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The AGP - Issue #7 - An Interview With watt
Finding and Building Community
Good morning everyone!
I’m excited to be posting our seventh issue this week since our change in format and publishing schedule. I’m learning and growing, and The AGP now has almost 1,000 subscribers, which will be a huge benchmark to hit!
For this week, our publishing schedule has shifted a little bit, so I am here this week with a discussion with watt, the creator of Cloud Empress, and our interview about An Infinity of Ships will be releasing next week instead. watt and I discuss, family, Queerness, community, and the Cloud Empress Solo Protocol. I then follow up with a short commentary about Queer community within tabletop gaming. So, without further ado, we start our interview with watt.
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Interview With watt
I’ve heard you discuss being a parent before, and I like to ask other indie creators about parenting while doing this work . How do you balance making and coordinating a project like Cloud Empress along with having a family and any other responsibilities that you may have?
I’ve prioritized making art and creative projects for at least ten years now. For a great portion of that time I was seeking to create a legacy for myself through my art. Since the pandemic and having a child, I’m much more skeptical of being remembered by the things I create. Very few artistic expressions stay culturally relevant beyond the decade they were created in, and even less are embraced across one or two generations. We can die unexpectedly. All this is to say, spending time with my family and child is extremely important to me. I’m trying to look at creative projects through the lens of enjoyment, expression, and connection (as opposed to legacy, relevance, and unsustainable financial growth for example).
In practical terms I work on Cloud Empress, my ecological science fantasy RPG Mothership hack, 2-3 hours each day, seven days a week. I work early and late hours around family time. Keeping a consistent sleep and creative work schedule is vital to moving my ideas into tangible, shareable products. Having a schedule means I can focus my attention on the work at hand, rather than when I’ll have time to work. I’ve been overworking myself for the last ten years though. I think an hour and a half a day feels like the sweet spot for me. I hate working at night. I’m trying to schedule so I don’t need to push myself to complete projects. The longer I live, the more I value my relationships (including the relationship to myself) and my experiences. Overworking is a great way to burden both relationships and the enjoyment of the present moment with stress and fatigue.
You put out Hot Stuff on Shore Leave and recently put out an addition to Cloud Empress about gender. How much does your Queer identity impact your work? How much of yourself to explicitly include? Why do you make the choices that you have? I’m a trans mother of a trans child, so I understand that it is a balancing act with what you put out in public because of the discourse surrounding Queer identities happening out in the world right now. It’s scary and getting myself or my family targeted is my worst nightmare even though I know that Queer art is more important than ever.
Being online is a double-edged sword. Any popularity seems to come with a lot of misery online. I’m most connected to queer people online too. My ttrpg writing and community developed during the second year of the pandemic when I was feeling particularly isolated, in part because I lost two important trans friendships (one due to their mental health struggles, another, our interests going in different directions). Finding queer spaces online has come much more easily to me than engaging in a queer spaces where I live. I think online spaces afford trans and queer people access to social lives that can be much less demanding than the social challenges of embodied friendship. This feels like a blessing and a curse. I write and create in online spaces. In my writing and game design I’m able to express a free-er version of myself not bound by the physical and social constraints I live in. Putting work out into the vast internet that is specifically queer-coded is still scary. I try to be upfront and make my experience of gender obvious and integral to what I create. I hope being upfront about my identity acts as a lighthouse calling queer folks towards me and letting transphobic people know that what I create will likely upset them. My best work also explores my existential questions rather than my political answers. I’m a lot less confident I know how to solve the world’s problems. Not leading with a singular political message allows for greater connection and community building. I’d like the Cloud Empress community to come together around doing good for the planet and each other, with the understanding that ‘doing good’ is very context dependent.
Why do you think that Mothership has such a strong base of Queer creators and players?
Three things come to mind. First, Mothership (and Alien by Ridley Scott) are most potent when the horror of violence is paired with economic horror. Players generally take the roles of PCs who are economically marginalized.
Second, TKG’s support for Dissident Whispers, a collection of Mothership (and OSR) supplements to raise money to post bail for community justice protestors is an unparalleled political action (that I’m aware of) by a larger indie publisher. The huge effort undertaken to put the book together also seemed to build strong community ties with like minded Mothership creators.
Third, TKG takes a very positive role in community moderation. The Mothership Discord is very actively and thoughtfully monitored. I believe the moderators feel empowered by a publisher that knows their game isn’t for everyone, and consequently don’t need to tolerate abusive, hostile, bigoted behavior in order to make an extra sale. Cultivating an inclusive, boundaried audience does wonders for the folks creating 3rd party content for that audience. TKG also approves all Mothership content in order to prohibit sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, etc. stuff from being released. I’m sure TKG doesn’t get everything right when it comes to moderating their community, but it’s refreshing and wonderfully supportive as a third party Mothership creator to know that the Mothership community won’t be embroiled in a hostile conversation (e.g. are games political?) every 6 months like on Reddit and other forums.
Describe your approach to the Solo Protocol for Cloud Empress. I’m a big fan and have been following that project since you first started talking about it. What makes it different from other methods of solo play for ttrpgs? Where did you get your inspiration?
My interest in solo roleplaying started with the discovery of Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings. It’s a journaling game where the player creates memories in a journal of their centuries old vampire. It explores guilt, memory loss, and the passage of time. My first solo game Hot Stuff on Shore Leave was designed to explore isolation and joy between work shifts in a dehumanizing corporate environment in a journaling format. Solo journaling games are quite common in the genre. The other most prominent solo roleplaying approach is through the use of an oracle. The oracle acts like a magic eight ball and/or tarot deck for the player who asks and interprets the Oracle’s answer related to their character and the world. Both journaling and oracle systems almost exclusively take the perspective of a single character, object or location.
Cloud Empress: Solo Protocol instead models the actions and interactions of an entire adventuring party. In this way, (which you actually first pointed out), the game acts like the experience of wardening a game. I think group narrative interactions have become the hallmark of the tabletop roleplaying genre. I’m excited that the Solo Protocol system creates situations where party members are solving problems differently, arguing with one another, and coming and going. My solo system centers the fun around the observation of simulation rather than writing. The Sims is a big inspiration, where the fun comes from simulation, emergent storytelling and an omniscient view of the action. The other through line was taking inspiration from some 1980’s wargames I’ve heard about. In some of these games, there is very little player agency, but the experience is story-rich and thrilling. I keep thinking about Geoff Englestein, on the Ludology podcast, describing a game where the only action the player takes is to roll dice to see how a plane is damaged during its mission. Solo Protocol asks for creativity and imagination around the edges of play, during character creation, and visualizing a vast and evolving world your tiny adventuring party is tasked with moving through.
When watt talks about being a lighthouse for Queer people by being open with your identity and creating powerful work, I instantly draw parallels with the news of the illness of Jennell Jaquays. Jennell is an absolutely legendary designer working in tabletop and video games, she is a late transitioning trans woman, and participates in trans activism. I don’t have anyone else in this field who is a role model for me in the same way, so when I heard she was ill, I made the mistake of publicly mourning the illness of a trans elder. I was “All Lives Mattered" in bad faith, like I can’t mourn a member of my own community without it meaning I’m denigrating cis people. Thankfully, the broader community put these folks into their place and the discussion was shutdown, but it was disheartening to have my own grief about someone important get turned into a wedge. In the weeks since making this publication explicitly Queer, I’ve also been told that my work is “unnecessary.” I’ve been told that things are too political just for saying the word Queer when I’ve shared articles that are entirely about game design without Queer commentary. I’ve been called “attention-seeking.”
It’s tough. It is what I have signed up for being publicly Queer. It doesn’t make it any less tough, and it steels my resolve and lets me know that the work I am doing with the intersectionality of Queerness and gaming is important. I’d rather have my art create emotions than a “meh.” Too much is at stake to shrink back into my shell and continue to publish my little newsletter about my little games. However, I can’t do this alone. I have people I can talk to individually about these things in my personal life, but it’s not the same as having a space where you can grieve in community and where you can build and celebrate Queer joy.
Thankfully, I do have some spaces online where I can feel safely myself, much like what watt described. I got my start in writing and publishing in the Mothership Discord that watt also discusses. It is a fabulous focused place. It is very inclusive, and I also give Sean McCoy and the rest of the team there major kudos for what they have created. There are lots of Queer people who feel safe there. Almost two years ago, someone created a rainbow flag server logo for Pride, and it has just never been changed back. However, the success of the space is the fact that is always highly focused and brought back to the topic of Mothership. This is perfect for a space that supports a game and its players and creators, but it is not a place for and by Queer folks. I also spend time in The Lost Bay Discord, which is also a fabulously welcoming community full of Queer folks and allies, but it is once again not somewhere for and by Queer people. It’s why my heart jumps with Joy over the fact that Evlyn Moreau has created a server for trans people where we are able to be ourselves, where we provide support for our work as well as providing Queer community. It’s scary meeting new people and being in community, and it is early days, but I have high hopes and great vibes.
In the end, I’m here, to quote watt “to do good for each other.” Expressing a Queer viewpoint helps me to do this. Cis people need to hear trans voices, straight people need to hear Queer voices, men need to hear women’s voices, and White people need to hear BIPOC’s voices. There is no way to operate in good faith without an understanding of perspectives. I’m not out here trying to change minds or to be combative, I’m just here to share my own idiosyncratic views to hopefully build more understanding. I can show how Queer folks live like anyone else and create things important to them like anyone else. There’s fighting to be done, but I’m not personally going to do it by picking fights, I’m going to do it by living my best life and by putting out kindness and love into the world.
Upcoming in The AGP
11/1 - Issue #8 - An Interview with the Creators of An Infinity of Ships
11/8 - Issue #9 - A Design Essay Featuring Warped Beyond Recognition and Turbulence for Mothership 1e
11/15 - Issue #10 - A Review of Altar Shock by Disaster Tourism
11/22 - Thanksgiving Week - No Issue
11/29 - Issue #11 - An Interview With Brenden Carlson of Hammer City Games About Earth: After Death
November 14-December 12
A Microgame inspired by the classic Metagaming Microgame Hot Spot. It is the Floor Meets Lava turned into a Combined Arms Hex and Counters wargame.
Free rules are available.
A set of print-on-demand counters is also available.
January 16-February 13
This is our community compendium of house rules for Mothership 1e including a full solo and wardenless methodology inspired by the Cloud Empress Solo Protocol.
The print book and pdf is a work in progress, but you can access the draft rules for free online.
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!