We just started doing a Kickstarter Watch here at Yawning Portal. The headliner was Strongholds & Followers, which shouldn’t be a surprise. It has gotten a lot of attention everywhere and looks very promising. It has also already broken the previous record for a Kickstarted RPG product. However, the thing that has stuck with me is a very different product.
What impressed me the most was Good Society: a Jane Austen Roleplaying Game. First and foremost, it’s a great idea. It obviously has a willing audience, having gathered pledges for more than twenty five times the minimum as this is written. There is a light, breezy charm to the presentation of the product. They have added stretch goal after stretch goal as milestones were passed and involved the community in decision making as well. But when I discovered that the developers, Storybrewers Roleplaying,  is not an established, large company but two young Australian women, I was completely hooked.
So many questions sprang to mind on how such a small company could not only accomplish this, but simply handle it. So I got in touch with the pair, Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, to answer some questions on what it is like to be a small player on a big field and where their inspirations come from.
independent developers, Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys – an interview with independent developers Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, Yawning Portal
So let’s start with the basics. Who are the Storybrewers and how and why did you start working together?
We are two Australian roleplaying designers (and roleplaying lovers!) who make offbeat games together. We’re actually also married! Which answers the question of why we started working together rather well.
What is the Australian RPG scene like? What is most popular and how willing is the player base to experiment?
The Australian RPG scene is still small, but it’s definitely growing, which is very exciting! Games like D&D still dominate, but people are increasingly willing to try new things. We go regularly to a local convention called Ettincon, and have playtested early versions of both our games there – people have been very willing to give them a go.
GS isn’t your first RPG, you already ran a very successful Kickstarter with Alas for the Awful Sea. Give us a quick run-down of that game and how it was putting it together? Was it the first published game or gaming product for both of you?
Alas for the Awful Sea is a game of myth, mystery, and crime, set in the 19th century rural UK. It’s a game about poverty, politics, sadness, and the human heart. It’s a grim and bleak setting, but it can also be quite emotional as well. It’s also a game heavily based in history.
Alas was our first published game, but it certainly wasn’t our first game! We’ve been designing for a while now, and you can see some of the fruits of that in the free games on our website.
AftAS was very successful on Kickstarter, gathering almost forty times the funding goal. What did that mean for you in making the game? How about personally?
It meant we could make the game properly, which was a huge relief! We were able to produce a finished product we could be proud of, including expanding the game’s contents, art, and graphic design.
Back to GS, where did the idea come from? What are the inspirations for the game, aside from the obvious?
The obvious really was the main inspiration! When making this game we literally consumed every single little bit of Austen media we could get our hands on. I even watched Lost in Austen (I didn’t attempt Austenland, even I wouldn’t go that far.)
More broadly I think it’s inspired by games like Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss, and Ailenor by Maracanda which showed that games can be more about relationships than violence.
In the simplest terms, how does a game of GS work? Since there no dice rolls and abilities are entirely narrative, what is the player agency aside from roleplaying their character?
Players have a lot of agency in Good Society, MUCH more than in traditional RPG’s such as D&D or Pathfinder. In this game, players are armed with resolve tokens – they can use these tokens to change narrative details about the world. They also create rumour and scandal throughout the game, and play important non-player gentry.
Do you have a target audience in mind?
Anyone who is interested in playing a game that puts relationships and social pressures before action scenes and violence.
What inspires you as players, regardless of systems and how does that effect your design?
I’m always excited and inspired by tough choices and hard decisions which I suppose makes me quite a malignant game designer really! I like interesting choices, where characters are forced to pick their priorities, and how that helps their character develop as people. Even though Alas and Good Society are very different games, that is still definitely a theme of both.
Now, I’m absolutely not a LARPer but I have to concede that if anything was made for a LARP interpretation, this is it. Was including a LARP version always in the picture or was that a later development?
We were really hoping we would get a chance to create it. We know a lot of Austen lovers relish the chance to don costume, etc., and we wanted to provide a way to make that experience even more fun (we hope!)
You are doing a lot to involve the community in your choices and have gotten a lot of positive feedback. Has this been a pleasant surprise or did you expect this?
This was something we trialled with Alas and it worked really well. We’ve enjoyed having people engaged with the project, but it is also a big boon as a creator to know that people want what you are creating – since they came up with the idea!
You have added buckets of stretch goals and there’s still some time to spare. Do you think more will be needed before it’s all done?
It’s touch and go at the moment. We’re really happy with our final stretch goal, which is the global LARP event, but it’s increasingly looking like we’re going to need a final final stretch goal as well.
Amongst the things you’ve added through stretch goals are magic and swordplay. Will those be entirely narrative functions or will that mean a fundamentally different game?
We are creating new play materials for both these stretch goals, to make them feel experimentally more like their new theme. For example, for Sense, Sensibility and Swordsmanship we are looking at giving all the characters an additional character play material – a secret identity sheet. Players can switch between their secret identity and regular identity, but can only use the abilities from one at a time. We’re also looking at what might be a fun option for a dueling system!
These re-themes will likely be component based, so you can choose whether to add on a particular set of rules or not.
independent developers, Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys – an interview with independent developers Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, Yawning Portal
On to the business aspects, what does Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general mean to such a small company today?
Kickstarter is great for small-time creators like us, mostly because it’s a trusted platform. People feel safe in contributing and backing in a way they wouldn’t on our own website. Kickstarter takes its slice of the pie, but for us it’s definitely worth it.
Are there negatives to Kickstarter (or crowdfunding in general)?
The negatives are definitely the tendency to bite off more than you can chew with stretch goals, etc. We’re suckers for this because we love creating! But we also have to be careful not to delay the game’s release.
Without a large crowdfunding platform, do you think it would be possible to get a chance to make your ideas a reality, especially without the marketing opportunities arising from such a platform?
It would definitely be much more difficult. We’ve found that most of our backers have come from external sources (i.e. our marketing) rather than sources internal to Kickstarter, so it might still be possible. But I think it’s the shear hype that running a Kickstarter creates, and the amount of community involvement it allows, rather than the platform itself, that helps draw people to your game, and is probably irreplaceable.
This is probably way, way too early to ask, but what’s in the future for the Storybrewers? Are any more ideas swirling around that you’re willing to share?
Heh heh so very many. For now I can say that I just ran my first ever playtest of a new game we’re developing called the Establishment. It’s about running a luxury upscale joint, and all the drama, secrets, and problems that ensue. The playtest I ran was set during the prohibition so it was a bit of fun.
So, how do you make the perfect tea, what kind of tea do you use and what is the accompaniment?
I’m no expert but I love a smoky Russian caravan. I’m always careful to wash the leaves in cold water before brewing to prevent any burning. Then, just a touch of milk.
independent developers, Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys – an interview with independent developers Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, Yawning Portal
The Kickstarter for Good Society: a Jane Austen Roleplaying Game ends on March 5th. If you like what they do, by all means check out their website, where you can not only pick up Alas for the Awful Sea, but also a bunch of free games to check on their work and style.
All artwork in this piece is from the upcoming game and is by Raven Warner nad Aviv Or