Friday, September 28, 2018

Quick Shot on The Forest Hymn & Picnic

Hey all, got a little piece with Cecil Howe on The Forest Hymn & Picnic, which is currently on Kickstarter! Check out Cecil's responses to my questions below.

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A tree with a pumpkin-headed friend floating nearby, plus the text The Forest Hymn & Picnic


What is The Forest Hymn & Picnic, both as a product and as your vision?

As a product it's a tabletop adventure game where players take on the roles of oddballs that live an absurd, unending and often haunted forest. It's a mix of exploration and slice of life gameplay much closer to D&D in play than something like Apocalypse World. The game takes cues from some of my favorite things from when I was a little dude—I didn't grow up in love with The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, I didn't grow up with D&D; I even missed out on Harry Potter 'til I was 23 despite my generation growing up with those books and movies. 

I did, however, love books like The Wind in the Willows, and the Frog & Toad stories when I was a kid. Fairy tales and fables and cartoons, too, all left their mark on me in ways traditional fantasy fiction never did. So the game digs into those influences more than anything, and I guess my vision is that adventuring in The Forest Hymn invokes those memories we have of what fantasy was to us as kids, before we read The Hobbit, but in a way seen more so through the lens of being an adult. Like what if Little Bear was all grown up and needed to sell off some heirlooms to hire someone to help him get a ghost out of his closet, or what if Frog got lost in the woods and Toad got a musket-toting posse together to go find him? I am not trying to hit a nostalgia button with this game, instead I am re-imagining all those things in my own voice and outside influences like Americana folklore, old tall tales, living in the southern US, and ghost stories.

A bear in a blue plaid shirt and green cap going fishing, smoking a pipe

How have you designed the game to address tone, pacing, and mood, considering how particular the various referenced media are in that regard? 

The three biggest influences on The Forest Hymn & Picnic are The Wind in the Willows and various children's books about animals being idiots, the music of The Decemberists, and the cartoon Over the Garden Wall. They all poke their head in on things one way or another, but like I mentioned it's through my own grown-up eyes and I take license here and there to reflect my own personality and get a bit weird with it. Tonally, you'll find the game to be more adult than those children's books; the player characters have more grown-up flaws and superstitions and especially the Ghost characters tend to er on the sad side of things—when you decide to play a ghost you pick a costume that reflects however you might have died in your former life. 

The ghosts made their way into the game after I watched OtGW. I was telling a friend about this game I was making that was about animals in a haunted forest, and they recommended it to me. I instantly watched it a thousand times, and how that cartoon handled things like death and family and basic human behavior really showed me you could do more with children's stories.

You can play as Animal Folks who are animals that walk and talk and are pretending to be what they think people are like, which is kind of the entirety of Mr. Toad from Willows expressed as an entire set of player options. Animal Folk are busy bodies and gossipers, concerned with social standing and prone to commerce. You can also play as people, who like Christopher Robin are a little more grounded in reality, but they're naturally lost in the woods. So the mood and tone very much my own projections of looking back at those influences as an older person. It's real silly, but a little bit serious. 

The book and the art, too, reflects a lot of these influences. I've been painting backgrounds and backdrops in traditional, mixed mediums like watercolor and colored pencils while the other artists, Casey and Sam, will be doing the action and foreground art in their own digital styles to give it that sort of old cartoon feel. They layout is closer to a children's book than a traditional RPG textbook, and graphic novelist Gabe Soria has contributed the lyrics to songs the forest dwellers sing to open each chapter.

I'm gunna answer the part about pacing in the next question, but my good pal Dustin told me that the way The Forest Hymn & Picnic is presented is like inviting kids to eat at the adult table and I think that's a good way to sum up the tone and mood of this game.

a floating pumpkin headed friend holding a bouquet of flowers and a book labeled "Die-ary"

Tell me a little about the progression of the game in play, from inception of characters to milestones and on. What was challenging to create here, and how does it feel in play? 

The pacing of the gameplay is made to intentionally mimic the way those kid's books are read. A lot of those books are collections, two or three-page accounts of whatever mischief the characters get into; each chapter is a contained story all bound into a single book but the characters very much feel like they're up to the good times in between the pages. The Forest Hymn & Picnic does this too. Each adventure is meant to be a contained experience the players have. A single adventure, a quest, a day at the county fair, 48 hours on the road between towns, etc. The narrator can choose to craft those episodes in a way that links them all together with an overarching plot, or choose to just explore the woods and the world across several sessions.

Players start with character generation; they're given the numbery, mathy stuff like characteristic scores and whatnot up front to get it out of the way. Then you're given a set of personality generating tables to sort of build the background of their character; they can make random rolls or pick and choose from the tables to learn things about themselves. People learn how they ended up in the woods and how they were raised, Animal Folk learn what kind of animal they are and what silly quirks they have, and Ghosts put their costumes together. 

You take all of that and put it together to form a description for your adventurer. What you're left with at the end of character generation is an extremely unique adventurer who has their own fears and goals and personalities, built-in adventuring hooks like finding your long lost father or working to become mayor of some town, and a relationship with the woods itself.

After each episodic adventure players will go up in a level, and the options they take and decisions they make represent what those characters are up to between adventures. So like, a player might decide that in between level 0 and level 1 they want to get involved with the supernatural and learn some magic tricks so they become a Fortune Teller. Or maybe the player can't decide just yet what they want to do, so they take on the role of a rakehell and bum around town with not much to do. Each of those choices then give the players new options, skills, magic tricks, and cool moves, and even adventure hooks to use on their next adventure and advance their unique personal stories and lives in The Forest Hymn. Not including the different types of Animal Folk, and not including the different micro decisions players make at each level-up and their own contributions, there is over 500 different combinations of unique dweller to choose from. 

That's where the influence of The Decemberists comes in; their songs tend to be storied, melodic looks at seemingly ordinary people and the different player options work they same way: you don't choose to be Mega Sword Hero™, but you do decide to take up the quiet life of a knife sharpener or burglar, bakers, librarians and all that good stuff. In play it feels very much feel like players are a part of the world rather than heroic outsiders, which is delightful and intentional. It gives the actual adventuring narrative weight; it's odd to go adventuring in the woods, it's not normal to go traipsing around The Spookwood, making it all more interesting when you do these things as a someone who's really good at churning butter and keeping books instead of swinging a sword.

The most challenging thing about creating anything with this game is staying true to the setting and making sure it's cool. The Forest Hymn & Picnic is running on a very very simplified version of the same engine that powers a game that couldn't be further from different than it: Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert J. Schwalb. SotDL is a—fantastic!—super gritty, grim dark hack & slash RPG and what I've made from it is different by leagues of night and day. 

I've quieted the importance of fighting and weapons and replaced it with a more granular task resolution system using the same math. So the easy part, the math, was done already. But making sure the setting comes through in player options and the magic tricks, in the character generation and the songs, the art, and the brief introduction to the world has been the toughest part. It's not a genre covered heavily in RPGs or really in mainstream media very often at all; fewer of us have the concepts and tropes that define it burned into our brainholes like we do typical fantasy or sci fi ones.

Thanks for reading! Love,
Cecil
The text The Forest Hymn & Picnic and an image of the book with black cover, then a stork carrying a bundle and some trees.

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I don't normally include signoffs, but Cecil's was part of the answers given, and I liked it. :) Thanks to Cecil for a great interview! I hope you'll all check out The Forest Hymn and Picnic on Kickstarter today!

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