so many plans...
N.K.Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" is awesome and fantastic.
Last year Strix did an interview with me on a broad range of topics (you can find it here), and we also touched upon Bluebeard’s Bride. This time, I’m delighted to talk with all three designers of this game of feminine horror. Please welcome with me Sarah Richardson, Marissa Kelly, and Whitney “Strix” Beltrán!
Jonas: Would you please introduce yourselves to those of us who don’t know you? Who are you, what do you do?
Strix: I’m Strix Beltran. I’m a narrative designer and writer for video and analogue games. I’m a gaming academic, a diversity and inclusion consultant, a Twitch host who explores indie game content, and I also work in tech startup full time. I don’t sleep.
MK: I am Marissa Kelly, the first of my name, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and co-owner of Magpie Games.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Richardson. I am a game designer, layout artist, illustrator, and employee of Magpie Games. Sometimes you’ll find me under the name Doombringer. I bring my clan much honor.
Jonas: Just in case we want to refer to one of us in the third person, what are our preferred pronouns? For me it’s he/his/him.
MK: Traditional lady gender vocab for me.
Sarah: I’m also she/hers/her.
Strix: Same here.
Jonas: How did you get into gaming, and how did you get into game design?
MK: My father used to run his own hacks of Traveler and D&D for me growing up. So I got hooked early. Storytelling is one hell of a drug and it stayed in my life through adulthood. Eventually I spread my beautiful design wings and founded Magpie Games in 2011 with my partner, Mark Diaz Truman. I dabbled in design with our first few projects and freelanced here or there, but my first full game was Epyllion a dragon epic.
Strix: I was playing with the NES before I could walk. I got into role-playing games as a pre-teen. Started running game organizations in my early 20s. Started designing a few years ago. Into elves and Vulcans and basically anything that’s not mundane. I got it all from my mom.
Sarah: I started out playing AD&D with my uncles, and went to my first game convention dressed as a hacker from Shadowrun. I’ve played a variety of games over the years, and began working in the rpg industry as an illustrator and layout artist in 2013. I made a few small hacks, but my first real foray into game design started with Bluebeard’s Bride. Currently I’m working on a new game called Velvet Glove, about teenage girl gangs in 1970s America.
Jonas: Some of you have already published other games that are “powered by the apocalypse”. D. Vincent Baker’s game Apocalypse World has excited many and led to an impressive number of new games that use its basic framework. What does AW and the PBTA “design tradition” mean to you?
Strix: AW’s rules structure is hackable and accessible. The accessibility is especially important to me. It also fits with what we want to do with Bluebeard’s Bride. Out of the three of us, I’m probably the least tied to design traditions as a whole.
MK: It is a way of thinking about games that I find particularly stimulating. I like the challenge of fitting all the design cogs together, starting it up and seeing if it runs. Overall, I am proud to be a part of a movement of players and designers who are as excited about it as I am.
Sarah: There have been some amazing games using PbtA, like Monsterhearts, that show off how strong that basic framework is. I really like seeing how the MC and players parts work together in an unique way to generate a story. Apocalypse World was one of the very first story games I ever played, and it made a really strong impression. It’s also great for horror, which is why we used it for Bluebeard’s Bride.
Jonas: Where do you see Bluebeard’s Bride in the PBTA tradition? What inspirations did you use, what adaptations did you make?
MK: We pushed the bounds of PBTA a bit, but once folks get a taste, I hope it inspires others to drink the PBTA Kool-Aid.
Sarah: I played Murderous Ghosts before starting work on Bluebeard, and the way it facilitated horror at the table really took my breath away. Bluebeard is a little different, though, in that it’s a pretty specific thing, this specific story that gives a specific structure to what you’re doing.
Strix: I hope Bluebeard demonstrates that you can design with PBTA’s structure, but that you can still wholly make it your own.
Jonas: Bluebeard’s Bride is based on a fairy tale: A woman is married to Bluebeard, and he introduces her to his home, showing her everything, but pointing to a particular door and telling her never to go in there. When he’s gone, she discovers the corpses of his previous wives in that room. Bluebeard returns and becomes violent… Does your game retell that story? Does it follow some narrative script?
Strix: There is definitely a narrative arc. Most of the time it doesn’t end well for the Bride, and that’s the point! This game is not about beating Bluebeard, it’s about the feminine experience of horror, the struggle for agency in the face of terrible things. Who are you? What do you become? What do you sacrifice in order to survive? Can you survive? It’s thrilling and deeply terrifying.
MK: Bluebeard’s Bride allows you to tell your own version of the dark fairy tale. It makes the tale into a sort of haunted house game where you travel from room to room, gathering evidence to prove your husband’s intentions - either malicious or innocent.
The game explores a lot of very mature content including violence against women, but we give guidance to help you and your players explore messy themes in a safe way while keeping the tension high.
Sarah: It’s not just for fairy tale or horror fans, although they may be particularly pleased with some parts of the game. I’ve played the game with a pretty wide range of people. It’s not for kids, though.
Jonas: You mention that players explore the rooms of Bluebeard’s house, which makes it sound a bit like a dungeon crawl. But if I put it that way it is probably wildly misleading, right? Can you please speak a bit more about the content of the game?
Strix: I would say this is very different! A dungeon crawl assumes that you can solve your problems with violence. You can’t. The house and the rooms in it hold a lot of symbolism, not the least of which is that it reflects the Bride’s own mind. It’s really about facing the darkness within yourself. What could be lurking there? The rooms create a container for that.
MK: It’s a lot like a haunted house game with underlying feminine motifs. The themes of the horrors in the house call upon struggles that women face. This is a fun way to explore mature feminine horror for folks of all genders.
Sarah: I love dungeon crawls, so I know what you mean. This is different, however, as you’re not looking for treasure, and fighting isn’t an optimal choice. You have a purpose in going from room to room—investigating what happened to Bluebeard’s other wives, and what role he had in that, but there isn’t a map, or pre-set rooms that you go through.
Let the players scare themselves.
Let them define what is scary,
and then draw it out of them.
Jonas: The roles that players take on are not separate characters, but aspects of the Bride’s mind. Can you talk about that a bit? I imagine the “intrapersonal relationships” might help creating a sense of community (or rather, identity?) despite differing voices, which seems intriguing. What experience does your design aim for?
MK: Horror that explores a lack of agency often revolves around one character and their experiences. The story of Bluebeard has only one Bride at a time and we wanted to be faithful to that narrative. When you have a whole party it is easy to fall into a groove where everyone works together to overcome obstacles, but we wanted the conflicts to be internal rather than external.
Sarah: Exactly. We wanted to mimic the internal struggles everyone has when faced with a difficult decision—the part of you that is a little bad, the part that tries to be rational, and so on. Assigning archetypes to each player gives them a character to play, with their own motivations and desires, but they’re also tied into the whole, forming a well-rounded person.
Strix: Yes, certainly we wanted to evoke internal conflict. What person doesn’t struggle with themselves? But also, thinking about the makeup of the Bride archetypally is really useful for telling a fairy tale narrative. It helps give the players a foundation to work with.
Jonas: Can you tell us a bit more about the safety measures you provide? I’d imagine that playing with folks I know and trust would be an important element for me, so I’m curious what sort of mechanics you employ to help players feel safe when letting their guard down and the horror in...
MK: Bluebeard’s Bride pushes a lot of boundaries and explores many taboos, but the book goes over some methods for helping you manage the experience. One tool mentioned is the X Card, developed by John Stavropoulos. It is one way to make sure that content that will ruin your fun at the table is avoided.
Sarah: Playing with people you know and trust is great, and definitely makes for a fantastic Bluebeard’s Bride game. However, I’ve run it at conventions for groups of strangers, and getting scared together is pretty fun.
Strix: I’ve run it for strangers at conventions too, and it’s gone extremely well. Aside from the resources mentioned, we absolutely believe that there should always be full transparency around this game. People should know what they’re in for before they sit down at the table.
Jonas: Do you have more advice for getting the most out of game of Bluebeard’s Bride, for GMs and players?
MK: Doing some fun homework might be in order before play. Watching some horror movies that have a feminine tint to them is alway a fun way to get those creative juices flowing. During the game I like to get everyone in the mood by dimming the lights and playing a creepy soundtrack, like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
Strix: For GMs: Let the players scare themselves. Let them define what is scary, and then draw it out of them. Use long, pregnant silences. Let them sit in that silence. Turn up the heat gradually. Give them breaks and time to recover. For players: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. That’s when you’ll have the most fun. Embrace the inevitability of the outcome and focus on occupying the experiences as they come to you.
Sarah: I’d stress clear communication, and making sure everyone at the table is in the mood for a horror game. There’s advice on generating rooms and such in the book, but mainly I’d tell GMs to remember that what scares them, will probably scare their players.
Jonas: How are your own experiences in the RPG community shaped by your race and gender?
MK: My outlook and ideas are clearly shaped by who I am and what traditions I come from, but when faced with adversity, I keep my nose to the grindstone and work harder to get what I want.
Strix: Until only a handful of years ago, my minority identity as a Hispanic woman made me very much an outsider. It’s been hard to claim space in the gaming world. To be listened to, taken seriously, or even welcomed at all. Parts of the community are amazing, other parts are abjectly terrible. I’ve learned to curate my circles and avoid unwelcoming spaces and that’s helped, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Sarah: I’ve had both good and bad experiences. I can say I wouldn’t have gone to the Hacking as Women workshop if it hadn’t been only for women, but obviously I’m glad I did.
Jonas: That Hacking as Women workshop you mention was the starting point for Bluebeard’s Bride - it was at GenCon 2014, I think? How has it developed since? Are there any major changes (or design twists, setbacks, cutting of significant material) that you feel are memorable?
Strix: I think we found the heart of the game during that game jam. Everyone in the room felt it, not just us. Our job was to keep that heart beating throughout all our various design iterations, to keep that magic thread of what makes this game special alive. I believe we managed to do that. We were lucky and had to sacrifice very little, all told. Mostly we kept open and flexible, which helped us move on from ideas that weren’t working well enough to satisfy us.
MK: Yep! I was Strix and Sarah’s coach for the 2014 “Hacking as Women” workshop. Since then the game has transformed many times. Because design is kind of like an elegant monstertruck show, we had to wreck a few cars to get here. The most memorable jump was making some of our basic moves diceless. It took some convincing (of myself included), but I think it mimics a tradition of ghost stories that I hold dear.
Sarah: The game still has some of the core concepts we came up with at the workshop, but they’ve been refined over and over again. We did end up cutting one playbook, the Oracle, and integrating it into another, the Witch. We ended up with a stronger, better set of playbooks from that cut.
Strix: I mourn the loss of the Oracle!
Jonas: Looking back beyond GenCon 2014, are there any major influences, personal experiences or creative sparks that led to Bluebeard’s Bride? Can you tell something like a prehistory of this game?
MK: Making a horror game is a dream come true! Now I can freak people out through my art instead of pulling off freaky stunts that risk jail time in order to get a scare.
Strix: I studied mythology in graduate school, which included fairy tales, so I have a deep background in the material. Chelsea, one of my friends at school was a diehard Bluebeard fan, and managed to always keep the fairy tale lurking in the back of my mind. That’s the reason why I put this particular fairy tale forward as a game design idea at the game jam. Without Chelsea’s influence, we might have gone somewhere entirely different! I also wanted to make a game that spoke to experiences that belonged to me as a woman, that were authentic. That drove a lot of my design principles. I think this game has been crouching inside of us, waiting to spring forth for a long time.
Sarah: I’ve always been a big fairy tale and horror fan, so it’s hard to point to any one specific thing. I do feel like my time spent reading feminist analysis of fairy tales and watching horror movies has paid off, though. Some of my favorite media did support some of what I brought to the game, like Angela Carter’s short stories and poetry, books like the Handmaid’s Tale and Fitcher’s Bride, and movies like The Company of Wolves and The Orphanage.
I’ve run it at conventions for
groups of strangers, and getting
scared together is pretty fun.
Jonas: Bluebeard’s Bride is on Kickstarter right now. Within a very short time crowdfunding has practically become an accepted standard for publishing role-playing games. I believe you all have some experience both as backers and as creators. What are your thoughts on this?
MK: Kickstarter has been amazing for our industry. It allows creators and small companies to grow and deliver content in a way that was more-or-less impossible without huge cash upfront. I try to keep it fresh with every kickstarter I am a part of and Bluebeard’s Bride has some great new content to appeal to those who like to indulge their darker side.
Sarah: It’s great in how it allows more creators to reach their audience. I know I have backed some projects that wouldn’t have been available through normal publishing channels, from horror anthologies to games to art.
Strix: I’ve been on both sides of the Kickstarter coin many times now. It’s an integral platform for our industry. It gives indies the leverage they need to make their art. I think it’s great. Kickstarter combined with Print on Demand third party sites have made creating RPGs tremendously more accessible.
Jonas: Can you please tell us a bit more about the kickstarter? What is your favorite reward tier and why?
MK: My favorite has got to be the $150 limited edition level, the Wine Cellar. I am a sucker for swag and deluxe books and that level has it all.
Sarah: I really like the $100 level, the bedroom. Not only do you get both of the main books, dice, tokens, and the Deck of Objects, but you also get PDFs of the books and any stretch goals. I love having pretty physical books, but I also like having the PDFs to refer to.
Strix: I agree with Marissa. The Wine Cellar is my favorite. A beautiful limited edition book, a ring to use for the game.
Jonas: Some of you have also worked as artists. Are you doing illustrations or art direction for Bluebeard’s Bride, too?
MK: If I contribute any art it will pale in comparison to our other artists: Kring, Rebecca Yanovskaya, and Juan Ochoa. As art director, they are my beloved angels of horror.
Sarah: Not this time, although I’m doing the layout for the core book. I’m incredibly excited to have such lovely illustrations to work with, though!
Strix: Don’t look at me. I stick to the narrative stuff. But I love our artists. I literally cried when I saw the first pieces come in from Rebecca. Everything is gorgeous.
Storytelling is one hell of a drug.
Jonas: Thanks for the interview! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Strix: I am extremely proud of Bluebeard’s Bride, proud to put my name on it. It’s been a labor of love undertaken with these two other amazing women over the last two years, and it’s all be worth it. As we wrap this project up we’re all starting to ponder what our next projects will be. I’m already working on something that I hope turns out to be as fun to design as Bluebeard. You can keep up with me on Twitter @The_Strix, or my site StrixWerks.com
Sarah: I can’t think of anything. Thanks for talking to us!
If you want to look closer, here are some links:
https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/11286569144352749487... (G+ community for Bluebeard's Bride)
Artwork by Rebecca Yanovskaya