In October I sat down for a chat with game designer Sarah Doombringer, who you might know for her work on the influential Bluebeard’s Bride. We had a great conversation about horror, designing Bluebeard’s, and about her upcoming book through Magpie Games, Velvet Glove. I’ll let you know in advance that this is a long interview, but I think it’s worth every second of your time!
Content warning: a lot of heavy stuff came up during this interview, including mental illness, domestic violence (and violence more generally), sexual predation, and the death of children in a game setting.
(The following interview has been edited for clarity and organization.)
[artistic fade in…]
Noah Lloyd: …have you seen any good horror movies lately?
Sarah Doombringer: Yes. I just watched A Cure for Wellness, even though I know that came out awhile ago, and I am super into gothic horror—have you seen it?
NL: I have not seen it yet, no.
SD: It is like reading some sort of gothic horror novel, set in an asylum. It made me so happy. I saw that and Mother, which I think it’s fair to characterize as a horror movie. It just happens those were the last two movies I’ve seen.
NL: What do you think about horror in asylums, and the tie-up of horror and neurodivergence?
SD: That’s a complicated topic. Horror in regards to asylums is so incredibly fucking attractive, right? Because of the historical records, and how people were treated, and how completely inhumane it was. For the most part, the reading I have done on it has concentrated on how women were treated in asylums. In one of the [Bluebeard’s Bride] playsets you are a patient in an asylum. And since Bluebeard is about gaslighting at its core, I wanted to make sure that we handled the asylum part sensitively and intelligently. And looking at, like, the history of women in asylums and seeing that, you know… they sometimes put women in asylums because their husbands didn’t want to be married to them anymore. It wasn’t always because they were mentally ill. And seeing also with popular culture, how it’s portrayed, the abuse of inmates, I mean I think that’s where the horror comes from, the idea that people don’t believe you, you’re trapped somewhere where you can’t leave, and they’re going to do things to you whether you consent or not, I mean that is a deep horror, right? I think that people have a lot of trouble disentangling that from what we currently know about mental illness and treatment and neurodiversity. We’re kind of at a flashpoint as a culture trying to start figuring those things out, and pulling the threads apart so we can more accurately examine them.
NL: Right. What I’m noticing though is that, and I think this makes sense from looking at your work like Bluebeard’s Bride and Velvet Glove, but the fear for you is the fear of being placed in an asylum, is of becoming an inmate. Whereas in a lot of games the more typical scenario would be a hero or group of heroes go into an asylum where the inmates are themselves the horror, and not subject to.
SD: So we did that a little bit with Bluebeard. Whenever I run it, there’s a lot of trying to humanize and make empathetic the victims of domestic violence. The horrors that you encounter in the house, sometimes they’re very sympathetic. And it’s heart wrenching and it’s supposed to be like that. In the asylum playset, as you go through, you encounter patients and you also encounter horror. We’re still doing the thing where you’re going into an asylum and it’s full of these like, monsters, with the intent to remember that those are metaphors and that every monster was created because of abuse. Whether the woman [the players’ character] who is part of the horror was abused, or abused other people, we’re trying to touch upon the idea that a lot of mental illness and trauma can really be looked at like this cycle that goes down through generations of family as well as society. If you’re playing a game where you’re just going in there and ignoring the humanity of the inmates of the asylum, that’s like a terrible, huge missed opportunity to look at something a little deeper about the human condition.
NL: Let’s zoom out a little bit: why horror? Just to list a few credits, you have worked on a lot of horror games, WITCH, the FATE Horror Toolkit, Bluebeard’s Bride of course, Zombie World, so it’s obvious that horror speaks to you. Could you speak to why?
SD: Sure. I also wrote for Kult: Divinity Lost [Editor’s note: Sarah’s adventure was “The Laraine Estate”], and I have done layout and illustration, although no writing, for a lot of Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures. Most people don’t know me for layout and illustration, even though that’s how I got into the industry. I bring that up because it’s relevant to your question, when I first was thinking of trying to get paid for doing stuff in the industry, one of the things that attracted me was Lamentations: the art is so horrific. And I know many people find it very upsetting, but for me, the art was horrific, showed women and all these terrible things happening to women (like their limbs getting eaten off by acid), because they were active adventurers.
I have always loved horror. It’s a little bit of a joke that it’s unusual that I want to watch a movie that’s not horror, and I’m sorry I’m that shallow but they do it for me. I read a lot of horror fiction. It’s not just about getting scared or facing your fears, I am deeply interested in that liminal space where people and monsters coexist. One of my very very favorite horror movies is Ginger Snaps, which is this Canadian werewolf movie where one of these two teen girls gets bitten and turns into a werewolf, and it is such an obvious metaphor for puberty and the onset of menstruation, and sexuality, so really horror is about exploring everything we’re afraid about ourselves. And I just find that really attractive. Although I do not like going through haunted houses.
NL: Magpie currently has Zombie World up for preorder. Can you tell us a little about it?
SD: The thing to know about Zombie World is, even though you may be tired of zombies, this may be the game for you anyway. It’s a card-based RPG, so it’s super easy and quick to setup, and also high lethality, so super quick to make new characters, but the focus of the game is on people, and how communities react. If you’re interested at all in exploring what people do when the shit really goes down, this is the game for that. The zombies are there, they will totally eat your character if you’re not careful, but it’s a game that’s aimed at people who are new to roleplay, so that way if you have friends who have seen The Walking Dead or have watched Dawn of the Dead or anything like that, this is a great way to infect them and convince them to play games with you. It’s a gateway drug.
NL: Since it’s been brought up already, have you played much Call of Cthulhu? I’m partly asking because when I was going back and rereading some of ad copy for Bluebeard’s Bride, it describes itself as a game of investigative horror, which is exactly what Call of Cthulhu has called itself for decades.
SD: I haven’t played it extensively, but I’ve played enough of it that… it’s kind of weird, in Bluebeard’s Bride you’re a bunch of people who are playing one person, so clearly that’s very different, and it’s acknowledged that a lot of what’s going on is in your head, so you’re trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. And with Call of Cthulhu, you know, you know what you’re seeing is real. [Editor’s note: Usually…] Other people might not understand, but what you’re seeing is real. It’s investigation, but they start at two very different points, just in the point of view. Cause with Bluebeard’s Bride it’s totally possible to play the game, decide that you imagined everything you experienced, and go on and try and have a “happy” life. In Call of Cthulhu, there is no happiness left in a world where Cthulhu has escaped.
Bluebeard put the word “investigation” in the ad copy to make sure people understood they’re supposed to explore the rooms. And that they’re searching for answers. That you’re not just redoing the fairytale without any changes. So I’d say they’re really different, not just thematically but also, clearly, mechanically. It’s kind of like they’re cousins, they share a grandparent, you know. The idea that the protagonist, who’s going through these creepy dark hallways trying to figure out what’s going on and that you’re inherently not safe. So clearly there is a lot that ties them together.
NL: Is horror in games important?
SD: Horror is important because when it’s at its best it’s teaching us empathy for other people. Whenever you make someone imagine that they’re in this situation that hopefully they will never be in, and that they have to understand whatever this terrible thing feels like, hopefully they gain empathy for that person. I think part of what you’re speaking to is that somehow horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, are considered lesser than say drama, or even comedy, and that’s complete bullshit. It’s equally as valid.
I think it’s important to have horror games because everyone has different tastes and wants to experience different things at the table, and sometimes you want to try something, and it might not be something you want to play every time—that’s one reason you don’t usually have campaigns of Bluebeard’s Bride. But, it’s important that those games are out there and you have the option of playing them. Besides the fact, games would be pretty fucking boring if I never got to experience eldritch horror, like, I don’t even understand.
NL: Well that’s the idea of eldritch horror, is you don’t understand.
SD: [laughter] True.
NL: You brought up that the good thing about horror, if it’s done well, is that it can develop empathy for other people, which I think Velvet Glove is very concerned with.
SD: One of my hopes for the game is that people who play it will come a little bit, tiny bit closer to understanding what it might possibly be like to be a teenage, poor girl of color who’s in a bad situation and is trying to make the best of it. I really wanted to humanize the girls because teenage girls are the most looked-down-upon of our population. Teenage girls get no respect. And I think whenever you add in the other thing, if they’re from a bad neighborhood, if they’re poor, if they’re choosing to engage in violence and drugs and sex, there’s not a lot of sympathy there. So my hope is that, in Velvet Glove, a) that you have a good time, but b) that you’re like, hey, I’m this badass, making these choices, because I am trying to make my life as much better as I can, and also, wow, it really sucks to be a teenage girl when people reduce you to sex.
NL: How would you pitch Velvet Glove to someone? Also (I may simply not be as versed in 70s media as I should be) where does the title come from?
SD: The title of Velvet Glove comes from a quote, “like a velvet glove cast in iron.” This is both a book by Daniel Clowes, who you might know from Ghost World, and it’s also a quote from the movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which is one of the movies that is an inspiration for Velvet Glove. One of the characters says, “oh you’re so cute, like a velvet glove cast iron.” The implication is that you look like this soft object, when it’s actually made out of metal. So that seemed to be the perfect synopsis or distillation of what Velvet Glove is about. They look like they’re just teenage girls, but underneath that soft sexuality and femininity there is metal, and they will fuck you up.
So the elevator pitch for Velvet Glove is that you play teenage girls in 1970s America, where you get to indulge in sex, violence, and revenge.
NL: I like the emphasis on revenge there.
SD: In addition to horror, I also watch a bit of exploitation movies, so that had to be part of it.
NL: Velvet Glove is largely about young women, surviving and trying to get a hold of a male-dominated world around them, so in that respect it’s obviously similar to Bluebeard’s Bride. Are there ways that you see Velvet Glove coming out of Bluebeard’s Bride?
SD: Well Bluebeard’s Bride was my first game, made with Marissa Kelly and Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, so Velvet Glove is my first game alone. One of the most rewarding parts of running Bluebeard’s Bride is character creation, when everyone is making their sisters, and they start filling out their bonds, their ties, and the feedback I got was that people loved that, that it was such a rich experience and they felt like they really had these strong relationships with each other. And admittedly, Bluebeard’s Bride is set up so that it ties the sisters close together, and then it also pushes them apart. You have essentially two positive bonds and one negative, I think is what we ended up with. There’s tension there, that you both love your sisters and yet you also find them annoying, because that’s what family’s like, and what you can be like with yourself. So I want peoples’ experience with setting up their characters in Bluebeard’s Bride, I want that feeling of connection, but I want it where you’re not all playing the same person. And then I started thinking about, hey it would be cool if it’s a group of women, because I’ve run a couple of games like that; I actually at one point put together a little adventure for Dungeon World based on Rat Queens, the comic book. You’re a group of female adventurers, and I really enjoyed running that for people, especially tables of all-men, who weren’t expecting it, and were very confused to find out they were playing women.
NL: As men often are.
SD: Oops, surprise.
I wanted it to be something that, like Bluebeard, reflected on a specifically feminine experience, but I also wanted it to be something where the girls and women involved were bound together instead of that narrative of backbiting and jealous girls, because I’m not really interested in that.
So it finally came out that gangs are awesome (in fiction). Girl gangs are even more awesome. And unfortunately, something that I’ve seen and experienced and heard about, a common experience of many women is being sexualized before they’re ready. Stories of women getting catcalled whenever they’re 12 or younger. And stuff like that. I wanted to see if I could portray that kind of experience in a game. So that’s why there’s so much emphasis on sex and men in a game about women. Because, teenage girls, that’s the other part about them not being valued in our society, the way people talk about them, and talk about their sexuality, is highly troublesome. So, in the game, you have to experience that sexism, which is also probably a little bit of a reaction to me playing traditional games for years and occasionally experiencing sexism while playing them.
Also, then, the exploitation movies, and the idea that the dude catcalls you, and then suddenly you turn around and like look there’s four other girls with you and you have switchblades. That would be awesome.
NL: As I was reading through the ashcan, I thought that it was really nuanced, the way that the game was both about young girls but was also managing to replicate the kind of power structures that young girls find themselves in. I wanted to bring up a moment in the text itself—this game is super deadly. At least it seems like it from reading the rules. When you call someone out, on a 7-9 (which is the most common range of rolls), the person you’re calling out can fight back hard, and if you get hurt real bad, one of the options when you roll 6 or less is you die. Or, not one of the options, that is the option, “The MC will tell you how you go out.” Which I think is really brutal, for a game that you might want to play multiple sessions of, and is also pretty rare from the other powered-by-the-apocalypse games I’ve read, but I think is also kind of brilliant, because it makes the violence so visceral.
SD: Well I can’t take all the credit for that, that is actually a move from Mark Diaz Truman’s game Cartel. In Cartel, you play part of a Mexican drug cartel, but it does a lot to humanize the people who are in this drug war, and to remember how they are a part of their community and how they are just people, they have wives or husbands and children, and they get affected by this bloody war as well.
When I was working on Velvet Glove, we talked a lot about the differences between the two games, and they’re very different, but one of the things that’s the same is gang violence is real. I do not want to undercut the experiences of these girls and make it seem like it is all fun and games cause it’s not. And, you know, I’ve had games where, one of the most recent games, a player character OD’d on screen. So their lives can have tragedy and drama, and while most of the time you’re just running around with your baseball bat and getting into fights and getting hurt, then going and drinking and talking about how you totally kicked their ass, but sometimes somebody is going to be a person you shouldn’t fuck with. You can run into adult gangs, and cops are very complicated, cops don’t always really work with this game, but it’s possible that there are cops, so I think having the stakes so high both accurately reflects the lives I’m trying to portray as well as puts in the correct amount of drama, cause gangs wouldn’t be the same if there were no repercussions, right? And death is also how gang wars get started.
NL: The death of children in a game setting is kind of a hotly contested subject, and yet, in the real world, children die in these conflicts. I think that’s well put.
Could you tell us about one of your favorite moments from a playtest you’ve had of this?
SD: running this game is so different from running Bluebeard’s, and people react so differently. I normally start the game out at the end of a school day, because I want to give the girls a chance to interact with teachers who might be kind of sleazy, and other staff at the school, or even staff who might be like, “Hey, you’re better than a gang,” give them that complication, and also give them a chance to interact with both teenagers who aren’t in a gang and potentially other gangs.
They were in English class, and, since one of the players at the table is a friend of mine, I may have gotten up and started reciting poetry to her in-character as the teacher—
NL: This is how I know we would be friends: spontaneous poetry recital.
SD: —while describing how this overweight middle-aged man was looking down her shirt while doing it.
SD: Yeah, it just went bad, right? So he is creeping on her in a very gross way, and there’s some objection to that, and he immediately uses his power to tell her she needs to stay after class, and the other girls are like, “What? We’re not leaving her here alone with him. Oh, this is bullshit.” He starts saying and doing gross things, the other girls come in, and they essentially end up beating the shit out of this teacher, who had started out by reading poetry to their friend. And it was… the players got to a point where they were taking turns saying what they were doing to him, like they’re standing around in a circle, and it was this very cathartic, like, “this is for every motherfucker who has ever said something like this to me,” kind of moment. It was not an all-women group, there was a man there as well, but he was just as into it. You could tell that by the time they get done, in the game the characters would have been sweating and probably have skinned knuckles and everything, and they’re looking at this pathetic pile of man laying on the floor, and they’re like, “that was awesome let’s go have a party!”
It was everything I could want this game to be.
NL: For folks who are intrigued about Velvet Glove, when does the Kickstarter get going?
SD: Right now the Kickstarter is scheduled for sometime in 2019, depending on our release schedule. But I’ll be actively working on it until then.
NL: Is there anything else that you want to plug before you go?
SD: I think that we’re about to open preorders for Zombie World, work is going on with Cartel, we just sent the last Bluebeard’s Bride book to print, so there’s a lot going on.
NL: Thank you so much for sitting down and doing this with me.
SD: Thank you for having me on!
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