Mr Flibble Talks To... In Deep
Mr Flibble attempts to converse with Deep7's Todd and Samantha Downing, creators of the Red Dwarf roleplaying game.
14 March, 2003
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Despite temptation, Mr Flibble elected not to refer to the Downings as the two-headed gestalt entity known as 'Samtodd'. What made you want to do a RED DWARF roleplaying game? Were you fans in the first place?

Sam: Yes. Next question...

Todd: I'd seen some of the first two series on PBS back around 1990, and really thought it was cool and unique. In about 1993, I was managing a retail geek store - comics, games, sci-fi, etc. - and we stocked the videos.

Sam: Simultaneously, our housemate was a huge fan, and really got us into the whole thing. To the point where she and I were manning phones at the Seattle PBS station during pledge drives. She even shared a pint with Craig Charles at an Anglicon [a British entertainment convention] party and contracted his French flu, which she kindly shared with us.

Todd: That's right. We've shared microbes with Craig Charles. It was during my time at the store when I thought that Red Dwarf would make a really fun and different setting for roleplaying. Ten years later, here we are.

Have you found it a rich universe to plunder? After all, it's not Star Wars - no aliens for a start!

Todd: Who needs aliens when you have genetically engineered foodstuffs and intelligent appliances?

Sam: And the pets! With all the different dimensional possibilities, any animal can potentially evolve into some of the most interesting people you could ever play.

Todd: What's nice about having all exotic life being a by-product of man's reckless experimentation is that it gives a familiar basis for all the craziness. It takes things away from the strange and frequently unapproachable aspects of traditional sci-fi and couches it in simpler terms. The fact that a can of aerosol cheese, properly irradiated, could be stalking you for its dinner is hilarious.

Mr Flibble would like to remind readers that Red Dwarf also features penguin glove puppets. Andrew, ever-confused, asked about the RPG FORMAT - no board, no money...

Todd: No time limit, no winners or losers, no start or finish line. How the heck does something like this even qualify as a game, anyway? Ah, grasshopper. You must unlearn what you have learned. The roots of the modern RPG go back to H.G. Wells and his published rules for miniature soldier battles. Of course, tactical wargames go back centuries, but Wells arguably wrote the first modern rule-set for the hobby.

In the 1960s, some ingenious folks combined the resource management of tactical miniatures games and ancient interactive storytelling techniques, and the modern roleplaying game was here. In fact, the typical RPG today doesn't even require miniatures on the table. The basics are pretty simple. A moderator of some sort - in the case of Red Dwarf, that's the 'AI' - sets the scene, establishes the mood and relays the story. Each player takes part in the story by relating the actions and dialogue of his character. Sometimes dice are rolled to arrive at a resolution. It's total improv., and a lot of fun.

Sam: Still with us?

Todd: There will be a quiz later.

Sam: It's especially great as a social interaction exercise. So many of our pastimes these days are plug-in, zone out.

Todd: Definitely not as passive as videogames or watching the telly. You actually interact with real human beings... assuming your mates are real human beings. It's a workout for your imagination. Dysfunctional group therapy.

The core of Red Dwarf is the HUMOUR and the characters. How have you been able to transfer those to the game?

Sam: The humour was the easy part. There's a wealth of established formulae in the existing eight series of Dwarf, and we got some really great writers on the project.

Todd: Thanks!

Sam: I didn't mean you.

Todd: On the whole, the everyday humour will come from the individual character interactions. That said, there are a bunch of game mechanics that evoke the Dwarf setting. The 'wound levels' run from 'A Bit Wonky' to 'Smoldering Hole'. There is an armour value given for week-old vindaloo. There is a Scenario Generator for the AI to use, which includes things like Potato People and Inflatable Fruit as story catalysts. All we've done is take elements of the show and codified them for use in play.

I suspect the game book is more gag-packed than the usual Deep7 fare...

Sam: It depends on the game, really. It's certainly a far cry from Arrowflight, our epic fantasy game.

Todd: Red Dwarf is definitely the most jam-packed with gags and references so far, but we did have a bit of practice with a couple other products. Shriek - The Game of Teen Horror is funny in its own way by mimicking the clichés of slasher movies, and Santa's Soldiers has people playing paramilitary Christmas elves with enormous guns. So we're no strangers to the comedy thang.

How have you approached THE LOOK of the book - and has that approach differed from previous jobs? (Mr Flibble suggested a number of images - unsurprisingly all from his episode, Quarantine. But nobody was listening.)

Todd: We certainly made more use of photos in this game. At the same time, since a portion of the book is in full colour, we were able to get one of our favourite artists, Steve Hartley, to do some lovely original character illustrations for the various types one can play. I also put together a few immersive advertisements for the Space Corps, JMC, Diva-Droid and Ouroboros Batteries, just to evoke a flavour for the setting. That kind of thing isn't so common nowadays.

Sam: The whole interior is two-colour [black and red], with several full-colour pages, whereas the majority of our other games have black and white guts. We wanted this to be an attractive addition to a Dwarf fan's bookshelf. The presentation is generally cleaner than we're used to, more stripped-down, as I thought it was important for the graphics not to overwhelm the text, which has to be easy to read.

Todd: We also chose the rather daunting task of creating a schematic for the JMC Starbug. Our eyes bled from watching those Starbug episodes over and over... then we compared them with a Grant Naylor set floorplan and handed the project to Joolz De Puma, a crack 3D artist I'd worked with in the videogame biz. It's not going to match the Starbug in the show completely, but then that little ship has had amazingly elastic walls!

What kind of PLAYTESTING has the game undergone?

Sam: We had a multinational playtest that ran for about three months. Groups from Brazil, Germany, Belgium and of course the UK and US.

Todd: There was one group that had a wax droid of Niles Crane (from Frasier), and another that had to somehow escape a planet of wax attractions dominated by Blackbeard and a spacefaring pirate ship. There was still another group with an evolved iguana, a human, a hologram and a wax droid of Ozzy Osbourne - that wins the prize for most original use of a wax droid character. I believe they had a rather testy vending machine that would regularly pelt the crewmembers with cans of soda pop. They may also have been the ones who were being chased by an evil evolved rabbit. Vicious, those rabbits.

Sam: With the lovely pack-it-in, pack-it-out philosophy of the setting, you are exceptionally unrestrained in the kinds of characters you can play. You can make a human, hologram, simulant, pleasure GELF, Kinitawowi, Series 4000 mechanoid, Hudzen 10 mechanoid, wax droid, cat, dog, and even a non-canon pet like a rabbit, rat, mouse, or iguana...

Todd: And even a skutter or intelligent appliance...

Sam: Without altering the canon setting one bit, because it's all explained via infinite dimensions, like a lot of threads in the show.

Speaking of which, how have Grant Naylor reacted to someone else playing around with their universe?

Todd: As with any new product, there's always a sort of 'educational' phase where we push the boundaries and find out what can be developed and what can't. Once the powers that be were assured that, although the game is officially licensed, none of our work would alter Rob and Doug's universe, they were very gracious in letting us run off in all directions with certain things.

Sam: We've really been given unprecedented freedom on this project, and are incredibly grateful for the support the Grant Naylor folks have given us.

Todd: Except that right bastard Andr-

Sam punched Todd in the ribs. Mr Flibble was nodding in agreement, so Andrew punched him in the ribs. Currently the game is launching in the US and Canada only. Would you like to see it go worldwide?

Sam: It's kind of a 'wait and see' thing, but we hope to show a good track record of sales in North America in the next couple months.

Todd: It'd be a shame if it never reached the UK, considering the origin of the show.

The book is only the start, isn't it? What supplemental releases have you got planned for THE FUTURE?

Todd: First up is the A.I. Screen.

Sam: It's a tri-fold cardstock game screen with all sorts of handy info for the AI running the game.

Todd: And it comes with a booklet of extra bits, oddly enough called the Extra Bits Book. Like more character types, more personalities from the show, some new vehicles and hardware, new adventure seeds for the Scenario Generator, and a profile of the world Ace Rimmer encountered at the beginning of Stoke Me a Clipper...

Sam: And don't forget the Very Important Item Generator and the Creature Design Toolkit!

Todd: Arguably the most important, right there. We are also planning a Series Sourcebook, which we're aiming to release in November 2003.

Sam: That will specifically profile all eight series, the people, gadgets and creatures, in a playable synopsis format.

Todd: In theory, you could play through the entire fifty-two episodes - but with your own unique crew.

Sam: We'd like to produce an A.R. Suite book with resources for playing various scenarios within an Artificial Reality game - a game within a game? We'll just have to see how sales go with the main book and A.I. Screen.

Have you deliberately held some ideas back for the supplements?

Todd: Not really. Some of the material might be shuffled here and there - the inclusion of Petersen, Chen and Selby in the A.I. Screen for example - but each supplement is about building on what has already gone out.

Sam: As roleplaying lines go, we never pictured Red Dwarf being crammed full of supplements. It shouldn't be daunting for someone to get into.

Todd: The game is mostly about creativity and getting new and original adventures for the crew. That's why we designed it to be an introduction to the hobby, targeting Red Dwarf fans over the more entrenched RPG community...

Sam: But knowing there'd be a healthy crossover nonetheless.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Todd and Samantha Downing, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.