The Spanish Inquisitor

Ron Edwards (part 1 of 3)
May 5, 2008, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Ron Edwards

This is the first segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards. Ron designed Sorcerer, Sorcerer & Sword, The Sorcerer’s Soul, Sex and Sorcery, Elfs, and Trollbabe. His most recent game is Spione: Story Now in Cold War Berlin.

Hi, Ron. So. What did you hope to accomplish with Spione?

The first goal was simple, to publish a book worth reading about a topic that hadn’t quite been addressed in that way before. I had a basic creative need to say a particular thing, about what I learned later is called Cold War Triumphalism. Spy fiction and non-fiction play into it equally, which I’ll talk about later in the interview.

The second goal is a matter of game design, because I think the shared experience of play is a great medium for delving into that particular thing I wanted to say. Reading someone’s viewpoint is one thing; participating in a creative group dialogue about it is another.

The third goal is the most ambitious: to expand the experience of play and the content (fiction) of play outside the boundaries of a given group of people. Simply put, it means including videos of people’s play experiences on the website. Ideally, this should become the default. A side benefit would be to facilitate others’ learning for how to do the activity.

There’s a lot of that kind of material on the web site.

Right. All of the aforementioned is intended to be integrated into a community and dialogue centered at the website. It includes a Wiki for developing an institutional archive of the source material, and a forum environment for meetings of minds across locations, particularly across former Cold War boundaries. The play experiences are further sources for discussions, and the discussions are further inspirations for play experiences.

I am especially committed to the idea that any entry point will do. If you’re all about playing the game, the site makes it possible to get interested in the content too, and vice versa. Furthermore, any degree of participation will do. If someone enjoys the site for one reason and participates to that extent alone, that’s good too.

So, now that the book is out there — did you hit the mark that you were aiming for?

That’s a difficult question. In terms of the physical product as well as general impact, I have the same, “Damn, that’s about 60%” feeling that I have with any book I’ve published. I’m given to understand that most creators say the same thing (or less), whether for books, films, plays, or comics. On the other hand, creative idealism aside, I think it’s a pretty nifty book, both physically and in its content. One of my goals was that if one never wanted to try the game/activity, it would still be worth the money as a thought-provoking, interesting text.

In terms of the overall project, it’s a work in progress, and I encountered some stumbling blocks along the way which have delayed or cancelled certain steps I planned on. I’ll talk more about that in a bit. I think the best way to put it is that I am proud of how well it’s gone so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing, at whatever pace is possible. I guess I have that same 60% self-critical view about the project as well. The good news is that it gets better all the time.

Was there a specific catalyst that sparked interest in the idea of spies during the Cold War?

There were two, entirely independent things. The first arose from writing my essay Narrativism: Story Now, in 2003. I included a proto-alpha-draft for a game, nothing more than a basic idea and brainstorming really, for each of my three essays on specific Creative Agendas. In the case of the Narrativism essay, I hit upon Cold War spying on no better basis than having enjoyed the book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I didn’t even specify Berlin, and I blush to confess that I had only the most rudimentary notion of what the Wall actually was. I was generally clear on the idea that there existed two distinct kinds of spy fiction, but did not yet realize how politically charged and significant that distinction was and is. So choosing that context for Zero at the Bone, my little game-idea to accompany that essay, was extremely fortuitous.

When I thought about developing the idea further, in 2005, my first move was to read a few more of the relevant novels and a couple of non-fiction books. Little did I realize that “a few” and “a couple” would become hundreds of titles, nor that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction was not really a boundary for this material. Everything I read yielded a list of further titles to explore, and that process is still going.

The second arose from life, not games, and not even fiction, and it’s the main reason that my readings expanded so rapidly, along with my travels, language lessons, and aspects of my life-style. I’d become detached from politics back in 1987, when that son of a bitch Oliver North was pardoned, and 9-11 brought my attention fully back. However, the espionage readings clarified how the events of 9-11 came to occur, as well as many other events that concerned me, and I slowly began to understand something called Cold War Triumphalism which I am convinced is at the core of today’s issues. The kind of spy fiction and non-fiction that I had discovered turned out to have been a kind of literary guerrilla war against Cold War Triumphalism, and its antecedents, for many decades.

This project’s scope is a little bigger than I expected.

True. All that may be a little abstract. More personally and specifically, I am a child of the U.S. culture clash over the Vietnam War. I was born in 1964, and my father was a career Navy officer who would serve two tours in and around Saigon when I was just old enough to remember it, whereas my mother became a civil rights, peace, and women’s activist at the same time. My early life is not easily described.

The relevant point is that in reading about espionage and about Berlin in particular, I was able to understand the sources of the ideologies which had played such a big role in my own experiences. I never bought the standard line of democracy vs. dictatorship, free market vs. communism, freedom vs. subjugation, or any of the other cultish interpretations of the twentieth century. Nor did I think that the resurgence of this outlook after the fall of the Soviet Union boded well for any of us. The big mystery to me was, how in the world did this childish view of reality even get started, much less become so prevalent as to provide the entire landscape for people’s lives, as in my case? Berlin provides the answer, and everyone should know about it.

Are there elements of the book’s physical construction that in some way reflect its subject matter? What about its look and feel?

I wanted Spione to look like a book one might simply pick up and buy in any commercial bookstore, of the appropriate topic, and to keep on one’s shelf with books about that topic. It so happens that a lot of spy non-fiction and fiction books look very much alike, and I aimed for that broad overlap. It is successful insofar as, when you see it, you say, “Oh! A book about spies,” without even really reading the subtitle or the back cover text.

I actually had the idea for the back cover already set very early in the project, with all the shadowy agency initials. As for the front, the photograph is actually of me at the Wall Memorial in Berlin, shot during my visit in December, 2005. It wasn’t intended as anything but a tourist snap, and the fuzziness was merely an artifact, but when I saw it, I knew I’d found the right mix of mysteriousness and menace. I worked out a few ideas about design with my friend Dan Bulf, and Jon Hodgson took these ideas further.

I also wanted the interior text to be usable as a reference as well as a linear reading experience. I decided to employ a tab-bleed system for the chapters, so that one can flip very quickly to a given chapter and find what’s needed without much reading.

Do you consider these elements to be a priority when creating a book?

Always. Every one of my games is intended to be a physical reading experience, and for lack of a better term, ownership experience, which is consistent with the subject matter and general aesthetic basis for play. That applies to the size, dimensions, physical feel, internal layout, paper type, and any other feature. I like to think that a given book I’ve published fits well into a particular place to keep it in one’s house or apartment.

Sorcerer, for instance, was deliberately designed as an arty specialty-publication, like a limited edition of someone’s poetry or a special edition of a heavily-illustrated retelling of a famous myth. I’m not sure whether you know that I never believed it was possible to sell more than 1000 copies of that game, so it’s sort of funny that I’m still pumping out print runs of what was supposed to be a glamorous one-shot. It Was a Mutual Decision was designed as a book you might find in the humor section of a bookstore, particularly those joke-gift or casual-read collections of gender or pet humor. The content is more serious than that, perhaps even a little classically-gothic, but I wanted it to have that pick-it-up off the coffee table, casual read quality. For both books, I pride myself that a reader can look at any page and not only know where they are in the organization of the text, but can also immediately tell which way and how much to flip to get where they want.

Since both of them are simply and straightforwardly games, and since Spione is not, the design of Spione is far more standard in mainstream book terms.

Next installment: Story Now, hot war, and Berlin

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