Made In Australia: Empathy Games

Video games and tabletop role-playing games share more than a few strands of DNA; whether it be levelling up a character, the deep lore or the sense of escapism they provide players, video games and tabletop games are more like step siblings than distant cousins. Let’s not forget that many video games are based on tabletop games, such as Call of Cthulhu, Vampire Masquerade and the countless games that Dungeons & Dragons has influenced, as well as that many popular video games have spawned tabletop adaptations.

Made In Australia, so far, has been all about video game and video game developers – which makes sense given that WellPlayed is a video game website. However, we thought for our first feature for the new decade we’d throw out the script and focus on something different: tabletop gaming.

Empathy Games, which is spearheaded by Felicia McEntire – a video game PR veteran – is hard at work on their debut tabletop role-playing game Breakaway. I should clarify one titbit of information. McEntire isn’t just spearheading Breakaway’s production, she’s essentially a modern day Durga, juggling every aspect of Breakaway’s development, whether it’s the game’s mechanics, the lore or its marketing. The only aspect that McEntire doesn’t do personally is the artwork, which is done by Josh Wright.

“When I saw Josh’s art on Facebook, it was a no-brainer. His style and use of colour were exactly what I was after,” says McEntire.

While McEntire may not draw the artwork, the art direction is something she controls.

“I write out the briefs for Josh, explain a bit about the lore and culture, and he has free reign after that.”

Felicia McEntire, aka Feztivus

Wright isn’t the only other talent that has graced the project. In fact, one of McEntire’s Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Zac Naoum helped shape the game’s initial direction and has been a key component in Breakaway’s evolution.

“I am on his liveplay D&D podcast called I Speak Giant, and he had mentioned that he’d also love to start making tabletop games,” shares McEntire.

“I pulled him in to work a little bit on the magic system, and to also look over my (then prototype) dice system.

“I’ve also worked with Zullie, who has created Discord emotes for me – she does incredible work. I’m also lucky enough to have Jess who takes on the role of editor for me when she has time.

While McEntire enjoys the creative freedom of working as a lone wolf, she also acknowledges the boons that come from working in a team and having other creatives around to bounce ideas off. Not one to shy away from the truth, McEntire admits the development of Breakaway has been a learning experience in more ways than one.

“Working with Zac, it was interesting having a clear idea of what I want, explaining that idea, running with that idea, asking for feedback, etc.,” states McEntire.

“Working alone has been a learning experience too because it means going at my own pace – and not just in the time sense. If you’re working solo, you can refine your ideas as you create and re-read. This makes an editor very important, so I always suggest an editor.”

Proof that McEntire decided to breakaway and start Empathy Games

McEntire does confess that she’d love to have a team working on Breakaway, but due to budget restraints the majority of the funding goes to Wright for the artwork, and McEntire isn’t one to hire people for work without paying them – not a huge surprise given she’s a vital cog in the Game Workers Unite Australia machine, a movement that is designed to educate and support those working in the games industry.

Aside from a Patreon that was used to help fund Wright’s artwork, McEntire reveals that the development of Breakaway has been funded from her own pocket. But how much does it cost to make a tabletop game? Much like video games the answer centres around how extensive the project is.

“If your project is a few pages, you can make something very slick looking for a very small amount,” says McEntire.

“I’ve got something that is currently 120 pages – with a planned 20 more pages. I want players to have a session they can play immediately to get a feel for the game, and of course artwork always takes up space.

It’s clear that Breakaway is a labour of love for McEntire, given she’s happy to invest her own savings into a game that is likely to have very little financial return.

“Breakaway isn’t going to be a money-maker – most TTRPGs aren’t,” states McEntire.

If you’re working solo, you can refine your ideas as you create and re-read. This makes an editor very important, so I always suggest an editor

So how did McEntire, a 35-year old American from Arkansas get into tabletop games? The Empathy Games founder reveals that her father attempted to bring her into the fold from an early age but failed.

“He tried to teach me AD&D 2nd Edition, and insisted THAC0 was easy to calculate. It really didn’t land very well!” laughs McEntire.

It wasn’t until playing the third edition of AD&D with her friends that it all started to click for McEntire. She tried to show her dad 3.5 but he wasn’t having a bar of it – although she admits that the fifth edition may be up his alley.

McEntire’s all-time favourite TTRPG is Monster of the Week, a game with an all-star 90s influence.

“It is based around the tropes of TV shows like The X-files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. This lends itself so well to one-shot sessions that play out like a TV show. I’m obsessed with that idea. With hindsight, it’s such an obvious idea!”

Another game that gets a notable mention is Edge of the Empire – a game set in the Star Wars universe. Being the huge Star Wars fan she is, McEntire that she is willing to overlook the game’s confusing dice because…Star Wars.

When it comes to inspiration, McEntire credits several games for influencing her creative choices, such as Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Shadowrun, Rifts, Monster of the Week and Edge of the Empire.

“Everything I’ve played up until the start of Breakaway has influenced the game – either lore-wise or mechanically,” says McEntire.

“For example, most of D&D I’ve left soundly in the past, but I do enjoy its Backgrounds. Blades in the Dark has a lovely Flashback mechanic that makes so much sense – spending money to represent the time and effort spent in the past to overcome a current obstacle. There are bits and pieces from each system that really shine, and they’ve had an influence on me.”

McEntire giving punters a taste of Breakaway at PAX Australia

While Breakaway may be Empathy Games’ first foray into tabletop games, McEntire brings a wealth of industry experience to the…table, having carved out a successful career in video game public relations working with some of the industry’s biggest companies such as Square Enix, Capcom and Bungie, teaching her invaluable skills that can be applied to Breakaway’s development.

“Many video games (RPGs especially) were originally based off tabletop mechanics to begin with,” exclaims McEntire.

Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, these and the many RPGs that followed them are structured around tabletop rules. However, I think it’s my love of humorous point-and-click games that have influenced more than RPGs when it comes to Breakaway’s creation. Breakaway isn’t a game that takes itself seriously. In that respect, it’s a bit more Discworld than it is Forgotten Realms.

For McEntire, tabletop gaming is all about creating stories with people.

“I’ve likened it to writing a book with multiple authors – or even being improv actors,” she says.

“That last bit may sound a bit weird, but a lot of tabletop must be improvisational. If you’re playing a system with dice, it’s likely that the dice will eventually not go your way (or, as with some of us, they rarely go our way). Tabletop RPGs help you think on your feet, and I like that aspect of it just as much as I like telling a story.”

Despite her love for tabletop games, McEntire is relatively new to the development side of the business, with her involvement limited to helping friends with TTRPG hacks and working on campaign settings.

“I made a lot of homebrew before I decided to just turn it into its own system. This is my first real effort at a complete TTRPG though, and of course I had to make it a big one. I go big or go home, I guess.”

The creatures of Breakaway

The biggest challenge that McEntire has faced during development has been the game’s layout. Working on both readable and printable formats, McEntire reveals that that decision led to a research expedition into how TTRPGs with books format their publications.

“That’s still ongoing, but I’ve picked up a lot of insights so far that I’m looking to make available to TTRPG developers for free.”

As we discuss the release window for Breakaway, McEntire reveals she’d love to get the game into the hands of players this year, however there’s still a lot of work to be done before the game is ready for release – something that is ultimately controlled by McEntire’s work commitments, which may ramp up in 2020 with the launch of Empathy Expert, a venture that is part PR firm (Empathy PR) and part game development studio (Empathy Games) – yes McEntire will eventually expand into video games but remains tightlipped on how that will play out.

“I started Empathy Games because I was…tired of seeing a lot of AAA games ignore empathy as a means for storytelling,” reveals McEntire.

“It’s hard for people to connect to something if they can’t see themselves in it. I’m not going to say that the things I do are perfect in that way, but I am making that effort.

Given McEntire’s days are spent working on marketing and PR campaigns for other games, the development of Breakaway is entirely done in her spare time, with that dictated by the busyness of Empathy PR.

“I get maybe a couple hours a week available to myself, and sometimes I choose relaxing with a video game over working on Breakaway. It happens. When things are slower, I devote far more time to it,” says McEntire.

Despite the craziness of the 9-5 grind, McEntire insists that running her own business won’t have an impact on Breakaway’s development.

“It’s still roughly the same amount of time I was spending on work before, but now I’m my own boss. Not a bad trade-off,” McEntire quips.

Breakaway playtesting at PAX Australia

The next step in the game’s development is garnering feedback from playtesters – something that creates a little bit of self-doubt for McEntire.

Most recently I was able to test new mechanics at PAX Aus with convention-goers, which was great, but Zac and I haven’t been able to play together in some time. We live a couple hours apart, and most people I know that would love to play are in the same boat.

“I’m keen to release the beta rules for testing online for anyone that wants to test them, but I’m a little nervous that if I do that then no one will be interested! It’s a silly thing to worry about – not that I think people will be interested, but that I should just be enjoying myself in this fun thing I’ve been doing regardless.”

Video games may be the dominant form of entertainment in this day age, but there’s still legions of fans who love the classic tabletop experience – in fact McEntire believes that the platform is seeing a resurgence of sorts.

“I’ve always heard people say “Oh I’ve always wanted to play D&D!” After Stranger Things aired, I’ve seen more people actively seeking out other people to play. They’re no longer content to just want to play; they’re playing however they can. I love that. Tabletop encourages community. In a world so upset, community is exactly what we need.

It’s hard for people to connect to something if they can’t see themselves in it. I’m not going to say that the things I do are perfect in that way, but I am making that effort

However, despite this renaissance there’s still a large percentage of the market that remains untapped. The reasons for this are many, however McEntire believes that for some the learning curve for rule systems is too great, while others may be embarrassed to sit down and try something for the first time if it involves any role-playing.

“There are quite a few barriers to entry, but every single one of those can be bypassed when people realise just how fun and interesting TTRPGs can be,” says McEntire.

Personally, it mostly comes down to time. I’ve got a couple of tabletop games I’d love to sit down and play every now and again, but the time involved often rules it out. Plus the fact that I don’t live near many friends that would drive over to play.

When McEntire isn’t jazzing up press releases or working on Breakaway you’ll often find her playing video games – another interest she got from her father.

“I’ve been surrounded by computers and video games for my entire life,” explains McEntire.

“My dad is an independent game developer who released a game in the 90s, so you can imagine that I had no choice but to turn out this way!”

Early prototype of Breakaway’s player pack

When she’s not playing video games she’s listening to music or reading a book. As a self-confessed homebody, McEntire says that quite often she’ll choose to stay in and recharge her batteries. Having worked with McEntire for a number of years now (I’ll never forget Big Tommy), I can vouch for McEntire’s need to recharge. There are very few, if any, people in the Australian games industry that work as hard as McEntire. Whenever review codes come in late (post 5pm), McEntire is usually up late individually emailing them out when she could easily wait until the next business day. It’s little touches like that, ones that media often take for granted, that make working with McEntire such a pleasure. She deserves all the success that’s no doubt coming her way with Breakaway and Empathy Expert.

For more info on Breakaway you can check out our interview here or you can visit the official website.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts