Brand Robins on Tribe 8 and Exalted

I was thrilled to talk with Brand Robins about Tribe 8 and Exalted.

What drew you to Tribe 8 initially and what kept you playing?

Ghislain Barbe’s art and the use of fiction for setting drew me to the game. I remember seeing these punked out freaky looking people, iconic and alt and then reading the Prophecy of Joshua and being hooked. It was everything I wanted out of post-apocalypse games and wasn’t getting from anything else on the market: weird, edgy, dirty, and sexy.

It’s also how I’d get others into the game. I’d show them the pictures of Deus and Hal, of Kimber and Troy, and read them the Prophecy. If they were the sorts of folks who were going to be into Tribe 8, they’d be down as soon as I was done.

It also was rich material to keep you playing with. At the time I thought the metaplot was what kept the game going, but in retrospect I don’t think that’s true. It was the richness of the setting, the dynamic characters and stark opposition of purposes.

Does rich setting = metaplot?

What is the relationship between the two.

No, rich setting and metaplot are distinct from each other — though for a long time folks (myself included) conflated the two.

A rich setting, in my mind, is a setting with lots of details, usable fictional chunks, interesting personalities, and the potential for dynamic interaction with the players.

Metaplot is about the forced or pre-planned changes of the setting, usually as directed by the publishing house in order to drive a specific story of the world or agenda for play.

So Tribe 8 was a rich setting in that it had detailed specific locations, cool groups, awesome characters with specific and aggressive agendas, amazing art, detailed maps, a strong sense of time and place, and was set up so that no matter where the PCs went or what they did they would automatically end up in shit, on shit, or causing shit.

Tribe 8 also had a metaplot, in which the game world was changed and advanced by published adventure and setting books. The ideal state was that your PCs played in those adventures and stayed close enough to the central line that the events in the future books matched what had happened in your campaign, in broad strokes at least. This worked with greater and lesser degrees of success, and was run by the company with greater and lesser degrees of skill.

I know Exalted is another game with a rich setting and metaplot that you enjoy. Could you compare and contrast the way Tribe 8 and Exalted use setting and metaplot?

Its funny, because when I was into Exalted it didn’t have a metaplot.

See, Exalted had this vast fantastical world. It was huge. I think on the main map in the inside of the book covered every inch was like 800 miles or something — the Realm was bigger than North America IIRC. And many of the portions of that world were detailed in many different books.

At first the areas of the world were only lightly sketched out — like to the West there are many islands and archipelagos, filled with many different people who do cool things such as ride on whales and hunt sharks, or have a way to harvest magical pearls so they can breathe underwater, etc. Then setting books came and detailed many of the areas, built up details on different kingdoms and cults, republics and timocracies of the area. Some would detail a single city or kingdom  some a whole region.

A lot of that stuff was wicked cool. You had dudes with clockwork blimps and other people who lived inside giant trees, guys who rode on massive eagles to make war with the women who worshipped the bull god, you had cities ruled by spirits that were made up of the stories people told about the city, and on it went. It was a brilliant, beautiful collection of mad crazy anime-fantasy-mythological ideas.

Over time folks, largely on the fan side while I was still into the game, started wanting to canonize that. They didn’t want the crazy ideas to all be things you could do, they wanted them to be a coherent world with few (if any) gaps left to be filled. Over time the published material started to reflect that and the tone changed from “here are zany things across the world” to “here is the name and numbering of all things that are.”

Around that time, though my recollections are hazy as I was losing steam with Exalted at this point, “metaplot” like elements started coming into play. Parts of the world that had been previously established as dynamic and on the verge of change (so that PCs could walk in and screw it all up) were now written as having changed. That Bull of the North dude who we’d first heard about starting a rebellion was now in full out war with the Realm. The world was moving, progressing, without any action from any group of PCs involved.

If that’s metaplot or not depends on your definition. It could just be a living world — as there is so much in Exalted that if you weren’t interested in the Bull of the North you’d just ignore it to focus on your campaign in the Western Islands. But there was some change from it on the community, or at least the part of the community I interacted with, where the emphasis went from “how much cool are your PCs doing” to “lets talk about the world separate from whats happening in any individual game.”

Still, it wasn’t quite full metaplot as the world as a whole, the single story of the setting, wasn’t being changed.

At least not until the Empress returned. But I can’t speak about that, as by the time the rumors of that even started I’d moved on to other games.

Anyway, in Tribe 8 the world was small and specific. It was pretty much all on the island of Montreal, and was a closely detailed setting. And within the first 4 or so books being published that setting started being deliberately changed. And not like “well over there maybe the dude is having a rebellion” like in Exalted. It was more in the realm of “every possible relationship and power structure in the game is about to get hit with a bat, and it’s all going to change.”

When this was done well it gave the game energy, made the setting feel alive. The problem was that it meant that right from jump many folks were more about following the setting than playing in the setting. And those that did had to find various ways to manage their story within or against the game’s story. Because make no mistake, Tribe 8 was telling a story. A Story. And that story was the metaplot. Your story was the part you played in telling the A Story.

Exalted never did that. Tribe 8 did it as aggressively as any game I’ve ever seen.

Is metaplot just a lazy way to sell books thinking that folks who follow it and aren’t playing will buy the next book to find out what happened and the people who are playing will just ignore it?

No.

I mean, that is part of why metaplot was so popular with so many publishing houses in the 90s. But it was never just about that, and with the folks I knew it was never even primarily about that.

The folks that say that are much, in my mind, like the folks who accuse Vincent of writing Apocalypse World so that they can’t play the game they want to play — they have to play it as it is or that’s it, out the door!

In both cases there are issues with where the centrality of story/system/power lies — with the publisher or with the designer vs. with the players and the local group. However, both are, in my estimations, vast overstatements of what’s a relatively small and subtle gap.

Certainly many “indie” games have a strong designer as center of system bias. And yes, many metaplot games had metaplot to help move product. But Vincent isn’t there to run your game for you or take away your ability to roleplay, and Tribe 8 wasn’t just trying to move product.

Well said!

You did some writing on Tribe 8, yes? How did that transition happen, from gaming fan to writing for the property?

(And if you have talked about this or written about it elsewhere, feel free to just provide a link if you don’t care to re-hash anything.)

I did some writing on Tribe 8, yes. I think it was the second game I published for.

I’d been active on the Tribe 8 mailing list since near its beginning  (Ah, the old days of mailing lists…) I’d gotten some attention, and I’d been playing with a couple of groups of folks on and off through the period. Lisa Nicols, Josh Roby, Laura Bishop, and Moyra Turkington were the main group.

There came a point in Tribe 8 were the original writing team moved on to other things, and a call for MS submissions was sent out by the Pod. Lisa had a good idea for an original book and she brought me the outline. I worked with her to do the “game stuff” for it and we pitched it to the Pod. Hilary Doda, who was editor at that point, loved it and bought it from  her. That became Harvest of Thorns.

With that foot in the door we rounded up the whole group and started pitching for books on the planned roster — Adrift on the River of Dreams, Word of the Dancers, etc. I’d had a little RPG publishing experience (mostly magazines) at that point and some more significant non-RPG writing and team-leading experience to leverage, and we’d done Harvest both on time and proven ourselves easy to edit, so we got the books.

And turns out once you’ve done a few and done them on time, folks will keep hiring you. That we could actually all write was probably a bonus.

Anyway, after that we got the majority of books on the Tribe 8 roster until we killed the line.

“…until we killed the line.”

As in, we made a decision or as in, we just wrote and wrote until the horse was dead, dead, dead?

Until the horse was dead.

Though, at the time, as the line was running out of steam, the metaplot was getting harder to sustain, the 90s model of publishing was changing and D20 and indie publishing were altering the hobby on every level there were a lot of fans who pretty much accused me (and the rest of the group) of murdering Tribe 8.

Because, you know, freelancers suck.

As a fellow freelancer, I hear ya.

I sense some bitterness there? Any scabs you want to pick at in public?

It’s long ago enough that I mostly just joke with the bitterness.

But yea, at the time it got pretty ugly and personal. I had people trying to write to my day job to get me fired, had difficulty getting paid, and pretty much went down the road that leads to bitterness.

So pretty much, Freelancer story #3.

Still, I’m happy about what we did. The group won some awards, published a lot of cool shit, and learned a lot of things.

What is your favorite in-game moment that happened while you were playing (GMing, whatever) Tribe 8?

That would have to be after the PCs convinced Joan that the only way to atone for the murder of her brother was to let them sacrifice her to raise a new fatima to replace her.

When the new fatima, Deborah, rose from Joan’s ashes Mo started dancing around the room chanting “Debor-AH, Debor-AH!” until we almost got kicked out of our hotel. The other players didn’t chant so much, but (other than Josh) were all in tears.

(Josh doesn’t cry in games. He did, however, have some allergies that caused his eyes to get all shiny.)

Nice, I love those moments.

I feel like there is some kind of thematic link between Tribe 8 and Exalted…something about the way the both mutate and play with myth to make something new but familiar. You know them both far better than I do, is there something there or am I looking for something that isn’t there?

I’d say there is something there, but its nothing obvious.

In many ways Tribe 8 and Exalted are near opposites — one is all goth, grunge, punk and post industrial in an almost claustrophobicly small setting where the other is high flying, gravity defying marital arts and anime in a huge world of spirits and gods.

Perhaps that they’re both a different kind of post apocalypse with spiritual and mythic overtones? Tribe 8 is after our world, with spiritualism and a hint of Gnostic icecream, where Exalted is a fantasy post-apocalypse with the gods run wild.

Maybe that’s it, despite differences in tone, scope, and scale, they’re both about worlds in which after an apocalypse the spiritual order is out of whack and the physical problems of the world are a manifestation of that. And, of course, your characters are the only ones who can fix it.

Both games in some way are about fixing a universe gone wrong.

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