A short Q&A with Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, co-creator of Bluebeard’s Bride

Bluebeard’s Bride is a game that I have been following from a distance with a good deal of excitement. Co-designed by three awesome women, Bluebeard’s Bride is an amazing tabletop game of feminine horror, and is currently funding on KickStarter. I’m excited about the game and wanted to help boost visibility, so I was happy when Whitney let me ask her a few questions:

First of all, can you give an elevator pitch of Bluebeard’s Bride for those who haven’t been following the game in development?

The game is based on the originally grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, which was meant to be an object lesson to women to obey their husbands. We’ve turned it on it’s head and made the game an exploration of feminine horror. We’ve taken back the story as our own. Gothic feminine horror is great genre and we think it’s about time tabletop got a piece of it.

In the game you explore themes of agency (or lack thereof), delicious, ephemeral horror, and scathing sacrifice while playing an aspect of the Bride with your fellow players. These aspects are like pieces of her mind, for instance; the Witch the Virgin, the Mother, the Animus. Maybe they all work together, but maybe they don’t. It’s up the players. Together as the Bride you are trying to figure out who Bluebeard really is, and if he loves you or is simply a danger to you. SPOILER: Yeah, he’s a super bad guy.

I find it really interesting that you can choose to believe in Bluebeard or not, but if you don’t the text presents that as a moral failing on your part – it reads to me as a reflection of the social pressures that women feel to stay with abusive men. Was that your intention?
It was definitely intentional. What society wants from you and the pressure it puts on you does not always align with what is actually good for you. We wanted to evoke that trapped feeling of having no good ways out.
This game is a game of feminine psychological horror that forces the players to play cooperatively, which is really interesting and unique in tabletop gaming. In light of that, can you talk about the genesis of the game and the design decisions that were made to reinforce those themes?
I’m one of three co-designers on Bluebeard’s Bride. The other two being Marissa Kelly and Sarah Richardson. This game originated out of a game jam for women two years ago. We wanted to tell the story of Bluebeard from the Bride’s point of view, from our point of view as women who live in a a sometimes untenable world. We wanted to encapsulate our own lived experiences authentically. That meant challenging the notion of agency that players often bring to the table. This is not a game that you can “win” by beating up the bad guys. Hurting them hurts you too, and it’s not a sustainable action. We baked our worldview and our experiences into the mechanics themselves. There aren’t any “just because” moves in Blueabeard’s Bride. We also made the game very transparent. You know how it’s going to end, and it’s not going to end well. We were purposeful in making this decision, and many others.
I’m very interested in games that de-center violence as a resolution mechanic, so I was very excited by how Bluebeard’s Bride handles the issue of violence. What are your thoughts on re-framing agency in ways that gamers aren’t used to, ways that – as you say – don’t make “beating up the bad guys” an automatic solution to any problem?
There’s lots of ways to play games. This is just one, but I think it’s an important one. When you can’t solve your problems through violence, what is your world like? That simple question opens up a whole bunch of experiences that you can have in a game that you wouldn’t get in the traditional “I stab it with my sword” ethos. For me, games are about explorations of experience, and it’s my goal to make all kinds of experiences more accessible, especial those that align with the lived experiences of minority groups. I’ve said a lot about this elsewhere. I’d suggest reading my article over at Tor, “Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter.”
Bluebeard’s Bride is a game about critically examining female roles, and there is a lot of language in the text designed to put a presumed female reader in her place. What was the thinking behind that?
We’re making a point and setting the mood. We’re attenuating the players to how the game is going to treat them. We’re getting them in the right space. This is important There were so many times when we were drafting this that we would stop, and we would collectively feel squicked out, or we would go “ewwww,” and then we would grin maniacally and keep plugging away. We are inviting people into a space, and helping them be brave enough to occupy it.
What is it like being a game designer who is a woman of color, and how does that affect your approach to design? How has it affected your work on Bluebeard’s Bride specifically?
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve written for a lot of other people’s games. This game was the first game that was mine. I wasn’t writing to any one else’s vision or bottom line, but my own and my co-creator’s. Our work is informed by who we are and how we see the world, and my approach was to be as authentic as possible. Honestly, I think it’s worked out. The small circle of indie gamers that I surround myself with have all been amazingly supportive, enthusiastic about the game, and willing to be our playtesters. In fact, we’ve immediately sold out of playtesting spots at all the cons we’ve brought this to.  I couldn’t ask for more than that. I’ve kept my Bluebeard work unplugged from whatever else was going on in the larger gaming scene. For me, Bluebeard is led by it’s own voice and spirit, and I’ve let that guide me above industry trends.
Have you found that groups with different gender compositions approach the game differently? For instance, would a group with all or mostly women tend to play differently than a group of all or mostly men?
I think some folks are intimidated by this game. They get nervous about “doing it right.” There are definitely ways where you could play this game in bad faith on purpose, and it would make me sad if I heard about people doing that. But if you trust us, the designers, to lead your experience you’re going to have a good time. As I said, it’s all there baked into the rules and moves. Some of the most excellent experiences I’ve had with this game has been when men were running it and playing it. That being said, I do see some typical reactions. Keep in mind that I’m painting in very broad strokes here. Women often feel jazzed. They feel validated, some sense of catharsis, or like, SEE, do you see this? This is real. They have a thing to point to that maybe they didn’t before, to give shape and context to things that were undefined for them. Women will also feel more comfortable with more extreme content. Men will sometimes feel a little more overwhelmed. They’re not used to feeling so hemmed in and aggressed upon without being able to take effective action to stop it. They’ve also been some of the most moved. The bottom line though is that the game is very, very fun if you like horror, no matter where you’re approaching it from with your own lived experiences.
Thanks to Whitney for her time, and if you want to learn more, you can check out the Kickstarter here.

One thought on “A short Q&A with Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, co-creator of Bluebeard’s Bride

  1. I’ve listened to a couple of actual plays now (both reached an ending where the Bride was saved by her brother, returned to the village to denounce Bluebeard, and was disbelieved, in one case by her own family including her brother).

    (It makes me wonder if there’s an ending where the Bride escapes by herself, but is forced to go back to Bluebeard by her family because they don’t believe what she’s seen, and how selfish is she to want to want to leave him when he’s looking after them in return for her?)

    But this: We’re making a point and setting the mood. We’re attenuating the players to how the game is going to treat them.

    … was one of the most interesting parts of listening. Little microaggressive bits like referring to suspicions of Bluebeard as unkind, or the token of disloyalty, or having to define how people like the Bride to wear her hair, or how they keep her quiet… two AP’s are already making me rethink how I should write and run certain ideas I have. Even if I never get a chance to run it, it’s going to be a fascinating read and resource.

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