Friday, November 16, 2018

Five or So Questions on Nahual

Hi all! Today I've got an interview with Miguel Ángel Espinoza about Nahual, a game currently on Kickstarter. It sounds really fascinating, and I asked about some of the parts of the game that were new to me, like how your characters run a small business! Check out the answers below!

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A cityscape with Nahuals, animal angel shapeshifters, traveling across the rooftop
Tell me a little about Nahual. What excites you about it?

I’m mainly excited about being able to bring a Mexican game into existence, to be able to present my culture in this hobby that I am passionate about. I discovered role-playing games in 1994, and almost 25 years later I’m writing a game of my own. I wish I could go back and tell me from the past this is what I’ll be doing. That he doesn’t actually need to be american or work on TSR to make it happen.

I’m also excited about being able to base the game on Edgar Clements works. He’s a very talented artist and also a very generous creator. The ideas he came up with for his graphic novel capture perfectly this complicated culture that we are, heir to a cultural clash that to this day still has repercussions. We are neither Spanish, nor Indigenous… we are mestizo. And Clement’s way to represent that fusion of folklore and myths, is brilliant. The first time I read his work I felt joyous envy, and thought that it was perfect for a Mexican RPG. So here I am, making it happen. Couldn’t be more excited.


The stages of a transformation for a jaguar Nahual
What do players do in Nahual? What kind of characters do they play? 

Players in Nahual play shapeshifting angel hunters. They inherited the power of the nahual, that allows them to transform into their totem animal and perform supernatural feats. But their knowledge is incomplete, because their ties to their ancestral indigenous culture were severed by the invading conquistadors and their armies of angels. So in present day struggle, they use this gifts to hunt down angels, to sell them as a commodity. They could be heroes or liberators, but instead all they manage to do is worry about putting food on the table, and live one day at a time. 
A three-headed doglike creature with red text, unclear, above it
You talk about being mestizo. How does that affect your design work in Nahual? How does it impact your role as a creator in regards to representing this story? 

I’m not sure. All I know is that being mestizo, latino, gives me a certain point of view that has to do with the way I grew up. But it is not something I’m actively paying attention to, or trying to convey. I can see for example how I (and other Mexican players) connect to Edgar’s stories without much trouble, and how some English speaking audiences struggle to understand some aspects of those stories. There’s of course a cultural gap, it is just natural. So what I’m actually actively trying to do is build a bridge for those audiences, for them to cross that gap.

You ask how being mestizo impacts my role as creator, I don’t think it does in this particular case. Because these are our stories, I’m part of it and they are part of me. If I was writing a Euro-fantasy game, inspired by Tolkien and all its tropes, then I think me being mestizo would have an impact, I would be playing as the visitor team, a fish out of water. With Nahual I’m not, I’m the home team, I’m in my element.


A winged person wearing a skull as a helmet, with outstretched arms.

I would love to hear more about the transformation, how it influences play, and the emotional context. How did you design a transformation that is progressive without becoming overpowered or confusing, and how do players react when they play this out in playtests?

The idea is that your character's Totem Animal is really a reflection of your personality. So if you are bold and strong, and maybe violent, your animal will be a jaguar. If you’re sneaky, a bit of a trickster and a little carefree, your animal will be a possum. So, unlike in some classic shapeshifting tropes, when you transform in Nahual you are really becoming a heightened version of yourself, instead of something else.

The design process has been complicated, I had to find a way to convince players to transform—on my first iterations players were hesitant to do it, like they wanted to “save it” for the real moment, which may never comes. So I had to tweak my design and mechanics to not only enforce the transformation, but also tell characters this is something you’ll want to do, something cool, because the game is about that! However I still needed to represent this toll characters have to pay for not having complete knowledge of how this power works (that lost connection to their roots I’ve mentioned before), so I’ve tied the transformation to stress and traumas. To be honest though, I’m still playtesting this, looking for the right connection/combination between its parts to make it work best and be tied to the fiction.

About the progressive power of the transformation, it is inspired in Epyllion, functioning as the advancement system for the game. As with Epyllion ages, each stage of transformation has its own XP track and as you unlock advancements, you push thru to the next levels of transformation. So you get more powerful, but that only means the MC can now punch harder at you! Hahaha.

And as for player reactions, the transformation is my favorite part of the game, whenever each character transform for the first time I tell the player that for each person the feeling is different, and I ask them how for their character the perception of the world around them changes…and I always get awesome creative responses from players, and it helps them getting involved in the game. And what I love is that it is not really a mechanic is only players creating the fiction.
Two images of the cover mockup with a Nahual
Tell me a little more about the changarro! How does it work, and how do players interact with it? Why do you feel it is important to Nahual? 

When I first started working on the game I was trying to include almost everything Clement has on his comic books. And it was all over the place. So, when I got in touch with Mark Diaz Truman, from Magpie Games, he helped me realized I need to focus my design, to tighten it up and make it sharper. And it was a feeling I had already, he just put a name to it, and he called it “holding environment”. And what that means is, I need something to make the characters come together, and it is different for each game, depending on the type of fictions they tell. And for Nahual, it became clear to me I had to focus on the angelero trade, the hunting of angels, and the way to do it was to have the characters working together in a Changarro, were they team up to share the burdens of handling the business.

Once I decided that will be the focus of the game, the holding environment, I started to work on mechanics for how the dynamics of the changarro will be. And something was clear from the beginning, I wanted players to feel what it is like to try to keep a small business afloat to make a living, despite harsh circumstances. So the changarro mechanics are about that grind. About needing to take care of the business in a day to day basis, running out of product…so they’ll need to go hunting, and having a bunch of problems—for players to choose from—that will come knocking at their door. At first it sounds repetitive, but on all the play testing I’ve have the problems characters face are completely different, because they’re also tied to the character’s backstory and relationships between them and the barrio they live in.

So the changarro is the glue that keeps players together and that jumpstarts the action, and also is the engine that will avoid things to stagnate, because there’s always going to be product you’ll need to restock, neighbors that’ll stick their noses in, rivals that will try to take you out of business, unhappy clients, or a big company that wants to either buy you out or crush you.


A Kickstarter promo image showing the cover mockup and noting that Nahual is a Mexican roleplaying game available in both English and Spanish

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




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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Identity Mechanics in Turn

I just wanted to do a brief post about Turn and identity, on this, our turning point to the second half of the Kickstarter. You can check out Turn's Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/briecs/turn-a-tabletop-roleplaying-game. Content warning for discussion of mental health, depression, and mentions of binge drinking/alcoholism and suicidal ideation.

I want to talk about what it means to be two (or more) things in one person. I come at this from a couple of different axes, and some people have more. Mine are really tied to people's perception for some of these, but others are truly just inherently who I am.

Let me try to separate them a little.

As far as perception, to many people, I'm a cis woman. In reality, I'm not. So I live with perceived-me as cis woman, and actual-me as not. As well, I'm not perceived as disabled, but in reality, I am. So I live as perceived-me and able, and actual-me as disabled. I also appear straight - I'm even in a perceived-straight relationship. But I'm not! I'm queer as hell. So, perceived-me and actual-me again at odds.

It goes deeper, I say, in a Morpheus voice.
Morpheus from the Matrix
I am actually both nonbinary and masculine. Simultaneously, most of the time, though in different amounts. This is big, and important. One of the biggest ones, though, is that I have bipolar disorder. Even when I am at the height of mania, my depression looms and can tug at me in moments when I'm sensitive, and vice versa. My mania (including hypomania) and depression, they're a part of me, even when I'm incredibly well-medicated.

Around 2012, I entered into a mixed episode. (A slow slide.) This is when you're kind of manic and depressed all at once! It is, shall we say, a bad time. It lasted years. Many of my readers knew me during this time period, through what I call The Dark Years, because I lost a lot of memories due to blackouts both from mania and from alcohol abuse. Not great. 

However, I started working on Turn in 2013. This isn't a coincidence. I don't talk about this part of Turn very much because it's still incredibly hard for me. I've been asked in a few interviews, and only went into it in detail relating to this specific subject on one, about why shapeshifters are great to tell stories about. There are tons of reasons - they're fun, they can be used as a metaphor, they're powerful and interesting. But shapeshifters - multiple identities in one body? I understand that, I live that.

Vin Diesel saying "I live for this shit"
From 2012 until a ways into 2015, I was what some people consider "crazy." I was fighting with my mental illness, making tons of bad choices, but also continuing to grow my business, attending university, and so on. I was struggling between the intense, high, selfish, egotistical mania and the soul-sucking, exhausting, lonely, self-loathing depression. During all of this, I got to see that neither side - in me personally - existed without the other, that they fed into each other, interacted with each other, and that there were things I could do where both would work together, or where I could find a harmony. That eventual harmony did actually lead me to getting help, going on lithium, quitting binge drinking, and ending harmful relationships.

And there, you can see a burning light of hope. 

I have always identified with shapeshifters, having a hidden identity of some kind with everyone most of my life. They are part of Turn, and are good to make stories about, because of what I said - they're interesting, fun, powerful, and great metaphors for people to place upon themselves. But I would be lying if I didn't say that the actual design of Turn wasn't heavily influenced by my own conflicting identity.

I've had reason to think about it a lot over the Kickstarter, and while I personally struggle to find mental health support on Medicaid. The fear of falling back into those dark days is real, let me tell you. But, in thinking, I wanted to share that the design of shapeshifters in Turn, to have these different parts of their identity that they struggle between, that they must find balance within? That's bred out of true hope.
A bird with the text "I've been through hell and come out singing."
Many people have different sides to them, and it's hard to deal with it sometimes. When I think of when I was first conceiving the Struggles in Turn, the mechanics for how you resolve conflicts between your beast and human identities and their wants and needs when you take action, I thought of how every day when I was struggling with my mental health, I had to choose my consequences. Sometimes it meant I'd sacrifice face, sometimes I'd deal with physical fallout, and sometimes I'd have other worse consequences for whatever ridiculous shit I got up to that day. I couldn't always predict them and sometimes I'd just end up with the whole mess (hello, 6-). 

And it was also always about the drawbacks that my one part of me had pulling against the other. When I was more manic and just trying to slam down a conversation at a convention, my depressive side would push for me to say things that were self-deprecating. When I was a miserable mess and struggling from the edge of suicide, the mania would suggest self-destructive methods. It was kind of rough, honestly. 

When I put these into Turn, though, I didn't want all that bad shit coming with it. For me, I wanted shapeshifters to be something beautiful! I was okay with them having hard stuff they dealt with, but it wasn't about either side of them being dark, or self-destructive, or harmful. They're just both parts of the being with needs and wants that the shifters have to struggle to satisfy or meet, even if it's hard, and the biggest aspect is that they're just trying to show up the way everyone wants them to show up. That's why exposure is a mechanic, because the real hard part of all of this is the world, not their identity. Shifters are good!
Sam Winchester hugging someone saying "Too precious for this world."
I want to talk more about shapeshifters being beautiful and good so I will soon, but this is getting a little long. 

Basically, shapeshifters are whatever you want them to be in what they stand for or are a metaphor for. You can play them in a bunch of different ways! But the reason why their mechanics work the way they do is because I discovered through struggles with my bipolar disorder that these complex multi-faceted identities aren't actually binary structures! Even my mania has some sadness, even my depression has some egotism. It's not exactly a fun way to figure out how to design a game, but it's a real one.

So the shapeshifters in Turn are complex. They are not all beast when they're a beast, and they're not all human when they're a human. They're a little bit of each, regardless of their form, in different amounts. And I thought about this intensely during throes of mania and depths of depression! So I can tell you with all honesty that there are no perfect metaphors. But I'll tell you this: shapeshifters don't have a special tweenie form like many shapeshifter versions do because I will never have a happy medium, and I had to find a way into the light without one. I think the story is stronger that way, and it's a story I know how to tell.

If you liked reading about Turn and want to support it, the Kickstarter runs until November 30, so please consider backing it. If this resonated with you, please feel free to share your experiences with having a multi-faceted identity - you can even use the #turnrpg and #myturnID hashtags if you'd like. I know I'm not alone in being a person with many sides, and I appreciate the power of sharing our stories. 

Until next time:

An oppossum with the words "Do no harm, take no shit, beg no man pardon."



P.S. - If you're a Patreon backer, let me know if you think I should charge for this post!


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Five or So Questions on My Jam

Today I have an interview with Eric Mersmann and Jeffrey Dieterle about My Jam, a live action game currently on Kickstarter! It's very musical, and a unique kind of empowering. Check out their responses below!

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a person in party clothes in a room full of people, holding up a wreath of leaves while dancing enthusiastically
This image, done by Lawrence Gullo, is so powerful!
Tell me a little about My Jam. What excites you about it?

My Jam is a one-shot 4-hour larp where you embody high school aged musarchs—people who gain magic power from their relationship to music—during the biggest dance of the year. During the dance, your song will come on and you'll be the deity of the dance floor for its duration. A whole lot excites me about this game! We've been working on it for over a year (our first playtest was at Metatopia 2017) and people seem to get a real rush out of it! The most surprising thing to us was people coming up to us after playing who HATED high school dances and told us that this really gave them the experience they wished they had! It kinda empowers players over something that might not have been such a positive thing at the time. At the same time, folks who LOVED high school dances also said they enjoyed this game so yeah! Music! Magic! Drama! What's not to be excited about!?!?!


What inspired My Jam, and what was the path like from inspiration to reality?

The original inspiration for My Jam is the comic series Phonogram written by Kieron Gillen & drawn by Jaime McKelvie, which is about "phonomancers" who get power from music. Jeff conceived of the idea for this game, and asked Eric if he wanted to collaborate (uh is it ok if we talk about ourselves in the third person? seems weird but let's go with it...) in late summer 2017. We worked up a playtest for Metatopia 2017 just to see if people would be interested in larp dance parties and uh... they were!!! The game has changed a lot since then, thanks to playtests at Larp Shack down in Durham, Dreamation, and elsewhere. Mostly we refined the gameplay to focus on the "My Jam" moment and developed workshops to support play so everyone could have fun which segues nicely into...


How did you design the game to be approachable and fun for all the different types of players?

WORKSHOPS!!! We have about an hour of pre-game that's intended to help people get into their characters and start moving around in response to music. Unfortunately, My Jam is not for everyone, but we've worked really hard to make sure it's for as many people as possible and that the people who do play it are able to enjoy themselves. We've tried to take some of the worst parts of high school dances out while still keeping the drama and emotional intensity. And finally, we reinforce that the players are more important than the game and we give the players some tools to help and empower the palyers to mediate their experience.


How do you handle safety and consent when you have music playing? Do you find players are more free with their movement and action with an environment framed like this?

We use a number of "standard" larp calibration techniques that all focus on the idea that the players are more important than the game (stuff like door is always open, cut, slow down, check-in lmk if you want me to go more in-depth) and we have a few Jam Commandments that we developed specifically for issues that arise in this game:
  1. 1) touching only with consent - this is especially important for dancing, and people have a lot of baggage around being explicit asking for consent so we try to cut through to say that touch should only happen with consent and consent is an ongoing process.
  2. 2) celebrate culture with respect - music and culture are intrinsically connected so we say explicitly no singing along with slurs and no adopting mannerisms or vocal inflections meant to imitate another culture
    3) rivalry without hate - this game is meant to capture the feelings of highschool but we're not interested in giving people an excuse to practice abusive or oppressive behaviors so we forbid role playing oppression-based bullying.
We also recommend making sure that the volume of the music is loud enough to dance to but still quiet enough to talk over and we also recommend having a space where players can be free of the magical powers: a circle of protection/chill-out zone.

Our experience is that with the warm-up workshops and the safety it allows players to embrace their bodies and music with less fear of judgment. There's definitely an added level of vulnerability, but we try to instruct the facilitator in how to create an environment where people can experience that vulnerability. So far our players have reported back success!


Your Kickstarter approach seems a little different from other Kickstarters. Why are you approaching the model differently, and what do you expect to see from it?

We went around and around on what the final form of My Jam would be. At one point we were discussing pressing an audio version of the workshops into vinyl! At the other end of the spectrum we considered putting out a simple pdf. With a little introspection, we realized the thing we wanted more than anything was for as many people as possible to have the game. After that we wanted the game to be uh "cool" for lack of a better term. Hence doing a zine. This let us keep production costs low (keeping it accessible) but still gave us the freedom to experiment with layout and printing styles and create an artifact that was kickstarter-only. We worked with an artist Lawrence Gullo (@hismajesty on twitter) who had played the game to make some cover art and other assets (like the cool moon/records we use on the kickstarter page.) This way the fixed costs were pretty low, enabling us to keep our target low. Luckily we hit it pretty early, and we now have a nice little margin to add more art. We're not doing stretch goals per se, we're keeping everything about those two goals: get the game to as many people as possible and make the game artifact as cool as possible. We had discussed stretch goals (guidelines for how to play as a 50s sockhop! cyberpunk dystopia My Jam!) but ultimately these things felt like distractions.

Then we started adding silly jokes. Sometimes we worry that the jokes make people think that we don't take the game seriously, but it's more like we take it SO SERIOUSLY we needed to fill our campaign with jokes just so we could breathe!!!

We're hoping that our love for the game and for larp shines through and attracts other people who might feel similarly. So far, so good we guess!!!


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Thank you so much to Eric and Jeff for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed learning about My Jam and that you'll check it out on Kickstarter today!



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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Quick Shot on Bastion

Hey all, I've got a Quick Shot today with Jerry D. Grayson on Bastion: Afrocentric Sword and Sorcery Fantasy! Check out this take on sword and sorcery for the Mythic D6 system that's currently on Kickstarter!

(All photos are of Jerry D. Grayson.)

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What is Bastion, both as a product and as your vision? 

Bastion is a gumbo of a lot of different element I love. Portions of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, mixed with Glenn Cook’s Black Company, mashed with a bit of Gamma World, boiled down in a melange Micheal Moorcock's phantasmagoric Eternal Champion worlds, sautéed in a bit of the Green Lantern Corp, and strained through a cullender of Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, you get Bastion.

It’s a big fangasmic mess of inspirations.

The original intent was to do a straight vanilla fantasy game with all the standard fantasy tropes. I wanted to see if I could do it with a straight face. Halfway through the process, I couldn’t take it anymore. I like my D&D fantasy, but trying to replicate it started making veins pop out of the side of my head. I was dissatisfied with the elements I created, so I flipped the script and went in another direction.

I brought a few people on board to help flesh out my outlines, and they added their secret sauce here and there and what you have is Bastion as it is at the moment.


What moves you about Afrocentric themes and their application in Bastion? 

Afrocentric elements pop up in all my work. GODSEND Agenda, ATLANTIS: The Second Age, and even in HELLAS to a small extent. What you get when I add elements of Afrocentrism is me. It’s me searching and exploring a lost piece of my identity as I try to learn about Africa. American school systems teach you almost nothing about Africa and only express ideas of an unrefined and strange land filled with primitive people. I know that's not the case, and I wanted to illustrate that in the books I produce.

Africa is BIG, I mean, REALLY BIG. You can fit almost every continent on earth inside the body of Africa. What I offer isn’t a legitimate mirror of any one African culture. I've taken elements of West African cultures (Akan, Yoruba) and made a fantasy game based on those components. Much like Lord of the Rings is an amalgam of Western European history/myth, I’ve done the same with Bastion. I hope what small efforts I've made entice others to dive deeper into the rich and varied cultures. Bastion is only a surface level exploration of Afrocentrism, but it's up to the reader to go deeper.

How did you decide what elements of sword and sorcery really would shine through in the game, and what design choices made them hit the mark?

I love fantasy and the genre of sword and sorcery. It’s a hot mess of debate about what makes a piece “sword and sorcery.” A lot of people stick close to R.E. Howards Conan, but many people fail to mention the mind-blowing work of Clark Ashton Smith. I love the strange and sublime horror of sword and sorcery fantasy. The pyrrhic victories of the heroes, and the changes that cause in their souls. The peculiar and bitter cost of power it puts on the hero. 

I hope I’ve brought all those essentials to Bastion, but I guess that’s for the consumer to say.


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Thanks so much, Jerry! I hope you'll all check out Bastion on Kickstarter today!



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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Five or So Questions on Turn

As I have my game Turn currently on Kickstarter, Tracy Barnett and J. Dymphna Coy were kind enough to ask me some questions. Check out my answers below!

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The Turn logo with a vine growing out of the T in the word Turn, with leaves in various stages of growth, and above it a half circle with footsteps transitioning from human to beast
Tell us a little about Turn. What excites you about it?

Turn is a slice-of-life supernatural roleplaying game about shapeshifters in small towns, where the shifters try to seek balance between their beast and human identities while finding community with shifters and mundanes alike. It has relatively simple mechanics, a lovely town building system, and the play is quiet drama about life in small towns as a shifter. 

I'm excited about Turn because it is the game I designed to satisfy myself! I was looking for a game that scratched a particular itch, and couldn't find it in other games I played and learned about. But Turn has that play experience, it is the game I was looking for. I get to play out quiet scenes, intimacy that explores a range of emotions, have some fun and cheerful moments, and explore the identity of my character, and the game supports all of that.


What do you think of popular portrayals of rural life? How does your game differ from those (or not)?

There aren't a lot of popular portrayals of rural life, to be honest, and many portrayals are negative. See any depiction of West Virginia hillbillies for what I mean. Obviously that's not the route I chose for writing about real rural life. There is one portrayal of rural life that doesn't perfectly sync up with Turn but is not super far off, and that's...Letterkenny.

For those unfamiliar, Letterkenny is a Canadian comedy set in the fictional small town of Letterkenny, population 5000. It follows a number of characters, but primarily Wayne and Katy, siblings who run a produce stand and farm, and their friends. There's not an exceptional amount of violence in the show, but when there is violence, they show that it hurts and has consequences, which I value. Most of the show is just their day-to-day lives at the produce stand or the farm, time spent socializing between characters, and important events to the town like elections of local officials and the St. Patrick's Day party. 

The pacing is so simple, and there aren't typically the biggest stakes, but they're stakes that matter when push comes to shove. Relationships are vital, people comfort each other, and people learn. And there's always chorin' to do! So I love that, and a lot of that comes through in Turn for me.

What doesn't come through is that there is no representation of the shifter aspect, so that's definitely something different, and Letterkenny is also hilarious as heck, which Turn isn't as much of. There's definitely some goofing off in Turn and some funny moments, but I wouldn't ever expect the banter of Letterkenny levels in Turn. And that's okay! Turn's meant for a more mixed bunch of emotions. 
A bear dangling in a tree while digging into a stash of fancy and expensive things
A Bear by Rhis Harris.
What do you find compelling about stories centered around shapeshifters?

Aside from like, it just being kind of cool to be able to turn into an animal and have superpowers and regeneration and wanting to explore what it means to have a body that's functioning at peak rather than dwindling at minimum?

Well, shapeshifters are great for the metaphor. See, people ask me sometimes what the shapeshifters represent, and I did a podcast recently where they were like "oh, we thought it was about being the other!" when I had just described how some of the inspiration for the shapeshifters had been rooted in my experiences with bipolar disorder and mixed episodes. The thing is, I'm queer, I'm nonbinary, I have invisible disabilities, I have mental illnesses. I am other, in a lot of ways. So when people read into the shapeshifters a sense of other, that's not unintentional.

But it also wasn't always intentional. People read a lot from shapeshifters because the nature of their second identity, so different from their surface identity, and the nature of secrecy - these are things that the "other" experience, too, in many situations. We talk about going stealth as queer and gender nonconforming people, and passing, and so I see a lot of that too, but not just with queerness, not just with gender, not just with disability, not just with mental illness, or any other kind of other we are as humans.

Shapeshifters represent what you want them to represent, I think, which makes them an excellent narrative focus.


How are your experiences growing up in small towns reflected in Turn?

They are Turn. Honestly, it's hard not to see it when I play. In things other people do (even people who aren't from small towns!), in things I do, in the way the Town Manager pushes people together to fiddle with their secrets and relationships, in the map of the town. Even in games I haven't participated in, some stuff is unmistakable as what I built into it.

My favorite bits are when people instinctively realize how long it's going to take to drive to the other side of town or that the local store/hospital/police/whatever isn't going to be as well staffed or supplied or that their family members are like, absolutely going to hear about this, and when we're building the town and people are like "well obviously rowdiness goes real close to the town and connects directly to a bloodline" or something like that - not all of these things are "rules" but they're small, rural town things that reflect in the game and I really do count some of that as my design, and the rest of it on the weird small town knowledge we culturally share.

When people expand to Italy or other countries like in the stretch goals, who knows! Maybe someone else's experiences will shine through most!
A bearded person struggling while using a tablet, clipboard, and cellphone
The Overachiever by John W. Sheldon.

What's the most compelling thing to you about focusing on the tension between a person's animal and beast sides, rather than, say, violence?

So, violence for me is three things (sometimes combined, often separate): repulsive, spectacular, and catharsis. And it's also in 99% of other games, movies, tv shows, books, and other media. It's everywhere. Even in shapeshifter media, you will far more often find people exploring violence and brutality than you will find them exploring issues of identity. And that's boring!

Like, don't get me wrong, violence can be amazing to watch for a variety of reasons, and playing it out can be really incredible. But, violence is also all around us. Our world is violent. We're constantly discussing it, experiencing it. And maybe, I guess, I wanted a game where you could do violence, but you had to fucking deal with it, too. So I did that. And it didn't need to be explored so deeply? Like if you can do whatever you want with violence but just actually have to deal with consequences, not just take a potion and leave the bodies in the road, that conversation is already happening.

Digging into identity is more fascinating to me because majority culture is cool with dealing with exploring the identity of the average white cis man of privilege, but like, there's a fucking lot of the rest of us. Using shapeshifters as our embodiment in the game when in rural, small towns you'll immediately run into like bunches of other intersections. We've had queer characters, poor characters, characters with trauma.

You end up with these deep questions of self and community when you look face on at poverty, drug use, family struggles, loss, and so on. And when you're struggling with yourself, you have a harder time addressing them - so you gotta try and work stuff out! It leads to these introspective, intimate, caring, emotional scenes! Like, we have - in our longest running game - a weekly tea party with our three characters who are trying to figure this shifter crap out, while one of them is trying to get their shit together, another is trying to come out as a gay man and keep his life, and one didn't realize until just lately that they didn't have their shit together. We play these out, and they're wonderful, and also constantly at risk of running afoul of the hectic lives these shifters lead.

So I'd say it's more interesting because it's not what we're doing every day, and because it opens opportunities to tell moments of stories we sometimes forget to tell. And a cougar, bison, and wolf having tea is just *chef's kiss.* Moments I truly treasure!

four wolves exploring a set of human clothing
A wolf pack by Rhis Harris.


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Thanks so much to Tracy and Dymphna for asking me some questions! I hope you enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Turn on Kickstarter here today!


Tracy Barnett's Work
Tracy on Twitter @TheOtherTracy
J. Dymphna Coy's Work


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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!

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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.

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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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