Thursday, March 1, 2012

Interview For HOP - Brian Nero

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

I found an interesting phenomenon happened with my interviews- I had certain ideas of things I wanted to address, or talk about, or generally discuss; and it just never worked out that way. I was always surprised by the responses, comments and exposition brought on by the great minds who were willing to give of their time and talent with me.

All of the people I interviewed were smart, fun, generous and had amazing things to say about the state of art, mechanics, tabletop hobby, RPGs, Board games and/or card games. They were also exceptionally kind and allowed me to quote them for the series and for any compilation or transcription I might want to publish later.

"Later" is here, and I'm publishing the transcripts of the interviews I conducted for your reading pleasure. This stuff is too good not to share, so I hope you enjoy it.

First up is Brian Nero of A Gentleman's Ones.


I'd like to start by saying that I'll be interviewing a couple other people as well to get more than one perspective on game design. I did extend an invitation to Jim but have yet to hear from him. I am still determining if I will feature your answers on their own or combine them with replies from other designers. Thank you again for your kind cooperation.

Beginning with the obvious questions:

Would you mind telling me a little about your project? What inspired you to take the project on?


The Game:

Special Operations: Killzone is a skirmish-level ruleset for 40K that was broadly inspired by, but irreverently playful with, GW’s Kill Teams dynamic; it is designed to be wildly cinematic, and it is the singular brainchild of Big Jim, from Galaxy in Flames. I am not sure how Jim received his calling for this exactly, but the effort involved has been genuinely vocational in nature, and I sincerely suspect that his fondness for the much-missed Overwatch rule played an exceptional role in that calling.  I jest… but not really.

Special Operations: Killzone is an incredibly collaborative affair, and has been from my first exposure to it roughly 18 months ago. It’s a bunch of people that want to try out quirky ideas for skirmish games that represent the darker, more mysterious conflicts that nevertheless shape the larger conflict surrounding them. That’s cool. That’s really cool, in fact, when one begins to look at it more closely. People from all over the globe have had a hand in it somewhere along the line because they share an interest in exactly that. Big Jim gets, and deserves, the lion’s share of the praise, but I think at least part of his real talent has been to collect people that are able and willing to lend their particular expertise to the project

…but more on that in a moment.

As I was saying, it all starts with Big Jim. I think Jim’s willingness to experiment with (and fundamentally to re-write) game dynamics originates ultimately from a very simple impulse -one that I am happy to share- that is:  a desire to play the game the way I want to play the game. Full stop. This desire is not based on a highly suspect need to tweak rules for advantage, but rather to grasp more fully at the profoundly evocative and bewildering universe that GW patched together and that we all invest our time in greater or lesser measures. It is a simple thought, really. If I am going to spend time and money, I may as well get exactly what I want from the experience.

I have never really understood why people on the internet spit so much bile at GW for their “most important rule.” I feel that GW has, in effect, given us all the license we require to do what we are able with their game, to enjoy it as best we know how. In our case, the impulse has always been to recreate the coolest, as well as the more absurd, Hollywood-esque imaginings of Special Operations teams in the field, but set 40,000 years in the future. Certainly, the Imperial Guard (traitorous or otherwise), Deathwatch, the Inquisition, the Alpha Legion, Tau, Orks, et al seem wonderfully suggestive of these smaller moments of conflict in the grimest and darkest of futures.  

I also think that what I have said might be the real rub with most folk –knowing, and being able to articulate, exactly what one wants from the experience. It’s like the old Orwellian thing: “freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four; allow me that and all else follows.” It really can be that simple. For my part, it has always been simply this: I want to play skirmish games, paint a small number of multitudinous 40K figures that I think are tremendously cool, do so without thinking about the grander game or the necessary restrictions of a whole new army (I have too many already), and get my hands dirty with some special operations glory.

There it is. 

My Involvement:

Of course, this is all hindsight. Though it looks inevitable from this distance, the simple truth is that I basically tumbled backward into the grand Killzone experiment. 

So. My participation in the project began modestly a bit more than a year and a half ago. After that, a small door just seemed to open every few months until I found myself somehow “running” an event at AdeptiCon -which was only my second time there, and first time participating in any genuine capacity. I had no experience whatsoever with the vast majority of the things of which I have since waded knee-deep into the middle.

Sometime around June or July 2010, the Right and Honorable Referee Pitmann and I played a series of games based on the Kill Team dynamic as suggested in GW’s Battle Missions book. We were using Kill Team as a means 1) to shake off some rust that had accumulated on our 40K, 2) to build a narrative framework for our semi-annual summer campaign, 3) to skirt time restraints imposed upon my hobby time by the appearance of Boyzilla (now complemented by his sidekick, the Loveblob), and 4) to put some, if I may say so, tremendous scenery back to work on our tabletop: aka The Sin of Alacrity.

As it turns out, each of those items has continued to shape my involvement with Killzone’s ongoing maturation. I have used the Special Operations: Killzone rules as a vehicle to bring a gaggle of abandoned Orks onto the tabletop, and to teach me how to use them as the army grew. I continue to use Killzone for the rich, cinematic narratives it invokes. I can play it quickly (most 250 point games last a little more than a half hour), which leaves me ample time to throw myself sideways into mad terrain-building projects like the one that nearly killed me at AdeptiCon last year.

I did not, however, expect this thing to spread quite the way or the extent it has. 

Way back when Pitmann and I brought our armies to the old Kill Teams, we immediately realized that the mechanism would not work very well as articulated and set about with a loose assortment of stop-gap solutions in a very primitive “house rules” design. These rules we developed on the fly and I think they only really worked in our specific circumstances. I posted about those games, and almost immediately received an invitation from Jim to join the fledgling Killzone project. To be candid, I was an admirer of Jim’s work and found myself flattered to be asked in the first place. Honestly, I couldn’t even really believe that Jim read my blog –or that anyone but Brent read the blog at that point.

I did not intend to get much more involved than that. In fact, I wasn’t really sure what I would be able to contribute to more sophisticated rules discussions (a truth even now). At that initial point, the whole affair was dominated by a forum Jim set up; it was very much an unwieldy, collaborative effort (I must also confess here that forums, as a rule, give me gas). Ideas were coming in from every corner and all angles.

Karitas, from Excommunicatus Tratoris, had assembled a very professional looking beta document that circulated around those forums, which included a number of images he had pinched from my posts. I was smitten. The beta looked so… professional. The Killzone logo used now is still his design, untouched. Just beautiful work, and he produced it in what seemed like seconds.

When Karitas took a step back because work had him under the thumb, we were caught in a bit of a lurch. We hadn’t realized how large a role Karitas’ formatting had played in the game aesthetic, so I pitched up and learned how to work a basic formatting program (Pages on the Mac). It was (and is) very important to me that the whole thing look polished and reasonably professional, and this seemed a natural step as many/most of the images were from my blog anyway –and I had plenty more on the shelf.

From there, well, I am an English teacher by trade (it’s a sin, I know, but I make heaps of proofing and spelling errors. Please indulge me during my time away from work), so while transcribing and re-formatting the old beta to include all the new ideas that were streaming forth, I also started tidying up some of the language that was inconsistent or rules that were frayed a bit at the ends. Without noticing the transition, really, I also started inventing the odd mechanism here or there. By the time the idea for the Missions Book landed, I was composing from thin air about half of what went into the books and editing heavily another quarter at least (as it turns out, we have learned that all the bad missions are almost certainly mine –I am, at the end of the day, more a hobbyist than gamer. doh). Jim simply nodded and said, perhaps we should give you authorship credit.

Still, I cannot really take credit for most of the technical or mechanical ideas. As stated, I am hopelessly more hobbyist than gamer. I take pretty pictures, and try to tidy up muddy or vague rules when the English language seems imperiled, but every important decision still floats past Big Jim’s desk in Cali, and almost every rules question I see now also passes through the local mill of Frozencore Joe and Skarvald, from Wolves for the Wolf God. These guys understand the game, understand rules, and without them, it would only be pretty pictures on an otherwise empty page.

Around October of last year, I was approached by Matt, one of the local organizers for AdeptiCon. They were looking for a casual, fun alternative to some of the more competitive events on the weekend, and Killzone fit the bill perfectly. Matt, oddly in a city of millions, lives just a mile or more down the road. Odd how that happens. Once again, by sheer luck or fate, I tumbled backward through another door just as it opened. AdeptiCon was a big step for me, for the blog, for my whole gaming experience. That step opened even more doors, like Heroes of Armageddon for example. 

Lo: Please tell me how YOU want to play the game. Is yours a desire for skirmish? Do you have a preference for "story telling" games? Is "fast, fun, furious" the motto (if you will) of what you are after?

"I was playing chess with my friend and he said, 'Let's make this interesting'. So we stopped playing chess." -Matt Kirshen 

I heard that joke recently, and it got me thinking.

I have known my oldest and most consistent frienemy, the Right and Honorable Referee Pitammn, for well over two decades. In fact, we were college roommates and often found time during a rigorous academic calendar (cough, cough) to play quit a lot of chess (as an aside: we got up to more than that, of course, but in the more civilized and pedestrian moments, we liked to round out the odd afternoon with a bit of all that).

We are both enthusiasts for Professor Tolkein’s work so, ten years ago, we leapt on to the Lord of the Rings game and loved it… but then quickly moved on to 40K. We have hardly looked back since.

I remember having a discussion with Pitmann and a few frighteningly young kids at our now leveled (but once very) Friendly (and not at all) Local Games Store. Pitmann and I were torn between Fantasy and 40K, but knew that we would be expanding from LotR in one direction or the other. One of the kids kindly put our decision in perspective for us with this: “It’s grim. It’s dark. You get to blow things up with plasma cannons.” Fair enough.  While the skirmish-level encounters of LotR appealed to us, 40K did not seem too grand a step away from the basic dynamic. Most of our early games were little more than skirmishes writ large, which makes sense.

Pitmann found his Iron Warriors and has not budged since. Seriously. In all this time, he has only ever played that one army, and I believe this makes him a rather unique (or at least tremendously rare) specimen in our hobby. I jumped into the deep end with IG, but not long after that dramatic beginning, the Daemonhunters codex came out. I was utterly compelled. I loved the idea of small operative teams working as agents, double agents, and all that against the broad universe of conflict and strife. I read (consumed more like) the Eisenhorn novels and, as mentioned before, was completely taken by the universe GW has stitched together from here and there. You can see, I imagine, the foundations for my involvement with Special Operations: Killzone in all this.

One note on that: I have yet to find a game system set in such a wild and interesting universe. I have commented elsewhere that I really enjoy the Warmachine game, but I am not completely enamored with the universe. Perhaps this is only a matter of time and the relative maturity of the game –I know, for example, that 40K has gone through seriously growing pains over the years- but the Warmaworld still feels rough around the edges in a way that 40K does not (I have quite a few very specific thoughts on this, and some of those reference Tolkien again, but that would have to be a whole other kettle of fish. Suffice to say here, I believe the universe feels more complete because it is part of a much more grand history, ie: the events of 30K, and so on).  

The 40K game, however, has always seemed caught just slightly between two varied scales. On the one hand, the average game of 1750-2000 points is way too big to be a skirmish, but still feels rather too small to be a genuine “battle,” as such. The fluff, if this is possible, has seeming outgrown the actual tabletop experience. If anything, the average game tends, in my mind, to feel like one branch of a larger battle –which opens some interesting narrative possibilities, but which have never really been explored satisfactorily. Apocalypse tries to open that door, certainly, to those larger conflicts, but also struggles in my opinion. It tends to split the game slightly at the seams –though I have seen a few good “house rules” suggestions to mend this.  
So. Special Operations: Killzone brings me back to five simple elements that brought me once more into this hobby after 10 years of playing Chess and the like at university. In order of importance:

1. Narrative. The universe came first. The building of teams and individual models also helps create the personality of the models. This, in turn, helps build the tension and narrative of the game. It’s grim. It’s dark. You get to annihilate things with plasma cannons.    

2. Scale. Skirmish level games appeal to me because the scope of the conflict makes sense in my mind. Big Jim beat me to this punch, but I was going to insist that we include Inquisitors in the newer Killzone rules. He was way ahead of me. I feel utterly compelled to build one as soon as I am able. Compelled. I like that these small teams are working for seemingly small goals, but ones that might resonate in profound ways beyond the game. In this sense the game is both encapsulated but suggestive.

3. Aesthetics. Pitmann and I will not play with unpainted models. We are into the visual components of the game as an essential, absolutely essential, element. I think that the models GW produces are superlative, and the aesthetics of that world have me on a hook.

4. Time. Pitmann and I both have families and both have jobs. Time is not what it was during those long university afternoons. So I am also attracted to game for my ability to play several missions in just a short span. That makes me feel like I am getting a lot of gaming for my investment of time.

5. Whim. If I want to paint a single Deathmark or a single Berzerker –because I like the model or the pose or the conversion or whatever- with Killzone I have given myself permission to do exactly that. I have a space in which I can indulge my hobby impulses without regret.

In a wordy nutshell, that’s what I want from my games. 

Lo: I'm also very interested to hear further thoughts on: does the consumer necessarily dictate the product? Certainly one chooses to buy or not, and what. How completely does the spender get to dictate what goes in a finished product? (More plainly: Do I as a customer get to tell GW or PP what to make and how just because I have the money?) 

Let me put this as plainly as I am able. Anyone who has ever actually worked in retail –when speaking candidly- we tell you that the customer is almost never right. Publically, of course, they will sing a different song, because they must. Their private notion, however, is the correct one.

Particularly in creative spheres, the customer is rarely right -nor does he/she need to be.

Just imagine the breadth and scope of all the opinions that any manufacturer would need to consider to function in the kind of world where this was true. The weight of obligation would be paralyzing –simply paralyzing. 

Moreover, all opinions are not created equal. The internet has a way of clouding that fact I think.

I was struck by how small the internet community really is quite plainly at Games Day this year. A huge assembly of internet personalities were working on the Heroes of Armageddon charity project. I was honored to be responsible for the tables. Really, it was a dream come true for me to work alongside some of my hobby heroes (Fritz and Dave Taylor to namedrop but two). Given the participatory nature of the charity drive, news of the project was all over the place. You really couldn’t be on the internet and miss it.

Yet on the day, I would say that well over 2/3rds of the people that approached the tables had never heard of Heroes of Armageddon. Not one word. I was left scratching my head a bit at first, but the experience offered me a healthy does of perspective. Big ideas in the 40K web “community” are not necessarily big ideas. The game is much more broadly situated than that, and it took Games Day to remind me of that simple fact.

I should back up for a moment. I presume that we are mostly talking about GW here, so I think I’d best direct my comments in that direction.
Likewise, one thing that I learned last year at AdeptiCon is that people are not interested in the game we assembled for the same reasons that we were/are. The same is demonstrably true with GW as a whole. In fact, the entire Special Operations: Killzone project is a simple testament to that

But again, these intentions and interests absolutely do not need to be aligned. We have endeavored to make Special Operations: Killzone into the game we want to play for almost entirely selfish reasons. If others get a kick as well, then I am tremendously pleased. If not, this heap of work will evaporate into the ether and I will be left with the game that I want to play –win, win. I sincerely believe that the miniature and game designers at GW have a similar approach. I get the impression that they are having an absolute blast making these things up and enjoy themselves tremendously. I am envious, to be candid, and I think most enthusiasts are. Who wouldn’t love to design and to play games for a living?

I understand what you are suggesting in the question: “do I get to tell GW what to make because I have the money?” The shortest answer is “No.”

But we need to be clear about this. My opinion on the relative merit of a GW game or a product must be mitigated by, well, the fact that it is my opinion. While the internet might allow me space to believe that my ideas are big, they are only my ideas at the end of the day. I think it is a common mistake to believe that the capacity of criticism makes one a critic, and sadly this is simply not true. 
There’s a bigger common problem, however, in the logic underneath your question (nothing personal). Let me put it this way. I wouldn’t bitch at Coke for not being Pepsi just because I buy Coke. That’s absurd. “But I have the money,” the logic goes, “and I should be able to dictate my terms…” utter nonsense. GW is GW, they need to keep doing what they are doing (because it is awesome), and they are correct to ignore big buckets of vitriol that spill onto the internet. Perhaps I am being a bit harsh here, but I am exasperated by the rather juvenile voices I see spitting bile here and there from those that believe they have an emeritus PhD in miniature and game design because they have been playing D&D since the 80s or 90s or whenever.

GW has not grown in to a multinational corporate entity because it hates you and kills your dreams for sport. Anyone who behaves as if this is true, even if only on the internet, should probably recalibrate his/her ego.

GW has done so because the miniatures it produces are absolutely stunning –unparalleled; the games are also rather tremendous in my opinion, but I sincerely believe that the rulesets are only a post-rationalization for the miniatures themselves. This is well known. Look at the old plastic giant. There was never a fan base crying “we need a plastic giant in all of our games.” GW built it anyway, because they could. The kit was fantastic and has opened the door to bigger and greater kits of a similar ilk. Tremendous.

Again, if you doubt me, I need only say one word: plastic. Nobody else is doing (or, as far as I am able to discern, can do) what GW does with its models. In my opinion, this makes them a pretty high-end item in a field of its own creation. 

Moreover, GW has created an entire sequence of universes that are supported by a canon of literature and now film (that unfortunate little film) that looms over any competitor.

The rules, admittedly, are the weakest link. They almost must be because, as mentioned, people are not interested in the games GW assembled for the same reasons or in the same capacity that GW created them… and that’s ok. Thankfully, the rules are also the most easily amended. More on that in a few paragraphs.
Please don’t misunderstand. I believe in constructive criticism fundamentally and profoundly. I’m not trying to silence lucid GW detractors. There is, however, a surplus of vapid critical hyperbole but an absolute dearth of constructive criticism on the internet.

To clarify, saying “Matt Ward sucks,” or whatever variation thereof, is not constructive and does little to impress. People who posture in this manner make me want to pull an Evil Captain Kirk from Episode 37 

Watch here

cue to 3:50 if you can’t wait for the rant: “there’s a whole world out there!”

After GW’s latest price hike and price leveling in Oz (the second of which was quite smart in my opinion; Wayland was behaving parasitically, and that is neither big nor clever), the internet was awash with a chorus of semi-coherent whinging. I’m never buying GW again. GW corporate hates you and me. I quit. And so on. Within a month or so, those same bloggers were back posting battle reports and photos of their latest models.

It’s a funny thing about principles, I suppose. You only have them if you have them.

Which leads me, of course, to a third and obvious option –one that is explicitly stated in GW’s most important rule. This is, again, the impulse that brought me to Special Operations: Killzone in the first place. Make your own space and do what you will therein.

As I said earlier, the rules or game dynamic are the absolute easiest to fix (and/or personalize) from either a gamer’s or a hobbyist’s point of view.  I love 40K’s fluff and models. I was a little unfulfilled while working in the standard ruleset. So I joined the Killzone project and helped create a mechanism that works for my needs. There’s a whole world out there!

Oddly, I think this is where hobbyists and competitors meet in the middle. We have been told wrongly by the internet that this is an either/or dynamic. If we take SO: Killzone (fluffly, non-competitive) and Tournament events (brutal, intensely competitive) and put them side by side, we have been taught to believe that they are either side of a polar equation: hobbyists and competitors must loathe one another. 

Yet each is doing with the game something that was never ever intended by its creators, and that kind of ownership is really quite positive –explicitly encouraged by the creators, in fact! Tournament organizers are tremendous for this hobby and competitors (though I am not one) are taking a really deep hold of the game, as is their want.

The point, after all this, is simple: I don’t need GW to fix my reservations or concerns about its games for me. They are my concerns, I am perfectly capable of doing that on my own.


  1. My god, don't I just prattle on.

    Thanks for the kind words, Lo. Much obliged.

    1. I am absolutely insistent that I'll make it up your way soon to talk in person... so I can hear you prattle even more =p

  2. Really good interview.
    Pretty well established that Killzone is da awesome.

    Matt Ward does totally suck though.

  3. I feel privileged to have read that, to be able to engage with the thinking. It's an initiation, a great supplement to Killzone too. Thanks to you both.

  4. I kind of liked the prattle. Can you please prattle some more?