(Click Here to see our previous interview with AAW’s Claire Stricklin)
Today’s Tales From the Tavern is with Adventures A Week Lead Designer Thilo Graf. AAW has released new tabletop roleplaying game adventures to subscribers every week since 2012 and they collect many of these adventures in print volumes. Let’s hear from Thilo;
How did you get started playing TTRPGs? What was the first TTRPG you’ve played?
Hah, the response depends on the parameters used to define TTRPGs. As a kid, the usual make-believe games (“I have a shield”, “I’m immune to xyz”, etc.) somewhat frustrated me, so I “designed” characters and roles for my friends, with individual abilities, flaws and backgrounds; I also wrote stories for us to play through, but back then, I didn’t even know what a TTRPG was. My life changed radically when I encountered the German edition of 1st edition AD&D, so that’s what I’d call my “first” proper TTRPG.
What’s a TTRPG you’d recommend?
Oh, that’s a difficult one, as it hinges on the system and what I want to do with a specific story or campaign.
For high fantasy, I oscillate between PF1, D&D 5e and PF2. PF1 for its ability to present combat puzzles and tactical, epic encounters; D&D 5e for its sheer flexibility and ease of customization; PF2 for how beautifully streamlined it is, and how easily it lets one plot and tell a specific story.
For horror, I tend to gravitate to less rules-intense games, like Call of Cthulhu or customized OSR-systems.
For dark fantasy, I’ve grown rather fond of Best Left Buried.
For sword & sorcery-ish style gaming (think Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, etc.), I tend to use DCC (Dungeon Crawl Classics) and Forbidden Lands.
For no-fantasy or low-fantasy, I like the German old-school RPG Midgard and the Swedish 5e-based Dimmor & Borgar (which both are probably relatively unknown to the English-speaking audience).
Finally, I really adore Castle Falkenstein.
What was the first TTRPG company you wrote for and how did you get that first project?
I *think* my first paid gig was way back when, for Rite Publishing. Stephen D. Russell (R.I.P., my friend) asked the Rite Publishing patrons to design the concept for an antagonistic high-level adventuring party for the high-level sandbox Coliseum Morpheuon, and my pitch was chosen. I’m still incredibly honored to have a little bit of content in that book.
How did you get started doing reviews?
Essentially, I was just some guy who loved RPGs and who was incredibly frustrated by the glut of objectively bad material during the D&D 3.0/3.5-days. The gems that era produced required so much sifting through chaff to find them. Back then, I found that most reviews were very short and lacked the information I wanted or were sometimes even downright mean and belittling to the creators. When PF1 was announced, I was blown away by the cool and outré stuff the third-party publishing community did and thought I could make a difference. You know, highlight the unique material and provide constructive criticism. So, I started doing that.
What’s your favorite thing to write?
Oh, that depends on the specific day and my mood. Yeah, I know, a bit of a cop-out, but it’s the truth. I love myth-weaving and world-building, but I’m just as fond of writing grand stories and adventures. I enjoy making messed-up, deadly monsters. Finally, I like crafting rules. It’s just deeply satisfying to me.
What are some other hobbies you love besides TTRPGs?
That depends on my current obsession, I guess, but there are some hobbies that have stuck with me.
1) Books!! I’m a bibliophile and I collect and read all kinds of books, not just TTRPG supplements.
2) (Dark) Music! I need music to write, and it helps to keep me focused and prevents me from becoming overstimulated. If you see me out there in the real world, I’m likely to have headphones on; I have a huge record collection, and I’m one of the weird people who still carry their trusty MP3 player with hundreds of Gigabytes of metal, post punk and just plain weird music (Doom jazz, blackened country, Tom Lehrer, etc.) around, as there is simply not enough HD-space on my phone and I need to own music I listen to. So yeah, music, concerts, festivals, and the like keep me sane.
3) Hiking! There is no substitute for the feeling of being properly immersed in nature. At one point, I’d love to go hiking in the US and/or Canada.
What’s your favorite book? What’s a book you’d recommend for someone looking for their next read?
I don’t have a favorite book per se; rather I have an entire internalized canon. ;-P
I can *literally* talk your ear off about books you positively “need to read” for ages, so brace for impact. XD
Usually, I’d first ask for personal preferences regarding genres and for the languages you speak, as I consider e.g., the English translation of Goethe’s “Faust”, Kafka, Tarjei Vesaas “Is-slottet”, or Halldór Laxness’ “Kristnihald undir Jökli” not to be particularly compelling. The following thus only encompasses authors that write in English.
One additional caveat: I do gravitate towards darker themes and authors.
I am very fond of several obscure authors of contemporary weird/horror/occult fiction; in no particular order: Martin Locker, Colin Insole, Damian Murphy, Avalon Brantley, Ben Tweddell, Nicole Vasari, Mark Valentine, John Howard, to name a few. Among the classics, Arthur Machen’s “The Hill of Dreams” and Sarban’s collection “Ringstones” will always remain favorites of mine.
For dark fantasy focusing on myths and fairy tale themes, there is currently no way past the genius of Angela Slatter’s “Sourdough” books, while Catherynne M. Valente’s “Orphan’s Tales” and “Prester John” duologies are both very good.
My favorite gaming-adjacent fantasy book last year was Forrest Aguirre’s “Heraclix & Pomp”—an all-around good time and unpretentious fun that feels like it comes straight from the gaming table.
Beyond traditional gaming-related genres:
Regarding philosophy, I tend to recommend Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Cioran as life-altering experiences. Only embark on a journey through Cioran’s works if you are mentally stable, though. “Gödel Escher Bach” is another such life-changing and challenging book I heartily recommend.
Julian Barnes’ “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” helped me come to terms with my own mortality and is a stand-out book in an oeuvre that is full of modern classics; Stewart O’Nan is an incredibly empathetic contemporary voice of American fiction. His “Emily, Alone” and “Last Night at the Red Lobster” are incredibly touching books. I also enjoy the writing of Joyce Carol Oates; I recently had a blast with her “Broke Heart Blues” and her deconstruction of traditional gothic literature in “Bellefleur.”
If you’re in the market for something more experimental: Richard Skelton’s “And Then Gone” and “The Look Away” were downright fantastic experiences for me. Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” is one of the most frightening reading experiences I have had in my entire life, and his “Only Revolutions” is a genius experimental road novel/dive into America’s soul.
Speaking of which: I ADORE Beat literature (I actually own a City Lights t-shirt), so Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, Diane DiPrima’s “Loba”, and Burroughs’ “Queer/Yage Letters/Naked Lunch” (do read Burroughs in sequence, if possible) are books I recommend a lot.
And don’t get me started on books from the fin-de-siècle, modernism, and post-modernism. I’ll never stop.
What’s your favorite part of working for AAW?
Hands down: The working climate! Working with friends, with kind, good people. And I don’t mean “friends” as in “folx you kinda know”, but rather “folx I consider to be family.” This also explicitly extends to our community on Discord and Kickstarter. When someone contacts me and tells me that my writing has brought joy to their table, tells me how they used my material, when someone thanks me for my work…it sounds sappy, but that really makes my day. Logging on to Facebook or Twitter fills me with crippling, existential dread and I have a pretty bad case of impostor syndrome, so having a community this supportive and kind is just AAWesome! (Seriously, if you read this and have contacted me before: Thank you! You made a difference in my life.)
What else would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you yet?
I have RPGs to thank for meeting the best people in my life; RPGs forged the most meaningful connections I have made as a human being. It’s no hyperbole when I say that RPGs were the lifeline that made me reach adulthood. I just want to give something back; to spread joy. If you’re reading this and you’re having a tough time: You’re not alone.