Interview with Rachel E.S. Walton, designer of The Long Orbit

Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.

Hello! I'm Rachel E.S. Walton. I'm an artist and parent, living in Philadelphia. I've been playing pen-and-paper RPGs since high school (AD&D, 2nd ed.), GMing since college, and I've been involved with indie games and convention-going for the past six years.

At first, I wasn't especially interested in game design - I have other creative outlets and I have found that GMing is a great way to positively contribute to the game community. What changed for me a couple of years ago was that my passion for the RPG Monsterhearts started needling its way into my passion for space horror films. And as I started weaving these disparate interests together in my head, all of the experience and preferences I've accumulated as a GM took over - and I suddenly felt quite driven to make this work as a convention game that I could enjoy running again and again. People started expressing interest right away and I've been developing The Long Orbit since then. Though it's been playtested many times, it's not available quite yet. A streamlined version will be debuting at the Danish game convention Fastaval in April and I hope to have the full version ready for Kickstarter by late spring.   

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

The Long Orbit is a space isolation horror tabletop RPG. It is built on the Monsterhearts game engine by Avery McDaldno, and is also Powered by the Apocalypse - I guess it's Vincent Baker's weirdo grandbaby game.

In this game, the PCs are part of a modest crew aboard a space freighter, headed for a planet that’s being terraformed. These characters are scientists or professionals who are smart and who are also entangled in some complicated relationships.The crew wakes from stasis normally, but there’s a major storm on the planet’s surface, making it much too dangerous to land. They have to stay in orbit for days and things start going wrong.

The Long Orbit explores human connections and critical moments that save or destroy us in the face of the terrifying unknown. It’s about being an adult and still not knowing what to do. It’s about dangerous choices and following your heart to disaster. And it’s about isolation, desperation, survival, love, and horrors inside and out. It's also hella fun.

If you've played Monsterhearts before, you'll recognize the re-skinned Skins and the Moves and other mechanics. I tweaked what I needed to for language and function more appropriate to this games, but left a lot of it intact, because the two games share so much thematically.

But beyond a simple change of scenery, it's designed with three goals in mind:

1. Tell a good space horror story.

It draws inspiration from films like Alien, Solaris, Sunshine, Event Horizon, Pandorum, Gravity, and about a dozen others. I've included a lot of supportive details to help shape these kinds of stories while still leaving it open enough to create something completely fresh. In fact, because it merges with Monsterhearts, the stories that come out of this are different from most of the space horror out there, while still being very much a part of the genre. The stories are a lot more about what's going on between the crew members, before and during whatever it is that goes wrong. I've seen rivalries turn murderous, terrible sacrifices made, and unlikely but delightful romances bud in the face of certain disaster.

2. Work well as a convention one-shot.

It's designed to be played in the typical 4-hour game convention time slot, and it can also work in two 2-hour sessions. The MC Guides help with pacing so that it follows a basic story arc with a definite end. Most importantly, I wanted this game to still be a pleasure to run at the end of a convention when I'm exhausted and there's not enough coffee in the world to fire on all cylinders. So the MC Guides help shoulder the burden with specific ideas to glance at and work into the fiction when I need the help. This also makes it pretty friendly for beginner GMs.

3. Replayable.

As specific as the set-up is, there are quite a few variables that make it fun to run (and hopefully play) multiple times. For one, there are 6 different customizable crew members to choose from, and each one will bring their own set of problems and possibilities to the fiction. For example, the Starship Engineer (a reskinning of the Infernal) has an unusual relationship with the ship's A.I., so any time that character is in play, there's bound to be a manipulative, antagonist-computer involved. But the scenarios vary as well - there are 5 of them, taking the story in sub-genre directions of disaster horror, psychological horror, and body/creature horror. So in one scenario, the big threat is the planet itself, exerting influence over them by drawing their memories out into the open like in Solaris. Other scenarios include things like an alien getting on board, a viral outbreak, snowballing damage to the ship, etc. These threats are all open-ended and interact differently with different characters, making a unique story every time with many possible endings.

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

Well this is the only one so far and I guess it started by watching movies and playing games. :) But what has really kicked it off has been following an iterative process. I put together something that I thought would be playable, ran it a couple of times at a convention, got some good feedback, made changes, ran it again, made more changes, handed it over to other people, and have been continuing that cycle. It gets stronger and cleaner every time. I'm trying to pay more attention to what other designers are doing so that I don't feel so alone in this process. A lot of other people have traveled this road before - I can learn from them even if I choose to do things differently. And making clear goals that I remind myself of regularly has really helped clarify what's most important to this game, because there is a vast sea of ideas and opinions out there.  

What’s your next project?

It's so easy to start a project and not finish it, so I've been holding off on other ideas for the most part. That said, I've been accumulating a stack of books and I'm really looking forward to diving in. I want to make a game about Ireland during the period of the Viking raids. It was a really interesting time of upheaval - raids, tribal warfare, Christianity setting in. Mostly I want to focus on the regular folks and how they managed to survive, rebuild, and maintain their communities through all of this. It is in part a conversation with Sagas of the Icelanders - another game I love, though I'm not sure yet if it will be a hack of it or its own thing. I don't know what it needs yet.

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

My advice would depend on what the person is searching for. If they feel pressure to make a game to fit into the community (and some folks do), I would say: try not to worry about it. There are a lot of ways to make important contributions that don't involve game design: becoming a more generous player, helping host events, GMing, playtesting, giving feedback, openly writing or speaking about games, and lending your artistic, social, business, or math skills to games or events that are in the works. The joy of games is shared in many ways, and all of them are valuable.

To someone truly interested in making a game, I'd try to help them clarify what they really want out of it, otherwise I'll just be blowing useless suggestions at them. :)

You can follow Rachel on G+, where she talks about making things and playing games.