RPG Developer Series: The Wrong Brothers
In a new series here at TGI, we’re interviewing some of our favorite, lesser-known but stunningly brilliant indie RPG designers! In our first interview, we chat with Colin of The Wrong Brothers, particularly on TWB’s game Axon Punk: Overdrive.
1. What was the game/game system that inspired you the most to start creating?
The game that convinced me to start designing seriously was Dungeon World, which was the first Apocalypse System game I had played. I was struck by how streamlined the rules were and how inventive they allowed the players to be.
While we did not end up using the Apocalypse System in Axon Punk, Cameron and I did use many of their innovations such as class-specific character sheets to prevent flipping through the book during play and open-ended abilities (like the Wizard’s Ritual in Dungeon World).
The media that sparked Axon Punk into existence was Janelle Monáe’s album, The ArchAndroid, and seeing her perform live. Part of the focus of the game is to produce the experience of
attending a Janelle Monáe or Saul Williams concert.
2. Aside from the standard issues of money and large audiences, what’s the biggest difficulty you’ve faced as indie designers?
We decided to make Axon Punk explicitly involve on a broad range of complicated and sensitive topics. This was a challenge we approach very mindfully and intentionally.
By focusing on both cyberpunk and hip-hop in our game, we want our players to confront issues like racism, classism, sexism, appropriation, body image, the injustices and environmental abuse caused by unchecked capitalism, disabilities, chronic illness, mental illness, you name it – if it causes conflict and produces a counterculture, it is ripe to be involved in Axon Punk.
Calibrating how we approach those topics with our audience, especially in person, has been challenging and extremely
rewarding. We focused a ton of our energy on making our game a safe, inviting, and exciting place to explore complicated subjects and grow together.
To deal with these sensitive topics while designing the game, we did what we recommend everyone does: we respectfully asked for help, spoke honestly and openly, and put our heart and money behind our actions.
We hired a diverse team of authors, designers, musicians, and artists while making Axon Punk to ensure the game had inclusiveness, multiple voices, and broad perspective built into its core. Furthermore, we playtested the game with as many different people as we possibly could. Because our design team is primarily split between Chicago, IL, and Dallas, TX, we could play with and learn from a massive range of people.
Facing sensitive, complicated topics is difficult by definition. But, we really think these topics need to be talked about openly and unflinchingly. Roleplaying games create a wonderful
platform to learn about important issues in a fun and supportive environment. We are very happy Axon Punk can facilitate positive communication, even if it isn’t easy all the time.
3. Thus far, what’s the most extraordinary opportunity designing has afforded you?
Building and working with the team that made Axon Punk has absolutely been the most extraordinary and joyous part of the experience for me. When we decided to get really serious about making the game, we knew we needed a large team of people with a wide range of perspectives and skills to create the game we envisioned.
At that point, we had already been playtesting the alpha version of Axon Punk at conventions and meeting cool people in the gaming, art, and music world. Amazing people like Keisha Howard, who leads the Sugar Gamers, and Erika Chappell from Newstand Press.
Suddenly, though, we were able reach out to these incredible individuals on a professional level and say, “Hey, I love what you do and we work well together, can I put you in our Kickstarter budget and hire you to do something for our game?”
Wrangling everyone to finish their work has taken effort (we have 15 team members throughout the US, Canada, and Australia contributing to our gamebook, short story collection, and original 5 track hip-hop EP), but the payoff has exceeded my expectations astronomically. We recruited each person specifically because they can do things Cameron and I cannot. We strongly encouraged all of our contributors to have their voice and unique ideas shine through in their creations. So, receiving their work has been a phenomenal and mind-blowing experience. I love being able to incorporate writing, art, and music into our game that I never could create myself. These additions have grown Axon Punk in an experience that is more multifaceted, immersive than I ever imagined it could be.
4. How have you worked towards more inclusive gaming?
Inclusive gaming has been at the core of Axon Punk since day one. When we began, we wanted a fast, fun RPG that everyone could play and would be particularly appealing to new gamers.
We love playing with new gamers and seducing people into joining this most wonderful of hobbies.
We designed our rules to focus on improvisation and collaboration with as little rules-mastery and external knowledge/canon required to play as possible: “Do you vaguely know anything about the internet, music, and/or dystopian futures? Great! You can play Axon Punk.”
From that foundation, the game has grown organically and developed its own setting with far more depth than we originally planned. We were very lucky and found the game resonated with a wide range of people in different, beautiful ways – and we had massive amounts of fun the whole time.
So, after a year of alpha testing a classic cyberpunk game with a hint of hip-hop, we decided to seriously commit to bringing hip-hop to the forefront of our game. We reached out for help and feedback, we commissioned work from established hip-hop and gaming professionals, and found the true voice of Axon Punk, which is a chorus of voices.
Involving cyberpunk and hip-hop gave us a unique opportunity to work on accessibility and inclusiveness in gaming. In addition to the classic issues, we highlighted and reinforced the overlap between cyberpunk and hip-hop: opposing institutional inequality, using music to build communities and overcome adversity, embracing technology, empowering the oppressed, making a cruel and painful world into something you can call your own.
All of these topics speak to marginalized people and we wanted to make sure everyone is able to play and enjoy our game. We want the game to facilitate communication about sensitive topics, but also be a fun game people play on a regular basis.
In Axon Punk, we are fond of two-pronged approaches. We try to always have a backup plan to keep things moving forward. We learned a ton of great techniques from running on Games on Demand at Gen Con, such as addressing pronouns during introductions and having an X-Card on the table [Editor’s Note: these are cards that players can merely tap to indicate they are not comfortable with what is happening in the game and it will stop immediately without any questioning].
We have been able to incorporate inclusiveness into as many design elements as we can in a fluid way that fits with the game. For example, we include a line on our character sheets for people to put their character’s pronouns. Having this line fits into the game because we have AIs and cyborgs in Axon Punk who push the bounds of human individuality. Additionally, it makes players know we are aware of real-life pronoun issues and how challenging that can be.
Cyberware allows us to discuss present day physical disabilities and accessibility. The list goes on. And, if things get too intense or complicated at the table, we deploy the rule of cool, make things blow up, or bring in awesome music references until everyone is laughing and having fun again.
5. What’s up next/currently in the works for The Wrong Brothers?
The current plan for the Wrong Brothers is to help Keisha Howard of the Sugar Gamers develop her game concept, Project Violacea into a tabletop RPG. Project Violacea is a really cool and innovative cyberpunk/biopunk game setting Keisha has been developing with the Sugar Gamers for the last couple years.
The Wrong Brothers will be modifying the Axon Punk rules system to fit Project Violacea and doing some of the nitty-gritty work to make the book. We are hoping to start playtesting the Project Violacea RPG at conventions this fall and winter so keep an eye!