Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Five or So Questions on Dinosaur Princesses

Hi there! I have a new interview today with Dana Cameron and Hamish Cameron on Dinosaur Princesses, which is a fantastic new game on Kickstarter! Please check out their answers below on this nifty project!


A t-rex and smaller dinosaur storm through the jungle in doctor outfits while avoiding banana peels. Text "Dinosaur Princesses"

Tell me a little about Dinosaur Princesses. What excites you about it?

Dana: What is there not to be excited about? First, Dinosaur Princesses is also a colouring book—actually colouring and drawing is one of the most important parts of gameplay, in my opinion. One of the first things you do is draw and/or colour your dinosaur princess. As part of that, what I think is really great about the game is that it taps into the limitless and boundless imagination that we had a kids. The colouring and drawing parts are great at breaking down barriers that we often have as adults which tell us to reign in our creativity to make it fit within certain perimeters of consistency and probability; it gives permission to just have fun. It is meant to be able to be played by kids, but I think it really shines when adults play it.

Dinosaur Princesses is also very friendly to folx who are completely new to table-top RPGs. When I have run it, I have often had a high percentage of folx who have never played a ttrpg before. The system is very rules-lite, so players have very little stress worrying about system mastery. It's also so fun and easy to run that it acted as a gateway to get me to finally get over my extreme social anxiety and be able to run the game myself!

Finally, I think of it as a queer game. Princesses are explicitly stated to be of any gender. "Dinosaur" is also a pretty open descriptor; you can be a t-rex or velociraptor, but your dinosaur can also be a cat or train. It's subtly stating that what we see as rigid boxes, descriptors, or roles are actually malleable and able to be questioned. One can take those boxes and, if they want, subvert them to express other identities—and that is totally an acceptable and good thing to do. It's a freeing experience.

A character sheet with a hand-drawn winged dinosaur with great eyelashes on it.

What were the inspirations for Dinosaur Princesses, and how did you come to the point of making a game plus coloring book from those inspirations?

Hamish: The main inspiration for Dinosaur Princesses are the kids of a couple of my best friends in New Zealand. At the time, their favourite things were Dinosaurs and Princesses, and my friends were joking about finding a game they would both like. I said I'd write it and a few months later they playtested the first version! They were 4 & 6 at the time, so that'll probably be my youngest playtesters for a long time! Beyond the origin story, I had a lot of discussions with those same friends about the kind of things that the game could do that other games don't. The idea of the central mechanics being cooperation and problem solving came out of those discussions.

(Following on from Dana's comment about it being a queer game)
One of the fundamental design principles is that the rules should provide enough structure to help children tell stories that feel like an after school cartoon--with all weird and wonderful characters that involves!--and that, within the confines of a game about cooperative problem solving, the rules should never block them from imagining who they wanted to be while they play. I didn't want an 8 year old telling their younger sibling that they couldn't play a cat or a dragon or whatever because it's "against the rules."

Dana: I can tell the story about how it became a colouring book! Hamish was already working on it, but I didn't know much about it at the time. We were in a small bar in Wellington, NZ a couple years back and he was telling a friend about the game. He said he wanted the rules book to look like a kids book and that he was also thinking of the character sheets as something for people to draw and colour on. I made the logical leap and (probably) shouted, "THE RULES BOOK SHOULD *BE* A COLOURING BOOK!!!!!!". I guess that was my first touch on the game. I didn't really start working on it actively until earlier this year.

a whole collection of character sheets with drawings and a map in the center of a table

What are the mechanics like in the game, and how do players interact with each other and the world?

Hamish: Dinosaur Princesses uses an opposed dice pool mechanic which is set up so that if a Dinosaur Princess tries to do something on their own, the odds are against them. After they assemble their dice pool, they ask their friends, the other Dinosaur Princesses, the most important question in the game, "Will you help me?" Then their friends build dice pools and hopefully overcome the problem together! Dinosaur Princesses has a GM who rolls the opposing dice pool, but it's a very low-prep role that brings in a lot of the Powered by the Apocalypse ethos of encouraging player participation in worldbuilding and player-driven narratives. The players come up with the story together at the table.

[Brie Note: The collaboration encouragement here is SO GREAT.]

How do players choose their Dinosaur Princess, and what do they use to assemble their dice pool?

Dana: Players have a character sheet, some of which of have colouring-book style line art of typical dinos (t-rex, triceratops, etc) and some of which have the picture space blanks so folx can draw their own. Players decide on what type of dinosaur they will be—there is an example list in case someone has a hard time coming up with one. However, it's important to note that we use "dinosaur" in a loose sort of way; I have played a cat and platypus "dinosaur"! Similarly, players then choose what type of princess they will be. This can be any sort of profession-like thing, such as doctor, aquanaut, news caster, and so forth.

They assemble their dice pool by describing how they use their strengths as a dinosaur and as a princess to help their friends. The mechanic is set up so that if a Dinosaur Princess tries to do something on their own, the odds are against them. It's important that the player starting dice pool asks their friends, the other Dinosaur Princesses, the most important question in the game, "Will you help me?"

Hamish: There are sample lists of types of dinosaurs and princesses in the book and on the character sheets, but they’re supposed to be inspirational, not restrictive. Players are encouraged to be as inventive and imaginative as they like in choosing who they will play.

What kind of stories do you tell in Dinosaur Princesses? How do you keep it interesting?

Dana: The sorts of stories being told in the game are as unique as the Dinosaur Princesses that the players create at the table. The world-building and story plot directly grows from that foundation. I have had games where the plot revolved around the Dinosaur Princesses trying to find their Houses & Humans game miniatures, and I have had games where the Dinosaur Princesses rode around town on the monorailasaurus to try to uncover the mystery of the queen's roving teapot. I have had games that took place in an abandoned mall and ones that took place in space. It really is a game where everyone's boundless imagination shapes play!
Hamish: Dinosaur Princesses is designed to be played as a one shot, it takes about 2 hours to play a game, and it draws on the creativity of everyone at the table; so it spreads the cognitive load of coming up with new stuff and people can usually keep the ideas coming over the short length of play.

dinosaurs of all different types and shapes all dressed up in different outfits including a chef, a doctor, and one holding a boombox while wearing a monocle, and the text Dinosaur Princesses.


Awesome! Thanks Dana and Hamish for the interview! I hope everybody enjoyed it and that you'll check out Dinosaur Princesses on Kickstarter today!

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five or So Questions on Thousand Year Old Vampire

Hello all, today I have an interview with Tim Hutchings on Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a single-player game coming up on Kickstarter! (Check out the Facebook event here!) The game sounds pretty interesting, exploring the life of a vampire in intimate and deep ways. You can see a playtest version here. Check out what Tim had to say!

Content Warning for discussion of memory loss, especially near the end of the interview.


A vintage-appearing image of a vampire attacking a man
Tell me a little about Thousand Year Old Vampire. What excites you about it?

Well, first let me say that I don't often get excited about things I make. I get nervous, nauseous, pent up. I used to joke about the "sweat test"; if I wasn't sweating when I showed something to someone I wasn't sufficiently invested in the project or the showing. This came out of the time when I was showing art in galleries, and it has something to do with the way I made and thought about art at the time. It still applies to a lot of games I make, but in a different way--the games I make are personal, or visceral, or difficult in ways that my art never was. Now I sweat because I'm making a machine that people play with, and if the manual for that machine is unclear people will break it or maybe even get hurt. There's not a lot of room for excitement in any of this.

But I'm excited about Thousand Year Old Vampire in a way that leaves me quietly alarmed at myself.  I've worked on this game differently than other games, with the biggest difference being that a reaching back to my old studio process. When I made a thing in the studio it was a quick, fraught process during which I could ingest or enjoy or experience the thing I was making it as it was made; the actual "artwork" was a shell left behind after this work was done. Game making is different in that you need people or systems to test things; there's a space of time between the making and the experiencing of it. Because TYOV is a solo game it's making was a self-contained process, I wrote and played and wrote and played in a closed system. It was fast and amazing and it's how I want to be.

And it produced a game I am excited for and proud of. I've played this game so many times, and the prompts consistently produce a different experience with every go. And at least once during each game something happens that makes my innards churn, something unexpected and awful and it's like I'm not controlling a character but being betrayed by one. I'm not a "let me tell you about my character" kind of person, but TYOV has gotten me excited enough to write game summaries on the Facebooks.
A journal with leather binding and an abstract pattern, and stickers in various languages on it.
This is the journal in the PDF, which is gorgeous.
What is the motivation for a single-player game like this? As someone who loves lonely games and making them, I must ask: why is this game good alone?

I love your phrasing of “lonely games”! It’s perfect. For me, there were a couple of reasons to make a solo game. Maybe more than a couple.

Solo games are a weird design space. I have a print out of A Real Game by Aura Belle that I’ve been sitting on for a year, I’m so excited about it I can’t bear to play it. Every game I make is about communication and bodies in space; a framework for people pushing at each other to find play. Other players change the game space for each other with a constant barrage of gentle tugs which keep each other engaged and off-center—this is awesome and good but what if we didn’t do that?

A non-social game is tricksy and strange. How can you operate in the “story game” space and not have it be a choose your own adventure book? The game prompts in Thousand Year Old Vampire make you look inward for responses, you are building something between you and the machine of the game without any other conscious actors in the room. There’s no “yes and” here, oh mortal. And without other people in the room watching I can do things that I might not do otherwise when I ask questions and give horrific answers.

And the solo play echoes the subject of the game itself. You play a vampire who sees everything they love turn to dust. Your character is alone, you are alone, the two states echo each other. One play option is to keep a diary as you play. Journaling is a usually a thing you do alone. One of my objectives as a designer is to have the system and the setting inextricably bound together, so solo play works.

That said, I don’t see any reason that a person can’t play it with others. Why not share a pool of Characters and let the prompt reactions affect the world that the players occupy? The system is simple enough that players can do this if they want, and I’m sure some will—there’s been a remarkable amount of pushback over the idea of a solo game being a thing at all.

And practically speaking: I’m a lonely guy. Making a game I can play and iterate on my own is helpful. It echoes the prevalence of solo rules in wargame design—I’m the kind of person that can’t get people together to play things, so I’ll make the sort of things I can enjoy on my own.

Finally: I had a conversation with Jackson Tegu, who has a solo experience called I Was Once Like You, that helped me think about the solo play-ness of TYOV. In the friendly discussion-like thing we were doing I came up with "Petit Guignol" as a term that I thought fit TYOV. It literally means "tiny puppet" in French and has a direct connection to the “Grand Guignol" which was a style of bloody, horrifying, naturalist theater developed in the 1890s. As I play TYOV I sometimes play with scale in my mind, imagining the scenes happen in the space between my arms as I update the character sheet on a keyboard. It's a play space I don't think I can imagine with other people in the room, it's tiny and close and personal. Anyways, there's that.

A vintage style illustration person with an octopus arm for a head getting attacked by someone with a sword.
Tell me about the design process. The way you handle moving through the prompts is simple but clever, and you have these memories and experiences that are created. How did you develop these aspects of the game? 

My design process is a sham. I stare into space until my unconscious gets bored and gives me something that I can think about, and then maybe that becomes a game, or a joke, or an artwork. My games are not the product of rigorous engagement with discourse, they are random stuff that vaguely imitates a category of thing which I understand exists in the world. These are the “Sunday painter” equivalent of game design, if that Sunday painter just really liked wearing smocks and berets but never bothered to go to a museum.

I don’t design these games so much as find them laying around my brain-house. I pick them up and wipe the muck off, maybe paint them a different color to assuage a conscience that demands at least a semblance of effort, then I scribble my name on them and puff up with self-satisfaction.

But a serious aside: I don’t read a lot of games, and I do this on purpose. I’m more likely to solve a problem in a useful way if I’m not clouded up with other people’s solutions for similar issues. This is a good methodology unless you’re building bridges or stuff where people can die. This builds on my greatest strength, which is that I’m pretty dumb.

Occasionally these magical brain-gift games might need some rough corners polished up. With TYOV I had to figure out a way to progress through the prompt sequence so as to maximize replayability. (You, dear reader, haven’t played this game, so super quick summary: You roll some dice and slowly advance along a list of prompts which you answer about how your vampire continues its existence. If you land on the same prompt number more than once, there are second and third tier prompts you encounter. The game ends when you reach the end of the list.) By using a d6 subtracted from a d10, it created the possibility of skipping entries, of going backwards, and of landing on the same entry number more than once. This meant that rare and super rare results could easily be baked into the chart structure—you have the same chance of landing on any given number as you progress through the prompts, but there are diminished chances of landing on a number twice and getting the second-tier prompt. Landing on a number a third time usually happens once per game, and those rare third-tier prompts can be world-changing.

The tiered prompt system naturally evolved into a mini-story arc system. I can make the player introduce a self-contained Character or situation with a first-tier prompt, and in the second-tier prompt them interact with what they created in a new way. It’s perfectly fine if they never hit that second tier prompt, they won’t for most entries, but if they do it will naturally make a little story. It’s so satisfying and it’s all part of the same system, no additional rules are needed to support it.

One aspect of TYOV I’ve been thinking hard about is player safety. What are appropriate safety tools for solo play? What tools allow us to think terrible, soul souring thoughts but then put them behind us? I’m a fan of X-card-like thinking, and was around Portland while Jay Sylvano and Tayler Stokes were working on their own support signals systems. Stokes later developed the affirmative consent-based support flower, and is giving me guidance on my solo safety thinking.

One of my imperatives as a designer is getting rid of non-vital things. This is practical because additional complexity usually makes a game less fluid and harder to learn. If I can get by with three rules that’s great, but if I’m going to have eight then I might as well have a hundred. Not that there’s much wrong with games that have a hundred rules, I like those too. I’ve recently been converted to Combat Commander, of all things.

Something I threw out of TYOV are rules about tracking time. At one point I had a system in place for tracking the date. I mean, if the game is called Thousand Year Old Vampire then you want to know when a thousand years go by, right? But there was no benefit to tracking the actual year, it was easier to allow the player to just let the passage of time be loosely tracked in their answers to the prompts. Maybe an arc of prompts happens over a year in your head, maybe a whole generation goes by—the game works regardless. The only rule about time is “every once in a while strike out mortal Characters who have probably died of old age.”

Finally, I should acknowledge the importance of Burning Wheel and Freemarket to Thousand Year Old Vampire. Writing good Beliefs in Burning Wheel is a skill, and the idea of tying character goals mechanically to the game was mind-blowing. Freemarket has Belief-like-ish Memories, which are something that have game mechanical effects AND can be manipulated as part of play. Both of these mechanics had outsized influence on the way I thought about Memories in TYOV.

Memories in TYOV are everything that your vampire is. You have a limited number of Memories, and every Memory is made up of a limited number of Experiences. Every Prompt you encounter generates a new Experience which is tagged onto the end of a new Memory. Eventually you run out of space for Memories, so you older Memories to a Diary. You can and will lose our Diary, along with all the Memories in it, and it’s awful. But the Diary is just a stopgap anyways, as you are forced to forget things to make room for new Experiences.

Eventually you have an ancient, creaky vampire who doesn’t remember that he was once a Roman emperor, or that they used to live on a glacier, or that he fell in love two hundred years ago. But they at least know how to use a computer and are wrestling with the fact that the hook-up site they used to find victims was just shut down and how will they eat now? This design goal was crystallized when I read “The Vampire” by Ben Passmore in Now 3 put out by Fantagraphic Books. It’s a heartbreaking, sad story in which you see the vampire as a deprotagonized system of habits. It’s great.

A vintage illustration of a man in period clothing with a white curled wig, standing under an eclipse and a hillside with Egyptian-appearing monuments, while corpses lie on the ground.
What has the development of this game been like, from original inspiration to the speed of production?

This game flowed out quickly and mostly easily. My pal Jessie Rainbow I were playtesting and iterating the game over weeks instead of months. The game is built from a story games mindset and there aren’t any ridiculously novel mechanics that need to be explained; I hand the rules over to a playtester and they understand them immediately and the game works.

The game works and a year of refinement to get it five percent better isn’t worth it. It’s done, and like an artwork it might be slightly flawed but that’s part of the thing itself. I don’t necessarily want an extruded, sanitized perfect thing; instead I have, like an artwork, a piece that becomes a record of it’s own making. If I work on this game another year it won’t get better, it’ll just get different—2019 Tim will have different priorities than I do right now and all that’s going to happen is that TYOV will torque around to reflect that. I might as well let 2018 Tim have his moment and give 2019 Tim new things to worry over.

In regards to the themes of mortality and memory, as well as with aspects of queerness in some of the prompts, how do you relate to TYOV? How is it meaningful to you?

This is hard to talk about. I think I need to break this question down into three very separate categories: My understanding of evil, personas shifting over time, and a vampire-shaped momento mori.

The game is twined up in my own ideas of person-scaled evil which is based on my experience of social predators, thoughtlessly selfish idiots, and rich people exerting power over others. This evil is written into the “Why did you do that awful thing you did?” type prompts, which assign an evil deed which must be justified. There’s an important subtext in the game which I never say out loud: As the vampire is writing in their diary are they telling the truth? But the evil is about the wickedness that people do to each other, and this is my chance to pick out a version of it that I seldom see represented.

Completely unrelated to the themes around evil are the ideas of shifting identities. Over the centuries the vampire will be reinventing themselves so they can fit in with the societies shifting around them. As a cishet white guy I’m outside of the dialogues that happen around LGBTQA+ folks, but I see folks change over time and it’s exciting. A related prompt might draw attention to ingrained societal mores that can now be abandoned because the culture of your mortal years is centuries dead. I can gently make a space for this even if I don’t have that experience, with the understanding that my understanding isn’t necessarily another’s understanding of the space that needs to be made. Like I said before, this becomes a portrait of 2018 Tim thinking through difficult issues using creative work—this isn’t Truth with a capital T.

The shifting personas of the vampire are probably the most personally resonant aspect of the game for me. I have some pretty distinct phases in my life where I was having to be markedly different people. In NYC I used to exhibit art with a gallery owned by the son of billionaires. I’d get taken to a dinner that might cost more than I made in a week then go back to my home which had holes in the floor which I could see my neighbors through. I remember hanging drywall in the morning and meeting a Rockefeller descendant later that night; he got noticeably upset that I had a scratch on the back of my hand then shut me out when I said it happened “at work.” I learned that I had to keep these worlds very, very separate. And it went both ways, I found myself being reminded of the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas telling a story about how no one in his Brooklyn neighborhood believed him when he told them he was teaching at NYU.

Now I’m a guy with a kid living in a suburban neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. I’m not the same person that I was five years ago in New York. I can’t be the same person, that guy couldn’t live this life.

Which leads me to my final bit: I did things that sound wonderful and which I can’t remember, I apparently did things that are terrible which I am glad I forgot. These moments are lost until someone else remembers them for me or I happen upon some chance evidence. My memory is going, and it’s awful—there’s a much more exciting version of me which is being forgotten. I can see my brain failing in other ways; sometimes I leave out a word when I’m writing now. I bet I did it within the text of this interview.

This loss of skill, of memory, of personality are reflected in the way the game has you lose or edit memories. Eventually I’ll die and be forgotten in turn, but at least I’ll have this self-reflection on mortality outlive me for a bit.
A vintage style illustration of a man tied down onto a wooden structure of some kind, bound.

Thanks so much, Tim, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Thousand Year Old Vampire on Kickstarter when it's live! In the meantime, you can RSVP on the Facebook event here.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Five or So Questions on Scherzando!

Today I have an interview with Elizabeth and Amber Autumn on Scherzando! (skert. ', which is currently on Kickstarter. In this fascinating game you play both the characters...and the soundtrack! Check out Elizabeth & Amber's responses below for more.


A diverse group of people around a table with instruments, paper, and tokens.

Tell me a little about Scherzando! What excites you about it?

Scherzando! is a diceless, gm-less story game in which you play characters with big dreams and strong feelings, plus the soundtrack of their world. It's often been described as "Fiasco, but with music," but we like to think that Scherzando! is less about grand ambitions causing tragedy and more about grand emotions bringing people together.

It's exciting for all the obvious reasons—creating a game with a soundtrack as you go is really cool! It's fun and dynamic, and people laugh a lot. But we're equally excited about the less obvious features of the game. We love that the game lets players have a physical, embodied experience; that it's an experience built around collaboration and communication; and, most of all, that it creates a space where players can feel comfortable creating music regardless of their previous musical experience. In response to our game concept, we get "but I don't know anything about music" all the time, so it was a real goal of ours to create something that helped people feel that they didn't need to know everything in order to make something or communicate something, and to create a safe space in the game for that to happen. Every time a player picks up an instrument and starts feeling out some sounds during the game, it feels like a victory for us, and every time they manage to successfully communicate an emotion with it, it feels like a victory for them. That's a dynamic we're exceptionally proud of.

We're also excited about it because it's our first game at this scale! It's mind-blowing to have a book with all this art and all this support and to have this Kickstarter start off so well—it really does feel like being invited to sit at the grown-up table. But it feels good to know that our investments in time, effort, and money are paying off. The game has been in development for over a year and a half (or over two years depending on how you want to talk about it); no blood comes to mind, but there've certainly been sweat and tears, so finally getting to print it will be incredible.

What kind of music do people experience in the game? Where did you take inspiration from for the tunes?

Since players make their own music, there's no specific style or genre that Scherzando! works best with. We encourage players to take inspiration from whatever they like in their own life, up to and including just copying pieces they like if they think it'll get their point across. So what the music actually sounds like in a game depends on who's playing, what kinds of music they spend most time with, and what kind of mood they're in as they sit down to play.

One effect of this is that it turns music into a creative expression unique to the people sitting at your table. People bring in the music, styles, sounds, and methods of experimentation that make sense to them, that they would use outside the game, and that's a way of bringing a part of their personality into the creative text in a direct, meaningful, and mechanically significant way. Having each player bring their own inspiration and style makes the session's music a direct creative expression of who the players are.
Two femme-appearing people playing instruments on a porch surrounded by greenery.
How did you design the game, considering that it's diceless and GMless AND uses music as a part of the game?

The game actually began neither diceless nor GMless—both of those got iterated out in the design process! The dice were adding needless complications, causing too much swing in the resolution mechanics, and making it significantly less accessible to anyone who didn't already own a ton of dice. We dropped them at the recommendation of the incredible Avery Alder, who wrote Monsterhearts and Ribbon Drive (one of the only other music games on the market), and who was kind enough to give us some sage advice early on.

The GM role (which we called the "conductor," because we thought it was cute) would rotate around the table to maintain the sense of a democratic story where everyone contributed, but we found pretty quickly that the conductor didn't have much to do. The scene setup generally implied itself, and players turned out to be quite good at arbitrating how the NPCs and the universe would react to their actions in the most interesting way. Plus, the game includes an interjection mechanic which allows players to temporarily gain narration powers for either a bonus (if they're adding a complication) or a penalty (if they're adding a boon) at the end of the scene. The ability and incentive to add elements to a scene made the conductor role almost entirely obsolete.

Development began in its very early phases maybe two years ago, with a lot of research on historical music games and current music education techniques. We spent a lot of time working through the logistics of who was on the team for the project and who would be doing what, and trying to lay out a plan. Once we knew who was working on it, how we would do it, and that what we wanted to do hadn't been done before, the next step was more research. We read books, played games, emailed musicians and educators, and eventually started throwing around ideas for how a system would work. We wrote up a list of core values that we wanted our game to embody, some of which have changed and shifted over the course of development, but some of which are still core to the game today! Then we designed a game around those values.

That game was completely broken and did not work at all.

The bulk of the process at that point was holding playtests, dozens of playtests, at cons and game stores and especially with our friends, with a different group of people every time. We took notes, and at the end of each test we discussed which items functioned and which needed to be changed or dropped, and adjusted the rulebook accordingly. Eventually we ended up with a system we felt good about, give or take minor details, and somewhere approaching that point we started doing the logistical work of commissioning art, reaching out to podcasts, and all the other publishing prep work necessary for a Kickstarter. From there, the actual changes to the game itself have mostly been tweaking numbers, revising stock setting choices, and other minor changes, most of which still require playtests to happen.
A person in armor playing drums and a person playing a keytar in a whirlwind.
This piece of art is mindblowing!
What resources do players need to participate in Sherzando, and what kind of skills are useful?

We like to bring a lot of small, cheap instruments to playtests, but they're not a requirement—the game works just as well when players hum and tap on the table. The only physical items players need, besides the rules, are a) notecards and something to write with; b) six differently-colored/otherwise distinguishable tokens per player; and c) an opaque container per player that is capable of hiding the tokens within it. As far as skillsets are concerned, we maintain that musical experience really isn't necessary (although it is fun to play with a group of musicians!); we find that the game runs most smoothly when players aren't self-conscious about their musical or roleplaying "talent." Earnestness and willingness to engage with a ridiculous story are probably the most important tools in the game.
Two people in period dress with white curly wig with music sheets scattered around them while they argue.
How do you hope players experience the game and what do you want people to take forward? What have you already seen taken forward in playtests?

One of the most exciting pieces of feedback we've ever received was really recently, when someone who had listened to our actual play on One Shot tweeted at us to say that she could see the players gradually learning to express themselves through music over the course of the game.

In addition to the "yes, you too can make music" lesson we've been harping on this whole time, we also hope players experience the game as an exciting way of adding meaning and tone to their stories in a way you can't find anywhere else. There are all these connections between narrative and emotions and semiotics that we wanted to explore and link together, and we think being able to play through those links in a really direct way is new and refreshing and cool. We also hope players have fun! Not every game needs to be fun, but Scherzando! is, and we love seeing people get really animated during gameplay.

There are plenty of things we've seen people take forward from this: confidence, communication skills, and even sometimes a better understanding of a musical instrument. But we also hope that people take home a really good memory about a fun story they told with their friends, not only in words but in music.
the Scherzando logo


Thank you so much to Elizabeth and Amber for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Scherzando! on Kickstarter today!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

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If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Big Bad Con 2018 Summary

Big Bad Con is my favorite convention.

There are any number of reasons why - some are simple, like "I can always get a glass of water" or "There are easy to read pronoun flags" or "The game offerings are amazing," but some are far more complex, and today I want to talk about those more complex reasons. I'll tell you a little about what I did first!

My Big Bad Con 2018 was intense. I was busy as hell, the entire trip. Somehow, though, I still recall distinct moments of calm and chill, even though my schedule was probably the fullest of any convention I've done and I had some of the most stressful events I've ever participated in. But that's Big Bad Con, right? I'd say almost anyone who has gone there would say something similar - hell yes, I was busy! But I had a good time, and I don't feel like my soul's been ripped out at the end.

I love Big Bad Con because Big Bad Con loves me. If you go to Big Bad Con, I expect you'll enjoy it, because Big Bad Con doesn't just care about you, Big Bad Con cares for you.

I attended Big Bad Con last year and it was a remarkable experience. I talked about it in three big posts. I had never felt the way I did at Big Bad Con, not at any other con. This year, I was insistent that John attend with me - John is not huge on conventions, but this one felt so different, I just needed him to try. Plus, he had a game to promote this year. And he did the Tell Me About Your Character booth!

John, a dark haired and bearded man, standing in the Tell Me About Your Character booth at Big Bad Con

Over the course of the convention, I hosted the Soda Pop Social, was on two panels by others (Expanding Fantasy, Other Paths) and one of my own (Beyond the Binary), ran Turn, ran my Leading with Class workshop for non-GMs, and played Roar of Alliance. That's a lot for me at a con - like, GMing alone kills me, I never expect to survive it. But in spite of all of the overwhelmingness, I feel pretty good about the con.

I'm going to summarize each event here, but there may be more detailed posts about them in the future. I just want to give some framing for the core of what I want to talk about.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Five or So Questions on Return to the Stars

Today I have an interview with Mark Sabalauskas on Return to the Stars, which is currently on Kickstarter! I'm contributing a solarpunk scenario for the game, but I'm really interviewing Mark because it's a hopepunk game in a world that could really use some hope. So check it out, and see what Mark had to say below!


A group of people in varying styles and costumes, all of different genders, sizes, and races.

Tell me a little about Return to the Stars. What excites you about it?

Return to the Stars is an optimistic science fiction role playing game, powered by Fate.

I am excited to share a game with people where they can imagine having cool adventures in better future.

The direct inspiration was the sense of community that came from being surrounded by diverse, smart, and curious people at a Sci-Fi convention I attended. Hanging out with enthusiastic pop culture geeks was a real respite from much of the darkness in world. It occurred to me that the original Star Trek may have resonated because it provided a similar respite in the 60s, a very turbulent time.

So I created a game that combines the best parts of gamer and geek culture with science fiction exploration. Imagine if Chiana from Farscape was a genetically enhanced cosplayer, or Scotty was someone who loved hacking things to take to a Maker Faire.

The basic premise is that in a post-scarcity future hyperspace travel gave easy access to countless worlds, and humanity sorted itself into like-minded communities. One such society was the Convention Authority, founded to celebrate the now classical arts of science fiction, fantasy, and gaming.

One day, without warning, the stellar beacon that illuminated hyperspace went silent rendering galactic travel impossible. The systems of the Convention Authority stayed connected thanks to a replica fleet of early starships. Now, after more than a century of effort, a long-range exploration craft has been built. Its purpose: to return to the stars and reconnect the lost civilizations of humanity.

You play as one of a new generation of geeks — makers, genetically enhanced cosplayers, scientists, and pop culture enthusiasts setting out on an adventure of exploration and discovery.

What are some of the challenges of making a hopepunk type game, and how have you approached them?

Hopepunk is a subgenre centered around the idea that in the face of oppression and cynicism caring about things is an act of resistance. It is about being kind and also fighting against injustice.

One challenge was to balance hopepunk with other themes in the game. I addressed this by having a setting where long isolated civilizations are reconnecting. Around the table, this means the world being rediscovered "this week" can tell a unique story, giving you a chance to dive deeply into its themes.

Also, player characters come from a fairly utopian society. They could simply chose to stay in their post-scarcity paradise, complacent, sitting around a pool discussing seven centuries of anime and arguing if the 78th edition of D&D was the best, while robots serve them pina coladas. During character creation you have to create an aspect that explains why your character wants to leave this privilege behind. Why they are willing to put their comfort aside and risk their lives to explore and help the rest of humanity.

To encompass the full scope of hopepunk, Return's skill system had to players plenty of non-combat options--play can revolve around making and learning and sharing what you've learned, not just combat. Also, the mechanics for competitions and down-time tinkering give players ways to show off the the things their characters care about.
A dark skinned person in futuristic clothing demonstrating something on a floating touch screen to a pale-skinned person in different futuristic clothing with a metal arm.

Tell me a little more about the world. What kind of people are there? What sort of technology do they have access to?

Return to the Stars is set in the early 27th century, 600 years from now. During that time humanity spread through the Galaxy thanks to origami drives that fold hyperspace. 125 years ago, Stellar Beacon that illuminated hyperspace suddenly went silent, rendering galactic travel impossible. Now a limited form of interstellar travel has been discovered. Communication is limited to the speed of space travel, so players need to act on their own initiative, they can’t phone home for instructions.

You'll travel from world to world, encountering a diverse array of human societies. There are no intelligent aliens in the setting, and digital life can't travel through hyperspace. Stories exist to help people understand humanity, these choices are very intentional. Of course, you still have the option spinning a tale about a runaway AI on a particular planet.

Probably the most unique tech in the game is cosplay, which in the 27th century is the aptitude for self-presentation using costuming, genetic modification, posture, and movement. Because cosplay involves granular genetic control of your body it is a skill you can use to recover from physical consequences.
A pale skinned person and a dark skinned person are in a tech-heavy environment with glowing lights and other figures standing nearby. There is a glowing globe with hovering text "LOCATION SECTOR 68" and locations and pathways lit up on the globe's surface.

What's the mechanical system like in Return to the Stars? How do players interact with the world?

Return to the Stars is powered by Fate, which is a proven indie game system that has been popular over the past decade. It is great for telling stories that are centered on who your character is and what they care about as opposed to what stuff they carry.

You characters have skills and stunts that let them bend the rules. But the heart of the system are aspects, short phrases that describe who your character is. You start a session with 3 Fate points, when you need a boost, and it makes sense, you can spend a Fate point to get a skill check bonus. On the other hand, if you chose, your aspects can complicate you life, earning a Fate point, so you can be awesome later. So if your character is a very curious science officer, they might tempted to wander off to investigate a strange screech, earning a Fate point, or they might spend a Fate point to be awesomely effective at solving a scientific mystery. In this way the game emulates the up and down beats of a story.

Return to the Stars comes with an adventure specially designed to teach the core concepts of the game. In playtests at many different conventions, new players have been up and running and having a good time after ten minutes of explanation.
My goal: if you love anime or games or science fiction or cosplay, and have thought about trying roleplaying games, you can get Return to the Stars, read it, and play.

If you already love games powered by Fate, I’ve added fun new subsystems: character arcs, props, downtime tinkering, and competitions. You can learn more about them on the Kickstarter. And, of course, there is a dedicated set of sci-fi skills and over 100 new stunts to mix things up!

At the center of it, what kind of stories do players tell in the game, and what do you wish to see the most?

Return to the Stars is designed to help players tell stories of sci-fi exploration and adventure. I hope players players take advantage of a game that can be as much about making, learning, and communicating as it is about punching space fascists. 

Ultimately, of course, the great thing about a tabletop role playing game is that people can bring their own interest and passions into the game, adding theme to the themes in the game: optimism, space opera, pop culture, and hopepunk.
Two people inside a spaceship flying through an asteroid belt


Thank you so much to Mark for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading Mark's responses and that you'll check out Return to the Stars on Kickstarter today!

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Big Bad Con & Behind the Masc

Hello all,

I'll be at Big Bad Con this year - specifically this weekend! And Behind the Masc is on!

I made a big thread on Twitter of everything I'm doing and why!

I hope to see you there, and if not, look forward to my con reports! I'm taking a few days off after the con so Thoughty posts will be kicking back off after that.

In other news, I'm halfway through-ish Behind the Masc fulfillment! Hooray! The packing is going  a little slowly but soon the game will be in all of the backers' hands, and it's already in their inboxes in PDF. If you missed out and want a PDF copy, check it out here!


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Monday, October 8, 2018

Five or So Questions on Rodent Rangers

Hi all! Today I've got a great interview with Jacob Kellogg and Joseph Kellogg, creators of Rodent Rangers, a nifty roleplaying game currrently on Kickstarter! The project could really use some attention and it seems like a fun game, so please check it out, and see what they have to say about it in the responses below!


A mouse in a glasses, a sweater vest, and a button down with dark pants and a red messenger bag, holding an armful of papers and running off to chase after some that have blown away

Tell me a little about Rodent Rangers. What excites you about it?

Jacob: Rodent Rangers puts players in the role of anthropomorphic mice who go on missions under the feet of modern humans to help those in need. In addition to the nostalgia of old animated films like The Rescuers or The Great Mouse Detective, what's exciting about this game is the light-hearted, joyful purity of it. Especially with the real world being as dark as it is right now, the idea of sending your tiny persona into a big world and nonetheless making a difference—all without the constant violence or mechanical complexity that comes with other games—just feels really appealing. Be a cute mouse and go help somebody. Let everything be okay for a while.

Joseph: What excites me most is the ability to tell stories that let kids get creative and solve problems. Instead of trying to sanitize other systems that rely on violence, Rodent Rangers focuses on using wit and a pure heart to deal with villains, while allowing for daring feats and narrow escapes.

What do the players do to play the game mechanically - how do they take action and tell stories?

Jacob: Mechanically, Rodent Rangers starts with a familiar premise: shared narration, with dice to resolve uncertain or risky actions. It's a very lightweight system, with no hard rules for action types or explicitly-defined special abilities like you have in games like D&D. Instead, activities are descriptive, with the dice determining success or failure. The dice system is pretty sleek as well, with no bonuses or penalties being added to die rolls. Instead, your attributes tell you how many dice to roll and your skills tell you which size those dice should be, then you roll a batch of them and see how many "hits" (dice that show a 4 or higher) you got. If you meet a minimum threshold of hits (depending on the difficulty of the task) you succeed.

Joseph: Rodent Rangers is a skill-based RPG, with a dice system specially designed to be as math-light as possible. When players want to try something, like befriending a stranger or finding a clue, they pick a type of die based on their skill level, and get a number of them based on basic attributes (like Strong or Clever). When they roll, they just have to count the dice that came up as 4 or more.
A mouse with piercings and a choker in casual clothes and a backpack with their foot resting on a compass
What do the characters do in the narrative? Are they rescuers? What kind of adventures do they have?

Jacob: Narratively, the Rodent Rangers are an in-world organization that spans the globe, and sends teams of field agents out on missions to help their fellow critters (or even humans sometimes). You might recover a museum's stolen relic, help to evacuate mice from a flooding sewer city, or even help guide a lost human child back to their parents. There's an emphasis on being part of a team and working together, as well as being noble and wanting to help people (after all, that's why you became an agent of the Rodent Rangers).

Joseph: Characters in Rodent Rangers are agents of the titular organization, a worldwide network or do-gooders and adventurers. They get sent on missions to help other animals or people in danger, and hopefully make friends along the way. In the sample adventure, players will be asked to track down a researcher who was kidnapped by sinister treasure hunters. To rescue him, they'll need to look for clues, get past a devious snake, make new friends, and maybe even get into a high-speed car chase!
Potentially even encounter villains such as this!
What kind of character becomes a Rodent Ranger, and how do they fit into the larger world? Do these characters stand out?

Jacob: There are really only three key aspects of a person who becomes a ranger: they're part of animal society rather than human society, they have some kind of skill or ability to contribute, and they want to help. Beyond that, a character could be anyone, which I think is something I really like about this game. You don't have to be born into the right circumstance, be the chosen one, be part of the dominant forces of society, or whatever else. If you want to do good in the world in your own unique way, then there's a spot for you on the team that no one else can fill. 

Joseph: A Rodent Ranger is someone who loves adventure and helping people. Many mice are content to live peaceful lives, and shun danger. Rodent Rangers are often the best at what they do, and driven to put their talents to good use in the wider world.

How is Rodent Rangers special to you in it's design and concept?

Jacob: Aside from some of the conceptual elements that I've already talked about liking, I'm really into how straightforward and "essentials only" the mechanics are. Games can sometimes get a bit overwrought, trying too hard to make sure every element of the experience has its own mechanic instead of just giving you the tools you need and leaving room for imagination. For example, as much as I like D&D, I would probably like it even better if you dropped the entire "spells" chapter in favor of a more "here's the general idea, do what makes sense" approach. That's what Rodent Rangers does: it gives you enough to show you what the game's about and enable you to play, then gets out of the way.

Joseph: Rodent Rangers is special because it reflects many of the cartoons of my childhood, in which a pure heart and brave soul were all that were needed to save the day. 
A mouse in a green shirt and brown pants holding a notepad and pencil.

Thanks so much Jacob and Joseph for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll check out Rodent Rangers on Kickstarter today!

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Five or So Questions on Impulse Drive

Today I've got an interview with Adrian Thoen, who is excited to tell us about Impulse Drive, a Powered by the Apocalypse space opera hack about misfits and spaceships that's currently on Kickstarter. I hope you enjoy the interview below!


The Impulse Drive banner with silver text on a blue and purple starry background, reading Impulse Drive: A roleplaying game about misfits and spaceships, Powered by the Apocalypse
Tell me a little about Impulse Drive. What excites you about it?

I'm a huge fan of all sorts of space opera books, movies, games, and shows. From the late Iain M. Banks' Culture novels & Mike Resnicks Santiago: a myth of the far future to shows like KilljoysFarscapeAndromeda, and Dark Matter, and games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. Space Opera combines commentary on society and the myths we tell ourselves with pulpy romance, melodrama, and action in delightfully weird settings.

Impulse Drive is an expression of my joy for these melodramatic, heartfelt stories about volatile but endearing misfits.
a dark-skinned person with curly hair angrily working with a piece of tech
What do players (and characters) typically do in play in Impulse Drive? What "drives" the game?

It's the players job to create and play an interesting, active character by taking risks and embracing the consequences. Players describe their character, what they think, say, and do. Players look for when Moves apply to the situation the group is describing, and when their characters Hooks affect the situation or bring fraught relationships to the fore. Players are directed to think cinematically, like the game is a pulpy space opera movie or TV show.

Characters are misfits with simple motivations, but live in a world that complicates things. The characters have tense, fraught moments with each other and take dangerous jobs or missions that lead them into conflict and adventure. Lots of flying too fast, indulging too much, pissing off the wrong people, and getting into fights & shootouts.
A robotic character sprawled on the floor, injured, in a room full of crates
What are the characters like in the game, and how do they function mechanically?

Characters are volatile and bombastic. They're competent badasses with a lot of luck on their side - until that luck runs out. They rely on their unique strengths, skills, and gear to get them out of sticky situations. But their character flaws and complicated pasts & relationships mean there's always more trouble around the corner.

Mechanically, the core function of a character revolves around their Approaches (5 modifiers ranging from a score of -1 to +2 at the start.) and their Moves, discrete chunks of rules made up of a trigger (usually fictional) a process (usually rolling 2D6 and adding a modifier) and an outcome (usually fictional). Impulse Drive is Powered by the Apocalypse, so it's mechanics are very similar to games like Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and Masks to name a few.

The five approaches (Volatile, Calculating, Slick, Stalwart, and Alien) describe behaviors more than they describe physical or mental prowess. I wanted the names for the Approaches to be flexible and evocative. Slick means being kinda charming in an unreliable, slimy way, but it also describes pulling off a fancy maneuver. Slick is being quick, responsive, and hard to pin down. Volatile is about passion, but also unpredictability and violence. Calculating is being logical but also cold, you can't be thoughtful or empathetic with Calculating. Alien is being weird and touching forces beyond your ken. All of the Approaches have a mildly negative connotation - except Stalwart, which is for being resistant, solid, but also reliable and dependable.

Orbiting Approaches and Moves, characters are made up of the Gear they can use, the Harm & Stress they can take, and two elements that complicate their lives; Hooks and Calamities.

Hooks are an opportunity to define their character through flaws and fraught relationships. There are some default Hooks on each Playbook that players fill in mad-lib style, but they're an opportunity for players to describe the challenges and struggles us want to watch their character. Hooks give you an opportunity for interesting roleplaying but also earning more XP by increasing the chance of failure. Hooks are always activated at the Player's discretion, so they can choose when they want a higher chance for complication and XP, or a higher chance for success.

Calamities are a finite list of mechanical changes and fictional events that happen to the character if they take 5 Stress. The last Calamity in each list is an exit for the character from the main stage - they'll either retire to safety or go out in a blaze of glory. It's always fun to see which players try to manage their Stress frugally, and which players jump in and aim for certain Calamities because they think they're cool. I've never seen a Warhorse who can resist an opportunity for a great victory, at the cost of a part of their body.

The Calamity options
What's it like in the world of Impulse Drive? Where do characters live, and how does that influence the tone of play?

The "World" of Impulse Drive is an array of space stations, ships, and worlds that the PCs visit in their ship. The Galactic Community is made up of societies and civilizations with populations that count in the billions. Technology ranges in sophistication and style between these civilizations, but most are on par with the crew of PCs. The particulars of the societies that the PCs come into contact with is determined by the group, led by the Space Master. This ensures that the themes the group is interested in exploring will be embodied by the societies they are on the fringes of.

The parts of the galactic community that we generally see in Impulse Drive are the fringes, less settled areas where conflict, corruption, and crime are commonplace. Law and corporate interests encroach on these spaces and culture varies greatly from society to society, but the status quo teeters on a knife-s edge, waiting for the crew to come along and disrupt it.

The Space Master uses Strains, similar to Fronts & Threats from Apocalypse World to track and advance these volatile situations towards a climax.

Strain character sheet detail
Components of Strains
Climaxes, Fuses, and Burn details
How does being a misfit really impact one's place in this space opera world? 

Being a misfit is all about how you don't conform to the status quo for society, how you disrupt and challenge what the majority sees as 'normal'. It's about being different, and having society at large be passively or actively suspicious and hostile to you.

PCs in most RPGs do this by the very nature of the rules of the games, but also how players generally embody characters who do this by default - whether that is desirable or not. The PCs have lots of mechanical tools that irrevocably change a situation once they interact with it - for better or worse.

Along with this, the game tracks how certain important groups or NPCs relate to the crew of PCs using Disposition. There are 5 states of disposition that describe how someone is likely to react to the PCs within the fiction, but also has a modifier attached to interact with certain Moves that deal in broader social or transnational situations. While the galaxy in general may not even register this one little ship and its crew in the fiction, in terms of the game we relate to NPCs by their relationship to the crew members.

NPC Disposition

This is open information. The players know how the various interests in their corner of space feel about them and what to expect when they dock at a station in a hostile faction's territory. Even the positive dispositions Friendly and bonded come with strings attached or caveats.
The PCs being misfits is mechanically encouraged by one of the XP triggers in the end of session Move. Your PCs earn XP if the crew made a new enemy, or thwarted an existing one. This encourages the characters to find organizations and societies that deny their individuality and stand against them in a way that gains their animosity.

A group of characters with varying body types, races, species, and gender, all looking a little out of place together


Thanks so much to Adrian for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Impulse Drive on Kickstarter today!

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Monday, October 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Americana

Hey all, today I have an interview with Liam Ginty from Sandy Pug Games about Americana, a tabletop roleplaying game coming out on Kickstarter! It sounds like some fascinating times investigating a tragic murder, so check out the answers below, and give the quick start a look, too!


An orc standing next to a blue pickup talking to some goblins as a red drag racer flies past.

Tell me a little about Americana. What excites you about it?

Americana is an idea I've had for ages - a retro-fantasy setting. The image of Orcs in letterman jackets, goblins in those awesome Pink Ladies outfits from Grease - it just came to me one day and stuck with me, but I didn't really have anything to do with it till I made a game called Mirror, which gave me a dice engine to call my own, and suddenly I had something I could build from.

The game itself is about a lot of stuff - being a kid at a time when the idea of teenagers having a time and space of their own was new and strange and pretty scary to everyone, claiming the aesthetics of a time period that's been off limits to a lot of marginalized people to create a fun, enjoyable and accepting place to play in - but the core gameplay revolves around investigating the death of your best friend while managing your time at school, social events and familial obligations and navigating a town full of weird gangs and magical places that you create during session zero. It's a really interesting gameplay loop that I don't think has been explored very much, we took that very teenage experience of trying to figure out when everyone can hang out and made it part of the game in a way that's really fun.

Besides the aesthetic (which we have a really great team of creative folx bringing it to life, tons of stories, art and even an audio drama we're planning on making), I'm mainly excited about a mechanic we're calling Your Dead Friend. Your Dead Friend is the victim of the crime at the center of all of this, and as such, we wanted to make them very important to the game. You actually make a full character for Your Dead Friend, just like you would make a normal PC (player character), and you can tap their skills for assistance with tough challenges - doing this invokes a flashback, where you roleplay out a scene where you learned this skill, or shared a moment with your friend. So throughout play you build this character, and your relationships with them, and playtesters have created some incredible stories from this mechanic, and we're really really hyped to see what people do with it.

We also have a mechanic called Ties and Connections that is just really cool visually - as you play you put together this conspiracy style board, drawing lines and connections between gangs, locations, characters and Your Dead Friend, slowly putting the mystery together.

a werewolf dressed up with earrings and fancy clothes

How do you handle creating a town with all these exciting elements in Americana?

We focus on the parts of the town that are, or would be, important to teenagers, and break the town down into Hangs, Crews, Risks and Adults. A Hang is somewhere designed for, or co-opted for the purposes of just being. The old water tower, a disused Goblin cave, the field outside of town. We encourage players to make these hangs as magical or as mundane as they like, and they're modeled much like our characters are - with Strengths, Weaknesses and a Vibe that characters can tussle with or exploit for their own purposes. Of course, what's a place without a gang to call it home. That's where the Crews come in.

Crews are cliques, like greasers, preps, mage-kids or jocks. They similarly have a Vibe and a couple of strengths and weaknesses, a catchy name that sums up their whole deal (and probably gets printed on their custom varsity jackets) and a leader. The leader gets a little extra detail so players have a face for that group right from the start. You also give the crew a hang to call home. Maybe the greasers all hangout at "Felicities Garage" or something. Again, we want people to create crews that reflect their own game, so we let people be as mundane or as magical as they like. My favourite crew in playtesting so far was a gang of gothabilly inspired proto-goths, who hung out around an abandoned necromancers tower, reading poe and casting spells.

Risks are the kind of dangerous activities that you and your peers get up to when the adults aren’t watching. Parties, deadly races, and illicit wizard duels in the woods near town. These are events set up by the various crews as a way for everyone to test their mettle against one another, and provides some really cool ways for players to challenge people, get up in a crews business or otherwise make themselves known without having to resort to straight up fisticuffs. Risks have a name, a crew associated with it, and a danger level that tells everyone just how risky this whole activity is. I was a big fan of "Electric Dance Fighting", one of our first playtests Risks, where crews would have big street dance contests on the arcing lightning from a power line.

Adults are a bit more simple, to reflect the info and perspective of a teenager - they have a name, some strengths and weaknesses, and a position that tells you where they sit in the Adult world.

This is all done during Session Zero, tho we encourage players to add or modify these as needed throughout play, and it's also done non-sequentially, so you can come up with a crew, go make up a Risk then come back to make up the hang later. You have a variable number of all of these elements depending on the scale of the town you pick. We've found this system just pops with awesome ideas when you get a few people around the table, and I wish I could just list off all the examples we've heard during playtesting so far. Really makes for some fantastic story elements with clear narrative and mechanical purpose.

A sheet with the words pronouns, strengths, and weaknesses on it with a blank polaroid next to it.
A blank Your Dead Friend sheet...maybe you should be the one to fill it in!
I'd love to hear more about the Ties and Connections. How does that work and who gets to influence it?

Ties are how we lay out the various relationships between these crews, their leaders, locations, adults and characters all with the victim. We have a sheet that has the victim in the middle, their stats and so on, and a lot of blank space around them. As players investigate the world they've built, they record connections that NPCs, crews and locations have with Your Dead Friend by writing their names on the sheet and drawing these ties between the various factions and Your Dead Friend, which in turn makes it easier to figure out the next place to investigate, the next lead to track down and so on. This evolving document creates an ongoing campaign-length record of leads and dead ends, suspects and mysteries that you spent your game following up on. Here's a WIP example of one after a couple playtest sessions. The final sheet will look a lil nicer than this, obviously, but it gives you an idea of what an in-progress set of Ties looks like.

Oh, and as for who gets to influence it - like almost everything in Americana, it's a table-wide mechanic. The Storyteller can declare a tie, the players can confer and make one if they feel it makes sense, or everyone can agree together to make one. One area we really want to build on with Americana is making the dynamic between GM and Player less of a wall. Making the story more of a collaboration between the whole table from start to finish is a part of that.

So what are player characters like in Americana? How do they develop and fit into these towns?

Characters in Americana are all one of 6 Archetypes (what we call Classes) based on high school tropes - The Jock, The Nerd, The Royal, The Outsider, The New Kid and The Artist. They're all friends of the victim, but not necessarily of each other, and we have a mechanic called The First Clue that's specifically for bringing everyone together and getting the characters invested in the mystery. One thing we were super aware of when making these archetypes is that some of them are often depicted as cruel, or mean in popular culture - Jocks are bullies, Royals (the popular kids) are often vapid, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs, highlighting instead the positive traits of someone who really loves sports, or is a social butterfly.

These characters are, generally, people who've been part of the town most of their lives, and are personally devastated by the death of their best friend, and their character growth tends to come from their collective grief and the various support mechanics we have - working together is vital in Americana. The way the game is designed really forces this Us vs Them sentiment where the player characters are alone in their investigation, and have to rely on each other as much as possible.

Finally, tell me about Your Dead Friend. Where did this plot element idea come from, and how did it grow into a mechanic?

Your Dead Friend came from me watching Brick and realizing the single most important character in that - and almost every murder mystery - is the victim, but they're so often neglected in RPGs that focus on similar themes. They're either a plot thread or an inciting event, but never really show up much in the story from there. While doing my research for the game (Watching Riverdale mainly) I noticed how useful it was to have flashbacks where you can expand on that character and make them matter so much more to the audience than if they were just a corpse. It seemed obvious that the victim should sit at the table somehow.

First of all I played with the idea of having a player literally be Your Dead Friend, it'd be another Archetype, but I couldn't really figure a way to make it work well with the other mechanics and vibe of the game. We played with the idea of having them be a summonable element, a ghost, a bunch of other things, but all of that went by the wayside when we realized how important Assists were for the game. It all kinda came at once at that point, the flashbacks, the assist skills, etc. It allows the character of the victim to grow really naturally through the players inventing that relationship they had from whole cloth and stops them just being a dice pool to draw from.

An orc in a leather jacket with great hair
I'm only mildly in love with this orc guy.

Thanks so much to Liam for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Americana on Kickstarter, so keep an eye out on the Sandy Pug Games site! While you're here, check out the Americana quick start!

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