Friday, April 19, 2024

My First Dungeon’s New Season Is A Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast Audio Cartoon

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It’s rare to consume a piece of art and realize something new has been created. Especially when that something new feels so welcoming and familiar. The newest season of narrative actual play My First Dungeon does exactly that.

Using Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, a crowdfunded TTRPG setting designed in every way to evoke a cozy found family play experience, the team at MFD has created a narrative unlike any other I’ve encountered — an audio cartoon.

From the prerecorded intro music and monologue, to the intricately absurd audio design, to the joyful, whimsical performances of this stacked cast from across the TTRPG space like Lin Codega, Connie Chang, and Drakoniques (to name a few), the show’s latest project mirrors the “everyone is welcome” early-morning animation ethos of the Bed & Breakfast. 

A promo image for the season 
"My First Dungeon Presents, Gertrude's Birthday Surprise

And Actual Play Limited Series Featuring

Brian Flaherty Abby Hepworth Carolyn Page Lin Codega Connie Chang Dr. Emily Friendman Shenuque Tessera Elliot Davis Michelle Chan Bennett Drakoniques J Strautman Noah Gebstadt

The entirety of Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast is played over the course of 48 chapters. Each chapter can be played independently as a brief 1-2 hour long scenario – though you do unlock secrets of the B&B as you play. With every chapter comes unique new rules that take less than 15 minutes to learn. Players can play as 1 of the 7 long-term residents of the B&B, or choose from a cast of 50 cartoonish guests with their own ongoing arcs.

This season of My First Dungeon consists of 8 public episodes, 2 patron-exclusive episodes, and an interview with Yazeba designer Jay Dragon, all dropping simultaneously on September 15th (as it always is at Yazeba’s, because that’s her favorite day). 

The Fandomentals got the opportunity to sit down with the team at My First Dungeon to talk about how this season adds to the tradition of cartoons, what about Yazeba made it so enticing to turn into an actual play, and why they decided to drop the entire season at once.

Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast My First Dungeon Promo art
What about Yazeba’s subversive, slice-of-life style as a TTRPG made you want to produce a full 8 episode audio cartoon, which itself feels like a contradiction?

Brian Flaherty: It’s super fun that you say audio cartoon because I’d never put those two words together, but now that you put them together, I’m like, “Oh, we got to go back in and fix our press kit.”

We love everything that Possum Creek does. We love Jay Dragon, Jay’s phenomenal game designer and just a super cool person. Early this year we did a season on Wander Home and first talked to Jay. It was the first time we’d experimented with GM-less games, and it just immediately blew my mind. I was totally a D&D 5e type guy, but the second we did a GM-less game, I was like, “Oh, this changes everything.”

When we heard about Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, everything about it fed into things that I love. Studio Ghibli, Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends, Slice of Life,  the discrete chapters and the fun mechanics, and it’s just a doorstop of like 500 page book, it was everything I wanted and more.

Elliot Davis: And it’s interesting you bring up audio cartoon. I’ve been in podcasting for a few years now and been into audio fiction in the past, and there are occasional audio fiction shows that strike that audio cartoon thing. I think more audio products should do because you have the boundlessness of audio.

You don’t have to worry about creating believable visuals. Obviously I don’t want to limit or belittle the scope of sound design and the incredible work Brian does in sound design, but you don’t have to pay to make the visuals match it. You get to create this really boundless world within audio.

We had a great conversation with Jay at the beginning of this season. Jay talked about how this book is kind of the same idea of creating a limitless world within 500 pages “going on infinity.” That connects to this idea of an audio cartoon. Audio has this limitlessness to it, and this game has this limitlessness to it that I think was an obvious marriage for us.

Cartoons are a very comforting, wholesome genre that people come back to again and again. You expect that familiarity and that’s part of the foundation of it. Why do you think people gravitate towards that slice of life style, specifically within Yazeba, but also in cartoons in general? And what do you think that this season of My First Dungeon offers to the tradition of cartoons?

Abby Hepworth: Growing up playing, we didn’t realize that we were doing role playing games, but that was what we did. Me and my sisters were constantly playing house and playing this and playing that, and I think it hits on that same thing nostalgic cartoons do. This was what we did in childhood. We pretended to have a pancake war. It combines the fun and the appeal of nostalgia and childhood, but takes it to a place that is still entertaining and interesting for a more mature mind. And more nuance. I feel like it really perfectly balances that. We’re playing a game and having fun, but also you have to think. It’s not mindless or pure silly.

Brian: There is a bit in the game book that describes Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast as the chapter book series from the local library. That’s always missing certain books, as if it was Animorphs, but you could only find numbers  1, 8, 7, 14; or like a half remembered Saturday morning cartoon. Reading that, everything kind of clicked into place. And I truly wish I’d come up with the wording of audio cartoon before we released this series.

Rowan: If you want it, take it.

Brian: Absolutely stealing it, whole cloth. But that struck so true because that I love playing that feeling of nostalgia. It’s a very fun space and especially having a game that explores that feeling, but also explores  very serious issues, but also contained in this kind of whimsical package. I mean, you know, Possum Creek, they never miss so far. it’s not hits, it’s home runs every time.

Shenuque Tissera: I think the beauty of Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, and everything Possum Creek does, is it’s designed to create this human connection point of reinvigorating what it is to be a child and asking you, if you’re an adult playing the game, to let go of your inhibitions. “Oh, we can create stuff wholeheartedly and not worry about some of the rules of reality?”

Yazeba’s does such a good job of activating that by giving you your characters pre-built, giving you kind of the norms of who you’re playing, and then allowing you then to feel that child wonder and experience these chapters that are built kind of silly. This is a silly thing we’re doing. But then it makes you experience real human emotion. There’s so many moments in the season when I was just being a little monster. Then towards the end of the chapter, I’m like “Oh my god, I feel actual emotion based on what has happened.” Yazeba’s does a great job doing that.

Brian: It’s wild too that for this season, we had so many guests come on, mostly people that we’d never played with before. Just because of the nature of playing tabletop role playing games, if you get a new group together, at some point you’re going to have a bad group or you’re going to miss, or it’s just not going to gel. That just straight up did not happen this season. And that’s not just me like hyping up the show, it just straight up didn’t happen. We had fun every single time. We told a good story every single time.

And it really is a testament to the strength of Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast and everything that Possum Creek puts out that we could bring in people who had read the chapter in advance and looked at their character sheet and they were able to dive in so quickly and get to that point of like real capital P play. You can’t ask for something better when you’re trying to produce a show. They did all the heavy lifting for us, which is phenomenal.

For each chapter of Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, you have your character sheet (front page and back) and the chapter that’s usually like three to four pages. they read that ahead of time. I read the rules live right before we started playing. What you hear in the podcast is essentially live to tape with a bunch of stuff thrown on top of it. And every time people immediately got it.

With that, with this setting, with the stakes being intentionally set low, does the genre, how did it being stylized in that way impact you as performers and the choices that you got to make as opposed to in a higher stakes game that’s like an epic level story?

Abby: It was nice feeling like you already had this preset character sheet. There’s 100% room for you to adapt it and change it and do what you want with it, but it was nice to be given at least kind of this like base structure of a personality and a person. All of the chapters we did are low stakes, but you want to take them seriously. As a performer I put less pressure on myself to say the really cool epic thing and have that crazy killing blow.

We did a season with DIE (spoiler alert. for anyone who hasn’t listened). At some point my character got to deal a really important blow that was a big dramatic moment. In the moment, I was fully panicking as a performer. I wanna make sure whatever I say is cool so it has the impact it need, and with this, it took some of that pressure off so you really could just kind of play and have fun.

That led to there being a lot of very funny, phenomenal lines and moments and ideas, but it was in a, I don’t wanna say more organic, but a more chill vibe, which I loved. I liked doing both, but I think there was something really special about getting to kind of like sit back and have a little bit more fun with friends rather than thinking as hard about performing.

Elliot: When you lower the stakes in this way, you get to take these sort of small potatoes things much more seriously. Every piece of this game is leaning into its theme of room for everyone, found family, all of those feelings. You’re not building the relationships with the fellow players that you build over like an arc of D&D, where it’s like “Oh we went through this dungeon together and we’ve struggled and fought and committed violence and all this stuff.” 

Right away [Yazeba] makes you feel like you are thinking about these other people like your family members. I found playing it was very easy to think “Oh, we all live together. These are the everyday things you have to go through with other people when you share a home with them, when you share a found family with them.” As a performer, that felt automatic, by the stakes of the game. I’m not having to play towards being a family with this group of players. The game is pushing that familial nature right away.

Brian: There’s also something really nice about the mechanics of this game. It takes out a step of interpretation most people have to do with their character sheets. You have these stats and then you have to think “Okay, what does that mean for my character? If I have a plus five in deception, I guess that means I’m a little sneaky or I’m more cunning.”

With Yazeba’s, you’ve got bingos and whoopsies. Which is, *chef’s kiss*, nailed it right off the bat. I don’t even really have to explain them. You kind of get it with just me saying you have two things you can do, bingos and whoopsies. Bingos are obviously things that you’re good at, and whoopsies are things like foibles of yours, but they’re written out as sentences. 

For Sal, who is the night porter and upcoming musician, one of his bingos is Do it again, but louder. Anytime you come to a point where you’re like, not quite sure what to do, you look down at these sentences and you Do it again, but louder. 

Again, it’s just removing roadblocks from you getting to experience the game as it was intended. We talk about this on My First Dungeon and on Talk at the Table, the games that we get most excited about are the ones that every aspect of the game, whether that is the art, the layout, the mechanics, the vibe, and the writing itself drives towards a single thing.

And as Elliot said, everything in Yazeba’s, from the cover to the bingos and whoopsies and the wonderful nature of it, sets you up. It removes those roadblocks, removes that activation energy, sets you up for success right out of the gate. Which is, you know, from MFD, if you’re having fun you’re already doing it right. It gets you to that point right away, which is what you want.

Shenuque: I feel like maybe it’s cause of the perspective of the character, but playing like a younger character made it feel like the stakes were never low at any point. Like Hey Kid wants this thing. And if they don’t get it, they will destroy everything.

I think the interesting thing about that is it kind of shows a little bit of a reflection of a larger systemic tendency in which we dismiss the emotions and experiences of children as not being as important as our own fully formed adult ideas. That’s really beautiful about this story that you tell. Low stakes is the wrong word for it. It’s high stakes, small scope.

Elliot: The stakes are made high by the relationships. You know, like when, uh, Shenuque, you were talking about Hey Kid, everything is high stakes for Hey Kid. And then by extension, everything is high stakes for everybody in that room that loves and cares about Hey Kid.

Abby: In the chapter, Another Rainy Day, we’re trying to distract Hey Kid and find things for them to do. Yes. I mean, the scope of that is very small, but it’s wildly important. And we all got so into it. As you said, calling it low stakes isn’t quite right, because it is important to everybody. It’s the same reason why it’s fun to play with children in real life, because you get to kind of live vicariously through their imagination and help them creatively do the thing that they wanna do.

Gertrude was not the type of character who I usually default to. But the bingos and whoopsies were so helpful, as Brian said earlier. If you just weren’t entirely sure what to do, you could read those and it would give you guidance on your motivations or your habits. Very quickly within our first recording session I literally had an aha moment where I was like, “Oh, my God, I know Gertrude. I get her. I’ve been her.”

And I have to say, your performance as Gertrude, kind of heart-wrenching.  My final question that I have is, this season is premiering September 15th all at once, so people can binge all eight episodes for public. They can go to your Patreon, get two extra episodes and an interview with the creator. Why did you decide to do it all on September 15th?

Brian: We went back and forth so many times like, “Oh, of course we gotta release everything on September 15th because at Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, it is always September 15th because that is Yazeba’s favorite day. It also happens to be Gertrude’s birthday, which is why there’s a chapter called A Birthday for Gertrude. I got it in my head early on, “Oh, let’s do it as a big birthday celebration for Gertrude, a celebration of September 15th.” Then we kind of had that in our heads.

We started doing all the recording and the editing, we were like, “Oh boy, this is this is a lot of stuff.” Between the episodes and the talkbacks and the interview with Jay, there’s 17 podcasts coming out on one day. 15 hours of audio all coming out on one day. A lot of it very heavily sound designed, featuring a cast of 12 different players from all across the world.

Rowan: A stacked cast.

Brian: Oh God, they crushed it. Yeah, just small preview of the cast. You’ve got Dr. Emily Friedman, a wildly accomplished professor and historian  Lin Codega from io9, who you may know from breaking the D&D OGL story. Jay Stroutman from Planet Arcana. Michelle Chan Bennett, who’s a great stand up comedian in New York and who was on our Wanderhome series. Draconiques, who was in our DIE series is a great actual play performer out in London. Carolyn Page, who performs on Dropout and various other things. 

There were times where we were, we had people playing in New York, in and in the UK all at the same time. It was a big undertaking. All that to say, getting back around to the answer of your question. I think we all really love this game. It is really something special. That it is always September 15th, that there’s always room for everyone at the bed and breakfast, we had to celebrate. There was no other way we could ever do it.

As much as it would probably be like, you know, “better” or “easier” for us to release this over the course of two or three months, to drop this as a big surprise present, not only for Gertrude and Yazeba’s bed and breakfast, but also for the community of people who love this game and love Possum Creek games and love indie TTRPGs. It was a gift too good to pass up. It’s that gift that you’re excited to give your friend. That’s what this series was for us.

Elliot: It also connects back to what we were talking about at the beginning of cartoons. It’s that afternoon that you turn on Cartoon Network, and you get seven episodes of a cartoon that might not be in any specific order, you know but you sit through them and you watch them. And I think this gives people a lot of freedom to bounce around and relisten to their favorites right away and get that full experience right off the bat.

This season of My First Dungeon is available on September 15th, wherever you listen to podcasts.

You can order a copy of Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast here.

Images via My First Dungeon and Possum Creek Games

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