In the tiny world of independent tabletop role-playing games, Jason Morningstar is as close to rockstar as you’ll find. The only two-time winner of the Diana Jones Award, he’s the man responsible for games like Fiasco and Night Witches. Now, after years publishing soft-cover books, he’s ready to produce his first boxed game, called Ghost Court.
We recently spoke with Morningstar about his career, and to find out more about his new project.
Morningstar lives close to the University of North Carolina, where he works in IT. Making games is just a side pursuit for him, but one that he’s been interested in since the 1970s.
"I got turned on to role-playing games by my dad," Morningstar said. "He was a pretty hardcore wargamer, and for some reason he bought the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. He brought it home and didn’t know what to do with it.
"My brother and I looked at it and said, ‘Yeah. We know what to do with that. Just put that in our hands, dad.’ And that was the end of that. I’ve been playing role-playing games pretty much as long as there have been role-playing games, and you can’t play them without being a little bit of a designer."
He said he first got his start in game design in the early 2000s thanks to a kind of tabletop game jam organized by Game Chef. The result was The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, his own personal send-up of academic politics by way of a sentient Sumerian cockroach.
"The Game Chef always has ingredients," Morningstar said, "and the ingredients that year were wine, a companion, an accuser and an entomologist. And all kinds of crazy games came out of it using those ingredients. I was finishing a graduate degree at the time and was immersed in academia, and so the game that came to me was about sort of a Lovecraftian game about an ancient Sumerian god-king in the form of a giant, greasy cockroach that could control people’s brains that ended up on a college campus.
"The roach still thinks it’s in the 10th century BCE Sumeria," Morningstar said, "and doesn’t understand how things work anymore. So it issues these cryptic commands that you have to obey ... So, it’s a comedy game but it’s also really a sharp critique of academic politics."
With his first taste of success, Morningstar dove headlong into indie games publishing. His first critical hit, called Grey Ranks, told the story of young Polish resistance fighters in World War II and would go on to win him his first Diana Jones Award. The committee was effusive in its praise.
"This is state-of-the-art narrativist game design," reads the award page, "married to a topic worthy of such. Jason Morningstar has not created a game that lazily appropriates the historical horror at its heart, he has created rules that reveal that horror, rules that recreate that horror in the players’ hearts and minds. Aristotle said that all true tragedy must end in terror and pity. It’s hard to believe that Aristotle never played Grey Ranks."
But popular success didn’t come for Morningstar until a few years later with Fiasco.
"Fiasco came out of a real need that I felt from sort of the games that I played and the way that I was interacting with people," he said. "What happened was, I realized that there wasn’t really any game that I and my friends could just sit down and play in maybe two or three hours if we had free time, maybe at a convention. All the games that I was aware of at that time required a lot of preparation or they required a lot of materials and you couldn’t tell a satisfying story in that amount of time. So that’s where I started.
In Fiasco players begin with a playset, essentially a short list of relationships, needs, locations and objects. After rolling an obscene number of six-sided dice, players pick and choose from those lists to create a short movie-like experience. The result is something akin to a Cohen brothers film.
"And so as I thought about it," Morningstar said, "I thought, ‘What’s a genre or a sort of fiction that works with that?’ And what I immediately was sort of neo-noir, like the Cohen brothers films or caper movies. Dumb people getting in trouble. Powerful ambition meeting poor impulse control. And that hit all the right notes."
"There’s only stuff there that you need in Fiasco, and nothing you don’t. I wanted to make a game that you can play in two or three hours, that doesn’t require any preparation and that any kind of character or world building that you do is part of the game and it’s fun, and that tells a complete and satisfying story from beginning to end in that timeframe."
The game sold well and, again, the Diana Jones committee heaped on the praise calling Fiasco "roleplaying stripped down to sheer elegance."
In 2014, Morningstar launched a Kickstarter for Night Witches, an ambitious game that sought to tell the story of Soviet airwomen in World War II. The game told the little-known story of heroism and sacrifice during The Great Patriotic War, as it's called in Russia, and also dealt with queer themes in a mature and compassionate way.
"I felt a real responsibility with this game, as with Grey Ranks, to honor ground truth," Morningstar said. "Somebody might read this who actually lived this experience, and that’s no joke. So, my intention was to both tell the story in a responsible way and give people the tools to treat it in a sober, but engaging way. And also just to respect history a little bit.
"I’m not a Russian woman. I’m not a Russian woman of that time. I’m just a straight, white guy. And so I stepped very gingerly, and I made sure that I had a council of advisors that for whom this was closer to lived experience, who could give me feedback and they were invaluable. They kept me on track and every once in a while they’d be like, ‘No. Don’t. Nope.’ Which is really nice to hear before you publish the book.
"That was also true with the art direction. I went back and forth with my council of queer ladies and asked, ‘Is this exploitative? Is this hot? Is this good?’ And got good feedback on some of the art that was potentially problematic. And I’m very proud to be able to say that this is a game that’s got queer content in it, and if that’s a problem for you it’s the wrong game to play."
The campaign for Night Witches remains the most successful crowdfunding effort that his small publishing company, Bully Pulpit Games, has ever had on Kickstarter.
Just last week Bully Pulpit launched another campaign, this time for its first boxed tabletop game. It’s called Ghost Court, and it’s a bit of a departure from the more serious, historical games Morningstar has done in the past.
"Ghost Court is a live-action party game about spectral justice in a small claims court," Morningstar said. "It’s sort of like a collision between The People’s Court and Night Court, but with ghosts."
The game plays best with around 15 to 20 people, Morningstar said. The product will include 64 tarot-sized cards, which will include instructions for the judge, clerk and bailiff as well as a series of plaintiffs and defendants.
"Some of them are ghosts, some of them are corporeal," Morningstar said, "and they have these minor, often hilarious disputes related to haunting usually or just generally ghostliness. And so, the idea is whoever is going to play the judge or the courtroom crew, they’re more persistent. They’re there from case to case, but if you just stumble into a game of Ghost Court, somebody is going to hand you a card with a case on it and you are going to be basically playing or performing for a couple of minutes. And then you’re back in the audience, jeering and cheering as other people get their cases decided."
The Kickstarter campaign runs through Nov. 9. A basic copy of the game will run backers $25, while a deluxe copy comes with a gavel ($50) and a barrister's robe and wig ($100). There will also be a print-and-play version.
"This is our first straight-up boxed game," Morningstar said. "It feels like we’re so legit now."