Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Five or So Questions with Colin Kyle on Axon Punk: Overdrive

Today I have an interview about the game Axon Punk: Overdrive, which is currently on Kickstarter. Colin Kyle , the lead designer, answered some of my questions about this cyberpunk, hip hop game set in 2085 megacities! Check them out below.

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Tell me a little about Axon Punk: Overdrive. What excites you about it?

Axon Punk: Overdrive is a tabletop Roleplaying Game that combines classic cyberpunk with hip hop. The game has a very collaborative, improvisational feel like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, but set in the megacities of 2085. In addition to being futuristic badasses, players together create a Community of locations and fellow city dwellers that they live in during the game. Based on the choices the players make, their Community will produce missions, give rewards, and evolve over time – or it could be consumed by the chaos and anarchy caused by futuristic corporate oppression.

I am so excited about Axon Punk for many reasons. The top thing I’d say is that I get to work with so many interesting and different people. I originally began the game with my brother two years ago for fun and to help us get through some tough times, calling ourselves the Wrong Brothers. When we decided to get really serious about the game, we reached out for help. One of the key people that responded to us was Keisha Howard, who is the leader and founder of the Sugar Gamers and is working on a similar cyberpunk game called Project Violatea. Because of our shared love of games, sci-fi, music, storytelling, and many other things, Keisha began collaborating with us to refine, polish, and share Axon Punk with the world. Since Keisha joined the project, we’ve expanded the team to include a huge range of people – artists, musicians, writers, game designers, and people too hip for labels - that all add their own perspectives to the game. Managing a team of almost a dozen people across the continent, split primarily between Chicago, IL, and Dallas, TX, has had its challenges but it is absolutely worth it. Because we have this team and explicitly incorporate ideas from different perspectives in the game, we are putting together something that is exciting, authentic, immersive, and greater that I ever hoped it could be.


What themes of cyberpunk and hip hop are you aiming to bring together in Axon Punk, and how do they conflict and come together?

In our minds, cyberpunk and hip hop share many core themes that we wanted to highlight. Hip hop was born from the counter-culture of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, just like cyberpunk. Hip hop ravenously incorporates new and experimental technology (turn-tables, synthesizers, beat machines, etc.) like few other genres of music. Hip hop artists often include science-fiction and social/political elements in their songs and imagery. Examples of artists and groups that incorporate major sci-fi/cyberpunk themes in their music include Janelle Monáe, Saul Williams, Erykah Badu, Afrika Bambaataa, Deltron 3030, Hieroglyphics, MF Doom, Missy Elliot, and OutKast.

One of the foundational themes of hip hop that we wanted to stress above almost all else is the sense of community and connectedness. Hip hop frequently focuses on uplifting people and bringing them together to survive inequality, poverty, and systemic oppression. While cyberpunk absolutely supports the “us vs. them” themes in hip hop, cyberpunk stories often follow disillusioned loners who are isolated by technology and society. We deliberately inverted that trope and built a world where you can only hope to survive by working in groups and depending on your neighbors. Focusing so much on the communities in the megacities in which the characters live gives our cyberpunk a great grassroots feel that players really connect with. In Axon Punk, your motivation during play is to help your neighbors, build your community, and try to change conditions in the megacities for the better.



What are the base mechanics in Axon Punk like, and how do they support the themes?

We built our own home-brew system for Axon Punk because we wanted every component of the game to tie into the desired theme and experience. For example, because cyberpunk and hip hop are so innovative, imaginative, and unorthodox, we incorporated rules to allow players to improvise actions, locations, technology, Non-Player Characters, and other narrative elements of the game. We will never make rules for ever situation and, in fact, we want our players pushing the boundaries of the game to discover new things and tell the stories they really want to tell. We also actively encourage players to collaborate during play and have a mechanic called “Rhythm” that lets players work together and cover each other’s backs.

The United Church of Tupac
To really bring out the hip hop feeling, the game is extremely focused on the community in the megacity in which the Player Characters live. To survive in the dystopian future full of corporate excess and oppression, people band together into communities that exchange goods, services, and generally look out for the members of the group (collectively called “the family”). At the beginning of a campaign of Axon Punk, after players make their characters, they would then follow rules to collectively and organically make up the Community in which their team of cyberpunk deviants lives. Over time, the group’s Community will evolve over time, producing missions, rewards, and challenges, based on the choices made by the players. The Community creation process is one of our absolute favorite parts of the game, but we have a pre-made Community full of Locations that GMs can use to run quick one-shot games or easily start out a campaign. Some of the starting locations include “The United Church of Tupac,” which uses rap music from turn of the twenty-first century as prayers, hymns, and meditations for those oppressed by the megacorporations, and “Cindy’s,” which is a dance hall built in an old paint factory and filed from floor to ceiling with ever changing murals painted by its patrons (heavily inspired by Janelle Monae).


What inspired you to combine hip hop and classic cyberpunk?

I had been into hip hop and cyberpunk independently since my teens. My older brother and design partner, Cameron, was one of the people responsible for introducing me to both genres. To pinpoint it as much as possible for me personally, the inspiration for the combination was first sparked for me one night in 2010 when my girlfriend at the time took me to a Janelle Monáe concert. Janelle Monáe’s music was such a perfect blend of futurism, heart, joy, and all-around, unapologetic badassness that I wanted to wrap myself up in her world and live forever. The end product of Axon Punk is quite different from the universe in Janelle Monae’s Metropolis Saga albums, but her music is absolutely a core inspiration (Janelle, if you want to make a game, hit me up).

We were also heavily inspired by the work of Saul Williams, who blends hip hop, poetry, and cyberpunk into beautiful, raw, and socially progressive music. Deltron 3030 and the Gorillaz were also hugely influential. From a visual and thematic viewpoint, we drew immense inspiration from the anime series Samurai Champloo, which expertly mashes up feudal Japan with hip hop, and Cowboy Bebop, which combines space bounty hunters with jazz.


How did you playtest and work on the game early on to develop the concepts?

My brother and I split the playtests primarily between the two of us, using two different approaches. I took the game to as many conventions around Chicago as I could and ran one-shot after one-shot with groups of different, new players (I took Axon Punk to 9 conventions in the last 2 years). At the same time, my brother in Dallas got together a group of friends, musicians, game designers, and other lovable weirdos to run a long campaign where they played almost every other week for over 6 months.

Splitting the development process between these two approaches was quite challenging. We had to rework many parts of the game repeatedly until we found the right balance that worked for both styles of play. As difficult as it was, this development process was extremely beneficial and we would not have created such a robust, immersive, and authentic game without it.

For example, constantly running games for new people at cons forced me to have very streamlined rules and play materials. I wanted a big hip hop influence in the game from the beginning, but running at cons limited my ability to dig into the flavor and setting during a game and things started off pretty generic cyberpunk publicly. Having the campaign playtest, on the other hand, let us stew over ideas and playtest things that I was not comfortable exposing to random people at a con. The world that we developed in that at-home campaign is what ultimately lead to the final setting and rules of Axon Punk. It took a lot of deliberation to take our personal campaign setting, which was full of hip hop influence, and make it the default world for the game (as opposed to something more generic or “crowd friendly”). But, because we had this successful campaign where we were able to flesh out ideas for things like “The United Church of Tupac” for months at a time, we had the confidence to really embrace and push the hip hop influence in the game publicly. We started asking for help, adding team members like the Sugar Gamers, refining the rules, playtesting at cons using the hip hop inspired communities in the game, and haven’t looked back for one moment since.


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Thanks so much to Colin for answering my questions about Axon Punk: Overdrive! Please take a minute to check out the Kickstarter if the interview piqued your interest, and share the interview with anyone you think might like it!


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