Monday, October 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Americana

Hey all, today I have an interview with Liam Ginty from Sandy Pug Games about Americana, a tabletop roleplaying game coming out on Kickstarter! It sounds like some fascinating times investigating a tragic murder, so check out the answers below, and give the quick start a look, too!


An orc standing next to a blue pickup talking to some goblins as a red drag racer flies past.

Tell me a little about Americana. What excites you about it?

Americana is an idea I've had for ages - a retro-fantasy setting. The image of Orcs in letterman jackets, goblins in those awesome Pink Ladies outfits from Grease - it just came to me one day and stuck with me, but I didn't really have anything to do with it till I made a game called Mirror, which gave me a dice engine to call my own, and suddenly I had something I could build from.

The game itself is about a lot of stuff - being a kid at a time when the idea of teenagers having a time and space of their own was new and strange and pretty scary to everyone, claiming the aesthetics of a time period that's been off limits to a lot of marginalized people to create a fun, enjoyable and accepting place to play in - but the core gameplay revolves around investigating the death of your best friend while managing your time at school, social events and familial obligations and navigating a town full of weird gangs and magical places that you create during session zero. It's a really interesting gameplay loop that I don't think has been explored very much, we took that very teenage experience of trying to figure out when everyone can hang out and made it part of the game in a way that's really fun.

Besides the aesthetic (which we have a really great team of creative folx bringing it to life, tons of stories, art and even an audio drama we're planning on making), I'm mainly excited about a mechanic we're calling Your Dead Friend. Your Dead Friend is the victim of the crime at the center of all of this, and as such, we wanted to make them very important to the game. You actually make a full character for Your Dead Friend, just like you would make a normal PC (player character), and you can tap their skills for assistance with tough challenges - doing this invokes a flashback, where you roleplay out a scene where you learned this skill, or shared a moment with your friend. So throughout play you build this character, and your relationships with them, and playtesters have created some incredible stories from this mechanic, and we're really really hyped to see what people do with it.

We also have a mechanic called Ties and Connections that is just really cool visually - as you play you put together this conspiracy style board, drawing lines and connections between gangs, locations, characters and Your Dead Friend, slowly putting the mystery together.

a werewolf dressed up with earrings and fancy clothes

How do you handle creating a town with all these exciting elements in Americana?

We focus on the parts of the town that are, or would be, important to teenagers, and break the town down into Hangs, Crews, Risks and Adults. A Hang is somewhere designed for, or co-opted for the purposes of just being. The old water tower, a disused Goblin cave, the field outside of town. We encourage players to make these hangs as magical or as mundane as they like, and they're modeled much like our characters are - with Strengths, Weaknesses and a Vibe that characters can tussle with or exploit for their own purposes. Of course, what's a place without a gang to call it home. That's where the Crews come in.

Crews are cliques, like greasers, preps, mage-kids or jocks. They similarly have a Vibe and a couple of strengths and weaknesses, a catchy name that sums up their whole deal (and probably gets printed on their custom varsity jackets) and a leader. The leader gets a little extra detail so players have a face for that group right from the start. You also give the crew a hang to call home. Maybe the greasers all hangout at "Felicities Garage" or something. Again, we want people to create crews that reflect their own game, so we let people be as mundane or as magical as they like. My favourite crew in playtesting so far was a gang of gothabilly inspired proto-goths, who hung out around an abandoned necromancers tower, reading poe and casting spells.

Risks are the kind of dangerous activities that you and your peers get up to when the adults aren’t watching. Parties, deadly races, and illicit wizard duels in the woods near town. These are events set up by the various crews as a way for everyone to test their mettle against one another, and provides some really cool ways for players to challenge people, get up in a crews business or otherwise make themselves known without having to resort to straight up fisticuffs. Risks have a name, a crew associated with it, and a danger level that tells everyone just how risky this whole activity is. I was a big fan of "Electric Dance Fighting", one of our first playtests Risks, where crews would have big street dance contests on the arcing lightning from a power line.

Adults are a bit more simple, to reflect the info and perspective of a teenager - they have a name, some strengths and weaknesses, and a position that tells you where they sit in the Adult world.

This is all done during Session Zero, tho we encourage players to add or modify these as needed throughout play, and it's also done non-sequentially, so you can come up with a crew, go make up a Risk then come back to make up the hang later. You have a variable number of all of these elements depending on the scale of the town you pick. We've found this system just pops with awesome ideas when you get a few people around the table, and I wish I could just list off all the examples we've heard during playtesting so far. Really makes for some fantastic story elements with clear narrative and mechanical purpose.

A sheet with the words pronouns, strengths, and weaknesses on it with a blank polaroid next to it.
A blank Your Dead Friend sheet...maybe you should be the one to fill it in!
I'd love to hear more about the Ties and Connections. How does that work and who gets to influence it?

Ties are how we lay out the various relationships between these crews, their leaders, locations, adults and characters all with the victim. We have a sheet that has the victim in the middle, their stats and so on, and a lot of blank space around them. As players investigate the world they've built, they record connections that NPCs, crews and locations have with Your Dead Friend by writing their names on the sheet and drawing these ties between the various factions and Your Dead Friend, which in turn makes it easier to figure out the next place to investigate, the next lead to track down and so on. This evolving document creates an ongoing campaign-length record of leads and dead ends, suspects and mysteries that you spent your game following up on. Here's a WIP example of one after a couple playtest sessions. The final sheet will look a lil nicer than this, obviously, but it gives you an idea of what an in-progress set of Ties looks like.

Oh, and as for who gets to influence it - like almost everything in Americana, it's a table-wide mechanic. The Storyteller can declare a tie, the players can confer and make one if they feel it makes sense, or everyone can agree together to make one. One area we really want to build on with Americana is making the dynamic between GM and Player less of a wall. Making the story more of a collaboration between the whole table from start to finish is a part of that.

So what are player characters like in Americana? How do they develop and fit into these towns?

Characters in Americana are all one of 6 Archetypes (what we call Classes) based on high school tropes - The Jock, The Nerd, The Royal, The Outsider, The New Kid and The Artist. They're all friends of the victim, but not necessarily of each other, and we have a mechanic called The First Clue that's specifically for bringing everyone together and getting the characters invested in the mystery. One thing we were super aware of when making these archetypes is that some of them are often depicted as cruel, or mean in popular culture - Jocks are bullies, Royals (the popular kids) are often vapid, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs, highlighting instead the positive traits of someone who really loves sports, or is a social butterfly.

These characters are, generally, people who've been part of the town most of their lives, and are personally devastated by the death of their best friend, and their character growth tends to come from their collective grief and the various support mechanics we have - working together is vital in Americana. The way the game is designed really forces this Us vs Them sentiment where the player characters are alone in their investigation, and have to rely on each other as much as possible.

Finally, tell me about Your Dead Friend. Where did this plot element idea come from, and how did it grow into a mechanic?

Your Dead Friend came from me watching Brick and realizing the single most important character in that - and almost every murder mystery - is the victim, but they're so often neglected in RPGs that focus on similar themes. They're either a plot thread or an inciting event, but never really show up much in the story from there. While doing my research for the game (Watching Riverdale mainly) I noticed how useful it was to have flashbacks where you can expand on that character and make them matter so much more to the audience than if they were just a corpse. It seemed obvious that the victim should sit at the table somehow.

First of all I played with the idea of having a player literally be Your Dead Friend, it'd be another Archetype, but I couldn't really figure a way to make it work well with the other mechanics and vibe of the game. We played with the idea of having them be a summonable element, a ghost, a bunch of other things, but all of that went by the wayside when we realized how important Assists were for the game. It all kinda came at once at that point, the flashbacks, the assist skills, etc. It allows the character of the victim to grow really naturally through the players inventing that relationship they had from whole cloth and stops them just being a dice pool to draw from.

An orc in a leather jacket with great hair
I'm only mildly in love with this orc guy.

Thanks so much to Liam for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Americana on Kickstarter, so keep an eye out on the Sandy Pug Games site! While you're here, check out the Americana quick start!

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