Story Realms: An Interview with Escapade Games

I encountered Angie, like many folks, via the growing board game community on Twitter. For a long time, she’s been talking about this wondrous storytelling game called Story Realms. I offered to help, and over the past several months I’ve read over a few revisions of the rules to provide feedback.

Angie and the rest of her team have been working themselves nigh recklessly to revise, test, and produce Story Realms. The game is very unique and interesting and is worth a look if you have creative and imaginative kids, love RPGs but don’t have the time, or just want a good story. 

If you see HG, that’s me. EG are the folks from Escapade Games.

HG: Introduce yourselves! Tell us about Escapade Games.

EG: Escapade Games is a really a family effort. Julian and Angie have been friends for over a decade and are the designers of Story Realms.  Julian’s wife Chrissy does the web design and Angie’s husband Randy does media coordination.  Chrissy and Randy have also helped out with playtesting and developing the game.  We’ve been designing games together for years, but this is the first game we’ve been excited enough about to try and publish.

HG: Well, then, tell us about Story Realms!

EG: Story Realms is a cooperative storytelling adventure game that lets players go on grand adventures in about an hour.  One player takes on the role of Storyteller and runs the adventure while the rest of the players take on the role of heroes and try to save the day.  The players can try to do anything they can imagine to solve the challenges of the quest.  A simple skill system and Tracker cards make it easy to determine whether these ideas work and when the players have won or lost.

The game has loads of beautiful art to feed the imaginations of the players.  The board is a detailed map of Storm Hollow (the game’s setting).  There are Lore Cards for every major character or villain of the story and a Scene Card for each scene of every adventure.

HG: Who do you think would love to play Story Realms?

EG: The game was designed with families in mind, but it is our sincere hope that just about anybody can enjoy the game.  We’ve playtested with a lot of people and everyone seems to have a great time.  With Story Realms, we’ve really tried to make it a game that kids and newer gamers can play, but that parents and experienced games will still enjoy.  The simple mechanics and focus on story and imagination make it easy to get in to.  The artifacts and powers provide some depth and complexity.  Some players might be timid to try a storytelling game.  Experienced gamers might wonder about the simple mechanics.  However, we feel that anyone interested in the theme and willing to try Story Realms will find something to smile about.

HG: What is the best part about Story Realms? Do you have a great story or moment from the game?

EG: I think what I like best is how different the story is each time you play.  We’ve played the opening adventure with dozens of different groups and it never gets boring to run.  Each group comes up with their own fun solutions and their own imaginative stories to overcome the challenges of the adventure.  One scene involves getting down a huge waterfall.  We’ve seen players come up with all sorts of clever plans; including creating machines to fly down, build elevators with ropes and pulleys, and causing the trees at the bottom to grow and shape into enormous size so they could climb down.

One particularly amusing time, two players got back up the falls by freezing it and carving the ice into a slide. Then they used a shield as a sled, strapped mechanical wings on their backs, and shot themselves back up to the top of the falls with wind magic to arrive in style! Everyone was laughing and having a great time and the image of their exciting exploits has stuck with us for months! Also, watching our own young children dive into the game and the world, creating their own memorable stories and engaging with us in our favorite hobby has been immensely rewarding.

HG: I know you’ve been working on the rules endlessly for months (I’ve seen a handful of variations myself). What has been so challenging about writing the rules for a game like this?

EG: Since we are trying to make the game playable by kids and fun for experienced gamers, it has been a long effort to strike the right balance.  The game basics are intentionally simple to help bring imaginative ideas to life and make it easy for newer players and kids to get into the game.  However, the game includes powers, artifacts, status conditions, and other details to give enough depth to be fun for experienced gamers.   We want the rules to be an easy read, but offer enough guidance that new players feel comfortable running the game. We’ve been playtesting for months and adjusting the rules as we go along based on all the feedback.

In addition to all that, as educators and parents it is very important to us to make sure the game is accessible to kids and clear and easy to read. We’ve been working with the latest draft to improve the readability of all of the sections. This has no impact on the gameplay, the depth, and flexibility of the system, or the fun, it just makes it where kids can enjoy the lore, learn the rules, and run the game too!

We’re very proud of the educational opportunities Story Realms provides, and have made the entire rules, components, and flavor text read at a middle school level so that teachers can use the materials as part of a Language Arts curriculum. We’d like to get it down to a grade school reading level, but some of the fantasy themed game terms make it difficult.  Though to be clear, the game has been tested and successfully played by non-reading 5 and 6 year olds. You don’t have to be able to read to enjoy playing the game.

HG: Overall, what has been the biggest design challenge for the game? How did you solve it?

EG: I guess the biggest design challenges were how to allow creative solutions to the adventures so it wasn’t all hack and slash and how to help the storyteller run a variety of scenes in a simple way.  Skills and Trackers were the eventual answer, but getting them right took a lot of effort.  It wasn’t easy to find the right six skills and the best names for them so that they would cover everything we wanted to cover and be completely intuitive.  The names Move, Might, Magic, Explore, Talk, and Think were the results of a lot of discussion, brainstorming, and playtesting, believe it or not.

We also struggled over different probabilities for the skill dice and whether there should be different kinds of dice.  With the trackers, at one point we had different boards for different types of scenes.  Then we revised those boards.  Then threw them out and tried several different kinds of trackers.  Again it took a lot of playtesting and revision to discover that four simple trackers of Progress, Disaster, Threat, and Time would give us the versatility we needed to tell lots of different stories.  After this experience, it is our sincere belief that anytime you see something in a game that seems completely intuitive and absolutely simple that means someone put a lot of work into thinking about so you wouldn’t have to.

HG: Did you have any “ah ha!” or “eureka!” moments during development? If so, what were they?

EG: There have been a lot of those moments.  Character creation as a simple choice of heroic role and unique talent was one, but the precise implementation of that took a lot of work.  Probably the best “ah ha!” moment came from initial idea for Adventuring Kits.  Of all the elements of the game, that one is still pretty close to the original idea.  We knew we wanted a simplified version of adventuring equipment.  When the idea struck for a card that showed what you had and a simple rule about adding an extra die when you have the right tool for the job, it just felt right. Having the pocket spots allowed for creativity and flexibility without a lot of planning and looking things up ahead of time. While the specific items in the kits have undergone a lot of revision, the concept and mechanics for how they work is almost exactly the same as the initial concept.  It was a fantastic “Eureka!” idea that proved to be incredibly fun in playtesting and is still a favorite part of the game for many players.

HG: What were some of your inspirations for Story Realms?

EG: The overall concept of Story Realms was inspired by our desire to play a game with our kids that we honestly enjoyed as adults and didn’t take too long to play.  The concept of the world and the heroes was inspired by our love of folk and fairy tales, classic literature, and some of our favorite movies from childhood like Labyrinth and Neverending Story.

Mechanically, we drew inspiration from a variety of storytelling games; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Whitewolf Storyteller systems were big influences.  We also drew inspiration from D&D, Pathfinder, and Everway.  We discussed games like Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Tales of Arabian Nights for their ability to provide a variety of stories using simple board game systems.  Magic the Gathering was often discussed as a game that manages to communicate a lot of complex game design through intuitive and simple key words and thematic concepts.

HG: What are some of your favorite games?

EG: We love all kinds of games, but have slightly different tastes. Magic the Gathering, Pathfinder, and Dominion are all games that might make it onto both of our top 10 lists.  Both of us really like games that involve cool, strategic decision, but play in about an hour or less.  It can be hard to find the time with kids and family to play longer games.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

EG: We’d just like to thank our families for all the support they’ve given us through this game’s creation and development.  It’s been stressful at times, but their support has definitely kept us going.  We’d also like to thank the fine folks at Game Salute for believing in the game and helping us make it a reality.  Our art director Dann May and our character artist Kelly McClellan and cartographer Herwin Wielink have done a fantastic job creating stunning art for the game that has definitely helped it stand out and catch people’s attention.

And thank you, Grant, for giving us the opportunity to talk about Story Realms. This game has already come so much further than we could have ever imagined.  We feel very fortunate for the chance to develop and share this game with people, and incredibly excited about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

If you’re interested in Story Realms, check out the Kickstarter pageThe official Story Realms website is here.

An Interview About Forsooth!

Sam Liberty is one of my favorite people on Twitter. He’s hilarious, but also a very thoughtful, accomplished designer. I’ve been bugging him to write for Hyperbole Games for months, but he’s too busy doing TED Talks, getting games published, and in general trying to convince me to make Field Marshals about combative pastries (he’s serious). Well, I took this battle to him and his designer partner, Kevin Spak.

I didn’t know much about their upcoming pen and paper roleplaying game Forsooth!, but I assumed (rightly) it was worth discussing. I also assumed their design process would make for a compelling read. How awesome is it that I’m 2 for 2?

At Sam and Kevin’s site you’ll find designer diaries, print and play versions of their games, and more.

Note: HG and Italics mean Hyperbole Games. SFG means Spoiled Flush Games (Sam and Kevin).

HG: Thanks for agreeing to this interrogation! Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves and Spoiled Flush Games?

SFG: Our pleasure! We’ve been working together since college, where we met and developed a few card and board games. We had the bright idea to design 52 card and dice games using just a deck of cards and a set of hobby dice (plus other sundires a normal person might have lying around), and publish them together as a book. We actually never published it, but now we look at it as sort of a well of ideas that we can draw from for full-scale games. A lot of mechanics that emerged from the process have found their way into our designs, most notably the combat system for our deck-building game, Gladiators (Rio Grande, 2013). That’s where our name and logo comes from, too. We’re fond of playing cards, to put it mildly.

We’ve got another game, Cosmic Pizza, coming out from Cambridge Games Factory soon.

HG: So you’re saying you made 52 games? Not a number of games that use 52 cards? That’s quite impressive. Is there any way for people to read some of these?

SFG: That’s right — we designed 52 games, many of which use 52 cards. We’ve been publishing some favorites on our website’s free games blog, and have seven of them online as of today. In addition to the rules, we also post design diaries for each one.

HG: Gladiators is a collaboration between the two of you, then?

SFG: Basically, every game we’ve designed since we met has been a collaboration between the two of us. At this point, neither of us would even think about designing a game without taking it to the other at a very early stage. Our process is extremely collaborative, which we think is part of the secret to our success, such as it is.

HG: I agree that such a strong collaboration can only be a part of the “plus” column. The reason I brought you here (“here” being cyberspace) is to discuss your upcoming pen and paper RPG, Forsooth. Can you tell us about the game?

SFG: We designed this game for Game Chef 2011, and are honored to have won the competition. The theme that year was Shakespeare, so we designed the best Shakespeare game we could. It doesn’t use a GM and requires no advanced preparations. In our experience it takes 3-4 hours to play, but there’s a Cliff Notes version included that plays in just around 90 minutes. The game seats 3-6.

As for setting, it can be anywhere the players like, as long as that place looks and feels like Elizabethan England. Shakespeare famously played fast and loose with setting, and so do we. The spotlight is really on characters.

Each player creates their own cast, controlling multiple characters, that can enter and exit scenes at any time, as long as no player controls more than one onstage character at a time. These characters have motivations (what they’re trying to achieve) and oaths (a behavior they’ve sworn to uphold) which give them some direction, plus a nature that lets everyone know what type that character is. Natures are paired descriptors that you choose from a list, like “Sophisticated Fool,” “Melancholy Rake,” or “Scheming Brute,” for example.

It’s amazing the power that players have in Forsooth! to really affect the fiction. Because it’s all improvised, nobody knows where the play will go, or what will happen in a given scene. The best moments are often when a character does something really unexpected or outlandish — and because it’s written in the rules that whatever a player says goes, everyone else just needs to roll with the punches. Characters also have another powerful set of tools to get what they want: soliloquies and asides, which let you actually change your fate or over-write previously introduced information.

So, yes, the characters have stuff they want to achieve, but it’s not really a good idea to get too hung up on that part of it. The object of the game is actually to win applause from your opponents, which you do by performing well, i.e. entertaining them through your roleplaying. Each game will have two winners, one that broke his oath (forsworn) and one who kept to it (true) with the most applause, so it might be dramatically appropriate or strategically smart to break your oath, too.

HG: Can you give us some examples of some of the good settings?

SFG: At the start of the game, you’ll choose themes and a setting. We found in testing players wanted something a little more specific than “Wherever!” so we introduced what we call “setting descriptions.” These are simple descriptions of the setting that take the form of “A ______ near a _______ in _______.” For example, “A castle near the shore in Denmark.” Players agree on these before character generation, so you can appropriately name your characters. We have lists of choices (though you don’t need to use them), and give the option of rolling the setting at random.

HG: How are Oaths chosen or assigned to players?

SFG: Players pen oaths for each of their characters. In my mind, this is the most  challenging part of character generation, so we include a long section on what makes a good oath. They describe an action that the character has sworn to always take, or never take. One of my characters in our last playtest had sworn to “Never perform surgery while drunk.”

HG: Hilarious! Is there a limit to the number of characters? What’s the typical number for players?

SFG: It varies depending on whether you’re using the Cliff Notes or standard rules. In the standard game, you will have two characters in your cast in most cases. A three-player game uses a three-character cast (nine characters for the table). If you’re using Cliff Notes, it’s usually one less. If you’re using Cycles rules (campaign play), you can eventually earn extra characters, and in that sense, there’s no strict limit on your cast size. This is a good reward for expert players who can handle larger  casts.

HG: Have you seen issues where players withhold applause/points because they want to deny others the win? I can imagine some players are perhaps too competitive and hurt the experience?

SFG: Short answer: no. We haven’t seen this behavior in playtesting. However, the rules do discourage this in a couple ways. First, applause totals are technically secret. You don’t really know how much each character has at any given point. Second, you’re required to give out a certain number of applause chips by the end of the game, or all your characters get -1 for each chip you failed to get rid of.

HG: What are some of your favorite pen and paper RPGs? How did they influence Forsooth?

SFG: We’re both D&D players from way back (who isn’t?) but Forsooth! bares absolutely no resemblance to it, or most of its kin. It’s got a real indie vibe to it, no dice rolling, extremely improvisation and character driven, etc. We were heavily influenced by The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by James Wallis. Like Munchausen, Forsooth! has a winner, and that winner is chosen by the table by giving out chips. We love the storytelling of Munchausen, but wanted a more interactive game. Munchausen is all about one player telling a boastful story (as is fitting), whereas Forsooth! is all about improvising a play together as a group.

Another strong influence is Luke Crane’s Mouse Gaurd. Veteran Mouseguard players might notice echoes of beliefs, goals, and instincts when they’re writing motivations and oaths for their Forsooth! characters. Like in MG, what characters believe and want are central, more than numerical scores (we only use one number in the whole game!). Also like in MG, you’re using these aspects to tell the rest of the table what you’re interested in, inviting them to throw a wrench into your motivation or tempt you to break your oath.

HG: I own Fiasco from Bully Pulpit and, though I haven’t played it yet, I’m fairly familiar. Both of your games seem to have a highly improvised, over the top feel to them. Is this a fair comparison?

SFG: We’re in the same boat as you. We own it, haven’t played it, but really want to. The only reason we haven’t is we’ve been playtesting Forsooth! at every opportunity. I was blown away when I read Fiasco, and do feel the games appeal to a similar audience. We have rules to encourage interconnected casts between players, for instance, and encourage bold, exciting action. They compare very favorably to each other.

HG: How long has Forsooth been in development?

SFG: We started work on it as soon as the Game Chef 2011 theme was announced, so roughly a year.

HG: How does development on an RPG differ from a board game, if at all?

SFG: They’re strikingly similar. We have ideas, we talk about them, we implement the best ones, then watch them explode in testing. Actually, Forsooth! came together really quickly and well, simply because it’s so rules-light. We did make many changes from the original version, though. The game remained generally the same, even if almost every specific thing about it changed, from what a soliloquy and aside actually do, to the number of characters you control, to what triggers the end of the game.

It’s a lot harder to playtest an RPG, however. Finding willing guinea pigs is more difficult. Anyone who agrees to do it needs to hack out a huge block of time to give you a meaningful test. Getting multiple play-throughs in one sitting is almost impossible. It’s a lot harder to objectively judge the results and pick out what exactly is causing a problem, because the players personalities obscure that so much. Yet, playtests are every bit as important as with a board game.

HG: What are some features or aspects that you removed from the game? Why?

SFG: We removed some artifacts born from the restrictions of the Game Chef competition. For instance, we were required to include “exile” as a design theme, so we said “your highest fate character is your Exile, and the game ends when all Exiles are married or dead.” The plot of the game always involved a band of exiles living together in a castle. It was a little MTV’s Real World. Now, we just say your highest fate character is your “protagonist,” but we kept the married or dead thing, which always went over well with everyone.

At one point, we had a list of events that had to take place during scenes to help give players direction, but it proved an unnecessary restriction and source of stress, so we axed that.

The Game Chef version was really short, by necessity, so we’ve added a lot more than we’ve taken away.

HG: Other than finding testers, what has been the hardest aspect of development for you?

SFG: The hardest part has probably been figuring out the actual cause of problems. In a board game, you can see that a strategy is too dominant or a card is too unbalanced. Even in a traditional RPG like D&D it’s apparent when a character option or monster is too strong. In Forsooth! we had to say “OK, the players are having difficulty wrapping their minds around the setting. Why? How can we fix that?” or “OK, players are forgetting characters and constantly referring to the sheets, how can we ease this?”

HG: Do you have any advice for someone who may want to create their own RPG?

SFG: Figure out what your game does differently than other games, what it does better than other games, and focus on that relentlessly. Design philosophy has changed drastically since D&D and GURPS were your only choices, and today, I feel there’s more room for RPGs that explore one thing, or a few things, very deeply, rather than games that are a Swiss Army knife that tries to do everything, simulate everything perfectly. All the games mentioned in this interview (Mouse GuardFiascoBaron Munchausen, and Forsooth!) have that in common, and all are successful for that reason.

HG: What are some of your favorite moments or stories that have emerged during testing?

SFG: So many. Most of them are really funny. Even when you improvise a tragedy, it turns out hilarious, 99% of the time. In the very first playtest we had, our friend Adam Stone played a princess with a tendency to enter scenes and wistfully foreshadow her own death. In a cliff notes playthough, Denise Granniss used her line of narration to introduce a Barbary Pirate raid. Another time, Kevin had is Foolish Thinker break his oath to “Do nothing he could not justify through reason,” by falling in love. The game by its nature ends up littered with hapless fools, insufferable mopers and outlandish villains who we love to see befuddled and foiled.

Occasionally, though, the action does stray into dark territory and some really startling, gut-wrenching moments occur. In my last game, one of Sam’s characters suffered a complete breakdown and smothered an infant alone onstage. One scene later, when another character asked where the baby was and she replied, ‘I’ll go get her,” you could feel the tension around the table, especially when she returned holding the dead baby — which all the other characters thought was alive. The shocking reveal brought down the house.

HG: When and where will Forsooth be available? At what price?

SFG: The game will be available in PDF and soft cover from Amazon.com beginning June 22nd, and we’ll be placing it in more stores (online and off) as we go along. It’ll retail for $14 (soft cover) and $10 (PDF). We’re also planning on producing an e-reader version.

HG: Tell me about your Game Chef experience. Has winning opened any doors for you? Did you compete in the 2012 competition? Any advice for potential participants?

SFG: I don’t know if winning has opened up doors for us, but it’s always useful to be able to say you won something. “We designed a game,” is nice, but “We designed a game; it won a competition,” is nicer. We skipped the 2012 contest for a couple reasons. First, we were hard at work on this RPG. Second, we consider it a little uncouth to enter a contest you already won once.

Creating a game out of nothing in just a week is a tough order, but if you love game design and playing RPGs, how could you pass it up? We had a ton of fun designing and playing Forsooth!. Building a full, satisfying game in limited time and limited space is an interesting challenge in and of itself. The perfectionist in you will want to create a game with fun, innovative mechanics and character generation rules, a lush, fleshed-out setting, layers of descriptive flavor text, and painstakingly spelled out examples. This is almost impossible. The key is making a plan of attack, figuring out what you can skip and what the players will fill in on their own. For Forsooth!, that meant including almost nothing about the setting of the game and trusting the players to figure out how to make the game work without too much hand-holding. This allowed us to devote our space to a complete and playable game system with enough extras to round off the sharp edges. Other games that impressed us had amazing settings, but left the finer parts of the rules to to chance. Figure out what your game is really about and focus on that.

HG: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SFG: Well, if any interested parties are in the Boston area, they should come to Jiffycon Boston on June 16th, where they can meet and play Forsooth! with us.

We’d also like to use this space just to say thanks to everyone who helped make Forsooth! a reality:Game Chef’ers, play testers, Terry LaCasse (Founder and Director of CNY Shakespeare) who graciously contributed a foreword, Janine Liberty (Sam’s wife) who copy edited the manuscript, and Kevin’s girlfriend Melissa Newman-Evans who did an amazing job designing the cover and laying out all the text. That’s about all!

HG: Thanks guys, awesome interview!