Welcome to the next installment of our Gnome Spotlight: Notables series. The notables series is a look at game developers in the gaming industry doing good work. The series will focus on game creators from underrepresented populations primarily, and each entry will be a short bio and interview. We’ve currently got a group of authors and guest authors interviewing game creators and hope to bring you many more entries in the series as it continues on. If you’ve got a suggestion for someone we should be doing a notables article on, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. – Head Gnome John
Brie is a game designer, editor, and journalist. They currently have a blog at briecs.com which features interviews and thoughts, a Patreon to support it at Patreon.com/briecs, and an itchio where their games are featured at briecs.itch.io.
Talking With Brie
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’m Brie Sheldon, a tabletop game designer, editor, and journalist. I’ve been working in games since like 2011 or so, on everything from more traditionally structured and complex games to simple narrative games. I write smaller games for my Patreon and process them through my blog Thoughty. I worked on the main design team for the Firefly: Smuggler’s Guide to the Rim game – specifically we did the reputation mechanic, which is a pretty cool piece of tech, and I wrote the archetypes for the book.
I developed a content tool called Script Change, which is for handling tone, content, and safety in games. It uses fast forward, rewind, and pause as phrases or cards to guide narrative and play, from inception of the game to wrap meetings. It means a lot to me and is a big testament to what’s important to me in games.
I did a curated project of lonely games, which are single-player games where you respond to questions in a series to tell a story, called Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination. It contains games from other designers, Kimberley Lam, Moyra Turkington, Meera Barry, Chris Bennett, and Adam McConnaughey, and the proceeds go to the Trevor Project. I’m also working on a game that I hope to publish someday soon called Turn, which is a quiet drama about shapeshifters in small, rural towns. I think I just like to keep doing more every chance I get!
2) What project are you most proud of?
Of my published work, I think I’m most proud of my game collection Let Me Take a Selfie, which is a series of live action games using selfies. There are five games, and they all mean something to me as a designer and as a person. One of the games, The Story of My Face, is a single-player horror game where you use selfies to share the emotions you feel as you create a scary story of being chased by magical threats. It’s inspired by Sherlock Holmes and cosmic horror, as well as the paranoia I experienced during the height of mixed bipolar episodes. It’s so fun and spooky to play because we know what scares us the best, and because capturing those moments of your own self-inflicted fear is so fascinating.
It also includes Don’t Look at Me, which is about a long-distance relationship where one partner is sick and the other is in serious danger. It’s based on my experience when my husband was deployed in Iraq and I was experiencing severe depression and degrading health. It means a lot to me, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. John (my husband) read it, and he said he never wanted to play it or even see someone play it – that’s how I knew I wrote it right. Let Me Take a Selfie is my heart and myself, expressed in selfies.
3) What themes do you like to emphasize in your game work?
I really love to look at identity, emotions, and self-reflection, including how others perceive us. In Who Made Me Smile?, which is in my Let Me Take a Selfie collection, you have to take selfies while in a room with other people while trying to express different emotions, then other people have to guess which story you were reading that caused the emotions. It’s so bizarre and fun to play and watch people play because it frames our self-consciousness and also how people read our emotions. I played it at Big Bad Con last year with some people who don’t take many selfies, and I take tons of selfies, so seeing the contrast in our ways of taking selfies, and expressing and reading emotions – it was so good!
I also really like things like horror, fantasy, and various -punk media. I wrote a spotlight for Cortex Prime called Solarpunk that’s about flares, pacifists in a futuristic post-scarcity world who live off the grid in communes and try to prevent fossil fuel barons and capitalists from restricting access to goods and safety. That sounds super nerdy, but hey, you get to have sweet bio- and cyberware and hovercrafts!
4) What mechanics do you like best in games?
I like simple mechanics a lot, just like, talking ones where you tell stories together in a loving way without having a bunch of heavy rolls and math. However, I also like to roll a bunch of dice, and I’ve made Shadowrun 3rd edition characters with fractional essence left, so, that’s kind of a lie I guess. I like when the mechanics suit the setting and the vibe of play, so crunch for Shadowrun makes sense, but simple as hell for Microscope works too. I also love asking questions as a mechanic.
I will note that as far as fidgety bits, I much prefer dice over playing cards. I want to try out some stuff with tarot cards because yesss. I also like nontraditional tools (like selfies!) and things like token exchange. Oh, and I normally dislike betting or bidding mechanics, but the bidding mechanic in Undying is freaking choice.
5) How would you describe your game design style?
Destructive. Legitimately, I refer to my design style as destructive design. A lot of my design starts from seeing games that I’m like, hey, yeah, that’s cool, but I want something completely different, so I’m going to take apart the game piece by piece – or another game that is closer to what I want, or even old mechanics I have sitting in my files – and mash them together or break them until they do what I want. I did this with Turn! Turn’s core mechanic with Struggles and Powers and the 2d6+1d6 rolling mechanic is basically “Well I guess Powered by the Apocalypse is cool but what if I just took this, and I stomped on it, and make this mean something completely different,” and I love it.
6) How does gender/queerness fit into your games?
Some of my work is about examining things about ourselves, including our gender and orientation, but I don’t know if it’s obvious. One of my original lonely games, Locked Away, which is in the Of the Woods collection, is actually about the loss of innocence and the familial suspicion when there’s social deviance. I love you and I adore you is explicitly about long-distance queer romance, and is a game that means a lot to me but I don’t know if anyone’s ever played to find out why!
I’m working on a project called Posers, too, about queer psuedo-cowboys – closeted masc people, typically men, who are part of the rural equestrian community and have to perform masculinity to an extreme, but struggle with their own queerness (it’s not like that’s personal or something!). It’s a ways off release, but you use twine and knots to resolve emotional scenes. Turn itself is just a bundle of this kind of thing, so much so I don’t quite have the words for it.
A lot of my expression of my gender and queerness is about trying to stop hiding it, and to feel validated in it. I don’t always know until I’ve already made a thing how much it is queer, except for Solarpunk, which is explicitly framed around emotions and ideas that are tied to queerness for me!
7) Why are you so into cyberpunk and technology?
My dad was an engineer, but an underemployed one, so mostly he made up for it with magazines about tech stuff. My favorite was Popular Science, which always had futuristic nonsense in it that I loved. Add onto that watching movies like The Fifth Element as a kid, tech was a fun and exciting thing. I didn’t have the best science education, but I liked it!
As I got older and started to have health issues, future tech sounded even better! I started playing Shadowrun around age 15, and it just stuck with me.- I was dissatisfied with a lot in my life and the possibilities… so much. Also, rebellion sounded pretty fucking cool. These days, it’s still a lot of “down with the establishment” and “please can you cure my lifelong disability” and wanting to see more – always more.
8) How did you get into games? Who did you try to emulate in your designs?
I got into tabletop gaming itself when I was around 15, when my husband (then boyfriend) introduced me to D&D and Shadowrun. I got hooked pretty fast. As far as design, I did some dungeon design and editing for Rogue Comet, and just kind of did whatever came at me. I kinda flailed at it.
I don’t really aim to emulate anyone – and I didn’t then. I’m sure stuff slid in, but I just always like to do my own thing, often to a fault. I probably could benefit from reading more game books, or at least that’s what people like to tell me.
9) What one thing would you change in gaming?
I’d make design and play more accessible for marginalized people. There are a lot of barriers – prejudice, bias, nepotism, bigotry, financial limitations, and so on. If people would just get over themselves a little bit and respect each other, we might have more of a future. It’s kind of obscene to me at times, seeing how people seem to only want to prop up the same people, and the same modes of play even! People rejecting safety mechanics, saying that people of color aren’t gamers, not hiring cis and trans women and nonbinary people, like holy hotcakes, people. It’s getting better but we still have too far to go, including the stuff inside the books.
10) What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on Turn, which I’m hoping to have done before the end of the year (how publishing will go is undecided) – I still need to find a writer for my race in small towns essay, but finding a person of color who has lived in a small town has somehow been unsuccessful. I’m expanding my search tho!
I’m also taking some smaller games and putting them up on briecs.itch.io, and doing a project on teaching leadership through games. I’m trying to work on some smaller games as well, collaborations and some personal stuff. I am finishing grad school so my free time is a little limited, but I am hoping that soon I’ll be able to dig in a little more deeply!
11) Who/what games are some of your influences?
Some of the designers I particularly like are Nathan Paoletta and Jason Morningstar, Aura Belle. I try not to get too into the loving-designer culture in part because people are Notoriously Disappointing, and because I don’t want to design just like anyone else. I really love elements of these designer’s work, though – and I also just like how they do their work. Aura designs in a very visceral way – something I’d love to be known for but it’s not quite me. I’ve tried it, didn’t go.
Nathan creates clever designs integrated with visual design, which I envy but I’m not a visual designer so that’s harder for me. Jason does sooooo much research, which will never happen for me (that’s why I design what I know most of the time). Everyone has their own style, I guess? If anything, I’m more likely to design in rejection of someone else’s work (more destruction), and for politeness’ sake I’m not about to say whose work made me mad enough to make something.
As far as specific games, I like some thematic stuff like Shadowrun’s setting is great, Sagas of the Icelanders is awesome in the way it handles gender and social norms, and I try to learn from everything without copying. It’s sometimes hard because you see stuff and you’re like “oo cool I wanna do that too!” but then you’re like “I wanna do my own thing!” For me though, a lot of the time it’s like, “this pisses me off for [any given reason]! I gotta do something about that!” It’s fun that way, though.