This post is the first in a series acknowledging key influences on the development of Karma in the Dark. As part of my design post mortem, I want to highlight and acknowledge different (often unknown) contributions to the process.
It was the fall of 2015 and I was exchanging emails with Brie Sheldon about Native American representation in the Shadowrun: Anarchy game. They had sent me interview questions for a feature on their blog. I responded to some questions and sent them back. The last question or two, I had sitting in my Wordpad window, open, for weeks.
I never finished the answer and I never replied to that last email.
Because we passed November 3rd, 2015 and the U.S. Presidential election. And then January 2016 and the inauguration, women’s march, travel bans, etc. The news was fast, furious, and never ending. My circle narrowed to a few close friends, family, coworkers, and my long term game group. I couldn’t finish a question about cultural appropriation, racial stereotypes, or potential ways to address the elements of colonialism still embedded in mainstream U.S. culture.
I felt guilty for weeks, seeing that open document every time I got on my computer. But guilt can't push past certain levels of exhaustion and anxiety.
A year later, I started working intensely on the third version of Karma in the Dark. I stopped trying to hide or obfuscate my politics (thanks to some reflections by John Harper on his Blades in the Dark design and the example set by Andrew Gillis with Girl By Moonlight).
But I felt emotionally exhausted. And it wasn’t just U.S. politics; I’d spent the past few years as one of 2 out queer students in my program in an evangelical Christian university. I’d been one of the main teaching assistants for the program’s diversity class, teaching to a majority of white, straight, cis, upper middle class students. I spent a year at an internship program where the micro-aggressions went from annoying to funny because they were so textbook in their bias…though even the funny faded on weeks where it was a constant barrage.
I was tired of thinking about oppression, educating about bias, and trying to contribute to the conversation in a way that bridged the divide and led to genuine learning.
And during all of this, I was making a game about hierarchy, oppression, and resistance. I was struggling with questions like, “How do you say ‘privilege’ without setting off the automatic defensive reaction associated with that word?” (Spoiler alert: relevance).
I needed fuel. So I went back to Brie’s blog Thoughty. Every day, I caught up on articles. Wrote down games I wanted to play, support, and learn from (Hi Potlach!). Watching their persistent work, diving into the difficult topics with insight and vulnerability and passion, sustained me. I rode that fuel into finishing the next version of Karma.
When I was encouraged to try making relevance an effect factor instead of an additional rule, I immediately remembered Brie’s article on types of power as illustrated by D&D characters. I re-read the article, and defined my effect factors as relevance, expertise, and press. I’ve continued to read the blog and follow their work ever since.
I know how exhausting and thankless it can be to question and challenge majority assumptions. How elevating the voices of others, when the dominant group continues to shout “What about me?!”, can become a major labor. Defending others and yourself, while engaging in deeply personal issues, takes stamina. I was so used to being the person directing that conversation, it filled me with profound relief to fall back on someone else's voice and energy.
Now Brie is Kickstarting a game. I support this game because I read the rules and I really want to play it. I support this game because Karma wouldn’t exist with Brie. And I support this game because as Adam Koebel recently said at Twitch Con: You want to support queer creators? Pay us.
Paying someone show supports in a way that recognizes the legitimacy of the work, and supports its continuation in the most fundamental way.
You can find Brie’s game here. There is a link to the rules, so you too can read before financing.
You can find Brie’s blog Thoughty here, where they interview game designers and introduce you to an amazingly rich variety of voices in game design.
The article which inspired Karma’s effect factors is here.
From the Kickstarter, here is a summary of Brie's current game Turn:
Turn is a slice-of-life supernatural roleplaying game about shapeshifters in small, rural towns who struggle between their beast and human sides in a quiet drama, while trying to find balance and community.
"Turn neatly subverts the tropes of the shapeshifter genre and offers insight into community and the meaning of difference. The rules are tight and lead straight to interesting and satisfying drama. We had so much fun playing Turn!" - Jason Morningstar, Bully Pulpit Games
"If you grew up in a small town, and ever felt like a bit of a weirdo or an outsider there, you know this game already. It's brings both the love and the trouble that comes with that experience." - Kit La Touche, Transneptune Games
"Few games so beautifully synthesize the conflicting desires within each individual. Brie’s game creates a world filled with the multifaceted character of small town life from its tenderness to the pressures that threaten to fragment it. Turn gives you the tools to dig deeply for the hidden moments of roleplaying that give it such beauty. Playing Turn left me longing for a community that had never been." - Vivian Paul, Riverbed Games
Back on the Kickstarter and get access to rules for running a one-shot.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.