Thursday, September 9, 2021

Noisms Interview: David McGrogan on His Life and Work

Summary: I realized that there was no existential barrier to just asking David McGrogan (Noisms, of Monsters & Manuals) if he’d like to do an interview, so I did, and he agreed! Tonight I will add a list of the things that we discussed. For now, have at it.

David’s blog contains commandingly lucid meta-discussion of roleplaying games as well as new game content following on his sui generis Yoon-Suin and other projects such as the Peridot. He has recently released the first region of his new project: the Fixed World, a place where the sun never shifts, so that multiple stages of spring or fall might be found in (and sectionally define) the same town.


  1. Valuable stuff in these interviews. Not unappreciated.

    1. I’m glad to hear that, Solomon. There’s a quality to us where when someone produces powerful work, we want to know more about them personally. I think that’s natural and worth following up on, even though a work stands on its own in its ultimate merit

  2. Really interesting interview, thank you so much for doing it, both of you!
    Some thoughts after watching the first hour:
    I am really surprised comic books never came up during the parts while you were talking about the confluence of Warhammer, RPGs, and Heavy Metal. I grew up in sort of the American counterpart to David’s British experience – I can relate very much to what he’s talking about, it feels very much like my own childhood. But one huge part of the “intellectual framework” for us was comic books and I didn’t hear anything about that. Comic books at the time were intertwined with punk rock and heavy metal, and the art in RPGs and comics was very similar. They also tackled a lot of the same themes.
    Now that I think of it, I haven’t really heard anyone in the OSR talk much about comic books. But it’s possible I have missed those posts. They were a huge influence on me and my group of friends, and things like Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns were starting to break ground and show western audiences what was possible with the medium. Manga and anime were not as much of an influence, but that’s mostly because they simply weren’t available for the most-part until later. The pieces of that genre that DID make it over were hugely impactful, at least on me. I will never forget watching Akira for the first time, for example, holy shit.
    When David talked about the age of Israel, and how there was a sense of how old the city was, that definitely came through for me in Yoon-Suin. I was surprised a bit to learn (and this might be the way I am interpreting things) that he also intended for the city to be bustling in the same way that Shinjuku or Shibuya is dense and in your face – I don’t think I had picked that part up in reading the work, but it makes a lot of sense, and will be something I incorporate if I get a chance to use his world!
    I’ve been getting up at 5 or 5:30 for the last five years or so and it’s a wonderful time. I used to be very much a night owl. I get not so much ideas in that hypnagogic state you were discussing, but images – often images of monsters or fantastic beings. I’ve been doing my best to transfix these in my mind when they happen and then write them down soon after. This mostly involves just being conscious of what is happening, so that when I have a moment where I see a man who is a simple black and white outline but who’s head has exploded into a watercolor rainbow, I meditate on it a bit then and there, enough so that I can recall the image later.

    1. That’s true when it comes to comic books; obviously that wasn’t a primarily American phenomenon given 2000AD etc, but it didn’t explicitly factor into David’s world. For some reason, comic books have always been a bit of a foreign mode for me too; I understand the power of the medium, but I think I lacked a strong social link-in to comics the way I had for things like D&D and Warhammer. Still, people did read Maus and I have read Watchmen, but now that you mention manga, perhaps that’s taken a lot of the comic market share? I know a ton of people who read manga but almost none who regularly purchase new comics; I wonder if the comic book tradition is particularly strong in certain parts of the US, or if there’s a family tradition element.
      Well, images are ideas; a lot of the time when you just describe something you see with your mind’s eye, the results are effective, possibly because of the imaginative fill-in on the part of the reader; even reading the outline + rainbow idea, I imagined the version of that which is most interesting to me from within my own mental ecosystem even though someone skilled could have illustrated a more interesting version.

  3. Interesting hearing about Duncton Wood (I never heard of those books until now). I never read Redwall either – I’m not certain why, but it just never came up. I do remember thinking that an awful lot of the fantasy I read as a teenager seemed to be Tolkien-derived. Not all of it. When I was nine or ten, I found the Chronicles of Prydain, for example, and I loved those books. I’ve recently started looking at the Four Branches of the Mabinogi for inspiration, and I think it’s probably because of the Prydain books that I am kind of fascinated with Welsh mythology. Certainly there is a LOT of weird stuff in the Mabinogi reading it as an adult!
    The Fighting Fantasy counterpart I got into was the Lone Wolf series. I had a blast with these. You played a sort of psionic ranger / martial artist, part Strider, part Kwai Chang Caine. The world was pretty deeply realized, though maybe not to the extent that something like Tolkien’s world was.
    Speaking of Tolkien’s process, and I know he probably comes up often in this context, but M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel, which I only ever found out about in the last few years, is an amazing counterpart to Tolkien. I think both of these guys used similar processes - when David talked about using Tolkien’s process instead of the furniture, it really clicked for me. If you’ve not checked out any of his work, it’s absolutely worth looking into. The Book of Ebon Bindings has become one of my favorite RPG supplements.
    I know these are kind of random thoughts, but just stuff that came to mind listening to the first part of this! Again thank you guys so much for doing this, it was a lot of fun to listen to and inspiring!

    1. I don’t know if this is the case but Redwall might be a fun read if you’re ever bored and want some light but archetypal fare. I haven’t read them since I was a young teenager but I still have great regard for them as effective welding of action-adventure with homeyness. I haven’t heard of Chronicles of Prydain, but if that was your Redwall then I’ll have to look into them!
      I read more about the Fighting Fantasy series and liked the idea; I’ve actually been working on a gamebook of my own. I should post an extended action setpiece from it before too long as a kind of aperitif.
      Tekumel; that endures. I’m sure I will deep dive it at some point.
      My pleasure!

  4. I managed to watch another half hour of this, hopefully I finish it up tomorrow! I left off where you were talking about the role of fiction in the inner landscape – very interested to hear more about that! Again, a really great interview, thank you so much for doing it! More thoughts:

    “Cosmic malice” – you guys really nailed this. I don’t think I’d ever compared Lovecraft and McCarthy before. But they really do share this don’t they?
    The idea that there are no references to art in RPGs (in Warhammer, Tolkien etc) – that’s an interesting observation – I don’t think I’d noticed this. It does seem like art gets short shrift in this world. Of course there are the amazing and beautiful artifacts of war that artificers create, but it’s rare to have a painting or piece of music without Slaanesh being involved in some way. Have you ever read the Dark Heresy supplement Disciples of the Dark Gods? There’s a segment of that supplement dedicated to something called Ateanism, where an adept in charge of a library essentially started to dig into the fundamental nature of beauty and came up with something called the Eris Transform that can be applied to works of art, literature and music to reveal the single root principle of beauty behind them all. And of course, it turns out to be Slaanesh. But I am really struggling to recall any in depth discussions of art or literature that aren’t in some way directly linked to the dark gods.
    Oh wow, I got a mention! I think I was drawn to the idea in Mork Borg that the world is literally ending and finite – I don’t think I had ever seen that done before. I absolutely understand what you are saying about beauty existing side by side with misery. I think one of the things that sucked me in to Mork Borg is this idea that I’ve started to have that the end of OUR world has begun. Without getting into a lot of socio-political psychobabble, I’ve started to have this uncanny feeling in the last couple of years that the end is no longer nigh for us – it’s here, and we are living through it. I’ve gotten this idea that the “end of the world” isn’t a single thing but rather a continuum – much like the continuum you were talking about with sleep, only this is one way, as we all slide towards the Pit. When I talk about the end of the world I guess what I really mean is the end of the human race, or at the very least the way of living we’ve had for millennia. I think when I read Mork Borg and saw that they had made a fantasy world that was inevitably going to end no matter what the players did – it resonated with me! There are plenty of settings where the “end is nigh” but the players have some opportunity to change that. It struck me as a fundamental difference, and one that I had not seen before, that in Mork Borg the world will end no matter what – it’s a way to show that cosmic indifference / cosmic malice you guys were just discussing that I don’t know if I had seen before, especially not in RPGs.
    All that said, I absolutely understand where you are coming from with regards to true art being divorced from ideology, and really requiring and reflecting both good and bad to be truly compelling and beautiful. Even though the world we know might be ending RIGHT NOW, plenty of people, you and David among them, are producing amazing pieces of art - I think human nature is such that we WILL continue to create beautiful things no matter the circumstances, and I guess that’s how I read Mork Borg’s environment.
    David’s observations about the way players engage with a campaign – the way they remember the fights, the treasure, the hardest puzzles, the tactics, but forget much else is dead on. I’ve definitely noticed that same pattern in my own games. And the idea that players like to develop organizations around their own character is one I have to use more!

    1. I think the art in 40K is mostly instrumental; the cathedrals, the armor, the hymns, the ritual if you consider something like a tea ceremony art. Yes, I see now you mentioned this. I haven’t read the book, but that’s a cool idea. I do think there is something universal about effective art; not that it necessarily shares some guiding principle, but that it originated from and speaks into the same timeless source in people. Of course, there are a great array of things in that source. The Slaanesh idea could be insofar as it reflected a philosophy where Slaanesh has a natural and necessary part to play in the cosmos despite its often-destructive nature, but of course that isn’t reflected in the lore.
      Delta Green is also effective in the same way you’re describing regarding Mork Borg, where the world is already ending and the game is in some way an exploration of that. It’s hard to say with certainty where your civilization is while you’re in it; certainly for people in our civilization, a lot of the public discussion is oriented towards dissolution and catastrophe but on paper we’re in a golden age in every way, relatively speaking. I try to focus on what I can do with the latter while mitigating against the former.
      Thank you for the kind words. I think the creative impulse will remain and will always arise no matter the changes a particular place or time undergoes; the vessel transforms but there’s no loss of what is being channeled.

  5. Finished off the interview today. The Fixed World and Wyrmling both sound very interesting! I look forward to reading more from both of you!

    1. I’m glad to hear that. I look forward to working further on Wyrmling and I’m sure Dave McGrogan feels the same way about the Fixed World


Art - First Run