Austin Walker is everywhere these days. As a game scholar, an independent critic, an occasional game designer, a Twitch streamer, news editor at Giant Bomb, and soon as editor-in-chief of Vice’s recently-announced gaming portal, Austin has been a paragon of thoughtful, incisive commentary and discussion in gaming culture. He also makes a podcast about tabletop roleplaying games called Friends at the Table.
Well, not exactly “about” tabletop roleplaying games. As indicated at the beginning of every episode, “Friends at the Table is an actual play podcast focused on critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends.” Actual Play refers to a genre of podcast based on recordings of people playing tabletop games, similar to a Let’s Play of a video game – some popular examples include Nerd Poker and The Adventure Zone. Unlike similar podcasts, however, Friends at the Table is tightly produced, edited, and scored to produce an aesthetically coherent listening experience closer to an audiobook or radio play, and Austin and his players use their games to explore more profound and challenging themes than “kill monsters and take their loot.”
By turns thrilling, tragic, and very funny, Friends at the Table just wrapped its second season, and a third is in the works. Each season is a self-contained story arc: Season 1 is a Dungeon World campaign set in a deconstructed “post-post-apocalypse” fantasy world, while Season 2: COUNTER/Weight is a cyberpunk/mecha anime pastiche using a variety of games, but primarily The Sprawl, tackling big questions of technology and culture is a good place to start. If this all sounds daunting, it’s actually quite accessible – Austin just posted a 20-minute primer episode for new listeners, and this fan-created beginner’s guide is another good place to start. It’s easily my favourite podcast, and I can’t recommend it enough.
I caught up with Austin a few days before Season 2 concluded for a free-wheeling conversation about roleplaying games, as well as criticism, media, worldbuilding, nostalgia, fandom, and critical theory.
FELAN: You’ve alluded at various points during the podcast to your background playing roleplaying games and GMing, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how you got into this mess in the first place. [laugh]
AUSTIN: So, I… god what is my background? My background with roleplaying games is I grew up wishing I could be playing roleplaying games but not having people to play roleplaying games with.
FELAN: I hear that.
AUSTIN: Like, going to a local gaming shop and browsing the shelves and just dreaming of, “aw, I just want to run this for somebody.” But also not feeling like I was able to pierce the social circles there because I could tell that I was interested in slightly different things. I was interested in kicking down doors and killing zombies too – I enjoyed that. But like, that was every conversation I heard in the comic shop slash game store – it was a store I ended up working it in much later in life and getting to run games for people there, which was rad. That was a really nice arc of history for me, personally.
Then, towards the end of high school, I got to run some D&D, and then I got to college and was like, “oh, yeah, okay, there’s enough people here that there’s a niche.” There’s enough people so that instead of being to one person in 500 people, there are 5000 people. So there are 10 people who want to play these games. Except it was more like 35 000 people, or whatever, so there were like 30 people. It was a really nice size, and I ended up co-founding the gaming club – Hofstra University Gamers – at Hofstra University on Long Island back in 2003.
That’s when I really started playing games and eventually running them. My first year of gaming at Hofstra will show you the path towards Friends at the Table. One was this big living campaign that was going to be a big multi-year D&D thing that had a unique take on its mythology. I was playing in this game in which I played a character named Xanatos – like the character from Gargoyles. His first name was Xanatos, his last name was Woodshymn. He was an elf? I think he was a full elf. His whole thing was about how shitty elves were and about how… like the opening arc for him was gathering support for the kobolds who were being used as mining slaves, and was like this racial justice dude.
FELAN: Elf guilt?
AUSTIN: Deep elf guilt, totally. Which is extra interesting I think because that was also a time for me where I was around a lot of white folks and was downplaying my own blackness and was very vocal about not being “one of those” black people who needed equality, I guess? It was bad, right? I was 18 and around a bunch of new people and desperate to have a connection and desperate not to make waves – not to make those waves. There was definitely like some sort of sublimation happening there, of just like, “oh no, I’m still really concerned about all of this. I just have to project this on Xanatos Woodshymn because I feel like it’s impossible for me to be vocal about that here without getting into trouble.”
So that’s one of the games I played in. Another was a completely free form game about a group of four elves who are part of a diminishing family line. It was like Arthur Miller presents The Elves. It was depressing… characters who hate each other but are in love, or characters who hate each other but are siblings, or characters that hate each other who are in love and are siblings. It was this amazing free form – not LARP really. It was completely freeform collaborative storytelling.
And then the last one was a White Wolf game in which we – this was like the first thing we played as a big group – was, “we’ll just play ourselves except we’re White Wolf characters.” The GM was canny enough to be like, “yeah, okay, sure. I’m not going to tell you what cool vampire clan you’re part of.” You wake one day and have weird powers, and it’s shitty because your people want to chase you because you have weird vampire powers now and are part of some weird mystic cult or whatever. It’s not a fun time. That was also a really good thing.
From there, I ended up running my own games, and ran them for years and years, and then stopped because I left college. I think this happens to a lot of people where you do the thing like, “oh, come over and we’ll run something. I’ll run Legend of the Five Rings for us, I’ll run Burning Wheel.” Then you get through character creation, maybe, and then that’s it. Every now and then I would go to a friend’s place when I was out of town – I ended up moving out of New York to go to grad school out in California and then up in London, Ontario – and I would occasionally swing back through New York and run a game. Like, “I’m here for a weekend, I’m going to my friend’s house, I’m going to bring pregens, I’m going to run Blades in the Dark. I’m going to run Apocalypse World. I’m going to introduce these people who only play D&D to these other systems I’m really interested in.”
Then I realized I really want to run a game for friends again. It was at the height of us doing Stream Friends, which was a kind of Twitch streaming collective of like 14 people. There’s some people there who were really really good friends of mine. I was caught up in this notion that everything I had to do had to be productive because, you know, late capital has its claws in us all. So I was like, “let’s just do it!” And the other thing was, I was dissatisfied with the state of actual play podcasts. I was deeply dissatisfied with being excited about a system, going to try to find someone else playing it, and then three hours of people not talking. Not hitting deeply. Not… this is where it gets tough because my dissatisfaction is maybe why we do so well but I also don’t think that it’s right necessarily. My dissatisfaction is with actual play podcasts that don’t understand that they’re podcasts and that are just recordings of – that are, I guess, technically actual plays. This is what actual play sounds like – pure, with no editing, with no cutting down on the rules time, with no pre-written intros. None of that stuff is technically actual play.
FELAN: It’s like an actual longplay as opposed to an unedited let’s play.
AUSTIN: Right, exactly. It’s an actual longplay with lots of editorial control. That is an important part of what makes us successful I think. And now that’s what I do. For tabletop RPGs, this is the one. I play this, I run this. I also do some light tabletop game design. One game that I helped design [The Tower, forthcoming] showed up in Friends at the Table once, and that was fun.
FELAN: It sounds like you could see very early on that there was potential in tabletop roleplaying games to explore serious social, cultural, historical, philosophical issues.
AUSTIN: Yeah. I think that that reflects the thing that the parts of nerd culture – “nerd culture”, you know, quotes – that I always glommed onto had taught me. It was one of the ways I got to defend liking the X-Men. I like the X-Men because minority issues, because these comics are interested in what marginalized – I wouldn’t say marginalized people, I was fucking 13 – I would say Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I’d say, “oh, it used to be about black people and now it’s about gay people,” because I’m 15 and don’t have a really firm grasp on social issues language yet. But was the way I thought about a lot of the things I liked.
Even the first movie that I can think of having real thoughts about (beyond “this was cool”) was Stargate, which devotes a lot of its word building to… it’s ancient aliens. Oh, the pyramids were built by these ancient aliens. You travel in space, you travel through this thing called a stargate and end up in a place that looks like Egypt that is filled with Middle Eastern or Northern African peoples, who are enslaved to these faux gods, who are actually just super powerful aliens. But one of the main through lines of that movie is writing. Who has access to writing? It is banned for the slave class, obviously. And that was nine-year-old Austin’s, “oh shit, that’s a big idea.” Writing is pretty powerful.
From a very young age, I was interested in that sort of storytelling, and that wasn’t happening in video games – which I loved – and it wasn’t happening in pretend either. There wasn’t an output for me to play at having those conversations. There was only essays I wrote. And I loved writing essays, and I loved reading – I was that kid – but there wasn’t a place for me to do that with friends necessarily. I don’t think I was even really fully conscious that that was a thing I wanted to do. Even with Friends at the Table, when I sat down to do it, it wasn’t like, “all right, I’m going to go big on this one.” It was just, “I don’t want to run just straight D&D. I can’t swallow J.R.R. Tolkien.” I just had written, or was in the process of writing, the piece on Shadows of Mordor and all my beef with orcs. I can’t just do straight Tolkien fantasy. We have to mix it up if we’re going to do it. I was in the middle of, or had just spent a semester teaching post-structuralism and was thinking deeply about deconstruction as a methodology and whether or not it could be applied in a really accessible sense without ever mentioning it. I think we did that pretty well.
FELAN: When did you alight upon that notion of “critical worldbuilding” as a central concern of this series?
AUSTIN: It was in the prep phase of like, “what do I care about here?” Critical worldbuilding became the centre point for me during the pre-prep stage because it was a way for me to explain to my players before the recording what I was interested in in the worldbuilding segment. One of the things that we do – and a lot of podcasts that do what we do do this, but not everyone – is that at the start of a season, we sit down and say, “let’s build this world together.” And then that kind of carries throughout the campaign. We’re not going into a pre-built setting. We’re not going into Greyhawk. We’re not going into the World of Darkness. We’re going into worlds that we’ve created that obviously have influences in fantasy and sci-fi and speculative fiction, but are not grounded to a specific setting that is not ours.
Thankfully, the games that we play tend to loan themselves to letting us continue to draw on the map (so to speak) as we play. But what I wanted to be clear with my players, and with myself, it that I don’t want to leave the worldbuilding phase with, you know, a complex family tree and all of the national borders for every nation involved in this conflict, or whatever. I’m not interested in the nature of the magical school. We’re not here to make lore, it’s not about trivia. It’s about tone, it’s about ideas, it’s about materiality. In that sense, maybe there is something weirdly dialectic about this. I want to know what the ideas of this place are, and I want to know what the material of place is. I want to know how it functions in relation to those ideas. That’s my interest. And so I had that as a cornerstone from the jump because I knew that if we thought about it we would get there. We would get obsessed with what the export of a town was because it would help us understand what the shape and feel of that place was, not just because it was another check on a chart or a list that said, “what does each town export?”
FELAN: That’s one of the things that for me sets Friends at the Table apart from basically anything else that resembles it, is the extent to which the creative agenda is shared and invested in by all the players. Way beyond the agenda you read at the beginning of each session. You’ve got the Spotify playlists that you shared a while ago, Jack de Quidt’s original soundtracks, there’s always references to your off air discussions as well as your own prep work. There’s just this huge narrative buy-in from the players. In my experience, that’s very difficult to achieve.
AUSTIN: It’s so tough. It’s a podcast, right? This is the double-edged sword. That buy-in is… I don’t own the podcast in the traditional sense. Obviously, this isn’t a monetized podcast. No one’s making money off of it. It’s in that sense – almost in the venture capital sense – we’re all bought in. This is all of our baby, and so no one is – I don’t want to say no one is ever disconnected. We all have days where it’s like, “man, I’m just not into it right now. I just don’t have the energy. I don’t want to be in this place. I have other problems. I have bills to pay, I have family illness, whatever.” But for the most part, everyone is interested in that world, partially because it is a thing we put out for other people to listen to that has our name on it. It is a project that we work on as much as it is a game that we play. It’s nice that it’s non-commercial because the energy I put forward towards it, at the end of the day, ends up not having ever been driven by profit motive or by interest in appealing to a market or anything like that. Even though what we do is absolutely work or is absolutely labour, it isn’t commercial labour. It isn’t market labour. And that, for now at least, is really nice. It would be nice to be able to pay the people who play this game with me so they could get better equipment so we could all be on the same microphone, for instance. That would be dope. So it’s not something I’m saying we’ll never do, but right now it has been one really nice thing about it.
FELAN: That’s sort of the interesting thing about an actual play podcast – it’s an end in itself. Just sitting down and playing the game and telling the story to each other. That’s a worthwhile thing to do, even if you’re not recording it.
AUSTIN: Totally, but I think to your point, I don’t know if I’d get the buy-in if we weren’t putting it out. I think I would do okay. I’m a decent GM. I really think I’m a decent GM, but a big part of it is that I have amazing players who are so bought in because they’re going to be on the radio. We know that we are for some people their favourite hour-and-a-half to three hours a week, and there is pressure to not disappoint. That’s a good pressure, that’s a good creative pressure. That’s the pressure of having an audience and wanting to push yourself to be as interesting as you can be. Again, I don’t mean that as a diss to my players when I say that I don’t think I would have that buy-in without the podcast part. But like, there is something real in knowing that you can pause and say, “oh, here it is. I have the scene. It’s in my head, and thousands of people are going to hear this scene. I’m going to knock it out of the park.”
I’ve had these talks – especially with my producer Ali Acampora and Jack de Quidt who does music, both of which are also players – that a lot of it is just trust the process, and the process is long Skype chats while we’re not recording. We’re in a Skype chat together constantly talking about what the dwarves might be when we finally get to them in our fantasy game. We’re talking about what the role of the mechs are before we see them. I do like to keep the bulk of the worldbuilding on-mic, but there are definitely times when Art Tebbel, who has been a really key part of the success of the show, will message me, “I can’t work out what this character thinks of this thing.” He’s like losing sleep over what his character Cass or Hadrian thinks about a certain thing or what his perspective is. “Let’s talk about. Here are the things we believe.” Those conversations are great because, even though they’re not recorded, they inform a line of thinking that goes into the performance. In that way, I’m lucky to have a directorial role where I can work with my collaborators who are also actors and try to figure out what the character motivations with them.
FELAN: That really comes through as a listener, too. Having played a fair amount of tabletop games, nothing ever really feels arbitrary on Friends at the Table. It always feels like it comes from somewhere, even if it’s –as you say – the offline, off screen discussions. People are generally invested in motivations that make sense, both in terms of character and plot. Whereas if you don’t have that degree of investment from everyone at the table, it’s easy to lapse into a sense of arbitrarily deciding, “let’s say this thing happens. Let’s say I do this.” But it might as well be the other thing.
AUSTIN: Totally. And, we have those moments too. At our best, I think we catch them. We catch when we’re being arbitrary, and then… punish ourselves for that. [laugh] Or I punish my players for that. More often, or better, it’s a point for a conversation. I think in the first season, Ali who, again, who is a producer now on the show, was playing this character named Hella Varal who was a warrior who had the Evil alignment in Dungeon World. We reached this point where it had been bugging me for a while that it was just a comedic bit. One of the other players was a paladin who had the Detect Evil move. She would set off his Detect Evil because she’s evil, right? Nothing ever really came of what she believed in, or who she was, or how she acted. Alignments in Dungeon World are as much about how you behave or the nature of your action as it is about some clear cut belief system. We reached this point where a non-player character that the Ali/Hella was invested in was put under threat. At one point Hella, this character who’s evil, was like, “I’ll do anything to get this character back.” To save him in this moment – like, he’s right over there, under threat of death – and I’m over here. It was this moment of like, “okay, well we have to work through what we mean when we say ‘evil,’ Ali. Because there is nothing beneficial to you. We haven’t seen a relationship between you and this other character on screen really yet. I’m not saying you can’t go do this, but maybe it’s time to switch that alignment to something else.” Then we ended up having a really good conversation on mic and then off mic later that was like, “I wasn’t looking to put anybody on the spot. I wasn’t trying to say this is the only way to play, but it’s time to investigate what that word means for you.” Because alignment systems are fucked and are difficult and can be productive but can also hem you in. I wanted to make sure that there was something productive happening in that moment. I was really glad to have had that conversation on mic and then that conversation led to her being able to think through who that character was and what her boundaries and limits were and were not. It ended up getting probably the best scene – one of the top three scenes, I think, of the first season at Friend at the Table – was playing off not only what the character’s selfishness was, but also paying off that initial conflict over the life of that other character in a really fantastic way. So that was great.
FELAN: I was going to say, that’s one of the things about Dungeon World. Dungeon World, rules as written, doesn’t quite transcend all the problems with alignment in traditional D&D.
AUSTIN: Totally doesn’t.
FELAN: It almost leans in to those problems in a funny sort of way that – again, depending on the group – it can be fun and interesting to just say, “yeah, you know what? In this world, there are these extremes of Good and Evil. And that’s all there is.” Not everyone is comfortable with that, though. I don’t know if you’ve seen Jacob Randolph’s Dungeon World stuff – he’s the guy who did the Alternative Playbooks for the Mage, the Priest, and the Templar. Some of his custom third-party classes have a “drive” instead of an alignment. It’s much more fluid. They almost resemble Burning Wheel beliefs rather than moral/ethical alignments. They still function as fictional triggers that you ping to get experience points, but it doesn’t slot them into those Manichean extremes that I think a lot of players struggle with.
FELAN: Part of the reason why I wanted to do this is because I like thinking about tabletop games and I like thinking about Friends at the Table. But also, it’s a strange media artifact, right? You’re a fellow media scholar, or an erstwhile one. This is gaming at the intersection of audiobooks, and radio drama, and let’s play videos, and Twitch streams. There’s all these other influences going on. I was really compelled by what you said about trusting the process because even as a listener I think that’s sort of what you have to do. It’s procedural storytelling, but not in a live, “oh, we’re watching a fun improv show” kind of way. There’s something different here.
AUSTIN: It has been bricked together from all these other forms. It is a radio drama, but it is also a live actual play that we’ve recorded. It is also a collaborative worldbuilding game, and it is also traditional sci-fi or fantasy fiction. It does hit all those different things. I’m interested in continuing that without maybe being as skeptical of the form as I would be from the outside. I think we make something really incredible based on that weird mishmash of media, and it’s tough to know which way to lean sometimes.
I’ll just lay out for people, the way this works is, most episodes: I do prep, we go in, we record a huge chunk. We record hopefully, in my mind, the ideal is – especially for finales, or special episodes – to knock it out in a single thing. To knock it the fuck out. Boom, we’re in, we finish it, and we’re exhausted. I want to be just dead tired on the end of a big finale episode, which is not necessarily the best in terms of capturing the best storytelling you can do, but it is absolutely the feeling that I want to go for because I want to reach back to those college days. To those days in the university where we would play all night. I want that euphoria to come through. That exhausted, “I can’t believe we’ve finally done this” feeling, to bleed through. Then, after you record – whether that recording is two hours or ninety minutes like it is sometimes, or whether it’s six or seven hours like it was for the finale – we still have to write and record an intro, which I’ve been doing more and more after the initial recordings because the intros can reflect thematically something that happens later in that episode. Thematically, or materially, or fictionally. We have to add intro, outro, and music cues, and figure out where those are. Sometimes we’ll introduce new music; so Jack has to compose new music or compose a variation on a piece. That’s a thing that happens a lot more often that I think is necessarily directly noticed. Where it’s like, “ooh, this episode needs something that’s like slightly different here.” Or we just need a shorter composition or a longer one so it can run under the length of what this outro is. Then often, more and more, we’ll do pick-ups. We’ll do, “oh shit, Austin, the fan was blowing on your mic during this key moment.” Or like, “it got weird in the file. Can you go in and run through and do a quick five second fix on this thing?” So in that way, it is a very produced media artifact. It is, again, not actual play in that sense – it is edited play.
FELAN: Are the pick-ups that general for your narration segments?
AUSTIN: Almost always, almost always. There were a couple other times. Once was when I misgendered a character. Happy to go back and fix that, which has been a tough thing in this season especially because one of the things that I wanted to do with this season, which is a sci-fi setting deep in space but still connected to our galaxy, was be in a world where gender relations were different – because they could be. That included having more gender queer and agender characters. Having non-binary characters in general. Thankfully Rose, one of our fans, had called us out previously on it and was like, “hey, y’all said you care about this. Please stick to that.” She was totally in the right, and so we went back in and fixed it next time it happened. Because it just happens. This is one of the shitty things about living in a world where gender binaries and gender roles are so culturally drilled into you, is that it’s a difficult thing to try to overcome your habits. But it is a more difficult thing to have to live in a world if you are non-binary, where other people are struggling with those habits. So I’d rather take that extra effort and break whatever sanctity of a pure recording there is to make that fix. I think that’s happened less than the other thing, which is just like, “oh, we could have done that scene better,” or “oh, the audio got funky.” We never go in and change the nature of the scene, is what I’ll say. Most of my favourite scenes have never been edited. I think about the stand up scenes in the first season, which are like Hella and Calhoun, Fantasmo and the Word Eater, and Hadrian and Jericho. None of those were edited. In general, it’s not a thing. We don’t fuck with the big moments. We just try to make sure that the flow is there when it’s necessary.
FELAN: Maybe the closest analogy is a documentary. Like, the production process of this is like the production of a documentary, because you’re still bound to some kind of semi-coherent causality of what you’re recording. It’s not like you can just edit the story however you want and have it make sense. You’re still trying document something that has a kind of objective reality.
AUSTIN: Yeah! This is the story of what our game is. It’s just also we’re tricking you with music cues and with clever edits sometimes. We’ve definitely flopped scenes around once or twice. The best moment we did that in was I think this season, when we did The Tower, which is the game I’m co-developing with Jack. The Tower is a game that is built around card decks. One player plays as a divine stand-in for a religious deity of some kind, who then sent the other player, who’s a pilgrim, on pilgrimages, on trials basically, to retrieve relics of power. It’s very simple in terms of what the ruleset is, but one of the things that we included was that the joker card should be in the deck, and the joker on both sides is the adversary. Depending on the setting, depending on what game you’re playing, that could look like a giant evil robot or it can look like a nice man on a tractor. In the past, it’s been both. The event that happened this season was like, the big evil robot shows up, the adversary is played. In recording we were like, “oh shit, we have to explain what the joker does? Okay, let me go through all the… okay… when the joker is played, this happens.” So we go through all that rules stuff and we get to describing what happens and as soon as we were done we were like, “oh, we have to flip that.” We have to go back to where it’s like, let’s describe the big evil robot showing up. That was really great. And then we can splice in the rule stuff after that, and it will be more effective because it will carry the weight of the scene that we just described. That was also just a weird episode because on top of doing the individual The Tower game with Jack as a one-on-one, I also did one-on-one scenes with every other character. So we were already in that splicing mode. I think that’s what kind of opened us up to the possibility. It was like, “we’re already cutting together all these disparate things and doing interesting mesh. So let’s do that. Let’s just do that. Let’s make sure this is the coolest episode in the world to listen to.”
FELAN: It’s interesting because these are the kinds of things that happen at the table anyway, except you don’t have the artifact at the end that allows you to actually physically move things around.
AUSTIN: Right, but in your head when you leave you don’t go like, “and then we talked for five minutes about the rules of dragons.” The dragon just showed up and wrecked us, right? That is the editing that we already do in our heads. We will edit out some rules confusion and the flipping through pages stuff sometimes. We leave it in when it’s necessary for the audience to follow along with the rules because, as someone who listens to these things, I’m actually pretty interested in how rules interact with storytelling. So I don’t want to ever… it’s not going to ever be a radio play. It’s never going to be just the story stuff. I’d be curious about a cut of the game that sounds like that. I wouldn’t ever put the time or energy into making that because you’re missing a bit of it for me, which is like… the death rules in Dungeon World help produce some of the best moments of that game. Or the clocks ticking down in The Sprawl is such a good thing. I would never cut that mechanic out of the recording of the game, because it is so tied in to the storytelling.
FELAN: That’s one of the things that I’ve found interesting over the course of this season, as the fandom has expanded significantly. The work that the fandom does is largely to reconstruct the fiction, on the fan wikis, in fan art, and so on. I’ve not seen every page on the wiki, but most of it is about the in-fiction facts and figures and events, not necessarily about the mechanics underlying it.
AUSTIN: Totally. Whether it is character descriptions or fan art, no one is making fan art of the dice rolls, right? No one is making fan art of – actually no. Here’s the thing: we are. I’m a fan of The Sprawl. Our game is fan art for The Sprawl. I reached out to the creator, Hamish Cameron, in the middle of the season, which was a difficult thing where we were struggling with a game. We were a playing a game called Technoir, which is a fantastic game, but we just weren’t clicking with it. We were rusty. We were all incredibly busy suddenly, and we were not recording regularly. When we were recording Dungeon World, we were doing it every week. Sometimes even two games. So Dungeon World was split between two campaigns kind of – two different groups. Some weeks I was running games for both groups, which meant that I got super used to those rules and knew them really well, which meant that the flow of the game was easy. That was not the case with Technoir, which I think is a really cool game but it just wasn’t meshing with us. So I reached out to Hamish to say, “hey, do you have an early copy of The Sprawl? When it was in Kickstarter, I didn’t get a chance to back it.” And eventually, he did give me the final thing – or a near final copy – and was like, “oh man, that’d be really great if you could run this.” This is in the lead up to the release of that game. So that felt fantastic for me. That did feel like a fan work in a weird way. Other people would draw art of us; we’re, in a way, drawing art of this game and all the cool stuff that’s happening here. Again, I think about the countdown clocks, which are such a clean mechanic to both track and visualize the state of danger or interest in the world. That is something I think that our fans understand. That’s one of the ways that I’ll tease fans, is that I’ll post a picture of what the state of the clocks is on our Friends of the Table Twitter account. That’s a really legible game mechanic, even to people who are only listening to the story. They get this. So that’s felt great.
FELAN: I wanted to talk a bit about that because you and I had a brief exchange about the switch to Technoir at the time. You were saying it almost had less to do with players figuring out Technoir as it did what is conducive to the production process of the podcast.
AUSTIN: Totally. I really like Technoir because of the way it replicates noir storytelling structure. That is fantastic, it’s really cool. I would run a Technoir game all day, every day. It doesn’t give you a lot of leeway for different narrative structures. It’s also built on adjectives, the way that game works. So instead of doing damage to somebody, instead of rolling to see if you seduced them, you roll to apply adjectives. You might apply the word, the adjective, “riddled” to someone. Or “maimed” if you’re shooting at them. Or you might apply the adjective “intrigued” or “mesmerized” or “seduced” to somebody who you are trying to seduce. That stuff is really cool; it also takes time to find cool adjectives. We’re all fairly intelligent people who are well read, but sometimes you’re just like, “I want to shoot him. Just let me, I don’t know.. what’s a funny… ‘disarmed’? Get it, ‘disarmed?’ Like, I shot his arm off. Ha ha.” That works once, and then you have to keep recording, and then you’re six episodes in, and we don’t do any adjectives, and that’s not fun. That’s not as fun as it could be. It’s not as fun as it could be, and that is totally okay in your tabletop games. It is totally okay to be like, “let’s just get out of this fight. Let’s just move on, this isn’t interesting.” For your podcast, that is not good enough. For your podcast, every scene needs to be striving to be valuable to the listener, right? That adds additional weight to perform, and Technoir slash Mechnoir were a little bit of an impediment to us because of the lack of familiarity and just because of the pacing. The pacing was just not show pacing. For all the love I have for that game – and I’m thrilled I got to run it and introduce new players to it because I definitely got messages from people saying, “thank you for introducing me to that game. I’ve gotten to run it now and it’s great,” and it is great – most people aren’t running it for an audience.
FELAN: You said something really interesting in the first part of the Season 2 finale – where you were talking about how the Mechnoir versions of the characters are still kind of embedded in the characters and maybe the setting as well. You talked about how some of the stats and traits were like the characters’ aspirational selves.
AUSTIN: Yeah, totally. When you make characters in Technoir, you have to give them adjectives – like there’s permanent adjectives, which are good things that you can call on in a dilemma to give you a boost. When I looked at the characters… in the finale, we started using a game by Apocalypse World creator D. Vincent Baker called Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands, which has just come out, which is a really conversational game. It’s not a game about classes, or races, or battle stats, or anything like that. It’s just conversational. There’s a minigame inside of it called “conversation over food’ in which you take turns and one person either asks a topical question – engages in actual improvised conversation – passes by saying something about the food, or leaves the conversation. That’s a really cool little minigame. And in that, when you build characters, you have to set adjectives to them too. You have to say, what are three attractive qualities of them, of each character. I was like, “huh, let me go back and look at the Technoir sheets from back in the day.” You know, I pulled up Aria’s character sheet, and she was “alluring,” “energetic,” and “savvy.” She was certainly energetic throughout all of the early campaign and occasional alluring, but rarely savvy. In fact, in the course of play, she became more savvy. Eventually reached that, even though this was on her sheet originally. For Cass, Art’s character, he was “authoritative,” “attentive,” and “intuitive.” And not all the time, kind of rarely, was he all three of those things. But the Cass we saw in the finale was those things. That was really fantastic as a bit of bookending for both the players and the characters. When we sat down and envisioned these characters together, those are the words that you wrote down. Sometimes those are things that were achievable very quickly. Like, Mako was “clever,” “quick,” and “charming.” Mako’s player Keith is clever, quick, and charming. He nailed that. The characters are trying to be in general more dominating, have more presence than they did on screen for the early sections of the game. I think that that’s fantastic because it is again speaking to the strange media artifact that this is. That even in this world there is this shadow of the previous systems we used remaining. The effects of these previous systems are not gone. When we switched systems, we didn’t switch out. There wasn’t a retcon. The stuff that had happened previously had still happened, and that includes mechanical happenings and thematic happenings as much as it does narrative happenings.
FELAN: The world changed at that point in the campaign.
AUSTIN: Totally, it did. We timed that. That was definitely, “all right, I want to switch to The Sprawl, so let’s do it big.” And it was also around the holidays, if I remember. So we did our big holiday event in December, and then we were like, “all right, let’s move things around.” We haven’t mentioned The Faction Game at all. But in the second season we run a game called The Faction Game, where it was just me and two other players who are not the adventurey, swashbuckley characters who are like, “let’s talk about what the setting is like right now.” Let’s continue the worldbuilding process by saying, “what does this big megacorporation do? What does this nation do? What are they interested in?” Not just, “there is a pirate fleet.” What’s the pirate fleet interested in? Where are they going? What are they using? What fights are they getting into? What internal characterization is happening on that fleet? I realized that we had like 17 factions or something ridiculous, which meant that none of them got attention. It meant that it would take us three episodes before you get to see every faction. So we reduced that number down to like six, which was way more manageable. Incredibly more manageable. And it’s also just like, the game came together at that point. Once it was a manageable number of factions, once it was clear who in the characters who mattered were. In a way, I kind of think of Season 2 of Friends at the Table as being three seasons. Season 1 is the Mechnoir game. Season 2 is from the holiday special through landing on the planet September. Then September forward is the rest of the… or maybe until the end of September. And now these final three episodes feel like a different thing because the game has switched again, to Firebrands. It is distinct, it feels distinct, but still connected, which is really a great feeling.
FELAN: By my count you’ve played seven different systems with this season? Is that right?
AUSTIN: Is that true? Oh, fuck…
AUSTIN: That’s true.
FELAN: You can almost count Mechnoir and Technoir separately.
AUSTIN: I had forgotten we had done… the Kingdom game was also just fantastic, god. Yeah. That seems right. And why not? Why put yourself in the hole of saying, “what we’re playing is this one game”? And it’s something we did in the first season too, in that the holiday special was this weird amazing combination of two games I love – Dungeon World and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Also, god, I can’t imagine having as much free time as I did when I put that together. You know, Velas exists now. I can pull it up and I can tell you. For that, that was this amazing moment of like, “I’m going to get as material as possible.” Again, so not trivial. Every place has a person who is a person and isn’t just a stand in for some factoid. But I can tell you where people go to get fish in that city now. That’s a really cool feeling. Going forward too, if we happen to stay in Velas, I don’t know. I desperately need to figure out what the party’s doing in the next season.
FELAN: Just buying fish.
AUSTIN: That’s all. All fish, all the time.
FELAN: That ties into some of the other stuff I wanted to talk about, and maybe trying to bridge a little bit between this thing and your academic/critical work, which, I mean, you do a pretty good job of that already just with the podcast. You’ve discussed nostalgia quite a bit in the last year, year-and-a-half on social media and in your critical writing. Obviously, nostalgia is a major tonal feature of both seasons, although perhaps in different ways. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. I’m thinking specifically about your review of Galak-Z: The Dimensional.
AUSTIN: Yeah, I had kind of been shit talking nostalgia for months, right? It was part of a larger conversation. It was especially a conversation around Ernest Cline’s new book Armada, that had come out last year, and about Ernest Cline in general and that style of fandom that’s sort of deeply celebratory, no criticality, pure love for the past… not for the past. For the tchotchkes of your past. For the things that happened to be around you were when you were younger and that you loved. I don’t want to fully diminish it. So then Galak-Z, which is this game that is up and down interested in the minutia of old mech and sci-fi anime came out, down to the pause screen being a VHS tracking thing. Going into the menus seemed like old VHS tape stuff. And even the play was for me… the design of Galak-Z and the way it played captured the feeling of Saturday morning cartoon or anime combat. Of being at its best, balletic, and at its worst, messy. That was fantastic, and I had to interrogate like, “all right, to what degree do I love this thing because it is a touchstone for me? To what degree… how does nostalgia work for us?”
In Friends at the Table, that’s super a question that I’ve been worrying through, but from two different perspectives, right? This is the thing that we come back to a lot with Season 1 and Season 2. Season 1 was a fantasy game. It exists in a world where magic is real. It is organized around this catalytic event called “The Erasure” in which a huge chunk of the world was forever changed and in which time can be easily split into two different eras – pre-Erasure and post-Erasure. It’s an apocalyptic event that people survive. I had been calling it a post-post-apocalypse, in that people had been finally beginning to put themselves back together. For that game, the question was, “what do you make of yourself when you have the blank slate?” Imagine that you could recreate yourself and your culture tomorrow with knowledge of the baggage, but not complete knowledge, and with the freedom to do it because other people maybe don’t have all the notions of what your assumed cultural traits are. That game is very much about thinking about the past. There are characters in it that go around and collect things. The Archivists are dedicated to collecting everything they can from the past for various reasons.
And then in Friends at the Table Season 2, it’s a sci-fi game that takes place again deep in the future, in which one of the factions is a conglomerate of a bunch of megacorporations that have ties to Earth and that have such a long history that – despite being this terrible oligarchy – they have a lot of the symbols of revolution in their relative recent history. We’re talking about hundreds or thousands of years ago. But it’s still effective and core to that thing that holds that whole cultural identity together, somehow, because sci-fi is weird and something can be held together for thousands of years in sci-fi stories. So for them, and for a lot of the characters on that side of things, there were a lot of characters looking into the past and trying to figure out what in their histories was them and what was foisted upon them – what they wanted. And the same thing for Apostolos, which is this faux Athenian society that is nostalgic for something that may have never been there. We set this up this very early on that they present in this world as being descendants of Atlantis. They were the Atlanteans who had escaped Earth all those years ago and gone to the stars. But we introduced almost immediately that this could be a complete fabrication by a previous leader of like, “oh, this is Nazi interest in esoterica. This is you’re just inventing shit because you’re into weird magic, and because you understand that this is a power play in a certain sense.” Or it’s not! Or they really are. We might address in the next episode actually, briefly. For them, it’s the same thing of like, “what are we nostalgic for? What is that’s worth looking back on?”
But I get that question a lot about whether or not the two seasons exist in the same universe – I mean, of course I do because this is a fantasy world, a sci-fi world. We make lots of nods between Season 1 and Season 2. The name of the ship in both seasons is the Kingdom Come. There’s a moment where the players in Season 2 go to a prom that is themed after a fictional TV show that is set in the world of Season 1. So there’s some fun, light crossover stuff happening, so I of course get the question of, “oh man, is Hieron just a planet in this setting?” No. Not at all. Because in one of these games magic exists. In that game, you can really ask the question, imagine there was a blank slate, because there can’t be without magic. There can never be a blank slate without magic. Imagine there was, how you would reinvent yourself? How would you reimagine yourself? How would you reimagine the world around you? Would you want to continue separating yourself from the past or would you build something different?
The COUNTER/Weight game, the sci-fi game, is the opposite, which is, there is no such thing as magic. There is no erasing the past. Yet we’re capable of building anything anyway. Yet technology has advanced in such a way – not that it is magic – it is advanced such that the needs of people could be being taken care of, the worlds of this universe could be sufficient, could be survivable, could flourish, and they’re not. Why aren’t they? In that sense, it’s a much more forward looking game. It’s a game that’s interested in utopian promise and in… it’s a fucking Frankfurtian game. It’s like, Why Did Fascism Win: The Game? “Why is it that this didn’t turn out better? We have the means.”
FELAN: Why does it keep coming back no matter times we beat it back, right?
AUSTIN: Yes. And also why are we so invested in this vision of us? Is this notion that whatever the future looks like, it has to look the way we do instead of looking better. I think that to me has been one of the core dilemmas that we’ve tried to work through. And boy, this finale has been very heavy I think. It’s an election season here in America, and it’s been heavy in the iconography and debates around practicality on the left. Do you want to be practical or idealistic? How big do you want to swing here? Is practicality a fundamental retreat? Is it a loss? Is it an acquiescence to the status quo? Is radicalism achievable and is it maintainable, or is even radical action captured inevitably? None of those things are things that we say out loud. It’s just space robots. We don’t have those deep discussions in a way that is meant to be political philosophy. It’s just meant to be… I believe in our audience, that they can follow those conversations and understand there is theoretical stuff happening there without beating them over the head with it. It doesn’t need to be the worst bits of Black Mirror.
FELAN: Given the venue – First Person Scholar is a middle state publication, semi-academic, semi-critical, semi-popular – that’s three halves, but you know what I mean. What’s on the Friends at the Table critical theory reading list? What’s at the top?
AUSTIN: It’s probably like Arendt, right? Especially this season when you start thinking about love and the political potential for love. But it can’t just be that. Because Arendt isn’t super interested in machines, and I’m very interested in machines.
FELAN: I was going to say, it’s probably different for the two seasons, right? It’s a different syllabus.
AUSTIN: Definitely. It is. Derrida is Season 1. It’s all about the archive, it’s all about deconstruction. It’s one hundred percent Derrida. It’s probably just Archive Fever with a little bit of Structure, Sign, and Play. And “Writing and Difference.” I think Season 2 is definitely lots of Arendt…
FELAN: I want to say Benjamin, maybe.
AUSTIN: Yeah, totally some Benny. I mean, right, the Arendt/Benjamin side of Frankfurt. It is that part that is not fully dismissive of popular culture. [laugh] Not dismissive… anything but dismissive. But skeptical or cynical about it, right? Which is interesting, because I’m probably an Adorno man first. Here’s the thing: there is also Adorno in there in that it is interested in the ways in which cultural products are used, whether intentionally or otherwise, to maintain certain belief structures, certain methods of being. There’s some Innis in there in that one of the core questions of Season 2 is what is the degree to which technologies build cultures.
AUSTIN: There are three main cultures in this setting – four now, kind of – and they each move through space differently. One travels on incredibly quick hyperspace lanes. So it’s like they can only go from planet to planet, but they go incredibly fast. But it is on those lines. One moves through space in any direction but fairly slowly, so is deeply centralized. And then one can straight up open wormholes from place to place and go. They can open a portal and walk through. But otherwise, assets are kind of tied to the machines that can do that, but those machines have a degree of flexibility in movement of their own. So how does that shape those different cultures? When someone steps into a machine that is built for this thing, is it far more ecological? Is there freedom in the way it is used? It is about the way you use the tool? Or are some tools built for different things? I think, for Season 2, you have to start with “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” That’s the probably first article you read. And then we can get into like Arendt and Benjamin, because I think those are there too, for real. God, I’m trying to think of anything else that’s been fundamentally important for this second season especially. For the first one, I think you have to know some Tolkien. I think if I was teaching this as a course, I would make you read at least The Hobbit so that you could see what it was that we were trying to work through. And probably some of Tolkien’s writings on race and imperialism and stuff too.
FELAN: I’m not super familiar with Michael Moorcock, but it almost reminds me of the orientation of Moorcock towards Tolkien. Where it’s not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because there’s so much there, but it is this deliberate critical gesture to move beyond the limitations of Tolkien.
AUSTIN: Right. The thing that I said, back all the way I think maybe in the first episode was like, “remember, there was a time when Tolkien was true in this world.” Or at least that was the assumed truth. The orcs were at least understood by by the human masses (but also by all of the other races) to be ravaging hordes. And now they’re these archivists, right? Someone pointed out to me on Twitter… this is one of these things we did not plan for. I wish I could take credit for this. So they now live in a place called the The New Archives. And over on Twitter, someone says, “just started Friends at the Table, and I wanted to know, did it ever occur to anyone that the root of ‘archive’ could be ‘orc hive’?” And I’m like, “oh shit, no, I can’t believe we didn’t think of that.” That’s so good, and it was right there. And it’s true. That deconstruction starts with that first idea being understood as true for the world, and is then undermined through history.
I’ll add Fukiyama to Season 2 also as a key theorist, in that it begins as a cold war game and then at some point I realize that the factions that are in this cold war actually are fine with it – it’s not a cold war at all. They’ve become stable with each other and begin to think of themselves as the final form of human organization. So that’s on there too.
FELAN: It’s interesting you mention “Archive Fever.” That made me think of what Henry Jenkins calls the encyclopedic impulse in transmedia storytelling. That’s so key to the approach to worldbuilding that you’re trying to resist. It’s this idea that, “we’re just going to document every single factoid about this world, and then that’s the world, and we can play in that world.” You’re after something more ephemeral and organic.
AUSTIN: Totally. There’s a game that came out last year called Undertale that was hugely popular that has fallen completely into that trap. The fandom has, I think. Of just like, “let’s document every single thing here.” When in fact the thing that was so great about that game was that you could just play through it – again, it’s a weird “trust in the process” thing. There’s enough in that game that’s fantastic that you can just let it wash over you without cataloguing it, and you’ll have an amazing time. I want that to be the case for Friends at the Table too, which is just like, “be in the space, let things happen, be consistent.” From the creator’s side, we want to make sure we are building on top of what we’ve already done, but we don’t want to get caught up in that cataloguing as an end to itself. It’s there as a tool for us to tell stories. And I think like all tools, the process of cataloguing has its own interests. But so long as we can resist those interests and keep that managed, I think we’re in a good place. We will escape from the pull of the encyclopedia.
FELAN: On that note, have you ever considered publishing any of your own RPG material? Obviously the Tower is something that might get published one day, but I was also thinking of the Consulting Detective hack, or the courtroom trial system you designed.
AUSTIN: The Tower will get published. The Tower, it needs more playtesting and it needs… I keep having breakthroughs with the design of it. Everyone once or a while, someone writes me about that trial system. And I’m like, “oh man, I built that whole weird trial system.” I completely forgot about that. Again, that’s one of the things that I think I realized I could do somewhere along the line, is invent shit. Let’s just build the thing that we need. Let’s just build the machine that we need to make this work. That has been really useful.
I’m of mixed minds about releasing this stuff, though. Someone made a post – there’s a Reddit now. There’s a Friends at the Table sub-reddit now. There’s a post on there called “Hosting a Game of The Sprawl Set Post-Finale.” And someone says, “I was wondering if anyone would be interested in playing a game of The Sprawl set in the Friends in the Table setting. I think it would be an interesting way to interact with the fiction, especially because some of the best parts of the narrative development of that aren’t pre-written but are developed in play.” Someone says, “I would be 100% interested in the continued adventures of the Golden Branch sector.” I’ve never been more ambivalent about a thing. I’m so thrilled that I’ve inspired people to want to be in this world. It’s amazing. I understand how you arrive there, and it means the world to me that people love what we’ve built.
But the phrase, “the continuing adventures of the Golden Branch sector,” make me feel like a failure in that the thing I want to get across with Friends at the Table is the joy of collaborating with your friends and building a world that’s yours. That’s interested in the problems that you’re interested in. Whether those problems are as complex as the relationship between humans and machines or as simple as, you know, how do less powerful people confront more powerful people. So I have a real impulse not to enable that style of fandom – not because I think it’s bad, but because I’m more interested in this other thing that I wish that I could enable. I don’t want to publish the encyclopedia, to come back to that. I don’t want to give you the catalogue because I don’t want you to be satisfied with the catalogue. I have the map of Velas because I needed it for that moment. I would be so much more interested in someone who draws their own map of Velas. Listen to what we did. If you’re going to do that, rad. That’s awesome. Don’t use my NPCs. I believe in your ability to come up with cool NPCs. And if you don’t believe in your own, all the more reason to start building cool NPCs. That’s how you get there, is by doing that. I think about this: there was a moment in the first season, and I didn’t have time to come up with NPC names. And I asked Jack de Quidt, “hey, can you come up with like 30 names?” And they were fantastic. I realized, “oh shit, I could just do that do.” If I give myself time to, I can come up with names that are really good too, that have character. So Season 2 is filled with really ridiculous awesome names that is a direct response to me realizing that I could do that if I put that time in. I think that if there’s a lesson to take away from Friends at the Table in general, it’s that nothing we do here is un-doable. Nothing that we do here is exceptional. It is indicative of what tabletop roleplaying is.
FELAN: And everything you’re saying is also so consistent with the design approach of this new school of indie roleplaying games. Games like Dungeon World are all built on these underlying premises.
AUSTIN: Right. Draw maps, but leave space. Leave blank space. And I will say that I try not to be judgmental about this either. This sort of play that I do is not accessible to a large group of potential players because it’s hard to sit around a table and come up with new interesting things, and there’s the risk of presenting that as a more valorous sort of play, a more virtuous sort of play, to completely come up with your own stuff methodology. The critical worldbuilding stuff. I think this is a gendered thing. We’ve seen this raging debate about fandom go on forever, ever, ever that often dismisses people that want to play around with other created worlds. I don’t want to contribute to that. I don’t want to say that there is something wrong innately with that. I’m just also deeply invested in trying to convince people that they can do this other thing, and that’s because I believe – foolishly, probably – in the power of imagined worlds. There is something innately radical about saying, “let me imagine a different world than the one we have, than one that is provided for me.” Again, I don’t mean to dismiss that other perspective because there is something really great and productive about saying, “let me play in this space, in the space of possibility that has been provided for me.” Neither of those things can stand alone. We do both. We build the world and then we play in it. We would be nowhere without that second one. I think about Hume sometimes, who was like, “yeah, reason will get you so far, but you need passion to go get you the thing.” You can sit down all day and write about why it’s important to eat, but at some point you have to go get the damn food. I can build worlds all day, but at some point I have to be my own weird fandom of my own world in order to play, to make anything from it. I am deeply sympathetic to it. But I think if anything, I’m so vocal about worldbuilding and building your own worlds and not being content with the ones provided to you because that perspective is at a lack. Not just in games, in general.
FELAN: One of the things that I’ve been thinking in relation to Friends at the Table but also in relation to some other stuff that I like, is this little blog post by a comics critic named Frank Santoro, who proposes the term “fusion comics,” to describe comics creators who have come up in indie comics – you know, cut their teeth on indie autobio nineties stuff – and are going back to geek or nostalgic genres through their broader, more nuanced, more adult frame of reference. A fusion of mainstream genres and indie sensibilities. And also often much more aesthetically coherent rather than the kitchen sink approach to fantasy or sci-fi and comics. Stuff like Adventure Time is sort of a pop version of that, or Brandon Graham, or James Stokoe. Of course it’s a super boys club, but then I was thinking, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is absolutely that. Or in games, I was thinking Sword and Sworcery EP. They all share this austerity or minimalism in their aesthetics, and the worldbuilding is very gestural and almost incidental rather than big broad tables of details and stuff like that. I feel like Friends at the Table fits into that fusion aesthetic.
AUSTIN: Totally. It’s funny because I think it’s happening in the tabletop space too with like the Old School Renaissance a little bit. There are instances where I think that it’s like, “yeah, let’s go back to D&D.” Like, we’ve done Dogs in the Vineyard now. We’ve played Burning Wheel. What’s up with D&D First Edition? What was happening there? Sometimes the answer is way more than you might have remembered, or some really clever and flavourful stuff was happening there that had gotten lost along the way. I think you’re totally right that that is a thing that’s happening in these spaces. I’m definitely happy to be in that company.
There is definitely a baby/bathwater problem I think in that previous eras of nerd culture that were dominated by straight white dudes. That were owned by straight white dudes even though lots of the creators were not necessarily that, and that had to appeal to straight white dudes. So there’s market influence that was biased in that direction. It’s easy to be like, “well, we just can’t tell superhero stories anymore. I don’t want to deal with elves.” Like I said, I really didn’t want to deal with orcs after Tolkien’s mess. And I also didn’t want to be like, “elves are shitty now. That’s the whole thing. Get it? Elves are shitty.” It would be really easy to just say, “nope, not doing that.” There’s value in that I think, especially early on as a direct reaction to that state of things. Well you know, it’s where we get comics, the nineties stuff. Just indie comics over and over again for the last thirty years, comes from a response to that stuff. Or, I love cyberpunk. That’s where you get cyberpunk – as a reaction to bright and cheerful and optimistic sci-fi. In a world of Thatcher and Reagan and in a world where science is increasingly privatized and the benefits of science, likewise. I really liked that first response of just, “fuck off. I’m not dealing with any of that bullshit.”
But I like spaceships, and I have to encounter that instead of push it away, if I’m being honest. I see the Lord of the Rings movies, and I see Legolas doing cool stuff with daggers, and I’m like, “that’s some cool stuff with daggers.” And I have to confront that. Or I see someone reforging a sword, and I understand what’s happening on screen. I understand all of the multiple metaphors happening there about nationhood and about selfhood and about masculinity… you know, Lord of the Rings is an incredible dense text. Incredibly dense and it gestures toward histories both real and imagined. I don’t mean like orc imagined; I mean folkloric England imagined. There’s a lot caught up with that there, and I swing back and forth between wanting to reclaim rebuilding the sword because there’s something powerful in that imagery, and there are moments where it is radical to simply reforge something other than a sword, or make it not Aragorn who reforges the sword but make it someone else. In my most celebratory moments or maybe my most optimistic moments, I think that our politics can be such that we can save some imagery from itself.
And then other days, I think maybe it’s time to put the forge away because there is no saving that. There is no saving the Tolkien orc from itself, even if you make it into an archivist. I think for me that’s for me that’s a central problem with creators who are invested in social and historical issues rights now. And when I say problem, I mean it’s a problematic. We’re working through this culturally right now. You look like something like Overwatch, which has been huge, in the past few weeks. That is an incredibly diverse game in terms of its characters, nationalities, ethnicities, genders. It breaks away from a lot of traditional gendered gameplay roles. Which is to say, there are as many big tough ladies as there are there are big tough dudes. It breaks away from a lot of that stuff, but also falls into a lot of traps of cultural iconography being appropriated or being slapped together without much care in alternative character costumes. It’s like, is this just built into this kind of pastiche of different cultural iconography? Or is it built into the machine of producing diverse games from a triple-A perspective versus from the perspective of those peoples? I don’t know what the answer is to that, but I can see it being worked through right now, I can see people trying to figure out what we can shave away. What things can we keep here and just shave off the things we don’t like versus what things need to be revaluated in a more holistic sense.
FELAN: At the end of the day, that’s all anyone can do is, as a creator, to animate those contradictions. Explore those contradictions.
AUSTIN: Totally. I don’t know what the answers are, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about how to close the season of Friends at the Table because. I know how to close it. I know what our final scene is. But I don’t know what I want the framing of that question to be about. That season opens up by me saying this introduction about Counterweight, about this planet that’s caught between these two mega powers, and about the rise of technology, and about how we’ve built machines, mechs, called “riggers” that are used for commercial and industrial labour and military service. I ask, “we could have built them to look like anything but we made them look like us.” I don’t know how to frame an answer to that, and how to frame the answer to the question of the relationship between humans and technology. It’s a weird thing to be invested in that and to want to disclaim authorship over it. Do you know what I mean? I wish I could just let my players, and the diversity in opinions there, speak, but I know that at some point I need to record an ending, an outro, to that episode, and that will do some framing working whether I want it to or not. I’m trying to figure that out right now, and that’s tough because I think I’ve made those confrontations happen on screen, but it’s a separate thing entirely to like… I’ve rarely seen a thing that just ends there. Nothing sets up that conflict and then is like, “all right, you’ve seen the conflict now. Peace.” Whether intentionally or not, there are people, creators weighing in on what they’re doing. I’m just trying to be as conscious as possible about that as I go into the finale.
FELAN: Could you talk a bit about ending the first season? How that has informed your approach with the second season?
AUSTIN: We ended it… it was weird. I think if we went back, we would have never ended it the way we did.
FELAN: You sort of did the chronological ending halfway through, I guess, with the holiday special. Then you jumped back.
AUSTIN: We got to the holidays and I realize, “oh man, I really want to do a cool thing where these characters were locked together and solve a mystery together. It’d be like a Christmas special, like on the TV.” And then realized, “oh, these characters are in wildly different places in the world. How can I do that? How can I get them back together for this thing?” And yeah, magic exists. I could have portalled them somewhere. I could have Secret Wars’d them, right? I’ll keep that in my back pocket. Eventually, I’ll have to do that at some point, I’m sure. But instead I said, “We’re going to do a time jump. We’re going to jump forward in time to when these characters meet back up in Velas, in this main fishing city, in the future of your game. We’re going to do this game, and then we’re going to jump back in time and go back to your weekly scheduled programming of the characters before they had met back up.” I think I said pretty openly, “and we’ll retcon if we have to.” Like, if one of these characters die, we’ll figure it out. It sucks, but they probably won’t die because I’m a good GM and can figure out more interesting solutions than, “this character’s off the table because of a bad roll.”
But this is a tough and weird thing. We did that, and then we finished out each side of the seasons, and left them in pretty clean places. Not clean, complicated. But the arc had finished. In a sense, the finale of that season had been shot or recorded months before the final episodes came out, because it was the holiday special that you had to go back to. Going back to it now, if we were doing that again, I absolutely would have done another big six person or eight person game after the final two episodes. We would have jumped back forward in time to immediately after the holiday special, because that’s a thing we had learned that we could do here in this second season, was jump around, and kind of make things more symmetrical in that way. That said, it’s going to be exciting to go back to that world in Season 3 and figure out where people are going. I kind of do like that we left it on an open question. I think that’s the difference between Seasons 1 and 2 is that I’m pretty firmly committed to never coming back to COUNTER/Weight in this form. If we ever come back to this world, it will be hundreds or thousands of years in the future or the past, and it’ll not be at COUNTER/Weight. It’ll be a different part of that universe. I’m not interested in checking back in with Aria Joie or Cassander. I love these characters to death, but this is a complete and whole thing.
In fact, there was a point halfway through this season where we almost just stopped. It was the Tower game. We finished the Tower game, Ali sent me the final version of it with Jack’s music. I listened to the outro, which is like Ibex delivering the speech and Jack’s music hitting and the threat of rigger boiling up over the piano melody – this harsh synth vibe. And I cried: “this is beautiful. I didn’t know I could make beautiful things.” Together, we made this thing that is the most moving… Again, I keep going back to the word beautiful because it suggests a sort of craft work but also a happy coincidence. We put together this thing that moved me to tears. Maybe this is the end of this season? The rise of the Righteous Vanguard, Ibex is here, the end. That was as much about the beauty of that scene as it was fear that I wouldn’t be able to bring us to something better than it. Whereas, in Season 1, I was definitely… by the end of Season 1, I had COUNTER/Weight firmly in my head and was desperate to get to it, and I just wanted to shake things up. Whereas in Season 2, that that two-thirds point, or wherever that was, was very much the opposite of like, “oh shit, I don’t know if we could do better than this.” That’s where Jack and Ali had to be like, “trust in the process. You’ll be fine. We do good stuff every week. Some weeks are better than other weeks obviously, but we’ll get back here – to this high.” Whereas, when we left Season 1, partially because of the way we did it, because the high was in the middle of the season, there wasn’t that notion of, “I could never do this again.” We also just understand now that Season 1 is the thing that we will return to a number of times. I’m already in pre-prep for Season 4 at this point. I’m so excited for Season 4, which is such a silly thing to say because it won’t happen until like 2018 or something – maybe 2017. I’m already terrified.
We’re doing Blades in the Dark as an interlude game for like 5 to 10 episodes. I think realistically, 10 episodes. Probably 12 episodes. Probably 10. I’m looking to aim for 10 episodes, like 3 sessions, that is set in Hieron but somewhere different, as a way to introduce people to the show. It’s like, “hey, a lot of people were curious about the show. Here’s what it is.” There’s going to be a worldbuilding episode, in which we build the city. There’s going to be a set of nine more episodes or something where you can learn who these characters are, and learn who these players are, and learn the rhythm or our show. We’re really excited about that, and I’m terrified it’s going to sprawl out and do its own thing, because I love Blades in the Dark.
FELAN: I can’t wait. Thanks a lot for sitting down with me.
AUSTIN: Thanks man. This was a blast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Thanks to Mathew Iantorno for the transcription.