Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Quick Shot on Bastion

Hey all, I've got a Quick Shot today with Jerry D. Grayson on Bastion: Afrocentric Sword and Sorcery Fantasy! Check out this take on sword and sorcery for the Mythic D6 system that's currently on Kickstarter!

(All photos are of Jerry D. Grayson.)


What is Bastion, both as a product and as your vision? 

Bastion is a gumbo of a lot of different element I love. Portions of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, mixed with Glenn Cook’s Black Company, mashed with a bit of Gamma World, boiled down in a melange Micheal Moorcock's phantasmagoric Eternal Champion worlds, sautéed in a bit of the Green Lantern Corp, and strained through a cullender of Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, you get Bastion.

It’s a big fangasmic mess of inspirations.

The original intent was to do a straight vanilla fantasy game with all the standard fantasy tropes. I wanted to see if I could do it with a straight face. Halfway through the process, I couldn’t take it anymore. I like my D&D fantasy, but trying to replicate it started making veins pop out of the side of my head. I was dissatisfied with the elements I created, so I flipped the script and went in another direction.

I brought a few people on board to help flesh out my outlines, and they added their secret sauce here and there and what you have is Bastion as it is at the moment.

What moves you about Afrocentric themes and their application in Bastion? 

Afrocentric elements pop up in all my work. GODSEND Agenda, ATLANTIS: The Second Age, and even in HELLAS to a small extent. What you get when I add elements of Afrocentrism is me. It’s me searching and exploring a lost piece of my identity as I try to learn about Africa. American school systems teach you almost nothing about Africa and only express ideas of an unrefined and strange land filled with primitive people. I know that's not the case, and I wanted to illustrate that in the books I produce.

Africa is BIG, I mean, REALLY BIG. You can fit almost every continent on earth inside the body of Africa. What I offer isn’t a legitimate mirror of any one African culture. I've taken elements of West African cultures (Akan, Yoruba) and made a fantasy game based on those components. Much like Lord of the Rings is an amalgam of Western European history/myth, I’ve done the same with Bastion. I hope what small efforts I've made entice others to dive deeper into the rich and varied cultures. Bastion is only a surface level exploration of Afrocentrism, but it's up to the reader to go deeper.

How did you decide what elements of sword and sorcery really would shine through in the game, and what design choices made them hit the mark?

I love fantasy and the genre of sword and sorcery. It’s a hot mess of debate about what makes a piece “sword and sorcery.” A lot of people stick close to R.E. Howards Conan, but many people fail to mention the mind-blowing work of Clark Ashton Smith. I love the strange and sublime horror of sword and sorcery fantasy. The pyrrhic victories of the heroes, and the changes that cause in their souls. The peculiar and bitter cost of power it puts on the hero. 

I hope I’ve brought all those essentials to Bastion, but I guess that’s for the consumer to say.


Thanks so much, Jerry! I hope you'll all check out Bastion on Kickstarter today!

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Five or So Questions on Turn

As I have my game Turn currently on Kickstarter, Tracy Barnett and J. Dymphna Coy were kind enough to ask me some questions. Check out my answers below!

The Turn logo with a vine growing out of the T in the word Turn, with leaves in various stages of growth, and above it a half circle with footsteps transitioning from human to beast
Tell us a little about Turn. What excites you about it?

Turn is a slice-of-life supernatural roleplaying game about shapeshifters in small towns, where the shifters try to seek balance between their beast and human identities while finding community with shifters and mundanes alike. It has relatively simple mechanics, a lovely town building system, and the play is quiet drama about life in small towns as a shifter. 

I'm excited about Turn because it is the game I designed to satisfy myself! I was looking for a game that scratched a particular itch, and couldn't find it in other games I played and learned about. But Turn has that play experience, it is the game I was looking for. I get to play out quiet scenes, intimacy that explores a range of emotions, have some fun and cheerful moments, and explore the identity of my character, and the game supports all of that.

What do you think of popular portrayals of rural life? How does your game differ from those (or not)?

There aren't a lot of popular portrayals of rural life, to be honest, and many portrayals are negative. See any depiction of West Virginia hillbillies for what I mean. Obviously that's not the route I chose for writing about real rural life. There is one portrayal of rural life that doesn't perfectly sync up with Turn but is not super far off, and that's...Letterkenny.

For those unfamiliar, Letterkenny is a Canadian comedy set in the fictional small town of Letterkenny, population 5000. It follows a number of characters, but primarily Wayne and Katy, siblings who run a produce stand and farm, and their friends. There's not an exceptional amount of violence in the show, but when there is violence, they show that it hurts and has consequences, which I value. Most of the show is just their day-to-day lives at the produce stand or the farm, time spent socializing between characters, and important events to the town like elections of local officials and the St. Patrick's Day party. 

The pacing is so simple, and there aren't typically the biggest stakes, but they're stakes that matter when push comes to shove. Relationships are vital, people comfort each other, and people learn. And there's always chorin' to do! So I love that, and a lot of that comes through in Turn for me.

What doesn't come through is that there is no representation of the shifter aspect, so that's definitely something different, and Letterkenny is also hilarious as heck, which Turn isn't as much of. There's definitely some goofing off in Turn and some funny moments, but I wouldn't ever expect the banter of Letterkenny levels in Turn. And that's okay! Turn's meant for a more mixed bunch of emotions. 
A bear dangling in a tree while digging into a stash of fancy and expensive things
A Bear by Rhis Harris.
What do you find compelling about stories centered around shapeshifters?

Aside from like, it just being kind of cool to be able to turn into an animal and have superpowers and regeneration and wanting to explore what it means to have a body that's functioning at peak rather than dwindling at minimum?

Well, shapeshifters are great for the metaphor. See, people ask me sometimes what the shapeshifters represent, and I did a podcast recently where they were like "oh, we thought it was about being the other!" when I had just described how some of the inspiration for the shapeshifters had been rooted in my experiences with bipolar disorder and mixed episodes. The thing is, I'm queer, I'm nonbinary, I have invisible disabilities, I have mental illnesses. I am other, in a lot of ways. So when people read into the shapeshifters a sense of other, that's not unintentional.

But it also wasn't always intentional. People read a lot from shapeshifters because the nature of their second identity, so different from their surface identity, and the nature of secrecy - these are things that the "other" experience, too, in many situations. We talk about going stealth as queer and gender nonconforming people, and passing, and so I see a lot of that too, but not just with queerness, not just with gender, not just with disability, not just with mental illness, or any other kind of other we are as humans.

Shapeshifters represent what you want them to represent, I think, which makes them an excellent narrative focus.

How are your experiences growing up in small towns reflected in Turn?

They are Turn. Honestly, it's hard not to see it when I play. In things other people do (even people who aren't from small towns!), in things I do, in the way the Town Manager pushes people together to fiddle with their secrets and relationships, in the map of the town. Even in games I haven't participated in, some stuff is unmistakable as what I built into it.

My favorite bits are when people instinctively realize how long it's going to take to drive to the other side of town or that the local store/hospital/police/whatever isn't going to be as well staffed or supplied or that their family members are like, absolutely going to hear about this, and when we're building the town and people are like "well obviously rowdiness goes real close to the town and connects directly to a bloodline" or something like that - not all of these things are "rules" but they're small, rural town things that reflect in the game and I really do count some of that as my design, and the rest of it on the weird small town knowledge we culturally share.

When people expand to Italy or other countries like in the stretch goals, who knows! Maybe someone else's experiences will shine through most!
A bearded person struggling while using a tablet, clipboard, and cellphone
The Overachiever by John W. Sheldon.

What's the most compelling thing to you about focusing on the tension between a person's animal and beast sides, rather than, say, violence?

So, violence for me is three things (sometimes combined, often separate): repulsive, spectacular, and catharsis. And it's also in 99% of other games, movies, tv shows, books, and other media. It's everywhere. Even in shapeshifter media, you will far more often find people exploring violence and brutality than you will find them exploring issues of identity. And that's boring!

Like, don't get me wrong, violence can be amazing to watch for a variety of reasons, and playing it out can be really incredible. But, violence is also all around us. Our world is violent. We're constantly discussing it, experiencing it. And maybe, I guess, I wanted a game where you could do violence, but you had to fucking deal with it, too. So I did that. And it didn't need to be explored so deeply? Like if you can do whatever you want with violence but just actually have to deal with consequences, not just take a potion and leave the bodies in the road, that conversation is already happening.

Digging into identity is more fascinating to me because majority culture is cool with dealing with exploring the identity of the average white cis man of privilege, but like, there's a fucking lot of the rest of us. Using shapeshifters as our embodiment in the game when in rural, small towns you'll immediately run into like bunches of other intersections. We've had queer characters, poor characters, characters with trauma.

You end up with these deep questions of self and community when you look face on at poverty, drug use, family struggles, loss, and so on. And when you're struggling with yourself, you have a harder time addressing them - so you gotta try and work stuff out! It leads to these introspective, intimate, caring, emotional scenes! Like, we have - in our longest running game - a weekly tea party with our three characters who are trying to figure this shifter crap out, while one of them is trying to get their shit together, another is trying to come out as a gay man and keep his life, and one didn't realize until just lately that they didn't have their shit together. We play these out, and they're wonderful, and also constantly at risk of running afoul of the hectic lives these shifters lead.

So I'd say it's more interesting because it's not what we're doing every day, and because it opens opportunities to tell moments of stories we sometimes forget to tell. And a cougar, bison, and wolf having tea is just *chef's kiss.* Moments I truly treasure!

four wolves exploring a set of human clothing
A wolf pack by Rhis Harris.


Thanks so much to Tracy and Dymphna for asking me some questions! I hope you enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Turn on Kickstarter here today!

Tracy Barnett's Work
Tracy on Twitter @TheOtherTracy
J. Dymphna Coy's Work

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Friday, November 9, 2018

What is the future?

Turn is currently doing wonderfully, just short of funding and 21 days to go! We just announced international shipping, and I'm very excited for what is yet to come in stretch goals and work I do after the game is live!

But I need to talk about the future, because mine is uncertain.

Brie in a leather jacket, looking out the window.
As many people know, in November of 2018 I had a car accident. I fell asleep while driving my car in a parking garage and hit my head and wrenched my shoulder. When I went to the hospital, they said I had a mild concussion and shoulder sprain, and advised me to follow up with a doctor if I had any significant symptoms.

I was in grad school, so most of the symptoms of bad concussion issues were able to be dismissed as burnout, for me. I didn't mean to do it, but I was cramming hard and desperate to get through school, while struggling with one challenging job and another job that really challenged my now-addled brain. By the time I was nearing finals in the next semester, I had been struggling with concussion symptoms - genuine brain injury symptoms - for months.

I found tons of typos in work I was reviewing - my own work, where typos were normally rare at worst. I was getting carsick while driving, and had gotten dizzy after seeing Black Panther, slipped and bumped my head in two places on my car door. The dizziness, nausea, and unfocused confusion were too much, so I went to the concussion clinic. They confirmed my fears, that it was worse than expected, and also that my delaying it had made recovery longer - and possibly less likely.

I did physical therapy from May to September, before I ran out of car insurance funds. I still do the exercises at home. I thought I was improving, and I have at least somewhat. But...

When preparing the Kickstarter for Turn, I let John take a look at the draft, and he pointed out many errors. The kind of thing that shouldn't really be an issue for a functioning brain that's working well, you know, like swapped words, nonsense sentence structure, and so on. Some of it seemed like gibberish. I didn't even notice! He had to review it for me.

Reflecting on it, I reviewed a variety of my work. I read my recent submission to Return to the Stars, and how many confusing edits there had been, because I didn't even recall the disorganized things I had written.  I read my work on thatlittleitch, which is unedited, and how my sentence structure is even more confusing and inelegant than before the accident. Many things I have written, I have forgotten, or don't recall clearly, and if they aren't edited, they're often confusing, especially if they are longer.

Brie covering their face with their hands, in a maroon shirt.
I had an appointment coming up with my concussion clinic doctor, who expressed that like we had known, my delayed treatment combined with comorbidity of a variety of my illnesses (fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, PTSD, bipolar) will make recovery harder. But, if I'm still having issues with confusion and language, it could be a greater concern. So, I was assigned speech therapy (alongside physical therapy for my shoulder, which hasn't healed). I can't have that appointment until December, because they don't have space for me.

My doctor basically explained that this could continue to be a grueling process. They don't know if I will ever be back to what I was before. They want to ensure I can continue working, but if speech therapy isn't effective, we will run out of options pretty quickly. And even if it works, it's a long process, with unreliable results.

What does this mean?

Turn may be my last large project. I can still fulfill the work, absolutely, but we baked in extra time for what is to be done. I have a freelance project to fulfill for Orun, which I'm going to be advising them may involve a little more editing than planned (but I hope not). But going forward, I may max out at 1000 words for a given project, or just take a lot more time, and I can only ask editors to do so much work.

Pretty much everything I've been working on is going to be more limited, require more oversight. It's exhausting to imagine, and I feel broken. This is part of why Turn has felt so desperate to me - what if I never make something amazing again? What if this it? And while I do my best to ensure I have good editing, the process will be harder. I don't know if I can put myself through a super hard process every time I want to make something. And I don't know if I'll ever get better.

So, this is basically just a post to explain the situation. It's me trying to find a way to say "hey, my brain is damaged, and I may never be the same again, so I hope you don't desert me, and I hope you understand that I am doing the best I can."

I'm trying. But, after this Kickstarter, things may be different. Er, well, they will be different - I just don't know how. I hope you'll stick with me.

Love to you all <3

A pigeon hopping across pavement.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Five or So Questions on Improv for Gamers

Hey all, I have an interview today with Karen Twelves about Improv for Gamers, a new book being released through Evil Hat that includes workshops and exercises to help any roleplayer or GM become better at improv! These workshops, like the one offered at Big Bad Con this October, promote fun, low-pressure environments to try out new skills for GMs, larpers, roleplayers, and more! Check out Karen's answers to my questions below!


Tell me a little about Improv for Gamers. What excites you about it?

I've always been excited about giving people a practice space to try out this improv stuff they've been hearing so much about. I've been playing tabletop rpgs since high school, and when I took my first improv class back in 2008, I was stunned by the obvious skill overlap. And also surprised that there weren't more improv classes for roleplayers, especially being taught outside of conventions. It's been super fun and rewarding to teach the Improv for Gamers workshops and give people some ideas and tools they can take back to their games. But what I'm most excited about right now is coming out with this book, because it gives people a bunch of exercises they can just pick up and play with friends in their living room.

What are a few of the skills you've picked up in improv and cover in the book that serve you the most often in gaming?

In both improv and gaming, you need to pay attention to what your fellow players are contributing to the story. If you're not listening to how the story is shaping around you, you're going to have a hard time navigating through it--to mix metaphors, all your subsequent ideas will be off-key. Active listening is required in order to say "Yes, and" to your partner, which is the act of honoring someone's ideas and building on them. (There's more to unpack with "Yes, and" about it not being a blank check, and nobody is actually beholden to accept every offer, so I prefer phrasing it as "Consider yes, and.") But to build off an idea, you need to have actually heard it first. This is just as important in a game that weaves a narrative between characters as it is in a fight sequence where you'd want to keep tabs on what everyone is doing on their turn. So the book has a lot of great exercises that specifically practice paying attention to and acknowledging your partner. You might copy someone's movements, repeat what they said, add a line to a shared story, create a cast of characters, or communicate through eye contact. But at the heart of all collaborative storytelling, you need to be listening.

A skill that I really love is handling invisible objects. You may have imaginary items in a larp, and you can also embody your character a bit at the table. Maybe you just mime your character polishing their glasses, or drinking a coffee. It's a lot of fun. The book contains exercises that practice holding and using invisible objects, and it's something that I still practice a lot in my improv troupes. It definitely came in handy during a larp where my healer character was asked to remove an invisible spear from someone's leg and patch up the wound, and we had zero props.

How do you make this content approachable for new people and people not into the gaming scenes that favor improv?

When I teach the workshops I always stress that I'm not expecting anybody to be actors. It's a practice space, so things might feel weird or be a little rough and that's okay. Nobody's going to walk out thinking "Cool, I'm perfect at this now!" And I repeat that a lot in the book--that the focus isn't to be perfect, or funny, or entertaining, but to just try stretching this one specific muscle that the exercise is highlighting. There's only a few exercises that are actually "scenes," the majority are group games, so there's less pressure to perform. There's also some things that speak to GMs, like identifying when to switch from one scene to another, or how to quickly come up with some specific voices so your NPCs sound different. And that thread of "listen to each other and make people feel included" runs throughout all of it, which is a life skill, not an improv skill. But you can practice it through some fun improv exercises!

The improv for gamers cover with a traditional actor's mask and dice on the cover.

What are some practices and behaviors in games that you think could be improved using improv, and how do you address them in your workshops and book?

There are games where it makes sense to be protective of your character, and there are games when you could be more reckless with them. I definitely wanted my Pathfinder fighter to make it into double-digit levels! But my Blades in the Dark whisper? That game grinds characters down by design. They're supposed to get hurt, physically and emotionally. Character death is definitely on the table. And if I'm in a one-shot game, I've only got this one story with this character, so I'm definitely going to take more narrative risks because I've got nothing to lose. There are so many improv exercises where you're encouraged to get your character into trouble, or play someone without a lot of power or status. I'm not saying that the best way to play is to play to lose, but it's a style that works well with a lot of games. And if it's a style that's kind of new to someone, I want to give them the opportunity to get into that mindset, take some risks, and have a lot of fun doing it.

What are some ways improv skills help with different roles in game, like GMs and players, and different types of play, like larping and tabletop?

Like I mentioned earlier, GMs have the daunting task of making sure everyone has an equitable amount of time in the spotlight, so you want to have a good sense of when you can put a pin in one scene and switch over to another. Improvisors develop a similar sense of knowing when to cut a scene so it ends on the right note. And during a show, that's a shared responsibility--much like in a GM-less game, everyone should be conscious of when it's time to see what a different character is up to.

I would say that any skills regarding character development are useful both at the table and in larping. There are so many tabletop games that have a line right on the character sheet for a defining belief or worldview, and you may even get a mechanical reward for expressing that belief in play. Similarly, regardless of what style of improv you're doing (fast-paced comedy, thoughtful drama, or something in-between), it's important to identify what matters to your character. That's going to color their decisions in a scene. It doesn't have to be something grand like "Blame the carpenter, not the tools," your defining value could be "I love trains!" and that's still going to lead to some really cool interactions. And whenever you're feeling lost and not sure what your character would do, be it improv or gaming, you can fall back on that touchstone for guidance.


Awesome, thanks so much, Karen, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Improv for Gamers today!

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Die Laughing

Hi all, today I have an interview with Craig Campbell on Die Laughing, which is on Kickstarter right now! I hope you all enjoy reading what Craig has to say about this cinematic horror-comedy game in the responses below!

The Die Laughing logo with a smiley face in spattered red color with x's for eyes and the text "Die Laughing"
Tell me a little about Die Laughing. What excites you about it?

Die Laughing is a short-play, GM-less RPG. Players portray characters in a horror-comedy movie and everyone's going to die. It's just a matter of when it happens and how funny you can make it. After your character is gone, you become a producer on the movie and continue to influence the story and the characters right up until the end.

I'm really stoked that Die Laughing finally came together. One of the problems with horror games where characters actually die, as opposed to "thriller/mood" type games, is, "what do I do after my character dies?" You can make a new character, play an NPC. What else? I've been working on this game off and on for over a decade. Every couple years I'd come back to the idea and try something different. Hitting on the "making a movie" angle finally made it gel for me. It came together pretty quickly over the past year or so, kind of in the background while working on other games. It's a game that embodies horror and embraces that type of game experience, but with comedic elements and the "making a movie" idea to keep it from getting too heavy.

A comic depicting a group of people in the woods around a campfire with someone telling a scary story, then two of the characters turn into demons
What were the inspirations for Die Laughing and how is the game the most similar and dissimilar to familiar materials?

I'm a big horror movie buff. This most recent iteration of the game, I hit on the idea of the game being about making a movie specifically, rather than just generally a horror story. That introduced a "director" role into gameplay and also a "producer" role that players could take on after their characters are dead. Making it a horror-comedy opened up the idea that it's OKAY for your character to fact, it's kind of the point of the game. Your character is going to die and you're going to make it funny and then you're going to do this other cool thing for the rest of the game.

It's sort of a hybrid of a traditional RPG and a story game like Fiasco. You have a character sheet with four traits and a few cool capabilities that sort of bend the rules. But there's no GM. Instead, there's an act/scene structure that generates random scenes that everyone roleplays to move the story forward. But these are just prompts. The "director" of each scene helps set the stage, but the players with characters in that scene propel everything. A dice mechanic resolves general success/failure of your character in the scene, rather than for every action. The game has a little bit of this and that from a lot of horror RPGs and a LOT of horror movies, all kind of bent and twisted with some humor.
The character sheet titled "Autopsy Report" and styled appropriately
How does Die Laughing work mechanically?

During each scene in Die Laughing, one of the characters is the lead character (and that changes from scene to scene). That character's player decides who will be in the scene with their character. One of the players portrays the director, setting their character aside temporarily to help set up and guide the scene (that also changes from scene to scene). Everyone in the scene plays the scene out. Sometimes the monster attacks during the scene. Sometimes it doesn't.

At the end of each scene, everyone with a character in the scene makes a trait check by rolling their dice pool to determine whether their character succeeds in the scene or not. Then everyone narrates that success or failure for their character, thus pushing the story forward. As the game goes along, your dice pool decreases based on the results of those trait checks. This decrease is a countdown to your character's death. When you run out of dice, your character dies and you narrate their death.

In addition to the director and producer stuff, there's a unique rule for each monster that influences your involvement in the game after your character is gone.

A monster sheet for "that crazy clown" with various stats and an image
What kind of horrors do the players encounter in Die Laughing? How do you ensure players are having a good time and not encountering subject matter that makes them feel alienated or afraid in a not-fun way?

The narrative, relatively open nature of the game allows the players to basically take it as far as they want. The monster is defined for the game you're playing, but that's not to say there couldn't be multiple monsters or that the monsters could mutate or...well, whatever you want. I've played games where the violence was cartoony. I've played games where there were gory descriptions of things.

That said, any game -- horror games in particular -- can go too far. That is addressed in the book, encouraging players to be clear in what they expect from the game. The simple version is presented as a "movie rating system." Everyone agrees the game will be PG, PG-13, or R-rated and plays appropriately. The book also points out some common sense...if you even remotely THINK that a particular subject would make ANYONE uncomfortable or hurt them, just don't do it. Finally, the book points out there are a variety of other safety tools, such as the X-card, and information on those can be found easily online. Pick the one that is most fitting to your group.

You mention special rules for monsters post-kicking-it. When you die, what happens?

This is a little "extra" that gives players whose characters are gone something to do. It varies from monster to monster. For example, with the Mad Slasher with Weird Weapons, when your character is dead, you get to describe the moment when your character's corpse is found at an inopportune time, like you see in so many slasher movies when everything hits the fan at the end. There's a trait check that happens there that can weaken the character finding the body. With the Sexy Vampire, your character doesn't die, but rather gets turned into a sexy vampire. And you can insert them as an NPC into scenes throughout the rest of the game.

The Nerdberger games logo with a hamburger with sunglasses and a cocktail umbrella, a d20, and a d8 stuck in it, with a splash of red "blood" over it and the text "Nerdburger Games"


Thanks so much to Craig for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Die Laughing on Kickstarter today!

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