A man in a duster coat, goggles, and a rifle.

Interview

Backroads: Bringing Southern Gothic Horror To The Table

May 24, 2022

By: Tyler Chancey

 
 

Recently, Backwater Games launched the Kickstarter for their newest TTRPG project, Backroads: City of the Arch. It is set in the same universe as the studio's debut experience and namesake, Backwater. It's a horror TTRPG that manages to stand out thanks to its potent mix of post-apocalyptic trappings as well as the texture, trappings, and history of the American Deep South.

I reached out to the lead creatives of Backwater, Asa Donald and Alex Johnson, with a few questions about this creative process. Why such a specific part of the United States to set a horror TTRPG? What kind of challenges came from this deliberate specificity? Well, a few highly detailed emails later and both Donald and Johnson were beyond happy to share.

 

The first big question that spilled out from my fingertips was where did Donald and Johnson get the inspiration for Backwater? Donald openly discussed that it started from him experimenting with horror adventures based on the works of Stephen King, The Dark Tower especially. Given King's iconic style of textured history as well as horror steeped in folklore and superstition, this isn't too far of a stretch. But what really helped get the ball rolling was Donald and Johnson's active collaboration as well as some mutual sharing of different texts. Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the Highway 59 series, Michael McDowell’s Blackwater saga, and Cherie Priest’s The Toll, as well as Cullen Bunn’s and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County graphic novel are cited influences.

As for Johnson, his inspiration came more from history. By his own words, Backwater started out with the idea of Renaissance era Europe meets post-apocalyptic America.

 
 

Renaissance Europe is an incredibly interesting time period for me, as the educated people felt they were cut off from what they saw as the pinnacle of civilization: Rome. The ways in which they sought to recover Roman identity and culture by incorporating it into their own in an imperfect way is endlessly fascinating. I also love the idea of “lost knowledge,” which features heavily in both Backwater and the Renaissance era.

These parallels do hold water. Johnson cited for example how the Byzantine Empire actually lost the knowledge on how to build aqueducts for 400 years. In fact, the great secret to how Roman concrete lasted much longer than modern concrete was only discovered last year. Pair that with southern gothic themes of long family legacies, memory, and the waning power of social institutions and there is a potent foundation for stories both beautiful and horrific.

A warden looking through the woods at night
Artwork from the Backwater Rulebook. Image Credit: LA Draws, Backwater Games

Of course, concepts are easy to draft up. If you really want to tap into something powerful, the devil is in the details. Both Donald and Johnson did state that, while they did have some lived experience in the American south, they wanted to be sure that all cultural and personal blind spots were covered. As such, they made sure to hire sensitivity readers, all from different walks of life compared to their own.

 
 

On the one hand, we were very aware that certain themes like racism, ableism, and misogyny are recurrent and significant in the southern gothic genre, but we didn’t want to perpetuate them in our imagined future. What we really did not want to do was to revel in the cruelty of that past or to use minority trauma as a storytelling tool or world-building prop. On the other hand, though, we didn’t want to gloss over historic and contemporary societal and institutional realities. We worked with the sensitivity readers to strike a balance between acknowledging historic and contemporary discrimination while creating a diverse and inclusive imaginary future.

It is that dedication to mindful design that sticks out most of all. TTRPGs, especially horror-oriented ones, always run the risk of reinforcing negative worldviews due to their lore or their mechanics. See the most recent changes to monsters in Dungeons and Dragons for example. But both Donald and Johnson still recognize that, in addition to due diligence, the world of difference a Session 0 as well as open communication with your players can be when it comes to such subject matter.

A quote about bending the rules in green cursive handwriting
Image Credit: Backwater Games

While lore and worldbuilding is great for bringing players in, a TTRPG must have rules in place. Conflict resolution, accessibility, layout, complexity, player options, all of this and more are the kind of creative decisions that keep developers up at night. In a horror TTRPG it's an even more difficult needle to thread since you need to give your players a sense of agency without empowering them. Donald talked about this iteration process, how it started as a mix of different systems and ideas before taking on a life of its own.

It has a stress mechanic known as Resolve, and both Health and Resolve are pretty fragile. I think the system’s characters represent a good middle-ground between the epic hero of fantasy games and the puny mortal of horror games. The system is also clearly skill-based. Combat can be a part of the game, but it is consequential and is definitely balanced with investigation, exploration, and social encounters. As one of my friends who primarily plays D&D said after their second Backwater game, “I like that I can play a fragile thief without feeling obligated to be useful in combat.”

Much like the people and places of Backwater, Donald and Johnson also wanted to focus on the player characters feeling more like people than simple classes. In addition, they wanted to ensure that firearms were still deadly, that three armed guys with a gun were just as scary to deal with as a mutated alligator monster. This stretch of playtesting did help shape the game as well as give stories that the devs were happy to share.

We had to make some adjustments figuring out how to heal mental damage. Some monsters can inflict a lot of duress, and we had a session where our toughest fighter failed their Resolve roll and passed out. The remaining characters weren’t nearly so well equipped to fight a ghost and really struggled. After that, we decided to include some additional options for restoring Resolve, which was great, because we’re always looking for ways to make non-combat skills useful in combat and because mental health is just as important as physical health.

But when you have a TTRPG with a very specific experience in mind, how do you choose to expand that very scope? This was what I found so fascinating about Donald and Johnson moving out of post-apocalyptic Louisiana and into the remains of St. Louis for Backroads: City of the Arch.

 
 
A giant monster catfish eating a guy
Well I'm not fishing ever again. Image Credit: Carlos Eulefi, Backwater Games

Turns out they were very considerate with these change of venue. St. Louis does hold some tenuous connections to New Orleans but lies at this intersection between the American Rust Belt, Bible Belt, the frontier, and urban space. There is still an undercurrent of American gothic themes, the venue has simply changed. It was also a great opportunity for the team to add some crucial worldbuilding originally only glimpsed in the margins of Backwater.

Asa has done some really great world building in the Outskirts, which ties together not only the American Lands, but also the mysterious Domain Canadienne in the North. Backroads not only allows us to explore the themes of recovering lost knowledge, gold-rush mentality, and stateless society but also the relationship that non-Indigenous Americans have with the landscape. And we’re working with Shay Snow, who is an Indigenous writer, to incorporate various Indigenous characters, groups, and locales into the game as well.

Both Donald and Johnson were also quick to state that while Backroads might be a continuation of Backwater, but it is still a standalone TTRPG. You don't need both books to run a game. While Backroads might have new player options like the tech savvy Sparklock or the urban archeologist that is the Spelunker, those new additions are tied to the new setting.

Probably the biggest addition is the introduction of Old World technology, a quasi-steampunk imagining of reclaimed dead end technology repurposed by the new world. One of the new frontier towns found in Backroads, Meecham, is obsessed with them. So on the one hand you can get fancy additions to your rifles and pistols, but on the other you might see an unconventional use of old laser disc players.

But one problem that came to mind was how Donald and Johnson would critique the persistence of the American Confederacy's beliefs in this TTRPG world. A lot of modern discourse regarding what the South fought for in the American Civil War usually gets thrown away as “history” without recognizing the darker and persistent impact the war had on the surrounding culture.

A group of monsters including a skinless ogre, a giant bird, and a giant cat
Post-apocalyptic monsters, they'll mess you up. Image Credit: Carlos Eulefi, Backwater Games

But this was something the devs decided to face head-on.They include a statement about race and racism, rejected racism as a theme for the game, hired sensitivity readers, and suggested safety tools to ensure that all players can participate. Of course, that doesn't mean they disengage from the present politically. As part of their worldbuilding, they introduced an organization known as The Founders, those who worship America's Founding Fathers as gods with their doctrines seen as gospel. They even have a more puritanical subculture called The Sticklers. This is a pretty on the nose satire of American Exceptionalism, which was big in the 1900s. While many want to disassociate – to “just make simple entertainment” – both Donald and Johnson do their best to engage.

Post-apocalyptic settings are often a lens with which we examine our own societies, and Backroads is no different. The Founders are meant to be comic, given their strange and puritanical religion, but they’re also a comment on zealous, constitutional originalists who attempt to interpret the will of the Founding Fathers through the Constitution (a process I ultimately feel is futile and ridiculous). There are definite attempts to exaggerate aspects of current American society through the lens of a future people who have an imperfect knowledge of their past: greedy corporations, expansion-minded government officials, enterprising and ruthless individuals can be found in the America of today and the American Lands of Backroads.

But above all, both Donald and Johnson remain humble and understand that all creative endeavors are group projects. As such, our correspondence ended with some genuine shoutouts to their team:

I would like to give a special shout out to Sonya Henar, who does such an amazing job and has taken over a lot of the art that is central to the game, including character archetypes and cover art. Aaron Radney deserves a shoutout too, as he has done maps for both of our games and has contributed a great piece for our Kickstarter page. Aaron is great to work with. He’s an artist, and he also has a writer and creator mentality that shows up in his work and the way that he works with other people. Everything has a story and a backstory with Aaron. Carlos Eulefi has brought so many of our monsters to life and really established our post-apocalyptic setting. He does a lot of cool things with the monsters, tying some pieces to old horror films and to other types of pop culture that is subtle but rewarding when you see it. And we only just started to work with Tate Allen, but we are excited to continue that down the road. Tate’s art is really vibrant, has amazing textures, and I’m so excited to have more of it in our game. And finally, a shout out to LA, who has been with us from the start and who is extremely inventive. He helped create our first monsters and has done great character art for central characters in both books.

Backroads: City of The Arch's crowdfunding campaign is live right now on Kickstarter.