036: Aspire SRD and Theatre LARPing with S. Kaiya J.

With the Forest of Trees behind them, we stumble upon a battle – but a mysterious game designer on the periphery explains that it’s just a Boffer LARP. S. Kaiya J. discusses game design, the Aspire SRD, Diversity Saves, and the complexity of LARP design.

Things discussed in this interview with game designer S. Kaiya J.:

  • 01:53 Theater LARP
  • 07:18 Designing a LARP
  • 10:13 Aspire SRD
  • 11:00 Caltrop Core
  • 16:24 Her Odyssey
  • 19:35 Solo-Journaling RPGs
  • 21:47 Galatea
  • 25:07 Diversity Saves
  • 33:09 Mass Effect
  • 33:54 Knights of the Old Republic
  • 34:51 Tyranny
  • 37:01 Magic the Gathering
  • 40:19 Vampire Survivors
  • 42:10 Tunic
  • 45:06 Root
  • 46:07 Dragon Quest

S. Kaiya J.
We were broke. College kids. We didn’t have money for costuming. And so it was very much, somebody’s running a LARP next Saturday, show up. You know? Or rather, sign up now, get your character sheet, you know, you have a week to read it. Nowadays, you know, we’re in our thirties, we all have jobs, we have disposable income.

I am attending a LARP later this month actually, where some of us have been sewing our own costumes for the past nine months, ordering swords from Japan. And you know, there’s, there’s a very large spectrum of how, how deeply we can get into this if you want to. 

[00:00:41] Introductory Guy
It is time for an adventure in the worlds of user experience and game design. On season three of the Design Thinking Games podcast, join old school UXers and aspiring game designers. Michael Scofield, Tim Broadwater, and an array of quirky characters from pixelated heroes to mischievous NPCs in search of the ultimate player experience design thinking is a process that is applied to different types of games in this podcast. If you’re wondering whether your favorite games have already come up, you can listen through the backlog at designthinkinggames.com. Now, Rapid Protobot Fire, the Design Thinking laser. 

S. Kaiya J. on herself

[00:01:26] S. Kaiya J.
I’m Kaya in the TTRPG circles.

I’m known as Mirror-Lock Atelier. I design small indie games about identity contemplation and self-transformation. I am also a theater LARPer who has attended and run several theater LARP Cons and I. Might be best known as the player of Lillisen in the actual play Curse of Strahd: Twice Bitten, which is the thing that sort of got me into game [00:02:00] design in the first place.

Oddly enough, in my non-magical life, Iumber of very boring things which mostly involving patent filing, but that’s an excuse for me to get the money to do the things that I really enjoy in life, which is to basically open doors to new worlds of the imagination. 

Theater LARPing

[00:02:21] Tim Broadwater
For people who don’t know the term theater LARPing, 

[00:02:26] S. Kaiya J.
LARP itself is live-action role-play, and that covers an awful lot of ground.

When you say LARP, many people in the US are going to think ah, yes. You, you run around with buffer sticks in the woods hitting each other or you know, you have that one guy throwing spell packets going Well, lightning bolt. Lightning bolt. That is buffer LARP. That is a very thriving community. I have so much respect for those guys.

You know, you run around eight hours. Every Saturday you’re going to get fit. What I do mostly is called Theater LARP or Parlor LARP. It’s actually more on the side of approaching TTRPG but with some very crucial differences. So in the tradition that I’m used to, which is a very specific New York City-centric tradition, it’s called Secrets and Powers, LARP.

And essentially what happens is the writers of the game, Figure out beforehand what they want the setting to be, who they want the characters to be, and what sort of secrets might come out during the game. They plot this all out and then they write character sheets. They embed all of these secrets into the character sheets, which will generally be sort of a written story of somebody’s life along with things like, you know, also you can force somebody to tell the truth six times per game or something like that.

And then the players are just handed these sheets that tell them you know who they’re playing, what they know, what they want, and what they have. And when game time rolls around, these are generally one-shot games. [00:04:00] All the players are essentially put into a room or a series of rooms together knowing what they know and intending to do what they intend to do.

And the writers / GMs essentially just stand back. They have. Nothing to do with the actual action. And they just watch as all of the secrets that they’ve written sort of come out over the course of play. So somebody, you know, one of the players might be looking for the guy who killed his brother and another player.

Unaware of this might know that, you know, five years ago in a bar fight he struck and accidentally killed this random guy. And then a third piece, he might know that you know, oh, hey, random guy that was killed five years ago. I hung out with him once and he told me that his name was, you know, it turned out to be the first player’s brother.

And this is. Not going to come out immediately, but eventually, at some point, it will come out. It’s those players’ choices as to how they’re going to react, so, You don’t really hear a lot about these more performance-focused games. When you say the word lark, I’ve been doing quite a lot of evangelism for them.

[00:05:14] Tim Broadwater
When you were describing it, I was like, this is like True Dungeon. Which I’m not sure if you’ve ever done very much, where you’re talking about the rooms and, and kind of, and there’s a GM or dm, they’re kind of guiding you. It’s more fantasy based and there’s like hockey skeeball or something used for combat or something.

But if you took the construct there and then had much more social deduction and role-playing and interactivity between players and secrets, that only, that just sounds, how am I not heard of this? Well, it sounds cool.

[00:05:41] S. Kaiya J.
Exactly. Yeah. I’ve been running a few online. After the pandemic first hit, people couldn’t play these in person.

And so a number of writers have been writing games that are designed to run online through Zoom or through Discord. And it’s interesting to take lessons from LARPing [00:06:00] because they are written, you know, they’re designed so that the GMs don’t have to narrate what’s going on, and they don’t have to adjudicate roles or anything like that for the most part, and.

Looking at how you can sort of package those up and bring those into the TTRPG side has been very interesting and fruitful field of inquiry for me.

[00:06:23] Tim Broadwater:
With true dungeons. You know, some person can just show up and try it for the first time and see if they like it. And then some people they, it really scratches this like crafter side of them where they wanna, where they actually want to work with a persona.

Is there a spectrum there? 

[00:06:36] S. Kaiya J.
Absolutely. A lot of us started in college when, you know, we were broke college kids. We didn’t have money for costuming. And so it was very much, somebody’s running a LARP next Saturday, show up, you know, or rather sign up now, get your character sheet, you know, you have a, a week to read it.

Nowadays, you know, we’re in our thirties, we all have jobs, we have disposable income. I am attending a LARP later this month actually, where some of us have been sewing our own costumes for the past nine months, ordering swords from Japan. And you know, there’s, there’s a very large spectrum of how, how deeply you can get into this if you want to.

Designing a LARP

[00:07:18] Tim Broadwater
When you design for that type of game, I’m assuming after so many people you have to have multiple game masters. I don’t know how, how do you even plan like something that is like, you know, with a board game, you can definitely test and see like, okay, we’re, we’re averaging, you know, this 30 minutes or 20 minutes of play time or video games are pretty clocked even.

Organized play. For D&D Adventure League, Pathfinder Society, Starfinder Society, anything like that. Shadow Run missions, it’s a table of four to five, six hours max. It’s, it’s gated. Can you speak to the design and the management of it at all?

[00:07:49] S. Kaiya J.
You can have partial crutches to lean on, such as in the design of the game, you might say I plan to have this game run for eight [00:08:00] hours and it is known, it is in a public document that players have beforehand, that at the two hour mark there is a conference scheduled between these, you know, world leaders. Let’s say this is a, you know, world Summit sort of political game. At the four hour mark there is going to be the second session of this summit at the six hour mark.

If these leaders have not yet come to an agreement, that is when the NPC armies are going to start. Attacking each other. But you can say this, but you can’t really determine when the players are actually going to come to their final agreements. It could very well be that everybody sits down at the two hour mark at the first summit, and all of a sudden peace breaks out.

This is a common problem. Players are disgustingly polite. They just want to, you know, solve. And so you have to write in sufficient incentives for players to want to be stubborn about the things that they want to back stab each other, or at least to want to. Be in conflict for each other, for limited resources.

And it’s usually better to overdo it on that axis than to underdo it. Because you know, if peace breaks out at two hours, everybody’s just gonna sit around for the next six hours. But if, you know, they can’t reach peace at two hours, they can’t reach peace at four hours, they can’t reach peace at six hours, then you’ve already planned for that.

You know war is already on the table. It’s already something that everybody else knows. Another common tool is to, you know, you thought you had brokered peace at four hours, but all of a sudden at five hours, unbeknownst to the players, but you know, this is on the GM schedule at five hours. A volcano or you know, has erupted breaking news, you know, this entire region of the map is, you know is [00:10:00] obliterated.

You know, the situation has changed in some way. And then the players have a limited amount of time to have to react to that reframe their understanding of the situation. And you know, Adapt to it. 

Aspire SRD by S. Kaiya J.

[00:10:13] Michael Schofield
In addition to the games that you’ve designed for yourself, you have designed a system so that others can design games.

How do you get to aspire? 

[00:10:21] S. Kaiya J.
Aspire also happened by accident. This is a running theme with me. It really started when I wrote my first game Her Odyssey, and that was based off of the Caltrop core SRD by Titanomachy RPG and I, I read that SRD with, it’s a very simple and elegant system.

You have a bunch of D4s. You roll depending on your stats or any Advantages you might have, you choose the highest out of that pool. And then depending on what number is on that D4, that is your result for whatever challenge that you are rolling. One is you don’t get what you want and things get worse.

Two is you don’t get what you want, but things don’t get worse. Three is you get what you want, but things get complicated. And four is you get what you want and more. 

[00:11:15] Michael Schofield
Can you introduce an SRD to somebody who might not be familiar?

[00:11:19] S. Kaiya J.
So, an SRD stands for system resource document which is a terribly non-descriptive name.

But in the technically it means all of the mechanics of a system that you can use to build a game around, and unfortunately the place where most people are going to encounter it is the D&D SRD or the Pathfinder SRD. And that’s really a case where it’s been taken and sort of changed into something else because the D&D SRD or the Pathfinder SRD is a list of all of the rules. All of [00:12:00] the spells, all of the, some of the items you know, class mechanics, whatever that was meant to be. Okay. Outside designers can use these and, you know, look at. Maybe a class mechanic and then make their own item referencing that class mechanic. But in practice it’s often players are going to go to this website with a database to look things up, you know, look up the rules text if they don’t remember exactly.

So that’s sort of the primary usage that many people have. On the indie TTRPG side of things the SRDs are a more focused meaning they are what happens when somebody writes out the mechanical bones of a system and then puts it out there and says, alright, anybody can pick this up and write a game around it.

So the Caltrop Core SRD, which is the first one that I came across by Titanomachy RPG is essentially a system based around D4s where. Anytime you need to figure out how something you’re trying to do is resolving, you roll a D4 or you roll multiple D4s depending on your stats or the situation.

If you roll a one you don’t get what you want. Things get worse. With a two, you don’t get what you want, but things don’t get worse. With a three, you get what you want, but things get complicated. And with a four you get what you want and more. Sounds like success, critical success failure.

Critical failure, kinda. Yeah. I think that’s what it was slightly you know, inspired by and then the, you know, this the core of the SRD and then the rest of the SRD is sort of modeled. Modeled around you know, what kinds of situations might you, you, the person who is writing the game based around this, give the player the option to roll.[00:14:00] 

Two D 4 and take the highest rather than rolling just one. In what sorts of situations are you, again, the person who is writing this game going to give the player the option to, you know, trade in the option to roll for a token, and then later on use that token, spend that token to get an extra rule.

The base document that came out with the original release of the Caltrop Core SRD suggested a. You know, if you are writing a game, maybe you should think of writing a multiplayer game with different playbooks where each player can choose a different archetype and each archetype gives you different stats.

And, you know, maybe as gameplay goes on these stats can raise and lower. So it’s it is very much like I said, you know, here’s a mechanic. Take it, go have fun with it, you know, go forth. And when I wrote my first game, Her Odyssey I looked at this SRD and I thought, all right, this is cool.

Not sure what I’m ever gonna do with this. You know, I don’t really wanna write games with, you know, different character archetypes or playbooks. You know, nothing against those games. It’s not what I wanna write. And then I went and took a shower and Some like, you know, I stepped into the shower thinking I’m not gonna write a Caltrop Core game, stepped out with an idea fully formed.

[00:15:44] Tim Broadwater
It’s, it’s water. I’m, I’m a water sign and I’m, I was telling you when you shower, it’s just like the thoughts, I have my best thoughts in bed and in the shower. Yes. Yeah, sorry. 

[00:15:53] S. Kaiya J.
Just, you know, the places where you’ve got nothing to do except wait and you know, then start clicking together. It [00:16:00] makes total sense.

And so that’s where I got my idea for you know, how to adapt this for a single-player game. If you are drawing cards from a deck of cards, that gives you a target number that you can roll against, and then the player can choose, you know, how many dice do they want to spend to try to meet that number.

Her Odyssey was still Caltrop Core based, so you were still rolling. D4s many numbers, you know, a suit of Playing cards. The suits go from one to king. Many numbers you really can’t hit by rolling just one D4 but what if you can roll multiple of them and add them together and figure out, you know, you’re trying to hit a nine.

You know, how many dice have you rolled so far? Do you really wanna gamble on that third dice? That became the spine of Her Odyssey. And then I kept designing other games, but I kept on coming back to this idea of having a deck of cards, whether it be playing cards or tarot cards, or even niche decks like Tarokka cards from the Curse of Strahd adventure.

Then having some dice that you roll against the face value of those cards. I’ve had games that roll, D4s I’ve had games that roll D10s I have a game that, you know, you have the gamut of between a D four and a D 12, but which one you have at your disposal keeps on changing depending on how much you use them.

And so with sort of this idea of. You know, I have this central idea and I keep on exploring variations, but I really can’t explore all these variations by myself, and I want to see other people write games like this. So it became a sort of logical next step to write down, you know, what I was thinking and just put it out there for other people to [00:18:00] use.

The other sort of primary point of the Aspire SRD is that somewhere in the middle of drawing cards and rolling dice, you are going to draw a card that changes the rules. In my first game, Her Odyssey, it was if you draw a joker, you know, a Joker obviously doesn’t have a number associated with it.

That’s going to be a turning point in your story. It’s going to be a point where something happens. Or you, you thought you were going to get what you were looking for, and then something else happens to subvert that. In one of my other games, untitled Moth Game, it’s, you know, you draw a certain card that makes you clear the board entirely and start a new act with a totally new set of rules.

And it could be just, you know, you draw a card and. It gives you a minor boost, you know, from now on you get to roll one more dice or from now on you have one more of a bonus resource, something like that. Because I see a lot of indie TT RPGs out there that are essentially one act games and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

But. If, if one act good, why not, you know, two act better. So, and if you already have a deck of cards, it’s very easy to designate one or more of them as a turning point and to designate one as the point at which the game ends. So that is my other sort of selling point for the Aspire SRD

Solo-Journaling RPGs

[00:19:35] Michael Schofield
I kind of would love to hear your thoughts about solo journaling RPGs, like something like thousand year old vampire or Her Odyssey? 

[00:19:45] S. Kaiya J.
I see the creation of solo journaling RPGs as mechanically similar to the creation of theater LARPs because. Again, you are writing all of these, [00:20:00] you know, these pieces, these, these blocks, these puzzle pieces, putting them into something and handing it over to somebody and you are going to be unable to affect the way that they play the game. And unlike, you know, writing a video game, you where you can write, like I’ll write every time the player comes over here, you know, this NPC is going to react in a certain way. You can’t write. You can’t really write reactive stuff into your game unless you’re handing somebody a choose your own adventure like book, which some solo journaling, journaling games are veering a little bit towards that.

But you know, Mostly not.

[00:20:44] Tim Broadwater
That’s actually funny you said that because the card game and the tabletop board game mm-hmm. I’m thinking of this exactly that. So you’re just making decisions and drawing different cards based on decisions, you know, and see where it goes. 

[00:20:55] S. Kaiya J.
Yeah. And, and those tend to be sort of more a branching decision tree.

Right. Which is very difficult to write just because, you know, combinatorics, it’s, it’s gonna, it’s a very large writing load. I think that a lot of solo journaling games, the ones that I’ve come across, take the tactic of: write different modular pieces and you can’t really control in what order the player is going to encounter them, but write them modularly enough so that these encounters can hook into each other in different configurations and give the player a different experience depending on, you know, how they went through their particular gameplay.

So as an example I have a game called Galatea. It is based on the Wretched & Alone SRD essentially means you are going to be playing with a Jenga tower and a deck of cards. So you draw cards from this deck of cards, and [00:22:00] for every player the order in which they draw these cards is going to be different because that’s what happens when you shuffle a deck of cards.

But for Galatea, the central premise is that you are a masterpiece of some sort of art that has become sentient. And you have to figure out how to deal with the fact that your creator is expecting you to remain perfect. And so each of these cards is linked to a different prompt or scenario in which your creator, you know, Expresses criticism of a flaw that he sees in you or a bystander, you know, comes by and you know, makes a scene with your creator or you discover a secret that your creator is hiding.

These are all impactful in their own way. Depending on the order in which you encounter them, they might. Pick up more or less significance depending on what the person who is playing this and has already, you know, written out, you know, this is how I react to something that’s already happened might be bringing to each new You know, prompt or scenario as it comes.

And some of these prompts also tell you to pull from the Jenga tower, and so the more you get into this game and the shakier this tower gets, you know, that also influences how your mindset is playing. How you might think that your character is getting more and more uncertain about their situation, even as you see the, the tower wobbling.

It might inspire you to take a different tack depending on you know, Galatea has multiple endings. Many Wretched & Alone games do not they just end when the tower falls. So that, that impending sense of dread and of, you know, what can I do sort of really communicates itself to the [00:24:00] character that you are writing as lots of people tell me that.

Solo journaling games are really good as writing prompts for you know, less for somebody who thinks of themself as I want to play a game tonight. And more as writers who want to, you know, get the words flowing have a, a quick writing warmup before they start, you know, their real writing for the day.

I can see that I actually, I. Had not played very many solo journaling games before I started writing them. But it turns out that they are a lot easier to write in some respects than multiplayer games because you don’t have to balance mechanics around you know, multiple people maybe trying to cause conflicts with each other.

When you write a solo journaling game, you are essentially shaping potential pieces for one player and then leaving it in their hands how they’re gonna pick up those pieces and put them together into a hopefully satisfying. Narrative for themselves. 

Diversity Saves

[00:25:07] Michael Schofield
You ended up officially becoming the director of an organization called Diversity Saves.

How’s it going so far?

[00:25:15] S. Kaiya J.
So Diversity Saves is a 501c3 registered charity that focuses on uplifting marginalized voices in the TTRPG community. And that applies for you know, L G B T Q people that applies for neurodivergent people. It applies to designers in the global south there’s very thriving TTRPG communities in Brazil, in, in Indonesia that, you know, in America we just never hear about.

It applies to you know, all sorts of minorities and. Our mission is to amplify those voices and to [00:26:00] provide direct financial support in the forms of grants for you know, people who you know, would be able to make wonderful things if they had. Another 500 bucks to, you know, get somebody to do layout because, you know, the, the creator is disabled in some way or would be able to create wonderful things.

But they need, you know, a, a bit of money to make rent this month or childcare or something like that. 

We take donations on, you know, just normal. Rolling basis through our website, which is diversitysaves.org. And we provide grants on a quarterly basis. Although our grant applications are always open, and again on our website, diversitysaves.org.

Once again, I got into this completely by accident. This is amazing. The fifth one. Go ahead. Yes. Life is full of happy accidents and you should always keep an eye out for opportunities that you can take. My good friend Matthew of Abyssal Brews told me, I wanna say around this time last year that his friend dag from Night Owl Odysseys was starting to put this initiative together and wanted to you know, put together a board of the sorts of people that really represent the exact kinds of people that we’re trying to support and uplift.

What we ended up with is a six member board and Matthew himself is the only, you know, cis white male guy on the board. And has has, has taken a little bit of good humor you know, ribbing for that. But. Yeah, we all have ties and connections to the sorts of people who don’t get very many opportunities in the TTRPG space or who don’t get, you know, seen [00:28:00] and platformed nearly as often.

And we try to provide a space where, you know, everybody can be celebrated for what they bring to the table. So. Something that I often say is, you know, if we spend so much time interested in TT RPGs, interested in going to these, these different fantastical worlds where everything is strange and new and, you know, we’re learning so much more about different cultures why not start with, you know, learning more about the different cultures that.

You know, we can learn from real people who really exist. And, you know, I personally have learned so much about things like, you know, wow, there are, you know, brilliant and talented designers in Brazil. For example, Cesar Kapala who I never would have really come across in the course of my, you know, very anglosphere centric TTRP g.

Social circles. . If you want to learn more about diversity saves donate or apply for a grant go to diversitysaves.org. If you want to learn more about me and any of my games or any of my other work please go to mirror-lock.com. That will also have links to my itch page, which is mirror-lock.Itch.io. If you are listening to this before July 1st, 2023, you can even join in the Aspire Game Jam. That is just a fun thing that people who are interested in writing games based off of my Aspire SRD, are doing on Itch. You can get Aspire for free. Join the Jam for free.

Hang around, chat with people you know. Listen to their ideas. And if you want to get in touch with me directly, you can email me at kaiya@mirror-lock.com.

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