Burried Without Ceremony is the workshop of designer Avery Mcdaldno. Promising “games that mean something” Avery has produced several original R.P.Gs including The Quiet Year, Ribbon Drive, and Monsterhearts. For those unfamiliar with the world of Role Playing Games the Dungeons and Dragons episode of U.S sitcom Community might be the most popular cultural touchstone but there is more to the world of storytelling games than that. While Avery’s work doesn’t full scale reject high fantasy as a setting her influences are broader. Play is Important had caught up with Avery earlier in the month to talk to her about her work and where it comes from.
Tell us how you got started in game design. What were your first exposures to the gaming world and your early inspirations?
I got started in game design primarily through precociousness and arrogance. I started designing roleplaying games almost immediately after I started playing them. My first gaming experiences were frustrating ones, trying to bend D&D 3.5 and my social group to do things that they weren’t designed to do. I wanted to tell pathos-riddled stories of rebellion and loss. My friends wanted to kill goblins for treasure. The game supported one of those goals much better than the other, and so I turned to designing the games that I wanted to see in the world.
What made game design the most appealing art form for you to express yourself?
When I think about my goals as an artist, I want to give people tools to better understand themselves and their experiences. Games are a medium that let me do that. Art is dialogue, and the type of dialogue that games foster is really exciting to me: systems-oriented, participatory, exploratory, non-pedantic. I think that I have more things to say through game mechanics than I do through prose or picture.
I used to write poetry, but don’t really connect with that practice any longer. I think it’s because poetry went from feeling mystical to obfuscatory. I was intentionally looking for language and syntax that was inaccessible and difficult. That felt all wrong. Today, the poets who I like most tend to write with startling simplicity and brevity (Richard Brautigan comes to mind) or about the immediate details of their life (Frank O’Hara, here). I’ve gone through phases, but these days I care most about art that is forthright, accessible, and obvious.
In your design principles you say your games help you “discern your secret self”. How do they help you do that?
Games can help us discover ourselves. Games helped me realize that I was a trans woman, by giving me space to explore gender and performance. I’ve watched them strengthen and challenge the politics and identities of those around me. Play is powerful stuff. When we leave some of our rational defence mechanisms at the door, and practice believing in new selves and new worlds, the results can be transformative.
In your talk “Beyond Representation” you spoke about the “fruitful void”. Tell us more about what that is and how you make use of it in your games.
Sure! To the best of my knowledge, the fruitful void is an idea first coined by Ron Edwards, and later expounded and popularized by Vincent Baker. It’s a complication to the idea that your game is about whatever the mechanics are about. The “fruitful void” suggests that your game is actually about whatever the mechanics point towards but conspicuously don’t define. Dogs in the Vineyard is a game about faith, and whether your faith survives as you move between complicated town dilemmas, but there is no Faith stat. There are mechanics that get the players thinking frequently about the faith of their characters, but those mechanics don’t provide the answer for them.
Monsterhearts is a game I wrote about teenagers exploring both literal and figurative monstrosity. There are mechanics about sex and sexual agency. There are mechanics for turning people on, and for keeping track of the power that gives you over people. But there are no mechanics for a character’s orientation, for what they desire (or think they desire). The mechanics tell us what gets them horny, moment to moment, and as players we’re left to sort out how that impacts and shapes their identities moving forward.
From what I understand the process that lead to the currently available edition of Perfect Unrevised seemed long and very challenging. Did the challenges you faced in the design process influence the feel and tone of the game?
Perfect Unrevised (the second edition of Perfect) spent years in the workshop. The game I’d first published was flawed and unpolished, and I struggled a lot trying to figure out how to update it and develop it. I don’t know that I’d call the process frustrating, but at times I did feel deflated by it. I wondered often, “Is this still something I care about? Is this game still relevant?” At the time, the answer was yes. Now, I look back at it and am thankful for how much I’ve grown as a designer.
But I think one of the ways that the game benefited from that long development cycling is that I played a lot of different iterations, and each one moved a little closer to distributed authority and overall mechanical simplicity. I think those were boons for the final product.
Your work seems to deal a lot with journeys, through adolescence in Monsterhearts, through time in the Quiet Year or very literally from point A to point B in Ribbon Drive. Why are journeys so important for you in game design?
As mentioned earlier, I think that games have a lot of transformative potential. They allow us to re-imagine ourselves and move forward. They allow us to try out new approaches and see what works. Those are some of my priorities when I design games. Stories about (physical or emotional) journeys map really well to those priorities.
Also, I think all stories are about journeys of some sort.
What work from other game designers (RPG or otherwise) has really grabbed you recently?
The game that stole my heart in 2014 – the one that restored my interest in games generally – was Bluebeard’s Bride. It’s a collaboration between Strix Beltran, Sarah Richardson, and Marissa Kelly. It’s a gothic horror game about uncovering your new husband’s true nature, based on the folk tale of same name. Players take on different aspects of a shared psyche, controlling a single character as she contends with the contents of her love and future. It’s foreboding and powerful.
It’s been five years since I first played Apocalypse World, and the game continues to shape my thinking about design. Vincent Baker is wonderful.
And I’m eagerly anticipating Five Fires, to be released by Quinn Murphy. It’s a game about nascent hip-hop culture, about being a marginalized creator struggling to realize your vision of the world. I’m supporting its development over on Patreon, and am so thankful for the opportunity to do so.
Where do you see the world of Role Playing Games heading in the next five years?
I don’t know. I try not to think about ‘the RPG industry’ as a cohesive, easily-delineated thing. Doing so doesn’t help me define or accomplish my goals. Instead, I try to ask “where will Vancouver’s queer games culture be in the next few years?” and “What will play conventions look like in the next few years?” and other questions like that.
I guess, I hope to see more cross-pollination between playful ritual spaces and games culture. I think games can learn a lot from divination, shrine work, and witchy maker-practitioners. That’s a thing I want to see happen over the next few years.
And I hope to see more cross-pollination between freeform/jeepform LARP and activist-theatre projects like Theatre of the Oppressed. There are amazing things being done in LARP design right now, both in Scandinavia and beyond, and I want to see what happens when those things bleed out into the rest of the world.
Buried Without Ceremony is the workshop of Avery Mcdaldno, you can read more about her work and purchase her games from the website.