Sanne Stijve sent Martin and me some questions for an article about the French edition of Itras By in the francophone roleplaying magazine DI6DENT #14. The edition with the article can be purchased here, or read a compressed version (in French) here.
Below is a slightly edited version of our answers from earlier this year. MBG: Martin Bull Gudmundsen. OPG: Ole Peder Giæver. Illustrations from the upcoming anthology Itras By: The Menagerie.
How would you present your game, Itras By?
MBG: Itras By has once been described as a retro-surreal urban fable, which we like — mostly because that combination of words sounds pretty cumbersome when we say it. It does, however, also have a kernel of truth to it. The setting centers on a non-specific city that looks like it could exist somewhere in Western Europe in the Nineteen-Twenties, where things are more or less like in any other city, except you stand the chance of running into a man with the head of a musk ox, or being robbed by gangs of grimasques, (people who made funny faces when the wind turned, became that way, and have lived as social outcases ever since). Or you may accidentally skip a week of your life because you stroll into a street that only exists on Fridays. It’s relatively light on rules, and consists more of advice to encourage improvisation, adaptation, and cooperative narrative effort.
In an Itras By game, what are the participants actually playing ?
MBG: The participants are playing inhabitants in Itras by, but that could mean more or less anything. They can come from any social class, any subculture, really any conceivable background within the setting. Some characters can be based around a mythological concept like a maladjusted minotaur, or more abstract concepts like the reincarnation of a particularly harsh winter. Or they can be based around the tropes and archetypes you’ll find in stories from or about the time period, say a hard-boiled private detective or a Wodehousian gentleman with a strong-willed aunt. There can be a lot of weirdness, a lot of fun, but it can also turn surprisingly serious at times.
OPG: Some players have reported finding this freedom a bit overwhelming. In the chapter on campaigns, we suggest narrowing down the focus somewhat and choosing a core theme or motive for the stories your group wants to tell. It has a tendency to spin out of control anyway, so you might as well start with some strictures.
What’s the universe, the setting of Itras By?
MBG: There is a backstory to Itras by that plays a limited role in the game itself, but serves to connect and give context to the other elements of the game, and it runs something like this: In the chaos of humanity’s collective unconscious, there’s a bubble of relative stability, and Itras By lays at the centre of that bubble. Surrounding the city are the wilderness and the Fringe Zones, where reality becomes progressively more surreal, less comprehensible, and generally harder to survive. The bubble, as well as the city, was created by the goddess Itra some 2000 years ago, and has a cultural and technological history reminiscent of Europe. At around the year 1600, Itra herself disappeared, and a couple of her less benevolent minions rose in her place.
What’s the game system? How does it work?
MBG: As mentioned, the game is fairly light when it comes to system. The rules are designed to encourage creativity, improvisation, and the playfulness of the surreal. In character creation, players should pay attention to things like dramatic qualities (traits that affect their lives in narratively interesting ways) and intrigue magnets (which are more or less what they sound like), what their goals in life are and how they’ll fit together as a group. During the game, while there is a game master, the players can also introduce new characters, elements of the setting, etc, and are in fact encouraged to do so.
They can also draw from two decks of cards.
The resolution cards are drawn for dramatic tension, when players attempt something that can either fail or succeed. The text on the cards will tell you yes or no, but will often add some sort of condition to the outcome, like “Yes, but – you succeed, but only if you sacrifice something important to you”, or “No, and – you fail, and something else goes wrong as well”. Or if you’re very lucky, you can get a “Yes, and” where something else goes right as well.
The chance cards are much less predictable. Each card gives directions for some way to change the game. Some changes happen within the story, like when “the character’s nemesis is called to action”. Others change the process of the game, like “trade roles with the participants to your left, and take on the part of the game master if that is the person to your left”. Each player can draw one chance card per session, and once a card is drawn, the directions have to be followed.
How would you characterize Itras By? Is it possible to categorize it? (as narrativist, sandbox, storytelling or diceless, etc.).
OPG: I sometimes like to tease local grognards that it’s a “very traditional game”: you have a GM and some players with the usual distribution of narrative authority (you control your character, the GM controls the setting), the players have individual characters etc. The cards obviously mess with that structure. I also think they’re kind of educational, in a more interesting way than just putting a list of rules or principles on paper. I think they tend to change the player’s mindset a bit, leading by example. Show them some new possibilities, in a best case scenario.
How was Itras By recieved, both in Norway and elsewhere around the world?
OPG: In Norway? Politely, with some reservation… it’s been run at a few cons, and I’ve heard of groups in addition to our own, who have run 3 year campaigns, used the system for other settings etc. It got some media attention, after we pushed for that. I think the Norwegian edition sold 400 copies, the Finnish 150, the English about a 1000 (per 2015). That doesn’t sound like much, but I’m given to understand it actually isn’t half bad for an originally self-published Norwegian RPG with experimental rules. Being published on Vagrant Workshop in Germany has helped, and the Indie RPG Bundle last year gave us a boost. I know it’s been played at several US cons with an indie focus, but also seen runs at places like GenCon. And it seems at least a few designers found it interesting/inspirational. That’s kind of the reaction you get with a new game in indie circles these days, it seems: “oh, nifty! I’d never play, but I’d hack it this way!” Thanks for the new toys and technology, y’know? I think that’s a perfectly valid approach. Kind of in line with our DIY ethos. In Finland, I think it was on the reading list for some University class? And it’s being published in French now, German soonish, Catalan(!) at some point, I’m told.
What other role-playing games are already being inspired by Itras By?
OPG: We’ve had a great collaboration with Norwegian game designer Matthijs Holter, who was in on early playtests and designed the Resolution Cards we asked permission to use in our game. He also implemented them in the third edition of Archipelago. They have seen use in the Swedish game Sägen, and I believe they inspired some of the mechanics in one of the contributions to the recent Pelgrane anthology Seven Wonders. A Fastaval scenario a few years back used an adapted version of the setting, but another system. And I think in our small way we contributed to putting cards-in-RPG mechanics back on the map. But, y’know. Lion Rampart’s “Whimsy Cards” were published in 1993 (we weren’t aware of them when Martin came up with the Chance Cards).
What is the role of the GM in Itras By? How to best “master” a game of Itras By? How to create adventures (scenarios) for Itras By?
OPG: Player freedom, improv and structured freeform is the name of the game. Some of the best campaigns and single sessions I’ve experienced are when we really cut loose. Preplanning too heavily doesn’t really work for this game, especially with the curveballs the cards will throw you. We write quite a lot about this in the book, both general GM advice and specific tips on planning adventures and campaigns. American gamer Keith Stetson often runs Itras at conventions over there, and has put together this helpful one shot guide. A revised version of the oneshot guide will appear in the upcoming Itras By: The Menagerie.
What are the atmospheres that emerge while playing at Itras By?
MBG: Like with surrealism itself and its modern day spiritual descendants, the out of the ordinary things you’ll encounter in Itras by will often have the form of a joke, so they can have a light-hearted feel to them, sometimes tinged with sarcasm or satire, sometimes just plain ridiculous. However, there’s a tendency I’ve seen – in games I’ve played, and games I’ve witnessed, for more serious themes to surface. Creative choices take on symbolic meanings that weren’t planned, concerns in the characters’ lives tend to align with those of the players, and stories will often be about trying to get by as individuals in a world whose overarching rules no one can really comprehend.
Itras By is often described as a “surreal” role-playing game – what does that mean?
MBG: The core idea of the game was to reach towards, even emulate the goals of the surrealist movement of the early nineteenth century: To use weird and dreamlike imagery to undermine our perception of the rational world, and gain access to stranger and deeper truths hidden beneath. Plus make the audience laugh a lot.
When we designed the game, we made several decisions we hope are supporting that goal. As mentioned above, we’ve set the city in a bubble in the collective unconscious, where weird and dreamlike imagery is the law. We’ve toned down that influence, though, by having the city serve as an anchor of stability. The culture of the city is based on that of the Western World in the early 20th century, the time period that was the context for the surrealists. The weird and dreamlike can also be found in the places, characters and concepts that we described in the book, and participants are encouraged to add their own material as well. The book gives a lot of advice on how to improvise and cooperate, so ideas can find their way into the game before the rational mind gets a chance to shoot them down. And the Resolution Cards and Chance Cards are made to enhance this effect, by upsetting the cart every now and then, so participants are forced to adapt.
OPG: We thought “surrealism” sounded cool back when we started out in our early twenties, but never delved that deeply into the art history or terminology. Itras By has also been labelled “surrealism-light” or “new weird”. Maybe you could even call it “urban fantasy”, but that doesn’t sound very interesting to me. Thankfully, no one has ever accused it of being “steampunk”. As long as the cow gives shiny blue milk, I guess I don’t care what she’s called.
How did you come to the ideas and concepts behind Itras By?
MBG: The original premise derived from a piece of “automatic writing” (itself a surrealist technique), made by Ole Peder and included in the book. Many pieces of the cosmology, theology, and history of the city are already present in that text. We then made some broad skethces of how the city would work on a day-to-day basis, fleshed out some of the main actors that were named in the automatic writing. Then we started to write small pieces about the places and inhabitants of the world, mailed them to each other, improved and expanded on them… this part was the most fun. After a while we had quite a pool of ideas ranging from silly to profound, and from that pool came the concepts we would eventually present in the book.
What makes Itras By different from other role-playing games?
MBG: To name a few specific things, the game is low on rules but it still has a lot of structure, enough that it has a similar feel to more traditional, rule-heavy games. And while there are other games that deals with surrealism, they’re not very many, and the surrealism of Itras by has its own particular color. And the same goes for the chance cards and resolution cards – we’re not the only game to use such mechanics, but we use them in our own particular way.
The most important quality, though, is one I think is less tangible… The descriptions in the book, the texts and images, have had a way of inspiring people to come up with their own ideas, while at the same time, those ideas often have some recurring themes. Those are the more serious stories that sometimes emerge within Itras by, and something about the game seems to draw participants towards them.
Who is the publisher of the Norwegian version? How many copies were published?
MBG: The Norwegian version was eventually self-published, through the company Kolofon who sells package deals to self-publishers. The funds partly from a government grant, through the Norwegian Ministry of Culture, and partly from a grant by the private foundation Solofondet.
How was Itras By made known?
MBG: The game took quite a long time to write, and was already known in Norwegian rpg circles by the time it was eventually published. We hadn’t been shy about talking about it on forums, and had arranged some scenarios at local rpg conventions. At the time of publication we also got coverage in a range of Norwegian news media. We probably got some extra traction by the fact that I some years before participated in a popular TV show. It also helped that Ole Peder, himself a journalist, had experience with how to pitch a good story. In the years since publication, information about the game has spread mostly through word-of-mouth, by being played at conventions, and mentioned on blogs forums, and podcasts.
OPG: Another great boon to the original publication was the illustrations of Thore Hansen, who is a locally well-known fantasy illustrator. We grew up with children’s books, and later on fantasy/sci-fi anthologies, he’d illustrated. We are also grateful for the support of our local RPG scene, especially the one centered on the webforum Rollespill.net (now defunct). I’d like to mention our steadfast supporter Håken Lid, as well as author, game designer and GM extraordinaire Magnus Jakobsson who provided valuable contributions and insights from the earliest stages of the game’s development.
How should “Itras By” be pronounced?