Gran Meccanismo creator, Mark Galeotti, joins Diagonal Move today to talk about invention, conspiracy and revolution in an alternate 16th Century Florence
Hi Mark, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and your career in RPG design?
Well, like most people in the industry, it’s not my day job. Professionally, I’m a Russia specialist, whose worked in academe, government service and the thinktank world, but a central theme of all that activity has been writing, and this certainly carries over into the RPG side of things.
I’m a hardy veteran – or aged geek – in that my involvement with RPGs dates back all the way to around 1974, when the first white box of three little booklets for something called Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the UK. I, and some school friends were hooked, and we slowly progressed from the very early games – D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Metamorphosis Alpha, Empire of the Petal Throne – through to Traveller and then Runequest, which also introduced Greg Stafford’s astonishingly imaginative fantasy world of Glorantha.
Your early RPG designs included scenarios for the Heroquest RPG. How did the opportunity to contribute to an existing system arise?
I enjoy world building, and it’s hard to think of a better world builder than Greg Stafford, whose Glorantha embodies everything from mythic grandeur to quirky whimsy, and has all the cultural depth of, say, MAR Barker’s Tekumel, without feeling like it’s also an advanced anthropology exam.
It became something of a fascination for me, and I did some fan writing during the period when Glorantha was in something of a hiatus. When Greg relaunched Glorantha through a new company, Issaries, with Robin Laws’s Hero Wars (later HeroQuest and now Questworlds) rules system, I began to write for it and was then asked to take on the role of line editor. I’m proud of the books we managed to bring out, but in due course I had to step back from that role, not least as I simply didn’t have the time.
You’ve also designed a game called Mythic Russia, which a topic which reflects your academic interests. Please can you tell us more?
I’ve always been interested in games and settings more than creating the actual rules engine, as much as anything else as an exercise in creative writing and engaging world-building. I’m also a professional Russianist, straddling the disciplines of history and politics, and so I married two of my passions with Mythic Russia. It is standalone game using the HeroQuest engine to allow play in medieval Muscovy, which I thought fit well as it is especially good at handling freewheeling and dramatic play that echoes the ancient legends and folk tales of the time.
Russia in the fourteenth century was an especially interesting place, still formally under the dominion of the Mongols, but witnessing the rise of the upstart principality of Moscow, threatened by the crusaders of the Teutonic Knights to the west, jealous of the glories of Byzantium to the south. I took some liberties with the history – apart from the trivial detail of including magic and monsters, as imagined at the time – but to a large considerable extent I felt I could lean on the actual stories of the time, as they are sufficiently dramatic without my having to exaggerate.
It was very much a labour of love, but I’m very pleased with how it turned out, and doubly so when I hear of people playing it around the world – even in Russia!
Your latest RPG is Gran Meccanismo, which is set in a fictionalised 16th Century Florence. Can you tell us about the real Florence of the time and why it is a good backdrop for a fictional RPG?
There are some places, some times, where all the random factors align, and for a while, the world revolves around them. How a city called Rome became the hub of empire, how Britain became the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and how Italy, and especially Florence, became the heart of the amazing time of economic, political and cultural change we call the Renaissance. Italy was divided, a battlefield between France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Papacy, but nonetheless as Europe slowly emerged from the Middle Ages, this was where we first see the foundations of the modern world, from banking to diplomacy, private military companies to spin doctors, as well as exquisite art and scientific breakthroughs. Yet all this was amidst constant conflict, conspiracy, assassination and war – I still love Orson Welles’ line from the film The Third Man: ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
The sheer density of extraordinary characters, the pace of change, the contrast between glorious art and bloody warfare, all that creates a very exciting and dynamic backdrop, one in which you can try and outsmart Machiavelli (you’ll fail), get seduced by Lucretia Borgia (don’t drink the wine!), or get your portrait painted by Michelangelo. It’s also a setting modern enough that players don’t need to consume great swathes of background information to feel at home. And then, if that wasn’t enough, you introduce the mad science…
Gran Meccanismo has been described as ‘Clockpunk’. Could you explain what this means to those unfamiliar with the term?
A central element of the setting of Gran Meccanismo is that Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, many of which were theoretically sound, but simply far beyond the materials and science of the time, work, and that this has kicked off a kind of Industrial Revolution, but one rooted not in the grimy cities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England but the sun-drenched town of Tuscany. Obviously this lends itself to all kinds of cool kit, from clockwork knights to steam-driven tanks, but this is a revolution.
Suddenly, Florence’s ‘New Science’ is not just making it a new powerhouse, it is bringing about a social and political revolution. The Vatican regards it as an unholy blasphemy, the subtle and ruthless police state of Venice wants its secrets, but everyone is affected by it, as it throws old understandings of power, class and wealth into question. The essence of the cyberpunk genre is that technology would shatter the old order, and create contested new ones – it’s not just about trench coats and cyborgs, but what you do in a time of accelerating change and a growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Steampunk asks the same questions during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian age. Clockpunk just takes it earlier still. This is likewise a time when there are tough decisions to be made: do you embrace or resist the new technologies? Do you fight against the new forms of wealth and power in the name of the ‘have nots’ or try to join the ‘haves’? Is the New Science going to be a force for freedom or tyranny?
For example, the ‘Gran Meccanismo’ of the title – the ‘Great Mechanism’ – is the Florentine government’s own supercomputer, powered by water wheels and windmills, a creation of glass reservoirs, copper piping and whirring gears. Is it a triumph that will allow for a new era of prosperity, the tool that will allow the creation of a ruthless police state in the name of efficient ‘hydronetic management’, or something on the edge of acquiring self-awareness? It may well be the players who find out – and up to them if they want to exploit it, encourage it, or try and destroy it. This is a time of revolution – but whose revolution remains to be seen.
The game system allows Gran Meccanismo players to create adventures that can vary in scope from the papal influence on politics to inventing clockwork and steam powered flying machines. As a designer did the scope of possible adventures present any specific challenges and how did you overcome them?
I really wanted to use a game engine that could cover a range of scales of challenge and also types, and found it in Graham Spearing’s TRIPOD game engine, previously called Wordplay. More on the mechanics later, but in essence I wanted the kind of game which allowed a player to resist a bravo’s attack as easily with his wits, his charm or his ability to flee the scene as easily as with his own swordplay. Combined with the Scale mechanics, that allow for the distinction between, say, a mercenary’s shield and Milan’s city walls, even if in essence they are both defensive barriers, this means that a siege can be resolved with a single roll, if need be, just as easily as a hand-to-hand attack. This was essential, as it gives the game the kind of scope it needs to not have to have separate rules modules for everything from invention to oratory.
Gran Meccanismo’s rules are streamlined and dice based. What is the appeal of this type of system over a more detailed rule set and why is it a good fit for your overall design?
This is a game that is definitely on the storytelling end of the storytelling/simulationist spectrum. You can get detailed in descriptions, but the last thing I wanted for Gran Meccanismo to force people into mastering complex and multiple rules and bogged down in the minutiae. There’s a whole new world out there to explore and reshape, instead!
The great virtues of Graham Spearing’s TRIPOD game engine are many. The same mechanism applies as easily to winning a debate in a council chamber as wrestling with a would-be assassin in the gutter. It has the versatility that a crucial challenge can be handled in a granular fashion, but otherwise a whole side-quest could, if people want to get on with the main action, be resolved in a single set of die rolls. It’s a fast and fun dice pool mechanic, and there’s always something engaging about assembling and throwing handfuls of d6s. It also relies largely on freeform traits rather that set skills or abilities, which provides colour as well as a chance to build characters and situations easily and quickly. In mechanical terms, the traits Wiry Strength and Burly Bruiser or else Brilliant Intuition or Logical Thinker may often have the same effects, but they provide all kinds of side advantages (Burly Bruiser certainly helps more if you’re trying to intimidate that cocky gate guard) and more to the point, paint a picture better than just a score in Strength or Intelligence.
Wordplay/TRIPOD has been used for everything from high fantasy to SF, and offers the kind of smooth, intuitive, scalable and comprehensive mechanism that I think best suits a game like this.
What does the game offer an established GM? Equally how would player moving to the GM role for the first time find the Gran Meccanismo experience?
In a way, Gran Meccanismo can be played on two levels. If you just want to plan a game or a campaign in what I think is a fun and interesting setting – the book includes a sense of the different ways it can be spun, from Renaissance James Bond, special agents bristling with weird and wonderful clockpunk gadgets, through to high politics – then the system is quick to understand and pretty forgiving. There are lots of play examples, story seeds and general GM advice, as well as a guide to the Italy of the times (including a gorgeous map of Florence), to get you started.
However, as an option, especially for more experienced GMs and those who want to play a more purposeful campaign, there is also scope to ‘tilt the world’ and, through the actions of the players, slowly shape it, whether unifying Italy or advancing – or opposing – the spread of the New Science. The key thing is to provide options, which can allow GMs and players to tailor their games to suit their interests, from deep politics to knockabout adventure.
Can you tell us more about the ‘Advancement’ system within Gran Meccanismo and how this impacts gameplay?
This is always one of the crucial design decisions in developing a game: do you have the kind of ‘zero to hero’ trajectory pioneered in D&D, which can see characters advancing dramatically through play, or a more limited form of advancement that allows some progress, but which – under normal circumstances – will not create superhumans.
In Gran Meccanismo, characters get limited advancement automatically at the end of game sessions or particular ‘stories’, as well as by grappling with their Flaws which, themselves, come from failed attempts to invoke their Goals in challenges. Typically, the more they try, the more likely they are to advance – and I’d stress that, to try is more important than to succeed. Again, this is a mechanical trick to encourage dramatic and passionate play.
Are you able to tell us anything about other projects you are working on?
Honestly, the day-job has been hectic enough since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, to be seriously contemplating anything else in the RPG line. I was kicking around an idea for a very different kind of game with Osprey, something rather more modern and bloody, but for the moment it is definitely in limbo. Besides, I’m also now on the committee of the annual Continuum gaming convention, held in Leicester in August (https://continuumconvention.co.uk/), so that does at least help keep me connected with the hobby.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring RPG designers?
Never expect to make any money on it! Seriously, any cost-benefit analysis would no doubt favour stacking shelves in your local supermarket, but the point is that we do it because it is fun. That is the crucial thing: keep it fun. Even those who do become industry giants avoid burnout and continue to produce products we continue to buy precisely because they manage to stay engaged, enthused and passionate about what they are doing.