Interview: Contact RPG

Recently I wrote about the Contact RPG Kickstarter, which unfortunately was unsuccessful. After doing the review of the PDF version I also asked Robert Hamberger, author of Contact, to do an interview for the blog. He agreed and answered the questions I’ve sent him in record time, but due to some mistake on my behalf, I didn’t get the email until today. But instead of lamenting the mistakes made in the past, let’s have a look at what Robert has to say…

Stargazer: Robert, could you please introduce yourself to our readers? Who is the guy who wrote Contact when he’s not designing roleplaying games?

Robert: Hi, Michael. I’m a 37-year old gaming aficionado, male, pasty-white, probably around 19th level (character class: nerd), and married to a wonderful girl with similar inclinations. Science fiction has been and always will be my favorite genre of literature and film, and I have been making up stories for as long as I can remember. When I’m not creating new content for my books, I work in a rehabilitation clinic as a doctor. Aside from that, I lead a quiet life in a small town in the vicinity of Cologne in Germany, where the air is clean and everything is more laid back than in the big cities. It helps focusing on the more important things in life, such as writing games.

Stargazer: Please tell us about your introduction to RPGs. What was the first pen & paper RPG you played?

Robert: Oh, I don’t think I can fully remember, as I tried out many games in the beginning. I think it was something someone else came up with in high school, an original setting with minimalistic rules. I have flashbacks of space pirates and violence in a dark universe. I also created a primitive RPG of my own back then, which had a post-apocalyptic theme with lots of hot warrior women in it. Look, we were only 17! Soon after that, Shadowrun came up, which is very likely to have influenced the style of games I like today. We played countless sessions of Shadowrun, third Edition, in my old gaming group. It was fun while it lasted.

Stargazer: It’s quite obvious that Contact takes inspiration from the XCOM series of computer games. What made you interested in creating a pen & paper version of said game? And have you ever considered getting an official license?

Robert: Yes, Contact loves itself some classic X-COM, no doubt about that – if we’re talking about the 1994 Microprose game by the Gollop Bros, that is. In my opinion, there is no other game that has been able to capture this sense of cold dread and suspense oozing from the UFO mythos like classic X-Com (or: UFO – Enemy Unknown, as it was called here in Europe). When writing the setting for Contact, I definitely intended to pay tribute to X-Com with a couple of nods and the overall tone in general. If someone came along and offered me the opportunity to make a licensed tabletop RPG for the rebooted XCOM franchise, I’d have to consider making an entirely new set of rules to go along with it, as Contact is a rather different beast with lots of 80s/90s “retro” sensibilities and little of the aggressive streamlining so popular in the contemporary gaming industry.

Stargazer: In Germany Contact was first released in 2012. Since then numerous supplements have seen the light of day. Could you please tell us about what English fans can expect in the coming years?

Robert: Well, there’s four published adventure modules ready to be translated into english, we have a full-color sourcebook dealing with new alien threats from the deep seas, an extensive equipment compendium, a game master’s screen that comes with a useful companion booklet, and we also had a soundtrack album made by the talented guys at X-Score (Jan Haak and Konstantine Kazantzis). You can listen to a number of pieces from that soundtrack in our last Kickstarter update. All of these products are likely to make their transition to the international english-speaking market first, either as part of the Kickstarter campaign or later down the road.

Stargazer: Contact’s core mechanic is pretty simple, but overall it’s – in my opinion – what many gamers call “crunchy”. When it comes to depth and complexity overall it could easily be compared to games like Rolemaster. Have you ever considered writing a “Contact Light” ruleset for gamers preferring lighter fare?

Robert: I find the direct comparison to Rolemaster amusing, as there is only a small fraction of the volume of matrices and lookup tables from Rolemaster in Contact – I estimate about one percent. Seriously, they hardly fill up that four-panel game master screen, there was still plenty of space for small rule recaps and reminders. But you are absolutely right, the game will still qualify as a rather crunchy title in most gamers’ eyes. It was fully intended to offer a delightful variety of tactical choices for anyone willing to sink their teeth into the full plethora of implemented mechanics. On the other hand, it is also quite easy to keep the rules simple by default, as more in-depth options, even from the core rulebook, are added to the game in a modular fashion. Looking into the Quick Start Rules booklet, these are a good example of a “lighter” version of the Contact Kore game mechanics. Sure, they could be simplified even more, but we’d have to cross out parts of the game’s title (“tactical…”) if we did. As of now, I have no intention of going any further in that direction.

Stargazer: The “Children of Mu” are often featured prominently on the book covers, and I know people who avoid Contact mainly because it looks too much “anime”. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the CoM?

Robert: These purple-skinned, cat-eyed female humanoids sure are the most obvious example when pointing out the anime aspects of the artwork. In fact, there has always been a slight, yet consistent anime influence throughout the whole art style of Contact, which came to be mostly due to my personal taste and the fact that I had to be my own art director when visual production started back in late 2008. Sure, everything could look grittier, more realistic (and also more boring), but I sure would have liked the depictions of the game world less if it were so. I strongly believe in colorful, vibrant sci-fi game universes that can be just as terrifying as the visually darker variants of the genre, as long as their stories are told the right way. One just has to look at many a successful anime production for proof. There’s also classic X-Com, which uses a comparable choice of bright colors in its graphics while still remaining one of the gloomiest, most frightening games I ever played. As for the Children of Mu, they may look mostly like space elves, but their overall theme was hardly influenced by regular fantasy elves. Technically, they are not even from space. There’s much more of a predatory vibe to them. They are genetic experiments, unpredictable, often dangerous and alien to human society. It would be more fitting to compare them to creatures from the Island of Dr. Moreau. They are also eligible as player characters, so basically, have fun!

Stargazer: You’ve called the rules system powering Contact “Contact Kore”. Have you ever considered using the game’s “engine” for other setting as well? Was it created with the alien invasion genre in mind, or was it initially more generic?

Robert: In fact, back then, when I put down the first lines for the “Kore” mechanics, I had no Idea what kind of setting they would end up in. Sure, science fiction, that was a given, but for a few months or so, everything stayed as generic as possible. Then, while brainstorming for a suitable setting, I re-discovered my love for the alien invasion genre by watching reruns of X-Files, UFO (1970 series), and playing classic X-Com on a machine that was overpowered for such an old PC game. Incidentally, much of the inspiration for 1994 X-Com’s game world also came from the Gerry Anderson TV series. They are both british productions. At this moment, there are no plans to create additional settings for Contact Kore, although I sometimes fancy the idea of having a far-future setting in the same universe, where humanity has finally reached the ability to leave our solar system. Exploring alien planets sure would be fun. Visit foreign worlds! Meet interesting people! And kill them! Eh, just kidding. Anyway, a friend at Clockwork Publishing told me of one particular case where Contact Kore was used to play in the Stargate universe. That works!

Stargazer: Clockwork Publishing is currently running a Kickstarter project in order to raise funds for an English print release of Contact. Had you planned an English version from the start or was it a reaction on the success Contact had in Germany?

Robert: Funny story: When I first started out, I wrote the whole thing in wonky high-school english, as I didn’t want to limit my target audience to people capable of understanding my native language: German. I didn’t even exactly plan to get the game commercially published in the first place. Some time later, as soon as I had a nice-looking book full of awesome artwork by NZ/US artist Anthony Scroggins, I contacted (no pun intended) a couple of german publishers just for kicks. Almost every single one of them instantly hated the idea of publishing a new sci-fi tabletop RPG in Germany, where the market was firmly dominated by a small number of Fantasy game lines, such as Das Schwarze Auge (the Dark Eye). Then I met Patric from Clockwork Publishing, who requested a german version of the core rulebook for publication as soon as he laid eyes on it. After a moderately successful run in Germany that spawned the aforementioned number of supplements, we returned to the original, english version and carefully revised it, also ridding it of my wonky english with the help of native speakers, and, well – here we are now!

Stargazer: What’s next for Robert Hamberger? Are you working on a new Contact product or are you even considering a completely new game?

Robert: That’s a great final question! I am indeed working on a new Contact product – sort of! – with help from a very talented author and friend of mine. It’s not exactly tied to the tabletop RPG, though, and will hopefully end up as something even bigger someday. Can’t spill the beans just yet. Sorry ’bout that! Top Secret! They’ll come and take me away! As for new games, I had a few ideas here and there, but nothing worth mentioning just now. I guess time will tell, as always.

Stargazer: Thanks again for taking your time to answer our questions. Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

Robert: Thank you, Michael. There’s not much else to say than: Sleep well, eat healthy, make sure to get regular exercise, and always watch the skies. Trust me, I’m a doctor.