Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Five or So Questions with Marshall Miller on The Warren

I interviewed Marshall Miller about his work on The Warren, as well as his Dungeon World Starters.

Tell me about The Warren.

The Warren is a tabletop roleplaying game about survival and community where players take on the role of rabbits. In the game, rabbits are faced with an imperiled warren and a naturalistic world - it's up to them to figure out how to make the best of things. Longer term, the game leans toward generational play and focuses on the warren itself, gently pushing players to adopt new characters periodically. The game takes inspiration from Richard Adams' book Watership Down and builds various Apocalypse World Engine (AWE) games, primarily Apocalypse World and Dungeon World. The Warren started out as a little 6-page hack called Lapins & Lairs that I released into the wilds last summer. After some playtests, retooling, and fleshing out, I'm releasing the expanded rules text into the wild for further playtesting and feedback. You can find the playtest materials here.

What motivated you to make the game? What made you choose Apocalypse World as the base for the game?

I think this feeling is pretty common: everyone and their brother read a book during grade school and yet there you are, years later, reading it for the first time. That's what happened with me and Watership Down. When I got to the part where [spoiler] Fiver has his vision, it hit me - Fiver just opened his brain to the psychic maelstrom! [/spoiler]  As the story went on, I couldn't stop seeing it through the lens of Apocalypse World. I remember this all really vividly because it was also the weekend that the Dungeon World launched on Kickstarter and my brain space was already steeping in AWE. I saw how Dungeon World was taking the idea of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and powering it with the apocalypse and reckoned it could be done with Bunnies & Burrows as well. The idea has been tugging at me ever since.

What techniques did you use to hack it?

Apocalypse World Engine games get a lot of play at conventions, so one of my goals was to make a game that focused on that one-shot format. The Warren features a single rabbit playbook that all the players use; however, each character picks a unique move for their rabbit. That means cutting straight to talking about who is taking which move and what that says about their rabbit. Tracking experience and making fronts are often skipped over in con games so I cut away the experience mechanism and reconfigured the front mechanism to be more like aspects (Fate) and monsters (Dungeon World). Also gone are the direct conflict moves like ‘hack and slash’ or ‘seize by force.’ Instead, players have moves for running away and braving things that scare them. Consequently, this is not a game where you tackle opposition head on – instead rabbits must be fast and clever. "Sex moves" from Apocalypse World were a good fit because, you know, bunnies are known for their prodigious reproductive rate. It was important to get the mating/birthing moves right - I hope I succeeded. Lastly, because this is a game about survival and community, I wanted to make it easy for characters to regularly die or step back to become staples of the community. I always liked the ‘retire to safety’ move in Apocalypse World so I brought it to the forefront and made it a move everyone had access to all the time. Interestingly, doing so also allows players to use it to sacrifice control of their character in dramatic ways – much like dashing the Jenga tower in Dread. Between the birthing and retiring moves, the game lends itself to generational play if you’re going to play more than one session.

What kind of players would like The Warren?

Thus far, the people who have expressed an interest in The Warren: 1) already play other Apocalypse World Engine games and are excited to see the system go in a new direction, 2) like Watership Down, Bunnies & Burrows, or animal games in general and are curious to see what all the fuss over AWE games is about, or 3) are looking for a game that they can play with their kids and... oh! look! bunnies! A big reason for expanding on the original hack was to clarify the animal genre to players who weren't familiar with Watership Down and to better introduce the AWE to players who were new to the 'system.' I also included some alternatives to the sex moves to make it friendlier to younger audiences.

You've done some Dungeon World Adventure Starters. What's your process for creating them?

Dungeon Starters are one-sheet supplements for running the first session of a Dungeon World game that collect a bunch of thematically related imagery and mechanical tidbits for the GM to pull from. Around the time when the red book version of Dungeon World came out, I was wondering what a published adventure for Dungeon World might look like. It couldn't dictate a story or series of events, it couldn't fill in all the gaps, and it couldn't make many assumptions because players would be contributing details too. The solution was to build Dungeon Starters around loaded questions for the GM to ask. The loaded questions convey both setting and situation details and ties the characters to them. From there, you can create a cloud of setting elements that relate to those questions (e.g. custom moves, items, spells, monsters, etc.). My best advice is: mashup two or more settings or story ideas you like to create something with a unique feel, don't waste any chance to reinforce the theme or tone of the starter when creating elements, brainstorm more elements than you need and then pair them down so that only the most compelling and synergistic elements remain, and remember that you're making a reusable document - maximize the number of different directions you could spur the fiction depending on what subset of elements you introduce to the fiction. I've got some more commentary on Dungeon Starters and a handful of examples here.

Are you working on any other projects? 

Doesn't everyone have a half dozen game designs percolating in the back of their mind? Right now I'm really excited about the plethora of small games being published and the blossoming of various regional LARP scenes. I'm having fun dipping my toes into those waters. I also really enjoy helping other people to brainstorm, playtest, and develop their games – collaboration is the best!

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