Alfred Valley - Thousand Empty Light

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Alfred

More and more I think that probably a lot of good game design is about,knowing where to stop It reminds you of something my dad's always said about haggling, to be a, good haggler, you know, in a market or whatever you need to know when to shut up. I think that's often the case of game design. And I like to leave a lot to the player. I like to try and empower them. It's a tricky balance because you don't want to just leave them out in the cold thinking: so what do I do now? I don't know if I'd have a clue what I'm doing.

Iko

You're listening to The Lost Bay Podcast, a show about indie tabletop role playing games, and the people who make them. I'm Iko. This show exists thanks to the support of its patrons. A big shout out to Jacob Marks for becoming a patron recently. Patrons not only support the show and help give visibility to the guests, amazing TTRPG creators and artists, but they also get free access to digital copies of all my RPG zines. If you too want to become a patron head to patreon.com/thelostbaystudio. And before we start a quick reminder that this episode is also available on youtube with English subs, and the full transcript is accessible at thelostbaystudio.com.

Today my guest is Alfred Valley. Alfred has written and illustrated a few indie RPG zines but is most notably known for Lay on Hands. A very unique solo RPG game, in which you play as a healer in a post-apocalyptic world. We are going to talk a little bit about Lay on Hand, but this episode is going to be focussed mainly on Thousand Empty Light, a new upcoming solo RPG, written for the Sci-Fi horror game Mothership. I've seen the draft of the zine, and it looks fantastic! It's probably the first, or if not, one of the first, solo supplements for Mothership. And by the way this is the 4th podcast episode on Mothership-related games, that's probably because of my personal interest in horror, but I guess it's also a sign of how much the Mothership community is creative and productive. In the show notes I've made a little playlist of the other Mothership-related interviews.

Anyway, let's move on with the show. Here's Alfred, talking about his childhood, growing up in a strange place in the London suburbs.

Did you grow up in London or, in a countryside context or...

Alfred

I grew up in London and I live now really not very far from where I grew up. Where I grew up was a place called Blackheath, which is quite unique in London because most of Blackheath has just a big flat piece of grass, you know, the heath itself. It's amazing, there's an amazing place to grow up.

It's called Blackheath because, well, the urban legend that likes to get passed around and now a lot of the bodies from the black death were buried here.

Iko

Oh!

Alfred

Which I don't think is true, but I like to believe that one because it lends a certain mystery to it/

Iko

I guess that's when you were a kid, that kind of urban legend, leads to a lot of speculations and talks and..

Alfred

Yeah, of course. And there's this really cool place nearby, which we used to call the dips and we're always told by parents don't go there, don't go there on your own, cause dodgy stuff happens there. That was like so mysterious and exciting for me as a child. I used to run around there with my friend and we pretend to be like on a mission or...

Iko

Quick question: have you met because I have, so it's normal, a quote-unquote thing for me.Have you met healers, like, are there healers in London suburbs?

Alfred

I'm going to sound like a fraud,but no, not in any real way in my experience.

Iko

Okay.

Alfred

Um, I really want then to hear about your experiences of healer though.

Iko

Well, I grew up, in Corsica, in a very rural environment, like extremely rural. And so, I mean, it was kind of part of everyday's life. I mean, you watched movies, you, you played console games and when something wasn't going well at home people came to lay hands and do prayers and magic stuff. And half of my family is from Northern Italy, from another rural area, quite different culture. But when I went back to my, this is going to sound strange. I'm not going to put that in the podcast, see my maternal grandmother there were old ladies coming to her place and there was this guy who laid hands like he used to, heal fevers, pains, whatever. And quite strangely he was, the undertaker of the, of the village.

Alfred

It's a very entrepreneurial approach. You know, it

Iko

Oh yeah.

Alfred

Good to diversify your on death side, but also when the bodies aren't coming in and you're helping people.

Iko

Oh, yeah. And, how was Alfred as a kid? How was it to be Alfred as a kid, teenager?

Alfred

I guess, a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up. Because of being in the Heath and also because a very big royal park was just on my doorstep, basically, Greenwich park. So I used to spend a lot of time on my own, just exploring and just, poking around, I guess you'd say. iko overdub: And did you have nerdy, geeky tastes, I don't know for fantasy or for imaginary worlds?

Alfred

Yeah, I guess so. I never really saw it as sort of nerdom when I was growing up, maybe because... it was because all my friends were nerds and we just never came up against, you know, much friction perhaps. I always thought of myself a bit as the weird one in terms of my creative tastes. From an early age, I got very much used to doing my own thing, having friends, but also having times myself doing things, which I didn't necessarily share with them if you know what I mean. I think I was that sort of teenager who got very much into the hobby of making things, and so that took up a lot of my time.

Iko

And, when did, tabletop role-playing games, get into your playground. How did that start?

Alfred

That's fairly recent. I think it all begins with board games. I remember going with some friends to visit another friend somewhere else in the country. And someone brought along the Game of Thrones board game. None of us had played it before, and it took us four or five hours and we sort of stumbled through and had to keep referring to the rules and taking breaks. And it went long into the early hours in the morning.

But I remember going into work after that weekend and sort of saying proudly, I played a board game that weekend and it took five hours and I won.

Alfred

So that was obviously the start of a love for me. And you know, from then on I remember maybe a year, of every Friday we'd play Settlers of Catan, almost religiously and listen to eighties music. I don't know why, but it was a very like pure time in my life. And from there it was quite a natural progression into role-playing games. Alfred started doing some research on Reddit forums, focusing on small games, games that have a light ruleset. He has written several one-page RPGs, experimenting with different sorts of mechanics. Alfred not only writes but does also does layout design and art for his games. And he has a very unique style. Alfred's zines look somehow almost retro or vintage, but their style has something pure, and simple that makes them extremely contemporary. And his production has a recognizable style. I don't know exactly how to pinpoint that, but, in some ways I feel like I've come to the scene in non-traditional path, or at least I haven't had necessarily the same sorts of backgrounds of media experiences than a lot of people. So a lot of the things I tend to draw on exist outside of the role-playing game scene. Things like fine art, for instance, or literature. I studied literature at university and so that's something that's close to me and I've always read quite a lot. So a lot of my reading exists outside of fancy, and a lot of it is in weird fiction for instance. And in terms of visual style, I've had to teach myself layouts in the last couple of years and that's quite similar to a lot of the skills I have is just self-taught, try to self tinker with things to the point that I'm happy. Stick and Poke printing

Let's take a specific example, like Lay on hands

Iko

So Lay on hands is a solo rpg game, in which you play as a healer, in a post-apocalyptic world. The game has unique resolution mechanics, little puzzles you have to beat against a time constraint using your hands, I'm not going to detail them here but they're really great, in terms of fun, of gaming experience. And in terms of visual style the zine has a unique black and white art, the artworks looks like something from a very distant past, or future iko overdub: How did you make the art? Do you want to share techniques? I was wondering if they were lino cuts or

This was born out completely by an accident. I originally wanted to do something similar to lino cuts. My partner is an art teacher and she brought home one day these prints that she and some of her students had made just using like foam card, basically like a foam, material that you scrape into with a biro or anything you can get your hands on. Put ink on top and then print that and it's almost akin to lino cuts but it's not quite as clean. And so when I first sat down to make art for Lay on hands, this is what I tried to do. And I ended up getting the wrong thing. I got foam board, which you can use it to make things like 3d models and things like that. It's quite rigid. If you try and do anything with it, it just likes to almost crumble. It doesn't fall apart structurally, but the surface just sort of crumbles and you don't get neat lines at all. It likes to just sort of cave in on itself. And so I had a day of disappointment when I got the stuff and tried to draw into it. And so I stumbled on this idea of taking a needle and making lots of tiny little holes into the surface of the thing, because it could accepts little holes, but not anything more than that. And that was basically the process in a nutshell. So I used to make images on the computer often sort of composites of public domain imagery and, bits of sort of editing here and there. And I print those out, stick them to the front of foam board and just prick with a needle through that. And I would take that surface, apply printing ink to it and print it basically. And that was that. I'm calling it stick and poke printing. And as you might imagine the process, it was very time consuming. I used to make my fingers ache, by ends of the project my hand, my wrists were just, in pieces Writing Process

How does the writing journey for Lay on hands start?Where does this project come from?

Alfred

I don't have a single game that hasn't started in some aspects in the middle of the night, in the dark, which is just the consequence of having two young children, much of the last few years for me have been spent not sleeping crouched beside the bed of a child who isn't sleeping either. And it's in that weird, almost surreal time in the middle of the night, when you get the sense of the world, just slowing down and everything, sort of switching off. It's strangely in those moments that I tend to have my best ideas, I think. When you talk about it, it sounds like it's something that came in your life with the birth of your children, but I was wondering that kind of intimate relationship with the night and darkness maybe is it something that pre-existed, the fact of becoming a father, where you're like that, like always , or is it something new?

I've always enjoyed the dark, which I guess is the sort of minority opinion to have, but there's something almost cozy about the dark for me. Um, I used to do a lot of photography, on film. I used to develop my own film. And so I spent lots of time in the photographic dark room and I'd be pitch black. And there's just the feeling in that darkness that I don't know, you don't get it in any other part of your life. And it's a strange uncanny feeling, unpleasant for some people, but for me, there's a coziness to it, a closeness of the dark.

Thousand empty light

Iko

As I release this episode Alfred is kickstarting Thousand Empty Lights, a Mothership first edition compatible solo adventure. There's less than 48 hours left, the campaign is in its very last stretch. It's really a cool project. And as you can imagine from what Alfred has said in the interview earlier, there's a lot of darkness, as in no light, involved, as the adventure happens in an underwater tunnel. Here's Alfred.. So what I'm working on at the moment is a solo adventure for Mothership called Thousand empty light. The whole premise is that the player is hired as part of a big service corporation, and their job is to go into an abandoned tunnel on an abandoned planet and just go through section by section, turning the lights and power on. That's the sort of simple job that they're given. I'm sure there's a trick.

Alfred

Well, exactly as you might expect to anything that relates to the Mothership, at some point horror elements come in. And so that experience is I guess, all about being alone in the dark, up against unfamiliar things and things getting quickly out of hand. One of the central devices for that adventure is that what's guiding your experience of each section is the previous report of the person who came through the area, doing much the same job as you, who curiously, you're not quite sure what happened to them.

Of course you said it's based on the Mothership, system but I was wondering, do we have to expect I don't know, uh, unusual mechanics or resolution system or, you know

I set myself the challenge to not only make something that could be played solo with Mothership but also making something that would itself be a resource that players could use to try and solo other things in Mothership or even within the sort of Sci-Fi genre potentially. The thing I should say about all this is the game or the adventure is completely written as an in-game document. So there's no references to: first roll the dice and then see what the outcome is. It's all written as if you're a real life operator working for this company. There's no references to playing a game. More and more I think that probably a lot of good game design is aboutknowing where to stop. It reminds you of something my dad's always said about haggling, to be a good haggler, you know, in a market or whatever you need to know when to shut up.

I think that's often the case of game design. And I like to leave a lot to the player. I like to try and empower them. It's a tricky balance because you don't want to just leave them out in the cold thinking: so what do I do now? I don't know if I'd have a clue what I'm doing. And so I've designed what I'm calling procedures to make that happen. And one of which is an Oracle, which is packaged up, much in the same way as the semiotic standard.

Iko

Quick pause, here. In solo tabletop RPGs the oracle is a narrative device that gives prompts the player can use to write/play the story. Orcales come in many ways, they usually involve dice or cards, or even a tarot deck, and a table or list of prompts.

The Oracle comes into play when you have questions as a player that aren't simply binary, they might be: what else is in this room? Or what can I see? Or how do these people react?

Iko

In Thousand empty lights the Oracle, is a table of visual and textual prompts inspired by The Semiotic Standard. The semiotic standard, or more precisely The Semiotic Standard For All Commercial Trans-Stellar Utility Lifter And Heavy Element Transport Spacecraft is a set of icons or visual signs designed by the artist Ron Cobb for the film Alien, or more precisely for the spaceship featured in the movie. These signs appear throughout all the movie, on doors, walls, of the spaceship and indicate in a graphical and simplified way possible hazards related to being in space.

Alfred

So I've got things like, heavy machinery, airlock, compressed gas, biological hazard, debris flooding, magnet. And each of these has two little tags to go along with it that are less concrete, they're more suggestions of related things. So you might have, slip hazards, which has in brackets, uncertainty or motion, or, navigation system, which has direction and guidance.

Iko

The cool thing about using a variation of the semiotic standard as an oracle, is that it has visual cues, you can understand almost on a preconscious level what kind of threat your character is going to be exposed to, just by watching the stylised signs.

Alfred

And so that's what I'm trying to do with Thousand empty lights, trying to basically distill some of that, but also do it in a way that's going to make a resource that people can use outside of this adventure, they can use this semiotic standard for Mothership to play solo other adventures, or even use it, in a group game to just inform things that might happen that are unexpected, for instance.

Iko

One of the key features in Mothership is its stress management system. It contributes so well to building the whole mood of the game. When your character is exposed to too much stress they can Panic. And whenever they panic you'll roll on the panic table to determine the effects of that panic. For Thousand Empty Light, Alfred wrote a custom panic table In this adventure, panic stands for Pneumatic and narcotic incident chart. Because a lot of, environmental hazards that based on being in a pressurized area, being at risk of things like the bends or a nitrogen narcosis, which happens if you work in it happens when your dive in, but also happens if your work in a caisson which is basically a big structural tower that goes into the water, that workers work in at pressure.

Alfred

Which is what's happening here, as your character is working in an underwater tunnel. So the panic table, my version of it, a lot of the effects are based on real life affects your experience if you start experiencing decompression sickness or if you start experiencing nitrogen narcosis. And so that was a really fun thing to play with.

Iko

I imagine so, it sounds super exciting as a game device. iko overdub: And listen, the art which is shown as a teaser for this new project is really beautiful and it's all black and white. It has I don't know, kind of psychedelic seventies, touch if I may say so. the, Is the book going to be all black and white or

Alfred

Yes. Yeah. In terms of a physical edition, I'm hoping to get it risograph printed. So it's all going to be a nice, almost quite, grainy black and white inside. And, the covers are going to be a nice, bright color. And I was wondering as the subtitle of the game is a "Psychedelic Xerox, solo Mothership pipe- crawl adventure" I was wondering if you are planning to use like Xerox devices or copiers in your art creation process

Alfred

Yeah, I'd love to do that. And that was definitely my initial intention. So far I haven't just because of time precious trying to get stuff ready in time for, um, Kickstarter, as meant, I haven't been able to go explore the Xerox machines in my local area. But that's definitely something that I plan to stay.

The Kickstarter Campaign

Iko

On the zine's Kickstarter page you can see photos of the actual physical rewards, the zine, a cassette tape, a dustcover, and what's really striking to me is that they look so good, not only as games, or game accessories, but as objects.

Alfred

I mean, this is me as someone who has a whole bunch of zines now, and I've read, I've read very few of them. I'm in love with objects.

Iko

Oh, you're a collector.

Alfred

I guess, so without realizing it, I have to become one. There's something about the physical, something about having something in my hands. And when I'm designing things, without even realizing that I think I'm designing first and foremost for and sometimes it doesn't happen in the end, but that's always my starting basis trying to imagine something in real life. The core proposition, oh, I mean, that sounds very corporate itself isn't it? That's quite appropriate. The core proposition for this Kickstarter is, the game itself which obviously be in a physical or a digital format. I've also commissioned a soundtrack from a friend of mine, someone I went to university with, name's Gus BC, and he makes incredible, off-kilter electronic music. I've given him basically the starting point of making a sort of weird motoric dungeon soundtrack. He's making stuff really quickly. It's all sounding fantastic. As well as that's offered digitally, I'm also hoping to do a limited run tape, cassette release.

Iko

And this is a short excerpt of GUS BC soundtrack for thousand empty lights. Packaging

Alfred

And the thing I'm really excited about with that is I'm looking at packaging it in such a way as to be able to fit extra game content on the actual, paper slip that comes with the tape, you know, the, the cover. And so the idea is for me to write a whole extra sort of area of the game that you can access just by, having the soundtrack to hand. And the final thing is something that I'm still exploring, but I find very exciting and playing with this idea of include in basically some code in the main zine, which you can only unlock, like given a sort of key, you know, like a string of letters and numbers, and that

Iko

Code as in a cipher, you mean

Alfred

Yes, a cipher, exactly. And so at a higher level, what I'm planning on doing this is sticking or writing in every single one of those zines a different code, which means that every single person is going to get a unique message from that zine. And that message is a separate objective for your character to pursue. That sounds extremely cool. So you've been researching, encryption techniques Yeah. I had to get in contact with my, cryptographer friend who has been instrumental and

Iko

You have a cryptographer friend really? I mean, That's Fortunately enough and he's been really helpful and I think he's gonna continue to be helpful in me actually trying to make it work.

Iko

Wait a minute. you mean cryptographer as they are working as a cryptographer, like on a daily basis

Alfred

Yes. Yes.

Iko

That's amazing.

Alfred

Just lucky, a coincidence.

Iko

Okay. So you have like a real expert providing guidance on that part. That sounds amazing.

Horror

And I was wondering, can you tell us, what kind of horror, like the characters of Thousand empty lights are going to confront in the tunnel.

Alfred

I've deliberated on this for a long time and, the solution I found is because a lot of what's informing the tone of your playthrough is the recordings or the transcripts of the person who came before you and then that person is, as you are, subject to the risks of nitrogen narcosis, which often affects your sense of judgment or even your sense of reality you're not quite sure what's real and what's not because information you've got to go on is, incomplete basically. At the end of the day, what I'm most interested in is providing the way for the player to start writing their own story, essentially. So it's, it's going to be a bit of actual physical horror, and a bit of, well, whatever the player can imagine, really.

Iko

That was Alfred Vally, wiriter, artist and publisher of Thousand Empty lights, a solo sci-fi RPG compatible with Mothership. The game is in its final stretch on kickstarter. Be sure to check it, I'll put the link in the show notes, and on the episode page. You've listened to The Lost Bay Podcast. It's produced by me Iko, editing supervision is by Laura Elle, music by Avery Isles. This show exists thanks to the contribution of its patrons. If you want to help us grow consider becoming a patron. Just head to patreon.com/thelostbay Today I want to do a big shout out to a British podcast I absolutely love, it's called the Nerd alternative, it's a Black British podcast about all things nerdy. The three hosts are super entertaining, and deliver episodes packed with news and info and ideas about nerdom with an emphasis on representation. You can subscribe to the Nerd Alternative right now in your podcasting application. That's all for today. Thanks a lot for listening. And until next time stay well.