Today on the show Amber talked with lyrical RPG writer and director of Possum Creek Games, Jay Dragon.
Jay ran a very successful Kickstarter last year for a game called Wanderhome, which is one of Amber’s most anticipated games to come out in 2021.
Amber and Jay sat down on December 28th and talked about the inception of Wanderhome, Jay’s approach to writing, and the theme of Care in Jay’s games.
Possum Creek Games
Jay Dragon Interview Transcript
Transcript by: Anne LoVerso | @AnneLoVerso
Amber: This is Tabletop Babble and I’m Amber. Today on the show I talked with lyrical RPG writer and director of Possum Creek Games, Jay Dragon. Jay ran a very successful Kickstarter last year for a game called Wanderhome which is one of my most anticipated games to come out in 2021. We sat down on December 28 and talked about the inception of Wanderhome, Jay’s approach to writing, and the theme of care in Jay’s games.
Hi Jay, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for coming on.
Jay: Thank you
Amber: For my listeners, could you please tell them who you are and what you do in the TTRPG space.
Jay: Hi, so I’m Jay Dragon and I’m a queer lyrical game designer. I write and publish RPGs. I run Possum Creek Games which is a small publishing distribution company. I run Kickstarters. I do all the rigmarole, around the process of getting it from idea to a book you can hold.
Amber: So I’m actually really, really excited to have you on the show because talking about Kickstarters and stuff, the first game I ever saw of yours was Wanderhome – a friend of mine said. “Amber, look at this, look at this, this is just exactly what you like” and so I immediately backed it.
So I’m excited to talk about Wanderhome but before we get started talking into game design: everyone has somewhere they start in RPGs, I’m always interested to know their entry points so Jay for you, what was your entry point into tabletop RPGs?
Entrypoint to RPGs
Jay: So I’m… for a long time… I think, oh goodness, this is gonna be a decade… no it’s eleven years now; I started 2009. I worked for and I tended to work with a summer camp in upstate New York called the Wayfinder Experience, which is a LARP summer camp. So the whole schtick of it is in addition to, you know, being a summer camp, it’s also these large scale LARP productions.
So by the time I was fourteen I was writing and running large scale LARPS with 60+ players and a full production team. And I still never really got into TTRPGs until I was around eighteen. A friend of mine ran me Monsterhearts and then ran the fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, and that was kind of my very sideways introduction to TTRPGs. I started publishing in 2018. I didn’t really… it didn’t come around until 2019 which is where I got my start career-wise with my first Kickstarter being in June of 2019.
Amber: So the camp. I have never heard of a LARP summer camp before. Is that a unique thing that you experienced… is that something that happens often?
Jay: It’s pretty unique. It’s a pretty special space. It’s also a very queer summer camp as well so it’s a very sort of… It’s a very unique space.
And that’s also like… a lot of my friends, all of my real life friends, I know through there. I’ve worked there every summer since, you know, as long as I could. My business partner, you know, we met through Wayfinder. There’s a few RPG folks who are Wayfinder alumni, if you know where to look for it, you can spot it. [Brendan Lee Mulligan (??)] and such.
Amber: To me that just sounds so… I wish I had that as a teen, like a space like that. Also to be introduced to something like LARP and live action role play because for me, I didn’t get like… D&D was my entrypoint. I think for a lot of people probably…
Jay: Probably 90 percent yeah
Amber: Yeah and it’s so… but over time it’s been nice to see these other games, these lyric games which you said you are a lyrical RPG writer, would you mind explaining what a lyric game is?
Lyrics games & accessibility in game design
Jay: Absolutely and so on itch.io, which for those who don’t know, over the past year and a half or so, itch.io has represented a revolution in terms of small game designers. Where previously there wasn’t really a site that made it really easy and accessible for you to write smaller, off-the-cuff things and publish them and charge money for them, and make it feel clean and professional. So suddenly there’s been a lot of designers, especially marginalized designers, who have gotten into publishing RPGs in one form or another.
And lyric games are one of the many little outcroppings of design that have come from that sudden boom in easy-to-access games and they are… It’s properly more of a movement than a genre, like it’s one of those things like 2 designers 3 opinions I think. They’re always very much questions of playability. Every single game is an interrogation on what it means to play a game. Where games are very open about that. And what that means is that oftentimes they’re unplayable. Oftentimes they highlight and they question what it means to play a game and oftentimes there’s a focus on the prose quality of the language of the game instead of the actual experience caused by traditional playing. Which, even as I write games like Wanderhome which are you know… I guess they’re not lyric games in that very traditional sense; I call myself a lyrical designer because that philosophy and mindset influences all the work I do, even to a game that is more commercial.
Amber: So when you’re talking about accessibility, and making games that are accessible to people, what are some of the barriers that you see in the larger TTRPG industry. So basically the question is, what makes games inaccessible?
Jay: Yeah. Crucially, I think, unsurprisingly: marginalization and the lack of representation is always the overwhelming barrier. You can list off, like… this game isn’t accessible to blind people, who use screen readers. This game isn’t inaccessible for colorblind people. But I think those are micro issues of the cardinal thing in the room, which is always, whose voice is heard and whose voice isn’t.
When you have a game where that PDF isn’t screen reader accessible, that’s because people who need screen readers are not in the room articulating their needs. When you’ve got a game that’s orientalist or racist, that’s happening because people in… there’s only white people in the room. It’s kind of a very consistent thing. I think that accessibility is always a question of whose voices are being heard and who’s given the space to articulate their needs. And I think that what it means to talk about accessible games is: we’re always talking about who’s getting to write them and who’s getting to play them.
Amber: Yeah. Sure and I think you mentioned itch.io as just having a place where people can also put games and then also easily get other people into their hands right. Like without barriers.
Jay: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever, or any listeners have ever tried to publish on DriveThruRPG – don’t. I could have gotten into publishing games a lot earlier if DriveThruRPG didn’t actively disincentive myself from publishing. I remember opening it up and, even beyond the structural UI issues, opening up the list of tags a game could have and seeing options for Legend of the 5 Rings and Savage Worlds and a family game or a comedy game. But no option to indicate this is an LGBT game, no option to indicate this is a queer game and there wasn’t any articulation for that.
And so itch being like “hey it takes about 5 minutes to go from having the PDF on your computer to releasing it for everyone to see” And then once you release it, it’s like conglomerating into place, people can check it out, you can tweet about it, and engaging the community around it.
I think it was revolutionary and in terms of especially getting people’s voices… you know, allowing people’s voices to be heard who are denied voices. Because when you’re talking about accessibility and you’re talking about who’s getting to talk, the question of how easy it is to talk is a really important one and so itch made it so much easier for someone’s voice to be heard.
Amber: Just my foray into the indie space the last four years, it’s amazing the amount of games that are out there now that are not the mainstream. Something more like indie lyric games. I was looking on your possumcreekgames.com, your new website, which looks beautiful by the way.
Jay Thank you! Yeah we just finished, we launched about a month ago, and we’re proud of it.
Amber: It looks great. And I went to your mission statement and there is a line that says we strive to challenge and revolutionize what games can be and who gets to play them. So when you’re designing your games, what player-sets are you designing, for first and foremost?
Who are players
Jay: I think first and foremost the players I’m always thinking about are… it’s interesting. I was looking at 4th edition again, because 4th edition was one of those games that shouldn’t be on my list of inspirations but somehow it always circles back to being there. But in this book they’re talking about different types of players and talk about some of the main kind of folks who will be playing. You know, archetypes. It also talks about a few different types of people. Like the person who’s just there to quietly sit back, maybe draw the characters, while they’re there, you know they’re not really engaging much. Or someone who’s just there to hang out with their friends and isn’t really interested in The Game. They’re there because they want to see people, and goof around a little bit, they’re not really interested in how you traditionally conceive of playing a game.
And I sometimes like to joke that Possum Creek Games is a publishing company for people who don’t like games. And while that’s not true, I think that interest in being… people who love games – and I want to make things that they love – but they will love it. That’s kind of a given. I can do the work I need to do to make sure it’s got space for them but centering those people will always mean that the folks who…. I want to make sure the game can give space for someone who shows up and maybe says one or a couple sentences and spends some time doodling NPCs on paper. Or someone who shows up and they’re exhausted and just want to take a nap.
To acknowledge there are many more ways to play than what I can visualize. That’s really the important thing is that as you allow more people, as you give games that more people can play, you must interrogate what it means to play a game. I mean, that’s why lyrical work matters – that it’s an interrogation of what it means to play. The moment you step outside a western context, the moment you step outside the cis-het context, the moment you step outside the gamer context, you’re looking at what you’re challenging, what it means to play the game.
Amber: I also think accessibility stuff… as far as the cognitive ability to process… for me, a lot of times when I get into crunchier games with heavy mechanics, the load that my brain takes is usually very hard. So a game like… I don’t want to throw any game under the bus, but it’s not really… doing my best to give an example… D&D is crunchier, lots of stats, lots of things to keep track of. I have a hard time at a certain point of keeping track of all of that. Whereas again, like you said, I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I come to it and we are storytelling and there’s a drawing element. I’m good, yeah, it’s gonna be a lot less mental effort for me to play.
What makes a “game”?
I like your thoughts about this. Where we’re talking about lyrics games, they’re challenging what it means to play a game. Not to get into “let’s label things, let’s categorize stuff” but a lot of times I think back to when I was a kid, and you’re playing The Floor Is Lava or you’re playing Restaurant with your siblings or whatever. To me, that play…. maybe not necessarily, I would attribute the word “game” to it. But should I?.
Jay: Working with, running games for kids at camp, you get these large-scale productions… it is a very humbling experience because it reminds you very strongly that you as a designer don’t get to control what play is.
And that a game is… I think The Floor Is Lava is a game. I think that an RPG stripped of all our artifice, stripped of the designer, stripped of the text, is pure make- believe. And I think the crucial thing is that make-believe is always informed by something else. That there is no such thing as make-believe independent of the culture we exist in, and so what that means is that you take in the media and that becomes part of make-believe when you’re playing.
Like, when you’re ten years old and you’re playing Warrior Cats on the playground or you’re playing superheroes or whatever, you’re taking this outside media you’ve consumed and you are using it as a blueprint and a framework to build a game from. And that’s also what TTRPGs are. It’s the same thing. The same taking a text and using it as the framework to build a game off of. Because you can’t… make-believe doesn’t get to exist independent of that. And so I think that… My feeling is that a game…we’re trying to make games that facilitate that make-believe but inform and enhance, enrich that make-believe, is sort of my feeling.
Amber: So speaking of the games you’re making and also outside influences coming through games, one of the games I’m seeing on Possum Creek is Sleepaway. Was this your first published game?
Jay: That was my first, that’s my first Kickstarter. I published a couple small games before that but Sleepaway was my first Kickstarter book, you know, the object.
Sleepaway: horror with heart
Amber: Would you mind telling me a little bit about Sleepaway?
Jay: Totally. Sleepaway is another Belonging Outside Belonging game about a summer camp. Of a queer summer camp trying to navigate the horror of the woods and the mysteries of the world around them. You play as summer camp counselors who are responsible for protecting your kids as this monstrous Lindworm, the shapeshifting skin-stealing monster, is invading your camp. And so it’s very magical mundane horror queer. The tagline is a game of horror, dreams, and summer camp and kind of always to me sums it up.
Amber: So you said it was a Belonging Outside Belonging game. Is that… I’ve heard it before but I personally don’t know what that is. Is it another game?
Jay: It’s an engine, a lot like Powered By The Apocalypse, or Forged In The Dark – the sorts of frameworks that are used to construct games. It was created by Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum, and I think Dream Askew and Dream Apart are the games that codify it. It’s two games in one book and they’re mirrors of each other. And it has been in production for ages – I think the book came out in 2018 to 2019.
It’s unique among engines in that it’s both a mechanical framework, the token economy that Wanderhome uses that you take tokens in doing certain things, and spend those tokens to do other things. And it’s GMless. Then also that Belonging Outside Belonging games are always defined by being about a community that exists outside of the norm. So Sleepaway is BOB and that is about a summer camp outside of civilization. That Dream Askew is a post apocalyptic queer commune, Dream Apart is a Jewish Shtetl. It’s about creating the spaces that exist outside of other things. I think honestly, when in terms of talking about marginalized creators, itch.io has always been a big part of it, but Belonging Outside Belonging has also been a huge part of it, because it’s the first game engine that articulates a philosophy and says explicitly it’s about centering marginalized experiences. In that sense, I think it’s a similar very vital influence and it certainly informed a lot of my game design.
Amber: Horror seems to be such a common… just for my experience and my perspective, to be one of those very common themes in some of these lyric games I’ve seen, in some of them. Why do you think that is? Why horror, what’s the draw to horror? Especially with kids, sleepaway camp, summer camp in horror, which is a thing as well.
Jay: I am not a fan of a lot of those movies. I think the reason for horror and marginalized writer’s fascination with horror is that, I think horror is a really effective articulation of marginalization. That is very much there’s no way in horror to avoid… it’s fundamentally an interrogation of the other, that’s very much always the question of, what does it mean to feel scared, what does it mean to be aware that your life is so fragile. And then connected to that, what does it mean to face down the Other, to see the thing that views you as inhuman.
And also, I think a lot of us marginalized designers are also traumatized, and horror is very much a genre about trauma. Sleepaway has been described as “horror with heart” which is, I think, one of my favorite little descriptions of that. Which means very much to the idea is… that it is a game about feeling scared and worried and potentially seeing the upsetting moments, but it is always fundamentally about caring about the people who are scared and caring about each other. And that kind of… I think a lot of lyric games, and a lot of the indie games that dwell on horror, I think overwhelmingly… I think movies have a way of turning horror into, like gore. You know, gore obsession, this desire to sensationalize it. Whereas I think a lot of indie games put a lot of work into making sure that horror feels caring. That it’s scary but you’ll be okay. That’s very crucial.
Amber: So you have a horror game that’s been your first Kickstarter but then your second Kickstarter, which is what I’m getting really excited to talk about: Wanderhome. Which seems to be at first glance the complete opposite of a horror game. So I want to know, first off, with Wanderhome, what was the inception for this game, like after making Sleepaway. Was it already in the back of your mind during Sleepaway? How did it come about, how did Wanderhome come to you?
Wanderhome: recovery & healing
Jay: Wanderhome came about very much in response to quarantine. And I think it’s been suggested in one form or another for a very long time, but I think it all came together at the very start of quarantine. I remember in the first week of quarantine, just feeling that abject loneliness, that complete isolation, and the feeling that it’s impossible to heal. That there is no…. that the world is monstrous and terrifying and there is no recovery from that.
And just sitting around being like, I just want to write a game that posits a world where that’s not true. Wanderhome is a very, like, it’s a very fluffy and pastoral game, but it doesn’t pretend that things are never bad. It’s set after a war, it’s set about a generation or so after a war and the text says there is no violence in Haeth, in the world of Wanderhome, there is no war here anymore.
And what that is… there’s an acknowledgement that things have been hard, like the horror that captivated me in Sleepaway is still a presence, or was still a presence in the world. But this is not a game about that, this is a game about recovering from that. And so that’s desperational yes. What was kind of happening there is that Sleepaway is sort of the meditation on can you…a lot of the anxiety in Sleepaway is about: can you break free from the cycles of trauma. Can the summer camp counselors protect their kids from getting hurt in the same way the counselors did, like, can you break that cycle. Whereas Wanderhome says: yes, you can, you can break that cycle, what does it look like to break that cycle. What is it like?
Amber: While being cute animal folk.
Jay: While also being cute animal folk travelling through a very beautiful world, yeah.
Amber: I would say that I personally am drawn to it because I really do like… as people, we always try to relate things to other things, and I’ve always loved, I love deeply Studio Ghibli stuff. Especially they talk about, or Miyazaki has talked about, this concept called ma. It’s about the space in-between things and I’m always looking for more ma in my chaotic life. And so when Wanderhome was presented to me, it felt that way. Just immediately, the artwork and the wording all of it. So obviously that was very intentional. So when you go about trying to convey a certain tone or feeling – how do you? How do you go about that as a designer? I mean it’s probably a very amorphous kind of process, I’m sure, but if you could try to explain that process.
Jay: Yeah that’s a good question. There’s never really a hard and fast rule right? Like I think that when it comes to thinking about, how do you convey a feeling. I know for Wanderhome, ma absolutely was a huge thing. I can’t, I’m not interested in saying Wanderhome is a Ghibli game or it is exclusively Ghibli. Ghibli was a huge inspiration. I think ma…my reflections on ma was a huge inspiration, especially. I’m glad you picked up on that.
A lot of what it was for Wanderhome was like, okay, I want to make a game that isn’t interested in that Western pacing, that doesn’t care about, when we talk about, the rhythm of narrative beats and conflict and storytelling like that. I want to make a game that doesn’t care about that. I want to make a game that is about… a more uncertain existing in the ways that has ups and downs and the ebbs and flows, where I don’t know the rhythm. And that we’re on a journey together and that invitation. And so that’s the impetus and I think that designing games like that, is just sort of the question of like, well, what does it actually mean to feel that? How do you write a text that feels that way, how do you think about language and how do you think about that invitation in a way that kind of gives people the space to ebb and flow, and to feel like they can linger or not linger and have that flexibility. And the knowledge that I don’t know best.
Amber: Yeah. I have the playkit open right now and. Looking at the wording choices in some of the playbooks…and one of the things, as I was reading through the playbooks and going back to your Sleepaway, talking about your camp counselors caring and there’s horror with care. Even in here, you specifically… let’s just pick one… Ragamuffin: “run, scream, play, steal, and above all, live. You are alive, your care is exuberant, honest, and naive.” And then every playbook has “your care is….” So you’re intentionally talking about how this playbook will care for others. You could apply this to not just as individuals I suppose, but what your care encompasses.
Jay: I love “you are alive, your care is x,y,z”. That was one of the first little bits of text I wrote for the game. It came from, in Dream Askew, there’s a rhythm of like “your character is a social individual, your power is in x,y, and z”. And I was writing and thinking about that for this game and I was like “you are alive.” I just want to have those. the care and the “you are alive” – those are sort of like the baselines of the game. Those are very fundamental. Your character cares. They care about things in a few different ways that are inflexible amd that I, no matter what options I give you later, I cannot contradict that care. And that your character is alive, that your character is a living force that deserves to be loved.
And it’s an interesting thing because for the Kickstarter, this number of stretch-goal writers, and a couple of times… you can tell how people are doing based on how much they struggle with the “your care is x, y, and z.” Because at the end of the day, a lot of the writing you do is autobiographical, there’s no escaping the self that you put into the writing. And I can tell when someone is insecure or struggling with caring about themselves, because in that moment they’ll always, without fail, they’ll get to that part of the playbook and be like, I can’t write, I have no idea how my character cares. Does my character even care at all.
And it’s like. I think your character cares a lot but I think you’re struggling to care about yourself and I think maybe… it’s interesting. There were literally two stretch-goal authors who just cried writing their playbooks because they were, it was like, if I want to write this character I need to learn how to love myself. And that’s I think maybe one of my favorite little moments about Wanderhome is that “your care is.” It is that no matter what, the playbook you’re writing is someone worthy of love. And that not only that, but that they are worthy of loving other people they can learn to love themselves too. That’s just important.
Amber: I was going to cry right now. I think that’s why I’m personally so drawn to Wanderhome specifically and to a lot of other games that are like this. Going back to horror, the trauma of, you said, a lot of marginalized people, a lot of queer people experience trauma and then to play a game where you are told to be tender and care about each other, when your entire past has been abuse. It’s hard to be this vulnerable, I think. And I’m so happy that this game exists for that reason, because I wish more people would allow themselves to be vulnerable. And I think we would have a more healthy society if we allowed ourselves to be more empathetic and more vulnerable with each other and be caring.
Writing process, energy, and how work happens
Amber: So I mean looking through all of this game. So there is so much writing. So, so much writing.
Jay: And that’s the playkit!
Amber: Gosh, tell me about your writing process. Because I would love to start making games, start writing. But I am nervous to do so. I don’t know where to start. And to even write something like…and I gesture to the playkit. But for you specifically, what is your writing process like?
Jay: So for me, I’m disabled, I have my mental health, I’m ADHD. I also have chronic pain and what that means is that the process of writing requires being extraordinarily gentle with myself. I’m not like a lot of other writers, I don’t have a fixed schedule every single day. I’m not like that “8 to 10 is writing time”, it’s just not feasible because I don’t get to choose what I fixate on. I don’t get to choose what excites me. I don’t get to choose what my energy levels are on any particular day.
And so my rule is that when I want to write, I write. And I allow myself to write until I don’t want to anymore and then I stop trying to force it. And if possible, I’ve found a few tricks that work for me. Like, I tend to hop between projects a lot. I think I’ve got right now 4 or 5 projects just in various states in my Google docs, that I hop between when I’m working. The function of that is that working the same thing for too long can just be exhausting, and so I try to… if I have more energy, if I’m able to focus easier, I tend to work on the things that require a little bit more busy work. If I just want to idly write, I’ll go to one of my projects that has a lot of space for idle writing, and I just give myself that flexibility.
I think that the two most useful things I’ve learned is that: I don’t worry about if the writing is bad; that’s my editor’s problem not mine. And that if I don’t want to write something, I should think about what I would need in order to write it. And if I cannot think of that at all, then I should not write it at all, that it shouldn’t exist in the text. If you need to write the “How to Play RPGs” section in your text – if you cannot think of a way to make that interesting, if you cannot think of a way to be excited about that, you don’t want to put it in your text. You need to re-approach it or back off it or do something else. But that kind of thing… I want to be excited about everything i’m writing, so I’m gonna give myself the space to be excited no matter how long that takes in the process.
A couple friends [Ben Roswell (sp?)] and [Cara Surgeon (sp?)] posted a thread where they articulate what they call their bangers-only design philosophy. Which is the idea that every single sentence in your text should be something that you’re proud of and that you feel good about. And one of the things they say is, this is anti-crunch. You cannot write that way if you put yourself on a deadline, if you’re freaking out about getting it done. It’s something that requires that slow processing, acknowledging that maybe this gets done in years, maybe it doesn’t get done at all. But just no time expectations – just let it happen, see where it ends up, and trust that if you write something garbage, you can come back to it later. The important part is to get the page full.
Amber: Whew. As an ADHD person who has perfectionism tendencies – I don’t get anything done!
Jay: Perfect is the enemy of good. Perfect is 100% the enemy of good.
Amber: It’s something I’ve been working on for the last several years. I think a lot of my other friends who are doing writing also have that problem as well. it’s like getting… Just writing to get it out is something I need to work on, which I have lots of one-sentences in lots of Google Docs.
Jay: [Laughs] Right, my Google Docs. I’ve had the same Google Docs since I was thirteen and I just migrated from email to email over the years. I have to go back and look through the minefield of Google Docs that are like, titled something really ambitious and I open it up and there’s two sentences. Like sometimes there’s just nothing, just a blank Google Doc with a name and I’m like, you know.
Amber: It’s like my notes on my phone. It is just so many things. I need it and it’s been forever… I’ve had the same iCloud account so it has been there forever.
Jay: On my Patreon a month ago, I just took a bunch of scraps of game sideline, to put them into a PDF and just like dropped on my Patreon. I’m like, “here you go, don’t know what to do with this, but take it and…” There’s tables that are mostly unfinished or… there’s one page that’s just the title of a game and one sentence and I was like, “yeah here’s stuff I will never use for game design”.
Amber: So like sifting through ideas that… Like me, you probably, like many others, have notebooks or digital whatever that you have one-lines. What is that feeling or when does something become more than just an idea for you? What is that resignation that happens that can propel you forward?
Jay: Yeah, so I am not a planner in my design. I have notebooks of course, but there’s some designers who will kind of sketch out an entire mechanical infrastructure before they start designing. Whereas my philosophy is very much like: I start writing and as I write I will reference mechanical ideas and I’ll trust myself to figure out what those mean later. So if I put a sentence that’s like “whenever your homework tracks fills up, erase it all and you take a widget from the widget pile.” I can figure out what that all means later, but for now I can build a framework or whatever feels resonant.
And so with Wanderhome for example, I wrote the Dancer playbook. I wrote the things that give you and get you tokens. I wrote the Shepherd playbook. This is the order I wrote it in. I wrote the Dancer playbook before I knew how you advanced through various things. I wrote the Dancer playbook before I figured out how exactly… the things that get you and cost you tokens work. It’s been edited a lot since then, but… I didn’t realize I needed natures until after I’d written a few playbooks. I was like “okay, well how do you figure out where you’re going” and then from there it was like “well I’ve done that, I kind of want to use the same system for people, let’s write kith”. And then I was like “well I’ve got this great thing, I want to have an arc of a year, maybe that’s how advancements work. So in that case I should specify seasons and holidays”. It all spiraled out from the feeling of resonance that comes with, I’ve got this good character, I’ve got a second good character, I want to figure out what the world they live in is like.
Amber: Woof. I say woof because it’s like I have two demons that live in my mind. One is the ADHD demon and one is my personality that loves organization and lists. So I have this problem where I want to list things out before I even do things but my brain doesn’t let me focus and I think I just need to learn how to embrace whichever one is currently in control.
Jay: Yes! Yeah you just… it’s a process of flexibility, I feel like. It’s like the reason why I have so many projects in various states of progression. Because sometimes my brain is like “it’s time to deal with spreadsheets” and I’m like “word, okay” and I just work on some weird spreadsheet for a project that needs a spreadsheet. Or my brain is like “now is the time to do layout” and I’m like “okay fine”. Just my brain wants to work on a particular process, I do that.
Amber: There’s a game in here about two wrestling demons and then the demon with the most widgets gets to do the fun creative stuff and then the demon with the spreadsheets… yes. Time for that one, let it control.
Exploration as a framework
Amber: Could you give an example of maybe just very briefly. what a session of Wanderhome would play like, very briefly?
Jay: Yes. Always the final reminder that I can say how it’s played for me, but anyone can pick up the game and play however they want, I’m not anyone’s boss. But. You know, you make characters, you answer questions, you chat with each other, and you figure out where you are and what you’re up to. You take a moment and you ground yourselves. And then you journey, you interact with things, you sort of discover more about your characters in the world you’re in.
You inevitably find mysteries and then you either… maybe you poke at the mysteries, maybe you don’t. Places you go to have conflicts… maybe you help, maybe you’re not able to. The nature of moving through a living space is one… I think my overwhelming feeling is always like it’s a game about being alive. And in life, what that means, is that you are journeying, you are engaging with the things that interest you, you are seeing beautiful things. Yeah there’s not that, the tension-raising moments, but there’s… we get in an argument, maybe we go our separate ways, and maybe… who knows what will happen exactly. That’s the general rhythm of the game.
Amber: So is it GMless or is there a GM?
Jay: Wanderhome is GM-agnostic, which means that you can absolutely play it with or without a GM. It’s designed… the default assumption is that there is no GM, but you can absolutely play with one. You can play it with a very traditional GM, you can play it with one that’s just like, I just want to build the place we’re in and not worry about anything else. You can have two GMs, rotating GMs, whatever feels good is the idea. I’m not your boss.
Amber: I’m not your boss, I’m not at your table, I don’t get to tell you how to play your games.
Amber: I just build the framework from which to have fun and explore
Jay: Literally. Yes.
Kickstarter & community
Amber: So I’m looking at the playbooks that are in the playkit. After the Kickstarter I know that there are several more playbooks… how many total are there?
Jay: There’s 15 total and there’s another 10 stretch-goal playbooks so there are 25 in the game.
Amber: And this was… you said there were other writers who helped…
Jay: Yeah there’s 10 writers who have each done a playbook, and teenagers. And those are going to be in a separate PDF from the core book, but they’re absolutely part of that. And real quick, one of the stretch goals was also a community fund which I’m going to be launching in 2021. Which is a way of subsidizing creators to create Wanderhome content. We have $10000 set aside and it’s just like “Hey we will give you money to create and to get art for your creation, we will support you in making the stuff you want to make for Wanderhome.”
Amber: Oh man, that’s amazing, that’s a wonderful incentive. Especially because I think of all the games I’ve played where it’s like… you want to create supplements for them and it’s like “can I then sell this? Can I..? How do I copyright? What do I do?”. So would you have an open… what’s the creative role copyright stuff…?
Jay: Yeah we’re gonna have an open license. It’s a little interesting because the mechanics themselves are… you can’t copyright game mechanics. And the game itself is very rules-light so a lot of it is going to be much more like… thing that says like you cannot reproduce any text, you can’t reproduce rules text, you can write what you want as long as you acknowledge its connection.
Amber: Right because like you said, going back before, the mechanic really is the token. Like I’m looking at the Shepherd: you get a token whenever you give someone something you hold dear. And spend a token in order to keep someone safe from difficulties of the world. So stuff like that.
Jay: Yeah stuff like that. And that’s not really anything… that’s not like.. those sentences are copyrightable, I’m gonna be like “Hey you know, you can use those specific sentences”, but it’s still so much of it is like… you can’t copyright that the token exchanges itself, nor would I want to nor would I. And it’s not mine originally.
Aesthetics & vibe
Amber: For sure. So… could you provide some examples of types of playbooks that exist?
Jay: So beyond the seven that are in the playkit, which are some of my favorites in there. Some other ones that I really love include the Caretaker, who is responsible for tending to smaller forgotten gods and bringing them… helping find homes after they’ve been displaced. One of them is the Teacher who goes from place to place, and it’s very much… traveling teacher who… with those local school kids, and teaches them about stuff that their village might not be able to.
There’s the Veteran, which is I think the most unexpected playbook in the game, the one that is off-rhythm from the other ones the most. The veteran is someone who was a soldier or hero in that war long ago, and has since then sworn to never draw their blade again. And their character arc is about… a reflection on sobriety and mindfulness and the knowledge that you have something that could hurt another person and make your life, in that moment, so much easier, but doing it would destroy everything you’ve built. And the veteran has a 7th play in addition to the normal things you can do at any time. The veteran can at any point: draw their sword, kill the person in front of them instantly, and then you cannot play that character anymore. They leave the game and they’re gone. You never do! You never want to draw the sword! But it’s that reminder on the playbook at any moment you could you could shatter this thing that’s been built and you have to constantly choose not to.
And so like there’s a lot of different playbooks happening. One of my favorites from the stretch-goals is the Dreamer which is someone who is asleep and that they’re almost like sleepwalking or maybe they are a manifestation of a dream, they’re unsure, just kind of moving through the world. There’s the… Okay I do not remember the name of the fisherman. This one playbook that’s a fisher, and it’s… here to catch fish. Just a lot of different stuff happening.
Amber: I love that it goes from something like “am I a dream or not?” to “you catch fish”
Jay: [laughs] Yeah! That was one of my favorite little bits of advice for my stretch-goal writers, like: in a lot of games there’s that pressure of like… D&D is a great example, you can’t just have a bard, in D&D. Like the bard needs to be casting spells and hurting people. And Wanderhome is no, you can literally just have someone who is a shepherd. That’s what they do. That’s their job occupation. And they don’t need to be anything more than that.
Amber: I love it. This hits just so many good notes in my brain.
Another thing on your website that was talking about aesthetics as well. Y’all are trying to get out of the stuff that is traditionally associated with the dominant culture of role-playing games, trying to bring in artists and writers from a huge variety of backgrounds. And I gotta say, the art for Wanderhome is… what I’ve seen so far is… so beautiful… this is a… Listeners, just look up Wanderhome at this point because it is… it doesn’t feel traditional. It feels something that I’ve not seen… you know, I can’t articulate it very well even though I’m an artist. It looks good!
So can you talk to me about your art decision?
Jay: Yeah, so Ruby Grubby is the art director and also my business partner. Beyond us meeting at Wayfinder, she is not an RPG person. Her background is in graphic design and layout for traditional books and advertising and also in fine art. And so one of the big priorities when looking for artists for Wanderhome was looking for artists from backgrounds that you wouldn’t expect to see in RPGs. We looked for a lot of traditional artists, we looked for a lot of very stylized artists, people who have very distinctive styles that might not normally have a home in several more aggressively… aren’t interested in the Dungeons-and-Dragons-realistic aesthetic.
So you know some of my favorite artists that we work with include [Madheer Noor (sp?)], who’s from Southeast Asia who does art inspired by traditional pre-colonial art and tapestries and such. Another one of my favorite artists is [Jum Hchoy (sp?)] who does hyper-expressionist explosive art of all these different colors and shapes that are coming together in these huge explosions. We have [Dan Heobig (sp?)] who’s a furry artist. We intentionally… all are artists that you don’t see in traditional work. And then even for the artists who have done RPG work before, [Lauren H (sp?)], we’re looking for [??] meets Redwall, we had a very specific art direction. We’re referencing artists from… referencing historical artists, referencing media outside RPGs. I think in the art direction, we didn’t reference a single art within RPGs, we exclusively referenced other media and other artworks, which was important to us.
Amber: Yeah and it shows. It’s refreshing and soft and beautiful and it’s a huge appeal and draw, as well as just the tone and theme and everything. The Kickstarter is over, but if somebody wants to find Wanderhome, can they preorder it?
Jay: Yeah if they go to Possum Creek Games, there’s a link on there. We have a pre-order going on backer kit right now, for the next month or so. After that, we’ll be moving pre-orders over to our website. You can pre-order it there. Merchandise is closed right now but we’re going to open up a Threadless in the next few months. Also if you’re interested in Sleepaway… I believe by the time this podcast comes out, we should have pre-orders going for Uncanny which is a supplement for Sleepaway that’s entirely about the magical world of weird creatures that exist outside of the camp and that’s gonna be really cool and interesting. You can check that out on our website also possumcreekgames.com.
Amber: All right great. Well thank you so much for sharing all of what you do. If people wanted to find you on the internet where could they do so?
Jay: You can find me on Twitter just searching Jay Dragon, I promise you there’s no one else. You can also find me, goodness gracious, you can find on Instagram I don’t post much there. You can check out my itch.io page, which is a lot of my smaller, more experimental games. Go to my website, follow my business partner Ruby Lapin. If you go to our website we got lots and lots of links there.
Amber: Just go to possumcreekgames.com because it’s beautiful. Check it out and yeah so thank you so much again.
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