Anders Blixt wrote some of the most beloved RPG books during the 1980s when BRP ruled Sweden. In many ways, he is the elder statesman of Swedish roleplaying. I reached out to talk to him about Traveller, translating Call of Cthulhu and his first BRP game in English.
The first I read of your work was a scenario for Traveller in the mid-1980s. How come you ended up writing for Traveller?
I have always been a teller of tall tales. As a schoolboy in the 1960s and 1970s, I challenged my teachers in Swedish, English, and German with essays about science fiction or fantasy topics. I encountered Dungeons & Dragons in 1977 at Sweden’s first wargaming convention – that game instantly ignited my imagination.
In 1978, I began GM’ing Traveller because I prefer science fiction to swords & sorcery. For four years, I ran a campaign in which several teams of adventurers crisscrossed the fringe of a space imperium. My inspiration was stories by Brian Stableford, Alistair MacLean, Jerry Pournelle and Poul Anderson.
In June 1979, I was drafted for 11 months as in the army, serving as a clerk in a medical unit. A boring time, but I had access to typewriters and my sergeant-major accepted my writing for my hobby as long as I carried out my regular duties diligently.
That summer, GDW launched the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society (JTAS) and asked for contributions. I had lived for a while in the United States, so writing in English didn’t faze me. So, I wrote The Werewolf Disease adventure and mailed it to JTAS. A few months later, I received a kind acceptance letter from its editor Loren Wiseman with a cheque – my first professional sale. My adventure appeared in JTAS #5 in 1980.
Over next five years, I sent Loren articles on many Traveller subjects, for example Anglic dialects in the Imperium, the Darrian culture, and various patrons and adversaries. He accepted some and rejected others, always with a polite explanatory letter. I am particularly proud of my Darrian article, which outlined an unusual human culture.
JTAS from 1983 with Chariots of Fire
by Anders Blixt
Alongside Traveller, you wrote for the Swedish RPG Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons).
In the 1980s, Sweden experienced an amazing roleplaying boom thanks to the 1982 launch of the Drakar och Demoner fantasy RPG by Target Games. It started as a licensed translation of Chaosium’s MagicWorld but quickly evolved into a different species. During those years, Target Games dominated the Swedish RPG market thanks to its efficient production and marketing.
In 1984, the company needed an editor dedicated to developing new RPG products. They hired me because I was an experienced fanzine publisher, Traveller writer and convention organiser. At the office, we were a team of guys in our twenties at our first “real jobs”, and the world seemed ours to explore.
Target Games’s production crew consisted of 4-6 people doing writing, editing, illustrations, and graphic production, plus a network of freelancers. My job was to supervise the development of new products. We selected projects at coffee-fuelled brainstorming sessions. Then, our freelancers and I wrote content while the art & design team made layout and illustrations by hand (no DTP software in those days). Our pace was hectic because our customers demanded more and more and more.
It was a golden age: in four-five years roleplaying grew from an obscure hobby among college students to a major pastime for teenagers. In the late 1980s, our sales figures rivalled those of major American game publishers (except for TSR that played in a league of its own) even though Sweden’s population was smaller than New York City’s.
We launched a new product line almost every year to maintain our market domination: generic fantasy Drakar och Demoner, postapocalyptic Mutant, gothic horror Chock (a translation of Pacesetter’s Chill), Iron Crown’s Middle-earth Roleplaying in Swedish, and West End Game’s Star Wars D6 in Swedish.
From left to right: The first monster book (1985), Expert box (1985) and the Ereb Altor (1989) campaign – all three for Drakar och Demoner.
Your new game, Expert Nova, is a fresh but highly recognisable take on BRP. What inspired you to return to BRP?
Expert Nova is my own project, developed during the summer of 2019 with artwork by my adult daughter Elin Blixt, an art & design student. I am proud that I have provided her first professional opportunity.
In 2017-2019, my life underwent several changes, some good, others sad. I recognised that I now would be able to spend my time – “I have the means; I have the technology!” – doing what I genuinely wanted: creating games and science fiction novels.
So, one year ago, I retired from tech-writing and assembled a sprawling set of game design notes that I had written over many years. They formed the basis for Expert Nova. I designed my new game for contemporary settings, because I enjoy playing and GM’ing adventures taking place in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Expert Nova’s name originates with Expert Drakar och Demoner, a best-selling fantasy RPG that I wrote in 1985; Swedish gamers consistently rank it as my best RPG. “Nova” is Latin for “new”, and that’s because Expert Nova uses a sleek modernised variant of those old BRP 1d20 rules that once were the bedrock of Swedish role-playing.
BRP is the only system providing the flexibility I require. It has a unique “LEGO” character: you can add and remove rule blocks without disrupting BRP’s general functionality, for example a block on psionics for a science/horror campaign or a block on cinematic stunts for a pulp campaign.
Expert Nova, Anders Blixt's first BRP game
The term KSR, Classic Swedish Roleplaying, has been coined much later to describe some fundamental ideas of the early games. You use some of the ideas in Expert Nova. How would you describe KSR?
When Target Games established the Swedish RPG industry in the 1980s, we got much inspiration from elements of popular culture that all Swedish teenagers in those days were familiar with, for example, the novels Lord of the Rings and Röde Orm (The Long Ships); Shogun and other bestsellers by Richard Clavell; the comic book hero The Phantom; and the 1982 movie Ivanhoe. Tens of thousands of Swedish gamers then used our games to develop the distinctive KSR lore.
I would characterise KSR by:
- Action is skill-based and character levels aren’t used.
- Adventurers are medium-powered: their Hit Points usually don’t increase; they don’t get nuclear magic or tech; combat is dangerous.
- Brains before brawn: cleverness and social interaction generally pays off.
- You select a genre that will define your setting; adventures are open-ended with plenty of problem-solving; campaigns combine broad vistas and flexibility.
From left to right: Mutant 2 (1986) – the forerunner to Mutant: Year Zero – Wastelands (1990) and finally Hotel Imperator (2015) by Free League.
In the game, you have combined skills and careers into one elegant mechanic.
I have played in the same gaming group since 1985. Our home-made campaigns use a house version of BRP 1D100. It is skill-heavy, just like RuneQuest: a veteran adventurer possesses 30-40 narrow skills. A lot of them have similar skill values and many are used only once or twice in a campaign. I find this arrangement up tedious and “cost-ineffective”, but my fellow game masters won’t budge a centimetre.
When I was a conscript soldier, all recruits learned the same basic subjects in boot camp: drill, marching, fieldworks, shooting, equipment maintenance, radio communications, etc. Afterwards, we switched to specialty training, in my case how to do paperwork and handle crates of medical equipment in the field. My brother-in-law Fredrik was a sapper and learned how to blast things to pieces, whereas my buddy Magnus joined the army reserve and became a lieutenant in charge of a mortar platoon. We acquired the same general skill for all basic military subjects plus a unique expertise on top.
When designing Expert Nova, I reviewed my military experience and concluded an adventurer doesn't need a list of many narrow military skills with similar percentages; instead, let’s fuse them together as Soldier (Expertise). An adventurer may get one expertise to each skill. When she uses her specialty, she gets a bonus to her skill value.
Expert Nova uses 1T20 for skill rolls, so I’ve made that a +3 bonus. For example, my 11 months in the army might have produced Soldier 12 with military admin at 15, whereas Magnus, who served for 24 months, should get Soldier 16 with mortars at 19.
That same rationale applies to other skills. I worked for many years as a science journalist, which entailed writing, interviewing, desk-top publishing, research, and networking. This way, I acquired a broad Journalist skill, with research as my expertise, probably Journalist 15 (Research 18).
Using this arrangement, I concluded that about twenty skills should suffice for most Expert Nova settings. Each skill is named for a profession (Acrobat) rather than for an action (Climbing) because I want to indicate its width, for example Chauffeur (driving, basic mechanics, map-reading, etc) and Medic (diagnosis, treatment, pharmacology, surgery, etc). Some skills overlap partially; for example, Snoop and Pathfinder have significant differences, but an adventurer can use either one when moving silently or hiding in shadows.
You describe the mini-campaign at the end of the book as a pointcrawl. How would you describe a pointcrawl?
The adventurers travel between different points on a map and explore (“crawl”) each one thoroughly. The “point” might be a place (e.g. a derelict ship, a science facility, or a library), a person (e.g. an interview with an eye-witness) or an event with a limited duration (e.g. an art festival). That’s where the players spend gaming time, whereas you normally fast-forward when going between points.
A point should contain several nuggets of plot-related information, some easy to get hold of, others hard to acquire. Depending on the scenario, a cluster of points may be located in one metropolis (e.g. Berlin), in one region (e.g. Scotland), or during a limited time (e.g. during the World Cup finals of your favourite sport). At each point, the adventurers face social, physical, or mental challenges and, if successful, they acquire information that they need to move forward in the adventure.
Vital information should be available at more than one point, because if not, a failure at one place might block the adventurers from moving ahead along the plotline. An important clue might be hidden at three points, each in a different format, e.g. an oral eye-witness account, a fuzzy snapshot, or an article in a foreign language in a scholarly journal.
Whether the adventurers must “tick off” the points in a set order or in any order depends on the structure of the scenario. I like making sandboxes for the players, so I prefer the choose-your-own-path arrangement by which the players the gradually put together an information puzzle.
It sounds quite similar to a hexcrawl. What are the key differences?
Hexcrawls take place on a map and emphasises movements in the physical space that the adventurers explore. A pointcrawl, as I write them, focus on a core problem and how the adventurers acquire and analyse information about it in order to reach the closest possible approximation of the truth. I’d call it “exploring an information space” rather than investigating a physical space.
When I was secondary school student in the late 1970s, our physics teacher Mr Kjellander ran a two-hour lesson during which we studied “mechanical riddles”. Such a device consisted of a concealed adjustable mechanism (set manually by the teacher before the lesson), and various knobs and levers on the outside. We formed research teams, each with a unique device. Our task was to map how the levers and knobs on our device interacted without our seeing its interior.
We handed over our schematics at the end of the lesson, Mr Kjellander filed them away and told us that he was not interested in whether we had solved the riddles correctly, but rather that we had properly understood the scientific process, that is, creating a hypothesis, testing it, revising it, testing it again, and so on. (He also refused to open the devices because “that’s not how physics work”). An enjoyable educational challenge, and I keep its key insights in mind when I design pointcrawls.
Cover for the Swedish translation of Call of Cthulhu.
At the moment, you work on translations of both RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. Are they straight translations or will they differ from the English versions?
Swedish game publisher Eloso (disclaimer: I recently joined that company as a partner) is currently producing the Swedish editions of RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. We will add unique Swedish material to both.
Swedish Call of Cthulhu will be launched this Easter at Gothcon, Sweden’s largest RPG convention. Eloso’s setting is 1920s Sweden, and we have added plenty of domestic background, while cutting back on US-related information. We will also provide adventures taking place in Stockholm, along the rural Bohus coast in southwestern Sweden, and on Iceland.
Swedish RuneQuest is currently at an early development stage, where I am coining Swedish terminology. I worked for many years as a tech-writer and translator, so I know the importance of getting new terms right; to ensure that, I collaborate with Swedish Glorantha aficionado Johan Lundström. Eloso will map a few “white spots” somewhat to the north-west of Dragon Pass.
With a career spanning 40 years, Anders Blixt is truly one of the pioneers of Swedish roleplaying. With translations of Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest in the works and Expert Nova recently published, it looks like he has only begun.