Ben Lehman makes role-playing games that are at times tragic, romantic, introspective, scary, action-packed, and hilarious. At their core, they are all about creating and telling stories. You and your friends might be a group at war with alien invaders, super-bro street lugers, space explorers, or even characters experiencing a picture-perfect, idyllic childhood.
These aren’t your typical enter-dungeon-fight-monsters-gather-jewels types of games. When you (and/or more people) play Amidst Endless Quiet, the first thing you are told is that, “You are Elios, a deep space transport en route from Gliese to Zhou’s World. You’re never going to arrive at Zhou’s World. You’re going to die.” It might not take much longer to say the title of Being a role-playing game on the topic of the High-Flying adventures of Beatrice Henrietta Bristol-Smythe, DBE, daring Aviatrix and accomplished Exploratrix, and her Gentleman Companion, who for a Modest Fee, accompanies Beatrice Henrietta Bristol-Smythe, DBE, when the Occasion warrants her an Escort than to play the game itself.
I first met Ben at Big Bad Con, a yearly RPG convention in Oakland, California, where game-makers and players meet, play, and share tabletop games of all kinds. I found Ben somewhat randomly on Gumroad, but at the convention I found that most people there knew his work. My experience and knowledge of RPGs is extremely limited, but I was quickly drawn to Ben’s quirky, deeply-thoughtful games. In his words:
“I write games that, when you play them, make you a better person. I write games that you can play by yourself when no one is watching, games that you can play with friends in the cracks of your time, games you can play with the flowers in your yard, games that take only a moment of your time, games that you never stop playing for the rest of your life.”
Ben sells PDF-versions of his smaller, more experimental games through Gumroad (which otherwise often exist in physical book form). He prices them all at $0+ because he wants them to be accessible to anyone who wants them. I talked to Ben about becoming a game designer, his work, and the intrinsically psychological aspect of RPGs.
Your games don’t involve dice, fold-out maps, tokens or little figurines (although at least one of your games uses standard playing cards). You play with books and in your mind. Sometimes in an incredibly social way with a group (more so than traditional role-playing games), and sometimes alone while you’re on a bus or walking to work. Where does this interest in the sociological side of games/life come from?
Some of them do have dice!
I think that the interest involves out of more standard-issue tabletop role-playing. I grew up with D&D (I think I started playing when I was around 5 or 6) but since my access to new RPGs was only available at the used bookstore, I played a lot of the weirdo less common RPGs of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. The thing that these games had in common was: a lot of good ideas that didn’t fit totally well together. So in order to play we ended up making up a lot of our own rules and so on and so forth. My older brother started out doing a lot of design, but he would get bored and abandon projects and then I’d finish them. Eventually I started doing my own stuff.
If you’re interested in games, you end up being interested in psychology, by which I don’t necessarily mean the academic body of research, but in how humans think, behave, relate and make decisions. If you’re interested in tabletop games, you end up interested in group psychology as well, which is even more fascinating and weird. I’ve always been an edge-pusher and kind of experimental, wanting to take a what happens when I do this? approach to art (when I was in school I studied physics, which only encouraged me). Of course, edge-pushing for its own sake is fairly pointless. What we want are games that are fun, satisfying, or rewarding. So I end up trying out a lot of things which seem weird or non-game-like because I want to see how they work. The ones that do work, I publish.
Ultimately a game is just a set of instructions, rewards, goals and capacities. This can be complete or incomplete, tightly-wound or muddled. But basically you are either telling people what they must do, or what they can do, or what they want to do. That’s an extremely intimate thing to tell someone! It’s pretty hard to stop once you’ve realized you can do it, and people will listen.
To expand on that, some of your games come with interesting warnings. In Polaris (which won the Indie RPG Game of the Year Award in 2005), you say, “Your knight will betray his people and die forgotten and alone. If you don’t like losing, you won’t like Polaris.” In Clover, you warn would-be players that, “There is no way to win. You just play because the experience is fun. So don’t play with anyone mean.” Ben! Games require a victor and a victory! What are you thinking, man?
Tabletop role-playing has a long tradition of not allowing any sort of “win”. You lose (traditionally: you die) or you keep playing. That’s it. When role-playing games started introducing win conditions, or even just “a way for the game to end” people got extremely upset and started denouncing them as “not a role-playing game!” (I’m thinking particularly of Paul Czege’s My Life With Master.) It seems very strange in hindsight.
Like I said before, games can be complete or incomplete in their instructions. Clover tells you what you must do (one player is Clover, another player is Dad, there’s no mention Clover’s mom, etc.), what you can do (explore, ask questions, learn), but not why you want to do it. Or, rather, the reason to do it is just “to have fun” with no further instruction. You have to find your own reason to want to play. With something as intimate and, frankly, personal as “a happy childhood”, that is just not something I’m willing to dictate by giving out “happiness points” or whatever. It has to come from the players.
How did you get into publishing?
This story cuts out some important bits, like that I was already sort-of published in Luke Crane’s No Press Anthology, but it’s funnier this way.
I had gone to GenCon in 2004 to help sell Driftwood Publishing’s Riddle of Steel, which I was (and still am) a huge fan of. There I had met Vincent Baker, who published Dogs in the Vineyard that year, and after I overcame my fan paralysis, we became friends. I was homeless and jobless, but still had some money from college, and was staying on friends’ couches on the East Coast and he invited me up to stay for a week at their place in Western Mass. I met Meg Baker, his wife and also a game designer, and their friend Emily Care Boss. Both Meg and Emily were at around the same stage of RPG publishing I was: they had drafts of games that they liked but were still revising and testing and so on.
Anyway, Meg and I went to the local game store to drop off copies of Dogs for sale, and she introduced me to the owner as “another game designer.” I went, “Well, not really,” and she looked me square in the face and said, “Own it, dude!” That was the point when I became a Real Professional RPG Designer, I think.
(Also, later that trip, the three of them cornered me around their dining room table and made me promise to revise and publish Polaris for Gencon 2005).
Are you still into traditional tabletop games and RPGs, and have you ever made any?
Yes! I really like Basic D&D, Riddle of Steel, early Vampire from back when it was weird, Tunnels and Trolls, Star Frontiers, Streetfighter: The Storytelling Game, Cyberpunk 2020, and a lot more that I’m going to be embarrassed I forgot. I’ve designed a number of fairly traditional systems (most recently High Quality Role-Playing) but for one reason or another I’ve never published any (not any hard rule against it just I never thought I could sell them). I suppose you could count Deeds and Doers, my business card-sized version of D&D, as a traditional game, so now I have.
Digital versions of your games (in PDF form) are sold as Pay What You Want. How has that been working for you?
For a while I was making money hand over fist with it. It’s trailed off a bit, as “pay what you want” has become less of a novelty and more of a normal way to pay. However, it’s really important to me that my games be accessible to people who can’t necessarily afford a $10 PDF or $20 hardcopy book. And from time to time I get very nice letters from folks saying exactly that (some of them even send me money later, when they have gotten out of their tight spot). So, in that sense, it’s working very well for me.
When I met you at Big Bad Con, you had a system where people could still pay for games when you were away (playing a game or otherwise): two sheets of paper. One specified that buyers could place money under the sheet to pay you, and the other specified that buyers could pay for games with a donation to Doctors Without Borders, again by putting cash under the sheet. That’s incredibly trustworthy. Are you concerned about someone taking advantage of that?
At small cons like Big Bad Con, people are super good about honor system payments. When I do go to a con (which is rare these days) I don’t want to spend the whole time behind a table watching a cash box. I find that if you trust people they’ll genuinely surprise you. I also feel like, if someone steals the money, I’ll just hope that they needed it more than me.
Big Bad Con is a charity con that supports DWB so I decided to direct donations to them. They’re a good organization: one of the few big name charities that actually spends most of its money helping people who need help. Left to my own devices I usually donate to RAINN, which is also a good group that has given a lot of needed support to me and my family in the past.
What’s the best feedback you’ve received about one of your games? What’s the strangest?
Someone who really didn’t like Polaris once wrote, “The entire concept of Polaris utterly repels me.” I was very happy about that. I think that we should endeavor to repel people who won’t like our stuff.
Someone posted a story about playing Beloved as a way to deal with their choice to break up with their terminally ill girlfriend. I… don’t know how I feel about that, both what he did and how he used my game to help recover from it. It was a scary thing to read. But Beloved is a scary-as-hell game, so.
Which of your games is your favorite?
Nope nope nope nope nope. That’s like asking a parent what kid is their favorite.
(Pssst. it’s Hot Guys Making Out).
Above illustrations from Polaris. By Boris Atzybasheff from the book The Wondersmith and his Son by Ella Young.