Interview with Emily Care Boss

Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.

Hi there! I’m Emily Care Boss, a game designer, conservationist and forester in western Massachusetts, USA. I got into role playing games during college in the 90s, playing a sprawling game of Ars Magica with a shared world created by friends, and a mostly freeform, home-brewed system. Creating a world with friends lit up my imagination, and I’ve been involved with various communities of play, discussion and design since then. Talking with people at the Forge Forums during the early 2000s helped me get into design and self-publishing. My first game, Breaking the Ice, came out in 2005. I’ve published seven games since then, and collaborated on many more.

I understand you helped coin the term Bleed. Can you explain that for anyone who’s not familiar with the term?

With respect to role playing games, Bleed refers to moments when your in-character experience affects your real-world emotions. Say you’ve been playing a ranger character for two years in your group’s Middle-Earth inspired, long-running campaign. She’s traveling with the other player characters to rescue her beloved sister and the Rohirrim war-band she leads, who are pinned down by an orc-warg host invading Rohan.  During the course of the rescue, your GM makes a call that ends up having the sister die. This might just roll off your back, no problem. Walk away from the table, it’s just a game. But, it might also really hit you. If you carry grief and loss away, or feel angry at the GM for taking away not just a helpful piece of mechanical support to your character—but an important part of her life: that’s Bleed.

In 2007, I mentioned this concept as a way of talking about differences between tabletop and live role play. At a presentation at the Finnish game convention Ropecon -- a great convention held each summer in Helsinki with tabletop, board, card and live action role play all well represented (and the very best saunas in the world, as far as I’m concerned), I talked about how embodying a role, as one does in LARP, can bring into play a deeper emotional intensity than tabletop. The likelihood of emotional bleed is heightened. Not saying emotions in tabletop aren’t sometimes intense! But there is something visceral about playing out the actions of your character. If someone touches your hand, there is a living, breathing human being doing that. We are creatures of flesh and blood—proximity matters.

So, say your character falls in love with another character you interact with. It’s entirely possible that part of your own emotions get caught up in that play—maybe you were a little attracted to this person to start with, maybe after it happens you feel a little closer to the player. The opposite may be true: maybe this pushes you away from that player.  Perhaps they seem to be playing too close to the bone and you don’t want them to get confused. It was all 100% in-character for you, but maybe they hope for more?

Your character emotions can spill over into your own emotions, or vice versa. Markus Montola talks about bleed in where “players’ ordinary lives influence the game” and bleed out “when the game affects the players despite the protective framing” of the game, which ordinarily separates in-play events from the real-world. The term bleed has ended up being useful to talk about many different aspects of role play, with LARP writers and theory-heads in northern Europe using it as an aspect of design ( and LARP researchers in the US such as Sarah Lynne Bowman discussing how it affects play and community cohesion ( Bleed seemed like a common-sense way to talk about this effect.

I’ve often thought it was a term that I’d heard somewhere else. Looking back through the internets, I found that a friend who took part in the Usenet Group role play theory discussion in the 90s talked about information bleeding over—through your “firewall”: the barrier players place between in-character knowledge and what you the player may know about the character’s life and world. At the time, it seemed natural to extend it to talking about emotions crossing over. I’m happy it’s turned out to be useful!

You put out a zine called RPG = Role Playing Girl. Any plans to return to the zine format?

RPG Zine was a really important project to me and made huge impact on my career in games. It allowed me to meet many, many women (and people of many genders!) who design games, illustrate, run & play all over the world. Many of whom I collaborated with on later projects. The RPGirl Zine came out of the idea for a book of essays about women in games that didn’t happen. Making a zine was a quick and fairly easy way of following through. And it gave the opportunity to offer space for networking: we included profiles of women in games, and contact information for skilled professionals. I’d like to see more of that in the future. Listings on public sites like Wikipedia woefully under-represent women of all ethnicities, and people of color of all genders.  

That said, it also taught me how complicated an undertaking editing an anthology is! I was lucky enough to work with women in the industry like Monica Valentinelli, Jennifer Brozek, Jessica Banks and Christina Stiles who gave me many pointers. And had incredible assistance in making it a reality from designers and publishers like Meg Baker, Kira Magrann, Anna Kreider, Giulia Barbano and Paola Guarneri. Giula, Kira and others went on to found Gaming as Women, which has become an important (and Ennie award-winning!) voice for women gamers. That seems like a better venue for this kind of writing and work to continue for now.

Honestly, it’s good to move on in new directions. The name RPGirl feels a bit dated. But the work folks did in the articles was very worthwhile. The two volumes (2009 and 2010) are now available at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow as pay-what-you-want PDFs. All donations go to helping support Gaming as Women!

Tell us about your latest game. Gimme all the deets!

The most recent game I’ve published is called Last Chance Noir. It is an American Freeform LARP game, that was inspired by a LARP convention I go to every year: Intercon. It’s put on by the New England Interactive Literature community and has a large selection of original LARPs written and run every year. The cons are lettered (this year it’s up to “Intercon O”), and there is a theme that starts with the year’s letter. Last year was “N” and the theme was “Noir.” I was so excited! Noir film and literature is one of my favorite things. I studied film in college (analysis that is, not so much the making of them) and got a Quentin Tarantino-style film education after school by working at an amazing video store for 5 years. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to write a game with a noir setting. So—the year before I had written a customizable freeform LARP system—why freeform? That word means a million different things. In this case, it’s to distinguish it from straight up LARP, where you play a character, possibly in costume, for the duration of the game. Instead, you play out the story in scenes that start and end. And you may play a variety of different characters or use out-of-character knowledge to push things along. Like asking a player to give an internal monologue about what their character is feeling. This kind of freeform LARP is in the tradition of Nordic Freeform, Jeepform and some of American Freeform.

Anyway, long story short, I wrote this system called Play With Intent with the Norwegian designer Matthijs Holter, that steals techniques from Nordic Freeform, tabletop, improv acting, stand up comedy and more. When you sit down to play, you pick which rules you want to use, and then go to it. The game comes with “tool kits”: sets of rules that work with different genres of play, like Action/Drama, Low-key Interpersonal or Surreal. So Last Chance Noir is a stand alone game, but it’s also a tool kit of Play With Intent. It’s written using that system but adapted to playing a gritty, tangled hard-bitten game about crime and betrayal.

I’ve had a lot of fun running it. An important piece to me was to take back parts of the original genre and update them. Film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction are rife with racism, sexism, ableism—you name it. But at the same time, there were writers like Chester Himes, Dorothy Hughes, Ann Petry and Alice Dunbar-Nelson who wrote stories that got at the same themes of corruption, but not from a white cis-male perspective. Noir as a genre can do so much more. Ann Petry sold a million copies of her novel The Street, but it’s not remember like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Last Chance Noir asks you to think about over looked stories, and play with a diverse cast.

What are the steps you take to start designing a game?

The first thing that has to happen is for inspiration to strike. Writing a game is (usually!) a long process. It takes me a long time to get the mechanics right, then even longer to write it so that someone else could play—so it had better be something I love that I’m going to so much time with.

I’m usually inspired by stories or literature or genres that I love. History is a go-to for me. While reading poetry from the Han dynasty, I thought “what amazing stories, these would make an amazing basis for a role playing game.” And lo and behold, that day I learned that I had not yet missed the deadline to submit a bid for a game to be run at Fastaval, a wonderful role playing game festival held in Denmark each year. The bid was accepted, and I wrote the game King Wen's Tower. Set during the 7th century BCE in China, at the formation of the Qin dynasty—the first Imperial court that gives China its name to this day. Contests are a great inspiration. They give you a limited time span to just do it! And it’s fun to be in a community of other people who are also writing games. Even if technically it’s a competition, in the end most people won’t win, so the real win is walking away with a game that you love, and want to run, play and publish yourself.

So, taking inspiration to final design has several steps for me: platform/paradigm, mechanics & structure, flow & playtesting, document testing, and publication. Platform or paradigm is about matching the story & setting elements to the kind of game that will work best. Maybe you are excited about a folk song that you loved as a child, and want to make a story out of that luckless couple who went astray. Should this be an RPG? A tabletop RPG? A LARP? Or maybe it shouldn’t be a game with character roles at all. Maybe this would make a great card game, board game or video game.

How do I know what would work best for which paradigm? I think about what’s going to be interesting for the players. Is the juicy part of the story the strong emotions you get from playing out love and betrayal? LARP and freeform LARP are great for that. Do you want there to be mystery to unravel, with many trials and tribulations to get through before the end? Maybe a traditional tabletop RPG would work well. Or if you want to focus on some other aspect of the story—like the suspense of falling in love, the making of a folk ballad, the ways that real life events get turned into an iconic tale—then you might look to the indie/narrativist/story game and tabletop freeform traditions to do that. From Polaris, to the Game Poems, to Dream Askew there are dozens of models to look at. And of course, the game is yours so you bring your own unique insight into the material for others to play with.

Choosing the structure and mechanics continues on from choosing the paradigm, and winnowing away everything that doesn’t match the experience I want people to have. And choosing just the right way to capture the feel I’m looking for. Which takes us on to playtesting—I look at this as a process that allows me to fine tune that feel. I want to make sure the game works, that people have a good, fun, deep, moving or whatever kind of emotions make sense for them to feel. But there are many different ways people can come to this. Are they working together as a team? Are they pressing one another to give it their all? (Hi Luke Crane!) Are they quietly gathering pieces of a world and weaving a tapestry of a community in flux together? (Ah, The Quiet Year…) Running a game and seeing how people respond to it, and getting feedback from others who have played on their own are critical to me in learning whether the game is on target.

And then there are all the next bits of making it a beautiful, functional and interactive object. And running the game over and over after it has been published. That’s when I find I really learn the true breadth of what the game can do. And of course, you’ll find limitations that were missed during the design and test period. That’s pretty universal from the largest company to the smallest. (Video games and computer programs for example get patches and updates issued all the time!) Don’t feel as though you find that you want to revise a game that you’ve completed. The beauty of small press design is that you can turn on a dime and correct changes easily. Errata can be put online as pdfs, and new editions will benefit from those lessons learned.

What’s your next project?

Right now I’ve got two I’m getting close to finishing. My Romance Trilogy: Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin have been in circulation for almost 10 years (10 for BtI and a bit less for the others). So, I’m in the process of revising them and will publish them later this year in one volume. It’s so wonderful to have such a long body of play to look back on, to refine the rules of the games and to update them for today. The world has changed a lot! And people are more open to having romance in tabletop (and live) RPGs.

The other project is a fantasy game I’ve been working on for several years, Heart of the Rose. This is high magic fantasy game, where a being of great power walks among the mundane folks but only the main character, metaphorically known as the Rose, can see the magical Other World that threatens their home. The feel I’m going for here is a fantasy world like you find in faery stories, legend and myth—where magic is wild and deep and unpredictable. Authors like Patrica McKillip, Susan Cooper and Robin McKinley write this kind of tale. And it’s meant to be more a personal take on fantasy. Wars may rage and soldiers may kill, but what matters is the friendships between the Rose and their compatriots. It’s a world building game, and also a collaborative game—there is no Game Master. What the GM would normally do is broken up among the players.

A sneaky fun thing about Heart of the Rose is that the person who plays the Shadow—the powerful magical being lurking in the mundane land—if they can get the others to go to the magical Realm that they control: then the Shadow player has all the normal powers of a GM. Part of what I’m exploring in this game is taking pieces of the gaming experience that we take for granted and putting them in a different context to show just how powerful they really are.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?

If you’re thinking about writing a game the first thing to do is to play as much as you can. As many different types of game as you can. Even ones you don’t enjoy—though don’t torture yourself! But exposing yourself to new things teaches you about aspects of design that are outside of your normal repertoire and may open new doorways for you.

The second most important thing is to find a group of friends to either work with, or at least who share your passion. A very simple and difficult thing about writing role playing games is that (usually) you need other people to play with. Though I ran the RPG Solitaire Game Challenge several years ago now for people to write single player—as in no GM, and just one person taking part—RPGs. A lot of neat ideas were created there, and it didn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities…  But having a community to talk to, play with and learn from is critical. Writing solo RPGs with a bunch of other people who were also doing it was a lot of fun! There are so many communities online: from Story Games, and countless Google+ communities. Google Hangouts let you play with people anywhere in the world.

The next thing I’d say is very important is to pick your own measure for success. Everyone will have a different goal. Some people might want to make a living designing games. Some might just want to see other people play their games. Some might want to make a point or change how other people see the world. All of these things are possible! But they take quite different types of work and commitment. Whatever you are after is the right thing, don’t get caught up in other peoples’ judgments about what you could or should achieve. The real measure of success is if you are happy with it. For me, when I start feeling like I’m not doing well enough, or selling enough, or some other kind of failure—I have to go back to what it’s all about for me: creating games as an incredibly flexible and powerful form of art and communication. Whatever else happens if I can still keep designing, I’m happy. And also, being part of such amazing communities of design and play. If I stopped being able to design tomorrow, I would still be happy to see what fantastic things other people are making, and would look for ways to help that keep going!

What games are you currently or have recently played that you want to give a shout out to?

There are several relatively new games that I’d love to mention. Dream Askew is Avery Mcdaldno’s recent Apocalypse World hack. This game is so great! She takes the dystopian vision of the future that AW gives us, and challenges us to imagine queer utopias blooming in the midst of chaos and change. And the system is diceless. It’s the best realization of the kind of freeform, collaborative gaming that I’ve been looking for since those long, rambling diceless/freeform tabletop RPGs I played in college with friends. You can really dig into the world and push yourself and each other to make hard choices.

Another I played recently is Questlandia by Hannah Shaffer. Questlandia is a fantasy game that also lets you build a world in crisis together, but it uses a nice array of tools (dice and cards together, a neat token economy) to get you to see whether your characters can accomplish a lofty goal. However, your choices may send the world deeper into chaos. This is a debut game for Hannah, and she did a great job in the design, and made a truly beautiful game that is well organized and teaches the game very well.

Of two others I ran recently that I had a great time with, the first is my husband Epidiah Ravachol’s game Sorceress Bloody Sorceress. He published it in his sword and sorcery ezine, Worlds without Master. Of all things, it is a murder mystery set at a feast in a fantasy world beset by siege and wizardry! It’s a quick game, that uses dice to determine the killer—but you spend the game setting up the characters to all be likely suspects, then making accusations at each other. So fun! And the last game is a freeform LARP written by Joanna Piancastelli called Unheroes. It was one of the winners of a game writing contest I helped judge recently called the Golden Cobra Challenge. Joanna’s quick LARP (play time is just 1 hour, with another hour or so for set-up and debrief) takes place in a world where there used to be superheroes—until something went terribly wrong and the hero who can warp reality made the call to turn back time and change things so that there never were superheroes at all. Now you start remembering who you used to be, getting your powers back, and have an opportunity to change that decision, and keep your powers. What will you do? There are many other fun games in the Golden Cobra Challenge, available for free. Check out Still Life. It will be the most fun you’ve ever had playing a rock. Really!

Thanks so much for your questions! Thanks to Contessa for making a space for women and the games they love. Hope to see many more great designs from women everywhere!

You can find Emily's work at Black and Green Games. Follow her on Twitter, G+, and Pinterest.