Illustration by Claudia Cangini
…there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to punch allegorical injustice in the face.
Reapers, Reavers, Sauron, demons, vampires, darkspawn, magical corruption, Thanos-backed Kree warlord. Whatever the face of evil may look like, my favorite parts of these ensemble cast fantasy and sci-fi stories are the moments of character interplay, brought out by the tension of facing an overwhelming evil. Gimli and Legolas developing a friendly orc-killing rivalry in Lord of the Rings, Groot learning new words in Guardians of the Galaxy, Mal opening up to Inara in Firefly.
It can be tricky to facilitate these kinds of moment in a roleplaying game – the stakes need to be high, but you need those moments of reprieve from the push of plot to let these conversations and developments happen.
The Watch (Kickstarter) is some kind of freakish perfect storm; I trust it to produce these hard-to-reach moments, to be a gripping storytelling Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, and to inspire deeper thoughts about gender, society, resistance, and love. There is so much else to love about The Watch and its co-designers Andrew Medeiros and Anna Kreider, but I’ll let them introduce it:
The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.
The story of The Watch is structured around the military campaign against the Shadow’s forces. You will tell stories of war, love, and sacrifice as your characters fight to hang on to what they have left.
Co-orchestrators of this perfect storm build on a mountain of relevant experience: Andrew Medeiros is a game designer who has designed diverse games building off of the PbtA system, and is particularly well-known for co-designing the ENnie award winning Urban Shadows. Anna Kreider is a polymath, a 2016 Gen Con Industry Insider, acclaimed writer and researcher of gender representation in games at her blog, and designer of (often tragic) RPGs and LARPs.
The Watch is Kickstarting on this auspicious Valentine’s Day! Co-designer Anna Kreider sat down at the old Stew table with me to unpack the game experience, mechanical details, and dish out some succulent game design advice! Back the game today and get access to the playtest materials – don’t miss out on this one.
Illustration by Anna Kreider
Darcy Ross: What does The Watch feel like? What kind of moments or experiences does it create in the story or at the table?
A campaign takes 10-12 sessions to play, so at points it can be a rough experience. But it’s also a game about the bonds between comrades, and the relationships that develop between PCs can be intense and deeply meaningful. And just speaking for myself, there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to punch allegorical injustice in the face, when it’s never that cut-and-dry in real life.
DR: What inspired you and Andrew Medeiros to design this game? How does this game relate to some of your other works?
AK: So, it’s kind of a funny story. Drew came up with the initial concept after watching a documentary by John Sheldon about diversity and inclusion in the games industry and told me that he had this idea for a game about all female soldiers fighting to repel an invasion by this nebulous threat called the Shadow. And then I got really excited and started yelling ideas at Drew via chat for two days until he bowed to the inevitable and asked if I wanted to co-design the game with him. (Thankfully, it’s proven to be a really great partnership.)
As for how it relates to other works… There’s a level of meta gender commentary baked into the Shadow, which ties pretty closely to most of my other game design work – be it satirical (i.e. SexyTime Adventures) or more serious (i.e. Autonomy). But there’s just as much of Drew in this game – a lot of what makes the game sing builds on Drew’s previous design work. The mechanical innovations he came up with work beautifully in modeling the accumulated toll of burnout and trauma, and people who have played Star Wars World or Urban Shadows will recognize elements of those games in The Watch.
DR: What are some of your favorite Moves and Archetypes that PCs can choose from?
As for a favorite move? I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite playbook move, but when it comes to basic moves I’d have to say that Blow Off Steam is my favorite. Blow Off Steam is a move that gets used when the PCs get back from the field and want to bond through release some tension, but what that ends up looking like can be really different. Players can Blow Off Steam by having an impromptu archery contest, or starting a drunken brawl, or by sleeping together. It creates interesting dynamics and always leads to fun scenes.
DR: I love what I’ve heard about the structure of The Watch. Can you tell us about what that looks like as the game nears its final form? I’m particularly excited by the aftermath phase between missions. It’s those interstitial scenes between plot-focused play that really grab me; the plot creates all this material that I can use to explore my character and their relationships to the world and their companions.
Missions also tend to encourage world-building at the table, which enriches the fiction. As an MC, I like to get people to draw mission objectives or other locations on the map as part of the mission, and sometimes those are things that get tied back into the fiction going forward, which is fun.
DR: The Watch strikes me as a very replayable game, with its somewhat defined overall campaign & mission structure, its options provided regarding the nature of the Shadow & its minions, and the different Archetypes selected by the players. Can you talk to us about how differently the game can play out, or feel, or explore different topics based on these choices?
AK: It’s super replayable! When you play The Watch, you’re not playing to find out if you can defeat the shadow. If you play a campaign from start to finish, the Shadow will be defeated. What you’re playing to find out is what sort of relationships will you have? Who will be there at the end, and who will fall? On the day of ultimate victory, whose absence will be keenly felt? The relationships will be different every time.
The world-building that goes into playing will also make each campaign feel very different. For one thing, there are different options for creating the Shadow at the start of the campaign that will very much inform the genre that your game ends up feeling like – do you want to play low fantasy? High fantasy? Steampunk? Lovecraftian fantasy horror? There’s also the issue that the game provides you only with the barest outlines of the world and what it looks like, along with lots of questions to answer as a group. So each group is going to answer those questions about what the world looks like very differently, and the fiction will be very different from group to group.
Insight into Game Design
DR: I’ve been hearing great buzz about The Watch for a good year now! How has the playtest experience been for you? The way The Watch interacts with gender identity is pretty unique – was that something you refined with playtesting?
AK: From early on in the process, Drew and I felt like we knew what the game was and how it needed to work. The challenge was more how do we convey that to the people playing it? And how do we build it so that it does what it needs to do even when we’re not running it? But we knew very early on that this would be a game that affirmed trans gender identity and nonbinary gender identity – our very first outside playtest at Dreamation in 2016 forced players to choose their gender identity, of which “cis woman” was just one of several options. The challenge has been more figuring out the correct language around explaining that without falling into problematic language traps – we owe a lot to some pretty great folks who have helped us refine our language.
DR: What has the experience of co-designing with Andrew been like? Are there similarities between making a hack of a game (where you’re reacting and building on another person’s static work) and collaborative design de novo (where you react and build on your partner’s ideas)?
The thing that I enjoyed about having a co-designer was that design could be more of a conversation, and when one of us got stuck on something the other one of us usually was able to come at that problem from a different angle and get things going again. When you’re working on a game on your own, you end up getting stuck at points where you end up beating your head against a wall and having to put it down and walk away, so having a partner to talk through design problems with was a pretty good deal. That’s not to say that I want to do nothing but collaboration from now on. Both of us still have our own projects and ideas that we’re keeping to ourselves. No matter how good someone is to work with, sometimes it’s easier to do something by yourself.
DR: You’re an experienced designer of game hacks – do you have any inklings about hacks of the Watch that you or others might write? Any exciting hack or other stretch goals you can leak to our gnomes here at the Stew?
AK: We have some really exciting extended content planned as stretch goals, and I very much hope we get to fund that as playing with the extended content really adds a lot to the “base” game.
DR: You have amassed a wide range of game design accomplishments: hacks, full games, larps, playtesting, critique and deep analysis through your blog and other works. What advice do you have for game designers just starting out?
AK: Three things!
- Do what you find interesting and don’t worry about whether you have the “cred” to be taken seriously, or if your game idea isn’t “serious” enough to be popular. If you want to write a game hack about glitter kittens fighting evil with cuddles and playing, do it! Don’t get wrapped up in the identity politics that our community attaches to being a game designer. If you want to make a game, make a game!
- Remember that your first draft of anything you make is going to be TERRIBLE. And that is absolutely okay, because game design is an iterative process! With enough time and attention, anyone can make a polished game.
- Find a community of game designers! (G+ is great for this.) Contrary to how we often talk about game design, designing games is NOT a solitary pursuit. Your game design will always be better if it’s part of an ongoing conversation.
Back The Watch on Kickstarter now, and gain instant access to the current playtest materials!