“You put the key in the lock… You turn the key. You open the door… You go inside. The door closes behind you.”
I’ve been haunted by the mere prospect of a game for 7 months. Lurking in my podcatcher are three episodes that I could neither delete nor endure: an Actual Play of the tabletop roleplaying game Bluebeard’s Bride, from the One Shot Podcast episodes (parts 1, 2, 3). I have started it and re-started it and re-re-started it, but I still struggle to bear the horror and atmosphere created by GM Sarah Richardson, who is one-third of the epic Bluebeard’s Bride designer & writer trio, along with Marissa Kelly and Whitney “Strix” Beltrán.
Bluebeard’s Bride is massively super-funding on Kickstarter until November 20, published by Magpie Games. It is a game of “investigatory horror,” based on the fairy tale of the same name, in which a young woman weds a wealthy man only to find that he has a pesky penchant for murdering wives. In Bluebeard’s Bride, players take on the roles of different aspects of the Bride’s psyche called Sisters, and lead the Bride through Bluebeard’s mansion of upsetting horrors (unless it’s all in the Bride’s mind…).
There’s lots more to unpack (Modified Apocalypse World Engine! Trauma & shattering of Sisters! Additional playsets! Roll20 support! Art prints! Oh my!), but today we have Bluebeard’s Bride designer/writer Whitney “Strix” Beltrán on the Stew to help us discern realities.
Strix is a juggernaut of storytelling; she brings her Master’s degree in Mythological Studies to bear on her many creative projects, which include writing and narrative design for both analog and digital games, and running a joyful and insightful Twitch show on the Hyper Rabbit Power Go channel called “Weekly Affirmations“ that explores indie and free-form RPGs and related topics. Check out Part 1 of Strix running Bluebeard’s Bride on the show, and tune in THIS FRIDAY at 3pm PST for Part 2!
Now, step into Strix’s own game designer psyche to hear her thoughts on the design process, how the trio joined forces to create Bluebeard’s Bride, and what she hopes this game will inspire (or perhaps scar) in game designers yet to come.
Darcy Ross (DR): For those just tuning in to the buzz of Bluebeard’s Bride, could you give our gnomes the pitch?
Whitney “Strix” Beltrán (WSB): Sure! Bluebeard’s Bride is a feminine horror RPG based off of the original terrifying fairy tale. The players take on aspects of the Bride’s psyche as she explores Bluebeard’s home using fantastical (in fact, magical) keys while trying to discover if he truly loves her, or if he’s an evil murderous psychopath. The players always know the truth beforehand, so the game is not about beating Bluebeard. Rather, it’s about occupying the space of a person who cannot escape. It creates a powerful and bone-chilling experience.
DR: You’ve trained as an academic in mythology – what has it been like to channel and translate this background into game writing, design, and playtesting, especially with collaborators? For instance, Bluebeard’s Bride is based on the Bluebeard fairy tale, but is not beholden to that particular story. Was it difficult to decide which elements to keep as game constraints/core components and which to leave out?
As far as the fairy tale itself, my training gave me the context to know that all fairy tales exist as variants. There’s no “one true telling” of any of them. Fairy tales, unlike myths, live at a local level. They’re attached to the geography. They speak to whatever is right there. So we let the fairy tale speak to us where we were. We decided to work with one of the darker variants as our base model for the game.
DR: What has been the hardest part of designing this game? What are you most proud of?
WSB: The hardest part was getting the depth and cadence of the horror right. There is so much terrifying stuff packed into the box of feminine horror, that unless we were careful, the game could completely overwhelm players. We had to make sure everything was carefully dialed in and we had to give the GM the tools and guidelines they needed to facilitate a powerful, moving game. We overstepped the bounds a lot in the beginning, and there were a ton of playtests (more than 2 years worth!), but through trial and error we honed it to a place we are really excited about. It is still intense, while being extremely fun to play.
I’m most proud of the fact that we doggedly persevered through more than two years of dev work to make a beautiful game. We were three designers who had never planned to work together, two of which had never even met before we started on this project. Who ever hears of that happening? Through all the ups and downs we stuck with it. It is a testament to our sheer tenacity as individuals as well as our ability to be flexible as a team.
DR: There’s a physicality to Bluebeard’s Bride – while there are pdf-only pledge levels, you say regarding the physical books: “Our goal is to create a display-worthy book, with every detail carefully thought out.” Higher pledge levels include a silk Bride sheet, dice, tokens, a Ring of Submission, and cards to help determine objects and people found in Bluebeard’s home. The art for all products is stunning. What were your considerations in creating this aesthetic, and what do you think the physical components add to the gaming experience?
WSB: I’m only speaking for myself, but I think Marissa and Sarah would agree. I find the visual aesthetic of a game to be deeply important. Art speaks in metaphor. It packs a magnificent punch in communicating what you’re getting at succinctly. We gunned for our artists pretty hard, and I was so, so happy when we locked down the people that we had been thinking about to do the art for more than a year.
DR: I’ve heard that this game started in a game design workshop – can you tell us that story of how this collaboration came to be?
WSB: To be honest, it was purely by chance! Sarah and I both showed up at a game jam for women at Gen Con two years ago, and happened to sit at the same table. I’d never met her in my life before that day. For the purpose of the jam, we tried to decide together what we should come up with. I told her that I had a graduate degree in mythology, and she said that she loved fairy tales. So we were like, okay! What kind of fairy tale game should we make? We both stewed in silence for a moment and then I blurted “Bluebeard!” To which she responded, “YESSSSS.” We got cracking on it, and that’s when Marissa came over to help us. She was a facilitator for the jam. We were trying to figure out what rule structure we wanted to go with, and it was Marissa that suggested hacking the Apocalypse World ruleset. We struggled on just how we would make this work for multiple players. That’s when I came up with the idea for splitting up the Bride’s mind into distinct archetypal figures. So those two very integral pieces happened right there in those first hours at the jam.
When the jam was over we knew we had something. We could just feel it. We pitched it to the room, and everyone in there knew we had something too. The three of us were gripped. We looked at each other and we said, “We’re doing this right?” All of us nodded in unison. We never once looked back. Not in two and a half years!
It was only hours before other folks I knew at the con started coming up to me and saying things like, “I heard that you’re going to be making this game! It sounds awesome!” Really, it’s been that way ever since. It’s kind of surreal. This game is a product of work. A lot of work! But we have also tapped into something magnetic that speaks to a lot of people, speaks to them in the right way.
DR: There are some mean Actual Plays of Bluebeard’s Bride out there already: Sarah Richardson ran a recent AP for the Big Bad Con Kickstarter, and you ran Part 1 of Bluebeard’s Bride for Hyper Rabbit Power Go’s “Weekly Affirmations” show. Fellow gnome Phil Vecchione and I have been wondering how we can hope to run the game as well as you folks! I suspect the cards will help evoke the tone that you all use, but will there also be helpful GM advice in the book?
DR: The GM resource sheet is in the early access packet available to Kickstarter backers now, and is super useful! Check it out.
DR: You’re a woman of color in game writing & design, and you’ve done tremendous work helping others create inclusive communities, games, and art. Do you have some advice about structures or behaviors that we in the community (as fans, creators) can enact to produce a safer and more supportive place for marginalized creators?
WSB: That could be a book in itself! There’s so much to say. There are some really basic things that I think everyone can do.
Directly and explicitly invite minority folks to your events, to write for your game, to do critical analysis, to consult, to lead. DIRECTLY INVITE THEM. CONSISTENTLY. This is one of the biggest things you can do. Make sure that the spaces you’re inviting them to are safe(er) for them. That means having a defined standard of behavior/harassment policy, and enforcing it. It means not allowing bad actors access to that space, and being prepared to deal with things that come up by having an organizational playbook on hand. Representation matters. It matters in the art for games, it matters in the types of games you play, the types of settings you explore, and the types of characters that occupy it. I’ve said a lot about this in particular elsewhere. Check out my article “Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter.”
DR: Thank you! Those are some great, actionable pieces of advice.
DR: Bluebeard’s Bride has been blazing through Kickstarter stretch goals since its first few hours, and it’s clearly made a big impact on many who have read it, heard it, or played it. How do you hope this game will influence future games and designers?
I hope that this game demonstrates that people of all stripes can create from a place of deep authenticity. That they don’t have to sacrifice their perspectives informed by their lived experiences in order to make a game more appealing. Make a game that speaks to you, that matters to you. Don’t lose the thread of what makes it special. The gaming world is hungry for new experiences and perspectives, new ways of telling stories. Please, oblige it!
DR: Thank you so much (for the nightmares) Strix, and thanks to the other authors, Marissa Kelly & Sarah Richardson, and publisher Magpie Games.
I highly recommend checking out the Kickstarter stretch goals and add-ons such as the new playsets (Dark Carnival, Condemned Asylum, and Boarding School), art prints, Roll20 support, Deck of Objects, Tarot of Servants, and more. Many stretch goals enhance and expand the core books and pdfs!
Whitney “Strix” Beltrán can be found:
- on Twitter
- on her website
- on Hyper Rabbit Power Go’s “Weekly Affirmations”, Fridays at 3pm PST. Tune in this week for more Bluebeard’s Bride! (Part 1)
- voice acting in Voice of Free Planet X
- working as a diversity and inclusion consultant for Gaming as Other
- writing for various analog and digital games
- moonlighting as a time-turner mechanic (presumably)
Have you survived an Actual Play of Bluebeard’s Bride? When you are the Bride, will you open the final door? The one Bluebeard forbade you from entering? What will you find?