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Begin at the end (of the world): Arc RPG creator momatoes on embracing doomsday and hard-won insights

The designer discusses the continued success of SEA tabletop, working with Bipolar II and gaming in your 30s.

Momatoes has been facing down Doom for nearly two years.

Her upcoming rpg ARC, currently in the final days of a Kickstarter campaign ahead of a publishing run via Exalted Funeral, introduces a system that adopts both the light on rules, heavy on tension legacy of Old School Rennaisance titles and the the clocks mechanic popularized by Blades in the Dark.

The rub: ARC’s Doomsday Clock ticks down in real time. Spells and abilities trade turn lengths for real-world minutes, and choosing to rest means stepping away from the table for five precious minutes. The pace is determined at the beginning of a campaign and can run for hours or sessions, but the Doom will eventually arrive. The heroes will need to seize every advantage and realize their own potential to avert - or merely survive - what’s coming.

The Doom is an abstract thing and can mean both an impending asteroid the size of the Moon or a test your group of friends desperately want to avoid. ARC basks in dramatic storytelling regardless of setting. Dicebreaker recently played a three-part campaign with Momatoes, which you can watch below, but she found a bit more time to talk about her design principle and what it means to see Southeast Asian tabletop find more Western success.

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How did you develop the central mechanic of the Doomsday clock and the decision to center the system around the world facing an immediate cataclysm?

Momatoes: I’ve already heard of clocks being used before in other games, notably Blades in the Dark, and the idea simply fascinated me. I’ve released past games where limited time was an ever-present theme, inspired partly by media where it was a motif: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the film Run Lola Run and even Puella Magi Madoka Magika.

Marrying that theme to a visible clock mechanic seemed like the next logical step. The only real “innovation” I did was give the clock its own life: what if it advanced regardless of what the players did?

The decision to give players options to measure certain things in either real time or in-game turns is really interesting. How did that affect development of abilities, magic, etc. and what is the effect on group play?

The Doom is powered not just by the GM’s machinations...but a breathing world that players uncover and unconsciously build for themselves.

Because the Doom was tied to real time, I felt compelled to weave that across the entire game, to build a cohesive thread all throughout. It was a really exciting challenge. Suddenly, benefits can have a real-time aspect making for richer decision-making: do we take a long rest, knowing that it’ll eat up 5 minutes in real time and we only have 30 minutes left? That also meant certain spell durations can be expressed in real time. In combat, we acutely feel it when a spell runs out the next turn, but can ARC replicate a similar feeling even outside conflict?

Campaign lengths are all relatively short, tending towards a three-session average. What's behind that decision?

[Laughs] It’s because I’ve reached my 30s! When most of your friends need to juggle their time across work, family, their own hobbies and other interests, it gets harder to schedule things. Having a system explicitly encouraging bounded campaigns was like a much-needed breath of fresh air.

From a design perspective, it was also deliberate to ensure players feel a mounting sense of tension, and to help Guides (ARC's version of game masters) to have an easier, seamless way of pacing an adventure. ARC gives the structure so everyone can make and participate in exciting stories bursting with momentum.

ARC's core book will be a 172-page tome with everything a group needs to face their own doom, published by small press outfit Exalted Funeral.

That said, while a Doom can resolve in, say, three sessions, there’s nothing stopping players from building atop their completed campaign and opening doors to even more precarious Dooms.

ARC reads as an introductory RPG system and setting but doesn't patronize first-time players or hold their hands in an overbearing way. Why did you decide to focus on making a game for folks new to the hobby, and how did that shape development?

Locally in the Philippines, when you enter the tabletop RPG hobby, it’s almost always Dungeons & Dragons. And it stops there. There are many, many beautiful indie games that even fellow Filipinos are launching, but awareness is so limited because D&D becomes the entire universe for many new players.

To be honest, we’ve always been here, always been designing; we didn’t wait for the West to notice us.

I felt compelled to create an RPG to break that wall even a tiny bit, to create a beautiful game that anyone can play and that can even help them run their own through ARC’s story setup and pacing structure. It is an absolute, absolute moonshot. But I dream of a tabletop RPG space that welcomes and embraces infinite indie spaces within.

And so I wrote ARC consciously towards that goal, making sure to nurture not just players, but Guides who have always aspired to run their own game but wasn’t sure how. I wrote it for a more open space, and in many ways, I also wrote it to assure that person who’s always been anxious of GMing - for me.

My favourite mechanic so far is the combination of Skill and Approach for ability checks - it feels like a nice marriage of a character's aptitudes and learned skills. How did you come to that decision? What's your personal pick for best mechanical addition?

I really enjoy playing OSR (Old-School Renaissance) games, which is a subset of RPGs harkening back to earlier-style gaming; where aside from relying on your hero’s stats, you rely on a dash of your own player knowledge, which can help you outsmart overly-dangerous scenarios.

Momatoes hired Dai Shugars to assist with stretch goal layout, but the core book is filled with her own illustrations and the culmination of two years' work.

So that was my design challenge, which I address through the character aspects of Skills and Approaches. Skills are straightforward – it’s how much your hero is adept in a specific domain. Approaches, however, are ways that your hero uses to solve challenges, whether Creatively, Carefully, or in a Concerted way. You as a player are encouraged to use a hero Skill that works best while articulating how you apply that, which opens doors to unique solutions even for the same problem.

“I’ll sneak past the guard by moving myself really, really carefully” and “I’ll sneak past by creating a flashy, creative distraction” are equally valid. Suddenly, a simple skill check can be resolved in different ways - and in this case, “Stealth” isn’t the be-all solution that it often becomes in traditional games.

Another very cool thing to read in this book is the casual use of Filipino names for players and references. Can you talk about the importance of normalising SEA names and culture in the tabletop space, and how that ties into that region's scene and the Across RPGSEA project, among other recent successes?

Having a system explicitly encouraging bounded campaigns was like a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Thanks for mentioning this! It’s true, I sprinkle Filipino terms here and there – kawal, babaylan, and so on. Something a friend recently mentioned was the struggle of fighting for “representation” in Western spaces, and how it can be more meaningful to create your own space instead. ARC is my tiny, defiant way of doing that: by setting up an implied world where these words and imaginative ideas I’ve grown up with are very much the norm.

Southeast Asian designers have been gaining more prominence in indie tabletop games, especially considering the recent successes of Kickstarters for Southeast Asian designers (Our Shores anthology and Once More Into The Void). The increased support and attention feels somewhat validating for me. Though to be honest, we’ve always been here, always been designing; we didn’t wait for the West to notice us. As early as 2019, we were already making spaces for ourselves. I equate “success” not so much “attention from The Industry” as “sparking more energy within the region” - and I believe we’ve been doing a stellar job of that.

That’s partially the goal of Across RPGSEA, a website I created in February this year that showcases games by #RPGSEA designers. The site allows anyone to simply explore and discover delightful, incredible, and even provocative tabletop games. It’s been a struggle to upkeep, though, not just because I’m the solo admin behind it, but also because there’s just so much new RPGs coming out - which is an exciting problem to have!

Talk about working with your artists on the frankly beautiful and arresting art style and layout design for the ARC book. What is the team hoping to convey in a game that is not-quite-setting agnostic but also not tied to any one world?

[Laughs] It's easy to talk about working with the artist, because the artist is plain old me. That said, when you’re the designer, writer, graphic person and the artist, it can be a headache; the worst critic and colleague will always be yourself.

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A lot of the art is a reflection of my personal aesthetics. Someone described it as children’s art but with a dark heart; in reality, my goal in most pieces is to depict a hidden layer, a strange world and story just beneath the surface. I truly hope it inspires players to adopt a similar mindset: that the Doom is powered not just by the GM’s machinations and the overt setting they’ve decided upon, but a breathing world that players uncover and unconsciously build for themselves.

Speaking of no setting, do you consider that a weakness? Do you worry that a tabletop game sacrifices part of its marketability for the freedom to support a variety of group-created worlds?

I don’t think so because setting is not aesthetic; and aesthetic sells.

I felt compelled to create an RPG to break that wall even a tiny bit, to create a beautiful game that anyone can play.

You mention the length of time this took bringing it from an ashcan version shared on Reddit to an already successful Kickstarter - due in part to your disability and neurodivergence. As much as your comfortable sharing, how has that shaped your professional work and what lessons or insights have you learned in the process?

I’ve struggled with Bipolar II for over half my life now, and something I have to keep learning is to be kinder to myself. There have many times I wanted to permanently delete the working drafts of ARC because I thought it didn’t have value or meaning.

But it does give me some hard-won insights. I try to be kind to myself, I try my best to be kind to others. Learning to be patient with others, or to even check in when you see others struggling can spark meaningful impact. It matters a lot to me whenever I’m able to help fellow creatives out, whenever I can build stronger, treasured connections, or create small ways to inspire others to contribute for a more positive community. I know what the struggle feels like. So I want to do my best to make sure others don’t feel alone or helpless in it.

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