Interview with James Knevitt – City of Clocks

The City of Clocks Fantasy Systemless Setting is currently on Kickstarter and doing well! City of Clocks is a systemless industrial fantasy setting focused on a massive city, rich in history, on the brink of a massive internal conflict.

I had a chance to ask a few questions of James Knevitt, creator of the original City of Clocks and the one responsible for this Kickstarter project.

When did you start gaming?

My earliest memories of gaming are playing Red Box D&D with family friends in the late 80’s, as well as fantasy-style boardgames like HeroQuest. I transitioned pretty quickly to AD&D and its later editions. My formative years in the 90’s were spent playing 2nd edition D&D, the old Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, TORG, d6 Star Wars, the various World of Darkness games as they were released, and a handful of others; there was a lot of minis stuff in there too like Warhammer 40,000 (I started with the original “Rogue Trader” book) and Silent Death. I did get into CCGs for a while, starting with Magic and branching out into a whole bunch of others too, like L5R, Mechwarrior, Cyberpunk, Babylon 5, and Deadlands: Doomtown. In the late 90’s I started to explore games like Cyberpunk, Mechwarrior/Battletech and Shadowrun as my gaming self caught up with my fiction-reading self.

What systems influenced you early on?

Certainly earlier editions of D&D, as well as Cyberpunk 2013/2020, the World of Darkness system and its various permutations, and Legend of the Five Rings. I’m constantly drawing inspiration and ideas from systems that run the lifetime of the hobby but there’s a certain fundamental truth to the games that I’ve mentioned that seems to always work itself into my current thinking.

More recently (in the last 10 years or so) games like Exalted, Nobilis, expanded BRP systems like Legend, and Unknown Armies have all colored my current design attitude to a certain degree.

Tell us a bit about what you’ve done in the gaming industry. How did you “break in” to it, and what do you have available for others to play?

In a manner of speaking, City of Clocks is actually my first project I started. I can’t really recall what inspired me to start writing it as a product, but the core idea comes from a very strange conversation about Barbarella and a friend’s 7th Sea game. I pitched it to Dream Pod 9 early on as a sort of Eberron-killer (oh, the folly of youth), at a time when they were open to new ideas, and that’s what really got my foot in the door. The fact that the DP9 guys in those days (Robert Dubois, Marc-Alexandre Vezina, and others) were willing to take a gamble on me is something I’ll always be thankful for. City of Clocks also wouldn’t be where it is today if not for my former collaborators on the setting, Nick Pilon and John Buckmaster. After things fell through with DP9 I tried my hand at a bit of indie game design but nothing ever really came of it (although some of the ideas I had would probably still be good today).

It wasn’t until early 2010 that I decided I wanted to be really serious about working in the industry. Some random connections referred me to Allen Varney, who sponsored me for an industry mailing list. From there I posted that I was looking for editing work (since I’m a technical writer by trade) and Shane Ivey from Arc Dream Publishing was willing to give me a shot. That’s what really kicked the door open for me. Since then I’ve been working with Shane on Arc Dream products (I’m now the ORE Line Editor for Arc Dream), as well as writing for Cubicle 7’s Laundry RPG, Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green, and Posthuman Studios’ Eclipse Phase. City of Clocks is my first solo product, though, so it’s a little nerve-wracking. It will succeed or fail on its own merits.

Let’s talk a little bit about mechanics – what are the crunchy bits you like about gaming?

More skills (for the payment of bills)! I’m a sucker for skill-based systems. Even though I grew up with D&D, I’ve grown out of love with a flat single-die roll to determine things. I still love D&D dearly, but the mechanics aren’t really my thing. I’m very fond of dice pool systems; I blame White Wolf for that, especially games like Exalted where you need a bucket to carry your dice in. It’s a natural fit for me to be working with the One-Roll Engine as featured in Arc Dream’s products, since I think it’s near to the pinnacle of possible die pool mechanics. It would be a challenge to come up with anything better. (Greg Stolze is the architect of the One-Roll Engine and he deserves a shout-out here.)

I like structure in my games, which is why things like FATE don’t really click with me. That said, too much structure is a bad thing. If you give players the freedom to be awesome, the mechanics should support it but shouldn’t stifle it. I still draw a lot of mechanical inspiration from CCGs when I’m messing around with ideas, as I think there’s a lot of valuable mechanics innovations happening that can carry over to RPGs without the drama that could possibly come with it.

How about themes – what do you tend to create and how strongly do the themes influence the mechanics, or the other way around?

Ideas come first. I ask, “Is this awesome and will my editor allow it?” Then I write up mechanics. I treat mechanics like a toolkit; they make the ideas fly, but mechanics on their own aren’t enough. There has to be an interesting idea to go with it.

With regard to themes, I always come back to man’s inhumanity to man. That’s the most compelling idea for me and it’s something I think comes across in my writing. We are a pinnacle of evolution but we can’t help screwing each other over all the time. Institutional dynamics are fascinating. I’m also a hopeless optimist, so when things fall apart I’m always disappointed, but that means I have more fuel for writing.

Another theme that absolutely grabs me every time is the notion of “letting the genie out of the bottle,” releasing something that cannot be contained and that makes things messed up as a result, whether it be magic or technology or whatever. Magic especially. Magic is not a pleasant thing to be messing around with. I love the idea that magic is a force that is so large and powerful that one cannot comprehend its might. You can pull on it like a little string of taffy, teasing it out to do what you want with it, but pull on it too much and you’ll destroy the world. That idea — messing with things we simply cannot comprehend and thus failing to understand the inherent danger contained therein — that’s riveting.

For City of Clocks, there’s a big theme of “that which you create will destroy you.” It’s also a little odd in terms of genre. I have big issues with the current depiction of steampunk, so to call it steampunk is both inaccurate and makes me bristle a bit. It’s more industrial fantasy. Industrial, in the sense that there’s a focus on industry and how it can affect our lives, and fantasy because frankly, I made stuff up that couldn’t exist in our world. While there’s steampunk influences, it’s something different. It started out as my love letter to steampunk and it ended up as a “Dear John” letter.

How do you actually go about writing these things? Can you talk a little bit about the tools you use, and where you prefer to do your writing?

I wrote City of Clocks the way most folks write stuff — in Word. I write in fits and starts. I feel like I need to be in a good space to write. There were months when I didn’t write anything on City of Clocks, and then there were days when I’d hammer out 5,000 or 10,000 words. (They were terrible, but they were there.) I’m one of those writers who likes to be alone with their thoughts; the less distractions, the better. I’ll often listen to music to put me in the right frame of mind, and that varies from project to project.

Why create a systemless setting like City of Clocks? Or rather, why make it systemless?

Well, as noted earlier, it was pitched as a systemed setting, but after the project became detached from DP9, I was more interested in developing the world of the project rather than a proprietary system. As I wrote it, I felt that if a system would fit the setting then that would be great. If not, then it wasn’t meant to be. City of Clocks is one of those weird projects that doesn’t really lend itself to a given setting right off the bat, especially since the setting has gone through a lot of interactions since the DP9 days.

In writing it, I left things intentionally broad, and I think that’s important when creating a systemless setting. There needs to be wiggle room both for mechanics to work with the ideas presented, and for GMs and players to make the setting their own without having to rewrite huge chunks.

What are your thoughts on open development and open licenses? Things such as developing in public (through blogs, wikis, twitter, etc.) and licenses such as public domain, Creative Commons, and whatnot?

The open development movement that’s been gaining steam in the past few years is a great thing. It allows fans to contribute ideas and feel more invested in the final work, and for developers to understand what fans want. That then allows developers to meet fans half-way while still staying true to their design goals and setting ideas.

Creative Commons is wonderful. I think that artists (and by artists I include writers as well as musicians and visual artists) should be able to share and allow others to share their work if they want. Posthuman Studios’ CC license on Eclipse Phase is a model that other companies should look to. Open licenses for game development are a great innovation too. While we were drowning in d20 products in the early 2000’s, we’re now experiencing a boom in open licenses and design, and the more open licenses that exist, the better.

Gaming has always and will always go along with one thing in my mind: snacks. What are some of your favorite gaming snacks, and how important is it to strike a balance between great food and not getting cheesy poof dust on your books and cards?

Chips and salsa, lots of candy or chocolate, and keep the soda flowing. Given that we’re all adults at the gaming table, a beer or two, a bottle of wine, or a couple of splashes of something stronger aren’t bad things either. Every so often I’ll provide my players with a little extra like cupcakes or something. We don’t really differ from most other groups.

When it comes to not messing up gaming materials with food detritus: my players bring their own books, so that’s on them. 🙂 When there’s food and my books are involved, I just make sure to be clean when I’m handling them. They’re going to be on my shelf for years so I don’t want to be surprised five years down the road by cookie crumbs. I also use my iPad if I have PDFs of the books in question, so that helps too.

Tell us about where we can buy your games and read more about them.

For Arc Dream products I’ve worked on:
For Pagan Publishing products I’ve worked on:
For Posthuman Studios products I’ve worked on:
For Cublicle 7 products I’ve worked on:

Please buy direct from the company that produces the material you love (and I say this in general, not just for my work or even RPGs). Amazon is cheap (and I certainly use it a lot), but companies in our industry need all the love they can get, and the best appreciation a fan can show is buying direct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: