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Meeting The Corporate Mastermind: An Interview With James Norbury
Posted By Phil Vecchione On April 10, 2009 @ 4:00 am In Spotlight | 2 Comments
Yesterday, I gave a review of the Corporation RPG, and today, we I present an interview with Corporations lead designer, James Norbury. I Recently got a chance to ask James some questions about Corporation, as well as GMing, in general.
James, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your RPG background.
I’m James Norbury. I live with my fiancée Ruth and my herd of animals in Swansea, a large industrial city in the UK where I work full time developing the RPG Corporation. I have previously worked as a professional artist, boarding kennel owner, web developer and salesman although I always wanted to work as a ranger in Costa Rica. To this end I completed a degree in zoology which provided me with a strong grounding in biology – this aided considerably in the development of the game.
I began playing RPGs in 1994 and started developing a number of my own systems almost immediately! Around 1999 I decided that the world of Corporation, in particular, had potentially endless scope for expansion and detail and so decided to pursue it in a more serious way. I’ve been working full time on it since 2005.
What are the games that you played when you started playing RPGs?
I originally played D&D and some White Wolf games, mainly Vampire, Werewolf and Mage. I liked D&D best overall, it was just good fun and had such an enormous scope I could never get bored.
Traditional Cyberpunk RPG’s have a mechanic for limiting the amount of cyberware a character can have, most typically represented by a Humanity system. Corporation takes the opposite approach, saying that there is no danger in cyberware, and has only some soft limitations on excessive cyberware. Was this concept a reaction to the games in the past?
Yes, to some degree it was. Originally Corporation did have a humanity system and I felt it just got in the way. I don’t think humanity is something that can be given a number. I also don’t like being told how to play my characters. If I want to play a seven-foot cybernetic war machine with a soft spot for the poor and downtrodden, then I don’t want the system to tell me I have to be a rampaging monster.
Corporation assumes that the player can role-play his descent towards unfeeling machine fury, if that’s where he feels his character is going. Besides, many of the real people around us today have replacement hearts, bones, teeth and hands. I don’t see these individuals developing thousand-yard stares and muttering dark threats under their breath!
One of the features that I thought was very unique in the game was the License system. It allows for some interesting perks, as well as some power limitations. What was the design intention for this mechanic?
The license system was designed with three main objectives.
1. It allows the players a new form of reward in addition to the traditional equipment and experience. If you perform well you can buy or be given a free license and if you fail badly, one may be taken away.
2. It binds the player into the fabric of society. Licenses allow you to merge into the world of Corporation by making the law, which is frequently an enemy in RPGs, into an ally. There is no oppressive regime which you must fight against because you ARE the oppressive regime. By wielding the law as a weapon you can choose to use it responsibly and help the citizens of Earth, or you can abuse it in order to complete your missions more easily and build your personal power base.
3. It allows for alternative solutions to problems. Instead of kicking the doors in and gunning down the hostiles, you can use a Domestic Search License to override the electronic lock on their front door and then place them under arrest for possession of an unlicensed TV. Sure, it may degenerate into a fight anyway but a cunning player can use his array of licenses just as effectively as his arsenal of weapons.
Is the world of Corporation a full defined world that GM’s just run with, or is it a framework that leaves things open for the GM to create their own version of the Corporation world?
It’s very much a framework. Although many locations are detailed in the Core rules and in the supplements, the intention is to give you a feel for the world and then encourage you to design your own cities, slums, installations, labs and environments. I think a big part of gaming is to wander through the GM’s imagination and battle the manifestations of his corrupted mind.
The combat system seems for a lack of a better word, brutal when it comes to the array of weapons and the range of damages, and a rule section for Limb severing. Is that an accurate description?
Yes, brutal is the key word here. If Agents did not possess their arsenal of cybernetic upgrades combat would be over in seconds and everyone would be dying in pools of their own blood staring at the stumps where their limbs used to be. The overriding principles of the combat system are:
1. It must always be simple
2. You should be able to do anything you’ve seen in a film.
When you present players with these options one of the first things they want to do is decapitate their opponents or cut off their sword arm. To this end we needed to develop a quick and simple way to accommodate these instincts. The Brutal Engine does what it says and the fact that all experienced divisions carry the limb-reattachment technology as standard should hint at the kind of fights you’re likely to encounter.
That said, it’s not all about melee. Our policy on weapon development is that no two weapons should do fundamentally the same thing. We have blade launchers, flame throwers, rail guns, shrapnel cannons, laser rifles, plasma SMGs and so on. Each has a simple but unique effect with the end result that most players tend to favor a particular combat style because of the in-game effects. With the release of Machines of War, we have tried to add at least one Advanced Weapons Training for each weapon in the game so that you can use your favorite form of destruction in a new and interesting manner.
Brutal Games published the first version of Corporation on its own, and for the second version, you teamed up with Mongoose. What was the reasoning behind it, how did that occur, and what are the benefits of the venture?
Well, Mongoose has great sales and marketing resources that it’s really brought to bear on the project. Although the response to the first print run of the book was really enthusiastic, I am primarily a writer and don’t have the skills to put the game where it needs to be. Mongoose has those skills in spades which means not only is Corporation getting out there, my fellow developers and I can focus 100% on creating new books and leave the business side to the experts. Everyone wins and it’s working really well!
Name three RPG’s that you found were most influential on you as a GM and Player, and why.
It would have to be standard D&D for the first choice. I just find it so much fun. I’ve never been a huge fan of the system they use but it gets the job done, allowing players to just miss out the bits they don’t like and get on with the hard work of dungeoneering, saving villagers and fulfilling destinies! You’ll find a fair few parallels in Corporation beyond the obvious RPG links. Even to the point that Corporation has a heavy focus on ‘installations’, which are effectively just dungeons of the future.
Second would be Vampire the Masquerade, whose dark, urban themes can be found running through parts of the Corporation world. Vampires have that ‘we walk amongst you but we are not you’ thing going on which I really like. Agents have a lot of similarities to vampires.
And third, if it’s not cheating, is Planescape, a setting for D&D which takes you across the multiverse. I really enjoy travelling to other worlds and then coming back to familiar territory. That theme is evident in Corporation where, although you may spend most of your time on Earth, occasionally you might be assigned to some misbegotten mining ship where you get terrorized by nightmarish entities. I think the option to go well out of the standard game world now and again is a really useful tool for a GM who wants to mix things up a bit.
Oddly enough Corporation has had virtually no influence from SLA Industries, Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020, as I was only introduced to those games relatively late in my RPG life. I guess there are some similarities in setting, but I think that’s unavoidable when working in the same genre.
As a preference do you prefer game systems with more defined rules with less interpretation, or looser rules that give the GM leeway to make rulings.
Less defined is better. White Wolf’s golden rule of ‘there are no rules’ is a good one. Any rules should be scrapped if you don’t like them. Everyone has a different play style and if you adhere rigidly to the rules you may end up not liking the game as it will conflict with your idea of realism or fun. I would say that you should have a good think before killing a rule though; it may be there for a very good reason.
What kind of GM are you? Storyteller, Adversary, Killer, etc.
Storyteller I guess. I discourage the use of accurate maps, tile-sets and figures as I think it detracts from the mental images the GM is trying to create. I’m not out to kill anyone although I don’t want them to feel immortal so I include plenty of challenges. Beating my players does not really appeal to me.
Many game designers say that they have little time to run a game because they are working on creating games. Are your running a Corporation Game or any other games right now?
Yes, I run a game of Corporation every week. We had a cracking game last night in fact and tested some new equipment out. I am also running a game of D&D using the new 4th edition rules. We’ve not given them a good run yet so I’m interested to see what they’ve done. I believe playing is a must; it leads to so many good ideas whilst at the same time pointing out potential flaws.
The great Gnome Martin Ralya created something called the GM’s Naughty List , a list of things as a GM that you could improve upon. What would you put on your naughty list?
I think I can be soft on players sometimes. I think that if they die they’ll get angry at me and so I sometimes engineer the situation so they don’t end up dead when they should.
I can be lazy when planning combat. I don’t give the bad guys all the stuff they should really have and sometimes don’t even stat them. I just make up what I figure is suitable at the time. To get round this I like to use pre-gen NPCs from books and just tweak them but it’s not always the same as making them up yourself from scratch.
And I guess everyone does this one but I use player’s ideas against them. When I’ve devised an evil plot and the player’s are trying to figure out what’s happening they sometimes come up with ideas which are much better than mine. I have been known to steal their idea and alter my plot accordingly! Still, I think this makes for a better game overall so I’m not sure if this is a flaw or not.
What products are coming up for Corporation?
The Eastern Bank is due for release in April. This book describes an area in Eastern Asia where three corporations are working dangerously close to each other. At any moment a tiny spark could ignite a full scale war and so the UIG (United International Government) has brought the region under a form of martial law. For Agents operating in this area life is pretty grim and if you get caught breaking the law you could end up executed on the spot.
We are also releasing Machines of War in June, which is essentially a massive equipment guide. It also contains information for playing tech-orientated minor corporations and presents a wealth of background information about technology in the Corporation world.
We also have another book scheduled for release in the Fall / Winter but we’re not saying too much about that yet.
I want to thank James for his time and the best of luck on Corporation and the upcoming supplements. For more information about the game, including fan submitted material, can be found on the Brutal Games’ website. Corporation is available in Hardcover from the Mongoose website, and in PDF from DriveThruRPG.com.
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