Battling Inner and Outer Demons: An Interview with Witch & Craft Games

The world can be a dark place, peopled with demons of all kinds. In XII: Inner Demons, Witch & Craft Games take the inner demons that haunt people and ask the question: but what if there were bigger demons that found that delicious? In their own words, “With the help of a ragtag band of lesser demons who certainly don’t have your best interests at heart, or perhaps another human with a kindred soul and no clue what they’re getting into, you have twelve days to confront the suffering that has been plaguing you… or face a very unfortunate end indeed.”

Combining urban horror and a punk ass-kicking aesthetic, XII: Inner Demons asks you to go on a journey to save yourself from a slavering Archdemon by traveling to personal anchors from your past. It’s also currently on Kickstarter! In the first of a series of interviews with diverse game designers, Cannibal Halfling Gaming talks to the founders of Witch & Craft Games about the past and future and some stuff in between.

Interviewer: Please tell me a little bit about yourself! How did you first come to tabletop games? 

Amelia Piras: I’m Amelia. I’ve studied comics both in a school here in Rome and under an experienced comics artist, so most of my time when not gaming or developing the game is spent drawing, although I have several hobbies outside of it. I’ve started playing tabletop games in primary school with MtG and Warhammer and kind of ran with it along the years; I like to switch systems as much as possible, to constantly try new ideas.

Xoco Sanchez: I’m Xoco. I’m from New Mexico originally, and outside of games I like to read, draw (poorly, especially in comparison to our esteemed artist), and bake. I originally got into tabletop gaming when a cousin of mine gave me some MtG cards from a pack at a family reunion, but the actual tabletop rpg end of things didn’t start until I was in sixth grade and saved up to get the D&D 3.5e Monster Manual because I liked the art in it. From then on, it’s been a little bit of everything.

Victoria Landazuri: And I’m Victoria, born and raised in Oakland, California, and I’m back in the Bay Area now. I studied film in college the first time around, particularly screenwriting, but I’m currently going to school for game design, as I realized writing for games was more my thing. When I’m not writing or playing video games, I like sitting down with Xoco and Amelia to play something. I had played DnD a little bit in high school, but hadn’t really gotten into it until a few years ago when they invited me to be in their campaign of Vampire: The Masquerade. I’ve loved tabletop games ever since.

Interviewer: How did you eventually decide to start Witch & Craft Games?

Amelia: I was originally developing another game with a different team. Unfortunately it never saw the light of day, but afterwards I gathered some people from my playtest group for that game, and roped them into a new game project which became XII. The name Witch&Craft comes from my fascination with the archetypal idea of the fantasy witch. I’m more than a little goth, so to speak.

Xoco: We’d been playing games together for a while as well, so when Amelia first asked myself and Victoria (Our primary flavor writer) for help on playtesting that older game, we jumped on it. When that ended up falling through, Amelia came back later with the idea for XII and pitched working on a game together. Originally it was just us three, though we added the fourth member of our team, Ian, later on.

Victoria: Xoco and I had helped Amelia playtest her original game concept, and when that fell through Amelia approached me about writing for her new game, which I was happy to accept as I loved the concept behind it.  

Interviewer: How did the idea for “XII: Inner Demons” come about? The premise takes trauma and the idea of “inner demons” and then literalizes it in an intriguing way. This sounds like there’s a story behind the idea. What attracted you to this premise?

 Amelia: XII took form as a comics story project, at the close of a rather dark period for me. I’ve been taught that the best stories you can tell are the ones you have lived through and so it only came natural to me to try and bottle all those experiences up in a project to share. When forming Witch&Craft I pitched them two ideas, XII was chosen over the other. But to be honest, both dealt with rather similar themes.

Xoco: In addition, quite a few of the early pieces of concept art and design came from pages or drawings related to that comic, and slowly morphed into the things you’re seeing now. For myself at least, I voted for XII out both a desire to see those sketches from the comic used, as well as an acknowledgement that at the time of creation there weren’t really many TTRPGs out there that could bill themselves as survival horror, something that I think is a definite shame. 

Victoria: I’ve always been interested in supernatural stories that involve people’s internal worlds, whether it’s a trauma, a thought, or some unresolved emotion, manifesting as a very real thing that must be confronted. I even wrote a screenplay about it for my senior thesis project. While the original premise for this game wasn’t mine, I was immediately interested when Amelia pitched it to me. 

Interviewer: What are the inspirations behind this game – either in terms of other media or other TTRPGs?

 Amelia: Creating this kind of media is always a matter of unconsciously dragging up from the lake of your mind all the good ideas you’ve ever seen or thought up and only afterwards realize where you got them in the first place. XII definitely owes to many different games (Dusk City Outlaws, Vampire:the Masquerade and Rogue Trader are probably the biggest influences on me) and to the works of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola, and with a dash of Socratic influence and impressions from Dante’s Commedia.

Xoco: Mechanically on my end as well, I pulled a good few influences from Blades in the Dark for the methods of creating time and tension, especially early on when the game functioned in a very heist-like manner. Thematically though I’ve pitched this game before to people as “A little bit of Shin Megami Tensei, a little bit of Silent Hill, and a little bit of Psychonauts” which I think captures both the themes, the tone, and the stylistic ideas it’s going for. Also particular shoutouts to the album The White Apple  by the band Of Verona, which has been my work playlist for this game for the past few months.

Victoria: I was working in a similar vein as Amelia while doing the flavor writing, and drawing inspiration mainly from Neil Gaiman and Vampire: The Masquerade. While VtM is admittedly one of the only tabletop games I’m reasonably familiar with, I still thought it worked really well for the overall vibe I was going for.

Interviewer: What have playtests been like? Does the game usually become emotionally heavy or do people tend to play it as a fun, survival horror game?

Amelia: I’ve been happy to see how lightly people can take this game, to be honest. I was afraid it could become too heavy. But being light is definitely in its spirit: at the core of XII is definitely a call for not ever giving up hope. 

Xoco: I’ve been running the playtests we’ve done so far, and they’ve been  predominantly light in my experience, though that definitely isn’t to say that a heavy game isn’t in the cards. It’s more often that no plan survives contact with the players. Plan a tense, dramatic situation where a demon is guarding a seal hidden away on a boat? When you leave it up to our primary playtest group, they figured the proper response to getting out there was to steal a cargo ship and take it on an incredibly destructive joyride. But in the same campaign I’ve had moments where they’re frantically trying to escape a flooding quarry or creeping through an abandoned warehouse, tension high as they try and dodge the guards and demons within. There’s a good mix between the two, I think.

Victoria: In my experience the playtests have been pretty light-hearted, mainly due to the players having fun with their demonic powers and always finding new ways to use them. But there have definitely been some good tense moments as well, where defeat was certainly a possibility. Like with a lot of tabletop games, I think it’s really what the players make of it, and Amelia did a great job of striking a balance between the two options when coming up with the concepts. 

Interviewer: Let’s talk about Amelia’s wonderful art! It’s definitely dark and weird but at the same time, it strikes an almost cheerful note. What’s the mood you’re trying to evoke with this style?

 Amelia: Thanks for the compliments. For starters, I don’t like an art that is too gritty or full of details. I like my lines simple and my colors vibrant, I like the later, surreal adventures that Hugo Pratt drew for Corto Maltese, and the Moebius of L’Incal, and the cartoonish charm of Pierre Alary’s Sinbad. I didn’t want people to look at this game and think of Lovecraft, or of 70s slasher movies, or Bloodborne, where everything is dirty and drab and full of dark corners. Demons might be frightening and mysterious but they are very much “human”, even in good ways- indeed demons are little more than a clouded mirror showing our own image. I want my art for this game to evoke the impression that a tiger or a poisonous flower could bring: striking, scary, fascinating. Never depressing, never hopeless. There must be a dash of color even at the bottom of the deepest darkness.

Interviewer: How is the kickstarter doing in your eyes? What has the experience been like?

 Amelia: I’ll be honest, I was disappointed with the reaction of the community before we started the kickstarter. Most of the emails we sent out asking for content creators to collaborate with us in a professional way were flat out ignored, which is certainly disheartening for small realities such as ours. Luckily for us, eventually Penny for a Tale reached out to help us dig ourselves out, but even with their tireless help it feels like the kickstarter struggles to go on.

Xoco: As Amelia said, the kickstarter hasn’t felt like it’s gone along the easiest. With any luck we’ll make it, but that’s the result of the tireless help of Penny for a Tale and waking up every day to reach out to more people and try and spread the word wider. Do I wish the kickstarter took off beyond our wildest dreams? Of course. But I think that for our first venture, I’m just happy getting our feet in the door. It’s certainly been an experience though. Never again will I doubt the efforts of marketing people. 

Victoria: This is my first Kickstarter that I’ve been involved in, and I’ve only backed a handful of them in the past, so going in I didn’t really have a good frame of reference as to how a successful one should go. I think we’ve been making steady progress, though I’m admittedly a little nervous at just how steady it is. I’m so appreciative that Penny for a Tale reached out to us, as they’ve greatly improved our chances of seeing this project through. Even if it doesn’t work out, I’ve learned a lot about the realities of making a tabletop game, which I could certainly use going forward.

Interviewer: Last question: What plans for the future?

Amelia:  Several. Should XII come out, an expansion (“Seal of the Unworthy”) is already in the works, and I’ve got projects for two more RPGs, a miniature skirmish boardgame, and even a videogame pitch should it come to that. I love making games and I want to keep making them. Games can help you realize so much of yourself and foster community among players, and I’d be happy knowing that even just a handful of people had gone through my games and came out as better individuals. 

Victoria: Whatever the outcome of this particular project, I’m excited to use what I’ve learned to take an even bigger dive into the world of game design, as working on this game has helped me really solidify that I love writing for them.

Xoco: Suffice it to say, we’ve got a lot more in store and we’re eager to get at it.

If you’d like to check out XII: Inner Demons, you can feast your eyes on their open playtest document on itch.io and then go back them on Kickstarter! They’re within reach of their goal so head on over there.

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