Words by David C. Obenour
Gotta get up. Gotta get out. Gotta get home before the mornin’ comes.
Time is a weird concept. How we choose to, or are forced to, spend it makes it weirder. And then when you start messing with the linear nature of its progression and all bets are off.
Throwing you into the writers’ room for a Russian Doll-like (or Groundhog’s Day-like, depending on your age) episodic show, Thursday is a zine-based RPG that explores time through looping it over and over and over again. The characters who live out these days (or this repeated day) are able to disconnect from the familiarity of time’s passage. Step outside the norms of day-to-day existence. Explore what’s truly meaningful. What’s in no way meaningful. And hopefully, what can get them out of this unending loop, for better or worse. Just let it end so it can continue already.
Off Shelf: You have Thursday’s titular quote on the back of the book, taken from Natasha Lyonne’s character from Russian Doll, “We’re trying to come of age in a world where it seems like everything is changing so quickly that nothing holds any meaning. The whole world is on fire, and it’s Thursday. What a concept!” What does that mean to you personally in relation to the game?
Eli Seitz: It’s funny thinking deeply about the quote that it has to be Thursday or Tuesday. All the other days of the week are too loaded with meaning already. We have expectations about the weekend. The dread of returning to work on a Monday. But what hosts home is that it is just a regular day and yet everything is just spinning out of control. Since Russian Doll aired in 2019 the world has only become more precarious, more on fire, and yet the core message of the show that we need to take care of each other has only become more relevant.
OS: “Thursday. What a concept!” also experienced something of a cultural zeitgeist moment. Expanding on the above quote, what do you think about the cyclical nature of looped storytelling resonated so deeply with our times?
ES: That’s the power of good script writing. Obviously Twitter has burned down, but the Thursday what a concept meme account had over 42,000 followers. Crucial to the time loop story is the idea that time is flexible. You have enough time to figure things out and put them right. Our time has become so restricted and constrained by capitalism. Speaking from the American context, working a job is a necessity because without it you have no healthcare or other social safety net, and after work all you want to do is relax. Who actually has the time to do the deep introspection of a time loop protagonist? We’re already trapped in a repeating system only time moves linearly in ours.
OS: Was the writers’ room and thinking of the setting as a show always a part of Thursday? How did that evolve as you developed the game and what additional elements do you think it adds to the experience?
ES: In role playing games, I commonly find myself relying on the language of television and cinema, framing a characters with a dutch angle or ending a scene with a match cut to draw connections. So thinking of the overall narrative as a show came naturally and if the game is a show then who are we but the writers’ room plotting out character arcs and thinking up snappy one liners?
To me, it’s a way to build on the idea that role playing is a conversation laid out in Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker. What are good examples of collaborative storytelling and how can we use them to create collective buy-in. And while Thursday came out before the full release of Pasión de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta, I had played it at an earlier Metatopia and loved how it used genre to empower the players and make them feel more comfortable leaning into the story.
OS: I also wanted to ask about your chosen system, did you always envision Thursday as GM-less? What do you like about the style and how do you think it works well for Thursday?
ES: I settled on Thursday being a GM-less/full game very early on in the process. In essence Thursday is all about playing to find out who your character is, and once you have the mystery is solved and the game is over. In that light it felt strange to put in a GM who will make crucial character decisions for you. With regards to the No Dice No Masters system Thursday is my answer to parts that never worked well for me playing Dream Askew / Dream Apart or other hacks. For example, it felt slow so I gave players more tokens due to the death mechanics, or play felt difficult to steer without a narrative arc so Thursday is designed with a clear end point in mind.
OS: Concise and well-written at 32 pages, was it hard to edit down the book for Thursday? Within the zine format and given page count considerations, were there hard edits or more room for exploring design you had to consider?
ES: I’ve always been a concise writer, favoring the less is more approach. Naturally, there was still cut content. Playbooks and setting elements that never made it out of the draft stage. In the end I made the call to lean into the four player experience with four playbooks and four setting elements. At the end of the day I think that cutting down on the content and mechanics help reduce the cognitive load needed to play, making it more approachable and just a more focused play experience overall. Also having an editor was enormously helpful in making sure that I only included essential writing and the writing that did make it in could carry the weight.
OS: Not your first zine RPG, what do you see as the benefits and limitations of the format?
ES: I think the zine is a really great format for solo writer projects or anyone working on games as a hobby like I do. The shorter format forces you to narrow your focus, after all every page matters! You don’t have a lot of time to wax on about what is a roleplaying game. You’ve got to dive in. I find that the zine format works well for my games because they are all highly specialized narrative experiences, dying in the 1910s Antarctica, finding yourself in a time loop, or experiencing the formation of a relationship through blues dancing. Each of them pushes towards a unique experience and specificity of a zine really helps.
OS: How do you feel Tzor Edery’s illustrations set the tone for Thursday? How did you find them and how involved were you in the art direction for this project?
ES: Working with Tzor was fantastic. I discovered them through Twitter and completely fell in love with their art. My advice for anyone working with a visual artist on a project is that picking the right person is the most important choice. Just by looking at Tzor’s work I knew that whatever they created it would fit the vibe. My art direction consisted of technical specifics of the illustrations, what size, color or black and white, etc, and then a general description. For example, the brief for the cover was several people talking or hanging out with a skyline with themes of introspection, connection to others, and a busy city, and Tzor took off running from there. The art became a feedback loop for me refining the vibe of the game. I gave Tzor the archetypes of the playbooks before I had finished writing them and the final illustrations absolutely influenced their final vibe.
OS: Beyond Tzor’s work, what inspired the Playbook archetypes you decided on? Did you have any characters in mind when creating them? Any favorites or ones you decided not to include?
ES: The most obvious reference is that the misanthrope aligns basically perfectly with Alan from season one of Russian Doll and Nadia has many elements of the Trendsetter. But many characters map onto the playbooks because they are all quite trope-y. That is part of what makes them work. It is an arc that we have seen before. The interesting part is figuring out the specifics of your particular take on archetype, and in doing so there is opportunity to complicate it and twist it around.
One of the potential playbooks that got cut from the final version of the game dealt with religion and the role of faith. I cut it because it never felt as well defined as the others. There wasn’t a clear path or arc to take them on so stuck out too much and part of the process of polishing is sanding away.
OS: If you were asked to give advice, would you encourage players to assume a Playbook archetype similar or dissimilar to who they are in real life? What are the elements of play you see in both?
ES: Personally I think that it is easier to roleplay a character when you integrate a part of yourself. It can let you sink deeper into the experience but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should pick the playbook that seems to align with you on the surface. By picking a playbook in different life circumstances you get to experience the same journey of introspection as the character. Through the themes of self determination and identification players can play Thursday as a way to experiment with identity, like trying on a new gender, profession, or life outlook and then they can see how it makes them feel and interact with society.
OS: Now that Thursday’s been out for a year, do you have any favorite examples you’ve heard from the players of Thursday?
ES: I’m more of a fire and forget typewriter. I haven’t tried to build any kind of community around the game so I can’t say that I have any stories that stick out to me. I’m just happy that folks enjoy it whether they play it, read it, or just enjoy the illustrations and every once in a while someone will message me “thank you” and that is enough.