Interview: Carsten Damm from Vagrant Workshop

Interview: Carsten Damm from Vagrant Workshop
November 15, 2019 Parallel Worlds

Every month, Parallel Worlds will feature an interview with an amazing content creator or personality working in science fiction, fantasy, or horror. This month, we catch up with roleplaying game creator Carsten Damm, erstwhile lead developer of Earthdawn, creator of Equinox, and founder of Vagrant Workshop. 

Hi Carsten, thanks for talking to Parallel Worlds! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure thing — I’m as old as the mother of all roleplaying games itself: born in 1974. Not that I started playing right away, though (that didn’t happen until the 80s). I’m from Germany, husband to a lovely wife and father of three noisy kids. ‘Dammi’ has been my nickname since childhood.

Where do you live now? Is there much of a gaming scene? 

I’ve been in Cologne now for almost two decades. It’s a nice place to live with an active gaming scene. My current group is mostly about testing various indie games, so we play a lot of different titles.

How did you first get into the gaming hobby?

A friend of mine visited London quite often, and he introduced me to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay way back when. There were just a few other kids playing pen and paper games out there, mostly The Dark Eye (our native generic fantasy incarnation of the hobby). Warhammer was certainly an odd thing for us at the time: it was a quite mighty hardcover tome and it was written in English. The good thing about the last bit is that my desire to understand the game actually helped me to better understand the language — a sure bonus in school, as far as I recall!  

Did you go into games as soon as you left school/university?

It’s a hobby first and foremost, and has always been. I went into publishing a few years after leaving university, but I didn’t quit my day job.

Was there a particular game that first inspired you to get into games?

I discovered Earthdawn in the early 90s, about a year after it came out. It was the first title that really clicked with me. Earthdawn inspired me to write, and I discovered that publishing stuff was something I really enjoy doing. So I started to write in English as well as in german — mostly fanwork for Earthdawn. A decade later, my reputation and activities opened the door to work as lead developer and editor for two major editions of that game.

You are now the owner and operator behind the Vagrant Workshop and the Pro Indie labels. Could you tell us why you took the leap to forming your own company?

I had a number of side projects while working on Earthdawn, and always felt that helping other authors getting published was a good thing to do. I stepped back from working on Earthdawn at some point in my career due to different ideas of where to take the company I was working with at the time, so that paved the way for us to move those other titles out on our own label and have a fresh start.

Vagrant Workshop is a small company with an international pool of talent. How do you keep these creative people on track?

Some of them stuck with us after quitting Earthdawn, others joined to let their own creative energies a vent. The organisation was always very loose, as we took an ‘it’s done when its done’ approach to everything. We never understood our publishing as a way to make money, but as a hobby we follow with dedication and heartblood. Words, artwork, layout, print prep, project management — all these things functioned quite well and across international borders.

We have an international team too. Do you have a central office or does everyone work remotely?

Remotely. I’d like to refer to my desk as global headquarters, but the truth is that we’re working online pretty much all of the time. Meeting up is a rare thing due to the distances involved.

Which of Vagrant Workshop’s games do you consider the closest to your heart?

Well, that would certainly be Equinox — a future fantasy setting I’ve imagined doing for a long time.

Equinox was also the first project that the newly established Vagrant Workshop took on. Could you tell us about the development of the game and why it was chosen as the starting point?

Due to my work on Earthdawn, Equinox had always been on the backburner — so it was a natural step to pick Equinox up with more time and more energy at hand.

Equinox is a mix of sci-fi and western magic in space, with a special twist. The setting focuses on the war-ravaged and lawless Sol system and the shattered remains of Earth, now known as the Earth Belt. The characters are restless outcasts and misfits living on the fringe of galactic society. The basic setting considers them as rebels and pirates, encouraging stories with an emphasis on space battles, fighting the forces of evil, and carving out a living on the edge of the universe. The characters in this future fantasy space opera game are larger than life, outcasts wielding mystic powers and ‘nethertech’ relics, perfect Hollywood action heroes playing parts in a fantastic saga set in space in a faraway future.

Despite us steering in a pirate-focused direction initially, the setting combines a wide range of classic science fiction styles and ideas. Despite its inclusion of the fantastic and mystical, it provides rationales for many tropes of the genre. Many of the ideas we have incorporated in Equinox are quite common in science fiction, and draw from such famous movies and shows as FarScape, Firefly/Serenity, Alien, Babylon 5, Titan AE, Deep Space 9, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Dune, Pitch Black/The Chronicles of Riddick, and others. While the introduction of mystical energies takes the world into the fantastic, these energies obey strict ‘scientific’ rules and vary in power, depending on location. All this and more combines to make Equinox a world that is vibrant and tangible, a unique blend that sets it apart from other games out there.

The ‘future mystical’ setting seems to be becoming increasingly popular — with the likes of Destiny and Warframe trying to mix science fiction and fantasy elements. Would you place the setting of Equinox near these fictional universes, or any other games?

There have been quite a number of games trying this genre over the years, but none of them stuck or became mainstream. Starfinder is the latest (and probably largest) incarnation of such a thing. Equinox probably shares some roots with all of them, naturally. 

The various games released by Vagrant Workshop and Pro Indie have very different systems and themes behind them. What’s the reason for this? Are they each a response to a different inspiration, or perhaps aimed at different players?

Different authors and the desire to have a varied portfolio. Roleplaying games have great variety, not just in terms of setting and mechanics: theme, size, presentation, objectives — pen and paper is a vast and exotic gaming genre. We hope to capture some of that, and show that the genre’s fringes can be just as exciting as the bigger lines out there.

What books, games or films most inspire you?  

I am a junkie for TV series, but don’t actually have a specific genre or theme that I prefer. To me it’s all about how something is done and often, also, the history of how it came to be. I wanted to become a novel writer for a long time, but never really chased that goal. Instead, I have found that my knack is not to write down a single story in great detail, but rather to provide frameworks to bring a setting to life. I love creating such frameworks and the rules to make them tick, and then find out how people are using these to create individual stories.

What are you working on right now? What’s next from Vagrant Workshop?

With Vagrant Workshop, we started to develop material via Patreon over the past two years. Right now, we have three books for Equinox coming out — two are direct results of the Patreon efforts, and one I wrote as a lead-in to that.

At the moment, I am focused on some German-language projects for our Pro Indie label. Our translation of Itras By won the German Roleplay Award for Best Rulebook of 2019, which provided us with motivation to pursue a couple of projects locally.

Congratulations! Do you prefer working in German or English? Do you find that the languages have different tastes when it comes to games, mechanics, and settings?

Yeah, I’d say there are strong cultural differences. I prefer working in the German language at the moment, but English was the one I started with. 

What is the most challenging part of running a small indie games company?

The limited budget. We don’t have the sales figures needed to have artists paint away our dreams, so getting quality artwork and making high quality products is always a challenge. However, we’ve always managed to overcome that hurdle and seem to be doing quite well.

If you could give a piece of advice to someone looking to self publish or start their own company to release their own roleplaying game, what would it be?

Never give up!

What is the last book you read?

That would be Ken Grimwood’s Replay, although it was a re-read after many years. Imagine a more sincere version of Groundhog Day, playing out over lifetimes instead of a day. Highly recommended; it left me wondering how that story would turn out if it was adapted to modern times.

Do video games inspire your projects?

They certainly do, but I’m not playing as many video games as I would like to.

That’s something we’ve heard before! What are your favourites? 

I really enjoyed Portal 2 and love Grand Theft Auto V. And I can’t wait for Cyberpunk 2077.

It strikes us that Equinox would make an incredible setting for a video game. Would you consider going into video games?

If CD Projekt Red approached me, I certainly would! But I also dream of winning the lottery, so that’s not going to happen. Out on our own, we wouldn’t dare to make moves in that direction.

Which roleplaying games hold a special place in your heart?

Apart from the obvious, Warhammer, they would be Cyberpunk and Star Wars D6. These are the games I would play and run anytime without asking questions.

Player or games master?

I strongly prefer running games, especially after I found out that I am an ugly powergamer otherwise!

Describe your favourite character. It could be one you’ve had for years or one you’ve just started!

Well, I once had an invisible swordsman harassing the Shadowrun game of a dear friend for a while. Did I mention I was an ugly powergamer? I’m glad we are still friends after all these years!


Equinox, published by Vagrant Workshop, is available to download now.