Monday, June 4, 2018

Many Questions on Dream Askew // Dream Apart

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum about their Kickstarter project, Dream Askew // Dream Apart, two games about community and belonging as marginalized people. I hope you enjoy the interview and that you'll check out the Kickstarter!


A dark haired woman in a black shirt smiling at the camera.
Avery Alder

Tell me about the project of Dream Askew // Dream Apart. Why does this joint project matter to you as a creator?

Avery: While these two games tell stories of very different communities—Dream Askew is about a queer enclave amid the collapse of civilization, while Dream Apart is a fantastical-historical game of the shtetl—they're also united in being games about marginalized people building a community for themselves against the odds, what we call games of belonging outside belonging.

For me, this project matters because telling stories about finding our collective power and learning how to live together in community matters. And I feel really proud about how we've merged those themes with the mechanics: power is distributed around the table, and rather than relying on chance, everything is driven by the choices that we make together.

A dark haired man in a light colored shirt smiling at the camera, in black and white.
Benjamin Rosenbaum
Benjamin: I love the games we've made, I'm excited about people playing them. I think this kind of in-person game can be a great space for learning and exploring, and I think it's cool that these games celebrate the agency and struggle of communities with complicated relationships to the outside world, in settings that I think matter a lot.

What was your collaborative experience like on the project, and how did you handle complications or struggles of any kind?

A: Our collaboration gained momentum really slowly! Benjamin first wrote me about using the Dream Askew framework to create a game about Jewish shtetl life in 2014, and it wasn't until 2017 that we committed to an active collaboration and co-development process. I've been really delighted by the ways that Benjamin's innovations in Dream Apart have looped back to transform Dream Askew; key relationships are instrumental in defining the relationship web of the community, and they weren't even in my original design!

B: It's been amazing! Avery is brilliant, super nice, amazingly supportive, and has oodles of artistic integrity. She knows a tremendous amount about game design, community, and the technical praxis of creating and publishing games, and it's been an enormous privilege to work with her. We've handled complications and struggles by talking through them, listening carefully to one another, and making decisions together -- a process that has been strikingly full of fun and ease. I think our visions were very closely aligned from the beginning, and we also have very distinctive areas of expertise in the project. Each of us is the expert in our own game's subject matter, so we tend to naturally defer to that expertise; and while I have a deep background as a writer and gamer, it's my first professional game project, and Avery is one of my favorite game designers, so it's been very easy to trust her judgement on game design and publication issues.

A yellow and green toned image with a collection of people gathered in a fallen city.
The Dream Askew cover.

Dream Askew

Tell me the core purpose of Dream Askew. What about it fuels your passion?

A: For me, the passion comes from building something that can be run at the drop of a hat, that tells meaningful stories, that's legit fun to play, and that brings us closer to imagining possiblities for queer community.

I think the game is challenging in some ways! It requires players to take on a big creative load, and to jump into co-developing an apocalyptic world together. But for players who are up to the challenge, it's a delight! The game uses lists and prompts to point players toward interesting dilemmas, and then gives them space to actually figure out how to handle them. That's exciting! That's what fuels my passion.

A sheet of paper labeled "Introducing the Hawker" with various lists of options for players to choose from, some already circled.
The Hawker playbook.
When you work on the project, what design elements do you keep as key priority?

A: I started work on Dream Askew in early 2013, when I was helping run a weekly, drop-in meetup group. It was queer-centering, but welcome to all who wanted to drop in and play something neat. I tried running Apocalypse World a couple times at those meetups, and it never quite worked: the sheets intimidated new players, the mechanics were slightly too dense to teach to new players in the short span of time we had each night, and the game always felt like it was cut too short. I designed Dream Askew to fit perfectly into that space: inviting, quick-paced, and perfect for weirdos. And that remains a priority. I want this to be a game that I can run at the drop of a hat for a gaggle of queers who've never played a roleplaying game before, and I want it to rock under those conditions.

An orange and brown toned image with angels - multi-winged creatures with eyes peeking through the wings and flaming halos - watching over people in a small neighborhood with tents and buildings.
The Dream Apart cover.

Dream Apart

Tell me the core purpose of Dream Apart. What about it fuels your passion?

B: What I really wanted was to capture the distinctive tone, setting, and underlying philosophy of Jewish fantasy and folklore, which differs from both the traditional high fantasy ethos of a titanic final battle between Good and Evil, and from the aimless-violent-vagabond ethos of sword & sorcery. I wanted to see characters who are rooted in community, in a deeply spiritual but also morally ambiguous world, a world in which evil is written with a small "e": our own human failures of courage and compassion, rather than something alien and essentialized and external; characters who don't wield triumphant violence to achieve their ends, but use wit, grit, and moxie to thrive in a world where they are likely to be always on the receiving end of violence; and just all the rich strangeness, cleverness, yearning, whimsy, irony, self-criticism, soul, and mystery of talmud, midrash, Yiddish folktales, and the literatures of the shtetl.

A sheet of paper labeled "Introducing the Klezmer" with various lists of options for players to choose from, some already circled.
The playbook for the Klezmer.
When you work on the project, what design elements do you keep as key priority?

B: I think the main priority is capturing that spirit described above; other priorities include making it an accessible game with elegantly simple mechanics, concise design, and very rich fiction, keeping players supported in story creation so they always have something to fall back upon and aren't left hanging if the flow of creativity stutters, and supporting a social contract that centers everyone feeling safe and curious and excited and connected.

A black and white image of a sigil - the bottom half has three lines arranged like an A, with a half circle posed on top and multiple curved and straight lines emerging from it.
The sigil for Dream Askew.

Dream Askew

What have been some of the most vital elements of growth in Dream Askew over the past five years, mechanically and thematically?

A: Mechanically, there are two ways that the game has changed that I think are the most vital: the introduction of the community worksheet, and the introduction of key relationships for every character role. These two changes shift the story of Dream Askew in the direction of community, relationships under pressure, and questions of belonging. The game feels like it contains a deeper treatment of its themes, rather than a more aesthetic, surface-level treatment of what it means to belong to a queer enclave. Key relationships were a piece of the design that Benjamin first introduced into Dream Apart, which I was so excited to borrow back for the apocalypse.

Thematically, I think the biggest difference isn't actually with the game, but with the real world that I'm going to be releasing the game into. The idea that apocalypse was a contemporary force which operated in waves at the margins of civilization, that the digital realm would factor into not only the collapse but also what came next... in 2013 this was closer to science fiction. In 2018 it feels startlingly timely to be talking about. I talk about this more in the design notes I'm releasing alongside the game, but I think it's chilly how much more real the world of Dream Askew now feels for me and my friends.

The "The Outliers" book, black and white with a black and white illustration of queer, edgy characters, imposed over the faded cover of Dream Apart.
The Outliers zine, which is a stretch goal reached on the Kickstarter, includes additional game materials.
What elements of queerness speak the most to you personally, and to your experience in games, that you have brought forth in Dream Askew?

A: I think there's a bit of misdirection at play in how Dream Askew portrays queerness. Character creation opens with a prompt to choose from a list of strange and unprecedented genders, and to think visually through physical descriptions and wardrobe combinations. Queerness feels like a flashy aesthetic project. And that's definitely a real part of the game, one that it's fun to play around with! But queerness is also the relationships you attempt to hold in balance, and it's the fact that everyone has a different kind of lopsided power that both contributes to the community and also puts them at odds with it. The Iris is a potential healer, but also an unsettling psychic weirdo. The Hawker is a resourceful provider, but also a territorial profiteer. The Stitcher is an engineering genius, but also a strange recluse. The drama of the game comes from watching how these people who hold sway in the community tug its ideals and character back and forth.

A black and white image of a shape almost like a bell with two concentric circles in the top center, then a straight line on top of a triangle that has a Hebrew symbol "alef" in the center.
The Dream Apart sigil.

Dream Apart

What were some of the elements of Jewish fantasy and folklore that you personally felt deeply about including in Dream Apart, and how did you include them?

B: Most people are familiar with a kind of Sunday School version of the Hebrew Bible, in which the Divine is a kind of mathematically omniscient and omnipotent Santa Claus whose job it is to make everyone be good. A cursory glance at the world around you should make it clear that this doesn't make much sense. In fact the story (or rather stories) that the texts suggest are much weirder. The God of the Tanakh is volatile, mysterious, numinous, and alien; the midrashim and the Kabbalah make this weirder still, with a fractured Divinity in exile from Itself, and a universe-altering magic inherent in the smallest human actions (it's not that much of a stretch to say that in the Lurianic Kabbalah, when mom lights the candles Friday night she is literally healing a tiny bit of the sundered Godhead). The psychic maelstrom of Apocalypse World (and thus of Dream Askew) is the closest thing to this theology that I've found in any game; it feels a lot like what Moses encountered at that bush in Midian. Magic in games tends to feel like engineering at best, and more commonly like ordering from a menu at Denny's. Gods are either absent, or they're statted-up dispensers of plot tokens and buffs. I wanted a kind of magic that would be terrifying, wondrous, unsafe, inchoate. I also wanted it to be tied deeply into the story's drama of moral agency, because so much of Jewish tradition is about wrestling with complex moral questions that have no easy answers. Temptation, solace, power at a price, rebuke, reconciliation, grudges, forgiveness, these things are not just part of the social drama, they're also central to the meaning of the Unseen World. A demon that just wants to try and kill you is not nearly as interesting as a demon that wants you to betray yourself. A golem isn't just a monster, it's an allegory of freedom and servitude, the limits and risks of violent self-defense and of human knowledge. A dybbuk isn't just a possessing spirit, it's one with an agenda and unfinished business.

A sheet of paper labeled "Welcome to the Shtetl" with various lists of options for players to choose from, some already circled, and a map of the Shtetl..
The sheet for the Shtetl for Dream Apart.
Were there any unique challenges for approaching the subjects of Jewish culture and beliefs that are not addressed often enough or respectfully enough in popular media?

B: To the extent that shtetl culture is addressed in popular media at all -- think the musical-theater and cinematic versions of Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl -- it tends to be in a sentimental, rose-and-sepia-tinted, elegiac frame, ignoring a lot of the complexities and real-world grittiness. Non-Jews are usually offscreen menaces (though to be fair, one of Tevye's daughters does marry one); economics is flattened into a virtuous poverty; and in general, the viewer is encouraged to see the events as a kind of hagiographic ancestral origin story. (The original texts are grittier and sometimes queerer than their tamed stage & cinematic versions, too -- there's a good argument that Singer saw his Yentl, who keeps the name Anshel at the end of the story as opposed to putting a dress on and running off to America, as a trans man.) At one point Avery asked if we should find a more Yiddish-looking font for the Dream Apart playtest kit; I responded that I really liked using the same one we use for Askew, to get away from that coy sentimentality and ram home the point that this, too, was a gradual apocalypse, with -- for its characters-- the same apocalyptic immediacy.

A dark haired woman in a black shirt writing in a notebook while sitting at a table in a restaurant.
Avery writing notes.

One last...

Beyond basic structural elements, what are some pieces of Dream Askew // Dream Apart that are similar or contrasting - mechanically and thematically?

A: I think one of the most interesting contrasts—and one I haven't talked about anywhere yet—is in how the two games approach supplemental reference materials. Since Dream Apart is historical, its reference materials need to offer up specific, tangible answers: here's what that word means; here's a plausible Russian surname from the era; here's the river you'd walk alongside. Benjamin is working hard to make resources that feel thorough while remaining compact. On the other hand, Dream Askew is speculative and built upon a queer epistemology. Its reference materials need to do much the opposite, to reject a single definition in favour of pitching the question back to players in an encouraging way: that's a great question, what do those words mean? My challenge is being exploratory and playful without coming across as hostile or opaque.

The book of Dream Askew // Dream Apart with the cover illustrations and white text over black cover, imposed over a faded image of the Dream Apart cover.
The Dream Askew // Dream Apart book and illustration.


Thank you so much to Avery and Benjamin for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and will share it with others! Please check out the Kickstarter for Dream Askew // Dream Apart today!

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