How A Harvard Grad Became a RPG Mogul & Created a Narcofiction RPG

Powered by Geek & Sundry

We’re counting down the days  International Tabletop Day 2018, happening this year on April 28th! As we get closer to the big day, we’ll be looking at the gamut of tabletop gaming, from the stories of the games we play to remarkable people who love them. Be sure to join in on the fun on April 28th on our official  ITTD Twitch Stream, hosted by Ivan van Norman and donate to  charity:water, the worthy cause we’re supporting this year.

Mark Diaz-Truman designs RPGs by day, and community organizes by night.  He’s the co-founder of Magpie Games, which produces amazing role-playing games like the ENnie Award-winning  Urban Shadows and the revolutionary  Bluebeard’s Bride. He’s worked on million dollar Kickstarters like 7th Sea: Second Edition. Mark helped found the Indie Game Developers Network in 2011, which is “an international volunteer trade organization that supports indie game developers making, publishing, and promoting fantastic games.” He’s also a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School who community organizes on the nights and weekends. Oh, and sometimes he also teaches philosophy. In short, he is one of the many hands shaping the face of gaming in the 21st century. Truman is a man of the mind, a designer, publisher, and activist whose work gamers need to know.

Mark Diaz-Truman, and his business/life partner Marissa Kelly.

Getting Up in Albuquerque

Truman was born in Albuquerque, and spent the 80’s and 90’s growing up on games like  Dungeons & Dragons and the iconic Mage: The Ascension. He said of the time, “I loved RPGs, but I never dreamed that I would get to work with the people who wrote the games I loved or even write a game myself.”

Instead, he went off to college, and came back with an idea. Low-income students who may be the first in their family to attend an institution of higher education face a number of hurdles before even setting foot in a college. Truman created Omniac Education which “taught ACT/SAT [prep] classes and did a lot of academic tutoring, serving something like 10,000+ kids over the ten years the business was open.”

Even though Truman knew he was changing the lives of his students, he was frustrated because “we didn’t seem to be moving the needle for the state as a whole.” Truman threw himself body, blood, and being into the work of education. Since both his parents were teachers, education, he said, ran in his veins. And the struggle to push students forward almost broke him. Truman said a particularly stressful summer nearly led to his hospitalization.

Frustrated he wasn’t doing more good for more people, and concerned for his health, Truman decided that he wanted to see if he could make more change by working “in the broader community.”

That’s why he applied to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to study public policy. And he got in.

Cambridge, Massachusetts and Its Malcontents

Cambridge, home of Harvard, is a labyrinth of red brick, libraries, and chain stores. The Kennedy School itself was a few blocks down John F. Kennedy Street, pinned between the stately Charles River, and an IHOP. Mark Diaz-Truman said, “I went to Harvard figuring that it would give me the answers, tell me what I needed to do to come back home and fix Albuquerque’s broken systems.” 

Of his experience studying public policy at the institution which certainly considers itself the best university in the world, Truman said,

My time at Harvard was alternatingly enraging and enlightening. The school is a bit like a Jedi training academy: there are amazing practitioners there in virtually every field that matters to social change. I took classes in philosophy, negotiations, organizing, and leadership that I don’t think you can find in one place anywhere else in the world. But I also came to realized that Harvard was a school for the rich, for those who are more interested in supporting the nonprofit industrial complex than local communities.

And Truman found the answers he was looking for in Cambridge, though they were not the answers he was expecting. Truman came to realize that he, a single human in the wide world, could not “fix” the broken systems of his hometown. He said, “Instead, I realized that I needed to invest in the institutions that connected those systems to the community. So much of my work since getting my Masters has been about building connections that will help communities work. We’re more alone than we’ve ever been, and we need a new generation of institutions to connect us to each other.”

Truman would go on to build these institutions, both for gamers and Muggles.

Rolling Dice in the Ivy League

And what was the role-playing situation like at the Kennedy School of Government? Thin on the ground.

Truman said, “I was shocked to find that a school full of public policy wonks actually contained very few nerds.” Most of his peers were student government types, not gamers. That said, they were open to trying it out. Truman once recruited a fourth player for a game of  Apocalypse World by sticking his head into the library and saying to a friend, “Hey, dude. You busy? I need someone to play a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game with me?”

Truman had more luck finding fellow nerds on the staff. His ethics professor, Dr. Chris Robichaud, was “a geek’s geek,” with an office thick with RPGs, action figures, and movie posters. Robichaud became a friend and mentor to Truman during his time at Harvard. He said, “We actually developed a zombie simulation as a crisis management training for Harvard’s Executive Education that we still run regularly. Our next session is in June 2018!”

Robichaud Power and Responsibility 1
Dr. Chris Robichaud and… Harvard Man?

And it was at Harvard that Truman began designing RPGs in earnest. He wrote  The Play’s the Thing, a Shakespearean role-playing game, and  Our Last Best Hope, an RPG which he hoped would “capture the feeling of the last session of a long, long campaign… without playing out the whole campaign.” Robichaud playtested the games, along with game designer Marissa Kelly, who is Truman’s business and life partner.

In 2011, he brought his desire to build institutions to the gaming world by helping to found the Indie Game Design Network. It was founded “to help developers organize their efforts and take collective action.” It also functions like a best practices resource for indie game designers. Want to know what printing companies offer good rates, or if there is an import tax on cards brought in from Canada? Someone in the IGDN will have the answer. The organization also offers mentorship programs, and diversity scholarships to send designers to game conferences. IGDN Kickstarters have raised over $2 million since the network’s inception.

Back in New Mexico

Truman returned home to Albuquerque and began putting his Ivy League education to use. He taught philosophy online through the Harvard Extension School, and began “doing local organizing with teachers’ unions and community groups.”

Yet gaming kept sucking him in. Magpie Games, the company he co-founded with Marissa Kelly, “scored some early hits.” Urban Shadows, the Powered by the Apocalypse game which he described as, “an urban fantasy roleplaying game in which the players portray characters struggling to survive in a dark urban environment drowning in supernatural politics, evoking works like Blade, The Dresden Files, Angel, and The Wire,” and I would describe as a 1990s-style urban horror game with 21st century mechanics that is ridiculously easy to run and play. Magpie had another hit with Kelly’s  Epyllion, a game where players take on the roles of young dragons in a fantasy world. By 2015, Magpie Kickstarted  Masks, a superhero game, and Truman found himself a full-time publisher and game designer. He said, “I was making games for a living, even though it had just started as a hobby!” Truman is still helping Albuquerque, but now he’s doing it by bringing gaming jobs to the city.

He’s also working to “lift up a generation of minority designers, and support a wide variety of designs and stories that I would never have even imagined possible just a few years ago.”

One of those stories is Truman’s current project,  Cartel which is now on Kickstarter.

Cartel 2

Growing up, Truman wanted to see himself and his culture reflected in the world of role-playing. He said, “Sure, I can play a Hispanic fighter in D&D, but that doesn’t mean that I’m really capturing anything about Mexico or Mexican-American culture. Cartel is a game about Mexico explicitly; you play ordinary people caught up in the drama and violence of the Sinaloa drug cartel, finding human moments amidst the sprawling catastrophe known as the War on Drugs. I think it’s my finest work as a designer.” The most striking thing about Truman’s design decisions in Cartel is that he puts conversation, not combat, front and center in the game. A gunfight in the game ends like a gunfight does in real-life, quickly, and with a body on the ground cooling to the ambient temperature of its surroundings. Conversation, and its threats, promises, and seductions, is where the game lives.

Most gamers grew up thinking that role-playing games were a great hobby, but no way to make a living. Truman is creating games, making a living doing it, and building institutions that will help future gamers make better RPGs while proving that gaming is an institution with the power to reach beyond the culture that birthed it.

Have you played a Truman game? Let us know in the comments below!  And be sure to  join us on April 28th on Twitch for our  International Tabletop Day stream hosted by Ivan van Norman, and help us support  charity:water to  raise money for a project to get water to a community of people who currently lack access to clean water.

Interested in more amazing 21st-century games?

Image Credits: Mark Diaz-Truman and Magpie Games

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on  Twitter, or on the  Plot Points podcast. you can read his novel about the only good orc  here.

Top Stories
More by Ben Riggs
Trending Topics