Monday, November 28, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ashton McAllan on The Republic

I recently came across a Twitter post about The Republic, a game by Ashton McAllan, Vincent Baker, and Mark Redacted. When I read a little about it, I knew I had to talk to the creators, and Ashton was cool enough to give me some of her time! The Republic is available for purchase and looks really fascinating. Check out the interview below!


Tell me a little about The Republic. What excites you about it?

The Republic is such a fun mix of disparate parts. It's core themes are all focused around Social Justice and resisting oppressive governments, it's got Avatar like fantastical element bending, and the default setting is this weird retrofuturist steampunk classical state. It was born out of Paul Czege's #Threeforged competition where Mark Redacted, Vincent Baker and I ended up developing it together without knowing who we were working with which allowed for this really fun, creative, experimental combination of ideas, which I love. The fact that the game was already coming out of left field has meant that I've been able to do cool stuff as I've been developing it since that I might have been scared to do otherwise, like adding rules for playing with an audience or require characters be from marginalised group within their society. I don't think I could have written a game with these important themes or a game with these experimental new dice mechanics if they weren't all next to each other to balance things.

What led you to choosing the themes of social justice and others of that vein?

The social justice themes in the game actually arose in the original development during the Threeforged competition. My initial draft centered on the relationship between the elements and the Platonic solids that Plato describes in his Timaeus dialogue. After I submitted that it was passed on to Vincent and Mark anf the theme of Plato was extended into making the game about a version of the great theoretical nation-state that he describes in The Republic from which the game now takes its name. It focused on how the seemingly perfect Republic was in fact atrocious towards marginalised people within it and how it was up to a group of old, wise, respected citizens to go out and fix their society.

When I saw it I was over the moon because my stupid little idea about dice had been turned into something so cool and beautiful but during the voting period there was a lot of heated discussion about the legitimately problematic White Male Saviour narrative that that version of the game portrays.

I wasn't allowed to join in that discussion because it would risk revealing that I worked on the game before voting closed and judging was done so I was stuck there being like "Yes! This has problems but it can also be something really cool!" So that really galvanized my desire to take the game further and refine it into something that was able to help people positively explore those social justice themes while still being fun and safe to play.

Once voting was over and everything was over Vincent reworked it to focus on the oppressed saving themselves and then I took that and continued work from there until now, changing a lot of things but trying to keep true to the game's heart.

How did you settle on a setting and fictional positioning for a game? How does it support the themes?

Our default setting is a sort of steampunk alternate ancient Greece that evolved out of the way the Threeforged competition had us combining ideas from each other in interesting new ways and reflects the influences of Plato and Avatar The Last Airbender on the thematic and mechanical elements of the game. The text does, however, explicitly encourage GMs to feel free to run their games in alternate versions of the setting such as cyberpunk or solarpunk futures. All the game requires is that The Republic exists and that it oppresses and marginalises people.

One of the important things I did discover as I developed the game, however, is that it can be triggering and exhausting both as a developer, a player, and as a GM. To try and soften that I made sure to include a safeword mechanic in the text of the game and also added in distinct if abstract geographical regions to the game to allow players to functionally choose their level of interaction with the atrocity of The Republic itself. The World of The Republic always contains three main areas: The Metropoli which is the heart of the republic where players are most hounded by the oppression of the state but can also affect the most change, The Borderlands where the reach of The Republic is sparse and the players travel between towns helping folks deal with threats both from The Republic itself and from beyond it's borders, and the Barbarous Wilds where players can choose to leave behind their institutional abuser and forge a new life beyond it's reach. Partially I had to add these options for my own sanity when playtesting and having to repeatedly interrogate heavy topics but I hope they're also helpful as a safety valve for players and GMs.

What are the mechanics like for the game? How do you go through play, and what informs the flow of the game?

I'm not sure if Vincent would agree but I would say it's a Powered by the Apocalypse system but with more dice. GMs have forces which oppose the players, have goals, and resources to carry out those goals. Players describe the actions their characters take and roll dice to see if they're successful, and if they're not, the GM makes the situation more interesting.

The unique elements here are in the ways the dice work. There are five dice sizes mapped to five elements in accordance with Plato's Timaeus dialogue. The player's character is initially made up of any combination of ten of those dice they choose, the combination showing which of the elements are more or less present in the character. When players roll dice to take action the action will be aligned with an element, dice of that element are more likely to score successes for that action. Players may roll as many dice as they wish to try and score a required number of successes to complete the task but any unsuccessful dice become dead and no longer usable until they are restored to life through healing or rest, communion, and care. The game is about exhaustion, and the importance of managing that, internally, and as a group, in your fight. It also forces you to think about when is the time to fight, to run, to build, to observe, or to heal.

The mechanics also seek to honour our dead. When player characters are destroyed they choose one of a number of ends available to them based on the fiction and each of those leaves a legacy upon the game such as turning the tide against a threat or leaving some part of yourself in your companions, advancing their characters stats.

Considering the nature of the game's themes and the new mechanics, what would you hope people get out of the game the most? What experiences and takeaways do you hope for?

One of my favourite experiences during playtesting has been seeing some of my non-disabled heterosexual white cisgender male friends realise they have to play a character that is at least not one of those things which had never occurred to some of them. Seeing them play those characters and connect with them in ways that they might never have done so before has been amazing. I want the game to continue to create those experiences of intense empathy, I want it to help create solidarity amongst the marginalised, I want it to help us feel confident and comfortable with resisting oppression, and I want people to think about their characters in new ways when they look at the dice on the table.

That's a big set of expectations but if we can achieve even some small measure of each of them I'm gonna be super jazzed.


Thanks so much to Ashton for the interview! The Republic sounds like a fascinating game and I encourage you all to check out more about it if you get the chance!

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