Episode 30 was all about the Blake’s 7 RPG, the fan produced roleplaying game that was printed and distributed by Horizons, the Blake’s 7 Appreciation Club. When the GROGPOD was published one of the GROGSQUAD linked it to Kin-Ming Looi and Zoe Taylor, the designers of the game.
It was lovely to hear that the two friends are listeners and were more than happy to share their reminiscences of producing the game via messenger, while Zoe was perusing a stately home and Kin was geocaching.
Dirk: We always begin our interviews by going backwards to the point that you started playing. What were you playing and who were you playing with?
Zoe: I started playing with Call of Cthulhu; I always had in interest in gothic horror and my boyfriend at the time wanted to try role-playing so [we played with] two of his mates.
Kin-Ming: In my case, that would be the 1977 edition of Basic Dungeons and Dragons; played initially back in 1979/80 with my mother and sister but that was very short-lived as I had watched some older boys at school playing Advanced D&D and was aware that the Basic set was distinctly simplistic by comparison (e.g. all weapons did 1d6 damage). I quickly graduated to AD&D. After I got over the shock of the book prices, I played with friends at school. Things really took off when I started going to boarding school with lot more time to play on account of not a whole lot else going on!
Dirk: How did you meet? Were you playing RPGs together?
Zoe: We met due to Blake’s Seven. We both joined Horizon, the B7 appreciation society and the Newsletters had penpal section; we started off writing letters to each other about B7, Dr Who and other science fiction. I think it was a while before we met in person at a Horizon gathering. Then at B7 Cons too. We just got on so well. We planned at various times to join the same game but it did not quite work out.
Kin-Ming: I’d tried running a play-test of B7 RPG at my local club, figured it had gone down well and was do-able, but needed more work. I thought, I’d go to the pen pals section of the Horizon newsletter looking for a collaborator. My, this takes me back. The receptionist at work was puzzled by the sheer volume of personal post I was putting in the out-tray!
Zoe: My goodness me, yes, letters were flying both ways, at least once a week and they were very long
Kin-Ming: I was in the privileged position of being an early owner of an inkjet and then a laser printer, not to mention Ami Pro, an early Windows WYSIWYG word processor. Email connectivity took a little longer to connect – it’d be intolerable now – but, back then, compared with the frequency of Horizon newsletters, it felt miraculously fast.
Dirk: What is it about Blake’s 7 that caught your imagination? Why do think it’s so enduring?
Kin-Ming: For me, B7 had a compellingly bleak, grim feel to it, had a large ensemble cast that both seemed suited to group RPG play and, unlike the likes of Star Wars, didn’t have an off-the-shelf game I could buy. It it had, I’d just have bought it. The many one-liners, especially Avon’s, struck me as the sort of things players said in games, hence the list of quotes in the rule-book.
Zoe: I agree it was bleak. The lack of budget for special FX meant there was more emphasis on characters. It also gave stronger female role-models; as an electronic engineer there wasn’t many offered by Star Wars or Dr Who.
Kin-Ming: Yeah, I was hooked on B7 from the first episode I saw, TRIAL (Episode 6, Season 2), when I arrived in the UK. From the start, even at an early age, it astonished me because it referenced a main character having just died in a futile attack on the Federation. Not to mention Travis’ politically expedient court martial for war crimes and his speech on the Federation’s institutional responsibility were all heady stuff for a prime time programme.
It was many years later that I got to see all the previous episodes. Indeed, getting to see episodes was a key reason to go to Horizon meetings. I’d argue the BBC’s release of the full VHS episodes was as important to being able to do the game as PCs and laser printers! Tony Attwood’s Programme Guide was insufficient.
Zoe: Had the advantage of watching from the start. The guide was laughable, because of all the gaps and missing facts, (even so I have all the books.)
Kin-Ming: I did watch every tape at least twice as soon as they came out, once just normally and at least once more to scribble down any relevant detail: sensor detection and engagement ranges, speeds, terminology, world names – the levels of detail the programme guide just didn’t go to. For example, in DUEL (Episode 8, Season 1), I noted how much of a Liberator energy bank each plasma bolt hit drained. I was a war-gamer and these details mattered to me!
Dirk: Tell us more about the design process and the different approaches you took. Were you using the crew or characters that you created?
Kin-Ming: I did look at Traveller, but even if you ignored the Imperium background, it is embedded in the assumptions of the game mechanics: e.g. jump drive, career options, Gauss rifles and fusion guns etc. so that adapting an existing system seemed to be more work than starting from scratch.
Zoe: The systems we both already played influenced the game we created. I had the wargamers group play testing with me, where we tried both new adventures (as a Keeper I was used to creating those) and we tried recreating episodes as a start to see where we could go.
Kin-Ming: My motivation for the design were my wargame design heroes; people like John Hill and Jim Dunnigan who espoused the ‘Design For Effect’ philosophy: the mechanics should be customised to reflect the subject you’re trying to recreate hence the specific skill names (such as ‘sensor operations’) to encourage players to use the right terminology, and getting the first snap-shot off being vital in combat.
The West End Games Star Wars RPG’s chucking loads of dice and reducing them for multiple actions really encouraged flamboyant play. And, for me anyway, Cthulhu and GDW’s 2300AD and Twilight: 2000 were the ideal balance between being complex enough to reflect what I wanted to do and being playable
I ran games with both TV and player-generated characters. Former mainly for one-offs and demos e.g. at conventions and the latter for a campaign at Finchley Games Club. I ran two campaigns, one starting on Post Gauda Prime shortly after the Federation attack on Blake’s base (continuation from final episode).
Zoe: For the play-test all the characters were from the show. As Blythy pointed out in the podcast, without the crew it’s just not the same.
Kin-Ming: Another campaign started off with the classic prisoner transportation to Cygnus Alpha setting, only as the Galactic War starts so the journey is interrupted by the Andromedas. I did a one-off kind of inspired by Sarcophagus (Episode 3, Season 9): the crew encounter a world which unleashed a psychic-Doomsday weapon. Essentially, the setting was very rich and surprisingly consistent for something that was written in the days before boxed sets and ubiquitous Internet access to allow geeky frame by frame dissection. (There is the matter of view long the Intergalactic War lasted, but let’s not talk about that.)
This was first and foremost a game we wanted to play but couldn’t just buy. The idea is Horizon publication came later but even then, the one thing you could expect from Horizon members is they know their B7. We did have the idea of a sourcebook but that never quite got going.
Are you still playing?
Kin-Ming:It’s been a long time since I played any tabletop RPGs. I started working in management consultancy involving travelling a whole lot. I still keep picking stuff up from Bundle of Holding and DriveThruRPG to read though. I have hung on to a core of games in physical form: Cthulhu, 2300AD and Twilight: 2000, mainly.
Zoe: Great to hear the podcast: someone else was interested in a project Ming and I had been passionate about at the time. It has made me think about RPGs again. Thanks to The GROGNARD files, it has made me subscribe to How we Roll, Good friends of Jackson Elias … and looking at other CoC podcasts
There was a copy at a second book supplier a while back
Kin-Ming: Oh yeah, that’s right, a friend sent me a link to someone selling a copy at £198! Wonder if it sold?