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Tabletop RPG developer Avery Alder analyzes her latest game through the lens of her past work, exploring themes of collaboration, conversational storytelling, and approachability along the way.

Katherine Cross, Contributor

June 22, 2018

6 Min Read

Naomi Clark’s introduction of tabletop game developer Avery Alder, for her Practice 2018 talk, was an effusion for her trade: “We see non-digital design as a great way to prototype and jam quickly, but there are also things you can do in a non-digital space that digital games have only just begun to catch up to,” she said, describing various communal and interpersonal dimensions of tabletop play, “like the collaboration between gamemasters and  emergent and collaborative storytelling that happens in these spaces.”

Alder, who is perhaps best known for the game Monsterhearts, spoke about her latest game, Dream Askew, through the lens of her past work including Monsterhearts, a paranormal romance game about messy teenage life; The Quiet Year, a conversational game about a post-apocalyptic community dealing with a good year after defeating a major threat; and Brave Sparrow, a solo LARP meant to be played amidst your daily life. The latter is a “pervasive game,” which asks the player to imagine they’re a sparrow, “to help you develop grace, and a sense of self.”

Wrapping up this development CV, she sums up the core themes of her work as “queerness, the apocalypse, relationships, self-doubt, and self-discovery.” All of these are combined in her latest game, a post-apocalyptic RPG entitled Dream Askew. 

Alder, who understood herself to be performing something of a didactic role for an audience that was less familiar with indie tabletop, sought first to situate her new game in the larger, recent history of tabletop. She identified five design trends in tabletop roleplaying games from the aughts: scene-based conflict resolution, pre-negotiated stakes, everything was made a trait, bespoke dice mechanics, and endgame mechanics. 

“Apocalypse World positioned the act of roleplaying as a conversation; we’re talking about what we’re doing to advance the story,” she said, arguing that Apocalypse World fundamentally responded to all these trends. Where mechanics were often constant and agnostic or orthogonal to the evolving story, Apocalypse World flipped that on its head, by Alder’s lights. Conversational story progressed the plot, and the mechanics were invoked by the story in a way that always produced clear story outcomes. 

Situational moves and partial success were always deeply tethered to the unique circumstances of everyone’s character and story. Moves facilitated more conversation and collective storytelling, by compelling hard choices and exacting costs. Alder was quick to note that some gamemasters had always played games this way, but for many others it was a “revelation” to enthrone story and really emphasize the RP in RPG. 

Ever the minimalist, with an eye to access, Alder critiqued her beloved Apocalypse World, however. Despite its pared-down, non-crunchy modality, the game still comes across as jargony and unduly complex. For veteran roleplayers, it may be intuitive. But for neophytes, it may still be unduly intimidating. The “arcane presentation” and “participation demands” imposed limits on people with only two hours to play. 

More and more, she wanted to create an accessible game that could be picked up and enjoyed by someone who’d never played an RPG before--digital or analog.

“Acronyms are the number one way to convince new players that they can’t do what you’re trying to get them to do,” she said, and while this got a laugh, she was only half joking.

The lessons she took from this, with her own Powered by the Apocalypse games, were to reduce the appearance of complexity, eliminate jargon, and the alter appearance of math. Even Apocalypse World’s simple 2d6 was removed in favor of a simpler token-exchange economy. But this wasn’t merely a process of taking things away: it was also about adding more emphasis on relationships, which Apocalypse World already did well, “but I was greedy and wanted more,” Alder joked.

She then pivoted to discussing the origin of a mod for Dream Askew, set in a shtetl in the 19th Century Russian Pale of Settlement, created by Benjamin Rosenbaum with Alder’s blessing. It was called Dream Apart. As the two discussed the development of the game, it helped her better critique her own game, refining mechanics and making them more elegant. One innovation, developed by Rosenbaum, cut back on logistics in Dream Askew. Instead of having mutually exclusive playbooks (for their character class and a larger setting element), a mechanic was developed to allow players to swap mid-play.

She also noted that her own work failed to live up to her own goals. Some command language like ‘explore themes of compulsion and estrangement,’ in a list of thematic recommendations for a particular class, were too vague and cerebral, according to feedback. “I might as well have told people ‘make deep and meaningful art,’” she said. Paring these down to brief, punchy 'tips' as opposed to 'principles,' helped her realize her goals.

Dream Askew and Dream Apart are now being Kickstarted and sold together. Alder noted the many similarities between the games, each, for instance, dealing with the theme of hope amidst hardship in a marginalized community. Alder also noted where the games were different. Rosenbaum’s has an extensive glossary of Jewish terminology to help situate the player in the distinct historical setting, while Alder eschewed that in service to her understanding of queerness, which is “elusive to definition.” The queer relationships found in her games are meant to be contingent and polyvocal, after all.

Alder and Rosenbaum played off both each other and off of larger works like Apocalypse World, which in turn was a reaction to even larger design trends in the tabletop world. This sort of relational design creates complex, even beautiful lineages of design, and as Alder put up a slide with art from Askew, Apart, and Apocalypse World on screen, it seemed to emphasize this fact. “Dream Askew took the child role to the parent of Apocalypse World,” she said, driving the metaphor home. “Benjamin’s coming up with cool ideas, I want to let them change and challenge my vision,” she said, describing the emerging collaboration between her and Rosenbaum.

In the Q&A, she talked a bit about a subtle but profoundly important issue: “learning to trust people,” she said, “has been really rewarding.” In this case, that meant letting people mod her games without asking for royalties, which, she said “wasn’t profitable anyway.” She felt “gross” asking other, mostly queer developers for money for the right to modify her game which was, itself, heavily inspired by Apocalypse World. She spoke movingly of feeling rewarded by giving it away, and meeting those developers later at conventions; they’d buy her coffee and update her on their progress. 

This, she said, felt much better to her and led to considerably more growth for everyone involved. As she put it when discussing design challenges in response to another question, there was a process of “radiating outward to meet the wilderness.”

Alder had a clear design goal--make a game anyone can pick up--and pursued it aggressively, whittling away the often lovable but impenetrable garnish of tabletop roleplaying. In the process, it served to surface the core of all tabletop roleplaying: the relationships between players, and between their characters. In the process, there was a lot to learn about trust between developers, and reaching out with an open hand. Sharing one’s work can be frightening, but, as was also made clear in Adriel Wallick’s talk, it’s a necessary step in one’s growth as a developer. What Alder added was simply this: if your work is to flourish, then even your sense of ownership might have to give way.

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