Tom Knauss Frog God Games

Q&A Today: Tom Knauss

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It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Tom Knauss chime in on Perilous Vistas and all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  What impact does non-fantasy media have on your fantasy writing?

TK: My father was an English teacher, so growing up I was greatly influenced by literature. I began reading Shakespeare when I was nine along with Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, and Hemingway in my early teens. I also received tremendous exposure to the arts considering that I have visited at least thirty different art museums throughout the United States throughout my teenage and adult years, and I’ve attended more concerts than my mind and ears care to remember.

As Shakespeare clearly demonstrates, we draw inspiration from numerous sources, whether they are the works of someone else, real life events or a powerful memory. In essence, we are the sum of our experiences, and I think that my fantasy writing reflects that. If you look really hard, you can see aspects of Moby Dick, the Korean horror film, Oldboy, and The Picture of Dorian Gray hidden within the text. I also take pride in the fact that I have seen 234 of the IMDB top 250 movies. I have seen every Academy Award Best Picture and every movie on the AFI Top 100 except for Nashville.

Q:  Reading Shakespeare at that early of an age is truly commendable.  Which of his many works have resonated with you the most?

TK: There’s many times in my life where I look back on two scenes from Julius Caesar. The first is Brutus’ lines spoken on the eve of the conspirators’ battle against the triumvirate. “Cowards die a thousand deaths, the valiant taste of death but once…” Those consumed by fear never truly live. Fear holds people back in so many ways that you never get to experience everything life has to offer. Taking a chance is what it’s all about sometimes. Of course, you can’t be totally reckless either. The second scene is a lesser known one where Marc Antony, Octavian and Lepidus are reviewing a list of whom they should kill and whom they should spare. Every time I meet with other people who are compiling a list, I’m always reminded of that scene.

Q:  What projects are you working on these days?

TK:  At the moment, I’m doing the research for Icebound for Frog God Games, the next book in the Perilous Vistas line. This environmental sourcebook focuses on the ice cap, taiga, and tundra biomes. I am also updating and expanding an old Kobold Press, then Open Design patron project called “Return to Castle Shadowcrag” that is a stretch goal for the recent Midgard kickstarter.

Q:  Icebound sounds like a good time, as does the Perilous Vistas line.  What more can you tell us about all that, without giving too much away?

TK: Perilous Vistas is a series of books focused on biomes. They provide a wealth of real world and fantastical information about these environments as well as providing the tools needed to succeed in these environments. The first section focuses on the scientific nuts and bolts of that particular terrain and then moves onto game mechanics for adjudicating the effects of natural and manmade hazards encountered there. It’s also a very player friendly resource that provides spells, magic items, feats, equipment, and other tools to combat these dangers. Each book also includes at least three adventures set in the locale. Icebound, naturally, discusses polar biomes, more specifically the ice cap, tundra and taiga biomes. I’m about 20% complete with the book. Its predecessors, Mountains of Madness and Marshes of Malice are currently on Kickstarter.

Q:  From a writing standpoint, what are some of the elements that you look for in a dungeon?

TK: I think that the setting has to stand out, because that’s where the action takes place. I trend towards doing things off the beaten path. I’ve set adventures in a fishery, sanitarium, college, and child’s dollhouse among others. The villain also needs to be memorable and make sense in relation to the overall story. Simply putting a BBEG in the middle of a dungeon for no apparent reason seems so contrived to me. Why is he here? What does he want? It’s a lot easier for me to get “into” an adventure if there is a coherent plot and goal than going from one apparently random encounter to another.

Q:  What can you share with us about the adventure that you’ve set in a fishery? That sounds fascinating.

TK:  It all starts with a missing celebrity chef who specializes in seafood. I can’t give too much information beyond that, but let’s just say that it involves food fighting back. It’s probably the most unsettling and goriest adventure that I’ve ever written.

Q:  The adventure isn’t called Food Fight, is it?

TK: All I can think of when you ask that is Bluto Blutarski stuffing his face in the Faber College cafeteria and doing his zit impersonation. No, the working title is “Fishers of Men”, which has its own noteworthy history.

Q:  Which tabletop games have you found to be most enjoyable during these past few years, and why?

TK: I love Call of Cthulhu, especially at a convention. It’s fast, it’s fun, and when do you get to enjoy getting killed and/or going insane in the span of a few hours? I just got to play Dominion for the first time and thought that it was pretty interesting. I used to play Magic the Gathering a great deal, so it bore a few similarities to that game without the extremely expensive collectible aspect. Obviously, I still enjoy Pathfinder, as I write products for the system and play it on a weekly basis. While it is very complex, I like its modular nature and endless possibilities.

Q:  Share one of your favorite Call of Cthulhu memories with us?

TK: It was last year at NTRPG (North Texas Roleplaying Game) convention. I got a chance to play in a Call of Cthulhu game that Greg Vaughan ran, where we were members of a boy scout troop. I played the dim-witted assistant scoutmaster, which is a departure from my usual comfort zone, because I tend to be the person that solves problems rather than the one that creates them. The adventure features a good mix of role-playing and exploration, so I had ample opportunities to ham it up and play a folksy clown type of character full of half-baked ideas and nutty catchphrases. My clueless character died trying to solve the mystery as best he could, but we still had a great time trying.

Q:  How long have you been writing?

TK: I’ve been writing since I was a child, so we’re now looking at more than four decades. I began writing role-playing products in approximately 2000 or 2001. I took a hiatus for several years during the 4E transition and then came back around 2011 and have been here ever since.

Q:  What are you reading these days?

TK: It’s a dream of mine to create an adventure based on Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, so I’ve been browsing through that in my spare moments trying to piece together how to give the poem the accolades and treatment that it so richly deserves.

Q:  Have you listened to the Iron Maiden song of the same name?

TK: The Powerslave album was a regular in my rotation throughout college and beyond. I enjoy the juxtaposition of music with verses read aloud from the actual poem. I’m going to see Iron Maiden in June when they visit the Prudential Center in Newark, so I’m hoping they play it live, though I doubt that they will.

Q:  How wild is it that Bruce Dickinson not only sings but pilots their plane?

TK: He is a true Renaissance Man if there ever was one. One of his sons also fronts his own band, As Lions. I’ve heard a few of their songs. It’s pretty easy to recognize the vocal similarities between the two.

Q:  What are some of the qualities that you look for in a Dungeon Master or Game Master?

TK: Adapting on the fly is an absolute must. Players rarely stick to the script, so you have to be ready for any contingency. I don’t need a method actor as a GM, but someone who can portray emotion, tone, and mood are also strong attributes for a DM. Rules are important. However, most players are willing to bend the rules to advance the story in an innovative way. Flexibility and a desire to just go with it regardless of where it leads, stand out the most.

Q:  Five dinner guests.  Which five writers (of any time period) would you invite to a dinner party?

TK: I want to enjoy the meal, so I’m going to steer toward witty intellectuals more than the Hunter S. Thompsons of the world.

Mark Twain—the quintessential, American writer. Witty, folksy, full of aphorisms and down to earth. A treasure trove of experiences.

Oscar Wilde—Who else could turn a phrase faster and better than he could?

JK Rowling—Not a literary great, but her novels are probably the best known and most culturally pervasive books of our time.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—I love a detective story, as a lot of my adventures bear out, so who’s better to discuss such matters than the creator of the iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes?

TS Eliot—Though currently best known for the musical Cats, I love the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Q:  What’s a question that you would love to ask Mark Twain?

TK: What was the greatest thing that your writing did to change the world for the better?

Q:  What hasn’t really happened yet, in the world of tabletop gaming, that you would love to see happen next?

TK: This is going to be odd, but I’ve toyed with this idea for years. I would die to create a horse racing board game that allowed players to own, run, and bet on actual historical racehorses. I’m a big racing fan, so being able to play a game that allows me to stage a race between Man O’ War, Secretariat and other immortals would be stupendous. There would need to be another fun dynamic to appeal to casual racing fans. However, the mere thought of being able to simulate these races would be something to see and enjoy.

[Roleplay]  Q:  It’s a dark and stormy night.  You’re on a ship at sea.  The captain is nowhere to be found.  The boat is clearly going to crash on an uncharted island that’s shrouded in a dense fog unless someone does something to prevent this from happening.  What do you do?

TK: Wow! You picked the wrong scenario for me, because as someone who’s written about deserts, wetlands, mountains, and grasslands, I could probably steer you out of danger in those environments in a snap. Still, getting back to the task at hand, the description doesn’t provide a time frame, so I’m going to look for the ship’s radio to call for help. Plus who else is aboard the vessel? I’m going to look for an experienced sailor, navigator or an outdoorsman that can figure a way to steer the vessel out of harm’s way. Are their flares or other emergency signaling devices on board? If so, I’m reenacting the 4th of July.  I’m also not so inclined to thinking that crashing ashore is a worse fate than drifting on the open sea. So I’d gather up as many supplies as I could and try to start a signal fire on the island in the hopes of getting someone’s attention.

[Roleplay continues]  Q:  The ship’s radio antenna is still intact above the forecastle, but the radio itself has been smashed to pieces.  It appears that someone’s recently taken a hammer to it.  Remnants of the crew are frantically scurrying about upon the foredeck.  Some of them are peering over the starboard side, out towards a smaller lifeboat that’s been lowered into the dangerous waters.  The captain appears to be on that lifeboat, bleeding from the head, unconscious or worse.  The ship’s first mate (still on board the ship with you, a tall fellow wearing a black turtleneck sweater, standing twenty feet from you) suddenly turns towards you and yells out something to you which you are unable to hear over the sound of the raindrops pelting the deck and the ten-foot swells crashing into the hull. What do you do you do?

TK:  I approach the first mate and ask him to repeat what he said. If he offers help or needs aid, I’m giving it to him. If he refuses or says something hostile, I’m operating under the presumption that it’s every man for himself from here on out. I’m scrambling to locate tools in the engineer or mechanics’ section. When I get my hands on them, I’m removing a door or disassembling a table to use it as a makeshift raft to paddle ashore. I’m also filling a bag or sack with as many canned foods as I can find from the galley, along with a can opener, before I paddle to shore on my crude floatation device.

[Roleplay continues]  Q:  The first mate attempts to yell out towards you again, but his attempt is cut short by a fifteen-foot wave that crashes atop his head, dropping him like a rag doll and sweeping him out to sea.  The ship suddenly lurches and you brace yourself to avoid being pulled into the waves.  You then proceed to gather tools, canned goods and a door to use as a makeshift raft.  You then cautiously paddle out into the water, towards the land.  The ship sinks behind you.  You paddle ashore onto a sandy beach.  You notice that the captain’s lifeboat also arrived on this beach.  To your left is a dark cave.  To your right, beyond the captain’s lifeboat, is a narrow path leading into a jungle.  What do you do?

TK: Because we’re in a jungle, I’m going to presume that it’s at least moderately warm, so immediately finding shelter is not the top priority. I first call into the cave for any survivors. If I get a response, I will enter the cave and gather as much information and supplies from the survivors as we can. Now that we’re on shore, we can also light a signal fire to summon help if no one procured flares or other devices before abandoning ship. If there is no response from the cave and the captain’s boat arrived on the beach, there must be survivors. The gravely injured captain isn’t still in the boat, so someone must have moved him. I’m going to follow the trail into the jungle, again calling out to any potential survivors. I’m also looking for high ground so that I can get the best vantage point of where I am and look for any sign of civilization whether that is a passing ship or an inhabited island. As in the case of the cave, if I make contact with survivors, I’m going to suggest pooling our resources together and devising the best strategy to garner attention from the outside world. If not, I look for fresh water somewhere on the island as well as a renewable food source. I will also search the remaining beach looking for people, gear, and other equipment that may have washed ashore.

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