For indie designers, producing a tabletop role-playing game might mean learning new skills: not just game design, but layout, graphic design, marketing, or illustration as well. For Ross Cowman, designer of the award-winning storytelling game Fall of Magic and the new City of Winter, which is about to complete its successful Kickstarter run, producing his games meant starting his own scroll-printing factory, and learning to design his games around the physical limitations of human bodies. That’s further than most designers want to follow the learning curve. But for Cowman, learning how to personally manufacture the games he’s designed was the only way to get them into the world the way he’d visualized them.
“It’s a discovery process, when you’re doing something no one’s ever done before,” Cowman tells Polygon. “You don’t know what the problems are going to be until you encounter them.”
Full disclosure: I play a lot of indie RPGs, but Fall of Magic has become my obsession. I love the game like I’ve never loved a TTRPG before. My gaming crew has been playing one continuous campaign for nearly three years. Over the course of more than 60 game sessions, we’ve spun out a sprawling shared narrative that at this point has involved close to 100 characters. What originally drew us to the game was that Fall of Magic is a literal, tangible work of art. While there are inexpensive digital versions of the game, the fullest edition comes on a beautifully illustrated double-sided, 5.5-foot canvas scroll featuring an elaborate map. Each scroll is an individually handmade showpiece, the kind of game element that wows players at pickup game nights and conventions.
But our investment in the game comes from the way it invites players to create their own rich, rewarding world. At the beginning of the map is a simple story prompt: “Magic is dying and the Magus is dying with it. We travel together to the realm of Umbra where magic was born.” As the characters and their tokens move from location to location on the map, the players unroll the scroll to discover new story prompts they can use to lead scenes that contribute to the narrative. The prompts are evocative, but open-ended. They don’t provide specifics, and there’s no game master to answer questions or act as an authority. It’s up to the players to collectively decide what the Magus is, why magic is failing, whether anything can be done about it, and even whether their characters ultimately want to reverse magic’s decay.
We’ve only rolled a die two or three times in three years. The only cards in the game are extra island locations to supplement the map. Our characters don’t have stats, skill levels, or character sheets. The entire game is just the players’ imaginations, a map to fix the story in place, some thematic guidelines, and the stories made up along the way.
City of Winter uses some of the same prompt mechanics, but adds new twists, for an experience Cowman means to be even richer than Fall of Magic, and more campaign-friendly. One of those new elements is that City of Winter isn’t just played on a scroll — there’s also a separate city map, visually inspired by urban transit maps and the kind of simple street maps people used to sketch on napkins, to help friends find specific places in unfamiliar cities.
“Originally with Fall of Magic, I knew I wanted it to be a big, beautiful beginning-of-the-fantasy-novel map of the world,” Cowman says. “And I wanted it to be a scroll because scrolls are magical. [...] At first I was just going to have City of Winter on a scroll, too. But I wanted the city to be pretty big, and for it to all be on the table at once. I wanted people to have a little bit of that experience you get when you go to a new city, and you’ve never been there before, and it’s kind of confusing, and there’s a lot of complexity.”
City of Winter also starts with a basic story prompt: “The Umbra is growing, and the River lands are no longer safe. Our family must flee to the City of Winter, to find another home.” The game is meant as an immigrant story: The scroll lays out prompts to help players narrate the family’s journey to the city. Once they arrive, play moves from the scroll to the map. Along the way, the players use cards to build and shape their family traditions, while encountering other traditions from the people they meet en route.
“Fall of Magic is almost a coming-of-age story,” Cowman explains. “We’re exploring the relationships of characters who are often from very different places, but have this common focal point. In City of Winter, we start the game with our characters knowing each other very well, because we’re family.”
Cowman says the passing of one generation to another is a “key human experience” that he wanted to be part of the game, so family members aging, dying, and leaving memories behind is a fundamental part of the rules. Fall of Magic’s seasonal themes are autumnal, about decay and change, and City of Winter was similarly inspired by winter themes. “Winter makes me think about death and grief, about remembering our ancestors, about resting. About that time when you realize, We’ve reached the end, and it’s actually time to let this come to pass, and think about what we have to look back upon. What did we learn? How did we grow?”
In early versions of the game, Cowman realized he would need mechanics to make that happen. “Through playtesting, I discovered that people aren’t used to playing an intergenerational game. People really don’t want to give up their characters!” he says. “And really, they shouldn’t, because once you’ve played a character for a while, you get attached. So in the rules, now, for every session of play, all the characters get older. Your character begins as a child, and then in the next session, you’re going to be a youth, then an adult, then an elder. And when that elder leaves the family and becomes a memory, you can still continue the game for as many sessions as you want, playing as a memory. And then you come back as a child.”
Like Fall of Magic, City of Winter can adapt to a given group’s play style, for a long-term campaign or a shorter experience. Cowman says the average Fall of Magic group spends about an hour in each map location, and while there are several different paths to choose across the map, crossing the entire thing often takes about 13 hours, or three to four play sessions. Cowman himself has never played a campaign longer than five sessions.
But City of Winter has “an exponentially larger amount of content” in each location, so his longest game to date ran for 12 game nights. “And we spent the first three sessions in the first location,” Cowman says. “We didn’t even leave home, because it was so nice, building this whole village we were all from, and diving deep into who we were. When we left, it was sad, but the game pushes you to leave.”
Finding a working design for the physical components of City of Winter was a complicated process. Cowman went through a series of scroll designs, with extra flaps or extensions that would open up in various ways to reveal the city map. “Mechanically, they wouldn’t roll up right,” he says. “They just wrinkled.” Then he tried a two-scroll system, but that would have raised the cost of the game considerably. His solution involved breaking the game into two elements: a map that unfolds as its own separate piece, and a smaller scroll than Fall of Magic uses, which let him cut expenses by printing two scrolls on each piece of the dyed canvas he starts with.
But the requirement for that kind of custom cutting is part of the reason Cowman needed to found his own print shop to make his games. He entered the game design sphere with the necessary skills: At Evergreen State College, an interdisciplinary school, he learned sewing, woodworking, printmaking, and fiber arts as part of his undergrad program. Being a musician let him put the printing skills to use: “Musicians are always making T-shirts, because that’s how you make money on tours. Just making merch for bands was how I got into screenprinting. And I had many friends that did it as well. So I built the physical prototype of the first Fall of Magic scroll myself.”
He got some assistance from a friend, Mark Malsbury, who volunteered to handle the printing of Fall of Magic. But a hugely successful 2015 Kickstarter created more demand for the game than Cowman expected. “Mark was overwhelmed. It was more of a commitment than he was really able to hold onto. He graciously helped out so much. He committed to and delivered all of the English editions of the game. I think he ended up doing five or six hundred of them.”
To keep the game going, Cowman needed a scalable solution. Using an outside vendor was never a workable option: “We’ve had quotes from manufacturers that have pitched us on making scrolls, but they always want to use some direct-to-garment printer, and synthetic fibers that just don’t look the same. Direct-to-garment printing just doesn’t have the vivid colors you get with water-based ink and screenprinting deposits. Things like that, you really can’t get any other way except this really intensive, skill-based process.”
So Cowman bought a Riley Hopkins screenprinting machine and some sergers, the machines that cut the scrolls’ raw fabric edges and sew them into finished edges. And he opened a small screenprinting shop in Olympia, Washington, as a sideline to his game distribution company, Heart of the Deernicorn.
“I spent the next two years of my life figuring out how to make that sustainable,” Cowman says. “It was really difficult. I had to learn how to be a boss, I had to learn how to manage a screenprinting shop, and then how to train somebody else to manage a screenprinting shop. We made a lot of mistakes along the way. But it was a team effort, with a lot of intensely creative people coming to work every day with the positive attitude of, OK, how are we going to get better at this?”
One of the lessons learned was how to design the scrolls themselves to minimize repetitive motion injuries in the manufacturing process. Some areas of the original Fall of Magic scroll required heavy ink saturation, while others had small, fine print. The ink-application process that put both layers on a scroll was repetitive and hard on his employees’ wrists. So he modified the design for fewer passes with the ink. “It’s just way more sustainable, with way less fatigue. All of our problems went away once we made those changes,” he says.
“We’ve learned a lot over the years, and we’ve been able to take on a lot of other textile projects for other game companies,” Cowman says. “And at this point, we’ve turned out, I think, five or six thousand game scrolls. So now, building a sustainable manufacturing process is part of my game design process. And that’s a really unexpected outcome of the whole Fall of Magic experience, and how it’s shaped City of Winter.”
City of Winter isn’t necessarily designed as a sequel to Fall of Magic. “There are seeds in Fall of Magic that you will see reflected in City of Winter — you might notice a word or a name that’s the same, carried forward,” Cowman says. “There’s intentionally enough space between them to allow new players to come in. As a game designer, one of the tricks people in this space use a lot is to give you two points, but not really tell you how to get from point A to point B. And that’s what makes creativity happen.”
Still, he says, he has two more games in mind to complete the seasonal cycle: Magic Spring, about rejuvenation and magic returning to the world, and a summer-themed epic-fantasy game “where magic is very alive in the world, and lots of fantastical things are going on, and we’re playing heads of different cultures, like kings or emperors, to explore how their personalities and desires and failings echo through their people. I want to tell very big stories about nations. Kind of Game of Thrones, except not focused on violence and HBO sex scenes.” He says if things go well, he could release those games within the next three years.
That might be an optimistic schedule, though. Cowman and his mother, poet and children’s author Terri Cohlene, are currently developing a sequel to their Ennie winner BFF! — Best Friends Forever, another storytelling game based around maps and narrative prompts. Characters in the original BFF! are tween girls building friendships and having adventures together; the new game, BFF! — The Golden Years, will be about “elder lady friendship.” Cowman is also working with BFF! artist Taylor Dow on Bad Baby Lich Lords, “a competitive card game where we play the naughty babies of the Lich King, who are sneaking around his kingdom while he’s sleeping, bringing things back to life.”
But Cowman’s games built around memorable art objects may be his most lasting legacy, because they’re designed as gateways to equally memorable experiences. “One of my missions for Deernicorn is, I want really deep role-playing experiences to be as accessible as board games or video games,” he says. He’s seen too many barriers to that accessibility, from lengthy, complicated character-generation systems to TTRPGs that require “a lifetime financial commitment, with endless expansions and endless additions.” He wants to keep making games that launch a complete story out of a single, self-contained box.
“And the rewards are great,” he says. “The depth of the experience you have in a role-playing game, especially in a campaign, it doesn’t compare to any other kind of media. People cry at the table. People fall in love. People realize their true genders. They’re a deep, powerful experience. They’re transformative. And I want everybody to be able to have that experience.”
City of Winter will complete its Kickstarter run on March 30. A free playable online demo is available at Screentop.gg. Fall of Magic’s rules can be downloaded for free at the Heart of the Deernicorn site.