An avid board and card player her whole life, KK Blazek didn’t start role-playing until after she graduated high school. She started playing in a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP and before too long found herself running a tabletop D&D campaign out of her college dorm room. Once paired with husband David, the two combined their experience with world building and game design to create Girded Rose Games and work on their first project: the modern day, underwater, Steampunk inspired Clockwork Depths rule set for both tabletop and LARP play. Together, KK and David now fill the roles of Vice President of Operations and Head of Product Development, respectively, at the small company.
I had a chance to play a tabletop session of Clockwork Depths at the Midwinter Gaming Convention and sparked a conversation with KK about the game.
Clockwork Depths takes several Steampunk tropes and turns them sideways. It’s set in the modern era. It primarily occurs underwater. Can you speak to how you and David wanted to develop the concept in these directions? How did they occur to you?
When we were first working on the game it largely took place in the sky as opposed to beneath the waves, but we found the result a little dull. We love the thought of airships and soaring through the skies, but we wanted to include a healthy dose of fantastic creatures and a dollop of the horror genre. Both of those were easier to include by setting the game in an environment that is, even today, largely unexplored. Doing this allowed us to bring in different sentient species which gives players a greater range in character choices and sets the stage for people of vastly different cultures having to be inclusive and accepting of each other for the greater good (We’re really big on being inclusive in our house). It also opened the door for us to bring in creatures both malicious and benign, wonderous alchemical substances and magic to add flavor to the game. Besides, David loves the ocean, especially sharks as anyone reading the game will quickly see, so it was natural for him to set the game there, even if it did lead to a lot of extra work figuring out how the game mechanics were affected when the PCs are under water and not in a dometown.
The modern element was initially due to a random idea David had wherein he pictured a proper steampunk gentleman decked out in top hat, goggles, frock coat, trousers, boots and a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. Where the thought came from I have no idea, but it led us to explore the possibilities in a world where technology, culture and fashion were mostly steampunk, but continued to grow and evolve in certain areas. We quickly saw that setting the game in a world like this allowed us and our players greater freedom in some areas. Costuming for the LARP would be less expensive if players could incorporate parts of their modern clothing, for example. More importantly, while we love the civility, manners and poise of the Victorian era, the attitudes towards anything not “normal” held by most people in that time had no place in our game, or, as far as we’re concerned, gaming in general. Setting it in the modern era as we did, allowed us to move past those pitfalls by saying that while technology hadn’t changed, other aspects of culture had. Also, given his strong dislike for computers, cell phones etc, any time David can make a world where such things exist but are rare and illegal makes him do his happy dance.
What were the considerations you needed to keep in mind while designing for a LARP and table top RPG?
The two main differences between LARP and tabletop are the method you use to resolve challenges and the number of players. Most tabletop games have four to six players and tend to use dice in some way. A LARP generally has anywhere from 10 to 50 players on average or more and tends to use rock, paper, scissors to resolve tasks and conflicts. In its heyday, it wasn’t unusual for me to walk into a Vampire LARP with 100+ people in attendance.
To solve this, we first started with submersibles and businesses. because the average crew of a submersible or business, at least at the beginning, is two to six. This gives you your own little group you can work within that can be its own entity in a tabletop, or one of any number of others in a LARP.
The system for resolving challenges was another brain child of David’s. Instead of dice or RPS, we have a blind draw system using colored tokens. It’s nice because it’s simple making combat and such super-fast and easy for even first-time players. Since a pouch can be worked into any costume and you don’t need to rely on a table to do a draw, the system is easily transferable between the two.
What drove the decision to design for tabletop and LARP at the same time?
We’re opening with a message that says we support your personal preferences, and you’re more than welcome to come hang over here with the cool kids. 🙂 We are what we are up front, no excuses or apologies.
We wanted to give people choices when it came to playing our game. David and I love LARPing, and the costuming, make-up and gadgets that pervade steampunk in general, and in this game in specifically. That made LARP a natural choice for Clockwork Depths. However, LARPing is not for everyone so we didn’t want to exclude anyone. Plus, David had been playing and running table top RPGs for two decades before even hearing about LARPs, so his brain naturally thinks in those terms first. There also seems to be a desire to do this. There are, for example, a lot of D&D home brew LARPs running at conventions, but the d20 system does not lend itself to LARP.
The key was to make it possible for people to play either style without having to go through character conversions and such. That way if a game starts as a tabletop but, after increased interest the Gamescaper (the game specific term for GM) decides to turn it into a LARP, the existing players can just use their same character sheets with the rules they already know. Plus, there have been countless times when I was running a LARP where a few of the players wanted to do something like a dungeon crawl in downtime. Since the game is playable as both a LARP and table top, this is very easy to do.
How did you go about prepping the Kickstarter and what went into the decision to go that route?
We tossed around a few ideas for funding, but Kickstarter was the most appealing. It lets you get the word out. Being a small, family run company just starting out, the most important thing we can do is find ways to get our name and product out there. Since we have self-funded up to this point, we really needed that extra boost from the crowd funding to get things completed.
Prepping was interesting. We went through, I don’t even know how many versions of the video before we finally settled on the one we ended up with. One of our founders, Craig, did a lot of research and spends a lot of time on Kickstarter, so he and our Marketing Director, Robyn, have been our point people for that.
Do you have a backup plan?
We do, when we choose Kickstarter to get us the rest of the way, we had toyed around with three other plans for funding laid out, everything from a traditional business loan to other ways of getting backers.
How do you plan to market the game? Hitting the con circuit?
A lot of Cons, yes. We’re also working with local gaming shops to run games with their regulars. I also have some friends in various parts of the country, some of whom I introduced to gaming, who are excited to try to get some games running near them.
In addition, we’ve been talking with groups in the LGTBQ+ community. The two biggest messages in this game are inclusion and working together. We have a whole species built into the game, the Mechis, where you can pick what your Chassis looks like, male, female or neutral. Our Kumugwei are a matriarchal society, and the Merrow are ruled by their King and his husband.
That’s great to see in a game, but it’s rarely so overt. What’s behind that decision?
Initially, it wasn’t an overt decision, it’s something that happened naturally. We practice what we preach as far as being inclusive goes. Many of our friends and some family fall into LGTBQ+, as do I. We tend to gear things in such a way that it’s friendly to that lifestyle without thinking about it. It was our marketing director, Robyn, who read the book and wanted to know why we weren’t pushing that aspect harder. It was a bit of an eye opener for us that outside our little world. People won’t be aware that we’re accepting and welcoming unless we say so.
Similar, and some would say smaller, efforts have been made by RPG giants like Wizards of the Coast and faced some blowback from players. Do you have any concerns about maintaining such a vocal message of inclusivity as a small company?
I feel like, as a small group, we almost have an advantage. We aren’t trying to tell anyone how to think or play, it’s about opportunities and options. You can play a straight Merrow or be male and play a male Mechis. In our current tabletop test I’m playing a female Mechis.
Being small and starting with this message, we don’t have established fans who aren’t ok with it and might push back. We don’t have to shout because you know up front, we accept everyone. I also feel like with a larger, established company, unless the push is hard and loud, it doesn’t get to enough people.