Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interview with Mark Acres

He knows your name.
You don't.

He knows where you are.
You don't.

He knows what you have done, and why you must die.
You don't.

For a gamemaster, the only mystery is what his players are going to do.  He knows everything else he needs to know; it's his world after all.  With Sandman, published by Pacesetter in 1985, things were different.  The identities of the characters as well as the identity of the main antagonist, the Sandman, were unknown.  The gamemaster (known as the Storyteller) and the players were supposed to piece together clues provided among a series of Sandman installments.  A $10,000 prize was offered to the first person who could provide the solution.  Alas, Pacesetter went out of business and only the initial installment (Map of Halaal) was published.

I contacted Mark Acres, one of the designers, and he graciously agreed to an interview via electronic correspondence.  It so happened that during my communications with Acres, Goblinoid Games announced the acquisition of the rights to Sandman.  The game is now available, in PDF form, for less than $6.

So, without further ado, I present the interview.

Thoul's Paradise: The rights to Sandman have been acquired by Goblinoid Games. They have made the game available in electronic format and are considering a reprint and “future expansions.” Are you surprised at the interest in Sandman after 27 years?

Mark Acres: Well, I'd say I'm gratified at the interest in Sandman after 27 years. It was a groundbreaking product in several ways, taking role playing games in the direction of more pure interactive storytelling and away from complex game mechanics. It was also an experiment in role playing in a surreal world made up of seemingly random (but secretly structured) elements of popular culture from the 1930's up until the mid-80's, when Sandman was published. 
           Of all my published works, which include 14 books and more than 80 role playing products, I am personally more proud of Sandman than of anything else I have done. 
           Surprised? Sure - but gratified.

TP: The designer's notes say that you (i.e., Pacesetter) debated as to whether Sandman “qualifies as a role-playing game...or whether it is a close relative, totally new.”  In fact, the term 'role-playing game' does not appear anywhere on the box; instead we see the terms 'Instant Adventure' and 'A Dramatic Entertainment Game.'
           Your target audience was certainly not limited to experienced role-players.  In fact, the whole point was to allow people to partake in the more creative aspects of role-playing with as little as possible of the technical 'baggage' associated with traditional RPGs.  What sort of audience were you aiming for, given the $10,000 contest, the box design, and whatever other marketing efforts you implemented?  Ultimately, were you attempting to bring people into the traditional RPG hobby or were you attempting to establish a distinct Dramatic Entertainment / interactive storytelling game paradigm? 

MA: I can't speak for the entire Pacesetter team back then, but I personally had always thought that role playing would be a much better experience the closer it moved to an interactive story-telling process. After years of listening to debates about the effects of magic spells on THACO and whether or not a 17th level Bard should be able to do so such and such, I realized that the the times players really remembered, really savored, and really cared about, were the key story telling moments - not being right about the time required to swing some arcane medieval weapon. 
           In fact, building on that insight, in my own role as a gamemaster I began to dump tons of rules in favor focusing on the dramatic situation and genuine character development through tough decision making rather than the traditional forms of “advancement.” I didn't tell my players this; I just took over rolling the dice and before long I wasn't even paying attention to what I rolled - I went with the flow of the story at that instant to make it exciting and challenging. 
           I can remember times when I was running a Gangbusters RPG campaign with 30 or more players all playing at the same time - and they all came week after week after week - these were TSR designers and editors - because it was fun. I can remember several saying it was the best role playing experience they ever had. 
           So I think I was very committed to changing the paradigm for this type of entertainment. 
           And it was my hope that a product like Sandman could vastly expand the audience for this type of entertainment. 

TP: The Map of Halaal adventures include easily recognizable elements of movies, literature, mythology, and – as you say – pop culture.  I would think that this allowed inexperienced players to more readily relate to (and interact with) the fictional setting; yet at the same time – as you also say – it was “a surreal world.”  Was there a concern that the more surreal portions of the plot (e.g., The Enchanted Theater in Adventure Three and Dionysus' transformation in Adventure Four) might be off-putting for players, new or experienced? 

MA: An interesting question about the surreal elements being “off-putting.” I believe that at that specific time, surrealism was a strong element in popular culture, especially in film. I know at the time we didn't worry about that question at all. I do know we very much wanted players to have a sense of wonder or even awe in those sections of the adventure- although awe was probably too much to shoot for. 

TP: Sandman is limited to three players at maximum (excluding the Storyteller).  I perceive this is a drawback.  What was the rationale for this limitation?  Did the amount of props and cards necessary for each player preclude more than three players? 

MA: Our data at the time indicated that adult gamers often had trouble coming up with more than four players. We thought a four player story telling game would be ideal. 

TP: One of the ‘new player friendly’ aspects of Sandman is the absence of a character sheet.  In fact, character creation consists of the Storyteller describing the introductory scene.  Representation of a player character (other than in the Storyteller’s notes) is limited to skill cards and, possibly, item cards and props.  With regard to character advancement, characters may gain new skills or improve existing skills.  Since the adventures can be played in any order, isn't there the potential for characters to be 'overpowered' for a given adventure? 

MA: Aha! Great question! Therein lies part of the challenge of the design. To be honest, we never intended for there to be character “death” in the usual sense. I can't remember all the rules right now and don't have a copy handy - but I believe the intention was that the worst that would really happen is that a character would lose some skills and come back sans their accomplishments. After all, given the solution of the mystery, that would be logical. 

TP: When you say, “given the solution of the mystery, that would be logical,” are you suggesting that the 'dead' character enters the waking reality, but may participate in future adventures as a result of resuming sleep and entering a new dream? 

MA: No - not that exactly. Can't say much more without giving it all away. 

TP: If the world is not yet ready for the secret of the Sandman, perhaps you can tell us a little about some of the adventures for the installments that were never published? 

MA: I would love to; however, I am not free to do so. The copyright is now held by Dan Proctor and so both the secret and the unpublished material are legally his to dispose of as he sees fit. 

TP: My last question is hypothetical.  Let's say that – for whatever reason – Sandman had not been published in 1985, but that you had an opportunity to publish it for the first time now, in 2012.  Today's world is different and today's role-playing games are different.  Would you want to release Sandman now?  If so, what – if anything – would you change about the game or the marketing of the game?  Would you offer the same cash prize or would you use that money to promote the game in a different way?

MA: I think if I were doing it today, I wouldn't call it a role playing game, for starters. Instead, I would market it as an interactive story game. I think I'd include much more artwork to go with the adventures, including old movie stills and full color art; perhaps character portraits, and perhaps some kind of board to focus player's attention. I would keep it small - three or four PC's tops, with one storyteller. All in all I'd want to market it as more of a Euro-type game product. And of course marketing is totally different now. No, I wouldn't  use the contest - I'd play up the storytelling element and the references to pop culture as much as possible. Naturally the adventures would be different to account for the changes that have occurred since 1985 - new movies, new technologies, new science, etc.
           Thank you for giving me a chance to share my views on your excellent questions.

TP: Thank you for your insight into this very interesting game.


  1. Nice interview with "Uncle" Mark. Making games with him (and the rest of the Pacesetter crew) was a great joy.

    (Wish the old games were in friendlier hands.)

  2. Thank you for this awesome post! I am going to link folks here this week on my blog/podcast.