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The AGP Issue #3 - An Interview With Noora Rose
System Kinda Sorta Matters? TTRPG Writing Through a Lens of Auterism
This week is a very exciting issue of The AGP since we are featuring an interview with the always intriguing Noora Rose of Monkey’s Paw Games. We discuss their currently running Kickstarter campaign for Beecher’s Bibles, a Panic Engine game where you play as slave abolitionists, being Queer online, balancing family, and the limits of authorial intent in ttrpgs.
Tell me about Beecher’s Bibles. What is your elevator pitch?
Have you seen what a .52 caliber round from a Sharp’s rifle will do to the chest of a Border Ruffian? Would you like to?
Beecher’s Bibles is a gritty, pulpy action-adventure role-playing game about deadly close-quarters guerilla battles in the Kansas Territories against the forces of slavery. Players in Beecher’s Bibles are Jayhawkers, Red Legs, Free-Staters; proud abolitionist militant guerilla bands in 1850s Kansas, clashing with the pro-slavery forces of border ruffians and bushwhackers. A "Beecher's Bible" was the name given to the breech-loading Sharps rifle that was supplied to and used by anti-slavery forces during the Bleeding Kansas period (1854–1860). The name was inspired by the words and deeds of abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher of the New England Emigrant Aid Society.
Why did you decide to write this game? How did this idea develop?
Like many things in my life, spite: I initially wrote Beecher’s Bibles in response to a Daniel Fox hostile engagement-bait post about “as a Publisher, I would never publish a game that hadn’t been playtested.” So I ran a game jam about games you weren’t allowed to playtest and wrote the first edition of BB, which actually used the modified ITO-meets-AD&D framework I’ve called Pink Hack. I think the genesis of the content was re-watching The Outlaw Josey Wales and feeling suspicious about Clint Eastwood’s character fighting against Union soldiers. That led me to researching who, exactly, the Red Legs in the story were and what they were about. I became enamored with the apocryphal epithet of a “Beecher’s Bible” being a firearm smuggled into contested territory for the express purposes of violent and radical abolition, and started reading more about not just John Brown (whom I was already very familiar with) but other figures during the Bleeding Kansas period and the events that helped instigate the American Civil War.
One of the things I wanted to really hammer home with this work was that the oft-heard excuse of “[they’re] just a product of their times” is total bullshit. Total bullshit. People called John Brown mad, but I think John Brown was one of the most rational and moralistic human beings to have ever lived. He saw a widespread system of injustice that was utterly abhorrent to his very core values. He quickly discovered that that system of injustice was so embedded into the geopolitical landscape of his country that it would only be dislodged by force. He gathered like-minded people to his cause, and he sought to confront that injustice openly, fearlessly, and when necessary violently.
What made you decide to go with Panic Engine on this project? I love working with the Panic Engine, and I’m always interested in connecting with other folks using it for more than Mothership.
As a writer who grudgingly will call herself a game designer I am somewhat of a heretic and don’t subscribe to the notion that a game’s mechanisms or rules have as much impact on play as people who explicitly call themselves game designers would like to imagine, particularly with regards to TTRPG systems being bespoke instances of curated experience. Everyone knows MoSh is a fine engine for survival/horror; I wanted to showcase how the elements that let it excel at that aren’t limited to Alien franchise knockoffs and could be used for different kinds of play. In this case, the hectic and harrowing guerilla battlefields of pre-Civil War Kansas Territories. Musket fire is terrifying, cannonry apocalyptic, people are still for some reason using swords to fight, and the height of medical care seems to be “amputate, and then do a lot of narcotics.”
As I’d mentioned above, the first version of BB wasn’t Panic Engine at all, but a hideous melange of Into the Odd and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (which is further horrifying to System Purists, I’d imagine). I switched over to the Panic Engine having played more MoSh recently and wanted to play around with the engine and what I could write with it. I don’t think the play experience is much different from system to system however from a writer’s perspective there are more and different buttons and levers to push when writing the framework for play.
You’re Queer, visible online, and have a family, including a new baby. Are there any things you do to help shield them from possible attention online? How do you deal with the extra attention that comes from having a public persona? I’m a trans mother of a trans child, so I feel a need to be an advocate and to make Queer art, but that’s balanced with a desire to protect my family, so this is a topic that I like to ask people about.
The best thing I’ve probably done in that regards is delete my personal Twitter. I think it’s important whenever possible to stand tall and make weird and Queer art to show other queer, trans, racialized, and marginalized people that they can, too, but there does come a time where the best thing to do for your own mental health and your family is to pull back from the constant fight of being visible online and let someone else (hopefully) take up the sword for a little bit. The unfortunate reality is that it is often not even the most explicitly right-wing fascist types that are the most dangerous to you and your family - in my case, for instance, I was more or less driven out of online spaces by White Queers for whom uncomfortable or unsanitized art is problematic. It’s very easy to tune out or laugh in the face of the right-wing chud brigade hurling slurs, but its far more difficult to see people around you that you previously had respectful interactions with - or even people you’d never before interacted with - spreading vile untruths about you because as a racialized trans person, your sense of belonging is even more precarious and you are that much easier to brand as unperson.
That being said, it is through the making of transgressive art that I feel like I am doing the most, not merely being a visible online racialized and radical trans woman; its fairly cliche but sometimes the most effective thing you can do (and the thing that annoys people the most) is just to be successful in the thing that brings you joy, despite the people that hate you for being you. And at the end of the day you’re far more likely to have that same questioning or uncertain or closeted trans, queer, racialized or marginalized person come across your work, find it resonates with them, and have them say “Oh! She’s just like me!” than is likely they will have that experience with a tweet. Twitter is shit, anyways. The uwus can have it.
How do you balance your family and professional responsibilities since being an independent publisher can be all consuming?
When I figure that one out you’ll be the first one to know!
The trick there is that it’s a constant balancing act and requires a lot of active triage. I worked as a cook and a chef for 17 years pre-COVID and “retired” to pursue parenthood and writing full-time post-lockdown. That long being a chef has given me (I think) very good time management skills; I’m used to not sleeping much and juggling the demands of multiple attention-seekers. I’m also fortunate enough to have a spouse who works full time and so share the emotional, physical, mental and financial load. Writing is my passion but also my business; I treat it as such, I (try to) keep strict Office Hours, I keep track of when and for how long I am working, I keep Work and Home separate. And like any job, family has to come first. Too many people think they can make it at TTRPGs as a career but continue to treat it like a hobby, spend thousands of unpaid hours on projects, and then make claims about the unsustainability of the industry. There is in fact a great deal of money to be made in TTRPGs. This is a niche publishing industry where collectors spend tens of thousands of dollars on collectibles. You just have to actually treat it like a job and not your hobby anymore.
How do you go about constructing progressively aligned ttrpgs? You’ve spoken online about how designer intent means much less than how a game is played at the table. This means that more political games could easily be misinterpreted, so it is a fine line balancing a message and what makes a fun or interesting game, and this is an interesting tension to discuss.
The first thing you have to acknowledge and be okay with is that you are utterly powerless to people ‘misusing’ (however you define that) your work. I put words on paper, and what people do with those words is entirely up to them. Anybody trying to sell you on the moral purity of their work and the notion of ‘safety’ derived from it might as well be trying to sell you a bridge in New York - you can put “fascists aren’t allowed to read this book” all you want but you have no recourse for aforementioned fascist ripping that page out or simply ignoring it altogether. I think the indie scene’s obsession with ideological purity and a highly inaccurate and misapplied notion of “ideological reproduction” draws too near to assigning objective morality to not only the consumption of certain art but the art (and artist) itself, straight through “violent video games make kids violent” and right into fascist notions of “degenerate art” territory. I also think that in a weird way the focus on ideological purity of Design Intent entirely offloads the responsibility of writers’ words onto the reader: after all, if you’re going against Design Intent it doesn’t matter how poorly that intent is conveyed, that’s YOUR (the reader) fault, not theirs.
Ultimately TTRPGs are a melange of two things: writing, and play. Writing influences play but does not dictate it. You can’t judge play based entirely on the writing, just like you can’t judge the writing based entirely on play. People have a difficult time with this and I can’t really imagine why: we can judge separately a screenplay and an actor’s ability to convey emotion, we can judge separately a piece of sheet music and a musician’s ability to adapt it. We can even judge separately a page of prose and one’s ability to read it out loud! You have to accept that the written part of the game and the part of the game that plays out at the table are so different that they cannot be judged by the same metric. As a writer, you will only ever have agency over one of those parts.
Once you’ve accepted those truths, you just have to be intentional and careful with your words, because that’s all you’ve got. You can’t rely on safety consultants or editors to curate your words or double-check your research to ensure you’ve written something insightful and respectful - I think the over-reliance on safety/sensitivity/cultural consultants to “clean up” works is actually a very bad thing for the industry - you have to put time and energy and research and care and love (and often frustration and hate and spite!) into the words you choose, to make sure they’re the right ones. Just because you can’t control how people will react or interpret your words doesn’t mean you have no ability to affect their impact, and words always have an impact. People have to take their job as a writer - not a game designer or a tastemaker or a narrative designer or a storyteller but as a writer - more seriously, and commit to mastering the craft of writing. It isn’t technical writing, it isn’t “narrative writing,” games writing isn’t this magical and special sub-genre that elides the need to develop a writer’s voice and a writer’s discipline and a writer’s skill. You are a writer. Be a writer. You have the same responsibility in the way you convey your thoughts and emotions as any other writer of any other sort of medium.
I sound like an old crank - I am an old crank - but indie writer/designers do not read nearly enough and do not write nearly enough, either. People have a microscopic, myopic focus on the part of the genre that interests them the most - which is fine for a hobby - but then turn on an authoritative voice when they speak on the areas of the genre they aren’t interested in and thus have done no reading on. Do you know how many critics of D&D 5th edition haven’t read any of the books? How can you tell me it’s a “poorly-designed” game when you’ve never read it? And the embarrassing part about all of it is that you can so easily find out what people have written themselves when they make such claims. Spend more time and care on your craft!
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Auteurism in TTRPGs
It may not be a super popular stance anymore, but the lens through which I view art is auteurism. I do think that auteurism is misunderstood, though, because it became viewed as something that should only be applied to men who are film directors. However, an auteur is not limited to that field, a piece of auteur art shows an individual’s idiosyncratic view of reality for the rest of world to behold, it is art that lays its creator bare. Now, most commercial art is entirely a collaborative endeavor, but the best part is guided by this idiosyncratic vision, not something designed by committee and smoothed into product or content for mass consumption.
When I read Noora’s response here, and when I look at Nora’s last newsletter, I see a description of an auteur view of ttrpgs. The words a writer uses are important and articulate their worldview. Sensitivity readers and an over-reliance on play testing smooth out this worldview, so that the goal becomes not to make a piece of art but to incentivize the players to interact with the game in the way that the writer wants. This may look at an auteur view of games from one angle: the writer is expressing their worldview through the systems of the game. However, what a dismal worldview, folks won’t want to interact with each other and have fun unless they are told what to do. This really feels like a copout and a distrust in people’s own writing craft. The system guides the players (including GM), not the author’s words. Writing a ttrpg is like writing a screenplay that you will not direct: you have to be confident enough in your words and structure that a director and actors can put their spin on the work as somewhat intended. Placing so many things into the system feels like putting storyboards, music suggestions, and shot lists into the script. This works if you are writer/director like James Gunn or Quentin Tarantino (they both write scripts like this), but as Noora said in her newsletter, unless you, the writer, are running the game at the table, you lose this ability to be a writer/director.
Making personal art is really scary this way, though, because you have to be confident in your words. I like to write rules within systems that support the particular piece of art that I am making, but creating systems from scratch isn’t even something I do when I write board and wargames in addition to ttrpgs. My large in-development boxed Mothership campaign, Orgy of the Blood Leeches is very Queer, very personal, and very idiosyncratic. It does include procedures for a designer intended method of play (including an entire optional book of Advanced Rules), but I write this understanding that, at best, they will be used as written, generally, they will be used as suggestions and messages sent to the Warden to indirectly guide them, and at worst, they will be completely ignored. I like writing in Mothership because the base system gets out of the way and lets me focus on what makes something a great piece of art. I’m very different than Noora, in that I consider myself a publisher who writes because no one else can write what I want to make (this is the same perspective David Cronenberg has about screenwriting). My auteur vision isn’t just shaped by the words of the text but by art and product design. My Quaker view of the world is expressed even in my crowdfunding campaigns by the fact that I price things fairly (which means a little higher than most), don’t do early bird discounts or many stretch goals (other than simple upgrades), include a breakdown of finances for campaigns, and offer equity to major contributors as standard operating procedure. I may be making transgressive art featuring violence and nudity, but it’s still all about love and understanding and treating people with care.
I live to be the example of what I would want to see in the world. I’m just a trans woman, raising a family, sharing my life with my partners, and making the art that is stuck in my guts and my heart, and that’s my auteur view of the world that I want, no NEED, to create and share. I show the grotesque to make people think and feel and want people to love, I want to be Crimes of the Future Cronenberg, not Videodrome Cronenberg.
Upcoming in The AGP
10/3 - Issue #4 - Grid and Zone Maps in Mothership 1e
10/10 - Issue #5 - An Interview With Iko From The Lost Bay
10/17 - Issue #6 - RV Games Microgame #3: Pyroclastic Flow Pre-Launch
10/24 - Issue #7 - An Interview with the Creators of An Infinity of Ships
10/31 - Issue #8 - A Review of Altar Shock by Disaster Tourism
11/7 - Issue #9 - An Interview With watt, creator of Cloud Empress
There are still two weeks left to pre-order our solo/Wardenless Mothership Micrograme inspired by David Cronenberg’s The Brood. You can get the free rules here. The more people who order, the lower the price gets!
A setting, toolkit, escape adventure, and solo rules (by Alfred Valley) for Mothership 1e
GURPS inspired Zombie Apocalypse TTRPG created in Fresno, California
A massive bundle of Mothership 1e modules and a campaign structure that features 12 veteran designers
A toolkit and selection of space ships with art by Rob Turpin. Also features Lesbean Ships!