Thursday, March 22, 2018

Five or So Questions on Imp of the Perverse

I am legit delighted to say I've yet again had the chance for interview time with Nathan Paoletta, this time talking about his new game Imp of the Perverse, which is currently on Kickstarter. The game's design has been percolating for a while, and I can't wait for you all to hear more about the project. Check it out!

Note: Images are the collaborative work of Nathan and cartoonist/illustrator Marnie Galloway.

A dark red image with an illustration in black and white showing a monstrous imp wreathed in smoke, creeping behind a woman reading a book. The text reads, "IMP of the PERVERSE: A Psychological Horror Game of Monster Hunting in Jacksonian Gothic America. Quite nice, really.
Tell me a little about Imp of the Perverse. What excites you about it?

Imp of the Perverse is a psychological horror game of monster hunting in what I call "Jacksonian Gothic" America. Your protagonists are members of society in the historical 1830s or 1840s, but with a little extra - an Imp of the Perverse on their shoulders, impelling them to do terrible deeds. Only by hunting down those who have already given in to their Imps, and thus turned into literal monsters, can yours hope to rid themselves of their Imps and regain their humanity.

I've been working on this game for a long time! I recently uncovered my very first files of notes on the first ideas I had, and it's dated 2006. I've always been a fan of the work of Edgar Allan Poe (hence the name of the game, of course) and the compelling nature of his work seemed very gameable to me once I started making games, but it took me a really long time and the experience of doing so many other games (carry. a game about war., Annalise, World Wide Wrestling, etc) to figure out the "in" into the stuff that resonates with me.

So now I'm excited to be so close to done with something that's been on my mind for so long, and just really pleased with how the game has turned out! It reliably does the things that I personally like the most in tabletop - good solid hooks for characters with enough space to develop in play, clear direction in what you do, the opportunity to get deep into your characters head without demanding that as the only way to play, and specific GM tools for developing situations that you're excited about, and then making decisions in play that all build to a fictional climax without depending entirely on personal storytelling skills. In fact, one of the sneaky goals of the game is to subtly teach players who may have never GMed before how to do it (or at least, how to do it in this game). One of the conceits is that if your character gives in to their Imp (a very possible but by no means inevitable state), you build the character as a new monster for the next hunt and take over the Editor (GM) role - I hope that players will be excited to do that when it comes up in long term play and feel like they have the foundation to do it even if they've never GMed before.

Image of the Kickstarter bits - quickplay cards, a clothbound hardcover, and a note on illustrated monsters and custom chapters! All of this is themed in red, dark red, black, and gold. 
I have to ask about this transferable or shared GM role. What kind of powers do Editors hold, and how do they use them?

I think it'll be familiar to most folks as a "traditional" GM kind of role. The Editor is in charge of coming up with the monster, setting up situations that challenge the protagonists, describing the world around them, playing NPCs, all that kind of stuff. This game is not Powered by the Apocalypse, but I absorbed many of the Agenda/Principle lessons from Apocalypse World, and do have a similar charge for the Editor in this game. Your job is to:
  • create monsters and put them in the same social context as the protagonist characters
  • construct a compelling, dark world full of challenge, doubt and wonder
  • engineer specific situations for each protagonist that dare them to embrace their darker self
  • demonstrate the consequences of the protagonists actions with integrity (in this order: integrity to the dark Gothic world, integrity to the characters development so far, integrity to the demands of the unfolding narrative, and ideally all three)
The game also asks the Editor to do specific prep (building the monster and the web of social relationships it influences). The goal here is two-fold: to give the Editor plenty to work with in play, so there's always something to fall back to to keep the story going, and to draw them into investing in the world they're preparing. The game shines when everyone is invested in what happens to these fictional characters, and prep is structured to make it as easy as possible for the Editor to do that.

As a player, you see the "effect" of the prep and the Editor's agenda from the player side, and then when it's your turn the game says "here are the tools the Editor you just played with used to make your game happen, and you saw how it went, so now it's your turn to take them for a spin." Obviously if it's not within the players comfort zone there's no artificial dictate that they MUST become the GM, but (again hopefully) by the time you get through a couple Chapters of play you'll be able to see how it all works and maybe excited to try it out yourself!

How did you build and design the fiction of the game, especially ensuring you could integrate the imps without it seeming negatively garish or absurd? 

The concept of "you play a character with an Imp on their shoulder pushing you to do perverse things" has been the central idea from the start, along with the idea that monsters should be unique to the perversity that spawned them, but developing the rest of the context took a long time. I knew I wanted to keep the realities of the historical time as the counterweight to the fantastical elements, but there were a lot of versions of doing that over the years. I had a key playtest that put me on the path to figuring it out - at the time, the characters were all part of a secret society of monster hunters who were recruited when their Imp appeared, and then kind of sent on a mission to hunt down the next monster. It worked to get everyone in the same place at the same time, but also felt very "you meet in a tavern" in a way that didn't sit well at the table. We spent a lot of debrief time just kind of brainstorming about it, and someone made a comparison to the gravity well of a black hole, and the metaphor fell into place for me. 

A series of symbols illustrated in maroon and white - a rose, a quill pen, a book, a gun, a compass, and a shovel.
A monster is the result of an Imp gaining the most power in the world of the living, and so when it appears everyone else who has an Imp can feel it, drawn to the perverse "gravity" it emanates. Implied by the dynamic of "when you know a monster appears, you know you have to do something about it" is that normal people CAN'T do anything to stop monsters, they're too horrible and powerful, and the protagonists know this. And then, embedding the protagonists as well as the monster in a linked web of relationships gives the context for why they might care about this situation in particular, and have specific people they want to protect or save.

Beyond the basic concepts of Imps, monsters and the Shroud between worlds, one of the long-term mechanics is that the players build up the nature of their own gothic world through play. Between sessions, one of the things players can do is spend resources to establish facts about the Shroud and monsters. I want to provide the baseline fictional frame for "here's what you do and why" and then see how different groups take that through the act of play, rather than build out a bunch of metaphysics for players to learn up front. 

How do you handle a concept where the characters are continually tempted to do wrong, while they are hunting those who failed to resist the temptation? I'm really curious: what does morality look like in Imp of the Perverse?

One of the core rules is this: you are playing a historical character, but you are a modern person. We care about the actual concerns of the people playing at the table, not what we think other kinds of people might be worried about. So, perversity is always relative to something you actually think is wrong - for players, this is something that you should be interested in exploring and (possibly) overcoming, while for the Editor this is something that you want to see the protagonists destroy. The game doesn't make overt moral judgements of what is and is not perverse, in that the development of individual perversities is totally freeform. But there are guidelines - it should be something that actually makes it hard to live a normal life, that the character sees the clear downsides of, but that is, well, tempting. Perversities are not superpowers, but they have both up and downsides. Then the mechanics provide specific moments where you choose whether it's worth the temptation in order to get what you want right then in that moment. The game does give you permission to use whatever means necessary to destroy or deal with the monster, in that they are almost always worse than you, so in that way there is a bit of a moral statement of when violence is justified; but also, the means by which a monster is resolved can be very contextual to the individual monster and the nature of the protagonists, so it's not ALWAYS a fight to the death.

There is also a bit of the morality of the era (or at least, my read of it) in how characters are built. For example, if you make a character who has a child out of wedlock, you'll have the Scandalous Quality, or if your spouse is dead you'll be Bereaved. These reflect the general sense of how people in your social circles view you, and have an equal ability to be used in play as more "positive" Qualities, but they do reflect a certain moral sense that centers on your family as the fundamental important thing in people's lives - an important piece of embedding the characters in the society they're a part of!

The words "IMP of the PERVERSE" in shimmering gold with filigree above and below.
You've been working on Imp of the Perverse for a long time (2006, right?)? What are some of your favorite moments of design and creation in that path that resonate with the game, and with you, today?

This is a great question, and a hard one because the arc of the design has basically been one of long gaps punctuated by short periods of focused progress, so it's all kind of one amorphous blob of experience in my head. I'll try to tease out some moments when I felt most satisfied that I was on the right track, because they stand out to me the most. First, when I decided to cut down the original idea of "play all kinds of different stories with these protagonists" down to "what if it's just about hunting down the monsters in this world" (which was originally going to be one mini-game inside the larger game...) that was key to cutting the design space down to a manageable level. When I had the first playtests of the central die roll mechanic that tempts you towards perversity and saw it work, that was great. The game needed development to support that mechanic and fine-tune it, but I saw players engage with the critical decision point (do I or don't I? is it worth it?) and that's the beating heart of the game. The aforementioned playtest where we workshopped ourselves into the "perverse gravity" metaphor starting pulling the fictional frame together for me. I ran a long-term playtest around then where we got to see a protagonist fall to the Imp and then the player take up the Editor-ship, which worked great and let me go ahead and play on the other side to feel more of the player experience. Recently, I think one of the most gratifying moments I've had was at a convention game, where afterwards the players told me that they felt like they found it very easy to get into their characters and make principled decisions based on those characters. That was nice to hear as a GM of course, but also validation of the design goal of really putting players into the fictional world of their protagonists and giving them clear structure and direction for play through how the characters are made and interact.

And of course it is viscerally satisfying to see players defeat the horrible monsters I make that embody the things I really, truly want to see destroyed in the world!

Cover image, similar to the first of the image in the post: a dark red image with an illustration in black and white showing a monstrous imp wreathed in smoke, creeping behind a woman reading a book. The text reads, "IMP of the PERVERSE: A Psychological Horror Game of Monster Hunting in Jacksonian Gothic America.


Thank you so much to Nathan for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading about Imp of the Perverse and that you'll check out the Kickstarter running right now!

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