Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Five or So Questions with Meguey Baker on Playing Nature's Year

I was lucky to get a chance to interview Meguey Baker about her new project, Playing Nature's Year, which is currently on Kickstarter

Tell me a little bit about your project, Playing Nature's Year. What excites you about it?

A couple things really stand out for me. I love the old songs and fairy rhymes and little pieces of folk tales that I grew up with, and felt there were games there that could be as sweet and simple and strange. The first game, The Holly & the Ivy, came into my head so complete I nearly shouted at Vincent and Eppy to stop talking because I had to write it all down quick right there in the coffee shop. It felt a little like the magic I hoped to capture in the rest of them!

I loved the constraints I used in this cycle: each player always has ten d6 to start but each game has different mechanics; I had six weeks in which to design and write and find art and a song or poem for each game; each game had to do one thing well and be playable in under an hour.

Beyond that, the biggest thing is the idea of playing games with people you don't really usually play games with. I've played some of these games with my little nephews, with folks brand new to gaming, with the parents of kids in my youngest son's class, and I look forward to playing them with my mother-in-law over Thanksgiving.

Where did you feel you pulled your most valuable inspiration for these games?
Short answer: the earth and its cycles. Longer answer: I grew up in a household with a deep appreciation for the ways nature connects and contributes to our spiritual, philosophical, emotional and creative well-being. Some of my earliest friends were apple trees I named when I was 3, and played in daily. They were real beings to me, and my mother never made me feel silly or dishonest when I told her what they said and the adventures we had. Instead, she handed me books of mythology - Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Native American, and Japanese - and read me fairy tales from the Arabian Nights, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as the Rainbow Fairy Books. This laid the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with all things deemed "fairy" or "pagan" or "earth-based" in contrast to my grandparent's fundamentalist Baptist faith. As a young adult, I spent a decade or more being fairly active in local pagan circles, and have pretty much incorporated elements of that sense of awareness of the world around me into my life going forward, even though it's not the dominant part of my path at the moment.

What inspired you to use the constraints you did, and how do you think they influenced your design choices?
After the initial game came through so clearly, I was very conscious that the rest needed to be in keeping with the first. I had been laying rather a LOT of Tenzie, which is a wonderful and super-fast dice game, and it was the starting point for all the mechanics in the games - how can I use these ten d6 to do something different? I have this roleplaying story-telling wishing game for midsummer, how do ten d6 resolve in this game?

Also, the songs and poems are important to me. All of them except the Chickadee are ones I knew and loved from childhood, and I think there is an important place in game design to connect back to poems and songs and the ways creative ideas and stores were passed down for thousands of years before the magic of written word. They frame the games, and I hope they give the reader a greater sense of the feeling in the game. The influence of the songs to the games is pretty interwoven. With a few, it was crystal clear what piece I wanted, to the point of licensing "The Garden Song" because the game demanded it. And by the way, licensing music is a nightmare. On one or two of the games, I went looking for a song or poem to match, which is how I came across the Chickadee, which is a perfect fit.

Could you share a story of when you playtested these games that you feel exemplified their concepts?

The first time I played The Holly & The Ivy, I was surprised by the intensity of my own wish. That was quite a rush, because it told me the design was solid and that everything worked precisely as I intended it to, even for me.

I playtested the third game, Bless the Seeds, with my 9 year old son. It's a game about perseverance and gardening, in which you talk about work you are doing in your garden. Tovey described the most wonderful seaside garden, with tidal pools and sea glass and sand dunes and a hammock. It was utterly delightful to watch his imagination unfold and to see him respond so enthusiastically to the structure of the game. The very best part though was after the game ended and he ran to tell his older brother all about the game and his garden in great detail. It had clearly captivated him, and that was exactly the outcome I was hoping for.

I did a final playtest of At the Stroke of Midnight at Metatopia, and two of my players were moved nearly to the point of tears at the end, where there is a conversation with the Beloved Dead. That was really rewarding, to have the ritual of the game support such willingness of emotion in people I had never played with before.

Do you find any special challenges when designing games that appeal to people of all ages and experience?

There are a couple things I keep in mind. I tend to avoid terms like "GM", "PC', and "NPC" that might look like alphabet soup to non-gamers. I aim to keep the mechanics smooth and interesting but not too fiddly, and I use plain six-sided dice which folks might have already even if they are not gamers. I aim for a game session that runs under an hour if I have kids under 10 in my target audience, and under four hours if I have adults who might play board games or computer games or play or watch physical games (aka sports). I avoid swearing in my game text, because I want folks to feel comfortable handing the book to their kids or their parents. If I don't know what my reader's comfort level is with that, I don't need to mess with it. If you pick up Apocalypse World, I'm pretty sure you aren't going to be put off by more vigorous words, and if you read all the way through 1001 Nights and have some familiarity with the source material, the art shouldn't surprise you.

Finally, what do you hope people get out of playing the games in Playing Nature's Year?
First and foremost, I hope they have fun. After that, I hope they are a bit more aware of the season around them after they play. Finally, I hope they are surprised sometimes by the places the games take them, by their own wishes and fortunes and the stories they create. 

Make sure to check out Playing Nature's Year on Kickstarter, and thanks to Meguey for sharing her thoughts and process!

This post was supported by the community on patreon.com/briecs.

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