Friday, September 28, 2018

Quick Shot on The Forest Hymn & Picnic

Hey all, got a little piece with Cecil Howe on The Forest Hymn & Picnic, which is currently on Kickstarter! Check out Cecil's responses to my questions below.


A tree with a pumpkin-headed friend floating nearby, plus the text The Forest Hymn & Picnic

What is The Forest Hymn & Picnic, both as a product and as your vision?

As a product it's a tabletop adventure game where players take on the roles of oddballs that live an absurd, unending and often haunted forest. It's a mix of exploration and slice of life gameplay much closer to D&D in play than something like Apocalypse World. The game takes cues from some of my favorite things from when I was a little dude—I didn't grow up in love with The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, I didn't grow up with D&D; I even missed out on Harry Potter 'til I was 23 despite my generation growing up with those books and movies. 

I did, however, love books like The Wind in the Willows, and the Frog & Toad stories when I was a kid. Fairy tales and fables and cartoons, too, all left their mark on me in ways traditional fantasy fiction never did. So the game digs into those influences more than anything, and I guess my vision is that adventuring in The Forest Hymn invokes those memories we have of what fantasy was to us as kids, before we read The Hobbit, but in a way seen more so through the lens of being an adult. Like what if Little Bear was all grown up and needed to sell off some heirlooms to hire someone to help him get a ghost out of his closet, or what if Frog got lost in the woods and Toad got a musket-toting posse together to go find him? I am not trying to hit a nostalgia button with this game, instead I am re-imagining all those things in my own voice and outside influences like Americana folklore, old tall tales, living in the southern US, and ghost stories.

A bear in a blue plaid shirt and green cap going fishing, smoking a pipe

How have you designed the game to address tone, pacing, and mood, considering how particular the various referenced media are in that regard? 

The three biggest influences on The Forest Hymn & Picnic are The Wind in the Willows and various children's books about animals being idiots, the music of The Decemberists, and the cartoon Over the Garden Wall. They all poke their head in on things one way or another, but like I mentioned it's through my own grown-up eyes and I take license here and there to reflect my own personality and get a bit weird with it. Tonally, you'll find the game to be more adult than those children's books; the player characters have more grown-up flaws and superstitions and especially the Ghost characters tend to er on the sad side of things—when you decide to play a ghost you pick a costume that reflects however you might have died in your former life. 

The ghosts made their way into the game after I watched OtGW. I was telling a friend about this game I was making that was about animals in a haunted forest, and they recommended it to me. I instantly watched it a thousand times, and how that cartoon handled things like death and family and basic human behavior really showed me you could do more with children's stories.

You can play as Animal Folks who are animals that walk and talk and are pretending to be what they think people are like, which is kind of the entirety of Mr. Toad from Willows expressed as an entire set of player options. Animal Folk are busy bodies and gossipers, concerned with social standing and prone to commerce. You can also play as people, who like Christopher Robin are a little more grounded in reality, but they're naturally lost in the woods. So the mood and tone very much my own projections of looking back at those influences as an older person. It's real silly, but a little bit serious. 

The book and the art, too, reflects a lot of these influences. I've been painting backgrounds and backdrops in traditional, mixed mediums like watercolor and colored pencils while the other artists, Casey and Sam, will be doing the action and foreground art in their own digital styles to give it that sort of old cartoon feel. They layout is closer to a children's book than a traditional RPG textbook, and graphic novelist Gabe Soria has contributed the lyrics to songs the forest dwellers sing to open each chapter.

I'm gunna answer the part about pacing in the next question, but my good pal Dustin told me that the way The Forest Hymn & Picnic is presented is like inviting kids to eat at the adult table and I think that's a good way to sum up the tone and mood of this game.

a floating pumpkin headed friend holding a bouquet of flowers and a book labeled "Die-ary"

Tell me a little about the progression of the game in play, from inception of characters to milestones and on. What was challenging to create here, and how does it feel in play? 

The pacing of the gameplay is made to intentionally mimic the way those kid's books are read. A lot of those books are collections, two or three-page accounts of whatever mischief the characters get into; each chapter is a contained story all bound into a single book but the characters very much feel like they're up to the good times in between the pages. The Forest Hymn & Picnic does this too. Each adventure is meant to be a contained experience the players have. A single adventure, a quest, a day at the county fair, 48 hours on the road between towns, etc. The narrator can choose to craft those episodes in a way that links them all together with an overarching plot, or choose to just explore the woods and the world across several sessions.

Players start with character generation; they're given the numbery, mathy stuff like characteristic scores and whatnot up front to get it out of the way. Then you're given a set of personality generating tables to sort of build the background of their character; they can make random rolls or pick and choose from the tables to learn things about themselves. People learn how they ended up in the woods and how they were raised, Animal Folk learn what kind of animal they are and what silly quirks they have, and Ghosts put their costumes together. 

You take all of that and put it together to form a description for your adventurer. What you're left with at the end of character generation is an extremely unique adventurer who has their own fears and goals and personalities, built-in adventuring hooks like finding your long lost father or working to become mayor of some town, and a relationship with the woods itself.

After each episodic adventure players will go up in a level, and the options they take and decisions they make represent what those characters are up to between adventures. So like, a player might decide that in between level 0 and level 1 they want to get involved with the supernatural and learn some magic tricks so they become a Fortune Teller. Or maybe the player can't decide just yet what they want to do, so they take on the role of a rakehell and bum around town with not much to do. Each of those choices then give the players new options, skills, magic tricks, and cool moves, and even adventure hooks to use on their next adventure and advance their unique personal stories and lives in The Forest Hymn. Not including the different types of Animal Folk, and not including the different micro decisions players make at each level-up and their own contributions, there is over 500 different combinations of unique dweller to choose from. 

That's where the influence of The Decemberists comes in; their songs tend to be storied, melodic looks at seemingly ordinary people and the different player options work they same way: you don't choose to be Mega Sword Hero™, but you do decide to take up the quiet life of a knife sharpener or burglar, bakers, librarians and all that good stuff. In play it feels very much feel like players are a part of the world rather than heroic outsiders, which is delightful and intentional. It gives the actual adventuring narrative weight; it's odd to go adventuring in the woods, it's not normal to go traipsing around The Spookwood, making it all more interesting when you do these things as a someone who's really good at churning butter and keeping books instead of swinging a sword.

The most challenging thing about creating anything with this game is staying true to the setting and making sure it's cool. The Forest Hymn & Picnic is running on a very very simplified version of the same engine that powers a game that couldn't be further from different than it: Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert J. Schwalb. SotDL is a—fantastic!—super gritty, grim dark hack & slash RPG and what I've made from it is different by leagues of night and day. 

I've quieted the importance of fighting and weapons and replaced it with a more granular task resolution system using the same math. So the easy part, the math, was done already. But making sure the setting comes through in player options and the magic tricks, in the character generation and the songs, the art, and the brief introduction to the world has been the toughest part. It's not a genre covered heavily in RPGs or really in mainstream media very often at all; fewer of us have the concepts and tropes that define it burned into our brainholes like we do typical fantasy or sci fi ones.

Thanks for reading! Love,
The text The Forest Hymn & Picnic and an image of the book with black cover, then a stork carrying a bundle and some trees.


I don't normally include signoffs, but Cecil's was part of the answers given, and I liked it. :) Thanks to Cecil for a great interview! I hope you'll all check out The Forest Hymn and Picnic on Kickstarter today!

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

approachable theory: Post-Consent Safety Paradigm

The approachable theory logo, with the text "approachable theory" and an image of two six-sided dice with one pip showing, with a curved line below it to make a smile. The dice are black with cyan for the pip and yellow with black for the pip.
Hi all! Today I have a post from J Dymphna Coy on the subject of post-consent safety paradigm. For some advance clarity, consent is basically whether or not we grant permission for people to do a given thing. And if you click here, you can find some references for the safety tools mentioned. Otherwise, I think you should be able to follow the article pretty well! 


A few months ago, I attended a session at RightsCon about Sidewalks Toronto. Sidewalks Toronto is a project by Alphabet (i.e., Google) to build an entirely new neighborhood in the city of Toronto from the ground up. They want to create a so-called “Smart City,” which uses various electronic surveillance tools in order to allocate resources more efficiently.

Naturally, the attendees of a digital rights conference cast a somewhat skeptical eye at this development. But one of the things I kept hearing about was “informed consent.” The most common question was some version of the following: “How can we make sure that people have informed consent about what kind of data is being collected about them?”

Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation brought up an interesting point: the business model of Google (and virtually every other Silicon Valley company) is to collect as much data as possible and then decide what to do with it all later. How can we even have informed consent, he said, when even Google doesn’t know what we’re consenting to?

Ultimately, my conclusion from the session was this: consent is ultimately meaningless in the context of the information economy. We cannot place the burden upon the populace as individuals to protect itself from Big Data; we must collectively assert our rights as a society and place the duty upon megacorporations to not exploit us.

a graphic representation of an index card with an X on it

That’s all well and good, you might say, but what does it have to do with gaming?

The inimitable Jess Hammer once mentioned that the X-Card has been dubbed a safety tool when it should more properly be considered a consent tool. The observation stuck with me, and I’ve been tooling it around in my head ever since.

So what is the difference between consent and safety?

Consent* happens before a game begins, or during a game. It involves mechanisms for determining the content of a game, or whether the game will continue at all. The X-Card, cut-and-brake**, and lines and veils are all good examples of consent tools.

Safety happens during or after a game. It involves mechanisms for directly attending to the emotional well-being of the players. A well-done debrief is a safety technique. De-roling is a safety technique. Anything that requires that players provide care (rather than merely asking if care is necessary) is a safety technique.

This is not to say that consent tools are bad, or should not be used. Quite the opposite is true! But they should be regarded for what they are, and used in a way that complements safety tools.

So why should I bring up Google’s data collection practices in this context? Surely a put-upon LARP organizer who already has to deal with the utterly thankless task of running a game does not have anything in common with Silicon Valley megacorporations. After all, the power relations are completely different. We can negotiate consent with another player of a game in a way that we can’t with a company like Apple. I can walk up to my fellow player and say, “Hey Fred, please don’t include bananas in this game, I have terrible fructiphobia!” By contrast, the notion that would could just write a letter that read, “Dear Apple, Please remove line 52 of this iTunes agreement because I don’t like it!” and expect results from it is absurd.

I bring up the comparison because much like Sidewalk Labs, your fellow players of a game have no idea what’s going to happen, and therefore any consent-based paradigm has limited utility at best. I bring it up because I want to emphasize the importance of safety and care, and to make sure that we’re not glossing over these things as designers and communities.

I’m not a big fan of making up categories of things for its own sake, or of having self-important internet arguments, or crushing my community with the tyranny of small differences. But I’ve heard the common complaint for years that safety mechanics don’t quite do what they’re advertised, and I hope that making the distinction between consent and safety might make something clearer in at least one person’s head, and maybe even make games a little better for the people who play them.

*It is perhaps worth noting that consent originated as a legal term. It’s designed to protect various parties from indemnity or liability. While legal protections are important, focusing on what technically legal is not necessarily the best way to give guidance on how to navigate ways to avoid hurting or exploiting the people around you.

**The OK check-in straddles the line between what I’m deeming as “safety” versus “consent.” It resembles safety insofar as it places the onus on the entire community to ensure that that all of the participants are OK, rather than on other mechanics that place the onus on the affected person to tell the other persons in the scene to stop. I’m calling it “consent” here because it primarily involves whether or not care is necessary, as opposed to actually providing said care for the most part. But like all categories, the point is not to get into nitty-gritty arguments about where the boundaries are, unless you find that sort of thing really exciting (I find it tedious).


Thank you so much to Dymphna for the excellent article! I hope you've all learned something a little new today. :)

P.S. If you'd like to write an article for approachable theory, email Brie at with a one paragraph pitch, your name, and your pronouns.
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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Five or So Questions on Bee Lives

Hey all, today I have an interview with Matt Shoemaker on Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer, a board game that's currently on Kickstarter! I learned some fun stuff about the game in Matt's responses - check them out below!


A table with the Bee Lives board game spread out on it.

Tell me a little about Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer. What excites you about it?

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer is a worker placement and resource management game for 1 to 4 players. I've been developing it for about a year now and the game play is heavily influenced by Euro games. Titles like A Feast for Odin, Carcassonne, and Clans of Caledonia (to name a few) have provided some inspiration for mechanics. 

The theme, however, comes from my experience as a beekeeper. I've been tending bees in urban Philadelphia for the past 7 years and have learned a lot about them in that time. When I did some research and found that no one else had done a worker placement style game about bees yet I decided that I wanted to be the one to combine two of my passions and create that game.

There are several things that excite me about this game. The first is how much I hope this will introduce people to the world of bees. I really wanted to design the game in a way that made people think like a hive does. The victory point conditions are set up to reward actions and behaviors that do well for the survival of your own hive. Some of them, particularly swarming, creates challenges for you as well. You can't just think about points, you have to also think about getting through the winter in order to win. 

This all really ties into how I learned to design games as a librarian. I've been making tabletop games for close to a decade as part of my educator duties, and I really like that I've designed a game that lets you learn while playing but does not have the objective of teaching. Bee Lives was made to be a game first, with the learning piece a side effect.

I'm also just really excited about this whole process of creating and publishing a game. It's great seeing the community response to the project and the positive energy that a lot of people are responding to the game with. I also loved bringing Helen and Alina onto the project and working with them. Alina captured the style I tasked her with through my art direction just how I was hoping. Helen has really helped tie the art and the game mechanics together with her graphic design. The graphic design in particular is so important for a game's user experience and I'm pleased with how it's all come together so far.

beehive tokens and cubes on the Bee Lives sheets

What is play like on an average turn in Bee Lives? What do you do?

In a turn of bee lives your primary task is decide how to most efficiently utilize the workers you have. There are 8 possible actions you can take, and each one helps your hive get to, and survive through, winter in some way. Do you need more honey and pollen so your bees don't starve and you can make new bees? Send a couple workers out to forage. Maybe your hive is getting too much disease? Send some workers to clean it out. Is your neighbor being aggressive? Perhaps it is time to put some bees on defense or even go out on a raid to rob some honey from those neighbors.

Once you've decided how you want to spend your workers you take turns with your opponents, be it real players or the AI driven wild hives, taking those actions. This can of course throw you off of what you were originally planning. Raiding can leave you with less honey than you need forcing you to compensate elsewhere. Someone can block you from accessing a specific tile you wanted to forage from, forcing you to forage elsewhere with extra workers you were not planning. Then there is the main puzzle of managing the space in your comb so you can balance having enough food for all the bees while leaving enough space for new workers to hatch out of, and also keeping some water on hand in case you need to cool down your hive. There is a good amount of planning you need to do each turn, and then hope it doesn't fall apart when it comes time to feed your bees and hatch out new workers in the upkeep phase between the 9 turns of the game.

The Bee Lives board with bee meeples on it, including the hexagons they land in and signs for swarming, scouting, requeening, and "cool hive"

How did you decide on the designs you use in the game for visual aid?

Helen and I worked pretty closely on this. We wanted everything to be attractive but functional and serve the player from a user experience perspective first. The graphics for visual aid are intended to be intuitive, and allow you to figure out what you need to do without having to look it up in the rule book each time. I also want to make the game language independent if we can. 

Right now the only part of the game (apart from the rule book, obviously) that needs words are the event cards. Before we go to print I am hoping we can make those language independent as well. We also took care to add symbols to anything where color may be important so anyone who is color blind can still play. 

This is most clear with the black and white icons we have added to the 4 different tile types that are in the game. It's possible we'll be having some of the actual art for the graphic design icons redone, but this is just for aesthetics if it happens. The symbols and why we chose them will remain the same.

Some hexagonal tokens with clear and solid cubes and a beehive meeple on top

How close to real life is the game in functionality - how much of a "bee life" are we living when we play?

Bee Lives is definitely an abstraction of what it is like for a bee hive in the Philadelphia area each ear. I've spent a lot of time with bees these past few years, and I wanted to really replicate what they need to do in this game without making a full blown simulation. The game doesn't reflect every nuance of bee life. 

For example, the bees don't collect propolis or make royal jelly, and disease is abstracted down to the Varroa mite only, when in reality there are several health issues that can affect them. I want players to experience what it is like to be a hive without making them micromanage every aspect of it, and I believe I have succeeded in doing that.
The game board with the seasons and months and cards laid down to activate bonuses

Bee Lives sounds like a really great experience! How did you make those decisions in what to include, what to design into the game to interact with?  That must have been challenging! What was most important to you?

This is where my experience creating games as a librarian really came into play.  It can be really tempting to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into a game. When you do that, though, you end up with a complicated simulation that makes sense to no one but the designer. You need to know what to trim and where to really emulate the real world experiences you want the players to experience through play.

When I did this for Bee Lives, I looked at what was important to understand about bees and what was needed mechanically to make the game enjoyable, competitive and balanced. I needed people to experience the difficulty bees go through in managing disease and resource gathering, so I made sure those were aspects that were included. I needed to balance those things with mechanics that would make the game challenging, which is where the main focus of resource management came from. Navigating these two pieces is a lot of what game design is, for me. It's a way to let people experiment with a system they otherwise have no real way of interacting with, and I think that is a special thing.

the Bee Lives box


Thanks so much to Matt for the interview! I hope you all liked it and that you'll check out Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer on Kickstarter today!

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, or, What to Do When You're Living the Dream...But?

Today, I am 30 years old, I work in my dream job teaching leadership using games, and I make $0.85/hour.*

Leading with Class, in case you don't know (most people don't!), is my YouTube show where I teach about leadership using roleplaying games. It's the dream job I made real for myself through a lot of hard work and the support of my loving, and incredibly talented, partner John. It also still doesn't feel much like a dream come true, because it comes with some overwhelming "but"'s.

I get to teach leadership...but it's not in a respected role.
I get to teach using games...but it's not seen as "fun."
I get to work from home...but I can't pay my bills.
I get to work with my partner...but he doesn't get paid any better than I do.
I get to share my vision with the world...but almost no one watches my channel.

In 2014, I made the decision to continue my pursuit of an education and get my degree in organizational leadership. From there, I continued on to graduate school and got a degree in leadership - and over that two year period, experienced continued health and career setbacks that left me unemployed at graduation. My job became Thoughty - and Thoughty is still my actual primary income. All $300-ish a month, maybe. I have ten years of career experience that the lessons learned can apply to my work in leadership, but no one wants someone who was mostly an admin in a position of leadership, and my health disallows a full time job.

So, whatever, fine, I said. I'll make my job. With John's encouragement (and from my other partner, Dillon), I started working on scripts for Leading with Class. Even now, it feels endlessly selfish, and working on Leading with Class instead of trying to dig through thousands of jobs to find at least one that pays $15/hr. and only requires 25 hours a week felt irresponsible. But I did it while still doing freelance work (as I am now) and Thoughty, and it was so wonderful to make something that meant so much to me!

What was less wonderful was the lack of feedback and viewership. I am incredibly grateful for the Leading with Class patrons on Patreon - honestly, it means the world to me that anyone would support this work. But it's still extremely quiet. On all of our videos combined - all of them - we have fewer than 350 views. I've shared on LinkedIn, Facebook, G+, Twitter, Mastadon, and Instagram, and of course, they're on YouTube. I've done streams on Twitch to garner interest, answering questions and writing the script live to engage viewers.

We have three comments on all of our YouTube videos combined.

Now, we're lucky enough to have followers and subscribers on our various media accounts! There's just really low engagement. I know we're kind of a niche interest, but I've only ever seen (personally) fewer than 5 total shares of Leading with Class content outside of my own personal shares, John's shares, and the dedicated shares of some of my close friends on G+. Most shares aren't accompanied by any positive recommendation, either.

And you know, yes, this does sound like whining. But as a creator, as a person who struggles with impostor syndrome and serious anxiety and depression, and as a person, I think it's essential that my viewers and readers know me as a real person, and that they know the truth. The truth is, creating the thing that means the world to me, living the "dream" like I am, is heavily dented by struggling to make it through financially every day and hearing basically silence when it comes to my work.

I am used to silence when it comes to my work. People don't link and share my site(s) or my work very often, and this has been notoriously challenging for me. I struggle with professional envy, seeing others get praised while I can barely get a retweet at times. But I thought, with Leading with Class it will be different! Even if it makes no money, even if it gets no press, I'll be making something meaningful. I'll be using my degree to do what I wanted the most!

But if a YouTuber makes an amazing video and no one watches it, does it functionally exist at all?

When one of my key purposes with Leading with Class is to educate, and there are no new viewers, who is really learning? If one of the necessary aspects of so-called "edutainment" is that it is spread broadly and enjoyed by an audience, have I created anything really at all? Did I get hit on the head by a backdrop while recovering from a brain injury and struggle to put words together to make episodes and even my best friends, people I respect and admire, haven't watched a single episode?

This is the episode where we stopped using the backdrop because it fell on my head. Such a headache!

And I suppose it does often just burn me that John puts in so much work to make these episodes look beautiful, to make me look and sound competent, even through brain injury problems, and yet as of this writing, only 22 people saw our latest video? The lovely work he did? That makes me so sad! I feel I'm wasting his time. This thing that is meaningful to both of us feels injured by the quiet, by the feeling that we are working so hard, this is so good, it means so much, it should go far and silence.

I do try to bolster with every like our videos and posts get, and absolutely I could be posting more often. But the hype machine only does so much when no one else turns the gears.

And I don't want people to think I hate making the videos or I don't think they matter. I do think they matter, and I love them, and love creating them! I had to take a hiatus in July because my recovery from my brain injury (sustained last November) was taking a long time and writing and filming while trying to also do freelance work and get through recovery was just not working. I struggled so much, and I cried so hard about taking a hiatus! It would doom the show, I knew it, and what if we could never start back to it?

But we did, even though I'm still in recovery. Even though the cats insist on interrupting our shoots.

And I'm spurred, truly, to keep working on the project. I want to take it further - I mapped out a second series, and a mini-episode series. I'm even getting the chance to do my first workshop at Big Bad Con - one huge part of Leading with Class that hasn't progressed far yet, but would mean the world to me to make bigger and broader. This is my dream.

I am a game designer, and love designing games - I want to keep doing that. And Thoughty is still important to me! But Leading with Class is a dream that I feel could make a difference! If it could just... grow. I know I need to work harder, I always do, but I have always worked best with the enthusiasm of others encouraging my progress, and John cannot carry all of that weight. He isn't my audience.

I suppose, what I'm trying to say is, it is very hard to do the thing you love and feel unfulfilled by it. The perils of relying on others! But we are, as they say, a community, so I think a lot of people could understand what I'm feeling here, so I felt like I needed to finally speak these words clearly, so you don't feel alone and so you don't feel like your work is meaningless. Leading with Class isn't meaningless, and your work that feels like it's floundering has meaning, too.

So what the heck am I gonna do about this?

First, I'm going to keep writing scripts, filming, hopefully streaming, and doing workshops. I'm going to finish the first season of the show with the full twelve episodes, no matter what.

Second, I'm going to try to do better about promoting the show and increase my social media presence, as hard as that can be.

Third, I'm going to continue to be honest in how I approach this work and my purposes with Leading with Class. I'm never going to bullshit you about the work I'm doing, and I will continue to be transparent.

And fourth, finally, I'm going to be grateful for those of you who are here, who do support me and Leading with Class, and try to keep that in mind when the gremlins come to fight in my mind. I can't let them win. I'm the winner here!

Thank you for reading, for watching, and for every moment of your being. The world is a better place because of you, even when you think it's not. And hey. Come join me -- in Leading with Class. <3

*For those curious about the time John and I spend on a given episode, here's a breakdown.

Brie's time investment per episode
~10 hours research
~5 hours script writing
~1 hours rehearsal
~3 hours filming
= ~19 hours

John's time investment per episode
~1 hour research support
~1 hour script review
~1 hour rehearsal
~3 hour filming
~5 hour editing
~3 hour graphics and animation
= ~14

Total investment = ~33 hours per episode.

The Patreon currently sits at $28/episode.

We aren't stopping, though. :)


Check out Leading with Class on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. For questions about the show, email

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Five or So Questions on Amazing Tales

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Martin Lloyd on Amazing Tales, a roleplaying game that's maybe a little more approachable for the kiddos of my readers than my normal fare! Feel free to check out some of the actual plays that exist for the game and the website, and check out Martin's responses below!


A black femme person using a keyboard and high tech tools and interfaces

Tell me a little about Amazing Tales. What excites you about it?

Amazing Tales is a role-playing game for kids aged four and up. I wrote it to play with my daughter five years ago when she was four, and introduced my son to it at about the same age. We had so much fun playing it that I wanted to get it out there so other people could do the same. My first thoughts were to do it as a simple PDF download in the style of Lady Blackbird or Lasers and Feelings. But I was lucky enough to get a sabbatical from my job, and I decided to use that time to turn it into a full fledged book. I had a huge slice of luck when Iris Maertens agreed to do the artwork, that let me create the book I always wanted to make, packed with illustrations so kids can get inspired by it, and feel like it's a book for them, even if they can't read it.

Now 8 months have passed since release and I'm loving watching what happens as the game gets out into the real world. It is a huge kick to see people sharing pictures of themselves playing their first role-playing game with their kids, or pictures of their child's first character sheet. One of my thoughts when I was writing the game is that as soon as role-players have kids they want to play role-playing games with them, but anticipate a wait of maybe ten years before they can. Amazing Tales gets that waiting period down to about four years, and that seems to be making a lot of parents very happy.

I am also delighted that Studio 2 have picked Amazing Tales up for distribution and an offset print run is happening. Amazing Tales is going to be in shops! For something that started out as a way to fill a rainy day it's come a very long way.

a fantastical scene with mushrooms, a squirrel, a fairy, and a tower in the background, all very curvy and colorful

What are the mechanics like for conflict resolution in Amazing Tales? How did you make them approachable for kids?

I chose conflict resolution rather than task resolution for Amazing Tales, so unless you deliberately want to stretch stuff out to make it dramatic or climactic everything is handled by one roll, be it flying a spaceship, making friends with a talking monkey or exchanging cannon fire with a rival pirate ship. Characters in Amazing Tales are defined by four skills, and each skill has an associated dice. Either a D6, D8, D10 or D12. To use a skill you roll the relevant dice against a target number of three. The target number never varies. The only thing that changes is the size of the dice used.

Tests have two possible results, if you succeed, you succeed. If you fail, things get worse, but they don't end. So the monster might catch you, but it won't eat you. The GM - typically the parent - never rolls dice, which means they're never playing 'against' their child.

I picked three as a target number because kids like succeeding, and I picked conflict rather than task resolution because it keeps the story moving. Watch how much stuff happens in the first two minutes of a kids' cartoon show, that's the attention span kids have. And that's the kind of storytelling pace Amazing Tales aspires to. Tell some story, pose a challenge, choose an action, roll the dice, resolve and repeat.

What I've just described is a very very simple system and that simplicity is the key to making a game approachable for kids. I firmly believe that anyone's enjoyment of a game increases when they know what they're doing. We've all played games where we didn't know the rules, someone told us to roll some dice, modified the result for reasons we couldn't follow and then told us what happened. That sucks when you're an adult, and it definitely sucks when you're four. So Amazing Tales can be boiled down to 'roll the dice for the thing you're trying to do, if the result is three or more you succeeded'. Four year olds can understand that, they can repeat it back to you, or explain it to their grandparents and their friends.

In the early days of playing Amazing Tales I tried things like modifying the target number; providing magic items that gave +1 bonuses; or requiring multiple successes for difficult tasks, but I quickly realised that it made no difference to how much fun the kids were having. Young kids don't understand probability, so why bring in things like modifiers? The only reasons for having different dice sizes for different skills are that one; kids love rolling dice, two; they like dice with interesting shapes and three; role-player parents can't wait to introduce their kids to polyhedrals. To adults it's clear that changing the dice size changes the odds, but that's not why they're there.

I have been pleasantly surprised by how happy older kids have been with these very simple rules. In my mind Amazing Tales was a game for kids aged about four to eight. In practice it turns out to be a game for kids aged between 3 and a half and ten. Seeing how well Amazing Tales works has also convinced me that most games for adults are unnecessarily complex.

A pirate on a ship with another ship in a distance, with an octopus on their arm that is holding a bottle

How did you approach providing a fictional background for the game that is welcoming to a diverse audience of children?

First off, Amazing Tales is absolutely a game for everyone. Iris and I worked hard to make sure that whatever your kid's background there should be someone in the artwork that your they can recognise as relating to them. I don't know if we nailed that, but it matters to us and we'll keep trying in future projects.

The other way to look at this question is to think about what kids want in a game beyond a confirmation that it's for them. Young kids don't have the same breadth of cultural references to draw on that grown ups do. So when I was thinking about the settings to include in the book I tried to pick things that small kids would be familiar with from a very young age. I ended up with four settings, the Deep Dark Wood (think talking animals and fairies), Magical Kingdoms Long Ago (think King Arthur), The Pirate Seas (pirates) and Adventures Beyond the Stars (space). I thought about doing super-heroes, but left it out because my kids knew the names of super heroes, but had no idea what kind of stories they might appear in. In retrospect I think that was a mistake, there are plenty of kids out there playing Amazing Tales as super-heroes.

The settings themselves are quite vague. They're really collections of prompts and ideas to get parents and kids making up worlds together. It's up to you whether the deep dark wood is full of monsters or full of friendly animals, but the setting gives you a jumping off point to get started. What's important is that parent and child can start from a shared idea of a wood, fairies that are small, have wings and can do magic, and animals that can talk. The settings include suggested skills, suggested plots and lots of ideas for parents to work with and artwork to inspire the kids. From there it's up to the parents to work with their child to create something that will work for both of them.

I also wanted to write a game where that made good on role-playing games' key promise - that you can be anything and do anything. That's one of the reasons there's a picture of King Tyrannosneak in the book even though he doesn't fit in any of the settings. He's a character my son came up with when he was five. He's a giant robot t-rex, with four arms, which he needs because he has two swords and two shields. He's also a ninja. When you tell kids their characters can be anything they want they take you at your word, and Amazing Tales supports that.

A winged archer in a sparkling wood

How did you play-test the game to make sure kids could understand it? Were there any specific experiences you had that you learned from?

Making sure kids could understand it wasn't the hard part. Kids seem to get the game very quickly indeed. The character generation section includes a quick script - a list of questions to ask your child to walk them through the process. By the end of that kids are usually completely into the game, and it only takes a few minutes.

I was more concerned about making the game easy for parents to understand. I'd love non-gamer parents to consider Amazing Tales as something for their kids, so I tried to get as much advice for first time gamers and first time GMs into the book as I could. It's also why I shot some actual play videos, just so people can see how it's done. Amazing Tales also suggests that you don't do much (or any) preparation for a game, it works well if you just improvise as you go. That's a challenge for parents who haven't done any kind of improvisational story telling before, so again I tried to pack in the advice.

A few experiences from play-tests do stand out though. One was with a friend of my daughter, a lovely five year old girl who elected to play a princess. At the first sign of trouble she announced 'I stab it in the face with my dagger', which was both fair enough, and rather jarring. Kids, it turns out, come out with this kind of thing all the time. This led to my including a section in the book on non bloodthirsty ways of resolving combats. I'm not a fan of my kids describing graphic violence, so I try to keep lethal encounters to a minimum when I run games. There are plenty of other ways to have fights end, with enemies running away, surrendering, begging for mercy, bursting into tears and so on. Evil robots, animated shadows, skeletons, those kinds of things are also great for heroes to fight their way through without having to worry too much about the morality of the situation.

Another thing that stands out happened when I was testing out the space setting. I had vaguely assumed that kids who want to play aliens would want some kind of star-trek kind of alien, a humanoid, with weird coloured skin and one or two distinguishing features. But no. At least in the test games I ran kids who played aliens launched into a competition to be the weirdest, most out there alien they could be. Tentacles galore, mouths on their feet, dozens of eyes...

And one last thing I noticed across a lot of the play-tests was that kids often like to copy each other's characters. They'll want to be the same kind of hero, then they'll pick the same skills, describe their characters in the same way and so on. It's doesn't create a problem the way having a party of three wizards would in D&D, it's just what they like to do. 

A t-rex with two shields and two swords and armor in a desert wasteland
King Tyrannosneak!
I love King Tyrannosneak! As a designer, what are the important parts of those kind of imagined characters that you see across the age range - what do you see when people get to be creative with your game that you treasure knowing about? 

I love that kids get to live out their fantasies, and that they get to do it at an age before their fantasies have been neatly organised into recognisable tropes by mass media. I can see in my own kids that as they consume more media their characters start to reflect that. My son loved Reepicheep in the Narnia books, and suddenly he's playing a Pirate Mouse. But before that starts to happen kids come up with the most incredible stuff, hang glider piloting gnomes with poisonous noses, pirates with laser eyes and pet tigers, that kind of thing. A few years back my kids came up with a pair of knights/super heroes called 'Key-man' and 'Crasher Girl'. Key-man had a sword which fired keys at things, which was obviously a useful weapon but also instantly unlocked doors. Crasher Girl was just great at crashing through things, I think she had rocket boots too.

So I hope that one of the things kids will get out of playing Amazing Tales is the idea that they can create new stuff and colour outside the lines.

Not that there's anything wrong with more derivative characters. I know of a little girl who's out there fighting the Clone Wars with a character who's skills are 'being a queen', 'shooting blasters', 'knowing things' and 'piloting spaceships'. I loved hearing about her, because her idea of being a queen involves saving the galaxy with laser guns, brains and charisma, which sounds like a good thing to learn when you're growing up.

The last thing, and perhaps the thing that makes me happiest is all the stories from people who've found playing games with their kids to be a fulfilling experience. Because Amazing Tales puts most of the cognitive load on the parent everyone playing is really engaged. Anyone who's tried to spend lots of time with small children knows how tedious it can get. They can play snakes and ladders twenty times in a row, they don't get bored of the same (very short) story book again and again, and they value your attention so highly that getting you to read that book again is the most important thing in their world. Amazing Tales is different because it makes the parents do some brain work, and then it becomes a real joint activity. I think kids can tell when their parents are really engaged, and I think parents find that rewarding too. So seeing all these parents find a new activity that they can do with their kids that they both genuinely enjoy - that's been great.


Awesome, thanks so much Martin for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Amazing Tales on DriveThru!

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Five or So Questions on Something is Wrong Here

Today I have an interview with Kira Magrann, talking about her new live action game Something Is Wrong Here, which is currently on Kickstarter! It's a very different game, from what I can tell, and that makes it all the more interesting to me. I hope you like reading Kira's responses!


Kira, a dark haired nonbinary person with hair and clothing styled after a quintessential David Lynch character.

Tell me a little about Something is Wrong Here. What excites you about it?

Something Is Wrong Here is a roleplaying game inspired by the dark and uncanny work of David Lynch. It's atmospheric, emotional, and personal, and THOSE are the things I'm most excited about in the game! A lot of Twin Peaks style games have been more like small town murder mysteries, which is great and fine, but my love of character relationships, dopplegangers, and personal horror is bleeding like, all over this game. I designed it to FEEL like a David Lynch gig more than follow the PLOT of one of his things. So its a pretty emotional experience, and I love that about it.

You talk about following David Lynch's creative process in the Kickstarter video. What was the creative process? How did it affect the game in comparison to other processes you've used?

David Lynch's creative process is very fine art and drawn from his subconscious. It's so weird I love it, especially the fine art stuff. I'm a sucker for surrealist painters like Francis Bacon, who David Lynch's uncanny films have often been compared to! He was a painter before a filmmaker, and he sees films like moving paintings. I see roleplaying games like fine art experiences, immersive and social performance art, so I really connect with this correlation of the cross contamination of art media. His ideas are drawn from meditation and dream images. He often says "Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper." 

I thought I would experiment with this process while making a game inspired by his work, draw from my background as a fine artist as well as my own dreams and subconscious. I thought, what scares me the most in David Lynch things? What do I connect to the most? How can I make the narrative more from my queer non-binary perspective? I thought and dreamed and meditated on it for awhile. From there it was easy to focus on the identity issues that are so relevant in his work that I also deeply relate to. Issues that focus on multiple selves, and what we really need emotionally from relationships with people, and of course that feeling of creeping dread that I really do enjoy (I love being scared and always have).

Small cards with descriptive text on them, one titled "Optimistic innocent"
Character cards!
What is the structure of the game like, and how do players mechanically interact with the narrative?

The game's structure is somewhat fluid in the plot sense, in that the plot isn't the most important thing about the game. The characters are the focus, and the scenes that unfold are there just to focus on the each character's personal feelings, and how their relationships with the other characters might influence their decisions in the final act. There are two acts basically, and the mechanics are card based, in addition to a Facilitator who helps frame scenes, keep time, and play music. The cards change and serve different functions as the game goes on. At first they are emotional prompts, then they are acting prompts that happen in scenes, and then finally they are cues to how to make decisions in a suddenly uncanny environment. The players are encouraged to dive deep into their character's minds, and perhaps see correlations between those minds and their own. This, in addition to atmospheric props like a box and a mirror, create some deep emotional play. 

How did you playtest and develop a game with this kind of complexity - and how replayable is it, with playtest experience in mind?

I actually just playtested it as normal! It played excellent both at home, and at a convention. It's oddly simple once it gets going actually, as the rules are easy and repetitive, like a ritual, and the facilitator really just needs to guide the scenes and the timing. It's reasonably replayable, because the spoiler doesn't reaaaaaaaally matter to the story, its more what happens to the characters and the decisions the players make that are the heart of the game. People could play different characters, or you could end up spending more or less time in different setting options, and I bet it would present a different emotional journey each time. Although it is designed to be a unique, one night experience!

How is Something is Wrong Here different from the works it reflects? I think you address this a little with looking for queer, nonbinary aspects - how do you think that shows most in the game?

Hahahaha well, I love David Lynch but he is an old white guy with some problematic ideas about gender and hardly represents people of color in his work, etc etc problematic faves. My work obviously attempts to diverge from those problematic aspects of his. This game doesn't have representation in it per se... the character archetypes are very flexible and undefined so you can make them whatever you want them to be. The clearest setting elements are "America" and "a forest, a living room, a diner, a roadhouse" so you could imagine perhaps a small American town, but it doesn't say where. SO really, the queerest and most non-binary parts of this game are about questioning dualities and pre-determined endings. Like, at the end, each character has a choice when they're confronted by themselves. How can you confront yourself? Are parts of your identity different than other parts? Those are pretty essential to my personal non-binary thinking. My identity is complex, and made of fluid moving parts, and sometimes I analyze different parts of myself like different parts of a big whole, right. So those themes about the complexness of identity are really central to Something Is Wrong Here.

A box of cards labeled "Something is wrong here" with thematic art.
The mockup for the cards and box!


Thanks, Kira, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Something Is Wrong Here on Kickstarter today!

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