Conspiracies Atop A Wandering God: David Johnson’s Gathox Vertical Slum (Pt 1)

I continue my interview series, talking with David Johnson about Gathox Vertical Slum, the newest announced project from the Hydra Cooperative.

HK: Please introduce yourself and give us the elevator pitch for Gathox Vertical Slum.

DJ: Howdy! I’m David Johnson and I’m an illustrator. I also love to write and play games. I’ve written and continue to run a weekly home game called Gathox Vertical Slum. Gathox is a densely packed city ravaged by gangland warfare, and inhabited by humans, mutants, aliens, and worse. The city grows on the back of a massive, lumbering godling, also called Gathox, which wanders from planet to planet, devouring resources and pursuing it’s own inscrutable ends.

HK: What are some of the major sources of inspiration that you drew upon in designing Gathox?

DJ: Recently I’ve been wondering if it doesn’t go all the way back to Blade Runner, with it’s lonely, crowded vertical shots. That aside, a few years ago I first learned about the Tower of David down in Caracas, this unfinished skyscraper that became home to thousands of impoverished Venezuelans. They ran their own internal governing bodies and resources, which immediately got my gaming gears turning.

Then I fell down the rabbit hole and learned about the Kowloon Walled City. It was the most densely populated place on earth in its day, completely lawless and shockingly functional. And I couldn’t find anyone who had done any real world building with that, nothing that I could just use at the table the way I wanted.

Other influences include body horror, Arzach, American roadside attractions, H.O.L., and utility.

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HK: What are some of the ways that Gathox departs from ‘standard’ fantasy?

DJ: Well, there’s Vancian magic and swords and watering holes, so that’s the familiar territory – but it more or less ends there. You’ve got aliens with absurd rockets waiting to return home, 24-hour dance halls, casino drug dens with animatronic shows, gym gangs, and other unholy pairings of danger and humor. There’s elves, but there’s no elves – just a gang of machine-gun toting drug dealers whose leader makes them wear prosthetic elf ears because of an ancient children’s book.

HK: How has Gathox evolved, both mechanically and as a setting, since its inception? What’s changed, and what have you stuck with?Holema Pak

DJ: Oh boy – three years ago, I had written about ten pages of ideas for a thing called “The Sinking World.” There were some good ideas in there, like a wilderness hex crawl that procedurally generated new territory based on things that players would write down about their PCs (I still plan to use that someday), but all in all I realized I was spending too much time thinking about the diegetic reasoning and micro-details of a world that likely no one was going to give a squat about playing. So I kept the files and scrapped the project, although I pulled some of the ideas about psychic energy and godlings into Gathox.

Instead of building big, I just started making things I knew I would need to run games for friends. I devised classes and continually revised them through playtesting. The Mutant class got a significant overhaul – you could probably roll a D100 table of D100 mutation tables that have been created, and for the sanity of everyone involved in game, I had to largely reinvent what mutants meant to the world. I revised the gang territory rules several times to come up with something playable and easily grasped by the table during game. Spells and powers got revised, monsters got adjusted; really, there’s no way, at least for me, to get it right without playing it consistently.

Mehlud the SplinterHK: How does Gathox’s environment (urban and/or extraplanar) shape campaign play? What factors, if any, are important for GMs to consider when running it?

DJ: A densely packed urban setting means constant potential for conflict – in any neutral or hostile territory, the chances of street encounters go up, and on occasion players have taken to roaming the streets for its own sake. So many dungeon delves deal with these really wide levels, which becomes much more difficult in a small footprint city, so interior adventure spaces become verticalized. That means that encounters by zone are much more useful than by floor level.

The domain game, in this case the gangland game, can start right from level 1, so the consequences of that need to be kept in mind. What do the players understand about competing gangs, and do they consider that when they go on a mission? Are the players earning or losing Reputation, and how are they spending it? What enemies have they made in the course of building their gang? What are other gangs doing to defend or expand their territory? These are questions I don’t have a procedural way to resolve, so they demand the most time and energy from a GM.

For each week of gameplay, I release a Dregs Weekly newspaper statement which gives hints as to what the other gangs are doing, as well as leads on jobs in the case that players want to shift gears, which has the added benefit of forcing me to ask all the questions above. I do my best to check in with the players and see what they want to be doing in game, which shifts from time to time and also keeps me from making too many things that never see the light of day.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of the interview! And don’t forget to check out Dave’s Mutants of Gathox blog, devoted to the project! -HK