Interview Nov 1, 2013

Today’s guest is Stuart Keating, designer of 3 Days Until Retirement – a cops on the edge RPG.

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Stuart: Three Days is a pen and paper RPG played across three “acts”, each representing a single day. Each player is a grizzled, loose cannon police officer who only has three days until they retire. The police chief tells the players that if they can solve a special case before they retire, they’ll get a promotion and thus a higher pension. Mayhem ensues.

Players investigate clues, interrogate people, hold stakeouts, engage in car chases and, of course, do battle with gun and fist against the seedy criminals of Metro City.

GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Stuart: The game uses playing cards instead of dice–players create characters and the game runner creates a plot by playing a weird form of solitaire.

Players have a limited number of cards each day, and they have to “pull” or discard those cards in order to do things–higher cards mean better clues or more danger avoided. Of course, players also use their cards in combat, but the cards are pulled randomly–and higher cards are better than lower. So there’s a tension between investigating and engaging in combat.

We decided to use playing cards because we have a lot of friends who are intimidated by traditional gaming, and we wanted a mechanism that was familiar and intuitive. Thus standard playing cards!

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Stuart: My gaming group was in the Temple of Elemental Evil and the party rogue backstabbed a low-level guard. As the DM I coughed out “just…three days… til retirement.” After some laughter I said something along the lines of “it would be funny if there was a game where everyone was a cop who had three days until retirement and most of them died spectacularly.” And voila.

GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.

Stuart: I thought up a rudimentary version of the playing card rules while on a 30 mile bicycle ride one morning. Once the basic mechanic was set I ended up writing the bulk of the game in about 20 hours over the next two days. Then we started playtesting, and the game has been through 5 major revisions–we’re on beta version 4c.

The refinements have been two-fold: Making the game easier to set up and run (i.e. the plot creation charts in the back, some very flexible rules for the game runner) and making the game simpler–There are really only three different types of actions in the game. We’ve also worked on pacing–the original rules resulted in a very, very long game when run with cautious players! Now there’s a cap of 4 scenes/day, which forces action and fast gameplay.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Stuart: The biggest challenge has honestly been juggling development with a more-than-full-time job running a non-profit, running a DCC RPG campaign, and researching for a dozen other gaming things I want to write.

That and staying sober enough during playtests to take accurate notes.

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Stuart: I never really played tabletop games as a kid but I designed a few. They were really, really bad. I made a few small-potatoes video games but the only one I really enjoyed doing was an interactive fiction game where you had to break GWAR out of prison so they could play a show in your town that night. I think the game ended with you being killed one of a number of ways on stage during the show.

As a full-grown adult, I think the impetus for game design has come from being a lawyer (and thus thinking all the time about how rules work together to produce strategies and outcomes) as well as deep dissatisfaction with DMing a high-level 3.5 campaign. That turned into a general discussion of “well what do I want out of a game? What do my players want?” which turned into a bunch of projects.

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Stuart: Probably when my playtesters decided to go undercover as high school students to solve a crime and one of them ended up riding a horse up a catwalk with a shotgun and getting shot to death. That and getting my dad to say “dungeons and dragons” over the telephone.

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

Stuart: I currently run an environmental advocacy non-profit, I read and bicycle a lot (not at the same time), i’m teaching myself Russian, i brew beer, I have a cocker spaniel named Luther, I’m in love with an opera singer. That pretty much sums it up.

GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

Stuart: I have a few OSR modules in the works, including a really cool one where real-world time serves as the mechanism for determining encounters and stuff. Also a more traditional D&D game except heavily inspired by how I falsely remember the early nineties. All magic users are dogs, and you can also play a pizza summoner.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Stuart: I’ve been playing a lot of DCC RPG with my friends. It’s great! There’s an occasional game of Power Grid that happens, which is fun. We’re playing Call of Cthulhu as well, which is fun but not quite a great fit for our huge, rowdy gaming group. I think I’m going to try to run Dread soon.

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Stuart: I want to make a game that’s basically the inverse of Settlers of Catan–you live on an over-developed island and you’re an ecoterrorist trying to destroy industrial infrastructure. Or something like that.

GDC: A word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Stuart: Stay weird. And send me stuff to playtest.

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Stuart: My playtesters have been absolutely fantastic. Also the Wizards Wagon in St. Louis for letting me run a game demo on like zero notice. Finally, a special thanks to my upstairs neighbor Zach.

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).


GDC: Thanks Stuart! Be sure to check out Three Days Until Retirement on Kickstarter!


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