Speaking With Rebecca Slitt of Choice of Games

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Rebecca Slitt currently acts as both a writer and editor for Choice of Games, a small company dedicated to creating innovative interactive text adventures. They’re pretty neat!

She joined the company in 2013 and her first game, Psy High, came out in December 2014. You can even play the first few chapters for free! How’s that for service?

Rebecca has also written many tabletop RPGs, mostly D&D and Call of Cthulu, as well as LARPS, though not professionally. Before coming to Choice of Games she was a history professor! She has a PhD in Medieval History.

We caught up to her to ask about her current job, the travails of being an academic, and what inspired her to pursue game writing in the first place!

James Olchowski: Did you grow up in the Valley?

Rebecca Slitt: No, but I grew up nearby, in West Hartford, CT.

JO: What drew you to the area?

RS: I love the combination of the small-town environment, an active arts scene, and progressive attitudes. It’s also close to my family, most of whom are in CT and MA, and I’ve got a lot of friends here too.

JO: Is there anything about working in the Valley that you don’t think you could find elsewhere?

RS: There’s an amazing community of indie game designers here! Tabletop RPGs, board games, digital games – there’s a surprising concentration of all sorts of game-makers in the area. It’s great for networking and mutual support. I’ve joined Owl and Raven, a co-working space for game designers, writers, and artists, and it’s been one of the best things to come out of my time in the Valley.

JO: You mentioned to me prior to our interview that you’ve written non-professionally for tabletop games and LARPs (Live Action Role-Playing games). What exactly do you mean by non-professionally? Were you a DM, or were you contributing to published works?

RS: I was writing for my friends and for cons, not for publication. For several years, I was one of the co-organizers of AnonyCon, a con in Connecticut that’s mainly focused on tabletop RPGs, with a little LARP thrown in. I wrote a lot of games that ran at the con, including a series of Call of Cthulhu games that eventually developed into a continuous story.

I’ve just recently made my first foray into professional tabletop game writing by contributing to one of the supplements for the forthcoming RPG Timewatch. I hope that I’ll get to do more in the future.

JO: What was it that kept you writing for games, before you were getting paid for it?

RS: It was fun! I loved that I was participating in an art form that was inherently collaborative: the whole story can only be told when the writer, GM, and players are all cooperating to tell it. I loved that I was helping to build community through my writing: I wrote several big games for AnonyCon, and it was wonderful to see people coming together to share the story that I’d written.

Then as time went on, and I realized that my Call of Cthulhu games were growing into a continuous narrative, I loved the combination of creativity and uncertainty that went into creating an ongoing story told through RPGs. As an author, you don’t often get to wonder what will happen next in your own story! Not all authors would like that, but I really did.

JO: The two pen-and-paper RPGs you wrote for were D&D and Call of Cthulhu, which seem pretty diametrically opposed. What drew you to writing for those games in particular? What was different about writing for each?

RS: Do you know, I didn’t even think of them as opposites until you asked me that? But you’re right: D&D always assumes that the PCs will win, and Call of Cthulhu always assumes that the PCs will lose.

But when I started, I didn’t really choose D&D. It was the game my friends in high school played, so that’s what I learned first. It was 1992 and there weren’t nearly as many options as there are now – or at least, what other options existed were harder for me to discover. My local game store wasn’t really welcoming to me – it wasn’t easy being a girl gamer in the 90s! So I never felt comfortable browsing the store or trying new game systems, and D&D was the default for me for a long time. Eventually, D&D just became a framework to hang a story on, especially after 3rd Edition came out and the system became much more flexible. Whatever story I wanted to tell, I could find a way to tell it using those rules. Now, of course, there are many more options for rules systems out there – the rise of indie games has been one of the best things to happen to RPGs in the last ten years.

Call of Cthulhu, I chose more consciously, but its appeal for me was much more about the setting than the rules. I loved that it was set in our world – the idea that there were these ancient mysteries just out of our reach, that there were secret causes for unexplained events in history. The rules system was flexible enough to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, and modular enough that I could leave behind the parts that didn’t work or were overly complicated for my purposes.

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JO: What exactly is the writing process for a LARP?

RS: I should start by saying that there are a lot of different kinds of LARPs, and I’ve only written a few kinds. Writing a freeform LARP (which I haven’t done) is very different from writing for a theater or boffer LARP (which I have), and even within those broad genres there’s a lot of variation.

The initial process of writing for a theater or boffer LARP is the same as writing for a tabletop RPG: you come up with a story and some potential ways that the PCs can travel through the story based on the gameworld and rules framework that you’re working in.

But there are a lot of other considerations, too. First, you have to be aware of the physical resources that you have when you’re writing the story. In a tabletop game, you can have your PCs fight a battle against a giant swamp monster, or be part of a thousand-person crowd at the queen’s coronation, or visit an elven city built in the treetops. But you can’t do that in a LARP – you’ll never have a thousand people to make up that crowd scene, and you’ll never be able to build a city in the treetops. So you can only write the kinds of scenes that you can realistically represent with the actors, props, and spaces that you have access to.

You also have to think about the rules and gameplay differently because you want to keep the players immersed in the setting as much as possible. In a tabletop game, there will always be moments when the players are communicating as players rather than their characters: rolling dice, looking up rules, describing the actions that their characters are performing. In a LARP, you want to minimize those moments as much as possible. So you have to make everything as intuitive as possible: making props look like what they’re supposed to represent, clarifying new rules before game-start so that nobody will have to break character to ask.

You also have to consider more contingencies than you do when you’re writing and GMing a tabletop RPG. When you’re a tabletop GM and the PCs do something unexpected (because they always do!) it’s easier to roll with it because you have full control over the world. When you’re writing and GMing a LARP, there are so many other people involved that it’s very hard to redirect the players once they start going off in a wacky new direction, and even harder to shift the plot around to accommodate the PCs’ unexpected new ideas – possible, but hard. So you have to plan for as many wacky directions ahead of time as you can so that you can make sure that all of your NPCs know what to do in all contingencies.

Finally, in LARPs, one of your best resources is other people. You can solve plot problems by adding NPCs who have the information that the PCs need; you can establish atmosphere by bringing in a crowd of NPCs; you can draw a new or shy player in by giving them a special one-on-one scene with an NPC. Depending on that has actually tripped me up a few times when I went back to writing tabletop RPGS. In one of my Call of Cthulhu games, I wrote a scene set at a college mixer, with a huge crowd of NPCs that the PCs could talk to. That would be great in a LARP, but it turned out to be very difficult to GM in a tabletop game, because I had to try to play every single NPC at the same time!

So when you’re writing a LARP, you’re not just a writer and game designer, you’re also a director, producer, and stage manager. You write the beginning of the story, make your best guess at what the PCs will do, make sure your NPCs are well-prepared, and then hold your breath and hope.

JO: You have a PhD in Medieval History. First of all: congratulations, PhDs are hard as heck. Second, what drew you to Medieval History, and do you feel like it has an effect on your current work?

RS: Thank you! It was hard as heck, but also incredibly rewarding.

My initial interest in medieval history was sparked by reading historical fiction when I was a kid. As time went on, I learned more about the realities of history, and still loved it. I think that’s a journey that a lot of professional historians take, actually, and we remain very conscious of how the time period that we study is perceived by others. My academic work ended up concentrating on a few areas of medieval culture concerned with self-presentation and self-perception: I studied the culture of chivalry, which was very much about performance; and medieval chronicles, which were all about how medieval authors wanted posterity to remember themselves and their contemporaries. So I’ve always been interested in storytelling and story construction, even before I was a professional writer.

Now, as someone who’s written games in a medieval fantasy setting, I feel that I need to present even a fantastic medieval world in a historically responsible way: not just making sure that the armor and weapons are right, but also making sure that characters’ worldviews are true to the time in which they lived, and that medieval ideas are represented accurately.

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JO: What made you decide to leave academics?

RS: It was a hard decision, because I loved academia. But the academic job market has changed a lot since the start of the recession in 2008. It’s shifted away from permanent tenure-track jobs to temporary and part-time jobs with no benefits. So it’s very very hard to find a full-time permanent job with benefits. I spent the first six years after I got my PhD traveling from one temporary job to another, going on the job market every year and never getting anything permanent. Eventually I just wanted to settle down, have a permanent job, and not have to constantly worry where I’d be living a year from now.

I’ll always love history and always stay involved in the medieval studies community, just not as a full-time academic.

JO: Were you interested in working in the videogame industry specifically?

RS: It hadn’t occurred to me at all! When I decided to change careers, I started out by searching for jobs in fields that were closely related to what I’d been doing before: academic publishing, academic advising, things like that.

But while I was “between jobs,” as they say, I did some contract work for Choice of Games, and I discovered that I loved it! I was actually able to draw on a lot of my experience as an academic: writing and editing, giving feedback on other people’s writing, figuring out how to break down a huge writing project into small manageable tasks.

After a couple months, they offered me a permanent job. I wasn’t sure at first – working for a startup game company didn’t exactly sound like the stability I’d been looking for! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I loved the work and was willing to take a little risk to help build a company that I really believed in.

JO: What made Choice of Games appeal to you?

RS: It’s a small company, so my voice can get heard, and I can really play a role in shaping where the company goes next. It’s explicitly feminist and progressive in its approach to games: every game allows the player to choose the gender and sexuality of their character. That kind of representation in games is extremely important today, and I’m proud to be part of a company that’s helping games become more progressive and egalitarian.

Plus, working for Choice of Games lets me work with friends. The company was founded by two of my friends from college, which is how I initially found out about it – I’d played and bought the games to support my friends long before I ever dreamed I’d be working for the company myself.

So I get to build a company whose principles I support while doing creative work with people I like. It’s a pretty excellent combination.

JO: Choice of Games is a California-based company, has it been hard to transition into the Valley?

RS: Actually, I’ve never lived in California. Choice of Games is incorporated in California, but only one of our core members lives there. The rest of us are scattered around the country, so we all work remotely. We’re in constant contact by email and IM, and we have weekly meetings by Google Hangout.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t have a big transition when I moved to the Valley, because before this, I lived in Brooklyn! But the change has been a very happy one for me. I love living out in the country where it’s quiet and I’m so close to trees and nature. There are a few things I miss about New York, but I’m really happy where I am now.

JO: Your game, Psy High, is about a high school where some kids have secret psychic powers. What made you decide to write about high schoolers?

RS: One of my favorite TV shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and one of my favorite things about it is the way it uses the supernatural to turn the metaphors of adolescence into something literal. The girl nobody notices actually turns invisible; the pushy parent actually relives high school through their child; the school bullies actually turn into a pack of hyenas. Because that’s how you feel when you’re in high school – everything is so intense that there are no metaphors. You feel like you could literally disappear when people ignore you, and your first love feels like it could literally change the world. I wanted to capture some of that intensity of emotion.

But I also wanted to go against some of the teen-drama tropes – mainly, the idea that grownups are the enemy. Far too many YA stories have absent or incompetent adults. It makes sense on one level, because it provides a narrative explanation for why the teens have to be the ones to save the day, but it still didn’t sit right with me. So, yes, the villains in Psy High are adults, but there are also adults who are friendly and supportive, especially the PC’s parents. I wanted to tell a story about a teen hero whose parents were present, loving, and on their side.

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JO: If you could develop any one of the psychic powers you wrote about, which would you pick?

RS: Oh, good question! The main character has the ability to read other people’s thoughts, which on the one hand is useful, but on the other would be a horrible temptation. Do any of us really want to know what other people are thinking? I think telekinesis would probably be the most useful, so I’d pick that.

JO: How much freedom did you have in writing Psy High? Were you pretty much solely responsible for the content?

RS: I wrote all of it, but I got a lot of input and feedback from the editorial team, especially at the beginning of the writing process. They had much experience with writing in Choicescript than I did, so they helped a lot with figuring out the initial plot and making sure that the game mechanics were balanced. They also gave feedback on the story, prose and game mechanics, and helped with debugging. But all of the actual writing was mine.

JO: How does writing a branching narrative change the way you approach a story?

RS: Writing for tabletop RPGs and LARPs prepared me very well for writing a branching narrative like the one in Psy High. It felt very natural to think of a story in which I didn’t know exactly who the protagonist would be, and which could have any number of paths depending on someone else’s actions.

Also, over the years, Choice of Games has developed several ways to manage branching narratives so that the branches don’t become infinite, such as making sure that multiple branches lead back to the same place, and using character stats to guide the action.

That said, it was still a big challenge for me as a writer. I had to make sure that all of those potential personalities and paths could produce a story that was both logical and emotionally satisfying. Writing character arcs is very different when you can’t be sure which order the character is going to be going through the scenes.

JO: Is there anything you wish you had done differently during the writing process?

RS: The main thing I would have done differently is the way I managed the PC’s relationships with their friends. I started out with this great idea for how to make the story more dynamic: having stats that tracked how well the PC treated their friends, so that if a friend’s relationship stat dropped below a certain point, that friend wouldn’t help the PC anymore. On top of that, I gave the PC the option to include or exclude their significant other from certain scenes, which let the player shape the strength of their character’s romantic relationship as well as their character’s tendency towards being either secretive or open. It would be great! Dynamic character interactions! Customizable gameplay!

But what that meant in practice was that for a few scenes, every friend or potential romance interest (because there were several different options for the PC to date) could be either present or absent depending on the PC’s decisions. So there were tons of potential combinations of characters who could be there – which meant writing many many different versions of each scene, and many many versions of each conversation based on who was there and what comments they’d make. In the end, I had to make those scenes much much simpler than I’d originally hoped, and even decided that one of the PC’s friends would never abandon them so that there would always be at least one other person there. Now I know the limits of dynamic character interactions in Choicescript – or, at least, the limits of my patience in writing infinite variations of the same scene!

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JO: How closely do you follow the reaction to your game, reviews and user comments and the like? Is it something you feel comfortable about, or is it hard to see responses to your work?

RS: I’ve made my peace with reviews. Obviously the positive reviews make me happy – it’s great to hear that something I’ve written resonates with other people, and I’m very pleased that Psy High has, on the whole, gotten good reviews. And I freely admit to doing a lot of obsessive reloading of the iTunes App Store in my opening weekend to track my game’s ratings and its progress up and down the Top Sellers chart!

But not everyone is going to like everything you write. This is another area in which being a professor was good preparation, because user comments are a lot like student evaluations. On the one hand, it’s easy to take those words very personally because they’re about something you’ve put a lot of yourself into; on the other, it’s easy to let the negative ones roll off your back because they’re so often more about the reader than about you. Some people were looking for a different kind story; some had a different sense of humor and didn’t appreciate the jokes, some hated that I embraced teen-drama tropes and some hated that I rejected teen-drama tropes.

So, just as I did with student evaluations, I’ve learned to take user feedback and reviews in the aggregate. If there’s a big consensus among all the reviews about a particular thing, either good or bad, then that’s something that I should take a harder look at. For instance, there was a character in Psy High that a lot of people didn’t like. Thanks to their comments, I understand why that character didn’t work, and I know how to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.

And, of course, when there’s something that a lot of people did like, then that’s something that I’ll try to do more of in the future.

JO: Is there anything you’re working on right now that you can tell me about?

RS: We’ve just started development on Choice of Games’s first multiplayer game, which I’m co-writing with Adam Strong-Morse. It’s a medieval-fantasy setting, so I’m getting as much medieval history into it as possible. It’s a huge project: the word count will probably end up being somewhere around 600,000, and we don’t expect it to come out until late 2016 at the earliest. But it’s going to be a ton of fun to write – and to play, too, I hope!

JO: Thank you so much for your time!

RS: Thank you for having me!

Rebecca is a really neat, really well-rounded person who’s done a lot of interesting stuff. We’re excited that we had the chance to talk to her!

You should definitely keep an eye out for this interesting new Choice of Games thing she’s working on, and in the meantime pick up Psy High to support a really great local developer keep writing more interesting games!

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