During Wondercon 2018, I had the chance to speak with storyteller extraordinaire Ivan Van Norman about the horror RPG show WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER. The show, which is based on the award-winning podcast WE’RE ALIVE features five new characters immersed in a post-apocalyptic adventure as they journey into the infected American Midwest. The show includes Game Master Ivan Van Norman and a group of players that include Mythica actress Melanie Stone, Twitch streamer and cosplayer Alucin Gersh, Xander Jeanneret of Sagas of Sundry: Madness, Overwatch voice-actress Anjali Bhimani, and Vince Caso of The Guild. Ivan was kind enough to speak with me about what RPG games entail and how WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER takes the WE’RE ALIVE world to the next level.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Ivan, thank you so much for speaking with me today! For those not familiar with you can you tell us a little bit about what you do as well as give us some insight into what an RPG is?
Ivan Van Norman: I’m a producer and storyteller for a lot of interactive content that’s currently being featured in this new wave of new NEW media (laughs). What role playing games (RPG) are is they are essentially interactive storytelling. The oldest and most tried and true example is “Dungeons & Dragons” in which it takes LORD OF THE RINGS fantasy storytelling. It’s people telling epic stories about characters slaying monsters, getting experienced points and leveling up and going on to slay even harder monsters to gain even more experienced points. It has expanded and grown beyond that to a place in which there’s role playing games for every genre. There’s even one that recently came out called Kids On Bikes which is essentially about strange adventures in small towns where you tell your own story about your strange adventures in the 80s. Then there’s stories like The Call of Cthulhu which is a take on the H.P. Lovecraft element of things where instead of characters gaining experience points and becoming better as the story goes along, characters instead start off as good as they are going to get and slowly insanity starts to creep in and by the end of the campaign they are a shadow husk of what they once were. So there’s a wide range of interactive storytelling that is out there and people have just been playing for fun for decades! It gave us all a means to go and tell our own story instead of a story being told to us.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Can you tell us a little bit about WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER and how it relates to the insanely popular podcast, WE’RE ALIVE?
IVN: WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER is the official canon in the WE’RE ALIVE world. The events, characters, and story that take place in this series are part of the WE’RE ALIVE world, officially. FRONTIER is far away, not only in logistics, meaning it’s on the other side of the country, but also time-wise as FRONTIER is 17 years in the future, almost two decades after Day Zero. There’s a lot of civilization slowly starting to find some desperate hold onto what it once was, to the point where the Eastern States, meaning everything east of the Mississippi, has essentially started to recolonize. There is no infected east of the waterfront anymore and that was because of a ten year long war called the War of the Mississippi, in which a couple of major leaders pushed the infected over the river line to use the Mississippi as a natural border. It’s kept them fortified as they basically made a WWI-style trench in which infected do not cross.
The Easter States supply manpower and resources into the frontier states in order to maintain that line. It’s very colonial (laughs) which is why it’s called WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER. Everything west of the water is now the new frontier and the people that go over there are people who have made the effort to reach that point. Obviously there’s the ruins of our old civilization but there’s always pockets of small colonies in which people who are looking for land and opportunity want to manifest their own destiny and are are willing to cross the river in order to find their own stake. The whole idea is that the Eastern States are now build under what is called the UA (the United America), so it’s not the States anymore, the States are their own government, kind of like the early stages of our initial America, where every state had its own government, laws, and abilities. They do all have common law, which is essentially the first law of reclamation – to make it safe, to make it yours. If you can go over the water and make it there safely, it’s yours again.
Nightmarish Conjurings: And WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIERS is on Alpha correct?
IVN: Yes, this is a live media show. Alpha is a service that both Geek and Sundry and Nerdistcollaborate on and WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER is one of the newest shows that is collaborating with a big license like WE’RE ALIVE.
Nightmarish Conjurings: If someone wanted to play along how would they go about participating and interacting with the show?
IVN: Right now they can watch it on Alpha – which is a subscriber video On Demand. The show is live for 12 weeks and what I mean by “it’s live” is that the episode drops once every single week. It’s not like Netflix which drops a whole season that you can binge watch all the way through. This is pre-recorded so the events have already unfolded, so to speak. What’s interesting about this is that people who are watching the show basically know as much as the players do at that time because the players have gone into it without a script. The players may have a clear idea on who their character are, they know who their person is, they know the character they are playing, but they don’t know the events that are going to unfold. They’ve been given information about the world and about things that have happened in the past but really it’s only the storyteller, otherwise known as the game master, that has any kind of skeleton plot laid out in front of them. Even then they don’t know how certain events are going to pan out.
This game is unique in the sense that while you are watching the story you are having an honest, sincere relationship with these characters because they are going to be just as surprised as you. It’s not like one of those situations in which we have to be strong actors so that we can fake a reaction. These conversations that are happening in-between scenes, or when they are going on missions where their characters lives are at stake, are reacting in real time, improvised with their cast members. It’s the first time we’ve ever really seen something like this in a horror genre. There are plenty of non-scripted series like “Parks and Rec” or mockumentaries like SPINAL TAP. Comedy and improv go really well together but if you give it a chance, improv can go really well with horror also. That’s what this show tries to showcase, it gives a bunch of characters who have, at least in this world, a real fear of their own death. They’re all motivated by their own character’s background in order to participate in this story.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What makes WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIERS different from other RPG shows out there?
IVN: Our big selling points, compared to other RPG shows that are doing this right now, is that if a character is killed, because of an event in the series, their character is essentially off, meaning they are dead; as an actor, they can no longer come back as a player, their character is off the series. In a lot of RPG games one of the things that is nice is that if a character dies, you get to roll up a new character and they get introduced back into the series. Everyone still gets to play and that’s very inclusive which is great for a hobby since no one gets taken out. For me, running this as a horror setting, I can’t actually threaten their lives (laughs). For example, I don’t want to be like the director of THE EXORCIST, William Friedkin, who used extreme tactics to get a reaction out of his cast. I’m not going to go to that level in which I’m actually physically harming or threatening my cast in order to get an honest reaction out of them. What I can do, however, is I can make them play a role and then say if their character is dead, than you’re dead, your position on my show is done. What that does is it provides some real stakes so that when players are participating in this world there are some real choices where they have to question if it’s going to be them or everyone else. They know they still want to play and still be on the show and they aren’t going to just self sacrifice because that’s fun or that’s something they will think will be dramatic or interesting. No, this is a survival horror show (laughs).
Nightmarish Conjurings: Would you like to see more horror RPG showcased on Alpha?
IVN: Yeah, I mean we are seeing a real interest in this genre especially. I was honestly super surprised when I first did it. There’s another show on Alpha called Sagas of Sundry which is also a horror series. There’s two seasons of that right now and that is a lot more immersive and interactive. For example, in Sagas of Sundry the mechanics are a lot simpler, it’s essentially a glorified game of Jenga. The characters are around a giant Jenga tower and when they want to do something that can be risky or could result in failure, even something as simple as opening a door when they don’t know what’s on the other side of the room, they have to pull a block from the Jenga tower. If they place it, then huzzah, they succeed and we move forward with the story, everything is fine and you open the door to flickering candlelight illuminating skulls across the wall. However, if it’s false, because a player either picks a bad block or their nerves get to them or something bad happens, then the tower falls and something terrible happens to that character, usually resulting in either death or insanity. If the door opens and they see the flickering lights with the skulls across the wall they may hear an ax coming down which claps them on the head and the last thing they see is the creature standing over them with a large bladed ax as blood starts to cloud their vision. That’s the difference between what can happen in like an A & B circumstance.
This may just be a game, but the players are so into it and they are so immersed in the story that it feels sincere. To them it may be masochistic (laughs) because they simultaneously hate it and love it but they feel for these character and they just can’t stop playing (laughs). It’s wild!
Watch new episodes of WE’RE ALIVE: FRONTIER every Wednesday, only on Alpha!
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