Interview with Joe Mcdaldno, designer of The Quiet Year
You may remember a little while ago I told you about The Quiet Year from Monsterhearts designer Joe Mcdaldno, a storytelling game where you collaborate with your cohorts to tell the story of a year in the life of a post-apocalyptic civilization. Which I happen to think sounds rad. That being the case, I asked Mcdaldno if he would be willing to answer a few questions about The Quiet Year and his process as a designer. He was gracious enough to do so, and I can’t encourage you enough to check out the interview below and check out his IndieGoGo campaign, which has about five days left in it.
Take a second to introduce yourself.
Hi! My name’s Joe Mcdaldno. I live on Canada’s west coast, and I’ve been publishing story games since 2006. I really like games that are rich with emotional content, and so those are the games that I try to write.
What is The Quiet Year and how did you come up with the idea?
The Quiet Year is a game (for 2-4 players) about the struggles of a community that exists after the collapse of civilization. You make decisions for that community, steering them through a year of relative peace. As you play, all of your choices and discoveries get recorded on a map.
It’s not a roleplaying game, exactly. You don’t play as specific characters. Instead, you speak as currents of thought within the community, representing its members at a bird’s eye level.
The game started as a reflection on a couple experiences I’d had: feeling winter blues, struggling to work productively within nonprofit organizations, and being in a small town again after living in the city for years. I wanted to make a game about seasons and communities. The first person I showed it to is my dear friend and fellow designer Jackson Tegu (photographsoflightning.com). It didn’t originally use playing cards, but Jackson broke down the significance of a standard deck of cards: 52 cards for 52 weeks, 4 suits for 4 seasons, 13-card series for the 13 moons in a calendar year. I latched onto that information eagerly, and the game developed from there.
With less than a week left in The Quiet Year campaign, how has the response been?
I had my trepidations and anxieties that it might not find popular appeal, since the game is pretty distinct and obscure. Compared to my last title (Monsterhearts), it’s much more art-y and contemplative, which can sometimes translate into a small audience. But we’re nearly at $8000 raised so far, out of a minimum goal of $4000. It feels like a success!
And more generally: it’s been exciting to see certain people’s eyes light up when they hear about the game, or when they sit down and begin learning about it. I’ll definitely mention that the game isn’t for everybody, but it gets a lot of love from a lot of people. That makes me proud.
Can you give us an example of a story in The Quiet Year?
This is a tricky question. The fiction of the game doesn’t fit neatly into a “story” format. Instead, it’s a sprawling set of situations and ideas. The game is about a whole community in action, and it plays out across a (fictional) year. As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of different stories and developments that transpire as the game progresses.
But one example? I played a game of The Quiet Year recently in which the community quickly discovered that a group of hunter-gatherers live in the woods just outside their settlement. Soon after, it was discovered that there were actually two rival factions living out in the woods: a matriarchal group armed with crooked daggers, and a patriarchal group that had ceremonially-removed pinky fingers. For a while, we traded with them. Discussions were held about our safety, and about which faction we were more sympathetic to. Those discussions polarized the community. A month later, a precocious young girl led a band of our youngest into the forest to join the matriarchal faction. For a while, this brought our communities closer together. Months later, we would realize that the patriarchs had lost their pinkies not as part of a ceremony, but out of vicious cruelty by the matriarchal warriors. We then caught word that our children were being mistreated in their camp, and that a rescue mission of some sort was required. But this rescue mission failed, and piqued the fury of the warrior women. They were preparing for war, and our abundance of salt and other trade goods could only hold them at bay for so long.
This was one ongoing situation that lasted across several months. There were others occurring simultaneously: the dispute about whether we should return to nuclear power, the raiders coming in from the east, the strange creatures in the marshes, the toxicity of our water supply, the lack of arable soil in the area, the discovery of a grisly mass grave. The stories and situations overlapped, faded out of view at times, returned to the forefront, developed, mutated, grew.
How does the system play into that?
There are a couple ways. Each week, in the game, a card is drawn. These cards introduce new situations and complications, ensuring that there are lots of things going on in our map. The weekly card draws lend to the feeling of the game being about a whole community interacting with their landscape, rather than the individual stories of the community’s heroes (as most RPGs focus on).
After the weekly card is drawn, the active player has to make some hard choices. There’s never enough time to address everything going on in the map, and the game limits communication so that the active player really needs to choose: what situations are important and compelling, which dangers need to be addressed, and how should the community mobilize? The player chooses one of three actions (discover something new, hold a discussion, start a project), and that choice carries real weight in terms of defining the community.
Have you had an experiences showing the system to people without RPG/storytelling game experience? How did it play out?
I have. One of my favourite games of The Quiet Year was one I facilitated at The Yellow House, in Olympia, with some friends who were avid board-gamers but had never played a story game. I was anxious at first, because the atmosphere of the house was much less focused and directed than I am used to when playing story games. But it worked really well! The turn structure was really familiar to them as board game players, and the map helped them feel grounded throughout the game.
In that quiet year, we had big cruiser ships full of dead sailors, and at one point a messiah walked in from the woods, declaring himself to be the second coming of Christ. It was an awesome session with lots of mystical and haunting undertones.
Monsterhearts and The Quiet Year seem like very different games to tackle. What is your motivation to choose a theme for a game you are designing? Was the design process different between those games?
The design process was very different. Monsterhearts started as a joke, that I quickly started taking seriously. And it started from a very concrete place: “I want to use Apocalypse World to replicate Twilight.”
At Monsterhearts’ inception, I owed a debt to other creators: Vincent Baker wrote the game engine it was based on, and others had authored the teen paranormal romance genre that I plundered. Over time, I made it my own. In contrast, The Quiet Year started out as something within my heart, and over time others lent their influence and guidance – especially Jackson Tegu, Ross Cowman, and Tori Brewster.
I don’t think much about motivation, I guess. I always have lots of ideas for games, and most of the time they don’t get very far because it turns out that developing an idea is an arduous process. The games that I end up developing and releasing are the ones that I never lost interest in, the ones that got under my skin, the ones that just wouldn’t quit me.
What do you think makes The Quiet Year awesome?
I really love how the rules about discussion work. Free discussion around the table isn’t allowed, and instead that energy is funneled into specific game actions. It creates a sort of ritual head-space. I think it does some pretty interesting things to the group dynamics.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Not really – those were excellent questions! I guess the last thing is that I’d like to leave a link for anyone interested in checking out the game: https://www.indiegogo.com/