Dead Scare: Interview with Game Writer Elsa S. Henry

Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.

Dead Scare, which at the time of writing has hit 86% of its Kickstarter goal, is “a tabletop RPG where you play the women and children fending for themselves against zombies and the McCarthy regime in 1950s America.”

It’s written by women and non-binary game designers, about women, children, and other marginalized people fending off zombies in McCarthy-era America. Russian spies unleash a bio-weapon in an attempt to assassinate President Truman, turning everyone who was out in the streets and other public places into flesh-eating zombies. As a result, the only human survivors are people who were excluded from the public sphere–women, children, and people with disabilities.

The game is based on Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker, a versatile system that’s been adapted for many genres and settings.

GeekGirlCon had the opportunity to talk to Elsa S. Henry, the writer of Dead Scare, and ask her a few questions.

This is the first game you’ve taken the lead on designing. Can you talk a bit about your experience in gaming, and what drew you to game design?

I started out playing Magic: The Gathering. By the time I was older (say, in middle and high school), I started to find out about what gaming was. I’d sort of skirted around it, but never had the opportunity to play. Once the RPGs found their way to me I was hooked. I hacked my first game in high school because I didn’t like the way a system represented an era I dearly loved, and ran Sherlock Holmes games for a long time using that hacked system.

As an adult, I sort of fell into game design. I’m not sure how I got here, but I love telling stories, and even more than that I love helping people tell their own stories.

What’s great about the Apocalypse World system? What kinds of character archetypes will your players be able to choose from?

Apocalypse World felt like the right system to me because it is made up of what you do in the world rather than the skills you have. Dead Scare is a game about people who may not be skilled in the things they are doing (for example, using a hoover vacuum to explode a small but efficient horde of zombies), but can do those things using their backstories their other abilities. It also had the right feel. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but when I was introduced to Apocalypse World I knew it just… fit.

As you note in your Kickstarter, your team is made up of women and non-binary people. Was that deliberate, or did it happen naturally as a result of the subject matter? How did you put the team together?

It was very much a deliberate choice. I wanted an all female-team because Dead Scare is a game where, for the most part, you’ll be playing all female characters. I felt that it was important to include non-binary people on the team because I do not believe excluding people for lack of a gender makes sense in this context. As a female designer I also wanted to open this game up to as many voices as possible–voices you don’t often get to hear. I’m lucky in that my publishers were amenable to that.

Zombies in popular culture (like most horror genre monsters) tend to be used as a metaphor for a common fear. Are your zombies a metaphor, and if so, for what?

In Dead Scare, I am using them as a device rather than a metaphor. The game uses them to provide a setting you wouldn’t otherwise get; a setting in which women are pitted against something frightening. Now, if you want to take that as a metaphor for the patriarchy, I can’t stop you, but it wasn’t intentional. Perhaps subconscious.

You’ve said that setting your game in a world where there are few or no men makes the stories and gameplay turn out very differently. How so?

We tell so few stories where women are the majority in our games. I wanted to create a game about women, but I had to find a way to create the space for that to happen in this situation. Other games like this include Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches [an RPG about the all-female Soviet night bomber regiment in World War Two], which also created the space necessary to allow for only female characters in play. I had to make the space so that the stories could be female-focused, and they aren’t always the stories we tell.

How would a Jewish woman who moved to the United States after World War Two react during a crisis like this? How do women of color survive in a setting where racial tensions will rise? Young wives with small children will have to protect their neighborhoods. How will you survive? These questions will be answered differently because of the era, but also because they are women. It’s a game about community, not just fighting. It is a game about being clever and finding new ways to stay alive. Most of all, it is a game about survival.

The characters who survive the initial infection tend to be more marginalized and disenfranchised people–women, children, people with disabilities. How do you go about guiding your players to play these characters, especially if they’re playing outside of their own experience?

I have written extensively within the text about playing children, about playing people with disabilities, and about playing women. The ability to explore these options and play these characters is aided by the way I’ve developed the playbooks, too. Each one addresses the various strengths post-apocalypse, but also the options for how to shift the roles of the era to address the apocalypse. The troublemaker, for example, is more useful than other children because they are used to being sneaky, they are used to being destructive. They aren’t evil, but they are clever. That changes their dynamic, from one of getting detention, to one of dangerous missions on behalf of the community. Dennis the Menace is a menace now, but for zombies, not for the Sunday School Teacher.

What have you learned from the experience of making Dead Scare? Do you have plans for any other games?

I know this will sound silly, but I’ve learned that I can write games. I have learned that I am good at this, and that I have good instincts about what makes a good game, and a good product. I have lots of projects coming up. I’m working on Accessible Fate Core (title pending) which is about playing people with disabilities in the Fate system. After Dead Scare is done, I have two upcoming projects of my own creation, one of which is a game about disabled superheroes. I’m going to keep making games because I’ve learned that I can, and I love doing it.

Thank you to Elsa for talking to us, and if you’d like to support Dead Scare, there’s still nearly a week to go in its Kickstarter!

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Winter Downs
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Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

One response to “Dead Scare: Interview with Game Writer Elsa S. Henry”

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