About myself | About this game

Hi there! My name’s Nathan Harrison. I’m a dabbler in tabletop game design, and also a whatever-comes-before-dabbler for digital game design. I live & work in Portland, Oregon, and I collect my solo creative projects under the banner of Orbis Tertius Press. More about that and about me here, and a bunch of my other games are over here!

Hinterlands, like a lot of other indie tabletop RPGs of recent years, is based on the mechanical engine and design philosophy of a game called Apocalypse World. The ever-growing sphere of games gathered loosely under that banner are all dubbed Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), and a great big swath of them are really cool. Like, really cool. So apart from that granddaddy game, this game also borrows heavily from several of its coolest descendants: primarily Sagas of the Icelanders and Monsterhearts, with some influences from Apocalypse World: Dark Age and Urban Shadows as well. I’ve played and read enough PbtA games at this point that there may be bits of still other games that are ingredients in this stew, too. It’s fair to say that this game started as (and in many ways still is) a remix of those earlier games, to which I am deeply indebted and grateful.

I usually can’t get anywhere with a game unless it’s about something, and Hinterlands is no exception. But to paraphrase one of Roger Ebert’s sayings about movies: “It’s not what a game is about, it’s how it is about it.”

The what of this game is a small isolated community, populated by people of varied social standing and with different roles. That concept is placed against a fantasy backdrop, primarily to make creating and inhabiting an unfamiliar society an easier path to walk, and to better make room for the impossible, untried, or just plain unexpected wherever it seems interesting. This game draws on history to make for a richer & more well-rounded experience, but isn’t a game meant to realistically simulate historical medievalism. It’s meant instead to be highly adaptable, open to modification, and free from too much extra baggage that could be used as a limit on player creativity.

Basically that’s a long way of saying I want to give exactly zero room to anybody trying to argue for less freedom of imagination in this game for any marginalized or minority group “because realism.” That kind of person’s vision of realism can be pretty busted and ahistorical anyway.

The how of this game (“how it is about it”) hinges on the characters’ different levels of social standing, and the options that those different levels either open up or close off. Obligation is at the core of everything — whether looking top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side — and in places, I’ve designed rules to intentionally shift who the “active” player is when resolving those kinds of conflicts. The core example is a move titled refuse the powerful. A different game might structure the same conflict resolution mechanic as impose your will, but I’ve intentionally oriented it in the opposite direction. In Hinterlands, obligation is a powerful thing, and the ability to slip free of its grasp is not guaranteed.

Over time, the way that power is used and that villagers live their lives should also shape the new normal. With longer play, the game is also meant to follow how local customs do or don’t change as they are maintained, abandoned, solidify into traditions, or maybe even become codified laws. Ultimately I want players to be able to rewrite the assumptions of the game itself and its moves too, though this playtest version isn’t there quite yet!

It’s also worth noting that some parts of this game are intentionally pretty trope-y, including some negative tropes. What I’m working toward in that area is a game that makes exploring those tropes worthwhile and engaging, as part enactment/part interrogation of those ideas. Sagas of the Icelanders does a great job of this with its gendered roles and gendered moves, and it’s my goal to try & do the same with the social ideas this game wants to explore.