• Will Salmon

ADVENTURE TIME

Will Salmon Speaks To Rebellion Unplugged’s Duncan Molloy About New Game-In-A-Mag, Adventure Presents, And Their Future Plans...


With very necessary lockdowns in place around the world right now, it's harder than ever to get a game together. Sure, it's a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, but I miss pushing miniatures around a board and eating takeout while exploring space with my mates. I’m sure you do too.


With very necessary lockdowns in place around the world right now, it's harder than ever to get a game together. Sure, it's a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, but I miss pushing miniatures around a board and eating takeout while exploring space with my mates. I’m sure you do too.


Still, RPGs and tabletop games remain big business, even in the cursed year of 2020. So much so that British games developer (and comics publisher) Rebellion has founded a new department dedicated to them. Rebellion Unplugged launched earlier this year with Adventure Presents - a brand new roleplaying game that, with its streamlined ruleset and anthology format, feels designed for online play over the likes of Zoom or Roll20.


Unplugged is headed up by Duncan Molloy, who took some time out to talk with us about the new game, bringing new players into the fold and where he sees Unplugged sitting in the lineage of snarky, satirical British fantasy and sci-fi.


Adventure Presents has a unique format. It comes not in the now traditional chunky hardback, but as a 24-page magazine. Every issue is a complete, standalone adventure that’s designed to be played over three sessions, which sounds ideal for beginners or those looking to try something different to their ongoing campaigns.


In the first issue, Tartarus Gate, up to six players and a DM explore the ominously-named starship Charon as it makes its way to the titular way station. It’s great fun, with evocative art, a cheeky sense of humour and more than a dash of horror. It does, however, leave us with one very important question.... Why the hell would anyone choose to launch a new game now?


‘This was not something we planned to bring out this year, to be quite honest,’ Molloy laughs. ‘We had the concept for it and started putting together the first issue to see how it would work - and then COVID hit. We took a view that this game and this system were better designed for remote play than any of the other stuff that we’re working on, so we kind of shunted it up the production pipeline.’


This was partly, he says, ‘a way of saying to people, “We are considering what you need at the moment,”’ but it also made good use of Rebellion’s infrastructure. As the publishers of 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and a raft of other comics, they had the means to get the product out and into peoples’ hands in a tumultuous period. ‘We knew that we could make it and ship it during lockdown, which is something that I don’t think anybody else could say. We’re really chuffed with it and the response so far has been absolutely fantastic, but it’s meant that we’re kind of scrambling to get more ready!’


“YOU THINK GETTING A GAME TOGETHER IS HARD NOW? TRY BEING A 13 YEAR OLD LIVING OUT IN THE COUNTRY”

Molloy grew up rurally in Limerick, Ireland and was a keen gamer from an early age - though not, initially, of RPGs. ‘No, I couldn’t describe myself as the person who grew up roleplaying,’ he admits. ‘Just because I lived quite far away, y’know. You think getting a game together is hard now? Try being a 13 year old living out in the country.'


After starting his career as a theatre writer and director, Molloy made a gradual transition into games. ‘Some of my first steps involved working with a group of DMs in Limerick, on a site specific show where we used them rather than actors because it was a subtly different skill set.’ From there he made a ‘sideways step’ into game design for Osprey Publishing, best known for their series of military history books. He stayed there for five years and worked on more than 30 titles for the company.


His relationship with Rebellion began a few years back, starting with work on their licensed Judge Dredd tabletop games. It quickly became a full time job and marked the origins of Unplugged. With tabletop games and RPGs currently enjoying a profile higher than at any point since the 1980s, it's perhaps not surprising that Rebellion would want to get in on the action. Still, Molloy believes that there are separate reasons for the current tabletop and RPG revivals.


‘In some ways, with board games, it's about disconnecting,’ he says. ‘It's about having social activities that aren't screen or alcohol focussed. Obviously there are some games that are app assisted, but those are complementary to the experience, rather than the focus of it.’


Conversely, Molloy believes that the internet has only helped RPGs. ‘You can’t look past the high profile presence of podcasts and streams as being behind just how far the resurgence has gone. Seeing cool people doing it and having a lot of fun. I think we're now at a really healthy point where 5E [Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition] hit at the right time with streaming behind it. I wouldn’t describe 5E as an accessible game, particularly, but the tropes behind it are familiar enough to remove certain barriers to play. And some of the players who were brought in through that have started to see the RPG landscape as wide as it actually is.’



And so, to Tartarus Gate. Written by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor (creators of Heart, Spire and Unbound), with vibrant art and design by comics veteran Pye Parr, it’s a nifty mix of satire and sci-fi, where players take on the roles of low level workers aboard the Charon. After being unexpectedly awoken from their deep sleep pods, while still six months out from their destination, they must unravel a mystery that takes a turn for the dark and deadly. ‘I was a bit worried about it tonally,’ Molloy admits. ‘I initially pitched it as kind of being about space interns, all a bit tongue in cheek and it’s actually turned out quite a bit…'


Darker? Grislier? Although it’s absolutely family - or at least teen - friendly, I suggest that there’s more than a little of Event Horizon in the first issue of Adventure Presents’ DNA.


‘Yeah. It's very hard to market something without revealing the mysteries involved in the storyline. It does get quite dark, but I didn’t want to tip my hand about that too much. People who buy it are usually going to be DMing it, but not always, so it's a tricky one. There will be issues that are lighter than Tartarus Gate, but tonally I think it was bang on for me and what we were looking for. I started thinking about Adventure Presents as almost Future Shocks: The RPG, y’know what I mean? Almost adapting the spirit of 2000 AD if not the fiction of it.’


“I STARTED THINKING ABOUT ADVENTURE PRESENTS AS ALMOST FUTURE SHOCKS: THE RPG Y’KNOW WHAT I MEAN?”

Future issues, Molloy says, will be different. ‘There’s a ton of games that I’d really love to work on, but can't justify spending two or three years developing, but I can justify, say, a year, working alongside other projects. It gives me the flexibility to say yes to exciting ideas.’


The anthology format also means that Adventure Presents will showcase work from a wide variety of creators, though Molloy is keen to stress that he wants to work with Howitt, Taylor and Parr again.


‘I’d like to work with as many folks as I can. So, different writers of different backgrounds and experience levels. I don’t want to name any names right now, but I have a long and ambitious list of people that I want to talk to. Working on this gives me the chance to get creatives onboard who are excited by the things that they are working on, rather than pitching what they think a publisher wants to hear.’ Tartarus Gate, he says, is ‘definitely representative’ of the core of what Adventure Presents is, but there’s room for many more tones and genres. ‘I think the format is flexible enough that you could have, say, a Jane Austen game.’


The decision to make Adventure Presents an anthology also tied into a desire to make the system as accessible as possible. ‘I think that if we set all the issues in the same universe, it would be very easy to fall into the trap of making it seem like, “Oh, you can’t play this one because you have to have played this other one first”’.


‘I didn't want to create something that felt like it was a diet version of something else,’ says Molloy. ‘But yes, I unquestionably want to bring in new players. For me it’s an exercise in removing barriers to play.’


One of those barriers is explaining the world of a game. ‘The prevalence of 5E in the cultural consciousness means that you can just go to somebody, “You’re a wizard, pick your spells” and they get it. You don’t need to discuss how the world works or what the setting is, everyone knows. You can decide to cast a fireball or hit something with an axe and it just works.’


That’s not the case with most games, however, and there are many other barriers that can make it difficult for newcomers to get involved. ‘Most of the board game players I know would love to role play too. It's not that it's too hard, it’s that there’s such a high time cost to getting involved, especially if you’re starting from zero. You see a lot of people going, “Here's my rules light, accessible system” - and it's a 300 page hardcover! That’s not a slight on those games, there’s a ton of really amazing systems out there, but I wanted to think of people’s time as being as much of a resource as their money. If my goal is to get people actually playing the game then I needed to try a different approach.’


And so the plot and setting of Tartarus Gate is explained in just a few pages. The rules are equally concise and everything the players encounter is pre-generated. ‘The upgrades you get aren't class specific, you can just pick the things you like and they're already baked into the fiction. Players can pull their character sheet and they'll have a pretty good sense of what they're good at and what they can do.’


It’s also designed to encourage players who are perhaps DMing for the first time. ‘For people who don’t necessarily have confidence in their improv skills, I wanted to give enough content so that the game could be super structured and super detailed, but also flexible enough that they could feel free to take it in whatever direction they wanted.’


There’s a certain quality to Tartarus Gate that calls back to British comics and games of the 1970s and 80s. The violence is extreme, the humour caustic and pitch black. It feels, I suggest, in the same anarchic lineage as 2000 AD and Warhammer 40,000.


‘Totally! There’s a really punk aesthetic to all that stuff, particularly the early Games Workshop things. There’s a lot that they’re doing now that I really love, but the early stuff felt different, back when it was a bit more satirical. And of course all the stuff that John Wagner and Pat Mills and everybody around them were working on in comics in the early 80s, that feeling that almost anything goes.’


Those comics and games were enormously - often grotesquely - violent, but Molloy argues that there was more to it than simply lazy cynicism or try-hard edginess. ‘It's in video games too, things like Speedball. There’s almost an anti-cynicism born of taking cynicism to its natural conclusion. They're often super bleak, but they’re not designed to go, “Wake up you idiots, the world is shit!” It's more like, “This is shit, isn't it? Fuck it, let’s try and push back against that”. For me it’s about removing the power from the darkness, rather than that other type of cynicism, which is about removing the power from you.’


“FOR ME IT’S ABOUT REMOVING THE POWER FROM THE DARKNESS, RATHER THAN THAT OTHER TYPE OF CYNICISM, WHICH IS ABOUT REMOVING THE POWER FROM YOU”

Of course, Rebellion own 2000 AD as well as a vast treasury of vintage British comics. Adventure Presents is telling all new tales, but might we one day see adaptations of some of their bigger properties?


‘Yes, definitely. Just before I joined Rebellion we acquired The Treasury of British Comics - things like Misty and Battle. There’s more than just sci-fi in there. Some of the stuff that was marketed as girls comics, like Misty and Jinty, is just brilliant, full of the most effective horror stories. It’s great stuff.’


As for the 2000 AD titles, it's only a matter of time. Just as we were going to press, a reprint of much-loved 80s Dredd-verse game Block Mania was surprise released - and that's only the start. ‘I'm really happy with the licences that are already in place [such as Warlord Games' Judge Dredd miniatures game] so we don't want to mess with a good thing. But yes, at some point you'll see 2000 AD games from us - it would be mad of us not to do that.’


Adventure Presents - Tartarus Gate and the reissued Block Mania are both out now find out more at rebellionunplugged.com


This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 1

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