Interview with Megan Pedersen

Say hi & tell everyone a little about yourself.

Hi, everyone!  My name is Megan Pedersen, one of the founding members of Wheel Tree Press, a game design cooperative.  Most folks know me best as one of the hosts of the Jank Cast, a Chicago based podcast on all things gaming.  Some of my game design credits include the theatrical Fiasco playset "Break a Leg" (Bully Pulpit's Playset of the Month, June 2011) and Sparkle, Baby! a freeform LARP about glitz beauty pageants and horrible stage parents.  When I'm not busy with gaming, I perform and produce burlesque shows, usually with my nerdlesque troupe, the Glitter Guild (hint: Megan's the one in the amazing Galactus costume).

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

My latest game is Time Cellist, which I wrote with my Jank Cast co-host, Todd Nicholas. Players take on the role of a plucky group of kids saving the world from the Maestro of Maliciousness, a time traveling super villain bent on taking over the time stream. But the kids don’t have to take on The Maestro by themselves. They’ll be aided in their quest by Time Cellist, a cello-wielding hero, traveling through time making sure The Maestro’s plans are foiled.

The game’s set-up and mechanics are designed to emulate the frenetic, ensemble cast feel of movies like the Goonies or E.T., or TV shows like Young Justice or Doctor Who. The players are creating a heroic story about how saving the world just so happens to bring their gang closer together and helps them to overcome obstacles as a group. As a touch of nostalgia and a nod to the halcyon days of our youth, we've integrated a variety of kids games to build the setting and resolve conflicts. Games like Mad Libs, rock paper scissors, slapjack, and a cootie catcher (fortune teller) help create the story as you try and foil The Maestro’s plan without screwing up history too much. Brace yourself for a few dinosaurs running around the French Revolution or an airplane landing in the Wild West... all part of a day’s work for Time Cellist.

One of the best things about the game is that Time Cellist is for all ages.  While it's great for adult gaming groups, it's also perfect for kids to play.  Parents and teachers can even sneak a little history lesson into the fun!

How did you get ready for your Kickstarter?

Lots of research and lots of talking to folks that have successfully navigated the Kickstarter waters before.  Todd and I are lucky to be working with two veterans of the process, Nathan D. Paoletta and Kyle Bice, and their experience has been invaluable in helping us find vendors and resources for getting our game published in a cost effective manner.  

I think the biggest and most important thing about getting ready for a Kickstarter is crunching the numbers and budgeting the backer tiers to make sure you're not only covering the cost of producing the product, but that you're also covering your expenses in creating said product.  Getting quotes and bids from collaborators, researching shipping options and print vendors, making sure that the backer extras you're promising are cost effective as well as added value...  it's not glamorous, but it is necessary.  Nobody wants to take a loss on something they're really passionate about - a lesson I learned early on producing live theater.  Budgeting is not sexy, but it is so very, very important.

What’s your favorite reward level?

Honestly, my favorite reward level is any one that includes the historical primers that PK Sullivan will be writing as game supplements for the activity book (so everything from the $40 tier and above).  These primers will give players a snapshot of specific historical periods, with ideas and information that will make the play session of Time Cellist a richer experience. PK is an incredibly talented writer and I'm very excited to see folks get to use these primers.  The ones we're featuring in the backer rewards will be exclusive to this Kickstarter campaign, so I encourage people to pledge a few extra bucks to get them, if they're able.

Image by Darcy Boyd

Image by Darcy Boyd

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

Firstly, you need a subject that inspires you.  Time Cellist was inspired from a game of Kagamatsu which heavily featured Yo-Yo Ma in its background music.  We were delighted by the idea of a time traveling cellist showing up in feudal Japan to save the day from the Threat, in the event Kagamatsu wasn't up to the task.  For other games, I've taken inspiration from my own adventures in theater, my horrible fascination with extremely bad reality TV and the exploration of both what it is to be a woman and what it is to be insane (I usually skew darker in my subject matter than that of Time Cellist).  You're going to be spending a bunch of time with your inspiration and subject, so it should be one you're good to live with for a while.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about designing games was from Ron Edwards.  He told me that the best place to start with your design is figuring out what the absolute coolest thing that could happen would be, and work backwards from there.  In Time Cellist, that was having the time anomalies happen during the course of play.  We figured out that having dinosaurs run rampant in the French Revolution was our cool thing and then worked out the mechanics to get there.  Those tend to be the things people that have played the game remember and love the most, so I think we got it right.

And then, after that - I write.  I write down everything, even if it doesn't make sense.  I make myself write.  I write ideas on post-it notes at work, in weird little reminders in my phone and in notebooks at home.  I write in margins of books I'm reading about my subject matter.  Once the stuff I'm writing starts to come together into an initial draft, I take it out and show it to people either as a document or a playtest.   

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

Making a game is a challenge, but the first step is to just do it.  If you have an idea for a game, write it down.  Play with it.  Even if it's weird.  Especially if it's weird. You've got to put the big idea down on paper so you can start to fill in the pieces around it.  If you've never done it before, organized design events like Game Chef and the Golden Cobra are excellent kicks in the ass and can provide both the structure and the feedback you might need to get yourself started.  Whether or not you finish on time, you'll still have something to show for it at the end of the process and they offer mentoring from established game designers if you get stuck.

Read and play lots of other people's games.  See how different game mechanics work, for good or ill.

Talk to other game designers.  I've learned a lot in my conversations with established designers and have found the community to be a very open and friendly place.  I'm sort of lucky to be in a city like Chicago that affords me opportunities to talk to (and play with) folks like Ron or Steve Townshend or Nathan Paoletta, but the Googles have made it so our international design community is really only a mouseclick away.  

And once you have your initial draft - playtest, playtest, playtest.  Games are played by people and don't exist in a vacuum.  Your playtesters will give you tons of really constructive feedback and ideas on how to make the game work better.  Time Cellist was a very different game when we started our process, at least mechanics-wise, and through playtesting we discovered different, better ways to resolve conflicts and make the action move.  We took it to conventions, game stores and our various game groups over the course of working on it and every time we learned new things about how to make things more fun and streamlined.