The Independents: Something Is Wrong Here

Kickstarter is a wild frontier of new games and new gaming ideas; the wide range of what’s out there is one reason I try to write about it every month. Every once in a while, though, an idea emerges that keys into something and gets people excited. While the Kickstarter for Something Is Wrong Here showed up too late for Kickstarter Wonk this month, I backed the game after seeing friends recommend it. As soon as I shared the campaign to my Facebook page, more of my friends lit up. “Twin Peaks RPG” and “David Lynch RPG” were pushing all the right buttons for many people I knew.

Let me back up. Something Is Wrong Here is a card-based RPG designed by Kira Magrann. Running with a Fiasco-like two act structure, Something Is Wrong Here takes the players through a narrative that would be right at home in a David Lynch movie: surreal, dream-like, and heavily open to interpretation. Something Is Wrong Here immediately piqued my interest as a game which wasn’t really going for the same approach as most traditional RPGs, while aiming for a very different meta-game experience than most story games that have seen popularity.

With the response I saw from my own friends, I knew I wanted to hear more about the game. So I went to the source, contacting Kira directly. The Cannibal Halfling crew has crossed paths with Kira’s work before, as part of both the #Feminism anthology and The Veil: Cascade, where she wrote the wild setting “Swim Baby Swim”. This was the first time, though, that I reached out and got to ask her about an upcoming project. Through our exchanged emails, I got to learn more about Something Is Wrong Here and also got more excited about the game.

Tell me about your past game design projects. How do you think your previous experiences led to the idea/concept for Something Is Wrong Here?

“Earlier this year I released a game called A Cozy Den, which is a cozy game about lesbisnakes living together in a winter den. It’s about two things I care a whole lot about, snakes and lesbian history in the US. Previously I’ve made games that were genres I loved and identity themes I cared a lot about, but I think I didn’t start getting personal until A Cozy Den which definitely led to the concept of Something Is Wrong Here. I’ve started looking at genre conventions and deconstructing them to make them most fit the things I care about. Like zeroing in on the things I personally love and care deeply about in that set of themes and imagery. So Something Is Wrong Here takes the genre conventions of David Lynch’s work and highlights the things I care most about in them: the identity crisis, the uncanny surrealism, and the emotional journeys the characters take in these horrific American landscapes.”

As you note in your Kickstarter campaign, the key thematic inspiration for Something Is Wrong Here is the works of David Lynch. What elements of his shows and movies were you most trying to capture in a game setting?

“The elements of a David Lynch work are pretty specific, but also often have nothing to do with the plot! He’s spoken specifically about how the interpretation of what something he’s made is completely up to the viewer, and for him to say what it’s about would take something away from the experience. I wanted to emulate that feeling, a game where the main plot of the story was more of a red herring, and the focus was more on the emotions, relationships, and atmosphere the characters were experiencing. So that’s more or less what the game is about and what happens as you play Something Is Wrong Here.”

The mechanics of your game are card-based. Why did you go with this design choice? What elements of a card-based design do you think improve the game over another mechanic, like dice?

“I’ve been more and more drawn to card based play in my games recently! I think it’s an accessible tool, to use prompts to move the roleplaying along, that are simple to read and easy to implement. I’m inspired by GMless games like Avery Alder’s Dream Askew, and Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut, that use different types of collaborative tools to keep the play going. Although Something Is Wrong Here does have a facilitator (mimicking an auteur director like David Lynch) the concept is that players have more and more autonomy as the game goes on, which becomes purposefully uncomfortable to them. The card based play allows play to kind of focus on the roleplaying and immersion, and less on more complex mechanics that involve dice, or simpler mechanics that involve no prompts at all.”

One element of the game that you describe which I find particularly intriguing is the intentional bleed between player and character. How does Something Is Wrong Here accomplish this? Has this design led to any neat or memorable experiences during design or playtesting?

“One of the things I like best about David Lynch worlds is that, they are kind of like those Russian Dolls, dreams within dreams within dreams. It’s always an unsure thing if the characters are in reality or a dream, and there’s often meta filmmaking techniques that break the fourth wall and effect the viewer, making us feel if we’re not sure if we’re in a dream or not. I love that sensation! So I wanted to replicate that but, using game techniques and structure. I think when we’re playing a game, we often become immersed in our characters and the world we’re building, psychologically. But we are always still controlling our characters’ actions, our characters are us in a very similar way to how we empathize with a main character in a movie. There’s all kinds of interesting psychological studies on this. So I loved the idea of playing with that in the game… what if your character could affect you, or your feelings could affect your character? Could exploring the emotions and issues your character was going through teach you about your own emotions? This has had wild success in playtests! People are deeply emotionally affected when they allow these experiences to cross over from their character. One person in particular (who I’ll keep anonymous for the sake or respecting their personal experiences) said it helped them work through some issues they’d been experiencing personally, just by having the freedom to roleplay some dark emotional stuff. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, while that’s not the needed experience for everyone, I hope people have a chance to experiment with some emotional play in a safe space.”

If I were a GM coming from a traditional gaming background (think D&D), what advice would you give me on playing or facilitating Something Is Wrong Here?

“If you’re coming from a traditional background, like we all have at one point or another with any media I think (I started with White Wolf games!), think of this like a weird indie movie you’re going to experiment with watching! I love the idea of experiencing all kinds of media, not just the blockbusters, since there’s so many different types of ways to play games and roleplay. Games are a conversation, and Something Is Wrong Here is definitely focused on the conversational aspects of roleplaying.”

Something Is Wrong Here will be on Kickstarter until October 4th. $12 will get you a print-and-play PDF, while $20 will get you the printed game as well as the PDF. You can also find Kira’s other work on her Patreon and personal site, as well as checking out her RPG blogging at the wonderful Gnome Stew.

Kira is a tabletop roleplaying game designer, queer nonbinary cyborg, and snake mom living in Columbus, Ohio. She currently has a Patreon where she designs experimental games, a YouTube channel where she talks about game design, and she blogs a few times a month at Gnome Stew. With the support of her patrons she recently released a game about Lesbisnakes in wintertime titled A Cozy Den. On her website you can find games she has written and designed on her own and in collaboration with other creators as a part of their game.

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