There are no secrets, and I write all my games predicated on the assumption of love and trust among players.
This week we are featuring Jason Morningstar (he/him), chief designer at Bully Pulpit Games (www.bullypulpitgames.com) and one of the most thoughtful designers crafting new niches in the hobby.
He has designed countless games, including one that jump started story-focused games in a big way, Fiasco. We speak with Jason about his approach to game design and his views on the blurring of lines between game formats and play culture.
We’re lucky to stock one of your most well-known games, Night Witches. Like several other of your games, Night Witches, which is about an all women’s bomber squadron in WWII, deals with people in desperate situations. What is it about this theme that call to you? What’s it like to GM for players taking on the role of desperate characters rather than adventurous heroes?
Jason: Roleplaying is such a big playground I want to explore lots of different tones and themes. I think I’m interested in fraught situations rife with difficult choices as a reaction to the adolescent power fantasy that is the lingua franca of our hobby.
Adolescent power fantasy is usually lots of fun, but nobody wants to eat ice cream for dinner every night. I feel like I walk a fine line between offering compelling, dynamic situations full of meaning and consequence and offering obscure things that alienate and repulse people.
You’ve created a range of wonderful GM-less games, from Fiasco, to one of my absolute favourites of yours, Carolina Death Crawl. These games rely on player investment, collaboration and courageousness. How do you foster this in the games you create? Is there a secret in a game’s mechanics that help people to work well together?
Jason: I feel that any successful game will include some element of social engineering that helps players have a good experience. Carolina Death Crawl, as you mention, really rewards players who are willing to step out of their comfort zone. It “breaks some rules” of tabletop roleplaying, such as having pre-ordained outcomes and scenes (inspired by the great and influential game Montsegur 1244) and prompting players to vary their responsibilities and get up and move around (inspired, basically, by LARP).
There are no secrets, and I write all my games predicated on the assumption of love and trust among players. It is easy to ruin any game if that’s your goal and I don’t design to defend against that.
You’re also a master of the one session game experience. What makes a game a single session experience, as opposed to an ongoing series? Is this something you deliberately design for?
Jason: I love single session experiences, and that’s a niche I’m quite comfortable in. A lot of that stems from my own culture of play—I’m in two tabletop groups that meet weekly, more or less, for about two hours at a time, with unstable attendance. So one-shots work great for me and my friends, and that’s who I’m always designing for initially.
In recent times, you’ve written quite a few Live Action Roleplaying Games, including, recently, The Skeletons. What does LARP offer you that is so appealing? And what advice would you give to people making the transition between roleplaying and LARPing?
Jason: It’s funny that you call The Skeletons a LARP—I don’t say anywhere what sort of game it is (I also call Fiasco simply “a game” to avoid pointless semantic arguments).
LARP is amazing and I love its strengths, like the way kinesthetics translate into embodiment so effortlessly, and how easy it is to have extremely intense experiences in short time frames.
My games reflect my taste—I like short-form, rules-light games that usually do one particular thing well. Since I also make tabletop games, mine are strongly influenced by that world and, I think, make a good bridge between formats.
Other designers I love and recommend for people curious about LARP are Jonathan Walton (The Lofty Beacons), Graham Walmsley (Will That Be All?) and Aura Belle (anything and everything). I recommend the Golden Cobra Challenge winners and submissions as a fertile hunting ground for amazing games. The #Feminism collection of nano-games is also great.
What singular issue is important to you right now that you want us to leave here thinking about?
Jason: I’m excited about the convergence of formats and cultures of play and want you to think about how to get LARP into your tabletop, and immersive theater into your LARP, and board games into your immersive theater.
I want to learn from Australian designers and players! I want you to appreciate and steal from the varied styles and traditions worldwide as well.
Jason can be found online @jmstar and @bullypulpit_hq on Twitter. If you’re intrigued by his designs and want to get into games that defy sematic limitations, then there’s no better place for you than Bully Pulpit’s Drip!