A Penny For My Thoughts: An Interview with Paul Tevis
Two women and a man, all dressed in white jumpsuits, sit around a table with a bowl of pennies in its center. Each of them has a small stack of pennies and a printed form. In front of the older woman sits a scrap of paper with the words "a taffy stretching machine" written on it.
"... and my father looked down at me and said, 'If you don't want to ride the roller coaster, you don't have to. You can wait here in the candy shop while your brother and I go,'" says the older woman. "I was scared." As she speaks, the remembered terror creeps into her voice.
Her expression suddenly goes blank. She turns to the man. "What did I do or say then?" she asks, offering him the single penny in front of her.
The man considers for a moment, his brow furrowed. Staring at her, he replies, "You said, 'No, I want to come with you.'"
She turns to the younger woman. "Or was it..." she begins, offering the same penny.
"You stayed there in the candy shop, chewing your taffy," the other woman says.
She pauses before speaking again. "Yes, I remember now. I said, 'No, I want to come with you.'" She hands her penny to the man. "And I had a fantastic time. It was so thrilling, so wonderful. That's when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. And that is what I remember."
She smiles as she writes on her sheet of paper, "When I think of taffy stretching machines, I remember how I discovered what I wanted to do with my life. I'd never felt such a sense of purpose before." After she finishes, she takes a penny from the bowl.
"A penny for my thoughts," she says.
Hello Paul. For those who are not familiar with your name, can you tell us a bit about yourself, past and present?
I'm never sure where to start with these sorts of things, but I'll try. I live in Santa Barbara, California, with my wife and our three cats. We moved here almost nine years ago now, and I started a roleplaying group not long after. I had dabbled with RPGs when I was growing up, but all of my serious play experience has come since I moved here. We started playing D&D 3e and GURPS, but after a while I got excited some slightly less mainstream games, like Unknown Armies, Feng Shui, and Nobilis. Not long after that I found the Forge (indie-rpgs.com), picked up a copy of My Life with Master at GenCon, and jumped into the "indie games" pool with both feet. In 2005, I started a podcast called Have Games, Will Travel, which won the Gold ENnie for Best Podcast in 2007. And I'm just about to publish a storytelling game called A Penny For My Thoughts, which draws heavily on my experiences doing improv theatre for the last few years.
I think that about sums it up.
Paul, what made you go from playing RPGs (and other tabletop games) to designing one?
Poor judgment? :-) I'm not sure, exactly. But it was the Game Chef design competition in 2007 that got me started on this game, A Penny For My Thoughts.
So, no long-term secret longing to create your own world, or a wish to "Do it right, unlike all those existing RPGs"?
Not really. In fact, there's a section in Penny where I say as much. I'm not trying to teach people the "right way" to do things. I'm trying to understand my own preferences and share my experiences with others so that they can come to their own conclusions about how they like to do this sort of thing. I hope people can learn from my experience, but I'm not saying that they have to do it my way.
One thing about terminology: I don't call A Penny for My Thoughts an RPG. Yes, you take on the role of a character. But it doesn't have any of the features that make RPGs familiar. Its closest relative is probably The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, so I tend to call it a storytelling game. But you can call it whatever you want.
What's Penny about? What's the difference between an RPG and an STG to you?
Penny is about a group of people who have lost their memory and are undergoing an experimental therapy to try to recover. In the process, they have to help each other in order to succeed.
When I say that it's a story-telling game, I mean that unlike most RPGs, where you're controlling your character's actions in the present, in Penny you're describing your character's in the past. You're telling your character's story to the other players. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that.
Make me a sell: Why would I want to play Penny for My Thoughts? What's the experience of playing it like?
A Penny for My Thoughts is a collaborative storytelling activity. No one person has full control over the narrative. So at the beginning of the process, everyone writes down some ideas and puts them in hat. When it's your turn to tell a story, you draw one out. Then everyone asks you a question about that thing. You have to answer "Yes, and..." to the question. So if you drew "a dog" out of the hat, I might ask, "Was it your dog?" and you might answer, "Yes, and my father gave it to me for my ninth birthday." As a group you build the starting point of the story, and the rest of the process of telling the story follows a similar pattern. So if you enjoy collaborating with people to tell stories, or if you want to get more experience doing it, then you should take a look at Penny.
Is there any mechanism in place to keep stories coherent and/or directed, or is it completely up to the players?
There are a few things that help. First, there's something we call the Facts & Reassurances. This document lays out some details about the world that shouldn't be violated. The basic F&R says that you're playing in our world, in the modern day, and that you're all normal people. We've present two other options in the book, one based on the film The Bourne Identity and the other on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but groups are free to create their own (or play without one). Second, the stories are structured by something we call the Questionnaire. Every story you tell is intended to answer the next question on it, so you have some idea of why you're telling it. Like the Facts & Reassurances document, we provide several options to shape your play. Third, there are some controls on what other people can throw into your story. That's where the titular pennies come in. Every time you get to a point in the story where you need to take input from other people, you offer a penny to two of the other players. Each of them makes a suggestion. You choose which of the two happens, and you give that person the penny. Finally, the number of pennies you have controls how long your story is.
As you can tell, this is something I've thought a lot about! My goal was to create a structure that gives people a lot of freedom to do what they want but also forces them to work together in order to get it.
Is PfMT a single-session game, or is it intended for longer campaigns?
It plays in a single session. It's designed for three to five players, and it should take about three hours. That said, different groups will play it more quickly or more slowly.
Why go the route of GM-less games?
"GM-less" is a confusing term and means different things to different people. I think it's equally valid to talk about Penny as having many, rotating GMs. But regardless of what you call it, it wasn't something I set out to do. It just grew naturally out of the type of storytelling I was interested in seeing.
What type of player would enjoy Penny most, would you say?
I'd say that those players who like stories that go in unexpected directions and that like to build on the contributions of others (and vice versa) will have the best time with it. It was influenced by my experiences with improv theatre, so people who like that sort of storytelling but in a more intimate environment than being on stage should have fun.
Would you say Penny makes a good con game? On the one hand it is intended for a single session, but on the other hand, it benefits from familiarity/intimacy with the other players.
It can be a little tricky, especially because of unspoken assumptions of what's appropriate to introduce during the session. There's a lot of text in the book about this, and in fact, the Facts & Reassurances mechanism was created to deal with this very issue. That said, I think it can be great thing to try at a convention because it helps to build familiarity and intimacy with the other players. One the things I mention in the book is that I hope people talk about the experience afterward to work through some of those missed cues or to thank people for picking up on what they wanted. That feedback process is important.
Let's talk for a bit about the process: How long have you been working on Penny and how much work did it turn out to be, in comparison with your early assessment?
Penny started as my entry in the Game Chef competition in the spring of 2007. It's based on a few ideas I had before that, but nothing was written down until then. I had hoped to be able to release it at GenCon in August 2007, but that turned out to be folly. There was a lot more work to be done than I released, mostly in playtesting and in writing supporting text. The design was completed early on, but turning that design into a text people could understand was harder. I'm a slow writer, so it took longer than it should have. I like to joke that A Penny For My Thoughts is the smallest design that ever took two and half years to write.
Ok, Paul, thank you for your time.
A Penny for My Thoughts is published by Indie Press Revolution and is available in both print and PDF formats.
More information about the game, including excerpts, can be found at www.orphicinstitute.com.
This interview’s Hebrew translation was also posted at www.hamishakia.co.il.