5 Questions with Game Designer Grant Howitt!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Grant Howitt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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Grant is a prolific tabletop game designer who has created multi-book campaign settings and adventures, but is perhaps best known for his one-page roleplaying games, where he fits an entire game — objectives, setting, characters, rules, and other game details and stylistic flourishes — onto a single piece of paper!

He has built a reputation for clever design, irreverent campaign concepts, and topflight roleplaying experiences, and he’s currently putting all of those creative energies into Heart: The City Beneath, a recent Kickstarter success story.

Grant was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Grant Howitt

1. How did you get started with roleplaying games? When did you start designing your own games?

I got into RPGs back in 2000 – I saw a game of Vampire the Masquerade being played, and while I didn’t take part, I kind of fell in love with the possibility of the thing. I come from a wargaming and videogaming background, so the flexibility available to players blew my mind when I saw it done live. I didn’t actually play regularly for another six years, because my high school friends were too cool to do it, and I can’t blame them.

I started making my own games significantly before that. I wrote my first game in high school, a hack of a game called Zaibatsu that I got off an Angelfire website, and it reflects my 14-year-old obsession with marijuana, shooting two guns at once, and generally dicking about. (I still like all of those things but I feel like I’m expressing it in more subtle ways these days.)

I went on to write a Live-Action Roleplaying system called Zombie LARP at University with my friend Chris Taylor, who I now co-own an RPG business with alongside Mary Hamilton. (I’m married to Mary; it’s pretty cool running a business doing the thing you love most with the people you love most.)

honey heist

[Have you ever masterminded the world’s greatest heist while being a bear?
That’s the goal of Honey Heist, a one-page roleplaying game created by Howitt.]

2. Your games run the gamut from one-page works like the lighthearted Honey Heist and the tension-filled Wake to more complex and detailed games like One Last Job and Spire.

But one interesting thing aspect of your games is that there’s always an abundance of material to inspire the roleplaying part of the game. When designing the mechanics of a game, how do you find the sweet spot between necessity, efficiency, stylistic flair, and going overboard?

That’s a hell of a question! It’s tricky; you get to learn the feel for it after a while. Chris also reins me in a lot and helps me keep a handle on my excesses; he’s very much the yin to my yang. I think the goal is to make something that’s fun to read and that sparks ideas for adventures in the reader’s head – you’re giving them the keys to a fantasy world and guiding them to their own stories, rather than telling them something directly. So you can get loose with it and stitch things together with a theme rather than worrying about, you know, sentence structure and all that stuff.

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3. What are two games that have had a strong influence on your own roleplaying experience, either as a player or a game creator? And what two of your own games would you recommend that people try to widen their own gaming experience?

First off: Dogs in the Vineyard by D Vincent Baker, which is out of print now, but it taught me that games can be about one thing and do it perfectly rather than try to simulate any potential actions within a game world. It taught me a lot about abstraction. It’s hugely clever and one player character always ends up shooting another by the end of a session due to an argument about faith, and that’s extremely my bag.

Secondly: Wushu, by Dan Bayn, which is geared towards daft high-action explosive schlocky pulp play, but the system is so monumentally clever because it barely exists. The fascinating thing about Wushu is that it says “yes, you can do that” where most other games say “no, you can’t do that yet” which means that, after about three sessions, you end up burned out because no-one’s keeping you at arm’s length from your potential. I love it. It’s roleplaying cocaine.

And from myself? I think people should buy the most expensive ones, because I need a new pair of boots. (Actually? Read GENIUS LOCI which is about playing a cannibalistic post office god in 1960’s rural Southern England, because it’s not like anything else I’ve read or written, and that counts for something. And HAVOC BRIGADE, which is about an orc “infiltration” mission into a human city, and it’s legitimately some of the most fun I’ve had running a game due to the wild freedom afforded to players.)

heart cover resized

4. What’s next for Grant Howitt?

At the moment we’re getting Heart delivered to Kickstarter backers (you can pre-order it from our site here) and it’ll be delivered sometime in August) and that’s been a big creative drain – we put out the corebook and four sourcebooks alongside it in a few months.

So at present Chris and I are taking time to recharge, keeping the business ticking over (I’m still writing one game a month and don’t intend on stopping any time soon), commissioning works from other authors, and trying to centre ourselves to get perspective and write the Next Big Thing. We have a few ideas at present; maybe something set in the same world as Spire and Heart, maybe some sort of Deep South ghost-hunting game, or maybe something about eating magical materials to cast neat spells. I dunno just yet.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, roleplayers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Make stuff! It’s fun. Then of course the next part, which is just as important, is to release it. You have to get stuff out there, get eyes on it, help people make a relationship with your work.

I see a lot of games which have been in development for, like, a decade – and that’s too long for most projects, you wind up with something weird and ingrown and self-referentially exclusive. So release stuff that you’re unsure but excited about, because nothing is ever perfect, and try to have fun with it.


A huge thank you to Grant for his time. You can follow him on Twitter for updates on his latest projects, visit Rowan, Rook, and Decard for his impressive library of games, and if you enjoy his roleplaying creations, please consider joining his Patreon! There is literally no telling what he’ll create next!

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Eyes Open: Puzzle #4

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Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

The civil rights movement recently lost an important, influential person, a genuine icon for equality, perseverance, and hope. I had been working on a puzzle about this gentleman already, and his passing galvanized my resolve to finish this particular crossword.

I wanted to celebrate not only his legacy, but the legacy of another proud resister who stood for the same values and withstood the same blows, both physical and mental, to champion for equal rights and representation.

I also purposely abandoned the traditional diagonal symmetry of crosswords for left-right symmetry as part of a visual design element and thematic element to the puzzle. Solving the puzzle will not only reveal the subject of the puzzle (through the circled letters) and celebrate his incredible efforts, but offer a small, yet hopefully fitting tribute as well.

Even the title, “Because of you, John.” — inspired by President Obama’s words to the man himself — is meant in tribute.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more about this incredible individual on your own.

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[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

Lollapuzzoola 13 Is Near!

lolla logo

Saturday, August 15, marks the thirteenth annual Lollapuzzoola!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom would normally descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.”

This year, though, Lollapuzzoola has gone virtual and the entire tournament will be hosted in a solve-from-home format!

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The format is simple. Three divisions — Express (experienced solvers who have contended in or won tournaments before), Local (solvers with some experience), and Pairs/Groups (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

There’s also the Next Day Division, where you’re outside of tournament contention but you get the puzzles the next day to solve on your own!

With five tournament puzzles plus the championship round — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve!

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[Will we see virtual trophies this year?]

And speaking of money, it won’t cost you very much! Tickets to the live tournament are just $20. (The “Next Day” Division package is $10.)

With current plans to run from 12:30 to 7 PM, you’re getting a full day of puzzling directly from home, whether you’re competing on Saturday or solving on Sunday!

You can click here for all things Lollapuzzoola, and to check out last year’s tournament puzzles, click here for our in-depth review!

Are you planning on virtually attending Lollapuzzoola 13 or solving from home? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

Happy puzzling!


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Treasures Galore Await Puzzlers in Michigan!

johnny treasure

[Image courtesy of Johnny’s Treasure Quest.]

One famous treasure hunt might finally have ended, but another one has risen up in its place halfway across the country.

And unexpectedly, this new bright spot on the puzzly calendar has grown directly out of the darkness of the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.

I’ll give you the backstory first. J&M Jewelers has been a presence in Washington Township, Michigan, for decades as a local emporium for gold, silver, diamonds, and antiques, but unfortunately the store was forced to close due to the economic strains imposed by the state’s lockdown period.

With plenty of unsold inventory from the jewelry store just sitting around, owner Johnny Perri and his wife Amy came up with an ingenious way to salvage the situation…

A statewide treasure hunt.

Yes, the Perris have prepared actual treasure troves in places all around the state, and they have invited puzzlers and treasure seekers to accept the challenge of their Michigan-spanning “treasure quest.”

If you locate one of the hidden troves — marked by an X, of course — you can either keep the treasure as you find it or exchange it for its cash value with the organizers! How can you go wrong?

There are different quests in different counties on different days, and you need to sign up for your particular quest and pay a registration fee. Also, be sure to join their Facebook group for details.

Several of the quests have already sold out, so new ones have been added, but spots are going quickly!

Honestly, this is a pretty ingenious way to make the best out of a bad situation, allowing intrepid treasure hunters to embark on a puzzly adventure and help out a struggling business all at the same time.

The first of the treasure quests starts on August 1st, with more later in the month and others launching in September. (One was just announced for October as well!)

Good luck to all the aspiring treasure hunters out there. And to Johnny and Amy Perri, thank you for this marvelous puzzly adventure. We here at PuzzleNation wish you and your family all the best.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

The Fun Side of Crosswordese

Crossword.

Anyone who solves crosswords is familiar with some aspect of crosswordese, even if they don’t know it by that name. Crosswordese consists of words that appear frequently in puzzles, but not nearly as often in conversation or common use. My favorite variation on that definition is “words that crop up a lot in grids but are otherwise pretty useless.”

Part of becoming a better solver is building a personal lexicon of crosswordese and common crossword words so you’re not getting tripped up by the same obscurities, peculiarities, and cruciverbalist celebrities that so often occupy those black-and-white grids we enjoy.

Some of these words seem destined to remain obscure. ETUI will most likely never become commonplace. Most people don’t fence, and couldn’t tell an EPEE from a foil or a saber.

Oona-Chaplin

[Image courtesy of Celebs.Infoseemedia.com.]

Others are cyclical. OONA was Chaplin’s wife, until her granddaughter of the same name become a featured player in the first few seasons of Game of Thrones. Similarly, both ELSAS Lancaster and the movie feline have Frozen to thank for that name gaining new life in puzzles these days.

(Here’s hoping there’s a crop of Eastern-European actresses that will storm TV and film soon and breathe new life into clues for ONA, UNA, UTA, and OSA.)

But, for the most part, crosswordese evokes negative feelings. It’s easy to come up with a list of the words that irk us — the ones we’ve never encountered in the real world, or the ones that we simply cannot remember, even after filling them into a dozen grids or more.

But today I’d like to focus on the ones I do enjoy, the strange words I’ve learned through crossword solving and construction that have broadened my vocabulary and sent my mind down unexpected tangents and pathways I would’ve never otherwise wandered through.

edsel

[Image courtesy of Driving.ca.]

EDSEL

It’s amazing how a convenient letter pattern can keep an infamous failure in the minds of solvers decades and decades later. It was only manufactured for two years, and that was SIXTY years ago. And yet, whenever I see “Ford flop” or something similar as a clue, I always smile. It’s universal at this point.

NE’ER

There’s a lot of poetic license — see what I did there? — taken with poetry terms in crosswords, and most of them are well-and-truly overused. But for some reason, NEER ne’er bothers me. In fact, I enjoy seeing it. It probably has to do with “ne’er-do-well,” which is an incredibly fun term to throw around. It’s right up there with “deipnosophist” and “raconteur” as far as descriptive terms that need to make a comeback.

iago

[Image courtesy of Digital Spy.]

IAGO

He was first clued as a master manipulator from the works of Shakespeare, then as a conniving Disney sidekick who slowly turns toward the light over the course of the franchise. In either case, he’s a fascinating character whose handy combination of vowels ensures he’ll be a part of crosswords for years to come.

obiwanobi

[Images courtesy of StarWars.com and Polina Couture.]

OBI

As someone who is both a Star Wars fan and deeply interested in Japanese culture, I always enjoy when OBI makes an appearance in a grid. (More for the former reasons than the latter, if I’m being honest.)

In fact, this blog entry inspired me to search XWordInfo to see when OBI started being clued as part of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s name (twice, which is weird yet lyrical) and not just as a Japanese sash.

Although the character debuted in the first Star Wars film in 1977, his name wasn’t used in The New York Times crossword to clue OBI until 1990!

These are just the first common crossword entries that came to mind. There are a few others, not to mention all of the neat animals — mostly bird-related or African in origin — that crop up in crosswords. KEA and ROC, IBEX and ELAND, OKAPI and RATEL, just to name a few.

But now I turn the subject over to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. What are your favorite common crossword words or bits of crosswordese that appear in grids but don’t irk you? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

BosWords Crossword Tournament Goes Virtual This Weekend!

boswords online

Sunday, July 26th, from 12:30 to 5, puzzlers from all over will log in for the first virtual edition of the BosWords Tournament (and the fourth edition of the tournament overall)!

If you haven’t signed up yet, registration closes tonight at 11:59 PM!

With two divisions to choose from — Individual and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Andrea Carla Michaels, Amanda Rafkin, Sid Sivakumar, Andrea Yanes, Sam Trabucco, Rob Gonsalves, and Jennifer Lim.

For this virtual edition of the tournament, BosWords is asking for $10 for adults, $10 for pairs, and $5 for students to attend and compete, which is a serious bargain!

(And if you want to solve the puzzles but not compete, it’ll only cost you $5 for the puzzle packet, which you’ll receive Sunday night by email!)

You can visit the BosWords website for full details! And to check out our thoughts on last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!

Will you be virtually attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!