Downcrawl: Interview with Aaron A Reed

If you haven’t heard of Aaron A Reed, he’s about to become a big deal in the RPG industry. Aaron just won one of the Judges’ Spotlight Awards at the 2019 ENnies for his sci-fi book, Archives of the Sky.

Well, Aaron has a brand new book out, called Downcrawl. I was attracted to Downcrawl because of its procedural generation elements, which are very much in keeping with the B.Y.O. Dungeon mission. Aaron was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.

BYOD: Can you please give us your elevator pitch for Downcrawl?

AAR: Downcrawl is a lightweight system for adding randomly generated, exploration-based adventures in a weird, endless underworld to your fantasy roleplaying campaign. It has systems for dangerous journeys, addictive fungi, rumor-based mapping, and generators for special places, creatures, and story-based encounters along the way. 

BYOD: What was your design goal when writing Downcrawl?

AAR: After playing a ton of experimental one-shot indie games while working on my previous title “Archives of the Sky,” I wanted to run something more traditional and longform again, so I pitched my players a D&D campaign set in the Underdark. But I had designs on doing something different. I wanted to hack something together that combined the “play to find out” spontaneity of Dungeon World, the procedure-heavy generative systems of The Perilous Wilds, and the strange ingenious worldbuilding I’d loved from zines like Wormskin and The Undercroft as well as the incredible Veins of the Earth. I was also inspired by the fantastic art of Zdzisław Beksiński (Google him if you want your mind blown) and wanted to take my players on a truly weird journey to a forgotten underworld realm. 
All of this kind of came together in a homebrew hexcrawl system that leaned heavily on randomized elements, but with a focus less on combat, treasure and leveling up, and more on creating weird creatures, places, and situations for the players to react to. I felt like with some playtesting and polish it could be a nice little standalone volume. 

BYOD: What does Downcrawl offer that you can’t get anywhere else?

AAR: Something I really miss from old-school roleplaying is mapping! I wanted a system where players made maps, but I also didn’t want that to get bogged down in the minutia of exact dimensions and measurements. As it turns out, the problem of mapping a three-dimensional underground space pushes you away from direct representational maps anyway: so what emerged is a player-created map at a higher level, of interesting locations and the routes between them. Players ask the GM questions about the map and the answers are semi-randomized: there’s actually no secret GM map at all, so the players are literally creating the world by asking questions about it, which feels very fun and cool in practice. There’s also an abstract resource called Tack that players collect and spend to successfully make journeys, and lots of interesting decisions about when to spend it (such as to increase your chances of succeeding at navigation rolls) versus when to hoard it for important big moments (like arriving at the right place in the end!)

BYOD: Does Downcrawl integrate with your previous release, Archives of the Sky?

AAR:They’re actually very different! “Archives” is a diceless, GMless system set in an epic far future among the stars, and a standalone game, while “Downcrawl” is a supplement for a traditional fantasy roleplaying campaign, set underground. They do have a commonality though in that both games are ways of exploring my ideas around helping players and gamemasters bring spontaneous creativity to the table to create better stories.

BYOD: What’s next?

AAR: I’ve mostly done digital narrative games in the past, but lately been exploring other kinds of interactive storytelling. My next project is actually going to be something different again: a horror novel that changes each time someone reads it. This leverages some of my game design procedural text skills, but the project itself isn’t a game: you’ll buy it like a regular printed book, but it’s from a print-on-demand service and in the background the act of buying it will trigger generation of a new version of the book on the server.
I also have an idea kicking around for a roleplaying game about magical librarians with a bunch of minigames you play with real books you bring to the table. We’ll see which one of these projects comes out first!

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