Happy day! We finally got a chance to speak with brilliant local game designer Emily Care Boss of Black & Green Games! Emily has designed a lot of inventive games that encourage interesting interactions. This includes a trio of romance-focused games – Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and Under my Skin – as well as deeply intriguing Live Action Role Play(LARP) – Remodel, Play With Intent, and the upcoming Last Chance Noir. – and finally some innovative tabletop games – Misericord(e), Dread House, and MonkeyDome.
Emily is someone who seems to take real joy in figuring out how to push gaming forward, and we’re feel honored to have someone like her in the Valley. And that she’s willing to speak with us!
James Olchowski: Hello! Thank you for speaking with us today.
Emily Care Boss: It’s a pleasure!
JO: So first of all, are you originally from the Valley area?
ECB: I moved to the Pioneer Valley from southern Connecticut for college in the early 90s.
JO: What drew you to the area?
ECB: It was much more progressive than southern Connecticut where I grew up. In one of my first jobs at Video to Go in Amherst, my boss was a lesbian with two children with her partner. I felt at home and stayed. With the recent Supreme Court decision on Marriage Equality, I’m glad that the rest of the country is starting to catch up in some ways!
JO: You have a Masters of Science in Forest Resources. Do you still perform conservation and forestry work? If so, in what capacity?
ECB: My daily bread comes from helping people conserve their land in Franklin County (and nearby towns) with the Franklin Land Trust. I still have my foresters license and am on the Forestry Licensing Board as the representative of the conservation community. When I became a forester I was working for the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative, a group of 60 landowners who worked together to harvest and market lumber from their land, and to get Forest Stewardship Council certification–to confirm that they practiced responsible forestry, taking into account wildlife, soils, worker safety, etc.
It was a great organization, but had a hard time turning a profit, especially during the economic crisis of 2009 which saw the building market plummet. When they closed their doors the Franklin Land Trust was looking for a land protection specialist. I’m happy that they asked me to join them, and am very happy to continue being able to help people with the long term management of their land, and bring to bear what I’ve learned through forestry and my work with the coop.
JO: What was the first RPG (Role Playing Game) you played?
ECB: I’ve got two answers for that. The first RPG I was exposed to was basic D&D (Moldvay edition), which I read and made characters for and really enjoyed. But I didn’t meet anyone who played until High School. A couple cool seniors invited me and some friends to play with them. Exciting! But…we rolled up characters, and then spent the rest of the evening talking about what to get on the pizza and then eating the pizza, and never got around to play.
So fast forward a few years later, I’m in College here in the Valley, and friends invite me over to role play. It was GURPS. After one session of a campaign that didn’t take off, my first real game was a GURPS campaign adapted to a setting written by an artist friend of mine (Barry Deutsch, who would later very kindly illustrate my game Breaking the Ice). It was very Narnia-esque. The main characters were students at a deaf school who became transported to a magical world.
However, I made the classic mistake one can make in a character with a point-buy system like GURPS, esp. with the disadvantage/advantage balance the game included. Using the options as a menu I ended up making a character with wildly varying traits and not much cohesion: she was deaf (as part of the premise), an albino, with perfect sense of time and direction. It’s harsh to look at the struggles of peoples lives as “disads” that can be balanced out by superpowers, and although I liked my character and she came together in play, she didn’t come from a sense of who she was as a person.
JO: What got you interested in playing an RPG?
ECB: Falling in with the right crowd, definitely. The friends who introduced me to GURPS eventually brought me into their long-running home-brew system Ars Magica game. That’s what really got me hooked. Co-creating a world, running up to a dozen different characters, fleshing out the world, its philosophies, religions and political complications. Later I’d be in two or three more Ars Magica campaigns, one lasting six years with other local game designers Meguey and Vincent Baker. The looseness of our use of the system gave us room to experiment, and I think it was these games that got me interested in game design as well as role play.
JO: What made you decide to sit down and design your first professional game?
ECB: Being on the Forge I was surrounded by people who were designing tabletop RPGs, thinking hard about how they worked and helping each other strive and do better. In 2002, I took part in the second Iron Game Chef contest, hosted by Mike Holmes at the Forge Forums. The theme was “simulationism” and the ingredients included “blood,” “song,” and “moon.” Out of that came the idea for my game Sign in Stranger. I published it much later (in two different forms which I’m still tinkering with) but writing this game up for the contest, and getting feedback on it from Mike shifted things for me so that I could see myself as a designer. Later I came up with the idea for Breaking the Ice, and it seemed manageable enough for me to design and publish it, and we were off.
JO: Your first published game – “Breaking the Ice” – focuses on a very specific interaction: role-playing 3 dates between two player-characters. What made you decide to go with something so compact?
ECB: As I mentioned, my first real game idea was Sign in Stranger, which was about people traveling to alien planets and being the first human settlers there. This seemed too big to nail down for my first complete design, so I looked around for another premise.
A conversation on the Forge or RPG.net helped me out. Someone said they’d never seen anyone convincingly play a character of the opposite gender, and doubted it was possible. This flew in the face of my experience (playing multiple characters of various genders with a large, mixed gender group of friends), so I decided to write a game that would show people could do that, and also lend a helping hand. So, a small game with two players with a focused situation of dating seemed just right. Also, My Life With Master had come out around then. That gave a great model for allowing a game to just be about one fairly narrow premise, rather than being placed in a given world or set in a given genre, so a romance game about dating fit.
As it turns out, taking a narrow premise that can be customized gives you a whole universe of possibilities, so rather than feeling like a strait-jacket, that well-defined creative constraint is freeing.
JO: Breaking the Ice also puts the focus squarely on love and relationships rather than the standard conflict that drives a lot of RPGs, violence. What made you decide to step outside violent conflict as an impetus for play?
ECB: I was kind of trying to be a spoiler. To confront the idea that people were constrained by their gender on what characters they could play. The premise grew from that impetus. Then, from that premise it was natural to throw out a ton of typical assumptions. Who wants a combat system for a dating game? Talk about the wrong message.
The game breaks many RPG conventions of the time. The game is collaborative, with the players trying to work together to overcome the system which provides push-back against the characters falling in love. There is no Game Master–the players take turns being a coach and guide. And the role of the Guide is not to provide adversity, each player does that themselves as part of their turn. First they say how things go well in the date, then they play out how things go wrong. Both are fun and part of what makes a story about a date interesting, as well as adding human interest and giving the characters a reason to be there for one another.
JO: You helped define the term “bleed” with respect to RPGs. Can you talk a bit about what it means?
ECB: Bleed is a term been picked up by the Nordic art LARP(Live-Action Roleplaying) community and elsewhere to describe overlap and overflow of emotional experiences when playing a game role. Bleed-in is sometimes used to describe when a player’s feelings affect the expression of a character An example of Bleed-in would be a player is under-slept and acts out their irritation on others through their character’s words and actions. Bleed-out is when fictive character background or experience affects the player’s real-world attitudes or internal emotional experience. An example of Bleed-out would be portraying a married character and having lingering affection or attraction for the player who took the role of the spouse. There is some good discussion of it at the Nordic LARP blog post “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.”
My first discussion of bleed came from being invited to talk in Finland, specifically about romance in games. I was influenced in using the term by discussion a housemate of mine had in college about the bleedover of player knowledge about in-game events their character would have no reason to know about. I applied it here to emotions.
The theme for Ropecon in 2007 was Romance, so they felt it fitting to invite me as one of the guests of the convention. Live action play is very popular in Finland and other Nordic countries, so I wanted to address some issues that come up with live play. This can happen at the table as well, in analog play, or online, but the embodiment of roles in live action play really brought it to the fore.
JO: Can you give an example when bleed was significant in your own play?
ECB: In one of the first LARPs I ever played, there was another player I was getting to know whom I found attractive, though they were not interested and were otherwise committed. As it happened in the game their character had a secret crush on me and had access to a love potion. So I found myself in the odd situation of having someone I was attracted to making fictional overtures through magic. A bit tangled! Thinking about that oddness was what inspired me to talk about Bleed.
JO: Do you intentionally attempt to promote bleed in your own games?
‘ECB: In many of my games, I want to encourage people to approach and embrace deep emotional experiences. Often I invite people to use their own background or experiences to inform their play. For example, in Under my Skin each character has a “Core Issue” (perhaps anger, honesty, loneliness, etc.) that they are challenged by. When people make characters I let the players know that it can make for a powerful experience to choose an issue that has meaning from one’s own life, or that has relevance to someone they know and are close to. In the Nordic Jeepform tradtion of RPG design, that is called “playing close to home.” The fictional space of the game lets you engage in a contained way with issues that can be overwhelming or hard to examine in one’s real life. This is not intended to have any kind of therapeutic element–instead it is like reading a book or watching a film that has personal relevance to you. But it can have a deeper emotional dimension since you get to have a first-hand experience.
So I don’t exactly write games that point people towards having their character spill over into their real lives–but I do use the possibility of having overlap between real world and the fictional be an area you can dip into. And I see it as one of the key elements of role play. A uniquely self-customizable aspect of emotional exploration.
JO: My personal experience with RPGs usually involves a pretty deep nervousness about emotionally-charged role-play. How do you overcome this sort of player nervousness in your own game designs?
ECB: Great and important question. Establishing trust is important in games where you may bring up strong or difficult issues. Generally the games start with discussion of the elements, to make sure people know what they are getting into. And then some kind of ice-breaking activity that lets the players interact and establish connections they can take with them into the game. In some Nordic LARP and similar game styles this is called “workshopping” and is a very well explored process that helps people do very deep play. Lizze Stark and others have written a great deal about the subject. These are great tips to think about and adapt to your game.
In Under my Skin, since the game is about being flirty and possibly cheating, the players start off by sharing their real world relationship status in order to make sure everyone knows the real boundaries of the people they are dealing with. People share as much or as little as they are comfortable sharing, and I as a facilitator start things off and am very honest about myself to let people know they are safe and will be heard. Then, the process of making characters is shared in UmS. Everyone gets to make suggestions (in an orderly way) and help flesh out how the emotional issues a character is struggling with might manifest in their lives. It’s fictional, but the players get to share their insights and express empathy others. It sets a tone of listening and understanding, that is critical in moving forward to play out scenes of great vulnerability.
JO: You said you had some experience with more traditional systems like D&D and GURPS? What do you find engaging about those systems?
ECB: Right now I’m playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, and I got to play some of 5e D&D over the past year. I enjoyed the adaptability of 5e–depending on the character class you were playing, and the type of profile you chose for the character, it provided you elements of the various different incarnations D&D has seen over the (recent-ish) years. That’s a pretty clever way to heal the wounds of the edition wars. I enjoyed the game, and hope it’s very successful! One of my favorite parts of the system is having Advantage. Getting a second d20 for various situational modifiers, or special stuff based on your class is intuitive and easy to award and use. That plus Inspiration was a lot of fun. In 5e, you’re asked to come up with a few details about the character’s past. I was playing a Fighter who had been a soldier in an army and had proved to be super-stubborn in a devastating loss that I refused to accept, but survived. When I’d exemplify that stubbornness, or the grudge I was carrying, my DM would award me inspiration. Then in a battle I could use it to gain Advantage. A nice easy way to remind me to think about who my character was, and to make it matter in play.
DCC, which I think of as being on the traditional side of RPGs, is so much fun. It’s part of the Old School Renaissance school, and it’s my favorite of those I’ve played from that tradition so far. I love the approach they are taking to the deadly effects of early-D&D style play where your character’s life is always on the line. It’s got so much flavor. Starting out as a mushroom farmer or witch-liquor smuggler, and then becoming a Wizard and clawing your power out of your own flesh to Power Burn. Good stuff. The Mercurial Magic table is one of those things that really captures the crazy madness of early fantasy short stories (like those by Vance, Lee or others). Wizards must roll on the Mercurial Magic table when they learn a spell and gain a side effect that happens as well. Some are good (when my wizard casts Magic Shield, I also get Psychic Shield as well, nice!), sometimes there’s no effect, but then sometimes you get these crazy, awful or just nutty effects. For example, when I cast Charm Animal I temporarily blink to a different plane. When we were transported to the Purple Planet of Peril in our current campaign for a few sessions, when I cast a Patron spell that warned everyone of danger I would be encased in an unbreakable pillar of ice! Now this does sound like it could get in the way, and it doesn’t always make your life easier. But the worst effects are infrequent, and they are so madcap that it gives a great tone to the game–and, most importantly, it fits with the deadly and ephemeral feel to the characters you play. I mean, if you start the game with 4 characters, hoping to keep one to play on, you’ve got to realize that the world is out to get you!
JO: How would you introduce a new player to RPGs?
ECB: One of my favorite games, The Quiet Year, might make a good introduction for people who are new to role playing games. It’s a quick game–it can be played in an evening. It’s premise is popular these days: post-apocalyptic. It’s also very structured. You play out a year in the life of a community trying to reform in the wake of societal collapse. A deck of cards, separated into four suits that correspond to the seasons, lead you through the events of the year, with questions and open-ended activities like placing locations on a map. It’s fun and heart-breaking and pretty clear at each moment what you should be doing. Many role playing games can cause analysis paralysis in new players–so much to do, what should my character do? How can I remember all these rules? The Quiet Year streamlines the role playing experience while still delivering a great story.
However, the in-character part of role-playing is slight in The Quiet Year. So I’d want to follow up with a game that eases you into that aspect of it. Three games the come to mind, for different reasons are: Psi*Run, Dread and Growing Up. Psi*Run has you play a character with amnesia, on the run from mysterious captors, with super powers you cannot explain. Your motivations are clear and the games runs smoothly with a single die-mechanic. In Dread, you play the characters in a horror game, where you are trying to escape the monsters or zombies or whatever your GM, or Host, has cooked up for you. And instead of dice, it uses a tumbling block tower which you must pull from. If you knock the tower down, your character dies! It’s a gripping game, though you need to be open to playing out a horror story where many of the characters die. Growing Up is a LARP where you play out the events of the book Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. It’s romantic and passionate, as well as showing the strength of friendship and family.
JO: How would you introduce a player to freeform roleplay if they were used to something like D&D Encounters [short, combat-focused play with miniatures and minimal RP]?
ECB: There is a game in the 24 Game Poems book called First Impressions. You are playing adventurers who go through basically a speed-dating session to pick out their group that they’ll go dungeon crawl with. It’s goofy and funny, and makes a nice bridge from the dungeon at the table to playing different things in a live setting.
JO: You’ve done a lot of work related to diversity in tabletop gaming [RPGirl, Gaming as Women, Pushing Boundaries, Escaping the Legacy, etc.]. Why do you think it’s important to have a diverse set of voices designing RPGs?
ECB: Role playing games are creative and narrative experiences. The stories and characters that we create in them can either reflect the interests and exposure of just a few people who have similar backgrounds, or they can be opportunities for people of many different backgrounds to share what they find inspiring. I’m for the latter vision. We’re impoverishing our own imaginations, as well as discriminating economically and socially against community, if we don’t question who does participate and why, and support diverse creators.
The work of people like Tany D. of Why I Need Diverse Games, Whitney Beltran of Gaming as Other and Avonelle Wing with Maelstrom and other Double Exposure events, are critical. They are doing the good, hard work we need to support right now.
JO: What do you think current players can do to make their play inclusive?
ECB: There are many ways you can do this. First, buy and play games by women and men of color, queer designers, designers with physical challenges. Educate yourself about who makes the games you love, and if you are going to run a game at a convention or for friends, maybe pick one by a game with a non-majority background to support their work. And talk about it online! A tweet or a post on a blog or Google+ can send traffic their way, which is the life’s blood of any designer.
Also, when you are playing a game that is set in a period or culture you’re not part of, do your homework. The internet is only a keystroke away to learn some real-world details about the people you’re portraying. Vet your sources. Just because it’s on Wikipedia does not make it true. But taking the time pays off–you avoid stereotyping and enacting harmful images that often get repeated in the media, and you’ll learn about people you may not have known about. Your gaming will be richer for it.
Also, read and pay attention to discussion on Twitter and beyond by writers and creators from under-represented communities. Nisi Shawl’s essay Transracial Writing for the Sincere and Quinn Murphy’s New Rules of Fantasy about avoiding the default of white characters and culture are must-reads.
JO: Are there any games you’d like to highlight for Nerd Watch readers to check out?
ECB: Three to be on the look out for are Night Witches by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games, a great and hard-hitting historical game about women bomber pilots in Russian during World War II; Questlandia, by our local Hannah Shaffer of Make Big Things, a very collaborative game a fantasy kingdom in crisis that asks you to examine how we work together (or don’t!) in communities; and Five Fires by Quinn Murphy of Thoughtcrime Games, a game in progress about hip-hop artists trying to help each other make it and help support their home and community. All three are great, though-provoking games.
JO: Is there anything coming up from Black & Green that readers should watch out for?
ECB: In the next few months, I’ll officially launch my noir freeform LARP game: Last Chance Noir. I’ve been talking with other designers of noir games, and have some other features planned at my website. Also, I’m working on revising and adding hacks & mods to my Romance Trilogy. I’m aiming for a February 2016 release of it, and may even do a Patreon to support it. Thanks to any of your local readers who check them out, or get involved!
Remember that you can find all of the extremely interesting things Emily has created and written about on the Black & Green Games website. Support a local artist who makes good stuff! You can also check out her game Shooting the Moon being played by excellent artist Erika Moen and neat seeming person Eric Colossal on the OneShotRPG Podcast!