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New Kid on the Block:
When we think of roleplaying comics, we naturally think of two names: Jolly Blackburn of the legendary Knights of the Dinner Table and John Kovalic of the wonderful Dork Tower, The Unspeakable Oaf, and Murphy's Rules. But we here at PTGPTB have recently discovered a new kid on the block: Scott Kurtz.
On the surface, Kurtz's comic, PvP (short for Player vs Player), appears to be solely devoted to computer gaming. The characters work for a computer gaming magazine, and most of the jokes stem from computer game releases and the habits of the geeks addicted to them. But there's an important difference with PvP, and that is that the games which most feature in the strip - such as Everquest, Diablo 2 and the new Vampire:The Masquerade:Redemption - all have strong roleplaying elements and ties to the roleplaying industry. As a result, Kurtz has created a true cross-over product here, with jokes, habits and characters that ring true to CRPGer and roleplayer alike, and indeed, remind us how close the two hobbies really are.
After a little research, this crossover comes as little surprise. Kurtz is an avid fan of table-top roleplaying, and has devoted part of his comic website to advocating his other favourite hobby. And while sifting through the archives, we soon discover that on occasion, his characters put away their computers and play RPGs for real. The end results are strips with a poignancy and familiarity the equal of that in Knights or Dork Tower, and full of a similar quota of hilarious, culture-resonating lines.
In fact, the first strip - and the slogan it contains - which was singled out to represent PvP on the shirts and mousepads for sale on the site was a roleplaying joke. Thus it is perhaps only a matter of time before Skull the Dwarf's quotes are equally well known in RPG culture as those of the great El Ravager. So we decided it was time to chat with the up and coming star.
Scott, thanks for your time.
No problem at all.
First off, I wonder how you react to an introduction like that? How does it feel to be crossing over into roleplaying culture, and to be compared to the big guns of the hobby? Is entering a niche hobby with precious few humorists - and thus a tendency to strongly elevate those few we do have - a little daunting?
It was really great to see myself lumped into the same company as Jolly and John. Specifically, because I'm looking to start reprinting PvP in comic book form and I've been using the success of Knights and Dork Tower as encouragement to take that step. Hopefully, PvP will be as well received by comic book readers as it is online. To be honest, I'm very new to both titles. I just got back from the comic book shop last week with a stack of KODT and DT. I think both are really hilarious. So no, not daunting, if anything - encouraging.
So what originally prompted taking your humour more into
the roleplaying world?
I guess it was inevitable. I played a lot when I was younger and it was sure to come up at some point in the life of the strip. But what prompted that initial week of strips was the fact that word had just been released about Neverwinter Nights: an upcoming computer game which will essentially let you run campaigns online. At the time, it was going to be over a year before we could touch NWN and so we just all sat there, talking about how GREAT it was going to be. This spurred talks about us starting up a tabletop campaign to tide us over and art imitated life.
Roleplaying, and the "geek" industry in
general is one that breeds obsession and worship. Is there a lot of
pressure writing to such a market, compared to just the general
public? Or is having such a fanatic core audience a
Not really, because I consider my audience to be the "general public." I'm writing to people my age, with lives similar to mine. We have jobs and families, kids starting school and bills to pay. We're the kids who played Yar's Revenge on the Atari 2600, Dungeons and Dragons out of the blue and red boxes and watched Speed Racer on Saturday morning. If any pressure exists, it's that I'm out of touch with my younger audience (13-18 year olds) but so far, I don't seem to be letting them down. Some of these kids are 15 years younger than me and have never seen an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man.
Shocking, isn't it? It does seem that your strips aren't purely aimed at a niche audience; and in fact are usually able to appeal to people who know very little about computer games. Is this an important goal of your writing?
It's a very important goal. Just like any group of friends, we have our own catchphrases and inside jokes, but I want the strip to be inviting to newcomers. The writing needs to encourage them to stay, become a part of the group and then we can let them in on the inside jokes. When I was growing up I used to show my mother the strips I was working on. She would look at it and tell me how wonderful I was. I would ask "Do you get it?" and she would always say "No. But I can just tell it's funny." That's exactly what I want PvP to be.
Geeks are still your core market, though. Is there ever any worries caused by the often extremely opinionated nature of the geek subculture? Is there ever any fear that should you, say, criticise the X-Men movie, you might lose half your audience through indignation?
Never .The only thing geeks love more than watching a movie like X-men is sitting around talking about it afterwards. Should my opinion differ from theirs, it's only going to lead to a forum thread with over 300 posts where we discuss the matter. The only way I could alienate my readers is if I didn't provide a forum for such discussions.
There is no denying that the strip does have the power to communicate to a lot of people. Have any game companies expressed any concerns yet over how you represent them or their products?
No, just the opposite is happening. I have game companies coming to me and asking me to represent them and their products.
Has this ever caused any conflict of intersts?
So long as I like the game, no. Activision approached me and wanted me to promote Vampire. I asked for some copies to give away as prizes and since I wanted to do a week on Vampire anyway, I made sure the week of strips happened during the start of the contest. It was a lot of fun, and the readers appreciated the chance to win the game.
Some of the material on your site is aimed at getting computer games to crossover into roleplaying themselves. Is this important to you? Do you think your strip will have a big effect in this regard?
I think the two crosspolenate naturally. Game designers are game designers. Whether you keep track of your game mechanics on paper with numbers and illustrations, or on the computer with code and 3D graphics, the good games still need a solid design. I think that it's easier for tabletop gamers to be exposed to computer games. Computers are so immediate. Hell, you don't even need to read the manual to start playing them.
The difficult part is getting computer gamers (especially the younger ones) to turn away from the computers and give tabletop gaming a try. I was at a comic shop yesterday and I saw two kids feverently playing the Major League Baseball card game from Wizards of the coast. I got misty because It reminded me of home, and my old friends and playing RPGs with my buddy Rob. I'll never feel that looking at some kid sitting in front of a monitor.
Many hard-core roleplayers see CRPG as a less worthy activity, or at the very least, a vastly different experience and one they know little about. Presumably there are also computer gamers out there who reciprocate these attitudes. Are you worried that by going so deeply into roleplaying humour as you have recently, you will alienate your core (and more mainstream) audience, who simply will not get the jokes?
CRPGs seem vastly limited when held up against the human imagination. The two experiences are different and comparing them probably isn't fair. It's like comparing reading a book to watch a sitcom. I enjoy both, but they just aren't similar experiences. CRPGs will never replace tabletop gaming, just like TV will never replace books.
Right now, comptuer gaming is a larger and more mainstream hobby, but that doesn't make it more legitimate. Television is a much more mainstream an activity than reading classic literature, but we would never assume it was more enriching. I don't think I could alienate my audience by leading them to a more enriching experience. That way they can experience both.
Balance, young Skywalker. Balance.
As you clearly enjoy them both, what's your opinion on the differences between RPGs and CRPGs? What unifying factors draws you to both hobbies?
I like computer games better when the avatar that represent me is very customizable and unique. I want my characters in comptuer games to be like my AD&D chararacters, which is asking a lot of the game designers. Games like UO and Everquest come close since they place us in an online community where the way we play our character helps make up for the fact that we're all running around with the same 6 faces and body types. As technology improves, and we're able to make our online personas more and more unique, I think we'll see more people enjoying CRPGs.
One reason that table-top roleplayers have little time for their computer counterparts is due to the question of being replaced by technology. CRPGs are constantly trying to emulate the table-top form and boasting of the roleplaying opportunities they offer, while many "true" roleplayers contend that a computer can never compare to the table top and that as such, computer games even using the term roleplaying is an insult. Where do you stand on this issue? What makes a roleplaying game, and could computers one day completely replace the table-top experience?
CRPG's won't replace tabletop gaming until we have technology equal to that represented in the fiction of Star Trek. When we get holodecks, we'll talk. Nothing I write in text can compare to what I can say to you in person. So we have a while to go before technology replaces tabletop gaming.
I can write something in text that can be taken 15 different ways. I could type "I'm really enjoying this interview." And you won't be able to gleen anything from my tone. Am I being sincere, sarcastic, confrontational? How can you tell? Text sucks ass, plain and simple.
To make up for it, the CRPGs offer you a vast "perisistent world" where you don't sit with 6 people, but 6,000. There is no DM, just the automated game mechanics that govern the online universe. You are essentially one of 6,000 DMs who all effect the world that you're in. The problem with that is obvious: half want things white and the other want things black. Pretty soon people start longing for an experience that best suits their style of playing.
So computer games have a long way to go before they can replace tableop counterparts. Roleplaying online via text is a watered down version of roleplaying in person to be sure.
So which came first for you - computer gaming or roleplaying? How did you discover the hobby in general?
I played D&D with my father when I was a boy. He brought home the red and blue boxes and we played those a lot. Then my friends started learning AD&D and I played that later on. But the basic edition came first. The first comptuer RPG I played was Ultima 3: Exodus.
That's one great father you have. OK, tough question time: if you had to choose one or the other, which would it be? Computer games or roleplaying?
Gah! I have to choose one? I guess, I'm going to have to choose tabletop playing for fear of losing my imagination. The skills you develop playing tabletop games are far more applicable to your everyday life than those you develop playing computer games. I would rather know social skills and math than have killer hand-eye coordination. But you're killing me by making me choose.
Probably the most significant roleplaying strip you've produced so far - and certainly the gutsiest - was your satire of Jack Chick's "Dark Dungeons", which is quite brutal in its satire of Chick and the fundamentalism he represents. Was it a difficult strip to write? Were you worried about the reaction it would receive?
Terribly worried. It was a dangerous thing to do. I just quit a day job at a Christian Radio station that I had for a year and a half and I'm so tired of the people that represent Christianity that I could just scream. I don't know how these people make it from home to the bagel shop without justifying the trip with a scripture. It's baffling and frustrating and counterproductive. Jack Chick is just a hyper reality version of that frustration. His work is already parody enough of that fundamentalist crap. So using that as a venue was too delicious to pass up.
The Dark Dungeons was clearly a landmark strip, indicating a strong move into niche roleplaying humour. So will we see a lot more of the PvP team roleplaying now, and more RPG references, or was this only a temporary thing?
It's sure to come back up again. I would like to do strips where they get into Magic: The Gathering as well. CCGs are really great. I would love to do some Warhammer strips. It's all eventually going to get into the strip, but the subject matter won't ever get too lopsided. I like to keep the strip pretty balanced.
So, any plans to address the roleplaying market further? Will we see more RPG-themed PvP T-shirts, and are we likely to see you selling these at next year's GenCon? Will there ever be a PvP game of any sort?
The only reason there an RPG themed tee is because reaction to that strip was so overwhelming. So if we get another similar response to an RPG strip I'll provide it on a tee for my readers. I would love to got to GenCon, I've never been. I'm working right now to find someone to help me make a PvP card game too.
What did you think when a roleplaying strip proved so popular? Did it change how you thought about the strip or your audience?
I wasn't surprised. A lot of people still play and a lot of people played when they were younger and it brought back good memories.
While you cover a lot of different computer games, so far the team have only played D&D. Any plans for them to try other games or genres? Will we ever see our heroes living out sci-fi fantasies?
I've never played those sort of games (unless you count Top Secret and Star Frontiers) so it would be difficult for me to get a good perspective on that. I think it'll mostly be D&D references.
So are the games in PvP based on your own personal experiences or those of players you've known? What sort of RPGs do you play now, or did you play then?
My material comes from both my own experiences and from those of my friends. I have a confession to make: I'm very new to true roleplaying. When I was a kid, we didn't really play the way you were supposed to. I never played in college and so the campaign I'm in now is really the first real campagin I've been in. I certainly don't have the Players Handbook or DM guide memorized.
In closing, do you have any final words about roleplaying, computer gaming, or cartooning? Do you in fact have the best job on earth?
Computer games are great, and I love 'em, but nothing beats a group of friends around a dinner table, even if they don't throw any dice. And yes, I do have the best job on earth, hands down.
Nicely put. Scott, thanks again.
Thank you, it was a lot of fun.
If you haven't already, be sure to check out PvP at www.pvponline.com.
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