<+MikeMartens> Well, I’m Mike Martens … I’m the writer/designer/creator of Sunken, which is currently in its funding campaign on Kickstarter. It’s a game of nautical horror, taking the one-shot-of-doom structure of Jesse Ross’s Trophy and steering it toward a gothic sea setting. Sea monsters and wooden ships and haunting saints and all that type of
<+MikeMartens> thing. I’m fairly new to the RPG scene as a whole … started my design aspirations hacking Dungeon World, but that’s grown into bigger things, including this zine and a fully homegrown game called Steel Weeds that’s a reimagining of the Western / Weird West genres.
<+MikeMartens> (Link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mikemartens/sunken)https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mikemartens/sunken
<+MikeMartens> Professionally, I’m a brand and UX copywriter, and have done some design and photography work as well. That’s transferred into this discipline pretty nicely.
<+MikeMartens> And, some random tidbits … I lived in the Midwest most of my life (Chicago and Milwaukee), but moved out to Los Angeles a few years ago, and am generally enjoying the surprisingly laid-back vibe of its east side.
<+MikeMartens> I’ll leave it at that so that we have things to talk about in depth. 😀
<~Dan> Thanks, MikeMartens! The floor is open to questions!
<~Dan> So this is your first RPG for publication?
<+MikeMartens> Yes. I self-published a playbook for Dungeon World, but very quickly found myself wanting to tackle bigger things.
<~Dan> What drew you to making such a niche product?
<+MikeMartens> And I wrote an incursion for Trophy that’s published in Codex Void, called “That Silent Howl”
<+DLB_Chuck> I’m not familiar with Trophy. Can you tell me a little about how the mechanics and characters work?
<~Dan> (Howdy, Lee!)
<+MikeMartens> Oh man, good question … I’ve always gravitated toward niche stuff. (I was a puppeteer for a stint in high school, was super into underground comics and non-fiction zines.) I have a mix of Bohemian and German backgrounds, and feel like I’m always balancing the very free-spirited creative side with my analytical strategic side. So, when I started
<+MikeMartens> seeing what folks were doing in the RPG space, it felt intensely comfortable in the way it sits in that balance.
<~Dan> (I’ll hold questions to give you time to answer DLB_Chuck’s question first.)
<+MikeMartens> On Trophy: It’s a dark fantasy game set in a magical forest (and the bad kind of magical forest). It’s mechanical setup works similar to a lot of light OSR games (with tagged skills and such), but it’s hook is that it was originally was built fairly specifically for one shots. And the game essentially promises that your characters will die by the
<+MikeMartens> end of the session. As you tackle tasks, you can add to your standard skill dice pool with a pool of dark dice representing the powers of the forest … If a dark die rolls high, you take on ruin … some kind of twisted condition and a step in your progression toward absolute ruin.
<+MikeMartens> The only way to work down that ruin level is to screw over the other characters on this adventure with you.
<+MikeMartens> Subtly steal the things they’re after and such.
<+MikeMartens> Each incursion is broken into 5 acts, and all incursions follow the same structure. It’s modeled after the structure of horror. Escalating the danger and types of trauma being experienced.
<+MikeMartens> That’s my impromptu explanation of Jesse’s game. 😀 It’s remarkably easy to pick up, quite dramatic, and works about as well as an actual one-shot system as I’ve run across.
<~Dan> So I assume Sunken is for one-shots as well?
<+MikeMartens> Yup. It picks up that same 5-act structure (with some modifications to flow a little better with the more isolated style of adventure).
<+MikeMartens> I love how evocative its incursions feel, despite how short they are from a time perspective.
<+MikeMartens> So, I wanted to pull that over to Sunken.
<~Dan> How long does the average game last?
<+MikeMartens> About 2 hours plus an hour for each additional player beyond the first.
<+MikeMartens> So, if you have 3 characters … You’re looking at about 4 hours.
* ~Dan nods
<+MikeMartens> You can certainly run it longer if you want to sink in.
<~Dan> Pardon the pun?
<~Dan> Can you go into some more detail about the setting? What time period is it, for example?
<+MikeMartens> It’s set in the same world as Trophy, so that sort of classic fantasy period … potentially bumped up to an era of cannon and gunpowder. It doesn’t have a hard perspective of its setting in a larger world, so could potentially be played at whatever era of naval history you find most intriguing for the voyage.
<~Dan> What sorts of weirdness exist?
<+MikeMartens> Sunken itself is all set on a vast, cold, treacherous body of water called the Salt Sea.
<+MikeMartens> I’m going to transition right into that question, since I think the answer will give a better picture of the setting as well.
<~Dan> (Howdy, Nick_Zachariasen!)
<~Dan> (Mike, meet Nick_Zachariasen, author of METAL WORLD, the heavy metal RPG. Also meet DLB_Chuck, author of Don’t Look Back, the horror/conspiracy RPG. 🙂 )
<+Nick_Zachariasen> Hi, Mike and Chuck!
<+MikeMartens> The concept for Sunken essentially started with “what would Alien look like in a fantasy world”. So its signature weirdness are these xenomorph-like creatures, crafted with dark magic to mimic the biology of their prey. You discover them for the first (and last) time after raiding the flagship transport of a massive merchant navy called the East
<+MikeMartens> Passage Company.
<+MikeMartens> Acidic blood obviously creates difficult challenges on wooden sailing vessels.
<~Dan> I’d imagine so.
<+MikeMartens> The world is generally full of the terrors of nautical horror: merfolks, leviathans, cursed dead.
<+DLB_Chuck> Does it change appearance to seem like the prey? Like the Thing?
<+DLB_Chuck> The xenomorphs
<+MikeMartens> They’re not full-out shapeshifters and are bred for a specific type of prey. A kind of genocidal killing machine. If you wanted to get rid of, say, dogs in a city … you’d breed a line with dogs. They’re always these inky black twisted things dripping with silvery bile, but they look a bit like whatever they’re meant to hunt if you squint your
<+MikeMartens> eyes, I suppose.
<~Dan> Who created them, and why?
<+MikeMartens> Similar to the source inspiration, the game leaves that a mystery. There are strange objects and records you might find on your voyage that would hint at the origin of these things, but you’ll be dead before you can piece anything together.
<+MikeMartens> The game includes a lot of fragments of lore in the form that people in this world might share it, so there isn’t hard truth to be found.
<~Dan> I see… Does the game include a bestiary, and if so, how large?
<+MikeMartens> In a way! It’s a different take on a bestiary, in that there will be shanties and rumors to inspire game runners to craft voyages around their own concepts. The creatures are more tools of the themes of the game and the voyages. To fight any of the creatures you can encounter would lead instantly to your death … So the game ducks around a lot of
<+MikeMartens> the more data-driven aspects of a bestiary by demanding characters find ways to escape the beasts that are confronting them.
<~Dan> Hmm… How do you escape something like a sea serpent or a kraken? Where can you go?
<~Dan> Anything that threatens the whole ship you’re on, I mean.
<+MikeMartens> I think that’s the question. 🙂 And you’re playing incredibly selfish characters, so they are meant to expressly ask “how do *I* escape this terror?”.
<+MikeMartens> The game is also asking you to envision and play to your character’s doom.
<~Dan> So it’s always a TPK?
<+MikeMartens> Pretty much. Your character might be better off dead even if they do survive.
<+MikeMartens> It’s a hard one shot.
<+MikeMartens> That can set up a longer campaign with another system built for long-term play.
<~Dan> So essentially a different game?
<+MikeMartens> You are seeing the dire fate of these characters, but perhaps your group wants to explore what a less selfish, more powerful, or just plain wiser group would do when pursuing the same goal or the same territory.
<~Dan> Have you gone that route before?
<+MikeMartens> I’ve done it with Trophy and Cecil Howe’s “Do Not Let Us Die …”
<+MikeMartens> Because these games are so intense and dramatic, they linger very effectively.
<~Dan> What system did you switch to for the campaign?
<+MikeMartens> I used Dungeon World for both of those, but I could see anything where the setting/period matches up fairly cleanly working.
<+MikeMartens> Characters who DO survive make for haunting NPCs.
<~Dan> Do you have a character sheet that we can see?
<+MikeMartens> Let me show you a sheet for Trophy and the character options for “That Silent Howl”, which is the incursion Sunken is expanding into a full game.
<+MikeMartens> (Pulling this together, one sec.)
<~Dan> No problem!
<+MikeMartens> Uploaded file: (Link: https://uploads.kiwiirc.com/files/fdeeedb2a672bfc21415695b5ba28db2/Screen%20Shot%202020-02-11%20at%206.34.15%20PM.png)https://uploads.kiwiirc.com/files/fdeeedb2a672bfc21415695b5ba28db2/Screen%20Shot%202020-02-11%20at%206.34.15%20PM.png
<~Dan> Got it.
<~Dan> Can you describe what we’re looking at?
<+MikeMartens> Uploaded file: (Link: https://uploads.kiwiirc.com/files/e25df673e0861e86606eca7ced34b7b6/That%20Silent%20Howl%20-%20Character%20Creation.pdf)https://uploads.kiwiirc.com/files/e25df673e0861e86606eca7ced34b7b6/That%20Silent%20Howl%20-%20Character%20Creation.pdf
<+MikeMartens> Yeah, so the first file is essentially the character sheet for Trophy. (Sunken will be quite similar.) As you can see, it’s very lightweight.
* ~Dan nods
<+MikeMartens> The goal here is to make it VERY fast to pull together a character and get playing.
<+MikeMartens> You craft your character from these four aspects.
<+MikeMartens> Most of those choices provide you with a tag that determines what you’re mortally skilled at …
<+MikeMartens> When you take an action that utilizes that tag/skill, you add a die to your pool.
<+MikeMartens> As you can see, you’re going to be fairly limited and will have to think creatively often to even get one of these mortal based dice.
<~Dan> So if an action doesn’t fall within your character’s wheelhouse, you can’t attempt it?
<+MikeMartens> The second file was an early playtest prototype for “That Silent Howl” which ultimately has become Sunken. (I shared this version, because everything’s on one page.)
<+MikeMartens> You can attempt it, but you’ll need to rely on dark/ruin dice.
<+MikeMartens> In Sunken, our dark dice are called “The Deep” and are essentially you looking to the sea for the strength to overcome your predicament.
<~Dan> Can you describe task resolution?
<+MikeMartens> Sure. To speak specifically to Sunken, let me add that there’s a final die pool, called “The Heavens” … This is an inversion of Devil’s Bargains from Blades in the Dark and other Forged in the Dark games.
<+MikeMartens> If a task bears risk or is in the face of something horrific, you’ll determine your action … hopefully leveraging a skill or two from your character’s background/etc.
<+MikeMartens> This accumulates “The Flesh.”
<+MikeMartens> In Sunken, you’ll then determine the amount you roll of “The Deep”. Whatever your level of Fall is, you’ll have to roll the matching number of dice. You can also choose to roll more (up to 4 total) if you’d like, but that comes with risk that we’ll get to in a second.
<~Dan> What sort of dice do you use?
<+MikeMartens> D6, with a unique color for each pool.
<+MikeMartens> Finally, “The Heavens.” Fellow players or the GM can offer you an added effect or bonus, with the GM determining what’s allowable/rationale within the narrative. If you accept this, you can add this final die to your pool.
<+MikeMartens> Roll your accumulated dice.
<+MikeMartens> You want a 6 to succeed fully in the action.
<+MikeMartens> Similar to PbtA or FitD, a 4-5 delivers mixed results … a complication of some sort in addition to the success.
<+MikeMartens> And 3 or lower … Sorry, you fail.
<+MikeMartens> Now, the dice colors come into account.
<+MikeMartens> If The Flesh is high, you’re clear. If the Heavens is high, ditto.
<+MikeMartens> But if The Deep is high, your Fall will increase (in Trophy: Ruin) in addition to developing a horrific condition.
<+MikeMartens> At 5 marks of Fall, your character meets their ultimate fate.
<+MikeMartens> Conversely, if The Heavens is low in the roll … it’s representing the failure of the divine, which shifts a bit of your faith away from the heavens and toward the deep.
<+danhunsaker> Given these are pools, I’m guessing 3, 4-5, and 6 are counts of successes?
<+MikeMartens> (i.e. increasing your Fall)
<~Dan> What sorts of horrific conditions are possible?
<+MikeMartens> Just need to get that result once.
<+MikeMartens> i.e. 4 or above.
<+danhunsaker> Ah, so it’s highest die. Gotcha.
<~Dan> How is combat resolved?
<+MikeMartens> In the Alien-inspired incursion(s), some of the juiciest conditions for the game are becoming convinced a companion is incubating a creature inside of them … But everything from losing a limb to having your perception of light flipped is (or can be) included.
<+MikeMartens> What’s interesting is that combat is decisively deadly in this system. If you try to directly fight a terror, you die. That simple. If it’s a less horrific character or thing, your roll does what you aim for it to do. If you’re killing a passenger, the game believes in your ability to effectively do so if you have rolled a success.
<+MikeMartens> We want to pack as much horror and imagery and story into this single session as we can, so we just let the deadly things be deadly.
<~Dan> What if an NPC (not a terror) attacks a PC?
<+MikeMartens> You’d develop conditions if you failed in your response to that NPC … In the case of the swing of a cutlass, you’re probably losing a limb … or developing a shallower wound that is going to need constant attention.
<+MikeMartens> It’s an opportunity for the GM (and maybe even the player) to get creative in ushering these characters to their demise.
<~Dan> So these attacks can’t really cause damage?
<+MikeMartens> Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.
<+MikeMartens> OH. And in developing a condition, your Fall will also tick up.
<~Dan> Ah, okay. That makes sense.
<+MikeMartens> Fall/Ruin is essentially acting as a hit pool of body/mind/soul.
* ~Dan nods
<~Dan> Can you explain how the saints are used?
<+MikeMartens> “Healing” is similarly dark, of course, in that reducing your Fall requires some type of sabotage on other player characters.
<+MikeMartens> Calling on your patron saint(s) is the game’s form of magic.
<+MikeMartens> So, the typical action will always be rationale and mortally possible.
<+MikeMartens> But a prayer to your saint gives you the ability to do more …
<+MikeMartens> The described effects are left fairly broad and mystical, leaving it up to the player to utilize the concepts in clever/creative ways.
<~Dan> What (if any) are the limits on using saints?
<+MikeMartens> Resolution works much the same as above, with the call on the Saint requiring a Heavens die (the “magic” is considered the divine effect here).
<~Dan> (Howdy, Saurbaum!)
<+MikeMartens> There aren’t hard limits … Similar to determining that an ordinary physical jump can’t be 16 feet high, you’d determine that, say, immolating yourself will not blind the entire planet.
<~Dan> So there are no castings per day or magic points or the like?
<+MikeMartens> But this is one of these things I’m exploring in playtests … making sure the concepts are broad enough to be played with – and give a sense of wielding magic – while still being specific enough to allow the table to have a good sense of what would be too much.
<+MikeMartens> Right. You’re bearing that extra risk of having to include The Heavens.
<+danhunsaker> What’s your LEAST favorite part of Sunken?
<+MikeMartens> In its nature, it’s best with full buy-in. Someone who wants to beat the scenario in a traditional sense can make the game difficult to play.
<~Dan> A good point.
<+MikeMartens> As the terrors escalate both physically and psychologically, internal and external, you can probably imagine how rich and deep the game can get when players lean into their fall.
<~Dan> In the time remaining, is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to bring up?
<~Dan> While you’re thinking, I’ll just remind folks that if you’ve enjoyed this Q&A and would like to treat me to a coffee or two, you can do so at (Link: https://ko-fi.com/gmshoe)https://ko-fi.com/gmshoe . Anything’s appreciated!
<+MikeMartens> I think one thing we didn’t dig into is just how friendly the game is to creating your own voyages, both because of some of the perspective of what we’ve discussed in task/combat resolution as well as the structure of its voyages. Each voyage is split into five “tides” and these tides always execute a similar structure.
<+MikeMartens> The first tide reveals an inkling of the primary terror. The second tide reveals the profits that await (and begins setting the conflicts between characters). The third has the crew facing some environmental phenomenon. The fourth sees our primary terror returning in full form.
<+MikeMartens> And the fifth transforms that terror into something bigger and existential.
<+MikeMartens> That sort of “you got away from the monster, but …..”
<+MikeMartens> It can seem formulaic, but the community around Trophy is doing wild things with the structure … much the same way that any horror narrative follows a similar structure but twists and turns it in surprising ways.
<+MikeMartens> The Kickstarter zine will include three unique voyages to demonstrate how the form can be stretched. And all those fragments of lore are in place to help your mind start spinning.
<~Dan> Very nice!
<+MikeMartens> (And give some aid for crafting a voyage that feels like it fits within the world/mythology of Sunken.)
<+MikeMartens> That’s the last thing I def wanted to cover!
<~Dan> Great! Thanks very much for joining us, MikeMartens!
<~Dan> I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit and that you’ll hang out with us in the future! We’re always open. 🙂
<+MikeMartens> Thanks for having me. This is the first interview I’ve done on it (just launched the campaign yesterday), so sorry for any rough patches. 😀
<~Dan> Nah, you did great. 🙂
<~Dan> Now, if you’ll give me just a minute here, I’ll get the log posted and link you!
<+MikeMartens> Sounds good.