Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Maury Brown
'In Focus: Women of Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights women in all facets of the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Maury Brown, the president and co-founder of Learn Larp, designer and publisher of A Wolf By Any Other Name, and co-developer, project manager and publisher of House Rivalry. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Thanks for joining us, Maury. I usually start 'In Focus' interviews by asking about favorite games, but I'm going to hold off on that because you have an interesting resume that I want to dive into. For starters, you are the president and co-founder of Learn Larp. (For anyone unfamiliar, LARP is an acronym for Live-Action Role Playing.) Tell us about how you came to start Learn Larp, and what it's all about.
Learn Larp was founded to design games that use the power of story and roleplay to create empowerment and empathy in their players. The way we play, the systems we design, the values we use in game -– all of these things reflect who we are and our view of the world. Play and games can be very powerful for learning how to overcome problems, work together, think creatively, see from another’s perspective, and try on new identities through the lens of fiction. Games allow us a space to take chances, to mitigate risks, to practice managing resources, learning about consequences of actions, and also to navigate social systems. I wanted to start a company that made games -– first live roleplay events, then tabletop – that are designed to bring people together, to make the rules and the crunch as light and transparent as possible, and to have people interact with each other in positive ways. I have a background in education, writing, communication, and design, and I’m able to combine those together to design games that help people learn things – without feeling like they are learning. They’re just having fun. The application to their daily lives tends to be realized later. And that’s cool, if someone can play a game, and then use a skill from the game to help them in their usual lives, or to make the world a better place. So if there’s one thing all of the games I write, collaborate on, and publish have in common, it’s the goal of making and releasing games that help people come together, and better understand themselves and their relationship to society.
You also co-created the Magimundi and New World Magischola, which are respectively described as a "North American magical universe" and "a new wizard college in North America." How did you go about creating these, and what exactly do they encompass?
Well, I guess like a lot of American writers throughout the history of American literature, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about how so much of the fantasy genre stories and creatures are European-based. Another thing that rather bothered me about some fantasy worlds that are hidden or parallel to the mundane world is that they never really talk about what people do in those worlds – like what is their economy – and they never interface with mundane problems or mundane history. So, for example, do the wizards in Britain really not care when the muggles were having wars? Did they try to help them? Did anyone suggest that? And what about diseases and other problems that could be solved or made better with magic? Did these magic-users really just live among us and not care at all about magic users? And what are the implications of separation and secrecy? So I set out to create a universe that was distinctly North American, with all of its lore, geography, traditions, and yes, its fraught colonial history. I wanted this magical world to have parallel historical trends that required people to examine some of the atrocities undertaken in this “New World.” So we set up a magical economy that has social issues in it like mundane-born students who can’t afford to pay for their magical education, so they have to get scholarships or loans lest they get kicked out of school and are unable to get certain magical jobs without their degree of “Wizard.” And we made a hidden vampire society as well, but have them persecuted against in the magical world, which sets up conflicts about what to do about the “vampire problem,” with players suggesting things that sound dangerously like Japanese internment camps or Native American reservations before they realize how terrible those solutions are. We’ve created magical equivalents of the pharmaceutical industry, regulating needed potions and having those be magically patented and out of range of the very mages with magical maladies who need them. We made a provincial magical government for North America, and made the laws different in each of the five provinces so that there was discussion about certain types of magic, certain spells and potion ingredients, and certain laws being legal in one place and illegal in others. You can learn more on magimundi.wiki. We wrote 400 years of magical history and there are a lot of stories to be told in this world! It has taken a lot of research to get the facts and the dates straight in this world that overlaps with actual North American history. Sometimes I wish I’d just created something that didn’t have to cross-check, since in many ways it would be easier, but that was a main design goal for this fiction. So, for example, the House Founders for New World Magischola are nearly all real people: Virginia Dare, who was the first British child born in the “New World” and part of the lost Roanoke Colony, Étienne Brûlé, a French explorer from Canada and Lake Huron area, Tituba, an historical figure from the Salem witch era, Marie Laveau, from voodoo and Creole history (added later because of historical timeline), and the one fictional House Founder: Calisaylá, who is from an actual American Indian tribe, the Karankawan, who were all wiped out after contact with the Spanish, but lived along the Gulf of Mexico. Cali and saylá are the words for woman and man in that language, and we combined them to make our non-binary founder, which matches with the Karankawan culture, where there was a third gender. We wanted the varied history of North America to be reflected in the Houses, so we have British, French, Spanish, West African, Haitian-Creole, and indigenous peoples.
I have to ask, was this inspired by the Harry Potter universe?
Of course it was! And Lev Grossman's The Magicians. And Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and Rick Riordan's Camp Half-Blood, and my own experiences with all of these and being a teacher at the secondary and college level. You write what you know, right? I love Harry Potter. But it is very anglo-centric and euro-centric. This is fine! I'm an anglophile myself. But I wanted to write something that was based in North America and took into account all the cool lore, traditions, geography, cryptids, creatures, and magical traditions we have here. I wanted to also explore wizards and mages who are a little older -- hence the wizard colleges. I wanted to create a world where wizards had to get jobs, and there was an economy, and the mundaneborns were at economic disadvantage in the wizard world, and what the ramifications really are about an edict of separation and secrecy? We created a wizard society for North America that intersects with the problematic colonial history of this continent, and mirrors many of those historical issues in the magical world. We also created an oligarchic government with a prison-industrial complex and an elite class that controls everything and a group of really wealthy wizards who just live above everyone else (literally, they’re on a floating island called Virginia Isle -– it’s what happened to the Lost Colony) and do whatever they want with no accountability for, um, reasons.
You co-wrote and published the "Compendium of North American Cryptids & Magical Creatures," an illustrated guidebook featuring the creatures of the Magimundi. How did this fit into the world you helped create?
So, yes, this was rather inspired by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and by the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual, and again, by all these great cryptids and folkloric creatures that we have in North America. Since we were writing a magical universe for this continent, of course it would have its own magical creatures. Just like there aren’t grizzly bears or alligators in Europe (we chose the mascots for the 5 NWM Houses to be distinctly North American creatures), there aren’t griffins or dragons here. We do have Sasquatch, and the Jersey Devil, the squonk, the cactus cat, the jackalope and so many more. So about 60% of the creatures in the Compendium Vol. 1 (yes, we are working on a Vol. 2) are from American folklore and ghost stories. We took snippets and turned them into creatures, and we wrote the book they way I wanted Fantastic Beasts to really be –- fully illustrated, and with all the information about what they ate, where they lived, what was magical about them, etc. The other 40% are original creatures that we made up as part of our lore. They’re cool, magical, and deadly. Also, why don’t mundanes see cryptids in North America? Because they are mundane, of course! The members of the Magimundi know they exist -– and even farm them –- for their magical components and use. If there is a magical universe here, there are also unique magical creatures. We’ve taken about 40 of these creatures and statted them up for Pathfinder, and we’ll be releasing that supplement soon, so you can have the kumcharangi, jiwa setan, grunch, maloghast, and more in your games.
There are definitely some Easter eggs in the House Rivalry cards for those who are more familiar with the world or the larp. Things like the Wendignado card, which is a reference to the tornado that hit our location during the inaugural larp -- while students were in the woods casting elemental wind spells against a wendigo. Rather than call one of the cards "Sugar Rush," it's called "Hot Fudge in the Dining Hall," which was a refrain in our third run as participants discovered the chocolatey goodness was available at every meal, and began to top everything with it. These are easter eggs and inside jokes, but they don't exclude anyone who wasn't at the larp from knowing what the card means and does. We had created a lot of creatures and lore, so the wizard courses and clubs are the actual NWM curriculum. The creatures expansion cards are all from our book, the Compendium of North American Cryptids & Magical Creatures.
The book is designed to be the college textbook for cryptozoology, the one that students would have as they took the class at New World Magischola. It’s political, of course, because the cryptids are all classified by their usefulness and their sentience. It makes for great play because is it ethical to imprison, enslave, or eat a creature that knows right from wrong and is aware of itself? What about endangered species?
So now that we know a bit about this world you've helped create and detail, let's talk some games. You had created one game in the Magimundi, called "A Wolf By Any Other Name: a LARP Party Game at Magic School." What exactly is a LARP party game? And how does this fit into the Magimundi/Magischola world?
“A Wolf By Any Other Name” is a live role-playing game you can play with a few friends (6 is the minimum number of players) up to 25 for a full evening of fun, like at a convention, or with a larger party. It’s a “party game” because there aren’t any dice or boards and there isn’t a winner or a loser. You roleplay with your co-players the scenario: you’re in detention at New World Magischola. It’s the night of the full moon, and some of the students in detention with you are secretly lycans. They shouldn’t even be enrolled at New World Magischola – lycans are considered dangerous and officially not allowed in magical schools. But most NWM staff believe lycans deserve access to education, so they are quietly tolerated as long as nothing bad happens. Lycans, if they get the very expenses Romulus Lunar Shield potion every month, and drink it just prior to moonrise, can resist the transformation into a werewolf. The ingredients for this potion are in the room (spread among the players) and you may be working to find a working potion to help yourself (if you’re a lycan) or a housemate or friend. At moonrise, at least one person in the room will transform, and you’ll be locked in the room with a deadly beast who also now may be expelled from school – if they, and you, survive the night. The lycan v. loup-garou debate is one of those persecutions we have written into the magical world, and the ethics of having someone with a disease that makes them into a monster for a couple days every month, but they are regular human mages, like everyone else, every other day makes for good roleplay and debates about what to do for people’s safety and fear. Lycanthropy parallels some fears of infectious diseases in the real world, and with the Big Pharma example of there being medicine that has been developed that controls the disease, but it is too expensive for most people to afford – especially if they are persecuted against and denied education – makes for interesting play. The game is super fun, and it is different every time it is played. We’ve had an ending where all lycans are safely contained behind a ritual circle, while all the mages cast a memory spell on each other so they wouldn’t remember who was a lycan, and we we’ve had games end with chain reaction lycan attacks, and everything in-between.
Now we come to House Rivalry, which is the first board game to be set in the Magimundi world, being published through Learn Larp's games publishing arm, Snow Dragon Games. You are acting as co-developer, project manager, and publisher on this project. First, what made you decide to branch out from LARPing to board games?
We realized that a lot of people loved the world we created, the lore we had built, and the creatures we'd imagined. Expanding into multiple media makes sense. The world is rich with opportunity so we wanted to have the chance to tell stories within it in a variety of ways. We also realized that we have a lot of fans who can't attend the premium larp experiences, but want to interact with the world. It's definitely been a challenge! We're newcomers to the board game industry and trying to gain a foothold. But it's a huge market, if we can successfully break in! We want others to know about the Magimundi! I'm proud of the game we've created. It is fun, accessible, and inclusive, and those are our design goals with everything we design and publish.
LARP is restricted by proximity, while a board game can be played with a group anywhere! So for me, I'm excited because we are opening up the world of the Magimundi and the experience of going to wizard school in it to a lot more people than those who are able to attend our 4-day signature wizard school events. They get to experience at the table some of the fun, whimsy, and magical mayhem of Magischola by taking courses, joining clubs, and using conjures to improve their progress or hinder a rival's. They get a feel of navigating school because you have to pass your courses with a B or better to get credit, and you earn more points for completion the higher your grade is. It's definitely a competitive game, since only one House can take the Trophy, but there are lots of opportunities for roleplay and fun engagement with your friends around the table.
We have an *amazing* team on this project, with four artists from around the world, and a crackerjack graphic designer. It's been a learning curve, for sure, but I'm really glad we're doing it.
Tell us about House Rivalry's designers, Dylan Grey and Mike Young. How did you come to work with them? Exactly what kind of board game have they designed, mechanically?
Dylan was an attendee of New World Magischola in summer 2016. He'd been working on a wizard school board game for a few years, and he showed it to us in August. We liked it, and we wanted to support him, and we wanted to use the world we created in other media, such as RPGs, board games, books, etc. So we committed to working with him to re-theme it for Magischola. I've known Mike for years from the mid-Atlantic larp scene. Mike is an exceptional game designer and developer. He is also one of the writers of the Compendium of Creatures, and a valuable member of the world-building team. I brought Mike on as game developer, and in the process of reworking the game to balance it, he took on more of a co-designer role. He and Dylan worked together to streamline Dylan's original concept, write new NWM-themed cards, and balance the actions for better strategy and play. The original game had 5 actions, and a money component that turned out to be both unnecessary and confusing (and expensive to produce!). We worked together to remove that element and make the currency of the game truly House Points.
House Rivalry is a turn-based, resource management, tableau-building game that uses simultaneous selection, variable player powers, and "take that" mechanics as you weave your strategy to advance your studies, and leap ahead of your rival Houses. It's played in a series of rounds, with the 1P, or "Wand Bearer," controlling the round. Which character you play, which House you play, which Action you choice, which Courses and Clubs you enroll in, and which Conjures you employ are all levels of strategy within the game. It's designed to be a mid-level game for mixed game groups or a bridge game between casual and more hardcore. It's easy-to-learn, but has several layers of strategy that you might not see as a new player. It's also got the whimsical and fun -- and sometimes a bit chaotic -- feel you'd expect from a magic school.
I'm really excited that it brings diverse groups of players together at the table, another of our design goals. I really want to open the world of gaming to lots more folks, and to break down some of the walls that divide us into "in-crowd" and out. House Rivalry is a game you can play with casual and hardcore gamers alike, to hopefully eliminate some of the arguments about what are "good" games, or those mixed votes where two people want to play Munchkin and two others want to play Mega Civilization. Pull out House Rivalry and everyone can play together.
You are working on more games for 2018. Is there anything you can tell us about these future products at this point?
Yes, we are very excited about our 2018 offerings! We're working with Mike on a collaborative roleplaying and storytelling game tentatively titled Magnolia Sun. It's based on one of our schools of magic of that name and is inspired by other great collaborative games like Mice & Mystics. You play a character, who has signature spells, abilities, and attributes, and you and your group are traveling through the Magnolia Sun school building, encountering creatures and making decisions on what you do and where you go. The entire party needs to make it to the portals, marked by veve, before time runs out or the threat of the room envelops you. There are a series of rooms in one scenario, and the game will come with up to 10 scenarios. We've got two so far. The currency of the game is knowledge, so you can convert your knowledge chips into new spells, healing, etc. I'm really excited about this one because it will have miniatures as well!
We also have two tabletop RPG scenarios that will debut in January. We've got those in playtesting now. These are written by Jason Morningstar, who's an incredible designer. He's taken two of my stories and lore concepts: the Vampire Wars of the 1990s in the Seattle area, and the Revenant Terror of dark wizard Thanatos Akeldama as he followed Sherman's March of the Civil War and turned those into systemless RPG scenarios with 10-12 modules a piece. You can play them for Pathfinder, or D&D, or Apocalypse or Fate or whatever system you dig. We're also testing a Magimundi RPG system that you can use with these or other RPGs, that is crunch-light and storytelling heavy. Personally, I'm working on a card game tentatively titled Magical Mayhem, that has you solving magical problems with whatever items you happen to scrounge. Each round someone is the Professor and grades which solution is the best. We're also planning to offer Volume 2 of our Compendium of Creatures. Mike and I couldn't stop creating creatures once we got started. I've come up with four North American chimeras. An alligator-eagle cross, a skunk-bat cross, a bison-manatee cross, and a three-headed wolf/bear/condor. I'm also making the gerrymander, and we'll have some more expanded North and South American cryptid lore, including the hodag and the ogopogo. Lastly, we have statted up 40 of our original cryptids from the first Compendium for Pathfinder and playtesting has been great. Paizo has accepted us, and you should see those critters out in 2018.
I know you are passionate about accessibility, diversity, inclusion, and empowerment through gaming. How do you feel these traits are represented in Learn Larp and in House Rivalry?
For House Rivalry, we were very deliberate in our art and playable characters to be sure that we had a variety of genders, ethnicities, ages, abilities, and body types in the design and the artwork. We never treat disability as something to be “handicapped” or “magically fixed” in the game. In our larps, we have pages in our player handbook about representing gender, we use a pronoun correction mechanic, we don’t costume police, and we take a character’s game, gender and sexuality at face value. There are examples of all family types and relationships in the Magimundi lore: families with two moms, two dads, polyamorous groups, single parents, students raised by grandparents, adopted, and more. It’s important that your lore and your game has these diverse examples within it, and not as tokens or as abnormal. We work hard to put non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual characters in positions of power as well, so that they are visible. The default pronoun in the Magimundi is also “they”, corrected to he, she, or another pronoun if needed.
House Rivalry hits our accessibility and empowerment buttons because this is a game designed for mixed groups of gamers. All-too-often we can get into conflicts by identifying as *either* a "gamer" or a "hard-core gamer" or a "casual gamer" or a "non-gamer." We, as a gaming community, can gatekeep in these ways, subtly asking "are you one of us?" One of the ways we do this is by designing games that are more complex and have a lot of rules to master, or that take a long time to learn. Some gamers look down on casual games as not being challenging enough, and even make fun of these games and the people who play them. It can be difficult to prove your credibility as a gamer, and some gamers don't want to take the time to include newer gamers to their gaming groups. House Rivalry is designed as a bridge game. It's complex enough that the more hard-core gamers have something they can do and enjoy. There are multiple strategies and different tactics to manage your resources, choose your actions, and use the variable player powers of your character and House. However, the game is easy-to-learn, and there are lots of party game elements, especially in the Clubs. What this makes House Rivalry really good for are mixed groups of gamers: the hard core and the casual and the in-between. It's a great game to get people together and to play when you don't have the time to teach a complicated new system, but you want some strategy. It blends luck and strategy in a way that feels satisfying to all levels of gamers. For me, getting different groups of gamers of varying abilities and credibilities around the table is a great aspect of the game, and one I'm most proud of and excited about.
So when you aren't working on something for Learn Larp, what kind of games do you like to play? What are your all-time favorites? Any recent hits for you?
The first part of that question is kind of funny! It seems like I am always working on something for Learn Larp. I even dream game design and wake up scribbling! (I am not sure this is entirely healthy!). I think it's important to play games as much as possible though, because you really get what works and what doesn't into your bones that way, and you can see some of the cool things that other awesome game designers are doing. I fell in love with Grimm Forest on Kickstarter and then got to see it and play it in person at Gen Con. What a lovely game, from the art to the miniatures, to the whimsy, to the smooth flow of play. I can't wait until that one is in my hands. I'm a huge fan of Mice & Mystics (which you'll be able to tell with our next game), and I feel that game is immersive and cooperative in the best way, leading to great storytelling. I play Takenoko with my daughter, as well as Camel Up! and King of Tokyo. Dixit is a lovely go-to for a head-cleanse and reboot -- when I've had enough of logic and minutia, Dixit helps me refocus on being creative. I like games of deductive reasoning a little too much, so I'm always up for a game of Codenames.
The New World Magiscola House Rivalry Kickstarter campaign can be found here.