Interview with Paul Elliott
This interview originally appeared in Cepheus Journal #009, and reprinted with permission in the May/June 2023 issue of Freelance Traveller.
In my second interview with Cepheus Engine publishers, I had a virtual sitdown with Paul Elliott of Zozer Games. Another great publisher you should check out, let’s find out about Paul.
CJ: First up, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for our readers. Could you tell us when did you first get into roleplaying games, what was your first and what was your favourite?
PE: Hi! I started in around 1982, being invited into a D&D game, the classic Keep on the Borderlands module. It was amazing, and soon each of my friends had our own game. Mine was Classic Traveller – I’d always preferd SF to fantasy. It’s remained a favourite ever since.
CJ: Tell us a little bit about yourself, besides being an RPG publisher, what else do you do? What do you like to do in your downtime?
PE: My wife and I both work in local schools; she’s a teacher of the deaf and I’ve been a teaching assistant for twenty years, specialising in autistic behaviour. I’ve also been a writer of history books since the 1990s, with titles like Warrior Cults, Brotherhoods of Fear and Assassin.
In 2005 I got into historical reenactment and today have extensive weaponry, kit, and belongings for a Victorian artillery major, Bronze Age farmer, Iron Age warrior, auxiliary Roman infantryman, 3rd century Roman legionary and 4th century (‘Late’) Roman infantryman. I think of it as another form of roleplaying, since you need to have a person in mind, at a certain date and at a certain location. I still reenact! Readers might not know about my history writing; my books are listed at https://www.paulelliottbooks.com/historybooks.
CJ: How did you get into writing roleplaying games and what do you enjoy most about it? What inspiration do you draw from?
PE: I’m a referee, we all write new rules, don’t we? And writing new games developed from that. I wrote a mini setting for Traveller in 1988, a sort of American dystopia based on movies I’d seen. Cyberpunk came out a year later and I dropped Traveller for the next ten years … I like visuals, especially in movies, they get my imagination going
But literally anything can get a game idea going. I spent the late 90s with a great bunch of players and we were constantly writing oneshot games (settings and rules together) to run with each other. That was a real period of ‘hothouse’ games development that led to my two most popular games: Zenobia and Zaibatsu.
CJ: Zozer Games, how did that name come about?
PE: I was after a dialup email name when all that began, and even back then all the cool names were taken. I’d read a book on Egyptian history that used an alternative name for pharaoh Djoser, as ‘Zozer’, and went with that for my email and game company. It’s novel enough that a Google search for ‘zozer’ puts me at the top of the page.
CJ: Besides yourself, is there anyone else in Zozer Games? (If there is, what unique qualities do they bring to the company?)
PE: I have talented freelance partner called Ian Stead who has produced a lot of material for me. He’s a great Alien fan like myself, so when I mentioned an Alien-themed Cepheus setting, we became partners on the project. I usually do my own layout and design all the covers. I can create quite a bit of art for my Hostile setting with various Photoshop trickery. I’ve worked very closely with another game writer, Shawn Fisher, who has created ideas for new books wholesale. He is responsible for both the Synthetics and Colony Builder products; he’s a great guy who is also very easy to work with.
CJ: When was Zozer Games founded, what was your first product, which is your bestselling product and which product are you most proud of?
PE: Zozer Games published its first game in Summer 2011, GRUNT, a Vietnam War squad RPG with some innovative mechanics. Those mechanics made their way, years later into the Cepheusbased Modern War (2020), a game I am proudest of because it was the hardest I’d ever had to work on a setting. My biggest seller is the Cepheus supplement Solo, that enables solitaire play of Cepheus Engine. I’d like to expand on that book at some point in the future.
CJ: Zozer Games has a quite a range of diverse settings and rules, was there a plan for how these titles came out, or just an organic growth, or maybe something else?
PE: No, I have the freedom to go with whatever obsesses me at the moment. I’m an avid reader of nonfiction, I watch documentaries on all kinds of subjects. I see some visual, or some situation and realise there is a game there!
I tend to move on to something new, but the tremendous popularity of the Alien-themed Hostile setting book took me by surprise. It’s not like me at all, but I’ve followed that up with around eighteen supplements so far.
CJ: What attracted you to the Cepheus Engine? Which of your titles was the most fun to write?
PE: I always loved Traveller, but hated the Third Imperium setting, well … some of the setting. When Mongoose introduced the Traveller license, I knew this was a chance to put out an alternative setting for Traveller and brought out Orbital 2100, a hardSF solar system SF setting. When the license ended, and Jason Kemp utilised the open content aspect to produce Cepheus Engine I was allaboard 100%. It was for me, a settingless Classic Traveller, but updated and cleaned up. Perfection!
In 2017 I got to write the setting of my dreams for Cepheus Engine, Hostile, with Ian Stead working the art, maps and cover. This is a gritty, retro setting that harkens back to late70s, early80s movies like Outland, Alien, Silent Running, Dark Star and many others.
We immersed ourselves in the genre and looked at scripts, production stills, concept art, and subtly worked some of that into the setting through the art and the text. It’s my favourite book, and my customers’ favourite book, so far. As an aside, the Swedish game company Free League, who had gained the licence to create the official Alien roleplaying game emailed me and invited me to write a couple of chapters and create several indepth locations for their new game. I’m proud to see my work in the Alien RPG and its supplement, the Colonial Marines Handbook.
CJ: Speaking of Orbital 2100, Mongoose recently announced (yesterday as of this email) that next year they will be releasing a new setting—Traveller: Pioneer, which sounds like it will have a very similar feel to Orbital 2100.
Not surprising given recent successes for TV shows like The Expanse, how do you see the harder scifi RPGs like Orbital 2100, Hostile and Traveller: Pioneer stacking up against their softer farfuture cousins?
PE: Well, Traveller: Pioneer is a surprise to me. The early period of space exploration, with spin habitats and rovers, is ripe for roleplaying, emphasized by the long distances and times involved and the isolation inherent in that situation. Of course it is (or should be) more dangerous than your usual jaunt from star system to star system.
I tried to emphasize the fragility of space suits and spacecraft in Orbital 2100, my Cepheus Engine near-future space exploration setting. You lose the space opera, but you gain that knifelike edge of realism and danger.
CJ: What are you working on now? Any plans for future titles you would like to share with our readers?
PE: I’m busy with Ian Stead putting the finishing touches to the Hostile Rules, a companion rulebook based on the Cepheus Engine rules that allows Hostile players to play the game using those two books alone. The rules have been tailored to the setting and expanded with new rules scattered through several of the supplements. After that, Hostile Solo, and then … I’m not sure… so many ideas. So little time.
CJ: Besides DriveThruRPG, what other avenues are available for purchasing your books? Any other web presences (blogs, Facebook, etc.) you’d like to promote for Zozer Games?
PE: I publish softback (and a few hardback) versions of my games on Lulu.com. Search for Zozer. And everything I’ve published is listed on my website at https://www.paulelliottbooks.com
I have a Zozer facebook page also, and I’m very active on all of the Traveller Facebook groups, including the Cepheus Engine Discussion group. I don’t do Twitter.
CJ: Do you/Zozer Games, ever make it to any conventions, at least before Covid? Do you get to interact much with fans?
PE: No, I don’t attend conventions here in the UK (I’m based in East Yorkshire, a pretty part of northern England). Fans are constantly in touch by email or Facebook Messenger or through my website, querying rules, wanting clarifications and—my favourite—suggesting new titles for publication!
Colonial Freighter was a fan’s suggestion, as was Colony Builder, China Sea War and Synthetics. I have massive respect for all of my great customers.
CJ: Again, thank you for your time, Paul.
PE: Thanks! There’s nothing I love more than talking about roleplaying games, and Cepheus Engine in particular!