Introducing friends to the world of tabletop gaming can be a daunting task. Even if you can get beyond the initial barrier of grown adults pretending to be gnome sorcerers or elven warriors, there still always seems to be arcane mechanic upon arcane mechanic to get your head around. So it helps if you can keep things simple, and come up with a unique hook. Which might mean, for example, creating a world that revolves around a beloved Canadian singer-songwriter.
That’s the idea Colin Cummings came up with earlier this year: combining his love of tabletop role-playing and Carly Rae Jepsen's music, the former Candian Idol contestant and the artist behind 2012's mega hit "Call Me Maybe".
From this union emerged Boy Problems, a hack of popular tabletop role-playing game system Lasers + Feelings, in which players are hired by a mysterious benefactor in a cyberpunk future to recover a vault of two hundred unreleased songs — which, incredibly, do exist.
Tabletop games have a reputation for inaccessibility and complexity, often requiring hours if not days or preparation for a single gaming session. Even sessions themselves can feel bogged down by endless dice-rolling: Dungeons & Dragons requires each player to own six dice with various sides before it’s even determined which is needed. Not so with Boy Problems, which as a modified version of the already simple Lasers + Feelings keeps the mechanics easy to understand.
To create a character players need only to decide upon a style (charismatic, brooding, seductive, etc), a pre-set role in the heist such as driver, hacker, or grifter and a number between 2 and 5 to determine if you are better with Swords or Emotions. A higher number means you are more talented with 'Swords' or practical skills whilst a lower number marks you out as a character more suited to the manipulation of 'Emotions.'
This allows the entire game to be played using just one six-sided die. When a player attempts to perform a task that requires a skill test they must roll, with the aim being to roll below your number if performing a 'Swords' feat and above your number if it is an 'Emotions' feat. It’s as easy to pick up as a card game.
This simple foundation coupled with a suggestion that Game Masters keep their plans open-ended encourages players to experiment, and find ways to surprise each other. Betrayals and double or even triple-crossing are encouraged and ensure no two sessions will be the same. Perhaps the getaway driver locks the getaway car's doors at the last second, or the hired muscle turns on you at a crucial moment.
Even my more gaming-averse but CRJ-stanning friends who had responded to my requests to play with a mixture of glee and trepidation found themselves taking to the systems quickly, trying bolder actions, dropping as many references as they could and seemingly forgetting any objections they may have had as they came away asking to play again.
In the early hours of the morning on March 3, Colin decided to share Boy Problems via Twitter for any of his friends to enjoy.
— Colin Cummings (@colinmcummings) March 3, 2019
“But the whole next day my phone just wouldn’t stop vibrating,” Cummings tells me. Overnight, his twitter had blown up with thousands of people expressing their delight with his creation, and he'd broken into a market nobody had even considered. “There's a lot more crossover between tabletop and Carly than I thought,” Cummings laughs, “Carly's always had a geeky fan base though. They’re always demanding she has a sword.”
Since reinventing herself with the critically-acclaimed Emotion and this year’s Dedicated, Jepsen has attracted a nerdier core audience than the typical pop star. An internet campaign started impromptu of nothing did indeed demand she was granted a sword and as a result the singer is inundated with gifts of blades from the audience at every show. Some of her more ambitious fans have since decided to take things a step further and are campaigning for her addition to the Smash Bros. roster.
now that she has a sword pic.twitter.com/KQpn4bgd7X
— PubicZirconium ???????????????????? (@PubicZirconium) March 9, 2018
From there things only picked up steam, with Boy Problems receiving on-air shoutouts from Griffin McElroy of The Adventure Zone and Austin Walker of Waypoint and Friends at the Table, a source of particular excitement for Cummings given the inspiration they provided for him in the creation of the game.
— Павел ???? (@RoseColoredVoid) March 10, 2018
This crossover of Carly Rae Jepsen and tabletop has given Cummings the chance to create further games, and he’s also hoping to harness the “positive aura that surrounds everything Carly does” to make his take on tabletop gaming a more inclusive one.
“I’ve seen a lot of Carly fans who have never played a tabletop trying it out. If I’m opening up this hobby to more people then that’s fantastic,” says Cummings.
“Both video games and tabletop can be very violence-focused in terms of mechanics. Violence acts as a kind of gatekeeper to a lot of these hobbies, but I never played Dungeons & Dragons because I wanted to roll the dice and see how hard I stabbed a dude. I love it for the storytelling, the collaboration, and the emotion. I think if you can avoid violence but still tell a good story that’s really interesting.”
“Violence will always be a part of Boy Problems, Black Heart, and Warm Blood, but I want it to have weight and consequences — it shouldn’t be something to be done lightly.”
Hold up: three games? After the first attracted such attention, Cummings created a patreon to help him realise what he describes as a “Carly Trilogy” in which Boy Problems is the first instalment. Black Heart, which was released to backers mid-July, is inspired by games like The Yawhg and Cultist Simulator and sees you play a group of villainous cultists attempting to summon an ancient god “who may or may not be Carly Rae Jepsen.”
Warm Blood, due later this year, will round the trilogy out with a murder-mystery. Cummings intends to release the game PDFs on itch.io after his backers have had a few months' exclusivity.
Cummings says his aim for Black Heart is “to make a game that’s friendly to the outcasts and weirdos of the world.”
“Usually you’re playing the heroes who come in and fight these weird cultists, so this time I wanted it to be the other way around, that you’re the cultists and you know what — you’re the good guys.”
Black Heart is meant to be “a power fantasy for those who are so often denied power.” In particular, it's meant to enable queer people to experience this feeling of power. A core mechanic of the game is the development of each character’s “Weird” stat. As a character’s stat grows so too does their power and it could be that the physical body of a character alters to reflect this. By the way, all these “mutations” are inspired by the lyrics of Carly Rae Jepsen.
“I thought this was a fun and interesting way of opening up a dialogue about queerness, to have it be a positive thing to be celebrated. The more out you are the more powerful you are.”
“I wanted to really make something that gives power and recognition to people who usually go unrecognised in games,” Cummings adds. “I’m bisexual but I’m also white and male, so I thought it was important that I use whatever privilege I have to support those who are being marginalised. That’s also why I’m using part of my patreon funding to support marginalised creators”
Whether or not you are a dedicated fan of the synth-pop stylings of Canada’s greatest living pop star, it’s difficult not to be struck by the earnest and positive approach that Cummings has taken after his game's success. It’s clear throughout our conversation how much these are labours of love for him, and that's probably why they resonate with people.
Cummings managed to create something that feels rare on today's internet; something that just makes you smile. One of my biggest regrets is that I am yet to see Carly Rae Jepsen live but, thanks to Colin Cummings, at least my friends and I can summon an ancient god bearing her visage, which is a start.