Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Five or So Questions on WINTERHORN

Today I have a great interview with Jason Morningstar about his fascinating new project, WINTERHORN, which has information on the Bully Pulpit site and is also on DriveThruRPG. This game sounds really cool and also really important. I hope you enjoy what Jason says below!


Really nice layout and design for the materials!
Tell me a little about WINTERHORN. What excites you about it?

WINTERHORN is a live action game for 5-8 players about how governments degrade and destroy activist groups. The thing that excites me most about WINTERHORN is that it might actually be useful. I'm an American and I feel like my country is in genuine danger right now. WINTERHORN arose from a pretty intense internal conversation about what I could do about it. What skills could I bring to bear? How could I amplify my voice and offer tools to resist a worst case that is pretty fucking bad? I looked to history as a guide - what happens when authoritarians come to power? 

The playbook is well worn and it is being methodically repeated. I thought about how important resistance and dissent are, and the many tools governments have to suppress them. I read further on the Stasi, on COINTELPRO, on the Soviet Union and its successor states, and from that came the germ of the game - play the "bad guys" to learn how to be a better "good guy" in real life. Of course it isn't that simple, but through the game you'll absorb a dozen different ways activists get interfered with, and maybe that will spur some conversations about encryption, operational security, or hardening groups you care about against disinformation or worse. The game itself is fun and interesting, and it isn't at all didactic, but I feel like you really have a chance to embody these government operatives, which gives you both perspective and maybe even empathy. And you come away with these awful techniques on your mind. Every time I see the game hit the radar of some little Reddit anarchist cell or humanities academic I get excited. 

What were elements of your research that stood out most regarding the emotional factors of power, control, and resistance that had the most influence on WINTERHORN?

I've read pretty deeply on the Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, the security apparatus of the former East Germany) in the last few years, which was influential (The agencies you work for in WINTERHORN are mirrors of the organizational hierarchy of the Stasi). But I'd say the most influential elements were pulled from American history. FBI and Chicago police collusion leading to the death of Fred Hampton made a powerful impression, for example. If you are familiar with his killing and pursue a violent path in WINTERHORN you will see its unsubtle echoes.

How do you, in this game specifically, represent the "bad guys" in the game without making them into soulless monsters? 

In the full-on larp version of WINTERHORN the characters are tangled in bureaucracy and divided into two factions that roundly dislike each other (The Ministry of State Security and the People's Police). Each character has a professional and emotional attachment to a partner, and each has some affinity or soft spot that might color their choices. One likes the deeply stupid but brave, for example, and another likes the elderly. So there's enough meat on those bones to slightly humanize them, even if they are doing fundamentally inhuman things. In the more edu-game version of WINTERHORN, you are making the same decisions ina much more abstracted way, and there's none of this nuance but many more inputs from participants.

Why did you choose to present WINTERHORN in the format you have, a live action game with a card deck, as opposed to any other, and what value do you think it brings to the experience?

I wanted the game to be flexible and accessible, because I wanted it to be used outside of "normal" roleplaying contexts - in other words, outside of the living rooms and convention hideaways of super intense gamers. I also wanted the game's information to be smoothly and organically transmitted in play rather than through a didactic lesson. In my experience live action play is great for this - you embody a character, and that's a dial I, as the designer, can set low or high - and being physically engaged really aids in retention. WINTERHORN is dead simple and that was also a design goal. From the beginning I wanted to make sure that you could sit down and play it, even if you weren't a huge nerd who knew what a larp was. Cards are a great way to share and transmit information. To be honest the game grew a little bit and now requires printed material as well, but I'm totally OK with that. I'm really proud of the handouts and what they communicate.

WINTERHORN sounds like the kind of game that could use workshopping, debriefing, support mechanics, or other methods to help players engage with the material safely and deal with the harsh realities that they may uncover. Which of these do you use? If none, why?

You begin with some light workshopping, and the game guides you through it. There are six player-level roles in the game - Orientation, Time, Case Board, Dynamics, Paperwork and Debrief. Orientation presents the game world and your goals, as well as introducing you to the game's safety tools and touch boundaries. Dynamics' sole responsibility is to make sure all the players are engaged and having a good, productive time. Debrief leads a directed post-game discussion where you check in as players and segue into talking about how the game's content reflects real life, if you want. Time, Case Board and Paperwork all have in-game responsibilities. For larp nerds, the safety tools are Cut, Largo/Brake, and The Door Is Always Open. In play it is surprisingly chill - essentially WINTERHORN is a committee larp played around a table staring at a case board covered in photos, which makes it pretty accessible if you've ever seen a detective show.


Thanks so much to Jason for this great interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll share this interview, the WINTERHORN link, and the DriveThruRPG link with all your friends!

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