Jenna Katerin Moran (formerly known as Rebecca Sean Borgstrom) has contributed to dozens of RPG books, including series such as Exalted, In Nomine, Ex Machina, and is the author and creator of the Nobilis and Weapons of the Gods RPGs. Haren and Dymphna recently spoke to Moran about her new kickstarter, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine.
Dymphna: First of all, congratulations! Funding for your Kickstarter for CMWGE has reached almost 250% of its original goal with a week to go. Was this the kind of reception you expected? Is there anything in particular you attribute it to?
JKM: Thank you for your kind words. ^_^ I had almost no expectations of any kind—I was making plans for everything from miserable failure to massive success. I seem to have been fortunate in my loyal fans and dedicated friends!
Dymphna: In a few words, how would you explain Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine to someone who was completely unfamiliar with your work?
JKM: Oh, man. That’s a rough one!
It’s a game about stories. It’s a game about growing up. It’s a game about making sense of the world. You know those moments when you suddenly understand a little more about your life? Or where you’re thinking about a book you’ve read, or a movie you’ve watched, or a TV series you’re following, and you suddenly have a great idea for how it should go? For what’s going on in the deep layers of the story? For a cool way that things could go differently? It’s about those jeweled moments when things suddenly fit. It’s a game about having those as a player and about having them as a character.
Is that more than a few words? If so, I will have to apologize!
Haren: So if I’m understanding you right, this is a game about exploring the intersection of the magical yet mundane moments in life? If so, I really must say I like the concept. It takes away the division between those things, implying there’s a bit of something “ordinary” even in the most magical of experiences, and something magical in the ordinary.
JKM: Yes, exactly!
Wonder is there in ordinary things, and sense in the nonsensical, and answers in the mysteries. The world is alive with it.
Sometimes I think that in play it won’t be obvious that it’s like that. Like, if you’re playing through a story like Totoro, it’ll feel like you’re meeting legitimately wondrous things, not expressions of the spiritual/magical potential of ordinary forests. The, kind of, the Buffy approach to finding wondrous things amidst the ordinary, where you actually put them there. Or the kind of thing where, as Colin Fredericks put it, “I’m confused inside, so I fight orcs.”
And other times it might even seem like you’re actively doing the opposite, finding the ordinary in the wondrous, like a Shingu- or MLP-style game.
But . . . yeah.
At its heart this is about the fact that life is a wondrous thing. There isn’t a separate epic, wondrous life that’s only the domain of people who are grander and better than we are. There’s just magic in . . . life. The stories of our lives are grand stories, and other stories are coolest when they tell us something about what our own lives are about.
Haren: Which brings up questions of “What is normal? Is it something defined by the nature of the world around it or something more internal and subjective?”
JKM: I think that to some extent the stories we tell are about us, I mean, as players. And I think some of what “normal” is comes from that, at least in a game.
Things that make the players feel safe and comfortable—friendship, comfort foods, intimations of childhood—have a sense of normalcy to them, I think. Things that are thoroughly understood. Things which give rise to contentment: jewels of experience and idea to take, polish, hold up and admire, and then return afterwards to the shelf.
Well, I hope this is interesting!—
Chuubo’s winds up mapping all those things into a kind of physicality. The weirdest places in the setting are objectively weird and the most normal places are objectively comforting. In the real world, those are projected experiences, but the Chuubo’s world is explicitly an experiential world, or an exploration of experience, or a study of the blurring of that line.
In the Near Outside, where things are surreal and strange, you’re never going to completely get used to it. You can’t. There’s a world law that says that you’re disoriented and confused, and another that says that if you ever do get used to it, it stops being the Outside.
Conversely, Fortitude intrinsically has a quality of being a place where you have a home. You might not have found it yet, but it’s there. You have a home in Fortitude. You can’t say, “Oh, I’d never be able to fit in there, it’s too weird/normal/hot/small-town/different“—or, well, you can say that, but you’d be wrong.
This is one of the ways in which Chuubo’s tries to make grappling with life experience and unexpected discoveries about yourself and the world something you can actually do in play.
Dymphna: The question as a storyteller becomes, “How do I get players to slow down and notice the small stuff?” Can you tell us a bit more about how, mechanically speaking, CMWGE encourages a style of play that lends itself to “slice of life” storytelling?
So the basic secret is that it encourages “slice of life” storytelling in the same way that D&D encourages fighting monsters—that is, you’ll do that kind of thing in Chuubo’s because it’s what you’re supposed to do, and what you have rules to do, and what the rules you have are focused on, and because the rules for doing it are interesting. It’s not that the game forces you to, exactly, but there’s this experience that starts with “what do we do? Well, apparently, fight monsters” that leads to “oh, OK, here’s how we fight monsters” to “OK, that was fun.” Paired with positive and negative feedback loops of various sorts.
That’s not a perfect comparison, though. Let me refine it slightly.
The truth is, Chuubo’s encourages “slice of life” storytelling in the same way that D&D encourages fighting humanoids and giants. That is, in D&D you’re usually going to be fighting stuff, and in Chuubo’s you’re usually going to be doing in-genre actions, but maybe your D&D game focuses on human-shaped antagonists and maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe your Chuubo’s game’s genre is focused on laid-back pastoral stuff and maybe it isn’t.
But even in D&D games where you usually fight dragons, there can be humanoids around—they fit into the general model—and in like fashion, even gothic horror or epic fantasy games in Chuubo’s will have the occasional slice of life scene.
In concept this isn’t something new. Honestly, “reward it and make it part of the structure of the game” is everyone’s go-to solution for making non-dungeon narratives work. That’s a marketing issue for me since it means that all I really have to sell here is quality: I think I succeeded at this. Further, I think I succeeded in new ways. But I sometimes have trouble figuring out how to pitch that to others! ^_^
In a lot of ways Chuubo’s is a radical departure from roleplaying norms. It’s almost certainly within the fuzzy boundaries of what people are doing with RPGs right now, because those boundaries have been stretching for decades, but its underlying structure is something new. And I think the way I’d put that is that it isn’t coming out of the general wargaming roots of the hobby, and it’s only incidentally coming out of insights picked up from the indie and storygaming communities. It’s coming out of something else.
If D&D’s roots are wargames, then Chuubo’s roots are conversations with housemates, friends, and family about media and stories. About what’s going to happen next in your favorite shows. About why a movie you like is good and why a movie you’re disappointed in failed. About the kinds of stories you want to tell one day if you’re ever a published writer, or about the stories you do tell if you are. About what should have happened.
It’s not ten steps away from military fandom; it’s like four or five steps away from media fandom. It’s a game built from the fanfic impulse, the forum game impulse, the deconstruction and reconstruction impulse, the “wow, that was amazing” impulse and the “I could have done better” impulse and the TV tropes impulse and the wild-theorizing impulse.
The path to the “Slice of Life” Action (which isn’t the only laid-back slice-of-life thing in the game, but as its name implies it’s one of them) started with intensive analysis of:
- My Neighbor Totoro
- and later Ponyo
- and the best peaceful scenes in the games I’ve played in
- and the reasons that I, as a writer, put relatively slow scenes in my work. (When I do.)
And that turned into a set of complicated and crunchy rules for how those moments played out. And originally the way the game was going to work was:
- you’d play like a normal sandbox RPG and then you’d notice that you were in one of those moments, or rather, you’d notice that you’d already started fulfilling those rules.
- the game would tell you where to go from there.
This was lovely and amazing and with 16+ action types was going to be way too much for anybody to remember, so I simplified each action type’s rules drastically and even then made it so you’d focus on 3-5 rules at a time—so that there’d be this set of 3-5 standard actions that you’d take, and you’d take them a couple of times a “chapter,” and you’d only worry about the other rules for the other action types when they basically leapt out at you as right.
And the outcome, now, I think, is that if you’re in a Pastoral or Gothic game, if you’re in one of those games where Slice of Life is part of the default action set, you’re going to be looking around for the next thing your character does. And instead of having the normal game pressure to use your powers/skills/magic/whatever to make progress against an obstacle course or mystery or enemy, you have the game flow pushing you to find things to do that are simple and honest, or to talk to the other PCs about stuff that’s been happening, or to have a Slice of Life where you find or feel or experience something and the image/the mood sticks with you, or maybe (in the Gothic version) to get worked up and perilously obsessive over something.
That’s the drumbeat of the game.
You can get distracted from it by things that push you to the fringes of your particular game’s genre—you can find yourself getting caught up in a struggle against an antagonist, even in a Pastoral game, and you can find yourself wielding vast world-changing powers, but there’ll always be this thing in the back of your head, or the zeitgeist of the group, or at least in the rules, going: “but find a way to slip in some pastoral stuff soon to earn XP and properly structure the game!”
It seems to work pretty well. It’s like—
In a D&D game, sometimes the random pastoral stuff you do on the side is great fun. It can be the most important part of the game. But it’s like rocketry. To make a rocket, you dig up resources from the earth, and you put them together in a rocket, and you launch; and if you don’t get to escape velocity, then you spend your way through the initial momentum and fall back to earth where you can later build more rockets. To get to pastoral gaming in D&D, you dig up the fun pastoral stuff established by the framework of character/campaign creation and adventuring. You blast off into pastoral stuff, and when you’ve used up the initial momentum, you fall back to adventuring until you’ve mined up more rocket fuel.
I realize this is a terrible description of both D&D and rocketry. Forgive me. *^_^*;;
In Chuubo’s its the same. Over the course of your pastoral laid-back stuff you might generate fuel for a cool mystery, or adventure, or fight. And you might wind up playing through that for a while. But if it’s a Pastoral game, if it’s a game that’s focused on slice of life, then eventually you’ll expend that fuel, use up the fun available there, and fall back to the mechanical “ground” of Pastoral actions.
That’s its own sort of fun, of course, just like D&D fights are their own sort of fun, and (for better or worse) you’ll develop fuel for future mysteries, adventures, and conflicts therein.
The second part of the interview — in which we discuss the publishing industry, feminism, and the way berries taste when mixed with a cloud — is coming up later this week. Stick around!