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Cam Banks
Works at Atlas Games
Attended University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand
Lives in Saint Paul, MN
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Cam Banks

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My Big Pillar Of Fire Reading List

Over on my side table (and elsewhere) is the following stack of books to read for inspiration and information while working on #PillarOfFire . This should give you a hint of the overall aesthetic or themes, but there's a lot more going on, too.

* Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
* Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
* Ancillary Justice (read), Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy, Ann Beckie
* Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K LeGuin
* Afrofuturism, Yatasha L Womack
* Who Fears Death (read), Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor
* Lilith's Brood, Seed to Harvest, Octavia Butler
* Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (thanks +Jessica Hammer)
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I'd be happy to, but be warned that I may be kind of a hardass about Jewish representation.

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I love this piece by one of my best friends, +Amanda Valentine, not just because it mentions me a bunch (ha ha) but because it shows how persistence and consistency in your desired goals can bring rewards, especially when you take the risk to kick in a few doors along the way.

I think it's a few years old, now. Amanda's done even more things since. You can check out her work practically everywhere in the game publishing business. 
I broke down the door by offering my help. I broke down the door by working hard to make other people’s work better. I broke down the door by not stopping at what they asked me to do. I broke … Continue reading →
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That's a good read. What a legendary gaming group.

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Pillar of Fire: Tiers of Play and Managing Player/GM Expectations

A feature of #PillarofFire  that I particularly want to capitalize on in gameplay is that the rules operate on a three-tiered scale, ranging from the more immediate tactical level to strategic and then systemic. Depending on what scale a situation is operating at, a single die roll may have greater or lesser effect on the setting.

This allows you to consider how much you and your group care about fighting battles against rogue security forces, negotiating deals between rival collectives or Houses, or instituting sweeping technological and social changes. If you'd rather take care of a dispute with a single roll, then it's a strategic scale turn; if you're into drilling down and managing all of the bitter exchanges, rivalries, and fragile alliances on a settled moon with separate die rolls, then it's a tactical scale turn.

Being able to customize this kind of approach means the game can respond to the expectations of the GMs and players by having a more "traditional" multiple die roll series of "actions" in combat vs a single persuasion check to handle a debate approach that is common in a lot of other RPGs. Conversely, it'd be relatively easy to "scene resolve" a battle and "task resolve" an academic conference.

I don't actually use scene vs task resolution as framing here though since I think on some level what actually defines a scene or task or time increment is up to the group if I manage it this way. And that's a thing I actually want - and it's something I want both the GM and the players to have control over as the game plays out.
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This is interesting! I'm not sure I follow the difference between this and a codified approach to "framing," but I look forward to reading more. 

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A big hint about the future of Unknown Armies after the Kickstarter in today's update. Should generate a lot of discussion...
Beloved cabal,We're only a little over a week to go before the Unknown Armies Third Edition campaign draws to a close, but we're shooting for the moon. In this update I reveal a surprise new writer stretch goal, an exciting new way to contribute to the occult underground, and a big thank you to our retailer backers!New Stretch Goal: Kenneth Hite on Book Five: MineAnyone who knows obscure occult lore and eliptonic trivia knows Kenneth Hite, one ha...

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Satyagraha in Tabletop RPG

Current thoughts for #PillarofFire include how to successfully model compelling nonviolent direct action in RPGs.

Because Pillar of Fire doesn't have a physical/combat centric system, one which makes heavy use of Drives as a character trait, I'm able to recapture some of what +Josh Roby and I did with Smallville.

Essentially, you should be able to overcome or challenge the status quo in any given situation with a variety of tactics, including the use of soul force rather than physical force. Active noncompliance and compassionate resistance to oppression and subjugation.

I find this really interesting as a possible avenue to go down because I don't want Pillar of Fire to portray a universe where the only way to create lasting change is through violence. 
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I'm really excited about you taking on this task. If it's not about "representing-setting-and-external-consequences", it might be about "getting-the-setting-tied-into-character" (if that makes any sense).
And your work is among some of my favourite in this regard.

Also: sub ;-)

Cam Banks

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This is a great interview. Thanks +Brie Sheldon !

Five or So Questions with Greg Stolze on Unknown Armies Third Edition
I have been lucky enough today to have an interview with Greg Stolze! Greg, by Cam Banks' own words, is "the lead designer and writer of UA3 and co-creator of Unknown Armies since the dawn of gaming history. He's also the charming gent in the KS video." (I ...
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Thank you for helping me coordinate! 
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Pendragon in the Old West

* Art Pendrake, sharpshooter, US marshal, then sheriff and landowner, heir to Utah Pendrake
* Gwen Grant, his wife, daughter of wealthy landowner Leo Grant
* Lance Lake, his best friend and peerless shootist
* Guy Wayne, his protégé, leads the Roundtable Riders once Art settles down
* Gal Hadley, the perfect gunfighter
* Old Man Merle, Art’s advisor
* Percy Vale, always a searcher
* Morgan Faye, Art’s half-sister and bitter enemy
* Mortimer Dread, Art’s bastard son

Use Pendragon rules, including personality traits and passions. Replace “father’s class” tables etc with backgrounds, such as lawman, outlaw, cowboy, messenger, etc. Sub out combat skills for the following:


Change Glory to Reputation. Among other things, Reputation adds +1 per 1000 points to efforts to sway groups of people, avoid duels, win over local authorities, and stay alive.

Damage: Knife 3d6, Revolver & Saber 4d6, Shotgun & Rifle 5d6. Crit double damage.
Guns vs DEX, or if a gunfight use gun skill vs gun skill.
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This is such fertile ground. Pursue it.

Cam Banks

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Classic Runequest and Coming Full Circle

So I really love BRP as a system. I love Pendragon, I love Call of Cthulhu, and I love Elric! which was sort of once Stormbringer and then became Stormbringer again and then became Magic World.

I backed the recent Classic RQ Kickstarter and my copy of the freshly reprinted, delightfully hardbacked edition of Runequest 2nd Edition arrived while I was in Sweden. I've had about an hour at the most reading it and I'm struck again by how clean and wondrous it is, as both an artifact of its time and an RPG on its own in this time.

RuneQuest 6 (soon to be Mythras) is a terrific game but it's enormous. RuneQuest 3 is a great game but hindered by being wrenched halfway out of Glorantha and into a sort of quasi-classical Bronze Age period of Earth history. And I never really got into anything from Mongoose, though I am pleased that their efforts lead to OpenQuest and Renaissance and many other d100 works.

But it's RQ2 that I adore, and have never owned. It was one of the first RPGs I ever knew about, discovering it in the room of a boarder my grandmother had for a year who was a college student and kept enormous folders of notes on his own world. I didn't know what it was, though I'd been reading Fighting Fantasy books by Livingstone and Jackson. He had an AD&D DM's Guide 1st edition as well, but I think he was using it for charts and items and other stuff, because RQ was where he was completely invested.

All of my gaming life I think I've been tethered to that moment of discovery as a kid. I was a 10 year old, and in the following years I'd pick up Moldvay and Mentzer, run headlong into Hickman's Pharaoh, and eventually Dragonlance and other worlds. But to have RQ2 finally in my hands, reprinted as it was, dragonnewts and ducks and walktapi and more, is a lovely thing.

Here's where my old school is.
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I as lucky enough to purchase RQ2 when it first came out and fell in love immediately. The gloranthan setting was full of inspiring ideas and locations and the system is still one of the smoothest and best integrated I've ever known. I didn't like rq3 at all; neither the rules changes nor setting changes pleased me at all. I did use RQ as the basis for tonnes of stuff. I did an empire of the petal throne conversion, and a dark sun conversion. The longest running thing was a sci-fi conversion which eventually metamorphosed into my soon to be published Starguild rpg! I owe a lot to RQ2. 

Cam Banks

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Pillar of Fire post-Origins Report

So here I am in Sweden thinking about the five playtest sessions we ran of #PillarOfFire  last week in Columbus, OH for Origins Game Fair. I enlisted the assistance of +Renee Knipe to help me run the games, and she sat in on the Thursday morning one to see how it was (mostly) supposed to go.

I felt it was a pretty well received game! Lots of feedback, both of the system and the scenario, so I should be able to iterate the rules and scenario once again in time for the Gen Con sessions.

Key to the success of this game, I think, will be sorting out the economy of the charges that are used to activate Seraph powers and which then eventually go to the GM. Charges are generated as a result of dice rolls and are spent like any other game currency tends to be spent, but in PoF they are not quite the same as Fate Points or Plot Points. There are specific, distinct uses for them on every character sheet.

The GM side of the game needs more development and work, too, but I think I'm getting much closer to it working the way I want it to.

So, I have my work cut out for me in the near future, but I'm excited to see that the game appears both entertaining and viable!
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I learned so many words from RPGs, it's true!

Cam Banks

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This is terrific. I wonder where my games fall on this impossible trinity? I know for a fact that I favor Author as one of the core pillars of the stuff I design, but Audience too, because of the funky mechanics. Hmm.
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I'd say the Cortex Plus stuff is solidly Audience/Author,  between the ability to write long-form narrative prompts during chargen and through the funky dice mechanics. Specifically, Actor gets pushed to the back because the mechanics are so intensive. And I don't mean intensive in a bad way, but intensive as in there's a certain amount of handling involved any time they're brought up. Building and rolling a dice pool requires non-Actor deliberation. 

Cam Banks

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Did you know there was an Atlas Games page on G+? For some time now, it's mostly been one of those reshare sorts of situations that dupes a post on our blog to the feed, but I'm going to try and post more stuff there that's independent of our website, much as we're starting to do with Facebook and have done with Twitter for some time now.

If you have any thoughts on what sort of stuff you think would be good to see shared or posted there, leave a note in the comments. Thanks!
Hey folks. Unknown Armies 3 producer Cam Banks here, letting you know that in addition to all of the other great stuff that our Kickstarter backers have unlocked during this campaign, we've had our graphic designer Thomas Denagh whip up some icons, avatars, and wallpaper for use in your favorite devices and apps.

The link to these graphics, and to the playtest PDFs of the core three Unknown Armies Third Edition books, can be found in the first update on our Kickstarter page. Not already a backer? Why not join the cabal and see what all of the hype is about!…/unknown-armies-…/posts/1533510
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Being Too Clever

My friend and colleague +Jeff Tidball and I often have conversations about RPGs, mostly in terms of the ones we're working on. He frequently takes the position that it's possible for a designer to be too clever with their rules design, such that too many obstacles are created to learning the game (you're trying to do this fiddly dice trick, AND the characters are non-standard, AND the setting is weird, AND you don't like GM screens Cam, what is wrong with you). This also applies, I think, to your intent as a designer for how the game is to be played.

We are learning with the new edition of Unknown Armies that it's really helpful to be up front with how the game is intended to be played, and provide some structure for that. Folks are going to ignore that if they like, or express their opinion that it'd be better if the game was intended to be played in a different way, but it's a great idea to at least be honest.

I wonder if when designing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that I was not only trying to be too clever in places, but I also wasn't clear enough about how the game was supposed to be played. Because of our various mandates or expectations from Marvel, this was to primarily be a game where players would take existing characters and play out big Marvel events, making decisions for their characters that would maybe have the events turn out differently, etc.

To that end, I designed a game where XP was spent on unlocking story-level as well as character-level changes, such as a new power, a new base, a discovery of some new ally group, etc. XP wasn't supposed to be spent like it is in traditional campaign models. It was for influencing and building up the characters and story toward a big third act finish, determined by the players.

I'm sure many people wondered why character creation was, for the most part, "give your character the stats they should have." It was because you were expected to create a character who enters Act One as a fully-formed individual, with all of their powers and abilities at the level desired for the beginning of the story - powerful or not, experienced or not. When you were done, the character had been through a lot, and was very likely different.

However, for the next big event, just like in the comics, the creative team (the players and the GM/Watcher) might want new characters, or take the characters already played last time and discard story changes and elements that weren't as interesting or important. New power armor? OK, that's good, let's keep that, but let's toss out the awesome base and cast of thousands, because we want the character to go through a redemption arc, one that has them face the world more or less without their wealth and fame. New costume? Well, it was nice for dealing with last event's big bad villain, but now it doesn't really fit. Let's ditch it, and go back to the classics.

I'm not sure how much these design choices fully broadcast to folks how the game was supposed to work. People in some cases really didn't like how character creation worked. They didn't want to play existing characters. They didn't care about events. They wanted to make their own, new, often entirely random beginning level characters, and play week after week getting more powers or more abilities or more NPCs and more of a rogue's gallery. If there were story arcs, they were organic, created in the game by the decisions of players, or they were campaign sketches and outlines created by the GM.

Marvel Heroic wasn't that game. There are a LOT of super hero games that ARE that game. Perhaps, at the end of the day, I was being too clever in designing a game that challenged the traditional model not only of game rules but also the intended experience. I admit that it was mostly because I try so hard to fit the rules to the genre and the license, but I also think that I created a square peg for some gamers who really, really wanted it to plug a round hole.
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I'm kind of weird in my gaming circles for being the one person who thinks MHR is near-perfect for what it set out to do. I've made a few minor tweaks for long term play (I'm running a PbP game that hits its third birthday next month, and it's built around a non-canon X-Men setting), and but basically I run the game using the RAW.

The learning curve was steep - I'd never played a Cortex Plus game, and some of the rules organisation made it tricky to connect some points on the first few readings - but once the key points came together it just clicked.

Milestones, abstracting powers by dice sizes and tying them to the narrative, using SFX to tweak how powers work, the doom pool - this totally overturned my thoughts on how a supers game should work. And I just loved it.

Still do, actually. I have yet to find a system that hits what I want out of supers as well as MHR. 
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Game designer, writer, editor
  • Atlas Games
    RPG Director, 2013 - present
    Oversee & manage role playing game lines, including development & production.
  • Margaret Weis Productions
    Creative Director, 2007 - 2013
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Saint Paul, MN
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin - Auckland, New Zealand - State College, PA - North Shore, New Zealand - Lawrence, KS
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Born in the mythical antipodean utopia of New Zealand, wisely regarded by scholars as the fountainhead of cultural excellence and the only place on Earth capable of filling in for Middle Earth, Narnia, and Ancient Greece, Cam Banks was lured away by the siren call of a life with meaning and purpose. Cam now lives a quiet, pastoral existence in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his beautiful wife, their two sons, and a cat. He pays the bills by writing and editing role-playing games. In his free time, Cam likes to read and write fantasy fiction, watch movies and television with his wife, play video games with his oldest son, and allow his youngest son to chip away at his sanity.

Cam’s work has appeared in almost every one of over a dozen Dragonlance game sourcebooks published by Sovereign Press and Margaret Weis Productions, and twice in Dragon Magazine.
His work on the Bestiary of Krynn earned a silver ENnie Award in 2004 for Best Monster Supplement.

Following his work on Dragonlance, Cam has been involved in the design and editing of licensed roleplaying games based on Universal's Serenity and Battlestar Galactica, Dead Gentlemen's Demon Hunters, The CW's Supernatural and Smallville, TNT's Leverage, and Marvel Comics.

Cam's first short story, “Chain of Fools,” appears in the Dragonlance anthology Dragons of Time; Tracy Hickman Presents the Anvil of Time: The Sellsword (April 2008) is his first published novel.
  • University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand
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