Interview: Mike Nystul – Axes and Anvils

Occasionally doing reviews and interviews I’ve had opportunities to talk/type to or visit with in person some amazing people in the role-playing game universe. Here at Game Knight Reviews I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging e-mails with folks like Creighton Broadhurst, Joseph Goodman, Martin Ralya, Johnn Four, Wolfgang Baur, and many others. But until now I’ve never interviewed someone whose name is part of  the D&D canon as part of a spell – Nystul‘s Magic Aura. Nystul is still a character in the Greyhawk world setting.

Mike Nystul (aka Alex Gray) has been a gamer from the age of 9 according to his bio on Castle Nystul. Since then he’s played or worked on just about every big game of the last 30 years I can think of and has worked for TSR, Hero Games, FASA, Iron Crown Enterprises, Steve Jackson Games, West End Games, White Wolf, and Mayfair Games to name a few… He took a break for a few years, but has come back with two crowd-funded Kickstarter projects – Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon and Axes and Anvils.

It’s Axes and Anvils that he contacted me about a week or so ago and I was more than happy to take a deeper look at his project all about dwarves. And he was kind enough to answer a few questions over e-mail as the project heads into its last few days at Kickstarter (there’s still time to get involved!)…

Q: First, thanks for agreeing to an interview! Axes and Anvils seems like the game many dwarf fans have been waiting forever for… Why now? And why dwarves?

My pleasure.

Well, originally I was going to add a generic fantasy system called Delve that I have been kicking around for some time as an add on to my Infinite Dungeon project. I started working on it and realized that the world needs another generic fantasy system like it needs udders and a top hat.

I reached out to my Backers (who are fast becoming an awesome community) and asked if they would mind if I substituted Delve for something more “out there” – the response was an enthusiastic “yes”.

As for “why Dwarves?” one reason is my brother, Bryan (a game designer in his own right). He is a massive fan of the beard and axe crowd. With The Hobbit looming large on the horizon he has been positively drooling over all things Dwarf so it eventually hit on me to give him what he (and apparently a lot of other people) have been looking for all along. A Dwarf centric rpg.

Q: Are you surprised by the frenzy on Kickstarter? Your initial goal was $1k and you’ve almost achieved 18x that original goal!

Yes and no. Considering it’s origins this project has performed very well and very quickly but a lot of work goes into a Kickstarter campaign. In my case, at least 3 to 4 hrs a day, so I have seen the groundswell form. I’m very pleased that I seemed to have struck a chord with so many folks.

Q: How has your work on Dungeons & Dragons (“Nystul’s Magic Aura”), BattleTech (MechWarrior 2nd Edition), and Whispering Vault prepared you for working on this crowd-funded game project about a grand race of mining, drinking, fighting stout brothers in arms?

Having served in many roles over the years I am able to do a lot myself and I have the organizational skills to work effectively with others to do what I cannot or simply don’t have the time to do myself. Collaboration is my favorite part of the job. I love when I have the opportunity to work with old FASA cronies like Jeff Laubenstein, Jim Nelson, Joel Biske and Mike Nielson – all of whom are currently involved with Axes and Anvils and the Infinite Dungeon.

Q: The art from artist Jeff Laubenstein is gorgeous on the Kickstarter project page. Can you give any hints about the art that we’ll see in the Axes and Anvils books?

Sure can. I’m looking into incorporating the two color sketch book style you saw in the Kickstarter throughout the entire book. There will also be at least 8 pages of full color – possibly 12 or more. These things are going to be – what’s a good word? Luscious. Yes – luscious.

Q: How much help will you have developing the game and future products? 

I have a great playtest team that includes several tenured designers. The community that has sprung up around both of these projects is also very supportive and helpful. As long as there is work for hire and I have such a great network of talented friends I’m never alone : )

Q: The rules overview in the FAQ at the bottom of the Kickstarter project page whet my appetite as far as game mechanics goes. A simple (but deep) system is key to speedy adoption. If the D12 is used to resolve most actions, do you have a feel for how long combats will take?

I tested a battle between a party of 5 dwarves (who were escorting 2 wagons of Franglebrew) and 25 goblins. We use “combat roles’ to determine what kinds of actions each character can take. For example “Vanguard” characters are good at defense and can suck up a lot of damage while “Leaders” are versatile and can lend actions to their allies. From first sighting to last blow was was something like a half an hour that moved well. Everyone was engaged and interested. It was great fun.

Q: Why develop your own system rather than going with an established one such as D&D or Pathfinder?

My Infinite Dungeon project uses Pathfinder. I like Pathfinder and it does what it does well. I have always favored systems that have just enough rules to evoke the setting and the genre. By paring close to the bone
and tailoring every decision with a goal in mind you can create something that gives the players a good feel for the genre. Ultimately that’s all a system is. We all know how to pretend. The system exists to give us a framework to pretend in. For example, where I set the damage for ranged weapons and how they are used was influenced by the fact that most Dwarves prefer to weigh into close combat. I also have a mechanic called Resolve that represents Dwarven tenacity (stubbornness).

Q: The concept of “Clan” and community reminds me quite a bit of the “Fellowship” concept in Cubicle 7’s The One Ring. In your playtesting, how has the group dynamic developed over time? How ingrained is it as part of the system and how powerful to the clans become over time?

LOL first I have heard about that. Guess I shouldn’t call my adventuring parties “Fellowships” eh? (I had planned to). The group is key to the feel of the game. We is more important than we. Individuals can acquire abilities that make them not only more useful on their own, but more useful as a member of a group. One of the long term goals of a campaign is for the player’s Clan to gain enough Influence to put their Thane on the throne of the Dwarf King.

Q: What are your goals for Axes and Anvils after the first products are released? A “Dwarf Con” is a tremendous goal out of the gates. Where do you see the game a year from now? 2 years? 5 years?

I’m focused on the now but this project definitely has legs. I have to see what happens on the road to getting it into retail stores, but I know I want to support it and have discussed some possibilities with Jeff who is on board and very excited about the prospects. In addition to expanding the setting from the Dwarven perspective we may see equally focused (but compatible) systems for some of the other races.

Q: We all know dwarves are fond of their various brews. Will there be a chapter dedicated to their love of grog or future supplements along those lines?

LOL Brew plays an important part in Dwarven culture. A Brewmaster is an important NPC player Clans can recruit as part of the development of their Clan Hold. Brew and drinking songs can even be used to restore a character’s lost Resolve. We will have downloadable songs and sing along sheets available on the web site for those who are so inclined. The tankard is also important. I suggest everyone have one at hand and when a critical is rolled everyone should cheer and drink deeply! Seeing gamers cheering wildly then slamming back a drink has been very satisfying.

Q: If there is one question you weren’t asked that you’d like to answer, what would that question and answer be?

So how do I become a Backer?

Well until August 11th you can look for Axes and Anvils on Kickstarter. Tell your friends!!


A huge thank you goes out to Mike for kindly agreeing to answer these questions. Best of luck to him on Axes and Anvils and the last few days of the Kickstarter!!

For more about Axes and Anvils, check out the Kickstarter project page.

For more about Mike and some of his other projects, check out Castle Nystul.


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