Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Five or So Questions on Journey Away

I have an interview today with Jacob Kellogg on his game Journey Away, which is currently on Kickstarter. You might remember Jacob from his approachable theory article about complexity in game design - but don't think his cool thoughts on games and design stop there! Journey Away is a game that I think is doing something fun and it's got dice pools, which means I'm interested. Check out his responses below!


Tell me a little about Journey Away. What excites you about it?

Well, one of the exciting parts of Journey Away is that it's my first project that's big enough to not be a Pay What You Want title; that feels like a threshold to me as a new designer. As for the game itself, I like that it feels like a different kind of experience than most RPGs. Fantasy is probably my favorite gaming genre, which can be problematic due to there being so many fantasy games out there already, but I think that the non-challenge-based mechanics really help this to bring something new to the hobby instead of just being another rehash. I feel good about that.

What made you go towards non-challenge-based mechanics? What about that is important to you?

The decision to use non-challenge-based mechanics was a convergence of two things. First, I had noticed that fighting monsters (and to a lesser extent, facing traps and hazards) was so common in fantasy gaming that it seemed to be treated as an inherent part of the genre. That struck me as odd, since to me "fantasy" is more about the setting. Second, as I started developing my own setting and premise for the game, it didn't make sense that curious villagers would explore a magical world with wide-eyed wonder if doing so involved facing mortal danger on a daily basis. At the intersection of those two observations is the notion of non-challenge-based gameplay.

A scenic view of a forest, hills, and mountains, with trees peeking into view. Two people sit and look off a gentle cliff, one in a vest, long sleeved shirt, pants, and boots, and the other in a skirt, tights, waist cincher, shirt, and boots. The title text "Journey Away" is in gold.
The beautiful cover art for Journey Away. I finally learned how to do alt text properly, so full description is there.
How did you make fantasy interesting and different for Journey Away?

As I touched on above, I think part of what makes some people feel like fantasy is "done to death" is that it keeps getting done the same way each time. The dice may change and each setting might have its own quirk, but ultimately they're almost always implemented as some variation of allocating attributes and skills for your best odds of success against a series of challenges. I think stripping that away offers something genuinely different. It's like if someone has only ever seen pasta served with tomato sauce and they ask me how I'll make pasta interesting and different, maybe I'll give them some chicken lo mein or beef stroganoff.

Even so, I also wanted a reasonably original setting. I ended up with a world where magic is a recent addition, because that offers lots of great benefits, like having plenty of opportunity for discovery and adding a sense of wonder to any magical artifacts you might encounter. It also offers a nice solution to the common fantasy issue of "race". People like to play fantastical beings, but there's a lot of baggage with the traditional handling of races. What I get to do in Journey Away is say that everyone's a human, and the new presence of magic causes some folks to be born with altered features. So if you want to play an "elf", you can just say that you were born with pointy ears and give yourself the traits you want; or if you like tieflings, you can give yourself those features without having to introduce race-based prejudice into the game; or if you're coming to fantasy gaming from some other background, you can easily adopt the features of a character you like (such as a sexy vampire or an anime catgirl) without having to find a race in a splatbook and convince the GM that the stats are balanced. The setting really offers a lot of freedom to everyone.

I love the idea of getting the magical features you want because of the flexibility of the world. So tell me, how do these work mechanically? How do you represent magic in the nuts and bolts?

Magic is handled the same way as any other feature of your character: you declare that something is true about your character, and assign a die size to it based on how significant or impactful you want it to be. It doesn't matter whether that character trait is your experience with fishing, your cute demeanor, or the potency of some magical ability you have. For example, a friend gave her character animal-mind-reading powers with a d10. Then, whenever we rolled for a situation where that was helpful (like when trying to negotiate with someone), a d10 would be added to the player dice pool. If it could get in the way in a situation (like when surrounded by lots of creatures), then a d10 gets added to the complication pool.

What is the core of conflict and discovery in Journey Away?

The entire primary mechanic is basically what I just described for magic: you give yourself traits to define your character, and assign die values based on how big of an impact you want them to be, with bigger dice having bigger impacts. Those traits then contribute dice to one pool when they're helpful in a situation, or to another pool when they could get in the way. Circumstances can also contribute dice to both pools, but mostly to the complication pool. Both pools are rolled, and the players arrange the dice into pairs (one die from each pool). Pairs where the die from the player pool is higher generate beneficial developments, while pairs in which the complication die is higher generate complications. The player to the left of whoever rolled then narrates the majority development type (boons or complications), then passes to the player on the right of the one who rolled, and that player narrates the remaining developments. Of course, there will be structures in place to guide this narration with prompts for those who aren't interested in or comfortable with absolute openness, but that's the basic idea.

Conflict isn't a major component of the intended emotional focus of the game. Instead, we're framing the journey as primarily positive. Even the "bad" complications serve as an opportunity for fun moments, and the game is mainly about diving headlong into the wondrous unknown. This means that the game encourages forward movement, curiosity, and laughing together when things take unexpected turns. Journey Away very much presents the discovery of new things as a positive and joyful endeavor. I want to encourage a way of thinking: that things outside your current experience aren't inherently bad and dangerous, but instead will enrich your life and make you glad you stepped outside the village to have a look.


Thank you to Jacob for an excellent interview! I hope you all enjoyed learning about Journey Away and that you'll travel on over to the Kickstarter to check it out today! Please share this interview widely!

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