Every year at Gen Con, we try to release a new ashcan, which are in-progress games that are fully playable, but will still need a bit of development before they’re done. We love the feedback we get from our fans, and getting such a diverse group of people to play and run these games helps us make them even better. We don’t make an ashcan for every game, but we try to release at least one a year.
This year we worked with Kate Bullock to release Crossroads Carnival, which creates stories of outcast souls similar to Penny Dreadful, The Night Circus, and Carnivale. You play as monsters masquerading as sideshow performers, caught in a struggle between good and evil, all the while struggling to keep your humanity and save the souls of the rubes. And always underneath is the call of the darkness, promising an easier way forward.
You can get the PDF here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/248716/Crossroads-Carnival-One-Night-Only-Edition
Or get the Print + PDF here: https://www.magpiegames.com/staging-2020/product/crossroads-carnival-one-night-only-edition-print/
In honor of Crossroads Carnival‘s release, our intern Sam caught up with Kate to learn a little bit more about her, as well as future plans for the game.
Hi! So to start off, why don’t you tell us about the most important things that you think people should know about you and your game?
A carnival is about pulling back the veil and gazing at the truth. This game is about a glimpse into being Other. It’s a chance for those of us with more privilege to get a taste of what it’s like to be hated for you who are, while still believing in beauty in the world. It’s a game about hope, community, and the repercussions of decisions within that community.
So much of my life is lived openly that it’s hard to pin down what people should know about me. My game is mean. It’s got teeth. People have cried at my table (consensually). But most people who know me would say I’m loving, compassionate, and kind. I guess one random thing most people don’t know that’s important is that my kindness and compassion is a work in progress. It’s a skill set, and it’s one I’ve had to build. It’s a choice. One I make every day. And the understanding that kindness is a choice is absolutely baked into my games.
How did you come to the idea for Crossroads? What was it about the 1930’s and circus folk that were fundamental for this game to exist? On that note, what are the games or other pieces of media that were formative for you when you were first coming up with the concept?
Honestly, it started with a love of Carnivale, an HBO series on a carnival being caught in a battle between the Devil and God and a game of Annalise where we got rid of the vampire idea and instead played with an ancient evil infesting a carnival. The game got under my skin and I wanted to make a game that emulated that feel, of people who were working to save each other from the outside world but also from a creeping evil within.
The more I ended up researching about the Great Depression and the Dustbowl of America, the more I realized how absolutely apocalyptic it was. Terrible things were happening and people legitimately believed that the end had come. I wanted to make them right, to say “yes, the world was ending. Why didn’t it end?” I wanted the answer for why the world didn’t end to be that the outcasts of the world saved it. I wanted the people we ignore and cast aside to be our hope.
You chose PBTA for your game– why? Are there any other systems that you considered for it?
When I first started hacking Monsterhearts to make this a playset for the game, I had limited exposure to indie games. I have my roots in games like D&D, CyberGeneration, and Deliria. PbtA was the first system that I really got in a new way. As I moved on, I had considered toying with it as a playset like Archipelago III or even the Dramasystem. Ultimately, I wanted more mechanics than those story games, and I love the way PbtA captures genre.
PbtA allowed me to create set playbooks and define the world of the game but also allowed for gaps for the GM and players to fill in, like is it really God and the Devil? Is it older? Culturally different? What does the Apocalypse look like? I also loved the idea of making a game Powered by the Apocalypse where the characters were literally experiencing a slow burning apocalypse all around them and fighting to stop it.
How far have you strayed from your original idea? What was the change that you were the most reluctant to make?
I have never strayed from the idea of sideshow performers, who are actually monsters, fighting to save the world. I have definitely strayed in scope and moved it away from a very PVP game of tearing each other apart to a game of redemption and community building. It was originally a very scattered, violent game about history and souls and selling each other out to get ahead. Hence the Monsterhearts gravity.
But the more I chipped away at those parts, the more I realized it’s about Others who are fighting the good fight. It may have been formed a lot by my experiences as a queer woman trying to make the gaming community more inclusive and more diverse, and the experiences of my friends who were constantly being forced out of communities for asking for basic things, like safe spaces, no rape jokes, or ways to report harassment.
The biggest change I had to lean into was the stat name Freak. I wanted it to be driven home that they were Others, and in the 30’s, that gave them the name of Freak. Of course, after that, I struggled a lot to find a better stat name. I got there, with a lot of help. And even now I’m not sure it’ll be the name I stick with. It was a darling I had to kill, though. It just wasn’t working with the rest of the game.
Do you have any playbook in the game that is particularly near and dear to your heart? Or one that you were itching to play once you first created it?
Absolutely. I’ve never actually played my own game, but the playbook that delights me the most is the Strongman. It’s the one that I like the most because I find when men play it, I get a lot of feedback on them internalizing toxic masculinity and how the Strongman leans into that heavily. Which is exactly what I wanted it to do. I mean, the playbooks hurt. They’re painful sometimes. Yet I find that one of my favourite things about them.
Any thoughts now that you’ve designed your first game? How will your next one be different?
Well, it’s not done, so there’s still a lot more work to be done and to finesse about the game. It’ll still be on my plate for a bit. My brain is still chewing on it. My next one, I’m hoping, will be more intimate in scope and less grand. I still love designing around social problems and community, because that’s where my heart beats, but I also want to design games that are less inherently about fighting grand evil and more about aggressions we face daily. But we’ll see. With my luck I’ll get caught up in a Netflix show and want to make that game.
You can read more of Kate’s thoughts on her blog, Bluestocking’s Organic Gaming, and keep an eye out for her future designs. We have a feeling they’re going to be great.