Friday, November 9, 2018

What is the future?

Turn is currently doing wonderfully, just short of funding and 21 days to go! We just announced international shipping, and I'm very excited for what is yet to come in stretch goals and work I do after the game is live!

But I need to talk about the future, because mine is uncertain.

Brie in a leather jacket, looking out the window.
As many people know, in November of 2018 I had a car accident. I fell asleep while driving my car in a parking garage and hit my head and wrenched my shoulder. When I went to the hospital, they said I had a mild concussion and shoulder sprain, and advised me to follow up with a doctor if I had any significant symptoms.

I was in grad school, so most of the symptoms of bad concussion issues were able to be dismissed as burnout, for me. I didn't mean to do it, but I was cramming hard and desperate to get through school, while struggling with one challenging job and another job that really challenged my now-addled brain. By the time I was nearing finals in the next semester, I had been struggling with concussion symptoms - genuine brain injury symptoms - for months.

I found tons of typos in work I was reviewing - my own work, where typos were normally rare at worst. I was getting carsick while driving, and had gotten dizzy after seeing Black Panther, slipped and bumped my head in two places on my car door. The dizziness, nausea, and unfocused confusion were too much, so I went to the concussion clinic. They confirmed my fears, that it was worse than expected, and also that my delaying it had made recovery longer - and possibly less likely.

I did physical therapy from May to September, before I ran out of car insurance funds. I still do the exercises at home. I thought I was improving, and I have at least somewhat. But...

When preparing the Kickstarter for Turn, I let John take a look at the draft, and he pointed out many errors. The kind of thing that shouldn't really be an issue for a functioning brain that's working well, you know, like swapped words, nonsense sentence structure, and so on. Some of it seemed like gibberish. I didn't even notice! He had to review it for me.

Reflecting on it, I reviewed a variety of my work. I read my recent submission to Return to the Stars, and how many confusing edits there had been, because I didn't even recall the disorganized things I had written.  I read my work on thatlittleitch, which is unedited, and how my sentence structure is even more confusing and inelegant than before the accident. Many things I have written, I have forgotten, or don't recall clearly, and if they aren't edited, they're often confusing, especially if they are longer.

Brie covering their face with their hands, in a maroon shirt.
I had an appointment coming up with my concussion clinic doctor, who expressed that like we had known, my delayed treatment combined with comorbidity of a variety of my illnesses (fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, PTSD, bipolar) will make recovery harder. But, if I'm still having issues with confusion and language, it could be a greater concern. So, I was assigned speech therapy (alongside physical therapy for my shoulder, which hasn't healed). I can't have that appointment until December, because they don't have space for me.

My doctor basically explained that this could continue to be a grueling process. They don't know if I will ever be back to what I was before. They want to ensure I can continue working, but if speech therapy isn't effective, we will run out of options pretty quickly. And even if it works, it's a long process, with unreliable results.

What does this mean?

Turn may be my last large project. I can still fulfill the work, absolutely, but we baked in extra time for what is to be done. I have a freelance project to fulfill for Orun, which I'm going to be advising them may involve a little more editing than planned (but I hope not). But going forward, I may max out at 1000 words for a given project, or just take a lot more time, and I can only ask editors to do so much work.

Pretty much everything I've been working on is going to be more limited, require more oversight. It's exhausting to imagine, and I feel broken. This is part of why Turn has felt so desperate to me - what if I never make something amazing again? What if this it? And while I do my best to ensure I have good editing, the process will be harder. I don't know if I can put myself through a super hard process every time I want to make something. And I don't know if I'll ever get better.

So, this is basically just a post to explain the situation. It's me trying to find a way to say "hey, my brain is damaged, and I may never be the same again, so I hope you don't desert me, and I hope you understand that I am doing the best I can."

I'm trying. But, after this Kickstarter, things may be different. Er, well, they will be different - I just don't know how. I hope you'll stick with me.

Love to you all <3

A pigeon hopping across pavement.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Five or So Questions on Improv for Gamers

Hey all, I have an interview today with Karen Twelves about Improv for Gamers, a new book being released through Evil Hat that includes workshops and exercises to help any roleplayer or GM become better at improv! These workshops, like the one offered at Big Bad Con this October, promote fun, low-pressure environments to try out new skills for GMs, larpers, roleplayers, and more! Check out Karen's answers to my questions below!


Tell me a little about Improv for Gamers. What excites you about it?

I've always been excited about giving people a practice space to try out this improv stuff they've been hearing so much about. I've been playing tabletop rpgs since high school, and when I took my first improv class back in 2008, I was stunned by the obvious skill overlap. And also surprised that there weren't more improv classes for roleplayers, especially being taught outside of conventions. It's been super fun and rewarding to teach the Improv for Gamers workshops and give people some ideas and tools they can take back to their games. But what I'm most excited about right now is coming out with this book, because it gives people a bunch of exercises they can just pick up and play with friends in their living room.

What are a few of the skills you've picked up in improv and cover in the book that serve you the most often in gaming?

In both improv and gaming, you need to pay attention to what your fellow players are contributing to the story. If you're not listening to how the story is shaping around you, you're going to have a hard time navigating through it--to mix metaphors, all your subsequent ideas will be off-key. Active listening is required in order to say "Yes, and" to your partner, which is the act of honoring someone's ideas and building on them. (There's more to unpack with "Yes, and" about it not being a blank check, and nobody is actually beholden to accept every offer, so I prefer phrasing it as "Consider yes, and.") But to build off an idea, you need to have actually heard it first. This is just as important in a game that weaves a narrative between characters as it is in a fight sequence where you'd want to keep tabs on what everyone is doing on their turn. So the book has a lot of great exercises that specifically practice paying attention to and acknowledging your partner. You might copy someone's movements, repeat what they said, add a line to a shared story, create a cast of characters, or communicate through eye contact. But at the heart of all collaborative storytelling, you need to be listening.

A skill that I really love is handling invisible objects. You may have imaginary items in a larp, and you can also embody your character a bit at the table. Maybe you just mime your character polishing their glasses, or drinking a coffee. It's a lot of fun. The book contains exercises that practice holding and using invisible objects, and it's something that I still practice a lot in my improv troupes. It definitely came in handy during a larp where my healer character was asked to remove an invisible spear from someone's leg and patch up the wound, and we had zero props.

How do you make this content approachable for new people and people not into the gaming scenes that favor improv?

When I teach the workshops I always stress that I'm not expecting anybody to be actors. It's a practice space, so things might feel weird or be a little rough and that's okay. Nobody's going to walk out thinking "Cool, I'm perfect at this now!" And I repeat that a lot in the book--that the focus isn't to be perfect, or funny, or entertaining, but to just try stretching this one specific muscle that the exercise is highlighting. There's only a few exercises that are actually "scenes," the majority are group games, so there's less pressure to perform. There's also some things that speak to GMs, like identifying when to switch from one scene to another, or how to quickly come up with some specific voices so your NPCs sound different. And that thread of "listen to each other and make people feel included" runs throughout all of it, which is a life skill, not an improv skill. But you can practice it through some fun improv exercises!

The improv for gamers cover with a traditional actor's mask and dice on the cover.

What are some practices and behaviors in games that you think could be improved using improv, and how do you address them in your workshops and book?

There are games where it makes sense to be protective of your character, and there are games when you could be more reckless with them. I definitely wanted my Pathfinder fighter to make it into double-digit levels! But my Blades in the Dark whisper? That game grinds characters down by design. They're supposed to get hurt, physically and emotionally. Character death is definitely on the table. And if I'm in a one-shot game, I've only got this one story with this character, so I'm definitely going to take more narrative risks because I've got nothing to lose. There are so many improv exercises where you're encouraged to get your character into trouble, or play someone without a lot of power or status. I'm not saying that the best way to play is to play to lose, but it's a style that works well with a lot of games. And if it's a style that's kind of new to someone, I want to give them the opportunity to get into that mindset, take some risks, and have a lot of fun doing it.

What are some ways improv skills help with different roles in game, like GMs and players, and different types of play, like larping and tabletop?

Like I mentioned earlier, GMs have the daunting task of making sure everyone has an equitable amount of time in the spotlight, so you want to have a good sense of when you can put a pin in one scene and switch over to another. Improvisors develop a similar sense of knowing when to cut a scene so it ends on the right note. And during a show, that's a shared responsibility--much like in a GM-less game, everyone should be conscious of when it's time to see what a different character is up to.

I would say that any skills regarding character development are useful both at the table and in larping. There are so many tabletop games that have a line right on the character sheet for a defining belief or worldview, and you may even get a mechanical reward for expressing that belief in play. Similarly, regardless of what style of improv you're doing (fast-paced comedy, thoughtful drama, or something in-between), it's important to identify what matters to your character. That's going to color their decisions in a scene. It doesn't have to be something grand like "Blame the carpenter, not the tools," your defining value could be "I love trains!" and that's still going to lead to some really cool interactions. And whenever you're feeling lost and not sure what your character would do, be it improv or gaming, you can fall back on that touchstone for guidance.


Awesome, thanks so much, Karen, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Improv for Gamers today!

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Die Laughing

Hi all, today I have an interview with Craig Campbell on Die Laughing, which is on Kickstarter right now! I hope you all enjoy reading what Craig has to say about this cinematic horror-comedy game in the responses below!

The Die Laughing logo with a smiley face in spattered red color with x's for eyes and the text "Die Laughing"
Tell me a little about Die Laughing. What excites you about it?

Die Laughing is a short-play, GM-less RPG. Players portray characters in a horror-comedy movie and everyone's going to die. It's just a matter of when it happens and how funny you can make it. After your character is gone, you become a producer on the movie and continue to influence the story and the characters right up until the end.

I'm really stoked that Die Laughing finally came together. One of the problems with horror games where characters actually die, as opposed to "thriller/mood" type games, is, "what do I do after my character dies?" You can make a new character, play an NPC. What else? I've been working on this game off and on for over a decade. Every couple years I'd come back to the idea and try something different. Hitting on the "making a movie" angle finally made it gel for me. It came together pretty quickly over the past year or so, kind of in the background while working on other games. It's a game that embodies horror and embraces that type of game experience, but with comedic elements and the "making a movie" idea to keep it from getting too heavy.

A comic depicting a group of people in the woods around a campfire with someone telling a scary story, then two of the characters turn into demons
What were the inspirations for Die Laughing and how is the game the most similar and dissimilar to familiar materials?

I'm a big horror movie buff. This most recent iteration of the game, I hit on the idea of the game being about making a movie specifically, rather than just generally a horror story. That introduced a "director" role into gameplay and also a "producer" role that players could take on after their characters are dead. Making it a horror-comedy opened up the idea that it's OKAY for your character to fact, it's kind of the point of the game. Your character is going to die and you're going to make it funny and then you're going to do this other cool thing for the rest of the game.

It's sort of a hybrid of a traditional RPG and a story game like Fiasco. You have a character sheet with four traits and a few cool capabilities that sort of bend the rules. But there's no GM. Instead, there's an act/scene structure that generates random scenes that everyone roleplays to move the story forward. But these are just prompts. The "director" of each scene helps set the stage, but the players with characters in that scene propel everything. A dice mechanic resolves general success/failure of your character in the scene, rather than for every action. The game has a little bit of this and that from a lot of horror RPGs and a LOT of horror movies, all kind of bent and twisted with some humor.
The character sheet titled "Autopsy Report" and styled appropriately
How does Die Laughing work mechanically?

During each scene in Die Laughing, one of the characters is the lead character (and that changes from scene to scene). That character's player decides who will be in the scene with their character. One of the players portrays the director, setting their character aside temporarily to help set up and guide the scene (that also changes from scene to scene). Everyone in the scene plays the scene out. Sometimes the monster attacks during the scene. Sometimes it doesn't.

At the end of each scene, everyone with a character in the scene makes a trait check by rolling their dice pool to determine whether their character succeeds in the scene or not. Then everyone narrates that success or failure for their character, thus pushing the story forward. As the game goes along, your dice pool decreases based on the results of those trait checks. This decrease is a countdown to your character's death. When you run out of dice, your character dies and you narrate their death.

In addition to the director and producer stuff, there's a unique rule for each monster that influences your involvement in the game after your character is gone.

A monster sheet for "that crazy clown" with various stats and an image
What kind of horrors do the players encounter in Die Laughing? How do you ensure players are having a good time and not encountering subject matter that makes them feel alienated or afraid in a not-fun way?

The narrative, relatively open nature of the game allows the players to basically take it as far as they want. The monster is defined for the game you're playing, but that's not to say there couldn't be multiple monsters or that the monsters could mutate or...well, whatever you want. I've played games where the violence was cartoony. I've played games where there were gory descriptions of things.

That said, any game -- horror games in particular -- can go too far. That is addressed in the book, encouraging players to be clear in what they expect from the game. The simple version is presented as a "movie rating system." Everyone agrees the game will be PG, PG-13, or R-rated and plays appropriately. The book also points out some common sense...if you even remotely THINK that a particular subject would make ANYONE uncomfortable or hurt them, just don't do it. Finally, the book points out there are a variety of other safety tools, such as the X-card, and information on those can be found easily online. Pick the one that is most fitting to your group.

You mention special rules for monsters post-kicking-it. When you die, what happens?

This is a little "extra" that gives players whose characters are gone something to do. It varies from monster to monster. For example, with the Mad Slasher with Weird Weapons, when your character is dead, you get to describe the moment when your character's corpse is found at an inopportune time, like you see in so many slasher movies when everything hits the fan at the end. There's a trait check that happens there that can weaken the character finding the body. With the Sexy Vampire, your character doesn't die, but rather gets turned into a sexy vampire. And you can insert them as an NPC into scenes throughout the rest of the game.

The Nerdberger games logo with a hamburger with sunglasses and a cocktail umbrella, a d20, and a d8 stuck in it, with a splash of red "blood" over it and the text "Nerdburger Games"


Thanks so much to Craig for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Die Laughing on Kickstarter today!

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Turn on Kickstarter!

Turn is now LIVE on Kickstarter!

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Five or So Questions on Dinosaur Princesses

Hi there! I have a new interview today with Dana Cameron and Hamish Cameron on Dinosaur Princesses, which is a fantastic new game on Kickstarter! Please check out their answers below on this nifty project!


A t-rex and smaller dinosaur storm through the jungle in doctor outfits while avoiding banana peels. Text "Dinosaur Princesses"

Tell me a little about Dinosaur Princesses. What excites you about it?

Dana: What is there not to be excited about? First, Dinosaur Princesses is also a colouring book—actually colouring and drawing is one of the most important parts of gameplay, in my opinion. One of the first things you do is draw and/or colour your dinosaur princess. As part of that, what I think is really great about the game is that it taps into the limitless and boundless imagination that we had a kids. The colouring and drawing parts are great at breaking down barriers that we often have as adults which tell us to reign in our creativity to make it fit within certain perimeters of consistency and probability; it gives permission to just have fun. It is meant to be able to be played by kids, but I think it really shines when adults play it.

Dinosaur Princesses is also very friendly to folx who are completely new to table-top RPGs. When I have run it, I have often had a high percentage of folx who have never played a ttrpg before. The system is very rules-lite, so players have very little stress worrying about system mastery. It's also so fun and easy to run that it acted as a gateway to get me to finally get over my extreme social anxiety and be able to run the game myself!

Finally, I think of it as a queer game. Princesses are explicitly stated to be of any gender. "Dinosaur" is also a pretty open descriptor; you can be a t-rex or velociraptor, but your dinosaur can also be a cat or train. It's subtly stating that what we see as rigid boxes, descriptors, or roles are actually malleable and able to be questioned. One can take those boxes and, if they want, subvert them to express other identities—and that is totally an acceptable and good thing to do. It's a freeing experience.

A character sheet with a hand-drawn winged dinosaur with great eyelashes on it.

What were the inspirations for Dinosaur Princesses, and how did you come to the point of making a game plus coloring book from those inspirations?

Hamish: The main inspiration for Dinosaur Princesses are the kids of a couple of my best friends in New Zealand. At the time, their favourite things were Dinosaurs and Princesses, and my friends were joking about finding a game they would both like. I said I'd write it and a few months later they playtested the first version! They were 4 & 6 at the time, so that'll probably be my youngest playtesters for a long time! Beyond the origin story, I had a lot of discussions with those same friends about the kind of things that the game could do that other games don't. The idea of the central mechanics being cooperation and problem solving came out of those discussions.

(Following on from Dana's comment about it being a queer game)
One of the fundamental design principles is that the rules should provide enough structure to help children tell stories that feel like an after school cartoon--with all weird and wonderful characters that involves!--and that, within the confines of a game about cooperative problem solving, the rules should never block them from imagining who they wanted to be while they play. I didn't want an 8 year old telling their younger sibling that they couldn't play a cat or a dragon or whatever because it's "against the rules."

Dana: I can tell the story about how it became a colouring book! Hamish was already working on it, but I didn't know much about it at the time. We were in a small bar in Wellington, NZ a couple years back and he was telling a friend about the game. He said he wanted the rules book to look like a kids book and that he was also thinking of the character sheets as something for people to draw and colour on. I made the logical leap and (probably) shouted, "THE RULES BOOK SHOULD *BE* A COLOURING BOOK!!!!!!". I guess that was my first touch on the game. I didn't really start working on it actively until earlier this year.

a whole collection of character sheets with drawings and a map in the center of a table

What are the mechanics like in the game, and how do players interact with each other and the world?

Hamish: Dinosaur Princesses uses an opposed dice pool mechanic which is set up so that if a Dinosaur Princess tries to do something on their own, the odds are against them. After they assemble their dice pool, they ask their friends, the other Dinosaur Princesses, the most important question in the game, "Will you help me?" Then their friends build dice pools and hopefully overcome the problem together! Dinosaur Princesses has a GM who rolls the opposing dice pool, but it's a very low-prep role that brings in a lot of the Powered by the Apocalypse ethos of encouraging player participation in worldbuilding and player-driven narratives. The players come up with the story together at the table.

[Brie Note: The collaboration encouragement here is SO GREAT.]

How do players choose their Dinosaur Princess, and what do they use to assemble their dice pool?

Dana: Players have a character sheet, some of which of have colouring-book style line art of typical dinos (t-rex, triceratops, etc) and some of which have the picture space blanks so folx can draw their own. Players decide on what type of dinosaur they will be—there is an example list in case someone has a hard time coming up with one. However, it's important to note that we use "dinosaur" in a loose sort of way; I have played a cat and platypus "dinosaur"! Similarly, players then choose what type of princess they will be. This can be any sort of profession-like thing, such as doctor, aquanaut, news caster, and so forth.

They assemble their dice pool by describing how they use their strengths as a dinosaur and as a princess to help their friends. The mechanic is set up so that if a Dinosaur Princess tries to do something on their own, the odds are against them. It's important that the player starting dice pool asks their friends, the other Dinosaur Princesses, the most important question in the game, "Will you help me?"

Hamish: There are sample lists of types of dinosaurs and princesses in the book and on the character sheets, but they’re supposed to be inspirational, not restrictive. Players are encouraged to be as inventive and imaginative as they like in choosing who they will play.

What kind of stories do you tell in Dinosaur Princesses? How do you keep it interesting?

Dana: The sorts of stories being told in the game are as unique as the Dinosaur Princesses that the players create at the table. The world-building and story plot directly grows from that foundation. I have had games where the plot revolved around the Dinosaur Princesses trying to find their Houses & Humans game miniatures, and I have had games where the Dinosaur Princesses rode around town on the monorailasaurus to try to uncover the mystery of the queen's roving teapot. I have had games that took place in an abandoned mall and ones that took place in space. It really is a game where everyone's boundless imagination shapes play!
Hamish: Dinosaur Princesses is designed to be played as a one shot, it takes about 2 hours to play a game, and it draws on the creativity of everyone at the table; so it spreads the cognitive load of coming up with new stuff and people can usually keep the ideas coming over the short length of play.

dinosaurs of all different types and shapes all dressed up in different outfits including a chef, a doctor, and one holding a boombox while wearing a monocle, and the text Dinosaur Princesses.


Awesome! Thanks Dana and Hamish for the interview! I hope everybody enjoyed it and that you'll check out Dinosaur Princesses on Kickstarter today!

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five or So Questions on Thousand Year Old Vampire

Hello all, today I have an interview with Tim Hutchings on Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a single-player game coming up on Kickstarter! (Check out the Facebook event here!) The game sounds pretty interesting, exploring the life of a vampire in intimate and deep ways. You can see a playtest version here. Check out what Tim had to say!

Content Warning for discussion of memory loss, especially near the end of the interview.


A vintage-appearing image of a vampire attacking a man
Tell me a little about Thousand Year Old Vampire. What excites you about it?

Well, first let me say that I don't often get excited about things I make. I get nervous, nauseous, pent up. I used to joke about the "sweat test"; if I wasn't sweating when I showed something to someone I wasn't sufficiently invested in the project or the showing. This came out of the time when I was showing art in galleries, and it has something to do with the way I made and thought about art at the time. It still applies to a lot of games I make, but in a different way--the games I make are personal, or visceral, or difficult in ways that my art never was. Now I sweat because I'm making a machine that people play with, and if the manual for that machine is unclear people will break it or maybe even get hurt. There's not a lot of room for excitement in any of this.

But I'm excited about Thousand Year Old Vampire in a way that leaves me quietly alarmed at myself.  I've worked on this game differently than other games, with the biggest difference being that a reaching back to my old studio process. When I made a thing in the studio it was a quick, fraught process during which I could ingest or enjoy or experience the thing I was making it as it was made; the actual "artwork" was a shell left behind after this work was done. Game making is different in that you need people or systems to test things; there's a space of time between the making and the experiencing of it. Because TYOV is a solo game it's making was a self-contained process, I wrote and played and wrote and played in a closed system. It was fast and amazing and it's how I want to be.

And it produced a game I am excited for and proud of. I've played this game so many times, and the prompts consistently produce a different experience with every go. And at least once during each game something happens that makes my innards churn, something unexpected and awful and it's like I'm not controlling a character but being betrayed by one. I'm not a "let me tell you about my character" kind of person, but TYOV has gotten me excited enough to write game summaries on the Facebooks.
A journal with leather binding and an abstract pattern, and stickers in various languages on it.
This is the journal in the PDF, which is gorgeous.
What is the motivation for a single-player game like this? As someone who loves lonely games and making them, I must ask: why is this game good alone?

I love your phrasing of “lonely games”! It’s perfect. For me, there were a couple of reasons to make a solo game. Maybe more than a couple.

Solo games are a weird design space. I have a print out of A Real Game by Aura Belle that I’ve been sitting on for a year, I’m so excited about it I can’t bear to play it. Every game I make is about communication and bodies in space; a framework for people pushing at each other to find play. Other players change the game space for each other with a constant barrage of gentle tugs which keep each other engaged and off-center—this is awesome and good but what if we didn’t do that?

A non-social game is tricksy and strange. How can you operate in the “story game” space and not have it be a choose your own adventure book? The game prompts in Thousand Year Old Vampire make you look inward for responses, you are building something between you and the machine of the game without any other conscious actors in the room. There’s no “yes and” here, oh mortal. And without other people in the room watching I can do things that I might not do otherwise when I ask questions and give horrific answers.

And the solo play echoes the subject of the game itself. You play a vampire who sees everything they love turn to dust. Your character is alone, you are alone, the two states echo each other. One play option is to keep a diary as you play. Journaling is a usually a thing you do alone. One of my objectives as a designer is to have the system and the setting inextricably bound together, so solo play works.

That said, I don’t see any reason that a person can’t play it with others. Why not share a pool of Characters and let the prompt reactions affect the world that the players occupy? The system is simple enough that players can do this if they want, and I’m sure some will—there’s been a remarkable amount of pushback over the idea of a solo game being a thing at all.

And practically speaking: I’m a lonely guy. Making a game I can play and iterate on my own is helpful. It echoes the prevalence of solo rules in wargame design—I’m the kind of person that can’t get people together to play things, so I’ll make the sort of things I can enjoy on my own.

Finally: I had a conversation with Jackson Tegu, who has a solo experience called I Was Once Like You, that helped me think about the solo play-ness of TYOV. In the friendly discussion-like thing we were doing I came up with "Petit Guignol" as a term that I thought fit TYOV. It literally means "tiny puppet" in French and has a direct connection to the “Grand Guignol" which was a style of bloody, horrifying, naturalist theater developed in the 1890s. As I play TYOV I sometimes play with scale in my mind, imagining the scenes happen in the space between my arms as I update the character sheet on a keyboard. It's a play space I don't think I can imagine with other people in the room, it's tiny and close and personal. Anyways, there's that.

A vintage style illustration person with an octopus arm for a head getting attacked by someone with a sword.
Tell me about the design process. The way you handle moving through the prompts is simple but clever, and you have these memories and experiences that are created. How did you develop these aspects of the game? 

My design process is a sham. I stare into space until my unconscious gets bored and gives me something that I can think about, and then maybe that becomes a game, or a joke, or an artwork. My games are not the product of rigorous engagement with discourse, they are random stuff that vaguely imitates a category of thing which I understand exists in the world. These are the “Sunday painter” equivalent of game design, if that Sunday painter just really liked wearing smocks and berets but never bothered to go to a museum.

I don’t design these games so much as find them laying around my brain-house. I pick them up and wipe the muck off, maybe paint them a different color to assuage a conscience that demands at least a semblance of effort, then I scribble my name on them and puff up with self-satisfaction.

But a serious aside: I don’t read a lot of games, and I do this on purpose. I’m more likely to solve a problem in a useful way if I’m not clouded up with other people’s solutions for similar issues. This is a good methodology unless you’re building bridges or stuff where people can die. This builds on my greatest strength, which is that I’m pretty dumb.

Occasionally these magical brain-gift games might need some rough corners polished up. With TYOV I had to figure out a way to progress through the prompt sequence so as to maximize replayability. (You, dear reader, haven’t played this game, so super quick summary: You roll some dice and slowly advance along a list of prompts which you answer about how your vampire continues its existence. If you land on the same prompt number more than once, there are second and third tier prompts you encounter. The game ends when you reach the end of the list.) By using a d6 subtracted from a d10, it created the possibility of skipping entries, of going backwards, and of landing on the same entry number more than once. This meant that rare and super rare results could easily be baked into the chart structure—you have the same chance of landing on any given number as you progress through the prompts, but there are diminished chances of landing on a number twice and getting the second-tier prompt. Landing on a number a third time usually happens once per game, and those rare third-tier prompts can be world-changing.

The tiered prompt system naturally evolved into a mini-story arc system. I can make the player introduce a self-contained Character or situation with a first-tier prompt, and in the second-tier prompt them interact with what they created in a new way. It’s perfectly fine if they never hit that second tier prompt, they won’t for most entries, but if they do it will naturally make a little story. It’s so satisfying and it’s all part of the same system, no additional rules are needed to support it.

One aspect of TYOV I’ve been thinking hard about is player safety. What are appropriate safety tools for solo play? What tools allow us to think terrible, soul souring thoughts but then put them behind us? I’m a fan of X-card-like thinking, and was around Portland while Jay Sylvano and Tayler Stokes were working on their own support signals systems. Stokes later developed the affirmative consent-based support flower, and is giving me guidance on my solo safety thinking.

One of my imperatives as a designer is getting rid of non-vital things. This is practical because additional complexity usually makes a game less fluid and harder to learn. If I can get by with three rules that’s great, but if I’m going to have eight then I might as well have a hundred. Not that there’s much wrong with games that have a hundred rules, I like those too. I’ve recently been converted to Combat Commander, of all things.

Something I threw out of TYOV are rules about tracking time. At one point I had a system in place for tracking the date. I mean, if the game is called Thousand Year Old Vampire then you want to know when a thousand years go by, right? But there was no benefit to tracking the actual year, it was easier to allow the player to just let the passage of time be loosely tracked in their answers to the prompts. Maybe an arc of prompts happens over a year in your head, maybe a whole generation goes by—the game works regardless. The only rule about time is “every once in a while strike out mortal Characters who have probably died of old age.”

Finally, I should acknowledge the importance of Burning Wheel and Freemarket to Thousand Year Old Vampire. Writing good Beliefs in Burning Wheel is a skill, and the idea of tying character goals mechanically to the game was mind-blowing. Freemarket has Belief-like-ish Memories, which are something that have game mechanical effects AND can be manipulated as part of play. Both of these mechanics had outsized influence on the way I thought about Memories in TYOV.

Memories in TYOV are everything that your vampire is. You have a limited number of Memories, and every Memory is made up of a limited number of Experiences. Every Prompt you encounter generates a new Experience which is tagged onto the end of a new Memory. Eventually you run out of space for Memories, so you older Memories to a Diary. You can and will lose our Diary, along with all the Memories in it, and it’s awful. But the Diary is just a stopgap anyways, as you are forced to forget things to make room for new Experiences.

Eventually you have an ancient, creaky vampire who doesn’t remember that he was once a Roman emperor, or that they used to live on a glacier, or that he fell in love two hundred years ago. But they at least know how to use a computer and are wrestling with the fact that the hook-up site they used to find victims was just shut down and how will they eat now? This design goal was crystallized when I read “The Vampire” by Ben Passmore in Now 3 put out by Fantagraphic Books. It’s a heartbreaking, sad story in which you see the vampire as a deprotagonized system of habits. It’s great.

A vintage illustration of a man in period clothing with a white curled wig, standing under an eclipse and a hillside with Egyptian-appearing monuments, while corpses lie on the ground.
What has the development of this game been like, from original inspiration to the speed of production?

This game flowed out quickly and mostly easily. My pal Jessie Rainbow I were playtesting and iterating the game over weeks instead of months. The game is built from a story games mindset and there aren’t any ridiculously novel mechanics that need to be explained; I hand the rules over to a playtester and they understand them immediately and the game works.

The game works and a year of refinement to get it five percent better isn’t worth it. It’s done, and like an artwork it might be slightly flawed but that’s part of the thing itself. I don’t necessarily want an extruded, sanitized perfect thing; instead I have, like an artwork, a piece that becomes a record of it’s own making. If I work on this game another year it won’t get better, it’ll just get different—2019 Tim will have different priorities than I do right now and all that’s going to happen is that TYOV will torque around to reflect that. I might as well let 2018 Tim have his moment and give 2019 Tim new things to worry over.

In regards to the themes of mortality and memory, as well as with aspects of queerness in some of the prompts, how do you relate to TYOV? How is it meaningful to you?

This is hard to talk about. I think I need to break this question down into three very separate categories: My understanding of evil, personas shifting over time, and a vampire-shaped momento mori.

The game is twined up in my own ideas of person-scaled evil which is based on my experience of social predators, thoughtlessly selfish idiots, and rich people exerting power over others. This evil is written into the “Why did you do that awful thing you did?” type prompts, which assign an evil deed which must be justified. There’s an important subtext in the game which I never say out loud: As the vampire is writing in their diary are they telling the truth? But the evil is about the wickedness that people do to each other, and this is my chance to pick out a version of it that I seldom see represented.

Completely unrelated to the themes around evil are the ideas of shifting identities. Over the centuries the vampire will be reinventing themselves so they can fit in with the societies shifting around them. As a cishet white guy I’m outside of the dialogues that happen around LGBTQA+ folks, but I see folks change over time and it’s exciting. A related prompt might draw attention to ingrained societal mores that can now be abandoned because the culture of your mortal years is centuries dead. I can gently make a space for this even if I don’t have that experience, with the understanding that my understanding isn’t necessarily another’s understanding of the space that needs to be made. Like I said before, this becomes a portrait of 2018 Tim thinking through difficult issues using creative work—this isn’t Truth with a capital T.

The shifting personas of the vampire are probably the most personally resonant aspect of the game for me. I have some pretty distinct phases in my life where I was having to be markedly different people. In NYC I used to exhibit art with a gallery owned by the son of billionaires. I’d get taken to a dinner that might cost more than I made in a week then go back to my home which had holes in the floor which I could see my neighbors through. I remember hanging drywall in the morning and meeting a Rockefeller descendant later that night; he got noticeably upset that I had a scratch on the back of my hand then shut me out when I said it happened “at work.” I learned that I had to keep these worlds very, very separate. And it went both ways, I found myself being reminded of the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas telling a story about how no one in his Brooklyn neighborhood believed him when he told them he was teaching at NYU.

Now I’m a guy with a kid living in a suburban neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. I’m not the same person that I was five years ago in New York. I can’t be the same person, that guy couldn’t live this life.

Which leads me to my final bit: I did things that sound wonderful and which I can’t remember, I apparently did things that are terrible which I am glad I forgot. These moments are lost until someone else remembers them for me or I happen upon some chance evidence. My memory is going, and it’s awful—there’s a much more exciting version of me which is being forgotten. I can see my brain failing in other ways; sometimes I leave out a word when I’m writing now. I bet I did it within the text of this interview.

This loss of skill, of memory, of personality are reflected in the way the game has you lose or edit memories. Eventually I’ll die and be forgotten in turn, but at least I’ll have this self-reflection on mortality outlive me for a bit.
A vintage style illustration of a man tied down onto a wooden structure of some kind, bound.

Thanks so much, Tim, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Thousand Year Old Vampire on Kickstarter when it's live! In the meantime, you can RSVP on the Facebook event here.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Five or So Questions on Scherzando!

Today I have an interview with Elizabeth and Amber Autumn on Scherzando! (skert. ', which is currently on Kickstarter. In this fascinating game you play both the characters...and the soundtrack! Check out Elizabeth & Amber's responses below for more.


A diverse group of people around a table with instruments, paper, and tokens.

Tell me a little about Scherzando! What excites you about it?

Scherzando! is a diceless, gm-less story game in which you play characters with big dreams and strong feelings, plus the soundtrack of their world. It's often been described as "Fiasco, but with music," but we like to think that Scherzando! is less about grand ambitions causing tragedy and more about grand emotions bringing people together.

It's exciting for all the obvious reasons—creating a game with a soundtrack as you go is really cool! It's fun and dynamic, and people laugh a lot. But we're equally excited about the less obvious features of the game. We love that the game lets players have a physical, embodied experience; that it's an experience built around collaboration and communication; and, most of all, that it creates a space where players can feel comfortable creating music regardless of their previous musical experience. In response to our game concept, we get "but I don't know anything about music" all the time, so it was a real goal of ours to create something that helped people feel that they didn't need to know everything in order to make something or communicate something, and to create a safe space in the game for that to happen. Every time a player picks up an instrument and starts feeling out some sounds during the game, it feels like a victory for us, and every time they manage to successfully communicate an emotion with it, it feels like a victory for them. That's a dynamic we're exceptionally proud of.

We're also excited about it because it's our first game at this scale! It's mind-blowing to have a book with all this art and all this support and to have this Kickstarter start off so well—it really does feel like being invited to sit at the grown-up table. But it feels good to know that our investments in time, effort, and money are paying off. The game has been in development for over a year and a half (or over two years depending on how you want to talk about it); no blood comes to mind, but there've certainly been sweat and tears, so finally getting to print it will be incredible.

What kind of music do people experience in the game? Where did you take inspiration from for the tunes?

Since players make their own music, there's no specific style or genre that Scherzando! works best with. We encourage players to take inspiration from whatever they like in their own life, up to and including just copying pieces they like if they think it'll get their point across. So what the music actually sounds like in a game depends on who's playing, what kinds of music they spend most time with, and what kind of mood they're in as they sit down to play.

One effect of this is that it turns music into a creative expression unique to the people sitting at your table. People bring in the music, styles, sounds, and methods of experimentation that make sense to them, that they would use outside the game, and that's a way of bringing a part of their personality into the creative text in a direct, meaningful, and mechanically significant way. Having each player bring their own inspiration and style makes the session's music a direct creative expression of who the players are.
Two femme-appearing people playing instruments on a porch surrounded by greenery.
How did you design the game, considering that it's diceless and GMless AND uses music as a part of the game?

The game actually began neither diceless nor GMless—both of those got iterated out in the design process! The dice were adding needless complications, causing too much swing in the resolution mechanics, and making it significantly less accessible to anyone who didn't already own a ton of dice. We dropped them at the recommendation of the incredible Avery Alder, who wrote Monsterhearts and Ribbon Drive (one of the only other music games on the market), and who was kind enough to give us some sage advice early on.

The GM role (which we called the "conductor," because we thought it was cute) would rotate around the table to maintain the sense of a democratic story where everyone contributed, but we found pretty quickly that the conductor didn't have much to do. The scene setup generally implied itself, and players turned out to be quite good at arbitrating how the NPCs and the universe would react to their actions in the most interesting way. Plus, the game includes an interjection mechanic which allows players to temporarily gain narration powers for either a bonus (if they're adding a complication) or a penalty (if they're adding a boon) at the end of the scene. The ability and incentive to add elements to a scene made the conductor role almost entirely obsolete.

Development began in its very early phases maybe two years ago, with a lot of research on historical music games and current music education techniques. We spent a lot of time working through the logistics of who was on the team for the project and who would be doing what, and trying to lay out a plan. Once we knew who was working on it, how we would do it, and that what we wanted to do hadn't been done before, the next step was more research. We read books, played games, emailed musicians and educators, and eventually started throwing around ideas for how a system would work. We wrote up a list of core values that we wanted our game to embody, some of which have changed and shifted over the course of development, but some of which are still core to the game today! Then we designed a game around those values.

That game was completely broken and did not work at all.

The bulk of the process at that point was holding playtests, dozens of playtests, at cons and game stores and especially with our friends, with a different group of people every time. We took notes, and at the end of each test we discussed which items functioned and which needed to be changed or dropped, and adjusted the rulebook accordingly. Eventually we ended up with a system we felt good about, give or take minor details, and somewhere approaching that point we started doing the logistical work of commissioning art, reaching out to podcasts, and all the other publishing prep work necessary for a Kickstarter. From there, the actual changes to the game itself have mostly been tweaking numbers, revising stock setting choices, and other minor changes, most of which still require playtests to happen.
A person in armor playing drums and a person playing a keytar in a whirlwind.
This piece of art is mindblowing!
What resources do players need to participate in Sherzando, and what kind of skills are useful?

We like to bring a lot of small, cheap instruments to playtests, but they're not a requirement—the game works just as well when players hum and tap on the table. The only physical items players need, besides the rules, are a) notecards and something to write with; b) six differently-colored/otherwise distinguishable tokens per player; and c) an opaque container per player that is capable of hiding the tokens within it. As far as skillsets are concerned, we maintain that musical experience really isn't necessary (although it is fun to play with a group of musicians!); we find that the game runs most smoothly when players aren't self-conscious about their musical or roleplaying "talent." Earnestness and willingness to engage with a ridiculous story are probably the most important tools in the game.
Two people in period dress with white curly wig with music sheets scattered around them while they argue.
How do you hope players experience the game and what do you want people to take forward? What have you already seen taken forward in playtests?

One of the most exciting pieces of feedback we've ever received was really recently, when someone who had listened to our actual play on One Shot tweeted at us to say that she could see the players gradually learning to express themselves through music over the course of the game.

In addition to the "yes, you too can make music" lesson we've been harping on this whole time, we also hope players experience the game as an exciting way of adding meaning and tone to their stories in a way you can't find anywhere else. There are all these connections between narrative and emotions and semiotics that we wanted to explore and link together, and we think being able to play through those links in a really direct way is new and refreshing and cool. We also hope players have fun! Not every game needs to be fun, but Scherzando! is, and we love seeing people get really animated during gameplay.

There are plenty of things we've seen people take forward from this: confidence, communication skills, and even sometimes a better understanding of a musical instrument. But we also hope that people take home a really good memory about a fun story they told with their friends, not only in words but in music.
the Scherzando logo


Thank you so much to Elizabeth and Amber for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Scherzando! on Kickstarter today!

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