Behind the Scenes in Game Design
KneeDeep interviewed Marcy Brown, master of “Death by a Thousand Breaths,” about what went into her thinking in designing a 90-minute, live action role-playing Dungeons and Dragons game called Cerulean Port City. The game took place at the Exploratorium on July 30th. Players were asked to collaborate, solve puzzles, and craft solutions to fix the fantasy city’s air pollution issues.
Q: What does Cerulean Port City look like?
A: Cerulean Port City is a mid-sized town with a bustling harbor, where cultures intermingle and exchange, where the power of the elemental forces of earth, sea, and sky are heightened in their proximity and harmony to one another, where magic and technology work in tandem. It’s a lively but peaceful town where everyone is welcomed and ancestral ways of knowing and being are honored.
Q: Why choose a port city — like the Bay Area — as a setting?
A: For many of our Gaming for Justice adventures, the setting is based on Oakland at different times throughout history, with fantasy elements added to create a world that feels familiar and not at the same time. There will be plants, places, or even events that may be recognizable, but the scenarios are unique. What I love about port cities is their diversity and the heightened potential energy inherent to these places of exchange. Whether that is goods, culture, or people seeking new experiences by departing or arriving, the sense of novelty and excitement is renewed again and again.
Q: Can you share a few threads of activity you see happen in live-action gaming?
A: As they move through the story, we’ll see players define what justice and accountability look like to them. That will change how they approach challenges and set goals. We’ll also see how the players identify their values and collaborate with others, potentially finding areas of compromise and ways to be creative.
Q: What does environmental justice have to do with climate resilience, and how can storytelling and gaming help empower youth?
A: Climate resiliency is not possible without environmental justice, as it is BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) communities who are most impacted by climate change. People who have been historically oppressed, or who are currently marginalized, bear the brunt of extreme weather, natural disasters, public health crises, and more caused by climate change.
Storytelling and gaming, specifically role-playing, have the power to inspire action and build community. Storytelling is how we first made sense of the world around us, and understand our place in it. When we weave stories and play together, we create possibilities, learn how to work collaboratively and creatively, find strengths within ourselves and each other, and see ourselves represented. Through gaming and playing together, we create space to be silly, have fun, fight our fears, and dream, and that kind of free visioning is a very powerful thing in a world that can seem dark and overwhelming.
Q: How did you get into this work and why do you do it?
A: I’ve loved writing from a young age, but shelved that passion to focus on a more science-y path, which led me to the field of outdoor education, where I basically get to encourage people to create connections to the places they inhabit. I worked one season as an education technician for a national park, and while in that position I learned more about the intersection of play and education. I was given the freedom to create new ways to incorporate curriculum into our programs, and I created my first games for youth! I had never felt so inspired or creative before in my life.
I got into Dungeons and Dragons during the pandemic as a way to socialize with my friends, and it very quickly consumed all my time once I realized what an incredible vehicle it is for expression, dreaming, and collaborating with others. I’m inspired every day by the people I get to be a Dungeon Master for and the party members I get to play with, especially the youth, who do not impose restrictions on themselves like adults have been socialized to.
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