July begins and we're knapping a jacob!
For The Queen, Emanoel Melo, & 18th century thieves cant.
A challenging week in which to be human - but aren’t they all? The main thing to remember is to turn the stove off: nothing good will happen if you leave it on all day. It’s certainly been an interesting week here in the catacombs of TEETH: I did leave the stove on, and nothing good came of it. We also found time to continue playtesting and playing new (to us) things - which certainly gave us more than enough to think about - as well getting deeper into research for various writings, scribblings, and confabulations, which lead us, inexorably, to learning when the full moon was in January of 1703 (Friday 22nd).
But anyway, to the newsletter! Below there’s an interview with CBR+PNK creator Emanoel Melo, whose game we have had a total blast with several times now. Have a read, if you want to know what makes him tick. (Or pulse? He’s probably digital.)
Also, the news part of the letter is this: we finished the first playtest of Stranger & Stranger, coming away with much to think about. Structural changes within it, compared to the first two games (Hogman and Cotillion), left us a little adrift, and so we’ve had to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in for a hefty edit for round two. Thankfully, we now know exactly what to do, and can just go ahead and do it, but it’s certainly interesting to have a playtest that exposed issues rather than confirming for us how clever we are. It’s also been an interesting test of working with Forged In The Dark as a ruleset. With the previous games we stripped away many of the rules, particularly those which manage the characters across multiple missions. Because the first two adventures were single-session, and particularly tightly delivered, that seemed to work, but opening things up a bit with Stranger & Stranger has demonstrated how even small manipulations of those systems have huge consequences for how the game “feels”. Capturing the feel of a Forged In The Dark game, even without much of the apparatus that defines, say, Blades In The Dark particularly, has been critical to us (as overly enthusiastic fans of the original game) and we’re intending to do that in distilled, standalone form with Stranger & Stranger. The playtest did not give us that result, and so knobs and dials must be tweaked accordingly. The route to adapting rules to allow it to be a small campaign weren’t immediately obvious, and it took live testing to see it fail to cohere. I’m excited about seeing how the fixes create a new game entirely. It also takes us one step closer to know how the finalise Big Teeth, as we’re (not really) calling it, our full campaign ruleset.
(FWIW, there’s also an interesting tension here (interesting to me, at least) about working with materials that you’re a fan of, or adapting things you feel passionate about. Like modding in videogames, it gives you a head start in some respects, but there’s also a great deal to consider in terms of the extent to which you are both respectful of the original material, and also faithful to what it is that produced the positive feelings in your own experience in the first place. I should probably (and will) write my own immense screed about how and why I have found Blades In The Dark to be the best-designed TTRPG, but in the meantime have a read of this hugely enthusiastic thread by Sean Nittner, because (mostly) that, basically.)
I’m rambling. We should have some links.
How do we begin a story? And how does it end? This thread examines at how stories traditionally begin in a number of languages - you know, that Once Upon A Time sort of intro - and comes up with some gems. The “happily ever after” outros are, it turns out, even more interesting. Icelandic: "A cat in the bog put up his tail and there ends the fairytale." Quite so.
Matt Colville talks design process by taking guns in D&D as an example. Interesting to contrast with your own process, perhaps. I am certainly less methodical.
Kickstarter of the week (month?) is My Body Is A Cage, which is both an excellent refernce of a name for a game, but also a uniquely interesting prospect: “My Body is a Cage is a game about two worlds. The one you live in and the one you survive in. The waking world and the dream world. And the key to figuring out one, is hidden within the other.” The pitch is actually tough to get down, and even the author seems to struggle a little, but it’s just the sort of thing that is making the indie RPG area so exciting.
Research this week has been dominated by Stephen Hart’s “Website of Pascal Bonenfant” which has taught us many things, including the meaning of KNAPPING A JACOB FROM A DANNA-DRAG. Perhaps there’s some way for TEETH to include a guide to speaking in 18th century thieves cant, thanks to this…
I’m Going To Recommend: FOR THE QUEEN
Oh yes! We had a play of the narrative card game For The Queen last week, and I just wanted to drop in a recommendation here. It’s fair to say that I knew nothing about it when Gillen suggested playing it, and I was also not expecting much when I read the summary. However, it soon became clear that interesting things were possible when the queen we were for looked like an ancient druid, and Gillen declared he was a giant demonic bull, in which the rest of the characters could ride through the infernal cordon.
For The Queen, you see, is - much like The Zone that we played back in May - a narrative card game based around prompts. What will happen, inevitably, is that we will reach a card in which the queen is ambushed. We, the players, are travelling with her on that journey, and by the time the event takes place, we must decide if we are for or against the queen. How that reaction lands is based on our response to the prompts the deck presents us with. The first prompt is the portrait of the queen that you choose, and the rest are questions about your relationship with the queen herself, arriving from the deck of cards. Quite quickly one person had been asked when they knew they were going to set up the ambush for the queen, while also being in love with her. We soon learned why we had shed blood for her, as well as a fair bit about our world’s demon-summoning culture. By the time the ambush arrived, the story was living its own life.
While far less structured than something like The Zone, I felt like the minimalism was powerfully to For The Queens’s advantage. And while whether it works clearly depends on how the players end up handling the prompts they are delivered, it’s fascinatingly immediate in the questions it asks. As an exercise in pure improvisation that necessarily creates a cascade of world-building, I have played a couple of games like this now, but the core conceit of this one focuses the imagination marvellously, and rekindled my flagging enthusiasm for such things. For The Queen has given me, as a habitual world -builder, much to think about. You might like it, too.
INTR+VW: Emanoel Melo
We love CBR+PNK, a dramatically streamlined Forged In The Dark game. It was inevitable that we would reach out to its creator.
JR: We've already talked a little about you being the creator of CBR+PNK in the newsletter, but it'd be great to hear a bit more about who you are and what your background is? What brought you to TTRPGs?
EM: First of all, that was a nice surprise for me and I appreciate you taking the time, I love to know what sort of shenanigans others go through on the games I make!
I was first introduced to TTRPGs in the early 90s by the Fighting Fantasy books, Hero Quest and a sort of freeform campaign I played with a couple of friends. The first proper system I've learned was the New Easy to Master D&D which I mostly GM’d and hacked to suit other genres when I got bored of fantasy. It quickly became my favorite pastime and a way to make new friends. I even joined the local club and got to organize events in my hometown.
Adult life made me slow down, with less and less game nights, and thus the creative energy that used to power RPG campaigns was redirected to just learning new systems and tinkering with their mechanisms.
JR: Cyberpunk has obviously been riding fairly high as a genre in the past year, but what drew you to that for CBR+PNK? Why is it important to you as a creator?
EM: The human/machine dichotomy, the bright lights of the tireless sprawl and the endless struggle against authority were always strong themes for me. Although I loved Shadowrun as a setting, GURPS Cyberpunk was my favorite TTRPG book in the 90s mostly for the informative bits. I even tried to learn some hacking, without avail haha!
So, back in 2019 I was getting into RPGs again with a new group of inexperienced players. After a few fantasy adventures using my old-school-adjacent system Masmorra, they asked me to run a cyberpunk adventure. I got very excited to do it because it would be the first time in ages since I runned the genre! It was also an opportunity to try a new ruleset and I have been wanting to try out the Forged in the Dark system for a while.
JR: Why Forged In The Dark? What is it about the system that speaks to you? What works best for you in that ruleset?
EM: To me the essence of FitD is how it gives you mechanics to get the most out of fictional positioning. It encourages the negotiation of outcomes and fictional elements and that is SO important. It means that less often some players will feel intimidated by the others, especially by the GM. It also brings a strong sense of collective storytelling, but with very clear guidelines.
JR: Can you talk a bit about the design challenge of CBR+PNK? I am thinking both about what you had to do to get across the idea of cyberpunk in the Forged ruleset, but also how amazingly compact the rules are as an object: was that a struggle? Or empowering? Did you have to leave stuff out?
EM: It was definitely a struggle, but it was also a challenge that I've set very early for myself. Initially the goal was to make the Action Roll take the least space possible, while keeping all the original position/effect elements intact. As I worked on and quickly filled the pamphlet panels with other essential rules, I realised how important this was! To my advantage I had settled on the expendable crew in their last run premise and just needed the barebones for the "heist" phase to make it happen. Also, knowing that cyberpunk as a genre would be popular at the time let me handwave the setting, asking for the players to build their own on the fly. The fact that it is meant to be a one shot makes it easier for them to accept this sort of thing without the burden of "balancing" or book keeping. Other than that, I had to make the most of evocative words, choosing them carefully to convey the feel of the game throughout the text.
JR: Related to this, the "business card" card expansion is a fascinating thing. I mean, that's not really a question. I just wanted to mention it.
EM: Haha thanks! I like 'diegetic' stuff a lot, and I usually produce custom maps and letters for my fantasy campaigns when I have the time. I like to think that Plugin (just a funny way to call CBR+PNKs supplements) is part of this tendency of bringing more tactile elements from board games back to TTRPGs.
JR: How would you characterise the TTRPG scene in Latin America? Is the local scene something that you are particularly involved in? (We've noticed a few brilliant Brazilian creatives lately, and we wondered whether you had, too!)
EM: Particularly here in Brazil, big and small publishers are doing their best to translate good material to our language, but also mainstream brazilian games are getting more attention than ever. However, we still lack a unified community or more presence in the already established ones. And that is true for the rest of the Latin America. We have been using the #RPGLATAM tag on Twitter, trying to mitigate that problem, and there is even a Discord server open to everyone.
JR: I'd be interested in hearing about your other work - how did the comic come about, for example?
EM: I've been doing storyboards for animation and illustration for tabletop games. Singular, the comic book, was released in 2015 when I was much more involved in the comics scene here in Brazil. I have been collaborating here and there with writers and other artists in my small comics circle, but I wanted to produce a solo work and hit a few conventions, including CCXP. That story was in my head for a couple of years, but the main character first appeared in sketches almost years before and I was really excited to finally give them life. It was tough, I'd have done things differently now, but it played an important part in building up my confidence as a freelance artist.
JR: What other projects are you excited about? Is there something you would urge our readers to take a look at?
There have been SO MANY cool projects out there, it's hard to even keep up with everything coming out. I invite everyone to take a look at this Collection of tabletop games (mostly RPGs) made by brazilian authors!
JR: It feels, to me at least, that the indie TTRPG scene has had a real energy to it the past few years, and I wondered if you shared that feeling? What are your hopes for the scene?
EM: I do, very much so! I like how indie creators are getting more coverage from podcasts/channels lately, and being presented by other passionate professionals in their crafts other than the author themselves. I hope that we build new, reliable, ways to fund projects and the amount of quality content continue to grow with respect, inclusion and independently of big companies.
JR: Thanks for your time.