How Jonathan Tweet’s Early Days in the RPG Zine Scene Inspired a Lifelong Career in Games
Games designer and publisher Jonathan Tweet on how titles like ‘Alarums & Exclusions’ led him to create his own adventures.
Jonathan Tweet knows RPGs. A professional game designer since the late 1980s, he’s worked on major tabletop titles like Dungeons & Dragons along with a few of his own, like Ars Magica (which he co-created with Mark Rein-Hagen in 1987), Over the Edge (1992), and Kickstarter-funded children’s card game Clades (2016). He’s also the author of the Kickstarter-funded children’s book Grandmother Fish, which introduces preschoolers to evolutionary concepts.
As a young games enthusiast, Tweet joined the emerging RPG zine scene, contributing to the influential publication Alarums & Excursions. “Today we talk about games on online forums,” he says. “But back in the day we did it on paper.”
Here, he chats with Kickstarter’s Head of Games Luke Crane about his earliest RPG creations, and offers advice for creators looking to publish a games-inspired zine of their own as part of Kickstarter’s upcoming initiative, Zine Quest.
Luke Crane: What was the first RPG you ever designed?
Jonathan Tweet: In 1978, I wanted to buy Metamorphosis Alpha, a sci-fi RPG from TSR, but I couldn’t afford it. So instead I invented my first RPG: Have Laser Will Travel. The player-characters were futuristic humans and mutants, wielding laser guns and electric chains, a flail-like weapon of my own invention. We played quite a bit. As you might expect, it was derivative of Dungeons & Dragons, with levels, encounter tables, weapon lists, ability scores, etc.
Who were you playing games with when you first got into the hobby?
I got together a crew of my classmates, kids I’d known for years. We added one kid at a time, and sometimes the group got pretty big. Some of the kids were misfits, some were regular kids, and I was somewhere in the middle. We played in conference rooms at the college where my dad taught English.
How did you find your first RPG zine? What was your reaction?
My first RPG zine was Alarums & Excursions, which is still going. In 1987, friends showed it to me because they knew I loved to talk about games, and it rocked my world. A&E hosts extended conversations among gamers, and those conversations shaped how I have created RPGs ever since.
Today we talk about games on online forums, but back in the day we did it on paper.
Today we talk about games on online forums, but back in the day we did it on paper. A&E was the first magazine devoted to roleplaying games, earlier than Dragon. Its readers and contributors preserved knowledge about roleplaying art that went back before D&D became a fad and munchkins [an RPG scene term for powergamers] flooded the hobby. In general, that zine helped my game design sensibilities mature.
You note that reading ‘Alarums’ blew your mind. What were the influential conversations happening in zines in the ‘80s? What felt so groundbreaking about what was happening there?
The best contributors to A&E had an admirable facility in considering RPG design in conceptual terms: representing cultures, various approaches to mechanics, various play styles, etc. The earliest RPGs, by contrast, were created by people who didn’t have a lot of experience with different sorts of RPGs. These people had that experience. They could discuss how various sorts of armor rules worked and the minimum requirements for a good free-form scenario.
Did any of your submissions to zines make the transition into full-fledged games?
In Alarums & Excursions, Robin D. Laws wrote up a thought experiment about a roleplaying game based on William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. That was one of the big ideas that inspired me to create a homemade, free-form RPG. It was just for my friends and me, too weird and too rules-light to publish.
In A&E, I reported how our game sessions went, and John Nephew of Atlas Games insisted on publishing the game. It became Over the Edge, originally published in 1992. Robin contributed some great material to it, and it was his first professional design credit. In 2019, Atlas Games is publishing an all-new edition of OTE, updated for contemporary sensibilities. The original ’90s version inspired a lot of role-playing designers who in turn took the art of RPG design forward, and that game would never have happened if it hadn’t been for a zine.
Once you started your own publishing company, did you publish any RPG zines?
When I started as a professional, I was in the Midwest. Roleplaying was big in the Midwest, but zine culture was not. Alarums & Excursions, gave [my business partner and I] what we were looking for in terms of self-expression, so we didn’t try anything zine-like ourselves. Once I was no longer publishing Ars Magica, my best friend and I created a general purpose zine, BYOD, which we kept up a couple years. Once I was no longer “the man” — a publisher — doing a zine made a lot more sense to me.
Where do you think the most interesting conversations about RPGs are happening now? Do you go online to talk about games? Do you still peek into discussions and debates about RPG design?
For years I worked on my Google+ account, finding interesting gamers and game designers to follow. I also put a lot of work into establishing expectations of civility and constructive criticism in political conversations on my page. Now that G+ is going away, I’m not sure where to go next. RPG.net? MeWe? Not sure.
And lastly, you’ve seen and done a lot in RPG-dom. What wisdom do you have now that you would give to Young Jonathan Tweet just reading A&E for the first time?
Self-publish. Creating a game is an educational experience, and it proves to people in the industry that you can complete a project.