Monday, October 22, 2018

Five or So Questions on Scherzando!

Today I have an interview with Elizabeth and Amber Autumn on Scherzando! (skert. 'san.do), which is currently on Kickstarter. In this fascinating game you play both the characters...and the soundtrack! Check out Elizabeth & Amber's responses below for more.

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A diverse group of people around a table with instruments, paper, and tokens.

Tell me a little about Scherzando! What excites you about it?

Scherzando! is a diceless, gm-less story game in which you play characters with big dreams and strong feelings, plus the soundtrack of their world. It's often been described as "Fiasco, but with music," but we like to think that Scherzando! is less about grand ambitions causing tragedy and more about grand emotions bringing people together.

It's exciting for all the obvious reasons—creating a game with a soundtrack as you go is really cool! It's fun and dynamic, and people laugh a lot. But we're equally excited about the less obvious features of the game. We love that the game lets players have a physical, embodied experience; that it's an experience built around collaboration and communication; and, most of all, that it creates a space where players can feel comfortable creating music regardless of their previous musical experience. In response to our game concept, we get "but I don't know anything about music" all the time, so it was a real goal of ours to create something that helped people feel that they didn't need to know everything in order to make something or communicate something, and to create a safe space in the game for that to happen. Every time a player picks up an instrument and starts feeling out some sounds during the game, it feels like a victory for us, and every time they manage to successfully communicate an emotion with it, it feels like a victory for them. That's a dynamic we're exceptionally proud of.

We're also excited about it because it's our first game at this scale! It's mind-blowing to have a book with all this art and all this support and to have this Kickstarter start off so well—it really does feel like being invited to sit at the grown-up table. But it feels good to know that our investments in time, effort, and money are paying off. The game has been in development for over a year and a half (or over two years depending on how you want to talk about it); no blood comes to mind, but there've certainly been sweat and tears, so finally getting to print it will be incredible.

What kind of music do people experience in the game? Where did you take inspiration from for the tunes?

Since players make their own music, there's no specific style or genre that Scherzando! works best with. We encourage players to take inspiration from whatever they like in their own life, up to and including just copying pieces they like if they think it'll get their point across. So what the music actually sounds like in a game depends on who's playing, what kinds of music they spend most time with, and what kind of mood they're in as they sit down to play.

One effect of this is that it turns music into a creative expression unique to the people sitting at your table. People bring in the music, styles, sounds, and methods of experimentation that make sense to them, that they would use outside the game, and that's a way of bringing a part of their personality into the creative text in a direct, meaningful, and mechanically significant way. Having each player bring their own inspiration and style makes the session's music a direct creative expression of who the players are.
Two femme-appearing people playing instruments on a porch surrounded by greenery.
How did you design the game, considering that it's diceless and GMless AND uses music as a part of the game?

The game actually began neither diceless nor GMless—both of those got iterated out in the design process! The dice were adding needless complications, causing too much swing in the resolution mechanics, and making it significantly less accessible to anyone who didn't already own a ton of dice. We dropped them at the recommendation of the incredible Avery Alder, who wrote Monsterhearts and Ribbon Drive (one of the only other music games on the market), and who was kind enough to give us some sage advice early on.

The GM role (which we called the "conductor," because we thought it was cute) would rotate around the table to maintain the sense of a democratic story where everyone contributed, but we found pretty quickly that the conductor didn't have much to do. The scene setup generally implied itself, and players turned out to be quite good at arbitrating how the NPCs and the universe would react to their actions in the most interesting way. Plus, the game includes an interjection mechanic which allows players to temporarily gain narration powers for either a bonus (if they're adding a complication) or a penalty (if they're adding a boon) at the end of the scene. The ability and incentive to add elements to a scene made the conductor role almost entirely obsolete.

Development began in its very early phases maybe two years ago, with a lot of research on historical music games and current music education techniques. We spent a lot of time working through the logistics of who was on the team for the project and who would be doing what, and trying to lay out a plan. Once we knew who was working on it, how we would do it, and that what we wanted to do hadn't been done before, the next step was more research. We read books, played games, emailed musicians and educators, and eventually started throwing around ideas for how a system would work. We wrote up a list of core values that we wanted our game to embody, some of which have changed and shifted over the course of development, but some of which are still core to the game today! Then we designed a game around those values.

That game was completely broken and did not work at all.

The bulk of the process at that point was holding playtests, dozens of playtests, at cons and game stores and especially with our friends, with a different group of people every time. We took notes, and at the end of each test we discussed which items functioned and which needed to be changed or dropped, and adjusted the rulebook accordingly. Eventually we ended up with a system we felt good about, give or take minor details, and somewhere approaching that point we started doing the logistical work of commissioning art, reaching out to podcasts, and all the other publishing prep work necessary for a Kickstarter. From there, the actual changes to the game itself have mostly been tweaking numbers, revising stock setting choices, and other minor changes, most of which still require playtests to happen.
A person in armor playing drums and a person playing a keytar in a whirlwind.
This piece of art is mindblowing!
What resources do players need to participate in Sherzando, and what kind of skills are useful?

We like to bring a lot of small, cheap instruments to playtests, but they're not a requirement—the game works just as well when players hum and tap on the table. The only physical items players need, besides the rules, are a) notecards and something to write with; b) six differently-colored/otherwise distinguishable tokens per player; and c) an opaque container per player that is capable of hiding the tokens within it. As far as skillsets are concerned, we maintain that musical experience really isn't necessary (although it is fun to play with a group of musicians!); we find that the game runs most smoothly when players aren't self-conscious about their musical or roleplaying "talent." Earnestness and willingness to engage with a ridiculous story are probably the most important tools in the game.
Two people in period dress with white curly wig with music sheets scattered around them while they argue.
How do you hope players experience the game and what do you want people to take forward? What have you already seen taken forward in playtests?

One of the most exciting pieces of feedback we've ever received was really recently, when someone who had listened to our actual play on One Shot tweeted at us to say that she could see the players gradually learning to express themselves through music over the course of the game.

In addition to the "yes, you too can make music" lesson we've been harping on this whole time, we also hope players experience the game as an exciting way of adding meaning and tone to their stories in a way you can't find anywhere else. There are all these connections between narrative and emotions and semiotics that we wanted to explore and link together, and we think being able to play through those links in a really direct way is new and refreshing and cool. We also hope players have fun! Not every game needs to be fun, but Scherzando! is, and we love seeing people get really animated during gameplay.

There are plenty of things we've seen people take forward from this: confidence, communication skills, and even sometimes a better understanding of a musical instrument. But we also hope that people take home a really good memory about a fun story they told with their friends, not only in words but in music.
the Scherzando logo


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Thank you so much to Elizabeth and Amber for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Scherzando! on Kickstarter today!

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