Interview: Profound Decisions' Matt Pennington

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We caught up with Matt Pennington, the head of professional live roleplay company Profound Decisions to ask him some questions about his new game Empire, which is inspired by the hottest new ideas in fantasy fiction and games design.

Starburst: For those who have never been to a live action roleplaying event, tell us more...

Matt Pennington: If you’ve ever played a MMORPG and wanted to feel like you were really there, if you watched Lord of the Rings and wanted to be there in those battles, then Empire is for you. Computer games and films can be immersive and incredibly fun to play or watch, but they can never give you the experience that live roleplaying does – of actually being there.

Profound Decisions aim to set the standard for professional live roleplaying games. Our new game will feature purpose built sets, such as a medieval tavern, epic battles where you will be a participant in the war between the Empire and their enemies and the opportunity to lead the Empire along with your fellow players. If you want that experience – then Empire is for you. It’s designed as a massive festival based game, intended for a thousand plus players to play together. The rules are simple and easy to understand and the focus is on making the setting look and feel as believable as possible.

SB: How does Empire differ from your previous works?

MP: Empire builds on everything we have learned in our previous games. The rules are heavily streamlined from the complex systems presented for Maelstrom to make the game more accessible and allow players to focus on the setting. We’ve removed elements that were problematic, such as the powerful NPCs whose influence was unduly affecting the game – allowing the new setting to emphasize the role for the players in leading their Empire.

One key difference is the move away from direct physical confrontation between players – as seen in Maelstrom and Odyssey. By creating opponents for the players to fight against we can work to deliver massive dramatic battles where individual player's actions can turn the tide.

SB: Your other game, Odyssey, is set in a world of Romans, Greeks and other ancient nations. How different is that from Empire?

MP: Odyssey is a pseudo-historical game, although it doesn’t attempt to be historical it is inspired by the history and myths of the classical period, it's part Homer, part Harryhausen. Empire is a radically different setting, it’s a fantasy world complete with its own original history, races and mythology. It is inspired by classic works of fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones so the battles, the monsters, the costumes are all the sort of things you would expect to see if you watched those films or programmes.

SB: How heavily influenced has your game been by current trends in Fantasy fiction? For example; Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean etc?

MP: Well I wouldn’t call Lord of the Rings a current trend! Clearly it is visually – Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the books is majestic and fantastically well realized. That has inspired us visually – to try and recreate the kind of battle scenes from the Two Towers and The Return of the King – and it inspires some of the visuals that underpin the game. More than one nation owes its look and feel to the kind of imagery that you see in the Lord of the Ring’s films.

But Tolkien’s works are over half a century old. They’re obviously shaped by the Second World War, something that very few live roleplayers have much experience of. Game of Thrones is a much more modern work of fantasy and it suits the modern tastes, with rich complex politics, intrigue and conspiracy, romance and murder. Critically most decent fantasy novels have moved away from the simplistic moral tropes of yesteryear with convenient labels of good and evil hung on things for the players to understand them.

That richness, that complexity of setting and the combination of the fantasy world with the very human emotions and motives is a huge influence for Empire. We’re striving to create a game that encompasses the rivalry, jealousy and politics that Game of Thrones brings to life. Like the Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, our players will be striving to gain allies, build their Empire and defeat their enemies.

SB: What would you consider to be Empire’s biggest innovation?

MP: I think that our biggest innovation is in the creation of purpose built sets for the game. We have a mechanical system for deploying completed sets into the field for the game, based on military technology. The system was pioneered for Odyssey, our classical game, where it is used to create the gladiatorial arena that players fight in, but it’s in Empire that the system will really come into its own.

We’re already planning four sets for the first game with more to be produced as time goes on. The head of set design is a professional in the field with years of experience working set design projects for Hollywood movies such as the Harry Potter films. His artistic vision combined with our technical expertise is going to produce sets for the game that will be fantastic to roleplay in and on!

SB: Why did you go into organising LARP events professionally?

MP: I ran larp events for years as a hobby but the events continued to grow in popularity and it was consuming more and more of my time. I had some experience of self-employment and enjoyed it and I was bored in my job at the time and not really challenged, so I decided to quit work and start running events for a living.

It’s a fantastic job, insanely long hours for low pay, but I love what I do. I haven’t had a single dull day at work in nine years – not many people can make that boast!

SB: What is the future for LARP and for gaming generally?

MP: Immersion! The future for larp and gaming is in producing more immersive games – that’s what the mainstream wants and that’s what us and the gaming sector is striving for. For games that means better graphics, better storylines, more freedom to act as you choose. For larp it means better sets, better costumes, better monsters, better set dressing, better props.

We need to make the entire experience look and feel more real. Live roleplaying has improved enormously over the last twenty years – we want to lead the charge to continue improving for the next generation.

SB: Immersion is a currently a word being used throughout the gaming industry. How does it apply to Profound Decisions in general and Empire specifically?

MP: Although you can argue the case, it’s not unreasonable to make the claim that live roleplaying is immersion. The more we can make the players immerse in the setting, in the characters, in the narrative that spontaneously develops – the more they will enjoy the roleplaying experience.

Immersion has many aspects and we’re looking to try and address as many of them as we can. Partly that is about working with the players to encourage and help them to create fantastic costumes of their own. But it’s also about detailing every element of the world, to make it real for the players.

To immerse in a setting – it helps to know the setting, as intimately as we know our own world. If you look at the great works of fantasy, like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, what singles them out is the rich detailed setting. Middle-earth and the Seven Kingdoms feel like real worlds. For Empire we are creating a world with that level of detail, so players know the history of their world, they know the people who live there, their culture, their costume, their music, their history.

SB: How important is storytelling when it comes to games?

MP: Personally I have never valued storytelling in games. Larp is the only gaming medium that is completely interactive; the participants can do anything they choose that makes sense in the setting. As an organizer you have no control over what happens at the events, none whatsoever, and any attempt to usurp control comes at the cost of your players' roles as the central characters. So there is no capacity for telling stories and the story-teller's art is not a part of creating compelling live roleplaying games.

It has to be said that that is a fairly contentious view and is not ubiquitous in the hobby. But an approach that concentrates on making the player’s world vivid and exciting but gives them complete control of the narrative, rather than imposing a story, is one of the features that makes Empire distinctive.

SB: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book for company, what would that book be?

MP: A really good dictionary. I consume books in hours, so no novel in existence would last me more than a day or two at most. But I love words, there are so many beautiful words in the English language that you could open a dictionary every day of your life, spend a few moments reading it and find a new word you never heard before. If I was alone on a desert island I think that is a pleasure that I’d really relish.

If you’re really asking me what is my favourite novel… that is really tricky. I think it would probably be the Lord of the Rings, I first read it when I  was eight and I think I’ve read it cover to cover more than a dozen times in my life.

SB: What fictional worlds inspire you?

NP: Ooh the list is endless! Lord of the Rings and Games of Thrones obviously. The Codex Alera books by Jim Butcher were fantastic, Joe Abercrombie’s “first law” books were equally good and while they’re not towering works of fiction I really enjoyed Peter V Brett’s “Painted Man”series. Usually it’s the characters more than the worlds themselves which really catch my imagination – for me – if the world is really beautifully created then it becomes invisible – you simply stop noticing it's there and take it for granted.

SB: Simpsons or Futurama?

MP: I’ve never seen Futurama - I don’t have satellite as I don’t watch television. I don’t watch The Simpsons either, but wikipedia tells me they once offended the Scientologists, so they can stay on account of their charitable good works. Or have I just confused them with South Park? Whatever – I don’t watch television, you can have them all.

SB: Video Games or Board Games?

MP: Video games. Board games are more hassle but more fun. A good board game with friends is like a really fine wine - it’s a memory that lasts. But video games are like cheap cider, they just leave you with big blank periods in your life and feeling hungover the next morning.

SB: Calvin or Hobbes?

MP: From the list presented above I choose to eliminate the word “or”. I’ve never been particularly fond of choosing between things so I am confident that I will not miss this particular word, whereas Calvin and Hobbes are two friends I simply could not do without.

SB: Truth or Beauty?

MP: Beauty. You can’t have beauty without truth. The world is an incredibly, extraordinary, amazingly beautiful place – truth is what lets us appreciate that beauty.

SB: The Devil or The Deep Blue Sea?

MP: The deep blue Sea – I’m terrified of deep water having a ridiculously childish fear of sharks. Plus I wasted five years of my life studying oceanography – get rid of the sea – get back the time I wasted on a degree – a double bonus!

The devil on the other hand has always struck me as someone who would make a terribly interesting individual to have to dinner. He rebelled against god… that’s got to be someone worth talking to right? And I’ll bet his after-dinner anecdote about what really happened in the Garden of Eden is hilarious.

For more information check out Profound Decisions' website HERE.

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