Alex Roberts is the designer of Star Crossed, a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) for two. Instead of rolling dice, players are carefully pulling Jenga blocks every time they want to increase their characters’ attraction. If the tower falls down, they finally act on their feelings. Alex’s game recently launched on Kickstarter and funded within the first two hours. We find her drinking tea.
Kurt: I feel like I should start by asking what kind of tea you’re drinking. Priority stuff.
Alex: Thank you for getting straight to the point. Right now I’m enjoying a blend of turmeric and ginger. Anti-inflammatories are my friend, especially while travelling. These ones are also very tasty.
Kurt: Have you seen turmeric and ginger roots? They look like the same plant. This tea could have been a delightful accident.
Alex: I usually make this tea myself! But I’ve found a good blend of it in a little bag so that’s nice and portable.
Kurt: Well how convenient! Okay– before I start mining you for tea-based wisdom, let’s talk about your game.
Star Crossed is a game of tension and romance: two people/beings/pieces of sentient furniture who really really want to, but really really shouldn’t.
I feel like romance games are a pretty under-explored world. What attracted you to the theme?
Alex: Romance certainly isn’t as popular as violence in this medium, but it’s not totally unknown – I played so many dating sims and romance-themed visual novels as a teen, and that might be why love doesn’t seem out of place to me in games.
When I got into tabletop RPGs I was immediately attracted to games like Breaking the Ice, Kagematsu, Monsterhearts, and others like that, where attraction between player characters was absolutely on the table (so to speak) and indeed part of the core mechanics.
So I have some strong shoulders to stand on, as a designer.
Kurt: It seems like that’s true in more than one sense: I’ve read that Star Crossed originally started out as a hack for the Jenga-based horror game Dread, but obviously you saw something more.
Alex: When I played Dread, I had such a great time. I really loved this idea that something like a tower of bricks–which cannot hurt you–could inspire hints of real fear in the players!
There were a couple playsets in the book, and it seemed obvious to me that you could play as people who were really into each other, but couldn’t act on those feelings. You’d have all the same hesitance, trepidation, tension, worry. But with a different fictional reason for it.
Of course, by the time I tried to actually sit down and think it through, I realized I had a lot more to do than just write a play set. The tower was only one piece of the puzzle.
I couldn’t let go of the idea, and it started to mean a lot to me. I wanted to systematize the experience of wanting to be with someone, and knowing that it can’t happen. Or shouldn’t. But might? But that doing so might not be worth the consequences. It’s complicated! That’s why I made a game about it instead of writing it all down, I guess.
Kurt: Your work shows– the game does a lot of really cool things that make it stand out. One of the things I love about Star Crossed’s system is the player roles: lead/follow.
So, I swing dance (because I needed an even dorkier hobby than tabletop games). One of the classic things from social dancing is that one person acts as a lead, communicating the next move, and one acts as the follow, listening for cues and mirroring ideas.
Star Crossed has an interesting take on that lead-follow structure. Do you do social dancing? And can you talk a little about how these roles were developed?
Alex: I’m so glad you asked about that! I started swing dancing a few years ago and it immediately became a joyful, uplifting part of my life. I learned to follow first, and I immediately found all these skills I didn’t know I had: listening, mirroring, attending to subtle cues, anticipating and adapting to new movements, accepting and then responding with a flourish. I realized that these are also ways of flirting. So you see elements of that in the Follow move sheet.
Meanwhile, I played Hot Guys Making Out, which has this really cool asymmetrical play thing going on. That game was so inspiring. Like with Dread, I just wanted to take everything and change everything at the same time. I looked at the impact the asymmetry had–it creates almost a jealous longing in the players, that the other one can do what you can’t! But they both feel this way!
So I just twisted the Lead sheet so it was a mirror to the Follow.
This has also diversified my understanding of flirting.
Kurt: I feel like the game design process has a lot of power to teach you things. Is there a stand-out example of players doing something that surprised you?
Alex: Yes! I remember one. So, there is a way for the game to end without the tower falling. The Follow can end any scene at any time, regardless of the state of the tower.
But I’ve only seen this happen once.
Two guys at Big Bad Con, strangers to each other I might add, played this Ursula Le Guin-esque story about two people on opposite sides of a struggle for independence – like The Dispossessed, if you’ve read that. They made a lot of pulls! The tower was high! But not only did they end the final scene with the tower still standing – they did it joyfully. In the end they got up, and shook hands, and then they embraced. I don’t know what went on in their story, but it was beautiful to see from a distance.
Kurt: What a cool story, dang. Do you feel like the emotions of the game often cross over to real life?
Alex: Well, that’s what I’m designing for. I’m not trying to “ship” anyone, or make them feel anything they’re not into feeling. The game has mechanics that work against that. But if you choose to keep going, you’re going to feel something. How deep that goes is up to you.
At the very least, in playtests I see a lot of smiling. Often there is hugging at the end. Even if it’s been a very sad story! And I do know a few people who became much closer after playing the game than they were before. I can’t prove causality, though!
Kurt: Scientific caution, right on. That’s really lovely actually. Couple last questions for you.
Reading through your rulebook, it’s obvious how much care you’re taking to make diverse, intersectional stories possible. I know this is a super complex topic, but do you have anything you want to say on this point?
Alex: A complex topic, but mine is a fairly simple answer.
I made this game from an experience of radical queerness: to acknowledge that the way I love does not align with the dominant narrative, and to value solidarity with other marginalized people over acceptance into the mainstream. Love is not always easy. It’s harder on some people than others. A lot of folks have to love in the best ways they can, with hard compromises. I hope that resonates with all kinds of different people, facing all kinds of different struggles.
Alex: Those are just my ideals though, please don’t think I live up to them all the time!
Kurt: I mean nobody’s perfect, but that’s an awesome thing to be shooting for.
Is there anything else you want to say about your game? Maybe something you want to talk about but people don’t ask the right questions to get you there?
Alex: I wish more people would ask if this is a game that works well with first-time roleplayers! Because it is. I’ve played with some people who had zero prior interest in roleplaying, but were intrigued by the premise, or maybe were just humouring me at first, and had absolutely amazing games. Creative, brilliant premises sincerely played out. I think it helps that there’s only one other player. People are so worried about being at a table full of more “experienced” players and doing something wrong! So if you know someone who has been hesitant about RPGs, this might be the game to play with them.
Kurt: Like I wasn’t already excited to try it out! That’s great, Alex– thanks for your time.
Star Crossed is live on Kickstarter here. Alex Roberts can be found at her website http://www.helloalexroberts.com/,as well as on Twitter @muscularpikachu. Alex runs the podcast Backstory, where she talks with interesting folks from the tabletop and LARP worlds. For more of Meeple Mountain’s RPG coverage, check out our retro review of 1990’s Cyberpunk 2020. For more of our interviews, look into our archive.