The Do It Yourself RPG: An Interview with Game Designer Filamena Young

Flatpack: Fix the Future's iconic character; as a "Wrench" your adventure is one where you save the world by rebuilding it. Pictured, a woman drawn in black and white wearing a worksuit and carrying a large wrench as she descends into (or ascends from!) a hole. Art by Juan Santapau http://www.thesecretknots.com/

Filamena Young is a game’s writer with several years of experience in the industry. She’s written for a variety of RPG properties, including White Wolf (she is a co-author of the Vampire the Requiem supplement Strange, Dead Love) Margret Weis Productions, and  EVE Online. I sat down with her- virtually speaking- to talk a bit about the importance of pen and paper roleplaying games and her upcoming RPG project, Flatpack: Fix the Future.

Quinnae Moongazer: So, tell me a bit about your history as a games writer. Do you have a favourite project?

Filamena Young: I got started in tabletop roughly five years ago. I heard about an all-call for new writers through a friend. I’d published a short story or two on microfiction zines, and so I thought I might as well give it a shot. Matt McFarland of White Wolf was looking, and I guess my stuff worked for him, because he took me on to freelance for the project right away. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of pitching myself, chasing leads, and getting the occasional request for my work from all sorts of game publishers. As for a favorite… That’s like which one is my favorite kid. Working on projects we’ve self published tends to be the most rewarding, but also the hardest work. Of work for others, adding romance and sex to Vampire the Requiem in our latest book, Strange Dead Love was strangely fulfilling.

QM: Oh? Can you tell me a bit more about that (the Vampire the Requiem writing) and why it was fulfilling?

FY: Sure! So Russel Bailey, one of their developers has long held that there is plenty of room in the World of Darkness games for romance. He wanted to explore the paranormal romance genre with an eye toward a game supplement that wasn’t the same old straight male gaze. So, he hired me, Jess Hartley, and Monica Valentinelli to do the actual writing. We set out to give players and Storytellers the tools they needed to use these romance elements in their games. Plot ideas, some minor rules hacks, all meant to bring that into a game. It’s got sex, it’s got tragic love stories, and it’s got, I’m hearing, a lot of room for all sorts of gendered approaches to the theme.

QM: That sounds very exciting. I’ll have to look that up. On that subject can you tell me in your own words why you think interventions like this in PnP RPGs are important? Or even why these types of RPGs are important to consider? In my own work I’ve tried to make such games visible as I think they’re very underrated, both in terms of their cultural effects and in terms of their great potential to subvert a lot of hegemonic narratives about gender, etc.

FY: Humans, as animals, play games and tell stories. It’s what we do. A situation where a group of human animals sitting around and playing games as well as telling stories, well, that’s the human experience wrapped up pretty neatly. I love video games, but you can’t beat the magic in the personal interaction around a table. (Or even a video chat.) It’s a social experience for a social animal and we can learn a lot about each other in the process. Like, real, face to face learning. I can read about the African American experience, but sitting across a table form a gamer of color letting me know through her character as well as her personal anecdotes what it’s really like is a big change.

There are a lot of ‘ah hah’ moments around a table as we explore stories together, and bring our own experiences to them. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re not doing the same Dungeons and Dragons, dungeon crawl adventure over and over. There’s nothing wrong with that style of play, but if that’s all we’re doing, we’re missing out on opportunities to have fun and learn in a new way. We need to use games to try out things we can’t personally experience. Games where violence isn’t the answer. Games where gender means something different, (or nothing at all.)

Games where we are people we can’t be in real life, or games where we see life from someone else’s shoes entirely. Those games, those stories, can help us all shrug off some of our baggage and see the world as a bigger, wider, more wonderful place. (Gee, preachy much?)

QM: No more preachy than I get, at least! *chuckles* I agree entirely, I think one of the biggest failings of all RPGs, whether video game or PnP, is that they tend to redound to normative social arrangements. Which is bizarre considering the whole point is for there to be this fantasy of limitless possibility that transcends the “real world.” On that note, perhaps you can tell me a bit more about how that influenced the creation of your upcoming RPG, Flatpack: Fix the Future. What made you want to make this game?

FY: So there’s the ‘be the change you want to see’ passed around. It’s something a lot of indie game designers really feel, and I find it inspiring. I thought about games I wanted to play, and more importantly, games that I wanted my daughters to play as they got older. I love Fallout, I loved Rifts when I was younger. I love a world AFTER the end when people are struggling, but more importantly, they are rebuilding. There are a lot of post apocalyptic games, but very few of them focus heavily on community and rebuilding. So, I could wait around to see if anyone else did it, or I could do it myself. I wanted a game that focused on traits not seen in more classically male-centric design. I wanted to see cooperation, friendship and compassion, and non violent conflict resolution. I wanted to encourage players to think through problems instead of punching through problems. I don’t see any inherent problem in violent games, I just think we need to do other things too.

QM: Very interesting! Post-apoc always turned me off due to how depressing it can be, so it’s interesting to see explorations of the more positive side of things. You had talked about how your game uses non-violent solutions to problems; while I’m always down for a good dungeon grind now and again, I have been troubled by the fact that most games seem to use violence as the sole metaphor for progress. It’s perhaps the easiest way to design an RPG- kill x, y, and z for experience- but also increasingly boring and uncreative. As you say, we need other things to do too. Can you talk a little bit about how Flatpack subverts that?

Flatpack: Fix the Future! (TM) - in sea green text, letters circumscribing blueprints.

FY: Well, it’s a bit about game currency and what rewards you give to the players. In many classic games, the player kills something, you give them magic beans to make their character better. (Experience points and level ups in many traditional games.) In Flatpack, the character advancement isn’t given for killing things. It’s tied to other things your character does. I give out video game style achievements. So, say, your character has successfully outsmarted a group of scavengers in a really fantastically clever way. The game rewards you by giving you a bonus to outsmarting scavengers in the future. Or, let’s say you failed to hack a really advanced AI, and the results were epic and awesome, you’re character know understands AIs better and will do better next time. I have to health levels. The non player characters don’t roll against the characters. It’s all about problems and obstacle and overcoming them creatively. There are no physical stats on the sheet. The in character text tells the players that their characters are special, exceptional, and too important to the future to risk death. Don’t fight, the text tells the players, because we need you too much.

QM: That’s very intriguing, so the game is built around creative storytelling mostly, with a minimum of statistical advancement?

FY: The core system is about a page long. Super simple, so much that a seven year old could probably grok it. It’s so simple, in fact, it almost begs to be hacked. Which is what character advancement is tied to. In the way that Magic the Gathering as a simple set of rules, and each card hacks those rules and changes the game, Achievements hack the characters in Flatpack. We all love playing the exception to the rule, after all. The core rules say that you only get a magic bean (Spirit points in this game) whenever your character does X or Y. But thanks to your Achievement, you now get those points at X, Y and Z.

QM: Hacking is probably one of my favourite metaphors with regards to RPGs. *grins* I often think of the games themselves as being, potentially, ‘culture hacks.’ So, what are the titular Flatpacks of the game?

FY: Here’s where I show what a geek I am. There’s an episode of Doctor Who with David Tennant where he ends up on a space station on the edge of a black hole. As he’s getting out of the TARDIS, he mentions that the station is one of those ‘flatpack models.’ It’s a sort of passing reference. I do a lot of shopping at Ikea, and a lot of my furniture comes out of flat boxes with that adorable big-nosed guy telling me how to put them together. I got this image of a future where you buy, say, a box that has a whole pet shop in it. Or a whole teaching hospital. Or a whole museum.

Open it up, follow the instructions, and you have a fully functional building. Then, I thought of a future way past that invention where people are rediscovering that technology. “Well, our city has court house, and a mini mall, but we really wish we had a doctor’s office. Or a post office.” You’d end up with these crazy mishmashes of buildings at varying usefulness. It’s pretty quirky, and it’s where a lot of humor in the game comes in.

QM: Hah! That’s delightful. And I imagine part of the fun might come from creatively repurposing some of these buildings, which can be mini adventures in and of themselves. So, you’ve written this modular game which, as you say, begs to be hacked- which raises interesting possibilities. What is the direction you hope to take Flatpack in? Do you see yourself writing supplements? And if so, what will they be about?

FY: I wrote it with room for expansion in mind. I’m hoping, time permitting, that I can release new sets of buildings and new modes of play. Currently, the game assumes that you’re a group of kids or young adults rebuilding one city so that the people of your underground bomb shelter have a place to live and grow. I could see hacking the game so that you’re each looking over the well being of your own city. Or one where trade, import and export, and diplomacy are a big function of the game as other newly established cities and communities vie for limited resources.

I have, down the road, plans to take the core of the game, and twisting it to a game about catching and taming dragons. That one will be a completely separate game geared toward family play. I had a lot of ideas, ways to layer the game to add to complexity, but I decided to leave that out of the core game to keep it affordable and easy to access if you want to play it with preteens or whatever. It’s a YA game, really, and I don’t want to overwhelm new players. Not at first.

QM: That also intrigues me. You say it’s a YA game, and that you also designed it with your daughters in mind. It still seems all too rare that game devs think about women or girls (or queer people, or people of colour) in development. Would you say that that’s still the state of the PnP RPG industry? And have you seen changes in your time working in the industry?

FY: Well, for PnP, it’s really a series of niche hobbies that have enough similarity to them that they crash into each other. I’m among the dirty hippy crowd who make experimental games. There’s a lot of attention to inclusion and reaching out to a wider audience in that crowd. There are also schools of thought that if it was good enough for Gygax, it should be good enough for us. I do a lot of headbutting over character art and ‘you can’t play that, that’s not realistic’ with those sorts. There’s room for a lot of styles of play, and I know a lot of the bigger publishers are reaching out to a wider audience.

Cam Banks of Margret Weis, for example, made damn sure that there’s a lot of welcome room for the young lady gamer is the Smallville RPG, which I can’t recommend enough, on a design level and on a philosophical one. Daniel Solis, working with Fred Hicks and Evil Hat do some AMAZING games with young, all-shades-and-color gamers in mind. Do is, without a doubt, an amazing piece of welcoming gaming.

Elizabeth Sampet, Emily Care Boss, Meguey Baker and Julia Ellingboe explore gender and race in some games that run from very heavy to light and wonderful. And this is all just people off the top of my head trying to change things. Plus, there’s a lot of subversive voices working their way into the big names. Tracy Hurley is very active with Wizards and D&D and she has a lot of amazing things to say. It gets better every day.

QM: Yes, I have to say I’m inclined to agree. One of the things I love about RPGs of this sort is that they’re much cheaper to make and the barrier for creative entry is a ways lower. It can be less daunting to raise, say, 5000 dollars for a PnP game in seed money rather than having to find venture capitalists with 50 million dollars lying around. Another RPG I have a lot of hope for is Eclipse Phase, have you heard of it? You’ll be holding a Kickstarter event for Flatpack this month, yes?

FY: Yeah. The plan is to have it about a month long through the middle of February. Kickstarter is a great equalizer, as it allows a lot of projects to be crowd sourced and brought to life that might never have seen the light of day in the past. It’s changing everything. I hope it helps indie video games the way it’s helping indie PnP games.

QM: Likewise! Any closing thoughts about anything we haven’t covered here?

FY: You really let me talk, *chuckles* I just wanted to say that I hear a lot of ‘but there aren’t women in gaming.’ I want to say that’s straight up not true. We’re here playing, we’re here creating, and the more of us that stand up and reach out, the better it gets for everyone. Minorities of any stripe are a big part of gaming, and instead of ignoring them, we need to be creating for them. Welcoming them, and inviting them to game and design with us. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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5 Responses to The Do It Yourself RPG: An Interview with Game Designer Filamena Young

  1. Rakaziel says:

    Sounds very interesting. I will try it out in my gaming group the next time we meet.

  2. Awesome, I’ll have to try this one out! I was able to find a demo (feels weird typing that for a PnP) for the game at the following link.

    http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product_info.php?products_id=97997&affiliate_id=270525

    Anyone know where can I find the full game?

  3. 1c33m4k3r says:

    Grr, I had intended to comment on this article the moment it first appeared. Curse my stupid, easily distracted brain…

    At any rate, I am excited to see an article for tabletop role-playing – and an interview with a game designer, no less! Flatpack sounds fantastic. I have always preferred plot and character development to combat and lengthy series of die rolls. Of course, proposing this game to my group would be an undertaking worthy of Hercules…

    Speaking of games that would require extreme effort to generate interest in my players: OH MY GOD, I am so excited you alluded to Eclipse Phase, Quinnae, even if Young did not directly discuss it! EP is worthy of so much sociological inquiry – given the amount of sociology invested into the game’s setting (or at least an understanding of the science), it is only appropriate. Gender identity, conceptualization of self, post-capitalist economies… Yeah. Eclipse Phase is, as is the vernacular nowadays, the “bomb diggity”.

    • At Machine Age, we love Eclipse Phase. I’ve done plenty of work for EP, and Filamena and I are close friends with the developers, and they’re huge proponents of open licensing like we are. I second any recommendation for their game. It tends to be a little mechanically crunchy for our tastes.

      If you’re a fan of story over dice rolls, check out some of our other games. It’s likely at least one will appeal to your crowd if Flatpack doesn’t immediately.

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