Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Hayley Gordon and Veronica Hendro
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guests this week are Hayley Gordon and Veronica Hendro of Storybrewers, the co-designers of the roleplaying games Alas for the Awful Sea and Good Society – A Jane Austen RPG. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Hayley and Vee, thanks for taking the time to chat with me! Before we discuss Storybrewers and the roleplaying games you've created, tell me -- What tabletop games did you each grow up playing? Which game first introduced you to roleplaying games?
Vee: The first roleplaying game we ever played was Mouseguard, which I ran for Hayley and one of our friends. We definitely did not know what a roleplaying game was when I ran it. I'm not sure we'd figured it out by the end of the game either - but it was a lot of fun.
At what point was it that you decided to make your own games?
Hayley: There was a period where Vee and I were playing a lot of D&D 5e shortly after it originated. I was trying to tell these stories using the 5e system, and experienced a fair bit of creative frustration until Vee said to me "what about if you didn't use the D&D system?" That was the turning point for us.
When and how did the two of you meet?
Vee: Uh, well -- we're actually married. Funnily enough, we went to the same high school, but were never friends. We reconnected in uni, and the rest sort of happened from there.
How was Storybrewers born?
Hayley: We'd been creating all these free games, and we wanted a way to share them in an easy way. Storybrewers was first born really as a vehicle for that. We wanted a way to express our shared identity as creators, and the things that were important to us in that capacity. You can grab a copy of our free games on our website!
Your first published RPG is Alas for the Awful Sea. How did the idea for that RPG come about? What is the setting like? What experience are you looking to give players in it?
Vee: For those who might not know, Alas for the Awful Sea is a game of myth, mystery and crime set in the 19th century rural UK. It's a game about remote areas, and the very real struggles of politics, poverty and loss they were experiencing at the time - mixed with the folklore and fantastical that those experiences gave birth to.
Hayley: The idea for Alas for the Awful Sea came from my discovery of Celtic music. I was enamored with the way that Celtic music mixed the mythological and the mundane, to create these sad, beautiful and magical stories. This really inspired us to create a game with a similar feel.
Your more recently published RPG is Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG, which was funded on Kickstarter last year and is now available for pre-order. What was it like adapting an author's work into a role playing world?
Vee: It's a unique and exciting opportunity. The fact that Austen's books form a discreet body of work means you can really read through all of them, soak in the experience, and reflect on what it is that makes Austen, well, Austen. Our first objective when creating Good Society was to make a game the playing of which felt like creating an Austen novel. This gave rise to some of the most fun elements of the game, such as the letter writing phase.
Are you both big fans of Jane Austen? Does the game reference all of her works, or lean more towards certain books?
Hayley: I'm definitely the bigger fan, but we both have a sound appreciation of Austen's style, insight, and wit. The game references all her finished novels, and for fans of Austen it won't be hard to detect the influence of each of them upon the game, particularly in the character roles and secret desires.
Would this RPG be approachable to somebody who hasn't read Jane Austen?
Vee: We've played this game with many people who have never experienced or read Austen, and it's not a problem at all. Really all you need as an idea of what it means for something to be "like-Austen." But watching Pride and Prejudice before you play will certainly improve your experience!
When you create RPGs together, what is your creative process like? Who does which aspects of the designs?
Vee: We work together very closely in the initial stages of a game -- there's a lot of discussion, a lot of back and forth, of improving each other's ideas. Once we have a playable game, we then go into initial playtesting, and work together to refine the RPG. It's only really in the tail end of the process we take on more different roles -- Hayley tends to do most of the actual process of writing out the game in book format, whereas I lean more towards graphic design, and play material composition. Actually I do all the graphic design. I do not think Hayley even knows what a Photoshop is!
How do you playtest the RPGs you are creating?
Hayley: There's three kinds of playtesting we use for every major game. The first is initial playtesting - the game changes a lot between each session at this stage, and we ask for a lot of feedback from players. Next, once the game is finalised, we go into a long run of mid-stage playtesting. The game won't change session to session here, but the aggregate of all the feedback will determine the final version of the game. Finally, we enter blind-testing. This is where neither Vee nor I run or play the game, so we can't influence it and correct for mistakes mid-way. This can be brutal! But the feedback from it is very valuable.
Have you had any ideas or discussions about RPGs you'd like to create in the future?
Vee: Yes, we do this a lot! At the moment we can see two games coming up within the next year or two. Firstly, we're working on a Sports Anime game provisionally titled Team Spirit Go. We both watch far too much sports anime! The other game we are working on is the Establishment, a game about running a high class establishment and the drama, trials, and tribulations it brings.
Other than the ones you've created, what are some of your all-time favorite RPG systems?
Hayley: I'm a mad story gamer and a history buff, I've always enjoyed and been inspired by Alienòr by Maracanda, and Montsegur 1244 by Thoughtful Games.
Vee: I can't say I have all-time favourites, as I'm always looking to play great games I haven't experienced before. Right now I'm really enjoying map-drawing games a la Quiet Year, Companion's Tale, How to Host a Dungeon and the like.