Friday, March 9, 2018

Five or So Questions on Chernobyl, Mon Amour

Hi all! Thanks to friends on G+, I was able to get in touch with Juhana Pettersson to interview him about Chernobyl, Mon Amour, which is now on IndieGoGo! Chernobyl, Mon Amour is the English translation of Tšernobyl, Rakastettuni, which was published in 2016 by Juhana. The themes of the game sounded haunting and beautiful, and I wanted to hear more! Check out Juhana's answers below.

BCS Note: It's so odd but I never realized how beautiful Finnish is! Lovely to even read over without knowing the meanings.

Cover art of a couple in front of a ferris wheel, with their skeletons highlighted in red. By Joel Sammallahti.
Tell me a little about Chernobyl, Mon Amour. What excites you about it?

It's a very personal game for me, in some ways that are obvious and others less so. I visited Chernobyl with my wife and that certainly affected how I saw it. It was in the early summer, and the quiet, the light were beautiful. At the same time, the history of Chernobyl is horrible. I remember when I was a child, five years old, when the news of the radioactive cloud hit Finland. My parents were watching the tv news. I didn't understand very much, but I sensed the fear and the panic. If you look at a visualization of how the radioactive particles traveled in the atmosphere after the accident, it seems as if they were almost willfully zooming straight for Lapland.

Something in that combination, the peace of Chernobyl as it is now and the terror of the story seemed like it could form the basis of an interesting roleplaying game.There's also a book by a Belarusian journalist called Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, which had an enormous effect on me. It collects the stories of individuals who were involved with the accident or its aftermath.

I like love stories in roleplaying games, but they seem very underrepresented in the games that have been published so far. The Romance Trilogy of games by Emily Care Boss is obviously a huge inspiration, but I think the roleplaying field could take more than what we have now.

As a less obvious thing, the game is also an attempt to communicate the specific roleplaying game culture in Helsinki, Finland, where I discovered roleplaying and still play. Through international contact I've come to believe that the community has some unique and interesting ideas about roleplaying, and I've struggled to express some of them here, especially relating to very freeform-style character based social play.

Juhana Pettersson
What struck the romantic tone in Chernobyl, and how do you bring it to forefront in the game?

I've always liked love stories in roleplaying games, both as a player and as the GM. I think they're fun to play and very well adapted to the social situation of a tabletop game. A lot of a real life romance consists of talking, and talking happens to be the one thing that we can do in a tabletop game with minimal or no game mechanics.

I played my very first roleplaying game romance scenes when I was sixteen years old and just starting with Vampire: the Masquerade. Because we didn't actually have much real life experience with love and relationships, these scenes tended to be kinda awkward and heartfelt. In retrospect, it almost feels like we were using the game to practice for real life. Later in life, there's been a shift in content on what kind of relationship roleplaying works in the games I play in. They've become more about exploring things we don't necessarily want to experience in real life and fictionalizing actual experience either for fun or to come to terms with it.

Because of this experience, I knew for a fact that romance in roleplaying games can be very good stuff. Since the selection of published material was so sparse, I figured it would work for a game book like this one. However, I also felt that when it came to pushing the theme, subtlety was not going to work. This is why I tried to put romance front and center and have everything orbit around it. The game has two themes, radioactivity and romance. The radioactivity theme is much more perverse, involving an essentially self-destructive impulse. Yet my intuition was that it would come easier to a lot of players.

Aged and detailed map of nuclear zones. By Miska Fredman.
How does the game work mechanically? Does romance interact with the mechanics?

In terms of game mechanics, Chernobyl, Mon Amour is an attempt to broaden the scope of what we consider game design. It has no real mechanics to speak of in the traditional sense. No stats, xp, combat rules. Instead, I've attempted to code the design into the world description, the character creation guidelines, the preparatory workshops and so on.

Fundamentally, I think the goal of game mechanics is to create a definite kind of experience. Following the rules you experience what the game wants to convey. Chernobyl, Mon Amour follows a similar kind of logic in that by doing what the book says you should do, you'll have the experience. It's just not facilitated by mechanics but instead by the other guidelines. In this sense, it shares a lot of the same thinking as Nordic Larp does. Instead of designing a game, the goal is to design a very particular social situation.

Because of this, I suspect that it's also a little harder to run than most roleplaying games, and perhaps more limited in who can play it together. However, I've also found that this style can be appealing to many people who find more mechanics-oriented roleplaying games difficult to approach.

How did you playtest Chernobyl, Mon Amour, if you did playtest? If you did not, what makes you feel confident about the game succeeding?

I ran playtest games before and during the design and writing process. When I first had the idea, I wasn't sure of its viability, so I ran games to try it out. After those, I felt more confident that I was able to make a game out of this. From a playtesting perspective, this is an unusual game. Often playtesting means making sure that the mechanics of the game work robustly, but this time there isn't really any of that. Rather, playtesting is about the ideas and concepts, as well as the functionality of the exercises for creating the right social atmosphere with players. These are much more subjective in terms of whether they work or not, and more prone to confusion created by differences in basic cultural assumptions.

In terms of success, I see this as an experimental game. It's an attempt to convey a culture and style of roleplaying in a format that should make it possible to replicate it. I hope people will find it interesting, good and worth trying but I have a suspicion that I will be surprised by what people will do with it. Which is of course great, and a part of the appeal of roleplaying games in general.

Kuva, a person with long brown hair and dark skin in a hoodie. By Joel Samallahti.
What kind of workshops do you include with the game, and what sort of content and safety mechanics do you have to help players in the intimate scenario?

At least in the Finnish roleplaying scene, using workshops in tabletop games is highly unusual. I'm not really aware of anybody else even suggesting it. However, in Nordic Larp they're routine and extremely useful. I figured that if these social tools work in larp, why not in roleplaying games? And I'm under the impression that in other countries, there's been successful experiments with this.

The goal of workshops in Chernobyl, Mon Amour is get the participants aligned with the subject matter of the game and become more comfortable with each other. Because of Finnish cultural characteristics, the exercises as they are now are pretty talky, and I was planning of adjusting them a little for the English version to take into account the fact that in my experiences, international players are better at this than Finns are.

As for safety, I take it seriously. I've had experiences in tabletop roleplaying games myself where I've felt that my personal boundaries have been crossed in a negative way. Roleplaying based on intimacy and trust is powerful stuff, and it means that sometimes things can go bad emotionally even if all the participants are doing their best to accommodate each others' limits. The game as it exists now has some simple safety mechanics to help with these situations, but this is another thing I wanted to adjust for the international version to give participants more tools.

Perhaps the simplest and most important safety technique, if you can call it that, is to make sure that everybody really wants to play it together, that everybody wants to play a roleplaying game about romance and death in an emotionally raw way. Sort of "enthusiastic consent" of roleplaying games, if you like.
"Valokuva 2," distant image of buildings and industrial structures. Juhana & Maria Pettersson.

Thank you so much to Juhana for the interview! It was so cool to learn about Chernobyl, Mon Amour. I hope you will all go check out Chernobyl, Mon Amour on IndieGoGo and share this post with your friends!

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