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Becky Annison Interview – Bite Me!

I have a confession. I really, really like werewolves. Way back in time, I thought Vampire: the Masquerade was neat, but vampires weren’t really my thing. Then someone handed me a copy of the first edition of Werewolf: the Apocalypse (with the paper cover that had the claw marks cut out of it… so cool, but such a poor design decision) and suddenly I wanted into this whole World of Darkness thing. During the 90’s, I spent a couple of years as a Werewolf admin on a World of Darkness MUSH, and when I got to play both Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows, I played werewolves. So yeah, I like werewolves.

Earlier this year, I woke up to a message from fellow Gnome, Senda, asking if I was available to be play in a game for She’s a Supergeek [1] that afternoon. Bleary eyed and not quite awake yet, I said sure. About an hour later, when I was finally awake, I messaged her back and went, “Uh, what’s the game?” “Oh yeah, it’s a game about werewolves and pack dynamics.” OMG. I was so in.

That game was Bite Me! [2], run by one of the game’s creators, Becky Annison. The game is currently funded on Kickstarter, but there’s still time to get in on it if you’re interested. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Becky about the game and discuss various aspects of the game and it’s creations. And of course, all the werewolfy goodness. AWOOOOOO!

Why Werewolves? What elevates them above other modern monsters?

Werewolves are a personal favourite of mine and have been for a very long time. I’m really taken by the idea of feeling so much closer to your emotions and instincts and having that be your default state.  Extending that idea into ‘what if you couldn’t/wouldn’t hide how you feel’ it is a large part of what led to Bite Me!

The other thing I love most about Werewolves is the Pack. Unlike other monsters, Werewolves have a concept of a close social group, people who understand you.  When you struggle with the monster inside, you aren’t doing it alone and this is really powerful to me.

What were the gaming influences on designing Bite Me! ?

My gaming influences on Bite Me! come from two distinct areas:

The first is all those games I’ve played over the years where people shared some intense emotional experiences with each other at the table.  Those times when we bared a little of our souls to each other and became a little closer as a result.  This aspect of gaming is something I’ve been keen to try and put into a game and a system for a long time and it owes a lot to the earliest games I played where we left the system in the dust and just free-formed our characters late into the night.  I wanted to design a game where you didn’t have to leave the system behind in order to do that role-playing and get that connection.  A game where the system supported it, made it easier, gave it a name and had it as a core element of the experience.

Secondly there are all the games about monsters I’ve played and enjoyed over the years from Monsterhearts to World of Darkness.  I like it best where you can experience characters struggling to reconcile their human and monstrous sides and, for me, Werewolves are the ultimate expression of that.

What were your fiction influences when creating Bite Me! ?

Without a doubt it was the work of writers such as Kelley Armstrong (who made my year by agreeing to be a stretch goal writer for this project), Patricia Briggs, The Silvered by Tania Huff and Teen Wolf the TV show.

All of these have a strong sense of the dramatic potential in the relationships of the Pack and the humans who live adjacent to them. They touch on the issues of control and domination – but it is how those issues intersect and interfere in the relationships of the main characters which is so compelling.  An Alpha is nothing without a Pack – and that symbiotic relationship in werewolf fiction is incredibly fun to explore.

Tell us about the pack dynamics the game is built around?

The game starts with a set of relationship questions.  Each skin gets a question to ask another player – something juicy and messy which sets up a difficult relationship from the start.  For example, the Greypelt (the oldest wolf in the Pack) is asked which Packmate player character they betrayed who hasn’t forgiven them yet.  The Cub (youngest wolf) is asked which Packmate they hero worship and what that Packmate could do to break their trust.

After all the characters and relationships have been created and the culture and Traditions are all agreed, the MC asks one final question.

“Which of you has broken a Tradition and who is keeping their secret?”

Traditions are the laws of the Pack.  Breaking them will involve a punishment like banishment or worse.  This final question sets the stakes really high and is inviting someone to really put themselves in a difficult spot.

These questions do two things.  Firstly, they set up tense relationships from the beginning, giving people great material to use for making the Spill moves (which I talk about further down).  But secondly, they give people Ties on each other.  If you get 4 Ties on someone then you mark experience, but you can also spend Ties to boost your roll when you make a Move against another player.  There are a lot of player v. player Moves in Bite Me! like Dominate, Mauling and Challenge the Alpha.  However, this is not a game where you can steal the party’s treasure at the last minute, backstab the paladin and run off into the sunset.  You are a Pack and whatever you do to a fellow Packmate you need to face the consequences of that in the morning.  The system is built to tempt and encourage people to take actions which will trigger tension and interesting consequences, and then the players can use the Spill Moves to process what happened.

The Pack dynamics are all about creating really interesting fictional starting points and then giving you a set of mechanics which gets you using all that lovely fiction you created.

I find GMing games a stressful business – so I’ve tried to design a game with a lot of self-sustaining action.  If, as GM, you find yourself sitting back and saying nothing for an hour while the players are Spilling all their secrets and feelings then that means the system is working at optimum capacity!

Why PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?

PbtA is a very broad framework to work in as a game designer. But some of the most common elements in the system have some really attractive qualities for a Werewolf game.

One of the first things I noticed when I first played Apocalypse World was how the system of Moves gets you into situations where the action cascades out of control hard and fast.  That pacing and sense of control slipping away from you is exactly what I wanted Bite Me! to feel like – that instantly made PbtA attractive to me.

The other thing the Moves and Playbooks do in PbtA is allow you to laser focus your design at a really specific experience.  I wanted my game to recreate the feeling of being in a werewolf Pack and PbtA gives me a toolbox to really hone in on that.

I would say that Principles are a key element of PbtA for me, as they give a clear direction from the designer to the MC on how to run the game to get the best out of it.  So much of our games actually hinge on tacit play culture, trying to transmit that play culture through a text (rather than through playing a game with someone) is hard work.  But the Principles form these giant signposts for play culture to give us a head start.  Bite Me! also has Player Principles to do the same thing for the players and point them at the play styles to give them the best experience.

Lastly (as if that wasn’t enough!) there is the dice mechanic and the strong hit, weak hit and miss breakdown. On a strong hit the players get a massive success and get to feel like the badass Werewolves they are.  On a weak hit they get what they want but with consequences, and those consequences allow the MC to press on the existing tense relationships and untenable situations (key elements of running Bite Me!) or even create new ones.  Lastly, on a miss the MC can bring out the array of threats that the players have created, press the Pack really hard to get them to unify against a common foe, or in rare circumstances have a Werewolf completely lose control.  Living on the knife edge of control in a violent and threatening world is a staple of the Werewolf genre.  The ever-present possibility you could Miss a roll means those threats are always in the back of a player’s mind! You live with the risk that things will get out of control. The MC’s job is to tempt the players into taking that risk.

Tell us about the character options available to the players?

Bite Me! Has 7 skins and I’ll give you a little detail on each below:

Which moves in the game help create the play you intended with this game?

The play I’m looking for is a cycle.  The players want to have difficult relationships which sometimes explode and sometimes fade into the background as the Pack unifies.

In character generation you set up the tension and wedges between the Packmates using those relationship questions.  The MC will alternatively press on those relationships or provide threats to make the pack unify.  This cycle is fed by several of the Moves – the mechanics for domination and violence will deepen the wedges in the Pack giving people reasons to have emotional outbursts.  They also function as way they Pack can ‘get things done’ which makes them deliberately tempting.  When the tension is high the pack can Spill and Provoke Spill –  sharing emotional conversations about vulnerable things.  The subject for those conversations is often provided by the Domination and Mauling (and other Moves).  When you have those conversations you accumulate Pack Points which can be spent on assisting Packmates and on super powerful Pack Moves.

The Pack Pool is not just a pool of points for the players to use, it is an important signal for the MC. When the Pack Pool is low you should ease off the action and make space for emotional conversations.  When the Pack Pool is high you should press the threats and harry the player characters.

I love games with that emotional conversational element – but you can’t keep on spilling your heart without introducing fresh problems and issues for the characters to engage with.  The system cycles between giving people the Moves to have those conversations and the Moves which provide the content of those conversations.

What made you start working on Bite Me! and how long has it been in development?

Bite Me! is a game which has been living in my head in some form or another since I first read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong well over 10 years ago. I remember reading that book and knowing immediately that I wanted to play in a game like that one day. Which is often my reaction to media I love. But the design work started in earnest about two and a half years ago.

Previously I’d experimented with various ideas for Bite Me! including making it a freeform larp centered around pack food rituals. But I gradually came to realise that the PbtA system was such a good fit for all the reasons I mentioned earlier and so when the first Revelation Con was announced (that is the PbtA con that runs in Sheffield, UK) I pulled together a set of basic moves and 4 playbooks and took it along for a test drive.  That game went better than I could have hoped for a first playtest. The third Revelation con happened the weekend after I launched the Kickstarter and so far Bite Me! has been run there every year and I hope that is a tradition that continues.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bite Me! [2] or backing it, head on over to Kickstarter [2] and give it a look!