beginning and it has an ending, and it has pieces and points and checkpoints in the middle that you may or may not reach. But every time you play, it’s different. It feels a lot like a more open-ended sort of roleplaying experience, I guess. But it also feels like you’re creating a story as you’re in it.
So I took a break from the novel to make it, and I would return to it every Christmas break and email my friends and say things like, “Oh, we should make a game company.” So we would talk about doing that. “We’ll call ourselves French Toast, and this will be one of our games. It will be 1 player.” And they’d be like, “Yeah, yeah. Sounds okay.”
And my buddy Sakroka [another co-developer], he saw a lot of merit in it. We started playtesting it more and more and got it ready to show at Gen Con a couple of years ago [an Indiana-based gaming convention, the largest in North America]. And it’s now a thing, which is weird. It was just a bunch of index cards that barely worked, and now it’s like an actual—it’s an object. You can print it out and play it, and people are playing it around the world right now. And we get really nice, really loving letters from people. It was a very unexpected. I mean, it’s great, but it’s—I mean, we made it for ourselves, hoping that other people would like it, same thing like, when you write a book, you write it for yourself but you think, “There’s probably people like me who will like this, too.” And the amount and outpouring of excitement about it, I…as you saw, we didn’t make the goal [on Kickstarter], but we made much more than we ever should have, and we got a lot of fans out of it.
I mean, we’ve got people now, just because of that Kickstarter, translating for us in different languages. Dual [Pistoleiro] is in Portugal, and he was the first to say, “Let me translate this.” And it’s been wonderful getting emails from people trying to figure out the language barrier thing. Sometimes, I’ll get the same question, and it’s—for instance, Raimund from Germany, he said, “Hey, what’s a Feckle-Knacker?” That’s one of our enemies, the Feckle-Knacker. And Dual from Portugal said, “Hey, what’s a Feckle-Knacker?” And they both thought it was something else, or they’re trying to figure out…it’s just mishmosh. It’s just dumb letters that I put together. But Dual’s like, “Oh, is that because naker’s [pronounced “nacker”] a musical instrument?” And I was like, “Alright, that’s cool.”
And then Raimund from Germany is like, “I looked it up, and knacker is someone who’s murdered someone.” I was like, “Holy shit. Those are two very different things.” So just seeing how changing one thing can change so many other meanings has been really interesting in a game that’s based very much on words and language.
There are so many different directions I can go from what you’ve just said. It’s difficult to pick one. Because I had some questions prepared, and you’ve sort of segued into almost all of them by this point in the conversation.
Okay, well, for use of your interview, why don’t run down your questions that you want to ask, and I’ll answer them, and we can just chitchat further based on those answers, if you’d like.
Alright, cool. When somebody mentions storytelling in a tabletop game, my mind immediately goes to one of two places, because there’s the sort of Arkham Horror and Tales of the Arabian Nights kind of game where random stuff happens to you, and you’re mostly reading paragraphs that were prewritten. And then there’s games like Once Upon a Time, where the players are sort of creating a story based on prompts from the card. And it really seems like, from what I’ve seen of Spell Saga, that it sort of does both. There’s a prewritten story, but it sort of asks you to also write into that story.
Yeah. So the story bits are in scraps of lore, narration, and certain cards will have descriptions on them, like Story cards will give you just a little bit of the story.
But it’s never like, “This happens, and then you do this.” It’s more like, as you play through it and wander the world, half the story or more is in your head, and we’re just giving you all the building blocks. So it’s like, if you ever played a video game as a kid and you started imagining what the characters in the game are saying to each other just because you’re playing it so much that your imagination takes over a little bit, this game does that very well.
The game starts with The Last Minstrel, and you’re at a Crumbling Tower and you have a Revolver with you. And that’s pretty much–it tells you a little bit more, but not enough. It tells you that there’s a Weather Guard that used to guard the world, a Guard for each city, like an army. And then one of them failed, and now there’s some Black God waiting on a shore. And as you go through the tower and it crumbles and you’re looking for treasures and things, you start to put all the knowledge together that you’ve already heard and continue on into the game. And then each place that you visit has a description on the place instead of a picture, which was very polarizing.
I think that people—and this is not anything, but I think that people expect things, often, to be done the way that they are used to or familiar. And because all card games play off of Magic: The Gathering, generally, people are used to having an illustration on each card. But you really don’t need one. That’s one wonderful way to do it, and it meant a lot to me in my childhood, but there’s other ways, and my friends and I are interested in exploring different ways of doing things. There’s no point in doing something that’s already been done wonderfully.
So the narration on the Place cards doesn’t help you. It just helps you imagine what’s going on and what they look like. And there’s Folk cards, which are just people that you randomly find, and they’ll hint at things that you need to do or pieces of the story that you might want to know. So as you play through it, you start to piece together what happened, because it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic medieval Western thing, which is strange, but that’s just what happened.
We had no idea we were making a Western until my cousin Lauren and I, we were getting pretty deep into the art of it, and then I was like, “Oh, all these people are wearing some sort of medieval Western wear. I guess that’s what we’re doing.” But you don’t plan those things.
The art also seems like it was a little polarizing, based on some comments that I’ve heard. I think the art is fantastic and really sort of evocative, but I guess some people thought it was a little too cartoonish or something.
Yeah, Lauren and I, since we are related, since our dads were brothers, we have a lot of similar aesthetics. And the idea of something that looks pretty and also disturbing, and marrying those two concepts, seems to work well. All the choices are about the feeling that we want the tabletop novel to give a player. The art evokes a certain feeling, and the backgrounds on the art evoke a certain feeling, and the way that the cards are designed, and the way that the writing is. It’s all supposed to—like any good story, it’s all about how it makes you feel when you play it. And it’s a lonely and pretty and sad and disturbing sort of game.
What was the process of creating the art? I know that you had some sort of Skype art sessions….
Yeah, we would ArtSkype. Well, in the beginning, when we were first pitching the game, I tried to get as many artists as possible because, like everyone else, I thought that’s how you do it. And no-one—everyone said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and the only person who came through was Lauren. She was about 17 at the time. She was a senior in high school. And she did a couple of pieces that looked pretty rad, but then she was like, “I have a vision.” And then she sent what became the picture for the Last Minstrel card, this sort of like Golden Storybook, Mary Blair Cinderella thing. We put star fields over all the art. She said it was to hide any mistakes, but it just gave it this cool, fairytale, hipstery look. And we just went with that.
And then, a couple of years later, when we pulled the game out of the closet and said, “Well, let’s actually try to do it ourselves,” I called her up, and I was like, “I need help. I don’t know how to do art like this. You need to help me, please.” And we would ArtSkype. It was such a cold winter. I was living in a house behind my friend Joey, who lived on another street. And I would walk to Joey’s house because he had internet and Meagen, my wife, and I did not at the time, because we’d just moved in. And I would walk over with my laptop to his dining room table, and this is like a flophouse, so there’s always people coming in and out. And we would ArtSkype. Late at night, she would, from her college dorm, turn her Skype screen into her computer screen, and we would just talk through what we wanted things to look like and what things could be. And we would argue about stuff, and she would always have really good arguments that would piss me off, because I was like, “I have a vision!” But then she’d be like, “Your vision’s dumb. Do it this way.” And I’d be like, “Aw, shit, that’s better.”
Not enough could be said of how incredibly talented she is, especially at a very fevered pitch, especially that second year of college, which is so filled with things, and she still managed to be incredible. And every time she’d go, “I don’t like this picture,” it would end up being everyone’s favorite or her favorite by the end of it. It was phenomenal.
Speaking of sort of unusual approaches to the illustrations, the Enemy cards are really unusual.
Yeah, we did like a field guide style. No, that was sort of just by accident, too, but we thought, “These sketches are just so cool looking, let’s not mar them with color.” And she started writing little notes, like, “Is this okay?” And I was like, “Hell yeah it’s okay. You just keep writing weird shit. That’s great.” And we had a lot of fun.
And our mascot for the game and the company, which is the Meow-Meow thing, that came about in another accident. It was late at night and we needed to get shit done, and I just thought, “Well, let’s just put a cat in like a ripped paper bag.” And my wife always says “meow-meow” when she sees a cat; she calls them meow-meow when we don’t know the name. So I thought, “We’ll call them Meow-Meow.” And that just became the favorite character, and that’s the mascot now.
It seems like there have been a lot of setbacks with this game. I read through the Development History, which is on your wiki page. You ran into a bunch of setbacks getting it published in the traditional way, and then doing self-publishing through Kickstarter, but you kept going with it. So, I guess, two questions: Did you ever consider dropping the project and just scrapping it? And then the other question is about the present and the future, with the Plan B and whatever’s going on right now. Basically, how can people get into it and help support it?
Yeah, I just got an email from our probable printer today that will make a lot of people very happy. Did I think about giving up? Yes, because when I finished the first draft of the novel, I panicked because I had nothing to do. And my life was dark and rough, like bad, bad choices and bad relationships. Things that everyone has in their mid-20s. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got this card game idea.”
I was convinced that the only way to do it any justice, the only reason to do it that would be worth it would be if everyone could play this and it was a big thing. I thought, “It has to be successful to be worthwhile to pursue this thing, because I’m a novelist now, and that’s what I do. I quit doing comedy and I quit writing screenplays, and I’m just a novelist now in my shitty life. That’s all I do now.” And I had no novel to work on.
And I thought, “Well, I’ll look up the guy who started Wizards of the Coast,” which for people who don’t know, for literary majors and whatnot, Wizards of the Coast published Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Pokémon Trading Card Game, everything. And I thought, “Well, I’ll guess his email.” And I got it right on the sixth try. A lot of good can come from guessing emails, and a lot of bad, I’m sure, too.
But I said, “I’ve got the next big thing!” I was very full of myself, but I thought I had to wow him. And I said, “I’ll meet you anywhere.” And he said, “Okay, well, meet me at Gen Con.”
And again, for those of you who don’t know, Gen Con is the—I believe it’s the world’s largest tabletop game convention, and he owns it. So I said, “Okay.” And I panicked, again, because Gen Con was three months away and I had a stack of index cards that were illegible and actually did not work. It wasn’t a real game. So I spent three months with Sakroka getting the game ready, working really hard. I had a full-time job, so it was late nights and long weekends, early mornings. And we got everything ready, packaging, the whole finished game minus art—we had some art from Lauren, but that was it. And we pitched it, and he liked it and couldn’t publish it because he had just stopped publishing for his new company.
At the same, my life was changing. There was a lot of turmoil and upheaval, and a lot of great things, too, but everything just got too much. I put the game away, and I just didn’t write, I didn’t work on games. I just made better choices in my life and became very happy and met Meagen, the love of my life. And Sakroka got changes, too. He had met somebody, and they ended up having a kid together right when we decided—it was like a year, a year to the day after Gen Con when we were like, “Maybe we should publish it ourselves.” Like, it’s been on the shelf, not doing anything. Enough time had passed that I didn’t want to give it up.
It was like a little thing in the closet like haunting me, this object. And I thought, “Well, maybe if we’re really cheap, we could just do it ourselves.” And we did not know what the fuck we were talking about.
It’s best not to know anything when you start on a big project. It’s best not to know what it will cost or statistics or what people will think or how other people do it. You research that after you decide, “We’ve got to do this.” So we decided we have to do this, and we did a ton of research and a lot of work, and we thought it would take us just a couple of months to get it ready for the Kickstarter, because by then, we had decided we were going to use Kickstarter. Josh, who’s now my business partner, he’d played the game one night when we were drinking. And he really liked it, him and my buddy Nathan [Ives], who’s now translating it into Japanese. And I was like, “Oh, if they like it, we’ll just Kickstart it. It’ll work. It’s going to work, and we’ll do it in four months. We’ll get everything ready.”
And it took almost a year to the day working days, nights and weekends every day to get it ready, just the first deck, to get it ready for Kickstarter. And just that time, I thought about giving up again. And it was definitely a breakdown, something like, “What the fuck am I doing? This is insane.” And I almost gave up then, but I kept going. Meagen gave me good pep talks in the kitchen.
I didn’t know how to do anything. We didn’t—I was the guy to Photoshop. I made the backgrounds. I did the card layout. Josh and I spent four months working on the rulebook. And there were so many times I was like, “What are we doing? Let’s just just give up. This is not going to work. I don’t want to do this anymore. This is not fun.”
But I think, probably because I had finished the first draft of the novel and the first draft of the game before, I thought, “Well, I can finish things.” I think things are easier to finish when you finish something. I think that that becomes like a little beacon. I was like, “Oh, that’s how it looks when you finish it. That’s how you do it. You can do it. You can get through that hard time.”
So I thought about giving up, and then the Kickstarter hit, and I haven’t really looked back since. I knew it was going to work, even if the Kickstarter didn’t work. I knew that was going to be like Phase 1. And we got so much wonderful attention that there’s no doubt in my mind that, even if the game was just going to be like a little print-and-play for people to like, I would still be working this hard on it because it’s worth it. I made something. It turns out, it doesn’t have to be a critical success. It can just be successful to you to make it worthwhile.
And now, the second part of your question. Plan B is what’s going on right now.
During the Kickstarter, we realized we weren’t going to make it, but enough people were begging us not to give up that people were saying that they would just give us cash. And I was like, “That’s ludicrous, but lovely.”
So we thought up a Plan B, and we did a lot of planning. And B stands for Bulletproof. So now, the game is going to be available to print and play off of our website for anybody who wants to play it, and it’s going to be in multiple languages. And there are going to be physical cards as well. We are going to do Zero Editions, where every few months we’ll, on Kickstarter, launch a little preorder for a Zero Edition version of the game. It’s not a huge-sized package, but you get all the cards of whatever deck we’re doing. It is Deck 1, and then a couple of months later, we’ll do Deck 2, and then we’ll do the last part of the game, probably, start of next year. So the print-and-plays should be up fairly shortly for the finalized version of the game, because of course we went back after the Kickstarter and redid everything again because I’m insane. That will be up probably by the end of this month, and the preorder Zero Edition Kickstarter for Deck 1: The Highlands will be next month. And we do not need to raise $35,000 and have a giant game printed and shipped to us at one time. We can raise a lot less, and therefore, it’s more of a preorder because we know that we can hit it.
It’ll be available. It will be a thing, and we’re not going to stop. We’ve got a forum. People can sign up to join The Weather Guard, where they get this cool newsletter every three to four months, and it tells you what we’re working on, with cool links. We do a podcast called Work & Play that we release whenever we feel like it, which feels like every two to three weeks now.
And Josh is working on his game, which puts mine to shame, unfortunately. His is called Growth Breaker. It’s…if you can imagine a tabletop novel that is serialized, and you get to download like 20 cards a week and play through an ongoing story. And it’s a killer story. It’s a killer idea. Amazing world, amazing mechanics that we’ve stayed up late talking about whilst drinking, because it’s hot here, and that’s just what you do.
You talked a little bit already about the benefits of having a single-player card game, where you can just be in a room and just fully immerse yourself in it. But what are the challenges that you’ve run into trying to convince people that this is something that they want to play, basically?
Well, it’s just like anything. I mean, people will be convinced if they want to. And while trying to explain it for—it was very hard to explain it to people when we first were showing them the Kickstarter or trying to figure out the Kickstarter, because it was, “How do you explain something that doesn’t really exist?” So it took a while to figure out the language for that. We still are. Even the term “tabletop novel” is just a dumb name that we came up with. But it’s fun, and it’s a fair assessment of the thing.
And it’s a good hook, I think, because that is basically something that doesn’t exist.
Yeah. Challenges were like, in the game design, trying to figure out how it worked. Like when I first showed Sakroka one of the early so-called “finished” versions, it was a double-sided card game that worked like a reel-to-reel tape as you moved through it. And I showed that to him, and he played the first couple of minutes, he goes, “Dude, this is not fun.” I was like, “Aw, shit. Now we’ve got to redo everything!” And it’s just challenges like that, like if you don’t have an opponent—like most people, when you play a game, you have an opponent, and you can learn what you can and can’t do by playing off the opponent. You learn together in a game. This game has no opponent, so it’s up to you and the rulebook that we made to teach you, like, “This is what you can and can’t do.” How do you remind people continuously throughout the game what they can and can’t do without it being overly corrective or tutorial?
And how do you make a game—I mean, it’s a novel, too, but game aspect wise, with the mechanics, like, there’s no computer. It’s just a deck of cards. So how does that work? Like, that doesn’t even make sense. Like, you could do it—there’s a lot of games that are card placement, like tile-placement games, or it’s like, “When you’re playing this card, put it here. When you’re playing this card, put it here.” And we have a little bit of that, but it’s—I shouldn’t say this, but it’s more clever than that. I hate it when people say they’re proud or clever of their work. It ruins it. But I had a lot of people helping me, so I guess it’s okay to say that in this aspect.
Those were insane challenges. And how do you get a game printed? How do you make a website for that game? How do you build a forum that doesn’t look ugly? There’s been a lot of challenges surrounding the game, and then the game itself, like, “Okay, we made this cool card. Does that ruin something else?” Or, “How did you word this? Are all the cards worded the same way? Is the font the same? Is there enough space between things?” And, “How do you Photoshop? How do you Photoshop a background for the art? The art doesn’t have backgrounds. How do you make something that matches the art but doesn’t look disgusting?” Like, it’s a ton of challenges.
Something you said a little bit ago, I think I totally know what you’re saying about it, about, like, there’s no computer. Because I’ve written a little bit about single-player board games and card games, and it is like the big challenge, the most difficult thing to figure out, is how to create something that is challenging and fun without having something working behind the scenes to sort of run it. Because if you’re playing a single-player game, you have to run it yourself, right?
Yeah, well, I mean, especially for this game, it’s a story. And a story needs to be immersive. And so it has to be—the computer aspect has to be built into it so you’re not even thinking about it. You’re not realizing that it’s taking care of things like how much damage you can take and how you grow and when the game’s over. You shouldn’t even be thinking that. It should just happen. And you shouldn’t see the building blocks too hard, just enough to screw with them with certain cards.
I just said this the other day online, which is stupid to quote myself, but I really do think that art is information, and information needs to be shown in a simple-to-understand or easy to learn to understand manner, no matter if it’s like a modern art piece or—there needs to be something about it that you can learn to understand, whether you have to take classes or not. And this game is no exception to that personal rule. It is a lot of information, but it needs to be presented in a way that is intuitive.
And I’m a really big fan of Miyamoto’s game designs with Zelda and Mario and those things. Growing up, you don’t realize that the game teaches you how to play the game. And that’s astounding. And to try to put my saddle on that horse of game design is—it should be immersive, and that’s the only way to make it immersive and to have people have fun as they learn it.
And the cool thing about Spell Saga is it’s really not hard to learn. You can do some amazingly advanced things inside of it, but it’s not hard to learn. And every game feel like a bit of a tutorial the first ten turns, like, “Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right?” to, “Oh, this is right!” And then, after ten turns, everyone’s game is so different. And I never know what’s going to happen when I’m playing.
Todd Michael Rogers lives in one of the many cities named Nashville. He is married to a poet. He writes stories and makes games. You can find him very easily on the internet.