By Amber Hare
Walking up a long and narrow flight of stairs, I eventually reached a cramped studio perched above downtown Olympia. The walls are lined with huge boxes filled with canvas scrolls, bags filled with metal coins. A sewing machine hides under a table stacked high with bubble wrap and shipping labels. This is the space where Fall of Magic is being assembled and packaged. Following an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, Ross Cowman is in the thick of readying over 800 copies of the game to be delivered to early supporters of the project. He invites me to a cafe across the street for a conversation about why story games are so important and how he came to create this incredible storytelling adventure.
Hello! Would you like to introduce yourself and the game you’re working on?
My name is Ross Cowman, I am a game designer and musician from Olympia. I was born in Seattle in 1979. My parents divorced when I was five, my dad kept living in seattle and I moved with my mom to Kirkland. I went went to high school at Juanita High and moved to Olympia in ‘98 to go to Evergreen and I’ve been living here ever since. Fall of Magic is a collaborative storytelling game where we play a group of travelers in a fantasy world. I call the game social fantasy because the focus of the play is very much your relationships that you have with the other characters and how those relationships develop and change over the course of the game. I came up with the idea for the game about 3 years ago when I was commissioned to design a one page game for this zine called Octo, a collection of one page games. There’s this game Battlestar Galactica, it’s a tabletop game by Fantasy Flight Games and one thing that’s really cool about it is that it’s got this map of the spaceship that you’re all on together and every place you go on this spaceship is a different action that you take. It’s really cool because when you’re playing the game you get this sense that you’re all moving around in space together but it’s kinda arbitrary because you go to the helm and you draw a card and you go to this other place and you get to look at someone else’s card. I thought that was a really cool idea so I decided to take some of the ideas that I had seen in story games and use it to tell a story about travelling together. I was having a hard time with it but I eventually worked it into a science fiction game called Life on Mars about travelling to mars together but I always had in my mind to do this game so next time Octo came around in the spring I finished a one page version of [Fall of Magic] and then eventually developed it into this finished game.
Story games might not be a genre that many people are familiar with, do you wanna explain what that is?
Yeah! Story games are games where the mechanics are really narrative focused so a lot of them are role playing games so you play the role of a specific character, kinda like Dungeons and Dragons. One thing that’s different about them is that in Dungeons and Dragons a lot of the mechanics and focus of the play are about how powerful your character is and the violent conflict with monsters. If you look at the book, about half the book is about stuff related to your skills and your stats whereas with story games the focus is really about stuff that’s gonna help you tell an interesting story and drive the narrative. A lot of them aim to have a pretty quick setup time, you can just set it down and start playing the game really quickly.
Why do you feel more drawn to this less constructed style of board games? Is that format inherent to Fall of Magic existing?
It looks a lot like a regular board game, the components of it are a lot of the things that I’m really excited about with board games like how you can just open the box and it’s really obvious how to play the game. Like a lot of role-playing games, it has a description of what a role-playing game is and how to play role-playing games, which is something you don’t see in board games because it’s just obvious and everyone knows how to play them. My goal for Fall of Magic was to have the ease of use of a board game and the accessibility but to have the depth of play that you get from collaborative storytelling. I think I’ve succeeded with that, I’ve definitely sat the game down in front of people that have never played a role-playing game before and that don’t play a lot of games in general and they’ll read through the rules and play the game and have a great time by making up a story together.
In most board games there is this set of procedures that we follow, there’s usually some kind of goal, we’re interacting with these game mechanics and are competing with each other. In a story game, there is this point where the game is leaves off and you have to fill in that space yourself. The game gives you lots of prompts and gives you lots of ideas but it doesn’t exactly tell you what those ideas mean, you really get to make those things up for yourself. For instance, you might choose that your character is Kabu, Crab-Singer of Astalia. The game doesn’t tell you what a Crab-Singer is, you get to make that up for yourself as you play the game. In a board game we might make up a story about what’s happening in the game but our story doesn’t actually impact the game at all whereas in Fall of Magic, everything that you make up becomes a part of this shared fiction that we’re creating together and it is absolutely essential. The game actually can’t be played without us having this conversation together.
You run a weekly story game club in Olympia, would you like to talk about what that’s like?
We meet weekly, it started at my house but now it’s at Obsidian and we meet Sunday afternoons. It’s a place where anybody can come and we’ll teach you how to play these games and we can hang out and play games for a few hours, it’s really fun. We try really hard to make it inclusive. One of the great things about story games is that because they’re so mechanically light, you can just sit down and play.
Check out Fall of Magic at any of Obsidian’s Story Game meetings or visit http://www.heartofthedeernicorn.com/