I’ ve known the mysterious Mr. Nexus for quite a while at this point. Our first meeting is emblematic of the sort of stuff that happens to Jonny more often than it should. I was at some GenCon UK with two friends of mine, and I’d been enthusing to one of them – Brian Nisbet, if memory serves – that we should try to get the Critical Miss guys over to an Irish con. He agreed that this would be a wonderful thing indeed.
Later, at the con, I bump into Bubba and Jonny, but I do so just as I’m running off to run a game. I ask them to go talk to the rest of the Irish contingent about going to an Irish con. Unfortunately, the part of the contingent they ended up chatting to wasn’t the same part of the contingent I’d enthused to.
Jonny: Hi, we’re Critical Miss. I’m told you’ve heard of us.
Colm: Er, no.
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That was a long time ago, and since then the Critical Miss lads have been to quite a few Irish cons and I have crashed in the James Wallis Memorial Bedroom many, many times. (Hey, it’s right next to Heathrow.)
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Gar: Prior to Game Night, you were probably best known in gaming circles for your webzine, Critical Miss. How does promoting a novel differ from promoting the site? For that matter, why partner with ENWorld for this project, when you could have just put the book up on Critical Miss or your own website?
Jonny: Well when it came to marketing, Game Night differed from Critical Miss in two respects.
1) Critical Miss was free, where Game Night was a for purchase product.
2) Critical Miss was only ever one click away on the web, where Game Night required you to either travel to a games shop to purchase it, or order it off Amazon and then wait for it to arrive.
Those two factors made Game Night much harder to market. With Critical Miss, the actual product itself could spread virally, through people posting links to articles on web forums, or emailing them to friends. With Game Night by contrast, the most you could hope for was for word-of-mouth recommendations to travel virally, and that’s a much weaker thing.
i.e. Critical Miss was something you heard about, and then read; Game Night was something you heard about… and then made a mental todo note to perhaps think about buying some day.
Actually, I never really made much of an effort to market Critical Miss. It was something I did for fun, so generally I just posted a few announcements when a new issue came out and mailed my mailing list, and that that was that. By contrast, with Game Night I’ve done lots of blog posts, sent out *lots* of review copies, and purchased a lot of banner ads on both ENWorld and RPGNet.
So it’s much, much harder, but for reasons that I think are pretty understandable (if frustrating).
As to why go with EN World, the answer is simply that while Critical Miss might have been pretty successful (perhaps around 5000 readers at its peak) that was a while ago and even then, those figures were dwarfed by the number of people that read EN World. Plus, given that I’ve mailed my mailing list a couple of times about the book, I would hope that a good percentage of Critical Miss readers have already read it.
Gar: But you’ve giving the novel away for free. Is the main aim of this to sell physical copies of the book to people who’ve enjoyed the online version, or are you hoping they’ll buy your next book on the strength of the free Game Night? Or am I impugning base commercial motives to you, and you’re really just doing this ‘cos it’s cool?
Jonny: All of the above really.
The first thing I’m hoping is to get my writing in front of a whole lot more people than would otherwise see it, so they’ll know who I am, and as you say, will hopefully be much more likely to buy my next book (a time travel novel I’m currently working on). But I am hoping that some of them will go out and buy a copy of the book, either because they don’t want to wait 26 weeks to see how it ends, or perhaps as a present for a friend. (Or maybe because they just think it’s a cool book that they’d like to own).
The figure I always come back to when I consider how well I think Game Night‘s done is twenty million – the number of people who’ve supposedly played D&D at some time. For a small press book Game Night‘s actually sold pretty well, but not as well as I would have liked.
When I say this, people always say, “But it’s a roleplaying novel, that’s a really small niche!” And I think, twenty million… that’s not so small. If just 0.1% of all the people who’ve ever played D&D bought a copy of Game Night, I’d have sold 20,000 copies. So I always feel that there’s a world of people out there who might love the book if only I could let them know that it exists.
(And that ignores the huge number of people who’ve loved the book despite never having played a roleplaying game in their life. We sold 76 copies at a Discworld convention that only had about 750 attendees, mostly due to word-of-mouth recommendations, and the vast majority of those sales were to non-roleplayers).
So that’s kind of my motivation here.
Gar: The central conceit of Game Night is the contrast between the world of the player characters, where actions have consequences, and the antics of the players who don’t take the game half so seriously. To quote an example from early on, Draag’s player decides he doesn’t want to bother sitting through the GM’s riddle, so he has his player character, Draag, run the NPC through with a sword. To the player, it’s a joke; to Draag’s companions, it’s random homicide. It’s the same amusing disjunction seen in, say, The Gamers.
In Game Night, though, you cast nameless Gods as the player characters. What’s your reasoning behind that, instead of having the players be, well, gamers?
Jonny: Well my original thought was for them to be gamers.
(Actually, my original thought was, “I should do Critical Miss: The Novel! Then I could market it to the 5000 readers of Critical Miss and sell thousands and thousands really quickly and then sell thousands more from the word of mouth!” Note: this turned out to be somewhat optimistic given reasons 1 and 2 above, and the fact that in the book world, it turns out that 5000 copies is actually a good seller for a title published by a major publisher, and 20,000 is a best seller).
But having had the idea to write the story of a roleplaying game from the point of view of both the players and the character, I quickly hit upon a problem, which was that what was happening to the characters wouldn’t be real.
You can write, “Joe sat at the table and rolled his dice” because that is real. It’s actually happening.
But you can’t really write, “Zark twirled his sword and cut off the orc’s head” because that isn’t real. There is no Zark. There is no orc. There’s just Joe and his mates sitting at a table imagining things. It seemed to me to lack a certain narrative truth. I wouldn’t be describing what was happening in the world of the novel; I’d be describing what the players were imagining was happening in their imaginary world.
For a short sketch, perhaps written for a Critical Miss article, that would be fine. But I didn’t think it would be sustainable for the entire novel. The reader wouldn’t care what was happening to the characters because they wouldn’t be real.
And then I recalled some little mini fiction sketches I’d written for a Critical Miss article (http://www.criticalmiss.com/issue3/ruleslaw1.html – although you’ll have to read through to the fifth page to really see what I mean) and realised that the central idea in that, some gods playing a roleplaying game, was exactly what I needed. (That mini fiction sketch in the article pretty much contains the core idea of Game Night and even has some similar character names).
The key thing with Game Night is that what is happening to the mortals (a.k.a. the players) *is* real, albeit horribly illogical and dysfunctional. When gods dream (or play games) they manipulate reality on the mortal realm below. It’s just a shame that they’re playing the game so badly…
Gar: I presume Terry Pratchett was an influence on this decision, too. There are similar scenes of gods playing games with mortals in the Discworld books (and now that I think of it, it could be a good model for a comedy rpg). You also mention Douglas Adams as an influence – is Game Night closer to H2G2 or the Dirk Gently books?
Jonny: Actually Pratchett wasn’t a direct influence. As I said in one of my other answers, the idea of Game Night was actually thought of for a Critical Miss article some years ago. I only remembered the bits about Gods playing games with mortals in The Colour of Magic after I’d started writing Game Night. Having said that, they *style* of the early Pratchett novels (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) was a very big influence. I loved those books and was trying to get that sort of feel, albeit writing in my own style.
The real inspiration for the gods playing games with mortals was an old film (Jason and the Argonauts?) in which a group of Greek gods moved clay miniatures of heroes and monsters around a sandpit table type thing). So rather than being inspired by Terry Pratchett in this particular case, I’d say its more likely that we’re drawing on the same sources.
Douglas Adams in an influence in the sense that the first two Hitch Hikers books are my favourite books of all time, although I suspect my style is a bit different. I wasn’t so keen on the Dirk Gently books though.
At the end of the day though, I’m not trying to emulate anyone’s style. If you ask what style Game Night is like, I’d say it’s pretty like the stuff I wrote for Critical Miss. That’s what I was trying to emulate.
Gar: Did you have a particular system in mind when writing Game Night? For that matter, how much of the book is based on actual gaming experiences?
Jonny: I didn’t have a particular system in mind, no. I intentionally wanted to keep it abstract. This is supposed to be gods in a parallel universe to ours; if they were playing (say) our world’s game D&D that wouldn’t be believable. It’s obviously D&Dish in some ways, but I tried to to keep the system intentionally vague – although some details are exposed, such as the fact that it’s a dice pool system where you count successes (albeit with knucklebones instead of dice).
As to how much of the book is based on actual gaming experiences, none of it is directly based on actual things that happened. It’s all fictional things that I made up. But probably all of it is informed by things that happened.
Probably the thing that was closest to an actual event (that I can think of) is the scene where a character burns to death. The idea of someone deliberately burning to death came from an actual incident (http://www.criticalmiss.com/issue5/gamingrecords1.html). But for the novel I came up with a completely different reason as to why someone might burn to death.
Gar: You’ve been London-based as long as I’ve known you, but now you’ve moved to Brighton. Tell me of Brighton. What’s the gaming scene like there?
Jonny: Well the honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m still working in London and commuting by train, so I get back quite late in the evenings, and my weekends tend to be quite busy. I’m actually still “playing” in my old Tuesday night group, but doing it virtually via Skype, with them in Hounslow with a laptop where I would have sat, and me in Brighton.
But Brighton’s very cool. There’s just a buzz about it, there’s loads of great places to eat and interesting shops, and I always get a thrill when I go for a walk and see the sea.
Gar: How do you find gaming via Skype? Problematic, or just like being there?
Jonny: Mostly like being there, but not quite. It’s not the same. You have to work a little bit harder to keep track of who’s speaking and what they’re saying, and the other guys have to work a little harder to make sure they stop speaking when you’re trying to say something. I don’t think it would work if you had *two* players playing via Skype.
But it’s a hell of a lot better than not being there at all. I’m really chuffed that I’ve been able to carry on being a member of my gaming group and playing in our Cthulhu campaign even after moving away.
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To read the first instalment of Game Night, just click on this link. If you want to contact Jonny, then just drop him a line at gamenight (at) jonnynexus dot com or you can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.