A Q&A with one of the most narratively astute designers working in games today.
Michael Barnes: First off, I want to thank you for your work on Legacy of Dragonholt. I think it's a tremendous success, and in a couple of rather unexpected ways. One of them is how I think it revolutionizes the modern notion of selective narrative outside of the traditional role-playing game realm by taking us back to the more "lo-fi" roots of the gaming hobby- pencils, paper, some text, and the "theater of the mind". I loved that that the game played out like a hugely ambitious, more highly evolved form of gamebook. But with your game, we're stripping things back to just text and situational branching. You don't even have die rolls or randomization- just text, some values, and a couple of cards that really aren't even necessary. It's practically a binary system where you either do or do not have a prerequisite. What were the challenges in crafting such a compelling, complex narrative that relies on so little to tell?
Nikki Valens: Thank you. I tend to start with the simplest form of something and move forward from there. Books that are not interactive at all can tell highly compelling stories and they have done so for centuries. So in my opinion, the challenge is less about creating a compelling narrative, but allowing the reader to become a part of that world and that story. Many narrative driven games put more emphasis on the game aspects, but I wanted the story to be the front and center aspect of Legacy of Dragonholt. So I simply added the mechanics that I felt were the bare minimum needed to allow a reader to interact with the story. And then as we wrote and revised and created that story, I pushed those mechanics only as far as was needed to accomplish that goal.
MB: This is an interesting point to me, and it's one that speaks to what games as a medium can and cannot do, or should or should not do. I often find myself wondering if games (outside of traditional RPGs) are really equipped to tell compelling stories as a medium since so much of the authorship is really in the hands of the players. How do you balance your authorship with the authorship of the player?
NV: Player authorship comes in with the choices the players make. Because they choose their own actions, in many ways they are choosing how the story unfolds (even if they aren't in complete control of the major story beats). So to make those choices feel like what the players really want to do is the real challenge. There's multiple way to approach this challenge, and I did so in all ways I could. When I would start writing a decision point, I would start with the skill list. I would look at each skill and think about how I or someone else might try to solve the problem using that skill. This relied a lot on my experience with roleplaying. How does one use craftsmanship to fight against giant spiders? It's those types of questions I had to answer. After that I thought about typical fantasy archtypes. How would a stereotypical rogue approach this situation, or a wizard, or a barbarian, et cetera. And then I would approach as each of the players and characters I knew of. How would that gnome archer character I made last year approach this? How would Bilbo Baggins approach this? How would the human knight my friend made approach this? It turns out there's no limit to the number of options we can imagine, so choosing the few options that sound good to the greatest number of players yields us options that genuinely feel like things players would choose to do in a roleplaying game.
MB: That was one of the things I really liked about Dragonholt - I felt like the choices were natural, and they allowed me to actually play a character. Extending that thought, one thing that is absolutely brilliant in the game is how conflict is handled in it. I thought it was fascinating how the battles- and there really aren't that many- were handled like the rest of the story as a branching, situational narrative. The detail was extremely high, and in my experience as a Wildlander who was trying to move away from the whole "violence solves everything" mentality, I especially appreciated that the outcomes I reached reflected that aspect of the character I had created. Was it a challenge to write this game as something where the usual "hack and slash" is relegated to a supporting role?
NV: I knew early on that I wanted to create a personal experience for the player. I didn't want to add an abstracted combat system or even a simulationist combat system. Ultimately, combat wasn't going to be super important to Dragonholt like it is to a game like Descent, so I went into it assuming we would be able to write the action scenes just like all of the other scenes. Had that not worked, I was prepared to create a combat system that fit the game, but in the end, just being able to tell the story was enough. And without the abstraction of combat, it allowed us to have many different ways of dealing with a dangerous situation. Not every option is a violent solution and depending on your character, the non-violent solution may very well be the best path for you.
MB: Another thing I really love about Legacy of Dragonholt is that it is such an inclusive, socially progressive narrative that reaches far beyond the usual notion that having female characters, for example, is representation enough for the generally straight, white male audience that many games aim for. I've seen some resistance to this online- the usual Gamergate types accusing the game of having an "agenda" or declaring it the work of social justice warriors (as if that's a bad thing). But I think it's amazing that you took what I think is a pretty boring fantasy setting (Terrinoth) and turned into an almost Star Trek-like utopia where the bigots are outliers and where everyone is judged by the quality of their character. Where do you think there are more opportunities for games to be more inclusive and representative of all genders, sexualities, races, and other types of people?
NV: I always used to scoff at people's comments about the "gay agenda". Thinking how silly it is that people imagine some nefarious plot by queer folk to do... something? But after working on Dragonholt and seeing the response from those same people, I came to realize that the gay agenda does exist, but it's not some nefarious plot; it's just a longing to be seen and accepted. The "agenda" that Dragonholt puts forth is that queer folk, genderqueer folk, people of color, and all minority and marginalized groups exist and we enjoy gaming just as much as the cishet white men who try desperately to ignore us. I believe it's on the creators (especially the cishet white men) to create worlds and games that are inclusive. Because that only improves the hobby for all of us. I don't think it's a matter of which games should or shouldn't be "political", because the inclusion or exclusion of minority groups is political either way. Choosing not to be inclusive is choosing to be exclusive; it's not playing it safe or avoiding drama.
MB: These are all excellent points, and points that I wish more designers working in all game formats would explore. I think you are 100% correct that avoiding inclusion is simply playing lip service to the kinds of latent and overt homophobic, white supremacist, or sexist mentalities that have somehow survived up into 2018. And I think you are also correct that cishet white men in particular need to fucking step up and say "look, games are for everybody, and should include everybody". There's been such a long history of exclusion, exploitation and flat-out ignorance in hobby gaming - take a look at the long line of white supremacist games that celebrate European colonialism or ridiculous notions that objectified characters like the notorious "Red Scorpion" represent inclusion. How do the middle-class, cishet white guys that make games succeed in making games that are more inclusive and representative against these idiotic reactions and established expectations?
NV: There's no magical process by which these games come to be nor by which our industry and our hobby and our community becomes more accepting; it's just taking a stand and no longer allowing that kind of behavior or those games to flourish. But these inclusions and themes need to be done right. They need to be done with the experiences of those who they affect and have affected. Seek out the marginalized people that you want to help and ask for their experiences (and pay them!). There are many of us who will gladly consult on your game and your writing to ensure you are creating a truly inclusive and beneficial experience. But it is on the creator, especially the creators who don't have those experiences themselves, to do research and to find consults who can help them. I can fight for queer and genderqueer rights all I want and within my minority community I can be accepted, but it is the majority who still holds power and privilege; it is on them to fight for our rights as humans as well.
MB: Before this interview turns into little more than fannish fawning over Legacy of Dragonholt, allow me one more indulgence. How in the world did you map this game out? It's such an intricate design; I can't imagine how you kept all of this straight. I found it particularly interesting how you created a "hub world" with its own schedule and time limits, but it still allowed for the player to explore at will almost like, well, Majora's Mask is what it made me think of. I guess I'm kind of asking what's behind the curtain here- what was the secret formula for getting all of this writing to stick together coherently?
NV: Haha, it was certainly a challenge. I got very good at keeping very large branching storylines in my head. There was a period of time where I had hundreds of postit notes tacked to one of the common area walls in the FFG office with red thread strung all between them like a scene of a conspiracy theorist. Co-workers would come by and just stare at it in wonder and ask me things like "wow, is this the entire game mapped out?" and I would take a step back and go, "nah, this is just the first half of one of the quests." Sadly I can't share any of the photos I took during that time, but it looked straight out of a movie. My later more streamlined method was to keep many many pages of entry numbers in flowchart like layouts for the different scenes. For the village at least, the scenes usually fit on a single page, though some are too elaborate or long and spanned multiple pages. Not to mention I had a map of Dragonholt pinned to the wall next to my desk the entire time to help keep track of all the locations. There's also some spreadsheets detailing information about all of the characters and what they do day to day. To make them all feel more alive and like they have their own lives to live, we gave them all schedules. Some more simple or consistent than others. You'll pretty much always be able to find old Theodore on his usual stool in the Chatty Archer, but Phillip's daily routine is more complex and changes day to day based on his studies with Celyse.
MB: It's ironic that you mention using spreadsheets and flowcharts to keep track of it all- those are common derogatory ways to describe games that are more mechanical than narrative. But here you were using them as a behind-the-scenes structuring device. I think that's pretty smart! Moving on to some of your other work, you've also done some things with Fantasy Flight's Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness lines, which are also primarily story-driven games. I'm curious as to whether you felt those games and their underlying designs with vastly more variables were more or less restrictive in terms of the stories that you as a designer and writer wanted to tell.
NV: They are certainly more restrictive. A story for Mansions for instance needs to hit particular milestones and needs to progress at a specific pace and needs to flow well with the mechanics. But despite those added restrictions, there are still limitless possibilities for the types of stories that can be told through the game. Eldritch is even more restrictive, but the types of stories it tells are also far more abstract. The scope of a story in Eldritch is either one that spans multiple months in universe and needed to be able to play out in virtually any order, or it's a mere vignette of a specific event in a countless sea of events that make up the entire story. In some ways it's easier to write those, because each one is wholly independent of the others.
MB: Now that you've improved some of FFG's proprietary settings, what is a setting or theme that you are particularly interested in bringing to the table? Mind, I regard setting as something very different than theme- setting is nomenclature, flavor text, and pictures. Theme is what something is actually about, the underlying motifs and concepts of a game.
NV: I'm interested in really any setting in which I can tell interesting stories. I think fantasy settings can be interesting if given enough love. I feel the same about scifi settings. I've been wanting to do something with both an urban fantasy setting and a cybernoir setting. I didn't get to work on any games in the Android universe, but I like its general aesthetic and theming. As for specific IPs that I would be excited to work on: Magic the Gathering, Overwatch, and Steven Universe are the three that come to mind first, though who knows if I'll ever get to work on any of those.
MB: I can't believe somebody hasn't done some kind of tabletop Overwatch, but if I had the license I'd hand it over to you! It's always struck me as limiting that so much of gaming is about conflict - I suppose to some extent it stems from hobby gaming originating in wargaming. But as a medium, it seems like there is always this funnel that takes things back to a relatively small range of competition or conflict oriented concepts. I'd love to see more games that explore concepts like romance or nostalgia or morality and in ways that are more specific and nuanced than the old "paragon/renegade" paradigm or by offering them as optional elements. What are some themes or subjects you would like to work on outside of the "usual beat", so to speak?
NV: One theme I've been getting excited about more lately is romance, specifically stories that allows for exploring gender and orientation in relation to romance. I've been toying with the idea of putting together an interactive narrative that tells a more personally social story with opportunity for the player to romance one or more of a number of different characters. A dating sim in gamebook form almost. There haven't been many hobby games that touch on romance as a main theme. I made sure to include at least two romantic opportunities in Dragonholt, and Fog of Love is a very innovative look at roleplaying a romantic relationship. But I'd like to see the theme explored more deeply.
MB: How do you make a board game, how do you write mechanics, about love for example?
NV: The same way we make games about anything really. If conflict is the subject matter of so many games, we could just as easily make community and collaboration the subject of that many games. In the end, mechanical systems are devoid of theme in most cases. The Oracle system that runs Dragonholt can be used for conflict or romance simply by putting different words into it. Likewise, I could see the mechanics of Fog of Love reskinned to tell a story of political conflict or political debate. The romance games with the most notoriety are probably not even the ones that were made specifically about romance. Mass Effect and Dragon Age and Stardew Valley are three video game example that feature entire worlds, characters, and stories alongside their romantic offerings, but I've heard more players excited about who they plan to romance and how than about the actual story or mechanics of those games. Tabletop games can learn a lot from video games (and the reverse is also true).
MB: I definitely agree with that, and I think over the past few years there has been much more of a focused convergence. I've heard it said that video game designers want to make tabletop games and tabletop game designers want to make video games. And we've seen over the past few years a lot of crossover in terms of concepts going over to one side or the other. With this in mind, what are some of things that you think tabletop games should be learning from video games?
NV: There's a lot of overlap in the process between creating a board game and creating a video game. Both have advantages over the other. Board games have a leg up when it comes to creating a social experience, which is what drew me to tabletop games over video games. But video games are much more accessible to a wider audience, in part because they're a bit more hands on when it comes to learning. I think that's the main area where I would like to see board game learn from video games. Many board games are incredibly complex, but even the simpler ones still have rulebooks that need to be read before playing. For many players, that's all well and good. But for many players (myself included) who are hands on learners, listening to someone explain the game or reading the rules isn't the best way to engage with and start playing a game. With Dragonholt I tried to have the game teach you as you play, which for a game as simple as Dragonholt can work. But find ways for more complex games to be more accessible is one of the biggest hurdles the industry needs to clear. Fog of Love makes a noble attempt at this with its seeded tutorial cards. You find and read the tutorial cards as you are playing the game and they teach you what you need to know. It's not a perfect system, but it plays very smoothly. I'm confident in my understanding of the game without having even looked at the rulebook.
MB: We've definitely come a long way from having to learn incredibly complex games like Magic Realm with nothing more than a badly written and confusing rulebook. To wrap this up, as the self-proclaimed Queen of Ameritrash, what are your thoughts on that once-contentious term? Speaking as one of the people that is kind of responsible for it, I think it's a worn out and barely relevant term. In fact, we've recently changed the name of this site, founded at the height of the Ameritrash Revolution, to exclude the term because we do not feel that it has currency or meaning to most game players today. I suppose it's like how first-gen punks started to distance themselves from that term by the early 1980s. What is "Ameritrash" for you today?
NV: Haha, not self-proclaimed but I'm flattered to have been given the title. It originates from a post on BGG titled "God save the Queen of Ameritrash! - A Review of Legacy of Dragonholt" (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1896118/god-save-queen-ameritrash-review-legacy-dragonholt). I hadn't noticed the thread the day it was posted and went into the office the next day. My co-workers were ready and played the British anthem and presented me with a paper crown, cape and scepter, calling me the "Queen of Ameritrash". I just kind of stood there awkwardly like "is that a good thing or a bad thing?" I wasn't super familiar with the term at the time, but it seems many now use it as more of a descriptor than a term of derision. Words are very powerful tools that we human's wield and how we choose to wield them changes their meaning. The word "queer" has in the past (and in some ways in the present) been used to harass people, but I choose to use it as an inclusive term for the entire spectrum of romantic and sexual orientations. I choose to use it positively to remove the negative power the word had. Ameritrash is a term of derision if we treat it as one, or a term of endearment if we choose to use it that way.
MB: I think the funniest thing about that story is that your co-workers played "God Save the Queen". Back when the "Ameritrash Wars" were raging at BGG, one of the things that caused much consternation for the trainspotters was that many games being grouped under the Ameritrash banner were, in fact, British. So there's a perhaps unintentional echo there. I never got a crown, but I was (I believe) the first person ever given a title related to Ameritrash- I was called an "Ameritrash apologist" by a hardcore 18xx train gamer and that was really kind of the flashpoint for the whole thing. My friend posted a Geeklist about Ameritrash and it just kind of turned into this thing. At the time, the gaming culture was all about horribly redundant, soulless post-Princes of Florence Eurogames so we absolutely thought of the term as something like "queer" or "punk" and embraced it. So even if you weren't familiar with the term, I think you got it, and even if it is late I approve your coronation!
Thank you so much for this conversation and I hope we see much more from you in the future!
NV: Thank you! I have countless ideas for games, and I intend to keep making them for many years to come. For anyone who wants to hear more from me or get a glimpse of what I'm working on occasionally, you can follow me on Twitter (@valens116). Though it's usually mostly memes and getting over excited about Magic, Overwatch, or Steven Universe.