As I’ve wandered into the Indie Frontiers this past year, I’ve heard tales of a fabled place where indie RPG designers gather from across the land: Big Bad Con. This yearly tabletop and LARP convention is hosted in Walnut Creek, CA, a short seven hour drive from my home in Los Angeles. I had never been to an RPG convention before, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. I left LA with a backpack full of dice and a mission—a mission to interview as many up-and-coming indie RPG designers as I could find.
Today’s interviewees: Taylor LaBresh, Suzanne Schenewerk, Justin Ford, Adam Vass, Sidney Icarus, and Charles Simon.
Riverhouse Games puts out some of the strangest RPG’s you can find on the internet, including a personal favorite of mine—We Are But Worms: A One Word RPG. I won’t spoil what the word is, but I will tell you it answers an age old question: Can an RPG be a meme? Absolutely. Riverhouse Games is the personal brand of Taylor LaBresh, who has written games such as the inappropriately named Let These Mermaids Touch Your Dick Maybe, and Athletics, an RPG about pulp fitness magazines that might just be an excuse to display hardworking shirtless dudes. When we sat down at Big Bad, LaBresh wanted to tell me about a slightly less whimsical game he is in the process of writing—namely This Is A Game About Fishing, a queer eco-punk RPG based off the Belonging Outside Belonging framework, a derivitive of Avery Alder’s Dream Askew. Fishing is an absurd romp through a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a handful of billionaires. In this world, the survivors subsist off the meager and tainted bounty of the sea—unless they can find a way to strike back at the people who destroyed the planet by being gay and doing fish crime. It is a game about dystopia, found family, and revolting against the oppressive reality that is already around us. LaBresh uses the funny and fantastic world to make an earnest point about his frustrations with modern environmental concerns, and our seeming inability to affect them. This Is A Game About Fishing is well worth the read—even if you only read it to figure out how to include “The Ghost of Dead Fish” as a setting element.
I walked in blind to a session of Suzanne Schenewerk’s newest RPG, Murder Ballad, a storytelling game about history, music, and the human obsession with death—no singing required. Despite not knowing much about it beforehand, I was delighted to dig into this wonder of gameified storytelling. Schenewerk has created something really special with Murder Ballad, a game that explores the mutation, adaptation, and development of one of our ancestors’ favorite methods of macabre musical merriment. Over the course of a couple hours, our table made up a folk ballad about the fictional California-gold-rush-era murder of Buck Stove by his friend and panning partner Red Benny. We explored how the song changed over time, from the breakout hit of a mining-town singer, down the branching paths until it became on one end a cautionary tale about murderous ghosts, and on the other an Appalachian ode to friendship. Schenewerk has perfected the process of creating a large-scale narrative where players can see strands and echoes of a single action ripple out across time. In some ways it is an improvement on the sometimes too-broad histories of Ben Robbins’ Microscope. Schenewerk explained her purpose behind the game: she wants people to tell stories about why people tell stories. If you are looking for a small game that you can play with your friends who might not have a lot of experience with typical protagonist-forward RPG’s, Murder Ballad does a great job of exploring a different kind of narrative that is no less satisfying.
Mothlight is like a dream half remembered—strange, and haunting, and beautiful. Justin Ford’s flagship RPG is a mysterious romp through a weird and alien world. Will you discover the secrets of existence? What are the enormous, predatory moths that darken the sky? What lies beyond Beacon? These are the questions you will seek to answer in this Forged in the Dark game about personal conflict, family, sci-fi adventure, and the pacts we make with each other to do the impossible. Ford has written quite a few interesting games besides Mothlight, including Cthulhu Deep Green, and a really fun collection of fantasy adventures with a custom system attached called Saviors of Hogtown. Meeting Ford at Big Bad Con was a delight—every time we hung out I felt like I was on the precipice of being invited into a secret society, one marked by the beautiful moth-shaped lapel pin I always saw him wearing. Ford is the perfect designer to take on the challenge of converting the normally heist-heavy Blades in the Dark system into something more subtle, sinister, and intriguing. Don a mask as the Recluse, the Will, the Heart, or any of the other intriguing playbooks that bring the setting into being. Mothlight’s world ties your strands together and lights them ablaze, drawing in danger to flicker ever closer. The game is still being developed, but it’s already one of the most exciting settings that I have seen, even compared to the already stellar setting of Duskvol. Perhaps you will be the first ones to figure out where the moths come from—and where they go.
World Champ Game Co is quickly becoming a heavyweight in the small-press zine world, led by the insurmountable Adam Vass. Vass is a prolific designer and artist, responsible for some of the most beautiful small games being produced anywhere—including Babes in the Wood, Protest Singer, and Wish You Were Here, one of the standouts from last year’s Kickstarter Zinequest. Vass has an astounding sense of flair, developed by his years of marketing work for his band, La Dispute, and highlighted best by his recent live-design project, Brain Trust: A Guide to Casting Phantoms in the Revolution, created alongside co-designer Will Jobst. It’s hard to pin down one game worth reading with someone so prolific (hell, Adam is a co-author for one of my games, The Golems of Claypit), but Vass wanted to talk specifically about The Deep Blue, his game of Twitter-generated oceanic isolation. The Deep Blue is a game about being stranded on a raft, floating across the vast ocean with your fellow castaways. Its scene prompts are generated not by random tables and dice, but a Twitter bot called a strange voyage, which spits out procedural details about a Life of Pi inspired world of immense loneliness. Players are tasked with interpreting the musings of this robot, and telling a story using its disparate declarations. Even more interesting than the technology behind The Deep Blue is its focus on real-world conflict management. Vass hopes that the game inspires small stories—not grand adventures on the high seas, but rather tales of the daily responsibility we all face to make the lives of those around us better, even in small ways. Dive into The Deep Blue, or explore the rest of Vass’ amazing catalog on his itch storefront.
Few people dig into the heart of what RPG’s have the potential to be more than Sidney Icarus, storytelling luminary and RPG critic of a different sort. Icarus is not just a game designer, but also an RPG analyst—they have released a collection of really valuable video essays about game design and and storytelling, available here. Icarus’ recent game, INTCOM, is a great example of their strengths. The game itself is a short one-player psuedo-larp meant to invoke classic stories of burned spies and espionage, but the actual genius of the thing comes from Icarus’ accompanying development log which digs into the themes of the game. INTCOM is a part of the ongoing conversation between microgame designers about what actually defines a game. It is a minimalist observation of the most basic building blocks of RPG’s—and those building blocks aren’t dice or stats. Icarus asserts that INTCOM is more about game design than gameplay; the game is a stepping stone on the path to demystifying the creation of RPG’s. I can’t go very far into the actual process of playing the game without spoiling it, but one fact stands out: INTCOM cares more about altering your perception of the world than actually making you sit down and concentrate on roleplaying. It is a delightful combination of performance art, essay-by-way-of-RPG, and referendum on the assumptions we make about what games are. No one serves the RPG design community better than Icarus, who is a wealth of approachable analysis and information on the games we play. This is a great first foray into their work, but I would highly recommend checking out all of their collected thoughts, and following them on Twitter for more daily dives into the design of RPG’s.
No matter how hard I try to stay up-to-date on the Indie RPG scene, some really great games slip through my radar. I was joyfully blindsided by one such game at Big Bad: Charles Simon’s Hello, World. My day job as a software developer probably biases me, but I absolutely love the idea of Charles’ post-cyberpunk setting where the driving force of society is accumulating digital storage. Hello, World is a Forged in the Dark game about a truly futuristic humanity that has left the physical world behind and dedicated itself to a digital existence. You play as hackers, charlatans, and do-gooders—all struggling for control of memory, identity, and server space. Charles has a great grasp of science fiction, and does a wonderful job of depicting a deathless world where people are still interested in their own gain more than anything else. Hello, World pushes back against the stereotypical dark-future of most cyberpunk-adjacent media, but still tells stories of authority, autonomy, and self-determination—all relevant to those of us who exist in a world increasingly consumed by digital identity and social media. Play as the deceptive Filcher, able to hide from digital security and phase through obstacles; the grizzled Seeker, who can track quarry by their digital fingerprints and take them down for afar; or the unpredictable Capacitor, able to harness powerful energy to devastating effect. Much like Justin Ford’s Mothlight, Hello, World is a great choice if you want to deal in rebellion and heists, but want a different setting than Blades in the Dark’s Duskvol.
Thanks for joining me in examining the work of up-and-coming indie RPG designers! Look forward to more spotlights from Big Bad Con in the coming weeks, or check out the last set of interviews here.
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