Meet the homegrown game designers making the tabletop games we can't wait to play

By creating games with big emotions that challenge our ideas about heroes, these creators are taking the TTRPG space by storm.

These creators are taking the TTRPG space by storm

(Photos: submitted; art: CBC Life)

Thanks to a surge in popularity in recent years, many people have heard of Dungeons & Dragons, the 1974 game now in its fifth edition. But tabletop role-playing games, known as TTRPGs, are no monolith. Independent designers are consistently pushing the boundaries of the format to create new experiences for players — and this includes a dynamic homegrown contingent. 

With new games being published every day, designers across the country are showing no signs of slowing down. Recently, we chatted with nine talented TTRPG creators from coast to coast about their game design experience, approach and upcoming projects.

Avery Alder focuses on communities over saviours

(Photo submitted by Avery Alder)

One of the most prolific creators in the TTRPG space is queer game designer Avery Alder, a settler in Sinixt territory. Her self-published titles, which include The Quiet Year, Monsterhearts and Dream Askew, challenge the idea that games need powerful heroes who always win.

"A lot of my games are about tentative relationships, communities in transition, doubt, introspection and letting go of control," she says. "I think the world already has enough stories about the brave and powerful, and so I am always looking to create games that tell stories about something else."

Instead of asking protagonists to play characters who are saviours or champions, many of Alder's games focus on communities under duress and how structural forces can impact relationships — which either survive or crumble under the pressure.

Dream Askew is a game about a fledgling queer community facing the collapse of civilization. (Zev Chevat)

For example, in Dream Askew, everyone at the table is involved in worldbuilding — the process of imagining the fictional universe of the game. "Play starts with imagining a community, and its wants and needs, before beginning to explore how the protagonists fit into that picture," Alder says.

In Dream Askew, players choose different elements to be included in the setting of the game. (Avery Alder)

What's next: In February 2022, Alder will be participating in a cross-disciplinary role-playing game design workshop series through the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia. Her online workshop, among other things, asks: What potential do role-playing games hold for building and reimagining community in our real world? 

Cat McDonald gives game statistics new meaning 

(Photo by Cat Mcdonald)

Game designer Cat McDonald is the Edmonton-based creator of Peach Garden Games as well as a layout artist and illustrator. Best known for titles such as Heroic Chord (and its associated podcast, Sword of Symphonies) and Blazing Hymn, she describes her games as "written with a sort of gentleness."

"I want to help the reader tell the kind of stories they want to tell, and reassure them that the stories they want to tell are good and valid and beautiful," McDonald says.

In addition to being a game designer, Cat McDonald illustrates her own games. (Cat McDonald)

McDonald describes Heroic Chord as an introspective take on a big adventure game, following in the tradition of Ryuutama and Pathfinder. The game encourages playing characters who aren't stereotypical heroes.

"I think the way gentleness appears in Heroic Chord is just encouraging people to envision who their character is, without judgment — to come up with a list of their traits that maybe isn't a flattering portrait of a person but is the person that they are," she says.

Part of creating a character is representing their strengths and weaknesses in the game. In many older TTRPGs, these are represented by statistics that measure traits such as physical strength, reflexes and intellect. By replacing those metrics with adaptability, daring, understanding, sensitivity and subtlety, Heroic Chord shifts the focus from a character's fixed traits to how they solve problems.

Heroic Chord puts a new spin on how characters are represented statistically. (Cat McDonald)

"None of these [things] are about how able you are, how strong you are, what kind of mind you have," McDonald says. "Because I want every reader to be able to read this and go, 'I could be a hero in this world.'"

What's next: McDonald is producing an actual play podcast (a show where the cast plays the game) for her game Blazing Hymn, which is set in a future in which humanity uses music as a weapon against heaven's armies. The podcast is called Roar to Heaven and will be available in 2022.

Kienna Shaw creates 'emotions-heavy experiences'

(Photo submitted by Kienna Shaw)

Toronto-based TTRPG designer and writer Kienna Shaw aims to create game experiences that are player-focused and introspective. "Rather than designing game systems where people can play any story within it, I'm more interested in designing games that guide players through specific emotions-heavy experiences, with intentional spaces left for the players to make the story in the game their own," she says.

Shaw has published a range of games including Oh Maker and Heaven Nor Hell, and worked on Candlekeep Mysteries. However, Shaw says their single-player game Before the Tower Falls — where you play as an explorer finding artifacts in the ruins of a tower — is one of the best examples of their design philosophy. 

Artwork from the role-playing game Before the Tower Falls. (Kienna Shaw)

Using a question-based prompt framework, Before the Tower Falls gives players the freedom to personalize their game experience. Questions such as, "What do I feel when I look at the Tower?" grant the player control over the emotional tone of the game by helping them determine their character's attitude toward investigating the perilous ruin.

A Before the Tower Falls mechanics page. (Kienna Shaw)

"Then asking, 'Other than my life, what am I risking by coming to the Tower?' establishes that there are additional stakes to the character's exploration, making the risk of their character's death more real and meaningful for the player — which is an important part of the game," Shaw explains. 

"Asking the player, 'Why is it valuable or important?' when it comes to an object they find outlines the assumption that each object they find is, in fact, valuable in some way, giving it narrative weight and centering the game on the importance of these items." 

What's next: Shaw is working with fellow game designer Jason Cutrone on Arcon 2.0, an expanded edition of their RPG book Arcon: City of Neon Daylight, which will be published in 2022. It will contain maps, art, non-player characters and even more details about the cyberpunk city of Arcon.

Jan Martin designs with ADHD in mind

(Photo submitted by Jan Martin)

Not many designers actively try to include things like baking and jazz in their games, but for Jan Martin, a game designer from McKees Mills, N.B., these elements are key. "I'm trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia and comfort," they say. "I want everything to feel welcoming in my games, regardless of tone."

Martin, who is Indigenous, has contributed to Thirsty Sword Lesbians and Monster Care Squad, and published their own game Crow Island funeral // PROCESSION. The latter is a solo game that takes place in the universe of Crow Island, a sci-fi and fantasy world that puts Indigenous people and people of colour at the forefront. 

In the game, a corrupt spirit has destroyed your village and you must travel through the wilderness to deliver your Chief's body to the City of Seven Nations for a proper burial. 

Cover art for Crow Island funeral // PROCESSION. (Jan Martin)

Martin describes the experience as "a simple journey" where all the game mechanics tie into the idea of voyaging through the unknown. They decided to use a deck of cards to simulate the unpredictability of the wilderness and add an element of tension. "You can prepare for the journey, but you can never predict what will happen when you're in the wild," they say. 

A map of Crow Island. (Jan Martin)

"I really tried to make the gameplay appeal to someone with ADHD," Martin adds. "I play a lot of solo games, and something that happens with many of them is I get distracted because there's not enough to do with my hands. Physically having an inventory to manage was a simple solution."

What's next: Martin's biggest upcoming project takes players on a road trip through space as they head to an esteemed cooking tournament. Jellyfish Station will seek crowdfunding either in 2022 or 2023.

Darla Burrow writes games 'rooted in weirdness'

(Photo by Darla Burrow)

Ottawa-based game designer Darla Burrow is best known for her game Dear Great Cthulhu, PLEASE Stop Giving Me Superpowers! which is about characters who have strange and annoying abilities. She describes her design philosophy as "firmly rooted in weirdness and how we react to it."

"Something that has always fascinated me is things that don't just subvert expectations but are entirely outside of them," Burrow says. "I really love [the genre of] cosmic horror because of this. It has so much room for weirdness and appeals to me more than the patterns and predictability of regular horror. That flows into being autistic, where the world itself often feels weird and chaotic."

Dear Great Cthulhu cover art by Yumigou. (Darla Burrow)

Burrow also aims to put queerness and disability front and centre in her TTRPGs. "Those are two themes that affect me personally and have historically been ignored in games," she says.

This includes Dear Great Cthulhu, which Burrow describes as a metaphor for disability, queerness and how people form communities. The game uses a framework called Belonging Outside Belonging, created by Avery Alder, which is designed to tell stories about marginalized groups establishing their own communities.

In the spirit of the Belonging Outside Belonging framework, Dear Great Cthulhu forgoes dice and instead uses prompts and actions that change a player's position within the narrative, and also includes a random superpower generator with over a million possible combinations. 

The superpower generator. (Darla Burrow)

"The idea of strange, alien beings constantly saddling you with bizarre, inconvenient superpowers that you never asked for and that make your life harder feels a lot like living with conditions that change over time and of the creep of gender dysphoria, where our bodies are in a way, alien to us," Burrow says. 

"By funneling that all through a lens of weirdness — of ancient space gods and messed up, mutated superpowers — I hope to make that sort of feeling approachable to players to engage with."

What's next: Burrow is working on a game called [REDACTED] Office Simulator about characters who work at an agency that conducts investigations into supernatural entities, events and items. It will be available in 2022.

Graeme Barber synthesizes worldbuilding and mechanics

Graeme Barber is recognized as a TTRPG critic, but he is also a game designer, freelance writer, narrative designer and consultant. Based in B.C.'s North Okanagan region, he is known for his self-published game Fight City - The Role-Playing Game.

Barber describes his approach to worldbuilding as holistic. "I want to offer people an immersive and detailed world that will feel inspiring," he says — but not one that will stifle players' creativity. "When I'm designing a game, I look at what the game is supposed to do, the design intent, and then develop it to meet that with some operational flex built in."

As of late, Barber has been working extensively on the worldbuilding for Blue Planet: Recontact, an upcoming game about a far-off water world and the uncertain future of humanity. There, his approach is helping him create scenarios that he hopes feel convincing.

"Nothing in a world exists in a theoretical vacuum, unaffected by the things and peoples around it. So in this instance, while I'm creating campaign archetypes and working on the expansion book, World of Hurt, I'm being careful to tie events, news and influences together," Barber says. 

Blue Planet: Recontact artwork by Jeff Zugale. (Jeff Zugale)

In Fight City, Barber took a more minimal approach — limiting himself to just a few paragraphs — in order to pay proper tribute to the action games of his youth.

"The goal was to create a game that was a tabletop RPG homage to the side-scrolling, beat-'em-up video games I loved as a kid — and now — so I had to take a hands-off approach to the worldbuilding … to focus on the rules and mechanics. They had to be simple, fairly fast and support play similar to the video game experience," Barber says.

Worldbuilding in Fight City: The Role-Playing Game. (Graeme Barber)

What's next: Barber is gearing up for the release of Blue Planet: Recontact in 2022. "Writing for this game has been a dream realized for me," he says. He also plans to release new dungeon crawling and sci-fi games, as well as updates and expansions to his existing titles.

Sen-Foong Lim makes games with meaningful keepsakes

(Photo by Herb Regalo)

Based in London, Ont., Sen-Foong Lim is a TTRPG and board game designer who co-authored Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, a game where players play members of a Chinese family who run a restaurant in one of America's Chinatowns in the 1920s. 

In addition to ensuring that mechanics, themes and setting are harmonious, Lim likes to make games that involve the players creating something physical, so they have a tangible reminder of their game experience — a practice inspired by the character sheets and maps he's kept from his role-playing days in the '70s. 

In the case of Jiangshi, players generate a "spirit paper" to ward off jiangshi, hopping vampires in Chinese folklore. 

The cover of Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall with art by Kwanchai Moriya. (Sen-Foong Lim)

"The spirit paper is something that you generate in a panicked moment," Lim says. Since many people won't know any incantations to ward off jiangshi in real life, the game instead asks players to write a sentence that describes what keeps their family together. 

"Jiangshi is a whole story about immigration and surviving in a land that may not really want you there," Lim says of the game's anti-Chinese laws and stories from the diaspora. "The jiangshi are kind of representative of oppression and racism … and it's [about] holding that at bay with the spirit paper." 

The contents of the Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall box (minus the artfully placed mah-jong tiles). (Matthew Orr)

Lim says the idea of a family staying strong together despite the odds is something that many immigrant families can relate to. "It's not specifically a Chinese Canadian or Chinese American story, but it resonates with so many people. And that was sort of the reason why Jiangshi became what it was."

What's next: Lim's current project, An Exquisite Crime, was recently funded through Kickstarter and is expected to be released in October 2022. In the game, players play as paranormal detectives, and take turns describing their "visions" to one another and rendering them as drawings  — more artifacts that players can keep after the game.

Nic Masyk reimagines Old School Renaissance for everyone 

(Photo by OddSweet)

Old School Renaissance (OSR) is a design philosophy that draws inspiration from early TTRPGs from the 1970s and '80s. Nic Masyk, a game designer, writer and editor, says he loves the design of OSR games, but finds many of their perspectives to be "very Eurocentric, Western-centric … aggressively white and male, for the most part." 

To counter this, Masyk is reimagining OSR games to tell new stories that amplify underrepresented and marginalized voices, collaborating with writers and artists from Southeast and Southwest Asia, as well as Latin America. 

"I want to work with people who have different perspectives," he says. "As a Black person living in the West, I see things differently than the dominant demographic, but then [again,] I'm still a person in the West … I tend to have these perspectives on things, especially colonialism and capitalism, that I take for granted."

Known for running Monkey's Paw Games in Hamilton — both a publisher and online retailer of indie TTRPGs — Masyk has written for a plethora of titles, including his own self-published games UNCONQUERED and Into the Black.

He describes UNCONQUERED as "a science fantasy, classic adventure game that is about exploration and travel and a lot of classic pulp tropes, but also a game about colonialism and empire and fantasy racism and anti-capitalism," which Masyk notes are common themes in his work. 

The cover of UNCONQUERED with artwork by Peter Violini and layout design by Micah Anderson. (Nic Masyk)

UNCONQUERED uses a 20-sided die and a six-sided die to resolve actions that characters take in the game, and emphasizes spontaneity and player agency. 

"I'm giving people suggestions rather than permissions," Masyk says of his approach to design. "I give suggestions for worlds and give, like, a sort of foggy outline of how things are. But … what people bring to the table is where the game happens."

A page from UNCONQUERED with artwork by Peter Violini, layout design by Micah Anderson and words by Nic Masyk. (Nic Masyk)

What's next: Masyk is a contributing writer for Moonlight on Roseville Beach: A Queer Game of Disco and Cosmic Horror, an LGBT+ focused TTRPG about supernatural investigations and monster hunting, which was successfully funded and will be available in 2022. 

Alex Roberts designs games with resonant character relationships

(Photo submitted by Alex Roberts)

For Alex Roberts, a game designer based in Victoria, role-playing games are about characters, and the most interesting ones are about the relationships between said characters.

"When I'm designing a game, I'm really hoping that the relationship that your character has with other characters will feel real and will feel resonant, and will feel novel and interesting and messy, hopefully. Complicated, hopefully. Adorable, maybe," says Roberts, who designed Star Crossed, For the Queen and Our Time on Earth

Our Time on Earth is a game for two players who are far away from each other. They play by text message over a period of six days, six weeks or six months, sharing the events of their day — but from the point of view of aliens who are unfamiliar with Earth customs.   

The cover of Our Time on Earth with artwork by Alex Roberts and layout design by Jason Morningstar. (Alex Roberts)

"What I like about that game is that it incentivizes you to not necessarily have different experiences than you normally do, but to look at them really differently," says Roberts. "If you were someone who was just visiting Earth for a very short time — which in an existential sense, we are — then how would you look at the cat that crossed your path on the way to work?"

Roberts says that she made the game to convey the feeling of awkwardness and not knowing what you're doing as a universal human experience. 

"I like the idea of sharing that with someone else, of saying … 'I am at some sort of work gathering, and we're supposed to socialize, but we're not supposed to be friends. So it's kind of like a party, but you're not supposed to do any things you normally do at a party. It feels very strange.'"

What's next: Roberts is completing a master's degree in counseling while working on a game called Baseball Episode, which is a collaboration with a first-time game designer. Players will be able to slot a single game session into their regular long-term game with their usual cast of characters, regardless of the game system, for what Roberts describes as simply "a very special episode where they all play baseball." 

Sebastian Yūe is a Toronto-based writer, model, voice actor and player of many games. They are the author of Lake of Secrets, an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), and CORPUS, an unofficial supplement for Heart: The City Beneath. Sebastian has been playing card games since they were six. Follow them on Twitter here.

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