29 June 2019

PinkFae Archive #39: Bluebeard's Bride: An Interview with Whitney Beltrán

This article is an installment from the PinkFae Archives. It was originally published on 29 October 2016.

The cover art for Bluebeard's Bride. Bluebeard himself holds his wife in an awkward embrace, as she holds a ring of keys and hesitates, unsure of her husband. The image is in greyscale, except for Bluebeard's hair, which is blue, and the ring of keys in the bride's hand and some accents in the bride's dress, which are a muted bronze colour.

About a week ago, I received an email from Whitney Beltrán, one of the creators of a game called Bluebeard's Bride. I agreed to do an interview with her. We sat down over Skype, and I am pleased to share a condensed version of our conversation. We started with the usual pleasantries, before I described PinkFae's mission.

Whitney Beltrán - That's a pretty fascinating intersectionality. Because Bluebeard's Bride is specifically a feminine experience, whether you are a man or a woman or somewhere in between. It would be really interesting to see what trans men or trans women think of this. Would they react any differently than anyone else? Probably not, but would there be special purviews where they would identify with things more strongly or less strongly? It's a whole separate bag, that I am not super qualified to talk about, because I am not trans. But I would be interested to explore.
PinkFae - Where did you get the idea for this game in the first place?

The origins of Bluebeard's Bride

WB - More than two years ago now, there was a big game jam for women at Gen Con. I ended up next to Sarah Richardson. We had never met before. I asked, 'What do we want to make a game about?' She said, 'I like fairy tales.' I said, 'I have a masters degree in mythological studies. Maybe we can do something there.' She said, 'What fairy tale would we do?' I said, 'Bluebeard.' She said, 'Yes, let's do Bluebeard. How do we make it into a game?'

At that point, Marissa Kelly came into the picture. She was a facilitator for this game jam. She sat down with us to help us figure out what kind of rule system we wanted to do. It was clear that Powered by the Apocalypse was great, because of the type of narrative we wanted to drive. But how do we make this a game for more than one player? That's where my training in mythology and archetypal psychology came in. 'Let's make all of the parts of her mind into archetypes.'

We pitched the game and its premise to the room at the end. Then everyone was like, 'That's really cool! You're going to make that game, right?' [laughs] And it felt special to us. So we're like, 'You know what? We are. We're going to make this work.' And now here we are, two and a half years later, with the Kickstarter only about a week in, and way past its goal.

The Mechanics of Bluebeard's Bride

PF - Would you like to tell us about how it works?

WB - Powered by the Apocalypse is narrative driven. There are playbooks; essentially a set of characters, that have a specific set of moves only that character can use. Apocalypse World is a 2d6 system. If you roll a 0 to a 6, you 'fail.' If you roll a 7 to a 9, you get what you want, but there are unintended consequences, or a bargain. A 10 or above, you win. You get everything you wanted out of that roll. The modifiers are very simple; usually a +1 or a -1, because of your move, or something special that you're doing. But it's not complicated math, which makes it very accessible, which is part of why we wanted to use it.

On the GM's (or in our case, the Groundskeeper's) side, we have 'Hard moves.' Hard Moves are things that you do when players don't get what they want out of their rolls. This is not to punish players or to make them fail, but to keep interesting things happening. They may not get what they want, but they'll get something else that moves the narrative along, or pushes them in a new direction. It's all really participatory, and not adversarial in nature. Everyone's telling a cool narrative together.

Bluebeard's Bride on Kickstarter

PF - You guys were fully funded in, what, an hour?

WB - By the time I had gotten to work at 9 AM, it was funded. It was very shocking, those first 12 hours. Games like this—niche in nature, from the indie community—make within a certain ballpark amount, usually, which is... low. So when we hit $20,000 in the first 12 hours, I literally went into shock. [laughs] I was hyperventilating, and my fingers went numb. I always thought that the game was going to do well, and I thought that meant, maybe, $35,000. [laughs] And right now, it's sitting at $62,000,¹ and I'm losing my goddamn mind. [laughs]

The Creators

PF - Do you want to talk about the creators a bit?

WB - Sarah Richardson is a visual artist, and she also does layout and writing for a variety of different kinds of indie games; books, story games, and OSR. Then there is Marissa Kelly, and her background is in archaeology. She is partners with Mark Diaz Truman, who runs Magpie games, and she is a game designer. She wrote Epyllion, which is a dragon epic, where you play baby dragons growing up into big mean scary dragons—or rather, big cool friendly dragons. And she's also an artist. She does a lot of interesting things with Powered by the Apocalypse.

My full time real life adult job is in tech start-up. On top of that, I am a narrative designer and writer for tabletop and video games. I'm a diversity and inclusion consultant; I help people figure out diversity and inclusion, how to do it well, and how it will help them. And I help run the Gaming as Other initiative: gamers talking about diversity and inclusion, and working on our community to make it a safer and better and more robust place. I have a show called Weekly Affirmations. It's on Twitch, through the Hyper Rabbit Power Go Channel, exploring indie and freeform games. I am a character actor on another show on HyperRPG called Death From Above, about battletech warriors, battling for honour and glory. Is that everything? No, it's not! I'm a gaming academic. I write peer-reviewed articles on psychology and LARPs and all kinds of crazy stuff that normal people don't read!

Playing Bluebeard's Bride

PF - Let's talk about the game itself.

WB - The game follows the narrative of the Bluebeard fairy tale, and then, at the end, you're faced with opening the door to the last room, where all of the previous brides' bodies are hanging out. But up to that, you the bride, and you the players, are trying to figure out whether he is a good guy who loves you, or a bad guy who is a murdering crazy person. The game has two token tracks. It's three pieces of evidence that you can collect to say 'he's a good guy,' or three pieces of evidence that say 'he's a bad guy.' And you can collect both in tandem. Whichever one you happen to complete first triggers the last room.

But there are other forces pushing on you in how you decide to interpret who Bluebeard is. This entire game is set up around the feminine experience of horror, in that the world is forcing its perspective on you, whether that's a true perspective or not. The different pieces of the bride's psyche, the sisters, can take trauma, which is basically health points. If they take five, they shatter, meaning they don't die, but they become the inverse of themselves. They become antagonists, and they start attacking what's left of the bride's psyche. If all parts of the bride's psyche shatter, the bride goes insane, and the game ends with a certain outcome.

The only way you can guarantee to heal trauma in this game is if you are looking at one of these pieces of evidence, one of these tokens, and you tell yourself that the token means that Bluebeard loves you, he's a good guy.

PF - [displays an expression of shocked amazement]

WB - I think you're getting it. [laughs] Telling yourself what is objectively the truth, that this evidence shows that he's a terrible person, gives trauma points, pushes you closer to shattering. And so there's a very tight hemmed-in feeling of trying to get enough air, trying to survive, and having to make hard choices, in order to continue on, because you have to, right? There's not better choices.

Generating Rooms

WB - The way that these rooms are generated, there is the wedding ring. Whichever sister is holding the ring has a couple of extra moves, because she's the one in the front of the bride, with the most control at that point. When you want to leave a room, the GM says, 'You have a key on your key ring. What does that key look like?' And this is where we very explicitly, in the rules, say, 'Use something fantastical to describe this key.' So maybe this key hums. Or maybe this key drips lava. Or maybe it has tiny jewels in it, that spin, or it has butterfly wings; something really fantastical and surreal.

Based on the player's description of the key, the GM will say, 'You said this key was made of driftwood and has shark's teeth as the actual teeth of the key. When you open a door, you find a room that has a thousand ships in bottles in it.' Then you explore this room. You pick out a token and investigate it, and usually, terrible things happen. There's not a map where there's a set number of rooms, and you go through each one and you know what's in there. It's generated in the moment.

Other Details

PF - It sounds like this game would work best with players who are good at creative storytelling.

WB - We know that not all players are adept at that, which is why the books have a whole bunch of supplemental material, to help generate ideas, to help pick out themes to pursue.

PF - It sounds like the decision to open that last door is almost made by how much trauma the different aspects have.

WB - It depends on how you come to the door. You have the two token tracks, for or against Bluebeard. The loyalty to Bluebeard track, the 'Everything's fine! I love him! He loves me! It's going to be all right!' track. If you get the three tokens to fill that track, you can open the door, or you can peek through the crack of the door. Both of those result in not great things for you. The game is not meant for you to win. The game is meant for you to explore horror.

If you go with the other track, and you collect enough evidence against Bluebeard first, you have the option to flee instead, to the townspeople, for instance, and try to tell them the evidence you've collected. How he's terrible and should be arrested. And that doesn't work out for you either. [laughs] There are very few ways where the bride is going to get out scot-free on this, and that's very much on purpose. This isn't misery tourism, but a way of enforcing what a lot of people's lived experiences have been like, dealing with very gendered horrifying experiences, and the idea that there's not a way out. So, with that off the table, what do you make of your fear experiences?

In Closing

PF - How soon can I get my copy?

WB - You can play with the materials available to backers through the first backer message, if you are familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse. But Magpie is saying that the hardcopies are going to go out in May.

PF - Well, anything else you want to say before we finish up?

WB - Just 'thank you!' I hope that when you do play, that it is fun for you.

PF - All right! Well thank you very much for your time!


[1] $62,000 was current as of 6 PM Central time on Wednesday, 26 October. At the time of the publication of this article, the figure was $71,813.

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